Treasure Lost: Part Four
Spirit closed her eyes as the sea breeze caught her fur, blowing strands loose from underneath the dark blue bandana that she had tied over her head. The sun was high, casting a comfortably warm glow over an otherwise cool day. The ship swayed beneath her, and she automatically shifted her weight to her other foot to keep her balance. Somewhere behind her, Jojo's laughter mingled with the rough calls of the deck hands. Opening her eyes, Spirit turned to see her adopted brother climbing in the web of rigging which stretched from the galleon's sides up to the crow's nest on the main mast. The shrouds, Spirit reminded herself. It was hard remembering all of the nautical terms, but she was determined to master them. Being ignorant was annoying.
Spirit lazily strolled aft from where she had been standing in the bow. She wasn't worried that Jojo would fall. He had been climbing in the rigging almost every day since they set to sea, although he had yet to make it all the way to the crow's nest. The crew treated it as entertainment, betting on how high he would get. As long as he kept Radish and Melody close in case he lost his hold, Spirit let him do what he wanted.
There was a new sense of freedom in being on the Wretch. For the first time since her eventful departure from Virtupets Space Station, there was no threat of being followed. Any approaching ship would be spotted miles away, and Captain Mercer had assured her that his ship was uncatchable.
"Watch yer footing!" a blue Bruce with a Pawkeet on his shoulder hollered as Jojo let his legs swing free of the ropes. Melody dove close to offer help, but Jojo waved her away with one foot, giggling. A sudden gust shook the rigging, sending Jojo bobbing like the driftwood that occasionally floated past the ship. The sailors roared with laughter.
"We could string 'im up an' use 'im as the colors!"
"Look, 'e's still climbin'!"
Spirit frowned slightly as she passed the group. True, they were pirates, but she still didn't like the way that they treated Jojo as some kind of pet. It was only temporary, though, Spirit reminded herself. A bit of harmless fun for sailors who rarely got a break from hard work. And Jojo did like the attention.
Spirit made her way up the quarter deck toward the stern. Mercer himself was at the wheel. Seeing him, Spirit's heart beat faster, but immediately she shrugged off the feeling. It was probably just the normal anxiety she felt around someone she didn't entirely trust. Then again, she couldn't decide whether or not she did trust him. Spirit leaned against the railing, gazing out to sea. Why did she always have to be so paranoid?
Ever since her arrival on the ship, Mercer had acted like a gentleman, even teaching Spirit the basics of navigation. In fact, Spirit had been spending a lot of time with him lately; it made a nice change from talking to the crew, who were coarse at best. Relax, Spirit told herself. You'll have enough to deal with when we reach the island.
When she turned back to the ship, she saw Mercer waving her over. Smiling slightly, she jogged up the steps to the poop deck. There was a Wocky at the binnacle, watching the heading on the compass that was mounted there, but Mercer dismissed him with a look. Spirit watched the sailor go, then let her eye wander back to the crowd around the main mast. From the look of it, Jojo was back on the deck. A few cheering crewmembers were collecting their bet money.
"I'll stop them if it bothers you."
Spirit turned to face Mercer, who still had his hand on the wheel. She lounged back against the railing, watching a few clouds float overhead. They were the first she had seen in two days. Maybe there would be a bit of rain later.
"As long as they don't start Jojo on gambling," she replied.
"Ah, because a lass like yourself must have no tolerance for the game, am I right?"
"You know you're not. But can you imagine how much money Jojo would lose if he started betting?"
Mercer chuckled. "That he would. He's too good a boy for the likes of us pirates."
"Of course he is," teased Spirit. They were silent for a while, then Spirit remembered, "Why did you call me over?"
"Maybe I just wanted the company. The sea's a lonely place."
"If there wasn't a mob of sailors constantly hollering and throwing things, then yes, maybe it would be lonely."
"You don't like my crew," Mercer accused. His voice was laden with disappointment, but Spirit caught the smile hidden in his eyes.
"I don't like you either," she informed him brightly, startling Mercer into a laugh.
"Perhaps I didn't just call you for the talk, then. I was hoping you'd let me see the map again. We've had a strong wind these past few days. I'd like to check our bearing."
Spirit nodded. "It's below. I'll be right back." She left Mercer at the wheel and disappeared down a hatch in the quarter deck.
Once below, the sunlight disappeared, replaced by the wavering light of a few Brass Lanterns. The air was stagnant, full of the smell of old clothes. The only living quarters built into the ship were for the captain; the crew made do with hammocks strung across the gun deck, which absorbed their particular odor. Spirit now made her way along this deck, ducking under the hammocks, careful not to bang into the rows of Pirate Cannons that stood at attention along the hull, each pointing at a small hatch. At the moment, the guns were quiet and the hatches were closed.
An old tarp hanging loosely from the ceiling separated Spirit and Jojo's hammocks from those of the crew. It wasn't much privacy, but it was a nice gesture. More concerning was its lack of security. Spirit didn't trust any crew member's vague sense of honesty to keep him away from her things. Now her few valuables, including the map, were locked up in an old chest that had once held plates and drinking glasses. As an added deterrent, Spirit had coated the chest with gunpowder. Anyone who tried to break open the lock would create a spark, and the gunpowder would ignite. It wasn't enough to destroy the chest, but it would scare a thief. Spirit was somewhat surprised that her defense system had not yet been triggered.
As Spirit bent to open the lock, she heard running footsteps behind her. She spun, her paw going instinctively to the Thief's Dagger that she always wore on her belt. She relaxed when she saw Jojo weaving through the clutter, stumbling a bit when he rounded a cannon and almost getting tangled in several of the hammocks.
"What are you doing?" Spirit called with a smile when he was closer.
"I'm trying to find a mop," replied Jojo.
"A mop? What do you need that for?"
"Jarrid said that if I find a mop, then I can help him swab the deck."
"What? That's his work! You are not going to help Jarrid get out of doing his own work."
"But if I swab the deck, then I'll be a real pirate, and Jarrid said that his Pawkeet can only sit on the shoulders of real pirates."
"He's just taking advantage of you," Spirit sighed.
"Please?" Jojo's face was full of hope and pleading. Spirit gave in.
"Fine, but as soon as you get tired you stop. There's a mop over there by the ladder."
Jojo scrambled off, all eagerness. As he tumbled over a stack of cannon balls, something shiny and silver spilled out of his pocket. Spirit thought that it was a Dubloon, but before she could see it clearly, Jojo had picked it up, grabbed the mop, and clambered back onto the main deck. Spirit, holding the treasure map, followed him a minute later.
She had only let Mercer see the map once before, just long enough to get an accurate compass heading. She realized that this was a bit impractical, as retrieving the treasure did require arriving at the right island, but suspicion was a hard habit to break. Even now it was with a slight hesitation that she handed Mercer the tightly rolled paper.
The captain briskly unfurled the map, straightening it out on a low crate that served as a makeshift table. He studied it briefly, comparing it to a modern map on which the ship's course was plotted, then glanced up at the binnacle where the compass pointed north-northeast.
"As I suspected," Mercer finally announced. "We've drifted a bit in the wind, but a four degree shift in the heading should put us back on course." He paused a moment, then added, "And you're sure you've no idea what those writings mean?"
"Nope," Spirit replied. "I was going to take it to a translator in Krawk Island, but that Kyrii chased me onto the ship before I got the chance. Don't you have anyone onboard who's good with languages?"
"My crew may be expert sailors, but there's not a lot of schooling among them."
"Oh, well. It's probably just some old threat or curse anyway. Not important."
"Don't shrug off old curses too lightly," Mercer cautioned, frowning slightly. "On the open sea, we still live by them."
Spirit was about to reply when a shout from the crow's nest interrupted: "Storm ho!"
Mercer's eyes snapped to the bow. Spirit followed his gaze, then swallowed. A wall of black clouds was building in front of them, stretching away to both port and starboard. They were going to sail straight into it.
"All hands to work!" Mercer barked, springing back to the wheel. Spirit grabbed the map again as Mercer called out orders, hastily rolling it under her arm. "Batten down the hatches and reef the mainsail! Ready the rolling-tackle! Lower the sea anchor!"
The crew wasted no time in obeying. Spirit could only watch as they swarmed up the rigging, pulling on the ropes that fastened the sails. Others rushed to board up the hatches that led below deck, to keep the water out of the belly of the ship. They finished their work just as the Wretch sailed into the shadow of the storm. The clouds loomed up, blocking out the blue sky. Everyone was silent, watching. A few yellow bolts darted above them, followed by a hollow rumble. The planks of the ship creaked. Without turning to look at Spirit, Mercer whispered, "Do you believe in curses now?"
Then the sea dropped from under the ship as it plummeted into the trough of a massive wave.
The rain hit with no warning, coming down in a sudden sheet that battered the deck and stung the skin of the crew. It was a cold rain, like drops of ice, and it was a minute before Spirit realized that it was water and not hail.
On the deck and the masts, the crew was battling with the ship as the ship battled with the sea, each one struggling for control. The wave rose to a steep crest, almost tipping the ship. There was a moment when the galleon seemed to be floating, then it was sliding down the back of the wave. The sun was now completely blocked from view. A few lanterns flickered into life along the length of the ship, saving it from total darkness, but the light of the flames was weak and had a deathly yellow glow to it. Mercer was wrestling the wheel, trying to keep the ship from turning broadside to the waves. If that happened, the ship would role and they would all be tossed into the churning sea.
No one saw the first rock until they were almost on top of it. A jagged black peak reared out of the ocean like the head of a sea monster. Mercer released the wheel and it spun uncontrolled, turning the ship so that it just avoided a collision. The maneuver sent a wave slamming over the deck, threatening to wash the crew overboard. As the water slid through gaps in the rail and back into the sea, Spirit anxiously scanned the deck below. She spotted him just before another wave hit. Jojo was wedged beneath the ladder to the forecastle, Radish and Melody clinging to him.
Spirit vaulted off the poop deck. As soon as she landed she took off running, trying to get as far afore as she could between waves. As each crest swamped the deck, she grasped at whatever hand hold was available—a bit of rigging, the rail of the ship. Sometime during her journey she realized that she was no longer holding the map. A wave had carried it overboard and the sea had swallowed the fragile paper. There was no time to mourn its loss.
Spirit passed the fore-mast just as the second rock materialized out of the sea foam and darkness. The ship made a sharp turn, scrapping the rock just above the water line. Spirit couldn't tell whether the blow was enough to rip through the hull. If it was, it was only a matter of time before the ship went down.
Preoccupied with the state of the ship, Spirit didn't see the next wave coming. It slammed her forward and she lost her grip. There was a moment when she could feel nothing but the dragging water, then her paw found something solid and she clung to it as the water surged past. Blinking the salt from her eyes, Spirit found that her saving handhold was the rail of the ladder. She dropped down and ducked beneath the steps, wrapping her arms around a shivering and soaked Jojo. He had his eyes squeezed shut and his fists were clutching the steps so hard that they were shaking.
Spirit looked back towards the deck. The whole ship was in turmoil. From her position, she couldn't see what was in front of the ship, but the way that Mercer was trying to turn the wheel meant that there were more rocks approaching. As Spirit braced herself, lines from the map flashed through her mind.
The Island itself will guard the Path...
Through jagged Stones and clawing Waters...
They were close.
"Melody!" Spirit had to shout to make herself heard over the raging storm. Spirit swung out from under the stairs, her Petpet clinging to her shoulder. "We have to get through these rocks. The island can't be far off now. Fly ahead and find us a path!"
Melody trilled, then launched herself into the air. She hung for a moment, desperately flapping her wings, but the storm overpowered her and she crashed back into Spirit's arms.
"Radish can make it," came a voice from behind. Spirit jumped. She hadn't realized that Jojo had followed her onto the deck. "I modified his thrusters, remember? He can make it through the storm."
Spirit stared at the bedraggled Grundo. He was bent under the heavy rain, his arms crossed over his chest in a futile attempt to stay warm. Spirit felt helpless. All she could do was nod, then put her arm around her brother as their two Petpets disappeared together into the gloom.
They didn't have much time for worrying. Waves were still mounting the deck, and Spirit and Jojo were now exposed to their full force. Together they struggled back to the fore-mast, where Spirit grabbed a loose end of rope that was flapping in the wind. She tied it firmly around Jojo's waist, securing him to the ship. Then she hooked her own arms into the rigging and waited.
It wasn't long before a strain of music floated through the storm. In the wind, it had an eerie, wavering quality. All over the ship, the crew shivered. "It's the Drenched!" Spirit heard one sailor call from somewhere above. "They've come to drag us to our deaths!" Another few notes drifted by. Spirit recognized that tune...
"It's Melody!" she shouted, jumping up. "She's found a safe path. Follow her singing!"
There was no way that her voice could reach Mercer through the wind and waves, but the same sailor who had called before echoed her words. Soon the message had passed the length of the ship. Spirit watched as Mercer turned the wheel to starboard, taking the Wretch in the direction of the song.
The rocks were becoming more numerous, each one barely passing before the next threatened the ship. Melody's song came in fragmented snatches blown to the captain by the wind, but it was enough to steer them through. We're going to make it, Spirit thought. We're almost there.
Then Spirit's heart dropped. Melody and Radish were pelting back to the ship, both frantic. Spirit caught them, trying to make sense of their whistles and clanks. She looked up. The rocks were gone. She could just sense the shadow of a mountain ahead. They had reached the island. But something was wrong.
"Turn the ship!" Spirit screamed, just as the bow began to dip. It was too late. The Wretch had sailed to the edge of a whirlpool, twice as wide across as the ship was long, and now it was caught by the swirling current. In the stern, Mercer was desperately tugging at the wheel, trying to take the ship back out. It swerved around the rim, and Spirit could now clearly see the island rising out of the sea.
The phrase jumped back into Spirit's head. If the words were right, then Spirit knew what she had to do next.
In an instant she had jumped to the nearest hatch and pried it open. Saltwater and rain poured down after her as she raced to grab her bag, but Spirit was beyond caring. Her things were already packed, and it was no time before she was back on deck and standing at the railing, gazing into the heart of the whirlpool. As she lifted one foot, a hand grabbed her arm.
"What are you doing?" Mercer yelled above the still fierce storm. He had handed the wheel off to his first mate.
"I'm going in. The treasure is down there somewhere."
Mercer nodded. "Then I'm going with you."
"No way," Spirit replied. "It's too dangerous. And the ship needs you."
"You're warning me of danger?" Mercer laughed. "I live for it. How far do you expect to get on your own, anyway? I'm coming, or I'll lock you up for your own protection."
Spirit bit her lip. "And the ship?"
"My mate will handle it. If he takes the ship in deep enough, he can use the speed of the whirlpool to sling the ship clear. She'll take shelter around the other side of the island where the mountain blocks the wind."
Nodding, Spirit turned back to Jojo. "Stay with the ship," she shouted to him. "I promise I'll come back as soon as I can. Melody, are you coming?"
The Carmariller gave a chirp and ducked through the wind to land on the rail. Spirit took a deep breath. Before she had time to think about what she was doing, she was over the side and into the sea.
When Spirit woke up, she had no idea where she was or how much time had passed. She was vaguely aware of a dull ache on her left side, and she assumed that she must have hit something. As her head cleared, she realized that she was lying half in a pool of water. Slowly, she forced herself onto her hands and knees and crawled further up onto the land.
It was completely dark, and Spirit guessed that it was night. It must still be cloudy because there were no stars or moon, but at least the storm seemed to have stopped. Spirit rubbed her shoulder and her paw bumped into the strap of her backpack. She felt inside the soaking bag until she found what she was looking for. The Flaming Torch that she had bought back in Krawk Island seemed to have come through unharmed. Thank goodness I wrapped it in oilcloth, Spirit thought. The waterproof material had kept it dry, and Spirit managed to coax a flame into it from a spark of her flint. By its dim light, Spirit examined her surroundings.
She was in a cavern. It was the rock ceiling that blocked the sky, not clouds. Spirit had no way of telling whether it was really night.
The pool that she had been lying in was much wider and deeper than Spirit had first thought. The whirlpool must have sucked her through some underwater passage and into the cave. She tried to think back. She remembered plunging into the water, holding onto Melody...
Melody! Where was she? Spirit staggered to her feet, raising her torch above her head to spread out its light. A few feet away, she caught a glimmer of brightly colored wings.
"Melody! Are you alright?" Spirit asked anxiously as she scooped up her Petpet. Melody cave a small cough, then a chirp as she flapped her wings a few times, testing to see if they still worked. Spirit sighed with relief.
Looking around again, Spirit spotted another shape moving at the edge of the fire light.
"Glad to see you're unharmed," Mercer groaned as he found his footing. He looked as battered as Spirit felt. "Where are we?"
"Somewhere under the island, I think. All I know for sure is that we're in a cave."
"I got that myself," Mercer replied. "More importantly, where do we go now?"
Spirit turned in a slow circle, examining the cavern. "It looks like there's a path leading up that way," she finally said.
"Then that way it is."
They climbed slowly, working the stiffness and bruises out of their muscles. Spirit knew that she would be sore later, but as long as she kept moving, she could put that off until after she had found the treasure. They were silent as they walked, saving their energy for motion.
As they wound their way through the island's core, Spirit's mind wandered back to the text that had been written on the map. The next two lines kept running through her thoughts, but she couldn't make sense of them.
The Road will chill the Bones when the Roaring sounds
And no Escape but through the Teeth.
Spirit was so busy trying to figure out their meaning that she almost walked off the edge of the path.
"Watch out!" Mercer yelled as he grabbed Spirit's backpack to stop her from falling. A few rocks tumbled down from the edge. Spirit didn't hear them land.
The way was blocked by a giant gash in the rock. It was much too far across to jump, and only a narrow ledge was left running along one side. Spirit looked at Mercer.
"We can't go back," he said.
The ledge was barely wider than Spirit's feet. She took the lead while Mercer edged along behind her. Each time she took a step, she carefully tested her footing before trusting it with her full weight.
Mercer had just gotten the last of his feet onto firm ground when Spirit heard it. There was a dull echoing roar coming from under their feet. No, Spirit corrected herself, it's coming from the hole.
When the Roaring sounds...
"Run!" Spirit yelled. She took off up the path, Mercer right behind her and Melody overhead. The sound was getting louder, as though something was rushing upwards. Spirit risked a glance behind and almost tripped in disbelief. Ice crystals were forming on the edge of the hole, spreading fast.
The roaring reached a deafening pitch and Spirit felt the first blast of freezing air slam into her back. She stumbled, but Mercer grabbed her arm and pulled her forward. Melody dropped from the air onto her shoulder, but she kept running. There was nothing else to do.
Up ahead, there was an opening in the rock wall. Stalactites and stalagmites ringed the gap, looking just like a set of teeth in an evil grin.
"This way," Spirit called to Mercer as she launched herself sideways. She heard the dull sound of his body impacting the ground beside her. A wave of cold air washed over them, and Spirit closed her eyes.
When the roaring passed, she blinked them open again. Snowflakes fell from her eyelashes, and her fur crackled with frost as she sat up. Mercer was brushing a layer of ice off of his skin. They were in a second tunnel, and the entrance to the path that they had been following was completely frozen over.
"We should keep moving," Spirit said, getting to her feet. Melody gave a shiver that sent ice crystals flying in all directions, then rose into the air once more. "Walking will warm us up."
Their new path led back downhill, and Spirit couldn't help thinking that they were going to be stuck going in circles forever.
"You didn't expect a straight path, did you?" Mercer asked. Spirit managed a weak smile, glad that she wasn't alone. Nonetheless, she was relieved when she saw a faint light coming from up ahead, thinking that the tunnel must be about to end.
It did end, but not in the way Spirit expected. Instead of taking them outside, it opened into another massive cavern. High overhead, cracks in the rock let in streams of sunlight, and from some of them came little trickles of water. After the cold they had just faced, the warm and humid air of this cave was a welcome relief.
As Spirit stepped deeper into the cavern, she discovered that there were even little clusters of some vine-like plant growing in the patches of light filtering through the roof. It was kind of a nice place, Spirit decided. Melody was also enjoying it, weaving through the light beams. Mercer, however, remained wary.
"Don't let your guard down," he cautioned.
"I never do," Spirit replied. "Look, there's another tunnel on the far side of the cavern."
They had almost reached the middle of the cave when Melody, mid swoop, noticed something strange. The shadows of the plants were detaching themselves, their snaking tendrils following close behind Mercer and Spirit. The closest one was only an inch from Spirit's heel.
Just in time, Melody, whistled a warning. Spirit spun around, saw the shadow, sprang out of the way just as it grabbed for her. Mercer had heard the whistle, too. He drew his cutlass and sliced through the nearest of the ghost vines. It had no effect. Five more shadows shot forwards, forcing him back.
"How do we fight them?" he called to Spirit, who was having as much trouble as he was. Neither her sword nor the torch that she still had in her hand were doing any good. Desperately, her mind raked through Scarblade's warning.
The vines have Eyes...
Nor Blade nor Fire will turn them back...
She had figured that out for herself. What was the last part? A shadow narrowly missed her ear and she stumbled as she dodged, losing her footing. She fell hard on her back, the breath knocked out of her. Then she remembered:
But only a Fearless Heart.
A tangle of vines was shooting for her chest. Mercer tried to reach her but a ghostly tendril reared up, blocking his path. Spirit closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and prepared herself.
The impact never came. Spirit opened her eyes again. The vines were passing straight through her, but she couldn't feel a thing. Cautiously, she sat up and reached out a hand. It only touched air. Spirit laughed as she realized the simplicity of it.
"Stop fighting," she told Mercer. "Look!"
The shadows were cursed, but in the end they were still just shadows, unable to hurt anything. Mercer flinched as the vines twisted their way through his legs, then stared in amazement.
"Come on," Spirit said. "They won't hurt us. Let's get going."
They had almost reached the exit when Spirit noticed something. "Where's Melody?"
"I saw her fly out through one of those cracks when the shadows attacked. She's probably safer out there than in here." He led the way out of the cavern, Spirit reluctantly following. Mercer was right that Melody was safer outside, but she still had a bad feeling about moving on without her. She shook her head. Melody would be waiting for her when she found her way outside.
Jojo sat on the deck of the Wretch, his back pressed against the rail and his face turned upwards, staring through the holes in the rigging at the black clouds. Rain drops pelted his face, but he took no notice. He hummed a few notes of a song he didn't know, then absentmindedly began to stroke the Cuttlebot resting on his lap.
The ship was firmly at anchor in a small cove on the sheltered side of the island. The sails had been furled, so the wind that still managed to find them had nothing to grab onto. An eerie tension, a sort of breathless waiting, filled the air, driving the crew below deck. Only Jojo and his Petpet remained in the open, watching the flashes of silent lightning which still darted overhead.
"I bet they're cold," he whispered to Radish. "I should have given Spirit my blanket."
Radish made a soft whirring sound, brushing a raindrop off of Jojo's nose with the tip of one tentacle. The pair was silent for a long time.
In the end, it was hunger that forced Jojo to leave his place on deck. In the chaos of the storm, dinner had been forgotten. Jojo vaguely remembered that Spirit kept some fresh fruit with their things, saying that it was important to stay healthy at sea. As if in a daze, he wandered to the nearest hatch and let himself down to the gun deck. It was surprisingly empty.
Jojo could hear voices drifting through the planks of the floor. Although he didn't know it, most of the crew had gone down to the hold. It was too wet to cook a proper dinner, but they were filling their stomachs with ship's biscuit and grog from the storage casks.
One group of sailors, however, was still on the gun deck. In the dim lantern light, Jojo could see figures moving at the far end of the ship. The curtain that had hung there had been ripped away. As Jojo watched, one of them swung a heavy shovel towards a large chest. There was a loud clank, then a burst of flames.
"Do you hear that?" Mercer asked as he bent down to help Spirit climb the side of a particularly steep boulder. Spirit nodded. She had first caught the echoing whisper a minute ago, but it was now much clearer.
"It sounds like water," she said.
Spirit's ears were right. Up ahead, the path ended on a narrow strip of stone. On either side, an underground river gushed out of the darkness and into the shadows. Each flowed in a different direction, and each had a different personality. On the right side of the path, the river was wide and shallow, swift but steady. The left hand river was deep, and the water was uneven, dancing over submerged rocks. In between was a single canoe, large enough to hold four Pets.
"I guess we have to pick one," Spirit said as she examined the canoe. "Want to take a guess?"
"Left," Mercer replied without hesitation. "The other is deceptively calm. It probably leads to a trap."
"I was thinking the same thing," Spirit agreed. She thought back to the last verse penned on the map.
Beware the sweeter Route that seems the wiser Way.
Spirit thought that the word 'sweeter' was odd. Wouldn't 'calmer' have been better? Or 'easier'? Just then, she noticed Mercer acting oddly. He had bent down by the calm river to wash the cave grime off of his hands, but had paused, staring at his dripping hands. Spirit couldn't help raising an eyebrow as he first sniffed his hands, then licked a drop of water off of one of them.
"The water is fresh," Mercer explained, looking up at Spirit. "But I can smell salt, which means that the other river must be ocean water.
Of course, Spirit thought. Freshwater is called sweet. The sweeter route is the freshwater river. She felt a small glow of triumph at having picked the correct path from the start.
"That doesn't change anything," Spirit said out loud. "I still say we take the left river."
It took both of them to maneuver the canoe into the choppy water. Mercer steadied it against the bank while Spirit climbed into the front, then in one motion jumped into the boat himself and pushed them out into the middle of the stream.
It soon became apparent that the paddles lying in the bottom of the canoe were not for rowing. The current sped them forward at a pace that made Spirit's stomach leap, twist, and land somewhere well above its usual place. The frequent bends in the river didn't help. The little boat was slammed into first one wall, then the other, each jolt adding a new bruise to Spirit's already battered body. Spirit and Mercer used the paddles to fend off rocks as best as they could, but there wasn't much that they could do to fight the force of the water.
Just when Spirit thought that she couldn't take any more, that her numb hands would drop the paddle or that the canoe would capsize and she would be too exhausted to swim, she saw something that renewed her energy and pumped warm blood back into her shivering limbs. Up ahead, three ropes were hanging down the cave wall. They were deliberately placed, each about twice the length of the canoe from its neighbor.
They had reached end of the verses: the Goal to which you Rise. After that line came the treasure itself.
"We have to make for those ropes!" Spirit shouted over the roar of the river. "The treasure is at the top!"
"Not a moment too soon," replied Mercer, staring downstream. Spirit followed his eyes. An arrow's shot ahead of them, the river ended. It simply dropped away, falling into dark space.
"Make for the wall, quickly!"
Spirit didn't know how she found the energy to follow her own command. She paddled backwards, fighting the current, trying to slow the canoe while at the same time directing it to the river's edge. There was no bank to climb onto, just the rock face rising smoothly upwards. The boat smashed into a boulder jutting from the water, momentarily catching. The first rope was close...
"Steady the boat against the rock!" Mercer yelled as he dropped his paddle, reaching over the side of the boat for the rope. Spirit rose to a wobbly crouch, then planted one foot firmly on the boulder, keeping the other on the canoe's edge. One hand on the rock to steady herself, she pushed the boat against the wall and braced it there, using all of her strength to keep it in place.
Mercer was now standing in the middle of the boat, the rope dangling an inch out of reach. He took a small step forward. The boat rocked dangerously, but it didn't matter. He had the rope. Mercer grabbed it firmly with both hands, then turned to Spirit. If she stepped back into the canoe, she would be able to reach him before the boat was washed away.
"Give me your hand," Spirit called, preparing to make the leap. Then she caught sight of Mercer's face. Something evil was dancing in his eyes. There was a cruel smile on his face.
"Curse that Xweetok!" mumbled the pirate who had tried to open Spirit's chest. The flame had burned itself out, leaving a charred shell of wood.
"I told ye t'was like to be trapped," one of his companions shot back. The Pawkeet on his shoulder squawked its agreement. "Ye've only a few burns, so stop yer whinin'." He bent down and dug his fingers into the singed chest. The wood crumbled away, and the few belongings that Spirit had left behind spilled out. Tucked behind a cannon, Jojo watched as they began to argue over how to split it.
"As the first mate, it be my right to have the sword. That be my share and ye can divvy up the rest."
"That sword's the only bit that's worth a Wharf's tail. We should sell it an' each 'ave a share o' the price."
"What's it matter, anyhow?" asked a third. "The captain's bringin' us back a right fat lot of booty. This lot won't be anythin' like as to what our share of that'll be."
"Yer speakin' truth there," the first pirate agreed. "Once the captain's gotten that fool girl to take him to the treasure, it'll be all plunder for the Wretch!"
In his hiding place, Jojo shivered. He didn't like the way that the pirates were talking. Somewhere inside of him, something was urging him to get off of the ship. Fast.
Jojo tried to sneak back to the ladder without being noticed, Radish hovering just above the ground beside him. As he walked, Jojo's feet stirred up the musty air which clung to the ship's planks. The dust and mold drifted into Radish's filters. He sneezed.
"Oy! You there!"
Jojo didn't turn around. He scrambled up the ladder just as the crewmen skidded to a stop at its base. There was no time to look for a hiding place, so Jojo raced to the first cover that he saw. He jumped into a coil or rope lying on the deck, crouching down so that his antennae wouldn't show. Radish disappeared into the rigging overhead.
Although he couldn't see them, Jojo heard the pirates clamber onto the deck. They passed by Jojo's hiding places as they spread out to search the ends of the ship. Jojo dared to raise his head an inch.
Jojo was staring right at the Pawkeet. It had settled on the edge of the rope coil, and was now looking at Jojo with its head tilted slightly to one side. Frantically, Jojo searched his pockets for something to keep the Petpet quiet. All he found was the Dubloon Charm that he had gotten back on Krawk Island.
Seeing the shiny toy, the Pawkeet gave a small hop and ruffled its wings. Jojo smiled.
"Want it?" he asked, waving the charm a little. "Here you go!" He tossed it over his shoulder. Immediately, the Pawkeet took off, chasing the trinket as it skipped across the deck. At the same time, Jojo stood up, looking for a safer place to hide. He had just decided on a nearby lifeboat when he was spotted.
"There 'e is! Grab 'im!"
Pirates rushed at him from three directions. He had nowhere to run. Radish swooped down, sensing what Jojo was about to do. Jojo grabbed hold of the Cuttlebot, using its lifters to help him onto the ship's rail. Just before three sets of hands seized him, Jojo jumped. He hit the dark water below just as the first cannonball tore through the ship.
Mercer never reached out for Spirit's hand.
"Thanks for showin' me the treasure, lassy," he laughed, reverting to a heavy pirate accent. "But I'll not be needin' ye anymore. Enjoy yer swim!" With that, he pushed the boat away from the wall. Spirit's foot, still on the canoe's railing, was jerked out from under her. She didn't know whether it was the betrayal or the shock of the cold river that stole the air from her lungs. All she knew was that she was underwater, and she wasn't coming back up.
It was an odd, surreal feeling. The salt water stung Spirit's eyes and she closed them. The darkness was numbing. She tried to swim but she couldn't tell which way was up.
A smashing pain in her back forced her back to reality. Suddenly the world was moving at twice its normal speed. Spirit realized that she had hit another boulder. She clung to it, pulled her way up its slippery side. Then her head broke the surface and she breathed in deep gulps, as though she hadn't tasted air in years. She turned her head wildly, trying to see what was happening. The waterfall was only a few yards away now. Spirit could hear nothing but its pounding roar.
Back upstream, Mercer was already halfway up the rope. Spirit watched him climb. Her mind struggled to find anger, hatred, any emotion, but all she could do was stare with a deep fascination, almost an obsession, as he neared the top.
If she hadn't been watching so closely, she wouldn't have seen the ledge begin to crumble. It was only a few cracks at first, a trickle of pebbles tumbling into the river. Spirit still thought that Mercer might make it. Then a section of the rock broke away, sliding a few inches downward before the tension of the rope pinned it against the wall. That whole side of the ledge was going to give.
Spirit tried to scream out a warning, but her voice was drowned out by the river. Mercer kept climbing, a greedy determination showing on his face. One moment, he was stretching out his hand to grab the ledge, the next the ledge was gone. The stone, the rope, and Mercer all plunged into the river. The current seized them immediately, and before Spirit could register what was happening, all three had swept by her. She saw one arm break the surface and grasp frantically for a handhold that wasn't there, then Mercer was over the edge. Spirit couldn't tell whether or not he screamed.
Spirit's hand slipped on the rock and she realized that while she had been watching Mercer, her own body had sunk into hypothermia. Her fingers could no longer find a good grip on the smooth boulder. Her arms were stiff, wouldn't tighten around it. There was no hope of fighting her way upstream. There was no help coming.
Spirit's mind scrambled for options, but a fog seemed to have settled on it. In the end, she had only one thought: she hoped that Melody would find Jojo and Radish, and that they would be alright.
Her fingers slipped again. Spirit realized that she was no longer holding onto anything. She was alone in the water. Then even the water disappeared, and she was falling through a cloud of spray and air.
To be continued...