Sinful Pursuits

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Finally, they were riding. It looked more than a raiding party, not quite an army in numbers. Yu barely paid attention to his comrades in arms or his own outlandish serpent-skin armour. He scanned the horizon with a mixture of thrill and anxiety until he finally saw the Waverunner's silhouette. Yu whistled to his mount, and the serpent surged forward until he dangled right above the ship's deck staring down at the crew.

"Finch! I was starting to think you'd forgotten about us!"

"I go by Rustam now," the mage replied with a shadow of a smile, but shook his head to stay polite inquiries. "I made sure that the enemy fleet is on its way to launch a 'surprise' counter-attack. We must hurry to catch them."


The Imperial fleet took a position at the Laughing Men archipelago, but the demon party blazed past them in full daylight, whooping, cursing and bearing in on Port Sutao. The flotilla took off in pursuit of the brazen raiders, with both castle ships leading the formation. Jung Hwa left the smaller vessels in the channels between the islands to guard the homeland.

Yu looked back and for a moment all he could see instead of the sea and sky was the metal-plated hull of the castle ship towering far above them.

Ancestors, but we might as well be shrimp next to it!

The air behind the flotilla shimmered, like heated air over the desert sands. Yu reigned in the serpent. Around him the demons did the same, forming a swarm. The hull got even larger as the castle ships bore on them.

The first flight of bolts fell on their group. Yu healed instinctively from a few lucky hits. They were just within shooting distance. But their cross-bows would be useless against the floating tower of metal and wood. Even their serpents were too small to cause much damage to the castle ships.

The shimmer behind Jung Hwa's ships grew more noticeable.

The light of the rising sun reflected off the metal hulls to make the castle ships shine like its two smaller copies of it. Yu squinted against the glare right in his eyes.

The metal reddened and started flowing down the ships' sides to hit the sea in long hissing tongues. For a few heartbeats it was not liquified metal any longer, but something entirely different, hotter, more vicious, all-consuming. Wherever it touched seawater, steam jetted up in the air, whistling.

Finch's voice echoed in Yu's head. "There are four elements besides qi, Yu. Solid, liquid, gas and heat." He had never seen the heat in its purest form before, and he was no exception, apparently. Rustam the Unsworn has just outdone himself.

But the exertion of the spell must have exhausted the mage's faculties, because the heat shimmer dispersed rapidly, revealing the Waverunner and the rearguard of the demon troops.

Alarm gongs, already beating on Jung Hwa's ships, rose to the frenzied tempo once the lookouts realized they were surrounded. The smaller vessels churned up the steaming water, trying to turn around, looking like dumplings in boiling broth.

The metal thickened into slower rivulets and drops, like the candle wax. The wood in their wake smouldered.

"Up, up, up!" Yu screamed, forgetting to whistle, but his serpent followed the command from the more experienced riders. It shot out of the water to its nearly full length.

He knew he had only a split moment before the serpent collapsed back into the sea, and leaped onto the castle-ship. He caught the burning boards, sunk his bleeding fingers deeper into whatever grooves he could find, and started climbing through flames and acrid smoke.

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