The waves spoke words.
Hush, they whispered. Sleep.
Narav dreamed in shifts, slipping in and out visions as he dangled over the abyss. The distant shouts of splintered voices, worn gruff by sea and salt, still lingered on his ears. Wine-dark and frothing, the sea pitched the Dancer from peaks to valleys as its master tried to get it under control.
“Narav! The dinghy! Get your sister to the Dinghy!” Edwar-…Father. Above them, the sky sizzled fingers of forked light and roared fury. Three dark sails tossing beside them, the hulks of their ships surrounding. Whore’s Kiss…Tidemaul, names in scorched ink across watertight wood. They had been…attacked.
“Narav! Narav!” her black hair eating the glow of every lightning strike. Looking up at him. The dinghy, half lowered to the wild ocean. Panic.
He came to wake thrashing, spitting sand and stone. Startled, gulls bobbed and skipped away from him with ornery squawks, cheated from their noonday meal by the last vestiges of life. His shoulder burned, a haze of smothering heat clinging to his mind as he struggled to piece the stream of memories together. Na’haer. Home. The White walls burned across his febrile thoughts with startling intensity. The Dancer, his adopted father’s ship…a merchant vessel bound to Strosdyn, Ivorian, Andaris. Three days out of port in Ivorian when the storm snapped at their heels. He remembered the approaching bank of crow-black clouds and….what was it? Some other ugent…
Narav remembered. Cutting the sea from three directions the pirates came. Bold before the storm he could remember only names burned into the ships. Whore’s Kiss. Tidemaul…and a third, the bigger one. No. No name, the memories refused to tumble…or perhaps he had not seen one. Edward and Vastin, his adopted Uncle, pitched into preparing the ship with the hired crew. Scattering from station to station across the deck they snatched at crossbows, loaded weapons. And tied down the cargo as the storm crossed above.
Another flash of pain. Narav groaned and dragged himself farther up the beach. The waves hissed their discontent, almost certainly his imagination. One arm worked just fine but the other struggled to reach above his head to find purchase on the sand. A spar of jagged wood in his right shoulder, muscles straining to work around it. Desperately, Narav clutched at it and tried to draw it from his flesh. Waves of agony poured from the wound, so intense his sight blurred and stomach heaved. Bile and seawater, the remains of an evening on the frenzied waves.
“Dani!” It was the first word he croaked since coming to consciousness and the voice did not sound like his. Cracked and torn from wind and seaspray he said the name again quieter, to ensure himself it was his own voice. Dani, his sister. He had loaded her into the dinghy, lowered it. What had Edward told them? Not to make for Ivorian, surely. Days behind them. It was…Andaris. Yes. The next stop on their journey. Make for Andaris, keep the prow pointed North. Keep the coast in your sight. He had given her Edward’s compass, clasped in her dark hand. Lowering the ship toward the sea. He would leap in after her, clear the boat and haul himself aboard. Edward would fend off the pirates and the storm then follow. Surely. The logic of it now tasted vile, but it could have been the vomit on his tongue. What then? How was he here and not with Dani?
He remembered her face, the skin around her eyes stretched to alarm, shouting his name above the din. Something…behind him. A blow, darkness. He could not remember being hit, only hearing the sound of something connecting with his head. It was unlike any sound he had ever heard, an echoing BOOM as the world lost substance. Did he fall forward, or back? Deck of the Dancer or the sea? Surely not the sea…he would have been dead for sure. So…the Deck? Gingerly, a hand lifted to touch his forehead. More pain as he felt the contours of the gash across the back of his head. Not deep enough to be fatal, but enough to steal his vigilance.
Now he was…somewhere. The beach was real. Calloused fingers gripped the sand again and again to ensure it. The spar of wood in his shoulder. The wound was infected. It was the smell of it now, subtle over the brine. A rotting sort of odor that told him the hot fog clinging to his brain was fever…the agony in his body, blood poisoning. How many times had Edward lectured them on the importance of medical care on the open sea? Drink lime juice, exercise, remove the splinter and…sterilize the wound. Immortals help him, he needed to sterilize the wound.
“Well, you’re a curious fish…aren’t you?”
Narav craned his neck back, catching the shade of another head above him. Under a curtain of dark hair, amber eyes held his with curiosity. A girl. Young by the look of her face. Sinister. Sinister? Something about her had struck him as dangerous, impossibly. It must have been the fever…and if the fever was so advanced, surely he was running out of time?
“Help,” he croaked, reaching up toward her face. “Send for help.”
“Help?” She seemed surprised, straightening out of his vision and clicking her tongue along the inside of her mouth. “Sorry, fish. No one here but you and I.” Narav twisted himself from back to his side, taking care of the spar and trying to firm himself against the waves of dizzying nausea. The girl was young, no older than 13 or 14 arcs. A smattering of freckles crossed in a belt over her nose and her long hair limply framed her face. She was wearing a light and airy dress, the sort of thing someone wealthy might wear to the beach or on a relaxing day. He’d seen many of that kind on his travels with Edward. Her feet were bare, toes curling forward and back in the sand. She smiled at him and held out both arms, looking one way and then the other. “See? No one here.” She let her arms drop to her side while she rocked forward and back on her heels. “Well? What brings a fish out of the sea?”
“Please.” Narav whispered the words. “I need help. I’m…I’m hurt. There were pirates. I…I need to build a fire, I need to find fresh water, I-“ He was cut off by her laughter, sweet, tiny peals of laughter that bubbled up out of her and over him. It was so jarring he stopped midsentence, staring at her.
“But that’s so much to do!” she said with a coquettish smile, “Why not just lay here and rest? I don’t think you’ll finish in time.”
“In time for what?”
“To live.” She said it simply as it if were the easiest thing in Idalos. A cold chill whispered along Narav’s spine. There was no mercy in those childish eyes. No empathy, only sharp, inquisitive joy.
A breath. Another. It hurt to breathe, but not a lot. There was still time. Grunting, Narav dragged himself toward the distant trees at the edge of the beach. “Where are you going, little fish?” the girl asked him, skipping along his dragging body. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just wait it out?”
“Sorry to ruin your fun,” Narav grunted. Shit. Talking hurt. He was terrified for a moment before he realized he was just thirsty. The salt had stolen much from him, but it wasn’t too late. “I have somewhere to be. People depend on me. I’m not gonna die.” The girl made a sound with her mouth that sounded like exasperated disapproval, but didn’t chastise him. Instead she continued with him toward the edge of the forest. Narav strained his ears, but couldn’t hear the sound of water. Fine. Fire first then. His muscles snapped and strained as he gathered loose sticks and dropped them over his shoulder on his back. He’d have to dig out a pit and find a way to start a spark…and there was pulling out the spar. He couldn’t afford to pass out again, so one of the more crucial aspects of surviving was a toss up. “You know,” he muttered at her as he turned back toward the beach, “You could help me.”
“What? Me? I don’t know, fish. I mostly like watching you try.” She tapped her finger to her chin in thought and stomped from foot to foot, spraying sand up into Narav’s face. “Oh, fine! I’ll help. But on a condition. We play a game.”
“Game?” Narav gasped? “GAME?” Ludicrous. This was ludicrous. Who WAS she? What kind of a child could be so thoroughly divorced of human empathy?
“I don’t have to help, you know,” She chided with a pout, “I just wanted to make it fun. You’re doing everything so slow.”
“Fine…Fine!” he spat, scooping sand out of a growing hole with one hand, desperately digging. Delirium stopped him once or twice, when the world pitched and turned like the waves beneath a ship. But he was making progress. “What are the rules?”
“Easy!” She said with a smile, plopping down across from him and accidentally nudging some of the excavated sand back into the hole. He glared at her and she giggled, “Sorry! You’re not a very good digger.”
“Fine.” She stuck her tongue out, “Impatient.” Taking a moment to think she smiled and bobbed her head. “Two trials. If you survive two trials here on your own, you win and I’ll help you. Lose and you’ll just be another dead fish, so I guess that’s penalty enough.”
“Two trials?” the thought of all that time under the baking sun without water was too much. “I won’t survive two trials.”
“Quitter.” She said, folding arms across her lanky chest, “I follow the rules. If you survive for two trials, I’ll make you better…but if I do, you have to play more games with me.” Narav bit back the impulse to shout at her, tear his own voice to demand she help him. It was useless. She might not even exist…it was something he dared not examine, till now. Infection had a way of playing on the senses. Maybe he only thought he saw the girl, that his mind had conjured of this aggravating illusion only to taunt him in his last moments…or something. It was difficult to think.
“Fine.” He said at last, poking the sticks into a lean-to and turning back toward the forest to find kindling, “I accept your terms.”
She clapped her hands together excitedly and grinned. “Don’t go too far, alright? I’m going to take care of a few things and I’ll be back in two days to see if you win the challenge. Don’t go doing anything exciting while I’m gone, alright?”
“I’ll try…not to,” Narav mumbled, taking a moment to lay his head against the sand and breathe. The world twisted and turned with such jarring force he couldn’t get his bearings. Everything was a chore and all the time he wasted his sister could be alone in Andaris looking for him.
