Nan Madol — Victory Witherkeigh
They called it the Reef of Heaven now, but Hukulban could only chuckle to herself at that description.
If they only knew…
They said the Lord of the Dead was said to have four agents that carried out his work for him, including herself. She had been the greatest of the four, known through the islands as the ‘shapeshifter,’ or the ‘hag.’ Why they called her that was anyone’s guess. She was ageless, beautiful, and terrifying with the coldness in her amber eyes. To think there had been a time she was not this seemed unimaginable now, the centuries having passed that her people were long wiped from this planet. But on rare evenings, when the sun was setting lazily across the open horizon from Nan Mandol, Hukulban would receive glimmers of a different time.
Her people had always been voyagers, scouting and sailing through the South Pacific as long as they could remember. They trekked the vast oceans using the stars and the winds as their guide, trading and meeting variations of themselves along the way. In those times, she was merely a princess, daughter of a Chieftain who ruled the vicious waves he sailed between what we now call Australia and Hawaii. Her people named her Hina, after the beautiful moon goddess that helped guide their sails through the darks of night.
Hina was rambunctious and free-spirited at the Chieftain’s daughter. She operated her own sails by the time she was seven years old, commanding the water just as gracefully as her father did. While she lacked his physical prowess, she was the pinnacle of beauty amongst their tribe with long dark curly hair and brown, toned skin. Hina swam with the speed of the dolphins, able to hold her breath for longer than most of their travel companions. She dove the furthest to grab the shellfish on the early ocean floor and had an uncanny ability to adjust to the dim light of the dark sea waters. Her father often called her his “little fish” as she developed her skills with the spear and the bow. Hina would just laugh in response, calling her father the king of the oceans if she were a sea creature. It had been the two of them for as long as she could remember. Hina’s mother had passed during childbirth on the island they call Tahiti. Like the other Polynesian tribes, Hina believed her mother’s spirit guided her forward along the sea, appearing to her in the stars and in the signs from the guides. Each tribe held their way of life sacred above the others, leading to bitter rivalries. None was more fierce than between Hina’s tribe and those on the islands of Pohnpei.
It was said that there was a time when the Chiefs of Hina’s voyager tribe and the tribes of Pohnpei existed in harmony. They coexisted for hundreds of years until the Saudeleur invaders. The legends the Pohnpeians told Hina’s people were two sorcerers had arrived on their island, brothers named Olishipa and Oloshopa. These brothers were taller and more robust than the natives. They used their magic to call upon a dragon to help them build an altar to their god, thanking them for safe passage to this new land. The native Pohnpeians welcomed the sorcerers, who used their magic to move the big stones around the coral reefs of the island to build up the vast city called Nan Madol. When Hina first heard the story, she begged her father to go meet the brothers, but her father refused. He knew that the sorcerers had built up the city but were also using their powers to oppress the Pohnpeians for praying and honoring their own gods. The Chief knew his allegiance would be with the Chief of Pohnpei, and thus he refused to allow his daughter to listen or interact with anything related to the Saudelurians. Unfortunately for Hina’s father, it enticed her curiosity further.
When her father was off dealing with tribal business, he often left Hina to her own devices. To pass the time, she would sneak off and try to pick up tidbits or stories of the Saudelurians and their magic. Hina had never seen magic before. The elders of the tribe spoke of times when the Ancients walked amongst the land, performing feats of magic to create the birds or the fish. Hina knew the stories of her family’s heritage from the Demi-gods, but she could only sigh at the fact that they just seemed to be stories. They had not seen magic amongst their people in hundreds of years. She would have gone on thinking it was just old wives’ tales had it not been for their travels near Pohnpei. Her father would not allow her to come ashore as he met with the Chief fighting the Saudelurians, but Hina’s small canoe allowed her to float close enough to shore to see the massive stone walls surrounding the city of Nan Madol. She had been told if she swam deep under the coral, she would find the underwater cave the dragon slept in. It had been searching for these treasures that her life would turn upside down.
