“That’s not Oliver,” she said.
The Captain winced. “That’s not Oliver,” she agreed.
“I was expecting Oliver,” The owl said, flatly. “And you brought me…?”
“Charm,” The Captain said. “And I came back from the sea of souls, Sponsor.”
“Without Oliver,” The Sponsor said.
The Captain winced. “Oliver… Oliver didn’t make it out.”
All four of the owl’s eyes shut. She breathed, her beak falling open, and she sat down, the barn owl’s head tilting forward. “I see.”
The Captain looked away. “I…”
“I should’ve considered this,” The owl said. “He’s been… he’d been less than normal since his wife passed. Given what we do here, I should’ve seen this coming, but I’d hoped… I’d hoped he was just trying to recapture some of his glory days.”
“The crew didn’t know who he was,” The Captain said. “He asked that I keep them in the dark.”
“Who… was Oliver?” I asked.
The Owl looked up, and I shuddered at the feel of all four eyes on me. “One of the greatest navigators. From two generations ago,” She clarified. “He was… older, older than both your captain and I. And he did many great things. He’s the reason why the Cat’s Paw is settled now. Once it held nothing but monsters and creatures from the depths. He was on board the ship that slew a kraken; we still have the body in storage for examination.” She breathed out, sighing. “And now he’s gone.”
“He was taken by Reapers,” The Captain said.
“I should’ve known,” The owl muttered.
“Jess,” The Captain started. “You couldn’t’ve-”
“I should’ve known,” Jess repeated, the owl looking down at her desk. “The signs are so clear now. He wasn’t looking for an adventure in the sea of souls, he was looking for…”
“His wife?” The Captain asked.
“Maybe his son, too,” Jess muttered. She shook her head. “Damn fool of a navigator. You know, this was supposed to be his office?” She sighed, and her feathers flattened against her body.
“What happened?” I asked. I winced when both birds stared at me.
“Navigators are a special breed,” The Owl said. “They’re in the business of finding things, exploring things, keeping things found. When they lose things, especially very important things… Like Oliver’s son, twenty years ago, in a freak storm, and Oliver’s wife, three months ago, from illness, they get peculiar. They start making plans.”
“You can’t haul anything out of death,” The Captain said. Then she clicked her tongue. “Well. That’s what we thought.”
“Thought?” Jess asked.
“Charm, if you will?”
“Will what?” I squeaked.
“Your robes,” The Captain gestured. “Off with them.”
I carefully undid the Navigator’s robes. They felt heavier than they had before, carrying the burden of the man who’d died, the man who’d died chasing after his loved ones, who’d dared to go into the sea of the dead to find them.
Who’d found me instead.
As the robes fell to the ground, the Owl gasped. “What in the world?”
“The Navigator found him on the shore of a great obsidian island, freezing to death in the mists,” The Captain said. “Jess, I present to you, the first human to set forth in the Living Seas since the King of Death himself.”
“And you call him Charm?”
“He’s my good luck charm,” The Captain defended.
Jess freed herself from her desk and swept over to my side. She tugged her own robes away from her hands and gently tapped against my bare skin. I stared at her, eyes wide.
“And he’s… human?” Jess asked.
“As far as I can tell, and as far as he knows,” The Captain said. “A human we found along the shores of death. I don’t even think he’d been there long at all.”
“And that’s all you found there?” Jess asked, looking up from my skin. “Not that this isn’t enough,” Jess admitted. “Child, what were you doing in the land of the dead?”
“I’m 20,” I grunted.
“You’re so small for 20,” The owl said.
“You’re all too tall,” I clarified. “And I don’t know why I was there. I think… I’d been there a few days.”
The Captain reached into her coat and dug into the mass of trinkets and clicking pockets before pulling out a peculiarly purple pouch. She set it down on the desk.
“We also found what we were looking for, lost in those amber mists.”
The Owl stiffened, and slid over to the desk. “You… you found it?”
The Captain laughed. “Nestled among the spires, just like the old story said. A ship, hanging just outside of the water’s grip. Her crew were all dead, taken by the Reapers, but in the wreck we found…”
Jess undid the pouch and almost instantly dropped it on the desk. A crystalline ringing where metal tapped against marble, and then we all leaned in.
It wasn’t a key I was used to seeing, but it was more of a flat faced affair, angular, like something you might use to crack a paint can. But even in the marble room it remained a placid deep amber in color.
“We found this around her Captain’s neck,” The Captain said. “I helped myself to it, on account of being kin and all.”
“Kin some five hundred years back,” Jess marvelled, sitting down. “Well now-”
“What’s it go to?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” Jess said.
“It’s an old siren treasure,” The Captain crowed. “And it’ll lead us to more.”
“That’s speculation,” Jess said. “Don’t fill his head with your nonsense yet.”
