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Prologue

Ichormai’s sun room – two hours earlier.

The prince narrowed his eyes at the report. The sapphire jewels socketed in his hair ornament glistened in the light of the sun, while the ornament’s sharp curves accentuated the angular line of his face. His blond hair, tied up in a long tail, flowed over his right shoulder, starkly visible against navy robes.

He threw down the glosspad and sneered. “They’re trying again? And so soon after the last one?”

“Yes, Prime,” the guardsman replied. The stoic expression demanded of his station was betrayed by the slight upward curling of his lips.

“I suppose I should be prepared,” the prince muttered. “Especially if they’re experimenting on a supposedly-latent decemancer this time.” He sighed and gave the guardsman a look. “Urstes, what’s your take on the increasing frequency of their experiments? I’d almost say that they’re rushing things.”

Urstes shrugged his shoulders, fingering the saber at his waist. “We believe that they’re close to a breakthrough. How else could Selejo justify such flagrant use of their dilation chamber?”

The prince rubbed his chin. “Doesn’t their Infinity Loop chamber need something like two orders of magnitude more power draw than our own dilation chamber?”

“More or less.”

The prince smiled, showing teeth. “They must be desperate to awaken people.” He turned toward the window, its light casting his pale features in an otherworldly glow.

Urstes snorted and crossed his arms. “Desperate? The Eldemari can nearly defeat you from across the Bay of Ramsay.”

The prince chuckled. “You know that there’s a reason she’s kept the peace.” He gave the guardsman a glance out of the corner of his eye before looking out the window.

“‘Know’ might be too strong a word. Suspect, perhaps.”

The prince frowned, his eyes seeming to focus on empty air.

Seeing that the prince had grown preoccupied, Urstes rolled his eyes and headed back towards the exit. He coughed in front of the door.

The prince lazily waved a hand and the door popped open, leading into one of the Outer Palace's galleries.

Before leaving, the guardsman inclined his head. “Until later, Prime.”

372 Miles off the coast of Menocht Bay, Illuet Province – Present Day

I open my eyes, dilated pupils protesting the intense glare of sun reflecting off wave.

My first instinct is to rip the dinghy in half out of spite, but I’m too exhausted to bother. Instead, I sit there, thinking to myself, Oh, come on, not again. Useless thoughts, but still there.

I squint my eyelids shut, feeling mucus grits in the corners of my eyes. I cover my face with my hands.

I’ve already done this so many times before. Not. Again.

I’m curled up into a ball, my forehead on my knees and my bare feet braced against the raw wood of the floorboards. The boat’s as small as it’s always been, a small dinghy that anyone might mistake for a freshwater fishing boat.

I let out a low moan, then open my eyes once more. Be cool, I think to myself. Anyone could be watching. Well, not anyone. I’ve narrowed it down to either scientists, corporate goons, or a god. Regardless, someone is watching me.

Why else would I be going through this hell, if not for someone else to watch?

So I throw up a deadpan mask, crossing my arms and my legs to stop them from jittering in the sea breeze’s chill. To be honest, it takes all my strength to not hyperventilate, to not just dive over the boat’s edge and sink into oblivion.

Why can’t I? I ask myself, suppressing a smile that would probably scare even my mother. Scare anyone, really. I’ve seen that smile in the mirror and it scares myself. It’s the smile of someone with nothing to lose.

But I do have things to lose, I know I do. Just...I can’t focus on them. They seem so far away. Mother...I picture her face in my mind. I can see her clearly, but it feels like I haven’t seen her in years. “Mother,” I murmur aloud, my lips forming the word carefully. Mother: the unfortunate center of my life’s brief orbit.

Suddenly, I hear the sound of a seagull overhead, the first sign of life since I’ve woken up. I swallow my growing nausea and lean slightly forward, pressing my stomach into delicate knuckles.

After the seagull, I know what’s next.

I almost giggle when I hear it: the moaning, clanking, girth of a ship, the toot of its low horn. The cruise ship approaches.

It’s currently nothing more than a speck on the horizon, but I’m patient. It comes closer, rocking over the waves, inevitable and ponderous. I feel the burn of the sun on my face and ignore it.

I glance down into the water. The cold will soothe my hot skin, I tell myself, and slide in. Swimming in this heat is better than flying. I kick and paddle over to the ship, locating the nearest ladder with practised ease, its silvery sheen stark against the ship’s black side stripe.

Then I’m onboard and I see the first of them. Their skeletons are barely mobile, the joints between the bones poorly formed. I wave my hand and the five nearest to me stand erect, their bodies reinforced, their loyalties turned.

Effortless.

I don’t smile; it’ll just give the watchers pleasure. This is what they want, I know by now. They want this. Why else would they go through all the trouble?

But I feel like smiling as the skeletons grin all around me, violet lights in their eyes replacing the pale green of before. At the same time, sunset-red flows from their eyes to their bones, cushioning them and keeping them in place as surely as skin, ligaments, and tendons. It makes the skeletons look pink, or slightly pink-orange on the skeletons that are yellowed by age.

I walk over the deck, turning the skeletons that cross my path. There are always twenty.

Then I head to the rear of the boat, to the stocks. People lay submerged in water up to their necks, their shackled arms splayed over their heads while their fingers gnash at the sky.

“Help, please!”

“Ah, ah, It’s so cold...”

“I’m blind!”

I ignore them. I used to say “I’m sorry,” but that only ever made things worse. Silence is the best tool in my possession if I’m playing to win.

Or maybe it’s indifference? But I have the suspicion that indifference might be like a callus grown over bone. Let me explain: if you break a joint, like your elbow, the bone will grow back, new, hard, strong. But left unchecked, the new bone will grow differently than what once was, ruining the joint by preventing proper motion.

I didn’t used to be indifferent; rather, I cared too much. And now, I wonder at what I’ve lost: indifference is like that newborn bone, patching a warped wound but ultimately holding me back.

I walk past the clamoring captives and to the far back of the ship, to the engine. I know from experience that the steering mechanism on the ship is broken, and that the only way to change course is by manually steering the rudder. I hold out my hand and wave it to the side. One of the people who died in the pools–there are fourteen–breaks free of her shackles. Her bony wrists are too small for them to contain after I instruct her to rub them free of flesh.

She stands up and exits the pool of moaning captives, her skin glowing softly with red. I used to flinch when she walked past me and into the rudder, when her flesh spattered before the bones broke into pieces that I could easily manipulate from afar.

But it’s been a long time since my range was that short. I stand far enough back that I’m safe from her splatter. I could throw her into the propeller from a hundred meters away at this point. Probably even further than that. I manipulate her bones into place, forcing the largest fragments into the base of the rudder and nudging the ship’s course slightly to the right.

I depart from the back of the deck, glancing furtively around me. I still don’t know how they watch me. I’ve checked for glosscams, I’ve checked for thralled bugs...nothing.

I walk to the front of the ship, where the prow juts off a few feet into the distance. I rest my arms on the railing and feel the ocean spray against my forehead.

The ship started out as a near insurmountable puzzle. Defeat the skeletons, reconstruct a map, find the grimoire, master decemancy. I used to think that “rescuing the people” was part of the task. I have a sour taste in my mouth as I think of the moment when I really and truly realized my idealistic folly. My job was to ferry them, not rescue them–there’s nowhere to rescue them to, not out on the ocean. And bringing them into Menocht Bay delivers them into the hands of a city gripped by outbreak.

 By the time I get on the boat, they’re all already half-dead and unable to stand from weakness. I once tried bringing them out of their fetid pool and onto the deck, and they all collapsed and died. Suspended in the cool water, their narrow profiles and sardine-packing limiting exposure to the sun, is the best way.

Once I carried two-hundred of them below deck, enlisting the skeletons for help. Even then, out of the sun, they died. Every possible action aside from keeping them in their aquatic holding container has led to their untimely deaths.

I realize, as I think of this, that I’ve never once tried rescuing one of them and talking to them about why they’re on the boat in the first place.

It seems like a most logical thing to do. I almost feel like crying from frustration, aimed entirely at myself. I look over my shoulder at a seagull overhead. Have I dehumanized them so much, after all this time? Thinking of them as some kind of test, or obstacle?

I know I have. And I know why I didn’t talk to them in the beginning.

First, I was dealing with a lot. Like the fact that I kept continuously dying, and reliving the same nightmare scenario.

Second, I was more interested in beating back skeletons than chatting with a bunch of emaciated, horrifyingly-sunburned people.

And third...those people scared me. They looked like standing corpses: Just one look at them was enough to know that they’d never recover from this ordeal. And whenever they called out to me, it was with such desperation and anguish that–well, it disturbed me. And to someone who generally avoids human interaction, it was too much.

