I didn’t sleep much, which was for the better since I wanted to spend as much time healing as possible. My spell did wonders, but my back was far from whole. I didn’t look forward to the recovery period – shortened as it may have been.
When I could feel dawn readying itself on the horizon with a fresh storm, I ended my therapy session. I removed myself from my knotted harness and then anchored myself. The effect was swinging down through the water like a pendulum, below the keel of the boat and then aft again. That was just for fun and a bit of showmanship. If anyone was watching the rope, they’d wonder what in the world was happening. I went adrift again before climbing the rope, so I didn’t overtly strain my back muscles.
As soon as I broke the surface, I lost that luxury. “Ahoy!” I called to the watchers on the quarterdeck – because there was indeed a small audience there. “Pull me up, will ya?”
I looped the rope around a leg and stepped on it, easily keeping myself upright while they hoisted me up like there was a liopleuro circling me. With the trick I pulled messing with the line, they just might think something big was causing trouble … whoops.
I spilled onto the deck as casually as an unclothed man pulled from the sea could, thanking my fellows while donning a spare set of clothes from my bag. Pulling a shirt over my head wasn’t fun but compared with the memory of the lashings still so fresh in my mind the pain was minimal. More than one person had wide eyes, seeing me so at ease after being flogged and dragged behind the ship all night.
Rhistel climbed up the quarterdeck and analyzed me before motioning to follow him. “The surgeon would like to examine you.”
I followed immediately, leaving whispers and half-serious jokes behind me. I was cutting a mysterious and powerful figure, but the rumors were adding to my mystique as a mage – not creating suspicions about my cursed nature. I rather liked that.
Myota was just as surprised by my seemingly chipper attitude as the progress my healing spell had made. The healing certainly contributed to my outlook, but the real reasons were that my time in the sea last time was more revitalizing then I’d expected, and I’d felt incredibly vindicated and assured that I’d done the right thing.
Improved recovery or not, Myota declared I wasn’t ready to go back to work and instead wanted me to immediately go do some more healing. When I asked if I should check in with the captain first, Myota overruled me with a significant look.
“I’m the surgeon here. If the Captain wants to overrule me let him pull you up!” I nodded, understanding what he was doing. I peeked into the slaves hold on my way up and saw that Myota had already started implementing changes. The slaves that saw me all had a strange look in their eye; either they thought I was a madman or some kind of savior. I told myself Myota was seeing to everything and left before anyone tried to speak with me.
I downed some food before jumping over the stern to calls of sailors asking me to watch their fishing lines. I spent the rest of the day and part of the next healing, the only excitement coming when a four-foot shark failed to realize the foolishness of assuming I was a free meal. I tied my harness to its tail after dispatching it and had the crew pull it up. I heard Zamari made a fuss about it, but everyone else was happy for the fresh meat.
Burdette demanded to see my injuries after my extended healing sessions. I obliged, and while I couldn’t see my own back without a mirror I could use my imagination. Cleansing waters could reduce how bad a scar would be, but it didn’t create baby-smooth flesh like some healing spells. I’d carry the marks of my decision. Such scars were often seen as marks against an unruly sailor, but I felt proud of mine.
Burdette just turned to his surgeon. “He’s skin and scar tissue. His HP is full. Any reason he can’t get back to work?”
“No,” Myota said. “But he’ll have to work on his range of motion …”
I’d already taken to stretching and getting myself back to top shape. My healing spell was more helpful in that regard than Myota gave it credit for, but I did have some things to work on.
More importantly, my time of healing had felt too much like idleness. I needed to work. So I was truly appreciative when Burdette threw me back into my full-time duties, doing the work of multiple men on the understaffed crew.
We had some interesting adventures in the time we took sailing north. Before we distanced ourselves too much from Tulisang, we were approached and boarded by pirates. I’d cast my buffs and was fingering my weapons, but Burdette ordered us to come to a full stop! There he welcomed a small group of pirates aboard, showed them some document that said he’d paid off the right friends of the pirates, and they left with only a small chest of coin and no trouble.
I scarcely believed it and had been standing on a yardarm ready to fill any below me with harpoons. Burdette scowled at me when they departed and barked an order to get me to back to work.
I’d spent time with pirates in Tulisang, time spent training, working or socializing – all with equanimity. Stepping aboard a ship and hearing ‘pirates’ had me reverting to earlier perceptions. Those weren’t entirely unfounded – as Lawless Jack illustrated – but it was easier to see piracy as the business its practitioners claimed.
