“Telling our story, love?” Sebastian’s gravelly voice crawls up my spine like bird talons, digging under my skin and sending pain searing through my head. It’s a strange kind of pain, the kind that comes from everywhere all at once, and I can feel my heartless chest squeeze in displeasure.
Hatred rolls off him like slick grease, and I crawl backwards to try to get away from the putrid air. I can feel it suffocating me again, though my dead lungs are still—as far as I can tell—dead. He stares at me with those white eyes but something in them looks different; more… whole somehow. Like he’s not looking through me anymore.
Like he’s looking right at me.
Now I can feel my mouth moving as words come out, words that I’m supposed to recognize, words that some part of my mind is telling me are my story, but I cannot understand them. And then his mouth begins to move too as the same words, the same similar words, all begin to take shape. Something shifts to my side, something dark, near the far wall of my cell, but I can’t take my eyes away from Sebastian’s ghostly pallor. It’s attracting me like a thief to emeralds, and try as I might, I can’t look away.
Suddenly the words I’m speaking come alive, stretching out in front of me, and taking the shapes of things I recognize. Word by word they form rough wooden planks that settle beneath my hands. Sebastian speaks and the words tumble down toward the floor, changing to drops of water that soon swell into an entire ocean. Slowly, but with completely clarity, a mast rises above us, a brilliant white sail stretching out over our heads. The words fade and change color, texturize and expand, until there is no longer a frozen dungeon in a gray castle, but an empty ship settled on a quiet ocean.
A scene that is much too familiar to be comfortable.
“What is this, Rose?” Sebastian snaps, and I look around us, at the deadly quiet sea with no waves, and the ship that could be an exact replica of my father’s. All around us decaying bodies lay sporadically about, only the meager resemblance of men I once knew.
“Why are you asking me?” I can feel my hands bunching into fists at my side. “You must have done this. Your dungeon, your doing.”
“All of this to get back your precious heart?” he sneers, his white eyes narrowing. “I didn’t know it was worth that much to you.”
I glare at him. “What would you know?”
The sharpness in his eyes dims slightly and he makes a move as if to step toward me. “More than you think,” he says just as the boat gives a destabilizing shudder.
I fall back against the deck, my hand landing centimeters away from the rotting flesh of my father’s second in command Lieutenant…um, Lieutenant…well bloody bones, I can’t remember.
“What was that?” Sebastian asks again and I roll my eyes, bolting quickly to my feet.
“How am I supposed to know? Stop asking ridiculous questions.”
Coming to his feet, he strides toward me, the hardness in his eyes turning to anger that slides through me like ice. “You have no idea, do you?” His voice is thick, low and threatening.
“About what?” I snap back.
“You have no idea about what I had to sacrifice to find you. I was the Governor’s son, you know. And you—the daughter of a pirate—ran away from me. You do realize how absolutely ridiculous that is, right?”
“Wait, wait.” I wave a hand in front of his face, stirring the dead air. “Go back to the first part. What do you mean ‘what you had to sacrifice’?”
He sighs. “They just wanted some information. I thought it was harmless.”
He doesn’t answer my question, just keeps talking, staring out at the freakishly still ocean around us. “The questions weren’t anything important; just if I knew who you were and where you were going. Stuff like that.”
“What else?” I press.
He shrugs. “They wanted to know about your father’s ship.”
“Who are they?” I ask again.
His opaque, white eyes continue to scan the horizon and it makes me nervous that he will not look at me, almost as nervous as it makes me when he does.
“They weren’t human. I remember that much, at least.”
My nails dig into my palms as I begin to lose patience. Trying to speak with him is like trying to draw answers from a man who only knows riddles. I’m beginning to grow nervous as my empty chest continues to tighten. I don’t know what Mary would do if she were here—
I bite down on my lip. Mary, the pixie, where are they?
I glance rapidly around the ship, running between the immobile bodies of pirate men, but there are no snarky Americans, no flying gremlins, nothing whatsoever to indicate that they made the trip here with us.
“What is happening?” I say to myself, and finally Sebastian turns to look at me. There’s something in his eyes that makes my breath catch in my throat (figuratively). No, it is his eyes. They’re blue, the same color as the ocean, the same color they were hundreds of years ago. The pale whiteness is gone, though they still watch everything with a kind of transparency. Even his hair has changed. Instead of the inky black hidden beneath a dark cloak, it is the sweet honey color that it used to be. In fact—I look around anxiously—everything is just as it used to be.
The ship itself seems to be changing, losing the eerie ghostly quality that it has possessed for the last two hundred and fifty years, and regaining the bright pungency that it once had in its youth. I can smell the fresh wood, the salt of the sea, even the urine from the makeshift latrine below decks.