“My nonsense,” The Captain said, puffing herself up. “I got us into a ship that’d been stranded in the land of the dead for two hundred years!”
“A ship that’d been attempting, very nearly, the exact same thing we’re attempting,” Jess said. “That is, looking for the golden islands.”
“So… they exist?” I asked.
“I know it does,” The Captain said. “My mother went off to find it. And if anyone can find it, it’ll be her.”
“Catastrophe…” Jess trailed off.
The Captain ignored the owl. “And when I find the island, I’ll find her, and the treasure. The full scope of a thousand years of culture, plundered and kept in the holds of seven massive ships!” She spun, her talons clicking against the marble floor. “Doesn’t it make your head spin just thinking about it?”
Jess sighed and looked down at me. “Have you gotten tired of her antics yet?”
“Is she alright?” I whispered.
“Charm,” I clarified.
“Charm,” Jess shook her head. “Sirens haven’t been alright since well before His Majesty was born. And Catastrophe has had a hard life even after that.”
The Captain stopped her spinning. “Well?”
“Well what?” Jess asked.
“This proves it,” The Captain said, snatching up the key. “That there’s an island out there, just waiting for us to find it.”
“What does the key even do?”
“There’s six keys,” The Captain said. “For each of the houses. If you unite all six, well, you’re supposed to get to the fleet.”
“That’s… a lot of reliance on hearsay,” Jess said. “I’m not comfortable-”
The Captain flipped the key about through her fingers. “Look at this key, Jess. I pulled it off of a dead woman’s throat. A dead woman who went missing two hundred years ago, driven by the Reapers themselves into the mists because she got too close.”
“Yes,” Jess agreed. “Which is why it is rather frightening to have it this close to my skin.”
The Captain blinked, and leaned away from her.
“What’s to stop the Reapers from coming after whoever has the key?” I asked.
“You,” The Captain said. “We haven’t been bothered by Reapers since you joined! You’re our good luck charm.”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing!” I said, holding my hands up.
“Does it matter?” The Captain asked. “Jess! You have to let us do this. This is the big moment! The moment that’ll take us from scrabbling along and picking at the ground wondering what came before us to being able to see the great golden shores face to face!”
“And yet…” The owl sighed. “You don’t have any other leads, do you?”
“I brought the key,” The Captain said. “And Charm. The next lead’s on you, as was in our deal.”
The Owl rubbed at her soft feathers with a hand, clearly with a headache.
“Catastrophe,” The Owl said, shaking her head.
The Captain pouted, which just looked wrong on her face, and the Owl sighed. “I found the island your mother went to, and already sent an expedition.”
The Captain’s face lit up. “You already sent it ahead? You sly bird!”
“I was just as interested as you were,” The bird defended, shaking her head. “But we ran into a problem. Nobody wants to stay there.”
“Was it haunted?” The captain guessed.
“I don’t know,” The owl said. “All I know is the the sailors turned down the job, and half the archeology team left with them.”
“Oh,” The Captain said, her feathers settling down. “So…”
“We don’t have any more clues,” The owl said. “It didn’t happen while you were gone, and the funding ended up going somewhere else.”
“Well,” I said. Both birds stared at me again. I turned a bit red and looked away.
“Well what?” Jess asked.
“…We have a ship,” I said. “We could do the job.”
The Captain snapped her fingers and pointed at the owl. “That’s right! We could do the job!”
The Owl rubbed her feathers. “I… guess. Are you sure you’re up for it? You did… just come back from a horrible hell place full of the dead. Are you up for another? I guess it’s not… quite as bad as the sea of souls. And there’s already a settlement up there, even if it is just academics.”
“I think the crew would grow bored of island living if I didn’t spice it up from time to time,” The Captain said. “Besides, lover, you know I’m always willing to help you.”
“We haven’t dated in half a decade,” Jess said, but her feathers were puffed up anyway. “Don’t call me that.”
“Fine,” The Captain huffed. “Point me to the archeologist, and where we’re going, and I’ll break it to the crew that we’re going to set another record.”
“Well,” Jess said, clicking her talons against the marble. “Before you’re off, we could… well, talk about what you saw in the Sea of Souls. You are the very first crew to come back, at least as far as our records show. The sheer magnitude of it dwarfs the immediacy of what you dragged back.”
“Oh?” The Captain said. “I thought you didn’t want to spend any more time with me.”
“Are we really going to do this in front of your navigator?”
The Captain’s smile turned into a smirk.
The Owl’s eyes settled on mine, and she gestured at the door. “Please leave. I’ll need all my faculties to deal with this.”
“Scram, Charm. Go find some of the crew, and put your robes back on. Don’t want to give any of the students any ideas.”
I pooled the cloth back overtop of me and scampered off. The Captain was stalked forward towards the Owl when I left.
I didn’t know if they were about to kill each other or make up, and I didn’t want to be there to find out.
So I got out of there.