Tabidaque

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THIRTEEN

Hauntings of memories linger
Behind a thin veil of time
Still waters call them forth
To haunt their hosts once more.

The color in Sarofa’s face drains, her jaw sets in determination, and before any of us can say a word, she’s crouched on the edge of the ship, diving into the churning waves after Mehild. Chiqu cries out and rushes forward, but I grab her sleeve.

“Stop!” I shout. “She can do it herself! She did before!”

“I have to get you there alive!” Chiqu screams. “All of you! Juase was wrong, Luzile. Every single one of you needs to get there—I can’t let them both be washed away.”

“Listen to me, Chiqu,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady. “The sea is as calm as I’ve ever seen it right now. Sarofa can swim. They’ll make it.”

“I truly hope you’re right,” Chiqu mutters, not breaking her gaze from the rhythmic rolling water.

“What do you think that was?” I ask after a moment of unnerving silence. “The cloths in the air. The child’s cries. The way Mehild turned…different, like her mind was somewhere else. What was it?”

Chiqu slowly shakes her head. “I don’t know, Luzile,” she says slowly, voice wavering as she speaks. “I don’t know what it was.” She sounds tired, her face is tense, and I can see dark circles under her eyes. I look at her hands and notice they’re trembling, gripping the edge of the ship so firmly her knuckles pale.

I watch her carefully, watch the muscles in her face tighten. Her face sinks into her hands, fingernails clutching her cheeks as her breathing turns ragged. Her head shoots up and she vaults onto the edge of the ship. “I can’t—”

Dread washes over me as I lunge toward her, clutching her shoulder and pulling her back onto the deck. They’ve got her too. Oh, Chiqu. They’ve gotten to you. She slams to the wood planks, and one of her hands slices across the side of my face as she fights to get free. “You don’t understand, Luzile!” she screams, nearly hysterical. “I have to—they’ll kill—”

I grip her shoulders and try to pin her down, but she knows how to fight, better than I do despite my seasons of practice. Her hand clamps over my throat and pushes hard, squeezing the breath from my lungs. I struggle to break away, just to breathe, but now her elbow is closing around my neck.

“Chiqu! Get off him!”

Juase is running toward us, and I grit my teeth as he pulls Chiqu away. He is the last person I would want to rescue me, but I can breathe. I massage my throat and look up at Chiqu. Revulsion twists in my stomach when I see her eyes. Rolled into her head, dark veins lacing across the white.

Juase holds her, limp and panting. We stare at each other, the question both of us are wondering left unspoken in the air. What was that?

Then I hear a splashing sound as the surface of the water breaks. I run to the edge of the ship and see Sarofa, gasping in air, Mehild’s limp body clutched to her chest with one arm. “Help—me,” she rasps, struggling to stay above the surface.

I glance around, notice the rope heaped on the ground nearby, and run to grab it. I throw one end over the edge, down to Sarofa, who grabs it and holds on, catching her breath. Then she ties a loop around her wrist, and I begin to pull her up.

She wraps her fingers around the rope and tries to hold on as the waves jostle her. I hear a faint popping sound from her shoulder, and she gasps, “Stop!” I pause as she winces in pain, but there’s nothing she can do. If she tries to get a better grip, she’ll drop Mehild. I wait as she considers her options. Then I see the flash of white emerge from the dark blue.

Mehild’s eyes fly open, and she suddenly begins to struggle, weakly but with adamance. Sarofa cries out as she squeezes her arm tighter around Mehild, and although I know she is in pain, I also know we can’t wait anymore for the thing to come back. I yank up the rope, ignoring Sarofa’s yell and Mehild’s protests until I’m able to heave them both over the edge onto the deck.

They lie still for a long time, mist settling on top of their soaking clothes. Sarofa lets out a small moan of pain as she massages her shoulder. I bend down beside her. “Dislocated?”

Face rigid, she nods, then squeezes her eyes shut. Juase, still holding Chiqu, notices her distress and carefully lays Chiqu on the deck, then kneels beside me. “This happened to me a few times, as a child,” he mutters. “My mother taught me how to fix it, once it happened to Chiqu.”

He takes her wrist and gently takes her arm to the side. “Ready?” he asks, and Sarofa nods, trembling with anticipation, teeth locked together. Juase takes a deep breath, adjusts his grip on her wrist, then jerks the arm forward and straight.

