My sleep was shattered just past midnight, when the Venturing Owl remained full (I was starting to think it never waned) and the ship rocked from an impact. My eyes snapped open.
The next one had me falling out of it when it rocked again, and I heard the Captain’s reedy tones through the heavy wood of the ship, and the desperate hiss of the ship’s soul, like lapping water against my ears. I stumbled up to my feet, donned my robes, and poked my head up, navigating by the silvery thick light of the hanging moon.
“There it is,” The Captain said. Thyn stood next to her and squinted into the darkness.
“What’s one doing this close to a trading port?” Thyn asked.
“Only one way to find out,” The Captain said.
“What’s going on?” I asked. I rubbed at my left eye. Behind me, the rest of the crew raced around, checking to see if the repairs would hold up. Sev prowled, making sure everyone had their things.
“Look for yourself,” she said, gesturing at the water in the distance. A wave crested up from the water and slammed into the ship. I bounced, thumping into Sev’s fluff, and I pried myself away before I asphyxiated. When I got back to my feet, the Captain pressed a telescope into my hand, and I gave it a try.
In the distance, by the light of the moon, bubbles frothed out of the depths of the sea. Thick and hot bubbles, crested with something like fire.
“Are we engaging?” Sev asked.
“No,” The Captain said. “I want to see this for myself. Keep the crew on guard, regardless.”
The bubbled frothed and grew thicker, and thicker, and thicker and then the sea smelled of fresh blood. Fresh blood and fetid meat. It hung in the air like the mist that popped out of the bubbles.
“Captain?” I squeaked.
“It’s a ghost ship, Charm,” The Captain said. One hand drifted down to her hip, where she kept her guns, and the other curled into a fist.
I looked at her, then back at Thyn. His lips were pressed into a thin line, and his eyes were squinted. I handed him the telescope. “Finally,” He muttered. “Let’s see your flag, beautiful.”
Then a ship lurched out of the water, hard enough to send a powerful wave up. It slapped into our side and I heard men fall over from the lurch it gave. Our ship squealed softly, a noise like tortured wood.
“Thyn?” The Captain asked. “What flag is it?”
Thyn didn’t reply. He gently adjusts the telescope to get the image in line.
“Thyn,” The Captain repeated. “Whose flag? Tell me my eyes are wrong?”
“It’s one of your flags,” Thyn said. “That’s a Venturing Owl ship.”
Water gushed from the holes in the ship’s base, thick and frothed, and algae hung from its crippled mass. Blue lights twinkled from behind what glass still remained, and fire rimmed the open doors.
“Captain?” The scout said, landing next to her. “Our orders?”
“I’ll do my job,” The Captain said. “Helmsman, bring us to her side.”
The helmsman hesitated, and for a moment I thought he’d refused, and then the Captain’s imperious gaze fell upon his side and he stiffened into the action. The ship’s soul hissed in dismay as it was turned, and we were slow in moving towards the other ship.
But even it couldn’t refuse the Captain.
“Your job?” I asked.
“I am a Captain on this sea,” She said. She stepped forward as we slid closer and closer, parting the waves before us like a knife heading towards a downed man. “And on this sea, that comes with responsibilities. When we see a ghost ship,” The Captain said, looking at Thyn. “We put it to the rest. Don’t we, First?”
He saluted. “Aye aye,”
Her eyes flicked over to mine, amethysts in the dim silver light. “Charm, go get me three men to join me.”
I hesitated. “Go!” She barked. “Don’t skulk around!”
And I slipped back into the depths of the ship.
Sev was the first I saw. “I don’t really… fight,” Sev said.
“You don’t?” I asked. “You’re… double the size of most of the people on this ship!”
He held his hands out, a sheepish look on what little I could see on his face. “I just… don’t really have the personality for it, I guess. Don’t judge me too harshly, but I don’t fight.”
“He doesn’t,” a man said, poking his head up from behind him. “The Captain needs volunteers?”
I nodded my head. “Excellent!” He said. “That means double rations!” He slid out of the cannon room, his tiger’s tail twitching behind him in the flickering lanterns, and one more slid out. I hadn’t seen that man at the bar, and he stretched out, popping his back.
“I’ll take the extra wages,” he said, and he slipped forward. His skin was studded with fat scales, not like that of a dragon’s supple form, but that of a lower, harder, angrier lizard. I looked around for another, and sighed.
Sev shrugged. “Maybe there’s some more on the deck?”
“You really don’t fight?” I asked.
“I just keep everything moving,” Sev said. “I don’t do any of the actual fighting.” He patted me on the head. “Sorry Charm.”
I skulked away. I didn’t know what to make of that.
