Saturday, May 20, 2017

Enjoy Chapter 40 of Book One of Melody and the Pier to Forever!

History's deadliest Dreamcatcher is thought to be this one, seen here walking away from another of his victims. His name is Riparius. He is the Transform of Luis Arroyo, who at one time long ago was a Spanish Inquisition priest.

In the chapter following, Luis has witnessed by means of a soul-trace the slaughter of his beloved daughter, Espriella, at the hands of the Black Coffin. He has vowed revenge on Prince Trajan Chaundran, second to Necrolius, whose betrayal of Espriella led to her death.

Maggie Singleton watches via a soul-trace as Luis/Riparius goes to work. What she sees forever changes her. She wakes to hear Conor's call to battle against the approaching Gyssian navy.

Book One of Melody and the Pier to Forever is FREE for a short time. Go now and download it, or let your friends and family know!

Enjoy the chapter!


Chapter 40
The Wheel and the Call

Maggie stood in an expansive, dark enclosure surrounded by high, broken stone walls and shattered archways. Rubble lay in huge piles everywhere, the remains of a great cathedral or something larger. A dim, featureless orange-red sky above showered tiny flakes of hot gray ash on her head, the cries of unseen countless millions filling the air, as soft and somber as winter’s lonely wind whistling through the leafless boughs over an abandoned cemetery.
She whirled about.
Prince Trajan Chaundran was bound naked and back-first to the rim of a large wooden wheel ten yards away, his wrists tied high above his head, his ankles below. Two huge, freakish, sallow-skinned priests with sagging, bleeding, unblinking eyes and misshapen mouths, and dressed also in red vestments, stood one to a side at the wheel, gripping similar iron cranks. A third stood off to the right, slowly waving a bronze incense burner at his hip, the gray smoke from the vessel rising lazily into the hot air. The wheel’s rim dipped into a shallow concrete trough of foul-smelling piceous liquid, oil or gas, mixed with blood or excrement, or both. The mixture caught fire occasionally, eerie blue flames whooshing quietly up a couple feet, then extinguishing, leaving behind wavy, shimmering curls of superheated air which vanished into the hell-sky. The sickly sweet vapors of the incense mixed with the trough’s sulfuric cesspool stench, nauseating her. It smelled like a sewer break in a perfume shop, one located near an oil refinery.
The grotesque priests cranked the wheel one jarring notch:
Trajan jolted with the heavy movement, his body rising half a foot. The Spanish Inquisitor—her friend—came suddenly into view from behind a large, badly damaged altar, stepping solemnly down broken stairs, his hands clasped prayerfully under his chin. He approached his unwilling arrepentido.
The prince’s face was almost level with Luis’. The priests turning the wheel began chanting in monotone Latin.
“The lost soul can be saved,” intoned Luis just feet from Trajan. “But this soul is not lost. It has made its many wicked choices in full awareness and in full knowledge of the grim consequences.”
“Please,” cried Necrolius’ first, “please, Healer, I’ll do anything for you, just let me—”
“Silencio!” thundered Luis. He withdrew a long silver knife from beneath his cloak and slashed it across the prince’s chest.
Trajan (and Maggie) convulsed, tried to shrink in himself, screamed. But he could barely move, so securely was he bound to the rim of the wheel. Blood ran freely down his bare belly as Luis yelled:
“There is no deeper place within the bowels of Hell than that reserved for he who has betrayed his own soul!”
He slashed at Trajan’s midsection again, crosswise to the first cut. The prince’s hideous screams rent the air, sent chills down Maggie’s spine, who curled around herself in sympathetic pain.
Over the prince’s cries, and speaking as though reciting a liturgy, Luis Arroyo, Inquisition priest, said:
“Pray for your soul, Prince Trajan Chaundran Vanerrincourt! Repent! For upon this night, aye this eternal night, shall I damn it forever! The ashes of evil rain down upon thy head, O condemned!” He lifted his arms, gazing into the fire-sky, his eyes wide, unhinged, the knife in his grip dripping with his victim’s blood.
