A pod of dahlphins joined the Calamity for a while, jumping back and forth in front of the little ship as it rode along. On shore, the land climbed higher and higher up into the foothills of the Aeolian Mountains, before eventually disappearing completely into low-hanging clouds, leaving only flat-faced rock cliffs visible to the passengers at sea. Hid fixed the sail for trolling so that the Calamity could better move with the water’s swells and surges, forces that he explained could throw less experienced sailors up onto the rock like jetsam.
Slate was studying the patterns of bubbles in the gray-blue water when he saw a slick, shining, black form rise up like a wheel and spin out into a long, orange-and-purple tail fin. The fin smacked the water’s surface with a loud splash before disappearing back down into the abyss.
“What on Alm was that?” Slate gasped.
“What’d you see there?” asked Hid, furrowing his bushy eyebrows as he crossed to where Slate was standing.
“I don’t know, a thing. A huge, black, thing, in the water. I mean, it must have been huge, but I just saw it’s fin, a bright orange and purple fin.”
“That was probably a sirrk, son.” Hid scratched his ear. “Strange that they’d be north this early in the year, but I suppose our winters have been different than they used to be.”
“A sirrk? Is that like a fish? How big is a sirrk?” Slate searched the water warily for other monsters. “Hid… are we going to die?”
“No. Maybe. Well, yes, actually. Everyone is going to die. But we probably won’t die today. There are a coupla kinds of sirrks, but you prolly saw a ployback,” noted Hid. The creature reappeared off in the distance, again heralded by a blast of water. “Yes, ployback,” Hid confirmed. “That’s its blowhole shooting water. It’s how they breathe. They’re big, but they’re no worry to us. Biggest creatures on Alm, actually, sirrks. Absolutely huge. And they eat plankton! Those’re tiny little sea scums. The waters up here have the highest plankton concentrations in the world, that’s what brings them. And the dahlphins, and all the other life. It’s a good place to be a fish. And to be a fisherman.”
“What do they look like under the ocean, the sirrks?” asked Slate.
“Well, kind of like a really big malnos, but with a noad’s face.”
“So strange,” Slate said mostly to himself as he stared at the water and waited for the next surprise.
As the boat continued its way through the fjords, it passed a colony of lumpy, grey, rock-looking creatures called glubbus that stretched out on the small islands that rose from the sea, all piled on top of each other and barking at the nerrs that flew in a frenzy around them. Pilotte barked along with the animals, who in turn stopped silent to stare at the wulf as he went by.
After the glubbus colonies, a name which Slate found perfectly described the lazy animals, a larger island, one covered with trees came into view through the mist.
“Here’s a place where we can get out and stretch a bit,” said Hid, as he began to steer the Calamity into the tiny island’s bay.
The boat met the grade of the island’s beach, and the tide helped to push it far enough up the sand for the three passengers to be able to hop out on dry sand.
“I’m getting kind of cold,” Slate said, shivering as he helped Hid tie the boat up to a tree.
“Yeah, I can see that,” Hid said. “There’s a sweater and some wind pants in the cabin, go ahead and grab ’em. Also, grab the bretton root, this is gonna be a long night.”
While Pilotte followed Hid into a small pine stand to collect fresh water, Slate climbed into the woolen sweater and the wind pants he had been offered. They were far too large, but he felt immeasurably warmer with them on. He stuck a squib of the stimulant bretton root into his mouth, lodging it firmly between his back teeth and his cheek, and went back out onto the boat’s deck to find that Hid and Pilotte had returned.
“If you gotta make water or take water, this is the time to do it,” Hid snickered. The old sailor started double-checking the Calamity’s rigging, while Slate ducked into the trees with Pilotte standing guard.
Once the crew was all back on board, the Calamity again opened her sail. The craft slid down the beach back into the water as a deep rumble of thunder from off in the far distance volleyed around the rock faces in the fjord. All at once, the sky could hold no longer, and the rain began to pour down.
Winds came through the fjords with fury, churning the waters as they roared. An ocean swell grabbed the Calamity and pulled it into the confusion. The force of the swell was so great that it knocked Hid off his feet, and sent the ship’s boom swinging wildly around. It nearly knocked Slate into the water, as the craft went careening toward one of the rock-slab islands.
