THE OBJECTIONS WERE mountainous.
“Alone?” Salay said. “Captain, what moon gave you such a lunatic idea?” “I’ll go with you,” Ann said. “I can keep you safe. I’ve got six pistols on
me, and four eyes to aim them with now!”
Even Laggart, hovering about the back of the group of officers, seemed concerned.
Fort just held up his board. Why? he asked.
“I want to try the experiment with the Midnight Essence,” Tress said. “See if I can actually control or destroy the monsters—because if I can’t, there’s no moving forward and all of this is moot. I will try it alone, as there’s no reason to bring the rest of you. There’s nothing you can do.”
“I think this is a bad idea, Captain,” Salay said, folding her arms. “I won’t let you go into another sea alone.”
“Am I not the captain?” Tress asked. “Can I not make this decision?” “You can,” Salay said. “But you shouldn’t.”
Irony is a curious concept. Specifically, I mean the classical definition: that of a choice leading to an opposite outcome from what is intended. Many grammarians bemoan the word’s near-constant misuse—second only in
dictional assassination to the way some people use the word “literally.” (Their use of which is ironic.)
I’m not one of those people who care if you use words wrong. I prefer it when words change meaning. The imprecision of our language is a feature; it best represents the superlative fact of human existence: that our own
emotions—even our souls—are themselves imprecise. Our words, like our hearts, are weapons still hot from the forging, beating themselves into new shapes each time we swing them.
Yet irony is an intriguing concept. It exists only where we want to find it, because for true irony, expectation is key. Irony must be noticed to exist. We create it from nothing when we find it. But unlike other things we create, like art, irony is about creating tragedy.
Irony is reversal. Set up, then collapse. A perfect bit of irony is a beautiful thing. So watch. Enjoy.
“I cannot let myself create more hardship for any of you,” Tress said. “I need to do this next part alone.”
Salay sighed softly—the kind of sigh you make when you’re trying not to yell, but need to give your lungs something to do. She nodded to the side.
“Can we speak in private a moment, Captain?” Tress nodded, and the two of them stepped away.
“I have another suggestion,” Salay said. “We sail the Crow’s Song in a little way and skirt the edge of the border for a while. Try to attract one of these monsters. Then we trap it with verdant spores and haul it on board. From there, we can retreat to the Crimson and take our time experimenting on it.”
“Too dangerous,” Tress said.
“More dangerous than you going in alone?”
“Too dangerous,” Tress revised, “for all of you. This is something I have to do, but I can’t let you keep risking yourselves.”
“Captain,” Salay said, her tone softening, “Tress. My entire life changed when you returned from the dragon’s den. I’ve been searching for Father for…for so long. I hoped for such a long time that hope started to wither. I was simply doing what I’d done because I was afraid to let it fully die.
“It’s alive again now. Watered by you, nurtured back to life. He’s alive.
And I know where he is. I need to survive what’s coming next so I can get to him.”
“Then go,” Tress said softly. “You need to live to save him. You can’t take risks.”
“I need a good crew to get through these seas,” Salay said. “This is a good crew.”
“It was one,” Salay said, “and can be one again. But Tress, do you know what it does to a person’s soul to serve someone like Crow? You build up a black crust. Like toast left too long in the oven.” She nodded to the crew gathered on deck. “I put you in charge for several reasons. One is that I think you’ll be a good captain. But another is that they need someone to lead them who can set things right again. Someone who didn’t agree to Crow’s demands. They need you.”
Tress nodded, understanding a shade better. Salay taking over would be a little like a team taking a time-out to reassess their strategy. Giving the ship to Tress was like tearing down the stadium to build a new one.
“Ever since you came on this ship,” Salay said, “you’ve done nothing but try to protect and help us. The crew knows it. They’ll follow you. I’ll follow you. But I can’t save my father yet. Can’t save…myself yet. Not until I help you and this crew. So, I’m asking. Let me help you right now.”
“Why ask?” Tress said. “Why not demand?”
Salay shook her head. “We mutinied against Crow. We can’t afford to let that kind of behavior be seen as normal. We have to make it clear that disobeying Crow was an extreme exception.
“So we’ll follow you. Exactly. The officers and I, we’ll model for the others, because we know if we don’t…well, that’s when things on ships can go extra poorly. When exceptions become habits. So if you tell us to let you do this alone, we will let you, Tress. We have to.”
She met Tress’s eyes with one of those looks full of implication. That never works as well as you think it might.
Because Tress had learned the wrong lesson. She’d heard the part about helping the crew. About protecting them. And so, she doubled down.
“Thank you, Salay,” Tress said. “Now, please prepare the launch. I will be going alone into the Midnight Sea to test my theories about controlling the
spore monsters there.”
The sigh this time was accompanied by a barely contained growl, like Salay had swallowed something angry and furry.
Speaking of which.
Tress returned to her cabin to grab her hat before heading out for her experiment. And when she did, a voice spoke from the corner.
“Take me,” Huck said.
Tress froze, then turned toward his cage.
“Bring me,” he said. “I heard you speaking. Take me in the cage, if you must. But bring me with you, Tress. On that boat. You might need me.”
She nearly dismissed him. But something about his voice…the tone of it perhaps… She pulled on her hat, wavered for a moment, but then decided. As she left, she grabbed his cage by the handle on the top and carried it with her as she swept out onto the deck.
