The clash of steel. The roar of the waves. The colors that bounded between them as the sun continued its intimate cycle with the sea, the deck burning bright orange and purple in the dusk. Not once did the pair relent, Olivier adamant to keep training, to better himself. Squall answered in kind, both drenched in sweat from the heat of the sun and battle, their feet squeaking, biting into the deck. Their boots were by Durnst, which he had been busy. Several old, broken crates sat beside, handfuls crunched away then pressed together to make would-be assailants, scattered across the bow. Some, the last few, even had a few cuts in them, deflected by Olivier.
Though his body ached, it and his mind begging for rest, Olivier never felt more alive. He had never felt so... free... which is why his eyes filled with red when Squall sheathed her blade. He was about to exclaim when she held up her hand, yawning.
“Okay. I’m going to call it,” she grumbled.
“What? Why?” He whined. “I wasn’t doing that bad, was I?”
“That b- Olivier. You are doing very well.” She giggled, lost to another yawn then a groan she cracked her back. “Have you not noticed?”
“... We’ve been at it for hours. We’re going to have to work harder on that tunnel vision.”
“I can only be in so many places at once,” Durnst grumbled, tossing another disc... shaking his head. Olivier was only able to hit it with the handle of his sword. “You’re slowing down, lad.”
Olivier growled, and kicked the disc away, taking a step towards Squall.
“Of course I noticed, but... but I can do more. I swear! Please... w... we can stop just after a bit m-”
“Food,” Ponitius exclaimed, lumbering up the deck. He had his arms held out, as stiff as a board, lurching towards Durnst. “Food! I need food... Why isn’t there any food made, Durnst?”
“Because I’ve been helping Olivier,” Durnst said. “As I said I would.”
“You guys have been at it all day?”
“Exactly my point,” Squall said, tittering as she walked over, picked up her boots, and jumped over the railing. “I’m going to go grab a bite to eat then crash. I would recommend the same to you, Olivier!”
“There’s only leftovers from this morning,” Ponitius grumbled, wincing as his stomach growled. “Ah, sod it. I’m going back to bed for a touch. Better be something made by the time I wake, Durnst. Being made a liar is one thing, but not feeding us is grounds for mutiny.”
He continued to grumble as he descended the stairs again, heading across the dock to the captain’s quarters. Durnst watched after, waiting for Ponitius to clamber up the steps on the other side and to slump into his bed once more before he patted Olivier’s shoulder.
“If he were patient, I would have told him I had a roast in the oven,” he said, sniggering. “Should be nice and ready now. I’ll even cut a few potatoes, carrots, and a few other veggies and start a stew with the bone tonight.”
“That sounds exceptional,” Squall said, making them both jump. Olivier looked over the railing and saw that she was standing by the water barrel, ladle still in hand. Her face dripped with it, pattering on the deck, kept dry for so long. She smiled up at them, Durnst having done the same as Olivier. “Thank you for your help today, big guy.”
“It’s not a big deal. I said I would. Besides, I knew as soon as I saw the squirt he was going to need all the help he can get. That’s an awful big coat for him to fill.”
Durnst chortled as he nudged Olivier’s shoulder, but, without the surge of training, without the rush of combat, his body was a statue. It took everything he could to lumber down the steps into the galley, down the hall again to the dining room. Durnst was behind him the entire time, Squall leading the way. He pushed by once they reached the kitchen, and it was enough to knock Olivier onto the stool, just turning around to the crate as Durnst put three bowls filled with roast on the table.
He turned around, about to grab forks when there was a ghastly wail above, a scream of sorrow, rage, and, above all, hunger. Feet rushed across the deck, stomping down into the galley, and Ponitius stormed into the kitchen, panting, spluttering.
“Th... there was-” He began, silenced as Durnst handed him his bowl, going back for another.
“Your tab’s open again,” Durnst stated, he and Squall laughing while Olivier picked at his meat, fading in and out as he nibbled more on the fork than the tender flesh.
The gilded glider flowed across the ocean. Water gushed, roared in its wake, bringing with it a mighty wave that crashed onto the shore as they made land as the ground, too, churned after. Olivier revved the engines of the Zephrian masterwork, dust and sand turned into glass rose to the heavens. Gwen squeezed his middle, quivering a touch from how he pushed it, forced its limits, but he knew those runes could handle it. He knew they would have to be white hot before they were in danger, and he just kept them on the edge of that, burning bright red.
He revved it again, making her gasp as the runes did turn white, and the glider boomed. The brush underneath, the plains caught alight as they raced towards the mountain and its smoking heights. Drakes circled their goliath heights, shrieking, as Leocarn and even Bohelioths lurched free from its shadow. The drakes swooped down, their blue hide changing into a sapphire bolt, their four eyes like gleaming rubies glaring through and baring down upon them.
