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It began several hundred years from now. Life conspires to take us where we are meant to be, even when we do not ourselves know the direction in which we are traveling. Thus it was that my uneventful existence began, and ended, with a single drop of blood, spilled unsuspectingly on a honed and gleaming pirate blade. In the now distant year of nineteen hundred ninety-nine, in the town of Avalon Inlet, somewhere in the hidden coastal regions of Northern Maine, I encountered the capricious Lady of Destiny. It is, even now, an incredible tale of adventure and, yes, of romance that is the stuff of dreams. My name is Verity, Veranna, or even Verianya--and if you will let me, I will tell you of my assignation with a magical and thrilling life forever altered by the whims of Fate...
"The entire place is a work of art," Verity Mathison said with genuine reverence. She'd been stranded in the picturesque town since the previous evening, when her car had quite inexplicably decided it didn't want to go any further. Being a journalist/novelist did have its advantages; in this case, as a freelancer, she tended to not keep 'office hours'. Finding the small town with the fanciful name of Avalon Inlet was a writer's dream come true. Not only was the place not on any map, it was something out of a time long passed into history.
The young shop girl smiled, the expression pretty with pleasure at the compliment.
"We're a small community," she said, voice soft with a slight lilt. "Things don't change much from year to year."
"Is everyone here of generations past, or does the town have any new blood?"
"Once in a while strangersfind us and decide to stay," she answered, still smiling, though with less sincerity than before.
"Why aren't you on the map?" Verity wondered, looking around the crowded antique shop. There were vast riches in this place, the writer mused, examining a display of weaponry that had to be at least a couple of centuries old. Since she had entered the shop, a tiny thrill of excitement had been growing stronger within her as the minutes passed. In spite of the lack of sense in it, Verity felt as though she'd found some lost part of her soul reflecting back at her as she examined the array of artifacts that filled the quaint shop.
"How much is that one?" she asked, pointing to the shiniest and least ornate of the swords that were arranged on a wall behind the counter.
"It's not for sale," the clerk told her, eyes now sharp, thoughtful, and unmistakably wary.
So that's your game, Verity thought with cynicism. The price had just jumped considerably, she knew. But, like everything else, it would have a price.
In spite of her decree, the girl reached up and lifted the shimmering blade from its place amid the other swords. Motion fluid and graceful, she spun the cutlass and offered it to the curious stranger, hilt first.
With a combination of near-fear and undeniable excitement, Verity stared at it. The lurch of her stomach was eloquent testimony of her surprisingly intense nervous state. With a will of its own, her hand rose and she watched in detached fascination as her fingers closed around the well-worn grip of the archaic weapon. As soon as her hold was solid, she was forced to drop the sword; heat seared her flesh and she cried out, cursing furiously as the pain pulsed upward along the length of her arm.
The shaken clerk stared at her as though she'd gone mad.
It wasn't the pitying look one gave a lunatic, however. There was sincere terror in her eyes as she watched the other woman, and Verity knew she didn't help the situation by glaring at her in unjustified accusation. That didn't lessen her anger, of course, because somewhere inside her, she did blame the hapless girl for not warning her of the potential threat in accepting the sword from her hands.
Not waiting for comments, or assistance, if the girl was indeed planning to offer any, Verity turned on her heel and left the shop. As she glanced back, she caught the name of the place, The Mahjrah Treasure Chest. She was now quite unimpressed with the pirate's plunder.
The following day, fool that she sometimes was, Verity returned to the Treasure Chest and again was drawn like a magnet to the rack of weapons on the back wall. The sword hung in its place, seeming to stare back at her in subtle challenge.
"Have you come back for old Ehtionne's sword, miss?"
The girl from the previous day was gone; in her place was an ancient man, stooped and weathered by time. But, his eyes were sparkling with vitality and shrewd intelligence. As Verity gazed into those keen dark eyes, the sensation of edgy excitement began churning deep within her.
"Ehtionne?" She repeated, at a loss to form more than the single word query.
He nodded, then hobbled around the counter and gestured for her to follow him. They stopped in a small alcove that was separated from the main area of the shop by a curtained doorway. Once inside, Verity discovered a tiny gallery of aging paintings. The old man pointed to the largest of the collection and her heart felt like it wanted to grow wings and leave her body as she stared at the face of a stranger who'd haunted her dreams from childhood.
