The Captain’s Creature

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sf_wk12“Captain!” Marlowe yelled out. The coils of the grasping tentacle slid past each other, tightening their grip around Santi’s waist.

That was when I knew. In the midst of chaos, with half the crew—swords and daggers drawn—converging on the barrel where Santi had been hiding, with the ship trapped in the grip of a whirlpool, with the hull shattering from the force of those monstrous tentacles, when I heard Marlowe speak that word, that was when I knew that all my suspicions were true.

***

Many paths may have led us to the moment in which we stood. But I believe it all began when we took aboard a strange passenger at less favored port. We did not often do so. We were a merchant vessel. We transported wares, not passengers. We lost our captain at that port, but we did not know it until much later.

I am Glaros. I am the second mate on the Dream of Milady.

We had been to that particular port on a few other occasions. It was not favored among the crew. It was crowded and rundown. The captain always thought it made the men feel suffocated and oppressed to be ashore there. The port city extended so far inland that it would take days to reach open land. We never stayed at port long enough for a visit farther inland. The captain indulged our unease. He allowed us to dock as far offshore as we could, even if it meant more difficulty and more expense getting wares aboard. He himself seemed to have no particular problems with that port city or any other. He almost always went ashore, by necessity, to procure our business. But he liked the land as well as the sea, and so long as he was not needed on the ship, he would go ashore and stay ashore until the few hours before we set sail.

After we took aboard our cargo, the first mate, Marlowe, told us about the passenger that would be joining us, warning that he knew little, only that the captain had arranged passage for the man, whose name Marlowe did not share with us. He instructed us to address the man as “my lord,” should we encounter him, and assured us that such encounters should be rare, as the man planned to keep to his cabin for the duration of his journey.

The man came aboard a day before we were to set sail. The crew tried to catch glimpses and still appear to be going about their duties. I, of course, was there to meet the gentleman and welcome him aboard. I examined him well, so I could report to the men later and satisfy their curiosity. The man was richly robed and bejeweled. There was fresh oil in his long twisted locks that alternated between black and flax braids. It was a style that was not strange to us. We had seen nobles in the middle western lands wear their hair in such fashion. But we had never seen them wear such an abundance of jewelry, or such elaborate robes. Such adornments, dark red fabric embroidered with gold thread and stacks of bronze rings worn over red gloves, seemed more the fashion in the far south.

Despite what Marlowe had said, the gentleman seemed keenly interested in the ship and the crew. He did not go straight to his cabin, but asked for a tour of the ship. The man seemed taller than Marlowe, but walked with a hunch, so it was difficult to be sure, especially with the heavy robes he wore. His dress and the accent of his speech suggested he had spent a fair amount of time living in a few different places since his youth. It was no wonder then that he seemed odd of demeanor to most of the crew, who seemed at unease and merely ducked their heads in greeting when the gentleman passed. Only one of our youngest, a deckhand named Santi, took it upon himself to be friendly, and to later try and convince his crewmates that their robed passenger seemed all right. All else were fine with letting the man be until we dropped him off at his destination, a few ports away.

Marlowe announced that the captain had assigned him to personally see to their passenger’s comfort on the journey. No one envied the first mate, when they heard, but their curiosity remained. Stern and practical Marlowe was not one to gossip, so they knew they would be learning no salacious secrets from their first mate about their passenger. From the first day, they relied upon Santi, who was all too glad to have the crew’s fond attention rather than being underfoot as always, or worse in his esteem, ignored.

Little did we know that it would be a day for rare occurrences, for a few hours before we were to set sail, we received sealed orders from the captain. They were delivered on the very boat that we expected the captain to arrive in. Marlowe and I gathered in the captain’s cabin, along with a few others among the senior members of the crew, to confirm the seal, confirm that the orders were written in the captain’s hand, and read the orders. The captain stated that he had some further business at port, the details of which he would share with us when he could. In the meantime, we were ordered to sail on without him so that our deliveries would not be late. When his business was completed, he would secure travel aboard a faster ship and would catch up with us a few ports hence. Marlowe was in command of the ship in the meantime.

There was much rumor among the crew when the news was shared with them. Some thought the captain might be avoiding the passenger if he intended to rejoin the ship at the same port that their passenger disembarked. The captain had on a few occasions sent similar orders and for similar reasons. But it seemed odd to do so at a time when there was an obviously prestigious guest aboard the ship.

