Authors: Justin Somper
Tags: #Action & Adventure - General, #Vampires, #Action & Adventure, #Children's 9-12 - Fiction - Horror, #Juvenile Fiction, #Family - Siblings, #Fantasy & Magic, #Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Twins, #Children: Grades 4-6, #General, #Children's Books - Young Adult Fiction, #Pirates
At Jasmine’s words, Connor immediately thought of the way he’d seen Cheng Li operate in battle. He’d noticed at once how minimal her actions were. While other pirates, Bart included, wove around the deck, thrusting their swords this way and that, you might blink and miss Cheng Li’s actual engagement of her twin katanas. And yet, when she did use them, in Cate’s view, she was the most effective of swordbearers. Clearly, this was one legacy of Cheng Li’s rigorous Academy training. Connor felt like a sponge, eager to learn more of these techniques. But he was only at the Academy for a few more days. How could he ever hope to amass the knowledge that Cheng Li had learned in ten years here? Suddenly, in spite of his practical knowledge of piracy, he felt lacking. If only he could stay longer.
“Very good, Jasmine,” said Commodore Kuo. “Yes, the one-stroke-victory was very important to our forebears and, if you look at it in terms of
, you can under-stand why.
places you in an optimum state of alertness. In such a state, with the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree awareness I spoke of before, you should be fully able to execute the one-stroke-victory. Failure to do so means you have wasted that
. Now, with every further stroke you take, you further waste your
. And, with every further stroke, you expose yourself to risk and reduce your own chance of survival.”
Again, Connor recognised the sensations Commodore Kuo was describing. Swordfighting wasn’t entirely like sport. However much stamina you developed — and Connor knew that he had just about as much as any human being — fighting drew more deeply on your reserves than any mere sport. And often, after the lengthy psyching-up process, the actual battle was over very quickly. A few seconds might be all it took. It was the way you capitalized on your adrenaline — or
—in those seconds that determined your fate.
“Now don’t think,” said Commodore Kuo, “that the concept of
is reserved merely for that moment on the battle deck. The successful pirate needs to maintain
away from the obvious arena of combat, twenty-four/seven . . .”
As Commodore Kuo continued his discourse, Connor listened intently; more aware than ever that he had a lot to learn.
Connor couldn’t believe how quickly the double period of the Swordsmanship lecture had gone by. As Commodore Kuo wound up the discussion, Connor glanced at the clock and saw that a full hour and twenty minutes had slipped past. He shook his head. Back at CMB High, his brain would have felt totally numb after a double dose of Physics or Geography. But, challenging as Commodore Kuo’s lesson was, he could have listened for another hour or more.
“You looked a little shell-shocked when I called you up,” Commodore Kuo said, appearing before him. “I hope I didn’t embarrass you.”
Some of the other kids were starting to file out of the lecture theater, no doubt on their way to their next class. Jacoby waited at Connor’s side.
“No,” Connor said. “It’s a lot to take in, that’s all.”
“But you knew what I was talking about,” said Commodore Kuo. “I could sense it. Come on, let’s walk and talk.”
Connor nodded and began walking out with Commodore Kuo on one side and Jacoby on the other. “Yes, a lot of what you said struck a chord with me. But all these terms are new to me. Not just
“Well, of course,” said Commodore Kuo, as they stepped out into the sunlit gardens. “You haven’t had the advantage of Academy training, like these kids have. These guys are — what — two years older than you? Plus, they’ve had almost ten years of studying here at the Academy. But you know more than you think — look at the way you offered your sword to me for inspection. The way you did that also dates back to the classical Japanese warriors.”
Connor was surprised.
“Your trainer — Cutlass Cate? — has instilled a remarkable level of knowledge in you during your time aboard
. You really have much to be proud of, Mister Tempest.”
Connor flushed with pleasure.
“How’s your sister today?”
The question took Connor off-balance. “She’s okay, I think ...I mean, I guess. She wasn’t feeling too well this morning, but . . .”
Commodore Kuo smiled. “Well, it’s a beautiful day. I’m sure she’ll perk up. Right — I have to go and teach Captaincy Skills to Year 6 now. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
He began striding up the hill. Then he turned back and looked at Connor curiously. What was he thinking? Connor wondered. It was disconcerting.
“I was just thinking,” said the headmaster, “just
if we can tempt you to stay a little longer at the Academy? I feel we could teach you much about piracy.
And you could teach us too. You have a lot to give, Connor Tempest.”
“Thanks,” Connor said, not knowing exactly what else to say.
“Well, look,” Commodore Kuo said. “I know it’s a bit of a wild thought. And I know Molucco will be keen to have you back and all that. But would you ...would you at least think about it?”
Connor nodded. At this moment, there was nothing he wanted more than to stay. But could he really do it? After everything that had happened, could he leave Captain Wrathe and
He thought once more of his vision. It chilled him to the core. But he was going to fight it. If death
stalking him, then he’d give it a duel to remember. He was going to prepare himself by becoming the very best pirate that he could be. Not just a pirate, but a warrior. Not just a warrior, but a captain. Yes, he thought, even if one day — a long, long way off — I am struck down on the deck of my ship ...I will die a pirating legend.
“Connor! Not again!”
“No. It’s not Connor.”
Grace jumped off the bed and opened the door to her room. On the threshold stood Cheng Li, dressed for combat and holding a spare sword. She smiled at Grace and brushed past her into the room.
“I thought we were going to have some combat practice today, Grace,” she said, “but we haven’t seen you all day. Why, you’re not even dressed yet. It’s almost dinnertime, Grace! Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” said Grace, unable to rein in her emotion. “Yes, something is very wrong.”
Immediately, Cheng Li dropped the sword on the bed and enfolded Grace in a hug. It was an uncharacteristic gesture but exactly what Grace needed.
“Whatever’s the matter?” asked Cheng Li, as she held Grace in her arms. “Tell me. You know we share
Grace told Cheng Li the whole sad tale of her latest — her
— trip to the Vampirate ship. Once more, Cheng Li listened intently until Grace’s very last words.
“I don’t know what to do,” Grace said. “Everything has changed.”
Cheng Li shook her head. “Nothing has changed.”
Grace couldn’t believe her ears. “It has! The captain has told me he doesn’t want me to return. That I must stay away.”
“Agreed,” said Cheng Li. “But you have friends aboard that ship. You have, in your own words, ‘unfinished business.’ It no longer matters what the captain thinks. What matters is how you find peace of mind.”
Grace shook her head. “I can’t go against the captain’s wishes. I can’t.”
“What about Lorcan?” Cheng Li said. “He needs you. The captain’s all but given up on him. You haven’t!”
“But if the captain himself can’t save him, what can I do?”
“Well, we won’t know that, Grace, until we get you back on the ship.”
Grace looked into Cheng Li’s smoky eyes. Her heart was racing. Could she really do this?
“Look,” said Cheng Li. “Darcy Flotsam came to find you, to ask for your help, didn’t she?”
“And Lorcan gave you the Claddagh ring and sent you visions of himself . . .”
“Yes,” Grace nodded. “Yes, he did!”
“Visions which might just as well have been pleas for help,” continued Cheng Li. “Grace, you do have unfinished business with that ship. I think the captain is pre-occupied with these rebel Vampirates — Sidorio and the others. He isn’t thinking straight. He certainly isn’t thinking about poor Lorcan. As you say, if he isn’t taking blood, who knows how long he has left? By the time the captain turns his attentions to his plight, it could be too late.”
As ever, Cheng Li had thrown Grace a lifesaver.
“All right,” said Grace, flushed with a new sense of purpose. “All right. Let’s do it. But
do I get back on the ship?”
“Tell me again, Grace, how do you think you found the Vampirate ship in the first place?”
Grace sighed. They’d been over this so many times already. “I was in the water, fighting for my life — and losing the battle. Much like Connor was. You found him. And, in the same way, Lorcan must have found me.”
“I found Connor in the daylight,” Cheng Li said. “The light was dying but it was still daylight. I could never have seen him in the darkness.”
“So Lorcan must have found me in the light too.”
“But he can’t have, can he? From everything we know now, Lorcan couldn’t have come out in the light.”
“No, you’re right. But there was the mist . . .”
“Yes, the mist you found yourself in when you arrived on the ship . . .”
“The same mist which came down when Connor and I were reunited on the deck.”
“It’s as if the Vampirates generate that mist themselves,” Cheng Li said, thoughtfully. “Could that be possible?”
“Yes,” Grace said, excitedly sitting up. “I remember something now. I remember when I first arrived on the ship, the captain said something to Lorcan about moving me inside before the mist rose.”
“It’s not conclusive evidence,” Cheng Li said, “but we’re not dealing with hard facts here. It’s my belief that the Vampirates — well, the captain at least — can create a mist to act as a protection for those who cannot usually go out in daylight. But they can’t control how long it lasts. Wait . . .”
“What is it?” Grace asked, excitedly.
Cheng Li lay there, her eyes closed. “It’s close, Grace. There’s something we’re so close to, but it’s just out of reach.” She opened her eyes again. “Do you think it’s possible that you found the ship, rather than it rescuing you? Maybe
are meant to save it?”
“But it did find me. I was drowning in the ocean. There’s no getting away from that.”
“Yes, there is,” Cheng Li said, suddenly sitting up straight. “It all depends how you frame the story, doesn’t it? Think outside the box, Grace.”
Grace had never seen Cheng Li so intense.
“Take yourself back to Crescent Moon Bay, to before the storm. Take yourself back to the room at the top of the lighthouse.”
As Grace heard Cheng Li’s words, she closed her eyes and pictured herself once more up in the lamp room, surveying the bay beneath her.
“Now what?” she said.
“Take yourself back,” Cheng Li said. “Your father has died. The lighthouse has been repossessed by the bank. You’re running out of options in that terrible town. And so . . .”
“And so, you look out to the ocean and you send a signal into the night to come and rescue you.”
“What kind of signal?”
“We don’t know that. But a signal that you somehow knew how to make and that the Vampirates recognized.”
“What?” said Cheng Li. “What is it?”
“I think we’re on to something,” Grace said excitedly. “I just remembered something the captain said to me. It was the first night that I met him.”
“What did he say?”
“I asked him what he wanted from me. And he said . . . he said . . .”
She could hear the whisper all over again . . .
What do I want from
Grace, it was
who sought me out, was it not?
Grace opened her eyes again, finding Cheng Li staring intently into them.
“I thought he was just talking about that night, Cheng Li. I thought that he meant I had gone to find him on the ship. But what if he meant
than that. What if he meant that I had sought out the ship itself?”
Cheng Li nodded, as excited by the discovery as Grace.
“You’ve been asking the wrong question, Grace. It’s an easy enough mistake to make. The question isn’t how you can get
to the ship — it’s what do you want from that ship. What is it that connects you to the Vampirates in the first place?”
“But I can’t find that out until I’m back there. And we don’t seem any closer to working out how I can do that than we were
“Yes, we are,” said Cheng Li, beaming. She slid off the bed, padded across the room and unfastened the shutters. The breeze blew across them, carrying a spray of jasmine blossom inside.
“It’s just a thought,” Cheng Li said, smiling at Grace, “but why don’t you just wait for another storm? Perhaps when the conditions are the same, history
Stukeley is getting good at surfing. Really good. Well, he reflects, as he paddles through the water, he has certainly had time to practice. Most nights, he and the captain find themselves on a beach somewhere along the coast. They make shelter there for a day or two, then move on somewhere new. They always keep to the coast. The captain maintains he has a plan, but Stukeley is no longer sure of that. The captain speaks less and less each day — and he didn’t exactly start off full of chit-chat. Sidorio only truly comes alive when the hunt is on. Then, he is a different man — a different
— altogether. Afterwards, he is full of dark jokes and strange tales. But before long the energy drains away, like the tide retreating back across the rippled sand.
Sometimes, Stukeley feels lonely and thinks of Bart and Connor and his other old mates. But he can’t dwell on such memories — it’s too painful. Besides, with every passing day, his memory grows dimmer and dimmer. He is ceasing to be one thing while not yet becoming another. Caught in this limbo, he grabs his board and races out into the water, watching the waves and waiting. When you’re out there, surfing, you can forget about everything except the breaking swells and the intricate energy of the water itself. Just as he now feels the tide shifting and raises himself up to a sitting position on the board, steering it around with his hands to optimize his position.
He is changing — in ways subtle as well as profound. Each night, his ability to see through the darkness grows sharper. Now, he can surf with or without the moon, seeing the shape of the distant waves clearly, irrespective of the given light.
The dark waters begin to lift, and again he presses his body flat against the board, waiting for the wave to strike.
As it does, in a perfect motion, he jumps up onto the board and begins his journey back toward the shore. This is a good one. He’s caught it just right. He can feel the power of the swell, propelling him toward the beach. It is deserted but for the lone figure in the center, constructing a fire.
The wave takes him all the way into the shallows. He jumps down, exhilarated, and lifts his board out of the water. Hoisting it under his arm, he runs toward the fire, still puzzled at how quickly the air dries his skin and clothes.
“Did you see me out there, Captain? Did you see me ride that perfect wave?”
Sidorio does not look up from the fire he is constructing on the sand. “No.”
The captain sets another branch of driftwood in the center of the fire. Stukeley wedges his board into the sand and crouches down, helping to stoke the fire.
“No,” says Sidorio again, pushing Stukeley’s hand away roughly.
“What’s wrong, Captain?”
“Won’t you have a surf, yourself? The waves are amazing tonight.”
Sidorio says nothing and continues adding kindling to the fire.
Stukeley glances back to the water, considering returning for another wave. He watches the tempting rise and fall of the water. As he does so, he suddenly sees a small boat lifted by the waves.
“What now?” This time Sidorio raises his dark eyes. He looks furious at the fresh interruption, but Stukeley doesn’t care. This is important.
“Look at that boat. It’s coming into shore.”
Suddenly, the campfire bursts into flame. Sidorio stands up and follows Stukeley’s gaze out to sea. There is the boat and an indeterminate number of figures clinging on to it as it rolls down over a breaking wave and is propelled toward them.
Stukeley turns to the captain for guidance. A decision will have to be made and it is the captain’s prerogative to make it. When the boat and its inhabitants reach the shore, there will be only two ways this could go. Either they’ll find a way to get rid of the travelers or else they will make a fresh kill. Which is it going to be?
They have feasted already tonight but that is not, Stukeley knows, always decisive.
“There is no sating of the appetite,” Sidorio has told him. “Take what you will.”
He glances once more at the captain, expecting a sign. But the captain is glued to the spot, his eyes empty as he watches the figures climb down from the small bark and push it through the shallows and onto the pebbled shore. Then the figures look over and one of them waves. There is no escape now. They have definitely been noticed.
“What shall we do, Captain?”
Still no answer comes.
The boat safely grounded, three figures make their way across the beach toward them. The shapes begin to define themselves — two men and a woman, one of the men tall and almost as broad as the captain himself. He strides with the same sense of purpose and now he waves again and opens his mouth.
“Sidorio! Hey, Sidorio!”
His ears must be tricking him. Stukeley turns. The captain is smiling. Stukeley turns back and sees the tall man striding forward, breaking into a run.
Now the captain strides forward to meet the stranger. Stukeley follows, at a slight distance. He is intrigued but unnerved. He watches the captain and the first of the strangers embrace. Could this all be part of the captain’s plan?
As he watches the captain greet the other two travelers, Stukeley becomes less nervous. Hasn’t Sidorio always said there will be others? Besides, now he will not be alone with the captain and his dark, silent moods. All in all, this must be a good thing, mustn’t it?
“Stukeley!” The captain is calling to him. The eager lieutenant runs over to his captain’s side.
“This is Stukeley,” the captain says, in a tone that makes Stukeley swell with pride. “My lieutenant.”
He draws closer.
“This is Lumar,” Sidorio says. “An old friend.”
The first of the strangers draws forward and reaches out his hand. The man is of similar build to Sidorio but his skin is black and his head close-cropped with silver stubble that shines like sharkskin in the moonlight. He is dressed somewhat like Sidorio, too, in clothes that speak of the military and of the sea.
“Well met, Stukeley,” Lumar says, with something of a smile. His voice is rich and sinister as an old churchyard bell.
The handshake is firm, though the hands are, like Stukeley’s own, icy cold.
“This is Olin.” The second man steps forward and looks not so much at Stukeley as through him. Their hands meet briefly. Olin is tall and thin, dressed in a long cape, with a hood covering his head. His face is lean and angular inside it, the bones almost pushing through the pale skin. When his hand touches Stukeley’s, it is like having a wet fish run through his fingers. Stukeley is pleased when Olin steps backward and allows the third traveler to present herself.
“And this is Mistral,” Sidorio says.
A woman steps forward. Like Olin, she is wearing a cowl, but she draws it back and he sees a length of fine blond hair uncoil itself. Stukeley freezes. Mistral is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen — so beautiful, that the sight of her erases the memories of all the girls from his past. She smiles softly at Stukeley and he feels his heart flip over on itself as she extends a soft pale hand toward him. He reaches out his hand, as if to hold a fragile flower, and bows to kiss her fingers. She is wearing several small rings, and his lips brush the cool metal.
He glances up to find her smiling.
“How charming,” she says, before stepping back again, in line with her traveling companions.
Sidorio turns to Stukeley. “I told you they would come,” he says. “Didn’t I tell you?” His eyes are gleaming wildly.
Lumar addresses the captain. “We had to leave. There was nothing left for us on that ship.”
“The rules,” hisses Olin, “the rules no longer made sense to us.”
“The captain’s ways are tired,” says Mistral, drawing her hands across her chest, perhaps against the cold. “We must find new ways.”
“We knew,” intoned Lumar. “We knew that you would lead us to new ways, Sidorio.”
Sidorio nods. He seems possessed of a fresh energy, thinks Stukeley. Perhaps it was the waiting that proved so burdensome to him. Now that more of the crew have joined them, perhaps his real work — whatever it might be — can begin.
“I have such plans,” Sidorio announces to the group. The others all smile and nod. “But come, travelers. Come, warm yourselves at my fire.”
He extends his hand and they begin walking toward the fire, which is now burning as brightly as if Sidorio has harnessed the moon itself and embedded it in the heart of the beach.
Stukeley watches closely as Lumar places his hand on Sidorio’s shoulder.
“It’s good to see you again,” he says.
“Yes,” agrees Sidorio. “But how did you find me?”
“Like will find like,” Lumar says with a dark smile. “There will be others,” he adds. “This is merely the beginning.”