Olivier hurried up the long, winding bridges, panting as his shell tried to slow him. The sun had crept into the crater sometime during, taking away the dew at last and washing those creaking, lazing expanses in twinkling light. The boards had a bit of spring to them, letting him bound between each set, allowing him to catch up to Squall and Ponitius just as he opened the door to Strix’s office. Strix and the two other Natorei were already there, Avin and Fili reclining on the desk, panting harder than Olivier.
Six dark blue tea cups were placed on matching saucers around an ornate tea kettle. It was set upon a simple, iron tri-stand in the center of the table. Soft, silk pouches, filled with herbs, cloves, and spices rested inside the cups, almost invisible against the white clay. The outsides were lined in gold, matching the metal under the azure plating on the kettle.
Strix was crouched before the stand, her silver aura pulsing, dimming as it seeped into an orb underneath it. It hissed and sparked as flames began to glow around it. And yet it never touched the wood it rested upon, never tried to indulge its insatiable hunger upon the polished planks it rested upon.
“There we go,” she muttered, and heaved a heavy sigh as she righted herself, seeing Ponitius in the doorway. “Take your seats. It’ll be prepared shortly.”
“I think I’ll prefer to stand for now,” Ponitius said, chortling as he groaned and popped his back. “Sleeping on the floor is not wise for somebody my age.”
“What about drinking enough to kill a large Faun?” Squall said, inching passed and into the room. She plopped down onto the left couch, spreading across it, and yawned, wiping her eyes. “Don’t mind me if I fall asleep.”
“Do you need a pillow, oh feisty fishstick?” Avin said. “Maybe a pillow? How about a pillow; looks like you could use one.”
“A pillow does sound nice-”
“We don’t have any.”
Her eyes slid open, glaring at the pink cloud.
“Then why did you press it?”
“Because I could.”
“I’m starting to understand why Olivier carries around a leaf-”
“Fetching a pillow.”
He zipped out through the open door, just grazing by Olivier, and Ponitius finally entered the room. Olivier was about to enter next but was shoved aside by Bethilius, stomping in. His face was still marked by the Natorei’s pink energy, as well as he had the bit of cloth still tied around his forehead.
“Ah, the last horse finally crosses the finish line,” Strix said. “Pull up a chair from one of the desks; I’ll prepare another tea cup.”
“It’s not needed,” Bethilius grumbled, each step clonking heavily, steady, all the way to the back sofa, taking up its entirety. That left the couch closest to the door for Olivier, who finally stepped into the room. He settled down on it, surprised to find it warm but not unwelcomed. It seemed to pull him into its plush fabric, soothing his weary head. But he would not be taken by it, not like Squall beside, already sawing logs.
Fili whimpered, the blue ball of energy quivering on the desk. Even without seeing her, Olivier could feel her staring at him, wanting him, desiring him. However, whenever her wings started to flutter, the silver light by the teapot would flare, two pinpricks of scarlet flashing towards that blue, and it would settle once more.
Ponitius chortled again, breaking the silence.
“So looks like you had a really fun night, Betty boy,” he said, and traced his jaw line, stretched with a wide grin. “I’m not one to really judge your tastes, but none of that does your face any justice. The rebel tie was a nice touch, however.”
Bethilius simply gave Ponitius a bored look, but pulled the bandana off. He cleared his throat, and turned his attention to Olivier.
“I didn’t see you come into the tavern at all,” he said. “You and Strix must have had a long talk.”
Olivier shrugged. “Not really. I was pretty much in the tavern a few minutes after you left. I just went straight to bed.”
Bethilius snorted, and narrowed his eyes.
“Well? Spit it out.”
“What was so important that she held you back?”
“You would have known if you hadn’t ran out of the tavern like a petulant child, Bethilius.” Strix stated. Porcelain clinked as a plate then its cup were placed on the table before him. She stopped to stretch a moment, and sighed as she took to the air again. “However, I guess it doesn’t matter since my orders are rarely followed to a T nowadays.”
“I said I was sorry,” Squall grumbled sleepily. She opened her eyes a smidge, glaring at the Natorei, before slipping under again.
