"Birthed in fire and shadowed by the wings of dragons, this is the way the journey began"
Excerpt from Wit'ch Storm: Chapter 1
The gull's cry swept over the waves toward where Sy-wen's small head bobbed in the gentle surf. Her eyes followed the small bird's flight across the blue sky far above. As her webbed fingers swept back and forth in the salty water, keeping her stationary in the sea, she imagined the various landscapes the gull had flown over. She pictured towering peaks, forests of dark shadows, and empty meadows wider than the sea. Tales were spoken of such places, but she had never seen any of them.
She craned her neck back to view the spread of sky and cloud, her green hair floating like a halo of kelp around her. The gull disappeared to a small dot in the sun's glare. Sighing, Sy-wen turned her attention back to the churning white surf where the sea met the shore of the nearby island in an angry rumble. White froth spewed high in the afternoon sunlight, and black rocks glistened like the backs of whales, while over it all, the ocean roared as it attacked the stone island, as if angry at the interruption of its blue expanse.
Sy-wen thrilled at the war of sea and rock. It touched something deep inside of her, something she could not name. She studied the island. Her eyes filled with the views of its green-draped peaks, of its cascading falls of spring-fed water, of its arched stones of windblown rock. Beyond this one island, others could be seen like the humped backs of great seabeasts marching toward the horizon.
Even the word that named the maze of islands set her heart to beating. Here was mystery and lands unknown -- forbidden territory for the Mer'ai. Only the banished of her people walked those broken shores and sharp rocks.
As she kicked her powerful legs to hold her head above water, she felt the familiar gentle brush of a warm nose against the back of her thigh. Sadly, she spread her legs to allow Conch, her mother's mount, to slide under her. Once she was seated on his familiar back, Conch arched up, raising Sy-wen higher. Soon only her webbed toes still touched the sea. From atop Conch's back, she could see past the churning barrier reef to the interior of island. Above the foam and spray, she spied the towers and straight-edged buildings of the lan'dwellers, those of her folk banished from the sea so long ago.
She raised her arms wide and caught the seabreezes in her splayed hands. How would it be to swim through the air like a gull? To fly among those towers and peer in the windows at those who lived life at the sea's edge. Did they miss the oceans as Mother said? Crying all night for their long-lost home?
In front of her, Conch's head surfaced. The jade seadragon's scaled neck sparked and scintillated in the sunlight. He huffed explosively as the scaled flaps that blocked his nose opened, expelling old air. He rolled one large black eye toward his rider, blinking his translucent lid open and closed.
Sy-wen shrank under his gaze.
Though not bonded to the dragon as her mother was, Sy-wen had been raised with the giant and had learned his moods. Conch was frustrated with her. He hated it when she swam close to the stone islands that dotted the sea. Yet from the relieved tremble in his throat as he rid himself of his stale air, she also sensed the great beast's worry andconcern.
She rubbed a hand along his long sleek neck, scratching the sensitive nest of scales by his ear holes. Her touch calmed his irritation. She smiled as he turned away. Conch had always been such a worrier. Even when she was a child, he had always watched over her, a constant shadow as she grew into a young woman.
Yet as much as it pained her, Conch's guardianship would soon end.
Sy-wen must soon bond her own dragon and leave Conch behind. Having already begun her woman's bleed, she was no longer a child. For the past ten moons, immature seadragons were already flocking to her, drawn by each moon's virginal bleed -- a flurry of Whites, a scattering of Reds, even a few Jades like Conch. But she had fought them all off. As an Elder's daughter, she knew her duty and must soon choose, but she was not ready. Not yet.
Tears suddenly rose to her eyes. She did not want to lose Conch … not ever … not even to bond one of the rare Blacks, the mightiest of the seadragons.
