Chapter no 59 – The Prisoner

Tress of the Emerald Sea

THE NEXT MORNING, Tress arrived at the Sorceress’s island.

She’d been allowed a drink and the use of the facilities (a chamber pot) on the little rowboat. But otherwise she’d spent the trip wrapped in the coils of the Midnight Essence. Immobile. Two others just like it had emerged from the spores to push the boat, with incredible speed, to its destination.

Huck refused to answer her demands for explanations of what he’d done, or why the creatures listened to him. But Tress had her suspicions.

So it was that after an incredible journey, Tress finally arrived at the Sorceress’s island. And found it smaller than she’d envisioned. This is notable, as the island Tress came from was already small by the standards of most worlds. So her surprise was akin to a four-year-old remarking, “You know, I expected you to be more mature.”

As the spore seas lack the fine silicates derived from coral refined by ichthyological digestive processes (yes, your favorite beaches are fish poop), the Sorceress’s island was merely another pile of rocks rising from the

spores. In this case, the slate-grey stone skerry was suspiciously circular, and perhaps two hundred yards wide.

A few trees tried to spruce up the landscape but failed, both by being too intermittent and by not being the right species. Instead they were spindly, gnarled things with tufts of leaves growing only at the very tips of their branches. As if they knew the concept of “trees” only by description, and were doing their best, all things considered.

Tress had spent the trip alternating between hating Huck and hating herself. With the most generous helping heaped on herself. Now she sat, wrapped in the coils of the Midnight Essence, watching with dread as they approached the island. The Midnight Essence, it should be noted, now looked less like an eel and more like a pile of verdant vines.

The boat had a line of silver in the hull, which left dead spores trailing them in a dissipating wake. The creature took care not to touch the silver, but

—like Tress had noticed when she’d seen through the eyes of the Midnight Essence rat—could get close to it without being destroyed.

It had unlocked Huck’s cage. He sat on one of the plank seats, near the front of the boat. Spores crunched and rustled as the two midnight creatures pushed the little craft steadily forward.

“You have been here before,” Tress said, voicing her guesses. “All that talk of growing up in a community of rats—that was all lies, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Huck whispered.

“You belong to her,” Tress said. “You’re a familiar of the Sorceress, or something like that. You’ve always belonged to her.”

“Yes,” he said, even softer.

Each answer hit like an arrow. The barbed kind that hurt going in—but also rip and tear going out. The kind that make you want to leave them in,

walking around with wounds that can never heal, for fear of the worse pain of removal.

Still, as much as that stung, she forced herself to admit something. Huck had done everything he could—short of abandoning the ship at port—to keep her from coming this way. To protect her from the Sorceress.

He had lied, yes, but he was obviously terrified of the Sorceress. She

couldn’t blame him too much for how he acted, now that she’d unwittingly

brought him back here. She could, however, blame herself.

She should have been smarter, come up with another plan. Maybe she

should have taken Salay’s advice, and let the crew help with the problem? Tress wavered on a precipice as she thought about that.

Change has an illusory aspect to it. We pretend that big changes hang on single decisions, single moments. And they do. But single decisions and

single moments, in turn, have a mountain of smaller decisions behind them. You can’t have an avalanche without a mountain of snow, even if it begins with one bit starting to tumble.

Don’t ignore the mountains of minutes that heap up behind important decisions. That was happening to Tress right at that moment. Full realization hadn’t dawned yet, but the glow was on the horizon.

The midnight monsters steered the boat in an odd way as they approached the island, and Tress soon observed why. Long, jagged lines of stone cut up through the sea here, like sandbars with teeth. The Sorceress had chosen her island deliberately; the approach to the place was exceptionally treacherous. Hidden rocks lay like mines, barely peeking through the seething spores, giving almost no hint to their locations.

Approaching, then, was nearly impossible. As the boat made a sequence of expert maneuvers—steered by monsters who knew the correct path by magical gift—Tress felt her stomach drop. This was a protection to the island they hadn’t known about. Huck hadn’t told them of it, perhaps with nefarious intent. (In fact he simply forgot, but that’s beside the point.)

If the Crow’s Song had arrived and tried to sail up to the island, it would have surely ripped its hull to pieces and died upon the spores. Her mission here had been doomed all along.

Eventually their little boat—a lone speck of color skimming the top of the void—navigated to shore. Here Tress could make out the legion of golden metal men standing in ranks around the Sorceress’s tower. Outfitted with

spears and shields, Tress could almost imagine them as men in armor with lowered faceplates. If only they hadn’t stood so unnaturally still.

Other than the lonely trees and the hundred metal men, the island’s only feature was the tower itself. This, in contrast to the size of the island, was much larger than Tress had anticipated. Wide and tall, with a peaked top, Tress was too modest to say out loud what it resembled. I, of course, don’t know what modesty feels like—so when mentioned what it looked like, the Sorceress asked me if I’d like a large yonic symbol splitting my forehead.

Tress had hoped for a way to escape once the boat landed, but the creature kept her wrapped tightly, lifting her and carrying her before itself as Huck hopped off the boat. On the stone ground, he looked toward Tress. The first time he had looked directly at her since they’d gotten on the little boat.

She glared back at him. He wilted visibly, like a vine without enough

water. Then, however, he perked up—as if deciding something. “Yes. Yes, that’s it,” he said. “Not doing what she asked at all.”

He eyed the monster, then scampered forward before Tress could berate him again. They crossed the ground to the tower itself, the metal men letting them pass. The things seemed to be asleep at the moment, in Tress’s

estimation. Merely statues.

The tower soon took her attention. It was an awe-inspiring sight, more

silver in one place than she’d ever seen before. There was so much of it, in fact, that it would destroy spores at an incredible rate. Protection against

enemy sprouters.

A door was built into the side of the tower, apparently also made of silver.

Huck stood up in front of it, and in a loud voice, spoke. “As I was

commanded, I’ve returned to the tower with a captive to present to the Sorceress. Magic door, please open! Uh, I was told—”

The door swung open on its own.

“Right,” he said. “Good.” He scurried in, then looked down at himself, then back at Tress. Uncertain what would happen next.

The midnight monster—now looking like a large centipede with tentacles for feet—let Tress go and shoved her through the door into the tower. It

couldn’t follow, because of the silver. Instead it tossed her something. Her cups. The pewter one and the one with the butterfly. It had brought them— because it had found them in the boat and didn’t know if they were important or not.

As Tress fumbled to catch her cups, the door slid shut. Locking her inside and leaving her with only one choice.

To proceed. And meet her destiny.

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