The title of this chapter was actually going to be the title of this whole book, but I liked naming it after Squad C-57 better. Also, today's action was inspired almost entirely by Lindsey Stirling's song by the same name. ;)
We are almost at the end, people! If I stop stalling, Night Watch could be finished before Christmas! 8D
Chapter 14: Master of Tides
Two hours passed in peaceful silence, though it scarcely seemed like enough time to rest properly. As Keids wandered around the third floor common room, waking the napping Crusaders and his new captain, the lot of them came around slowly, even grumbling.
Only the usual people woke with them, to see them off again and wish Iris luck. Alanis and Leah, who hadn't been on any adventures, looked far better than the rest of them. Vivi and Zizi had recovered a little, and had woken mainly to hug Forley goodbye so that they could go back to sleep. Thora and Zeel hadn't bothered trying to sleep, knowing that it would elude them, and that trying would only exhaust them more until this whole business was over this.
"This is a good gathering," Iris commented vaguely. "If any of you have a message you wish me to carry home for you, tell me now. I will deliver it at once, if I make it back."
Alanis grinned, thrilled at the opportunity. "Tell my father and sister that I'm using every skill they've given me, and that I'm using them to help people in need. It's no less than either of them would do, after all. And… Tell my mother not to worry about me. I know I've hurt her terribly, and father, too, but… Just, please, tell them I'm sorry for doing this to them."
Iris nodded respectfully and turned to Leah and Forley, who were standing shoulder to shoulder and smirking excitedly at each other.
"Let our father know that I'm still baking, as always," Forley said lightly. "And getting into plenty of trouble, too. That certainly hasn't changed."
"No," Leah agreed slowly, "but it's no longer for his own amusement. Tell our parents that he goes about by night saving people from enslavement; and that by day he sees that no one leaves his bakery hungry, even if they have nothing to pay with. He has changed a great deal, and so have I. On the whole, we are doing very well – as well as we possibly can."
Zizi squeaked excitedly and reached for her to pick him up. "Yeah you are, 'cause – 'cause you got – you have us now," he cheered as Leah swung him up and onto her hip – his favorite perch, even if he was seven years old.
Vivi laughed, and waved to get Iris' attention. "Say hi to Marlie and Allun for me and my brother, too. We really like the kids they made," she added, hugging Forley tight for emphasis, earning a pat on her head. For a moment, the four of them looked like a normal, happy family.
"Also let them know that the mark isn't permanent and will fade with time," Zan chimed in from the other side of the room as he tugged his boots back on. "They'll be shocked to see you this way, after all."
Forley laughed and shook his head. "Not as if they'll be able to see us, Zan. Iris is only delivering a message for us."
The rest of them shared a laugh over it, even Iris, which made Star wonder. The words of the rhyme said for Iris to remember not only what she heard, but what she had seen. And the Keeper had the power to look into minds, to see the thoughts and images there, and to then share that knowledge with others. Iris was not meant to just repeat the thoughts her friends were sending with her. When the Keeper asked to see her – which he certainly would – he would be looking to see this moment exactly as Iris was seeing it right now, as the memory in her mind that it would be. And he would send those very memories to her father. Star was certain of it.
She had thought that the words of her prophecy had been as clear to the others as they were to her. Even Zan had noticed it – Zan, who once put so little stock in magic, and things he didn't understand! Plainly, she had been mistaken.
Zeel, at least, seemed to know the truth of it as Star and Zan did. When Star glanced at her mother, she was smoothing her hair and straightening her dress, trying to make herself look less frazzled and anxious than she was.
She wouldn't be able to see her husband; but he would be able to see her for the first time in more than a year. Surely, hopeful though he was, he probably struggled daily with the fear that they would never meet again, hoping against hope that she was at least still alive. She wanted to appear strong and unafraid, as he remembered her, to help stay his fears and keep his hopes alive.
Star thought of this for herself, looked over her borrowed clothes again, and sighed in annoyance. She remembered the cosmetics smeared all over her face, and groaned inwardly. Knowing that her family was going to see her looking like this made her stomach lurch. At least Iris had seen her before her dress had been torn, when she had looked halfway presentable.
While the others were still laughing, Star nudged her mother and asked in a low voice, "Where's Evan?"
"Asleep," Zeel said simply, though with grave determination in her voice.
"You should go get him. If Iris sees him, so will the Keeper, and so will the other Titans. Don't you think –?"
