"Mare," Red whispered as she stared at her sister.
Steff fell to her knees beside the fallen sailor and reached her hand out to place on the woman's chest. She closed her eyes as trees slid down her cheeks.
The voice sounded again. Closer this time. "Oh no... no no no, I didn't want that to happen. If you'd just waited, I could have stopped it. I could have warned you."
John looked up as Red turned away. A man staggered toward them from the huts. He wore a tattered loincloth and had tattered rotting boots tied to around feet with vines. One eye was covered with scarred flesh.
"Billie?" John gasped.
"Yes!" He nodded. "You freed me? Thank you... I... I didn't want this. My crew's gone... gone or dead. You... I'd give anything to be free. Anything you want."
"Red!" John gasped as Red twisted toward him. Her saber was up and her face was twisted with savagery.
"That beast... it was yours?" Red demanded as she stalked toward him.
Billie held his hands up. "It was... ages ago. It grew though. While I was away it grew strong and... and... I don't know anymore."
"Why?" John demanded. He lifted himself up and stood. His leg nearly buckled but he took a staggering step to right himself. That brought fresh pain from the tentacle that had tried to crush his guts. He wasn't sure it hadn't succeeded.
"It... um... well, I suppose it doesn't matter now, does it?"
"Our treasure... it was protecting it."
Red grumbled and spit, her teeth grinding the entire while. She turned and looked at John. "I told her... I said it would be protected! Why'd she go and do that?"
"Try to save you?" John asked.
"Yes! I'm the one that's supposed to protect her!"
"I... look, I'm sorry. I couldn't control it anymore. It forgot me... or decided it didn't need me anymore. All we had, it's in the bottom of that lake. I'll help you get it, even. You can take all of it... all except for the one chest that's mine," Billie said.
"What's in that chest?" John demanded.
He looked down at himself. "My clothes... some books and baubles. Just personal things. I'll even give you what gold I have, on top of what was meant for my ship and crew. Whatever they haven't taken, that is. We'll need ropes, but we can make them from vines. Just be careful you don't get close to the webs. They'll bind you up and the spiders will come for you. They're new since I was here last, but I saw one. Big as a hound, it was!"
"We'll be taking it all," Red said.
He clamped his mouth shut and stared at her. "No... you can't. I need that. I... please, I don't even know how long I've been gone. Years, right? With this looking like this it must have been. I only found bones, and not many. The horror of the deep must have taken them. Some, at least. And maybe the spiders or the great jungle cats got the rest."
Billie had gotten closer as he rambled, just as Red and John had taken a few steps toward him. Red lowered the point of her sword as they closed. Billie noticed and kept talking.
"We had a lot. We saved up for years from all the tribute and raiding we done. Living here we seldom had a chance to spend it, outside of throwing bones and playing at dice or cards. We worked hard, building all this. Took us forever and a day! Especially keeping the animals back at first. Them great cats was black as sin and had a stinger in their tail like a scorpion. It would drop a grown man from his feet in seconds for hours, but he was still awake and feeling."
He nodded his head with vigor. "We earned all that we got. Hard work on top of hard work. Not all of them was up for it, but we made it happen. I made it happen. I made the deal with that sea nymph. Stopped her from killing people even. I never liked killing. Not unless we had to teach a lesson to get people to understand... but then them fools banded together against us."
"You talk too much," Red snarled at him.
He snapped his mouth shut. "Sorry, miss..."
"Captain," Red corrected him. "Captain Red, of the Red Witch."
"The Red Witch? I don't know that one. Are you one of them that came after me?"
"You've been gone a hundred years," John said. "The tales of Billie the One Eyed are stories told to frighten children. Nobody believes you ever lived. Nobody except Little Red."
His shoulders slumped and then he looked up again, a feverish gleam in his eye. "I can rise again! I'll join your crew, Captain. I know these waters and this land. I'm a wizard too... I just have to get my books and study them to remember my spells and powers. Then, if you want, we can even rebuild here. It's safe. Safer now with that horror dead and gone, I suppose. We'll be the terror of the coast again and regain all that was lost!"
"You're a pirate and a raider," Red spat, causing him to clamp his mouth shut. She took a step toward him and landed hard on the foot that had been wrapped up in the tentacle. Her ankle twisted and she went down with a curse.
Billie stepped forward and bent down to help her. "Careful! Let me—"
Billie's words turned into a grunt. Red rose up, pushing him back a half step. She thrust again and pushed her saber the rest of the way through so the tip came out his back. She reached out with her left hand and clapped down on the crook of his shoulder and neck, holding the shocked man steady. She gave the saber a jerk and a twist and then ripped it out.
Billie's blood sprayed across the lakeshore. She pushed him back and he fell on his arse and back. One hand went to his belly to hold his slippery guts as they tried to escape. Blood poured onto the ground and ran in a river to the water's edge.
Red stared at the dying man. His mouth opened and shut and he shook his head as he tried to make sense of what was happening to him. He looked at John, his eyes desperate as his life leaked through his fingers.
John lowered his spear and brought it under the man's chin. "The Captain doesn't like pirates, and she doesn't like wizards."
"But... I... You..."
"I don't suffer fools that cause the people I care for to get hurt or killed," John said. "You've lived a hundred years too long, Billie. You don't deserve another life."
Billie's final plea, if he had one, was lost in the gurgling and gagging on his own blood. John left his spear in the man's throat so it could feel the hot spray of his lifeblood. Billie's energy was just as hot as it raced up the spear and soothed the ache in John's leg and belly. The magic gloated as it feasted upon the last of Billie's soul, tearing it apart instead of cradling it gently as it had down for Little Red.
Billie's body fell back on the beach, his heart and body stopped for all times.
Red stared at the dead pirate for a long moment. Her shoulders trembled and tears marked her cheeks and fell to her drying shirt, rewetting it. She shook her head and turned away so she could go and join Steff at her sister's body.
John stared at the man and then look at the lake. The monster was dead, he was sure of it, but he had no great desire to go back into the water.
"You're reward awaits," Zynga spoke in somber tones beside him.
He turned to her. "Where were you all this time?" he asked.
"I was here... watching. You had it under control."
John snorted. "If I had it under control Little Red would still be alive!"
Zynga shrugged. "It's true, I didn't see that coming. Guess my little chat with her wasn't needed after all, was it?"
"How can you..."
Zynga glanced up at him. Her eyes flared red for a moment and she said, "Hello, imp here, remember? Suffering, agony, heartbreak? I've been steeped in that for centuries, Master. Kindness and sacrifice are weakness... or tools used by stronger beings to gain power. I did like her though. She had spirit. And she was a very naughty girl, but you already knew that."
"I don't believe that," John said.
"Excuse me? You were the one shoving your cock up her ass. You don't think that's a little bit naughty by the standards of most of the women of this world?"
John scowled. "I mean that kindness and compassion is a weakness. I think I might have, once, but I don't anymore."
Zynga rolled her eyes. "Careful with talk like that, Mistress won't be pleased if you go and get ideas that counter hers."
"I won't disobey Mistress," John agreed, "but I choose how I do her bidding, not you and not her. I told Billie that he didn't deserve a second life. I'm going to make sure that I do."
Zynga studied him for a long moment before she shrugged. "I believe you will. You're a unique man, Master. I'm looking forward to seeing what troubles you cause."
John sighed. "If you're not going to help, you don't need to be here."
Zynga shrugged. "Okay."
John looked back down at her and found that she was gone. Just like that. He jerked his head back and forth to look for her but she was nowhere to be seen. He blew out a huff of air and turned back to the pond. That treasure wasn't going to raise itself.
He planted his spear in the sand and stripped his robe over his head. Naked, save for his dagger, he waded back into the cold water of the pond and shivered. How he hadn't noticed it before he wasn't sure. The heat of the moment had offset the cold of the water, he supposed.
He steeled himself against the temperature and waded deeper. When he was neck deep he took several deep breaths and then dove under and swam forward, heading to what he thought was the center of the lake.
The silt stirred up by the fight had mostly settled and the blood that had made a fog in the water had washed away. He found limp tentacles and followed them, retracing his steps until he came upon the central mass of the horror of the deep. He shuddered and swam up, breaking the surface and taking several breaths before he dove again and searched around the dead creature.
Just as Billie had said, he soon found three chests. He had to return to the surface for fresh air twice more for air before he felt he was ready. He called on the magic again, though this time it was harder. Without the need to protect what was his the magic was still focused on toying with what remained of Billie's essence.
John enlarged himself again, though not as much as he'd done the first time, and grabbed a chest. He tugged it free of decades of silt and sediment and walked along the bottom until he had to let it go and rise for fresh air. His magic sustained him some, but as with his supernatural growth, it was a struggle to maintain. The magic was ready when it was truly needed. Apparently the magic didn't consider recovering lost treasure as important.
It took John over an hour before he pulled the final chest from the water. He dragged it up on to the beach and collapsed beside it. He returned to his normal size and rolled over on to his back, gasping for breath and feeling his muscles ache from the long effort. He struggled to fight back the darkness that tried to claim him and thought he'd lost when a shadow fell over him.
When he blinked and managed to get the fuzzy figure above him into focus he saw it was Steff. She offered him a hand.
John groaned as she helped him to his feet. He felt tired and weak. The magic inside of him was sullen and angry and hungry. It gnawed at him, demanding food. John was too tired even for that. Tired and, no matter what the magic might be able to make his flesh do, too heartbroken.
Steff helped him slip his robe back on and slipped her shoulder under his arm without a word.
"I'm sorry," John finally managed.
"Hush now," Steff said. "She was me sister. Not by blood, but by choice. You made us stronger. I miss her so much I don't know how we go on from her, but I'm thankful for her and for you. If I never knew what sharing you with her was like, I'd be less a woman for it."
John blinked back fresh tears and nodded. "She was something, wasn't she?"
Steff smiled and nodded. "Aye, she was."
Red looked at the third chest. "Sacks of gold and silver coins, mostly," she said. "Some silver cups, plates, forks, knives, and the like too. It's no king's ransom, but it's more than we'd see in a couple years of honest work."
"Not worth Little Red's life," John said.
Red's teeth clenched. When her emotions passed she shook her head. "No amount of coin is," she said. "But it's what we got and she'd be spitting salt if we didn't make the best of it. Let's see what this last chest has. It's bigger than the others."
John turned and looked at it while Red limped over and knelt down beside it. His eyes went to her hip and saw that her pants were stained brown and black with dried blood and the gash in her hip was still shiny and weeping even though the bleeding had stopped. John shook his head at the woman's determination.
"You're hip needs tending," John said.
"Aye, it does, but you're not the one to do it."
"I'm no healer," he agreed. "And my magic doesn't work much on you."
She turned and stared at him. "Is that right?"
"You resist me, I learned that when I first saw you. I wasn't sure at first, but now I know."
"If I'd known I'd have run you through," she said.
"Why do you think you're only finding out now?" he asked her.
She snorted. "All right, why then, John? Why doesn't your magic work on me?"
"You're not interested in me. Or men at all, for that matter."
Her eyes dropped to his waist and then back up to his face. "I suppose you're right. You're a right handsome man, John, I'll not deny that... but you're no Sasha."
"She's the true one for you," John agreed. "I'm happy for the two of you, and happy that even if I turned dark and bitter, I could do nothing to the two of you."
Red snorted. "As if you'd get the chance."
John gave her a tired smile. He'd had the chance once and he could have it again, any time he wanted. She didn't need to know that though. She feared magic already, there was no reason to make her fear it, or him, more.
Red fumbled with the lock for several minutes before she growled and slapped it. She shook her hand to make the stinging in her palm go away and turned to Steff. "I can't get this one."
Seph rose from where she sat beside John on the beach and walked over to join Red. She fished out the steel tools she'd used on the storage room at Widow's Edge and tried her luck at the large lock on the chest. She swore and grunted a few times before giving up several minutes later. Both eyes went to John.
"There's no lock I can't open," Steff growled. "By the west wind, this one should have opened a half dozen times now, but when I tick that final tumbler my pick slides off. It don't matter which is the final one, neither."
John sighed. "A spell then. Must be Billie locked it with magic."
"Well, unlock it then. Magic it open," Red said.
"It would open for him," John said. "Or maybe word or phrase."
"You want us to talk at it?" Steff asked.
John chuckled and shook his head. He grimaced as he forced his aching body to his feet and shambled over to it. He sank down beside it and decided he didn't like how familiar he felt. Tired and achy all over... it reminded him of... of feeling normal. He shook the thoughts off and focused on the lock instead.
A few calming breaths later John found his center and forgot about the aches and pains in his body. He reached out with his magical senses and felt the spell protecting the lock. It was a wizard's lock all right, and keyed to know the wizard that created it. It would only open for Billie. John frowned and searched the chest over. They could smash it open, he supposed, but it was wrought of steel and bronzewood. Smashing it apart would be no easy task and the force required would probably damage or destroy anything inside. Anything truly valuable, that is.
John returned his attention to the lock. He wondered if he could trick the spell into thinking he was Billie. If he could somehow alter himself to appear as Billie, perhaps. He could work it as in order to be what the spell most desired he had to look like the one eyed pirate. It might just work...
John looked over at where Billie lie next to the water's edge. He couldn't see his face from his angle but if he—
John burst out laughing.
"He's gone mad," Red muttered.
John shook his head. "No, sorry. I... never mind. I think I figured out how to open it."
Red and Steff looked at one another and then back to John.
John focused on the chest and called up the magic. It resisted him, pulling back and away from his will until he summoned a surge of anger and snatched a hold of it. It might be Beytrixxa's gift to him, but he was its master and it would obey him. Grudgingly it yielded to him as he made his desires apparent.
Billie's essence that remained, the tiny spark that was being nipped and teased and tortured, was pushed to the forefront. John took it and presented it to the lock, pushing it against it and sharing what remained of Billie.
The spell shimmered in John's vision and then fell apart. The lock clicked open without need of key or pick.
John smiled as both women gasped. Steff grabbed the top of the chest and heaved it open, throwing it back so that it clanged against the backside when it fell open. Inside the chest was as dry as bone picked clean on a desert hill.
There were books inside covered in etched bronze that had turned green over the years. John reached in and picked out the first and grinned as he pulled back the metal cover and found each page within was made of durable parchment. The ink that marked the pages with text and diagrams was strong and had withstood the test of time. He checked a second book and found the same throughout. There were four of them in total.
"You got your books," Red said. "That make this worth it?"
John's smile was erased by the somber question. "No... I suppose not. But as you said, I must make the best of it. There's more. Some clothes that haven't rotted away. A wizard's wand, some daggers, and six sacks of coins."
"He saved the best for himself, it seems," Steff said.
"He was a pirate," Red scoffed.
"I'll take the books, that's all I need," John said. "The rest is yours."
"You'll be taking that branch too," Red pointed out. "I want nothing to do with it."
John smirked and reached in to take the wand. He studied it and could feel how attuned it was to magic. It was like his spear, ready to channel and conduct power through it. He didn't need it, he had his spear, but perhaps it might come in handy someday. He slipped it into a pocket of his robe.
"This is too much for us to carry back down the cliff," John pointed out. "We'll need some help."
Red glanced at the sky. The sun was in the west and dipping low towards the sea. "Let's move them to the cliff, at least. I don't want to be up here after dark."
"Are you afraid of spiders too?" John asked.
She scowled at him. "No, and we'll be taking my sister back with us too. I won't leave her here for whatever beasts live here. She deserves a proper send off at sea. She loved sailing more than me, I think."
"Of course," John said. He dragged his tired body to his feet and said, "We'd best get to it, we don't have much time before dark."
They got to work dividing the smallest chest between the two larger ones and what remained they carried on belts, in pockets, or in the last case by tying two sacks together and hanging them over Steff's neck. Red and John lugged one chest a time to the cliff's edge and then they returned as twilight began to claim the huts for Little Red. They heard rustling and chittering noises in the darkness and hurried along the water's edge until they reached the edge of the cliff.