Finally, Aria had found herself a way to get to Dewclaw in a reasonable time while being able to observe her surroundings. She had hitched a ride with a pirate who was smuggling magical goods on a crystal cursed home that could move on its own. There were many questions as to how that was possible but the captain of the vessel could only really give her small details about how the house was controlled and how it was kept tame. Even though her curiosity about the ship wasn't fully satisfied, she couldn’t complain about a single thing. She had been given a room near what counted as the helm and more than just that, the room she was in had a wonderful view of the outside world. It wasn’t as good a view as in the helm itself but the windows gave her the sights of the wilderness just outside of Rind. A creature or two crossed her vision and she managed to sketch them just fine but her interest was in capturing the constantly moving landscape set before her into a connected shape that she could make into a greater painting. At the same time, she wondered what sort of dangers awaited her truly on this journey. Aria had been told to expect some sort of trouble with a group like this but everything appeared to be peaceful. The trees outside were going by at a steady pace and the animals that appeared were small and more curious than anything. Monsters were a possibility along with the threat of bandits and other sorts of brigands. Such thoughts created a small dot of anxiety at the back of her head that buzzed every so often. Despite that buzzing, she kept on sketching and sketching until the sun started coming down. Just when the buzzing began to grow a bit louder and her lines began to grow more abstract, the door to her room cracked open with a thunderous bang and the whine of wood on wood.
“CAPTAIN’S CHECKUP!” Came a familiar voice.
In response to the sound of the door’s frame cracking and the sudden yelling, Aria leaped up into the air and fluttered while looking around and calling out, “What what what?! Where is the fire? What’s happening? Is something attacking us?!”
Cadenza laughed, “Is something attacking us? Nope! Can’t say that is the case but I’m invading your assigned quarters to let you know that you’ve been invited to my cabin for a mandatory dinner.”
Aria blinked and slowly fluttered back down to sit at the edge of the bed, heart thumping rapidly as she breathed out the words, “I...I’m not that hungry but I have to admit captain, I almost saw the other side with you slamming the door open like that and yelling so loudly.”
The painted gator rubbed the back of her head, “Sorry about that dear. Part of me wanted to appear with a bang to shock y’into action. Y’see, I don’t think I’ve seen you eat for the entire day, meaning, I figured you were stuck on something and needed a good waking up.”
There was a moment when Aria felt it necessary to remind the captain that she wasn't hungry but her tiny stomach rumbled and she placed a few claws over it while humming. Now that she wasn’t focused on her sketching and her heart was calming down with the certainty that there was no danger Aria could feel her hunger catching up to her. Perhaps she had truly been ignoring her own body for far too long. When she checked out the window, she saw that the sun was coming down over the horizon and that the sketch she had been working nearly took up two entire pages side by side.
“Maybe I could use something to eat.” Muttered Aria.
Cadenza stepped to the bed and offered her arm, “That’s the spirit! Come now, food and drink await us.”
With a small smile and a flutter, the small bat hopped up onto the captain’s arm to accept the perch before sighing, “Thank you. I forget to take care of myself sometimes.”
As they headed out of the room and into the mazework of halls that made the home's innards, Cadenza asked, “Anything on your mind?”
Aria hummed, “I suppose I was just focused on the world sliding outside of the window but I was also just trying to ignore something annoying. You see, everyone told me that there would be some sort of danger, so I’m just bracing for when it happens and that bracing starts to become an obsession wondering when it is going to happen. Instead of being stuck in that, I tried to stick myself in drawing and well, look at me forgetting to care about myself as the result.” Aria sighed and then gave her own question, “How do you manage to stay so calm?”
The painted gator laughed, “Well, firstly, don’t take advice from pirate but if I had to give you my methods then it’d be easy. I love the thrill of a good scrap and don’t fear it so much as live in anticipation of it!” She closed her fist in the air before opening it slowly and turning a ruby eye toward Aria, “But that doesn’t work for you, does it? Instead, I’ll give y’words meant for my own fears. Those things that I am afraid of are very real and I shouldn’t ignore those feelings but there are more important things to focus on, more pressing and current things and so I try to focus on my breathing when the fears become too much. I focus on how my body feels in the moment and try to remind myself of what I need to be doing. I do this sort of practice outside of the moment as well so when I have to face those fears I’ll be prepared as best as I can.”
Every word drew Aria further and further in as she focused on how she could perhaps ease her own fears using this method. A question touched her mind before coming out into the air between them, “What is it that you could possibly fear?”
