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The sun glared down at the little boat like a mean kid looking at ants through a lens.
The light wasn't necessarily hot, but it was unbearably bright, so bright that it blanched the ocean and sky an ashy white. The dry air vacillated back and forth, disorienting the ocean and sky together. With no shade in sight, there was no choice but to remain victim to the glowing orb overhead. The harsh light physically bore down on the three survivors, weakening their limbs, dragging their eyes to the wooden deck: the least blinding thing to look at.
It had not rained in days; furthermore, there was not the slightest indication of rain anytime soon. Even the smallest droplets of moisture left in the rusty water pails had long faded into the arid air. The stagnant waters baked in the sunlight, and even they seemed desert-like. The waves resembled hills of sand, and there was no end in sight. Sometimes it seemed like there was land on the horizon, but the sliver of hope also turned to sand.
Everyone knew that the hourglass was running out.
Time could not have moved any slower; the boat dragged through the water like a beetle stuck in a tar pit. The farther the beetle tried to crawl, the more the tar sucked it in. It's spindly legs frantically gripped at the tar, trying to run, but it was no use: its fate was sealed. In a last ditch effort, it attempted to open its wings and buzz out of the muck, but the sticky goo held it down like shackles. Then the only question was how it would die.
Would it sink far enough into the gunk to suffocate?
Or would the black tar boil the beetle's insides like a pressure cooker?
Wake tried, in vain, to swallow, but his saliva had long turned into a thick, pasty substance that slithered down his throat like a slug. The ocean beckoned him to drink, enticing like a siren singing in a divine voice. In his deteriorating mind, he knew the only things the ocean had to offer were lies and temptation. He knew that salt water wouldn't quench his thirst; it would only make him thirstier. He knew his kidneys wouldn't be able to process the excess salt.
Still, he flirted with the decision.
Maybe just a sip to wash my throat.
He coughed a dry, stabbing cough.
Over the past week, his tongue hardened to stone, and the roof of his mouth turned into paper. He wouldn't have been surprised if he coughed up a cloud of dust that had accumulated in his lungs. Each time he gasped for breath, he theorized that his lungs weren't really lungs anymore but just shriveled bags of leather that could barely fill with air.
The cool, refreshing taste of water was only a distant memory. Periodically, his mind hallucinated a cup of water in his hand or the clap of thunder and subsequent rain falling from the sky. He could physically feel the enlivening tingling of the droplets hitting his cheeks and running down his neck, but the taste of bloody iron on his cracked lips always brought him back to the shade-less corner of the boat in which he sat.
He barely registered the change in movement as Hunter glided in on a nonexistent breeze. All was silent save for the flapping of his wings as he tucked them into his sides. He could barely register the sound of a fish slapping the floorboards of the boat. It was as if everything happened in front of him, but he, himself, was simply a witness. His mind was so degraded that he couldn't comprehend anything he saw or heard.
Hunter cocked his head to the side, his eyes full of heartache for his suffering friend. The osprey-dove picked up the bony little fish and dropped it in Wake's lap. He nudged the catch with his beak and pleadingly looked up into the boy's blank eyes.
The fact that Hunter managed to catch anything was a miracle. Schools of fish had become scarce over the past few weeks. Wake previously thought about harvesting kelp or seaweed to eat, since all plants contained freshwater trapped in their tissue. If there were no plants, then they'd resort to drinking the blood of any type of animal they could capture, but even these last ditch efforts were futile. There was no sign of any animals, and the kelp forests had vanished.
No food, no water, and no wind: it was only a matter of time.
"Thanks buddy," Wake rasped.
He ran a feeble hand through Hunter's long head-feathers.
Hunter cooed, begging Wake to eat the fish, for the bird knew the consequences of refusing any type of nutrition in these conditions.
