Chapter no 48 – The Nightmare

Tress of the Emerald Sea

I HAVE NIGHTMARES. My unique state of being doesn’t prevent that, though I don’t need sleep nearly as much as ordinary humans do.

My worst recurring nightmare—the one that grabs me by the throat and

shakes me until I wake, raw and steaming in my own sweat—is not that I am being chased by a monster. It’s not that I’m lost, or that I’m unloved.

No, my greatest nightmare is the one where I learn I’ve been repeating myself for years, telling the same tired jokes, the same stories—energetically wearing a path through people’s patience and fondness until even the weeds upon it are dead.

So I’ll refrain from repeating my suspicions and fears regarding the rains upon the Crimson. But if ever there were proof that Fate herself had placed long odds against the Crow’s Song, it would be the fact that there were not one, but two separate rainlines heading straight for the ship.

Two at once. With the ship dead on the slopes of the vast crimson mountain, prow pointed toward the column of particles streaming from the angry moon.

When Tress reached the upper deck, she saw Salay standing on the quarterdeck, holding firm at her post in case the seethe began again and she

had a chance to steer them to safety. The ship remained still, damningly so. All her skill, all her passion, meant nothing when the ship was sporelocked. She was helpless.

Dougs shouted ideas at one another, several suggesting they run across the spores to safety. That was, of course, stupidity. If the ship were destroyed, they’d die the moment the seethe began again. There were two lifeboats, yes, but what would that offer? Slow death by dehydration. They were upon the Crimson. Few sailed here.

With very, very good reason.

Salay looked past the Dougs and met Tress’s eyes.

It’s time, she mouthed. Please.

Tress grabbed one of the Dougs, a lanky woman with her hair in a long tail. “Go to Salay!” Tress shouted at her. “Tell her I need two very long ropes and the barrel of water from the cannon station. Go! Go!

Tress went running for her room, shoving past Laggart on the steps. He bellowed after her, but she wasn’t of a mind to listen. She had minutes, maybe, until the rain arrived and their story ended. Unless Tress could add another chapter through sheer force of will.

Heroism is a remarkable thing, oft misunderstood. We all think we understand it because we want to see its seed inside ourselves. That is part of the secret, really.

If you gather together stories of heroes—those who have risked their lives for others, those who have stood against overwhelming odds, those who have barreled heedlessly into danger with the aplomb of a champion diver leaping from the highest platform—you find patterns. Two of them, in fact.

The first is that heroes can be trained. Not by a government or a military, but by the people themselves. Heroes are the ones who have thought about what they’re going to do, and who have trained to do it. Heroism is often the seemingly spontaneous result of a lifetime of preparation.

But if you ask these heroes why they risked their lives, don’t do it on a

stand in front of a crowd while you give them their medal. Because the truth is, they likely didn’t do it for their country. Or even for their ideals.

Consistently, across cultures, eras, and ideologies, war heroes report the same simple motivation. They did it for their friends.

In the frenzied anarchy of destruction, loyalty to causes and kingdoms alike tends to fall to the chaos. But the bond between people, well, that’s

stronger than steel. If you want to create heroes, don’t give them something to fight for. Give them someone to fight for.

Tress unlocked the door to her quarters and slammed it open, sending

Huck scrambling under the bed. She rushed to her desk, where she found a large ball of roseite, grown and shaped over the last few days. It was the size of a child’s head and was waxed on the outside, and it was filled with an

enormous charge of verdant spores, colored faintly violet by the roseite around it.

Tress barely had time to note that she’d apparently spilled a couple midnight spores on the desk, a sloppy move on her part. She heaved the roseite “cannonball” off the desk, then dashed out into the hallway.

On the deck, the Dougs had gathered around Salay. Captain Crow was out of her cabin, standing on the quarterdeck and drinking from her canteen with an air of fatalism. She had hoped not to die here, of course, but she was

already terminal. There was only so much a new form of demise could move the proverbial needle, once you’ve stared down your own mortality every day for over a year.

Salay broke through the Dougs and gestured to the rope and the barrel of water. “We got it, Tress. What now?”

“Tie one rope to the barrel,” Tress said, “and lower it carefully over the side to the spores.” She took a deep breath. “Then tie the other rope around me and do the same.”

Everyone in the group turned, pointedly, and stared at her.

Then Salay barked orders, and the crew saw it done. Ann personally lowered the barrel, while Fort and a few Dougs gingerly lowered Tress. She touched down, feeling again the soft scrunch of spores beneath her feet.

Being so close to the Crimson, she felt as if she’d stumbled upon some mythological land where the ground had somehow rusted and the sky looked a strange cast of blue by contrast.

Spores ground against wood in a familiar sound as the barrel touched down beside her. Ann waved from above, and dozens of eyes followed Tress as she untied the barrel and rolled it up next to the hull of the ship.

Then she pried off the top—her hands trembling—and stared at the dark water. What she was about to do went against everything she’d ever been told.

“The rain is almost here, Tress!” Salay shouted from above. “Oh, moons.