***

So all at once, we took on a strange passenger, left our captain, and set sail. We headed first to a port we had visited at least once a year. It was far, but the waters were fairly stable at that time of year. We had a calm journey and nothing to worry our minds, even the presence of the unseen passenger, and the absence of our captain, until our watcher in the crow’s nest spotted something odd a few days out to sea.

Something was following the ship. We thought it was a curious whale at first, and Marlowe asked the lookout to keep an eye on it, in case it got too curious and threatened to upset the ship. The Dream of Milady was a good-sized ship, being a merchant vessel capable of carrying large wares, including smaller (though much smaller) ships. She was strictly maintained according to the rule of our captain and the enforcement of our first mate. Still, she was not invincible. The creature seemed at times to be of the same size, if not bigger. It followed for three days, coming no closer, falling no further behind.

Marlowe watched it. When he was not about his duties, and not tending to the passenger, he watched the creature. And I watched him. As it was Marlowe’s job to watch over the captain, it was my job, as second mate, to watch over them both. Something was troubling our first mate, but when I asked him about it one clear night, when the full fat moon shone above, and the steady wind carried us on, he only stood, leaning against the aft rail, watching the black waters. I had a notion that it wasn’t the whale creature that troubled Marlowe’s mind.

“How fares our passenger?” I asked.

“Well enough,” Marlowe answered in a quiet voice. I was facing him and watched his eyes narrow. I glanced out at the open sea, seeing nothing and wondering what it was the first mate was seeing.

“What troubles you, sir?” I asked directly. “I can see that something does.”

At this, he turned to me, both his gaze and his attention. He put a hand on my shoulder.

“Tell me. I’m not neglecting my crew, am I?”

“Never that I have known.”

“Then all is well with me.”

He said no more, and I asked no more. I would try again, I thought to myself, some other time. A man deserved his time of quiet, time with his own thoughts, without his fellows intruding every other moment. But he was no ordinary crewman. He was our leader in the captain’s absence. It would not do for his mind to be troubled to distraction. He had answered my unspoken concerns just now. It was my duty to make certain that he remained sound of mind and body.

I wasn’t sure why I myself was so troubled. We were not adrift at sea or caught in storms. We were sailing a known path, on calm seas, to a known port. Each night the stars were where we expected them to be. Each day we cruised along, and so did the creature that followed us.

***

We reached the next port on time. Waiting for us was another letter from the captain. He assured us that he would rejoin us soon. The letter was brief and said nothing about when and where we would see him again. I found that odd. So did Marlowe.

We carried on. We made our deliveries and took on new goods for the next port, and we set sail. Two days out, we were rejoined by the creature, who had left off his chase as we had neared the last port.

“Clever fellow, to have been waiting for us,” I remarked, smiling as I stood at the aft rail with the first mate, watching the rippling of the waves over the creature’s vast form. It had given us no trouble, and many among the crew, myself included, were beginning to grow fond of it.

“I just hope he isn’t hunting us,” Marlowe said.

***

We had been watching the creature carefully for the better part of an hour. It had moved closer and changed position so that it was cruising alongside us now. Several of the crew were gathered along the port rail, hands held up to shade their eyes, watching.

Had Marlowe not said what he had said earlier, about the creature hunting us, I may not have been as concerned. Some crewman reminded us of the superstitions concerning sea demons. But most were not so worried. They joked if they should ask permission to dive down, swim alongside the creature, and say hello. The scholars among the crew made crude measurements and noted descriptions. They were in favor of sending a man down to see what the creature looked like underwater, for it had never surfaced. It had only come close enough to the surface for us to see that it had pale skin, like powder blue frost, and that it was at least as long as the ship. We still could not discern its true shape or nature. We could not tell if it really was a whale or something else. One of the crewman was convinced he saw the great black orb of an eye below the water’s surface.

That same day, Santi came onto deck wearing a new shirt, not just new to him, but new and unworn from its crispness. It was made of coarse cloth and was the color of moss and leaf. It was not silken or fine, but still, it was no fitting shirt for the work of a deckhand. He did not say so, but the smile upon his lips, and the pride with which he wore it, spoke of a gift. And there was only one onboard who had the means to give such a gift.

Marlowe frowned at the shirt and shook his head, but said nothing to the boy. So Santi wore the shirt and managed to keep it clean somehow while he worked upon the deck.

But it reminded the crew of something they had not spoken of in a few days, being more absorbed with the sea creature. There was a passenger aboard. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the creature who had taken such an interest in the Dream of Milady had joined them just as the passenger had. The crew gossiped that the passenger was some kind of spell-caster and that the creature was his familiar companion, the kind that some spell-casters kept, perhaps only for company as common folk kept pets. Or perhaps the familiars helped to focus their powers. Stories of fairies and spell-casters, moon-people, ghosts, strange beasts, and such were common on the ship, as they were on many other ships, probably all of them, I imagined.

But some suggested that the passenger himself was the creature, for why else had he arranged to stay only within his cabin for the whole voyage? Perhaps that was why he made most of the crew so uneasy. Perhaps they sensed that he was not truly one of them. Not truly a man at all.

***

We passed through another two ports. There was no word from the captain at either port. That was most unlike him. I suggested to Marlowe that we put out some inquiries, revealing only that our captain’s letters to us might have been lost or delayed and asking if anyone had seen him. But Marlowe thought that might mark us as abandoned. He would not have any other captains eyeing the ship. A chill went through my heart when he spoke of it. The captain had surely made arrangements for the ship should anything happen to him. But he would not willingly abandon the Dream of Milady or his crew. Marlowe looked troubled again, and I wondered if he knew something he was not telling me or the rest of the crew.

It seemed too much a coincidence that our captain should disappear just as the strange passenger came aboard. Marlowe tried to calm the rumors, but he could not be everywhere on the ship at once, and small groups would gather to talk of how they should bring up the passenger and ask him some questions. Marlowe had assigned me and a few of the other senior crewmen to calm such fears and talk. He was concerned that the men might harm the passenger, so he moved the man to a more secure cabin. It was well that he did, for a small group of crewman gathered when Marlowe was asleep and I was occupied with a leak we had found in the cargo hold. Thankfully, the leak was from one of the crates, not from the ship itself. By the time I had it sorted and had returned to the deck, the boatswain told me what he knew of the conspiracy. I did not bother to wake Marlowe, but went straight away to the passenger’s cabin. The door was broken in. Anything not fixed or bolted down was overturned. There was a strong odor of sulfur and rot. I could not believe that my fellow crewmates had gotten so carried away with their dislike of the passenger that they would so defile a part of our own beloved ship.

They did not find the passenger, of course. Marlowe had already moved him. When the first mate woke and was made aware of the incident, he gathered all the crew onto deck and told them that no such behavior would be tolerated. He set me to the unenviable task of finding out who had been involved in the planned attack against the passenger. I had been watching the crew during Marlowe’s address to us. I could not tell, or perhaps did not want to, who looked guilty of the crime that had been committed. The crew was doing well to hide the perpetrators. What they did not hide was their disdain of the one crewmen who had befriended the passenger.

Santi wore his moss green shirt, the passenger’s gift, but this time he wore it fearfully, not proudly. I saw the conflicted look in his eye. He loved the shirt. I could not recall the last time the poor boy received any kind of gift, outside of a “well done” from the captain. But he also loved his ship and his crew and was loyal to them. I could see that loyalty. But perhaps others would not. I wondered if Marlowe would. When I mentioned my concern for the boy, Marlowe agreed with me that the young deckhand was guilty of nothing more than wanting to please his crewmates and wanting the attention of someone who seemed powerful and important, as their passenger seemed.

“I hope the captain rejoins us soon,” I said. “Begging your pardon, sir. You’ve led us well, and if not for the passenger and this strange creature, both at once, then the crew might not find anything amiss in the captain’s long absence. But as it is, the sooner we see that he is whole and well, the better.”

Marlowe nodded absently. I could not tell if he were merely dismissing me, or if he were also agreeing with me. I regretted my words then, for they must have seen bitter to him to hear me speak so.

These were our troubles, and that was before we lost course, and wandered into the mysterious mist.

***

Perhaps we were still on course. We could not know. Our compasses gave strange measures. The clouds above covered our view of the stars, and the mist all about covered our view of all else in the world. Our view of all else, that is, save the creature that once seemed a curious friendly whale, and now seemed an ominous predator, circling us, biding its time. Sometimes it swam far enough away that the mist concealed its presence, but we knew it was there, our constant companion.

If the creature were truly a friend, some of the men said, then it would lead us out of our predicament. But it did not lead. It had only ever followed.

