By Chris Wright
Ryda twisted his body away from the punch, raising his hand to guide the arm around and past him. The man responded quickly but Ryda gave himself a little boost as he spun, reaching out with his power and pushing against the wall. The wall pushed back, whipping him around quicker, and he slammed an arced hand into the man’s throat. Hiroka sputtered and wheezed, stumbling backwards with bulging eyes. Ryda pressed the advantage, not bothering to duck a wild swing as he moved into his opponent’s guard and ended the fight with a solid punch to the solar plexus.
Hiroka climbed to his feet after resting as long as his pride would allow. The others would nod in respect and offer a hand after a fight but not Hiroka. He always liked to end a fight by starting another and he put himself in Ryda’s face, spitting venom.
“You used your demon magic on me!”
It was a common accusation, usually muttered by injured parties but screamed by Hiroka after every loss. It was true, of course, but he didn’t know that. Ryda was more than capable of taking him down without his power, and often did, but it amused him to use it every now and then. He smiled roughly at Hiroka, patting him hard on the shoulder in passive aggression. Hiroka liked to play the ‘demon magic’ card. He was the sort who took to his religion only when it gave him better excuse to hate someone and Ryda was the perfect candidate. He didn’t rise to the bait.
“Don’t worry, Hiroka,” he said. “You’ll get there.”
The sailor snarled and considered a punch but quickly thought better of it and slinked away to his bitterness and booze. Ryda took the opportunity to look over the rest of the crowd, a questioning hint of a challenge in his grey eyes. The others didn’t meet them and Ryda gave a grunt before scooping the measly collection of bronze from the table and sloping out the room. His winnings weren’t much but he’d made enough in the last two months to keep him in drinks for a while when they made it to Amota. If they made it.
Money was about all he’d made. The sailors tolerated him, gambled and drank with him, but they would never call him a friend. Between his surly attitude and his unfavoured power, it was far easier for them to keep their distance and that was fine by him. As long as they kept up with the gin and the steady supply of coin, he would be satisfied. He didn’t join this crew for the tea parties.
He got back to his cabin, such as it was, and collapsed down on to his hammock with a tired groan, closing his eyes to the world. He had steadily been finding his sea legs over his weeks on the water but it was a constant up-hill battle. The further into the ocean they ventured, the wilder the waters seemed to become. They were still now, uncharacteristically so, but when night fell, the waves would awaken and they would be tossed around like fruit in an apple bob. He still couldn’t sleep through such things and it had left him exhausted; his face even tauter and his clothes even more unkempt than usual. The worst was still to come, he knew. He had heard the men whispering over the last two days. They were coming to the end of their journey, nearing the coast of Amota, but that meant they were about to enter the Savage Seas. Tonight was going to be a rough one.
He spent the day napping and otherwise shirking the small responsibilities he had as a passenger. The others didn’t complain, at least not to him. He had suspected they wouldn’t. He was dozing when the first great wave hit and he snapped awake as his hammock swung madly and crashed him into a wall. He rolled out of it with a pained curse and a thump to the floor before pulling himself unsteadily to his feet and edging his way out the door.
For all his grumbling in the early days, it really did help to see where he was going when the waves grew rough. He still retched up half his internal organs on the top deck but being confined to his cabin as the storm winds hit did not make for a pretty picture. The cleaner had discovered that to his cost early on. So he stumbled and fell from his cabin and up the stairs to the deck where most of the crew had gathered, running around and doing jobs he was sure were important. He ignored them to concentrate on his feet, forcing them one step forward at a time until he could lunge for the safety of his customary position by the guard rail. He clung to that rail like a security blanket.
Gods it was beautiful. He hated it desperately, but he had to give it that; the view was stunning. A shyly dipping sun had tinged the world a luscious red, mixing its hues with the deep blue of the ocean waves. It had dimmed out of respect for the approaching night but Father Sun still bathed his creation in his warming, orange glow, throwing light and reflections dazzlingly across the water. The waves themselves did all they could to reject it. Already they were turning their angry black, sparkling atop and jet below as they rolled and danced to a furious tune. Clouds were gathering too, dark and foreboding, as if in sympathy to the anger of the waves and, as the sun ceded the night, to an absent Mother Moon, the winds began to blow.
Ryda’s heart lurched to his throat for the thousandth time as the ship issued a long and pained groan, screaming its discontent. Waves pummelled the ship like cannon fire and he was thrown from his feet and sent tumbling to the deck. He slipped and slid, searching for purchase, but whenever he found it, a new battering ram would strike, whipping his feet from under him and throwing cold, briny water over his head. He spluttered and coughed, blinking the salt from his eyes, and tried to make the world stop spinning. It was no use. He vomited what little his stomach had left and searched desperately with shaking hands for the guard rail.
Eventually, someone took pity on him and a hardier sailor pulled him up by the hand and threw him bodily onto the rail. Even he was struggling to walk, though, and he staggered like a mad man as he rushed to keep the ship from falling apart. A new wave crashed over Ryda and onto the deck and, again, he fell and, again, the ship groaned and tilted. Voices cried urgently into the unfeeling night; barked commands, prayers and pleas, all out-whistled by the galing wind. All nought but music to their struggle to stay afloat.
How long had they been fighting? A night? An hour? Mother Moon would not tell, hunkered behind the clouds as they lashed frigid ice and rain down upon them, whipping it into their faces with a ferocious wind. It didn’t matter. They just had to keep going, they just had to fight on.
“…..ROPE!” a voice shouted at him, thrusting a rope into his hands.
He stood for a moment without knowing what to do before Hiroka made it abundantly clear.
