Growing Tides

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Smooth Criminal

The Scylla soared through the sky, its engines full, their soft hums gone for mighty roars capable of shattering stone. The sea frothed and rose into a great twister in its wake, wrapping it around the vessel, a shrieking cloak. Cannons flashed through the veil, ships, dozens, hundreds, nigh thousands giving chase, lamenting, denouncing its captain as a dastardly fiend, a cunning thief.

A pirate.

Olivier stood proud on the deck, squeezing his sword as he strolled along it. His boots thundered with each step, dulling the engines on board as well as those cannons and their balls as they flew by, whistling alongside the winds as they spiraled up into the heavens, clear only for them.

He climbed the steps to the wheel. Squall had an iron grip on it, her usual attire hidden under a heavy, scarlet jacket, much like Olivier’s own. She saluted him as he drew closer.

“They won’t be able to keep up for much longer,” she said, tittering as she flung the wheel to the right. Her left hand flew to the console, clicking them so fast, so deft on the controls. The ship didn’t sway at all, didn’t creak nor show any signs of tilt, but it did turn. It made a perfect right angle to where it once was heading, and the storm followed. The cannons could be seen through the port storm wall; Squall scoffed as the cannons continued to flash, lost to those winds before falling with such abandon into the waters below. “What do you say, sir? Should we show mercy.”

“Those without power don’t deserve mercy,” Olivier said, and unsheathed his blade at last. The metal sang in celebration as he brandished it, glistening with the lightning rippling through those winds. He trotted over to the railing, climbed on it.

And jumped off.

Air shrieked by his head. The shell went first, leading him down, taking him through the wind wall. He looked “up” at last and saw the first ship below, closing in.

He threw his sword. It spun down, down, crackling with lightning as it darted from the storm, guiding it into that vessel, the Kappa. Its deck was filled to the brim with Cephamorian, with Aceon and Terrahn all jeering, taunting him.

Silenced.

They scattered as lightning exploded from his blade, crackling over them all. They didn’t scream, couldn’t scream, twitching, writhing on board as their very flesh started to burn the timbers, and only when it was engulfed in flames did it return to its wielder. Olivier saw it flying back up to him, its tassels splayed out, clashing with the sea around, but he wasn’t done. He wasn’t ready to sheathe it again.

He threw his head back, and spun around, planting his feet firm along its blade. The sword, however, didn’t seem to appreciate that. IT still fought, pushed, tried so hard to rise above and into its sheathe, but it would have to settle for his grip again as he stepped off onto another ship, the Kraken. He kicked it as his other foot stepped off, spinning it up into his grip, and brandished it towards the crew that surrounded him. There were easily twenty, thirty dozen there, and none too happy to see his little performance. Shame, too; he put a lot of work into that.

The gathering however, separated as a tall Cephamorian lumbered into view. He had the same jacket as Olivier, but filled it out far better. His head was easily thrice the size of Olivier’s, those starry eyes filled with fury.

The Cephamorian unsheathed his saber, a crude, rusted blade, but also a dagger, pointing that at Olivier.

“You took my coat. You took my ship. Now you take my title?” The Cephamorian exclaimed.

“Wrong. I took your captain’s title.” Olivier stated, and swung his blade. Lightning leaped from it, spanning across the deck. The crew may have yelped and scurried away from the thick, darting bolts, but Nejrat refused to move. Not a single one touched him, let alone came close, the two still staring each other down. “But I am going to be taking something else from you.”

“And what is that?”

“Your life.”

Nejrat roared, a guttural thing, a primal, almost otherworldy utterance, and charged. The crew, startled by the sudden outburst, stopped fleeing and answered his call, joining him in rushing Olivier, piling on him.

The ship rocked.

Everyone, every single crewmen, froze. All yells, screams, roars were gone, listening to wood crash and metal shriek. Slowly, in unison, they all looked starboard, to the four ships there. One by one, they rose in the air, punctured by rock through their middles, delivered by Natalie, Herself. Water sprayed into the heavens through the hole those great stone teeth tore through the vessels.

But those weren’t the only rocks; the Garolot was on the shore, four of its limbs a blur as it tore at the land asunder, sending it flying at each ship –save for the one Olivier was on, of course.

Nejrat groaned, and lashed out at Olivier. He blocked it, with ease. The crew circled them, watched as the pair fought. Squall did say Nejrat wasn’t that great with a blade, but Olivier never knew it would be this easy to keep up with him, even using his sword left-handed. The problem was that Nejrat made sure to keep him an arm’s distance. Always. No matter how hard Olivier pushed, he could not close that gap. So it became a waiting game, a battle of attrition as metal sparked and flashed as the world around exploded and burned.

