It took far less time for Noemi to readjust to being aboard the Dutchman than she expected. At first this scared her. After all, it was a ship of the dead. What place did she have aboard it to feel so comfortable? Still, she had spent so much time aboard ships while fleeing Aztlan, that there was something almost comforting about returning to the sea.
What she hadn’t gotten used to quite yet was the bitter cold. The ship was still of the damned as it were, and the dead didn’t mind the cold. All the blankets they had were thin and scratchy, and so Noemi spent most nights curled up against Ophidia trying to keep herself as warm as she could. The goddess didn’t seem to mind, and despite being a serpent, Noemi found her surprisingly warm.
It didn’t get any warmer as they sailed to the north. True to Jonah’s words, there were far more ghost ships sailing than Noemi remembered from her last voyage. Their pace was slow for the Dutchman as they made their way to the frozen north again, fighting the drowned dead that had risen from the sea floor. Noemi had run out of bullets for her guns long before they reached the North Sea and had taken to using a sword to fight back the skeletal sailors.
Still, they had persisted, as the waters had turned dark and frigid, the air icy on the deck as Noemi bundled herself in a coat made of Ophidia’s feathers. The goddess had presented it to her as they had sailed further north, and it was quite effective of keeping Noemi’s heat trapped.
“Yo, Red, help me out with the sails!”
Ronny was hanging off the mast, a rope tied her belt as she sewed up the fabric of the Dutchman’s sails where holes had cut into the sheet. Noemi looked up, frowning, had over her eyes to block out the glare of the sun.
“Why are you bothering? It’s not like this ship will be slowed by holes in the sail. As far as I can tell, it’s all magic.”
“Yah, but it looks ugly. Who wants to sail on an ugly ship?”
“…Pass. If I fall from that height, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to leave this boat.”
“What a whiner!” Ronny grumbled, as she started lowering herself by the rope. “So why are we going north anyway? Cabin boy said it was your request.”
“Mm,” Noemi paused for a moment, looking at the elf, before shrugging her shoulders. There wasn’t really any harm in being honest when they were already on the ship. “I’m going to try to summon Jormungandr.”
“The World Serpent? Why?”
“Because don’t you remember the last time? I want to…take her up on her offer. And Ophidia could really benefit from the cosmic power.”
“If I remember last time, it was considering eating us last time we saw it…You’re weird, wanting to see it again.”
“I guess I am,” Noemi said with a grin. “But she said ghosts aren’t tasty, and think how bad ghost wood must taste. To a giant snake, it must taste like moldy dirt or something!”
Ronny laughed, untying herself from the rope as she dropped down to the deck, but furrowed her brow and scrunched her face again as she remembered just who they were talking about. “Still don’t trust it, her, whatever! They always say she’s a sign of the end, after all.”
“Well, I think we’re already in the end of days, Ronny,” Noemi said. “After all, the dead are rising, people are following old gods and rituals. I guess I’m one of those too, but…”
“If you get us eaten, Red, I’m going to haunt you forever on this ship.”
Noemi sighed as Ronny brushed by to go about her other tasks. The elf was certainly lively, a welcome change of pace compared to all the ghosts and even Ophidia and Jonah, who still came off with a certain distance, but that liveliness sometimes left Ronny storming off in a huff.
“I would not worry, Noemi,” Ophidia said, her voice coming from behind. Noemi felt the goddess’s hands on her shoulders, squeezing them with reassurance. “I did not feel any ill-intent or duplicity from the World Serpent when we last spoke. She seemed an…earnest creature. I do not see why she would have cause to deceive.”
“Yeah, though she’s so…big…I just hope it doesn’t turn you into some weird alien dragon monster, Ophidia…”
Ophidia smiles and gives Noemi’s shoulders another squeeze. “I would not allow such a thing. Especially with a cult that is growing. I am better now to resist such an influence than before.”
“So what you’re saying is that…It was the right call to make the cult first?” Noemi teased, leaning back into her arms.
“I don’t know if I would say that necessarily,” Ophidia said, ending her words with a small huff, before continuing, albeit reluctantly. “However, there are…advantages to the order we chose.”
“Well, I think we’re getting close. Those mountains have been in the distance, just over the horizon, for like three days now…That’s ‘her’ right?”
“It is…a part of her. But we are close to where her essence is at its strongest, to draw her forth into this world.”
“Yeah, they kind of look like those images you see on the maps, where they’ll draw a sea serpent with links like arches in the water. We don’t seem to get any closer or farther away.”
“We are close, as I said. I will summon her in the morning, Noemi, should the stars and signs be right.”
Noemi didn’t get much sleep that night, even curled up in Ophidia’s protective arms. She was warm, the ship trying to gently rock her to bed, but every time she closed her eyes, she could only see the massive jaws of the World Serpent, swallowing the boat as the light goes dark. It had been one of the most terrifying moments of her life, even more than the jungle. In the jungle, she had to run faster. Staring down the jaws of the giant snake into the void…there was no where to run from that.
