Part 6: Who I will be
Ario remembered screaming.
He remembered scrambling away – like a pathetic coward! – when the monster’s jaw had snapped shut on Soba’s gigantic form. Tearing the Alweira in half.
Blood and guts and fur had dripped down from the monster’s massive teeth as it had curled back upright.
Staring. Staring down with hollow eyes.
Blood and guts splattering all over the deck.
All over him.
Hands raking at his face, Ario screamed.
His eyes suddenly snapped open, mind in disarray – yanked from a nightmare? From darkness itself? Impossible to tell. Panic-inducing. Ario tried to move – and winced, his entire body aching, and burning, like he’d been dragged along the ancient cobblestones of Suicheki Road for hours and hours and hours. With a whimper, Ario stayed put. He could but lay here – where am I!? – sweating and shaking and staring at the ceiling straight overhead. A tear-filled choke caught in his throat.
Everything looked different. Everything felt wrong.
‘And what do you know!?’ a beast roared in his ears. Tears rolled down Ario’s cheeks as the beast’s tone amplified to rage. ‘What do you know of Her curse? What do you know of Her!? I feel Her, rampaging through my veins! I can’t—I won’t—’
‘You will be alright,’ Soba whispered in his ear now. ‘You are not alone.’
Ario burst into loud sobs. He rolled onto his side, gasping and sniveling when his back locked up mid-motion. Instead, he pulled a pillow across his ears, screaming at the memories to leave him alone.
But when arms enclosed his head and he felt warmth press against him, Ario instinctively pulled the placater close to him. His fingers coiled into their vestments, gripping soft fabric tight. A hand came to rub his back, gently, and Ario burst into tears.
He was alone again, wasn’t he?
Utterly, hopelessly alone.
In his arms, cloth turned to fur, warmth to scorching heat. A drawling growl resounded above him, through him, shattering what little hope his heart still clung to. He refused to look, but he looked nonetheless; down, at thick, clawed paws that cracked floorboards.
Ario choked up. He yearned to see Soba’s face again, chuckling and whole. But he could not look up. Not with the sound of maggots squirming, and squishing, and burrowing into meat right next to his ear. His face scrunched as he fought back tears.
“Do you remember what you once said to me?” Soba’s voice murmured through the squirm of maggots, a sound that chilled Ario to the bone. “Soba, I need a hug, where are you?“
Ario sobbed out a scream.
Soba had been everywhere, from the moment Ario had set foot onto the Oroi and perceived the Alweira’s grief. Why had he reached out to him? Why had he run after him? Why had fate been so despicably cruel as to trap him in the same cabin as that foul, fuming, oh so wrong Alweira man – if really he had been a man? How had open animosity and disgust ever turned to… What had it even turned to? Tolerance? Care? Friendship?
A sob caught in Ario’s chest. He rolled onto his back to stare at the swaying lantern overhead, reaching a hand for his searing forehead. A fever, Soba had declared, in the same breath reassuring him he would be alright. Chuckling. Joking.
‘If it is any comfort, Ario, I would wear your skin. Nothing of you would go to waste.’
Ario couldn’t help but laugh at the memory, until sudden heartache constricted his chest and burned at his eyes. Without a single doubt, Soba’s life truly would have been easier had he worn a Yosen suit. Maybe, just maybe, if he had… He would still be alive.
And I would still have my friend…
His friend? Ario scoffed at the thought, but contemplated it all the same. Soba had been his friend, hadn’t he? A frustrating friend with infuriating urges, but a friend nonetheless. Someone he could trust. Someone he had trusted – ‘with my secrets and my life’. Someone he had opened to, somehow, for the first time in his own miserable existence. The only person in the world, now, who knew he was Yorei.
The one irreplaceable person who had accepted him, for who and what he was, without judgment, without fear. Without revulsion.
‘Just as you did not reject me at the mere sight of my deformity,’ Soba’s voice replied to him, so distant; so painfully distant, ‘Even when you thought I was about to kill you.’
Ario smiled. “But you weren’t,” he said. Yet, with pain flaring throughout his back, Ario hesitated. He recalled Soba’s nails – his claws – digging into his back, lacerating his skin. And then – agony. Lungs on fire. Broken bones. His head pounded, clouded his vision. Why did the room feel so hot?
You, who will die.
With a shriek, Ario sat upright. He immediately doubled over, gasping as pain throbbed across his back and his throat. His fingers pressed against his face, wide eyes staring down at himself – at the blood clotting his clothes.
‘I feel Her, rampaging through my veins! I can’t—I won’t—’
Ario screamed. In his ears echoed the gut-wrenching sound of bones cracking and sludge splattering to the floor.
He covered his face with his hands and wept.
He was still weeping as he laid motionless on his side, arm hanging over the edge of his bed. Soba had knelt by his side, a warm, gentle smile on his man-like face, pointed ears twitching every now and then. Ario wondered whether Soba’s own hair tickled them into reaction. How much did he truly know about Alweira? About this Alweira?
—blood, guts, fur, splattering across the deck—
Ario sniffed loudly, biting back the tide of emotions rising in his chest. He couldn’t sob again. Not again. That would make everything he felt real.
“You look better with a head on,” Ario managed to say, despite his voice cracking. Though he wished he’d said nothing at all. Those words were stupid. He hated himself for saying them. Yet he felt himself beam when, in response, Soba chuckled.
“I appreciate the compliment,” Soba said. “I like you better as you are now, too, all bruised and beaten.”
Ario flinched, his smile fading. There was something in the Alweira’s words, in the sincere nature of Soba’s grin, that pricked his skin. Ario swallowed. “You… didn’t mean to hurt me, did you? Back then? When you…” … changed.
Bright yellow eyes stared back at him, transfixed, for far longer than Ario found comfortable. He eventually started wriggling away from the Alweira – and froze, shrieking, as Soba clasped tight his hand to… plant a kiss upon his skin. Ario shook and hissed, and fell silent when Soba’s gaze lifted. Orange striations crawled along his pupils like claws.
“Do I repulse you now, Ario?” As he spoke, his whirring voice began to deepen, his face to transform and elongate. “You knew I was but a beast. A foul, angry, disgusting beast only worthy of your scorn.” A massive snout loomed now, sharp fangs dancing along the rim of its gums. Soba set a paw upon Ario’s chest, who wheezed under the pressure. “Did you really think we were friends, Yosen? We were nothing to each other, except threats to each other’s lives.”
Fangs tore through his throat, viciously. Ario gurgled; blanked out.
Overhead, the lantern swayed along the ceiling.
Gradually, Ario’s senses began to pick up on the world that enclosed him.
The groan of the hull, oppressive and terrifying.
The dim brightness of the lantern swaying overhead, the clink of its chain loud and grating.
Beyond, the muffled moans of people. Moans of pain. Of anguish. The longer he stared at the opposite wall now, hand absently kneading his throat, the louder he perceived how these people feared for their lives. He couldn’t quite tell why they did.
His attention diverted to boots marching down what had to be the cabin hallway. He heard dull clicks accompanied at times by loud, raucous words he did not understand. However, he perceived the speakers’ anxiety. Fear. A growing sense of desperation and despair.
One thing was clear to Ario now: they were all going to die, apparently sooner rather than later.
Ario closed his eyes and scoffed. Up until, well, now, dying on this ship had been his greatest fear. Correction: his greatest fear had been for his Yorei heritage to be uncovered and for him to be skinned alive and torn to pieces by greedy scientists eager to figure out his lineage’s secrets. He pictured this happening. And only wondered how much it would hurt.
—blood, guts, fur, dripping down like viscous rain—
A sob caught in his throat. Ario rolled onto his side, towards the nearest wall, and trapped his tears behind his hands. Why had he let Soba die so gruesomely? Why hadn’t he tried to intervene? Maybe he could have saved him – somehow! And then—then!—Soba would still be alive…
Or we’d both have become stew meat.
Ario heaved at the thought. His chest rose and ached, emptied and ached; and he soon hurried and rolled onto his other side to throw up over the edge of his bed. He vomited and sobbed, and sobbed and vomited, and he couldn’t stop; couldn’t stop hurting, couldn’t stop watching Soba gnashed in half by that monstrous thing. Why had no one helped him!? Why had he died! Why!?
“I hate all of you!” he shrieked out. Ario gasped, coughed up bile, then let out a shrill shout. “I hate you! I hate us! I wish we’d all died along with him!”
Wasn’t death what everyone deserved for inflicting so much persecution and torture upon the Alweiran people? All because their ancestors, long ago, had tried to eradicate the entire Yosen race? “They should have succeeded!” Ario yelled. “We’re nothing but monsters ourselves! Cowards! Murderers! I’m nothing like you!—”
A creak. Ario shrieked himself upright, gaze immediately darting through the dimness, and gasped when he noticed someone standing by the door ajar. A broad silhouette with short hair and, he soon realized, magnificent curves. The way the person’s generous chest heaved in that tight shirt…
“I disturb,” Rika said.
Ario stared, then let out a breath that startled him. He quickly sucked in the drool that had already pooled in his mouth. “N-Not at all,” he stammered. “Please, come in.”
In the exact moment that she turned round to close the door and her magnificent rear came into view, Ario regretted wishing the entire world dead. He regretted even harder that the tense heat rising between his legs reminded him of Soba’s horrifying wrongness. Stupid Alweira.
Stupid dead, half-eaten Alweira.
Ario swallowed a heave and looked away. He scrambled into a cross-legged position upon his bed to, inconspicuously – he hoped! – press down his shrinking shame. Every creak beneath Rika’s boots had him flinch and wince. When the weight of her body sank into the bed, right next to him, Ario bit back a sob and a shriek.
A shriek released nonetheless when Rika reached out to him… and held out a scroll.
“I have read,” she simply said. “Now, you must.”
Swallowing shrill breaths, Ario frowned. For a while he stared at the scroll, its trimmed edges, the implications in his head that he couldn’t fathom. At length, he glanced at her. “What is this?”
“A last request.”
From whom, he needn’t ask. He needn’t even read her heart, that sliver of meaningful weight bearing down on him nonetheless, to know who this alleged last request was from. Ario bared his teeth; he was angry – he knew he was angry! – but Rika’s all-consuming calm kept that rage roiling within him, unable to express itself. Hindered further by her beautiful square jaw, her entrancing dark eyes, the waft of fresh seawater… and that infuriating urge Ario felt to tear off her shirt and bask—
“I hate what you do to me!” he snapped, immediately springing up to his feet. “I am not like Soba, okay!? And I don’t want anything from him! I don’t care about any last requests! We were not friends! We were nothing to each other!” Ario suddenly fell silent, the hideous roar of a beast echoing in his ears. He winced as the wounds at his back flared up.
Rika took a deep breath, her gaze dropping. For a brief instant, Ario regretted yelling at her… until he realized that she didn’t feel sad. In fact, she felt nothing at all, even as she placed her free hand onto the travel bag resting in her lap. Ario’s cheeks flushed; and he gasped, a flash of recognition traveling through his head. A small, pale, inconspicuous bag sporting a couple of darker stains on its side… Days – hours? – ago, he’d seen Soba rifle through a similar bag.
Dizziness overcame him. He took a couple of steps back, his gaze lulling about the room he was in. No bunk bed, a single large barrel, no wardrobe… This wasn’t the cabin he’d shared with Soba.
Where was Soba?
Didn’t he know the answer to that question?
“It was decided the cabin we empty,” Rika stated, her tone so casual that Ario felt every nerve in his body tense. He flinched as her tone shifted, a strange sort of whirlpool rising within her. “I do not understand. I have read,” she said, flicking up the scroll, “but still I do not understand. It is so you are mentioned. I thought—” Rika fell silent abruptly. Ario was certain he saw her bite down on her lip; a feeling that disappeared when she looked up at him with those beautiful eyes of hers that requested respite. She held the scroll towards him again. “You must read, little Yosen.”
Ario lunged against his will, and stopped himself right as he was about to snatch the scroll from her hand. Sorrow surged in his heart, tears prickled at his eyes. Eager as he was to read the words written for him, the mere thought of unfurling that scroll urged him to run away screaming. It wasn’t merely a scroll. It was a last request. Last words. Last… everything that was Soba.
Ario’s hand shook. “I don’t want to,” he whimpered. Tears streamed down his face. So many tears. Why did it feel like his heart had shattered into millions of pieces?
“It is so that all who live, die,” Rika stated, to Ario’s choked sobs. “It is so that the Alweira died, and it is so that we still scrub his trail of damage. It is as many will remember him. Fear.” Something in her heart shifted; something quiet that, it felt like to Ario, suddenly took flight. “It is not as I remember. I question. I find no answer.”
Rika let out a deep breath then, and straightened, stretching out her hand again. “I do only know, it is his will that you know.”
Ario couldn’t help but stare into the eerie depths of her eyes, wiping tears from his cheeks. Few of her words he could focus on, and yet they, somehow, had calmed him down. Or perhaps it was her power that had finally seeped into his heart, eliminating all of that anger and hate he had felt but, what, moments ago? Hours ago? Forever ago? Ario no longer knew.
What still he did know, however, was that Soba had left him a scroll. Words written, for him. Suddenly, heat clogged his mind. “What did you read!?” Ario shrieked. “What did he write!? I swear to you, we were nothing but friends! The Alweira lies!”
To his sweltering surprise, Rika chuckled. “It is better that you prickle, little Yosen,” she said. “It is so that the Alweira expects.”
Ario stiffened at her last words, a wave of urgency rushing through his chest. He glanced down at the scroll in her hand, then at Soba’s bag resting on her lap, and back to her hand. For a while he hesitated, until that growing, nagging urge in his gut overpowered him. He snatched the scroll from her hands and unfurled it, pacing as he began to read.
Should this be my last journey, I entrust to you my last request.
I, Abaweri Sohei, wish my life not to be mourned, but celebrated.
It has been a life fraught with suffering and an anguish I wish upon no soul. Since my home was razed when I was but a youth, I have feared, hunched, walked with my gaze ever cast over my shoulder. I have known friendship nor trust, rest nor love. Mere flickers of peace, ever fleeting.
Yet it is a life of worth. This I have realized on this ship, of all places in the world. As my cabin friend lies restless, afflicted by a fever, I know that I am the sole person in his world who has ever shown him compassion. While I dab away the heat from his forehead, I know that, all Alweira that I am, I also am no servant of Death, but a worshipper of Life.
And it is therefore life that I wish to celebrate. My life. The choices I have made, that have brought me here, in this place, at this time. Choices which have allowed me to find a certain sense of solace. I have shared of my truths, as my cabin friend has shared of his. I have laughed and known joy. I, as I write these words, have no more regrets.
Yet if these words should find you before I see the other side of the sea, know that I will regret but one thing: leaving you behind. I will regret to know you all alone once again. I know but all too well the weight of that suffering.
If you are the one to read my last wish, Ario, I ask of you: please do not regret existing. Celebrate my life, our encounter, the bond we have shared. Celebrate all that our fleeting friendship has been, for I will be watching over you.
It has been a true pleasure knowing you, my peculiar friend.
As he read, Ario struggled to repress sobs; sobs that exploded out into screams when he realized his fingers were crumpling Sohei’s – Soba’s – final words. He immediately flattened the scroll between his hands, smoothing it out, to preserve this precious memory – this precious friend. His friend. His only friend. His foul, fuming, chuckling, oh so wrong best and only friend that he would ever have had.
Ario choked. He burst out into howls, his chest constricting at the realization; the horrid realization.
Soba truly was gone. He was dead. He was never coming back.
Soba was lying.
“Then why did you leave me!?” Ario screamed, tearing the scroll in two. “If you’re still going to watch me, you debauched monster of an Alweira, why won’t you do it where I can see you!?”
His scream trailed out into a raucous wail, into a lacerating screech, into a torrent of sobs and of cries that his hands couldn’t hold back. He recoiled from a touch; then eased into warm, welcoming, soothing arms, in a heartbeat slapping his arms about a soft, ample chest. As a hand ran along his back, Ario held on all the tighter.
“Breathe,” Rika said. Her own chest rose and fell, rhythmically – like a quiet breeze wheezing amid trees, Ario thought, and he clung onto that mental image to try and follow her lead in between hiccups and cries. “Good,” she said. “It is good to breathe. All is but breath.”
Breathing, Ario thought. Breathing. Calmness. Memories; of the quiet of a room left open and abandoned. The wonderful silence of a library, empty. How the world around him had always seemed to fade away whenever he read a fascinating book. Fascination – like an androgynous Alweira who’d smiled when he’d spoken of personal tragedy. Ario remembered him now, concealed beneath his cloak, when first they had met. Afraid to be found out. Yet, somehow, so eager to be seen.
‘If you were to believe in gods,’ he remembered Soba saying, ‘then you would see. Only my divergence is a curse. Yours is a gift that could mend many suffering hearts…’
Ario gritted his teeth. “You’re wrong,” he said. “I can’t do anything right. I’m just a coward who ran away and—and—” who let you die.
Tears lined his eyes; more tears, again. Ario groaned at himself, straightened to wipe at his eyes… and as soon as Rika’s touch left him, grief hollowed out his heart. With a gasp, Ario collapsed, doubling over his own lap. Breathing hurt. Living hurt. But when Rika’s hand reached for his back again, Ario wheezed out in relief.
“I see no coward,” she said, and though he perceived these words as truth within her heart’s steadfast swirl, Ario couldn’t believe her. “You stood, as no Kokai dared. I—”
Suddenly, the swirl of her emotions tightened, spiraled out of control – like a storm breaking through heavy stone walls. It pulsated through his skin, one heartbeat lined with doubt, the other lined with distress. Was this about Soba? About her companion? About… something else entirely?
To his frustration, this sudden storm quieted as abruptly as it had raged. He felt her thumb rub his spine, his shame make a hardening return, and let out a groan. This wasn’t the moment to be so… so… Soba-like! Ario shuddered and gagged at the thought.
Thoughts that evaporated, as though blown away by the breeze, when Rika spoke. “The sea is secret,” she said, and now Ario genuinely felt that cold, soothing breeze graze his skin. “It calls out to me, as none have.” She paused. Her emotions flitted and danced, never certain, Ario felt, of the shape they should take. “I have seen what I have seen.”
That wasn’t the end of that sentence, Ario heard and felt, but Rika never finished the thought prowling in her heart. His own heart was submerged again by her cold rationale. “Ursuri is wrong,” she said; for an instant, the storm from before threatened to break loose again. “It is not my place. But.”
But. Ario yearned to know the rest of that sentence, to understand what he perceived – something akin to anger but not quite, like resolve but not really… Yet, Rika left this sentence hanging as well, with all the weight attached to her words, to her heart, expressed in a deep sigh. “It is not my place,” she repeated. “I must leave, little Yosen. It is much.”
For an instant her hand bore on his back, and then it was gone.
Gone was warmth, and peace of mind, and kindness.
Ario grew painfully aware of Rika’s footsteps, each creak beneath her boot signaling that he was one moment closer to being alone forever. Yet, Ario could not speak, or move. He noticed he was unable to think. He barely heard the click of his door, closing.
All that was left, now, was a bottomless void shaped like an Alweira.
He was vaguely aware of the ship creaking all around him, and part of him wanted to shriek with anxiety. The lantern overhead jingled faintly, its clinking chains raking open his nerves. In the muffled distance, he perceived voices and boots and a shallow flow of desperation and suffering. Nothing rang as loud as Soba’s wrongness once had, and his voice, and the stupid way he’d chuckle over his own misplaced jokes.
Nothing remained but an excruciating silence. A heavy, oppressive weight in this darkness filled with dust and staleness.
Ario’s lips trembled. His throat constricted, his stomach lurched, and he lunged forward just in time to vomit across the floor instead of his lap. He took a deep breath then – and screamed when pain tore through his head, like claws latching onto him, through him, and ripping him apart.
Sickness rumbled in his stomach, in his throat and in his veins. Burrowing, ever deeper, through his skin and his blood and his bones.
—’I can feel it, Yosen. Crawling beneath my skin’—
Ario clung to the bed’s edge and threw up. Bile… and blood. Breathless, he couldn’t scream.
He clutched his head, wheezing, choking. Things slithered behind his eyes, inside his head. Pulses and sonorities that, incomprehensibly, started to make sense…
You, who will die…
Ario choked, thoughts racing. These words – this sickness. He’d perceived it before. Up on deck. Right before Soba—
—monstrous teeth piercing through flesh and fur; blood and guts dripping—
Fingers curled at the corners of his lips, Ario screamed.
—flesh and fur splattering down on the deck; onto him—
His scream turned shrill, rasping his throat raw.
—’You truly are peculiar… in a comforting way’—
He raked at his face, teeth gritting, heart throbbing in his throat.
—I will regret to know you all alone once again—
‘You are not alone.’
Ario’s heart skipped a beat when those words trailed in his head. The last words the Alweira had spoken to him, before—
‘Your history calls us beasts for a reason,’ Ario remembered. ‘Fear, and hatred, and death. A certain future…’
Ario swallowed. Then, he screamed out. “But it isn’t right!” he said. “None of this is right! You shouldn’t have died! I should’ve—” saved you. A simple insight… but what had he been supposed to do? Throw himself at the Alweira and hope the monster killed him instead? Ario let out a chuckle, his gaze transfixed on the vomit and speckles of blood stretched out before him. If he’d tried to help Soba, then both of them would have died. Horribly so.
Ario lurched forward, sickness suddenly clogging his throat; sickness he managed to swallow back. Realizing he did so, Ario leaned over the bed and vomited anyway.
“Shut up!” Ario clutched his pounding head tighter. The hull’s creak grated his nerves; as did the clanking of the lantern overhead, its blinding light flickering hither and thither with each sway of the ship – and of his gurgling stomach. Weakness overtook him abruptly, and Ario fell back, cursing as his head hit the wall. He let out a breath, and stared up at the ceiling. Quietly. Uninterrupted. Without pain, except for the bump growing at the back of his head.
Ario immediately sat up and stiffened, his fingers curling tight round the bed’s edge. “It’s gone,” he said to himself. His jaw locked, teeth gritting as his gaze locked on the blinding lantern overhead. The pain was gone. That meant its source was gone. Ario bared his teeth. ” How dare you. How dare you get away from me, you monstrous thing! You killed my—” Words trailed into a snarl. Driven by the rage in his veins, Ario sprang off the bed and rushed out, down the empty hallway.
As he ran, Ario perceived; little more than the distant complaints he had sensed before, which drowned out what tenuous tendrils of sickness lurked somewhere beyond the ship’s hull. Sickening, squirming tendrils of darkness which, he was certain, purposefully evaded his reach. Ario growled. No doubt would he get close enough to the Orebashi—to that serpentine monster eventually, and then he—
And then he would do what, exactly? Poke it with a stick? Yell at it until it understood what it had done? Did it even understand Yosen speech? Or care? Or would it kill him on the spot, this time around?
