Hell and Ice Water
Though Tarjen was... “gifted” a skipper, an Aqua Alliance vessel had three stations that must be met when on official business: Captain, Skipper, and Snapper. The last was always the hardest to fill, not because people didn’t have the ambition or means but of the stigma it brought. No one, save for the foulest, the darkest-hearted, or the most sadistic ever truly wanted to carry the whip. They consumed the sins of the crew, forced to be burdened by it and their hate for simply doing what was expected of them. It was a symbol of fear, of anger and hatred, all condensed into a single item that plagued and ate at whoever carried it to the point they no longer wanted more. Most didn’t last even half a tour, pleading to the captain to give up their duty, and they welcomed their own lashings of treason with a smile, knowing they were free.
Those that persevered, that endured, either discarded their humanity, their soul, so they could do their job with callous indifference, or retained who they were and found ways to mitigate and aid their crew. The latter was oft more sinister; those cast aside who they were became like drones, golems to their masters, cogs to the machine that could be replaced if they break, but those that embraced the darkness could not be made immaterial. They could not be subsidized, could not be simply discarded, and, instead, became a force so profound that they garnered respect from simply being around them, a beacon of strength and hope in a dark, dark world. They would rally the worthy around them, and any that stood before them would be taken care of. Not because of vengeance or trivialities but because they were aimed towards a just cause, given a captain that survived the blackest of seas.
But the Kraken wasn’t on official Aqua Alliance business. It continued on its course, creaking, groaning with gratitude from the skeleton crew that maintained it, kept in place by their humble captain, slumbering peacefully through the night. It was around dawn’s first kiss when the sparrow that had been sent by its captain finally saw land. Lam Berel’s ports were already teeming with crew and help alike, a constant exchange as ships were as quick to arrive as to leave. Traders and travelers entered and exited from the north in droves, yet the town never seemed to shrink, never truly dwindled nor quieted. Even at night; it might have dulled to a soft buzz instead of the constant roar that bound from every street, but it was still so very much alive.
Save for the Itchyomen district, that is.
An eerie darkness always seemed to hold onto those stick huts. Clouds were ever gathered, readied to wash the streets in another wash at always one’s inconvenience. No light ever dared to shine at night, no warmth ever touched its streets, blanketed in thick fog that not even the strongest of daylight truly pierced. That didn’t stop the voices, though, hushed, sullen, often dour murmurs rattling and hissing from home to home, always in answer to the sounds that dared to disturb their sanctuary in their little corner of the world.
The sparrow’s wings carried the dawn’s soft kiss, a flutter of orange through gray, slowed as it approached the district. It fought the urge to rush, to keep its feathers stilled, lest one wrong ruffle wrought a dark tendril from the dark windows and doorways. No other birds dared to come here, to roost on the spindly roofs, so quick to cave-in, and the Itchyomen were not picky about what they ate.
However, the sparrow soldiered on, fluttering by thatch after hut, until it felt the stick hut it swooped into was the right one. It was one of the bulkier houses of the district. It had a hay roof, and had four lines of cots in it, three of the rows currently filled. But the sparrow didn’t pay them any mind, heading to the bed furthest from the entrance, along the fourth row against the right wall, away from the windows that lined the left. It kept them in mind in all the same, in case one of the Itchyomen reached out and crunched upon it.
It finally found solace, though, resting on the crook of an Aceon’s claw, leaning against the back wall. Plu crinkled a little as his black, stalky eyes unglazed, wiping it clean with his left claw, and looked at the sparrow perched on his hulking right, easily four times the size of the other. Its feathers clashed against his bright red shell; even its sleek sheen went against the rough, rugged angles his shell had become.
The sparrow hopped a bit towards the edge of his claw, towards a nook, a crack that exposed the purple pulsing under, hiding the pink flesh underneath thick barbs. He reached, slowly, gently towards the sparrow, to grab the letter on his leg, but the Itchyoman before him stirred, and the bird retreated to the rafters.
Bubbles smacked his lips together as he groaned, clearing his right pink beady eyes, the left ones covered in bloodied rags. For an Itchyomen, he was rather plain, with no true, outstanding change in his body. He was a uniform gray, with scales the same lusterless gray running down his sleek, meek body. His bottom was covered in a pair of shabby black slacks, with only a hint of a tail pushing out of them. A pure blood.
He groaned, reaching towards those bandages, ready to claw away, but was stopped by Plu.
“It needs it something bad,” Bubbles grumbled, and groaned again as he was forced to put his arm down, even as it continued to twitch and tremble and torment him, a reminder of his failure. Of that Terrahn’s blades, the Terrahn that had ruined his plans, that had taken his one true chance of greatness from him.
I had him, he thought, clenching the cot. Not too hard let it raised suspicion, learned after weeks of being on it, and only being on it. All he could do was lay there and feeling his eyes take their sweet time to regrow with the soothsayer’s balm. She must have been using the cheaper stuff, must have. No way, by Cal’Thugar’s great wisdom, would a proper tincture take this long to grow a simple pair of eyes back, and now it was costing him precious seconds to hunt down that freak. I should be sovereign by now... Curse that wretched Terrahn, doubly so for that abomination! When I get out of here, I swear I will find them, and I will string the freak up and force him to watch as I take my sweet, sweet time with the Terrahn. And it will be... satisfying.
Plu trilled, a deep sound, and once more Bubbles was pulled from his mental tirade. The Aceon pointed to the roof, and he watched as the sparrow descended. It landed on Plu’s claw, watching Bubbles intently, and only pecked at Plu when he had to tug the scroll a touch forcefully to remove it, rustling its feathers. Plu gently rolled his large claw before him, the sparrow bobbing with it, and a pair of reading glasses materialized in the middle of the spiral, raising to his stalky eyes before he held up the note.
“From the captain?” Bubbles blurted, and winced as he rolled on his side, sitting up on his left elbow. “Is he coming to get us?”
Plu ignored him, the tiny legs before his frills fidgeting incessantly.
Before stilling all at once.
The reading glasses faded away a moment, but Plu was quick to regain them, his arm crunching with how fast he rolled, reading, rereading, and rerereading what he had just read. A visible shudder ran through the Aceon’s shell, making it crinkle, and purple barbs slowly rose out as if like gooseflesh.
“What? What’s wrong?” Bubbles said, and once again was met with silence. He growled, his teeth slipping from his gums, and reached out for Plu. “Oi! Don’t leave me out of the loop! What’s going on?”
Plu simply stared out into space, though, lost in contemplations, but at least the barbs had slipped back inside. He finally noticed Bubbles pulling on his claw, and yanked free, rolling it again. This time, a wave pulsed from it, right into Bubbles, and his gray scale turned white.
“The Scylla? The captain’s going after the Scylla?” He said, and winced as he stood. The soothsayer started to rush over, hissing more than her long sail on the roof, reaching out for him, but he held out his arm. He wobbled a moment, strength drained from him due to the tincture (energy to grow body parts back had to come from somewhere), but he managed to hold, panting hard as he glowered at the soothsayer then at Plu. “What are we waiting for? The captain needs us.” Plu looked at him... then simply scuttled around, hurrying towards the entry. “H-hey! Wait.”
Bubbles tried to give chase, but the Aceon moved as if possessed, his feet more skirting through the air than crinkling on the cobblestone. That didn’t stop the Itchyoman from trying, though, even against the soothsayer’s wishes, speaking in the Dark, begging him to return to his cot, but he refused. He would not lose this chance, and that gave him the strength to push passed her thick fins and thicker form to chase after.
Plu had slowed as he approached the main district, outside of the tavern and straight across from the stairs leading down to the port. Bubbles caught up with him, and the two sauntered through the crowd, making sure not to draw too much attention. They were going to get noticed regardless; Itchyomen weren’t exactly welcomed to the main areas of the city.
“So is the captain coming to get us right now?” Bubbles panted against Plu’s eye, wheezing. “How far away is he?” Plu uttered a distorted groan, and weaved another wave, bringing concern. “Wait. He’s not? Then where are we-”
Another wave hit before he even finished, and Plu pushed him back, hurrying down the stairs to the docks. He gave Bubbles a few choices. He could either head back to the Itchyoman district, scout the tavern, town, and nearby districts, or to do something he still wasn’t sure was possible. He kept looking down at his waist whenever he wasn’t bumbling to a tavern or store, perplexed with how his spine would even go about it, but he gave up on it after the sixtieth person told him they haven’t heard any rumors of the Scylla.
He was about to give up, to return to his cot. The world was spinning so fast that it was reduced to a line before him as he lumbered up the blue stone and entered the tavern before the stairs to the port at last, but managed to keep his strength as he collapsed into one of the stools at the bar. He put his head down on the counter, welcoming its cool embrace, but was disturbed as it was knocked upon, bouncing his head and making him look up to see its keeper giving him a sad smile. An empty gesture to be sure.
“Looks like you have one helluva story,” the barkeep said, and wiped out a mug before preparing it before six copper taps, each topped with a black handle. “So what can I get you?”
“Just water... and information,” Bubbles said, and waited for the bartender to fill the clear glass from the sink behind him. He put the mug down beside and reached under for a simple bucket with a black lid over it. When he pulled it open, though, frosty mist billowed out, and he dumped a bit of ice into the mug, snapping it shut once more before handing it to Bubbles.
“Alright. Now for that second one. What do you want?”
Bubbles held up a finger as he took a long, deserved drink from that chipped mug, not stopping even as the cold made his teeth ache, and knocked it down on the bar, emptied save for the ice.
The bartender scoffed, leaned back against the sink with crossed arms.
“What do you want with a legend?”
“Let’s simply say I’m looking for it. Got any leads?”
“Well, normally I would tell you no and to sober up. However, strangest thing: a Cephamorian-Terrahn came in not long ago wearing the Dread Pirate’s colors. He was looking for Pony Boy... Ponitius Barolei. A local cobbler. He went to check for him at the Stay Golden bar, but his place of business is down the bourgeois district. No use looking for him, though; he closed business and simply left one night.”
“How long ago?”
“About a month or so. Around the same time the Itchyomen district was hit. Now, I’m no betting man, but a... person? We’ll go with person. Somebody comes in toting the Dread Pirate’s colors and that night there’s a mass murder in the Itchyoman district? That’s far too coincidental to not be tied.”
“Any idea where he, or they, may have gone?”
“No idea, but the stablelass said he saw him come from the west. His horse is still housed there.”
“West? Is there any towns that way?”
“Great. Thank you.”
Bubbles stood from the bar, began towards the door, but the barkeep hopped over the bar and blocked his way. He smacked a heavy maul into his left hand, procured from under the bar along the way, and sneered down at him.
“Where do you think you’re going? You didn’t pay for your drink?”
“You charge for water?”
“I charge for ice. That stuff ain’t cheap.”
Bubbles scoffed, and reached into the pockets of his pants, finding three gold coins, imbued with sapphires. He slapped them on the counter, and the bartender allowed him to pass, the world renewed to its full vision once more. It gained color, deeper shades of yellow running through everything as noon approached. Bubbles contemplated (for a second) going to tell Plu this news, but his feet decided for him, his gums splitting, teeth freeing in agreement as he rushed towards the stables, instead. There was finally a lead; the hunt was on.