Once a notorious viking and pirate, Jendara has at last returned to the cold northern isles of her home, ready to settle down and raise her young son. Yet when a mysterious tsunami wracks her island’s shore, she and her fearless crew must sail out to explore the strange island that’s risen from the sea floor. No sooner have they arrived in the lost island’s alien structures, however, than they find themselves competing with a monstrous cult eager to complete a dark ritual in those dripping halls. For something beyond all mortal comprehension has been dreaming on the sea floor. And it’s begun to wake up…
Starspawn, the sequel to Hugo Award Winner Wendy N. Wagner’s Skinwalkers, is available now. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Jendara put down the file and checked the edge of her blade. She’d worked out the last of the nicks, but the sword could use a touch of the whetstone to bring out the edge. She reached for the bottle of oil at her elbow and paused. It was the kind of autumn morning in the Ironbound Archipelago that she loved. The smoke of her village’s fires rose up in straight blue streaks, and the sound of children at play resounded in the crisp air.
She turned from her makeshift workbench, a split length of driftwood balanced on two fat stumps, already smiling. “Good morning, Boruc.”
“No sign of the Milady yet?” The big man tucked his thumbs into his belt—nearly hidden under the bulge of his belly—and glanced out at the harbor.
“Not yet, but the tide only turned a few hours ago. The boatyards at Halgrim aren’t that close.”
“That captain husband of yours ought to hurry.” Boruc grinned, and his teeth showed brightly against the red of his beard. A native islander like Jendara, he’d become one of her closest friends in the time since she’d returned to the archipelago. “Doesn’t he know it’s your birthday?”
“You remembered?” She laughed and got to her feet.
The ground moved beneath her in a sickening shudder.
She grabbed onto the workbench to steady herself. The earth jolted and jumped, and from the cottage behind her came the smashing of glass. A heavy yelm of thatch crashed down off the roof.
Her mind leaped to her son. “Kran!” She stumbled as the ground gave a last shake, then found her footing again. She sheathed the sword and broke into a run. “He went to the beach with Oric and that damn dog.”
“You ain’t got much time,” Boruc warned.
Jendara knew it. She’d grown up on an island not that different from this one, and she’d spent her life on the sea—she’d seen what could happen after an earthquake. She scanned the horizon. It was probably too early for the ocean to rise up, but given the power of the shaking, the tsunami wouldn’t be long.
A woman raced out into the street. “Fire! My house is on fire!”
Any other time, the rest of the village would have rushed to help her, but not now. People stumbled out of their houses, running uphill. Jendara could already see the tide turning in the harbor, the water pulling itself away from the shore like a blanket whipped back from a muddy bed.
“Kran!” she bellowed. The boy had brains. He knew he had to get away from the shore.
A man shoved her aside.
“Gotta get uphill!” he shouted over his shoulder, and she saw the chicken clutched under his arm and the blue beads strung in his beard. The baker, Norg.
His wife ran behind him. “Get out of here, Jendara!”
“Kran!” Jendara shouted again. The boats at the piers were already high and dry.
“Jendara!” A tall man with sandy hair and beard—Morul—caught her by the arm. “Tell me the boys are already headed up to Boruc’s house.”
“I haven’t found them yet.” She caught the look of panic in his eyes. “I’ll get the boys. You get Leyla to high ground!”
“She can’t walk yet—the fever’s got her knocked out.”
“Then you better hurry!”
She broke away from him, her own fear climbing in her throat. Kran was a smart lad and levelheaded for a twelve-year-old. He should have made it up from the beach by now.
The crowds pressed against her and she found herself shoving aside old men, children—anyone that stood between her and her son. She could already see the ridge of water forming on the horizon. It didn’t look like much right now, but she knew these waves to be deceptive. When it hit the island, it could be devastating.
Her boots slid on the mud of the beach. Were they down by the boats or over by the caves? The beach itself was empty, dotted with abandoned clam shovels and buckets.
He couldn’t answer, of course. That only made it all the worse. Her boy, her precious boy, was mute.
But Oric wasn’t. Kran’s best friend shrieked like a stuck pig, his voice bouncing off the rocks by the caves. Anger lit Jendara’s blood on fire. Even on a good day, the caves were dangerous.
