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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Danur leaned forward, his muscled arms pushing the heavy oars back through the water.
He had left his ship behind an hour ago, after sailing at breakneck pace through waters choppy and smooth for the past two days. It would be safe. A ship floating on the open ocean, not moving in spite of current and wind, unmanned…any brigands would have to be mad to take it. They would know who it belonged to, and they wouldn’t risk incurring Danur’s wrath.
No-one risked that, not these days. Except for whatever bastard had killed Illidrea.
Careful, Danur told himself, back tight as he tugged the heavy oars through the water. Again and again. He was approaching one of the few beings of this world who could challenge him, and the God of Death had the advantage in this case…he had what Danur wanted. Danur would only have one shot at this.
His back strained as he pulled the oars again, and the narrow flat-bottomed rowboat scythed through the waters. He was facing the pointed bow of the boat, the prow adorned with a beautiful golden statue of Illidrea, her long flowing hair perfectly captured by the smith. He sat backwards to how oarsmen usually rowed, which made rowing the craft a little harder, but he didn’t want for strength. And in this area of the ocean, he needed to see what he was approaching.
He hadn’t been willing to risk sailing his ship right up to the Island. His books said that magic was…tricky, here. It could distort, could push and pull, and some spells that should be simple had behaved in unexpected ways. Some magic he couldn’t part from–it was in his bones, in his blood. But the magics that he could part with, he had.
He heaved the oars again. He didn’t mind. Even at one thousand years old, he was lean and strong. His face might be lined, his short-cropped black hair and beard peppered with white and gray, but the magic sustained and fortified his frame. He could run all night if he had to, could swim a dozen leagues. Could row this longboat the last few miles to the Island, through rain and storm if need be, without breaking a sweat.
High above him, the sun was at its peak. A boiling ball of yellow fire in a clear blue sky, shining down on him. But in spite of that, the salty air was cool. The air was always cool at sea; or cooler, at any rate, than the hot air in a crowded city. The coolness and the solitude were things he liked about voyaging across the seas. Except for Illidrea, he did not like company.
Illidrea. He had to get her back. If it was too late…ruthlessly, he shut that thought off. Crushed it with an iron fist and threw the bloodied remains into a vault deep inside him, locked tight. No. It was not too late. It was never too late, not for a man like him.
His teeth set in a snarl at the thought, and he rowed harder, shoulders straining as he heaved and the longboat shot through the small waves. It cleaved through them, sea spray splattering across his face, cold and wet and salty. Like tears, almost. He growled and shook his head. He hadn’t cried in the thousand years he had been alive, and he wasn’t about to start now.
Illidrea would be alive again soon, in his arms again soon. That was all there was to it.
As he rowed, the nature of the seas changed. When he had started, they had been gentle, waves only as high as his longboat. The sun had shone down in a cloudless sky. But as he approached the Island, the terrain shifted.
A storm blew in, suddenly and out of nowhere. Dark clouds flew across the sun, black and purple and heavy with wind and rain. Rain began to pelt down, fat heavy drops that soaked his cloak and breeches and left his beard and hair sodden. He growled, pushing cold water out of his eyes with a hand almost as wet as his face; then wrapped his hand around the worn splintered handle of the oars once more and kept rowing. A splinter dug into his palm, but he didn’t feel it. In his long life he had learned to deal with far worse than a little physical pain.
He rowed harder, faster now. A wind kicked up, a powerful headwind that slammed into him so hard he rocked backward before catching himself. He blinked rapidly in the stinging gale, trying to see. He was looking for land, for a black smudge on the horizon, but all he could see was endless waves.
The waves rose, white capped now and surging towards his boat. As tall as Danur, thick and black and dangerous in the storm. One wave crashed over his prow, splashing him, a sheet of cold water lancing through his already soaked cloak. He bared his teeth, refusing to shiver. Heat and cold were for lesser men.
He set himself against the storm, rowing hard, his muscles straining now. Harder. Harder than a mortal man could row, so hard he thought he might have ripped the oars out of their metal bindings on the rim of the longboat if he hadn’t had the bindings specially reinforced. His little craft shot forward. It rose up one wave, tilted perilously backwards.
And on top of the wave, silhouetted against the jagged white lightning now arcing in the background, Danur saw something that made his heart stop.
A first, in almost a thousand years.
Not the trough between waves that his longboat was about to fall into, deep and yawning. Not the wind that shifted angles, now ramming into his boat from the side and trying to tilt him parallel to the waves so they could capsize him. He gritted his teeth and stabilized against the wind, digging one oar forward and one back to counteract how the gusts tried to turn his boat.
But his attention wasn’t on that, not really. It was on the giant whirlpool a few dozen feet in front of him.
Black seas, hungry and deep, swirled around that whirpool. Faster and faster as they neared the center, swirling down. From high up on the wave, Danur could almost see down into it; down into the endless blackness it would drag him into.
Danur swore, low and fierce; and reversed course on his longboat. His arms strained, fire lancing along the muscles of his back as he tugged his boat away from the deadly current. It did no good. A few strokes later, he was closer than he had been when he had started. Drawing inexorably nearer.
Danur ran the calculations in his head, his keen mind whirling. He couldn’t escape the whirlpool. He was rowing as hard as he could, as hard as all the magic in his blood and his bones, all the iron strength in his body, could go; and it wasn’t enough. With each pull of his oars, he was pushed back from the deadly whirlpool; but as he lifted his oars and moved them out of the water and backward, he was pulled closer than when he had begun his stroke.
The whirlpool was clearly of the God of Death’s making. It had appeared too suddenly to be anything else. Besides, he knew he was close to the Island, and the laws of nature could be…bent, here. The storm had come out of nowhere, and he would wager the whirlpool had as well.
But there had to be a way through. The God of Death, whatever ignorant fools thought of his name, was not an indiscriminate killing monster. He was cold, calculating. And he liked to bargain with mortals. All of Danur’s books, and Illidrea’s, agreed on that.
Don’t think about her, he ordered himself. His steel mind tightened, blocking out thoughts of her. He needed to focus if he was to get her back, and that meant bringing his entire mind to bear on the problem.
The God of Death liked to bargain with mortals. True, most of those bargains did not go the way the mortal hoped–Danur had found only one story in his books of a mortal woman who had bested the God of Death and gotten what she wanted out of the deal. But still, these bargains happened, and they happened regularly as Danur measured these things. That meant that the whirlpool couldn’t be lethal.
Further, Danur didn’t sell himself short. With magic suffusing his body, he was stronger than any man alive today. Probably, than any man who had ever lived. If he couldn’t escape the whirlpool, no lesser man had a chance.
So how did they overcome the whirlpool and get to the Island?
He had two ideas. The second was going to kill him if it didn’t work. Coldly and calmly, he tried the first.
Ignoring what he had read in his weathered books, black ink scrawled along their thick browned-with-age pages, he reached deep inside himself. Past the powers that were always with him, that made him strong and gave him long life and killed any disease before it could infect him. Past his thoughts and his cold rage, past his buried longing for Illidrea and his even more deeply buried fear of her being gone.
Past all of that, down into his iron soul; and to the magic he had been born with. The magic that even other humans had, though his was stronger, his knowledge of it sharper and more dangerous even before he had spent centuries studying it.
He grasped that magic, and life flowed through him. A whirlwind, a torrent; so strong he felt for a moment like a tree ripped from its roots and cascading down a river. He groaned and held on.
Then, one moment of furious mental wrestling later, the magic was in his grasp. Filling him, but not overflowing. Making the sights and sounds and smells of the ocean come alive, but no longer so strong that he lost himself in them. It bucked and writhed under his grasp, but no longer yanked him to and fro behind it.
Danur seized the magic, and used it.
Far below, deep beneath the black surface of the water, split with jagged white from reflected lightning, he could feel the creatures of the deep. Sharks, patrolling the inky blackness waiting for their next meal. Bigger creatures, swimming lethargically through the seas as they hunted. Whales, and creatures he had no name for; gigantic and four-legged, with fins as big as his longboat that opened in their sides when they wanted to swim instead of run along the bottom of the sea.
Danur chose a shark, big and muscled with battle scars from a fight barely won and long past; and the magic formed a connection between it and him. A glowing rod of twisted light, not seen but felt, linking his life-force and the shark’s.
And with a sharp tug, Danur ripped the life-force from the shark and into him. The creature froze in the middle of swimming, and fell slowly towards the sandy bottom of the ocean far far below.
And strength surged through Danur. Filled him close to bursting with power. His arms felt like he could rip tree trunks from the ground. His legs felt like if he bent and flexed them, and jumped, he could soar into the sky.
And he tugged at the oars, his arms yanking them so fast he should have shot backwards almost all the way to his ship.
Instead, the oars gave a sharp crack and and snapped.
Danur launched backward with the force of his attempted stroke, no water to counter-balance his pull and keep him centered; and cracked his head on the back of the longboat.
His eyes widened, staring at the two shattered oars. That…that had never happened before. Not even when he had drawn the strength of a whale into him and rowed a hundred leagues in an hour, just to test what his body could do.
He groaned, back aching from where he had hit something hard and knobby–the chest, he realized, empty now but bolted into the bottom of the longboat–and climbed to his knees.His head ached and he cursed, trying to ignore it.
All of it had happened between one moment and the next. The wind still whipped wildly at him, stinging his eyes, jerking his boat to the side so the towering waves would hit it crossways. His longboat was still poised on top of that giant wave, still looking down on a trough twenty feel below him, the next wave already close to cresting. The whirlpool was still ahead of him, black and swirling and inexorable.
His mind whirled. Those oars shouldn’t have cracked, but magic was unpredictable here. The boundary between the Mortal Realm and the Hellscape was porous, and for a small distance the two realms mingled, or perhaps just overlapped, and magic that was reliable in the Mortal Realm–his realm, the realm of the living–could cause terrible consequences here.
He had known that. Had prepared for it.
And that left two possibilities.
Beneath him, the boat rolled and bucked, tilting downward into that trough. He sat up, gripping the sides of the longboat as it fell, his fingers digging into the freezing splintered wood.
He didn’t notice the pain. He was fixated on the problem. That was the only thing worth thinking about, the only thing that could get him out of this mess and to the Island.
Magic was unpredictable here–at least, the life magic that some humans such as he were born with. The other magic he had, the fragments he had found…those he didn’t know. They didn’t seem to be unpredictable, but then again he hadn’t really tested them. And neither had anyone else, because as best he knew he and Illidrea were the first mortals ever to find these magics.
Which meant that the previous bargainers hadn’t used life magic to escape the whirlpool. Not unless they knew something he didn’t, and he dismissed such an absurd notion out of hand. And they hadn’t used any of the other magics he had, because they didn’t have access to them.
So how had they escaped the whirlpool?
That led him to his second idea…the one that would kill him if he was wrong. But if he was wrong he was a dead man anyway. This wasn’t a time to let petty fears dictate his actions. This was a time to choose the best course, with the highest chance of success, and hope he lived to see it through.
Danur stood up in his boat, and as it fell into the trough he launched himself off of it. He soared through the air, crashed into the next wave with a sharp slap that knocked the breath out of him, and felt the whirlpool take him.
And then it was sucking him down, down, down into blackness.
Danur’s last thought was of Illidrea.
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