“Upon this eternal night shall I boil sin from thee!”
“Upon this eternal night shall I, upon the slanted and flinty rock, cast the dying spark of thy contemptible spirit into the Pit Everlasting!”
“Come unto me, O angel of torment! Come unto me and guide my Holy Intentions! Guide my hand as I do thy hallowed work!”
“P-P-Please, Healer, please, I ... I beg you,” gurgled Trajan, upside down now, the blood from his open chest and belly wounds flooding over his face, dripping from his hair. “Release me. Go in peace. Let me live. I d-d-don’t want to d-die! I don’t want to die!
The wheel dropped him one jarring notch at a time towards the trough full of boiling, flaming filth.
But the Inquisitor, on the far side of the wheel from him now, ignored him. Trajan’s persecutor lowered his arms and head slowly, placed the bloody knife on a broken marble pedestal next to him.
“Blow thy trumpet, Pale Destruction!” he shouted down the front of his red cloak. “Summon forth the Undead Hosts!”
He lifted his head.
“Call forth the foul waters and pour them into the rent flesh of the Unworthy! Let him bathe in thy scalding piss, let him feast upon thy shit!”
“I, thy servant, beseech thy countenance, O Rotting Maul! Let thy judgment claw over his corpse, let it shatter his teeth!”
As the wheel dropped Trajan Chaundran head-first towards the trough, from beyond the craggy, shattered high walls and through the deep gloom they came, corpses, men and women and children, stumbling forth, their eyes blank, their pallid faces tinged gray in death, their mouths black and cracked and drooling, their bodies covered in all manner of wounds and burns. Many were missing limbs; Maggie choked back the grief of a woman carrying a crying child without legs. Some of the zombies were still dressed in the tattered and burned livery of (she guessed) Gyssian-vanquished Aquanian nations, but most were naked. They lurched past her and surrounded the wheel, where they began marching in a clockwise fashion around it. They moaned and groaned as though in never-ending anguish.
Maggie couldn’t turn away from the scene. Trajan’s torture wasn’t what held her. It was the overwhelming darkness surging like pestilence itself through a valley of massacred innocents writ large on her friend’s face. The Spanish Inquisition priest.
Trajan’s head was just above the trough, his arms past the elbows already in the liquid. He wailed and thrashed in agony as the submerged flesh scalded. The undead turned to face him, kneeling on the baked, lifeless, yellow earth. In unison they spoke, a lifeless, flat chorus of voices not unlike Necrolius Anaxagorius’ own:
“Eternal Night,
Terror and blight,
Extinguish light,
Extinguish light!
Seven sources:
Lepers and corpses—
Souls and spirits!
Souls and spirits!”
“He took her life,” Father Luis shouted over them, “he consumed her soul. But I shall do neither, O evil prince. By fire shall thee yet live! By anguish thy soul shall remain in thy body. But it shall no longer belong to thee!” His rage broke, his face insane: “An accursed vegetable, rotting inside, torn asunder, useless—WORTHLESS!”
Trajan’s head dipped into the liquid.
Maggie, riveted, heard the prince’s burbled shriek, saw the bubbles of his breath rise thickly to the top of the boiling piceous mixture. The undead congregation continued chanting as the priests cranked the wheel—
His entire torso was in. And as the chanting went on—
Trajan Chaundran had disappeared completely into the scalding liquid under the wheel. The undead rose to their feet, began marching and stumbling counterclockwise while still chanting. The incense-waving priest walked solemnly to Father Luis’ side, where they prayed silently, their heads bowed together. The two cranking the wheel patiently waited. Presently the Inquisitor looked up, said something in Latin, and the two priests at the wheel resumed their work as the one with the incense took the bloody knife from the pedestal, wiped it ceremonially on white cloth of some kind, then wrapped it carefully in the same before stuffing it in his cloak and moving away.
Prince Trajan Chaundran emerged from the liquid.