It’s coming!”

Tress could hear the crunching and clattering of the crimson spores as they grew in a frenzy. Like thousands of raised spears. Trembling, she reached into the pocket of her red coat and removed a spike, tipped with silver. With her other hand, she held the roseite cannonball.

Grab hold, she thought. Just grab. Don’t destroy the barrel. Out, then grab.

With the spike, she drilled a hole into the top of the sphere, revealing the green spores within. Then she dropped it into the barrel.

Vines exploded forth, thick as arms, spiraling around one another. A small charge of verdant could create enough vines to entangle a person—and she’d packed this with many, many times that. Tentacles surged out of the barrel

and slammed against the ship. Drinking eagerly of the water, the vines continued to grow, thicker, stronger.

The twisting, fulminating mass shoved the Crow’s Song, tipping it and causing the crew to shout. Tress initially backed away, but no. No, she’d made this. She couldn’t run from it. She was part of it.

She pressed both hands against the still-growing vines, feeling the taut verdant—like sinew—undulate beneath her fingers. Up, she thought. Please, PLEASE.


The ship rocked further. Then it began to rise into the air. The mass of verdant vines reoriented and lifted, like a many-fingered hand. Without the

seethe, the ocean surface was a sturdy enough footing, so long as the vines— having fully burst from the barrel—spread out.

The rising motion caught Tress, who was still tied around the chest by the rope. She spared a moment to hope that Fort wouldn’t let go of her, but kept most of her attention on the growing vines. For she could hear the rain getting closer, announcing itself with the sound of water pelting something hard: the snarls of crimson spines they created, then bathed.

I’ve talked to many a sailor, and this—across dozens of worlds—was their nightmare. The sound of the rain, the howl of the wind, and the embrace of the abyss. On Tress’s world, it’s not the water below that is the danger, but the water above. However, the nightmare is the same, born of the sure knowledge that the very thing you sail, the very thing that carries you and gives your life meaning, will someday try to kill you.

Twin streams of rain intersected at the Crow’s Song, washing the deck

clean of dead spores, soaking the sailors—from the lowest cabin boy to the

captain in her plumed hat. Nightmare manifest. A ship caught alone in a storm, rain making a thunder on the wood.

In every story, warning, and song, this meant death. Except that day. On that ship.

Crow waited for the awful moment—waited for the spikes to shred her

ship from all sides, impaling her crew, snapping boards. It never happened. She only felt the rain, hitting like a thousand tiny punches. The water was colder than she’d imagined.

Dougs crowded the side of the ship, and Crow pushed her way through, cursing for them to make room. What was going on? She’d seen Tress go

over the side and had assumed she was running, though to where she had no idea. The ship had rocked, yes, but…

She didn’t understand until she looked down and found a colossal tree had grown under the ship. That was the only word to properly define it: a tree made of interweaving vines. A spreading finger-fan of vine-roots braced it,

and vine-branches had latched onto the Crow’s Song.

The tree had lifted the ship some forty feet into the air—right above the thicket of spikes that had grown beneath. The spikes had pierced the trunk, but verdant vines were elastic. And besides, they had still been growing. If anything, the network of spikes helped stabilize the vines.

Hanging over the side of the ship, dangling from the rope that Fort held firm, was a shivering, soaking-wet girl, her face hidden behind a mess of damp hair.

It was then that, belatedly, the Dougs started cheering. I don’t blame their delayed reaction. They’d gone from certainly dead to very much alive, and that kind of existential whiplash requires a few heartbeats—thumping in your ears to tell you yes, this was real—to recover from.

“Help us pull her up, you louts!” Salay said, grabbing the rope with Fort. He stood with one foot against the rail, holding the rope with hands that— though crooked—were as solid as bricks. His quick thinking—hauling Tress up a few feet as the vines grew—had saved the girl’s life. As it was, the tips of the crimson spikes had touched her shoes.

Everyone helped haul Tress up, and doubtless many of them were thinking of how they’d done this once before—weeks ago when they’d first brought her on board. They cheered again as Fort lifted her gingerly onto the deck.

Crow watched it all, silent. She didn’t dare say anything in the face of

such a remarkable salvation. Indeed, the vines didn’t appear to have harmed the ship at all. With the silver-edged axes, the Dougs would be able to loosen the vessel, then cut them free once the seethe returned and the tree sank.

They’d practiced it as a way to escape being tangled up during a cannon battle.

So Crow wasn’t worried about the ship. Or about reaching the dragon, as the lair was very close now. She’d told everyone that their destination was two days away, as she didn’t want them to panic, thinking she’d take them into the sporefall itself. That wouldn’t be necessary.

Today, Crow’s fear was of a completely different breed. For though she had spent her entire life instilling fear in her crew so they would obey her, she knew there was another emotion that made people even more loyal.

Unfortunately, it was an emotion she had never truly understood.

And if Crow had a nightmare, it was standing before her now. In the form of a small shivering girl who had somehow earned the love that Crow had never known.

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