“Don’t go far!” Jonah’s mom called. She raised her eyebrows in warning—a gesture usually reserved for his sister, Wren, who was always running off—but now Wren was sick with the pox at home. Mom didn’t need to worry about Jonah, but he nodded and waved anyhow.
He made his way across the ship’s deck, gripping the thick ropes to keep his footing. The vessel was the Zebulon, its name etched in ornate gold letters on the hull.
The ship rocked back and forth, up and down with the waves, making his stomach feel topsy-turvy. At least he’d been able to keep everything down—some passengers had been at the railing the whole trip, clutching handkerchiefs to their mouths. Even the Paragon soldiers, standing by with their straight-pull rifles, looked a little green.
The ship’s crew was a different story. The Zebulon was their playground—they had what mom called “sea legs.” Jonah wondered, if they were fine on water, would they be queasy in an airship?
The bow was crowded, full of passengers eager for a first glimpse of the Settlement. There were a few humans, like him, although they wore large-cuffed coats and silk gowns with bonnets: what Dad would call “foppish” attire. A couple of thickset thropes admired the view, their fur matted by salty spray. Beside them was a group of long-nosed grims, chatting amongst themselves.
There weren’t any chargers, who preferred land under their hooves, or nightskins, who were averse to sunlight. Nor were there any sprites or spinners—and certainly no giants. The Paragon didn’t like those species; Jonah didn’t really know why.
He shielded his eyes and peered at the crow’s nest high above. The barrelman clung to the rigging, sulking. The mage, Abraham, had taken his place, his black cloak flapping in the wind and his gaze hard. He was the only mage on the journey, and the only one Jonah had seen in real life. Wren would be green with envy!
Mages were magic-workers, but magic was taboo. Jonah had the feeling that the others on board preferred it when Abraham stuck to the shadows, but of course they would never come out and say it. Everyone knew that mages were the most powerful beings in Meraki, no matter what the Paragon said. Jonah had gleaned Abraham’s name from whispers. Children had a way of slipping by unnoticed, picking up bits and pieces of conversation as they went.
How had the mage first discovered magic, he wondered? Had there been a single moment, or was it a long, drawn-out realization? He wondered a lot about magic, but he couldn’t ask—such questions were forbidden.
In Chronicle Studies, Jonah’s classmate Ezra had once asked their professor point-blank about magic. The whole class had gone silent, staring at Mr. Wilkins for an answer. Without turning around from the board, the well-dressed grim recited, “It exists. It is dangerous and unruly, not to be tampered with. Any magical activity must be immediately reported to the Department of Lawful Enforcement.”
“Yes, sir…but what about magic really?” Ezra had pushed. The students held their breath, waiting.
Mr. Wilkins scowled. “That’s a restricted topic.”
Shoulders slumped, ears sagged, humming wings fell silent and still against small backs. The disappointment in the high-ceilinged room was palpable.
Mr. Wilkins glanced at the closed door. Then, in a low voice, he said, “Magic means a great many things: telekinesis, transmutation, telepathy. Locating another being elsewhere in the world, asserting control over the elements, even the ability to become invisible…”
The children were on the edge of their seats, eyes wide.
“Enticing, yes?” he continued, raising bushy eyebrows at the students. “That’s why it’s so heavily restricted. The idea of magic may seem alluring when you think about having such powers, but in reality magic is rare, and it is far more likely to be used against you than by you. Not to mention that using magic drains your life source like—” Mr. Wilkins snapped his thick fingers together with a resounding crack, making the children jump. “The more you use, the fewer years you have to live. One great expenditure can cost you several months, sometimes even years. It forces desperate people to make desperate choices. The restrictions are for our own good.” He turned back to the board, clearly ready to move on.
The class did not share the same desire. A charger in the front, Victoria, spoke up: “What about mages and shades, sir? They live for ages.”
“Indeed.” Mr. Wilkins didn’t turn around.
Once again, disappointment. The conversation was over.
“I heard mages get their powers by drinking from a special well in the desert,” Victoria insisted.
Mr. Wilkins grumbled under his breath. The one thing he couldn’t abide was misinformation.
“Me too,” Jonah piped up. “I heard they smell like ash!”
Victoria grinned at him, and Jonah smiled back, his cheeks going pink.
“I heard they eat sprites for breakfast!” Ezra burst out.
