Gale’s roar didn’t go unnoticed. Every word could be heard as clear as day, echoing to the coast, into the fog, but only returned from those blue-sand shoals. The dingy went silent a moment, its crew holding their breath. Tarjen had his hand on his blade, his eyes slowly filling with red, scanning the fog. Ruu’s spines slowly cracked through his shell, his claws firm on the oars, while Ella simply sat there, clenching her “legs”.
A moment passed, with not but the sound of water sloshing against the tiny boat, but Tarjen finally sighed and let go of his sword. He nodded to Ruu, and the Aceon rowed again, the oars sloshing softly. Tarjen matched his pace on his own two pair, silent as he pulled them. His gaze was locked before him, not truly staring at anything, while his face kept a stoic calmness.
It didn’t make Ella any less uncomfortable, though.
She kept looking, head darting left, right, hugging herself tight. She felt so small in the mist, and even smaller outside it. At least they were hidden. Now? Danger could easily be but a stone’s throw away, and she nor any of them would know until it was far too late. Ruu seemed just as nervous; though the moment had passed, his spines still throbbed, studding the outside of his shell, and his eye stalks’ light shifted faster than Ella’s.
Ella looked back, making sure that the ship was still there, that it could still be seen. The fog lapped at the back of it, wanting to pull it in, and such monsters fluttered through her mind and into that fog, looming over the ship. She wondered if the path back would be clear, that a stray ship might collide into it while they were gone. Would a ship float into their path and block their way back, their only solace and haven out here? Would they be trapped wherever they were- and her mind finally pulled her gaze to the isle. She didn’t even give it thought, on what may await there. Though its beaches could be seen, the edges of its forests bare for all, it didn’t give her any comfort. In fact, it made her feel even more wary.
So, hand after hand, she waited as the other two gently rowed through the fog. The only sounds to be heard were the oars. Not even the dingy made any noise as it skimmed through the water, seeming more to separate it along its polished ferrisom hull. It was every bit as decadent as its larger brothers, made for the sole purpose of going where they couldn’t, or, rather, what they shouldn’t dare to tread on their own --made clear as the bottom of the dingy started to scrape along the shore.
Tarjen groaned as he clambered to his feet. He already had one leg swung over the side, stepping out into the soft sand in one, grand gesture. He finally had his boots on, the water seeming to suck against them, slurping in protest for it daring to disturb its glassy surface, but he ignored it, holding the ship in place, waiting for the other two to climb out. Then, with almost no effort, as if it was little more than one of the oars or even a brush, he lifted the dingy overhead and carried it to land, setting it on dry ground. Each step through the sand was met with plodded grumblings, the water not giving in even as he continued towards the grassy beginnings of the forest on the island, scanning the treeline. The fog seemed to carve a perfect line along it, keeping it hidden from anyone that may try to approach it, while leaving it perfectly in sight for those that breached on the sandy shore.
Ella watched him, her and Ruu staying close, and saw his eyes fill with a curious green, spotting something a bit amiss among the wild foliage.
“Over there,” he hissed, pointing to a tree. the closest tree, at that. Something was buried there, as another, metal spike glistened in the moonlight a bit further along the coast. It clashed against the serrated bark, and didn’t seem to belong to the sand before the grass. Not only that, it still had a bit of knotted rope attached to its hanging lip. “Somebody was in a rush.”
He walked over and pulled it out, grunting as inch after inch was pulled free. It was sixteen fully, laid under the tree as he made his way along the edge of the arc, returning with four more. They softly rang as he placed them upon each other; they weren’t cheap, but Ella could tell that. She had picked one up while waiting; they were heavy, and the dirt refused to cling too much to its sheen, allowed to gleam even after being impaled into the dirt this long.
How long, though, was the question.
Tarjen picked one up and pulled on the rope still attached. They were starting to fray, but the sinew was still strong, could handle a jerk that made the metal ring against the tree, flung up in his ire. He pulled the striker from his pocket, clicking its trigger, but the sparks at the end refused to light the rope’s strands, too dried or maybe too damp to ignite. One thing was for certain: he wasn’t going to get the answer with the rope.
He put down the stake, pocketed his striker, and looked upon the beach again. He seemed to be searching for something, studying the shifting sands along it. To Ella, they just looked like normal sands, but to him? What kind of stories could he see? What did they truly hold?
His eyes flashed, though, and he rushed to almost the point of the isle. Ruu and Ella had to sprint to keep up, his strides long, hurrying to meet that stony point, and there, in a small basin, there was enough sand that the ocean could not reach. And, inside it, as plain as day, there were two sets of footprints. One set was from a Faun, each as large as a post, perfectly indented with three, rounded off edges. They were set deep into the sand, his steps resolute, but the sand around them had been kicked up a touch. The other set was far smaller, possibly belonging to a Terrahn or even an Itchyoman,. They would have gone unnoticed if they hadn’t been where a stake had been driven, far cruder than the ones before. It was little more than a rough, rusted point, and the rope left on its end was molding.
Whoever they were, though, was unknown. They were long gone, and there were no leads to be had from the stakes, no identification on the metal nor mark nor brand to follow on.
Tarjen shook his head, and Ella heard a bit of tightness as he drew a breath.
“This was a waste of time,” he said at last, and gestured to the forest and the rest of the isle. “We could explore to our heart’s content, but this seemed to be little more than a rumor to drag would-be adventurers into a trap... and we fell for it... I’m sorry for dragging you into this. All of you... I’ll make up for it and give you all compensa-”
He stopped, eyes filling with green, and pushed through Ella and Ruu, keeping them behind. Ella didn’t imagine that, then. No one could imagine such a sound. Her eyes filled with yellow, looking down at his sword. Every part of her wanted something in front of her, anything to protect herself, but Tarjen held his right hand off to the side, palm facing them, as if telling them to stay their hands. So she kept her “hands” to her sides.
“In my travels,” he whispered, taking a step towards the forest, then another, each one slow, careful, methodic, “I had learned one truth: those looking for a fight will find it. As much as I know you are, Ruu, for now, stay your barbs. We aren’t looking for one.”
The dingy was still a bit away. Every part of Ella screamed to run to it, to get it in the water and start rowing like no tomorrow. But Tarjen kept his hand splayed out towards them, kept his pace slow but firm. The sound came again, and Tarjen jumped and wheeled towards the Aceon, his eyes tinged with a touch of red.
“Calm yourself,” he growled, breathing deep as he did, following his own advice.
But it became that much harder as it came again, far closer than it had been before. It was a sickening noise, a sound that seemed to emanate its own nauseating ichor. It conjured phantasms of musk, rot, and even death, sticking to the tongue in its sickening squelches and gurgling wheezes, growing with each passing second. The forest started to rattle with it, a darkness oozing through its lush green until it was taken by shadows. Deep, pulsing, purple eyes gleamed through it, dozens, hundreds of them. They slowly separated, revealing that they belonged to husks, hunched-over monstrosities. Slowly, they crept closer, the world filled with their putrid sounds, closing upon them, blocking the dingy.
Ella saw nothing but yellow. Her breathing was quick, almost raspy, but she kept her gaze focused on Tarjen, on his “hand”, though even that was starting to fail, shaking. The monsters kept creeping closer, closer. Ruu’s shell quivered, the spines under seeping green onto it but he refused to bare them, just as Tarjen refused to draw his sword or even let his “hands” go near it, watching the mass close in.
They came to a stop.
One lurched free from the pack and looked up into Tarjen’s eyes. Soft green light worked its way through their purple gems, and Ella could see that only one true emotion still clung to the soul inside those shells: misery.
“Help us,” it said, its voice ragged and cracked, tearing at the heart... It repeated it, distorting the words, as if even saying it was a trial in its own right.
“What happened?” Tarjen said.
“Don’t know. P...pain... So much... P-please?”
“What lead to this? What happened to you, specifically?”
“W...was first mate... S-s-saber. Made it to c-cave... just as s...s...screams started. Confusion. Chaos. Drew my sword. Pain.”
“Who was the first, then? Who was the closest to understand?”
The eyes flashed, and a visible shudder ran through the husks.
“I was,” it said, its voice slightly higher than before yet still so distorted. “The Scylla... Captain Bethilius... T-traitor Ponitius. Durnst. Unknown Itchyoman. And... the freak.” Their eyes, all of them, flashed red, and their gurgling shifted to eerie growl. “Freak. Freak! Freak!!!”
It howled the word, true pain and malice woven through it, and it rose in chorus with the others. Yet no fear touched Tarjen’s heart, nor even Ruu’s or Ella’s. Instead, each repeat brought a wave of sorrow upon them, seeing the tormented husks writhe and begrudge the very power the word had. Rather, the power they gave the word, and the misery it brought upon them.
“Who was this freak?” Ella said, heart dreading, somehow knowing. Tarjen blinked, and looked back at Ella as she asked. They went quiet, and the shadow before Tarjen lurched around him and towards her. He looked in her eyes, returned to a soft green light in his purples, and gurgled softly.
“You have its taint upon you,” it said. “You have been corrupted as much as us.”
A cold wave washed over Ella as it spoke. Her eyes, the yellow in them was now a sickening shade, tinged with black, but she did not shiver. Her body was frozen in that wave, her gaze locked into the eyes of that husk, still staring up at her until Tarjen cleared his throat, pulling its attention away. That didn’t break the rime that had settled on Ella’s skin, nor did it shatter the stone that had grown in her “chest”.
“Do you know where they may have gone?” Tarjen said.
“There was one. Hid on the Claymore,” it said. “Heard talk. Narvaal. Journal... Then gone.”
The shadow recoiled at the word, holding its head, as did the rest.
“No! Not again. Don’t let us go into the nothingness,” they said, repeated, chanted before they returned to their chorus of freaks. They were gone to the world, lost to their wailing; Tarjen put the dingy back in the water, and, with Ruu’s help, managed to pull Ella free of the sand and into it. They took the oars in hand, and the water seemed to roar in their wake, dulled, almost silenced by that continuing chant. The chanting seemed to give chase, but was dulled then taken by the fog in no time. Even then, though, Ella was locked in herself.
Just as tainted? She thought. The yellow had fled, but the black still held, which did make her shudder. What I’ve done... was it for him or because of him? How-
Tarjen touched her shoulder, and she felt a bit guilty for yelping, holding herself tighter.
“You okay?” He said, softly, but no words would come to her lips. No thought dared to cross her mind again at that moment lest the stone be of flint, the thought a powder keg that already started to sizzle. So, she simply nodded, breaking off some of the cold water that had frozen onto her. She turned her head slowly, in case it would shatter her whole being if she did it any faster, and looked into Tarjen’s eyes. His gaze was soft, kind, yet filled with wonder and question. “What did they mean? Who is it?”
She simply shook her head, just as slow, as methodic as his steps were, moving with the soft waves hitting the bottom of the dingy as they made their way back to the Kraken. It was for the best; she wasn’t even sure how to answer, if she wanted to find an answer at all.
Alas, one thought did seep into her mind, and it was hissing as it struck the stone in there: The boy known as nobody was here. She was on the right track.
“The ‘freak’ is a he. Not an it,” she managed to say, but that’s all that she would, her eyes filling with pink as she stated it... as well as even more darkness.