The sight dropped Maggie to her knees, and she began wretching. Her stomach tried expelling nothingness, the convulsions going on and on. She cried and hiccupped as she gagged, her stomach seizing painfully. But she couldn’t look away, as though her choice to cut off the promptings had also cut off her ability to blind herself to that which she just had to witness, what the promptings tried warning her away from.
Trajan’s body smoked like overdone bacon, his blackened skin bubbling, his eyes sucked into his skull, his mouth belching great explosive torrents of excrement-befouled fluid. He still shrieked, unbelievably, inhumanly, his body thrashing as though electrified against the rim of the wheel he was fixed upon. Father Luis Diaz de Luco Mendoza stepped forward until he stood just inches from his victim. Somehow over the man’s screams she heard him say:
“The wages of sin is death, Prince Trajan Chaundran. But you shall yet live—you who have sinned most egregiously against so many thousands, against me, against my own blood.
“Have I not shown you infinite mercy this day? Have I not spared you the judgment only the Most High can exact, and which your master has wrongly appropriated and feels is his sole right?
“Yes, My Lord, you shall live. But you shall not know it. Instead you shall know and feel nothing from this day forward but the eternal and eternally deep misery you know and feel now; and when your master yanks the Emasculatem from your neck, the punishment I have meted out will be made inescapable ...”
Luis reached inside his cloak, produced a vial of holy water. He stepped two paces back.
“... and permanent.”
Raising his voice, he shouted in a singsong fashion:
“Your soul is forfeit, Vanerrincourt Trajan Chaundran, deposed heir of the Aquanicentra Thronehead! In the name of the Father and the Son—” He raised the vial over his head, hurled the liquid in it at the prince in the form of a cross, vertically then horizontally. The water splashed on the prince’s bubbling flesh and he went up like a log doused in gasoline, blue flames entirely engulfing his body, raging and crackling high into the orange-red sky.
“—and the thing forever denied you now: the Holy Spirit!
Maggie, numb from horror, came staggeringly to her feet as the intense heat of the flames washed over her and as the Spanish Inquisitor stepped away from his handiwork, raising and opening his arms and ecstatically throwing his head back to the sky. A tremendous earthquake shook the ground at that moment, and before she reeled backward, stumbling, her head crashing down hard on a thick slab of rubble and knocking her unconscious, she could swear that the entire world around her was blowing away like iron filings in a high wind—iron filings mixed with dust and garbage and death, polluted, filthy, impure.
She came to with a start, stood too quickly, and fell back hard on her butt, her head and stomach swimming. Tried again. The ground beneath her lurched, impacted something, and she fell again. She scrambled frantically to her feet, groping about in the darkness for support. As her aching head cleared she realized she was no longer in the broken rubble of a tremendous cathedral surrounded by zombies and a lunatic Inquisitor—her friend—as he ritualistically tortured Necrolius’ first. She was back in Trajan’s quarters, on board the Gyssian flagship.
Another lurch, another impact. The muffled sounds of wood grinding on wood; the sharp cry of metal twisting, fatiguing, snapping.
Her eyes adjusted slowly to the deep gloom, her legs like limp noodles, the muscles in her stomach cramped and aching. She gingerly rubbed the back of her neck, looked around.
The Dreamcatcher was gone. Luis was gone. Riparius—was gone.
But Prince Trajan Chaundran was not. Still bound by Unsolvable sinews, his now-pupilless eyes stared unblinkingly upward, vacant, cold, changed to the same deathly blue hue as the flames that had consumed him. His skin was warped and blistered, his mouth drooling and open, purple and split. He rasped wildly for air as the ship lurched again.
Luis had wrecked his soul. Had befouled it. Had mutilated it beyond recognition. All to torture him forever. Maggie had watched him do it. She felt the urge to vomit again overwhelm her senses; she fiercely fought it off, turning away and rushing for the door.
Nothing resisted her this time, nothing repelled her, nothing pushed her back. She passed through it, feeling the fibrous wood against her spirit—and tripped over something large. She fell hard on her stomach, her wrists flashing agony beneath her.
