“So, we just let them go?” The first mate’s voice was gruff and indignant, almost disbelieving. “Just like that?”
“We aren’t in a position to cause any trouble,” Ju-Long, captain of the Superstition, replied, his voice measured and calm. The two of them stood atop the deck of their ship, watching a potential future rival leave their failed parley. “We are here representing the VOC.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” The first mate replied, resigned, as he watched the Songbird turn away. “I just don’t get why the VOC sent us to help defend this shitty town.”
“As the missive said,” Ju-Long began, “We are the closest VOC-sponsored vessel in the area.” Noting his mate’s sour response to that, he continued: “And it pays remarkably well. One week here will be—”
The world shifted around Ju-Long. No longer on the deck of the Superstition, he was now suddenly inside a wooden room. “…very profitable,” he whispered, finishing his thought. With no windows, a lone door, and only a single candle resting in a wall sconce for light, the room was quite dark. The ceiling, walls, and floor were all wooden slats, like the inside of a ship, though the lack of any decor whatsoever made it feel more oppressive than spartan.
A thunderclap sounded from somewhere outside, and the room shook, nearly knocking Ju-Long to his feet. His sailor instincts kicked in quickly, however, and he was able to keep his balance despite not being able to see the sky. A moment later, another, harder rumble jostled the room, and Ju-Long recognized the sound: a magazine explosion. This ship is going down, he thought. I have to get out of here!
Granting himself as much of a running start as the small room would allow him, Ju-Long threw his shoulder into the door. The door didn’t budge, and he fell back, clutching his shoulder in pain. Outside, cannon fire rang out. A battle. After a moment of letting the agony subside, however, The Dragon inside him took over, and he tried again. And again. And again, and again, until, on the fifth time, the door finally swung open as splinters of a door bar fell to the ground outside.
He stood in a hallway. Similarly wooden to the room he’d just been in, the gentle sloping of the walls confirmed in his mind that he was definitely onboard a ship; though from the angles of the slopes, this ship had to be massive.
He pushed the thought out of his mind — he didn’t have time to marvel at the vessel. From down the hallway, he heard rustling. “What’s all that noise?” A woman’s voice called out in Dutch.
The Dragon commanded him to run, and so he broke into a run towards the voice. “Hurry,” he cried out to the other voice. “The magazine is exploding! We need to get off the ship now!” He reached the end of the hallway to a loud bang. There, just around the corner, was a young lady with a flintlock pistol leveled at Ju-Long, a small wisp of smoke rising from the end of the barrel. Her face was a combination of surprise and worry, though as her gaze met his, he saw no regret behind her brown eyes.
Ju-Long had shot many people in his life. He’d even killed a few of them. He mostly disliked killing, but understood it as an occasional necessity in his line of work. However, for all the pitched shootouts he’d been in over the last three years behind the mast, he’d never been shot before. He’d certainly been shot at, but the Lord had never allowed a bullet to strike Ju-Long.
He was surprised at how little pain he felt. Getting socked in the stomach — having the wind knocked out of him — that was painful. He’d always imagined getting shot in the gut to feel a lot like that, but he’d honestly hardly noticed this. Had he not heard the shot, he might not have even acknowledged the possibility.
A small step back was all he allowed himself. The woman, still frozen in surprise, hadn’t even finished processing what had just happened. Ju-Long needed more time himself, but The Dragon was not going down with this ship. His shirt growing sticky with what he assumed was blood, The Dragon guided Ju-Long’s gaze to the cutlass at the woman’s belt. In a flash, the blade was in his hand, and she was crumpled at his feet, trying to gasp for air as blood poured from her throat. He stepped over her calmly, whispering “sorry” in Mandarin as he moved.
It wasn’t until he was in the next room that he fully realized she’d been wearing VOC colors.
He moved with speed, The Dragon leading him through rooms and halls like a snake through a mouse’s burrow. Bodies crumpled around him, and though he felt sad for their slaughter, he knew it wasn’t truly his fault — their blood was not truly on his hands, but The Dragon’s. Nearly a dozen men and women laid at his feet when he finally reached the deck, and he squinted to let his eyes adjust to the light of day.
Only, it wasn’t bright out. The sky was dark, as though in a pitched storm, although the ship had felt steady. Was this vessel so massive that it could just plow through a storm on the open ocean? Did such ships even exist?
Ju-Long looked across the deck, trying to find some answers. Deckhands scrambled in a panic, ignoring him completely. Their hurry was genuine, but not the kind of fear that came after a magazine explosion. Had he been wrong about the ship going down? Cannon fire sounded in the distance, and the ship jolted, hit hard. If he was wrong, he wouldn’t be soon.
Ahead of him, the ocean defined the horizon, but it felt, somehow, more distant than normal. I’m in the sky? He thought for a second. This is an airship. He balked, looking around. They were above a harbor. A VOC warship, he realized. That explained the size, and the sailor’s uniforms, but now how he’d gotten here. Or what had happened to—his heart froze in his throat.
In a panic, Ju-Long ran to the port railing, and looked over the side. Flaming debris slowly crashed to the ocean 300 feet below. His life’s work, his crew, his legacy… reduced to floating, burning wreckage.
Ju-Long sank to the deck as The Dragon subsided. The pain of his loss and the pain of his injuries mixed, and agony overcame him. The salty wind mixed his blood and tears together beneath him, and the weight of his failures crushed down on him like a lead weight. He’d built his life on pursuing the devil’s abominations, and he’d tried to show them mercy, but they’d only ever hated him in return. He’d spared them from the headsman’s block, and taken them all to their own island home, but they saw him as the monster. In later years, he tried to stop caring, instead immersing himself completely in the relentless pursuit of perfecting his ship. The Superstition was the ship to end all ships, a feat of engineering and Weirdcraft that was unparalleled the world over.
Except, the Songbird was better. In the distance, he could still see it gliding away, the mysterious ship no-one had ever heard of until a few years ago. Faster, nimbler, and capable of sail and flight from the beginning. Ju-Long had spent nearly a half-million guilders just trying to keep up with that blasted schooner. Now, debris, in a harbor outside Batavia.
Was he really almost 60? A daughter that hated him. A crew he couldn’t protect. A ship he’d lost. A career of sacrifice, for which he was hated. And a bullet in his gut. A life: wasted.
He rolled over on the deck, looking up at the stormy sky. The jet-black clouds rolled and boiled angrily, crashing into each other. No, he realized, not clouds. Harpies. Above him, they circled, then made their descent. Talons extended, their screeches filled with the anger and pain of loss. A sound he’d known well all his life.
He closed his eyes, and awaited his final judgement. He did not expect it would be kind.