Bright blue veins drifted on the water. Tig knew that was from the copper that lined the walls of the whale. Marici’s lessons told him as much. He caught his own reflection in the blue and oily waves. It rippled for every stroke of the rows.
Spots of yellow intruded upon it and a slow rolling mist hid it all together. He wagered a look and found a city of black caressed by a thousand shimmering lights some minutes away. They weren’t far now.
Strangely though, more and more boats seemed to go in the opposite direction, passing them quicker than they ventured forth.
“It’s night.” Started Tig. “So why are people leaving?”
The ferryman had a rounded belly and thin iron frame hands. He wore a straw hat and a simple brown vest that left a great portion of his white tin chest visible. Gears clicked and whirled where the man’s heart would have been. He had a long silver nose and magnifying glasses for eyes.
He shrugged, “Not sure, half turn. It’s odd for me to. Sometimes slavers send for temporary hires to track down run-away slaves. That could be it.”
Gemjo shrunk low in the corner of his eye.
Tig laughed nervously, “That’s an awfully… fast response.”
The man lifted a brow, “What is?”
Tig held up a finger as if to make a point, “Why, uh, your response, sir.”
Gemjo pressed her temple with steel fingers, while the man shrugged once again. People swayed on the dock up ahead and Tig peaked passed his ferryman.
Franco had gotten off his boat. Tig tensed.
“Gemjo.” He hushed.
The boat tossed abruptly as she stood up, “Only for a little bit and only because I want this Franco business over with.”
She leapt off the boat giving the ferryman immediate pause.
Tig glanced at the Professor then back to the ferryman.
“She’s a good swimmer.” Assured Tig.
“Scares all of us the first time mate, trust me.”
The ferryman kept rowing, “The things I see on this job, I swear.”
The docks brushed against the sailboat and the Professor flipped the man another cog to keep quiet.
As they left the boat, people crowded around it. Several more steps sounded behind them.
The street ahead proved packed only near the end. Tig and the Professor pressed through in seconds. The rest of it remained surprisingly empty with shops lining both sides and lamps brightening the patchwork metal road. While every third shop seemed a rundown mess of blackened planks, the majority had fine glass paneled establishments with a variety of crates or barrels dotting their fronts. More and more denizens dressed in assortments of wizards hat passed them by.
The Professor lowered his bottle, “Is it just me, or we the only one’s entering?”
“We need to find Franco.” Said Tig.
“Right, right. Well considering the majority of those walking these streets are going the opposite direction, I’d wager my right shoulder that someone’s seen a man walking the same way as us.”
Tig nearly tripped, he gawked at the full turn, “You just said something clever, well except the shoulder part.”
“I am a professor, mate. I ought to be… Tig?”
Tig had already gone to the nearest full turn he could find. He stood in front of a round women dressed in a white witch at. She had the skin of gun metal with wooden brows and a lower jaw that was fitted with whirling mechanisms instead of skin. She wore thick black rimmed goggles.
“…Hair shaped like a black hat. Really pointed nose. A triangle almost. Think of a bird.”
The Professor swaggered up by Tig, “Terrible description. Let me try.” He cleared his throat. “Have you seen a man with an eye for arses?”
A pang rattled the air and the Professor fell over. The woman, clearly infuriated, stomped away. Tig leaned over the drunk.
“Maybe I should ask and you…”
“Sure. Be an absolute head turner.”
“I’ll turn them so hard they’ll pop off. By the Hours they’ll call me a head screwer!”
Tig left him behind and he struggled to catch up.
“Look pretty and don’t talk.” Sighed Tig.
“That’s half my charm, mate.”
“Then be half as charming. We need to find Franco. Not waste time getting slapped by…by…”
“Delightfully rotund women?”
Tig frowned, “Yes. That.” Tig hesitated to ask another lady of the same proportions and instead opted for a small black hatted man sitting on a barrel. Meeting the Gatekeeper had sufficiently squashed his fear of black hats. Even this one with its skull face and red eyes embedded deep within.
He narrowed his brows as Tig approached.
“Hi hello.” Greeted Tig. “You didn’t happen to see a man with a black cone for hair, sharp nose and--”
“You’re the bastard who told us of that ship.”
The man leapt off his barrel and Tig found himself looking down. He was an imp of a man that seemed ready to kick kneecaps.
“Not you, half turn, the drunkard behind you.”
