At Wit's End, There's Redemption
The chase continued, growing ever closer to the main street. Avin and Fili dogged after the two Mordos, flying over the crowd, a beacon for Claire, Spack, and Strix to follow. However, with the ever encroaching tide of people and color looming, it was going to be difficult, for everyone involved, to make any headway. They would be slowed to a crawl, and Strix hoped the gathering would notice the Zephyrian over the Mordos’s shoulder. Given their previous exposure, she doubted that would be the case. Noon quickly approached, the party wading through the masses of gawking, cooing revelers, while the Kraken lazed across the open sea, still so far from Agutrot.
For Naomei, a week without food had proven too long.
She gasped, pushing the top of the crate off, and climbed out of it into the storeroom. She managed to slip in as they were being loaded, without even a glance from the two crewmen on duty, and even managed to be ignored by the Stevedores. Her biggest worry was getting into a crate that wasn’t being taken back out, and the Earth Mothers smiled upon her as she took cover in the one that held extra fabric for the sails. Aside from her actions, the crate was completely and utterly ignored... and remained that way for a week as she waited for the ship to set sail.
She finished easing herself down to the floor, barely even making a sigh on the boards, and crept over to the door, listening. She couldn’t hear anybody in the kitchen or in the rowing hall, but she wondered if that was her mind playing tricks on her, wanting her to believe it was fine so that she would give it sustenance. Wouldn’t be the first time that week; it tried to convince her to open the porthole and drink a bit of the salty spray, which she figured out after the first time and hadn’t repeated it thus. Mostly from lacking the strength.
Now the hunger had fully set in, and it wouldn’t be appeased until it and the thirst were sated, so she doubted her hearing, if only a moment. She peeked out into the hall, looking towards the rowing hall first. It was the closest, the crate having been placed in the first storeroom along the way to the kitchen. Much to her joy, her ears were not wrong... Unless her eyes were playing tricks on her, too. She could believe that there were two whole rowing halls, but nobody in those benches? Obviously a trick.
She shook her head, feeling a bit woozy from the action, and used it to look towards the kitchen. For that she had to risk the hall, stepping out, carefully, lining her feet in the multitude of halls that ran beside. She held the doorway, letting her fingers trail along it, finding the next storeroom’s arch, ready to pull in as she peeked into the kitchen... finding it empty, as well. She stood there a moment more, listening, making sure no one was near... Nobody was coming. Nobody was there.
Naomei ran into the kitchen, panting hard, following her nose to the stove. A great, big pot sat on top of it, simmering away. She pulled off its lid, allowed the meaty stew its fullest pungency, and grabbed the ladle beside. She didn’t even bother with a bowl, slurping it down... before putting back down the ladle, fighting the urge to retch.
Who let an Itchyoman cook? She thought, rushing over to one of the tables. She picked up one of the clay urns there, drinking from it, dousing that awful concoction from existence, but that wouldn’t be enough. Naomei returned to the kitchen, scanning the floorboards until she noticed a small, iron handle, running against the grain. She pulled it, and the floor rose, revealing a small set of steps, leading down to the larder. There was a Zephyrian ice chest, brine barrels, and a compact pantry, all nestled near the the very bottom of the ship, right along one of the wave smashers forged to slice through the ocean as if it were butter. Succulent, smooth, delectable bu- Focus! What do we have here to cook?
She hummed to herself, hiding the growls of her stomach as she pawed over the items down there. There was plenty of fruit, vegetables, but meat was rather lacking. If she could, she would love to use even a leg of beef, but they would notice that rather easily. No... she would have to settle on making her own stew, one that wasn’t ruined by an Itchyoman’s lack of taste.
How could any of them stomach it? She thought, grunting softly as she climbed back up the steps, bringing along a bag of potatoes, a couple carrots, and a hock of beef. She could always throw it into the other basin when done. Like any of them would notice a difference. All their taste buds must be burnt out by now.
She set the food down on the closest table and grabbed a knife, still humming away, though far softer. The potatoes didn’t stand a chance, a few days from going bad, but the carrots were a bit more problematic. They must have come from the Arthrogons; far harder than their Terrahn or Faun-raised counterparts, but much sweeter –though that in of itself was a problem. She didn’t want sweet. She wanted a savory stew; she shot a glance at the stove, almost falling over as she did, and was thankful to see a canister of black pepper on the back of it, near the pipe.
That should cover it.
It didn’t take her long to get it prepared, but any time was too much for her stomach, gnawing away at her after finishing that bit of Itchyoman stew. It seemed to demand her to demean herself again, to eat another bite, but she had standards, willpower. So, as the meat sizzled in the fresh pot, she sat there, waiting, torturing her stomach as the smell of it wafted, bathed, consumed her in its greatness... however, her mind was elsewhere, a week ago, slowly returning to that moment.
The captain was a bit of a talker, after all, and loved to talk to the Aceon known as Plu at great length. They usually waited until late at night or early in the morning, but it was always about the same problems, about the Scylla and tracking it down, about the Powderfish and their “alliance”.
And how the captain will sink them when the time comes.
Her ears perked, hearing the captain’s door open above. Feet scuttled in, and she could just make out the waves of a bubble flung at the captain, whom groaned from its impact.
“I know,” he said, muffled but very clear through the floor. Ferrisom bark may be tough, durable, but it did little to hamper sound. “They should have betrayed us by now... What are they waiting for?” Another wave hit him, which had a question even Naomei wanted an answer to. “Of course they are going to betray us! You can’t trust Itchyoman as far as you can throw them. They are proud, ambitious, conniving; Roe has been the only exception to this, and that’s because she’s mostly Terrahn.”
There was a pause, but the next bubble came, and Naomei couldn’t help but smile at how coy it splashed. The captain scoffed, thumping across the room, pacing it.
“Okay. Maybe I do have a bit of an ulterior reason to want them to do so, but can you blame me? That woman has been a thorn in my side, and will continue to do so unless something is done- oh no. Don’t bring her into th- I brought her up as the exception! It was a passing detail- fine! Fine... She’s interesting enough, okay? Sweet... for an Itchyoman... However, I don’t think my heart is ready.”
The next bubble was firm, almost concrete, and Naomei couldn’t help agree. It was a feeling she knew all too well, and was suffering from it. She wasn’t getting any younger, and the sooner she could find Olivier, the sooner she could put that behind... Meanwhile, it seemed the good captain was of a different mind.
“It’s one of those things I was never truly worried about,” he said. “I’ve had my share of... dalliances, but I never saw a reason to settle- let’s get back on track. I bore and abhor the way this conversation is going- if you are hoping to get me flustered, old friend, you should know by now- WE... are most likely going to have to we’ll bait them out. We’ll need pretend the ship is having problems... We did have the ‘Dread Pirate’ aboard for a touch, so it’s believable. Olivier could have done it.”
The mention of his name made her stomach quiet, her heart leap, and her ears perk even further. Olivier had been here- her heart sunk just as quick, realizing it was past tense... He was right under her nose- but not too long ago! It couldn’t have; he must have came to the docks after all when he escaped. He hid on this ship for a week... but then whe- could he have been sent to the other ship-
The one they plan on sinking!
Oh no. No no no no! She thought bolting to her feet. What do I do? Do I jam their cannons, wet their powder so it can’t be used? Widen the barrels so it can’t get the proper results? I must do s-
“Not them agai- Plu! Hard to starboard! Hard to s-” The captain began to bellow, but it was lost, forgotten. The ship creaked, shuddering to a halt as something rammed into it. It thundered through the hull, rumbling it to its very core, where it was allowed to resonate fully before seven sets of boots crashed onto the deck.
Naomei threw the vegetables into the pot then climbed out a porthole, clinging to the side as she climbed up and onto the captain’s quarters... under the shadow of a long prow, belonging to an even larger Aqua Alliance dreadnought. She flattened herself to the wood as best she could, crawling to the edge, and saw that six of the seven were Arbiters, the chosen elite of the Aqua Alliance Council. They wore bright silver plate, adorned with royal blue, running into their long, lavish capes, flickering behind them in the rising wind. Four were Cephamorian, two Aceon, any other features hidden in full-faced helms.
The seventh, meanwhile, was a Cephamorian. A simple Cephamorian wearing a tricorne hat and wearing a jacket that seemed far too large for him or his wide grin, only growing wider as the captain stepped out on deck.
“We meet again, Captain Tarjen,” the Cephamorian declared, chuckling. “Did you think you could get away from the Aqua Alliance Council, especially after what you did last time?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, Lehroo-” Tarjen said, cut off by the Cephamorian.
“It’s Captain Lehroo. Of the Aqua Alliance vessel Mako.”
“I remember. I also remember you and your men losing it and attacking my crewmen, most likely from the Pearl you had on your person.”
“Ah, so you admit to the Pearl being here-”
“On your person, yes. I do believe they also found a rather exuberant amount on your ship, as well. Truth be told, I do not know what grudge you have against me now, but we are in a right hurry. So if you don’t mind-”
“Oh, but I do mind. I mind a lot. I have problems with people trying to frame me, with those that attempted to kill me-”
“Both of those charges are vapid at best, slanderous at worst. I did neither of those; I may have acted in self-defense of my crew, but I can assure you, Lehroo, if I wanted to kill you, I would have.”
“CAPTAIN Lehroo, and Is that a threat? You dare to threaten me in front of the Arbiters, the Council’s will given form?”
“It is not a threat, Lehroo. Simply a statement, if not a promise... You already checked my ship. You couldn’t find your target; in fact, she had fled out into open waters, so why are you bothering me now?”
“We’re not after her. Not now.”
The Arbiters stepped away from the Cephamorian Lehroo and marched up the steps, closing rank around Tarjen. They drew their swords, red coral blades, jagged and gnarled and creating a ring around Tarjen’s head.
“Captain Nella Tarjen,” The Arbiter behind him said, “you are charged with treason against the Council, against all of Caparai and the Aqua Alliance, as well as multiple counts of assault, attempted manslaughter, attempted murder, drug trafficking, conspiracy of defamation, threatening an official escort of the Council, and lollygagging.”
“That last one seems excessive, if not oppressive-” Tarjen began, cut off as they closed the ring tighter, bring forth six bubbling blots of blue blood.
“We, the Arbiters, the eyes, arms, and ears of the Council, have found you guilty of all charges, and sentence you to death. You will be silent until your head rolls on the deck, your payment finally received for your crimes against the Aqua Alliance and its people.”
“I think I’ll keep accruing a debt, then,” he said, pointing to the port side. “You fellows might want to brace yourselves.”
None of them heeded his words, even as he gripped the wheel, but Naomei did. She clawed, hard, at the lip of the captain’s quarters, holding on dearly as the entire ship rocked, hit by another ship. More ships closed around, all carrying the same colors, though she wasn’t sure who they we-
“Avast!” a large-frilled Itchyoman cried out, leaping onto the prow of the ship that crashed into the Kraken’s port. “Who dares attack an ally of the Powderfish?”
“Great. Filthy pirates,” one the Arbiters said, breaking rank, as did the others. Three returned to the Mako, quickly seen again as they leaped to the other ships circled around, while the one that spoke, marched towards that pirate, flicking their blade. “What is your name so that I may pass it to the Council?”
“I am Captain Sheira, the leader of the Powderfish, and I do not fear the Council.”
“Then you are a fool.” The armor seemed to explode off of its left “arm”, floating around the three tendrils there, showing its black skin. Large red rings pulsed on it, growing faster, hotter as a ball formed in it. The hair stood on the back of Naomei’s neck, hearing it buzz against the cacophony rising around, before they slung it at Sheira. It was slow, at first, as if lazing through the air, but then the energy flashed and became a spike, shot forward. Sheira jumped down on the Mako, and the spike met the first mast, cutting it clean in half before exploding, taking out the next mast. Slivers rained down on its deck, burrowing into the bark, and Naomei could hear a new noise, making her stomach turn and roil, matching the frothing sea under that boat.
Sheira roared, teeth and claws freed, and pounced on the Arbiter. He had begun to fall backwards, and caught her with his foot, flipping her off, rolling her on the deck as he prepared another orb. She didn’t stay down long, finding her footing on the fourth mast, and kicked off, lunging at him again. The Arbiter raised his sword, blue twinkling in the holes in helm, but gasped, screaming as two Itchyomen tore into him, the other coming from the steps. From where Naomei sat, she couldn’t tell the difference between the two; it was as if the Itchyoman created a copy, both now ravaging the Arbiter.
“No! I don’t need help or anything!” The Arbiter shrilled. The other two, the Aceons, and Lehroo had been simply skulking closer, even as he screamed, as blood frothed free.
Lehroo... cleared his throat, and patted those two Arbiters on their shells.
“Well, looks like you boys have this covered,” he said, and spun around, hurrying to the prow of the Mako. There was a rope hung down from it, quickly pulled up as he scampered up, and Naomei could have sworn he was whimpering.
For good reason.
Wood splintered, cracked as the ocean roared behind. Naomei looked back, and saw a geyser of water, rising into the heavens. The sun caught it, gave it such color, before it fell down, down into the sea, going ever deeper as it started to swirl. The ship, what was left of it, was pulled down into the bowl, the crew on it crying out, lost, unsure of what to do as the sea, itself, swallowed them whole.
It wasn’t alone, though. One by one, the ships around exploded, a ring of geysers turned into maelstroms, making sure there was no escape. Naomei gasped, and focused on the ship to the Kraken’s port again, and saw the ocean was teeming, ready to blow, so close to the Kraken.
I need to get out of here. Now, she thought, and looked to the prow above her. The captain may have needed a rope, but it was so close. She stood, her forehead meeting it, and she pulled herself onto it, wondering where to go. There were fifteen others on board the Mako, but all were by the rails, watching the chaos unfold. Even the captain was oblivious, the closest to the prow and bow, not even flinching, looking as she crawled by. She didn’t want to press her luck too far, so decided to climb the closest mast up to the crow’s nest, watching as well.
All the other Powderfish vessels were gone, their crew taken down into the churning depths, but the sea was taking its time on the one by the Kraken. In fact, the bubbles stopped. The sea had gone still under it, as still as the Arbiter on the Kraken’s deck. The Itchyoman surrendered to the Aceon Arbiters, lead aboard the Mako, but the other Arbiters were back on deck. Bearing down on Lehroo.
“This was not part of the plan!” One of them boomed, but she could hear the exhaustion in his voice, panting with the others.
“So what?” Lehroo said, chuckling. “You are Arbiters, the chosen of the Council. You have powers that far exceed most if not all of the Aqua Alliance-”
“And we just used it all to deal with those intruders,” another exclaimed.
“Okay? You dealt with the pests. Now go get Tarjen-”
“Don’t you understand? We aren’t in any shape to take him d-”
The Mako rumbled, and all of them watched as the Kraken pulled free. Tarjen saluted them, laughing as the wind pulled them towards the sea. Two red-shelled Aceons settling on deck, breathing hard as they let go of the oars in their hands, pressed hard enough to bend and splinter them, but they had managed to slip away... leaving the last Powderfish vessel to laze and crash into the Mako.
“T...that b...” Lehroo spluttered, and even from up on high Naomei could see the red in his eyes. He growled, and spun towards the Arbiters, prodding at their chests. “Useless! Utterly useless! When the Council hears about this-”
“About what? Us completely destroying a pirate fleet, making the waters safer?” The Arbiter waved to the ship stuck on their bow. “Once we take care of the last, we’ll be commended... and so will you.”
“Y... you’re right! Of course you are! This was all my idea. We’ll have a chance to go after that wretch again, but to take down an entire fleet is no small feat. Well done, everyone... A...anyways... do any of you have enough to sink it.”
“I do.” The Arbiter to Lehroo’s right said, and leaped down on-deck. His arm splintered from his “arm”, as well, a familiar orb weaving itself into existence in his grip. He walked down the steps of the galley, the buzzing cut short as screams rose, flesh squelching, wood splintering as thick, jagged spikes broke through the deck and sides. The ocean began to froth under it again, bubbling, swirling... There was a scream, a quick one, but then the world was consumed in light, all lost before there was an explosion. It rocked the Mako, water raining down upon Naomei, but it was muffled by Lehroo, shouting at his crew.
“Get down below. Start rowing back like there’s no tomorrow!” He shrieked, and scoffed as he wiped his brow, looking towards the wreckage of the ship before him. The Arbiter that had gone down to it, was now on the prow... but he wasn’t alone.
“Sir?” The Arbiter called out... groaning. “Sir!”
“Huh? Wha- ah! You made i... who are they?”
“A few stowaways.” He grunted, shoving them forward, and Naomei saw it was the two she had sneaked passed before, an Itchyoman and, as the hood fell, a Terrahn in brown robes.
“Ah. Take them to the brig with the others. We’ll deal with them once we are clear of this mess.”
The Arbiter shoved them further down the prow, onto deck, and escorted them down the steps into the galley. The other Arbiters sighed, relaxing at last, and strolled off in pairs to the bow and stern, talking. The captain, meanwhile, had his eyes set on the destruction, the carnage around, the blue sparkling in his eyes.
But what of Naomei?
Now that it had all settled, her stomach tried to rear its ugly head... but her heart wouldn’t let it. It had sunk like a stone into its barren depths, filling it before plunging it, too, down to her feet, so heavy, trembling underneath. She had failed... Olivier was gone.
Why did I hesitate? She thought, tears beading in her eyes... but shook her head, sobbing, growling. No. Why did I only look after myself... He was on-board that ship. I know it... I just know that he was... yet I scurried up here, a rat, a cowardly, craven vermin... I’m so sorry, Olivier. I’m so s-
Something caught her eye.
It was minute, barely a glimpse, but she thought she saw something... change with the Terrahn as he was being pushed downstairs. Something... off... Her heart swelled, rising, hope blossoming once more. It might have been false, but it was hope regardless... and, if it was true, how?
At any rate, she would have to wait. There was no way she was going to get down now without being caught, so she would simply have to wait.
Nothing new, she thought, sighing as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Time is what I always had. What’s a few more hours?