“Jack Magic” by Erica Hildebrand

“Jack Magic” by Erica Hildebrand

Captain Reese Bayberry stood belly against the rail, watching the storm brew on the far side of the peninsula. Already, cold rain spattered the harbor swells and the teak beneath his feet. His only recourse was to sail to safety. Soon, if at all, but he was stranded in low tide.

Damn spot of bad luck, something he refused to take like a good sport.

A dark bruise of clouds crawled up from the horizon, making it easy to see the flashes of lightning, and he counted in his head until he heard the distant thunder, estimating how close the storm had come to the waters of the narrow Sharkhead. Bloody fine as wine.

It was a danger for any fellow, putting into port this far north. The thought of land magic trapping the Rumrunner rusted through his stomach and made him doubt his own luck, uncommonly good though it was.

He wondered where Jack was. He could use some reassurance about now.

Reese looked down through the mist of crystallized breath at hands browned in the tropics, missing the sun’s warmth with a homesickness that gripped him by throat and gizzards both.

His crew hurried into the maze of ropes, pulleys creaking against wooden hasps, preparing his square-rigged caravel for departure. Having put everyone to task, he was left with little else to do. Sometimes he missed working the sheets, but not now, not as frost made slippery icicles of his tarred ropes. He was thankful for his greatcloak, but was just as anxious to sail somewhere he could stow it away and forget it.

“The sounding line, if you please,” he said to his pilot. With Jack on his mind, he added, “And fetch me the luck bringer.”

Crannutaw gave a nod as their gazes met. Reese had picked the boy up in Terrahohra, one of the sugar cane islands where he was in good standing with the distilleries. Crann was a stingray fisher by trade, but he made a good pilot, could read the stars like a chart, and had the sort of discipline that Reese was glad to employ.

His mind drifted back to those islands: a land of sun, white beaches, fruit trees, and naked bathing. He adored them. When he’d had enough of the sea, the old mistress willing, he’d build a bungalow on Terrahohra and retire there, right on the beach, with rum and coconut milk to keep him full for the rest of his life.

It had to be somewhere near water, for Jack. Near the sea magic, where his ship’s cat would stay fat on all the minnows and sandpipers she wanted.

Crannutaw handed him the coil of knotted rope and Reese fed the weight into the harbor’s dirty swill, too late thinking he should swaddle his hands against the chill.

The crust of dried brine burned his raw chin, and he wondered why he bothered at all to shave. He told himself it was for the island girls, who loved their men as smooth as seals, and promised himself that by month’s end he’d be showing off his tattoos to a sun-warm island maiden.

At the thunderous crack of cannon, Reese started. Anchored nearby was the Williwaw. She was another privateer, a frigate, named for the winds Reese had learned to sail on the fringes of charted waters — wild winds, powerful sea magic. Reese dimly recalled meeting her captain, a woman, though he couldn’t remember her name.

Why waste shot on gun crew drills? A boat like that needed weight in its belly for high storm swells. Unless she was trying for a shallower draft to get over the razor-sharp shoals and leave ahead of the storm. If that were the case, she could just dump her shot over the side.

Dirty smoke belched out from below decks as though she was a whaler rendering tallow, and he had his answer. Not her guns he heard, then, but a fire.

He prayed she had a ship’s Jack of her own, to beg the old mistress’s mercy.

He counted the knots as he fed the sounding line. Seven. Ten. Thirteen. The line went slack as the weight touched bottom. Thirteen fathoms. Shallow enough to rip the Rumrunner open on the shoals at the harbor mouth.

Reese snorted. Low tide, the storm . . . bad luck, and he blamed the land magic nearby.

And then, the worst: Crannutaw climbed out of a hatch, a lifeless lump of reddish-brown fur dangling from his hand.

Even in the clamor of preparation, the crew paused as the Terrahohran walked to the starboard rail, leggings soaked with bilge water that couldn’t freeze, and hurled the dead cat over the side, utterly without ceremony.

Reese heard the whispers, soft as harbor waters lapping against the hull.

“Save us.”

“The damn Jack’s dead.”

“Steady if you please,” Reese warned. But the windburnt faces of the crew were sinking with gloom.

