Fear The Dawn: Chapter 34

I knew it was foolish to think there was any chance of cooperation between us”, Karma thought grimly after he took his ship out to a safe distance. “I'm going to have to do this on my own.”
He had more pressing concerns, anyway, like trying to make sense of last morning. Though he was not eager to relive those final moments, he could tell there was something important in that strange series of events. He tried to put the darkness and anger out of his mind and focus on what happened before that, when they were in that tomb together.

First of all, he had been wrong. He thought the one in the box must be Steven, but it was not, it was some woman instead, and one of them, as well. The orange one called her “Sister”. He wracked his brain to try to remember if he'd seen her before. She seemed distantly familiar, but he was fairly certain he hadn't seen her recently, so she probably wasn't from the ship belonging to the orange one. If not, how did she get there? He had only seen one other ship when the sun came up. Had she approached his ship from the front while he was watching the other way? He claimed his perch on the sail and used his spyglass to scout around, but there was no one else out there now. It was impossible, anyway, he had been paying close attention to the position of the ships with the signals, and there was no one out that way, that's why he had cut across in that direction. Besides, there had definitely been something not quite right about her, when he looked inside the box initially and after he dug them out out of the ground he only saw a lifeless grey figure, it was only when the orange one looked at her that he could see the woman, as though the orange one created her, somehow.

Fear. It always came back to fear. He had read it clear as day on the orange one's face, seeing that woman there in that coffin terrified him. Karma had no one left to lose, so he merely saw a figureless shell, but the orange one must have been afraid that she might die, and that's why the figure took on her form when he looked at it. But why would he be so worried about that? Karma tried to recall anything he could about strangers and the fear of death. Most of them seemed terribly afraid of their own death, that had been something he used to his advantage, but rarely did they fear for the lives of others. When that woman had seen the little stranger struck by that vehicle, it was only after he had been hit that she reacted, she didn't seem to be the slightest bit concerned about it beforehand.
The last time I saw the orange one”, he realized. “The people in that place were just waiting, watching those doors, to find out whether the woman inside would live or die”. They were definitely afraid of her death, he still remembered how that one had struck the wall so hard it felt like the world itself was shaking. And the orange one had been there too, waiting. If he hadn't dragged him out, he would have just stayed there, waiting to find out if she was dead.

The missing signal!”, he realized, bringing his paws together. He had seen that woman before, on the ship that appeared when the fourth signal returned. He knew that ship hadn't been there before, the orange one must have been there, looking for her, afraid that she might be lost. Had something happened to her again? He rushed to get his rope and tied it around the mast so he could lower himself down into the water and check the signals.
Karma closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind of outside thoughts. The world outside started to melt away, and all he could feel was the gentle tingle of the water on the tip of his tail.

Never again.”
He had done a good job blocking it out so far, but now that his mind was idle those thoughts were creeping back in. He had wanted to believe that that part of himself was gone, that the Destroyer was dead and buried, but he had been kidding himself. He was still there, still alive. It had felt so good to let him out again, for a moment he was back on top of the world rather than grasping frantically to hold on. “What does it matter what happens to those idiots?”, he said, from inside Karma's head, “you still have me.”
You made a fine mess of things before”, Karma reminded himself. “I'm not like that anymore.”
Of course you are. Everyone else can see it, they'll never trust you, ever.”
Line trusted me until you messed it up. Now I have to set things right.”
What good did he ever do for us?”, he jeered cruelly. “We're better off without him.”
What good did YOU ever do for us?”, Karma replied through clenched teeth. “No matter how strong I became, it never changed a fucking thing! I was still powerless when it really mattered!”
After his outburst, it was quiet again, both in and outside of his head.
We saved the orange one, though...”, something reminded him, but then it quickly faded away again. He felt a tingle in his tail. The signals were back.

One, two, three, four. Whatever the situation was yesterday morning, the other ship was still around. Perhaps it was all in the orange one's mind after all. It also seemed they were no longer coming after him, rather than being behind him the other ship had seemingly left and was heading back towards the others. He quickly got out of the water and checked with his spyglass again, but it was long gone, the horizon was clear as far as he could see. Karma swore under his breath. After yesterday morning, he couldn't afford to let them get away. There was clearly something important going on, and he still had no idea what was up with this Steven character that they were looking for. He had to pursue them and get to the bottom of all this. He took the wheel in his paws and raised the sails, and the Black Ship was on the hunt once again.

Unfortunately, they were heading in the exact same direction now, and despite his efforts to return as early as he could each morning, he was making up precious little ground. He had yet to catch sight of either of the ships in his spyglass, though the signals confirmed he was still on the right track. It seemed that he would only catch up when all of the ships came together again, he just hoped by then it wouldn't be too late.

The ships finally came together again in the early evening a few nights later. Thankfully, they seemed to be travelling a bit slower as they approached the meeting point, and by the time they finally arrived he had caught up to within spyglass range. Unfortunately, now that they had stopped he found that he was once again in need of a plan and he was terribly short on time to devise one.

On board one of the ships, the orange one and two others were talking animatedly about something, though of course from this distance he had no way of knowing what it was.
I'm sure that's something important”, Karma frowned, lowering his spyglass for a moment. He closed his eyes, and tried to be absolutely silent, but of course there was no way the sound could carry that far. He briefly considered just sailing up to them and asking them what they were doing, but then he remembered what the orange-furred woman had said, and he knew that option was off the table.
The conversation broke up and the participants split up. Next, he saw the orange one talking to someone with grey fur, then they too parted ways.
Is that it?”, he wondered. He took a quick glance across the four ships to see if any of them would move, but there was no one manning the helm on any of the ships, instead if seemed like everyone had simply disappeared.

Then they slowly started to appear. Hundreds of them, far more than he had ever thought could exist, milling about and gradually collecting on the deck of the largest of the ships. Some of them seemed to be speaking to each other, but most were carefully watching the helm of that ship, waiting for something or someone. Something big was definitely about to happen. Had they found Steven? Was he going to be there? He leaned over the edge to get a closer look, but whatever they were waiting for had yet to arrive.
He knew almost immediately what he had to do, but it was so preposterous that he could hardly accept it. “I have to get on board that ship”, he finally decided, though he had no idea how to go about it.
The crowd was so large that he could probably disappear well enough if he could actually get on board, but that was a much larger problem. It looked like everyone was gathering on one ship, but even if he approached from one of the other sides someone was bound to spot his ship long before he ever got close. Swimming might be an option, but then he would be soaking wet, and he'd be discovered immediately. Perhaps he could try to steal a towel, but what if he couldn't find one...
He took another look at the crowd. Some people were approaching the helm now. He was out of time.
Damn it!”, he exclaimed, pounding his paws on the railing. The impact rippled through the wood, sending his spyglass rolling off the edge and plummeting towards the ocean below. He reached frantically for it, but it was too late, it hit the water with a soft splash and sank beneath the waves.
Great”, he thought bitterly, “now I'm really finished.”
But a moment later, the spyglass popped back above the water, floating along the edge of his ship.
Of course!” he exclaimed as it suddenly hit him. The board he had used this morning was still sitting on the deck, propped up against the wall of the helm. He took it in both paws and quickly looked it over. It was a big, sturdy piece of wood, half of what had once been a well-built table. He quickly brought it back to the railing and dropped it over the edge. It landed softly in the water, bobbing up and down on the gentle waves.
It's now or never”, he thought, grabbing his rope and tossing it over the edge. He climbed down the side of the ship and reached out with one foot towards the big piece of wood. It shifted the moment he put even the tiniest amount of weight on it.
Karma took a deep breath. This was it. If he messed up here, he would lose his chance to find out what was happening there, and he might never find Line. He tried to pull the board right up against the ship with his toe, but there was no way he could just step onto it, it would slip out from under him. He had to distribute his weight evenly across the board, and there was only one way.
He let go of the rope and fell forward onto the board.

The wood smacked him hard on the chest and chin, and immediately started to tip to one side. He pressed down hard with his left paw to try to stabilize it, sure that he was about to go in the water, and kicked out with his right leg to try to redistribute the weight. Somehow, the board stayed upright. After a moment, when it was clear he wasn't about to sink, he shifted his weight more towards the middle, then carefully shuffled his paws and legs around until he was sitting upright. He then dipped the tips of his paws in the water and paddled a little bit away from his ship. He saw his spyglass floating in the water, so he retrieved it and put it in his lap. He then took one last look through the spyglass at the ship in the distance. “This is insane”, he thought grimly, but his determination pushed him onward as he paddled his makeshift raft towards the unsuspecting gathering.

There were a couple of close calls, but somehow he made it to the other ship. Thankfully, the ladder was down, but the prospect of standing up to grab it was a dangerous one. He took his spyglass and held it in his teeth so he could free up his paws, and ever so carefully put one foot down on the center of the board, then the other one, and slowly started to stand up. The board shook violently underneath him as he concentrated all of his weight in the middle, and no sooner had he gotten fully to his feet did it start to slip out from under him. He leapt off the board and grabbed for the ladder as his raft slid away from him, out into the sea. His body struck the side of the ship, but he managed to hold on, and he quickly hoisted himself up and flopped onto the deck. He took a moment to catch his breath, but there was no time to waste, he could hear the crowd loud and clear now, but at this distance he couldn't make out what was being said. He had to get closer. He stashed his spyglass near the railing and hurried across to the ship where everyone had gathered.

We have succeeded!” a woman shouted, piercing the murmur of the crowd. “Steven has been found, and we have delivered the message to him!”
A great cheer rose up from the crowd. Karma used the opportunity to quietly slip into the back of the crowd. He could barely see from back here, but there was a lone figure standing atop the helm, addressing the crowd. It seemed to be the same woman that the orange one had seen in the box. So she was all right after all.
This would not have been possible without all of your hard work”, she continued. “You were given an impossible task, to find a stranger with little more than a name, and yet you gave it your all. To all of those who toiled night after night to find a way, I thank you.”

So they were searching for a stranger, and they had found him. It WAS possible. He still had so many questions. Who was this Steven? How did they find him? Did they bring him back?
The woman paused for a moment, then continued to speak: “When all this began, I was in a dark place, with no way out. For a moment, I thought I'd never see my friends again. But in the depths of darkness, there is also light - Steven showed me something wonderful, and I resolved to get out, so I could share it with everyone.”
Karma watched intently, eager to gather any possible clues that he could.
Ballad, Crooner, Serenade, if you would... This is what the strangers call 'dancing'”. A strange sound began to fill the air, and the woman stepped down from the stage.
What? No! I still have so many questions!”, he protested, but no one could hear him, the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling about on the wooden deck drowned out everything except the strange noises coming from the helm.
He had to find that woman and find out more. He cut through the crowd, pushing towards the helm of the ship. Suddenly he felt a paw on his shoulder. “Excuse me”, someone said.
He had been discovered.

He quickly turned about to assess the threat. He half-expected to see the woman with the orange fur, ready to cut him down with her sword, but instead it was a woman with black fur and a much milder look in her wide blue eyes. Her fur was very short, except around her neck, where she had a ruff of white fur.
Excuse me”, she said again, taking one of his paws and looking at him hopefully. “Would you dance with me?”
His first instinct was to push her down and make a break for it, but that would cause a commotion, and he was far from his ship, surrounded by enemies. She didn't seem to recognize who he was, so he just had to try to blend in and escape at the first opportunity.
She seemed to notice the desperate look in his eyes. “It's not hard”, she said, smiling shyly. “Here”. She took his other paw and put it on her waist. She started to twist around him. “You have to move your feet, too”, she said, “like what I'm doing, but you go the other way”. Gingerly, he shuffled to the side. She kept coming after him, so he kept going the other way. “That's it”, she said, tightening her grip on him. He was slowly starting to get the hang of whatever it was, but he wanted out of there as quickly as possible. How long was this going to go on?
Is it really that bad?”, she asked, looking a little hurt. He tried to grimace a little less, but it wasn't easy. He could scarcely imagine things going worse, he was stuck here in enemy territory, and he still had no idea how they had found that stranger or why they had been looking.
She was still looking at him. She didn't seem malicious, but she didn't appear to have any intention of letting him go, either. He took a quick glance around the deck. Most of the others were similarly indisposed, and some of them even seemed to be enjoying it. This was apparently supposed to be some kind of celebration. The calico-furred woman had said that she learned about this from the strangers. Perhaps that had some relevance after all. If he was going to be stuck here, he might as well at least try to gather some information.
It took him a moment to find his voice, he was a bit nervous to speak to one of them, particularly out here where he was surrounded. “That woman said that she learned about this from the strangers”, he said. “You seem to know a lot about it, did they teach you, too?”
She seemed surprised that he had spoken to her, and for a moment he regretted it. “Oh no”, she smiled, “I've known how to dance for as long as I can remember. I'm a little surprised that there's so many people here who have never done it before, the strangers want to do it fairly often.”
It was certainly the first he had ever heard of it, though he would never have let a stranger get so close to him without a fight.
What's the point of it?”, he asked.
She instantly became evasive and started looking down at her feet. “Err... Well... It's...”
That was clearly dangerous territory, so he quickly changed the subject.
I can't believe they managed to find Steven”, he said. “Did you hear how it happened?”
I was surprised too”, she said, recovering quickly. “I heard that they just found him on the way back. Isn't that crazy, after all we went through?”
Yeah. I don't see how it could be that easy.”
She glanced to the side, then leaned in closer and whispered something to him. “Keep this to yourself, but I overheard Lay say that he was going after the Black Ship. I bet that's how they found him.”
So they had been after him. He wasn't surprised, but what connection did they think he had with this Steven? He wanted to know more, but he couldn't risk being discovered, so he changed the subject again.
So did they bring Steven back with them?”
Bring him back?”, she asked, looking very surprised. “You mean, here? No, of course not, they just gave him the message. Why would anyone want to bring a stranger here?”
Oh... I was just hoping to meet him, that's all.”
Me too”, she sighed, “he's supposed to be tall, dark, and handsome. Who wouldn't want to meet someone like that?”
This message”, he said, changing the subject again, “I wonder what it meant?”
That's easy”, she replied, smiling, “it's a message of love from one stranger to another. I don't quite understand how they were separated, but the meaning is clear enough: she wanted to see him again. Hopefully now they will.”
So this whole thing was just about delivering a message between two strangers? That's a lot of work to go through just so two people can meet again.”
That's what I thought at first, but look at all of this. It brought all of us together, too.”

He didn't notice it at first, but the noise died out while she was speaking.
You're done”, she said, releasing him. “I hope it wasn't too awful.”
It was fine”, he replied. In the end, he was able to get some useful information after all.
Thank you”, she said, looking at him expectantly, but his time here was done. He needed to escape back to his own ship before the others dispersed. He excused himself and made his way back to the back of the crowd. The strange noise started up again, and the others started doing their dance thing again, so he took the chance to quietly slip away to the other ship.

Thankfully, no one else had come back here yet, the deck of the other ship was deserted. He retrieved his spyglass from where he had hidden it, and peered out over the ocean to find his ship. He was relieved to see that it was very hard to spot from this distance, even with a spyglass, if he hadn't known roughly where to look he probably would have missed it altogether. The board was long gone, so he was going to have to swim quite a long way, but he was confident he could make it now. Tonight had gone very well, now he had some information that might well make a difference. He gripped the spyglass tightly in his paw and climbed over the railing, putting his foot on the first rung of the ladder.
As he turned to climb down, he finally noticed that there was someone there. It was the same black-furred woman from earlier. She must have been behind him the whole time.
Don't worry”, she said, “your secret is safe with me, Black Ship Captain.”
His expression soured. How had she found out who he was?
It wasn't that tough to figure out”, she said, as if reading his mind. “You were the only one who wouldn't have known some of those things. I hope I was able to help you.”
He still didn't reply.
Oh, that reminds me... you wanted to know why people dance. Sometimes people dance just for fun, but usually they want to dance with someone that they like.” She looked down at her feet again. “I don't suppose you like me very much.”
Why would you want me to like you?”, he asked.
She put her paws behind her back. “Well, you're very... mysterious.”
He started to climb down the ladder. “Some mysteries are better left unsolved.”
I'm Lace”, she said, walking to the edge to look down at him. “Would you please tell me your name?”
Karma”, he said. “Farewell.”
Well then, Karma, I hope we'll meet again.”
He leapt off the edge of the ladder into the water, and began the long swim back to his ship.

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