Chapter 4: Root of the Problem

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After a week on the sea, the song persisted among the crew. Maeve hummed and even sang it as she went about her work. Fortunately, the dreams didn't return. She hoped it was the remains of their encounter with a sea spirit and not that they had angered or merely attracted the attention of one.

    The sea was preternaturally still. It stretched smooth as glass as far as the eye could see. The wind continued to carry them toward their target in a steady flow. 

    Harley called down from the crow’s nest. On the far horizon, a Daskensian patrol ship loomed into view.

    Maeve pulled out her spyglass and scanned the distance to find a solitary ship flying the lavender and blue Daskensian flag with the stylized fire lily in opposite corners.

    Jade pounded his fist into his hand. “We should sink them before they report our location.”

    “We can take out a single ship,” Bas said.

    Crane said, "the wise choose when to fight while fools rush to their death." 

    Maeve stepped over to the wheel. “It is better to not be seen.” She turned them away from their direct course to avoid the ship.

    Harley shouted down at them, “There is a second Daskensian ship turning in our direction. We may have been seen.”

    Maeve checked the map and altered their course to head towards a series of atolls. As a smaller ship, they should be able to navigate better than their pursuer.

    Harley calls out the bearing of the Daskensian ship and their rough distance.

    If the pursuer caught them, their maneuverability would give them the advantage. She wouldn’t risk their hull if she didn’t have to.

    As they approached the atolls, Jade called out for them to turn.

    Tall, thin trees with yellow, orange, and red leaves covered one atoll. Upon closer examination, they moved contrary to the wind.

    Maeve’s blood froze.

    Those weren’t trees. A grove of autumn angels roosted on the atoll on their long migration. If they disturbed them, they would lose their sails to the beast’s claws.

    When she was a child, their ship roused the anger of a grove of autumn angels. While defending their young, they will take out anything they perceive as a threat.

    They didn’t just shred the sails but snapped the masts off the ship. It took them months to limp to a harbor for repairs and they were lucky they had enough food to ration until they made it to the berth.

    Since the sea remained preternaturally calm, the wave sounds from the ship would stand out against the silence. She steered away from the atoll and hoped the autumn angels didn’t see them. 

    Bas whispered to her, “change course back. We should be able to sneak past the autumn angels if we make very little sound. There is no way Daskensian ship will know what that grove is or that they have to silence their entire crew.”

    Maeve looked into his eyes and nodded. Invaders had so much disdain for the locals they rarely knew anything about them. It was a risky strategy, but a good one.

    She made the hand signs for silence.

    Maeve steered the ship back towards the atolls.

    The Buttercup cut through the glassy sea towards the grove of autumn angels.

    They passed so close to the atoll. The angel’s long, avian heads held tight against their chests. Long, sharp teeth framed their slim beaks. The sun caught their saber-like claws, rising from the ground like treacherous blades of ivory grass.

    Maeve signaled to the phantoms to cut the sails, to slow them down so the Daskensian ship could catch up to them. The more tempting a target she made them, the more likely they would be to fall into the trap. 

    A rumbling hush from the angels’ breaths thrummed with an uneven and mixed beat. The smell of fermenting fish pulsed through the air in rhythm with their breath. Occasional thrills and calls broke through the seething grove.

    A weighty stench from their guano hung in the air. Maeve resisted turning from it and avoid the smell and the danger, but the pursuing ships weren’t close enough yet.

    She had little margin for error. If she allowed their pursuer to get too close, the Buttercup would shatter under a volley of cannon fire, and if they couldn't escape fast enough, they would be torn apart by the autumn angels when they were roused from their slumber.

    Bas and Jade stared anxiously at her but said nothing.

    Maeve had no reason to believe this plan would work. Something in her gut told her it was the right thing to do. She prayed she wasn't wrong. After she whispered the soft prayer into the universe, she addressed it to none of the gods whose names she knew. With any luck, one of them heard and would answer.

    Her knees quivered beneath her, and she repeatedly glanced back to gauge the distance between their ship and their pursuer. She counted the distance as a hoarse addendum to her prayer.

    She made the sign to the phantoms to quickly raise the sails. As they grabbed the ropes, she turned the wheel away from the atoll.

    The Daskensian fired on them. Deep, booming thuds rang out against the hissing rush of the autumn angels breathing. The thunder of the cannons awakened the autumn angels.

    Screeching cries broke from what only a moment ago resembled a grove of trees ready to shed their foliage as the beasts quickened.

    Cannon shot splashed into the ocean behind them.

    Maeve rested her hand on the hilt of a sword poking out from a scabbard on her belt. If the autumn angels turned on them, she had a little hope of fending them off, but she wouldn't accept defeat without a damn good try.

    The autumn angels leaped into the air and flapped their enormous wings. 

    Their ship rocked from the torrent of wind blown down from the grove as it took flight.

    The angels encircled both ships in a widening gyre, screeching the threats in a deafening tumult.

    Maeve signaled to the crew to monitor the beasts. If even one of them rooted into the hull, the ship could go down.

    A detachment of angels swooped down at the Buttercup. Their vicious claws and terrifying tooth beaks shattered the phantom crew like glass.

    Maeve drew her blade and parried the claws of one angel as it dove for the ship's wheel.

    Harley leaped from the crow’s nest, a dark blade in each hand, and spun like a top toward the deck. Shadows matching the curve of her twin swords flew from her as she drifted slowly down.

    The shadows cut deep gashes into the flesh of the autumn angels.

    Calling out in pain, the injured beasts retreated to the cloud of terror looming overhead.

    Maeve took a deep breath and focused her energy into her body, which lightened as the aether flowed into it. Running into the air, she charged at the monsters threatening her ship.

    Maeve ducked and dodged between the angels, lashing out with her blade, hoping to make their ship the less appealing target.

    Glancing back, the boarding ramp descended from the Daskensian ship.

    They couldn't fight off both sets of attackers, so she focused on the autumn angels. At that moment, they were the biggest threat. The invaders would take them prisoner, the angels would kill them.

    Maeve struck at the angels, one after another meeting the vicious end of her sword. She rounded behind them, still hoping to herd them towards the enemy vessel.

    Jade held his own against the invaders, and Crane joined her, running through the air, striking the angels.

    Bas fought by Jade’s side, holding the invaders off as best he could.

    Crane and Maeve danced between the angels, striking them like angry hornets roused from their nest. They poked and slashed with their blades, being more of a nuisance than a threat to the creatures.

    Slowly, the maelstrom of winged death moved and constricted until it surrounded the Daskensian ship.

    As she hoped, the Daskensians fired their cannons into the Grove.

    The cannonballs moved slow enough that most of the other angels glided past them. The roar of the cannons attracted their attention, and the grove flocked on the invaders’ ship.

 

Maeve landed on the deck of the Buttercup and rose into a guarded posture.

    Most of the autumn angels had stopped harassing their ship, but the boarding party pressed their perceived advantage in numbers.

    Only a few sailors stood between her and the hatch down into the ship’s hold where Gomruth hunted nautilus crabs.

    Maeve anchored her feet to the deck, so that with each step they could not knock her back and charged the hatch. She caught the first enemy sailor off guard and knocked him off his feet. The second, she parried his blade and turned around, continuing her march to the hatch.

    The third she kicked in the chest, knocking him back and away from the door.

    In a single motion, she dipped down, caught the handle to the hatch, and flipped over, throwing it open.

    Maeve jumped away from the hatch as Gomruth bounded up the steps onto the deck. He released a gurgling roar.

    The enemy sailors turned on Gomruth. A couple of them turned and ran back to the boarding ramp.

    Dreamclaw, Jades sharkhound familiar, ran up beside the Ulaan and roared like a ferocious, resonant whistle. 

    Gomruth and Dream rushed the sailors with their razor-sharp teeth bared.

    Jade joined them and rushed the invaders with Crane on his shoulder, firing fire stones from his slingshot.

    Maeve laughed as the morale of the Daskensian troops broke. Fear twisted their faces, and their hands shook.

    Harley ran up to her side, and together they charged the boarding party.

    The sailors ran back toward the boarding ramp as the crushing shrieks of the autumn angels called out from behind them.

    Somewhere on the Daskensian ship, a retreat call sounded from a loud horn.

    The boarding party ran back to their ship.

    On the Daskensian frigate, autumn angels landed on the deck and shot roots from their feet into the deck.

    Splinters flew into the air as the angels dug in.

    Maeve rushed over to the wheel, unlocked the ship’s key, and reinserted it. As she turned the key, the phantasmal crew reappeared, and she shouted orders to rig the sails for top speed.

    She turned the wheel to steer away from the atoll and the burning hulk of the Daskensian ship.

    For a moment, a strange glow around the Daskensian ship shone from the water. Feint tendrils of light raked the sides of the ship.

    Maeve stopped. When had she started humming the strange song from her dream? How long had she hummed the tune?

    Jade, Crane, Bas, and Harley still hummed the odd melody.

    “Everyone to your posts,” Maeve said, breaking them out of their trance.

    Maeve crossed her arms and watched the autumn angels decimate the Daskensian ship and wondered if they had earned the favor of some water spirit.

Welcome to the Shadow Phoenix Saga. I hope you enjoy this series and this world.

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