Part of: Elemental
Thom and his fellow colonists are in danger of paying the ultimate price to secure their homeland in this last book of the Elemental trilogy. After the shocking discovery that his mother is still alive and on Roanoke, Thom is determined to return to that island. However, the island is still under pirate control, and a mysterious boy in possession of a dangerous element appears. With the help of an unlikely ally and the newly discovered ability to combine elements, Thom must summon the full extent of his power to end this battle for their home once and for all.
Packed with adventure, mystery, and romance, the gripping conclusion to the series that began with Elemental and Firenbrand is perfect for fans of Ship Breaker and Divergent.
“A page-turner with a dose of mystery and adventure, this series will interest fans of fantasy, history, and romance.” –VOYA reviews
Praise for Elemental:
"Engaging characters and plenty of mystery, adventure, and action." -Publishers Weekly
“Plenty of action for readers who enjoy survival stories with a twist of the supernatural and a hint of romance.” –School Library Journal
“The novel’s captivating storyline, rapid pace, and cliffhanger ending are sure to leave fans of novels like Grant’s Gone series absorbed with the action and anxious for a sequel.” –Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
- Pages: 304 Pages
- Series: Elemental
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9780698175808
An Excerpt From
A mile behind our ship a sleeker, nimbler vessel carved through the ocean. The crew of five stood against the prow rail, faces turned toward us. They couldn’t see us from so far away, but that wasn’t the point. Dare, my uncle, the pirate captain, just wanted us to see him.
“They’re gaining,” said my friend Alice under her breath. She leaned against a crate for support. “They’re going to catch us. Soon.”
I wanted to remind her that her element—the ability to heighten her senses—didn’t work as well hundreds of miles from our home on Roanoke Island. None of our elements did. But anyone could see that the other ship was lighter and faster.
I raised my binoculars. Lowered them again. I didn’t need to see Dare’s colorful arms to remember the man. I only had to think of Griffin, my younger brother. He was resting below deck on a pile of blood-soaked blankets, his lacerated skin and open wounds a shocking reminder of the lengths to which Dare was prepared to go to get his hands on the solution—a mythical cure for the Plague.
Plague. For sixteen years we’d lived in isolation on Hatteras Island, protected from the rats that had consumed the mainland and the disease that had decimated the population. Waterways, too wide for the rats to cross, had kept us safe. But water was no deterrent for Dare and his men. They’d burned our Hatteras Island colony to the ground, and driven us to neighboring Roanoke Island. When they’d seized that island by force as well, we’d taken to the ocean in search of a new home.
We’d found it too: a self-sufficient colony operating in the remains of Fort Sumter, near Charleston. I’d dared to dream that the worst was behind us. But it had only taken a few days to realize that this new colony harbored secrets too. Once again we’d escaped, but not before Griffin had been bitten by rats; his friend Nyla, as well. We wouldn’t know for another day if they’d contracted Plague, but if they had, they’d be dead before the end of the week.
“Thomas.” My older brother, Ananias, tapped my shoulder. “If we want to go faster, we need to get more out of the sails.”
I looked at the massive pieces of dirty white canvas already pulled taut by the wind. “How?”
He swept his right arm through the air, indicating the other elementals on deck. They were staring at the approaching ship too, and on their faces they wore the same expressions of defeat I felt on mine.
“We need more,” he said.
“Wind. Helpful currents—”
“Our elements don’t work well out here,” I reminded him.
“Neither does my shoulder.” He pointed to the sling over his left arm, and the patch of dried blood where he’d been shot the previous evening. He’d always appeared strong to me—trusted by our Guardians, and confident in his ability to conjure fire—but now his voice carried a hint of desperation. “Our elements are all we have.”
Before I could reply, Dennis approached us. At nine, he was the youngest member of the colony. Physically, he was doing better than the rest of us, but the events of the past couple weeks had taken a heavy toll. Gone was the sheepish smile, the trust in our Guardians, and the unshakable optimism, replaced by a cold, neutral expression that I couldn’t read at all.
“Let’s combine,” he told me. “We can do more if we join our elements.”