After her father had died, Conch had become her guardian … and companion. She could hardly remember her true father, only a vague memory of laughing eyes and warm, strong arms. Even her mother, too involved with her duties as an Elder, seldom left their clan's home inside the belly of the giant Leviathan, the whalelike creature that housed her family's clan of Mer'ai. Without siblings, Sy-wen learned quickly how empty the oceans could be. With only Conch at her side, she had wandered the seamounts and the elaborate coral reefs, always alone.
Lately, she had found herself lured to the islands. Whether it was some growing unease as her womanhood and its responsibilities beckoned, or simply a swelling dissatisfaction with the empty sea, Sy-wen could not say. She had no words for the continuing draw that pulled at her heart.
Maybe it was simply her stubborn nature rebelling against her mother's restrictions. After her first excursion near the islands, her mother had vehemently forbade her to venture near the Archipelago again, warning against the fisherfolk with their spears, telling tales of how the banished, angry at the loss of their true home, would lure Mer'ai to their deaths on the rocks. She had never seen her mother so disturbed, her voice cracking, her eyes red, almost wild. As fury and frustration choked her mother's words, Sy-wen could only nod in agreement, eyes lowered in obeisance, acting properly scolded and chagrined. But once her mother was gone, Sy-wen simply dismissed her warnings.
No words, not even angered ones, could sunder the lines that had so snugly hooked Sy-wen's heart.
So, against her mother's will, she often snuck away from the Leviathan and swam alone to the edge of the Archipelago. There, she would drift in the currents, studying the islands carved by wind and sea. Curious, she would watch for any signs of the banished, one time even swimming within sight of one of their fishing boats.
But always, as now, Conch would eventually follow her scent and venture forth to collect her up, carrying her back to where their Leviathan home swam slowly in the great Deep.
The seadragon, loving Sy-wen as he did, kept silent about her wanderings -- not even telling her mother. Sy-wen knew how hard it was on the sweet giant to keep a secret from his bondmate. Recognizing his pain, she limited her visits to the islands to only occasional excursions. Still -- she glanced behind her and stared at the island one last time as Conch began to swing around -- she would beback.
Sy-wen rubbed the dragon's neck, telling him she was ready to leave.
Conch snorted the last of the dead air from his series of lungs. Under her, the seadragon's chest swelled as he drank in the fresh breezes, preparing to dive.
Before submerging, Sy-wen slipped loose the stem from one of the air pods at her waist and bit off its glued end. It tasted of salt and seaweed. She inhaled to test its ripeness. The air was still fine. Even if the pod had staled, there was no danger. Sy-wen knew Conch would let her use the siphon at the base of his neck. Though tradition only allowed a bondmate to share a dragon's air, Conch had never refused Sy-wen.
Sy-wen slipped her feet into the folds behind his front legs, and Conch tightened the footholds to secure her.
Satisfied, she tapped Conch with the heel of her hand three times, signaling she was ready to go. A rumble shook through the great beast and his form sank under the waves, taking Sy-wen with him. Just as the water swamped her face, Sy-wen's inner lids snapped up to protect her eyes from the water's salt. The translucent lids also sharpened her eyesight in the silty water.
After the rush of swirling bubbles cleared, leaving only a few stragglers chasing them into the Deep, Sy-wen stared in awe at the full sight of the creature she rode. From nose to tail, Conch stretched longer than six men. "Dragon" was the Mer'ai's word for the great beasts who shared their world under the waves, and though the seadragons had their own name for themselves, Sy-wen found her people's title most fitting. Wings spread out to either side as Conch stretched his forelimbs wide. Gentle, but powerful, movements rippled through the wings as the dragon sailed through the sea. His snaking tail and clawed rear legs acted as skilled rudders, guiding them in a slow curve around the lee of the islands and heading toward the open waters.
Slow undulations swept through the length of Conch's body as his form glided deeper. Schools of fish darted in unison to either side of his flowing body, splashes of blues and greens. Below, rows of reefs marched under the wings of the dragon, dotted with the glowing yellow and blood-red blooms of anemones. At the fringes of the reef, tall fronds of kelp waved as they passed.
Sy-wen stared at the massed coral below her. Like flying, she thought, soaring above distant mountain ranges. She smiled, biting on her air pod's stem. Her eyes grew hazy as she watched the seafloor flow under her. A patch of clouds far overhead blotched the landscape in patches of shadow and filtered sunlight. She dreamed of flying in the sky with Conch.
Suddenly Conch twisted sharply in the water, diving deep toward the peaks of coral. Startled, Sy-wen almost lost her lips' hold on her air spout. She quickly searched for what had startled the dragon. There was little for a seadragon to fear in the wide Deep.
Sy-wen craned her neck up. Far above her, she realized what she had thought were clouds shadowing the ocean floor were actually the bloated bellies of boats. She quickly scanned the barnacled bottoms of the fisherfolk's vessels. Seven …no, eight boats! Sy-wen did not have to be told what this meant. A solitary boat usually just carried pole and net fishers. Nothing to fear. This many -- Sy-wen's heart climbed to her throat -- this many boats meant hunters!
Sy-wen clung to Conch's side as he wove his wings and body so deep his belly scratched the sharp peaks of the reef. The waters near the islands, though, were too shallow. They would be easily spotted by the ships above. Conch struggled to find deeper water. From the corner of her eye, Sy-wen spotted trails of blood flowing back along their trail from the dragon's coral-wounded belly.
Drawn by his blood, as if by magick, schools of sharks appeared from the black waters. In only a few heartbeats, monstrous Rocksharks, longer than three men, glided from dark valleys in the reef.
Sy-wen realized what Conch was trying to do. He had purposefully wounded himself, luring the larger predators from their hidden homes, trying to lose himself among the more common denizens of thereef.
Conch slowed his glide through the water, letting the other predators within his shadow. He pulled hard once with his wings, then folded them under his body, narrowing his silhouette as he flowed through the water. Only the slow undulations of his body now propelled them forward.
Sy-wen risked a glance upward. A huge Rockshark, with a snap of its large finned tail, swept just over her head. Sy-wen leaned down closer to Conch's neck. The shark would not dare risk attacking until he knew the dragon was near death, but the hulking Rockshark was not the true threat here.
Farther overhead, Sy-wen watched with her breath held tight as they glided under the last of the boats. Staring over her shoulder, she slowly expelled the air from her sore lungs as the bellies of the hunting fleet faded behind her. They had made it!
Sy-wen sat straighter on Conch's back and rubbed a hand along his neck. Tears of relief mixed their salt with the seawater's. Her silly curiosities had almost killed the gentle giant. A new resolve grew in her breast. Where words had failed, fear and danger had finally managed to dig free the stubborn hooks in her heart.
Never again. She would never return to these islands.
Her mother's words had been wise, and like a child, she had dismissed that good counsel. Sy-wen's hands clenched to fists. Maybe it was time to look toward her approaching womanhood with a more open heart. Maybe it was time she grew up and looked at the world with the wisdom of an adult, instead of the dreaming eyes of a child.
She glanced back as the last of the boats drifted away from them. Never again!
Suddenly, below them, the seafloor exploded upward, swallowing them in a storm of silt and sand. Conch's body contorted violently under her. The scaled folds that secured her feet spasmed open. Sy-wen was thrown from Conch's back. Her air siphon ripped from her teeth as she tumbled through the water.
The sea gagged her throat as she swallowed a mouthful of salty water. In the blizzard of sand, she struggled to re-secure the stem of her air hose. She must not lose her air. As her body slowed its tumble, instinct drew her fumbling fingers to the pod fastened to her waist belt and felt along its surface until she discovered the base of the stem. Thank the Mother, it was still intact. She hurriedly followed its length and pulled its end to her lips.
She drank the air hungrily while using her webbed hands to hold herself in place. Able to breathe again, she could now think. What had happened?
