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Fundamental Forces, Episode 12

Over the next three weeks, Yuki became the ship’s darling. The cook never went wanting for fish, and she was able to scout out any hives to taknaka in the depths. She even did a few tricks, at first. Going deep and then hurtling herself to a breach like a great white had been great fun, but when she did it and tried to land on deck she’d hurt her ankle. It was then she also saw the expressions of the sailors and realized how hard she was working at being liked.

No more tricks after that.

It didn’t help that the captain was never won over. He was reluctant to have her at all. Saving the ship and being so bloody helpful along the voyage was not enough to bring on a smile from the old sod. If it weren’t for Gray she would be sent on some errand at the next port and return to find anchor weighed and the ship gone.

“A captain is master on his vessel,” Gray said. “He wishes all aspects of the ship to be under his command. Paid passengers such as myself are a temporary annoyance. He makes allowances. Money and rules give him solace. But you? He had no real choice in the matter. It sticks like a spine buried under his skin. Of course he resents you. What captain wouldn’t?”

The old man always had answers, Yuki found. Whether they were ones she wanted or even agreed with was in question.

“Because of me he’ll make port with a surplus of rations. We haven’t been attacked once in all this time. Surely that’s worth something.”

“It is worth attention. You’re all the more noticeable to him. If you were quiet, just a feature of the ship he could ignore, you might not trouble him so.” Gray had an amazing talent; he could speak while he wrote. Yuki could do no such thing. Whenever she had taken up a pen, her mouth could only function to repeat the words as she put them to page. Whatever portion of her conjured words only did so one at a time. Gray suffered no such limitation.

“So how do I win him to my side?”

“Why do you need to?”

She crinkled her lips and fought back the instinctive reply. It was foolish to want to be liked by everyone. She understood that. But after so much long with stony faces of her devoted guards, Pak the only one to give her so much as a grin, the praise of her new friends was a marvel. They weren’t ordered by some distant force to watch over her. They interacted with her every day out of choice, because she was a delight to be around. It was a heady experience. That the person with the greatest say in her personal safety was the only one not elated to see her was a dark smudge she wanted polished out.

“I would prefer to be on everyone’s good side.”

“You cannot make people love you, Yuki.” Even in private, the historian had taken to avoiding her title. She was still Yuki, the bastard daughter of some prestigious water elf. It made her exotic enough. The situation onboard would be quite changed if they knew the ruler of Senna was her parent.

“I don’t want love. Just, perhaps positive disposition? Familiar affection?”

“By any other name,” he muttered as he finished the page of text he added to the book. He shut it and straightened his back. The cabin filled with vertebral pops. “It may have been poor foresight, offering you my bed. I think my spine is attempting to forge itself into a ring.”

“You spend hours hunched over your journal. The hard floor is likely keeping you walking.” She cocked her head, looking past him to the book. How something larger than the man’s chest was wielded so easily by him was beyond her. She had seen him avoid getting lanced by a trident while safeguarding it. “What were you even writing today? Nothing interesting happened.”

“Something interesting is always happening. It’s just a matter of having the perception to notice.”

She shook her head. “You’ve not given me any advice on how to make friends with our Lord Captain, and now you call me blind. I think I’ll avoid further abuse and find my way on deck.”

“Careful,” Gray said, looking at her over his glasses. It was one of the rare moments she saw the eyes behind his smoky lenses. “The fellow that sits the crows nest said there were clouds rolling in. Dark, and covering most of the sky.”

“I don’t fear storms. Besides, if I get knocked off deck by some great gust, I’ll just swim low until it blows over and then pop back up. No worries.” She smiled at him and headed out to see what the fuss was about.

The crew was abuzz when she came into the open air. It was cooler than she had expected, and there was none of the midday light that should have beamed down on her. The clouds Gray had mentioned were past overhead now. The ceiling of sky behind her, past the aft of the ship, was brilliant light being blotted out by inky darkness.

“Oh. Wow.”

The ship rocked under her, and a crewman was lifted off his feet an inch. He caught himself, then rushed to secure the rigging. She went to the railing and got a look at the water. Best to make sure she was near enough that if need be, she could plop herself into the waves. The water was black as the sky, and it made the fish stand out all the more. Thousands of silvery backs with fins poking out the water rushed around the hull and for as far as she could see. Each one pushed towards the dying light, away from the storm coated horizon.

She wondered if she could even hit water, or if she’d drop thirty feet to smack on a floor of packed, stampeding fish.

The oddest thing happened then. The fish appeared for a moment to flow backwards. She blinked, but found them again surging forward, though they appeared all the more panicked. Then the call went up from the crows nest.

“World wave! World Wave ahead!” The woman yelled, and began blowing a horn.

The hands stared, most dropping whatever it was they had held. As Yuki followed their gazes, they broke from looking and ran below deck. She blinked, wondering where that back wall with a rim of frost atop it had come from. Her brain was sluggish to process that the wall was getting bigger, in fact closer, and that the rushing of its surface was proof that it was indeed water, and the top the wave’s choppy break. She wanted to move, like the others had, but her legs were rooted in place.

She was the daughter of water. She was born of the sea and ice. Why then was she petrified by the sight of this monstrosity?

“I’m going to die,” she thought, and for the first time since Gray had told her of her mortality, it was a certainty. The ship moved. It bobbed up and down, and then the prow tilted up. It was like a bed sheet, in a way. The ship was a toy on top of the sheet, and someone at the foot of the bed had lifted up on the corners and sent the fabric rolling. The wave would not crash. It had no shore to slam into. There was no land here. The wave would go on. Along its way it would pick the ship up, and then drop it. The ship rose, and her feet left the deck. Whether she had jumped for the water or was thrown by the vessel’s ascent she had no idea, but her body remembered what to do when hurtling toward water, even if that water was a nearly vertical sheet. Her arms came to a spear point. Her dive stabbed through the wave, a speck piercing the pliant hide of some great beast.

She swam deep. It was a shock, how far she could go and know she was still within the wave itself. She hadn’t returned to sea level, her internal gauges told her, and had already plunged easily sixty feet. The temperature was odd, shifting by the tens of degrees as she sank lower.

She thought of the ship, with her friends and her savior. The crew and Gray were going to all die. This was going to kill them. She had left them all to that fate, intentionally or not. She tried to dive deeper, to escape.

She realised she had not moved in height, though she had continued to swim downward, and knew then that the wave was pushing up around her so fast, with so much water, that she was held aloft.

Then something hit her. It was not a club or rock. That would have been a blessing. Instead it was a smack that came down across her entire back, from head to toes, and pushed her down faster than she could have dared fall through the water on her own.

She realised belatedly that it was the ship. It had been taken up and dropped back down, and now it was atop her. She had no idea its condition, but given that it was upside down, and her back was on the deck, she couldn’t imagine it fared well.

She tried to swim away, to put her feet between her and the wood, but the pressure was too much, and it carried her down.

 

Nather, Windrider, and Balor went to see the captain the morning after their arrival in Fort Waken. Harrison was the best way to get back in touch with Anya, not knowing where the barracks were or where she might have gotten to when she was done resting in a proper bed for the first time in days.

“She’s gone,” Harrison said when they found him at his desk. There had been some concern over letting the three of them in to see him, but then the captain had heard the increasingly loud discussion at the door and asked them into his office.

“Your associate has been sent with a scouting group of six to check out this town where you were ambushed, tell where the mutineers might have gone. If nothing else we can get an initial direction.”

“I would think she had given you that much, Captain,” Balor said.

The captain smiled. “It was some time ago and across several days foot travel. With the kotoros it’ll take a third of the time. They may look cumbersome, but those lizards are faster on the sand than most anything else.”

They had seen several more of the giant monitor lizards reigned at the garrison’s stables, fed handfuls of raw meat by their trainer.

“But I wanted to see the three of you for another purpose.” Harrison came around his desk, then propped himself against it. “We’re in a bit of a spot. You see, this outpost is one of a pair. Our sister fort isn’t affixed with a town like we are. They get all their provisions from us, since we’re the ones that get trade through. But the last set of suppliers I sent haven’t returned, nor did the two scout groups I sent out. I’m running low on men now, especially with this unexpected issue with a missing Iron Galleon.”

“You want us to go take a look at your missing fort?” Windrider asked.

“I would think it’s the people missing, not the fort.” The captain had a map out, the leather painted with black, red, and brown paints. It showed the mountain, with Fort Waken on one side and around it on the opposite side another point. It was labeled Fort Sommer.

“It’s a day and a half on foot. There used to be a tunnel connecting the two forts, but a cave in took out the connection years back. We’ve had to go the long way around since then.”

“I doubt you used foot traffic to get those supplies there,” Windrider said.

“You’re right, and no,” Harrison said, getting cutting the thread of thought before Windrider could push. “I can’t spare men or kotoros. You’re on your own if you take this mission.”

“And why would we take it at all?” Balor asked.

“One, I’ll pay you. Lieutenant Sebal implied you had a bit of money on you, but not much. Three such as yourselves, traveling without a caravan, losing everything when the ship was stolen out from under you, I would think you could use the coin.” He took a breath. “More over, I don’t know if I can trust you.” He looked at Nather. “A human and an orc are uncommon to see as traveling companions, but not unheard of. You see weirder things out here, this far from the capital. But fire folk? Hell, you’re more legend than anything else. We’re opposite side of the world from your country. You’re closer to Senna this side of Copperhead. What are you even doing here?”

“I’m an ambassador,” Nather said.

Windrider kept his eyes on the boy, though he wanted to share a look with Balor and question silently if Nather even knew what that word meant.

“So you vouch for representing Ig here?”

“Yep,” Nather said, smiling. “If it’s about fire, it’s about me.” He crossed his arms and radiated confidence and ambient heat.

“You heading anywhere in particular, ambassador?”

“Yes,” Nather said, and Windrider stopped breathing. His brain tallied what weapons were present, who had them, and how far away they were from him.

Balor looked calm. When you spent a third of every day meditating that was to be expected. Torture would likely be more annoying than frightening to the orc. “I was going to Senna. I was supposed to meet a merchant lady who would take take me to where I was supposed to stay from there.”

The captain nodded. “Ah. You’re not our ambassador then. You’re supposed to negotiate with Senna?”

Nather shrugged.”That’s where they were sending me.”

“I understand. Soldiers and civil servants have pretty much the same life in that respect.” Harrison sighed and touched his sword. Windrider clenched his jaw. “At least they issue me this. If things go south for you, you don’t even have steel to keep those cutthroat water men from doing you in.”

“I have fire,” Nather said.

Harrison considered that. “Well, I can’t ask you to put yourself at risk. International incidents are above my pay grade.” He looked to Balor and Windrider. “My offer stands for you two, though.”

“I’ll go!” Nather said. “I want to help out. Your people might be in danger, right?”

Harrison looked at Nather like he was a singing lizard. “They well could be. Perhaps dead. They haven’t sent word back. For all we know, the outpost has been overrun. If someone’s gotten past the walls, they could hold it against a greater force for months. That’s unless magic was used, of course.”

“Oh, okay.” Nather held up a hand and fire erupted, appearing an inch above his palm and following his hand’s movement as if jetting from his skin. “I have magic.”

Harrison’s eyebrows went up. “So you do. Very well. I’ll accept your help.” He waited for the responses of the human and the orc.

“I would be happy to assist the military,” Windrider said. “You boys protect us. Can’t help but return the favor.” And, he thought, I’m happy to have a plausible reason to slip out of town. Pity I couldn’t get one of those mounts in the bargain too.

“I will go,” Balor said. “I pray we find your troops well and can help them return home.”

Harrison nodded. “Before you head out though, I suggest you meet up with one more person.

“Who?” Balor asked, cutting Windrider off. The gladiator was about to ask why it was the captain thought it a good idea to hamper a possible rescue mission with another body.

“A priestess. She’s a blue one though. Be careful. They’re unpredictable. I wouldn’t even say anything, but I have a feeling if I don’t send her with you three, she’ll go off on her own. I can do without a dead priestess on my conscience.”

“A healer?” Balor nodded. “We could use that kind of help, if things become violent.”

Harrison raised a hand. “Listen. I don’t want you putting your necks out there anymore than necessary. Just do some recon. Find out what’s happened to my men and get back here. If someone’s taken the outpost, we’ll sort it out.”

The captain let them go with a bag of ceramics and rations for four days for the three of them, mostly to give the excess to any men they might bring back home.

“So are we going to do this, or are we going to take the grand opportunity to set our own course?” Windrider asked. He was of mixed feelings on the matter. Near as he could tell, fleeing the city might be best in the long run, but all that was out there was more desert for a good long while in all directions, while dangerous as it might be, the town was a town.

“I agreed my services to the captain,” Balor said, “and he has shown me no reason to disrespect him. I will go to this Sommer and see what can be found out. Your path is your own to choose, free man.”

“We can’t run away,” Nather said. “Those people need help. And besides, we have to see Anya when she gets back. You guys wanted to ask her if she was evil.”

“If she was conspiring against us, not if she was evil,” Balor corrected.

“Same thing, isn’t it?”

Nobody volunteered to explain the potential differences between ‘evil’ and ‘out to get you specifically’. Some days were too short.

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Fundamental Forces, Episode 12 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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