Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 44)

The memories all came in a great flood, a muddle, like cans of paint mixed to keep the shades consistent.

At first, Pinion picked up the eye, and the island was burning, and her people begged her to come with them, to flee from the approaching army, and she looked down upon her dying people and decided she would not go alone. She took the Eye and called down the Worm upon the land, and the old siren empire’s lands were devoured by the Worm. The empire of man was mere collateral.

Then she took the eye with her, and threw herself upon the mercy of her crew, and then went to the Kingdom of Heaven to be put to trial for what Pinion had done. Harley and Atalanta made it through, and Jerome took over as Captain of the Venturing Owl, and they made a life for themselves with what was left of the siren orders.

Secondly, the island could not bear the thought of what had happened, and tried to fix it, but it had already been done. Pinion raised the eye to the heavens, and her throat was cut by the Colonel, a desperate island trying to destroy what had happened, that its last queen had not done such a thing.

That wasn’t right.

Thirdly, the island started again, and Pinion won, victoriously, and her ship drifted off into the distance. But that wasn’t right either, and it could not bear the lie.

Fourthly, it could not bear the truth, either.

On the Tenth round, a siren came onto the island, searching for answers, and the island tugged her inside and made her into a queen, and then she died when the island forget.

On the Twentieth round, the island devoured all of her friends and family too.

On the hundredth round, it pretended all was fine, and the humans never showed up.

It repeated this for the next hundred rounds, and Atalanta and Harley found love, and Jerome’s secret life as the bastard daughter of Pinion came to pass, and all was fine and happy.

The island lost track of time.

The island let one group leave, when they cleaved their way through the lies and saved the sirens from death, an angelic crew member giving herself up to save the others. No matter how the island tried, she could not rewrite her, she could not free her soul, and so she stayed, a pain and a memory that this was not the way the world was meant to be.

On the final round, The Captain looked upon the whole of the island, and the island looked back upon her, this great place that had seen the greatest slaughter in the history of the living sea, and she saw it was unworthy. The island begged for life, so the Captain took the only course that was left and she killed it.

The Worm, carved out of the heavens, having tracked a great series of hypotheticals and dreams from a place where there should be none, devoured the island’s heart in his teeth. He might’ve devoured the rest of the world as well, as he was adjacent, but she was distracted by a child’s dream in another world, and streaked across the heavens to devour it before the sweetness was tainted by the child’s father, breath rank with alcohol, or before tears could sully the careful balance of acid with the stream of tar that drooled from the great thing’s mouth.

And then the island was dead, and all knew what had happened, and all that had been there, that had touched the eye, who understood what was happening, and all in their protection woke up.

I came awake and tasted blood in the darkness. My muscles ached, and cramped, and there was a horrible pain in my bones, like they had ground themselves together and turned to powder. My eyes could not see a mote of light in the darkness. Instead my other senses were on fire. I could taste blood in the various stages of thickening, could smell it ripe in the air, mixed in with decay and mold and bones, cold and old, and-

The floor was rough and uneven, and shifted underneath of me.

I lit up my Heart and regretted it. My eyes burned until I shut them tight, tight enough that I could barely see it through my eyelids, and then, against my will, I forced myself to my feet and opened my eyes again.

The floor, that shifted back and forth, was not a solid mass, but instead was a great pit of bones. They were etched and clean of any flesh, and scraps of cloth and armor sat among them. A great mash of them, human skeletons intermixed with the long delicate wing bones of the sirens, mashed together like a lover’s embrace. I swallowed, wrapping my fingers around the edge of my Heart to keep them from going numb in the cold.

“Charm?” The Captain’s voice came out in a harsh rasp. I turned in the dim, listening for her voice again, and found her after hearing bones moving back and forth. Her eyes were bloodshot, and she was caked in dust and grime, but her lips were curled into something almost smug. “Have you found the others?”

“I just woke up.”

“I’ve been up for half an hour,” The Captain said. “But I couldn’t see anything.” She reached forward in the gloam and her fingers wrapped around my shoulder. She braced herself, using me as a cane until she could steady properly.

“Did we make it out?”

“We did,” The Captain said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

She pointed up. I followed her gaze, and swallowed. Hanging above us, long tendrils of something that had once been flesh and now held up by what looked like nothing more than gnarled tree-root sat a great golden heart. It stretched at least two fathoms across, and it was broken, split in half.

It had a gross dark mold growing across the wound.

I looked away, and the Captain tried to meet my eyes, and I looked away from that too. “This was such a mistake to come here,” I whispered.

“It was,” The Captain agreed. “Charm, can you find the others?”

I swallowed, and a shiver ran down my spine, and it moved from just my spine to rest of me until I was shaking in that cool crypt. The Captain stared at me, her eyes like tiny cut amethysts in her head, and then both of her wings wrapped around my back. She had a familiar comforting smell after weeks of being on board with her. It stilled my heart.

She held me like that for a time until I could feel warm, and had enough space of mind to dig into my heart and find the others, and then I gestured outside of the cocoon of feathers. “Sev’s that way.”

Sev was half buried in bones when we found him, his chest gently rising and falling in sleep. In front of him, leaned up against a wall, a siren skeleton sat. I stared at it and tried to place why it seemed important. Something about it gleamed in the light of my heart.

“That’s a chef’s knife,” The Captain said, and I stared ahead at it. Resting next to the siren, as if it had fallen from the bird-man’s hands after he died, sat the chef’s cleaver.

Which made this the skeleton of the chef. Not everyone had made it off of the island on board the Venturing Owl. Despite myself, a tear trickled out of the corner of my eye and ran down my face, scoring a path through the dust choking my skin. And then another, and another. I reached down and gently picked up the chef’s knife, choked with heavy rust and decay. It felt about the same in my hands. We could restore it.

Behind us, Sev snorted away, choking on the dust we’d brought up in our wake, and his eyes fluttered open behind his fluff. “Charm? C-captain?”

I could see scabs under his fluff. I could see where he’d bled, where he’d been wounded, where the island had hurt him, and my heart sank like a rock.

“I’m here,” The Captain said, and she spread her wings for him. Sev surged out of the bones like a horror in a dime novel and embraced her, his massive arms wrapping until she almost disappeared into his now grey body. “Sev-”

“I thought- I th-thought-” Sev shook, and then he was crying too, his body shaking and shuddering, and he gasped and snorted for breath, a full body hysteria overcoming him. “I thought you were dead! Oh Captain! I’m so-s-so sorry for doubting you!”

The Captain patted him on his great broad back. “We have to find-”

“I’ll do anything for you,” Sev wailed. “Anything. I’m sorry for being so disloyal! Don’t leave me again!”

“Sev,” I started, and Sev sobbed loud enough to drown out the rest of my words. “Sev-” I cut in. “Severiel!”

He snorted, but went quiet, and his arms fell from the Captain’s side. “Yes?”

“We have to find the others,” I said.

“Okay,” Sev said, his voice half childlike, and the Captain stepped around him. She gestured at me to lead, and I did. Vali was closest.

She was gaunt in the darkness, and she was awake, her new eyes gleaming red in the darkness. She was gaunt, thin enough that I could count her ribs, and one wing was tucked forcefully against her side. It was still shredded, the feathers unkempt and clumped together.

Behind her, where she’d risen, sat enough dust to kill a man, in a perfect outline of where she’d laid.

“Vali?” I whispered, and she turned to face me, revealing what she was hunched over.

A human skeleton sat here, in the very corner of the room, cloaked in a familiar set of armor. The Colonel’s body. Unattended, the gleaming metal plates had rotted into dust, and the embossed insignias corroded into nothingness, and anything ornate and royal had faded into the dank crypt air. Through her gut a spear sat.

“It’s yours,” The Captain offered.

“What?” Vali choked out, her voice low and awful with disuse.

“Finders keepers,” The Captain said. “Any member of my crew, after dispelling phenomena, gets their pick of what’s left.”

“I’m a member of your crew now?” Vali asked, her lips twisted up into a half frown.

“Are you going to say no?” The Captain asked.

“If I did?”

“You know too much,” The Captain said.

Vali laughed, and it was a weak one, rank with pain. “Am I really being gangpressed?”

“Join me,” The Captain said, her voice softer. “Besides,” She said, shaking her head. “You were a part of my mother’s crew. I could… I could use someone like you.”

Vali’s eyes snapped over to the Captain, flicked across her body, and her hands found the shaft of the spear and twisted it out of the corpse. Fabric clung to the blade and fell like rotted petals to the ground once freed. “Who are you, really?”

“I’m my mother’s daughter,” Catastrophe said.

Vali’s eyes settled at her neck, perhaps, or somewhere along her feathers, and then she nodded once, and moved to follow us, spear in her hands.

She didn’t speak, but she fell in line at my side instead of the Captain’s. Each step was a difficulty for her, her balance long off, so she used the base of the spear as a walking cane. It helped.

I pointed off into the distance, at the opposite side of the great bone pit, and we marched on.

Thyn laid among a crowd of people. Some were recently dead, their throats cut open, or their stomach’s split, but they didn’t smell beyond the normal scent of distant rot. Most were alive, and at the noise of crunching clattering bone, they slowly came awake. Students. They ranged from young adult to late adult, and they managed to haul themselves to their feet despite their wounds. One by one, they drifted to Thyn’s side, and with their help, Thyn, injured, weak, a line of blood down his lips, was able to stand.

“Captain,” Thyn greeted, bowing his head. “I’m delighted by your presence. Do you mind if I say I told you so?”

The Captain snorted, cast her head to the side, and then leaned forward, planting a kiss to the center of his forehead. Thyn’s eyes went wide, and he swayed in the support of the many students. The Captain swept past him. “Charm? The other two?”

I led the way, and the crowd of students trailed behind us, helping the First mate with each trembling step. We left the dead men and women behind us, and tried to pretend that the losses didn’t hurt.

I didn’t know their names, but I knew I’d be seeing their faces in my nightmares, hear what I thought their voices might sound like. I’d mourn them just the same.

In the darkness, the sound of crunching bone and the injured was broken by a fresh sob. Underneath of the great heart, where it had split open and worms lapped at the thick nectar of the island’s flesh, Irony sat. Across her lap the professor lay. His face was split, and his body had been reduced to hot smears of hamburger, fur looking far more like fabric than the living coverings of a learned man.

His chest did not rise, nor did it fall. His eyes did not look around with curiosity, and his snout did not marvel at the place they found the whole of his person at. He did not move or stir at the touch of the dragon’s hands upon his body, nor did he look up at us as we approached.

He smelled faintly of lamp oil, beyond the obvious, and of old tattered pages. Irony looked up, and her face was red and blotchy. Her eyes fell on mine, and then she looked back upon the dead wolf, and her hands shook. Behind us came a wail from one of the students, and others scuffed against the bones, and then the entire class drifted over, surrounding Irony and the dead man.

The Captain remained silent. Vali shook her head quietly. Sev could not bear to look down upon him. Thyn knelt with the rest of the students.

They didn’t make words. Words were the domain of rational people, but there were few things rational about mourning, few things rational about grief. There were few things rational about sacrifice. Some quirk of the brain could process these things, but they looped in and around each other, again and again and again until all emotion was just grief and a physical pain in the back of the throat, and I explored all of those sensations at once until my heart was in my throat, and I was on my knees, and I joined them in making those noises that weren’t rational, and there were tears, and there was a mash, a great cry into the darkness, and despite it all, his chest did not move, and he did not stir, and he did not awaken, and he did not stand up.

A tear fell off of Irony’s face and soaked into his fur, and he did not wake up. Hands touched his, many hands of his students, and he did not move. He did not do any of those things, those things characteristic of the living, and yet, I did not want to call him dead.

We stood there, in a closed circle around the dead man, around the professor, who had once been a warrior and was now an academic, and in death was the hero he had wanted to be, for a time I could not recount. My hands shook too much, and my body shook too much, and my heart thumped less like a mortal man’s and more like a grieving animal, such as the elephants recognize death, or the crows and ravens do, this primal constant that ate at my mind and rang through my muscles until all that was left was hollow and insignificant.

The only reason that it stopped was that to the side, an explosion shook the cavern, and a door shattered open, and the rest of the crew of the Song of the Venturing Owl burst in, armed to the teeth with every weapon they had in their possession, covered head to toe in armor, and screaming a hellish warcry.

They stopped, abruptly, as the Captain stood up, dusting off bones from her skin, and glared at them. “I told you to leave us if we took too long!”

Sampson saluted from the front of the pack, his tiger friend behind him. “Sampson, reporting for duty!”

The body sat as a rank thing on the deck of the ship. Eyes refused to stay on it, not out of any strange force, but out of a refusal to accept such a failure. All except the Captain’s. Her eyes drank greedily from it, memorizing every morsel of bloodied cloth, every tear, even the expression on the dead man’s face.

We stood, entirely gathered on the deck, crowded with students and waited. I wasn’t sure entirely what we were waiting for, but the moment demanded I wait, and wait I did.

“He didn’t die a member of this crew,” The Captain said, breaking the queer silence. “So I can’t promise his soul will rest. I won’t burn his body, nor will I scatter his ashes across the shore of the island he was born on. The waves will not crest over his body there, and his name will not be memorialized in any of the books of the Venturing Owl.”

There was another silence then, a queerer, frustrated one, as sailors slowly turned to look over the Captain. Only she maintained her gaze down at the professor. “We fought on opposite sides of the same war, and he never really stopped fighting. He moved from fighting sirens under his Majesty’s command, to fighting ignorance at institutions. He traded sword and gun for ink and feather. His office was not that of a commander, but of a scholar. He fought not out of loyalty, but out of curiosity, and a sense of beauty that would not elude his grasp.”

She paused again, and Irony shuddered and swallowed, trying to hide her breath, hitched, tears trickling at the corner of her eyes. I could barely breath, paralyzed, transfixed, a dozen other things, but I could not bear to hear her stop talking. The other students were far less able, and tears fell. Sniffs tried to bury it back.

“So he will receive the greater honor of being buried at sea, in the same way he would’ve back on the ships he once fought from,” The Captain said. “I do not have his uniform, nor do I have his medals, but I do have his sword.” She drew it forth from her side, and knelt, placing it across his chest. “I did not fight at his side, nor did I see him in combat, but I know, as all of you know, that he died fighting for his students.” She looked up. “And I respect that more than a dozen military victories. One day, I will do the same for my crew, as is custom among the Venturing Owl. His is an example to follow, and for that, while his name will not be written in the books of my islands, his name will be written in mine. Professor Hendrickson will not be forgotten.”

Her eyes flicked across the gathered sailors and students, and then she lifted up the body. The sea lapped at the edge of the ship like a hungry wolf, and she turned. Students turned away, but Irony stood, watching, and then the Captain dropped him.

There was a splash.

Then there was silence, silence and the journey home.

Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 43)
Ballad of the Venturing Owl (Part 1)