Sarai runs away from home to find a new life on the high seas. She’s heard stories all her life of the things that lurk beneath the waves and the people who return to land with fractured memories and strange new scars. When a storm brings her face to face with a creature unlike any she’s met, she discovers a whole new world under the sea.
by Valentine Wheeler
Author: Valentine Wheeler
Release Date: December 17, 2018
Format: ePub, Mobi
Cover Artist: Natasha Snow
Word Count: 34500
Book Length: Novella
Sex Content: N/A
Valentine Wheeler © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The sturdy ship bobbed and shook in the pounding surf, its sails snapping uselessly in the wind without the crew’s firm hand. The three masts swayed and creaked, lines whipping free. Just off the bow on the starboard side, a ridged head broke the surface of the water, eerily still amidst the crashing waves. It cocked to one side, as if considering the scene before it, then slid back below the surface. On the other side of the ship, a forked tail flicked repeatedly, cresting the surface again and again as it circled to port. Another head bobbed up beside it, cutting smoothly through the water, its dark eyes searching.
The captain shouted orders, but his voice was drowned out by the thunder and the pounding of the rain on wood and canvas. He yanked lines, directed sailors, and spun the wheel, darting from disaster to catastrophe, trying to keep his course into the breaking waves rather than letting them sweep up the sides or the stern. But once the mainsail was furled, he grabbed his boatswain and gave up on riding the storm out or using the pounding winds’ power with any semblance of control. Instead, he climbed the rigging, holding tight to the ropes, and spread the word of their retreat. Then he sprinted to the cabin, where he threw open the door and gestured frantically at all the crew near him to come inside, below decks. He watched them scurry toward him, praying they’d make it before they perished like his quartermaster had, lost overboard in the swirling brine.
The boom swung and the main mast shuddered ominously as the wind tugged it first one way, and then the other. Lit haphazardly by one of the few lanterns not yet doused, a lone sailor struggled across the deck from the stern on her hands and knees, battered by the tempest. The rope around her waist had come loose, its waterlogged knot sliding from her hips, and she missed the grab for it before it vanished.
As she skidded along the slick, wet wood, the captain watched, helpless to save her and knowing she wouldn’t make it across the wide expanse of the deck.
The sailor’s small figure slid across the deck on the next swell, fighting for balance and a handhold, any handhold, on the slick wood but failing. The shadowed gazes of the creatures in the water tracked her. When she slammed into the railing and flipped over into the air, her captain’s cry soundless in the din of the crashing waves, the creatures had already disappeared beneath the spot where her body hit the water.
The sailor fought for air, breathing in a cold lungful of mist and burning sea-salt spray as her head burst through the waves. The creature held back, eyes glinting in the lightning flash from below in the dark-green water. The woman’s struggles began to weaken, and the creature inched closer, keeping carefully out of her sight line, an easy dance of fins, tentacles, and long, webbed fingers keeping it still in the rush of the current and the churning sea spray above.
As her movements slowed, the creature licked its lips with a long, black tongue, pointed teeth shining in the brief glimmers of lantern light that found their way through the darkness.
Sarai awoke choking and coughing, hands flailing on hot, coarse sand. Her lungs burned, her throat was raspy and scraped, and her arms ached fiercely as she scrambled toward higher ground. She collapsed, staring around at the beach and panting with great gasping breaths of salty sea air.
She lay on a beach, dawn breaking over the choppy horizon, her clothes damp and ragged. The beach was empty, as was the water. She struggled to her feet, swaying and wincing. Her every muscle protested the movement, unexpected pangs of stinging hurt piercing through her. The beach was strange in the bright morning light and she dug through her mind, trying to recall anything about how she ended up there. The last thing she remembered clearly was Captain Rogers’s orders, flying up the rigging to try to tuck the sail in, the waves crashing around her, a pair of black eyes on the horizon–
The storm had rolled up on the ship faster than Sarai had thought possible. She tried to remember what had happened.
The blue skies were speckled with white clouds, gorgeous and fluffy, and she’d paused in the rigging to peer up at them, the sunlight warm on her face. In the distance, the clouds were dark gray and low, their shadow turning the water midnight black, but their course was taking them along a different heading, so she didn’t give it much mind. They’d outrun storms before.
The rigging trembled like the web of a spider as David dropped from the crow’s nest. She’d always envied his easy grace on the ropes: he descended from his post like an avalanche, a controlled fall that barely shivered the lines as he went. He paused beside her, gripping the rope with fingers and toes. “Storm coming,” he said squinting into the distance. “Big one.”
Sarai looked toward the clouds again. “We’re headed inland,” said Sarai. “We’ll beat it, won’t we? It’ll wear out before it catches up with us.”
