A Thrilling Pirate Eco-Fantasy: Revealing The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

We are thrilled to share a preview of The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson, an environmental fantasy that addresses climate change and the exploitation of natural resources. It’s also a thrilling pirate fantasy that follows a crew of women that sail a sea of prairie grass, their ship powered by magic. The Forever Sea will be available from DAW on January 19, 2021!

On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother—The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper—has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.

But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.

To follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.

Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything—ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun—to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.

Cover at by Marc Simonetti; design by Katie Anderson

Joshua Phillip Johnson lives in a little green house on what used to be the prairie with his partner and their child. His work has appeared in Syntax & Salt, The Future Fire, and Metaphorosis Magazine, among others. He teaches at a small liberal arts university. The Forever Sea is his first novel.


 

 

 

Chapter One

Kindred threaded her hands deep into the fire and sang a quiet song.

Around her the ship was chaos: boots pounded over the deck as crew members rushed to secure and tie and pull and coil; shouts—panicked, angry, excited—shook the air, threatening to break Kindred’s concentration. The captain’s voice was a clear bell amid the turmoil of The Errant; Kindred couldn’t make out her orders ringing through the noise, but the rill of authority was recognizable nonetheless.

And amid and above and below and through it all, the threat that had The Errant hurtling fast across the sea, bearing hard to port.

Pirates.

Kindred’s hands spasmed in the fire as she thought of the ship pursuing them, of wild, jagged predators’ smiles.

“Focus in, girl,” a voice hissed in Kindred’s ear. Rhabdus, the senior hearthfire keeper leaned over her shoulder, supervising with a sneer Kindred felt without needing to see. “I don’t fancy sinking into the deeps because of your incompetence and creativity.”

Kindred took a breath, stilling her thoughts and trying to ignore Rhabdus’s wheezing sighs and the play of her imagination. She focused on her present: the hearthfire blazing indigo before her, the rustle-touch of flames arcing around her wrists and fingers.
And her song.

The whispered words countered the fearful storm on deck, and staved off the fear slinking sideways along the alleys of her mind.

A litany for the fire.

“Burn bone, ay lay, burn bone to black
sing white, ay lay, brand bone to black
for ship and sea and crew, ay lay,
to sail the green, to sail the grass, ay lay.
A fire, ay lay, a prairie flame
a blaze, ay lay, a blaze of bone
for ship and sea and crew, ay lay,
to sail the green, to sail the grass,
ay lay, ay lay.”

Kindred’s song stilled the fire, changing the color from a dark indigo to a cloudy grey and revealing a tree-like structure of bones at the center of the flames. Kindred monitored the interplay of air and flame and bone there at the center, the rush of heat swooping and rising through the tendrils of bone and winding amid caverns made of air and flame. She noted breaks in the structure, bone branches drooping from where she had set them earlier.

Rhabdus scoffed, her derision nasal and low.

“Inefficient and idiotic,” she said, leaning in, nails digging deep into Kindred’s shoulder. “You’re the hearthfire keeper, girl. You own it, you control it—now start acting like it. Enough with the imagination.” Rhabdus snarled the word. “Quit messing with my build and follow the shit-spitting rules.”

Kindred swallowed her indignant response—Rhabdus knew her name, had been mentoring her some time now, but still refused to call her anything other than “girl.”

Your build was ugly and plain, she wanted to say. Your build had no spirit. Your build will kill us.

“Understood.” Kindred released a calming breath and examined the fire and bone.

Somewhere in that phantom movement of flame and air was mystery, pure and awful. Despite Rhabdus’s short-sighted insistence on the rules, Kindred felt no urge to challenge the fire’s mystery with clumsy attempts at misguided logic—that was for the scholar-stylists on Arcadia and the Mainland, and for those hearthfire keepers like Rhabdus who felt a need for control over everything natural, everything untamed.

Such a need to possess the flames was distasteful to Kindred, and wrong, like a child given a palette of beautiful colors and mixing them all together into a muddy, monolithic brown.

That the fire demanded a captain’s bones to burn, Kindred knew.

That it kept a ship afloat, gave it lift and speed on the grasses of the Forever Sea, Kindred knew.

That it spoke a language unwritten and inscrutable, a language like rain, like the changing Sea itself, Kindred knew.

The whys and hows were the flames’ mysteries to keep, and it was to them Kindred sang.

As melody slipped from her lips, Kindred reached further into the flames, lifting the structure where it drooped, sculpting the supple, malleable bones to better articulate Rhabdus’s vision of speed, of escape. She found and eliminated her own improvisations—extra branches plucked from here and twining vines carved there, each meant to offer more speed to the ship, each one almost there, if only Kindred could have had more time without Rhabdus leering over her shoulder, following her every movement, criticizing her every decision.

Pirates.

The word echoed again in her mind, threatening to pull her down into the chaos and anxiety of the ship. She fought the urge to stand from where she huddled amidships next to the hearthfire. Perhaps she could leave the hearthfire to Rhabdus and quickly climb to the quartercastle, get an update from the captain, allow her eyes to follow the disturbed grasses reaving about in their wake, to see the pursing black sails, the scarred hull, the jeering, leering pirates flinging forth their unnatural magicks, their broken grins—

Kindred cursed, breaking her song and pulling her hands back from the hearthfire, which grew hot and nipped at her wrists, punishment for losing her connection to the flames.

She felt the drop in The Errant’s speed and saw it in the disarray of the flames.

“Idiot child!” Rhabdus wheezed, pushing in to kneel next to Kindred on the deck, her veined hands mottled with old burn scars and age marks, plunging in to the fire as she sang her clipped song. In the swirl of flame, she slapped Kindred’s hands away, giving her a hard-eyed look despite the relative softness of her song.

Rhabdus moved quickly, her motions practiced and perfectly efficient, brutal in their precision. Her hands were tools that ordered and owned, demanding where Kindred had appealed; where she molded soft curves, Rhabdus imposed hard lines.

The words of Rhabdus’ song were mostly nonsensical. Every keeper Kindred had ever met—save one—sang to the fire in this way, with some measure of gift for the language of the hearthfire but no real understanding of it. Like a child mimicking her parents.

It’s what set Kindred apart, what gave her the edge over every other hearthfire keeper she’d ever met. She not only sang to the flames; she understood what she sang, and what’s more, she understood what the hearthfire sang in return. When Kindred kept the fire, she was not breaking a wild animal to her will as Rhabdus sought to, singing thick-tongued nonsense; when Kindred worked, she worked with the fire.

“Keeper!” Captain Caraway shouted. “What is going on? We need more speed, not less!”

Kindred turned to see the captain standing fore on the quartercastle, her wild hair tossed by the wind, her eye ablaze with a gallows light. She wore the black of her station, the only concession to color a dirty white strip of cloth covering one eye. She grinned into the wind.

Gods, she’s enjoying this! Kindred thought with a start.

Since Rhabdus was engaged with the fire and couldn’t yet break her song, Kindred responded.

“My fault, captain. Apologies. It won’t happen again.”

Before joining up with the crew of The Errant, Kindred had asked around about the ship and its mysterious captain. Most knew nothing other than the stories: wild, dangerous, insane, and protective of her crew beyond all else. But she had heard other rumors, little bits and fragments of gossip: Captain Caraway sailed too far; Captain Caraway took crew members aboard who had not been sanctioned by the ruling bodies on Arcadia; Captain Caraway liked her crew rough and strange and just as wild as herself.

All of this flashed through Kindred’s mind as she shouted at the captain across the madness of the deck—between them the crew moved in a chaotic dance to adjust and coil and pull and climb and sail.

Captain Caraway nodded, her smile predatory and gleeful.

“See that it doesn’t,” she shouted, and turned her attention to the frenzied activity of her crew. “Quartermaster! Aft defenses!”
Kindred saw Little Wing, the quartermaster, tall and powerful, lope across the deck, moving aft to follow the captain’s orders.

Each to her place; each to her power, Kindred’s grandmother had always said about the hierarchy aboard boats.

A pair of red comets sailed high and wide over The Errant before bursting into a shower of sparking magical energy. She tried not to think about how close the pirates had to be to start hurling their magical assaults. Too close.

The fire had returned to a calmer shade of red, and still Rhabdus wrestled with it, her hands moving in ugly straight lines, devastating the imperfections that continued to appear in the bone structure, making out of the bones and the fire a ruled thing. Kindred had let the bone tree in the heart of the fire flourish, pulling bone blossoms into existence and etching creeping vines along the trunk. She had envisioned the build and the hearthfire as a piece of the world, as something blending with wind and sky, the grasses of the sea and the long-cut line of the horizon. Not solely the pure source of energy Rhabdus saw; not an unruly beast burning in the center of The Errant’s deck, brutish in its power and possibility.
Rhabdus let her song wind down, her voice ragged even after so little singing.

Kindred tried not to rub at her wrists where the fire had burned her. Hundreds of tiny, furious bubbles had broken the surface of her skin. She would deal with it later.

“Always these flourishes with you, girl,” Rhabdus said, voice raspy, punctuating her words by methodically destroying the nuance of Kindred’s build. She slapped the deck with one hand “Feel how The Errant sails steadier now that the build isn’t burdened by your nonsense.”

“But we were going faster with my changes,” Kindred said, raising her voice enough to be heard over the tumult on deck. “The textbook build has a limit on speed! If only we could try—”

A shout of alarm warned Kindred a moment before The Errant was rocked by the impact of a spell slamming into the aft defenses. Kindred was thrown to the deck. Rhabdus spilled onto her side, cursing in hoarse syllables.

Only Captain Caraway, it seemed, held her feet. Kindred looked back and saw the captain holding tight to the great wheel, shouting orders and encouragement to the rear guard who maintained their meager magical defenses.

“Piss and nonsense,” Rhabdus said, righting herself and settling in before the fire. “The textbook builds are textbook for a reason, girl. They work. They’re safe, which is more than I can say for your nonsense. Now get over here. I need a melody.”

This had been Kindred’s primary role since coming aboard The Errant. In theory, she was the junior hearthkeeper, training to keep the fire on her own someday. In practice, she served as a replacement for Rhabdus’s tired, dying voice.

“Keepers!” Captain Caraway shouted. “We need a push!”

“Sing speed,” Rhabdus ordered as she jabbed her hands into the blaze.

Kindred took a breath, stilling her mind, pushing away thoughts of pirates, of bitter senior hearthfire keepers, of wild and mad captains.

Speed, she sang to the flames as Rhabdus broke and reformed the bone structure, making it stronger, funneling the fire and air up and out.

Speed, she sang, as her melody moved and pitched with the fire’s delicate dance.

Speed, she sang, listening to the crack of bones releasing their ancient power, a force Kindred felt in the abyss of her stomach, tasted on her tongue, bitter and overwhelming.

“Arcadia, ho! Land and port, ho!” Ragged Sarah called down from the crow’s nest.

Kindred spared a glance above, seeing Sarah perched atop the mainmast, surrounded by a corona of winged shapes—birds, come to offer advice to the crow caller. Sarah’s frayed clothing and wild hair, so distinct when she walked among the crew, made her resemble one of the birds, each flap of torn cloth or whip of raggedy hair like the flair of a wing on the wind.

The Errant pushed forward, the fire obliging Kindred’s request and Rhabdus’s enforcement, and Kindred felt hope rise in her chest for the first time since that first cry of “Pirates!” came from Ragged Sarah. Hard sailing for nearly a full day, coaxing more and more from the fire without breaking it, an exhausting marathon as the pirates neared and neared, first a flutter of black near the horizon, then sails, then hulls, more and more, and Kindred bound to the hearthfire and subjected to Rhabdus’s constant insults, insulated from the danger and acutely aware of the way it grew in echoes across the deck.

Unbidden, a fragment of a conversation with the captain from the previous morning came to Kindred’s mind, a conversation between Rhabdus and Captain Caraway during which Kindred had stood silently in the corner of the captain’s quarters, listening to these two women who had sailed together for nearly forty years.

“We’ve pushed out too far, captain,” Rhabdus had said. “Aren’t we too near the Roughs, to pirate grasses?”

The captain had smiled up from the maps and diagrams and correspondences littering her table.

“Aye, I would think so, Rhabdus. But those grasses nearer Arcadia are harvested to nothing. And look at the bounty we’ve already cut.” The captain tapped a ledger on which she’d marked their harvest thus far. “Ninety bundles of lie leaf and twenty-two of prairie smoke—both much desired by the medickers for their herbwork and cures. Another seventy odd bundles each of blue stem, thrice-root, giant stalk, and cone flower—all wanted by the mages for their battle magicks, the cooks for their creations, and the schools as they teach the next crop of hopeful sailors how to burn a plant to release its magic. I expect we will sell at our best prices yet.”

“Aye, captain,” Rhabdus replied, snorting, “it will be a mighty pay day.”

“It will,” Captain Caraway said, fierce suddenly, her smile sharp and wide, “enough to keep us sailing free and out from under the Collective’s grip for many years to come.”

Now, sitting before the fire, coaxing as much speed from this particular structure as it would give, Kindred wondered what really drove the captain—money to sail and harvest freely or the ever-increasing need to push at freedom’s boundaries, to sail into danger, not for money or independence or fame but to define freedom itself.

A great shock sent tremors through the ship and Kindred nearly lost her seat again.

“Hit! Hit!” came a cry and Kindred looked around to see one of The Errant’s sails badly damaged, the sheet caught in the spread of a wicked flame that reminded Kindred of paintings she’d seen of the old prairie fires that used to sweep across the Forever Sea. Those fires, she’d been told, burned with abandon, with purifying and rejuvenating vengeance, and she saw some of that now.

“Quixa! Cora! Gwen! Get on that fire!” Captain Caraway shouted, and Kindred saw Long Quixa, Cora the Wraith, and Stone-Gwen leap to take care of the blaze.

“And damnit, Rhabdus; we need more speed!” the captain said before turning back to survey the defenses. Kindred could just hear Little Wing’s shouts, low and authoritative, ordering and motivating the defenders.

“Aye,” Rhabdus muttered, turning back to the flames, though how she was going to get more speed from the fire, from this build, especially with one of The Errant’s mainsails no longer aiding them, Kindred had no idea.

Again Rhabdus worked, pruning and perfecting, seeking maximum efficiency, following every rule of keeping the fire taught in the schools.
Again Kindred sang, aiding Rhabdus with her voice.

Kindred inspected the structure as Rhabdus worked, looking for any sign of inefficiency, any break in form or unnecessary extension of bone—searching for any remaining bit of flourish.

It was an old design, a structure of bone named Shal-El-Shep, an iteration of the Mainland term for a horse, and like a horse, if coaxed and allowed to build in intensity, it could provide great power and speed over a long distance, though not quickly, and not in short bursts.
“More, you fiend,” Rhabdus growled at the fire, at the structure. “Give me more speed.”

But Kindred saw the plain truth now: Shal-El-Shep had no more to give. Its structure was perfectly maintained, the flow and release of air, the sinuous smoothness of heat, all of it balanced, efficient, effective.

Kindred grimaced at the perfection of it. They had traded in the wild wonder of the flames for contrived, purposeful motion.

Mastery over mystery.

“There’s nothing more,” Kindred said, whispering to herself. Shal-El-Shep provided speed with minimum safety, and Kindred wasn’t sure she knew of any other builds that could give more speed, not with so little time and the conditions—winds, temperature, light, sea character, all of it—as they were. Rhabdus had been forcing her to memorize all of the known structures, and Kindred thought through some of them now, dismissing each more quickly than the last.

Heaven’s Knot: No good with a tailwind.

The Red Flash: Too long to build, not nearly enough speed.

Rhizome, Fragmented: Totally unpredictable this long after noon.

Shadow Wright: Hearthfire basin too large, temperatures too high.

On and on she thought, cursing more and more under breath as she dismissed every build she knew, which, given her recent studies, was probably just as many if not more than any other sailor on the Forever Sea, her grandmother not included.

Her grandmother.

A memory caught at Kindred as she glanced up to see Quixa and Cora scaling the mast, scurrying up the single powerful length of wood, its runes glowing a hazy blue amid the creeping fire. For a moment Kindred was a young girl again, ten or eleven years old, sitting on her grandmother’s ship, Revenger, taking her turn at the hearthfire, still learning the rules, still earning her keep. Young and brash and stupid, she’d ignored all of her grandmother’s indirect attempts at teaching Kindred how to keep the fire.

The old woman talked too much about the sea, Kindred had thought at the time. Always the sea, how it moved and swayed, how it held secrets ages old. She talked of old myths as if they were true, told children’s stories as if they were fact. Kindred had often found her grandmother staring down into the prairie grasses, leaning precariously over the gunwale, murmuring to the waves of green, muttering to them.

Other sailors feared the depths of the sea. With the magic of a hearthfire burning and a mainmast carved with the correct runes, a ship could sail over the grasses. But a person falling in would be lost forever, falling to the beasts or the sea floor some impossible distance below. The Forever Sea was a surface to be crossed and a field to be harvested for every one of its sailors.

Except the Marchess.

Kindred had thought her grandmother crazy—still did often enough—and had ignored every shred of lucid advice she’d given.

Instead, that day, Kindred had followed the first rule of keeping the hearthfire—a rule she had found herself, her own guiding star—had whispered it under her breath as she took a single bone, long and straight and painfully bright white, and impaled it into the coal bed at the bottom of the hearthfire.

Kindred had almost destroyed her grandmother’s ship and killed everyone aboard that day.

Her grandmother, the Marchess, had been furious and then shocked and then, for the first and last time Kindred could remember, frightened. It was her quick thinking that saved them all from Kindred’s stupidity that day so long ago. They had shared a silent meal at port that night, her grandmother’s burnt cloak piled between them on the table as a reminder.

“Speed in tenuous length.” Kindred whispered the rule to herself now as she left Rhabdus at the hearthfire, still trying to coax more speed from a build that had none left to give. Kindred lurched toward the bone closet.

“Speed in tenuous length.”

Long ago on the deck of Revenger, Kindred had listened as the hearthfire sang in her mind, had watched as it described in its fiery dance a complicated and beautiful world governed by only a few rules—five in all. Four offered freely by the fire, and one given to her by the Marchess. It would be years more before she understood how strange, how unique it was that she could hear the fire so well. So young, and under the tutelage of the Marchess who also understood the flames, Kindred had just assumed all keepers heard the song of the fire, spoke the language of the flames.

And so she had listened as the fire sang of its rules. They were not the ones, Kindred would later come to learn, that were found in books meant to teach young keepers how to tend the fire. The fire did not sing of efficiency, of builds easy to replicate, of words to break a hearthfire to your will—all things Kindred had learned during her short, unsuccessful time in the schools.

Other hearthfire keepers, she would come to learn, saw the fire as a wild animal, spewing chaos. It was their job to tame the animal with words they didn’t understand but used anyway, like blunt instruments, inarticulate and forceful. And like the phrases they learned, each build was something learned by rote without any understanding.

Once, in her first class, Kindred had asked why a particular build was placed facing aft in the hearthfire basin, and the teacher, her expression caught between annoyance and rage, had simply said, “That is where it is placed because that is where it must be placed. This is how it has always been done and how it will always be done.”

Kindred had not lasted long in the schools. She had already received her education on the deck of her grandmother’s ship Revenger, where there were no prescribed builds, no words spoken to the fire without understanding, no rules about bone market value or breaking an unruly fire to your will.

Kindred’s rules came from the fire itself, and she had paid particular attention to the first.

Speed in tenuous length.

As more pirate magicks arced over or slammed into The Errant, Kindred ripped open the trapdoor set seamlessly into the deck to reveal the storage bin containing their wealth of bones, the fuel to keep them afloat and moving across the sea.

Amid the shouts and flurried movement aboard, the bone closet was a pocket of peace. Bones in rows of white, still and calm as time itself. The chaos of the deck was muffled in this space, and Kindred took a breath of dry, dusty air, filling her lungs with this silence and reverence, letting it calm the hysterical fear beginning to well up inside her.

“Tenuous length,” she whispered to the bones, letting her hand slide over the rows of white until she found the one—a rib bone, describing a slender arc. Not the longest bone in the body, Kindred knew, but both long and tenuous, just a thin ray of white meant to protect a beating heart, billowing lungs. Like a strand of spiderweb, calcified and fragile.

The sway cut of The Errant through the Forever Sea, the shouts of the crew and even the threat of the pirates—all of it faded in the bone closet. Kindred thought she could hear Rhabdus crowing for her, but even that sound was muted by the peace in the bone closet. The world became dust catching stray rays of sunlight, dust becoming constellations in the late afternoon light angling in around Kindred, dust from before this day that would last well beyond.

Another explosion slammed into the ship, and even in the relative quiet of the bone closet, Kindred felt it.

She was needed.

Her crazy, insane, nigh-suicidal plan was needed.

She climbed out of the bone closet, letting the trapdoor slam shut.

The captain was shouting for more fires to be put out, and crew members clustered starboard aft, fighting the blaze. Cora the Wraith clung to the mast, cutting away the remnants of the mainsail fluttering from the yard.

Long Quixa, though, lay on the ground, one arm bent at an unnatural angle beneath her, blood trailing from a head wound. With the madness aboard, she was mostly ignored.

Mostly.

Relieved, Kindred saw Ragged Sarah, the crow caller who normally spent all of her time in the crow’s nest communing with birds, tending to Quixa’s injuries. Stone-Gwen knelt beside her, helping as she could, her face a picture of calm despite the madness.

Ragged Sarah looked up as Kindred moved back toward the hearthfire, and even with everything going on—the pirates, the fires, the captain’s shouts, the too-slow rise of land on the horizon—even with all of that, Ragged Sarah looked up at Kindred as she passed and smiled.

It was a small thing, quick and then gone, but like the bone closet, that moment existed outside of the chaos.

Kindred’s mind exploded with the possibilities of what that smile might mean, what the slant of Ragged Sarah’s lips—colored a deep purple that day—could imply. She felt her own forever stretch out before her, a parallel to the sea, this one made of every strand of maybe she could find in that single moment with Ragged Sarah.

“No time,” she told herself, muttering the words under her breath and forcing her feet to continue moving, forcing her mind away from the way Ragged Sarah angled her head to one side when she smiled, the way her cheeks dimpled just slightly, the way—

“Get over here, girl!” Rhabdus shouted. “You don’t just get up and leave when we’re running this hard.”

Rhabdus still had her hands in the fire, though for what reason, Kindred couldn’t see. Shal-El-Shep, was perfect. It looked exactly like the drawings in the manuals. Rhabdus had been forcing her to read them to make up for Kindred’s lack of schooling, the pages full of diagrams and arrows, charts and tables, turning the magic of keeping the fire into a fearful science.

“Keepers! Either get us moving or send us to the deeps now and be done with it!” The captain’s voice rolled over the deck, eliciting a grunt of anger from Rhabdus. Kindred thought of the length of bone she held hidden behind her back.

Speed in tenuous length.

Rhabdus slapped the deck by the fire.

Sit. And sing speed.”

Kindred sat down and began singing, the bone hidden beneath her thigh, and waited for her chance.

And soon enough, it came.

Kindred sang, asking more from a fire and build that were spent, while Rhabdus’ hands were plunged into the fire urging on Shal-El-Shep, when a great explosion slammed The Errant forward. Crates and rope and spare tools scattered about the deck and sent any detritus not tied down in a whirligig dance around the ship and, in some cases, overboard.

Rhabdus was flung back, and she cried out in pain and frustration as she careened into the stairs leading aft toward the quartercastle. Kindred rolled the other way, right into the mainmast, and despite the pain of her collision—a sharp shot through her shoulder—she immediately looked down and breathed a sigh of relief.

The rib bone remained whole and unbroken.

“Speed!” Captain Caraway shouted. “Speed!”

Kindred launched herself toward the hearthfire, already letting the music tumble from her mouth, letting the blaze know she was coming.

Her song was different this time, more urgent. She chewed out the sounds, letting them fall from her mouth in blocky, low bits. It was a song for breaking, and she did its work with her hands as she sang, reaching into the flames and collapsing Shal-El-Shep as quickly and brutally as possible into a thick bed of hot coals. From nearby where she lay, Rhabdus let out a cry of rage and disbelief.

“What are you doing?” Rhabdus shouted.

Every moment the fire burned without a structure the ship lost speed.

The breaking song done, Kindred looked at the still-smoking mainmast. She thought again of that day so long ago on her grandmother’s ship, the only other time she had tried this dangerous maneuver.

“Speed in tenuous length,” she whispered.

She sang then, a song without form, a single note really, wavering and high, high enough for her voice to splinter slightly, to fray at its peak. It was a song, Kindred thought, for high hopes, for a structure without a name, so basic and simple and dangerous that no keeper sailing the Forever Sea would consider it.

Kindred brought down the slender length of rib bone through the flames and buried it, planted it in the bed of coals. She let her voice unravel completely into a single, wordless call for the fire to burn, for flame and speed and power.

And the hearthfire answered.

Flames roared up around the bone, reaching into the sky, challenging the majesty of the sun’s dying light. The hearthfire became color, shifting sickeningly from wild violet to blinding whites and yellows and back again to violet, flames the color of freshly watered mud growing with the promise of harvest, blues as sacred as a cloudless sky, oranges the color of clouds caught too early in the morning. On and on the fire shifted and roared and grew, and as it did, The Errant picked up speed.

“Hold on to something!” Kindred called out, pushing away from the fire, until her spine collided with the mainmast. She heard her call echoed by the captain, who sounded, if anything, joyful, ecstatic with the sudden speed and danger.

Rhabdus hooked an arm around a post and stared at Kindred. Her eyes full of a murderous rage that nearly blanched Kindred’s adrenaline, she shouted, “You’ve killed us all, girl.”

“Help us with her.” Stone-Gwen called Kindred’s attention away. She crawled over to where Sarah and Gwen struggled with Long Quixa’s still-unconscious form. Between the three of them, they dragged her to the mainmast and tied her tightly to it.

“I, for one, am glad we’re getting back a little sooner,” Ragged Sarah shouted over the roar of wind and fire, grinning again, as she tied herself to the mast next to Quixa. Stone-Gwen offered Kindred a nod before crawling away, staying low to the deck.

The Errant raced over the sea.

“Oh?” Kindred kept her eyes on the approaching landmass of Arcadia, trying to juggle their speed, their distance, her worry about the pirates potentially still following them, the likelihood of this all ending in disaster.

“Yeah. The sooner we get back,” Ragged Sarah shouted, “the sooner you can take me out for dinner.”

Kindred turned back, her mind suddenly a smooth wheel spinning in space, catching nothing, touching nothing, simply spinning.

Still smiling, Sarah nudged her with the remains of the rope. “You’d better tie yourself up.”

Kindred shook her head. “I can’t. Someone has to stop us.”

“Land, keeper!” came Captain Caraway’s voice, and Kindred angled around the mast to see the captain still at the wheel, the only one aboard still upright, her hair a tangled trail behind her head, laughter on her lips. “Land! Slow, slow, slow, keeper!” The wheel spun in her hands as she curled The Errant away from the island, an arc not sharp enough, Kindred saw when she looked up at Arcadia. Not nearly sharp enough.
Arcadia loomed large. Too large. Too quickly.

Kindred pushed away from the mast and lumbered toward the hearthfire, ignoring Rhabdus’ shouting over the torrential winds. Her knees felt like blocks of wood, and every step was a mountain.

She fought forwards on a collision course with the hearthfire even as The Errant raced on its collision course with Arcadia.

The lighthouses on the island were clearly visible now, the guards standing at the top framed by the blaze of their own casting fires. This close to the island, no pirates would dare approach lest they feel the wrath of Arcadia’s mage defenders.

Kindred stripped her black cloak from her back, flaring it out in front of her, the velvet night catching in the wind and becoming its own sail, though the fire had grown tall enough to be visible even above the cloak.

Kindred sang into the wind, her voice caught and thrown away immediately, though she knew the fire heard her. It always heard her.

Enough, enough, enough
Rest, perturbed spirit
Rest now, flame
Enough, enough, enough

Kindred fell forward onto her cloak, shifting her body so she wouldn’t impale herself on the single, tenuous bone but rather depress it, push it flat onto the bed of coals. Releasing every strained muscle, every tensed tendon, Kindred became a mass of fluttering cloth and heavy flesh falling.

For a moment, the fire wrapped around her, reaching blue and red arms around the suffocating cloak and embracing Kindred. She felt its warmth, heard the low susurration of its song, and for just that moment, Kindred was weightless, somehow supported by the fire’s embrace, as if she didn’t fall but flew over the deck, over the hearthfire.

But the moment was gone in an instant, and Kindred crashed down, her cloak covering the blaze. The hearthfire gasped as it reached for air, begged for it in the inky black of her cloak, but Kindred continued her refrain—enough, enough, enough—and held fast.

The Errant groaned and pitched, velocity vanishing as the hearthfire choked and suffocated.

And still Arcadia loomed, impossibly large now.

Colossal scrapings rent the air, sounds like the world falling apart.

Yes, Kindred thought, the cradle! The scraping noise grew, and Kindred could see in her mind the chains strung along through the sea, meant to hold up boats docking at Arcadia, meant to protect from the promise of the deeps.

The ship pushed forward, its speed dying but not yet dead, accompanied by the great rasping noise. Kindred tried not to think of the damage, the cost as the ship’s hull scraped and ground against the chains of the cradle. Ahead Arcadia’s buildings, the streets, the smoke from fires were all too close. The chains pulled and slowed, but maybe not enough, maybe too late.

The hearthfire beneath her was now nothing more than a haunting, a ghost of flames and heat pushing the ship forward.

“Come on.” Kindred’s whisper was buried in the world-rending noise of the cradle. “Enough now.”

The Errant lurched, stuttered to a stop, the chains of the cradle below the ship creaking, straining, pulling.

And holding.

The Errant had stopped, only a few lengths from the shore of Arcadia.

Kindred rolled onto her back, letting the breath rush from her lungs. Her body felt weighty, her mind thick, and it took a few moments for her to register the flares of color racing above her through the quickly darkening sky framed by the damaged sails.

Spells, she realized. The mages atop the lighthouses were raising the defenses, hurling their magicks into the grasses behind The Errant, pushing back the pirates, reclaiming their portion of the Forever Sea.

Kindred could feel the coals of the hearthfire beneath her, keeping their heat like misers, sullen in the darkness.

Ragged Sarah appeared over her, smiling, and then she scaled the nearest mast, moving quickly.

“Pirates away,” Sarah said, her words floating down to the deck like a cool breeze.

Above them, the spells of the defenders continued to light up the sky, flaring riotous.

 

Excerpted from The Forever Sea, copyright © 2020 by Joshua Philip Johnson.

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