The three sprites in the class cried out in protest, their wings humming in indignation. The room became a symphony of preposterous myths, growing more ridiculous with every passing second.
“Enough!” Mr. Wilkins shouted finally, slamming his fist on the desk. The class fell silent.
“Mages do not live forever,” he huffed. “They do not smell like ash, nor do they eat sprites.” He glared at Ezra, who had the sense to look properly chastised. “Mages are simply beings born with magical ability, who then bond with shades. Shades, to paint with a broad brush, are wells of magical power. Mages, as a result, can cast magic without aging. Now”—he turned back to the board, chalk raised high—“that is quite enough chitchat. Let’s get back to the Paragon’s legislative process…”
Mr. Wilkins did not come to class the next day, or the day after that. In fact, they hadn’t seen him since. Every question regarding Mr. Wilkins was rewarded with detention, until at last the class learned to keep their mouths shut, heads down, and pencils moving.
Jonah missed him.
Now, on the Zebulon, he stared upward. Abraham’s shade hovered in midair, just beyond the crow’s nest—a colourless, shapeless, swirling mass. It didn’t make noise or even really move, save to keep pace with the ship. It was the most bizarre thing Jonah had ever seen. Apparently the mage and the shade could communicate, though, because every now and then Abraham would nod and the shade would twitch slightly.
Jonah pushed on, making his way to the bow. Wren would want to know every detail when they got back, and he was determined not to let her down. It was the least he could do when she’d wanted so badly to come. She’d even snuck into an ice bath the night before to try to force the pox fever down. But the plan had backfired: her fever had spiked worse than ever afterwards.
Jonah gritted his teeth as the wind pummeled his face. The air was cold, and the water below was deep. The world had always seemed crowded and busy, but now he knew it could be wide open, an endless expanse of water and sky. The wind carried away the voices behind him so that the only thing he heard was the ship slapping against the waves.
It was nice. Calming. He rested his forehead against the railing. A feeling of serenity tied him to the spot. He closed his eyes, letting the sun warm his eyelids, and took it all in…
“Watch out!” someone shouted.
Jonah didn’t even have time to look up before a wave slammed over the bow, racing across the deck.
His feet were swept out from under him, the water drenching him from head to foot in one swift motion, but he clung to the railing as the ship rocked up, up, up… There was shouting, but it sounded far away. His grip was slipping.
And then the ship crashed down, taking Jonah with it. His feet met the deck, but only for an instant—the railing was wrenched from his grip, and suddenly he wasn’t holding anything: he was flying through the air, tumbling into the abyss below. He squeezed his eyes tight, threw up his arms, braced for the impact—
But it never came.
He cracked an eye open. He was in the air, suspended…weightless.
His parents’ shrieks snapped him back to reality. A crowd stood on the ship’s deck, panicked.
Jonah drifted over the railing and back onto the deck, feather-light. A flurry of hands accosted him, feeling for broken bones, sprains, anything out of sorts.
“Are you all right?” Dad asked, kneeling before him.
“Are you hurt?” Mom demanded.
Jonah remained silent, still in shock.
“Oh, bloody— Mae, he isn’t responding! He isn’t responding, for goodness’ sake!”
“Jonah! Answer us!” Mom grabbed his shoulders and shook him—a mistake. Jonah turned green. It was too much—
He threw up, and the crowd pressing in on him drew back immediately, giving him space to breathe.
“He’ll be all right,” said a soft voice. Abraham stood over him. “Just a bit of motion sickness. Some soup and a good night’s rest will do the trick.”
Jonah didn’t know what he’d expected the mage to sound like, but he was surprised by his gentle voice.
“Did you…?” Jonah gestured vaguely out to sea.
The mage nodded. “Choppy seas, this close to shore. Can’t be too careful.”
Dad climbed to his feet, sticking out a hand. “Thank the gods you were here.”
Abraham ignored his outstretched hand, choosing to bow instead. “My pleasure. We’ll be arriving soon,” he added, turning on his heel to return to the crow’s nest. The barrelman, who had just managed to lumber back into the basket, cursed and climbed back out.
As the adults retreated, a group of children swarmed Jonah, bombarding him with questions.
“What was it like to fly?”
“Could you feel the magic?”
“That was bloody brilliant!”
“Fergal, don’t swear!”
“I’ll do what I want, and don’t you go ratting me out!” The boy pinched his sister’s arm, then turned to Jonah. “Go on, then.”
Jonah recounted the experience. They listened eagerly to every detail, pressing him for more.
A few minutes later, excited shouts rang out as land appeared on the horizon. The children pushed their way to the front of the crowd as the passengers eagerly looked towards their new home.
The speck of land became a port with a harbour for ships. Small, indistinguishable mounds became enforcement buildings, postage hubs, printing presses, tailors, the Paragon armoury. Bustling dots became soldiers and sailors, hurriedly going about their business.
The crew of the Zebulon docked the enormous ship, and the passengers’ faces brightened as they stepped onto solid ground. All around were the raucous sounds of progress: shouted orders, pounding hammers, a loudspeaker announcing, “First civ ships arrive safely at the Settlement! President Langdon has a few words for this momentous occasion…”
A deep, confident voice took over: “We congratulate our fellow Merakians as they arrive at the Settlement! We wish them all the best in their new lives. This, my dear citizens, is the ultimate show of progress. You asked, and we provided…”
“I wish Wren were here,” Jonah whispered to his mom.
She squeezed his shoulders. “Me too, Jo. You can tell her all about it when we get home.”
“Our other home.” Dad grinned.
Mom rolled her eyes.
Jonah shuffled his feet in the yellow sand. It kicked up a fine dust, which clung to his socks. They were in desert territory, flat and expansive. Meraki had deserts too, but he’d never seen one.
“Transportation here, get your transportation here!” bellowed a man off the main strip, waving his hat. “Kindly provided by the Paragon for your convenience!”
Beside him was a line of low-riding cruisers, waiting to carry passengers and their belongings to their new homes. Jonah and his parents climbed into one, and it sped off, hovering just above the surface.
To their left the landscape was dry and sandy, dotted with newly constructed buildings. To their right was the ocean, a flurry of activity around the docking ships. But the hustle and bustle quieted as the cruiser carried them into the outskirts. Jonah clutched at his seat, staring wide-eyed at the enormous houses flanking the streets. They were bigger than anything he’d seen before—they must have at least six rooms each!
His dad smiled. “They’re called bungalows.”
“Wow,” Jonah breathed. “Bungalows…”
They pulled onto a street and rolled to a stop outside a grey house. “Welcome home,” the driver said.
They climbed out of the cruiser, grabbed their bags, and walked up to the house. A wind chime from Mom’s collection had already been hung on the porch, and it clinked softly in the wind.
Jonah glanced back at his parents.
“Go ahead!” Mom smiled.
Jonah burst through the doors, dashing from room to room. The house was ten times bigger than their apartment in Kinvarra! He could sprint from one side of the house to the other without bumping into anything at all! There was new furniture everywhere! Beyond the kitchen was a spot of green. Pressing his face up against the glass door and breathing hard, Jonah saw a yard!
“Don’t you want to look at your new room?” Mom asked.
Jonah whipped around to see his parents smiling at him. His dad nodded down the hall. He ran, wondering how he would be able to tell which room was his. Then he saw a shock of blue: his favourite colour.
Books were organized along one long shelf that wound around the room, and little model airships dangled from the ceiling. His toy chest sat in a corner by a chair. The floor was covered in a thick, fluffy rug dotted with stars.
On one side of the room was a massive bed. Jonah collapsed onto it, making the sheets puff out with a soft fufffft sound. “Marvelous,” he murmured into the blankets, a contented smile on his face. He’d never felt so comfortable, so at home.
He didn’t remember his parents removing his shoes or tucking him in or kissing him goodnight. All he remembered was what came after.
“Jonah, get up!”
Mom’s hands were rough and impatient as they tore him from the comfort of his bed.
“What?” he moaned, sleep tugging him back. He clung to his pillow.
“Come on! Hurry up!”
Jonah cracked open his eyes, peering suspiciously at her. She was shoving clothes into a bag, not bothering to fold or organize them. Her hair was loose and frazzled, and she still wore her night clothes.
Jonah glanced out the window: it was dark outside. “What’s going on?” he asked, suddenly uneasy.
“I’ll tell you on the way.” She flung the bag over her shoulder, grabbed his hand, and wrenched him out of bed.
“Why don’t you tell me now?”
His feet pounded the cold floor. He rubbed at the sleep in his eyes with the back of his hand.
