Part 5: From the depths
Ario woke to chills and heat and to the dizzying sensation that his entire head had finally been well-preserved in a jar full of thick, saline liquid. This wasn’t even the right way to preserve meat, as far as he could recall. And he could recall very little else. The saline liquid in his head was boiling.
“A fever,” Soba labeled his pain. Why Soba was labeling anything to do with him at all however, Ario didn’t know, but he could guess. He didn’t like his own guess.
“Are you touching me?” Ario snapped with a groan.
In response, Soba chuckled; an unpleasant sound that soured into the drilling, excruciating shrillness of liquid trickling down on liquid. Ario shifted – or swam, he wasn’t sure – and flinched, yelping, when a damp cloth pressed onto his forehead. Coldness. Soft, soaking, marvelous coldness. He soon deflated at the touch, his every nerve relaxing.
“You will be alright,” Soba said, and Ario winced as the cloth’s chill pressed gently against his forehead, “You should not worry.”
Ario let out a snort, which, he tasted – or heard, he wasn’t sure – coughed itself into a painful laugh. “Just my luck,” he said, swallowing saliva down his burning throat. “This trip couldn’t have gone any worse…”
Now here he sat – or laid? Probably laid – with his head on liquid fire, his muscles as limp as algae on dry land, and he couldn’t even remember when last he’d felt like everything in his life had made sense. Which, he had to admit, had certainly been never.
“Life can always make a worse turn, Ario,” Soba said. His soft, sharp tone throbbed inside Ario’s head while chills coursed all along his back, lacerating his skin with prickles and sweat. The liquid in his head boiled; and as wet coldness pressed onto his aching forehead again, Ario shuddered back to a certain sense of calm. “This will be but a passing illness,” Soba added. “You should feel grateful that it is.”
“My head’s thumping like molten sludge,” Ario replied with a groan. “I’ll only feel grateful once I’m better.”
“So you will be,” Soba said, snorting; and it felt crazy to Ario, so surely it was merely the fever playing tricks on him, but the air itself seemed to bubble and soften and fill up with little clouds of cotton. Ario couldn’t help but giggle at the little white spots, until they dissipated, blown away by Soba’s breath. “I will sleep better when you are well again,” the fluffy white one said. “You were quite loud last night, Ario.”
“Let me guess,” Ario groaned, grinning. “I was crying like a little kid.”
Soba chuckled. “Close. You said, ‘Soba, I need a hug, where are you?’“
Ario choked, and laughed.
And Ario suddenly startled up – and cried out as his head hit hard wood. He immediately fell back down, hand at his throbbing forehead, and flinched as his fingers grazed the sharp scream of a bruise. “This can’t be happening!” he yelled – he must have yelled! He wasn’t sure of much anymore, except for one indubitable fact:
This truly was the worst trip he had ever been on.
It was also the only trip he’d ever been on.
Why had he picked a ship? Why had he picked this ship?
Why couldn’t he simply have kept to himself and avoided absolutely everyone?
With a sigh, Ario rested his hand across his eyes. Behind closed eyelids, his pounding mind reviewed the bits and fragments of his trip as they returned to him – Triku’s constant mockery, and the terrifying hatred of that huge, harpoon-wielding Kokai sailor. A smile crossed his lips as he remembered Rika, and her curvaceous attributes… which faded into darkness, into a cloaked form all white underneath. From beneath the form’s hood, bright yellow eyes stared at him… and then, he saw nothing anymore but teeth. Long, sharp teeth, snapping shut upon him—
Ario screamed out and sat up straight – and howled in pain as his forehead collided with the top bunk. Again. This couldn’t be happening again. With a raking screech, Ario cursed himself out; then he cursed out every single one of his peers, and every single person who’d crossed his path on this ship; and he cursed himself out again for ever boarding the Oroi. How could he ever have thought a ship would be the best hiding place for someone like him!? He slapped his forehead, and howled out a curse.
But as he held his hand at his throbbing head, kneading – why was it so hard to keep himself from kneading? – and feeling his skin pulse beneath his twitching fingertips, Ario gradually calmed down, until his breath became a heavy pant. A hiding place – that was the reason, wasn’t it? The real reason he’d boarded the Oroi. It had nothing to do with discovery, or adventure, or researching a new world for the new generations to come. He had fled, tail between his legs. Like a coward.
What was it the Alweira had said to him, during their first unpleasantly awkward discussion? ‘Azor cursed our ancestors, and yours by extension; I chose to break this cruel cycle—’
“By running away,” Ario had to state. Soba had chosen to run away from all that he’d known. Yet, and Ario wasn’t sure why he thought about this, or why the thought made him squirm, Soba would clearly never be able to run away from himself. In Ario’s mind, the mesmerizing dance of fangs upon distended gums returned; and those words, those meaningful words: ‘Though my divergence is a visible curse, it has never plagued my every breath as yours has’.
A visible curse. “My divergence,” he whispered to himself. The words pounded about in his aching head as he tried to make sense of them – of their meaning to him. He lifted his trembling hand before his eyes, then fanned out his fingers, and closed them, and twisted his hand this way and that. He could not see his divergence running in his veins, nor could he quite sense it. But it was there, prickling his veins, his head, his heart; there was a crowd out there, close-by, unseen. A sentiment of… irritation. He should not be feeling that. He should be feeling…
“Myself,” he concluded. A conclusion that held a meaning, but he couldn’t quite figure out what. “Yorei,” he mused out loud.
Yorei – a subgroup of Yosen, born with abilities science never had managed to explain away. A persecuted group in the past; people viewed with suspicion and greed even now. How many years had he spent evading suspicion? How many years had he lived in fear, and spent… running away from himself?
Ario let out a quiet sigh. Now, on this accursed ship, among these numerous foul people, a single individual in the whole world knew who he was. Who he truly was. Not a descendent of Empresses, not the bearer of a gift or a curse or even but the living result of age-old experiments conducted and for which no proof of research remained. Only… him. A Yosen able to read others’ emotions like open books.
And despite knowing this truth about him – or, he didn’t dare believe, because Soba knew the truth now? – the Alweira had stood by him, through arguments, hate, and rejection. As he vaguely recalled now, had Soba not sat by his side while he recovered from a fever?
Ario groaned, and plopped his hand back onto the bed. Loathe as he was to admit it, as wrong as Soba’s feelings in general were, the Alweira also was… right, in a way. Perhaps in a few ways. But what was most right to him, right now, was that Soba judged him based on what he could measure, and not based on their races’ bloody joint history. He didn’t care about rumours; nor, Ario realized now, that he was a part of the race that massacred his hometown.
Soba truly didn’t fear anything, did he? Not cowardice had brought him onto this ship, Ario begun to understand, but a hope. A hope for better. A hope for freedom.
At that thought, Ario couldn’t help but smile.
His mind shrank and screeched. Pain; skull-splitting pain drilled through his eye sockets, through his thoughts and his bones while every nerve in his body detonated into lacerating screams. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t be; his throat burned, and he squashed his eyes with his palms, grinding them against his sockets, his eyebrows – against the pain, against all of the pain, the pain that remained, that assaulted him, that killed him.
Pain that killed.
And just as suddenly, Ario gasped out a shout of relief. He panted, and breathed – finally, he could breathe! – and stared up at the top bunk, his eyes darting about. His heart still raced, his throat burned as though he’d screamed himself raw, and though dull pain still drummed at the corners of his mind, the pressure he’d felt but instants ago was gone. Disappeared, like never it had existed.
Gone from his senses, like never he’d perceived it.
At that thought, Ario gulped saliva down his aching throat, and lifted up his trembling hand before his eyes.
That night, and he realized he only knew it was night because of dinner having been served what had to be a few hours ago now, Ario caught himself absently pressing down on his bruise now and again. It hurt. It never hurt as deeply as he expected.
Whatever had happened earlier, it wasn’t happening again. No matter how hard or not he pressed, where he pressed, that dreadful feeling from before never returned.
It must have been a fever-induced nightmare. A horribly vivid hallucination triggered by illness and hitting his head – twice in a row. Yes. That had to be it. That was the only possible explanation: that all of that had simply been in his head.
And if it really was all in his head, then he should be able to recreate that feeling and understand what had triggered it. Even if he’d rather not feel again like he was, well,… dying. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Ario swallowed, and closed his eyes to focus on himself nonetheless; on the hardness of his bunk bed, then on the excruciating pain he’d felt, his mind torn apart by a bizarre sort of… what should he call it? A darkness? He snorted at the thought, which soon bleeded into memories of Soba’s clawed hand and the black veins jutting out beneath his skin; those fangs dancing upon his gums, fascinating. Entrancing. Ario felt his lips twitch, a certain calm warmth washing over him. A cozy, familiar warmth that slowly filled his mind, his chest, his—
“You have to be kidding me!” Ario shouted as he flung himself off his bed, immediately backing away, his eyes upon the covered mass wriggling on the top bunkbed. No. He wasn’t. He wouldn’t be. “Soba!” Ario shrieked, “What are you doing up there!?”
He heard a muffled squeak, the creaking shuffle of weight; and then, Soba whimpering, “N—Nothing!”
“I can feel you, Alweira! I told you: no more wrong feelings! Why are you even having them!?”
There was a sound. A weird sound. Like a squeal, quickly stifled – or choked upon. The top bunk creaked heavily, and through the dimness of the room, Ario saw the covers shift. Was Soba rolling around up there? What was he even doing? Do I even want to know?
No, he decided, he didn’t want to know; yet he stood there, listening – perceiving. For a while Soba was silent… until that strange, squealing sound returned, carried by, Ario thought, the scuffle of cloth. There was an odd rhythm to the sounds; a sort of growing crescendo in the air, in Soba’s heart. Intense pleasure suddenly consumed—
Ario exhaled a shriek backed into the wall, an accusing finger wagging towards the top bunk. “Tell me you’re not!” he shouted. “Tell me you’re not!!!”
The only response he received, a response that chilled him to the bone, was Soba’s quiet, drawling sigh. All of the intensity that had suffused the air evaporated, leaving in its wake but a comforted, repulsive warmth.
Ario curled against the wall, horrified.
And he yelped himself off the wall, his mind reeling, his senses on high alert. Where was he? Where had he been? Why was the floor swaying!? Gasping a shriek, Ario quickly wiped the streams of drool from his chin and scrambled up onto his feet, flat against the wall. The floor swayed beneath his feet and he shrieked louder, hands shooting out to grab the edge of the furniture next to him. His eyes darted across the room, his nerves hissing sizzling to wood creaking – or cracking, he couldn’t quite tell. Dim light flickered and oscillated and made him feel motion sick as it illuminated in passing the different corners of the lifeless room: barrels; discarded crates; bunk beds.
Wait. Bunk beds?
His index finger shot out towards them. “That’s where I am!”
On a ship. On the Oroi! The open sea; away from Rao, its culture, its horrors. His mind kept digging into his own past, and more recent memories emerged: the terrifying petite sailor; the harpoon-wielding Kokai and his jaw-dropping lady companion; the malicious acting captain. The Alweira.
Ario shuddered then, and wrapped his arms about himself. The Alweira. The foul, repulsive things he’d been doing to—to himself last night. Why was he even thinking about it!? A powerful shiver ran along his spine, a disgusted breath heaving out of his throat. A terrible exhaustion suddenly dropped onto his shoulders, and Ario let himself slide along the wall, down onto his heels. He pinched the bridge of his nose then, releasing a long-drawn-out sigh.
Surely, it was merely this implacable fatigue that prickled his eyes. It couldn’t be anything else – nothing like frustration or upset or simply the urge to wring the Alweira’s neck and be done with his wrongness, and with him. Ario took a shaking breath. Tears were coming. He needed to repress them, to deny them; but he burst out into sobs instead, and covered his face in his hands as he dropped onto his rear.
He perceived them now – the numerous emotions creeping through the air all around him, like the herald of an incoming storm: irritation, fear, distress, anger. Suffering. Everything boiled down to suffering. He coiled tighter upon himself, raking his fingers through his hair. “Why is this happening?” Why couldn’t he turn the emotions off? Why were they choking the air with heat and salt? They were everywhere – out there, inside of him. Undeterrable. Impossible to escape.
“This is not how it works,” he whined to himself, pressing his fingertips against his skull. He needed to focus – on him, as always he had. He needed to focus on his needs and his wants and his fears and—
His stomach twisted and rumbled, and suddenly Ario’s mind returned to the present. To his present. To the telltale sharp pain shooting through his lower back now. Wincing, he pressed his fingers against it, and surveyed his cabin. Only one door. Nothing but crates, barrels, furniture, and those beds. Ario groaned and plopped his head back against the wall.
He’d have no choice, wouldn’t he? If he wanted to relieve himself – and not on himself this time – he would have to leave the cabin and dive into that crowd of aggressive emotions. Soon. Very soon.
“Might as well try,” he sighed to himself. What alternative did he really have? Relieve himself in a barrel and never hear the end of it from Soba? The smell would be far worse than his pants’ – which, at least, he could keep covered up in his bag, and his bag at the bottom of that barrel over there. Focusing on his own needs should keep others’ out of his head and his heart. And with the way he was smelling now – absolutely awful, his armpit told him – no one would even want to get close to him, or feel anything but revulsion towards him. Except for Soba, no doubt. Repulsive, self-gratifying Soba—
Stop thinking about that – or that. He needed those memories gone. He also needed to go before his bladder exploded. With that singular thought in mind, Ario groaned himself upright, peeling himself back onto wobbling feet. He caught himself on the edge of the dresser next to him, eyes fixating the door while he breathed himself steady. At length, he swallowed, and staggered towards the exit.
Without surprise, and oh how he wished he’d have been pleasantly surprised nonetheless, the lower level was overrun by people – as crowded as the piers of Sabeto, and just as loud, if not louder. Ario winced, set his hands on his ears, and shook as he struggled his way through the passengers, through the ambient acidic emotions. Fear and irritation slunk into his heart nonetheless, crawled along his spine like serpents and set every nerve in his body on edge. He tasted his stomach’s upset, and rushed faster through the crowd, elbowing a few Yosen peers out of his way who shouted something like indignation back at him. He couldn’t afford to stop and listen. He needed to leave; to get out; to escape. When he emerged into the stairwell, Ario took a moment to catch his breath, doubled over, hands now on his twitching knees. Then, he took a deep breath and hurried up the winding, still-creepy-swayie-sick-making staircase.
At the upper deck, Ario paused to breathe, and frowned. Did the air taste stuffier? Hotter, even? Was that his imagination? A fever flare-up? Ario placed his hand against his forehead and winced from the pain. More bruise than heat, without too much doubt. But then, what was this anxious feeling about? What was he dreading?
Dreading? Ridiculous. There was nothing to fear beyond the quarterdeck’s doors. Well, perhaps the harpoon-wielding Kokai. And other scientists. But nothing else! Nothing at all. Urged on by the pain at his lower back, Ario approached the door, and hesitated. Hand upon the handle, he swallowed, and swung the door open – to slam it immediately shut, shrieking as boiling heat wafted inside and threatened to choke him.
Now what!? He couldn’t go out there. And why had he wanted to go out there, to begin with? What was he doing here? Why was he here? In fact, had he ever wanted to go outside at all?
Groaning, Ario rapped his head with his hands, wincing at the pain, focusing all the same. What did he know? That his bladder was about to fail him. What did he need to know? Where to relieve himself. Who would know that? “The crew,” he muttered to himself, his eyes slowly straying towards the door. Ario squirmed, and quickly considered his other options, none of them appealing. Surely, a crewmember would pass through the landing soon? Very soon?
So Ario waited and paced, for such a long time that may not have been a long time at all that his legs began to wobble beneath him. The pain at his lower back was excruciating. He wouldn’t last long anymore. And yet, the ferocious, bare-chested Kokai sailor who finally stomped his way up the staircase, Ario didn’t dare address. Neither did he address the sweat-drenched sailor who entered the quarterdeck, a strange, suspicious glare turned towards Ario. He lowered his gaze and squirmed, wincing.
The third passerby, a grumpy, glistening Kokai sailor, Ario stopped nonetheless and asked where the washrooms were located. The sailor gave him an unpleasantly appraising look, then pointed at the door.
“Outside!?” Ario cried out. “In that heat!?” Where everyone can see me!?
The Kokai shrugged in response, then walked off like nothing had even happened. Like he hadn’t been asked a life-or-death question – which, Ario rationally knew, it wasn’t, but his bladder certainly writhed in contradiction. As he no doubt was, himself. How long could he still hold it in? Until the other end of the world?
Ario let out a loud sneer and immediately wished he hadn’t. His sneer turned squeal, his thighs squeezed tight, and Ario frantically limped around the room to hide behind the tallest barrel. Relief soon trembled through his body.
That evening, right after a meal that tasted like thick, salted mush, Ario sprawled onto his bunk bed, a sigh shaking out of his throat. This, by far, had been the most exhausting, atrocious, humiliating day of all his life. No, more accurately: this whole trip had been the most exhausting, atrocious, mortifying few days of his entire life. They made him almost miss the days when his worst nightmare was to be found out as a Yorei and skinned alive.
Ario shuddered, and shifted onto his side. He needed sleep. A long, quiet, restful sleep.
And he must have fallen asleep eventually, as proved the dry, pasty sensation in his mouth now. He groaned and shifted, his shoulders snapping and cracking. He squeezed his eyelids shut and let out a rasp of a breath that lacerated his dry throat. Gradually, his ears began to pick up sounds – voices, shouts, irritation, distress—
“Urgh!” He shifted onto his belly and pulled his pillow close to his ears. The voices he could muffle; their emotions, to his frustration, he could not. They sharpened in his heart; like blades, slicing through his skin, his veins—
“Shut up!” he yelled towards the door. He threw his pillow at it – and startled half upright as it was caught by a shadow. Ario shrieked, gripping the edge of his bed. “I—I’m sorry. I—I didn’t mean—Wait—Soba?”
The shadow lowered the pillow, and now Ario could better define it – kind of. He blinked a few times, and rubbed his eyes until his sight sharpened. If it wasn’t for the white tufts of hair protruding from beneath a dark hood, in this dimness he would have mistaken the shawled Alweira for anyone else. Especially for a terrifying murderer. The kind that would steal Yorei in the night and sell them to the highest bidder.
Ario gulped. “W—What are you doing?”
Ario frowned. The way Soba stood by the door – hunched, as though anxious – put him ill at ease. It wasn’t anxiety that pounded the loudest in Soba’s heart: it was hostility. And fear. Life-threatened fear.
“What’s going on?” Ario asked, quietly, while he rose to his feet. He hesitated when Soba gestured at him to approach; hesitated to ask what the menacing edge in his heart was about. Ario frowned, and felt; and, soon, comprehended that Soba’s hostility wasn’t directed at him. Nor at anyone in particular. He was… afraid of being found. But why? Did it have anything to do with the mild irritation radiating from the hallway?