"No," Zeel hissed back, clenching her fists and taking a deep breath. "Your father doesn't need to know about him. Knowing what has happened… It would only bring him pain, and make him worry even more. This is the only comfort I can give him, and I won't ruin that with more things he can't change."
Star disagreed, but could see why her mother had chosen this. Knowing that the choice wasn't hers, and indeed none of her business, she simply nodded obediently. Instead, she thought suddenly of all the other memories Iris would be taking with her: the escape from the dungeon, the journey through the slums and the sewers, and the pirate's den. She also thought of the memories Iris had still to make on her journey: a daring escape, a week or two's sailing through rough waters, and hopefully a safe landing on the shores of a wondrously free land.
Her father would see Zan again, and see him this time for the good, courageous boy he was. He would see the faces of the rest of the squad who had invaded his home and kidnaped his wife, and he would see that those very people were now her protectors and friends. He would see many things, and how changed they were.
"I only wish I could do more for you, young lady," Thora was saying in her courteous way, holding out a small bag she had packed. "You have been through so much already, and have such a long way to go. This is hardly much; but there is water, and bread and cake, and also bandages and healing ointments in case of emergencies. One can never be too careful in this wide world."
Iris took the bag and slung it into her back, slightly stunned but unable to turn down such a generous gift. "You did not have to do this for me," she commented. "There is no reason for it in the world."
"Oh, but there is every reason in the world," Thora insisted sharply, planting her fists on her hips. "It is a healer's duty to care for people, and you are a guest in my house. That aside, you are in a deal of trouble and need all the help you can get."
"I feel like the pest I am," Iris said sullenly, ducking her head in shame. Thora surprised her yet again by reaching out and touching her shoulder in comfort, smiling wryly.
"Well, then, now you know how to avoid that in the future," she pointed out. "You will be fine, Iris of Fisk. Keep your chin up, girl, and stand up straight for goodness' sake. You'll get a humped back, slumping around like that."
Iris did as she was told, straightening herself and squaring her shoulders, as she turned next to Star and Zeel. "I imagine you both have a lot you want to say. Where will you start?"
"I'll start with this," Star answered right away, pulling the sigil from under her clothes so that Iris would see it – so she would remember it. "I've guarded it with all my strength; and in return, it's given me some of its power. I'm…"
Star felt her voice wavering, and swallowed the lump that had risen in her throat. She chose her words carefully, so that when her father heard them, he would hear her speaking directly to him.
"It was an accident. I never meant to bring it here, and I'm so sorry. I've felt like a thief, having it like this. But the power it's lent me has helped me rescue so many people, from fates worse than death. It seems pleased with that, and happy to help. I hope that makes some things a little better…"
She felt a strong arm around her shoulders and looked up to see Zan beside her. Unable to bear seeing her still so torn over the sigil, he had come to comfort her. The assurance and warmth in his eyes made her heart skip, and she could feel her cheeks beginning to burn. She smiled her thanks and pushed the sigil back under her tunic with a sigh of relief.
Papa is going to see this moment, she realized with a start. He will see at once what there is between us; of all people, he won't miss or mistake it, even if we haven't admitted it to each other. What will he think, I wonder…?
Zeel stepped forward last of all, tall and straight as usual; but it was plain from her face that she was still trying to decide what to say. How to put her thoughts and fears and hopes from the last year and for the years to come into just a few sentences. She hesitated only a second longer, then took Iris by her arms and stared intensely into her flat eyes.
"I am fine," she insisted, managing to smile a bit. "It hasn't always been easy, but I am alive, and safe, and as happy as I can be here. And in small ways, I am helping my people win their freedom. It is a joy to be here for them in this time, but…"
Her smile faded; and Star was positive that there were tears in her mother's eyes.
"I will see you again," she whispered. "I love you, and I will see you again. I promise."
Iris was paralyzed, unable to tear her gaze away. Not understanding, she began to fidget uncomfortably in Zeel's grip, wanting to get out from under her eyes.
"I will make sure to tell them," the girl said as politely as she could, though with stiff fright in her voice. Turning to Forley and Keids, she hurriedly asked, "Can we be going now?"
Keids was farewelling Thora almost too warmly, and didn't answer her. Forley, also concerned about Zeel's behavior, stepped forward and shooed the Maris toward the door.
"It does seem like the time to be going," he agreed. "On that note, though, be a friend and give the very same regards to mother and father if you could be so kind. Leah and I had next to no time, and so all we left them was a hastily scribbled letter with those very words."
