Thyn stayed in the hollow for a long while. “I’m sorry you had to see that, Charm.”
“Are you two alright?”
“It’s an old argument,” Thyn said. “It was… worse when we were going to the sea of souls. Far worse. I don’t know what I was even thinking, going along with her.”
“Everyone speaks so highly of her,” I said.
“Every hero has their tragic mistake,” Thyn said. “I think the Captain’s is something she cradles too close to her heart.” He sighed, shaking his head, then put his hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for the save back there, Charm. I thought you were a symptom of the Captain’s obsession and-” he shook his head against, squeezing my shoulder.
“Can I do anything to help?”
“It’s more my problem,” Thyn said. “She put me as her first mate because I’d question her.”
“Still,” I said. “We’re all on this ship together.”
Thyn looked off into the camp, and more importantly, over where the Captain stood, off by herself, staring at the fire.
“We’ll figure it out after this. She’s easier to deal with when she’s in a good mood.”
“So you think it’ll just take one day?” I asked.
“This is bigger than just us,” Thyn said. “Someone wants something here found, enough that they sent people to an abandoned island. We’re going to find something here, even if its not what she wants.”
He ran a finger across his spines. A few were shorter than the others, and I recognized them as being from where we’d torn them off as makeshift weapons. They were growing back in, even if it were an agony of waiting for it to happen.
There was something deeper there, but I couldn’t figure out the words for it yet.
“Go join the others,” Thyn said. “I’ll be there in a second. I have to find the right words here.”
I slipped away and left him there.
We shared a meal with the academics and a brief talk. The talk was brief because all three had been living off of roughage and what they could hunt, so they spent the talk stuffing their faces.
Evening came onto the island, and all of us, including the Captain and the rescues, slipped back on board. The crew set out a few bedrolls in the cargo for the stranded students, and the wolf took up a position in Irony’s room to talk away the night.
At least, I hoped they were just talking.
Not that it was any of my business.
The next day came with the Captain up and ready just before dawn. Again, her finger landed on me, volunteering me herself. Thyn, for once, was left behind, so it was just Richard, Sampson, Irony, myself, and the wolf that joined her.
Thyn’s eyes settled on my back as we left the ship, but he held his salute and promise to keep the ship safe.
“Is everything alright?” I asked, once we were out of earshot.
The Captain shook her head. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about it. It’s in the nature of the job to disagree with your crew mate’s decisions from time to time.”
“It’s weird going out without Thyn,” Sampson said, quiet.
“It is,” The Captain agreed. The Tigerman remained silent at the edge of the group, his tail twitching behind him.
There was a tension there that hadn’t been there before. On top of the threat of death, there was a vague threat of something more serious, a threat to the status quo. Of all the threats I’d encountered, this one made my skin crawl the most, even though I already knew that Thyn was on the Captain’s side.
Irony, despite the mood, remained up on the balls of her feet, bouncing in place. “How big was the dig site?”
“Three sites,” The professor said. “We had three sites. One was where we were staying, another was a temple, and the last was some great complex in the earth. I suspect it was an administrative fortress.”
Irony’s shaking and bustling and bouncing grew only more and more animated, even as the Captain glared at her to stop.
I put a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed down until she stopped her frantic mania, and only her tail twitched back and forth.
“So what does this island want?” I asked.
The professor’s eyes flicked over to me.
“As tribute,” I clarified.
“The last people who would know that had been dead for hundreds of years,” the professor said. “Exploring any old island like this is bound to be dangerous because of it.”
“I’m here,” The Captain said. “That should be enough, if this is old siren ground. If not for the reapers, at least.”
“And if it isn’t?” I asked.
“Then we’ll handle it from there,” The Captain said. “If it takes less than a day.”
“The day limit seems a bit arbitrary,” The professor said. “If we’re going to find anything, surely it’ll take more than-”
The Captain’s eyes flashed purple in the light of the dawning sun as she turned on the professor, who cut himself off just as fast as he’d started.
“One day it is,” The professor said.
“Good,” The Captain said. “Take me to the temple first. The reapers might be coming from there, and what I seek might be there as well.”
“What are you looking for?” The professor asked.
“Shipping manifests,” The Captain said. “Anything of that sort.”
The professor bit down on his lip for a moment before asking the next question. “What exactly is it that we’re here for? I understand we’re here to get insights into the old siren empire, but why now? Why send you?”
The path here was overgrown, just past the stone structures and cliff face they’d been hiding out in, and down a winding path. In the distance, a mountain top cleaved up through the thick jungle.
The Captain grunted. “You’re smarter than you need to be, wolf.”
“I pride myself on it.”
Irony’s eyes looked over at the Captain curiously. “Why are we here now, Captain?”
“This is the last known location of the Venturing Owl,” The Captain said. “If you believe the right myths.”
“What?!” The professor said, whirring around. “The last location of the Venturing Owl was at the Talonridge ports! That’s been in the sea of souls for centuries.”
“The Venturing Owl stopped here on her way to join the rest of the treasure fleets,” The siren corrected. “To pick up someone very important.”
“Who?” The professor asked.
“My ancestor,” The Captain said. “My great a dozen times grandmother, who was serving as a bureaucrat in her liege’s court before their passing, and all the soldiers who were stationed here.”
“Surely this place would be bigger if it was that important-” the wolf started, Irony nodding.
“It wasn’t important,” The Captain said. “This was a minor settlement. A far flung little corner of the empire that was used as a stop gap to visit what we call the living seas,” Her eyes were distant. “My mother used to tell me these things. But, if any place in the living seas could tell us where the Venturing Owl went, it’d be here.”
“That’d be a discovery unlike any other,” The professor said. “Most of the old siren settlements are either still active, or have been picked clean of anything at all. If we could find that island, that place it went to when checking out the destruction of the empire…”
“We’d be looking at one sixth of the treasure,” The Captain said. But I knew that wasn’t what she was after. This was even more personal than that.
This was about her family. This was about chasing after the exact same things her family had been chasing after for years, and following in their footsteps. From that perspective, this didn’t seem quite so manic.
“What happened to the other ships?” I asked.
“Well,” The professor started, and Irony elbowed him, gesturing at the Captain. “Perhaps we should let the, er, actual native tell that story.”
“Five ships left, with five houses on board, carrying the last of the siren nobles with them.” The Captain kept walking straight ahead, even as the terrain changed around them. “The ships waited for the Venturing Owl for two weeks while supplies were rationed, but had to abandon it when it didn’t show up. My great grand mother was convinced not to go with the Venturing Owl, and was taken as the last of the royal family to a summer island to the far north, so distant that it tooks months to travel.”
“You’re royalty?” I asked.
“Distant,” The Captain said. “And my house is the weakest of the six houses, regardless,” She shook her head. “Irony has more of a claim to the throne than any of my family has, and the other houses are very sure to point that out.”
I caught a glimpse of some long buried hurt there before her skin sealed back up into a placid unbroken tan.
“Ah,” The professor said. “I knew some of that, but-”
“You can’t be blamed to not understand interhouse politics,” The Captain said. “I could give you a primer, after we find what I’m looking for, and, preferrably, the rest of your students.”
The professor stopped at the top of the next ridge. “Here’s as far as we’ve gone since the reapers showed up.” He drew a line in the dirt with his foot. “Have a look over yonder.”
We slid forward, careful not to pass the line, and stared at the temple.
Sampson whistled through his beak at the great structure. Gleaming marble had been worn down to weary white by time, obliterating any adornments that had once been upon it apart from the overgrowth of vines and jungle. Richard shook his head. “I don’t like this.”
The Captain paused, her foot just at the threshold. “I feel it as well.”
I craned my head, struggling to feel exactly what they were talking about, and felt nothing but the cool wind rising across the jungle.
“There,” The professor gestured at the temple. A skull rose out of the darkness of the vine crushed temple, and then the robe followed, the reaper drifting up into the heavens.
“Looks like the temple’s infested,” The Captain said, pulling out her lantern from a heavy pocket. She lit it up. “Keep close to me if you want to be safe.”
“Ah,” The professor said. “Yes. The sea doesn’t much care for fire like that. Are you sure we should be… going in?”
“Reapers took your kids,” The Captain said, solemnly. “There are reapers in that building.”
The professor sighed, and then drew a small revolver from his pocket. He carefully looked it over, then counted how many bullets he had left. “Aim for the head, right Charm?”
Eyes settled on me, like I’d be the end all be all authority. But it’d worked the first time, so why not the second time as well? “Aim for the head.”
The Captain clipped the lantern to her hip and drew her guns. Each step of her long legs sent the lantern dancing distractedly.
“Uh…” Irony said. “What do I do?” The Captain rolled her eyes and handed Irony a sword.
“Here. Don’t lose this. It’s good steel.”
“Oh,” Irony said, a little small voice, staring down at it. “I was hoping archeology would be a little less adventurous than this, professor.”
“Only when you’re really lucky,” the professor said. “Only when you’re really lucky. Remind me to tell you about that time I ran afoul of the sixth in line for the dragon throne sometime, will you?”
“You did what to Auntie?!” Irony squeaked. The professor laughed.
Then the Captain broke across the line, and we scurried after, armed to the teeth. My sword was heavy in my hand, like a lead weight instead of anything practical, but we weren’t fighting against people who were good with swords anyway.
But no reapers came after us. We scurried as one unit down the hill, and then up to the winding old stone path that kept the jungle from reclaiming everything, and then over into the temple. A reaper whistled overhead, freed from whatever hell it had come from, but it ignored us.
“Eerie,” Richard said, shaking his head. “Captain-”
“I don’t deal with reapers,” The Captain said. “Ask me about any other sea phenomena, but even I haven’t dealt with reapers anymore than I’ve had to.”
“You know,” I said. “There’s been reports of more reapers on the sea lately, right?” I asked.
“Right,” The Captain said. “Cat’s Paw was covered in lanterns to keep them off.”
“If the reapers are coming from here… maybe this is why there’s so many reapers. Some new nesting ground and they’re looking for food.”
The professor shuddered. “Navigator, could you not-”
“Any chance you’re up for doing some finding?” The Captain asked. I swallowed. “Professor, do you have anything that belongs to the missing?”
The professor had to think over it for a moment, digging through his pockets, until he pulled out a small stub of graphite that didn’t belong to him. He held it out, and the Captain handed it back to me. “Try this.”
I closed my eyes and held the graphite in my hand, and struggled to think back to how Jess described it. All I could hear was the thick beating of my own nervous heart, surrounded by bristling sailors and a few academics. But giving up here meant that people would die. Real people, people with dreams and people who wanted discover things.
So I swallowed down the fear, if only for a few moments, and then listened with my heart.
At first, all I could hear were the hearts around me, deep, throbbing in their chest, with the alien biology of the Siren a marked difference from the other beastmen (her heart was massive in her chest, throbbing with power and blood, or perhaps that was just the force of her personality, I couldn’t tell it, was all mingled together) and then in the distance I felt the cold touch of the reapers. A chill down my spine, a cold touch at midnight, a cool wind whistling across meadows, and as I listened I heard more and more of them until my eyes watered and goosebumps rose up across my skin.
And despite my best efforts, all I heard were the cool noises of the reapers.
My eyes opened. “I can’t sense any of them here,” I reported.
The Captain swore under her breath, and the professor shook his head. “They’re probably at the administrative complex then,” the professor said, shooting me a grim smile. “Thank you anyway.”
“If only this had been easier,” The Captain muttered. “Irony, are you up for more of a hike?”
“What about the temple?” Irony asked. “You said you were looking for something as well.”
The Captain squinted at the mess of marble and carved images and overgrown vines and shook her head. “The better bet is the fortress,” she said. “And there’s a lot of reapers in the temple. I doubt we’d get much done in the day we have.”
“Much done?” The professor laughed. “We’d be dragged in just as easily as the others were. And then where would we be? Dead!”
“I don’t think they’re dead,” Sampson offered. The professor whirled around and glared at the bird, who held his arms up disarmingly. “You said you haven’t seen anyone dragged off of the island!” He said, his voice going up an octave.
“They’re reapers! They’re supposed to take people to the sea of souls! If they haven’t, then they’re stashing them somewhere. Maybe they’re confused or something.”
“I doubt the couriers of the damned get confused,” The professor growled.
The Captain remained quiet.
“They’re like animals,” the crow offered. “They can get scared, and they can get confused too.”
“Supernatural animals that have dragged away everyone I’ve cared for and left me with two squabbling angry grad students,” The professor said, despair rithe in his tone.
“Professor,” Irony said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I don’t know why I bothered to hope,” The professor sighed, falling down on his knees. “I’ve good as killed all the people who’ve disappeared here.”
Another reaper escaped out of the roof of the temple, and the Captain watched it like a bird of prey. “Perhaps,” The Captain said. I gave her a look, and she gave me a small shrug in return.
“Perhaps?!” The professor hissed, his wolfish muzzle parting to bare his teeth. “What do you-”
The Captain turned and smiled at the professor. “We can just leave now, if you want. I’m sure your students won’t mind you leaving them to die, if you’re scared.”
The professor’s pupils narrowed into tiny little pricks, and he whirled about to face her, arms raised. The Captain nodded behind him at Sampson, who, joined in with Richard, who had been silent at the back watching for trouble, joined together in a single movement, tearing his arms out of the air and pinning him against the ground, wrenching them back.
“You!” The professor grunted.
“Get a hold of yourself,” The Captain said. “You’ll do no good panicking like this.”
I stared at him, a whimper ripping its way out of his open jaw, and his eyes settled on mine. There was an emotion there, some sort of begging, some sort of silent plea, but I didn’t know what to do to help.
“Besides,” The Captain said, dully. “You’re not the one in charge here.”
“Captain,” Irony started. “This is a bit cruel.”
“I suppose,” The Captain said, gesturing at Sampson. He released the professor, who fell to the ground and started rubbing at his shoulders. “You going to be better now?”
“…Thanks,” The professor growled, turning to his feet and turning away from the group. “I’m… sorry. I’ve been trying to hold back for my students. I didn’t want them to give up.”
“You’ve been under a lot of stress,” The Captain said, somewhat distantly. I had the odd feeling she wasn’t talking to the professor at all. “It’s understandable you might lash out.”
“Still,” The professor said. “We’re not here to psychoanalyze me, now are we?”
“No,” The Captain said. “No we’re not. Shall we go on a longer hike?”
“That’s not a real request,” The professor said.
“It’s not,” The Captain agreed.