Grindylow were starting to crawl up the Kestrel’s sides, cresting the railings toward the midship, flanking the defenders. At the helm, Captain Vex cursed. They were running out of time. “Danica, Coleman, get us free!”
“Aye, captain!” came the answering calls. Coleman and Danica North led their gaff hook wielding swabs toward the prow, but the fighting was too thick. There wasn’t going to be any safe way to employ their hooks and shove them free of the black ship. For every Grindylow the crew managed to kill, another fell from above, or slimed its way up the side.
“Reeve, I need the prow!” Danica shouted.
“Get me a few more decent fighters, and I’ll give you the damn prow,” Reeve snarled back. The big man was a bloody mess. His sharp white teeth were nearly the only part of him that wasn’t smeared red. Fully half the dead grindylows scattered across the deck had been his kills.
“Stand by!” Danica shouted. Reeve slashed his serrated hook across another pale body, sending it tumbling off the prow and into the water.
“Any suggestions?” Danica asked her husband.
“How about that Asura? They’re supposed to be good fighters,” Coleman shrugged.
“I’ll go,” Danica said. Coleman nodded and turned back to his hookmen. “Form up! I want a spear line!”
Danica dashed toward the aft. “Where’s Quinn?” she shouted up to the Helm.
“Check my cabin!” the Captain called down.
“We need fighters to hold the prow!” she called up, then headed inside.
“Dammit,” Captain Vex said through gritted teeth. Her crew was a bunch of hard, professional sailors, but they weren’t soldiers. “Colin, ye have the helm. Just keep us off the reef.”
Colin nodded. He looked pale and wan. Exertion was taking its toll on his concussed skull, but he was digging deep. Most men would have vomited from vertigo and nausea by now. By the time he managed to say “Aye, Captain,” he was already rushing down the stairs.
Danica came out of her room with Quinn on her heels. “Thanks,” Danica said, getting out of the green man’s way. Quinn gave her a nod, and then sprinted across the deck. The rain made it slick, but Quinn matched Lace for grace. Danica and Captain Vex were slower and more careful. They reached the line of gaff hook swabs who Coleman had put into a loose spear line. They were clustered around the main mast. Standing next to Coleman was Mister Lynch. He gave the Captain a grave nod “The fighting is too thick. I don’t want to hit your crew," the tall man said without preamble.
“You’re right where I need you, Mister Lynch. You and I are going to keep our flanks clear,” Captain Vex said, drawing one of her pistols. “Mister and Missus North, get my ship free.”
“Aye,” they said in unison.
“Swabs, to the prow!” Coleman barked. “Look for an opening!”
“Do not engage the boarders!” Danica yelled. “The riggers will keep them off us, our job is to shove off that damned ship!” They split their swabs into two groups again and headed toward the fight.
Quinn had hit the fighting like a hurricane. He had Lace’s maneuverability, Reeve’s strength, and lifetimes of training and experience. The nearly mindless grindylow were like chaff before the wind. In his wake were severed tentacles and tongues, and flopping grindylows refusing to admit they were dead. Still, these foes were uncanny. It took Quinn a few cuts to realize they didn’t feel pain, and he took a stray barbed tongue to the chest for his error. He seemed insulted by the wound. A cold, proud, zealous anger filled him.
“They’ve got something inside their necks!” Lace called out. “That’s where they can feel pain!”
After that, Quinn stopped bothering cutting at limbs.
“It’s about damn time,” Reeve laughed. He looked over his shoulder at the advancing swabs and grinned. “Let’s clear the deck!”
The big man grabbed a grindylow who had managed to snag one of the riggers and hauled its head back by the hair. Then he slammed his hook down point first into its gaping jaws. The thing thrashed and shrieked. Reeve pushed further with his hook, until the point came out below the thing’s sternum. It finally went limp, letting go of the battered rigger, who scrambled backwards to get clear.
Reeve took a step and swung his hook, with the impaled grindylow still on it, and slammed another one of the pale creatures over the edge of the railing. It managed to catch itself with its tentacles. “Webber!” Reeve barked. “Cut ‘em free!”