Swirling sand obscured her vision. She swam backward against a mild current. Letting the current clear the silt around her as she kicked and paddled. Where was Conch?
Suddenly, like the sun pushing through a break in the clouds, the storm of sand had settled enough for Sy-wen to get a quick glimpse near the heart of the storm. Conch, his long green body coiled up on itself, struggled savagely with something, his legs slashing, his neck twisting and contorting. It looked almost as if he were fighting himself. Then Sy-wen saw Conch's adversary. It was wrapped tight around his body, and the more Conch fought the tighter his opponent gripped him.
A net! A snare set in the sand to catch him!
As Conch struggled, a single black eye rolled in Sy-wen's direction and fixed on her. For a brief moment, he stopped his struggle, hanging still in the tangled net. Flee, he seemed to call at her, I am lost.
Then the sand swallowed her dear friend away.
No! Sy-wen swam into the sandstorm, paddling fiercely. She had a knife and a stunner at her waist. She would not abandon Conch. She dug and clawed her way through the clouds of silt. It seemed forever that she fought the murk …then suddenly she was free, back in sunlit waters, the wall of swirling sand at her back. She twisted around. She had swam through the entire cloud of silt. But where was Conch?
Above, movement caught her eye. She glanced up and saw her friend bundled in a tight ball in the clinging net, being hauled and drawn toward the surface. The bellies of the boats were now clustered in a circle around the ascending dragon.
Sweet Mother, don't let this happen!
Sy-wen fought her way toward the surface, but she was too late. She had wasted too much time fighting the swirling sand. She watched, her heart thundering in her ears, as Conch was drawn to the surface.
She kicked toward the planked bottoms of the boats. She must still try. Aiming for the largest vessels, she slid under its keel and, guided by a hand slipping over its barnacled surface, she floated upward until her head bobbed in the shadowed curve of the boat's leeward side.
Voices instantly struck her ears, strident, their thick accent making it difficult to understand. "Look it the size of that beastie!" someone called from almost directly overhead.
Sy-wen sank lower until only her eyes and ears were above water. She watched as Conch rolled in the tangled net, sluggishly writhing as he tired.
"It'll fetch a shower of silver. We'll all be rich!" another shouted gleefully.
A sterner voice rang out from the boat above, guttural and full of threat, a voice of command. "Git the beast's nose above waters, you daft fools! You want to drown it!"
"But why do we want it alive? What difference -- "
The stern voice again. "Jeffers, if you poke it one more time with that spear, I'll plant it up your hairy arse!"
A voice called back. "It's still fighting, Cap'n!"
"Leave it be! Give time for the sleep potion to reach its heart!" Then the man's voice lowered so only the men near at hand could hear. "Sweet Mother above, I can't believe it. So the rumors were true about seeing a seadragon at the fringes of the Archipelago. Who would have thought?"
"Not been one seen in these parts since my grandpa was young."
"Yah, but I've heard talk of occasional sightings in the Great Deep." He made a low whistling noise. "Wonder why the beast ended up here in the shallow Coastals? And why it kept coming back?"
"Probably an ol' one. Getting daft in the head."
"Well, whatever reason, it'll bring us enough silver and gold for a lifetime. Look at that beaut!"
Sy-wen could not stop the tears from flowing down her cheeks. Conch, she silently sent to him, I'm so sorry.
"Quite a beaut it is, Cap'n. Makes you almost want to believe those ol' stories of Merfolk."
The other laughed. "Now, Flint, don't you go daft in the head."
"Just saying it makes me wonder."
"Well, you'd best wonder about the riches we'll fetch with a living seadragon at Port Rawl. Seadragon's blood is as rare as heartstone. I heard tell that vials left over from the last dragon -- the beastie caught up near Biggins Landing ten years ago -- still fetches six gold coins a drop! Now wonder about that, Flint!"
