The Long Shortcut
The Scylla creaked, gently, its paddles sloshing in the gray water and mist, wading through with such tenderness, such finesse. The ripples it cast were small, the splashes it made soft, all the while the timber ebbed between the soft creak and a true, threatening groan. Each rise in between, every slosh, felt like an eternity.
Squall’s brow ached, throbbing, as did her knuckles on the wheel. The bar had been raised, and she was commanded to gently goad it to the right, not too far to make it rumble, following the paddles, but able to straighten it in a moment’s notice if a mast or beam or shadow rose from the mist. Every heartbeat felt like hours passed in between, her ears tense, hearing them as if they were explosions that bounded off into the mist. Her soft pink skin glistened with sweat and dew, blinked away constantly as she peered out into that foggy abyss, locked on it, as if in a trance. But it wasn’t that strong a bond, looking back at the captain’s quarters every so often.
Olivier had been asleep the entire time, silent, both a boon and a niggling in her mind. Squall had never seen him so sound; though it had only been a few weeks, the screams still echoed in her mind, still made her skin crawl. The agony and... powerlessness behind them... She knew that feeling all too well, once upon a time. Before the Leviathan, before she met ever Nejrat; back when she was but an urchin living in the streets of Carap-
She winced, regretting even that little bit of noise as she smacked herself, refusing to delve any further. That flitting visit was more than enough to make her gag. The taste of dried leather still lingered in her throat, squeezing tight, as if trying to keep the phantasmal bag from sinking any further into her gullet. She could see the blue skin of the Cephamorian that tried to force it down, paling to the brilliance of the poison inside the parcels.
Blue Pearl, she thought, and her scales on her arms shuddered and pricked from simply remembering the name. Her body swooned, throat and stomach tingling, reminded of a hunger it had left laid dormant, but also stung, burning. The bags weren’t always the finest craft, and customers weren’t always sympathetic and the sellers even less. Her head started to swim, lulling, flowing with the tide-
She gasped, returned to the present, but not by a smack this time. Instead, the wheel had creaked. She cursed herself, righting, and gently put the wheel back to normal, but more than likely the damage was done. Any moment now the screams would return, no longer distant hollers nor echoing agony but true malice and fear and hunger that would swarm and flood them. How could she be so careless! It was the mist; had to be. It acted as a scrying glass, a screen for her thoughts to be shown and for her to suffer for the sins she brought to her home... a home she could no longer return to.
Ponitius poked his head up through the grate.
“Everything all right, lass?” He said. It was little more than a whisper, but even that was enough to send a shrill hiss through the mist.
“Y...yes. Sorry. I started to doze a little. It won’t happen again,” she said, and grimaced as she scoffed, glaring at the fog. “How much longer do you think they’ll be?”
“Durnst? He’s probably finished the Falchion a while ago. Most likely stuck around to help Dervalan before they got the ships going. Shouldn’t be more than another hour. Tops.”
Has it really already been an hour? She thought, cut off as Bethilius’s voice rose from the belly of the ship.
“If you are quite done checking on your future killer, would you mind getting back down here and helping me row?” He said.
“Ah, better get to my past killer, eh?” Ponitius scoffed, shaking his head, and rolled his wrist to Squall. “Just a bit longer... Is the lad okay?”
“Still fast asleep. Not a peep.”
“A good omen, then.”
Ponitius headed back downstairs, the paddles once more sloshing in gentle rhythm, while Squall returned to staring out into the mist and to her thoughts. Had it really been an hour, longer even? Time was distorted in this place, to the point it had no real meaning. Maybe it really did have no meaning; that would explain why the Scylla was pristine, not a barnacle nor bit of rot or rust to be seen, as well as why there was no current, no wind and no end to this rolling blanket. If that was the case, then, why? What made this place so special... and what else did it hold?
She continued to hold the wheel right, staring over the port side railing out into the mist, contemplating the mystery of the island off in that direction –at least, she believed it was. That’s all she could do... but, through the mist, a pair of shadows loomed, quickly approaching. It wasn’t long before she could see masts, and she took a deep breath.
She was about to call down, tell them the good news, but then the ships pierced more of the mist and she could see, and hear, what they brought. Fire roared and glowed, hissing against the fog that reduced those searing flames to the dim glow of a lantern, burning away sail and wood alike. Screams rose, sending a chill down her spine, stealing away whatever warning she had to give. Neither were the Falchion nor the Claymore, but still Terrahn ships; small, compact, and nimble as sin. They were little more than rafts compared to the Scylla, but even an Aqua Alliance ship would be sunk and stuck if a Terra Force vessel slammed into it at ramming speed, and the last thing she wanted to see was what crew was manning them.
She didn’t have time to think, and simply jammed the buttons beside the wheel, hoping, praying one of them would work. There were six of them, with four handles alongside, but, at that moment, she would settle for simply gaining lift. Even ten feet off the water would be more than enough to just skirt them. She found that the bottom turned off the gilded engines completely while the top turned it to full, their blue light ghostly lines in the mist.
However, they only burned. No lift, no movement.
She cursed again, and took a moment to study the handles. The vessels were almost upon her; one had to go up, right? One forward, one back... one down? If she chose that one... but she would have to choose one, there and then.
She gulped, and pushed the top handle all the way up. The engines roared as they took off. Straight up.
The force of the engines forced Squall to her knees, still hanging on to the handle for dear life, listening as best as she could through the pulsing runes and roaring flames for any scrape, any contact... Which never came.
However, the ship was still rising.
She grabbed the railing, legs shaking, fighting against the force as mist slapped her face wetly until, at last, moonlight poured over the ship. The heavens welcomed the Scylla into its embrace, stars twinkling, weaving around the four moons and the cosmos, all too eager to welcome them to sail in its dusky, swirling sea.
But it would have to go wanting this day.
Squall managed to force the handle she had been holding to half and pressed the bottom one down all the way, and gasped, panting but relieved as the force faded away. The engines warbled softly, slowly descending, returning to the fog, but she paid it no mind, simply looking up into those heavens for as long as she could. All around her water dripped and rained down onto the mist, collected after so many hours, so long simply waiting in the cloak that dispelled time and reality, consuming them, imprisoning them once more.
She shook her head, and heaved a heavy sigh as she pressed the button above the bottom one. The engines dimmed fast, but kept a steady descent until, with one, solid splash, the Scylla was once more on water. She walked over to the starboard rail and looked out upon the mist, seeing the sterns of the ships just fade into it once more, leaving behind smoky trails.
“That was too close,” she whispered, and jumped as Olivier stumbled out of the captain’s quarters, rubbing his head. She felt a bit of guilt as he groaned, and gave him a sad smile. “Morning sunshine, sleep well?”
He yawned, wincing as he continued to soothe his shell... while blue blood softly ran from his nose.
“I did until a moment ago,” he mumbled. “What happened?”
“I could ask the same.”
“I don’t know... One moment I was asleep, then the next I hit the ceiling.”
She tittered, fighting her guilt as she rolled her wrist his way.
“Sounds to me you had one of those falling nightmares.”
“Oh... yeah. That sounds right... though I’m still feeling a bit sleep-”
“I think you should stay up for now, Olivier. It’s for the best.”
“Oh. Sorry. You’re right; I’ve been sleep for a while, haven’t I... Did we find the Falchion?”
“Durnst and Dervalan are out collecting it n-”
“You bloody, incompetent, slimy hag fish!” Bethilius boomed as he stormed up the steps. His green eye was black and blue, blood seeping down his snout as he rubbed his head. His other hand was on his blade, already starting to draw, the metal gleaming through, given an eerie shine. “What were you thinking, using the flight system?”
“Calm yourself, Betty,” Ponitius hissed as he lumbered up the steps after, but he was always a step behind, following all the way up the steps to the wheel. He wasn’t exactly in the best shape either; he held his left arm, bent in an odd angle halfway up on the forearm, while his leg had a bit of a limp.
Bethilius brayed as he reached Squall, sword fully drawn, but was stopped by Olivier. His own blade was drawn, his arm pulsing dangerously.
“Leave her alone,” he said. “She didn’t do anything... right?”
Squall cleared her throat, her cheeks burning a touch as she rubbed her arm.
“T...there were two ships barreling our way. There wouldn’t have been enough time to row away, so I did what I had to do.”
“Two ships, and you didn’t think they were our friends?” Bethilius said, knocking aside Olivier’s sword before sheathing his, and snorted. “The boy’s awake now. I’d trust him on the wheel over you.”
“And how could you be so sure?”
“Unless you have little faith in Dervalan to stay alive-”
“Really, I don’t have faith in any one of us when it comes to that.”
Ponitius chortled as he slapped Bethilius’s back, making the old Faun cry out.
“Well, then, it’s about time to find it,” he said, and pointed off the port side. Two more masts broke through the mist. These, though, were pristine, and were taking their time, wading through the water. “Let’s get her turned around and ready to hook them up.” Ponitius pushed by him, and patted Squall’s shoulders. “That was some quick thinking, little lady. Does this mean you have some understanding on how the engines work?”
“Good. Because I am absolutely sure I do not want to try sailing out of here. Get us in the sky, and I’ll take it from there... Well? What are you waiting for, Betty boy? Back to the oars!”
Bethilius snorted, and stormed back down to the galley. Squall watched after, getting a small smile seeing him stagger a touch in his walk, while Ponitius... and Olivier followed suit. She didn’t really want Olivier down there, not after what she had done, but it seemed, after time had been denied for so long, they had the ship completely turned around and ready to go. Durnst and Dervalan had pulled up beside, and the Falchion and Claymore were tied and pulled up on either side in mere minutes. Everyone was on deck once more, waiting for Squall to hit the button, and once more they returned to the heavens, marring its brilliance with four streaks of blue fire. At long last, they could say goodbye to this wretched place and start their journey.
“You didn’t have any other prize-winning -ow, dammit! Be careful, Durnst- ships you wanted to get. Right, Betty?” Ponitius said, crying out again as the Itchyoman tended to his arm.
“Nonsense. My two, true prizes are already tied up,” he said, and readied his pipe... only to lose it as the Scylla suddenly lost altitude, only to correct. He glared up at Squall, nickering. “Let’s get to land already so we can depart. I’ve had my fill of your crew to last a lifetime.”
“You say that, but I have a feeling we’ll be stuck with each other for a long, long time.”