Ario’s frown deepened. With cautious steps (why did he feel so dizzy?), he stumbled his way to the door, and leaned with his hands upon it. He flinched when Soba’s gloved hand gripped his shoulder, but let himself be guided, silently, closer to the door. Closer, he realized with mounting fright, to the shouts, to the anger, to the anxiety, to the uneasy uproar raging throughout the hallway just beyond. Ario thought he recognized the words; they only sank in when Soba whispered,
“They argue about drinking water.”
With a gulp, Ario stiffened. He suddenly remembered the heat that had assaulted him the day – was it the day? – before. Drinking water. Heatwave. Oh no. This can’t be good.
“I understand how you’re feeling,” a familiar voice suddenly boomed out from the hallway, “But you will have to understand that rations must be made until this scorcher passes. What do you think would happen if I accepted everyone’s demands, hmm? A riot. Of course, that’s considering I allow you all to riot. I’m sure you’ve all witnessed the strength and the moodiness of my crewmates – whom, let it be said so we are all on the same page here, will be the first people offered rations! Unless any one of you believes they can man this ship better than we can?”
The passengers burst out into loud, crude insults, that quickly, and suspiciously abruptly, ended in the wake of a dull, loud thwack. Ario heard Soba gasp.
“What?” Ario whispered.
“I think Triku hit a passenger.”
Triku? The so-called diplomat who had snidely but peacefully mocked him every chance he’d gotten? The same Kokai who, Ario didn’t want to admit to himself, had been kind enough to treat and bandage his wound earlier? He grazed his forehead and winced at the pain, and at the memories. Somehow, this sounded so out of character—
“You’ll have to wait your turn!” Triku suddenly shouted, his voice – his heart – crackling with resentful authority. The ambient cacophony dimmed. “It is my duty,” he continued, “as the ship’s diplomat, to keep us all safe – all of us! No exceptions! If you can’t wait until the next downpour to bathe, then jump into the sea! No refunds! Not that you’ll need it once you’ve drowned!”
Beyond the door, tempers flared up – and flattened just as quickly. Ario heard shuffling, and grumbling, and angry shouts, but nothing near the onslaught of rage and insults thrown at Triku but moments ago. Soon, the hold echoed with the loud creaks of footsteps and muffled anger, until all that remained was a single sound: a loud, deep sigh. Followed by a quiet thud on the other side of the door.
“Triku?” Soba asked; just loud enough, Ario estimated, for only a long-eared man like Triku to hear.
“Don’t ask for drinking water,” Triku answered. “At this point, I may – nay, I will toss anyone overboard who dares obstruct the return of my own inner turmoil. I’m strong enough to toss you, Fluffy.”
Ario frowned. Was that a joke? An unbelievably confusing threat? He startled as Soba’s body began to shake. Soon, the Alweira was chuckling… and, on the other side of the door, Triku echoed his amusement – a genuine amusement lined with anxiety. Sentiments shared, twining between them, tying one to the other. Ario tensed, eyes narrowing as Soba spoke.
“Duly noted, Triku. Will you be alright?”
Through the door, Ario felt a sudden influx of… What was it? Cheerfulness? Compassion? Both? Whatever that feeling was, it made Triku burst out into raucous laughter.
“Asks the fluffy one in a den of knives!” Strong as his laugh had been, it quickly dwindled to a sort of sharp unease. “I’m always alright, but I appreciate the sentiment. How are things going with Lanky?”
“Hey!” Ario shouted.
“Didn’t hear you there, Lanky!” Triku clearly lied, mockery fluttering in his heart. It soon melded to concern however, and he knocked against the door a couple of times before adding, “In any case, you two be careful. I’d be cautious asking anyone about drinking water right now. Even we are struggling. This heat sure is something else.”
Ario snorted. “Azor’s finally made it, I guess. Well done, Soba.”
When silence fell and horrified disbelief surrounded him, Ario realized what he had just said – out loud; without reason. He choked on a gasp, and lifted his twitching hand onto his mouth. Why had he said that? Why had he said it like that? Why had those words… somehow made sense – enough sense for him to actually say them?
Ario shook his head and stepped back, his eyes darting about – anywhere but at Soba. He couldn’t face him. No, that wasn’t quite right; he was afraid. He feared the stare of those bright yellow eyes, which would confirm the emotions he perceived whizzing erratically within Soba’s heart: from fear to hostility, from hostility to terror, never pausing, never settling, only growing louder and louder—
Ario startled and shrieked as the door slammed shut. He took another trembling step back, away from Triku’s menacing gaze; away from the horror glistening in Soba’s own.
“Let me make a wild guess here,” Triku snarled, “You have no experience when it comes to banter, do you? No idea what is fine to say, what you’d better hold in even if it means cutting off your own tongue to keep yourself from speaking?”
“What does His Paleness think would happen if someone in the know had heard what He just said?”
Nothing good; no doubt about that. On a ship full of Yosen scientists and zealots and Kokai sailors who’d do anything to keep the peace aboard even if it meant throwing a few passengers overboard, the least of Soba’s worries would be drowning. He’d be long dead before then – sliced to pieces and examined in great detail—
Ario doubled over and heaved, and panted; and heaved again, his stomach constricting his gut and his ribs. The memory of Soba’s deformity flashed into his mind – those fangs dancing on his gums, those claws stretching from his fingers – and, somewhere at the corner of his own mind, he felt tendrils grazing the edges of his consciousness. Were they tendrils? Why did he think it? With a shaking breath, Ario stared down at the floor, at the wetness of bile – at its rims, fracturing with blood. He remembered—
‘We both know it isn’t you I would be concerned about’—
“But you would protect him,” Ario panted out. “Wouldn’t you?” He took in a deep, dry breath, and slowly straightened to glare back at Triku. “I mean, didn’t you just say it was your duty as a diplomat to keep all of us safe? Without exception?”
Triku’s eye twitched. “What are you saying?”
“You’re a hypocrite.”
Tension suffused the air. Anger – scorching, monstrous anger marched up to him; inescapable, scorching anger. Suddenly, his feet no longer touched ground. Ario choked, Triku’s fingers squeezing his throat.
“Who do you think you are, questioning my integrity!?” Triku spat in his face. Ario gasped as his back slammed against the wall. “What do you know about life? About survival? About keeping your damned mouth shut when you know every single word you say might be used against you!? Tell me, Yosen boy, because I’m dying to know!”
Triku’s hands pressed into his throat, cutting off air and thought. Ario could but feel – hostility wrapped in fragility, the edge of concern. Triku was… worried about something. Something Ario couldn’t quite discern, not right now, not like this, but… it related to… It related. He related.
Care. Fear. Devotion. Safety. An unconditional connection.
Ario suddenly dropped to his hands and knees, coughing, heaving – breathing. He was breathing. He was still breathing. But how? As he lifted a hand upon his aching throat, Ario started to catch voices between his own raucous breaths. Soba arguing with Triku. The Alweira’s heart screamed of upset. In response, he received… concern, streaming along wavering confidence. There was something to that fragile concern, Ario realized. It felt… attached. Targeted, but not at Soba. Care. Concern. Devotion.
“You know, don’t you,” Ario blurted out through a cough. He drew in a sharp, steadying breath, to add, “You know about Alweira. About other Alweira.”
It was a wrong guess, at best; at worst, a very bad guess that would get him beaten to death. That sense of panic echoing from Triku’s heart now, he remembered from his days growing up at the academy, when he had witnessed peers tampering with a liquor bottle from their teacher’s cabinet. Panic and fear, concealed in anger and threats. He’d been so scared. So scared of being hurt, of being found out; so shamefully scared, that he’d said nothing when their teacher had started coughing blood in class. Some secrets weren’t worth dying over. But…
“It’s true, isn’t it?” he heard Soba say, and the past popped out of his head. Soba’s soft, incredulous tone carried upon a bright swirl of emotions; a… precarious eagerness. “You have met others of my kind,” Soba continued, resolute. “And for you to allow me on your ship, knowing the risk that poses my deformity…” He let out a breath rife with affection. “You do care. But, why do you care? We are nothing to each other. I will admit I have grown fond of you – as a friend, nothing more – but… Triku, I do not understand.”
Neither did Triku; this much, Ario read upon the flickering of the Kokai’s emotions. All of his unwarranted hostility had evaporated into the frailty of disbelief and, Ario thought, deep-rooted compassion and sorrow. The Kokai’s gaze swept the room – was he searching for an escape? – and landed, eventually, upon Soba. Compassion swelled; and, suddenly, shrank down, until it collapsed into annoyance. Ario stiffened as Triku’s annoyance grew into anger, and distrust… all aimed at him. No, it wasn’t merely anger or distrust that he perceived: it was danger. The same kind of danger he’d felt when, years ago, a poorly sedated kinusa had escaped confinement and rampaged through the academy’s hallways. And nearly through him, too.
Triku grinned, and Ario instinctively crawled up the wall. That was the same sort of ominous, tooth-filled grin that the kinusa had borne before killing his colleague. “You seem to know an awful lot about me,” Triku said, and the way his lips curled as he spoke, Ario expected his face to peel apart and spit acid at him. “I’m dying to know how. Mind telling me, my little infiltrator?”
“That’s enough,” Soba said; oh so quietly, or perhaps Ario barely heard him over the pounding of his own heart in his ears. Ario swallowed and set a hand at his aching throat, trying to steady himself while Soba continued, “He’s not a threat to you, Triku. He’s no traitor, no menace to whomever you may be protecting. He’s—” Soba paused, and his bright yellow gaze met Ario’s. He knew at once what he was about to do.
“He’s Yorei,” Soba stated. He looked back up at Triku then. “That is how he knows. There is no treachery in him, merely… a hidden divergence.”
I’m dead; that’s it, I’m dead. Soon to be quartered and divided into neat piles and thrown to the scientists to examine. Or, worse: salted and preserved for the journey ahead. Ario let out a sound, he couldn’t tell what kind, that reverberated all the way down to his bladder. How could he have been so stupid to trust a bloodthirsty beast—
Ario shrieked out as he felt himself lifted back up to his feet. Triku stared down at him, a deep frown on his face. “Yorei?” he said, but Ario got the distinct impression he wasn’t talking to him. “As in, I-know-what-you’re-thinking Yorei?”
“He calls it your ‘everything’,” Soba responded.
Did Triku believe it? Did he even want Triku to believe it? Would he laugh and mock, or sneer, or decide Ario was too much of a liability and stab him right between the ribs? Or, worse, throw him at the boarded scientists and invite – no, spur them on to do their worst? Ario shook on his swaying feet, and watched Triku’s expression twist into wide-eyed disbelief – a hilariously silly face that Ario didn’t dare laugh at. He thought he felt a surge of genuine amusement; and, suddenly, Triku burst into raucous laughter.
“Now that explains everything!” Triku said. “I thought something was off with you, Yosen boy, but I reckoned you were simply raised to be a selfish brat by equally conceited halfwits.” His laughter loudened, and abruptly ended. “Wait. What exactly do you know? About me?”
That you’re the conceited halfwit? “And what do you mean by ‘off’? There’s nothing wrong with me. Nothing!”
Oh, he couldn’t stand the glance that Triku and Soba exchanged. If his throat wasn’t so sore – so desiccated – he would’ve further given them a piece of his mind. Instead, he had to take a painful breath that rattled his chest… and listen to the horrible feelings coiling in Triku’s heart: caution and pity.
“Well, you know,” Triku began, gesturing. What he refused to point out as being wrong with him, Ario could all too easily guess: his looks, his thinking, his clumsiness, his Yorei lineage. What more could there be? His ex-girlfriend’s voice answered him; no, not her voice, but the memory of her heart, of the distance she had kept from him every so often: fright. Distrust. Suspicion.
Everyone was out to get him, weren’t they? He couldn’t let them. Never. Ever. Ario shouted, and shoved Triku back. “What have I ever done to you, huh!?” He shoved him further back. “What have I done to deserve this! Both of you! Any of you! Don’t you get how hard my life has been!? Do you even know what they do to Yorei? Or to debauched Alweira? I—”
He gasped and shrieked into Triku’s sweaty hand, and stiffened as the other gripped tight his arm. The Kokai’s fingers tensed, clenching his jaw and his muscles. Yet, his tone – his heart – was a deadly calm. “Easy now, Flippy,” Triku said. “No need to make this situation worse. After all, I’m still debating whether to give you a good beating, if only to bring you back to your senses long-term.” A smile crossed his lips. “You truly have no sense of discretion, do you? How did you keep yourself hidden, all of those years? Lived under a rock? If you ask me, you stand to benefit from cutting our your own tongue and going through life minding your own damn business for a change.”
That was… mockery, wasn’t it? Or did he mean it? Was he going to literally slice out his tongue and put it on display? Ario stiffened and slapped his hand upon his lips. A moment later, Triku snorted, and burst out into that horrible genuine laughter of his.
“Scared you again, didn’t I?” he said, snickering. “You really are far too gullible, Yosen boy! But then, if you weren’t, I’d have truly taken you for an enemy since the first time we met!”
Why don’t I believe that, Ario thought, until Triku slapped hard his arm upon his shoulders. He hated the way the Kokai squeezed him – amicably, or so he pretended. He hated even more the hint of condescension in Triku’s forced sympathy.
“Look,” Triku began, “I’m sorry if I hurt your precious feelings, okay? I didn’t realize you were so—”
“Don’t you dare say it,” Ario snapped.
“Sensitive,” Soba concluded.
“That,” Triku agreed. “It’s not a reproach. I—may have overreacted. Just a little. But you have to understand, Screamy, that Sabeto can be a hazardous place. Information is often more valuable than coin.” Triku paused, then let out a heavy sigh. “You happened to broach a… sensitive subject for me. And you’re right: I know someone like Fluffy here. This isn’t public knowledge. It isn’t even a rumour. I’d like to keep it that way.”
Triku abruptly strode forward, towards the door, which he eventually cracked ajar enough to peer out into the hallway. Ario glanced at Soba, frowning when he glanced back in turn. At length, Triku carefully closed the door and marched back to their side. The smile he wore now, the surprisingly kind and warm emotions swirling in his heart, Ario couldn’t quite place.
“I have to concede,” Triku said, “I feel like the two of you somehow banded together to make this journey as insufferable as possible.” His smile widened as he glanced at them in turn. “But I suppose that’s alright, Fluffy, Trippy. What’s life without getting your neck stuck in a headlock now and again, am I right?” He concluded that thought with an ear-splitting laugh. “Alright, kids. Since you’ve been so open with me, I’ll tell you a little story of my own.”
Yet, Triku hesitated. It wasn’t only to catch his breath, Ario felt, nor to prepare the right words. His heart pounded with an anxiety that Ario, to his surprise and disdain, knew only too well: the utter dread of exposing your secrets and getting betrayed. This feeling shifted – tensed into deceit itself – as Triku reached out his hands and set one on Soba’s shoulder, the other on Ario’s.
“Here’s the truth,” Triku began, “and I trust both of you slinkers to keep this secret, alright?” He took a dramatic breath. “Well, here it is. I’m… really a woman.”
“You lie,” Ario spat.
Triku chuckled. “You got me, kid. Although, I won’t deny that I have been a woman at times, but that’s mostly irrelevant to this story.” Within heartbeats, Triku’s amusement waned to the same compassion-lined sorrow Ario had perceived from him earlier. Triku’s emotions thickened to an unpleasant mass of concern and shivering fear that made Ario wince.
“The truth is,” Triku finally said, “You both are right. I do know about Alweira, and I have met others of your kind.” He paused, his eyes turning towards the floor. The way he was hesitating, that fear smothering every other emotion… Ario couldn’t help but relate. He vividly remembered his own admission to Soba, and how sick he had felt trying to even but utter that one word: Yorei.
Ario wanted to say something. He wasn’t sure what. Triku felt as closed off as this cabin was to the whole world beyond; dark, stuffy, neglected. He opened his mouth, and closed it immediately when Soba said,
“You are protecting a loved one, aren’t you?”
Triku’s grin pinched; within him, hesitation shattered. “You got me. Yes, I’m related to an Alweira – a half-Alweira, to be exact. My sister, Teara.”
In that suspended instant, the thick veil upon his heart dissipated. Only deep affection was left, heavy in his voice now. “I will tell you,” Triku said, “I have done a lot of things in my life, some I can’t say I’m proud of, others that will stay with me for what remains of my life… But, everything I’ve done, I’ve done for her. And because of that, I regret nothing.” His lips stretched to a playful grin. “To think, I’ve done all I can to keep her happy and safe, and then she decided to run off and marry some fool inlander and leave Sabeto entirely. Women, am I right?”
Triku burst out into laughter, but Ario felt it, shuddering beneath his genuine amusement: sorrow. Sorrow laced with fondness and care, which didn’t quite conceal the strange sense or grief lying underneath. A sentiment of… rejection. Of having nowhere to really belong anymore. Did she really abandon him? And why should I care? Why did he care? Or did he not care at all, and was he only channeling Soba’s effusion of fondness and shared grief?
Ario winced. In his mind, Soba’s terrible words returned:
That scent of fear on you, Yosen I have smelled before;
It hung thick in the air when the divergent in my hometown were massacred;
Alweira, Yosen, and Yorei alike;
And everything around him went black.
Everything within him turned black.
Thick. Oozing. Throbbing.
Throbbing with Death.
Ario lurched forward and vomited. His stomach constricted; his head exploded with pain. He screamed – he thought he screamed – and something stretched and coiled, latching onto his mind, onto his fingers; something that burrowed deep under his skin and through his bones, and slithered across his veins. Ario dropped to his knees, gasping for air.
Everything around him flickered to black.
Within him, it spread like poison.
Its reach tore him apart, a strip of Self at a time.
Yet, its shredding pulses meant something.
Bile burned through his throat. Claws tore at the corners of his mind, rending him apart with darkness. He thought, or perhaps he merely thought that he thought; he didn’t understand. Everything was pain. And voices – or just one voice. Or a roar. Or a door creaking. Or his entire body bleeding out into a warm, gooey mess. His chest constricted. His ribs quivered and cracked.
At the bottom of his mouth, drool and bile pooled. He felt sourness trickle down his chin.
His mind went black.
Still, it sought something.
It grazed, cutting.
Something brushed against his back. Ario screamed and flipped around, onto his elbows. His nails raked the floorboards. The pain; the pain that still pounded against his skull, that still constricted his gut and drew heavy, sweltering breaths from his throat… Was it still there? The living nightmare? Was it that—that thing—that made it so hard to breathe? Was it the shadow before him? Was it—
“Ario,” the shadow spoke – a voice so soft, so kind, he thought he recognized it, “Can you hear me? Are you alright?”
