Part 2: The cloaked traveler
Wiping spit from his lips, Ario set his sights on the cloaked traveler standing by the prow, on the swirl of grief and sorrow that, as he approached, only grew louder, heavier. Sickening. Suddenly, Ario felt his stomach churn; he gagged, and rushed to the nearest railing, immediately bending over and throwing up what had to be the remains of his breakfast.
Ario heaved for a while, until chunky sourness became bile and his legs started to give way. Panting, he let himself slide along the railing and onto his knees, head plopping against it. He set a shaking hand at his throat, fingers pressing against the thickest vein he could find. Pounding; loud, laboured pounding that echoed the dry, itchy rasp in his breath. He stretched out his fingers to knead his throat, hoping the growing weight in his chest meant his stomach was settling down. Ario sighed. This was definitely not the way he imagined his fantastic journey would begin.
“Are you alright?”
Startled, Ario yelped. He scrambled back up on his feet, wiping his lips clean with his palm before turning towards his interlocutor. “I’m f-fine,” he began, “nothing—”
With a shriek, Ario flattened himself against the railing, gripping it so tightly he felt his heartbeat race through his fingers. The cloaked traveler stared back. Their face. So sharp. So white.
The traveler flinched. Their eyes widened, darted about the deck as they pulled their cape shut. This sudden, telling reaction… Ario recognized it instinctively: fear. The traveler feared that someone’d overheard their brief exchange, that attention had come to them – that they would be unmasked and suffer terrible repercussions. No, it wasn’t merely fear, Ario felt now; they feared persecution. They feared the same kind of repercussions that Ario himself had feared since childhood, when he’d first spoken out loud what a studymate had been feeling. He could never forget how that studymate had taken a step back… just as, Ario realized, he was doing himself. When he noticed the traveler staggering away, Ario rushed forward.
“Wait, mis—erm—you!” He caught the traveler’s arm and swirled them round, immediately letting go with a yelp. That mouth – distended into a horrific, unnatural, menacing grin. Teeth – fangs? – danced upon bare gums like algae in shallow water. Ario couldn’t take his eyes off the traveler’s contorting, impossible face. It was fascinating. Surreal. Terrifying. As he lifted his gaze, Ario saw the traveler’s bright yellow eyes fixating him – threatening him. Trembling, Ario gasped and stepped back, clasping the railing to keep himself upright – and, when the traveler made to run again, to keep himself from rushing after them.
Every instinct pounding through his veins insisted he let the traveler be. They were unnatural, dangerous; they had threatened him. Their entire race’s history stood as proof of their kind’s bestial bloodlust. Yet, between memories of his studies, Ario only remembered how the traveler had startled at his scream and surveyed their surroundings – in fear. A relatable fear. A very… Yorei fear. But what about the extremely high probability he would get mauled by those fangs at the first wrong word?
Ario clicked his tongue and squeezed the railing. However he turned the situation in his mind, only one certainty remained: he did not want to leave things this way. Swallowing courage, Ario rushed after the traveler, and caught up to them next to the raised quarterdeck, resting against barrels. Without surprise, they ran at the sight of him, but Ario sped up and managed to catch their arm again. This time, he endured the threat of their dancing fangs.
“You’re Alweira, aren’t you,” Ario stated, panting. While catching his breath, he glanced about himself, at the back of the prow whence he’d come, towards the unmanned nearby shrouds, and swallowed. “I’m not scared,” he added, forcing a smile. “Surprised, rather. I didn’t expect to see an Alweira on this ship, let alone an Alweira who understands grief.”
To Ario’s surprise, the traveler relaxed in his grip. Their lips begun to retract, skin melding shut, fangs flattening back to teeth – a disturbing, fascinating process Ario wouldn’t have believed possible were he not witnessing it firsthand. At length, their mouth back in its proper place, the traveler stared back with wide, perplexed eyes; a swirl of yellows upon deep reds, of timid hopes and fragile trust.
A shiver ran along Ario’s spine then. He must’ve missed something, some detail or other. Why would this Alweira turn from threats to hope in a matter of seconds? Did I say something?—
“an Alweira who understands grief;”
Choking, Ario took a step back. He set a hand on his trembling lips, if only to make sure he didn’t cough out anything even more incriminating. The Alweira stared at him with an eagerness that bypassed his own thoughts. He had to say something. He had to take the attention of those words. Somehow. Think!
“I—I meant to say,” he eventually began, shifting his weight, “You looked sad, from where I was standing. Your posture, you know? And I’m surprised, because I’ve studied some of your history, and I didn’t expect—I mean, I suppose I should have expected? Your teeth, I mean. Or maybe – You know, I’ve always had a hard time believing this was at all possible. I thought—”
“You thought I was about to kill you,” the Alweira replied, with a smile that put Ario on edge. There was something beneath it – beneath that soft, whirring voice. A depth, like a lingering growl. A veiled threat? “Here,” they added, “in broad daylight. On a departed ship.”
Ario felt his cheeks flush. “W-Well, to be fair, I didn’t know exactly what to expect—”
“If anything, Yosen,” the traveler added, their smile fading, “I should fear you.”
Dumbstruck, Ario blinked a few times. Did the Alweira – the shapeshifting beast, as he’d just witnessed – really just said they feared him? They must have; the swirl of grief within them was intensifying to a whirlwind of suffering. Of fear. Persecution. Loss. It was all so…
“I can relate, you know,” Ario blurted out. He swallowed gut-wrenching panic and rectified, “I mean, not literally, of course. But I know how it feels to be scared for your life.”
The Alweira’s eyes narrowed, the swirl of their grief hardening to pure bitterness and resentment. Ario glanced around at the absence of people. This was it, wasn’t it; how he died. Mauled to death by a cornered beast who needed to keep their secret safe. Eviscerated, as in those diagrams—
Breath shaking, Ario yelped, backed away, and ran. He rushed back towards the prow, hand at his lips to keep rising sourness under control. Sickness tugged at his chest, at his throat, and, before long, he threw up over the railing. Again.
Between heavy breaths, Ario cursed his lack of self-control. He’d just had to go talk to the dangerous shifter, didn’t he? He’d had to pry, to understand – to explore the depths of their mind. Story of his life. And the reason I’m leaving, he thought bitterly, lifting his eyes towards the now distant shores of Rao. Port Sabeto had already become a speck on the horizon. Everything – everyone he ought to fear, he’d left behind for good. “But it’s still going to be months.” Many more months of… this. Of looking over his shoulder, as he did now, and of doubting everyone’s intentions. Like the lady kokai’s over there, who’d replaced the angry sailor from before. Staring. Did she know? Could she read him, as he read her? What was that feeling, anyway? Curious concern?
Stop it, he told himself, shutting tight his eyes while he turned away from her. He needed to calm himself. He needed to detach. So, he began breathing in deep the sea’s fresh air, letting it wash all of these absorbed emotions out of his lungs and out of his mind, until nothing was left but the sensation of mild hunger. He tried not to think of his wasted breakfast, nor of the taste it’d had coming back up. Ario swallowed back a heave, and sighed.
“Are you alright, Yosen?”
Ario shot up straight with a yelp, flailing in defense. When he noticed the Alweiran traveler taking a step back, he held out his hands, stating, “Sorry! Didn’t mean to scare you! I’m fine.” He sighed in relief, and leaned back over the railing, staring at the ship’s hull. “I only wish I hadn’t lost my breakfast. Again. What was left of it, in any case.”
He heard a chuckle, and the creak of wooden floorboards, closing in. Ario turned his head right as the Alweira draped their arms over the railing, smiling. In amusement, this time. Or so it felt.
“I see what you do, Yosen,” the Alweira said. “I envy you. Truly. I’ve never been able to laugh away my fear.”
Ario felt his eye twitch. The Alweira knew, didn’t they? They had to know. He couldn’t afford to let his paranoia get the better of him, so he squirmed and laughed, and shook his head. “I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, Alw—hrm—you. Not really. What is there to be afraid of, to begin with?” He glanced at the traveler’s white face. “For me, in any case.”
The Alweira took a deep sniff. “You lie poorly. But I understand. We are nothing to each other, except potential threats to our lives.”
In an instant – in these few words – the Alweira’s emotions shifted, strengthened – loudened. Disappointment, entangled with grief and despair, as well as with uncertain distrust. Did these mean they were trying to determine whether he was a threat to them? Ario gulped. “I’m not a threat to you,” he blurted out, a little louder than he’d hoped. With a glance towards the kokai lady, Ario turned back towards the sea, swallowing. “And I’m not afraid of you. I suppose I should be, given our races’ shared history. But—”
He let out a shaking sigh, and tapped the ball of his shoes against the floor. Why was he still talking? Why did he still want to talk? He’d already said more than enough to get himself strapped on an examination table and tortured. Yet, despite all he’d already said, here stood that Alweira, listening intently to him. Without fear, or scientific greed. Without prying. They were having a real discussion. A real, genuine, no-risk-attached discussion.
Ario sighed, and swallowed his shaking breath. Every rational instinct in him demanded he shut up. But. “You’re right,” he said. “I am afraid. I—fear other Yosen.” He gulped saliva down his dry, rasping throat. His explanation, Ario weighed carefully. “Our scientific world is brutal. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that.”
Few as they’d been, Ario remembered now, he did run into diagrams of eviscerated Alweira during his studies. Few as the Alweira themselves were, it felt safe to assume some of these ‘test subjects’ had been related to this traveler. Acquaintances. Family, maybe. Perhaps, Ario pondered, one of those tortured Yorei had been related to him. He shivered and shook his head, willing the thoughts away, and settled his gaze back onto the Alweira.
To his surprise, it wasn’t grief or suffering he felt swirling within them now. Instead, Ario perceived a deep, spiraling, and quiet sensation – nostalgia? But no grief? Puzzled, Ario narrowed his eyes and focussed on this spiral, on the Alweira’s thoughts, until he could almost feel them flowing through his own body. A sense of warmth; of belonging. Yearning lined with sorrow. Dread.
“You remind me of home,” the Alweira suddenly said, startling Ario of their closing mind. “There were many Yosen like you, who were kind, and understanding. Who sought only to live free, as we Raon Alweira do. The Empresses’ legacies run deep.”
Ario heard it again, clearer this time: that depth, like a lingering growl he heard rumbling in the Alweira’s throat. Not a threat this time, but… resentment? He had to ask. “Do you hate the Yosen?”
Their glare sent shivers down Ario’s spine. “Hate is valueless to us,” they said – not without lashing aversion. “With hate, one cannot live, nor grow. That is what we Alweira learned from our ancestors’ mistakes.”
Mistakes? Ario scoffed. Such a light word, he contemplated, for what Yosen history books had called attempted genocide. The massacre at Weri. The invasion of the ancient Imperial city of Tiribane. Thousands and more murdered on the Alweira’s path of destruction. Had they not been stopped, they would have eradicated all Yosen life. And for what? What had they really been after? Should he… ask?
“To this day,” the Alweiran added, bursting Ario’s thoughts, “we still pay the price of their fervour. That scent of fear on you, Yosen, I have smelled so many times before. It hung thick in the air when the divergent in my hometown were massacred. Alweira, Yosen, and Yorei alike, slaughtered by the same sort of Yosen you fear.”
The Alweira cast him a meaningful glance, heavy with certainty. Ario gripped tight the ship’s railing, stiffening, and lifted his other hand to his pounding throat.
“Divergence is a curse unto its own,” the Alweira said. “Yours, at least, can be hidden. Mine,…”
They took a quick glance about, and shifted position to, Ario realized, hold their back towards the kokai lady. Then, they held out their gloved hand, twisting it about with entrancing grace. Eventually, they slid the glove off to reveal a long, bony hand – eerily white, just like their skin, just like the tufts of hair jutting out from beneath their hood. In an instant, black veins spread across their tensing fingers, nails turning to vicious claws. Ario stifled his gasp behind clenched jaws.
“Your history calls us beasts for a reason,” the Alweira said, settling their relaxing hand back into its glove. “Azor cursed our ancestors, and yours by extension. Fear, and hatred, and death… A certain future. I chose to try and break this cruel cycle.”
By leaving it behind. Relaxing his jaw, Ario let out a deep breath, and turned his gaze back towards the distant mountains of Rao. Fear, hatred, certain death… Breaking cycles. In a way, Ario realized, he’d tried to break his people’s cycle as well – by avoiding to participate in live experiments, or ripping out instructions for gruesome tests he overheard his colleagues wanting to perform… Had he made a difference? Did that make any difference anymore to begin with? There would always be Yosen scientists eager to test how close to a so-called goddess the Yorei truly were – even on this ship.
“Gods aren’t real,” Ario said. “Curses aren’t real, either. This means gods can’t have cursed us, or blessed us. Myths are just that: myths.”
The Alweira chuckled. “Spoken like a true Yosen scientist. You are not so different then, are you? Believing in what you see, what you may quantify and analyze and determine the nature of.” The Alweira waved their hand through the air. “Yet, still your science cannot comprehend how Yorei are of nature. We Alweira are not.” Their tone quieted, sombered. “I can feel it, Yosen. Crawling beneath my skin. Death – Azor’s curse.”
In an instant, the Alweira’s composure shifted, fractured. They shivered and pulled their arm close to their chest, their shaking grip tight, as though trying to protect it – or themselves? Wait, himself? Ario stared, but needed to avert and close his eyes when the Alweira’s anxiety burst.
“Trust that I know, Yosen,” the Alweiran added – why couldn’t they just stop talking!? “Azor – the Oromisai, as you know Her – is no myth. Nor is my kin’s bloody history. It lives in all of us, and forever will—”
“Enough!” Ario yelled out. “Oromisai, Oromashi – Oroi: these are myths! There are no gods, no black calamities! Gods are just easy excuses for what science hasn’t explained yet! They’re easy excuses to justify torture and murder!”
With a stifled yell, Ario hid his face in his hands and panted in the heat of his own breath. These beliefs – these stupid beliefs, gods and calamities and divine bloodlines: these were the exact reason the Empresses of old had ever risen to power. These beliefs were the cause of every Yosen bloodshed that had ever ensued. These unfounded theories were the sole reason he could never divulge his Yorei lineage – the Imperial, divine lineage, as so many still foolishly believed. With a deep breath, Ario straightened to look his hand and arm over. How could anyone believe anything but blood ran through his veins? That his abilities were some gift – some curse – transferred to him through bloodlines running all the way back to gods?
“I offended you,” the Alweiran said.
“Not really,” Ario replied without thinking. Was that what he was feeling? Offended? Sure felt like plain old anger. “I just don’t believe in gods. Or curses. As stated before.”
The Alweira chuckled. That sound – that genuine kindness – made Ario chuckle in turn. “Sorry,” he said. “That got a little heated. I’m usually not that… rowdy. Not with strangers, in any case.”
“You have principles and beliefs of your own, Yosen. I can respect that.”
Ario contemplated their words. He straightened then, and stared down at the Alweira. “Then don’t call me Yosen, alright? I’m Ario. It’s been nice meeting you. I think.”
A strange smile stretched out the Alweira’s lips. “Soba. Likewise.” They chuckled. “You truly are peculiar, Ario. In a comforting way.”
“Thank you? I think?”
Soba chuckled again, and somehow, Ario felt this laughter carrying a whole other meaning than a moment before. A warm, unpleasant meaning he couldn’t quite decipher, and didn’t really want to perceive.
“Yes, it is a compliment,” Soba said. “I do not offer it lightly. You seem… different, from other Yosen.”
Didn’t we already establish that? Or had Ario only imagined Soba guessing he was Yorei? Come to think of it, he had never officially stated it. But ‘hidden divergence’… Soba knew. He had to know. The longer Ario stared back, the more something felt off. That smile, that twinkle in the Alweira’s eyes… Everything about them felt off, he rationalized, in the way that solid food feels off when you’re thirsty. What was it he was sensing?
“Are you alright, Ario?”
Oh, there was no good answer to that, Ario knew. He needed to detach himself from these nameless emotions, any way he could think of. Instinctively, Ario let his eyes stray across Soba, taking in their sharp facial features, the way oranges and yellows blended in their eyes, the curl of those feminine-yet-not-quite lips. He noted their stance, their slenderness, the straight fall of their cape. Recalling how Soba had pressed their arm to their chest earlier, Ario tentatively asked, “You’re a—man, right?”
Soba’s smile widened, and they chuckled – a sound, a feeling, that made the hair in the nape of his neck stand on end. “True to your scientific disposition,” they said. “Yes, Ario, I am a man. Not by choice, if that is of any consequence to you.”
Should it be? What did that even mean? What was it he felt lurking behind that smile of Soba’s, scratching to escape? Did he even want to know? Despite better judgment, Ario focussed on that strange feeling – that warm, tingling heat that spread across his chest, his back, his—
Ario shrieked and stumbled back, shaking his head, and the emotions out. “No no no, this isn’t right,” he said, gripping the railing as he raised his leg up in defense. “I—I mean, I clearly overstayed my welcome here, didn’t I? Lots of ship left to discover, you know? You’ll be fine on your own, won’t you?”
Disappointment. Rejection. They spun within Soba, loudly, until all that remained was a deep sense of grief. To Ario’s relief, Soba turned away from him and walked away, without a word – without a sentiment other than sorrow. But then, Ario thought as he watched Soba leave, what had the Alweira expected? No, no, don’t think about that, ever.
“That was… deeply disturbing,” Ario needed to state to himself. He shivered, lowered his leg, and turned back towards the prow to breathe in clean air. To cleanse out all of these disgusting sensations still lingering in places they should not even be.
How was he going to avoid talking to Soba now? Duck behind barrels when he notices him? Hide in the hold for as many weeks or months as this journey will last? Maybe he could find another group to hang out with, one Soba would never approach. “Zealots and scientists,” Ario said to himself, sighing. “My only two options. Great. Hrm?”
Out of the corner of his eyes, he noticed movement – the kokai lady from before, heading towards the ship’s stern. Before long, he heard tempers rising in the distance – a deep voice roaring his anger and frustration in Yosen first, then in a language Ario realized he’d heard back in Port Sabeto: kokai. Very angry kokai. A loud crack echoed across the ship, and Ario gulped.
That situation – whatever it was – clearly was about to escalate. The shouter was angry, but not only. Even from this distance, with the raised quarterdeck standing between them, Ario perceived the kokai’s hatred as though he stood right next to him. Such permeating hatred… Could it be the kokai sailor from before?
1. after that whole ordeal with Soba, Ario needed to experience normal sensations. Even if it meant getting blasted with fierce hatred.
2. curious as he is to discover what’s going on, cleansing his sensory palate is just not worth the risk. He’d rather find a quiet spot to mull over his discussion with Soba, and let the current situation solve itself.
(voting ended May 1st 2022)
PART 01 || PART 03 | PART 04