It took until three in the morning for Lori and Foxe to find an opportunity to board the ghost ship. The official business on its rotting planks had stretched on until nearly one in the morning, at which point all but two of the guards had gone home. This pair of unfortunates paced up and down in the cold, talking to each other in hushed voices. Finally, one of them decided that enough was enough and suggested they run off for tea and a bit of warmth. His companion readily agreed, provided they came straight back, and just like that the ship was deserted.
A terrible smell was rising from somewhere near at hand. When the wind caught it just right it had a sweet, pungent odor that put meat-packing plants to shame. It filled the whole ship and smacked Lori and Foxe in the face as they boarded.
“Let’s hurry,” whispered Foxe. Lori nodded her agreement, as much for the sake of their noses as the fear of getting caught.
The smell was strongest near a great, jagged hole in the deck. They peered inside, but it was impossibly dark, even for their flashlights. After some hunting they discovered a perilous set of stairs that seemed to be leading down, directly into the vessel’s black belly.
“What do you suppose is rotting down there? Fish?” Lori said as they descended into a small sea of what could only be described as ‘muck.’
“Sure, if we’re lucky,” Foxe muttered.
Boxes were scattered everywhere, growing mold and ruined by the damp. They waded in up to their knees, shining their lights into the corners. Some of the boxes they passed had labels in various languages, most of which were impossible to make out. A few were broken, their contents presumably lost somewhere in the watery sludge.
“This is cool,” Lori said suddenly. She bent and tried to lift a solid metal box. Unlike the others, it had no label. “What do you think this could be?”
“Who knows,” Foxe replied, “open it.”
Lori shrugged and began to struggle with the silver lid. It came off in her hands, making her stagger backwards a few wet paces. But there was nothing inside.
“Well, that’s disappointing.”
She set the lid down and moved on to a long, narrow box that was already half open and packed to the brim with moldy straw. Foxe followed, casting about nervously with his flashlight. His resolve to help her was weakening, but Lori was in no way satisfied yet. They needed to explore this wreck from top to bottom, smell or no smell, guards or no guards. The painted man had been waiting for it for ages, which made it the best—no, the only—thing they had to go on as far as he was concerned. She put her back into ripping the lid the rest of the way off and before long the ancient wooden thing cracked and splintered apart. Moldy straw did nothing to hide the pungent whiff of death that leapt up to throttle their senses. They both clamped their hands over their mouths and noses, ignoring their instincts in favor of leaning over the box to gaze at the few darker shapes inside. With one hand Lori scooped some straw-bits aside, but the first foreign item she encountered was attached to the next. In fact, they all seemed to be connected. With a growing sense of dread she moved to the far end of the box and lifted a handful of straw.
She had seen her fair share of the morbid. She could write a book on the ugliness of the world. But there was something unsettlingly fresh in the all-out-horror of finding a nice, juicy mummy mere inches from her fingertips. The thing was ripe; its skin was blackened and leathery, stretched tight over brittle bones and laced in damp mold. Bandages had all but disintegrated, and the few that remained were fused with its eye sockets and mouth.
Lori turned in a circle, staring at the other narrow boxes. She shined her flashlight up and down the cargo hold, trying to determine how many there were. As she did, a single pair of broken chains caught her eye, dangling from a low beam.
“I think,” she said slowly, resisting the urge to gag, “I think this is basically a graveyard.”
“Why haven’t they exhumed these yet?” Foxe asked.
“How should I know? Maybe they’re treating it kind of like a crime scene. I mean, this is pretty historic, isn’t it? There’s got to be a lot of value in all of this.”
Foxe frowned, shining his light on the mummy’s face. “Then why just two guards? They should have left behind an entire team. They should be working around the clock. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Well,” Lori replied impatiently, “when strange ships appear out of nowhere and cough up a few well-packed corpses, I guess it’s time to stop thinking in logical patterns.”
There were fifteen mummy-boxes. The silver box was pointless and disappointing, but some of the smaller wooden crates that hadn’t succumbed to time still held some potential. Lori had just started to open one when a soft, vaguely musical sound slipped into her ears.
“Did you hear that?” She glanced up at the deck boards, her heart pounding. Maybe the guards had come back already. But there it was again, and it was not a human noise. It was the song of metal. Her gaze shifted to the chains. They were moving on their own, ever so slightly. Just enough to be horrible.
“Foxe,” she hissed. He turned and the rest of the color left his face in a hurry. “Let’s go.”
They ran back up the stairs. There was no one there. No guards, no harbor officials…in fact, no harbor. They were drifting away from it. Two small dots waved frantically at them from the shore like angry windmills—the guards. Lori ran to the edge of the deck and looked down, judging how great of a drop it would be. She was just thinking that they could probably survive when the sky vanished.
To be exact, there was still a sky—but it was the wrong one. The familiar pattern of stars had been replaced by fog and clouds…and a torrential rainstorm.
“Quick,” Foxe yelled, “back into the hold!”
“What good would that do?!” Lori yelled back. “There’s a hole in the deck!”
Both of them ran in opposite directions, searching for any kind of shelter. Lori’s frantic search took her to a thick door nearby the ship’s wheel. She wrestled it open and turned to look for her godfather. “Foxe! Over here!” He didn’t reply. She couldn’t see him, and the rain was coming in sideways. After a moment she gave up and shoved her way into a corridor which was almost too narrow even for her thin frame. She could just manage to navigate it, but the walls still pressed uncomfortably close.
Lori pulled the door closed behind her and sank back against one of the walls. It took her just long enough to collect her breath for her to realize that she could see exactly nothing in here. She fumbled in her coat, found her flashlight, and switched it on.
The corridor was streaked with blood. It was old and dried, but that didn’t make it any better. There were deep grooves in the woodwork on the floor—ten jagged lines that made her ears ring with the imagined sound of fingernails. Slowly, she began to walk, her pulse in her throat. There were rooms on all sides, but she passed them by in favor of following whatever…whomever…had been dragged down the corridor. It was a horrible thing to think, but she almost hoped that there would be a body at the end of the trail. The more pieces of the painted man’s puzzle, the better.
One final door. It was quite obviously important, judging from the amount of effort that had gone into its carvings. Perhaps it had been the captain’s quarters. Nothing was to impede Lori’s curiosity now. She could just hear an audience screaming at her; it was like one of those horror movies, when the main character goes somewhere they shouldn’t, despite obvious warnings. At least I know it’s stupid, she thought.
There was no blood on the floor inside. At first glance there was nothing to suggest the room had even been lived in; everything was neat and in its place. There was a mirror, a dresser, a wardrobe, a chair…and a bed. It was the bed that made her look twice. It was draped in a canopy of yellow gauze curtains, beneath which she could just make out two still forms. Only the faintest scents of decay filled the air; the room was otherwise impeccably clean. She approached the bed, ignoring the screaming of her fabricated audience, and pulled aside the curtains.
(The story continues next Monday! From now on, we will be posting Monday and Thursday evenings! Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @companyofsouls!)