"I thought it less like a lake, and more like a moat." -Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism
No one knows who created the sea. Did a god create the sea? Did God create the sea? Or did a god or God crawl out of the depths, made wise by the endless dark of it, not a celestial being but a creature more known to us that we're aware?
The ten seas were passable once. No one knows how long ago. They were shallower, then, enough that the Capital of Era lay resting by the coast, not deep within the midlands, sacrificing harbor cities for its own safety.
The ten seas were safer, once. It is written in the books. Bright and wide, the oceans used to be ours to roam, open and clear for hundreds of feet. Then the rain and flood came. And so did the deep sea creatures. They crawled from the dark, encouraged by the rising water levels. They came for the sea shores, clawing at the edges of civilization, looking for something they could pull back in. Charybdis drowned unsuspecting boats and the Devil Whale swallowed ships whole.
No one can pass the ten seas now. Not without experience, anyway. If you want access to Era or any other mainland country, you buy a ticket on a mercenary's boat. Harpoons and clever navigating keeps the mercenaries safe. Sometimes it is not enough. Most people are closed off from the outside world, communicating through letters sent by swallows or other birds equipped for the trip. Seldom does anyone travel on their own anymore.
Jax Darwood lost a finger to a hippocampus, once. A pinky, but nevertheless a traumatizing experience for a ten-year-old. Though sharper than horse teeth, hippocampi teeth were not made to chew through bone, and it had been by sheer stroke of luck that Jax had been pulled out of the sea by his uncle and not dragged into the briny by the thing.
Eight years later, and Jax still didn't like large bodies of water, much less the sea. He knew well enough there were far worse things down there than a mutant horse or three. His missing finger served as a reminder to never head down to the harbor at night, and to never stray too far without help. He kept to the mainland of the small island, Saltstone Harbor a kilometer walk from his house. He tended to his plants, he helped his uncle hunt for game in the deep forests south of the island, and only ever went down to the harbor for imports like fruit and rice.
Once a year he went to the beach for his parents memorial.
They'd been lost at sea, swallowed by god-knows-what. Their bodies were never found. That wasn't uncommon, really. The water devoured many unlucky souls during a year, and it was a rarity to find a body to bury. If they did it was mangled and grotesque, or greenish black and cold from days in the water. Jax counted himself lucky that they never found his parents.
His uncle told him they were easily remembered in his looks, anyway. Jax had gotten his dark skin and soft black curls from his father. He'd gotten his freckles and short stature from his mother. The raised, sharp chin and the green eyes could belong to the both of them. Jax carried himself as though he was truly created in their image, brought forth to carry a legacy. What legacy, he didn't know. He'd get there, someday.
Saltstone Island was originally a part of the mainland. They only knew that because it was written in the old books that were kept intact after the Flood. When it arrived the lands around Saltstone Island sunk into the sea, claimed by fish and crabs and creatures few people liked to mention. Hydra and Scylla and Devil Whales were all names that tasted sour on most tongues. Saltstone Island survived mainly by exporting fish to the mainlands and polluted territories, wood and cobblestone. Never really a bustling place, but never really empty either.
Jax was fond of his home. As far as he knew he'd never lived anywhere else. His parents had been travelers, though. They'd head out to sea and come home with treasure and fruits and things that you could never find on the small isle. His mother would cradle him in her arms, tell him of barrel organs and travelling gemstone merchants and carnivals in the capital. Jax would listen, imagine, feel it as though she'd taken him there herself. She never did. Though his mother did not fear much, his father was cautious about risking anything but himself. Jax's uncle often told him that it was only because his father never could say no to his mother that she ever came along for trips. If it were up to Jax's father she'd stay safe and sound at home. Still, Jax got his fire and fury from his mother. It was very hard to say no.
Jax's feet were planted in the sand as he stood at the edge of the water. He still kept close to the harbor, in case something crawled onto the shore hoping to get a bite of him. It hadn't happened yet, but it didn't hurt to be careful. Sirens had hands, after all. Selkies could even have legs. Giant Squids didn't obey the laws of physics from what Jax had seen. He didn't quite know what was stopping them from grabbing him from the shore and pulling him into the deep. Some sort of moral code, maybe. No, if anything, giant squids did not adhere to moral codes. Unless there were squid codes. Were there squid codes? Jax did not know. The hyacinths he'd brought had been dropped in the sea, and he was taking a precious few minutes to just think. Or not think. He wasn't quite sure he knew the difference anymore. Thinking involved an unbalanced amount of squids, apparently.
He looked to the harbor, the pier busy with arrivals of mercenary ships and trading ships that had made the safe journey across the sea. Uncle Sullivan was tallying the wares, tapping his boat shoes against the wood and scribbling in a notebook. Occasionally he'd look over at Jax, and when he caught his eyes Jax smiled, raising the last flower in his hand. Sullivan nodded, somber, and went back to his work. Sullivan was unlucky that Jax's parents' memorial fell on arrival days most of the time, but Jax knew full and well that his uncle took time out of his day to talk to his brother and sister-in-law.
Jax dropped the last hyacinth in the water, and the waves carried it out to sea. He crossed his arms, stared at the water, and hoped that nothing would look back at him. Prayed that nothing would look back at him. Sincerely begged whatever god there was above that nothing would look back at him.The dark water looked empty for now, but he still wasn't letting his guard down. He glared at the depths like they'd picked a fight with him. In a lot of ways they had. Young hearts did not take well to being trapped in old towns.
"Jax!" Sullivan's voice always carried well. Jax turned his head, raising his brows and putting a hand on his hip, as though challenging his uncle to tell him to do any chores on this very important day. It was a very important day, after all, he insisted with his eyes. His uncle regarded his stance for a moment, sighing, and waved him over with a calloused hand. At his side was a man, bearded and old and weathered from travelling.
Jax rarely saw captains grow that old anymore. Still Galen had been visiting their port every year for a decade. Jax didn't know a better captain than him. Not that he'd ever been on a boat, but he'd seen the way Galen treated his ship, and sitting on the hill Jax could see all the vessels leave the harbor. Somehow Galen's ship looked calmer than the rest. More sturdy. Maybe good captains made better ships. Maybe better ships made good captains.
Jax climbed up onto the harbor, his bare feet briefly slipping on the wood. Sullivan hauled him up by his elbow, pulling him to his side and resting an arm on his shoulder.
"You're going to get splinters on your soles again, boy," he said, and Jax shrugged, grinning.
"It hasn't happened that often," he retorted. Galen was observing the two, broad arms crossed over his chest. Around them Galen's crew were lifting crates and wares from the ship. Sullivan seemed to be tallying them in his head now that his arm was preoccupied. Perhaps he only wrote things down to seem more professional. Jax didn't put it past him. Galen scratched at his beard with one hand, then looked over at Jax.
"Your uncle tells me you've been lacking things to do." Galen's voice was rough and deep, like an organ. Or a cello. A drum. He looked so old and wise that for a moment Jax felt the need to agree if only because Galen had to be a lot smarter and wiser than him and so he had to be right in whatever he said. Still he took the time to process the statement, and immediately found himself very reluctant to say yes. Especially when he realized the implications. Jax turned towards his uncle, then back to the captain, and then back yet again. He shook his head slowly, as convincingly as possible. He had lots to do. Sleeping till noon. Cross stitching. Climbing trees.
Not touching boats with a ten foot pole.
Sullivan let go of his shoulder to take a firm grasp of his arm instead. Jax tested the grip, tried to tear himself out of it, and found himself much in the same situation as a fox in a trap. He didn't have any qualms about chewing his own arm off. Sullivan was quite aware of that, however, and gave his nephew a firm little look. Jax returned it with furrowed brows and a venomous little frown. Galen watched all of this happen with little reaction. A twitch of the lips, but that might have been a trick of the light. God, Jax hoped it was a trick of the light. Sullivan pulled him closer yet again, though Jax hadn't even noticed that he'd been trying to slither away. Instinct. Like pulling your hand away from a hot stove. Like walking faster when faced with threatening strangers. Like running away when faced with certain death.
"Junior here has an unhealthy fear of the deep blue, I'm afraid. You have a remedy for that, don't you Gal?" Jax stared at his uncle, face paling in disbelief. He held up his right hand, the one not in Sullivan's grasp. He wiggled the stump of his little finger. Unhealthy fear? All of Jax's fear's were quite rational, well thought out, and excusable. All of them. Including his fear of the sea, his fear of hippocampi, his fear of hydras and kraken and other god-awful sea dwelling things. His uncle only rolled his eyes. "You were ten and stupid, get over it."
Losing a limb was not something one just got over. Besides, Jax wasn't quite sure he was past the stupid part just yet. Just because he was eighteen didn't mean Sullivan could revoke his right-to-be-stupid card. That just wasn't fair. Not until he was twenty or so, at least.
Jax pulled at Sullivan's grip more insistently. The bastard held fast. Jax hadn't inherited much strength. Instead he'd inherited speed and a very small body. If he could get out of Sullivan's grip he could run and hide until Galen's ship had to leave the port. The problem was that his arms were twigs and Sullivan's hand was a vice. Jax looked to Galen for help of some kind, but the captain looked obedient of Sullivan's suggestion.
"I've got to admit, Jax," Galen began, pulling up a sleeve and pulling off his glove. "There are scary things out there."
Jax shut his mouth fairly quickly as the light reflected off the bronze of Galen's prosthetic. It was a pretty thing in all honesty, mechanical and intricate, gears and cogs and chains imitated tendons and muscles. Galen flexed his arm, bent it, twisted it. The prosthetic obeyed neatly. Jax started wide-eyed at it for a moment, then he looked up at Galen.
"How much did that thing cost?" Galen's bellowing laugh was a sweet thing, a loud bass sound. Jax laughed nervously back, a hopeless little noise. He didn't know what he was laughing at. He didn't think he was laughing at anything at all. He was just dead scared of the man, now that he knew he'd be trying to get him onto a ship and away from his home.
"A few years in my trade and people start owing you favors, Jax. Some even stumble over each other to repay them." The captain pulled his sleeve back down, then his glove back on, then put the metal hand on Jax's shoulder. Jax felt very trapped. Incredibly trapped. Terribly trapped. Irredeemably and indisputably trapped. He turned his eyes away from Galen, hammering them into the wood of the pier instead. Hoping it might crumble beneath all three of them and sent them crashing into the water just long enough for Jax to save himself. The old men could drown, pulled under by whatever lurked under the pier.
"I don't see your point," Jax muttered, now stuffing his free hand into the pocket of his shorts, making himself smaller than he already was. Galen's smile was a frightening thing, and Jax would've liked to avoid ever seeing it. This wasn't a fight he could win, but he certainly wasn't going down easy. He was certainly going to quarrel. And perhaps bite Sullivan in the arm. Whatever opportunity presented itself. Sullivan took the wheel again
"Jax, you won't find a man in the world without some scars nowadays. I need you to step up and patch up this little nick in your armor, boy. What happened to the boy that'd dive into the harbor looking for dropped watches and missing rings?" Jax grimaced, turning an accusing stare at his uncle.
"He lost a finger."
"And yet he still has full use of his hand." Jax rolled his eyes. Point taken, but not acknowledged completely. Sullivan didn't dignify it with a response. Instead he looked to Galen, then to his ship. Jax stilled. Froze like a deer. Readied himself like a startled snake.
"What are you up to?"
"How long until you're ready to depart?" Jax saw the look in his uncle's eyes. He pulled at the grip again, insistent. Sullivan tightened it threateningly. Jax started squirming, writhing and kicking. Sullivan grabbed him with both arms now. Galen didn't pay it any mind.
"Fifteen minutes?" Jax's curls were falling out of his ponytail and into his face. He pushed at Sullivan, but the man held steady. He set his teeth into the man's arm, and Sullivan just rearranged his grip, careful to not let any reaction show on his face. Either Sullivan's arm was made of solid metal all of a sudden, or he was really good at hiding pain, even as Jax nigh attempted to draw blood. He didn't pierce the skin, of course. He wasn't that stupid nor that vile.
"Pay you fifty gold pieces to make it five and help me get him onto it," Sullivan said, and Jax could just tell he was smiling. He kicked harder with his feet, though he didn't hit anything of substance. Galen had already taken a few steps back for safety's sake. The latter now looked at Jax with a guilty little gleam in his eye.
"Don't you dare, you god-damn lousy son of a--"
"Language, Jax," Sullivan wrapped a hand around Jax's mouth. He licked it. Sullivan's groan was a very small victory. Galen regarded him for another five seconds. Or five minutes. Jax didn't quite know, he was busy trying to hit Sullivan's ankles. Galen turned toward his crew.
"Departure in five!"
Jax managed to tear Sullivan's hand off his mouth long enough to shout a colorful string of profanities. Galen paid it no mind. Instead he waved two of his crewmen over. He spoke in a low voice, and they responded in kind. Jax lifted a very accusing foot.
"I know exactly what you're talking about you--" Sullivan put his hand back over his mouth again. Jax finally slumped a bit, tears welling up in his eyes instead. Sullivan felt the wetness on his hand and turned the boy around in his grip.
"No, no, no, Jaxie. Don't pull that on me, please." He wiped away the tears with a free hands, and Jax retorted by forcing hiccuping instead, wet and desperate. Sullivan looked almost helpless, and briefly seemed to fight with himself. Jax Wiped at his own tears this time. Half of them were crocodile tears anyway.
"Don't do this to me." On the memorial day, too. He didn't need to say that out loud to convey it. Jax had always been good at weaseling his way out of things. His uncle had a soft spot for tears and falsified tenderness. Part of it was genuine, though.
"Jax. It's practically exposure therapy. You'll take a trip to Era and be back on the island before you even know it. Yeah, I caught you unawares, I'm sorry. But if I'd told you in advance you'd be deep in the forest now. I'd never find you."
"You're goddamn right."
"Jax." Sullivan's voice was stern. Jax looked at him for a bit, then tried to writhe his way out of his grasp again. It didn't work. He groaned in defeat, slumping against his uncle and moaning dramatically.
Suddenly he felt foreign arms on his shoulders, and he immediately pulled away.
"I can walk!" He turned on his heel, stomping toward the ship with purpose. Awful old men and their awful therapy and their dumb and awful ideas. Immediately Sullivan's voice called out again.
"You forgot something!" Jax stopped, clenched his jaw. Then he turned, and Sullivan was walking over to a knapsack by the boathouse. The jerk had already packed his things. He picked it up, sauntered back over, and threw it at his nephew. Jax caught it with a glare. Still Sullivan kept walking towards him. He pulled something from his pocket.
The amulet was made of shell, wrapped in bronze and hanging around a leather strap. Jax hadn't seen it before. Sullivan handed it over with hesitation, stopping momentarily to look at Jax.
"It wards off the dangers of the sea. Your mother used to wear it everywhere. I didn't really think you'd have a use for it until now, considering the fact you don't even set foot in a puddle. It might make the journey a bit safer."
Jax took it immediately, raising the shell against the sun. It gleamed in the light, bright and colorful. He didn't know seashells had that many colors.
"This is very cliched, Sully." Jax's feelings were all over the place, and he had a hard time schooling his voice into something presentable. Sullivan put a hand on his shoulder.
"It is. What I'm about to say is even worse, I'm afraid. Your mother wouldn't want you scared of the sea. You probably don't remember much about her, really. She used to bring you to the shore and sit with you during the morning. Your father was going mad with worry for the both of you. Still, nothing ever happened to you. I don't know what sort of affinity your mother had with the sea, but she was always fond of it."
He was right. That was terribly cliche. Still, Jax felt a pull at his heartstrings. He pressed the amulet to his chest, looking to the water.
"I can't see why." Sullivan's laugh was very welcome.
"Yeah, me neither. Your mother had a few bolts and screws loose, honestly. If your father had heard me say that he'd have ripped me a new one, though."
"Not sure if I should be offended."
"Get on that boat and you'll prove to me that you've got your own head screwed on, boy."
Jax pulled the necklace over his head, tightening it slightly around his neck so it wasn't too loose. He readjusted the knapsack on his back, and looked at Sullivan. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes.
And tried to run for it.
Sullivan grabbed him by the waist, lifted him over his shoulder, and walked toward the ship. Jax kicked and screamed again, valiant and stubborn in his efforts. The necklace hung safely around his neck, a good precaution. He kept writhing until he actually slipped from Sullivan's grasp. And onto the hardwood surface of the pier. He recovered quickly, but not quickly enough. Sullivan just kept pulling him by his legs instead. Jax's nails weren't anywhere near long enough for him to hold onto the cracks of the harbor, and instead he scratched fruitlessly at the planks. He wasn't going down without a very long-winded, very insistent, very stupid and reckless fight.
"Let go of me you old bastard! You're such a jerk! I hate you! You balding fu-"
Sullivan dropped him back onto the floor only to grab him by the waist again instead, so Jax couldn't struggle as much.
"I hope I drown! I'll haunt you." Jax went limp in his arms as he spoke, and Sullivan had to put more strength into dragging him onto the ship. He took the challenge in stride, and Jax cursed him for having such patience. Jax himself would have given up by now if his life wasn't on the line.
"You're such a baby," Sullivan complained, and Jax responded by slamming his fists against the grip around his waist. Sullivan was strong in a way that was just brutally unfair. Especially when Jax was as weak in comparison as he was. Sullivan groaned, but neither flinched nor let go. He kicked some more, decided the fight was useless at last, and fixed Galen with a killing stare.
"I'm going to make your life hell." Galen chortled in response, walking up the platform after them. Sullivan held his nephew tight while the rest of the crew boarded.
"Let me tell you, kid, you won't find that easy to do," Galen retorted, looking over the edge of the ship to count his men.
The Augustina wasn't a large ship in any way, but she was very well cared for. With room for ten men and seven passengers, the ship traveled back and forth from Era to the southern islands, including Saltstone Island, Jax's home. It delivered wares and took travelers and exports. It was old, but it was trustworthy. There hadn't been a year where Jax didn't recall the Augustina dropping by every two weeks or so. He knew the trip back to Era was four days in good weather, but there were a lot of things to consider on the ten seas. Like hippocampi. Jax scrunched up his nose where he was lying limp in his uncle's arms.
"You're eighteen, Jax. Come on."
"Great observation. I'm also not suicidal."
"Debatable." Jax craned his neck to look up at Sullivan with a piercing little glare.
"I hope that my mother smites you when I die because of your neglect." Sullivan cocked a brow at Jax's statement, then looked up towards the heavens.
"Amie must be climbing the celestial hierarchy rather quickly if she already has the power to smite me. Tell you what, boy, if your mother is sitting on the throne up there, I gladly welcome being... Having her smite me."
"What is the past tense of smiting, anyway?" a passing sailor murmured, and Jax was silenced for about half a minute, thinking. Sullivan looked down at him as the boy kept quiet for a bit, then slapped a hand against his thigh.
"Smote. It has to be smote," Jax concluded, proud of his realization. Sullivan sighed, dropping him onto the floor. Jax actually sat still, sighing to himself and placing his elbows on his knees. There wasn't really much to do. They pulled the pathway onto the boat and closed it off. Galen put a hand on Jax's shoulder again as Sullivan walked to the edge. He leant against the railing, looking over at his nephew.
"Come home safe, boy." Jax spit defiantly. Sullivan said nothing to it, just kept standing there, waiting Jax out.
In the end he won.
"Yeah, yeah," Jax muttered, and Sullivan must've been pleased enough by that, because he ruffled Jax's hair before he leapt over the boat's edge and onto the pier again.
In reality Jax wasn't as scared of the sea as he perhaps wanted to be. He'd been burnt by it before, har har, but he wasn't one to close off so easily. It was more the lack of caution that scared him. His parents hadn't been scared of the sea. Galen wasn't scared of the sea. Still, it could swallow them whole in a moment. Why wasn't Jax scared of that? So he faked it. Hoped that he'd one day be cautious enough to not feel any sort of pull to the dark deep of it. He still did. He felt the water on his skin, felt it pulling him in like a siren. While Jax had never met a siren, he assumed their alluring call must feel a lot like it felt for him to see the ocean. Calling, whispering. So why wasn't he scared?
Now, sitting on the deck of the Augustina, he wasn't really scared. He was anxious. Rationally worried. He wasn't scared. He didn't like that he wasn't scared.
He got to his feet as they pulled up the anchor and untied the ropes. He went to the bow of the ship, leaning his arms against the railings, patient. Briefly he looked back at his uncle, and Sullivan was staring back at him, anxiety furrowing his brows.
He was probably more scared than Jax, in all honesty. Jax had known his father for nine years when he lost him. Sullivan had known the same man, his brother, for thirty. Despite the blood-relation, there was something different to losing someone during your childhood and during your adulthood. Jax had been shaped by it. Sullivan had been broken by it. Jax saw it in the way his face fell when they lost a shipment. In the way his jaw clenched when a ship didn't report. Jax was careful of the deep blue. Sullivan was vengeful and angry and didn't want to let it win. While Jax felt suffocated and often lonely on the small island, Sullivan was only thankful that there was, in the worst case scenario, a way to leave.
He just wanted to teach Jax that.
Jax found it surprisingly easy to forget he was at sea when he never, ever looked into it.
He'd made the mistake of glancing over the edge the morning after he'd boarded, seen a megalodon shark, and immediately decided gazing into the deep was still not for him. One could push down their fears, one could overcome them, one could face them, and one could still have a healthy dose of common sense left.
Now he sat against on the deck in the sun, leaning towards the wall of the captain's cabin, watching the crew hustle and bustle as he had nothing to do. It wasn't really that different from Saltstone Island, but it still felt a bit more stifling. Like being stuck in a house instead of on an island. He pulled the tie out of his hair, re-tied it, pulled it out again and repeated the motions. He needed something to stop himself from just fidgeting with his hands. Likely he'd die from lack of things to do rather than from any of the deep sea creatures circling the boat. And he knew they were circling the boat. They could come get him. Likely they'd find his dead corpse on the deck, rotting from boredom rather than drowning or hunger. What a way to go. On second thought, a hydra would be less pitiful than going that way. Come get me, he thought. Come get me.
Galen walked up to him after a minute or so, pulling a cigarette from his pack and leaning against his door, lighting it carefully with a match. Jax looked up at him from his spot on the floor, and Galen looked back, though only for a second. He walked over to the railing instead, and Jax followed, taking the silent invitation for what it was. He tried not to stare too much at the captain as they stood against the horizon, seeing as that was all he'd been doing the first few hours after they joined the ship.
The first thing Jax had noticed about Galen was the amount of tattoos lining his arms, both prosthetic and not. He'd rolled up his sleeves and pulled off his gloves as they sailed out to sea, bothered by humidity and heat. As he did Jax found the time to study his prosthetic and the many intricate carvings on it, intricate waves and sea creatures that Jax was very glad he'd never met before in his life. He didn't want to, either. He wasn't sure if the arm had always had the carvings, or if someone on his crew had a lot of artistic ability. On his flesh arm he had a colorful sleeve, with pinup sirens and flowers and boats and a parody of the cliched heart tattoo with the name of his quartermaster in it instead. Roland was a very lucky man, surely. The quartermaster was more important than any lass, Galen had said, chuckling. Quotes wrapped around the pretty pictures, and Jax had pointed curiously to them.
"I don't rightly remember everything that's written on my arm, to be honest," Galen commented, turning his arm over to look at the bright red 'Alissa was here' across his elbow, written in neat script. The smile on his face told Jax he'd rather keep it to himself who that actually was. Not for young ears to know. Jax had snorted at that, an amused little giggle following that had Galen smirking. He'd taken the boy in a headlock and ruffled his hair until it stood on end for half an hour. Jax still hadn't forgiven him, actually. Not that there was much to forgive.
The second thing he noticed about Galen was that he had a small revolver at his side at all times. It glinted in the sunlight, intricately carved in the same style as his arm. Jax never pointed that out. He didn't know what damage Galen could do to anything out on the sea, but he had a feeling he didn't actually want to know, either. Let Galen shoot whatever was gonna come at them, Jax would accept it.
The third thing he noticed was that Galen spoke in sign language to communicate with most of the crew.
Jax couldn't fathom why, thinking Galen's voice would carry better than having to sign commands to each individual. He didn't actually ask Galen about that, instead he'd tried to ask the first mate, but he was faced with a puzzled little look and vigorous signing instead. Jax, not familiar with sign language, was aided by the quartermaster Roland.
"Kel is deaf and doesn't read lips very well. The rest of the crew is a sign language to convey messages because it helps him understand and makes him feel more at home," Roland explained, and as he did he translated with his hands for Kel to understand. "It was Galen's idea. Who's to say will never get more deaf people on board? It pays to be prepared."
Jax learned a lot about Galen within half a day. Enough to feel guilty about the fight he'd been putting up before they left. For the first three hours at sea he wasn't any better, he just groaned and cried and complained. During the fourth it got hard to keep up the façade. He resigned himself to playing card games with the crew and threw pieces of bread in the ocean to tempt fate by the fifth. Telling any gluten tolerant creature in the ocean to come get him.
Galen seem to already know of Jax's falsified fear of the ocean. He observed the boy with something like glee in his eyes, mouth never moving to give it away. He let Jax play at being scared for as long as he needed to, then let the boy run back-and-forth from the bow of the ship without comment. Jax appreciated that he never called him out. Perhaps he just knew that Jax had his reasons. If so, he already knew more about it than Jax necessarily did.
Jax stretched his arms above his head and counted the clouds in the sky, pretending not to pay Galen any mind, even as the captain stood firm at his side. He could feel Galen's stare at his side but it strangely enough didn't feel uncomfortable. It felt familiar. It felt more like supervision than anything, and Jax relaxed under it, briefly letting his eyes slip closed and his hands fall to his sides.
"Do you see that?" Galen's voice was hypnotic in its calmness, and Jax opened an eye to look over at him then follow Galen's pointing finger to a place in the sky. What he saw made him stand up and lean against the railing for a better look.
Above them was a fleet of zeppelins, embellished with the logo of the Royal guard and decorated and silver and gold. They flew safely across the water, silent and graceful. Jax might not have noticed them at all if it weren't for the fact that they had been pointed out to him. He looked to Galen, But Galen was looking at him instead, gauging his reaction.
"I thought airships were banned for confidential reasons," Jax said, following the ships as they soared across the boat. The large oars on the sides rotated rhythmically, steering them back-and-forth to stay on course. The mechanics of airships were quite interesting, but Jax never had it in him to get very involved in it.
"Banned for high flammability and risk. Era doesn't allow non-governmental transports besides privately owned ships. They don't want contests, but they can't have governmental travel boats, as you know. Hard to guarantee safety with how fickle the sea is. That doesn't stop military and the bourgeoisie and upper classes from traveling by zeppelins privately."
Jax didn't comment on the fact that Galen actually use the word bourgeoisie in a sentence. The man's political opinions were his to keep.
"How come no one calls them out?" Galen looked the boy over for a bit, then shrugged.
"It's not easy to get in contact with the capital, and it's even harder to get in contact with the officials on the coast, so we just resign ourselves to get our own means of travel. Besides…" Galen said, as he leant over the railing, peering deep into the blackness of the sea. Jax stared down with him, but found himself not faced with the deep-sea at all, but a shallow water and a big, big creature swimming beneath.
Jax had heard of kraken. he'd originally heard of the Kraken, then he heard there were more than one. If it hadn't been for a very horrific double attack off the coast of the mainland, no one would ever have even known. Luckily, the plural of Kraken just seems to be kraken, and so nothing really changed in the world except for crippling fear of two giant monsters pulling your boat under.
He wasn't aware they were this big. Rather, he was aware, much in the same way that you're aware that the world is a globe, and you're aware that a human being can technically lose something close to two liters of blood without fainting nor dying so long as you're drunk enough. In other words, he was aware, but it was a whole different thing to see it.
The creature paid and seemingly no mind as it slipped beneath the bottom of the ship, floating suspiciously close to the surface. Jax ran across the ship as the thing swam under it, and Galen followed calmly, cigarette resting in the corner of his mouth, amused. Jax bent over the railing again, watching the limbs move languidly through the water. He almost felt sick.
Above them the airships glided elegantly through the wind.
Though not so carelessly.
A tentacle broke the surface of the water, and Jax was horrifyingly intimidated by the size of it. It didn't aim for their ship however, instead it stretched towards the zeppelins with intent, hitting what looked like a cargo ship in an attempt to pull it towards the ground. It's exceeded only in hitting it off course, but another limb became to grab at the ship, and yet another, and it pulled at the vessel until it sunk towards the ocean. The rest of the fleet scattered, though slowly and helplessly, and Jax wasn't sure if he was supposed to feel scared or gleeful. As it pulled the airship beneath the water, Jax didn't hear anything from it, no survivors nor grievers nor desperate calls, though it caught fire for a brief moment before it sank.
Jax was quiet for a bit, choking on bile and holding his breath. The rest of the crew carried on as though nothing had happened, and Galen even had it in him to smile and shake his head. Once his stomach settled in his heart had started beating again, Jax sunk towards the floor, leaning his head against the railing and heaving for air. Galen slapped a hand against his back, chortling.
"You get used to saying things like that, kid. Be it ships or zeppelins or other creatures coming up to the surface for air. They do have a thing for zeppelins though. Like it's a personal offense to dodge fate like that." Jax swallowed audibly, looking accusingly up at the captain. Galen smiled again, taking a drag of his cigarette, and stubbing it out on the wood of the ship.
"We are fairly safe though. It's almost as if the sea has gotten used to the old Augustina. Normally we float from coast-to-coast like a part of it. Your uncle did good in choosing this ship to rid you of your--"
A crash from under the ship, and it swung back-and-forth unsteadily, floorboards creaking with effort. Galen stiffened, eyes widening, then turned towards the crew.
"Knock on fucking wood-- What's going on!?" Roland was stood by the helm, communicating with someone in the mast. He looked rather pale where he stood, shuffling back and forth, his eyes flickering to and fro Galen every once in awhile. Finally, he shook his head.
"The uh, squid isn't very fond of us today, sir. It, uh, it punched a hole in the ship."
"It did what." That wasn't a question. That was an option for Roland to retract his statement and stop joking around. Galen's voice wasn't surprised, nor angry, nor scared, nor anything but so monotone that Jax would have far preferred him to be some kind of enraged. At least then he'd have half an idea of what he was thinking.
"It's not a big one, uh, sir, it's, uh-" Roland peeked down the side, signing with someone hanging off the ship. "Practically aesthetic, sir, but nonetheless I'm picking up the pace to get outta dodge, uh, sir." Galen clenched his jaw, bit his cheek, then turned on his heel.
"Roland gets stuttery when he's nervous. He's fibbing. Come, Jax," Galen said, and Jax followed him towards the damaged part of the ship.
It was, in theory, aesthetic. It wasn't bringing in water, nor was it making it tip. It was, however, a rather big hole going straight through to the sleeping quarters. Kel was standing in it, gazing worriedly into the water, clearly not trained to deal with the situation, poor thing. Jax stayed by the side even when Galen moved up towards the helm, making sure Kel wasn't in any more trouble than he could handle. When the first mate saw Jax, he smiled anxiously, then looked down to the water, then up at Jax, and handed him a thumbs up. Jax knew more sign language than he thought. Neat.
However, just as Kel tried to reassure him, another limb crawled out of the sea, clinging onto the hole. Kel screamed something awful, retreating into the ship in the hopes of saving himself. The squid pushed and pulled at the edges of the ship, breaking the floor of the sleeping quarters as it burrowed its way down.
Jax tried to push down the unnerving calmness in himself and replace it with something like fear, but as he turned towards Galen all he could say was
"If this is your idea of fairly safe, I never want to encounter danger." Galen scoffed, pulling the gun from his sleeve and lodging a bullet in the intruding limb of the thing. It screeched something awful, so loud that the sound broke the surface of the water, and pulled the tentacle out of the ship. Only to launch it at Galen instead. Galen was surprisingly fast for an old man, however, and jumped to the side as it broke part of the helm. Another shot to the limb and the thing screeched yet again, crawling back in the ocean to reorient itself. Jax only knew the retreat was brief because the ship was still shaking and rocking as the kraken stayed under water to recover.
All hands were on deck, and still Jax had an unrelenting feeling of not being there at all. Like he was detached from the ship, detached from the world, something frighteningly untouchable. Something not at risk. He grasped the necklace around his throat, clenched it in his fist and stomped towards the helm. For a while the beast was quiet, waiting, planning. It did not attack while Jax ascended. It did not attack when he made sure Galen was OK.
It did attack once he had both feet safely planted on top of the ship.
Two appendages grabbed at the deck, scrambling for something to hold onto and nearly knocking several crew mates over as it did. Most leapt over the limbs, but a few unfortunate nearly got pushed into the water, had it not been for what remained of the railing. It swept the deck like an angry man would his office desk, knocking into the Captain's cabin and breaking the walls. Galen looked like he had half the mind to make it pay for the damage. Perhaps he would've been able to in any other situation. Galen fired another two bullets into the thing, and it screamed and writhed wildly, knocking men out of the way as it slipped back into the sea again. Galen ran down the stairs as fast as Jax had gotten up, along the ship to help his fallen workers up. Jax couldn't help but pay mind to the way that they never gave any big orders. Though perhaps not used to the turmoil of a beastly attack, they were at the very least aware of what they were supposed to do. Or not supposed to do. Or how to seem excruciatingly calm.
"You almost seem bored," Roland remarked as he walked up to Jax, still smiling. Jax convincingly shook his head.
"Just in shock, probably." Roland cocked a brow. Then he shrugged, and crossed his arms as he watched the others help each other to safety while the beast rested. Then he looked back at Jax, tilting his head.
"Help me head down a floor to make sure Kel and whoever else is down there is alright, OK?" It wasn't so much a request so much as a well disguised command, and Jax nodded hesitantly. He didn't really like the idea of going down a floor where he couldn't see giant appendages that swung at him. Wasn't it called all men on deck for a reason? Nevertheless he tumbled down the stairs with Roland and onto the lower floor. The stairs leading down were half knocked away and destroyed to splinters, though Roland only hopped across the huge gap and put the destroyed door lying at the bottom across the hole so they could get back up. Jax followed him with as much glee as he could muster during his own certain death.
Kel was crouched in a corner of the sleeping quarters, eyeing the open side of the ship. He couldn't hear the kraken. He had to rely entirely on seeing it coming. Jax felt so very, very bad for him. Roland didn't hesitate in running over, though Kel's immediate reaction was to jump, then pull away, as though the giant squid had suddenly grown smaller and grown legs and grown the mental capacity to just walk down and ensure Kel's demise in person. Roland's familiar face made Kel soften, and he took the hand offered to pull him up. Roland signed vigorously at him, though Kel's responses consisted mostly of nods, shakes of the head, and a very incredulous look that made Roland flush and avert his eyes. Still, Jax couldn't actually decipher what they were actually talking about, seeing as Roland forgot to translate now that he was speaking directly to Kel. Jax had the feeling that Roland took a lot more time to include Kel in everything than to include everyone in his relationship with Kel. Jax decided not to comment on that directly. Roland turned towards him when he finished with Kel, content to keep a hand on the latter's shoulder to ground him.
"So Kel apparently had the rest of the crew sent up when the thing punched through the wall. I couldn't tally them all on deck so I wasn't sure. Anyhow, we probably don't want to be here when that thing decides to come back again." A splash made Roland groan. "Speak of freaking Cthulhu." The slam against the side of the ship was almost expected now, and even as they stumbled Roland just pushed Jax towards the stairs and took Kel by the arm to bring him with them.
Halfway up the stairs, Roland and Jax fell to the ground.
A piercing sound, louder than radio interference and siren song and Jax's thoughts at three in the night pierced their ears. Jax felt like his ears were bleeding as he clutched at the staircase, and Roland would've knocked his head against the wall if Kel, bless his deaf soul, didn't decide to grab him then and there. Kel was unaffected, though with Roland and Jax incapacitated there were no one to tell him what was actually happening. Not that the two had the slightest idea themselves. The sound kept going, a high frequency screech. It paused only briefly as though someone was restarting a machine. Jax didn't have the slightest clue what it was until he managed to turn to the hole in the wall in time to see the damned squid fall straight back into the ocean. Not slipping, not jumping. Falling. As incapacitated as the rest of them. Except for Kel.
Jax had the sudden realization that the sound wasn't meant for them at all.
Kel looked at the both of them as they recovered. Roland explained as briefly as he could with a ringing in his head and a riveting headache. He had to stop at points to remember the actual sign for numerous things like 'migraine' and 'God help me'. Jax leant back to gain his bearings, rubbing his ears as though he could get the sound out of it. Kel kept very still for a moment. And then he had the guts to smile. Widely. Gleefully. So very, extremely overwhelmed by the feeling of schadenfreude. He mockingly rubbed at his ears, then climbed up the stairs before them, leaping up every other step and out onto the deck. Roland groaned, trying to stand and failing for half a minute.
"I can't blame him for that, but, God, it didn't exactly soften the blow," he said.
"I am baffled that this ship is still standing," Jax commented, staring at the hole in the ship. One of the holes in the ship. Hole A. in the ship. Hole numero uno.
"We all are, kid. I have to say, I don't think this is what Galen wanted for your first trip at sea. Nor what he means by saying the Augustina can handle the worst. He's so adamant about his love for the water. The rest of us are mostly just making a living and making a family. Not trying to get eaten by the Kraken, you know?"
"The Kraken is just a bonus."
"Did you see that thing? How many people can say they met a kraken and lived? It's a bonus for sure."
Together they crawled up the stairs, only to find they weren't quite finished with the situation at hand.
Their own crew was easily recognizable in that they were all still crouched on the ground, someone crying and moaning about the sound, or knocked out on the floor (but not Kel, Kel looked rather radiant compared to everyone else,) and being messes. Therefore it was also easy to see the crew that did not belong to them at all.
The man, or boy, in the middle of the deck was the easiest to notice. Tan skin and a lanky body, the boy was counting the crew and seemingly checking their pulses. He was the most active out of five strangers present on the boat. Another one, a man for sure, with sandy blond hair and a frown on his face was helping him out, turning the crew onto their backs and examining them. A pair of girls sat against the railing, one very reminiscent of the first boy and the other white-haired and strangely pale, observing the happening with curious eyes.
The captain was easy to spot once you realized he was there at all. Tall and in modest clothing, only the stern stature and seeking glare gave hint to the commanding rank of the young man in the corner. He didn't immediately notice Roland and Jax, instead looking over Kel for a moment before resigning himself to managing the two men running back and forth between fainted crew.
The youngest boy looked up at his captain for a second.
"Normally the siren would have them gone for another few minutes. Not sure how that one is already feeling fine," he said, gesturing to Kel. Kel didn't respond, though he did take note that he was getting some sort of attention. Roland seemed suspicious of the situation, but he still moved forward, shoving Jax behind himself for a moment. The boy that had spoken saw them both approach.
"Oh! They came from the lower floor. The siren must've been deafened by that. Good."
The fact that they didn't seem to have intentionally mortally wounded anyone made Roland relax his shoulders a little bit. A little bit.
Galen getting up was not a quiet thing. The groaning and moaning and cursing from the captain made Jax and Roland and strangers alike turn in astonishment as they watched the fearless and balance-less captain get up onto his feet. The other captain, Jax knew by now that was what he was, walked over, helping Galen get his support properly. Still Jax couldn't avoid noting the glare he gave his younger crew mate. When he spoke, his voice was soft and dark, hypnotizing and hushed in the same way as their own arrival had been. Except for the fainting and siren, of course.
"Sorry, we assumed you'd rather get deafened than eaten," he explained, which earned him a harsh glare from Galen.
"And how, pray tell, did you deafen us?"
"Anti oceanic siren. The machine kind, not the pretty girl kind. Very nifty thing. Very rare, seeing as our boy Casper made it himself." The stranger pointed to the boy that had been checking pulses, and Casper stood up only to blush and smile at them for a little bit. Galen studied the boy for a bit, decided he didn't hate what he saw, and turned back to the stranger.
"Who are you?" The stranger blinked, once and then twice. He looked to Casper, who looked to the man still turning crew, who looked to the tan girl perched on the railing, who turned to the pale one beside her. The last one looked to her captain again, and he sighed.
"I'm Crow. That's Casper, as I said. That grump is Zach, the brunette is Caisa and the pale one is May." Caisa put a hand to May's voice as she was about to argue the part about being pale. Zach, the older man, raised a hand to specify.
"Zacharia, but my buddies can't pronounce four syllables to save their own lives."
"Shut it, Zachster," Crow sneered, and Zachariah sneered back. Roland piped up rather quickly.
"You guys have an unbalanced amount of C's in your crew." Casper looked to Caisa. Caisa looked to Crow.
"So we've heard. Caisa and Casper are twins, and like to make it disgustingly obvious. I'm three years older than them and have dibs on the letter C."
Jax was fairly sure that wasn't how age differences worked, but he wasn't about to argue with the crew that had just crippled their entire crew for a few minutes. Except for Kel. Kel still looked a bit smug.
"Crow. We're also not just five minutes in our crew."
"We're five members currently at sea, so he has a point."
The debate went back and forth so quickly that only Jax was in the right mind to actually pipe up and ask a real question.
"What are you doing here?"
Crow and Casper turned towards Jax with startling synchronicity, as though they just noticed something vitally important. Judging by Casper's pupils dilating, they had. He looked to his captain. Crow shrugged, and walked towards Jax with intent. Roland briefly stepped between them, but Crow just pushed him calmly away. Something in his look made Roland give up the fight. Jax let Crow get close enough to take a look at the token around his neck. He pulled it up to the light, turned the shell this way and that. Then he looked to Jax again, and Jax felt himself flush with the undivided attention.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, and Jax gripped the necklace like it was at risk. Maybe it was. Maybe he was.
"My uncle." From behind Crow he heard Casper hiss, and a very soft little ouch. Crow seemed to agree. He tilted his head, smiling sadly at the boy.
"Sorry about that." Jax cocked his brows, not sure what to ask. Did he ask why he was sorry? Did he ask if he knew anything about the necklace? Did he ask Crow if he knew the definition of personal space? Crow turned towards his friends again, a nod, and then he pulled at Jax's hair, pulling him to him. He looked to Galen even as Jax writhed.
"We're just collecting a bounty. It happens to be on your ship. As a little payment for saving you, we're gonna need the kid." Zachariah grabbed Galen as he tried to swing at Crow. Galen was no match for a strong man in his twenties.
"We didn't ask for your help!" Casper hissed again as Galen spoke, a sympathetic little thing as Jax had come to learn. Which meant something was wrong again. Crow turned his head rather slowly, sizing Galen up before he decided to disregard him completely. Instead he now looked at Jax again.
"I'm sorry about a lot of things that are 'bout to happen." He pulled Jax back to his chest, this time enveloping him with his arms in a dark and foreboding version of comfort. Jax didn't fail to notice he had no way to break free. Any struggle Jax put up was faced with apathetic resignation and trained reflexes. Casper walked towards Jax and Crow, hands raised in diplomacy.
"Please, just come with us. We're just doing our job, you'll make it so much easier on everyone if you just--"
Galen shooting crow in the shoulder was not 'co-operating' as Casper was about to ask.
Crow didn't immediately make a sound. The people behind him could probably not see a reaction at all. Jax, from his position, could see the clenched teeth and shut eyes, feel the sharp intake of breath. Jax was so shocked that he didn't struggle as Crow softly pushed him away to look him over. He was looking for the bullet. His eyes had glazed over in pain, and as he realized Jax was unhurt, it turned to anger. The bullet was still lodged in his shoulder, and he still schooled his face into a calm demeanor.
"God, I'm sorry," he repeated at Jax, gripping him tighter. Then he turned to Zach holding Galen. "Slit the old man's throat."
"Nononono, no!" Crow was still very strong with a shot in his shoulder, even as Jax kicked and screamed in an attempt to get him to let go. He watched Galen aim the gun at Zachariah, watched it click in his mind as it clicked in his gun that he was out of bullets. Watched Zachariah walk towards him, dodge every punch on the way and pull a switchblade from his side. He didn't hear what Zachariah said when he cut into Galen's neck. Crow seemed to deliberately shield Jax from seeing anything despite the fact that he'd commanded it himself. Jax struggled, had hoped Roland would come to his aid, but broke free to find him knocked out on the floor, Casper sitting at his side. Crow grabbed him again.
"This got messy," Casper murmured.
"You don't say," Crow crowed. Jax kicked him in the shin again. Crow didn't react to that either, though he did twist Jax around to make things a lot harder for him. Like two businessmen faced with a hard day at work, Casper looked to Crow for an answer to a question he did not ask. Crow answered in a sign of the hand.
Where was Kel?
Though Jax could not see him, he had to assume he was knocked out too. He kicked and writhed again, and again, and again, until Crow pushed his legs out from under him and pushed him to the floor, quiet. It was harder to move like this, but Jax persisted like a man on his last hope. Perhaps he was, he didn't quite know. Once he lost all ability to fight, courtesy of Crow straddling him violently, the captain bent down to his ear.
"This is a job, princess. Don't take this out on us, alright? Take it out on our employer. She'll deal with it. Take it out on your uncle. He's the reason we found you." And then he pulled him up, as Casper neared with a soft little 'sorry' grazing his lips, and a pen-like thing in his hand. Jax didn't need to be smart to realize it was a sedative. He didn't bother using words as he snarled at Casper, and Casper didn't use any more words as he pricked his skin. The fluid slipped into his veins, though Jax didn't notice an immediate reaction. He was shocked enough to let Crow lift him, though.
Crow carried him over his unharmed shoulder, and though Jax himself was lucid and very, extremely, excruciatingly livid, his body was lax and nearing nigh immobile. He tried to yell something at Crow, but it came out slurred and drunk-sounding. He saved the last bit of his dignity by keeping his mouth shut. Casper walked behind them, looking sincerely guilty about the whole situation. Even now the crew was sleeping, and Jax had his suspicions about Kel being knocked out too. Now that he thought about it...
Casper hadn't been checking for a pulse.
He'd been drugging the crew mates.
Jax tried to thrash again, but succeeded only in twitching obviously. Crow readjusted him on his shoulder, and carried him across a plank onto a new ship, though Jax didn't see much of it from where he was dozing. The sedative made him feel pleasantly warm and safe, and he hated it like nothing else. He did see May and Caisa follow them, and he did see Zachariah remove the plank and put it on their own ship again. He saw Casper shoot an emergency flare at the sky, and he saw the floor as Crow carried him.
He didn't see anything else for a while after that.