“Grab the boom!” Hid screamed.
Slate threw his right arm at the boom as it came swinging back. He missed it with his arm, instead catching it with his jaw, which spun him around on the slippery deck. He managed to catch the boom under his arm as it came back around a second time, but a huge gust of wind filled the sail just as he did so, and lifted Slate up from the deck and carried him clear across it to the left side of the boat, and then swung him and the boom all the way out over the prow and back around to the right side. The Calamity broke into a free-fall from the crest of a collapsing wave while Slate was spinning, and for the briefest moment, all three of its passengers floated about the deck as if weightless.
The vessel smacked back down into the water and Hid and Pilotte fell, hard. The boom continued to swing, loose in the raging wind, dragging helpless Slate along with it, who was too afraid to let go. After three more dizzying trips around the mast, he managed to catch the banister that rimmed the boat with his foot. His body snapped taut, and Slate was left stretched over the boat’s edge, rain battering him from above and the black water seething below. When Hid made it back up onto his feet, he slid across the deck, grabbed the boom, and pulled it back. Slate fell to the deck, shaking.
The flat-bottomed boat road up high and fast on the crest of the next peaking wave it met, so near to one of the rock-faced islands that Slate could see the rain cutting little waterfalls down its mossy surface. Hid brought down the sail in perfect synchronicity with the wave, and then banked ever-so-slowly to the right, avoiding collision with the island. With a series of delicate maneuvers, he brought the Calamity to rest.
Slate realized he hadn’t breathed in some time, and started to gasp and choke.
“You okay, Slate?” Hid asked.
“I told you, I’ve never been on a boat,” Slate answered, trembling. “I thought we were going to die!”
“But we didn’t, did we? That wasn’t nothin’! Welcome to itchy fishin’!” Hid said with a hearty laugh that somehow managed to warm Slate’s spirits.
The sky strobed with lightning off to the north. The time between the flashes and the bellowing thunder after was growing shorter and shorter, meaning the heart of the storm was stalking the little boat through the fjord. As Slate counted the duration between one particularly bright flash of lightning and its thunderclap, to try and see how far away the lightning was, a long, green fish with a sharp snout and a spiky dorsal fin breached just in front of the boat. It glistened in the rain for a moment, and Slate could have sworn it looked right at him and even winked, before leaping clear out of the water, turning around in mid-air, and torpedoing back down into the depths.
“Itchy fish!” cried Hid, throwing his arms up to the pouring skies. “Itchy fish, itchy fish!”
“That’s an itchy fish? It’s huge! How are you ever going to catch one?” asked Slate.
“Well, we don’t try for them here in the fjord,” answered Hid. “They’re diving hundreds and hundreds of feet here, we’d lose them for certain. What we’re gonna do is head just a little east of here, closer to Harson’s Island. The waters around Harson’s aren’t more than forty feet deep at best, so if we get one of the bastards, we might actually be able to hold on to it.”
After passing four more of the angular rock islands, a flatter, greener island revealed itself.
“It’s Harson’s,” said Hid. “Here, take over for a while.”
Slate took the wheel and tried to keep the boat steady while Hid unpacked a harpoon gun, a four-foot metal rod with a three-pronged hook at its front end. Hid mounted the harpoon gun into its fittings on the right side of the boat.
“Here, you come over here now,” he said to Slate once the harpoon was in place. “I have to position the boat just right to trick one of these clever bastards, so I’m gonna need you to shoot the thing.”
“But I haven’t ever shot anything before,” Slate said.
“That’s okay. You see that little bump on top of the harpoon there?”
“You just have to line up the fish with that little bump, use just one eye, like this, so you get a real clear line, and then you release that crank there. Just pull out the pin. And don’t miss! Got it?”
“Got it,” Slate gulped.
Two itchy fish breached together, this time more horizontally, due to the shallower water around Harson’s. Their torpedo-noses sliced back into the water with almost no spray, and then they re-appeared twenty feet away, leaping back in the other direction. It seemed that they were making parallel dives, back and forth in figure-eight patterns. Hid maneuvered the Calamity near to the middle of their loops.
“Never seen ’em trace such a regular path. Conditions are good here, Slate. If we just set here, and you target one of these sons-a-bitches, well, we may actually catch one,” he said with an air of great enjoyment. “I should have brought you along sooner, Slate! You’re good luck.”
