Edited by Emily Gehly
Originally published Dirtbag Magazine
In an ancient, faraway land, the people lived much as they do now. They tended to their crops, raised families, obeyed their social norms, and prayed to divine creatures. For them, their systems were progressive and inviolable, always forming to the changing landscape. Technology was primitive, even to our standards, but magical forces allowed these people to live a more luxurious life than we might assume.
A sailor, Fairwinds the Fool, found himself among a series of islands while on a voyage. After stopping at the port of the main island, Astrana, the sailor had a sudden epiphany. For many years he had wandered the docks and harbors of his birthplace, but for too long the ocean beckoned him to explore her mysterious commodities. Now reaching his mid-twenties, Fairwinds concluded that this small chain of islands would be his next home. About nine months after he first saw the Astrana Islands, Fairwinds found himself signing the property deeds at a cozy town hall in the midst of Astrana’s bustling seaport.
“Green Tea?” the clerk graciously offered Fairwinds.
“Please,” replied the sailor-turned-farmer, taking a moment to bow his head in thanks, then returning to the paperwork. The majority of the task was initializing his name, ticking off check boxes, filling in information, and eventually handing over payment for a signed copy of the deed.
Eager to drink the tea due to dehydration from the long day that had preceded him, Fairwinds swallowed a large mouthful without first realizing it was scalding hot. His first instinct was to spit the scorching tea out in front of him, but to do so would douse the clerk in the vile, blistering mixture. Thankfully, she was distracted by the paperwork. With a closed-mouth squall of pain, Fairwinds swallowed the caustic green tea in an attempt to save the clerk from second degree burns.
The clerk was suddenly alarmed at the strange noise that came from the client sitting across from her. She looked up, just to see Fairwinds steadily place the tea cup down. His lips curled and squinched, muffling a brief sound of distress. It was quickly apparent to her that Fairwinds had been a bit careless in his approach to the nearly boiling liquid.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Fairwinds, suddenly brought back to the reality outside his pain, timidly made eye contact with the clerk. The agony blocking his ability to speak, he gave her a helpless yet soft look while raising his hand, as if to say, “Don’t worry about me!”
He began rapidly blowing and sucking air, pursing his lips to form his mouth into a small, fleshy hole. Responding with a coy smile that attempted to disguise her concern with the gawky character, the clerk returned to checking the paperwork. It was less awkward than making eye contact with the strange man.
“It seems we have everything in order,” the clerk declared. “It is typical that the Mayor meets our new property owners in person, especially our service members. Did you -”
“The Mayor?” Fairwinds suddenly sat upright. His eyes shifted around the room, as if the person in question might jump out and spook the chap.
“Yes,” the clerk stated, drew out the word to try and keep the momentum of the conversation going in her favor. “She is waiting for you at your new residence.”
“Oh my,” Fairwinds’ could hardly seem to contain his quirky mix of excitement and anxiousness. “This is surprising. I don’t have anything to wear!”
“Your current attire is suitable.”
“What? This?” Fairwinds looked down at his garb, a battered tunic with a worn rope, sandals, and his old, maroon cap placed carelessly on his lap. “Oh, no! Not this! This won’t do.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have time for another option, as she is already at your homestead. I was presuming you’d like to go there as soon as you could?”
He stared at her blankly, his mouth agape.
“Sir?” the clerk asked out of concern.
“Right,” he seemed to snap out of the trance, shaking his arms towards his upper body as if he was removing cobwebs. “Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, let’s go!”
After giving Fairwinds time to finish the cooled tea, the clerk hesitantly introduced herself as Wukyo and escorted him out of the town hall and into the bustling commercial square of capital city. As she led the way down to the harbor, Fairwinds had many questions about the island, its history, and how it came to be such an important area of trade. At the pace she was keeping at, however, there was no time to stop and gander. They finally came to the docks, where the wooden piers gently heaved with the moving ocean. Wukyo hoped that Fairwinds would at least be able to manage the boat’s Astrana navigation system, given his experience as a sailor.
“Oh yes, I’m familiar with that,” he nodded enthusiastically.
He turned two green crystals counterclockwise, adjusted some beads on a small abacus, and put two hands on the wheel of the vessel. The skiff took off at a brisk pace towards the Tsang Peninsula.
“I’ve seen a lot of places around the Empire,” Fairwinds raised his voice to overpower the sounds of the zephyr. “But there’s nothing quite like the Astrana Islands.”
Wukyo looked up for a moment to see the man gazing dreamily across the ocean. It was a moment where he unabashedly expressed a childlike wonder, as if he was experiencing the world in all its heavenly splendor for the first time. She found this grown man’s bold abandonment of his levies to be most intriguing. Embarrassed for gawking, she looked away, thankful that he didn’t notice.
After several minutes of travel along the ocean, Fairwinds skillfully docked the skiff at a long, wooden pier.
“Just beyond that hill lies your new home,” Wuyok pointed ahead of the stern. Fairwinds, smiling proudly, disembarked and stood on the pier.
“This is everything I’ve ever dreamed of!” he boasted, helping her get off the swaying boat.
“Right this way, please,” she said, leading them up a stone path flanked by tall, sharp grasses. A flock of seafaring birds erupted from the thicket as the two disturbed the serene atmosphere of the beach. After a short walk, the hill leveled out and they were suddenly facing a small, wooden shack. Beyond that was a much larger compound. Fairwinds tried to make out what was inside the compound, but his view was blocked by a tall fence. So tall, that he could only see the second and third floor of what he presumed to be living quarters.
“This is all mine?” he questioned, feeling suddenly overwhelmed by the enormous size of the property.
“It is under your care,” Wuyok explained. “But, you will not be alone. This way, please.”
That gave him a sense of relief.
“Who will I be working with? Do they live here, too?” Fairwinds asked in rapid fire succession. “Do they know anything about farming? I mean, I sure do, but this is big place!”
Wuyok led them through a steel gate, into the courtyard of the living area.
“The Mayor will be happy to answer your questions,” she said as she held open the door of the home for him.
Despite it being a bit disorganized, Fairwinds found the place to be quite comfortable, enthusiastically running his hands over the furniture and bedding. His anxieties seemed to vanish as he suddenly became face to face with unexpected luxuries.
“Wow!” Wuyok kept hearing the man exclaim, as he went to and fro various rooms in the home as he eagerly explored the living quarters. In his bedroom, he fluffed the feather pillow on his new bed, pushing gently on the mattress. In the kitchen, he opened all the cabinets, turning and inspecting the cookware. The reading room contained various tomes on agriculture, wood working, animal husbandry, and more.
“I see you’re getting acquainted,” an unfamiliar voice appeared behind him.
“Yes, ma’am,” Fairwinds quickly pushed a book back into its place, turning to face the person. “This is all just too good to be true!”
“Mr…” the mayor led, extending her hand in greeting.
“People just call me Fairwinds,” he smiled politely, grasping her hand.
“Mr. Fairwinds, I am Mayor Soken,” she dipped her head in greeting. “We welcome you to the Tsang Peninsula, the most critical part of the Astrana Islands.”
“Mayor Soken, I am your man when it comes to maintaining the critical infrastructure of the Astrana Islands,” Fairwinds spoke confidently, perking his chest up. “Under no circumstances shall I fail my duties or do a disservice to yourself or to Wukyo. Only the power of the gods can put a damper on my actions, and even then, Ma’am, I think we both know who will come out on top in that situation.”
By the time he had completed his declaration, he found himself on the other side of the room with both hands on his hips, defiantly staring down a bust of Turoka, the patron deity of the islands. The bronze statue showcased a muscular set of shoulders holding the god’s thick neck and even more bulbous head. Fairwinds locked eyes with the inanimate object, squaring off with it as if he was attempting to intimidate Turoka himself.
“We are so lucky to have you, Fairwinds,” the Mayor spoke kindly but firmly, as if she was trying to reel in his energy a bit. “I understand you had some questions? I’d be happy to answer them as I show you about the property.”
