Onboard Gloria's Grail, Piscese Waters
When Maria opened her eyes, she found that moonlight was still spilling in through her window and that her entire ship sounded as if it were still asleep. Only the creaks and groans of the wooden floorboards as the ship tilted back and forth, and the occasional tap of the waves against the side of the ship.
Maria stared up past the streak of silver moonlight that cut through the darkness and squinted up at the ceiling in thought. It had been quite some time since she had awoken in the middle of the night. She usually slept into the early morning and liked to be awakened by chef Raul’s shouts of “breakfast is ready!” as he’d bang his ladle against his pot.
Annoying was always Ollie’s thought on that.
Shrugging the oddity off, she swung herself off of her hammock and approached the circular window built beside the pole that hosted her dangling prized possessions. She flicked a medal that hung from a nail and then peered through the window.
The moonlight made the black sea glow white. The moon itself was hanging low near where the sky met the sea—so low that Maria was sure she could reach out and pluck it from the air. She absentmindedly glanced at the exterior side of her ship through the porthole and paused.
There was something there. Pressed right up against the side of her ship. She peered closer and came to vaguely recognize the shadowy shape of what appeared to be a smaller ship roped to her own. It was a tiny thing that was probably only able to hold five men, or two horses, or maybe even the great bell of the Monadic orphanage she’d grown up in.
Maria hummed. “Isn’t that the opposite of the usual thing?” She attempted to lean a bit closer to get a better look but found herself unable to because the window was suddenly reflecting back her face. Her curious expression appeared there, illuminated by a deep lime green light from behind. The light also illuminated the face of the one who stood behind her. Those eyes that glowed there on that face were filed with an intent Maria was quite familiar with—the intent to kill.
Without skipping a beat, Maria spun around and threw out her foot knocking the Projector’s vitae blade right out from their hands. The conductor landed somewhere in the darkness, and the Projector made for it. Maria, however, rushed forward, grabbed the Projector, and threw him across the room. He flipped through the air and crashed into the pole hosting all of her favorite treasures before sliding to the ground. The medal dangling from the hammered nail fell down onto his body.
Maria plucked her sword from where it rested beside her door frame and pulled it out of its sheath. She drifted to the Projector as he stirred and with a flick of her wrist she picked the medal up with the tip of her blade and tossed it into her hand. The Projector lunged forward in that instant, and she threw her blade out again where it slipped into their mouth. The Projector froze immediately, eyes wide.
“I have many friends who are Conductors, you see. And I have been putting much thought into whether I should become one too, my dear.”
She pressed the edge of the blade forward and leaned it a bit towards the corner of the Projector’s mouth. The Projector followed the push of her blade to the best of his abilities, but blood still began to dribble from his mouth.
“But I think using something like this is much more cool, yes?”
Maria pressed the sword further with a thin smile.
A shout of alarm echoed from above deck, however, halted Maria from the execution. She pulled the blade out from its human scabbard and then smacked the intruder at the temple with the butt of her blade. She did not wait to see them him against the floor, instead charging through her bedroom door and out into the hall.
Shadows were floundering around in the darkness. Bodies on top of bodies. Flashes of light—conductors.
Maria whistled down the hall, pulling bodies off of bodies, slashing bodies with blade, slicing hands wielding conductors with fluid ease. She broke up through the stairwell and onto the deck and was welcomed by a wonderfully chaotic scene.
A flurry of swinging fists—even a swinging wooden plank being used as a makeshift weapon. Occasionally, there would be a burst of light and a shout.
Maria slipped through the crowded deck, sliding her foot underneath legs and her blade into bodies with graceful ease. Her current crew compared to her previous one four months ago was a bit lacking in the combat arena. She had only picked up a handful of additional members since the incident with Leona, and so a large portion of her ship consisted of just Morandi and his men who were still sailors at heart. What they lacked in physical prowess, however, they made up for in steely determination.