Lace rushed in, bringing her cane knife down on the railing. In a few quick chops, she’d severed the tentacles. By the time she was done, Reeve had bashed another grindylow over the edge. It managed to catch the railing with its hand. Lace took its fingers.
The prow was theirs again. Every time a pale body fell to the deck it was mobbed by rigger blades. The ones that tried to climb up the sides found Lace waiting for them. The ones that managed to get to their feet had to deal with Reeve and Quinn.
The swabs filed in, clustering at the center of the prow, pushing their hooks up to the hull of the black ship that the Kestrel’s bow was still inside of.
“Heave!” Coleman called, coordinating the swabs to push together. Timbers cracked instead of bracing. The black ship was rotten.
Danica swore. Without purchase, this would never work. A chunk of rotten hull fell off the black ship and crashed off the Kestrel’s railing before spinning down into the churning waters. “Try the keel!” she called. The hookmen repositioned.
All around them the fight raged. Lace and the riggers ducked underneath the gaff hooks as they rushed to dogpile every new grindylow that fell off the black ship. Quinn and Reeve each took a side and held it, keeping the pale borders from targeting the hookmen. Behind them, gunshots echoed.
“Heave!” Coleman called. The swabs pushed again. The black ship’s keel held. The Kestrel rocked back, shoving its bow free of the black ship for a moment, but they reached the end of the length of their hooks, and the ships slid back together again. The Kestrel’s bowsprit was in too deep. It was much longer than the swab’s gaff hooks were.
“What the hell do we do? Cut the bowsprit free?” Coleman snapped.
“That would take forever,” Danica grimaced. “Captain, this isn’t working!” she called behind her. “We’re lodged too tight!”
“Captain, permission for last resort!” Will’s voice came from behind them. Danica looked over her shoulder, wondering what the hell was going on now.
Lynch and Captain Vex were alternating firing and reloading. With them was a small squad of armored soldiers. Where the hell had they come from? The midship was littered with flopping grindylows with bullet holes in them, and the soldiers were keeping Lynch and the Captain safe from any that survived being shot.
As if the whole scene wasn’t already surreal enough, Will and Jack were each carrying a large, lidded cookpot held closed with twine. Jack passed hers to Will and joined the firing line. The retort of her slug thrower was even louder than Lynch’s long rifle.
The Captain looked up from reloading and gave Will a quick nod. “Whatever ye’re going tae do, do it. Now is the time.” Will rushed forward, a cookpot under each arm.
When he reached the prow, Danica gave him a raised eyebrow. “Now we’re fighting them with pots and pans?”
“Full of dynamite,” Will grinned.
“Fuck me,” Lace said, her head pivoting from the hand she had just finished chopping at. “Hope you know what you’re doing.”
“You’re doing,” Will corrected.
“What?” Lace shook her head in protest. “I don’t want anything to do with your fucking dynamite.”
Danica interjected. “Ok, spit out the plan, now.”
“We need to light these, and drop them off the back deck of the grindylow ship,” Will explained.
“Why?” Lace asked incredulously. She chopped another tentacle that had slithered up to grab the edge of the deck.
“Won’t that… blast the ship towards us?” Coleman asked.
“Yes,” Will said. “Just trust me, alright.”
“We don’t want that stuff anywhere near us anyway,” Coleman said. “Blasting the ship away from us would mean dropping them right in front of the Kestrel.”
“Why not just use them to sink it?” Danica asked.
“That ship’s full of hull breaches. If it was going to sink, it would have done it by now.”
“Y’know, I was thinking the same thing,” Coleman muttered. “So what’s behind it?”
“Something that’s holding it up,” Will said. Dawning understanding passed over the North’s faces. They glanced at each other and nodded.
“How do we help?” Danica asked.
“Just hold the line,” Will said.
“Tossing those off that ship’s back deck means being on board it! Making it across the whole damn thing!. Then getting back here,” Danica said.
“Yeah. We need someone fast and light on their feet. A daredevil,” Will said. “Two someones, ideally.”
“Oh, fuck me,” Lace said again. “I drag your drunk ass back to the ship, and this is how you repay me?”
