Sea of Strangers

Title: Sea of Strangers
Series: The Ryogan Chronicles, Book 2
Original Release: December 2017
Re-release: June 2023
Ebook ISBN: 979-8-9884387-1-7
Paperback ISBN: 979-8-9884387-4-8

Buy it from: Amazon

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Know your enemy if you want to survive…

The only way for Khya to get her brother back alive is to kill Varan—the immortal ruler who can’t be killed. But not even Varan knew what he was doing when he perverted magic and humanity to become immortal.

Khya’s leading her group of friends and rebels into the mountains that hold Varan’s secrets, but if risking all their lives is going to be worth it, she has to give up everything else—breaking the spell that holds her brother captive and jeopardizing her deepening relationship with Tessen, the boy who has been by turns her rival and refuge since her brother disappeared. 

Immortality itself might be her only answer, but if that’s where Khya has to go, she can’t ask Tessen or her friends to follow.

Chapter One

The ship rocks violently, wind and rain lashing the deck. Tessen and I grab the rope stretched along the center of the deck to keep from sliding to the edge and over. Straight into the dark, angry ocean.

Lightning streaks across the sky, making the three red sails glow as if on fire. For an instant, the world is thrown into stark relief.

The wave cresting several feet above the ship.

The Ryogan crew fighting through wind and rain to keep us upright.

The purple-black storm clouds obscuring almost the entire sky. Almost.

It’s been impossibly long since this storm started chasing us. Maybe five days and nights of the twelve or so since we fled Shiara; it’s hard to tell how much time has passed without being able to see the sky. Our first sign of hope is what Tessen spotted through the small window of our room on the lower deck. It could save us, get us out of the gale winds and the drenching rain, but only if we can find Osshi or the ship’s commander before the storm cracks the vessel in half and drowns us all.

Tessen and I haul ourselves along the deck, scanning for Osshi and Taikan-yi Kazu. The rain is too thick. Without the flash of lightning, I can barely see the rope in my hands. Hopefully, Tessen’s vision isn’t as hobbled by the storm as mine.

Someone is shouting; the words are lost in the wind, drowned in the crash of a wave slamming into the ship and washing over the deck. 

A hand grabs my elbow. The unexpected touch sends an unpleasant shock up my arm. I don’t dare shake it off, not without risking my balance.

“Get below, Khya!” Osshi’s small eyes are wide, but his square jaw is set and determined. “You can do nothing here. Go!”

“Look! There!” With the hand not gripping the rope, I point to the horizon, to the thin strip of bright blue. It’s almost invisible at this distance. His gaze follows my finger, squinting into the driving rain.

“Thank the Kaisubeh.” He sags with relief, but the drop of his shoulders only lasts a heartbeat. We’ve still got to make it there. He pushes me toward the lower deck. “Go! I’ll tell Kazu if he doesn’t already know.”

There’s little chance he knows. Taikan-yi Kazu, the commanding officer, is probably too busy steering the ship through the massive waves and making sure the storm doesn’t overturn us. I’ll be shocked if any of the crew have noticed the tiny strip of sky yet. Tessen only did because he’s a basaku, and his senses are far stronger and more discerning than anyone else’s.

Tessen tugs on my wrist, pulling me toward the safety of the lower deck. And he’s right; there’s nothing else we can do here.

I follow him, holding the rope tight. The rough fibers scratch my palms. I grip harder. That abrasion means I’m attached to the deck. Not even my magic will save me if I fall into the ocean. 

I can’t swim.

Tessen reaches the door first. A flash of lightning illuminates the straining muscles under his soaked tunic. The wind must be holding it shut. It shouldn’t be this hard for him to open. Yanking myself closer, I wrap my left arm around the rough rope and grab the handle of the door with my right. For a breath, it doesn’t budge. Then the wind shifts. It’s enough for us to haul the door open and rush inside. A gust slams it closed behind us.

The walls of the ship aren’t nearly thick enough to eliminate the howling wind or the waves crashing against the hull, but for a moment, the world sounds silent.

Then Tessen’s pained, and poorly stifled, groans register.

I check him for injuries; there aren’t any, but the trip obviously wiped him out. “You shouldn’t have come with me.”

He grunts. Was that supposed to be a word? Maybe, but it looks like he might throw up again if he tries to repeat it.

The rise and fall of the normal sea he handled fine, but the extreme dips and climbs of the storm-tossed waves coated his terra-cotta skin with a sheen of sickly sweat and seemed to turn his stomach upside down. Probably because he’s a basaku. He hasn’t been able to eat much since the storm started, he’s been achy for days, and it seems like the trip on deck took all the energy he had left.

I put my hand out, waiting for him to take it. His hand is cold even against my rain-cooled skin. Worryingly so. I urge him forward, trying to ignore the ominous creaks and groans that echo through the hull with each wave.

The ship tilts. I stumble and lose my hold on Tessen. My shoulder slams against the wall of the narrow hallway. From the thump and groan behind me, Tessen lost his footing, too.

Bellows and blood. How can any structure not reinforced by magic survive this assault? It’s not a long walk between this deck and our room one level below, but with the way the ship is being tossed, it still takes us several minutes to get there. And we collect close to a dozen new bruises on the way. Tessen stops twice, heaving even though there’s nothing in his stomach left to lose. I stay with him, one hand pressed to his back and the other braced against the wall.

“I know I promised…we’d steal a ship to get back—” He closes his mouth, breathing deeply through his nose. “Back to Shiara, but…we might have to steal a crew…too. I don’t think I’ll be much use…running the ship.”

“You were fine before the storm.” I rub circles on his back, trying not to think about how true his worries are. Or how we would ever have survived this trip without Kazu’s crew. Or how we’ll do it when we make the trip back. Or how long it’ll be before that happens.

He rests his head against the wall. “And with our luck…there’d be nothing but storms.”

I wish I could say he is wrong, but with our luck, it’ll probably be exactly like that. I move my hand to Tessen’s arm, pushing all those thoughts away as much as I can. We have other problems to face first. “Let’s get you sitting before I have to drag you the rest of the way.”

Tessen pushes himself off the wall. Our rooms are spread throughout this level, the andofume in one, Osshi and Tyrroh in the next, and Miari, Wehli, Nairo, and Natani sharing a third. I haven’t seen anyone but Osshi since the storm started. I should check on them, especially since we have to pass the other rooms to reach the one Tessen and I have been sharing with Rai, Etaro, and Sanii. No. Later. Once we’re dry and the ship stops trying to kill us.

 “Please tell me they’re taking us toward the end of this,” Rai says with a groan as soon as Tessen and I enter. Though her stomach isn’t faring as badly as Tessen’s, she’s not exactly enjoying this new way of traveling.

“We pointed them to it, but they’ll only be able to head that way if the wind lets them.” I hover over Tessen as he eases himself down to the floor, mostly to make sure he doesn’t collapse. Once he’s settled, I sit against the wall next to him.

It’s warmer in here, the enclosed space containing everyone’s body heat, but I’m soaking wet, and the air is so much colder than I’m used to. I shiver; Tessen does, too. When Rai notices, she shakes her head. “No. Can’t. Don’t have the energy for fire. Change before you both catch a chill and die.”

“We won’t die from a chill.” But she’s right. I should’ve dried off better before I sat down.

“I might.” Tessen lifts one of his arms as though thinking about taking off his sopping wet tunic, then drops his hand back to his lap. “Dying would probably hurt less than this.”

“No one is dying. There’s been enough of that already.” Sanii unpacks clothing from our bags and holds out the pieces of cloth. Etaro—who hasn’t seemed affected by the storm at all—uses eir magic to float them across the room and make them hover just slightly out of my reach. I strip Tessen and myself out of our soaked clothes and get us both into the dry ones.

The ship rolls again. Tessen’s head smacks against the wall. I fall forward, my hands landing on Tessen’s chest. Sanii almost tumbles off the low table ey’d been sitting on. Etaro and Rai slide a few feet before they can brace themselves.

“I hate that.” Sanii moans when the ship rights itself once more.

“Oh really?” Sarcasm practically bleeds from Rai’s voice. “I’m sure the Miriseh will call the whole plan off, then.”

“We don’t know this storm has anything to do with the Miriseh,” Etaro says.

Rai glares, but it’s Sanii who says, “We don’t know it doesn’t, either.”

It’s an argument we’ve already beaten to death, especially since the storm hit, but they keep coming back to it. I can’t blame them. If talking about whether the Miriseh could create a storm and send it after us would give us an answer, I’d bludgeon the conversation again, too.

But we can’t know for sure. We didn’t know the truth when we were on the same island—in the same city, even—as the immortal leaders we spent our lives serving. How can we possibly know anything more now that hundreds of miles separate us from them?

Tessen’s hand lands on my knee, flopped there without any of his usual grace. I bite back a smile at his pitiful expression and move in front of him, placing his upturned hands on my thighs and applying pressure to the points below his wrist. Our healer Zonna eased Tessen’s agony until Kazu’s crew started collecting injuries more life-threatening than an upset stomach. Pressure point relief is a poor substitute for magic, but it’ll have to be enough. I’m no hishingu. My wards are only good for keeping someone from getting hurt. I can’t do a thing to help someone who’s already in pain.

“We were supposed to see land today.” Sanii’s looking out the small window, eir narrow face tense as ey peers into darkness broken only by lightning. Most of us have to duck or bend to look out the window; ey’s so short it’s at a perfect height for em. “Or yesterday, if it’s past midnight.”

“Who can tell?” Etaro stares at the small black stones dancing in midair above eir palm. They’re some of the few we took off Imaku, the barren island that was once my brother’s prison. Before he was moved out of my reach. Before I—

No. My chest tightens, and I press my thumbs harder into Tessen’s skin. I can’t think about that place until I have some idea how long it’ll be before I can try to rescue Yorri.

Try. Again. For a third time.

“Horizon was…too bright,” Tessen manages to say. “Not night. Midday, maybe.”

“We could still find land today.” Etaro bit eir full bottom lip, eir concave cheeks sucking in deeper. The words are hopeful. Eir expression isn’t.

“Do you really want to get there?” Rai asks something I’ve been thinking but haven’t said.

We’re headed to Ryogo—a land I believed I’d only see in death—and it isn’t going to look or feel anything like I expected. The realization has hit me in bits and pieces over the past two weeks, like sporadic grains of sand at the beginning of a dust storm. And like those small strikes, it’s become more uncomfortable—nearly unbearable—the longer it goes on. The closer we get to the real Ryogo.

“Even with what we stole from Itagami, we’ll run out of food soon.” Sanii doesn’t look away from the window. “Either we find land, or we starve.”

I look at the empty plate sitting on the floor in the corner of the room. A few hours ago, those of us who could stomach food shared a meal smaller than what one of us ate back home; only ever rationed us during the worst of desert droughts did we suffer rations this bad in Sagen sy Itagami, the city where the clan we abandoned lives. Where Yorri is hidden. Where we thought we’d remain our whole lives.

Until Osshi hauled me out of the ocean, I didn’t know anywhere but Shiara existed. Even now, even knowing there has to be another land, it’s hard to convince myself we won’t either fall off the side of the world or find ourselves facing the mountains of Shiara’s southern shore. Yorri was the only person I knew who had guessed there might be something beyond our island.

Tessen’s fingertips lightly brush my forearm. Even through the cloth of my long-sleeved tunic, I can feel his body heat and the softness of the gesture. The ridiculous boy is reading my emotions again.

“Stop it.” I don’t bother whispering. The room is barely big enough for us all to sit without touching, so everyone will hear, even with the storm in the background. “You’ve got enough to worry about without adding me.”

“I’m always…worried about you.” He swallows hard when the ship shudders, but a little of the strain has eased from his wide-set, narrow eyes. Maybe the pressure points are helping. “When I stop paying attention, you…go and do something ridiculous. Like trying to take on the bobasu alone.”

“She wasn’t ever alone in that.” Sanii turns to glare at Tessen.

“Yes, but it’s the Miriseh, Sanii,” Etaro says, not unkindly. “Khya’s wards may be able to hold against them for a while, but unless you’re as invulnerable as they are—”

“You might as well offer your throat for them to cut.” Rai, as always, goes straight for the point Etaro was circling. “It’d be less painful than fighting.”

Sanii opens eir mouth. I hold my breath, waiting to see if ey will finally mention eir strange magic. The secret was fine at first—ey didn’t know or trust my squad—but it’s been almost two weeks now.

I almost laugh with relief when Sanii extends eir arm and stares challengingly at Rai. “I’m not as helpless as you think.”

Eir hand, and for the first time just eir hand, begins to glow. The light, initially a faint white glow over eir beige-brown skin, grows brighter until it’s so strong I have to look away. I turn to Rai, waiting for her reaction.

“Huh. Well, the Miriseh—bobasu—whatever.” Rai waves off the mistake. “They definitely didn’t know you can do that.”

“What is that?” Etaro leans in, eir narrow face alight. The ship pitches. We all brace—and Tessen and Rai grunt—but when we level out, Etaro reaches out again, hovering over Sanii’s hand without touching. “There’s no heat.”

“It’s light, not fire,” I say before I can stop myself.

“You— No. Right.” Annoyance sparks in Rai’s round eyes. “Of course you knew, and of course you didn’t tell us.”

I don’t need the warning tap of Tessen’s fingers on the inside of my wrist. This time, I let Sanii answer for emself.

“It wasn’t Khya’s secret to tell.” Sanii’s light vanishes. “I asked her to keep quiet, and because she takes her promises seriously, she did until I was ready to trust you.”

“Trust us to what?” Etaro asks.

Sanii turns back to the window. “To not look at me like you’re scared.”

“Of what?” Rai asks, scoffing. “Light?”

“Something different,” Sanii says.

“Different isn’t scary, it’s weird.” The ship dips. We all brace. Rai grimaces, but quickly starts speaking again, as though she’s desperate for the distraction. “Besides, it’s light. What’s there to be scared of?”

Sanii glances at her, shrugs, and looks back to the storm. It’s not the whole story, but the sumai ey managed to create with my brother is a special, private thing. Forging a soulbond should’ve been impossible for anyone but one of the Miriseh, according to what they taught us about magic. Also, this kind of bond can only be performed once. The second time a soul splits, it’s a deathblow. So the light isn’t Sanii’s whole story, but what ey’s hiding won’t hurt them.

The ship tilts hard. I slap my hands on the wall over Tessen’s head to keep from crashing into him. Someone above us screams. The ship’s creaking groans are suddenly deafening.

“Oh no.” Tessen’s horror-wide eyes are fixed on the ceiling. “Wards, Khya!”

I tense, my heart pounding as I create an invisible energy shield around everyone. Less than a second before the small window shatters.

Water pours in. Sanii screams. I clench my fists and push my ward back to the wall of the ship, shoving as much water as I can back into the ocean. And watching at least one of our bags go with it.

Bless whatever piece of luck or fate made me a fykina mage instead of sykina—if my shields could only protect against magic, we’d be dead now.

Closing my eyes, I mentally feel for my wardstones, the power-filled crystals I use as anchors. When we fled Shiara, I hid them all over the ship in case Varan chased us across the ocean. This isn’t how I planned on using them, but I can’t shield a ship as large as a building without them.

Vicious storms over-excite the desosa. The elemental energy created and used by everything in the world fuels magic, and it can make a mage more powerful—if they’re capable of using it. Attempting it when the desosa is this chaotic, though, is dangerous. Life threatening. Most mages don’t survive it.

I’ve done it before, though. More than once.

Pulling in as much of the desosa as I can without turning my brain to charcoal, I activate the hidden wardstones. My ward stretches, growing from each stone in a snap until the sections meet and merge. The connections spark like fire in my mind. Each crystal enhances my awareness of the ship. I can feel exactly what’s trying to break through. And where.

My heart pounds. My head buzzes. My hands shake. “The hull is broken. A deck below us. Water’s trying to break in.”

“That’s mostly supplies, right?” Etaro looks down. “Is anyone hurt?”

“How should I know?” I snarl. Another wave tilts the ship beyond what the hull can bear. Another too-loud groan of wood and metal as the only thing holding us above the water tries to shatter.

The weight of the waves against my wards is immense. Keeping the water out without squashing one of the crew between my wards and the hull is so hard it hurts. Chest aching and lungs burning, I try to breathe normally instead of panting for air. My vision is fuzzy on the edges and my brain buzzes. I’ve never tried to make my wards impervious to water while allowing people through. I can’t hold this balance for long, either. There’s another option, but…

I’ve always used my wards to either protect or to trap. Using them to reinforce a non-magical barrier? I don’t know if it’s possible. None of my training taught me how to merge magic with something solid; usually I use it to shove physical things out of the way.

Remembering how I tweaked my wards when we escaped from Imaku, I imagine I’m shaping them like a blacksmith shapes metal. I press my shield toward the hull, pushing water out of cracks and broken windows until the wards meet wood. Keeping the water in the ocean is like trying to carry the weight of a dozen people. It should be impossible—it’s too much pressure for one person to bear—but I will not let this beat us. I promised I’d go back for Yorri and, bellows and blood, I am not going to break my vow.

I suck in more of the desosa and focus. Molding my magic, I fit it within the cracks and seams and joints of the wooden ship. Overhead and under, I create a dome to protect us from the worst swells.

We’re still tossed heedlessly, but now my wards take the beating. I take the beating. I’m being compressed, the water and the wind and the rain and the sky and the desosa and the fury of the storm all pressing closer, as though it’s becoming a solid thing trying to crush me to dust. The force of it builds. Sound fades. Pain shoots between my clogged ears every time I clench my jaw. Someone puts a hand on my shoulder; I can barely feel it.

Holding my breath, I count to ten. I have to let go of my wards. Just for a moment. Have to. The pressure is too much and it’s going to—

Everything stops.

The ship lurches and then rights itself, gently rocking with the small swells of a calm sea. Wind that’s been a constant noise in the background for days dies away. The pressure of the waves against the hull vanishes so fast I almost collapse without the weight as a counterbalance.

“Oh, thank the M—” Tessen bites off the word.

Thank the Miriseh.

Miriseh bless it.

Save us, Miriseh.

The oaths are automatic—phrases we’ve used and believed our entire lives. I’ve said them more than once since we left Itagami. It’s only been twelve days or so, if I’m right about how long we’ve been lost in the storm. Compared to the seventeen previous years, it’s nothing, but I’ve gotten angry at myself every time their name brushes my lips. I can almost see the same thoughts passing through Tessen’s mind now.

On Shiara, they are the Miriseh, the immortals.

In Ryogo, they’re called the bobasu, the exiles.

Tsua, Chio, and Zonna named themselves the andofume, those denied death.

Whatever the word, it means the same thing, and when we land, there isn’t much of a chance any Ryogans will see us as anything but the descendants of monsters, ones that, for them, fell into legend centuries ago.

That’s assuming we get there alive.

The storm has quieted, but below the waterline there’s more than enough pressure to test my wards. I can hold the ocean out for a while, but even with the wardstones as an anchor, a while might not be much longer.

“I need to check with Osshi and Kazu.” I swallow and stand, trying to still my shaking hands. “They need to know where the worst damage is.”

Tessen watches, his full lips pursed. It’s likely he wants to come, but his skin is beaded with sweat, and his gray eyes are glassy. If he tries to get up, I’ll push him down and make him rest. Now that the ship has stopped rocking so violently, he might be able to sleep.

“I’ll go with you.” Etaro stands and crosses the room. “I can help with repairs.”

A little of the frustration eases out of Tessen’s face.

Oh. He still thinks I don’t know when or how to ask for help.

I may take too many risks, but I’m not a fool. The crew could use Etaro’s help. Ey’s a rikinhisu, and eir power is our second-best chance at quickly patching the damage. Tsua is the first, but the andofumes’ door is open and the room is empty, so all of them are probably already helping. Before we hit the stairs, I check on Miari and the others; thankfully, the only damage is a few bruises and scrapes, some lost supplies, and a puddle of water on the floor.

Despite how it felt belowdeck, the world is far from calm. The sky is obscured by storm clouds, and the brine-laden wind bellows over the ship hard enough to force us to lean into it to walk. The roll of the sea is why it felt so quiet below. The high, crashing waves we faced during the worst of the storm are gone. It’s become a rhythmic slap that’s eerily steady.

No, not eerie. Good. We need quiet and calm so we can make repairs. But the suddenness of it is still unnerving.

Osshi and Taikan-yi Kazu are easy to find; both surveying the deck from the front platform. Every few seconds, Kazu shouts orders, his sharp gaze scanning his ship and crew.

“That storm wasn’t natural,” Kazu says as we close in, his gaze fixed on the southern horizon, which is a solid line of dark clouds and flashing lightning. “This ship should’ve been able to weather a storm. It has before.”

“It fared worse than you know.” I tell him what happened and point him toward the holes that, if not patched before I fall straight into a dead sleep, will sink the ship. Kazu gives me a wary glance, but he shifts his crew to those repairs. Etaro offers to assist, and Kazu agrees. Kazu clearly isn’t going to turn away a useful tool just because he doesn’t like it.

“That was you, Khya?” Osshi waves his hand overhead, his expression pinched. “The water rose over our heads but didn’t touch us, and the wind—”

“Yes. The ship was breaking apart, Osshi. I had to use my wards.”

He closes his eyes, shuddering. “Kaisubeh forgive us.”

I saved your life. Biting my tongue is harder every time I see him react like this to magic.

On Shiara, Tsua created a bridge for us to cross a ravine, magically lifting wide, flat stones and holding them in midair for us to walk over. I’d thought Osshi’s collapse when his feet hit solid land was from a fear of heights, but it’s become clear he’s afraid of magic. Anything more than the most basic usage sent him shuddering. Because the Kaisubeh forbid it is the only explanation he’s given.

“I’m grateful, Khya,” Kazu says. “I don’t think the ship would’ve survived without you. And without Etaro and Tsua, this work would take twice as long.”

Osshi has been teaching us Ryogan—the spoken and written language—since we left Shiara. Their tongue is vaguely similar to Itagamin, which helps, but sometimes it’s a struggle to mentally sort through my three languages—Itagamin, Denhitran, and now Ryogan—before speaking.

“We’re on this ship, too, Kazu.” I smile, hoping it looks more genuine than it feels. I can’t tell if he trusts us, especially since he hasn’t done anything to stop the fearful whispers of his crew. I try to ignore my own nerves and try to reassure his with a joke. “It wouldn’t be smart of us to let the ship crack, would it? I can’t swim.”

Kazu smiles, but a shout from across the deck pulls his attention away before he answers. I watch him walk away, anxiety condensing in my stomach.

The men on this ship—and, oddly, his crew is only men—saw where we came from. They know a little of why we needed to flee Shiara and saw the kind of power we’re running from—that we’re trying to protect their homeland from—yet they still don’t trust us. Except for Osshi and Kazu, the Ryogans have mostly kept themselves apart, watching us with wariness if not stark fear.

Tsua and Chio have warned us that peoples’ fear will only be worse on Ryogo, but it could, they think, help us. To kill Varan, we have to figure out how he made himself immortal. If we want to know that, we have to head to the mountains beyond Uraita, the village where Varan and Chio were born. Centuries ago, Chio followed his brother into the mountains, to a spot where Varan liked to hide things that he didn’t want anyone else to find. Including, we hope, information on his hunt for immortality.

The andofume’s theory is that none of our goals should be hard to meet when so few people in Ryogo are warriors. Even fewer are mages. They can’t fight us. Most of them will be afraid to try.

It’s good, I remind myself, facing the northwestern horizon. Ryogo is out there somewhere, and it’s hiding what I need to free my brother and unravel the bobasu’s plan. Varan’s secrets are either well guarded or long destroyed, but the Ryogans can’t plan for everything.

Lucky for us, magic is one thing they won’t see coming.

Sea of Strangers Blog Tour Posts

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