"Oh yes," Leah murmured, bowing her head in shame as she remembered that moment. "It was a poor way to leave them, and we know that it must have broken their hearts. We regret that almost every day, and wish that it could have been different; but there was simply no time. There was nothing else we could do."
"'I will see you again'," Iris repeated, drawing her hood over her face. "These words mean much to your family, I have noticed. It is a Traveler greeting, is it not? I suppose it makes perfect sense."
Before she had gone further, Zizi jumped down and darted over to hug her tightly.
"I'll miss you, Iris," he said quietly, sounding like he might cry. "I know we didn't – I didn't know you a long time, but I – I hope you get – I hope you'll be alright. Be safe, okay?"
Iris looked like she wanted to smile, as she lowered her webbed hand to pat him on the head. "I will do my very best. With luck… Perhaps I will see you again, too."
Zizi left her with a wondrous smile, his red eyes gleaming with delight to have finally made friends with her. With some reluctance, he released her and watched quietly as she hurried to the door.
"Quickly, before someone else insists on hugging me," she pleaded to Keids, earning his attention at last, as well as a sharp bark of laughter.
"An' who to say ol' Keids ain't gon' hug ye 'fore de night be out?" he teased, opening the door and letting her slink out before he could make good on his threat. "All y'all remainin' Crusaders, out ye go. Be a long way to de docks, it be, an' another storm be brewin' fer de dawn. Gotsa go quick like, we do."
Star, Zan, and Forley nodded shortly in farewell to their family, and marched out the door without looking back. Keids hung back only a for moment, and Star heard Thora speaking to him softly.
"Come back any time, young man," she was saying, a hint of mischief in her voice. "Don't be a stranger."
"I'ma hurry back to dis place," he agreed. "Once dis whole war be all won up, I'ma make meself at home in dis palace o' yers, woman."
Star rolled her eyes at this, glad that Zan was too far ahead to have heard. It would have driven him mad for a whole host of reasons.
What a shocking turn of events, she thought dimly. The pirate and the healer… Well, if that doesn't sound like the makings of a new fairy story, I don't know what does.
The first part of the journey was nearly unsurprising. Keids forced them right back into the manhole they had so lately come out of, and for a time they journeyed through the sewers once again. It proved the only real way to reach their destination, hidden from spying eyes and sheltered from the rain and cold.
The narrow, cluttered streets of the sewers were quiet, most of its hidden people asleep for the night. No one still awake bothered to stop or follow them. At length, Keids cleared his throat to speak.
"Zan boy, ye know o' de secret stair in Northside?" he asked abruptly.
Zan blinked once or twice before answering, "No, I don't think I do."
"Ol' navy secret, it be. Dey tell all 'um folk de one way in er out de city been de gates, but ol' Keids done know better from his youth. Gotsa go through de wall, ye do, 'til ye find de stairs. An' out dey lead, out an' down, to de sea and de docks. Faster an' sneakier den bargin' through de gates and walkin' all de way down dere. Ol' Skiver been anchor dere on de far side."
"What a blessing," Forley sighed. "I had wondered how we were to reach the docks in good time, without being seen."
"So why didn't you say something?" Zan demanded.
Forley shrugged. "Well, the man clearly knows what he's doing, and he's thought of everything else so far; so I figured, why insult his great scheme by questioning it?"
Zan made a face, dissatisfied. "It would have been nice to know before hand, if you ask me."
Star wondered about this secret stair in silence, trying to guess from the vague description what it would actually be like when she finally saw it. Habaharan's wall was solid steel on the outside; but on the inside, it was a fortress all the way around. Central Control soldiers and generals did most of their business in dark hallways and shadowy offices that snaked through the wall like a honeycomb. It was how Night Watch officers like Zan and his family climbed to stand watch on the wall. There were many doors like the one Keids had described at street level all around the city; but entrance without a badge or a summons was, of course, always rewarded with swift punishment.
So, she supposed, it made perfect sense that naval officers would find their doors mainly in Northside, near the sea and the docks, and the apparent secret stair that would lead them all the faster to their ships. A blessing, indeed – a march to the small port beyond the wall was an hour or more, and the gates were impossibly shut for the night. And how much more tightly were they guarded, now, after the city's most secure dungeon had been breached so easily?
No, a secret way, under Central Control's very nose, was the only way to reach the ship. The Garaseds and their squad family were not on duty tonight; but there were other Night Watch squadrons who were, who would see and stop them immediately.
