Shad and Saura: The Secret Belowdecks - Part Nine
Art by ssjelitegirl
Days passed. The two brothers had set up a little camp in the depths of the ship between a number of crates. It was actually fairly comfortable, if not for the constant fear for their lives hanging over their heads.
Having scrounged enough food and candles to keep themselves sustained and ascertained that they had an escape route in case someone came after them, they had little else to do than plot.
"Here's what I think," Saura concluded, chewing on a biscuit with an absent look of disgust. "It's still going to be Maraqua."
"The sore loser logic?" Shad asked. He was lounging on a pile of old rugs with more air of comfort than anyone should ever have when on the run from pirates.
"Somewhat. Follow me here." Saura started checking points off on his fingers. "Scarblade wants to get back at Maraqua. Scarblade knows that last time, his own forces weren't enough. Scarblade decides to establish a stronghold on Scurvy Island – this part is an assumption, but hear me out. Scarblade ferries Gnarfas all the way over to Mystery Island and releases him there. All of a sudden, the place is no longer safe because you never know if he might be lurking in your own backyard, ready to eat your kids."
Shad nodded. Their own house stood on the main street of a well-populated harbor town and when you looked out the back window, you saw nothing but thick jungle.
"I'm not sure if he even intends to catch Gnarfas again," the Zafara continued. "He might prefer to, but he's smart enough to know that it's unlikely, so maybe that'd just be his new home. Result – lots of people swarm out of Mystery Island. First to Krawk Island, then outwards. People who've just lost everything and can't go back out of fear. Perfect mass of recruits for a new battle. Or abductees, even more likely. And it also makes sure that there isn't a nearby potential ally for Maraqua."
"What of Krawk Island?" Shad asked.
"Search me. I'm leery about their governor guy, though."
Shad scowled. "That's a lot of assumptions. But whatever the purpose, we don't want Gnarfas released on our home turf. Anything we can do about that?"
Saura dug up the map they'd stolen from Cora's cabin. He'd spent several hours scribbling notes and calculations on its opposite side.
"Well, seeing how far we've sailed already," he said glumly, "it's mostly a question of which poor unsuspecting turf we want to release him on instead. Disregarding the questions of how to release him in the first place so that we don't get eaten in the process."
"What're the options?" Shad asked.
"Scurvy Island, Krawk Island and, if they really mess up their navigation, Moltara. Which of those do we like the least?"
"Ooh, loaded choice of questionable morals," Shad said cheerfully. "If you ask me, dropping him someplace mainland would be safer for everyone. On an island, everything's confined."
"Not an option."
"Toss him in the sea and hope that he doesn't swim somewhere we care about?"
"That's horrible," Saura said sternly.
"So is this entire situation."
Having mulled it over a bit for a hundredth time, the two brothers snuck out of the den to go to Gnarfas' hold. They weren't ever sure if it was safer to stay put or move around as much as possible, but had mostly resolved to move around as much as possible on the age-old logic that if someone wants to find you, they won't ever if you're also looking for them at the same time. And they'd also grown to like talking to Gnarfas a bit. The big Werelupe was a sneery, terrifying beast to talk to, but he was someone to talk to all the same, and oddly fascinating to boot.
They'd also got a nagging little feeling that Gnarfas quite liked talking to them. They weren't about to trust the beast, and knew that a heartfelt friendship was farther away than Kreludor, but they got the impression that Gnarfas at least appreciated having someone to occupy his fairly intelligent mind, being imprisoned, forgotten, and bored out of his skull most of the time.
They knew the way pretty well by then, and snuck quietly through narrow pathways and tiny storerooms, their eyes well-adjusted to constant darkness. Soon enough, the glow of the lantern appeared ahead – and a voice could be heard.
The brothers crept closer, as silently as they could possibly manage. Voices meant pirates by the cage. They could also mean information.
"-ken go hungry if ye like. Get back!" It was Gran's voice. There was a clang, a dull thud and a grunt. Shad and Saura snuck to the door and craned their necks, invisible in the darkness.
The fat Moehog chef was withdrawing a long pole she'd used to toss meat in Gnarfas' cage. The prisoner had retreated to the far end of the cage but as the pole pulled back, he emerged again and picked up a slab.
"How generous," he jeered. "Think I can't smell this?"
Gran looked taken aback for a moment, then pulled herself together. "Like I said, ye don't hafta eat if you prefer."
Gnarfas eyed her briefly and suddenly lunged at the bars with a roar. The fat Moehog ambled off quickly, muttering under her breath. The Werelupe was left alone with his meat, but still didn't start eating. He seemed to be in thought.
Shad ambled forward carefully, eyes gleaming in the dark. Gnarfas turned his head.
"Oh, good, it's you," he said. "Get over here, I'm hungry and I want to talk to you first."
Baffled by that logic, the brothers came over cautiously and then Shad realized what the issue was.
"They've laced your meat with sleeping drugs," he said, nostrils widening.
"Not just that," Gnarfas rumbled. "I was getting a third of my usual rations for the past three days. I'm starving. They want to make sure that I eat this meat and also that I'll want to eat afterwards. Once I eat this, I'll be out for hours."
"There's gotta be a reason for that," Saura said, mind racing. "Are we getting close? Do they want to move you already?"
"Possibly," Gnarfas snarled. "Now listen."
* * *
"I don't have to tell you that I don't want any liabilities for this one," said Scarblade, raising the torch higher as he came down the stairs.
"I'm only here to oversee," Cora said coolly. "I wouldn't lift that cage even if I was fully well." She was a bit pale and skinnier than before due to the time spent in the hospital wing, but she'd refused to stay down longer than she felt necessary. She'd been up and about for two days, having picked up the duties with the matter-of-fact professionalism she always employed.
The inbetween events had been a lot to take in. She was aware that Gnarfas had broken loose and her first question upon coming to had been "Did you get him?" but the issue with two rookies was worrisome. Cora knew that she owed his life to the two brothers. She also knew that if they got off the ship, they could sink the entire mission.
For several days, she'd dispatched groups downstairs to look for Shad and Saura, unable to go along herself because of her wounds. She'd never been sure if she wanted the brothers to be found or not. The groups had always come back empty-handed. It was one thing to know who was onboard, and nobody could sneak in or out without Scarblade's knowing. But once they were onboard, there were more hiding places than a Kookith can find in a jungle.
The small group of pirates got to Hold Three. Gnarfas was, as predicted, flat on the cage floor, breathing quietly.
"Check," Scarblade ordered.
Arlington, the quartermaster, stepped forward, brandishing a long spear. He jabbed through the bars at Gnarfas' side. The Werelupe didn't move. More jabs didn't yield anything either.
"Check the cage, see if he didn't hide any meat," said Cora. "And look around as well, he might've thrown some out."
"I don't smell any here," grunted Scarblade, but they did a thorough search all the same, to no avail.
Arlington and Mace stepped forward to throw a canvas over the cage and pick it up. It was a huge, heavy thing, but both pirates were used to handling huge, heavy things. They headed out slowly, Cora right in front of them to warn against uneven steps, Scarblade staying behind the procession to keep an eye out.
He knew that the two witnesses, the brothers who knew far too much, were still around here somewhere, perhaps even close, but he didn't have the time to deal with them now. He was positive that they'd be spotted as soon as they tried to leave, anyway. You didn't leave Scarblade's Revenge without being noticed.
The canvas-covered cube was carried out onto the deck where the other pirates had gathered, looking uneasy. A day before, the captain had finally seen fit to tell them what his plan was. The crew, of course, backed him up. They'd never liked the defeat in Maraqua and they were well looking forward to their rematch.
But this big mystery box made them nervous. The captain had only told them that it was a weapon that was to be revealed when the time was right. And a weapon that turns the tide of a war has to be strong indeed.
The day was cool and mostly cloudy, a good day for sailing. The Revenge was docked by a small pier, dwarfing all other vessels beside her. Most of those vessels were grimy and in a bad condition, some were sleek and exotic, some looked like their owners were well off. The same could be said about the rows of houses stretching inland from the pier, small and rickety in the cheap, low-income area, giving way to fancier, more distinguished buildings in more eminent areas, all walled in and guarded by well-paid thugs.
This was Scurvy Island, the hub of questionable transactions and even more questionable deeds, home for the rich and poor with the same objective: to make their living in ways the rest of Neopia wasn't looking at too keenly. Thieves and assassins were common, but you could also find respectable businessmen to lend you a lot of money with no questions asked, and you weren't supposed to ask questions about the money either.
A small fishing boat was moored right next to the Revenge, its little deck way far below the big man-o-war's railing, and one of the lifeboats on that side was removed from its davits. Arlington and Mace set to work attaching the cage to the empty davits.
"Did you pick your crew?" Scarblade asked the quartermaster. The Elephante grunted an affirmative and nodded towards the throng of pirates loitering on the deck.
"Alright, down to the dinghy, the lot of you!" the captain shouted at them. "You two, lower it down. I'll go down to supervise until the thing is well in place."
He headed down to the gangplank as a smaller group of pirates shuffled obligingly to it as well, and made sure to get there first.
Scarblade was good at sure-making. He'd made sure to tell Arlington to pick a crew for the dinghy that was to head to Mystery Island with its mystery cargo. He'd made sure that he didn't specify the number of crewmembers the quartermaster was to pick. And he'd made sure that this was the first time being this ambiguous about his orders, so that the crew couldn't help but comment on it. This way, he could make sure that anyone wanting to leave the ship would bank on the hope that nobody's counting how many are leaving.
To be frank, since most of the pirates didn't bother wearing cloaks on what was effectively home base, he only really needed to look out for those who looked suspiciously becloaked. Especially when there were two of them side by side.
"You boys," he said, reaching out a hand and pulling down two hoods. Shad and Saura peered up at him with sheepish defiance.
"Was hoping you wouldn't do that," said Shad.
"You've been shirking your duties, cabin boys," said Scarblade, feeling a premature twinge of smug pride as his plan played out without a hitch.
"Well, you haven't paid us," Saura jabbed, thankful at the cloak that was covering up the shaking of his knees. "Cut of profits for each ship robbed, how'd it go again?"
"That was never in the contract," said Cora, stepping closer. "You were signed up in exchange of being taken home. Captain, sir...?"
"We're not home," Shad pointed out. "Although I'm liking the real estate here, would you look at that palace." Despite the cold fear creeping up and down and a bit sideways his spine, he'd never been to Scurvy Island before and had a fair bit of curiosity to spare despite their precarious situation.
"Well, I think I'll deal with you as soon as we've dispatched this boat," said the captain. He shot a glare at Cora. "Something the matter, boatswain?"
Cora looked at him pleadingly, then at the two brothers, clear anguish on her face. "I, sir... no, sir."
"Take them to my cabin," said Scarblade. "I'll be along shortly. You don't need backup for this, do you?"
"She won't, sir," Saura said grimly.
Scarblade cracked a grin and was about to say something when Mace's voice roaring "What in the-?" made him snap his head sideways.
The cage had been lowered about halfway to the other boat's deck in the meantime, Arlington and Mace hard at work with the winches and the handpicked crew ready and waiting down below, when the canvas on the cage started to flap and fell away, a door swung open and Gnarfas, lanky and matted but with quick deliberate motions like an oversized furry Spyder, scuttled out and swung on top of it.
His small eyes blinked in the light, overcast as though it was. Gnarfas rarely saw the light, and he hadn't gotten fresh air in a while. This was a better energy boost than any Battledome potion.
"Hey there, Scarblade!" he barked with glee as he spotted the captain, and jumped up to grab the cables from which the cage was suspended. "I'm hungry, Scarblade! On your orders!"
The two pirates operating the winches let go instinctively, but the mechanism didn't allow for the cage to fall. The terrifying furry lump swung up the cables and leaped into the ship's rigging. Down on the Revenge's deck, everyone was drawing their swords and going various shades of pale.
"Go, idiots!" shouted the terror hanging over their heads, and Shad felt like he'd been slapped awake from a dream. He gave Saura a push and they both flew down the gangway as Gnarfas unleashed all imaginable havoc behind them.
To be continued...