Chapter 19: Wounds
“When all you have is gone, you either stand up and walk . . . or you sit down and die.”
Beard looked down at Drake and knew, without shadow, his captain was dead. He looked over his shoulder at the broken carcass of the Jolly Judy, several hundred feet away.
No one could have survived that.
But that wasn’t true. He looked at the people around him. They were singed and bruised, yes, but not broken . . . not dead.
Beard’s throat seized, choking on a sob. Fat tears dribbled down his cheeks as he looked at the still body. Whatever he was feeling, whether he could make it out or not, threatened to spill out of him at any second. He had been aboard the Judy over a month, but hadn’t really felt part of it. Drake had been the only person to make him feel truly welcome. Now that he was gone, what was left for Beard? Where could he possibly have a place now?
Logan limped forward, her heavy jacket still smoking. She looked down at Drake and all weariness seemed to leave her bones. She pushed past the others and crouched, examining his body.
“Pray, fetch Aya,” Logan growled, turning sharply to Thatch. “Her need is here.”
The bumbling engineer stumbled over his long coat, streaking off across the slopes. He had only been gone a minute or two when he came sprinting back into view, Aya’s wild blonde hair streaking behind him.
The rest of the group parted, letting them pass. Aya cried out when she saw Drake, falling to her knees beside him and cradling his hands. If Beard expected tears to match his own, he was disappointed. Her features were strangely discordant, dazed, almost . . . worried? She looked at Logan and nodded.
Logan lifted Drake’s head with a tenderness most unexpected of her large, callused hands, and held something to his face.
Confused mutters echoed Beard’s own thoughts.
“By the winds, what are you doing?”
Logan’s eyes snapped up, and the small crowd fell silent as the stone. She raised her hands to Drake’s nose again and looked at Aya.
Aya took a deep breath and nodded once more. “I’m ready.”
Logan, using her free hand, balled a fist and slammed it down on Drake’s chest.
She did it again.
Beard and the others watched in morbid fascination. Logan snarled, beyond words. She raised her fist one last time and smashed it over her captain’s heart.
Drake’s eyes flew open, and he let out a horrible gasp, sucking in great lungfuls of air as he shuddered uncontrollably on the ground.
“You’ve got to be joking!” Valeo exclaimed.
Logan paid him no mind but grabbed the sides of Drake’s face, tilting him up to look directly at Aya. The captain looked around wildly, still heaving and flailing.
“Dad, Dad look at me,” Aya said firmly, gripping his hand to her chest and staring into his eyes.
Drake focused on her and a look of confusion crossed his face.
“. . . do you know me?” she whispered, red-raw fear in her voice.
The air was thick with tension, Drake staring at his adopted daughter strangely, almost as if he had never seen her before in his life. Slowly, his brow loosened and warmth flooded back into his eyes.
“Aya,” he whispered, his breath coming back more evenly now.
She smiled, a single tear running down her rosy cheek. “Yes, that’s right. And do you know where you are?”
Logan released Drake and he sat up, shivering. “Sh-Shinedown. We’ve landed in Shinedown.”
Aya laughed and threw her arms around him. Drake embraced her back.
“Landed is an interestin’ word for it,” Cespin muttered, looking back just as the Judy’s mast made its dramatic exit, the great timber splitting in half and crashing to the ground in an explosion of sparks.
Drake rose slowly to his feet, the weariness returning to his battered limbs.
“Ya’right?” Thatch asked, wiping his sooty glasses on his even dirtier coat.
Drake nodded. “Everything seems to be in working order,” he replied, testing his limbs. “But I would rather not do that again.” He looked back at the Jolly Judy, what was left of her, a profound sadness filling his eyes.
“Okay, gonna say it since no one else wants to,” Valeo interjected. “You, and you,” he pointed back and forth between Logan and Drake. “How are either of you still alive?”
Drake looked up at Valeo and smiled. It was a grim, tired thing. “Fate, Mr. Sorte, plain and unsalted. And maybe a dash of luck. Something you of all people should understand.”
Valeo felt like he had been slapped and only Beard noticed the shock on his face. As quickly as it arrived, it was gone.
A rousing cheer went up, and Beard cheered with the rest, their captain pulled back from the brink of death by luck, fate, or something else entirely. Whichever it was, Drake seemed to have more than his fair share to be sure.
They spent the rest of the morning unloading what remained of the ship’s cargo: the few trinkets from their Heartstone haul and Drake’s battered telescope among them. Logan was fast asleep in the dirt, her superhuman stamina finally spent. Aya, her usual bounce diminished, spent her time carefully rolling up the ancient map from Drake’s quarters. The rest loaded what they could onto two windsurfers not destroyed in the crash. Everything else they would strap to their backs. The things they couldn’t carry, the cannons, the sails and spars, they could only leave behind to be picked clean by scavengers.
Breeze was staring out at the smoldering skeleton of the Jolly Judy when Valeo stepped up beside her. She didn’t move, but he knew she had heard him.
“Well, we were pirates for a time,” her hands gestured.
Valeo humored her with a wan smile. “Can’t be very successful pirates without a ship, huh?”
She turned, giving a weak smile of her own, eyes glistening. He knew how much this hurt her—finally finding a place for herself, where she didn’t have to be afraid, only to be ripped away before the moon changed. So much turmoil roiled in his lungs over his possible hand in the Judy’s destruction, over McCanty, that Valeo was likely to be torn apart. But it didn’t matter. He shoved it all down deep. He reached out and squeezed Breeze’s shoulder, giving what little comfort he had left in him . . . to her.
They decided to send their lost to sky beside the Jolly Judy. Holson, his big half beard filthy with smoke, had grabbed a chunk of wood and started digging. Before he had struck twice, Valeo was beside him, his own makeshift shovel in hand.
He would unearth McCanty’s lifestone himself.
Valeo attacked the ground furiously, stabbing it with more force than necessary. Before long, his muscles groaned and strained, but he refused to let up. Sweat slid down his arms and hands, stinging new blisters beside the old. He relished the ache, knowing each stab of pain was deserved, was only a tiny penance for what he had done.
When the hole had grown knee deep, Beard appeared. Valeo didn’t protest, and in silence they labored, the pit growing slowly around them as they sunk into cold dirt looking for the telltale sparkles.
Finally, they struck a patch, Timeless white, not unexpected considering what continent they were on. Valeo rummaged through smaller shards, trying to discover the best one for McCanty. Then it was there, under his fingers: the perfect stone. It was a burnished and beautiful milk opal, still glowing with a hint of Resin. They clambered out, their chests heaving and their hands bloody and raw.
Thatch and Cespin brought McCanty’s body out beside four other sailors Valeo had never even learned the names of, all shrouded in canvas. One of the bodies had an even smaller shroud on its chest—the Sunstrider and his eagle. Valeo had seen them on his very first day. He peered sadly at the little bundle, even in death trying to protect its lifestay. McCanty’s face looked cold and uncaring, reflecting nothing he had ever been in life. The ever-optimistic, carefree sailor, boiled down to a limp form on the ground. Valeo’s throat seized when he saw him. He reached forward, placing the opal on McCanty’s silent chest. Valeo couldn’t breathe. He didn’t deserve to.
They sent Matt McCanty and the others to sky by midday. The sun shone bright and cloudless. It was a Tuesday.
The next several hours were spent trekking across rolling green, uneventful except for the howling winds and occasional outcrop of stone to mark their progress. Logan was sprawled on one of the windsurfers, steered by Thatch, keeping pace with the others on foot. Cespin had long since zipped off ahead in the other surfer on some vague task . . . Valeo hadn’t really been paying attention.
The ragged group trudged forward in near silence. They had lost so many, feeling each ragged loss like it was one of their own limbs. It hung heavy on everyone, but none more so than Drake. He seemed to be taking his losses, especially the Judy, quite hard. He hadn’t spoken since waking, and a solemn focus had overtaken him.
Soon they were passing regular signs of life: farms, fields, and little cottages dotting the valleys as they trundled onward. Finally, as they came over one final crest, there it was, an explosion of color along the muted hillside: Shinedown.
It was immediately apparent how it had earned its name. Thousands of towers of all shapes and sizes gleamed in different hues, each bright and vivid, like fields of flowers stretching toward the sky. Crested atop the towers were hundreds of banners, billowing in the Delphine Basin’s endless winds. The lot was arrayed in a perfect circle, miles across, avenues and alleys crisscrossing like spokes on a wheel. The mere sight of such a city lit Valeo’s imagination aflame, finally shaking him from his stupor.
I could climb every day for a year and never get to all of them.
The southernmost edge of Shinedown ended abruptly, dropping away into open sky. Floating beside it, seemingly in empty air, was an enormous domed stadium, big enough for thousands. Even from this distance, they could hear cheers and shouts erupting from it.
“Game must be on,” Thatch said to no one in particular.
“A game?” Beard asked, confused.
Thatch smiled at him with infinite patience. “Sky Shot,” he answered from the windsail, humming a few feet off the ground. “I never much cared for it m’self. I mean, look at me.” He indicated his lanky, uncoordinated frame. “But it’s popular with most folk, and if I’m not much mistaken,” he looked around for confirmation, “the final’s coming up soon?”
Aya, looking absurd carrying a rolled-up map taller than she was, brightened at the words. “Yup, yup! I am so excited! Been waiting, oh . . . seven months, two weeks, and six hours since the last time I saw a game. Aye, Dad?”
Drake nodded, but said nothing. He had hollow bags under his eyes and looked like he had earned every bit of his brush with death. They could all relate. Breeze, who had wanted to see Sky Shot in action for ages, didn’t even perk up at the mention. None besides Aya could muster much more than what walking required. They tightened their straps and carried on.
They passed an increasing number of carts, trolleys, and wagons going to and fro, laden with merchandise. Everything from pasties to parakeets were being wheeled into the city by bright-eyed salesfolk, all with a harried, excited air.
“Yeah,” Thatch muttered as they squeezed past a particularly large cart carrying scarves and spinets, drifting along slower than a leaky spigot. “Final’s definitely ’round the corner.”
As they approached Shinedown’s huge, open gates, Cespin was there, leaning casually against the stone. Breeze, Beard, and Valeo alike had never been to a city bigger than Heartstone—small by most standards, though they didn’t know it yet—and were staring dumbstruck at the endless towers around them.
“I hope you have good news,” Drake said plaintively. “We could use it right now.”
“Yes and no,” Cespin replied, cleaning the underside of his fingernails. “I found someone willin’ to take us in.”
“Well that seems like good news to me,” Aya piped up, coming through the gate behind Drake.
