“Are we there yet?” Noemi sighed, looking out over the rails of the ship. Jonah was busy as usual, and the elf Rhonwen, or as they had taken to calling her, Ronny, seemed to be unusually hard at work, moving about the ship with the natural grace of a veteran sailor. It had been a few days since they had picked up Ronny and Noemi had requested to be let off in the Caribbean. Since then they had seen a number of ports but none even close to the Caribbean Sea. A number of souls had been gathered floating above the water, their spirits quickly vanishing to join the rest of the invisible crew.
“How come they don’t become cabin boys like you?” She had asked Jonah on night, after discovering they had arrived with the fog in the South China Sea. They had discovered a group of six sailors sitting on their floating planks of wood, what remained of their ship. They had said something in their native tongue, but Noemi couldn’t piece it together, and then they vanished, fading out of her sight.
“Mm, probably because you and Ronny are anchoring me?” Jonah had said. “I’m not too sure myself. Not that I mind. It’s nice being…me.”
After the South China Sea they had sailed around the Horn of Africa, only to arrive in the Mediterranean off the coast of Tripoli. Noemi had started using an old set of star maps just to get a sense of where the ship was taking them. When she had last checked the sky, it had placed her somewhere in the North Sea, off the coast of Norway. Quite a ways away from the Caribbean.
“Look, I don’t know what to tell you,” Jonah said, handing her a broom to sweep the deck clear of dust. It seemed that no matter how often it was swept, the Dutchman had a perpetual layer of dust and dirt clinging to her. Noemi figured it was part of the atmosphere. “It’s really hard to predict where we are heading next.”
“Yeah, but there has to be someone in the Caribbean that is dying at sea, right? I mean, how come we can’t go to them first!”
“I don’t think we actually operate on a linear timeline…” Jonah had said, giving her a shrug. “If we did, then I imagine there’d be a lot of ghosts we just don’t get. But if we just appear a couple of hours after their death, it gives them enough time to start to realize their situation.”
“Wait…if time’s not linear, then could we go back to the past!?”
“In theory,” Jonah said, very slowly. “But we have no way of knowing what time it is exactly, just by the stars. Besides, how would you even know if it would apply to you? Even if I’m right, I don’t know what happens to living people when they leave the Dutchman. Maybe you just rejoin time in the point you’re supposed to.”
“Mm, I guess that’s true. It’s not a safe bet…”
“Not at all.”
“Hey, you two, stop talking, the water is getting rough!” Ronny shouted from her perch up above. The elf grabbed the rope and slid down to the deck to join them, her tricorn hat staying on her hair despite the strong winds. “Saw something big moving beneath the water. We may have trouble.”
“Big? How big?” Noemi asked. Was it possible there was another sunken man of war ghost ship sailing around? “Is it a ship?”
“Bigger!” Ronny exclaimed, pointing up excitedly. “Get the guns ready!”
“Why, what did you se—” Jonah started to ask, before there was the sound of breaking water, the soft light of twilight going dark as something large reared itself above the ocean. “…Oh. To the guns!”
Noemi ran as quickly as she could across the decks, throwing the broom to the ground as she started shoving gunpowder into the cannons. The boat was raised high into the air by the force of the waves, tipping dangerously to both sides. Looking over her shoulder, Noemi could see that the creature was a large serpent, easily five times the size of the Dutchman.
Her face went white, the powder she was scooping with her hands falling like sand between her fingertips. She stared wide eyes at the serpent as it pushed itself out of the water, passing over the ship with seeming no end as it crashed beneath the waves on the other side. It was wider than the ship, blocking out the stars above her as its dark shape flew above.
The water splashed aboard the deck with enough force to send Noemi flying backwards. She scrambled to catch her footing as the ship was bumped fiercely from beneath.
“I have you, Noemi,” the soft yet firm voice of Ophidia said, as Noemi felt herself being wrapped up in the Feathered Serpent’s arms. Ophidia was staring down towards the bottom of the ship with a worried look on her face.
“What, what is that!?”
“It is the World Serpent…”
Ophidia didn’t answer, instead just wrapping herself around Noemi even tighter, her arms looking more like a bird’s wings than a human’s arms as she cocooned the red head. Noemi didn’t resist, her heart racing.
“It’s coming from below!” Ronny shouted, over the rush of the wind. Noemi couldn’t do anything, couldn’t move. She felt the ship begin to…sink? No…that wasn’t right…
It was like the ship was falling. She heard the rushing of water pouring down a hole in the world itself, as if the ocean had simply parted over a great abyss. They were falling and the stars were getting farther away above the. Noemi screamed, her cries of terror muffled by Ophidia’s chest as the Goddess buried the mortal’s face in her bosom, like a mother would a child.
The world was dark as the stars went out. It took Noemi a second to process why that was. The giant snake had swallowed them whole, gulping down the sea water with them. They were in the belly of the beast, or more accurately, the mouth of it.
Jonah said nothing, though Noemi could see there was enough life left in the ghost that even he was uncertain of what would await him. Ronny was screaming at him to do something, get the Dutchman to sail away, but they had no “jump”, not that Noemi had seen.
“Is…Is this where it ends? After all that, I get swallowed by a monster?”
“…Do not despair, Noemi. We have not reached our end yet. I am here with you. Though even at the height of my power, I do not know if I had the strength to fight the World Serpent.”
“So that’s it. We’re going to die here?”
“We are still here. Have faith, Noemi.”
