Chapter Thirteen: Storm Zone
Nothing odd met his eyes as they entered the village; the squat, domed houses puffed smoke from their chimneys like any other settlement. Even the silhouettes of the villagers looked normal until they neared the coastal town enough to discern actual features. At that point, the blacksmith found himself slightly uneasy about Todo.
Aside from large, flat feet and wide, overly webbed hands, the Walri looked mostly human. Their outstanding features rested on their large, bald heads, replete with baggy, whiskered jowls and thick tusks creeping from their mouths. Oddly enough, none of them seemed concerned by the entrance of the humans; they waddled about their business, waving congenially if Kion or Sayoe caught their eyes. The young man made every effort not to stare, for all the good it did him.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm hungry," Sayoe said as she headed downtown and started examining the signs above the market doors. "How about we get something to eat after we find out when the next boat is leaving?"
"Leaving?" Kion asked.
"If we leave this afternoon, we should be able to sail to Wendel by nightfall," she explained. Stopping abruptly, she jabbed a finger at a large column of a building. "Remember where that one is; it's a restaurant." Quickly turning to the right, she headed a collection of piers at the edge of the water.
Kion looked back at the sign, and realized that none of the writing was in a language he could understand. Hastily memorizing the surroundings, he turned and followed the young lady to the docks. The area was mostly empty; they could not find any boats. A lone Walri wandered along in their direction, and Sayoe quickly approached him.
"Greet," she said with a raised palm.
"Greet," the walrus man said, returning the gesture with his flipper of a hand.
"Can you tell me when the next boat arrives?" Sayoe asked.
"Ooh, sorry, madam," the Walri shrugged. "Our last boat left an hour ago. We won't get another here for another four days."
"Yeah," he nodded. "It's Sylphid's Day, so we don't have any more deliveries for the weekend. Next Luna's Day is Sergo Day, so we won't have any deliveries until Salamando's Day."
"So there won't be any boats here until then?"
Sayoe glanced at Kion over her shoulder and folded her arms in frustration. "I need to get to Wendel as soon as possible. Can you take me on one of your own?"
"You mean a fishing boat?" the Walri confirmed. "I'm afraid none of our fishing boats is in good enough shape to make a trip like that. I wish I could help you."
She sighed and turned away. "Thanks anyway." Waving to him, she headed back downtown, followed by Kion. The two of them said nothing until they got to the restaurant and sat down at a rickety wooden table, dropping their supplies noisily on the floor beside them. Sayoe picked up the warped parchment menu sitting in front of her and looked it over. Kion was studying his with no luck; he looked up at her and wrinkled his brow apologetically. Seeing this, she looked at the unique calligraphy on the menu, and smiled at him a little. "How do you feel about fish?"
"I'll eat it," Kion answered.
She nodded and put the menu down. "That's what most of this is; I'll order us something ordinary." Waving her hand in the air, she beckoned for a server. A pudgy Walri without tusks approached; Sayoe pointed to one of the items on the menu and raised two fingers to the server.
Kion watched the departing Walri and guessed that the ones without tusks might be the females; aside from that, all of the villagers he had seen dressed alike, in overall, sweaters, and overcoats. They were all built heavily, and the little bits of conversation he picked up in the street and around the restaurant all sounded the same. Sayoe plucked the menu on which he had rested his arms, placing it on the far end of the table.
"Do you speak their language?" Kion asked in a low voice.
"Not very well," she answered. "They do so much business with Wendel and other countries that most of them can speak ours, though. This city is a big importing and exporting center; it's an intersection among most of the biggest trade routes in the world." She paused, and smiled a little. "We're really not that far from the Center of the World."
Kion nodded, and watched suspiciously as her smile faded. The young lady glanced out the window, watching the quietly abating snowfall. Her pensiveness melted into a frown. She darted her eyes at him a couple of times; placing an elbow in the table, she rested her head on the heel of her hand. Forcing a sigh through her nose, she blinked hard and lowered her eyes.
Scratching the back of his neck uncomfortably, Kion said: "Well, I guess we have a few days to kill, then."
Sayoe blinked hard again, furrowing her brow. Still looking out the window, she softly said, "I wanna go home."
The server returned, placing two plates onto the table. Kion motioned for her to wait, and produced his pouch of money from his leather pack. Shaking a few larger coins onto his palm, he looked up at her; she gave no reaction. He dropped a few more onto his hand, snuck a look to the plates of unappetizing fish, then back at the server. She did not react, and he dropped another coin onto his hand, then another. Quickly, she seized the sum of money from him, startling him into almost dropping the coins. As the Walri left, the blacksmith eyed his plate of food, totaling up the amount of money he paid again and wondering how much one of the unordinary menu selections would have cost.
Looking at Sayoe, he saw that she had not yet registered the appearance of the food. She was still watching the dying snowfall outside, longingly gazing past the town to the shore. Kion awkwardly poked a fork into his fish, prying a small chunk off and placing it into his mouth. The bitterness of the meat was oddly offset by the odd sweetness of the spices garnishing it. Kion forced himself to finish the bite as quickly as possible and debated whether it would be worth his time to ask for a glass of water. Looking again at Sayoe, he put his fork down and fought to think of something to say.
"Travelers, eh?" A figure walked up to their table. As portly as the other villagers, the Walri smiled widely with his awkward tusks. "Forgive me, but I could not help but overhear what you were saying." He spoke a little hesitantly, as if he was double-checking his grammar, and had an odd habit of gurgling every "w" sound.
Kion forced a smile. "Well, yeah, we were just passing through." Sayoe did not move her head, but was trying to look as the stranger through the corner of her eye.
"Perhaps I may help you," the Walri offered. "My name is York. I believe I know a man who may be able to get you to Wendel today, maybe. The Center of the World, right?"
Sayoe turned her head suspiciously. "How?"
"If you will indulge me, please." With a beckoning gesture, York ambled to the front door. Kion stood and retrieved his leather pack from the floor, sneaking a glare to his partially eaten dish and the plate that Sayoe never touched. She was looking at him questioningly.
He shrugged and said in a low voice, "You probably wouldn't have liked this stuff anyway."
She slowly took her supplies and got up from her chair, following him out the door after York. Sidling up to him, she whispered: "You're going to trust this man?"
The blacksmith cocked an eyebrow. "Not yet, but the worst that can happen at this point is he'll waste our time. But what were we going to do with it in the first place?"
"You have known of the great scientist Bon Voyage, am I right?" York called to them.
Catching up to him, Kion answered in the negative.
"I have," Sayoe replied, picking her pace up slightly. "All I really know is that he was an inventor, and he disappeared a few years ago."
"Yes, and his brother has been working on the inventings he left here behind him." York weaved them through the business sector of the town, and they were soon walking past houses. Most of the huts were of uniform size, but a particularly large one stood out at the edge of the village, belching more smoke than the rest of them. Kion fixed his eyes on it as it became clearer that this place was their destination; while the other houses were single-story dwellings, this one appeared to have a second floor.
York trotted up to the front door and rapped on it with his massive hand. "This is now the house of Bon Jour." The door creaked open and a small figure hopped into view. Almost as wide as he was tall, the pudgy man wore a thick, fur-lined overcoat and hood. Beady eyes flanked a red bulb of a nose that itself dangled a wide moustache in front of his mouth.
"Yes, hello!" Bon Jour cuckooed loudly.
"Mister Bon Jour," York announced, "The two are looking for a way to Wendel, and the boats are all gone for the weekend."
Looking at the two at first with interest, the little man smiled widely with a childlike air of excitement. "In a hurry, are you?" the scientist confirmed as he retreated into the house and waved to them. "Well, come inside, come inside; let me wash up and I'll take you to it."
"Take us to what?" Kion asked, cautiously holding his pack of supplies in front of himself as he entered the dwelling after York.
Bon Jour stopped and turned back to him with a smile. "Oh, you'll see."
As the scientist jogged to his washroom, the Walri asked: "You mean you did not see it from the shore there? I thought you would have, if you had spoken at the docks."
"No," the young man answered. "You mean he has a boat?"
"Better than a boat," York said. "Faster."
"York, my good man," Bon Jour said as he emerged from the back of the house, "Stick around. I'll need your help loading it." Trotting out the front door, the scientist waved for his visitors to follow. "Come on; we have to fetch the capsule."
"Capsule for what?" Kion asked.
York hesitated; Bon Jour stopped and smiled at the young man. "Oh, you'll have to see it."
Kion flashed a concerned look to Sayoe, who shrugged as they followed the Walri out the front door and around to the back of the house. Bon Jour picked up the wide handle to a large wooden cart, carrying a massive rounded package covered in a blanket. York took the other end of the handle, and the pair began dragging the cart around the dwelling. Kion waved Bon Jour out of the way and took hold of the handle in the little scientist's place. Trudging excitedly across the edge of the village, Bon Jour led the group to the shore. Rounding a large storehouse sitting next to the piers, the scientist triumphantly waved at a huge shape standing on the edge of the water. Kion dropped the cart handle.
"I don't believe it."
The thing was made entirely of metal, and its hefty barrel pointed eastward to the sky. It was easily thirty feet long, if not longer, and was supported by a pair of gigantic feet. The back end of the thing bore a wide circular hatch, which the blacksmith guessed was about the same size as the cargo he had just hauled in the wooden cart. He looked at the capsule behind him, and back at the contraption in front of which the scientist stood proudly.
"No," Kion said, backing up, "No. You're kidding me. You're not going to shoot us out of a cannon."
Bon Jour scoffed. "There's nothing to worry about. This cannon was the brainchild of my brother, the great Bon Voyage. We've been using it for a year now; we send our mail to Wendel using this cannon. I envision a world where we can send all kinds of thing by cannon, including people."
The young man faced Sayoe. "Didn't you know about this?"
She was still staring in awe at the machine. "I had no idea we got our mail like this."
"Now, come here," Bon Jour beckoned. "I've been waiting forever to try out my human capsule; it's fitted to carry three people, so there'll be plenty of room for you two." Neither of the travelers moved. "Oh, come on; I've sent more fragile things than people through this cannon. It's perfectly safe." They stared at him, Kion with skepticism and Sayoe with bewilderment. "Look, you'll be well cushioned inside, and there's a parachute that opens at the apex of the capsule's flight. It's as safe as an airplane."
Kion glanced at the young lady; she slowly returned his glance, furrowing her brow. Leaning towards her, he whispered: "There's got to be a way to get out of this."
She looked at the thing through the corner of her eye. "Well... we... might want to try it."
"... You're kidding."
"No," she replied. "We really don't have time to sit around and wait for a more convenient way to get home-- get there."
Kion frowned. "You want to go home that badly?"
Sayoe looked at the ground, then at him. "Well, we do have the Spirits to help us if something goes wrong. And we have to find the rest of them as soon as we can."
Knotting his brow and narrowing his eyes in thought, the blacksmith looked at the cannon, at Sayoe, and at Bon Jour, who was waiting patiently at the foot of the machine while York heft the cart closer to it. Frowning again at the machine, he pursed his lips.
"Okay," he said in a resigned tone. "Let's give it a try."
"Are you sure?" Sayoe asked.
He shrugged. "I've died once this week; what's the harm in trying again?"
She frowned, looking at him in worry, then slowly approached the cannon. Bon Jour and York had removed the blanket from the egg-shaped capsule and were dragging it out of the back of the cart. She took some of the weight of the thing, helping them settle it to the ground. The trio pushed the capsule up to the base of the cannon, and the pudgy scientist unscrewed the clamp on the hatch as Kion walked up to it.
Bon Jour pulled a round brace attached to a quartet of runners from the back of the barrel of the machine and tossed the capsule open, saying, "Hop inside and we'll get you all loaded up."
"Are you sure this is going to work?" Kion asked.
"Of course," the little man promised. "I was out here just a couple hours ago sending a stock of fish to Wendel. Everything's been working perfectly." Waving the pair into the capsule, he showed them where the harnesses were and how they should sit so as to diminish the shock of acceleration. Kion sat on the opposite side of the capsule as Sayoe, keeping the middle seat in between the two of them. When they were properly secured, Bon Jour closed the lid of the capsule, saying: "This will be the most fun ride you'll ever have."
Kion groaned his suspicion, holding his pack of supplies in his lap. Sayoe looked at him, forcing a nervous smile. A round window at the front of the capsule showed them how they were moving as York and the scientist shoved the capsule into the brace at the hatch of the cannon. The door closed and the brace led them up into the belly of the machine. They could barely hear the little man barking directions, and suddenly he was quiet for a second. He began shouting something in a stately fashion, and Kion thought he heard the end of a phrase: "Inaugural human firing."
The young man's body tensed up, and a loud crackling sound preceded the violent forward thrust of the capsule. A horrible metal screeching permeated their heads as the capsule flew out of the barrel of the cannon, whistling a ghastly note as it soared skyward. Kion tried to turn his head and look at the young lady, but could barely move under the force of gravity against their flight. Through the corner of his eye he caught sight of her, sitting in much the same position as he was. Had the capsule not been shaking as much as it was, he might have been more sure that he saw her smiling.
Screaming through the air, the capsule seemed not to know when to stop flying upwards. Slowly, the rattling started to calm, and the capsule slowed down a little. Aware that he could move his head somewhat better, Kion looked at Sayoe to confirm her expression. Suddenly, a clunking sound hiccupped from the back of the capsule, and the entire thing jerked in mid-air. A crack tore through the middle of the casing, and the seat snapped out of the body of the egg. Tearing apart, the seat let go of its harnesses, and the two passengers were thrown forward, pitching crazily into the sky.