“But it’s someone who ain’t that thrilled to see you,” Cespin continued, looking at Drake.
Drake rubbed his eyes, shaking his head. He dropped his hands after a moment or two, wiping them on his soiled coat.
“It’s Ryze, isn’t it?”
“Is indeed,” Cespin replied, still picking his nails.
Drake moaned. “Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought I told you something along the lines of—”
“—avoid her at any cost, but—”
“—and to only go to her if there was no other choice,” Drake added.
“Look around,” Cespin muttered, finally taking his eyes off his cuticles. “We’re fresh out of choices.”
Drake heaved another sigh, looking annoyed and defeated at the same time.
“So be it, then. Lead the way.” He gestured for Cespin to go first, who heaved himself off the wall and crossed into the city.
“But for the future,” Drake grumbled, “sleeping in the streets would be my preference.”
Aya fell into step beside Drake. “Who’s Ryze?” she asked.
“An old friend,” Drake replied, looking slightly worried.
“Well that doesn’t sound so bad,” Holson chimed in, slapping Drake on the back and laughing a hearty bark.
“An old friend with lots of weapons,” Drake explained. “And if I am not much mistaken, she is sure to have a few aimed straight at yours truly.”
The guards at the gates didn’t look twice, no doubt assuming the packs were full of trinkets to sell. Cespin wended his way through the busy streets, not looking back. Clearly he felt himself important enough to follow.
The city streets were just as beautiful up close as they had been from a distance. The three new recruits gawped openly. There was not a single plain wall or unadorned window. Every structure, from the skinniest home to the biggest and brightest tower, was ornately carved and etched, each piece becoming a work of incredible art, crafted with such minute attention they must have taken years, decades even, to complete. Wrought iron columns, stone archways, frescoes, and stained glass worked together so seamlessly that any direction you looked was more breathtaking than the last. It had an air of immense age and weight, but every inch shone bright as the day it was cast.
It was all spotless, too, not a single piece of refuse or clutter to be found. It was the strangest thing Valeo had ever seen. Scuffs, graffiti, garbage were as usual as footprints on a footpath to him . . . but not here.
“This city!”—he gasped, his eyes bulging out of his skull as he walked—“It’s . . . it’s . . .” he struggled to find the words.
“Timeless,” Aya finished for him, smiling at the look on his face. “I take it you’ve never seen a Timeless city before?”
Breeze, Valeo, and Beard shook their heads in perfect unison. When they realized what they’d done, they grinned at each other. Aya gave out a melodious, infectious laugh and a flush crept up Valeo’s neck.
“They’re all more or less this elaborate,” Aya continued, pointing at a particularly immense archway with swirling yellow gables, spires rising up and out of sight. “Those that never die tend to take their time.”
Valeo shuddered, the thought reminding him of the Shadowlocke, Thayn. “But it’s so clean,” he argued, still aghast.
Aya snickered. “Woe to thee fouling Timeless street,” she chanted, clearly some sort of limerick. “When littering is a crime punishable by a year in the Slant, people tend to be extra careful what might or mightn’t fall from their pockets.”
“So this was all built by Timeless?” Beard questioned, stumbling to keep up.
Valeo rolled his eyes. “That’s what she just said.”
“But, I didn’t think Timeless were real,” Beard mumbled.
Aya and Valeo both spun on the spot to stare at him. Breeze snorted, skirting past. Beard looked mortified that he had even opened his mouth.
“Where are you from, exactly?” Aya asked, her politeness somewhat marred by her mouth hanging open.
“Isle of Moor . . .” said Beard, tugging his ear and still looking sheepish.
Aya nodded, as if that made perfect sense.
Valeo, with little experience of the world—and even less experience containing his opinion—cut in. “You don’t have a bunch of poxy immortal buggers trying to tell you what to do on the Isle of Moor?” he asked, aghast. “It must really be the tail end of nowhere.”
“Um, I guess? We don’t get a lot of visitors,” Beard replied, shrugging his shoulders. “I didn’t think Fleetfeet existed either. And Fallen are supposed to be a fairy tale.” He gave an involuntary shiver. “So maybe it isn’t so impossible after all.”
“Oh, it’s possible,” Valeo shot back bitterly. “Trust me, they’re quite real.”
Aya nodded. “He’s right. There’s usually a Timeless in every town.” She pointed at a particularly large mansion, all austere stonework and wrought iron clearly for show. “They will be in the biggest, best houses—”
“And they’ll make sure everyone around ’em knows it, too,” Thatch growled from the windsail.
“Right pretentious bastards,” Cespin agreed from the front of the procession, clearly able to hear every word. “Their britches are so big it’s a wonder they can even stand up.”
“Wait,” Valeo interjected, holding up a hand, a look of mock concentration crossing his face. “Sensing a pattern here . . .”
“Right indeed,” Cespin said, spitting on the ground. “We all hate ’em.”
“Come on now, Ces,” Holson barked, scratching at the bare side of his chin. “Be kind to our supplier. Without Timeless treasure hordes, us lowly pirates would be out of jobs.” He rattled the massive bag over his shoulder, gold and jewels clinking together to accentuate his point.
“That’s . . . fair,” Cespin conceded. He snorted and strode ahead.
Valeo turned back to Beard, his interest piqued, but mostly reaching for anything to take his mind off the graves behind them.
“What exactly do you know of the world? Where have you been?”