Eventually, though, sleep had finally claimed her. The sun had yet to rise as she stumbled onto the deck, still weary from the poor rest she had gotten. Ophidia was already there, along with Jonah, as a representative of the Dutchman. He was frowning, clearly as unsure as Ronny about this entire endeavor.
“Are we really sure we want to catch her eye? I mean, what if she changed her mind about not wanting to eat this ship? I don’t want to see if the Dutchman can dive into stomach acid to escape.”
“We’ll be fine, Jonah,” Noemi said, with more confidence than she actually felt. She turned to Ophidia, who stood at the prow, staring out at the ‘mountains’ in the distance. “Ready when you are, Ophidia!”
The feathered serpent nodded. Before the pair’s eyes, Ophidia’s cape transformed, attaching to her arms, becoming a set of feathered wings. Her body started to sway back and forth, as a tail sprouted from behind her, tipped with the same white feathers. Noemi just watched her movements, like those of a snake charming a vole.
At first, there was nothing. No response at all. Yet the tension fell over them like a blanket, as Noemi’s breaths grew shorter and quieter, feeling it building in her chest. Ophidia rose from the deck, hovering in the air, using her wings to twirl like a cyclone as she danced, communicating in a language without words. Noemi had seen her do such things with other spirits, often times she would dance to make the ghosts sluggish and slow. Now, however, she moved with an ancient grace, like a priestess before an altar.
There was a low rumbling, as the mountains started to shift. The moved like a wave, dipping into the ocean before rising up once more, water crashing down around them as the ocean churned. Noemi gripped the side of the ship as it thrashed over the tumbling waves. In the water, there was a large crest of water, coming towards the Dutchman, the height as tall as the mast aboard the man-o-war.
“Here it comes…” Jonah said, his face white.
“I think it should be…’Thar she blows’!” Ronny said, giggling, though Noemi knew it was more out of fear than humor.
Noemi said nothing, as the wave drew closer. It blotted out the sun, casting a shadow over the Dutchman, rising like a pillar towards the sky, before the water fell away, revealing the form of the Midgard Serpent. Salt water came down like a deluge upon the Dutchman, as the giant snake stared with its jeweled eyes.
“You have returned, Feathered One.”
“I have,” Ophidia said, still hovering in the air, moving in a figure eight before the larger being. “I have come to learn and grow more powerful, as you offered before.”
“Already you have become not so small as when I last spoke. You are becoming big, big enough to stand among us.”
“I am, World Serpent, if you would have me.”
Jormungandr stared down at her, ignoring the ship, the “not food” as she had once declared them. Noemi felt like an ant before her eyes, small, insignificant. Not even the Dutchman had firepower enough to stand against the serpent.
“I have gathered to me a storm of dragons, wyrms, and serpents, assembling them and learning what has become of many,”
Jormungandr said, her words causing the waves to rise and fall, rocking the boat beneath. She paused, to allow the sea to calm itself before speaking again.
“Something broods beyond the walls. Rumors stir in the waters of the world. Ragnarok is coming to pass.”
“I thought Ragnarok already happened!” Noemi shouted up, though she didn’t know if the World Serpent could hear her. “Ophidia, ask her that!”
“Has not Ragnarok already passed? The world has changed, Great One, and it is a new age, is it not?”
“It is not. The Norns are silent. The hammers of the shipwrights of the Naglfar clamor in the depths. The Black Ship may soon sail.”
“And that is the end of the world?”
The serpent nodded her head, and Noemi could feel her feet giving out from under her, as if the water of the ocean was sinking away. Jormungandr stopped, and the world stabilized around her once more.
“If you wish to stop the ending of the world, we will need a ship to sail against the Black. This ship. Among many more.”
“Err, I’m sorry…” Jonah said, shouting up as well. He shook his head, his face white. “You want the Dutchman? But…That’s…It doesn’t work that way. Only Davy Jones can command it!”
“Has your lord spoken to you in recent time, ghost?”
Jonah shut up, not having an answer. The serpent focused her intense glare down at him, all but crushing him beneath the weight of it. Ronny looked at Jonah, then to Jormungandr. She took a gulp and stepped forward.
“I don’t get it! You’re Jormungandr, right? So aren’t you on the side that wants to end the world? All the stories we’ve ever told have said that you fight with the giants and end the world!”
Jormungandr laughed, and it was as if a great wind came from the north, pushing the Dutchman back, the sea turning choppy and rough. Spray blanketed the crew, including Noemi, her hand turning white from grabbing onto the railing.
“I seek only the death of the Thunderer. My enemies are not humans, nor the world. For the world is me. Fate must go as planned. Time is not ready for our battle. It is a wrong thing.”
“A wrong thing, World Serpent?” Ophidia asked.
“It may yet come to pass, but there is a hand behind this that I do not like. Join my army of wyrms, Feathered One, and fight against the wrong thing. Do so, and I will make you big.”
Noemi looked up at Ophidia, trying to catch her breath from the excitement that came with every motion of the large snake. Ophidia turned to catch her eye, and in that moment, Noemi saw hesitation in the goddess. A sense that there would be no going back. Noemi took a deep breath, before nodding her head. It was okay. They would do this together.
Ophidia turned back to the world serpent, staring up at her large shining eyes.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa