Dragon Mage – Riders of Fire Dragon Masters 2
A young dragon mage with raw, untamed power. A trapped sea dragon that only he can free. And a vindictive trainer ruthlessly plotting to kill him.
Giddi, a powerful young mage, can mind-meld with dragons at will, making him the only dragon mage in Dragons’ Realm. If he wasn’t so brash and impulsive, he might amount to something.
It would help if his missing father could train him. Instead, he’s stuck with Starrus—the sole mage who knows his father’s whereabouts. But his arrogant trainer wants him dead.
As if fighting fearless pirates, freeing a sea dragon and battling a kraken isn’t enough, Starrus abandons Giddi in the hot desert sands of the Wastelands, leaving him as carrion for the Robandi Silent Assassins…
By the dragon gods! How will he survive? Will he find his father?
Or will he die trying?
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Dragon Mage: Opening Chapters
Prologue – A Year Ago
Giddi caressed Ma’s hand, his sit bones aching from perching on the hard chair next to her bed all night. He’d stayed up, keeping vigil. There was no one to relieve him, so, apart from short privy breaks and grabbing food for both of them, he’d been at his mother’s bedside for days.
At least now she was sleeping peacefully. Her breathing was so quiet he could hardly hear it, like the whisper of a faint breeze through a strongwood on an almost calm day.
Crisp footfalls sounded in the hallway. The bedroom door opened. Master Mage Balovar entered and closed the door quietly. “How is she?” he asked, nodding at Ma, his dark eyes concerned.
Ma’s eyelids fluttered. “Hello, Balovar,” she said, her voice as weak as a hatchling’s wings.
Balovar leaned over the bed and kissed her forehead. “How are you doing today?”
She smiled, her eyes drifting shut and her hand slipping out of Giddi’s onto the quilt.
Balovar pulled up another chair, gingerly placing it next to Giddi’s. “A messenger bird from your father arrived for Starrus today,” he said quietly. “This time, he enclosed something for you.”
“He did?” Giddi burst out, then hushed as Ma stirred.
Pa had finally contacted him. It’d been moons since he or Ma had heard from his father. A year ago, when Starrus had returned from a secret quest without Giddi’s father, he’d told them Gideon—Starrus’ trainer and Giddi’s father—had been delayed on secret business.
Maybe Pa was finally coming home.
Balovar passed a piece of creased parchment to him. Giddi was so excited, he nearly dropped it. He ran his thumb across the imprint of a flame in the honey-yellow wax seal. Yes, it was Pa’s, all right. Eagerly, he broke it.
I’ve hurt my hand, but I trust you can still read my script. My apologies for passing this message on via Starrus, but he’s the only one I trust to deliver it safely. If anyone else knows my whereabouts, I’m in risk of being endangered.
Son, you’re of age now.
Giddi puffed up his chest. He was eleven years’ old, and proud of it.
Because I can’t be with you, I’d like Starrus to train you in my absence. I’ve taught him everything I know, and he’s an honorable man. Heed him, and learn well. I hope to be back with you and your ma soon.
Until your flames light up the night sky,
‘Back with you and your ma soon?’ Giddi could scarcely believe it. Ma had always told Giddi that Pa would come back, but he’d been gone twelve moons, now.
Hang on. If Pa was coming home soon, why would Starrus need to train him? Giddi sighed. Pa’s words were a platitude to make him feel better, not a promise.
Balovar leaned in, “Do you mind?” He plucked the letter from Giddi’s hand and read it aloud to Ma, his voice a gentle murmur.
Then he passed Giddi back the letter and stood. He tousled Giddi’s hair—as if he were a littling.
When would adults see he was grown? Giddi didn’t need to be petted like a newborn dragonet. He rolled his eyes at Balovar’s back as the master mage turned back to Ma.
“I hope you get better soon.” Balovar nodded at Ma, then strode to the door. On the threshold, he paused. “You know you’re like a son to me, Giddi. Come and see me if you need anything.” He turned the doorknob. “You can start training tomorrow with Starrus. I’ll meet you both in the clearing at noon.”
As Balovar shut the door, Ma stirred and tried to sit up. She coughed, spasms rattling her chest, then slumped even deeper into the pillows. Her eyes bright with tears, she whispered, “I miss Gideon.”
All these moons, Ma had never said that once. She’d comforted Giddi, told him Pa would be home again soon. Never once had she shown sadness.
Giddi squeezed her hand. “Like you said, Ma, he’ll be home soon.” Although, from the sound of things, that was highly unlikely. “Don’t worry. Just rest, so you can get better.”
