An enemy is someone who will get you killed, regardless of whose side they’re on.
The wind railed and screamed overhead like an angry banshee, clawing at the sails and the clothes and hair of those caught in its fury as it gouged deep holes in the choppy seas, creating steeply-sloping valleys of water that pitched and churned and tossed the Bloody Mary about like an angry child with a buoyant toy.
Lita clung to the mast with a desperate, vice-like grip as violent rain pelted down from the blackened skies above. The ship rocked violently in the winds of the storm, the mast swaying this way and that like a sapling. The sails snapped and shuddered as the winds and rain battered them about, soaked canvas and slick rigging slowly tearing free of their tethers to become angrily whipping tendrils in the violence of the gale. The seas were angry and frothed with foam, huge swells rising and falling like a sadistic roller-coaster and pitching the hapless schooner whichsoever way they pleased. Twice, now, they’d sent the Bloody Mary corkscrewing down a swell only to have another wave crash into her side, pitching the ship sideways at an angle that came dangerously close to capsizing her and brought the rabbit within inches of a raging wall of water.
All of a sudden, her perch high aloft in the crow’s nest didn’t seem like such a great idea after all.
Not that coming down really seemed like an option now, as tattered sails and snapped rigging lines flapped and fluttered about like airborne serpents, slamming into one another with knots and tethered iron rings that shattered wooden crossties and only seemed to tear more debris free to add to the hellish dance below her. No, brazen as she was, there was no way in hell the teen was about to-
A flash of lightning lit up the darkened seascape, illuminating the raging waves and every last pelting raindrop for an instant as and ear-splitting crack of thunder roared overhead. A brilliant electric fork spiked down from the clouds to the ocean surface not twenty yards away, the winds carrying the scent of ozone, charred fish, and scorched sea salt to her nose as evaporated steam hissed up from the point of impact and the thunder rolled ominously overhead.
Lita paled. It didn’t take a genius to realize the rolling seas of the storm were swiftly carrying the ship up and down between the highest peak on the horizon and the lowest like a sadistic sine wave – and the crow’s nest had the dubious distinction of being at the very top of the tallest mast on the ship. All it would take would be a bit more pitch than yaw, and her perch would be creamed with a wall of thoroughly unforgiving seawater. She let go of the mast and gripped the nest’s railing, squinting through the torrential rain to peer at the ropes whipping about between her and the deck. Swallowing hard, she grit her teeth, tensed, -
- and vaulted over the railing to the darkness below, a split-second before a bolt of lightning split the skies once more, snaking down to strike the abandoned crow’s nest in an explosion of sparks and splintered wood.
The rope bit and tore into her hands as she grasped it, fingers wrapping around the weathered and wind-hardened braided cord as she sought to slow her fall. But the rope and her hands were slick with rain, and though Lita had a hold on it, her grip slid down the surface of the rigging, guiding her fall and swinging her out along the length of the ship like a maritime Tarzan. And then she was grasping only air, the snapped end of the rope line slipping through her fingers as she sailed through the air, backflipping as best she could in freefall in an attempt to right herself.
Her fingers met the canvas of a sail as she fell, desperately seeking purchase on its smooth surface and the wooden crosstie holding the end of the sail in place, but her grip failed on the rain-slicked wood, and the tie slid from her grasp as a gust of wind shook the structure. Falling again, she flailed out her arms, plunging one purely by chance through the wide mesh of the rope-ladders running up the sides of the ship’s masts. She swung her other hand up to grab the mesh as her tangled arm jerked her around in the air, legs kicking out to thread through the mesh and help keep her in place. She hung there for a minute, buffeted by the gale’s winds and pelting rain, trying to catch her breath and slow the panicked beating of her heart.
“Too close,” she gasped, looking back the way she’d come. “WAY too close.” Perhaps it was time to add a pair of fingerless rubber-grip gloves to her ensemble, to prevent a repeat of that terrifying flight. She cast a glance behind her at the deck, still a staggering forty feet away. For now, it looked as if the rope ladder was her best bet; so long as its supports held, it would take her all the way down.
