Author's Note: Pirates of Dark Water and its respective characters are (C) to their respective creators/copyright holders. I created this story around the same time as Aladdin and the Poison Mystic, and there are some story elements that are parallel to the stories, but for the most part, it stands on its own. This is the first in a two part series where I have Ren and the crew of the Wraith find the 9th and 10th treasures of rule, with a startling revelation about the 13th treasure. I tried to post this to before, but I think the formatting of it was messed up. So this is my second attempt. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope at some point I can up all the chapters with the formatting being in good shape.
Chapter 1: The Island and the Spiraling Cave
Ren held one hand over his eyes as the darkening orange light from the sunset briefly blinded his vision, while the other held his compass straight ahead, to where the sun dipped into the waters beyond the horizon. The Wraith moved steadily over for the first time since they found the eighth treasure of rule and sought the ninth, which seemed to go on for almost a week now. The smell of the salty sea stirred his senses, making them more alert to the scene ahead, where the compass pointed prominently in the distance.
No sign of the Maelstrom since their last encounter, Ren thought of it as a partial blessing, considering Bloth and his men had been at their heels since their journey began. Ren even recalled the "game of death" in Undaar, in which he was shackled at the heel and forced to compete with the man who was responsible for his father's death. Yet, his journey had proven fruitful thus far. He'd met three friends and crew in the process, covered ground for 8 treasures, restored Octopon to half of its original glory among other pursuits. Yet, he felt more determined than confident. He knew the journey ahead would bring more challenges to the table, if it were not just the treasures in mind, but also for adversaries in Bloth, The Darkdweller, and whatever jitatan rogues they would come across that would hinder their journey.
Ioz steered the ship with careful precision, seeming not to have the same problem with Ren in terms of the sun blinding his eyes. No, Ioz was just below the point of the bow, shortly giving dirty glances at their residential monkey-bird, who currently took in his own sense of pleasure by feasting on minga melons. Luckily, there was more where that came from, but Ren knew to keep his lip closed. If Niddler knew of any extra minga melons, they would really be in a bind with their food supply.
"Ay jitata, monkey bird, will you stop that smacking? I can't concentrate on steering the ship!" Ioz said curtly.
"Well, excuse me, but I'm perfectly happy with my minga melons and pooka-looka pies. Besides, I'm starving; we've been on the sea for a week now and still haven't found the 9th treasure."
"Yeah, well you'll have to make that food last for more than you're munching. By Kunda, if your brain were as big as that minga melon, you'd be able to figure out a way to get us to shore sooner. Instead all that goes to your glutton belly." Ioz, who pat his own belly in a mocking tone, had a flicker in his eyes that Ren recognized, and knew that his friend was readily willing to get into an argument. Niddler squawked in protest.
"Come on Ioz; let him have his way for now. I'm sure we'll be close to land soon." Ren said.
"Oh, and I suppose you have a third eye and know, Ren; we've been out here almost a week with nothing."
Ren raised his brow slightly, noting it wasn't like Ioz to admit Niddler was right in any measure, and took it as a note of impatience. "Actually, these waters aren't too unfamiliar. It's not too far from Jonda Town if we go by where we left and looped around after we lost the Maelstrom. I've heard talk of an island not far from here. It's never been charted on the map...strange. If the compass is showing something in this range, we should be close to it."
"Well, we better reach some form of land soon, it looks like the sky is getting darker, and I'm not sailing any more than I have to at night."
Niddler squawked. "Speak for yourself. I haven't slept either."
Ren shook his head to himself as the two quarreled behind him. It was true, they'd sailed non-stop for the past several days, and Ren hadn't had much sleep because he'd been responsible for keeping the Wraith on course. Tula, who rested now below deck, took turns with Ioz over the past several days as they steered in the direction of the compass. His body was starting to wear from the exhaustion, but he knew that they only needed to get the ninth treasure before turning back to Jonda Town to break.
"Hey, I see land!" Niddler rose from his settled area, a few minga melons, rolling to the side as he flapped his wings and pointed past Ren's direction. Sure enough, land was dead ahead, and an easy shoreline for them to port was available.
"Trim the sails, Niddler; I'll handle the anchor. Keep her steady, Ioz." Ren said as he made his way over to the anchor.
"She's already steady enough, there's nothing working against her, at least." Ioz responded, keeping the ship oriented to where it could safely glide to the shoreline. It didn't take long for Tula to come above deck as she emerged from behind the door as the ship slowed to a steady pace.
"Hey, we're slowing, what gives?" She rubbed her emerald eyes, which looked slightly misty from exhaustion. No doubt she'd been sleeping below deck, catching up on rest from when she'd steered the night before.
"We're going ashore, Tula. I knew there had to be an island somewhere in this area, and it looks like it came out right." Ren asserted as he dropped the anchor. "But I've never seen the likes of this island before." As the ship steadied in place, he fingered his compass and held it up to see where the beam pointed. It led to a place that stretched a bit beyond their immediate view, to a cave in the north. Tula looked around, brushing her hands against her silken attire before resting them on the edge of the ship and peering at the island stretch to the west.
"It's pretty mountainous for an island, that's for sure. All I see are those looping ridges and caves above us, and it looks like the compass is leading us to that northernmost cave." Ren said.
"Well, what are we waiting for? If we have to reach that cave, then by the blood of the twin moons, let's do it before nightfall. I don't want to be stuck on this island longer than we have to." Ioz noted, impatience leaking into his voice.
Ren nodded, and the four left the Wraith while heading towards the direction of the cave, up the dusty, dirt roads looping around like a slithering snake up the side of the mountain. It was a prolonged trek, but they made it to the cave with little trouble. Niddler could have flown straight up to the cave entrance if he wanted. When Ren asked him why he didn't, Niddler shook his head in adamant protest.
"There's no telling what's up there. I'm not going by myself!"
"Ay jitata, Niddler, don't get upset. We'll all go along the same path." Ren said, rubbing Niddler's feathered head in consolation.
When they reached the cave, Ren saw the compass point further in, revealing a dark tunnel, but looking inside, the path illuminated by torches grafted into the walls of the cave.
"There have to be residents nearby as fresh as those flames are. I'll bet we'll find them soon." Tula quipped.
"Yeah…but are they friend or fiend?" Niddler's voice quivered and he swallowed rather abruptly trying to clear the nervous lump in his throat. "I don't want to go in only to find we'll never get out."
"Then you want to stay outside the cave, monkey bird, and keep watch? Or go back to the ship?" Ioz shot a glance in Niddler's direction. "That wouldn't bother me one bit, it'd make a quieter journey to where we're going."
"I'm not staying here! Not when some creature could come along and use me for its next meal. Or even worse, the Maelstrom! We don't even know where its going or where we'll end up."
"We'll make sure nothing happens to you. And that makes all of us." Ren shot a glance back at Ioz, giving him a warning in his glance.
Ren hadn't any idea where they were going, but his nerves never gave into the uncertainty. The four followed the stream of the compass as they walked around the looping cave. Occasionally, a few stray boulders would drop in various places of the cave, making Niddler flutter faster towards Ren, who walked ahead of both Tula, who followed in his steps, and Ioz.
"Ugh, even with these lanterns along the way it's hard to see anything. I wonder why they wouldn't bother to put more along the way, unless they're trying to keep visitors out."
"Woman, you don't seem to be having any trouble finding your way, so I don't know why you're complaining." Ioz quipped back at Tula's comment, just before he ran into the edge of a rocky wall. "Ow!"
"There are certain advantages to being an ecomancer, Ioz. And you seem to be having a lot of trouble."
"Ioz, walk with one hand gliding against the wall, it should help at least until we get to the end of the way."
"Like there's any end to the way, Ren. If I didn't know any better, I'd say the way we've walked around this cave; it feels like we're walking in circles!"
Ren stopped walking and looked around. "Well, we are walking in circles."
"What?!" Ioz, Tula, and Niddler exclaimed in unison, and Ren knew he'd have to clarify. He could barely make out their faces in the dimly lit lanterns, but he could tell Niddler's bulging eyes were in no less expression than a state of shock. Tula's hands were folded across her chest, and Ioz leaned against the rocky wall with a stern glance. Ren gave a heavy sigh and turned to all three of them fully.