Twirling around, Kion could see the parachute dragging the remnants of the capsule back to the ground, below him he could see mostly water, and Sayoe was still not far from him. As he twisted about, his leather pack unwound itself from his shoulder and sailed away from his grasp. Quickly, he twisted back and reached out to seize the young lady by the arm, pulling her close to him as they fell. She looked at him fearfully, and he led her arm over his head, wrapping it over his left shoulder where the leather pack once lied. She clamped her other arm under his right side, clasping both of her hands together and burying her face into his back.
Somewhat in the distance, he saw a finger of land running alongside a much larger island. The peninsula was heavily forested, and he could see that it was approaching them more closely than the mainland. Closing his eyes, he twisted around so that his back was to the island; concentrating hard against the rush of air about his ears and the awful dropping feeling in his gut, he threw his hands out in front of him. A column of air poured out, pushing him backwards as they continued to fall. Opening his eyes, the young man could swear he saw Sylphid floating before him, but the image only lasted for a split second. Casting his eyes over his shoulder, he watched the peninsula draw barely closer. Facing forward again, he forced the stream of air to move faster; the pair jerked backwards harder.
Twisting himself around again, Kion stopped the spell and faced the island, spreading his arms and legs to try and catch as much air against himself as he could. He felt Sayoe's hands loosen their grip, and he placed a hand one them, signaling her to keep her hold. The landform below them began to approach faster, and Kion again aimed his palms forward. With a deep breath, he braced himself and cast the air current again. Pushing hard with his mind, he forced the stream of wind to expand as the trees grew larger and larger in his narrowed field of vision. The muscles in his arm felt more fatigued as he forced the air as fast as he could. With the forest reaching for the pair, he could actually feel their descent slowing, and fought to maintain his effort. The rushing sound of the air became a fierce rustling sound as they fell through the trees, pushing branches out of their way with Kion's spell. A particularly thick branch refused to move, and slapped Kion across the stomach. His arms seized up under the shock of the collision, and Sayoe let go as the two of them fell the rest of the way, unaided, into a wide-leafed bush.
The trees settled down after a while, and any animals in the area had long quieted down. Kion sat up, moving his neck around to check for injury and called: "Are you alright?"
A few feet away, Sayoe appeared. "Yeah," she said, a little shaken.
Rolling out of the bush, the blacksmith stepped into a crudely beaten path, regarding it with suspicion. The young lady stood up lethargically, rotating her right arm and taking stock of the various cuts and bruises about her. She looked at him, standing uncomfortably in front of her, and asked, "How did you think that up?"
"Well," he answered, rubbing the back of his neck, "I remember you saying something about the Spirits helping you down the cliff back there, so I figured this was how they did it. Doesn't seem like fire, rocks, or water would do much for you when you're falling."
Nodding, she smiled in approval, eliciting a slight cringe from the young man. Her face faded into a kind of quizzically hesitant visage. "Why did you... when we were falling... I mean, this time you... could..."
Kion cleared his throat and moved to speak a couple of times. "I had to," he finally said in a low voice, stepping back. "I couldn't let you fall without me. If we got too separated..." Suddenly looking preoccupied with his surroundings, he scanned the forest, and the waxy-leaved trees clouding the landscape. "So this is Wendel?"
"Not really," she answered. "I'm pretty sure this is Phadrikstan; it's an island connected to Wendel in one spot." Looking around, she added, "We'd better find that spot quickly."
Hopping onto the path, she turned around, looking through the trees to the sky. Pointing a finger northward, she started following the path, and Kion followed. The path frequently let itself be obscured by bushes, and they often had to climb through to continue. Kion eventually drew his sword and started to cut through any offending shrubbery. They came upon a thick wall of a bush, and Kion drew his weapon back just as something started pushing through from the other side. Sayoe quickly threw a halting gesture at him.
The wind seemed in no hurry to help him. He knew that he was pretty close, and that the previous day's sailing was good, but being so close made him all the more eager to land. He would make it there by the end of the day, no question, but a more accommodating weather pattern would prove that the heavens were on his side. Not many people were, it seemed sometimes.
He pulled on the rope, realigning the sail to the point where he judged the wind had changed. It was not all that easy, wrapping the line around one arm and using his hand to guide the sail. Sayoe had a better way, surely, but she had more training and was better... prepared for something like sailing.
To the west, he saw a patch of clouds, moving away from the Ice Country. Ordinarily, he liked snow, but if this particular system wanted to take its time moving out to sea, so much the better. Any delays or diversions might have been welcome under more casual circumstances, but not at a time like this. Not with what he knew.
He had to get home as quickly as he could.
And the wind was clearly not obliged to help him out.