Chapter 17: "The Exile"
It had been hours since the Old Man had watched the Island King lead his friends into the jungle. Not one of them had even looked back in doubt; they were all so enamored—no—enchanted by the Island King. He despaired at the hopelessness of it, settled himself onto a large rock along the beach, and stared out into the sea. As his hand smoothed over his eyes, tears began to eke out through his fingers.
He hadn’t even noticed how much his clothes had dried until the tide came in and wet his pant legs all over again. The Old Man opened his eyes and blinked the blurriness from them as he glanced down at his submerged feet. There was something else there too, however. Swept against the very rock that he was seated on, there was a small triangle of canvas, half sunken in sand. It looked to the Old Man like the corner of a painting of some sort. For whatever reason, he felt compelled to pick it up…so he did just that.
As the Old Man’s hand closed around the bit of canvas, he felt a surge of warmth spread from that hand to his arm and up throughout the rest of his body like an electrical pulse. But this pulse felt wonderful, as though the Old Man had grown somehow stronger in the process. Fresher. More alive.
He looked at his hands; still wrinkled and antique as they had been that morning, he grasped the canvas tightly. The ocean breeze kicked up mightily as it whipped around the Old Man’s place on the beach. The salty breeze against his face caused the Old Man to close his eyes for just a moment. But in that moment, a realization sank over him: this hum of the waves, the buzz of the breeze, the thump of his own heartbeat in his chest. These sounds were no longer dissonant tones, but were one force united in rhythm. It was a song…and there was a voice in that song. The melody lifted him and empowered him. It was the Woman; her guiding light and music soared within his very Soul once again.
This feeling of might and truth suddenly became more than that…more than just some fleeting sensation. It became part of him. All of him. And just like that, he knew that he had to get his friends back…had to save them. Because, deep inside that song was a warning. His friends were in serious danger.
The Old Man followed the Woman’s song until he found the trail that had been left by his companions. Knowing little about tracking and even less about this island, the Old Man hurried into the palm jungle after his friends.
Marielle felt an uneasy churn in the pit of her stomach; something felt wrong about this. Why was she following this Island King? They knew nothing about him. And how could they have just left the Old Man back at the beach? She squeezed Kori’s hand and hoped for some response…but he just kept walking. This time she stopped walking and drew back on his hand.
“What’s wrong? Why are we stopping?” Kori asked without any inflection or emotion.
“This is all wrong,” she whispered. “Don’t you feel it? It’s like a daze…like we’re just acting out a dream or something.”
Kori nodded. “Of course. It’s all been like a dream right from the start. The Woman, the mountain men, the birds, the Endless Sea. Why should the Island King be any different?”
“But the Old Man—”
“—chose his path poorly,” the Island King interjected, staring coldly at Marielle. “I already explained the truth of it, haven’t I? Ye will be at peace here.”
An odd calm washed over her. “Y-yes…y-y-you did say that. I guess I j-just forgot for a minute. I’m sorry I slowed us; we can keep moving.”
The Island King grinned, “Hardly a need for it. We’ve all but arrived; cannot ye hear the waves? Why, it’s just through those palm fronds; go on, lead yer people into my kingdom.” Marielle and Kori walked forward, parted the foliage, and stepped into the sunshine. The rest of the travelers followed them onto a rocky beach.
Marielle marveled at the island paradise before her. There were causeways webbing out into the sea with wooden structures, ladders, and stairs dotting the constructed landscape. Immense palm trees reached up above it all and housed small—but livable—huts. As most of Marielle’s companions loudly cheered and celebrated their new home, Claire did not. She only mumbled something to herself. Marielle moved closer to Claire to hear her words.
“Where are all the people?” was all that Claire said.
Marielle turned back to the view of the Island Kingdom and took one more, deep and focused look around. Claire was right; for all the huts and dwellings and walkways, there were no other living Souls in sight. None.
The king crept up right behind Marielle and whispered, “Welcome home.”
Then, with a loud holler from the king, the coastal city erupted with life. But not human life. Only slightly taller than adolescent children, but hunched and bent in stature, the creatures crept out from every nook and cranny that the kingdom had been hiding. Even the rocks and debris on the beach seemed to come alive and unfold into little goblins. They were sallow-skinned and bug-eyed with long nails, unkempt patches of hair, and teeth that looked to have been sharpened to carnivorous points. They were monsters that slunk and crawled, climbed and swung, snarled and hooted. And there were hundreds of them.