Tig sighed at the now muted Professor, “I wish you were half as charming more often.”
The imp grumbled and sped to the Professor. This time he did kick kneecaps, rendering the Professor low and with muffled grunts.
The imp gave Tig a look, “Only reason I’m here is because the Navy cleared my bounty after I ratted you lot out, so I suppose we’re even.”
“The Navy’s here?” scoffed Tig. “And after us?”
“They want you bad. Sorry mate, but I think I’ll make some cogs off you when you pass. In return, yea I did see that Franco. I’m surprised he didn’t sell you out.”
“Where is he?”
“The same place he’s been saying he’d go for years. You’ve come here without knowing about it? He got a real pair of fools then.”
“Where?” stressed Tig.
The Imp tipped his hat and spat. Oily spittle splattered the ground, “The elder spirit underneath the city. Near the center of it. Follow this road and take a left by the seal statue.” His bony lips ticked up as he said that. “Now I can tell you exactly why not to follow him provided you pay.”
“Won’t need it. We’re following him.”
The Imp puffed and went back to his barrel, “Your loss mate.”
Tig’s steps had become purposeful now, directed. He knew where to go and each thud of his boot and tap of his foot led him there. His eyes spat within the goggles, willing the seal to show itself at any moment.
“Mate!” huffed a running Professor. “Sorry about that turn back there. But one thinks hearing him out would have been a good idea.”
“You? Warning caution?”
“Look around you.”
The people who walked away were faster here, some glancing back every so often. The shops that had open displays had all shut under layers of metal, or wood if they could not afford it. The shops that had not closed down had the owners desperately trying to shut them down. He saw a line of half turns shackled at the necks and covered in rags being led by a man in a yellow hat. Chains rattled as they rushed by.
Tig slowed for the first time since he had begun his mad charge. It did seem odd, discouraging even.
He saw an orange glow on the horizon, smelled it second. Smoke. Memories of his village flashed by and he clutched his head.
“No.” said Tig. “We continue. I need to know.”
That feeling turned into minutes on foot. Soon the street they had been traveling became completely barren. A plaza happened ahead. A statue centered it. It was of a seal flexing its body as if in mid jump and a fish transfixed on waves and always away from the seal’s hungering grasp.
Tig reared his head right. The glow came from the left. Something bumped into him and instinctively turned to apologise.
“Sorry I wasn’t--”
He froze mid bow. It was just a moment, but a moment enough. The man who bumped into him wore a red hat. He gasped up. The man was gone.
He whirled to the Professor, his heart pounding a hundred and ten times a minute, “Did you see his face?”
The man had just finished a swig, “See who mate?”
Tig shook his head. His breathing slowed, “Never mind. It was… it was my imagination. Come on.”
They made quick work of the road left of the Seal plaza. The rest of path was self-evident. Totems. They were constructed of several smooth stones stacked a top each other. It was unmistakably chitik.
It led to a narrow cavern with scarcely a gaslamp for every two dozen steps. The path led down. An unnatural blue glow marked the bottom. Tig squinted. That and the outline of two twitching delightfully fluffy ears.
“Shhh.” She hushed them as she nudged her head at the inside. They crept low, eyes fixed on the emanating blue.
A glimmering white surged ahead of him. Tig held his breath.
Past two columns and a ring of water stood a creature of pure light. She was azure and brilliant, and she was not mechanized.
He knew what she was immediately, as any chitik would. A spirit. An elder spirit. Her skin was a ghostly white. Her face was a noseless, lipless thing, yet the black eyes she had tipped with white pupils made her strangely beautiful. The waves of her ivory hairs floated up as if she were permanently submerged and intermingled in hues of black and sapphire at the tips.
An astounding white dress flowed low and remained puffed at the hips as if she wore a crinoline underneath. The frills ended in lapis lazuli tinges.
She levied a delicate hand low and only then did Tig realise the spirit was at least five times as tall as Franco now before her.
Tig took a step, Gemjo pulled him back.
The bag of cogs jingled as the man made to place it on the spirit’s hand.
“What is this?” she echoed in angelic quality.
“Your payment.” Replied Franco.
The spirit directed him towards the ring of water, “I have no need for cogs, shirtless one, please donate it to my following instead.”
Tig noticed the Professor lean forward to that comment, his white goggles were already leering at the ring of water.
“You better not.” Said Tig.
