Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 28)

After a few minutes of catching my breath and coming to terms, again, with just how bad the entire situation was, I reached out into the world again through my heart. I went farther, far farther than I had before, casting my ears as far as I could.

Distant, as distant as I could yet manage, I could feel, just vaguely, the cool twinkle of Jess’s heart. Distinctly her. And other islands, and what had to be ships winding themselves through the living sea, in a place that was not this one.

So I was caught up in a sea phenomena, some half forgotten quirk of magic or-

The Island’s soul.

I was inside of it. That’s where we were going to find Thyn. We’d just assumed it’d be in the tunnels and darkness, not… Not like this.

I swallowed, and groped in the darkness. I couldn’t call light to my heart, I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t want to know what’d happen if I did it, it could be… unpleasant. Dying during a rescue mission wouldn’t be a good way of saving Thyn.

Now I just needed someone to save myself. My fingertips rubbed across the rough wood of the cell until splinters dug into the pad of my fingers, and I stumbled back and into a bed.

Deep breaths. The darkness would leave. The darkness would have to leave eventually. Just a dark prison.

It wasn’t the worst place I’d been. That was the sea of souls, trapped on a dim island, with ghosts and driftwood for company. This was… this was a walk in the park compared to that.

I reached out again, more careful this time to mind my fingers, and got a good idea of what the room was like. I compared it to what I’d seen in those brief moments before the door had shut, and it was similar, and I just barely had enough room to stand up and fan my arms our before my fingers would touch the sides.

I wanted Sev. I wanted Thyn. I wanted the Captain. Hell, I’d take Irony and the professor. Anything but this awkward terror and darkness.

I grit my teeth, and tears started to build in the corner of my eyes. I was… this was bad, this was very very bad, and I didn’t like it, and I was, I was…

“New prisoner?” a feminine voice asked. Gruff, half covered in scars, but still feminine.

There was nothing for my eyes to adjust to in the darkness, so I turned, half blind, to where the voice had come from. A window crawled open, and in the muffled confines it sounded like a dying scream.

A sensation of movement, but I still couldn’t see, I could only hear, and then a hand touched me on the head, and ran down the side of my face to rest on my shoulder. “You’re a short one,” she whispered. “What’re you in for?”

“I don’t-”

Two red spots appeared in the darkness. They gleamed, a faint light source that only illuminated her face.

Two eyes, stacked on top of each other, on the left side. Both twisted in their sockets to look over me. Could she see me?

“You’re young,” she said. “And very new.”

“I… thanks?”

“There’s no need for that.” The eyes flicked up to about where my face was. “Shhh. Don’t be scared. I can use a new person.”

“You c-can?” I stammered. I was losing it in the darkness. I was losing it there, in the tight confines, terrified, lost, with only the far distant heartbeats in the distance for company, and the very heavy one very close by.

“I can,” She said and the eyes closed. “The guards approach, be silent.”

It had been half an hour, or perhaps three hours, or perhaps only ten minutes, but the door unlocked itself and light flooded through. I closed my eyes tightly, but the light nearly blinded me regardless, tears beading at the corner of my eyes until I could get them open again.

Two men sat there. Henry, as one, and another, armed to the teeth with enough swords to make an armory blush. He held one out in front of him, pointed forward. “The Colonel would like to speak with you.”

I stumbled forward, and Henry seized my arm, keeping me upright. “Come on kid. I’m sure we’ll figure this out together.”

“I’d refrain from talking to the prisoners, Henry.”

“He’s a kid,” Henry defended himself. “Surely we’re not that far gone that a kid of our own kind is-”

“A kid that we found on this island, of all places,” the man reminded, shaking his head. “Just as likely a ghost, or some spirit, or some demon’s prank, or-”

“I get it,” Henry said, flatly. “I think we’re being ridiculous about this, but-”

“The colonel won’t look as fondly as I have on you, if you keep talking,” the man said.

Henry was silent, but kept a firm grip on my shoulder. Here, at least, the halls were lined with lanterns, though the smoke was foul and stung at my eyes. Everything was utilitarian and minimalistic, a warship, kept without a trace of ostentation or even a hint of personality.

It remained that way until I was led through one final door. It opened into where the hold might’ve been, if the hold wasn’t filled with strange gleaming treasures and a woman sat at the far end in what could only be described as a throne. Her hair was brown, her skin tan, her eyes green, and her chin pointed, like a half oval.

It wouldn’t have been as shocking, since I had seen many of my own kind, the same sort of style of man that had scattered themselves of the shores of my fishing village, if it wasn’t for the fact she looked identical to my own mother.

Down to the very shape of her face.

“Colonel,” Henry said, falling down to one knee. He drove me down, and I joined him there. The other man did not.

“Is this the boy you found among the slaughtered?”

“He is,” Henry said.

“Sergeant,” The Colonel sighed, steepling her fingers together. “Leave us.”

He followed the order, leaving me with the swordsman and the Colonel.

“Now,” the Colonel said, and her voice barked with an order. “Stand up.”

I did. Her eyes glanced over me, and then somewhat through me. Then she leaned forward, and snagged the chain, almost hidden by the cloth of my shirt, and dragged out my heart.

She ran her fingers over it, then looked over my shoulder at the other man.

“You’ve brought a trap aboard our ship,” She said, flat. “His soul has already been maimed, he’s less than human now.”

The swordsman slammed me against the ground, and a knife was against my throat before I could blink. I yelped, and felt the edge of the knife cut into my throat. “My apologies.”

“No,” The Colonel said. “This is quite excellent.”

The knife slackened slightly, but he kept his knee planted in the small of my back so I couldn’t move. “Ma’am?” he asked.

“Someone will have to come… spring the trap, no?” The Colonel said, smoothly. “They can track him through this, yes, but they can track him through this.”

“What’re you suggesting?” he asked. “I’ll punish those who brought him here at-”

“No need,” The Colonel said. “I won’t punish my men for doing the right thing. That would simply be bad manners.”

“Ma’am-”

“Take this one back to his cell. Keep his heart on him. If he struggles or tries anything, cut his throat. Otherwise…” her eyes fell on me. “We’ll keep him alive as a lure for the enemy.”

“Ma’am, are you sure we have time for that?” The swordsman asked. “They have the Eye. If they get the eye off of this island…”

“There’ll be hell to pay on both sides,” The Colonel agreed. “But their transport hasn’t arrived yet. We’re holding most of the beaches at this point, and our troops are pointed at their fortresses. I’m delighted to see what exactly they’ll pull, and we’ll defeat it in kind.”

“Yes ma’am. My apologies for questioning you.”

“You’re like a brother to my son,” The Colonel said. “It doesn’t do you well to kow-tow to me like this.”

The swordsman shifted on my back, and I could smell my own blood on the knife across my throat. I kept my breath as even as possible, half stunned. This was… this was a war.

“I am aware,” The swordsman said. “But I find it hard to break protocol around you, Ma’am.”

“Try, when we’re alone like this. There are a thousand men on this island who would do nothing more than kiss the ground I walk on. I’d prefer at least someone to question me now and again.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She sighed.

“My apologies, kin,” She said, looking down at me. “But you’re just a pawn in this battle. There are far worse things left in this world if the Eye gets off of this island, much less if the Sirens think they can get away with this.”

The man lifted me up, hands securely on my shoulder, and the knife an inch away from my spine, and I walked out of the room.

As we walked, I started to piece it together. The Sirens had stolen something from these people. These people that would become the reapers. The reapers were after it.

The island remembered all of this. If I were lucky, it wouldn’t edit over me. If I was unlucky…

Well. It’d be a bit worse than when I’d nearly been consumed by the sunken ship. There were more people in the balance.

Back down the utilitarian halls, passed soldiers who didn’t say any words but stared blankly ahead when the swordsman passed, and then back into the cell. A brief flash of light revealed a mess of dried blood against the wall, and then the door closed.

Darkness.

Five minutes.

The window opened.

“You,” I said, before she could say anything.

“Me,” she agreed. Both of her eyes flicked over my form. “You’re still here. That’s good.”

I shook my head. “That’s not good. She told me I was a trap, and they’re going to use me to-”

“Try and break the Sirens?” the other guessed.

I glared at her.

She shook her head. “You’ve not been here before, I wouldn’t guess you’d know. You’re new.”

“I am,” I said. “We already went over that.”

“No no,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re new to the island.”

I paused.

“You’re not part of the island,” I said, leaning against the bars. “Are you?”

“I’m not, yet,” she said. “It’s tried, many times, but I’ve got an ace carved into my head.” She trailed a hand up to her face. A siren’s hand, cloaked in talons, momentarily blocked out her upper eye, and the unearthly red light dimmed.

“Wait, yet?” I asked.

“Some of the others,” she continued, as if I hadn’t interrupted at all. “Have been made part of this loop already. Everyone else escaped. I’d recommend, if you intend on getting out of here, that you’d work with me to do the latter.”

“Made part of-”

“They’re dead, for all intents and purposes,” The siren said. “The island owns their souls. Which is what will happen to you, if and when you die.”

“Wha-”

The window closed again. Footsteps by the door.

“How long does the loop take?”

“A month. Starting with when the reaperking’s fleet arrived,” she said. “This loop has been going on for 18 days. At the end of the week, the Venturing Owl arrives, evacuates the few that are still left alive on the island, and leaves the loop.”

“You mean…” I trailed off. “How do we even get out?”

“If you want to get out of here, you’ll need to be on the Venturing Owl,” she said. “And I, I want out of this hell hole of an island.”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“Good,” She said. “In four hours, they’ll decide what to do with us. Depending on exactly what you’ve changed by showing up, they’ll either try and execute us-” she paused. “- which is bad, as you’ll be incorporated into the island on your death, or-” She went silent, and the window shut.

Noises outside the door. Henry, arguing with the guard. I kept as quiet as I could so I could try and hear something of it.

“Just take the damn necklace off of him then! Throw it into the ocean! Let the sea take it,” Henry hissed.

“The Colonel said to keep him as he is.”

“He’s already had his soul cored like an apple!” Henry said. “The least we can do is get him to a doctor.”

The soldier was silent, but I didn’t hear any movement on the otherside of the door. A few heavy silent moments, and then I heard Henry turn and stalk off.

I counted backwards, trailing the numbers through my head like fluttering sea birds, and then the window opened again. “Or?”

“Or they’ll use us to bait a trap.” she continued. “In which case, it’ll be 50% chance that I die. If I die, you need to get to the ship without me.”

I swallowed. “You’ll be trapped here.”

“Trapped is better than death,” She said, shaking her head. “Trapped means that the next time someone shows up, I can try again. If you die, or you don’t get out of here on time, you’ll die for real. You’ve got an idea of the timeline now?”

“That’s not a lot of time.”

“No,” She agreed. “It’s not. The Sirens are losing here, and they know it. So we need to be careful.”

“Alright,” I said. “What’s your plan?”

“We’ll be bound and left injured,” she said. “The pain doesn’t bother me anymore, not like it used to, but you, I need you to make sure you’re ready for it.”

“What?!” I hissed at her.

“I’m just speaking from experience,” she said. “I don’t know what they’ll do to you. But if you fuck this up, they’ll do it to you for all eternity.”

I swallowed down my complaints all at once. She was trying to help, I just needed to help her back.

“Alright. What can I do to help?”

“You’re a Navigator, right?” She asked.

“I am.”

“They didn’t have those in the reaper-king’s army. So when the time comes, I need you to use it to surprise them.”

“I’ve only been a navigator for less than a week,” I said. “I don’t know that much.”

“Then you better get fucking thinking,” She hissed in frustration. “Don’t screw me on this, your goddamn sycophantic-” She choked herself off, clearing holding her breath. “Don’t screw me on this,” she repeated, in a far flatter, more refined tone.

I took a few deep breaths as well, if only to still my stubbornly racing heart, and slid back against the wall of my cell. “Alright. Surprise them somehow.”

“When you do that, I’ll get out of there, and then we need to make a dead fucking sprint for the nearest temple. Repeat what I said.”

“Startle them during the trap, you’ll… get out of it, and then we run for it.”

“Good,” She said. “You came with others, right?”

“I did. I’m here looking for someone, actually.”

“They get here in the last few weeks?” she asked.

“All of them should’ve, I hope. There’s four that came in here with me, and one that came last night.”

“Bad timing,”

“Very,” I agreed.

“You have a name?” she asked.

“Charm.”

“Cute,” She chuckled. “I am Vali, of the Venturing Owl.”

My teeth clicked together. “Do you know Catastrophe?”

“Eh?” she asked. “I’ve never heard that name in my life.”

I blinked a few times. How would she… My thoughts drifted back to that moment just before we’d gotten here, where the Captain had confessed where some of her unearthliness had come from. She’d traded her name away.

Of course this bird wouldn’t know anything about her!

“I’d be careful in that cell,” she said. “They killed the last person in it for trying to escape.”

That would, at least, explain the dried blood spatter behind me. I swallowed, and made sure to take a step away from the wall. “Thanks.”

“You can thank me by getting out of this alive,” She muttered. Her eyes closed, choking off the thin bead of light they provided. My eyes failed to adjust again, and I rubbed them through my eye lids.

“Yeah.”

Silence. Nothing but the steady beat of the waves against the side of the vessel, and the hurry-skurry of the men outside. Swords clicking against hips, a gentle distant wind…

After a while, I dipped down into my heart and listened into the distance. The heart nearest to me was almost deafening, a sturdy thumpathump that sounded like a drum instead of anything that was actually alive. I didn’t like it. It certainly wasn’t anything like the others.

I managed to extract myself from it, letting it fall into the distance, and listened for something, anything at all.

On the island, I could hear my cellmate’s heart as a curious rustling, half muffled by the cell and the general unease of the ship, and farther than that, if I strained, I could hear the same thing repeated again and again, moving angry dots clad in heavy armors.

And even more distant still, like a half shattered beacon, I felt the Captain’s heart like a leaking sieve, emotions and anger and a bizarre small spark of happiness, like a burning ember, resting underneath of chips of wood.

I settled into that rhythm of listening to the noises of my distant friends, and for a time, forgot I was in a cell.

That didn’t last.