“Be mad later. Right now you’re the best person for the job,” Danica snapped. “Who’s the other person, Will?”
“Me,” Will said.
“How are you planning on fighting off the grindylow, and carrying the bombs?” Coleman asked.
“I will go as well,” Quinn said, not taking his eyes off his butcher's work as another pale creature died on his blade.
“That works,” Will said.
“How are you going to get up onto that ship’s deck?” Danica asked.
“I thought we’d swing down,” Will said.
Lace cursed in her native tongue. “You just think of everything, don’t you?”
“Less talking, more fighting!” Reeve growled. “Break time’s over!” He gestured with his bloody hook, the remnants of a grindylow still stuck on it.
A cluster of pale white faces gathered inside the black ship where the swabs had knocked free the large chunk of hull. They began climbing down the Kestrel’s bowsprit, shrieking for help and staring with bulging, bloodshot eyes.
“Great. We gave them an easy way onboard and they figured it out,” Danica snarled. “You three, do your thing. We’ll hold them here.”
Lace swore again, then nodded. “Once we’re on the other ship, make sure the topsail beam doesn’t move. That’s our way back.” Danica looked a little confused, but nodded. Lace ran to the foremast. She grabbed a coil of rope from where it hung on the mast, and started climbing. As she passed the lantern hanging about ten feet up the mast, she grabbed it and clipped it to the back of her belt. Quinn followed behind her.
“Gonna need a little help here,” Will said. “Hard to climb and carry bombs at the same time.”
Lace was halfway up the mast by the time he’d finished his sentence. She rolled her eyes. “Guess you don’t think of everything.”
One end of the coiled rope hit the ground at Will’s feet. “Tie them on.”
Will ran the rope through the handles of the cookpot and started climbing while Lace hauled the bombs up the mast. By the time he reached where she was, she’d tied shorter ropes to the handles, giving them satchel-like carrying straps.
“So how do we do this?” Will asked.
“We have to pivot the topsail beam, and tie the lines off out at the end,” Lace said. “And by we, I mean me. Take this, and get the beam turned. Once the topsail is pointing at the other ship, and tied off securely, follow me.” She passed Will the bomb and started shimmying out on the sail beam. As she climbed, she shouted across the ship, “Mister Strong, I need the starboard tack line completely unsecured! Then I need you to pull the port line until the topsail beam is pointed at that ship!”
“Aye!” came Colin’s labored voice from the helm.
“I am unfamiliar with this,” Quinn said.
“Tacking the beam? Normally it’s something swabs do by hauling lines. Doing it from here is going to take a lot of muscle. Sounds like Colin is going to help us out,” Will said. “See this beam that crosses the mast? We have to turn it, and tie it off so it doesn’t rotate back.”
Quinn nodded. The pair began to shove the sailbeam around the mast. It was a lot of work, even with Colin’s help. This close to the mast they didn’t have a lot of leverage, and as strong as Colin was, every heave made him woozy. Without Quinn’s inhuman strength, the job would have been impossible. As they turned the beam, Lace was crawling out onto it. The beam she was on swung toward the black ship. She rode it as it turned. She stopped about three-quarters of the way down the beam and starting to tie ropes. She could see the black ship’s ruined deck rotate into place below her. Pale figures stood on it, waving their arms back and forth, calling for help. Occasionally they would shuffle towards the edge and hurl themselves down to the Kestrel. There were a lot of them. If they ever decided to coordinate their attack, the Kestrel would be completely overrun. “This is a shit idea,” Lace muttered. She began uncoiling her rope, measuring out how much they needed, then cutting and tying off the next length. When she was done she attached all three of them to her belt and called over her shoulder. “Ready. Get your asses out here.”
Will had just barely managed to tie off the mast by the time she called. It had been a while since he’d had to tie a boom hitch. He’d needed to restart it twice before he got it right. He nodded to Quinn. The green-skinned warrior slowly let the mast go. It tried to pivot, but Will’s knot held. Then the two of them shimmied their way across the beam. Well, Will shimmied. Quinn was quite a bit more graceful.
