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 “S-stop right there!”

The flintlock had literally been in my hand when I walked into the room. She had noticed it and immediately grew wary. Noticing this, I gestured wildly with it. Although I only had a good idea how to set it off, I never had done so before. Thus, this was as much a bluff as anything else. I couldn’t afford to push the trigger unless I absolutely had to. It also seemed to have only a single-use before I’d need to load it again, so I had one shot at stopping her.

On top of that, I didn’t want to hurt her. I’d never killed someone before. A flash of something from the night the pirates attacked tickled my mind, but I ignored it. The slime I kicked at that pirate masquerading as my cousin, well, I didn’t want to think about her. In the end, she died because she was stupid and didn’t know how to deal with slimes. It was Zoe who ended up killing her. I just sent Zoe her way. This was something completely different.

There was another reason I wanted her alive as well. She knew where they took my family. This person’s life was more valuable to me than even Zoe because they could give me the information I previously didn’t have. Plus, if they were left behind, it meant that ship was close by. Bringing back, my family was still a possibility. Like that, this strange woman standing in my cousin’s former room was my lifeline.

Thankfully, the threat was something she responded to. She put up her hands, showing that she had nothing to attack me with. Actually, she had a knife on her belt, but with her hands up, I did feel a bit safer.

She was a somewhat pretty girl, definitely up there with the most attractive of the women I had pushed down on the island. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something about her that screamed foreign though. Her current outfit seemed to be something she had raided from the closet, so it fit what someone here would wear, yet, she still looked out of place. Part of it was how she moved. She had a lightness to her feet. I had seen that kind of thing on those who sailed a lot. It was the movement of someone who treated the ground like it could suddenly shift at any moment.

She had sun-bleached light brown hair, large brown eyes, and a somewhat long nose. The most alarming thing was her ears, which seemed to have multiple rings pierced through them. I had never seen anything like it before, but each ear had as many as six different earrings which ran up the entire lobe.

“Over there!” I said, pointing to the bed. “Get on it.”

She smirked. “Oh my, so you plan to have your way with me?”

When she talked, she had a strange accent and a muffled way of speaking. It took me a moment to realize that she had something pierced through her tongue! It looked extremely painful, and I couldn’t understand why a person would do it to themselves, especially if it affected the way they talked. It was only after making those observations that what she said struck home.

The way she looked me up and down provocatively, I couldn’t help a blush from forming on my cheeks. I realized this was a mistake the second it happened, but it wasn’t like I could control my face. A flash of realization seemed to appear in her eyes, and she grew even bolder, standing in front of the bed but not sitting down.

“Look at you, love. You’re just a child. It looks like the ladies missed you. I suppose you’re the reason Dina didn’t return? Ah… I suppose you called her Rosaline, right?”

“I killed her!” I declared to try to intimidate her, but I couldn’t stop my hand from shaking, and it was clear she noticed my hesitation.

“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. “A young thing like you? How impressive. Perhaps there are the makings of a pirate in this one.”

“I’m not like you! I don’t rob and kill people!”

“We all rob and kill.” She snorted. “It’s called surviving. Do you not eat? Do you not take resources that could go to another?”

I shook my head and readjusted my grip on the flintlock. “Animals… plants… you take from people!”

“Life… who assigns what life is more important?” She inquired. “In the end, you’re just an animal. Should I give a man better treatment just because he can talk? I used to have a cat once. I liked it a lot more than most men I’ve met.”

She reached down to her belt where her knife was.

“Stop!” I shouted. “I swear, I’ll kill you!”

She laughed melodically, brought one hand up, but slowly brought the other with it. She had been looking in a pouch, and now, she was holding a small container. Very slowly, she reached over and unscrewed the cap. A fragrant scent emerged from the container.

“I’m just putting on balm?” she said, smirking at me. “It’s made from the fat of some sea creature. They make it in the Grand Imperium north of here. It keeps my lips soft and kissable.”

She reached and dabbed her finger, pulling out something that looked brown and greasy. She smeared the stuff on her lips. When she was done, they did shine in an attractive way. Along with her words, I couldn’t stop my cheeks from reacting again.

“There is nothing to the north!” I declared, trying to keep from looking at her lips.

Her eyes widened for a moment in surprise, and then she let out a laugh that sounded genuine this time.

“My, aren’t we assertive?” Her eyes narrowed as she used the lid of the balm as a mirror to check her appearance. “Can you be certain of that? Where do you think we came from then?

“That’s what I want to know!” I realized I had been moving at her pace rather than asking questions. “Who are you? Why did you attack us? Where are you going?”

She looked amused at the questions. “It’s not like it is a secret. I suppose I can tell you. We come from the north. We’ve been on a long voyage heading south along with the Divine Armada. As for your, what do you call it, Heaven’s Sky Archipelago? It just happened to be on the way.”

“Then why did you attack us?”

“The same reason anyone does anything? To get supplies. Our journey has taken years, and your little island seemed like a good place to stock up. We buy when we have to, but when a fat, defenseless pig is right in your way, you’d be a fool not to poach it and eat it. We’ll stay for a while, enjoy the sights, steal and pillage until we’re ready, and then we will rejoin the armada.”