Keids lead them in silence after that, obviously knowing where he was going, all through the sewers for a long time. Star lost all sense of direction as they wandered and wandered, and every now and again she tried to guess at what might be just above her head. She wondered if they had passed through a part of the sewers, so like all the rest of it, which wound away beneath the palace for all its filth and plainness. There came a moment when she was sure they had passed beneath it, for they had been walking for such a long time; though, of course, it was impossible to tell.
Finally, Keids turned sharply into an alcove in the sewer wall – the sort that always sheltered an iron ladder that led to the street above. The captain moved to go first; but Forley surprised him by darting forward and scrambling up the ladder without thinking twice about it. It was usually Forley who went first, whenever the Crusaders found themselves in the sewers, because he was the eldest and considered it his responsibility; and so to him, it was instinct by now. Keids marked this with interest flashing in his blue eyes, and Star even saw him smile faintly over it.
It's exactly what Allun would do, if he were here – going before the people he loves to look ahead, risking danger alone to protect us, Star thought suddenly. Father and son were already so alike, it was difficult to tell them apart at times; and now they are more and more alike on the inside. In all the ways that really matter. Keids must be enjoying this immensely.
And Star was enjoying it, too. She couldn't remember a time when she had been more proud of her beloved cousin.
They all climbed the ladder and spilled after him into the icy street, mostly gazing around curiously, trying to figure where they were. And mainly they looked to Keids, who had surely led them to this manhole for a reason. The man had planted his fists on his hips and was nodding his head in approval, as if everything was going according to his plan.
"Ain't too far, now," he said to them in a low voice. "To de gates, we go, den off a bit to de wall. I knows de place. You chilluns jus' follow close, ye hear?"
They all nodded back in agreement, glad to let Keids lead them wherever he wished. They were in the open now, and danger was sure to follow them, no matter how careful they were. Their task was now simple enough; but the perils in their way now seemed overwhelming.
Star hadn't been anywhere near Habaharan's one entrance in more than a year; not since she and her cousins had first arrived in the city. She now lived and worked in Southside, the opposite side of the city, and had little reason to go more than a few blocks outside it. She had never forgotten her first impression of the great gates, though. It had been just dawn that morning, and the sun had been rising to shine on the steel wall so it flashed like the sun itself. She had first stepped into the throngs of the city she now felt more and more was her home.
This was to be a very different moment. Now it was a rainy winter's night, and dawn was a long way off, still. The rain was a soft drizzle now, and icy puddles dotted the paved streets. Star could already feel her toes and fingers growing numb inside her gloves and boots; and every breath she took came back into her face as a chilling puff of mist.
Still, she had to say she preferred it to inches upon inches of snow, and the fear of monsters creeping about on the mountain of her homeland. She had never cared for winter in Rin. Winter in Habaharan was almost pleasant by comparison.
It still called for proper clothing, of course; and she continued to wonder how Keids was faring so well in tattered trousers, a rich but faded overcoat, and bare feet as he was. The man wasn't even wearing a shirt. And yet he seemed perfectly fine.
He will catch a cold worse than mine like this, she thought to herself. It's a good thing Thora has invited him back to Bhlai House so readily; he will spend weeks recovering if he carries on like this much longer.
To her dismay, the very thought of catching a cold sent a tickle trembling down her throat, and she cleared her throat harshly to dispel it. Thinking of it, her nose was feeling stuffy again, too. She shook her head ruefully over it, hoping against hope that she was only being paranoid, and that her cold wasn't coming back on.
All at once, Keids skidded to a halt and spread his arms wide, forcing the rest of them to stop behind him.
"Hol' still, chilluns," he whispered harshly, his whole body stiffening. "Someun be stirring somewheres…"
Out of the black sky came with singing sound of an arrow flying through the chill air. It clattered on the street, somewhere mere paces ahead of them.
"Run, chilluns!" he roared. "We been seen! Run!"
Above them, unseen men and women were also roaring commands, and more arrows were falling like the rain behind them. It was a Night Watch squadron, high above them on the wall, one of whom had perhaps spotted them with amazingly sharp eye like Zak's. Now the rest of the team was taking up weapons and hurling them into the street, after the darting figures below.
It was easy to avoid those arrows, under cover of darkness; and it gave Star a flare of hope that they might be able to get away after all. That hope died at once as a voice barked a command from somewhere ahead of them, and several others answered in unison. It came at once to all of them that another squadron had answered the shouts from the wall, and that they were surrounded.
The Crusaders halted and drew their weapons, unwilling to go quietly, but wondering in dismay at what little use it would be. They looked to Keids for help – a command, a solution, anything. What he did left them stunned; and for a long moment, it seemed to Star that time was standing still.