She’s not talking about you, Olivier thought, but cleared his throat, knowing that this moment was due. Avin returned, empty-handed sadly. He had hoped to put it off longer, but it was safer now, here, in this tiny room with others who could back him if needed. He fixed his gaze on Bethilius’s, and cleared his throat one last time before taking a sharp breath. “I am the actual captain of the Scylla.”
Bethilius... was silent. The room was silent, the air still before it exploded with laughter. Neighs and brays mixed in with the guffaw, making the couch huff and hiss as he rocked on it, but Olivier did not back down. Instead, a bit of yellow sparked through his eyes, scared by the sheer wave of red rising in them. The only sounds in the room and out of it were the Faun laughing away, which had disturbed Squall’s slumber. She held her blade, teeth seeping out, wanting to strike if only to shut him up.
“You?” Bethilius managed to say. “A captain? For the Scylla, no less?” His laughing died with a sigh. He wiped his eye, smiling as he looked to the others, clapping. “Okay. You got me. This joke was absolutely delightful. It really is impressive that you all managed to keep a straight face in the light of such ridiculous, farcical, nonsensical, if not criminal, news.”
“Ridiculous? Yes. Yes, it is,” Ponitius said, and hooked a thumb at Olivier, “but it’s the truth.”
“As was stated by the skipper Nejrat himself, anyone who wields that blade is the rightful captain of the Scylla,” Strix said as she returned to the table with another silk pouch.
The room was silent again. Bethilius’s smile slowly turned sour as he looked around, scanning each and every face. His brow seemed to twitch, his cheeks, face burning more and more red, paling the lines still pulsing on it, rising with each passing moment until, at last, the steam hissed from the pot... and he sighed. He shrugged, sneered at Ponitius, and snorted as Strix poured the kettle into the cups. As soon as the water hit the bags, they released such odorous bliss, filling the room with a heavy cloud of cloves, cinnamon, orange peel, and hints of daffodil.
“I was going to be upset,” Bethilius said, “but then I realized this means I don’t have to take orders from you, Pony Boy. You are now a lackey. To the boy, no less.” He nickered one more time before he swung his head towards Olivier, giving him a two-finger salute. “Oh, captain my captain. I shall follow you to the ends of the world and even beyond for little more than the spirit of adventure... and, perhaps, just maybe, for another reason. A petty, self-indulging reason.”
He continued to chuckle, in high spirits as everyone, even Olivier, glared at him. His cup was the last to be filled, and even then only a quarter of what the others had. The kettle still sloshed as Strix put it back on its stand. Silver energy pulsed around the cup between Olivier’s and Ponitius’s, and it followed Strix to her desk. Two other cups glowed, one pink, the other blue, and they lazed over to Avin and Fili.
“To the matter at hand,” Strix said. “The most recent journal is thick. Thicker than the one preceding it. However, I didn’t have to scrounge through too much personal drama to reach an interesting bit of information.”
“You mean Olivier being a captain?” Bethilius said, and chuckled. “‘Captain Olivier’. It sounds so... odd. How about we change it up? Captain O? Capo? Olicap?”
“Ooh! Ooh! I know,” Fili exclaimed. “How about Olligarchie?”
“W-why?” Olivier blurted.
“I don’t know, but it sounds cool, doesn’t it? Ollie. Gar. Chi.”
“Or Ollie. Gar. Key,” Bethilius tried to correct.
“Nah. That sounds lame. Would never work.”
“Whatever actually helps you remember his name,” Avin mumbled. He sipped on his tea, heaving an exaggerated sigh. By Squall’s head. “Ah... Perfect!”
“Must you really?” The Itchyoman grumbled.
“But of course. Consider it payment, m’lady.”
Squall voiced her disgust, and rolled into the couch, burying herself into it as best she could while Avin continued to slurp louder.
“You really like to flirt with pain, don’t you?” Bethilius said.
“It’s the only flirting he ever does,” Fili said.
“Just because I don’t faun over every female that comes into town doesn’t mean I don’t flirt.”
“If that’s meant to be a jab at me, I don’t either.”
“Of course not! Just the dudes.”
“My heart belongs to Oubliette, though. He knows that.”
Bethilius nickered, shooting Olivier a smirk.
“You’re an oubliette now? I approve of this change. Captain Oubliette the cruel; has a nice ring to it, does it not?”
Avin voiced his approval through a sip that must have taken a few layers of clay out of the cup, ending with a belch that shook the room.
“Love that tea,” he said, and raised his glass towards Strix. “May I have another?”
“Are you actually going to let it steep or just drink the tinted water,” Strix asked, but did not fill his cup. Instead, her light flickered towards Bethilius. “Though he did hint on something.”
“I did?” Bethilius said.
She nodded, and her tea cup turned to Olivier.
“In the excerpt I had read, there was an island near Balvot. If Nerjat is to be believed, it is almost impossible, nigh impregnable, to enter by sea... However, the Scylla isn’t restricted to ocean travel, now is it? On the isle, there is a temple, and that temple had a door the required both a touch from a Cephamorian and a Terrahn.” The tea cup floated back to her a moment, and the smallest sip could be heard. “No. Needs a bit longer... now, the fact that it requires both, and you are... what you are... is completely coincidental. Whatever is inside that temple requires a symbolic, united front to open it, a way to show that two species from two different factions put aside their difference to open it... or shut it. That much is what it is: pure coincidence... what isn’t, though, was what happened when he opened the door.”
She fluttered over to Olivier and touched his right shoulder. Silver energy coiled from her sphere, illuminating his arm through his sleeve, showing the purple flesh, the red veins, and, hopefully only to Olivier and Bethilius, the pearl on the back of his hand.
“How Nejrat put it, when they opened the door, the people were devoured... corrupted.” The silver energy left his arm, and she took another sip from her tea, this time following it with a sigh. “Perfect. You can all remove your pouches now.” She waited for them to do so, discarding them to the plain, wooden plate that floated between them, returned to the desk as Bethilius tossed his on. She, also, waited for everyone to take a sip, to partake in its delicate blend, its subtle, fruity bite that gave way to the harmonious blend of spices that warmed the whole mouth before easing to the back of the throat and down into their belly before continuing. “Whether they were pulled in first, or it attacked them as the door opened, or even that it was the fact it was a pair instead of one, the fact remains is they sounded exactly like the same creatures that had spawned on the Scylla in the cove you two told about... Or, rather, the monsters created from Bethilius’s crew when Olivier laid his hand on them.”
“Meaning it’s our best shot to understand what it is,” Bethilius said. He groaned as he took another swig of his tea, shaking his head. “I’m still not certain why the sword matters when it is choosing the captain. Seemed like any other blade, except it has the tendency to cause issues if handled by anyone other than the boy.”
“According to Nejrat, the ship moved on its own, seeming to answer to Baro’s swing of it when they first left the cove.”
“Well, that didn’t bloody happen, so it must be wrong.”
“Or this time there was more than two people and could easily be handled by the crew on it.”
“Are you really insinuating the ship might be alive?” He scoffed, waving his tea cup at her. “That’s even more asinine than believing the boy is a captain! At least I can accept that, even if it is because of ulterior motives.”
“We get it. You don’t want to take orders from your ex,” Squall grumbled.
“And what about you? Aren’t you the one chasing after Nejrat? Why are you taking this all in stride? Why aren’t you infuriated that the boy is besmirching his name?”
“What else did Nejrat say about the Scylla?” Olivier blurted, cutting the fuse before it could reach the powder keg growing in the room. “Was there anything else weird? Like... I don’t know... a ringing noise?”
Strix’s orb dimmed a moment.
“How specific... but yes. Nejrat did say he heard a high-pitched whine, but it was gone when Baro picked up the sword. In fact, Baro didn’t show any signs, but after he did he became reclusive.”
“Well, there’s your evidence!” Bethilius boomed, guffawing. “The boy has become more open, so it must change personalities to best suit it.”
“Or, maybe, Baro was not meant to pick up the blade at all,” Squall said. Her face was paled as she turned over. “What if Nejrat was the one truly chosen?”
“It would make sense,” Strix said. “Maybe the ship is meant to have a Cephamorian at its helm. After all, did anyone else hear this whine?”
“As far as I am aware, no,” Ponitius said, and nodded to Bethilius. “Did any of your men?”
“There are... were no Cephamorian in my crew,” Bethilius said.
“We can already deduce it is not an Aqua Alliance-specific issue, as well,” Strix said. “If Squall and Durnst weren’t effected, if Baro wasn’t, but both Nejrat and Olivier were-”
“Then it is only Cephamorians,” Olivier said, squeezing the handle of his blade harder, and he shook his head. “Why didn’t the blade corrupt Baro like it tried to do with you guys?”
“Aceons are naturally resilient to magical forces,” Strix said. “Their carapace is incredibly tough to begin with, but Natalie imbued it with the ability to regenerate after it’s been pierced by their spines as well as can deflect many primal arts.”
“And even then it sounds like it did work on Baro,” Squall added. “Slowly, but it was still corrupting him.”
“Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem to do anything to Cephamorians, even those who are hybrids,” Strix said, tittering. “There are other factors in play, but one thing is for certain: You, Olivier, are meant to pilot the Scylla.”
“W-w...well,” Olivier began, shaking his head. “No.I still don’t think this is right. I’m not ready to be captain. I don’t want to be-”
“Then that is something else you share with Nejrat,” Squall said, almost solemn, and sat up on the couch. She clenched her legs, biting her lip, breaking a bit of the scabbed flesh as she did. “He never wanted to be captain. If he had only accepted it, all those years ago...”
Strix took a long drink from her tea, exhaling just as long if not longer before she turned her attention back to Olivier.
“In any case, our next goal is the island. It seems to be due east from here, just a bit of ways before Balvot.”
“Which means we’ll be attracting Zephyrian attention,” Bethilius said. “They may not have bothered with the Scylla all those years ago, but now? After both its reign then disappearance?”
“It’s true. It won’t be anywhere near as easy as Nejrat’s time with it. However, this close to winter, there is hope most of the denizens flocked south, to Lobore, taking with them the Scouts.”
“Regardless, we have to go,” Ponitius said, and clapped Olivier’s shoulder, giving him a wide smile as he leaned over the couch –much to Fili’s disdain. Her whimpers were louder than ever, wings fluttering, desperate, but Strix kept a tight leash. “If it finally gives the lad answers, then it’s our best bet.”
“But what about Nejrat?” Squall said. “Anything that might hint to his whereabouts?”
“Not yet.” Strix said. “Where I stopped, they haven’t even collected a full crew yet. In fact, they lost about twenty people, and I doubt the Arbiters he had... volunteer are going to look upon those deaths well.”
“Wait. Deaths?” Olivier exclaimed.
“From the door. The corruption.”
The room fell silent once more, but this time it wasn’t welcomed. A breeze worked its way through it, sending shivers down Olivier’s back, cooling his tea a tad too fast for his liking, but at least it was soon gone. It didn’t help the knot twisting in his stomach.
He didn’t want to think about what awaited him on the island. The answers were there, but so was it, and maybe this time he won’t be so lucky... He looked around the room, seeing everyone else frozen in thought, looking down at their cups, and placed his on the table.
“We need to go,” he said, and stood... looking around at everyone, still seated, locked in place. “I... I know it sounds scary. I know none of you owe me anything, but I want to say thank you. I don’t think I would have even got this far without any of you, so...”
They still remain seated. In fact, none of them even looked up at him. They simply remained as they were, looking at their tea cups, as if they couldn’t hear him at all. As if they were ignoring him, treating him like the burden he was, the harbinger of death and pain.
His heart started to ache, eyes filling with blue; he shook Ponitius’s shoulder, but he refused to look away from his cup.
“Ponitius?” He said, his voice hoarse. “You, too?”
He grunted something, but nothing else escaped his lips.
Locked perfectly semi-parted.
A chuckle broke the silence in the room. The door creaked open, and a familiar Itchyoman waited on the other side, an Itchyoman he had hoped would remain in his nightmares, in a past he had he escaped. Purple energy wrapped around his right, gray digits, while a knife was ready in the other hand, ushering Olivier towards him. His pink eyes flashed, sparkling with a hunger that tightened the knot further in Olivier’s gut, but even more seeing the gauze around his other eyes, remembering something a bit more... pointy jutting out of them the last time they met.
“Hello, poppet,” Bubbles said, flourishing his arms. “Remember me?”