Part 1: Onwards for adventure!
Finally! At long last, after years of saving up his wages, after so many months of meticulous preparation, the grand day was upon him! Freedom! Adventure! The open sea!
Clutching his waterproof travel bag, Ario breathed in deep the fresh morning air of Port Sabeto, his heart swelling with relief and excitement. In just a few hours, he would board the most famous sea-bound ship in all of Rao, the Oroi. No more musty tomes burning his retinas, no more shushing colleagues staring at him with suspicion. No more fear of being outed. Soon, he’d embark on the greatest adventure still left to Raonkind:
To discover, as the first Yosen ever, what truly lied on the other side of the Sea of the Dead.
Stifling a giggle, Ario hopped forward, down the winding streets of Sabeto. So many novels he had read over the years, of brave Yosen crossing the sea and uncovering lush and exotic lands, strange new creatures and people, fantastic cultures full of primitive tradition… Some of them had to be real. And he would be the first Yosen ever to discover the truth, to study these lands, to document—
“Watch where yer going, Yosai!”
Ario’s mind snapped back to the present, right in time to shriek as he was shoved face-first against the nearest wall. Stone and grime pressed painfully into his skin while loud cursing stomped him past, and he felt what had to be large fingers squeezing the back of his head. As soon as he was released, Ario peeled himself off the wall, not without mumbling an insult that he swallowed back as soon as he sized his aggressor up – really, really up.
Pointed ears twitched like angry snakes in the wind, the large, burly Kokai sailor wiping off sweat and bright crimson strands of hair from his dark brow. In the shade of awnings, the sailor’s eyes gleamed like a cold, unspoken warning that Ario’s heart caught the gist of. He swallowed that insult way, way down.
“Got a problem, runt?” the sailor growled, his deep voice raking Ario’s nerves.
“N-No, I’m good,” Ario replied with a gulp, squeezing his bag. “Thank you. Great hair.”
Eyebrows furrowing, the sailor grunted, stared, bared the corner of his lip… and then tramped off without another comprehensible word. To Ario’s heart-shattering relief.
Wiping cold sweat off his twitching face, fingers at his throat to feel the racing of his heart, Ario continued on his now cautious way. He really needed to learn to think twice – or, at the least, once – before speaking out. You’d think he’d have learned that lesson already, with how many times he’d had to steer a conversation astray over the years. After all, fear was the only future a Yorei like himself could expect from this insatiable world. Fear, persecution, all built upon misbeliefs.
Yosai, the sailor had called him. An insult, he’d gleaned in a history scroll, based on the silly belief that all Yosen descended from the Oromisai, the mythical Black Calamity that supposedly destroyed the entire world generations ago. Black-haired monsters. Death spirits. Disgusting filth, no doubt, in the eyes of the Kokai. These thoughts in mind, Ario paused to look down at his free hand, at the five fingers attached to his palm. He stretched out his arm and stared at it through his vest, clearly picturing frail limbs beneath frayed blues. How could anyone think that his people, the Yosen, were anything beyond just that: people, made of flesh and bone, of prejudice and bloody mistakes? The Empresses of old were long gone, their heirs dead or living without knowledge of their once-Yorei heritage. Nothing remained of their genocidal evil except for words strewn across countless history scrolls. The past was over.
With a trembling sigh, Ario lowered his arm and resumed his walk. In truth, he could easily understand the Kokai and their fear of persecution and slaughter. He’d read enough salvaged, centuries-old documents on the many ways of dissecting live Yorei ‘specimens’ to know what terror felt like. It could take but one more mistake – one long stare, one revealing word – for him to end up on an experiment table, all strapped up by his peers, screaming for someone to just kill him—
“This is horribly depressing,” he blurted out. The shaking in his throat startled him back into the present, into glancing furtively around himself, expecting for someone to have heard him – to have guessed what he was. Finding no one staring at him, Ario hurried on his fidgeting way.
Along the cobbled streets, Ario quickly found points of distraction in the crowd surrounding him – countless Kokai tending to their businesses, several Yosen brave enough to wander about Sabeto without travel bags or weapons… At the very least, he eventually concluded from watching the Kokai not watching him, he wouldn’t have to fear anyone on the ship figuring out that he wasn’t just another Yosen traveler. They clearly didn’t care about him, or even where he walked. If he managed to curb his natural curiosity and kept out of everyone’s minds, all he might have to fear was a sail-in with the Orebashi. Ario couldn’t help but grin at the prospect of meeting the legendary sea serpent face to snout. What a fabulous adventure that would be… if it didn’t smash up their ship, of course. But what would be the odds?
With barely muffled squeals, Ario tip-toed down the road, his mind full of fantastical images of the Orebashi swimming alongside his ship, of stroking its beautiful rainbow scales and oh, if he was lucky, maybe riding the waves astride its back. What a fantastic discourse that would make! But first, he reminded himself while tapping the eagerness out of his cheek, he needed to board his ship. He needed to find that ship. Surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find something dubbed ‘death spirit’, would it?
Following the trail of sailors and the maritime breeze, Ario made his giddy way further down Sabeto, swerving between the Kokai crowds and delicious foodstands and sharp-edged crates carried up on broad shoulders. Before long, houses parted before him, and he gasped a squeal as the port finally revealed itself to him in all its grandeur – as a jaw-dropping network of intricate, overhanging wooden piers spread out like an endless labyrinth just begging to be explored. With a loud squeal, Ario rushed down the streets.
Floorboards creaked beneath his feet, like a symphony of age and anecdotes welcoming him aboard history. History, he repeated for himself, speechless beneath the glory of these countless colourful sails obscuring the bright blue skies of Rao. How this port had endured across the ages, despite rebellions and massacres, Ario couldn’t fathom. But he was here, now – breathing in the chilly breeze of foregone times. Just a few more hours, Ario reminded himself with choking glee; just a few more hours, and he would start writing his own part of Sabetian – of Raon – history.
If, of course, he’d manage to avoid getting shoved off the pier by distracted Kokai sailors. Really truly, no one did care where he walked or stood, did they?
Ario had to bite his tongue a few times while seeking his mighty vessel, the way forward often blocked by sailors clearly adamant on shoving him off the pier – accidentally, surely, Ario reminded himself. Would it also be deemed an accident if he tripped over a sailor who’d trip over him in turn? Or it could not be an accident, he calculated with growing exasperation, eyeing now a slender sailor chatting a few feet away. Within a few eye blinks, an emotion began swirling in Ario’s chest – a distant sense of true joy that nauseated him. Jaw clenched, he squeezed his bag and carried on his congested way.
After what felt like several hours of near suffocation and keeping his natural curiosity distracted by counting legs, Ario finally caught sight of relief: the name Oroi, emblazoned on what he soon discovered not to be merely a black stern, but an entirely black hull. Ario couldn’t fight the shiver that ran down his spine when he looked up at its deep darkness, at the deep blue sails snapping viciously to the winds. He’d read about the Oroi being a ship made of death and tears, but this…
What kind of people superstitious enough to believe in a ‘black calamity’ destroying their entire world would crew aboard this monstrousity? “This can’t be right,” he told no one.
“Are you boarding the Oroi?” a shrill voice replied.
Startled, Ario squealed and squeezed his bag tight. “Who said that!?”
An exasperated sigh – a vicious sensation of pleasure – froze Ario in place. Heart pounding in his ears, he cautiously lowered his gaze towards the source of the sensation. A petite, stripes-clad Yosen girl glared back, armed with a clipboard whose edge she pummeled with her pen. Ario gulped.
“I—Is this really the Oroi?” he asked. “Seabound, departing in,” and he squinted up towards the sun overhead, “erm, soon-ish, apparently?”
“And we have no room left,” the girl snickered. To Ario’s disgust, she sized him up with a wide grin on her face. “But that won’t make a difference to you, now, will it.”
“I’ll have you know I spent all of my savings on this trip,” Ario said, gesturing wildly. “Ereno Ario. Trip’s already paid in full—”
With a swift, broad swipe, the small girl slashed her pen through what could only be his name. Ario couldn’t help but knead his throat, swallowing hard.
“Gear down in the hold. Welcome aboard,” she added, grin stretching now from ear to ear. The more heartbeats he stared, the deeper a trembling chill ran down in his bones. There was something beneath this smile, something he could almost hear – a sort of sadistic delight. Ario trembled and, preferring not to sense more from this twisted little girl, he clambered up the gangway and onto the Oroi‘s main deck.
To Ario’s great relief, the ship’s deck was built out of naturally coloured wood, somewhat lighter in colour than the skin of the predominantly Kokai crew. Glancing about, he soon realized just how quickly the Kokay crew rushed from side to side, from stern to prow and the shrouds in between. Was it almost time for departure? Did he truly miscalculate that badly? Hand shielding his eyes, Ario squinted up towards the clear skies and the sun’s general area. It had to be midday – or, maybe a little later? A lot later? Well, he was aboard now anyway, so what did it matter? The sooner the better. As soon as possible. So, so very soon. Ario couldn’t contain his squeal, excitement building in his chest and in his bouncing legs.
This was it. Freedom. Adventure. To step where no Yosen had ever stepped.
Leaving behind fear, sorrows, and regrets, to start his life all over, in a place where no one knew of Yorei or Calamities. What greater purpose could there be, when all you’d ever had to look forward to was suffering?
Ario shook his head. This wasn’t the time for worry anymore. Now, all he had to look forward to – all he had to look forward to – was departure, adventure, and bliss. Excitement filling his chest again, he decided to distract himself by wandering the deck and studying his fellow passengers.