Beard had eyes only for his clomping feet. “Moor, Heartstone . . .”
“That’s it?” Aya gasped, her eyes widening. Valeo quietly hoped she never asked him the same thing.
Beard grimaced and dodged her jibe. “To answer your first question: little and less, I’m discovering.”
They came to a small canal surrounded by flawless stonework. A bridge with thick, carved balustrades ambled across a clear stream chuckling below. Aya sprang to one of the rails, balancing over the water.
“Quiz time!” she said, her bright laugh tinkling.
She really is amazing, Valeo thought. All this despair, so much death only a few hours put to bed, and not a single drop could even touch her.
Aya stepped foot over foot along the rail, hands thrown wide. “Sir Beard, fearless traveler from far off skies”—she spun around on one leg, pointing down at him—“name the eight races.”
Beard tripped and nearly fell. “There’s really eight?”
“By wind and woe,” Valeo groaned, shaking his head. “Moor must be a dark, dreary hole in the sky.”
“There sure are,” Aya said, encouraging Beard and ignoring Valeo. “Which do you know?”
Beard composed his thoughts and began. “Heartsung . . .”
“. . . those that love,” Aya said.
“Rageborn . . .”
“. . . those that love punching,” Valeo sniped. Lying prone atop the windsail, Logan snorted.
“What?” Valeo retorted, “Is that wrong?”
Logan chuckled, the sound like blended gravel, but she didn’t disagree.
“Rageborns tend to be the most . . . aggressive . . . of us all, true,” Aya admitted. “Hence the name.” She gave a little shudder, as if such anger agreed very little with her sensibilities. “What else?” she directed back to Beard.
“Um,” he continued, “there are Brightwins and S-Sunstriders maybe.”
“Sunstriders maybe?” pipped Someday, casting the Heartsung a dark look. “And we guess Jasper’s just a love-struck rat following us around?” Jasper growled at Beard for good measure, making the big Heartsung shudder and flinch.
Aya nodded, edging him to continue. “Those that love logic and inventing, and those that bond with life and creation in all its forms.”
“And that’s it, isn’t it?” Beard finished, ducking under a signpost, nearly clipping his head.
“‘That’s it,’ he says,” Valeo shuddered, clutching his heart. “You forgot the best of the lot!”
“Evenglass,” Breeze’s hands flashed over her shoulder.
“Keep dreaming, Breezy!” Valeo shouted back. “Evenglass,” he explained at Aya and Beard’s quizzical looks.
“Evenglass are simple folk, content, at peace . . . serene . . . but terrible foes, and even worse pranksters,” Aya continued, clearly enjoying her lesson.
“The rarest treasure, though, the real luck of the lot,” Valeo interrupted, “are Fleetfeet.” To accentuate his point, he hopped onto the stone lip behind Aya, strolling along the thin stone with ease. A few onlookers took their cue perfectly, gawking and pointing openly at him. Valeo bowed.
“Oh, right,” Beard said sheepishly. “And what do Fleetfeet love? Showing off?”
The words were clearly out of his mouth before he could catch hold of them. A raucous chorus of laughter went up, none harder than Breeze’s. Beard looked absolutely mortified.
“Seems that way,” Valeo retorted, unabashed. “No sense getting angry at what you are, regardless of who tells it to you.”
“Fleetfeet love pushing the pedestal,” Aya agreed, hopping down from the rail at bridge’s end. “Their lives are ruled by luck and the brass it heralds.” She turned back to Valeo and winked, who suddenly felt the desire to climb something higher.
“I mean, I’ve read about all of them, sure, but I didn’t think they were all real,” Beard complained, looking frightened at the realization. He ticked them off on his large hands, one by one, including the Timeless. When he finished, he still had one digit remaining. “And the eighth?”
Aya’s lips tightened, and Valeo’s irises flashed, but neither spoke.
Holson, his crinkled face kind, smiled sadly back at Beard. “Enough death was dealt back in those hills to give you your answer.”
After that, there was little to discuss, and the battered group finished its walk in silence.
They made their way through ever-increasing avenues of prosperity, the houses growing larger and grander until they became mansions and eventually whole estates. Each one was more extravagant and stunning than the last, with statues, fountains, and sprawling gardens surrounding them like velvet blankets tucking in lordly manors.
Valeo caught up to Breeze and didn’t fail to notice her usually grim expression had grown darker still.
“What’s nipping you?” he asked.
She sighed and stopped. She flung her arms at the avenue around them, pointing at a solid silver gate speckled with flecks of ebony.
“This,” she explained. “How many mouths could this gate alone feed? How many people are starving outside these walls while some rich crock wipes his backside with golden ribbons?” Her fists were clenched so tightly the knuckles had turned white.
Valeo shrugged. He didn’t have an answer. He wasn’t sure there even was one. Breeze kept walking forward, her black hair bobbing behind her, but Valeo paused, considering.
He had never had to worry about money in his life. Jakk had always provided more than enough for both of them. He had always preferred the hunt more than the prize, money never holding much interest for him, but such thoughts only come after a full belly. Breeze’s cloth was cut differently. His ‘What’s there to eat today?’ was her ‘Is there even anything to eat today?’ Not ‘Which shoes should I wear?’ but ‘Does this pair have any wear left?’ Such concerns were commonplace for the proud woman walking in front of him, and he always seemed to forget that. He would never admit it to her, but before she had mentioned anything, Valeo had actually been fantasizing about how awesome he could make his mansion.
Soon the company came to a halt, Cespin stopping short outside another lavish estate. There was a burnished plaque on the stone gate, curling, golden letters forming two words: Brandyvine Cove
“Cove?” Holson barked. “Where they gettin’ that claptrap? We’re fifty miles from any water.” Beside him, Someday giggled.
“It’s supposed to sound regal,” a voice said from just inside the entrance. A tall woman stepped into the light beyond the gate.
Valeo’s first impression was of a living spear. Her tall, lithe frame was angular, and she moved constantly, as if itching to advance on prey. Her eyes were narrow and catlike: calculating and cold. Short-cropped, bright hair framed a sharp, lined face with a deep V-shaped scar under her eye. Valeo thought she might be Timeless, but her skin wasn’t pale enough . . . too olive. Timeless or not, he got the distinct impression she could be whatever she needed to be, both startling or comely, depending on how the light struck her. The elegant dress she wore suited her as well as it would a tiger.
“My great-grandmother christened it. A name became legacy,” she continued, unlatching the gate and throwing it wide. “And like all legacies, idiotic.”
“Ryze,” Drake implored as much as greeted, looking more than a little uncomfortable.
Her mouth tightened, but she didn’t respond, just nodded toward the mansion. “Come, there is much to discuss.”
With little ado, they hurried across the austere pavestones to the mansion’s wide double doors.
The inside of the house was much as Valeo had expected—grand, warm, and ultimately fake. It was full of untouched furniture, pictures to look past, and unnecessary levels of polish. Abandoning the windsurfers in the garden, Thatch and Holson put forth a considerable effort to lug Logan inside. Drake led them with a sure foot, his boots clearly having trod these halls before. They went through to the parlor, its main features being two grand bay windows flanking a currently cold fireplace. Furniture, throw rugs, and poufs were arranged around the room with near-manic perfection, something the crew quickly remedied as they settled their dirty bodies down.
For a while, no one said a word. Valeo slouched on a sofa, his head at the same level as his knees, somewhere between the pain of dreams and pain that is real. Breeze lay sprawled on one of the carpets, her hand over her eyes but still awake and alert. Beard sat upright and stiff, never quite comfortable in a stranger’s home.
Breeze heard the near-silent footfalls of the woman, Ryze, as she approached the sitting room. Her steps were so quiet that Breeze was sure she was the only one to have heard them, but even then, only just. They were not the careless, plodding footfalls of the wealthy but the careful steps of someone trained, someone with something to hide. Her respect for the woman grew, along with her distaste.
Ryze appeared in the doorway, a tray stacked high with meat pies, sandwiches, and fresh rock melon stacked in her arms. She stepped over Holson, facedown, spread-eagle on the carpet, and deposited the tray on a table.
“Rest. Eat. Recover. We’ll talk after.” Each word was a command, as if she was used to issuing orders, and even more used to having them followed.
Every nose in the room perked up. By the time Ryze returned with a jug of water, most of the food had vanished, the crew surrounding the tray like crows to a carcass. All except Drake, who wasn’t eating. He stood along with his hand on the mantel, staring into the spent ash of the fireplace. Soon, there was nothing left on the tray but peels and crumbs. The food spent, they slumped back down, their stomachs as heavy as their spirits.
Ryze, who had paced restless through the lightning feast, a lion on the prowl, finally spoke again.
“By the eight skies, what has happened to you?”
Drake, still facing the dead embers, took a long time to respond. “I have much to say, but don’t know how, or even where to begin,” he murmured, turning to look at his crew. “Much of what I am about to tell you I fear will not be to your palette. But I owe you, all of you”—he looked at Ryze as well—“the truth.”
He reached into his coat and pulled out a folded scrap of parchment so old, it was a wonder it didn’t crumble in his hands. Valeo had seen that scrap only once before, the night they had raided the vault in Heartstone.
“It starts, and ends, with this,” Drake continued. “Aya, could you please clear the table?”
Aya hopped up and pushed the empty food tray to the side. Drake stepped forward, the crew bustling to make room for him, and kneeled down. He delicately spread the page out while the others crowded around him.
The parchment was so worn that even its stains seemed to have stains. The ink was faded, completely gone in some places. Even so, what it depicted was clear. Aya gasped.
It was a map. But unlike any map that Valeo had ever seen. The land masses and islands scattered across the canvas were different. Continents had turned and shifted, there were more in some places, fewer in others. Whole peninsulas and formations had been altered by hundreds of years of erosion and change. And there was something else, they seemed . . . rounded somehow. It must be hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
“What is this?” Cespin asked, and for some reason he seemed angry.
“A map,” Drake explained. “One I have been searching for for a very long time.”
“You actually found one?” Ryze exclaimed. “After all this time?”
Drake nodded. “It looks like I was right.”
“Right about what?” Cespin shouted, suddenly very angry. “What’s this got to do with anything?”
Drake looked at him with a mixture of pity and resignation. “Allow me to try to explain, Cespin. Just please, I ask you for patience.” He looked at everyone in turn. “What do you know of Corsairs?”
Beard raised his hand.
“It ain’t a lecture, ya dolt. Spit it out,” Cespin snarled.
Beard quickly lowered his hand as if bitten. “Uh, Corsairs are pirates. But . . . um, nice ones?”
Cespin rolled his eyes.
Beard balked, but hastened to elaborate. “I mean, Corsairs are treasure hunters. They only steal from those who can afford it, never killing unless their hand is forced, and give loads of what they steal to those who need it.”
“Yes,” Drake agreed, “but not entirely in the spirit of altruism. Think about it, where would thieves be without friends? If we did not have ports to land, places to hide, and people to take us in, our careers would meet short, violent ends.”
“Get to the point, Drake,” said Cespin. “What have Corsairs got to do with this?”
“Everything, sadly,” the captain replied. “Tell me now, what do you know of the Fayts?”
“Religion?” Cespin sneered. “Asking for quite a bit of patience if we’re gonna talk circles around that hokum.”
“Humor me,” Drake retorted.
Valeo thought about it, but before he could open his mouth, Holson snatched the words from his lips.
“They’re gods, deities,” he answered. “One for each of the races. ‘Watch over and protect’ and all that.”
There was a general nod of assent.
Drake smiled. “Right in one. There are indeed eight. One for each: Fleetfeet, Rageborn, Evenglass, Brightwin, Heartsung, Sunstrider, Timeless, and”—he cleared his throat—“Fallen.” He stood up, turning to look through a window at the sun beginning to set. Shadows lengthened across the landscape like fingers of spilled ink. “But they are not gods. They are very real. And they’re here.”
A pregnant quiet filled the room.
“What do you mean, ‘here’?” Valeo asked, speaking for the first time. “Like, ‘spirit of the heart’ kind of here, or like, here here?” He looked pointedly around.
“Well, not in this room, exactly, no,” Drake corrected, a flush rising up his neck as he tugged at his collar. “But out there,” he gestured to the window, “in the world, as real as you or me. You can bet on it.”
“And what makes you say that?” Holson asked, brow wrinkled in what could only be described as serious thinking.
“I have seen one, held it in my hands,” Drake replied.
The room grew quieter still.
“Was it shiny?” Cespin said sarcastically, rolling his eyes.
“As a matter of fact,” Drake countered, unaffected, “It was the brightest jewel I have ever seen.”
“So it was a jewel?” Thatch interjected, pushing his crooked glasses back up his nose. “And what makes ya say it was a Fayt?”
“Because that used to be my job,” Drake said, looking frustrated. “To search the world for Fayts. Spend half your life looking for something . . . you know the real thing when you finally see it.”
“You’re up yer tree,” Cespin spat, but Alistair silenced him with a cold stare, his jaw kneading and his eyes cutting deeper than any word.
“I knew it would be hard to convince everyone. Usually, we would go back and forth for half the night, and at its end, none would be convinced of anything. Lucky for me, I have proof.” He tugged at his collar again.
Valeo thought it was just a nervous habit until Drake unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt. He reached inside to his bare chest and pulled at a chain, thrusting it into the waning light.
Hardly bigger than a thumbnail but lighting up the room like a miniature star, catching every ray of weak sun and reflecting it back in thousands of white arcs around the room, was a shard of stone resting on Drake’s palm. The effect was instantaneous. Several people jumped up, and everyone began talking at once.
“Are you jokin’?”
“Can we touch it?”
Breeze noted that the only ones who didn’t react were Logan, Alistair, and Ryze; their faces remained impassive through it all.
Drake held up a hand, beckoning for silence. Eventually, everyone settled down.
“If that’s a Fayt, it’s a lot smaller’n I woulda figured,” Cespin murmured.
“That’s because it isn’t the whole Fayt, just a piece of it,” Drake explained, staring down at the orb. “We broke it, just before the rest was taken.”
“You broke a god?” Holson exclaimed, puffed out his cheeks and exhaling. “Pretty sure you get in serious trouble for that.”
Drake smiled. “The alternative, relinquishing it whole and pure, would have been much worse.” He tucked the stone back into his shirt. Without its brilliance, the room grew much darker.
“Why?” Breeze murmured quietly. Everyone started, looking around for who had spoken. Most had never heard her voice.
Drake addressed Breeze directly. “Because this,” he gestured to his chest, “is a piece of the Timeless Fayt. And Timeless employed me to find it.”
“You worked for Timeless?” Cespin spat, anger clear in his voice.
“We worked for the Timeless,” Ryze interjected. Cespin’s hateful gaze fell on her. It had no effect. “For Llewellyn.”
“You worked for the Timeless queen?” Aya questioned, holding her hand to her mouth in part surprise and part horror.
Drake shrugged. “It was a different time, and I was a different person.”
“And now?” Cespin asked, his porcelain face reddening. “Do you still? Do we still?” He looked disgusted at the thought.
Drake shook his head. “Let’s just say, the contract has long since been voided.”
“Why break the stone?” Valeo asked, pulling the subject away from monarchs he cared little about. “Wouldn’t the whole thing, complete and unbroken, be more valuable?”
“Indeed it would,” Drake said, nodding, “much more valuable whole. In a mistake made in the haste of judgment and wholly my own, we shattered it moments before Llewellyn’s soldiers descended. Though unfortunate, I am nonetheless glad it happened. For, you see, I had a . . . change of heart.”
More excited murmurs filled the room.
“But what’s the point?” Thatch asked. “If it really is a Fayt, which I’m not sayin’ it is, though your evidence is pretty convincin’, why would anyone want it? Doesn’t seem to do too much but light up a room.”
Drake shook his head. “You can’t understand, because you don’t know what a Fayt truly is. What it really does . . . and what it can do.” He hesitated.
“Pray speak,” Logan growled. “’Tis time.”
Drake looked at Alistair, Ryze, and back to Logan in turn, and nodded. “Permit me to say, I have always considered myself a rather fine judge of character. I have known the people in this room for varying lengths of time. Some”—he glanced at Logan and Alistair—“for long, some for a few years.” He indicated Cespin, Thatch, and Holson. “And some less than a month.” He gestured to Beard, Breeze, and Valeo.
“That being said, I trust everyone in this room, with my life if need be. So attend well the secret I share with you now. A secret few know . . . and every one of them covet.” He took a deep breath and seemed to steel himself.
“A Fayt is not a god, but the sole embodiment, an ultraconcentrated form, of the race it represents.”
There was only silence.
“What does that even mean?” Holson questioned.
“Imagine, for a moment, a source of pure luck.” Drake looked at Valeo. “Of love.” He peered at Beard. “Of strength.” He nodded to Logan. “Pure bloods, half, some Riverworn even, have control over these traits to an extent, something everyone knows. But that control varies and fatigues. Also, what one person can do,” he continued, beginning to pick up pace, “is limited to their own ability and talent. But imagine a source that is inexhaustible, near limitless. All the luck you would ever need. The strength of an army in a single body. How many people would want to get their hands on such a source then? That is what a Fayt really is.”
“Sounds tempting just talking about it,” Holson said, chuckling.
“Exactly,” Drake said grimly. “But imagine what it could do in the wrong hands. Even among the best of us, good intentions seem to go awry when power seems limitless.”
“So you broke it?” Breeze whispered, looking him hard in the face. “So Llewellyn couldn’t have it?”
“That was the fortunate outcome, yes,” Drake replied in a tone to match hers. “We broke it just before they caught up to us. Since then, the Queen has been after me—quite, shall we say, enthusiastically—because of what I have, and what I know.”
“Is that why?” Thatch exclaimed, suddenly snapping his fingers. “The guards at Rixa, the docks goin’ up in flames in Delves, Timeless goons at that theatre in Ashben? I thought we were just real unlucky, but it was you. They were after . . . you.”
The thought settled on the room like a layer of ice. Valeo looked at Breeze, she shrugged. Beard was confused, too. They had only just joined, they couldn’t understand.
“And Heartstone?” Cespin whispered. “Garrett? Philippa? McCanty? The others? Did they know this secret?” His voice rose, anger lacing every syllable. “Did they know what they’d gotten into when they’d signed on?” Cespin began to shout, his fists clenching into tight balls. “Did they know they was gonna die because of it?”
Drake hesitated. Cespin didn’t.
With two long strides, the Brightwin closed the gap and reared back. Drake must have seen the blow coming, but he did nothing to stop it. Cespin’s fist smashed into his cheek, sending him staggering into the fireplace. Alistair and Thatch sprang forward, clamping Cespin’s arms behind his back as he struggled to get at Drake.
“You’re the reason they’re dead!” Cespin shouted, spit flying from his mouth. “If they had known. If—”
“You’re not wrong,” Drake said calmly, massaging his jaw and straightening up. “It is a regret that will haunt me the rest of my life. That is why I tell you all now. If you wish to take turns striking me, feel free to form a line. I will willingly take whatever comes. I am so very tired of secrets.”
“Get off me,” Cespin said, flinging Alistair and Thatch off and stalking across the room. He picked up a miniature elephant from a side table and hurled it shattering into the fireplace.
“Sorry,” he said, looking askance at Ryze. She stared at him a moment and turned back to the captain.
“Now you know,” Drake whispered. “No more lies. From now on, only the truth, the moment I uncover it.”
Aya pointed at the map, wiping the corners of her eyes. “What does this have to do with that?”
“This map,” Drake explained, “leads to a Fayt. At least . . . I believe it does.”
“And you want to go after it?” Aya asked.
Drake nodded. “And I want you all to come with me, even you, Ryze.”
“I’d not be so willing to throw in with me if I were you,” Ryze retorted, crossing her arms. “There is still much you and I need discuss beyond this.”
“Duly noted,” Drake said. He looked around at everyone again, some standing, some sitting, Logan barely able to rise. All were frayed, dirty, and bent to the point of breaking. “I ask you to come with me because of what it could mean for the world,” he whispered. “And for what is at stake if we don’t.”
“Why should we care about the Fayts beyond what we can sell ’em for?” Holson asked, his brow furrowed.
“Because the Timeless are after them. And, if the past few days are any indication, so are the Fallen.” He pointed down at the map where the just discernible outline of Vraith, land of shadows and ghosts, lay on the southern rim of the world. “This is a secret I fear is fast becoming common knowledge. Soon, I am afraid it will slip out of our hands and into the hands of someone who can do much more damage than we could dare to fear.”
“And what about the Shadowlocke?” Valeo said, his thoughts still fresh on the horrors of Thayn.
“The Shadowlocke are involved?” Ryze interjected, her face growing dark. She stopped pacing.
Drake shrugged. “We cannot know what role they play, and we must do everything we can to stay out of their sights.”
Beard’s breath contracted. He had heard that name before, had read it countless times, as had every child . . . the dark terrors that wove through every one of Threepwin’s Treasure and Tales like nightmares, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. Was this to be his life? Every terrifying myth and legend animated before his eyes?
“What do you intend to do with a Fayt if you do get it?” Alistair asked this time, his cold eyes falling on his captain.
“Protect it,” he answered simply, taking out his wooden pipe and chewing on the end. “Find as many as we can . . . before they do.”
“What will that solve?” Valeo asked sarcastically. “Besides giving us a really nice spotlight?”
“It will change everything,” Drake whispered, the pipe falling from his mouth.
“Stories rise,” Logan growled, using what looked like the last of her strength to speak.
“Yet silence kept.” Alistair continued.
“To time lost, the Fayts soon slept.” Ryze whispered.
“They beckon still, but tarry not,” Drake this time.
“Seek them out, lest they be forgot,” Their voices joined in unison,
Breeze, Valeo, and Beard each felt chills roll across them as if someone had opened a window. The four voices rose together.
“Sought for glory and not in aid, all is lost, each light shall fade. The ships sail, the wheel turns, if the Fayts fail, the world burns.”
An eerie silence fell over them, as if for a moment something more unspeakable sat there beside them. Not one had to open their mouths to say it. They all felt it as clearly as a blade along their spines.
“That was a bit . . . creepy,” Valeo muttered.
Drake let out an appreciative chuckle and the tension broke. “It is a poem older than living memory, carefully guarded and seldom spoken aloud.”
“That’s all well ’n’ good,” Thatch said, his hands slightly shaking. “But what’s that got to do with the map?”
“It’s written on it,” Aya whispered, the awe clear in her voice.
All of them, to an eye, scrambled to the table. At the bottom of the page, next to a missing chunk of parchment long lost to time, were words written in faded ink. None of them, not even Cespin, could hide the absolute wanderlust that filled their eyes.
Drake pointed his finger to the tattered map. “Oriander, in the Forgotten Isles. The long-lost home of Fleetfeet. A place that hasn’t been found in two hundred years. This map leads right to it. And to what I believe is a Fayt. Which? That is something we will have to discover ourselves.”
Drake stood and took a step back. “I know I have kept this truth from you, but I hope you can find it in your hearts to understand why. It is a burden that no one should have to bear unless there was no choice remaining. This is so much bigger than any of us. If we do nothing, if we do not succeed in getting the Fayts before the agents of Time, of Death itself, the world is surely lost. This is the Corsair’s true mission. Has been since their founding, to stop the Fayts from falling into the wrong hands . . . into anyone’s hands.
“Garrett, Philippa, McCanty, and the others gave their lives to a cause they didn’t even know, a terrible mistake on my part. I never wish to make it again.” Tears filled the captain’s eyes, but his jaw was set. “I know I have no right, but I ask you here and now. Help me fulfill this task, to save the people that make it such a marvelous thing to be alive. Who among you would be willing to take that journey?”
A full minute passed and no one moved, the pronouncement hanging over them like a headsman’s axe.
It was Aya who rose first.
“Uncharted lands, mysteries, treasures . . . Someone needs to be there to map them, learn them, and take them.”
Holson followed her lead, standing up and scratching the part of his chin sans beard. “My grandmomma always said I wouldn’t amount to anything, and now I’m gonna help save the world . . . Just goes to show what can happen after you put your pants on in the morning.”
Someday, tiny and demure, hopped up onto the ottoman beside Logan hardly a second later. “Us, too! We’re comin’, and none’ll stop us.” Jasper scampered up her body to perch on her shoulder. He, too, nodded his tiny head, startling those who didn’t know the lifestay.
Drake smiled warmly at her. “Wouldn’t dream of it. A captain needs his best gunner, now doesn’t he?”
Thatch was next, his gangly frame almost quivering with excitement. “You couldn’t keep me away from somethin’ like this.” He looked at Cespin. “What about it, little brother? You in?”
Cespin sighed and looked at Thatch. Slowly, he nodded. “I ain’t sayin’ sorry for that right hook,” he said, turning to Drake. “You deserved it and more. But you were right to hesitate. Seems a secret not granted lightly. And treasures untold, prolly lost for hundreds of years? Got me written all over it.”
Drake nodded. “Of course.”
Beard stood quickly, surprising everyone. He looked back and forth between Cespin and Thatch, confused. “You two are brothers? Since when?”
Cespin blinked, then did so again for good measure. Someone coughed.
Valeo hopped up and slapped Beard on the back of the head. “Time and a place, Beardy, time and a place,” he groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We were having a moment . . . full of dramatic revelation, and you just . . . ruined it.” He patted Beard on the back and sighed. “But looks like it’s your turn now—you stood up and everything.” He jerked his head around dramatically and looked at his own body. “Darn, guess that makes me in, too.” He winked at Drake.
Breeze stood last, and they all looked at her. She stared hard at Drake, then nodded once, keeping her silence, but she was alive with the light only adventure can gleam.
A true smile broke out on Drake’s face, something they hadn’t seen in days.
“Well then,” he said, clapping Valeo on the shoulder and smiling as if at a private joke. “The storybooks spin a grander tale, but the truth lies before you now: you’ve just taken The Eight. You’re Dippers now.”
Valeo and Breeze’s eyes met, the wonder filling them so completely it threatened to form words and come roaring from their throats, but neither could speak, neither could even breathe.
“Welcome to the Corsairs.”