“What is the armada?” I demanded although I had dozens of other questions.

“It’s a fleet of thousands upon thousands of ships, all making a pilgrimage south. Although we call ourselves an armada, trading, protecting, and working with each other, we’re actually only loosely bound. Those in the armada are even known to attack and steal from each other, as long as it’s in low enough numbers that it doesn’t draw retribution from the group as a whole.”

“This armada is coming here?” I said, my face turning white.

“You’re adorable!” She chuckled. “Of course, the Armada is already here! Well, perhaps one or two fleets have run into your little batch of islands. Most will probably ignore them as unimportant and not worth stopping by. Our fleet went out of our way to find somewhere to restock. We’re a small fleet, and our resources are low.”

“A fleet? So the Armada is already around us?” I started to feel terror.  

“Our fleet only is made up of a few dozen ships. You seem to not understand. The Divine Armada is vast. The ships in the back are years of travel behind the ships at the forefront. As for where we sit in the Armada? About in the middle. The Armada has already been passing harmlessly by your islands for the last ten years. Although, your Heaven’s Sky sits at the edge of where the Armada is passing. Its primary path is east of you. That’s where the most ships congregate. That’s why we’re out here to find supplies. Of course, we also can get away with more looting on the rim.”

I shook my head, only able to grasp about half of what she was saying. An armada so large that the front and end spanned years of travel by ship? I couldn’t even imagine something so vast. It took a month’s travel to reach from the North Island to the South Island, and I considered that to be as large as I could imagine.

“Why take my people?”

“People are a commodity like any other, love.” She shrugged, fixing her hair casually as if I wasn’t grilling her with a gun to her face. “We sell them or trade them. Ships need labor. Lands need servants. They’ll find a home among the Divine Armada.”

“Wh-where are they going, this armada?” Since she was so vocal, I couldn’t stop asking questions.

However, every question I asked only led to a dozen more. I didn’t understand this. They were people from somewhere else, traveling south to someplace. Were they here just to loot us and leave? This wasn’t some malicious attack to them, but a matter of survival. Somehow, that made it all feel even worse.

“The same reason anyone would travel to great lengths. The thing everyone stuck on this godforsaken watery grave wants!” She declared, but seeing the blank expression on my face, she then shook her head bitterly. “Don’t tell me you don’t even know this much? I knew this was a small hick village in a tiny little island group, but seriously? I didn’t even want to be here, but Captain Margo insisted that we don’t leave Dina behind. Just because she has the Act skill, she was always treated as special.”

“She’s dead!” I shouted. “And you’ll be too if you don’t answer me!”

“Someone is building a ship to leave this rock. That’s where the armada goes. We seek the Arc. By our calculation, the journey will take another twenty years. I was just a young child when I stepped on to my ship, and I’ll be an old lady by the time I leave this world. However, it’s a journey any sane person would make. We’ll never be like you… settlers, who decide to make do on this disgusting rock. There is an entire universe out there, including our own homeworlds. I wish to see mine once before I die. That’s the voyage the Divine Armada takes. That’s the thing worth it for all of us.”

She only then snapped the lid back onto her balm, then pursed her lips together and made a ‘pah’ sound.

“Your fleet… what is it called? Do you have a name? Who do you sail under? Captain Margo?”

She smiled. “That… is the end of the questions. The only reason I explained so much is that I don’t like people to die without understanding why. That’s simply too pitiable.”

“I have the flintlock here!”

“That you do…” Her smile fell, and her eyes flicked to the flintlock. “You forgot to cock the hammer.”

I looked down at it, and at that moment she flung the balm she had in her hands out. It smacked me right in the face. The shock of the hard object striking me on the nose caused my hand to pull wide. She ran across the room and then slammed into me. I hit the back dresser hard, my back tumbling over it. I could feel the mirror behind me shattering. Bits of polished glass fell onto my face cutting me in several spots. I let out a scream as I tried to fight her.

She was going for the flintlock rabidly, reaching out and biting my hand. Shocked once again at her viciousness, the combination of her fingers prying at mine and her teeth digging into my palm caused me to lose the flintlock. It fell to the floor, and she immediately lunged for it. In the same motion, she had pulled out her knife, and I had the feeling if I tried to fight her for the flintlock, she would stab me. My foot moved almost accidentally, kicking the flintlock and causing it to slide down the floor over to the bed. She let out a feral scream and dived for it.

Still, on the dresser, my eyes danced around the room looking for something to defend myself from her. She’d have the flintlock and knife in short order. My hand landed on something small and sharp sitting on the dresser. I picked it up to see it was a metal nail file. With a scream, my hand tightened on it, and I lunged at her. She had her back to me and was just picking up the flintlock as I brought my hand up and slammed the file down into her neck. She let out a scream and spun. Her knife slammed into my gut. I could feel it’s sharpness, but I couldn’t stop now.

I pulled the file out of her neck and then slammed down again. This time, there was a massive spurt of blood. I must have hit something bad. Her eyes had widened, and for the first time, I saw fear in them. I brought the file up and stabbed again, and again, and again.

Blood flew around, and I couldn’t tell if it was hers or mine. All I knew is if I stopped, I’d die. So, I kept stabbing, over and over again, jamming the metal piece into her neck innumerable times. Her body finally started falling, and mine landed on top of her, but even then, I was stabbing. It was only a minute or two later I realized she had stopped moving. Blood covered the floor, the bed, the walls, and me. I finally pulled my hand away from her neck, looking down at my blood-soaked hand and arms. The nail file trembled in my grip and then fell.

She was lying there, her beautiful visage completely gone now. The flintlock she had so desperately tried to take from me was firmly stuck in her hands. She had managed to cock the hammer, but that was as far as she got. I was a pulled trigger away from death. I started to stand up, and I made a noise of pain as I felt something cutting in my gut. Looking down, I could see the knife protruding from my body. Without thought, I pulled it out, only then letting out a cry of pain.

My {Fast Healing} should take care of it. That was what I was thinking. No, that was giving me too much credit. I wasn’t thinking anything. My body was shaking. I felt cold and confused, and my blood was boiling and hot. I looked down at her again, and then bile rose in my throat. I spun and ran out of the room. I made it a few feet before I collapsed to my knees and started throwing up.

I vomited up three days of crab. It wasn’t pleasant. After throwing that up, I still vomited even more. I vomited until my stomach was empty, and even after all of that, I still felt horrible. My body shook and spasmed. The image of that dead woman danced in my vision, back and forth, as if to mock me with what I had done.

I had truly killed someone now. There was no excusing it this time. I had picked up that object, and stabbed her… I was a murderer.

At that moment, her own words seemed to come back to me. Survival. Everyone kills to survive. That’s exactly what I had done. I had killed her so that she didn’t kill me. I had no choice in the matter. I had to. She made me. They made me.

Even as I tried to convince myself of these words, it still took another fifteen minutes before I could stand again. First, I headed up to the bathroom. This was once the place where I used to play with a certain girl. The bathtub was cracked and broken, but the house’s plumbing still seemed to be working. I drew up some water and cleaned myself. I drank some water to clean out my mouth, but I ended up vomiting it up.

After that, I went into my bedroom and pulled out my own clothing. The ground creaked dangerously in some parts. I must have been having some luck since I made no attempt to move carefully. If I hit the wrong, weak spot, I might have plummeted down to the floor below. The entire structure of the house was damaged, yet I was moving around almost like a zombie.

After packing up as much of my own stuff as I could, it was probably telling how much I left behind. I had many things, but none of them felt important anymore. A few changes of clothing, a drawn picture of my family, an old whistle my dad used to say I could blow when I was in trouble to get help. He framed it as something magical, but I think he genuinely meant that he’d come running if he heard it. This island was small enough that someone would hear it just about anywhere and come to investigate.

That was all that mattered from my room. Just in case, I explored the other rooms too. When I entered my sister’s room, I froze and then began to laugh sourly. There was a sword in the wall and a bloodstain behind it. There was actually one more woman that I had killed. I hadn’t even remembered it. That night was a blur.

It all came back to me now. I had been killing women to survive from the very beginning. I had desperately charged her, slammed the sword into her gut, and then run for my dear life. Compared to the woman below, I hadn’t even shed a tear. Life, death, it made it all so meaningless. Maybe the pirate was right. Because I had a lengthy conversation with her, I put so much meaning into her death. Yet, here was another woman I had stabbed with the intent to kill, and I couldn’t even remember what she looked like. In truth, she might have even survived, but I didn’t think so. She wasn’t in the room anymore. Perhaps she had escaped. Perhaps the other pirates had removed her body and buried her. I guess they didn’t value the sword since they jammed it back into the wall.

I pulled the sword out and looked at it. The sword was still in good shape, so I wiped it off. It was more ceremonial than functional, but it was the only sword I had. I had to take what I could get to survive. I had to use everything to survive.

With that thought, an idea formed in my head. My expression turned bitter, but the idea wouldn’t leave. I left the room and the upstairs entirely. I returned to the bottom floor and collected everything of importance. This included the dagger, the flintlock, and all of the supplies, plus one additional thing.

It was very difficult getting everything back to the cave, but I worked slowly and methodically and managed to get to the cavern, and finally through the crack. It took me so much time to get through the crack that Zoe had noticed and come onto the deck of the ship to see what all the noise was about. At that point, I was at the edge pulling something out. Seeing Zoe, I kept pulling until I made it to her.

I dropped the body of the pirate girl I had just killed in front of her. Zoe cocked her head in her usual questioning manner as she looked at the body of the bloody woman, now wrapped in sheets for all but her head.

“Eat her,” I said. “We need her knowledge, and if possible, her skill.”

I didn’t know if it’d work with a dead woman, but I had to try. I had to use everything I had to survive—even this.

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