With a hiss, Ario stumbled. He caught himself on the edge of the wall, immediately pressing a hand against his tightening chest. His thoughts dissolved as he perceived something new, something overwhelming. Anger; so much anger. A promise of murder. Between wheezes, he caught the muffled sound of stomping, yelling – an argument in kokai, it sounded like. Muffled yet loud, so loud, so—
Two doors down, wood exploded. Along splinters flew a body – a slim, black-haired Kokai who tumbled to the floor in a flurry of grunts and limbs. There was something about them, Ario immediately acknowledged, and he felt cold anger gradually encase his heart. When the person set a hand at their waist, memory flashed; of a Kokai man fitting the same physical mould, bleeding near to death after getting mauled by a bestial Soba.
The same Kokai man – the same liar – who had sworn to keep everyone safe, without exception.
“You,” Ario spat. Sickness crawled its way back up into his throat, thoughts suppressed by a dizzying heat. Ario wavered, his attention diverted by words spoken from the door’s threshold, by a Kokai crewmember whose face contorted with rage. A monstrous rage, echoed by the speaker’s heart. Contempt. Slurs. What Soba himself must have endured back on Rao; perhaps on this very ship.
You deserve it, Ario thought. Watching the large Kokai crewmember kick Triku in the ribs, Ario felt a grin twist his lips. You deserve everything you get. You let Soba die.
It was true, wasn’t it? It was Triku who’d claimed it his duty to keep everyone safe. Yet he had allowed Soba to die. He had allowed the sea monster to kill him. Everything was Triku’s fault – everything.
His resolve faltered as he watched the Kokai crewmember spit in Triku’s tangled black hair. Ario suddenly remembered. Back in Sabeto, he had overheard fellow Yosen travelers mention, more than once, that no Kokai was born with anything but red hair unless they were a cross-breed. ‘Divergence is a curse unto its own,’ he remembered Soba telling him during their first encounter. ‘Yours, at least, can be hidden.’
He’s getting beaten because he let you die, not because he’s part Yosen. A truth that Ario began to doubt all the same as the crewmember’s hatred grew murky, almost hideous. A breath later, the Kokai stomped Triku hard in the chest. Ario quivered as he heard something snap.
To his horror, that still wasn’t enough for the crewmember. The Kokai lifted his foot again, closer to Triku’s head. Ario choked; then called out, “What are you doing!?”
For a terrifying split second, the Kokai’s murderous rage turned towards him – and then it was gone. As was the crewmember, whom Ario saw lifted off his feet, gasping in surprise – and in pain, when his head swiftly collided with the cracking floor. Triku somehow stood upright now, hunched, panting, clutching his side as he glared down at the crewmember. The utterly silent, motionless crewmember. He didn’t—did he?
“D-Did you?” Ario blurted out. Triku gave him no response – no verbal response, at least. Ario felt a strange sense of calm run across his shoulders and his chest, prickling gradually into pervasive coldness. Detached. Remorseless. A murderous monster in his own right.
“You are a monster,” Ario wheezed out. He immediately flinched away from Triku’s dark glare – and from his approach. With a shriek, Ario backed away, only to stop when Triku himself stopped. The Kokai’s eyes darted about, his heart scurrying from disdain to apprehension and back; to brief uneasiness when he glanced down at the immobile crewmember. Ario’s hands tightened into fists then.
“You really are a hypocrite, aren’t you!” Ario shouted. “Wasn’t it your duty to keep everyone safe? Without exception? You’re a liar!”
Triku quivered. His eyes darted again, towards Ario, farther behind him… and within moments, the pounding emotions within the Kokai turned to quiet, cold resolve.
“Sometimes sacrifices must be made—”
“Like Soba!? Is that all he was to you!? Is this how you treated your sis—”
“I’d be careful what I say next, Yosai!” Triku roared. His heart exploded with a terrible fury, barely contained as his arm’s flail ended abruptly and his hand reached down to clutch his side. He was in pain; this much Ario perceived. And Ario shrank back from the seething, overflowing heat of Triku’s rage. “I swear I will make you swallow that tongue of yours if you finish that thought,” Triku snarled. Then, he straightened to look straight past him, and yelled louder. “And you, korokai! Maybe you should shoulder some blame here as well, since your friend is trying to get us all killed!”
Ario shuddered – and relaxed at once, a bone-warming calm spreading through the air. “Ursuri is Ursuri,” Rika’s voice answered at his back, so relievingly close. “His pain is his. It is not mine.”
“Well that’s just great,” Triku spat, throwing up his hands. Then, he waved towards Ario and Rika. “A korokai coward and a shrieking screw-up, just what I need to get this ship back to safety.”
His tone had dripped with shredding sarcasm, but also with restless anxiety. Did Triku really believe all of their lives were in danger? Well, naturally: the Orebashi might attack again at any moment. But… Somehow, Ario doubted that this potential attack was the real worry on Triku’s mind. What he worried about now was more… personal. More genuine. Ario forced his mind deeper into Triku’s heart – and shriveled out when Rika’s hand settled on his shoulder.
“You worry,” Rika simply said.
In response, Triku scoffed. His eyes briefly held Ario’s. “Can’t hide anything from either of you, can I.” His heart twisted with disdain, and loosened abruptly; at about the same time that Triku wheezed and squeezed his side. “You’re right,” Triku said. “I am worried. I’m worried that this friend of yours – I’m sorry,” he spat, “that Ursuri is going to single-handedly sink a ship supposedly unsinkable just because he can’t let go of – what is it? An old grudge? Everyone in Sabeto has lost someone to the Orebashi. Without exception. His loss is nothing special.”
Ario bristled at those words. His mind detached, wandered – back to the Oroi’s deck, when first he had met Soba. ‘The divergent in my hometown were massacred,’ Soba had said, his pain heavy on his heart. ‘Alweira, Yosen, and Yorei alike, slaughtered by the same sort of Yosen you fear’ – a truth echoed by Soba’s last words: ‘Since my home was razed when I was but a youth, I have feared, hunched, walked with my gaze ever cast over my shoulder.’
He was supposed to understand something, Ario knew. More thoughts crowded his mind, but he couldn’t make head nor tails of them… until he felt Rika’s hand leave his shoulders. Every remaining thought flooded away, down into his heart, crashing like a wall of breaks that brought Ario to his knees, gasping for air. He dropped onto his hands as well, and stared at them. At their trembling emptiness. A single horrible thought crossed his mind now: he had ripped apart Soba’s last words. He couldn’t even remember where he had left the pieces.
He had killed Soba all over again.
His fists balled. A hiccup snagged his throat. “No loss is nothing special!” Ario shouted. “Everyone’s lost something! Maybe Ursuri has, too!” He lifted his gaze up towards Triku. “What is it you know, huh!? So-called diplomat! Hypocrite! Liar!”
“You’re just as big a fool as Ursuri is!” Triku yelled back, his rage burning the air itself. “And I’ll be damned before I allow him, or anyone else, to take us all down in his pursuit for petty vengeance!” Rage cooled to a pained gasp. Triku’s hand trembled upon his side. “That’s what it is, isn’t it? Ursuri never intended to travel across the sea. He expected us to encounter the Orebashi. That maniac actually looked forward to it.”
Silence crept between them all, laden and awkward. Gradually, Ario begun to realize: Rika wasn’t contradicting him. The silence grew heavier on his shoulders then, with Rika’s churning emotions becoming clearer and clearer. “Yes,” she said, and Ario immediately scrambled to his feet and snapped round towards her. “I believe so, now. I—” Through her abrupt silence, Ario perceived it, clearly, for a fraction of a heartbeat: doubt. Uncertainty. The same sort of pulsating feelings he’d sensed from her earlier, when they had discussed … What had they even been discussing? Soba? Ursuri? The situation itself?
Ario stiffened, shivers prickling down his spine. What could Rika be hiding?
He startled as her eyes flitted down towards him. She held his gaze, briefly; a heartbeat, long enough, for Ario to get a sense of what she meant to say. Of the reverence and awe he sensed drifting inside her; feelings that reminded him of his favourite teacher growing up, back at the academy, and how he’d always readily sat in on his lectures even when they became colleagues. He remembered how hard the man’s passing had hit him.
Gradually, Ario’s lip curled in disgust.
“You think the Orebashi shouldn’t be killed,” Ario said. He could not believe what he said. Nor could he accept that every single tug of her heart betrayed this vile truth. “You really believe that. Even after—” monstrous teeth piercing through flesh and fur “—It killed Soba! It killed him! Snapped him in half! What is wrong with you!?”
“For once,” Triku coughed in, “I agree with the Yosai. Not that I like the idea of that friend of yours sailing us after it, but… Care to explain your reasoning?”
Rika’s gaze traveled – from Ario to, somewhere behind him, Triku; to nearby walls and, Ario imagined, the people clustered in their cabins. Towards these unseen people who might overhear them, who, themselves, would never be able to accept that anyone preferred the Orebashi to live, to be allowed to sink ships, destroy even more lives. After a while, Rika closed her eyes and let out a deep breath full of unstable emotions. “It is difficult to understand—”
“Try me,” Triku and Ario snapped as one. A smile flickered across Rika’s lips. At least, it looked like a smile. Or perhaps it wasn’t a smile at all, but only the chuckle Ario perceived in her heart.