The words were said in a calming tone, but that was hardly enough to overcome the fear that washed over Noemi as the ship was bounced and jostled inside the monster’s mouth. She waited with baited breath for the next drop down, when the serpent would throw its head back and send them to its endless gullet.
“There’s light!” Ronny shouted, pointing franticly. “Ah! Cabin boy! Make your ghosts push us or something!”
“This is a man of war, Ronny, you know damn well there are no sails!”
“Do something, cabin boy!”
“It appears that there is not much that is needed of us,” Ophidia said calmly, raising her voice to catch the attention of the other two. “It seems that the World Serpent is doing it for us.”
Indeed, it was. The boat began to slide towards the light. Noemi briefly wondered if that was the end, whatever fate awaited those who died. It would be fitting, dying aboard the ship of the dead, skipping right to the end. Maybe she had actually been dead the whole time. Maybe Tess had won and this was all in her head.
There was a grumble as the ship sailed out of the largest cave Noemi had ever seen, the stalactites were sharp and dripped with venom that hit the deck with the force of a wave. As the ship pulled outside of the cave, Noemi realized with a sinking stomach that it wasn’t a cave at all.
It was the mouth of the World Serpent.
Slowly, the giant beast began to shrink as it circled the ship, its body coiling out of the water, every movement causing giant waves that rocked the ship. After a while, it was merely twice the size of the Dutchman…Or around there anyway. Noemi could not see all of its body at once.
It swayed its head from side to side, eying them with slit jewel-like eyes. A forked tongue flicked itself in the air.
You are bad food.
“Err…Yes! Very bad!” Ronny shouted up, cowering behind a box. “Elves don’t taste good, I promise.”
“I think it means because of all the ghosts, actually,” Noemi said, still shaking. Ophidia had relaxed her grip around her, but the Feathered Serpent still held the champion in her arms.
The snake turned her face a few degrees, to look directly at Noemi, the great yellow eye looming large over her, the tongue flicking again in her direction.
Noemi could swear the snake said something else, but it was lost in a hiss, as the force of the sound caused the wind to nearly send Noemi flying out to see in the gusts. Ophidia strengthened her grip on the girl’s shoulders.
She is my chosen one, World Serpent. You will not hurt her so long as I am here.
“Y-yeah, what she said. Don’t hurt Ophidia though!”
The World Serpent dove back beneath the water, before breaching on the other side of the ship, its tail pushing the Dutchman out of the water into the air. The World Serpent, Jormungandr, stared intently at it with a worrying concentration. After a while, they heard it speak again in a rumbling hiss that shook the ship.
Feathered One, you are far from home. But beneath the feathers I can see you’re like me… but much too small. I can make you bigger.
“Bigger? Like…Like you can make Ophidia stronger?” Noemi said, her voice rising to be heard above the winds.
Yes. Serpents and dragons, I seek. You will come with me, and I will make you bigger. I know the seas the skies and the ancient places. Where gods grow wise and serpents grow large.
Go with the Jormungandr? Noemi wasn’t so sure she liked that. After all, the World Serpent was probably like the Dutchman in that they couldn’t tell it where to go. It would go where it pleased. But it could offer Ophidia power, making the goddess stronger. Or would it just make the goddess more like…itself? Noemi wasn’t sure.
“What is this deal?”
You will come with me, I will make the Feathered One more than she has ever been.
“It would be of great use to us both, Noemi, if I were to gain power. To grow “bigger” as the World Serpent speaks,” Ophidia said. “In the end the choice is yours, as my champion, but I would not mind to accept this offer.”
Noemi frowned as she rubbed her temples. This wasn’t what she had planned or imagined at all when she had set out on this journey. Then again, how many times had she almost died already, just from being out at sea? And before that, while running from the cult? She wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Ophidia, who knows how many times over. She owed the Feathered Serpent.
But when she closed her eyes, she saw the chubby face of her sidekick, of Gisela, waiting with worry in some jail cell, or lost and not knowing where to go in the world. They had said they were going to meet in the Caribbean. She had to at least make it there. Besides, while Jormungandr offered them quick power, wasn’t the World Serpent usually an enemy of humanity or something? Noemi was sure she had read that Jormungandr was a monster, not a hero. A cult in the Caribbean would be stable and closer to Ophidia’s home. It would be a solid place to start.
“Sorry, Ophidia, but I think we should stick with the plan and head to the Caribbean. It’s closer to Aztlan, and so it will be easier to get a cult going there then…well, here. The whole point is to go home eventually after all.”
Disappointing, yet there are things you can do while you are still small. If you wish to be bigger, the World Serpent will hear it. I am always listening.
Jormungandr turned on its side, crashing back into the water as it started to swim away from the Dutchman, its coils porpoising across the ocean surface. The four sailors aboard the Dutchman watched her go.
“Haaa, that was too close!” Ronny said, clinging to Jonah’s arm. “Never take us that close to her again, cabin boy!”
Jonah pushed the elf off of him in annoyance. “It wasn’t like I had a choice, pirate. Now get off me! We have work to do.”
Ophidia looked at Noemi with a questioning glance, and for a second, Noemi felt guilt and regret. She considered calling out to the retreating serpent to say she changed her mind. “There will be time to take her upon her offer, Ophidia. But like she said, there are things we can still do while we’re ‘small’.”
“It is as you think is best, champion,” Ophidia said, but her voice lacked much enthusiasm. Still, as she looked out at the sun rising across the ocean, her eyes started to light up. “I do believe the World Serpent has yet still aided us. Perhaps unintentionally. I would check the maps while there is still time to see the stars…but I believe we may be where we sought to go.”
Previous Chapter Next Chapter
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa