Sailing Through The Cursed Forest
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Have you ever seen the sun set over the Masasula River?

Words can hardly describe the breathtaking scenery of the last few rays of sun caressing the waters with their warm invisible hands. Only a few moments ago, my hands were plunged at the bottom of a soapy metal sink at the far end of the kitchen. Miraculously, I was attempting to clean five or six old-fashioned whiskey glasses all at once with my trusty orange wash cloth. Cleaning crystal glassware is a true art, let me tell you. Apparently, out of the blue, a member of the crew erupted in the kitchen like a chicken with no head, telling us that we should come out to see the view before it was too late. I didn’t notice the cooks and other dishwashers exiting the kitchen until I physically turned around to ask if there was more glasses that needed to be washed. I was confused by the fact that there were more live fish than humans in the kitchen. I left the saponaceous sink behind and headed outside where I immediately noticed the unusual number of people gathered onto the main deck.

"There you are, Olavo!" shouted Carmo while gesturing among the crowd for me to come closer, "Hurry over, you’re going to miss it!"

"Miss what, Brother?" I replied, climbing onto the main deck to meet him.

And that’s when I saw it.

Currently, I am looking left and right and all I see is never-ending jungle. The colossal and wise teal Mahoganies, the gloomy cloud-like Sjambok Pods and the Sacred Baobab trees blend in with the anomalous ecosystem of the region, making it practically impossible to see past the treeline. Yet, the trees look happy tonight. The blooming branches dancing in the wind appear as though they are waving at us. I cannot help but wave back at the green sea of life. A few people catch me waving at the jungle and decide to copy my gesture. Inexplicably, without having said a word, we are fifty crew members on the main deck waving at the trees. However, the jungle is only part of the real spectacle.

As I stare into the horizon, I cannot help but gaze into the vast yet narrow body of diamond-blue water on which we sail. I am rendered speechless. The menacingly dark water is suddenly soft and welcoming. I have trouble believing that this morning we were sailing on a river of shadows and ink, whereas now the Masasula River takes on an almost scarlet tint as the sun disappears in the distance. Or is it a lavender tint? So many colours seem to blend in the water, making it look like the river is a liquid rainbow. All the colours of the sunset sky irradiate the water with a bizarre yet reassuring beauty. Looking overboard, I notice tiny marine insects zooming gleefully on the surface of the river, racing each other with an innocent joy. They leave miniature trails in the water, creating tiny drawings which disappear nimbly. Although these lands are foreign to each and every one of us on board, there are things in this place that evoke a sense of nostalgia in me. Far away behind the boat, the vague outline of waterrises – those tall pillars of water defying gravity, sending water flying upwards – can still be seen, bringing back old childhood memories. Back in my village, we used to have one of the biggest waterrises of all the land right behind our house. Elders from the outskirts claimed that it was alive and growing, hence why it could never be measured with precision. The waterrise was constantly getting taller, like an Azul tree sprouting in the middle of our blessed cove. My Mama loved to bring my Brother and I swimming under the Mighty Waterrise. I bet she would laugh at how ridiculously small those on the Masasula River are.

Finally, for once, we are not staggering trying to follow the waterway; there is only one straight path with the setting sun at the end of the canal. Every member of the ship crew is gathered in unison on this lovely evening where we are one with nature. Warm winds from the South gently blow over the river, moving my dreads to the side of my face. The scenery almost makes me forget about the current mission we are on.

After a while, the crew goes back to their daily routine aboard and prepares for another night on the ship. Once I’m done with my work in the kitchen, I head to the upper-right bridge, where the men’s cabins are located. Instead of going straight to my cramped little room, I make a stop by Carmo’s place. I knock on the rusty cabin door and see him emerge, with a startled expression.

"Olavo? What are you doing here?" utters Carmo while staring me down.

"Brother, it is so nice to see you! I just came by for a brief visit. Even though we are on the same ship, we barely ever cross paths," I comment.

"You work in the kitchen and I work in the engine room, no wonder we never see each other. Besides, you never come to visit me. Did a set of plates fall on your head while you were washing the dishes tonight, or what?"

"May I come in?" I reply sharply.

Carmo immediately senses the change of tone in my voice and stops making fun of my job. His expression shifts too and becomes more serious. He gestures for me to come in while I make sure to close the door behind me.

"So, let’s get right to the point. What brings you here, my Brother?" asks Carmo as he takes a seat in the singular chair of his modest cabin while pouring himself a drink.

There isn’t much place to maneuver in the room since it was only made for one person, so I lean against the wall, blocking the door with my body.

"Our mission is bullshit, and you know it," I start.

"Oh please, not this again! Would you cut it already?" blurts out Carmo.

"You know I’m right!"

"Enough! We’ve talked about this already! Whether you like it or not, we are all on this boat together. In a week, this is going to be over, and you’ll be able to go back to your little hopeless dishwasher life in your forsaken restaurant."

"Don’t you dare speak ill of Babu’s restaurant!" I shout.

A deadly silence sets in between Carmo and I. Our eyes are locked onto each other.

"I can’t believe you forced me to join you on this," I pause, "This search and rescue mission feels more like a suicide mission than anything."

"You know that’s not true," replies Carmo.

"Really? Do you seriously believe that we are not risking our very lives as we speak? I should remind you that we are supposed to be looking for a lost ship overflowing with passengers that sailed directly through the Cursed Forest," I slam my fist on the wall, "they never even reached the new colony of Big Chief Noxolo. And what are we doing right now to find that missing ship?"

"Sailing through the Cursed Forest…" answers Carmo while rolling his eyes.

"Do you understand how ridiculous that is?! I read the Nonexhaustive Bestiary of the Cursed Forest written by Noxolo himself and –"

"Wait, how did you get a copy of that book? There are so few copies of it, only higher-ups should have access to it," points out Carmo with fire in his eyes.

"I… uh, I might have borrowed a copy from one of these ‘higher-ups’ on the ship while they weren’t paying attention. No big deal."

"Olavo! Did you seriously steal the Captain’s only copy of the Bestiary?!" blurts out Carmo.

I try to gesture to him to be quieter, but my stubborn Brother is furious and seems to have lost all hope in me. He does not understand that the walls have ears in this ship.

"You need to give it back to him, now," orders Carmo.

"I will, you big idiot. But let me tell you," I lower my voice, “this book it is unlike anything I have ever seen. This book is filled with terrifying drawings of unearthly beasts and detailed descriptions of their bloodlust for mankind. These creatures, Carmo, are dangerous. We are sailing in their territory, and we are not safe. Not even with all of our advanced technology. Not even with all of our weapons on board. I’m scared, Brother. This book, it keeps me up at night. I can barely sleep because these nightmarish creatures come back to haunt my mind every time I close my eyes," I stop and give my Brother a chance to speak, but he stays quiet, cautiously. I continue, "And I think about this ship that went missing. No wonder it never reached its destination. The Cursed Forest must hold its name for a reason, Brother. I can feel that something terrible happened to it. What if the colonists were attacked by the beasts that live behind the treeline?"

After a moment of cold silence, my Brother's protective nature takes over and his frustration melts into sympathy, "We won’t be able to know for sure what happened to the ship until we find it, Olavo. I am scared too, but so far, our mission has been going incredibly smoothly. We haven’t encountered a single one of these monsters up to this point, which is reassuring. Maybe there simply was a malfunction in the engine, and the boat had to dock on the river. That’s what most people believe anyways. It was a very old ship, so I wouldn’t be surprised that some of the systems gave up in the middle of the trip. Besides, the Masasula River isn’t so kind. I wouldn’t jump to conclusions now if I were you."

I take a moment to think about my Brother’s words and nod slowly. I sigh and turn around to leave the cabin.

"Olavo, there’s something that you should know."

I freeze and turn towards Carmo. My heart skips because of the gravity of his words. The warm suffocating air of the cabin is going to make me sick.

"I’ve talked with a lot of people about the missing ship before the mission. It’s a hot but sensitive topic back home, if you wanted to know. After asking around, I was able to gain access to the list of all the passengers who were on board."

"So what?" I grumble.

"I should have told you sooner why I got you in on this mission," challenges Carmo, "Olavo, I discovered something."

Carmo takes a sip of his drink, his eyes staring though my soul as if deciding whether or not I can handle the information he’s been hiding all along. Damn, I hate it when he does that.

"Jakayla was on the ship," he finally says, his words ringing in my ear as if I'd been shot in the stomach.

I stare blankly at Carmo as the nausea sets in. This cannot be happening. I feel like I am going to drown. This is absurd. I truly feel like I am going to drown.

An unprecedented rage rises in me as I take a step towards the man in front of me.

"You are joking," I declare.

"I’m sorry Olavo, I know I should have told you sooner."

"No, you don’t understand! Our Sister could be dead as we speak, eaten by some devilish creature in the jungle. If you’re telling me that Jakayla was on that missing ship, then we need to find her right away and get the fuck out of here as soon as possible. Are you getting this through your thick skull?"

"And how do you plan to do that?" smirks Carmo.

I immediately pull out a laser gun from the inside of my tunic and press it savagely against my Brother’s throat while pinning him down to his chair with my other hand. His narcissistic smirk disappears as quickly as a bullet and an unfamiliar terror can be felt reverberating inside of Carmo’s very soul. His pupils are nothing but two large lakes of fear.

"I hate you, Brother. You better hope that their boat had a system failure," I mutter into his ear.

We remain frozen in a deadlock for what feels like the longest seconds of my life. I finally push Carmo away from me and exit his cabin straight away, ignoring his petrified look. I put back my gun inside of my tunic without losing a second, and head outside onto the main deck. I need time to absorb everything that has just happened. I feel deeply betrayed. When I thought that our situation couldn’t get any worse…

The stakes of our mission have completely changed.

The sun has disappeared from the sky now. I come to lean on the railing of the deck and stare in silence at the dark river. Our technologically advanced replica of a steamboat serves as a beacon of light among this damned Cursed Forest that desperately tries to engulf everything inside of it in darkness. Without the intense light of the ship, it would be impossible to see further than an arm’s length during this moonless night.

I realize that I don’t remember the last time I had a proper conversation with Jakayla. I don’t know if she still considers me her Brother after I left the Family behind to start my own life elsewhere. I look at my left wrist and fidget with my opalescent bracelet. It is made from an anomalous metal, as strong as diamond. My name is engraved on the inside of it. It glows faintly in the night, adding to the geyser of light from the boat. Every member of my Family has a bracelet like this one. It is a part of us. It is supposed to be a Sacred reminder of where we came from. Sometimes, I hate this bracelet. Like now for example, where I want to throw it strenuously into the river. Then I remember how we buried Mama’s bracelet with her, next to the Mighty Waterrise. It would be wrong to get rid of it.

Very wrong.

I sigh and put all of my weight on the railing. I am tired, I should seriously consider heading to bed. I spend a few more minutes gazing into the Masasula River, completely lost in my own thoughts, but a perplexing noise brings me back to reality. A loud clunk resonates in the cold African night. It sounds like the boat hit something. Becoming increasingly alert, I hurry to the left bridge to investigate and catch a glimpse of a heavy metallic object floating in the water. I lean over the ramp and squint in an attempt to see more clearly what is drifting right under my eyes.

But then I see the blades and the rotor, and I instantly recognize what this is.

It’s a Mokellium engine. The type of motor which powers our ships. It is visibly damaged, but there is no doubt that this is one of them. And since our ship is still moving, it doesn’t take very long to realize whose Mokellium engine this is.

The missing ship is close!

I run to the upper bridge to get a better view of the river and far out in the distance, I spot a circular area in the water that is illuminated by a soft yellow light. Just enough light for me to make out the carcass of an old cruise ship stranded on the side of the river.

"We found the missing ship! Haha! We found it!" I yell triumphantly at the top of my lungs.

I can’t contain how overjoyed I am. I continue screaming glorious chants while running in circles all around the upper bridges. I keep at it for a while, until I notice that something odd is going on. I slow down and look around for a second.

Where is the nightcrew?

The nightcrew should still be up, operating the ship while the other passengers are asleep, but I haven’t seen anybody. Surely, they must have heard my incessant yelling. I make another round on the bridges, calling out to get the attention of anybody from the nightcrew. No response. The ship continues to sail towards the missing ship at an alarming speed. At this rate, we are going to sail right past it.

I need to think quickly, and my instincts tell me to get to the pilot house at the top of the ship, where the Captain is located. He is the one sailing this ship, and so I need to tell him to slow down immediately.

I start running and accelerate with each step. I reach the hurricane deck at lightning speed and rush to the stairs leading to the pilot house. As I’m running, I briefly notice horrifying creatures on the railing to my right. I jump. I am deeply appalled and take a prompt closer look. Those creatures are members of the nightcrew whose flesh have burnt and apparently fused with the metal railing of the hurricane deck. I don’t want any explanation right now, and so I climb the stairs three at a time up to the pilot house. The door is wide opened and I dash inside without a care. As soon as I step foot inside of the pilot house, a powerful electric charge runs through my leg, paralyzing my body and nearly making me pass out. I fall backwards and convulse violently onto the floor. After a solid minute, I regain full control of my body. The wind slams the pilot house’s door shut.

I briskly get back on my feet and back up in horror, as I peer through the door window and catch sight of the Captain and the entirety of the navigation crew lying on the floor, their bodies completely burnt, insentient and lifeless.

I don’t understand what is going on.

Our ship is now sailing right beside the remains of the missing ship, and I have no clue how to make this thing slow down. I decide that there is no other option left than to wake up the whole crew. Even if I don’t understand much about what is happening, I am well aware that things are clearly not going as they are supposed to.

I jump down the stairs and sprint towards the cabin hall, but something in the water catches my eye. This time, I stop and take a good look overboard. I had seen a soft yellow light emanating from the water around the missing boat earlier, but I had no clue what could have been the source of it. Now, I can see clearly where this strange light originated from.

Surrounding the chaotic wreckage of the missing ship is a pod of large sea creatures, each possessing a large horn sprouting from their face that glows brightly in the water. I begin to panic and take out the Nonexhaustive Bestiary of the Cursed Forest from my tunic. I flip through the pages like a madman, trying to find what these aquatic creatures could be. Some of the beasts appear to be curious and swim close to our ship, way too close. I see their enormous gray bodies covered with algae propelling through the water using their massive fins and long, muscular webbed tail. They remind me of non-anomalous African manatees, but their horn is a clear give-away that they are part of the abnormal ecosystem of our land. I see one specimen sticking its head out of the yellow water and staring at me. Short sparks of electricity crackle around its horn, pointed in my direction.
I finish flipping through the Bestiary and could not find a single page about sea creatures.

At the same moment, a devastating electric bolt fires from the sea monster’s horn, flying right past my head. The frightening heat of the short lightning bolt on my face startles me, and I inadvertently let go of the Bestiary. The book falls directly into the water and sinks beneath the surface.

I catch my breath and take out my laser gun. I load my weapon with a laser mag and fire two shots in the water, hitting the vicious beast who attacked me. The bright water suddenly turns a shade of red darker. I hear it scream in agony, as a low rumbling noise erupts from underneath our ship. In response to the sea creature’s apparent cry for help, a number of other sea beasts leave the wreckage of the missing ship and head directly towards our ship. All of their horns are glowing in a menacing yellow light, and each are pointed at me.

The idea of being shot additional lightning bolts at by a pod of unknown creatures does not make me happy at all, so I run to the cabin hall. I nearly trip while entering, and bang on every single door I see while yelling for everyone to wake up. I hear voices complaining about being woken up in the middle of the night, but the protests swiftly stop when the entire ship trembles from a brutal impact. A second impact sends the ship rocking, followed by a third one. Some of the crew members simply come out of the cabin hall in underwear and tank tops. There is not a second to waste. After only a few minutes, orders are already being yelled all throughout the ship. I give a brief summary of the situation to a higher-up, and he immediately takes the matter in hand. He orders me to run to the vault and grab a weapon to defend the left bridge. I don’t mention that I carry an illegal weapon on me as we speak and head directly to the left bridge.

I sprint once again to the area which I was ordered to go, but I notice that the ship is tilting. I turn to see if other crew members are seeing the same thing, and I have to accept that I am not dreaming. Despite the awkward angle at which the ship is in, I look overboard and cannot help but gasp in horror. At least ten sea creatures are bashing into the hull of our ship with full force, piercing deep holes with their enormous horns.

"Everyone exit the bridge! We go to the hurricane deck! The ship is gonna sink!" I yell over and over again for people to hurry up.

I stay behind to make sure that everyone has left the bridge and finally join the hurricane deck as fast as possible after everyone. There, it is a merciless battle between the crew and the river. Hundreds of emerald green laser beams can be seen fired by our advanced weaponry, but the sea creatures fire back with their powerful electrical bolts. More and more monsters from the river appear to be joining the assault, serving as overwhelming reinforcements. I fire a couple of shots in the water, unsure of whether or not I hit anything at all. The only thing I’m sure of right now is that the hurricane deck is rapidly getting closer and closer to the water, terrifying me.

Out of nowhere, a deadly lightning bolt zooms right past me and hits the man right beside me, who begins convulsing uncontrollably before falling forward into the water. I shout and freeze in shock, my helping hand stretched out over the water. Had I been a two seconds quicker, I could have caught him.

The situation is catastrophic. What is left of the crew is firing aimlessly at the water, hoping to potentially hit one of those sea creatures. A number of our men are paralysed and brought to the center of the hurricane deck, where rudimentary first aid is administered. The heat from all of our laser guns firing is almost blinding. The ceaseless shouting, the war cries, the baleful electric crackling, the desperate lament of the crew members and the guttural rumbling noise of the infernal creatures from the river all blend to form a cacophonic discord over the Masasula River.

I lower my gun in defeat. We are lost. The sea creatures swim amongst the dead bodies of our crew members.

I can hardly believe it. Our ship sailed all this way into the Cursed Forest, only to lose all of its members.

How can this be?

The ship sailed to the edge of the world and found corpses.

"Olavo, is that you?"

I turn my head and see Carmo beside me. He aims his Mokellium-powered railgun towards the water and sends a powerful burst, hitting at least five sea monsters all at once.

"Are you alright, Brother?" I ask him, feeling completely powerless.

"I’m doing excellently. It’s you I’m concerned with."

"What do you mean? I am holding up just fine," I lie.

My Brother gets back on his two feet and goes behind me for some reason. As I’m about to turn to face him, a ferocious kick sends me flying forward directly overboard. I can sense Carmo’s stone-cold eyes contemplating my fall.

I attempt to scream something at him, but I fall into the water too quickly. Salt water instantly fills my mouth and burns my eyes. My clothes immediately become five times heavier, causing me to sink even more. I grab my laser gun with my teeth and remove my tunic. I feel it sinking to the bottom of the river. With this out of the way, swimming back up to the surface isn’t difficult, but I spit my gun and cough uncontrollably. The water is very warm, which I thought would be a good thing. What I did not expect was for it to slow down my movements cause me to grow dizzy. I realize I need to get out of the river, and fast. I do everything I can to avoid getting shot at by one of our crew members. I swim in direction of the treeline, but almost get impaled by one of the sea creatures. My almost-naked body seem to attract the attention of a few beasts, who circle around me like hungry sharks. I pull my trigger and fire a laser beam at one of the beasts. I miss.

Thankfully, I spot a massive tree trunk drifting on the river, not too far from me. I swim up to it while keeping a close eye on the beasts who are still in the mood to play with me. My plan is to keep things like this for as long as I can. I latch onto the tree trunk and fire an additional shot in the water.

I believe I hit something because one of the beasts suddenly gurgles loudly while producing an unnatural gleam from its horn. No electricity or anything. Another of the sea creatures then approaches me and locks eyes with me. I raise my left arm and point my laser gun at it.

Its horn grows brighter and crackles with electricity, revealing something peculiar stuck approximately midway on it. I briefly glance at the horn, and I notice this shimmering ring that looks awfully familiar to me. In fact, I immediately understand that this is my Family bracelet.

There is no doubt in my mind. It is Jakayla’s bracelet.

My eyes burn with an unparalleled fury. I think of my little Sister and clench my fist around my gun. I don’t want to know why this vile creature has this bracelet, or where it found it. I don’t want to know, and I don’t care. If Jakayla is no longer of this world, then so be it, but I will not accept to let it go unforgiven. I put my finger on the trigger, and the sea creatures understand. They know what I am about to do. They can feel the intensity of my hatred towards them. They begin charging an electrical bolt with their horn, as I add more pressure to the trigger.

In the blink of an eye, I fire two laser beams that instantly kill the closest sea creature to me, and another one to break its horn. I jump forward and catch Jakayla’s bracelet. I feel at least a dozen lightning bolts destroy my body, and I sink into the water, barely conscious and convulsing wildly. My body stops breathing.

I close my eyes, and hold on tight to my Sister’s bracelet, despite my organs shutting down.

Maybe the objective of this suicide mission was different for me. Hey, at least, I will be able to give back Jakayla’s bracelet to her, wherever she is right now.

I have salt water in my mouth.

Let me ask you a question.

Have you ever seen the sun set over the Masasula River?

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