The End of the Road
“All aboard!” The ship captain’s voice rang out over the small docks as the last of the sailors brought their cargo aboard. It was a decent-sized sailboat, much of the cabin emptied out to make room for cargo and supplies, one of countless ships like it that ran much needed goods from island to island throughout the Caribbean and beyond.
“Excuse me?” A small voice caught the captain’s attention, and he turned to see a frail-looking young woman standing on the docks. She was in a pitiful state, half-starved, bruised, and clothes that looked like they’d been dragged through jungle mud for ten miles or more. Her black hair was barely restrained in a ragged braid and one of the lenses of her glasses was missing, leaving an empty frame.
“We’re casting off now, Miss,” the captain said. “Nothing left to trade. We’ll be back in three weeks’ time if the weather’s good.”
“Ah, that’s just it…I was hoping to buy some space on your boat,” She was shaking almost like a leaf, but her voice remained somewhat steady.
“Ah, a passenger then. I think we might make a little room if the price is right.”
The girl fumbled through her pack and at her pockets for a brief moment, clearly not the type to have much. Eventually, she unhooked her belt and offered up a thin rapier kept on a sheath to him.
“Even if it’s not much for monster-killing,” the girl said. “It’s made of high-quality steel. I’m sure someone can find a good use for it.”
The captain looked them over, first the sword, then the girl.
“It’ll do. Climb aboard then we set sail within the hour.”
Relief broke across the girl’s face as she bowed her head. “Thank you, sir.”
The captain took the blade from her, carrying it over his shoulder. “Just try not to get underfoot, Miss…what’s your name then anyway?”
“Gisela,” She said. “Gisela Silva.”
As a ghost in her memory, Cat watched as the younger Gisela climbed quickly aboard the ship, trying to keep a low profile as she scurried to the stuffed cabin below. Always trying to keep from getting in the way of the sailors as they began preparations to cast off.
“So, this is how you left the mainland?” Cat asked the apparition of the older Gisela beside her. “Got on a boat and sailed off?”
“It is what we had agreed on,” Gisela said.
“You could have tried going back for her,” Cat said. “I would have tried…”
“What would that have gotten me, Catarina?” Gisela asked. “Noemi sacrificed herself so I could escape. Trying to rescue her would have been insulting everything she tried to give me.”
“You don’t know she died,” Cat said. “You might have been able to-“
“Look at what I was, Catarina,” Gisela cut her off, gesturing to the girl on the boat. “I could barely keep myself standing. I hadn’t had any real food in days and I’d been on the run for weeks. All I could have done was get myself captured and killed. Sometimes staying alive is all you can afford to do.”
Cat fell silent as she continued to watch the ship being readied, sails unfurling as they cast off from the dock, carrying their cargo out towards the sea.
“So where are you going?” Cat asked.
“The ship was sailing for Cuba,” Gisela said. “I would have taken it anywhere, so long as it was far away.”
They stood on the dock, watching the ship move out of the harbor under a clear sky.
“You know…” Cat said, watching the ship leave. “I’ve been wondering about a few of these memories.”
“Hmm?” Gisela gave her a questioning glance.
“There seems to be a lot of things you couldn’t have seen or been a part of like…you’re below decks on the ship right now, right? How do we know what the sky looked like, or the view from the docks?”
Gisela remained still, but Cat could have sworn she saw a smile tug at the edges of her lips.
“Smart. I’m glad you’ve started noticing that.”
“Well, I noticed it for a while,” Cat said. “I just assumed you were embellishing a little.”
“I wish it was as plain as that,” Gisela said. “This is the last memory I have for you, and soon it will all be made clear.”
“Seriously, the last?” Cat asked in surprise.
“One more,” Gisela said. “On the ship.”
Once more the memory began to change, the white fog rolled around before clearing again. Cat found herself standing on the deck of the boat, almost feeling the cool ocean breeze as it rolled over them, carrying swiftly across the sparkling blue Caribbean waters.
“It’s pretty at least,” Cat said, looking out towards the horizon.
“It is,” Gisela nodded. “This is a beautiful part of the world…I’d like to see it again.”