Until recently, I hadn’t even known that I possessed an element. Everyone else my age hadn’t realized it either. The Guardians had kept us in the dark, afraid that if I tried to use it, I’d hurt someone—maybe even a Guardian. Now I took Dennis’s hand and allowed my energy to flow, giving him extra power, boosting his element. He began to shape the air around us. A gentle breeze circled our legs and rose up, gathering force, until he unleashed it on the sails.
The sailcloth strained but didn’t tear. The masts creaked but didn’t break. The ship lifted slightly in the water, and as the sound of waves crashing against the hull grew louder, I knew we were moving faster.
Around us, everyone was still. No one spoke. They didn’t want to distract us. But with each passing moment it was harder to stay focused. Staring at the endless expanse of ocean before us, I wondered where we were going. Would Griffin still be alive when we next made landfall? How would any of us survive when we already knew there was no food and water on board?
“Keep going.” Dennis’s voice was small, imploring. “Please.”
I refocused, and the wind picked up again. But my energy was waning. During our escape from Sumter, I’d leaped from the fort into shallow water and sliced open my chest. Now, as my heart beat faster, pain flared through me. I tried not to let it show, but holding it inside just made me angry.
“This is useless!” I shouted. I pulled away from Dennis and broke the connection. “We can’t keep this up forever. We’re just delaying things, that’s all.”
“What other choice do we have?” demanded Ananias.
I had no answer for that. As our ship returned to a slower pace, I think that we were all wondering the same thing: What hideous things would Dare do when he captured us?
I turned to Nyla’s brother, Jerren. Jerren was injured too—a bullet wound on his right forearm—but he was a Sumter native, which meant he knew about the vessel that was pursuing us. “Tell us about that ship,” I said.
He exchanged a glance with Alice. They’d become almost inseparable during our short time on Sumter, and I got the feeling he was anxious not to step out of line now that he was among relative strangers. Alice responded with a brief nod.
“It’s a reconnaissance ship, mostly,” he said. “Short-range missions. Good for intercepting slower vessels too.”
“Capturing,” he clarified. He was sweating, and his dark skin had an almost reflective sheen. “Without your elements, we won’t outrun it.”
“Maybe we don’t have to. As long as we keep moving, we don’t have to outrun Dare. He can’t board a moving ship. What if we conserve our elements until they get closer?”
“Then what?” asked Dennis. He kept his hand outstretched, urging me to combine again.
“Then we make sure that every time they try to pull alongside us, their ride gets a little more bumpy—extra wind, turbulent water.”
Ananias was first to nod in agreement. Then Alice. Dennis too. My father, eyes still fixed on the trailing ship, gave a murmur of consent. Under different circumstances, I’d have been amazed to see us unified. But there was one omission: Jerren. And his opinion was the most vital of all.
“What is it?” I asked him.
Jerren hesitated, as if he were weighing up how much to tell us.
“Give me the binoculars, Thomas,” my father said.
I eased the cord over my head and handed them to him. Alice was already following his eyes, honing in on whatever it was he thought he was seeing. I kept my attention on Jerren, though. “Is there something we should—”
Alice inhaled sharply. I spun around as a puff of smoke rose from the fast-advancing ship, followed by a noise like a clap of thunder. There was a moment of stunned silence, and Father yelled, “Get down!”
I shouldn’t have hesitated. Shouldn’t have watched that plume of smoke, and wondered what it meant.
As I dove for the deck, the explosion threw me several yards.
I slammed into the deck, shoulder first. Ears ringing, head pounding, I fought to catch my breath. Beneath me, the ship slowly righted, though waves continued to crash against the hull.
“What was that?” yelled Ananias.
Jerren pulled himself off the deck. “That’s Dare’s way of telling us to stop and surrender.”
“He could’ve hit us,” added Alice.
“Could’ve, but didn’t. It was a warning shot, that’s all.”
“That’s all?” repeated Ananias.
Jerren touched his wounded arm gingerly. “I used to hear them saying they had weapons that could sink another ship instantly. I don’t think it’s an accident the explosion happened thirty yards away. A full-on hit would’ve blown us apart.”
Dennis shook his head like he was woozy. Alice lumbered toward the stern rail to see what Dare was planning next. My father helped me to stand.
“Dare won’t destroy us,” said Ananias. “He wants the solution, right?”
“He can sink this ship without hitting it,” Father explained.
Jerren nodded. “A close-range explosion might crack the hull so we take on water. When everyone abandons ship, Dare will stick around to rescue the solution from the wreckage . . . but only the solution. The rest of us will drown.”
“You seem to know a lot about Dare’s plans,” shouted Ananias, grimacing from the pain in his shoulder.
“Do you think I’m wrong? I’ve seen what evil people are willing to do to get what they want. My parents were killed by the man they trusted most of all. So you’d better believe it: If Dare wants Griffin, he’ll do whatever it takes to get him.”
Ananias didn’t reply, but the way he bowed his head looked a lot like surrender. “Then let’s reef the sails,” he said. “We have to show Dare we’re—”
“Down!” Alice shouted.
The word was barely out of her mouth when another explosion turned the surface of the ocean inside out. I was tossed to the deck. Water poured over us in a deluge, while a wall-like wave tipped the boat sharply to one side. I slid across the wet deck and came to an abrupt stop against the deck railing.
“The sails,” Alice yelled. “Dare has to see we’re giving in.”
Dennis began working the mainsheet winches with Jerren. They reined in the massive ropes that raised the sails. I crawled to the next winch, where Alice was already turning the handle.
“If we let Dare board this ship, we’re as good as dead,” I muttered.
The muscles in her upper arms strained as she turned the winch. “Who said anything about letting him on board?”
“What about the sails, Alice? We’re surrendering.”
“No, we’re not.” As the sails tucked away, she locked off the winch. “We’re saying don’t blow us up. We’re saying come over here and let’s have a fair fight.”
“Fair fight? They have weapons that can sink us.”
“And we have elements.”
“Not here we don’t. We’re too far from Roanoke Island for them to work properly. Even when they do work, they’re only good for a moment, and then we lose control.”
I waited for Alice to fight back, to tell me I was wrong or unreasonable. It wasn’t in her nature to back down. But this time, she swallowed whatever she was going to say. “So what do you want us to do, Thom?”
“I don’t know. I just know I can’t let them take Griffin. Dare’s pirates died trying to capture him on Roanoke Island. The Sumter chief was so sure Griffin’s blood could cure Plague, he almost killed him. The next time Dare comes face-to-face with my brother, Griffin’s dead, I’m sure of it. And I won’t let that happen.”
“Nor will I,” she said gently.
Alice cast an eye around the ship and took in the flurry of activity. Her mother, Tarn, tall and lithe like Alice, staggered on deck. She’d been below when the explosions occurred and must have fallen. A cut above her right eye was bleeding freely. She wiped at it with the back of her hand, smearing blood across her face. It didn’t hold her back, though. She began helping my father with the sails.
Everyone was working as a team, but what good was that now?
Alice puffed out her cheeks. “What if we hide in the secret passageway below deck? The one that goes from the captain’s cabin. Dare hid out there for days after we left Roanoke. He was a stowaway, and we never even knew it.”
“Because we didn’t know the passage existed. But Dare sure knows about it. And even if we’re not found straightaway, we’ll have nothing to eat and drink. There are no supplies left on this ship, remember?”
“What do you want to do, then?” she snapped. “All I hear is, there’s no food and the ship’s too slow and—” She broke off suddenly, eyes wide open. “Wait. You’re right!”
She didn’t answer, but spun around and shouted to Jerren: “How much food is there on the Sumter ship?”
He shrugged. “They normally keep about a week’s worth. Why?”
Alice turned back to me. “We need to switch ships.”
I figured I’d misheard her. “What?”
“Think about it. If we switch ships, we can go faster than them. We’ll have supplies, and weapons. They’ll have to give up the chase. We just need the right bait to lure them on board.”
“And what would that be?”
