The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 54

 

Wood cracked and groaned and splintered, sails whipped and snagged and strained against their lines. The Dutchman croaked its grinding chorus as it tried to lurch itself free from the cold grasp of the Naglfar, and on its deck, the few remaining survivors did all they could to fight on. The thunder of the cannons had ceased, the ghostly crew abandoning their ship as soon as the chance presented itself, all save for Jonah and his living companions.

Noemi pulled the trigger, feeling the hard kick of the revolver in her hand as another one of the Naglfar’s ghastly soldiers fell, the top of its skull reduced to powdered bone. She still had the axe as well and swung it with great effectiveness through the ghostly and skeletal boarders. Jonah was at the helm, doing all he could to maneuver the floundering ship while Ronny stayed at Noemi’s side.

“The ship’s taking on water!” Ronny said, looking to where the reinforced prow of the Naglfar had struck the Dutchman. The boarding had breached the Dutchman’s hull beneath the waterline and the cold ocean was rushing in, slowing the Dutchman along with the chains driven into her deck and hull. No matter how hard Jonah strained against the wheel, they were well and truly trapped.

“Noemi”, Ophidia’s voice sounded in her head. “I might have the strength to fly you and Rhonwen from this ship to the Isles…”

Noemi grimaced. It would mean abandoning the battle and abandoning Jonah to his fate. Where was Jormungandr?

Jonah strained against the wheel of the ship, trying with all his might to wrest it free from the Naglfar.

“The damn thing won’t budge!” Jonah groaned. “It’s like the keel is stuck on something!”

“The keel can’t be…” Ronny paused, thinking it over. “No…that’s not it…” She hurried to Jonah’s side as Noemi covered them, the deck now full of boarders as the three of them were forced to huddle around the helm, pressed in at all sides. Ronny strained against the wheel, struggling with all her might, and yet still it would not budge.

“See it’s-“ Jonah paused, his words cut off as Ronny’s cutlass went to his throat.

“Crewman Jonah, I am taking command of the ship,” She said. “Because…well because I’m a pirate and that’s what we do. But more because this ship won’t move without a captain!”

“What do you mean it won’t move without a captain!?” Noemi shouted, slamming the axe into another Viking raider.

“This ship is magic, Red!” Ronny shouted back. “It needs a captain like a lock needs a key. And the original captain’s gone!”

With that, she turned back to Jonah, sword still raised. “Accept me as Captain, Jonah. It’s our only shot.”

“I…” Before he could say any more, a long deep note rolled across the ocean from all sides. At once, all the boarders, from the cursed Vikings to the Naglfar’s forsaken troops, either scurried back to their lines or simply vanished. The Dutchman was still bound by the chains of the Naglfar and boarding ships, but in mere moments its deck had emptied.

“What’s happening…” Noemi said, her voice unconsciously falling quiet. It should have been a relief. They had a moment of reprieve now after all, yet something sank in the pit of her stomach.

From the ocean a strange fog climbed up the sides of the Dutchman. It was thick and dark, like a deep blue smoke the color of murky water that rolled over the railings and up onto the deck, obscuring everything it moved over in impenetrable fog.

Noemi raised her gun towards the fog, not sure what was coming, but she felt Ronny’s hand take her wrist and lower it.

“This isn’t them,” she said, her voice quiet as she stared into the fog. “This is…something else.”

“She’s right,” Ophidia said. “I can feel it as well. Something powerful, and something very old.”

From the fog, the sound of slow footsteps crossed the deck, heavy irregular feet that marched up the deck towards the helm, the source of the sound invisible through the fog. It moved steadily closer, and Noemi could hear an odd sort of echo to it, a pulsing in the noise as if they were underwater.

It came steadily closer until it was so loud, Noemi was sure the source was upon them. In the almost impenetrable fog she could finally make out a figure stepping towards them. She couldn’t make out the shape, and it stopped a little short of revealing itself.

It was tall, taller than any of them, and where she supposed its eyes were, she could see only a pair of dim bright lights, like the lures of some deep sea creature. It arranged itself, stepping on two feet though it may have been trailing a sack or a bag, or perhaps a fiendish tail. Noemi had almost no perception of what it was, its shape was a mystery, and yet it set off a kind of alarm in her heart that she had not felt since she had seen the terrible of reflection of Tezcatlipoca’s true form in the obsidian mirror on that temple in Tenochtitlan.

“Who are you?” It was Ronny who stepped forwards, though by the quavering in her voice she was almost literally shaking in her boots as she addressed the spirit.

The shape in the fog moved, and the fog seemed to grow thicker, an unearthly light opening like a jagged crack beneath its saucer eyes in the semblance of a mouth. When it spoke, it did so with a sound that could only be described as the sound of grinding wood and crushing water, echoed from the darkest depths of the ocean.