Without surprise, given the high price of tickets, Ario spotted but few non-Kokai aboard. A couple of groups comprised fellow Yosen who, judging by their intricate and ample clothing, had to be believers of Aorei off to ‘join their goddess in her realm beyond’, or whatever religious types believed they’d find across the sea. Ario couldn’t help but run his fingers through his hair, wondering what these believers in ‘Aorei’s glorious Yorei lineage’ would think if they knew of his abilities…
The group of Yosen scientists tucked away beneath the captain’s quarters, Ario widely circled around. If his former colleagues were any indication, these Yosen might suspect him at the first wrong glance, the first too knowledgeable word. He’d flipped through enough notes and diagrams about the dissection of Yorei to know that these people could make his life aboard very, very unpleasant if he wasn’t careful.
Ario let out a trembling sigh, his gaze now rolling towards the clear skies. Months of staring into air and clouds and water and evading sharp-minded attention? How was he going to do that? Pretend, he told himself. Pretend, don’t think, don’t say hi, don’t even think of getting skinned alive—
Repressing a heave, Ario tore his gaze away from the scientists and resumed his stroll across the deck, not without growing apprehension. To his relief though, he encountered no more Yosen scientists, no one whom he felt might discover his true nature. He paused as he passed a group of Kokai travelers who, he vaguely perceived, viewed this trip as a sort of… spiritual epiphany? Like the Yosen believers, then? Intrigued, Ario casually approached them, and rested his arms and his bag upon the ship’s railing while he focussed on the peaceful feelings emanating from the Kokai. Try as he did, he couldn’t gather more than an eerie sense of serenity from them. He clicked his tongue, loathe to disturb their relaxing tranquility just to satisfy his own curiosity. Rather, he wished he could feel as they did. But, wasn’t that the point of this whole trip?
After giving the Kokai a smile and a nod, which they pleasantly returned, Ario headed off to end his tour of the ship by the prow’s shrouds, just in time to watch the crew raising the anchor. He gulped down a surge of anxiety, and turned back towards Sabeto’s port with fear and happiness pounding through his heart. This was it – finally. Adventure. Discovery. Freedom. Who knew how many weeks or months – or years? – of travel. Sea-sickness. Storms? He was so under-prepared. Would they let him off if he asked!?
As the Oroi took a sharp, unexpected turn away from the pier, Ario gripped the railing with a loud squeal. He closed his eyes tight, squeezing the railing and his bag while the ship swayed beneath his shaking legs, sails flapping loudly in the winds, the sea lashing out against the ship’s prow. Surely, the ship couldn’t sink so close to to shore, could it? There had to be failsafes? Rowboats? Singing gulls?
At that last confusing thought, Ario opened his eyes. All around him, a song echoed, many voices intertwined, words he couldn’t quite comprehend – but the depth of their meaning, however, pulsated through his veins. A plea for a safe journey. Joy. The weight of tradition.
Ario turned around just in time to watch the Kokai crew finish their hymn and resume their duties. As their emotions dispersed into the air, Ario realized how the sway of the ship had calmed, now but a creaking vibration. Ario let out a deep sigh that flushed the remnants of the hymn’s vibrations out of his heart. He settled against the prow’s railing, relaxed for what felt like the first time in his entire life, and let his eyes and his mind wander along the ship’s cacophony of inner thoughts.
In a matter of heartbeats, a couple of minds imposed themselves to him.
One, standing nearby at the very edge of the prow, a lone passenger clad in a dark cape. Ario sensed a muddled array of emotions, something like… grief. And pain. And maybe something else, buried deeper inside, but Ario couldn’t imagine what could be worse than grief.
The other, on the opposite side of the prow, sitting atop a barrel. A Kokai sailor whetting a large, spiked harpoon. There was something about him, Ario sensed; something deep and dangerous, that somehow reminded him of the dangers of quicksand. Out of misplaced curiosity, Ario prodded these two minds, reaching a little deeper with each touch… Until he suddenly found himself collapsed on hands and knees, gasping for air.
Too deep; he’d gone too deep. Between two coughs, memories resurfaced of budding childhood friendships gone sour, of colleagues’ suspicious glares after a misplaced word, even of his ex-girlfriend Kara, a sweet girl, gentle and fragile – all of these relationships ruined before they ever got a chance to begin. All because he couldn’t turn this power off.
Coughing himself upright, Ario glanced between the caped one, and the Kokai sailor. He knew he shouldn’t; but the swirl of strong emotions within them called out to him, begged him to go and pry into their secrets.
- approach the cloaked traveler, who is exuding a dark, grief-filled aura, or
stealthily approach the Kokai harpooner, whose hatred oozes from every heartbeat?
(voting ended March 1st 2022)
|| PART 02 | PART 03 | PART 04 | PART 05 | PART 06