Previous: Episode 2
Duma held the spoon as close to his lips as his stomach would allow, on the spoon the slightest string of crab meat glistening with broth. His lower abdomen heaved upwards, resulting in a tightly closed-mouthed grunt. Pushing the chowder away, he cleared his throat, then chased the bile down with the remaining bottle of beer. He belched, followed by asking Quillton, “What do you mean by defeated?”
“Or dead, I said.”
“Yes.” Duma took Quillton’s beer, examined the contents for backwash, and took a swig.
“Shake out your head, priest. If the feaster from the Void is among us, what is taking so long for it to eat the world?”
Duma sat up, popping tendons in his shoulders and back, his complexion faintly ruddier with the drink. He drew a deep breath of the salt air. “According to the theologians, this is an unanswerable question. Not a paradox, but genuinely unanswerable, as the question itself should be inconceivable to ask. True, Osgood and…the unsatisfied hunger are never-ending. We know this by the ever expansive abyss above. Yet, we have heard of these signs, rumors in my opinion, but rumors enticing enough to warrant not the interest of the natural philosophers, but the Church.”
“A deadly secret interest.” Quillton picked at Duma’s rejected crustacean and mollusk meat.
“Tell me, Quillton, why do you think this aberration of nature is even…”
“Gastar?” The thief said the word with more arrogance than confidence, heedless of open ears. “I’ll tell you, Friend. But it’s going to sting. Understand, I couldn’t tell you earlier, you weren’t ready to hear it. I needed you fully engaged before I divulged the immensity of this schema.”
Duma folded his arms.
“On our last expedition, while you tended your beloved Cassida, our work wasn’t finished. The party slaughtered every remaining deviant on the outpost. How could any of us forgive the enormity of that cult? It didn’t matter to us that the unanswered questions we were left died with the heretics. Well, it mattered to me. Because I was responsible for the single death in our party.”
“You didn’t kill her.”
“And you didn’t fail to save her. But listen, Duma, this is how I repay you. I know now what the cult was attempting to do. Or at least what they thought they were trying to do. You see? Her death is not in vain.”
“Quillton, what you’re suggesting…”
“I’m saying it, Duma. I’m saying with surety. They were baiting Gastar.”
A generation before, saying the unhallowed name twice out loud could possibly have caused the ensuing blast, but it didn’t. Seconds before the explosion, the briny air was cut with the fragrant scent of pine pitch. The aroma was mildly pleasing to both men, but Quillton, who was by practice more familiar with explosives and their components than Duma, realized what was coming. Grabbing the table as he leapt over it, the rogue used it to shield Duma and himself just as the jetty erupted in tar, wood and flames.
The two men sat with their backs against the table. Quillton panted, “Dramatic, eh Duma? And to think I hesitated to reason discussion of our errand would travel downriver so fast.”
Duma peered around the table at the chaos. The intense blast on the quay that bore Captain Klein and his vessel was concentrated thus to nearly incinerate only the immediate area; a few flying droplets of smoldering tar splashed the surrounding berths. Duma made to stand, but Quillton caught his garment. The cleric nodded and waited. There would be no lives to save, anyway and no souls lingering behind to grant rest.
The fire brigade arrived in minutes, followed by several gangway men and the dock master. When Quillton detected others deserting their cover, he climbed to his feet and then aided Duma. “Now that’s a tough roll of the dice,” he said, suffocating an ember beneath his boot.
“Roll again, Quillton. Your confession, and now this, has ensnared my righteousness.”
Since Quillton abandoned his gangway post, any interaction with his former counterparts would lead to unnecessary bloodshed and more time lost. Concealed in a cluster of on-lookers grown bored with the bloodless cataclysm, they veered up the harbor toward a fishing galley, whose guild employed its own roughnecks for security.
“Does this make you uneasy?” Quillton asked Duma, as they approached the ship.
“Because the oarsmen are undead? Now, after these may years, you find me so fragile. I’m insulted. The dead are my life, Quillton. I am enpowered.”
“You have a quest,” Quillton beamed.
“Don’t call it that,” Duma gravely replied.
Two moderately built mounds of flesh in eel skin slickers blocked the gangway. “Look at this, Gordon,” one thug said to the other. “Looks like the breathing incarnation of that dirty joke you repeat time and again.”
