The Peril of the Dreadnaught

The pelting rain stings his face as his waterlogged fingers grip the ship’s helm. Claps of thunder crackle from swirling grey clouds. The chaotic churning sea breaks waves across the Dreadnaught’s steady bow. The weathered sails puff with the inhuman gusts and are on the brink of splitting. He summons all his strength to keep control of his cherished vessel. Refusing to succumb less than a league from victory.

“Captain,” his first mate shouts over the storm, “Captain we can’t stay the course.”

“She’s out there Merton, if we get past the storm, she’ll be ours.”

“She’s a ghost Captain, let it go. Besides, they say there’s Mages onboard. Best to avoid that lot all together.”

“Do you think Mages dare to chance the sea?”

“Dunno,” his leather hands grip the gunnel. “I doubt they’ll leave their desert holes to face the damage they’ve done.”

He nods, convincing himself the scuttle bug is just that, rumors. Mages wield unpredictable magic, and they don’t care for his kind too much. But then again, drunks in taverns always have a story. They whisper about the ivory ship, laden with riches and a jewel atop a snake figurehead haunting this coast.

For weeks they cursed the endless ocean in search of it. But today, by the will of the Gods, they caught a glimpse of a white shimmer on the horizon. It wasn’t his imagination, Jimmy in the crow’s nest, saw it too. They almost reached it when the storm sprung from the frothing sea. His glory, riches and phantom vanished before his eyes.

He grunts, forcing the wheel to port. Merton grips the cleat trying to keep himself from blowing overboard. Already the gusts were weakening, the sting on his cheeks hurt a little less and a break in the grey was on the horizon. But the sails stretch to their limits. The halyards, so taught, they’ll kill a sailor the moment it snaps.

Just a bit more. The wind crosses the bow, yanking the jibs across the mast. The wheel loosens, spinning to starboard, and taking him with it. He crashes to the deck as Merton grabs it, yelling to crew to loosen the sails and halyards. The ship steadies, the wind vanishes leaving deflated sails hanging on the masts. Irons, but at least the storm broke.

Sapphire skies stretch over head, all evidence of a storm vanished as fast as it arrived. Jimmy from the mainstay waves and calls his attention to the bow.

“Captain, there she is!”

He pulls an eyeglass from his coat pocket and wipes the water with his drenched sleeve. There, floating on top the playful waves is his prize. A boat trimmed with ivory with robust white sales. Something glitters at the bow and he knows it’s the famous jewel of his dreams.

“Set the sails!” he calls, his tired limbs springing to life. He bounds the few steps across the deck and takes the helm. His men, drenched and exhausted, set into action, making quick work of the tangled rigging.

“Sir… you were right,” Merton mumbles, studying the prize from his own eyeglass.

“Your doubt stabs my heart,” he laughs a hearty laugh. His heart is a flutter. Like a gull’s feather on the waves, he bobs in fresh anticipation of his future hoard.

He expected a chase, soldiers lining the gunnels, but he didn’t expect a vacant upper deck. The prey’s sails hang lifeless as she bobs on top the waves. It’s two decks high, fresh untested sails, strong rigging, and planks. She could outrun them but… No, something about this isn’t right.

His crew, in their tattered rags and mixed matched clothes, cheered. Fists pumping skyward as their whoops filled the air. He buried his suspicion and bathed in the glory of his prize. Alongside the port bow, in black lettering trimmed with gold was the name, Opalescence. It rolls off the tongue as the ship rolled over the waves.

“What’s she called?” Merton asks, most of the crew can’t read. When he answers Merton scrunches his nose, “that’s an odd name for a lass, in ‘it?”

“It’s odd, that’s for sure.”

Did they abandon ship? Fall overboard during the storm? But the erupting excitement in the bow interrupts his thoughts. His crew gawks at the rumored figure head. He tells Merton to take the wheel and trapezes the mustering crew to see it with his own eyes.

An opal, the size of a child rests in the wooden inlaid of the bow. It’s worth a king’s ransom. This will make them richer beyond belief. As dreams of feasts, women, and rum dance through his head his eyes follow the rest of the figurehead. Not a snake like the stories tell, but an ornate bracket.

“Captain, we’re rich!” Jimmy smirks with a crooked grin. But the suspicion eats at his insides as he pushes through the crew towards the upper deck. It swims through his veins until he reaches the bottom step of the ladder. Where did he see this before?

He glances back, seeing the figure head from a distance reveals the hidden truth. It resembles a staff, not an average staff but the ornate ones the Mages carry. The word turns his heart to stone as the reality sets in. These aren’t normal sailors, they’re Mages. Their magic rivals the Gods, and they no longer desire peace among the races of Umara.

“All hands to your posts! Set the sails, push off the bow!” His orders come fast, panicked as he realizes, he’s in arms reach of an enemy.

But the men, distracted by their fantasies, fail to recognize the danger in their grasp. He spits his orders like venom, as Merton moves about the deck to refocus the crew. They push off her bow, take the wind and race from the ship.

“Captain look,” Merton points. The Opalescence’s sails fill with nonexistent wind, matching their speed. “She’s gaining, but how? We hand the wind?”

“Mages,” he mutters only for him to hear.

“All the way out here? By the Gods…”

His heart thumps in his chest as the opal reaches the corner of his eye. His white-knuckle hands clench the wheel. The starboard gun hatches creak open and he pictures the cannons housed on the gun deck. A whoosh vibrates his ear, he watches as a brilliant fire wall ignites between them. The fiery embers sizzle into the water below. But the flames hover above the waves.

Silent fear descends upon the crew, it’s thick and permeates the Dreadnaught. His jaw clenches as the wind vanishes and his sails slag. A thunder from their five-pound cannons erupt from the stillness. Ebony canon balls, coated in blazing flames, race through the air and smash into the mast. The ship shudders as the trunk cracks. He watches in horror, as it splits then topples forward, raining splinters over the crew. The sails become their coffins as the onslaught of cannon fire continues.

There’s no room for fear, as his men rally from the attack. Resolved to fight until the end, he scans the Opalescence’s deck. A full crew of Mages, waving their staffs, manipulate the flames and sky. The truth sinks into his gut like a stone wrapped around a dead man’s ankle. We weren’t hunting them…they were hunting us all along.

Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash