Thankfully, sparring matches with Fynn never got quite so intense as that one match again, but I was far from done with my training. We avoided full force throws, or other maneuvers that could disrupt the crew, but Fynn was still trying much harder to hit me than he had been before. Part of me wished we could train with less intensity, but I understood the importance of using real force. In the event I was required to wield a blade, I would need to strike with intent to kill, or be killed myself.
I had far less free time lately, as I was also joining the crew for regular maneuvers. Everything, from cranking the bilge pump to hoisting or hauling in sails. I learned the names of every position, and how to perform at each station. I found that, all in all, I rather enjoyed a sailor’s life. There was always something to do, and none of it made me think too much. It left plenty of room for conversation, or, when I was alone, to come up with stories. Nights when I wasn’t on shift, I wrote in my journal. I wrote stories about sky sailors who rode the cosmic currents from star port to star port, having daring fights with pirates and space monsters with their glowing space swords. Fynn was a big fan of the stories, and with his help, I began to share them with some of the others as well. I read them aloud in the crew quarters for a time but realized that the galley was a far more reasonable place to read as it was generally devoid of sleeping sailors.
Eventually, they noticed that they each had representation in my writings, and everyone became much more invested in the tales. Soon, everyone had their own copy, and they would all read their parts aloud enthusiastically. Frost became overly zealous and began taking on extra roles. The man was a born actor. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. I had friends who liked me and expected me only to share the space with them as an equal. Could this be my home?
I was enjoying a moment of free time, a gift at sea, looking at the water and missing the presence of dolphins, when I saw a peculiar shadow in the depths. At first, it had looked only like the shadow of a seabird, but then I remembered it had been weeks since we’d seen any. Indeed, the sky was clear. Whatever the thing in the water was, it was keeping pace with us. It hardly seemed to be moving, otherwise. I thought it was a fish, and called Fynn over to ask his opinion.
“What are you talking about, Rika? I just see water and foam—” he paused as he spoke, peering over the deck railing, “no, you’re right. There’s something down there, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. Best we leave it alone and pray it does the same, I say” he shrugged and turned away. I peered at it, leaning over the railing, and lifting a foot to keep my balance. It was moving, if only slightly. It seemed to be making lazy swishes of the tail, the motions a dead giveaway that it was not a whale I was watching swim in the depths.
“Seaman Rika, Seaman Mk’Kay!” the captain called to us both, and I quickly pushed myself back on deck, “In my cabin, if you would” he said, moving briskly to open the door. I had never been in the captain’s quarters before, and I was worried I had somehow made a terrible mistake. He politely waited for us to venture inside, and closed the door behind him, locking it. He walked over to the table and sat down. He beckoned us forward and spoke when we approached.
“You have keen sight, Rika” he said calmly, “and an apparent lack of nautical awareness. I am surprised Seaman Mk’Kay has yet to teach you to mind your own business” he said. I winced at the reprimand.
“Sorry, Cap’n” Fynn said smartly, shooting me a comforting glance, “I’ll see to it that she keeps her nose clean from here on out”
“Glad to hear it, Mister Mk’Kay” the captain said with a smile, “but it seems to be to our benefit, this time”
“Sir?” I asked, beginning to hope I was not in trouble. The captain fixed me with a stern gaze, his steely eyes scouring me. He watched me like a predator as he spoke.
“That shadow you saw out there, Miss Rika, what do you think it is?”
“I’m not certain, Captain”
“Give it your best guess, sailor”
“I thought it might be a whale at first, sir” I said, and he waited stoically for me to continue, giving no hints either way to my assertion, “But then I realized that it couldn’t be” I said. He nodded sagely.
“And why is that sailor?”
“The tail was all wrong, sir” I answered, “dolphin and whale tails move up and down through the water. The tail was swishing back and forth, like a fish, sir” I answered smartly. It wasn’t much, but I hoped he didn’t think me a fool. Captain Bolter mused on my answer for a few seconds, his jaw moving slightly as though he could chew the thought. Suddenly, his gaze locked on mine again.
“Correct. I suppose you’ve seen your fair share of breaching whales and, therefore, their tails... living on an island as you did” he sighed heavily and turned his attention to Fynn, “I will need to swear the two of you to secrecy concerning this matter.” the captain said seriously. My eyes widened. How severe was the situation if we were forbidden to speak of it?
