Shad and Saura: The Secret Belowdecks - Part Five
Art by ssjelitegirl
"No, we'll put her in the forecastle," Saura said sternly when they'd dragged Cora up the stairs. "I really don't think she'll be able to take a longer trip. Run off and find a doctor, stat, there's gotta be one on a ship this size." He paused for a moment. "And um, don't give anyone any details, I think."
They heaved her into the nearest hammock, an easier task now because she didn't seem to be conscious any more, and Shad darted off as Saura sat on the cannon next to the hammock, unable to do anything but watch the Kyrii's erratic breathing. He knew a thing or two about first aid, but he didn't even have a strip of cloth at hand and Cora looked like someone had played tic-tac-toe on her so he had no idea where to even start. The best he could do was hope that help would come quickly.
Minutes passed. The storm was still raging outside, occasionally sending water droplets flying in through the cannon hatch. Muffled shouts could be heard from upstairs, probably only audible because the hatch was open. Cora muttered something, her eyes still shut. As far as the Zafara could tell, she had a quickly escalating fever.
There was a series of thumping steps barely audible somewhere outside. Saura listened to them halfheartedly, partly hoping that they'd come to the forecastle and partly certain that they'd pass somewhere else. But the steps got louder fast and the door swung open all of a sudden, revealing the biggest Cybunny Saura had ever laid his eyes on.
He was the size of Arlington, but when Arlington had been a big hulking mass of fat, this pirate was purely muscle. Wearing nothing but a tattered pair of pants and an eyepatch, with braided, blazing red hair hanging over his grey-colored chest that bore a huge skull-and-crossbones tattoo, he looked like someone who gets employed for the nastier regions during the Negg Festival. But the parts of his face that were visible under the scars and the eyepatch were looking rather concerned.
"So you're the other new guy," he said, bowing over Cora. His voice was low and unexpectedly cultured. "Wow, this doesn't look good at all. Who did it?"
"No idea, it was pitch black," said Saura, staring down at the Cybunny's hands. Each fist was bigger than his head. "You're, um, the ship's doctor?"
"Certified, none of that self-learned bone-sawing crud," said the pirate, squatting down to take a look at Cora's back through the hammock's net. He opened a small bag he'd brought along. "Bring me a bowl of hot water, will you?"
The storm didn't cease before the evening, by which time some of the crewmembers had showed up in the forecastle already, completely exhausted and soaking wet. The actual fact of having newbies on board didn't seem to faze them much, but word about what happened to Cora spread quickly and the two brothers had to explain the story – or lack thereof – over and over until the others started explaining it to other newcomers. Eventually, as the sea calmed and the first stars lit up the sky, lamps were lit in the forecastle and slowly but surely the vast room filled with pirates. By that time the doctor had already taken Cora away and the room was free to buzz with speculations.
"Mauled," said a small brown Korbat. "Fangs and claws, said the doc. It was a wild attack."
"Yes," Sandra the helmswoman said coolly, sitting cross-legged on the floor, "if she got attacked by somevun zen I vould expect it to be fangs and claws." The female side of the forecastle was actually farther away, separated by a wall, but for the purposes of discussing the event and taking a curious look at the newcomers, the entire crew was practicing a happy all-out sense of community.
"Or a knife," a blue Zafara said smartly.
Sandra shrugged. "Effort. Fangs and claws are always at hand."
"So um," said Shad from his hammock, raising his paw and immediately scorching in the concentrated stare of fiftysomething crewmembers, "just to check, the captain was upstairs during the storm, right?"
"He always steers during the storm," said the Korbat. "Was at the wheel with Benny and Sandra the entire time."
"It's just that... well, that weird howling that I imagine you guys have also been hearing." Shad stuttered a bit when the intensity of the gaze got cranked up, but then explained what they'd heard.
The forecastle fell quiet as the pirates digested the news, then Sandra's yellow eyes flashed as she looked up. "Who's not here?"
"Out of everyone?" said the Korbat who was hanging off a ceiling beam by his tail – he had a metal hook attached to its end. "Gran, Vega and Terry. Gran's probably in the galley, Terry and Vega are with Mace. Mace is, well, with Mace, and then there's the entire officer section that's always upstairs."
Sandra scowled. "And zey vere all upstairs during ze storm?"
"As far as I could see, yes."
Shad leaned towards the nearest hammock that hosted a lanky green Blumaroo. "Hey, what happened to Terry?"
"Rigging," said the pirate. "Some lines came loose and lashed into him. Bruises, maybe a rib or two, but he'll be fine, the doc left him in overnight."
As the debate to determine where anyone had been during the storm rolled on, the two brothers exchanged quick looks. When Terry had staggered into the galley after going off on Cora's orders, what had he dealt with? And was it related to this case?
Just as Saura shrugged and mouthed, "let it be for now", Sandra got up.
"Vell, I zheenk zat ve can tell for certain zat it vas nobody ve know of," she said grimly. "Vhich means zat zere is somevun on zis ship zat none of us knows about. And zat somevun attacked Cora."
"And is a Lupe," Shad pointed out. Sandra turned to glance at him, then nodded.
"And is a Lupe, or else zere is also a Lupe hiding in ze ship somevhere doing ze howling."
"Problem is," rumbled a heavyset Tonu from a farther hammock, "the ship is the size of a hill. You could hide a house in here."
"You can't hide a Mootix in here without Scarblade knowing," the Korbat in the ceiling said sharply.
Silence fell. It was a particularly nasty silence, full of sharp and pointy unsaid things.
"Of course he knows," muttered the Blumaroo. "How couldn't he? He's heard the howling as well. He'd know that it wasn't his own doing."
"Or the doing of any other Lupe in the crew?" Saura asked, staring at the ceiling.
"Can't imagine the Cap'n not getting to the bottom of this if he heard the howls," said a muscular, square-jawed Island Kougra who'd just slid out of the hammock nearest to the door. "He'd find out who it was."
"Ze vay he's been-" Sandra started, but the Kougra narrowed his eyes at her and shook his head abruptly as he covered the distance between his hammock and the forecastle door in one quick and silent step. The door flew open, the Kougra's tan arm flew out, claws glinted for a fraction of a second, someone got jerked into the forecastle with great force and not much consideration for their wellbeing, then the door slammed shut again and the pudgy purple Bruce who found himself in the middle of the pirate circle all of a sudden looked around, his angry little eyes darting back and forth on their faces.
"Ted!" he finally squeaked, rolling over on the floor to first direct his anger at the Kougra who'd pulled him in and who was now standing in front of the door, paws on hips, with a jeering grin. "This is an assault against a higher officer!"
Shad and Saura could tell from the overall dropping of the room temperature that this new apparition wasn't held in high regard among the crew.
"Oh, you count as a higher officer now?" asked the Kougra who'd been called Ted. "My apologies, I must've missed that memo."
"Ahh, Benny, Benny, Benny," Sandra purred not two feet from the Bruce, making him jump up and back off. Nobody could tell how the Lupe helmswoman had edged over to Benny, but somehow she had. "Still zis very disappointing habit of sneaking behind doors."
"This," Benny spluttered, staring at her and then back at the crew in general, who were eyeing him with contempt, "this is mutiny! I heard the way you talked about the captain, all of you-"
"We have always respected our Captain," said Ted from the door. "We know that if he's aware of whatever's lurking on board, he did everything to protect us from it."
"Dunno," grumbled the blue Tonu, "somehow he still seems to let this little bag of Warf-barf sneak around and spy on everyone." There was a round of mocking laughter. Benny seethed in fury, unable to do or say anything that'd shut them all up but still looking for a victim to take his anger out on, and as it so tends to happen with such characters, he picked the newest and the weakest.
"You!" he barked, pointing at Saura. "The cabin boy. Do you know what the punishment is for attempting to mutiny against the officers?"
"I um-" Saura began, when the door flew open again. Ted had stepped aside just a second earlier, but it can't have been hard to notice the newcomer approach the door anyway.
Benny spun around to face the looming green landmass of Arlington's belly. The Elephante was eyeing him with the expression of someone who's just stepped into a nasty puddle.
"Bedtime," he rumbled.
"You!" snarled Benny, already having forgotten all about Saura. "Scarblade will hear about how the crew is acting under your supervision!"
Arlington raised an eyebrow at him, and that look sent Benny scurrying out of the door without looking back. The quartermaster glanced at the crew one more time, then left as well and with a quiet murmur of laughter, the crew began preparing for bedtime.
The next morning, after the ship had set sail and breakfast was over, Shad and Saura clued Gran in about the happenings of the previous night. She knew most of it already.
"Benny is a little snotrag, he is," she said. "He's good 't spying, s'why the Cap'n keeps 'im around, but if he didn't have that to speak in his favor, he'd've been kicked overboard in a storm a long time ago. Dun worry about him too much, ye have Arlington on yer side, s'what he's for." Her eyes narrowed. "But something sneakin' around attacking our crew, something should be done about that, fer sure."
"Which way's the doctor's office?" Shad asked, splashing around in the dishwashing bowl. "I'd like to pay Terry a visit once I'm done here."
The doctor's office was near the midsection of the big ship, and when the Lupe neared its door, he began to wonder why he'd even thought to do this. The Cybunny doctor had seemed like a nice guy, not to mention one of the most civilized pirates of the whole crew, but that didn't undo the fact that he had barrel-sized fists he'd currently been using to steady one of the ship's ninety-yard masts in the storm when Shad had gotten to him the other day.
However, when the Lupe knocked and sidled in, the barrel-fists were filling in paperwork, expertly using a quill that should've shattered ages ago. The doctor looked up and cracked a welcoming smile.
"You were Mace, right?" Shad said, his tail waving frantically. If you're a species that's able to broadcast universally understandable goodwill signals, you make use of it.
"It's Thomas, actually," said the doctor, shuffling his paperwork. "Everyone just seems to think that Tom is too mundane a nickname for me. What can I do for you?"
"Is Cora awake?" The Lupe had intended to see Terry but figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to ask all the same. The doctor shook his head.
"I think she'll be off for a while. Needs sleep, that's the best healer. I patched her together and she's tough so she's going to make it, but for that she needs to rest as much as possible. This ship will need to sail without a boatswain for a bit."
"It doesn't have a substitute for someone as busy as Cora?" Shad asked. He'd just about begun to wonder if this would've been another one of those "don't talk about, ever" topics when Mace shook his head.
"She never needed one, always stayed on top of things. Should the need arise, the Cap'n will appoint someone, don't worry about it." He turned back to the paperwork with the air of assuming the conversation to be over but Shad showed no signs of getting going just yet.
"I actually kinda wanted to see Terry if he's awake," he pressed, tail waving so madly that it looked like it could fly off on its own any second. Mace looked up again, smiled and nodded towards a door at the back of the room.
Shad pushed it open and found it to lead to a long, narrow sickbay. It looked like it could easily accommodate the entire crew if necessary, with two rows of dingy bunks stretching towards the dimness in the back, but for the time being only three beds were occupied. Cora was right near the door, wrapped in bandages, the erratic rising and sinking of her chest so slight that it was barely visible. A young yellow Quiggle tossed and turned in a restless sleep a few bunks away. Shad figured that this was Vega.
Terry, however, was well awake, sitting up against a startlingly expensive-looking big and thick purple pillow that had fist-sized tussles in every corner. He was cautiously eating a bowl of soup and cracked a pained grin at the Lupe as he saw him trot down the aisle, tail still wagging happily.
"Give us a moment, will you?" he said to a petite Acara in a white dress who was rebandaging his head. The nurse shot a grim, somewhat frightened glare at Shad and slid off without a word.
"She's not a pirate, is she?" Shad asked, staring after her.
"Nah, she came with Mace. They're related in some way, I think, daughter or niece or something." Terry put his spoon away and slurped the rest of the soup down. "Terrified of us filthy scary pirates every second of the day, but so determined to do the Right Thing and help the wounded that she won't leave either. Be nice to her, she's useful even despite her stupid habit of forcing hooved folks use spoons."
"You must've gotten banged up pretty badly that she gave you this fancy pillow," the Lupe said conversationally, sitting onto the next bunk.
Terry shrugged. "We have a bunch of those in the hold, merchant ships tend to have them a lot."
"Didn't give one to the boatswain, though," remarked the Lupe.
"Won't matter to her right now," said the Ixi. "And she likes a strict regime. Former officer and all that."
"Didn't help her much against whoever attacked her," said Shad. "Didn't even have those swords on her as I recall." There were two clean, sharp cutlasses laid neatly on the stool next to Cora's bed.
"She always has them on her," said Terry, raising an eyebrow. "Says she feels wrong without them, even if she shouldn't need them on this ship. Scarblade brought these here this morning."
"Probably left them downstairs when she got attacked," the Lupe mused. "We didn't really have time to check for her belongings."
Terry didn't answer. He was wondering if he was maybe saying too much.
"I've been wondering who could've done this to her," the Lupe continued coolly. "I mean, Cora's a good fighter, right? Former officer, capable of keeping an entire shipful of pirates in check if necessary, she doesn't strike me as the sort who'd be easy to take out. It would've been someone powerful and dangerous. So dangerous, they need to be kept in a cage, perhaps."
Terry didn't answer again. He was staring blankly at his hooves in his lap.
"If the cage is able to hold it," Shad mused on. "Maybe it tries to break out every now and then. It's angry to be kept in, anyway, I'd be too. I'd howl day and night if I was kept in like that. And I'd try to break out. And whoever was trying to keep me in would need to send for a carpenter to fix it."
"Stop it!" Terry hissed.
"I was just wondering," Shad said innocently, "why a carpenter's toolbox would have only a few nails in it. Unless he used most of the nails up for fixing something big. And I never figured out what exactly freaked you out so much-"
"Stop!" Terry's voice was now shrill and completely on the edge. He made a motion towards Shad as if wanting to lunge at his throat, but then winced in pain and sunk back onto the pillow. Shad turned to fix his yellow eyes on him and the Ixi sunk even deeper into his bed.
"So I thought," he said, still quietly but with a snarl in his voice, "we have a secret on board. A secret Scarblade and Cora have been keeping, and one you now know as well. A secret that howls, a secret that's now out of its cage and lurking around in the ship. Don't you think the crew has a right to know what might maul them in their sleep one of those upcoming days?"
Terry was breathing heavily, his wide eyes staring blankly at the Lupe, but there was still defiance blazing deep at the bottom of those eyes.
"The Captain knows," he hissed, "and he doesn't want anyone to know but those who he tells. And the Captain's word is the law."
Shad looked surprised, as if he just noticed Terry was there. "Did I ever ask you to break your word to him? I was just kinda talking out loud to myself here. If anyone manages to guess what we're dealing with, what can he do about it? Would he stop us from going down to answer Cora's scream in the middle of the storm? Would he stop me from smelling a Werelupe? Would he undo the fact that all Lupes know what a Werelupe smells like?"
The Ixi was grey in the face, unable to tear his eyes away from the Lupe who was still airily eyeing some point in the opposite wall and sounding like he was talking mostly to himself, with Terry only happening to be there to listen.
"So I thought... Gnarfas."
Silence reigned. It was a cold, iron-fisted reign destined to bring down those around it and rise to the top as the one and only monarch of the post-audiolyptic word.
Shad shot a glance into Terry's sunken, glazed eyes in his quivering sweaty face and smiled all of a sudden.
"It's always easier to handle things you know than the unknown," he said compassionately. "I do think it's better this way, don't you?" And cracked a cheery smile.
"The Captain's word... is the law," Terry managed to press from between clenched teeth.
"Only to a pirate," said Shad, slid off the bunk and trotted off through the sickbay. Terry stared after him until he was gone, then he turned to stare at the ceiling, let out a long, deep sigh and leaned forward to rest his forehead on his hooves.
To be continued...