“No way! They’ll capture him.”
“Not if he’s not here,” replied Alice cryptically. She pointed to the ship closing in on us. “That’s a smaller vessel than this one, and the deck is lower. They’ll be able to see us from a distance, but when they get close, they won’t have a clear view of our deck. So here’s what we do: As they approach, we make sure they can see us . . . all of us. Then we disembark on the blind side as they get ready to climb aboard. When they don’t find us on deck they’ll figure we’re hiding below. While they’re searching for us, we swim around the bow and claim the other ship.”
I watched the Sumter ship. Dare could attack at any moment. He wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t careless. He was a cold-blooded killer; anyone who stood in his way was brushed aside. Alice knew that as well as anyone.
“There’s no way it’ll happen like that,” I told her. “It’d take a miracle.”
“At this point, miracles might be all that’s left.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, Griffin’s not the only injured person on this ship. How are Ananias and Jerren going to swim with gunshot wounds?”
“I can make it,” said Jerren, joining us.
“Taking Alice’s side, huh?” I huffed. “No surprise there.”
Jerren flicked sweat from his forehead. “This isn’t about sides. Dare wants Griffin, and the other men want revenge. We ruined their colony. Released Plague-ridden rats. They’re not interested in taking prisoners. They want the solution, and they’ll take Griffin straight back to Sumter. The rest of us will die here.”
“Forget it,” my father said, joining us. He must have been listening. “We’ll surrender. Appeal to their conscience. It’s the only way.”
Alice snorted. “Dare kidnapped you and left you in a ship’s hold to die. The Sumter colonists locked you in a cell. How did appealing to everyone’s conscience work for you then?”
A few weeks before, Father would have had the final say. He and the other Guardians would have gathered in private, talked it out, and told us their decision. But now he and Tarn were the only Guardians above deck, and it was clear that neither of them had an alternative plan to offer.
“Inviting them to board our ship is crazy,” Tarn said.
“And trying to outrun their ship is impossible,” replied Alice. “So I say we give my plan a try. Worst-case scenario, they catch us in the act and do what they planned to do to us all along.”
In the silence that followed, I looked at the worn-out faces around me and realized that they’d already resigned themselves to exactly that fate.
Father and Ananias returned to their posts. Jerren too. “I still don’t see why those men will go below deck just because we’re not here,” I told Alice.
“Actually, you and I will be here.”
Alice looked around to make sure we weren’t being overheard. “They know us, Thom. You were Chief’s favorite back on Sumter, and the way these men see it, you betrayed his trust. The moment they see you, they’ll be focused on revenge, which means they won’t be focused on anyone else. We’re just trying to give everyone a chance to get away, right?”
She was right. The chief of the Sumter colony had singled me out and spent a lot of time with me. It was obvious now that he’d been probing for information, but to the rest of the Sumter colonists, it must have appeared as an act of kindness. And how had I rewarded that kindness? By pushing Chief to his death.
I pursed my lips. “I thought you said that Griffin’s the bait.”
“He is. You’re just the distraction.” She gave an anxious smile. “We’ll be waiting for the men as they board. They’re going to force us to tell them where everyone’s hiding. We’ll hold out just long enough that they don’t get suspicious. Then we’ll take them below deck . . . and strike.”
“Oh, come on.” She rolled her eyes. “You know what we can do when we combine elements. Your power plus my fire . . .”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
“Then we’ll have given Griffin and everyone else a chance to escape. We’ll have drawn the men away from all the other weapons on that ship too.”
With the sails reefed, we were gliding to a stop. The warm southwesterly breeze fluttered the edges of the canvas like a hummingbird’s wings thrumming to hold it precisely in one place. In contrast, the Sumter ship continued to slice through the swell. The men on board were fanned out against the prow railing, each one straining for a better view of their prize.
I admired Alice’s decisiveness, but I didn’t share her optimism. What if the Sumter men fought back? What if they weren’t interested in taking prisoners at all? They could shoot us on sight.
And what about Dare? He was a seer. What if he’d already foreseen her plan?
