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HE WAS puking before he got out the front door of the Imperial Ascendium. The Sickness had him. The Tracluse he'd left alive heard him, came running toward him. He just got out of the way of one and slipped unseen out the main gates, stumbling and retching, hands over his mouth.He marched down the stairs into his cabin, where he lit the wood stove. The floor was covered in puke and bile and blood. He threw some towels over it so he wouldn't have to look at it, stripped down completely, emptied his bladder in the toilet, dried off, then crawled into his bed, where he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
But not before jamming the head of the Constable upon one of the pikes that leaned against a dark corner at the entryway and leaving it there. That was as far as that son of a bitch would ever get from his grand Imperial fort.
The docks seemed as far away as the Great Piers. But he got to them somehow, a lot of it on his hands and knees, the swinging beam of the lighthouse displaying his halting, heaving progress. What seemed an eternity later he rolled over the side of the Selaki, where he fell hard to the deck on his back.
Medicine. He got to his knees, then feet, and stumbled down into the cabin. Into the bathroom. The medicine was in a corked bottle in a tied leather bag. He pulled the bag open, yanked the cork out, and took two full gulps. It was a foul brew, full of slimy bits and with an odor that reeked of dead things.
No good. He puked it right back out onto the floor of the bathroom.
He sucked air between clenched teeth. "Shit."
The medicine was powerful. From prior experience he knew that enough had remained in his stomach to provide relief, if minimally. Already he felt a tiny bit better, perhaps enough to set sail, which he did. He brought the medicine up to the deck with him. He knew he'd need it sooner than later.
right. He pulled the leafy sprig out of his chest pocket along with the
tiny saltwater dripper, and opened the dash at the captain's wheel, retrieving
the freshwater spray bottle and a flask. He spritzed the twig and a second one
lying inside. He dipped the flask overboard, filling it with seawater. He
pushed the sprigs’ stems into the flask’s small opening, then put it and the
sprigs back in the dash and closed it. He noted that the sprigs had grown a
tiny bit just before another fit of nausea and vomiting overcame him and he
fell again to his hands and knees. He was dry heaving now and knew how
dangerous that could be. He gulped down more of the heinous concoction. It
didn't come straight back up this time.
At the stern holds he snatched some jerked beef and chewed on it manically, forced it down. The medicine was going to come back up soon, along with the poorly masticated meat, but his recovery had already begun. It would advance, albeit agonizingly slowly, if he just kept up his strength and resolve.
That's what he told himself. But in this case he honestly didn't know. He'd killed Tracluse in the past. But only one at a time, when one would get too close and he'd have to act.
Tonight he'd killed eleven. Eleven Tracluse including the Constable, the Dreamcatcher, Nenei … and Jen, who wasn’t Tracluse. Six surviving guards were in their bunker, off duty and asleep. He'd locked them in. By the time they broke out, the slaughter was finished.
Nenei. She tried to scream, but Anurag the great shark was on her before even a squeak could leave her mouth.
Jen. Anurag cut his throat. Somehow he'd intuited that he was in danger, and scrambled out of bed for the door. Anurag tackled him before he got there and finished him with one stroke. He was surprised by how little he'd felt killing him—a man he'd known since childhood. Perhaps it was the fact that Jen was doomed no matter what. He was a slave. Were Anurag to leave him alive, the surviving Tracluse, regardless of the evidence, would execute him anyway for simply being close to the scene of the crime. Such a punishment was common.
The beef wasn't long coming back up. But at least it didn't as quickly as his first gulps of medicine.
He navigated the Selaki out into open water and then along the coast. There was a cove thirty misons southwest. He had visited it before. It was well hidden, virtually invisible from the sea. No one would find him there.
The fog was thick and restless. He kept a steady eye on the lighthouse's regular beam to estimate his position in the all-consuming darkness. The beam dwindled from view slowly, as though calling out to him, sad that he was once again leaving. He leaned against the captain's wheel and closed his eyes. Nausea washed over him in constant waves.
There were rocks out here, sea stacks of dark melange that had claimed more than one fishing vessel or courier like him. An approaching Imperial dreadnought nearly sunk after hitting a barely submerged rock a few years ago. That was a particularly bad time for Anthtree, he recalled after gagging again. Many villagers died. The stranded Tracluse had no one else to blame the damage to their hulking warship on.
But if anyone was an expert on these waters, it was he. He knew them from above the surface—and from below it. All he had to do was stay conscious enough, alert enough, for a couple hours, a little more than that, perhaps, and he could drop anchor in the hidden cove and focus on getting better.
He almost missed it. He was coughing up bile and blood now, and barely able to stand. He'd gone through the bottle of medicine; there was one more in the forward hold. He was rummaging around in it looking for it when he heard what he thought were the cove’s tell-tale sounds. He had nothing else to tell him; the fog was thick as a wool blanket, the night soaking through it like oily black tar. There was a wide sandy beach just prior to the cove’s narrow, rocky inlet; the surf's steady roar changed abruptly there, softening and lengthening, not unlike the tide near the lighthouse. He just caught the change and, bottle of medicine in hand, stumbled and tripped his way back to the wheel, where he adjusted course.
His health was grave. He knew that. He honestly did not know if he was going to survive the night.
If so, he thought angrily, then so be it. I did what I had to do.
He dropped anchor in the cove half an hour later. He fell to his side when finished, and he puked bile and blood, and he sipped the heinous medicine. He shook fitfully. The penetrating cold of the night was barely sufficient to cool the shocky waves of roiling sweat that soaked through his clothing. He puked and puked, and helplessly inched his way towards death.
He woke to see a young woman staring down at him.
"Wh-What—?" he croaked. "Who ... who are you? Where ... where am I?"
He was flat on his back, and definitely not aboard his ship.
"You're safe," she answered. "You're in our ueto. I was sent to look after you. I'm Dohbdy."
His stomach churned and turned.
"Here. Drink this," she offered, holding a cup. His misery must've been obvious.
With her help he sat up, took the cup, and looked around. He was in a small, dark enclosure, one whose walls were made of skins and furs. He had been lying on a thick, dark erlt fur. The warmth of his body held on to the fur and invited him to recline once more on it and rest. He felt lightheaded and very weak, and there was an awful taste in his mouth. He gazed at her, the cup shaking in his grip.
"Go on," she urged. "Drink. Please."
He brought it to his lips and took a tentative sip. It tasted like the purest, cleanest water, sweet and so refreshing that he downed the rest of it in just a couple of gulps. He held it out. "More?"
"It will have to wait," she said. "Too much too soon and it will strengthen, not weaken, the perversions in your spirit."
She looked at him worriedly.
"My ship ..." he began.
"It's safe where you anchored it," she said. "We heard you the night you arrived. We could hear you retching. We didn't know what it was at first. At first light we came out to look. We saw you there, in your craft. You were very ill, close to death. We brought you here. We didn't know if you would live. It's been two days and a night now. It is good that the perversions are finally losing their hold on you."
Her worried expression finally caught his attention.
"I'm not one of them," he said, guessing.
"When you opened your eyes a moment ago, I knew it too," she said, smiling unsurely.
Silence descended on them. She studied his face closely, as if seeking answers.
"You're wondering how the perversions came to be inside me, and how I've managed not to become one of them."
She nodded, but delicately, as though afraid of insulting him.
"You're from Anthtree," she said.
"I remember you. You visited the Mother, long ago."
"The Sky Fir ... the fallen Anthtree. You were there. I remember."
He stared into the bottom of the cup. Thirst for more of whatever she gave him cut into his gut like a knife. He shook his head. "I don't remember you. I'm sorry."
"You were just a young man, and I was a little girl. You spoke to my father."
"I don't really remember much about that trip aside from the tree. I'm sorry."
"We come to this cove every year—the tribe, that is. We did not know that the villagers knew of it."
"They don't," said Anurag. "I mean, I'm sure the old-timers do—the ones still living. And so does my nephew. I'm sure I told him about it." He gave her a dark stare. "The perversions don't allow casual or exploratory travel."
"I don't believe they know of this place either."
"But they do know about you. About your people," he said. Nausea washed over him like a rising tide of sewage, and he fought it. He took regular breaths and focused on her.
"We know. Try to keep the water down as long as you can."
He nodded jerkily. He felt very close to vomiting again, and looked for something to vomit in so that he wouldn't stain the furs.
"The demons discovered us three years ago. They were killing us for food. We retreated higher into the mountains to avoid them. And then one day we found the carcass of one."
The news that the Poets had discovered a dead Mephastophian was enough to distract him, if but a tiny bit.
"A dead demon ... you found one?"
She nodded thoughtfully. "It had been killed. Something killed it in open battle."
The puke wasn't going to wait any longer. He lurched forward and gagged.
She was ready. She produced a bucket and got it under his chin just in time. Anurag's stomach muscles were in agony from his earlier retching, and he groaned against the pain. She kindly wiped his mouth with a cloth when he finished. His retching or the sour smell of vomit did not seem to bother her. She took the cup and filled it with more of the amazing water and handed it to him. He drank greedily.
"Perhaps in a day or so you can eat," she said. "You are a very strong man ..."
"Anurag. My name is Anurag," he grunted. The water cooled his gullet and seemed to radiate comfort to his fingertips and toes. It bit into his stomach, though, not like acid, but like a deadly thirst would.
"Keep the water down as long as you can, Anurag," she instructed. "The longer you can keep it down, the quicker you'll get better."
"Something ... can kill a demon?" he asked. "That must concern you folks a great deal."
"It does. Our Elders even considered moving away from this place and staying north for good. But then a year later we found another demon carcass."
"Killed the same way, I take it?"
She nodded. "Whatever is doing it is very powerful. We believe, in fact, that there may be two of them."
No wonder the Constable was so frantic!
"We believe so, yes."
"Poets are expert trackers," he said as another wave of nausea washed through him. "At least that's the rumor about you people. You haven't been able to track whatever it is—I mean, they—are?"
She saw that he was close to losing it again, and reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "Hold it. Try to hold it in a little longer."
He took big, deep, quaking breaths and tried steadying himself. "Tracking," he gulped heavily. "Have you ... found anything?"
She nodded again. "We believe it may be other demons."
He gawked at her. "Wha—?"
And then he puked again. He noted that what came up wasn't clear liquid, but black, oily, and thick. Not bile. He didn't know what it was. It smelled worse than bile. Much worse.
She put her hand on his forehead and kept her other one on his shoulder. His stomach muscles hurt so badly that it took sustained effort to unclench himself when he finished.
"Lie down," she ordered. "I will return."
She helped him recline, then left with the cup through a heretofore unseen flap.
Minutes passed before she reappeared. The cup was full, but this time not with the water. She helped him sit up enough so he could drink. The medicine was yellow and powdery and tasted of wildflowers covered in pollen dust. Not unpleasant at all.
"You'll sleep now," she told him. "Your life is still in danger, Anurag, so I shall remain here. Sleep now."
He didn't need to be told twice. He was out almost before she quit speaking.
He woke with the sounds of regular, deep breathing next to him. He tried sitting up, and gave up before an agonized groan could escape his lips. His stomach muscles felt so strained as to be herniated. He wondered if he hadn't indeed torn them with all his violent convulsions.
It was dark in the tent, almost beyond the ability to see anything. The breather was right next to him, at his right shoulder. He reached out cautiously, felt around in the dark. He felt ... another shoulder. Or what felt like another shoulder. Dohbdy's?
There was no blanket on him, but he was still covered in sticky sweat, like he just ran ten misons under a burning sun. The fur under him was wet with it. His heart raced. The nausea was largely gone, but it had been replaced with a headache that felt like the crown of his head had been split open with a large rock. He felt breathless, and his throat was parched. He craved the amazing water. He craved it so badly he didn't know if he could remain lying there. He needed to find it and drink it. Drink it all! But he had no idea where it was, or what the container it was in looked like. Worse, he didn't know if drinking it at this stage would harm him. It was clearly medicinal. Could he overdose on it? Dohbdy had warned that too much of it would help, not harm, the perversions—the Tracluse—inside him.
But how long ago was that?
Damnit! He couldn't just lie here and suffer!
Gritting his teeth, he did his best to swallow the grunts and groans as he fought to sit up as quietly and unobtrusively as he could. He got to an elbow; then, with one big excruciating push, he grabbed for his bent knees. He managed only slight success concealing his heavy breaths.
Sitting upright, he noticed the slit of the tent flap. Flickering yellow light illuminated it from without. A campfire. But too little light got into the teepee for him to make out who else was in here with him.
He forced himself to his knees, then to his feet. He had to bend to keep from touching the tent's slanting skin walls, and bending hurt like hell. He guessed and took a big tentative step towards the flap, hoping he'd not step on the sleeping person. He brought his foot down slowly. Nothing but floor. He pushed through the flap and stepped out.
The campfire was just a few paces from him. It was little more than small, tired flames dancing over the ashen remains of logs. No one tended it.
Dohbdy's ueto was decently sized: ten or twelve tents in all, probably twenty or twenty-five people, total.
Sweating, his thirst for the water becoming more urgent by the second, his head throbbing, he marched out of the camp and the fire's weak sphere of light and into the foggy night.
The ueto was camped right next to the cove, just a hundred or so paces from the beach. He staggered into the loose sand. Water lapped contentedly and quietly here; beyond the inlet he could hear the roar of the great waves of the
. He couldn’t see
his ship. Verisimilius
He stepped into the water. He still wore his pants (he didn't know where his shirt or boots were), and thought he'd like to strip naked, but then decided against it.
The water was bitingly cold. It felt wonderful. Goosebumps like hard shocks ran up and down his spine. He pushed out until his knees were submerged, then out farther until his shoulders were almost under. He took a deep breath and submerged completely. He let the Urge overcome him and flashed in the watery blackness.
Powerful muscles. Heightened senses. Confidence. Purpose. He pressed forward, swimming effortlessly. The seawater rushed over him, around him, beneath him.
There was never a time when he didn't glory in the sensation of being a shark. But this was something different. The feeling of being one, of the ocean, of the night, called to him as no other time had. He filled his stomach with seawater, and was startled that it felt and tasted identical to the amazing water Dohbdy had given him. But instead of biting him, of making him want more, it merely flushed through him, Healing him instantly as it did. It came to him then that she had been giving him Transformed water, and wondered how she had thought to do so, or how one actually Transformed water (he knew it could be done, but didn't know how), or why he hadn't thought to do this, Transform himself, in the past. It was an obvious solution that could've saved him tons of misery.
He surfaced next to the Selaki, swam around her a couple of times. He thought he should board her and start sending out Arrowsparrows (The Apprentice has come!), but the water felt so good that he decided they could wait a little longer. He dove under and with a sustained thrust left the cove altogether.
greeted his senses much as a grand
vista does when one summits a hill. It was immediately deep and vast. He could
sense the sea stacks just offshore; they rose off the ocean floor like
tremendous splinters or lonely planes of hard rock, or isolated mountains. The
water was much clearer out here, and he drank again as he dived still deeper.
There must have been breaks in the fog, because the banded light of Ammalinaeus
weakly colored the water in random wavy streaks of rainbow light here and
there. He swam to one of the breaks and looked for something to eat. He was
famished. Verisimilius Ocean
Sea creatures weren't used to sharks with human intelligence. For aeons they had fled from the regular variety, and had got used to avoiding such. He was therefore able to eat a healthy portion of a small school of flat-bellied yellowfish next to the bottom before they realized they were dealing with something extraordinary and scattered out of sight. Still hungry, he chased down and consumed an eel before it could flee into deeper, less illuminated waters.
He could feel his strength slowly return to him as he trolled around under the watery light of Ammalinaeus. He drank once more some time later, then turned back for the cove. He got to the Selaki and flashed at the stern ladder. He climbed it and stood upon the deck, shivering and dripping. He still felt very weak and lightheaded, and his human stomach muscles still hurt like hell, but the nausea and headache were gone. He knew they weren't going to come back.