When they reached her, Lace passed out ropes and pointed out to where she’d tied the ropes to the beam. “That’s your anchor point. It’s about twenty feet above the other ship’s deck. You have a lot more rope than that, so do not give yourself too much slack. Find the knot in the middle of your rope. That’s your foot anchor. It’s tied off at twenty feet. If you end up below that knot on this swing, you are going to die. Hold on tight when you drop, but stand up straight and loosen your grip once you start to arc back up again. Try to get close to the other ship’s foremast. That’s where the deck looks sturdiest. Wait until you feel the momentum change to an upward swing. It will feel like your stomach is trying to fall out. As soon as that feeling hits you, let go. If you let go too early, you’re fucked. If you let go too late, you’re fucked. If you hit a rotten spot in the deck, you’re fucked.”
“It doesn’t look that far,” Will said, confused at Lace’s anger.
“This isn’t a fucking penny dreadful, Sterling,” Lace snapped. “Momentum kills.”
“Would climbing down the rope be safer?” Quinn asked.
Lace pulled the lantern free of her belt, adjusted the bullseye aperture to narrow and lengthen the beam, and pointed angrily. “See those dark spots? The deck is full of rot. That big dark spot that takes up most of the ship’s prow? That’s just waiting to become a giant hole. We need to get past the prow to where the deck is sturdier, near the mast.”
Quinn nodded, looking at the ship more carefully.
“What are you so pissed off for?” Will asked, getting a little tired of Lace’s attitude.
“Your plan is full of holes, and bombs!” Lace snarled. “Actual holes! Actual bombs! You think that’s a good combination? I’ve already had to come up with about five fixes on the fly to make sure we don’t kill ourselves right before we even get started. You didn’t think about light. You didn’t think about momentum. You didn’t think about where to land-”
“That’s why I wanted you with me,” Will shrugged. “This is your thing.”
“This plan is madness, Will.”
“You like madness. That’s why you sail with Vex,” Will said, half-accusing.
“You haven’t even explained why we’re doing this!” Lace shouted.
“We don’t have time,” Will said, trying to sound comforting. “Look, I know my plan has some holes in it. My actual plan really was to rely on you for getting over there and back. So far, that’s working great.”
“Nice of you to let me know ahead of time, so I could prepare!” Lace growled.
“I thought you would love this stuff?” Will shrugged.
Lace shook her head and followed. “If we survive this, you owe me.”
“Not just me. All of us,” Will agreed. He pulled a short, unlit torch from where he’d tucked it behind his belt.
“Do not even think about lighting that in my rigging,” Lace said lately.
“You want me to light it down there, surrounded by those things?” Will asked.
“Yes. You’re going to need both hands to get down there anyway.” Lace’s tone told Will that she wasn’t budging on this. He sighed and tucked the torch away again.
Quinn was tired of listening to the argument. Without a word he swung his legs to one side of the beam, then let himself drop.
In penny dreadfuls, ropes were like magic to a sailor. A skilled pirate could swing from a convenient rope from anywhere, and land wherever they needed to. In reality, there were places on a ship you could swing from, but they were surprisingly few, and tended to be short swings. The stories came from the boarding action tactic of tossing grappling hooks into an enemy’s rigging and swinging across the gaps between the ships, from one deck to the other.
Starting from up in the rigging was very different. The longer the swing, the more dangerous it got, fast. There was a lot to consider. Momentum. Obstacles. Where to land. Where the pivot point of your rope is. A lot could go wrong. Little things could cause big problems.
Quinn clamped his feet onto the knot of his rope and fell. The sailors still fighting on the deck scattered and ducked, thinking he was going to fall and hit them, but his fall turned into a wide swing. For a moment he thought he was going to crash into the prow of the black ship, but he cleared that as well. He felt his arc begin to rise and let the rope slide. That was when things went wrong. The knot he’d been standing on passed through his hands and over his shoulder, briefly catching on the hilts of his swords. His feet swung forward as the knot tugged his shoulders back. His arms windmilled as he sailed over the head of a dead-eyed grindylow.
The black ship was high enough above the Kestrel that Quinn’s drop to the rotting deck was only about ten feet, but he had quite a bit of forward momentum, and ten feet was still a long way to fall and land on your back.
The green warrior flailed his arms wildly, crashed to the ground, and simply vanished in an explosion of wood as the deck gave way.
His rope swung back, dragging across the deck and hanging off the black prow limply.
“Fuck,” Will said, stunned by what he’d just watched.
“See!?” Lace snapped. “You see what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah,” Will said, suddenly second-guessing this whole plan. “So what do we do?”
“Don’t fucking crash!” Lace growled. Then she adjusted the bomb she had slung across her back and tipped herself off the side of the beam. She twisted in the air to get her feet back under her just as she began to arc between the two ships. The lantern clipped to her belt turned her fall into a surprisingly pretty arc of light. She leaned back at the end of her downward swing, pushing the knot between her feet forward, and reached out as she passed Quinn’s rope. She snagged it as she passed, then let the knot between her feet slide. Both ropes glided through her calloused hands. She managed to slow her momentum and touch down lightly, just on the other side of the hole Quinn had left. She landed running, somehow using the ropes to keep her from needing to absorb much impact from her landing. She dashed around the back side of the black ship’s foremast, and quickly tied the two ropes around it in a looped half-hitch. She unclipped her lantern, took a quick instant to look down the hole Quinn had left, then shouted, “Go!” The grindylows were already closing in from all sides. She took a few quick glances around and started dodging her way down the deck.
“I am such an idiot,” Will said, taking a deep breath. He let himself slide off the beam and dropped. It was fast. So fast. He felt like he was holding on for dear life. Controlling his swing was impossible. All he could do was grip the rope and try not to die. The feeling of lift came abruptly, and suddenly he remembered that he was supposed to let the rope slide. He let his feet slip and felt like he was throwing himself down the line. His hands burned. The mast was flying towards him. He hit the deck, stumbled, and tried to roll, but in his panic he held tight to the rope. The beginning of his shoulder roll was perfect. It redirected his momentum nicely, but as he began to rise out of the roll he reached the end of his slack. The rope jerked in his hands and he hit himself square in the face with his own hands and he skipped across the slippery deck like a thrown rock. He came to rest with one foot touching the mast. He huffed, making sure he could breathe and that all his limbs worked before scrambling to his feet and looping his rope over the ones Lace had tied.
His hands hurt. He glanced down at his palms to see that the rope had burned off quite a bit of skin. Why hadn’t he worn gloves?
Grindylows were scrambling towards him, awkwardly rushing, slipping, throwing themselves across the slick, rotting deck. Will ran.
Ahead of him, Lace was using the holes in the deck to her advantage, leading the grindylows on a merry chase, skipping over the holes in the deck and slashing at every scorpion tongue that launched her way.
“Keep them off me!” Will shouted as he ran past her towards the aftcastle. He nearly slipped more than once. The deck was uneven from rot and neglect. The only light came from occasional lightning flashes and the bobbing beam of Lace’s lantern. It was hard for Will to see the soft spots in the deck, but he knew where the sturdy areas were on a ship like this. Hopefully the internal structure hadn’t rotted too.
On the mid-deck, Lace was becoming surrounded. Everywhere she looked were more shambling shapes. They winced as she shone the lantern at them, but she couldn’t aim the beam everywhere. She was running out of places to run.
She took three quick steps, leaped over a broken patch of hull, and started climbing the main mast. The ropes wound around it were sodden and limp. Patches of slime clung and dripped down it. Many of the climbing pegs were missing or loose. The ship was a ruin. Still, Lace managed. Testing her hand and footholds was second nature now. She transferred her weight smoothly, gliding up the mast like she was part gecko. The grindylow followed her. They didn’t have nearly the same problems climbing that she did, but they were slower. They wound their leg tentacles completely around the mast and grabbed ropes and soft wood with their hard fingers. She looked down into a swarm of pale faces and writhing limbs. They were actually climbing each other. She climbed higher, occasionally reaching out and pulling on the half-rotten ropes that connected the beams. They had slimy strands of something hanging from them like tassels. She shined the lantern at them. It was seaweed. “What the hell?” she muttered.
Beneath her, Will ran past the mast. Lace bit off a curse, annoyed that she’d drawn enough of them away that he was able to just jog his way down the deck.
She climbed higher. Why was the ship’s rigging full of seaweed? Her hand nearly slipped and brought her out of her musings and back to the task at hand. She finally reached the top beam and swept her lantern back and forth, looking at the lines attached. She couldn’t tell from this distance which were better, and she’d only get one shot. She scanned her lantern across the deck. Starboard looked more sturdy. She headed that direction, shimmying out on the top beam. It was disgusting. The whole front of her body was smeared in the slime of rotting wood and seaweed. It was hard to keep her balance, but she couldn’t afford to slow down. Grindylows followed her, swarming to the top beam and starting to writhe their way along it, calling for help as they followed.
Finally she reached her destination. The main tack line. It ran from the end of the topbeam all the way down to the aftcastle. From there, the swabs could pull it and turn the top beam to help steer the ship in the wind. The angle was steep. Normally it would be a fairly easy climb but she’d done it many times before on the Kestrel. After tying off the rope it was easier just to climb down than to turn around on the beam and scootch back to the mast. This was a different story though. The rope was wet, and old, and very well might break. That was the gamble. She grabbed the rope, swung herself down, hooked her leg over it and slid.
It broke. Not from the top, thankfully, but from where it was anchored on the aftcastle. The large eyelet it was tied to pulled itself out of the rotted wood and the rope was suddenly free. With nothing anchoring the rope while she slid down it, she suddenly found herself swinging back toward the prow, completely the wrong direction.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck meeeee!” she cursed. She held onto the rope as tightly as she could as she hit the shredded mainsail with a wet thud and tore right through it. Crashing through the sail thankfully robbed her of most of her momentum, so her swing was much gentler when she started swinging back toward the aftcastle. She let herself slide again, hoping she would stop herself on the wet rope, but it didn’t work. The slimy line slipped right through her grasp. The only thing that kept her from flying completely off the rope was the large eyelet still tied to the end of the line. Her arms painfully jerked to full extension as her hands hit the eyelet. Her leg clipped a grindylow and it sent her spinning. She was out of control and the stairs were rushing towards her far too quickly. There was no time and no options. With an impressive show of strength she hauled herself upward by her arms and tucked her legs up, but it wasn’t enough. She hit the stairs like a cannonball. Rotten wood exploded as she tore through.
When her senses cleared after the impact she found herself hanging from the aftcastle floor where the stairs had been. Her feet dangled through the destroyed stairwell. The broken deck was tucked beneath her armpits. Somehow, she was still holding onto the eyelet at the end of the rope. Her breathing was labored and shallow, and she hurt… everywhere.
Something speared into her upper leg. It burned, and grabbed. A ragged scream tore from her lips as she scrambled at the slick, broken wood for purchase. She stabbed the bolt-end of the eyelet down into the rotten deck and held on for dear life as she felt herself being dragged backwards. She felt like a fish on a hook. Behind her, the grindylow she’d knocked sprawling had wrapped its leg-tendrils around the broken ship rails and was using its barbed tongue to reel her in.
An arm grabbed hers. “Duck”
She laid her head down as low as she could. There was a flash of metal and her backside flashed with pain. It hurt, but the pulling was gone. Will stuck his machete in the deck, grabbed the eyelet in her hands, and used it to haul her up out of the hole where the stairs used to be. She pushed with her other arm and gritted her teeth against the pain, ending up on her side lying on the slick deck.
“Impressive entrance,” Will said. She finally let go of the rope. Will wrapped it around the top of what was left of the stair railing.
“I hate this ship,” she groaned. She tried to look over her shoulder, but her ribcage protested. “Is there something stuck in my ass?”
“Uh, yeah. One of their tongue-things. I cut it off, but the barb is still lodged. Hold on, this might hurt,” Will said.
A moment later, pain blossomed out of her left butt cheek. “Ow, fuck!” she snarled. “It burns.”
“Yeah, there’s some kind of… whitish seepage going on. I think they’re venomous. How do you feel?”
“Angry,” Lace snapped, pushing herself to her knees.
“So, normal,” Will said. “Let me know if that changes.”
She stood up, accepting Will’s offered hand for support and tested weight on her leg. It hurt, but it didn’t fold. “Alright, let’s get this done.”
“You didn’t break the lantern,” Will said. “That’s impressive.”
She reached behind her and unhooked the lantern from her belt. It was intact. Only a cracked pane of glass marred it. “Just broke myself instead,” she muttered. Her breath was coming more easily now. She hoped nothing was actually broken. There was a chunk of wood sticking out of her lower torso, just beneath her ribs. She carefully pulled it free. Blood welled and began running down her body.
“Break time’s over,” Will said, pointing. The grindylow with the severed tongue had figured out that there was no way up on this side now that the stairs were gone, and had lurched to the other side of the aftcastle to the second set of stairs. Its pale body was showered in the blood from its mouth. Its cries for help gurgled and sprayed the stairs with red.
“I’m in no shape to fight, Will,” Lace admitted.
“Yeah,” Will said, looking out over the swarm of pale figures that were approaching them from all over the ship. They were falling out of the rigging and climbing up through the holes in the deck. “Looks like we’re out of time too. This might end up being a one-way trip.”
“Hope it’s worth it, you asshole,” Lace muttered.
“Only one way to find out,” Will said. He took the lantern from Lace and pulled out his torch. The head of the torch was too big to fit into the lantern, and he didn’t have time to take it apart. He laid the lantern on the deck and crashed the torch down onto it, breaking the glass and bending the metal frame enough to expose the flame. The torch went up with a flare of light.
The crash of the lantern was echoed by another crash a moment later. The grindylow on the stairs was abruptly wrenched downward, out of sight. Its shrieks ended abruptly. Then Quinn stalked out from below deck, coated from head to toe in blood and filth. He scanned the ship, found Will and Lace, gave them a small nod, then started stalking purposefully toward the pale swarm.
Relief flooded through the pair on the aftcastle. They glanced at each other, both trying not to smile. “Let’s get this done,” Will said. He pulled his machete free of the deck, sheathed it, and slipped his arm around Lace’s waist to help her walk. She braced on his shoulders and limped along.
When they reached the back corner of the aftcastle, Will tugged the carry strap slung across Lace’s shoulder, and unslung his own. The cookpots were still thoroughly tied shut. The fuses, sticking out the holes where the lid handles used to be, were intact. He held his torch away from the bombs but gestured with it. “We’re going to light them both at the same time. Toss yours as far as you can. at an angle to port. I’ll throw starboard. As soon as it’s out of your hands, start running.”
“We’re not going to make it if we head to those stairs,” Lace said. From where they were they could only see Quinn’s head, his topknot bobbing amid a sea of pale, screaming faces. Bleach white limbs and tentacles flew everywhere Quinn lunged.
“Good thing you brought us a rope, then,” Will said with exaggerated cheer.
They put the pots on the ground side by side, held the fuses next to each other, and brought the torch to them. Sparks flared. They grabbed the side handles of the pots, hefted them up, and shoved them away from themselves as hard as they could. They didn’t wait to watch the rest. Will slipped his hand around Lace’s waist again and half-dragged her towards the stairs. Her limping was almost skipping as she swung herself along propelled by Will’s long legs. “Quinn, we’re leaving!” he shouted as they ran.
Behind them, the bombs sailed down into the churning black waters and disappeared with a splash, trailing sparking fuses.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Will said as they reached the broken stairs. He tossed his torch as far down the deck as he could, lighting up the mid deck. Then he grabbed the rope, stuck his foot into the eyelet at the end of it, and pulled Lace in close. She rolled her eyes, but wrapped her arms around his neck. He stepped off the shattered top step and swung down over the deck.
This time the swing felt like it should. Controlled. Fun. Heroic. Going from the aftcastle to the middeck was only about forty feet, with a ten-foot drop. “Wait for it,” Lace said as they reached the bottom of their arc. The momentum changed. They’d just barely started to rise when Lace said “Now!”
Will let go. Lace didn’t. Instead she held on a moment longer letting the rope slide through her fingers, then threw the rope away from them to the side. The metal eyelet whipped past Will’s head. He realized in that split second that she’d saved him from broken teeth, or a crash like what had happened to Quinn. Then his feet hit the deck. It wasn’t a bad landing, but having another person hanging on him made him a lot less graceful. He ended up falling, half-rolling, half-sliding on his shoulder. Lace hit the deck next to him, but managed to turn herself sideways and roll. She came to her feet awkwardly, grimacing in pain. “Ow,” she muttered, holding out a hand to help Will to his feet. “You are a huge pain in my ass.”
“This storybook pirate stuff is a lot harder than it looks,” Will said, tucking his feet and letting Lace haul him up.
“Maybe next time, don’t decide to start with swinging from the top beam, onto a rotten ship covered in monsters, in a storm, in the dark,” Lace griped as Will helped support her again and they limped toward the foremast.
“Noted,” Will said as he untied the ropes from the mast.
“Just drop straight down,” Lace said, “Swing as little as possible."
“Got it. Quinn, it’s time to-” He held out the third rope but didn’t have time to finish his sentence. The big green warrior rushed out of the night, grabbing the rope on the way. He didn’t slow as he reached the prow. He just leapt off the edge, dropping down out of sight.
“That man is very impressive,” Will said.
“Fawn over him later, we have company,” Lace said, whacking his shoulder. Will looked over his shoulder. Pale forms were lurching quickly out of the dark.
The two of them moved to the prow as fast as they could, but before they could jump, the whole ship lurched. The noise hit them right as they were tossed off the prow by the shockwave. The waves behind the black ship erupted like a geyser. A hollow sounding shriek, like a particularly horrific whale call, echoed through the waters beneath them.
The black ship rose, lifted by the blast, and shoved the Kestrel backwards, which sent the falling pair into a wild swing. They crashed together and became tangled. Their ropes started wrapping around each other. They managed to steady themselves, hanging about ten feet above the Kestrel’s deck, twisting in a slow circle. The ship jerked again, even harder than the first time. The black ship pulled away, ripping itself off the Kestrel’s bowsprit and rushing straight backwards. In moments, it disappeared into the black, leaving a frothing, bloody wake behind it.
The Kestrel bobbed and swayed as it righted itself, causing Lace and Will swing gently back and forth.
“What just happened?” Lace asked.
“It worked,” Will grinned.
Beneath the waves, the broodmother was confused, angry, and in pain. Her prey should have been an easy capture. Instead, she’d found herself in the shallows, stretched as far as she could to hold onto her lure, her prey just out of reach. She could feel them, impaled on her lure, stuck, easy pickings, but the sharp reef kept her from moving any further forward or pulling her prey in.
She’d sent her children after them. So many. She was swollen with them now. It had been an excellent hunting season. She’d eaten well, and bred with many. She’d taken many hosts for her young. The entire expanse of her broad back was covered with her children’s chrysalises. She could feel them in every divot, growing and changing as they suckled her blood through their feeding-tongues. She hated having to use them like this. It interrupted their development. Still, it was necessary. The bait only worked when her children were on it to lure her prey closer. Usually only a few were enough. Every one of them that fell was painful to her, but it was a necessary risk.
This time was different. With the prey out of reach, she’d sent more of her children. Then more again. They tore themselves free of the egg-sacks on her back and swarmed up her tongue to the lure she held. She felt them die. So many. Her children, broken. Their hosts mangled. She could only hope that they had managed to spread their gift to others before they fell.
The blast had hurt so very, very badly. She didn't understand what had happened with that either. All she knew was pain. For the first time in her long life, she’d abandoned her prey. She slunk along the ocean floor, dragging her lure her, trailing blood into the waters.
She did not understand what had gone wrong. She was not clever enough to realize what a curse was. In the dimness of her oldest memories she might have recognized the host-word “witch,” but it wasn’t a useful word for hunting so she would not care. She could not see or feel what had been done to her. All she knew was that nothing had gone right.
Nothing would ever go right for her again.
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