Gavin sucked in light to start making his rowing apparatus. Unthinking, he tried to draft blue. While fragile, blue’s stiff, slick, smooth structure made it ideal for parts that didn’t undergo sideways stresses. For a futile moment, Gavin tried to force it, again. He was a Prism made flesh; alone out of all drafters, he could split light within himself. The blue was there—he knew it was there, and maybe knowing it was there, even though he couldn’t see might be enough.
For Orholam’s sake, if you could find your chamber pot in everdark blackness of the middle of night and, despite that you couldn’t see it, the damned thing was still there, why the hell couldn’t this be the same?
Nothing. No rush of harmonious logic, no cool rationality, no stained blue skin, no drafting whatsoever. For the first time since he was a boy, he felt helpless. Like a natural man. Like a peasant.
Gavin screamed at his helplessness. It was too late for the oars, anyway. That son of a bitch was swimming too fast.
He drafted the scoops and the tubes. Blue worked better to make the jets for a skimmer, but naturally flexible green could serve if he made it thick enough. The rough green luxin was heavier and created more drag against the water, so he was slower, but he didn’t have the time or attention to make it from yellow. Precious seconds passed while he prepared his skimmer.
Then the scoops were in hand and he began throwing luxin down into the jets, blasting air and water out the back of his little craft and propelling himself forward. He leaned far forward, shoulders knotting with the effort, then, as he picked up speed, the effort eased. Soon, his craft was hissing across the waves.
The fleet arose in the distance, the sails of the tallest ships first. But at Gavin’s speed, it wasn’t long before he could see all of them. There were almost a hundred ships: from sailing dinghies to galleasses to the square-rigged three-mast ship of the line with forty-eight guns that Gavin had taken from the Rathguri governor to be his flagship. Last, he saw the great luxin barges. Barely seaworthy, he himself had created those four great open boats to hold as many refugees as possible. If he hadn’t, thousands of people would have died.
And now they were all in jeopardy if Gavin didn’t turn the sea demon.
As Gavin sped closer, he caught sight of the sea demon again, a hump cresting, six feet out of the water. Its skin was still placidly luminous, and by some good fortune, it wasn’t actually cutting straight toward the fleet. Its path would take it perhaps a thousand paces in front of the lead ship.
Of course, the ships themselves were plowing slow furrows forward, closing that gap, but the sea demon was moving so quickly, it wouldn’t matter. Gavin had no idea how keen the sea demon’s senses were, but if it kept going the direction it was going, they might well escape disaster.
Gavin couldn’t take his hands away from the skimmer’s jets without losing precious speed, and he didn’t know how he would deliver a signal that said, Don’t Do Anything Stupid to the whole fleet at once even if he did. He followed directly behind the sea demon, closer now.
He was wrong: the sea demon was going to cut perhaps five hundred paces from the lead ship. A mistaken estimate, or was the creature turning toward the fleet?
Gavin could see lookouts in the crow’s-nests waving their hands violently to those on the decks below them. Doubtless shouting, though Gavin was too far away to hear them. He sped closer, saw men running on the decks.
The emergency was on the fleet faster than any of them could have expected. Enemies could appear on the horizon and give chase. Storms could blow out of nowhere in half an hour—but this had happened in minutes, and some ships were only seeing the twin wonders now—a man traveling faster across the waves than anyone had ever seen in their lives, and the huge dark shadow in front of him that could only be a sea demon.
Be smart, Orholam damn you, be smart or be too terrified to do anything at all. Please!
Cannons took time to load and couldn’t be left armed because the powder would go bad. Some idiot might shoot a musket at the passing form, but that should be too small a disturbance for the monster to notice.
The sea demon bulled through the waters four hundred paces in front of the fleet and kept going straight.
Gavin could hear the shouts from the ships now. The man in the crow’s-nest of Gavin’s flagship was holding his hands to his head, mind blown, but no one did anything stupid.
Orholam, just one more minute. Just—
A signal mortar cracked the morning, and Gavin’s hopes splattered on the floor. Gavin swore all the shouting on every ship in the fleet stopped at once. And then began again a moment later, as the experienced sailors screamed in disbelief at the one terrified idiot captain who’d probably just killed them.
Gavin had eyes only for the sea demon. Its wake went straight, hissing bubbles and great undulations, another hundred paces. Another hundred. Maybe it hadn’t heard. Maybe—
Then his skimmer jetted right past the entire beast as the sea demon doubled back on itself faster than Gavin would have believed was possible.
As it completed its turn, its tail broke the surface of the water. It moved too fast for Gavin to make out details. Only that it was burning red-hot the color of iron angry from the forge and when that span—surely thirty paces long—hit the water, the concussion made the signal mortar’s report sound tinny and small.
Giant swells rolled out from the spot its tail had hit. From his dead stop, Gavin was barely able to turn his skimmer before the waves reached him. He dipped deep into the first one and hurriedly threw green luxin forward, making the front of his craft wider and longer. He was shot upward by the next swell and flung into the air.
The skimmer’s prow hit the next giant swell at too great of an angle and went straight into it. Gavin was ripped off the skimmer and plunged into the waves.
The Cerulean Sea was a warm, wet mouth. It took Gavin in whole, chomped his breath out of him, rolled him over with its tongue, disorienting him, made a play at swallowing him, and when he fought, finally spat him up.
Gavin surfaced and quickly found the fleet. He didn’t have time to draft an entire new skimmer; he was going to have to swim for it. If swim was the term. He drafted smaller scoops around his arms, sucked in as much light as he could hold, threw his arms down to his sides, and pointed his head toward the sea demon. He threw luxin down and it threw him forward.
