Chapter Twenty: The Point of No Return



by

Josie Beaudoin







The attack came at dawn.

The Eleli Rei had sighted Fremere and was preparing to veer northwards to round the horn to her next port. Bartok was at the helm, when the ship was rocked by an immense blow on the starboard bow. Jasper tumbled from his hammock and raced up on deck.

“Please tell me you fell asleep at the helm,” he said to his second mate. “What in the Depths is going on?”

“No, Sir,” Bartok said, his face ashen. “Not for a second.”

The ship was rocked again. Jasper began swearing in a multitude of languages.

“And with my luck, they’ve sent a dragon,” he said as he wound down.

“Doesn’t seem likely they’d send less, does it?” Emmy said, coming up. She had taken the time to pull some clothes on before coming on deck. “Not if they know who we are.”

“Do you think they do?” Bartok asked.

“It hardly matters,” Jasper said as a third blow rocked the small ship. “If they mean to sink us, there’s not much we can do to stop them. Bartok, head straight to shore. Let’s get as close as we can before we go down.”

“Captain!” Emmy said, “You’re not giving up now?”

“No, I’m preparing for the worst. We’re going to give them the fight of their lives. I’m not letting my Lady under the waves, by God.” His words were sure, but his voice held a tint of doubt.

“What’s going on?” Galen came running up the steps and across the planks, the marks of his pillow still on his face. “The Aiyana is scared speechless. Is it another storm?”

“Hardly. Galen, I’m glad you’re here. Get below, get everyone dressed in their most practical clothes. I don’t suppose Paige even owns a pair of pants, does she? Or Ashia? No, of course not. Well do the best you can. Once everyone’s - whoops! - dressed I want you to lock yourselves in my cabin. Go!” Galen nearly fell as the ship was rocked by a fourth mighty blow. As quickly as he could, he disappeared back into the hold.

“Speaking of clothes, Captain,” Emmy said, “I’m not saying it’s not a pleasure to see you, but you really ought to put on something ‘practical’ yourself.”

“Crowd on more sail!” Jasper shouted to the crew that was starting to come above.

“Yes, my point exactly,” Emmy murmured with a shake of her head as she went off to supervise the work.

“Wing and wing!” Jasper called out.

“Aye, Captain,” came the reply.

“Bartok, give me the helm and go below.”

“Aye, Captain,” Bartok said, and disappeared down the stairs. Jasper could hear him bellowing orders to those still below. “Everyone get dressed! All hands on deck! Children to the center of the ship! Move it!”

Soon the Eleli Rei began to pick up speed. Looking overboard, the Ria could see that the Mer were falling behind, unable to keep pace. The dragon, however, was as keen on the target as ever, and continued nudging the ship to and fro, first on one side, then the other. The ship creaked and juddered as she was battered back and forth, but she did not slow. Fully wung-out, she raced over the waves. The coastline drew nearer.

“It’s going to break through the hull,” Bartok said, coming back to Jasper’s side.

“I know,” Jasper said, “and in not too long. I’d best go down and talk to our passengers.” He descended into the hold and made his way towards his cabin. He found the Landers wide-eyed and white-faced, holding on to whatever they could find.

“Jasper, what’s happening?” Paige wailed.

“Galen said there’s something outside the ship attacking us,” Brand said. “And where on earth are your clothes?”

“Alright, calm down,” Jasper said. “It’s going to be a rough ride, but panic will only make things worse. We are under attack, but it’s going to be alright.”

“Is it the Mer?” Morgan asked.

“Well it was. They sent a dragon after us.”

“And it’s hungry,” Galen said, handing Jasper a pair of pants.

“Oh yeah, thanks,” said Jasper, taking the pants. “Just don’t panic, alright?” He turned and left, heading back topside, hopping on one leg as he pulled his pants on and shouting orders to those still below.

Jasper’s words were hardly reassuring, and dismayed and frightened chatter broke out in the cabin. Galen went over to the big window at the rear of the cabin and looked out, hoping to see something, but there was nothing but the froth of the ship’s wake. He could feel the presence of the dragon beneath the ship, but it was obscured from view.

The ship rocked again as another massive blow hit it. Loose objects went flying about the cabin.

“If this keeps up the ship will break apart,” Brand said. His panic was a sharp knife piercing the room.

“I’m sure Jasper won’t let that happen,” said Morgan calmly as Ashia and Galen began to pick things up. “This ship is the fastest in the world.”

“That doesn’t make it the sturdiest,” Brand said.

“We have to have faith in Jasper’s love for the ship,” Morgan said. “He won’t let anything happen to the Eleli Rei.”

Up on deck there was a ragged cheer as the crew of the Eleli Rei armed themselves and prepared for the upcoming fight. The archers swarmed up the shrouds and perched, waiting for their chance to loose.

“Arm the ballistae!” Jasper said.