“Pull it you bloody demon scum!”
Another three sailors had taken their place behind him and, unknowing of what he did, he put all his strength into pulling that rope. It was his lifeline now, the one thing he could do. His hands slipped and tore upon the coarse threads of the rope but he refused to let go, sitting his weight into the pull and forcing his power to his aid. Before the journey, the captain had insisted on performing a mild Team Bond upon Ryda and the crew and he was glad of it now as they worked seamlessly together, pulling as one without need of command. It started to give, whatever it was and he had to shuffle his feet to stop from falling. He pulled and pulled until the rope came free and a muted cheer rose up behind him. Hiroka patted his shoulder to tell him to stop and the sailors dispersed, leaving him to his guard rail.
Still the world spun and wriggled, spitting salt and ice into his face, filling his nostrils with the scent of storm and rain and lashing his skin with frigid whips. But it was fading. Ever so slightly, bit by bit, the ship was shaking less, the water jumping lower, the wind dying to a stiff breeze. And as quickly as it had hit them, the storm had passed. The crashing waves slowed to a gentle roll, the floor beneath him righted itself and cautious looks of hope started to pass between the men aboard.
They stood there, on deck, for some minutes, unmoving, barely breathing for fear of cursing their new fortune. Then one sailor laughed and Kagaso joined in. Soon they were all at it, all but Ryda, roaring their relief and clapping each other on the back. Someone fetched some gin and a hurried toast was given before the men rushed back to their regular posts to guide them the rest of the way.
Ryda stood for a while on deck, sniffing at the harsh, sweet smell of his gin as he sipped it and willed it to rile his senses back to life. It was no good. With the battle done and the ship secure, all energy had fled him, all exhaustion returned, and he retreated again to the solitude of his cabin. It was there he lay, half-asleep, when the call went up.
That snapped him to. He couldn’t say how long it had been since the storm had passed but, as he surmounted the stairs and burst onto the deck, the sky had again changed to a reddish-pink. He prayed they were not being forewarned of things to come. He didn’t spare the sky too much thought, though. He ran to the rail, to the front of the ship and squinted with the rest of the men at the ever-blue horizon. One of the sailors squeaked before anything reached his eyes but, little by little, a greyish blur appeared in the distance and slowly grew over the long minutes he stood there. Sailors left one by one, bound by duty or sleep or hunger, but he alone stayed, eyes affixed to the horizon; to land and the new world. He felt a stirring in his gut at the sight but he couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was. Relief? Fear? Excitement? Dread? All held a little truth but he was yet to discover which would prevail.
Ryda stuck to the rail like a limpet, his gaze unwavering from the blessed green of the land before him. The sea was still, almost preternaturally so, and they glided through it like a sword through paper. Minute by minute, they grew closer and feelings of unease, quite unrelated to what waited on Amota, began to stir in his chest. What it was, he couldn’t say but, soon, its root would be revealed.
A harsh wind, sudden and strong, like the Gods themselves had blown their sails. That was all the warning they had. Ryda spun to face Kagaso as the wind died as quickly as it had risen. The sailor looked bewildered, a trace of fear on his battered features. A jolt, sending Ryda scrambling for the rail to keep from falling. It had come from beneath them, striking their hull like a giant’s punch. Again. Strong, too strong for anything alive. And yet there was movement in the water; the waves were awakening. And then, out of nowhere, the sky above them burst.
Rain pelted down, the wind picked up and, suddenly, a storm was raging all around them. Sailors were bellowing instructions and commands, running for ropes, grasping for the sails, but they were not quick enough. As Ryda clung helplessly to the rail, pushed and pulled by the cruel breath of the Gods, he felt the ship itself start to rise. The wood and iron creaked and screamed as it rose into the air, lifted by an unseen force and pivoted by the storm. Ryda wouldn’t have dared to look down even if he could. This was the work of unnatural things. What could do this to a ship? And then they were falling.
He rose from the deck as it fell away beneath him and he hung for a moment before chasing it, helplessly, downwards. The ship hit the water with a deafening crash, splintering and breaking, falling apart. Ryda soon followed, landing hard on his back before his head slammed down onto solid oak. His vision swam and dimmed, the world around him faded but for the pain. It all went black as he lay on the floor and then even that was taken from him.
He knew little of what happened next. The ship was gone beneath him and he was falling again. Something struck him on the shoulder and a bite of new pain penetrated the fog of the old. And then the sea claimed him. He splashed feet first and sank deep beneath the waves. Water rushed around him, filling his ears and his lungs, deafening him. He was awake again now, primal instinct forcing all else aside as he kicked and spluttered, grasping for the surface. It seemed too far, his chest screaming as the darkness threatened to take him once more. Still he kicked, still he fought, pushing for his life. He wasn’t ready to go, not yet and not like this.
He burst to the top like a surfacing whale, desperately sucking precious air into his lungs as he kicked his legs to stay afloat. His eyes were closed and, if they hadn’t been, perhaps he would have been spared. As it was, he was blissfully unaware, gulping down breaths with his eyelids clasped shut and his head bobbing precariously above the surface. Too late, he looked up, tearing open his eyes at the sound of crashing and breaking, of falling. Too late, he saw it; the ship, his home for those last few months, rushing towards him.
Tons upon tons of wood and iron, unable to defy natural forces any longer, tumbled his way. Goosebumps rose on his flesh, a jolt of fear running through his veins. With nothing else to do, he ducked beneath the waves but the surface offered little protection and, as his head received its second great blow, it all disappeared. The water, the ship, even the fear and the pain, all was gone and he knew no more.
By Chris Wright
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