Sarofa yells and there’s a pop as the bone meets the socket. Juase lets out a sigh of relief and stands up. “You’ll want to rest that shoulder for now,” he tells Sarofa. “After that, try moving—”

He pauses and glances over at Chiqu. A faint gasping sound is coming from her motionless body, and slowly she sits up. Her eyes are no longer rolled into their sockets, but desperate and shocked. “Get—below deck,” she gasps. “Now.

We can’t ignore the urgency in her voice. Juase picks up Mehild, unconscious, and runs to the stairs. I grab Sarofa’s uninjured arm and pull her to her feet. She immediately stumbles after Juase, injured arm hanging limply by her side.

I run to Chiqu and begin to help her up, but she shakes her head vehemently. “No,” she wheezes. “I need to see them. I need to see.”

I don’t know what to think of her vague response, but I know something is wrong. Whatever she saw in the sea changed her, and we need to get as far away as we can from it. “Come on, Chiqu,” I say, trying to keep the unease out of my voice. “Let’s go below deck. You said it yourself. We need to go now.”

But she’s not listening, just shaking her head and batting my hands away. She stands and begins to walk, slowly at first, then breaking into a run, to her cabin. The door shuts behind her, and I can hear her sobs through the walls.

Fine. If she wants to hide in the cabin, she can. But I’m not staying up here any longer. I run to the stairs and quickly lower myself through the hatch, banging my head on the low-hanging ceiling. I barely feel it in my rush.

The crew is huddled under thin, ragged blankets. It’s not a large space, and the stench of saltwater from damp clothes makes my eyes water. Juase is watching the stairs apprehensively. When I enter, he asks, “Where’s Chiqu?”

“In her cabin,” I reply. “She’ll be fine.”

Juase looks angry that I left his cousin behind, but I’m not interested in talking about Chiqu. Not after I lied to her about him. But it was part of the plan. I know what I’m doing. Maybe she’ll confront him about it eventually, and they’ll discover I lied, but hopefully, we’ll have arrived in Sviros by then, and I’ll be long gone. Or maybe she’ll forget our conversation entirely after she saw whatever scared her.

Or maybe she didn’t see anything at all. Maybe it was just a voice in her head, telling her to jump into the waves. Not to fight them, even though she can swim. Because it would be easy to let them wash her away, embrace her in their cold fingers and never let go.

She saved me from drowning. Chiqu, not the voice. Not Mara. Because when Mara saved me, I was alone. I’m not alone anymore. Part of me wishes she would leave. But how would I tell her? I don’t need you anymore. I know how to survive now. She would get angry at that. I don’t know what she’s capable of, but if she can rip me from the jaws of death, I know she can send me back to be devoured into nothingness.

I notice my heartbeat is rapid. I’ve backed against the wall, hands reaching for something. I’m by the room in the corner, door tied shut. I wonder how long it’s been closed. I glance around; nobody’s watching me, and it’s dark. They’re too busy recovering from exhaustion or coming up with reasons to explain the things that lurk outside. I quickly untie the door and slip inside, shutting it tightly behind me.

The room is small and cramped, dark save for a dying lantern shadowed in the corner. A little bed is covered in frayed grey blankets, tied to the wall so it doesn’t shift with the tides. I gasp suddenly as I notice the figure, sitting hunched on the bed, soft curling hair shadowing her face.

She’s wearing a loose, cream-colored shirt, and over that, a thick brown coat, adorned with small gold buttons. Her thick boots are stained and worn with seasons of use and seawater. When she looks up at me, her head is tilted at an odd angle, and there’s a red scar rubbed deep in her skin. Her hair, long and tangled, hangs over her face, but I can see her eyes, dark, empty voids that are desolately blank.

“Who are you?” I whisper, shaken by her haunted appearance. “A prisoner?”

She shakes her head slowly, mournfully. Then her vacant eyes drift to a place behind my shoulder. The word “CAPTAIN” is scrawled onto a ragged piece of fabric, pinned to the door. “You’re the captain?”

She pauses, then nods silently, a strange motion as her head is still tilted, so her entire body rocks back and forth. I frown; if she’s the captain, shouldn’t she be helping Chiqu? “Why are you down here?”

She doesn’t make any motion or acknowledge that she heard my question, just stares at the ground, mouth gaping slightly open like she doesn’t know how to close it.