“I want to see him again.” Tears spilled from her eyes. She grasped the covers. “Find him, Giddi. Find your father.” Her chest rattled with a mighty spasm, her head lolled to one side and her breathing stilled.
“Ma.” Giddi picked up her limp hand and felt her wrist for a pulse.
His heart thundering, he touched her neck. Still nothing.
And her chest was still. No breath ghosted from her lips.
“Ma, no!” he whispered.
Eyes stinging, he placed her hand back on the quilt and kissed her cheek. “Good bye, Ma.” He was enveloped by the scent of her lavender soap.
Her last words burned through him. Find him, Giddi. Find your father.
He had to be brave. He had to find Pa.
Bound for Naobia
Giddi sighed and dipped his mop in the battered pail. He wrung it out and shoved it back and forth across the bloodstained deck. Gods, this was a gruesome job. It had been bad enough seeing the needless slaughter in battle. They’d barely cleared the corpses of dead pirates and sailors away before Starrus had started ordering him about, putting on airs in front of the ship’s captain as if Giddi were a slave—not a mage in training. It was as if Starrus was oblivious to the carnage, the dead people, the heavy weight of grief weighing on Giddi’s chest.
Luckily the captain was goodhearted, not like the Scarlet Hand. The pirate’s hands had been tanned, not red but it didn’t take much imagination to guess how he’d earned his name. Rumors said the new scourge of the Naobian Sea ate the hearts of his enemies. After seeing the bloodshed and carnage from their short battle today, Giddi believed it. The man was ruthless. He shuddered, suppressing the memory of a young green rider whose body had been sheared in two on dragonback, he and his injured dragon falling into the sea for the sharks to devour.
Giddi shrugged and kept on mopping. There was nothing for it. Hopefully his luck would change when they reached Naobia.
Sailors called to each other as they reattached the rigging to the newly-mended main mast. It’d been lashed together with ropes after a green dragon’s tail had caught in the rigging during their battle earlier that day. Without the mast and sails, the ship had lolled on the sea like a good-for-nothing layabout, rising and falling on the swell, a miasma of burned flesh and charred timber hanging over it.
A few green dragons darted around the boat, their riders catching ropes from the sailors below and leaning out at daring angles to attach them to the spars or throw them to sailors up the masts.
Goren, leader of the Naobian green guards, wheeled on his emerald dragon, calling out to the other dragon riders. He’d been at it for the past hour, and his voice was nearly hoarse.
Giddi mind-melded with Goren’s dragon, Rengar. “Why doesn’t he mind-meld with their dragons instead of yelling? That’d save his voice.”
“The riders and dragons can’t hear him when he mind-melds. Only I can,” Rengar replied. “We can hear you, of course, because you’re the dragon mage. Other than that, we only hear our own riders. Besides, sometimes Goren prefers to bellow to give himself an air of authority. He’s rather young to be leader of the green guards, you know.”
Even though Goren was young, he was at least ten summers older than Giddi, and the dark-haired dragon rider barely needed more of an air of authority. There was a toughness about him, as if he’d grown up on the streets, that made Giddi more than a little wary.
Finally, the sails were furled and ready, and the crew awaiting the captain’s instructions. The captain prowled along the damp deck, running an eye over the shrouds.
Giddi plunked his mop back in the old wooden pail and leaned against the railing. He mopped his brow. It was much warmer on the Naobian Sea than back home in Great Spanglewood Forest. Thank the Egg he’d stowed his mage cloak in a hammock below deck.
“Trim the sails,” the captain bellowed, “but don’t put too much strain on that mast. It has to get us to Naobia.”
Sailors sprang into action, heaving on the ropes. The mast creaked ominously as they unfurled the mainsail. The soot-stained fabric snapped and caught in the breeze; the edges charred from the fiery breath of Scarlet Hand’s sea dragon.
Giddi shook his head. Who’d have thought a pirate could tame a sea dragon.
The captain stalked along the deck, inspecting his crew’s handiwork. Giddi snatched up his mop and swabbed another dark stain on the planking. As the captain passed him, water crested over the side of his pail and splashed the captain’s boots and breeches. Odd. Giddi hadn’t noticed the ship tilting on the swell.
The captain spun, his jaw snapping shut, and glared at Giddi.
“Sorry sir, I must’ve kicked the bucket.” He grinned and added, “Not metaphorically, but literally.” Although his foot hadn’t been anywhere near it.
The captain’s face broke into a wry smile. “Come on, boy don’t be sloppy. You’re not drowning those stains, you’re cleaning them.” He shook the water from his boots and strode off.