Reese rubbed the side of his nose, a skein of sadness and fear knitting itself into something larger inside of him. He knew sea life was hard on a ship’s cat — she’d been his seventh Jack — but she’d only been a dock kitten last season, and a sweetheart to boot. Her welfare was the captain’s responsibility. A ship’s cat meant luck on the sea, but the absence of one invited doom. Not to mention the rats in his bilge, and what they’d do if left unchecked.

Reese listened for any hint of the old blue mistress’s cruel laughter. A dead luck bringer was the worst sort of trouble.

He couldn’t sail without a ship’s cat. No hand would trust a luckless captain.

He tipped his head back. Little buffets tugged his hair, stiffened into spikes with whale fat, as the storm’s vanguard drew and pushed. The old blue mistress was shifting herself.

“Crann, ready a skiff,” Reese said. Alarm bells sounded across the harbor, and a plume of black smoke poured out of the Williwaw‘s forecastle. No one was having a time of it today.

He entered his stern quarters. Inside, he stripped off his cloak and traded it for a long coat. A tankard with a leather foot for grip sat on his table, the watered wine from his breakfast. He took a swig; the alcohol stung his salt-chapped lips.

Wood scraped against wood as he opened the drawers built into the wall beneath his hanging box cot. He took out his old pocket-watch, brass worked with gold filament, and stuffed it into his waistcoat’s pocket.

His sword belt sat tucked inside his box cot. Reese attached the leather case for his spyglass to the belt, then cinched it over his skinny waist. Just in case the storm turned mean — just in case — it put a little corner of his mind at ease to know his property would be with him.

If only the Rumrunner could fit in his pocket.

Maps and charts were strewn about the table. Reese thought a moment, then decided they were safest left aboard. He’d just as soon ruin them in transit. There was only one map he couldn’t easily replace, and he folded the wax-coated rendering and put it in his trouser pocket. Finally, he looped his compass’s leather cord around his neck and returned to the quarterdeck, where he noticed another, unfamiliar skiff rowing its way to land.

* * *

The storm’s cold winds kicked foamy spray into their laps. Reese sat with a hand on the rudder while Crannutaw manned the oars, riding waves that were more prominent in a smaller vessel. The storm brought premature twilight to the land, and through his spyglass he followed the passage of the Williwaw‘s skiff.

He steered into their wake and followed. With any luck, they would lead him to a quiet place to come ashore. Crann rowed against the tide, and to save the oarsman’s breath Reese neither spoke nor invited conversation.

As they rounded the jetty, the clouds in the west thinned for a moment, loosening the rays of the sinking sun. It flashed in his vision. He shielded his eyes and blinked away the sunspots, and when he looked again there were no storm clouds in sight.

No shore in sight.

Their skiff sat in the still waters of a bright marsh, golden and hazy but with no sun in the sky. The windless air was altogether without cold. Bewildered, his oarsman froze in mid-stroke.

The boat sat calm enough for Reese to stand, and he strained to see in every direction, but there was nothing except marshland from horizon to horizon. He didn’t comprehend at first; that didn’t stop a clammy chill from rattling him. Crann looked skyward, for even in daylight the brightest stars were visible, but the haze obscured everything. And as hot as it had suddenly become, not a single greenhead or dragonfly buzzed about.

Of the Williwaw‘s skiff, there was no sign.

“Is it sorcery?” Crann asked in Terrahohran, sharing a look with him.

“It’s well enough not the Sharkhead,” Reese said in tradespeak, ever trying to get the younger man to think beyond his own tongue. He pulled his compass from beneath his shirt and held it steady. The north point of the wind-rose pointed at him, which made sense inasmuch as he faced south.

“Turn us around,” he said. “Maybe we passed through some magic port, still behind us.”

“Nothing but marshland that way,” Crann said, though he readied his hands on one oar to begin turning the vessel.

“Don’t trust your eyes. The compass works, fine as wine,” Reese said, turning northward, eyes on the rose. The north tip stayed fixed on him, pointing south as he faced north. Reese frowned and turned a full rotation. Always the needle remained keenly interested in his chest. “Um . . .”

A woman’s scream caused him to flinch, and when he looked up from his compass he saw her waist-deep in the marsh where before there had been nothing. She wore a scarlet captain’s coat, the folded tails floating on the muddy water, and her dark hair was cropped short and fatted into spikes. She backpedaled as a huge and bulbous-headed osprey, nearly twice her height, beat at her with stunted wings. The bird wore armored sleeves upon its talons, its eyes milk-white. Reese’s knees turned to water at the sight, but he ordered Crann to put strong arms to the oar.

The image of monster and woman vanished from sight, but the sounds remained.

They rowed closer, the terrified scream making his nape itch. He forced himself to keep his eyes on Crann’s expression of disbelief, wondering what had possessed his own judgment. Gallantry was as foreign to him as sheepherding.

Whatever lit the marsh through the haze, it was enough that Reese saw the monster’s shadow amid the cattails as they glided up alongside. He dropped the rudder and pulled his sword.

The great bird reappeared and made to snap at him. Crann jumped up in alarm, and in the monster’s haste it bit off his head.

The young oarsman’s body slumped to the side, muscles quivering. His head plopped into the water, sparing Reese the man’s dying gaze.

Reese was struck that his first thought was to wonder if the man had any belongings in his bunk, and if he’d be able to deliver them to kin. He didn’t remember the monster until it hovered above him, a shade backlit by the sky’s haze.

Reality slapped sense back into him as the boat rocked with the clambering of the woman. Reese bent and took her arm, helping her into the skiff. His rage was delayed in coming, but it came. His blood ran hot, and with a cry he swung at the murderous bird’s neck.

The blade struck against the armor of an uplifted talon, then snapped, jarring the bones in Reese’s arm with the impact.

Then, the monster spoke in a voice soft yet thunderous, like the echo of a conch shell: “Trespassers.”

“What the hell is this place!” Reese demanded.

The woman from the marsh came into his periphery. If she were frightened, she did not show it. Her face was set with determination, her strange eyes neither green nor blue but a meeting in the middle, like the seas around Terrahohra.

“I guard this land,” the monster said.

“Send me back,” Reese said. “And return Crann’s head to me.”

A strange clicking noise sounded against the skiff’s hull and vibrated through the wood at his feet. The marshlands had birthed dozens of crabs, huge, each the size of a trout. They were brightly striped, like candy, rubbing their armored bodies against his planks.

“You crept in, you may creep out,” hissed the monster, as Reese took an oar from its hook. He batted away a crab, but another sheared off the tip of the paddle with a bladed claw. Still, they tapped against his boat, building themselves beneath it like barnacles. The skiff was lifted from the water.

A claw appeared over the stern; the woman kicked the crab off. The crabs had already begun to feed on Crannutaw’s headless body, dragging it overboard.

Reese batted them away, wiping unwelcome sweat from his face. They couldn’t turn rudder until they were back on the water. “And how do we chase away the crabs?”

With a great rush of air the bird hopped, its claws plopping in the water. It stepped on a crab, trapping it beneath the brine, and hunched to begin feeding gruesomely, the crab’s bladed claws scissoring against its armor with no effect.

The monster studied him. “Your eyes,” it finally said. “I’ll scare away the crabs for a taste of your eyes.”

Reese poked the remainder of his sword at a crab. “Actually, I’m rather fond of those.”

Unfazed, the monster swallowed a chunk of still-fighting crab down its craw. “Your eyes.”

Reese gnawed on the inside of his cheek to keep his temper in check. The thing wasn’t going to barter with him. What leverage did he, a sea captain, have over a creature of land magic? The boat hummed with the movement of the crabs; he didn’t ask what would happen if he refused to pay. Grinding his teeth, he eyed the jagged remainder of his sword. Surely he could survive this with only losing one eye.

The woman stayed his hand.

“First you will send the crewman’s body back to the sea,” she commanded. “He will not stay here and be desecrated.”

“For your eyes, too, then.”

“Done,” she said. Reese gaped at her, that she should be so bold to ask it. It was a noble move; no seaman’s soul could find peace amidst land magic. Crann was no less trapped here than they, still.

“Unhand,” she said to Reese, taking his sword from him. A mouth of clean blue ocean water opened beneath Crann’s body. The body pulled to, then sank. As soon as it slipped beneath the surface into the pocket of brine, Reese saw neither shadow nor shape of it, and the pocket closed before Reese had the idea to jump for it.

Feeling so unarmed, Reese suddenly wondered at why the monster had need of its greaves. Desperate inspiration struck; he grabbed a crab by its back fins — heavy bastard! — and swung it at the great bird. The bladed pincers caught the bird’s neck and with a screech it recoiled, beak and pincers locked.

Marsh crabs dispersed, startled, sinking into the mud and silt. The skiff began to sink, too. A few paces away, Crann’s head bobbed once near the prow, then was carried beneath the water by a crab.

His head!

Reese scrambled towards it. The skiff lurched, quickly enough to steal his footing. They were in freefall, darkness, and a heartbeat later the skiff crashed, pulling Reese and the woman to the deck.

He clenched his teeth as he pulled himself up, a nasty bruise sure to be forming on his side.

The woman was already afoot, surveying. They floated on a river of deep blue freshwater, slopes of cliff to either side. The sky above was crystal clear and midday blue, but once again, it was a land without sun.

“It’s like some kind of dream, isn’t it,” the woman said, and Reese thought if she grew her dark hair out she’d be quite pretty. Her skin was sun-bronzed but gentle looking, as though she took great care not to succumb to the salt that was a sailor’s constant companion.

“You’re captain of the Williwaw, aren’t you?”

“The same,” she answered, “Captain . . .”

“Bayberry.” Well, he thought, at least she hadn’t remembered his name either.

He was parched. He downed the water — still cold from the real world — in his canteen and bent over the side to fill it. But instinct pulled his hand back before he touched the river.

“These waters aren’t natural. No telling what would happen to you,” said the woman, giving voice to his thought. “You can call me Fitzgerald. Fitz, if you’d prefer.”

Reese smiled at having a name to go with the face. He couldn’t help but smile at a lady like that.

Fitz canted her head to the side, regarding him with those strange blue-green eyes. “You have good teeth, captain. What do you seek?”

“The old blue mistress’s little helper,” said Reese.

“A dangerous business, sailing with no luck. Haven’t you one already?”

“Mine ran out of perk.”

“Well, what happens now?”

Reese plunked himself down at the oars, his back to the prow. “Crannutaw — my pilot — his head. It sank here. First I find it, then we point ourselves downriver. Hopefully it leads to the ocean.”

“And the cat?”

Reese said nothing. His Jack was back with the sea, and needed replacing, to be sure. But he’d meant to find her in the wharf or under a pier, not inside some illusion. Now there was his own skin to account for, and Fitz’s. And, there was Crann.

Fitz sat at the rudder. “You think we’ll just be able to row ourselves out of this?”

“There’s nothing for it but to try. Otherwise we’re stuck.”

He rowed along the glassy surface in silence, occasionally glancing over the side to see if he could spot the bottom deep down in the clear water. He trusted Fitz to speak up if there were rocks, and hoped they wouldn’t chance upon rapids. His cheeks burned as he remembered she was not one of his crew.

“Maybe his head returned with his body,” Fitz said.

Reese grunted dissent. He’d seen it. Crann’s head was still here, somewhere, and if he didn’t find it, the boy would be lost forever. A sailor’s life belonged to the old blue mistress, and only in her cold briny bosom could he find rest. No head, no rest for Crannutaw.

The oars sliced the water as though it were real. Though they moved fairly quickly, and though the river resided in a canyon, the air was dead calm.

His gaze soon fixed on a grassy riverbank clinging to the canyon’s foot. There, a golden-haired youth lounged in a sheer robe, singing to himself. Or herself. Reese wasn’t sure.

The youth was the loveliest he’d ever seen, possessing a soft body with skin like porcelain. As the skiff passed, the youth smiled at him. His pulse quickened. The song called to him, stirring him in his depths.

They glided past. As his perspective shifted, Reese saw the youth playing with Crann’s head, braiding its black hair.

He punched downward, yanking his oars out of the water. “Wait, stop! Turn rudder!” Reese’s voice strained. When he pried his eyes away he saw Fitz sitting resolutely, watching him. “Land there!”

“No,” Fitz said.

Her voice carved into him as surely as a prow cut through water. But this wasn’t her vessel, and the current was carrying them further away from his chance to rescue Crann’s head. When Fitz showed no sign of obeying, he stood, wobbly in the moving skiff, and dove into the water.

He fell into a pit of slimy wriggling things that closed over his head. Movement squirmed all around him, sliding against him in a writhing mass. He started to sink deeper.

Firm hands grasped his shoulders and yanked him out, dropping him onto the skiff’s planks with all the violence of a squall. Fitz’s cries of concern pierced his ears and flapping things spread all around him.

Eels. The river had turned to eels.

He jumped so fiercely that he was back on his feet, kicking out the slithering creatures he’d drawn into the boat. Fitz was tossing them hand over fist.

Reese let out a scream in a timbre higher than his dignity allowed as something wet brushed up against his inner thigh. He reached into his trousers and brought out an eel, flinging it so hard it struck the side of the canyon.

His heart hammered long after they’d cleared the boat. On the grassy lip, the youth laughed, taunting them. “Need an extra hand in your pocket?” the youth sneered. “Come to me. Try again.”

Phantom chills erupted all over as he remembered the eels. His skin shivered with goose bumps and he smacked at his clothes to make sure they were gone. “I want my sailor’s head,” Reese said hoarsely.

“I suppose I could be persuaded to part with it. For a kiss.”

“Bayberry,” Fitz said in a rising voice, edging away from him, “look to your feet.”

He followed her gaze to the massive eel — no, it was a snake, with a great flat hood of skin across its crown — coiling about his boot, black tongue darting out. He moved out of untrained instinct, then froze as pressure squeezed his ankle, and he sweated at the sight of a long set of fangs revealed. It was a warning bare, but he was certain it was the youth’s creature, and those fangs were a promise.

“Fitz,” he said, slowly edging a hand into his coat pocket, “take an oar there, if you please.”

He produced his pocket-watch. The gold filigree needed no direct sun to glimmer and catch the eye. Holding the fob firmly in his fingers, he slipped loose the gold chain, letting the watch drop and dangle, and with agonizing slowness began to twirl it back and forth in a pendulum’s rhythm.

As he’d hoped, it caught the creature’s eye, tongue flicking furiously. He’d dazzled Jack many such times in moments of play.

Fitz had unshipped one of the oars and held the blade towards him, gripped like a spear. “Don’t move,” she said.

He dared not spare more than the quickest glance away from the snake, which had reared up. His foot tingled from a lack of blood. The gold wouldn’t distract it forever.

“Don’t miss,” he said past a dry throat, and then on the next swing of the watch tapped it smartly against the snake’s head.

At the exact moment it snapped for the watch, and Fitz became a blur of motion, the youth’s voice called out: “Catch!”

Reese looked up as Crann’s lobbed head sailed just within reach. He could catch it. He instinctively shifted to catch it.

Crann’s head sailed through his hands as a bolt of lightning shattered his ankle and he fell to the deck, his vision a spray of fireworks.

His senses gradually restored themselves as Fitz helped him sit up. He brought the thick cuff of his sleeve to his mouth and bit through a yell as pain radiated up his leg from where the oar had struck him, bile rising in his throat.

“I told you not to move,” Fitz said, not without sympathy. The snake’s head had indeed been the oar’s first victim, severed from its limp body. Its fangs had struck right through the watch face, fused to it like molten lead. Not only his ankle, but now his watch, ruined. He growled, and lobbed it at the shore youth.

“Something to pass the time while you rot,” he said.

As the youth caught the watch, the river bottomed out beneath them and they were in freefall and darkness once more.

* * *

His ankle radiated fire. They were in a large cave, lit from below by the fluorescent underwater lake upon which they now floated, still as glass.

He surveyed the grotto, its columns of stalactites, frozen crystal growing like lichen. Eldritch blue light bathed them and the hue of Fitz’s skin matched the color of her eyes.

“No way out,” Reese said, and his voice echoed back at him from every which way. His chest tightened as though it were being cranked on a capstan. They were trapped.

“If there’s another specter,” Fitz said, “it will reveal itself.”

He tried to stand, but couldn’t. She sat next to him on the planks.

Reese slumped and felt the compass against the skin of his chest. One more reminder of his bad luck. Reese snorted. He looped a finger around the leather cord at his collar and pulled the compass out into the air, then cupped it with his hands. As before, it focused on him.

“If you had turned rudder when I said, we could have gotten his head back,” he said.

“We’ve been in danger thus far. Imagine how it would turn if we put our feet on land.”

“What do you expect me to do, leave Crann alone to suffer here? I’m a luckless captain without a ship, I have little else to lose.”

“Fortune is as fickle as the wind,” said Fitz. “Both favor the bold, but it has always fascinated me that men think they can harness these things.”

Reese clucked his tongue, unable to shake his resentment that Fitz saw fit to lecture him after he’d rescued her and lost the life of his crewman in the process, yet he felt no desire to bark.

“I can’t sail without luck,” he said.

“You are your own luck, Reese,” she said, his name oddly familiar on her tongue. “All you need is a little guidance now and then.”

A voice echoed somewhere within the cave. Living in the wind, he wasn’t used to sitting in dead silence. He strained to listen but the voice was too distorted by the echoes off cave walls to tell from which direction it came.

“Someone’s asking where we are,” Fitz said, cocking an ear. She pointed. “There.”

Reese wondered at how her ears could be so sharp when she captained a ship full of cannon. He only had two guns on the Rumrunner‘s decks, and one shot in the open air was enough to leave his ears ringing.

The voice echoed again. He stuck his hand overboard and splashed water against the skiff’s side, thinking the owner of the voice could find the lake by its glowing light. Soon enough he saw her.

The woman could have been Fitz’s sister.

No. Her twin.

She wore the same garb as Fitz, dark hair fatted, skin bronzed from the sun but more weathered, eyes darker. Lit from underneath by the glowing water, age lines showed on an otherwise unmarred face with a strong sloped jawline.

“What in the brine of the blue mistress,” Reese said, looking from the woman on shore to the woman in his boat.

She made her way down the steep embankment to a strange cropping of rock that a second glance revealed to be wood; her skiff had been dashed on a sharp stalagmite that rose from the water, unsalvageable. A great wall of crystal, like a frozen waterfall, loomed behind her.

The underground lake rippled.

“Are you a lost sailor?” asked Fitz’s twin, making her way to the edge of the water. Her voice quivered with stress but she maintained her composure. “Or another trick of the eye?”

More land magic. Fitz sat unperturbed, studying the woman as though she were trying to count sails on the horizon. She’d been his guide all this time, he reminded himself, and he wasn’t about to trust some apparition he saw off his boat. He’d learned that lesson.

“Get it over with,” Reese said to the woman on shore. “Tell me what you want.”

“I want safe passage back to sea,” said the woman on shore, honing an edge to her voice. “Your creature already killed my oarsman in the marsh, and I’ve had nothing to do but sit here after your river rat scuttled my vessel.”

“You must help her, captain,” Fitz said quietly.

“They’re trying to get inside my head again,” he hissed. He had no knowledge of these things. He had no stars, no charts, nothing here to guide him. “Now they want me to relate to them.”

“No,” Fitz said with all firmness. “She’s a lost sailor, same as you.”

“Are you failing to notice the resemblance?”

Fitz answered by sinking even lower in the boat.

“By God, you are a sailor, aren’t you?” asked the woman on shore. She reached a hand out. “Toss me your line, man. What unhappy condition brought you here?”

She was convincing. Even if he lacked certainty, he couldn’t be so coldhearted. Reese took the coiled line and tossed it ashore. The slack splashed into the water and the woman tied a mooring to a rocky protuberance and pulled them in as he paddled.

“I’m Bayberry of the Rumrunner, anchored in Sharkhead,” Reese said, breathless. “You look just like Fitzgerald.”

“I am Fitzgerald,” the woman barked, her voice echoing. “I came ashore for a luck bringer after a fire on my gun deck killed him. Instead here I am at the mercy of blasted sprites.”

Reese’s hands skipped a pace. Two Jacks dead in the same breath? He’d never heard of such a thing.

The boat rocked from beneath. The lake’s surface rippled and then began to bubble like a cauldron, foaming the water white. A deep boom rumbled from below them like whalesong.

Fitzgerald pulled the rope faster and when the shaking became too great she clung to the rocks.

Fitz aboard wrapped her arms around Reese and pulled him flat to the deck, just before the boat jerked so sharply it took on a gulp of cold water — it was a shock; he’d thought the water had been boiling — and drenched the two of them. He surely would have been thrown from the boat.

The booming manifested into a deep rumbling laugh, mimicked by the staccato of mocking giggles and buzzing insect wings that filled the cavern with static. Reese rolled atop Fitz to shield her and looked over the skiff’s bow, where scores of iridescent water fairies hovered around a dark maw in the cavern itself, stalactites and stalagmites formed into teeth resembling the jagged grin of a great huge shark.

Reese went still. Every bone in his body hummed with tension, the same anxiety as when a storm broke greenwater over his deck.

“I am the lord of blind earth,” said the maw. The rock shifted and split as it moved, fragments breaking off and splashing into the lake. “This is my realm.”

The sprites danced and shimmered, cackling and echoing the words of their master. A score of them played with Crann’s head, now quite garish and discolored, a monstrous relic for a lost sailor’s soul.

Reese gripped one of the docking cleats to steady himself and rose to his knees. The maw breathed at him, stale air without a whiff of fresh breeze or salt.

“Return us to the sea,” Reese said, mustering his courage.

“The sea? That old hag has no power here,” the maw repeated. The water took on a gentle draw towards the maw, but the boat held firm to the knot Fitzgerald had tied ashore.

“What’s the price of our freedom? All of us?”

“How like them to always barter.” The maw laughed, an underground draft smacking Reese in the face. “What do you offer?”

Reese hadn’t dared even think about it until now. He reached into his pocket and produced his wax-coated map to Terrahohra, the only one he had. The stars will lead me back, he assured himself.

“My way home.”

The maw laughed harder, carrying with it the gusts of lifeless existence. “You have the will to find another way, worm.”

The rope on the prow creaked and told Reese the current was getting stronger. The line wouldn’t hold forever.

“Your bird wanted my eyes, so I must be worth something piecemeal,” Reese said. “I’ll give up my foot.” Chances were he might lose the foot anyway, if it festered much longer, and then he’d strike a proper pirate indeed.

“Your boat, perhaps,” the maw said.

The thought of stepping onto this cursed land cooled Reese’s blood. He looked again at the women on shore — a proud woman, but a castaway nonetheless. If they had no boat, how could they reach the sea? They’d be stuck in this cave until their doom. Which, Reese guessed, would be soon and likely painful.

A true forfeit, then.

He had no obligation to take on another sailor, and the tradesman within him whispered that he should offer Fitzgerald’s life to spare theirs. He looked at Fitz lying against the hull; she watched him, expectantly. His face warmed under her scrutiny, as though she could spy his dark thoughts.

Glancing down, the point of his compass continued to fascinate itself with him. Luckless he may be, but a captain he remained.

Reese climbed to balance on his good leg. The charge was his. “Return these women to their ship, and Crannutaw’s soul, and you can have me.”

“Do you mean that?” Fitz asked. It wasn’t an accusation. He hoped she’d remember him kindly.

“Genuine and whole.”

Fitz pulled herself to her feet beside him. The chattering sprites hissed as they saw her, fluttering in retreat. Fitzgerald stood dumbfounded on the shore, apparently seeing her double for the first time.

The maw’s cackling grin faltered. “Nothing hides from me in the land of blind earth!”

“This man does not belong to you,” Fitz said. “He is my captain; he is mine.”

The cave rumbled; the maw boomed. “What magic have you brought, sea rat?”

Reese jumped as something brushed against his foot; Fitz no longer stood beside him. Where he looked down, a fuzzy Jack rubbed against him in profound contentment. Its eyes were sea-colored, not quite green and not quite blue.

The creak of the rope grew louder as the boat twisted, a vortex starting to drain in the center of the lake. Reese hopped to the prow.

“Hurry!” He reached for Fitzgerald. “Hurry, come aboard!”

Fitzgerald leapt and Reese caught her as she tumbled into the skiff. Chunks of ceiling crumbled. The waterfall of frozen crystal rippled.

Fitz — the Jack — jumped into the water. She dissipated into a swirling blue portal of brine and salt and froth, reshaping the vortex.

Above, the sprites fluttered with Crann’s head. Reese took a diving one-legged leap over the skiff to grab it, twisting to break his fall as he submerged.

Strong hands grabbed his shoulders and helped him break surface. He passed Crann’s head aboard and gripped the skiff’s side, the edge cutting into his armpits and chest, his lower half still in the churning water as the current sucked at his legs.

Before he could climb aboard, the rope snapped and the boat spiraled towards the vortex. Spray crashed into Reese’s face and suction ripped at his lower half. He hooked his elbows around the docking cleat as his coat pulled like a sea anchor, threatening to tear him away. Squalls buffeted his face and flattened his stiff hair as williwaws — wild winds, sea magic — roared in the land of blind earth.

He and the skiff swirled closer to the portal, water roaring against his ears, and in between gasps for breath he saw the crystal waterfall snap out like a great sail loose in the wind, filling the cave with white light.

The maw let loose one last bellow before being crushed.

Then the brackish water pulled him below.

* * *

Reese was in freefall one minute, on his back the next. Before he could register pain, something heavy fell atop him.

He whimpered. The ache in his ankle was back in full force.

Shouts from men cut through his mind’s fog, and the rush of wind and the cries of gulls could only mean one thing. He looked up at the mizzenmast of an unfamiliar ship, but a proper ship it was, and a wave of relief broke within him.

The crew helped Captain Fitzgerald to her feet. They offered him hands but he waved them off, content to lie on the frosty boat in the old blue mistress and let the harbor winds caress the planes of his face. It was cold, damn cold, and snowflakes alighted on his lashes and nostrils. But by some luck he was dry and not liable to start freezing then and there.

By some luck.

One of the mates — one of his, strangely — crouched beside him. “You fell clean from the sky.”

“And fine as wine, you ugly bastards caught me instead of the soft yielding water,” Reese coughed.

The clouds above were gray and amicable. Before the crew could explain, he lifted his head and looked past the rail. The storm clouds roiled farther west, on a new course.

“Turned rudder, sir,” said a seaman.

“The Rumrunner?” A sudden knot twisted inside his chest, but the sight was plain enough: the storm swells had run her up on the shoals, listing and stuck. The Williwaw had come up alongside in charity to scoop up his crew in return for the loan of their pumps, and both ships were in bad need of care.

The hands were aghast to find him clinging to Crann’s ruined head, but the pitiful thing only stirred sadness within, though he had brought the sailor home.

Reese’s ankle didn’t let him jump rail to his ship; he swung across on a yard line and found they had indeed received the body, which was wrapped in the man’s canvas hammock. Reese placed the head in the bag and stitched the remainder up, then called for hands to deliver Crannutaw unto the old blue mistress.

The canvas rose light and empty in their hands. Frowning, Reese felt through it; the body was gone, all except a small lump in its place, which squirmed and mewed.

He freed a cat, fluffed up with stricken nerves, fur black as tar. It drew the attention of the crew, who took up cries of faith restored and started chanting huzzahs of “Jack’s back!” and “Luck bringer!”

Reese picked the sleek little cat up and held it close to his face, snowflakes catching on the shivering fur. It rubbed its fuzzy skull against the stubble on his cheek, his envoy from the old blue mistress.

“How do, sailor,” he whispered.

Fitzgerald soon found him, accosted him to sit, and called for a surgeon. Reese regarded her, a handsome woman, possessing the same quiet confidence of Fitz but with a captain’s shrewd gaze. He would remember her name this time. “Have you ever sailed Terrahohra, captain?”

Fitzgerald shook her head, glaring as though she were finished with any part of him. “I’m chartered to the Sharkhead.”

“Might do us good to sail together until your vessel is refitted.”

My vessel?” She made no move to hide her annoyance, tempered with an air of pride. “Mine’s a fair share more seaworthy. And I’m chartered — ”

“Ah, but you can’t sail without a luck bringer.” He hoisted the cat in the crook of his wrist, hugging it against his waistcoat where it pawed at his scrimshaw buttons. “I just so happen to have one.”

That finally broke through her stern countenance, and she smiled a little. “You’re a loose wit, captain. See to your vessel.”

She left him, then, hobbled on broken limb aboard his broken ship. As he watched her go, he felt with some certainty that she was a guide, more than any star or map.

They’d get to Terrahohra eventually.

Jack softly rumbled in agreement.

Erica Hildebrand works on illustrated projects in addition to her writing. She has a soft spot in her heart for superheroes, dinosaurs, and the conquerors of antiquity. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, her fiction has appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Bewere the Night, M-Brane SF, and more. Her comics have appeared in Space Squid and Kaleidotrope. She lives with her wife in Pennsylvania. Her tweet handle is @Hildebabble