The sun had set, but her father had not arrived back with their brigade of canoes. Whatever their mission was, it would take place in the evening, it seemed. Hina was content, laying on her boat, looking up against the clear night sky as the stars burned brightly. Nights like these always made her talk to her mother out loud, assuming she was one star looking down at her.
“It’s ridiculous that he keeps excluding me, ya know?,” she mused as she finished the rest of her picked fish and rice ball, “I’m sixteen already, he’s been training me to be his heir my whole life. They should allow me to explore and accompany the missions…”
A loud burst of laughter interrupted the silence. In the distant shores of Pohnpei, Hina could see the outline of two boys, probably around her age, maybe a little older. Not wanting to be seen, she slowly flipped into the water, gliding softly with just her ears above the waterline. A fire had been lit on the shore as their shadows danced against the stone walls constructed around Nan Madol. She swam just out of sight, hidden behind some shallow rocks when she heard their voices.
“Hurry, brother,” hissed one boy, “The time for this spell doesn’t last forever. We don’t have all night!”
“Calm down, Oloshopa,” replied the boy, “I am just getting situated. I told you, I’ve been practicing. Once we get this down, we’ll have no trouble with the natives. Let me show you.”
Hina’s eyes widened as Olishipa spread his hands up to the sky and began a strange chant.
So these are the two sorcerers? She wondered to herself as dark clouds of smoke formed offshore near the island. What the….?
Amid the clouds, the waves grew and churned, creating a giant whirlpool. Hina clung to the rock to stop the current from taking her from her place as a cyclone rose up. She squinted her eyes to watch Oloshopa jump up and down to cheer, gritting her teeth from calling out what idiots they were. The cyclone was heading right to them and the shore. It was on them before they knew it, Oloshopa’s eyes widening before he screamed. Olishipa had pushed him out of the way but was sucked into the vortex and taken out to sea.
“Oli!! Oli!!!” he cried.
Without thinking, Hina dove into the dark waters, following the tells of the current. This was her domain, her territory, and she could see the trail of damage the spell had left on the floor. Following the damaged coral to the deeper waters, she swam efficiently, moving with the current and staying as relaxed as possible, looking for the boy. She knew that if she panicked, it would be to both their detriments as the sea would either lead her further from him or force her to leave for air before she needed to. Just as she thought she lost the trail, she saw the boy’s outline, floating unconsciously with the waves. His body bobbed up and down as though spinning in place. Gently, Hina positioned herself behind him to allow herself to pull him along from under his armpits. Her lungs burned as they plodded slowly, eyes tearing with each stroke.
Almost there. C’mon, you’re almost there.
A guttural gasp was all she could do as they broke the surface of the water, allowing her to take her first breath of air. She was still floating along with Olishipa, getting closer to the shore when she noticed his brother disappeared.
Maybe he went to get help…
Figuring there was not much more to be done, she pulled Olishipa’s body onto the sand, kneeling to listen for him to breathe. Hina waited a second before beginning to compress down onto his chest, trying to force the water out of his lungs. She paused again, listening to his airless mouth, before turning her head to blow her own air down his lungs like her father had taught her. Her lips just grazed him when his eyes shot open, and water projected out of his mouth.
“Ugh,” he cried as Hina flew back into the defensive fighting stance, unsure of what would happen next.
The boy was still coughing and spitting up water, completely ignoring her presence. Hina stared at him, laying on the sand heaving and catching his breath. He was definitely taller than most of the other island natives she’d met in her travels. His skin was just a touch fairer than hers, causing him to glow a little under the stars. He had long black hair with lean, muscular shoulders but skinny legs.
He’s definitely not used to swimming, she thought.
“Who are you?” he gasped, breaking her out of her thoughts. She immediately took a step backward towards the water, eyes darting to make sure she had an escape route planned if he attacked her.
“Wait…” he said, reaching his hand out as he moved to his knees on the sand, “I’m sure you saved my life… I will not hurt you…”
“Your accent is funny…” was the first thing Hina said in response. The boy gave a lazy smile, holding his hands up to show her he meant her no harm.