The ocean, too, begins to change as slowly waves work their way back under the prow, lifting the Jolly Reaper gently and swaying her back and forth.
“That dress looked better two hundred years ago,” Sebastian observes, and I look down to see the tattered rags of my dress have been replaced with the beautiful maroon and crimson fabric that—before the virus—had made up the delicate beauty of the gown.
“What is happening now?” I ask and he shrugs again.
All at once it’s as if time itself is moving backwards, like the modern day televisions where time and people go in reverse when the correct command is pressed on the remote. The men around us rise, coming to their feet as their skin heals over and their eyes replace back into their sockets. They walk back to their proper places aboard the ship—chef, first mate, lookout—completely ignorant of the presence of two youths.
Memories are fragile things.
I jump and meet Sebastian’s frightened gaze. The voice comes from nowhere and everywhere at once, filling up the ocean around us, and echoing in every wave that rocks against the ship.
Without knowing it, we give them permission to change. To become something untrue; a lie.
“Do you want to take over the explaining on this one?” Sebastian asks me, stepping closer so that we’re side-by-side, staring out at the boat in front of us.
“Explain it how?” I snap. “Do you want me to tell you that I’m speaking with my mind? Because that would be a lie.”
“Maybe, but at least it would be something.”
Keep your minds open and see what it means to be wrong.
“W-wrong about what?” I ask no one in particular. There’s no response. Of course. With a sigh of frustration, I turn to Sebastian. “What is this? Because, whatever it is, it’s not funny. Is this a special effect of your creepy little dungeon? Can you scramble people’s minds?”
He clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, a sound of impatience. “If that was the case, then why would I scramble my own mind? My dungeon is meant to be frightening and uncomfortable, sure, but not—” He gestures to our surroundings and the crewman that have now begun to work about the ship, oblivious to our presence.
“Then what—?” I’m interrupted by the sight of a person that looks all too familiar to forget, yet seems somehow…unreal.
The girl’s long, brown curls swing in her face as she pushes the trapdoor up just enough to see across the deck. Around her, the crew members work their positions in idle obliviousness to the extra passenger hiding below their feet.
“Hey.” Sebastian points toward the girl. “Isn’t that you?”
“What do you mean gone?” My father’s booming voice echoes across the ship as he lifts the ship’s cook up by his collar. He’s a balding, portly man, with an unflattering taste in shoe ware. “The food supply was supposedly checked and double checked by yourself before we left. Are you willing to take the blame?”
With a shudder, the man nods, and my father throws him back to the ground with a heavy thunk. The fat man scurries back into the hold quickly as the me in another life slowly slips back below decks. The last thing I see of her is the whites of her eyes before she nervously goes back into hiding.
“Wait a minute,” Sebastian mutters beside me. “This is a memory.”
I feel my eyebrows lift in question as I look up at him. “How would you know that?”
A figure suddenly swings over the ship’s rail, landing on the deck directly opposite where I am standing, and I jump.
“That’s how,” Sebastian whispers.
The boy is dressed in a white linen shirt with dark breaches and shiny, leather boots. A sword dangles at his side, though from the shiny newness of it, I’d guess it hasn’t seen much action. Sebastian’s familiar face glances in my direction as he pulls at his bootstraps, though he does not see me. My father, however, sees him clearly.
Beside me, the real Sebastian shifts uncomfortably.
“Sir, I’m afraid I’ve made a grave mistake,” two-hundred-years-in-the-past Sebastian says anxiously to my father. “I think I’ve told some people things…I can’t…I don’t know…” He seems unable to come up with the right words, and my father reaches for his sword, not willing to give him the time to do it. With a sharp zing, the blade releases from its scabbard, its sharp edge coming to rest against Sebastian’s neck.
“No.” My father takes a step toward old-Sebastian. “You did this to us.”
I don’t hear the rest of the conversation. I can’t hear it over the noise that begins to quake through the air. It’s like one hundred thousand bees have swarmed overhead, yet the skies are completely clear.
“What is happening?” I shout toward Sebastian, but he’s staring straight ahead with a look of panic in his eyes.
A cry erupts from the crew as something climbs over the side of the ship, its little body darting about like a ship rat. It’s not just one, I realize, but a million little somethings. They’re in the water, climbing over the side of the ship, and swarming the crew whose cries are quickly growing louder with panic.
The things are half rodent, half fish. Gills protrude from their fury necks and they each have a silvery fin that slides down their spines, ending where their great, bushy tales begin. Two black eyes dot their heads, and their noses wiggle back and forth as they move about.
