Time has no meaning in the fog. However, beyond that cloak, dawn once more caressed the horizon, bringing with it the fire across the sparkling, awakening waters. The Scylla had descended overnight unbeknownst to its crew, and had slipped back onto the glassy surface with nary a splash nor jerk. The engines had cooled in the dusk before dawn’s kiss, the golden engines glittering with dawn’s touch.
All seemed peaceful on the Scylla, content. Olivier was finally resting on the cot in the captain’s quarters, sprawled out. The pillow had been knocked off, shell lazing after, as if reaching for it, to save it. The sheets barely covered him, twisted in between his legs and arms as he held it, snoring away. Though he had his qualms with it, he knew better than to turn down a cot; after months of sleeping on hard planks, even a hammock was bliss. He had taken off his boots as well as his swords, placed by his bed and hidden under the discarded gray blanket.
Alas, that bliss was knocked free, bludgeoned away by short, crude raps on his door. Thrice it resounded, followed by a wisp of silence three more came. By the fifth set Olivier finally groaned, his body jerked awake by their rumbling. He blinked his eyes, fluttering in beat with the knocks, and winced as sunlight streamed through the porthole above the bed. The stars still lingered, though, holding on in the heavens, but one by one they retreated from the encroaching light, all the while the knocking continued.
Why do they want to start so early? He thought, groaning as he sat up, and yawned. Hopefully it was loud enough to be heard on the other side, but, sadly, the three knocks came again.
“I’m up... Gimme a moment,” he said at last. His voice was still so heavy with sleep, fought back as he coughed and cleared his throat, but the knocking just. Kept. Coming! He lumbered to his feet, back cracking with each step to the door, hastened by it. He opened it, wiping his eyes, hiding the tinge of red he started to accrue. “I’m up. Sorr-”
A dagger jutted against his throat.
Its cold, black iron shimmered with the stars, as if a sliver of the heavens was ripped from above and forced to his neck, held there by a sapphire-scaled Itchyoman. Their six, slanted, yellow eyes sparkled, as if stars, themselves, while their teeth were bejeweled, freed to be their long, jagged, snaggletoothed, crisscrossing selves. They crossed over each other more than a basket weave, and almost matched in color aside the beautiful studs that perforated them, accentuated by their protruded jowls, quivering as much as their hand. They had a large, billowing crest, four points of it lazing over their shoulders, making that crown and collar of white thorns look like a cloak, while the rest of it was hidden in a black robe.
The Itchyoman growled, a soft, almost cuddly sound, and hooked the blade under Olivier’s jaw, pulling him out of the cabin. The others had been gathered on the deck below, forced around the center spoke by a black mass. They all appeared to be Itchyomen, wielding more of those black iron weapons, but Olivier could see now they weren’t made with any metal. The longer weapons, their handles and “edges” rippled and squelched, trying to maintain their forms, while even others had different colors woven into their being. No mortal hand forged those weapons, conjured from the Black Arts bestowed by Cao’thugar, Himself, onto the Itchyoman.
“So... This is the great and terrible Dread Pirate Baro,” the Itchyoman said, her voice more ragged and fierce than her growl. She freed his neck from the dagger a moment, gesturing it to Ponitius and the others. “This is all that remains of your crew? Pathetic.”
“Please,” Olivier said, regretting that he took off his sword. He kept his jacket, which hid his right hand and arm well. He kept it stiff, flat against, hopefully making them think he was one-armed. For what good it will do. A streak of red did pass, and she shook his head. “Listen to me. I’m n-”
The Itchyoman slammed the back of her dagger into his cheek, making him stagger a step. Olivier kept his footing, however, even after she hit him again.
“Shut it!” She barked, hooking her dagger under his chin again. Once more, such a welcoming growl bubbled forth, growing cuter, squeakier with each panting breath. She goaded him up to her lips, feeling her teeth scrape along his skin, her hot breath wash down him and into his mouth and nose, reeking of rot, rum, and fish. “For years you went into hiding, after slaughtering my people in droves!”
“Wouldn’t it be schools?” Olivier blurted, and knew he more than earned that hole in his chin.
“You joke about it, even after all this time, even knowing I can kill you with a single stroke!” She snapped her jowls at him, spraying his face in blood and muck, and took a sharp breath. “You almost had me back then, back when I, when all of us were but children, but we escaped. We swore we would have our vengeance! Against you, and against anyone who dares to be a part of this ship’s crew!”
She spat on his face again then pushed him away, but Olivier still refused to fall. He was rather thankful that he remembered to take off his boots; his suckers squelched on the timbers, holding him in place. The Itchyoman didn’t keep watching to see if he fell, instead turned around and leaning over the railing, looking down upon the crew. Olivier rose a touch, almost on the tips of his toes, and saw Durnst and Squall tied to the center mast.
“Huh,” he said. “Deja vu.”
The Itchyoman didn’t seem to hear him, though, letting loose another squeaky growl, cut by disgusting sobs.
“How could you?” She said. It was little more than a whisper, her voice hoarse, bitter, as if her throat was infected by the very venom she spewed their way. “How could you aid in his... his... extermination!”
“If you will just let us talk-” Squall began, but was cut off by a right hook –both a fist and a weapon in this case. Blood pattered onto the deck, dribbling from her shoulder and cheek.
“Don’t!” Olivier boomed, taking a step towards the Itchyoman.
She wheeled around, chortling as she dug her dagger into his cheek.
“You? Showing compassion for an Itchyoman?” She scoffed, and the cute growls just kept coming. “What is she to you, hmm? Is she your personal... caretaker? And the other? As long as you have a use for them they’re safe, right?” She spat on him, for the third time, and turned away. “No matter. You and your crew die here. Your bodies shall be strewn from the masts, the flags wrapped and burned around you, and we, the Powder Fish, shall have reign over the Scylla! We shall be the super power of the sea, and the Itchyomen shall rise once again, brought upon by that which almost slaughtered them!”
Her crew cheered, praised her, but was stifled as Bethilius started to laugh. He was tied to the back mast, completely hidden against Dervalan. His nickering sent a chill through the mass of black, ended with a soft sigh.
The Itchyoman growled again, and pointed her dagger at him.
“What’s so funny?”
“I would rescind that statement if I were you,” he said, almost a song as he snorted. “You shouldn’t threaten the boy’s friends.”
“The boy? D... do you mean the captain? Your captain?” She tittered as she turned around and dug her dagger’s tip softly into Olivier’s forehead, bringing forth a dollop of blood. The blue blood ran down between his eyes, filling with oh, so much red. “Your crew shows such little respect.”
“I have been trying to tell you. I’m not the Dread Pirate Baro,” Olivier said, making his voice as flat as he could. “We are not the Dread Pirates!”
She dug the dagger harder into his forehead, yet he refused to wince. He looked her straight in the eyes, unerring no matter how much blood flowed over them.
“And you expect me to believe you?” She hissed. “The Scylla has been missing for years, and you are wearing the jacket, the colors.”
“It’s a long story. A long... long story... We are looking for the Dread Pirate, as well, so, please, put down your weapons. We can work toge-”
She slashed his face, removing one of his tendrils, and spun to the deck again, fanning her arms as her crew clapped and cheered.
“Listen to that! I had the Dread Pirate begging for his life. We reduced the fiercest being alive to a quivering husk. This is the power we now hold!” She sighed, and brought her hands down on the railing beside the wheel and machinery. “Kill them.”
However, the loudest sound on the deck was Bethilius, heaving another sigh.
“I tried to warn you.”
“Him first, and the fat and cat ones. Never could stand Faun.”
“I take offense!” Claire yowled.
“Well, you may get away with it with me,” Bethilius interjected, chortling. “We never saw eye-to-eye, so wise ch-”
“Shut up!” ... Olivier, of all people, said, and not only said. He boomed it. The ship thundered with his voice, his vision not but red, pulsing with each pant, with each crashing heartbeat. His right hand was out of his pocket, held before him, all but its index curled into it. The darkness pulsed from it. The red grew under the skin, seen through the sleeve, while the pearl on top gleamed an eerie green. He took a deep breath, trying to calm the... purple on the sides of his vision, eating away at the blackness that rimmed. “Go! Now! I don’t want to hurt you, but you threaten my friends again and I will.”
The Itchyoman chortled, but it was uneasy, jerking, breaking as her feet finally allowed her to turn around and face him. She swung her dagger at his jutting finger.
The blade snapped.
The energy that made it dissipated from her hand, but the remnant that had struck his hand was absorbed, becoming part of the growing darkness on it. His left hand opened, and even he jumped a little as he heard something rattle behind. The air hissed, and he felt something heavy in it, holding it up... raising his blade. It was already free of its sheathe, the golden strands on it caressing his hand, holding to it even as he raised it.
“Well that’s new,” he said, but shook his head as he cleared his throat. He began to lower his right hand, feeling a touch light headed after that outburst, but he kept firm, stood straight and proud. “As I was saying, you guys can go now. There’s no re-”
The Itchyoman shrieked, lunging at him, but his right hand flew first. It just touched the side of her face, just grazed it, but she was froze in place, still screaming, shrieking as the darkness wormed its way into her cheek and eyes. It stopped there. The Itchyoman fell to her knees, writhing, flailing against his grasp, but she could not escape it. Her eyes looked up, but Olivier knew she couldn’t really see, not with that purple veil over them. She could still scream and wail, which she did, but she was completely and utterly powerless. Something he knew all too well.
“What sorcery is this?” She screeched. “What are you doing to me?”
“I... don’t know. Really.” Olivier said. His own gaze was locked on the pearl on the back of his hand. Its green had settled, replaced with a soft blue, changing, pulsing to a red before returning to green, a constant cycle between. In fact, it reminded him of when it first happened, of when he had grabbed that Faun and how the energy that had consumed them had shifted to red. Did red corrupt them? Then what do these others do? Does it matter?
“Let our captain go, or we’ll kill everyone!” An Itchyomen boomed from the deck. Their voice was even higher than the one under Olivier’s hand, still crying and panting as her body contorted with pain.
“Raina! Please! Hold your tongue!” The Itchyoman squawked back, sobbing like a newborn babe. “Do with me as you like, but let my crew go.”
“I just want you all gone,” Olivier grumbled. “I want my friends safe. Was that too much to ask?”
“No, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! Please.”
Olivier... shook his head, and pulled his hand away. Though the darkness had stopped coiling into her, a permanent outline of his hand, every sucker, every crease and fold were seared onto her face. It was an ugly shade of purple, hissing and steaming as it seemed to still eat through the blue scale, burning, boring into her very being. The Itchyoman continued to sob as she knelt before him, her hood falling against the collar of her crest, weeping at his feet.
“Thank you,” she croaked, again and again, until she finally found the strength to stand again. She refused to look him in the eyes, still a strand of purple lacing through them, and cleared her throat as she turned to her crew. She lumbered down the steps, each one making her wobble dangerously, until she stepped down onto the deck, heading for the starboard railing. There were several boarding planks leading down to smaller, Aqua Alliance vessels surrounding the Scylla. “We are leaving.”
“What?” Raina called out. “Sheira-”
“That is a command, Raina. You will obey it.” She looked over her shoulder up at Olivier, and a small rock settled into his gut seeing the... terror in her eyes. “We will have our vengeance, but not this day... not this day.”
She scoffed, her face turning hard again, and pulled herself onto the board, stomping down it. Her crew followed, and Olivier watched, waited until they dispersed before heading down the steps. His legs shook worse than the Itchyoman’s, and his hands, once so resolute, now shook and fumbled on the rope that bound his friends. He managed to get Ponitius free, who did the rest, even letting the Natorei out of the tiny cages tied to the metal rungs of the poles.
Bethilius nickered again, shaking his head after them as he leaned on the railing, heaving another sigh.
“I tried to tell them,” he said. “The one thing you don’t do with our fearless leader is threaten his friends. Did they listen? No...” He looked up at Olivier, smirking. “So I take it that means you count me as such?”
“Nah! He just knew that the rest of us were after,” Ponitius said, guffawing as he clapped Olivier’s shoulder. “Well done, lad... though... when did you learn to control it?”
“I... I didn’t.” Olivier said, chuckling nervously as he looked down at his hand. It still pulsed with the darkness, but the pearl on the back had settled, returned to its soft green. “I was lucky, I suppose.”
“Well, what is it, then?” Claire blurted, looking down at his arm. “This is new to me. Was that what you were trying to do to that other fish man?”
Olivier nodded, and his mind buzzed again with questions. So, it wasn’t the fact he was an Itchyoman; why didn’t it work on him? Meanwhile, another question loomed, weighing him down as it held to his left hand.
“Why did the sword-” He uttered and gasped, realizing he didn’t keep it in his mind. He jumped as Strix chortled, his vision touched by yellow then pink but there was no more sign of red... nor that purple in them.
“I told you. The sword chooses its owner,” she said. “It chooses who the captain is... and who dares to threaten that title.”
“Who knew a hunk of metal could be so clingy, huh?” Ponitius said, and sighed. “Well, we’re all up now. Let’s get moving.”
Olivier nodded, but returned to his quarters. He closed the door gently, and grabbed the sheathe, laying on top of the bed. Not where he left it at all. He gasped as the sword fumbled out of his grip- no. I didn’t fumble. It FLEW out of it. It went to retrieve its sheathe, sliding inside before returning, pushing back into his left hand.
“Why?” He said, watching as the golden strands lazed down again, returned to its ‘slumber’. “Why me? What makes me so special?”
“A question I would loved answered, as well,” Claire said, giggling as he jumped for the third time. She leaned against the far wall, her eyes gleaming, brightening even more as she prowled towards him. “This is far more than I bargained for. A child of sordid origins, chosen to wield a magic sword and to captain a ship of the damned, as well as cursed with the ability to infect others to do his bidding or suffer; you sound like someone straight out of the old stories.”
She purred as she stopped right before him, looking him in the eyes. Hers gleamed with such a hunger, a want, that it made Olivier a tad uncomfortable. He sidled over to his cot, making sure to keep his pacing slow and steady, settling down on it. She knelt before him, still locked on, and he fought not to squirm. Her tail flicked behind, raised high, enjoying this cat-and-mouse, until a blue Natorei burst into the room. Fili began to exclaim his name, but it turned to an exclamation as she buzzed between him and Claire.
“Hey! What’s the big idea!” She shrilled, her light pulsing red.
Claire giggled. “Just having a talk with our dear captain. The whole ordeal left him in quite a state.” She stood, sighing, and winked at Olivier. “Take care, captain.”
She sauntered out of the room, her tail still flicking, but Olivier’s focus was fully on Fili. Sadly.
“I don’t like her. Not one bit,” she grumbled. “Didn’t like her in Narvaal, and I most certainly don’t like her now.” She groaned, and wheeled around to Olivier, hugging his nose. “I’m so happy you’re okay.”
She grunted, hugging it tight... until she realized she was covered in his blood. She cried as she shot off, looking at the cuts on his face, the jagged edge left from the tendril cut off.
“Oh my. Here! I’ll patch you up,” she said, and her energy turned green, washing over his face. Only then did Olivier feel them, wincing, feeling a touch woozy. “My poor Volley... I’m proud you let her go as you did.”
“She had her reasons,” he said. “They were just aimed at the wrong people.”
“I know, but... look what she did to you?”
“It’s okay... I’m used to it.”
She went quiet at that declaration, healing him, while the ship creaked gently. Its engines hummed, rising from the sea, and the bed groaned as it wanted to slide to the other wall, nailed in place. The Scylla was heading due east, but they would have to head south a touch, to avoid Lam Berel’s port. So, Olivier waited for Fili to finish healing him then fell back against the pillow, letting his mind buzz with questions once more as the little Natorei snuggled against his cheek.