“Aye,” said Gordon. “Now, what brings you two frolicking down this way? Turning tricks? Frolic along, then, you’re not our taste.”
“Hail your captain, please. We have business with him,” Quillton said.
“The captain don’t mess around with pricks, either. Now get on, before me and Louis show you some rough stuff.”
Duma motioned Quillton to the side and asked him a question, to which the thief answered with a minuscule shrug.
“It’s about money,” Duma began, speaking very slowly. “We have it and we’d like to discuss giving it to your captain for services rendered. Understand?”
“This is too easy,” Louis said, stepping forward. And before he knew it, Duma bashed him against the side of his head with his staff. “You’re a priest,” he cried, clutching his ear.
With a knife pointed at Gordon’s throat, Quillton commanded, “Get your captain. Hurry.”
The lout hustled up the gangway and even more swiftly, a dapper and fully mustached man appeared and waved Quillton and Duma onboard, receiving them in the stateroom.
“Welcome aboard the Valarie, gentlemen. I’m Captain Phinn.” He shook Quillton’s hand. To Duma he asked, “Shall I kiss your staff or will you kiss me with it?” Without answer, the captain brushed his lips against the flabellum.
“Thank you for receiving us,” Quillton said.
“On another day, I’d say I didn’t have much choice, but as you are essentially bringing forth an opportunity, let’s hear it.”
“I assure you, captain, we mean no harm, and by all means, refuse our request if you choose. We are seeking simple passage aboard your vessel.”
“Of course, you are. But I don’t carry passengers.”
“We happily offer double the going rate.”
“I’m sure. You must! Even triple, I suspect. But you see, anyone willing to spend that sort of silver is desperate, and desperation is dangerous for me. Got to keep my nose clean. Being that Eastman is gone, the heat of justice is spreading insidiously across the open waters. Therefore, I respectfully decline.”
Duma chanced a negotiation. “What if we offered you salvation?”
“Salvation? From what, exactly? I have no regrets.”
“Are you interested in glory? Fame, perhaps?” clamored Quillton.
“Not particularly, no.”
There was little else to entice a relatively moral man who seemingly had it all. “What about a trophy, then? A prize for your own amusement and personal satisfaction as a fisherman. What if we led you to a legendary catch, a thing that you alone would claim the master of.”
“Now, that is intriguing.” The captain rummaged through his mind, ticking off one rare sea creature after another. To his well salted recollection, he had seen more than most, just enough to know that he had not seen it all; there were endless secrets kept by the water. “If a priest and a thief, of all people, can show me something I’ve yet to encounter, I’d like to see that.”
“Then, it is done,” the cleric said.
“I’ll collect the fair, as well. Triple, did you say? Upfront, if you please.”
“It is our pleasure,” Quillton stated, placing the leather coin purse in the captain’s hand.
Captain Phinn invited the two travelers to make themselves at home in the stateroom, as the alternative was either an empty, but rank holding tank or the hull alongside the reanimated corpses powering the vessel.
Through the remaining morning, the three men plotted a course based on the rough coordinates Quillton had set to memory from the misfiled documents at the customs house. Meanwhile, the leery crew prepared for the unforeseen expedition. And by the time other fishing crews pulled into port, much to Duma’s doubt, the Valarie cruised out of the harbor and away from Herald’s Cross without a single additional explosion or other violent outbreak.
As the dark of night encroached westward, Duma offered to perform vespers on deck. The captain declined. “No offense, cleric, but most of our worshipping is in Osgood’s salt church.” The vulnerability of traveling over water without the blue aura of the blessing put Quillton and himself in an even more perilous position. Duma conceded reluctantly and joined his companion.
The thief lounged, sipping a cup of distilled sugar cane, as their beer keg gloomily shattered with the overturned table on shore he used as a blast shield. The cleric refused the harsh alcohol, despite tottering somewhere in the middle of sobriety and seasickness. “Relish this time in-between, Duma. It won’t be long before Phinn’s navigator interprets our destination.”
The priest kneeled, wobbling with the sway of the galley. He took the small Book from its holster beneath his cloak and began the evensong. When it was over, the room glowed with a soft blue luminance that faded with the sunlight.
Quillton poured two fingers more of the deep brown drink. “What exactly are you going to tell the captain we are fishing for?”
“I was thinking the truth.” Duma used his staff to stand, continuing to lean on it. “The truth is…what? The word I want to use is as childish as it is mad.”
“Does you little book of poetry describe anything other than strings of adversarial verbs and nouns?”
“There is an appendix and an apocryphal letter I planned on cross-checking in my silver bound copy of Osgood’s. You recall the volume you stored along with my casket on poor Captain Klein’s little boat?”
Quillton pondered downing the cane liquor in a single mouthful, but thought better.
“Perhaps Captain Phinn has heard similar accounts to those you discovered in the custom house?”
“It’s worth the risk,” the rogue agreed. “If something goes wrong, command the oarsmen to mutiny.”
“That is an option, you know. Don’t think I haven’t considered every necessary advantage we can utilize.”
Duma stooped to look out a starboard facing window. A shoal of flying fish, their scales glinting in the last rays of light, skipped across the rippling water, feeding on saltwater nymphs freshly hatched in the blades of drifting kelp. He turned to Quillton with a mystified expression.
Quillton set down the empty cup and went to an adjacent window.
“Do you see?” Duma asked.
Quillton looked through every edge of the frame. “No birds,” he said.
Captain Phinn entered the stateroom like a mouse into a cupboard. “We’re close enough to shore we should still be seeing a variety of them. Certain algae blooms can dismay the common bird. Rarer phenomena, but none I recognize the signs of. It’s as though we crossed a day’s water in little more than a few of hours. Tell me, what do I seek at this nautical point that to the best of my experience denotes nothing but water and more?”
“I can read you are a weathered seaman. You must perceive what lies before us.”
“The wreck of the Eastman fleet carries no plunder for me.”
“But the thing that wrecked it.”
“What is that thing? Greed itself?”
“Perhaps…,” the priest began.
Captain Phinn continued, “Did you hear about the two salts down from Stickland? Landed in the Cross three weeks ago, dismissed their crew and auctioned their boats. Walked away with amicable sacks of coin between them both. A clamdigger’s boy found them the following morn under the boardwalk, each other’s throats ripped out, their mouths black with blood, and their money bags still brimming. Gossip from the tea maid says the salts were fraught with voices only they could hear. Further tea house talk says the blood was each other’s.”
“And you share this teahouse talk because?”
“They were members of a fleet apparently abandoned not more than ten degrees northeast of our course.” The captain paused, smiling. “So, you see, I do perceive what you hunt. Personally, I suspect it is nothing but a huge sabre eel, demented by its excessive age. Still, I’ve seen enough to not to be surprised by the things I haven’t seen.”
“Did the monks come to you?” Quillton asked.
“Not monks. A little candle bearer in her spotless white frock. She was so stricken by the galley’s unwholesome laborers, she ran along before she did whatever she was tasked. As unusual as an act of sabotage would be during these peaceful times, it all became clear with your peculiar and coincidental entrance within half an hour of the explosion down the wharf.”
Captain Phinn took an empty cup. Quillton poured it half full of cane liquor and the captain drank it in one mouthful. Then he took the bottle, poured again, handed the cup to Duma and seized one more cup that he filled, handing the bottle back to Quillton he said, “The salt church has its separate covenants, you know.” Duma took the barest sip, the stinging brew clinging to his lips.
The galley shifted so slightly only the captain noticed, but his face declared alarm. “We hit something!” He fled for the helm, Quillton and Duma close behind.
The night fell so fast on the ship, the external lamps had yet to be lit. Ahead, the swollen moon hung above the horizon in imitation of a feeble beacon while in the surrounding fabric of sky, stars blinked out and reignited.
Captain Phinn bellowed the order, “Fire the lights! We’ve come aground!”
Duma raised his staff and prayed, “Holy Eye, watch over us.” An umbrella of faint blue light enclosed the deck. Quillton and several crewmates ran to the gunwale and peered at the murk below.
“What is it?” Quillton asked. “Not sargassum.”
“No. That’s only legend,” a deckhand replied.
As far as the dim light allowed them to see, the galley sat stranded atop a thick, organic element with a glossy bubbled surface. Another deckhand pulled a gaff from under the rail and poked at the dark boils. The sharp instrument met with spongy resistance.
“Report,” the captain cried.
But no one knew how to even begin an answer; except for Duma, who muttered to himself, “In Osgood’s great and boundless name, it’s an island. Gastar is an island.”
Next Episode: January 6