We were lost in the mist for three days, or so we measured by the hourglass and confirmed by the lightening and darkening of the air about us, when someone reported that Santi had vanished. No one had seen him in all that time. I set some trusted men to search for the boy, men who would not harm him if they found him, as I feared some of the crew might. Despite the anxious, even desperate state in which we presently found ourselves, I trusted that none would be brutal. But that trust, alas, began to grow thinner with each day that passed in that mist. Even the ship groaned and sighed and seemed to pale as if she were struck ill.

The crew took to coming in small groups to Marlowe’s cabin to pressure the first mate into telling them where the passenger was hidden away. They had searched the ship up and down, of course, even enlisting the aid of those who had served the longest and knew the ship the best. But the captain had chosen Marlowe to be first mate for a reason. Marlowe was far cleverer than the rest of us. It was either that, or perhaps the passenger and creature truly were one and the same.

But I did not think so. For I knew something that Marlowe did not. I knew where Santi was hiding. And I knew why.

***

Santi had come to me in the dead of night, shivering with the chill of fear, a chill far more penetrating than the cold of the dense mist that surrounded us, for his fear penetrated to his very soul. He told me that he knew where the passenger was being kept. He knew that the crew was wrong about one thing regarding the passenger. He had seen the passenger looking out upon the waters through a porthole when the creature swam past. They were not one and the same. Santi had wondered if the passenger controlled the creature. He approached, meaning to ask. But the passenger must not have heard him. When Santi spoke a greeting, he startled the passenger, the richly robed, be-ringed, and mysterious passenger, who had turned and glared at Santi with a look of utter and unforgiving malice.

The expression vanished in a blink, and the man spoke kindly to Santi and bade him come closer. When the boy did not, he assured Santi that the vexed expression on his face was not meant for the boy but for the creature that circled the ship. He insisted it was dangerous. He had urged the first mate to kill the creature. But for some reason—perhaps the first mate was far too tender-hearted concerning creatures of the sea—Marlowe resisted.

Santi was young, lonely, and frightened. But he was not without wit and he was not without some measure of courage that would only grow if he lived long enough. For the first time since he had met the strange passenger, the young deckhand felt a twinge of suspicion about the man. He asked the man if he were more familiar with that part of the world than the ship’s crew, and if he could guess how the ship might have wandered into the mist, and how it might find its way out. The passenger only gave vague reassurances of his confidence in the crew’s ability. It took no more for Santi’s illusions of the man to shatter.

If the captain were aboard, Santi would have gone to him straight away. He loved the captain as a son loves his father. But he had always been somewhat afraid of Marlowe. And he knew that Marlowe was protecting the passenger. So he had come to me. He said he had to tell someone where the passenger was. Someone who would not harm the man, but who would hold him to account if he was indeed the cause of the ship’s many maladies.

“Santi,” I had asked, perplexed at the boy’s attire. “If you now suspect our passenger, why do you still wear the shirt he gave you?”

Santi’s eyes widened. He looked at the moss green shirt, looked up at me, and beamed.

“He didn’t give me this shirt. The captain did. Maybe two moons ago.”

A strange feeling came over me, a cautious gladness. “Then why did you only start wearing it now? And why did you let everyone think that passenger gave it to you?”

“I thought it might get stolen if everyone knew it was from the captain, and whoever took it would lie and say I gave it to him. And how could I say otherwise? But if I didn’t say otherwise, the captain would be insulted that I gave away his gift. So I longed to wear it, but never did. Then when the passenger came aboard, everyone seemed to dislike the fellow, so I wore the shirt, and just as I guessed, they all thought he gave it to me because I was so friendly to him.”

I knew who he meant by “whoever.” There were a few among the crew whose teasing of the boy went past fondness to unkindness. I frowned.

Santi tugged proudly at the collar, all fear forgotten for the moment. “I won’t let anyone steal it, Master Glaros,” he said. “I’ll die in this shirt.”

I went to get some food for him, ordering him to stay in my cabin. But when I returned, he was gone. Though I wanted to search for him, ask him more about the passenger, and put him under my protection, I trusted for the moment, that he could stay hidden for a while longer, until I sorted things out with our first mate. The boy would be safe enough if I could produce the passenger. My instincts guided me away from finding and bringing forth the passenger before I first confronted Marlowe. If our passenger were indeed a spell-caster or some other dangerous sort, than it would be reckless for me to confront him without knowledge of what I was confronting. Santi was no doubt protected by his innocence. I had no such protection.

***

I waited my turn to visit Marlowe, seeing a few groups of crewman pass through. If the crew had not been so close, and if they had not been the beneficiaries of many a kept promise from both captain and first mate, I might have feared a mutiny. But we all knew that Marlowe was trying to find a way out of the mist. We were working to help him in that. They did not want him or the ship. They wanted the passenger. They wanted their first mate to put aside his honor and duty for just one moment.

I felt conflicted as Marlowe welcomed me into his cabin. I knew he had not slept or eaten well in many weeks. He looked like a ripe tomato that had been left many days in the sun, a bit wrinkled and shrunken, but still robust. Though I was full of anger and vague accusation, I could not help but soften when I saw my first mate, my captain, in fact, in that moment, so wearied. Raw gratitude shown through his eyes when he saw me at his door. He waved me in with a tired smile and offered some of the lukewarm tea that sat upon his small table. I sat down across from him.

“I hope I have not overburdened you with the keeping of the crew these days,” he said.

I was taken aback at the humility of his words. Marlowe was not a haughty man. But nor had I known him to be unduly humble or gentle. My temper cooled further. I would speak my words, but first, I would listen. I owed him as much.

He confided in me then as he never had before, about how he had tried to take care of the crew, even though they kept their distance from him. He was fond of the captain, but it was he who had to bear the lonely burden of being stern, while the captain enjoyed the privilege of being kind and generous. The captain made the rules, but it was the first mate who was tasked with enforcing those rules.

“I am his right hand,” Marlowe said. “His ear. His voice. I am the captain’s creature.”

Now I was in the position that he typically occupied. So he wished for me to know that he understood my burdens.

“They will lessen as soon as we see a bit of sun through the clouds,” I said, trying half-heartedly to jest or to comfort.

The words he spoke of the captain, the unreadable tone in which he spoke, inspired both suspicion and reassurance in me. It dizzied me to wonder if the first mate was speaking ill of the captain, or merely being honest. There was no crime in noting the captain’s faults, for all men had faults.

My words seemed to bring no comfort to Marlowe. His expression hardened.

“An isle surrounded by mist and gloom,” he said. “All sailors have heard the legend. No one will speak of it, out of superstition. If we do not speak of it, perhaps it will not appear. For that is the isle that leads into the realms after all life is done. That isle is the doorway to death.”

“It’s only just a fog, sir,” I said. “A bad one, true. But we’ll get past it. If it weren’t for all else that we were bearing, we would be able to bear this better.”

“Have you found the boy? Santi?”

I took as natural as breath as I could manage. I shook my head. “I don’t know where he is at the moment. But I mean to find him. I mean to protect him.”

Marlowe nodded and a hint of a smile played upon his pallid eyes and thin lips. “Of course you do.”

I took a breath to speak, to tell him what I knew of the passenger. But he spoke first.

“I have just spoken with the navigator and the other scholars.” Marlowe lowered his gaze and a crease marred his smooth forehead. “They are not quite certain, for they have more measurements to make. But they are confident enough that they believe we must act.”

He raised his head and met my gaze. He took a deep breath. “They believe we are at the edge of a vast whirlpool. So vast, we cannot even feel ourselves being pulled further in, day by day.”

A sudden panic shuddered through my very bones. My mouth went dry. “Sorcery!” I wanted to cry. But I could not speak. After all else we had borne…

“I know what you will say, what you likely came here to say,” Marlowe said, speaking for me. “You want the passenger. You believe, perhaps now, in this very moment, if not before, that he is responsible for the misfortunes that we have suffered since we took him aboard.”

“And since we lost our captain,” I said, finding my voice again.

A strange look came upon Marlowe’s face then. Not a look of loss or regret. “It’s my doing,” he suddenly said. “But I will make it right, Glaros.”

A sudden banging at the door startled us both. We glanced wide-eyed at the door. A crewman was yelling for Marlowe. The first mate opened the door and one of the men under my command stood there, red-faced and desperate. He caught his breath and cried.

“They found him!”

“The passenger?” I asked.

The crewman shook his head. “The boy. They know where he’s hiding and they’re going for him.”

***

Marlowe and I raced along the corridors behind the crewman, who revealed that the rumor of the ship being caught in a whirlpool was already spreading. For some, the last delicate link of restraint had broken at that news. They went hunting and threatening. They found a crewman who was friendly with Santi and had threatened him with drowning, but the man knew nothing. Then they found someone who had the misfortune of spotting the boy as he ducked into a small passage, scarce large enough to fit him, for it was not meant for people to squeeze through. The passage only led to one place.

