The Golden City
Though the Kraken and its temporary fleet had only begun their journey, the Scylla already reached its destination. In the dawn, bathed in the sun’s fiery passion, the sea to the west bathed in darkness under such splendor, the Scylla rested, waited on the edge of a large, flat disc far above. It was a perfect circle in the sky, the sea underneath blackened, the sun streaming around it, refusing to go near that black coin. They could just see the edge above, gleaming in the dawn, the gold burning bright, matching the hue of the engines.
Squall leaned against the port railing, waiting, like everybody else, for the Zephyrian to wake once more. She chewed on her lip, leaning harder against the railing, keeping her back as far out from the ship and its crew as much as she could. This close to their destination? She didn’t want to give them any opportunity.
She wasn’t the only one who thought this way, either. Bethilius was by the water barrels, on the other side of the door to the prow’s storeroom, trying so hard to press and become a part of the ship, itself. One more day and he might just succeed. For the entire trip, Dervalan never left his side, and, by proxy, Avin never did, either. Claire, Beatrice, and Anni tended to stay to themselves below, clustered in the kitchen’s dining hall, while Gaz had no fear, going where he chose, did whatever he wanted, damned be the captain, his cook, and their adviser... Fili, meanwhile, hasn’t left her hammock save to grab a bite to eat or a quick drink before returning below, far too quiet for anyone’s true liking.
It was far too quiet in general for everyone.
Ponitius and Strix tried to lift the air with small talk, far too loud to just be that. They discussed silly things, nonsense, mirthful dallyings that always seemed to find their way back to the late captain that deepened Squall’s... and Bethilius’s ire. Especially Squall. How could they be so lax, so... cheerful? Two weeks may have passed, but the fact they left Olivier, knowing their captive was willing, knowing they had time... it still burned in her chest. Not as badly as it most likely seared Fili’s, but it left her with a constant pain, a hiss in the back of her mind, rising with the buzzing tension.
If this is how it is for me, I feel sorry for the little blue blur, she thought, clenching her chest, grimacing. She’s going to die at this rate... and it’s all my fault.
Fili didn’t need to keep telling her it was, and neither did Bethilius. She finally accepted that it truly was her fault that Olivier was gone. He really should have listened to the others instead of a bleeding heart like herself... Then again, that wouldn’t have been Olivier, would it? Even if she didn’t press the issue, he would have known how important it was to her and decided to stay, regardless... but what if she never told him? What if she had kept quiet about the news- and then what would have happened to the denizens of the town? No... it may have been her fault Olivier wasn’t there, but he was a hero. It was a good thing they went back, but that didn’t take the pain away.
Everyone on and below deck jumped, making the ship bob in the water, as the air was split by a loud squawk. Talon feet thumped through the belly of the Scylla, scratching their way up the steps and onto deck. Spack’s feathers were ruffled, a strange amalgamation of trying to straighten themselves out while also extending and twitching, attempting to look absolutely flustered.
“Why did nobody wake me up?” He exclaimed, squawking even more as he fished into his tunic. “This isn’t like kidnapping me; I don’t mind a slap or two to get me going on something as important as this. Now, where is that annoying little- there we go.”
He pulled out the crystal, shining so bright against the gloom before the ship. Ponitius chortled, an almost sympathetic sound, shaking his head as he watched the Zephyrian clomp over to one of the gilded engines.
“By the way, why were you carrying that crystal in the first place?” He said. “Were you expecting to be kidnapped by the crew of the Scylla or something?”
“Don’t be absurd. All Zephyrians carry a crystal. Let’s us return ‘home’ at a moment’s notice. Doesn’t matter the situation; so long as you have one, you will be transported to the closest Zephyrian city.”
“I take it that it has saved you on multiple occasions.”
“So much so that they gave me a premium on recharges. Truly, one of the best inventions we have ever made.”
That explains a lot, Squall thought, watching as the Zephyrian’s mood picked up alongside the engines, as if his smile was what brightened their runes. He started with the bow’s engines, skipping down the steps, across the deck, and up the steps to the stern, not showing a single bit of care nor worry. Why would he need to? He literally has no reason to be afraid.
The last engine glowed at long last, and Spack took his place before the wheel. His hand moved deftly on the console beside, showing far more skill than anybody on board, far more insight and knowledge on the tech than any one of them would ever truly have, and the Scylla showed him the respect he deserved. It did not jerk, did not suddenly ascend; instead, it softly, almost gently lifted itself out of the water, each of the engines humming softly, rising towards that golden saucer above.
Spack pulled out that peculiar, octagonal device again, its bright blue runes almost painful against the darkness beyond it, and grumbled.
“We’re cutting it close, but we should be in town before the parade... We’ll have to go around the city a touch, enter from the southern side. Taller buildings there; Oozahn like to perch, more than likely empty at this moment. From there, my friend Swelabeth Surner should still be in her shop, which is along the float assembly. We can park there with minimum suspicion.”
“Then what?” Strix said. “What’s the plan from there?”
Spack chortled though, cooing a touch as he turned and guided the ship around the rim of the city counter-clockwise.
“That will have to wait until we actually get above.”
And so they were silent, watching the ship rise towards that golden edge, with only the buzzing of the engines and tension to be heard. One by one, the others climbed up to the deck. Durnst remained below, keeping busy, as did Fili and Avin, while the others tensed, waiting, both anxious yet excited to see what was above that edge and what a Zephyrian city truly looked like.
The tension only increased, buzzing louder as the engines dimmed, their runes and fire rippling. The edge was still so far away, but the water underneath was even further now. If they dropped from his height... All eyes were on the Zephyrian, showing no fear, no worry as he simply kept the ship aimed true. However, that fearlessness did nothing for Squall, teeth biting hard into her gums, gritted and locked together.
Of course he has no reason to worry, she thought, seeing the crystal still in his hand, still shining, almost burning against the wood. He’ll make it regardless.
The engines only grew dimmer as she watched that crystal pulse, and looked up at the disc once more. Her nails bit into the railing behind her, crackling under their ever-growing, ever-flaying points. It was so close now; she could see the light beyond, seeming to ripple and cascade with color, as if bounding through a river of crystal, the Earth Mother’s Garden, Itself, waiting above. The Scylla rumbled, jerked, straining to keep the last bit of light in its engines, warbling something fierce, but they managed to hold as it finally rose over the lip and the gathering on the deck gasped, in awe at what awaited.
As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but gold, bronze, and crystal. Buildings, taller than the mind could imagine, sprawled over the golden disc, not only tall but twisted and shaped into designs most bizarre. Some did extend straight up, but the majority seemed to weave and coil into one another, creating paths, ways across the entirety that was more than the bronze streets below. The outer limits of those bronze streets were greened, while those that fell in the shadows of the golden cities and crystalline trees and foliage that grew from all, given true free reign over all, kept their pristine, reddish hue.
But it wasn’t only the architecture, the landscape, that caught the eye. What was a city without its people? Streets, paths, and skies were packed with Zephyrians, Natorei, and even the occasional Terrahn, a clashing and melding of color that teemed in the otherwise wide, spacious streets. Their drones could be felt as soon as they were lifted over the edge, their awes at the gathering melding into theirs at the ship that now glided over, cheering and clapping. Screams rose, but not because of the Scylla, fire breathers, sword jugglers, and even machinists showing off their works in those crowded streets, condensing as it closed towards the main road, filled with such interesting works of art that the Scylla fit right at home... at the back of the line.
The engines finally died, given the best they could, and Spack heaved a heavy sigh.
“Well, this isn’t good,” he said. “We are way off the mark.”
“Are we safe, though?” Strix said.
“I didn’t expect this many people,” Beatrice said, already out of breath. “I thought Carapai was packed.”
“Aye. Zephyrians love the Winter Festivale and the Lunar Renaissance,” Spack said, chuckling. “I was actually on my way here when I ran into you guys.”
“Is it always held here?” Strix said.
“No. It’s Agutrot’s turn, then next year it’s Balvot, then Atla Errat the year after. Can’t wait for that one; they have the most magnificent wine fountain. No idea how they did it, but they managed to keep blackberry wine from spoiling all year-round, always nice and cold... Ah, I remember many an evening by its pewter basin, simply sipping and enj-”
“Are we safe here?” Strix repeated, far more stern than the first time.
“Should be. Managed to get us in the parade assembly, but several streets away from Swelabeth. I’ll have to show you the way, but don’t expect me to stick around. I have my own list to contend with.” He put his crystal back in his tunic, and lumbered down the steps, cooing. “Well, let’s not all jump at once to say thank you. Come on; shouldn’t take that l-”
“Now hold on there,” Ponitius said, finally following him down the steps. “I don’t think it’s wise for us all to go at once. It would draw way too much attention-”
“More than we already have, at least,” Strix added, floating down, and only when she remarked about it did Squall hear the crowd buzzing around the ship, commenting on it.