Below her, Bob was busily shouting orders to his crew as they scrambled about the deck, desperately trying to tie off the broken rigging and roll up the sails before the gale-force winds currently wracking the ship tore the masts from the deck. He’d donned a wide-brimmed hat to shield his eyes from the rain, but with the wind blowing sheets of water nearly horizontal, it seemed a lost cause at this point. Behind him, Beak was at the ship’s wheel, fighting the raging seas in an attempt to guide the schooner down the path of least resistance, and hopefully out of this dreadful storm. Bob wasn’t sure how much more of a pounding his ship could take; everywhere he looked, waves were washing over the siderails, bathing the decks in a slippery coating of seawater, tangles of seaweed, and scores of unfortunate, flopping fish. Many of his men had tied ropes to the mast and lashed them about their waists, and with every violent pitch of the waves and rush of seawater, more and more of them lost their footing, bouncing along the surface of the deck and tumbling into their fellow crewmates as they struggled to get back to their feet. Those tethered to the mast usually recovered, if their tumble hadn’t knocked them unconscious or strangled them with their own safety line, but those whose ropes snapped or who hadn’t had the time to secure themselves were unfailingly swept overboard, their screams rapidly lost in the roar of the waves, the howls of the sails, and ceaseless crashes of thunder.
The latest victim of the waves clutched desperately at the supports on rigging ladder alongside the bowside mast, his weight and momentum tearing three of the five ropes free before pitching him into the churning waters below. There was a yelping shriek as the rope ladder jerked seaward and twisted ‘round its remaining supports, and the turncoat rabbit girl hit the deck with a thud, landing in what she’d probably meant to be a crouch but the pitching deck’s slick surface and dangerous angle turned into a sprawling roll. Himself securely lashed to the steps by the upper poop deck, Bob could only watch as the seawater swept her across the deck. He saw the flash of a knife as the teen plunged the blade into the floorboards to stop her tumbling, watched as she slowly clawed her way along the length of the ship by means of both her knife and whatever tangled bits of rope provided her with a purchase.
“Here, now,” Bob scowled, shouting over the wind as the teen sprinted for the door to below-decks, “Just what do you think you’re doing?!” He angrily motioned to the sharply-snapping canvas steadily whipping itself to shreds overhead as the heavy wooden masts screamed from the strain their wildly wrenching tethers put on them. “Get back aloft and strike those sails afore these winds bring them and the masts crashing down around our ears!”
The rabbit shot him a look of utter disbelief. “Oh, screw that! Bad enough the storm’s tearing through the rigging and smashing through cross-posts, but between the rain and waves the size of office buildings you can’t even tell which end’s up! It’s suicide up there!”
“Don’t argue with me, young-” Yet another huge wave swamped the deck, leaving Bob newly-drenched and sputtering between the rails and Lita clutching desperately at the swinging door as the ship rolled beneath their feet. As the pitching ship leveled once more, Bob caught sight of the girl dashing into the belly of the ship. “Hey! Get back here, you! I’ll – I’ll dock your pay! Order you flogged! Sentence you to keel-haul-”
His words were drowned out by a crash of thunder and cracking timber, the sound barely giving him enough warning time to leap out of the path of a splintered crossbeam. The waves were slamming into them broadside now, he noticed. Grasping the ship’s wheel alongside Beak in an attempt to turn them back into the wind to avoid the worst of the storm’s fury, he scowled at the door to belowdecks that now hung agape. Did the little turncoat feel it was safer down there, he wondered, or was she simply rushing to his nemesis’ side? For as dangerous as it was up here on the decks, the levels down below would now be a hellish maelstrom of swinging doom, tumbling debris, flooding cargo bays, and terrified bilge rats.
Meanwhile, on the bowsprit, a terrified Gracie screamed, choking on a mouthful of frigid saltwater as the sounds of creaking wood and splitting ropes reached her ears ahead of yet another racing wall of angry sea.
Iiwi shrieked as the winds around her tossed the Flier about like an errant scrap of paper. She was high enough to be above the rains, but was caught in the midst of an endless expanse of storm clouds. Lightning lit the churning expanses of gray both above and below her, occasionally streaking seaward in terrifically pronged forks of brilliant light and scorching ozone, the electric static lingering in the air standing her feathers on end. The winds up here were every bit as violent as those below, rising and falling currents colliding all around her and buffeting her about in an unending cycle of downspouts, updrafts, and gale-force whirlwinds that spun her about like a top. She had no control over her direction anymore, or even her altitude; it was hard enough just trying to orient herself rightside-up, and knowing when to close her wings and go limp versus riding a current that caught her and swept her along.
A sudden gust of wind shot her skywards through another layer of clouds, pitching her end-over-end before a swiftly-rushing gale snatched her up and dragged her after it. The air was surprisingly thin up here, she thought drowsily, watching the violently flashing clouds flowing around the eye of the storm like an angry milky way. The current carried her higher, the cold temperatures of the increasing altitude biting through layers of down feathers flattened to her side by the wind’s speed. Her last thoughts as darkness encroached her field of vision were of her friends down below in a pair of rickety old boats.
Will I ever see them again? Will I even see land again?
“Get me out of here!” Ivan bellowed, rushing the bars of his cell as the churning mess of waist-high water flooding the brig crashed around his ears once more.
“I’m trying, boss!” the sign holder cried, although in truth the kid had his hands full just keeping himself afloat and away from the sharp edges of the room’s stairs and cell corners as the floodwaters tossed him this way and that with every pitch and whirl of the ship.
“Boss!” a sodden Lita appeared in the swaying doorway, steadying herself there for a moment before pitching herself forward over the stairs as the ship lurched with the waves. She landed with a splash, the water softening her impact and sparing her any worries of slipping on the treacherously slicked stairs.
“Where have you been, rabbit!” Ivan yelled at his waterlogged ward, “I’m about to drown in here!”
“It’s hell and a hurricane outside, boss,” Lita grinned, hefting a lengthy, brush-tipped cannon-loader above her head, “But I think I’ve things figured out. Found this by the second-level cannons, and I’m fairly certain the staff’s solid iron, from the weight of it.”
“Yes, well, congratulations on your new stick. Now get me out of here!”
The teen frowned, sliding the cannon-loader between the loop of chain securing the battered corner of the kiwi’s cell with a huff. “You know, what’s the point of sending me off to school if you’re not gonna let me impart a bit o’ that knowledge when something I learn actually proves useful,” she grumbled, turning the staff end over end, twisting the rusted chain tight. Tugging the tangle outside the bars and resting the staff against one row of bars, she winched the staff around like a vise, glancing back at the sign holder, who’d anchored himself to the stairs’ railing. “See, kid, you wind this up like so, gradually increasing the strain on the chain links. The staff’s thicker and stronger than the chain, so it won’t break or bend to relieve that strain, and the bars hold the staff in place, taking off most of the torque the twists in the chain are building up; that’s what lets me keep twisting it one way while the strain on the chains is trying to push it the other way.”
“Is this physics lesson going anywhere?” Ivan grumbled.
“In theory,” Lita grunted, struggling to twist the pipe around a few more times as the chain held it fast in place, “Since both the staff and the chain are iron, and the staff’s thicker and a single continuous piece, it can withstand more force than the chain. And since the chain is made up of links, and each individual link in the chain has a welded joint that is its weakest point, all I’ve gotta do is put the right amount of pressure on this sucker, and the weakest link oughtta sna-” There was a metallic groan from the chain, followed by a loud pinging sound as the chain appeared to release its hold on the bars and lunge at the rabbit braced against the bars with her feet, sending Lita sprawling backwards onto her tail. “Oof!”
“Woo-hoo!” the sign holder cheered, swaying with the ship as the waves pitched their world sideways again. The entire side of Ivan’s cell swung with them. “You did it, Lita!”
Ivan was out of the cell in a flash, clinging to the end of a table for balance and favoring his wards with a relieved grin. “Still think school’s a waste of time, Farlane?”
“I think if Mr. Schniebel’s gonna leave out a thing like the resultant level of recoil when the chain finally breaks, he’s got no right to mark me down for blowing up my circuitboards,” the teen grumbled, rubbing a welt on her cheek from where the cannon-loader had sprung back and struck her.
Thunder crashed outside the cramped captain’s quarters, rattling the panes of glass in the rows of windows lining the back wall, drops of rain squeezing through tiny holes and misaligned joints as the wind threatened to break right through the sashes and into the dismal and dark - but relatively dry - sanctuary.
Bobetta cowered atop the bed’s tattered covers, thankful that those pieces of the captain’s furniture not built into the walls were apparently nailed securely to the floor. It was bad enough that those nasty pirates had destroyed her beautiful yacht; now a terrible storm raged outside, and her beloved was out there in it, shouting like a maniac and doubtless getting drenched in saltwater and icky seaweed.
And on top of all that, all this lurching about was making her seasick.