"My God!" she breathed in unequivocal shock. "He's real."
The old man looked inordinately pleased, and she tried not to resent him; there was no reason for such emotion.
"You recognize him."
It was more a statement of presumed fact than any form of real question.
Verity shook her head.
"No," she denied. "I must have seen his face in books. I've researched this area's folklore and pirate legends." Even as she made the assertion, and tried desperately to believe it, she knew it to be a lie. The old man knew, too, she could read it in his steady brown eyes.
"There are no photos of Mahjrah in any of your books, miss," he assured her in a soft, almost regretful tone.
As she had the day before, Verity ran. This time she didn't escape the confines of the shop. When she flung aside the curtain and would have bolted for the doors, she ran straight into the young girl who'd been there the previous day.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, her voice and eyes glaring with anger.
"Leaving," Verity snapped, her responding irritation more reflex than anything genuine.
"That part of the shop is not open to the public," she informed the visitor. "It's our storage room."
"Storage room?" Verity repeated stupidly. Anger flared in the next instant, and she glowered at her. "The old man took me in there," she told the annoying girl. "And it sure as hell doesn't look like a storage room!"
The clerk was giving her that disturbing look of pity and fear again.
Verity was furious.
"If you don't believe me," she snarled at the shop girl, "he's still back there." She turned, yanked aside the curtain, and was met with the solid presence of a heavy door, the sign in the center of it proclaiming that it was to be used by 'Employees Only'.
"If you'll wait, ma'am," the girl said, ice in her tone now. "I'll allow you to speak to the manager."
Gawking at her, Verity numbly trailed her back into the main room, then watched her disappear behind another door. Silence engulfed the shop and she continued to look at the partially revealed doorway that had led to the small gallery.
"Are you still interested in the cutlass, miss?"
The voice went through her, and she was enraged anew. She whirled around and the old man smiled benevolently.
"What the hell is going on here?" she demanded, taking a step toward him.
He calmly walked to the other side of the counter and took the sword from its mounting. He twirled it with remarkable skill and Verity took an involuntary step backward when he held it out for her to take.
"No, thanks," she assured, sarcasm in the tone. "I've already had that experience once, and it's quite enough."
He appeared amused all over again and wrath rose in her throat as a bitter bile. He was laughing at her!
"All right," Verity snapped viciously. "Give me the damn thing."
Her fingers closer over the hilt and she braced for pain.
It never came.
Enthralled by the feel of the weapon in her hand, she stared at it. Her other hand rose to stroke the smooth, cool metal of the saber and a whisper of something powerful trembled along the length of her arm. Oblivious to anything else, she touched the edge of the silvered blade with the side of her thumb. A prick of pain warned her that she'd tested well-honed metal rather foolishly. Blood welled and spilled onto the blade, a single crimson teardrop of life.
The reaction was immediate, and terrifying.
The polished metal clouded, became translucent, tinged with the scarlet of blood; then the images began to coalesce before her spell-bound gaze. The small shop in Avalon Inlet no longer existed. Her head felt like it was spinning, and reality growing ever more distant, yet closer, as well. Someone screamed as Verity fell into the chaos that she'd glimpsed in the gleaming blade of the sword...
...Madness exploded around her as she was thrust into the waning battle she'd been witnessing from the safety of the small antique shop. Dazed and stumbling, she fell against something hard and painfully solid as she tried vainly to remain on her feet amid the turbulent motion. Voices crowded into her consciousness and she was finally able to focus on her surroundings.
"My God!" Verity whispered uselessly, staring in complete disbelief. She looked down at her hands, saw they still gripped the sword. It no longer glowed and shimmered, the only mystical property it presently possessed was its blinding reflection of a blistering sun when it flitted from behind heavy storm clouds.
The voice was close to her ear and she turned to see who spoke.
A stranger looked back at her, but it was evident that he felt he knew her. As she gaped at him, drinking in his handsome features, he began to yell, frantically trying to gain someone else's attention. She stared, let her gaze slide over him in appreciation. This man was tall, fair-haired, and had the sharpest hazel eyes she'd ever seen. He was lithe and graceful, maintaining his balance in apparent effortlessness as she struggled to keep one hand gripping the sword while the other groped for what she could now see was the side of a ship. There was sandy stubble on the stranger's chin, and his thin-lipped mouth was a grimace of annoyance as he shouted again.
After interminable minutes, they were joined by another man.
When Verity looked at him, she knew she truly had lost her mind.
"Veranna?" He was as surprised as the other man had been, and also looked at her with recognition.
The voice was hers, but the actual thought process of speaking had somehow by-passed her brain, the utterance coming forth of its own volition. Captain?
Before she could think too much, she was swept into arms that threatened to steal the breath from her body. Inside her head, she laughed at that thought--after all, wasn't she already dead? No, she decided a moment later, she was definitely not dead! The magnificent man crushing her in his embrace was kissing her now, and doing a thorough and perfect job of it, too.
In the midst of a maelstrom, he created a tempest that rivaled the battle around them. When he released her and held her face between large, strong hands, she saw something deep within the earthy brown gaze that left her feeling more secure and stable than she'd ever been before.
"You've come back," he said, still struggling visibly with his own certainty.
Again the phantom voice that was hers answered him.
"How long have I been away?"
She decided then that she wasn't going to think anymore, it only confused her.
"Since we passed through the portal," he told her, gazing intently into her eyes. "You're not really back, are you?"
She felt the frown gathering on her face and concentrated on some kind of answer. Again, instinct gave her voice.
"I do not know, Captain," She replied, voice soft, and looked around in curious wonder. "Has he found you again?"
A heavy sigh escaped the imposing Captain and he nodded.
"Doren, take command of the ship," he ordered, then took her arm in a firm grasp.
The fair-haired first mate cast a final, worried glance at her, but nodded curtly and left. The Captain led her below deck and into a cramped but tidy cabin.
"Darius is persistent," the Captain remarked, diverting momentarily to answer her earlier query. She nodded vaguely and felt him watching in speculative interest as she walked around the small space.
Veranna, she mused, considering the name and the rightness of it. It was a name she had used once, surprised by how natural it felt. She had never expected to hear it from a stranger. Her attention was captured by a small table tucked into the far corner, and she went to it, an increasingly familiar tremor of excitement fluttering within her stomach. There was a careful order to the things that were arranged on the table, and she studied them as intently as the handsome captain was presently examining her. A square of burgundy was spread on the surface, a tasseled corner draped casually over the edge. A curled parchment scroll rested amid colorful streams of ribbon. Another area was occupied by items that she knew represented the elements of nature, a miniature chest filled with rich, dark earth; a fan shaped array of feathers, held together by a ring of pure gold, polished stones and coral, and a series of curved seashells of various sizes and origins. Opaque, almost translucent candles stood on each corner of the table, and she stared for a few moments as the night sky itself swirled within them. Faintly, she had the sense of music purring from their fitful depths.
Without thinking, she passed her hand over the tops of the candles, a breath of displaced air stirring the power she sensed in this part of the room. Flames winked into being, casting a golden glow over the rough hewn planks that comprised the walls of the shipboard cabin. The music grew louder, and the essence of it began to find a responding harmony inside her.
Startled, Verity, Veranna, she corrected mentally, stepped back. Her gaze went to the captain who waited with contained patience. She could sense his restlessness arcing across the few feet of space that separated them. His restlessness, and something as elemental as the resonance of magic--his hunger for her.
"We need your help to escape this storm, Veranna," he stated. "Darius will loose the assassins very soon."
Fear rocketed through her.
"The Ghost is not far from us, lady," he informed her with forced calm. "Your return could not have been better timed."
"I can't help you, Captain..." She shuddered as the warmth in his earthy eyes vanished, changing brown to ebony as fury shaded them.
Ehtionne Mahjrah spared a final glance at the stranger who wore his lover's face, aching from his soul as he fought the desire to ravish her back to her senses. Veranna was a drug he had long ago become addicted to, and despite the lack of recognition in her face, she did belong to him. Her eyes were distant, frightened, but she was just as she had been the night she'd vanished. Long, dark hair gleamed in the soft radiance of the candles, her skin was honey-kissed, and the silks she wore concealed curves he knew as intimately as his own body.
But, a small trick of flames was tiny magic indeed when faced with the task he needed in order to escape the trap his old enemy had sprung. The churning currents that were swirling around them had made control of The Scarab impossible; they were all but at the mercy of Darius and his crew. And that meant there would be no mercy whatsoever.
As he looked into her beautiful face, he felt a pang of regret for the life they would never have. Veranna, he thought sadly. She'd been bought at a slave market in a life that was so far from here it no longer seemed real. Ehtionne had named her, cherished her, and nurtured her through the emergence of power in her that neither of them had understood. Now, they would die because her power had deserted them when it was needed most.
"Lady," he murmured thickly, emotions at war. He bowed his head in a curt jerk of motion then left her.
Veranna shook her head, blinded by inexplicable tears. Her body shook with anguish that was senseless. She ran her hands through her hair and tried desperately to focus on what was around her, the gesture drawing her attention to the fact that she no longer held the sword; when he'd taken it from her was something of a mystery, however. His face, tight with repressed anger and despair, refused to leave her. The torment grew with every lurch and crash of the ship.
"Will she help?" Doren asked when the captain had returned to the bridge of the ship.
Mahjrah winced at the faint derision he heard in his first mate's voice. He couldn't fault Doren for the emotion, the man had suffered a great deal when Darius had captured both him and Veranna, only to have her vanish and leave him to what would have been his death had The Scarab not been closer than the enemy had anticipated.
"I don't think she is able to help herself," Ehtionne replied, weary to his very soul. "It is unlikely we can expect her assistance in escaping The Ghost this time."
Doren nodded. Apparently it was the answer he had foreseen.
"Marcello!" he shouted, looking upward to the crow's nest.
"The storm is passing away from us," the lookout yelled down to them. "Darius is holding back, Captain."
Mahjrah heard the disquiet in the sailor's voice, but chose not to respond to it. He met Doren's hazel eyes, and the challenge within their depths.
"He's waiting for us to move then he'll launch his real attack. Isiress is aboard, and her witchcraft is working against us."
"And we have none of our own!" Doren snarled. Mahjrah's eyes contained explosive rage, and Doren wondered if he had pushed the captain too far. He was as unpredictable as the weather when it came to aspersion cast on Veranna; honesty prevailed most of the time, but not always. Doren, himself, had always felt conflicting emotions about the woman and her presence on board the ship. Their relationship had been one of love/hate from the day they'd met.
Mahjrah's large hands tightened on the huge ship's wheel and he bit back the curse that sprang to his lips.
"We will not need magic to defeat Darius," he ground out, tone low with lethal promise. "I have bested him every time we've engaged in combat, and this time will be no different!"
Doren knew better than to pursue the dangerous course he'd slipped onto, and he nodded, praying fervently that his captain, and friend, would be heard by whatever gods protected them in this alien realm. He spotted the cutlass that was again sheathed and hanging at Ehtionne's hip; oddly, the presence afforded him both hope and comfort. Ehtionne Mahjrah was a formidable man, and a more formidable adversary. Doren owed him his life, and the loyalty of a friend who had never deserted him. He also owed Ehtionne a debt that he knew nothing about, and, hopefully, he never would.
"I'll order the men to ready for battle, Captain," the mate said.
As Doren walked away, Mahjrah studied the ocean. The water was still restless and volatile, but Marcello had been accurate in his assessment of its slow calming. Cold spray splashed his face, but it had gradually eased to the force of a chill misting, not the torrential deluges of icy death that had battered them so short a time ago.
He held out his hand, knowing the second mate was close by. A second later, the spyglass was placed in his palm. He snapped it open and raised it to his left eye. The Pharaoh's Ghost was several hundred meters away, and its crew was struggling to regain control of their vessel, as were the crew of The Scarab. He would have time to plan an attack, but not much.
Veranna dragged in several deep, steadying breaths as she tried to find answers within her to things she felt she knew. It was an instinct, nothing more. Or was it the look in Ehtionne Mahjrah's eyes when she'd said she couldn't help him? Angry, she walked to the porthole in the cabin, but saw little above the turbulent seas.
Seething, but not certain why, she glared at the cabin.
When her spurt of temper sputtered out, she walked to the small table where the mysterious items of power were so meticulously arranged. She knew them to be symbols of magic. She didn't know why she was so sure of it. She lifted the coverlet and saw that the table wasn't really a table, but a cabinet. She pulled gently on the handle and peered inside; startled to find more vials, as well as caskets with etched rhunes on their lids, filled with powders and herbs, and other things she wasn't certain she wanted to name. She brushed the embossed surface of several of the containers and felt reverberating within her, the resonance of individual tones and musical sounds of power. There was also a large assortment of the mystical candles, each with different kinds of earth power represented in their shifting cores.
"What do I do to help him?" she murmured to the air, and sank to her knees for a moment when despair washed over her in a tidal wave of dread.
She reached inside the cabinet and withdrew several candles. Somewhere inside her, she did know the magic, the symbols of power; slate blue skies filled with clouds would divine the power of the mind, and motion--air; combine this with the symbol of freshly plowed earth to increase the effect of any elemental alchemy with which it was paired.
She placed the candles carefully on the surface of the table, with the peaceful field in the center of the circle of power. After lighting the candles, she plucked a scarlet feather from the fanned assortment and concentrated, trusting instinct and the escalating volume of the music to tell her the precise moment to place it within the currents of warm air ascending from the flames.
The sounds of screaming and chaos grew distant, and she began to recite the words of the spell she was weaving...
"We're being boarded, Captain!"
Doren's shout of warning reached Mahjrah as he ordered the second mate to take the wheel. Once he'd changed positions with the young Venetienne sailor, Gianni, Mahjrah drew his cutlass and turned to meet the first of the men who'd managed to climb onto his ship amid the crisis of the storm. He realized, distantly, that the storm had been a distraction created by Darius's witch.
Mouth set in a grim line, he launched into the battle that was now raging on the decks of his treasured vessel. Darius had taken full advantage of his distraction, he raged in silence. His enemy had launched a small boat in their wake, and Mahjrah didn't doubt that those who were boarding The Scarab were among the trained assassins who had traveled with Darius's crew for many years. Ever since Ehtionne Mahjrah had all but wiped out the Egyptian pirate and his vessel in a bloody battle raged a lifetime ago in a world that was so different than the one in which they were presently trapped.
Mahjrah put aside his mental wanderings as he met the first of the men who were trying to reach the ship's bridge. Swords clashed in the fading glow of the sun as it prepared to slip beneath the shelf of the horizon, and Mahjrah dispatched the man in front of him with a dispassionate ease that came from years of meting out death to an enemy who would have expected nothing less. He took no particular pleasure in death, nor did his conscience suffer much over his actions. The invaders were slowly diminishing in number, though it was costing Mahjrah more men that he would have expected. It had to end, and quickly, or his crew would be decimated to the point that the ship would be easy prey for any passing marauder.
A cry behind him warned that someone had gotten past him and he cursed furiously as he turned and saw what was happening. Gianni was down, a crimson stain spreading over the front of his shirt. The assailant was preparing to strike the death blow as Ehtionne ran toward them, sheathing his sword as he leapt. In the small space, he would have no room to wield the weapon effectively.
Without a second glance in the direction of his second mate, Mahjrah reached for the attacking intruder. The knife he'd used to stab the unsuspecting young mate was descending for the second strike when Ehtionne stepped in front of Gianni, using himself as a shield.
Gianni slumped backward, met the solid wall of the bulkhead, and slid down to the deck. In dazed fascination he moved his hand to his right side, covering the wound and feeling the sticky flow of warm blood.
A flip of Mahjrah's wrist relieved the assassin of control of the weapon, as Ehtionne intercepted the slashing hand and caught the man's wrist in a bone-breaking grip. Using the momentum of the swing, Ehtionne redirected the blade's aim as he grabbed a handful of hair and pulled forward.
He felt the razor-edged steel slide under the attacker's chin, penetrate through vulnerable flesh and come to an abrupt halt when the hilt met the torn throat. The tip of the knife grazed his fingertips. The long blade had pierced the back of the dying man's neck and Mahjrah yanked the knife free with a jerk as he let the body fall.
From the corner of his eye, he saw another stranger coming toward him. Mahjrah closed the distance with ghostly speed.
When the first body fell inches away from his feet and the man's head lolled to face him, Gianni grimaced and turned aside, his stomach emptying onto the deck. Mahjrah had no time to comfort the young man. Foaming bubbles of blood spilled from the open mouth of the corpse and still more of the thick liquid gushed in a quickly fading stream from the gaping hole in his throat. Tiny crimson squirts continued to pulse out even after the man's eyes rolled into a death mask. The young mate flinched away a second time only to meet the unyielding resistance of solid wood behind him. He tried to close his eyes, but fear wouldn't allow it. He looked up at his captain through a haze of unreality.
The second assailant had barely regained his unsteady footing when Ehtionne Mahjrah struck, slamming the heel of his hand against the man's face.
Mahjrah heard the distinct crack of bones followed by an agonized wail. Ignoring both, he pulled the crumpled figure erect and launched him backward against the side wall, oblivious to the red smear that stained the ruined face.
"Who sent your ship after us?" he growled, bringing the knife up to hover menacingly close to the other man's terrified eyes. When a frenzied shake of his head was the only response, Mahjrah smiled with pure malevolent iciness. "One more chance," he offered, his tone as lethal as the circling blade.
He lowered the knife, deliberately bringing the tip to rest in the hollow of his victim's throat and pressing hard enough to puncture skin. As a tiny drop of blood welled up around the small wound, Ehtionne allowed the blade to inch down as he continued to hold the fear-filled stare. He could see the man's mind working, weighing the terror he was facing against the one waiting at the end of this failed boarding mission.
Mahjrah knew the outcome of that debate before the attacker did and was prepared when the man bolted. The blood soaked knife dipped downward and rose again, sliding beneath the sternum to pierce the heart. A warm gush of blood over his hand made the weapon slippery. This time he released the handle of the knife and let it stay with the body, which sagged to the deck with a dull, liquid thump.
The captain closed his eyes and dragged in several gasping breaths as he dimmed the pounding in his ears to a faint roar. A moment was all he had to compose himself for the next wave of Darius's assault. It became irrelevant seconds later when The Scarab began to rise from the churning waves still battering her sides.
Men screamed, bodies attempting to scramble onto the ship fell into the wildly thrashing waters, and above the mayhem Mahjrah heard Doren's laughter. He looked, found the first mate's triumphant eyes amid those staring back at him, and he shook his head in wonder.
"Veranna..." he murmured in disbelief.
The vessel began to tremble, and he shouted orders to his men. Those still alive were moved to relative safety, bodies were unceremoniously dumped into the waiting arms of the sea, and they took prisoners to replace those who had died defending The Scarab.
Sweat popped out on her brow as she concentrated on the spell she'd created. The feather was swirling mere breaths above the candle flames, held aloft by the heat. She knew it wouldn't last for much longer, the music was reaching a deafening crescendo inside her head; when the feather fell into the flames and sizzled into ash, the magic would be gone.
Desperately, she grabbed a seashell and filled it with earth and shards of coral, then placed it in the centre of the circle of flickering candles. More words spilled from her lips, the music grew to painful intensity within her and she closed her eyes, focusing her fear as a power in its own right. As the motion of the ship grew erratic and unstable, she gripped the edge of the table and held tight.
Darius's voice was whipcord sharp with rage as he watched The Scarab spinning wildly, caught in a vortex that was pure magic. At his side, the witch Isiress, tried to undo the spell being woven around the other vessel. She knew she wouldn't be able to neutralize Veranna's spell, her awareness of the sorceress had come too late. They had grown complacent, certain she was no longer a threat to them. Somehow, Mahjrah's lover had found her way back to him, despite the witchcraft that had separated them across time and dimension.
The shout, so close to her ear, made her flinch, and the moment was truly lost.
As Darius watched, The Scarab vanished, swallowed by the whirlwind that had risen around it in a maelstrom of foam, waves, and billowing winds. His hands gripped the side of his ship, the knuckles white.
"Where has he gone?"
There was something resembling reason in his tone, but the witch knew it was deceptive.
"It will take time to locate them," she told him quietly, fully prepared for the outburst of wrath her words would incite. Oddly, it never came. He merely turned, met her cool, dark gaze, and nodded.
"Do it quickly, Isiress," he ordered firmly.
She watched as he walked away, her mind preoccupied not with his instructions, but with her failure to keep Veranna at bay.