No, he needed to say. Instead, he gulped, and wheezed, and coughed, and sipped his sour saliva as he, at the least, was making sounds. He could do nothing more. When he realized that, he burst into sobs.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he wailed out. He straightened and set his hands upon his eyes, sniffled, and screamed. “I don’t know what’s going on!” Or what he should do! Or say! Or even be! And when he felt arms enclose his head and warmth press against him, he instinctively gripped the aggressor and pushed them away. His fingers couldn’t let go of their vestments. He couldn’t let go. He couldn’t be alone. Not again. Not after all he’d been through.
Once hesitation passed, Ario pulled the hugger in and slapped his arms about them. The warmth he felt, physical, emotional, drew more sobs out of him. The gentle rubbing on his back certainly didn’t help, but he smiled all the same.
“You will be alright,” Soba whispered in his ear. “You are not alone.” The Alweira’s hand squeezed his back, and the back of his head – a gesture of, Ario didn’t quite dare think, friendship? It certainly did feel like it; calm, warm, but nothing else. Until Soba’s hands stiffened and his heart filled with a dread so abysmal, Ario thought he would fall and never again touch ground.
He lurched forward as the ship suddenly swayed and dove. All around him, wood creaked and snapped, but it was Soba’s breath he heard the loudest. Shallow, rapid breaths, barely muffled by the screams now echoing from outside the cabin. Fear; nothing but fear and panic and distress. Nearby, he caught the groan of wood beneath heavy boots.
“This isn’t good,” Triku said. Might have said. Ario wasn’t certain what he’d heard, not with Soba’s fingers digging into his skin, his dread claiming all of his attention.
“What is it?” Ario asked.
“Hear that?” Triku said, and he paused. Ario pulled his head away from Soba’s face, from his hair and his hood and that damnably hot shawl. All he heard, atop Soba’s breathing (and the scream that were the Alweira’s nails digging into his back), atop the outside screaming, was the lengthy creak of the hull – and Triku continuing his thought, “Something’s pressing against the ship’s paneling. If it is what I think it is… Well. Drinking water has just become the least of our problems.”
If it is what I think it is… Ario didn’t dare ask. Whatever Triku thought, chances were it explained Soba’s reaction; those sharp nails like claws piercing his skin, that hostility now boiling in Soba’s heart. Ario winced and flinched. He needed to push him away… yet, at the same time, he wanted nothing more than to hold onto the Alweira. To tell him that he was going to be just fine, no matter what was happening to him. ‘Your history calls us beasts for a reason,’ Soba’s memory reminded him; “Azor cursed our ancestors, and yours by extension. Fear. Hatred.
A guttural growl thundered into his ear. Visceral hatred filled his heart; hatred, nothing but vicious hatred, thick and oozing like years-long preserved organs gone hideously bad. Ario repressed a heave, and clung onto Soba; through the twitching and snapping of warping of the Alweira’s fragile form. Cloth turned to fur; warmth to scorching heat. A drawling growl resonated above his head, as Soba – was he still Soba? – slowly pushed himself onto his feet. No, they weren’t feet anymore, but thick, clawed paws.
Now standing upright, Ario shook onto his feet. Ario didn’t dare look up; he didn’t dare look at what, moments ago, had been Soba’s face, whispering kindness in his ear. Soba’s heart pounded; a threat. Aggression. Terror. Hatred.
Soba wasn’t Soba anymore.
And still, Triku tried to reason with him. To ask him to calm down, relax, to think about what he was doing. Ario couldn’t help but snort a bitter laugh as Triku’s fragile authority called out to Soba, “Whatever may be going on with you, you need to calm down. Remember what we talked about—”
“And what do you know!?” Soba said – roared; or screamed. A scream Ario echoed as Soba’s nails raked deep across his back. “What do you know of Her curse? What do you know of Her!?” Soba raged out, a strident, cavernous, deafening scream. “She crawls; She crawls all around us! She chokes us! I feel Her, rampaging through my veins! I can’t—I won’t—” Words gurgled into a shrill roar. Suddenly, Ario felt himself lift.
He collided with—he didn’t know what. Something that shattered – and broke his back. He couldn’t move; he could barely breathe. The world spun in his ringing ears. He thought he heard shouting; fear, and desperation, and grief. He thought he heard that heart-chilling roar again, and the snap of bone. Sounds blurred and echoed; suddenly a cacophony of terror and hatred seized his racing heart. Tears prickled at his eyes now. He could do nothing. Nothing but listen and lay here. Broken. Weak. Dying.
Dying, just like the people outside the cabin, running, stampeding, screaming in terror.
Dying, like the person whose hoarse breath spat towards him,
“Are you alright, Yosen boy? You look awful.”
The person chuckled. Ario immediately recognized him. “You must be fine if you can joke like that,” Triku said. His laughter turned abruptly to a pained gasp, but he carried on, “Soba, however, won’t be. Not like this. Whatever happened to him,…” Triku paused, his heart pounding with concern and regret. “This is no longer your place.”
Your place? No: our place; the place, Ario thought about and he ardently wished he wasn’t, his eyes transfixed on the top bunk, that Soba had but days ago befouled with his disgustingly wrong feelings. He needed to remind Soba of his wrongness; of the only way in which he was allowed to be wrong. Ario gritted his teeth and sniffled. Memories stared and smiled and glowered at him, collided with each other, jumbled, fragmented;
‘Azor cursed our ancestors – with fear, hatred, and death;
With hate, one cannot live, nor grow.
To this day, we still pay the price of their fervour;
I feel Her, rampaging through my veins!
We are nothing to each other, except potential threats to our lives;
I can’t—I won’t—’
“He won’t,” Ario breathed out. His fingers tensed and gripped his mattress. “I need to—” As he tried pulling himself up, Ario felt his back snap. He sprawled back onto the bed, panting.
He needed to do something. Anything. Anything other than lying here, like a discarded slab of flesh. The screams outside had dwindled to cries. Triku no longer spoke, but Ario could hear his raucous breath, the occasional groan of wood as he moved. What was going to happen to Soba now? Triku had warned them: if anything happened, Soba would not be his concern. Yet, his heart still beat with compassion… and with regret.
Had Triku known this might happen?
Did it even matter?
Groaning, Ario tried to sit himself up. He bit through the pain that shot through his spine and his legs and that screamed in his head, until he finally managed to double over. His spine snapped again, but it didn’t hurt. He almost felt better. Nearby, he heard Triku snort.
