The penultimate Niebla ritual challenge Raza and her two fellow Bids had zealously trained for over the last year, now within their grasp.
The spray thrown aft over the rigid hull inflatable boat’s gunwales salted her grin, the cold bite of marine air driving hot blood through her. Raza’s heart filled her chest with pride and anticipation. Proving themselves in stealth raids against Red incursions into Costeros coastal and rivershed territory, they’d earned the right to the Blood Strike. The token unlocking the rite for the Bid-trio lay on his belly at Raza’s feet, a leash cinched tight around the captured Red soldier’s neck secure within her fist and her boot on the small of his back.
The pride within her tempered by one thing: only one of her Bid teaam would be initiated and become Wraith—a member of the storied elite Niebla de la Gente Costeros. Raza had only to win the Blood Strike ritual race: cross the finish first with the Anillo Sangre, the “Blood Ring,” on her wrist for the nineteen-year-old Costera’s lifelong ambition realized. A check in her throat marked an unpleasant reality: her teammates, whom she’d lived, eat, slept and fought with and alongside for a year, were about to become her competition—formidable ones.
Cely slowed the rigid hull inflatable boat’s approach. All three Bid’s eyes widened, awed by the dramatic atmosphere: the Niebla cabal’s small cold-fire boats lighting the “cove” amid smaller Y-class sail cruisers flanking the pair of Niebla high performance twin-masted schooners, the Wraith fleet standing out from the marine layer against the backdrop of an approaching northeastern Pacific storm.
Raza’s pulse quickened in her chest, her breath caught, noting the trio of four-meter racing catamarans rode on the long swell tied astern of one of the schooners. Matte black carbon fiber masts and booms, slick paired hulls waiting for their Bids to charge into the oncoming swell to North Farallon, retrieve the Blood Ring, then finish the ritual race between the bows of the Niebla schooners. Rumors among all Niebla Bid teams held, one Strike Cat had wider hulls at the beam rendering it slowest of the three. She glanced forward at her teammates-turned-competition: Allon, tall and ripped stood at their RHIB’s bow with the lines, equally tall and muscled Cely at the helm. They’d have first look over the three cats while Raza managed her Red burden, aboard the schooner. Her win for the group put her at an individual disadvantage.
A win for one is a win for all—the words of the legendary Wraith King, el Rey Kane were small consolation. But his Mated, Niebla Reyna and Primera Milar lit her animal-brain, summoning her to the challenge—Nieblas are never out of the fight. When knocked down, we get back up, every time. We never fail. We finish the fight. El Rey’s truth, la Reyna’s fury reassured Raza, returned her focus, honed discipline calmed her.
Nonetheless, her fist tightened on the leash and her heel pressed down eliciting a whimper from her captured prey.
Raza swore under her breath, standing out on the rail of her starboard hull. The mainsheet hauled tight, she struggled to wrest every bit of speed from the sluggish Strike Cat. Bioluminescent sail and hull piping on the other two race boats glowed ahead of her. In the lead, Allon pumped his legs on the outside of his upper hull, his hydrofoil stabilizer cutting though the building swell. Cely charged after him, gaining the upwind advantage on the near reach. The cold threatened Raza’s very bones, pushing hypothermia in the wind chill and spray as she shot across wave crests, her heavier broader hulls dragging her through the swell, unable to drive her cat up onto the sleek hydrofoils.
The Blood Strike had begun as she’d barely secured the team’s key to the mainmast. Poorly secure bindings and tether on the captive Red would reflect poorly on Raza and her teammates; showing them unworthy, lacking the ferocity and precision demanded of Nieblas. She dove over the rail a full beat after Allon and Cely had entered the black water. Time stretched for Raza, falling through an endless airspace to the cold Pacific, slowed enough to see the amber reflection from the fire boats on the black surface before she plunged into the 16˚C water. She’d been deprived the exchange of her combat utilities for a dry suit. Until the wind could dry the saturated wicking layer beneath the hydrophobic bison hide shirt and bulky tactical pants, she was chilled to her core and wet. Her only warmth, her aerogel lined tactical boots.
It was enough. Raza imagined the heat drawn from her boots into her legs and torso. Several of her narrow brown dreadlocks came loose from the kelp ring behind her head, wet cord slapping her face and pressed across her throat.
She bit back her bad luck—think, Raza!
Never out of the fight…
She looked over her shoulder, checking the horizon when she shot across wave crests in the building seas. Two squall lines, white cloud standing off the roiling deep green and inky black of the bigger storm behind them, offered her a chance. The lead edge of the squall behind her was closest. A fool’s tactical gamble by anyone else, Raza knew better. She’d done this before—for fun.
She glanced after Allon and Cely’s cats pulling ahead; a direct line south of North Farallon and North Rock where the Anillo Sangre was hidden.
“Mundo Aéro, ikaw ay akin, puta!” she shouted her throat hoarse into the breeze, calling the air-world to bring its power to her; her possession.
She gybed hard, tacking across the wind towards the squall line on a broad reach, the full power of the air hammering her sails. While her competition left her behind, on a different course, her broad reach amped up her boat speed. Raza monitored the swell, the crests when they let up, the popcorn spray flattened as she spun about and heaved-to into the wind.
On the float, she readied herself to execute the first move.
She caught her breath, stretched her muscles, waiting crucial seconds for the lead edge of the squall howling towards her to arrive. The swell mounted around her, shortening and steepening until it was double-overhead height. The crests began to cast foam down the wave faces. Timed with precision, Raza hauled on the tiller arm with all her strength and spun out of her hove-to position and slowly began to move on a reach. She braced herself for the onrushing air-wall’s impact.
When it struck, her sluggish cat charged across the lip before it plunged down across the wave face. Dropped in, the main hauled tighter than she dared, the storm jib sheet wound dangerously around her wrist, fully committed. Raza pumped the outside of the sluggish port hull with her legs and the heavy cat shot up onto its foils. The spray off the wave crests slashed her back and legs as she charged, accelerating across the squall line’s hard wind.
Raza flew, the chill leaving her body. Raza’s muscles surged, fully alive. Hot current ran through her; the universe coalesced in triune euphoria. One with the boat, one amid the air and surging Pacific, the Costera in her element loosed her kiai cry—feral and fury on the hard edge of the ocean’s power.
For an hour, soaked in horizontal rain, whipped spray and broken crests, Raza hurtled towards North Farallon’s North Rock, her course laser direct.
When Raza spilled off the lead squall’s line, she let out sail and ran downwind. She stretched and shook muscles loose. She blinked rain and spray from her eyes while she grabbed her hair back, tamed within the kelp ring.
She felt the second squall’s edge in the air around her body and within the black sea beneath and surrounding her. No need to glance back, she hauled in, then, skillfully timed, she turned across the wind. The boat shot over the leading wave crest and dropped in as before. Her cat’s markings glowed in the darkness. A furian, Raza flew on the hard line, the mammoth storm mounting high overhead behind the squall’s roiled line.
Within minutes, she saw the push of surf surging skyward in the semi darkness ahead. There was no glow of luminescent sails or hills; she was either first or last to arrive. Raza hoped the former. But the eerie red-blue glow rising above the North rock’s summit presented a mystery.
She let out sail and hove-to briefly. At irons, she cling to the mast, studying the surge and surf, timing the wave periods in her head, matching her heartbeat to the rhythm and pulse of the Pacific’s might against the North Rock. When her plan was set, she came about and charged southwest above the towering granite and basalt.
Raza set a sea anchor in North Rock’s lee. With the heaved up swell running before the oncoming storm the anchor wouldn’t keep her cat in place against the surf surging around the rock. It would at least slow the progress of its drift towards the rock’s leeward side until she could get ashore, retrieve the ring, then get back aboard.
A small cold-fire dory anchored in the black water provided welcome illumination. Its secondary purpose complicated Raza’s getting onto the rock.
The Farallons were a great white shark breeding ground. An auto-launcher aboard the fire dory lobbed bloody chum into the roiling black water. True to nature, a half-dozen whites cruised the blackness. Dorsal fins appeared and disappeared, white underbellies formed undulating lines beneath the surface between briny foam streaks.
Niebla culture, dominating adversity, because, ya know… “Why the hell not?” she muttered.
She thought about hauling in her sea anchor, tillering her cat closer to the rocks. But a surge poured around either side, roiled behind the rocks and crashed together. A thunderclap before the water heaped-up into a haystack. It was swim through the whites or lose her boat.
I will not quit, I will not fail. Raza offered her fate to the worlds of air and water, the Costeros’ true faith. She stripped off her boots, then hurled one as far away from the dory and her catamaran as she could. The slap of the boot striking the water’s surface instantly drew the whites’ attention. While the predator bodies torqued past her cat’s hull, Raza looped her tied laces of the other boot over her shoulder, then slipped quietly into the cold black.
Her eyes locked on the rock, she stroked just beneath the surface, mindful to swim swiftly but as quietly as she could. The cold crushed around her chest, the hydrophobic shirt and pants rumpled against her chilled flesh as she crossed the ten meters past the fire dory and spotted a fin of mussel coated rock in the faint glow.
She surfaced and spat before her lungs raked for air. She kept moving, blinking water from her eyes. Suddenly, the basso gurgle of water sucking back across rock and crustacean civilization, followed by thunder high along the sides of North Rock. Walls of black closed on her from both sides.
Her curse never reached her mouth as Raza charged on all fours up the muscle covered rock fin to a block, a ledge above her salvation. The kelp strewn everywhere deprived her hands purchase. Her bare feet stuck and slid again and again as she scrambled for a crack she could jam her hands into as the closing walls of inky Pacific fell silent. The fire dory’s light winked out leaving Raza in fatal darkness. Her foot and both hands found the seam in the rock. She launched herself upward, a dyno move as desperate as a hope—one moment longer among the living.
The concussion struck her legs, a giant fist slammed up under her butt. Raza’s scream found its way into her mouth but was drowned by foam surging on the upward heave of the ocean. The exploding haystack tossed her heels over head, up the backside of the rocks. Raza’s back smacked hard against a granitic slab, winding her.
Instinct took over, flipped onto her belly and sent her scrambling higher up the slab before she crashed headlong onto drier stone. The Costera shoved herself up, scrambling to one side moving higher onto the rocks. Panting, she assessed her situation.
Toward the horizon, Raza saw the glow of sails rise and fall on the confused seas. Things were going to get complicated sooner than later.
She examined the seams in the rock, ignoring the concussions and white water against the storm side of North Rock that shot easily ten to fifteen meters skyward. The ugly black and green-black mass of the storm charging down on them was exhilarating as much as terrifying; a distraction nonetheless.
She looked across the leeward side of North Rock. The fire dory lit the leeward black water, the chum splashing into the water on the launcher had already drawn the whites back between her and her cat. Nieblas culture… Raza’s stomach tightened. The Anillo Sangre would be concealed where it must be hardest-earned. She turned and faced the towering surf broken against the rock, then moved forward into the maelstrom’s exploding maw.
Wraith dominate adversity—Knocked down, I will get up. Every time.
There was little point shouting to Allon speeding away in the darkness. Even downwind the storm and pounding surf was too loud. Raza slowed, letting out sail as she glanced astern in time to watch Cely’s storm jib tear free of the rigging. The heeled boat slammed flat on the water and slid behind the breaking wave crest.
They’d made only a third the distance from the Farallons to the Niebla anchorage. Raza wore the ring. Allon didn’t. Even if he crossed the finish line first, without the Anillo Sangre on his wrist he couldn’t win. That Allon was running pissed her off. They trained together, fought together, even slept together. Raza could still catch him, using the cloud-to-cloud tactic she used before, and hammer his ass to the deck.
She hove-to. Blood Strike, Blood Ring or not, Cely was about to be dismasted at best. Fueled by her beating the whites—twice no less—and the Pacific’s walls of black cold death, Raza’s fealty decided.
She spotted the glowing piping on the wounded cat’s main. The sail was gone, either by force or dropped by her skipper. Raza set a single reef into her main and hauled her storm jib tight before shoving her tiller over and driving upwind on a broad tack.
In the precious minutes it took Raza to reach her teammate’s wounded boat, the twin hulls were deprived their mast. Cely was nowhere in sight. Raza dropped her main and storm jib as soon as she could heave-to in the heaving swell and get alongside. She grabbed cable rigging and the port hull. A loud crack and scrinching noise preceded the roll of the hull beneath Raza’s arm. The aft cross beam broke, a frayed spear point shoved on the waves’ push towards Raza’s face.
She pushed herself back along Cely’s broken port hull to the forward cross bar. The rain slashing her face became icy and hard. Her bare feet were numb, her hands and neck too. She tried to yell for Cely but her voice was ripped from her throat by the wind’s roar. She got a lungful of brackish sea water for her effort.
Choking and sputtering, her lungs raking, Raza felt her own cat pushed up and shoved across the stern of Cely’s hull. Things were going to shit fast.
She grabbed her cat’s jib sheet and wound it around her waist. Better to be dragged by her boat then have to swim home in a Force-9 blow and eight-meter seas. Discipline from a lifetime on the water and the tasks of sailing, lit her resolve. The Costera’s thrill-seeking trait merged animal brain and her seafarer’s mind.
A mountain of water suddenly crossed the swell, thundering overhead before Raza could slide from her hull onto Cely’s mortally wounded boat. Raza glanced up in time to spill into the water over Cely’s port hull just as her own cat shot into the air and tumbled both boats together beneath the ocean’s mass.
The yank on the safety line around her waist threatened to snap her in half. The rogue wave had weight, but Raza had speed and a costera’s instinct and skill. Her tactical blade slashed the line apart behind her while she spun backward.
She glared into the inky black, spotting the bioluminescent piping on a piece of hull. Which boat Raza couldn’t know, but it was pushing to the surface. She charged after it.
Surfacing, she caught a body slam of wave crest.
She softened her body and found the sea’s rhythm. She matched her breath to the lulls and gaps as she worked through boat parts and tangled rigging until she found the mesh center deck. The broken starboard hull section was still attached by the cross bar. Battered in the sea it floated; all Raza needed.
The sail’s glow appeared unexpectedly beneath the hull and center deck.
“Cely!” Raza crowed.
The bubble in the sail’s membrane and the blonde hair-strewn face of her teammate grinned at her from beneath.
It was tedious work clearing the sail and disaster of rigging and carbon fiber coming apart in breaking waves that threatened to drown both young costeras. Finally, Cely was face to face with Raza, their arms around each other, shivering and cold.
“Mierda, chica!” Cely yelled into her ear. “Took your damned time!”
Raza pounded her teammate’s shoulder and laughed.
Between soakings they took stock. Over the roar of the storm they used the manual Costeros lingua; hand signals and gestures partly derived from pre-Collapse American Sign Language. Riding the storm out rather than swim was their immediate option, until they settled onto the back of a wave to find Allon’s cat coming about and hove-to alongside.
Raza climbed aboard and accepted Allon’s offered hand, he blanched: both her wrists bare. “The Anillo Sangre…”
Raza shrugged, “We finish this fight, hermano. We win one…
“…We win all.” Allon finished, signing grimly, before yielding the tiller bar to Raza.
The Red shrank from the white hot branding iron Raza showed him. She grabbed his hair in her other fist and pulled his ear close. “If you scream, Rojito,” Raza said firmly, “I’ll drink tu sangre from your beating heart, sabes?”
She swept his legs from beneath him, shoving the naked captive onto his belly, then pressed the iron firmly into his nape. She handed it to Allon and smirked. She tugged her captive enemy’s head aside to force him to look up at her. He bit his bottom lip bloody against the pain. “Looks good on you, Rojito.” She smacked his bare ass with her free hand, then rolled him onto his back with a shove from her boot.
It was Raza’s choice to release the bound and branded captive ashore. First, she forced him to recite from memory, the degrading story she’d taught him: his terrifying near-death experience at the hands of the “Ghosts from the Mist.” Satisfied, she left him in a Wraith’s custody to “throw him back,” before joining Allon and Cely on the foredeck of Echo, the most storied of Wraith ships.
She knelt in formal seiza style between her teammates, head inclined, awaiting their fate—decided by no less than Costeros legends of legends: Reyna Wraith y Rey de las Nieblas, current Primera Kaila Milar and her Mated, Luther Kane. Raza’s failed bid announced by every costera’s heroes would end her.
Sitting between them, El Ultimo Emboscado, their jaguar “son,” the last on Earth, curled his tail under his forepaws. Awed, Raza met his eyes: amber-green, like his human madre. Distracted, she almost missed the conversation.
“She lost the Anillo Sangre…” La Reyna Milar argued.
“And you’ve heard why, mi Reyna,” el Rey countered. His deep baritone warmed the cold-fire boats’ illumination cast across the teak deck between. Raza would swear Emboscado’s rosetted amber pelt glowed in both the light and his father’s voice. “Poquita finished the fight.”
“She lost the Ring, Kane. It’s the ‘Blood Strike’ for a reason.”
Raza didn’t dare look at either of her teammates who glanced at her, perplexed.
Her discipline fought the urge to look up, when unexpectedly, the Ghost King asked Primera Milar, pointedly, “Krasotka, hablar?”
A word, beautiful girl? Legends spoke in legendary ways, didn’t they? Kane and Milar’s tone shifted, as familiar as lovers in public.
A terse exchange continued in a jumbled Costeran creole laced with words Raza didn’t recognize, before Kane laughed aloud. “Irony, Kaila? Ultima rule breaker, tu es.”
The Primera gasped, “Cállate, ublyudok.”
Raza bit back her laugh—that bit of Costeran polyglot she knew: Shut up, ya bastard.
Milar thumped her fist into his shoulder.
Kane replied, “It’s your choice, Jefa.”
After a long pause, Milar directed, “Eyes-up, aspirantes.”
Three hearts leapt with their heads.
Milar tucked her slender, fire-red braid dangling from her left temple behind her ear as she took a breath. “You two,” she pointed to Allon and Cely, “go with Forty-Seven and Toma. You’ll need shaved heads.”
Her teammates elation spilled onto Raza as they palmed her shoulders, but her own heart stumbled in the pause that followed. Her best game face on, she vowed not to fall apart when she was rejected, her life’s ambition broken forever—to become Wraith is a singular Bid.
Her horror deepened when La Reyna Wraith de las Nieblas stood. A gesture to her four-footed son, Emboscado stood and padded silently at her heel, leaving Raza sitting seiza facing el Rey.
The Ghost King was fabled to be a century old, but he looked not a day over thirty. He nodded to her and Raza remembered herself too late—he formally bowed first. Quickly, she returned it. She swallowed hard, wide-eyed when he finally straightened. It was a leaden consolation: her rejection would at least come with the respect of el Rey de las Nieblas.
He rose finally and said, his voice lowered, “The marca Ghost of Ghosts hurts like hell, sabes?”
“Qué quieres?” Raza stood up unsteadily.
He palmed her shoulder and bent to her ear. “Luminescent microbes,” he said. “They take a while to dig into the flesh. Turns your name-braid red too, Poquita.”
“I’m in,” she whispered, shocked.
He chuckled, “After what you did, was there a doubt?”
Raza blinked, unsure.
“Win for All, we never fail.” He patted her shoulder. “Now, first the pain, then the drinkin’—I wouldn’t try to beat Kaila. Girl drinks like Russkiy Sibirskiy.”
He motioned for her to lead.
Ghost of Ghosts! Only one other Wraith held that title among all Costeros, La Reyna herself.
Amidships, they passed her Bidmates, now fellow Wraith, losing their hair to Wraith blades. At Echo’s transom step, a pair of cold-fire boats flanked a small RHIB La Reyna helmed. Emboscador paced between helm and bow as Raza boarded followed by el Rey. The jaguar sat beside her, rubbing the top of his tawny rosetted head and his muzzle against her while the RHIB pushed back from CSV Echo.
Gliding solemnly on the long swell amid the rain and wind, Raza looked along the rails and rigging of the Nieblas vessels.
Braided and razor-cut hair, luminescent tattooed Wraiths of the Costeros People looked on.
Lit by the circle of cold-fire boats, Raza stripped to her waist and knelt seiza. La Reyna drew the marca on Raza’s neck and collarbones. She clenched her jaw while the luminescent microbes burrowed deep into her flesh. The living wraith in her skin began to glow like the cold-fire boats. La Reyna ran her fingers along Raza’s slender name-braid—representing her life, her given and tribu names—the follicles infused with a flame colored glow. Her skin raced, a live current she had only felt on the water during the Blood Strike, as the Wraiths’ kiai went up, louder than the storm: Hear kiai, Nieblas tayo! Costera Raza, Wraith of Wraiths stands among you!