The pressure of the waves was incredible. It obliterated sight, blotted out sound, but Gavin didn’t slow. With a body made hard by years of working a skimmer so he could cross the sea in a day, and a will made implacable by years of being Prism and forcing the world to conform to his wishes, he pushed.
He felt himself slide into the sea demon’s slipstream as the pressure suddenly eased and his speed doubled. Using his legs to aim, Gavin turned himself deeper into the water, then jetted toward the surface.
Not a moment too soon. Gavin shot into the air.
He shouldn’t have been able to see much of anything, gasping in air and light, water streaming off his entire body. But the tableau froze and he saw everything. An instant cut off from time. The sea demon’s head was halfway out of water, its cruciform mouth drawn shut so its knobby, spiky hammerhead could smash the flagship to kindling. Its body was at least twenty paces across, and only fifty paces now from the ship.
Men were standing on port rail, matchlocks in hand. Black smoke billowed thick from a few. Others flared as the matches ignited powder in the pans in that instant before they fired. On the gun deck, Gavin saw men tamping powder into the cannons for shots they would never get off in time.
The other ships in the fleet were crowding around like kids around a fistfight, men perched on gunwales, mouths agape, all too few even loading their muskets.
Dozens of men were turning from looking at the monster approaching to look at what fresh horror this could be shooting into the air—and gaping, bewildered. A man in the crow’s-nest was pointing at him, shouting.
And Gavin hung in midair, disaster and mutilation only seconds away from his compatriots—and he threw all he had at the sea demon.
A coruscating, twisting wall of multicolored light blew out of Gavin, streaking toward the sea demon.
Gavin didn’t see what it did when it struck the sea demon, or even if he hit it.
There was old Parian saying, When you hurl a mountain, the mountain hurls you back.
Time resumed, unpleasantly quickly. Gavin felt like he’d been walloped with a club bigger than his own body. He was launched backward, stars exploding in front of his eyes, clawing, trying to turn—and splashing in the water dozens of paces away with another jarring slap.
Light is life. Years of war had taught Gavin to never leave yourself unarmed; vulnerability is an invitation to death. Gavin found the surface and began drafting instantly. In the years he’d spent failing thousands of times while perfecting his skimmer, he’d also perfected methods of getting out of the water and creating a boat—not an easy task. Drafters were always terrified of falling in the water and not being able to get out again.
So within seconds, Gavin was standing on the deck of a new skimmer, already drafting the scoops as he tried to assess what had happened.
The flagship was still floating, one rail knocked off, huge scrapes across the wood of the port side. So the sea demon must have turned, must have barely glanced off the boat. It must have slapped its tail down again as it turned, though, because a few of the small sailing dinghies had been swamped nearby, and men were jumping into the water, other ships already heading toward them to pluck them from the sea’s jaws.
And where the hell was the sea demon?
Men were screaming on the decks—not shout of adulation, but alarm. They were pointing—
Gavin began throwing light down the reeds as fast as possible. But the skimmer always started slow.
The giant steaming red-hot hammerhead surfaced not twenty paces away, coming fast. Gavin was accelerating and he caught the shockwave caused by such a massive, blunt shape pushing through the seas. The front of the head was a wall, a knobby, spiky wall.
But with the swell of the shockwave helping him, Gavin began to pull away.
And then the tetraform mouth opened, splitting that entire front hammerhead open in four directions. As the sea demon began sucking water in rather than pushing it in front of it, the shockwave disappeared abruptly. And Gavin’s skimmer lurched back into the mouth.
Fully into the mouth. The open mouth was easily two or three times as wide as Gavin was tall. Sea demons swallowed the seas entire. The body convulsed in rhythm, a circle that squeezed tighter and then opened wider, jetting water past gills and out the back almost the same way Gavin’s skimmer did.
Gavin’s arms were shaking, shoulders burning from the muscular effort of pushing his entire body, his entire boat across the seas. Harder. Dammit, harder!
The sea demon arched upward just as Gavin’s skimmer shot out of its mouth. Its tetraform jaws snapped shut and it launched itself into the air. He shut his eyes and screamed, pushing as hard as he could.
He shot a look over his shoulder and saw the impossible: the sea demon had breached entirely. Its massive body crashing back down into the water as like all seven towers of the Chromeria falling into the sea at once.
But Gavin was faster, up to full speed now.
The sea demon pursued him, furious, still burning red, moving even faster than before. But with the skimmer at full speed, Gavin was out of danger. He circled out to sea as the distant shapes of men cheered on the decks of every ship of the fleet, and the creature followed him.
Gavin led it three hours out to sea, then, circling wide in case it headed blindly in the last direction it had seen him go, he left it far behind.
As the sun set, exhausted and rung out emotionally, Gavin returned to his fleet. They’d lost two sailing dinghies, but not a single life. His people—for if they hadn’t been his before, he owned them heart and soul now—greeted him like a god.
Gavin accepted their adulation with a wan smile. He wished he too could rejoice. He wished he could get drunk and dance and bed the finest looking girl he could find. He wished he could find Karris somewhere in the fleet and fight or fuck or one and then the other. He wished he could tell the tale and hear it retold from a hundred lips and laugh at the death that had come so close to them all.
Instead, as his people celebrated, he went belowdecks. Alone. Waved Corvan away, shook his head at his wide-eyed son.
And finally, in his darkened cabin, alone, he wept. Not for what had been, but for what he must become.