Wake sighed and picked up the spiny fish, his hands jittering from the corrosion of his joints. The truth was, he hadn't had a true meal in over a week, and he hadn't tasted water for five to six days; he forgot the actual number. Either way, without water, not enough oxygen could get to his muscles, and as a result they began to break down. The effect was gradual; first his eyes and lips went dry, next fatigue set in, and finally his spirit began to wear away.
With the wind no longer blowing, it was nearly impossible to tell if the boat was moving at all. For all he knew, they could've been going backwards. He couldn't even look towards the horizon anymore because the torrid sunlight burned his retinas. The white cloth did little to shade his eyes, but it didn't matter; he could barely keep them open.
Without the mental intuition or physical ability to gut and cook the fish, he slumped in the corner of the boat and bit into its scales, spitting out the sharp cartilage. Very little separated him from a rabid animal as his canines pierced through the flesh. It was a horrific food source; the spines stabbed his gums, and the meat tasted of ammonia. He could barely muscle it down his throat. The thought of liquefied fish organs made him want to vomit. After he finished eating what he could, he felt even worse than before.
Inside his chest, his heart pounded violently. The palpitations exploded in his ears and sent shockwaves through his body. Each and every one of his veins and capillaries expanded and contracted, and it felt like he was going to burst into pieces. He clutched at his heart because he was afraid it would rip through his chest and flop onto the wooden deck, spewing blood everywhere. For brief moments, his vision flashed violent crimson, and he could've sworn he felt his blood congealing, thickening inside him. Each pulse hurt more than the next as if a serrated knife stabbed him in the chest, digging deeper and deeper with each thrust.
He groaned and shivered as he held his stomach. His skin stretched tightly over his ribcage, his cheekbones protruded sharply, and his eyes sunk deep into their sockets. Moving was a painful. His weakened ligaments did nothing to ease his joint pain. The ends of his bones scraped and collided every time he bent his knees or elbows. Hunger and dehydration had long exhausted his water and fat stores, and now his body consumed his muscle tissue. Before long, it would turn to devouring itself from the inside for energy.
He looked and felt like a skeleton.
He tried to think of what the Old Man would say, something inspirational, something meaningful to help him. Fragmented words like "hope", "determination", and "drive" floated in his mind, yet he was unable to connect them together in a complete thought. He wished Inasahan's voice would pierce through the dry air and give his life some kind of structure, a point in the right direction, but there was only silence, utter silence.
He gently stroked Hunter's feathers. His hands stopped shaking and his pulse returned to normal.
He closed his eyes.
The absence of sound was the worst part. Nobody was coming to save them. There was no spirit in the sky going to cradle them in a fluffy cloud and whisk them away to safety. If he so much as whispered a call for help, the dryness in the air would surely muffle it to silence. There was no cawing of sea ravens, no swishing of fins in the water, and no crashing of waves on the shore; everything related to life was gone. The absence of sound constricted his mind and pressed down on his skull like it had when he first walked the lonely shores of the Island.
He tried to imagine what the Island looked like now. All he could remember was the soggy ash in the water and the blackened sand on the shores. Charcoal piles littered the village square, and a forlorn wind blew through the hollow forest.
Maybe he was never meant to leave the Island.
Maybe his fate had always been to die, and this voyage was simply a short, failed attempt to postpone the inevitable.
On the opposite side of the boat, Grace sat hunched over on the bow, her toes dipping slightly in the water. Her long white hair was knotted and weathered from sleeping in awkward positions and working in intense temperatures. Her face no longer glowed with excitement; instead, her expression told a story of struggle and, more than anything else, weariness.
She was tired, so very tired.
The crisp night air, the tranquility of the pond, and the comfort of her home were all figments of her imagination. With all her willpower, she tried to find solace in those good memories, anything to escape from the harsh sunlight and monotonous water. She tried to visualize the first sighting of land, the looming mountains with clouds hiding their peaks. Maybe the air would be cool and breathable; she hoped there'd be a breeze.
How her sunburned skin yearned for a soothing breeze.
Sometimes she could've sworn she saw the mountains, but each time she blinked they fell back into the sea, and, once again, all that remained were miles and miles of flat water. Other times, she thought she saw her parents. They always sat in the same way, their backs turned to her. She couldn't mistake Fay's silky brown hair and Ren's trusting arm wrapped around her shoulder. She pictured herself sitting with them, enjoying their loving warmth and protection. Subconsciously, her arm reached out for them, grasping desperately at the dry air, but the closer she got, the farther they faded away. They never looked back.
How she wished she could see their faces.
She was a strong person, and she knew it, but it was still hard. She refused to let tears dampen her strained, bloodshot eyes. She refused to let the wet droplets roll down her bony cheek. No matter how lonely she was, she couldn't cry. Even if she wanted to cry, she couldn't, since dehydration sapped the last ounces of moisture from her body anyways. Instead of crying, the sting of reality ate away at her inside. Dreams and memories were enemies full of deceit, painful mirages that blocked the truth.
How she wished she were somewhere far, far away, away from the searing dryness, away from the endless desert of water, somewhere where the grass was green and soft, somewhere where life was worth living.
Something kept her from dying during the fire. Even as the flames closed in, they couldn't hurt her. While everyone else burned alive and turned to ash, somehow she escaped the same fate. Somehow she woke up, not in an afterlife, but alive, in the physical world: a survivor.
The only survivor.
She had been ready to die, ready to return to her parents. She willingly let the flames claim her, yet here she was, sitting on the bow of a boat in the middle of the ocean on the verge of dying yet again.
Is it some sick, twisted game, and I'm the pawn?
Or is there a reason that I've had to suffer?
The last time she prayed, she lay safely in her bed, underneath the covers. She could smell the lingering scent of calming smoke in the air. She couldn't remember her parents' exact words that night, but she remembered their tone: pure happiness, excitement. They had been overjoyed to begin a new life, a new journey together. That night, she prayed in thanksgiving for all the gifts she was blessed with. She had been so fortunate.
She prayed differently now.
Her voice came out small and shaky.
"Spirits, I can't tell if you're there or not, but I hope you can hear me because I need you now more than ever."
"I don't know what to do anymore. Please, point me in a direction, any direction, because I'm just so confused. I can't make sense out of anything that's happened."
She swallowed her pain and tried to look at the positives.
"Thank you for letting me meet new, amazing friends. Don't forget to look after them, too. I don't know if they believe in spirits or not, but please protect them."
She glanced at Wake slumped over in the back of the boat with Hunter at his side.
The boy with black hair half-consciously stroked the bird's feathers.
"They've done everything they can to help me, to lift me up when I needed it most."
She smiled wearily as she thought about the way Wake and Hunter quarreled, fought, and argued, but at the end of the day trusted each other unconditionally. They were both born with literally nothing, but they still approached each day like they had everything to gain. They gave up everything to help her, even thought they had nothing. More than anything, Grace admired them, respected them like no one else she'd ever met, and it hurt like hell to see them slowly wasting away. If anything drove her to keep living, it was her desire to see them reach their destination, but even this couldn't mask the unhealed wound that still bled in her heart.
Even in the harsh light, goose bumps formed on her skin, and emotion spilled through her forced calm.
Her voice shattered.
"Why did they have to die?"
"Why do things have to be this way?"
"I understand death is a part of life, but why did it have to happen like this?"
"It's just unfair that I'm sitting here alive, and they're gone."
Her heart throbbed with things she wanted to say but couldn't articulate. She wanted to say how much she yearned for Ren's embrace, how much she needed to hear Fay's soothing voice, how angry she was. Rage built up inside her, rage with no direction, just blind rage. The pent up anger scratched and clawed at her throat, looking for a way out of its cage. She wanted to scream, to scream until every last bit of energy faded from her body and she could scream no more, but the ever-present silence suppressed her rage until it melted down into grief.
She closed her eyes and spoke softly.
"Spirits, I miss them. I know what's done is done."
"I know I can't change the past, but I can't get this ache out of my heart."
"I know I should move on; that's what they would want."
"I now know that it's truly over, even though I kept trying to deny it."
"I really do know that everything happens for a reason, but I still can't help but feel torn apart. "
"It's there all the time when I smile, when I laugh, and when I sleep; the pain is always there, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to recover."
"I don't think I'll ever be the same again."
"It hurts too much to remember, and it's impossible to forget."
She cupped her face in her hands.
"I-I...I just miss them so much"
Tears spilled from her eyes but dried immediately and left her skin red and chapped. The salt stung her tender skin, but she barely even noticed it.
"Pull yourself together, Grace," she sniffled.
A gentle hand rested on her shoulder, and she spun around to see Wake. He didn't say a word as he sat next to her on the bow and dipped his toes in the water in the same way.
Up close, she saw the full extent to which hunger and dehydration ate away at his body. His ribs protruded through his tight skin, and his stomach permanently sucked in. She could only imagine the agony he went through simply to get up and walk from one end of the boat to the other. Even so, his wide, dark eyes burned intensely against his gaunt face. The intensity transformed into nervous innocence when he asked:
"Grace, what were your parents like?"
She wiped the corner of her eye.
"I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have asked. It wasn't my place to-"
"No. It's okay, really," she cut him off.
"My parents' names were Ren and Fay."
She winced as she used the past tense, but continued anyways.
"My father was an amazing man, even if he was a bit quirky."
She smirked at memories of his obsession with botany.
"He always knew what to say to bring a smile to my face, and I didn't really appreciate it until I got older, but he always returned home with sweat and dirt smeared on his skin. He worked harder than anyone I'd ever seen; it was all for me and my mom."
Color returned to her face as she reminisced in cherished memories. Saying them out loud had a calming effect on her as if the words made it so that her parents were still there, at least for a little while.
"He used to take me on long walks all over the place. Well, they weren't really walks since I always ran ahead, but still, they were really fun anyways. He also showed me the little pond in the forest, the one with the white lotuses and cattails. I remember we sat on the soft moss and just, well, sat there, I guess."
"There was something so simple about his company; it was like all my troubles went away. When I was really young, I had an unrequited love for drawing."
"I now realize that I had zero talent, " she admitted.
"Anyways, I was struggling with what to draw, and I kept chucking crumpled paper into the failure pile behind me. I was going nowhere until he saved me by taking me into the woods for the first time. The white lotus inspired me, gave me something to draw, and I ended up doing about twenty or so renditions of that single flower."
Wake remained silent, but he listened intently.
"My mom, Fay, was unlike any other woman. She was strong, compassionate, fierce, gentle, brave, and elegant at the same time. Whether I knew it or not, I always looked up to her as my hero."
"I wanted to be just like her."
"But no matter how hard I practiced, no matter how hard I tried, I could never move as effortlessly or as deliberately as her. There was always some kind of magic about her, as if she humbly knew everything but let me figure stuff out for myself."
The girl with white hair gazed out over the flat ocean.
"She taught me everything I know about The Way of the Sword. She taught me how to live with balance in mind and body, how to channel my concentration, how to separate dark and light."
Her voice glowed with enchantment at the memories.
"I remember sitting cross-legged in the grass and breathing in the cool air just after sunset. The rice fields rippled in the wind like a green ocean, and the fireflies glowed like tiny cinders. It was there that I truly felt alive, completely in tune with my soul."
Grace spoke with unparalleled certainty.
"Only now do I realize she didn't just teach me about sword technique; she taught me about life in general. She taught me that Jian Dao is truly about fighting for the right to live everyday, about making each moment count."
"That's how my mom lived her life."
"Even though her soft, brown hair flowed to the small of her back and her fragile fingers were as slender as porcelain, I secretly believed she was untouchable, invincible. I could never imagine anything breaking her will. "
"And, to this very day, I still believe nothing defeated her."
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