He dreaded the word, hated it. It marked the moment sand brushed against his coat and taunting hands forced him up again. Painfully, he stumbled to his legs. Inyande paced ahead of him.
Repetition, as she ruthlessly parroted, was the best instructor. It did not matter where his interest lay nor that he could not employ any form of spirit magic. When Inyande decided he’d learn to fight, that would be his course.
“Cursed one, listen to the spirits. Really listen. You’ve no chance in beating anybody without your completed arsenal. So listen.”
Tig puffed through his nose, “I’m deaf to them. I told you already, my village was destroyed before the year of my awakening ritual.”
“The ritual is a formality, being a chitik is validation enough to use our magic.”
“Am I a chitik though?”
“Shi shi. You ask the strangest questions. Ofcourse you are a chitik, had you been anything else, I’d have to hunt you as a huntress of man. Remember, our people are the only ones who may legally use our form of spirit magic.”
Tig glanced at his steel and wooden hands, “And you want me to unlock it through repeatedly beating me?”
“Until you fight back with it, yes.”
“I don’t like this idea.”
Her blow was immediate, low and met by his crossed arms. The ‘idea’ was not his. There had to be another way, surely. He pushed back her weight only to falter to another punch. He was to be a doctor for Hour’s sake not a warrior. First Vene, then Anu and now Inyande, there seemed to be no end to those who demanded he fight.
“You defend a lot,” said Inyande with another punch. “Perhaps you can use spirits for that?”
Tig dug his feet into the sand soil beneath him and tried to listen. First he heard his heartbeat, an erratic thump. A chorus of birds came second. The pang of blades, the rustle of leaves and the static of the ocean, by all accounts he was still there, still on the sixth island on the border island chain. Nothing had changed.
Except for Inyande’s stance. He could already hear the hurried steps of a charge, a quick warring breath and the deep thud of muscled shoulder against scrawny mechanized arms. That, he could feel.
Sand and soil and fallen leaves littered into his collar. The tops of silver trees covered the skies above.
The boy sighed, not willing to get up, “I don’t understand, why not teach me it normally?”
“Because spirit magic can’t be taught normally. It manifests differently for each chitik. Take mine for example.”
He lifted his head to that and saw how she had ventured to her blade resting by a nearby tree and grabbed it. Swinging the monstrous weapon behind her back, she touched the bark of the moderate tree with her free hand.
“Are you familiar with an axe, cursed one?”
Tig frowned, “You must be joking.”
“It is a simple yet potent device. The long handle gives power to the head where the blow is concentrated. Normally,” she said eying the tree and lowering her blade, “you need a tool designed in just that manner to fell trees, but even then it requires multiple strikes.”
Tig sat up, “You don’t mean to chop that tree do you?”
Inyande smiled, gripping her pommel with both hands, “Just watch.”
He couldn’t do anything else. Her blade swirled in blue fire as she raised it and he became obsessed with it like a moth.
For a moment, Franco was distracted. He heard the birds first, the cracking of branches second. A knife pinched his throat in that half second lapse.
“Got you.” Said his opponent.
“Rematch, I was di—“
“Distracted?” she said drawing her knife. “I noticed.”
Franco rolled his shoulder and raised his fists, “What does that make us now?”
Chireke held out her open palm and the sands forming it shifted into a tally chart. On one side, Franco noticed the character for his name on the other, what he assumed what she signed for herself. He nodded approvingly at the sandy lines underneath.
“You’ve still got twelve wins to catch up to me, sand maiden.”
She manufactured a frown, “what happened to not fighting women?”
“You’re made of sand.”
She rose a black sand brow, “and what does that mean?”
“With all due respect, sand maiden, but I don’t think I’ve ever fancied women as sandcastles before.”
“Ah, the figure you mean?” she stood back and some of the sands beneath her rushed into her clothing. He watched in horror as those grains ran up to her chest and hips. Franco blocked the sight with his hands, his ears reddening behind him.
“No. Nope! Don’t you dare try that.”
She chuckled in her grainy tone, no doubt posing even then, “What? Can’t handle fancying a sandcastle.”
“It’s not that! You’re made of sand—only sand—Hours how does that even work? Why does that work?”
He heard the added material rush back to the ground, and he lowered his hands with a sigh, thankful he had not caught more than a glimpse of what she did. There was a sandcastle building competition on the northern coast of Siblisey, one he’d proctor on a yearly basis. He could already imagine the strange looks he’d gather as he gave even stranger ones to the innocent sandcastles. He shuddered at the thought. He was sure that would have awakened something with in him.
“We have flesh to, honored dara.”
“You? Flesh?” He gestured at her madly as he peaked about in mild curiosity.
She thumped her chest, “Underneath the sand. We are too fragile to expose ourselves to the dangers of this world and so we hide,” she said gripping her knife. “Like cowards.”
“Can I see it?”
Her black eyes went wide and Franco sidestepped a cloud of sand ejected his way.
“Have some respect!” she spat.
Franco pointed at her meekly, “What? But its only skin?”
Her eyes flipped up and down, “Just skin, is it? Then why do you wear pants?”
“Pants? Why wouldn’t I wear pants, that’s just… oh.”
Pervert. Called pervert by a sandcastle. Franco slumped. A female sandcastle. He deserved that. “You realise this will make it harder for me to fight you?”
She readied her dagger, “What? Because you haven’t managed to break through my sands?”
He shook his head, “No, because you’re getting married.”
Her daggers lowered, her expression shifted, “I don’t understand.”
He glanced at the sky and smiled at it. The Cantinios were a traditional lot, always had been. There was no reason for that which needed none.
“Common sense.” He hushed. “Why would I bruise a girl on the happiest day of her life?”
Her glare was instant as was her charge. Franco found his silver fists holding back the inevitable thrust. She pushed into him, making him slide and his pointed hair wobble.
“Why do you assume it makes me happy?” she snapped.
The dagger slipped beside his fist and he deftly twirled away.
“That’s it, marriage, end goal. Have children, live a happy life, what more could you want?”
She swiped at him, “Is that what you want?”
“But right now?”
“Topple the navy,” He puffed as he caught her hand. “Thirteen wins.”
“Eleven.” Her sandy foot rammed him where he wished she didn’t, and he fumbled back, clutching it, groaning. Pain. A horrid dulling sensation filled him and assumed every second thought. And of course, even at his lowest hour, the monstress did not relent.
“Second palm,” wheezed Franco, a moment before her assault.
Chireke froze connected to his outstretched arm. Her dagger fell, her eyes went low.
“Only fair.” He panted. “You played dirty first.”
She was silent, most likely baffled. The Cantinio family employed a seven palm style, a style that had a different palm for every action including piercing.
Now half his outstretched hand lay within her sandy stomach, he felt something smooth yet rubbery on the other side.
“Is that your true flesh, sand maiden?”
Silence. Her expression, etched in black, had not shifted since contact.
He continued, “Look, if we are to spar, we should set boundaries. I promise not to touch your true flesh if you promise not to kick me in the crotch. Are we understood?”
Her unremitting quietness dismayed him, and, wearily, he pulled back his hand. He paused. He considered the terrible scenario. What if that killed her? Sweat rolled down his temple. Yes it was entirely possible.
“Hours.” He gagged, shuffling back and covering his mouth. “Am I... am I…”
He blinked. The sand that covered her fell away.
Her lose fit wrapping became baggy rags that fell upon white flesh. A smooth, hairless head tilted at him and assumed his attention, despite the rest of the lean figure that was readily visible. The nude combatant had little lips, pointed nose and wide black eyes that utterly enthralled him. He strayed there for far too long and before he could discern other parts, something heavy sent him skidding across the sand.
He saw the shape of a large tannish hammer hovering nearby the slender creature before the hammer dissipated and reassumed around the synergist.
He stood up, aching in two places.
“Eleven.” He mumbled.
He took a step and winced at the pain in his crotch. He thanked the Hours when Chireke approached him instead, and he wagered a guess as to what she did, “So you dedicate most of your powers to defending yourself, and when you don’t, you’re powerful?”
“And naked.” She added.
“A fair trade,” said Franco.
“To you maybe, shirtless-dara. But not something I’d normally consider.”
“Hours!” blurted Franco. “Can you still marry, after I—I— wait. That is the same in your culture, I assume?”
Chireke ran a hand through her sandy locks, “I don’t plan on marrying.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t expect you to. I only wish to save Kwake, not marry him. Soon as I save him I running away with Inyande-dara. The Eighth blesses me with this opportunity and I mean to use it.”
Franco nodded slowly, “Hence why you want to impress her.”
“And I can’t do that with an eleven win discrepancy.”
Franco touched her on her shoulder and smiled with his eyes narrowed, “You heard me, less you’ve got no ears under that sand, know that I, Franco Cantinio, promise to get you on her crew. We’ll use any means to make that wish of yours a reality. I’ve seen you’re true flesh, so it’s the least I can do.”
“Please don’t mention that, especially to Kwake.”
“I swear on my family name.”
For once the synergist made a smile. Franco returned it, studying the constantly shifting sands. Every gesture a synergist made had to be conscious one. Whether it was a smile or any other expression. It was effort of beauty, a testament to their hardworking nature. He respected that.
He let his hand slide off and he paced away, turning when at five paces. “Ready?” he asked her.
They were at it again. Perched half-heartedly with her elbow on the boat, she yawned as she watched the fight. Her one hand pushed up her cheek up. Surely the two lug heads had something better to do then fight all day, even if the captain ordered it.
Well, the synergist did go nude for a moment. That was something. She wondered if they knew she saw. She heard steps and spotted the Professor, sweat faced and panting, pass her by.
Her eyes followed him to the very edge and relapsed to the lug heads. That was the third lap now.
Why did they try so hard? It was confounding. Not only did they go at the behest of a woman they barely knew but they accepted that they’d be facing an army of witch doctors in a day and half’s time. She leaned further on the boat.
She had a plan of course. Same as before. Her golden eyes wandered to the large boats on the horizon. Steal a boat. Though Tig, the righteous sod, would never approve. But he did not need to.
She grinned to herself and practised the lines, “Ohh, Tig, the prisoners are on the boat. Whatever shall we do?”
“Tig’s gone with Inyande, mate.”
Her feet splashed the ground as she spotted the drunk there, “What? How? You just passed me, I saw.”
“I ran a little faster, mate.”
She lowered her brows and squinted a moment later. The Professor, who had supposedly ‘ran a little faster’ was upright, composed and strangely more white than usual. Than ever. Splotches of ivory fur had engulfed large section of his bronze face.
“Something happen to you?” she queried.
He touched the white largest white spot by his cheek and swooned, “You like the new look. Bit of tin, yea that, happens right when I get exposed to too much sun.”
She splashed to him, pinched her nose, and leaned close. “That’s fur.” She said with some expertise on the subject.
“Tin fur. Excellent stuff.”
She reached for it, and he backed away.
“But I’m, uh, rather shy about it.” He brushed his cheek a few times and pleasantly shivered. “See? Brings something out of me.”
“Why are you growing fur?”
“Why do you need Tig to go with you?”
She crossed her arms, “Out all of you lot, he’s the most sensible.”
“Sensible? Mate. The boy’s born to a family of assassins and wants to be a sodding doctor. No, I don’t think that’s it.” The Professor swayed about her. “Hours I hate being sober, makes me think too much, so let me drink upon the spirits of thought, yeah? I deduce that you’re affiliation to Tig stems from your similar beginnings.”
“And what beginnings do you speak of, Drunk?”
He pointed at her neck and she reflexed to touch it, realising her scarf was gone.
“The lonely kind.” He answered, circling her. “Trust me, I know that kind better than most.”
“I do not want a lecture from a drunk.”
“Not for long.”
“Hours if only. Tell me then, in this beginning-- which shall not be named—which Hour did you pray to?”
Her ears twitched and her head lowered, “None of them. No Hour exists in a world as awful as this.”
The Professor paused, “I think the world’s rather spectacular.”
“Why? Because it has drink and attractive single mothers?”
“That,” He mused, “and because you never know what might happen and who it might happen with. You could steal a ship over yonder or go with that plan Ita-what’s-it has so lovingly crafted.”
“You agree with her?”
The Professor held his forehead and tilted his chin up to the heavens, “Gut feeling, mate. There are those who know exactly what might happen, those painfully aware of it at every moment even though they wish they weren’t. Unless they were distracted of course. Perhaps,” he said glancing back at her, “With a little drink.”
“Oi,” cried Franco in the distance, “aren’t you supposed to be running?”
“Two minutes. At least a hundred and twenty drops.” Reported Chireke.
“Hours!” cursed the Professor as he began his run again. He turned halfway down the coast and jogged backwards. “We’ll talk again.” He promised.
The fighting of lugheads resumed in her ears, and Gemjo slumped and frowned. She hoped not. When he was gone, she found herself squatting by the shallow water, staring blankly at the breathing waves. She caught her momentary reflection in the evening light. Particularly her neck.
She snarled and stabbed the sand with Remy’s gun, forming ripples in the water. The past did not matter. It couldn’t be changed so why would it? It filled her with an unease unlike any other. Why the drunk of all people made her think of the foul concept was beyond her.
“The past.” She muttered as she spotted her own tail in the remnants of the reflection. Inyande had asked her to turn into a wolf. She wondered if the she-chitik knew what she asked of her. To turn into a wolf required months of training if not more, that is, she assumed it did.
The usefulness of it varied to. Wolves were fast, agile, but they lacked the coordination of her two legged form. Worst of all, it gave cretins like Remy justification to call her a dog. She spat in the water. She hated that. She had a feeling they’d run into the ‘rich witch’ once again and more likely than not trouble alongside her. While elated by her sudden disappearance, the reality of it quickly dawned upon Gemjo during their travels through the border isles. Remy was military and military loved to make reports.
She scuttled forwards to dryer sand and drew a crude boat in it with the pistol. Assuming Remy did call upon the navy the time they had would be limited, so escape by witch doctor ship was ideal.
She frowned at her mock creation and destroyed it heartlessly with a scribble of the gun. She peered low at the dueling duo and considered the alternative if the Professor was right. A new image formed at the end of her scribing finger.
Three stick figures emerged by the ship then a dotted trail and at last a box with lines through it, a prison.
“Second plan,” she hushed aloud. Sneak into the camp, save the prisoners and get out. It seemed simple, but there would be complications. They had little indication as to where the prisoners were held and little measures should they be caught.
The one factor that remained was speed. Four legs instead of two. They needed her. She raised slowly to her feet, thinking little of the past and cracked her knuckles.
“Wolf.” She said focussing. “Time to turn into a wolf.”
The day passed and then another. Two figures brawled between silver trees and scarce light.
Tig puffed and wobbled up. The sun had set long ago and what little warmth remained came from the boy himself. Inyande had struck him down a hundred and seventy six times, something he recounted most bitterly. Even then, he hadn’t thrown a single punch.
“Not even a pinch of spirit magic?” tried Inyande.
He shook his head.
“Odd,” she said, tapping her chin, “the elders taught me through punching me, so I thought that was how it worked.”
“Wait, you’ve never done this before?”
“Shi shi. Of course not.”
Tig dragged his hand across his face, “Of course.”
“But I’m sure that’s how it works, if it’s not then I’m sorry, cursed one, but this may not go as I planned.” She paced towards the slight open pathway that led to the beach. Tig stood between her and that path and she patted him on the shoulder before properly passing him. “I’ve decided. You’ll go with your friends tomorrow to see to the prisoners. Might even be good for you considering your hopes of becoming a doctor.”
“What of you?”
“Chireke and I should suffice,” she smiled at him, “We’re going to save her Kwake, yeah?”
“Then apply some of that grit you’ve gained from being beaten two days straight.”
That grit as she called it was nothing more than a remnant of his days under Trimbly tutelage. He recalled the hours upon hours of brutal sparring until after years of it, all but Vene gave up. It was a past he could not escape.
Shadows passed overhead as the beach came into view. A fire flickered nearby. Night bugs chirped in curious statics and moonlit waves quietly crashed.
He saw Gemjo, Franco and Chireke seated by the crackling flame, and he whiffed the stench of fish skewered above the pyre.
“Tomorrow, huh?” asked Tig as the sands crunched beneath him, the banter of those seated quickly approaching him.
Inyande gave him a quick over-the-shoulder glance and spoke, drowning out the callous jabs at Franco’s cowardice, “Trust in me a little, my distraction will be impeccable.”
A cover of night hid much of what lay outside the fire and Tig spied in the direction of the seventh isle fruitlessly. He feared what he would become of him if he didn’t go more than what lay there. Leaving Kwake to die was as good as murder even if he’d never met the man. Just as he was charged with deaths of the chitik when the Trimblys attacked. Poor, feeble Tig, watching as those he could do nothing for were slaughtered like seals.
Fire splashed against his face and greetings bumbled his way. It did not matter whether they were Trimblys or witch doctors, one reality remained painfully clear. If he did nothing, then he would back at his village. Alone, weak. It would all happen once again.