Thanks to the folks at Del Rey, here's an excerpt from Robert V. S. Redick's The Night of the Swarm. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Robert V. S. Redick brings his acclaimed fantasy series The Chathrand Voyage to a triumphant close that merits comparison to the work of such masters as George R. R. Martin, Philip Pullman, and J.R.R. Tolkien himself. The evil sorcerer Arunis is dead, yet the danger has not ended. For as he fell, beheaded by the young warrior-woman Thasha Isiq, Arunis summoned the Swarm of Night, a demonic entity that feasts on death and grows like a plague. If the Swarm is not destroyed, the world of Alifros will become a vast graveyard. Now Thasha and her comrades—the tarboy Pazel Pathkendle and the mysterious wizard Ramachni—begin a quest that seems all but impossible. Yet there is hope: One person has the power to stand against the Swarm: the great mage Erithusmé. Long thought dead, Erithusmé lives, buried deep in Thasha’s soul. But for the mage to live again, Thasha Isiq may have to die.
Author’s Note: the setting of this chapter is the ancient sailing ship Chathrand, Captain Nilus Rose commanding, as it flees the hostile waters of the empire of Bali Adro. There are quite a few actors on stage (on deck) but I think readers will be able to follow the dynamics of the scene without knowing all the personalities involved.
From the Final Journal of G. Starling Fiffengurt, Quartermaster
Wednesday, 20 Halar 942. The wolves have finally pounced.
As I write this, I feel how lucky we are to be alive. Whether luck & life will still be with us much longer is uncertain. For now all credit goes to Captain Rose. People change; ships grow faster, arms more diabolical. But nothing beats a seasoned skipper, no matter his moods or eccentricities.
Five bells. Lunch still heavy in my stomach. A shout from the crow’s nest: Ship dead astern! I happened to be right there at the wheel with Elkstem, and we rushed to the spankermast speaking-tube to hear the man properly.
“She was hid by the island, it’s not my fault!” he shouts. That told us next to nothing: there were islands all about us: great and small, settled and unsettled (though with each day north we saw fewer signs of habitation), sandy and stony, lush and bone-dry. We’d been winding among them for a week.
“A monster of a boat!” the lookout’s shouting. “Ugly, huge! She’s five times our measure if she’s a yard.”
“Five times our blary length?” cries the sailmaster. “Gather your wits, man, that’s impossible! Distance! Heading!”
“Maybe longer, Mr. Elkstem! I can’t be sure; she’s forty miles astern. And Rin slay me if she don’t have a halo of fire above her. Devil-fire, I mean! Something foul beyond foul.”
“What heading is she on, damn you?” I bellow.
“East, Mr. Fiffengurt, or east-by-southeast. They’re under full sail, sir, and—”
Silence. We both scream at the poor lad, and then he answers shrilly: “Correction, correction! Vessel tacking northward! They’ve spied us!”
Not just spied, but fingered us for dinner, it appeared. I blew the whistle; the lieutenants started bellowing like hounds; in seconds we were preparing for war.
From the hatches men spilled like ants, the dlömu answering the call as quickly as the humans, if not more so. Mr. Leef finally brought me a telescope. I raised it, but shut my eyes before I looked. No fear, no fear, the lads’ eyes are upon you.
The vessel was a horror. It was a Plazic invention to be sure, one of the foul things sustained by the magic the dlömu had drawn from the bones of the lizard-demons called eguar. Prince Olik had told us a little, and the dlömic sailors a little more. Eguar-magic was the power behind the Bali Adro throne, & its doom. It had made her armies invincible—and made their commanders depraved and self-destroying. It is a frightful state of affairs, and one that reminds me uncomfortably of our own dear Empire across the sea.
We’d seen monster-vessels before, in the terrible Armada that passed so close to us just after we reached the Southern main. But this was something else altogether. Impossibly large and shapeless, it was like a giant, shabby fortress or cluster of warehouses that had somehow gone to sea. How did it move? There were sails, but they were preposterous: ribbed things that jutted out like the fins of a spiny rockfish. It should have been dead in the water, but the blue gap between it & the island was growing. It was under way.
Captain Rose bounded up the Silver Stair. Without a glance at me he climbed the quarterdeck ladder, and kept going to the mizzen yard, where he trained his own scope on the vessel. He held still a long time (what’s a long time when your heart’s in your throat?) as Elkstem and I gazed up at him. When he turned to us, his look was sober and direct.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “you are distinguished seamen: use your skills. This foe we cannot fight. We must elude it until nightfall or we shall lose the Chathrand.”