Cadenza chuckled, “Nosy little thing aren’t ya? What I fear isn’t something you’d probably expect and it doesn’t bother me as much as I used to but I’ll let you know simply that I never loved leadership. No, I hated being a leader not because I disliked leading or getting things done but because speaking up was frightening. It was trained out of me from an early age and in part that is why I become the troublemaker I was.” She then stopped as the wall near them parted to reveal a staircase leading up to a door, “Enough of this talk though, it is time to enjoy ourselves.”
Aria nodded and absorbed the information she was given. Upstairs and into a room they went with various weapons placed everywhere. There was a small table with food set. There was some sort of roasted meat that caught her nostrils with salted scents along with a basket of fruits. Cadenza took a seat and Aria cluttered to the other side of the table. The captain was already serving herself up a good amount of food to eat and Aria decided to do the same. It was not until that smell had hit her that she truly realized just how hungry she had been.
Both of them didn’t do as much talking as tearing into their respective plates. There was laughter to be had in the fact that Aria eagerly took hold of a cup and drank down something that smelled sweet and held a honey-like sheen. When she felt the burning at her throat she choked much to Cadenza’s amusement. Even though she laughed, the captain called for water and soon Aria was cooling her throat with that instead. She could chuckle along with the captain after giving her thanks for the drink to counteract the alcohol. She should be more careful about what she put in her mouth but it was difficult to even think with the hunger in her body finally being sated.
When their meal had slowed, Aria managed to sigh aloud, “Thank you, you lovely goddess of the seas and land for scaring the soul out of my body to get me to eat. I feel satisfied beyond reason and I could actually just draw you forever in tribute good friend.”
Cadenza barked, “HAH! A goddess...You haven’t even seen me in my element! If y’get to see that this trip then you’ll truly call me a goddess but for now I accept your worship and more importantly, your company for this little trip. Have to admit, thought you were going to go down after chugging just a little bit of that rum but good to know it didn’t do much but warm your throat.”
Aria squeaked, “Warm my throat? The rum was so spiced I thought I was going to die Cadenza! How can you stand to drink that stuff?”
The gator sniffed, “Easy, I like the heat. Simple as that! You get used to the burning and the spices add something rich with that honey flavor.”
A snort escaped her as a response, “Really? I can’t say that drinking fire appeals to me but then again, fire was never my affinity and I don’t think I’ll ever understand that flavor.”
Just when Cadenza was about to say something when a loud crack, unlike any other Aria had ever heard, cried out from somewhere outside the ship. Her world seemed to turn for just a moment before everything corrected itself as she fluttered up into the air wondering what was happening. Cadenza rushed to grab a cutlass hanging on the wall before she headed out the door. Unsure of what to do with herself, Aria followed along in the air wondering if they were under attack and what could it be?
A gator was waiting for them just at the bottom of the steps calling out, “We’ve got hooks in us captain! An unseen enemy from the trees! We’re preparing to be boarded and the crew is prepped to head up top to meet 'em.”
Cadenza grinned, “Perfect! I’ll be up in a moment to greet our guests. Keep the majority of our people here watching for any funny business down below. If you see movement, prepare the traps and be ready to come up if it becomes a real battle.”
The crewmate slammed a fist to his chest in salute before rushing off. Aria followed Cadenza with her heart in her throat as she asked, “What do you want me to do?”
There was a moment where the captain paused but only for a second as she laughed aloud, “Why, I think you’ll be the pyzky on my shoulder for this little engagement.”
Aria gulped and perched onto the pirate’s shoulder just as Cadenza rushed forward to head up a ladder that splintered from the house's walls. Up and up they went until the captain pushed a hatch and pulled herself up to stand on the roof of the living home where a few other gators gathered. From where Aria was standing, she could see that there were several harpoons dug into the ship that connected chains from within large trees. A group appeared on the chains, approaching rapidly before hopping onto the roof to reveal themselves with weapons drawn. Everyone remained still while Aria got a good look at the fact that they were being boarded by bandits wearing scarves. If she was looking at it right, she was sure she was seeing a group of hanged men with various borrowed bodies standing before them.
One of the hanged men with a large overcoat and a rapier in paw strode forward. His body was that of an aurorian fox with blue fur and his head still had the beak-like features of his original form. When he was just a few feet away he bowed and called out, “Good day friends. We’d like a chance aboard your ship for a moment just to see if there is anything worth taking.”
There could never be any certainty with this situation. To Aria, if they allowed themselves to be boarded then they would risk being gutted while they weren’t looking and if they fought then they might end up getting surprised by whatever the enemy had to offer but Cadenza had no such doubts. The painted gator took a step closer to the approaching hanged man and Aria realized that meant she was getting closer to the danger. Being perched on this shoulder didn’t seem like such a great idea now but she was absolutely frozen as she watched the events unfold.
Cadenza spoke, her words cutting across the open air, “If you’d like a chance aboard my vessel then you'd be glad to know I’ll give you the full tour with your head meeting the floorboards if you take one step closer. I’ll not be intimidated by some hooks and a group of scarved scamps. I’ve got goods on board that I need to be seeing to their destination and a guest here on my shoulder that is under my protection so, my option I give to you is I will stand here and all of you can come at me at once and I will show you exactly why no one has ever successfully boarded me on land or sea.”
The hanged man laughed, “What energy! I respect that! Really, I don’t even know who you are but it seems like you’re a strong pirate. Honestly, I could tell you about the crew I have back in the trees waiting for the real battle or how my men here are going to hurt your little family and you wouldn’t care, right?”
“Make a move and see what happens.” She said with a huff carrying embers and smoke in the air while crossing her arms.
A move was made as the hanged man stepped forward and tipped his rapier toward Cadenza “Come now, we can settle this peace-”
It was quite a terrible mistake. Aria had never heard sinew and bone being squeezed tight enough to compress and crush but she winced as Cadenza grabbed hold of the offending wrist. The painted gator yanked it up and growled as the rapier clattered off of the roof, “I told you, one move and see what happens.”
The hanged man yelped, “YE GODS WOMAN YOU ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO TEAR MY ARM OFF!”
Cadenza tilted her head, “Y’know? That’s a good idea! Could start with the limbs before I go for yer stupid head. Now listen here you little eel. What’s yer name?”
“PYTER!” Said the hanged man with a cry.
“Listen here Pyter. You had the element of surprise and you gave it up. Not only that, but you underestimated your opponent and approached them like a fool. You have experienced battle haven’t you?” She asked while yanking him just a bit closer.
Pyter huffed, “I have but most of my takes are done by words! Normally no one is dumb enough to fight back or to do whatever this is! My men could take your ship at any moment and yet you--AUGH PLEASE LET GO!”
“Okay, look at yer men and what has happened in the small time we’ve gotten to talking.” Said Cadenza with a snort.
Aria blinked and looked over to where the painted gator’s crew were pushing back the hanged men with weapons in hand towards the edge. The hooks that had been digging into the ship had been removed by a few of the crew who had climbed up from the side. Amazingly, no one seemed to be hurt or maimed and the hanged men had even dropped their weapons. Perhaps it was that their leader was captured or maybe simply the fact that the gators on the ship were that intimidating.
When Pyter saw the sight his eyes grew wide before he cleared his throat, “Okay, so...You might have us beat but...How about that deal where we all come at you at once?”
Cadenza laughed, “You’re fast with your beak and maybe a bit too wordy because of it. Y’know, I’ll give you one move to get out of this. Y’got one more chance to get yourself out of this mess or you can very well enjoy a trip on my ship as my honored guests.”
Pyter blinked, “Guests? I’m...I’m assuming you mean captives.”
The painted gator nodded, “Sure enough! Might be I put you all to work as part of the crew under watch or I’ll just toss you overboard and see how fast you can run while some of the boys take some target practice.”
Aria missed the movement but the hanged man’s free arm came up in a sudden flash. Cadenza moved her head aside at the barest moment and let go of Pyter’s hand while backing away. Pyter stepped forward and Aria fluttered off of the captain’s shoulder to not only take herself from this mad situation but to get a good view as a dagger came straight for Cadenza. The movements were quick enough to be blurred in Aria's vision as the knife came inches from Cadenza’s face. There were no more words as the two began a dance that Aria committed to terrifying memory. They weaved around one another as the knife kept on flashing. Cadenza did not raise her cutlass in defense but kept on moving perhaps overwhelmed by the onslaught. Finally, she dipped to the side and raised her cutlass to side the flat of the blade against the knife and jam the pommel into the hanged man’s eyes. He scowled and backed away, as Cadenza reached and grabbed his wrist hard enough to make him drop the knife.
The captain brought the cutlass up to the hang man’s scarfed neck and she muttered, “Do you yield?”
Pyter cursed, “Damnit again with the crushing. YES! I yield! Now if you would let me go then I would be glad to get out of your scales and let you be on your way now that I have been thoroughly shamed.”
Cadenza smiled, “Good but you’re not getting away that…” Her words stopped as the rustling of leaves could be heard clearly in the air. Everyone looked around wondering where the noise was coming from before creatures came over the side of the roof. Aria had never seen these things before but watched as their canine maws opened to reveal sharp fangs shivering with feral hunger. Their bodies were covered in leaves and vines of bramble that lashed. Their eyes were hollow with glowing pits in the middle. When Cadenza saw the creatures, she called out, “GET THE SHIP MOVING AND MOVE IT NOW! WE’VE GOT DREAD MAPLE DOGS!”
A few of the rotted maple hounds charged in immediately and Cadenza let go of Pyter’s wrist to leap forward into the middle of the creatures. The black markings along her body began to glow with a deep ember light that nearly distracted Aria from the fact that there were dangerous creatures aboard the ship. A gator slipped into the hatch to go give the news to the crew inside while the crew atop the roof readied their weapons toward the approaching hounds. Even the hanged men had gotten their weapons together to raise them against the monsters. Cadenza did not give the creatures time to approach. Flames erupted from her arm and into the blade she was holding as she swung at the nearest beast. It hopped back but the bramble attached to it caught flame and began to hiss and seethe as if it were a different being entirely to the hound. Another creature bounded toward her and Cadenza threw herself forward, ducking before she slammed a shoulder into the beast's gut to send it flying. A few stray vines attempted to attach to her body and she cut them off while turning in a wide circle to slam her blade on another hound attempting to attack her flank. It was as if she were dancing, each movement flowing into another and her ruby eyes were sparks beneath the smoke and flame, her fangs a pearly white showing off a grin that Aria could barely believe! Cadenza was enjoying herself!
Aria herself was struck dumb by what was happening. She had been worried about what sort of catastrophic danger could show up during the middle of their journey and here it was! Someone called out for her and she was dragged out of the air and down just as one of those fell hounds nearly snapped her head. The person who had saved her was none other than Pyter who held a dagger in one of his paws while he was breathing heavily.
“You saved me?” Aria squeaked.
Pyter looked down at her briefly before scoffing, “And why wouldn’t I? I’m an opportunist and all of this might get me out of trouble with that crazed pirate. More importantly, we’re in this together at the moment, the enemy of my enemy and all that nonsense.”
The bat was about to question if this sudden bout of philanthropy was brought on by some sort of ulterior motive but paused when she heard the snarling of a wild beast about to bear down on them again. She looked in time to see that the hound that had attacked her was hungry for more. Destructive magicks weren’t exactly what she had learned how to do but maybe she could help with a bit of paint? Anything was worth trying other than doing nothing at all and stewing in constant frustration and anxiety of the situation.
With a puff of breath, she gathered the magic from the air into her hands and suddenly, a large portion of the hounds turned toward her. It gave a few of the crew enough time to cleave down the monsters they faced with a few managing to scurry away toward Aria. The small bat called as much as she could into her hands before she let out a blast of ink and paint into the eyes of the oncoming creatures. A few splotches of paint landed on the ground and a few of the monsters tripped over themselves and howled as they fell from the roof. It was only a distraction and one that wouldn’t last long as the remaining canines brushed the ink from their eyes, the bramble reaching out toward her and Pyter while they backed away. As it pounced, a flaming sword cleaved the creature in two along with the bramble. Aria closed her eyes and turned away trying to pretend that the smell of burning cedar and maple was coming from somewhere else and not a freshly cut corpse.
When she opened her eyes, she had them held up to see Cadenza standing there with a few nicks and marks on her scales and she chose to focus on the fact that her new friend was okay. When the captain leaned down, she asked, “Are you okay Aria?”
Aria sighed, “Frightened beyond my years but I think I’m okay.”
Cadenza grinned, “Good!”
The bat took a chance to look out over the carnage of the roof and it seemed like everyone was accounted for in both the Pyter’s crew and Cadenza’s crew. Each worked to get rid of the stray bodies and the occasional briar parasite that still slithered along looking for a host. Pyter himself got up to dust off his coat and as he did so he muttered, “Well, I think it is time that myself and my crew be going. If you could simply just, I don’t know, let us go with a lecture then we could get off and be on our way.”
A cutlass still red from the heat of Cadenza’s flame came up as the captain spoke, “I should throw you over the ship with this blade stuck in your chest for endangering my crew like you did but your people helped us and you saved my guest here so, it is with that in mind that I’d be more than happy to take you on as temporary members of my crew.”
Pyter cleared his throat, “I uh, I don’t know about that. The sea life just isn’t for me you know and we much prefer to stay near home.”
Cadenza brought the blade just a few inches away from the scarf while continuing, “Right, which is why I said temporary. You’ll help us to Dewclaw and then we’ll drop you off. That sound fair enough?”
The hanged man looked at the sword inches from his neck before he sighed and shook his head, "Fine. That sounds much better than dying, to be honest."
What happened next was a mixed bag of barked orders and calls to get everything on the move. The home was moving. Everyone was going inside and someone was leading Aria within. She opened her eyes again and she was in the room she had been given next to her sketchbook. There were so many images in her head, so many terrible and beautiful things that she could work on but the sun was coming down all the way, the day had worn on her far more than she had ever thought and despite the fact that she loved the night dearly, Aria closed her eyes to fall asleep.