“Take them to the Parapet!” the king’s voice cracked unceremoniously over the jeers of his twisted subjects.
Within seconds, all of the travelers had been bound in thick vine ropes and were being dragged out to the most distant sea-top platform. As the creatures hauled them further along the wooden causeway, the beach settlement vanished into the mists and sea spray. They were now on a lone boardwalk with waters raging below them and fog obscuring the world around them.
At last, the causeway opened up into a large circular platform, far out beyond the point where the waves broke. Veiled in mist, a massive orange stone stood at the platform’s center. It stood many times taller than a man and crystalline in structure. Marielle stared at the megalith and thought, for a moment, that she saw it pulse with a dull light.
“Welcome to the Parapet, my children.” Though Marielle could not see the Island King, she recognized the chilling titter in his voice.
“Do not bother to speak nor ask a thing; it will not serve ye well here. This is where the heart of my kingdom beats. Old blood pumps in and new blood pumps out. Eh? The Woman calls! Oh she calls and calls, doesn’t she? Beckons ye forth on a journey…as she did to us all long before ye washed up bedraggled on my shores. That’s the ticket, isn’t it? Ye set out on her quest of quests and brave the dangers, hold the faith, keep the path. Aye, but that path always leads ye here; just as it led all these hopeless babes to my sands.” He gestured around at all the creeping creatures. “And just as the Woman’s siren song claimed even my attention eons ago. But I was not worthy, was I? No, never good enough for her. None of us were. This is the island of her forgotten promises.” He growled like a feral animal, but then quickly reclaimed his regal demeanor. “Only the worthy pass this point. And I…I am king here. I decide worth. Pains me to say it, so it does; but ye don’t measure up. So, in a way, ye did find yer destiny. And ye’ll go no further.” The Island King clacked his scepter against the pulsing crystal—the Parapet—and giggled psychotically. “Ye all belong to me now.”
The Parapet began to glow fiercely, burning its orange to a searing red. “No worries, children. No more questions; only answers. The choice belongs to ye all now. Touch the Parapet and join the ranks of my people…or have yer skulls dashed upon the rocks below. The clock, it ticks away; can ye hear it?”
Two of the creatures took hold of Marielle’s arms and dragged her forward. Marielle struggled and kicked out at her captors. She could hear Kori causing a scuffle on her behalf somewhere in the mists. The Island King moved forward, touched her shoulder, and told her to calm down. It was a suggestion…a command that she simply could not deny. Marielle knew that he had bewitched her, knew that she was not in control, but she could do nothing to protect against it. She could only submit to his wish. The creatures pulled her close to the Parapet, until she could almost feel the light against her cheek. Then she felt the king’s rancid breath against her ear, “Choose.”
“Let them go!” a familiar but shockingly powerful voice roared over the crashing waves. “You are king of nothing! You rule no one! And your sad little play at make believe has come to an end.”
The king stood upright and glared through mists at the source of the insults. The Old Man stood proud and strong. Marielle gasped as she looked upon him, though she wasn’t entirely sure why. But something was very different about the Old Man. He was vibrant…alive…mighty.
Marielle’s was not the only breath that had been stolen by the Old Man’s rejuvenation. The throngs of twisted, deformed creatures were suddenly dumbstruck. They immediately stopped whatever atrocities they had been committing and fell to their knees, bowing to the Old Man as though he were a deity.
The Island King flew into a rage. “Stop that! Devour him, my children! I command ye!” he shouted until he was hoarse, eyes bulging and veins popping like chords in his neck. But the creatures seemed to not even hear him, so enamored were they with the Old Man.
Without action from his minions, the Island King rushed at the Old Man with his scepter raised as a club. The king was so fast, so wild, and so rage-filled that no one could stop him. Not even the Old Man had a moment to raise his arms in defense. The king had murder in his eyes.
Just as the scepter came smashing down to destroy the Old Man, a cracking sound rang out across the Parapet. It echoed with a deafening cannonade that quickly joined the sound of the surf below. The Island King’s scepter fell from his hands before it had connected with the Old Man. The Island King himself staggered backward and clutched at his own chest; there was a bleeding hole there, through his heart. Something had pierced his whole body from front to back. The king stumbled once more and then dropped. A moment later, his dead eyes stared vacantly into the sky above. The dreaded Island King had been killed.
As the stunned travelers stared through the mist for some sign of the king’s assassin, the hull of an immense ship emerged from the whiteness, the words H.S. Mightier marking its bulkhead.