She waited for me to say that I was in. Finally, with no alternative to offer, I did exactly that. “All right,” I said. “I’ll go tell everyone downstairs what’s happening. They’ll need time to prepare.”
“And I’ll join you in a moment.”
I ran below deck, my wounded chest throbbing with every stride. I stopped in front of the door to Griffin and Nyla’s cabin, and gathered myself. If Alice’s bravado was just an act, it was one I needed to copy.
My brother and Nyla lay side by side in the cramped cabin, nothing but a few dirty blankets between them and the dusty floor. Nyla gave a weak smile as she saw me. Griffin couldn’t even manage that.
Neither of them showed signs of Plague yet, but it was hardly a consolation. On Sumter, Griffin had been imprisoned inside a glass cube with a pack of rats—a brutally efficient way to determine if he was the mythical solution. With his hands and feet bound, he hadn’t been able to move away or fend them off, and I’d been too slow to stop the attack. Now his entire body bore the evidence of that encounter. Being deaf, he wouldn’t have heard the sound of his own cries, but they must have reverberated through his skull just as powerfully as they’d seared through me.
We. Leave. Ship, I signed to him.
To my surprise, it was Nyla who signed back: What. Is. Explosion?
For someone who’d only begun learning Griffin’s sign language a few days ago, Nyla had uncanny understanding. She was already more fluent than some of the Guardians who’d known Griffin his entire life. It was a clear sign that she cared about communicating with him more than they ever had.
Sumter. Ship. Following. Us, I signed. There wasn’t time to explain any better than that.
Where. Go. Now?
Nyla looked at me like I was crazy, which was probably justified under the circumstances. She obviously had other questions, but struggled to find the signs. As long as she was with Griffin, she preferred to sign, rather than exclude him.
Griffin rolled onto his side and met my eyes at last. He looked tired and worn, much like the tunic he wore: stretched and beaten and bloodied until it was barely recognizable as the thing it used to be. I felt tears forming, but held them back. My brother needed strength, not weakness—we all owed him that.
Where. Journals? he signed, his gestures fluid but painfully slow, as if he were signing through water.
I wasn’t sure I understood. Journals?
Journals, he repeated stubbornly. Logbooks.
Who cares? I wanted to sign. I couldn’t believe that with everything else going on, Griffin was still thinking about the logbooks we’d found in Dare’s cabin on our journey to Sumter, and the journals we’d found buried in the sand near our Hatteras Island colony. We were fighting for our future; the past had never seemed less important to me.
Where? he repeated stubbornly.
How could I tell him that the journals and logbooks were back at Fort Sumter? In our haste to escape, no one would have thought to retrieve them. Who would have been able to, in any case?
Then I remembered something. The previous evening, Alice and I had discovered our colony’s third and final journal—the one that promised to unlock our final secrets.
We. Find. Missing. Journal, I explained.
Griffin’s face brightened. He didn’t seem as tired anymore. Where. Journal. Now?
Cabin, I answered, pointing along the corridor.
Griffin shuffled as if he was about to stand, but I raised a hand to stop him. Prepare, I said. We. Leave. Soon.
I ran along the corridor to the cabin where I’d spent the night. My closest friend, Rose, was still in there, stretched across the floor. Her cropped blond hair was matted, clothes soiled with blood from cuts on her neck and a gaping wound on her side. She’d suffered a brutal knife attack on Sumter. Seeing her now, stoic and immobile, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that she could have died.
“Dare’s catching up to us,” I said. “We have to leave the ship.”
Rose inhaled, and released the breath in a long sigh. “I can’t.”
“Didn’t you feel the explosions?”
“I just . . . can’t.”
She’d suffered so much over the past day, but there was no way I was leaving Rose on the ship.
I knelt down and slid my arms under her. It was a risky thing to do. Unless I was combining, my element seemed to work itself into people, hurting them. It was the side effect of my element—the echo, we called it—and it was what had kept everyone at arm’s length my whole life. Even now, as I lifted her up, I could feel my element pulsing lightly. The only reason Rose didn’t pull away was probably because the discomfort was negligible compared to the rest of her pain.
She ran her fingertips gently across my chest. “You look rough,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. “We’ve both looked better.”
Smiling bravely, she coiled her arm around my neck, and rested her head against my shoulder.
I kicked the door open and stepped into the corridor. Only then did I remember the journal I’d promised to retrieve for Griffin. I turned awkwardly and peered inside. The floor was bare, except for a blanket.
There was no time to waste, but I had to find that journal. So I slipped back in and flicked the blanket away. There was nothing underneath.
“What are you doing?” Rose whispered.
“Where’s the journal? I have to find it.”
“Last time I saw it, it was right next to me.”
I wanted to leave. There wasn’t time for this. But how difficult could it be to find a journal in a cabin as small as this?
I looked again, but someone had taken it. And from experience, I knew better than to think it was an accident.
Footsteps pounded on the stairs. Alice appeared in the doorway, but seeing Rose in my arms, she hesitated. Her expression turned unusually sympathetic. “We really need to hurry,” she said.
Rose was groaning now. Not from the pain of her injuries, I suspected, but from my element, which grew stronger as my pulse accelerated. On Sumter we’d practiced combining, so that my element channeled through her instead of into her. But there was no way that she could engage her element now, not when she was so weak. When she stopped grimacing, it was only because she saw my expression and didn’t want me to feel bad.
“Here,” said Alice. She stood with her back to me and tapped her shoulders. “I’ll carry Rose. You make sure the others get on deck.”
I wasn’t sure that Alice would be able to support Rose’s weight, but I helped Rose onto Alice’s back anyway. Alice took off up the stairs as easily as if she were carrying a sandbag across the beach.
I returned to Nyla and Griffin’s cabin as they emerged. They staggered along the corridor and paused before the stairs. I offered to help them, but Griffin waved me off.
Up on deck, I counted heads. We were all present, looking bedraggled and forlorn. Even Rose and Dennis’s mother, Marin, was there, short and stocky, her features wrenched into an all-too-familiar scowl. I hadn’t seen her caring for her daughter below deck or helping the other Guardians above; but then, it was no secret that we’d brought her on board against her will. She’d clung to the dream of a new home on Sumter, and hadn’t appreciated being rescued. Even now I wasn’t sure that she realized how vulnerable she’d been. If we’d left her there, she wouldn’t have lasted the night.
Ananias tilted his head toward the approaching ship, which was about a quarter mile behind us. “They’re watching us, so keep low. They mustn’t see what we’re doing.”
Across the deck, my father lowered a rope ladder over the port side, readying for the escape.
I scooted over to Alice. She fixed her eyes on the ship, searching for any clue that might give us an advantage. “Same five men,” she murmured.
“There might be more below deck,” I reminded her. “Maybe some injured crewmen too.”
“I don’t think so. Anyone who was injured wouldn’t have been able to make it on board—not with everything that was going down at Sumter. No, they’re operating with a small crew. And it’s our job to get those men onto this ship and trapped below deck. If we do that, there’s nothing to stop us from getting away.”
“And if we can’t?”
She peered at me from the corner of her eye. “Just think of Griffin, and Rose. You know what’s at stake.”
My father was already helping Tarn and Marin onto the rope ladder, so I crawled across the deck and joined them. When she saw me, Tarn furrowed her brows. “I don’t like this,” she said.
“We don’t have much choice,” I replied. “Dare will be here any moment.”
She exchanged a glance with my father. “How did you all escape from Sumter, Thomas?” she asked. “From what I’ve heard, you were trapped in a room. Chief and his men were armed. Dare was there too. So what happened?”
I couldn’t be sure, but her tone sounded suspicious. It annoyed me, that. With Dare closing fast, and others waiting to descend the ladder, I didn’t have time to answer, or even to consider why she’d ask me that question now. I turned my back on her and beckoned Nyla and Griffin over.
One by one, the elementals slid first one foot and then the other onto the ladder. The rope was strong, but the ladder shifted from side to side as the ship rocked in the swell. The healthiest of our crew—Tarn, Marin, Dennis—treaded water, waiting to assist the injured.
When it was my father’s turn to go down, he paused. “I’m staying with you,” he said.
Alice, who was on the other side of the deck, spun around. “No. Only Thomas and me. Dare has a history with you, Ordyn,” she reminded my father. “We need him to believe he’ll get no resistance from us.”
Still my father hesitated. Then, as the Sumter ship sailed toward our starboard side, he followed the others into the water.
I raised the rope ladder and untied it, hiding all evidence of what we’d done.
“May as well throw it in the water,” said Alice, joining me. “We won’t be needing it anymore.”
“How are we going to get onto the other ship?”
“The deck’s lower than this one. We’ll jump.”
I tossed the ladder over the side. It floated for a moment, and then sank. When I turned around, Alice was crouched beside the hatch door that led below deck. “Once the men are trapped down there, you get out, hear me? Even if I don’t make it, you bolt that door and board the other ship.”
“I won’t leave without you, Alice.”
“Yes, you will. And if I have to, I’ll leave without you too. Because this is bigger than either one of us, you hear? This is everything.”
The Sumter ship pulled alongside us. The sails had been reefed, allowing the vessel to glide to a halt. As Alice had said, it was lower in the water, so I couldn’t see anything except the masts, but I could just make out the men’s faces peeking at us over our ship’s railing. Each of them held a gun.
An object flew onto our deck and landed with a clatter. Before I could get a good look at it, it was dragged backward, scraping angry lines in the wooden planks. With a clang, it anchored against the railing—a hook, tethering the ships together.
Instinctively I edged closer to Alice. “You ready?” she asked.
I didn’t even know for sure what was about to happen. “Yes,” I lied.
A hand appeared on the railing. Then an arm. For a moment, I considered attacking him before he had a chance to get on board, but Alice gripped my sleeve and held me back, forcing me to stick to the plan.
We edged toward the Sumter ship, close enough to see a sliver of the deck. Close enough that when, with a twitch of her head, Alice directed my attention to the water, I made out the heads of the elementals as they slid to the far side of the ship. None of the men was paying any attention to the ocean, though.
My father was watching me. Ananias was as well. They were waiting for a nod, the signal that they were clear to board the Sumter ship. Neither Alice nor I could give it yet, though.
The first Sumter colonist slid over the rail and landed on the deck. Someone tossed a rifle up to him. He pointed it at us, hands shaking, and yelled, “Ship’s secure.”
Alice had the appearance of a cat poised to pounce.
Another man labored to climb aboard. He was older, bald. As he took up position beside the first man, he rubbed his leg and frowned.
A third man joined them. Even older. Even slower. When he caught his rifle, he took several moments to aim it.
I wanted to ask Alice if she’d noticed the men’s condition when she’d spied the ship. Was this why she wanted them to board—because they were possibly even weaker than us?
As the fourth man joined the others I afforded myself another glance at the deck of the Sumter ship. I feared Dare more than all the rest of the men combined, but he wasn’t climbing the rope. I couldn’t see him at all.
“Where’s Dare?” Alice demanded.
“Preparing,” replied the first of the men.
“You know why we’re here. Now where’s the solution?”
Alice took a small step forward. Immediately, the men jammed the rifles against their shoulders, arms rigid, eyes wide. From their body language it was obvious that they were wary of us. Maybe even afraid. Alice shuffled back again at the sight of four restless trigger fingers. Whether or not they intended to harm us, it seemed all too possible that one of them might accidentally fire his weapon.
“The others are below deck,” said Alice.
“Then bring them up.”
“So you can take the solution and kill the rest of us, you mean?”
The man glanced over his shoulder. “We have other weapons than rifles. Less lethal, but possibly even more painful. Would you prefer it if we used those?”
“Actually, I’d prefer it if Dare came on board to bully us himself. He’s one of us, you know.”
The man laughed. “An elemental, yes. And we can see how much he likes you. Enough to lure you to Sumter. Enough to watch you die—”
He broke off at the sound of footsteps from the Sumter ship. Dare emerged from the stairwell, and regarded the men coolly. “What’s going on?” he demanded, voice smooth yet menacing.
“The solution’s hiding out below,” answered the man, sounding less confident than before.
“So what’s stopping you? You have guns. They are children. Get him now.”
“What about our ship?”
“I’ll guard this ship. Just make sure you take those two below deck to guide you. And if they resist or refuse,” Dare added, like it was an afterthought, “just burn the ship. Fire has a tendency to make even the smallest creatures scatter.”
You heard Dare,” the man told us. “Lead on.”
When Alice held her ground, he stepped forward and jabbed his rifle into her stomach. She stumbled and fell. Instinctively I reached for the barrel, but before I could pour my element along the metal shaft, shocking the man, Alice grabbed my ankle. “Don’t do it, Thom,” she muttered. “Think of the others.”
The men stared at the deck planks, as if they were visualizing people hiding out below. But I was looking at the ocean instead, and the figures floating beside the hull of the Sumter ship. Rose lay on her back in the water, eyes closed; it was probably only her element—water—that prevented her from drowning. Ananias and my father continued to watch me, waiting for the sign to board. But with Dare still on the Sumter ship, that would be suicide.
“Let’s go,” the first man said. “Now!”
Head down, shoulders slumped, Alice led us to the hatch.
If the men were suspicious, they didn’t show it. But they weren’t taking any chances, either. Two of them pointed their rifles at her, while the others nudged me along behind her.
I stole a final look at the Sumter ship, and our families bobbing up and down in the water. There was nothing I could do to help them, or to warn them that Dare was still on board. It seemed obvious now that someone would stay to secure the Sumter ship. But why did it have to be Dare?
A rifle barrel snapped against the backs of my legs, urging me onward. Alice and I pulled open the large hatch door and let it swing onto the deck with a crash. I figured that Father would know that sound and realize we were heading below deck. Since I hadn’t signaled to him, he’d also know there was a problem.
I was first through the hatch. I walked down the stairs slowly, keeping the others close behind. Although I couldn’t see them, I was sure that if we were bunched up, it would be harder for the men to move their weapons about.
The worn wooden stairs creaked under the weight of six people. The men were breathing heavily—was it from exhaustion, or fear? True, they had guns, but they must have realized that they were heading into the bowels of the ship, where they’d be outnumbered by elementals.
Sure enough, the footsteps stopped. “I’ll wait here,” said the last man in the procession. “We need to cover ourselves.” There was a murmur of agreement. “I don’t think the girl should go on, either. Doesn’t take both of them to show us where everyone’s hiding.”
I craned my neck to check out the men’s positions on the stairs: two immediately behind me, rifles raised; another two behind Alice, also poised to fire if provoked. Each man grasped his weapon with both hands, which meant that they didn’t have hold of the rail that ran along the wall.
Alice gave a slight nod and flexed her fingers in readiness. “Go ahead, Thom,” she said calmly. “I’ll be right here.”
I spun around and grabbed the two rifle barrels immediately behind me. My pulse was racing and my element surged through them, shocking the men. Alice whipped her hands back and jerked the other men’s rifles forward. Off-balance and without a free hand, all three of them tumbled down the stairs and careened into my two guards. I jumped out of the way as the five bodies crashed to the base of the stairs.
Alice seemed to take the brunt of the fall, but she was also the first to emerge from the pile. One guard separated himself from the others and tried to extricate his rifle, but he was still fumbling with it as I kicked it into his chest. Another man ripped it from him and swung it toward me.
I grabbed Alice’s outstretched hand. Even before we combined—before the fire leaped out—I imagined it. Felt it, even—the shape of the flame and the intensity of the heat. And as the fire burst through the air, it was exactly as I knew it would be.
The men shrank back. Not one of them held on to his weapon.
It was tiring to combine, though, and Alice seemed surprised by it, maybe even unsettled. Barely a moment passed before the flame weakened. Sensing it, the men shielded their faces with raised arms and edged toward us. Alice and I backtracked halfway up the staircase, anxious to escape while we still had control.