I recently finished the second draft of a story I’m working on, and I decided to share it online. I’m sharing one chapter at a time, and the story is about 487,000 words right now (roughly 5 paperback novels in length, give or take), so this will take awhile.
I estimate that 2nd draft is about 80% of the way there, story-wise; but 80% is not 100%. This chapter might show up in the final story completely unchanged. It might show up with minor changes, or heavy revisions; or might be cut from the final draft completely. If it does remain, it might be in a new place in the story or the same place.
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Iliar tugged back on his oar, noticing nothing except a dull ache in his broad shoulders as he rowed. Again. And again.
His eyes stared ahead, vacant. He was vaguely aware that it was dim and dark below decks, but he didn’t really notice. It was always this way, wasn’t it? His mind strained for a moment, then he gave it up. He didn’t really remember much. Everything was fuzzy and vague in his mind, even the food he had eaten for second meal.
He kept rowing, in perfect unison with the other man on the oar. He didn’t know how long they had been rowing together–it could have been minutes or hours or centuries. Couldn’t bring himself to care, or to try to remember.
He pulled again, putting his back into it; and the oar dug through the water. Pain lanced up his back, but it was a dull pain. Something he noticed and forgot a moment later, until it came back.
A big wave crashed into the hull and sea spray came through the porthole, splattering him. He barely noticed. Just kept rowing, over and over again.
He didn’t know what would come next, and he didn’t care. That was all there was right now, was rowing. He didn’t remember anything else, didn’t even remember when he had started rowing. Maybe it had been a minute ago, maybe he had never stopped.
He had vague memories of sitting down at this oar bench, of taking a break to eat…something. But he didn’t care enough to remember. He was so tired, and what was the point of…of what? His thoughts fell away in the middle of…something.
It didn’t matter. He kept rowing.
The ship started moving faster, and out of the porthole something big gaped. The ship tilted, and out the window Iliar could see something in the water. Something big and swirling, that the ship was going nearer.
Whirlpool, his mind said. He ignored it. What was a….? He had already forgotten the name.
Then alertness crashed into him like a lightning bolt. Alertness and energy.
Suddenly he saw everything. Saw the black waters, gleaming with moonlight. Saw the big waves, and heard the sharp slap as they crashed into the hull. Felt the icy sea spray through the porthole, freezing his face and bare chest.
Felt the ship tilting to one side, water sloshing over the floor and soaking his trousers. Felt the ship tugged faster forward now, in a wide curve, as he was thrown into the wall by the motion.
In an instant, the horror of it almost tore away his mind in a completely different way from the ship’s slow leeching. He had heard of whirlpools, growing up in a port city. Had heard sailors describe them. And now the ship he was trapped on was being sucked towards one.
He didn’t stop to think. He sprinted towards the stairs to the top deck, bare feet splashing in the freezing water. Dodged around vacant crewmen still heaving their oars back and forth, easy to pick out even in the gloom.
The half to his right kept rowing and didn’t even seem to notice that their oars weren’t in the water anymore. He shivered.
He tore up the stairs, bare feet slapping on the wood, the smell of salt and water and storms almost overpowering him after so long of not smelling anything. His head cracked into the trapdoor to the top deck, but an instant later the pain was gone like it had never been; and Iliar was topside.
He stepped into a scene from a nightmare.
Thick sheets of rain poured down in sheets of freezing wetness, stinging Iliar’s bare skin. Heavy black clouds roiled overhead. Jagged white lightning split the skies, and an instant later thunder boomed right above the ship.
Iliar’s gaze moved frantically across the deck. It was almost empty–no masts, for some reason–but there were two higher decks, one fore and one aft. On the fore deck, he could see a man shrouded in black, grimly holding onto the massive captain’s wheel.
Iliar didn’t know why he did it. The man, or his companion, had murdered Iliar’s father. He didn’t owe them life, wanted to see them burn in the fires of the Hellscape.
But…there were five hundred men below decks. And even if most of them hadn’t even spoken in decades, he owed them something. Owed them a chance at life, if he could give it to them.
He sprinted up the stairs, freezing rain pelting him, and ran to the man at the wheel.
“You’re running us into a whirlpool!” he cried.
Whatever the man said in response was lost to Iliar as he saw over the carved prow for the first time.
The whirlpool was immense. Far larger than anything the sailors had described. It gaped, a black void, water swirling faster and faster around it. They were still miles from the center, but already the curve of the ship was tightening as they circled closer.
From here, Iliar could see down into it; could see the black walls of water that would crush the ship and everyone in it.
The eye of the whirlpool was big enough for the ship to drown in. And they were circling closer.
The ship tilted crazily, and Iliar slammed into the railing. He picked himself up, wincing. The man at the captain’s wheel hadn’t moved.
“The whirlpool!” Iliar cried again. He kept his hands braced on the railing as the ship tilted, as he looked down forty feet into frothing black water. He didn’t dare risk losing his grip and trying to get closer to the captain.
He had heard sailors talk about how their companions had been thrown overboard. Days ago, when he had first rushed up here, he would have given his right hand to get overboard. Now though….
“You’re going to drown us!” he cried.
“Aye, lad, I am!” the man called back. His voice barely reached Iliar, and wind and the rain snatched away half of his words.
“I’ve stewarded this–” a boom of thunder stole his next words, “–twenty years, and I’ll see her home. Let it not be said that Ke’lal, son of–” another bone-shaking roar of thunder “–honored of the–” “did not do his duty and take her home.”
“You’re mad!” Iliar cried. It sounded like the bastard wanted to sail them into the whirlpool. “Get us out of here!”
A wave smashed into the port side of the boat, crashing over the crazily tilted railing and drenching Iliar. He hooked his arms into the railing and clung for dear life.
When he looked up, the other man was standing beside him. Barefoot under that cloak, easily keeping his balance as the ship bucked and rolled and tried to throw them both over the side.
“Go, boy!” he suddenly roared; that cowled face right next to Iliar’s head. “Get off this ship, take the longboat and go!”
Iliar should have ran, but he couldn’t abandon those below. Duty rooted his feet to the deck.
“Steer the ship!” he called back. “Get us out of the whirlpool!”
The cloaked man didn’t respond for a minute. Then:
“You wouldn’t understand, boy; but going down with this ship is the greatest honor a man can have!” he yelled into Iliar’s ear. “The greatest honor my king could grant! And those poor souls below–nothing short of the God of Life could save them! You can’t and I can’t, even if I would!
“But you, boy….” he let out a long breath Iliar barely heard. “You make me reconsider the honor of this whole thing! It’s a hard thing to kidnap a child, and harder when you’re doing it to protect your city! I always figured all’s good that keeps us safe from–” a peal of thunder cut off his next words. He was silent for a long moment. Then:
“Go, boy! You can’t do me or yourself or anybody a bit of good dying, and as far as the spell goes you’re all used up anyway–you won’t do a damn bit of good going down with the ship! Take the longboat and use that magic of yours and GO!”
He pushed Iliar, bony hands shoving the muscled man with surprising strength…and Iliar, to his shame, turned and fled. He forgot all about his crewmates. Forgot that this man had killed his father, and that Iliar still owed him death. That gaping black eye of the whirlpool filled his mind, and he ran.
He was down the stairs to the main deck and untying the ropes of the longboat–frozen fingers slipping on water-tightened knots–when the big man in a cloak loomed beside him.
Before Iliar could move, the newcomer had grabbed him by the throat and slammed him into the railing. The breath whooshed out of Iliar.
“Well, well!” the big man roared. His cowl was down, and Iliar could see his face. His eyes were small and darting and gray. His face was red and puffy, mottled like fruit that had been in the sun too long.
But his body was strong. Iliar croaked and scrabbled at the arm holding him, the fingers like bands of iron tightening around his throat. It didn’t do any good.
The man leaned in close to Iliar, so close Iliar could hear the non-shouted words. His breath smelled rancid. “It looks like the little bastard crewmate is trying to escape again. Only this time, you’re not going to surprise me.”
He grinned, showing yellow teeth. Some were missing. Iliar tried to punch him, but he easily blocked the blow.
“Log’al!” The voice cut through the wind and the rain. It came from the fore deck. “Put him down!”
“Ship’s drowning, Kel’al you old bastard!” Log’al shouted. Spittle flew into Iliar’s face, mixing with the rain still pelting down. “It’s no renunciation of my oath to kill him now! Not when his purpose is ended!”
Suddenly the older man–Kel’al–was there. He loomed over the bigger man, and his slim frame exuded danger.
The big man’s legs wobbled and he almost fell. He swore.
“You’d turn the magic on me, you old bastard! I’ll kill you!”
He let go of Iliar and lunged at the older man. But he didn’t make it two steps before Kel’al seemed to swell.
Iliar thought he could see it, this time. A light around the older man. The light formed a tunnel, a band woven of intricate streams of white light, that anchored into the thin man and then plunged down. Down into the deck, down through the deck Iliar somehow knew; down far past where Iliar could see it.
And the man moved. Faster than Iliar would have believed possible. Faster than he’d ever seen a man move, even Papa.
He lunged forward, those sleeves moving so fast they blurred. Just black slashes in the moonlight. One strike, two, three; so fast Iliar couldn’t even see them, just saw Log’al stagger and double over.
A fourth strike, a fifth; all between one heartbeat and the next. As the big man crumpled, a sixth strike, smashing into his throat. Iliar heard the sickening crunch even over the storm.
And Log’al collapsed.
“Go, boy!” Kel’al roared at Iliar. “He won’t wake this side of the Hellscape, but time is not on your side even with your magic! GO!”
My what? Iliar wondered. But there was no time to think. He tore at the knots binding the longship, fumbling, tearing his nails against the rock-hard knots; and then Kel’al was beside him. The old man’s fingers were deft as they unraveled the rope and then Iliar was in the boat, and the old man was manning the strange crane-like device that lowered the longboat into the churning sea.
When the device released the longboat, Iliar had already taken up the oars and was rowing for his life.
The waves surged, pulling him towards that gaping black whirlpool in front of him, and Iliar’s broad back strained as he dug his oars into the water and heaved. Again, and again; pushing the boat backward with every stroke. Strength seemed to fill him, his muscles swelling with it until they felt like they would burst right out of his skin.
He pulled the oars, so hard it was a wonder they didn’t rip out of the metal oarlock. Rain pelted him, and waves surged, black and frothing and taller than him. He gritted his teeth and rowed, digging his oars into the icy water over and over and over again.
Hours later, the storm had passed and the sky was clear, black speckled with white stars. The ship and Ke’lal had long since vanished, and the whirlpool kept pulling at him.
He told himself he had made a little headway. Told himself the pull of the whirlpool was a little bit less strong. He kept rowing.
He didn’t get tired. It was more than just his training, somehow. There was a strength inside him. A strength that didn’t abate, that kept refilling whenever he began to flag. He dug his oars into the water for what could have been the thousandth time or the ten thousandth, pulling so hard his boat shot backward through a small wave.
Thirty feet to one side, a big shark rose to the surface and floated belly-up before being dragged towards the whirlpool. Iliar, sweat dripping into his eyes as he kept his focus firmly on the stars to make sure he kept rowing the same direction, didn’t notice.
Hours more passed. Iliar thought he had gained a little more space. The current tugging him towards the whirlpool didn’t seem as strong as it used to. Still he didn’t flag.
When dawn came, Iliar saw that he was facing east. The sky gradually lightened in that direction, far beyond the whirlpool; and eventually the sun peaked over the horizon like a red-orange ball, reflected on the water. Still Iliar rowed. Each stroke was hard enough to almost rip the oars out of the oarlock, propelling his boat backward. Stroke after stroke after stroke after stroke.
Still that strength inside him, that feeling of aliveness singing in his veins, didn’t abate.
Iliar rowed and rowed and rowed, keeping the sun before him until it rose too high in the sky to be a useful guide. Until finally his longboat ran aground on a sandy shore.
He climbed out, grabbed the rope tied to the prow, and tugged the longboat out of the water the way a man might tug a small dog.
Then, all in a rush, the strength vanished and Iliar collapsed. Before he even had a chance to look around, blackness took him.
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