Or maybe she drowned.
Narav shook the thought out of his head violently, banishing the horrors to another corner of his thoughts. He didn’t have time to waste imagining. The sun hung low over him, dipping toward the waves. The tide would be in soon, faster than he had planned. Desperately he scooped more out of the makeshift fire pit, trying to ignore the fact his right arm was growing numb. Blood marked his progress from the beach to the edge of the forest. Gathering dried twigs, dead grass, and larger sticks he tried to remember the lessons his adoptive father had taught him in Ne’hear. A fire was essential to surviving for the next few days and so he had to work fast. He didn’t have the strength to try and force the spark with friction, so he had to do it with sunlight. The spyclass in his pocket had been chipped in his toss on shore, but surely the glass would be enough to catch the light and focus the sun.
But as Narav got into position, the sun bled into the horizon, sinking into the sea and leaving him cold in the approaching night.
The night was the worst Narav had ever experienced. The snarls and calls of wild animals always felt dangerously close. Tiny sand-colored crabs fed on the dried blood he left in the sand. Thrice in the night he awoke from feverish dreams to swat the tiny pricks of pain of crabs testing his flesh. Eager. Always eager. The sea was not content with its lost soul and even now sent its minions to drag it back. Narav muttered nonsense in his half-state, a foot in the grave and the other stumbling to grip the world. Both hands danced in the realm of dreams and so the young man lay between three worlds as fate decided which he belonged to. Fortunately, the night was not as cold as he had thought. Having dried in the sun before it vanished, he weathered the night in the sand. His breath made tiny indention, small pits for the sand fleas and spiders to traverse before morning light tore its way across the sea.
The first day found Narav dry-throated and bleary. His arm no longer hurt but it did throb, pulsing as if the whole of it was one heart, senselessly trying to rip free his skin and burst upon the sand. Narav didn’t need to look at his wound to know it was infected, he could smell the sickness in the air…a sour note beneath the sea-salt and sand. Tiny nicks and bites littered his exposed flesh, kisses from blood-hungry creatures hiding before the onslaught of day. Most of the morning Narav spent gathering wood from the edge of the forest and resisting the urge to drag himself to drink from the surf.
No, Narav, his adoptive father had said, The sea only grants madness to the thirsty and death to the foolish. Never trust it to save you. We take what we need from the sea, but never forget her hunger.
It sounded hungry, the gentle crish-crash of waves slipping pale seafoam fingers toward him. Narav fought the urge to vomit and laid his head on the sand. Too long. Everything felt like it was taking too long. Dragging the fractured spyglass from his pocket he tried to catch the sun. His stomach lurched and rolled, searching for the food he didn’t have to heave. Hours before the first halting beam of sunlight darkened the edge of a leaf. Narav held his breath, his body protesting. The noonday heat had begun to scorch along his pale skin. His ruined arm felt like it was cooking and Narav tried not to imagine fat, juicy sausages sizzling amid flames. An ember.
Desperately the young man blew on it, nurtured it. One might have thought it was a newborn, a fledgling dearer to life than death the way he curled his body possessively around it. The wind rose, beating uselessly against the tatters of his clothing and Narav bit back a rueful chuckle. It grew, from a lick to a flame to a crackling beast, hungrily devouring the meager offering of driftwood and leaves he fed it. Narav scrambled, taxing his body to gather larger branches from the edge of the woods. A pawprint in the soft mud, canine. Narav bit back worry and built the fire higher. His tutor would have his head, scraping on the land like some newborn whelp. Where was his survival training now? Where was the drilled instruction? He’d be dead soon anyways without water and medical help anyways, raving of thirst and infection. Useless on the bay.
Flopping like a fish. Dead Fish.
The child’s tone chilled him to his bones. He could still hear her, listen to the grin on her lips infecting her words. He cast a wary eye at the line of trees, expecting to see her freckled face and smile. She was the kind to watch a man suffer, watch and laugh. What…was she?
An Immortal? Some demon? He shuddered at the thought. If she were only a figment of his imagination he could rest assured he was truly alone…but the thought a creature like that would watch his struggles? And when he died? What then? Would she eat him? Narav laid back on the sand, the heat of the fire pushing against his tired bones. He angled his head where she had been standing last, half-hoping to see nothing.
Her footprints remained in the sand. A grim, wordless answer.
The second night came with a storm. Above him the clouds glowered, growling with dull fury. Wind whipped the sand over him and sent the insects and crabs scurrying for cover. A small blessing in trade for a much more dangerous situation. Narav curled around the fire he had built, desperately trying to shield it from the elements. Before the rain came, swift and pelting, he thought he might be able to keep it alive. Never had the flame risen more than a single tongue, devouring the wood he fed it almost in moderation. Narav loved the little fire he had made. There was something about its stubborn struggle that he could find meaning in. Here he was, wound putrefying, fever worsening, damp and parched on some spit of land. His family could be dead, lost to the gullet of the sea or worse…in some pirate’s hold. So long as it clung to life, so could he.
And then the rain came.
The fire did not last a break.
The dark was absolute, broken only by the forked tears of lightning across the uncaring sky. Narav desperately tried to crawl to the cover of trees, but made it only to the top of the sloping beach before a profound exhaustion wormed its way into his bones. He lay there, turning his mouth to the sky so he could taste the rain that fell there. Tantalizing, teasing, never enough to state the raging thirst. He was cold and hot, delirious. He saw her in the rain, the child with freckles and blazing eyes. He saw his sister, his father, the ship tossing on the sea.
He saw many things. Shapes and faces with no meaning. Some he tried to speak to, a gasping, low grown…others he flailed at uselessly. His mind couldn’t hold onto the illusions it created, each one falling behind the other in an unending gauntlet of sensation.
Death. He could feel it upon him. Part of him expected Vri, sorrowful and wan beyond the curtain of rain. Narav didn’t know whether his idea of Vri was really how the mortal looked like but he took comfort knowing someone was here to see his last.
I did my best, he thought, please…just let it be painless.
He reached out for the shape in the rain, lost his balance and fell onto his wounded shoulder. The pain kicked him into unconsciousness.
“Fish! Dead Fish! I’m here dead fish! Any more flip to your flop?”
A tiny foot. Kicking a sodden chest. He was aware of that but everything else was fuzzy, unclear. He tried to mumble something. Was it day? Night?
“Alive still?” She sounded disappointed and far away, but definitely unhappy. “Should have made it three trials, not two.”
A jolt of…something, tore through him and he awoke to clarity with roaring agony. He screamed, but it was soundless as his wound closed over, the wood removed and corruption gone. The sensation was like nothing he had experienced before, or would ever want to again. It felt invasive and powerful, like he’d been squeezed between the thumb and forefinger of some immense giant and came out whole. He gasped, and the child let go of his shoulder. Her eyes were glowing, a shade of putrid green and Narav shivered to behold them. Sighing, she offered him a waterskin.
“You win.” She said, “And I helped. No one can say I’m a sore loser.”
“What…are you?” He asked, unable to stop himself from guzzling the water. She watched him drink with curious fascination before she shrugged.
“Rude.” She stated, crossing her arms. “No thank you?”
“Thank you.” The words sounded alien in his own mouth, like he had to roll them around with his tongue before speaking them. His fingers found his shoulder, the sunburst of a scar there. This was reality.
“Lisirra,” She said at last, “My name is Lisirra and we have more games to play.”
Lisirra…Lisirra, the name sounded familiar. Somewhere, distantly, he remembered the name in some bygone lesson. That was worrying…someone important enough to name but not remember. An Immortal perhaps, or a powerful mage.
“Yes…” Narav slowly got to his feet, “A game. You’re right. I said I would play if you helped me.” Down both sides of the shore was open sand and trees. Nowhere in sight to run to.
“Don’t fret, silly.” She told him with a little laugh, “We won’t start right away. I spent two days thinking about the whole thing. It’ll be super fun.” He afforded her a raised eyebrow and she giggled. “You win if you find your family, all of them. Corpse or not, you gotta tag em to win. In the mean time, I give you a new game to play each Arc or so. If you lose, I find one of your family first.” She paused, batting her eyes coquettishly. “Mr. Fish, you really don’t want me to find them first.”
“Are they alive?!” Narav resisted the urge to grab the girl, his hands shaking as he thrust them at his side.
“Dunno,” She said with a girlish shrug, “Haven’t looked yet. But you, Mr. Fish, should worry about our game. I’ve marked you once, a little reminder of our stakes. And every time you find a new family member I’ll mark you again. Maybe you’ll start having fun, like me. I think I would like that.”
Narav kept himself in check, drawing his fingers to fists.
“City is north of here, you’ll find them.” She said with a wink, “Don’t take too long, I know you’re bound for Andaris…I’ll be sure to let you know when to go. Be sure to bring your competitive spirit! It would a shame for you to have flopped just far enough to live only to lose.”
She turned around to go, skipping along the beach toward the forest. Narav took a step after her. “Wait!” He called, his voice breaking with indecision, “How do I know you won’t cheat?”
“Silly fish,” She said, wagging her finger at him, “I am sickness. I always win eventually.”