Shad and Saura: The Secret Belowdecks - Part Four
Art by ssjelitegirl
"I hate my life, I hate my life, I hate my life, I hate my life..."
It didn't make Saura feel much better, but it gave his brain something to focus on while he headed towards the officers' cabins in the aft of the ship so that he wouldn't go insane with fear. This is, quite frankly, stupid, he tried to assure himself. Scarblade is my captain, all things considered. He wouldn't randomly pounce and eat me just because I looked at him funny or something like that.
...why couldn't Shad have gone anyway? He's a Lupe. They all have like, some deep mutual understanding thing going on.
...and why did I buy this whole "I'm quadruped, you're better at carrying trays" thing when I know for a fact that he only walks on all fours because he's lazy?
The dark ornate door loomed in front of him. Scarblade goes first, he knew. If you give his subordinates their food first, you might as well hop right overboard when you're done.
Well, it wasn't a "what do you want?", at least. Good start. He pushed the door open by a fraction of an inch.
"Lunch, sah," he announced cheerfully. There was no immediate answer, so he pushed the door by another hesitant inch.
"Come on in." This voice was, in its quality, much like the howl heard earlier. It wasn't angry or threatening it itself, but somehow it struck chords deep within Saura's soul and pushed all the buttons labeled "Fear", "Danger" and "Avoid if you don't want to get eaten". This voice suggested that its owner only kept himself at bay because he felt like it.
Against his own better judgment, Saura entered, trying to look nonchalant. Whoo, the tray is barely trembling, good job!
Scarblade's office was fairly big, messy and full of assorted things – dusty paperwork that was probably only there to be archived, weaponry, the occasional clothing item, and stuff Saura could only define as souvenirs, or at least memorabilia. But while Cora's office had been neatly arranged and each item had its own, nearly feng shui placement there, the captain's method of archiving seemed to be more on the "throw it somewhere" side. The walls and ceiling were also rather dark, so the overall impression was more than claustrophobic, and the single gleaming eye somewhere in the middle of it didn't make it any better. Aw man, they can smell fear, right? Of course they can smell fear.
He sidled closer, making sure to avoid the items littering the floor every few steps, and put the food bowl on the desk. The captain, who was reading some kind of a thick book and occasionally taking notes on the margins, barely nodded, and Saura backed out with the tray. Knocking on the door of the first mate, he'd already managed to regain his cheerful composure. Got the worst part over and done with, yay!
The impression left by Scarblade had been so strong that only after heading back to the galley with the empty tray did he realize that looking at it objectively, Scarblade had really done nothing but read a book while he brought the bowl, while the other officers had all given him a long critical look and Benny the Blade, Scarblade's right-hand Bruce, had cooed "A new kid, eh?" in an unpleasant scratchy voice.
But that was the thing, wasn't it? The officers were all acting like the world expected them to be Big Bad Pirates. Scarblade didn't act. He didn't have to.
"Hoaurgh, you stink," were Shad's first words as his brother stepped into the galley. "Was he really that bad?"
Saura stared down at him. The Lupe was washing the dishes in a large wooden basin and looking rather content with his life. "Come again?"
"Fear smell," said Shad, waving his paw dismissively so that soap fell all over the floor. "You know, this sharp, kinda prickly- eh, you don't know. Anyway. How'd it go?"
"He didn't do anything," Saura admitted, joining in with dishwashing, "he just kinda... well, he was there, that about did it."
"Ye never quite get used to it," Gran said from a farther corner of the room. "Ye got lucky as it is, back on the day he'd make a point o'yelling at the new recruits a little, just to y'know, set the atmosphere an' establish the authority. T'was expected of him, too. Now's just..." She grunted, letting her voice trail off, and didn't finish the sentence. Silence reigned.
Saura focused on dishwashing, letting his mind wander. He was the cook of his family and washing the dishes had always been a way of arranging his thoughts and putting things in focus. As the bowls and plates splashed around in the soapy water in front of him and the entire world got filled with bubbles, events begun to sink off, float to the surface and twist around in his head, gaining new nuances and highlighting aspects he hadn't noticed before.
Cora behind her piles of papers, her cabin a neatly arranged archive. The one who actually runs the things.
Terry, who'd run into something so horrible, he couldn't manage to talk about it.
A Lupe howl expressing... how did it go... sorrow and some kind of strong wish.
Scarblade behind his messy desk.
"If Cora practically runs the place," Saura was still looking into the washbasin as he spoke, "what do the officers actually do?"
"Are in charge," Gran said with just a twinge of disapproval in her voice. "As in, y'see, they's the ones who make the decisions. The ones we can't make cos we don't have the knowledge. Which course is th' most reasonable if we's lookin' for loot, which course is th' most reasonable if we's avoiding authorities, where the currents are an' how the winds affect the course. Basic'ly, there's the boatswain, Cora, right, she's the housekeeper. The first 'n second mate, they deal with th' actual course and cargo distribution afore, during n after sailing. Then we have Benny, calls 'imself first officer," Gran practically spat that out, "no real rank name for him but he's Scarblade's right-hand-man, sure enough. Eavesdrops and spies for him, gives tactical advice, that sort of stuff. Right, then we have the quartermaster, second guy on board after the Cap-"
"Wait, second on board?" Shad looked up. "I thought Benny was the second big nose."
"So he thinks," Gran said dryly. "But ye gotta know where ye stand in this crew. The quartermaster, boys, he's the head of the crew. He'll be yer mummy and daddy on this ship, and ye'll always do exactly as he says, no questions, no arguing, even if it goes against any other order ye've been given. He's got the power o' veto over the Cap'n's decisions, that oughtta give ye an idea... I'll have to introduce ye later, he'll find ye a couple bunks to sleep in. Anyway, so. The Cap'n hisself, Scarblade. To be frank, there ain't much that he actually does; he's mostly there to decide what others have to do. Where to sail, how to act when facing 'nother ship, which sails to reef, when to tack, when to battle, when to run – yes, we do run, we didn't get where we are now by bein' stupid and reckless – all that kinda stuff."
"And if he makes a mistake?"
There was a moment of silence, hanging heavily like a wet cloth in front of a cannon's mouth.
"Then the entire crew suffers," Gran said somewhat hollowly. "S'why it's important to have a Cap'n ye can trust."
Shad turned his head. "And do you-"
"Ye saw him," the Moehog bit rather sharply. "Did he look like the kinda guy who don't know what he's doing? We trust him, lad. He's our Cap'n. And no matter what it is that's wrong with 'im lately, no matter what he ain't been tellin' us, he's our Cap'n and we trust him. And so should you."
The rest of the – rather awkwardly longwinded – dishwashing session passed in chilly silence, but when they'd finished with the dishes and Gran took her grubby apron off, her voice was cheerful again and didn't show any hint of any grudges.
"Well, not bad for rookies," she said. "Time to take a lil' break and check ye into the forecastle, how's that sound? Come along, I'll take ye to the quartermaster."
The forecastle was a short distance away, hidden into the hull of the ship. The official entrance was on the deck farther away, but the back of the forecastle was connected with the galley via a small backdoor and a corridor. As it so turned out, the quartermaster had a separate cabin right outside the forecastle backdoor.
"Important note," Gran had clued them in during the brief moments of crossing the corridor. "His name's Arlington. Not Arlie, not Arl, always Arlington. Never, and I mean never Lin-Lin. A lad tried that once, and, well. Arlington. Savvy? Alright, now knock."
They did, then opened upon hearing a grunt that Gran deemed affirmative.
"New boys, sah," the Moehog announced in her usual everlastingly cheerful manner. "I more'rless clued 'em in, they just need bunks and suchlike."
"Alright," rumbled the quartermaster, and Gran ambled off, leaving the two brothers up against more geography than they'd ever expected to see on a ship.
The cabin itself was actually fairly large – on a ship, it's a luxury even for the captain, but whoever had built the Revenge had obviously aimed for imposing mass, so there was plenty of room to go around. Even so, it looked tiny because its owner was also built aiming for imposing mass. Arlington filled nearly half of the actual cabin, from floor to roof.
Shad and Saura stared blankly at the green Elephante on peglegs, or rather the immediate stomach area and the tattoo maps that covered it, as the quartermaster picked a thin folder from the laughably small table and examined its contents critically like someone who's passingly familiar with the written word but not close enough to trust it with house-sitting. Then he came out of the cabin, and the two brothers scampered to the corridor to let him through, trying to suppress the feeling that they were escaping from a landslide. Arlington opened the forecastle door and the brothers snuck in after him.
They'd been unsure as to what the forecastle actually was, but apparently it was just nautical for living quarters. The place was spacious, although solely because the crew shared its space with cannons and a whole lot of cargo. Dull second-hand light shone in from the cannon hatches but the forecastle was nevertheless rather dim. Shad peered out from behind one of the cannons – not an easy task, because it looked like a battering ram and filled nearly the entire hatch.
"Ooh, smoke," he said in surprise. "That'd be those infamous smoke machines, right?"
"Lower down," Arlington rumbled, striding on without turning his head. There were numerous chests and crates littering the deck here, and the ship had started to sway a bit, but the brothers still had to nearly run in order to keep up with the quartermaster's brisk pace. Shad's brow furrowed.
"I don't think that's the only reason," he said. "I smell a storm."
Arlington stopped so abruptly that the brothers very nearly ran into him. At first they thought that they'd managed to say something better left unsaid, but then they realized that the Elephante was pointing at two small hammocks hanging over a cannon.
"Yours," he said unceremoniously, then turned to eye them over his upper hemisphere. "Worked on a ship before?"
"Um, no sir," Saura said for both of them. It wasn't strictly true but they figured that it wasn't smart to drive up the expectations.
"Then stay here." And off he went, leaving the brothers to settle in.
"Well, this probably could've gone worse," Saura concluded, climbing into his hammock. "We're on the way, we have a bunk and grub and a roof above our heads-"
"Deck," Shad corrected, curling up in his own hammock, stretching his neck to try and peer out of the cannon hatch, losing balance as a result and ending up looking like a huge black caterpillar that's crawled in a fishnet stocking.
"-deck, yes, and our co-pirates haven't been all that bad so far, which could of course turn around any minute, but I like to stay optimistic," said the Zafara, climbing out of his hammock again to unwrap his brother. "What was that you said about a storm?"
The storm struck not even a quarter of an hour later, and was somewhat insignificant as storms go. Seeing how big the Revenge was, it didn't affect the ship much, but made for some swaying and rocking and sail-reefing nonetheless. The two brothers stayed, as ordered, in the forecastle and watched the furious grey-blue coils of smoke and mist and churned water and whatever else there may have been roll around outside.
That's when they heard the howl again. It was muffled by the storm outside and as such, lost quite a bit of its oomph, but it was still as chilly, grim and somewhat gloomy as before, still the same howl of a tortured soul, coming somewhere from the maze that made up the big ship's insides.
"Hm, this one's new," Shad muttered, swinging back and forth with the hammock and occasionally emitting little "whee" sounds.
"Mm," Saura did absently. He had also curled up in the hammock, seeing as it would've been hard not to get knocked over on the floor, but he was holding his head up and ears perked. That always made him look a bit ridiculous, but at times like these, he didn't care.
"Yeah, it's not Gloomy Tortured Soul of Gloominess any more. It's victorious. Sort of gleeful," Shad mused, wiggling his ears back and forth. "'course, if we assume that Scarblade is steering his ship through this storm, then holding the wheel while the seas and skies rage around you can probably feel pretty awesome-"
"Shad." This voice was urgent. The Lupe looked up rather curiously. "What?"
"This came from below. Well under the level we're currently at, and unless they keep the wheel somewhere in the middle of the ship-" Saura fell quiet again, his brow furrowing, then jumped out of his hammock all of a sudden, a feat that was somewhat spoiled by the fact that his foot got caught in the net and he slammed into the cannon below. But he sprang up again before Shad could even ask if he was okay.
"I just heard a scream!"
"You did?" Shad asked with confusion. Saura had good ears so he'd learned not to question his hearing, but even with Scarblade's shifty actions recently, he couldn't think of a single reason why he'd be roaming the depths of his ship in the middle of a storm howling and screaming, at least not any that wouldn't set him as the tragic hero of the kind of books their younger sister read all the time. Nevertheless, he darted off after his brother.
The storm turned out to be fiercer than it'd seemed at first. Crates were sliding around on the floor, making running even more difficult for the two brothers who weren't used to a constantly moving ground in the first place, so by the time they got to the hallway, they'd both run into a wall twice. The hallway itself was much darker than before, some of the candles had gone out, and Saura stopped hesitantly to stare around.
"It came from lower down," he said. "And I can hear... snarling?"
"Oh, so now we're gonna be big bleedin' heroes, is that it?" Shad whined, pressing his side against the wall to keep his balance while stalking on. "If there's snarling and screaming and howling belowdeck, who in their right mind runs towards it?"
"Shh!" Saura leaned against the wall as well, his ears still perked. They snuck onwards in the dimness, straining their senses. It only seemed to get darker further on.
Shad's nostrils flared. His hearing wasn't comparable to Saura's, but his nose was much better, and if there was anyone down there, he should be able to tell. Of course, there was no wind down here, and the ship itself smelled very prominently of tar, salt and old wood, not even mentioning all sorts of other lingering smells of the crew who lived here, so any actual motion would've gone unnoticed until it suddenly jumps at your throat...
And then he smelled it. This sharp, salty smell was definitely not standard part of the ship. It was fresh, wet and struck his brain like a hammer.
The smell got stronger as they climbed down a staircase, into complete darkness. The Lupe could make out the wafting scent of smoke that always follows a recently put-out candle. Since the light was out, he could focus better on his nose, visualize it as a flurry of colorful trails drawn out on the black canvas of his mind's eye.
So... the generic dark maroon of tar and old wood. Numerous dull yellow streaks of unwashed clothes that'd gone through the same hallway, some streaks fresher, others so faded that they had to be many hours old. The bright blue trails of candle smoke, some of them coming from the floors, but others were still in the candlesticks on the walls – what had put them out? The strong, prominent greenish yellow of Saura's fur right behind him, consisting of dishwater scents and the everlasting smell of cinnamon and thyme that followed the Zafara around. A trail of purple and light blue, with pinkish undertones, that'd gone down the same hallway no more than ten, fifteen minutes ago... down into the belly of the ship where no crewmember had any business being in a storm. And wafting from the depths of that same hallway a wide crimson streak, the strongest and freshest scent of them all.
"Stay here," Shad hissed, raising his head higher to catch as much of the smell variety as possible. The purple-blue-pink trail seemed to mingle with the crimson trail. Same source?
"You can't see down here. I can smell my way."
"Oh, look at you, Mr. Superior Senses," said Saura, who hadn't idled away while Shad painted his scent-image. "Can you hear that?"
"The moans. Someone's down there."
"Cora," said Shad, remembering the same purple-blue haze that'd filled the boatswain's office. "And she's hurt."
They both hesitated, feeling stupid. Someone had attacked Cora somewhere down there, attacked pretty badly as far as they could tell, and all common narrative rules dictated that they rush down there to help their crewmate and fight whoever had done it, be it even the captain himself, but common sense insisted on the fact that it was really dark and they had no idea what to expect, and rushing blindly into the darkness only to get attacked themselves didn't feel any smarter.
The ship continued to sway and toss around. Shad took another step into the darkness. Was it him or was the crimson scent getting stronger?
"Hello!" he shouted. "Is anyone down there?" His common sense threw its hands up, whined something about having to work with unreasonable brats all the time and went to mope in a farther corner of his brain. A moment passed.
"Someone's coming," Saura breathed, taking a few steps back, towards the staircase that wasn't any better lit but still known territory.
Shad broke into a low snarl. He'd heard it too, quiet muffled steps that sounded like someone very heavy was dragging their feet on the floor. And the crimson trail got indeed stronger. It was no longer a trail, but a cloud.
And then something bright purple-blue-pink-crimson-smelling hurtled through the air, landing in front of them with a dull thud and a quiet moan. Shad dashed forward to it, staring furiously on into the darkness where someone was standing a few dozen yards away. "Who are you" seemed like a very blasé thing to shout. "Show yourself" felt just plain stupid. "Go away" sounded more like taunting. So he just settled for a fierce defiant snarl, which more or less encompassed all three but made him feel better about giving the message.
There was a quiet snort of contemptuous laughter, low and raspy like stone against wood, then something huge shifted in the darkness and muffled steps disappeared again in the direction they'd come from.
To be continued...