I’d’ve felt better with Sev for whatever the Captain wanted.
“You you you you and Charm,” The Captain said. “Are going to join me in the depths of that ship over there,” she said. Now the ship was close enough I could see the individual strands of algae hanging off of it. “We’ll be putting that ship soul out of its misery.”
“We can’t save it?” I asked. Internally, the question sounded more like ‘We’re doing what?!’
“There’s no saving a ship that’s come back like that,” The reptile said. “That means they want blood. You don’t rehome blood thirsty ships.”
“Well said,” The Captain said. “Sev?” She paused when he didn’t arrive. “SEV!” Her voice boomed hard enough to startle the soul of our ship. Briefly, it stopped whining and worrying, and Sev poked his head up. “Get them their gear.”
Sev scurried back under. I could hear him shuffling about, pulling things together, and then he returned with an armful of cloth sacks. “Sorry Captain.”
“You’re fine,” The Captain said. “Be faster next time.”
He saluted, and scurried back off into the welcoming darkness of the ship. I stared at the ghost craft.
“We’re going in there?” I asked.
“It’s good experience for you,” The Captain said. “After all, this’ll hardly be the last time you see something like this, and we’ll need you for the end.”
Six pairs of eyes fell on me. While I’d been down in the basement, the scout had been drafted to join our party.
“Helmsman!” The Captain barked. “Keep us steady and next door. If anything goes wrong, I’ll expect you to pull together another party to extract us.”
“Aye Captain!” The helmsman saluted from his post. The party grabbed their bags, and one was handed to me. I pulled out a sword (the same sword I’d used before, and it still felt like a lead limp weight in my hands) and a small flare gun. I stared at it.
“If you get lost, light this up,” The Captain said. “It’ll keep you safe until one of us finds you.”
“How’re we going to get lost?” I asked.
She didn’t reply. “Alright. Stay together,” She said. “And follow my lantern.” She sparked a glass canister up, and the flame burned inside. A proper flame, unlike the crystals we’d see back in the Cat’s paw.
Then we were close enough to the other ship that I could make the jump, if I had a dead sprint before hand. The plank was tossed over, and it caught on the other side.
I could hear the ghost of the ship howling, like tattered clanking wood and whining rust, sparking gunpowder and the hail of hostile horns.
The Captain raised her lantern, and walked across the gap. The others trickled after her, one by one, until I was the last. I chanced a look down below.
Faces boiled up from the ocean floor, trapped in the bubbling froth. Faces with half their flesh gone, melting from their skulls. They could only be souls trapped in the darks of the ocean, raised with the ship itself.
I barely tore my gaze away, and nearly slipped off to join them before one of the men caught my shoulder and dragged me along. The tiger gave me a look. “Don’t look down. We don’t want to lose our Charm like that.”
“Why am I even here?” I asked, and then I was standing on the rotting wood. It smelled like choking copper and things were wrong there. My ears quivered with noises that weren’t real, and I could smell the sun baking down upon the salt despite the fact it was night.
“The Captain wants you to be here,” The tiger said. “I suspect you’ve been adopted as our mascot.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to pretend it wasn’t demeaning. I failed. The Captain prowled ahead, the flickering light of her torch keeping the chill of the night mists off of me.
“Any tips?” I asked him.
“Don’t get lost,” He said. “The ship wants to drag us all back down with it.”
I looked down at the ship and swallowed. “S-so?”
“Don’t let it,” He laughed, and then we slid into the darkness of the ship. Barnacles rimmed the sides of the halls like a guard rail, and things skittered in the darkness that I didn’t want to look at. In front of us, the Captain hummed.
“As always,” She said. “If you find anything you want, take it. Her Captain’s left this ship behind, and the poor souls who didn’t make it don’t own anything anymore.” The tiger prowled behind her, tail twitching, and I stepped forward to catch up and-
Stumbled. I hit the ground, tangled up with something, half rotten cloth and something like flesh but awful and then I hit the ground and rolled and
Abruptly, the barnacles were gone.
The barnacles were gone, and the paint on the walls was fresh and new, and light poured out of the windows and it was day and I could smell the sun baking against the salt soaked planks. I stepped forward.
“Hello?” Someone asked, and I turned. A siren sat there, her talons like tiny stubs and her feathers short streaks across the side of her head. “I don’t remember you being on board,” She said, leaning forward.
She didn’t have a face.
I stared at her for a long time, trying to decide if she needed a face. Her feathers were a dark orange, and her talons were painted in the same neon color as the Captain’s had been when we were on the shore. Why did she need a face?
Indeed, why did anyone need a face?
I didn’t need a face either.