Crying, she came instantly to her feet  and glanced down. She’d tripped over a body. The dead-staring Tracluse lay sprawled on his back at her feet, a dagger hilt-deep in his neck. Maggie turned away, shuddering, and continued up the passageway, stumbling over demons and Tracluse, all dead. The entire ship, dead.
All except the only human being Emperor Necrolius Anaxagorius had ever loved.
But Maggie had no doubt who had suffered the worst possible fate this evening.
Odd sunlight. It came brightly and heavily red-tinted down the stairwell, illuminating her path forward. It was morning—surely the day of the battle. She picked her way around the gruesome corpses and rushed to the top of the stairs, stepping over more bodies. Men were shouting in the distance; she gained the landing with some effort, trying to hear what they were saying just as a crippling chill swept through her and another jarring impact sent her slamming into the wall to her left. She righted herself, stopped walking, and hunched over against the deep, vicious cold. It seemed entirely unlikely that mornings on Aquanus would dawn below—way below—freezing, as this had to be.
And then it came to her with a stomach-dropping shock that the morning air wasn’t this cold. She had felt this exact same deathly chill as she watched Espriella die.
He was coming.
The promptings had returned. This one rang like a church bell, terrifyingly clear, a direct and dire warning:
Panicked, she shrieked, “I wish to be back on the Nicomacus! I wish to be back on the Nicomacus!
She lifted feebly off the top deck like an old helium balloon too deflated to float. Settled weakly back.
She couldn’t leave! She couldn’t leave!
And he was coming!
She hurried towards the bow. The prince’s flagship was grinding against another, smaller warship, its great jibboom shattered, its vast sails unmoored and snapping in the sky, the captain’s wheel unmanned and spinning wildly. Men and demons were shouting from that ship and flashing off to board this one. Gyssian corpses lay everywhere before her, or hung from beams above her, swaying and creaking with the motion of the sea and the random crunching impacts, or were piled on one another, knives and swords and arrows sticking out of them, pools of green and red blood everywhere. She stepped around the bodies, over them, between them, trying to avoid stepping in the gore but finding it impossible, rushing as fast as she could. She had to get off. She had to get off now! NOW!
Swirling motion above her.
She glanced up ... and up ... and up ...
The Omem’s blood veil was much, much closer, probably less than twenty miles away. Directly above, descending straight for her out of the blue sky, came a black streak of motion. It touched down on deck ten feet in front of her with a rumble like a mountainous avalanche of corpses bearing down on her, gathering, substantiating ...
The Black Coffin himself stood directly in her path, the fathomless cowl pointed right at her as though he could see her. His arms raised and spread wide, his green hands aiming her way, those long, thin, evil fingers straightening ...
The single second it took for her to gather her rapidly dissolving wits sank its sharpened nails into her windpipe, cutting off her voice. But then the second was gone, and with caustic relief she screamed: “I WISH TO RETURN TO THE V-NICOMACUS RIGHT NOW!”
She watched, helplessly petrified, as Necrolius floated straight towards her. But then, just as he was almost on top of her, she was suddenly enveloped by some sort of whitish-bluish light that wrapped around her, intensifying by the second ...
She clenched her eyes shut as she felt her feet lift off the deck of the Gyssian flagship just as the emperor’s church choir-like Voice blasted through her brain:
The bright light dissipated an instant later, sparkling out of existence. Maggie blinked her teary eyes open, fighting acute vertigo as it came clear to her that she was back on the V-Nicomacus, on its top deck, safe. Red light flooded completely over her, casting the vessel into hellish relief. She looked up.
The Omem’s blood veil rose just a mile or so behind her—behind the ship itself—tens of thousands of feet tall. It seemed to flow, seemed to be alive, like a gargantuan waterfall, with long, languid fingers of gore falling slowly into the sea, coloring it a shimmering pinkish-red. Where the veil touched the water an extended, brilliant line of continuous aecxes sparkled like a long line of diamonds under bright lights, running the entire ten or twenty mile length of the curtain. Maggie’s mind still rang with Necrolius’ order to his “children,” but who were his children? What did his order mean?
