It was the only way you got anywhere out here in the Asterveb, in the currents of atmosphere that swelled between the network of tiny stars like an impressionist’s painting from a tortured soul. It didn’t matter if you were firmly secured to the largest gravitoid – masses of earth and metal – that orbited the gravitars, you were free falling all the same.
It was still disconcerting to wake up in free fall without a gravitoid around or a ship to speak of.
Krimsen Yon came too as a cloud of debris and splinters buffeted his face in a pocket of turbulence and screamed.
Where? What happened? How long has it been? It feels like I was out for months…
Krimsen fell through the endless sky between the burning gravitars that pocketed this arm of the Asterveb and took stock of the situation. He was battered and bruised; the wind that rushed along his skin and flapped his tattered clothes blistered his grazes. And he was burnt, not by fire – mind you, although his clothes were singed – but sun burned by the constant amber rays from the gravitars all around him. Usually you could take refuge within a gravitoid, or below deck of a ship . . .
The Altcloud! He was on a portoid, it was attacked by the pirate ship that had been stalking them for weeks. He jumped for his ship on the dock before a cannon ball blasted him out into the sky. Did the Altcloud get away, or did the Greensting pirates board her and take the cipher from Captain Ta?
He did not know, all he knew was that he was falling through the bright void of orbital currents and turbulence. It was a miracle he hadn’t drifted into one of the gravitars, burned to a crisp upon entering their coronal-sphere, or slammed into some random chunk of rock. But he was not a man to question his luck, only lament his misfortune.
“I’m going to die out here,” he moaned, glad that the buffeting winds tore the sound of his defeatism from his ears.
He could imagine it though, a sombre tone on the winds that lulled him into . . .
The note rang out louder across the endless sky, not his imagined moaning, but something tangible, close by.
Several knots below his traversal plane, an oasioid!
The note rang out again, dulcet and foreboding all at once. Land, tidally locked in step with the nearby gravitar that bore relentlessly down on Krimsen’s blistering skin. There was greenery on the little rock, that meant water, that meant food, and maybe shade.
He took a quick inventory – nothing but debris that fell with him and the clothes on his back. Cunning and resourceful, he removed his flapping bronze cloak, careful to keep a firm grip on it lest it tear away from him. He held it taught between his arms and tried to use it as a makeshift sail to direct him down to the oasioid which was going to speed past him at an alarming rate.
He bit his lip, his brow furrowed and cracked without even a drop of sweat available to soothe his skin, but it worked. He caught an air current and drifted slowly but surely towards the floating globular island.
His arms burned, his fingers were tearing through the fabric he was gripping so tightly.
The oasioid was bigger than he thought, it grew in size as he approached, larger, and larger. His eyes widened in fear, his arm cramped and he lost half of his grip and faltered. Losing the minuscule power of his coat-sail he tumbled and skidded into the soil, tumbling and swearing as his momentum halted.
Spots of bright light swirled around Krimsen’s head as he groaned and dragged himself from the shallow trench he had gouged into the dirt. He had made it. He stood slowly, taking care not to move any of his bruised joints too quickly and dusted himself down.
The Oasioid was large enough it could dock several ships on its surface; it would only take him several minutes to jog around the entire circumference. It was marked with jagged boulders, intermittent fields grass and some gnarled trees clinging to the stones with twisted roots.
The note sounded again, a soft singing on the winds; it urged him forwards despite his injuries. Slowly, he limped out of his small crater and around the curvature of the small world to find a large pond, teaming with lily pads and enclosed by large stones. The waters were rippling, something had ducked beneath the surface at his presence and the soft voice ceased.
Cautiously, Krimsen shuffled over to the edge, licking his cracked lips. Something was wrong, that much was obvious, but the pull of water was too much an incentive to resist. He collapsed to his knees and plunged his head into the clear waters.
The cool liquid caressed his blistered skin and stung, but it was a relief. He gulped and pulled his head out of the waters with a gasp. His thirst satiated, he scanned the pond for the source of the voice, but found no one. So he tried to assess his injuries while looking at his reflection in the disturbed surface.
Nothing too bad, some blisters, skin burn, cuts and scrapes as he expected. His hair was a ruffled mess. As the waters calmed, his face changed, leering at him from the water, growing closer to the surface.
His heart beat out of his chest, his breath seized as the face changed from bronze skin to softly scaled features and wide, blue eyes with a sweet smile. Something emerged from his reflection, a person breaking the surface.
Krimsen’s wits returned and he flinched back, tripping over the stones and landing on his arse.
“Be still, sweet traveller,” her voice came as song, serene, sorrowful, sweet, and layered with depth, “I mean you no harm.”
Krimsen panted, pushing himself up onto his knees as the image of this creature struck him. Her skin was scaled yes, pale blue and inhuman, but she was wrapped in an air of ethereal beauty he had never witnessed before. Her hair was a mess of green locks that dripped with the waters, wrapped around her neck and shoulders, clinging to her curves as they disappeared into the pond’s depths.
“What are you?” Krimsen gasped.
She giggled, revealing a flawless smile and turning away bashfully, “The last traveller I met called me a mermaid.”
“A mermaid?” Krimsen breathed, something in the back of his mind was screaming, but she was so beautiful, her voice so sweet, he inched closer, “Are you trapped here?”
Her face dropped, “We both are, but that’s okay . . . I finally have company.”
“The last traveller . . . they aren’t here?”
“They left me here,” she sighed, “He found me ugly and marooned me.”
“That’s awful,” Krimsen said.
“No matter,” she smiled, she fell back into the water that swished around her. She extended a long finger and beckoned Krimsen to follow her. “You seem tired and weary, sweet one, why not share in these waters with me?” A single brow raised on her perfect face and the corner of her mouth curled into a suggestive smile.
“Well . . .” Krimsen pulled at the collar of his shirt and fanned his face. “I don’t see why not . . . seeing as . . . there’s no one else around. . .” His mind was still screaming.
“Then why hesitate, sweet one? Come, come in, swim with me.”
Krimsen’s heart was racing now, and not from fear, he started unbuttoning his shirt as something swooped over head, a ship.
“Stay away from the water!” Someone on the ship cried down as it circled out of sight.
“Huh?” Krimsen glanced back at the mermaid who watched the ship pass over the curve of the oasioid with a vicious expression. “What was that about?”
“Nothing!” Her sweet voice turned shrill, “Come into the water, now!”
“Uh . . .” Krimsen hesitated again as her suggestive leer turned foul, predatory.
“I think we should just wait for the ship to come around.”
The mermaid snarled and surged from the water, her face changing from that of feminine beauty to that of a monster, jaw unhinged and sharp fangs flashing towards him.
Krimsen cried out as the mermaid grabbed him and pulled him beneath the surface. Beneath he wrangled with a creature that had a human torso and a serpentine body; it dragged him to the bottom of the pond and slammed him into a pile of sunken bones with enough force to make him gasp for air.
He choked on the waters that rushed into his lungs and everything started to go dark. The rippling surface of the amber lit waters above silhouetted the horrifying siren that had lured Krimsen easily into its trap.
Then the surface broke, an object – a crate – was flung into the water and slammed into the siren’s body from above, breaking its hold on Krimsen. With a surge of adrenaline Krimsen broke for the surface and emerged, coughing and spluttering as he pulled himself out of the water.
“Run to the boulder!” A dwindling voice cried out from the ship as it made another orbit of the small oasioid.
Steeling himself, Krimsen dragged himself onto his feet and bolted for the nearest boulder on the edge of the pond as the surface was broken behind him by the screaming Siren. He gripped onto the boulder’s surface with clammy hands and climbed as the serpentine creature slinked out from the waters and wrapped around it to pursue him.
He reached the top and pulled himself up as the wicked head of the siren ascend from the other side.
“You can’t escape, sweet one, you will be food!”
The ship made its orbit around the oasioid again, dropping a line. Krimsen leaped for it, off the boulder and caught it with both hands to be whisked away as the siren slammed into the boulder where he was standing an instant before.
It cried in a rage as he was carried away out of reach.
Krimsen held on for dear life as the ship banked away from the oasioid an sailed out into the sky. It was just a small vessel that could be crewed by two sailors at minimum. Someone pulled him up over the edge and he collapsed onto the deck, thanking his rescuers profusely.
He looked up as his blurring vision cleared and stopped thanking mid sentence.
“… Oh,” he said.
“Oh indeed,” his rescuer smiled, dressed in green with fiery red hair tucked away behind a headdress, the pirate from the Greensting that had pursued him on the portoid. “Cheer up, sailor. Would you rather be captured by me, or eaten by that Siren for following your loins?”
Krimsen slumped back, taking in the other Greensting pirates who laughed amongst themselves at Krimsen’s predicament. He held his hands up in surrender, “I guess I should be thanking you, what now?”
“Now, we take you back to the Captain.”
To be continued
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