The island never received a name, because despite the coconuts that it provided those who were desperate to discover it, the island was less than hospitable. This lucky coincidence was a metaphor that would not be lost on Branch, had he known about it. He heard nothing as he stood there, consumed by the giant tree that looked unlike any tree that the few sailors that did visit the island had ever seen before. The roots sank deep into the island and the great arms sprouting out of the trunk reached higher than any palm on the island and the nuts that fell from the tree filled the shade with stunted saplings. The leaves whispered and the Wind whispered to Branch as he stood there, filling his mind with words he never heard. Much like he never heard the cries of the birds that lived in the tree or the lapping of the waves.
Much like he never heard the words until light pierced the darkness.
“With me!” Branch shouted as his fingers broke free of the bark of the great trunk that had grown around him and the roots that had grown over him. His fingers and hand tore free from the tree as his eyes filled with light and everything around him was suddenly painfully bright and vivid. His mouth was dry and it felt like he was pulling himself out of a thick clay, ripping free as he heard cracking all around him as he took a step forward, ancient momentum pulling him forward as the woman screamed at the top of her lungs and the hulking guardian sprang into action. The bleating of the goat caused Branch to blink.
Everything was different. They hadn’t bene standing in shade. There hadn’t been grass on the sandy dune. The lifeboats were gone and the ship was missing. There was a small boat, but it looked like someone had built a platform on two rafts with a tiny cabin and a fat, triangular sail, nothing close at all like that of the Nautilium.
“Merilla?” Branch’s voice was dusty and he choked on the sand in the back of his throat. “Berrus? Laurum? Verius?” Branch’s voice grew louder with every name until he was shouting them, his fingers knotted into fists as rage burned through the words. The man sitting on the strange boat looked over his shoulder with almond eyes, unlike any eyes Branch had ever seen, brushed back his jet black hair and turned back to sharpening his blade.
Branch stumbled through the grass and the stunted saplings, looking to where bloodless Johan had been leaning against the trunk of the palm, waiting for death to take him. The palm tree wasn’t even there anymore. “What the hell is going on?” Branch growled.
A woman behind him cleared her throat and Branch turned to face her.
“My name is Kaia of Tokoia, Chosen of the Wind and Sky, destined to lead…” Branch stopped listening to her and studied the woman. She was young, the kind of age where a father might be looking to marry her off. A long main of unruly and uncombed hair hung over her shoulders and down her back as she spoke with her chin pointed upward and her shoulders pushed back. There was pride in her voice and her dark eyes burned with a fire that Branch recoiled at the sight of. It was a kind of fanatic fire that made him feel goosebumps, if he could feel goosebumps that is. She was wearing a weaved skirt with patterns dyed into it. Her tan skin was darker than any Illythian might have and her hair was as dark as the starless night. She was one of the savages that lived on the islands. They had stopped at several on their voyage to resupply. They lived simple lives and Branch had found himself envying them. The woman droned on about her purpose in speaking with him and the laurels that she had championed for, but Branch’s eyes moved to the girl’s other companions.
The man behind her, in particular. He was a towering specimen of muscle and ink. His chest, shoulders, and face were covered in intricate tattoos that told a story that Branch could not quite comprehend. His chest was broad and his belly round, but there was no gluttonous fat here, but strength in mass. His shoulders were meaty and round, his arms shaped with the kind of strength that would make Branch even hesitate before facing off with him. He wore a weaved grass collar that was studded with pearls and precious stones taken from the sea. He too had skin that was a warm, dark tan. He stood there silently, watching Branch as Branch watched him, his meaty hands resting on a weapon that Branch had never seen before.
The weapon looked like a long paddle that went form the soles of the man’s feet up to his sternum where the handle was long enough for both hands. The man could rest his chin on the pommel. It was entirely wooden, with the handle wrapped in leather. The edge of the paddle was covered in jagged teeth of black stone that caught the light and made Branch want to see the thing in action. It looked like a club that someone had dug a saw blade into. A butcher’s dream come true.
Of course, next to the girl was her other companion, a shaggy goat with horns painted red and whose face was painted in red lines as well. The thing chewed one of the leaves from a stunted sapling.
“Start over,” Branch waved his hands. “Who the hell are you.”
The girl’s nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. “I am Kaia of Tokoia, daughter of Chief—”
“That’s nice, Kaia,” Branch said. “Who’s bruiser here?”
“Tamati is our tribe’s greatest warrior,” Kaia said. “He has fought both of the great raids I have spoken to you of and has sworn his life to silence until he has slain the evil god Wiremu.”
“Good luck with that,” Branch said, turning his finger to the goat. “And why’d you bring that.”
“He is my Spirit Guide, given to me of the Goddess Tui-Ono,” Kaia said. “Goddess of the Wind and Sky.”