“I’ll admit,” Triku said, panting, “You’re more resilient than I gave you credit for. Where’s the little kid that cried over the scrape on his head, huh?”
Ario breathed out a sneer. “Who’s the halfwit who thought an Alweira’d make a fine bunkmate?” Ario coughed and wheezed. His lungs burned. Saliva wasn’t enough to hydrate his throat anymore. He needed to ask; and shrieked himself upright when finally he looked at Triku. The Kokai stood on unsteady feet, a bloodied hand at the side of his even bloodier waist.
“Not as bad as it looks,” Triku said, panting; grinning. “I’ve survived worse scratches. This is nothing for a Kokai.”
“You’re bleeding all over the floor!”
Triku chortled. “So kind of you to notice, Your Paleness. Although, I should probably check the damage. You’ll manage on your own now, won’t you?”
On my own? Suddenly, Ario stiffened. “What do you mean, on my own?” He heaved, then took a deep, raking breath as his eyes searched the cabin. “Soba’s—He’s—Where is he!?”
“Easy there, Wheezy,” Triku said. “This is none of your concern anymore. Soba’s?— Hey! Yosen! Ario! Get back!”
Triku’s shout echoed behind him as he flung himself out into the hallway. Ario slammed against a wall and gasped; and peeled himself off, back onto unsteady feet. Catching his raking breath, Ario let his eyes wander – horrified, as he discovered the extent of Soba’s volatile madness: several people laid on the floor, some bloodied, others simply immobile. Panic bloated the air, ready to burst at the first scream. Ario shut his eyes and gulped. He couldn’t waste time. There was no time left to waste. He nodded to himself, then launched himself forward.
He ran and stumbled and hastened his steps, swerving between people standing and kneeling, ignoring the shouts of mercy from those who tended to the wounded. Down the hall, anger; no doubt, targeted Soba. Every time the Alweira’s devouring roars resounded in the distance, Ario wavered and caught himself on the wall. So much hatred; hatred that wafted like something long dead and putrefying. Ario barely perceived the passengers’ fears and distress anymore. With every step, his legs threatened to give way, his lungs and throat burned, and he grew more and more certain he would drop down and die.
But he couldn’t. He didn’t have time to die; or to catch his breath. Hands upon his knees, Ario wheezed and panted and forced himself to ignore the stabbing pain in his chest. He pushed himself upright again and ran – past startled Kokai sailors, past hammocks and stocked barrels and makeshift tables. He tripped on a discarded rope, stumbled, and kept running nonetheless. In the closing distance, he could almost make out Soba’s form.
Or, rather, what he thought was Soba’s form. Shaken, Ario had to pause.
That white silhouette looked massive.
And it was swatting Kokai aside as though they were but weightless flies.
Ario swallowed hard and rattled. He shrank when the thing – when Soba, he was certain of it now – roared its bone-chilling hatred out. Wood shattered, and the form disappeared upwards, leaving a trail of sunlight in its wake.
How had he suddenly gained so much strength?
‘Your history calls us beasts for a reason,’ Soba’s voice replied in his mind. Yes, history books had depicted the Alweira as blood-thirsty beasts that would stop at nothing to annihilate the entire Yosen race. The massacre at Weri. The invasion of the ancient Imperial city of Tiribane. Thousands and more murdered on the Alweira’s path of destruction. Why, then, had he not felt threatened by Soba? Why did he still not feel threatened?
Ario shook his head. He took a deep breath, winced and rolled his aching shoulders, then rushed forward. He ascended the cracked ladder as swiftly as he could, gripping tight what rungs still precariously clung on. The groans he heard from the sailors, the fear, the suffering, he ignored. He tried to ignore. He needed to ignore, because what he really needed was to find Soba. He needed to understand what was going on. Soba would have to talk, one way or another.
When he emerged onto the upper deck, Ario wheezed out a gasp. Dryness. Implacable heat. He felt dizzy and breathed; and breathed; and breathed; and never felt like he was breathing at all.
This was how he was going to die, wasn’t it? Steamed to death. A stupid analogy. Not that it mattered.
What truly mattered, he focused on when a howl filled the air; a melodious sound shredding out tones of grief, pain, and hatred. What he saw defied every expectation he’d ever had about Alweira.
Close-by, a twisted, furry white beast stood upright – sort of upright. Its shoulders stuck out as though inverted, its chest massive and puffed out as it held itself aloft upon hind paws. Along its snout, Ario thought he saw a shimmer – a wave. Fangs glistening and dancing, he immediately realized, like algae in shallow water. When it stopped howling, the beast barked – roared? Screamed? – and coiled around itself until, abruptly, it took a couple of steps back and cowered, long ears pointing back as it whined, howled – feared, hated.
A sound crepitated in Ario’s ears. A hideous, sickening sound that brought back horrible memories of vermin nests infesting the academy’s kitchen; of the day he had spent punished for ‘disorderly conduct’ – him, of all people! – and scraping dead rats off the floors. Nothing had remained of them but clotted fur and maggots.
A nest of maggots, squirming, and squishing, and burrowing into any and all meat on their path.
Burrowing, he had no doubt (oh, how he wished he could doubt), beneath the scales and the bones of the black mass that had emerged from the sea; the black, serpentine mass dripping with water and tar that, now, blotted out the sun. Ario shivered in the coolness of its shade; he trembled beneath the hollow, decomposing orbits that stared down at him. The stench of age-old decay suffused the air. He felt sick, and dizzy; and awed.
This. This… thing. This sea serpent. It… couldn’t be the Orebashi.
It couldn’t be—‘Death – Azor’s curse.’
Ario doubled over, pain drilling through his mind – the same kind of absolute weight that had sickened him before. The coiling, roiling ooze of speech melded, blended, warped in his mind, until it made sense.
Finally, he understood the pain’s meaning.
You, who will die.
The creature’s head lulled. Then, it snapped its gigantic maw down on Soba.
- Horrified, Ario froze. There was nothing he could do. He feared for the Alweira, but feared even more for his own life. He watched, helpless, as the creature snapped its jaw shut upon Soba.
Terrified, Ario only knew to react. He rushed and threw himself at Soba, latching on as the creature’s jaw closed upon them.
(Voting ended April 1st 2023)
PART 01 | PART 02 | PART 03 | PART 04 || PART 06