 

Davy Jones

 

That’s what Noemi heard, but its mouth did not move quite right, and judging by the way Ronny’s spine went rigid, she might have heard something quite different, but the message was clear. There were gods of the seas and storms, gods of strong winds and gods of sailors. But in the absolute darkness of the ocean depths, where no human could long survive and where countless sailors found their tomb, there was only one master, ancient and primordial.

 

Where is the Captain of the Flying Dutchman

 

“I uh…” Jonah moved from the helm to stand by Ronny. “The Captain…Captain Vanderdecken left. He fled D-…er…Mister Jones.”

The great shining eyes of Davy Jones moved to Jonah, and Noemi could almost see him shrivel under the gaze. For the first time, he looked more like a ghost than a man, intangible and translucent.

 

And you have stayed

 

“I…yes, I have.” Jonah said, doing his best to swallow his fear.

“I-I’m taking over as captain!” Ronny said, moving to his side. “Jonah can work for me but-“

 

The living cannot sail the Dutchman

Captain of the ship is more than a title and a helm

 

Davy Jones’ footsteps echoed as he drew closer, the fog closing in around them, his great bulk only growing larger as he looked down upon Jonah.

 

Vanderdecken spurned the title

A small man of small vision

Can you be what he was not

To be before all else the Jailor of the Deep

 

Noemi was close enough now to almost make out the silhouette, and she swore she could see sharp shark-like teeth lining its jagged maw as it spoke in its crushing voice.

 

Jonah

 

Jonah shuddered as if he had been struck. He glanced down at his hand, only to find he could barely see it as his ghostly essence withered. The message was clear to all of them: The choice was his, but Jonah, like all sunken sailors, belonged to Davy Jones.

Jonah’s hand curled into a fist as he drew himself back up to standing. Stepping forwards as he stared into the shining eyes of Davy Jones.

“I will,” he said. “Before all else. I’ll seek no harbor; I’ll look for no escape. I will do all that you ask of me and keep these sunken spirits where they belong.”

Noemi couldn’t be sure, but she believed to her core she saw the mouth of Davy Jones curl into a smile. An appendage, something like an arm ending in a hand extended from its side, still wreathed in falling fog, and Jonah, gingerly at first, took hold and shook the hand. If a ghost could grow pale, then the color entirely left Jonah when his hand met the hand of the entity before him.

 

Then the ship is yours, Jonah

Captain of the Flying Dutchman

 

With his great footfalls, Davy Jones stalked back across the deck and into the fog. The dark mist recoiling as it drew back into the sea. Cautiously, almost hesitantly, Jonah reached out and took the wheel of the ship. Almost at once he grew solid again, the solidity of the ship giving him back his own. The ship groaned and whined as it strained against the Naglfar once more. And soon the boarders once more began to climb aboard, emboldened by Davy Jones’ departure.

“Well we can maneuver, that’s nice,” Ronny said angrily. “But we’re still one ship against a fleet…Captain.”

Jonah’s hands curled on the wheel, and Noemi could see something distant in his eyes, like a foglight burning through the mist.

“No…” he said. “We’re not just one ship.”

Jonah left the helm, but Noemi could see the wheel still operating as if he held it, and he moved towards the starboard railing.

“Cap…Jonah? What’s wrong?” Ronny asked, the concern growing in her voice as she saw the lights in his eyes.

“I see it all, Ronny,” He said. “I see what this ship is. What it was really meant to be. It’s like he said …”

“Umm, guys…” Noemi said, drawing her pistol as the raiders climbed onto the deck once more.

Jonah lifted his hand, and aboard the deck a line of spectral figures appeared. Phantom marines, dressed in centuries-old uniforms, appeared along the stays with muskets drawn. In a flash of ghostly smoke, the first of the raiders were blown apart, sent scattering back into the mist.

“Vanderdecken thought he could still be a man,” Jonah said. “He thought if his phantom ship ever reached harbor, he could go home and be a living man again.”

“But I’m the Captain of the Flying Dutchman now. The ship answers my call…and not just this ship.”

Jonah looked out to the south, to the empty seas where the grey waters began to roil and churn. From the depths came the rising bow of a ruined ship, algae and mollusks clinging to its rotted wooden hide. Where the ship was missing beams and planks, ghostly energy appeared to take its place, a ship half-phantom half-ruin. After this ship came another, then a third.

Soon, from the south a small fleet had risen. Like the Naglfar’s fleet it came from all eras and lands. A Greek trireme rose alongside a rusted battleship from the first world war, the decks all manned by ghosts.

With a final rending cry the Dutchman pulled itself free from the Naglfar, the shattered planks regenerating from the fog as it sailed towards this new fleet.

“Jonah…” Ronny stared at the second ghost fleet. “Did you summon these?”

“I think I understand,” Ophidia’s voice rang out across the deck as the Dutchman pulled free, the ghostly marines hewing through the remaining border lines. “A Captain is a contract between man and ship, but Jonah has entered another. He is to the spirit of the ocean depths as you are to me, Noemi. Though that entity was more Primordial than god…one could say Jonah is the Champion of Davy Jones…or perhaps in this case, his avatar.”

“I’m still me,” Jonah said, going back to the wheel of the ship. With a flick of his raised hand, the sails realigned themselves, a new crew of ghostly sailors appearing as they worked the lines. “I’m still Jonah…but Ophidia’s right. A captain is a contract between man and ship. Those ghosts want to sail across the world and bring havoc, they want to rise from the depths in defiance of the natural order. I was always going to stand in their way but now…they’ve hurt my ship. They’ve wounded me. And I plan to make them pay.”

He turned to Ronny and Noemi. “The Naglfar might be an ancient Norse ghost ship…but how well do you think that hunk of nails and timber can take a broadside from a proper ship of the line?”

Noemi grinned. “Let’s find out.”

 

The Dutchman had pulled away from the enemy fleet with unnatural speed, but now the sails shifted as it began to come around, the flagship of its own ghostly fleet. It might have pulled free, but the Naglfar was still a colossal ship, and its own fleet easily matched the Dutchman’s in size.

“Fair warning,” Jonah said as he maneuvered the Dutchman back towards the Naglfar. “I’m not really up on my naval tactics.”

“I don’t think anyone can really prepare for a battle like this,” Noemi said. “But I think we can still give them hell.”

 

The battle that broke out off the coast of the Faroe Islands was the strangest battle at sea in history. Ships from every era, crewed by the damned, clashed in a storm of fire, wood, arrows, and spears. Guns from across the centuries thundered like a cacophony of drums as mortar fire streaked through the sky. Roman legionnaires slammed the heads of their galleys into Viking longboats and ran aboard as gladii clashed with bearded axes. Spanish galleons ruptured and exploded as the guns from destroyers ripped through their fragile wooden hulls from across the battlefield. Even the odd Chinese Junk collided with Polynesian ships as ghosts from across the world crossed sword, spear, axe and gun.

At the center of it all, two vast ships engaged each other again and again. The Naglfar, the enormous black skeletal ship with a hull like iron and divine power unleashed a hoard of boarding Vikings at each pass; and The Flying Dutchman, renewed by the vigor of its captain, moving with demonic speed, far faster than its size should allow as it unleashed on broadside after another into the tough hide of the Naglfar. Its spectral marines, led by Ronny and Noemi, repelled the boarders at every turn.

Noemi still had her gun and axe, using them to repel anything that got past the salvos of the organized marines. Her ears ached from the constant roar of gun and cannon fire, but above it all, as the battle raged, she heard another roar resounding from above.

“Noemi,” Ophidia whispered in her ear. “I believe that is the-“

“Dragons!!” Ronny shouted, and from the clouds overhead Noemi could see scores of large, dark, and serpentine shapes descending upon them. At the same time, the waters roiled as the bulk of sinuous sea serpents rose up. As the dragons descended, as if on some signal, a score of them unleashed torrents of fire like lances of light from the sky.

What had already been a mess descended into absolute chaos as the dragons joined the fray. Massive sea serpents coiled around the hulls of ships before crushing them like pythons. Great winged dragons of Europe strafed the Naglfar’s fleet, unleashing lines of fire that burned through entire ships. Some of the dragons even slammed into the decks, massive scaly serpents that ripped the ships apart with tooth and claw.

Noemi couldn’t help but smile as the Naglfar’s fleet began to come apart. Jormungandr had made good on its promise, and the tide of battle had turned.

“Noemi, duck!”

Noemi barely had time to throw herself to her feet as a torrent of fire ripped across the deck of the Dutchman, obliterating a line of marines as a figure leapt from the deck of the Naglfar to theirs with unnatural grace.

Noemi scrambled to her feet, raising her fun as the figure pulled back the hood of their cloak to reveal a woman’s face with pale skin, shimmering green eyes, and bright red hair.

“Who the hell are you!?” Noemi demanded as Ronny rushed to her side.

The woman stared at them, eyes narrowed as her fingertips glowed with barely-restrained fire.

“My name, child, is Morgan le Fay. And this farcical resistance has gone on long enough.”

Noemi could see Ronny’s face shift from one of fury to absolute terror. “Oh shit.”

The name sounded familiar, but right now Noemi didn’t care. Without a thought she raised her gun and fired.

With a sharp ping the bullet was deflected, seemingly by nothing but empty air as Morgan stared her down.

“It seems at least one of you needs a lesson in manners.”

Noemi gripped her pistol as she raised it again. “Yeah, I’ve got a history of having a problem with authority.”

“Uh Red, might want to rethink that…” Ronny said nervously. She was still shaking, but she had her cutlass raised all the same. “I mean…Morgan le Fay is a serious bit of magic firepower if you catch my meaning.”

“Allow me, Noemi.”

“Ophidia I’m not sure if you’re strong enough yet to-“

Before she could finish, Ophidia uncurled herself from where the small serpent had wrapped herself into a bracelet along her arm. It reminded Noemi of when they had first met, nothing more than a winged garter snake that needed her protection and faith. This time, however, Ophidia just kept growing.

More and more, the sinuous pale white curls of the feathered serpent expanded, the lights of the cannons and rockets shimmering across her iridescent scales as she coiled upwards until finally she could wrap herself entirely lengthwise around the Dutchman. Ophidia spread her wings, the long brilliant white feathers blocking out all other lights as they almost enclosed the ship, her enormous serpent head leveled down at Morgan, red eyes flashing as she bared long fangs. A serpent of her size could have swallowed ten men whole at once.

“I do not care what shore or forest or pit you hail from, Morgan le Fay,” Ophidia’s voice boomed across the deck, the shining white winged serpent visible from miles around.

“I am Ophidia, the Feathered Serpent, the Unity of Earth and Sky, and this girl is under my protection. Strike against her and we shall see what a witch is before a god.”

Morgan stared between them, her eyes flashing with fury as she looked from Noemi, gun still raised, up into the vast eyes of Ophidia. Her hands curled into fists, and for a second Noemi was sure she was about to strike anyway, but in a brief flash of fire she vanished, leaving only the smell of brimstone in her wake.

“Whew…” Noemi lowered her gun, exhaling in relief along with Ronny before looking up into the vast red eyes of the feathered serpent.

“Wow…you really have grown.”

“Thanks entirely to you, Noemi,” Ophidia said. “You have a goddess in your debt, something you should not be quick to dismiss,”

“Trust me, I’m in your debt too,” Noemi smiled. “Now there’s a lot of ships out there that need to be sunk again. Go show those European dragons a bit of Mesoamerican pride.”

With a shrieking hiss, Ophidia launched herself in the air, whirling through the sky as she joined the other dragons in the assault, her shimmering white scales visible against the dark grey sky.

The retreat of Morgan le Fay marked the beginning of the end for the Naglfar’s fleet. From the combined might of the Dutchman’s fleet and the draconic attack, the other ghostly ships had retreated or been destroyed, and soon only the Naglfar was left, its great black hull now covered in the scars from cannon and dragon fire.

Noemi was about to call Jonah to move in and prepare to board the Naglfar, but an instinct, a feeling in her gut, held her back, and she felt Jonah begin to guide the ship away from the floundering enemy ship.

“Where are we going?” Noemi asked, running to the helm. “The Naglfar’s still floating.”

“Not for long,” Jonah said, but his eyes were still locked on the great black ship. As one, the dragons and ghost ships began to pull away from it, as if all were given the same signal. Noemi stared in confusion, seeing the crippled ship floating alone in the waters, until she saw the seas beneath the Naglfar begin to churn.

 

Aboard the Naglfar, Loki swore under his breath as he tried to get the ship back on course. The sails and hull were immensely damaged and he was suffering as well, wounded by the nails and splinters of the ship’s collapsing hull and scorched by dragon fire. Nothing permanent, but certainly painful. He glanced out to sea, waiting for the next attack only to see that the enemy had retreated. At first, he felt a wash of triumph, but it was quickly drowned in a wave of confusion. Why had they retreated?

A great shadow fell over the deck of the Naglfar, blocking out what little light the iron-dark sky provided. Loki stood for a moment in the darkness before he finally turned and saw the shape of a great serpent looming over his ship, larger than any other wyrm, larger than any ship, larger than anything else on Midgard.

The World Serpent opened its jaws wide, revealing the vast yawning void of its throat as a voice boomed across the seas.

 

“Greetings Father”

 

Noemi watched as the jaws of Jormungandr came down upon the Naglfar, swallowing much of it whole as the rest exploded outwards into so much flotsam.

As the World Serpent sank beneath the waves, its prize safely in its endless belly, they were left with an empty sea where it had been. Soon the light grew brighter across the northern ocean as the clouds began to part and the mist began to fade away.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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