Gracefully excusing herself, Wuyok left Fairwinds and Mayor Soken to tour the farmstead. He asked a multitude of questions, all of which the Mayor answered. Fairwinds began to feel more at ease with his responsibilities, especially knowing there would be help involved. They ended in a large field encompassed by a wooden fence.
“This is my next great adventure, ma’am,” Fairwinds said proudly. “I have been been to the Shimmering Waterfalls, the Lost Valley of Djakata, and even fell into the Oogani Ocean, but there’s nothing quite like these islands!”
“Indeed,” she replied. “Have you heard the story of the Tekki Cavalry?”
“The Tekki Cavalry was a small force of the Queen’s Mercenaries. Natives of Astrana. They came from a strong, proud military heritage. Their fathers and fathers before them were all warriors. Swordsmen for the Queen and Empire. This very spot where we stand was once a staging ground for their attacks into the mainland.”
She gestured to the horizon opposite the sea. Mountains loomed in the distance. The heart of the empire was hundreds of miles away. It seemed like a different world from where they stood. He imagined that, despite holding the line to their homeland, the Tekki’s must have felt their orders were coming from afar.
“One evening, they were cut off from the Islands. Imagine dozens of warships, just over there,” she again gestured, this time towards the sea. “Almost as if they appeared overnight. The Tekki were cut off and surrounded.”
“What did they do?”
“Honored their forefathers,” Soken said brusquely. “For six days they endured relentless attacks. Supplies were scarce. Many of our people perished trying to help the Tekki.”
“What happened on the sixth day?”
“That evening, the Aku Kishu arrived.”
“Aku Kishu?” Fairwinds repeated the unfamiliar phrase.
“Two young sentries were standing watch, looking West towards the hills. An enemy encampment had been established there. Three riders crested over the hill. They were heavily armored, but alone. As they rode closer, the sentries realized something was wrong. These riders were unlike any of the other forces they had seen before.”
“How did they know?”
“Well, for one, their uniform was unlike anything the enemy wore. They were adorned in a foreign armor. The enemy was known for wearing bright, flamboyant armor. Probably one of the reasons they didn’t fare so well against our forces.”
Fairwinds smiled proudly. He was glad to have served in the Queen’s Navy.
“But these riders - Aku Kishu - wore all black, heavy armor from head to toe, despite the sweltering summer heat. As they neared closer, the sentries gazed upon them with magnifying glasses. They saw small wisps of dark blue smoke swirling around the skulls of the horses. The entire head of each horse was aflame. Patches of fat and flesh burned and sizzled on the bone.”
Fairwinds smile became a look of concern.
“Despite having empty eye sockets, the animals rode gracefully. Their bodies were as fit and flawless as any mare in the Tekki Cavalry. Their mouths seemed to pant as they heaved for air, galloping towards this very spot. It was inconceivable how the head of the animal was immolated down to the bone.”
“Gosh,” Fairwinds muttered.
“The Aku Kishu raided the camp. No one survived. My grandfather came here to bury the men and collect their artifacts. He never spoke about that day. I had to read about it myself.”
“You’re quite the storyteller, ma’am,” Fairwinds hastily said.
“This land means a great deal to us. Not only is a source of nourishment, but there is great historical importance.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Fairwinds agreed. “Preservation of history is not outside my wheelhouse, ma’am. In my voyages we were taught to admire great captains, marines, and sailors. Is there some kind of monument to these men? That would be a fantastic tribute.”
“You can help keep their memory alive by maintaining this land to the best of your ability,” she said emphatically. “It’s getting late. We should turn in. I hope your first night is restful.”
Sleep came quickly to the former sailor as he soundly adjusted to his new home. On the third day, Fairwinds and his team of laborers and farm hands toiled the land with vigor. He was covered in a thin film of sweat, clumps of dirt and mud stuck to his face, chest, and hands.
