The sea seemed to be never ending to Noemi. It reached out to endless horizons that curved off into limitless expanse. Having spent so much time running through the jungle, with its low branches and overgrown vines, where you could never see further than a few feet ahead before the view was blocked off or the light grew dark, the sea seemed a lot more…open. She had come to be known for standing on the deck, just letting the fresh ocean air breeze across her face and hair.
Sometimes the blue skies turned grey, dark clouds rolling across them and blocking the sun. Other times, they turned black, flashing lightning across the sky. At night, they lit up with the red and orange of the setting sun. The merchants always seemed happy when the sun went down, as the day’s work came to a close. The morning sun was treated with a lot less joy, especially compared to the joy Ophidia showed for it.
The goddess would often whisper in Noemi’s thoughts, far more than she did when she had Junko by her side. It seemed Ophidia felt just as cooped up on the sea as Noemi did, reaching out through their connection to talk and question Noemi about her plans.
As my champion, you should be working to increase my power, Noemi, by increasing the number of worshippers I have. For instance, there are a number of people aboard this ship…
“I’m not going to recruit a bunch of pirates to a cult, Ophidia,” Noemi hissed through her teeth, trying not to attract too much attention as she pulled the ropes to the sails, trying to catch the winds Ophidia was providing.
And why will you not?
“Because they’re pirates! Yeah, I know they said they’re honest traders, but I looked at the maps, we’ve been avoiding ‘safe’ ports in favor of heading to smaller, harder to get to docks. They’re pirates!”
They are still potential worshippers.
“Look, when we get to Hispaniola, I will set about getting us a permanent spot to build a shrine, and we’ll go from there. Though I don’t know how pious people will see me. I guess I can be a salesman easily enough…”
“CAPTAIN!” A voice shouted from above. Noemi looked up at the crow’s nest, a feature on ships that had come back into style as radar and global positioning systems became…less reliable. Noemi had been talking with the sailors about it. Many of them just scratched their heads, seeming to have forgotten the big metal behemoths that had sailed the seas just a few years prior. For many, the only way to sail the sea seemed to be with…well…sails.
“Land ho!” The lookout screamed, pointing somewhere off in the direction. The crew cheered, and Noemi could not blame them. After all, while she certainly preferred the sea to being cooped up in an Aztlan cage, it had been some time since they had seen land, and that had been a small island, barely even a waystation. To hit true, solid land, with actual ports and cities would be a relief after so much time spent on this ship.
“That’s funny,” the captain said, staring out through his spyglass towards where the lookout was gesturing. “Looks like there’s some fog rolling out from the coast.”
“Fog?” Noemi asked, leaning against the edge of the railing. It was still too far off to see anything but water on the horizon. The blue skies were a bit grayer than normal, considering there didn’t seem to be a storm coming. The wind Ophidia had created was still pushing them along at a good pace.
“We’ll just need to be careful as we approach, to avoid hitting a reef or getting stuck in the shallows,” the captain said, folding his spyglass and slipping it away. “In the meantime, boys, half-sails, we don’t want to come upon the beach too quickly, now.”
“Aye, captain!” a dozen voices called out in response, Noemi’s among them.
“Ophidia, can you slow the winds down a bit?” Noemi whispered under her breath.
It is not as if I am simply adjusting a dial, Noemi. But I will pull back my efforts and conserve my power. We do not know if this is truly Hispaniola.
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough,” Noemi said, as she started to pull the sails shut. She could barely feel the ship slowing beneath her feet. It was hard to tell at times if they were truly moving or simply drifting in place.
All the crew were bustling on board the deck, preparing for the promised land they were approaching. Crates needed to be fastened once more, sails tied, ropes secured. No one wanted to find themselves crashed upon the rocky shores.
As the sun began its descent from the zenith towards the western horizon, land could be seen from the deck of the ship by the naked eye. More accurately, the fog could be seen rolling across the sea, slowly crawling out to greet the ship. Noemi heard more than a little murmuring from the crew as they sailed towards the low gray cloud.
“Don’t like the feel of this,” one pirate said. “They say monsters lurk in the fog. Even fire don’t do much good inside of it.”