There was a muffled snigger behind Giddi’s back. He spun. Sure enough, he hadn’t nudged the pail at all. Starrus was grinning, his hands twitching. His flaming trainer had used his magic to slop water over the captain on purpose.
Scowling, Giddi dunked his mop and kept swabbing.
Later that afternoon as Giddi was tying off a rope on the boom, the end of the rope whipped out and lashed his wrist. A nasty red welt rose on his inner arm. By the flaming First Egg, it stung. As he rubbed his stinging flesh, his eyes meet Starrus’ gaze.
There was a malicious glint in his trainer’s eye. “I hope you’re all right,” Starrus said. “There’s not much you can do when ropes catch in a gust of wind.”
What gust of wind?
Starrus always played dirty when no one was looking. And no one was here to reprimand him. They were far from the Mage Council or any other mages—except Master Mage Findal, the Naobian mage who’d been kidnapped and was on the Scarlet Hand’s ship heading for the Wastelands. Starrus was right—there was nothing Giddi could do.
Giddi snatched the end of the rope again, determined to ignore Starrus. It slid through his fingers, burning his palm and leaving a trail of torn skin. Giddi’s belly burned with rage. He thrust out his injured hand. “Look what you did.” His anger surged, rushing down his limbs. Energy coiled in his palm and wind gusted from his fingers across the deck.
Starrus, caught by the sudden gale, flew backward, slamming his back on the rail, then landed on the deck on his backside. He clambered to his feet, face thunderous.
Giddi hastily tied off the rope, picked up a pail, and strode toward the newly-appointed first mate. The last one had been buried at sea only a few hours ago. The first mate was talking to a sailor who was bent over a barrel, nailing a lid back on.
“How long until we get to shore, sir?” Giddi asked.
The first mate squinted. Shading his eyes with his hand, he looked up at the creaking rigging. “The best part of five days, depending on whether the mast holds. If not, it could take a week or longer.”
Giddi groaned. A week with Starrus? These past few hours already felt like forever.
On Giddi’s third day on the merchant ship, the wind died. The ship’s sails drooped, hanging flaccid. The timbers of the ship gave the odd creak, but the shrouds hung slack. Occasionally, a small puff of breeze made a sail flutter, and the crew hopefully stirred, just to have their hope die as the breeze did.
The sky was a clear and cloudless carpet of endless cerulean-blue. Giddi yearned to soar on dragonback over the sea. No such luck. He was still here, trapped under Starrus’ watchful gaze. There was no glade nearby to wander off into, no clearing where he could escape unnoticed for a few moments of peace. Nowhere to go where Starrus couldn’t find him—only this shrotty ship.
The ample-bellied cook ambled out of the galley toward the captain, cursing under his breath. His ruddy complexion was marred by a ferocious scowl, the paleness of his sun-bleached eyebrows almost comical. “By the shrotty lice-infected tail of a cranky dog. Captain, the hold is overrun with rats. They’ve eaten the hardtack, all but a wee barrel, and dirtied our supply of flour.”
“What of the dried beef and salted pork?” the captain asked.
“We used the last of the beef yesterday and a rat gnawed through the last barrel of pork. The water ran out of the hole, then they got in to soil it, so now it stinks of rat dung.”
The depth of the captain’s scowl matched the cook’s, but his was anything but comical. “How did this happen? I thought someone was on hold duty.”
“Ook was killed in the battle, sir, and no one thought—”
“Of course, no one thought.” The captain sighed. “I’m the only one who thinks around here. How bad is it?”
“We’ve enough for a bite of supper tonight and some broth in the morning, sir.” The cook yanked off his hat and wrung it between his hands. “We’re still at least three days from shore.” He gazed at the limp sail. “If not more.”
“All hands to the oars,” the captain bellowed.
Sailors rushed down into the hold.
“My oarsmen will be hungrier than a nesting dragon with all that hard work.”
Giddi nodded. Pulling oars would be much more strenuous than running up the rigging and trimming a few sails.
The captain spun on his heel, all business. “You two!” He waved a hand at Starrus and Giddi. “Get down to the hold too.”
His straw-blond hair glinting in the sun, Starrus drew himself up, puffing out his chest as if he were a master mage. “I hardly think that the best use of a mage’s talents is pulling on the oars to get us to shore.” He quirked an eyebrow gazing down his nose at the captain.
“I know that,” the captain snapped. “Which is why you’re on rat-killing duty. If we can’t find anything else, at least we can eat rat.”
Ugh. Giddi’s stomach churned.
Starrus reeled back, grimacing. “Surely you can’t expect us to—”
“You’ll do what I ask, and you’ll eat what you’re given. Now, get to it, and stop those rats from ruining whatever else we have left.” The captain disappeared down the hatch to the main hold.
Green guards swooped down to the ship, taking turns to alight and let their riders down to help with the oars. Goren gave them a grim nod as he and his team of riders descended into the hold to have their turn at the oars. Their dragons wheeled back into the sky above the becalmed ship.
Cook shrugged. “The food’s kept down there.” He gestured at the aft hatch. “I’ll get back to the galley and scrape together something for when the men finish their shift. Bring me up what you can salvage.”
Starrus flourished a hand at the rickety ladder leading down the narrow hole into the hold.
Giddi grabbed the rungs and headed down into the gloom. When he was halfway down, Starrus’ boot landed on his back. Giddi tumbled down the rungs, smacking his shoulder and hip, and landed on the planks with a thud that knocked the wind out of him.
Why, of all the stinkiest tricks! Anger burning through his belly again, he scrambled to his feet. He couldn’t dare let a single spark slide from his fingertips. He’d be tried for insubordination. He was only a lowly trainee mage; Starrus was his better.
Giddi settled for a snort and let a tiny ball of green mage flame flare from his fingers. He gently set it free. The mage light bobbed around the stinking, stifling hold, casting an eerie glow over an assortment of barrels, bolts of cloth, chests, and jars. Ominous squeaking and the skitter of scurrying feet made Giddi’s back ripple with goose flesh. It wasn’t that he didn’t like rats…
Gods, it was warm down here. The air was fetid with the stench of rat droppings. The taste clung to the roof of his mouth. Jammed itself down his throat, making his stomach roil.
Starrus’ boots thunked as he clambered off the ladder and leaped to the deck. “That was a bit clumsy of you. Still, accidents can’t be helped. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Giddi refrained from rubbing his throbbing shoulder, not wanting to give Starrus the pleasure of knowing he’d hurt him. “I’m fine.”
Red eyes ventured out from the shadows behind a chest, gleaming in the glow of Giddi’s mage light. A tail disappeared down the center of a bolt of gold-and-blue striped fabric.
Giddi held his hand high, more light flaring from his fingers.
There was a shrill squeak. Suddenly, a horde of rats scampered out of their hiding spaces from behind barrels and chests, the patter of their feet drowning out Giddi’s thundering heart. The hold seethed as they raced over a sack of flour that had been gnawed open, the contents littered with dark droppings. Sharp teeth gleamed in the dark. Vermin swarmed over bolts of cloth and skittered across trunks, a massive, furry tide.
Light flared from Starrus’ fingers. “Kill the shrotty vermin,” he rasped and flung a bolt of green flame. His trainer’s mage flame hit a rat, blasting a hole in its side. The rat dropped to the planking, its body smoking. Others squeaked and fled, scampering behind trunks and barrels, worming their way through tattered bales of cloth. One dived into the half-open sack, and others followed, until the sack twitched and bulged like a dying corpse.
Starrus thrust his hands out and set the sack ablaze. It crackled, the scent of charred meat filling the hold. He closed his fingers into his fist and the flames died, leaving a pile of smoking flesh, fur and ash.
Giddi’s eyes watered and bile rose in his throat. He coughed, trying to swallow his gorge. He flung out a finger and shot a bolt of fire at a rat slinking along a beam on the hull. Engulfed in flame, it landed on a bale of golden cloth which flared to life, burning with a vengeance. Giddi twisted his fingers, pulling the energy back inside himself. The flames died.
A rat skittered along the ceiling and launched itself at Starrus. The rodent sank its teeth into his trainer’s shoulder. Starrus bellowed. Giddi threw a tiny fireball at the rat and its body fell at Starrus’ feet, twitching and reeking of mage flame. Three more took its place, leaping at his trainer, but this time, Starrus was ready. Hands out, Giddi’s trainer let out a swathe of blistering fire that killed all three rats. He mopped his brow then extinguished the burning carcasses. “Filthy vermin,” Starrus snarled. He kicked one of the rat carcasses across the hold. It thudded against a trunk, spraying ash and charred fur.
Giddi spun as a rat scampered across his boot. Flame seared from his fingers. The rodent’s fur lit up like a ghostly green halo. The rat’s shrill squeal rang through the hold, nearly slicing his ears in two, then it was silent.