His magicites were glowing in his hands, pulsating with deep blue and cold white light; and all around them, is seemed that the gently pattering rain was gathering over their heads. The puddles at their feet were rising to join the mass, and even the raindrops on their skin and clothes floated away before their eyes.
In short seconds, a shimmering dome of ice cold water had formed to cover them like a shield, swirling around them like a live thing. A few more arrows fell from above, only to be lost in the mass as if sunk deep into thick jelly. Keids saw this and huffed in satisfaction. With one swift move of his hand, the whole dome began to creak and groan and gleam with frost, as it turned to a wall of thick, solid ice.
Their impressive shield had taken less than a minute to form, and offered them a moment of safety, at least. Muffled, surprised shouting could be heard from outside, along with the sound of swords clanking uselessly against the ice. Any other ice would have shattered under such blades; but clearly, living ice was an entirely different matter.
Iris gazed around her in perfect, innocent wonder. "Magic?" she whispered, hardly daring to believe it.
"Beautiful magic," Zan agreed, awestruck at what he had seen. "I've never seen anything like it."
Keids chuckled and shot a devil grin over his shoulder. His eyes were alight as though fire burned within them. He looked so… alive.
"Ye ain't seen none like it?" he laughed. "Den wait 'til ye see what else ol' Keids can do!"
As he spoke so triumphantly, he flung his arms wide, and the whole dome shattered into what seemed like thousands of shards. Each one of them was flying forth in every direction, and the guards who had surrounded them were shouting in alarm as they ran for cover, uselessly shielding their faces with their bare hands. Shouts of alarm quickly turned to cries of pain in the dark; even the men and women on the wall could be faintly heard cursing as sharp spears of ice flew without warning into their faces.
Without calling to them to keep up, Keids started forward carried on his way. Knowing that she wouldn't be able to keep up, Forley snatched Iris around her waist and flung her over his shoulder before darting after the rest of them. The guards surrounding them, though fazed by sudden magic, were recovering and making themselves ready to fight. Star and Zan both had their hands back on their weapons, ready to defend themselves.
But Keids was ready faster than any of them. Like a streak of lightning glinting in the moonlight, a ribbon of water lashed through the air to gather in a ball in his hand; and it was growing, as the falling rain was sucked into it. By the time they reached those guards, that ball of water was the size of the man's head. The lashing ribbon had grown to the thickness of a large tree branch; and every time it shot out of the pirate's glowing hand, it hit its target with enough force to send two or three of them flying across the street.
Star focused on just staying behind Keids and in the wake he left, but on the inside she was beyond thrilled. Zan and Forley had attempted crossing their magics for a deliberate attack before; but it was dangerous, and those few attempts had never gone according to plan for all their practice. Keids made it look effortless. Indeed, using his magic seemed to be nourishing him. He was a lively character in the first place; now, he seemed aflame with passion and life and what Star could have sworn was pure joy.
An entire Central Control squadron was quickly batted out of their way, as if they had been no more than pesky flies. That danger out of their way, it seemed there was little in their way; and Keids had an extra speed in his step, now. Not too long after, he suddenly veered off to the side, down yet another dark, shadowy street. All at once, the black, solid form of Habaharan's wall was looming up before them; somewhere impossibly far above them, if Star looked hard enough, she could see the dark purplish-blue of the rainy night sky beyond the silhouette of the wall.
Keids stopped abruptly and braced himself, planting his bare feet firmly on the cold ground, and almost deliberately in an icy puddle. He took a deep breath, and then surprised the Crusaders very much by making a few deliberate, fluid, familiar movements with his hands. It was the graceful, dancelike movements of water stance. He was summoning the energy of his element. Already, his whole figure was beginning to glow with pulsing blue light, with flashes of copper sparking in the air around him.
Once again, every spare drop of water near him was rising to meet his summons, gathering around him like a great rippling sheet, awaiting his orders. Feeling that this mass of water was finally large enough to suit him, the captain squared himself and punched his great fist toward the shape of the wall, barking a battle cry.
And before they could blink, the whole sheet of water had frozen solid and slammed into the wall with a noise like thunder. The door the Crusaders hadn't seen in the dark caved in under the force, leaving a gaping opening that was somehow even darker than the wall itself.
"Go, chilluns," Keids ordered, shooing them toward the opening. "All dat racket, de guards come a'running any minute. We nearly dere, we be."