“This looks fantastic,” one said.
“Who was the craftsmen? This looks like true tempered ferrisom bark.”
“Probably the closest imagining to the Scylla I’ve ever seen.”
“The engines were a very nice touch.”
“I wonder what the interior looks like!”
“I’m thinking no more than four is needed to go,” Strix stated, pulling their attention back on deck. Squall could feel the Natorei’s gaze shoot her way, carrying a rather dirty look. “You, however, are not allowed to leave the ship. We cannot afford to lose anyone else.”
“Choose quick, then,” Spack said, feathers ruffling again. “The sooner we get moving, the sooner I can begin my own work... I’ll meet you all again in three days. Don’t get yourselves killed.”
Squall was about to retort, teeth freed, angered by both jabs at her, but was interrupted as a bright pink and blue ball erupted onto deck.
“I’m going!” Avin stated. “I am so sick of being on this boat. I didn’t come along just to be a squatter; I want to live a little!”
“I’m going, too.” Fili said- no, demanded. “I was forced to stay behind when Yule decided to help fulfill someone’s request.” Again, Squall felt a harsh look pierce her, but the Natorei simply continued. “If it means helping get back to my Collie, then I’d rather be out there than continue to wallow here.”
“As much as I wish otherwise, dear... I cannot disagree,” Strix said, her voice so soft. “You love him dearly... I was starting to worry about you, being down there... If that’s the case, then I’m going, as well. That leaves one spo-”
“No it doesn’t,” Claire said, tail flicking as she jumped down before the three Natorei. “You need someone to help you bug out if things go south. Given the... party, I think it would be in everyone’s best interest.”
“A fat load of good you did back in Lam Berel, then,” Fili retorted, her voice rife with venom, dripping with it.
“I just followed the captain’s orders.”
“You should have done more.”
“Settle, Fili,” Strix said, sighing. “Very well. You may come along... Just... keep a low profile.”
“Please,” Claire said, purring as she rolled her wrist. “I am the very picture of tact.”
“But what ab-” Ponitius began, silenced as Strix shot him a hard look. Everyone went quiet, watching the four follow after Spack, descending into the loud crowd, only growing louder, pestering them with questions –especially Claire. It’s as if they never saw a Faun before... Squall scoffed, pulling in her teeth and letting go of the railing at last... as well as wiping the tears from her eyes.
I forgive Fili, but Strix has no right to judge me, she thought, growling softly. She was the one that pushed that choice onto Ollie. She forced him to make the decision, knew too well what it would be... yet she blames me?
She was so lost in thought that she didn’t notice Anni approach. The mousy Faun poked her shoulder, pulled at her arm, and squeaked a little, ears standing straight up as she reeled from Squall’s outburst... settling at last as she noticed her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, settling against the rail again, crossing her arms before her. “What is it?”
“I need you to come below deck,” Anni said. “The others are waiting.”
Others? That piqued her interest. Squall nodded, and followed the Faun down the steps and to the resting quarters. Dervalan was there, as was Bethilius, Beatrice... and Ponitius. He leaned against the prow wall, cornered by the others –even Dervalan, blissfully unaware that’s exactly what he was doing by standing beside Bethilius standing before the walkway. The air was incredibly tense, so thick that Squall had a bit of trouble breathing, yet the Terrahn looked unfazed, almost... happy.
“What is he doing here?” Squall said, standing before the hammock in front of him, the last piece to the blockade that was made. “Why were we brought down here, anyways?”
“Because I do believe an explanation is needed,” Ponitius said, chuckling. “There’s been a mite bit of friction on-board as of late-′
“You don’t say.”
“I know! I know. Shocking... Personally, I don’t care for all this drama. I don’t hate you, Squall, but this little schism needs to go.”
“There wouldn’t be a schism if we stayed for Ollie.”
“Not my fault. I was simply following orders, as well. We needed a captain, and Olivier always believed me his successor.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Easy, Squall-” Bethilius began, reaching out for her, but she smacked his hand away, jutting a flayed, dripping talon at Ponitius.
“You were in charge!” She said, growling once more. Her teeth threatened to slurp free again, panting so hard. “You could have had us return to the port after the whole situation with Spack. He was compliant; we had a destination. There was nothing stopping us from waiting to get Ollie before coming this way, but no! We just shoved on! Yet you and that wretch have any right to judge me?”
“Ah-ah!” Ponitius uttered, shaking a finger. “I didn’t judge you. That was everyone else. You’re right. That isn’t a bad idea... but did you see the town? We arrived at its peak. If we were a day late- heck, an hour late, our cover could have easily been blown. Hindsight and all, but this was our best shot. Not only that, but good ole Olivier is fine.”
“How could you b-”
“As I was about to say, if he was in any real danger, the Scylla would have personally went back to get him... The two are sort of... tied like that.”
“How is that possible?” Beatrice said. “How can a ship, a vessel, a nonliving thing... know somebody is all right?”
“No idea. It’s just what Strix said from that journal of hers... It knows Olivier will find us... or it’ll find him. In time.”
“Because that’s what Strix said, yes?” Bethilius said, scoffing. “As we all know, we can trust her without a second thought.”
“That I can’t really argue with,” Ponitius grumbled, shrugging. “She is rather scheming, ambitious... but she is looking out for him. After all, she is infatuated-”
“Please don’t remind me of that,” Beatrice grumbled. “A mother and daughter seeking out the same m- ugh, my stomach...”
“Regardless, I think she may be right; the lad has unbelievable luck. We simply have to be patient... I thought I’d clear the air. No hard feelings between us eh, Squall?”
“I suppose not,” she muttered, too confused now to truly know what to think.
“Great, then why don’t we go out and enjoy enjoy the festivities? We were told that we couldn’t go in one group, but nothing said there couldn’t be multiples... Never been on a Zephyrian Capitol. This should be exciting.”
Squall scoffed, bitter again.
“I was told to stay on the ship,” she grumbled, holding herself tighter. “Besides, I have no want to go out into that gaudy eyesore.”
“As much as I’d like to, I don’t like crowds,” Dervalan said, pushing his fingers together. “They make me self-conscious.”
“I don’t like crowds either,” Beatrice said, “so that’s a hard pass for me.”
Anni whined, shaking her shoulder. Hard.
“Oh come on,” she said, her ears drooping. “It’ll be fun!”
“You can go if you like. I’m not dealing with that... How does a city like this even function?”
“Then I guess it’s the three of us-” Ponitius began.
“Uh, no,” Bethilius said, snorting as he stepped away. “I’m going to go with Gaz. You and the rat can do whatever you wish.”
“That’s not very nice!” Anni squeaked after, but Bethilius simply waved her off, heading for the door. She stamped her foot, growling softly, a cute little noise. “Why does he always have to be a butt?”
“It’s just how he is,” Ponitius said, patting the mousy Faun’s head, perking her up. “That’s fine. We’ll have fun without him.”
She giggled alongside his chortle, and the two left, leaving Dervalan, Beatrice, and Squall to retreat to the kitchen, settling at the furthest table from the entry. Voices still rumbled outside the hull, softly thunking and tapping with each knock and touch, while Durnst was still lost to himself, preparing a fresh meal. Squall didn’t know exactly what it was, but it had a rather spicy tang to it, burning the back of her throat.
With one final tap of his spoon, he wheeled about... finally noticing the three.
“Oh. Didn’t know you guys were here,” he stated, taking off his apron. It was a light blue garb, heavily stained to the point of brown down its front, but the edges still held its brilliance, clashing against his glassy, black scales. “Take it the others left?”
“Strix, the two young Natorei, and Claire left with Spack,” Beatrice muttered. “Betty and Gaz went their own way while Anni and Ponitius went to enjoy the festival.”
Durnst scoffed. “Oh. Sure. Nobody asks if I want to go. I’m just their bloody cook.” He spat into the sink beside, and balled up his apron, tossing it at the left wall. “I’m going out for a bit. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see and learn a bit about Zephyrian cuisine... Don’t touch the pot for at least another hour. The gumbo needs to simmer.”
He departed, leaving the three to the rabble outside as well as their own conversations. For some reason, ever since Ponitius had that little confrontation, the air on the ship was far lighter, a great lift taken off. Even Squall felt a bit happier... but she still had a nagging thought in the back of her mind. She had a worry, but didn’t really know why, a niggling that wouldn’t be silenced even as the voices continued to close in and try to drown it out.