Five rats rushed at Giddi, their high-pitched shrieks ringing in his ears. His pulse pounded. Energy boiled in his core and coursed through his arm. He thrust his hand out and a bolt of flame shot out of each fingertip, the luminescent green light making Giddi squint as it hit the rats and neatly sliced off each off their heads. The headless carcasses ran in circles, their necks cauterized by the mage flame and stinking of cooked flesh. Then they dropped dead. Giddi spun to fend off another attack, flinging out his hand and severing another five rat’s heads.
“How in the egg’s name did you do that?” Starrus gaped. “Have you been holding back?”
Of course, he’d been holding back. Starrus was so jealous, even the slightest display of power had his trainer cracking down on him. And of course, they had to control the fire or they’d set the ship alight.
Giddi swallowed, his throat as tight as a hangman’s noose. “I don’t know. No, sir.” He stared at his hands, hoping he looked perplexed. “It just happened.”
“So, you didn’t even try?” Starrus sneered.
Giddi shrugged and spun as another wave of rats leaped from a bale of cloth at him. He blasted the rats backwards into the side of the hull with a gust of wind that also knocked Starrus sideways. His trainer hit a pile of barrels with a sickening crunch.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Of course I am,” Starrus snapped, nursing his hip. He stalked over to the ladder and clambered up the rungs to perch halfway up. He narrowed his eyes at Giddi. “I’ll supervise your training from here. By the time I count to thirty, I want twenty rats dead.”
Starrus began to count in slow, measured tones. Flame danced from Starrus’ fingertips illuminating the hold as the rats charged Giddi. His trainer made no move to kill them, counting in an icy monotone that made Giddi’s neck prickle.
A rat leaped at Giddi’s leg, teeth bared. Giddi smote its head off then slit the gut of another with a burst of flame.
By the time Starrus had reached twenty-five, Giddi had only killed ten rats.
He mopped his face. “Sir, could we swap places? I’m exhausted.”
“Ten more to kill in five seconds. Twenty-six…” Starrus kept counting, flame dancing at his fingertips, a nasty smile on his face.
Giddi spun, shooting flame, but the rats kept coming.
When Starrus reached thirty, he started from zero all over again.
Giddi soon lost count of how many times Starrus had reached thirty and how many rats he’d killed. He slumped against a barrel, panting, sweat dripping down his neck. “Could I please have a rest? Or a swig of water?” He motioned at the waterskin hanging from his trainers’ belt.
Starrus smiled and sent a plume of mage flame toward Giddi’s boot. Giddi jumped aside and the barrel exploded into flame, the stench of burning rum roiling through the hold. Giddi swayed, the fumes making him dizzy.
“Sorry, I was aiming for a rat.” Starrus said. Smiling grimly, he extinguished the flame.
Last time Giddi had checked, he hadn’t resembled a rat in the slightest. For the sake of the First Egg, the sooner he was off this ship, the better. He pursed his lips and staggered behind a wall of chests shoulder high, to the darkest corner of the hold.
His mage light reflected on hundreds of gleaming pinpoints of light. Holy dragon smoke! He let his mage light flare higher. The rats had shredded huge bales of cloth. Hundreds of rats of all sizes were scurrying away from the green luminescence. He’d found their nest.
The sight of the nest and the injustice of Starrus’ treatment rankled, making Giddi seethe. He channeled his anger, letting power course through his arms, and set the nest and every rat alight. The mage fire blazed like a funeral pyre, the cloth and squealing rats engulfed in licking tongues of flame that devoured them. For a moment, Giddi wished it was Starrus who was aflame.
His cheeks burned with shame. He’d never had such vile thoughts before. He monitored the fire, making sure the ship’s timbers didn’t catch, and quenched it, reeling the sathir back inside himself until the last flame sputtered and died.
He stood for a long moment, casting mage light over the charred remains. Sweat soaking through his shirt, he was so exhausted he could only summon a faint yellow glow—yellow, the color of a beginner. In a flash, he was back in Fieldhaven at the archery tournament where he’d met Anakisha and been so excited to compete that he’d accidentally let a wall of green flame rip at the target. He shook his head. If only he’d kept control—if only he’d hidden his abilities—his trainer wouldn’t be so venomous. With a stab, he realized he’d just made the same mistake again.
Giddi shrugged and shone his pale-yellow light into the corners. Not a single rat was twitching. All dead.
He stood, his breath rasping, gathering his strength. His insides were hollow, his power depleted. Giddi wanted to curl up on a soft pallet and sleep. But Starrus was waiting, so he stood and breathed, counting until he’d inhaled a hundred times.
Now that the rats were still, through the bulkhead he heard the splash of the oars and soft chant of the sailors as they heaved. He massaged his shoulder which was still throbbing where Starrus had kicked him as they’d descended into the hold. That seemed like a lifetime ago.
Slowly the soles of Giddi’s feet began to tingle as he drew in new energy from his surroundings. With every breath that rasped through his aching lungs, Giddi let the life force of the sea and the air around him trickle back into his aching body. His fingers tingled. Slowly his lungs stopped aching. Burnout—he’d never been this close before, but then again, he’d never released that much sathir with such wild abandon. He’d contained his talents, worried others would be scared of a boy with so much raw power. Worried his trainer would hold back and not reveal his precious secret—the secret that drove Giddi to obey him.
Slowly the well of sathir in his belly replenished until he had a humming coil in his middle. The stench of charred rat flesh coated his mouth. He spat and stole out from behind the wall of sea chests.
Starrus was still sitting halfway up the ladder, languidly examining his nails. “Oh, there you are, boy. Are we done?” His trainer stretched out a hand and took one last look at his manicured fingernails—nails that had likely never seen a pail or mop, nor done a day’s honest labor.
Giddi picked his way through the smoke-hazed hold, his boots slipping more than once on burnt rat corpses—the squishes underfoot making him shudder.
He nodded at Starrus, too tired to speak. Hopefully, his trainer would be happy with him now.
Starrus pointed at a chest. “You missed one.” A nose poked out from behind the chest, twitching. Starrus aimed a thin stream of mage flame at the final rat and killed it. “Next time, make sure you get them all.” He turned and clambered up the ladder.
Giddi gaped at the ungrateful wretch’s back, his fingers twitching with temptation. Gods, what was he thinking? He’d never wanted to blast anyone before, let alone hit someone in the back like a coward. Starrus brought out the worst in him. Giddi grabbed the rungs and climbed the ladder. It was ironic: trainers were supposed to tease the best out of you.
Starrus scrambled out of the hold and Giddi followed, squinting in the bright sun.
“How’s the situation down there?” the captain asked.
Giddi remained silent, letting his trainer do the talking.
Starrus grimaced. “Not good, sir. The rats are fine—we killed them all—but many of your goods have perished and there aren’t any decent foodstuffs left.”
We killed them all! Giddi refrained from snorting. Starrus had only dealt with a handful.
“I was afraid the food was spoiled.” The captain shook his head and yelled to the first mate, “Bring them some lines, so they can do something useful.”
Starrus smiled ingratiatingly. “Captain, if you have a spare sack, I can volunteer my trainee to clean up the rats and toss them into the sea.”
The captain ran an appraising gaze over Giddi. “Good idea, but don’t throw the carcasses overboard. And when he’s done, you may choose a finely-carved chest as a token of my appreciation.”
“Thank you, sir.” Starrus’ smile was as oily as roast eel. And twice as stinky as a raw one.
Overhead, Rengar furled her wings, her emerald scales flashing as she dived down to the ocean. She plunged her neck in the water, then backwinged and ascended in a spray of water, a silver fish flapping in her dripping jaws.
The first mate came up to the captain, a sack in his hands. “Here you go, Captain.”
“What’s good enough for a dragon is good enough for us.” The captain reached inside and handed Starrus a short stick that had twine wrapped around it with barbed hooks on the end. The captain leveled a gaze at Giddi. “We’ll need the rats as bait. It’s time you both caught us some fish.”
A Fine Catch
When Giddi emerged from the hold with a sack of burnt rats, the captain handed him a fishing line. “With no wind, it’ll take us longer to get to shore than we thought.” He gave a grim chuckle. “We’ll have no choice but to start eating each other unless we catch some fish.”
Giddi had fond memories of fishing with his father when he was a littling, before Pa had disappeared on his quest. He smiled, remembering.
It was a hot summer’s day. Giddi and Pa sat on the edge of the riverbank watching the fish flit about the swimming hole.
“How old are you now, son?” Pa asked, a cheeky twinkle in his eye. “Seven summers? Eight? Old enough to catch us a tasty supper?”
“C’mon, Pa.” Giddi poked his father’s ribs, making Pa twitch. “Stop teasing. You know I’m already nine summers.” He puffed out his chest and thumped it. “I’ve been practicing. Watch this.” Giddi held up his fingers and shot a thin stream of mage fire at a rock on the far side of the bank. A spray of sparks ricocheted off the rock and fell onto the surface of the water, making the fish scatter as if they’d been stung.
“Nice flame, there, but you’ll never catch a meal like that, boy.” Pa laughed. “I’ll show you a trick.” Pa took off his boots and stockings and rolled up his breeches, then dangled his legs off the edge of the riverbank, wriggling his toes in the water. “If you hang your toes in here long enough, an eel will come out from under the bank to have a nibble and then you’ll be able to catch one.”
Giddi arched his eyebrows. “Are you serious?”
“I’m serious.” Pa’s mouth twitched.
Giddi rolled up his breeches and dunked his toes in the water. Even though the day was warm, the water was chilly. “By the dragon gods, it’s nippy Pa.”
“Excuse my pun, son, but nippy is the last thing you want when you’re luring eels,” Pa teased.
Giddi wriggled his toes, and sure enough, after a while a large eel stuck its head out from under the bank, nosing around his foot.
“Quick, pull your feet—”
“Ow!” Giddi yanked his feet onto the bank and examined the bite on the edge of his big toe. “It’s bleeding, Pa.”
“Now,” Pa urged, “use your mage flame.” He yanked his feet above the water. The eel reared up out of the river, jagged jaws wide, trying to snap at Pa’s feet. “Quick, son.”
Giddi sent a flaming bolt of mage fire at the eel’ s head. The blast hit its head behind the eyes, instantly killing it. As its body slumped into the water, Pa reached an arm into the river and grabbed it. Although the eel was dead, its body twitched and contorted in his father’s hand, lashing his arm with its tail.
Giddi shied back.
“It’s all right, lad. They always do that when they first die. I reckon the eel’s telling us life is worth fighting for.” Pa winked. “Life is always worth a fight, whether it’s your own life or someone else’s. Remember, that with great power comes the responsibility to protect others.”
Giddi looked at the eel forlornly. “I didn’t protect him, did I?”
Pa’s belly laugh boomed across the river, startling a fawn, which fled through the trees, its white tail flashing. “No, this eel is providing our family with sustenance so we can protect others.” He ruffled Giddi’s hair. “Now fetch me that stick you whittled so we can cook this delectable fellow and surprise Ma when we get home with supper.”
“Come on, boy, stop dreaming.” Starrus’ voice cut through Giddi’s thoughts.
Giddi passed a burnt rat to Starrus, the smell of the carnage making his belly churn. The only consolation was that Starrus looked just as queasy as he drove one of his hooks through the rat’s upper lip and flung his line overboard.
A flurry of silver shapes shot toward Starrus’ rat, making the teal ocean ripple.
Starrus’ line went taut. “A fish, straight away,” Starrus crowed, his face triumphant as he wound the line on his stick, heaving on the twine to pull the fish in.
Giddi cast his line out.
Starrus grunted and yanked, his face turning red and the veins in his forehead standing out.
“Not too fast,” the captain cautioned, “or you’ll break the line.” He strode off, leaving them to it.
“Shrotty fish!” Starrus gave a mighty yank. His line broke and he flew onto his backside. A large fish sped off, its silver scales glistening as it made away with Starrus’ bait and hook. Starrus got to his feet rubbing his backside.
Giddi smothered a snort and Starrus spun, his glower hot enough to strip skin. “What are you laughing at? Go fetch me another hook.”
Giddi reeled in his own line, pocketed it, careful not to snag the hooks on his clothing, and strode over to the first mate who was inspecting a sail while openly guffawing at Starrus.
The mate passed him some hooks. “Trap for young players, these fish,” he called out, before lowering his voice. “When you get a bite, let the line run out so the fish thinks its got freedom, then slowly pull it in.”
Giddi refrained from saying that he already knew that, in case Starrus overheard. The crankier Starrus got, the worse it would be for him later. Besides, Starrus had knowledge he needed. Desperately. “Thanks for the hooks.”
Giddi wandered back to Starrus, threaded some new hooks onto Starrus’ line and passed him back the fishing stick.
Starrus grunted and threw the line overboard. Further along the deck, a few sailors cast lines overboard too.
Before Giddi had a chance to cast his own line into the sea, Starrus’ line went taut again. His trainer grinned. “See, boy, I have the magic touch.”
Scowls rippled across the faces of the sailors hanging over the railing with their own lines.
Starrus let the fish take the line, playing it out. When the line slackened, he slowly turned the stick to wind it back in.
A moment later, his line broke again. “Shrotty, scum-sucking bottom dweller,” Starrus cursed.
The sailors laughed.
Flinging a hand out at the ocean, Starrus raked his fingers toward the ship. A swell built on the sea, racing toward them. A freak wave rose over the side of the railing, splashing Giddi’s breeches and depositing the miscreant fish—the twine still hanging from its mouth—onto the deck with a solid plop at Starrus’ feet.
“See,” Starrus sneered at the gaping sailors, dripping, but triumphant.
The enormous fish flopped, the pink of its gills flashing as they opened and shut in a vain attempt to draw air. Starrus struck the fish on the head with the heel of his boot, killing it, and then grasped it by the tail and waved it above his head. “Here, Captain, that’ll feed some of your crew tonight.”
He wasn’t wrong. The fish was a fat one, as long as his arm, still twitching. Its scales gleamed on Starrus’ wrist. “The rest of you no-good loafers haven’t caught anything,” Starrus gloated, his eyes raking over Giddi and the other sailors.
“Much appreciated, Starrus,” the captain said dryly. “The rest of you may as well put down your lines and we’ll let the mages do the fishing.”
A way off from the ship, a dark shape undulated under the ocean, driving a school of fish toward their boat. The rushing school of white bodies gleamed with promise beneath the pristine aquamarine sea.
Giddi didn’t want to stand here stuck at the rail all day, or have to swab the deck with the other men fuming. Maybe he should try Starrus’ trick. He channeled sathir down his arm and whipped out his hand, then raked his fingers, pulling his arm toward him. An enormous wave, as wide the boat’s length, swept up the side of the ship and splashed over the rail, drenching the sailors. Men scrambled out of the way as fish thudded to the deck along the length of the rail. Giddi gaped—there were at least twenty or thirty fish flopping on the planking.
He strode along the rail, throwing the smaller ones back, feeling Starrus’ glare burning twin holes through his shoulder blades. Despite being wet, the sailors cheered enthusiastically and whacked the fish on the heads with their fishing sticks. Men clapped him on the back as they collected the fish in large wooden tubs.
“Cook’ll smoke these. “
“They’ll make mighty fine eating.”
“Good work, lad.”
The captain’s bellow rang out, “Well done, lad, you saved the day. We now have enough food until we reach Naobia.”
While the crew were busy with their backs turned and the captain was overseeing them working, Starrus stalked along the deck, fuming and gazing out to sea. He spun. A blast of wind issued from Starrus’ hands, thrusting Giddi backward across the slippery, fish-laden deck. His back slammed into the rail. Giddi gasped as pain rippled down his spine. Starrus tugged his hands. Giddi slid toward him. Then Starrus flicked his arms, spinning Giddi around. Wind blasted Giddi’s back. He hurtled into the rail, smacking his ribs, his breath knocked out of him.
And then Giddi saw what’d been rippling beneath the surface and causing the fish to flee. An enormous multi-tentacled creature blacker than ink was swimming alongside the ship.
Starrus let out a crazed shriek, waving his arms. Sathir whooshed from the sea past Giddi toward Starrus.
A huge wave higher than the tallest strongwood rose from the sea, carrying the beast with it. Water gushed over Giddi, dousing him in brine. Salt stung his eyes and filled his mouth. He spluttered and coughed, taking in more water, then waved his arms, trying to drive the water back.
“Sea monster,” a man’s strangled cry reached Giddi over the water thundering onto the deck.
There was a flash of black groping tentacles over the rail and a shudder as the beast hit the outside of the hull. The monster’s thick tentacles flipped over the edge and wrapped themselves around Giddi’s arm and chest. The beast hauled him against the rail, smacking his ribs again. The ship tilted. Giddi’s heart pounded like a battle drum as the creature’s vice-like grip tightened, the pressure driving the air from his lungs.
Spots danced before his eyes. Gods, he couldn’t breathe.
The creature squeezed him tighter against the ship’s rail. With a stab of pain, one of Giddi’s ribs popped. He shrieked.
Sailors’ cries rang out. A sword slashed past Giddi’s head and bounced off a tentacle. The sea monster pressed him tighter against the planks, leveraging itself higher up the ship’s hull until its misshapen head towered over Giddi. An arrow zipped into the beast’s fleshy forehead with a wet thunk. The sea beast ignored the arrow, and opened its gaping maw, a foul briny stench washing over Giddi.
Giddi’s knees grew weak and he slumped. The monster lifted him from the deck, his feet swinging in midair as it drew him toward its cavernous mouth. An enormous hooked beak glinted within the folds of its maw, growing ever closer.
Giddi turned away from the foul stench. Sailors were yelling, running, slashing at tentacles that writhed across the deck seeking more victims. Starrus was smirking, making no move to help—of course not, he’d dragged the monster from the sea.
Hot breath wafted over Giddi’s cheek. Gods, he had no chance. He strained to bring his hand up. No use—the beast’s grip was too tight. He tried to summon his magic, but fear froze the heat in his belly, turning it into a ball of ice.
This was it—he was going to die.
***** ” I absolutely loved it. I swear these stories keep getting better!”
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