Marlowe told the crewman to spread the news that he would bring forth the passenger, that he ordered no harm should to come to Santi or any other crewman.

***

We burst into the starboard cargo hold just as several men were converging upon the barrel where the poor, shivering young deckhand stood, unarmed. When Santi spotted Marlowe, me, and the men we had brought, resolve joined the fear that had stricken his face. I remembered his last words to me, that he would die in that moss green shirt, and I summoned a resolve of my own.

As I readied myself to leap into action, something burst through the wall above Santi. It was a large tentacle, thicker than any serpent, and it wrapped around Santi’s waist and lifted him out of the barrel. Several planks above us were ripped away. The ship listed. The lanterns swung and crashed to the ground, but the flame sputtered and was extinguished. There was some thick slime dripping from the newly made opening. Another piece of the wall burst in, wood splintering as another tentacle, this one smaller, wove through the hole. The tentacles had bulbs at their tips. One of those bulbs opened like a nightmare bloom, the petals of which were lined with rows of sharp teeth, dripping that hideous slime. More hideous still, at the center of the opened bulb was a puckered mouth that throbbed obscenely.
The shadows of more tentacles loomed above the opened roof of the hold.

“Captain!” Marlowe yelled out. The coils of the grasping tentacle slid past each other, tightening their grip around Santi’s waist.

That was when I knew. In the midst of chaos, with half the crew—swords and daggers drawn—converging on the barrel where Santi had been hiding, with the ship trapped in the grip of a whirlpool, with the hull shattering from the force of those monstrous tentacles, when I heard Marlowe speak that word, that was when I knew that all my suspicions were true.

Men moved to attack the creature—the captain—and Santi. Someone threw a dagger at the tentacle that was holding Santi, missing the boy’s hand and piercing the tentacle, which shuddered, but did not release Santi, who to my surprise, pulled the dagger out and gripped it tight against his attackers. I grabbed the harpoon from another crewman, prying it from his hands, and knocking him aside. I leapt beside Santi and turned to face my own crew.

“Stop! It’s the captain!” I cried. “This creature is our captain!” I pointed the head of the harpoon at Marlowe. “He will explain! He will bring forth the passenger! He is the guilty one, not Santi!”

The men stopped, if only in shock at my accusing the first mate. I was merely relieved they could hear me above the rush of the crashing water outside. It sounded as if we were on the edge of a waterfall. I felt the pull of the whirlpool now. But for the moment, the ship held steady.

Marlowe held out his hands. He nodded. “It’s true,” he said. As he spoke, he looked past me, to the tentacles that still hovered expectantly all about us. “It is I who have betrayed you.”

We heard the shouts of the men on deck. I nodded to a few of the crewman who had followed Marlowe and me to help us defend Santi. They would ascend to the deck stop the rest of the crew from attacking the creature until Marlowe, I, and the rest followed.

All attention was upon Marlowe. It was as he had told me. Everyone loved the captain, but the first mate did all the work of keeping up the ship and the crew, so that the captain could afford to be good and generous to his men. So many times when the crew needed help, the captain was away. It was Marlowe who stepped in. The crew was thankful, but not as they were with the captain, their beloved captain. Marlowe too was fond of the captain. But a notion took hold of him, when he could not say. Maybe long ago. It festered, even beneath good will, even despite his resistance. The jolly captain was a good man, but not a fitting captain, really. Still, Marlowe could not betray or harm his captain. So he devised a different plan. Abandonment. He would get the captain out of the way by a means that would leave him alive and well. Ship and crew would be abandoned…to Marlowe.

Then Marlowe met the man, the richly robed and be-ringed man. The man was indeed a practitioner of sorcery. Marlowe made a deal with the man that included passage to the far port where they were headed. In exchange, the man would transform the captain into another. Marlowe had thought he would transform the captain into another man and take his memories, so that he would still live and live well, but he would unknowingly abandon the Dream of Milady. In time, the crew would accept Marlowe, for the captain had indeed wished it to be so should any ill befall him.

“Did I turn him away from his nature? Or did I turn him back to it?”

We all turned our heads up to the sound of the new voice. There, standing above us, and daringly beneath the tentacles of the one he had wronged, was the passenger, the sorcerer, the man in the red robes. The cargo hold became suffused with a strong odor of sulfur and rot.

“It was only today,” Marlowe said, yelling out the words above the sound of the rushing waters. The swirling waters of the whirlpool, “that I became certain of the deal I had truly made with that sea demon!” He pointed up at the passenger.

I could just see the points of the harpoons that were turned, some against the passenger, some still at the creature, whose form I discerned looming behind the red-robed man.

“He wants our souls!” Marlowe cried. “He led us here, to the verge of the afterlife, and he made us betray each other so we would all fall into the whirlpool, the abyss that leads to his wretched realm.”

The captain’s tentacles tried to strike the red-robed man, but they were repelled somehow. Suddenly, all the tentacles pulled back. The one holding Santi dropped him gently to the floor. With a jolt, the ship lurched to its port side, and the red-robed man fell into the starboard cargo hold. Water poured and rushed through the holes that the captain had made. We were doused and knocked off our feet.

Just as suddenly, the ship tipped to its starboard side, and water splashed out of the holes. When the ship was righted—much too quickly to have done so by itself—I got to my feet, drenched and having lost my weapon.

A rope ladder had fallen through the overhead opening or been thrown down to us. I helped Santi and the other crewman to it and we climbed out of the hold. We had to help our crew get control of the ship. I had a notion that meant reasoning with the captain who seemed to be tipping it this way and that in his aim to defeat the wicked passenger.

On deck I saw him at last. The creature. My captain. His great black orb of an eye turned to us as we emerged from the hold. His tentacles gripped the ship, and I saw that he was holding us aloft at the verge of a whirlpool that was visible over the starboard railing through streams of swirling mist.

I strained to see the breaches that the tentacles had made in the hull. Through one of the holes, a red robe emerged, fluttering the whipping winds, and the figure of the sea demon was still within it, still dressed in the form of a man. Pushing him bodily through the hole was our first mate. He meant to sacrifice himself.

“Captain!” I cried.

A tentacle whipped away from the Dream of Milady and reached for Marlowe as he and sea demon dropped out of the hole. But the sea demon used its sorcery and the tentacle recoiled before it could grasp the first mate. Marlowe fell into the whirlpool and the deathly mists.

We had no time to mourn, for the Dream of Milady was still in the whirlpool’s grasp. We all might be following our first mate’s fate. Captain and crew struggled to pull away, though it seemed hopeless.

“Band together!” I cried. “Rally!” For I remembered what the sea demon had said about how he meant to trap us. If betrayal was our doom, than solidarity was our salvation.

The captain’s body moved to cover the holes he himself had rent. The slime that his body produced seemed a good sealant. Some of the crew managed to get the water out of the ship, even as others rowed and steered with all their strength.

I pulled on some rigging and two hands appeared to help me. I looked beside me to find Santi there, his moss green shirt drenched, but still upon his back.

***

We pulled away from the whirlpool and pierced through the mists. We reached the open ocean. We rejoiced at the sight of the sunlight and the stars.

Battered and bruised, but in happier spirits than we had been in many weeks, we sailed back to our home port. The men who had moved against Santi surrendered themselves and resigned from their posts, judging themselves to be unworthy of being crewman aboard the Dream of Malady. That is what the men joked we should rename the ship after all the troubles we had passed through. They hoped that perhaps the ill name would bring us good fortune.

They all hoped too that the sea demon’s curse upon the captain would wear off. But it did not. Day after day, the creature—our captain—followed the ship and was a creature still.

I gathered the crew together on deck one day and addressed the captain. I gave him my word that we would take our rest, get the ship repaired at port, and then start making inquiries, as discreetly as we could, about how to undo the curse. At this, the captain rose up out of the water. I imagined that I saw his fondness for us reflected in the great black orbs of his eyes. He raised a tentacle and pointed it at me. Then he waved the tentacle back and forth as he sunk slowly into the water and out of sight.

We did not see him again. I remembered the sea demon’s words. The suggestion that he had turned the captain not away from his nature, but back toward it. He might have been lying. But I wondered. Perhaps it was not the last we would see of the one who was our captain. Perhaps we should take comfort in knowing that among all the strange creatures that inhabited the world beyond our imaginings, a few, at least, were our friends. Or perhaps we should take comfort in knowing that he was indeed just a man, and that men could be so noble. It is with such musings that I begin my new log.

I am Glaros. I am the captain…for now.

 

Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Captain’s Creature” by Sanjay Patel.

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