“Does Chiqu know you’re down here?”

Her head jerks towards me, and she whimpers faintly. Her expression hasn’t changed, eyes remain black, but her hand whips out and grabs my wrist, cold fingers closing tight and squeezing with distressed urgency.

I try to back up, but she doesn’t let go, tightening her fingers on my wrist, mouthing silent words. I yank at my hand, panic lighting up inside me, and slam my wrist against the wooden doorframe in an attempt to weaken her grip. I hear a cracking sound but she doesn’t cry out in pain. She just tugs harder.

“You want Chiqu? I can go get her, if you let me go!” I promise, prying at her fingers. At my words, she lets her hand fall away. Her fingers clutch the bed covers, wringing them and tightening them into a ball.

Without taking my eyes off of her, I fumble behind me for the door handle. When my hand finds the cold knob, I yank it open and throw myself out of the small, stuffy room, slamming the door and tying it shut behind me. Then I bolt to the stairs, slipping several times but never stopping, not for a moment. My hands scrabble and claw at the wood in my desperate attempt to escape, and when I reach the deck I pause, panting.

Then I stand and turn around, about to call out Chiqu’s name when I freeze.

There she is. Another figure, haunting and dark. A figure I should never see unless I’m away, in my head, or close to death.

A scream forces its way from my mouth, as if my soul has unleashed a demon. All I feel is anger because she’s not supposed to be here, she’s not supposed to be here. My fists clench, teeth lock up once the sound is out.

Mara smiles, and her teeth are stained black in her mouth. Her eyes are devoid of the glittering fire that usually circles her irises. They are black spheres, no pupil, nothing. Her skin is grey, thin black veins snaking underneath. Her nails, black and long and sharp, are broken to jagged edges. And clutched in her hands are four bodies. Two only decaying husks, forgotten, faceless, mangled corpses. Two fresh, wild-eyed and bloated, skin just beginning to peel from the skeleton underneath. Stiff and blue, suspended in death by the salt of the sea. The newest is even recognizable, which makes it even more horrible. She’s holding them by their necks.

Bodies that were supposed to sink long ago. But perhaps they float to the surface. Most corpses do. Maybe the dead husks are free of heavy souls.

Her mouth is moving, and I can’t hear her at first over the roar in my ears. Then slowly her voice seeps into my head, dry and hoarse, but gleeful.

“Dark waves lap upon the shoreCrawl up, lay down to die
There you’ll find a fallen one…

It sounds like many voices grating into one horrible tune, and I’m shaking, backing up, hoping she will disappear, but she’s not going. She’s not leaving this easily. The world begins to sway around me and now I’m on the ground, chest tight stomach rotten and I close my eyes. Maybe I can pretend she’s not here, pretend she’ll leave if I ask her to. I will not look. I can hear her gliding closer, song growing louder. Don’t look. Don’t look.

She drops the bodies to the deck. They fall with a clunk. “You lost these, Luirlan. I’d almost thought you’d forgotten them. Forgotten me. But you can’t drown secrets.” She bends down, and my eyes open automatically. I can see her face closer now. It’s not solid but shifting in the mist.

“I really am here if that’s what you’re wondering,” she says, smiling.

I hear a loud bang from the other side of the ship. Chiqu has opened the door of her cabin, maybe she heard me and decided to see what was wrong. She can’t help me now. Mara is here and nothing will save me from her.

Mara turns around, looking annoyed. “That’s her, isn’t it?” she says, scowling. “She saved you, didn’t she? And now you think you don’t need me anymore. Is that it? I’m being replaced?”

She sighs, almost wearily. “You know, I could have given you everything. I could have made you like me. You would have been a god and yet you choose her. So tell me, Luirlan. What could she have given you that I couldn’t?”

My voice wavers as I answer, in a whisper. “Freedom.”

Her lip curls in a snarl as she lunges forward.

I hear myself whimper, back away from her, but her hand shoots out, fingers wrapping around my neck and squeezing slightly. “Well, Luirlan, I suppose you don’t know this, but spirits are jealous creatures,” she hisses, teeth glittering as she curls her lip. “We don’t like to be replaced. We don’t stand for it. You will need me, Luirlan, and if you decide to leave me now, you’ll be going back on the deal. And do you remember what the deal was?”

I’m choking, writhing in her grip, glancing at Chiqu, but she’s staring past me like she can’t see I’m dying.

“She won’t save you, you know that,” Mara hisses. “Only I can save you. That was the deal. I take away the pain, here…and you listen to me. You do what I say, and you see what I make you see. Otherwise, the pain will return. All of it. Everything you’ve ever felt, and do you know what would happen then?”

“I want to die,” I whisper to her. “I want to die.”

“You’re lying,” she growls. “But very well.”

She grins cruelly, sadistic fire glowing in the black cavities of her eyes. Her mouth opens, and from her throat comes the song, a million haunted voices singing from invisible mouths, swarming, swirling around, all of them twisting my throat.

Singing the song of dark

Strong, chilling, shaking, blood spilling out from my ears and my eyes and my mouth.

An echo of blood in the night

Someone tearing up my chest with a flaming knife. Hot piercing, then darkness washing over me, filling me, enveloping me in its warm floating touch. Then the cold begins to seep into my bones, the dark souls pressing at my flesh trying to break inside

They gather there, their calls beware
Sing and lay down to die

And then it’s over. One moment of death feels like an eternity of horrors. Every muscle inside of me feels numb, I am paralyzed. Inside of me, something has abandoned this doomed shell of a body. Gone.

But Mara is still here.

There’s a shuffling sound from behind me as the darkness fades from my vision. I look around and see the woman from below deck. Her cheeks are streaked with tears.

“I thought you would like her,” Mara says to me. “Watch.”

I look back at Chiqu to see if she’s noticed the woman. She has. Her face is frozen in an expression of terror, hands searching for the door behind her but grasping only air. Her mouth opens as if to release a scream, but no sound comes out. Her legs are trembling violently and she sinks to the ground, resigned to her fate now that she cannot escape.

The woman moves closer, and she, too, looks scared. Whoever she is, I can tell Chiqu knows her. The woman falls to her knees and begins to crawl closer, a hoarse sound coming from her throat. Chiqu’s boots scrabble the deck as she tries to kick the woman away.

“I…told…you,” the woman gasps. “Don’t…come back.”

Never have I me, and Mara is no longer there. Both have disappeared into the mist. wished so much for land, to feel the rough ground beneath my feet. Somewhere to run. On this sea, I can feel the rage within. It is a gale that screams under dark clouds and sings only one note. The air is thick with briny mist, the deck slick with salty waves. I glance at the sky. In the dark, I can see stormy clouds beginning to roll in, silently looming over us. I hear thunder crackling in the air, and rain begins to pour furiously, monstrous waves slamming the ship. Shadows swallow the last rays of light, and thunder crackles through the air. There is a flash, and then the woman is gone.

I hear a creaking sound from above us and see a long, coiled rope hanging from the mast. Chiqu sees it, too. Now a strangled cry is ripped from her throat, not a cry of terror but one of despair, heavy with pain from deep inside. She lowers her head to her knees, away from the rope and the sky that has opened up on us.

I don’t know what to do. Go over to her, or retreat below deck, or pitch myself over the edge of the ship? I would sink, this time. At least then Mara would be gone for good. She would find someone else to torture, but at least it wouldn’t be me.

How ignorant I was when I agreed to let her take over. I should have died. I should have died.

The creaking gets louder. My eyes return to the rope, where a shadowy figure has appeared, hanging from the rope. Neck bent, a flash of bone poking through the torn skin, eyes pale, legs twitching as the life drains—

Blink, and it’s gone.

No. This is her. This is her, torturing me more. All of this was her. The woman, the rope—it wasn’t real.

But Chiqu. She saw the woman. The woman came to speak to her, not me.

I know what I have to do. She may be upset, but I need to hear it from her mouth. She saw the woman. She can tell me. Perhaps it wasn’t Mara, after all. Was all of this thought up by me, or her, or was it real? I can’t decide which is the worst. But it doesn’t matter what I think. I need to know the truth.

I walk over to Chiqu, bend down beside her. My voice is not gentle when I speak. It’s harsh, desperate. “Chiqu,” I say. “Did you see her? Who was that woman?”

Chiqu raises her head, her eyes glazed over like a frozen pond. She doesn’t reply, just stares at me.

“She said she was the captain. Of this ship. Who was she? Why did she scare you?”

Chiqu lowers her head back into her hands before replying, hoarsely. “I am the captain.”

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