“Thia?” Jinaari called out from the door.
“It’s open,” she said. She swung her legs off the wide bunk. Captain Stone had insisted she take his cabin for their voyage. Jinaari slept in a hammock belowdecks with the crew. She felt guilty, but everyone said it was the best option.
The door swung open and Jinaari entered, carrying a canvas sack. He dropped it on the table, and she heard the chink of metal on metal. “What’s in there?” she asked.
“Your armor,” he replied as he kicked the door shut. Opening the bag, he put two sheathed daggers on the table, followed by a chainmail shirt. “Come here,” he said, holding it up. “You need to get used to the weight.”
Thia walked to him and reached out, fingering the garment. The smooth, steel rings had a fluidity to them that mesmerized her.
“It’s not a toy, Thia. This is going to keep you from dying.”
She shot him a dirty look, “I know that,” she muttered.
He held out a padded coif. “Put that on first. It’ll keep your hair from snagging on the rings.” He watched as she twisted her hair, securing it with a pin before putting it on. “Good. Now, raise your arms,” he commanded.
She did, and he slid the shirt over her hands and head. It settled on her shoulders and fell almost to her knees. It was heavy, but not overly restrictive. “Turn around,” he said.
She moved slowly, making sure he saw whatever it was he was looking for. Facing him again, she asked, “Well? Do I pass inspection?”
“It’ll work. How’s it feel? Too heavy?”
“No, I know it’s there, but it’s not bad.”
“When you get up tomorrow, put this on first,” he pulled out a heavily padded shirt and tossed it on the bunk. “Then the chain shirt, followed by your tunic. That’s going to keep the armor from chafing your skin, but you don’t want to advertise you’re wearing it, either.”
Thia nodded her understanding. “What are these for?” She reached for one of the daggers resting on the table. She started to pull it out of the hard leather sheath when Jinaari’s hand landed on top of it.
“Are you planning on cutting something?”
Puzzled, she looked at him. “No. I just wanted to look at it.”
“These are weapons, Thia. They’re not toys. Never take it out unless you’re ready to use it.” He moved his hand and leaned against the wall. “They’re for you, both of them. Once we’re off the ship, I’ll give you some basic training in how to defend yourself.”
“I have magic for that.”
He nodded, “You do. That’s not limitless, though. If it’s been a hard day, you may not have the reserves left to use it. It makes my job easier if I know you can hold someone off until I can get to you.”
She looked at him. “What is that? Your job, I mean. You’ve asked me a lot about what I can do, but shared little about yourself.”
“It’s to find out who this Drogon is, what he’s doing to Tanisal. Put an end to it somehow. And keep you and the others safe. Pretty straight forward.” He narrowed his eyes. “You might want to talk to Jack, find out how she puts her hair up. Leaving it loose is going to give anyone you’re fighting something else to grab onto.”
“I’m not a child,” she snapped at him. “I know how to do that.”
“No, you’re not,” he shot back. “But you’ve spent almost your entire life hidden in a church. Even there, you hid. It’s second nature to you, Thia. Hide from everyone, including yourself. I get it. Your mother was some Fallen witch. I don’t care. The Gods don’t care. Neither will Adam and Caelynn. But I know you’re not going to run in a panic the first time you’re faced with a serious injury. Or a skeleton that’s coming after you. Hide your face if it makes you feel better, but not what you’re capable of. I have to trust that you have my back in battle.”
The motion of the ship changed. Thia looked at him. “Stay here,” Jinaari ordered. He walked to the door and left, slamming it shut behind him.
Thia moved to one of the small windows. “Arrogant…insufferable…your commander had you pegged!” she muttered. The summer dawn barely illuminated the large rocks jutting out of the water. A sandy beach and lush, green forest, barely discernible in the fog, lay beyond the crags.
The door swung open, “Thia, get your gear. We’re being put ashore here.” Jinaari said. “I’ll meet you up on deck.”
She grabbed at the daggers and padded shirt, “Is something wrong?”
“I’ll tell you more when we’re on land.” He closed the door.
Thia shoved the shirt into her pack, then sat down to put her boots on. The sheaths for the daggers had loops, so she threaded her belt through each one before tying it around her waist. Throwing her cloak over her back and working the clasp, she found the middle of the hood. She’d attached a small comb underneath it, making so she could secure it to her hair. It wasn’t perfect, but it would keep the hood in place.
Grabbing her pack, her other hand touched the pouch on her hip. Her box was still there. Her eyes scanned the room, mentally checking for anything she might have left behind. “Thia!” Jinaari’s voice called out.
“I’m coming!” she shouted, dashing out of the door. Running up the short ladder, she stepped out onto the main deck of the ship.
A wave of warm air hit her as she emerged from the cabin. To the south, where she knew Tanisal would be, an inky black cloud sat in the sky. “That’s not natural,” she breathed.
“No,” Jinaari said. “That’s why we’re getting off. Stone doesn’t want to risk getting any closer. Come on.”
She followed him to the ships’ rail. A small rowboat, hanging from thick ropes, sat alongside. “Get in.”
Thia moved quickly, settling onto one of two benches. Jinaari tossed in a bag, and she grasped the edges of the craft as it swayed. The paladin sat opposite of her, followed by a crew member.
“He’s going to take us ashore. After that, we’re on our own.” Jinaari opened the bag that rested between them and started to pull out smaller pieces of armor, buckling them into place as the dinghy was lowered.
She didn’t try asking any questions. Her gaze was drawn to the ominous cloud above the ruined city. They were still miles away, yet a chill ran down her spine. Whatever created it was hiding something evil.
Something hit her leg, and she pulled her eyes off the cloud. Jinaari was looking at her. “What is it?”
“A feeling…I don’t know how to explain it. Whatever made that cloud is hiding something.”
He nodded. “I feel it, too.”
The bosun raised the oars. “I can’t get her any closer. ‘Fraid you’ll need to get wet.”
“No worries, my friend,” Jinaari said as he rose. He held a hand out to Thia. Gratefully, she used his strength to find her balance as the craft gently rocked beneath her feet. “Wait,” he told her. He grabbed her around the waist, lifting her easily over the edge and into the water. “You good?” he asked.
Water seeped over the top of her boots, but the waves were small and weren’t going to knock her over. “Yeah. Thanks.” Taking her pack from him, she asked, “Can I take anything else?”
“I’ve got it,” he replied as he climbed out. “Get to the beach.”
Thia waded through the water and onto the shore. She watched Jinaari do the same as she slid her arms through her pack and adjusted her cloak beneath it. The temperature was rising. The forest will be cooler, she reasoned. I should keep it on as long as I can. “Where now?”
“Let’s go that way.” He motioned toward the tree line. “I’ve got to get the rest of my armor on, but we’re too exposed here. I want to give us some cover.”
Tiny bits of sand, churned up from the waves, had washed into her boots and wormed their way between her toes as she walked. Her socks were soaked, but she refused to say anything. He already thinks of me as a child, she thought. I’m not going to change his mind if I complain. Either her feet would dry as they walked, or she’d take care of them when they stopped for the night.
“Here’s good,” he said, dropping the large sack on the ground. “This is going to take a few minutes. You’ve got time to get your feet dry, change boots if you have them.” He began to lift a breastplate out of the bag.
“Suit yourself. I personally hate walking around in wet socks.” He buckled the front and back pieces together at one shoulder, then went to lift it over his head.
“Do you need help?”
“I’m fine,” he gave her a direct look, mimicking her tone.
She let out a deep breath. “Fine. I’ll change my socks. But only if you let me help you.”
“It’s just the one buckle, up there.” He pointed to his shoulder. “Part of it is under the shoulder piece and I can’t reach it.”
Thia walked over to him and found the piece he was looking for. “How tight do you want it?” she asked, threading the leather strap into the buckle.
“Third hole, please.”
She found the right one, and secured the strap. Stepping back, she started to shrug off her pack.
“You’re welcome,” she said, rummaging into the bag. Finding some thick, wool socks and a small towel, she sat on the ground and pulled off her boots. Sea water dribbled onto the forest floor. “Where do we go next? Is this where we were supposed to meet the others.”
“No, but we aren’t far from the rendezvous point.” He wound a wide leather belt around his waist twice before buckling it. His sword rested in the scabbard on his hip. “If we keep a good pace, we’ll make it there before dark.”
She finished drying off her feet and got the larger damp spots out of her boots. The dry socks made a difference. She put her boots back on, and tied the wet socks and towel to the outside of her pack. Shouldering it again, she looked at him. “Ready when you are.”
He nodded, putting his hand into a gauntlet. His helm hung from a strap on his pack.
“You’re not wearing that?” she asked.
“I need to be able to see where we’re going, what might be coming at us. It restricts my vision too much. If we get into a fight, I can get it on easily. Let’s go.”
They walked through the forest, heading south. Thia had to push herself to keep the pace he set. Three hours into the journey, she finally spoke up. “I need a minute.” Leaning against a tree, she closed her eyes against the throbbing in her legs. Sweat trickled down her back. The canopy of trees helped keep the sun off of her, but it was still hot. Adding the cloak, pack, armor, and keeping pace with Jinaari wasn’t helping.
She opened her eyes, “At what?”
“I figured you would’ve been complaining hours ago. I’ll slow down. We’ve covered a lot of ground. Finding them before nightfall’s a real possibility now.”
“Don’t do that,” she said.
She pushed off from the tree, “Slow down. I may not be as strong as you are, but I can keep up.” She moved past him, heading the way he’d been going when she stopped.
“Thia,” she heard him call out, but didn’t turn around. “Hey, Thia!” His hand landed on her shoulder and he spun her around to face him. “Look, I’m not trying to–”
She stared at him, “be an arrogant prick?” The words left her mouth before she could stop them. “I get it. You’re supposed to keep me safe. From what, I have no idea. You haven’t shared that with me. But I won’t be treated like I’m some pampered noblewoman who faints when she stubs her toe!”
“No, you’re not. But you’ve been sheltered. Admit it, Thia. I know more about this,” he gestured to the area around them, “than you do. You’re wearing armor, carrying knives, for the first time in your life. If a bear came charging at us right now, you’d probably drop both daggers on the ground just trying to get one out. Not because you’re weak. Because you’ve never had to fight before. Not this way, anyway. If I thought you weren’t strong enough to do this, I would’ve said so back in Almair. But our Gods, both of them, say you can do this. That’s enough for me. You don’t have to push yourself to exhaustion to prove a damn thing. Got it?”
She clenched her jaw, trying not to let her anger show. Something moved in the forest beyond Jinaari. A cold sensation began to creep up her spine. “We’re not alone,” she whispered.
He raised his head, searching the area. “They’re trying to surround us. Keep your back to mine. And don’t cut yourself.”
Thia turned around, throwing her cloak back so her hands were free. She caught sight of the creatures as one darted between trees. Stringy hair hung from the skull. An emaciated body, with arms too long for the torso. The fingers ended in claws. “Dangreth,” she said.
“A pack of them. Might be as many as a dozen. If they rush you, head up a tree. They can’t climb worth a damn.”
She smiled, “That’s not going to happen.” Her fingers began to trace the sigil in the air as she tapped into her reserves. When the spell was ready, she launched it toward the advancing creatures.
Four of them let out a high-pitched scream before disintegrating into dust. Two more advanced on her, snarling.
She heard Jinaari’s sword slash through another one. “We don’t have time for this,” she muttered. Quickly, she changed the sigil and let loose another barrage of energy. Dirt and leaves blew across the forest floor as the force of her spell expanded out from her. The two coming at her collapsed. Turning, she saw most of the Dangreth that had advanced on Jinaari fall. Only one remained.
“He’s mine,” Jinaari growled, charging. The creature slashed at the paladin. Dodging the attack, he swung his sword across its belly. It dropped to its knees. Moments later, Jinaari severed its head.
“Will there be more of them where we’re going?” Thia pointed at the corpse at Jinaari’s feet. Her heart thudded in her chest, and she felt alive from the adrenaline coursing through her.
“More Dangreth?” He shrugged.
“More undead,” she said.
“Probably. If Drogon’s become Forsaken, it’s highly likely. Why?”
She smiled. For the first time since she’d been summoned to Father Philip’s office, she felt excited about this journey. “Because they need to die.” She raised her head and looked the paladin in the eye.
He nodded, “Yes, they do.”