“Ahead of you, Captain,” Emmy said. “They’re cranked and ready to go.”

“Wait ‘til you see it,” Jasper shouted. “Don’t waste harpoons on a shadow.”

“Aye, Captain,” and “Yes, sir!” came from the six harpoonists.

There was a rending screech as the dragon tried its claws against the hull. The Eleli Rei shuddered and veered to port. The fore starboard ballista loosed at the dragon and Bartok, still at the helm, wrestled with the wheel to bring the ship back on course. The shore drew slowly nearer.

While the ballista was being reset, the harpoon was hauled back to the ship. The barbed end came up with bits of flesh still clinging to it.

“Hit the wing, Captain.”

“Good job. Do better next time.”

“Aye, sir.”

The dragon raised its head out of the water, but that slowed it down, and it fell back, the aft starboard ballista just missing its head. Swimming with powerful strokes of its wings and tail, the great beast caught up again. Once more the ship rocked to the pummeling of the dragon’s blows. It clawed and grabbed on to the hull and swung its incredibly long tail up onto deck. Half a dozen Ria were swept off their feet, and Pearl was knocked clean overboard.

“Bring her around!” said Jasper, who determinedly refused to accept the loss of a single hand.

“Sir, she’s not answering her helm!” Bartok cried. “I’ve got no control!”

Jasper bounded up the steps to the poop deck and pushed Bartok aside. Taking the wheel himself, he found it would spin freely in either direction, but the ship continued forward.

“Launch a lifeboat,” he said to Emmy who had joined them on the poop. “We’re going back for her.”

“Sir, I’m not sure if– ”

“Launch a lifeboat,” Jasper repeated with a threat in his voice.

“Aye, sir.”

Emmy quickly prepared a lifeboat and seven crewmembers climbed aboard armed to the teeth with their short swords and bows. The boat was lowered off the port side, since most of the dragon’s attacks had come from starboard. It soon dropped behind the Eleli Rei as the ship sped ever onwards towards the shore.

It was at that moment that the children and other noncombatants came up on deck, followed by the Lander party clutching their belongings.

“What are you doing? Get below!” Jasper ordered.

“Captain, the hull has been breached, it’s filling up rapidly.”

“Jasper, what’s going on? Are we sinking?” asked Paige.

With a swoosh the dragon’s tail came back for another sweep across the poop deck. Everyone ducked low, but Morgan, nearly a head taller than his companions, was knocked over by the thrashing tail. Galen helped him to his feet. A beautiful red welt began to form over half his face, but he was essentially unharmed, though more than a little shaken.

“That thing could’ve killed me!” he said.

“Prepare the other lifeboats!” Jasper said to Emmy. “If we’re taking on water, it won’t be long now.”

“Lifeboats? What are you talking about?” Morgan asked. “Doesn’t that mean we’ll just be easier to kill?”

“It’s possible,” Jasper said, “but I’m hoping the ship will continue to draw it while we fall behind.”

“You’re hoping?” Brand said. “That’s all?”

“Brand, shut up and get in the lifeboat,” Jasper said. “We don’t have much time.”

The ship was inexorably slowing, and the dragon was having an easier time keeping up. It raised its head again. Everyone could see the pale scales and needle sharp teeth as it lunged forward toward the deck. Jasper was ready for it. Jumping down to the main deck, he took control of a ballista and loosed a harpoon directly at it. The shot entered the dragon’s mouth and exited through the back of its neck. Though it was mortally wounded, the dragon did not give up. Claws scraping along the hull, it fell back and began to climb up the rear of the ship. The poop deck rapidly emptied, the useless helm abandoned in the hurry to escape the monster. Arrows from the bowmen in the shrouds pinged uselessly off its scaled hide, but one lucky shot managed to hit its ear.

The dragon howled and, thrashing in a frenzy of pain, began to tear the aft end of the ship to shreds. Wood creaked and splintered as the ship began to disintegrate under the beast’s attack.

“Captain! The Mer, they’re here!” came a voice from the foredeck.

“Get in the lifeboats now!” Jasper bellowed. “All hands to the lifeboats!” He grabbed Paige who was holding a screaming Reina, and guided her to the nearest boat. The others followed like ducklings in a row, first Brand, then Morgan, Ashia, Kemen and Galen carrying Willow with Emmy bringing up the rear.

The aft mast came down, tearing riggings and shrouds as it went, heading straight for the group. With an instinct honed by fear, Galen pushed it aside with his Vada, and it wrenched in a semi-circle away from the Landers and swiped the dragon clear off the remnants of the poop deck. They continued to run, all except Emmy who hesitated for the briefest of moments. The splintered end of the mast swung around, its jagged edges catching her full in the face. Emmy crumpled to the deck without a sound, her head barely attached to her neck, dead in an instant.

“Go! Go!” Jasper shouted as the others turned to see what had happened. “There’s no time! Get in the boat!”

Shaken, the Landers crowded into one boat with Jasper, Bartok, and two other Rians they did not know. They slowly lowered their boat down the side of the ship and cut loose the lines. The four Rians took up the oars and began heading to shore while the Landers crouched down as low as they could with their meager possessions stashed under the seats and in their arms.

The water was full of Mer and Rians fighting for their lives. It seemed as though for every Mer that sank dead to join the dragon, a Rian died as well. The lifeboat slewed wildly as the Mer tugged at it. There was a sudden lurch and Morgan was thrown through the air, crashing into the sea. Without a moment’s hesitation Jasper leapt from the boat, heading towards his brother with strong strokes. Morgan thrashed about, churning the water in his panic.

From the boat behind him Jasper heard Paige scream, but it was not Morgan’s name she called. A Mer woman had risen to the surface, her face glistening with malice, and torn Reina from her mother’s arms. Galen and Kemen grabbed Paige and pulled her back as she reached to recover her baby.

A hand wrapped itself around Morgan’s ankle and he kicked. Rather than raise his assailant, his struggling served only to pull him under the waves, further from air and life. Before diving after him, Jasper turned his head for a moment to orient himself and saw Reina in the water. The Mer who had snatched her cradled the child protectively, almost lovingly.

Time stopped.

'I will not permit anyone to harm the child,' he heard himself say. The memory echoed in his mind, his words wreathed in Paige’s grateful tears. He had promised. Then he heard himself say, I will return Morgan to Krisadon - alive - or die trying. He had promised. To his left Morgan flailed in futile desperation. To his right Reina drifted in the arms of a Mer. There was no one else nearby. Equidistant from them both Jasper hung in the water, suspended between two promises. Like his ship which was even now drifting toward the Depths, Jasper’s heart floundered and ripped in two. One world ended and another began.

Time resumed, and yet would never resume.

Without a drop of hesitation, Jasper struck out towards Morgan. He reached his brother in moments and engaged the Mer, clawing and biting at the man who dared to lay a hand on the Shield. Startled at the ferocity of the attack, the finned man released Morgan. Jasper pushed his brother upwards and continued battering at the Mer until he saw it go limp and swirl downwards in a cloud of its own blood. Desperate now for air, Jasper turned and propelled himself towards the surface with powerful kicks. On the way he found Morgan sinking again, his struggles growing weaker. Jasper grabbed him by the hair and continued upwards, the last of his breath preceding him.

Breaching the surface in a plume of spray Jasper gasped raggedly and looked around for the boat. Spotting it he drove towards it with all his might, dragging Morgan behind him. When he reached the side he felt hands grab and pull him up but he shook his head and pushed back.

“Morgan first,” he said. “I don’t think he’s breathing.”

Morgan was hauled over the side while Jasper clung to the gunwale.

“Hold him upside down,” he told Galen. “He’s got water in his lungs.”

Galen lifted Morgan’s limp body by the waist, his knees dangling over Galen’s shoulders. Jasper held his own breath until he heard Morgan splutter and cough. When Kemen turned to pull him aboard, he was gone.

Down, down and further Jasper swam. The water teemed with life - and with death. Clouds of blood obscured the dead and dying of both races, and the arriving sharks made no distinction, devouring indiscriminately. Jasper swam in the direction he had last seen Reina’s abductor. She was there, standing off and watching the carnage with approval. The baby lay in her arms like a trophy.

Rage drove Jasper towards the pair. The Mer noticed him, murderous intent plain on his face, and she smiled, showing rows of jagged teeth gleaming in the dim light. She opened her arms to receive him, closing the distance with powerful strokes of her webbed feet. Jasper twisted past her to where Reina drifted forgotten by the Mer. He had no time for fighting. His hand closed around the baby’s wrist and he pulled her to him, kicking for the surface desperate for breath.

Denied combat and a meal, the Mer-woman charged after them. She caught up with Jasper and grabbed his ankle, pulling him back. He felt her teeth sinking into his leg and kicked hard with both feet, catching her in the face and throat. Undaunted, the Mer climbed hand over hand up Jasper’s body, propelling them all upwards. Jasper felt his head break the surface and he gasped in air even as the Mer-woman grabbed him by the hair and pulled him down again, her face only inches from his own.

Reina was pinned between the combatants, and Jasper thought he felt her move, though she had been without air much longer than he. The Mer took advantage of his brief distraction to clamp her jaw around his arm. With his free hand he hit her, first in the gills, then boxed her ear until she loosened her grip. She backed away from him, a wicked gleam in her eyes and Reina in her arms. Before Jasper could do a thing, the Mer-woman opened her jaws wide and closed them on the baby’s neck.

Unable to breathe and torn apart in both body and soul, Jasper, Prince of the Ria, Captain of the Eleli Rei, died, the life draining out of him. What was left drifted aimlessly away into darkness.














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