Her attention was jerked into the present moment with a loud bark right next to her, the voice belonging to someone she’d heard before:
Malesherbes Quartermane.
“Come around to two-one-five mark nine-nine, all weapons on full standby! Signal the Empiricus that we’re in position. Resignal the Southern Contingent not to sail more than two misons from Infinitus—that is, if they want to live another day. Remember our objective: to defend Ae Infinitus. Captain Osenello, the Nico is yours. May the spirits of the Great Piers guide your way!”
“Where away, Commander?”
Maggie looked. It was the first time she had gotten more than a passing glimpse at Conor Kieran’s mentor’s face. It was like looking into the face of determination itself wrought into human features. The gray-blue eyes of the Supreme Commander of Conor’s utterly inadequate armada replied:
“Where to? Ha! To gut Gyssians of course!”
The entire command ship came alive, roaring. Captain Osenello slapped Quartermane’s back as the Commander flashed, becoming a golden eagle, winging out over the Omem-bloodied sea. The crew was still yelling when a brilliant flash and jarring crack of thunder caught Maggie’s attention, caught their attention. She looked over the water.
Out of the distant haze beyond the islands that on Earth were known as the Coronados rose the massive sails of the Gyssians, the broadsword thrust down through a flaming ring repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating, close together and billowing, north to south, for as far as she could see. The sky out there, quite unexpectedly, was completely clear of demons and Tracluse and Saeire Insu: no angrily swarming patrols squaring off, no sun-blotting, circling, misshapen malice bearing down on the fleet. Only low, lazily drifting, puffy-white clouds which sparkled brightly and vanished from existence once they breezed overhead and into the blood veil. Maggie thought this was the origin of the flash, but it wasn’t. The flash and the thunder came again, well away from the gore curtain and towards the evil marauders, a good mile or more directly above Ae Infinitus.
The Saeire Insu went into a wild frenzy. They yelled and pumped their fists into the air, waving their swords and lances and bows towards the source of the light.
“It’s the king! The king! It’s the sign he told us to look for! It’s him—look!
The light dimmed for a moment, then brightened into a blinding and sustained supernova with towering radial shafts of yellow-white light. It held, then changed colors abruptly, turning green and blue, forming a mighty V with a cross overlay. The flag of Vanerrincourt! As the thunder of that flag cracked across the armada, the light changed to a flag featuring an albatross over a red coat-of-arms, flashing magnificently; then another deafening crack and it was shiny silver swords crossed beneath a white dove; then twin gleaming-green dragons curling over Ammalinaeus; then gold lances over four blue crescent moons; then sea horses with ruby eyes on each side of a scarlet-and-gold crown; then green-blue palm leaves against the broad banded rings of Ammalinaeus; then what looked like a Keeper surrounding a series of differently sized stars arranged in an arc; then what looked like spires bordering concentric golden rings; then a dolphin and a whale swimming through the vinelike stem of a beautiful white rose. With each thundering change, the boats shouted and stomped riotously. The Mathematician who had led them here to the edge of the world was presenting the flags of the ten nations of the mutineers who had come with him. With a great, crackling, booming display of circular lightning, the final flag emerged: a brown-and-white seahawk with a bloody talon swooping down on King Ammalinaeus himself. The flag of these ten nations united, the Saeire Insu: The Ten Fingers of Insurrection. With this last came the loudest ovation of all. There was no way the Gyssians had missed the lightning show.
Maggie stood awed and calmed at the same time. She was afraid to move, afraid that doing so would release the vision before her and the jaw-dropping amazement coursing through her.
“Look!” yelled a warrior next to her. “Look!”
She looked away, looked back. As she did, something astonishing happened. The Saeire Insu flag faded, and as it did she could see the Red Talon himself as though just thirty feet above her, sitting on the back of his proud sea horse Ion. His crimson cape blew back against the steed’s beautiful fan just behind him, the lizard and the snake of the Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm glowing brightly on his shoulders. The armada must have seen the same thing, because they were going crazy. When she looked away, the vision was replaced with the shafts of interlacing lightning creating the Saeire Insu flag. She returned her focus and fixed her gaze upon Conor, the horrors of the previous night reluctantly dissolving away with the sights and emotions pouring down like a heavenly cloudburst on her now.
The king spoke—she saw his mouth move—and his Irish Voice powered through her spirit:
Well, look at them. Fifty-five days on the open sea, fifty-five days of chasing us—and what do they have to show for it? Their sails are as limp as a dead man’s flute!—
The Nicomacus’ crew laughed and yelled and stomped. Maggie tore her eyes from the king, looking out at the other ships of his fleet. The warriors out there were shouting as well. Despite their considerable distance, she swore she could hear them, could feel their pride, their ferocity, their fear, their anticipation. These feelings stole over her more and more, pulling her into their swirling, mixing, irresistible current. The monarch holding fast above his navy had their complete attention; she knew that the approaching Gyssians were watching (and listening), too. She looked back up at the king, felt that current pull her away from the shores of restraint, felt the vision of him swell her heart.
His Voice roared,  —Look at them, and have no fear! The Gyssian boil is huge, but the Saeire Insu lance is sharp. And we shall lance that boil, yes we shall! We shall send them and their little shadowy emperor back to Hell, where they can swell and pus on the Devil’s own arse!—
The Saeire Insu raised their voices to such a frightful level that Maggie thought she would go deaf. But it didn’t matter to her now, because, against everything she had been through to this point, and against the terrible visions of just a few hours ago, she too was pumping her own fists in the air and stomping and yelling. For one last moment she disconnectedly thought of Trajan Chaundran, then of Father Luis—of Riparius—and wondered where her frightening friend was, if he had made it safely back to the fleet. The inhuman torture she had witnessed last night by his hand was completely subsumed by the torrent of zeal exuding from the warriors, as though Conor’s indomitable will had smashed the horrific visions beneath his heel, to be swept forgetfully up later—after the battle. Now wasn’t the time to consider them, which she knew she would have to. Now was the time to fight. To survive.
The yelling had scarcely subsided a single decibel when Conor’s Voice sounded again in her soul:
Do not fear the veil of blood: sail through it! It is Omem blood—the blood of a great Keeper itself! Any Mephastophian that touches it this day shall catch fire and perish, and will start a chain reaction that will burn all its evil brethren to ashes! They hide, bound and helpless, so as not to see it or what shall become of it! They hide like cowards! Cowards! So sail through the veil—it will touch or affect nothing else—for in a moment it shall become something no ‘child’ of Necrolius can resist! Then turn your swords and cannons and arrows on the Tracluse and destroy them all, for that is all our fine emperor has left to fight with!—
This surprising news seemed to embolden the warriors tenfold, who now, as one, started shouting one word in reply:
Conor Kieran, becoming somber and quiet, continued.
Remember your homes this day, for they have been burned to the ground. Remember the seas you once sailed—for they are now poisoned and barren. Remember the days of peace, the days of sunshine, the days of gentle rain, and the days of worship—for they have been spoilt and outlawed. Remember this day your loved ones, those you left behind, for they are likely dead—or worse. And remember those among us, your compatriots, who gave their lives on the voyage here, for … for they ...—
He paused. Maggie watched him swallow hard, blink rapidly, his eyes glistening.
—... for they shall be remembered ... remembered as ... friends ... and more ... as heroes....—
The word echoed against the distant cliffs of the peninsula, against the hulls of the warships, against the Great Arch above and into the frightful sails of the Gyssians, whose ships loomed larger and larger out of the haze. It echoed and returned as power personified, to rouse every warrior to give his all—or to die trying.
You are fighting for them—for all of them,— said their king. —We are ten nations—the last ten nations of Aquanus. We have called ourselves the Saeire Insu: ‘The Ten Fingers of Insurrection.’— He took a visibly deep breath, and then he thundered, shaking his fist: —But today I say we are the Saeire BAER—
An awe-inspiring, ear-splitting, unified cry rolled across the entire armada that moment, across the sea, through the hearts and souls of all ten nations and the fighters standing in defense of each: a cry of fearsome pride and devastating wrath, a cry that flattened the blood-soaked sea and crushed the jutting black cliffs, a cry that shot through the vast silver-green archway overhead and into eternal space, waking the dragon mother Satelemark herself.