“Wind?” Branch laughed. “Wind set you up to this? At least someone got me out of that tree. Listen, how long have I been here? I’m looking for a women and some warriors. They were just here.” Branch’s eyes climbed the massive trunk of the great tree that had grown up at the heart of the island, consuming the rocks that he had been standing by when he and Mirella had just been arguing. He felt his stomach churn and wasn’t sure that he wanted to hear the answer to the question.
“The Warriors of Sunlight?” Kaia had a smile on her face that made Branch feel uncomfortable. “We remember when you came to our Tribe, Atua La’au with the Goddess Tui-Ono long ago.” She rummaged through a bag at her feet and pulled out a rusty chunk of metal and Branch furrowed his bark coated brow and watched as she stretched out her arms, clutching a helmet that the Centurions had been wearing just days ago. It was coated with rust, the detail gone and one of the wings missing, the other broken in half. It was hardly recognizable again and the dust from the rust covered her hands as she held it out to him.
“No,” Branch took the helmet and held it gently in his hands as if it were a fragile egg. She had cast the spell. He thought he had been fast enough, that he could catch her arm before she could cast the spell. She was so powerful, so talented, so highly trained, and she was too damned fast. How could she do that? How could she freeze him like that? How did she even know a spell like that? How could she leave him here and go after the beast without him? They were part of a team. He would have died for her, but she had betrayed him. She had stabbed him in the back and left him here on this goddamned island. His fingers tightened and he crushed the helmet and shot it straight into the grass, sending up a jet of sand as it sank into the ground. “That bitch!”
“Excuse me?” Kaia asked.
Branch turned and stormed down the hill to where the palm tree had been and looked at the ground. Feeling helpless rage swirling inside of him, clawing at his ribs and filling him with a fire that Mirella could never match. How could they sail back to the island without him? How could Berrus let her do that? They had hired him because there wasn’t a bounty hunter, mercenary, or blade for hire like Branch. There was no one like him. He had spilled enough blood to fill this whole ocean. Did they really think that they had chance without him? Sure, they had their potions and their training, but Branch couldn’t die! He’d tried plenty of times and that had gotten him nowhere.
He whirled around and faced the girl as she came down the hill and made his way toward her. “How long have I been on this island?” He demanded.
“Atua La’au, you have been here for many years,” Kaia said. “My ancestors’ ancestors met you when you first came. My grandmother told me stories of how you slew the great sea monster Amula’tua, how you would slip free of your island and punish those who threaten Tokoia. How you killed the great eagle Mai’ua Lau and planted his feathers to bring us palm trees. She told me of the tales of how you would bring the Warriors of Sunlight in our gravest hour to save Tokoia. Atua La’au, I have sailed many days and faced many dangers to bring you back to my island to stop the black skinned raiders.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Branch shook his head. “How did you wake me up? That’s some high level, Imperator kind of magic. How did you figure it out?”
“The Goddess Tui-Ono chose me to save my people and gave me this magic crystal from the heart of the ocean,” Kaia held up the coarse necklace around her throat with a pale blue crystal on it. She held it with such reverence and wonder that Branch didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was just a chunk of quartz. “She spoke to me and told me that should I find Atua La’au and press the crystal to his heart, he would awake and help us kill the god Wiremu whose minions attack our people.”
Branch shook his head. The Wind was at it again. She just loved convincing simpletons that she was a goddess and that she had some great purpose for their lives. As the girl continued talking about her great purpose, Branch couldn’t help but laugh, even if it was callous and sinister.
“Why are you laughing?” Kaia asked angrily. “I am on a great journey to save our people and I demand that you help us.”
“Sweetheart,” Branch stopped laughing. “The Wind ain’t a goddess and you might be chosen, but it’s not what you think. In fact, you’re not the first Chosen that I’ve met before. One out of a thousand of you poor bastards end up a saint or a hero, the rest of you end up dead or forgotten, cogs in their master plans they have going on. The only thing you’re chosen for is a big fat joke. So what’s she got you doing?”
“She is too a goddess,” Kaia shouted. “I have seen her with my own eyes and she has given me great power, power enough to wake you!”
Branch had nothing against that. She had woken him and that was something that he was feeling conflicted about. Part of him wanted to laugh at her, but the part of him that wasn’t a jackass was grateful not to be stuck on this island until the world fizzled out to its boring death. Branch could only think about the fact that he needed to get to Titan’s lair and that he needed to see what became of Mirella and his companions. From the sound of it, he didn’t have a lot of cause to be optimistic. Branch turned and looked at the weird boat and the surly looking man, or not man, that sat on the planks sharpening a weird curved sword. In the surf, Branch saw a piece of brittle driftwood and figured that his options right now were limited.
He turned back to Kaia. “Kaia, right?”
“I’ve told you that five times now,” Kaia growled.
“Yeah, and Topo?” Branch pointed at the bruiser.
“Tamati,” Kaia shouted. “He has taken a vow of silence until we have killed the god Wiremu.”
“Wiremu,” Branch grinned. “Big son-of-a-bitch who corrupts everyone that’s around him? Creates Varhum like a cobbler at a shoeless town?”
“I do not know this word,” Kaia said. “The Taniwha? The black skinned demons?”
“Black as the freaking night,” Branch nodded. “Yeah, you get me to that island and I’ll do whatever you need.”
“We need to deliver the Soul of Peace to the heart of the island,” Kaia said, holding the pale blue quartz. “Only then will the island stop corrupting the Taniwha and they will stop raiding my people.”
“Two problems there, sweetheart,” Branch held up two clawed, bark coated fingers. “One, the island doesn’t make them, the Titan causes them. He corrupts everything, so it’s Wiremu that you want to kill, not put a rock in the middle of the island. Second, the Vark don’t sail. They hate water. So whatever’s attacking your island isn’t the Vark.”
“The Taniwha have come twice,” Kaia insisted. “The Goddess Tui-Ono told me specifically that the stone must be placed at the heart of the island.”
“Yeah, because if you’re going to put the stone at the heart of the island,” Branch gestured wildly, “you’re going to have to go through a goddamned giant. Once that asshole’s dead, there’s nothing left to worry about. You can just chuck that piece of crap into the ocean.”
“It is my sacred duty,” Kaia said. “I will see my duty through, for I was Chosen of the Wind of Sky. Summon your Warriors of Sunlight and we will sail to the island and battle Wiremu to place the Soul of Peace at the heart of Monga-Tui.”
Branch drummed his fingers on his legs and looked around him. “Yeah, all that crap you said about me isn’t true,” Branch said. “I didn’t kill any sea monsters or I didn’t kill some bird. What you see is what you get.”
“Where are the Warriors of Sunlight?” Kaia held up the crumpled helmet she had salvaged from the sand.
“Those assholes left me frozen in a tree,” Branch shook his head. “Trust me, I’m as good as it gets. I’ll get you to the island and we’ll be just fine.”
“This is not what the legends say,” Kaia was worried as she looked at the bruiser who also looked slightly distressed. They had come to this island looking for a god and his army and found a pissy treeman and that was it. The man on the boat chuckled menacingly as he ran a whetstone over the edge of his blade.
“Stupid savages,” the man said.
“And what the hell is your problem?” Branch turned on the man. “What the hell are you anyway?”
The man’s head whipped around and stared at Branch, his almond eyes wide with horror and dazed confusion. He said nothing as he rose from his perch on the boat and walked around to the other side of the boat, hiding behind the reed cabin. Branch frowned and shook his head.
“That guy’s an asshole too,” Branch said.
“He is a Warrior of Sunlight?” Kaia had tears in her eyes.
“Nope,” Branch shook his head. “Just an asshole.”
“I don’t understand,” Kaia said. “This is all wrong.”
“Listen,” Branch looked at the young girl and offered her a horrifying smile. “I know I’m probably not what you were expecting, but I’ve got a bone to pick on Mongo-Pongo and if you’re sailing that way, I’m going with you. If I have to kill a Titan so you can put a rock on top of other rocks and chant a magic phrase, sounds good to me. You just need to get me there and I’ll kill anything you need me to. Sound good?”
As far as Branch was concerned, he needed to get off this island and to Mirella’s precious island to find out what the hell happened to her. If she and the rest of her backstabbing crew were dead, then that would be the end of it. But, if there was no sign of them and they might still be alive, he was going to hunt down every last one of them after he finished the job he was hired for. He’d been stupid. He had fallen for a girl with a pretty face and high ideals. He shouldn’t have gotten sentimental. He would kill the Titan without an army of Forlorn Centurions. He’d do it with a pair of savages, a goat, and whatever the hell was on the boat and then he’d find a way back to Illythia and he would march straight to the Black Academy and rub it in the faces of all of those pretentious immortals. Then, he’d probably go get drunk.
The girl, renewed by what Branch had offered her, figured that she would have to make due with what she had been given. She stood up straight and placed a hand on her bare stomach and held up her chin high.
“Atua La’au, will you join us on our quest to slay the evil god Wiremu and save our island of Tokoia?” Kaia asked him with her most dignified and proud voice that she could muster with a smile on her lips and tears still fresh in her eyes. There was something regal about the way she looked and the naiveté of all of this. Why not help her out? After all, he’d like her island when he’d stopped there.
“You bet your ass,” Branch held out his hand to shake.
It took a minute, but eventually, she figured out how to shake his hand.