The sun rode high in the sky, nearing its zenith, and the heat made the moist air feel thick. Not even the breeze of the ship running at full sail could disperse the stifling heat. Thakkor shook his head to release drops of sweat clinging to his eyebrows and short brown beard, drinking in the day despite the uncomfortable weather.
Sweat beaded upon the sun-browned skin of his young bride as well, dampening her golden hair, but not her spirits. Alicia felt his gaze and looked over at him, wearing a heart-stopping smile. A moment later, she rolled her eyes when his attention fell upon her blouse clinging to her breasts.
Thakkor chuckled. "Sorry. Can't help it."
Alicia laughed and gave him a playful slap. Though married for nearly three years, the couple had lost nothing of the passion that had brought them together. Neither was especially enamored of the close quarters of the ship that forced them to restrain that passion.
"Sorry we're going to have to spend our anniversary on ship," Thakkor said, running his fingers through his wife's hair.
Alicia shrugged. "It's not your fault. It just took longer to make it from the coast and back than we thought. We could hardly pass on such a price for easy escort duty."
Thakkor nodded in agreement. The job had consisted of little more than safeguarding a young noblewoman's virtue through a sail from Freeland to Agreseus, and a sedate trot next to her carriage inland. "I'll make up for it next year. I promise."
"You know that you don't have to do that."
"And you know that I want to. You deserve it." He leaned in and kissed her forehead.
Alicia let out a contented sigh. "All I want for our anniversary is to be with you."
"Sure you don't miss your old life?" It was a question he'd asked of her more than once over the years. Alicia had grown up the pampered daughter of a wealthy trader - a merchant princess - and the life of a sellsword at his side was a far cry from her upbringing.
"A little - at times - but I'm happier than I ever dreamed of." She reached out and stroked her fingers over the back of his hand. "I admit that I've been dreaming of a little pampering for weeks now, ever since you told me that you'd arranged for us to spend our anniversary at Osterfayre."
"Well, if the wind cooperates and we ride hard, we can still spend a couple of days visiting Gwen."
Alicia smiled, memories of her friend and mentor washing over her. Other than her husband, no other meant more to her. "She will look like a little storm cloud, pouting that we weren't there for our anniversary. I'm sure she had something extravagant planned."
Thakkor nodded toward the horizon. "Speaking of storm clouds. It looks like one is trying to sneak up on us."
"Oh no," Alicia groaned, knowing that her stomach was going to protest the rocking of the ship that the storm was sure to bring.
"At least it will be cooler until we need to get below and out of the way."
"These summer storms blow by quick."
"I hope so."
Thakkor wrapped his arms around her from behind and turned her eyes away from the approaching storm clouds.
Though it lasted only a little longer than an hour, the storm seemed far longer to the two passengers below deck. Only holding on to the bolted down furniture kept the wind and swells rocking the ship from mercilessly hurling the couple about the cabin. The shouts of the sailors were only audible when emerging from directly overhead, and even then, the words were unintelligible.
Finally, the crashes of thunder moved away, and the violent lurching of the ship settled into a more sedate rocking.
Holding Thakkor's hand in her own while clinging to the bed with the other, Alicia asked, "Do you think it's over?"
"Sounds like it." He nodded toward the ceiling above. "Good thing they know what they're doing. That was a pretty bad blow."
"Do you think it's safe to go up on deck?"
"Probably. It is getting pretty stifling in here." Thakkor helped her to her feet and opened the door. "Let's go."
The captain was standing nearby, scanning the horizon with a spyglass, when Thakkor and Alicia emerged from below.
"Quite a ride," Thakkor said, and then chuckled.
The captain started and lowered the spyglass as he turned to face the couple. "Aye. No worse for the wear?"
"We're fine." Noticing that the man looked a little haunted, Thakkor asked, "Everything okay?"
"Blew us off course to the north a fair bit."
Alicia turned her eyes toward the retreating wall of lightning-streaked darkness. "A small price to pay for weathering such a storm."
"She's a sound old girl," the captain said, and then patted the railing in front of him affectionately. He then snapped his gaze to a small group of sailors near the bow of the ship. "If you'll excuse me." He made a beeline for the group without taking his eyes off them.
A sailor shouting, "Look!" drowned Thakkor out and turned his attention to the sea. Something large, scaly, and ominous broke the surface of the water - far too close for comfort.
"Serpent! It's a serpent!"
Other sailors cried out as well, and all eyes scanned the rough surface of the water, seeking another glimpse of the monster. A tense minute later, it made another appearance, even closer to the ship.
"Damn." Thakkor turned to his wife. "Alicia..."
"My staff," Alicia agreed, knowing what he was going to say.
The magical staff had vast power, but each use drained it. Wise men had cautioned the couple to save its might for when it was truly needed. Thakkor nodded.
Now was such a time.
Alicia hurried down the stairs and into the cabin she shared with her husband. There she snatched up her bag and reached inside. Her arm vanished up to the elbow, the magic of the item defying the physical size of the satchel. With the four foot wooden staff in hand, she returned to the upper deck.
The sailors had gathered up whatever weapons they possessed, as well as pressing belaying pins and other common shipboard items into service. All watched the surface of the sea, and the tension was palpable.
"There!" someone shouted, and all eyes focused where the crewman's trembling finger indicated.
The sea serpent was charging toward the ship, its body undulating as it cut through the water with frightening speed.
Alicia aimed her magical weapon, but the monster was too close. Before she could speak the command word that would unleash the power of the staff, the sea serpent hit the ship.
Only Thakkor's quick reaction saved Alicia from falling overboard when the ship lurched from the impact. He grabbed his wife's arm in one hand and latched onto a cleat with the other. Two of the sailors - including the captain - were not so lucky. The first man flew over the rail with a terrified scream. The captain lost his grip on a rope and smashed into the rail before he too slipped over the side.
Thakkor had just enough time to look around for a rope to throw to the men in the water before the serpent struck again. Though powered by less speed, the impact of the scaly monster still caused a few men to lose their footing.
Now unguided, and still under sail, the ship sped away from the men in the water. Alicia could only watch in horror as the captain vanished, the sea foaming red as the monster devoured him. Her face tightened in determination, and she tracked the other sailor, who was swimming for his life away from the pool of blood.
The serpent must have dived and come upon the man from below, because Alicia saw no hint of it until it burst from the water, its teeth clamping down on the sailor. Alicia shouted a command, and a fireball roared from the end of her staff, bursting against the monster's hide.
The serpent barely reacted to the flaming projectile, and splashed back into the water to finish its gruesome feast. A second fireball did little more than attract the creature's attention. As soon as it gobbled up the unfortunate sailor, it turned toward the ship once more.
"Not good. Grab on to something," Thakkor warned.
Alicia's mind raced, and then suddenly latched onto equal parts of her study of magic and tales of fancy she'd read as a young girl. Praying that she had found the solution, she searched her memory for another command word.
The sea serpent shot toward the ship as though fired from a bow. Alicia aimed her staff and took a step forward, ignoring her husband's worried shout of alarm. A whoosh and a crackle accompanied the blue-white ball of electrical fury discharging from the staff. It streaked across the sky, skimming the waves, and burst in a brilliant flash of light as it slammed into the serpent.
The monster reared up from the water, its body contorting and twisting into knots as arcs of electricity danced around it. Its mouth opened wide, giving everyone on the ship a close-up look at its dagger-like teeth. Rather than roaring in pain, the sea serpent let out a loud series of clicks, the sound all the more horrifying because it was so alien.
The yellow eyes of the creature focused on Alicia when its thrashing calmed, as if it knew the source of its pain. Again the nerve-wracking clicks burst from the monster's throat as it bared its fangs.
Alicia's next ball of lightning struck the creature directly in its wide-open mouth.
The serpent reared again, only to crash back down with a great splash. The monster floated on the surface for a few of Alicia's rapid heartbeats, its body twitching, and then sank head first into the depths.
Alicia let out a sigh of relief and lowered her staff.
.... There is more of this story ...