"This feels..." Sasha looked to her lover and chose not to finish her sentence.
"Daft?" Red finished for her. "Mad? A fool's quest?"
"I wasn't going to say it that way," Sasha mumbled. "Dangerous, maybe? Risky."
Red gestured with her hand. "We're pointed straight at the beach and about to run aground. If that happens even cutting apart one finger's width at a time won't be worth the death of the Red Witch."
"But we're still doing it?"
Red nodded. "There's magic steeped in this water... maybe the whole damned island. I seen it with my own eyes."
"But can magic make a ship fly? That's the only way we're fitting through there."
Red clamped her lips shut but the sound of her sigh coming through her nose was loud enough for Sasha and Steff to hear.
John motioned with his hand from the fo'c'sle, urging them forward and slightly port. Sasha spun the wheel a half turn, changing the rudder enough to urge the ship as John guided them.
Another tense moment passed as the Red Witch grew closer and closer to shore. Red winced, expecting to hear the bow scrape on sand and rock with each passing second. By the time they were fully in the bay and mere feet from shore the ship surged and lifted up at the bow.
"We've run aground!" Sasha hissed and clung to the wheel. Red and Steff staggered back a half step, their sea legs keeping them up even if they hadn't been prepared for the sudden shift.
"No!" Steff said. "I didn't hear nothing."
The ship leveled out beneath them, restoring their balance.
"I'll be drowned," Red breathed as she stared off to the side of the ship. She looked both port and starboard before shaking her head.
"He did it! I knew he could!" Steff cried out and clapped her hands.
"You're giddy as a princess getting a pony," Sasha snapped at the second mate.
"There'll be no living with her now," Red agreed. "My sister or John either... look, the fucking sea's risen up to carry us through. My gold says your hand on that wheel's doing no good."
Sasha twisted to look around and then rushed over to peer over the railing down the hull. The water had risen up under them, lifting the Red Witch a score of feet higher in the air than the rest of the ocean. The pillar of water bubbled and roiled like it was boiling without the heat.
The crew was noticing too, prompting shouts of alarm and making them grab on to railing and ropes. One man rushed to the railing and was about to leap over before Steff called out and had another sailor grab him and hold him back.
The Red Witch surged forward, unsettling everyone as it rushed over the inlet and passed between the cliffs. They rose above the masts, leaving even the slender woman in the crow's nest unable to see over their tops.
They were through the cliffs in seconds, which was good because not a single member of the Red Witch's crew dared to breathe while they had only feet to spare on either side of the vessel. The wave that supported the ship carried them forward between steep hills covered thickly with massive trees covered in vines and hanging moss. After several minutes the narrow channel widened into a small lake... a lake that was fed by a thin waterfall that was a fifty foot drop if it was an inch.
The water beneath the Red Witch calmed and receded, lowering them into the lake where they should be. Mists obscured the cliff wall at the base of the waterfall but they could still see the masts and fo'c'sle of the ship that was next to the remains of a long wooden dock built out into the lake.
Little Red shouted and waved from the fo'c'sle and then pointed at the ship. Red stood straighter and shook her head even as a grin split her face.
"That whore-son did it," Sasha whispered. "He really found it."
Red smoothed her face and took a deep breath. "Get us near and drop anchor. We'll take the boat to shore."
Sasha grabbed the wheel and looked to Steff. "Steff! You heard the Captain."
Steff jerked her eyes away from the sight ahead of them and squashed her own grin. She stepped to the railing and started to yell out orders to the crew to get them across the lake and close enough for what Red wanted.
As they tacked across the lake in the cross-breeze the overgrown dock came into view. Timbers had been raised and two small buildings had once stood near the dock. Both were in disrepair, with their roofs fallen in and walls missing parts or in entirety.
Only two masts rose from the water, the aftward mast barely breaking the surface. The ship's prow was stained and darkened at the water line, lending proof that it had been below water for a great many years. When the Red Witch dropped anchor a few score feet away the gentle wake lapped against the sunken pirate ship.
The long boat was filled this time. John, Red, her sister, Steff, and four men and one woman from the ship's crew took their places and watched the shore and wreckage in silence as they rowed closer and closer. With only a dozen feet remaining to the shore a shrill primal cry sounded form the jungle and echoed off the cliff wall. A roar followed and then the faint sound of leaves and branches rustling.
"Seems we're not alone," Little Red said, her voice low in awe of their discovery.
"That wasn't no man," Steff said.
John nodded. Billie the One Eyed was here, somewhere. Released from a hundred year prison as the guest of the water sprite that guarded the island. Neither of those noises had been Billie, no matter how mad a hundred years breathing water and fucking a beautiful sea nymph would make him.
The bow bumped against the soft ground. Another combined surge of the oars moved it forward almost two inches. Enough to prove they were stuck fast without poles or someone hopping out.
When no one moved Red raised an eyebrow. Steff scowled. "You're gutless," she cursed the six sailors. "You two, Alec and Barb, over the railing and pull us up!"
The two sailors looked at each other and then into the thick jungle that stared nearly at the water's edge. Where the dock and rubble of the buildings were the jungle had once been pushed back, but moss, vines, weeds, and even some newer trees that were too tall and thick to be saplings were reclaiming it.
"Move your arses or you'll be staying behind when we're loaded full of pirate gold and sailing away without you!"
The threat of lost gold had Barb over the gunwale first. She splashed into the water and grunted as her bare feet plunged into the muddy bottom. Alec followed and had similar disgust on the other side. They pulled them free of the sucking mud and, using the sides of the boat to help them, made their way to shore. Steff threw the rope to them and then moved back to the stern of the bow to shift weight away from the bow. They worked together and pulled the boat until the very front of the ship was out of the way. They were both sweating and cursing from the effort.
Red jumped out first, but Little Red was right behind her. John came next and then the other sailors. Steff came last, struggling with the soft muddy ground at the water's edge because of her wood leg.
"I hate mud," she grumbled after taking John's hand and letting him help her pull free. "Sand I can't handle. Mud is worse than water, sucks me peg down and then won't let me out."
Little Red was moving toward the dock already, causing her sister to curse after her and follow. The others eyed the jungle and seemed in no hurry to leave the promised safety of the boat.
"Tie it to that tree," Steff growled and pointed at a nearby tree. "The four of you lot stay, Alec and Barb, with us."
Steff and John led the two sailors after the red-haired sisters. They heard them arguing before they found them standing between the rubble of the two buildings. Steff walked up to them while John studied the remains.
"— heading back to the ship if you try that again," Red finished berating her sister.
"I was... yes, Captain. Sorry."
"Think about it," Red said. "You've earned yourself a fortune. Gold, silver, pearls... what have you. Are you going to just leave it lying about? There are thieves that want it even more than you, does dumping it in a pile on the ground and walking away seem wise?"
"Of course not!"
"Aye, of course not. So what would you do?"
"Hide it, sure, but that's a pain in the arse every time you need to add or take something from it. You need to be sure no one's watching you, plus the matter of digging it up or climbing a tree or whatever it takes to get to it."
"So don't hide it? But what about thieves?" Little Red asked.
"You protect it," Red said.
"That was the water sprite John fucked his way through for us," Steff said.
Little Red scowled and refused to look at John. When she'd heard what he'd done she'd refused to talk to him for almost half an hour. She still refused to discuss it, but she'd warmed back up to him afterwards as long as that wasn't brought up.
"I remember a time when I couldn't trust my own sister to not steal from me when I came to visit," Red said.
Little Red's cheeks took on a color to match her hair.
"You think a pirate's going to trust his crew? Other pirates?" Red asked to drive the point home. "No pirate captain is fool enough to do that. He'd have it at the ready, but he'd have it protected right good. Traps a plenty... and if Billie was half the wizard John's turning out to be, there'll be magic involved."
"That's why we've got John," Little Red said.
"I think you've found another use for him too," Red muttered.
John cleared his throat, which only added to the color on Little Red's face. He gestured at the small huts and said, "The wood they used to make these doesn't look like the wood from these trees around us. They built them with mud and rocks at the base of the walls."
"These are bronzewood trees," Red said. "Hardest wood you'll find, but if you can get them cut the wood dries a bronze color. They're loaded full of sap too, and the sap dries and is hard enough some island folk learned to use it to make blades and spears."
John nodded. "That sounds familiar... I think I've read about it."
"Sure you have," Red said. "Point is, all this wood and they'd be hard pressed to do much with it. Axes bounce off and a proper saw might last through one tree before the teeth were dulled. That's why those huts weren't made from wood nearby."
John nodded. "Hard to argue that then."
"A trail!" Alec called out. "Old and overgrown, but there was one here."
"Footprints too," Barb said. "Fresh ones, at that."
John moved to where Barb was pointing. He shared a smile with her. She straightened and smiled back before looking away with some pink starting to color her cheeks. John filed that away. Barb wasn't the best looking woman on the Red Witch's crew, but she was more than comely enough if the opportunity came.
"What's this? They built a wall?" Little Red asked, her voice louder than necessary to get John's attention.
John turned to look at her and her discovery. Sure enough, there had been a wall built up out of the ground. More of the mud and rocks ran along the ground. Timbers had been sunk into them, by the looks of it, although nearly all of them had long rotted away. John knelt down next to the fortification and picked up some crumbling pieces. He studied it and looked up at Red.
She took a chunk of rock from him and nodded. "My guess is they used the sap to make that mix stronger. See how it's got a bronze color to it?
John stood up. "So they built a wall to protect them from the jungle. Makes sense. Not enough buildings here though. Where then?"
"The footprints lead this way," Barb reminded him.
"Well then, let's see where they go?" John said and used his spear as a walking staff to follow the path.
"Alec, Barb, stay here," Steff said. "Find a spot to keep an eye on things from this... whatever this was. Maybe even what's left of that dock. Scream like maidens being taken by slavers if you see something."
John winced at the thought of such a punishment.
"I'll lead," Red said and pushed past John. "You be ready."
John pulled himself out of her way until she was by him. "All right, but be careful."
"Be careful, he tells me," she snorted. "I'm not the one sticking my cock in strange women you just met."
He heard Little Red's breath hiss behind him. He knew better than to turn with that fresh reminder in her head.
"Or up their bums," Steff offered from the back of the line. "Maybe that's what I should have told them. Scream like John just shoved his cock up your arse!"
"I'm cursed," John groaned while Steff laughed. Little Red snickered and he even thought he saw Red's shoulders shake a little.
"I'm not much for sailing, but I'm really starting to like these girls."
John jumped and nearly tripped over the remains of the timber wall they were walking next to. Zynga was there beside him.
"Where in the levels of hell did you come from?" he hissed at her.
She winked at him. "I get around, remember?"
"You weren't in the boat!"
"Nobody saw me in the boat," she said. "Doesn't mean I wasn't there."
He shook his head. "I can see you. You weren't there!"
She shrugged and yawned. "You're a man, you'd have trouble seeing tits in your face if they weren't slapping your cheeks."
"I doubt that," John disagreed. "I happen to have quite an appreciation of... breasts."
"Tits," Zynga teased him. "Boobs. Fuckbags. Hooters, Knockers. Fun—"
John growled and cut her off with a wave of his hand. "Okay, okay, tits. I get it. Now shut up and keep an eye out. Billie's had the night to prepare for us. We need to be ready."
She grinned and said, "Yes, Master."
Zynga fell back behind him, allowing him to walk on the overgrown path easier. Less than a minute passed before he heard Little Red's voice.
"Oh, hi Zynga, I keep forgetting about... I'm sorry, that's terrible of me. I know how important you are to John."
"Damn right I am," Zynga said louder for John's benefit. "Don't worry about me though, I find I can serve him best when people don't notice me. How are you doing though?"
"Me?" Little Red squeaked. "I'm fine. Excited, even."
"Still sore when you sit down?"
Little Red squeaked.
"It's all right, dear, nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about."
"He told you?" she hissed.
"I know everything John does," Zynga assured her.
"Saint's preserve me," Little Red groaned.
Zynga cackled. "They are. Do you think they'd have made a good fucking feel so good if they didn't want you to enjoy it?"
Little Red gasped.
"Worry not. I'll not judge you poorly for wanting a good stiff cock in any hole. Trust me, John's practically an angel compared to some of the things I've seen."
"Oh my," Little Red breathed. "Wait... have you and John ever..."
Zynga laughed. "Look at me! His little spear would come out my mouth if he shoved it in me!"
"He's not that big," Little Red said.
"Big enough," Zynga sighed. "I'm afraid I'm not meant to enjoy John's wilder side. That's for other women of this world. He's got much to share, don't you think."
Little Red sighed. "I hoped Steff and I would be enough for him..."
"There there," Zynga consoled her. "You're a wild and cherished treasure, to be sure, but a man like John is driven by greater things. He's been chosen you know. Chosen to be a champion."
"A champion? Chosen by who?"
"My Lady," Zynga said. "His Lady too. Our Mistress is great and powerful, but she needs him to grow and spread her influence. The world is in a state of upheaval. New lords in the north, dragons and their armies rising in the southwest, goblins banding together under one banner, and so many unknowns in the western lands. And nobody's even aware of what's happening in the east beyond the seas!"
"What? There's something happening over there? I though the seas were endless and so vast they couldn't be sailed all the way around."
"Vast, yes, but their other lands and other people and they have their own wars and conquests to win... and yes, at least one of them knows of us."
She gasped. "They know about John?"
Zynga cackled. "No, no. Not about John, but about this great land that most think is the entirety of the world."
"Oh... and John needs to play a part in all of that?"
"Our Mistresses wishes him to be prepared for it, when the time comes. John will be a great champion in time."
"Oh... oh my."
"And think, you get to know him now and be near and dear to him."
"It... that's an honor," Little Red said.
Zynga nodded. "It is, but he is honored too. Honored by your love."
"I do love him," Little Red said. "I thought I was crazy... but I do!"
"If I know my Master— and I do— he loves you too. But he has his duty and his oath to Mistress, as well as his magic that guides him."
"Of course," Little Red said.
Zynga patted her hand. "Good. Enjoy your time with him, dear. He has chosen you to be forever connected to him, you know. He will always cherish you even when fate draws him away."
Little Red took a deep breath but couldn't speak around the lump in her throat. She nodded and blinked tears from her eyes. "I will, "she managed at last. Another breath eased her chest enough for her to add, "Thank you, Zynga... you are truly a wonderful and loyal servant."
Zynga chuckled and fell silent. In less than a dozen steps Little Red stopped noticing her and continued on, staring at John's back and trying to scheme how she could steal more of his time away before he had to go on to greater things.
John dismissed the spell that bound Zynga's ears to his own. He shook his head and stayed silent. The imp had helped him, he supposed, even as she'd shared things about the world that he'd not been aware of.
Or had he? Nothing she'd said had been surprising. There was a nagging sense of familiarity about her words, from the new realms in the northeast to the unification of goblin tribes and the dragon armies. The news of other lands to the east didn't surprise him either. He'd known that... but he couldn't remember what they were called or who lived there. All of that and still he felt she'd left something out. There was some other imbalance in the world, he was sure of it. Something that might have even been of great importance to him before...
"Well that's a chain in your rudder."
John stumbled to a halt before running into Red. He looked ahead of her and saw that the trail ended at the wall of the cliff. Wooden ladders and stairs zigged and zagged across the cliff face, offering a route to the summit. A route made of old wood and ropes and rusted iron nails driven into the rocks.
"We're going up that?" Little Red asked as she stopped beside John.
"That's where the foot prints lead," Red said.
John nodded. "Then that's where we go."
"Oy, that's a climb," Steff called out when she joined them a moment later.
John turned, searching behind them. He didn't see Zynga anywhere. He frowned and turned back, then caught her sitting on a rocky ledge at the top of a ladder with a few rotted and broken rungs that ran from the ground. She was almost two dozen feet above them. She waved at him and called down, "Mind your step, the first ladder seems solid enough."
"Should have brought some ropes," Steff muttered. "Lash ourselves together at least."
"And pull us all down if one should fall?" Red asked. She shook her head. "No, we'll go as we are."
Steff looked down at her wooden leg and then up at the ladder. She swallowed and nodded. "Aye, Captain. Want me to test it?"
"With your leg? I'm not sure I even want you trying it," Red admitted.
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