C. L. Schneider
The Wandering Isles
A Crown of Stones Novella
This story takes place after the events of Magic-Borne, the 3rd book in The Crown of Stones Trilogy. While it's not required that you read the trilogy first, it does build on characters and places, and contains spoilers for those who haven't read the trilogy. This is because it's written for all of you who lament the end of Ian's story, for those who keep asking for more. I'm working on it :)
Below is an early (unedited) excerpt from the opening scene of The Wandering Isles. It is not final copy and is subject to change.
I should have run for cover when the sudden deluge woke me, pounding on my face with a sting of skin and a mouthful of water. But I’d gotten used to the night sky splitting open and spewing its contents without warning. The sea knew nothing of gentle this far out, and I’d accepted her quick temper many moons ago.
But neither my ability to adapt, nor my tolerance for discomfort, were why my feet were riveted to the deck. I was standing, drenched and wind-battered, with the rain falling in sheets on my head—because it was falling red. Furious, pounding drops, dark, like day-old blood, streaked the sails. They pooled on the boards, slicking the deck and staining my hair a deep cherry. The taste of it on my lips was…
Not blood, I thought, relieved. And not water. There was a mild, unnatural sweetness to the liquid, but I couldn’t place it.
The fog was the wrong color, too, though it was more of a rusty hue than a true red. Blowing in with no warning to shroud the ship, the bloated bank had grown to completely obscured what lay beyond the rail. The red billows drifted over me, full of moisture and cold and—
Shapes. And voices. There must be another ship nearby.
Or had we come upon land? Already? It’s not possible.
I couldn’t have slept more than an hour.
I glanced at the empty bottles rolling at my feet. Maybe two…
An uncomfortable thought hit me. “The anchor…”
Boots slipping, splashing red as high as my knees as I ran, strange outlines and silhouettes filled the fog. Vague and monstrous, the forms drifted, following me as I ran. Harsh, indistinguishable voices circled around, blowing wordless whispers like ice on my skin.
Ignoring the sensation, struggling not to bat at things reason told me weren’t there, I yelled at them instead. “Whoever you are, get the hell off my ship!” I gripped the heavy braided rope dangling over the side. It responded with one, swift tug. Too fast. The end cleared the water. It slipped up over the rail, and onto the deck: frayed and empty.
As if my discovery of the missing anchor was a trigger, the rain lessened abruptly. I wiped my eyes dry and peered out, straining to detect some sign of the sea, some sign of anything to tell me where we were and where we were going. But the red fog was so thick. I could barely see the rail beneath my hands, let alone past it.
Where the hell did we drift to?
A scream pierced the cloud. Within its echo, I heard the impossible.
“No.” I shook my head. “It can’t be.”
The sound came again, high and drawn out, like the protracted creak of a rusty hinge. “Trooooyyyyyyyyyy…”
How? I was far from home. No one out here knew the name of Ian Troy. The hope of anonymity was one of the many reasons why I left.
A third scream, a release of pure rage, pulsed like a stampede in my head. I threw my hands up to cover my ears, fighting to block the sound and the rapidly increasing vibration of pain that came with it.
It was a feeble attempt. My skin and bones posed no barrier.
Agony penetrated my hands. Red trickled over my wrists as I fell to my knees. Already soaked in the color, I couldn’t tell if it was rain or blood draining from my ears.
As one, the sound and the pain vanished. The voices I’d heard before stilled. There was only my own anguished breathing and the repetitive ‘plink, plink, plink’ of rain hitting the deck.
Panting and pissed off, I stood. Instinct brought a swift hand to my hip, but it was in the same shape as the rope. “Empty. Son of a bitch.”
My sword belt was in the hold.
If not for the certainty of danger sitting cold on the back of my neck, I would have laughed. I was born and raised a soldier. It had taken months at sea for me to live without the weight of a weapon. Months to convince myself to let go, to believe I made the right decision to leave the realm of Mirra’kelan, and all that happened there, behind. Even longer, to embrace my new life and enjoy my status as owner of a fine ship. I was an explorer now, a free man. For the first time, I held no ties to any realm or any army. I had no war to fight. No enemies.
The latter I was still getting used to. But I’d felt a change the last few weeks as we sailed farther north. Days of endless wind, sun, and water had tanned my skin and lifted my spirits. Quiet nights with a bottle and a blanket of stars, had calmed it.
I’d grown comfortable.
Setting out to follow the long-ago voyage of my Shinree ancestors, to retrace their route from over a thousand years ago, had given my life a new direction, one that didn’t involve killing. This morning’s reading of the map indicated we were still two days out from our first destination: The Wandering Isles, a legendary island chain once said to produce and export exceptional spirits. It was purported the isles had been deserted for many years. Most branded them impossible to find. Some claimed them a myth. Others declared the islands cursed and abandoned, as none of their inhabitants had been seen on Mirra’kelan’s shores in generations.
The rumors led me to believe we’d find nothing of consequence on the isles. I’d come to think of them as merely a spot on the map, a focus to draw my mind off those we’d left behind. At the least, a place to hunt and feel land beneath our feet again.
But I’d dropped my guard.
And we’ve drifted into gods knows what.
A deep, throaty whisper caressed my ear as it sped by.
Spinning, I put a hand to the shard of obsidian dangling from the leather cord around my neck. The black stone warmed against my skin as the magic inside it stirred. One of the fabled Shinree, a race known for its compulsive use of stone magic, it took nothing for me to rouse the shard’s energy. Its black aura left the stone, eager to sink in and inhabit my veins. On its heels came a zip of pleasure and sense of serenity. Anxieties dissolved. Adrenaline waned with a shudder. Nerves stilled. Muscles relaxed.
But it wasn’t enough magic to erase everything. It never was. A sense of remorse still crouched in the corner of my mind; an ever-present, unanswerable longing for things to be different. A wish that the dark, swirling magic-scars decorating my body weren’t constant reminders of the friends I’d lost to war; that the limited spells at my disposal weren’t a reflection of the immense power I’d once wielded—and lost. With it went any hope of ever again permanently shaking my cravings. The notion that I might die, if I went too long without, no longer felt like the irrational fear of an addict. It felt like truth. One I was still struggling every day to come to grips with.
I pulled in more magic from the shard, and my thoughts settled. My eyes, white until I cast, landed on the hatch that led below deck. It was closed. Red gathered on and around the lid, looking for a way in. The seal was good. But this wasn’t a normal storm—and Jarryd was below deck.
Running for the hatch, wet sprayed from my lips as I hollered his name.
My only crew, my friend, my nef’taali in the old language of my people, Jarryd Kane should have already felt my urgency and unease. He’d also felt me dampen it with magic. Though, not because he was capable of wielding it himself. Jarryd was Rellan. He wasn’t born with the same abilities as a Shinree. Yet, he had no choice but share in my experience. Magic had bound our soles together years ago when I cast a desperate spell to save his life. Since then, he felt what I felt.
That wasn’t always a good thing.
I reached for the handle. The hatch burst open, and Jarryd’s head poked from the darkness below. Red rain turned his brown braid a dark auburn as he stood, perched on the ladder, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Are we there already? Did we find the islands?”
“We found something. But if there’s land out there, I can’t see it.”
Vision clearing, Jarryd’s sun-worn, unshaven features froze. He lifted a hand, ogling the colored drops splashing his skin. His squint was deep and puzzled. His voice bordered on anger. “It’s…raining blood. Ian, what the hell did you do?”
“It wasn’t me. I swear,” I added at his disbelieving glare.
Jarryd scrambled up on deck. He let the latch fall closed behind him. “Well, last I checked, rain doesn’t come in red.”
“Not naturally,” I said, straining (and failing) to sense the familiar tightness of a spell in the air. “Unless it was cast from extremely far away, this doesn’t feel like Shinree magic. And it isn’t blood,” I insisted.
“Then what is it?” he grimaced, watching the droplets gather in his hands.
“I don’t know.” Admitting my ignorance didn’t sit well. Magic, I understood. Magic, I could fight. This…
Jarryd’s blue eyes darted. Dread sunk his voice low. “Do you hear that?” He sprinted to the rail. “Someone’s screaming.”
I listened, but there was only the rain.
“There has to be land out there,” he said, “or another ship. It must be right beside us. Gods, Ian—how can you not hear that? It’s so damn loud.” His hands went to his ears, as mine had a moment before. Blood dribbled between his fingers, thinned by the rain.
I moved up and steadied him, passing Jarryd a measure of the strength I’d cast on myself a moment ago. “I used to think Shinree magic was the only magic in this world. But there are other powers out there, Jarryd. There are other powers here. And right now, they’re putting on one hell of a show.”
“Then…” Panting, he struggled to quiet his breath. “You’re saying this isn’t real?”
“It can’t be. Concentrate,” I told him. “Throw all your focus on what you know is real. Whatever isn’t will—”
A masculine voice interrupted, bleeding out from the clouds. Hoarse, like a blade sliding on stone, it hissed, “Murderer… Witch… Defiler… Betrayer… Insurgent… Destroyer of life… Ian Troy, we welcome you.”
Beneath the red droplets, Jarryd’s face went white. “How does he know those things? We’re nowhere near Mirra’kelan?”
“Looks like my reputation got here before I did. Figures,” I grunted.
Unease slowed the shake of Jarryd’s head. “No, Ian. It—he—spoke of me, not you.”
“What? What did you hear?”
Jarryd glanced away, and I understood: his greeting had been tailored to his own misdeeds. The difference was, I was used to hearing mine, either being slung in my direction or recited in my own head. But Jarryd was another story. He was a royal messenger before we met, full of loyalty and ideals, with zero transgressions to his name. Any blemishes he’d earned were recent, brought on by the rigors of war, and likely my fault.
I wasn’t going to stand for anyone throwing them in his face.
Staring into the cloud, my warning echoed through the rain. “Enough! Whatever you’re here for, you deal with me and me alone.”
“Ian…” Jarryd started.
I narrowed my eyes, shutting down his protest. Jarryd was a capable fighter, and what skills he hadn’t learned through training, he’d inherited from me through the magic that linked our souls. But he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. I remembered Jarryd’s vow clearly.
Where you go, I go.
Our bond had left him little choice. I had left him little choice.
Stepping away, I raised my voice “This is my ship. If we’ve strayed into your waters, it’s my doing. Whatever offense you’ve taken, I’ll try to rectify. But only if you leave him alone!”
A new masculine voice shouted back, “Belligerent!” Unlike the eerie whispers from before, this one was loud and robust, penetrating the mist as he proclaimed, “I like him!”
“Can you see his burdens?” a woman added, soft like a breeze. “So many. So very many. I told you this one has much to share. He buries it deep, but it burns like a dark flare.”
I turned, searching for the source of their disembodied voices. But I couldn’t pinpoint a direction. They weren’t in the fog or beyond it. They were of it.
“I see,” a second female agreed; wary, and less wistful than the first. “But do not let his wealth blind you. His body is marked. You know what it means. He is—”
“Perfect,” the first sighed. “Ripe.”
Leaning in, Jarryd grimaced. “Maybe she meant that in a good way?”
“I don’t think there is a good way.”