White sand dented easily beneath the steps of the small party as they traversed the ocean's edge. The group walked in a neat column two wide and five long. On shifting beach ground, such a formation wasn't easy to maintain; nevertheless, the party's decorum never faltered as it strode forward. The hems of the group's mottled deep red and purple capes, draped fully around their bodies despite the blazing sun overhead, joined with their feet to continually create the soft rustle of moving sand.
To the right of the column, a trio of smaller beings’ wet footfalls was distinct from this rustle. Tsura, followed almost reluctantly by her two Dashi shadows, walked parallel to the others, but in the tidal zone. Water, its charge edged with white foam, lapped over the feet of the Datsue and her escorts before retreating along the slick sand to reform in another small wave. Tsura seemed to revel in the rhythm, as a slight smile was fixed on her face. The two Dashi carried the hem of her cape at their waists so that it would not become wet. This made Nihi grin a little; Tsura could care less about formalities, she was above them, but she was perfectly willing to use her formally assigned shadows to her advantage.
Nihi was in the third row of the column, on the seaward side, and her friend Saru was next to her. At the front of the column their commander, Nurora, defined the pace of their advance. Nurora had also determined this course of action; she wanted to find the nearest settlement, and had assumed that, like on the Archipelago, civilization was likely close to the sea. The fish were plentiful here, like back home, so Nihi thought it was a reasonable assumption. The choice to travel north rather than south along the coast was arbitrary.
The lone Skakdi the Dasaka had encountered where they'd landed, Grokk, hadn't been much help in finding the nearest civilization. After a brief and generally uninformative interrogation, Tsura had concluded that Grokk had reached the extent of his usefulness and had let him leave, which he'd done with many verbal snipes as he'd carried the remains of his chair and his stupid little toy back into the jungle. He had been horribly rude, not only to Nihi - she could take that - but to older and wiser beings than himself, too. He was without honor, it was deplorable... Thinking about the impertinent Skakdi made Nihi's insides burn with outrage. She was grateful that, as Grokk had revealed, the main inhabitants of the island weren't Skakdi.
Nihi had only encountered a handful of Skakdi, and she'd already had more exposure to their kind than she wanted in a lifetime. Grokk hadn't just been impolite; sarcastic, deceptive, and with an air of nonchalant cruelty that had made her skin crawl, he had reinforced Nihi's unfavorable impressions about his race. He had confirmed for Nihi that the evil she had experienced in the others ran bone-deep. Not that such knowledge forgave their crimes. The others, when they had arrived on the Archipelago, had been by all accounts as facetious as Grokk, all smiles and false kindness. But it hadn't taken long for their masks to fall, for the cruelty underneath to show its face.
They were terrible creatures - not people, she decided angrily, but creatures - and they had wrought terrible damages... Not only upon the Order and Honor of her people, but upon Nihi herself.
Waves licked with soft tongues against the hexagonal, crystal-wrought pillars of the pier. It was not uncommon for fishes to swim headlong into the translucent pillars that, below the surface of the green water, became nearly invisible; many Saihoko fisherwomen actually used this phenomenon to their advantage, spearing their dazed prey before the fish regained their bearings. But that only happened during the bustle of the day. It was nighttime now, and the marina was closed as usual to discourage the performance of illicit activities under cover of darkness.
Under an array of large lightstone lanterns, Nihi and her sister Nachi stood sentinel on either side of the latticed gate to the pier. They held their long staffs with a looseness bred by practiced familiarity; even Menti warriors assigned to jobs as unexciting as night shift dock guards had to be expert warriors. Power and Order went hand in hand, after all. Nihi didn't mind that her position wasn't as active or glamorous as soldiering under a Toroshu, or even dueling in the coliseum; she enjoyed her post. She liked living at night, when things were quiet. She liked sleeping during the day. And it was a great honor to serve the Rora, no matter how distantly.
She and Nachi, as was their wont, faced landward towards the great towers of Sado. On a clearer night, their glass-like polygonal surfaces would reflect all the stars of the heavens; sometimes, in the right season, she and Nachi were even given a clear reflected view of the Red Star in one of the pinnacles of the palace. They could always have looked over their shoulders to see it behind them, but there was something more special about seeing its mirror image. Tonight, though, was overcast, so the towers were blank with darkness. Some still had lights on, but it was very late. Nihi wondered who else would be awake. She bounced a little up and down on the wooden boards of the pier absently.
:Antsy, sister?: Nachi asked playfully, her feel familiar as the back of Nihi's hand. They usually talked like this; it was faster than using their mouths, and easier to listen for rogue noises. :We still have several hours,: she went on, looking away from her sister with a slight grin. :Don't tell me you're already at the bouncing stage.:
:I wasn't thinking,: Nihi replied. :It's something I do when I'm not thinking.:
:You're always not thinking, then,: Nachi projected back. :Because I swear you start bouncing earlier every night.:
:Maybe I do... just to get on your nerves.:
:Funny. Tell me what you're thinking about:
:Didn't we just establish that I wasn't thinking?:
:We both know you're thinking. Spare yourself the nagging, and just tell me what it is.:
:Well,: Nihi answered finally, eyebrows raised as she continued to regard the towers, :I always wonder who's up there at this hour.:
:More poor fools like us, assigned night shifts?: Nachi prodded.
:Maybe they're looking at us, just like we look at them.:
:Captivated by our beauty, no doubt-:
A noise drew both of their attention. Far behind them, there was a muffled thud, like a box landing on the planks of the dock, and a profanity. A shushing noise, louder than it was probably intended, followed the profanity. Nihi and her sister looked at one another, and that was all the communication they needed. Nachi unlocked the door of the gate behind them, and Nihi pushed the doors slowly open, trying not to draw attention. It would be easier to catch whoever was there if they were caught unawares. Nihi and Nachi crept as quietly as they could, using stacks of crates and food for cover. The pair of voices became clearer as they approached the end of the dock.
"Watch it!" whispered the first one. "That was my foot."
"You seem to think I care about your foot," sneered back the second quietly.
"Better watch my foot, Thok, or it could end up somewhere unpleasant for you," snarled the first. "Be careful with the crates, we don't want to waste any of them. Be gentle, get that through your conniving head."
Nihi and Nachi were within a few yards of the pair of smugglers. Nihi peeked up over a bamboo barrel. It was dark, but not too dark for the silhouettes of the two beings to be lost against the sky. One was on the edge of the dock, next to a stack of crates; the other was standing on the back of a surfaced submarine. The top hatch was open, and light spewed up from it. As the smuggler on the submarine lowered his crate to somebody inside, his face turned towards the source of illumination, and Nihi could see clearly that this was no Dasaka. It was one of the gang. She'd only heard stories, but she knew they were extremely dangerous… and sentenced to death.
:Should we get help?: Nihi asked her sister through the mental plane.
:They could be gone by then,: Nachi replied. :I get the feeling that isn't their sub.:
"Don't we have enough of these things, Avak?" asked a third voice, canny-sounding from inside the submarine, drawing the sisters' attention.
"You don't know how to be quiet, do you, Vezok?" Avak, the first voice, hissed in retort. He was the one standing on the back of the submarine, whose face Nihi had seen.
"Well?" asked the second voice, Thok, in low tones. Nihi thought it sounded like this voice was smiling, but coldly. "You heard the brute. It's a valid question: don't we have enough of these things, already?"
"No, Thok," Avak whispered, exasperated. "And since I'm the only one who'll know how to operate this thing, what I say goes. Give me the next crate."
:I don't like the look of those crates,: Nihi told her sister, fingering the haft of her staff nervously.
:Do you think their contents are dangerous?: Nachi asked.
:Knowing the reputation of this lot? Yes.:
:What should we do? They outnumber us.:
:Not by much.:
Before Thok could pass Avak the next crate, and before Nihi and Nachi could decide whether or not to act, there was a pronounced thump, the slap of a new pair of flat feet falling seemingly from nowhere onto the back of the submarine next to Avak. Avak, in his shock, almost slipped; under different circumstances, Nihi might have laughed at his flailing limbs and wide eyes. Instead, she felt a stone of dread drop in her stomach; a fourth one had just arrived. By the light of the porthole, she could see that there was something odd about his figure. It was almost like the newcomer was constantly, subtly melting, and then righting himself, and then melting a little again. It was nauseating to watch for too long, so she resolved not to.