And so, soon afterward, Tress found herself in a rowboat, the Midnight Sea surrounding her in all directions. Accompanied by only a caged rat, a keg of water, and a couple of free-range cups. It was time to see if she could get past the Sorceress’s first line of defense. To see if she could conquer the terrible tar monsters that roamed the Midnight Sea. It was a tense, dramatic moment—that unfortunately the terrible monsters forgot to attend.
Surely they’d be along any moment now.
Tress continued to drift alone in all that blackness. The sea was warm, gorged on sunlight as it was. Somehow it felt even more alien than the
Crimson Sea. She might have thought black spores would be more familiar. The world turned black for roughly half the day, every day. It was a natural color.
Yet sitting there, she felt as if her tiny boat were hanging in a void. A vast nothing. Even the sound of the seethe making the spores ripple wasn’t
comforting. It sounded wrong here. Upon this persistent night. Upon this gluttonous expanse that ate the very sunlight.
And now the sun was going down. Tress turned and looked backward longingly—but she had rowed herself out here for a good hour or so. Her arms were burning as proof.
The Crow’s Song wasn’t even visible, nor was the Crimson Sea. She was alone. Except for Huck, who huddled in his cage, quiet and terrified— despite having demanded he be brought along. To pass the time, Tress tried writing a little in her notebook. But she was too worried, too distracted. It
wasn’t only the thought of the Midnight Essence, but the fact that the spores were so close. Churning and bubbling right outside the hull of her boat.
She tried looking up at the sky, but as she did, the sun sank behind the moon on the horizon. The Midnight Moon, like a hole in reality.
So she waited. There are few things worse than stressful—yet empty— time. Free time that you can’t use in any way always feels like nature itself is mocking you.
Finally though, Tress spotted movement.
The Midnight Essence had gotten alarmingly close to her without being noticed. Perhaps because it was black upon black, though the fact that it was moving through the spores also helped hide its approach. Once she spotted it though, she tracked it easily—for it reflected the light of her lamp like oil.
Her breath caught. She stopped worrying about the spores, fixated only upon this approaching horror. What kind of beast moved through the spores? Bathing in them? Or…swimming? Was that the right term?
Tress knew the word from one of Charlie’s stories, though she found the idea remarkable. There were places with so much water that you could go in over your head? Wouldn’t you sink and drown?
Whatever the word, the creature approaching was doing it. You might have recognized the Midnight Essence as resembling some kind of eel or sea serpent, perhaps half as long as the Crow’s Song was. But you come from a world where things live in the water; that idea was wholly alien to Tress, and so she found the beast’s movements unnatural, unnerving. A spine should not move in such a way, like a piece of string, bending with supple contours.
It circled her boat, predatory. Also confused.
Why was this human sitting out here alone in a little boat? You’d have felt similar if you’d been strolling through the woods and found a warm steak dinner chilling on a stump. What kind of trick was this?
To this day, I can’t completely say if Midnight Essence is alive or not. The Luhel bond is an odd one, to be certain. For the context of the story though, pretend that the thing slinking along outside her boat was functionally self-
aware. At the very least, it had been given a specific set of commands that approximated life.
And so, it knew to be cautious. This gave Tress the opening she needed.
With a trembling hand, she reached out and touched the thing as it swam past.
This was, in the thing’s perception, deeply unsettling. There it was, an
eldritch monster of nefarious design, imbued with a hatred for all life. It had spent its entire existence seeking out ships, then growing legs to slip on board and consume those inside. When people saw it, they made all kinds of noises—though each one ended up as a painful gurgle. That was the sound of a job well done, an existence fulfilled.
People feared it. They didn’t reach out to touch it. That was basically like a salami standing up and trying to jump into your mouth. It isn’t that you don’t like a good salami, but you should at least have to work for it.
Also, there was the mind control.
Tress had bet everything on being able to do what she had earlier—and seize control of this thing.
It was more credible a plan than you might think. You see, there was too much sea to cover for the Sorceress to pay attention to each creature individually. She made them in batches, then sent them out with orders, maintaining only a loose control. Indeed, if she’d tried to actively direct all of these things, even she would have been quickly dehydrated and killed.
Beyond that, the creatures had just enough self-awareness to make decisions. To choose. That’s a dangerous feature to build into your roaming minions, but again, the Sorceress didn’t have another option. She had to give them a measure of autonomy, lest they be incapable of doing the job for
which she’d designed them.
So yes. Tress’s plan could have worked.
If she’d been sprouting for more than a couple of weeks.
Tress tried to seize control as she’d done earlier, pressing her mind against it. The thing reared up out of the spores, pulling away from her hand, and
looked at her with midnight eyes. A question came into her head, like…it wanted something. She tried to offer water, hoping it was more than the Sorceress was giving.
The thing rebuffed her. Naturally, the Sorceress knew of this possibility.
She understood the weakness inherent in her creations. And she’d built them, with complex mechanisms, to recognize an outside attempt at control.
Tress was tenaciously talented and demonstrably determined. But she was still new.
And the Sorceress, it should be noted, was not.
The thing reared up with a hiss, opening its mouth, anticipating its feast.
Tress threw herself to the bottom of the boat, terrified.
When a small, high-pitched voice spoke.
“Stop,” Huck said. Then, sounding reluctant, he continued, “Take us to your mistress. I…have free passage.”
The creature swayed its head, the complex sets of commands that guided it converging on the owner of that voice. One it had been instructed not to eat. One it was to bring to its master when commanded.
Huck the rat had returned to the place where he’d been created, as instructed by the Sorceress.