The mouth of the fortress proper wasn’t a terrifying affair. There weren’t teeth guarding the entrance, nor were there pits, or anything too ostentatious apart from large stone doors, chipped at by centuries of erosion and decay. Pieces of stone had fallen off the last time it had been open, and shattered against the ground into powdery dust. The Captain stood in front of them, her feathers twitching. She was giddy, excited.
“You said you were here not too long ago,” I said.
“I didn’t know anything about this place, last time,” she said. “It was a part of pilgrimage to come here; there’s not a lot of the old territories still visible, but we were told to stay out of the island proper, for fear of rousing some of the old death that had taken the empire.”
“And now you’ve seen more siren territories than any siren alive,” Sampson said. “Since we’ve been in the sea of souls.”
The Captain’s fingers twitched over the hilt of her right pistol as she examined the door. “You’re right. My family should be jealous of me.”
“We had to move the doors in a group,” The professor said. “They’re heavy things.”
“And you shut them to try and lock the reapers inside?” The Captain asked.
“That’s the size of it,” The professor agreed.
“Irony, with me? Sampson, Richard?”
The four assembled in front of the door, and the Captain pried the door loose with a flex of her arms, and then all four of them wrenched back. Irony hid a lot of strength in her body, probably on account of her kind, and the rest of the crew were hardened from years of working on the sea. The hinges screeched as they opened, and I winced, covering my ears with the palms of my hands.
Then the yawning darkness of the administrative complex came into presence. The air smelled thick of must and ancient decay and-
The Captain threw herself to the side as reapers flooded out all at once, clacking bones and hissing robes, and Sampson took the full brunt of them. Instantly, he was covered in robes, and his squawk turned muffled under their weight.
And then they started to drag him back into the darkness.
“Not this time,” The Captain hissed, and in the very same instant, her lantern came down on the back of the reapers and the flame caught across their robes. Sampson squeezed and thrashed about until one arm wrenched loose from the collection of fabric, and before anyone else could do anything, I was there, dragging him by his arm. His fingers squeezed down on mine hard enough that his claws sliced into my skin, but I kept right on tugging.
My heart was up in my throat, I could only imagine where his was. Richard brought his hands down on an exposed skull and crushed it, and even Irony got a shot in, tossing a skull down the cliff side where it shattered on the road far below, and then Sampson was only covered in robes instead of skulls, and he was able to poke his head back out from the burning oil slick things and kick them off.
I checked him over with my hands, and his side came back streaked with red.
“Report,” The Captain barked. “Where are you hurt?”
Sampson’s hands danced over to mine, and he pressed down, wincing. “I got scraped against the rocks, Captain.”
The Captain kept her gaze into the darkness ahead of us instead of on Sampson, more concerned on making sure more weren’t coming than on his injuries. I couldn’t blame her; the thought of being dragged away gave me goosebumps.
“Are you clear to fight?” she asked.
Sampson grunted, and hopped up to his feet. He did a few stretches, wincing at the more extreme ones. “I think I’m fine. Just… don’t let me get grabbed again, alright?”
The Captain refilled her lantern with oil, and kept it firmly in her grip. “If you get dragged, shout, and we’ll go after you.”
Richard was quiet, but his fur was puffed up at the very thought of it. He didn’t disagree though. “The professor said we shouldn’t have to go very far, right?”
“Right,” The wolf said, taking a step forward. He ignored the smear of blood on the ground, and the quiet whimpers of the crow. I could still see where he winced occasionally from his own heavy dragging bruises. “There’s an atrium, a big clearing spot that the reapers were nesting in. If the Captain sets that on fire… we might have full reign of the place.”
“That doesn’t sound very secure of a plan,” I said.
“Charm’s right,” The Captain said. “Anyone got anything else that’ll burn?”
Irony stepped forward. “Well, I’m not the best at it, but I can breath fire.”
“Excellent,” The Captain said. “Vomit fire at our enemies, Irony.”
Irony looked positively nauseous at the idea, which last until the Captain took a step inside and then smashed the butt of one of her pistols into the face of a skull in the darkness, shattering it. “On your toes!”
There weren’t too many more reapers in the front entrance. The ones that were there were taken care of by the crew. They may not have a lot of experience fighting them, but in the darkness the bones gleamed in the lantern and what little light the sun could cast into their depths, so it was easy to take them out.
The weight and danger of reapers came from those that were armored, and the sheer weight of numbers they might have in the darkness. The Captain used her lantern to light a sconce on the wall, and the dark maroon of the room came into focus. Half devoured tapestries sat on the wall, time having taken the majority of the color out of them, but the Captain was transfixed all the same. A great gleaming star in the heavens, ships sailing across a sea as glorious as time itself and
“The Golden Fleet,” she muttered, her talons settling on a set of ships done up in golden filigree, miraculously still as colorful as the day they were made. Her claws clicked at the construction. “They used gold wire for this.”
“Gold wire?!” The professor barked. “They used gold wire for decoration?”
“They hardly need to eat it, unlike your majesty,” The Captain groused. “It afforded them the ability to take aesthetics into account.”
“There’s aesthetics, and then there’s opulence.”
“No girl’s ever shown you that much opulence?” The Captain teased, taking a step away from the tapestries, though I could see her eyes dart towards them. How much history might be entombed in this place? “Or guy, I don’t think any of us judge.”
The professor sputtered. “Is this really the time for this?”
The Captain knelt forward in front of another tapestry, her voice low and sultry. “My aunt would kill people for just the sight of this,” she said. “You’re so lucky to be here, you five.”
Sampsom, hands still pressed over his ribs, peered at ornamentation. “It’s very maroon.”
“Maroon was a royal color,” The Captain said. “And also, a lovely color in torchlight. It looks like age has stripped the rest of the colors out of the room, but it was all so ornate and positively gaudy back in the day.” She sniffed, taking a drag of the air, rank with decay and mold. “Nothing like it exists still on the seas, you know.”
Irony shook her head, still listening into the darkness that the torches didn’t fix. She squeaked, and the Captain turned, drew her gun, and a bullet sank into the skull of the Reaper drifting out of the darkness, dead center, shattering the bridge of its nose. It fluttered, amber fluid drooling out of the bones themselves, then hit the ground in a clatter of shattering bones.
Irony clutched her stomach, staring wide eyed down at the reaper, and the Captain flicked another round into her gun. “Try to stay away from the darkness, if you will.”
“R-ready to move on?” Irony asked, tapping the cloak with her foot. “What are these robes even from?”
The Captain plucked her lantern off of the ground and gestured for us to find her. “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll like it when I find out, either. Charm? What do you think?”
I shrugged helplessly. “I think, given what we saw outside… maybe they’re looting them from some battlefield.”
“Maybe,” The professor said. “Nice shooting, Captain. I haven’t seen anything like that since my days on a navy vessel.”
“A good Captain is prepared to fight, and more than willing not to,” The Captain said, gun in one hand, lantern in the other. “I was bad at the latter.”
The halls farther from the sun were ice cold, like death itself had etched into the walls. Gleaming symbols in ancient siren reflected the light of the lantern, and when the Captain lit the next sconce, it looked more like something I’d see in a proper room full of bureaucrats than something foreboding. Scraps of colorful fabric hung from the walls, only a few symbols still visible as time had eaten the rest of the information. The Captain barked out a word here and there, wondering aloud what it could all mean, and she and the professor and Irony traded thoughts on it.
Sampson drifted back to my side, taking up my right, and Richard took up my left.
“She seems happy,” I said.
“Have you seen how the rest of the sirens treat her?” Richard asked. “I think this is the closest to home she’s been in a long time.”
Maybe that was why she was willing to help me back. She’d been where I was, lost in a strange land, but instead of practically giving up, she’d made a name for herself on the sea.
Did she see something of herself in me?
“How’s your side?” I asked, looking at Sampson. He held up his hand. In the flickering of the torches, he didn’t come back with quite so much red.
“Going to have to pluck a few of the feathers,” he said. “I think I got a few of the primaries broken.” He whined softly, shaking his head. “Folna’ll have her work cut out for her at this rate.”
“Good,” The Captain said, turning to look at us. “She gets bored on the ship.”
Sampson swallowed. “Sorry Captain, just keeping the mood up.”
“You’re right,” The Captain said. “This is the closest to home I’ve been in a long time. I used to grow up with images like this. Drifted over time, of course, but…” She traced the edge of a symbol with the palm of her hand, pistol splayed to the side of her talons. “It’s nice.”
“You’re from the Venturing Owl, right?” The wolf asked. The Captain quirked her head to the side and turned to face him.
“How do you feel about-”
The Captain tensed up and threw the lantern at me. I scrabbled for it, diving before it could hit the ground, and winced as it smashed my left thumb hard enough to draw blood. “Behind you!”
The wolf whirred around. In the darkness of the hall ahead, skulls drifted in and out of view. Amber lights twinkled in their empty bones, robes fluttering against one another. Bones clattered in the darkness.
They were all human skulls. None of them bore a trace of horns or ruffage or feathers or long teeth. They were all perfectly human skulls.
Even in this dark place, where death faced us, and I carried the only light, the fact that the skulls were all human haunted me more than anything else.
Was I reaperkin? Was I just a reaper, still wearing skin?
“All together now,” The Captain barked, tugging the wolf away from the doorway. Irony got the word before she had to be grabbed. “Charm! Are we close to whatever it was you found?”
I shoved the light over to Richard, who handled it far easier than I did, took in a deep breath, and dove back into my heart. I could hear it, whistling, buzzing, like a deep deep hole in the ground from which light couldn’t escape.
The eye twitched back and forth, and then settled firmly on me.
And then the cold darkness of the reapers turned to look at me as well, and I threw myself out of that cold void.
“Captain! They know we’re here!”
“Worm curse you!” She swore.
Then the lantern flickered off, and darkness overtook the party.