“Sorry,” I said. “I uh… booked passage. In the cargo.”
The smooth expanse of her head tilted slightly, and the tufted ears on her head twitched. “Ah,” She said. “I guess that makes sense. Come on, I’ll show you around.”
She offered her hand, and against my better judgement, I took it. Where was the Captain?
Did it matter?
The siren squeezed my hand, her skin was cold, and she stepped forward. “This is Isa’s room,” She gestured at a plank of wood, painted a glorious shade of red in defiance of the calmer colors of the walls. “She’s also new here, you know. Just joined us at the last port.”
“She’s a beastman,” The siren said, calmly. “I think she’ll be a good sailor once she gets over being homesick. I have an eye for these things, you know.” I passed by the door and a wave of emotion surged over me, raw, powerful. Deep, hopeful. A bizarre certainty that if Isa could last a while she’d be good.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“The cook’s just down there,” the faceless siren said. “She likes to use apples. Good thing too, they go bad fast out here. I think we’re going to have apple tarts in the morning, wouldn’t that be nice?”
I could smell cinnamon and mint drifting down the hall, intermixed with butter and pig’s fat. We drifted down, our feet hardly touching the floor. “What about the Captain?”
“What about her?” The siren asked. “She’s busy. Always so very busy,” She shook her head. “Hardly enough time to see any of her crew. It’s a shame, I think they like her.”
“How could they not?” I asked. “She’s the Captain.”
“Mm,” The siren mused, shaking her head. “We’re to be carrying coal and supplies, blankets and clothes, to one of the farther outposts once we’re done here, you know. Very important work, we’re going to be paid well.”
Words slipped into my mouth, placed there by the wind. “Isn’t that dangerous?” the words asked.
“Not at all,” The siren said without a mouth. “We’re going there as a group, after all. If something can take on a ship of the Venturing Owl, it certainly can’t take on two of them!”
“Strength in numbers,” I said aloud.
“The Captain wasn’t that happy about it,” The siren said, leaning in her. Her tone was conspiratorial. “I think she doesn’t want to split the profits, if you ask me.”
“Ah,” I said, intelligently. “What about your navigator?”
“Oh!” The Siren said, her voice high. “Sure. Let me take you to him. He’s right down the hall.”
We drifted, and our feet hardly touched the ground, and then we slid to a halt in front of a door. The wood was tattered and beaten, and chips of paint fell off of it. I stared at them.
The Siren didn’t notice, or didn’t care, and knocked thrice on the door. It echoed and the noise was warped.
We waited patiently.
“Oh,” she said, shrugging. “I think he’s busy.”
I reached for the door.
“You really don’t have to do that,” she said, her tone lowering.
I grabbed the door and tried it. It was locked.
“See?” She chirped smartly. “He doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
The hair on the back of my neck started to stand on end. I could see her in the reflection of the doorknob. There, she had a face, and her eyes were like tiny coals.
I tried the door again, and they narrowed further. “Well, if you’re going to be on board, we should go see the quartermaster,” the siren said, laughing. “Come away from that door now.”
A fat peel of paint dropped off and touched the ground. Then more fell like rose petals. I stared for a while, and her eyes remained locked on the door. She wasn’t breathing, or…
I was being ridiculous, she was breathing, she was just a faceless creature. What was so wrong with that? I hardly needed a face after all.
I blinked and the fallen paint was gone. Her hand slid over to my shoulder, cold and slightly damp, and we turned and walked down the hall. The sun was dim outside, cast through a thick bank of clouds, and the moon was invisible for the moment.
Who was I to guess at the movements of the moon, anyway?
We drifted down the hall and our feet hardly touched the floor. The cargo bay was filled with thick-set crates and the air heaved with the smells of must and spices, a powerful combination.
“Oh, well,” The siren said. “I guess the Quartermaster’s busy too,” She shrugged, walking forward, and cracked open a crate with her bare hands. “Come on, I’ll get you your supplies for starting. Then we can talk about what you’ll be doing.”
“What will I be doing?” I asked.
“Oh well,” She shrugged, turning to face me. Her arms were covered in cloth bags. “A little bit of everything. Everything, I guess, until those lazy bones get up and start doing their jobs again.”
She tossed the bags to me, and I barely caught them before they hit the floor. “I really think we should start with-”
Behind us, the crew drifted out. They were strong, and courteous and dashing and brave and they also had no faces. I felt a bit odd, being the only person who still had a face, but they could probably fix that if they wanted, couldn’t they?
“Ah, there they are,” The siren said, happy. “I’m glad you all finally showed up. Look at your newest crew member. What did you say your name was?”
Oh, finally, someone asked me what my name was. Why…. why did I even want that again? Why would anyone not want to know my name? Why would…
The far door to the cargo area opened with a slam. Another siren drifted inside, and her purple eyes were like fire. I stared at her for a long moment, trying to place her. I’d seen her before, hadn’t I?
But I had to figure out what job I was supposed to do, I could hardly be a good servant if I didn’t know that.
“You!” The other siren shouted, pointing straight ahead at the faceless siren, and my boss. Her talons were long, her feathers luxurious, and her wings flared behind her, taking up most of the space. Behind her, beastman rolled out, lit by the creature’s lantern.
“Me?” The faceless bird asked, gesturing at herself. “Why, there’s a lot of you. You never told me you were bringing company, swabbie~!” She teased. Her clammy hand slid into my hair and she ruffled it. “Or that you were reaperkin. You’re a bit far from home.
“Get your hands off of Charm,” The Captain demanded. I stared at her for a long moment. I could almost place her…
“He’s mine,” The faceless Siren said. “He was unattended, so clearly you didn’t value him.”
“I warn you,” The Captain said. “Relinquish him.”
“He’s MINE,” The faceless bird accentuated.
Behind the Captain, her crew stared. Many eyes fell on me. I shuddered at the feel of them, but the smells were overwhelming, and the faceless siren’s hand drifted down to my shoulder and squeezed.
“Seems like we disagree,” The Captain said, clicking her talons against the ground. They were muffled and darker in tone. “Crew?”
Thyn bared his teeth at the bird next to me. He had tiny daggers, thin, lithe, and practically hypodermic.
“This ship needs to know her place again.”
“You’d really battle with me over this slight of flesh?” The faceless bird said. Her claws tightened across my shoulder and dug into the meat of my muscle. I cried out. “He’s hardly a morsel, sister.”
“You’re not my sister,” The Captain said. “Crew?”
The Crew drew their swords. “Let’s show this bitch that the living are better.”
The faceless siren shoved me to the side, and I barely managed to get to my feet before I crashed into the crates strewn about the hold.
“You’re really making a mistake,” the faceless siren said. “We don’t have to do this.”
“We do,” The Captain said. She stepped forward, and her Crew followed behind her. The Faceless creatures drew their swords clumsily. “Remember. Kill twice.”
Then I ducked to the side and the faceless siren flew forward, and the Captain backhanded her with a fist covered in rings. She flew to the side, smacking into the crate with a wet thump, and then the crew engaged in a flurry of swords and clicking talons, claws and brutal kicks. Thyn broke his opponent’s hand with a brutal kick, then slit his throat with a spine growing off the back of his off hand. Sea water fell out of the wound, and then Thyn broke his skull under a single heavy boot.
Seaweed splattered against the hold.
The Captain stalked forward, her talons clicking against the ground, and the faceless siren took a few steps back. “Who… who the hell are you people?”
“I’m Lady Catastrophe,” The Captain spat. Behind her, the crew were making short work of the faceless beasts. Their hands were weak, their arms were weaker, and their grips were weakest. The tiger moved in and kicked off the head of a creature, splattering the roof with seaweed. “And you picked the wrong place to haunt.”
“I didn’t-” The faceless siren said.
“You didn’t…?” The Captain asked, and at that moment the faceless siren lunged, crossing the distance between her and me in seconds.
Then her talons wrapped around my throat. “Stay back. I’m warning you.” She said. Her voice was harried and frantic.
Behind the Captain, the last of the false crew were killed, desecrated, and splattered against the various walls of the cargo hold. The Captain’s eyes closed for a moment. When they opened, they gleamed in the light of her lantern.
I swallowed. I could smell the very depths of the ocean, where rotting mud dripped from the heavens and fish played in the deep kill. Where bones would be picked clean and even then eventually eaten, encrusted with strange animals that had yet to be identified.
Where screams couldn’t escape, and souls would be buried and entombed.
The faceless creature’s claws dug against my throat. I could smell blood in the sea water.
“Creature,” The Captain said, stalking forward. “You know that you’re dead.”
“I’m not dead,” The siren said, and her voice was warped in with the sound of grinding timbers and whining wood and steel. “I’m not dead, I refuse it, I will not die, I will not, I am not dead, I still have a crew, and I will… I’ll make it home.”
“Shh,” The Captain said. She was still walking forward, and her eyes were locked straight ahead, just over my hair. “Let the kid go. You never made it back.”
“What the hell do you know about not making it back?” The siren spat. “I won’t be buried, I won’t, I won’t join anyone on the Owl.”
“We haven’t had a home in a long time,” The Captain said, gently. “Nobody is going to the Owl. Nobody has in a while.” Her eyes closed. “Oh, I get it.”
The faceless Siren’s claws dug deeper into my skin. I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in my skin, could feel cold winding its way into my limbs, and water in my lungs.
“You’re not the Captain,” The Captain said, her eyes opening again. She stepped forward, shining the lantern ahead, and it twinkled and flickered with a real flame. I could smell it and the false things slowly evaporated.
“The Captain isn’t here!” The siren spat. “There’s nobody here but me, and the crew, and you dealt with those didn’t you!”
“You’re the ship,” The Captain said.
The faceless creature tried to take another step back, but she hit the wall. The Captain slid forward, step by step.
“I can still tear out his throat,” The ship whispered. “I’m still good enough for that.”
“He’s not yours,” The Captain said, her voice lowering. “He wasn’t your captain’s either. He’s mine.”
“I just,” The ship said, her voice getting lower and lower. “I want… I want to go home.”
The Captain’s other hand gleamed with a gun, and her eyes flicked to me and the hand around my neck.
My eyes went wide. Her head tilted, ever imperceptibly, into a nod. I swallowed.
“I want to go home,” The ship said, and then, in that instant when her muscles went slack from the very idea of it, I drove my elbow into her gut. Her hand went slack and she doubled over and I rolled to the side and…
The Captain fired six shots into the ship.
“I don’t want to go,” The ship wheezed, and the wood mildewed and rotted before my eyes. I ran my hands over my throat and it came back wet and sticky with blood, very nearly running with it, and I hit the ground, staring up at the wounded siren. Sea water dripped from the holes in her body. “I don’t want to go, Lady Catastrophe, please, save me.”
The Captain leaned forward and tugged her faceless head out of the mess of her arm and her melting body. “I can’t.”
“They took my captain,” The ship said. “They took my captain, and I’ve been so alone and it’s so cold in the water without anyone else. Please, I want to go home.”
“I can’t take you home,” The Captain repeated, her voice low. “Perhaps, as the currents drift, you’ll end up in that graveyard of ships. But I can’t take you there, and neither can Charm.”
“I want… “ The ship sobbed, hot seawater drooling across her face, muddling in her moldered clothes. “I want.”
“I know,” The Captain said. “We all want to go home.” She paused, her eyes flicking over to me. “But we can never go back, you know.”
The Captain leaned over, and her skin was highlighted by the light of her flickering lantern. She whispered something, and the ship nodded. Then, crouched over the dying woman, I abruptly realized why everyone followed the Captain’s orders.
She wasn’t just some mortal. She was the Captain, and she took pride in all of her responsibilities. Even helping the dead pass on into the grave.
The ship’s head fell, faceless and eyeless and sightless, and her bones went limp.
“May the eye of the Venturing Owl find you and pilfer your treasures,” The Captain said.
And the ship evaporated, leaving only the tattered flag she was wrapped up in where she’d been. The Captain knelt down and took it.
Her eyes settled on me, half amused, half angry. “What did I tell you about sticking to my side?
Everything flooded back. “Oh,” I said.
“Oh?” Thyn asked. “We’re lucky she hadn’t taken off your face yet. Next time, you’re going to stick next to the captain.”
“Now for the next part,” The Captain said. “Let’s get back to the surface. Crew, you’re welcome to whatever’s left here. There’s no soul binding it, so it’s all real now.”
The crew popped open crates and removed ruined sheets and molded blankets, things taken and hostile by seawater and pulled out a rusted sword. “Nothing worth salvaging here.”
“Then let’s go.”
The ship was ruined the entire way up. Barnacles had devoured the rest of the stairs while they’d been gone, and coral sprouted from ruined rooms. Passing the navigator’s door, I saw a skeleton half-devoured by some deep sea plant, the orb around his neck safely ensconced in the jaws of a great fish, slumbering quiet. We passed by more rooms, and more skeletons awaited us.
“They went back to their rooms when they realized they weren’t escaping,” The Captain mused. “Or the ship put them there, long after they fell.”
“How long have they been here?”
“Given how coherent the ship was?” The Captain supposed aloud. “Less than a week.”
No more did the deck of the ship smell like sun and salt. It carried the reek odors of decay and gunpowder and lead. The Captain calmly leaped back onto our ship, and the others followed, one by one, myself included, across the gangplank.
I helped the crew tug the plank back away from the ghost ship. “Charm, by my side?” The Captain asked, and I joined her.
She raised the flag high in one hand, and the lantern in her other, and gently undid the screen to the lantern with a flick of her wrist. Then she tugged the tail of the flag into the lantern.
The flag caught and crackled, burning a brilliant blue. It licked up the fabric. The Captain held it as long as she could and then tossed it up into the air.
The fire devoured the fabric in a flash.
And then I could hear something coming from far away. Almost without realizing it, I turned and looked to the east. On the horizon, where the Sea of Souls sat, things drifted out of the mists. Their cloaks were heavy across their skeletal forms, and their arms were long, too long, with too many joints. They drifted across the sky like ash. It took entire minutes for them to change from distant blurs to real things, things of meat and substance, though their skulls gleamed a polish context.
Then they descended upon the ship. Their arms seized bits of the broken mast and lifted it up, and their arms seized bits of the deck, and more and more reaper drifted out of the sky until the entire disaster of a wreck was covered in them.
And I heard screams, and the crew around me were making signs of religion against their presence, and the Captain remained staring defiantly into the mess ahead of her. The bubbling of souls from the darkness surrounding the wreck ceased.
Then the spectres lifted up what they were carrying, and then carted off the soul of the ship, and the members of the dead who had died, their souls waterlogged and drowned, and left only the wreck in its place.
Nothing kept it intact and above the water. It plummeted and fell beneath the waves.
Then there was just The Song of the Venturing Owl left above the water.
“May the currents drag you back to the graveyard,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “Because no god will take mercy upon you until they do.”