The captain’s rages are frightful, but his compliments simply terrify: he saves them for the worst of moments. He hung there, face unreadable within that red beard, one elbow hitched around a backstay. He examined the skies: blue above us, thick clouds to windward. Islands on all sides, of course. Rose looked over each of them in turn.
His eyes narrowed suddenly. He pointed at a dark, mountainous island, some forty miles off the starboard bow. “That one. What is it called?”
Elkstem told him that it was Phyreis, one of the last charted islands in the Wilderness. “And a big one, Captain. Half the size of Bramian, maybe,” he said.
“It appears to sharpen to a point.”
“The chart attests to it, sir: a long southwest headland.”
Rose nodded. “Listen well, then. We must be fifteen miles off that point at nightfall. That will be at seven bells plus twenty minutes. Until then we are to stay as far as possible ahead of the enemy, without ever allowing him to cut us off from Phyreis. Is that perfectly clear?”
“By nightfall—” I began.
“Fiffengurt.” He cut me off, suddenly wrathful. “You have just disgraced your very uniform. Did I say by nightfall? No, Quartermaster: my command was at nightfall. Earlier is unacceptable, later equally so. If these orders are beyond your comprehension I will appoint someone fit to carry them out.”
“Oppo, sir,” I said hastily. “At nightfall, fifteen miles off the point.”
Rose nodded, his eyes still on me. “The precise course I leave to your combined discretion. The canvas likewise. That is all.”
And that was all. Rose sent word that he required Tarsel the blacksmith and six carpenters to join him on the upper gun deck, and lumbered off toward the No. 3 hatch, shouting at his attendant ghosts: “Clear out, stand aside. Don’t touch me, you stinking shade! I know what a barometer is. Damn you all, stop talking and let me think!”
Elkstem and I put the men to spreading all the canvas we could think of; the winds were that sluggish. I even sent a team down to the orlop, digging for the moonrakers that hadn’t been touched since the Straits of Simja. Then we dived into our assignment: plotting, calculating, fighting over the math. It is no easy job to ensure that one arrives at a distant spot neither early nor late, above all when one must seem to be fleeing. And to make matters worse, we were fleeing. There was the open question of just how fast that unnatural behemoth could move. One thing was clear, though: far more than wind propelled it over the seas.
The Chathrand, however, remains a beauty of a sailing ship. Despite the torpid day she was making thirteen knots by the time we ran out the studding sails. I was proud of her: she’d weathered a great deal and come through. But the Behemoth was still gaining. As it crept nearer I studied it again. A monstrosity. Great furnaces along her length, belching fire and soot. Black towers and catapults & cannon in unimaginable numbers; giving the whole thing the look of a sick, warty animal. Hundreds, maybe a few thousand men, crowded onto her topdeck. What possible use for so many?
I ducked with a curse. It was Ott’s falcon, Niriviel. The bird screamed low over my head, shrieking, & alighted on the roof of the wheelhouse. It was the fourth time this week.
“Bird!” I sputtered. “I swear on the Blessed Tree, if you ever come at me like that again—”
“My master orders me to announce my mission!” it shrilled. “I go on reconnaissance. My master requires you to inform me of the distance between the ships.”
“The distance? About thirty miles, currently, but see here—”
“I hate you. You’re a mutineer, a friend of Pathkendle and the Isiq girl. Why aren’t you in chains?”
“Captain Rose finds me more useful here than in the brig. Now listen, bird, stay well above that ship, we don’t know what sort of weapons they—”
“Some enemies sail over the horizon, coveting our land and gold,” cried the falcon, “but worse are the sons of Arqual whom the Emperor has showered with love, and who do not love him in return.”
“Showered with love! Oh flap off, you blary simpleton!”
Niriviel stepped from the roof, beat his wings, and shot away southward. The bird’s abuses make me livid, but I can’t manage to hate him for long. The poor beast was lost for a month after the Red Storm, and Ott seemed almost human in the way he nursed him back to strength—feeding him bite after bite of raw, fresh chicken, along with ample fibs about the greatness of Arqual and the vileness of her enemies. I think often of Hercól’s assessment: “Niriviel is a child soldier: trained in fanaticism, more a believer than those who taught him to believe.” In other words, a simpleton. But a useful one: he might well come back with knowledge that would save the ship.
We went on tacking north. Clouds rolled in, their gray bellies heavy with rain, although for now it refused to fall. The wind freshened as well: soon we were at fifteen knots. Elkstem and I watched the Behemoth, and after a bit we exchanged a smile. The gap between us was no longer shrinking: indeed it was, ever so slightly, growing. The Behemoth was falling behind.
“Give me an honest wind over magecraft any day of the week,” said Elkstem. In a voice meant just for me, he added: “Tree of Heaven, Graff, I thought we were dead.”
Marila, bless her, brought tea and biscuits to the quarterdeck. Her own belly is showing now, a little fruit bowl tucked under her shirt. In her arms was Felthrup, squirming with impatience to move: it was his first venture beyond the stateroom since the attempt on his life. As soon as his feet touched the boards he raced the length of the quarterdeck & back again, then dashed excitedly about our heels.
“Prince Olik spoke the truth!” he squeaked. “That ship is a mutant thing, a mishmash held together by spells alone! The Plazic forces are in decline. The power they seized has devoured them like termites from within, and turned them senseless and savage. But not for long! Olik said they were melting, those Plazic weapons, and that Bali Adro cannot make any more.”
“Not without the bones of them crocodile-demons, is it?” said Elkstem.
“Very good, Mr. Elkstem! Not without the bones of the eguar—and they have no more, for they have plundered the last of the eguar Grave-Pits. They are drunkards, taking the last sips from the bottle of power, and reeling already from withdrawal.”
“I believe you, Ratty,” I said, “but it’s no real comfort at the moment. Their last sips of power may blary well kill us.”
“Do you really think so?”
As if the Behemoth wished greatly to convince one little rat, something massive boomed on her deck. I snapped my scope up, hoping that one of those furnaces had exploded and torn her apart. No luck: it was rather the opening of a tremendous metal door. At first I couldn’t see what lay beyond that door. But after several minutes I made out what looked like a bowsprit, and then a battery of guns. Something was detaching itself from the Behemoth and gliding out upon the waves.
“Graff,” Elkstem murmured to me, gazing through his more powerful scope. “Do you know what that is? A sailing vessel, that’s what. I mean a regular ship like our own. And blast me if she ain’t got four masts!”
“You must be wrong,” I said. “The monster can’t be that big.”
But it was not long before I saw for myself that it was true. My hands went icy. “That colossus,” I said, “it’s is a naval base. A movable naval base. We’re being pursued by a mucking shipyard.”
“It’s the daughter-ship that worries me,” said Elkstem.
The daughter-ship, the four-master, was narrow and sleek. She might have been a pretty vessel, once, but now her lines were ruined by great sheets of armor welded to her hull. All the same she would be faster than the Behemoth.
Her crew began spreading canvas. Elkstem growled. “They’re clever bastards. That four-master will catch us, sooner or later, unless the wind decides to double. We could outfight her, maybe—but so what? All she needs to do is nip our heels, hobble us with a few shots to the rigging. Once we’re slowed, the monster can catch up and finish us.”
“Mr. Fiffengurt,” said Marila, who had taken my telescope, “what if they don’t catch us by nightfall?”
“Why, then our chances improve,” I said, “so long as we keep the lights out on the Chathrand. They could very well lose us in the dark. Of course we won’t know until morning. We could even wake up and find ’em right on top of us.”
Marila started. “Something’s happening on the big ship,” she said. “They’re moving something closer to the rail.”
Before I could take back the telescope there came a new explosion. From the deck of the Behemoth a thing of flame was blasting skyward on a rooster-tail of orange sparks. A rocket, or a burning cannon-shot. Its banshee howl caught up with us, but the shot itself was not approaching, only climbing higher & higher. Suddenly it burst. Five lesser fireballs spread from the core like the spokes of a wheel: beautiful, terrible.
“Maybe they’re trying to be friendly?” said a lad at the mizzen.
Then, in unison, the fireballs swerved, came together again, and began to scream across the water in our direction.
Terror gripped us all. I bolted from the wheelhouse, shouting: “Fire stations! Third and fourth watch to the pumps! Hoses to the topdeck! Run, lads, run to save the ship!”
Marila had scooped up Felthrup and was racing for the ladderway. The fireballs had twenty miles to cover, and from the look of it they would do so in the next three minutes. But what sort of projectile could change course in midair?
“Drop the mains, drop the topsails!” Elkstem was shouting. And that of course should have been my first command: those ten giant canvases made for a target twice the size of the hull, and they would burn far more easily too. Someone (Rose?) at the bow had given the same order; already the sails were slinking down the masts.