“Get away from all us annoying Europeans,” Cat grinned. “I can see the appeal.”
Looking out towards the horizon, Cat watched the distant clouds rolling over the western sky, dyed gold and crimson by the lowering sun. Cat narrowed her eyes a little, watching what seemed like tiny spikes on the water, black against the red sky. As she watched, they began to grow larger, rising higher slowly into the sky like the fins of approaching sharks.
“Sails off stern!” The call went off across the ship as people rose to the alert. One lanky shirtless sailor brought his binoculars to his face, looking out towards the horizon.
Cat looked at Gisela, whose face was once more fallen into stony silence.
“Red sails!” The man cried out, voice cracking slightly.
Cat saw the color drain from the captain’s face. The younger Gisela slowly crawled up from the hold, her eyes haggard as terror began to grip her face.
“Full sail!” The captain roared. “We have the wind with us! “
“Those ships are far away…” Cat said. “It’ll take a while for them to catch you, right?”
“Under normal circumstance it might take days,” Gisela said, her expression hardening. “But these are not normal waters, and those are Aztlan blood pirates.”
She glanced at the horizon, watching the sun begin to set. “Something darker than sails propels those ships, and wherever they appear the Night Wind rolls in across the waves.”
Even as she spoke, the sails of their boat seemed to collapse, caving in as the wind turned in an instant, slowing them as the ship began to lose its cutting momentum. The sails of the ships behind them, however, still seemed full, and they were gaining rapidly.”
“Pirates?” Cat asked. “They’re here to loot the ship?”
“It’s not just the cargo,” Gisela said. “Aztlan blood pirates are…efficient. They’ll take the cargo for bounty, they’ll take the supplies to keep raiding, they’ll take the ship to join their fleet, and they’ll take the crew for the blood that flows through their veins.”
Cat swallowed as she watched the sails, bright red against the sky, cut through the wind to bear down on them.
“So, what do you do against pirates like that?”
The ship’s captain rallied the men. Those who weren’t busy navigating or working the sails drew knives, guns, and sharpened boathooks into their hands. Even Gisela was pulled forward, the captain thrusting her sword into her hands.
The clouds had followed the Aztlan ships, rolling overhead like a massive stone-grey wave across the sky. Both of the pirate vessels outsized the small cargo ship, and Cat could see magic fires burning on their decks in vivid blues and greens as they drew closer, casting the silhouettes of their crews into strange dark light.
The young Gisela braced herself on the lines of the ship, sword in one hand as she watched in terror as the twin ships overtook their own, one on either side.
For a moment there was silence as the crews traded hateful glance, before it was broken by a shrieking war cry. Dozens of raiders and soldiers leapt or swung across the gap between ships and the deck erupted into melee. The young Gisela tried to run where she could, ducking, rolling, and clawing away from the swinging weapons and shrieks of fury and pain as combat broke across the length of the ship.
“I think I knew this was it,” Gisela said, watching her younger self struggle. “Nowhere to run or hide, no one left to save me, and I didn’t even have the strength or courage to fight.”
The younger Gisela moved towards the bow, only to be grabbed forcefully by the collar by one of the Aztlan soldiers. As she struggled weakly to break free, hitting his arm with the pommel of her sword, both of them were thrown off balance as the warrior was tackled by one of the sailors, sending him to the deck as Gisela stumbled off the boat and into the cool darkening waters.
Gisela gasped and spluttered, choking on the rush of salt water as her arms thrashed. Her arms began pulling her through the water as her feet kicked furiously, carrying her away from the dueling ships as fire was launched from the deck of the Aztlan raiders, burning through the sailors of the small trading ship.
Barely managing to tread water, limbs still weak, Gisela watched as the fires burned through the sails and cargo was hauled up from the captured ship.
“Nowhere to go, no one to help,” Gisela said as they watched from the water. “What can anyone do but sink?”
Cat watched with growing pity, like something was squeezing her heart as the young Gisela thrashed at the water as long as she could. Whether it was exhaustion or simple despair she couldn’t tell, but the fire left Gisela’s eyes and without even a splash of water she sank beneath the waves.
