Henry H Neff

The Maelstrom

The fourth book in the Tapestry series

For Charlie, as he begins his own great adventure

~ 1 ~

The Xebec

The harbormaster’s bell rang clear and cold as the xebec slipped past the tall breakers and entered Rowan Harbor. Witch-fire burned at its prow, an oily plume of green flames that sputtered in the breeze and cast a spectral gleam on the dark swells. A dozen fishermen and smugglers scattered out of its path, coaxing their smaller vessels beyond reach of the ship’s oars as it skimmed toward the main dock like a huge black dragonfly.

On the cliffs above, Max McDaniels slung off his heavy pack and stopped to watch the ship’s progress. Despite the predawn gloom, he could make out a weather worker on the xebec’s deck. The witch was crouching near the fire like an old spider as she piloted the craft through a minefield of broken stone towers that jutted from the water.

Max understood the need for caution. He was curious to see how such a ship would navigate the towers, but he was even more curious as to who was aboard and why they were here. Rowan’s shores had become treacherous to visitors. The jagged pillars represented more than just a danger to the ship’s hull; they symbolized all that had changed since May Day.

Just six months earlier, those broken and barnacled spires had belonged to Gravenmuir. The demons had called it an embassy but it had really been an occupation, a base from which they could influence Rowan’s affairs and keep a close eye on the only humans who might challenge their rule. It had been a darkly beautiful structure, a Gothic sculpture of black towers and battlements encasing gilded halls where demons held court, oversaw trade, and ensured that Rowan honored the terms of her surrender.

All of that was history.

On May Day, Elias Bram had obliterated the embassy and fired a shot heard around the world. Max had witnessed the event, but even now it seemed a dream. It was difficult to believe that a single person was capable of such an astonishing act, much less a man who was supposed to have died centuries ago.

Max replayed the sequence in his mind. Once Bram had halted at Gravenmuir’s gates, the sorcerer had spread his arms wide. With a roar, the surrounding cliffs had broken, shearing clean away as though struck by a chisel. And as they plummeted, so did Gravenmuir—cast down into the sea along with everyone inside.

Gravenmuir’s plunge to the sea had been eerily silent. And during that surreal interlude, Max had realized—with awful, numbing clarity—that the world was about to change. The moment’s scale and implications had been exhilarating and terrifying. There would be no more deliberations or debate. In that instant, Elias Bram had dictated Rowan’s path, and mankind’s fate would hang in the balance. Shocked by this realization, a part of Max had clung to the absurd hope that the silence would continue indefinitely. For as long as it held, they might pause to consider this momentous course.

Seconds later those hopes vanished. Gravenmuir struck the water with an astounding crash. The impact jolted people from sleep for miles around and shattered the windows in Old Tom and Maggie.

The awful din soon subsided, fading like a summer storm as the sea rushed in to swallow up the dead and dying. All that remained of Gravenmuir were those jagged spires, lurking at the water’s surface to bare their teeth at low tide.

A shout and the sound of many footsteps snapped Max from his thoughts. Turning, he saw a motley troop of youths hurrying toward him along the cliff’s edge from the north. They clanked along, carrying spears and lanterns as they threaded through the pines and sought to keep up with their leader, who skidded to a stop before him and promptly drew her sword.

“Who are you?” she panted. “Identify yourself and explain why you’re breaking curfew.”

Max merely stared, confused, as the others arrived, surrounding him and leveling their long spears, their breath fogging in the November chill.

“What is this?” Max finally asked, giving a bewildered turn. He failed to recognize a single one of the frightened, eager faces. They couldn’t be Rowan students. For one, they’d obviously had little training, as evidenced by their sloppy perimeter and the fact that most were out of breath. For another, their clothes were mostly homespun and heavily patched—a ragtag array of leather jerkins, woolen leggings, and mismatched boots. Refugees, Max guessed, and recently arrived by their appearance.

“We’ll ask the questions,” snapped the leader. She had coarse black hair and a sallow, ferretlike face. Max waited for the punch line, some clue that she was joking. There was none. “Answer up,” she pressed. “Who are you and why are you breaking curfew?”

“I’m Max McDaniels,” he replied. “And I didn’t know about any curfew. I’ve been away.”

“Then you’re an intruder and our captive,” she declared. “Get his blade, Jack.”

This order was directed at a skinny youth with a tumble of red tangles peeking from beneath a worn leather cap. Glancing at the short sword and its owner, the boy licked his lips like a scolded dog.

“Let’s call an Agent, Tam,” he whined. “He looks dangerous.”

“Follow orders,” she seethed, “or I’ll have you thrown down in the Hollows!”

“Look,” said Max calmly, “you must be new to Rowan. We’re on the same side. If you let me—”

“Old or new don’t matter,” interrupted the girl, jabbing her sword mere inches from Max’s face. “You ain’t from Rowan. You look like you been livin’ in a ditch. You’re the most pathetic demon I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen my share. Now get his blade, Jack, and be quick about it!”

Before Jack could obey, another girl spoke up.

“Max McDaniels,” she mused, repeating it to herself. “I think I heard that name, Tam. I’m sure I have. Maybe he’s telling the truth.”

“You don’t see demons like I do, Kat,” said Tam, her voice taut and hateful. “That’s why they put me in charge. Don’t believe anything this demon says.”

At Tam’s third, furious order to confiscate Max’s weapon, Jack inched forward and reached for it.

“Tam,” said Max pointedly, “I don’t know what this little patrol is supposed to be or anything about a curfew. But I can assure you that I belong here and that none of you even wants to see this sword, much less touch it.”

These words exerted a powerful effect. Jack promptly backed away and stared at the weapon with superstitious awe. But Tam remained undaunted.

“Well, this sword is iron, demon,” she threatened, inching closer. “These spears are iron and thrice blessed. Surrender or we’ll call one of the Red Branch!”

“They’re already here.”

Pulling back his sleeve, Max revealed a tattoo upon his inner wrist. Inked in red, it depicted an upraised hand wrapped with a slender cord. A casual observer might not have looked twice, but for those who knew better, the tattoo was a warning as clear as the mark on a black widow’s belly. It was the sign of the Red Branch, the elite among Rowan’s warriors. Only twelve people bore such marks, and they were the most dangerous Agents in the world.

“I told you I’d heard that name!” exclaimed Kat.

“Well, I haven’t,” Tam snapped, her sword arm trembling. “And demons are false, Kat. He might fool you, but he can’t fool me. I see his shine.”

Max was genuinely surprised to hear such a claim.

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