Although Spratt was remiss to admit such a thing, he was prone to extreme claustrophobia.
Normally, he’d tear and slash his way out of such a predicament, yet here he was restricted to virtually no movement whatsoever for an impossible to measure time, and it didn’t bother him in the least. Spratt had no conception of time since he’d landed in Nedra’s clutches, and he wasn’t hungry or thirsty either. There was just the ever-present smell of jasmine and a relaxed mind. He was certain something more than the sea air was helping him withstand the stifling unmoving conditions within Nedra’s cloak. What, though, he had no idea.
Spratt was bothered all of his life by tight places. His earliest memory of the hot feeling in his face and the desperate need to break free was being wrapped in a blanket and swung around like a sack of potatoes by his Uncle Adam. There were no vicious intentions. It was simply a fun game they’d played before. One time, when he was six or seven, it all changed. Spratt flipped out while he was in mid-air. He thrashed and screamed bloody murder. Spratt’s mother came in to investigate the commotion and screamed at her brother for terrifying her son. Spratt felt horrible for getting his uncle into trouble, but he couldn’t control the reaction.
There were other times that Spratt found even more embarrassing. Like the time he was lying in bed with a girlfriend. He had one arm around her neck and the other tucked beneath the blanket. Just as they were dozing off watching television, Spratt was overcome by the desperation of claustrophobia and flailed around in an effort to escape. His girlfriend had no idea what was happening and continued to lay there. Spratt’s convulsions of torment knocked her off the bed. The fight that ensued ruined a nice relationship. Not to mention that Spratt found it impossible to work under his car to do even a simple oil change.
Finally, without any forewarning, Spratt was spinning. The cloak was off and he was falling. Spratt only fell about eight feet, but he landed with a tremendous splat. Having nearly lost consciousness from the fall, Spratt lay there with his eyes closed for a few seconds before he tried to assess the situation. The lingering smell of jasmine clung to him. As he opened his eyes, everything was a bright awful blur. For a moment, Spratt thought he may have died, which would explain his calm demeanor in the cloak. Suddenly, he was overcome with a cold and loneliness as the final wisps disappeared and were replaced by the rank smell of filth.
When his eyes adjusted to the light, he was lying on a wooden deck looking straight up at a square door in the ceiling eight feet above.
Then the brutal brightness was partially obscured as Nedra leaned over the doorway and glared down from above. “Welcome back to consciousness. Enjoy your final hours of semi-freedom,” Nedra laughed shrilly then slammed the trapdoor shut.
Spratt rubbed his eyes just before darkness enveloped him again. He now had a pounding headache to go along with the abject loneliness. Slowly, Spratt’s eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. As he adjusted to his new situation there was plenty of light seeping through the boards above to take stock of the situation. Relief washed over him at the realization he wasn’t actually alone. He was never so happy to see such a motley group of people. There were dozens of haggard individuals dressed in tattered clothing, but looks aside, they were companions.
Spratt thought Nedra might be a form of vampire that subsisted on the blood or souls of people. Still, he wondered, why would she keep so many at one time? Perhaps he was letting geek mentality take hold. It was probably wrong to see wild fantastical explanations for every odd occurrence in Taru. Before he had a chance to seek out help, a thin man in what looked very much like a tuxedo, reached down and pulled Spratt to his feet. Upon closer inspection, it was evident these weren’t the dregs of society. Instead, many of the prisoners were dressed in the very finest clothing, now rendered unkempt.
“Welcome to a bad situation,” said the man.
The horrible fear that gripped Spratt dwindled and he was feeling like his old self again, “It’s only as bad as we let it get. By the way, the name’s Spratt.”
“I’m Morgan. If you can come up with a way out of here, be my guest. Nedra snatched me after I left the party of the decade.”
“How long have you been down here,” asked Spratt.
“If I counted the slivers of light and blankets of dark correctly, I’d said eight days.”
“That’s probably good. Means Nedra has no immediate plans for the lot of us.”
As if on cue, the ship jolted to the right. All of the denizens in the cabin wobbled or fell at the unexpected movement. Movement meant they were one step closer to whatever ghastly fate Nedra had in mind. As the craft jolted along, a murmur of panic began to shift through the people.
Morgan’s voice rose above the clamor. “Do not give up hope!” The level of panic only seemed to rise. A dull crimson glow surrounded Spratt and gave an added light to the scene. Morgan raised his hands above his head. “Listen to me. Listen! The one Nedra has just brought to us is the key to our freedom!” The glow certainly caught everyone’s attention. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Spratt ran his hand over the stone in his pocket and promised to once again tap into its power. He never had a messiah complex before and didn’t plan on starting now. Yet, there didn’t seem to be any other way but embrace Morgan’s words. There had to be a way out of this ship’s cabin. He had Nedra on the run in that alley, so why couldn’t he do it again! He could not only regain that form, but maintain the edge this time and defeat this awful creature. He didn’t want to be anyone’s symbol, but a genuine savior. He’d sign up for that.
“Deliverance is a strong word.” Spratt raised his arms over his head. “But, I promise that each and every one of us will escape from Nedra’s clutches.”
The tattered mass of people suddenly burst into applause. The job was now his, whether he was up to the task or not. Hopefully, Winter, Biggs, and Kafira were on the trail.
Over the course of the next few hours, Spratt and Morgan devised a plan. It wasn’t much to speak of, but it gave them a small chance to upend Nedra and take the ship with a minimum of casualties. First, Spratt had the children, injured, and frail move to the far corner of the hold behind a wall of boxes. Spratt didn’t believe in huddling all of the women off to the side. The women could be helpful in the fisticuffs ahead. Nedra was unlikely to commit bodily harm on anyone in the hold, since she seemingly had plans for them. If Spratt was wrong about their being sold into slavery, then who knew what was ahead. All would be answered soon enough.
* * *
Day transitioned to evening, yet the situation below deck remained unchanged. The glowing stone had long since extinguished. Spratt had no idea how to reactivate it, but hoped it would come to life at the appointed time. The shadowy world during daylight created below deck turned into a world of near-total darkness with night. The ragtag group lost the buzz of anticipation as the hours dragged on. The few hours of preparation were scant in relation to the hours of waiting.
Spratt was disappointed nobody had any implements to start a fire. The night was chilly even with the body heat generated by the cramped confines. Spratt was certain his breath would be visible if it weren’t pitch black. Fire would warm the chill from their bones, and raise the morale of the others. Realization that a fire would almost certainly lead to asphyxiation made the lack easier to deal with. On the other hand, it didn’t make him any warmer.
The cold that cut through his bones was nothing compared to the desperate hunger that shook his belly. Spratt at the spot he knew Morgan was sitting. “Nobody here looks malnourished.”
“Yeah, she’s kept us decently fed.”
Spratt rubbed his cheek. “Here’s an important question. When have they been feeding you?”
“Once a day, usually aroun’ dawn,” Spratt could hear Morgan rummaging in his pockets. “Been saving this bit of cheese. Here,” Morgan grabbed Spratt’s arm and groped down to his hand. His new friend placed something in his hand.
“I couldn’t eat your food,” said Spratt earnestly.
“Take it. There’ll be more in the mornin’. ‘Sides you need your strength.”
Spratt gobbled the chunk of cheese. He was pleased with the camaraderie he’d developed with Morgan. Although they’d only been together a short time, Spratt felt like he’d found a true friend. The cheese didn’t fill him up, but the small amount of sustenance helped settle his mind.
With all the setbacks they’d face there was always a fresh start. The situation was bleak, but he now had no doubt a way out would materialize. He had talked his way out of a few jams in life; this probably wasn’t going to one of those times. You may be able to babble your way through lighting a friend’s parents’ luggage on fire in the backyard, but he doubted Nedra would be as understanding. This was going to come down to a fight, and Uncle Sam trained him very well on that score.
Even though he was exhausted, Spratt felt like talking about everything that had happened to him in the past few days–or was it weeks? Just when he was ready to resume the conversation, Spratt noticed Morgan’s sing-song snore. Talking seemed to be out.
As Spratt lay propped against the wall, the tug of sleep pulled at his own eyelids. He adjusted to a more comfortable position, then slid his hands beneath a fold in the cloak. Just before he dropped off Spratt’s hand ran over the orb hanging from his neck and the faint glow returned. The glow was dimmer than before, so it didn’t do much for his sight. Yet, something about the light source made him warmer. Maybe it was just his imagination.
The ethereal image of Kamalli that slowly materialized before Spratt was definitely not his imagination. Kamalli looked down at the still-sitting Spratt with a sour expression.
Spratt didn’t seem taken aback by the floating figure and said, “Sorry about this. Things didn’t quite work out.”
“You shouldn’t be sorry…,” Kamalli slowly waved his hand around the room, “about this unfortunate incident.”
Spratt looked at Kamalli incredulously. “Then what exactly should I be sorry about?”
Kamalli slowly lowered his wizened frame to the ground. He sat with legs crossed and looked into Spratt’s eyes, “Making an old man crouch down on a cold, musty wooden floor, that’s what you should be ashamed of!”
Spratt couldn’t help but be reminded of his grandfather when he looked at Kamalli. They may have existed a world apart—quite literally—but they each had the cutting sarcastic wit, a fragility that was more look than real, and an amazing level of wisdom. Here was a man that was aiding him and his friends for no gain whatsoever. Just like his grandfather. He’d seemingly do anything for anyone at any time. If you showed him respect you would have the staunchest ally you could ever hope for. Although he had no proof, he assumed if you crossed Kamalli, you’d have made the worst enemy of your life. Spratt knew which side he wanted Kamalli on.
At that dark moment in the depths of Nedra’s ship, Spratt realized Kamalli was the only person in Taru he could trust beyond Biggs and Winter. He even pondered that Kamalli may be the only one he could trust. After all, he was about to lend him and his new friends aid. Now that Kamalli had come to his assistance he found himself very angry with the botch job Biggs and Winter were pulling for his rescue. Maybe Kafira was the problem? Perhaps she had sullied their minds. Maybe those two weren’t coming for him at all?
As the endless machinations circled through Spratt’s over-tired brain, Kamalli just sat and watched. He seemed content to allow Spratt some time to gather his composure.
“You’ve gotten into a bit of a pickle,” spoke Kamalli.
Spratt was surprised at Kamalli’s statement of the obvious. He expected Kamalli to free him or hatch a plan of escape almost immediately. Spratt decided not to speak yet, Kamalli must have something very important to say. He just had to give the old man a chance to do it.
“Do not fret. You will escape this vile scene. Fate does not call for your path to end here under Nedra’s pincer grip.”
“About Nedra, what is she?” Spratt didn’t wait for the answer. He chimed back in, “She’s not a soul-sucker, is she?” Spratt felt like an idiot as soon as he said the words. He’d already come up with the most obvious scenario, yet he brought up this foolish idea.
Kamalli scowled. “A…did you call her a soul-sucker?” Spratt nodded sheepishly. Kamalli broke into a fit of a hysterical laughter. He rolled around on the floor for a moment and pounded his fist onto the ground with glee. When Kamalli sat back up he rubbed a tear from his eye.
Spratt turned crimson with embarrassment at Kamalli’s fit of laughter. While his grandfather wouldn’t go to such extremes when you did something stupid, he had his own way of making you understand when the words escaping your mouth were foolish. As much as he’d like to take back his idiotic statement, Spratt knew he couldn’t.
Kamalli had finally reined in his fits of laughter. “Silly, Earther. You think everyone in Taru is a supernatural demon of some kind don’t you?”
Spratt shook his head.
Kamalli pointed at Spratt. “Yes, you do!” The playful tone lingered a moment longer then it left Kamalli’s face completely. “And that is your greatest mistake. Oh, Nedra is an adept fighter with reflexes unlike most living men, and she has an uncanny ability to leap, but beyond that she’s not unlike you and I,” Kamalli chuckled. “Well, that is if you or I were into the slave trade.”
Spratt flinched at the thought that he’d figured Nedra out for what she was, but he had looked like an idiot in front of Kamalli. What if Kamalli decided Spratt was too stupid to remain under his care? He didn’t think the wonderful old gent would do that, but you never know. If Spratt continued to push the bars of stupidity, he wouldn’t blame Kamalli for abandoning him.
“Nedra is powerful but pales in comparison to that which you are capable. I saw you fight in the alleyway. You had her beaten, yet you lost confidence in your own power!” Kamalli closed his eyes for a moment then continued. “For a split second, you dreamed of being back on Earth. You feared the changes taking hold of your body were freakish, thus you lost the talent you finally manifested.”
“I have put no training in for these abilities. Does it not make sense that I would doubt,” asked Spratt.
“Which is another reason why you failed against Nedra. Taru is rife with untold wonders. Those that can tap into the aura of Taru manifest any number of fantastic rewards. It doesn’t matter how, only that you had successfully doing it. You did for the short term in the alley, and you must do it again. Only this time you’ll have to remain tapped into the aura. Then, and only then, will you be the greatest of all fighters.”
“Greatest of all fighters? What are you talking about?”
“For future reference: keep in mind that if you had not done something imprudent, you would never have been put in this position. Knowledge, even more so than tapping the aura, is the key to survival in Taru,” Kamalli smiled brightly. “Surviving cannot be your goal.”
“It isn’t. We just want to get home.”
“The Triptych have a greater purpose.”
“I thought you said that was fantasy,” asked Spratt.
Kamalli opened his hands in a gesture of ignorance. “Sometimes I let my dreams get the better of me. For now, you must prepare for the battle with Nedra. Your friends will not arrive in time to make a difference. This is up to you!”
Kamalli twinkled out of existence before Spratt could say another word.
The next thing Spratt knew he was being pushed awake by Morgan.
“They’ll be delivering breakfas’ in a few moments. Always the same hatch. The nearest the ship’s stern.”
Spratt looked out at the blank space that moments before contained the blue spectral form of Kamalli. Nobody was there except for Morgan. And the light of morning was cascading through the cracks in the wooden ship. Hadn’t it just been pitch dark? Was Kamalli’s manifestation just a dream? Questions overwhelmed his mind, and he figured they never would be answered. He lamented that his life had become the miserable existence of a student with a teacher that never answers your query. They just ask another question!
Spratt’s didn’t allow his lamentations to overcome him. He sprung up and grabbed Morgan’s arm. “Show me!”
Morgan led Spratt through several groupings of people. Finally he came to a stop and looked up. “Any second now.”
A trapdoor in the far end of the hold lurched open. Spratt was surprised to see Nedra’s face looking down on him. He assumed underlings would do this type of work. Nedra held a railing with one hand and dangled about one-third of the way down the fifteen foot drop. She had a wooden crate tucked under her other arm. She simply lifted her arm and the crate crashed to the floor, which sent a cloud of dust upward.
Spratt couldn’t help but be impressed by Nedra’s graceful movements and amazing strength. She moved with a gait, almost like a sideways limp, yet there was no wasted motion. Her long blond hair fell limply across her shoulders when she was standing upright, and for some reason it didn’t move when she hung upside down. Spratt couldn’t pull his eyes away from Nedra. As frightening as his captor was, he found her beautiful at the same time. Spratt was confused by his feelings of revulsion mixed with ample portions of allure. He couldn’t debate a feeling, but he certainly wouldn’t give it voice.
He tried to regain focus and studied Nedra’s movements in a less lustful way. She followed up the first box of food with two more. His captor paused briefly as sinews tightened to pull herself up in the transition from one crate to another. It wasn’t for more than a few moments, but he believed she was wide open to an attack at that point.
Spratt grabbed hold of Nedra’s head and yanked down with every ounce of strength in his tired body. Nedra latched onto Spratt’s arm; her grip was like iron. Morgan followed Spratt’s lead and their combined effort dragged Nedra into their ‘world.’
Nedra hissed as she fell but the sound was cutoff when the deck knocked the air from her lungs. The rest of the captors proved their mettle by rushing toward their enemy, but Nedra was up before she could be trampled. Once on her feet, Nedra spun 360 degrees with a blindingly fast roundhouse kick. She followed it with a swinging fist that, if possible, actually flew faster than the kick. Dozens of the people in the hold careened backwards from the attack, flopping to the deck like dominoes.
By the time Nedra’s twin spin attacks were completed, Morgan and Spratt were back on their feet. Thanks to her whirling dervish, Nedra ended up with her back to them. Morgan produced a short blade, which was one of the improvised weapons the group made the previous night.
Spratt marveled at Morgan’s handling of the blade, and his hesitation would cost them. Morgan’s movement was quite fast, all things considered, but it wasn’t even in the same league as what Nedra was capable. Morgan even barked out a battle cry when he was within reach of Nedra.
Nedra spun and ducked nearly in the same movement. She reached out and grabbed Morgan’s arm as it was traveling over her head. She twisted Morgan’s appendage until the improvised knife dropped to the floor. Nedra pressed her advantage and swung him over her head and into the boxes she had just brought below. Morgan slumped partially obscured under the boxes.
Nedra smiled with pride and sauntered over to Spratt’s fallen friend. She gingerly placed her foot on Morgan’s throat. “Normally, I don’t kill my stock, but in this case, I just might have to make an exception,” Nedra threw her head back and laughed malevolently.
A warm red glow shined from beneath Spratt’s cloak and cast an eerie glow under his chin. Finally, Spratt’s rooted feet jumped to life. Again, he moved with uncanny speed like he illustrated in the alley prior to being captured. Nedra hadn’t finished laughing when Spratt’s spinning heel kick caught her flush on the jaw. Her head snapped back and her eyes rolled back.
Spratt landed with cat-like grace and brought his other foot up catching Nedra behind the knee of the leg planted on Morgan’s throat. Nedra stumbled backward. He followed up the first two hits and caught her again with an open palm thrust to the chest that sent the monster careening backward into a wall. There was a sizable crack in the barrier to the outside. Spratt filed this away as another possibility to exploit in their escape plans.
Nedra slowly rose but the harsh countenance was replaced once again with the look of fear seen all too briefly in the alleyway.
His confidence grew after landing a wicked combination of blows that would make a video game character proud. Spratt took Kamalli’s advice and believed wholeheartedly that he could take Nedra out. He knew, and so did she, that the power he called from was enough to destroy her.
Spratt began to skip around mimicking Muhammad Ali’s ‘float like a butterfly’ dance. He thought back to his youth when he’d watch Ali’s fights on video or in retrospectives with his dad. The legend was long retired by the time Spratt started watching, but the man’s charisma had been overwhelming. The end result of the career on his ravaged body didn’t change the man’s former mastery. Ali was forever his favorite athlete. Right now, it seemed fitting to take Nedra out while preaching the gospel of Ali to a new world.
Nedra wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. “You can be quite the fighter, little one. Any chance you’ll tell me where you picked up your style?”
He continued to dance around and shadow box. “A man from Kentucky, name of Ali.” Spratt moved backwards but beckoned Nedra to come to him.
Spratt took his eyes off Nedra for a moment to peek at his friend. He was thrilled to see Morgan’s eyes were open. Morgan propped himself up on one arm and looked at Spratt. “Nice to see you made it through okay,” chuckled Spratt.
“Behind you…” Morgan dropped back into unconsciousness.
Spratt didn’t know what to do. Nedra was in front of him with a look of glee. Should he turn his back to her and see what Morgan was warning him about? He had to. Morgan wouldn’t mislead him. It really didn’t matter if Spratt turned for a moment; he was faster than Nedra anyway. He was certain he could handle both sides of any fight.
When Spratt turned, he found six of Nedra’s crew surrounding him in a half moon shape. Four of the men were armed with sharp prods and two others held nets. Spratt was about to turn back on Nedra when her blow landed. Nedra had raced across the hold and smashed Spratt with a punch that sent him sprawling to the ground.
Spratt was dazed, but knew his speed would win him out in the end. He figured that a moment or two could be lost as he regained 100% of his senses. Then he could battle Nedra and her pals to a standstill and save the others in the hold. Spratt rubbed his head to shake out the cobwebs then popped his eyes open when he was ready to continue the battle.
Shockingly, several minutes had passed, and he hung in one of the nets surrounded by Nedra and the sailors. Spratt saw that the other slaves were keeping well back from the action.
“Your champion! How laughable. We will be in port in two days time. There you will be sold off into an unending slavery. Your friend cannot stand up to me, but his powers will give me great amusement.”
Spratt tried to speak but only a hoarse whisper and a trickle of blood escaped his mouth.
Nedra cackled in his face. “Yes, we’ll have to tidy you up.” Nedra grabbed the net holding Spratt. “For now though,” Nedra swung the net upward and out of the hold. “Sleep!”
The dank, dark cabin shot away to blinding light then Spratt crashed to the deck. Nothingness engulfed Spratt again.