There is one perfect moment when the sun rises over the sea. For a brief time, the chop catches the sunlight just right, and the waters sparkle like magic. It was one of those things, the small reminders that life was beautiful, no matter how dark it could get.
“Ahoy, Leftenant Thane!” Quartermaster Riley called from the bow with his spyglass raised. “Vessel of unknown origin ahead!”
I let out an exasperated sigh and reluctantly turned away from the sunrise. I was going to miss it.
It was summer, and tourism was at its highest. Wannabe sailors came from all over the eastern continent to enjoy the beauty of the small tropical islands, but it came with a price. Wander too far off the coast guard’s patrol and you were in for some trouble. Tourism and piracy went hand in hand, giving the Dauntas Navy plenty to watch out for.
Our ship, the Red Eagle, was one of the faster caravels known to the Dauntas Navy; sleek and well built, and large enough to host a full crew plus a dozen foot soldiers, maybe more. But not so large that it was difficult to maneuver around Fairpoint Isles and its keys.
I joined Riley on the bow. Some of the less than brilliant seamen dumbly stared ahead, mouths wide open, trying to spot whatever was out there. Totally missing the fact that one would need a spyglass to see it.
He handed over the tool and pointed, “Just out past the reef, sir.”
To give Riley credit, the man had good eyes. It took a while peering through the instrument to finally spot what he was talking about. The pure white vessel of unusual shape appeared camouflaged against the ocean foam at its distance. It was too far to make out any details just yet, but it certainly was not where it should be. Given that information, it was almost certainly up to something nefarious.
Two types of pirates hunted the seas; ones who were just in it for the loot and others for the kill alone. Humans and Muskin both were involved in this treacherous activity, but it caused great concern to know of the violence my kin were capable of.
Although much greater in number, the Muskin were generally nonviolent. These creatures were intelligent rat-like beings, incredibly cunning and resourceful. Other than their unusual boat designs and a love for shiny things, there was not much we knew about them.
The Muskin were adept at simply taking what they wanted, sometimes before anyone even knew they were there. About half the size of a normal person, they could get around quickly and easily. Their raiding parties came and went in a flash with hardly any casualties.
In the last year however, the tone of local piracy changed. Reports of several missing tourist ships rose to an unprecedented level and other kingdoms were outraged. King Barnabus was under great pressure to find the responsible party and put a stop to it immediately. A mass recruiting spree hit Dauntas Point, even extending to women in special circumstances.
Not to say that women weren’t up to the task. All someone needed to be part of the crew was sailing experience, but most women didn’t want to be part of the navy. It was a bloody and brutal occupation. Secondarily, mixing men and women on a ship out at sea for months on end had a costly outcome. More often than not, the woman would return with child and never go back into service.
Needless to say, the fleet was flooded with fledgling male recruits. It was easy to find ones who knew how to sail around the isles. Sea water flowed in our blood. It was the educated who were hard to find.
Coming from old money, my education was thorough, so they promoted me early. I was young for my commission, just past twenty, but I was more experienced and far more refined than most of the “fresh meat” on board.
“All ahead full. See if she will respond to a hail.” I said to the crew.
Each man snapped to their respective duties to get the ship moving in the right direction, but it was my burden to inform the captain.
I cringed. I hated interacting with that dreadful, overweight, pompous ass. Only the Lord knew how he had ranked so high, as lazy as he was. Captain Chapman, or “Captain Chubs” behind his back, had no redeeming qualities from where I stood, but I had not been his second for very long. It was too much of a risk to “rock the boat” as they say.
My resolve waned as I came up to his door. Not only had the man been known to leave the remnants of an overnight snack for too long, but his overindulgent eating habits left him smellier than the sulfur pits of the island we called “Devil’s Bath”.
Knock. No answer. Knock harder. Still no answer. Pound, pound, pound!
“Fuck off!” The very sleepy captain’s mumble barley came through the thick door.
I took in a deep breath, hoping to speak calmly. “Unknown vessel in sight, sir!”
“Take care of it!” he snapped back.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. More and more the captain delegated his responsibilities to me, because I proved over and over again I could shoulder it. It was who I was. I could never do any less than my absolute best and somehow that became a drawback with this particular captain.
Well, if I had to do my job and his job to keep things going, so be it.
By the time I got back to the bow, our ship was cutting swiftly through the water, and dead-on course to target, which was now visible to the naked eye. I took the spyglass once again to get a better look at the thing.
The craft was like nothing I had ever seen. The hull had not been made by the traditional horizontal wood planks. Instead, it appeared to use pale and thick branches tied tightly together in a vertical direction. About one in every ten of those branches extended past the hull and arched over the deck, not quite meeting the branch from the other side. From here, the thing looked like a whale that had gone belly up and had been dead so long no flesh remained.
It needed no masts or sails because it was propelled by forty heavy rows on each side. It was clear they had seen us as well, but instead of turning tail and running like criminals always did, they came straight at us. It was unnerving.
Then I froze. On the bow of the odd boat stood a figure, pale as the wood around it. At first, I thought it to be some strangely carved figurehead, but then the thing moved!
It scanned around as if looking for something and stopped to look directly at me, like it could see me from that distance. Its visage reached down into my gut, causing a primal fear reaction unlike anything I experienced before.
This thing was definitely not Muskin, but it wasn’t Human either. From foot to shoulder it had all the characteristics of a man, but its head… No words were adequate enough to describe the gruesome horror that waited there, staring ahead with one cold, dead eye.
The creature’s head was bloated, far too large in proportion to its body, and it was covered with scars. One nasty gash across its face went over an empty socket, leaving a gaping hole where the eye used to be. All other features were hardly recognizable due to the various wounds it suffered. This thing was not new to battle and its cracked lips curled up in what appeared to be a sinister smile.
I fumbled the grip on the spyglass and watched helplessly as it went overboard. I knew instinctively that this unknown creature was out for blood and it was not alone based on all those heavy, beating oars.
My heart sank. The choice on what to do next fell to me. Did I turn back to get help and possibly be branded a coward? Or did I face this unknown enemy that outnumbered us and hope our superior training would even the odds?
Such a decision could be the make-or-break point of my career and I was not prepared. All I had to rely on was my gut, and it told me to run like the devil himself was chasing me.
I had to steady myself before I called the next order, lest the crew hear the distress in my voice.
“Bring her about!”
There were a lot of confused and astonished reactions to the demand. Running away was not the Dauntas way to react when encountering a possible target, but I didn’t have time to explain.
“Bring us about, now! That is an order!” I bellowed.
When the crew caught the graveness of my tone, they snapped to attention and got to work without daring to question a second time.
A new sensation washed over me. Even though Captain Chubs had basically put me in charge through delegation, I still felt like a subordinate. Now, that was gone entirely. The helm was mine and it was like I was meant to be there all along.
The Red Eagle turned around so sharply that the crew all leaned heavily to the side, but a well-crafted ship and good training kept us from overturning. However, the downside of relying on sails was the time it took to readjust them to take on wind from another direction. All that time, the hostiles gained on us with remarkable speed.
By the point we fully turned around and picked up pace, the crew could see what we were up against and had the very same reaction as I.
Panic set in when everyone realized that, even at our best speed, we could not outrun this foe. I never imagined a boat running on manpower could match the pace of our fast caravels, but this was unnatural.
Our only hope was to beat them to the keys. The tight waterways around the small islands would be easy for us to maneuver, but impossible for our pursuers to follow simply because of their oar span. Even more important, there was good chance a friendly patrol boat or two were in the area to support us.
“What in the all the hells is going on?” Captain Chubs yelled.
I missed it when the man squeezed out his door to grace us with his presence. He probably fell out of bed when we turned around.
All I had to do was point.
Following fast on our tail was the macabre creation. A score of the misshapen creatures now lined up on one side of the boat with grappling hooks and rope. All of their faces were different; bloated, covered with old wounds, one equally as disturbing as the other. They were getting ready to board us, and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
The captain turned deathly pale, then his face twisted up with pain as he grasped his left arm. In the next instant, he collapsed as if all of his bones just went soft. Without hesitation I called out for a healer and rushed to the captain’s side. I may have disliked the man, but I wasn’t heartless.
