9. The Way of Mages

The gulf of the northeastern coast of Yoshi was a natural harbor. After Natsu’s crew docked the Wraith there to resume the repair works, her deputy wanted to accompany her when she disembarked. “No, Pantu. You must stay here to keep order on the ship,” she demanded. “I want that breach sealed when I return.”

“Very well. I will stay. But at least, take one of us with you,” Pantu pleaded, glancing at the mountain atop of which the mage was waiting.

“It is not necessary.” Literally. All of Natsu’s crew combined would never do her any good if that mage up there decided to hurt her. Had her deputy forgotten the horrific display that had cost the Koyan empire three of their mighty Turtle ships? “Just keep the men working and make sure they stay calm in my absence. Tell them there is no reason to panic here, do you understand? That mage I’m going to meet is not a threat. Actually, he is the only ally we have in these waters.”

“If you insist.” Finally, Pantu acquiesced. “Be careful in your ascent, then. Pick a path that is not too steep.”

Natsu hadn’t survived all she had survived so far to allow a mountain to defeat her. “Then, I need to go while the sun is still up in the sky.”

Fortunately, finding a lesser steep side of the mountain didn’t take much time, but the ascent itself was a little bit hairy because of the sharp rocks everywhere. One misstep might prove costly in this desolate place. “Blast! Why don’t you just come down?” she muttered, hoping that mage might hear her and spare her the trouble of climbing a mountain after barely surviving being chased by three Turtle ships. And after barely sleeping last night.

The ascent was taking too long, but she didn’t regret ignoring Pantu’s advice. As she was not in need of ‘actual’ help from her crew, a company would just be a distraction while she was collecting her thoughts for the upcoming meeting with the intimidating mage. He had had the upper hand last time; something she shouldn’t allow to happen again. He rescued us because he wants something from us, she thought. Those bastards never do favors.

Natsu was nearing the summit when she found huge rocks blocking her way upward. Too smooth to climb, too huge to turn around. And she had gone too far to go down and restart her ascent somewhere else.  

After scanning the rocky barrier ahead of her, all Natsu found was a small foothold, but it would do for her to resume her climb. Gripping on the only handhold she saw, she strained her arms to pull herself up as she tried to lodge her boot into another foothold.

And that was when she slipped.

Natsu cried the instant she lost her footing. Panicking, she moved her legs hysterically to find a foothold before her tired arms—the only things preventing her from falling down—would fail her. But her hysteric movements added more weight to the body hardly hanging to the rock. And before she knew it, she was holding to nothing but air.

Natsu’s fall didn’t last a whole second, and yet it was the most horrifying feeling she had ever been through. She was even still screaming after she felt herself pulled upward. When she raised her head, she saw the masked mage standing at the cliff, his arms stretched forward, his fingers moving as if he was beckoning Natsu over. Except that Natsu had no say in that.

The moment Natsu landed in front of the robed mage, she blustered, “What was all this horror for? You could have just met at the foot of the bloody mountain!”

The mage wearing the crimson mask tilted his head. “I’ve just saved your life. Haven’t the good people of Hokydo heard of the phrase ‘thank you’?”

“Saved my life? You are the one who put my life in danger in the first place,” Natsu snapped, still infuriated. “Tell me: Was it entertaining to watch me climb all this distance to reach you?”

The provocative mage shrugged. “You have come to me voluntarily. I didn’t ask you to do so, did I?”

Now he was treating her as if she was a fool; another reason to be enraged. “The fireball floating above you; you created it to show me where you were.”

The robed mage gestured toward the sea. “Because I saw that you needed to repair your overestimated ship.”

Calling the Wraith ‘overestimated’ irked Natsu, she had to admit. “What do you know about my ship, to begin with?”

“More than the tales say about it. That it is not faster than the lightening as the seafolks believe.”

With anybody outside her crew, Natsu would deny the existence of the Wraith. But that mage mentioned it for a reason. He is here for it, she thought, and the idea scared her. How could you stand between a mage and something he wanted?

“How did you know about the ambush?” she asked, and at once, a guess came to her mind. “It was you.” She gaped at him. “You and your people set that ambush for us.”

“My people?” Leaning forward toward Natsu, the masked mage clenched his fist. “Did you hear anything about them?”

Natsu didn’t get what that menacing tone was for. Regardless of the consequences, she said, “That they are planning for the Third Crossing. It’s not a secret now, I presume.”

“It is not. And it’s why I sent the Turtles after you. I wanted to see for myself if you could outrun them.” The mage relaxed his hand. “Plainly, it needs some enhancements.”

“You almost killed us just to test our ship?”

“My demon wouldn’t have let them kill you. You saw for yourself, didn’t you?”

His demon? “Those huge hands…”

“They belong to Shnakar; our servant in the Koyan Sea.”

Natsu was wrong about the masked man standing two feet away from her. He was not just a mage; he was a summoner. The rarest and most dangerous kind of mages. “I thought demons only occupied the Boiling Eyes.”

“We have left them untamed in the Boiling Eyes to limit the naval access to our islands.”

Blast! “You tell me we have been sailing over them across the Koyan Sea all this time?” Natsu exclaimed.

“They are confined here.” The mage shrugged. “They can’t harm anybody unless we decide so.”

Still digesting what she had just learned, Natsu held her temples with both hands as she ambled for a moment. “You control the demons. You control the Koyan navy. What would you need from simple people like us?”

“Something neither the navy nor the demons could help me with. But as I said before; your ship needs a little enhancement.”

The fact that a summoner stated clearly that he needed her help instilled some confidence in her. “With all my due respect to your unparalleled powers, I doubt your eligibility to give me this advice. You don’t understand how the Wraith works, to begin with.”

The masked mage folded his arms across his chest. “You mean the ship that works on a steam engine? It’s a brilliant idea, but we all know it wasn’t his.”

How dare he? “What is this nonsense?” she snapped. “All know that Botan the Squid was the one who built this ship.”

“Using the documents he had bought from the Goranians. Darov’s stolen documents.”

“Botan didn’t steal anything,” she said without thinking, but after pondering her statement, she realized how ambitious she sounded.

“Someone else did when the Rusakian chemist was in prison. That ‘someone’ sold the documents to the Byzonts, who in turn sold them to your late husband. He did a great job in building the engine, though.”

The father of the Wraith; that was how Botan had cemented his name in the smuggling business. Being the Squid’s successor as the commander of the mythical ship was a way to earn her rivals’ respect, if not their fear. Realizing now that a major part of the father’s legacy was based on a lie would be a shock to Natsu’s crew.

“You know about us more than we do,” she said bitterly.

“Your deputy’s spies were not the only ones who were doing their job,” the mage scoffed. “We have eyes as well.”

Again, the mage won in the game of leverage, but Natsu wouldn’t admit her defeat. He needs the Wraith, she reminded herself. “What kind of enhancements you are talking about?”

“You rely on coal as a source of heat to produce the steam that will eventually move the rotors, right?” The mage was not waiting for her answer, obviously. “I can augment your engine by adding a faster way of heating.”

Now he piqued Natsu’s curiosity. “And what is that faster way?”

The mage spread his palm, then flexed his fingers without totally closing them. A small fireball appeared out of nowhere, floating a few inches above the mage’s hand. “Our way.”

Next Chapter: 10. Suspect