Demons' Tithe

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Around the 'Waverunner', the Jade Sea churned as the bronze coils rose from the waves, build up as high as her masts' tops, and then slithered back under, only for the next scaly loop to emerge dripping with sea-water and rise up, up, up... There was no telling which body belonged to which sea-serpent's head, but Tien Lyn had no trouble counting the gaping maws. Sixteen of them, four times four, a supremely unlucky number among the humans, but, perhaps, the serpents' demon-riders thought otherwise.

They clicked their tongues and whistled at their mounts until each serpents' head lolled scowling with the thousand needle-sharp teeth at Captain Zyed's crew. The sailors stood together, necks craned, wicker bucklers raised. The morning light glinted off the flared, axe-like like ends of their curved swords.

The two parties eyed each other with suspicion.

At any other time, Tien Lyn would have delighted in the beauty of the sea creatures so rare. Their scales shone like polished metal, and so did the four horns that protruded one after another along the muzzles, before the head widened to a fan-like crest, one dark round eye in the middle of it, and two more - to the sides of the head.

The rows of long bronze-and-black quills started just above the eye, short and bristly around the head, and longer, more dangerous as they run down the sinuous neck to finally fully encircle it in a collar above the rows upon rows of armoured gills.

Tien Lyn expected the serpents to hiss, but they made no sound at all, save for the rustling of the quills that rose and fall with each breath.

The demon riders harnessed themselves just above the quill collars, and had their legs wrapped in layers of serpent skin to protect them against sharp tips. Their breastplates were made of the same material, if far rougher in texture, and edged with armoured belts skirted with strips of skin to mid-thigh.

Some of the demons also wore chainmail gorgets decorated with human finger-bones, just like Thirty Claws and his men wore demon claws and skin.

The demons' crossbows were loaded with a few quills each, but they did not carry swords, just short, straight daggers only suitable for finishing blows. Unbound, their hair hung down thick with moisture and salt, fiery orange to dark copper, to show that the warriors did not worry about closing upon the enemy in combat.

From the stern, Finch called out in a reverberating voice that made Tien Lyn's knees buckle: "Let my ship through."

His lightning bolt passed between the two demons by the prow and disappeared into the blue. Some of the Captain Zyed's men nearly lost their footing, and the demons had to do a lot of whistling to keep their sea-serpent mounts steady.

The demon leader guffawed. "Our lucky day, Blood! A mage is a fine catch."

"The finer catch is behind us. The pirates from the Islands of the Laughing Men are after us," Yu said stepping forward. His voice was on the quieter side, and he shot no lightning bolts from his fingertips. But the demon leader made his sea-serpent coil over the Waverunner's side to bring him nose to nose with him.

"Ah, so the red-headed step-child speaks! I can oblige you, O Youngest. Name your Progenitor, and if they are known to me, I will let you pass."

The words were polite, but Tien Lyn did not like the malice she saw in the demon's eyes.

Yu bowed respectfully. "My Progenitor's name is unknown to me, Lord."

"Address me as Blood-leader, O Youngest. Look, Blood, look! Our lost seed grew ignorant with the barbaric humans like a weed! We must find his Progenitor as soon as possible so they acknowledge and teach him."

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