By the grace of Rin we got the big sails down, and even furled the jibs & topgallants. All in about two minutes flat. I was by now down on deck and heading for the mainmast. I saw the first fire-team near the Holy Stair, wrestling with a hose that was already gushing salt water. But there were none close to me. I leaned over the tonnage hatch, screaming: “Where’s your team, Tanner, you boil-arsed dog?” When I turned the men on deck were staring skyward. I whirled. A fireball was plummeting straight for us.
“Cover! Take cover!”
Everyone ran. I threw myself behind the No. 4 hatch coaming. But I had to look—my ship was about to be massacred—so at the last second I raised my eyes.
What I saw was a nightmare from the Pits. The fireball was no shot, no chunk of phosphorous or glob of burning tar. It was a creature: vaguely wasp-like, its great segmented body blazing like a torch, and it struck the deck and splattered flame in all directions like a dog shaking water from its fur.
I dropped, horrified. My hair caught fire but I snuffed it quick. A blizzard of sparks blew past me; without the hatch I’d have been roasted on the spot. When I looked up and down the length of the ship I thought our doom had come, for all I saw was fire. Get up, I thought, move and fight while you can! There were screams from fifty men, a gigantic howling and thumping from the creature itself. I don’t know how I made myself stand and face the thing, but I did.
Heat struck me like a blow. The creature had smashed halfway through the deck and was lodged there, dying. It had made a suicide plunge, and when it struck its body had burst open like a melon. As it writhed and heaved flame gushed from it like blood. Where was the rain? Where was our mucking skipper? I looked the ship up and down, and thought we were finished, doomed: for all I saw was flame. Right in front of me a man caught fire: who he was I could not tell. He was running, screaming, & the flames wrapped him like a flag.
Then a mighty spray of water hit the man, knocking him clean off his feet. Rose and five marines were there behind me with a fire hose. They had wrestled it up the No. 4 and were blasting the poor wretch with all the force sixty men at the chain-pumps could deliver. Thank Rin, it worked: he was doused, and two mates seized him and bore him away. Then Rose turned the spray around to the creature. It screamed and twitched and vomited fire, but it could not flee the blast. Very soon it was sputtering out.
Fire still blazed everywhere, though. At least four of the five creatures had exploded in like fashion. One had torn through the standing rigging, causing the entire mizzenmast to sway. The battle nets were burning, the port skiff was burning, halyards were falling to the deck in flaming coils. Beside me, Jervik Lank threw a younger tarboy into the lifesaving spray, and I swear I heard the hiss as his clothes were extinguished. At the forecastle, Lady Oggosk opened her door, shrieked aghast and slammed it again.
Suddenly Rose exploded: “Mizzenmast! Belay hauling! Belay! Damnation! BELAY!”
The men aloft could not hear him. Rose left the Marines and ran straight through the fire, then swung out onto the mainmast shrouds, over the water, waving his hat and screaming for all he was worth. I saw the danger: high on the mizzenmast, the brave lads were trying to save their mainsail by lifting it clear of the smoldering deck. But a line was fouled in the sail—a burning line. They couldn’t see it for the smoke, but they were about to spread the fire to the upper sails.
Captain Rose got their attention at last, and you may be sure they belayed. I looked around me, and by Rin! there was hope. All the creatures had been snuffed, the hoses were still blasting, and save for the mizzenmast the rigging was remarkably intact.
“Two of them mucking animals burned up ’fore they could reach us,” said Jervik Lank, popping up beside me again. “And when their fire died they just fell into the sea.”
So we were at the edge of their range. That answered one question: maybe they preferred to take us alive, but failing that they didn’t want us to escape. They’d waited as long as they dared to hurl those obscene fire-insects at us, then let loose before we could slip away.
The hose-teams went on blasting, and it began to look as though we’d won a round. The Chathrand had lost her jibsail, one minor lifeboat, some rigging about her stern. It was an unholy mess, and work for the carpenters for a fortnight. But the daughter-ship was still miles off, and the day was ending, and they hadn’t sunk us yet. Best of all there was no sign of another volley like the first.
“Captain Rose, you’ve done it—Aya Rin! Captain!”
His left arm was on fire. “Nothing, pah!” he said, calmly stripping off his coat. But the Marines were taking no chances. They still had hold of that writhing dragon of a fire hose, and with a cry they swung around and aimed it at their burning captain—and blew him right off the shrouds and into the sea.