“I recall Blackbeard as a fist striking my face, the buckling crunch of a broken nose, the peeling split of a lower lip, the gush, the burst, the spurt, blood spraying, the physical pain a dull ache eclipsed by my ice-cold rage.”
# # #
Blistering heat hung over the southernmost atoll of Devil’s Island, and the winds lolled in the doldrums. The rugged trail wound a serpent’s path through the steep hills by the shoreline. Captain Blackbeard trusted no one, not his officers nor his crew, but least of all me—Jayden Cook, a lowly bo’sun and the only woman serving aboard Damnation who wasn’t a whore or slave.
Slaves and whores got better treatment.
Blackbeard marched with a flintlock rifle aimed at my back. The ancient kraken slithered across the sandy soil on the powerful tentacles that made up his lower limbs. He barked, “Witch, what are you brooding over now?”
I recoiled like a child conditioned to a parent’s slap. The self-betrayal gave me immediate cause for regret when he laughed. Stiffening my spine, I said, “Sorry, Captain. I’m not brooding.”
Kraken were mind flayers, capable of violating another’s thoughts. He extended his psychic tendrils, probing my mental guard. “Scheming whore.”
“No schemes, and I’ve never charged.” With an effort, I focused on becoming a blank slate. Misery and nothing more. Streaming sweat stung my eyes, sliding along my downcast face. An oaken, iron-banded treasure chest crossed my throbbing forearms. Thirst stabbed in my throat like glass shards. Precious coins clinked with the promise of wealth, but I’d have traded the treasure for a sip of tepid water.
“You’re lying, Cook. Your words surround you like fog and make you hard to see.”
The urge to tell him what for overwhelmed me, but I bit my tongue. The tang of blood filled my mouth, and I lied as easily as I breathed. “I’ve had a song in my head the past hour or so, Captain.”
“A mermaid’s melody. Would you like to hear it?” I hummed a few bars, the closest I could come to vocalization without resuming my transformation into a mermaid and altering my legs to a tail. The loss of song wounded my soul; the pain worse, I imagined, than a severed limb.
A snarl ripped from the captain, and he jerked the rifle, shoving the muzzle into the small of my back. “That’s enough of that. The first note that crosses your lips, I’ll shoot you in the head. Do you hear me, witch?”
“Yessir.” I bit my chapped lips to stay a smirk. You’d better fear me, tyrant. He had confiscated my weapons, but he could not take what made me dangerous—my cunning.
Our trek embarked on a steep slope. I raised my gaze, stealing a glance ahead. Atop the dune, tawny shore grasses flagged against a backdrop of sky blue, and the surf sang in the offing like a lighthouse guiding the way home. Relief gusted through me. Our destination lay on the other side of that hill.
Still leading, I started the climb, watching where I placed my steps like a hawk. The exertion drained the final dregs of my energy. My limbs turned leaden, and the chest started to slip. With a guttural grunt, I tightened my hold, hefting the burden. My abdominal muscles clenched, and a cramp knotted my side.
Like a feeble-footed mule, I scrambled up the slippery slope, throwing up sandy spray behind every step. Pebbles rolled. Then a ridge crumbled beneath my boot, loosening a scattered slide.
Blackbeard’s huffing stomp rang out. “Clumsy oaf. Do you need a kick in the arse?”
“No, sir.” Cussing under my labored breath, I dredged up my strength and surged the rest of the way to the summit. On topping the crest, I ground to a halt. Still clutching that blasted chest, I bent over and panted, trying to catch my wind.
The vista stretched for miles over the surrounding coastline. Bone meal beaches hugged a shore of rolling white-capped breakers. Playing at cats’ paws, the god of the west wind batted a refreshing breeze into my face. My skin breathed. The salty sea spray rejuvenated my lungs and replenished my strength. Thank you, Zephyrus. I will not forget your kindness.
Blackbeard slithered nearer. During my tenure aboard Damnation, I had come to dread the grating rasp of the captain’s thick tentacles, the pursuit of serpents. Those steps haunted my nightmares, always chasing me through an inky fog, inescapable no matter how fast or far I fled.
“Running when there’s a gun aimed at your back is moronic. I might’ve shot you.”
“Sorry, Captain.” I despised both my apologetic tone and Blackbeard for forcing me to kowtow. As much as the humiliation burned, survival meant more than my pride.
A threatening shadow entered my peripheral vision; even an indirect glimpse set my skin to crawling. Given a choice, I would have preferred not to see him at all, but I am not a coward. Have a backbone. Confront the horror.
I looked straight at the monster that haunted my nightmares. Blackbeard—a kraken trapped in a half-man, half-squid form—possessed staggering strength. His body was a baleful bulk able to contract or expand with deceptive dexterity and undulating edges that spilled into countless powerful tentacles. Livid jets of flame burned within the inky depths of his eye sockets.
My soul shuddered.
Facing him had taken everything I had, but Blackbeard barely spared me a glance before looking out to sea. He held the rifle leveled, scrutinizing the horizon. “We halt here.”
“Aye, Captain.” I dropped the treasure chest. A lightning-fast hop saved my toes from being smashed. The box thudded with the crash of silver and gold. I pried my canteen off my belt and popped the cap. I threw back my head, pouring water into my gaping mouth. Fluid overflowed, coursing over my cheeks, and soaked the ends of my shorn hair. Warm and brackish, but it tasted divine.
The captain chuckled; smoky laughter rolled in whorls. “Mermaids wilt out of water.”
When the canteen ran dry, I dragged the back of my arm over my mouth. Loyalty forced me to speak in defense of my sisters. “Mermaids are tough.”
“Aye, tough mermaids are, the lot of them, except you, you sorry half-blood.”
“Aye…” Molten slag burned through my innards. On the matter of my unworthiness to the merfolk, the captain and I agreed. I had failed my sisters, and the shame sickened me.
Blackbeard’s gnarly thicket furled in a manner indicating a frown. No doubt, my resignation irritated him. He was a vampire that fed on misery and contention, so apathy probably tasted as unsavory as hardtack to him. He gestured with the rifle’s double-barrel. “Move over there against the ledge. I want you where I can shoot you when your trickery is revealed.”
A long sidestep placed me on the crumbling cliffside, putting him at my back. The vulnerable position set my nerves to screaming. I resisted the instinct to look down, instead staring seaward to where foam capped navy breakers. Breezy fingers ruffled my hair—Zephyrus getting frisky. Give a god an inch; he took miles.
“Trickery. This entire scenario has reeked of deceit since you first brought me tales of untold wealth on Devil’s Island, treasure you alone possessed knowledge of. What kind of fool do you take me for?”
“Sorry, Captain. I don’t take your meaning.”
A blatant lie. Aye, I had resorted to the basest manipulation to lure the captain to this desolate isle. Blackbeard’s suspicion was great, but his greed shone like a full moon.
I rolled my shoulders, a subtle attempt to ease the coiled tension. “I promised buried treasure. There was buried treasure.”
“Aye, ‘n’ that’s the only reason you’re still alive,” he growled, sounding contrarily irate over the profitable income. A skipped beat, then he asked, “Where’s the longboat?”
The news lit a fuse of smug satisfaction. Starkey had accomplished his part. Well done, David. I strove to inject a high note of surprise into my tone. “It’s not on the beach?”
“No,” he said, as grim as a reaper.
Beneath my armored coat, sweat soaked my clothes. I tugged the brim of my hat, shading my eyes against the late afternoon glare, and scanned the terrain below. A steep drop-off riddled with rocky protrusions and dried seagrass led to a narrow beach of coarse sand and pebbles. Freedom awaited three hundred feet down, another six hundred or so to where the waves kissed the shore.
My gaze swept out to sea. Damnation’s thorny profile dominated the horizon, like a floating fortress with an armored hull and a sterncastle seven levels high. Four thick masts sported pitch-black sails and a reinforced bow designed for ramming. The warship carried forty-two cannons and a crew of two hundred men. A buxom beauty, she had heft to match her grandeur, her only great failing sluggishness in both maneuverability and swiftness. No matter, I coveted Damnation every bit as much as I loathed her master and commander.
She will never be mine. I turned away and searched until I found what I sought. “There,” I said, pointing to the silhouette of a longboat bobbing on unbroken swells. “A third mile out beyond the surf zone.”
Blackbeard squinted into the distance. “Why would Victor and Torp have moved the longboat?”
“Maybe they ran into trouble with the devil patrols?” I dropped my arms to my sides, centering my balance, and scanned the eastern horizon.
Blackbeard huffed like an old dragon with a char-clogged throat. “The devils seldom patrol this isle.”
“Seldom is not the same as never.”
He stayed still, and so I remained frozen. Beneath my armored long coat, sweat soaked my clothing. Nausea churned in my gut, and bitterness filled my mouth. The sinking sun threw long shadows across the ground. When the captain’s shade lowered its rifle, I gathered my strength. Sinew drew taut over my long frame, and discordant tension reverberated throughout my body.
Blackbeard’s long scope expanded with a soft hiss, and his shadow raised its arms. His tentacles rustled, trampling sea grass, as he conducted a survey.
Now or never. From a standing start, I jumped off the cliff. The leap carried me far but not far enough. I landed on my feet on the slope, bending at the knees.
“Cook!” Blackbeard ground out in a voice like breaking stones.
A rush shot down my spine. I pitched forward into a somersault, freefalling. Then I landed flat on my back on top of a rumbling avalanche. A cloud of dust clogged my airways. It hurt to breathe, but at least the landslide was carrying me away from my nemesis. Fragile hope fluttered in my breast. At last, things were going my way. I was going to make it!
Spoke too soon.
I lurched off a ledge, and my spread limbs sent me into a crazy tumble. The world spun, beat me bloody, and dropped me on my head. Blinding agony lanced through my skull and spine. I toppled, and my elbow hammered a jagged boulder. Lancing grief shot through my arm. The hardened leather of my coat saved my skin, but I smacked into protrusions, gathering a wealth of welts and bruises.
Pain whispered. Fear roared.
A great apparition passed overhead, blocking out the sun. Blackbeard’s shouts pelted down in a hailstorm. “Cook, I’m going to break you in half and rip you to shreds.”
Hardly the captain’s most creative threats. I would’ve told him so except I had grit in my teeth while taking this downhill slide. I threw out my legs to break the roll. With a flat thud, I landed on my back again. The brunt drove the wind from my lungs, but this rocky magic carpet counted as a distinct improvement. I was determined to ride it out until I happened to glance toward the bottom of the hill. There, Captain Blackbeard crouched with his arms spread wide as a bear, waiting to capture me in his crushing embrace.
Ember eyes burning within an empty face.
“Witch, I’m going to break every bone in your body. Pulverize your flesh.”
Shit. Terror gripped me with icy claws. The chill pierced my courage clean through, and my heart throbbed in my mouth. In a horrifying flash, I foresaw a vision of the slow, torturous death I would suffer before Blackbeard finally snuffed out my life.
I am going to die…
But not today and not like this.
Fear galvanized me to act. A frantic survey revealed limited options, but chance had put me on a collision course with an outcropping. Brained by a boulder? A better death than being ground to a fine paste, but I chose life.
Prior to impact, I threw my entire weight to the side, leading with my shoulder. I shot past the boulder and spun out of control. Rough-and-tumble—and not the fun sort—but the shift carried me away from my foe. The precious seconds bought me enough time to come upright.
I hit the ground running, aimed straight for the sea. The whole of my focus locked on the distant wall of breaking waves. Blueness beckoned like a promise. I poured all my energy into reaching that sanctuary. My physical body fell away, and my spirit soared over the sand.
Four hundred feet to go.
Weathered gray boulders hid Blackbeard from view, but his curses resounded like a volley of cannons. The sprint carried me past the outcropping, and Blackbeard’s ominous bulk dashed in my periphery.
“Stop, damn you!” the captain boomed like a cannon.
A cramp knotted my side, and my wind faded. The exertion of hauling that chest over rugged hills had depleted my strength. My stride hit a faltering hitch. I needed to double over and press my elbows to my ribcage to alleviate the stabbing, but I fought to push through. A flood of funny little details I’d been oblivious to before now flooded my mind. I had lost my hat, and my broken pinky finger stuck out at a sharp angle.
Keep going. Never stop. My friends were waiting for me at the longboat anchored offshore. Four of us had plotted Blackbeard’s downfall for months, and each of the others had done their part. My job had been to lure Blackbeard into the trap. Mission accomplished. Starkey would be pissed if I failed to make it back.
The bang of a flintlock pistol erupted from behind me. The lead ball grazed the shell of my ear, spraying a fine red mist. Sulfurous fumes irritated my airways.
With an ominous click, the hammer of a second flintlock pistol locked. “I gave you an order, Cook.”
“Get tossed.” I lunged for the ocean with renewed determination. The gap had closed to a few hundred feet, and the whole of my purpose locked on the breaking waves.
Blue sea. White foam. Freedom.
Blackbeard’s firearm erupted, breathing fire and smoke. A solid blow struck the back of my right leg, knocking me off my feet. I landed on my belly in sun-warmed sand that molded about my body like a luxurious bed.
Mmm, nice… I wanted to close my eyes and grab a catnap.
The slithering of tentacles neared. A shadow fell over me. “That was patently stupid, Cook. Desperation must have rotted your brain. I’m disappointed. I expected more of a challenge.”
“Sod off.” Sheer grit raised me to all fours. My injured thigh throbbed, but the line where the waves wet the sand lay not far ahead. I crawled.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The captain locked his beefy hand over the back of my thigh. He probed the wound, pressing the solid shot deeper until it grated against bone.
An agonized scream tore from my throat. Darkness rushed over me.
I returned to awareness to find myself flat on my back, trapped beneath an overwhelming weight with my arms pinned to my sides. Pressure constricted my lungs. I gasped, fighting for breath. A bitter inky stench flooded my nostrils. Through a crimson haze, I glared at the shadow that had me pinned. “Get. Off.”
“Don’t you dare give me orders, whelp.” Blackbeard straddled my chest, his tentacles writhing, pulsating rhythmically against my torso. My blood ran cold, and my stomach churned. The obscene intimacy stripped away my mental armor; unbearable vulnerability further ravaged my fortitude.
Struggling to master wildcatting fear, I locked onto a frantic mantra, repeating it over and over. I am not a victim.
He drove through my mental defenses, penetrating the sanctity of my soul. “Wrong. You are a victim. You were born to be used and abused. Why else would Peter Pan have chosen you?”
Rage rampaged through me. Dredging up every iota of strength left to me, I fought for freedom, but the kraken weighed the devil. A bloodcurdling shriek formed in my throat. In desperation, I reached for the forsaken: the siren song.
Blackbeard sought to strangle my sorcery. His stone-breaker hands encircled my throat like a noose. He lifted me off my feet so that I dangled within his grasp. “Before I end your miserable existence, tell me what you were trying to accomplish.”
When I sneered, bloody spittle spilled down my chin. “You’re cursed to Devil’s Island.”
“Cursed.” His stare smoldered with the intensity of the ignited firesticks he often wore into battle. He tightened his hold, choking off my breath. “What curse, witch? Tell me, or I’ll wring your lousy neck.”
I locked both hands around his wrists, prying with all my strength but still could not break his stranglehold. Even so, I grinned with smug satisfaction. Defiance rasped from my constricted throat, “You’re stuck here. No matter what becomes of me, you’ll never leave this place.”
Blackbeard snarled deep in his throat. On flexing tentacles working like a machine, he hauled me toward the surf. At the water’s edge, we plowed into an invisible wall that stopped us dead. “What treachery is this?”
“My gift to my captain.”
With a furious growl, Blackbeard leaned as though into a hurricane, although the breeze blew gentle. His pulsating torso sported unctuous tentacles. He splayed those kraken limbs as though to wrestle the ocean. For stature, he was a mountain, for temper a volcano. Grunting and groaning, he strained against the unseen barrier. His shouted protest carried for miles. “I will not allow this!”
I howled like a madwoman. “Too late, Captain. You’re trapped.”
Blackbeard loosened an enraged bellow. “Cook, you treacherous dog, I’ll have you flayed then raped within an inch of your miserable life. My fist will be the last thing you see before I smash your skull.”
A red haze enveloped my consciousness. My starving lungs ached in my chest. Every whispered word required effort. “No matter what you do to me, you’re never leaving this barren rock.”
Enraged, he drew back his arm, holding me with one hand. I managed to suck down a fresh gulp of air before his fist smashed into my gut. The blow drove the stolen breath from my body. Ribs snapped, and stabbing pain radiated through my abdomen.
“Tell me how to break the curse.”
He pounded his boulder-sized fist into my face. With a crunch, my nose flattened, spurting blood. The next punch pulverized my cheekbone. “Every time you give me a smartass answer, I’m going to break something. When there’s nothing left to break, I’ll carve off a piece of you. I promise you unimaginable suffering.”
It struck me as hilarious that the rotten egomaniac thought he could threaten me with torture. I had endured and survived far worse than he could ever imagine. Sudden maniacal laughter claimed me like madness. Almost incoherent, I said, “Revenge is worth any sacrifice.”
“I’ll change your mind. That’s a promise.”
He clobbered me again, and my cheekbone shattered. My head snapped on my neck, and a red tide swamped my consciousness. Distant rumbling filled my ears. At first, I mistook the roaring for blood rush, but then Blackbeard cocked his head as though listening.
He asked, “What’s that?”
“The price you pay for murdering mermaids.” Taking advantage of his distraction, I aimed a kick at his groin, but one of his tentacles blocked the attack.
Still holding me by the throat, he turned toward the ocean. A short way out, an enormous wave rose, rumbling toward the shore. The wind lashed a whip of salty spray, drenching us to the skin. With a deafening roar, the tsunami crashed over the beach.
I planted my feet against the kraken’s chest, wrenching free from his grasp. A frothing jet backhanded Blackbeard. He flew toward the beach and crashed to the sand. I flopped into the rising tide and lost sight of my former captain behind a great wall of water. The barrier remained to our rear, hiding us from scrutiny.
Safe. For a moment, I slumped over in a boneless heap, unable to do anything other than gasp for breath. The ocean’s depths called to me, but my gunshot leg refused to support my weight. I fell but tried again. The exertion sent wrenching pain throughout my entire body. I’d have believed my spine was severed, except a broken back would have hurt less.
The water level rose to my chest. I ceased fighting to stand and floated in the tranquil shallows. Slithering motion came from behind me. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied an ochre octopus tentacle snaking through the clear aquamarine.
Blackbeard! Terror lanced down my backbone. Instinctively, I jerked but not fast enough to evade capture. The tentacle lashed around my wrist and then coiled around my forearm. I hauled away with all my strength, straining to break the living shackle.
“Shh, it is only me,” crooned my captor.
Sycorax. Panic receded, and my shoulders slumped as the tension bled from my battered body. My body throbbed with a hundredfold aches and pains. Everything hurt except maybe my eyebrows. Inquisitively, I wagged my brow, and a thousand needles radiated across my forehead.
Never mind. Everything hurt.
When your life is lived in constant peril, safety is impossible to trust. Sycorax had saved me, yet I clung to paranoia and fear. I wanted nothing more than to weep in relief, but my tear ducts were clogged. To show weakness on Blackbeard’s Damnation was to guarantee the cat would be brought out. Without exception, weaklings were flogged within an inch of their lives.
Trembling, I grasped the tip of the tentacle within my hand. Tiny suckers clung to my skin. We traded a gentle squeeze.
I coughed to clear my throat. “Took you long enough.”
Sycorax, the great and powerful Sea Witch, snickered. Her laughter, like her voice, embodied melody. She surfed closer, rearing on her mermaid’s tail. Her fins furled and flowed like a ship’s top yard streamers dancing on the wind. “I figured you’d want the opportunity to save yourself.”
“A smashing job I did of that.” Speaking of smashed… I touched my cheek and flinched when my fingers met with a meaty mess. The barest brush worsened the awful aching, not just in my head but also my abdomen.
“What a sorry mess you are, my Witchling.” She spoke the nickname with fond affection, but inwardly, I cringed.
Witchling. Oh, how I despised the term. I couldn’t hear it without also hearing Blackbeard’s voice in my mind, sneering, “Witch.” My rejection wasn’t fair to Sycorax, who had given me the nickname as a term of endearment, but life is seldom just.
“Don’t call me that… please.”
Sorrow marred her loveliness, but then she smiled. “Jayden Cook, Shark Bait.”
Despite everything, I chuckled and regretted it. Rays of pain shot through my sides. “Stop making me laugh.”
With a rueful chuckle, she beckoned for me to come. “My incorrigible darling, let’s get you to Starkey.”
Relief washed through me. Starkey, my oldest friend in this world or any other, had risked everything to help imprison Blackbeard. “David made it?”
“He’s waiting—not patiently—in the longboat.” Sycorax gathered me into her arms. A seductive aroma surrounded her, the scent of magic, mysteries, and mysticism.
I slumped against her. “You saved my life. Thank you.”
She swam steadily, strongly, carrying us out to sea. “Just as you saved mine. No thanks are necessary. No debts are owed. We are sisters.”
For a brief interval, we lapsed into silence. Deeper ocean meant cooler water, stronger tides, treacherous undercurrents. The seas surrounding Devil’s Island teemed with sharks, feral merfolk, and venomous serpents… to name a few of the dangers. Alone, I might have easily fallen prey to one of those vicious predators, especially in my weakened condition. Sycorax, however, was stronger than she liked to let on. In her arms, I felt safe enough to relax and drift along.
In a trembling voice, she said, “Should my father ever escape… Should he learn that it was I who cursed him… I shudder to envision what he would do to me.”
I jerked my face up. “He won’t ever know. As far as Blackbeard knows, I acted alone. He has no reason to suspect you. I promise to never tell. You’re safe.” Uneasily, I cast a glance back at Devil’s Island, expecting to find Blackbeard giving chase.
“As I taught you, no curse is absolute. Every hex is subject to a condition under which it will break. A spell powerful enough to contain the First Kraken is no exception.”
Careful now. With the Sea Witch, one must never ask a direct question. Clenching my teeth, I pondered my next words carefully. Tedium weighed on my mind like a gravestone, so the simple task took longer than usual. “We agreed to a curse breaker that places the full burden on me.”
Her huff spoke volumes. “I cast the curse in keeping with our exact arrangement. Blackbeard will never be free to depart Devil’s Island until you, Jayden Cook, forgive the one who hurts you the worst.”
I snorted. “Right now, that’s a toss-up between Peter Pan and Blackbeard, and I’m not the forgiving type. Your father is going to rot on that hellhole forever.”
A stubborn pout curved her indigo lips. “My heart aches for you.”
Startled, I yanked back my head. “What? Why?”
“Wrath is a bitter, consuming vice. Without forgiveness, there is no love. I fear this terrible burden will eventually drown you in madness and rage.”
“Don’t worry, love. I cannot drown.” Framing her face between my hands, I plied her mouth with a sensual kiss. On my honor, I could have died content in her arms.
When we parted, Sycorax offered a reluctant smile. “Content isn’t good enough.”
I blinked tears. “It’s more than I’ve ever known. Without you, without Starkey, I’m lost.”
The Sea Witch stared through me, piercing my soul. “Never fear, my sweet, stubborn child. When you’re sinking, lacking the strength to swim, I will be there to hold you up. My strength is yours. That is my promise to you. I swear on my immortal soul.”