Crouching beneath a spigot, he let a stream of cool water run over his face. It was a momentary reprieve from the sun. Occasionally he would take a mouthful and gulp it down to satiate his thirst. He could feel the cool well water travel down his esophagus before splashing into his belly. As he continued, a loud commotion arose from the field where the men were working. Fairwinds perked up, closing the spigot and quickly rising to his feet.
The shouting intensified. He hustled over to the area, coming upon a group of the workers that were huddled around a large hole. Two of the men had fallen in and were scrambling to try and find a way out.
“What happened?” Fairwinds looked to the most senior man, Ru.
“The ground opened up and… they fell through,” he said, attempting to disguise his panic. “What are we supposed to do?”
“I’ll come back!” Fairwinds rushed to a storage shed, where he knew there was a large coil of rope. As he gathered the coil, it felt as if someone had pulled his feet out from directly underneath him. Landing squarely between his shoulders, the rope fell on top of his chest. As he shook off the daze, he noticed that the shed was shaking at the foundation.
“Earthquake!” he shouted to no one in particular, quickly scooting himself underneath a work bench. The timing could not have been better, as various tools with sharp, pointed edges plummeted to where he had just been. Among the clattering of tools was the sound of the creaking shed, with its wooden frame slowly twisting from the pressure. But, nearly as soon as it began, the shaking stopped.
“Wow,” was his only exclamation. Without realizing it, he keyed into his heaving chest and suddenly processed the last several seconds that he had just endured. For a few moments after his fall, the wind had been knocked out of him. Hard. He wondered how the others were doing. It was time to get out from hiding.
As his adrenaline was waning, the silence he had suddenly become adjusted to was severed by the sounds of more clattering. He raised his arms, preparing to shield himself from falling tools. But, no tools fell. The sounds were coming from outside the shed. Fairwinds couldn’t understand what was going on, but they intensified. He pressed his ear against the wall and heard the distinct sound of metal clashing against metal.
Determined to find out what was happening, he changed directions and briskly moved towards the shed door that he had entered merely minutes before he became trapped. It was slightly ajar. A thick haze of dust and dirt inhibited his visibility, blocking him from seeing if the men were still there surrounding the hole.
“Ru? Shinzo?” he whispered hoarsely. “I’ve got some rope.”
The sounds of warfare faded, but the hair on the back of his neck were completely erect. Fairwinds hid behind the door frame, peaking out to the rows of crops on the farm.
The silhouette of a hulking figure carrying a massive halberd emerged from the depths of the gray-brown haze that covered the land. It planted the handle of the enormous halberd into the dirt with force, slowly turning its head as if it were scanning for survivors. Fairwinds’ palms began to sweat, and he sank further into the door frame, trying to become as small as possible. Something inside him urged him to not make eye contact with the stranger, but his curiosity got the best of himand he continued to peer out the small slit in the open doorway.
Another giant joined the one on watch, this one carrying a mangled head. It casually held the detached limb by the hair, blood dripping out of the hacked neck at a steady rate. A third colossus wielding a spear joined them, leading a trio of horses big enough to carry the squad of heavyweights. Fairwinds covered his mouth, lest any unintentional sounds escaped from his lips.
They seemed to converse without speaking, simply moving their heads to look at one another. Fairwinds couldn’t tell how they were communicating. After some time, the three giants mounted the horses and slowly rode towards the shed.
“Oh, this is it,” Fairwinds sorrowfully whispered to himself.
Fairwinds lurked in the shadows, too frightened to move and too intrigued by the horrors to look away. He watched two of the riders split off, disappearing into the murky haze. The sole rider converged on the shed. Certain he would be found in the doorway, Fairwinds crept back underneath the work bench where the line of sight to the door was blocked.
Training his ear on the sounds outside the closest wall, he detected the muffled sound of the rider dismounting the stallion. The shed door was gently pushed open with its distinct screech. Fairwinds pinched his leg in an attempt to wake himself up from what he prayed was a terrible nightmare.
Completely in silence, the figure glided over the ground, stopping in front of Fairwinds. Where he expected a pair of leather boots was simply a dark purple ether. Fairwinds stared at the ether, trying not to get caught by the towering figure that stood before him. A putrid smell wafted into his nose. One that he had only smelled a few times before in his life, but immediately recognized it as rot.
He covered his mouth and nose, holding back the bile that was eager to escape. The noise caught the attention of the figure, and it turned to him. Fairwinds screamed wildly as it grabbed his leg and, with inhuman strength, yanked him from his hiding place. Avoiding eye contact with the creature, Fairwinds crossed his arms in front of his face.
“Oh gods,” he whimpered. “Not me!”
“No,” a ghastly voice resounded in his head.
The voice was accompanied by a dreadful depiction inside his mind’s eye. Similar to the bust that he mocked earlier, only the top portion of the creature revealed itself to him. It donned the helmet of an elite warrior, with the lower portion of its face covered by a mask, emblazoned with ancient glyphs. Behind the mask was a decaying face with cavernous holes for a nose and eyes. Small tufts of smoke could be seen curling out from beneath the mask.
Silently, the brooding figure glided out the doorway. Fairwinds, now laying in a puddle of his own warm urine, unhid his face, anxiously looking about the shed. He remained beneath the work bench, cowering for several hours, until Mayor Soken hastily entered the shed. She shouted his name in concern.
“Miss Mayor?” he puled.
“Look at you!” she exclaimed as she found him.
“Are they gone? Are we safe?” he asked.
Confused, she offered her hands to help him from beneath the work bench.
“I don’t know what happened! There was an earthquake—and then these men came— and I swear I didn’t owe them anything, they just-” Fairwinds stammered on as she helped him to his feet.
As he began to stand, the weight of his left leg gave out from beneath him. He cried out, falling into Soken. She gracefully moved with him, as if it were a choreographed dance. They both looked down at his leggings and noticed that his calf was soaked in blood.
“Oh,” he said queasily. “I don’t do so well with the sight of blah…”
He trailed off, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.
“Help! In here!” Soken shouted towards the doorway.
A pair of men quickly entered, putting down a litter to move Fairwinds on to. He groaned, holding on to his consciousness, avoiding looking down at the sticky red mess that had become of his left calf. Soken walked alongside him as they relocated him to the docks.
“What happened to the others?” he asked.
She remorsefully shook her head.
Fairwinds became solemn, looking away. As they approached the pier, a vessel was waiting for them. She took his hand, and squeezed it gently.
“You’re in good care,” she encouraged him. “Once you get back to the capital, you’ll be recovering in no time.”
The men gingerly loaded Fairwinds on to the boat. He looked at Soken, nodding thankfully.
“Rough first week,” he weakly joked.
“Just try and get some rest,” she replied as the vessel pulled away from the dock.
The ocean breeze wafted over him. He inhaled deeply, feeling the sun on his face. He let his hand out of the boat and into the water, cutting into the ocean with his fingertips.
“Hey pal,” a gruff voice rang. “Hands inside the boat.”
“Sorry,” Fairwinds said, quickly pulling his arm back. “Sorry about that.”
He looked over to see a small beaver manning the navigation crystals. It chewed anxiously on the stem of an unlit, wooden pipe. It looked over its passenger, and its face softened with empathy.
“Na, I shouldn’t be so hard on you,” the beaver said, pulling a wool blanket out of a compartment, tossing it on to Fairwinds’ stomach. “Looks like you’re having a tough day.”
Fairwinds adjusted the blanket so that it covered his legs. As they got further from the peninsula, he noticed a large black cloud of smoke coming from his farm. He could almost see the face of the demon he had encountered earlier, concealed in the smoke.
“Aku Kishu?” he said out loud.
“Huh?” the beaver asked. It was packing its pipe with dried forbs.
“Nothing,” he replied. “It’s good to be alive.”
The beaver struck a match.
“Enjoy the ride, pal,” he said, shielding the small flame from the breeze as he expertly lit his pipe.