She knelt down and forced his feet into shoes, the way she had when he was five years old. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Dad rushed in with a pack slung over his shoulder, his expression serious. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” Jonah whimpered. “What’s going on?”
Then they stepped outside, into the darkness, and his eyes went wide.
Crowds of people were making their way down the street. No one held lanterns; they had chosen instead to remain shrouded in darkness. There was no sound of a radio, not even the blinking light of an alarm beacon in the distance.
Mom seized Jonah’s hand, and they moved to join the crowd.
“You’re hurting me,” he whimpered. His fingers were losing sensation in her vice-like grip. She loosened her hold on him, ever so slightly.
“We’re going to the harbour,” she whispered. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
That meant it wasn’t.
Jonah’s throat was parched, so he just nodded. He swallowed hard, trying to force down his fear.
And then he felt it: a deep rumbling beneath his feet. Jonah paused, jerking Mom back. The sand beneath their feet was shifting.
Mom pulled on him. “We have to keep moving.”
He didn’t budge. “Can you feel that?”
Mom’s face darkened. He could feel her hand shaking, even as it clasped his own. It terrified him.
“I’m scared,” he said, his voice tight.
“Don’t be scared, Jo.” But there was an edge to her voice, and she looked behind them, squinting into the darkness. “Carlyle…” She left Dad’s name hanging in the air.
The next thing Jonah knew, he was swooped up into Dad’s arms. He buried his face in Dad’s shoulder, clinging tightly to him.
“To the ships?” he heard Dad ask Mom.
They began pushing through the crowd.
He could hear the rumbling now, like thunder in the distance. Peeking over Dad’s shoulder, Jonah saw an elderly thrope, hobbling along with a cane. He struggled to keep up, moving as quickly as he could—and then he was wrenched back into the darkness.
Jonah yelped, his back going rigid. Another person was yanked back, and another. Screams rang out, and then all was chaos.
Dad’s hold on him tightened as he started to run. “Don’t look, son!” he ordered, but Jonah didn’t look away—he couldn’t.
The crowd pushed past one another in a mad rush for the harbour. Around them, charmers’ scales lit up as though someone had flipped a light switch. Flashes of red burst out everywhere—the colour of fear.
Jonah stared behind them. Now he could see why they were running. The creature was immense, twice the height of a man. It crouched on four legs, watching the crowd scatter. Its skin was weathered and pale, almost grey, pulled tight over its skeletal frame.
Blood-red eyes with slits for pupils scanned the crowd, narrowing in anticipation.
The creature snatched a man from the crowd, lifting him clear off the ground and shaking him with powerful jaws. Jonah could see its sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight as it tore into him. A guttural sound came from the creature’s throat—a strange, deep clicking that turned Jonah’s stomach. Then the creature flung the bloodied body aside. It scanned the horizon, seeking its next victim.
A grim with a shotgun stood defiantly before the creature as the crowd raced to escape. She took aim and—bang!—fired another round into its chest.
The bullet hit its target, but instead of piercing the beast’s leathery flesh, it fell to the ground, useless. The grim stared at the creature, at a loss. The creature opened its mouth wide, revealing a blackened tongue, and tore her in half.
A flicker of motion caught Jonah’s eye. Another creature, just like the first, had appeared out of the darkness. With one swift movement, it sent three thropes flying.
Click click click.
The low, reverberating sound sent shivers down Jonah’s spine. How many monsters were there? He forced his eyes shut, burying his face in Dad’s shoulder as they ran. They were going to die, all of them. They were going to die horribly!
The world was reduced to sounds: feet pounding against the ground, frightened shrieks, terrified screams… And through it all: click click click.
The last ship pulled up its ramp and pushed from the dock, heading for the safety of the seas.
“Wait!” shouted a voice from up ahead. “Wait! Don’t leave us here!”
Other voices joined the chorus, and Dad’s pace slowed as they approached the docks. People were jostled over the dock into the cold water as the crowd pressed ever tighter.
Then another shot rang out in the darkness, as violent desperation won out over begging. People dropped to the ground, shielding themselves and their families from the gunfire.
Dad turned to Mom. “What should we do?”
“We won’t make it to the ships,” she said. “We’ll have to wait it out in the desert. There are rock formations for cover…”
They began pushing back through the crowd, struggling toward the sand. Others had had the same idea, though, and soon the people bolting for the open desert far outnumbered those at the docks.
