When Lua, the moon, waxes into something full and mighty, the message is clear: The new year has begun and something stirs in the depths of Hoodoo Sea. Under her glowing light, the tides tremble and surge to monstrous heights, scraping the sky to wave hello. And the people of the sea, brave or misfortunate enough to sail across its skin, fight to keep their lives under the watchful gaze of Lua, sitting on her bed of clouds. There, she can convince the tides to turn and twist, push the lost people of the sea to where they deserve to be. Good or bad, certain healing or certain doom, Upendo Islands or Mount Kifo. And it all depends on how she's feeling.
There is gravel, ragged and black, covering the expanse of the seaboard. When Merit stands, it doesn't slide softly under his webbed feet like the sand he's used to. This is more like the rocks that gather underneath an alp. Ones that crumble and cut skin with every step forth. A glow emanates from the small abrasions on the soles of his feet. Little beams of light that have dulled and faded with his health. The callouses he had built over 156 full moons are not durable enough for this terrain. Perhaps, when he is 728 years old like his father, the soles of his feet will have hardened enough to crush these very rocks.
He breathes deeply at the thought of him. Then, he promptly falls to his knees, scrambles this way and that, clawing through the muddy gravel to find the door that brought him here. It closed as soon as it spit him out. Still, he is desperate enough to ignore the rocks slashing at his knees. From there, tendrils of light shine as well.
The winds blow differently here, angry, and Merit wishes he were built for the climate. He wishes he had thick mounds of fur. Instead he has white ophidian skin, perfect for repelling the sun.
Vicious winds force him into full awareness. Hugging himself, Merit walks to the opening in the trees. Towering limbo pines bunch together to make a forest. Just above, Merit sees smoke rising from the mountain, dispersing seamlessly into the grey storm clouds.
He doesn't expect the shift of winds. The sudden silence is heavy. He advances through the thicket. To his right, a pathway opens with a whisper. Automatically, Merit is on guard. Lunar oaks always hide something, rarely is it good. He walks the other way. With every step, the air thickens like syrup.
Deep within the folds of Upendo island, Merit's ancestors share a tomb, located under the edge of the island's deepest cliff. Gazedi never approach the tomb unless they have a death wish or have already died. Merit, alive and wishless, found himself walking through that door anyway. Dragged and pushed in, the air squeezed his lungs and pulled at his skin. He was twisted and taken apart, only to show up here, poorly pieced back together.
As a result, Merit knows there is a door here as well.
He doesn't know whether his solitude makes him lucky. For if he hasn't come across anyone, surely they must not want to be found. So Merit walks with that heavy feeling, down the pathways he thought would be much shorter, wondering why everyone is hiding.
Tomorrow, the moon will begin to fade again, and celebrations held back in Upendo will have stopped. Merit doesn't know much about the Kifo ilk, but he hopes they celebrate Lua too. Back home, the ilk would dance and sing in celebration of their birth and celebrate the hatching of new gazedi eggs. If the same happened here, the absence of bodies would be less daunting.
Merit has made significant progress from where he was at the edge of the land. The dense trees had slightly dispersed the closer he walked to the mountain, making the weather tolerable. Up ahead, something shifts from behind a group of bushes, so fluid, for a second Merit thinks it's floating. But when he sees the swipe of tiny familiar claws under the mounds of black fur, Merit understands quickly. This gazedi is not like his own, and he is unaware of its customs. He clambers up the nearest tree, peaking through the leaves.
Clumsily, Merit's foot scratches suddenly down the bark. The gazedi's eyes snap towards him, glowing with the same moonlight of Merit's skin. The light is focused, almost impossible to stare at without going blind. And while Merit stares at this wonderful creature, simultaneously similar and peculiar, the creature sees nothing but swaying leaves and the night sky. Merit had dimmed his glow, melting completely into the stars.
The rest must be near. He crawls down the tree when the stranger is too far to notice, and continues to walk, following the gazedi's footsteps. He smells smoke before he sees fire.
There is yelping and hissing, a lot of hissing. It sounds like home on the night of the full moon, symbolizing a sacrifice for Lua. He wonders, vaguely, what animal the Kifo have chosen this year until he turns the corner. Merit's gut turns. He has seen charred and broken men before, bruised and killed by the Hoodoo sea, washed up on the shores of Upendo. But he's only seen men like that with the intention of reviving them back to health. That is what gazedi's are made for, at least that's what Merit had thought. There is no such intention here. The body is roasting above the bonfire. The Kifo ilk is preparing this man to sacrifice and eat.
Around the fire, the Kifo begin to line, joining hands and staring at who Merit assumes is the leader. Then, she speaks.
"For Lua, we grant a sailor of the sea"
The rest of the ilk shrieks upwards at the moon, "For us, Lua has granted his flesh, to feast and grow strong!"
A new wave of gazedi appears from the trees. Merit's eyes fall upon the humans who trail behind them, curling in on themselves. A man and a woman bound by chains around their necks. They look around warily and Merit's heart lurches when they are tugged over to the cooked man. They don't seem surprised at the sight. Instead, they look worn and guarded like anxious prey, giving Merit the impression that it's not the first time they had faced such horrors. It shows by the way they pull the scorched man up and off the spit without a direct order from the gazedi. These are human slaves.
He flinches when the body is thrown unceremoniously to the ground in the midst of the gazedi. They have yet to dig in, staring at the body with glowing eyes, set ablaze with hunger.
"Finally, for the sailor, we grant him the freedom he craved and won"
The gazedi pounce and the humans shake where they stand. Merit stalks backwards, thoughts running rampant. Is this what his parents meant for him to see when they banished him here? Is this what they meant when they said he belonged amongst the Kifo? That he is as vicious as this? He cannot heal like his mother. He stumbles and he doesn't do it gracefully. His hands shake like tides and he is clumsy, irrevocably so. His tears fall. The message is clear, and it was clear when it tumbled from his mother's lips.
It is where you are meant to be.
Merit turns around, makes to run far away, and is abruptly stopped. Something wraps around his mouth, taking away his screeching. Something else clunks against his skull, and his consciousness is taken away too, leaving him slumped helplessly in the dirt.
"He's awake," Comes a whisper.
Two pairs of glowing white eyes is the first thing he sees. He flinches, recoiling from the onslaught of light and noise. His hands have been tied down to the handles of the chair he's sitting on, ankles too.
"Who are you?" One of them asks. His brain tries to catch up. Truthfully, he doesn't know how to answer. It's clear he is no Kifo, but saying Upendo feels fraudulent.
"Did you forget boy?" the gazedi pulls out a sharp blade from behind him, letting it catch the light of his eyes. His finger touches the point, "Do you need some help remembering?"
"I'm a gazedi—"
"Why do you lie!" His eyes glint dangerously. Merit squints.
"I'm not!—lying...I swear it."
"Your skin is not made for our winds." He spits, as though Merit had no idea.
"I'm from the Upendo isle," he breathes evenly, "I was banished, they said I belonged here."
"They were wrong." He addresses his captor, "Echo, bring him to me." And Echo stalks forward.
Merit shouts before he can stop himself, controlling his voice last minute. "They won't care! They won't..." He says, stopping the shake before it leaves his mouth, "I may not come from here, but I do belong. Let me prove it to you."
Echo's grin is like a slash of darkness on his face, revealing rows of sharp obsidian teeth, "How will you prove it?"
"I've killed a human—a sacrifice against the wishes of my ilk."
"A human?" The leader asks, intrigued.
"Was it tasty?" Echo wonders.
"It was a navy captain. He— it was strong and I was weak. Lua sent him to me as an offering."
The leader tilts his head, considering something, "You look weak still. Your glow is dim."
"The door sucked out my health. Just—let me prove to you that I am of no Upendo ilk." Finally, he starts to believe the words for himself. They glance at each other, speaking silently. "I have nothing to hide." He promises.
"You'll be working in the arena, cleaning the bodies." The leader turns to walk out. Echo claws Merit free from his bonds.
Merit is shoved through a door he didn't know was there until the lunar oaks shift to form an entrance. The stench of death is unmistakable. Laying there, on the grounds of the massive arena, is two mangled bodies. Rows of stone seats stack and line around the open area. Lone trees are interspersed throughout the grounds, twisting upwards. Some rocks and boulders look as though they've been intentionally placed. Two brick doors are on either side of the arena. They look tiny from where he stands. Lines of rope connect from tree to tree. Despite the chaos, the area looks well kept, as though it goes through frequent use. The glass ceiling above provides natural light.
Before he has the chance to process his thoughts, Echo speaks from behind him.
"Move them to the centre where the floor caves in. The healers will move them when they can," He motions vaguely towards the bodies, "and...tidy up."
Merit was used to blood on his hands, but not like this. "What do you mean by healers? Do you revive these bodies?"
Echo's voice is a low drawl, "You're clueless."
Merit panics, "I didn't know your ilk could revive."
"Well we can and we do it wonderfully." He scurries away, leaving Merit with the dead ones.
Weeks have passed and Merit has mastered the art of pretending. Now, when he leans over a pool of blood and sees his reflection, he doesn't recognize who stares back. So, he avoids eye contact and continues with the knowledge that he's being watched. Undoubtedly. The feeling of eyes lingers on his form like a tenacious glue. Merit works so diligently, he forgets about the night of the full moon until it's here, signifying the end of another year.
Echo throws a furry arm around Merit's tight shoulders, "You should come by tonight."
He feels flattered, appreciated even. Inclusion is a weakness Merit never knew he had. He thinks it's okay to enjoy the feeling it gives him. There are thoughts that pass him, fleeting, but there nonetheless. Itches at him like a feather, making him wonder if Kifo mountain could provide him with that rare sense of belonging.
When the stars come out to play, Merit and Echo scramble their way over to the festivities. All at once, Merit remembers the charred skin of the sailor with a churning stomach, realizing what he's being led to do.
The victor: he cleaned and tended to her for weeks, listened to her cry after every kill. Her last one, a nine-year-old human, made her dry heave. The crowd shrieked loudly for the victor that day, while she cried all her tears. She asked Merit if she was really free and he couldn't bring himself to answer. If he learned one thing during his time here, it was that all freedoms were whisked away by the furious mountain winds. Leaving everyone and everything bare, vulnerable to the gross push of conformity. Merit turned away then and said nothing.
Tonight, all the gazedi gather for the feast. Merit is shoved around when they reach the middle of the chaos. Gazedi bump into each other to see the spectacle. He hears her screams first. To his right, other humans grip the arms of a thrashing victor. He knows those walking bodies, a week ago they were bloodied and dead.
"You promised me freedom!" She curses, once, twice, trying to thrash away.
Merit's heart pumps wildly in his chest. He turns to Echo, gripping his shoulders with a sick smile on his face, "Take me to the elders."
Intrigued by the sudden demand, Echo doesn't ask him for an explanation before he's gripping Merit's wrist and running somewhere behind the trees.
"Perhaps you are still unfamiliar with our practice Upendo," the eldest spits, disgust lacing his tone.
"I'm not one of your own, but I've been preparing the victor for this. I know how to calm her," He grins at the council of elders who look down at him from their thrones. He growls, letting his voice turn hungry, "They taste better without struggle."
"Let him." The elder on the left says, "Then he can prove himself once and for all."
The elder on the right interrupts, "How ridiculous. This boy came to us an intruder. You mean to say he should prepare our sacred feast?"
The one in the centre stares, looking for any trace of deception on Merit's delighted face. "How will you calm her?"
Merit holds up his hands, aiming them towards the council. Echo looks back and forth, unsure whether or not he should stop him. The eldest puts a hand up to cease his fidgeting, letting him know it's alright.
Merit calls to his energy, letting his palms fill with light. Within a few seconds, the energy is sucked out from the room, the elders blink slowly, heartbeats sluggish. His eyes begin to glow along with everything else on his body. Time crawls dreadfully slow. Then, Merit lets go, falling to his knees when everything is pulled back from him.
"Like that." He says, swiping his pointed tongue across his sharp grin.
He's in the ceremony hut standing across from the victor. She's breathing roughly through the gag in her mouth like she's angry for having to look at him. It must be surprising to see the creature that had tended to her wounds preparing to groom her for death. Echo and the elders stand behind him, waiting.
Merit smirks a little and turns. Back in the council's den, he'd realized something about himself. "I need to be alone." He says, addressing the other gazedi.
"I cannot allow it." One of them says.
Merit takes a deep breath, "Your energy will disrupt the flow." They wait for a second, unsure. Until the eldest turns around and leaves. The others trail behind him. They stand just outside the hut. "Leave the slaves. As guards."
They clench their jaws, letting go of the chains. The slaves move forward, dipping into the hut silently. Their eyes hold a sort of dissonance. Their silence won't be difficult. It's the victor he worried about.
Her eyes shift manically, without doubt, she is searching for a way to run.
Humans are so easy to read.
He places a hand on her knee, ignoring her flinch and whispers, "I need you to do as I say." He rips the gag off with a swipe of his claws. When she makes to speak, Merit pushes a finger to her lips. "Or things won't be pretty." He looks at the other two as well.
Merit looks behind him at the opening of the hut where the council stands guard, talking amongst each other. They don't see when Merit takes a deep breath and puts his hands up. When he turns transparent, the humans gasp. Then Merit concentrates, pushes out the energy towards the humans as he did with the elders. Their skin flickers.
Expectedly, the elders march back in, ready to punish everyone they find there. They look around the hut, then at each other. "Where did they go!?" The eldest screeches. He's a foot away from where Merit has plastered himself against the wall, melting into them seamlessly. He holds his breath. Trying not to flinch when Echo throws something in his sudden agitation.
"Gather the Kifo..." the eldest whispers. "NOW!" Echo scrambles towards the bonfire.
With one last glance around the hut, the council turns, leaving to hunt them down. As soon as they part ways, Merit lets go of the breath he'd been holding. Collapsing near the closest tree, letting the veil of translucence fall away. When the humans bend to cradle his head, whispering words of gratitude and worry over his sluggish form, Merit knows he's done his job. Even if it was clumsy. Even if they have yet to find the door and escape. There is no place for him here, and though he is of no Upendo ilk, Merit was born with the heart of a healer.