The Whale that Swallowed a City
A mechanical step played after every booted one. The lone window was half drowned from the outside.
It just so happened that the slave clock ship could only travel thirty minutes a day on air. While it was fastest then, it remained on water for the majority of the trip. That was what they planned on.
It was Gemjo’s idea. There was no point escaping while they were still out of sight of the Hungering City. Better wait until they were sure they were close. Then, only one pressing matter remained.
Tig paced back and forth in the cell madly. The evening sun painted it in fire.
“You think he’s been caught? He’s probably been caught. But if he isn’t?”
Gemjo had been sitting on her bed, yawning as she carved a third line on the wall.
Her bushy tail flicked. She eyed him lazily, “You’ve asked a hundred times now.”
“Aren’t you worried? I mean he’s the Professor. That Professor and our plan relies on him.”
“He said he was hiding in the ship’s cargo hold.” Her brows lowered. “Where they keep all the wine and rum stores. I’m sure he hasn’t left.”
Tig paused and took a breath, “Right. You’re right. But what if--”
“I heard some yellow hats talking about how they’d approach the island by the evening. Not long now.” She said glancing at the orange rays spilling through the lone window.
“Freedom.” Reminisced the voice of the other side. “Ah, the sands, the beautiful women, the sun on my neck. I miss it more and more with each day.”
“And how long have you been in here for?” asked Tig.
“A month, give or take a few days. These slavers come from the Sea of Seven. My domain, sad as I might add, remains limited to the fourth, fifth and sixth southern seas.”
“The Land of Glass, the kingdom of Al’Tof.” Said Gemjo.
“You know it?” resounded the voice.
“My second most favorite place to get rich and grow old in.”
“Your first?” pressed Tig.
She tossed him a sluggish smile, “Home.”
He knew what she meant. Though, as she turned, he was sure she didn’t realise what it meant to him. He slumped his shoulders. Home was complicated.
Gemjo spoke on, oblivious to it, her eyes fixed on the half sunken window, “Do you see anything through your window?”
“You have a window? Hours, I’ve been in the dark for a month.”
“Right. Ok well assuming this city is in a giant whale, I’m sure the lookouts will see it well before we land.”
Steps rushed overhead. Voices bellowed. Most were muffled underneath the plates. Tig gave Gemjo a glance, who promptly shared it. One word was said more than nay other. Land.
A series of knocks directed them to the door. It clicked before they could identify who stood there. Gemjo stood at the ready.
Lights flooded in and a bottle swished.
“Hours. It’s open on the outside. Who would have known?”
“Professor!” cried Tig. “I knew you wouldn’t abandon us.”
Gemjo seemed engrossed by the proportions of the door. She smiled weakly and pointed at it, “Had I turned in an orca I would have gotten stuck.”
“Clearly.” slurred the Professor. “Now lets get out of here before our good hosts realise their liquor is gone.”
“You drank all of it?” scoffed Tig.
He swaggered further down as Gemjo shuffled to the next door, “Not all mate. Enough, well in this case enough is everything except the one bottle I couldn’t’ open. Awful thing that. Why make a bottle that you can’t open?”
Tig turned from the man back to Gemjo. She took a breath.
“Better not be lying.” She said to it, turning the handle.
Tig waited as the door creaked open. A boot sounded then a tap. Gemjo’s eyes raised and she stepped back instinctively.
What came out was a man with the figure of a skeleton and the face of one to.
He had to lower his head to get through. He bowed at them, tipping his black wizard hat with his lone arm. He had silver skin that hugged his skeletal face tightly. Black covered much of his sockets, giving them a deepest look while fully orange marbles formed his eyes. Long coiled wires dripped out of his hat like dreadlocks and his chest, which was loosely covered by a black coat, was an open ribcage. A visible gear assembly turned as he did. The remnant of a flayed orange dress shirt stuck out at his collar.
Steam puffed out of the gaps in his silver ribs. Long dirty brown pants ended on one boot and one peg leg.
Gemjo took another step back, “You’re a… a…”
“Witch doctor, yes.” Said the hoarse voiced man, clearing his voice, “You probably thought otherwise considering my lack of an accent, but eh. Ain’t nobody helping lil’ ol me if I be speakin’ like dis, eh mon? Nobody eva be trustin a witch doctor.”
“You said you’d you keep your word.” Snapped Gemjo.
The witch doctor nodded, “Eh now. Dere be no lies when I said dat. Not about da Empress eida. Fa now, let us be leavin’.”
“Right, we’ll need to be quiet if we’re to leave.” Explained Gemjo. “That mean no noise, no fighting. We get to the top deck and jump as soon as we can.”
Tig, the Witch Doctor and even the Professor nodded. Gemjo led the way, the Professor second. As tig made to follow them, a long bony hand clutched his shoulder. He turned to its owner.
“You be a chitik, no? I heard of ya people. Dey be using spirits da same as mine.”
Tig tensed, “The chitik have always had a different way of using spirits than witch doctors.”
He made a bony smile, “Hows about a trade in information den?”
Tig shook off his grip and kept forwards, “Maybe later.”
They trailed the narrow halls. On every corner Gemjo would pause and scan the next hall before continuing. Tig felt the marble eyes of the doctor upon him. Digging into him. He could not let the man learn the truth. Of why he truly couldn’t speak of spirits the way most expected a chitik to.
Gemjo held up a steel paw and the four of them paused. Footsteps clanked by and they continued. A large hall came into view, stairs sat at the centre of it and leading up.
“Let’s go.” gestured Gemjo. “Quiet now.”
Her steps were silent and quick. The Professor however could not be louder. He stomped and swaggered and nearly tripped. He occupied the entirety of the two person stairway as he bounced between the railings. Tig glimpsed back the witched doctor, saw him climbing two steps at a time.
“Wait.” hushed Gemjo
Gemjo was crouched by the front. Her sharp fangs were grit.
“Not good. There’s dozens of them swarming the deck. I could sneak past them but the drunk won’t make a step.”
The Witch Doctor laughed and started climbing the steps past Tig and the Professor.
“Let me change dat, Niss.” He said as he lifted his arm and let the sleeve draw low. That arm still had plates covering the silver bone. Half of those plates were missing. The metal creaked and the Witch Doctor snapped a small piece off, making Tig wince. He then held it up and Tig watched it as it dissipated into embers.
“Call it a free trial,” he said with a peak thrown at Tig. “My spirit magic be requiring da sacrifice of my person.”
“Mates, look! I’m invishible... Hic. Hours where was this during my wedding… or was it a funeral?”
He wasn’t the only one. Gemjo vanished as did the Witch Doctor. Tig glanced at his wooden hands and found them no longer there. Still, he could still feel the rush of sea air upon them.
Steps and he spun to see three yellow hats walking up and quickly. He attempted to hug the walls, but he couldn’t in time. He held his breath. The yellow hats brushed against him.
And kept walking. He blinked. He could have sworn he touched them. A bony hand gripped him and he found himself propelled forwards, stumbling on the steps.
They took a turn on the deck, skated the walls and went directly to the railing. The grip, still on him, hoisted him up and over.
The sea rushed below. His foot curved against the cold wood. He shook his head. He had to do this. He held one foot off the railing, and before he could properly jump off the same grip tugged him down.
He stumbled with a yelp. Four splashes sounded and several yellow hats ran to the edge, many scratching their caps afterwards.
They saw nothing.
Tig saw it all. He realised Gemjo had picked him up in her orca form now happily sped away from the galleon. The front of it bobbed into view as Gemjo took a turn.
It was a splendid ship. White sails fluttered overhead. Even though it shrank as they sped further and further away he could tell it was a massive thing. A golden figurehead of a gear was the last he saw.
The edge of his coat reappeared before him.
“Not bad, eh? Dat be greatah invisibility. Sight, sound and touch all gone wit a single spell. A tough ting ta cast wit written magic but notin tru da use of spirits.”
Tig spotted his arms, then the figures of the Witch Doctor and the Professor held tightly to speeding black blob below them. He saw a fan turning near her head with a steel frame covering it. Steam plumed out and he followed its ascent.
He froze as the steam dissipated.
“By the hours.” Gasped the Professor.
Tig nearly lost his grip. He could not have said it better himself.
If the Gatekeeper had been the size of a city, this was the size of a mountain. It blotted the sky. The unseen top of it ran into clouds where countless pipes let out steam. Unnumbered plates of greys and black formed its skin, and the dying light washed it in orange. Colossal gears spun in the gaps where plates had fallen off. Waves thrashed white around its edges.
No wonder it took them days to reach the Hungering City. It was swimming away. A whale that could swallow a city lumbered before them.