XXXI. Saltwater

This far north, the sun didn’t quite set. It merely grazed the horizon before reascending into the sky.

“It’s not right,” said Frost, squinting at it through the fog. “An hour to midnight, and there’s a bloody sun in the sky. Well, a sliver of one, anyway.”

“Cook says it’s because it’s summer,” said Deena, standing beside her. “In the winter, he says the sun doesn’t come up at all.”

“So like what’ll happen if we fail this saving the world thing,” said Frost.

Deena didn’t answer. Through the fog, she could just make out the shape of an ice floe, far to the right. It was strange to see a chunk of ice the size of land, like an island floating in the sea.

“Let’s go back down,” said Frost. “It’s freezing up here.”

Below deck, the others stood around a roughly drawn map that Izra had made. Deena walked to Avenel and peered over her shoulder at the jagged shape. “Is that where we’re going?” she asked, pointing at the large X Izra had drawn in the center.

Izra nodded. “It’s all ice,” she said. “It doesn’t melt, this far north, but parts tend to break off, especially in spring. It’s making our progress slower than I expected.”

“Will we still make it in time?” asked Deena, alarmed.

“That’s what we’re discussing,” said Flame. “The only way seems to be if we cut across the ice instead of going around.”

“Cut across?” asked Frost.

“Baal’s agreed to have his men row us to the ice,” said Avenel. “From there, we’ll make our way on foot.”

“He thinks we’re crazy, by the way,” added Nicholas. “I think I might agree.”

Avenel turned to peer through the porthole. “Ideally we would disembark tomorrow, but with this fog—”

She was interrupted by an ugly scraping sound and the ship lurching to a halt. Deena pitched backwards, but Avenel caught her before she fell.

“Is everyone alright?” asked Flame.

“I think I sprained my wrist,” said Nicholas, cradling it as he got to his feet.

“Let me see that,” said Izra.

“What happened?” asked Garthniiel.

“It sounded like we hit something,” replied Avenel. “I’ll go look.”

Deena followed her. Above deck, a giant mountain of ice loomed over the ship. Captain Baal spotted them over the commotion of the crew and hurried over. “I have the boys checking for damage,” he said. “It’s this blasted fog; it’s a wonder the crew can see anything.”

“Are they alright?” asked Avenel.

Baal nodded. “Aye. One of the men fell overboard, but we threw him a rope.”

There was a shout. Something bright arced toward them through the fog. It tore through the sail, and fire bloomed where it had struck. Avenel pushed Deena down as another flaming arrow sailed overhead; behind them someone screamed.

Baal ran for the man who had been hit, grabbing him and throwing them both overboard to put out the flames. He shouted for a rope, but more arrows rained down. One struck a barrel of rum, and it exploded, sending liquid fire running down the length of the deck. Urii was yelling for it to be put out, but there was fire everywhere, running up the ropes, the mast, the sails—

This is a nightmare, thought Deena. This is just another bad dream.

Avenel pulled at her arm, and Deena stumbled after her. The mast gave a creak and a groan and fell, sending up a shower of cinders and splintered wood. Amid smoke and screams, Deena tumbled down the trapdoor into the cabin below and was surprised to find herself ankle-deep in water.

“The hull’s cracked,” said Flame. “What’s happening?”

“We’re under attack,” replied Avenel. “Watch Deena,” she said and sloshed toward the door to the cargo hold.

“Where are you going?” asked Garthniiel.

“Looking for rope,” said Avenel. “We’ll need to abandon ship.”

There was a loud crack from elsewhere in the ship.

“I—I need to get our supplies,” said Izra. “Nicholas—”

“Our supplies? At a time like this?” asked Nicholas.

“There’s no point surviving today if we die of exposure tomorrow,” snapped Izra. “Are you coming or not?”

“Fine,” said Nicholas, and they both disappeared into the hold.

The water was up to their knees, now. There was another loud crack, and icy wind blew into the cabin, bringing with it smoke and the smell of burning. Deena screamed, screwing shut her eyes and covering her ears—anything to block out the world crumbling to ash around her—but even through her eyelids she could see the glow of the fire, feel the heat of the flames.

Someone shook her roughly by the shoulders. It was Avenel, a length of rope coiled around her arm. “Look at me!” she was shouting over the din of the crumbling ship. “Look at me, Deena—Look at me!”

Deena looked.

“We need to go,” said Avenel. “You’re going to be fine; I’m right here with you.”

“We’ll have to jump,” said Garthniiel. The wall of the cabin had splintered away, and thick black smoke rushed in through the hole. “We can’t reach the rowboats.”

“Nicholas and Izra are still in the cargo hold,” said Flame, coughing.

“They’ll be fine,” said Avenel. She tossed one end of the rope to Flame. “We’re right behind you.”

Deena watched as Flame jumped through hole where the side of the ship had once been. “I-I can’t swim,” she said.

“I’ll carry you,” said Avenel.

The ship lurched. Deena stumbled, but Avenel was quick to catch her, and together they made their way to where the splintered floorboards gave way to void.

Through the smoke, they could just barely see Flame, Frost, and Garthniiel bobbing in the water below.

The smoke stung their eyes, and Deena took a half step back. “I—I can’t.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Avenel. “I’ll be there.”

“N-no, no I can’t—”

“We’ll do it together, on the count of three.”

Behind them, the fire was rapidly encroaching, eating its way across the ship. Before her was the yawning chasm, the smoke, the icy sea. Surely, if she jumped, she would falling to her doom. But if she didn’t jump—

“One,” counted Avenel. “Two.”

Deena jumped before three. Her heart lurched into her throat as she fell through the air, surely the last thing she would ever do. The ocean rushed up to meet her, to smash her to bits or to drown her, then—

Silence. The water closed over her head, shutting out the roar of the flames and the groaning of the ship. Cold saltwater entered her mouth, and she panicked, but which way was up? Arms wrapped around her, pulling her, then she broke through the surface again, coughing and gulping down the cold, smokey air. Someone pushed an empty barrel beneath her arms, and she clung to it, digging her fingers under the metal band.

“Are you alright?” asked Avenel, handing her a length of rope to hold so she wouldn’t float away.

Deena nodded, her teeth chattering.

Above them, the ship was an inferno. In a corner where the fire had yet to catch, Izra threw everything into a crate. Beads of sweat rolled down her face, leaving streaks of soot on her skin.

“Hurry up, Izi,” said Nicholas, coughing. “We need to go.”

“I know we have more furs than this,” said Izra. “Is this enough?”

“It’ll have to be,” said Nicholas. “Come on.”

“Wait, we need—we need to tie something to it to help it float.” Looking around, she rolled over a barrel and emptied the contents.

“That won’t be enough,” said Nicholas and poured out the contents of a second barrel.

He was halfway through tying it when he realized their mistake.

“Izi,” he said. “Izi, I think that was rum.”

“So?” she began, then her eyes widened as she realized what he’d said.

A burning beam collapsed between, and between Izra and the exit. The rum on the floor caught alight, and she leapt back from the flames. She couldn’t see, but could hear Nicholas calling her name on the other side. “Izra?” he called. “Izra!”

“I’m fine,” she called back. “Is the crate—?”

“I threw it in the water,” said Nicholas. “Where are you? I can’t see—”

“Forget about me,” said Izra. “Go!”

“I’m not leaving without you!”

“You have to!” shouted Izra. She coughed; there was so much smoke. “Without me—without me, it has to be you.”

“What are you saying?”

“No,” said Izra. She coughed again. “You have to—you have to remember—”

“Remember what?” asked Nicholas.

There was no answer.


Somewhere out of sight, another beam splintered with a crack.

“Damnit, Izra, I’m not letting you die!”

Nicholas extended his hands. To cool a flame was a feat he had never been able to do, but desperation fueled him now. He breathed in deep, despite the smoke, and pulled the fire’s heat into his chest. The flames directly before him flickered and dimmed to nearly nothing, but still he had to fight to hold back the fires around him. He could see behind the fallen beam, see Izra slumped against a crate, and with a cry he mustered up the magic to shove the beam aside. The heat of the flames he had absorbed burned like hot coals in his chest, but he held it in as walked to Izra and scooped her up into his arms. Only when they were at the edge of the ship did he release the heat like a great exhale and jump into the icy sea.

The cold jolted Izra awake. She sputtered, flailing in confusion for a moment before Nicholas shoved a broken plank under her arms.

“You saved me?” asked Izra, confused.

“Of course,” said Nicholas.

The ship was little more than a burning wreck now as the waves scattered the survivors. The seven of them clung to the rope that kept them together, teeth chattering in the cold. Through the fog, they could just make out the shape of a dinghy, but the deckhands aboard were too far away to see them, and they were too tired to call out.

“They’re more worried about their own people, anyway,” said Frost.

“Will they be okay?” asked Deena.

No one answered.

They swam for the iceberg that had forced their ship to a halt; it wasn’t far. Even up close it looked like a mountain, the sheer cliff face looming over them forebodingly. Nicholas used his fire to melt an alcove into the side, and gratefully they all clambered in.

“Good thinking with the supplies,” said Garthniiel, as they all changed into dryer clothes and wrapped themselves in furs.

“So what now?” asked Frost. “How do we get off this ice?”

“Let’s get some rest, first,” said Avenel. “We can worry about it in the morning.”

The wind whistled outside their alcove, but inside they were dry—even warm, once Nicholas started a fire with the remnants of a barrel. Most of them had sustained minor burns or scrapes, and Izra set about treating their wounds. One by one, they nodded off, until only Izra and Nicholas were awake.

“You should get some sleep, too,” whispered Nicholas, as Izra bandaged his wrist.

“Don’t worry about me,” replied Izra. “Nicholas, why did you save me?”

“Did you expect me to leave you?” asked Nicholas.

“Yes,” said Izra. “You should have.”

“Probably,” said Nicholas, “but I didn’t.”

“But why?” asked Izra.

“I don’t know,” admitted Nicholas. “I guess, at the end of it of all, you’re still family.”

“You should have left to die,” said Izra. “I would’ve deserved it.”

Nicholas didn’t answer.

She sat back and looked up at the ceiling of their cave. “They might still be up there, you know, the archers who set the ship on fire.”

“Where?” asked Nicholas. “On this iceberg?”

“There’s nowhere else they could have been,” said Izra. She looked at the others, fast asleep in a heap of furs. “Watch the others. I’m going to take a look.”

“Now?” asked Nicholas. “How are you going to get up there?”

“I’ll climb.”

“Are you insane?”

“Maybe,” said Izra. She stood. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“No!” He grabbed her by the wrist. “If anyone should go, it’s me. I can fly up there.”

“Not with this wind,” said Izra, shaking him off, “and not with your wrist in a bandage.”

“Then wait until morning,” said Nicholas. “I could carve a path for you in the ice, once I’ve rested.”

Izra shook her head. “Save your strength. This is—I need to do this alone.” She walked to the crate and retrieved a pickaxe to which she attached a long coil of rope. “If you want to help, you can help me bury this at the top of the ice.”

Nicholas stood. From the lip of the alcove he could just barely see the top. It wasn’t far—the height of four or five stories, at most—but it was far enough. If he strained, his magic could just about reach the top. He took the pickaxe from Izra’s hands, heated it over the fire, then threw it upwards with his magic as far as he could and sank it into the ice.

Izra held the other end of the rope. She tugged it.

“I buried it as deep as I could,” said Nicholas. “Will it hold?”

“It’ll have to,” said Izra. She hesitated. “If—if I don’t come back—”

“You had better,” said Nicholas. “I don’t want to have saved you for nothing.”

She climbed. Each gust of wind sent the rope swinging, and it was all she could do to cling tight and not look down. She tried not to look anywhere. The white of the ice was blinding to her, and it was easier, after a while, to close her eyes and go by feel.

Nicholas was watching her from below, she knew, but there was nothing he could do. If she fell, he would not be able to catch her.

One step, and then another—she inched her way up, bracing her feet against the ice and pulling herself forward. One step, and then another—she had to be almost there now, but she was too scared to look. Even through her gloves her fingers had begun to grow numb, and she wondered if she could use her magic to force the warmth into her extremities. Nicholas shouted something at her from down below, but she couldn’t hear him over the wind, and—

And she felt the ice crack.

Someone grabbed her by the arm. Blinded by the ice and sun, she couldn’t see who it was, just a silhouette reaching down over the top of the ice. She grabbed their arm, and together, they pulled her up onto the top of the ice.

Panting, she sank to her knees in the snow.

“Hello, Mother,” said the silhouette.

Izra closed her eyes. “You,” she said. She could imagine him looking at her with his mismatched eyes. “I told you: I’m not your mother.”

“You returned me from the dead,” said the man. “You gave me life. Is that not what a mother does?”

“I’ve told you before,” said Izra. “You were just a test. An experiment.”

Something cold and sharp pressed against Izra’s throat. “Have you ever considered, Dr Grey, the cost of your blind drive to bring back Inoor?”

“Of course I have,” said Izra.

“Liar,” said the man.

Izra didn’t answer. She waited for the blade to go deeper, to bite into her neck and spill her blood. Instead, it withdrew and fell to the ground with a clatter.

She opened her eyes. The man was already walking away, and she scrambled to her feet to grab him by the arm. “Wait!”

He turned to look at her. “I’m letting you go, Doctor Grey.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Do I need a reason?” asked the man.

“You hate me; I know you do.”

He was silent a moment, and his eyes seemed to be searching for something in hers. “The opposite,” said the man. “I love you.”

Her grip on his arm slackened. “What?”

“You know better than I what you’ve done,” said the man, “all the lives lost to your obsession. Decades I followed you, hoping you’ll see your folly, and in all that time, you never once even asked for my name. But for all that you’ve done—to me, to others—you gave me life. And a child has no choice but to love his mother.”

Izra shook her head. “No. No, if you loved me, you wouldn’t be helping him. You wouldn’t have helped him steal Inoor.”

“That’s precisely why I helped him,” said the man. “I had hoped, without her, you might have clarity.”

“No,” said Izra. “I will never give up on Inoor.”

The man closed his eyes. “I know,” he said. “Ruuzael promised you Inoor, didn’t she? Promised that when you saved the world, she would return what Noriiel stole?”

“She did,” said Izra.

“Then what will you do when you no longer need her promise?”

He beckoned, and from out of the blinding white of the ice and fog came Inoor.

No – Inoor’s body. It was only her body, reanimated.

Izra shook her head. “He knows,” she said. “He has to know you took her.”

“Of course he does,” said the man, “but I think he’s curious, just as I am, what you’ll do now.”

“What about you?” asked Izra. “If I take her, if we leave, you’ll be stranded here.”

The man turned away. “I’ve served my purpose. As you said, I was only ever just a test.”

She watched as he walked away and disappeared into the fog. Inoor’s body did not follow him but stood beside her, waiting. When she could no longer see him, Izra turned away. It wasn’t until the first tears froze on her cheeks that she realized she was crying.