“It be so,” Rika said. She promptly launched herself into an explanation that, given her accent, her lack of knowledge of Yosen terms, made comprehension difficult for Ario. At length, she resorted to explaining herself in Kokai, expecting, Ario imagined, for Triku to translate. But Triku did not. In fact, as the conversation between them carried on, Triku seemed – felt – less and less apt to translate. Initial suspicion and resentment eventually turned to… Ario didn’t know how to describe what he perceived from the Kokai. Terror. Disbelief. More terror. And disbelief. And a whole range of emotions in between that passed by too fast to be recognized.
A while after Rika fell silent, Triku’s emotions finally settled on distressed disbelief.
“You’re insane,” he finally said. “You’re just as mad as your friend up on deck. At least he wants to kill it. You want to – what? Befriend it?”
“No,” Rika retorted. “It is of the sea, as we are not. It wills the sea back.”
“It has sunk hundreds—thousands of ships!”
“Because it is the sea!” Rika’s loud, unexpected yell caused Ario to stiffen at once. Somewhere at his back, he felt Triku’s residual anger burst and leak out like a full bladder. “It is the sea! It is not our place!” Rika paused then, to let her heart’s turmoil calm. She let out a deep, self-soothing breath. “You must understand.”
“What I understand,” Triku interjected, a shake lining his otherwise steady tone, ” is that I’m surrounded by fools harbouring a death wish. Which, I’m not sorry to say, I don’t share. I’m stopping Ursuri, one way or another. With or without the both of you.”
In between the ship’s ominous creaks, Ario listened to the click of Triku’s boots, to a sense of righteous anger dwindling yet hardening into resolve. There was no doubt about it: Triku was off to confront Ursuri. At any cost.
Ario swallowed as memory surfaced, of the Kokai crewmember Triku had somehow thrown over his shoulder, and the loud crack he had heard when the man’s head had collided with the floor. The sound tormented Ario’s ears, sending chills down his spine.
Perhaps, he started to realize, that memory wasn’t the cause of his quivering. As he stared up towards Rika, he became more and more aware of a dreadful sense of desperation emanating from her. Her heart reached out to him; asked him, begged him, to listen.
Finally, she asked, “You understand, little Yosen?”
What was there to understand? Or rather, what wasn’t there to understand? So much had happened in so little time – so much harrowing pain, so much distress. So much bloody horror. When he had left Rao to find adventure, this was not what he’d expected to find.
What was he supposed to do?
In his mind, Soba’s words guided him…
- With hate, one cannot live, nor grow. As deeply as Ario despised Triku for allowing Soba to die, the Kokai was also right. Ursuri’s hatred, which he’d perceived since stepping onto the Oroi, was going to kill them all. And judging by everything he’d seen of Triku up to now… If the situation was as dire as Triku made it out to be, then that Kokai liar was also the only one able to come up with a viable plan to save the ship and its passengers. Whatever the cost may be.
I can feel it, Yosen, crawling beneath my skin. Death – Azor’s curse. Azor – the Oromisai; the Black Calamity. Ario suddenly remembered things heard one day, never paid attention to before now. Of the legends surrounding this sea, the Mozoshi – the Sea of the Dead. Legends speaking of the Mozoshi confining the Oromisai to its lair… What if. What if the Orebashi and the Oromisai were but one? Is that what Rika meant? And she wanted to… befriend it? Befriend a literal god? Why would she think such a thing possible? And… what if it was? Terrifying and utterly ludicrous as the prospect of speaking to a god was, Ario couldn’t fight scientific curiosity. Perhaps, he might learn whether Yorei truly were of divine descent, and Alweira cursed. And why the Orebashi did not kill him.–
Know that I will regret but one thing: leaving you behind. Soba was dead; that is what Ario understood. Killed by a monstrous thing that Rika wanted to, what? Befriend? Beg it for their lives? And what of Triku, who failed to protect Soba? Ario had nothing left now. Nothing but regrets. Nothing but the guilt of watching his one and only friend torn apart. And what if… What if Ursuri had suffered through the exact same ordeal? Wasn’t vengeance justified? Wasn’t it the right thing to prevent that monster from tearing apart more lives? No, all that he wanted now, was vengeance. He would celebrate Soba’s life the only way he still knew how: by helping Ursuri kill the Orebashi.–
Life can always make a worse turn. What point was there in following anyone? Whatever they did, whomever he decided to assist… The Orebashi was going to kill them all. He had felt the weight of its sickness. It had snapped Soba in half; and left him to live. A cruel turn of events. In this moment, Ario wished for nothing except to be left alone and weep over his loss.
(Voting ended August 1st 2023)
Stay tuned for part 7! The end of the journey is nigh…
PART 01 | PART 02 | PART 03 | PART 04 | PART 05 ||