An Unlikely Ally
Thankfully, Ponitius still had all his fingers. He still had his wrists, elbows, arms, shoulders, toes, feet, legs, ears, hair, head, and even body, much to Olivier’s relief. Ponitius, himself, was perfectly fine; his leggings, however, were not. The kitchen reeked of burnt and burning cloth. Strings still smoldered, crackling on the black oven in the back of the kitchen, stretching and snapping to a rough patch singed away on his pants. The metal grate bolted on the front of the oven was open, a solid, iron plate glowing red hot from the fire under it. Smoke funneled through the black pipe that the wood gave way to the natural sandstone for, guiding it up, up through the house and out into the night.
Off to the left of it was a small, wooden chest, though it was an odd design, a new design given by the Zephyrians. Instead of it opening from the top, it opened from the side, and had a compartment on its top to put ice in, chilling it as it melted. The upper rack was coated in ice. Some was chipped away as two slabs of poultry were disturbed, deboned by good ole Mistress Tawny, the Faun that ran the butcher block north of town. The well-endowed lass preferred working with chickens than bovine, but, when it turned a profit, and kept Barafor Ferin from getting it all, she swallowed her soul and kept the maul nice and fed. Thankfully, most that went to Mistress Tawny didn’t have the gall to ask for red meat. Only the mightiest of Faun could stand at her height, while all others of all races, even Cephamorian, were dwarfed by her stature. And so chicken became a nice commodity, with only the Ferin’s or those that were truly heartless, brave, or stupid asking otherwise, though redundancy is a sin in its own right.
Olivier had time to admire the ice chest, to hold a chunk of ice to Ponitius’s leg while he waited for Durnst to return with a patch. The child of clay’s skin had been raw and red, but perfectly fine, though he still imagined it and the rest of the Terrahn engulfed by those roiling flames. He could still see the house burning in the flickering shadows cast by the hearth, see the limbs cut, hacked rising and dancing in the ashes of the oven. His heart had sunk in his gut when he had first heard Ponitius scream, boomed back to life as he heard Dunrst rush up stairs somewhere else in the house. Furniture shuffled, clothes were ruffled, picking, choosing, until footsteps rushed back.
Durnst eased him aside, handed Ponitius the cloth and a needle, then pushed both of them out of the kitchen. Ponitius grumbled as he wrenched the ice from Olivier’s hand, but Olivier didn’t move, taking in the rest of the kitchen. He had only noticed that long, sandstone top beside the oven, mostly hidden under sacks. Some were opened, showing spice, rice, vegetables of all sorts, and, of course, potatoes. All stayed clear near the center, where an assortment of knives hung before a solid, oak slate. One of the bits of chicken was already on it, nice and thawed.
The Itchyoman’s eyes seemed to flash as he pulled down the knife directly in the middle, a well-kept cleaver, and Olivier watched on. His arm seemed to become wind, the blade’s edge only able to be told apart by a single gleam of silver twinkling with the fire from the oven until, with one, loud ring, the cleaver was embedded into the wood on its very tip. Durnst hummed as he turned around and almost skipped to the sink. It was filled with steaming water, the pot beside sill red hot from having been heated in the oven. He put his hand in the side that wasn’t steaming then quickly reached into the hot water, retreiving a skillet. He huffed, panted, winced as he quickly but gently slid the chicken into it, reduced to cubes, perfectly proportionate and put it in the oven. He kicked it shut and returned the room to its dusky dimness, only disturbed by the four-candle chandelier above, burning away the steam that dared to steal close.
“That’ll need a few minutes to cook, then we can add the potatoes,” Durnst said, and pulled the oak slate off the bar, dousing it in the steamy water. He reached under it and pulled out the stopper, little more than a cone cork, and turned to the oven again, reaching behind it carefully. There, he retrieved a fresh bucket of water, setting it beside as he scrubbed the cleaver and board clean with the retreating water. When it was fully drained, the board and knife clear of any grime or blood, he put the cone cork back in and dumped the bucket, filling the sink once more. Durnst sighed as he sat the oak slate back in its place, pulling out five potatoes. “So what do you want with these? Sage? A touch of cuyalar? It’s a hotter spice, but it adds a nice sweetness to both the meat and tuber... Olivier, right?”
“Y-yes?” Sorry. I didn’t realize you were talking to me.” Lady Naomei used to talk to herself all the time when she cooked... and she hated when I spoke up... Would I upset him if I was picky? He shook his head. “W... whatever you decide is fine.”
Ponitius scoffed, making Olivier jump, even more as he patted Olivier’s shoulder.