Cat’s ghostly form sank beneath the waves with her, watching Gisela sink into the darkening clear water. Suddenly, in the quiet water, another shift seemed to occur. She saw the front of Gisela’s shirt pull suddenly upwards, as if an invisible hand had taken tight hold of it and yanked upwards.
The young Gisela’s eyes opened in surprise, bright and surprised, her glasses having been knocked off her face as something began to tug her back towards the surface.
Cat shivered, a cold voice echoing through the water as she saw the ghostly shape of something move around Gisela, a shimmer in the light like a heatwave under water.
“The cold lord of the ocean depths will have many souls this night, I would not give him yours.”
Gisela was still rising slowly, too slowly, as the force pulling her upwards seemed to weaken with her weight. It seemed almost as if Gisela wanted herself to sink. The forms in the water grew more solid, tendrils of air that slithered like serpents, weaving and binding until they coalesced into the shape of a skeletal clawed hand. Once more the voice echoed through the water, a sharp hissing voice that echoed from behind sharp teeth.
“All the ocean can give you is death, child. Take my hand, bind your soul to mien and I can give you a future. Power, strength, and the knowledge fit to reshape the world as you always wished it to be. All you must do is take my hand.”
Gisela’s mouth opened, bubbles rising through the water as she coughed and gagged in panic. Cat saw the despair in her eyes, the terror coursing through her before with a slow grasp she took tight hold of the ghostly hand and let herself be pulled upwards once again before she finally broke the surface. Cat rose with her, seeing her gasping for breath as she was kept afloat.
The choppy water had grown still, the clouds had cleared and all sign of the ships had vanished leaving only the mirror-calm sea and the stars overhead. A shape moved in the darkness, the night sky shifting and warping as a new dark form came into being.
For an instant it seemed human, Cat swear she saw the silhouette of a tall woman appear before that was wrapped in layer after layer of rippling feathered cloth. Within the cloth, pale bones took form, assembling into the shape of a great robe-dressed skeleton. Its body was bedecked with jewels and gold which, upon closer inspection, was comprised of slithering hissing serpents with glimmering scales. Massive wings, dark wings of an obsidian butterfly, filled the sky and blotted out the stars. The great skull-head, filled with needle-like teeth and covered in wiry hair, stared at her with empty eyes that burned with starlight.
“Do you accept my gift, child?” The terrible goddess asked. “I have watched you from afar for some time. I have seen you run, struggle, and crawl. Your will is strong, the will to live stronger than all. Will you take life before death?”
“I-I do!” Gisela gasped. “Please!”
“Then take my many gifts child,” It reached out and placed a bony sharpened fingerbone against her forehead. “And do what you must to save this world with the power of Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly.”
Cat watched Gisela’s eyes go wide, her body stiffening before beginning to shudder, her pupils dilating before beginning to shiver.
The older Gisela moved to Cat. “This is how I learned what I know now,” Gisela said. “It was delivered to me in pure form at the hands of a goddess. But few of the gods here are kind.”
Gisela screamed, eyes wide as Itzpapalotl kept her finger pressed against her skull, unable to escape or seek relief or do anything but scream in pain as ancient knowledge was decanted into her mind. With nothing around save for the water, Gisela’s screams seemed to echo for miles around.
“It was like having my mind rewritten with a dagger,” Gisela said. “New knowledge roughly hewn over the old. A million words in a thousand tongues, all with dozens of meanings all of which I was made to know.”
Eventually the screaming of the younger Gisela began to fade, still floating in the cold water. Cat leaned in, and could see a change had come over the young girl. She still didn’t look quite like the Gisela she knew, Still a bit too young, too unhealthy, and too afraid. But she now saw the familiar glimmer of violet in her eyes.
A piece of wooden flotsam floated by which Gisela swiftly and desperately took hold of, fingers curling around the damp wood.
“Now then, Champion,” Itzpapalotl said. “Do you know what you must do?”
Gisela looked up at the goddess, and now for the first time Cat saw the familiar hard-eyed expression on her face.
If the terrible skull face of the goddess could smile, it did.
“Good. Then start moving, the world awaits.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa