The Scylla

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IV

Though the Kraken’s crew was now free, able to wander the streets of Carapai, the ship was not left without its own share of TLC. The stevedore watched, waited, made sure all that were leaving the ship were long gone from the coral port and lost to the pearl streets before tending her. The first would be cleaning it, clearing it of the barnacles that the lorimon only started to loose, but their priority was the figurehead, carved into the shape of Natalie, given the respect and gleam she deserved. Her bright, blue skin stood out against the ferrisom bark, her white dress speckled with gems of red, blue, and yellow. They glistened as they tossed buckets upon buckets on her, fervently scrubbing off every single barnacle, every mite of imperfection that dared to besmirch and sully and disgrace their life-giver. Her arms were stretched out, as if reaching, wanting to embrace them, embrace them all, for their compassion, their love, but do not be fooled. The grin on her soft, rounded face as well as the warmth in her white eyes could be just as likely a smirk and a mischievous fire, her arms meant to snare them and pull them under and take that which she had given them so to return them to her bosom and cradle. There was not an Aceon or a Cephamorian that dared to think otherwise about Natalie; this wasn’t the first Carapai, after all. The other was reduced from its lofty heights, of pride and power to sorrow and humility. Only some of the marble still lingered, far, far to the north, but be warned you who dare to spit in the eye of Natalie: the storm, the maelstrom that had taken it may be gone when you look upon it, when you approach it, but it will appear and take you if you dare to enter that lair.

So they cleaned her. They showed such care and compassion to that figurehead, as much as blessing as a curse, a heavy burden to bear for any of the Aceon or Cephamorian to sail behind, but that meant little to the Itchyomen stevedore. They grumbled and jeered those that bowed under the simple, wooden arms of the figurehead; most wanted nothing more than to break them if not snap her off the ship and watch her sink into the deep. What did their precious “Earth Mother” matter against the powers of Cao’thugar and his Kin? The power of the abyss was far greater than anything She could conjure; the beasts that lurked there were waiting, restless and hungry in the Void, and they would make quick work of her, as they would any who dared not to carry Their blood. It was only a matter of time before the Dark Ones rose, and then they, the Itchyomen, shall be the true masters of the sea, of the land, and even the sky.

Now, though? All they could do was wear their masks, endure what they must, be the nomads, the outcasts, the pariah and martyr of society that dared not rise above their posts, for pride was their downfall long before. So they kept their heads down. They did their meager tasks, took their enjoyment, and allowed their true intentions known in small, almost jovial bursts, for, as long as they believed they were allies, it made sinking the knife all the sweeter. But how long could they stay that knife? How long could they remain patient? The Dark Lords still slumbered, rumbling in the depths, and so they could only jeer and heckle their would-be denizens, leaving them to continue to practice such self-flagellation before a wooden mockery while they moved crates, cleaned the deck, and restocked the larder and supplies. How much must they pay before they are given retribution?

That’s why they moved with such plodded steps, such a heavy, slow gait. They never rushed for anything, nor expected to be rushed, an act of futility if anybody tried. They made their way through the galley of the Kraken, each wet, padding slap of their feet echoing, slurping into every nook and cranny, stirring Olivier from his slumber after a while. He grumbled then gasped, silencing as he held his breath. He cursed in his mind that the box under him groaned from his start, hoping that pair that slunk through his little corner of isolation didn’t notice. Or had been seen. The torches had been struck outside the hall, blue fire roaring gently, lapping at the darkness that had settled, but it was enough to see the soft red and violet scales of the pair in the room with him. The red had long, dangling fins off his arms, their edges held firm by the spines at their tips. Each was as thick as one’s forearm and just as long, scraping against the wall as they lumbered out with another box, closing in on the crates behind him. The violet one growled as she popped her back, long, jagged spikes running its length down to a crooked tail, swinging, slapping the red in the back.

“Watch it!” He boomed, snapping at her, and shoved the box into her arms. Lucky enough, it blocked her view of Olivier, while the red was turned away. “If you aren’t doing anything, make yourself useful.”

She growled back, and her tail smacked him once more as she returned the crate. Olivier inched himself back with it, making sure he was still well behind it.

“I am in charge of loading,” she said, a little... wet. The room gained an iron scent, blood dribbling from her gums. “Which I cannot do unless you hurry up and do your job!”

“I am going as fast as I can! This entire ship reeks of Cephamorian.”

“Especially this room. Was the good captain using it to make use of his crew?”

“Who knows with that one. He’s an odd one. Pays well enough, though.”

“Never had a brood; there’s a rumor he and the skipper are lying in sin.”

“It would make sense. Why else would the captain step down and take his skipper’s old place?”

“Many an enemy could be made on the high seas, especially with your own sister manning the pride of the fleet.” She growled again, covering for her gag, and her tail sparked off the wall, instead. “Will you quit dallying? I wish to be off this fetid ship.”

He chortled, a raspy thing, and his footsteps once more slurped away, followed by the woman after. Both none the wise of Olivier. At least, it seemed that way. He waited, counted to fifty, slow, pacing it out if only to still his heart, before exhaling at last, taking quick breaths as he threw the sack of rice and spice off him. That was close; he had forgotten to cover himself up with it. A rookie mistake. He had seen the cost first-hand when someone forgets; that Aceon’s shell clacked outside his porthole for a month.

If he had been seen, by the wrong person, when the ship first docked, he... he did not want to think about it. He shuddered at the very thought of which he would not continue on, and dug his finger into the soft, off-white fabric of the sack, working along its seam until he found a loose one. He gave it a quick flick, and bit it, tugging hard until the smell of spice hit his nose, making his stomach growl. How he wanted to engorge, to give in to his true hunger, but he took out a palm full and rolled the top shut, curling up behind it as he lavished on the meal bestowed upon him. He ate each grain, each fingernail-length piece of dried rice, one-by-one. He chewed them once, twice, thrice before taking a hard bite, cracking it into more before repeating four times, finally swallowing and continuing onto the next, a practice he had done too many times before, too, too many times before. There was only one left in time, and he savored it, chewing six instead of three, biting eight instead of four, before lapping his hand, those suckers clean of the spice, swallowing it down with a hard, scratchy gulp. He ripped off a bit of fabric by his left knee and balled it into his hand, squeezing it hard over his mouth. A thimble’s worth of water rained from it, but it was enough to stave thirst for a bit while longer.

How much longer, though, he thought, and hit his head, his shell against the crate again, looking back towards the window. Not much a view with the crate in front of it, but it was better than nothing, better than jumping at shadows that rose from the torches in the doorway across the room. How long will I truly stay here? How long can I?

He sighed, but cut it short as he heard steps approaching again.

This time, however, they were not Itchyomen.

No plodding nor slothful squelches followed in those steps’ wake. Instead, they were quick, with soft scratching and even softer thumps. Olivier hugged his legs against him, trying his best to shrink behind the sack of spice and rice again, but curiosity would not let him completely cower. One eye kept above the sack, the star surrounded in blue and green, flashing with orange as the steps grew closer, as the thunks of their soles became prominent, clomping under light steps, steps that made the tendrils on his head writhe a touch, remembering the soft stampede of them when he was young.

Those are Terrahn boots. He completely ducked behind the sack of spice and rice as he caught a glimpse of them as they passed the room. Only a glimpse, the smallest wisp of one, but they were a child of clay. What were they-

He shrunk, cowered more as the plodding steps of the Itchyomen returned, their laughter, their growls bounding off the wood, hammering him ever smaller as they entered again. The violet one set down her crates beside him, almost crushing the sack, but at least he was lucky. He was able to keep what food he had as they created his tomb. He heard the red one pick up another box, and growled as another shuffled.

“Thought you said you was in charge of loading?” He spat.

“I was,” the female said, “but that was it.”

“Truly? And now you’re helping me?”

“You’re right. What am I thinking?”

She chortled as he growled, panting, straining as wood creaked, stilled as she hefted again. Olivier settled back against his crate, wondering if he shouldn’t simply jump out there, or knock against the wood, or scream. Now, of all times, would be perfect. Workers in a good mood? Even if they were Itchyomen, surely they would only hobble his legs, seeing him in his current state, and let him crawl off along the port of Carapai, but that window closed quick as their footsteps retreated out of the galley again, leaving him there in the dark.

Though not alone, as he recalled.

He reached back for the crate again, and grunted, panted as he tried to stand, his legs shaking, quaking under him. Once, twice he fell, biting back his wincing, but the third he managed to fully stand on quivering legs. He was able to see above the crates at last, out into the flickering hallway. Curiosity had overtaken preservation, so he simply stared, watched, waited to see if the Terrahn would pass again, both wishing yet dreading it.

Who were they? Why were they here? He shook his head, almost making himself fall as he did, his heart as hollow as the thought crossed him. Would they be better than the crew? Would they spare me? Save me?

Time, however, would give him his answer. His legs could no longer keep him up, not in the returned plods of the Itchyomen. He had seen there were only two crates left in the right part of the room, and he couldn’t hide his raspy croak as he fell, nor the crack of his shell on the boards. He covered his mouth as the steps stopped. He tried to turn around, to flop over to the sack, and grimaced as his head hit the boards again, thundering through the depths, ringing as if like a bell. The steps returned in answer, rushing into the room, and their snorts reverberated the walls, seeming to smack against his back, curling into himself.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! He thought, biting his knuckle, trying so hard to still his panting, to hold his breath. Why did you think that was a good idea? We are done for. Why didn’t we stay still? Why did we look? Why d-

He seemed to freeze as he heard the crates behind groan, more and more rime sinking into his back as the light from the hall flickered on it. It was only a matter of time now, for them to find him, so he closed his eyes, clasped his hands, and waited. He hoped that death would at least be swift, that his end would at least be a dignified one, and that his mother and father would never hear of it. His heart became the time, beating, ticking away, dreading the wait as it seemed to stretch on for eternity...

Instead warmed again, thawed as the boxes lowered, allowing him in darkness’s embrace once more.

He wondered why, but then heard it this time.

Rattling.

“Someone’s messing around in the larder,” the male Itchyoman said.

“Why did we think they were in here?” The female said, and snapped as she gave chase after the first set of plodding steps, letting Olivier’s heart settle at last.

Rising again as he worried for his Terrahn “friend”.

They must have heard, he thought, and raised his hand, curling it into a tight ball. They must have heard, and did so to save...

He gulped, and knocked on the wood, strong, loud. It was only twice, but the squelching steps returned. The male Itchyoman growled as he slammed his hands against the crate, turning around again as the rattling continued until, with one, loud ring of the bell, they were forced to leave the ship, to hopefully, simply state they were tired or were drinking and heard things. That was Olivier’s hope. But hope was immaterial; knowledge gives some catharsis, and what he did know was he owed that Terrahn his life, a debt he wasn’t sure he could pay.

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