Sneak Peek: Beyond the Pool of Stars by Howard Andrew Jones

Beyond the Pool of Stars by Howard Andrew JonesFrom critically acclaimed author Howard Andrew Jones comes a fantastical adventure of deep-water danger and unlikely alliances in Pathfinder Tales: Beyond the Pool of Stars, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder RPG. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter 1: Homecoming

Mirian

Every day, dozens of transport ships plied the waters between Sargava’s southern port and its capital, Eleder. Stacks of square-cut logs, crates of ivory, and packets of dried medicinal plants came north. Baskets of luxury goods and bright bales of Mulaa cloth went south.

These goods were shepherded by folk who sailed the route several times each week, so accustomed to the trip they scarcely came out from under the sun-bleached awnings or looked up from their deck benches. Although the occasional wanderer, pilgrim, or explorer might admire the rocky surf or the lush coastline, it was rare for the regulars to give much heed to either, and unheard of for them to crowd the rails.

But then, it wasn’t every day they saw a pirate ship. When the Red Leopard’s lookout cried warning, the passengers surged for a view of the doom to come.

Mirian Raas pushed her way through the throng. Despite the more pressing concerns, muted cries of outrage followed her wake. A pasty colonial woman openly scowled at her.

Mirian ignored them. She reached the Red Leopard’s starboard rail with the bulk of the mob to her right. She gripped it tight, searching through the tattered mist hung above the uncharacteristically dull waves. The fog had risen on the heels of afternoon rain, graying the turquoise waters and throwing a smoky curtain across the horizon. It lent a more fearsome aspect to the fast-moving raider astern—a two-master flying a snapping black banner with a sword in a skeletal hand.

Mirian scanned the pirate vessel swiftly, only to have her attention stolen by a startlingly familiar little ship beyond it, just visible through the fog.

The pirate ship had swung out from beyond the bluff, emerging only a quarter league aft, and the other passengers hadn’t the wit to see from its trajectory that its target wasn’t the Red Leopard. Mirian glanced back to the quarterdeck and read the same conclusion in the eyes and activities of the crew there. The raider was aimed for the little caravel flying Mirian’s family pennant.

Mirian would have recognized the lines of The Daughter of the Mist anywhere, even if the blue flag with a golden swordfish weren’t waving from its main mast. The ship’s sails were reefed, so Mirian knew the salvagers were below water searching for treasure, her brother Kellic probably leading.

The Daughter was swift and nimble when underway, but her crew was about to be caught flat-footed. They didn’t stand a chance against the surprise attack.

Not unless …

Mirian turned and fought back through the frightened crowd. She’d spent long years inland, but her sea legs were still good, and she had no trouble running the rolling deck once clear. In moments she stood near the wheel and Captain Akimba.

The captain cocked a skeptical eyebrow at her arrival. He was a spare, dark-skinned Ijo man with a blunt nose; he cut a rakish figure with his tricorne hat and well-tended light blue coat. He’d struck Mirian as both perceptive and good-natured as they’d traded pleasantries earlier that day.

She greeted him with a sharp nod. “Captain, we’ve got to help that ship.”

Akimba shook his head. “We can’t, Miss Raas.”

The stubby helmsman beside him goggled at the notion.

She continued her argument. “Between the Leopard and the Daughter, we’ll have enough men to stop her. I’m sure there’s a bounty on that pirate—”

Akimba’s mellow voice held little warmth. “You can’t know how many that pirate’s fielding, or how many are on that caravel.”

“Fine. Just get me close, then.”

His brows furrowed. “What?”

They were running out of time. Mirian struggled to keep her impatience checked. “Damn it, Captain, tack a few degrees starboard! You’ll pass close enough for me to swim for it.”

He blinked, dumbfounded, his broad-voweled accent more pronounced. “You want to go over the side? Alone?”

“Aye!” And from the pouch at her side she withdrew a small emerald. She grabbed his right hand and placed the gem in his calloused palm. “For the risk.”

He frowned, clearly weighing her sanity.

“That’s my family’s ship, Captain. My brother’s aboard.” He was probably below, but she was striving to be succinct.

Understanding dawned on Akimba even as his frown lines deepened. “I’m sorry, Miss Raas.” He sounded sincere. “There’s nothing you can do.”

“There’s little risk, and you’re being well compensated.”

Akimba stared at the gem. His voice softened as he met her eyes. “I can’t take this. Not in good conscience. You’d be killed.”

She showed teeth in a mirthless grin. “That’s my look-out, Captain.”

He stared at her only a moment longer before his fingers closed over the emerald. His voice deepened as he roared an order. “Helmsman, tack us four points to starboard!”

Even as the thickset man at the wheel growled acknowledgment, Akimba was shouting orders to the men in the masts. The cluster of passengers shifted along the deck and a handful advanced toward the helm, presumably to protest at a course change that even they could see put them closer to the pirate’s line.

“I’ve got to get my gear,” Mirian said.

“Make it fast,” Akimba growled.

She dashed for the port gangway, threw herself down the ladderlike stairs, and pushed through the tiny door to her cabin. Precious seconds flew as she unlocked and opened the curved lid of her sea chest.

Mirian withdrew the weathered sword belt and the sheathed cutlass that hung from it. After a moment’s hesitation she pulled off her blouse, leaving her torso garbed only in a tight undershirt. She dropped the garment into the chest.

She fumbled off her sandals, then slung her sword belt over one shoulder, put the key to the lock, and bowed her head briefly. Eyes closed, she asked for blessings—from Desna, goddess of luck, and from her ancestors. For the first time, she realized the latter now included her father. “Guide my hand,” she finished.

She dashed barefoot up to the weather deck. Chilton, the handsome first mate, addressed a gaggle of middle-aged colonial merchants and their families. Akimba was at the wheel, the air of immersion in his duties shielding him from the protestations below. A steady wind belled the sails and tore holes in the mist. The pirate was slowing as she neared the Daughter. For a moment the view was clear enough that she saw marauders readying swords along the pirate’s taffrail. The numbers indeed looked daunting.

Akimba glanced at her. “Closer than I dare, Miss Raas.” He looked almost apologetic. “You know my first duty is to the people and property entrusted to the Leopard.” He continued before she could thank him. “I’m sure you have some special salvaging gear, but think: what can one person do here?”

“Never underestimate the element of surprise, Captain. You’ll ship my dunnage to my mother at the Raas estate?”

“Aye, woman. You’ve paid me for both shipping and your suicide. May Gozreh bless you. Go!” He sounded angry, but she touched his shoulder in gratitude, for he’d brought his ship to within four cable lengths. She held off promising him a drink when next she saw him. Like most Ijo, Akimba probably had a healthy belief in sea ghosts. She didn’t want to sound like she planned to haunt him.

Mirian felt the eyes of the ship’s crew and passengers as she ran for the rail, and heard them speculating about the mad native woman.

She’d show them mad.

Mirian dove neatly over the side and passed seamlessly into a white-capped wave with the tiniest of splashes.

The water of Desperation Bay in the spring was only a little cool. The salt in her eyes was the worst transition, though one she’d expected. She kicked on, swimming steadily as her eyes adjusted.

Already the twin rings she wore had powered into effect. In appearance, they were virtually identical—plain black bands etched with sharp-tipped waves. Above water they seemed unremarkable. Below, they were something else entirely.

The ring on her right hand granted her the ability to move through water with the same ease she moved through air. Though she could still push against the water to swim, there was somehow no drag or delay in her actions.

More obvious were the magics activated by the ring on her left hand. The moment she’d struck the water, yellow translucent gills had blossomed along her neck. Matching flippers encased her naked calves, and glowing fins extended from her elbow to her wrist, tapering as they went.

These rare items were her heritage, one of two matched sets of arcane tools handed down from her eccentric great-grandmother. When she’d last seen the other pair, they’d been in her father’s possession. She assumed they were now worn by her brother, likely somewhere underwater nearby.

Mirian surfaced to get her bearings, rising only far enough to see the Daughter’s hull, dead ahead.

She kicked onward, felt her curly hair streaming out to brush her shoulders. A school of silver minnows darted past, pursued by a trio of hand-sized yellow arrow fish. Far below, a sea turtle browsed in a patch of sea grass waving on the edge of the drop-off to deeper waters

She spotted the pirate’s hull as it swept up beside the Daughter, a dark shape that blotted light. Grimly, she kicked with her full strength, willing herself to swim with all her might. Every moment she delayed might cost a life.

