Duane Ramsey was a crew member of the Illusion of Hope, a pirate ship with minimal notoriety on the seas. His task on this vessel, among others, was to keep an eye on the horizon from the crow’s nest and he was indeed quite well suited for the task. In fact, he was the one to spot a Man o’ War on a foggy night. A ship that could’ve easily sunk their Frigate and sent them down to Davy Jones’ locker.
It didn’t make him an overnight hero, by any means. But he had earned the captain’s trust and that, he knew, could very well be more valuable than gold. Especially in pursuit of a prize you meant to captain one day. The prize he had in mind was the Black Hound. A rival crew’s pirate ship with a larger hull and mounted swivel guns along the front and back rails.
He knew she would put up a hell of a fight, but to take a ship with better equipment and more space to carry loot in was worth it in his mind. The only challenge he faced was to convince his captain to pursue her, preferably without killing her crew, so it would be easy to sail her out from under his nose when the time came. It’s not hard, he knew, to convince a rival crew to keep their ship under new command if it means doing everything they were in spite of their attacker.
So he set off that morning to talk to the captain about this plan, only to find he was already plotting course.
Duane, shocked at the sight, asked the captain what he was plotting a course for and was met with a knowing grin. The captain answered simply that he was looking for a remote island to drop off some excess. Duane looked confused and the captain stood up, walked towards Duane and straightened his coat.
“Duane, you’re a fine crewman and you’re very perceptive, so surely you must have known I’d find out”. The captain said in a calm, matter of fact fashion.
“Captain?” Duane asked.
“You can’t go around asking for information about the Black Hound and expect it not to reach my ear.” The captain stated flatly.
“I… sir, please.” Duane pleaded
But to no avail. The captain made clear his intention to drop Duane on that beach with a single shot pistol and a knife, as a mercy. The captain believed he would do wrong by shooting Duane in the skull aboard the Illusion of Hope and thus figured that life on that island was the next best suited punishment.
Duane was gutted. His plans, his hopes and dreams had just been thrown onto an island with limited resources and god knows what type of predators that might cut his life short. What was worse, he couldn’t fight it, as doing so would give the quartermaster ample cause to shoot him anyway.
So he sat below decks, thinking of things to sneak with him in his boots and trousers before they dropped him off. His first thought, and subsequent theft, were 10 gold doubloons from the ship’s latest haul. Next, he snatched a pouch of about 20 grams of blasting powder and finally, he took a flask, which he stuffed down his pants. It was uncomfortable to be sure, and probably all looked quite ridiculous, but at that point, he was just planning to survive. Thoughts about looking presentable were far from his mind.
When after 9 days, the ship reached its destination, the quartermaster dragged Duane from below decks and marched him to the ship’s ladder which had been lowered for the occasion. Duane stood there for a long second, looking at each of the men carefully and nodding each time he noticed a gaze turn from his. He had friends on this ship yet, but they couldn’t save him from this. Nor did they want to risk the same fate.
Finally, he faced the captain and looked him dead in the eyes.
“I really hope you survive out here Duane. I know you don’t believe me right now, but tis true all the same. I just can’t let mine become a Sea of Thieves.” The captain said with a frown.
Duane burst into laughter and replied “With all due respect cap’n, there is no other sea we sailed in.”
With a final courtesy, Duane jumped down into the water, followed closely by the knife and pistol he was promised. It was his final day as a crew member and the final day he would see the Illusion of Hope as his home. But he promised himself that day he would hunt her when he could and he would send her down to the locker with a smile on his face. More importantly, he promised himself he would not die that day nor any other until he had his revenge against his former captain.
On the sands of that long forgotten beach, Duane took a moment to catch his breath, then ran towards the trees the moment the ship was out of sight. As he ran, hundreds of scenarios played through his head and each more violent than the next. But his thoughts came at a quick and unexpected cost as his feet caught a rope that sent him tumbling, face first, into the dirt next to a crooked skeleton head with a single hole in its temple. The thing seemed to grimace at him, mocking his clumsiness, and the sign “Traitor’s Beach” mocked him further as he revealed it from behind a cluster of vines. Though the shovel, rusting against it, brought him hope that perhaps there were more such tools to be found all around.
He mused to himself that one man’s desperation can be another’s salvation and quickly got to work building shelter and a fire for the night. None of the 10 skeletons he met after the first could discourage him. Not even the one pinned to a palm tree near the beach on the other side of the island. In fact the captains hat it still wore suited him nicely, so he thought. If nothing else, it would help him make a case should another ship come to this island to rid itself of a traitor. Mutiny would be his story. A crew gone mad with grog and gold only to turn on their captain and leave him to die.
He paused at that thought. Grog.
He quickly grabbed the flask from his trousers and looked carefully for any holes. When he didn’t find any he shook it and to his delight, heard the sloshing of grog inside. More than enough to fill his needs, he thought. The harsh taste of the alcohol made him smile. This would be but one of many nights he would thrive in this place. Of this, he was convinced.
Though if he were honest with himself, the prospect of a fire dying out while he slept did worry him. As did the thought of his shelter failing to keep rain from disturbing his sleep. But he wasn’t, so he didn’t worry about anything other than that moment when the grog passed his lips and teased his throat with a warm sensation.
That night, long after Duane had first put his head down to rest, he heard a rustle coming from deeper in the woods. Soft at first, a squirrel perhaps, or some other vermin. But growing ever louder, drawing ever closer. A scavenger then? A predator?
Duane awoke, kept still and his eyes closed, waiting for whatever it was to come from out of the woods so he could see. But once the rustling stopped and he opened up one eye, he saw nothing. He kept a close eye on the bushes for a minute longer, but then decided it must have been the grog.
He shrugged, sighed and lay himself back down to sleep when something poked his shoulder. It felt like a stick or perhaps the butt of the shovel he took. He waited for it to poke him again with the intent of gauging its texture and when it did poke him again, he could swear it was bone.
Slowly, he turned his head and grabbed for his knife until finally he was face to face with a skeleton, moving as though it were still alive.
Duane gasped, and a bony finger rose to shush him.
“Now that ain’t no way to treat a lady, is it love?” the raspy voiced skeleton asked.
Duane looked at every detail of its form and couldn’t for the life of him figure out what this thing was, so he replied: “lady?”
“Oh bugger, e’s a fresh one! Stand me on a plank and shoot me in the ‘eart all over again!” the raspy skeleton complained.
Duane was thoroughly confused at this point. Not only at the fact that this skeletal creature didn’t attack him, but the fact that she –if that’s what it was – was offended. So he shook his head at her, tapped the knife in his belt and asked her what in the hell she was on about.
“Twenty years ‘ere and all I get is the dead, murderous or dying landing on these shores! I finally get a live one with a bit of sense what wants to live, and he don’t know the difference between a lady and a lad!” the raspy voice explained.
Duane laughed, both in relief and in understanding. This skeletal woman obviously thought she was still as much a woman as she had been in life. What’s more, she was frustrated with all the dead.
He paused again. All the dead? He wondered. Would there be more of these living skeletons on the island and if so, would they be like the one he was talking to now? The outcome seemed somehow unlikely, so he asked her.
A coughing, raspy laugh escaped the skeletal form as she told him that there are only a few that walk as she does and even fewer that interact with the living, unless it’s to keelhaul them or slit their throats. She explained that some of the most notorious pirates and mutineers walked the island in their skeletal form and one of them in particular was more dangerous than the others. She explained that his black beard and gleaming cutlass were unmistakable under the orange light pulsing from beneath his coat. She believed him to be cursed as he had a certain rage about him and kept to his cave on the northern shore. But then she told him the one thing about this strange pirate she shouldn’t have. She told him that this captain, or whatever he was, had treasure he had taken from the living.
Duane’s greed sang with glee, as did Duane, leaving the female skeleton baffled and confused. Duane smiled wickedly at her and thanked her for providing him with a clear path and bright golden future, then darted off towards the cave he believed wouldn’t only hold a fortune, but all he needed to get out. A captain to serve until he was no longer useful and a boat to sail and if it had a skeletal crew that couldn’t be exhausted, all the better.
On any other day and for any other man, this would have been utter madness. But for Duane, on this particular day, it was lady luck telling him to seize the day by its ugly skeletal head and twist it to fit his desires. The potential for death and un-life in service of this pirate captain reduced to but the slightest of nagging feelings in the very back of his mind. It was the lust for treasure and adventure calling for him now and it was all that mattered.
Even the faint raspy voice calling from a distance behind him to reconsider, fell on deaf ears.
Duane ran through the palm forest, jumping over roots and tangle vine undergrowth and occasionally ducking under low hanging vines and branches until he reached a rocky hill that he was sure held the cave of his dreams.
He stood still and took a breath. The salt, humid air teasing him with a sense of comfort.
He closed his eyes then, allowing himself a moment’s respite, when he noticed a skeletal figure very casually handling a bag of clams which he was separating from their shells.
Duane chuckled, grabbed his knife and was ready to strike. But a thought held him in place.
These things have no throats or organs. So what good is a knife then? If anything, it would more likely give them a hearty laugh before they cut him to ribbons. No, he needed something more substantial. A cudgel would be ideal, be it crude, but he didn’t have one just laying around and making one would take him until nightfall.
He looked around frantically for anything, a rock, a large branch. Heck, even a non-living skeleton would be an acceptable alternative to his knife. But he found nothing. This place of plenty seemed suddenly like a barren isle of death, as it was intended to be for traitors.
Duane put his hands on his hips and looked up at the sky, pleading to whatever entity would hear his prayer, to help him and noticed he had something tucked in his belt that had -until now- completely escaped his attention. The pistol he was meant to use when he was no longer willing to go on and while it may have had but a single shot, it wasn’t the shot he was interested in. Pistols have rounded handles and those were perfectly suited to bash people with.
He grinned, assured of his success, grabbed his pistol by the barrel and crept in closer to the skeleton making sure it was working whenever he moved. Slowly but surely, he got close enough to crack its skull and when he was within striking distance, he raised his hand high and slammed down with all his might. He heard the intended and quite satisfying crack, but when he tried to pull the skeleton back to lay it on the sand, it groaned.
“What you go and do that for?”
Duane gasped and crawled back in terror. The skeleton had partially calcified and so was more resilient than its initial form. How was he to defeat these things now?
“Oi! I asked you a question flesh bag. What you go ahead and do that for? I ain’t done nothin’ to ya and yet ‘ere you are, tryin’ to crack me ‘ead.” The skeletal pirate complained.
“I… you… the…” Duane muttered.
“Great. You’re very articulate sir,” the skeletal pirate said sarcastically, “how about I take ya to the capt’n eh? Maybe you’ll talk to ‘im nice and proper like?”
Duane’s eyes grew wide with dread.
“No thanks. I won’t… I’ll just… head back and survive out there.” Duane finally managed to say.
The skeleton grunted in an almost animal like fashion, looked at Duane and in an unexpectedly swift motion struck him with the bag of clams, knocking him out.
Duane’s face took on a dazed expression as he whirled around twice before finally falling to the sand saying: “Bloody clams.”
Several minutes later, Duane awoke with a splitting headache and an angry deep gruff voice talking about something he couldn’t quite understand. He waited for his hearing to refocus and opened his eyes slowly.
“Looks like the sleeping rat’s awake lads!” the deep gruff voice exclaimed, followed by a painful nudge to Duane’s side.
“Why don’t you tell us why you’d be as thick as to run up to one of our crew and try to do his head in?”
Duane grunted in pain and looked at the terrifying skeletal captain with the tattered black beard and glowing chest, but fell silent. His words utterly failed him.
“Cat got your tongue boy!?” The skeletal captain asked.
“I…” Was about all Duane could muster.
“It speaks! Lads, rejoice for the rat yet lives!” The skeletal captain started, “Do you know my name boy?”
“I… No. I mean… I don’t… I’ve never heard of…” Duane stuttered.
“Hahaha! He’s never heard of us lads! Well count your blessings then! Because the ones that hear about us, soon become a target!”
Duane looked at the skeleton as its chest pulsed, glowing brighter to match the intensity of its speech.
“Well I’ve been called many things. Scourge of the seas, Captain of the lost, Spirit of Vengeance and my personal favorite Captain fireheart. You must admit there’s a certain beauty to its simplicity. Though I can’t blame them for calling me any of the other things. I’ve blasted more ships than they can cope with after all.” Captain fireheart cackled.
Duane looked up and smiled at captain fireheart, but was forced to wipe the smile off his face when the cold, course steel of an old blade touched his chin and throat. Duane looked at the captain questioningly.
“The time for talk is over. The time for your punishment has come. Now, if I can give you one piece of advice before we send you off to meet your maker, it’ll be over quicker if you stay still.” Captain fireheart said plainly.
He moved his blade to the far left side of Duane’s throat and pushed it into his skin to start the cut that would end him, when suddenly a raspy voice came from the cavern entrance.
“Let ‘im be, ye blood loving no good thief!”
“Aye! Ye may have left me out there to die all those years ago, but I be afeared yer bullets ‘n blades won’t help ye now! Let ‘im go! He’s got somethin’ ye lost when ye were betrayed all those years ago. The will to bloody well stay alive!” Jermaine spat at him.
Captain Fireheart’s expression -if he had one- turned to one of surprise and confusion.
“He’s mine Jermaine! He attacked one of my men and now he’s going to pay for that-” He started.
“With his life!?” Jermaine asked, “Are ye daft or have ye been dead fer too long?”
“What do you-?”
“Ye know this place be cursed, Christopher. Even if ye slit his throat, he’ll be coming back to life soon thereafter. What’s more, he’ll probably be more of a pain then than what he be now.” Jermaine reasoned.
Captain fireheart looked at Jermaine, then at Duane and back at Jermaine, then grunted.
“Nay. I think it’s because you fancy him.” He taunted.
“Look at yer crew, ye daft sea dog! They’re not even yer proper crew. They’re the wretches left on this isle and sailin’ with ye in death just to cling to the memory of life!” Jermaine yelled.
Captain fireheart sighed, pushed the blade in to draw blood, then withdrew the blade from Duane’s throat and offered him a bony hand. Duane quickly took it and was relieved to find he was being helped to his feet.
“Fine then. He escapes death’s clutches today. But hear me Jermaine, he’s mine.” Captain fireheart said, turning to Duane. “You’ll sail under my flag and you’ll obey my commands whatever they may be. D’you understand?”
Duane nodded more quickly than even he expected and offered his hand to seal this new life saving arrangement.
“Good then,” captain fireheart said, grabbing and shaking Duane’s hand, “welcome to the crew of the damned.”
Duane smiled and nodded, feeling that he was again one step closer to getting what he wanted. The one obstacle which remained was captain fireheart. Though he was sure he could take care of that obstacle given enough time.
“So, don’t I get a thank ye?” Jermaine asked.
“Oh. Uhm. Thank you.” Duane replied.
Jermaine let out a raspy laugh and pat Duane on the shoulder with her skeletal hand.
“That’s alright. Like I said, ye’re wantin’ to be alive. So I be motivated to keep ye that way. Even if just to ‘ave a conversation about things that don’t involve being dead.” Jermaine joked.
Duane chuckled and nodded, but the promise of his impending service nagged him. If he was to serve among a crew who weren’t afraid of gunfire and cutlasses, how was he going to survive being the only one vulnerable to such things?
He couldn’t fight alongside them or he would surely lose his life and he couldn’t ask to be the cook for a crew that didn’t need to eat, or have the want to. Not that his cooking skill would’ve given them anything but stomach cramps and loose bowels, but it was better than getting shot or stabbed during a reckless charge.
Then he remembered. The function on his former crew, of course. Why would they not let him be their spotter up in the crow’s nest? It kept him out of their way on deck and during fights and it gave them some knowledge about approaching vessels before engaging. It seemed perfect. And not just for his survival, but for his plan to get on the crew’s good side as well. After all, you can’t stage a mutiny if you don’t have the crew’s ear.
His plan was slowly taking shape when he was rudely interrupted in his thought process by a bony hand dragging him to his feet.
“Get up meat bag, we’re off to take another prize!” the course voice yelled.
Duane shook his head, looked at the strangely well dressed skeletal pirate in front of him and quickly nodded as he saw its expression change to an eerily angry one.
“Just get to the captain afore we leave. He’ll be wanting to tell you the rules.” it added.
Duane nodded again and darted off towards the cave entrance where he was sure he would find the captain.
When he finally did find captain fireheart, the captain had donned a long coat, a collection of pistols and a large cutlass. If it was possible, this made him look even more intimidating than when Duane first saw him.
“Ah, the live one! Come here, we don’t have all day!” Captain fireheart commanded.
Duane ran toward the captain and looked at him expectantly.
“Right! There are rules aboard my ship, boy! And you’ll do well to keep to them. Lest you want to be thrown in the drink.” Captain fireheart stated flatly.
Duane swallowed hard.
“Rule number one! You will always obey your captain. Should you find yourself in a situation where you consider not doing so, observe the first line of rule one.” Captain fireheart began.
“Rule number two! The vessel is your priority. If you are faced with the choice between your crew mates or even your own life and the integrity of the vessel, say your prayers and make sure the ship sails on.”
Duane shivered and looked at Captain fireheart with worry.
“Oh, don’t you worry! We’re getting to the good parts yet!” Captain fireheart roared.
“Rule number three! When a prize is taken, all loot is to be stowed below decks to await equal distribution upon arrival on the island after the captain has taken his share.”
“Rule number four! You will give no quarter. Any and all living souls on the prize vessel are to be eliminated. Be they pretty, young or old. We’ve no time or resource to keep them.”
Duane sighed and looked at the ground for a long while before finally looking up to the captain who was wearing an amused expression.
“Oh aye! We leave non alive. The only thing left to tell the tale of what we’ve done is the vessel, full of bodies and empty of cargo. D’you have a problem with that?” Captain fireheart taunted.
“No captain, I guess I don’t.” Duane said, doing his best to keep his voice level.
“Good! You understand then! There’s one final rule. Rule number five! If you think mutinous thoughts and speak them to incite the crew or carry out any actions that may be considered mutiny, you’ll be tied to a cannonball and sent down to learn the language of the sea creatures. For they will be your only company for eternity.” Captain fireheart chuckled.
“Though I suppose for you that won’t be much of a problem. You would just drown. I’d consider myself lucky.” He added.
Duane looked at the captain with obvious anger then, as if the reminder of his mortality had been an insult. The captain merely waved his hand dismissively in response.
“Go. Get on the ship and make yourself useful. Quartermaster will have something for you to do, I’m sure.” Captain fireheart said calmly.
Duane nodded sharply and headed for the ship, all the while thinking about the rules his new captain had shouted out with near glee. Disgust and anger washed over him in waves as he went over each rule, thinking they were crude rules meant to subjugate the crew and incite fear. Not even when he had stepped onto the deck of the ship could he fully hide his feelings, much to the chagrin of the quartermaster.
“If you need to vomit, I suggest you do it over the side or you’ll be the one swabbing the mess of the deck.” The quartermaster warned.
Duane nodded, wiped his hand over his face and looked the quartermaster in the eye socket.
“Right then. I don’t know what you can possibly contribute, so the first thing you can do is swab the deck. When you’re done, maybe we’ll be able to find something else you can do.” The quartermaster said.
“I’m good in the crow’s nest.” Duane dared.
“Oh really? Well then. I suppose your job on the deck will be the measure of your likelihood to end up there!” The quartermaster yelled, pointing a bony finger at the bucket and swab on the far side of the deck.
Duane muttered insults under his breath and made his way to the bucket and swab, thinking of the indignity of it. He hadn’t been made to swab the deck since his first days on the seas and to think it would determine his chances to do what he was good at, made his stomach turn. He threw the bucket over the side and hauled it back in, using the fresh seawater to swab the deck. To the crew, it looked like he was trying to scrub with the mop, but to him it was his anger pushing him on to get the job done.
“Not bad, but now the deck’s all wet and slimy you’ll want to scrub off any seaweed. Won’t you!?” The quartermaster said, as Duane was putting the swab back.
Duane grunted and stared hard at the quartermaster for a few long seconds, then grabbed the brush and began to scrub the deck angrily. Several minutes later, his anger had pushed him to scrub so hard and fast he had begun to feel tired. But half the deck needed done and he knew the quartermaster would not relent. If anything, he would find some form of torture as ‘fair punishment’. So he scrubbed calmly until the whole deck had been scrubbed clean, then went to the quartermaster.
“She looks clean enough now and the crew seems to have solid footing. So I’d say you managed not to lower my already low expectations of you. You’ll have your try at the crow’s nest come morning. Now go rest so you’re not useless to me tomorrow. Shouldn’t be too hard to find your hammock, you’re the only one who needs sleep.” The quartermaster said calmly.
Duane nodded, looked out over the seas and up at the darkening sky, then sighed and headed below decks to rest. He wasn’t sure what would happen come dawn, but he knew one thing for certain. He absolutely loathed cleaning the deck and he would make the quartermaster pay for this, eventually.
For now however, sleep was something he needed much more than a fight with a skeleton. Especially after his last attempt at killing one went so well. So Duane found his hammock and lay down to sleep, all the while thinking of ways to exploit his new position in the crow’s nest. If not for his own betterment, then surely to the detriment of any plans the captain may have had. After all, a captain with a bad reputation is much easier to remove than a captain who’s adored by his crew. Or in case of this particular lot, feared beyond reason.
When Duane awoke the next morning, he awoke to the sound of a singing crew. Their shanty clearly an attempt to get themselves excited as they pursued their next prize. Considering the tempo and volume with which the crew sang, Duane had no doubt it was working. They were getting excited, hungry even for this next prize. Their song boasted an easy victory and great spoils but also glory everlasting as they were the one crew which would always sail the seas.
Duane listened closely to every word sung as he tied his boots and rushed to the quartermaster who simply hit Duane in the chest with the looking glass. Duane nodded and rushed to the crow’s nest where he could continue to listen, but most importantly observe.
The seas themselves were quiet enough and the horizon hid no sails, but the deck below was a constant writhing mass of bone and rotting tendons sending eerie tones out to sea as they concluded their song. Duane tried to keep an eye on the captain and his particular movements, but lost track of him on more than one occasion as his attention was drawn to his inner most thoughts.
Certainly he wanted revenge against his former captain and crew, his current one and his current quartermaster. But to fight them all in short succession was a suicide mission and as Jermaine had said, he loved to be alive. So his mind conjured up a very enticing plan. What if he were to make the illusion of hope sound like a great prize? What if his former crew just happened to have said things about this ship and its crew? That wasn’t a long stretch by any means, as his former crew weren’t superstitious nor quick to believe rumors of ships crewed by the dead. It was a start at least.
As that last thought faded from his mind and he came back to the moment, he saw movement on the horizon. Duane grabbed his looking glass and pointed it quickly in the direction of the movement where, to his surprise, he saw the frigate they were hunting. She wasn’t supposed to be in sight for another day, maybe even two, but there she was. The ship sat there, sailing at half sails to empty the buckets of refuse.
“Frigate on the horizon, dead ahead!” Duane cried down.
A loud cheer came from the crew below who promptly picked up their pace and readied the cannons for the battle ahead. His words had only just left his lips when the pirate stepped out onto the center of deck.
“Get ready to show them the power of our 60 guns lads! She’s a lady, but they’ll know her as a queen of war!”
The crew cheered and cackled with glee, ready for the bloodbath soon to come. The ship beneath him creaked hard, as if to join the crew in their eerie display and Duane could only look at them with awe. He took his looking glass one last time and looked at the frigate where he saw the crew of men still in their sleepwear, scramble around the deck in a panic as the black was raised below him.
Duane knew then what the men on the other ship undoubtedly had come to realize. This would be over quickly and none would be spared and they would be lucky to take out any of the crew on Duane’s ship. But what was remarkable was that the men on that frigate still readied themselves for the fight. They struck their colors, lowered their sails and brought the cannons to bear. It was a form of courage in Duane’s eyes, to fight your inevitable death with tooth and nail.
Even as he climbed down and the cannons began to roar below and both crews yelled among themselves to fight as best they could, Duane couldn’t take his eyes off the men on the frigate. Each and every one of them fought with ferocity and determination, even when cannonballs flew only inches away from their legs and chests. He was ripped from his concentration instantly, only moments later as the call to board bellowed out from the captain whose chest was glowing an eerily bright orange now, only accentuated by the smoke from the cannons.
Duane sighed and apologized with an unheard whisper as he jumped to the other ship and fought one of the other crew before that man was run through by a maniacally laughing skeletal pirate. Some of the others never even had the chance to raise their blade as they stood quivering and paralyzed by the sight of the dead climbing onto their deck with a hungry look in their eyes.
Mere seconds later, it was all over. The crew cheered, the captain boarded and the ship was emptied of its contents, then everything went silent as if nothing had ever happened. Even as they sailed away from the frigate full of brave dead men, Duane wondered if this was all it would ever be. Moments of anger, fear and loud battle followed by an uncaring silence. A thought which lasted only the briefest of moments as -in the distance- the frigate exploded violently.
“Hah! Slow fuse. Almost makes it look like a sunset!” one of the crew yelled out proudly.
But Duane was not amused. If anything, he was enraged. This crew slaughtered another and not only enjoyed it, but ultimately did it for nothing more than the thrill of the hunt. Yet no one in the world knew who they were or what their ship’s name was. All they knew was that a crew out there was responsible for so many deaths.
Duane sighed, shook his head and let the thoughts slip from his mind as he climbed back up to the crow’s nest. But even this familiar station couldn’t keep the thoughts at bay. He knew he needed to unleash these savages on his former crew to make them pay, but then who or what would he need to find to destroy these dead men? What if the ones or the thing to do it was worse than them?
He didn’t want to acknowledge it right then, but part of him knew his quest for vengeance would continue to find new targets for his rage and by the end of it, he would need to kill the world. He sighed again and let himself get lost in the waves as he looked out over the ocean long enough for any sign of what had happened to disappear from the horizon.
A long while later, the quartermaster sent someone up to summon Duane down to the deck. Duane was confused and somewhat fearful, but climbed down to hear what it was about.
“You did well live one!” the quartermaster exclaimed. “You’ll get a small share of the loot when we get back.”
Duane stared at him blankly and said “A share of the loot?”
“A small share.” the quartermaster confirmed, suppressing a laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Duane asked.
“Well, you’ll see when we get back. But I think your share might not last too long.” The quartermaster said, bursting out in laughter.
Duane frowned and looked at the rest of the crew to get any idea about what the quartermaster might mean. But all they did was grin at him. Duane shrugged, thanked the quartermaster and hurried back up to the crow’s nest to keep watch until nightfall.
He saw no more ships on the horizon during the remainder of the trip, nor did he hear a single peep from the crew below. They seemed sated by the fight they’d had and content with the spoils. Even the usually loud captain seemed calm and content. It was a contrast, Duane knew, shared by all who sailed the seas. They were all two sides of the same coin. One side created, shared and lived in calm. The other fought, destroyed and killed. It was a gritty thought, until he imagined the coin being a person doomed to perpetually fall on one face or the other.
He chuckled at the thought. All seafaring men were doomed to fall on their face. It was true enough and yet there was a satisfying whimsy to it. Perhaps not in the sense of seeing one of these skeletons kiss the deck, but in the symbolism that even these men could -and if he had a say in it, inevitably would- fail.
Some hours later, an eerie soft bell tolled below and Duane was happy for a second, knowing he would get to sleep in a matter of minutes. But the words of the quartermaster still rang in his mind “Your share might not last too long”. What would that mean? Duane sighed and tried to sleep despite the thought but could never quite get to it as he tossed and turned, worried for what he would discover at dawn.
The hours passed slowly and his mind kept milling over the events, until light began to fill the stairs to the deck. He had to get up and he would’ve been angry, except the daylight brought him an excuse to stop being alone with his mind. Duane hurried up the stairs and onto the deck where the crew was busy getting ready to bring the spoils to land.
When the quartermaster noticed him, he chuckled almost like he was coughing.
“So. You’re awake. Good. Then you can help unload.” the quartermaster said.
Duane looked at him curiously but found none of the previous amusement in his expression. So he hurried to the line of crewmen to the mid-deck to help them unload. Coin, weapons and various jewelry were tossed from man to man in bags and chests alike in rapid pace. But once those had cleared the ship, the crew was far less hasty to clear the rest. Food and drink were brought out and tossed around next. Followed by a cage, covered in a dark cloth.
Duane didn’t say anything, but he knew the food would probably spoil before he and whatever creature sat in the cage ate it all, which meant that eventually the creature in the cage would die of starvation. So he promised himself to set the creature free before nightfall.
Several minutes passed as the last of the food and drink were brought ashore and captain fireheart called the men together so they could divvy up the loot.
“Alright, let’s see here!” the captain began. “The coin and gems go into the trove! This should go without saying.”
The men grumbled, but nodded approvingly.
“Their captain’s rings will go to my private collection, as will his cutlass.” he added.
The men nodded again but made no sound this time, as if waiting for something. Duane was confused, but eager to find out what would happen next.
“As for the necklaces, clothes, pistols and other valuables… Do what you will!” the captain declared, taking a step aside before striding toward the back of the cave.
As soon as the words had left the captain’s mouth, a frenzy ensued. Skeletal hands were clawing at the pile of items until not a single thing was left. Duane imagined this to be much like what it would be like to see piranha’s feed when something splashed the water. Only this time there was no blood. Though Duane was certain that was only the case because the crew members involved were already dead.
He stood there looking at the cavern floor for a while, then looked up at the quartermaster questioningly.
“Don’t cry, meat bag. I told you there’s a share, specially for you.” the quartermaster said plainly.
Duane glared at him and watched intently as the quartermaster walked away from him. Then, as if summoned from some dark pit, captain fireheart came back to the entrance of the cave.
“You haven’t figured it out, have you?” captain fireheart asked.
“Figured it out?” Duane asked.
“Yes. Figured it out. That the food and drink is all for you. As is this flying rat.” captain fireheart said with a chuckle.
“But what about…? How do I…?” Duane stuttered.
“That’s up to you.” captain fireheart replied coldly. “We’ve no need for food or drink, much less a rodent. So do with them as you will.”
“Thank you captain.”
“Oh don’t thank me yet.” captain fireheart laughed. “Thank me when both of you live to see our next prize.”
Duane sighed, then chuckled and took the cloth off the cage to see a little flying squirrel quivering in the cage with only a little bit of fruit left in its feeding tray. Duane looked at it with wonder and instantly fell in love with the little creature he would from then on name Kismit. A slight deformation of the word Kismet, which means destiny or fate. But he had little time to enjoy the moment as the more pressing matter of the food and drink came to mind. He would almost definitely have to store it all in the cool cave, but the small space he was given there would be entirely taken up by the boxes and barrels.
Not that Duane minded sleeping on crates compared to the cold cavern floor, but the humidity in there would most certainly be bad for Kismit as well as for the fruits and vegetables which were vulnerable to developing molds and fungi. He would need ice, or something as close as possible to it. Unfortunately, ice was an extremely rare commodity in these tropical lands if not just impossible to procure.
Duane decided he would chance it. He would store everything inside one of the cave’s alcoves, close to where he slept and once that was done, he would free Kismit from his cage so he could find fruit in case the stored fruit spoiled. Duane got no help from the skeletons, just laughs as he dragged in each crate and then each barrel. Though they all watched intently as Duane picked up the cage from the beach and went away from the cave, rather than inside it.
“Hey little guy. Don’t be scared. I’m going to let you out, okay?” Duane asked.
Kismit just sat in his cage, cowering, sniffing the air nervously as Duane’s enormous face loomed over the little cage door.
“Okay, here.” Duane said as he slowly opened the cage door and took a step back.
Kismit stared at the open door for a long while, breathing quickly and occasionally looking up at Duane as if to show that he was still aware of Duane. Then finally, Kismit crawled slowly to the center of the cage before he jumped out of it in a flash and scurried several feet away from Duane. Kismit looked back at Duane, who just sat there with a mix of happiness and sadness on his face, then turned his head sideways before jumping into the underbrush.
Duane looked at the spot where he last saw Kismit and sighed deeply. He had hoped for a new companion for his travels. Something to care for, love. To know it was alive and cared for him in its own way. But all those hopes were gone with that final jump. Duane stared at his hands, then down to the sand and after shooting a quick glance at the cave to make sure none of the skeletons were watching, cried. His sobs were quiet, painful and quick in succession until he was finally done. This was weakness, he thought. This was his fault for caring for something that didn’t belong to him and didn’t care for him.
But a series of noises from the underbrush in front of him, snapped him out of it. He dried his tears quickly, sat up and put his hand on his cutlass, ready to strike at whichever predator would dare sneak up on him in this vulnerable moment. But after a long pause, no predator came. The shuffling of the leaves died down and everything fell silent again. Duane slowly sat down again and turned towards the cave.
“So long Kismit. We… would’ve been great friends.” Duane said with a sigh.
Duane’s steps were slow and reluctant. Each step seeming an admission of defeat. Of Loss. Yet he knew he had to go back, and he had to get his composure back or he would never gain the respect of the crew.
He had just about made his way back to the entrance of the cave, when some movement caught his attention from the corner of his eye. The strange shadow, creeping up behind him slowly and methodically. Duane snapped around and saw Jermaine standing there, arms in the air.
“Look, don’ stab me. I’m only ‘ere because of yer yammerin’.” Jermaine said nervously.
“You didn’t hear me yammering.” Duane said plainly.
“Well then, let’s jus’ say I’m wrong. Let’s say I mis’eard the ‘ole thing and ye didn’t ‘ave a quick emotional goodbye with a little creature ye named Kismit. Then maybe you won’t like this much, aye?” Jermaine asked as she put forward her partially dressed skeletal arm.
Duane looked at Jermaine’s arm incredulously and saw Kismit, spiraling down the length of her arm quickly, before settling in her cupped hand. Duane suppressed a rush of tears as a smile forced its way onto his face. Little Kismit seemed more than happy to sit there and stare at Duane as he cautiously stretched out his arm and when Duane’s hand reached Kismit, he sniffed the hand and looked at Duane curiously.
Duane nodded hopefully and kept his hand as steady as he could, given the circumstance as Kismit, carefully tested him by stepping onto it. Duane’s smile grew larger, almost painfully so as he saw Kismit sit there for a long while, staring directly at him. Then Kismit spiraled up Duane’s arm and partway down his chest before settling in Duane’s warm breast pocket. Duane looked at Kismit as he settled down in the pocket then looked up at Jermaine, unable to utter a single word. She simply nodded, carefully embraced him and walked away again.
Duane watched her until she was out of sight, then turned around slowly as not to disturb little Kismit and looked ahead to see if any of the skeletal pirates had been watching the whole scene. Luckily for Duane, none of them seemed to have taken the time to follow him out. Quite possibly because they didn’t care about him, but probably because they were too busy gawking over their own loot. It was a suspicion which was confirmed once Duane reached the cave and heard cheering coming from deeper within.
Duane quickly made his way to his allotted space to pull little Kismit from his pocked and let him find a place to sleep among the crates and barrels. Which little Kismit did without much hesitation. Duane smiled then, knowing Kismit was safe and under hi scare as he had hoped from the first moments he saw the little creature. Though Duane’s attention quickly shifted to the talk of new prizes a bit deeper in the cave. Duane told Kismit to stay put, scratched Kismit’s head gently and sped down to where he heard the voices.
A poor choice it would turn out as Duane slipped right near the entrance and slid past several of the skeletons, to land near the massive pile of gold with his face on the cold cavern floor.
“Quite the entrance!” captain fireheart mocked.
Duane slowly stood up, brushed himself off and chuckled. Then his expression turned more serious.
“I heard you discussing the possibility of a new prize.” Duane said, attempting to hide his excitement.
“So we were. What business is that of yours?” captain fireheart asked.
Duane thought for a second. He had the opportunity to send them on the path of his previous crew. But at the same time, he knew that doing so would send him down a path he would never again be able to leave. His thoughts swirled around that duality for a while, when suddenly he was kicked in the back.
“Well?” captain fireheart repeated.
“I…” Duane hesitated.
“If you know of a ship that holds treasure and has a crew trying to gain infamy, you best tell us now meat bag.” captain fireheart warned.
“While they are the ones who put me on this island, I’m not sure I would want them to suffer you.” Duane admitted.
Captain fireheart laughed hard, shaking his head all the while.
“Everyone on these seas suffers us eventually! So you might as well tell us now! Unless of course you want to join our crew on a permanent basis even death can’t take you from.” captain fireheart threatened as he walked over, grabbing his cutlass.
Duane’s thoughts went to that moment on the deck of the latest prize when several of the crew dropped their weapons and pleaded for their lives, only to be shot. He shivered and looked up to face the end of captain fireheart’s cutlass. Again his thoughts took him from that place, to the moment when his captain forced him off the ship and into the frigid water below. But the sting of the cutlass snapped him back into the moment.
“Last chance.” captain fireheart said plainly.
“Alright.” Duane sighed.”She’s the illusion of hope.”
“How aptly named. Don’t you think lads!” captain fireheart exclaimed, “Let’s shatter this illusion and show her crew there is no hope!”
The crew of skeletal pirates cheered loudly for the longest time before settling down to discuss potential loot and ways to end the lives of the people on board of this new prize. Duane just sat there in disbelief, seemingly unable to understand why he had even considered saying anything. He didn’t want this for his former crew, not anymore. And yet he had asked the very question he knew would lead him to this moment. It was as if his previous need for vengeance had become part of his subconscious and was guiding him like a puppet on a string, leading to his ultimate end.
The blade previously at his throat Duane now noticed, had been turned around with the handle pointing toward him to pull him up. So he grabbed the handle and let himself be pulled up to face the grinning -at least he thought the skeletal face was grinning- captain fireheart.
“Trust me. It’s better that you gave us their ship’s name now rather than later. Otherwise you would have sat here for a year waiting for us to find a random ship and you would have starved.” captain fireheart assured him.
Duane nodded, but knew that he didn’t agree one bit with the captain’s reasoning. He also knew he couldn’t stop them from chasing his former ship, though he was convinced he could stop them from taking her. At least, he hoped he’d be able to stop them from taking her. The only problem he foresaw was that he would probably lose his life in the process.
Captain fireheart slapped Duane on the back and pushed him out of the chamber full of loot, then turned back to talk to his crew. Slowly but surely, Duane walked back to his boxes and Kismit with a blank expression. Kismit looked at him curiously from a distance and climbed all over him, sniffing as he did, as if to determine what was wrong with Duane. But when he couldn’t quite make out anything, Kismit sat back down on one of the crates and stared at Duane. Duane chuckled helplessly and patted Kismit on the head. But Kismit could see that his new friend was not alright.
Duane sighed, looked at Kismit and gave him a mango fruit from one of the crates which Kismit eagerly started to eat. Even as his friend lay down to sleep though it was only midday, Kismit continued to eat. Albeit a little slower as he watched Duane carefully while eating.
Sometime later -though Duane didn’t know how much later- the clattering of weapons and murmur of many different voices pulled him from his sleep, as the crew were getting ready to head out. It was out of the ordinary, Duane knew, as the crew usually awaited word from whichever scout would find their intended target. Though the crew seemed no less certain or enthusiastic about their new target.
Duane opened his eyes with a deep groan and could feel his body protesting against his movements, but Duane sat up anyway to see what was going on. The crew men walked past him with cannonballs, powder and shot for the pistols in a confident stride. But none stopped to talk to him until the quartermaster finally noticed Duane was awake.
“Quartermaster?” Duane asked
“That’s still me, aye. Good to see you’re finally awake. Now go help the others!” the quartermaster commanded.
Duane shook his head in disbelief. He’d barely gotten up to his feet. How was he expected to-? The thought was cut short by the order barked once again by the quartermaster who seemed in no mood for games, at all.
Duane cleared his head and nodded, then grabbed one side of a heavy trunk of cannonballs to help the crew as ordered. The whole time, Duane was passed by more skeletons with pistols and gunpowder. It seemed excessive and none of the undead were explaining why this was happening at all. But it was clear they knew something he did not and were expecting something quite near to a war. Once on the ship, he noticed that nothing was being stored in the lowest deck, but rather close to the cannons.
Not a minute later, the quartermaster ordered Duane to the crows nest where Duane was to keep an eye on the horizon until midday. He still wasn’t sure what to expect when the ship set sail an hour later, but he did as the quartermaster had asked and kept an eye on the endless horizon for signs of ships.
“Anything!?” the quartermaster asked him after a long while.
“Nothing yet!” Duane replied “There’s fog on the horizon though!”
The quartermaster stared up at him as if to scold him for that last remark, though it was hardly something Duane could help. If anything he’d make it go away if he could as he loathed looking at a foggy horizon. It limited his sense of freedom and at times made him feel as though something was about to go terribly wrong. But he ignored the quartermaster’s insufferable impatience and spent the rest of the morning peering into the fog, slowly and methodically.
Duane was about to scan the horizon again when the familiar bell rang from below, calling for him to come down. He welcomed the sound, but didn’t enjoy the prospect of being confined to his bed until nightfall. It was the reason he had volunteered to keep watch from midday until night in the first place. So he sighed, climbed down and headed for his bed. Not to sleep, but to rest and think about what was to come.
Several days passed like this, without ships and varying sleep until 10 days after departing Duane spotted sails on the horizon.
“Sails! Off the port bow!” Duane yelled instinctively.
The crew scrambled below like an ants nest, loading cannons, readying shots and angling the sails to catch the wind better. And the ship, much like its crew, sailed on with a grim determination. Duane looked closely at the vessel they were approaching, but rain and roughening seas were making it more difficult for him. Though when the other ship finally raised their colors, he knew it was the illusion of hope.
His former ship now in sight, Duane lowered the spyglass and looked out at it as the one he was on approached it. Perhaps it was his own perception or maybe a force of nature, but Duane felt as though something was keeping the ships at a certain distance from each other. The illusion of hope couldn’t pull away, but the damned ship he was on couldn’t get closer.
“Drop the anchor and pull hard to starboard!” the captain commanded suddenly.
Duane was shocked and wanted to yell out in protest, but the ship lurched over to the side, turning sharply and seconds later -with another yell from the captain- cannonballs began to fly towards the illusion of hope. Few shots hit, but they struck true, causing the illusion of hope to slow her escape. Duane took out his looking glass again, frantically searching the deck of his former ship for signs of how she was doing when something in the corner of his eye caught his attention. A dark shadow, easily as large as 3 ships, moved with a speed unlike anything he’d ever seen.
“There’s something in the water!” Duane cried out.
“Ignore him men! Pepper their stern afore they get away!” captain fireheart commanded.
The men shouted their agreement, reloaded and fired the cannons. It was then that Duane scrambled down to the deck, darted towards the cannons and opened the powder kegs in hopes of getting the powder wet. But before he could open even half of them, he was caught, slammed down hard onto the deck and tied.
Duane squirmed and protested, managing to dislodge the feet of 3 of the skeletal crew members before being dragged off to face the captain. His outburst had accomplished nothing. The crew had raised the anchor again and were giving chase to the crippled vessel he had once hoped to captain. The only change was that Duane was now tied up and forced to await the word of the crew to know what happened to the illusion of hope.
“So, you chose mutiny after all.” Captain fireheart chuckled.
“There was no choice.” Duane said flatly.
“Oh, but there was. You could have been a part of our conquest. A part of our crew.” Captain fireheart replied in a growling tone.
Duane chuckled, shook his head and looked over the side of the ship to see cannonballs now flying towards the deck he sat on. The smile on his face only widened at that and he looked at captain fireheart, contented.
“Least it’s a fight now.” Duane mused.
“One they’ll lose all the same.” Captain fireheart said, slapping Duane with his ringed hand.
The battle raged on for 3 hours and captain fireheart’s ship was about to pull up alongside the illusion of hope when the ship groaned and whined and suddenly refused to move forward. The rudders snapped and the wheel spun free, knocking the helmsman overboard. Then, as if summoned from nightmare itself, a gigantic scarred and squid-like tentacle pierced the sea’s surface. It rose high and then higher still, until it rose above the masts, then slammed down with a force that sent several skeletal pirates flying.
Duane gasped, his face bloody and cold, as he looked at the destruction. His mind tried to grasp it and was looking for words when more tentacles burst out of the sea and over the sides of the ship. Some clamped on and other tentacles slammed through masts and onto the deck until the masts and deck were splitting. Parts of the ship had caught fire and the mast Duane had been tied to was but a stump, so he stood up and freed himself from the ropes, only to notice an eerie orange glow nearby. The sight sent a shiver down his spine. Even more so when he saw the glint of a battered sword being held by captain fireheart dressed in tatters of his once magnificent clothes.
It came at him fast and without hesitation, swiping for his neck, then his legs and finally resting against his chest as Duane stood in front of the hole that was the center of the deck. Duane swallowed hard, thinking he was doomed. But his thoughts added to the horror as they turned to Kismit. He looked down, seeing the blade poke into his breast pocket and tears began to well up in his eyes.
“Please!” Duane begged
“What’s this? Begging? Just take it like a man! Twas your own thirst for vengeance what brought you here anyway!” captain fireheart grunted.
“No, please! Kismit!” Duane yelled out.
“What’s a Kismit?” captain fireheart demanded.
Duane looked at his breast pocket, then back at the captain and inadvertently back down past his pocket and deeper down where a horrifically toothed maw moved back and forth, chewing through the wreckage.
Captain fireheart moved his blade back a little, allowing Duane to take a quick look into his pocket. But there was no Kismit. The little creature he had so adored wasn’t there. Confusion spread across his face as he looked around the wreckage.
“He’s gone.” Duane whispered.
“What’s that?” captain fireheart asked.
“Kismit. He’s gone.” Duane said, a little louder.
“It must have known what a coward you were.” captain fireheart taunted, bringing his blade closer again.
The wreck they stood on lurched then, driving the blade home and sending them both tumbling into the water. Duane felt the stabbing pain ring deep through his core and into his mind. It made the fall feel like minutes rather than seconds and in this fall, Duane looked at the angry face of his killer, then down at the maw below. His heart beat slowly and painfully against the blade, sending waves of pain through him again and almost causing him to miss the sound of a panicked squeak, coming from the stern of the illusion of hope.
Duane tilted his head slightly, just in time to see the vague shape of Kismit hanging from the stern of the illusion of hope before his back struck the water. Duane’s sight dulled, his breath escaped him and finally he was gone. Peace washed over him, believing that captain fireheart would also be devoured and the devil’s ship was no more.
But his thoughts remained. The chaos had evaporated, his pain was gone, but his thoughts went on. Duane opened his eyes and looked around in panic and confusion.
“What is this?” he asked with an unfamiliar, warped voice.
“A chance to help others find the peace you did.” a warm, calming voice called from behind him.
Duane turned around, noticing the eerie green interior of a ship all around him, almost as though it had been formed to envelop him and the smiling face of a ghostly pirate captain. Duane stepped towards the man, feeling the wooden deck beneath him and seeing his own shimmering form for the first time. He was on a ghost ship, and stranger still, he felt at home.