“Fire does alright,” another replied. “The problem ain’t the fire, it’s that you stand out like, well, a beacon if you’re carryin’ a torch. They’ll see you before you see them.”
“Enough chatter, men,” the captain said, silencing them all with a quick word. “Pilot says this is where Hispaniola should be. We might have been workin’ against the winds all this trip, but we should be coming up to a port soon enough, so eyes sharp.”
“Even through the fog, cap’n?”
“Aye, through the fog,” the captain said. “There won’t be any Aztlan here, but for all we know, them stories of New Orleans and their Loa might have spread to here. Or even worse things. Get the guns ready for anything.”
Noemi continued at her post, watching the others prepare the ship for any hazards they might face. She prayed silently in her heart that it would turn out to be just fog. She had had enough to do with spirits and magic for a while. It would be refreshing to just have a weather phenomenon that wasn’t cause for magical alarm. Her hands pulled at the ropes, even as she heard the hissing of Ophidia’s tongue in her ears.
You should keep your wits about, Noemi. I do not like the way this looks.
“Well, fog does make sailing harder,” Noemi said, light heartedly.
The crew moved with relative silence, talking to one another, but the celebration that had come when they had heard of land had died down quickly. Noemi could feel it too, that slight tingle in the back of her neck that told her they were sailing into trouble. Still, their supplies were running low and the pilot assured them all, this was Hispaniola.
They sailed on, the wind dying down as the afternoon turned into evening. The fog rolled over them as they rocked along the waves, carried into the cloud. The air turned cold and wet and dark. Shadows seemed to be moving about the ship. Noemi held her hand in front of her face, moving it far away to see just how thick the fog was. Her hand grew shadowed as she moved it out, clear as she moved it in. The other people on the deck moved like grey silhouettes, those bearing torches standing out among the darkness.
“Captain!” The lookout cried again, from his perch up above. “Incoming vessels…Can’t make out who they are! Towards the bow!”
Noemi squinted as she looked out into the fog. She could just make out two large shadowy shapes moving towards them along the water, in no real hurry. The ships were smaller than the pirate vessel, though sleeker. Noemi could tell they weren’t meant to carry much storage, which mean they were unlikely to be pirates. Unfortunately, that only narrowed out one threat.
The men moved to the bow to stare, even as the captain barked orders for them to stay at their posts. The ships, a pair of sloops with gray sails to better meld with the fog, appeared from the haze. The figures on the deck were hard to make out, with ashen skin and drab clothing. It was as if the mist had given shape to people made of the same gray cloud.
The captain stepped beside Noemi as she stared down. One of the sloops sailed close to the pirate ship. As it drew near, Noemi could see the people aboard the ship were not…human. They looked human, in many ways, but their skin was a pallid white; their eyes were dark and empty. Gaunt figured, their hair clung to their skin like slimy leeches.
One of the figures spoke up to the deck of the ship, its voice sounding at once both faraway and right beside Noemi’s ear.
“Yo ho, children of day,” the voice said. Noemi’s spine stiffened involuntarily, but she felt Ophidia’s presence fill her heart, keeping her from freezing. Most of the crew were not so lucky. “Welcome to the waters of the night. The Lost Fleet welcomes you to your new service.”
Noemi’s hand fell to her machete as she drew it. The men were staring down, almost as if in a trance. She didn’t know what this Lost Fleet was, but it didn’t sound like anything she wanted to do. No, if the ship was going to be commandeered by some ghost pirate or naval fleet, she would find her own way to the shore, if it came to that. The other sailors looked to each other, muttering and asking one another what should be done. The ghostly captain’s voice drifted along the wind up to the ship once again.
“Of course, for those who choose to resist their fate…the ocean will welcome you, to the lands where the sun reaches not. Your worldly goods belong to the Fleet, with or without you.”
“Come on, men!” The captain bellowed. “If’n both options be death, then let us at least sink their ships before they can sink ours!”
“But captain…how do you shoot a ghost?”
“They may be ghosts but their ships are still wood! Guns at the ready!”