“Upon pain of eight lashes and being stowed in the brig until we make port; and you will be tried for mutiny, dereliction of duty, and endangering the crew; do you swear not to breathe a word of what is to be discussed in this cabin at this time to a living soul until given notice to act and speak freely?”
“I so swear” Fynn stated.
“I so swear” I repeated after him. The captain relaxed, and the look on his face was not an encouraging one when he again met our gazes. He looked almost defeated.
“The creature you witnessed is one of the monsters of the elemental plane of water; a megalodon” the captain said. Fynn’s eyes widened in horror, and he stood even straighter than before, if possible. I did not fully understand what that meant. The captain looked me in the eyes when he spoke next. “Our ship is being hunted by a shark large enough to swallow a dragon. More importantly, it is large enough to capsize the Auriga, and feast upon her crew. I fear it is awaiting the appropriate time to strike. Chiefly, during a storm” he said. My heart pounded like a drum against my ribs as I dared to ask the question on my mind.
“Is it likely that we’ll end up in one?”
“There are always storms at sea, sailor” the captain sighed, “the question is whether we’ll encounter one on our course.” He said heavily. He ran a weary hand through his hair as he looked at his charts, “By my estimates, we’re due to meet one in three days” he added morosely. I could find no encouragement in his countenance.
“What can we do?” I asked.
“I’m afraid there isn’t much” he admitted wearily, “We continue to sail to the best of our ability. And, when the time comes, I will have need of your courage and resilience” was all he would tell me.
“I will do the best I can, Captain” I vowed, wondering what he could possibly ask of me.
“I’m certain you will, sailor. Mister Mk’Kay, you and your subordinate are dismissed to your regular duties” he said with a wave of the hand.
“Aye, sir” Fynn said smartly, directing me to the door of the cabin. He unlocked the door and encouraged me out onto the deck. The rest of the crew quickly went back to work as though they hadn’t been trying to eavesdrop, though their curious faces said they knew nothing of what had transpired. I wished I could trade places with them.
“Did the captain hear about how you portray him in your stories?” Frost chuckled. I forced a grin before replying.
“Actually, he was interested in having us read for the officers” I grinned, fighting the sickening pit in my stomach. It was obvious he knew I was lying.
“You’re a funny woman, Rika” Frost snorted and returned to his given task.
“Don’t worry, he’ll get over it” Fynn assured me, playfully bumping my shoulder, before leading me off to prepare the vegetables for dinner.
“It seems like I get to do a lot of things no one else is willing to take on” I muttered as we walked.
“That’s what you get for being extraordinary, Rika” Fynn shrugged. I balked at his brashness and blushed at his kindness.
As expected, storm clouds appeared over the horizon several days later. I had not looked over the railing again in that time, feeling uneasy about the constant shadow that trailed us. But a murmur ran through the crew when Harley noticed it and made a fuss. It sounded like a group of angry snakes were arguing, there were so many hissing whispers. A loud cough silenced the scuttlebutt.
“What’s the sudden interest in sea spray, Mister Smith?” the boatswain asked him as he peered over the edge. I risked a quick glance myself and felt my stomach lurch violently. What had once been a tiny speck now seemed to be a dark shadow easily the same length as the ship itself. It was quite near the surface and the shape of it was undeniable. Some of the crew wore dark looks. Harley was having a hushed discussion with his superior officer, and it ended with him returning to his duties silently. He shot a dirty look at Fynn and I but said nothing. That was one thing that I had come to enjoy about the trip, Harley now merely acted as though I did not exist.
It was around then when the captain called Fynn and I to his cabin once more. He did not lock the door this time but walked to his desk and pulled a rope from a drawer. He handed the coiled rope to Fynn and ordered him to take good care of me. He then told us the plan in full detail, and I briefly considered throwing myself overboard instead.
We had but an hour before it was expected we would need to act. We were relieved of duty for that time. As we had come to do so often, we spent the hour in my cabin. I told him my story then. Not one of the written ones from my imagination, but the one from memory that I struggled with.
He listened quietly, hearing everything. He offered silent comforting touches as I spoke of the abuses I had suffered, of the loneliness I had endured, and how Cameron had betrayed me. He did not accuse me of being too weak to protect myself as I had feared he might but offered his friendship and affection. He held me close, and I allowed myself to cry out the tears I had held back for my whole life. The ship began to lurch and lunge as the storm winds blew. That was our signal to go. We hugged one last time and prepared to head out on deck.
We emerged from the cabin holding hands, a mindless friendly gesture, but quickly broke apart when Frost saw us and raised his eyebrows. He must have been waiting outside, allowing us privacy from anyone who would have otherwise been listening at the door. Our holding hands, combined with my puffy red eyes, must have raised some serious questions in his mind. I didn’t care. He could think whatever he wanted to. I had an appointment with destiny. I tried to stay steady as the deck beneath my feet danced.
On deck, Fynn tied the rope the captain had given him around my waist, double-checking his knots before tying the other end to the railing of the ship. We were aft, at the stern, and I looked into the water. There, following us, was the massive fish. It was a nightmarish shadow in the water, darker and greyer than the stormy waters it swam through. Somehow, it was my duty to discourage it from its hunt.
Armed as I was with a harpoon in each hand, magic rope tied to my waist and the ship, I had one task. To do anything and everything possible to keep the megalodon from capsizing the Auriga. I wondered what, exactly, it was that I could do to deter the monster.
And then, I threw myself overboard. I splashed into the icy deep and was quickly carried to the full length of the rope, dragging behind the ship like a poor sea anchor. The ship crested one of the massive swells and disappeared over the other side. I was tugged through the water, the ocean tearing at the harpoons, and suddenly popped out the other side of the wave and watched the wall of water wash away from me. Surely, the shark couldn’t swim through that.
I was at the lowest point of the wave, when I saw it break through the water like an ocean demon. Hundreds of teeth, each of them half as large as I was tall, glinted in the flash of lightning. Those pure black eyes were darker and emptier than the void itself, and I saw only hunger in them. I threw the first harpoon at it, failing miserably. It splashed harmlessly into the water about halfway between the giant shark and me. I transferred the remaining harpoon to my good arm and waited to throw.
As the ship dragged me up the next wave, I was gaining height and, therefore, distance to my throw. I gauged my attack and hurled the weapon with all my might. This time it soared and struck true. The barbed point sank into the massive nose of the beast, a blossom of red spatter on the waves, causing it to shudder with annoyance. While I had no hope of ever killing it this way, I don’t think it enjoyed being pricked by my spines. The spray from the colossal fish splashing in frustration and pain arced high into the air, slamming into the Auriga like a massive shove. I tugged on the rope twice to signify I needed to return to the deck and felt myself hoisted from the water an instant later.
The magic rope tied about my waist could coil itself, hauling up to a thousand pounds with ease. The roaring of the wind whipping past my head filled my ears as I zipped up through the air, trailing water the whole time. Fynn gave the rope a deft shake, and the magical pull stopped instantly. I came up over the railing in an arc, and then found myself headed straight for the deck. He caught me with a stumble, and then set me back on my feet. I took two more harpoons, frowned at him for a moment as though to ask, “Must I really?”, and threw myself back overboard.
The water was just as cold as it had been the first time that I’d jumped in. I had hoped I might have adjusted to the chill, even a little, but it bit down to the bone. I remembered the sage proverb, “look before you leap” only too late. The megalodon was extremely close to the ship now. I could clearly see the shape of each scale upon its skin, looking like armor composed of wicked barbs, or teeth.
The massive black eye was almost within arm’s reach and was large enough to act as a mirror. I watched my reflection in that eye as it broke the surface of the water, and I knew it must be staring at me. The monstrous shark was not behind the ship, behind me, any longer. It was preparing to ram the Auriga as we crested a swell. As much as I desperately wanted to tug on the rope to haul myself in, my hands were still full. The ship tugged me through the water again and I lost my grip on one of my harpoons. It washed away and stuck into the dorsal fin of the megalodon with a sudden blooming stream of red. The massive fish shuddered with pain, and its head shunted me to the side. Technically, it attacked its own eye with the harpoon I had in hand, but I don’t think it really cared who was at fault. If fish could scream, the shark would have been roaring in pain. I tugged on the rope for all I was worth and lurched away from that gaping maw full of saw-edged teeth.
Fynn caught me again and I turned to him, water pouring down my face as it dripped from my hair.
“We need to move; it’s coming up on the port side!” I sputtered through freezing brine. He nodded and untied the rope from the railing with expertly trained speed and precision. I slogged past the helmsman, jumped most of the stairs and landed with a half-stumble-half-crawl, and stopped somewhere close to the mainmast. I waited for Fynn to secure me to the rail before grabbing another two harpoons and launched myself overboard again.
I was, thankfully, a safer distance away from the monster this time. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep this up. The freezing waters were sapping my strength, and it was no easy feat to throw the harpoons while fighting against the water sloshing past me. As the Auriga climbed yet another swell, I managed to land one in the shark’s mouth, irritating it further.
Perhaps, my goal wasn’t so impossible, after all. The shark only needed to be discouraged from ramming and, therefore, capsizing the Auriga. One human hardly warranted the great predator’s attention normally; but a ship with a crew of nearly two-hundred souls was a worthy prize. That did not, however, mean that the shark wouldn’t take the opportunity to rid itself of the barbed nuisance denying it access to the prey it sought. Luckily, I had a ready escape. I tugged on the rope and felt myself begin to lift from the water. Suddenly, the pull disappeared, and I fell back down with a splash.
I shook my head and wiped the water from my eyes, looking up at the Auriga and I saw a face peering down at me over the railing. It was not Fynn. Harley was grinning wickedly, holding the rope in his hand. It was not secured to the railing anymore. I tugged again, expecting to zip back up on deck. He flicked his wrist and dropped me back down in the water like a teabag in an impatient man’s mug. The megalodon seemed to acknowledge the bait and lined itself up to swallow me.
I still have nightmares of gazing into its open mouth. Those teeth etched themselves into my memory that moment; each of them tall enough to come up to my hip. They were as sharp and jagged as tree-felling saws. The water rushed into its mouth, dragging me along with it. I could feel the rope around my waist jostling and jerking as something happened up on deck but tugging on it from my end had ceased to produce results. I took a deep breath and pushed myself under the water, desperately hoping to get under the shark’s bite. I only half succeeded and managed to brace myself against a tooth.
The tooth was loose, and I wondered if it was strong enough to hurt the shark in ways my harpoons could not. If I could manage to pull it free and then use it against the massive fish, that is. We broke through the backside of a swell, and I gasped for another breath before the shark took me back under the surface. Something hard smacked against my shin, and I realized the harpoon I had stuck in its mouth was ready at hand.
I grabbed it, wrenched it free from where it hung loosely from the gum, and jammed it deep into the gum holding the loose tooth. The shark shook again in pain and, had I not been clinging to the harpoon, now firmly lodged in place, I would have been shredded by those teeth. Once the beast settled, I pried the tooth free with my makeshift lever, clouding the water with yet another splash of blood. I dropped the harpoon and grabbed the tooth awkwardly, struggling with the shield-sized piece of bone. And then, I was flying up to the ship.
The wind whipped at me, and I gasped for breath. I had feared I might drown, trying to keep myself from being eaten. There was no deft flick of the rope to ease my momentum, and I whipped around the railing with incredible force. Massive, strong, pale arms caught me and steadied me, seemingly immovable. The tooth had slammed into my chest, forcing the air from my lungs, and I had already been wheezing for breath.
Frost was holding the rope, and he gave me a quizzical look. I didn’t blame him. It wasn’t every day you saw a redheaded woman throw herself overboard during a storm and return from the water with a shark tooth large enough to hide behind. Fynn was tying Harley’s hands behind his back, both looking bruised and beaten. There wasn’t time to ask about it. I told Frost to tie me to the ship again and lined myself up with the massive shark. I was out of reasonable ideas or options.
I launched myself into the water once more, crashing through the surface and landing heavily against the megalodon’s scaly skin. I slammed the tooth down, using my momentum to my advantage, and would have cheered at the sight of crimson blood had I not been thoroughly underwater. The shark shuddered again, and then began to dive down and away. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Perhaps, we weren’t worth the effort after all.
That was when I noticed the many smaller, though still just as deadly, sharks that had been swimming with the meg in hopes of catching scraps. After fighting off their monstrous kin, I could almost laugh at the 8-foot-long predators. They seemed to have other ideas in mind. I tugged on the rope and watched the ocean fly away from me. The familiar arc told me Fynn had taken control of the rope again, and I threw my arms around him as he steadied me.
It was over. We had survived the shark; now we just had to endure the rest of the storm. Luckily for me, the captain had the situation well in hand.