The king finished:
And with that the Red Talon turned Ion, releasing the reins and raising his hands, pointing his fingers at the towering blood veil. Intense white lightning shot forth from them, striking the blood an instant later; and as the warriors shouted “SATELEMARK! SATELEMARK! SATELEMARK!”, raising their weapons and stomping their feet, and as the thunder from the aecxal lighting crashed down on their heads, the veil caught fire with a deafening, roaring WHOOOOOOOOOSH!, engulfing the entire shroud, the spectral flames thousands of feet high, like side-to-side glowing waterfalls falling up not down, flames that flowed towards the top miles and miles above.
Maggie’s solar plexus reverberated—thump!thump!thump! Cannonfire! Necrolius’ mighty navy had been engaged in battle. She craned out to see what was happening, but a powerful prompting called to her—
Follow the king.
She glanced up. The magnificent vision of Conor Kieran and the Saeire Insu flag had faded away, replaced by a sparkling comet’s tail of bright aecxes as Ion streaked far overhead towards the Coronados Islands to the south.
As badly as she wanted to stay with the crew of the Nicomacus, she immediately thought: I wish to follow the king.
She had learned her lesson. She would never ignore or cut off those promptings again.
She flew off deck as off an aircraft carrier, accelerating like a fighter jet. She looked right, then back over her shoulder. The Gyssians were here—overwhelmingly here. They rose sluggishly, portentously out of the south sea towards the very islands Conor was heading for; more came straight along Ae Infinitus behind her. Their numbers were daunting, numbing. And in their path was an utterly insufficient smattering of Saeire Insu just minutes away, sailing straight for them—suicidally for them!
Thump! thump!—thump!thump!thump!———BOOOOOOM!
The cannonfire was coming from well behind her, from north of Ae Infinitus. It came in long rolls and short, random staccatos, the entire sea reflecting the dazzling, roaring fire curtain to the left and behind her—a roar that was indistinguishable from the sounds of crashing surf created by a large gale. She said a prayer for the boats she had flown over yesterday, for the men and women aboard them. The battle was being joined there, and it sounded mercilessly fierce.
She watched as Saeire Insu destroyers emerged through the fire wall, unharmed and unchanged in any way, sailing straight for battle. She thought of her hand, of how the Omem blood (the Omem was a Keeper?) had burned it badly. Why didn’t it do the same to Conor’s warriors and materiel? Or were they right now feeling the scalding touch of Omem blood too? She doubted they did, and wondered why she was different.
It occurred to her that moment that the miles-high wall of glowing flame was heatless. It was heatless! The light it cast upon the waters shimmered blindingly, the sun a minor round spot rising above it—but there was no heat at all coming from it! Maggie wanted to think more on this miracle, but the sounds of distant explosions behind her ripped her attention away, brought her to pray impulsively again:
Dear God, protect them! Please—protect them!
She shuddered. The Gyssians would be swarming over them by now in numbers to stagger the mind. Five?—ten?—twenty?—more?—for every single Saeire Insu warrior. Were those explosions from dying Saeire Insu warships? What was happening to the tens of thousands of demons who were told to hide, bound, in the bellies of the Gyssian destroyers?
More explosions. They concussed the air, sent hollow shocks up her spine. Along with the great fire curtain shooting flames the size of mountain peaks miles into the blue morning sky, it looked and sounded as though the apocalypse had come to Aquanus!
She wasn’t catching up to Ion and the king. He had streaked away at blinding speed, the sparkling contrail of sea horse aecxes raining down in an arcing trail to the westernmost island. To the sounds of utter pandemonium she shot over the long, high ridge of that island and, locating Conor and the sea horse near the edge of a barren, rocky cliff, floated slowly down towards them.


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