“Look out!” Gwen screeched, hugging him tighter. Olivier huffed, smirking, and revved the glider as hard as it could, pulling back on the handles. The glider reared, the fire from the runes boiling the earth under it, but he held on the brake. The runes started to spark and crackle, making the entire glider buzz eerily, but he paid it no mind, watching those bolts of blue. Gwen cried out again, holding him tighter as the world quaked around them, rumbling with the Behelioths’ four, heavy hooves. They roared, making the air ripple with their unhallowed shrieks, as their pincers and claws continued to scrape against one another. The Leocarn were hot on their heels, their tails whipping, lashing, tearing at the dirt, but Olivier did not falter, did not lose focus on those blue streaks.
The glider began to teeter back, the ground which had been under such heat for so long cratering, melted into a pool of molten rock. The drake was almost upon them, its foul breath coating his face in fetid spray, and only then did Olivier let go of the brake. The glider boomed, shooting out of the crevice it had carved, and streaked long the back of the drake, continuing on into the sky, while the drake was left with a face full of lava. It shrieked and clawed and was silenced as it fell into the pool, engulfed by the risen crimson tide.
The Behelioths, the Leocarns could only look on as Olivier flew over them, kept in the air by the other drakes, until he could see above the labyrinth before the alcove. Olivier could see their destination, and he aimed the glider at it, as true as an arrow. He revved the engine, making it hit white again, and barreled towards those worn doors, jumping off just before they made impact. He held Gwen tight, kept her face curled towards his chest as it exploded, covering his back in soot and scratches.
She looked up at him, her deep blue eyes wide yet filled with such warmth and hope and respect for him.
“I had to knock somehow,” he said, shrugging as he stood and turned around. There, waiting on the other side of the wreckage, was a hulk of an Itchyoman. Their black and purple scales seemed to pulse from the green fire that burned before them yet they kept none of its warmth, allowing them to become one with the shadows of the cave. “An audience! I hope I didn’t disappoint.”
The Itchyoman growled, their six pink eyes narrowing, glowing, growing as their charged at him. Gwen hid behind Olivier, begging him to draw his sword, but why? Why waste metal on a thug? Why dull the edge on such a brute?
No. He had to knock twice.
The Itchyoman burst free of the shadows that held them, their two sets of jaws wide, raining blood on him, but Olivier punched them right on the snout. The brute yipped and fell back, moaning, nigh whimpering as they held it. They looked up at Olivier, fear shining in his eyes, but Olivier was not done with them. He shoved their hands aside, grabbed their nose, his suckers holding firm, and dragging them into the cavern, through the green flames. They shrieked through the tunnels, screamed in agony, writhed under his grip, but they couldn’t get free, not until Olivier threw them into the campfire at the bottom of the entry.
Before a whole slew of other Itchyomen.
All were far larger than the guard, almost a wall, a wave of purple and black, rising like a tide as dozens, hundreds packed the rooms, watching their companion flail in the flames before going still, sizzling away. Their attention shifted to Olivier, to Gwen behind him. She shuddered even more, stilled a touch as she held him tighter, while he drew his sword. Blue runes burned along its steely edge, turned red as the Itchyomen loomed.
He simply smiled, and swung. Ten, twenty, fifty fell from the gesture alone, long before the flame that flew from the edge ever touched them. His coat fluttered behind him, but it was no wind that caused it but his very strength, burning brighter, whipping it into more a storm as he swung again and again.
All fell before him, and he was able to make it to the antechamber with ease. Gwen embraced him tighter with each swipe, with each platoon of Itchyomen and brigands taken down, mumbling her gratitude and want into his ear, but he paid her no mind. He had his duty, above all.
He stopped before the antechamber’s door, looking at the Arthrogon skull hanging above it. Its eyes, their multiple lenses, seem to swivel, focused on him.
“Now that I’ve got your attention,” he said, and it howled as he kicked open the door. At the other end of the hall was a giant of a Cephamorian, filling the coat Olivier was in far better than he ever could. They wielded a pair of shotels, their copper blades burning green from the blue torches on the walls, while the edges under his eyes were purple from the red burning in his pentacle eyes.
“You think you have what it takes to wear that coat?” The Cephamorian boomed. His voice conjured shadows, rippling, slurping as a crew of the damned pulled themselves free from them. The lock boxes on the tables shuddered and flew open, and husks of men and women rose from them, their dark, mangled forms oozing out and flopping onto the carpet. They writhed, flailed, but all raised as one from the white fire that lanced between them, returned to those shotels. The Cephamorian pointed the right at Olivier, and a bit of chain rattled free from its handle, wrapping four times over around his wrists.
“Cool toy,” Olivier said, and brandished his sword. “I hope you don’t mind that I brought my own.”
The Cephamorian bellowed, and his army charged at Olivier. He simply smirked, huffed, and swung his blade, reducing them all to ashes, bringing it back before him to knock the first shotel aside in its flight. The second, though, he caught, and wrapped it around his hand, pulling the Cephamorian in, growling, panting as he fought back.
“What do you think you’re doing? Do you really think you stand a chance against me?” The Cephamorian exclaimed, and unwrapped the chain from his own wrist. He snapped his other shotel from the chain as well, waving it, summoning another round of shadows. “Even if you beat me, you still have to deal with the captain.”
“Maybe then it’ll be a fair fight,” Olivier said, and tossed the shotel back at the Cephamorian, crying out as he charged. He made it to the Cephamorian before the blade did, and stuck his sword into the Cephamorian’s large head. He left it there, rolled back, did three somersaults in the air, and embraced Gwen, covering her from another explosion. This one of blood and bile. He let her go with a sigh, wiping away the single bit of green blood that had hit her cheek, making her blush. “You okay?”
“Of course,” she said, almost wistfully. “You’re with me.”
She leaned in for a kiss, but Olivier turned away, flaring his jacket as he marched through the hall again. He retrieved his sword, flecked the blood off it, and stabbed it into the red iron door at the end. It creaked. It shrieked against his blade, fighting as if alive, but fell before as everything else had, allowing him into the spiraling s-
It was only the chest on the other side.
Olivier blinked, a slight buzzing rising in his mind, making his heart race. He looked behind, and saw that Gwen wasn’t there. Not even the hall was there. A shiver ran down his spine, heart beating hard into his ears, filling his eyes with yellow as he slowly looked back to the chest.
There was Gwen instead, floating above it.
She was wrapped in darkness, gasping, wheezing, every breath agony. Her head was between her feet, her body doubled over. Her arms were broken, bent in three angles that arms should never be in, while her hands were open. And writhing towards him. Tears of blood showered from her eyes, from the ceiling, slurping and scraping at his senses as he found that his feet were cemented by the congealed mass, rising around him.
“You left me,” she wheezed. The darkness trailed from her hands towards him, rumbling, shaking, shattering the world around as it rotted it away. “You forgot me.”
“No,” Olivier said, repeated. He tried to back away from her, tried to writhe free from the mass, and managed enough to turn around.
Just to see her behind, mangled in an all new way. Her arms were snapped at the elbow, the bone allowed to protrude. Blackened, yellow flesh dangled from her arms as her middle was-
Olivier turned away from it, back to the first, barely more than a breath. If she were to stretch out her arms, she could touch him, something he was very thankful she did not do. Instead, he felt a warmth rising from below. He looked down, at the red mass, now waist high, and saw the darkness writhe up his midriff, turning it purple. Red lines pulsed, matching the ones on his arm, finally whole again as it consumed him.
Olivier woke up screaming. He did not know he was screaming until he heard it and silenced himself, wondering who was screaming. He blinked away the sleep that still held to his eyes, head aching as his heart beat against his chest, not settling no matter how hard he clenched it. He still wondered who had screamed, waited for it to return, but, slowly, it came to him, as well as why his throat was hoarse.
Just a dream. Nothing more, he thought, but that didn’t stop him from gripping his jacket tighter, from trying to shrink deeper into its folds. It may have only been a dream, but Olivier couldn’t help but be Olivier and dwell on it, on the guilt it had brought to the surface. Again. It was right. He did abandon her. He didn’t mean to, but he did, and now what was he doing? Hunting down a fabled ship? Why? How would that help save her or stop the darkness? But the journal was in the chest, the journal that pointed to the ship... that was a hint, wasn’t it? It was the only hint I had.
He growled, more in frustration about himself, and turned to the right in the cot, towards the tiny room of the galley.
Seeing a pair of glittering green eyes peering back.
“Bad dream?” Squall said.
“Y... yeah,” he croaked, wincing. His throat still burned.
The greens rose, left the room and returned, looming over him. She handed him a bottle of water and sat on the bed beside. She waited until he sat up, waited until he managed to find the stopper and drank, long and deep. He gulped down wave after wave, making him shiver with how cold, how pure it was, washing away the corruption and taint the dream had left him with, until he ended with a sigh. He handed her back the glass bottle, and she put the stopper back in, patting his arm.
“Better?” She said.
“Yes... Thank you.”
“No big. I was getting up for a drink myself.” She emphasized this by popping her own bottle, gulping down two mouthfuls before putting it back in. Her greens flashed towards him again, and he thought she was smiling, her teeth gleaming through the darkness. “So... want to talk about it?”
“N... not really.”
“It’s nothing. Really.”
“That was a whole lot of screaming for nothing, then... Is it why you were pushing so hard to train?”
“K... kind of... I... None of this should really be happening. If I never left home-”
“Less focus on what if’s, Olivier. You’ll live a longer life if you do... So, how about we make a deal? I’ll let you in on my little life story, about why I am here, if you tell me what has you shrieking like a banshee. Sound good?”
“I... if you go first.”
“You drive a hard bargain, but deal.” She popped the stopper to her bottle again, and set it beside Olivier’s arm. His eyes were starting to adjust to the darkness, and he could see that not only her eyes glittered as she started to reminisce about the past. Her cheeks warmed, her smile spread, and she even grew a touch giggly, biting it back before it could escape her chest. “You see, I was in love. Once upon a time. Still am, but I don’t think he will ever accept me.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I... used to know the Dread Pirate Baro and his skipper.”
“What?!” Olivier sat completely up, knocking the stopper onto the floor. Not that it was needed. Her bottle was almost empty, even more as she took another swig.
“We were all snappers on the Leviathan ten years ago, back when Captain Vah was still alive. Because I was the only Itchyoman on board, everyone... well... hated me. That’s putting it lightly, in truth. They treated me no better than the scum they cleaned off the ship... That is, save for one. A Cephamorian... Nejrat.” She sighed before she took another drink, her cheeks fully red. “We were inseparable... He really was my best friend, my only friend. Ever. He was the person I would turn to every single day to make the job a bit less loathsome and make me feel a bit human. Indeed, everything seemed to be jolly on our first ever sail... that is, until we were running low on supplies. We were due in Lam Berel, but morale had gotten... stabby. Tempers high. As I showed a bit of softness, I was attacked... and Nejrat saved me.”
She finished off her bottle, set it on the ground, and opened another.
“Now, I was a bit miffed with him for a time before that... He didn’t know I was a girl. Can you believe that? I’m a perfect lady.” She burped, long and loud, almost putting Olivier’s screams to shame, and patted her front. “Excuse you... but then I caught him arguing with Baro and the other snapper, the Aceon’s bonny little lass Tys, about me... and he was actually defending me. I forgave him, flaunted my femininity a bit, and, well, that’s why they thought I was soft... I digress, though. Nejrat saved me, but the crew wanted blood. If it wouldn’t be mine, it would be the one that caused the attack.”
She took another drink, and cleared her throat.
“Which promptly lead to that entire chain being executed.”
“W-what?” Olivier said. “What do you mean exe... you don’t mean-”
She nodded, drawing a line across her neck, and took a long drink, ending it with a hard gulp.
“It’s a simple rule at sea: if you are willing to kill another of your crew, you are going to kill again. The captain had originally told Nejrat to do it, but I didn’t want it to be on his hands. He was too... pure. Kind... A bit distant from himself, though. He could never interpret his feelings well... as I found out a few years later.”
“Why? What happened?”
She huffed, shaking her head. “For five, long years, I was smitten with him... and I thought he was with me. We even shared beds once or twice –nothing too lewd or tawdry, mind. But my heart swooned for him –and wanted it, but you probably didn’t want to know that. Too bad! I could never live without him... but then, the day came that Captain Vah’s wife died. He had announced to the crew that Nejrat would be the new captain.” She finished off that flask, and set it down as well, popping the stopper on the third and drinking half of it in one gulp, sniffling. “He tried to break up with me during that... I understood; he didn’t want all the pressure, but we had been together five years. Five years, almost every single day; we were meant to be.”
“But if he broke up how could that be true?”
“Because, again, he wasn’t good with his feelings. You should have seen him after that. He tossed and turned every night. He looked often at my cot, watched for me everywhere, wondering where I would be. He even distanced himself from the other snappers; he was absolutely distraught. I gave him the space he wanted, knowing that we would be together once he had everything settled... a day that never came.”
She finished off her third, and final, flask, and tossed it against the wall across, letting her teeth slip free. She sniffled, inhaled deep... and clacked her jaws shut, smiling at Olivier.
“Well,” she said, “there you have it. Why I am here.”
“So... you’re here to hunt him down?”
“I’m here to set things right. So why don’t y-”
Durnst entered the room.
“We have a problem. Get ready,” he said, and ran down the hall, towards the stairs.
Squall hopped off the bed, pulled Olivier along, and both followed after Durnst, up onto the deck. Ponitius was at the wheel. The ship groaned as he turned it. Water roared as he cut right, and Olivier saw, in the distance, four ships behind. They were closing in fast, though.
A bit of light flashed from one; whistling closed in before the water just to the right of the ship exploded, gushing into the air and onto the deck.
“I had hoped to avoid them,” Ponitius exclaimed. “Get up here, guide!”
Olivier rushed up the stairs, as did Squall.
Durnst was already on Ponitius’s left, growling.
“Is it really them?” Durnst said.
Ponitius handed him his spyglass, pulling the wheel far to the left this time, just in time to avoid another watery blossom.
“Yup. It's their colors. The Iron Scythe is bearing down on us once again.”