More fun for herself, Maria supposed as she plucked one of the invaders off of the former sailor Giorgio who was fending off two knife-wielding attackers with a broom. She disarmed them with a swish and flick of her blade and used their weapons to pin them to the side of the ship by stabbing right through their hands.
She spotted another invader on top of Raul—the chef onboard the ship—who was scrambling away on all fours. Maria quickly dispatched the invader by grabbing him by the scruff and tossing him over the side of the ship. There was a loud splash and then a beat of silence and then—
“There she is!” came a shout from one of the invaders across the ship who pointed what appeared to be a conducting rifle in her direction.
A blast of light shot out from the nose from the rifle, but Maria had already ducked low in anticipation of the attack and rushed beneath it. She closed the distance between herself and the Projector and swung her blade up in an arc. There was a splatter of red, and the Projector let out a wail as he stumbled backward cradling his what remained of his fingers
“Captain!” came a shout from behind.
Maria whipped around just in time to see someone leap at her from the railings beside her. Her attacker was, however, abruptly tackled to the side by a woman whose face was concealed by a dull magenta scarf and shawl. The woman quickly flipped the invader over her shoulder and knocked them unconscious by slamming their face into the wooden floorboards.
Maria turned away from the scene and locked eyes with the final target of her hunt—a tall and thin man standing at the center of her ship. He was wielding a normal pistol which he held to the head of a young woman with mousy brown hair. Conta. He was whispering something in her ear, and her expression darkened as his words continued.
Tossing her blade to the side, Maria charged at the man full force. The man startled in response and whipped his pistol in her direction. Maria couldn’t help but laugh at this, reaching for a knife that hung on the belt of a woman she rushed past.
Just as the man’s finger pressed down on the trigger, Maria swung the knife up in a circle effectively separating the man’s fingers from his hands. He released the weapon immediately but then reached for something at his belt with his still usable hand.
Maria took the opportunity to rip Conta from the man’s hold and then stabbed the knife into the side of his leg. She swept her legs beneath him, grabbed his arm as he fell, and then flung him off the ship in one swooping motion.
After listening in for the telling splash, Maria dusted her hands, twirled around, and inspected Conta who had fallen onto the floor during the entire dance.
“Ay, Conta,” Maria said, offering her an extended hand, “you always find yourself in these situations, yes? At least we didn’t have to go for a swim this time!”
Conta wordlessly picked herself off the ground and brushed herself off. Maria retracted her hand with a slightly cocked head.
A thunder of footsteps resounded behind Maria before she could say anything more. When she turned, she found a panting Morandi and a panting Simon standing behind her. Morandi was covered in blood, but Maria assumed it belonged to the man who had been on top of him in the dimly lit hallway—the man whom she’d lacerated with her blade.
“Are you alright, Captain?” Simon pressed, placing a tender hand to his heart.
“Look at the smile,” Morandi sighed from beside him. “Of course she’s all right.” He dug into his pocket and handed something to her. A wad of paper. “It’s them again.”
Maria uncrumpled it and stared at the thing for a long and hard minute. And then she chuckled. “Only 750,000 common coins? That’s only a little more than last time, no? Say, my dears, is that a lot or a little for a person?”
Printed on the paper she held in her hands was an image of her face and below that her name and below that a name—WANTED.
“Captain, that’s more than I’ll ever make in my lifetime,” Morandi said pointedly. “And this is the tenth time that this has happened this week. This is getting ridiculous. My men and I have to practically sleep with one eye open.”
“I sleep with a knife by my side, Captain,” one of Morandi’s former crew members, Giorgio, responded. “Er—I mean—Mr. Morandi.”
“You can call him captain, Giorgio,” Maria chuckled and then hummed. “As long as I’m first Captain.”
Morandi grimaced. “That’ll just confuse people, Captain, although I do appreciate the gesture.”
“Nonsense!” Maria rebutted. “In Capricorn, they have things like First Lieutenant and Second Lieutenant! Do you mean to tell me you do not miss the cool title?”
“I don’t tend to think about it anymore, Captain,” Morandi responded.
“If you say so, my dear.” Maria turned her attention back to the paper. “I wonder why there’s a bounty on my head…”
“Plundering. Stealing. Arson. Assault,” Morandi began. He gestured to the men and women scattered around the floor. “I heard one of them address another familiarly. They may be all from the same group—the same one as before. These bounty hunters.”
For a moment, Maria thought she could hear Olive listing those things along with Morandi. Olive always seemed to dislike it when she’d engage in these types of things for whatever reason. He was not fond of it at all, and she could always feel him flinching whenever she engaged in combat while they were synchronized.
“It’s called valuing human life,” he’d grumble. “You should try it sometime.”
It wasn’t as if she didn’t, so she didn’t understand his point.
It would be fun though, she thought, for this crew to meet that crew. Chuckling at the idea, she turned to Conta who was standing silently. She pointed to her own face and held up the wanted poster. “Say, Conta, do you think that this picture looks like me?”
Conta stared at her for a long moment, before she replied flatly, “I wouldn’t know, Captain.” With that, she turned on her heels and disappeared below deck.
Maria stared after her with a slight frown. “Is she still upset…?”
Simon placed a hand on her shoulder. “Just give her time, Captain. She’ll come out of it eventually.”
“Each time they bring more people and each time the bounty ends up being higher,” Morandi grumbled from behind her. He glanced at Maria when she turned to look at him. “I couldn’t help but wonder if this is related to our current package we’re to pick up from Pisces.”
“Why would that be when my face is the one on the posters?” Maria inquired. “Is it that you are bothered by us taking this job from the Campanas? I know you used to work for the Foxmans, and they do not like the Campanas, yes? And you dislike them just because the Foxmans dislike them?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand the complexities of the Twin Cities,” Morandi said, not unkindly. “There’s a certain level of loyalty required, but at the same time discrepancy is accepted.” He crossed his arms, paused, and then arched a brow at her. “How did you know the Campanas and the Foxmans had ill blood? I didn’t think you were one to pay attention to matters like that.”
Maria thought about Cadence’s meeting with the Foxmans and the Romanos that had occurred just the other day. While she had not been synchronized strongly with Cadence at the time, the memory of it had trickled down to her in her sleep as most of their memories tended to do. When Maria inquired about the debacle the next day, Cadence had waved it off as small family drama. Maria didn’t quite understand why people did not speak their honest thoughts; and when Maria asked Cadence this, the Geminian just laughed loudly.
“It came to me in a dream,” Maria finally said. “But all right, Morandi, if you feel so strongly about it then we will no longer accept offers from the Campanas after this. Even if it is the most exciting offer in all existence,” she exclaimed, bowing low and placing a hand over her heart, “I swear to you that we will not accept it.”
Maria popped up from her bow. “Of course, my dear. I am no liar and I never break promises. I don’t really understand it fully… but if you don’t like working with the Campanas because Francis, Allen, and Carl hate them, then this will be the one and only time. At least while you and your crew are onboard, yes? I like to keep things that are mine happy. Is that such a strange thing?”
Morandi regarded her with an unreadable expression.
“Besides, a friend of mine also doesn’t like them, although she lies about that for some reason, so it’s like that, yes?”
“A friend of yours?” Simon inquired from where he’d been watching the exchange beside them.
“A lovely friend!” Instead of elaborating any further, Maria clapped her hands loudly and addressed Morandi: “Well, since all of the excitement is over, could you tell the others to tie all of our visitors up and throw them back onto their ship? Let’s send them on their merry way!”
Morandi’s men grumbled a bit before he gave them a wave of dismissal and joined them in the task of gathering the bodies.
Maria watched them go before she turned on her heels and registered the magenta scarf-wearing woman kneeling on the floor behind her. The woman was busily tying up one of the intruders with some rope she seemed to have procured from nowhere. Maria approached her and dropped down to a crouch to watch her work. The woman arched a brow at Maria before giving either a grunt, a chuckle, or a yawn, and continued on with her work.
“Hey, Ley, yes?” Maria asked. “Those were some pretty amazing-looking maneuvers you did there, my friend! Where did you say you were from again?”
Ley had been introduced to Maria through the Foxman brothers. She was a very mysterious person, always keeping her face hidden by a scarf and always covering her head with a shawl. She did not speak much but when she did, she always said something entertaining.
“To these people here,” Ley said, tapping one of the unconscious perpetrators with her foot, “I’m from their worst nightmare.”
Maria chuckled. “That is pretty funny. That is what people usually say about me!”
“They might die, you know. Most of them are injured. If they don’t die of blood loss, they’ll die from hypothermia,” Ley said, nodding to the side of the ship where Morandi’s men were throwing the bodies over the railings into the attached smaller ship below. “While they are criminals, isn’t that a bit cruel?
Maria cocked her head and chuckled. “Well, I am already showing them enough mercy as it is, yes? And if they come back—well if you are worried—” She gestured to herself widely. “—I am strong, my dear, so I will protect you.”
Ley chuckled. “If you’re that powerful, then why not tie them and keep them on board? Drop them off to authorities when we get to land.”
“I don’t want anything on this ship to hurt or to take what is mine,” Maria said, and that was that.
Pisces was one of Maria’s favorite countries to visit because it was filled with more colors and sounds than any other country she’d ever visited before. Within the borders of Pisces was an even more spectacular port town which—according to Atienna—topped the lists for the number one tourist attraction sites of Signum.
The city town Hapaira.
It was commonly known in Common as the ‘town of sapphire’ but it was often referred to as the ‘town of hunters.’ The slogan was that “whatever you were looking for, you could find it here.” And Maria found that those words certainly rang true.
Excitement was always around every corner. Each turn, a chase or a scene. Each encounter, a door opening to a new and exciting adventure. All sorts of people from all walks of life—those from within Signum and those from without—passed through here.
Maria remembered the first time she came to the Piscese town almost as if it was yesterday—
The deep blue sea had brightened to a cerulean hue as she had neared the docks that had been spotted with numerous colorful ships of all shapes and sizes. Piscese women and men had cheerfully greeted her arrival before she had even neared shore. They had swung by using surfboards and sailboards and had climbed onboard bringing with them small, tourist-like trinkets like hand-carved pendants and seashell bracelets. Some even performed small water tricks.
Using conductors, the Piscese Elementalists had dipped their hands into seawater and had made the liquid twist into all sorts of shapes—birds, squares, circles, flowers. Then came the festivities. The night of their arrival so happened to be the night of an annual Piscese summer festival. There was chanting, singing, and dancing—all around a large bonfire fueled at the meeting point of sea and land. In the firelight, the darkly inked tattoos of the Piscese seemed to come alive on their skins—dancing, twisting, telling stories.
That night occurred only a week or so after she’d been taken from the Monadic orphanage. And it had certainly been a night to remember.
And so, on the morning of the day they were to arrive at Pisces, Maria called all members of her ship onto the deck. It was barely dawn so most of them stumbled around groaning and yawning and grumbling.
“We’ve been here before,” Giorgio grumbled. “It’s not anything new, Captain.”
“But not with this ship, these people, and this atmosphere!” Maria had rebutted.
The protests silenced when Raul brought them a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, chorizo, and coffee. Soon the entire crew was contentedly sipping from warm cups with full stomachs and looking out towards their destination. They weren’t able to see anything, however, since the horizon was veiled by a thin layer of mist, but Maria thought that just added to the excitement.
Maria tried to reach out to the other five to show them the beauty as well but only managed to get Werner and Cadence synchronized with her.
Werner appeared to be riding on a v-train of some sort, and Cadence seemed to be sitting by herself in an empty, white hallway that smelled a little bit like alcohol. They seemed like they certainly needed some cheering up.
Maria drew near to the railings of the starboard port of the ship so they could all get a better look at the sea line. Neither of the two spoke.
Maria glanced over her shoulder and smiled as she registered Conta standing there. “Do you remember, Conta? Right after the orphanage, they took us here, yes? The pirates.”
Conta stiffened at the address but then replied just as flatly as before: “Yes, Captain, I remember.”
“It’s not like you to reminisce, Captain,” Simon said as he joined them, coffee mug in hand. “Although I understand why. The town is really something else. It almost reminds me of home… the Monadic Temple.”
With that, they all turned their attention forward just as the ship pulled through the misty veil revealing the city that glistened white on the blue horizon. But—
It was easy to see even from their distance the ruin.
The bay was littered by overturned ships, splintered pieces of wood, and metal cargo containers that jutted up like cliff faces from the seabed. In between all of these things lay fallen palm trees that bobbed up and down in the water and wooden crates that bounced back and forth in between them. The sandy white beaches in the distance were empty and strewn with fallen trees, and the docks looked desolate.
Saints, that’s not good, Cadence thought with a grimace. What happened there?
“It must have been a storm,” Morandi said from behind Maria as he neared the railings.
Captain Gloria-Fernandez, came Werner’s gravity. You should be cautious. Just because a storm has passed doesn’t mean the danger has passed.
“Ay, your worry too much, Lieutenant,” Maria chimed, ignoring the look of confusion Morandi gave her.
You worry too little, Werner returned before fading from her vision along with Cadence.
It was quiet as they pulled in. Navigating around the wreckage was an exciting event for Maria, although Morandi and Simon didn’t seem to share the same sentiment. Maria cheerfully consoled them all the while and safely docked her boat at the pier. Her voice carried across the waves and seemed to be swallowed up by the void of dead silence around them.
“Something isn’t right here, Captain,” Morandi muttered under his breath, squinting up at the sky as he followed her off the ship onto the pier. “The seagulls are too quiet. The ocean is too calm.” His leather footsteps against the wood beneath them accentuated his words.
“You are always saying how you want everything to be more calm and quiet,” Maria returned. “Is this not what you wanted? And, as you said, there was a storm. And—Raul? What are you doing?”
Raul the chef had followed them off of the ship. His sunburnt cheeks were clammy with sweat, and he was wringing his white chef’s hat in his hands. She’d never seen him without his hat before and was enamored by his blonde curls.
Raul shook his head. “This place gives me the creeps, Captain. I’d feel much safer going with you.”
Before Maria could even digest the statement, her attention was drawn to the handful of her crew members who had followed the chef off of the ship. Simon, Conta, Ley, and a handful of Morandi’s men including Giorgio were standing nonchalantly behind him.
“We’re tired of staying on board,” said one. “Time to stretch the legs.”
“I want to sightsee,” said another.
“I’m the one who knows the location of our package holder,” Simon provided, nonplussed.
“I’ve never been to Pisces before,” Ley explained with a yawn.
“Emmanuel and some of the others will keep an eye on the ship,” Simon added, “so there’s no need to worry about that."
Maria shrugged, not really concerned about the ship at all.
They set off in a cluster.
Simon tried his best to speak about the best the town had to offer as they walked along the pier, but eventually, he trailed off. The bright and colorful straw-roofed stalls that usually dotted the walkways along the pier were empty. The tent flaps of the barren stalls slapped noisily against the wind in the quiet.
There was not a single person in sight.
As they drew near the lip of the town, Maria took in the familiar sights. Little shops and buildings—some with stuccoed roofs and others with straw roofs, some with wooden structures and others made of colorful limestone—dotted the red brick path before them. Many of the buildings had extended roofs that oversaw patios spotted with small tables and chairs.
But once again there was not a single person in sight.
“Hello!” Maria called out, cupping her hands.
When Maria turned, she found a pale Morandi and even paler Raul standing behind her stiff as stone. The others who had come along with them were also rigid save for Conta and Ley who were both looking around curiously.
“Captain, please refrain from doing that,” Morandi said.
“How will people know we are here if I don’t shout?”
“Aw, my dears, are you possibly frightened?” Maria asked cheerfully. “You all know you are safe with me.”
If there was a response, Maria did not hear it and continued into the town. The others followed quietly behind her.
The deeper they went into the town, the more the silence became evident as the crashing of the waves onto the sandy beach faded away behind them. The buildings here were wooden and painted with bright vibrant shades of reds, blues, yellows, and even greens. They had open, glassless windows, and many had doorways that were covered only by colorful pieces of hanging leather tarp.
Maria spied someone peering in through one of the windows of the buildings. She waved at them, but they flinched away and shut their shutters. Strange.
“Captain, there’s someone sitting over there.”
Maria followed the direction of Ley’s gesture to a very pretty man who was seated at a table in front of a sweets shop. He had silky blonde hair that was tied up in a loose ponytail and was dressed in a loosely buttoned blue blouse over which a checkered suit jacket was thrown. There was a teacup in his left gloved hand and a newspaper in his right gloved hand.
The man continued to calmly sip his tea and read the paper at their approach and only set the cup back on its platter when Morandi cleared his throat.
“Hello there!” Maria greeted him as she took a seat across from him. The chair was wet, but she didn't mind it. “You look like you know many things, my dear. Do you know why you are the only one sitting here when it is such a lovely day?”
“I’m afraid I’m as befuddled as you are, miss.” The man smiled politely. He spoke in Common, his accent thick and Cancerian. “It appears as if something has occurred in this town.” His cerulean gaze swept the area. “People are afraid, no?” He paused to take a sip of his tea. “I've only heard rumors, but it appears as if this town has been visited by a monster of some sort. A beast.”
“The Golden Beast?” Maria perked up.
“No.” The man shook his head with a perplexed expression. “I don’t believe that’s what it was.”
Maria felt a bit disappointed at that revelation, but curiosity soon followed. “If it is not the Golden Beast then what beast is it?”
“I believe they called it the beast of the deep,” the man answered slowly. He then chuckled and shook his head. “Just a series of terrible storms. People always supernaturally explain away things they don’t understand. My, in fact, I know a Libran who—”
“You speak as if the supernatural is not real. Super means ‘cool’ and ‘best’ in Common, yes? So supernatural should mean the best cool of the natural, yes? Natural as in normal, so supernatural as in the best normal! Do you follow?”
The man stared at her silently.
For some reason unknown to her, Simon and Morandi sighed from behind her.
Abruptly, the Cancerian man reached across the table and grabbed hold of Maria’s hand and placed a kiss on top of it. “Miss, I tried my best to resist, but your beauty is too captivating. And your words have captivated me further. May I perchance have your name?”
Maria flipped the man’s hand in her own and then tugged it forward so she could return the gesture. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez.”
The man stiffened at first but then smiled genially. “I am Chevalier Renée LeBlanc.”
“Chevalier…” Maria turned the word over in her mouth.
Renée flipped his ponytail over his shoulder
“Why does that sound so familiar?”
For some reason unknown to her, Renée looked as if he’d been slapped.
“That’s because Chevaliers,” Ley began from behind her with a stifled yawn, “are Cancer’s best Conductors. They’re knighted—which is a big deal there—by the monarchs and receive medals from the prime minister.”
“Wow, you are so knowledgeable, Ley,” Maria praised.
Renée cleared his throat loudly. “Yes, that is me. Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. I know I have been in the papers quite a few many times, but it is nothing, truly.” He paused to flip his ponytail again. “Anyone can do that. That is nothing in the face of your beauty, my lovely miss, so I must ask if you would like too—”
“Thanks, Renée!” Maria chimed as she shot up to a stand and slapped him on the back. “Those were some interesting things you’ve said!” She squeezed his shoulder and added as if an afterthought: “Oh, would you like to accompany us on the journey, Renée? It is always more fun with more people, yes?”
Morandi cleared his throat. “Captain—”
“No, Miss Gloria-Fernandez, I apologize but I must decline,” Renée interjected with a faint smile. “I am here in this town of hunters in search of something myself. As much as your radiance blinds me, I cannot lose sight of what I am here for.”
Renée was rather… dramatic.
Maria stared at him for a long, silent moment before she chuckled at the thought. “Well, alright then, Beene, I think I understand.”
“It’s Renée,” Renée corrected, still smiling, before he returned to his tea and newspaper reading.
As they walked away from the man and his table, Morandi approached Maria’s side and whispered into her ear, “Captain, don’t you find it strange that he was sitting out there by himself?”
“Not really,” Maria said. “It is a nice day, my dear. Who would not want to enjoy this weather?” She then pointed to the sun beating above their heads in the clear blue sky.
“Of course you wouldn’t…”
Simon led them straight through the town while continuing on pointing out where attractions usually were.
It was certainly a unique experience—seeing all those brightly painted houses and stores with no people in them, and seeing those grand white limestone, intricately designed arches that connected one side of the street to the other without tourists posing for pictures in front of them. There were four of them total along this road and each one was more detailed than the next.
The first time Maria had seen the arches, she had been awed by their detail. Her favorite one was the one carved ocean currents that flowed up both sides of the arch and met at the top to form a splashing wave that resembled a smiling face. On her first night here, after enjoying the Piscese festivities, she had climbed on top of the second arch to better see the design. Conta had been in a panicked worry, fretting from below as Maria had made her ascension.
From even this distance, however, Maria could tell that the designs had been worn by the weather. Although the designs were still mesmerizing, they were now a bit faded.
They passed a store that sold surfboards out front, and Maria pondered whether she should go pluck one off of its stand and carry it with her. She brushed the idea aside after a bit more thought.
It was about fifteen minutes later that they arrived at their destination, a small wooden house painted a bright blue shade. A sign hanging from the extended roof of the store read Post Office. Its red-painted door read the same thing as did the sign at the window.
Humming, Maria approached the door, pushed it open, and stepped forward. A squelching sound beneath her leather boots gave her pause. At first, she thought it was blood but then realized it wasn’t sticky enough to be that. She peered down and saw her reflection staring back up at her.
The entire floor was sopping wet with puddles of water. No—the entire building was. It dripped down from the waterlogged counter at the back of the shop, dribbled down from the flickering v-light fixtures hanging overhead, and glistened on the peeling walls. By the smell of it, it was seawater.
“An Elementalist…” Ley muttered. “But to cause this much damage…”
Maria held up her hand and entered the building. She stopped short when she heard footsteps following behind her and turned to see the others huddled only a meter away.
Maria turned forward again and approached the empty counter at the back. The mailing slots behind it were clumped with soggy stacks of newspapers, envelopes, and folders. She peered over the counter.
There was a body there on the floor. A large man with a balding head and black tattoos inked onto his bare, dark arms. He was laying on his stomach, face planted into a puddle.
Maria leaped over the counter and crouched beside the man. She turned him over. Morandi and a couple of the others gagged from behind her, and Maria spared them a glance before she peered closely at the man’s face. His cheeks were pale and bloated, his eyes a bulging milky white.
“That’s Elele,” Simon murmured, placing a hand over his heart. “He’s the one who was supposed to be holding the package for us.”
There was something in his mouth, and she reached over to pry it from his lips. A wad of paper. She unfurled it and came to a familiar sight—her own face printed with bleeding ink.
“You don’t think those bounty hunters did this, do you?” Raul asked. He was standing beside her stiffly on his tippy toes as if he thought he’d fall right through the puddles if he put his full weight down.
Maria slowly rose to her feet, turned to them, and then smiled. “Well, if that is the case, it is time to hunt instead of be hunted, yes?”