We abandoned the temple and moved on. The path out was ever smaller and more overgrown, and buzz of insects only grew louder as we abandoned the clearings and spots where the expedition had carved holes in the skyline to make their travel easier. Large wasps fluttered through trees, and small birds, covered in thick long feathers, darted through, stealing them from their path before they could even panic. Small foxes and things that were not foxes darted through the foliage, panicking at our presence.
The professor was sullen, Irony was pale, occasionally staring at the Captain, and the other two members of the crew were quiet. The Captain kept her eyes on the path ahead, only looking away to inspect a sign post here or a tattered outcropping that had once been a house there. And then the path started to slope up and up and up until the trees were lower than we were, and the air grew steadily thinner and thinner.
Only the Captain was unaffected by the change.
“The old siren homes were jutting spires and bridges,” The Captain said. “And a great mountain, carved with the seat of our power,” she sounded faintly wistful, though we all knew she’d never been there. What must it had been like to look back on your line and see something other than eons of peasantry? I didn’t know.
“Fascinating,” The professor said, quietly, under his breath. “You describe it very differently from the other sirens we’ve interviewed back at the academy.”
“Of course I do,” The Captain said. “There are six houses, and our myths have changed and diverged over time.”
“Which one is more true?”
“Mine,” The Captain laughed. “Obviously.”
He shook his head. “Ask stupid questions I guess.”
Sampson chuckled as well. Richard remained alert. Up ahead, stone stirred and dust rose off of the side of the cliff face. The Captain drew her sword, and gestured for the rest of us to do the same. I hung around at the back.
I’d need to get sword lessons after this.
A reaper was trapped in the mountainside, thrashing about in the dust, skull clicking against the stone. The Captain raised an eyebrow at it, but its cloak remained completely stuck in place.
“Well?” She asked the group.
The professor raised his sabre and smashed the skull with a growl before anyone else could say anything. It fell into a mess of bone fragments and spite, and it stopped thrashing. “There,” he said. “Now it’s out of my misery.”
“Hm,” The Captain said, leaning forward and inspecting the wreckage. She tugged at the cloak and pushed the wreckage to the side. “Mountain vent,” She said.
“Oh?” Irony asked. “What for?”
“Air circulation,” The Captain said. “The reapers are probably nested inside, just as well, and use them to get out when they need to.”
“I don’t much care for that idea,” Richard said. “The entire mountain might be full of them.”
“Luckily,” The Captain started, her eyes settling on me like mischievous specks of abalone. “We have someone who can detect that sort of thing.”
I closed my eyes and wrapped my hands around the gem against my throat, and felt the throb of my heart. I sank into its cold caress and listened through it, embracing the coolness of senses rather than the worry of reality.
Again, I felt the hearts of my companions, beating in their chests, and again, there was the cool stone of the mountain. And again, there were the fluttering of cold reapers.
And at the very center, there sat something that felt like fire, like a sparkling corona of energy, a distant conversation, a mote of heat whirring quietly in the darkness, and it looked at me.
It looked at me, and it was far larger than I was, and I looked back at it and I could hear the ocean battering at the island in a storm and-
The Captain shook me and the connection ended. “Charm!”
Sampson and Richard stood next to her, keeping her flanked, and she shook me again when I didn’t immediately respond. “You in there?”
“Something’s in the mountain, Captain,” I said, quiet. I was still trying to remember how my body worked, rioting as it was, and how it felt to not be stared at.
“Something like my students?” The professor asked. Irony shook her head.
“I don’t think your students could snare Charm like that.”
“Something big and watching.”
The Captain cocked her head to the side, and squinted down the hole into the mountain, still covered in bone fragments. Then she looked back at the professor. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“My loss,” The professor said, dull, his voice losing all color. “What about what he saw?”
“What about it?”
“Maybe they’re in it,” he said. “It might be some… magical prison or some such.”
“The sirens weren’t in the business of using those things,” The Captain said.
“But what about the reapers?” he asked.
The Captain ignored him for a moment, turning to look at me. “Charm, are you up for moving?” She kept her hand on my shoulder and I took a few stuttering steps. Sampson caught me before I slipped on the last one.
“I think, give me a moment.” I brushed dust off of my sides.
“Good,” The Captain said. “We’ll take a look ahead, at least,” she said.
“What happened to your sense of adventure?” The professor asked. “You were so quick to tell me not to give up and now-”
“You’re responsible for your students,” The Captain said. “I’m responsible for keeping you, and everyone else alive. Do you get the difference?”
He scowled at her, baring his teeth again. The Captain held up a hand to prevent Richard and Sampson from pinning him against the ground again. “But we’ll take a look inside. I’m not going to die poking an entire nest of reapers just to satisfy your curiosity. If Charm says he doesn’t feel normal people, I’ll trust him.”
Responsibility settled like a lead weight in my stomach. I had no idea if what I was doing what even remotely correct, and here she was putting it on me, stacking it on my shoulders- but how could she not? I was something that the professor couldn’t check, an easy way out that she could use to disengage.
I was the navigator. If I couldn’t find it, it wasn’t there to find.
“So now what?” The professor asked.
“You explored the mountain before it became so overwhelmed, right?” The Captain asked.
“A bit, we cleared out the first few rooms.” his voice remained sullen.
“Did any of them look like an office?” she asked, cool.
His eyes closed as he tried to remember. I took a few steps away from the hole into the mountain.
“We’d be looking for a shipping manifest,” she said. “Something preserved by how dry the mountain is. Anything like that.”
“There were a few desks we hadn’t managed to get into,” The professor said. “But we hadn’t made it that far when the reapers came.”
“It’ll have to do,” The Captain said.
Irony spoke up. “What are you going to do if you can’t find what you’re after?”
“I have…” The Captain trailed off, shaking her head. “I have another option. I’d rather not use it.”
“How could it be worse than this?” The professor asked, gesturing at the mountain next to them.
“I didn’t know the island was infested with reapers at the time I told Jess about this place, now did I?” The Captain cut in, sharp.
“Fair enough,” The professor sighed. “I’m… sorry. I just want to blame you for all of this. Now that I know who you are. Not that anyone else does.”
“Who is she?”
The Captain didn’t look at me.
“She was a Captain under the command of-”
“I fought on the losing side of the war,” Catastrophe said, bluntly. “And I did a lot of bloody things to keep the empire’s grimy hands off of the north.”
“They don’t call it a war,” Irony said.
“Funny that,” The Captain growled. “That the dragons are going to pretend it was just a skirmish, a few rounds of combat and a treaty signing, like we rolled over for nothing. Like it was just as easy as a few rounds of-”
“I know,” Irony said. “History isn’t written as it is. It’s written the way His Majesty wants it remembered.”
“And you dominated all those islands,” Catastrophe growled. “They were ours, sure, but we left them alone to do what they wanted. And you shackled them, built giant manors for your cousins to rule over, to make sure everyone knew exactly who owned them. If it weren’t for us, the worm cursed Navigator Academy would be taken as well, and then where would the sea be?”
She stalked ahead, drawing her sabre. “Now I’m going to get to that office, and we’re going to find that damned manifest before I rip out your throat, Irony.”
The others joined her, leaving just the professor, Irony, and myself to watch her saunter ahead.
“I didn’t deserve that,” Irony muttered.
“The dragons did…” The wolf shook his head. “You are royalty, Irony. You’re expected to represent his sovereign interests, in at least some part.”
“I don’t like that,” Irony said. “I’m an archeologist, not a conqueror.”
“You get to decide history,” The professor reminded, softly. “At the end of the day, which is more powerful?”
Irony shook her head and started after the others. The professor turned to look at me. “You sure you’re alright serving under that captain?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
I was starting to trust her, and there probably wasn’t a single other creature who could get me home on the entire living sea. I wasn’t starting to trust her. I trusted her. She’d given her word, and I’d given her mine.
I just needed to hang onto that after whatever was in her past was actually revealed. “Come on, you’re going to miss the action.”
The professor sighed. “That’s what I was hoping for.”
“My big bad professor’s having regrets about his career?” Irony teased.
“He’s having regrets he didn’t bring a bigger weapon,” The professor groused, and then he slipped up ahead with the rest of the crew, and then we caught up.