“Don’t listen to the lad, and don’t you dare use cuyalar,” he grumbled. “It takes forever to cook in and get the sweet heat you’re talking about. Go for something simple, like black pepper or maybe a touch of leoral.”
“Biting flower,” Dunst answered for Ponitius. “It’s almost like cuyalar but less heat. Arguably none.”
“But it bakes into the food faster, and the sooner we eat the sooner we can leave,” Ponitius said, and groaned. “In fact, this whole thing is going to take an hour, anyways. Let’s go to the ship, get it at least ready to sail, then come back and feast.”
“Multiple trips are not wise, Pony Boy. It will only attract unwanted attention. So let us retire once more to the sitting room and wait --after I get the potatoes done, of course.” Even though he said it as if it was an afterthought, the board was already ringing once more from the slap of the knife. Once more, Olivier found himself entranced, watching the Itchyoman cut the spuds, each whole potato cut and shoved to the side in the blink of an eye, twelve in all, until he reached for a towel and wiped the cleaver clean, hanging it once more. Durnst opened the grate with the towel, cocked his head at the chicken, and shook his head, sighing. “The oven wasn’t fully hot. It’s going to take at least another three minutes for that to be ready enough for the potatoes to be added.”
“And then after that?” Olivier said.
“Fifteen minutes, at most, or until the potatoes are nice and soft.”
“You mean mushy,” Ponitius grumbled.
Durnst chortled. “Never heard you having a problem with my cooking before, Pony Boy. Best get used to it again, too. After this little incident, I’m not allowing you near my stove, or my galley for that matter.”
“Yes, yes. All hail Durnst, the mighty Itchyoman lord of the kitchen. Can we go in the sitting room now, or are you not done stroking your ego?”
“It depends. It’s been two-and-a-half minutes, and... aye. The chicken is nice and ready. Look! Come here, lad.” Olivier didn’t need to be told, already looking over his shoulder at the cubes of poultry. The skin had melted away, the flesh under no longer pink and almost slimy in the light but a nice, sinewy, almost golden color. Durnst pulled it out, and dumped the skin and water into the bucket, filling the room with its pungent stink before he scraped the potatoes along the edge of his knife into that skillet and put it back in the oven. He closed the grate, sighed, and picked up the bucket, handing it to Olivier. “Take this out back. If you are going to learn from me, you best be ready to help.”
“B... but I don’t know the way.”
“I’ll lead you,” Ponitius said, already lumbering towards the door to the sitting room. He opened it then the door across, leading to another hall. Ponitius waited by the door, tapping his boot on the dark timbers as Olivier made his way across, being careful not to dump any of his vile cargo.
He did make it across, though, not a drop out of place. Ponitius let the door glide shut again as they passed three before they stopped at the fourth on the left. He opened it, and pressed against Olivier’s shoulder as he reached it, slowing him for the stairs outside. There were only three, but it would have been enough to jar him, especially since there was no real indication they were there until you stepped out. Ponitius waited by the door, watching after Olivier as he sort of guessed the way from there, plodding through the soft sand backyard to the gate across.
Olivier tossed pungent concoction onto the street on the other side, heaving his breath after, able to relax at last. He turned around, about to return, when Ponitius exclaimed, waggling a finger.
“Leave the bucket out there, all right?” He said.
Olivier winced at his command, not at being told to do so, but because of how loud he was. Was he trying to attract attention- maybe he was, actually. Perhaps he was trying to throw would-be prowlers off with this red herring, the bucket left as bait. If he had put so much interest on the bucket, per chance those that would be following would take that as some kind of clue and follow that to its fowl origin.
Regardless, Olivier still felt guilty for having been yelled at, to either set up bait... or to pull attention, to make him the bait... He didn’t want to dally on that train of thought, and so scurried between moon shadows back to the do-
What was that noise? He thought, and looked back over his shoulder at the sandy garden, at the stony wall and its gate across. Steam still rose from the bucket, from the street into the cool night. Moon shadows still seemed to warp and distort it all, making the air, itself, ripple and haze only to clear as the moons continued to climb. The clouds shifted, letting silver light wash over the alley and yard, but the noise he heard, the soft shuffling, did not repeat itself, did not seem to resound from anywhere.
Olivier jumped a little as he shook his head, and blushed a touch, hearing the noise repeat again from his coat rustling against his legs.
“What’s the matter, lad?” Ponitius called out, making him jump again.
“Well, come on in, then! The chicken and taters call, and I’m as sure as Ignes’s fiery pert bosom that I won’t wait long for your craven arse before going to get it.”
Olivier didn’t need his “encouragement” to pick up the pace. He could smell them, too, and his stomach urged him to make haste, forgetting about any shadows or phantoms that awaited as he practically raced Ponitius to the kitchen. Durnst was there, standing guard before the oven, grinning from ear-to-ear as they both groveled and begged, panting and sweating and growling. After three more minutes of it, he nodded and wheeled about, pulling out the food at last. He placed the skillet on the board, keeping the two at bay as he pushed them against the sink. He reached into the left cupboard beside and brought down three clay plates, where he meticulously, almost painfully so, loaded them. He made sure that each one had the exact same amount of chicken, both white and dark meat, and the exact same amount of potato. Two were left behind in the skillet, forgotten by their creator to their fate as they were snatched up by the hungry duo.
Though Ponitius made it a point to mention they would be mushy, the skin was still firm as Olivier popped it into his mouth but melted on the tongue, gushing with flavor galore.
“What do you think? Can I cook or can I cook?” Durnst said, chortling as he handed them their plates at last, finished with one final, unnecessary item: a wooden fork. “I take it there’s nothing to drink, Pony Boy?”
“Not here, no, Natalie be damned, but there is on the ship, and that’s where we ought to be waiting to do so sadly,” Ponitius managed to belch out, muffled by a mouthful of chicken. He didn’t even wait to swallow before adding a potato or five into his craw, rocking in place. “Is ings e ack. Alays ove your cooking, Urs.”
Durnst’s jaws stretched out, engulfing his entire plate. His teeth were careful not to pierce the clay while the entirety was cleaned with that one stretch. He chewed thrice before chortling, grimacing at the clay left behind.
“It was passable for a quick meal, I suppose,” he grumbled, and nodded to Olivier. “What do you think?”
Olivier wasn’t sure what to say. To him, it was the best meal he had in... ever, even compared to what he had pecked on in Narvaal. How could he even consider critiquing such a meal? Where would he start... Instead, he loaded his mouth up with as much food as he could, and simply waved his fork at it, shrugging and shaking his head.
They finished their meals soon enough, and, after Ponitius cleaned the dishes and drained the water, they left the home and store behind. Olivier kept getting small spooks from the rustling of his jacket, but it was odd. It seemed to always be on the opposite foot, almost off-beat, though he kept an even pace behind the other two as they made their way down the hill. Not too far behind anymore; the guards were still out, and they had to take multiple detours to avoid them. Buildings became more spaced, forcing them to trek more out in the open, but Olivier could see they were along the cliffs looking over the port and sea. The craftsmanship of the buildings had changed, seeming to become a part of the sandstone until the sandstone, itself, seemed to flow from them. Ornate torches burned with blue fire on the manor before the first four-way, making the yellow gems along its walls and heights gleam like stars, if not truly the stars, themselves, caught with great nets and brought down out of the sky to bless those walls with their beauty.
Alas, all that seemed to simply... end after the first four-way, and the buildings in the next area were little more than rotted sheds. The wharf rats’ hidey holes, they were called, and the air reeked of Itchyomen and chum, but, again, redundancy is a sin. Though night had taken true hold, fires still burned in some alleys. Voices whooped and cackled, raising the tendrils on Olivier’s head, his eyes swirling with yellow with each howling laugh.
The second and third four-ways, also, were little more than slums, but the storehouse Ponitius had talked about could be seen. It wouldn’t be much further now, and then, when he was on the ship, he could finally take off this jacket and stop this incessant rustling. His gloves added a touch of a tempo to it, creasing against his knuckles as he clenched, but that was more out of enjoyment than irritation... They were really good gloves.
Ponitius stopped halfway down the road. As did Durnst, and he caught Olivier’s shoulder, stopping him, as well. Olivier was about to ask when he saw Durnst hold up a finger to his lips. Out of the shadows, Itchyomen prowled into sight. Though they were all different colors, all different sizes, the steel in their hands all glimmered the same, flashing, as if growing as it surrounded them.
A tall red-scaled fellow sauntered forth, and the moonlight illuminated his face, showing his long, crooked snout. It ended with a split, coiling down into a heart, and was lined with teeth.
“Well, well. What do we have here?” He said, digging the tip of his knife into his index, growling as it drew a bit of blood. A shudder ran through the steel and scale that closed in on them, snorting, growling as well. “A Terrahn, an Icthyoman, and... whatever that thing is out for a stroll through the slums. Normally, that wouldn’t be an issue. We’re used to tourists coming to our little neck of the woods, ‘seeing the sights’... but... one minor hiccup: the thing is wearing a coat with the Dread Pirate’s colors. Now, I’m no ne’re-do-well, no trashy vagabond –isn’t that right, friends?”
“No,” one said.
“None of us are,” another said, giggling.
“We’re all good, law-abiding citizens.”
The red one flicked out his knife, and a fleck of blood landed on Olivier’s cheek, making him realize that all the eyes weren’t on them. They were specifically on him.
“Exactly,” the Itchyoman said, snapping his jaws. “We’re normally good people, but, seeing it and the colors it wears go through our neighborhood... It’s as if it is asking to be jumped.”
“We mean no trouble,” Ponitius said. His voice was clear, resound, almost a completely different personality from the drunken hothead Olivier had been seeing. He even leaned a touch back, thumbing the tie for his coat with both hands, looking almost nonchalant in the face of danger. “We were just on our way to the storehouse down the road.”
“Oh yeah? Is that where the treasure is?” The Itchyoman snapped his fingers, a wet sound, and familiar face came forth. It was the Itchyoman from the bar, the one that had left when Olivier or any of them were paying any attention. Olivier must have moved a bit too much, for he heard that scuffling sound again, jumping as the Itchyoman muttered into the other’s ear. “And you are sure it’s them?” The Itchyoman nodded, and the red one smiled wide, pointing his dagger at Ponitius. “So, mind letting us in on what this treasure may be? Perhaps we can... assist you. It’s what we live for, after all.”
“There is no need for that, though I thank you for the offer,” Ponitius said, shifting a little, resting on his left foot. “Three is more than enough to man my ship.”
“But surely you want an Aqua Alliance vessel over a lumbering Terra one. We can... get you one.”
“And, uh, what are you offering for such a deal?”
“It’s simple, really: let us take care of that troublemaker in your midst. Let us serve up some justice for those that have been lost to the wretched colors it wears, and we’ll gladly help you get to the treasure.”
“And what then? Hope to split it even?”
“It depends on what the treasure is.”
Ponitius sighed, and rubbed his head, making Olivier’s heart flutter. He wasn’t seriously considering this... was he?
“Well, you drive a hard bargain. The lad already gave me everything I need to work from, so it wouldn’t be that much a loss to trade him for more deckhands. Hell, even a larger, sturdier ship... but... I happen to love my Falchion. It may not be the quickest... nor the prettiest... nor even the fastest, actually, but, then again, neither am I. However, we both have something that those other ships just don’t.”
“And what’s that?”
“The element of surprise.”
Before any of them could move, before any of them realized, Ponitius had lunged right at the red Itchyoman. A black handle gleamed in his hand. A silver button glistened on its handle with the moonlight, the end of that handle aimed right at the shark man’s throat. Ponitius cocked his head, clicked the button, and the Itchyoman gasped, clamping his eyes shut... before he opened them and saw the comb at the end. Ponitinus had taken it from the Itchyoman’s throat, brushing his hair as he lumbered back beside Durnst and Olivier. He hummed a little, flecking the comb off to the right with each, single, swipe through his hair, and clicked the button again. He spun it between his fingers, allowed it to roll on his wrist, and pocketed it once more into the left as he fanned his arms by his sides.
“See? Surprise,” he said, but sighed as he shrugged. “Shame, though. It seems my knife was in the other pocket.”
The Itchyoman blinked several times, the others looking at him, waiting, wondering what to do, until he growled, and tossed his dagger at Ponitius.
“You think you can make me look like a fool? Sod it! Kill them all. We’ll check their corpses for-”
His last words were cut as the dagger he had thrown was returned, right into his gut. Ponitius wiped his hands, the right a touch bloody from where the edge had met it, and sauntered up to the Itchyoman, reaching into another pocket. He retrieved another black handle, and this time a blade did pop free, right into the top of the shark man’s skull.
“There it was. That’s right! I always keep it in my right pocket because I’m a better shot with my left.” He pulled his and the Itchyoman’s knife free from the body, letting it fall as he turned to the others. “Now, anyone else want to volunteer? Is the deal still just as sweet, or has my little, uh, rebuttal soured it a touch?”
The look on their faces, the way their teeth ripped out of their gums, told him that all of them, all eight of them, were not exactly pleased. Four charged him, including the lovely informant from the bar, while the others charged Durnst and Olivier. Durnst’s teeth ripped free as well, and howled an otherworldly challenge as they came close. Cheer from the alleys, that had gone on even as tensions rose, were silenced as he leaped right on one of the two that dared to answer it.
But that meant Olivier had to deal with his two. Alone.
He reached for his sword, his eyes filled with pure yellow. He fumbled on the handle, on the pommel, backing up as the pair closed in on him, snarling as they fiddled with the knives. The sword slid out far enough for it to teeter out of the sheathe, and Olivier fumbled for it. He exclaimed as he clawed after it, grasping for dear life, until his left got a firm grip on the cross-guard. He managed to get it turned around and a good hold on its handle before he almost dropped it again, hitting against the stick-hut behind him at last.
Where an Itchyoman jumped onto his back.
They shrieked, clawed at Olivier’s head, trying to reach for his throat as he kept his head down. He stumbled back into the other two, bowling them aside as he fell onto the sandstone road. The Itchyoman rolled off him, raising as he did as well, and sparks flew from his blade as one of the other’s knives sung off it, dragging down to the handle. The Itchyoman wrenched at his hand while the other hit him squarely in the jaw, making stars burst to life and flutter before his starry eyes, but he held strong to the sword, as if his life depended on it. Because it does. Just like the Leocarn... No. Worse. I can’t even run.
He pushed the Itchyoman away, and had to jump to the side as the Itchyoman behind tried to grab and ride him again. He met another dagger, and this time he did not wait for it to slide down. He pushed him off, panting already, making the three laugh.
“You wear the colors, but are already winded from a couple strokes?” The one that jumped him boomed, sneering at him. “The real Dread Pirate would have you gutted for your weakness.”
It’s true, he thought, sword shaking in his grip, but he kept it raised and pointed at them. I have no idea how to really fight. This has all been just dumb luck, and it’s only a matter of time before that runs out.
Which became more apparent as one of the dagger-wielding Itchyoman charged him again. They had it was raised over their head, its tip pointed down, its shadow boring into Olivier as he cowered under it. He held his sword before him, ready to meet it, but the Itchyoman grabbed it, instead, and slammed the pommel of the dagger into Olivier’s hand, wrestling his blade from his grip. He held on for as long as he could, but ultimately had to let go, ridden once more, rode right into the ground, where he was held.
The cold steel of his own blade pressed against his nape, drawing a touch of blood just from its caress, making the Itchyoman chortle.
“This must have been one of his weapons, too. It’s way too sharp to have been honed by any craven thing like you,” he said, and raised the blade. The moon glinted along its cold edge, and before it ever touched him its glare already cut into Olivier, seeming to drain his life away, leaving him cold. Had no hope left, no luck on his side, finally taken since he began, and now all that was left for him was despair. The Itchyoman grunted, tensing, readying to bring the sword down upon him.
The Itchyoman toppled after it, missing his head, lost in the time since Olivier last saw him. The Itchyoman on his back scrambled off, uttering a soft wheeze as something squelched and slid through them while the last Itchyoman cried out as it charged a pair of black boots. It, too, was dropped.
The boots turned around, scuffling softly on the sandstone, and Olivier felt two hands wrench at his shoulders, lifting him to his feet. He passed a pair of tight, black leather pants and a matching black doublet. Pink scale and flesh burned between her shoulders and her pair of long dark gloves, little more than thick gauze dyed black and rolled up into a pair of pauldrons and gloves, leaving the underside of her arms exposed.
The Itchyoman’s green eyes gleamed with the moonlight, the shade of emerald, and she handed Olivier back his sword, still dripping with blue blood.
“That’s a very nice blade. I will have to teach you to use it,” she said, and waited beside him as he tried to sheathe it. He missed four times before he managed to sink the blade into the leather holster, just as Durnst and Ponitius lumbered over. “I would have helped you guys, but you looked like you had it.”
“Thank you,” Olivier mumbled, a touch pink from what she basically said. I was useless.
“Indeed. If you hadn’t shown up, we would have lost our guide,” Ponitius said, still holding his daggers, and pointed one at the Itchyoman. “Then again, you already knew that, didn’t you?”
The Itchyoman shrugged, giggling.
“Guilty,” she said. “I’ve been following him since you guys left the bar. His coat cast such a lovely shadow. Thought he almost got me out in the yard, but I thought I had you both fooled.”
“My eyes may not be as sharp as they used to, but I can still smell an Itchyoman... even in the company of another.”
“At least one of you could. I’m surprised the master cook didn’t.”
“I dedicate myself to the craft and take it incredibly seriously,” Durnst said in his defense, and slurped his teeth back into his gums. “Anyways, what is it that you want? A cut?”
“I simply want to tag along... Let us simply say I have some unfinished business with the crew of the Scylla, and anything that points me to their whereabouts now is going to be a boon.”
“Well, I can’t really say there’s not enough room,” Ponitius said. “After all, you were able to slip into my shop and home and remain a shadow. In fact, you would take up less than our guide, and you did save him... So... Welcome aboard, miss...”
“Squall. My name is Squall.”