Even Lawless Jack had been only been mercenary in his dealings. If I hadn’t been introduced to him as my pirate captor, we probably would have got along quite well. He was an intelligent, knowledgeable Chortin, with just the right ratio of daring and stability. If circumstances were different …
But they weren’t. He was culpable in the deaths of people I’d felt responsible for. Maybe that wasn’t enough for me to establish him as my nemesis, but I didn’t have cause to let things go, either.
Sapient creatures weren’t the only things that held us up. One afternoon a shadow eclipsed the sun. Once we saw what caused it, the ship stirred like a drowner swarm. It was a Roc: a bird of prey with a wingspan of 30 paces. We put most of the crew below decks, and the few of us that stayed up top kept a weather eye on it. Roc’s could easily be trouble, because there was hardly anything we could do to them. The Consort had only token artillery on board, and that was in poor repair. Breaking out the bows and getting enough arrows into it to drive it off was unlikely to happen without skilled archers – not before the bird snatched whatever it wanted.
Thankfully, Roc’s weren’t as temperamental or territorial as wyverns. Apart from eyeing us up for a few hours and giving us heart attacks with a few playful dives, it didn’t cause any harm.
If only that could be said for all creatures.
I was helping another sailor stow the mizzen topgallant sail when he pointed to something and said. “Look at all those dolphins coming towards us! We’re bound to have safe travels now!”
I finished tying my knot and looked in the direction he indicated, wiping the light rain out of my eyes. A moment later my blood chilled.
“SIRENS!” I bellowed, my voice carrying to everyone aboard. “Sirens off the port beam! They’re coming for us! Sirens!”
Burdette had been in his cabin poring over maps, no doubt trying to figure out how to eek some more speed out of our slow journey. He burst out to see what was going on. To his credit, he took the threat seriously as soon as he saw I was raising the warning and didn’t waste time by calling for order or insisting on seeing the attacking choir of sirens himself. He immediately took charge with an appropriate response.
“Zamari! Call out the names of the lovers and get them below!” He immediately began calling out names himself and tasking duties, splitting the crew into known and unknown hazards.
Sirens had a natural charm ability that – once ensorcelled – proved stranger than any similar effect mages could cast. They could make their thralls do anything they desired. When they were feeling playful and mischievous they were a threat, making a game out of sailors jumping overboard to their deaths. When they were on the warpath they could turn their thralls against their crewmates, washing the decks of transports or warships with blood.
‘Lovers’ was the slang for crew who had no resistance to the siren’s charm. Ideally, they’d be chained into immobility before they could be enthralled, preventing them from becoming a danger to themselves or their crewmates. Lacking the necessary time to do that, Burdette was corralling them all below decks and barricading them in. Zamari went with them. I didn’t like the first mate and more than he liked me, but I didn’t doubt he had the will or some effect that allowed him to keep his own mind. He must be going below to restrain the lovers. The stars above knew we had enough shackles aboard for everyone.
Burdette asked me if I was resistant. I was, even before I’d become cursed. My Heart at Sea perk had proven to be stronger within me than the song of the sirens on past voyages. Because of that, I was one of six people left above decks, including Burdette. We were tacking back and forth up the coast. We’d just been about to make another turn to avoid a shoal when the sirens were sighted. Now there were only a half dozen of us to keep the ship on a safe course.
We’d barricaded the hatches and were trying to make our turn before the sirens attacked. We didn’t make it in time. The ethereal, scarcely heard melody just beyond our range of hearing became clear. It sounded like the heavens themselves were singing, sweeter and more perfect than any musician could ever hope to be. We knew where the voices were coming from, but to our ears they seemed to be singing right by each of us.
More than one person has fallen for the belief that those sweet voices really were put into the world for their enjoyment. Blindly, with a laugh and a smile, they would dive into the waters. Sometimes the sirens would have their fun and release the sailor. That sailor would forever sing the praises of the sirens, convincing whoever’d listen of their goodness and beauty. Other times the sirens would toy with their prey, bringing kisses that restored just enough air to keep their victim on the edge of drowning for an hour, two, or more before they were pulled into the depths, out of sight forever.
And sometimes the sailor would scarcely break the surface before the waters turned crimson and the sirens devoured them.
We all kept silent as we pulled on the lines to adjust our sails to a safe course. There were sayings about sirens becoming enraged if you tried to drown out their song. I knew them to be false. The real reason sailors would go silent was because regardless of whether you became enchanted, the otherworldly beauty of their song demanded you listen.
With tense work, we pulled the bow of the Consort away from the heading that risked running against a shoal. With the hands we had set to it, our new course was off – failing to take advantage of the wind and turning too far out to sea. That was fine. We could make up time later. We could find out where we were later. Right now, time demanded we concern ourselves with other things.
