Impeh village had eight alchemy workshops built hastily upon its ramshackle outskirts. Madam Kimbe’s shop was the last amongst them leading to a small trail that snaked down to the shore. While the main rotunda of the village was populated by straw clad stone houses, the workshops were stations of bolted steel and iron, often wheezing foul fumes up into the savanna air.
The residents of these shops, a motley collection of researchers, wizards, botanists and doctors were just as striking as their buildings. All the villagers knew the look. White robes, thick goggles and more so than not, frazzled hair mechanized or otherwise. Kimbe was the pinnacle of that.
A flask shattered in the corner, green liquids bubbled. Chief Oke scrunched his sand features as a mess of vials and contraptions transpired before him. It stunk of disinfectant. A book fell from one of many stuffed racks and he could only wonder how the mad woman now staring at fluorescent liquids could live in such an enclosed shop. He squinted up. The only light proved the morning rays that spilled passed the ceiling gaps.
“So you let them go.” Said the old woman in a matter of fact tone.
Oke straightened his posture as he saw her black eyes overly enlarge behind her bulging glasses. Strings of black sand dangled from underneath her white hat.
“I had to,” he claimed. “No one from our clan can interfere with the tradition, so if warriors happened to travel by, then we could find the missing two without breaking any tradition.”
Her flask lowered and she walked to a table that was brightened by a sun ray. She tapped the counter with the green filled flask. The light casted green hues along the palm wood surface.
“You think yourself clever, don’t you?” Kimbe goaded him, no doubt taking great pleasure in their discourse. “Using warriors as an excuse to cover your mistake.”
She had walked to the bookshelves once he thought to respond, “It was our only course.”
“Hah! Only course, my wrinkled arse. Think before you send a troupe of half turns out there, especially, a troupe of half poisoned half turns.”
“They are not us, Kimbe-dara.”
“See, that sentiment is exactly why I only run this shop one month a year and live in Al’tof for the rest of it.”
“A sentiment your granddaughter shares no doubt.”
Kimbe squinted at him, “The same granddaughter you sent out to get married. And where is she now?”
Oke shuffled, “The warriors will save her.”
She reached and tugged out a dusty leather clad book. It had the marking of a pink flower with petals upon it, “If the blood of Zanae doesn’t kill them first.”
The door behind Oke brushed open.
“Oke-Dara, we’ve a guest.” Reported the synergist on the other side. He was a thin fellow, never quite good at sandshaping.
“A guest, Indele? So soon after those warriors?” asked Oke.
Indele nodded briskly, “Blue hat, honored Chief. She’s requested we contact the navy, But Inyande…”
Oke held his sandy wrists behind his back and passed Indele with a weary breath, “The village will be in greater danger if we protect her.”
“Chief…” started Indele.
“Call them, Indele.” He said as he shot Kimbe a glance. Kimbe had been a fast friend with Inyande, met her a few times outside Impeh to, so to lack even a retort mad him curious. “Suddenly silent, Kimbe-dara? Perhaps it is your current employer keeping you that way.”
A page turned and he realised it wasn’t her predicament that bound her to silence, but rather the book she held now. A slow smile formed on her sandy cheeks as she faced the pages.
“Kimbe-Dara?” he asked.
“Huh? What? Me?” She shut the book silently and bade them away. “Yes yes trouble with Niss Ita. Is that all? Then I must ask you to leave. I’ll have your order prepared by the evening. For now I’ve got matters to attend to.” She turned her book. “Matters of a petal.”
The fifth island blurred behind them. Tig could already spot the last two on the horizon, a sunny stretch brightening it gloriously.
Franco kept his knees huddled, “Sixth now, yeah?”
“Glad you can count Cantinio.” said the seawolf.
“No.” entered Inyande. “We don’t stop here.”
Tig stared at the woman who seemed forever locked on what he assumed was the seventh island. He got curious, so he tried what she did even leaned to get a better view.
Slowly, seemingly the shape of the closer isle shifted out of the way as they passed the fifth without stopping.
Tig stumbled up, rocking the boat. The others followed in a similar rise, even Franco.
“Hours.” Cursed Franco. “How many is that?”
“Seven ships” hushed Tig. “And I think I see another by its masts.”
Black flags flew upon a forest of masts. Skull and bones pocked each of the black fabrics. Tig lowered his head. Those were jolly rogers, the universal sign of pirates and the witch doctor nomads before them.
Inyande directed the boat towards the sixth isle without warning, making the Tig others struggle for footing.
“Assuming they are witch doctors, this seems to be the combination of a number of tribes,” said Inyande. “Aggressive, populated. Not something five inexperienced travelers could face even with the aid of the strongest woman in the world. We need to plan.”
Tig swallowed hard and pointed at the final isle, “You mean to take on that?”
“We have to.” Confirmed Inyande.
“But we can’t. I mean I can’t. I can barely fight an unarmed boy my age, let alone a full turn witch doctor presumably a number of times older than myself and equipped with magic.”
“You’re afraid of their magic, cursed one?” asked Inyande.
The shore neared and Tig answered honestly, “quite frankly yes.”
“Magic is a skill,” said Inyande. “It can be learned. If it can be learned, it can be countered. Do you recall what magic witch doctors employ?”
“Nasty type of spirits magic,” grumbled the Professor. “They cast bits of themselves off and blast other things with deadly spells.”
“Not only on themselves, anything their school demands ‘worthy’ and witch doctors often place value in breathings things.”
Steps echoed as Chireke gasped and fell back with a thud. When Tig turned, he saw her covering her sandy mouth, “Kwake…”
“Luckily for us,” continued Inyande, “Witch doctors love to cover their less selfless spells in extended rituals.”
“Why would nomads do this?” asked Tig.
“Does it matter?” said Inyande.
Gemjo chuckled behind him, “What?” she said to him as he glanced back, “I like that answer.”
Tig rolled his eyes, “Alright, suppose I’ll ask a meaningful question then. How do we fight unnumbered magic-flailing witch doctors?”
The ship jostled as it met the shore. Inyande jumped off and touched him on his shoulder as she passed him by.
“Shi shi. We have one maybe two days. Gut feeling. In that time, your temporary captain orders you and your companions to get stronger.”
“Oi, that sounds tiresome.” Said Gemjo.
“Oh it will be.” Hummed Inyande.
Inyande smiled to that inevitable answer and a cloud of grey smoke puffed around her, engulfing her. Out came a black wolf with twisting clockwork legs. Her hair had turned into a slick coat, dark as oil. Pointed wolf ears twitched and led to her angled muzzle. She flashed a toothy grin.
The wolf formed a few paw prints on the sand as it strut about and Tig found himself alternating between it and Gemjo.
He struggled to find the words, “So Inyande could--”
“Yup.” Said Gemjo.
“Even though she’s not a--”
“Magic is learned.” Repeated Inyande, shifting back to her regular figure. “This includes the shapeshifting of seawolves, the intricacies of writing magic and even the monstrous spells of time priests, though hours forbid you lot ever find those.”
Tig laughed nervously to that and peaked at Gemjo, who only frowned.
Inyande took to pacing ahead of them, her greatblade perched on her shoulders, “We’ve got two days to make you lot strong enough to face a horde of witch doctors. To that end, I’ll need to know how each of you fight. You first, sea wolf.” She said pointing at Gemjo.
“I can turn into an orca. Swim fast, sometimes run.”
Inyande shifted to Franco, “And you?”
“Me?” said Franco as he shot up for the boat.
Inyande nodded happily and the man struck a flexing pose, his arms held low to exaggerate his bulging muscles, “Well, the man who’ll topple the Navy shall do so with his fists.”
Franco’s arm sagged to how quickly she switched from him.
“I’m a pacifist.” Shrugged the boy.
“I hit things with bottles, mate.”
For a moment Inyande went silent.
Tig pointed at the Professor, “He’s really good with that thing.”
Gemjo went to her side and nodded knowingly, “Oh trust me, I ask myself how they’ve lived thus far every day.”
Seconds passed then minutes, all in utter silence save the wash of waves and brush of savanna air. Then, abruptly, Inyande flung her greatblade and stabbed the earth.
She drew a breath and spoke in a voice loud enough to be a captain’s, “In two days we’ll assault the seventh island. I, Tig and Chireke will distract the main forces should it get unpleasant, the rest of you will free the prisoners. Now to do this you must get stronger, so listen well. Chireke, spar with Cantinio. Seawolf practice shifting into a wolf. Tig with me.”
“And me mate?” asked the Professor.
“Almost forgot about you. Run laps around the island. And, before you protest, for every second I see you standing still, I’ll deduct a shot from your reward bottle.”
The Professor pointed down the sandy coast and back at himself.
Inyande held out an open hand and lowered her fingers one at a time, “One, two, three…”
Tig chuckled as the Professor dwindled into the distance. His hurried steps were immediate, his subtle shriek strangely amusing.
Franco sounded behind him, “I’m sorry, Niss Ita, but I cannot fight a woman.”
“Nor could I bring myself to fight someone who is unarmed,” added Chireke.
“Consider it a test to see who’s stronger in my eyes,” mused Inyande. “Less you two are afraid to try.”
Franco gulped and met eyes with Chireke. They nodded in silent agreement, though admittedly, for two different reasons.
“I won’t hold back, Niss.” Started Franco.
“Nor will I.”
The two distanced for their oncoming brawl and Tig caught Gemjo back to lounging by the boat.
She had one eye open and glowering his way, “Before you threaten me or reward me, let me say I’ve always wanted to turn into a wolf. Truly. So whatever effort you think I’ll put into this it is my own genuine pursuit. I just--” she yawned “—need some time to rest up, to awaken my potential.”
Tig spun to Inyande who, again, nodded and smiled. Training as she called it, seemed entirely implausible. Especially for two days. He then faced what he could only imagine to be a horde of witch doctors waiting an island away.
Impossible. Absolutely impossible. He had heard the stories of witch doctors, the warnings to stay away. But then he had also met one such witch doctor. They were people and that only made it worse. But Inyande remained unphased.
There was a hidden facet to the woman beside him, a confidence that exuded itself beyond even Franco. Here stood a woman who knew not when to surrender. Here stood a woman who would win no matter what. He watched as she wringed her blade’s pommel.
“Two days,” she announced with a draw of it. “Begins now.”