And so I kept my distance, tuning out their cries as I did pretty much anything else to keep busy.

I sigh and return to the moment. I almost consider heading to the back of the boat personally, but think better of it. Instead, I instruct two skeletons lazing about to fetch someone from the pools. I direct them towards the human with the smallest aura of death in the hopes that they will be...less fragile.

The skeletons come back a minute later. I feel the feeble struggles of their chosen human as he’s brought to kneel behind me.

“Why...why...”

I turn around. All the skeletons need is a glance to know that they’ve been dismissed. I look at the pathetic person in front of me, at his bony form and blood-shot eyes. Are they...? Ah, so the blind one. And considering the meat still remaining on his bones, I reckon that when he first came into the care of...whoever captured him and the others, he wasn’t exactly thin.

It’s served to keep him alive, at the very least. And maybe the blindness from looking at the sun has saved his brain from the horror of looking at the people around him.

I can tell from the pauses between his words that he’s out of breath from the small walk, and thirsty. From what I understand, the only thing the people on the boat have to drink is their pool water–also their wastewater–and rain that falls every other day or so from the sky. It’s probably been at least a day since he’s had anything to drink.

One of my skeletons comes forth with a bowl of water, my desire calling him forth just as surely as a gesture of my hands or a glare from my eyes. I grab it from his warm, bony clutches and step forward. The person tenses at the motion, even though my feet are quiet on the plank floor.

It must be so silent here, I notice, compared to in the back. Any sound would go noticed. He’s latching onto anything he can to understand what’s happening.

I clear my throat, and he stills. “Hello,” I say, surprised at how smoothly the words roll off my tongue. “I have taken over this ship and have changed its course for the closest shore.”

“Oh, oh Y’jeni, please...”

I almost smile to reassure him before I remember that he’s blind and it won’t matter either way. I’ll have to encourage him with words, then.

“I’m–” I pause internally, shaking my head. I hold my mother’s image firmly in my mind, her aquiline features and cold expression anchoring me to my past.

“I’m Ignatius,” I finish. Named after her husband, and the father before him...and so on. “But you can call me Iggy.”

“Iggy?” Incredulity saturates the man’s voice. The name sounds innocuous–what kind of villain is named Iggy?

I chuckle. “Yes, I know, it is a bit silly. Now, if I’m to do anything to help you and the others on this ship–” I begin. But I pause. “My apologies, I didn’t realize you were so thirsty.” I say this as the man licks his bleeding, cracked lips. I wonder if he notices my disingenuity. “Here, let me give you some water.” I step forward, the bowl of water secure in my hands. “Open your mouth and I’ll pour water down your throat...”

“Thank...you...”

I place the bowl by the man’s lips, then use one hand to hold the bowl and the other to direct the man’s hands onto the bowl’s sides. I leave him, stepping back to watch.

I’ve never seen a person drink the way this man did.

After he finishes with the bowl, he begins to lower it down but drops it a few inches from the floor. From the spasms in his hands, I can tell that the action wasn’t intentional. Either way, the bowl is fine. I leave it where it is.

“So,” I say, “tell me. What happened to the lot of you?”

He begins to sniffle, tears running down his face. Don’t be impatient, don’t be impatient...”I know it’s been difficult,” I say consolingly, “but I need to know who did this to you.”

“I’m blind,” he moans, covering his face with his hands. He collapses to a sitting position, no longer kneeling before me. It...irritates me. Maybe because it seems so sloppy and unpoised. Maybe because I am used to fear, and this man has none.

“Who–“

The man interrupts me. “I don’t know the name of the person who did this,” he murmurs, his face looking up, as though trying to pinpoint the location of my eyes. “But I can tell you what I know.”

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About the author

caerulex

  • USA
  • The Timeless

Bio: Originally from Chicago, I recently graduated from college with a degree in biomedical engineering, and am now working full-time as an AI/ML software engineer. While science/engineering/CS are great, my true loves are reading and writing.
Feel free to PM me in English, my native language; Chinese, or French (which are not my native languages, but I'm comfortable with them after years of study).

Things I love that you can probably reference in comments/PMs: wuxia/xianxia novels, anime, manga, popular MMOs, popular console/PC video games, popular English-language tv shows, kdramas, fantasy/science fiction novels

Fun fact is that I wrote chapters 1 through 101 of Apex Predator, my first web novel, in a text editor (Sublime). No spell checking for me, no sir! Also wrote the first half of The Menocht Loop in Sublime as well.

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