The Professor shook his head, “I was going to wait till after they left. Obviously.”
“Right.” stretched Tig.
“Back!” snapped Gemjo with a tug of them both. They fell into the hall and the sound of several small splashes followed with a hint of clanking.
Footsteps tapped away and the three of them peaked at the retreating Franco. A hollow bag hung from his silver hand.
“Three hundred cogs.” He said. “I made the payment, now my wish.”
The spirit bowed, “As it is written, I may dispel any magical effect, curse or otherwise. Speak and I shall purify you.”
Franco took a long breath. His posture straightened.
“One day,” he started with his hand lifted before him, “I will topple the Navy, but to do that, to become a captain capable of even attempting that, I need to cure my fear of the Sea. That is my wish. Cure me of it please! Release me from this curse!”
Silence as the spirit cocked her head, “I detect no curse.”
Franco dropped to a knee, “I’ve had it since I’ve been alone at Sea. It is a curse, there can be no other explanation.”
“It is trauma, shirtless one. No magic in that.”
“But- But I’ve come all this way. I paid you. I betrayed my friends for this...I … I…” He fell to his second knee. “You really can’t, can you?”
“Just as the words I speak do not travel nor the visage I bear emits light, my domain lies only within the magical. As is the extent of my power.”
Tig tilted back to Gemjo and the drunk and whispered, “An elder spirit is one that has gone beyond physical reality. The chitik wise men are the ones who act as mediums to draw upon. My father told me that. She’s not lying.”
“And can you draw from that?” asked Gemjo.
Tig shook. His googles dipped low. He remembered the Witch Doctor. There were things expected of his people. Thing only they could do. He was chitik, anyone who knew that expected him to use spirit magic. It was only natural, and yet he was different.
“I’m doomed.” Echoed Franco madly. “Doomed. Doomed! DOOMED!”
Tig fashion his brows low, and took a step. This time Gemjo did not interfere. The fact he was a chitik would have to wait.
Tig muttered to himself as kept forwards, “No you’re not, Franco.”
Franco had lowered his hand, his head tilted back. Whether it was Tig’s quiet voice that reached him or the boy’s steps, Franco saw him now painted in the light.
Franco had a painful look about him. He seemed on the verge of tears, and his brows quivered for each step Tig took.
He could scarcely meet Tig in the eye as his voice trembled, “Go away. Before I betray you again.”
“You won’t. You haven’t.” Tig’s steps ended. “You got us where you promised even if it was for a selfish reason. And you’ll get us where we need be… as our navigator.”
There was glint in his eye, a bated breath, “Me? But I… I could never navigate given my fear. I’m not good Tig. This was my last hope, without it, I’m no better than one of those slaves. I’ll never be a great Cantinio. Never. I was cursed the moment I was born in this world.”
Tig’s wooden hands clenched, “You have a family don’t you?”
“I do but--”
“You have a home, don’t you?”
The man nodded.
“Then get a hold of yourself, man! This,” Said Tig jutting his arms about, “This is not about loathing what we don’t have. It’s about making those our strengths. You will be our navigator.”
“My weakness my strength? How does a fear of the Sea equate to any strength?”
“How could someone who was afraid of the Sea ever travel as far as you?”
Franco gasped, “I…” he tried to speak. To say anything, but he could only croak. His head hung low.
Then the spirit spoke above them all, “You’re a chitik.” She hushed in astonishment. “Yes, took me a while what with your iron features, but you are of the chitik tribe. Good lights! I’ve waited for one your kind for generations. Connect me to Mystell of the Hourglass Lantern. I wish to speak with her.”
Tig faced away from her, “I can’t.”
“Oh please! I’ll grant you any wish should you do it. Possibly two, oh and some of my wealth.”
He saw the Professor and Gemjo light up in his peripherals. If only they knew.
Tig’s gut twist. He glanced at Franco and felt a hypocrite.
“No.” he repeated. “I really can’t.”
“Do not test me, chitik. I know well as any that every chitik undergoes the ritual at age ten. Even with a slight connection you should be able to master things no non chitik would be capable of. Spirit connections for one.”
Tig remained silent, his shoulders rising more and more as his head clicked low.
The spirit leaned towards him, “I haven’t spoken to Mystell in decades. Why do you dally? If you have forgotten the rituals I can remind you. Name the branch of your family and my magic will bring it back.”
“Dead…” mumbled Tig.
“Dead.” he snapped, his eyes narrowed to an edge. “All of them. My uncles, my aunts, cousins, elders, my mother… Before any Hours damned ritual to.”
The spirit fell back, “I…I…I’m sorry.”
“I couldn’t save them. Not one.” He shuddered. “Not even those younger than me.”
Tig saw Franco staring at him with wide tear filled eyes. His silver hand wavered to his mouth, “Hours. When you asked about my family and my home you meant--” He gagged, stumbling to his feet. “Hours what have I done?”
“Franco. It was a long time ago. I didn’t mean it that way. I just wanted you to come with us.”
Franco shook his head frantically and paced back several steps, stumbling on the last.
“Franco.” Said Tig with his hand held out.
The man had reared his hands in defence. He was as tall the Professor and yet now he seemed as small as a mouse. The way he stared at Tig now made the boy recall himself all those years ago. It was of horror, a fear so great not even an elder spirit could dispel it.
Tig clutched his head as those awful memories flooded back. Franco’s feet scrapped and the moment Tig spun to face him, he was already gone, speeding past Gemjo and the Professor.
Tig shook his head for momentary reprieve and started after the man. “After him.” He called to the other two.
Three shadows momentarily flickered by the series of lamps. The tunnel breached open and they all paused at the end.
The man with a white hat and eyes blocked half of the way.
“He’s getting away.” Reported Gemjo.
Tig nodded, “You two go. I’ll stay here.”
“I’m fine. Go.”
Their figures shrank behind the outline of the stranger. The man whose name Tig did not even know stood straight with his hands held behind his back.
Tig managed a smile, “You lived. I’m glad.”
The man cocked his head wordlessly.
He smelled smoke. Fire flashed in his mind. He huddled low. The memories of his village had made him realise a terrible truth. He was the one wasting time. The more he waited the more that tragedy would repeat itself. He could not let that happen. Not again. Realising what he needed do, he stood up.
He had thought about it extensively since he first saw the stranger use it. Stronger than any gun, faster than any written spell, this man could bend time itself. Tig had been unsure at first, callous of it. But now, he had to ask. “If I learned your magic, could I be strong?”
“You would fail at it.”
The man spoke coldly. In his voice there was winter, a cruel, warmless, bitter thing, “I said you would fail.”
Tig bit back with the flicker of flame hot on his tongue, “You said I could learn it before. You said it would come to me naturally.”
“Until I learned that you cannot call spirits.”
Tig’s fingers stretched out reflexively. “You heard?”
“Sound travels on the property of time. Time is mine to shape. Yes, I did. And from what I heard I know you are unsuited. Lacking. I am… disappointed.” The man turned away, “Consider this my farewell.”
Tig spoke as the man passed the stone totem.
“Then, am I to remain weak forever?”
The man did not respond. Tig was not even sure if he had heard it. Moments passed as the distant steps of the man became faded.
Tig’s shoulders slumped. His eyes wobbled as he stared at nothing. The echoes of gunfire cascaded in the distance, yet he did not flinch. He curled his hands until the metal creaked. And he whispered with a breath polluted by smoke.
“Permanence lies within the hour to come last.”
He cleared his face with a swipe of his jacket. No, he had a task at hand whether weak or not.
He tightened his goggle strings and snapped in the direction his companions had run. Tiguak Trimbly forced himself forwards. Franco would become their navigator. He had to. Tig’s stroll became a cantor, the cantor a sprint.
They would sail the twelve seas, fight off whatever came, and one day they would reach the mad tinker.
The seal statue zipped over head of him. He lacked Gemjo’s smell and the Professor’s somewhat stupid luck, but he had a feeling where the man would go.
Franco had retreated in fear. Perhaps more so out of guilt than what he feared most. Figures bobbed into view past mist and blurry lights. Tig smiled. He knew it.
Franco wanted to run. So where else but the sea?
He slowed as those figures became defined. His heart stopped. Three figures lay sprawled on the floor while one stood above them, red hat and robes.
It turned. Tig knew him instantly. He wished he didn’t.
The man in red had flowing black hair and a chrome mask fashioned like the face of bird.
The beak twitched to Tig. The mouth below it gaped revealing black teeth and a smile.
“By the Hours how we’ve parted,” said the man stretching his arms. “We meet again, little brother.”