Afternoons I often spent in Vali’s company. Not because she necessarily needed it, but because most of the birds were interested in fighting and training, and the professor was perpetually busy with side projects. The three eyed siren was easy to talk to, when she wasn’t in a murderous mood (which was often).
“- And the Captain took one look at the great beast and declared it wasn’t an ephemera of the ocean after all, just a particularly overgrown squid.”
Sev clapped his hands together, and the chef glared at him until he went back to peeling. The food was building up behind us, prepared batches of soup, smoked foods, siege supplies. Just in case.
Just in case, I was trapped on an island with a ticking deadline less than a week away, and we hadn’t yet even rescued the others. My hand slipped, and the chef’s hand flashed out and caught the blade before I could stab my palm. He glared. I swallowed.
“What’d you do then?” I asked, to change the subject from how delicate I was.
“She rammed the ship into it,” Vali said. “Decided it could choke on it if it wanted to, and just rammed it in until it was forced to wrap around us. The rest was easy, cannonshot and the rest of our powder made a hideous bomb, and we detonated it.”
“Hestia had to return. She took shot to the leg, and her limp got bad enough that even with our surgeon’s help we had to leave her at port to find a real doctor.”
I winced. The chef sauteed for a bit, glaring down at his pan, then handed it off to Sev. Sev obediently repeated the gesture.
“Where’s Jerome?” I asked.
“I think she’s off doing her training. She’s very handy with a staff,” Vali paused, a suspicious look on her face. “Why do you ask?” She had a strange tone to her voice.
“I’ve been trying to piece together her signs,” I said. “So I could know what she’s saying.”
“You don’t have the wings to speak it,” Vali said, “but she’s using a modified version of Siren flag language. It has letters, concepts, and names, though you’re not expected to know all the names. Most every Siren knows it so they can signal when they need help from another ship.” She closed her eyes for a moment, all three of them. “When we’re out of this… I’ll show you the language.”
“That’s nice,” Sev said.
The Chef looked over the lot of us with no small amount of suspicion, then shrugged. “I won’t question your decision, sister.”
“Good,” Vali said. “I wasn’t looking for a second opinion, anyway.”
The chef laughed. In the distance, a door opened, and Vali cocked her head to the side. “I’ll be back,” She said, then stood up, walking past the open door. After a moment’s thought, she closed the door to the kitchen behind her.
“What’s that about?” I asked, looking over at the chef.
“Vali’s always been strange,” The chef said. “She’s from the islands outside of our empire, where our colonies are. I never know what she’s thinking.”
Strange how the island could create backstories. If I died- would it do the same for me? Would people come here, and see me as if I were just another part of the story?
How many people here were stranded, stuck, with backstories conjured up to fit them? Would I ever knew the difference, as long as they weren’t beastmen?
I didn’t want to think about that for too long. An eternity being tortured and nearly saved, only to die before anything could happen. I swallowed. Sev must’ve noticed my discomfort and shifted from foot to foot before offering me an apple. I bit down into it.
The chef slowly stiffened, cocking his head to the side, and held up a hand to get me to stop crunching. Then, with a strange look on his face, he drew the largest knife from the set on the wall and crept towards the door.
And then the alarm bells went off and all hell came loose. Sirens screeched, birdlike calls, sharp and fierce enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, and Sev backed up until he bumped into the wall before remembering to turn off the stove. The chef crept towards the door, knife raised.
Three armored boots slammed into it, clipping him across the face (his nose burst into a spray of blood and he fell to the ground). A sword came down, pointed at his throat, a silent command inherent to it, and then the others pointed at the two of us.
The humans had arrived. How had they gotten past- It was dark, and they must’ve-
“Hands up,” one of the men barked. “We will run you down if you don’t surrender.”
I put my hands up. After a moment, Sev raised his massive arms. The chef did the same, knife tumbling limply from his fingers.
“Get up,” the same man barked, and the chef stood up. “Stay,” they commanded, and a few soldiers flanked the door, swords still drawn. Then the column of the soldiers stepped through. They were countless in number, shining armor and swords. The chef’s breath came out in sharp little ragged gasps, his hand still in the air while blood ran down his face, dappling across his feathers. Fat drops of it decorated the floor in front of him.
Our eyes met. His were decorated with fat tears, and they moved from mine to the men in front of us.
How did they get in? They must’ve…
There were many passages into the fortress. They must’ve found one and made their plans to use it.
The Captain wasn’t here to save us. She was off stopping easy reinforcements. It was up to us, and we were already captured.
Minutes passed, and my arms ached from holding them up for so long. My hands shook by the time half an hour passed, and my breath started turning ragged from nervousness and growing anxiety. Sev was in mostly the same shape. The chef on the other hand… he was only growing more and more determined. I could read it in his eyes, in the way his arms didn’t move, in the way his breathing stilled and the bleeding stopped.
The professor was thrown inside before I could get anywhere, and the doors slammed closed, guards on the other side.
He was bloodied, his snout dripping with blood, and his eyes were unfocused, though that didn’t last long as he stood up.
“Just the four of us?”
“They captured us together,” Sev said. He couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I couldn’t blame him. We were low, lower than ever.
The professor breathed in, looked over at the chef and raised an eyebrow. The chef huffed, shaking his head, tilting an angry glare into Sev’s side.
“Are you alright?” I asked him.
“Alive,” The professor replied. “That’s about all I can hope for at this point. The entire building’s overrun; they got in behind our guard.” His eyes closed, and we counted his breaths.
I put a hand on his shoulder. He almost fell to the ground, but he straightened, wiry muscles flexing against my fingertips. “We’re alive,” I said.
“We are,” he agreed. He straightened enough that I didn’t feel like he’d fall over if I breathed on him too hard, then started pacing back and forth across the room. “And… we’re not too hurt. Sev, do you think-”
“I can’t fight,” Sev cut him off, his voice small.
“Sev,” The professor said, and the chef’s eyes fell upon Sev as well, but he turned away from both of them to look down at me.
“I can’t do this Charm,” Sev said. “I just can’t. I get nauseous, I get, I get weak, alright?”
“There’s a time for that. There’s a time for restraint,” the professor said. “That’s not now. We’re going to die if we’re not all in this together, and you’re one of his Majesty’s finest.”
“That’s exactly what my father said,” Sev said. “Before he threw me out. Now, now I’m not like that. I’m a baker, a cook. A chef. A handyman.”
“Even a chef keeps his knives sharp,” The siren chef said, his voice low. “I don’t know where you come from, Sev, but-”
The professor held up a hand, and the chef sighed, rolling his angry eyes, and went silent.
“I understand,” The professor said. “I gave up on fighting long ago. A decade, almost, to be precise.”
Sev breathed, a sharp little hiss that told me all I needed to know on how he was handling this. Listening to those three was all I needed to do to keep calm. If I didn’t focus on myself, if I didn’t remember how bad it was, I could keep breathing. “Why’d you stop?”
The professor shrugged. “Your captain’s right. I was a brute, and His Majesty’s army liked brutes. But when I plunged into that last ship, I shattered a work of heart wrenching beauty just inside. A chunk came down and hit me on the head.”
Sev blinked at him.
“Two weeks in bed waiting for the concussion to go down, two weeks of listening to my commanding officer scream at me, and two weeks punishment duty sorting everything we stole, it made me think,” The professor said, pacing. “And I realized I never wanted to raise a hand in anger again.”
“But,” Sev said. “You’re still-”
“He gets it,” The chef said. “It’s not about him.”
“This isn’t about me,” The professor agreed. “This is about the enemy either. This is about fighting for what I love… and the students I led astray here.” He looked up, and then over at me. “Your Captain’s right. I did horrible things. But I’m going to make it right, I’m going to save them.” There was resolution in his black eyes, a stiffness to his shoulders as he looked back at the door.
“Are you going to join me?” He asked, looking back at Sev.
There was something in the air again, building like an electric charge, heavy, thrumming passionate, and it made my ears ache and my teeth rattle-
Before it could build up enough, a man stopped outside the door. “Come,” he barked, and when we did not move fast enough, he dragged us out with many arms and legs, armor and clicking steel. Down the hall we went. Here and there were smears of blood, and here and there were the dead, sirens and man alike. They were tossed over top of each other without regard. I didn’t recognize any of the number, and I knew there were far fewer of the sirens than there ought to be.
But there were many maze like passages into the earth. This was an administrative complex for a civilization that straddled dozens of islands, and the tunnels had been dug deep into the ground. I hadn’t seen more than half of it.
If they’d taken the top half, there was a seedier lower half to worry about. I swallowed.
They forced us into a narrow room, a set of offices that reeked of blood and metal polish, and then we sat there in relative silence. The chef’s eyes glazed with a deep heavy bloodlust, his muscles shaking, but he didn’t say a word, not for more than a second. My heart flickered in my chest like a writhing snake. Nobody said a word.
Another hour, and the guard relaxed. My eyes flicked over to Sev. His pupils were so wide, he was so scared that I could see myself reflected in their inky depths. I looked back at the guards, then back at Sev. He shook his head. His hands were shaking.
I remembered what he’d said with Thyn. He couldn’t fight. He was too scared. I swallowed. My mouth was too dry. Vali was… I didn’t know where she was. I didn’t know where any of them were.
But I knew full well that if we stayed where I was, they wouldn’t make the mistake of taking me prisoner a second time.
Not this time, certainly. I shook my head a few times.
An hour passed, and the room smelled like blood and nervous sweat and unpreened feathers. Rank and heavy, misery and nausea. A man walked over to the door. There was conversation, drowned out by the throbbing of my heart in my head. I could remember the darkness, and I could remember the man standing over top of me, demanding that I scream for mercy.
Then he pointed at me. All the blood in my body rushed into my heart and I felt it like a sledgehammer beating at the delicate bones of my ribcage. I swallowed. It felt like a boulder.
“Get the kid. The Commander wants a word with him.”
My eyes flicked over to Sev’s eyes, then back to the chef’s. Sev wouldn’t meet my eyes. The chef had an expression that might’ve been pity on another creature’s face. He reached out and gently squeezed my fingers, like he did when he adjusted my grip on knives, and patted me on the back with a wing. Then I stepped forward to join the guards.