That idea struck Star's mind like a dart, as she climbed over the battered door and into a badly lit corridor. There was still a whole wall between them, but they were nearly there. Somehow, they had made it this far. It was an enormous relief to think that this mission was nearly done.
Now that she thought of it, there was a tinge of saltiness in the cold, wet air of this hallway. The sea was very nearby – plainly just beyond this section of the wall. In her mind, Star finally pictured and realized where they were.
We are in the northwestern-most corner of Habaharan, right where the north and west sides of the wall meet, she thought. The northern side bears the gates, and a road that leads away to the west and to the coast; but that side is so long, it reaches all the way to the sea. And there is a bay there, right were the two walls meet. Almost certainly, that is where the naval ships are anchored – where they can rest and be cared for without being seen. We are encouraged not to think on this, because we are not naval officers and it isn't our business; but surely many people are strongly aware of it. Keids certainly is.
They continued to follow Keids through the corridor, still deserted though not for much longer. The man was glowing with the light of deep magic, and impossible to misplace in the dark. Soon enough, they could hear booted feet pounding just above them, and orders being yelled from the shadows nearby. Before those angry voices had quite reached them, Keids turned sharply and nearly vanished as he leapt down a flight of stairs the rest of them would have missed completely, otherwise.
Iris gasped suddenly and strained to look ahead from her perch on Forley's shoulder. "The sea," she said, with terrible longing in her voice. "It is near – so near! I can smell it, hear it. Oh, we are almost there!"
Just as she had said, the smell of brine was stronger, all at once. And a new sound was floating in the darkness around them: the sound of waves lapping against solid ground, and a gentle creaking noise that could only be coming from anchored ships like the one they were looking for.
The change that came next was as sudden as anything else that had happened so far. One moment, they had been bounding down the steps in darkness, surrounded by close stone walls. The next moment, they clattered into flat, open space, and a chilling sea breeze was blowing into their faces. They had emerged onto a long, narrow walkway that seemed to snake along the outer side of the city's wall; several ships sat bobbing at anchor at the end of docks that jutted out of the walkway, terrible and impressive shadows above them. All that lay before them was the vastness of the Silver Sea, still churning with the winds of the storm that had only just passed.
Somewhere ahead, a voice called Keids' name, and they saw the light of a lantern waving frantically in the dark. Somewhere behind, the guards chasing them could be heard storming down the stairs after them. Keids shoved the Crusaders ahead of him, and turned back.
"Do as Mavis say, chilluns," he ordered. "I'ma hold 'em back."
The Crusaders did as they were told, and Forley finally set Iris back on her feet. To their amazement, she hesitated and looked behind her.
"Captain," she called back, plainly afraid for him and all that he was facing alone. Forley grabbed her by the wrist and hauled her away.
"He'll be fine, just go," he insisted, eyes ahead and focused on the swinging lantern ahead of them.
When they reached the light, they were relieved to see a face they remembered vaguely. It was a woman from the den – Mavis, apparently. She was standing at the edge of a dock that led to quite a small ship, not at all much compared to the enormous warships around it. On the ship itself, several people could be seen running around on deck, doing their best to make it ready by candlelight.
"'Ere be de Skiver," the woman said proudly, but wasting no time in shooing them onto the dock. "On board ye go, lil' fishy. Still much a'do, dere is."
"Don't you think someone is going to see us like this?" Zan asked impatiently.
Mavis smirked back and held up her lantern, to reveal that it wasn't a lantern at all. It was another magicite, hanging from a tarnished chain, glowing with throbbing light. A warm, golden light, that was easy to mistake for fire from a distance, but was now all too clear. The stone was a tiger-eye. An Earth stone, with some of the same powers as the medallion around Star's neck.
"We been hid, we are," she said. "From 'bove, dey don't see nothin'. We jus' plain gone, far dey know. Can't keep it up much more, tho, so we gotsa get goin', aready!"
As they reached the gangplank and Iris ran ahead to scramble onboard, Mavis turned to the Crusaders and held up her hand to halt them.
"Damn near too many on board, an' ye ain't even sailin' wit' de rest," she said gravely. "Yer part in all dis end 'ere."
Iris spun around halfway up the gangplank, startled to suddenly be so alone. "Can I not even say goodbye to my friends?" she pleaded.
Mavis looked over her shoulder and frowned. "Ye haven't by now?" she demanded.
"Iris, go on," Forley told her in a level voice, though it was plain on his face that their abrupt parting had hurt him, too. "We'll be fine, and so will you. "Just find Brax and Lilo, and help them with the ship. They need you more than we do, now."
