XIII: (Un)Raveling the Past
Richta woke to the cabin rocking left and right. A small hand rested on his shoulder and he turned his head to find his daughter, Merai, there on the bed with him, her face darkened with shadows. He tried to face her but his back burned like hot coals pressing against him. He groaned.
“Don’t move,” Amal said as she came in from the hallway. She carried a lamp, which blinded Richta. He resorted to listening to rainfall drum against the roof and remembered a great storm had been on the horizon before the attack. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep, but it was unsettling to know that the storm had reached them already. Had the townsfolk completed the necessary preparations? Were all of the column ropes secured and checked for tautness? Had leaks been properly patched and dealt with?
Amal set the lamp on the stand next to the bed and she dimmed it so that it was merely a soft glow in the corner of the room. “Here.”
Richta opened his eye. Amal held a cup of water near his lips and he sucked it down greedily. His throat was so dry that it hurt to have water wash over it. He coughed for a bit when he realized it wasn’t just water, but some sort of concoction that Amal had whipped up. “Thank you,” he croaked when he was done.
Merai sat up on her knees and he noticed the dark circles under her eyes. She was tired, but looked happy nevertheless. “Are you okay, daddy?”
“Yes, I'm fine, little one,” he said. “First things first, did we win?”
Amal played along with his cheeky question, “You survived, which is a win in my book. Your friend was the one to take down the beast, but he was injured in the process.”
“Is he okay?” Richta sat up to rest against the headboard, despite the pain.
“Take it easy. The noonroot should take effect in a bit,” Amal said.
“Amal, he’s alive, right?”
“Yes, he’s alive, but he has a bad infection where the monster bit him.” A white flash lit up the room, followed by a violent, rolling thunder that lasted several seconds. Amal continued, “Look, I did my best, but I only had local herbs at my disposal. We desperately need a shipment of medicine from the city. The mayor promised that if I treated the young man he’d be able to secure our future here. I did what I could for him.”
“I know you, Amal. You didn’t do it for the mayor, you helped the kid because you knew it was the right thing to do, because you care for people and can’t turn away the sick when they need you the most.”
“I did it because I saw how much he meant to you, how you risked everything for a stranger. I don’t know what it is that you see in him.” She paused. “Not like you’d tell me anyways.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Richta said, raising his voice.
“Please don’t fight again,” Merai said in a whisper. “I’m scared.”
Amal pulled Merai close and embraced her. “It’s okay, honey. We’re not fighting.”
Richta pulled his legs out from under the sheets to let them hang off the edge of the bed. He winced. The pain in his back had numbed a bit, likely due to the medicine Amal had provided him. He wondered what the scars would look like after they healed—long, jagged lines running the length of his back. He relived the moment he’d gotten attacked and shivered at the feeling of those claws cutting into him.
“Please, Richta, you should be resting. Your injuries won’t heal if you’re moving about like a dazed mule,” Amal said.
“Where is Ian? Is he in the house?”
Amal hesitated. “He escaped a few hours ago.”
“Escaped? Were you holding him hostage?” he asked incredulously. Amal didn’t respond. Richta laughed. “What’s going on with you? Why are you acting this way?”
“What are you still keeping from me?” Amal retorted. “I thought you said you were going to be open with me.”
“No, no, no. That’s not how this works. You first.”
“Ooh, me! I want to go first!” Merai said excitedly. Richta and Amal shared a bemused look, but the little girl continued without missing a beat, “There was a man in golden armor that came looking for Mr. Ian. He seemed very angry. And there was another man with him, a short man with glasses that looked nervous. And then there was a beautiful woman that wore green and black and had bumpy hands. I’m telling the truth, I promise. I saw from the doorway right there. I was watching the whole time.”
Richta looked directly at Amal who kept her expressionless gaze on her smiling daughter. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Oh, come on. I barely had a chance, you just woke up. Plus, I didn’t want to worry you,” Amal said. “You need to rest. Can’t a wife just want the best for her husband?”
Richta struggled over to the window. Outside the cabin, the great storm was in full force and the bay was no longer a bay. The distinction had been erased as the waters were an indistinguishable grey haze blurred by even more falling water. Wind whirled past them at great speeds producing overlapping howls that permeated the darkened skies like a pack of wolves closing the distance for a kill. Accompanying the cracks of thunder were the intermittent crashes of tree limbs and debris slamming against the cabin walls. Waves lapped at the bottom of the cabins and the boardwalk. It was only a matter of time before they would all be floating. It was nigh impossible to see beyond the boardwalk to the mansion, but a soldier in gleaming silver armor was stationed outside their home and stood out like an unmined solarstone.
“They have us under guard?” Richta asked in a harsh whisper.
“They don’t know who we are yet,” Amal said.
“Yet. Who is it exactly? They at least found you suspicious enough to place you under watch.”
Amal nodded. “Tamerond came into our home but didn’t recognize me. I think he’s here for you and Mayor Penh, but the man he’s with, a William Yitlin from the city, must’ve hired him for another purpose, so Tamerond’s playing a double game. The odd thing is that I can’t remember why, like I understand that there’s a reason but it’s foggy. It doesn’t seem like something I would forget so easily.”
“Lights above,” Richta mumbled to himself, stumbling over to the dresser and ripping open the drawers in order to find his clothes. He dressed himself quickly, only pausing to ease the cloth shirt over his bandaged back. “The effects are worsening the longer we stay here.”
“What effects? Please, Richta, at least tell me what’s going on,” Amal said.
“I’ve told you before.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Yes, I have, you must've forgotten,” Richta said, looking at Merai. “Little one, you mentioned a woman that came in the house, yes?”
“Yep, she was hard to see clearly but her hands had pretty designs on them, and her dress was long and flowy, and she talked like a boy, kind of. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Richta raised his eyebrows at Amal, who shook her head slowly. “I don’t remember that at all. I vaguely recall a woman in the house but I don’t know why it’s become so foggy.”
“Her powers are growing stronger, or she’s desperate. Either way, she’s starting to intervene, which is not a good sign for any of us.”
“Who is she? And how would a person be able to do what you’re implying?” Amal asked.
Richta grabbed his boots and pulled them on as he spoke. “Look, you wanted to know why I’m interested in the kid? He’s Blessed, like me. I’ve never met one that wasn’t tricked into being a part of that cult in Asyrema City. I’ve felt a strong connection to him, like my Energy is surging just by being near him. It’s beyond my knowledge of how my powers work. But it seems that the mangrove spirit also feels his presence and is actively seeking a way to use him. Now, Tamerond being here is a different story. That is the whole reason why we are here in Yonledo to begin with.” He finished lacing his boots and stood to grab his coat from the corner rack.
“Mangrove spirit? So you’re saying that the folks in town who come to see me about memory loss are actually referring to symptoms caused by this… woman who is also not a woman?” Amal asked.
“She must be a spirit!” Merai said.
Richta smiled at his daughter for a moment, then it faded. “I’ve been trying to figure it out myself for the past few months. I believe it has something to do with her, yes. She has no name, no family in town, and no one can recall seeing her but me—”
“And me!” Merai screeched.
“Yes, and Merai. You remember the tales from our childhood, the ones about the spirits of the Old World and how they controlled nature’s elements, or something?”
“They brought life into being in their image. I remember. But those were children’s stories told to us to pass the time, nothing more.”
“Well, that may be,” Richta said, “but I’m calling her a spirit because I don’t know what else to call her, okay? She’s erasing our memories and using crocodiles to attack us. I wouldn’t say that’s normal human behavior.”
Amal stood. “These are all assumptions, Richta. You have no idea what’s really going on. We should wait—Hey, where are you going?”
“Stay here with Merai. I’ll be right back.” Richta rushed out of the room and down the hall before Amal could question him further.
“Almighty, that man’s going to give me a heart attack,” Amal said. Merai continued to sit on the bed and watched her mother dash across the room to the window.
“Where is daddy going?” she asked, even though she knew her mother didn’t have the answer. “Is he going to be okay?”
“I don’t know, I mean, yes he’s going to be okay,” Amal said, distracted.
In front of their cabin, she could see the soldier standing guard, bracing himself against the rain. He looked quite pitiful, soaked and shaking. He leaned on his spear as if it were his crutch or, more accurately, his lifeline. Amal angled her head more to the side and noticed that the front door was opening slowly.
The soldier froze. His knees and torso no longer shook from the cold rain. Richta replaced his eyepatch and lunged out of the front door to yank the man back into the cabin. Amal lost sight of them both as the door slammed closed once more. She moved back to the bed and sat next to Merai, placing her hands on both sides of the girl’s head to cover her ears so that she would not hear the commotion in the next room. Amal placed her lips on the top of her daughter's soft hair and held them there as she listened to the crashes and thuds of the two men brawling in the main room. Then as soon as it began, it was over.
Footsteps came down the hall toward the bedroom, and for a moment Amal feared that it wouldn’t be her husband, that it would be the soldier in armor. But Richta rounded the corner, blood trickling from his lip and a bruise forming along his hairline. He held a metal helmet in his hand.
“Alright, here’s the plan,” Richta said.
At first, the crocs were harmless. It wasn’t until I built the cabin that they began to attack me in what seemed to be a coordinated effort. I had to defend myself, especially when the mother came. Lights, she was so big, like a tugboat with teeth. She nearly ate the cabin whole, but the lightbow did what it does best and she was sent from this world to the next by my hand.
She bit me good and I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die, but I’m stubborn and survived like always. There were these strange images in my dreams, images of the mother and the swamp. I sought out the truth. That’s when I found the children, and when I met her for the first time—
“What do you have there?” Tyvno asked, breaking Ian’s concentration.
Ian Merstellar closed the journal and put it back in his jacket. They’d stopped to rest for a moment under some oversized tree leaves, savoring the relative dryness. Tyvno hadn’t sat, but squatted to mill around in the dirt for insects to eat. Ian couldn’t watch the man devour bugs and so had sought any sort of distraction to look away.
“A history book,” Ian said. “A very odd history book.”
Tyvno nodded in appreciation. “I love me some history. You know, I’m a writer—was a writer. I wrote letters for the mayor. He didn’t like me much. I don’t think he ever did. But I so desperately wanted his approval that I stuck around. Imagine staying in the one place where you’re least wanted just to feel something. I wonder what he thought when I was dragged away by that croc on the beach? Doubt he cared.” The skinny man spat, then picked at something stuck in his teeth. The hat stuck out to Ian again and he just had to know.
“Is…that your hat?”
“Eh, this?” Tyvno took it off and looked inside it as if something were there talking to him. “It is now. Why? Do you like it?”
“It looks exactly like my hat, is all.”
“You don’t have a hat. How can it look like yours if you ain’t got one?”
Ian couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not. “I mean, I lost my hat and that one looks like the one I lost.”
“That’s convenient. I’m going to start using that. ‘Oi, that jacket looks like a jacket that I don’t have anymore, mind if I have it?’”
Ian was baffled into a smile. “I wasn’t meaning to offend or to suggest that you give me the hat. I was only asking because the one I lost meant a lot to me is all.”
Tyvno frowned, looking into the hat again. The man stood and stalked over to Ian as if he were going to kick him in the chest. Then tossed the hat into Ian’s lap and turned away.
“Take it then, new brother. I didn’t like it anyway.”
Upon touching the hat, Ian had expected the connection to his Energy to return. It didn’t come. He inspected the inside to confirm that it was indeed his hat. There was a small inscription inside that said ‘Family is Forever’. He was reminded of Unkel Bo’s dark figure speaking to him in the rotting cabin. His gaze wandered over his arm which was no longer human but a green, scaly limb with the tips of his fingers splitting open to produce the points of sharp, black claws. He looked away from it in disgust.
“Look, we need to keep moving,” Tyvno said. “The storm is getting worse and the longer we sit here, the harder it will be to find the camp.”
Ian stood, placing the hat on his head and feeling empty inside. “Camp?”
“Yeah, the old man built a camp in the middle of the swamp. I suspect that’s still where you want to go.”
Ian nodded and they stalked into the rain once more. He couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he was being watched again. He checked the tree branches for howlers, yet there was nothing there. He was looking in the wrong places, for the eyes that watched him creeped along the surface of the water not too far off, hidden among the green algae and floating watermoss.
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