Agonizing minutes later she reached the pirate ship’s side. There were no sharks, the gods be praised. Maybe these pirates weren’t the sort who threw bloodied victims overboard.

Or maybe they just hadn’t gotten started yet.

Mirian focused on the pirate’s hull, looking for weakness as she kicked along. It probably lost a knot or two whenever it moved, owing to the barnacles encrusted everywhere. Yards of seaweed dangled from the keel like weird undersea banners.

Mirian opened the stiff pouch that dangled from the left side of her belt and grasped the haft of the third tool that was her family legacy. Here in the shadows, the wand was only a slim dark stick the length of her forearm. In direct sunlight it was a dull ivory banded in green. According to family record, her great-grandmother Mellient had waded into battle with a sword in one hand and her wand in the other. But Mirian Raas had little to no magical aptitude. Sometimes the wand refused to work for her, even when she gave it her full concentration. It was the most challenging of all her magical tools—and the most deadly. It was also the only one that required maintenance. After that Bandu assault outside Kalabuto, she had only seven charges remaining in the weapon. She’d have to make every one count.

She leveled the wand and concentrated. A stream of bubbles left her mouth as she said, “Sterak.”

A line of green energy streamed from the wand’s tip, striking the tarred planks with an audible hiss, burning a head-sized hole through the port hull halfway between keel and waterline. The rupture sent more bubbles streaming toward the surface. The expanding edges glowed green as the acidic energy ate into the wood.

She swam on. Three more times she struck. By the last she thought the ship might truly be listing: an undeniable distraction.

Mirian swam straight on to the smaller hull of the ship she knew so well. The Daughter showed little sea growth, but then her father and Rendak always meticulously saw to her care. Mirian had so often navigated to the starboard ladder that she could practically reach it with her eyes closed. She hung suspended beneath it for an agonizing minute to undo the jute knot securing her hilt, hoping her delay didn’t mean people were dying above. But there was no going forward until she had her sword free.

As the twine drifted, she saw a flash of movement from below the pirate ship. A distant creature swam toward her with a glowing yellow eye.

She readied the wand.

Only when she saw a second light behind the man carrying the first did she understand. She was looking at salvagers returning from the deeper water, each carrying a glowing, fist-sized stone. The man in front was a shirtless, paunchy colonial with a black fringe beard and receding hair: Rendak, the Daughter’s first mate and a seasoned salvager. His mouth enclosed one end of a tube that stretched over one shoulder. Mirian knew it was attached to one of the enchanted air bottles her grandfather had purchased when the salvaging team grew larger.

Rendak halted a few yards from her, his expression torn between pleasure and concern. He’d obviously noted the strange ship, as well as Mirian. Perhaps he thought she’d arrived on it. The second figure swam up beside him, his lips likewise about a tube that led to a shoulder pack—Gombe, the broad-shouldered Mulaa salvager who’d joined the team a year before Mirian left. Where was Kellic?

Explanations and a reunion would have to wait.

She pointed to the hull and gave the salvagers a hand sign that signified pirates. Rendak’s eyes widened. He was a little heavier, a little grayer than she remembered, but he still looked more than capable. Bald Gombe was trim and fit.

She then pointed to the lights and brought her hands together. Rendak nodded and dimmed the glowing stone. That was new equipment. Gombe hesitated before doing the same.

Three against forty or so was better than one against forty or so … Mirian pushed the odds from her mind and focused her attention on the ship. She thought she heard shouts above. Hopefully that was the pirates expressing outrage at the calamity overtaking their foundering vessel.

She indicated herself and the ladder, then pointed the salvagers toward the ship’s prow. Rendak gave a thumbs-up.

Mirian waited just below the surface, watching as the two men swam for the Daughter’s prow. Despite the irk of additional delay, she judged it best to time their attack to occur at the same moment as her own.

She breathed out while still underwater, then took a slow breath after breaching the surface. It was a hard fight not to cough. Magical assistance or no, her lungs had to acclimatize once more to air. She steadied herself with the ladder.

From the deck came the sounds of men shouting for others to stand still, the clomp of boots.

There was no telling how many pirates were really up there, or whether they’d actually been inconvenienced by her attack on their ship’s hull. She might have overestimated the damage, or it might not yet have been noticed.

She supposed she’d find out. She started stealthily up the ladder, through the mist.

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