As if to prove his point, a marked boy appeared over the railing, looking relieved to see his savior at last.
"Someun say me name?" he asked. "Thank the stars yer 'ere, cap'n! Sail's all jammed up, it is. I dunno what to do!"
So this was Brax, Star realized; and for all that he had been raised by famously capable sailors, he clearly had no idea what to do with any part of a ship. Iris was the only crew member who did; she was one of the few who had ever tasted the sea or even seen the sun before.
Star understood that this boy a bold one, filled with passion and impatience to grow up, much like she was, and nearly her own age, too; but in the dim light of the torch he was holding, she could see that Brax was terrified. Iris saw this, also, and all her own fears vanished. Now was her chance to win back her freedom, and to prove herself to everyone who saw her as a disappointment. She was a real captain, with a real ship and a real crew – a poor excuse for one, but a crew, all the same. She squared her shoulders and spared a final glance at her friends on the dock.
"I will see you again, too, I hope," she said quietly. Then she ran to meet Brax and hauled him off, the same way Forley had hauled her around all night, ordering him to show her what was wrong with the sail and remarking that it was probably an easy fix, and that she would show him how to do it on his own in the future.
Seeing nothing else to do, Forley turned to Mavis. "What do we do now, exactly?" he asked, watching the bobbing shape of the Skiver out of the corner of his eye.
"Wait 'till it be safe to run," she grunted, folding her arms severely across her chest. "Cap'n'll git all 'em guards knock outta de way, an' I'ma git ye lot outta 'ere."
Forley frowned, puzzled by her words. "How do you mean to do that?"
Finally, Mavis' serious face cracked into a grin. "Same way I get all 'em chilluns o'er de wall: un'er cover o' Earth magic, on de mighty back o' Porrima, finest an' fastest grach in Eastside. Carry all 'em 'lil'uns at once, she did. She'll git ye home, ne'er fear o' dat."
Star and Zan exchanged a look over this, and nodded slowly in approval. "We've escaped danger this very way in the past," he pointed out. "Unos carried us home not a week ago, from the night Forley and I attacked those guards with lightning, remember?"
"Yes, of course I do," Star agreed. "We made the front page for it, and I suspect we will be right there again in the morning."
Behind them, a troop of guards had exploded out of the narrow stairway and was racing along the docks toward them. In the middle stood Keids, tall and sure of himself as always, his feet planted firm and his hands making graceful movements to summon a new attack. Star could feel the deep, mellow energy of magic humming in the air around her, stronger and stronger as it gathered, and its familiar faint chiming filled her ears. Keids was about to unleash something big. Something amazing. Something perhaps more surprising than the icy shield he had conjured out of thin air.
And only a second later, she was rewarded with a sight she had not been prepared for in the slightest. With a mighty sweep of his arm, as if he were scooping a great handful of water from the sea, a long, thick stream of salt water erupted over the side of the walkway. It seemed to fly over the pirate's head with a mind of its own, a terrible growling noise sounding from its center, flashing brilliant copper in the dim light.
As the stream hit solid ground, the cold water fell away to reveal yet another shock. The terrible growling and coppery flashing hadn't been part of the magic at all. Keids had dragged a whole, glittering sea serpent up from the depths – encased it in a tube of water and dragged it onto the walkway as if it were no trouble at all.
Now it was on solid ground, and roaring its fury. And the first thing it saw was the troop of guards, skidding to a halt and looking all at once as pale as death.
Seeing something to punish for its disturbance, the serpent gave a weird, hooting shriek, and slithered after those guards. It was angry, and hunting for pure spite. It was little surprise that those guards turned and ran back the way they came, screaming in pure terror, nearly tripping over each other in their haste. High on the wall above them, the Night Watch guards there could also be heard screaming and cursing at the sight.
Decidedly not Central Control's most graceful moment. Star had never seen its men and women so perfectly terrified, let alone screaming like frightened children.
The queen will be as angry as the serpent, she thought. Angrier, even, if it's possible.
While the serpent was still distracted, Keids turned back to them with that same lively fire filling his eyes, and a nearly mad grin on his face. At the same moment, the Skiver's sail unfurled with a snap in the winter wind, and the small ship pitched forward with the force. The children on board all shouted together in alarm; Iris could be heard barking orders to them all, though she, too, sounded shocked.
Keids set himself into a new stance, his hands now moving swiftly and deliberately to summon the power of Air with his diamond. Chilling gusts of wind gathered around him, swirling the pattering rain in every direction like dust. When he released those gathered winds, a force like a hurricane was sent hurtling into the Skiver's sails, and the ship was blown in an instant from the dock. It all happened in an instant; but Star was certain she had seen the ship skip once or twice over the waves and into the open sea.
The powers of Air and Water in the palm of his hands, Star thought suddenly, filled with awe at all she had seen. Master of Tides… Yes. That is what I shall call him in my stories.
The Skiver was already so far out, it was growing faint in the darkness. Still, as the ship continued to speed away, Star, Forley, and Zan could all just see Iris' pale face at the prow, staring back at them in surprise and wonder. And perhaps also in sadness, that they might never meet again.
Precious seconds passed in shocked silence, and the Skiver vanished into the night.
Mavis seemed to have been fazed by the suddenness of it, too; instead of ordering them to the next step of their mission, she hesitated with them and gazed after the ship with many emotions warring on her face. The ship was full of children she had rescued and raised form babyhood, who were now at the mercy of the winter sea in a crowded vessel with few supplies and an inexperienced captain. She looked sad, and afraid, and hopeful, all at the same time.
Of course she didn't doubt her own captain's plan; but the odds were still impossible, and there was no reason for her not to be afraid. It might have been strange if she weren't unsure.
Her hesitation passed in a flash, and she raised two fingers to her lips and gave a high, sharp whistle. Over the shouting guards and shrieking serpent, another cry came ringing through the shadows, and the slinky shape of a grach appeared at her side.
"I have remained nearby, as you said, Tiger Child," the grach said in a deep, female voice. "Are these the Crusaders you love so much? Am I to carry them away from this terrible place?"
"Aye, Small Maiden," Mavis whispered back, "'fore de beast turn tail an' see 'em 'ere. Take 'em to Northside, where dey belong at. Zan boy 'ere'll tell ye de place."
Zan and Forley were both looking puzzled over the sight of this serious pirate woman speaking so plainly to the creature, as they nonetheless climbed onto it. Star understood it perfectly, and patted the grach's neck soothingly before following them.
"Thank you for your help, Small Maiden," she said, looking the grach in her small, beady eyes. "It means the world to us. You may call me Small Star, if you like."
"Oh," the creature answered, hissing in amusement as Star climbed onto her back. "You are Small Star, and I am Small Maiden. I like it quite a lot. And you speak my language! Perhaps you should be the one to lead me, instead of this Zan Boy."
Star and Mavis both smiled over this, as they both understood the creature's words perfectly. Mavis gripped Star's hand urgently, seeing that the grach was more eager to listen to her, instead. She placed her other hand on the grach's side – the hand that held her magicite – and the creature began to glow with a soft, warm light.
"Me Porrima ain't a dull beast, she ain't," she said hastily. "An' she be cloaked now, so all dem guards can't see ye. She know de way back to de den, and I be waitin' fer 'er at our usual place. Ju' git yerselves home, an' send 'er back quick-like."
"What about you?" Forley asked. "You and Keids, how will you get out of this mess?"
Mavis smirked at him again. "Ye ask too many questions, Forley boy. Jus' git, a'ready! To de skies wit' ye, me Small Maiden!"
"And farewell to you, my Tiger Child," Porrima hissed back, spreading her wings and taking off in a single, graceful bound. The docks quickly disappeared below them, and Porrima sailed over the heads of the guards on the wall. If those men and women noticed her in any way, it was as a sudden gust of cold wind on their backs, as an unseen force sped over them and vanished as silently as it had appeared.
"Tiger Child is a clever person, Small Star, and Shark's Tail is not an idiot, either," came Porrima's voice in Star's mind. "They will be fine, as they always are. They have raised me from a pup, and they have never lied to me. If Tiger Child says that she will meet me in our usual place, then she will. That is enough for me, and it should be enough for your friends, too."
"I can't say for them, but I believe you," Star agreed. "We are no strangers to the loyalty of grach."
"Then we understand each other in more ways than one. Tell me where to go, Small Star. I will take you there without fail."
Porrima is the prime star of the constellation Virgo, and also the mother Star of another Dragon you haven't heard of. Yet. Which is all the reason why I chose it today. ;D
Mavis is named after my cat, who is, herself, just a small tiger. She also has an adorable black stripe on her face, all the way down her head to her nose. The fact that she has a Zebak mark should have alerted us that she would be a cunning and crafty little bother… Their word for tiger – mabisa – is also derived from her name. Long story short, I love my kitty. :D