The people throughout the archipelago of Yulansis lived in relative peace until The Great Churn released something dark from beneath the waves.
Thirty years later, the influence of those dark forces have shaped communities into factions and granted terrifying powers to men in search of conquest and control. Jasmira and her people have remained somewhat oblivious on their island home of Messan, but with the ships of slavers on the horizon, she must confront this new world of magic and grisly ambitions.
It is a great folly of humankind that—given sufficient persuasion—much of its efforts are expended on being neither humane, nor kind. It’s always the purview of those advancing in years to reminisce over how such ailments seemed to be absent in youth. However, for Jasmira, such ponderings were not without merit. Thirty years ago, in the twilight of her childhood, The Great Churn upended more than just the sea. People too became more volatile. Thankfully, those with dark ambitions had not yet come to the shores of Messan.
Jasmira thumbed the ends of her hair, no greys to be found amidst a stark combination of black and white. It may have been thinning slightly, but it still retained much of its luscious volume from years past. Her other hand gripped a wooden spear, whilst her eyes honed in on her target—an okuta. These land crabs stood about waist high, with shells that were nigh on impenetrable. Despite their impressive claws, they posed little threat. Nevertheless, a failed attempt to pierce the soft spot of their eyes would result in them running away with surprising haste.
Jasmira let out a frustrated sigh. The crab turned to her and made a series of grating clicks before lumbering off through the trees with half-eaten guava still stuck in its claws. On the one hand, Jasmira was annoyed; but she had to admit, there was a certain degree of relief she felt from not having to carry it all the way back to the village.
She wandered through the trees and headed towards the shore. Hunting could wait until later. She’d rather feel the warm sand beneath her feet for a while. The treeline broke, and familiar white sand beamed with warmth from the sun overhead. During better times, she had walked this beach with Ghossiya. This time, she ambled alone.
Life was good on Messan. Although Jasmira had no family to speak of, her friends may as well have been blood. Small communities of only a few hundred huts dotted across the island, so there was no space for petty squabbles—regardless of how much Dharvan may have tried. He too was walking the sands and saw that as an invitation to join Jasmira.
“Good day. I see you’ve not had much luck with crabs today?” he remarked with the cheekiness of a man in the prime of his life—which to be fair, he was.
“Not yet. Give it time. Remind me again… when was the last time you brought a crab back to the village?” Her lips blossomed into a grin.
Dharvan shrugged it off with his usual swagger and opted for a change in direction as opposed to confrontation.
“The sea looks a bit rough today, doesn’t it?”
It was easier for her to give him a mildly sardonic retort than to engage in a full round of verbal sparring. His banter was harmless, yet that didn’t stop it from being irritating. She often speculated as to why he took such joy in conversing like this with her. Perhaps it was his way of showing respect, or worse yet, attraction.
“D’you fancy a swim?” Dharvan inquired.
“Not right now. I’d rather just walk.”
“We can do that,” he replied, entirely missing the emphasis in her words.
The pair continued down the beach as it curved gently towards a bay lined with cliffs on one side. Within the bay pooled aquamarine water ebbing and swelling with the tide. An array of small, wooden ships for fishing and trade excursions bobbed up and down on the waves. Not that half of them served much purpose now. There hadn’t been much trade occurring since Ghossiya—
“What’s that?” questioned Dharvan, interrupting Jasmira’s ponderings. His outstretched hand pointed to an unusual shape that had washed up in the bay. As they approached it, they saw more of the same scattered along the shoreline. They were each the size of a curled-up person, and definitely fleshy. They were okutas!
“Where are their shells?” he wondered aloud.
“I… don’t know. It looks like somebody stripped the shells off, but left all the meat.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense? It’s all backwards.”
By the sheer number that had washed ashore, this was no accident, nor was it an act of nature. Someone had done this for a reason.
“Dharvan, this doesn’t sit well with me. Go see who’s by the boats, and if they know anything?”
The quivering in her voice was enough to belay his tendency to question the fact that she had just given him an order. He simply nodded and took off at a jogging speed.
Jasmira looked out to sea. Across its shimmering waters, something caught her eye. It was distant, but it was growing closer.
It was a ship.
No, it was several ships.
A voice inside her head screamed one word.
Jasmira’s feet slid into the sand as she ran back towards the village. The spear in her hand was cumbersome to run with; however, she wouldn’t dare let go of it. She could see Dharvan was already at the midpoint of the bay, talking to some people who she couldn’t quite make out from such a distance. Rather than joining him, she headed up a path—one of several etched through the wilderness to make journeys to and from the coast easier.
The sand gave way to well-worn dirt that was cooler on the soles of her feet. Still she ran. It was a ten minute jog for someone in the prime of their life, but it would take Jasmira longer. She was by no means unhealthy for her age, but her age was the problem here. Being in her fourth decade meant her step was missing the spring of youth. Deep breaths wavered as she tried to fill her lungs, and lactic burn swelled in her leg muscles by the two-thirds mark. Unfortunately, this physical strain was not enough to distract her thoughts from being consumed by terror.
Jasmira had once seen first-hand what men in such ships were capable of.
Having reached the end of the path’s upwards climb—only a short dash of flat ground away from the edge of the village—she turned to look back out to sea. From this vantage point, most of the bay was visible. The boats were closing in. And, there were still people on the beach. Why hadn’t they run yet? Was Jasmira just being overly paranoid?
The grim answer to her question came with a loud crack. From the bow of the lead ship, a jagged line of black and crimson careened through the air and struck one of the fishing boats in the bay. An eruption of smoke and splinters was all that remained.
This was the unmistakable work of dark magic. She knew not from which of the Mwari these people drew their cruel ambitions, only that they did. Aside from a single heart-breaking incident, she was fortuitous in her ignorance of them.
Another crack through the sky followed as more of Messan’s meagre fishing fleet was obliterated. Whatever these invaders were planning, they didn’t want anyone to be able to escape. Jasmira had to get back to the village and warn the others. Although, what could any of them really do?
The buildings on the outskirts of the village finally came into view, along with a small crowd of perplexed-looking individuals who had undoubtedly heard the unnatural thunder. A breathless and exasperated Jasmira running towards them did nothing to allay their fears either.
“Ships!” she panted, “Many ships.”
What she was expecting people to do with such knowledge was beyond her. Yet she hoped that one of them would have an idea. Another cracking sound in the distance was enough to make them scatter throughout the village.
A very confused-looking child walked out of one of the wooden houses, and Jasmira immediately knew what had to be done.
“The children! Grab the children and take them away from the village to hide!” she shouted.
Jasmira stretched out her hand to the child, Pampreet, who was a little older than seven, yet wise enough to recognise the panic in those around him. He took her hand and instantly felt a jolt to his shoulder as Jasmira took off. The boy kept pace with her; albeit, being partially dragged along.
“What’s going on?” he managed to ask between breaths.
“Something bad. We have to hide.”
“Where’s Mummy?” A tear started to form in the corners of each of his eyes.
Jasmira felt sick. She knew what it was like to have someone she loved taken away from her. She couldn’t imagine it happening to one so young.
“We’ll try to find her later. The most important thing is that we make sure you’re safe,” she explained, unable to fight off tears of her own.
Pampreet was mired in the powerlessness of childhood and tightened his grip.
The pair was now in the midst of Messan’s jungle. Roots and vines carpeting the ground slowed their progress as they attempted to navigate over them with care. Each animal moving through the undergrowth or in the canopy above sent a jab of anxiety through Jasmira’s chest. Sounds she’d heard countless times before now alarmed her.
Up ahead was a group of rocks, not quite a cave, but enough to hide among. She led the young boy through the gap which he comfortably fit through. Squeezing through said gap proved more challenging for her though. The cold stone grazed her elbows as she wriggled through.
Once past the initial entrance, there was enough room for both of them to sit with their knees bent up to their chests. Light trickled in through a gap above. Exactly how these stones ended up in this position was a mystery to her, but right now, she was glad for them.
Neither she, nor Pampreet, could have run much farther. It was safer to hide here than risk getting caught running out in the open. Now, all they could do was wait. And hope.
All the while, speculating on what manner of dreadful fate would befall the unlucky members of their peaceful island community. And… whether that would include the two of them or not.