“So, ya ready t’ make a deal with the devil, girly?”
“Huh? But ya jus - “
“Is the devil ready to make a deal with me?”
“Ship t’ starboard, Captain!”
A deckhand swayed precariously out over the ocean, hanging off the rigging by elbow and ankles as he squinted towards the horizon. The first mate glanced his way, then moved to the railing and drew her spyglass. It took several long moments to spot the dark shape against the slate-dull surface of the ocean’s swells. “Three sails, but she’s far out, Captain.” Another glance skywards, watching the slow roil of thick gray clouds above their own limp sails. “Hardly worth the effort of chasing her, we’d lose ‘em the second the wind shifts. Especially with this weather.”
“Don’t tell me yer falling for all that superstitious drabble they ‘er jawing ‘bout back at port, Malley.” The captain laughed, pleased with his own joke. “We’re flying no flags, and haven’ had any catch since last shore. We’ll jus’ wait for ‘em to come to us, nice and safe now,” he added as the mate opened her mouth, brushing past her to lean against the rail above the lower deck. “Reef them sails, boys! And get below decks if yer not busy t’ get your swords nice and sharp!”
Answering whoops and grins followed the captain’s orders, but his mate’s lips merely pressed into a thin line. She wordlessly slipped by him, then snagged one of passing boys with a brusque jerk. A few curt words later, and the boy went scampering up the crow’s nest to keep watch, looking askance at the first mate as he went. The other shiphands leapt into action, turning the ship's bow windward at a sharp word from Malley for better positioning before furling the main sails. One by one, the men finished their assigned tasks and ducked out of sight behind barrels or below decks. They set swords and pistols within arms’ reach, and they waited. And waited… And waited…
And all the while the skies darkened.
The captain paced the deck, gnawing at a pipe impatiently, every now and then turning to glare at the speck on the horizon. Finally, with a growl, he turned to the boy in the crow’s nest. “Oy, Cael, what gives?”
“They haven’ moved an inch, Cap’n!”
He snorted. “Don’t make me yank ye down with the whip, boy!”
“But they haven’!”
The man paused, then whipped back around to face the far horizon. Under his breath he muttered, “That doesn’ make any - ”
His words caught in his throat. A wall of clouds loomed on the horizon - pitch black and ribbed with jagged forks of lightning. The ocean curled up to meet it, dark water cresting to kiss the storm. His eyes frantically raked across the horizon for the ship, desperate to find a point to help him judge the distance and their chance of outrunning the storm, but it had vanished into the darkness.
And then a ship glowing ghostly, pale white sailed out of the center of the maelstrom, blood-red sails casting a crimson glow all about it.
“The Nightmare.” Malley’s voice cracked behind him, quavering.
“To your posts!” The captain howled, fear turning his bullying roars sharp and shrill as he dove for the wheel of the ship. Wind rushed ahead of the gale, filling the half-furled sails and yanking the rigging out of the crew's hands. Sailors scrambled in a panic as they attempted to regain control of the lines and the mate shouted further orders. Swells buffeted the ship to the side, turning her just enough for the men to see the Nightmare leaping forward, impossibly fast as it skimmed along the surface and pulled the storm along in her wake. Then came curtains of sweeping rain, half-blinding the crew and sending many tumbling across the suddenly slick deck, their ropes whipping free to snap in the raging wind. “Turn th’ ship, turn ‘er, now!” the captain continued to scream, leaning his entire weight against the wheel. Panicked shouts and yells drowned him out as the crew fought the storm in a panic, managing in a last push of desperation to turn her with the wind and take off running against the squall. “Finally!” growled the captain, relaxing against the wheel. “Malley, get up ‘er and - ” a high, chilling laugh cut off his orders. Thunder roared in its wake, the flash of lighting barely a moment ahead of the sound as it cracked against the mast. Timber groaned and creaked, then fell - smashing into the deck below to the frantic cries of the crew and revealing broad sweeps of crimson sails drawn abreast with their bow.
Malley screamed behind him and he turned, hand fumbling for his cutlass when - a flash of white - and darkness.
A satisfied smirk curled up on one side of the Captain’s face as she paced her deck, glowing eye fixed on the prizes in its center. Beyond the Nightmare, the storm raged. Wind screamed, lightning flashed, and thunder boomed as sea and sky spun in their endless dance. But here, in the eye of her storm, the ocean was still as glass, and the only flashes came from her hand upon the rail, white sparks flaring against the magic of the ship in time with the drumming of her fingers. Her smile only grew as she turned to properly greet her… guests. “Welcome aboard, Captain Alek. Formerly the skipper of the… moderately successful merchant ship, The Gilded Rift.” The smirk turned predatory, her lip curling up into a snarl. “If only thanks to a side of piracy, and a first mate with more brains than you and the rest of your crew put together.” The Captain shifted, letting her gaze fall solely on the shade of the older woman - pulsing with the faint green light of fear - and considered her as Malley stared fixedly at the dark wood of the deck rather than meet the revenant’s gaze.
Long, almost translucent fingers caught the woman by her chin and forced her to look upwards, into the Captain’s mismatched eyes. Blazing white and dull black met pale green for a long moment as the captured woman shook, but held her stare. The Captain hummed. “You, I keep.”
Without turning away, she released the prisoner, and in the same motion pulled a pistol smoothly from the back of her belt. A shot echoed - a single, terrible crack in the eye of the storm - and the other spirit dissolved into a screaming mist. “You can go.”
The cry rippled out across the still water as the Captain rose, expression softening - although still more a smirk than a smile as she regarded her newest recruit. “Welcome aboard, Malley.”
The Nightmare creaked softly about her as its captain padded along the upper deck, ghostly fingers trailing along the dark wood of its inner hull. Her storm continued to spiral slowly about her, but above the stars gleamed unobstructed. The Captain sighed softly, turning mismatched eyes skyward as she paused against the side, feeling her ship slowly turn beneath her as she tracked the constellations.
“One year left…” and barely a handful shy of her ten thousand souls. She smiled, sharp, teeth glinting in the faint starlight. One year, and the deal’s lost, and she’s won. She exhaled, almost a soft laugh, something close to relief seeping down her spine. She’d been desperate, those first few decades; desperate and fighting so hard to hide it that she hadn’t realized her desperation had actually been courage until said courage had overflowed into confidence. Confidence that swelled with her strength, soul by soul and ship by ship in the armada secreted within the walls of her storm.
“Jus’ the one year, huh, girly?” a voice laughed darkly in her ears. The Captain tensed, fighting not to show any further reaction than projected boredom. It was hardly the first time he’d contacted her like this, after all, just to see if he could make her jump.
“Just the one,” she replied, coolly. “If you’re here to renegotiate, you can leave now.”
The laughter reverberated through the mast, hummed across the planks and shivered across the lines, his power clawing and straining for purchase in the wood and iron and rope only to be denied at every turn. The Nightmare was hers, had been hers for nearly a century. It only listened to one master now. Still, she felt the devil’s presence about her, a thick, oppressive heat as he continued to speak. “Nah, na’ that. Salute ya, maybe.” That… wasn’t what she was expecting. “I guess ye can call me impressed, girly. Ye’ve caught more n’ jus’ my attention. Hope ye don’t mind a little… interference.”
The Captain stiffened and shot upright, one side of her face tilting down in a sharp frown. “We have a deal, Devil! You swore your oath, same as m- ”
Weightlessness. A single moment, suspended above the mirror of the ocean, the Nightmare inexplicably gone. Then she plummeted, living limbs more than enough to send her hurtling seawards even as her storm buckled inward - to catch her? To kill her? She didn’t have time to tell before dark waves reached up to pull her into their embrace, plunging her deep and leaving only a trail of screaming bubbles in her wake as the depths pulled her down.
The last vestiges of the devil’s laughter echoed through her mind, then -
“Ready to learn to swim, little minnow?”
She jolted awake with a gasp, face down on a slight divot in an otherwise perfectly smooth marble tile. She pulled in lungful after lungful of sweet air, one precious moment to regain her awareness, before she lunged to her feet with neither care nor caution. “We had a deal!” she roared, voice bounding away across the stone as she whirled about in an attempt to pin the devil to this place with the fury of her gaze alone. “You don’t get to start adding new conditions whenever you feel like it; you follow what you signed! Now get me back to my ship, you vile, cheating, scum- ”
Her outraged voice died in a breath, eyes going wide. She… knew these buildings. She knew these streets. Pale marble shifted and resolved itself into a familiar marketplace; the shadows of familiar figures drifted about in the corners of her eyes. The Captain stepped forward, swaying unsteadily on the solid ground, and then took off in a sprint. Around that corner, by the new tailors, through the alleyway behind the stables, back to a familiar house - back to the mind of a young girl frozen in terror. Could she be home? Could they be there? Is she dead, are they waiting, please don’t let this be a dream -
Then the door swung open at her touch on the handle, a twist three quarters to the left just like so, and she stumbled inside, heart hammering in what's left of her chest and -
She plunged into darkness.
Blackness. Darker than pitch. Darker than night. Darker than the depths of the ocean itself. It surrounds her, cool and quiet and absolute; she screams, shaking off the memories of her desperation, and the blackness does not notice. She can feel herself twisting and turning, eyes searching for something, anything, doggedly pushing herself forwards even as the fury in her soul is swallowed the second it leaves her lips. She’ll not break, not here, there has to be - there!
A star, a single star shone in the distance. It pulsed, flickering away to almost nothing before blazing bright with renewed vigor. Warmth stretched across eons to wash over her in an echo of her rage. It’s not how stars behave, not the stars she knows, but still the Captain pressed towards it. A star meant a constellation, constellations meant a sky, a map, and if she could just reach it then she has a direction. A direction and a path towards survival, and so she pushes towards the blaze. She is the Captain of the Nightmare, teeth bared in a grimace as one foot falls after the other, driving herself forward through sheer force of her will alone. She would not fall here.
Another step - then the star swelled, heat caressing her in advance of its blinding, gleaming light. Feet thudded against solid flooring, sending welcome vibrations through her bones, her skin, her soul. Then the light rushed by her like the tide, a torrent of brilliance that regressed to a single sun, shining strong in spite of the blackness of the surrounding void. The ground shuddered beneath her as her vision cleared, the Captain blinking to make out the ring of metal that she now stood upon. The gravity of the sun, a tide of force with no flow to give as well as take, pulled her further. Her boots slid, rough soles against smooth steel, dragging her a step closer before the tow faded enough to regain her footing.
The Captain straightened her spine, one hand already on her cutlass as her eyes flicked side to side. She took a slow, almost unnoticeable steadying breath. Give no quarter, show no weakness. Bend if you must, but do not break. If the devil wanted to throw her at a few specific foes… well, she was more than happy to return them to him the hard way.
The wavering light revealed a motley collection - each one marked with a strange symbol. She didn’t need to look over her head to feel the pristine-spoked circle searing itself against her soul. Spiraling black marked the figures to either side; to her left, a human in rags and bandages, with a dirty tangle of black hair and… a green bowl balanced precariously on top of her head. Break that first, the Captain mulls, glancing away. To her right… the wraith raised her eyebrow. The imposing size of the monster was one thing; the amalgamation of lizard, livestock, and lion was quite another. Some sorcerer must have been compensating for something when he made that.
A quick glance across the ring showed a collection of humanoid figures, the most normal of which was a tall woman in a striking yellow and cobalt coat, followed by a formidable suit of sleek, black armor fused together with soft-glowing blue crystals, and culminating with a… human-esque thing in pale white, with crimson feathers crowning where its eyes should be and long, blood-stained claws. The Captain glanced down at her ghostly arm and grinned, the living half of her mouth stretching wide to match the skeletal teeth of her skull. I’ll fit right in. In fact, she may even be the least imposing. She did so love being underestimated.
The light pulsed, snapping her attention away from the other souls on the field to focus on the ringing explosions, their echoing blasts hurling words past her to the void beyond. A snarl curled her lips as it did, but before she could reply she caught motion at her side, the chimera already sprinting at her with a manic grin and its serpentine arms stretched wide. Time to determine which of those animals you have the intelligence of, dear monster.
The Captain waited as it approached, hands tucked into her belts as she met the creature’s fractured gaze. Steel shook beneath her as it drew closer and closer, as she forced herself to smirk in its face to keep her fingers from curling too tight. Steady… now! Barely a dozen paces away and the Captain sprang into motion, solid flesh curling about the grip of her pistol as she drew it in one smooth, practiced motion. A shot echoed - aimed point blank at the maelstrom of colors of the monster’s eye. In the same moment she pushed herself to the side, tucking and twisting to push her solid limbs further from the path of the rampage. Keep standing, keep moving - the Captain narrowed her focus to herself and the charging beast.
It didn’t matter in the end who she faced here and who she sent to the devil.
Good and Evil were such trivial things. But if she figured out what had dared to interfere with her bargain in exchange for a Pawn?
That soul would go to the depths with the rest of them.