Slate grumbled and set the harpoon’s sight on the spot where the fish would appear next. He waited for it to jump four more times, to get its rhythm just right, and then he knew it was time to take his shot.
A shock of lightning illuminated the sea, followed almost immediately by an ear-shattering blow of thunder. Slate’s eyes were just readjusting when he made out the nose of his target. He aimed with a hard squint and pulled the pin out of the harpoon crank. The heavy weapon released with a ‘thwap’ that sounded loudly despite the storm, and sent the harpoon flying through the downpour. It struck one of the fish dead center, right below its huge dorsal fin. The fish dove back into the water, and then the harpoon rope began unfurling into the sea after it.
The fish popped up again on the other side of the boat, while Hid spun around to keep pace.
“Tie down the line, Slate!” he yelled.
Slate wound the harpoon rope around a stopper and tied it, finishing just as the line snapped. The strength of the itchy fish pulled the side of the boat down for a moment, and then the line went slack. Slate was terrified to see the fish’s fin slicing through the water toward the boat itself. The fish leapt from the surface of the water and soared clear over the Calamity, wrapping the line over and across its deck as it dove back down.
“If we don’t match his moves, he’ll drown us! Sucker’s tryin’ to drown us, Slate!” yelled Hid.
The eye of the storm had made its way down and over Harson’s Island. The rain relented momentarily.
“If we can just keep up with it, he’s as good as ours,” Hid said. “So let’s stay sharp. Keep the line tight but not too tight, and give if you have to give, but not too much.”
The eye passed quickly and the storm began to gain intensity again. The itchy fish on the end of Slate’s line began surfacing closer and closer to the island, which meant that it was getting tired. The Calamity followed its every move for some two and half hours, slowly dowsing the seemingly unquenchable fire that drove the creature through the freezing waters. In the end, the fish’s fin surfaced for good, this time up near the island’s sandy beach.
“It’s time,” Hid announced.
He sailed the boat up slowly on the prey to within five feet of the bloodied water where it struggled. Hid and Slate pulled the heavy fish up and out of the water, using all their strength and then Pilotte’s, too, to hoist it onto the deck. The massive creature flopped around when it hit the deck, refusing to give in even after so much blood lost and such a long struggle.
“Poor thing,” Slate said. “Can’t we put it out of its misery?”
“Best way to go,” said Hid as he procured a flask from his pocket. He poured its contents into the fish’s gills. The fish flopped a few more times before coming to rest with its huge, bulging eyes staring motionlessly skyward.
“Drunk and dead happy. Saints alive, we caught an itchy fish, son!” screamed Hid, his eyebrows pulling halfway up his forehead and his smile reaching nearly as far. He danced around the deck of the Calamity, clapping his hands and laughing. “Do you have any idea how amazing this is?”
“Well, I’m glad it’s over,” Slate said. “I know that much.”
“You are telling me, son, you are telling me,” Hid said with a huge sigh, staring down at the fish in disbelief. “And you were worried about having never been on a boat before. See, that’s what you do when you’re scared, Slate. You bite down hard on it. You own the fear, you conquer it. You catch the itchy fish! Let’s take harbor here until the storm passes. Looks like it’ll clear up soon.”
Soon enough, the storm clouds dissipated over the far edge of the horizon, the thunder roared its last howl, and the moon reappeared, graced with a halo.
“We’ll set up camp at Breakers for the night, about ten lengths or so from Airyel,” Hid said. “That way we won’t have to go through the hassle of registering the wulf, the fish, the boat, all of that junk. It’s real nearby.”
“How nearby?” asked Slate wearily.
“Real nearby,” Hid confirmed happily.
The Calamity radiated a lazy green wake under the moonlight as it made its way back toward the mainland. Once Hid brought the flat bottom of the boat to rest at Breakers camp, Slate helped him string a line of lemp cord between two trees, and then the two draped a canvas over it, to form an a-frame tent. Slate broke off a tree branch and used the fronds as a broom, sweeping out the cones and small sticks from the floor of the tent while Hid collected rocks to build a fire pit.
By the time Slate had the tent ready for sleep, after transporting a few wet blankets from the boat to the fire pit for drying out, Hid had a large conflagration spewing smoke off into the chilly breeze and some small fish roasting over it. The two ate and talked about their wild adventure. When dinner was through, Pilotte crawled into the tent and took up most of the space inside, so Hid and Slate had to squeeze along one of his sides each and curl up, where they slept warmly and comfortably until the gulls cried out to announce the morning.
When Slate reemerged from the tent into the bright of day, wiping his sleep-swollen eyes, Hid was already re-packing the boat.
“Got some glint going on the fire there, help yourself,” he said.
Slate stumbled over to the fire pit, which had kept hot coals all night. He poured a cup of glint for himself and sipped slowly at the steaming beverage as he watched Hid work.
“Leaving soon, Mr. Hidli?” he asked.
“Yup. Once the water heats up, the winds make it damn hard to sail north, so I’m already a few minutes behind,” Hid said. “I’ve got to get the itchy fish on ice, so you’re on your own from here on out. Give me a hand with the tent, Slate.”
Slate gulped down his glint and then helped Hid fold up the canvas, take down the cords, and load them onto the boat. After Hid threw a couple of buckets of seawater into the fire pit, it was time to say goodbye.
“Guess that’s it then, Slate,” Hid said.
“Guess so. Hey, I really appreciate the ride down, Mr. Hidli,” Slate said.
“It’s Hid. And don’t you worry, it was my gain. Turns out I needed a helper all these years. Who knew? So, what’ll you do first?”
“Well, I have that package to deliver to Airyel,” Slate said, “And then I’ll meet up with my father.”
“And then what?”
Slate thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t really know.”
“You gotta know what you’re gonna do in life, Slate,” said Hid. “Don’t you have any aspirations?”
Slate realized his only real dream had been leaving home. And now that he had, he had no idea what more he wanted.
“Well, I’ll get a job, probably,” he said. “Maybe something with farming? And I have to go back to Aislin, at some point. But, no, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life.”
Hid could see that this made Slate upset. “Son, I don’t like to preach but, if you’re staring in the face of proof, well… I want to tell you what: Here’s how life is: You find something, whatever it is, something for you, just for you, Slate. Whatever you can find that you care about. And you love that thing so much that it drives you wild. Think about it all the time. Go to it when you can’t find anything else to believe in. Remember it when you think you’re satisfied. And it can be anything, can be an idea, doesn’t have to be a thing even. When you get to be my age, and you get to have that dream you’ve dreamt your whole life come true... you’ll see what I mean. Make it a big dream. Make it anything you want.”
“Okay. I appreciate the advice, Mr. Hidli.”
“It’s Hid. Truly sorry I can’t stay and help you more, son. But I certainly will never forget the young man who helped me catch an itchy fish. I want you to come see me up in Nowhere, after you find your father, okay? And make it soon, because I don’t have too many days left.” Hid took out the goldquartz pieces that Slate had given him as payment the day before and handed them back. “And I can’t take this, because you helped me so much with the catch. Wish I had something more to give you, in fact. But I don’t. Money, anyways, I don’t have any of that with me. So I thought maybe this’ll work for ya.” He reached into his boat to retrieve a pointed jawbone, and presented it to Slate. “Itchy fish jaw. Found it diving a few years ago. Figure you should take it, as a means to remember our catch.”
“Look at that,” Slate said as he took the bone. It seemed to glow like a pearl, smooth and glossy in the morning light. “Thanks, Mr. Hidli.”
“Mr. Hidli was my father, Slate. You got to call me Hid.”
“Sorry. Force of habit. I really appreciate it, Hid.”
“Least I could do. Now remember, once you find your dad and get all that squared away, the two of you come visit me,” Hid said. “You can always find me in the harbor.” He gave Slate a pat on the back.
The last remnants of morning fog finally dissipated and the beach grew at once brighter and warmer.
“That’s the cue for me to go!” Hid said.
The sailor climbed up into his boat, and then Slate gave the vessel a push back into the sea. Hid unfurled half of the mainsail, riding the wind in a spin toward the north, and then was pulled off into the distance.
Slate waved goodbye, watching until the Calamity became a speck on the horizon, indistinguishable from the crests of the innumerable waves.