“Yes,” he smirked, “You could say that I am having trouble with the accent… but I hope this comes across properly this time… Thank you…for saving me.”
Hina locked onto his amber eyes, sparkling with magic under the clear night sky. He’s beautiful.
She opened her mouth to reply, but she heard another set of voices approaching.
“We need to find him, search everywhere,” came Oloshopa’s voice in the distance with what sounded like his own guards.
“Sigh… my brother isn’t very subtle,” mumbled Olishipa over his shoulder. A splash broke his concentration when he realized that Hina had backed further into the water.
“Wait,” he called, “I still don’t know who you are!”
The wind picked up the sound of a conch shell blowing in the distance, and she knew her father’s rig would be back soon. She turned to look back at the shore, the glow of fire coming closer to the boy staring at her desperately from the sand.
“Hina…of Tahiti…” she smirked back at him before diving in the water, disappearing out of sight.
The Chieftain returned to find Hina ready and waiting for him in her outrigger, calm and collected as though nothing had taken place. He allowed her to hear the briefing that their scouting mission was a success, the area they were planning to take was left unguarded as apparently the sorcerers had gotten injured. Hina just smiled to herself and bid the men goodnight. She dreamt that night of showing the boy Oli her canoe and teaching him of the sea she called home. It would be a week before she would hear about those two brothers again.
A messenger appeared to their tribes’ docking area. He stated he came from Pohnpei, but he was one guard of the sorcerers. Hina bit her tongue as he allowed himself to be tied and blindfolded to not see his location when he delivered the message. Hina’s father and his advisors were utterly dumbfounded how they were found, but once they had the messenger secured, they demanded he tell them his business.
“I only bring a message to one who would understand me,” the messenger began calmly, “Our leaders are indebted to one of your own for a great feat of heroism. They ask only to meet this hero on the shore they committed the act.”
The men stared at each other in shock. Hina, however, sensed the blood draining from her face as her palms twitched before the man continued.
“My king asked that this hero meet them at sundown this evening.” Just as the messenger finished, his entire body disintegrated into volcanic ash, floating away with the wind.
The men erupted, shocked, and appalled as the magic they had just witnessed. The chaos allowed Hina to sneak out of the area and begin quietly rowing to the beach she had first seen the brothers. The water was relatively calm as she approached the shore. She had taken the long way back to the island, hoping by doing so, no one would have followed her or guessed where she headed if they had seen her. As her feet touched the sand, she turned to pull the canoe at a proper angle just in case she needed to jet off again.
“Hina, I presume?” a voice startled her as she worked, causing her to drop the oar onto her foot.
“Owww…” she yelled, “What in the…”
Hina had turned to find Oloshopa standing there, Oli just behind him with his hands behind his back. She hadn’t expected both of them somehow and immediately crouched low to kick his feet out from underneath him. Oloshopa’s legs flew straight up as he fell onto his back, his brother laughing in shock and amusement.
“I warned you she was feisty, brother,” laughed Oli, “Beautiful, but feisty.”
Hina blushed slightly but feigned hearing the remark as she stayed in a fighting stance, ready to strike Oloshopa if he tried to scare her again.
“Ugh…” he groaned on the ground, “A little help instead of your laughter would be nice oh brother dear…”
Oli walked over slowly, with his hands raised again to show Hina he meant no harm. Once he was close enough, he lowered his hand for his brother to take, helping him dust the sand off.
“I… apologize…” said Oloshopa, “I didn’t mean to scare you just then. I underestimated you.”
Hina looked at him as he stood. They were about the same height and complexion. Oloshopa’s build was more prominent, and his eyes were a darker amber color than his brother’s. Hina couldn’t say what it was, but the magic glowing in his eyes was wilder than Oli’s, more dangerous.
“You saved my life,” started Oli, “I didn’t realize until after you left who you were but let there be no misinterpreting, I’m in your debt.”