Nihi didn’t understand how this freak had come from thin air; neither, it seemed, did Avak. Righting himself amidst chuckles from Vezok, who had since poked his head up out of the porthole, Avak glared at the newcomer. “So you teleport too now, Zaktan?”
“No, you cool dude,” Thok grinned, delighting in his euphemized insult. Avak scowled. “He must have reformed up in the air, too far away for us to hear him buzz-”
Nihi didn’t understood what this meant until the newcomer, Zaktan, began to speak; then, it was as though the stone in her stomach was instantly turned to ice. His voice was like a swarm of bees, and it was full of malice. He was slightly shorter than Avak, but Avak quailed a little before him. “You were going to leave without me,” Zaktan stated quietly.
“No offense, Zaktan, but you’re not ideal company in a little thi-” Thok interjected, seeming to think that his distance from Zaktan afforded him a little safety to prod. He was wrong; before Nihi’s eyes, Zaktan dissolved into a black-green cloud - no wonder he’d been almost invisible against the night sky - and closed the gap between himself and Thok in a fraction of a second. Still a buzzing swarm, Zaktan whirled about Thok’s head, causing Thok to lose his balance and tumble backwards over the pier. He landed in the water with a colossal splash, and Zaktan flitted back to his place beside Avak, a three-bladed sword now clutched in his hand. Where had that come from?
:Four is now three,: Nachi told her sister urgently. :We need to act, NOW.:
Thok’s splash had shattered the gang’s hushed tones. Avak stared down Zaktan with as much bravado as he could muster. “I’m the only one who’s gonna know how to operate our escape vehicle,” he reasoned, evidently quite pleased with his logic. “You can’t hurt me.”
Zaktan seemed to agree, despite his wishes to the contrary. He snarled and, for good measure, kicked Vezok’s exposed head back into the sub, where he landed with an audible “ouch.” Zaktan dropped his weapon beside him as he assumed Thok’s old position and started handing Avak more of the crates. Below him, Thok thrashed in the water, struggling to keep his head over the surface. Skakdi were terrible swimmers.
“Our companion in the ocean will have undoubtedly drawn attention with his racket,” Zaktan said as he grabbed another crate from the pyramid. “Speed, rather than silence, is our new priority. The Dasaka will arrive soon-”
“The Dasaka are already here,” Nachi called aloud as she stood up, her staff held in a battle position.
Nihi hastily joined her sister. She supported Nachi’s move; a surprise attack was no longer their best option, as this enemy outmatched them at the moment, and support was surely on the way. All they had to do was keep the gang busy for long enough. Together, the sisters faced the three, ready for their attack. The Skakdi hesitated a moment in their surprise, and Nihi reached into the familiar place in her mind; she was ready to use that crate still in Zaktan’s hands to punch him over the edge of the dock, so he could join Thok in the sea. Her fingers twitched on her staff, and she started to bounce in her knees.
Just as the gang was about to strike, a furious leonine roar from behind Nihi and Nachi stopped them. Nihi turned to look for the source of the roaring while Nachi kept her eyes trained on the Skakdi before them; even when caught by surprise, the sisters’ strategic cooperation was instinctual. Luckily, the Skakdi before Nachi weren’t taking advantage of the division of their Dasaka foes’ attentions; they, like Nihi, faced the noise.
Nihi watched as two more Skakdi, silhouetted by the bright lightstones behind them, tore down the pier as fast as they could. Nihi hadn’t heard the gate busted open, and then she remembered to her frustration that she and Nachi had never relocked it. The footfalls of the incoming Skakdi were heavy on the wooden boards; they jumped over and around the obstacles that Nihi and Nachi had used for cover as if they weren’t there. She saw one of them execute a running hurdle-jump so perfect that it could have belonged in the coliseum games. Nihi prepared her staff for the incoming Skakdi; the icy stone in her stomach had long ago melted to the anticipatory pounding of her heart. She and her sister were about to be surrounded by their foes.
But when the charging Skakdi reached the two Dasaka, they did not stop. One of them pounded straight through the sisters, knocking them aside and battering through the bamboo barrel like it was a paper wall. The second one had ran up a tall stack of boxes as if it was a ramp and leapt clean over the Dasaka’s heads, roaring the same battle cry as had drawn their attention before. Nihi watched the Skakdi charge like bulls at their companions.
The one that had broken through the barrel dove for Zaktan as though intent to tackle him from the waist. Clearly, the tackler hadn’t differentiated Zaktan from the others in the darkness and at the speed he was going; too late to change his momentum, he passed straight through Zaktan, who had once more become a dark cloud, and fell flailing head-first into the water below. The crate Zaktan had dropped when he dissolved broke against one of the pier pillars, releasing a virulent-looking, fluorescent green mist from its splinters.
The second Skakdi, the jumper, landed just in front of Avak, and swung a heavy weapon at his face. Avak ducked and picked up his own weapon. The two began to trade swipes, and their weapons clanged against one another. Hearing the noises of commotion, Vezok emerged from the porthole, narrowly avoiding being kicked into the sub for a second time. He swung his own weapon in the direction of the newcomer, and an arc of what looked like daggers sped point-first through the air at the dueling duo. Avak and his assailant split apart just in time to dodge the projectiles, then both turned on Vezok, growling.
:Infighting,: Nihi pointed out. Nachi nodded.
Zaktan reformed amidst the dissipating cloud of luminescent green gas, but he didn’t watch the other Skakdi’s squabble. His eyes, red and glowing, were fixed on Nihi and her sister. He took a few steps towards them - Nihi absurdly noted that he walked a little like a duck - and he reached out his hand behind himself. The three-bladed sword he’d set down earlier turned into a cloud, just like he’d done several times, and sped like a mass of flies into his hand, where it reformed quickly. The golden blades caught the light of the distant lightstones; they gleamed, and Nihi knew that they would cut as surely as any other knife.
“Fools,” Zaktan hissed at the other Skakdi, without turning his eerie gaze from the Dasaka. “These are our true enemies.”
“I don’t know about that,” the new Skakdi growled, snorting at Avak. “You were all perfectly happy to leave Reidak and me on this karzforsaken rock.”
“You woulda done the same to us, Hakann,” Vezok pointed out.
“An irrelevant fact,” the one called Hakann said, rolling his eyes.
“And I’m perfectly willing to leave Reidak and Thok down there,” Avak interjected, listening to their continued attempts to swim. Thok, it seemed, was trying vainly to clamber up one of the smooth-sided pillars, while Reidak tried to force him back under the water.
“Let ‘em drown,” Vezok laughed.
“I guess we can agree on something,” Hakann smiled sardonically, until his black humor was withered by a look from Zaktan. As one, the four Skakdi turned to look at the two Dasaka, whose staffs were still held ready in combat.
“We won’t let you leave,” Nachi said. Nihi envied her sister’s nerves of steel, her stoicism; Nihi kept bouncing lightly on her toes. She wasn’t afraid, just antsy.
“When your friend is shivering like that?” Avak giggled back. “I don’t think I can take your threat too seriously if one of you is so jumpy.”
Nihi proved Avak wrong by sending a box of Ikian artisanal pebbles squarely into his face with her mind. His head snapped back; she hoped she’d killed him. No such luck; Avak’s grin had become a grimace. As he cracked his neck to either side, wincing, the other Skakdi laughed their ugly laughs and readied their own weapons for the fight to come.
“Come at us,” Nihi challenged, no longer bouncing.
The Skakdi would have charged if a sudden noise had not broken the tense standoff for a second time. There was a great rush of water as a tall pillar of earth and ice seemed to explode out of the seabed, punching the water out of its way. On top of its flat pinnacle were two soaked and irate-looking Skakdi.
“Sometimes, teamwork can be effective,” Thok called down, his inane smile plastered back on his face below burning eyes. The one who had jumped off the pier through Zaktan, who Nihi assumed was Reidak, shook himself off like a dog and then leapt nimbly down onto the top of one of the pier supports. Thok clambered down the rough elemental pillar less ceremoniously, but arrived next to his kin nevertheless. He and Reidak looked ready to divorce Zaktan’s head from his body, but something kept them back. They only stared at him; Zaktan returned their looks impassively, though his face twitched a little more violently than usual.
Nihi took advantage of the Skakdi standoff to grab one of their mysterious crates and fling it into Hakann. It burst against him in a poof of the same green gas as had enveloped Zaktan, but Hakann breathed it in deeply, showily, and only laughed. He gave the other five significant looks. Chuckling too, they started their advance on the sisters.
Nachi swung her staff at the closest one, Vezok, catching him unawares with her speed and cracking into his jaw. In angry response, he sent a flurry of the same dagger-things arching towards Nachi. Nachi batted some of them aside; the rest, she sidestepped. Nihi dropped a nearby coil of rope on Avak with her mind, letting go of it just in time to block a downward chop from Reidak’s weapon. She caught the haft of his weapon on the haft of hers; inches from her face, the buzzsaw at the end of Reidak’s tool spun uselessly through the air. Nachi leapt over a kneecapping blow from Thok, spinning in midair so that her foot scythed into his shoulder, knocking him towards Zaktan, who shoved him straight again.
Despite the sisters’ defensive success, though, the gang still refused to kick into high gear. Nihi could tell; as the Skakdi gradually walked her and Nachi backwards on the pier, Nihi noticed that, aside from Vezok - who rubbed his jaw - they were all grinning. Even Zaktan wore a humorless leer. They were toying with the Dasaka. What were they playing at?
:What is he doing?: Nachi asked her sister as she parried a lazy swipe from Zaktan.
Further down the dock, Nihi saw who she was talking about. Hakann hadn’t advanced with the rest of the gang. He had an open crate under one arm and was occupied with the other submarines on the dock. Sequentially, Hakann jumped on top of each one’s surfaced back, unscrewed the top porthole, and dropped a few of what Nihi saw to be acid-green spheres from his crate inside. Then, quickly as he could, Hakann resealed the portholes and moved on to the next sub.
Whatever the spheres did, Nahi guessed that it had to impair the submarines. Hakann was, somehow, sabotaging the subs that might follow his gang’s vehicle during its eventual escape. The other five Skakdi, the ones driving her and her sister back, were merely his diversion. Nihi was briefly astounded by the degree of cooperation among the lot of them; just minutes earlier, they had been at each others’ throats. Common interest, she supposed, had a unifying effect on thieves like these.
Nachi seemed to have caught on as quickly as her sister. After the briefest of shared glances, both surged forward, breaking through the line of Skakdi. A well-placed blow from Nachi’s staff collided solidly with Thok’s gut, and Nihi used her staff like a pole to vault over Reidak’s shoulder, narrowly outswinging the arc of his buzzsaw over his shoulder. Hakann saw the Dasaka coming and reached for his weapon, but not in time; Nachi raised her hand as she sprinted, and it went skittering along the surface of the dock, nearly falling off the edge. Meanwhile, Nihi lunged forward, clocked him with her staff.
By now, the other Skakdi were following, and Nachi had to wheel around to make sure that her sister was not vulnerable. Vezok, perhaps seeking revenge for his jaw, looked at Nachi, and his eyes flashed. Suddenly, Nachi was thrown back a few feet, as if punched by a huge, invisible fist. She was winded, but kept her staff raised and ready. The other Skakdi, though, did not seem as concerned with dealing out retaliatory blows. They, like Nihi, could hear the indistinct murmur of approaching voices. Menti backup would arrive soon, and the gang had clearly decided it was time to leave.
Zaktan, who had dissolved into his buzzing cloud again, was the first one to speed to the gang’s chosen submarine. He reformed on the back of the submarine and ushered Avak and Reidak inside, following them down as a cloud again. Vezok was the next-closest, with Hakann on his heels. Just before he leapt onto the back of the sub, though, Vezok grabbed one of the remaining crates of spheres and, chortling, tossed it over his shoulder at Hakann.
For the second time, Nihi watched a box of the gas-filled spheres explode over Hakann; as before it didn’t seem to injure him, but it distracted him long enough for Vezok to jump down into the sub alone. Nihi telekinetically threw a nearby fishing spear at Vezok’s retreating head, but he had descended too quickly, and the spear’s tip only broke against the porthole door, its shaft preventing the porthole from closing. Inadvertently, Nihi had saved Thok, last to the edge of the dock, from abandonment; Vezok had not been able to lock the porthole behind himself because of the spear shaft, and so Thok was able to open the door. He threatened to kick Vezok down the hatch another time, and descended uninhibited into the submarine, tossing the spear shaft into the water before closing the door in earnest.
Hakann was the only one of the gang left on the dock. As he turned around to face Nachi and Nihi, they all heard the approaching voices grow much clearer, accompanied by the pounding of several pairs of feet. Reinforcements had arrived; Nihi felt the heat of several Soulswords compose their weapons behind her. The glows of the dripping energy blades illuminated the dark end of the dock, and Hakann was bathed in soft light. At the sight of him, several of the other Menti shouted angrily, or gasped. They, like Nihi, could immediately recognize him as one of the gang, as he was clearly not a Dasaka. Several shouts rose above the murmur of the crowd.
“It’s... him! What’s-his-name!”
“Aren’t they killing him in the morning? Him and the others?”
“How did he escape?”
“Isn’t he just the handsomest thing?” Hakann cooed back, mocking their tones of surprise. He backed up slowly, until he was at the edge of the dock.
Nihi and Nachi, the front of the crowd of assorted night guards, took a step towards him, closing the birth that Hakann had been given. He didn’t seem to like that; he flicked his foot underneath his weapon so that it rose into his waiting claws. Nihi stared down its barrel as he aimed the end of it at her, and in the light of the Soulswords, she saw his wide mouth twitch into a crazed smile. Hakann’s eyes flicked down, took a cursory look at the submarine; even though the hatch was closed, the vehicle hadn’t moved down or away. Evidently, Avak was still trying to figure out how to control it.
“Listen, ladies,” Hakann sneered, addressing the crowd of Dasaka. “I’d love to stick around, but the schedule isn’t great. As one of you pointed out, I’m slated to die tomorrow, and I’d rather prefer to keep living.”
The barrel of his weapon remained trained on Nihi’s face. She jumped laterally as something at the back of it flashed orange, and a fireball singed her side as it passed. One of the Soulswords nicked at the fireball as it passed, and the energies of her blade managed to divide the burning projectile in two. Its halves nevertheless struck the dock, and lit it rapidly. During the day, the wood of the pier was wetter; it’d had hours in peace to be dried by salty sea breezes, and was as ready as kindling to Hakann’s flame. Before the Dasaka could control it, the fire caught some canvas-covered piles of mercantile goods and became an inferno.
Nihi and Nachi, who had been closest to Hakann, were quickly separated from the retreating crowd by a wall of flame, and they were on the same side of that barrier as the Skakdi. He cast another look at the still-motionless sub; barely audible under the crackle of the fire, the shouts of the rest of the gang’s frustration with Avak could be vaguely heard inside. Hakann turned to the Dasaka sisters and shrugged, feigning apology. “They always do this,” he confided sarcastically. “Try to shove me out. It’s just a minor inconvenience, I’ll be out of your way in a-”
Nachi ended his words with a jab of her staff. “We aren’t going to let you go, Skakdi,” she growled. Nihi nodded grimly, holding her own staff to his throat, ready to dislodge his windpipe if necessary. The fire was creeping closer and, at last, the submarine had started to move; Nihi could feel its humming engines through the boards of the dock. Hakann seemed to have felt the same thing, because his head turned to watch it inch away. The sub was picking up speed, and would soon be out of his reach.
“I beg to differ,” Hakann crooned slyly. He darted back from Nihi’s staff, leaving it hanging in nothingness, and ducked under it. As Nachi lunged at him, the Skakdi executed the maneuver Vezok had pulled on him earlier, and tossed a crate of the spheres over his shoulder at the one who pursued him.
In her memory, Nihi saw the crate fly gently, captured in elongated time, towards her sister. It spun in the air as though one of its corners had been softly tapped. Then the crate splintered against Nachi.
Nihi could only assume that her sister hadn’t moved out of the way, or even bothered to swat the crate aside with her mind, because she’d seen twice how little effect the green gas had had on Hakann. Maybe she’d assumed that Hakann had meant for the gas to be a distraction, and hadn’t seen the crate as a danger. Nihi couldn’t know, but she always ran the old question through her head.
When the crate hit Nachi, its impact sent her stumbling back. She landed on her rear a few feet from the wall of fire. Weirdly, unnaturally, the cloud of fluorescent gas had followed her down, clinging to Nachi’s person like fog to hills. Nihi, sparing this oddity only a glance, tried to stop Hakann, but he’d already jumped for the back of the submarine. He’d hardly made the leap - one of his hands had snagged a bar on the porthole, and even now his legs still dangled in the water - and that’d been a full second ago. By now, the submarine was completely out of jumping range, so Nihi could not repeat Hakann’s stunt.
