Chapter 1.1.1

A playful ocean breeze flitted throughout the seaside city as the lazy sun rose. The salty sea could be smelt through the heavy, hazy morning air. The sea itself shone bright like a splendid sapphire, a perfect shade of azure blue. A multitude of ships and boats floated serenely in the bay. The night fishermen were coming back in their wide fishing junks, and many passenger boats were beginning to arrive, having spent the night chasing the sun in their passage between the Eastern and Western continents.

 

Chun Li bolted upright in her little corner of the boat. The still, damp air of the hold welcomed her sudden awakening. She scanned her surroundings, more by instinct than thought. The hold was as lifeless as it has always been. Not a soul would see her rise, and that was exactly the way she wanted it to be. She had stowed away on the boat the day before yesterday, surviving on her hastily packed travel rations.

The slight girl inhaled, smelling the salty sea air that she had dreamed of ever since her childhood. If only she had known the price to be paid, then those dreams wouldn’t have been quite as fun. Her gaze rested on the porthole. Land!

The large green and brown landmass startled her out of her thoughts. Chun realized that she had yet to devise a plan to escape the boat unnoticed. She packed her meager possessions, and slung her pack over her small frame, clambering out of the hold.

Where would she go? Chun was confident in her ability to swim, but the waters of the West were teeming with monsters ready to attack unwary swimmers. She was definitely not unwary, but she would feel much better with a wooden hull between her and the sea.

Hearing footsteps nearing her position, Chun took cover behind a stack of luggage. What should she do? Her eyes rove around the scene laid out before her. People chattering, windows glittering, railing… lifeboat?

 

Jack Dodger, City’s Finest fireman turned rascal, had arrived early this fine day to scout out incoming ships to con. A long drought of firefighting had left many of the city’s firefighting groups struggling to keep their heads above the water. Many have drowned beneath the waves, including Jack’s group. Now, he was left to roam the streets and survive on petty theft.

He scanned the bay, noting the increased Cartographer presence and lower fisherman numbers. A few snatches of conversation found their way into his ears. Something about Big Red being in the area. Nothing of great importance to him. What was useful to him, however, was a particular boat out of the hundreds of boats arriving on the port that grabbed his attention.

The boat in question was a luxury cruiser, home after taking its passengers on a wonderful tour of the many Eastern islands that dotted the seas. Passengers that wouldn’t miss a dime or a dollar skimmed off their bloated purses. Jack remained on his perch, surveying the scene for any competing thieves or rascals.

A young girl was running across the deck of the ship. She seemed to be a possible competitor. Her garb made her look severely out of place, dressed in rags compared to the riches of the other passengers. Not to mention her hiding from the crew. Curiosity piqued, Jack snuck closer to the ship. What was the girl doing? She was climbing onto a lifeboat!

Jack put the girl’s antics out of his mind. He was here to make a quick buck, then get out. A rival changed nothing. As the boat drew near, he hid beneath a raised crate, ready to dash out and snatch a poorly defended purse.

A loud crash of water startled Jack, followed by a swell of water that drenched him to the bone. The idiot girl had released the lifeboat right next to the port. Shouting and laughing ensued as crewmen and passenger alike spotted the girl trying to work the two-man paddle by herself. Shouts that turned from ones of humor to that of outrage as the crewmen realized she was steadily paddling away.

Several crewmen had already climbed onto the docks, preparing to jump onto the boat. Some of them spotted Jack. Jack cursed when he realized that the men thought he was an accomplice to her crime. The burly sailors drew near, and Jack was left almost surrounded. The only avenue of escape left to him was the girl that had placed him in this situation in the first place.

Ah, what the hell. Jack took a running leap straight into the drink.

 

Chun was engrossed in the complicated process of manipulating both paddles and didn’t notice the loud splash of water the boy had made. She did notice when the boy latched onto one of the paddles and tried to climb onto the boat. After failing to shake him off the paddle, and thinking that he was one of the crewmen pursuing her, Chun resigned herself to her fate and stopped rowing, allowing the boy to clamber onto the boat. Spluttering, Jack turned and shouted at her in that foreign language she had so painstakingly studied over the last decade. “What’re you doin’! Keep rowing damn it! Go!”

Realizing her erred judgment, the girl started working the paddles once more, this time with help from the newly arrived passenger. With both of them working on the paddles, the distance between the ship and the lifeboat increased.

As safety became more and more secure, and the pair was allowed the liberty of paddling less strenuously, the boy stood up, rocking the boat perilously.

“What the hell was that! You’ve destroyed my chances of having lunch! Do you have any idea what you’ve done? We’ll be fugitives eh!”

“You do not know what I have gone through to be here!”

“Oh? Enlighten me then!”

Gladly! I – ”

A great screech interrupted her. A massive creature was bearing down on the boat like the boat owed it money. It was still ways off from the little boat, but it was blasting through the waves like a bullet from a rifle. Ahead of the beast was a swarm of lesser creatures. They were similar in size and shape to one another. Long and serpentine, with fangs that shone in the rising sun, the monsters glided across the surface of the sea. It was still unclear whether the snake-like beings were escaping the beast behind them, or chasing down the little boat.

Chun didn’t wait around to find out. She was already working on her side of the paddles, kicking the boy into action. It was far too late. The serpents flew over and under the little lifeboat. One of them fell into the boat with a wet and heavy thud. At first, the pair stood still, entranced by the writhing form before them. Its three slit-pupil eyes darted about, looking for an escape from this hard and dry environment it had found itself in. The long rope-like body thrashed about in the boat. Its jaws unhinged, opening unnaturally wide, showcasing its sharp teeth and long, tusk-like fangs. Its tail ended in a sharp tip that stabbed straight through the hull of the boat.

This motion sprung the duo into action, and also a leak. Chun picked up her paddle and hammered at the snake to no effect. Jack, however, had a better idea and used his paddle to fling the offending creature out of the boat. The creature took the chance to escape the boat and swam away to rejoin its brethren. Thinking the ordeal over, the duo took the chance to breathe.

A quarter of their boat disappeared in a flash of glittering crimson. The great beast had made its appearance. It was like a fish in shape but nothing else. Jaws filled with razor-sharp fangs sliced through the hull, filling its mouth with wooden splinters. The deep-set, beady eyes stared at the pair. A small outcropping of bone grew out around each eye. Its fins were like wings. The two tails thrashed in the air, knocking the little boat aside.

As the beast flew high into the air, three long fins streamed behind it, throwing out long gouts of blood. Where the liquid touched the boat, the wood sizzled.

Poor Jack was out of his mind. Turning to his companion and the girl that had led him to his death, he saw only wide-eyed wonder and unrestrained glee. He slapped her out of her trance. The boat was taking in a lot of water, and the massive fish-bird was coming in for round two.

The boat was sinking. If they hurried, they could save it. Unfortunately, the predator was not about to let its prey get away. The creature swam, ramming the boat with its bone-covered skull. Its mouth was letting out a constant gush of blood. The broken planks were stabbing into its gums! If he could delay the fish, it might consider retreat. Whipping out his lighter, Jack weaved a crude club out of the small flame. The girl was at least trying to get the water out of the boat, so Jack concentrated on keeping the fish at bay.

Nothing he tried worked. The fish was unafraid of the flaming weapon. It continued its assault on the boat, thrashing against it and spraying its potent blood all over the place. Thankfully, the blood seemed to have no effect on living materials, it did, however, burn through the already compromised hull. Jack threw his weapon at the fish, only to have it bounce off its hard scales to no visible effect.

Fed up with Jack’s ineffectual attempts at warding off the fish, the girl pushed him aside, as if to ask him to take over the water pail duty. She reached into her travel pack, whipping out a long, Eastern sword. A small, silver bell attached to its handle chimed as she unsheathed it. Why she was carrying it around was beyond him, but she seemed trained in its use. As she fell into a stance, her eyes grew more distant. Her face displayed a mix of emotions: anger, sadness, and grief, but also a hint of excitement. Her body trembled, yet her hands remained still.

Chun looked over at him, getting Jack to shovel water out of the boat with a glance, before turning her attention onto the matter at hand. As the fish drew near, she jumped at it, climbing onto the large beast. She used the long, unwieldy sword with practiced ease, thrusting it into one of the eyes.

The sword was much too wide to stab deeply into the small opening, but it was enough to blind the fish. Realizing that these prey were not worth the effort, the beast left, bleeding and blinded. The girl swam back to the sinking ship. Putting away her sword, the girl sat down and said nothing.

“Say that was a pretty good use of that sword. Where’d you study?” Jack blurted out, uncomfortable with the silence and bursting with curiosity.

The girl said nothing and instead glared at him.

“Yeesh, something personal then? No need to be so cold about it eh. What’s a girl like you doing out here in the West anyway?”

“It is none of your business. I come here because the fulfillment of my oath depends on it.”

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“I am here to become a Cartographer.”

“Do you even know how to get in? It’s not that simple eh.”

The girl deflated. “No.”

Jack rubbed his chin. She did save his life, even if she was the one that made such saving necessary. Anyway, she seemed able to fight, and he could use a second pair of eyes in the city, even if it was only for the day. “You know what, I’ll help you out eh. My name is Jack Dodger. City’s Finest fireman.” He extended his hand towards the girl.

Remembering this particular bit of Western etiquette, Chun placed her hand in his. “Chun Li. Cartographer-to-be.”
***

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