Every sailor had been taught the basics of recovery in case someone went overboard and a healer couldn’t get to them right away. I got an upgraded version as part of my officer training, and my instinct kicked in.
I hovered my hand over his mouth, he was not breathing. I felt at the large vein in his neck, no pulse. I began chest compressions.
I was in the middle of a count when the healer arrived, but he motioned for me to continue while he examined the man.
At the end of thirty I was ready to do mouth to mouth resuscitation, but the healer stopped me and shook his head.
“He was most likely dead by the time he hit the deck.” The healer said morosely.
My world spun. The ship’s bell rung with frantic distress but it sounded like it was miles away. Quartermaster Riley shouted somewhere in the distance.
“All hands on deck! Prepare to be boarded!”
This is the point when some people would ask, “what more could go wrong?”
Not me. Things could always get worse.
The keys were in sight. Responding bells of fellow ships could be heard in the distance.
It was too late. We were about to be boarded in three…two…one.
My father had put a sword in my hand as soon as I could hold one steady and I had trained since then to become as great as he was. I was good, really good, even for the navy standards, but I had a feeling it was not going to help me now.
Everyone came out to defend, even the cook who brought the only weapon he knew how to use; a meat cleaver.
We stood ready to meet the dreadful devils as they came over in waves. Three to five at a time hurled their hooks onto the mast’s rigging, or anything else they could find purchase, and with abandon, they swung over to attack.
They all carried a variety of unconventional weapons that looked as if they were picked up randomly from different places. From a rusty sword to a pitchfork, these things fought with whatever appeared to be at hand.
The first few were easily cut down when we greeted them with our fury, but it didn’t slow them a bit. It seemed that they had no fear at all, even in death. When one fell, two more were there, eager to take its place. They did not care for self-preservation. As long as they dealt a mortal blow in return, it didn’t matter.
There were two to three enemies per person once all of the invaders came over and soon, we were overwhelmed.
I shouted orders to the crew but it didn’t take the enemy long to figure out who was in charge. After three of the bigger ones came after me, I was unable to govern the defense any more. Our poor healer was left defenseless and no less than five of the enemy pounced. His scream was cut short, a quick death unlike others left bleeding out on the deck.
The three against me fought with such ferocity and it was very hard to predict what they were going to do next. This foe had no grace, no fighting style, or no rules at all really. I was able to score many hits against their unprepared defenses, but they just kept fighting as if a mortal wound meant nothing.
I dodged a lot of swipes that could have easily ended my life, but I couldn’t avoid everything. We all knew we were bound to lose this battle from attrition. Our training was good, but wounds and fatigue were our downfall.
The end was in sight. Out of the thirty souls once on board, only six were left standing. We fought valiantly and it was close one, but we just weren’t enough men.
To stay standing was a feat unto itself and I resorted to swinging my sword wildly to fend of the three that were trying to pin me down. Whether or not they were the same three I had been fighting the whole time, I could no longer tell. My vision blurred and weakness seeped into my bones from the loss of blood.
I eventually stumbled and fell to a knee. I half expected all three to pounce on me like they did to our healer, but they stopped pressing the attack even though I was still waving my blade around frantically.
When they just stood there and waited, I finally got the hint. I was beaten and there was no point in wasting my last breath. I put down my blade and stared into the eyes of the one who stepped forward to finish me. The vast emptiness in its eyes felt like a bottomless pit, but I held my gaze with unshakable pride. I was not giving these hideous creatures the satisfaction of seeing my fear.
The big brute regarded me and showed a hint of respect toward me by bowing his head briefly. That didn’t mean he changed his mind about killing me though. I braced myself as the creature raised its large sword and thwack!
An arrow struck right in the middle of its ugly forehead. The other two only had a second to look around before they were also hit. Only the longbowmen of the Dauntas Navy had that kind of deadly accuracy.
I sighed with a great relief. I was not always the best at following my religion, but that moment made me a true believer of our Lord of Dawn. Somehow, I was spared, and my gratitude was phenomenal. The fact that anyone got there in enough time to save the handful of us was a miracle.
The enemy was so consumed in their bloodlust, and we were so busy fending them off, no one noticed the battleship that came to heed our call. The Vindictive wasn’t just any battleship either. It was the ship, the king’s flagship, commandeered by none other than Captain Lewis Harker himself. The man was a legend.
Being promoted young, like myself, he accomplished a great deal in the last ten years. His exploits and victories were the talk of the navy and everyone wanted to be like him. Especially me.
He was the man I most inspired to be. No offense to my father, the Gods rest his soul. There was nothing Harker couldn’t do it seemed, both masterfully skilled in combat and leadership, he was the pinnacle of the Dauntas Navy.
Being hand-picked by King Barnabus, Captain Harker was expected to become next in line for fleet admiral.
The Vindictive, a massive galleon, matched the size of the enemy boat, which was quickly overrun by Harker’s crew. I just sat with the rest of my wounded men and watched the show from afar.
We all had several injuries, only a few were serious. There was a gash in my side that was actively bleeding, so I took off my vest and put pressure on it. It wasn’t enough to kill me in the next few hours, but Gods did it hurt now that the adrenaline wore off.
It couldn’t have been long before the healers from the Vindictive came to us, but it felt like an eternity. These were also the best of the best, and I marveled as my wound slowly stitched back together while one of them used their special healing powers on me. I saw too many of my own wounds heal over the years, but there was nothing like an elite healer. It never ceased to amaze me.
Then Captain Harker came on board with his entourage. I couldn’t help but marvel at all the men around him that paid deference to his every move. Like he was a God walking amongst men and we were all privileged to have him here.
I slowly pushed myself up to standing. The patch-up was awesome, but there was nothing that could be done about the muscle soreness caused by quick healing.
The intelligent and calculating eyes of Captain Harker scanned the deck that became our battlefield. He frowned deeply when his eyes fell on Captain Chapman, who was dead without any obvious wounds.
After he surveyed everything, he was sure about who to talk with. He approached and nodded respectfully to me when I saluted.
“Name, rank.” Captain Harker said abruptly.
“Margo Thane, Leftenant, First Class, sir.” I recited like it was second nature.
“You are the captain’s second, I take it?”
“I am, sir.”
“You fought well, Leftenant.”
“Respectfully, we all did, sir.”
Without moving his head, the captain’s eyes shifted to Captain Chapman’s body for another brief moment. There was a less than subtle look of doubt before he turned his attention back to me.
“Perhaps... but I expect you will be making a full report when time allows?”
I knew his question wasn’t really a question. This was his way of telling me that he did not want me leaving anything out or obfuscating any details. He had already come to his own conclusions on how the battle went and he would know if my report was lacking. Some men had a knack for that and Captain Harker had it in spades.
“Of course, sir.” I responded because I was expected to, despite the rhetorical question.
Proper etiquette was something of a matter of pride to islanders. Even a low born dock worker knew how to address his superior.
“Very good,” he said with a curt nod.
We were quickly interrupted by a young man from the Vindictive crew.
He came bounding over from the enemy ship yelling, “Captain Harker, Captain Harker!”
The captain didn’t like to be so rudely disturbed, I could tell by his look of anger and distaste at the young man as he approached.
The young seaman came to a halt but was too breathless to say much of anything just yet. He looked a bit gray and with my most recent experience with young sailors, I knew exactly what was about to happen next.
I forcefully shoved Captain Harker aside, who was quite put out, until his young crewman pasted the place he was just standing with vomit.
He gave me a thankful tip of his head before turning back to his man with even more annoyance than before.
“Out with it, Grady,” Captain Harker snapped.
Grady responded the best he could through jagged gasps of air, “Inside…that thing…you have to…see.”
The captain’s brow furrowed and he turned back to me, “Care to join me and take a look at what’s got this boy so green around the gills?”
I nodded. I hoped not too eagerly. I couldn’t trust myself to agree with words and not sound like a sycophant. To be invited into Captain Harker’s inner circle, if even just for a moment, was a great honor.
A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of the captain’s mouth. He knew the power in what he asked.
“Come along then,” he turned to go, but hesitated. “Oh, by the way, Grady. Be polite and clean up your mess.”
“Aye, sir,” Grady halfheartedly replied.
Then, just like that, I was walking by Captain Harker’s side. If only my father could see me. Maybe then he would have finally been proud of me.
My excitement over this new development was short lived however. Even though the enemy had been dispatched, the sense of their evil nature permeated their ship. The deck was a mess. Splotchy stains of dark red to brown proved that this enemy had fought many battles there. The stench was more than most sailors could bear and only a handful was left waiting for us.
Captain Harker’s second in command offered us bandanas to tie over our nose and mouth and pointed us to a companionway with a grim expression. It was only going to get worse it seemed and I was grateful for my cast iron stomach.
Descending down into the bowels of this thing only intensified the smell, and the eerie sound of echoing moans felt like walking down into the pits of hell itself.
If I were to imagine hell, this would have been it. People, both dead and barely clinging to life, were all splayed out in different ways to inflict various types of torture. Wet blood squished under our feet as we stepped down into the cargo hold and even Captain Harker was having a difficult time keeping stoic.
About a half dozen men, or maybe even women, were chained at the wrist and hanging from the top deck, drenched in blood. It was difficult to tell which ones were moaning, except for the ones that were clearly dead. Like just the upper torso of someone hanging, with their intestines draping down to the floor.
A few others were strapped to large blocks, either on their backs or fronts. Gaping wounds lay open all over their naked bodies and blood actively dripped from them. All around were the severed parts of other people, with all ranges of colors, sizes, and shapes. The missing tourists.
“My Gods…” the captain barley whispered.
“Healer,” my voice cracked instead of the shout I was going for. I cleared my throat and did better the second time. “Someone get a healer down here!”
Why there hadn’t been a healer down there working already was beyond my comprehension, until I realized they had all been busy healing me and my crew. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about that.
Once Captain Harker got passed the horror of it all, he quickly organized his men into groups to save who we could, not making anyone stay in that hellhole for too long.
I, on the other hand, refused to let anyone take my place as I helped sift through the bodies. I felt somehow responsible for these people and I was going to see this through to the end, no matter what. I did step out for a breather here and there though.
We made a lot of noise, moving things around, detaching chains, and the offhand string of curses coming from any one of us at any given time. It was not until I heard a chain clang on the floor that I noticed a grate toward the back of the hold. Like a drain, everything in the room flowed to, and through it. I didn’t want to go anywhere near it, but the loud clang disturbed something underneath. Among the scurrying noises, I heard a distinctly human screech.
My heart thumped in my chest while we pried up the grate. I didn’t want to see any more carnage as I was nearing the end of my sanity by this point.
More shuffling, more shrieks, and sobbing came from a pack of people all huddled together as close as they could get in a small compartment under the hold. Men, women, young, and old, covered from head to toe in blood. Terrified, but alive!
“Hey,” I spoke as gently as I could, “My name is Margo and I am with the Dauntas Navy. We are here to rescue you.”
More than a dozen sets of eyes opened to look up at us. Round white spots in a sea of red stared in disbelief.
Revulsion gave way to compassion and I hopped down into the space with them. I ignored the splash at my feet, knowing quite well what congealed down there.
The group flinched away from me, shrinking together even further, though that seemed impossible.
I just kept talking to them, softly and calmly. I pointed out the others above who were there to help them out. It took some time, but finally they trusted enough to start coming out, one by one.
I was there for every one of them, clasping my hands together to boost them up to the other men who helped them the rest of the way out. Ten, fifteen, twenty? I lost count somewhere but finally I was to the last of them. A woman purposely stayed in the back to be last, making sure everyone got out safely before she approached me. Despite the terror, her gratefulness shone through her gorgeous eyes. I was instantly and helplessly drawn in. Something about this woman was undeniably special, so I didn’t protest when she hugged me fiercely.
She whispered something in my ear in a language I didn’t know, but the message was obvious.
With all of the prisoners set free and safely distributed between our two ships, we moved all the bodies over to the enemy ship and set it on fire.
Captain Harker lent me enough men to get the Red Eagle back home and I spent the next several hours soaking in the bay. I was able to get clean but there were just some things that could never be washed away.