“Hm.” He raised a hand to shade his eyes, and Sarai turned to look at the storm again. Was it bigger already? “Don’t know about that, Mr. Farmer. Some storms get bigger as they move, suck up water from their path. And this one’s a ship killer. Come on, let’s go tell the captain and see what he wants done.” He hopped to grab a loose line and slid down, disappearing behind a sail. In the distance, Sarai heard a faint boom of thunder. She followed him a little more slowly, keeping her gaze on the sky for a long moment before glancing back at the deck.
Captain Rogers stood by the wheel, frowning, leaning to the side to listen to Lee’s careful baritone. Sarai had thought Lee was a cabin boy when she’d first come aboard and seen him up the mast, his barely five-foot frame scrawny, and his hands nimble on the ropes, but when she’d finally met him on deck, she’d been shocked to see the lines on his pale face. The two made an odd pair, the small, pallid boatswain and the six-foot-four brown-skinned captain, but they ran the ship like clockwork. They looked up as David approached, and Sarai watched as he pointed to the horizon and both nodded. They’d noticed it already.
Sarai dropped to the deck just as Lee caught sight of her and called her false name, and she jogged over to the small conference. “Yes, sir?”
“You and Davey go start furling the mizzen sails. We’re not going to beat this thing coming our way. We’re going to have to ride it out.” His burr was even thicker than usual, the flavor of the northern villages curving around every word. “We’re riding heavy, so we’ve a good chance of staying afloat until we reach land. We’re not more than a few dozen miles out, isn’t that right?” He glanced to Mr. Khalaf, who leaned against the rail consulting a chart, for confirmation and the navigator nodded.
“We’re due in port by morning,” Khalaf said. “Less we go down, anyway.”
Sarai started jogging toward the stern, her heart pounding. Months on a ship had toned her body in a way a life of farming hadn’t. She tried to tell herself the increased pulse rate was from the exercise, but she had to admit it was fear. She’d found Mr. Khalaf was never wrong, not about maps or weather.
David dropped onto the deck beside her soundlessly, matching her rhythm as they reached the mizzen mast. “Don’t worry,” he said.
“Worry?” She pasted a smile on her lips. “Me?”
He clapped her on the back. “You look like a man who’s never rode out a big one before. The Angeline’s weathered worse storms than this one, kid. Ship killer or not, it’s not taking our ship. Follow the Captain’s orders, and we’ll all be fine, you’ll see.” He turned to the mast and yelled up at one of the figures above, “Hey Johnny! Start pulling the sheet in. Captain’s orders. Farmer and I’ll be up to get the other end.” He hopped back up into the rigging, and Sarai followed close behind.
The mizzen sails furled, and Sarai made the long climb back up to the crow’s nest. The storm was closer now. Any moment the captain was going to order an about to point the bow into the storm. Sarai knew it was the safest way to ride the winds out, but she also knew if she were captain she’d be doing her damnedest to get away, not send her ship right into the mess.
The clouds were thick and dark, flashes of lightning below towering gray piles. From her vantage, she could barely see the top edges, pale and white like the clouds she’d admired only minutes ago. She’d been lucky: David was right. The ship hadn’t hit a major storm like this while she’d been aboard.
The mast swayed beneath her, the ship banking hard as it came about, and she gripped the edge of the basket with both hands and wrapped her hands in the webbing, closing her eyes. Back home in a storm, she’d be huddled in front of a warm, blazing fire. She’d have her father beside her and a book in her hands. She’d be warm and dry and safe.
She opened her eyes, the fear sliding away. She’d be safe at home. But out here, she was alive.
She scurried back down the rigging to report to the captain for duty—
And then the memory went black, cut away like mold on cheese. There were only flashes: the deck bucking beneath her feet, the rope around her waist tight and water-soaked, the icy shock of plunging into the depths, and a face in the sea. That was it. The memory ended there.
She looked around wildly, searching for any sign of her companions or their vessel, but there was nothing. The sand stretched unbroken for what seemed like miles, the waves gently rushing across the beach, sunlight turning the water a smooth rose gold.
Sarai coughed a little more of the salt burn from her lungs, then turned and squinted into the still-dark forest at the edge of the sand where brush faded into shrubbery and then slender trees. There in the distance beyond the treetops was a familiar shape, and she breathed a sigh of recognition at the sight of Holbrook Castle.
She knew that castle’s outline like she knew the layout of her father’s house, its towers and walls looming over her life since childhood. She must be on the beach to the north of town, she reasoned, making out the shape of the pier in the misty distance down the shore and hearing the faint slap of sails and the occasional ringing of bells from the harbor around the bend in the coast. They’d been nearly home when the storm hit, only a day or so out. Some friendly current must have carried her back to the Holbrook shores with the driftwood.
She sat for a moment, taking deep breaths and trying to gather her wits. There was nothing she could do for anyone lying here on the beach. If anyone else survived—if the ship survived—they weren’t here on this beach. They weren’t due back till the afternoon, at least, and no one was waiting for them today. No one would even know they were missing. She lay on the sand for another few breaths, willing strength into her battered limbs. Finally, she hauled herself up, cast one last look back at the water, and trudged up the beach toward civilization.