The Masks They Wear
The crew of the Scylla, as varied as they were, as different from the rest of the crowd as they could be, barely stood out in that sea of color and festivity. No one batted an eye as three Natorei and a Faun skulked after a fellow Zephyrian, nor did any turn and wonder why a Terrahn had one follow them through the streets. Why would they? It was a time for revelry and debauchery, the time for irreverence and fun. There was no reason to be suspicious of anything at that moment save for who would end up finding their way into each others company later that day and possibly into the night.
The air around Agutrot buzzed with excitement and cheer, and so the people were less to question. A stark, clashing contrast to the Cocytus and Olivier. He and Gale had been on it for a week now, but the buzzing never seemed to ebb away, always there, pressing into him. Even as they took to the sea, following after the Kraken towards the sunrise, it didn’t ease off. No, the edge was kept, pressed firm into his nape, and his arm felt it.
He sat at the far table in the kitchen, facing towards the wall. As much as he hated presenting his back, he would much prefer it than to let them see his face. So far, he had managed to keep it hidden, keep most of his features safely tucked away, in no small part thanks to Gale. She was getting their food at the moment, but, for the most part, she never left his side –however, knowing that now, he realized the edge, the air wasn’t anywhere near as harsh at that moment... nor was it any time she was away from him.
Regardless, that didn’t stop him from being paranoid about his arm, nor it about all of them. He looked down at it, grimacing. Yellow tinged his vision, watching the red pulse through the sleeve. It wasn’t as brilliant as it usually was, almost crimson, burning through the fabric when Gale was around, but it was the ichor it leaked that bothered him. It had stained the brown sleeve black, always damp, cold, and started to dribble upwards. He preferred it that way; at least it didn’t patter on the table or deck and raise suspicion. Didn’t mean he liked it, but at least it didn’t draw any more attention.
Then again, where was the attention now?
He looked over his shoulder, at the gathering of Itchyoman in the galley. There weren’t many at that moment, a handful only getting off their shift and preparing to sleep while their replacements were grumbling and girding themselves for their own shift to start. Olivier and Gale weren’t given a shift, so to speak. Instead, they were told to help whenever needed and, as the captain put it, “stay out of their way.” That was fine for Olivier; she didn’t even ask him to face her when that was stated. They both only arrived aboard and sat on the prow when she stomped up and... “introduced” herself.
But it was that same level, the same amount of attention, the effort of that “introduction” that was now felt. No one was looking his way. No one was paying him any mind... They shot a glance or two, but it wasn’t his way. Instead, those dour, hateful, loathsome looks were shot towards Gale, but even those were fleeting, as if they wanted to spend as little time on her as they could.
Olivier had some feeling before that they didn’t really care for Gale, but what did she do to gain this degree of... indifference? They were Itchyoman, like her, and yet there was no camaraderie to be felt between them. Instead, they seemed to want her gone, one way or another... In fact, the moment he thought of this, came to this revelation, the light in the galley seemed to brighten, sounds louder, smells stronger as the buzzing dimmed completely.
Looking back at the last week, he had thought about this all wrong. He had no real reason to fear; heck, he had reason to be exuberant. For once in his entire life, he was pretty much invisible. No one paid him any mind. No one wanted to know who, what, or why he was. Nobody wanted to use him for any reason... At long last, it seemed he was ignored and left to be himself... Again, only if Gale was around.
If I try anything on my own... He thought, everything settling again as his arm pulsed once more, renewed... Gale set his bowl before him, filled with... what he could only assume was traditional Itchyoman “cuisine”. He had that week to prepare, but only now could he endure seeing those fish heads, staring back at him as they bobbed up and down in the murky yellow slurry. He thanked her all the same, taking the second spoon from her grasp before she sat beside him, the buzzing returned as she did, sitting incredibly close.
“Don’t mention it,” she said, and took a hearty bite of her slurry... gagging on it. She grabbed one of the water jugs, seven strewn on the table, and filled a clay cup, gulping it down thrice. “Way too much salt... So what’s the plan, my friend?”
“The same as any other?” He said, taking a bite of his... To say it only had “too much salt” was putting it mildly. Even salt would be flabbergasted by how much was in it, as well as the sheer volume of pepper and spice. Olivier may have eaten only spice and rice for years, but that seemed light to the sheer force behind the spice in this slurry. By the seventh cup of water, he could feel his mouth once more, but couldn’t tell if he lowered his voice or not as he spoke again. “I don’t know. What do you have in mind?”
They already had their true plan concocted. It was done by the third day. She had shown him all the best nooks and crannies on the ship, but, knowing what he did now, that seemed rather moot. Nobody was paying them any real attention; they could have boldly talked about their worries and ways around them in broad daylight and nobody would have even paid it any mind... Again, Olivier wished he knew this before.
Gale scoffed, and pushed against his shoulder.
“Well, I wanted to take over Mortuim, but it seems it’s a one-woman job. My cohort can’t seem to come up with anything to do, after all.” She sighed, taking another bite of her slurry then three more cups of water, panting. “It’s so good... but so bad.”
“If you say so.”
“Heh. Guess it wouldn’t be your taste, but this reminds me of home. Mom would always make a big pot of it when she expected dad; I’d be plastered at the pier, waiting for his ship to come in, then come home on his shoulder or bouncing beside him, skipping along, and smell it as I entered the door... Good times... What about you?”
“Huh? What about me?”
“Surely you have a food, a smell- something that reminds you of home. T... the good parts of it, I mean.”
Red slowly bubbled into his vision, much to his disdain. She was just being herself, finding her foot tastier than the slurry she keeps trying to endure. Her stomach was starting to distend from the water alone, which Olivier found himself filling up with, as well.
“I don’t think there are any good parts,” he said, putting down his cup.
“Aw... Come on... There must have been something good. I may not have the best memory, but I still remember some of the good times... You sure there’s nothing?”
“Nothing off the top o- well...”
“I’m not sure if it’s counted as a good memory... not anymore, at least... Back in Terra, during the first week of Spring, before the storms settled in and right after the last frost, mom, Lady Naomei, and I would go out on the plains for a picnic... A tribute to Terra, Herself, if I recall.” He chuckled, blue overtaking the red, popping and blossoming in his eyes as he took another drink of water. “It was really more a banquet. We would bring seven, eight baskets of food. Bread, sweets, cured meats; they’d be placed on the blanket with such care, but even if Lady Naomei made it ten feet long, twelve feet, it never seemed to be enough room. The food always looked like it was about to spill over onto the tall grass... but it never did. It never did...”
“That’s... a lot of food.”
“And... she expected only the three of you to eat that much?”
“No. No... It would also be offered to any traveler that passed by. It was a celebration for Terra, after all, a gift to all. It just so happened that we were away from Terra and able to enjoy ourselves... It’s the only time I ever saw my mom smile, and Lady Naomei laugh.”
“You keep bringing her up, but who is Lady Naomei? T... to you and your mom, I mean.”
“She was my mom’s waymother, back when she was a devout member of Terra.”
“I take it they didn’t take too kindly to her ‘actions’ that lead to you, did they?”
Again, that bit of red, but it was smothered in blue, remembering his mother’s smiling face, that soft brown, almost sand colored, skin around her lips dimpled, her green eyes shining as she played tag with him out in that tall grass. Even Lady Naomei joined in from time to time, but would have to return to the blanket and food whenever a traveler’s wagon or horse was spotted over the horizon.
“H-hello? Ollie?” Gale said, waving her hand in front of him. “Would you kindly come back to us on your own volition? I don’t want to have to go get a fishing harpoon.”
“O-oh. Sorry... No. They didn’t.”
“Figured. Terra’s finest hate when Natalie’s children connect with them... So who was Lady Naomei to you?”
That robbed all blue from his eyes, replaced with black. His arm glowed stronger than ever, the ichor so thick, bubbling and crackling on his chest, just under the hem of his robes. Who was she to him, after all, but his jailer, his keeper. After his mom left, it only became clearer, and she tried harder than ever before to cement that fact into his mind. How could he explain it to Gale, though? That’s what he was having problems with, and every attempt, every line of thought only made the black in his eyes grow that much more.
“In Terra culture,” he began, slowly, trying to keep the venom back in his voice... though he could feel its effect as it spread through the room. His voice had become a hiss, snaring and enthralling all to look his way, a fact that made his arm throb even more. “Only those who are wholly of Terra’s bloodline can be accepted... or their progeny are and they are accepted by proxy... I was supposed to be Lady Naomei’s husband. They were going to use a ritual to ensure all ‘of Natalie’s impurity’ was removed from the child conceived... It wouldn’t be considered mine at all. It would be the church’s child, but by blood I would finally be accepted.” He growled, and took a heaping spoonful of the slurry, now finding it too weak for his liking. “Mom left a year before the ceremony was to take place, left me alone to suffer and be groomed by the church, by Lady Naomei... Why did she leave me? Why couldn’t she take me with her... Why did she abandon me to that!”
Gale... patted his shoulder.
“Hey... It’s not so bad, is it? Look where you are; you were able to get away, too.”
“But I was alone. I had no one... I don’t expect you to understand. You had your mom and dad. You have somebody and someplace to fall back on... What did I have?” Mouthful after mouthful he downed that slurry. He didn’t reach for the water once, finding it unnecessary. The concoction was already doing a well enough job cooling his throat, staving off the phantom pain welling behind his eyes. “She left me, knowing I had nowhere to turn... I made my way to my ‘father’s’ a year later, but it still wasn’t a haven. I was still being used... How could she do that to me?”
“W-well... maybe she wasn’t thinking. Sounds to me like you were both in a really bad situation. More than likely, she simply got tired of all the rules and doctrine and wanted to strike out as... her own person.”
He scoffed, and red was allowed to touch his vision again, swirling with the umbral cyclones in each of those stars.
“‘Her own person’... She left her entire life behind, forgot it all. Even me... I was just another reminder of how she messed up... I was a mistake.”
“No, no. That’s not true... That came out wrong. I’m sorry... Your mom probably thinks of you every day... I can’t imagine that a mother could just leave her son-”
“But she did! She left me there, forgot me, forsook me for her own reasons... She left me to suffer... I never wanted to be born. I never asked for any of this... Some days I think I would have been better off not existing... and that wasn’t helped any when I found my ‘father’.” He raised the bowl to his lips, holding back the fish heads as he swallowed the last of the diluted mess, and slammed it back on the table, huffing as he laid his head on it. “That was just as big a mistake. He treated me as a sideshow attraction for his store... He said he was teaching me how to run it, but he already had an apprentice, already promised them the shop when the time came... I had nothing, but was expected to give everything to earn my stay.”
Gale continued to pat his shoulder, though he could feel her shaking. Probably from all the attention they were getting, but why did it matter? In fact, somewhere deep inside, he hoped one would try something. He needed to vent AND DEAL WITH THIS HORRID WASH... But it was still deep... deep down.
“That’s... that’s not true,” Gale finally said, tried to say, stumbling over her own words even as they fell out of her mouth around both feet jammed in them. “Your dad must have cared for you somewhat, right? N-not in the money sense, either... I mean, he actually tried to find you after you left, right? D... did he know you left?”
How couldn’t he? His golden goose up and left the coop before he could wring its neck, he thought. He opened his mouth, already heated, about to explain what happened on the Kraken, on how he met Gwen... but stopped. His mind finally caught up, reminding him of where he was, who was there, and how, if he talked about her, that would only lead to the cave, to that cursed chest, and to his arm. Things he really did not want to talk about, not without a way to escape.
Olivier shook his head, picking up another clay jug, and filled his mug, sipping on it, slowly. She was still watching him, as were the others, all waiting for an answer, but he simply kept drinking. Even as his cup ran empty, he filled it again, each gulp, every soft wisp of water taking more and more attention away. Gale finished her slurry during, and took both hers and his bowl up to the sink. When she returned, nobody was paying him any mind, and even Gale was starting to lose interest.
Completely taken as the captain entered the room.
Olivier could tell it was her. She wore the heaviest boots on board, as if their soles were made out of iron, clacking, practically clanging with each step, ringing as she made her way through the hall and to the pot. The Itchyoman, both those that were getting off their shift and those replacing them, finally dispersed, leaving only the captain, Gale, and himself in that hall.
The captain sloshed some of the slurry into one of the clean wooden basins, then clomped over to them, standing to Olivier’s left. She flourished her coat behind, flapping a touch, and finally sat, letting her coat settle behind as she buried her face into that bowl... gagging.
“Dammit, Irv,” she grumbled. “What did I tell you about the salt.” She continued to lament as she ate, slurping down a cup of water in between breaths, finishing it within minutes, and leaned back, patting her belly. “Still. Wasn’t too bad this time around... So. How are you two? We haven’t had a chance to talk since you arrived, involuntarily, on my ship. Well, one of you it was.”
“We’re doing fine. Thanks,” Gale stated, her voice hard.
“That’s good to hear. About you. I’m more interested in your cargo, though, this crewman that decided to slink along.” She leaned towards Olivier, lowering her voice as she mumbled. “How much do you owe her? What does she have against you?”
“I... I h-have nothing!” Gale exclaimed, spluttering over her words again, but this time it wasn’t out of trying to be careful. Her teeth started to slide from her gums, her growls rolling through the room, and the fire was felt from her gaze, glaring at the captain. “He’s my friend.”
“Ah. A devious scheme from Tarjen it is, then.”
Gale roared, thundering to her feet, her claws and teeth freed.
“How dare you! You have no right to sling such lies.”
“Again, I’m not talking with you. Now sit down, shut up, or simply go away. I am trying to have a conversation with the poor soul you brought aboard.”
“Well, he obviously does not want to talk with you. He doesn’t have to answer you or to you, and neither do I. The only captain I follow is Captain Tarjen.”
“So why were you aboard the Kraken,” the captain asked, completely ignoring Gale as she bore down on her. “Have you had experience sailing before? Were you looking for adventure? Any place in particular?”
Olivier nodded for the first two, but shook for the last. The entire time, though, he made sure the hood didn’t waver, that his head didn’t turn too far, in case she caught a glimpse of the side of his face or saw his eyes. He already saw what he left on hers, after all, and he had no doubt she would know it was him that left that mark. He didn’t even want to speak, knowing his voice would more than certainly give him away. So he kept nodding, shaking his head, deflecting as best he could as the woman with a thousand feet continued to fume and growl behind him.
At last, the captain must have realized what he was doing, and scoffed.
“If you didn’t want to talk, you should have simply said,” she said. “I can assure you I mean you no harm. Simply curious is all.”
“Didn’t anyone teach you what curiosity does?” Gale said, resting both of her claws on Olivier’s shoulders. He was thankful now with how... squishy they’ve gotten, but could still feel the tiniest of pin pricks on his chest, where the end of those claws rested. “You’re so tense; is she making you that uncomfortable?”
The captain scoffed, shooting her an evil look. “I’m making him uncomfortable? You haven’t been able to remove yourself from his derriere since you both arrived. It’s a wonder he hasn’t sucked himself into his own rectum just to get away from you, even for a moment.”
“Why would he? We’re friends. We enjoy each others company, look out for one another... I would go as far as to say we love each others company. Isn’t that right, Ollie?”
And the nastiest foot finally fit itself into her mouth. Olivier winced, tensing more as the bench they sat on creaked, as if the captain gained a ton of weight in that utterance. He could feel her gaze through the side of the hood, her teeth gnashing on his neck. Every part of her fought to remain still, but he could feel the soft tremors through the wooden bench, as well as the growl boiling up in her chest.
“What did she call you?” She hissed, turned into a roar as she let loose her growl at last. “Who are you! Reveal who you are this instant.”
He could hear feet running across deck, through the galley, closing in on the kitchen, but no yellow touched his vision. Instead, it was red. Curse you, Gale; of all the things to slip on... He inhaled, sharp, and held it for a moment. He closed his eyes, but that didn’t stop him from “seeing” the crowd that was gathering around nor their weapons, drawn and ready. As he let go of his breath, he opened his eyes, looking down at his arm, at its pulsing red lines, wanting- no, needing some way to get out of there. But what could he do? His cover was blown; how he wished to be anybody else at that moment.
The captain, though, demanded again, this time reaching for her own sword as she did... but Olivier held up his left hand.
“I’m a long way from home, with nowhere to turn,” he said... at least, he thought he said it. He felt his throat buzz with the words, felt his lips move for them, his chest expel them out towards the crowd, knowing that would seal his fate... but it was not to be. That was not his voice, nor any voice he could recall. It was deeper, and had a dialect he couldn’t remember ever being exposed to, lilting yet rough, flowing yet enunciated, as if it was his first time ever talking. He looked to his left arm, still raised, the sleeve sliding down... to reveal soft, pinkish skin. He shot a glance to the right as well, seeing it was no longer pulsing, no longer the scarred, almost rocky appendage but also the soft pink. Terrahn.
He... he reached up and pulled down his hood, letting his hands run along his scalp as he did, feeling his tendrils- hair! It was actual, Terrahn hair. He couldn’t even feel his shell anymore, instead replaced by a bun. From the feel of it, it was fashioned after the northern Terrahn style, bound as tight as it could into a single, solid mass then held with seven needles. His hands drifted back to his eyes, but they were still star-shaped, the gray skin around them more coarse than the soft pink that now made up his entirety.
He looked to the captain, who was also studying his face, his features as he was, as were the rest of the crew.
“A Terrahn,” the captain remarked, biting her lip, looking into his eyes. “I’ve never seen a Terrahn with those kinds of eyes before... She called you Ollie, yes? I must warn you. Be careful with such a name; there’s a Cepha-Terrahn that shares it, and he’s bad news.”
“Thank you. I will keep that in mind.” He stood, and a visible shudder ran through the room. Now, more than ever, he wished to feel invisible again. It would be far better than feeling as if he was in the middle of a feeding frenzy... He kept his composure, though, and nodded to the captain. “I’m feeling a bit tired now. A nap, then I’ll return to my duties.”
“Don’t fret, don’t fret. You are our guest after all. Gale dragged you into this.”
He nodded, and headed for the door, putting up his hood as he went. Much to the gathering’s disdain. He only realized it, but they were all female, which only made it feel more like he was about to be a meal... He kept his steps even, strong, steady without being too fast as the crowd started to follow after, but they gave up halfway through the rowing hall, leaving him alone as he made it to the hammocks.
He made it to the back row, and, as he sat, he felt his shell return, filling out his hood once again. He held up his hands, watching as the pink melted away, turned back into the dark ichor as it unbound from his blue-and-yellow skin and the jagged purple of his right arm. It didn’t pulse anymore, the pearl on the back dead, heavy once more.
What was that? He thought. How di-
Gale whined as she flung herself into the hammock beside him, and puffed out her cheeks as she glowered at him.
“Why did you leave me alone like that?” She said. “We’re supposed to be looking out for each other.”
Like you did, letting my name slip? He shook his head and sighed... turned into an actual yawn.
“Sorry... Had to think quick.”
“So I saw. Another moment, and I would have started to tear some shadmen into chum... How did you do that, by the way? With your voice, I mean.”
“I don’t know. Just sort of... happened.”
“Well aren’t you chalked full of surprises... You should wear your hood down more, though. For being Cepha-Terrahn, you are quite the looker. I guess you only got the hands and eyes, huh? Oh! And the shifting skin.”
“Like I said, this is all new to me.” He turned to the wall, yawning again, but almost jumped out of the hammock as Gale climbed in behind, holding him. “W-what are y-”
“Relax,” she breathed into his ear. “It’s... I miss my sister... Ever since I brought up my family, I’ve had this pain in my chest. Just... let me hold you... just for a little bit.”
He didn’t feel exactly comfortable with it, but her voice seemed sincere about it. It was softer than normal, almost vulnerable... and she was out in a few minutes regardless, snoring away and leaving him to his thoughts. What happened in the kitchen; that was far too close... but... it wasn’t the fact how close it was but how in general. How did he change his appearance... rather, how did his arm do it? How did it know what he wanted... Could it hear his thoughts... could it understand him, even now... and did it know it was going to happen? At least he had a way to get around the ship... but now he doubted he could be invisible ever again. And what if this was only a one-time thing?
Olivier was actually glad she was holding him, for he felt the strangest chill pass through him, biting down to his very core.