“We both are,” replied Oloshopa, “My brother is the most precious thing in the world to me. I would not know what to do without him. Please allow us to thank you properly, Hina – as one would thank a warrior of your rank. You’ve already met Oli, and you may call me Olo.”
Hina smiled then. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad thing… “What do you two have in mind? Why did you need to summon me this way?”
Olo smiled at her, almost a wolfish grin, “As you pointed out, there is a tension between our people and the natives of Pohnpei. We understand that your tribe has been helping the Pohnpei’s strike against us, but we would like to forgo the violence and propose an alliance. I think this may be a misunderstanding about who we are.”
“And how do I fit into this?” asked Hina.
“It would be our honor for you to be a royal guest with us for the next few weeks,” replied Olo, “A chance for both sides to get to know one another…”
Hina noted that Oli was blushing as his brother spoke, but shook her head to concentrate, “My father would hardly allow that. He doesn’t even know I’m here now. I’m not part of this dispute…”
“Which is why I think you’d be the best judge,” Olo cut in again, his eyes commanding now as he spoke, “You would bethe best candidate to be given an impartial report back to him. And we can ensure we hide your identity while you are here to observe.”
“Magic!” they both replied before Olo continued, “We will set a spell that will make you ‘invisible’ to your tribe, so to speak while you stay with us. Give us just two weeks, meet our people, and then when the spell breaks, you’ll return home and give the report. We can even help you bridge the gap by planting the thought this was your father’s first mission for you…”
Hina stood quietly, arms crossed as she thought. This is my chance. A chance for something new…. and I’d be helping my people… and ultimately Father. Maybe there is a way to make this an alliance after all…
Hina walked up to Olo and extended her hand to make the agreement. He gave her a wickedly handsome grin and brought her into a hug, smelling her hair. “Thank you,” he whispered quietly into her ear, so Oli didn’t hear him.
Hina’s cheeks were red as she stepped back, nodding to both brothers. Oli had a terse smile on his face when he pulled his brother to the side, and they began whispering. Hina turned to give the boys space, working to hide her canoe further offshore by anchoring it off the large rocks. As she swam back to the beach with her essentials pack, the boys lit a bonfire, signaling her to stay put and wait for their signal. Their voices began in unison, starting low. A warm breeze fluttered at Hina’s feet in the sand before slowly moving up her body. As the wind encircled her, a soft pink glow grew around her, enveloping her senses. She closed her eyes as she felt herself lifting off the ground, the pink aura floating out to the sea, towards the area her tribe had docked.
When she awoke, Hina found herself tucked into a giant fluffy bed. The sheets were soft and warm, throwing off her mind as she tried to remember how she got there. She nearly gasped when she saw the splendor that surrounded her. The room was fit for a queen, vaulted ceilings with glowing torches to show the smooth ebony. The table beside her held black pearl headdresses and necklaces adorned with various colors of feathers and flowers. She sat up, noting she was also in a full dress, the material soft and silky, unlike anything she usually wore at sea.
“She’s awake!” Hina turned to see Oli and Olo entering the room, smiling.
“Did it work?” she asked timidly.
“Of course!” replied Oli, rolling his eyes, “Come on! Let’s show you off!”
The days blurred as both brothers took her around Nan Madol. Olo, she noted, was the older of the two, and took it upon himself to show her their government system and toured the palace. He was much more formal than Oli and more intense in the way he looked at her. Oli led her around the markets and the temples, eager to show off his magical skills. He made her laugh easily and seemed carefree, but Hina knew that probably came from being younger. Both brothers had lost their parents at an early age and grew into their magic on their own. It made Hina wonder what it would have been like to have a sibling for the first time in years.
As the second week was coming to a close, Olo sent her a message before dinner that he wished to speak with her alone. Hina dressed in a sapphire blue gown, the finest one they had given her since her stay with the boys. During some of their times together, she found herself already wistfully missing them. She walked out to the courtyard Olo had asked to meet her, fiddling with the black pearl choker she had tried to put on before coming out.
“Do you need a hand?” Olo asked.
Hina nodded and let him grasp the necklace. His hands seemed to run slowly along the nape of her neck as he moved to put the clasp in place. She shivered as his touch, goosebumps rising on her skin as his cold fingers grazed her. When she heard the click, she turned and found herself face to face with him, his eyes boring into hers.
“You look beautiful tonight… just as my brother has said these past few days… I don’t believe he wants you to leave…” said Olo.
Her cheeks were growing warmer as he seemed to lean closer toward her, his eyes never leaving her face. Olo gently brushed his lips against hers, a soft first kiss that was slowly turning into more for both of them.
“What did you want to talk to me about?” she whispered, breaking the mood and causing him to back up slightly.
“Ahh… yes… I said that I believe Oli has grown very… we have grown very fond of you in your time here,” Olo said, looking at her again, “I wanted to talk to you about staying with us for a longer time… than we originally agreed upon.”
“How would that work? I can’t abandon my father for an undetermined amount of time… I… it’s weird already that they haven’t come looking for me all this time… why is that?”
It was the first time Hina had seen Olo tense in the time she’d spent with him. “The spell we did… There was a…complication…It seems we…we removed you from their memories… they… don’t know who you are…”
“WHAT?!” she screamed, “WHAT? HOW? Undo it! Undo it NOW!”
“Hina,” Olo started reaching out to hug her, “Please, understand I had to… I couldn’t risk that you would stay with us and not be a spy sent to kill us…But once we realized what happened, I’ve been trying to…” His arms wrapped around her, trying to calm her down.
“Let me go you vile, heartless…. undo it now! I want to go home NOW! I trusted you!”
A blast of energy tore the two of them apart, Hina flying across the courtyard in one direction while Olo fell in the other.
“She said to let her go, Olo!” yelled Oli, hands out, crackling with energy from the blast. “Hina, are you okay?”
“Oli undo the spell now! I want to go home!” cried Hina, sitting upon the ground.
“I…. we… can’t… Hina…” Oli replied, dejected, “We’ve tried looking at ways to do it but we’ve never reversed a mind spell before… I don’t know if we can do it without harming your entire tribe…or you”
The tears fell from Hina’s face in a rage. She got to her feet, staring at both boys, people she thought had become her friends… that she… no she wouldn’t think of that now. Standing defiantly in her dirty, sapphire gown, she eyed both of them before speaking again, her voice hard and cold.
“Then you better erase yourselves from my mind. I NEVER want to see either of you again…”
Hina gathered the skirts of the gown and lept from the edge of the stone courtyard. She could hear the brothers yelling at her from a distance.
“Hina, stop, wait!!” they cried.
She ripped the gown from her as she sprinted off, back towards the beach she first saw them on, towards the waters, and her canoe stashed safely from view. She ran straight into the water, never looking back, swimming as hard and fast as she could to look for the line of her anchor. Rage fueled her again as she saw someone had cut the line. Her canoe, her lifeline to her people, was gone. They had truly tricked her, deceived her. Her mind whirled as she kept swimming forward, pulsing the bile of anger and betrayal through her blood to just keep going. To get away from both of them. To find her father. Hours passed as she floated with the currents, gasping for air once she was sure she was out of sight from the shoreline of Nan Madol. Hina used all her water woman ways to let the tide and waves carry her back to the area he docked her people. Without thinking, she swam straight to her father’s outrigger, climbing aboard, drenched and haggard, pounding on his door.
“Father, Father?!” she cried.
The door swung open, her father bleary-eyed and shocked, holding his spear overhead as he frowned at her.
“Who are you? How did you get here? Guards?”
Until the moment, Hina had somehow still held hope that Olo was wrong, that the spell had not worked. But her father had no warmth in his eyes, no smile on his face as he looked at her as though she was an intruder on his rig. Tears welled in her eyes as she cried.
“Father… I’m sorry… it’s all my fault….”
“I am NOT YOUR FATHER, TRESPASSER! GUARDS!!”
Hina could hear the rustle and footsteps of her tribesman, yelling and calling as they spotted her on their Chiefs rig. “Intruder! Intruder!” they cried, “Grab her!” She couldn’t bear it any longer, her heart threatened to explode from her chest in agony. Backing up, she gave her father one last look of longing before diving deep into the sea, disappearing from their midst. Hina didn’t swim, she didn’t fight the current or the waves. She willed her body to sink to the bottom of the sea.
Mother… I hope I get to see you soon at least…I hope you’ll know who I am…
Her body drifted slowly, lungs burning as she fought the urge to break the surface for air, her instincts to save herself. Without her tribe, her father, there was nothing for her to live for. She’d lost everything she’d ever loved, for what?
“It doesn’t have to be for naught, you know?” a voice said to her in the dark.
Hina opened her eyes but saw nothing in front of her. She only felt cold and heavy, the pressure of the water weighing against her. As she let her eyes flutter, again, a voice spoke.
“Is this really how you want it to end? I was told you were stronger than this…” it said.
What? Who are you?
“Your mother sent me to help you. I am the Lord of Death. And you are in my realm now, sweet princess…”
I can’t see you…
In a flourish, Hina found herself once again above the water, floating in the air. Next to her was a man with a dark cloak over his shoulders covering a breastplate of bones. He was tall, fiercely handsome, but cold, his skin a pale gray as they floated.
“Well, you see me now, princess?” said Death with a smirk.
Seeing the walls of Nan Madol again sparked Hina’s memory, and her rage boiled again in her belly.
“What is your bargain?” she replied coldly.
“I will let you have your vengeance, let you kill and wreak havoc if you serve as my agent…if you kill in my name alone.” smiled Death.
Hina didn’t even blink. “Done.” The words were out of her mouth so fast, she stood on the shores of Nan Manol, where she met the brothers. It transfo herrmed, her skin the same pale gray as her Master’s, her eyes now a rich orange-amber. The power she felt at the tips of her fingers was immense. She could hear every heartbeat on the island, every pump of blood.
“I claim you as mine, Hukluban,” said Death, his voice echoing in her mind, “You are remade to serve me – for eternity. Go claim your prize….”
Olo never spoke of the horrors he’d seen watching Oli die. He let the stories filter down to his people that Oli died of old age. That was how his body looked when he found her standing over him, laughing. She had tied him down in the room they’d given her, humiliating him by increasing the rate his cell decayed. Hina, or whatever was left of her, had ensured Oli would feel every single cell in his body dying as his brother Olo watched and listened to the sounds of his screams. There was no magic he could conjure to stop her.
“You took the thing I loved the most, Olo,” she said, “I will ensure you will always remember the way he was taken from you. I will haunt your generations until the end of your people…until they all pay!”
All these centuries later, she had kept her word. The Saudeleurians died out, leaving their once majestic city abandoned. Legends said that each ruler of the dynasty grew more cruel and paranoid as the generations passed. Hukluban aided the foreign invaders in the final Battle of the Saudeleur Dynasty. To complete her curse on the brothers who took her family from her, she transformed the last king of their lineage into a fish, the same name her father once called her, and kept it in the stream of the abandoned city to linger as she does in unrest and penance for her mistakes.
Victory Witherkeigh is a new upcoming female Filipino author originally from Los Angeles, CA. She is based in the Pacific Northwest and finishing her first novel. Victory has short stories published in literary magazines, Allegory Ridge titled, “HysterSister,” Bad Bride, titled, “Catherine de Medici,” and Thought Catalog titled, “I Didn’t Believe in Soulmates, But Here He Was,” respectively. She has her debut publication in a horror anthology, The Hollow Horror Anthology Book #3, for sale beginning May 2020 containing her fiction short story, “Passion,” under Breaking Rules Publishing. http://victorywitherkeigh.com