"It's not what you're thinking. Look at the slope of the floor we're walking on. We're walking in spirals down to the heart of the mountain. It's not a steep slope, so it feels like we're walking on straight earth, but it's not. I'm not sure if this is a natural cave or a path that was dug out, but we have to see where it leads."
It wasn't long before the faces of his crew calmed collectively. Ioz chuckled under his breath. "I knew as much."
"Sure you did, Mr.-I can't-see-a-jitatan-thing in front of my eyes." Tula threw the comment to Ioz's retort, who only responded to her with a muffled grunt as they continued the way down the cave.
Ren was the first to see the city, or what seemed to be one in rocky homes constructed before his eyes. A path stretched beyond the neatly organized rows of molded homes and sturdy, rocky roofs that stoop a-top them. It had the makings of what a country town would resemble if it were above ground. The air seemed stagnant and chilling, something Ren didn't quite expect coming in.
"Look at this, it's like a little town, they even have a well in the middle of the city, and a town square no less."
"Yeah, population 30…or maybe 10." Niddler chimed in, though he seemed just as shocked by the tiny town that spread before their eyes. "I guess they were the ones who put the lanterns down the cave. Maybe they're miners?"
"Hello! Is anyone here?!" The air hung with the echo of Ren's call, but if anything was stirred by his voice, nothing but the echo seemed to reflect it. The little town and row of houses did seem worn, but not abandoned from what he could tell. He called again, but nothing responded with the exception of his own voice. By this time, the four had made their way into the center of the town, and close to the rocky well.
"I don't think…." Before Tula could utter another word, a small child peered from behind the well, probably no more than nine or ten years old. Her black curls framed her rounded face, and she wore a dark, plain dress with a sooty apron. Her actions seemed pensive as she looked at the four, glancing to the side quickly then hiding behind the well when she thought they were looking at her.
Ren took a few steps toward the well, and by the time he was within a few feet of her, she had hidden behind the well completely. "Hey there." He walked slowly toward her, but the girl didn't seem to move from her place, instead choosing to shut her eyes, almost as if she wanted to block out the man approaching her. He knelt down, extending his hand toward her. "I won't hurt you, I promise. What's your name?"
The girl opened her eyes again, and turned toward him. Only then did Ren realize a large jagged scar on the girl's neck. It wasn't a fresh wound, but it looked so jarringly prominent that Ren had to stifle a reaction to it. Her bright green eyes were much lighter than his own, and she looked at him with what seemed to resemble fear turning to a curious expression. He didn't expect her to walk straight up to him, something she did at that moment, but slowly. She placed both of her hands around his outstretched one, feeling the ridges of his fingers and palm. Her eyes oriented down toward his hand.
Tula couldn't hide her surprise when she saw the girl up-close. "That poor girl, with an old wound like that I don't think she can speak." Tula stood close to where Ren kneeled, but if the girl was bothered by Tula's reply or approach, she didn't seem to note it. She continued to trace her fingers along the lines in his palm.
"What's she doing, Ren?" Niddler asked, standing on his feet on Ren's right side, not far from where the little girl stood.
"I'm….not sure." He continued to observe the girl, and after a moment, she looked back into Ren's eyes with a more calm expression. She opened her mouth, but no words came out at first the first few tries. She took a swallow and began to speak. Yet, no coherence came in her words.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"Well, she's definitely trying to say something. By Kunda if I can understand what it is." Ioz said while folding his arms across his chest. "We can't waste too much time trying to figure it out, if the treasure's around here."
"Ioz, wait. She might be trying to tell us where we are and where we need to go."
The girl shook her head, and made a motion using Ren's hand to point to himself.
"Me? Oh, you don't know my name. I'm…"
The little girl shook her head more adamantly this time, which made Ren stop mid-sentence. She started to speak again, this time with a bit more fervor.
Niddler squawked. "I think she's saying your name, though she probably heard me say it before."
The girl nodded her head, and then reached for Ren's compass, placing it between her hands and examining it with curious interest. She pointed up the path ahead, and then pointed to the compass.
"She's probably noting the compass beam that leads up ahead; I guess she must have seen it when we came in." Tula said, but as she mentioned it, the little girl shook her head and pointed more assertively to the north, then back to the compass.
"I think she means my compass is needed for something ahead." The little girl nodded affirmative to Ren's words, having a bit of a smile. "If that's true, it might lead us closer to the treasure. Besides, the beam pointed north from what I could tell, but it's much more faint than it usually is."
"Well, aren't you the interpreter?" Ioz rolled his eyes, but when he looked over at the girl, he noticed that she stuck her tongue out at him before running up ahead.
"I don't think she likes you very much, Ioz." Ren smiled.
"Well I never liked little ones that don't have much respect for their elders."
"I guess that makes you the elder, then."
"Exactly. Wait…what did you mean by that?" Ioz's statement was countered by a laugh from Ren as the four made their way up the slope.
Just beyond town was a set of three blocked-off caves, each with different symbols upon them. Ren could barely make out what they were, but the third cave had a shape that he recognized immediately. The girl was already standing right below it and pointing. She moved to the side as Ren came close to it.
"Well, what do you know? There's an imprint of the compass right in the center."
"As if they could make it any more obvious. At least getting this treasure will be quick, though it took us long enough to find it."
Ren didn't say anything to Ioz's retort, but he wondered if there was more to this than met the eye. No doubt that all three caves seemed to have been there for many years. From a distance they looked like one seamless wall with different symbols evenly spaced out, but as Ren had walked closer to them, he could see the ridges that defined them as different entrances.
He tried to feel along the edges between the second and third caves, but they were firmly noted. There wasn't any getting through them just by blunt strength, not even, by the look of it, from the strength of a hundred men. Ren took the weight of the compass, while it hung around his neck, and placed it into the shell of the imprint. It fit like a glove.
"It fits perfect, Ren, but I don't see anything happening." Tula looked around the cave and tried to budge the edge of it, but it didn't move. "Noy jitat, it still won't budge. And there's something definitely behind this wall, a force I can't make sense from, but it's strong." Ioz tried to move the entrance to the cave alongside her, but nothing budged. Ren joined in, placing his hands against the face of the cave from where he stood and pressing firmly against it, hoping something would move with the compass in place and their force applied to the wall. Niddler and the little girl, who clued in on their efforts, went just a little way from Ren and started to push with their might. This continued for about a minute before they all ceased their efforts. Ioz and Tula sank with their backs to the wall after the effort, and the little girl walked over to sit beside Tula to rest. Ren continued to stand, the compass still around his neck while pressed into the cave. He leaned his face against the wall, exhaling a large breath.
"Anything Ren?" Ioz asked.
"Nothing, I don't think it moves, even with the compass inside."
"Hmph, I knew it looked too easy."
"There's something we're missing, but I can't think of what it could be. I tried to summon some of my powers as Ioz and I were pushing against the cave, but something blocked me. Heh, at least we had this little one helping us out." Tula patted the top of the young girl's curly dark hair, and the girl smiled in response.
Niddler sunk down by Ren's feet in exhaustion, with his back to the cave. "Don't forget about me. I helped too - that was harder than it looked."
Ren laughed at his words, but traced the outline of the back of the compass with his fingers with a look of concern on his face. "I still wonder what's missing. Do…any of these caves open instead? And what are the…symbols supposed to mean?"
"You can't read them?"
"I wish I could. It's beyond anything I could ever understand, looks almost cryptic, but there's an odd glow about them that I can't figure out."
"Hey, maybe if you can shine your compass on them, something might show up."
"I'm surprised, monkey bird, that's an unlikely wit coming from you." Ioz noted.
"Hey, if the compass is the key, then I figured why not."
Ren smiled. "Great idea, Niddler; I'm not sure if it will work, but at least it's something." Ren had acquired the compass that begin his journey in Alomar's cave long before, but on invasion of Bloth's forces, Alomar, a wise dragon whom had known Ren's father, had perished helping Ren and Niddler to escape. He winced at the memory, but he remembered the message on the wall of the cave as Alomar had revealed it to him.
"Thirteen Treasures of ancient time,
Thirteen lessons of Rule in rhyme.
To find the jewels in secret places,
Follow where the compass faces.
If returned from the shore beyond,
A new day dawns for Octopon.
But if they fall into evil hands,
Darkness descends on all the lands.
For these riches, two shall vie
In the realm of Dark Water where the Treasures lie."
Even today, the words burned prominently in his mind, and kept him focused on the journey ahead. He knew that the restoration of Octopon lie in their hands, and he wasn't about to let anything stand in the way of his quest.
As he ventured to pull the compass from its place, a sudden chill bristled through his spine, ceasing his movement and congealing both his blood and breaths. It overtook him in a matter of seconds, and for what seemed like a long lapse, he felt suspended into a stillness that weighed on his body. As it took a toll on Ren's consciousness, though he felt his body still standing while holding onto the compass, a voice entered his mind.
"Can you hear me, treasure seeker?"
Ren tried to speak, but found himself unable to mouth any words, much less move. It was a struggle for him to breathe, much less try to talk.
"Speak through your mind." The voice instructed. "It won't help if you try to speak otherwise, since your body's frozen."
"I can hear you, very clearly," Ren struggled with his thoughts at first, but his head became clear, almost as if the words came more readily than they usually did in the transition from thought to mouth, "…but who are you? Why are you doing this to me?"
"It's not anything that I'm doing - it's a restrictive magic on those who attempt to access the way to the hall. You're the first who has traveled here in many moons, and you possess the key to obtain the treasure."
"So the key is my compass." Ren didn't say it in the form of a question, he knew it intuitively. The sudden panic that had seized him when he found himself frozen had now simmered, and he found himself conversing with the entity, though he could not see where it originated, much less move in any way to react. His body was still frozen. His eyes were now closed, and he couldn't see anything but the darkness behind his eyes.
"Correct. So you're the one whose destiny lies with the fate of Mer. The son of Primus himself….and Prince of Octopon."
"Yes, my name is Ren. But how did you know who I was?"
"I can see many things, your mind being among them now. It's as clear as words on a page. And I see that your heart hasn't succumbed to the Dark Water. I wonder if time will change that."
"It won't." Ren said firmly. His thoughts were flowing more quickly, and he knew if his expression could change, he'd be undoubtedly angry. "My father entrusted me to find the Treasures of Rule to restore Octopon and save Mer from the Dark Dweller and his minions. I won't allow my home or anywhere else on Mer to be overcome by Dark Water….or allow the treasures fall into evil hands. I've come too far to not see it through now, and…I won't allow anyone, let alone my friends to succumb to it."
"I see this, Prince of Octopon, and I don't doubt your words or sentiments. I've seen your travels, from when you acquired the compass from Alomar to when you helped save the young creature whom had morphed from a treasure of Rule. You and your friends have grown much along the course of your journey, and I recognize your dedication. Yet, I wonder if you knew the truth of what was to come, would you still have the same ambition? Even if you have three more treasures to find, do you truly know what's at stake? "
"I…I'm afraid I don't understand. And three more treasures? Even if I did find the 9th treasure beyond this cave, that makes…."
The unknown voice interrupted Ren's protest, and Ren retracted as it spoke. "You will understand soon. You've much to learn. Granted, you've done many wonderful things on your journey, Ren, but the path ahead will test you far more than you've been tested before. I believe you know this, but you have yet to bear the weight of it. Return to this cave alone when your friends retire for the night, and the moon is full in the sky. You will find your answers lie beyond this cave. That is all I can say to you now, your body can only handle this suspension for so long, so take my words and heed them seriously."
"I will…but who are you? And why would you ask for me alone?"
"I sense your trepidation, son of Primus. I am no threat to you, and I will guide you to what you seek. My identity is not important, but you will know it when you arrive to me in the nightfall. Now…allow yourself to return. The magic holding you should wear off soon."
Ren could feel the unknown weight lifting off his conscious and body. His breaths, which had been ragged as if he'd run fa long distance, finally came even, though his eyes had been closed for a time that he had no measure of how much had transpired.
He opened his eyes slowly.