Please note that there was another commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Mateo and Roxa posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button.
“So who’s rowing us over there?” Sands was holding up the oars as the seven of us (plus Vulcan) settled into the life raft off the side of the yacht. “Flick, you wanna do it since you had to go and get better enhanced strength than me?” Her tone was teasing as she poked me with one of the oars. Still, I figured she had to be at least a little bit jealous that after all that had happened, she hadn’t ended up with any kind of ‘flashy’ power, and the big thing she had, strength, I’d ended up getting more of. After all, she’d been waiting her whole life to be a Heretic. Now not only were we asking her to accept a huge change in how she thought about Strangers, but the rest of us kept getting more powers than her.
Before I could say anything, however, Deveron actually spoke up. “Hold on. Here, all of you take one of these.” Holding out his hand and opening it up, he showed us what looked like small nasal spray bottles. “Give each nostril a good spritz, then put it in your pocket. Trust me, if that ghost ship’s full of dead people, this stuff is gonna save you from losing every meal you’ve eaten for the past week.”
“I really wish people would stop saying ghost ship,” Sean muttered while taking one of the sprays.
Taking one for myself, I did as our mentor (who was actually mentoring) had advised. I expected to get some kind of strong scent, but the stuff didn’t really smell like anything at all. It was like water.
“Well,” I coughed after finishing the spray, giving my head a shake. “I guess I could take the oar, if-”
But Avalon slipped past me then to sit at the back of the boat. “I’ve got it,” she replied flatly. “Everyone else just sit down and hold on.” Pausing, she added pointedly, “And when I say that, I mean hold tight.”
The rest of us exchanged glances, but took the other girl at her word and found our seats quickly. I found myself beside Deveron, glancing sidelong to him. Lowering my voice, I asked, “You think Koren’s okay?” Yeah, even after all the reassurances I had, and the fact that Nevada had actually killed the Fomorian, I was still afraid of another one coming after her. After all, he had gotten a message off.
“She’ll be all right,” he assured me while plucking a pair of sunglasses from the inside pocket of his red-trimmed uniform jacket. “Here, try these on. Let’s see how you look with some actual style.”
Blinking once, I opened my mouth to decline. But the look on his face convinced me otherwise. Shrugging, I took the sunglasses and put them. As soon as they settled into place, I almost jerked backward in surprise, right out of the boat. The only thing that stopped me was Deveron’s waiting hand on my back and his other on my arm to hold me in place. Because he’d known exactly how I’d react.
The view through the sunglasses wasn’t just the one in front of me. Instead, I saw the normal view through one lens, and a completely different one through the other. I was seeing someone jogging through a forest, hand raised with a hunga munga in it before throwing the weapon ahead. A second later, the person whose eyes I was seeing through was teleported to where the axe had been thrown.
It was Koren. I was seeing through Koren’s eyes with these sunglasses. My mouth opened and I looked toward Deveron, stammering a little bit in spite of myself. “What—I– did you–”
“Like I said,” he replied simply. “She’ll be okay.” Reaching out, Deveron plucked the sunglasses from me and put them on his own face. Then he settled back a bit in the boat before gesturing for me to do the same. “And the shades make you look good. Maybe you should get your own pair sometime.”
By that point, everyone else had finished sitting down. Once she was sure that we were all holding on, Avalon turned just a little bit and held one of her gauntlet-covered hands up. A projection of a long solid shaft appeared, before three short, wide, and slightly curved blades emerged from the end of it.
Noticing all of us watching what she was doing curiously, Avalon actually smirked slightly. Then the three blades at the end of the shaft began to spin rapidly. Like a chainsaw. Or, more to the point, like a–
“Propeller!” Columbus blurted. “You made a propeller. I thought you couldn’t–” He stopped himself, realizing the truth belatedly. “Wait, is that the other thing you’ve been working on in the shop while you were stuck off your feet? You upgraded your gauntlets to make projections with moving parts?”
She nodded once. “Specific ones that I have to program into them first. I knew we’d be going on a boat, so…” Lowering the projection of the propeller into the water, adding, “Last chance to start holding on.”
My hands caught onto the side of the raft, just as Avalon’s propeller kicked in. And then the boat pretty much flew across the water. A yelp of surprise escaped me at the sudden acceleration. I hadn’t exactly been in a speedboat before, but I had to think that this was pretty much what that would’ve been like.
With Avalon’s new toy, it didn’t take long for us to reach the base of the derelict cruise ship. The massive, dark, foreboding structure loomed over us with a sort of silent menace that made me shiver.
Columbus took the large backpack that he had taken to carrying around off his shoulders and crouched on the side of the life boat before producing what looked essentially like a toilet plunger. Except that instead of only having the the rubber mouth part at one end, it had them at both. And instead of the handle being made of wood, it looked like it was made of metal. Columbus shoved one of the cups against the side of the cruise ship and twisted the handle a little, then shoved the cup at the other end against the side of our boat and gave another twist. There was a squishing noise before the boy gave a nod of satisfaction. “There,” he announced. “Now our ride won’t drift away while we’re up there.”
“My turn,” Sands announced, carefully standing up in the raft while producing her mace. As we watched, she began to tap it against the side of the ship lightly. Everywhere the weapon touched, a little bit of horizontal metal about a foot wide appeared, along with a tiny vertical bit of metal on each side. She was making a ladder. The horizontal bits were footholds while the vertical ones were handholds.
“Well?” Sands gestured before starting to climb up the few parts she had already made. As she climbed, the other girl continued to make more of them to extend the ladder. “Are you guys coming, or what?”
Avalon went up the makeshift ladder next, followed quickly by Scout and then Columbus. Meanwhile, Sean and I looked at one another for a moment, then simultaneously lowered our gazes to where Vulcan was sitting. The metal dog was staring up at the ladder doubtfully, a tiny whine escaping him.
“Don’t worry, buddy.” Sean reached down. “I’ve got you.” He grabbed the robotic canine, switching him into his minigun form before hauling the weapon up over his shoulders and onto his back. It hung there by a strap that appeared from the handle, while Sean grunted. “Now I need a strength boost.”
“Sorry buddy,” I patted him on the shoulder. “Maybe you’ll pick something up from this little trip.”
Wow. Part of me felt… weird and wrong to say something like that when the people on this ship had been killed by these monsters. What was wrong with me? Was it a product of everything I’d already been through, coupled with trying to keep things as normal as possible? Dad had told me about cops who horrified onlookers by joking in the middle of horrifying homicide scenes. Maybe it was like that.
“Hard to get used to, isn’t it?” Deveron spoke from behind me. When I looked that way, he continued, his expression softening. “Or maybe sometimes it’s a little too easy to get used to. And that can be, uh, that can be scary. When you look at something like this, think about all the people who died and… and it doesn’t destroy you inside. Or you think of a joke. Or… anything. If you can think of anything other than those people that are dead, even for a second, it kind of makes you feel like you’re the monster.”
Wincing at that, I looked away briefly before turning back to him. “You’ve been through it too, huh?”
Deveron gave a nod, his hand moving up to my shoulder. “We all have. Doesn’t make you a monster.”
The two of us stood there briefly, and I had this strange (or maybe not so strange) urge to hug him. Yeah, he was kind of my father’s… competition for my mother, and he had been acting like a complete dick as part of his plan. But I had to ask myself how I’d act if someone I loved as much as he obviously loved Mom was in the situation she was in, let alone his own children… and well, I understood now.
Shaking it off, along with thoughts of the other questions that I still wanted to ask him, I finally started up the ladder after the rest of my team. Deveron did something to the boat below before following.
Finally, all seven of us were up on the end of the main deck, at the stern. There wasn’t a lot to see up at this point, except for some abandoned picnic tables and fallen umbrellas. A bit further away there was a hot tub, but I couldn’t see any water in it. There was, however, a grayish stain smeared over the side.
“I’m pretty sure I’m really glad we can’t smell anything right now,” I murmured under my breath while my eyes scanned the rest of the ship. Nothing. Just dark emptiness in spots that should have been filled with laughing people having the time of their lives. Or at least pleasant elderly retirees quietly reading books and drinking iced tea. There weren’t even any bodies out here. The place was just… abandoned.
“It’s not that you can’t smell anything,” Deveron corrected me. “It’s that you can’t smell the bodies. The bad smells, that’s what’s filtered out.” Then he gestured. “And that’s the last of the help that I can give you guys, until you ask for it. Be careful, watch each other’s backs, and if you need something, take the penalty for the love of a god and ask for it. Until then, I’ll be here.” He stepped back, folding his arms.
“Okay,” Avalon announced, stepping up while her eyes continued to scan the ship. Like me, she didn’t seem to see anything out of the ordinary. Or at least nothing that stood out any more than any of the rest of this creep-fest did. “Ship’s too big to all search together. And yes, Porter, I know what you’re going to say about splitting up, so don’t say it. But if we don’t, we’ll never track anything down. It’s too easy to stay away from one group of us, and it’ll take too long to go over the place enough. Whatever’s on here could just keep avoiding us. So we split into pairs again, like we did the first time at the lake.”
Turning back toward us, her gaze passed over me briefly before landing on Sean. “Gerardo, you and me will take this deck all the way to the back of the ship, then start working our way up deck by deck, one at a time. Chambers, you and Mason take those stairs right there to the top deck and work your way down. Search all the rooms, and call in if you find anything. Once we meet up around the middle, we’ll go together to check out the belowdecks area, assuming we haven’t found what we need so far.”
Columbus opened his mouth, but she was already looking that way. “Porter, you go with Scout up that way.” She pointed to another set of stairs. “Looks like it goes to the bridge. Get up there, see if you can find anything in the log or… anything else that could explain what happened here. And Scout, you set up all the shot-portals you need to give us covering fire when we flush out whatever attacked this ship.”
Sands and I looked at one another for a brief moment before we both nodded. The other girl spoke up easily. “Sure, Flick and I can cover each other. You’ll be okay with Columbus, Scout?” She glanced that way until her sister nodded silently, then gave Avalon a quick thumbs up. “Yup, looks like we’re good.”
“Good.” That time, Avalon’s gaze did indeed linger on me. “Just be careful. See anything, call it in.”
So we split up. Sands took the lead, slowly walking several feet ahead of me while I watched her back as we moved to the elegant-looking stairs that led upward. One step after another, the two of us gradually climbed while keeping a sharp eye out everywhere around us. There were still no bodies anywhere in sight, just more of those ugly gray stains that made me feel uneasy just by looking at them.
Glancing over to the side, I could see Scout and Columbus making their own way up another set of stairs toward the bridge. The two were a little bit higher than we were, and making faster progress. I was about to look away and focus on our own way again when Scout glanced back and down toward us. Smiling a little, I raised a hand to her. Except the other girl didn’t wave back. Instead, she actually shouted, her normally soft and barely-ever audible voice suddenly filling the air around us. “Down!”
Well, that was a good enough warning. Instantly, I dropped to a knee on the stairs, ducking my head with a yelp. At the same time, something whooshed past just above before clattering against the railing.
Sands had spun around by that point. As I lifted my gaze to see the girl, I also saw something else. Leaning up out of the stairs above her, literally seeming to emerge from the step itself, there was the top half of what looked like a cross between a goblin and a skeleton. Half of it had no skin or muscle at all, just exposed bones. Other parts had bits of muscle and skin hanging off its body. Of its two hands that were outstretched, one was pure white, polished bone that made a slight clattering noise as the fingers moved, while the other was covered in what looked like completely rotting flesh. Pale green and yellow skin that sagged in places covered most of its face, save for a bit around its left eye, which was bare to the skull and showed the eyeball flicking around within the partially-broken socket.
And the thing was reaching for Sands, who was already shouting out a warning of her own as she lunged to swing her mace at something behind me. Something probably pretty identical to the thing I was shouting to warn her about. My staff went up and under the other girl’s raised arm, shoving into that nasty thing’s exposed eye. It let out a shriek that sounded like a flock of pissed off crows, before jerking backwards and down to disappear back into the stairway, leaving behind no trace of itself.
At the same time, Sands lunged down a step, bringing her mace hard against the railing behind me with a terrifying crash. Then the two of us stood there, pretty much face-to-face with our weapons extended past each other. Sands was panting.
“Did…” I paused while letting the exhilaration and adrenaline run down a bit. “… you get it?”
Her head shook. “No,” she replied. “It… it was coming out of the… it was a–”
“I saw,” I confirmed. “At least, if it was anything like the thing that was behind you.”
Straightening, I looked up toward the spot where Columbus and Scout were. Giving them a thumbs up, I touched the pin on my jacket and connected to everyone. “Thanks for the heads up, Scout. Guys, we just got jumped by these… goblin… skeleton things that were–”
“Coming out of the walls?” Sean finished. “Yeah, we’ve seen them too. Avalon says they’re called… what?”
Avalon’s voice answered then. “Knockengerwicht. A German Heretic named them. It basically means skeleton-goblin.”
“And they… what,” Columbus started, “hide inside the walls and shit and then pop out?”
“It’s worse than that,” she explained in a tense voice. “They don’t just hide. They possess inanimate objects. Basically, most tribes of the things usually pick a car or a house or something, depending on how big the group is. Each of them take over a little bit of it and they control it. That’s where a lot of poltergeist stories come from. And it’s where the whole idea for things like cars that move on their own came from.”
“Right…” I began slowly. “But you said that a normal sized tribe of these things usually take over a car or at most a house. What does it mean if there’s enough to take over a whole cruise ship?”
“What does it mean, Chambers?” Avalon echoed before pausing briefly.
“It means we’re dealing with one of the biggest infestations I’ve ever heard of.”