I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.
Up until now, despite my habit of complaining, I hadn’t truly regretted my actions as a member of the Eye’s crew. When I saved the cabin boy, I had no regrets. I couldn’t just let him drown. Likewise, I had no alternative but to fight the pirate captain after he’d boarded the ship. Though these decisions led to an unwanted reputation amongst my peers, their respect was simply a casualty of doing my duty. I’d had little choice in either matter.
But why then did I feel compelled to help the village of Ral-Joo?
We’d not been on the island more than an hour when several of the crew, accompanied by a small group of villagers, came to find me. There was enough concern on their faces that I immediately knew no good would come of our meeting.
As I listened apprehensively, my concerns were soon justified. It seemed the island had recently attracted the attention of what the people of Ral-Joo described as a powerful “witch-doctor”. At least, this is what the translator related to me. Ever since this witch-doctor’s arrival, the weather on the island had grown steadily worse as he attempted to either drive the people of Ral-Joo from their home or, failing that, kill them. What’s more, he’d recently used his “magic” to summon a number of unnatural beasts from the sea itself. These fish-like monsters had then snuck into Ral-Joo during the night and stolen many of the village’s children! The witch-doctor would only release them, or so he said, if the villagers agreed to abandon the island entirely. The people of Ral-Joo would gladly have obeyed to save their children, but they had no where to go and their boats were not built for anything more than fishing. It certainly did sound like they needed help.
But why come to me? These people didn’t know me, and I certainly hadn’t offered to help. To them, I shouldn’t have been anything more than the clumsy fool they’d seen fall into the ocean earlier that morning. It didn’t seem to make sense.
Then it came to me. There could be only one explanation for the villagers’ believing I might be able to stop this witch-doctor, and that was the crew. The men of the Eye believed me some sort of hero and had probably “offered” my help. The thought made me uneasy.
The men must have noticed my sudden mood change because I saw them share several, nervous glances. If they assumed I was scared, they were right, but I doubt they knew exactly why. I do not, after all, fear witch-doctors or their magic. That’s nothing more than superstition. But the villagers’ claims of oddly shifting weather did seem real enough; I’d seen it earlier when the wind knocked me into the sea. I was frightened, true, but only because I knew what must actually be behind their misfortune, and it wasn’t some shaman.
The island had become the home of a Shaper.
Shapers, as most of you know, are a nasty lot. Unlike Steelweavers, their reality-bending “talents” extend well beyond what can be accomplished with a blade, making them extremely dangerous. I had met a few in the past, though I’d never been asked to kill one. It seemed almost suicidal to even suggest it. How can you defeat someone who controls reality itself?
I’d barely had time to curse my luck when a deafening thunder peal sounded overhead. I noticed the men of Ral-Joo flinch, causing an unexpected feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something about their reaction bothered me. These were proud men, strong and normally courageous, but they’d reacted to the noise in the same way a child might. Thunder was, of course, nothing to fear– these men must have heard it thousands of times while living on the island. But now they were afraid. Not of the noise itself, nor even the storm it foretold, but of the evil behind it. This Shaper had robbed them of more than their homes and children. He’d taken the villagers’ spirit as well, and I knew they wouldn’t be able to reclaim that on their own.
Through the translator, I asked the villagers if they knew where we could find this witch-doctor. They immediately began to “whoop” and celebrate my decision to help. It was awkward. Eventually, they calmed down enough for one of the men to motion towards the hills north of Ral-Joo. We paused only to arm ourselves before setting off in that direction to find and hopefully put an end to the threat. I still had no idea how to stop the Shaper, but I was certainly going to try.
We’d made it a mile or so outside of the village when rain suddenly began to fall. There was no warning either, no trickle to let us know the real storm was on its way. The clouds just seemed to burst all at once, blanketing everything in great sheets of water. Everything– including us– was quickly soaked, making the trip much more difficult. Our feet sank with every step as we continued our trudge up the hills.
Finally, the downpour proved too much and we were forced to seek cover. Thankfully the men of Ral-Joo knew the area well and led us to a small cave dug into one side of the hill we’d been climbing. We scampered towards it as more thunder rang out nearby.
Immediately, I began to wring the water from my clothing as the others settled down against the stone walls. It certainly felt good to be out of the rain. But what now? The weather had effectively trapped us here, with no way to reach the Shaper. I suddenly felt a familiar sense of overwhelming gloom. I had failed the men of Ral-Joo, even before we’d actually reached our destination.
Having given in to my natural pessimism, I sat there on the muddy floor staring at the water rushing by us. The damnable rain had create what looked like a river pouring into the cave, though luckily the floor was slanted enough for us to be seated above the water itself. I listened somewhat obliviously to it surging into the darkness. At least it had somewhere to go which meant we likely wouldn’t drown as the cave filled-up.
Suddenly I sprung to my feet, having realized what this meant. If there was plenty of room for the water, then there had to be more to the cave than the small room where we now sat. Perhaps there were tunnels.
Removing a torch from the bag I’d brought with me, I was relieved to find it and my flint had remained dry– if there is anything I would recommend to would-be explorers, it’s buy a good pack. I then made my way towards the back wall of the cave as the others watched from along the sides. I could feel their curious stares as I pushed myself through a small crack in the stone, but I ignored them for now. Once on the other side, I stifled a gasp at what lay before me. Rising for dozens of feet, a network of stone bridges ascended into the cavern itself! Though they were no wider than a ship’s gangplank, I felt certain we could safely cross them. But even as stood there, the realization of what I was looking at sent a chill through my spine. This stone labyrinth was clearly not natural; something had carved it.
By now the others had begun to join me. They seemed equally shocked by what I’d discovered, revealing another important bit of information. Given their reaction, the men of Ral-Joo had not been behind the creation of this cavern. I was now all but certain I knew who had.
Because the stone was wet, we were forced to move slowly along the narrow bridges. They certainly seemed thinner now that we were out on them. Though I tried my best to not look down more often than necessary, I still had several spells of dizziness. The men of Ral-Joo seemed to be faring better than the rest of us, though, and I felt them steady me more than once. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached a small platform and decided to rest for a moment. Slowly our labored breathing died away, leaving only the sound of the water below us. I closed my eyes and cleared my mind.
That’s when I heard the sound for the first time. It was something like a croaking, but not exactly. There was an almost gibbering noise to it, as if something that had no right to speak had suddenly tried. Opening my eyes, I saw several of the villagers had begun to panic and were frantically trying to tell us something. I turned to the translator and noticed, even in the poor light, he seemed more pale than usual.
“The witch-doctor’s beasts,” he said in a trembling tone. “They’ve found us.”
To be continued…