Distant screams came from out at sea. A massive storm was brewing in the distance, and the ships that had managed to push off the docks were hitting immense waves. They couldn’t get through—the storm was a dark barrier, trapping them…
One of the ships capsized. People were thrown into the churning waters. A monster crashed into the sea, aiming straight for them.
The storm grew in ferocity. Bolts of thunder illuminated the scene in horrible flashes: the stretch of sand, now stained red, littered with bodies; a second monster attacking people on the docks, even as they threw themselves into the sea to escape; the ships, forsaken on the open seas, stuck between the creatures and the furious storm.
A third monster tore into the people on the shore, and then a fourth emerged from the darkness. On the farthest dock, the mage, Abraham, stood with his arms outstretched, ignoring the plight of those who called for his help. His shade hovered high above it all. A fifth creature beelined towards him, its claws leaving long scrapes in the sand.
Jonah turned away, tightening his grip on Dad as they ran. And, slowly, the sounds of the world changed again.
Around them, the others fell away. The screams from the docks faded, leaving an eerie silence in their wake. All Jonah could hear was the clicking of the beasts and the crashing waves as the storm raged in the distance.
“Here,” Mom finally wheezed.
They stopped, and Dad released Jonah, setting him on his feet. He clung to Dad’s waist to keep himself upright. His legs were shaking so badly that he worried they would give way.
They were standing in front of a rocky outcrop in the sand, next to a small crevice, just big enough for a young child. Jonah started to cry. “No, no, no,” he whimpered.
His parents huddled in close, pressing him between them.
“It’s okay, Jo, it’s okay.”
“We love you. We love you so much.”
It only made Jonah cry harder, clinging to them. They had to stay together, they had to!
Click click click.
Mom picked him up and placed him in the crevice. “Inside now,” she whispered. “And keep quiet.”
Dad pressed a hard kiss on top of Jonah’s head, then turned away, taking a revolver from his back pocket.
“Don’t go!” Jonah wailed, reaching out, but Mom held him back.
“Shhh. It’s time to be brave.”
“I want to stay with you!”
“I know.” She smoothed back his hair, the way she always did when she tucked him in at night. “But it’s time to be brave. Come on now, say it back to me.”
“It’s time to be brave,” he sniffed.
“That’s my boy.” She wiped the tears from his cheeks. Tears were running down her own face, but she smiled at him.
Click click click.
Jonah let out a yelp. It sounded as if the creature were right outside!
Mom pushed him farther into the crevice. “Close your eyes now, and cover your ears.”
She disappeared from view.
Crying silently, Jonah slipped into the crevice. When he’d gone as far as he could, he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hands over his ears. “It’s time to be brave,” he whispered, rocking back and forth. “It’s time to be brave…”
I’m in awe of the worlds created by great fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, and Brandon Sanderson. With Wren Cutforth, Pirate, I’m taking a crack at creating my own universe. My hope is that it will be a playground for readers’ imaginations.
It began two years ago, when I first wrote the story as a screenplay. As a filmmaker, I find it easier to begin working on my ideas as screenplays; cutting them down to the absolute essentials helps me figure out what works and what doesn’t, and how to pivot. As I adapted the idea into book form, I realized that Wren Cutforth, Pirate is the first in a YA fantasy trilogy. The series is about overcoming the monster, but the monster changes as Wren and her crew progress along their journey.
In the first book, we are introduced to the wild world of Meraki, reminiscent of industrial-era Britain with a steampunk twist. Expanding factories belch smoke into the air, fried fish is considered gourmet fare, brass is everyone’s favourite material, diseases run rampant—and the Paragon rules all species and beasts with an iron fist. Piracy is a definite no-no. And Wren and her crew are pirates.
In the middle of a heist, the crew encounters a rare creature: a shade. The entity, a well of magical power, seems drawn to Wren. But magic is outlawed; any move against the Paragon means risking one’s life. Nevertheless, when the Paragon unwittingly releases a devastating force, only Wren and her crew can stop it. Things go from bad to worse as the crew struggles to keep up with the challenges being thrown their way. Yet, with the fate of Meraki in their less-than-capable hands, they have no choice but to keep going.
Shannon Litt is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker. Her short films have screened at festivals across North America, and her screenplays have placed as finalists in several competitions, including the Harold Greenberg Fund, the “From Our Dark Side” competition, the Nicholl Fellowship, and the Page Screenwriting Awards.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020