Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 20)

Landfall was a day away when we tried fishing to pass the time. Our fishing attempts proved fruitful after Sev had managed to fix the nets, though this close to the sea of souls, the shoals of fish were smaller and less normal. Thyn and Sev picked through what we hauled up and kicked off anything that had too many eyes or mouths.

Then, for a change of pace, the Captain vaulted off the side of the ship, dove low enough that her talons skimmed over the surface of the water and seized a shark out of the water that was following the trail of stunned fish we had kicked off and dropped it on board, kicking and flailing until Thyn stabbed it with one of his spines.

Sev stared at the feast on the deck, somewhat spattered with shark blood, and went to get his knives.


Landfall came a day after our stomachs were full of fresh fish and eggs, and the kitchen smelled simultaneously wonderful and awful, notes of alcohol mixing with heavy fish sauces and tortillas and what spare cheese we had from our supplies, and it came a day after Sev tried to figure out how to cure shark (it wasn’t exactly something he had to deal with often) with our salt stores.

It came at noon, with plenty of forewarning, in a natural cove. In the distance, spiraling lazily, we could see the lighthouse like a pin rising out of the ground.

The beach, however, was a flurry of shipwrecked and driftwood. Pins of cloth and crates had washed ashore, and things had been dragged away.

An arrow made out of rocks pointed into the distance.

“Well,” Irony said, brightly. “At least there aren’t any dead bodies!”

“The optimist,” Thyn said. “I can see why they needed you so badly.”

The Captain called out a number of people to stay on board and watch the vessel for any funny business, and I was among the number to go out with the party. Thyn, Irony, the Captain, and I went out to follow the arrow. Folna came herself without being pointed.

The island was green and wild, trees poking up like hair out of skin, brambles and large flowers interspersed crazily among old stone posts and ground that had been reclaimed only recently. Thyn cut through any of the plants that were too large. Folna drifted behind him.

“”This used to be quite the place,” The Captain noted, gesturing at the stone around them. “This had to be carried here by ship, I doubt there’s a quarry large enough to support all of this mess.”

“Who knows,” Irony said. The air was humid and thick, and sweat trickled down her skin, rolling across her scales like tiny gems. “There might be one buried in the jungle.”

“There might be,” The Captain said. “How’s everyone holding up in the humidity?”

Just a few minutes in, and already my robes were feeling like heavy weights, and the heat was sinking into my skin like a thick paste. I looked ahead, to Folna, whose fluff remained untouched.

“Folna?” The Captain asked. “I’m aware you’re a tad finer bred than most of us, will you be alright in this climate?”

Folna chanced a look back at us. Her face was as pleasant and calm as ever. “I’m fine, Captain. I’ve put up with worse under your command.”

“If you say so,” The Captain replied.

Then there was a scream.

Irony startled and then her mouth dropped wide. “That’s the professor!”

Then she ran ahead.

A moment’s pause, and then the rest of us chased after her. The soil was thick and loamy and run through with grits of sand, dense brackets of mangroves interspersed with clinging vines and thickets of parasitic blooms. It didn’t make good grounds to run on, but we did it anyway. We crested the hill and Irony was already at the bottom, pounding her heels into the dirt.

She turned the corner, and slid to a halt, the color draining out of her face. Then she picked up a rock and charged ahead.

It took us a few scant seconds to turn the corner, and the Captain swore as Irony brought the rock down on the head of a creature in heavy armor. Smoke trailed out of the holes in the outfit, ephemeral, hazy, amber. The rock left a dent, and then the creature turned and threw Irony off of its shoulders and advanced on her, abandoning the bundle of cloth and pelt and blood that it had been playing with.

“Irony!” I called out.

Irony hit the side of the rocky enclave with an audible wumph, and decided discretion was the better part of valor and dropped her rock. “Hope you guys are better than I am at this,” She wheezed.

“Thankfully,” The Captain said, and grasped one of Thyn’s spines and tore it off with a flick of her wrist. Thyn winced and glared at her before doing the same.

The creature turned, gleaming bronze armor, and I saw a skull poking out from under the helmet.

“Reaper!” I hissed under my breath. “Why the hell does it have armor?”

“I don’t know,” Folna whispered back. “Sampson, go get the others.”

“What?” The crow asked, then startled away from watching the battle. “Right!”

Then he ran off back the way we’d came.

The Captain brought the spine down on the bronze armor with an audible smack, and it turned again, moving with startling grace for such a heavy set of metal, and hissed at her, fog crawling out of the open mask.

Thyn watched the Captain, and then the armor took a staggering step forward, a great axe forming in his hands out of amber mist. “Captain!”

The Captain whirled out of the way like a dancer, her talons kicking up a cloud of dust. The axe sank into the ground where she’d been an instant before;and then Thyn slammed into the creature, sending it back pedalling. He swore under his breath, and then held the creature’s arms in place, his muscles bulging under his outfit.

“What do we do?” I hissed at Folna. Folna straightened up, steeling herself, and then slid down the hill, her wings fluttering behind her for balance, and jumped into the air and glided. She landed next to Irony, and just as quickly started to check her over for wounds.

Which just left me standing at the top of the hill.

What was I supposed to do? I wasn’t any good with any of the tools at my disposal- but I also wasn’t fighting the damn thing. I looked around the enclave, then followed the trailing shadow of the ridge up into the air.

“Captain!” I said, skirting around the edge of the hollow. Her eyes flicked up to me, and I gestured at the rocks perched at the top of the clearing.

She nodded once, and then dodged past as the creature through Thyn off of its arms, drawing forth the ephemeral axe with a flick of its hands.

I tried to ignore the battle as much as I could, and carefully made my way up the ridge. It was all rock here, poking up out of the loamy salt ridden soil, so it wasn’t that hard to climb. The rocks were even larger than I’d seen from the top of the clearing.

“Thyn,” The Captain barked, nodding up at the top of the ridge. “Help Charm.”

“Captain-”

“Thyn,” The Captain repeated, her voice taking on a steely glint. “Help Charm, we don’t have the time to mess around with giving a reaper its last rites!”

Thyn bound up the cliff face just as I started to push at the rocks. The sun baked surfaces had stayed in that exact place for hundred of years, perhaps even longer, and didn’t bother budging for just me. Down below, the Captain slammed her foot into the armor’s chest, driving it back further into the ridge, and an axe blow came close enough that the spur of bone she’d stole from Thyn shattered against the ground.

“Here’s how we do this,” Thyn said. “You ready down there, Captain?”

“Ready,” she reported.

Then Thyn slammed into it with all of his weight, and the top of the ridge crumbled. I scrambled for purchase as the cracks spread like shattering ice, and then turned, snatching Thyn’s wrist. Something on my shoulder popped, but I couldn’t feel it over the pound of my heart and I threw Thyn back onto the more stable part of the ridge with me.

Then a ton of stone fell from the heavens and hit something hard and metal, crushing it. Dust rose from the gloam of the vale.

I grabbed my right shoulder with my left and squeezed down on it, hitting the ground with a grunt the second Thyn released my hand. “You alright?” he asked, peering down at me.

“N-no,” I said. “What about the Captain?”

Thyn’s eyes flicked to the dust cloud. “I don’t hear any dramatic last words,” he said, levelly. “And I doubt this world would let her go without those.”

I breathed, and pain shot through my shoulder, rising like a burning heat across delicate nerves. I stared up through the canopy of mangroves and far more tropical things and stared at the off blue of the noon sky. I listened to the steady crack and pop of shifting stone, and the clicking of talons against rock.

“Well,” The Captain said, dusting herself off as she mounted the ridge. “That was violent. Folna, check on our rescue?” A line of blood drooled down her shoulder, mixing with the red of her coat.

Folna’s eyes flicked to me, then at the bundle of rags, then at the Captain, made her decision, and slid over to the bundle of rags. Gently she tugged out a beastman from them. His maw was a wolf’s snout, and a pair of glasses, slightly cracked, hung precariously from the top of it. His eyes fluttered at the moth.

“Are you an angel?”

“I’m not half as lucky,” Folna muttered. “Are you dying?”

“I hope not,” the man muttered. “I have to save my graduate students before that happens.”

Folna quickly stripped the dazed wolf of his clothes and examined him of wounds. “Captain, he’s heavily bruised, but nothing he shouldn’t recover from. I’d like to watch him for the next few hours to see if he’s bleeding somewhere I can’t see.”

“Wish granted,” The Captain said. “What was that about your graduate students?”

“The professor should be attended by at least three of them,” Irony said, wincing as she stood up. One wing was folded safely against her back, and the other was fully extended, a smear of red across where the delicate membranes had torn. I looked away out of respect, and a healthy dose of fear.

“I’ve got two of them left,” The wolf said. “Some fucking professor I turned out to be.”

“Two…” Irony trailed off. “Captain, we have to save them!”

Catastrophe gently nudged the scratch across her neck, and turned to Thyn, raising an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Well what?” Thyn snapped.

“Are we going to do it?”

Thyn glowered at the question. “Yes, let’s go assuage your hero complex.”

“Folna check over Charm. If he’s not seriously hurt, he’s with us.”

“What?!” I squeaked.

“Folna?” The Captain asked, her voice raising. The moth girl stomped over to my side and roughly inspected me, her tiny hands making quick work of poking and prodding.

“He’s fine, just had the wind knocked out of him.”

“Good. We’re dealing with reapers, so I definitely need my good luck charm.”

“They’ve been coming since the sailors left,” The professor offered, still dazed. “Every night.”

“It’s mid afternoon.”

“I guess they got bored of waiting,” He said, with a low keening growl.

Folna tugged me to my feet, gaze me an apologetic look, and pressed her sabre into my hands. I staggered over to join the Captain.

“Good thinking with the reaper, Charm,” The Captain said. “Turns out they can’t deal with being crushed. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Where are the graduate students?” Thyn asked, twisting off another spine from his back. He handed one to the Captain, and then took one for himself.

A high pitched squeal came from the distance.

“That’d be them,” The Captain guessed, and then she took off running. Thyn gave me a particularly sour look and took off after her, and I understood the warning in Thyn’s gaze and took off only a second later.

On the other side of the crevasse, where the stone had been blunted from exposure to the winds running across the jungle and over the exposed stone like bones poking out of a corpse, a path wound up, passed stone obelisks with images of Sirens and feathers, and what could only be gravestones carved into the ground in a curly tongue I didn’t read.

We followed the path up and up and over to a cliff that hung over the valley, where a parrot-man was bashing at a suit of armor with a massive club. “Let! Her! Go!”

The reaper sat in heavy armor, as before, though it carried many dents, and it slowly stomped away. In its arms a deer sat, her antlers wild and dyed, pinned against the cold bronze.

“Captain,” I started, but she was already moving forward.

Thyn shook his head. “You going to say something useful?” He paused. I abruptly realized that he was actually waiting for me.

“Try the skull,” I said. “I think it’s important to them.”

He nodded. “I’ll bash it in. Good idea.”

Thyn hauled himself into the battle, and the Parrot staggered away from a back hand from the armor. “Who the hell are you people?”

“Reinforcements,” I offered, guiding him a few steps away from the Captain and her first mate.

“About time you showed up,” The parrot said, shaking his head. “A bit late. We’re mostly dead… or taken. Not much of a difference from what I can tell.” His arms were shaking, and his breath came in little pants, and he slumped to the ground, his feathers ruffled. The club fell from his tired hands.

“Oh, gods, the professor…”

“He’s alive,” I said, quickly. “We left him with our doctor.”

The armor dropped the deer on the ground and turned to face the two attackers.

“Who’d you leave with them?”

I winced. Maybe Sampson would get back in time to make a difference there? The Captain scored a savage hit with her spine, then dodged back when the creature tried to do the exact same. She slid past where we stood on the cliff face, picked up the bird’s dropped club, and then swung back in while Thyn distracted it, darting nimbly around armored fists the size of my head. Then she slammed the club back down across the helmet, denting it. Amber mist flooded out a vent in the armor.

“The crew,” I lied. I didn’t know much about medicine, but I checked the bird over for any obvious wounds. Semi tropical, blue feathers covered most of his body, with the occasional orange blossom. He just looked tired. Very tired.

“So you have a ship?” He asked. Then paused. “That was a stupid question, sorry.” He went flat against the stone, giving up entirely on being upright, but his eyes were fixed on the battle ahead of him. I could see it reflected in his large eyes.

The club shattered the next swing the Captain took, and splinters ran blood out of her hands. She scowled, shouted out in pain, but Thyn was there in a heartbeat, interceding as the bronze fists came down, his spine stabbing into the void of the helmet.

I heard bone crunch and saw a jet of hot amber, hot enough to send the air rippling, burn through the spine, and then the armor fell to the side. Amber fluid dripped out of the wound.

“Well,” The Captain said, dusting herself off. She poked the creature with her taloned foot, and when it didn’t stir, she straightened up. “I think that makes us the first people to kill more than one reaper in quite some time.”

“I’ve killed three,” The Parrot offered. “And they swarm.” he said, just as weakly.

The Captain didn’t reply. Instead, she sank her teeth into the hilt of a dagger and started tugging out the splinters from her delicate flesh. Thyn poked at the reaper, grabbed the armor through the rents and tears they’d left in it, and, with a great deal of pressure, began tearing it off by the joints.

A full human skeleton sat inside. I winced and looked away. That… That was just uncomfortable to look at in the land of the beasts. Behind us the rest of the crew arrived, armed to the teeth with swords and clubs, and even Sev had a cast iron pan in his hands, though he shook like a leaf holding it.

“It’s dead,” The Captain said, wrapping her hand in her own shirt to hide it from their view. “We’ve saved three so far.”

Finally the deer girl straightened up. One of her antler branches had snapped in the chaos, and she ran her fingers over it, scowling. “Terry, you alright over there?” She asked, looking at the parrot.

“Linda,” Terry said, barely managing to sit up. “They came! I told you they’d come.”

“Great,” Linda said, gruff.

The Captain’s injured hand came out of the folds of her coat, wiped clean of blood, though a bit trickled free. “Crew? Lets get some supplies to these people. They look skeletal thin.”

Thyn walked past me and patted me on the shoulder. “Good call on the head.”

“Yeah,” I said, wishing I’d done something more. But it’d gone too fast, and I was too… not them to do much of anything.

But at the end of the day, I was the navigator, not a fighter. Even if it stung like the bruise forming across my back.