Squall had made a reckless decision, returning to the Itchyoman District with such abandon. She hadn’t given a single thought to any prying eye that might have been watching. Although an Itchyoman in the Itchyoman District is not out of the ordinary, one that Bubbles recalled well was not.
He stood outside one of the other warehouses, waiting for his beast to do her thing. Madam Volum was inside, inspecting it, as he had suggested, as he suggested to do for every single one... and just so happened to watch the pink Itchyoman run to the warehouse to the right. Her feet pattered harder than the rain, her cackles and cheers so loud that they seemed to wail, fading as she thundered into that warehouse... Meanwhile, he simply stood there, chewing on his tongue.
Squall had the door shut before Madam Volum came out, giving Bubbles a quizzical scowl.
“What was that noise?” She said.
“Huh? Wha?” Bubbles spluttered, and chortled as he cleared his throat, yawning. “Sorry. Must have fallen asleep... Find anything?”
The Madam’s gaze only darkened as she shook her head.
“That’s a shame, that... You know, if you let me check with you-”
“Then I’d be an even bigger fool than you believe I am.”
Bubbles gasped, and clenched his chest.
“Oh, you wound me! I thought you were different than the others, saw passed my fishy exterior into the blackened husk under.”
Madam Volum hummed, glowering at Bubbles... but shook her head. She gestured to the door, which Bubbles was leaning... and had to do so several times before he stepped aside, allowing her to close it at last. On her own; so well trained... She stepped around Bubbles, heading to the building to the right-
“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“That’s a privately owned storehouse. The public ones are all to the left. Beginning with that one to the... second before the corner, those are all owned by the merchants in-town.”
“No public sanctions supersede the will of the Divine Mothers-”
“Will They pay your fees when you’re caught? Will they give a bit of that ‘divine intervention’ you keep wanting to spread to prevent you from being incarcerated?” Bubbles shrugged, chortling and smirking the entire time. “I mean, if your holiness really wants to tempt the law, actual, tangible law, that’s on your head. You don’t trust me to go in with you, so I wouldn’t be charged.”
Madam Volum scoffed, and flung the storeroom’s door wide. The one he said not to. Bad dog; she’ll need properly trained by the end of this, it seems.
“You truly don’t know how to curb your tongue, do you?” She said.
“I see it as a fair exchange: the world hates us, so why bother playing nice? That way there’s no pretenses, and no reason to care.”
“If that’s how you truly view this land, your life, then I pity you.” She shook her head again, and stepped into the building. Bubbles meandered over, an expert at being nonchalant, and watched after, watching as she simply roamed around the warehouse. It was rather barren compared to the other, with only six or seven crates to the entirety of the room, which made Madam Volum look small, minuscule, immaterial as she looked them over. So herself, in Bubbles’ eyes. Lightning flashed through the glass top, warming the dusty floors and walls... and the wheeled pallet in the back.
That caught Bubbles’s eye first, but he simply continued to chew on his tongue, watching as the good madam continued to investigate the crates. She didn’t take note of the four wooden pallets at all, set up so perfectly on the back wall, nor the iron bars that seemed to protrude from it for no reason. In fact, he saw the trapdoor underneath almost perfectly, yet, as the Madam sullenly returned to the entrancy, it never really seemed to dawn on her. Only the best and brightest for Terra, it appeared.
“So, here’s the question, missy,” Bubbles blurted, laughing even harder than before, “would this have been worth going to jail for?”
Madam Volum sighed... and the chains burned hot on Bubbles’s throat. He was forced to his knees, gasping, gagging, choking on the white-hot metal that coiled and clanged away under the skin, already cold once more. The pain still lingered as she hummed, and looked back into the building.
“No. I suppose not,” she said at last. She waited for Bubbles to stand, and cocked her head. “So, tell me, why are you protecting them?”
This caught Bubbles off-guard. Him, protecting Olivier or any of those fools that followed the freak? She creased her hands together as he voiced his shock, pointing her pressed tips his way.
“How long are you going to lead me around for?” She said. “Until they leave? Will they be back for you?”
... So that’s what she thought. He scoffed, smiling wider, and fanned his arms.
“Lady, you have the wrong idea,” Bubbles exclaimed, guffawing, his chest starting to ache from how much he was laughing.
“Then why do you hesitate? You seem to have some understanding of where they are.”
“I do? Since when?”
She seemed unfazed by the question, and took a step towards him. Her fingers almost jutted into his chest, yet her very presence making his scales shudder, made every inch of him scream. He refused to look away, to break the gaze she had him under.
“Lead me to them. Now,” she said. “You either do that, or I see no reason to have you guide me any longer.”
Bubbles... broke the stare at last, and rubbed his head.
“Fine,” he grumbled, and turned towards the warehouse to the left. He walked passed it and three others before easing open the door to another, where he gestured inside, yawning. “In the back, there’s a trapdoor. It requires a spoken word.”
“And that would be?”
He kept his lips sealed tight, though, and they had an understanding at last. His chest ached, still forced to endure bubbling chuckles as she waited for him to follow after. He shut the door, made sure it was nice and locked, and wove between the crates, the chests, the tools and twine and hay until they were in the back. Madam Volum scoured every inch of the dirty, murky, musty floor, but there was no trapdoor to be had. Nope. Not a single one. It seemed, like his bandages, Bubbles’s plan was becoming unraveled, and so was Madam Volum.
She wheeled toward him, her face finally contorted with rage, and the chains burned again on Bubble’s throat, illuminating his face in the dark. However, the light wasn’t from those chains. All warmth faded from her visage, seeing the darkness dripping from his eye, the red light burning through the last layer of bandage, and lurched back from him as he took a stomping step towards her, cackling away.
“What’s the matter, madam? Couldn’t find what you were looking for?” Bubbles said. His laughter changed, allowed its full intent at last. It was deep, throaty... malevolent. It echoed, boomed in the warehouse, seeming to stifle the storm with its malice, all the while his eye only glowed brighter. “It’s almost like I don’t want you to find them. It’s, I don’t know, almost as if you would ruin what I have in mind.”
“Stop whatever you are doing this instance, Itchyoman,” Madam Volum demanded, but the waver in her voice only made Bubbles hasten ever closer, force her ever further back into the warehouse.
“And what am I doing exactly, hmm? You sealed away the Old Words, the Dark Ones lexicon. What can I possibly do to you... well, aside asking you to look at my eyeball!” He lunged, catching her wrists, and squeezed. Hard. She cried out, writhed in his grasp, but was forced to her knees. He held both her wrists in one hand and gripped her head, forcing her to look him in the face. “Look at my eyeball!”
She had no choice. She stared into that abyss, and it looked right back. It consumed her into its void, her eyes reflecting the darkness inside, swelling and overflowing her sockets and streaming down her face. She cried and howled in pain... but could not move, locked in that darkness.
Bubbles chortled, letting her head go, still locked in place, staring into his eye, and gestured to his throat.
“Good. Now that you are nice and comfortable, why not remove this. It’s rather cumbersome.”
Madam Volum’s hands clenched. Her arms shook. She whimpered and fought and tried to pull away from the darkness, but blue lines emerged from the abyss. The ichor ran down her cheeks, lacing itself over every part of her, until, at last, her hands began to glow.
“No,” she managed to blurt, but her hands kept shining, pulling inch after inch of chain from Bubbles’s throat. “I can’t... why can’t I... what is this!”
“Well, well! This is stronger than I expected,” he said, rubbing his neck, and tried some of the Dark Words. The room thundered; purple lightning flashed across the boxes, growing close to him only to be dispersed with the next. “Looks like I’m good as new. Oh, man, could that freak do this? Was this what he tried to do to me? Can’t say I blame him; this feels bloody amazing!”
He sighed, and knelt to Madam Volum. He no longer had to hold her arms, held up on their own, so he caressed her cheek instead, humming.
“Now, I do have something in mind for you, but first I’m going to look into yours. I want to see what makes a Madam of the Divine Mothers so... special... While I’m in there, I might as well see what else you know about dear Olivier.”
“Please,” she begged, gone as she howled again, muffled by Bubbles’s laughter and the storm outside, reaching its peak.
Olivier shot awake. He was sitting up in his hammock, heart racing, wanting to slip between his fingers, but they refused to let go, clinging to it so tight while his right arm pulsed. The pearl on the back of its hand burned a brilliant blue. However, unlike before, no gold rose from the middle.
Instead, it was black.
He had never seen it go black before... but he had no worries as the blue came back, though it seemed almost as one with it, swirling, tainted by its dark touch. Olivier continued to watch, entranced by the spiraling azure abyss. In the back of his mind, he could just hear someone screaming, though it wasn’t content staying back there. It surged ever closer, rising, deafening until he could just see a face, a Terrahn, in that pearl. She looked... familiar, but from where?
“Hey! You awake?” Squall hissed into his ear, making him jump and utter the smallest of squeaks. She looked a bit guilty, but Olivier couldn’t have been more thankful to be pulled away from that pearl at last. “Sorry.”
“I... it’s fine. Really.” He shook his head, and yawned, easing his legs off the hammock. “I’m up, though. Is everyone else?”
“Yeah. They’re all waiting on deck.” She cleared her throat, her cheeks a touch beet as she rubbed the back of her head. “They, uh, sort of think you are in the captain’s quarters.”
“But... they saw me come down here.”
“Yes, well, you are the captain, and we were all exhausted when we returned, so... details.”
“Then how did you know I was down here?”
“Because you’re my friend... and I, sort of, already broke into the captain’s quarters to check.” Her cheeks seemed to be on fire as she waved her hands before her. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix the window. I was just... excited.”
“How big is this news of yours?”
She giggled, and took his hand, pulling him to his feet.
“Very. So come on!” She dragged him up to the deck, and she was telling the truth. Except the Zephyrian, everyone was there, including a rather sullen Gaz, looking even moreso as he glared at Olivier.
“Wait. This is the captain?” He exclaimed, and bleated as he wheeled to Bethilius. He wrenched five sacks off his belt, jingling incredibly merrily considering his mood. “Here! There isn’t enough money in the world to make me work for him.”
Bethilius chortled, nickering, and Olivier couldn’t believe he saw the Faun smiling.
“Now don’t be so quick to judge,” Bethilius said, and approached Olivier, patting him on the shoulder. “Olivier is a fine captain. He always does best by his crew, no matter the circumstance.”
“It’s because of him I’m homeless in the first place!”
“To be fair, that’s more Gozuul’s fault than Olivier’s,” Anni chided in.
“And, to be more blunt, your own fault,” Claire added. “You allowed the blood pit to be ran under your home-”
“Which, for fourteen seasons, was perfectly fine until he went down there,” Gaz exclaimed, already heading for the gangplank. “I will not work for him, no matter the company he keeps!”
“So you would rather go back and be thrown in jail?” Bethilius said, once more his smug self. “You did run away from the guards, after all.”
“Yeah. Why not? Then I can turn in all of y-”
“I’ll pay you,” Olivier blurted. Yellow swirled on the edges of his vision, but he kept his gaze locked in Gaz’s eyes, unwavering. “I’ll pay for the damages to your home. Twice, thrice it, if needed, if you but stay and help us.”
Gaz cocked his head, and trotted before him, not breaking their gaze at all.
“And I am to believe you, ‘Captain’ Olivier? Have you looked around? There’s not a single supply on this ship. The larder hasn’t been stocked. I doubt there’s even any change of clothes between any of you, and you expect me to believe you can pay that?”
“In time. I promise you, I will. Just give me time.”
Gaz scoffed... but held out his hand. “Lucky for you, that’s all I have. A victim of circumstances –that you caused, by the way... So I guess it’s fine.”
Olivier shook it, smiling, but it was robbed as Squall pulled him free, pulling him in front of everyone again.
“Can I finally give my news?” She exclaimed.
“Yes. Before you explode,” Ponitius grumbled, but it was Fili who was most annoyed, fluttering, burning bright between Squall and Olivier.
“Get your grubby mitts off him,” she said, and whined as she hugged Olivier’s cheek. “Why didn’t you come home this morning, Poley? I was waiting to snuggle.”
“I’m sorry. I was exhausted, and decided to pass out down-”
“Baro is in town,” Squall decreed, cutting off Olivier, “and Nejrat is on his way.”
An eerie silence fell over the crew. A cold wind blew in through the cove’s entrance, whipping at the sails, and the water that followed seemed to bang against the hull, harder than it had all night and the day before. Thunder rumbled in the distance; there was the thinnest line of blue between the storm that was on them and a fresh wall of gray coming from the sea, darker than its predecessor.
“Are you sure?” Ponitius said at last. “Are you certain you saw Baro?”
Squall nodded. “I would bet my life on it. He is going by Plu, but there is no changing his red shell.”
Bethilius scoffed. “What? That’s how you can tell, by the color of his skin?”
“How many other bright red Aceon do you know? Plus, I followed and caught him... meeting with Tys.” She growled, and hugged herself, glowering at the timbers before her. “I know it is. I just know it.” She shook her head, then went still, just like everyone else. The Dread Pirate, here... She looked up, fresh tears in her eyes. “If what I overheard was true, Nejrat is coming into port later today. They are looking for the Scylla... This is my one chance to finally meet him again.”
“And a perfect reason to leave. Now.” Bethilius stated. Lightning flashed over the sea, mirrored in his milky eye, more color than the rest of him had at that moment, that any of them had. Even Fili had dimmed, clinging to Olivier’s cheek so tight that she brought ten pinpricks of blood from it. Bethilius nickered, a nervous thing, and stamped his foot. “The Skipper and Captain of the Dread Pirates? Together? This can only mean trouble.”
“I have to agree with Bethilius,” Ponitius grumbled. “If we stay, it’s going to only lead to a huge headache.”
Squall recoiled at these responses, hugging herself tighter. Her teeth slipped free of her gums, her breathing heavy, glaring at them.
“I’ve spent most of my life searching for Nejrat, and you choose now to lift up your skirts and hightail it?” She boomed, growling, practically roaring as she spun to Olivier. “We have the Scylla. We have the manpower. If the worst should happen, we can win, but I need to know. I need to see if it is Nejrat... please, Olivier.”
“I...” Olivier began, his mind in a fog. Yellow continued to swirl in his vision, growing ever thicker. Nejrat? Baro! The two most infamous pirates ever, and I am the newest captain of their ship.
Squall took his hands. She retracted her teeth, lips quivering, tears falling down her face with abandon, but she did not break her gaze. She did not let him go.
“You promised to help me, as a friend-”
“You had him promise not knowing the full story,” Claire interjected.
“Yeah! You used his blind kindness to worm your way into his heart,” Anni added, her nose fidgeting something fierce. She glared at Squall, tugging on Olivier’s arm, trying to pull him away from her grasp. “You don’t need to put up with this, captain. Let’s get out of here while we still can.”
Squall held firm, though, growls frothing forth with blood her teeth rolled free again.
“I know, and I’m sorry, but this is important to me... Olivier, you know how long I have been searching... please! Let us stay a bit longer.”
“You already heard Ponitius. It’s best if we leave. Now,” Durnst said.
“You kidding? This sounds exciting!” Avin said, chuckling. “I’m all for meeting the Dread Pirates.”
“But that would mean my Holly will potentially get hurt,” Fili said, sniffling as she squeezed his cheek harder. “Let’s leave.”
“Are none of you listening!” Squall boomed. “We outnumber them. If something does happen, we have the advantage.”
“Yes, like I had the advantage,” Bethilius said, stomping his foot again. “I have seen enough to know numbers don’t mean jack. You never know when someone might have a Deus ex Machina up their sleeve.”
“You know some of the Dark Words?” Gaz said, almost repulsed.
“The point is these two have been around for as long as they have for a reason. We should not tempt said reason and get out of here while we can.”
“Well, now you piqued my interest,” Claire said, purring, bouncing in place. “Tempting fate? Going against the odds? This sounds right up my alley.”
“Are you mad!” Beatrice blurted. “This isn’t some poker game. This is life and death.”
“Which makes it all the more exciting!”
“My lady!” Avin boomed, fluttering over to her and sitting on her shoulder.
“Hey,” Dervalan whined, rubbing the top of his head. “I didn’t say I didn’t want to.”
“Then you are all fools,” Bethilius exclaimed. “It truly is a wonder any of you survived this long.”
“You mean like yourself?” Squall said. “What about what you did to Ponitius?”
Bethilius retorted, but Ponitius cut him off, leading to Dervalan correcting then Durnst correcting his correction. And so, one by one, they overstepped each other, cut each other off, all in a bout to get an edge over the other that what started out as a debate became a roiling fire. Anger sparked, cut into all, while Olivier remained silent, unsure of what to say.
In the end, though, it was Strix that spoke over all, silent, forgotten for so long until she finally had enough.
“Will you all quiet down!” She boomed, her voice carried by the thunder that rumbled in her wake. Lightning flashed again as she took a deep breath... and landed on Olivier’s shoulder. “It doesn’t matter what any of you say you’re going to do. In the end, it all depends on our captain. What he decides. He is the captain, and you will either honor his choice and follow... or leave.” Strix patted Olivier’s shoulder, and he could feel the soft, sympathetic smile in the silver sphere. “Go on, lad. Tell us what we are going to do.”
Olivier... his chest... hurt. His mind was still in the fog, being battered by its tide. He felt as if he wanted to shrink into himself, to disappear, to be back in that corner of the Kraken again, where his biggest worry was if he was going to starve or not. He wanted nothing more than to slink into his shell; that was an impossible feat he would much rather try. All eyes were on him, and his body was in an odd limbo, of wanting to shake and quake yet go absolutely still.
He gulped, reduced to shaking again as he looked to Claire.
“Is the Zephyrian still passed out?” He said.
“For the time being,” she grumbled, rubbing her ear. “We’ll be lucky if he didn’t die. He was more alcohol than bird.”
“But there’s always the chance that, when he does awaken, he’ll freak out and become violent in his attempt to escape,” Beatrice said, shooting Claire a dirty look. “It’ll be harder for him to refuse at sea.”
“How long do we have?” Olivier said, and looked to Squall. “Did you get a time?”
Squall shook her head, grimacing. “No... Only that it would be at some point during the evening.”
“Have you looked out of the cove recently?” Bethilius said. “We don’t have until evening!”
“Maybe he’ll show up early. He is coming by ship, so if we keep an eye on incoming vessels-”
“There will always be another chance,” Ponitius said, and scoffed. “After all, it sounds like they are after us, regardless.”
“Yes, but that means more people. They will gather a crew; you know how many would jump on the chance to hunt the Scylla?”
“If people were to believe them,” Durnst interjected.
“And who wouldn’t? The Gunpowder Fish will spread the word at some point-”
“And there are plenty others who know about Captain Olivier now,” Beatrice grumbled, again still glaring at Claire. “I doubt he was only involved in a poker game last night. Probably made his fair share of enemies, too.”
“There’s no denying any of that,” Gaz grumbled.
“So our best chance is now,” Squall said, and looked him in the eyes. “A few hours is all I ask. We’ll take the Falchion to port, use that to get back and forth. That way, if something does happen, we can be out of here in no time... Please?”
The way she said that pulled hard on his already weary heart. Her eyes were heavy with remorse, the bags under them betraying her age, how long she had been hunting. Her nails may have bit hard into his wrists, but Olivier knew it was desperation, agony, not hate nor malice that drove those nails to dig in, and only dug in deeper as he shook his head.
“Ponitius?” Olivier said at last.
“Ollie-” Squall began, tears welling again.
“Can we borrow the Falchion?” Olivier finished, much to Ponitius’s disdain... while Squall’s eyes shined.
“You’re the captain,” he said, sullen, and stormed over to undo the vessel, leaving Olivier to Squall’s embrace.
“Thank you! Thank you so much,” she said, and it was Fili that shoved her off. She continued to press into Squall, the light flooding over her face as the Natorei buzzed angrily.
“You better be thankful, and you promise me... you promise me, right now, that Rio won’t get hurt... You promise, dammit!”
She did, but that didn’t remove the knot from Olivier’s stomach. That uneasy feeling from the night before never left, and only seemed to cement more as he asked Ponitius for the ship. Thunder rumbled through the cove, ending with a bang that shook him to his very core; when he looked out the entry, it was nothing but darkness over the sea, churning away, like the pearl on the back of his hand.