A Sailor's Sky
The moonlight sparkled off the dark sea as Hunter nervously walked along the planks of the Haunted Woods docks, his boots clacking off the worn wood. Though not as dangerous as Krawk Island due to most pirates living there, the Haunted Woods docks still had a healthy mixture of grumpy sailors and smooth tongue merchants to keep one on their toes. Normally Hunter wouldn’t dream of setting foot within a mile of this place, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As he pondered whether or not the risk was worth it, the salty wind bit through his ragged coat, pulling him from his thoughts and prompting the young Krawk to try and take his mind off the fact that the thing was falling apart at the seams. He tightly gripped the slip of paper in his claws, fearing that the gusts of wind would take his only chance at getting even a look from the Captain away from him.
“Yo, watch it!”
Hunter stumbled, almost dropping his precious paper as a burly Blumaroo shoved past him. He was carrying a barrel on his shoulder that probably weighed more than the Krawk himself.
“S-Sorry…” the youth stammered.
The Blumaroo stared down at him with yellow eyes. “Be lucky I’m in a hurry, otherwise I might see if I could catch something with you as bait…”
He shoved Hunter with a solid jab to the chest before lumbering off, adjusting the barrel on his shoulder. Meekly the Krawk climbed back to his feet, trying to brush off the humiliating stares from a couple of sailors sitting outside a tavern.
“Little guppy, he won’t last to the next tide…” The Moehog on the left chuckled, taking a swig from his tankard.
The Ixi sitting to his right laughed and knocked the table with his hoof. “Next tide? Ooh, that's more generous than I would give him. Hey boy! Are ye lost? The fairground is back that way!”
Hunter scurried away, hiding his blushing scales in the collar of his coat. As he quietly made his way further down the docks, his eyes nervously darted around to the various sailors lounging about as he tried to find the ship that he was looking for. There were at least a few dozen of them, which was a lot considering that the Haunted Woods was mostly a trading port. Though, it was the primary stop for ships coming from Qasala before heading to Krawk Island so it did make sense. It also led to a lot of interesting things that Hunter had never seen before, like a vendor trying to sell exotic fruits that he had never seen before, to a rather rugged female merchant trying to feed a dozen Anubis’ while yelling out her prices. The gilded fabrics and shinning jewelry were like nothing Hunter had ever imagined seeing, let alone being allowed to touch. He had to keep moving though, especially when a Draik that looked too old to fly threatened to throw him in the sea if he touched his silks.
Most of the merchants were sorting through their goods and getting ready to tomorrow’s voyage, some even making preparations for a stay in the Haunted Woods, but none of them were who Hunter was looking for. He wasn’t even sure what he was looking for, to be honest, but he had a gut feeling that he would know what he was looking for when he finally saw it. At least… that’s what he was hoping. If he couldn’t find the ship tonight he would miss his last chance to sail the open sea… Scratch was the only captain after a month of searching that was willing to hire someone who had never sailed before. At least… that was what the Kougra at the tavern said. Hunter looked down at the slip of paper.
Red hull with black sails and a lenny figure head. The Phoenix. Tell Scratch that Sam sent you.
Hunter sighed. That was all he had, a line on a slip of paper from a Kougra who he had never met before that just listened to his woes over a tankard of banango punch. The sullen Krawk leaned against a post, looking out at the line of ships that stretched to the horizon, or at least it seemed that way. He looked up to the dark sky, studded with the twinkling lights of a thousand stars. Or a million… Hunter could never count. They reminded him of the Kougra’s words…
Find him when the stars are bright in the sky, that is when he will be setting sail. He only sails when the sky is like a map above you.
“Map above you…” The Krawk grumbled as he kept walking down the dock, kicking bits of wood as he went. The stars weren’t a map, they were just stars… Hunter rose his head back up from his boots to take another look at the numerous lights, but he stopped short when he spotted something in the distance, a set of sails that broke the line of white linen. Could it be? Hunter ran down the rest of the dock, nearly jumping for joy when he saw it.
Standing out among its brethren rose the great black sails of the Phoenix, gently fluttering in the wind as her crew scrambled around her belly and up and down her gangway. Large crates tied with rope, barrels dripping water, and covered boxes carrying who knows what were quickly ferried into the darkness below the deck of the magnificent red hull. She was so much larger than Hunter imagined, only a few other ships in the whole port standing taller than this lacquered beauty. The water gently lapped at her sides, almost like a plea to pull her into the ocean. She strongly resisted however, pulling at ropes that must have been as thick as Hunter’s arm.
“She’s beautiful, huh?” Hunter was snapped from his trance as he suddenly noticed a wiry Techo standing next to him. He looked a bit different from a lot of the other sailors, while most looked (and smelled) like they haven’t bathed since the last full moon, this one looked sharp as a tack. His black uniform was crisp and spotless, and his boots didn’t even have a scuff. The Techo smiled at him, almost warmly, though Hunter still shook in his mud stained boots.
He looked up. “Uh… yeah, she is. Um, I’m looking for Captain Scratch….”
The Techo laughed. “Isn’t everyone… he’s more popular than Brains Mortigan down here. May I ask why?”
“W-Well, I’m looking for work and-” Hunter shuffled and stared at his feet, maybe this wasn’t the best idea.
The sailor laughed even louder, causing a few of his equally well dressed shipmates to look over. “Oh? And what makes you think you’re cut out to sail on The Phoenix?”
Hunter handed him the slip of paper, which the Techo took and read, his smile fading as he did. “Sam sent you?”
“Yes.” Hunter looked up at his face, which now read confusion and some disbelief. He could feel the sailor’s eyes looking him up and down, as if wondering why someone would recommend Hunter as a sailor, or even a deck swabber.
The Techo regained his composure. “What did she look like?”
Hunter’s face scrunched up, trying to remember exactly what she looked like. He hadn’t looked at her much, at least until she started talking to him, his drink was more interesting at the time. All he could remember were a few things. “Uh… Kougra, long black hair, dark blue fur… I think her paws were red?”
The Techo bit his lip, and Hunter nervously looked around as some of the crew whispered amongst themselves. Eventually he sighed and turned around, wordlessly gesturing for Hunter to follow as he made his way up the gangplank. As they walked to the bow of the ship, Hunter could get a better view of the crates that were being lowered into the cargo hold… at least he tried to, until the Techo pulled him forward again, nearly throwing him into a cannon. Cannon?
He eyed the dozen or so cannons, Hunter had never seen one up close before. “Um… why do you guys have so many cannons? Are you pirates?”
The Techo scoffed. “No, we’re merchants. Pirates are the reason we need those cannons. The contents of this ship would set them up for years…”
“If you’re cargo is is valuable, why don’t you make the ship blend in more?” The glare that he received from the Techo made him flinch. “S-Sorry…”
He scoffed again. “The Phoenix is faster and holds more firepower than any ship we have run into. Most pirates see us coming and turn the other way, unless they want their ship to sink. Captain!”
And there he was. Captain Scratch… standing in front of the elegantly carved ship’s wheel was a Kougra who looked both fearsome yet fatherly at the same time. His elegant black uniform was somehow even more spotless than the Techo’s, right down to his well polished cutlass hanging by his side. The nicks in the blade suggest it had been drawn many times, but the shining steel showed that it was something that Scratch was very proud of. The dark grey fur of the Captain was marked only by a smattering of scars, the most prominent one stretching over his sharp yellow eyes and left eyebrow, right up into his greying hairline. He smiled with an almost arrogant smile.
“Who is this, Sorren? Another urchin trying to hide in the cargo hold?” His voice was rich and deep, Hunter could swear he was purring as he talked.
The Techo stood at attention. “No Captain, he… well…”
“Come on now, Sorren. I haven’t got all night, we must sail out with the tide.”
“He had this.” Sorren handed over the slip of paper.
Scratch took it and read it over, his smile almost twitching into a frown as he looked Hunter up and down.
The Kougra nodded. “This is her handwriting.”
Sorren shuffled. “Are you going to honor it?”
“I always honor her wishes.” He put the scrap of paper into his pocket. “Leave us for a bit, let me talk to our new recruit…”
With a sigh and cutting glare the Techo left, leaving Hunter alone with the Captain. He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Luckily, Scratch did.
“So. You came to join my crew… I’m not sure what Sam sees in you but we will figure it out, won’t we?” It might have been his imagination, but Scratch’s smile seemed warmer now, like he was actually happy to see Hunter.
“Yes sir… I guess so. I… I mean, yes Captain! Ooh….” Hunter flushed.
Scratch grinned. “Both will work, but most people address me as Captain or Captain Scratch.”
“Okay, Captain…” Hunter’s eyes would wander over to a table near the steering wheel. An elaborate map was laid out, weighed down by stones and an odd looking spyglass. Scratch clapped him on the shoulder as he looked.
“Taking a look at my charts, huh?”
“Yeah… how do you know where you’re going when you’re out there?”
Scratch chuckled and wrapped an arm around the Krawk’s bony shoulders. “Why, my boy… the map is right above us.” He would gesture to the sky and the thousands of twinkling dots above them.
“I don’t understand…”
“The stars are a map, showing us not just where to go in the ocean but also the tales of the sea.” He swept his hand across the dark landscape, his eyes sparkling like the sky. Hunter squinted, but he just couldn’t see whatever Scratch saw.
“But how, sir? They’re just dots up there.”
“Perhaps to the untrained eye, but to someone who understands them and speaks the language, the sky has more to say than the largest library in Altador.” He turned Hunter to face the moon, shining high above them in an almost perfect circle. “Take the moon for example. Its phase tells us the time of month, and the height the time of night. It also brings on the tide, which lets us humble sailors enter the monstrous ocean. A good sailor can tell the coming of the tide not from the height of the water, but from the position of the moon. However it is just one part of the sky… of course, the real stories and directions lie in the stars.”
“I still don’t see, sir…”
“Constellations, my dear boy…” He would point a claw up. Hunter could make out six stars in two diagonal lines of three. “You see the eyes?”
“Well you aren’t looking hard enough. Those are the eyes of the Sleeper, she watches over every sailor that passes through the waters.” He pointed to other spots in the sky. “There, the Dreamer… and that circle there, the First to Rise… All of these constellations have their stories, and the guide us sailors at sea. While during the day the sun can tell us where east and west is, nothing compares to the portrait of the night sky.”
The Captain let go and strode over to the map. “Come, look here…”
Hunter followed and looked over the Kougra’s shoulder. It was intricate, with lines stretching over a detail drawing of the night sky. It looked like a labor of love, almost like art, and unlike any map he had ever seen.
“But Captain, how does this help you sail? Where are the islands and continents and… well, any land?”
“I don’t need them anymore.” Scratch patted the map. “The sky is enough for me, and besides, it’s always changing. While the mural above us never actually changes, it does move as Neopia spins. At least, everything but the north star.” He pointed straight up, and Hunter could just make out one star that was a bit brighter than the others.
Before Hunter would say another word, Scratch would take the map and roll it up, tucking it somewhere in his jacket. “I don’t expect you to understand the secrets of the skies in one night, it takes navigators years to master the map up above us.”
“But you’ll teach me?”
Scratch smiled again, this time Hunter could feel the warmth of if. Behind them the crew shouted to each other as the pulled in the gangplank and unfurled the sails.
“I will, lad. I’ll teach you the secrets of the sky.”