The gang had won; she knew it, and she hated it. Hakann must have sabotaged the other submarines with that gas, whatever it did, so following their vessel would be impossible for a while, certainly long enough for the six Skakdi to disappear. From behind the wall of fire - a wall being quickly diminished as Mindarms used empty crates to fetch and dump sea water over the blackened wood - the other Dasaka could see that Hakann was gone and the submarine departed. Nihi, cursing the Skakdi, turned back to her sister, expecting her to have gotten up by now.
Nachi wasn’t up. She was foaming at the mouth. Her limbs jerked spastically. Her wide eyes were rolled back in her head.
Nihi felt like the level ground she stood on had started to tip forward, so far on the diagonal that it would spill her into a void. She was acutely aware of her own heartbeat, the shrill ring in her ears, and the sound of her own breathing. How different it was from her sister’s erratic rasps.
“N-no,” Nachi croaked, her voice drawing Nihi’s attentions from bodily rhythms. Nihi could do nothing but stand over Nachi, acutely aware of her own shameful paralysis. Why could she not move? “No, go away,” her sister, her tortured sister, moaned, her head thrashing back and forth against the dock. “G-go away. I’ll… I’ll do it. I-” Nachi tried to finish, but failed. As she had failed to avoid the crate. A second later, her voice was hers again. “Please, please. Go away, go away. I can’t. No, not me. Stay away from that. Her. N-n-no. Not her. Me. ” Something terrible was happening, and Nihi was still motionless, staring down at her sister. Why was she a statue in the face of this?
At once, Nachi’s back became a sickening bridge against the dock, and her fingers splayed, twitched, as though grabbing desperately for something. Her mouth was opened wide in a scream that was without voice. Nachi continued to mouth words, and Nihi felt the dryness of her own voice; the stone in her stomach had risen into her throat, and she could speak no more than Nachi. Something was doused in Nihi, something sacred she couldn’t feel until it was gone, and she could finally move. Immediately, Nihi knelt beside her sister, tried to calm her, tried to ease her tensed muscles and joints, but to no avail. More silent screams. Nihi wanted to swallow the stone, she couldn’t watch this, she didn’t know how to help, but she needed to help.
:Nachi,: she ventured desperately. :Nachi, you must hear me. Nachi.:
There was no reply in her head. Nachi’s jerking, though, grew less, almost ceased. Nihi raised her sister’s head, saw that Nachi’s eyes had closed and the foam dripping from her mouth had ceased. Nihi reached to wipe the spittle off her sister’s chin, but when she touched Nachi, Nachi’s eyes were open again, facing the right way, now. They stared dolefully past Nihi. Nihi turned her sister’s limp head towards herself, but Nachi still looked past her, as though she wasn’t there. The firelight danced in her eyes beside a new companion: ambivalent madness.
Nihi could no longer hold down her dry sobs. She cradled Nachi like a babe, inhaling harsh breath that did not save her from feeling as though she was drowning. Nachi rested her head impassively against her sister’s breast, eyes fixated on emptiness. They were as blank as the surfaces of the towers high overhead on this overcast night. Nihi’s hands caressed her sister’s head, and they were shaking together. Nachi was limp, Nihi was helpless.
Nihi was holding a familiar body, but it carried the mind of a stranger.
Shouting at sea drew Nihi’s wet eyes. Hakann was standing on the top of the sub now, his fire gun pointed at the hatch. He was shouting something about breaking the seal, killing them all, if the others didn’t let him in. Nihi barely took it in as she watched, far away, the top of the submarine open with resentful slowness and Hakann descend. She couldn’t concern herself with the affairs of the Piraka.
She could only hate them.
:Everything alright?: Saru asked Nihi.
:I’m fine,: Nihi told her friend. Saru could always tell.
:You’re not,: Saru replied. She tossed Nihi a covert look. :You’ve got that look on your face again.:
:You know which look I mean. You don’t need to tell me what brought that up.:
:He was just like them,: Nihi finally replied. Saru nodded knowingly. :It made me so angry.:
:I was angry too, Nihi,: Saru told her. :For your sake.:
:Do you want to return to your thoughts?:
:I just need to think about marching.: