Authors: Lisa McMann
The eel wrapped its body around Simber's neck as a sleep dart stuck fast in Alex's back. Alex slumped lifeless against Simber, and all three ArtimÃ©ans, plus Kitten in Alex's pocket, went crashing over the railing and plunged into the water.
A Watery Grave
lex, unconscious from the sleep dart, slid off Simber's back and drifted toward the bottom of the sea. Fox bobbed in the water, unable to sink, and Simber thrashed and pawed at the eel, trying to loosen its grip around his neck. He chomped and bit at the creature and flapped his mighty wings trying to knock the eel away and free himself.
With a tremendous surge of effort, Simber's stone wing caught the eel in the head. The eel's body slacked, and Simber pulled himself loose. He kicked and bit at the eel, trying to kill it, but the eel was too fast. It slithered away into the dark water to nurse its wounds.
Simber continued to thrash his wings to keep from torpedoing downward. He managed to push himself above the surface. “Wherrre's Alex?” he roared at Fox.
“H-h-he sank!” cried Fox.
“Blast it!” Simber cried. He let gravity take over and dropped through the water as if he were falling through air. His head turned wildly this way and that, looking and listening for Alex. Had the eel taken off with him? If Alex sank, he must have been unconscious. Had he been injured when they crashed through the railing? Simber hadn't seen what happened. All he knew was that he had to find Alex fast.
After what seemed like far too long, Simber spotted movement. He swam toward it and saw it was Alex's robe, swishing in the cloudy water. Simber lunged for it, gripped Alex in his jaws, and used the sea floor to push off. Flapping his wings to project himself upward, Simber soon burst from the water. He snagged Fox with one paw before the pirates could fish him out of the water and continued flapping. Alex hung limp, facedown, from Simber's mouth, and Simber gently pressed on Alex's chest with his jaws. Water dribbled from Alex's mouth and nose, and he coughed and wretched violently, giving Simber hope. But the mage remained dead asleep.
Florence saw them coming.
Simber tossed Fox unceremoniously to the grass and landed on the shore by the mansion. Florence grabbed Alex and ran him inside, into the hospital ward. Simber followed close behind. Nurses gathered around and began working on him even before Simber had a chance to explain what had happened.
As darkness fell around them, the flaming tar balls continued to rattle the mansion, knocking out all but the strongest of windows. One especially large tar ball smashed into the side of the mansion, leaving a gaping hole in the second floor wall, straight through to Alex's private living quarters. Rubble flew everywhere, destroying a portion of Alex's bedroom and sending his dresser and blackboard crashing to the floor. The tar ball scorched the remains, but luck was with ArtimÃ© and it burned itself out.
Alex remained unaware. His unconscious body was focused on expelling the rest of the water he'd breathed in, and the nurses were intent on keeping their mage alive, one minute at a time.
Finally, after an agonizing hour, Alex began to groan. He rolled onto his back and coughed and choked. “My throat,” he rasped, and opened his eyes. He stared at the ceiling for a long, confused moment, and then looked at Florence and Simber. “What happened?”
Simber filled him in.
“Is Fox all right?”
“He's fine,” said Simber. “Kitten is fine too. She crrrawled out of yourrr pocket a little while ago.”
“What's happening out there?” Alex sat up and wiped his face with his damp sleeve as he began remembering everything that was going on. He struggled to his feet, waving off help from the nurses. “Thank you so much,” he said to them. “But I need to get back out there.”
The nurses shrugged at each other as Alex made his way through the hospital ward, fighting off the woozy blackness that washed over him. He stumbled. Florence reached out to catch him, and he grabbed on to the doorframe to steady himself and let the light-headedness pass. “What about Ms. Octavia?” he asked when he could see again. “And Sean and the others on the ship?”
“They're all awake and fine again,” said Florence. “But we need to strategize about what to do with them. They're in a precarious position out there overnight.”
“We can't leave the ship out there without anyone protecting it,” said Alex.
“True,” said Florence. “You could try transporting it to the Museum of Large.”
Alex thought about it for a moment. “No,” he said. “We may need it to be easily accessible. And there's no guarantee on placement with the transport spellâI don't want it to accidentally end up in the lounge, crushing everyone.”
“I'll stay with the ship overrrnight,” said Simber. “I might not be able to attack an enemy ship prrroperrrly, but I can prrrotect one of ourrr own without messing up. I think.” The giant cat looked slightly disgusted with himself, which was rare indeed.
Alex flashed Simber a sympathetic look. “It's clear that they've prepared themselves for fighting you, Simber. That's one bad side to fighting enemies we've fought beforeâthey've figured out how to handle you. We've lost the surprise factor.”
“The shine has worn off,” said Florence. “You're a has-been. Yesterday's newsâ”
“All rrright, I get it,” said Simber, glaring at Florence.
Florence held her lips taut, not quite letting them curve up into a smile, and nodded in the direction of the front door. “Let's go,” she said. “Back to work.” The mansion shuddered as another tar ball struck.
They went outside. Simber left the other two in front of the mansion and flew out to the ship.
“Hoist me up to the roof, will you?” asked Alex. “I want to give Mr. Appleblossom a rest.”
“Are you sure you're feeling okay?” asked Florence. “We don't need you falling off the roof to your death. That would just be embarrassing.”
“I'm fine. Rested, even. Honest.” It wasn't quite true, but it was close enough.
Florence gave in. She lifted Alex up onto the roof and, after a bit of coaxing on Alex's part, helped Mr. Appleblossom down to take a break. Alex sent him to the hospital ward to get his minor burns treated, and demanded he take a nap.
“Do we know what's going on around the island?” Alex asked Florence as she handed him a bucket of water.
“Squirrelicorn updates came in from almost all the stations. Everybody is holding up all right, just continuing to put out fires. Aaron's group has grown a bit over the course of the day. I guess some of the Wanteds and Necessaries whose homes were getting hit by tar balls decided they ought to pitch in and help.”
“They're probably worried they'll get stuck back in ArtimÃ© again if the island burns down,” muttered Alex. He stopped and stood up straight, and looked down at Florence as the whole ridiculous scenario of the attack played out before them. “What are we doing, Florence? Is this how it's going to be? Endless flaming tar balls? Isn't there anything else we can do?”
“Not unless they come ashore. We don't have the boats to go fight them in the water. Our one ship isn't making a dentâand if it were, they'd surround it and capture it. It's definitely telling that they haven't even tried to capture itâit means they find it insignificant enough to ignore.”
“But should we consider attacking from the air?”
“I've thought about that a lot,” said Florence, “and my conclusion is no. It's easy enough for the pirates and Warblerans to hide from Simber and from any spells we cast from the air. They'd love for us to use up all our spell components without actually doing any harm to them. Add to that the risk of Simber having a wing broken off by a flaming tar ball, or the spell casters on his back being knocked down or shot with sleep darts and potentially capturedÂ .Â .Â . it's too much risk, and for what gain? We take out a few of their fighters? In the end, it's not worth it. I think our only move is to ride this out, Alex.”
Alex sighed. “I suppose you're right. But it's maddening.”
“That's exactly what they're counting on,” said Florence. “Warbler might not be made up of the best fighters, which is why they'll keep them on the ships. But my guess is the pirates have done their fair share of fighting over the years. It's in their blood. They've got a plan in place, I'm sure of it. And they'll use it. Right now most of them are sleeping, and none of us are. That's exactly what they want. They're wearing us down.”
Alex looked up wearily when he heard another round of thwaps, and ducked as a tar ball flew over his head and hit the lawn. Two of Alex's team members ran to extinguish it. “Unfortunately,” he said, “it's working.”
A Long, Lonely Night
s the night passed, Alex sent out squirrelicorns to instruct the teams to take turns resting if possible. The flaming tar ball attacks continued, but their frequency slowed a bit. In between, Alex found himself dozing off on the mansion rooftop, dreaming about Sky and the times they'd sat on the roof of the gray shack. But Alex always woke alone to the sound of the catapults. He wondered how Sky was holding up across the island, putting out fires.
After a while Mr. Appleblossom returned to the roof and urged Alex to take a break, so Alex went inside the mansion and surveyed the mess from the broken windows. He tried to remember the broom spell that Lani had created, which would automatically sweep up the shards of glass that lined the walls. Eventually he gave up trying and found an actual broom. He began cleaning.
He stopped by the painted mural of Mr. Today on the doors that led to the hospital ward. The old mage would be horrified to see his beloved mansion in such a state. Windows blown out, tar balls littering the entryway. At least the mural hadn't been damaged.
Alex's eyes and nostrils burned from the smoldering tar odor that wouldn't leave even after the flames had been extinguished. When he finished sweeping, he took the tube to the lounge to check on the ArtimÃ©ans who weren't fighting, and stood there in the dark for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the soft light. Most of the people were sleeping. Alex spied Crow on the floor between Thisbe and Fifer, all three asleep, Fifer's thumb planted in her mouth. Alex stopped and watched them, then weaved his way to Earl, the lounge blackboard.
“Hello, Alex,” said Earl in a low voice. “I think we're at capacity tonight. I haven't been this popular in years. How are things?”
Alex smiled wearily. “Under control so far, but you might want to communicate with the kitchen blackboard to arrange for food down here in the morning in case the bar runs out. The battle rages on.”
“You'd think Clive would have mentioned it to us,” Earl said, a bit put out.
“I haven't had a chance to give him an update,” Alex said. “It's my fault.”
“Still, he could answer his page. Of course he's probably sleeping.
doesn't have a hundred people asking him questions all night long.”
“So did the boy return?”
Alex was puzzled by the abrupt change of subject. “What? Which one?”
“Henry. He's a nice kid. Very respectful. I heard he was missing.”
Alex felt like Earl had hit him over the head with a bat. “Oh no,” he whispered. How could Alex have forgotten about Henry and Spike? He found his voice. “No, he's not back yet.” He ran a hand over his hair and turned away. “IÂ .Â .Â . crud. I've got to go.”
He ran back to the tube and hit the button that would take him to the entryway, where all was quiet for the moment. He rushed outside and found Florence tirelessly filling buckets and placing them on the edge of the roof for Mr. Appleblossom.
“I totally forgot about Spike and Henry!” Alex exclaimed. “Tell me again, Florenceâwere they right behind you? Did you see them leave the Island of Legends?”
Florence paused in her work. “I'm worried too,” she said gently. “I don't know if Henry and Spike actually left. I didn't see them, but I assume they did shortly after Pan and me. That was the plan. Spike isn't quite as fast as Pan, but even if they left hours later, they should have been here by now.”