Glee entered this other's voice. "I can just imagine the look on that old snake Tyrus when we haul this treasure to port."
"His men'll have to tie him to a mast to keep him from tearing that lice-ridden beard from his face in his jealous rage."
They both chuckled.
"We're both going to die rich men, Flint." Then the voice again rose gruffly and shot across the waters. "Jeffers! What did I just tell you about that spear!"
"But, Cap'n …"
"Each drop of blood is wasted profit! Samel, git that Jeffers belowdecks. The next one who stabs the dragon gets fed to it!" Then his voice lowered. "Fools!"
Sy-wen had already stopped listening. Her eyes were on her friend tangled in the net, a pool of blood spreading around him. Drawn by the blood, occasional fins of sharks broke the water but were chased off with spears. By now, Conch had stopped struggling, lying limp in the ropes. She could see he still breathed. But for how long?
Sy-wen's chest hurt from suppressing her sobs. What was she to do? It would take her until well past nightfall to return to the Leviathan and tell the others what had happened. But even if the Elders decided to risk freeing him, Conch would be long gone, lost among the hundreds of islands of the Archipelago.
She closed her eyes and made a choice. She could not abandon her friend. His life depended on her.
Opening her eyes, she slipped a hand to her waist and freed the shark-tooth knife from her belt. Re-positioning her air stem, she dove under the waves and kicked and swam with one hand toward her friend.
In the distance, sharks circled warily. Sy-wen could see their black eyes watching, unblinking. The spears kept them at bay so far.
Sy-wen swam deep under Conch until the sunlight was blocked by the netted dragon. Floating up in his shadow, she reached his underside and ran a hand along the net. The oiled ropes and knots had dug deep into Conch's flesh. Blood seeped where the tight ropes had sliced his skin during his struggle. A deep gash in a tangled fold of a wing bled near her hand, and she found herself reaching for the injury as if her touch could make the wound disappear. Oh, Conch, what have I done?
Before her fingers touched the dragon, something suddenly slammed into her ribs -- hard. Sy-wen gasped, losing her air stem and swallowing a mouthful of seawater. The blow pitched her out from under Conch into the sunlit waters. Gagging, Sy-wen spun around and dug for the surface. Seawater seared her lungs. Near blind with pain, Sy-wen saw her attacker swing back around toward her. A Rockshark. With her attention so focused on her wounded friend, Sy-wen had failed to see the shark. She knew better than to let her guard down when sharks smelled blood in the water.
She kicked in retreat. Her head broke the surface of the sea at the same time the huge shark fin crested the waves. It stood taller than her whole body. Coughing and choking, she held up the tiny knife and reached for the stunner at her waist. She had fought dragons before -- she would not let a shark stand between her and Conch.
She raised the knife … but never had to use it. A massive spear flew bright across the sparkling water and slammed into the base of the fin. A fountain of blood flew up from the buried blade, and the Rockshark exploded out of the water, thrashing against its death.
Sy-wen stared, stunned by the sight of its cavernous mouth lined by hundreds of teeth. She cartwheeled her arms to clear away from its spasms. Even a dying shark could kill.
Voices rose behind her.
"Good throw, Kast!"
"What an arm!"
Sy-wen spun around. She was once again near the lee side of the main boat. She glanced up at a pair of bearded, scarred faces staring back at her, their black eyes unblinking.
She never knew sharks could leer.
Before she could react, a net flew over the rail of the boat and swept down over Sy-wen. She kicked off the boat's side, trying to escape, but her feet slipped on the algae-slicked planks. Rope and knot descended on her, wrapping around her like a living creature. Her knife was knocked from her fingers.
She fought, but like Conch, her efforts only aided in tangling her further. Seawater swamped her mouth and throat. Unable to surface or reach her air pod, she gagged and thrashed but could not beat back the dark. Like the sea itself, the swelling blackness drowned Sy-wen, sweeping her away.
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