Don’t you remember?
The voice is even louder now and I flinch toward Sebastian, who runs into me, his hands pressed tightly over his ears, though I know in my dead gut that it won’t do anything to block the sound.
Don’t you remember?
I watch as one by one the bodies of my father’s crew fall, their skin slowly growing pasty white as giant wounds—festering burns and boils—begin to erode their skin. I watch as the creatures surround my father and he crashes down onto the rough wooden floor, his skin turning pale gray and covering with blisters.
Don’t you remember us? the voice asks, and suddenly it’s not one voice but many. Hundreds, thousands, as many as there are little creatures.
There is one creature that stands apart from the rest of them, watching as they ride—like waves—over the ship and back into the water, leaving death and putrescence behind. He slowly turns around, his black eyes finding us amidst the chaos, almost as if he can—
“You can see us?” I ask.
His eyes blink rapidly. Of course.
Sebastian looks down at me, eyebrows pulled together, and he pulls at my sleeve. “W-what do you want?” I ask.
Not me, you. it says. I hear you have been searching for me.
“Um, no.” I clear my throat. “I don’t believe that is accurate. I think I would know if I was looking for a…a…um, what are you again?”
Its tail twitches slightly and I wonder if it might spring at me. My spine goes rigid in anticipation.
I am a squish. You are a human.
“A squish? Oh, is that right?” I place a hand over my mouth, willing myself not to laugh. I doubt making this small creature angry will benefit me any at this point.
I am a squish, it says again. And now you are dead.
The sound of ripping metal rings in my ear as the vision slowly fades and I gather my surroundings: cold, ice… the dungeon!
Across from me, Sebastian blinks rapidly, clearing the image from his head as well, and my eyes widen at the sight of his.
“Blue,” I say as another shrill sound fills the air, though this one is an animalistic roar. “Your eyes are still blue.”
He nods rapidly. “Your dress is fixed.”
Before we have much time to process this, I feel a warm hand on my arm and turn to see Mary, wide-eyed as a massive shape lunges behind her. She stares at me in one part awe, one part horror as realization dawns on her that she can actually touch me.
“What—?” I start, but she cuts me off with an abrupt shake of her head.
“Not now, we have to run.”
I nod and she pulls me along behind her as a beast roars somewhere off to our left. “Fear the Kra!” it screams. “I will have my revenge!”
“That’s great,” Mary shouts behind us, “but could you do it a little faster?”
We dart up a set of stairs hidden behind a sheet of ice and my shoes slide against the frozen water, making me lose my footing.
“What happened to you?” Mary asks as she pulls me up with one hand, reaching for a trap door I didn’t see before with the other. “Why can you walk all of the sudden?”
“I don’t know, but—” I’m cut off again as our pixie-gremlin friend pops up beside us.
“Where are you going?” he twitters.
“Away,” Mary growls.
“But you must save the King. Besides, that way leads to more ghouls.”
“Crap, the King.” Mary brushes a hand over her eyes. “We forgot about the King. Where in the dungeon—?”
“Ghouls…” I mumble to myself. “Sebastian!” I look for him behind me, but can’t see him. Another roar shakes the dungeons and I flinch. “He’s gone,” I tell Mary.
“Good riddance, coward.” Her eyebrows draw together as the pixie jabs her in the arm.
“The King can help you, but we must save him first.”
“Where. In. The. Dungeons?” Mary repeats.
The pixie’s head bobs up and down. “Oh, he’s not in the dungeons. That would be ridiculous.”
Mary’s jaw muscles twitch. “But you said he was a prisoner here.”
“Yes, of course, but you wouldn’t keep a prisoner of his magnitude in the dungeons.”
“Why not?” she snaps. “Isn’t that what dungeons are for?”
He shrugs. “Details.”
I’m pretty sure the blood vessels in Mary’s head are about to explode as she leans down toward the Pixie. “I hate you. I hate you so much.”
Inserting myself between Mary and the creature she’s about to kill, I make a grab for one of the pixie’s wings, but he dodges quickly. “By ‘we’ must save him, you definitely mean us,” I say.
“Yes.” He smiles. “That’s right.”
Mary and I exchange a haggard look.
“Do we have much of a choice?” I ask.
She sighs. “I don’t think we’ve ever had much of a choice.” Without warning she reaches out and grabs the pixie, pinning his wings between her fingers. “What do we have to do?”
Little beads of sweat form across his forehead and he gulps, his pinkish skin turning even redder. “You have to find Frogg,” he mumbles.
“And?” Mary presses.
“And…” He gulps again. “And then you have to solve the riddle.”