Three gunshots lit up the space, and skulls flew in the darkness like after images, great gleaming things with gossamer fabric. Two fell into the darkness, dispelled, their amber lights dimming and only serving to keep the air lit up.
“CHARM!” The Captain barked. “Get us a light.”
“What?” and then it hit me. I lifted the necklace out of the crook of my heavy robes, and willed it to cast light. It was bright, bright enough to make my eyes close, but when they opened, bright spots seared into my eyes andthe skulls were dancing through the air like snow. The Captain pressed herself back against a wall, frantically flicking bullets into her guns.
“Crew! You know what to do. Irony, I need that fire!”
The skulls were all facing me, I abruptly realized. They were all staring at me, their empty sockets filled with drooling amber light, like the sea of souls had followed us here to this remote island.
“Professor!” Irony said. “How far are we now?”
“The atrium is right ahead,” he said. “That must be where they’re coming from. Are you okay for fire?”
“I-i I think so!” Irony said, her voice scared and wild in the flickering lights.
The skulls dove towards me, fast enough that I could hear air whistling through hollow bones, and the Captain was too far away.
But Sampson wasn’t, and he brought his elbow down on the skull, shattering it against the ground. Richard was there in the next instant, and his sword sliced through robes, slowing the skull so he could catch it with his other hand and crush it between his massive fingers.
The Captain’s guns went off again, and another fell, but dozens more were swirling around in front of us and above us, and most disconcertingly, behind us.
“Alright,” The Captain said, when one of her guns clicked empty. “Irony, I need you to get ahead with us, and blast whatever’s in the next chamber.”
“What about your history?”
“Fuck history. It ain’t worth dying for,” The Captain spat. “Crew! Push forward. Cowards die on this island!”
And I took a step forward, keeping the light up so everyone could see, despite the shadows whirring around us like a thickened storm, and we crawled towards the next room.
Turning the corner, I abruptly wished we hadn’t. The metaphorical eye sat hanging in the darkness like a chandelier.
The metaphorical eye was a very literal eye, a great studded jewel.
And it hated us.
And it knew me.
And it knew the Captain.
And it knew the crew.
And it knew the professor.
And it knew Irony.
And there were hundreds of reapers in that chamber, all staring up at us.
“IRONY!” The Captain bellowed, in her voice that could shatter mists and dispel enchantments, a sirenistic shout that compelled action out of the dying and brought cowards to heel, and Irony could do nothing but respond.
Her scales lit up, etched with a hot internal energy, and the reapers dove for us, hundreds of gleaming bones rattling in the rank air that had once held Sirens, that had once been royal and held hope and dreams, and even her eyes gleamed a fell gold. The Captain’s gun burst three out of the air before they could get to her, but it wasn’t fast enough, it wasn’t sure enough.
Then the professor was there, standing in front of us, his eyes wild, and he smashed another skull out of the air with his bare hands, a howl across his lips. “Not another of my students, you leftovers of history!!”
And the dragon hit her fire all at once, her chest swelling and brimming with energy, and then she roared, half as loud as the Captain’s booming voice, kept alive by the echoes of the finely made chamber, and fire, blue and white and purple twinkled in the heavens, and soared forth like a cannot shot. Irony’s clothes burned as licks of flame fell from her lips, and I smelled charred flesh, and then the projectile struck the eye in front of us. I heard things scream in the darkness and glass melt, old fat congealed into burning liquid, and then the eye erupted into flame and it screamed from hidden mouths dripping with tongues and teeth.
For a moment, the totality of the atrium was lit up, elegant old tapestries charred in a heartbeat, old murals scorched and ruined, and skeletons, old and half disturbed, covered in old armor and long spears turned their ivory faces up to heaven and embraced oblivion.
And then the reapers around them ceased moving and fell to the ground. Irony gasped for breath, hacking and choking, flecks of blood rolling out of the drool running down her lips. The professor was next to her in a second, checking over her eyes.
Then the room was just lit by the flickering of my heart.
“Excellent,” The Captain said. “Charm, how many reapers left?”
I felt out into the darkness. There were more, distant, deeper into the mountain, and even further on, there were more eyes from whatever creature we had roused in the darkness, but- “None nearby. I think Irony just took care of them all.”
“No way I’ll be able to do that again any time soon,” Irony hacked and wheezed for breath, clutching her gut. “I think I just scorched my entire throat,” she whined, hoarsely.
“You did good,” The professor insisted.
“Can all the dragons do that?” Richard asked, shaking his head with new found respect. Or perhaps, a hint of terror.
Sampson nodded. “Not all of them are that good at it, but my old landlord used to heat his tea with his.”
“Enough lollygagging,” The Captain barked. “That was a temporary measure. The things in the darkness won’t be scared off by a single dragon, so lets find what we need and get out.”
“My students-” The professor started.
“They aren’t here,” The Captain said, coolly. “Professor…” she trailed off and shook her head. “They’re gone from anywhere my navigator can see. They might be too deep for him, in which case, they’re certainly too deep for us.”
The professor sighed. “Forgive me. I let hope bloom too long in my heart.”
“It happens,” The Captain said. “I let the same happen in mine.”
The Captain vaulted off the edge of the stairs and landed below, her wings fluttering behind her. We joined her, having to take the stairs, and she led the sway. Our footsteps left trails in the ash, clear markers that we were disturbing history and places left uninhabited for centuries.
“What was that eye?” I asked, as we slipped into another dark hallway.
“Who knows,” The Captain said, shaking her head. “There are dozens of things on the seas that I haven’t seen, Charm, and I certainly haven’t seen most to do with the Reapers. Wouldn’t you be a better person to ask?”
Eyes settled on me in the darkness, and I swallowed. “That wasn’t a reaper thing.”
And it wasn’t. The eye wasn’t made of amber, it was green and veined like a siren, flecks of purple winding its way through the color. It almost certainly had nothing to do with the reapers that were nesting around it.
The Reapers had reacted to it nonetheless.
I didn’t like the idea. I didn’t have much of a choice either way, but I still didn’t like the idea.
We came to what could only be a small waiting room, names long since obscured by dust and grime, and the Captain lit another torch sconce. It was a pleasant place, covered in ancient scripture, and texts strewn about the bookshelves that littered the room had long since been taken into dust itself. I didn’t know what the Captain was looking for, but…
She swept over to the side and tried a door. Locked. She pondered for a second, drew her gun, pointed it at the lock, and fired four bullets until both of her guns clicked, and with and angry huff, heel checked the broken lock until it shattered and the door fell open.
“Is this the place?” The professor asked.
“Should be,” The Captain said. “My ancestor had a thing for books and scrolls and writing. Charm, to me.”
I followed closely after her, holding up my light. She dug through the dust, her hands leaving long troughs in them until she kicked across a tablet laying on the ground. It had shattered into five pieces. She groused, pulled them up one by one onto a table covered in the dissolved remnants of paper, and blew the dust out of the etched words.
“By the worm,” The Captain muttered.
“You find something?”
“Shipping manifests were done on stone,” The Captain said. “To prevent them from being altered later.”
“This was one of the farthest flung outposts,” The Captain said. “How many ships do you really think they processed?”
“Fair enough,” Irony said, poking her head up. She looked over the Captain’s shoulder. “What’s it say?”
The script was curvy and loopy and the letters ran over top of each other. The old siren language in a nutshell, ostentatious as ever.
“I don’t recognize some of these letters,” The Captain confessed. “But, if I had to guess…” She dipped her finger into the letters, feeling them over. “The Venturing Owl. 128 sailors, 24 chests of fine goods, en route to…” she trailed off, cocking her head to the side.
“The country was falling apart by then,” The professor muttered. “Why would they keep records?”
“This was briefly going to be the capital,” The Captain muttered. “But nobody wanted to be this close to the old lands, especially if the sea of souls followed us. Given what’s in this fortress now… I think they were right.”
“En route to where?” Sampson asked. I was mostly focused on keeping the light up. I was starting to feel a most peculiar drain.
The Captain scowled. “It’s been carved out.” She ran her fingertips along it, and then gestured at the dust around them. “It’s been carved out recently.” She turned her eyes on the professor. “Would you know anything about this?”
“We’ve only been here once,” The professor said, shaking his head. “We never even got around to setting up signs of where to step, or rules on how to handle artifacts. Trust me, I’d know if we’d broken something.”
The Captain closed her eyes, then knelt down, looking over the broken tablets. “Someone smashed all these… to make sure that they wouldn’t be followed. Damn that woman.” She scowled.
“But we know they were here,” I said. “Right?”
The Captain sighed, but I could already tell the wind was out of her sails. “That’s something we could already say, but…” She looked up at the professor. “It looks like neither of us will be happy today.”
Irony poked her head in and started taking frantic notes. “Can you at least translate most of this for us?”
The Captain shrugged, brushing dust off of her coat. “Might as well.”
Samson sneezed at the dust winding off of the ground, and awkwardly sat to the side with Richard. I joined them, making sure to keep the light up to counteract some of the flicker of the torch.
“Doesn’t feel right to lose like this,” Richard said.
“Sometimes,” The Captain countered. “You do everything right, and you still lose, Richard. It’s best that we learn this early. I do have something else I can try after this, but…”
“Can we join on that?” Sampson asked.
“You might,” the Captain said, pausing from speaking in muted tones to the dragon. The professor stood between us, tension lining his shoulders, and the vague cloak and robes of despair starting to settle across his shoulders.
I threw myself into my heart again and felt the world around us. The reapers were starting to return, but they were delicate creatures, and they had seen what had happened to them already, and there were still spots where fire burned on papery cloaks, so they kept at bay.
The Captain’s heart had turned cold in her chest, the beating had slowed to a rhythm that didn’t match her normal vivacity. The professor had an icy ring of depression, like cloying medicine wrapped around his form.
Irony was barely keeping her spirits up.
“Maybe an hour,” I said. I didn’t really know, but it was my best guess. “Until the reapers are back.”
“You heard him,” The Captain said. “Pick out what you think is important, you two, and take whatever you think you can carry.”
“Are you sure?” The professor asked. “This is your ancestral ground and-”
“Take it,” The Captain scowled. “It’s covered in reapers, and I bet His Majesty’s soldiers are particularly ill suited to preserving whatever history you two could glean.”
Irony’s teeth clicked together. “That’s… not untrue.”
“I assume you’d like us to not mention this to anyone?” The professor asked.
“For your sake more than mine,” The Captain said.
“Got it,” The professor said, dimly. “Woe it is that I have these artifacts and not my students. I’d make that trade in a heartbeat, if I had the opportunity.”
“Don’t say it that loud,” The Captain said. “The spiders will be sure to give it to you, and dealing with them rarely works out.”
“Superstitious much?” the professor asked. “How would you know about desperate deals with arachnids, anyway?”
“As someone who traded my name…?” Lady Catastrophe asked, trailing off. “I think I’d know a decent bit about it.”
The professor went quiet after that, a strange look on his face like another puzzle piece had slid into place.
It certainly had for me. Of course Catastrophe wasn’t her birth name. She’d traded it away in some deal. But what was worth your own name?
Was it why the Captain refused to call me by mine?