She raced toward the rocks.
And then skidded to a stop.
She stared at the two boys on the nearest outcropping of rocks, unable to quite make sense of what was happening. Her son had Oric by the arm, but the other lad was clearly stuck between the two great rocks—a space she herself had passed through a dozen times collecting mussels.
“Help!” Oric screamed again. Kran looked over his shoulder, his eyes black circles in a too-white face. His little dog burst out of the gap between the rocks, whimpering. She was caught in something as well—some kind of thick, sparkly rope had wound itself around her chest, binding her to the stones.
Jendara scrambled up beside Kran. The ocean began to growl softly, the sound of all the rocks and debris it had sucked up now grinding along at the bottom of the sea bed. She could feel sweat prickling in her armpits.
The same tough rope had snared Oric, she saw.
Jendara drew her sword. She’d never seen rope like this. It clung to the tow-headed boy with the stickiness of tar, and it shimmered with a pale purple-blue light. It reminded her of a spider’s web—if the spider were the size of a small cottage.
She hacked through it, glad she’d sharpened her blade. The roaring was getting louder.
Kran jumped down beside the dog, pulling on its front legs.
“Cut the dog free,” Jendara snapped at him.
He shook his head wildly and held up an empty hand.
“Where’s your damned belt knife?”
“He must have left it at my house.” Oric was nearly babbling. He wriggled and twitched as the words bubbled out.
“We were whittling and then we needed mussels for your birthday dinner and—” He broke off at the fury in her eyes.
She seized the boy by the armpits and yanked him free of the rocks. A strip of skin ripped free of the back of her hand, stuck fast to the strange silk, and she hissed.
“Now run!” She slashed the binding on the dog and then sheathed her sword. “Get running, both of you!”
They slipped and slid on the mud. The dog raced past them. It might have been a half-sized, ugly thing, but it wasn’t stupid.
Jendara risked a glance over her shoulder. The wave had picked up speed. It towered over the bay, a wall of mud and debris ready to crash down and swallow the island. They were never going to make it to the safety of the hilltop.
She put on a burst of speed to pass the boys. “To the meeting hall!” She stretched her hand behind her and caught Kran’s sleeve.
The meeting hall was the largest and sturdiest building in the village, and stood on a knoll of rock above the main street. Decorative finials stuck up from each end of the high ridgeline of its shingled roof, while colorfully painted columns outlined a covered porch. She ran her hands over the green-and-blue surface of the nearest column. Kran wouldn’t have any problem shinnying up it.
“On the roof,” she ordered. He was up the column in a flash, and then immediately put out his hand to help his friend. Oric leaped onto the column but slid down again. He was bigger than Kran and less agile.
Jendara gave him a shove and let him scramble up onto her shoulders. His boot knocked into her head as he struggled up onto the roof.
The dog whimpered.
Jendara risked a look over her shoulder and felt her stomach twist. The sea had arrived in the harbor. It raised itself above the beach, hoisting longships and sailboats up into its muddy mass with a nasty crashing crunch.
There was no time for shinnying up the column. Jendara grabbed the dog by its collar and flung it onto the porch roof. Then she jammed her belt knife into the column and pulled herself up. Her hand closed on the edge of the roof as the great wave hit the first row of houses.
Walls boomed and crumpled, wooden joints screeching as they ground together. Jendara hung for a second, and then Kran grabbed the back of her jacket. She came up onto the roof.
It wasn’t high enough here. They had to get to the top of the building, the ridgeline with its finials—they could hang onto those.
“Up!” she shouted.
Kran was already moving. The next section of roof was much higher and steeper, and for a second she thought he wouldn’t be able to get a grip on it, but he did. Oric was right behind him. He caught a shingle and dangled for second. Then the shingle broke free.
The boy hit the roof of the porch and slid down. Jendara lunged for him. Her fingers closed on his wrist and his weight hit the end of his arm with a crack. He screamed in pain and grabbed her with his other hand just as the wave smashed into the side of the meeting hall.
The water slammed down on Jendara, driving out light and air and all sense of up or down. An incredible crackling and ripping resounded around her. For a second, she couldn’t breathe.
Then with a powerful crunching, the porch roof ripped free of the meeting hall. Jendara gasped for air as she popped to the surface of the water.
