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Death Pirate Short Story

Skeleton Crew

Rose joins her father on a dangerous mission.

Will the adventure leave her feeling broken and alone,

or will it ignite something deep within her soul?

Written By Chris Backofen

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This story is a continuation of a larger tale. Consider starting here:

Mortal Fog

 

     The morbid must of bonepowder had spread from the barrels and filled the pitch-black hold. The young stowaway steadied herself against the jostling casks beside her, leaving no free hand to ward off the foul odor. But the stiffening crouching, the stench, and the see-sawing all contributed to the adventure. She was a pirate, after all! Well, a stow-away too. A pirate stowaway! Though does it really count as “stowing away” if it’s on your own ship? She’d served with the crew of The Redemption ever since they’d restored and rechristened the old wreck, and over the years her father the captain had taught her everything he knew about plundering on the seas. They’d kept the stupid imperial dimwits at bay, too busy patching their fleet and chasing their gang around the mainland to get too far across the blue. But this set-sail felt different, and not just because the crew had split across several ships, or because of the ships' rushed departures. When she stowed away, she’d convinced herself that The Redemption needed its best pirate aboard. But really, she’d sensed something amidst the crew’s typical foolhardy mirth. If they left without her, she wasn’t sure she’d ever see them again.

     Over the moaning hull and bumping of barrels, she heard the hold door creak open. There was a light at the head of the room, and the sound of familiar voices. Shadows shifted as a pair of crewmen descended to the hold from the deck above.

 

     “That’s all on deck. Now for the ones in the hold”

 

     “But I swear I saw something move out there, captain!”

 

     “It’s just nerves, Liam. The night playing tricks on you.” Rose heard a light thud and wince; a punch on the arm, she thought. Her father’s voice continued, reassuring as always. “Now come on, we’ve got to float these barrels before the whole fleet shows up! ” 

 

     “Aye, captain! But… do you really think this will work?” Wood scraped against wood as they started lifting barrels towards the deck. 

 

     “Have faith, brother.”

 

     “Heh, spoken like a true Faithsworn! Miss the good ole days in the Order?”

 

     “No. I’ll never forgive her for the lies, or for the things she made us do. But people need to believe in something. And today, the gods and spirits are all that stands between our loved ones and her wrath.”

 

     “Wait, what’s that?” Liam set his cask down with a thud.

 

     “Oh come on, Liam, we’ve got work to do!”

 

     “Wait, captain!”  Torch-cast shadows rapidly shifted as the crewman’s footsteps neared Rose. Suddenly, an iron grip yanked her up and into the light. “Now, what ’ave we here? A stowaway?” He directed a crooked smile at the lass.

 

     “Took you long enough, Liam.” Rose grinned back, shaking her arm free. “Were you distracted by your night monsters, or are you just getting old?”

 

     “Rose!” Her father cut in, evidently less pleased. “What are you doing here?! I told you to stay ashore with yer auntie! This is a dangerous mission and-” The captain noticed Rose’s downturned face and stopped his tirade. He put a hand on Rose’s shoulder and sighed. “Well, it can’t be helped now. You’re here, your part of the crew. We’ve a lot to do, so grab a barrel and get to work!”

 

     Had it not been for the torches, Rose’s smile would’ve lit the room. She wrapped her arms around a barrel nearly her own height and brought it to her father at the door, who passed it to Liam on deck. 

 

     She briefly paused to catch her breath, then found another barrel for her father. “So what’s the job, captain?” 

 

     “Seems the fleet’s gotten tired of us being a thorn in their side for so long.” Her father took the barrel, and passed it along. “They want to deal with us once and for all.”

     Rose laughed. “Like they could catch The Redemption!” 

     “No, I don’t think they could. But every ship goes to port some day.”

 

     Rose hesitated before the next barrel.

 

     “That’s right, Rose. They’re coming for Loál; for home. They’ll arrive afore dawn.”

 

     Her father had told her about the imperials’ bloodthirst. What they lacked in brains they made up for in devotion to their wicked Goddess. If they reached the island villages... “We’re not gonna let that happen!”

 

     “Aye, missie!” Liam chimed in. “Why you think we’re hauling all this bonepowder?”

 

     Rose considered as she grabbed another barrel. The archipelago was surrounded by what the island-dwellers called “the bone reef.” Her auntie said the cartilage-like coral brimmed with malevolent spirits, with each new shipwreck augmenting its vengeful horde. There were only a few safe routes through the reef; but they were narrow, and perfect for boobytraps. “We’re gonna blow them up?”

 

     “Right,” replied her father. “We’ve boats mining the passages as we speak. When the imperial navy sails through…”

 

     “BOOM!” Liam called from the deck, before vanishing from sight. Rose thought she heard a splash of his barrel going overboard.

 

     “Won’t they just use magic to get through?” she asked. “Pray to their ‘goddess’ or something?” Despite its reputation and her handful of run-ins with The Order, Rose had never witnessed divine magic firsthand - or any goddess, for that matter. 

 

     “Well, bonepowder’s magical, too,” her father replied. “Besides, the isles’ spirits have protected us this long. I’m betting they’ll give the goddess a run for her money.” 

 

     But if all that failed, Rose wasn’t worried. Dad’s made a fool of her and her goons plenty of times. There’s no way he could lose now!

 

     Her father turned to call up the stairwell. “Liam! Come over here and take this blasted barrel already! We’ve still got half the hold to empty!” A moment passed. “Liam!” There was no response. 

 

     “Something isn’t right… Wait here, Rose.” Unsheathing his rapier, the captain made his way up to the doorframe, and looked around. A metallic clang reverberated through the hold, and her father spun down the short staircase as a hooded figure flew into view, sable cloth streaming behind. As they landed, the stranger’s black blade pressed the pirate’s silver sword, nicking his brow and drawing a rivulet of blood. 

 

     Rose drew her sidearm and rushed into action. Her own slashes glanced off the assassin’s dark garb with sulphurous hissing, but caught its attention. The elder pirate shoved the distracted assailant backward, and kicked him into the wall. In perfect choreography, father and daughter lanced with their rapiers. One was deflected with a twist of the midnight blade, but the other pierced through warded cloth and flesh, pinning the target to the bulkhead. A split second later, her father’s flintlock was nestled beneath the assassin’s sable hood. The gun discharged thunderously, and their foe slumped to the floorboards. Ominous silence followed. None of the crew shouted about the racket. Rose looked to her father’s grim face, and realized: they were already dead. 

 

     “The goddess’ umbral hands,” the captain explained, gesturing at their prone foe as he reloaded his pistol. “Come in advance of the fleet, I’d wager. Come on, Rose. There’s one still out there.” 

 

     “How do you know?” Rose asked, her voice low.

 

     Her father raised his palms, a wry expression on his face. “Hands always come in pairs.”

 

     Rose moved to grab a torch from its bracket on the wall, but the elder marauder shook his head. “Best not attract their attention.”

 

     The pair crept from the hold into the salty, chill breeze that swept over the topdeck at night. Apart from the usual ship sounds - wind ruffling the furled sails, waves breaking against the hull, and the boards and rigging creaking - all was quiet. Even as their eyes adjusted to the moonlight, no crew could be seen on deck. Beside the aft rail lay an abandoned powderkeg. Rose approached, peering into the darkness. “Liam?” she whispered. As if in response, there was a thud on the deck behind her, and a clashing of swords. 

 

     She spun around, and saw a second shadowy figure locked in combat with her father. Black and blue cloaks swirled as the two figures exchanged thrusts, slashes, and parries in a lethal dance too frenzied for Rose to approach. The assassin was a blur of acrobatic motion, deftly rolling and rebounding off deck, wall, and rail as he sought a weakness in the pirate’s defenses. But the captain knew his ship best. He baited his opponent towards the midsection, then swiped low with his rapier. The blade missed his foe, but sliced the rigging and sunk into the mast. The captain grabbed the cut cord, rising swiftly as the sail fell, and used the height and momentum to pounce on his startled adversary. There were three thuds as they hit the ground: one for each of the combatants, and one for the pirate’s fist delivering a knock-out punch directly to the assassin’s shrouded face. 

 

     Rose plucked the stuck rapier from the mast and ran to her father. He rose with a slight chuckle that was quickly interrupted by a wince and a groan as he reached for his side. Crimson blood was staining his navy coat, which Rose pulled out of the way. “No, Rose, I’m fine.”

 

     “You’re not fine, let me see!” 

 

     “Rose, I’m…”

 

     She finally yanked the coat away, and the coming dawn illuminated the wound beneath. Rose had seen worse. They’d patch him up. But from the gash slowly grew black tendrils. She glanced at the black blade on the ground, which was now tinted red. Cursed or poisoned, no doubt. She shifted her gaze to her father’s face. But he was looking past her. She followed his gaze to the bridge of the ship. Against the sanguine sky were six silhouettes, perched on the railing. On the horizon behind them, Rose saw pinpricks of light. In unison, the six shadows doubled in height, and produced sable swords as golden armada drew closer. Rose’s knuckles turned white as her grip tightened on the cloak and rapier. As the figures advanced in solemn lockstep, her father claimed his slain foe’s blade and, with a warm and reassuring hand on her shoulder, guided her backwards to the side of the ship. As she bumped into the railing, she glanced behind her to see the away boat hanging at the ready. 

 

     “Get in, Rose,” came her father’s calm, but insistent voice, “and cast off.”

 

     It took Rose a moment to register the command. “No!” she screamed, and tightened her grip on his coat. “Not alone! You’re coming with me!” 

 

     He lifted her off her feet with a great hug, and looked her in the eyes as he set her down. “I love you, Rose, now and forever. Remember that. You’re never alone.” 

 

     The dark figures were nearly upon him now. He turned from her, shrugged off his coat, and with his slain foe’s blade cut the dinghy’s tethers. Rose only then noticed he’d set her down in the away craft. Her father receded from view as she and the boat plummeted to the waves below. 

 

     As the jostling waves carried her away from the ship, she heard her father yelling and the clanging of clashing blades. There was a pop as her father’s flintlock fired, and then a breathtaking BOOM as The Redemption exploded in grey and green brilliance that hurtled Rose into the waves.

 

     A ruddy line divided the ground at Rose’s feet. In the fog, there were faces. She saw her father’s face, smiling. They were walking forward, to cross the line and join their eager, waiting crew. He crossed first. But before she could, something pulled her backward. She clung to her father’s hand. She kicked and screamed. She woke up.

 

     Rose gasped and wiped a clammy sweat off her brow before squinting and examining her surroundings. She was on her back, on some kind of animal skin. Strangely intricate assorted trinkets hung above her, ornate with feathers, bones, and sometimes glistening gems. Orange firelight cast smokey, flickering shadows on the cavernous hide hut. Through an opening, she saw familiar trees and shore. She was on the the third island in the archipelago, her home away from sea. But something wasn’t right. In the distance, an unnerving mist rose from the waters and glowed jade against the dusk skyline. 

 

     “From death, life. And from life, death,” a smooth voice intoned. 

 

     Rose bolted upright, shocked to discover she was not alone. Next to her sat a woman - a native, from the shape of her face - of severely pale complexion, stroking a similarly-colored, emerald-eyed feline. Rose tried to speak, but felt the words choke in her parched throat. 

 

     “Drink up, dear.” The woman gestured to a cup of lightly steaming brew resting on a table near the bed. The cup jittered in Rose’s shaking hand as she drank, but she found pungent liquid invigorating, and felt its warmth flow through her body.

 

     The woman gazed at the haunting horizon. “The blast ignited the powder. The powder woke the reef. And the reef repels her minions and magics. The goddess thwarted by the spirits and gods of old. And your life, another blessing.”

 

     “No. If not for my father… and everyone...” Memory flooded Rose’s mind, the ordeal like a nightmare. They were gone; all of them gone, but her. At least she had- Rose searched around the bed for a brief, panicked moment before finding the rapier and blood-stained coat that had belonged to her father. She held them tightly. They’d become her inheritance, all she had of her father, their crew, and all that had been.

 

     Rose felt the woman’s gaze on her, but didn’t care how silly or childish she looked, burying her head in her face to hide the coming tears. But the woman simply and cooly asked: “Would you like to see them again?”

 

     Rose looked up. Of course she would! What kind of question was that? But the woman’s expression was dead serious. And as she calmly stroked her feline companion, Rose was attracted to its glowing emerald eyes, set in a pale skull afore bare, hollow ribs and bony tale; each stroke emitted a ghostly ripple where its skin ought to be. Slowly, the truth dawned on Rose. Magic was a rare but powerful gift in the isles. Her aunt said that, with the aid of the spirits and gods, anything was possible.

 

     “It is within your power, Rose. After all, you are my daughter.”