The sun started to set, freed of the storm that snared all that dared to approach the Scylla. It bathed the deck of the Kraken red. Olivier could see Nejrat was starting to sweat, but he did not relent. He did not give an inch.

Not even when Olivier allowed himself to be disarmed.

His sword flew through the air. It rang into the dusk, echoing off the graveyard of ships around, before falling back down onto the deck, sinking into the planks. It was but a lunge away from Olivier, but Nejrat kept him in place with his blade, pushing it against his neck. His Adam’s apple trembled against the tip, rising with it when he gulped.

Nejrat laughed, and so did his crew as he shook his head.

“Is that all you really got, ‘Captain’ Olivier?” He said, and separated the two front legs before him, bearing his beak towards Olivier. His head shuddered as he snorted sickeningly, and his beak opened, spitting a thick, gooey mess into his face. Yet Olivier refused to show disgust. He refused to show any anger; he would not give him the satisfaction, even when he spat again. “Any last words?”

“Yes. I expected more.”

He took a step back and spun as he crouched, his right hand extended.

While his left swept towards Nejrat.

Nejrat looked puzzled a moment before it all finally caught up to him, forced to fall as Olivier’s blade spun by his head. The sword stopped, mid-air, and spiraled his way again, forcing him to crawl away, hand after hand.

Until he was in Olivier’s grasp. His right hand’s grasp.

Nejrat gasped, but did not utter another sound. His body jerked a moment, but then went still, stiff under Olivier’s grip. Darkness overtook his eyes, followed by blue, but it didn’t stop at his eyes. Not then. Not now. It spread across his body, lacing it in those deep, blue lines under Nejrat’s gray skin, and did not stop until it consumed him.

His hand, finished with its deed, went limp. Nejrat slumped out of Olivier’s grasp, landing with a soft thud on the deck... but slowly rose again, now always a step behind Olivier. But Olivier did not allow him to fully stand; he did not earn it. He wanted him at his feet. He was the captain, after all, so he forced Nejrat to kneel.

“What is your order, captain?” Nejrat said. His voice was twisted, compliant yet enraged. A fire burned in his eyes, that fought so hard against the blue sitting pretty in them, locked in their centers forevermore.

“Gather the others.” He commanded, and smirked as he clenched his sword, pointing it to the sky, thundering in answer. “They are all going to bow to m-”

“Hey. Cap... Hey. H-hey! Wake up,” Claire hissed into his ear. If she stopped there it might have been pleasant, but his cheek still stung a touch, only made worse as she slapped it thrice over again. “Captain? Ollie?”

“Huh?” He uttered. It came out rather hoarse. His throat was sore, so welcomed her water skin graciously. He wasn’t content until he swallowed eight mouthfuls, heaving a heavy sigh as he handed it back, and only then yawned, stretching as he sat up- regretting it almost immediately as his back made some... unexpected snaps. The cost of sleeping on a hard ground... He cleared his throat, and looked to Claire. “Thanks. What’s wrong?”

“Oh. Nothing. I just didn’t think you would want to sleep the entire time.”

“How long was I out?”

“About two hours,” Anni said, giggling as she pulled on his arm. He didn’t even notice her until she spoke, and it wasn’t only because the room was dim. Claire’s eyes always had that... draw to them... Anni helped him stand and guided him to his seat, but it was the table it was placed at that caught Olivier’s attention. It must have been turned or something whilst he slept. The majority of the wallets were before Claire now, with Armoore, Loralei, and Gram all looking rather perturbed by this shift. Maybe it had a floating base or... It was Gram’s turn to deal, but he waited for Claire to split some of the coin sacks for Olivier, glowering as she gave five out of her twenty-four with such impunity. Anni had three of her own, but didn’t seem to notice, or, if she did, didn’t care. She was so bubbly beside Olivier, bouncing, clapping a little as she received her cards. “I get to finally play a hand of cards with my new captain. Aren’t you excited, Olivier?”

“I guess?” He said, looking at his hand. Um... okay? Is a ten good? It’s the highest one here, so it must be, but these... K... E... and M’s don’t have any numbers, and what is an A supposed to be? There’s only one; what is that, a gem of some kind? Emerald? I mean, they all have them, s-

He jumped a little as Armoore cleared his throat. His sullen demeanor changed a little seeing Olivier’s face, smirking as he pointed to the growing pile of cards in the center.

“It is your turn to discard, ‘Captain’ Olivier,” he said.

“Oh. Really? Okay.” Olivier, not entirely sure what to do, decided to discard his entire hand. One by one, he placed each card on the mound, and he watched as Armoore’s face became more and more shocked. He drew five more cards, surprised to see he had the same kind as before but in blue, no longer the emeralds but skulls.

“W-why-” Loralei began to sputter, but both Armoore and Gram gave her a dirty look, silencing her. She rolled her eyes, chewed on the inside of her cheek... but winked at Olivier. Beatrice, Claire, then the four in their own crew discarded, where Armoore put in four of his six sacks into the middle. Loralei met his, and so did Gram. Anni folded, but Olivier decided he would risk it. He even put in his fifth sack, gaining a soft giggle from the plump Terrahn across the table. “Oh my.”

“What? What did I do?” Olivier said, but he watched as others simply... added and matched. Beatrice added her own five, and so did Claire, while the four decided to fold. Armoore met it, glaring at Olivier, his temple throbbing, but Loralei decided to recall, as did Gram.

“Alright, ‘captain’. Show us your hand,” Armoore said. His voice may have been cold, but the fire seemed to froth out from within as he slammed the table and rose. “Great Astra’s bosom! No one is that lucky!”

“What? Me? Lucky?” Olivier said, looking down at his cards. “Wait. Is this a good hand?”

“You don’t even k... calling it! They’re cheating. There is no way, under the Divine’s care, that anyone is lucky enough to draw not one but two royal flushes.”

“I swear to you! I did not cheat. I don’t even know what I am doing; this is my first time ever playing.”

“Uh huh... okay... So, you’re trying to tell all of us, convince us, that you have never played poker? That you just so happened to not only have the cards, the proper ones at that, but all in the same set?”

“I mean, you watched me draw. I don’t have any sleeves, and it’s not like the cards can blend with my skin like they do with Claire’s fur-”

“What!” Armoore stormed around the table. Not towards Olivier, though. He stopped at Claire, and wrenched at her arm.

“H-hey! You’re hurting m-” Claire began, but all were silenced as cards fell from the fold of her arm onto the ground.

The four rose to their feet, as did Gram, Olivier, Anni, and Beatrice. Claire managed to pull free from Armoore’s grasp, chuckling sheepishly as she pulled at her left ear, backing towards the door. Olivier, Anni, and Beatrice were forced to join her, the others closing, looming over them, glaring at the crew.

“Well, it’s been fun, but I think we should hit the ole dusty trail,” Claire said, and stretched her arms... making cards fall out of the bend of her other one.

“Get ’em!” One of the four boomed.

“Lynch them!” Another screamed.

“No, wait! Don’t hurt Olivier! He’s innocent!” Loralei declared, and she waved a bit of pink cloth above the mob. “Run, my sweet. Run! We shall meet again!”

Her words gave true vim and vigor to Olivier’s legs, his strides greater than his friends, his arms given the power to push by them and fly up the stairs. He had never moved so fast, wanting nothing more than to get away... from her. He did not stop. He did not slow until he was well and away from the Faun district and down, down at the pier.

He grasped, clawed at his chest for dear life, trying to catch his heart as it wanted to keep running, out to the ocean and beyond, but it would simply have to settle for the rocky wall that ran along the sides of the stairs up to Lam Berel. He did not know where the others were, and, at that moment, did not want to know. The torture Claire would subject him to... he shuddered, only made worse as he looked up the steps, seeing her run down after.

But his fear was subsided, hearing her not yelling... but laughing.

She pounced from the fifth step on top of him, still giggling like a fool.

“You doofus!” She said, batting at his face and head. “How could you give away my secret? I mean, the look on Armoore’s face was priceless, but we could have made all the money. How could you be so selfish?” She sighed as she climbed off him. Anni and Beatrice caught up, seeing her help Olivier to his feet, but she pulled his attention back as she slapped his back, beaming at him as her tail flicked behind. “Well, we had to get out of there somehow without looking too suspicious.”

“And being cheaters isn’t suspicious?” Beatrice grumbled.

“Meh. They suspected us, anyways. Worst part is I didn’t have to cheat. They always remained in clumps. Did nobody teach them how to shuffle... Anyways, it just so happened, when the cards got to us, they were in perfect order for four-of-a-kinds, flushes, or even full houses. By Ignes, Terrahns are stupid- well, not stupid, but- you know what I mean.”

“But where was the Zephyrian?” Olivier said. “Did he ever show up?”

“Probably thought the heat was too hot to be seen going back to a poker game, especially when some of those were big names around these parts, so he decided to lay low somewhere else.”

“In other words, we’re no closer than when we started.”

Claire cooed, turned to her coy purrs into Olivier’s ear, and worked her way behind him, rocking him against.

“Don’t be like that,” she mused, giggling. “We had fun, didn’t we?”

“I mean, I suppose it depends on your definition-”

“We had fun.”

“So what now?” Anni said. She yawned, and pointed to the sky. Off to the east, where the storm finally broke, the sea was graced by dawn’s kiss, the sun still hidden, teasing its way up the horizon. “Looks like it’s time for bed to me.”

“We still need to find the Zephyrian,” Olivier said. “We didn’t come all this way to have nothing to show for it.”

“I’m not even supposed to be here,” Beatrice exclaimed, groaning as she pointed an angry finger at Claire. “Why is it any time you’re around I get sucked into your shenanigans?”

Claire let go of Olivier, and tittered as she strolled over to Beatrice, hooking an arm around her, instead.

“Just face it, Bea. You want a life of adventure, and, whenever I’m around, that’s guaranteed.”

Beatrice scoffed, shrugging her off, and gave her a sour look.

“I do not, thank you.”

“Then why were you there in the first place?”

“W... well... because... I’m not even supposed to be here!”

“But you are now!” Claire giggled, but was stifled by a yawn, giving the warming sky a dirty look. “I say we go pass out then try again in the ‘morning’.”

“No! I told you. We have to keep looking,” Olivier said.

“Relax! We’re not on a time limit.”

Olivier sighed, and rubbed his temple... with his right hand. His heart skipped a beat, freezing, but quickly thawed as he lowered his hand before him. He looked at his palm, at the suckers just over his eye, and the darkness that pooled from it. He saw the red pulse, the light in the tainted flesh... but it did not touch him. It simply kept running through the hand, not even impeded by his brow or eye.

Well, that’s good to know, he thought, and exhaled deep, relieved. At least I can touch myself.

“Hey! Claire! I can touch myself no problem,” Olivier exclaimed, laughing as he continued to cup his eye. “See?”

Claire... simply... gave him a thumbs up. She gave him a thumbs up, while her tail flicked so fast and her chest ached with silent laughter. Beatrice and Anni, meanwhile, looked baffled, unsure of what to make of all of it.

But the question still lingered. Where was the Zephyrian? What happened to him? If he was the best lead they had, then time was truly limited. How long would the Zephyrian stay in town, if he didn’t already leave?

What energy Olivier had gained was sapped away by that line of question, and his head would have most likely bobbed away as he climbed the steps again to the center of town if he hadn’t kept his hand on it. Though he had some rest, he was still so tired, the world blurring as they headed for the tavern that awaited in the center, the Shelled Aceon.

He reached out for the door with his right hand, and his heart skipped a beat seeing the pearl on its back. It had turned deep blue. There was not even a hint of green in it; instead, a golden dot grew in its center. He turned away from the door, towards the rest of the town, and it returned to its green, only returning to its blue, to that golden dot, when he turned it back to the door, growing as he pushed it open.

The excitement a few hours ago finally died away, the halls of the tavern rumbling with the sounds of sleep, but there were still a few awake in the sitting area. They were talking lightly among themselves, reading; some even played chess, an Aceon and an Itchyoman locked in a battle of wits, glowering at any noise that may disturb their concentration.

Olivier swung his hand their way, but the golden dot shrunk, rising again as he turned it to the stairs. It only grew brighter as he climbed them; Claire questioned, but her, Anni, and Beatrice had to give chase as he found new feet to fly on, rushing down the halls of doors. They were made of a darker wood than the entrance, sturdier, warmer. The sconces by them still smoked, their fires gone for the morn, and Olivier came to a stop seventeen doors down them.

He checked the right first, but it didn’t shine anywhere near as bright when he brought it to the left, opening to a room that overlooked the path to the Itchyoman district, and a keeper that looked more surprised than Olivier to see him there. The Zephyrian had bright feathers, every other a different color, running along the wings on his arms and head. The yellows were tipped in bright orange, while his eyes were bright green. His chest and middle were covered by an orange tunic, leaving his feet and talons free to move. His beak was long, and curled a touch at its end, opened a touch as it simply clacked it at his guest, unsure of what to make of him at that moment.

“I must still be sober, for you are the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” the Zephyrian said. His voice was an enigma, both deep and rolling while also tight, high, and scratchy. He took a wobbling step towards Olivier... and only then did Olivier see the bottle of rum in his other hand... as well as the fourteen others scattered around the room. “Spack Jarrow at your service. Now, tell me, is the world going mad or was it always like this?”

The Zephyrian took one more step, then collapsed, but he made sure his bottle was standing up when he did.

“This... is who we’ve been looking for?” Olivier said, looking down at the snoring Zephyrian.

“Yup. So let’s get him back to the ship. We can explain everything when he wakes up,” Claire said, and strained to finish her statement, hoisting him up on her shoulder.

“Isn’t this kidnapping?” Beatrice said, pinching her brow.

“I prefer the term involuntary volunteering.”

And so Beatrice repeated her favorite line as the crew made their way out of the tavern, with their lead in hand... and bed just after.

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