The roof slid along the side of the meeting hall, riding the muddy mass of the wave. Oric clung to her, and she clung to the edge of the porch. If the roof broke apart or sank, the debris caught in the floodwater would crush them.
The wave drove them into the side of the next house. The walls had cracked and buckled against the power of the water. Wood groaned and snapped all around them. Over the powerful stink of mud and brine, the smell of smoke was choking. The earthquake had caused its own damage via fireplaces and woodstoves.
She looked around, desperate for her boy. She made out his silhouette on the still-intact ridgeline of the meeting hall and felt herself relax a little. If he was still all right, she could focus on saving herself and Oric.
“Jendara!” Oric’s voice cracked with fear.
Jendara whipped her head around. A wall of debris was headed right for them: wood and rubble and a still-recognizable door, jutting out of the swirling water like a giant knife.
Jendara shoved against the broken house. She wasn’t going to die pinned to a cottage, stabbed to death and buried in muck. She’d killed a giant and a troll and faced down a horde of barbarian shapeshifters. She had a family, a business, friends. Damn it, she wasn’t going to drown!
The porch roof popped free of the broken house. The figurehead of a longship smashed into the wall where they’d been trapped, and with a groan, the house began to collapse on itself. The porch roof bobbed into the middle of the street. The water had carried them uphill, but it was still up to the bottoms of the windows, at least four feet high, and it would only get higher until the floodwaters withdrew.
Jendara searched for safety. They couldn’t stay on this makeshift raft. Another wave would rip it apart or smash it into bits. Her eye caught the building on the far side of the street—the blacksmith’s. The only stone building in the village. Its porch wasn’t much, but it was the best shelter she could see.
She grabbed a length of board floating beside her and poled hard. The road beneath her climbed the hill, and the current was fighting her now as the water pulled back for its next pounding wave. The raft shuddered as it moved slowly through the churning water.
She drove her pole between the slats of someone’s garden fence. The support column for the blacksmith’s overhanging roof was just a few feet away. Someplace nearby someone screamed for help, and her heart gave a squeeze.
But she couldn’t help anyone if she didn’t help herself first.
She jerked her chin at the porch, arms trembling to hold the roof-raft in place. “Get over there!”
Oric grabbed onto the fence with his good hand and jumped off the raft. The water was shoulder deep on him, but he didn’t complain. He might not have Kran’s stoicism, but he was still an islander through and through.
Jendara jumped off the raft. The water tugged the raft away in an instant, smashing it into a floating log. It sank immediately.
Here on the other side of the sturdy garden fence, there was a little less floating debris. A plow sluiced past, grinding against Jendara’s side and bumping up against the fence with a heavy thud. She hoped the fence would hold a little longer.
Wading was hard. The water pulled her back with every step, and rocks and broken tree branches slammed against her chest and legs. Oric slipped and slid, then made it up onto the porch. Though the difference in height was slight, she thanked the ancestors as she followed him up onto the porch. There was less wreckage moving in the water, and the current wasn’t as strong. She took hold of the porch column, then frowned.
Oric gripped the column with one arm, but the other hung uselessly at his side. He must have dislocated it when she’d grabbed him on the roof. If another big wave hit, he’d be gone.
She felt for her belt, the leather stiff in the saltwater. Cursing, she got it off and around the column. “Grab onto that,” she ordered.
Then the next wave hit, and all she could do was cling to the column and the boy and try to protect her head as mud and smashed stonework and broken bits of everything battered them. She coughed and spluttered.
The next wave seemed a little smaller—or perhaps she was simply used to it. She lost count of them as they came, driving flotsam into the corners of the porch and dragging it back out into the street. A dead duck washed up against the pillar and floated in the eddy, its yellow feet sticking up in the air as the water spun it in a slow circle. Then it sank beneath the muck.
Between the waves, she stared at the roof of the meeting hall and watched Kran and the dog huddle in silent misery as the water slowly withdrew. He had never felt so far away, and she had never been so powerless to help him. She had thrown away her old life—a dangerous life, to be sure, spent serving bloodthirsty Besmara, the pirate goddess—to find someplace safe to finish bringing up her boy. Leave it to nature to prove her wrong.
Oric shivered beside her, and she risked letting go of the column to grip his shoulder. If only he hadn’t gotten caught in that stuff down by the rocks, that strange silky rope like spider webbing. They would all be up at Boruc’s house waiting for the water to recede, warm and dry and safe.
It was just bad luck, she supposed. As the Varisians might say, it was just a bad alignment of the stars, bringing misfortune down upon their entire village. She shivered and tightened her grip on the column.
The breeze strengthened, pushing aside a few clouds and inviting the sun to play on the surface of the floodwaters.
They were receding, she realized. The houses on this stretch of the street were badly battered, and the ones closer to the beach were smashed and ruined, but at least the worst was over.
“I’ve got to get Kran,” she told Oric. “You stay here.”
“Don’t leave me!”
“You’ll be fine. The water’s going down. And Kran’s been alone this whole time.”
“We would have all been out of here if he hadn’t wanted to make you that stupid present,” Oric grumbled.
Jendara shot him a stern look. “You’ll be fine,” she repeated. She took a careful step down from the porch. Something shifted beneath her feet and she gritted her teeth. There was no way to see what lay beneath the surface of the water—the stuff was as opaque as milk and as dark as garden soil. The worst might be over, but that didn’t mean it was safe.
It was like capturing a rival pirate ship, she thought, setting her foot carefully before taking the next cautious step. They fought hard on the deck and you felt your blood boil as you cut your way forward, knowing every hand was set to kill you. But that was only the obvious danger. Down below was where the real nasty stuff waited: the injured happy to take someone to Pharasma’s Boneyard when they went, the vicious cook devoted to his captain, the booby traps some loyal mate had set when all seemed lost.
Back in her pirate days, she’d seen plenty of her crewmates killed after the battle was ostensibly won, and she’d learned a thing or two. She kept her focus on the ground and the debris floating around her knees, and she moved slowly, even if every bit of her wanted to race back to the meeting hall and make sure Kran was all right.
Then she was there. The porch columns were slick with mud, and some stood at odd angles. She didn’t trust them. She looked around for an alternate route.
To her left, Kran’s dog barked.
She turned. The dog stood on the canted roof of the house beside the hall. At some point, a massive fir tree had toppled down on the broken house, and now lay at an angle, its top driven into the colorful wall of the meeting hall and its roots tangled in the wreckage below. The dog must have climbed down the tree.
“Smarter than you look,” she grumbled. The yellow-and-white mutt wasn’t the companion she would have picked for her boy. It wasn’t a sturdy herding dog or a fine hound bred for hunting, just some stray he’d found by the docks, good for nothing but eating Jendara’s venison. “Come here…” She tried to remember its name. “Fylga. Come.”
The dog scrambled onto the tree trunk and began climbing back up to the roof of the meeting hall.
“Or maybe not.” Jendara picked her way toward the base of the tree and gave it a shove. It felt solid.
In the distance, wood groaned and crumpled. Someone called for help again, the voice thin and tired. She had to get moving; people needed her.
The boy peered over the roofline at her. He pointed at the tree and spread his hands questioningly.
“It’s safe, I think. But hurry!”
He came down the tree cautiously, clinging to it like a bear cub. Jendara found herself reaching for him before he even made it to the halfway point. Her lip hurt from biting into it. The meeting hall could collapse, the tree could shift, the house could crumple more—
And then she had a hold of him and he was on the ground and she was squeezing him tight, tighter than she’d hugged him in years. He was twelve, after all. And he’d never been a cuddly boy, even when he’d been little.
He kissed her cheek and hugged her back. Then he pulled away, a smile spreading over his face. With his black hair hanging in wet clumps, that smile looked even whiter and broader than usual.
He pointed at the demolished house beside them, and it took Jendara a minute to make out what he saw in the midst of the broken beams and the sludge of mud. There was only the hint of colorful paint to remind her of the meeting hall’s porch columns, one of which had been driven through the ruins of the house next door.
And there, jutting out of what had probably been a blue-and-green painted sea star, was the belt knife she’d stabbed into the wood as a handhold just before the wave had hit. Kran wrenched it free with a grunt, and handed it to her, beaming.
Maybe her stars weren’t so badly aligned after all.
Copyright © 2016 by Paizo Inc.
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