Glances over the side showed the sirens making themselves known. In addition to their song, they had a glamour that made them appear beautiful to each man, tailor-made to his desires. They waved, laughed, and displayed their flesh and multicolored scales. Always unbroken in our ears was their song.
Still, with the immediate crisis averted and the lovers locked below, it seemed only a matter of waiting the sirens out. Their cries were seductive and playful, not the harsh, demanding, bloodthirsty cries that I’d heard they did when they set themselves to killing. In a little while, they should get bored and go away. They might make a game of sneaking back and taunting us for days, but there were ways to deal with that.
Just thinking that made me feel like the other shoe was about to drop. I was right.
I don’t know what overcame his resistance, or whether the sirens hadn’t really been trying to control him earlier, but one of our six became enthralled. His name was Kuko, and I could see it happen. He was taking furtive glances at the beautiful creatures surrounding our ship, then he slowed and watched openly. As I cried out a warning, he went slack-jawed and dopey eyed. I used my spells to pull a bucketful of water from the sea. I tried to freeze it as it smacked into the man, but my timing was off and he only stumbled with the blow, not sparing me any attention.
The same couldn’t be said for the sirens. One of them introduced a displeased, discordant note into the melody. I ignored it, trying to reach the enthralled man. Ignoring it was a mistake: a lance of seawater struck me and sent me sprawling with 20 fewer HP.
The other 4 men on deck all took steps to grab Kuko before he went over, but they were inches too slow. The man went over the side and ungainly flopped into the water.
A second later, my foot left the gunwale as I dove after him.
Burdette yelled for me to stop far too late, as I was already mid-dive. I speared through the familiar waves to find the water chalked full of magic, the racial song the sirens had turning the environment into something other than normal. I’d scarcely oriented myself when a siren sped by and knocked me spinning, laughing.
“Look! Another one! Which one of you nabbed him?”
I hadn’t spent all the time below the waves practicing for nothing. I dodged the next incoming creature easily.
“Are you sure he’s enthralled?” another siren asked. “I think it just used magic!”
I spotted Kuko a short distance away, grabbing at a siren who stayed just out of reach, laughing as he obliviously drowned before darting in to kiss him, giving him seconds more to breathe.
“Stop!” I called.
The seductive melody of the song came to a halt. All the sirens stared at me as the realized I’d spoken.
“Is he …”
“Eaugh!” A siren said behind me. “He’s a dead one!”
“Tear it apart!”
I muttered an oath before I had to briefly anchor myself to drop out of the path of an attacking siren. I withdrew my trident, hoping to keep any attackers at least at arm’s reach. The siren’s song turned harsh and domineering.
I hadn’t fought such a coordinated enemy in a three-dimensional battlefield. Kane was always saying a battlefield was three dimensional, and more than once I wanted to pull him into the middle of the ocean to show him what that really meant. If I hadn’t had the buffs to my speed from my spells, swimming ability and lifesaver achievement, I would have been hopelessly outmatched. As it was, several sharp talons tore at me and one young siren briefly sunk her fangs into my leg before a kick knocked her senseless.
The trident served me well, though I mostly swing it like a club rather than a spearing implement. That was effective, though the times the prongs speared flesh didn’t render my weapon useless as it had against the drowners. For one thing, the sirens had too much health and once injured immediately sought to escape, no matter how that caused the weapon to tear their wound open.
The first siren I critically injured caught all three points of my weapon in the stomach. She screamed in pain and fury as she wrenched herself back. As blood and viscera poured from her terrible wound, the tempo of the song changed again. I’d never heard firsthand the song sailors heard when sirens came to destroy, but I imagined this was close.
I dealt far more damage than I received. As some sirens were forced to retreat and the bodies of others floated to the surface, the ones who kept of the attack became more vicious. I was looking for a way to escape and somehow grab Kuko when a powerful voice cried out.
Every siren immediately backed off, though their hissing and predatory circling continued.
Swimming down from the body of siren with a crushed skull, the creature that was obviously the leader approached me. She looked older. Still beautiful, with her glamour maintained, but undoubtedly experienced.
“What is it you want, and who are you?” Even as she asked the question, she analyzed me.
Your ability “Hide True Nature” has failed!
The imperious look on the matriarch’s face turned into a snarl. “Jones! What’s one of his spawn doing in the shallows?”
I wasn’t sure how this matriarch knew Jones, and that wasn’t relevant at the moment. “I’m here for the life of the man you’ve charmed.”
The matriarch looked at where Kuko was wrapped up by a possessive siren who’d barely remembered to keep the man’s HP above 0. The matriarch was incredulous.
“You can take whomever you will, and for the service of one man you kill my daughters?”
“I’m not after his service,” I said. “I’m saving his life.”
“And if I have this thrall killed to teach you a lesson?” she threatened.
I brandished my trident. “How many more daughters can you muster?”
Briefly, the matriarch showed her fangs. “I return this life to you, and what do I receive in return?”
“Being rid of me isn’t enough?”
“Life for life!” she hissed, moving closer. “You’ve taken many from me, all for the sake of a meal!”
“That meal is off limits.” I declared. “All sailors are.”
The hissing sirens were clearly angry at my blanket declaration, and I knew there was no chance of them accepting it. I just needed them to let this one go … this one life in front of me I could save. That had always been my motive.
“Fine,” the matriarch said. “You will owe us, but you may take this one.”
The siren wrapped around Kuko was plainly displeased, but at a glare from the matriarch released her hold on the man. Kuko, still charmed and oblivious to his near-death state, tried groping at the siren. The siren had dropped the glamour and was no longer the beauty he’d seen, but his mind didn’t realize that. With a pout, the siren pushed him away.
“Release your charm.”
“It will fade in time,” the matriarch waved the concern away. “We cannot simply end our enchantment.”
I grabbed the man and pulled him towards the surface before the air from the siren’s last kiss left his lungs. I didn’t dare to put my trident away.
“Remember,” the matriarch called after me. “You … owe … us!”
I got Kuko above the surface and kept him there so he could breathe. Thankfully, the man did that even if he did nothing else. The Consort had moved on while I’d fought the sirens, but with my skills and abilities I was able to catch up given enough time, even dragging a dead weight along.
A rope was thrown over when I sculled alongside the carrack. I tied it under Kuko’s arms, and he was pulled up. A tally mark was added to my Lifesaving score. A minute later the rope came over again, and I scurried up it on my own. Burdette was waiting, his eyes dangerous.
“What have you done?”
“I saved his life.” I replied simply.
“You disobeyed my order and you angered the sirens! Those below decks were just staring vacantly at the hatches until the siren’s song went feral – then they went mad too!”
“Did anyone die before you got out of range?”
“No,” Burdette said. “But range doesn’t mean much when they can outrun us!”
“They won’t be following us,” I assured him. “They know that’d be a mistake.”
Burdette’s jaw locked shut. I hadn’t meant that as a challenge to him, but it could certainly be construed that way. I was the man who did the unthinkable – jumped into the waves with sirens and emerged of my own will, the siren’s cowed behind me. No one cowed the sirens – they were the subject of both dreams and nightmares for sailors. What kind of power must I wield to accomplish this? Was it really wise for Burdette to challenge me?
“He’s not responding,” one of the sailors looking at Kuko said.
For a moment I felt panic that the man had died on me, but he still had a sliver of HP. He wasn’t responding because he was charmed without a focus or command.
“He’ll snap out of it,” I said, thinking of the matriarch’s words. “He just needs time.”
We tied him up and I gave him a health potion while we set to getting the Consort back on course. After a while, Burdette had a few people come up from below to help us. The sirens didn’t attack again, and before long we were back to business as usual, if emotionally and mentally exhausted.
Once again, rumors of what I’d done started to make their rounds. The framework of my mystique was being built. I didn’t find such amusement in it this time. As the hours passed and Kuko came to his senses, I spent as much time as possible conversing with him trying to draw him from his stupor.
“Where am I?” he asked. “How do I get back?”
“You’re aboard the Consort,” I would repeat. “You’re safe here.”
“So beautiful … so perfect! Where is she?”
“The sirens are gone. You are safe.”
“Gone where? Why?”
“I pulled you from the water. You were entranced. They’ve gone wherever they please.”
He looked at me angrily. “You pulled me from her?”
“They were going to eat you!” I said, instantly realizing I couldn’t say anything to convince him. “You were caught up in …”
“Liar!” he snarled. “She was perfect! She loved me! She was made for me! We were destined to be together, and you’ve ruined it!”
“Take a breath man, you’re not in your own head. Give it time, and you’ll …”
He stalked away. We kept an eye on him, making sure he didn’t jump overboard before he broke out of the worst of his funk. I sighed, feeling defeated. I’d saved a life, but that life claimed it didn’t want to be saved. I’d also incurred a debt with a siren matriarch. I didn’t think I was going to pay whatever she demanded, so it was more like I’d made an enemy of a siren matriarch.
Being flogged had somehow felt like a victory. Being victorious over the sirens somehow felt like a loss.