There was a loud crash as a torn bit of rigging with a scrap of sail and metal loop at the end smashed into the windows, shattering the lower corner of a window, bracing and all. Freezing cold rain rushed through the opening in the window, and as she rushed over to see if there was some way she could shutter the gap before the cold and damp completely overwhelmed the cabin, the ship’s stern splashed down heavily, spraying her with seawater as a wave rushed past the windows and tossed a fish right into the heiress’ face. With a shriek, she jumped back, flailing at the horrid thing as it battered her with its tail and fell away from her. It landed on the sill with a wet, slimy sound, flopping and gasping on the rain-drenched wood as it tried in vain to flip itself back in the water.
“Ohhh, ewww,” Bobetta squealed, creeping towards the creature with a grimace and fighting her gag reflex and a churning stomach as she batted the fish back out the window. “Ew, ew, ew!” She backed away from the windows in disgust, wiping her hands off on the skirt of her dress as she fled.
Then she caught herself, and stared down in horror at the slimy blotches now marring the beautiful pink satin and lace. And now her hands and her dress smelled of disgusting fish! With a sob, she flung herself back onto the lumpy old bed that reeked of mildew and unwashed fur and huddled as far as she could in her little corner, silently weeping at the stains and torn hem of her ruined dress and at the utter miserableness of surrounding her. This was the absolute worst birthday ever.
Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the turbulent walls of water rising and falling all around them as the longboat skidded and spun along the waves, rocketing up to the peaks of one wave only to have the swell abruptly disappear beneath them and send the boat bouncing and streaming down the sides of the next. Swells forced the boat along sideways, swamping its sides and rocking it dangerously, the opposing forces of the crashing waves often the only thing keeping the tiny craft from capsizing.
The gale-force winds pulled at the rain-soaked forms of those aboard the battered boat, jostling them about as they attempted to tie their provisions in place with fingers quickly going numb from the unrelenting sheets of rain pounding down on them from all sides.
“Oh, shoot!” Ferdia shouted as a passing wave jarred the boat from the side, splintering an oar-lock and swiftly carrying off the oar it had held. She leaned over the side of the boat, trying in vain to reach the lost oar before the sea claimed it.
“Forget it!” Squeaks tugged her back in by the back of her jacket as the waves lurched the other way, sending the longboat careening backwards down a swell the height of a roller-coaster drop.
“’ere!” Biggs called to the detectives, holding two sodden lengths of rope out to them, “Tie ye’selves t’sommat sturdy afore th’ waves knock ye intae th’ drink!”
Ferdia looped the rope around her waist, kneeling by the bow of the boat to fasten the other end around the seat anchoring their provisions in place. As she did so, she caught sight of the life preserver they’d salvaged earlier. “Squeaks!” She held the shiny red vest up and shouted over the roar of the driving rain.
The mouse shook his head, busy securing his own lifeline to his belt. “You wear it!”
“But…” Ferdia frowned. There was, after all, only one of the vests. “If the ship goes down-”
“Don’t argue with me, Birdie!” her partner snapped as the boat tipped dangerously on its side, “Trust me,” he said, locking eyes with her as the three of them braced themselves against the opposite side of the boat until the swell tossing them about dropped the boat back to a more level position, “If this boat starts to sink, you and that vest are the first thing I’m latching onto!”
Biggs paused in his hurried attempts to bail out the water the waves were dumping inside the boat with his hat, “Lads, if’n this ‘ere boat starts tae sink, t’ain’t gon’ matter much oo’s got th’ shiny vest! Now, git yer daft hides sommat tae bail out this water, or Davy Jones’ll get us yet!”
With a glance back at his partner, Squeaks shrugged, snatching up a tin cup as it floated by his ankle and scooping out water as best he could with it as Ferdia struggled with the awkward adjustment straps on the life preserver – a task made all the more difficult by torrential rains that seemed determined to pelt down on them until every last square inch of the castaways and their provisions were soaked to the skin. The vinyl cording seemed unwilling to thread through the slick plastic straps, and when it finally did so, a mere tug in the opposite direction sent it unraveling once more. When at last she was satisfied that it was on securely and not about to slip off, she cast about for a makeshift bucket, gripping the sides of the pitching boat to steady herself.
The winds were picking up now, blasting rain and sea spray in their faces and rocking the boat almost more violently than the churning seas beneath them. One particularly strong gust picked up the faltering rubber raft trailing behind them and lifted it into the air like a kite, the stern of the boat groaning in protest as the raft’s mooring line held it fast. The raft kicked and twisted in the air behind them, stubbornly tugging the stern of the boat off the surface as it dragged the boat backwards. A rushing wave caught them broadside, swamping the boat and snapping it around dangerously before sending the raft somersaulting back into the sea.
“Cut that thing loose before it gets us killed!” Squeaks shouted to the marten, as Biggs was closest to the stern. That last wave had knocked most of their stowed provisions free, and the struggling longboat was sitting dangerously low in the water as he and his partner worked frantically to bail the boat out.
“Aye!” Biggs shouted, moving to cut the raft’s mooring line as another gust lifted the craft into the air again.
As the pirate captain began sawing through the tether, however, the winds carried them backwards up another swell, knocking him back towards the bow with the line half-cut. The ragged cut in the rope began to unravel further as the wind pulled at the airborne raft, twisting it about like a sail only half-secured. Biggs made a lunge for the line, but missed as the boat pitched back once more, sending him tumbling towards the bow once more. Ferdia leapt out of the captain’s path with a yelp as his knife caught the edge of her life vest, pausing in a half-crouch midway along the boat to avoid the crisscrossing lifelines snaking along the bottom of the boat just beneath the surface of the water.
Squeaks’ shout reached her ears just above the near-deafening roar of wind and sleeting rain, but something slammed into her hard from the side before she could comply. She heard the snapping of rope, felt something pull taught, then slip free around her middle, and had just enough time to register the scent of rubber and sensation of flight before frigid black waves engulfed her world.
I’m off the boat!
She surfaced in a panic, spitting up a mouthful of seawater and frantically searching for the longboat as the yellow raft bounced off the waves behind her with a sound not unlike that of a beach ball. “Squeaks!” she shouted, “Where are you?!?”
There he was! A half a dozen yards to her left, though that distance was increasing fast as the pitching waves swept her further and further away from the boat. With a strangled cry, she struck out for the boat, fighting the fierce storm currents and angry winds that tugged at her and pushed her back. Her struggles didn’t seem to be making much of a difference on her heading, but maybe if she held out a bit longer, the turbulent swells would toss her back to them…
“Squeaks!” A wave arched high over her head, sweeping her up and flipping her around as it came crashing back to the churning seas. Again, the buoyancy of her life preserver brought her back to the surface, but it seemed as if the distance between her and the boat had doubled just in that small amount of time. “Help me!”
Squeaks took a step back, then made a running leap off the edge of the longboat –
- only to be caught around the waist and hauled backwards in a modified bear hug by the hulking figure of Biggs.
“Dun’ be daft, lad!” the pirate captain shouted above Ferdia’s cries for help as the mouse struggled to break free, “e’s been knocked free o’ ‘is lifeline an’ th’ current’s got ‘im! Ye’ll nae reach ‘im!”
“I’m not about to leave her to die!” Squeaks retorted, pushing off the marten’s knee with one foot and swinging the other back as hard as he could.
Biggs winced and sagged forward a bit as the blow connected, but kept his grip on the mouse and dodged a head-butt all the same. So the lad’s a lass, eh? he mused. These Colonials are a breed apart, indeed. Out loud, however, he said only, “Fight dirty all ye want, son; makes nae diff’rence. I’m a pirate by trade, mind, there’s nae much ye kin do what’s nae bin done t’me before.” And I’m routinely heftin’ shipments o’ more’n twelve stone about the ship, so keepin’ a boyish lad like yerself in place is simple enough…
The mouse’s hand leapt to the captain’s own belt and pulled one of the marten’s many knives from its sheath. Biggs instinctively shifted his grip to catch the arm and the sailor’s neck in the crook of his elbow, tightening his grip to a chokehold around his captive’s neck. Then again, maybe ye do have a few tricks I haven’t seen afore, he amended. “Sorry ‘bout this, lad,” he hissed as the mouse’s struggles began to weaken, “But I may need a sec’nd set o’ hands later, an’ I’ll nae have ye throwin’ yer life away now!”
A hundred feet away from them, gasping for air as frigid waves swept her under time and time again as if unable to grasp the concept of something staying afloat amidst their fury, blinded by stinging saltwater and driving rain, exhausted from her efforts, and swiftly approaching hoarse from her screams, Ferdia could only watch through the glimpses the rising swells gave her as her partner struggled in vain with the pirate and the waves carried her further and further away from tiny longboat, until she could see nothing in the blackness around her but flashing lightning, cascading rain, and crashing waves that towered above her like skyscrapers and tossed her about like a lost child’s toy.
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