“Well, I guess we keep on then, huh, Pilotte?” Slate asked the wulf, as he scratched its hairy chest. Pilotte confirmed with a wet wash of his enormous tongue that he was ready.
Before leaving the campsite, Slate decided to catch a few crabs for the day’s journey, using a trick that Hid taught him to set up a trap: he dug out a pit near where the tidewater was reaching its farthest up the shore, and lined it with rocks. Then, it was just a matter of waiting for high tide to bring in some sea life, and waiting for the tide to go out again, leaving the sea life trapped and exposed to snatch up.
Once the tide had begun to move back out, hours later, after a day spent sheltering from the sun, Slate was eager to resume travel. He speared up the four crabs who had been trapped, stowed them in a towel in his sack next to his delivery for Guh Hsing, and then destroyed the trap, before he and Pilotte strode out of the salty sea air into the sweet-smelling Red Forest.
The forest along the eastern shore was thick with tall, spindly trees, and the light green moss of the stony floor was dotted with clusters of orange mushrooms that Slate learned were probably poisonous when he attempted to pick some and Pilotte whimpered warning. Squat bushes began to appear along the path, bursting with berries, as did bright, yellow sunblazes, their seeds naturally baked by the sun. Slate ate of the fruits and seeds as he walked along the gently sloping hills that stretched on a winding path down from the Aeolian Mountains.
After passing through a narrow canyon, Slate’s jaw dropped when the towering city wall of Airyel rose up before him, so absolutely immense that it seemed The Legend had come to life. Here was what Slate had expected of the Blue Bridge, a mythical feat of engineering, a construction worthy of its reputation. His head swam with imaginings as he crossed over and across two rivers and through vast wildflower patches buzzing with insects, with the stone and timber wall always looming ever taller before him. Slate and Pilotte passed the remnants of many watchtowers, buildings, and cabins along the banks of the ox-bowing rivers that straked across the plain, vestiges of the time before the city limits were cut short by the impossible wall.
Slate was so completely transfixed that he didn’t notice when he came to an occupied guard station.
“Excuse me!” a woman barked at Slate through the station’s window.
Slate jumped and couldn’t help but yelp.
The guard exited through the station’s door, whisking a notebook from her pocket to start a routine it seemed like she’d gone through far too many times.
“What is your name, place of origin, and business within the city today?” she asked without raising her eyes.
Pilotte seemed unfazed, so Slate swallowed his anxiety and answered, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. My name is Slate Ahn, and I’m from Alleste. I am here to find my father.”
The guard’s cold, blue stare warmed slightly, and she made eye contact with Slate. “Hard times in Alleste these days, aren’t they? Spell your name, please.”
“S-L-A-T-E A-H-N. Yes, very hard times, ma’am.”
“My father was actually from Alleste,” the guard said with a tinge of sentimentality as she penciled in her notebook. “I remember visiting my grandmother there a few times, when I was very young. Spell the snarlingwulf’s name please.”
“P-I-L-O-T-T-E. Who was your father?”
“Grif Nim. Age?”
“I’m sixteen. I actually know the Nims,” Slate enthused.
“It’s a small world.”
“You’ll need to keep this license on you all the time while you’re in the city.”
Looking over the form the guard was filling in, Slate asked, “Why do I need a license for Pilotte?”
The woman answered, “Any weapon has to be registered.”
“But Pilotte isn’t a weapon,” said Slate.
“I don’t write the laws, Slate,” the guard said. “Just be glad you can still keep him. And be careful in there.”
“Do you ever think about going back to Alleste?” asked Slate.
The woman tore off Pilotte’s license and handed it over. “That’ll be all,” she said, closing her notebook.
Slate thought the guard might not have heard him. “Do you think you might go back, to Alleste someday?” he repeated.
“Move along,” the guard said, turning to walk back to her station.
Slate watched as she pulled a large, red flag from a box hanging off the side of the station, to wave it back and forth for someone high above, in one of the wall’s watchtowers. Without another word, the guard reentered her station, as the set of massive doors in the wall began to glide open. They moved in perfect, gliding synchronicity, filling Slate’s entire field of vision. Here was his whole world literally shifting form before him. He and Pilotte passed warily through the doors, which then groaned shut behind them with a resounding thud.