Noemi joined the chorus, even as she subtly made her way to the rowboat. She knew she wasn’t the only one who would have thought of such a plan, and there were only so many boats aboard the ship. She saw the crew move through the fog, many heading below the decks to pack gunpowder into the cannons.
“Captain…” The lookout’s voice rang out once again. “There’s another ship coming, port side.”
Noemi looked over the edge of the railing. Sure enough, there was a third ship sailing through the fog, though this one seemed far away. She heard movement on the sloop below them. The ghosts were rushing about, pulling their ghastly sails away, loading their cannons.
“I don’t think it’s a friend of theirs, captain,” Noemi said, with a grin.
“It might not be a friend of ghosts, but that doesn’t mean it’s a friend of ours! Raise the sails, men, we’re making a run for it!”
Noemi could barely tell what was happening in the confusion that followed. People rushed to and fro, pulling on ropes and adjusting the rudder, heading down below the decks. The sloops seemed to be preparing to flee as well, though their sailors were still brandishing their swords and pistols at the pirates.
“Captain, I don’t think…”
She heard the sound of the cannons before she got the sentence out. The sloops might have been running, but if they couldn’t have the ship, they would make sure their rival didn’t. Noemi gripped the railing as the cannonballs tore through the hull, rocking the ship.
“Return fire!” the captain ordered, firing their own broadsides back at the sloops. Noemi’s struggled to keep her feet as the ship moved back and forth from the force of the cannons. She could fight in the streets, in the jungle. There was always a place to run or jump, a solid piece of ground to land on. Here, there was nothing as she nearly slipped.
The second volley was too much for her. As the wood splintered in the explosion, Noemi found herself flying backwards off the ship, the railing snapping behind her.
“Caaaaptaaaain!” She cried out as she grabbed fruitlessly at the air, the pirates’ growing smaller and smaller until they were barely larger than toy soldiers to her eyes. Noemi crashed into the water back first. The first thing she noticed was the cold as the ocean water chilled her to her bone. The second thing was the pain the impact had upon her spine. Had she not been blessed by Ophidia, Noemi would have probably died, joining countless others on the ocean floor.
She pushed the water back, swimming furiously for the light of the surface. With her first gasp of breath, she screamed in pain. The second breath she called out to the pirates.
“Captaaain! Come back! Don’t leave me like that!”
They are not coming, Noemi.
“Well someone has to! Ghosts! Hey! I want to join your fleet!” Noemi waved her arms, trying to get the ghosts attentions. It failed. The sloops were sailing away just as her ride was. “Someone, please! Anyone! Come back!”
“Please, I don’t want to die here, in the water! Someone help me!”
Noemi. The ship is coming closer.
“The ship, what shi-“ Noemi said as she spun around in the cold salty water, her face going pale. The ship that had scared the ghosts was sailing towards her. Even from a distance, she could tell it was big. Bigger than the pirate ship she had been sailing with. Its hull was made of black wood, covered with slimy green rime. The water around it seemed to glow from an unseen light source. Its sails were tatters, holes letting the last light of the sun shine through, though it didn’t seem to affect its movement. In fact, it was traveling with far greater speed than Noemi expected.
She treaded water for a bit as the large vessel sailed towards her. Noemi was about to call up, waving her arms when a rope ladder was dropped down the side. Thankful just to get out of the icy water, Noemi grabbed hold of the ladder and started climbing her way up, shivering the whole time. The rope was slimy and slippery, though she could feel Ophidia curling around her shoulder and neck beneath her shirt as she pulled herself up, giving her the balance needed to keep from falling.
After the longest climb of her life, Noemi finally pulled herself aboard the ship, gasping for breath as she collapsed into a shivering soaking pile upon the deck. She looked up to see a pair of boots. Slowly, she raised her eyes. A man was standing above her, looking down at her with a smirk upon his face.
“Well, now, isn’t this a surprise. You made the climb still living,” the man said, laughing. Noemi just collapsed again, exhausted from the effort. The last thing she remembered hearing before drifting off was his laughing voice telling her one more thing, something that chilled her more than the water did.
“The name’s Jonah. Welcome aboard The Flying Dutchman.”
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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa