The Firefly cut through the foamy waves of the Blacken Sea, passing floating sheets of ice where big-bellied walruses lounged, content as beach-goers. Toad buried his red nose into his scarf, his rabbit-fur hat pressed low over his brow, and huddled close to Melena on a bench at the front deck. After learning about the figurehead, they often chose to sit there at the prow instead of below deck in order to check on whether or not the Firefly’s lantern burned brighter.
“Why would anyone ever live here?” Toad grumbled. He’d never been so cold in his life, even with every bit of clothing he possessed on his back. The excitement of experiencing snow for the first time had long ago vanished and he wanted nothing more than to feel the hot sun on his face. Give him the sweltering Hickory summers any day.
“I think maybe you have to be born here to appreciate it,” said Melena through chattering teeth. Hazel was once again burrowed inside Melena’s coat. “What I wouldn’t give for a hot bath!” she moaned.
Toad was about to say that Melena, who had Hazel’s warm scales pressed against her stomach, didn’t have any right complaining about the cold while she had her own personal heater, but Melena turned to him on the bench and said, “I keep forgetting. Have you asked Captain Morely about your father?”
“Yeah,” said Toad, startled that Melena had thought of this. “Yeah, I did. First night on the ship. He doesn’t know of Shark-Tooth Kent, but he thinks I should look to the south, wagers they might be there. God knows I would be,” he added fervently.
Melena laughed. “Oh, I bet he’s moored in some tropical lagoon, eating his weight in mangoes.”
“With a parrot!” said Toad. “My dad’s gotta have a parrot.”
“Or a cute, little monkey!”
“Either way,” said Toad, “first chance I get, I’m going south.”
Smedley, who was taking his turn at the wheel, heard him and let out his bark of a laugh.
“Don’t worry, landlubber,” he called, “you’ll be heading home soon enough.”
“Really?” said Toad. “Why’s that?”
In reply, Smedley pointed. Melena and Toad twisted on their bench, frowning in confusion, for the Blacken Sea was just as iron gray and endless as always, except …
“Is that fog?” asked Melena, standing.
“Steam,” said Smedley. “From the springs.”
Melena spun back to Smedley, but Toad jumped to his feet, peering at the Firefly.
“Steam?” said Melena, startled. “From the springs? We’re that close to Mirg?”
Toad tugged at Melena coat.
“D’you think the lantern’s brighter?” he asked her.
Melena worried her lip. “No,” she breathed; her eyes darted over the water. “I don’t think so.”
The sky clouded over, turning the water as black as ghost squid ink. As the ship approached the icy strip of land known as Mirg, the steam grew so dense Toad could barely see the gloved hand he wriggled in front of his face. How could Smedley steer in this soup?
Horace was by Smedley’s side at the wheel now. All the pirates stood at the ready, staring out into the steam. The stillness of the crew amplified the ship’s every creak, every moan.
Melena jumped so violently, she landed on Toad’s foot. At once, the crew bustled about lowering anchor and Horace limped toward them.
“Some of me boys will take yeh ter land. They’ll lead yeh to the best of them springs. But I suggest yeh move quick. Sitting still in these waters isn’t the wisest.”
As Toad made to follow Melena to a boat that the pirates were lowering into the water, Horace called him back. “Take care of Joe, young lord. A bargain is a bargain.”
“Do not fear, my Captain!” cried Joe from Toad’s hip before Toad could reply. “I am in good hands.”
Five pirates joined them in the small boat, including Smedley and Mabbott.
“Here,” said Mabbott. He passed Toad and Melena a cutlass each. It felt awkward and heavy in Toad’s hand.
Melena looked alarmed. “I don’t know how to use a sword.”
“If you get lost you’ll learn fast,” said Smedley, his smile teasing.
“We won’t get separated,” Mabbott assured them, “but better be safe than sorry.”
“Just don’t slice off yer own ’ead,” one of the pirates advised to a smattering of snickers.
As the small boat made its way to land, it was difficult to keep from looking over the side into the dark depths for a flash of green or the whip of a tail. The Firefly at least gave a sense of security, with its heavy mass and deck so high above the water, but this boat felt like nothing more than a raft which would capsize from one swipe of a Slinkwing’s tail. The steam didn’t help. Relentlessly, it played tricks on Toad’s eyes. Half a dozen times he thought he saw a shape looming out of the water, but it was only a chunk of ice. Those icebergs were growing in number now, making maneuvering difficult.
The boat hit the bank before Toad saw it.
With difficulty they disembarked, the ice dangerously slick, even with their nail-studded boots. Two of the pirates heaved a wooden crate out from the boat. The clinks inside told Toad that Horace wasn’t wasting a visit to the springs. The pirates did not speak, but directed them with a jerk of their hands to follow. Melena grabbed hold of Toad’s hand and Toad was grateful. Even with Mabbott’s assurances that they wouldn’t get separated, Toad could see how it could happen only too easily. A distraction or an attack would make them scatter and then … well, Toad chose not to think about that.
They traveled as quickly as the heavy steam allowed, often stopping without warning, causing Toad’s heart to jump into his throat, Melena’s hand squeezing the life out of his fingers. He’d grip his cutlass, expecting a cry of alarm, but then Smedley would wave his arm and onward they continued.
“Here,” Mabbott whispered. “Here’s one of the pools.”
A wind swept the steam clear long enough to see a deep, glistening pool. Melena was already scrambling inside her bag but her movements were cumbersome with Hazel under her coat.
“Give ’em to me,” said Toad. “I’ll do it.”
She passed Toad the two flasks Horace had given them. It was incredible. As he leaned over the spring, glorious waves of hot air caressed his numb face like loving fingers. He couldn’t help himself; he pealed off the glove of his left hand and dipped it into the water. It was like slipping into a dream.
Melena punched him in the shoulder, scowling.
Toad quickly withdrew his hand and it burned like fire in the frigid air; it took huge restraint not to plunge it right back into the pool. Mabbott squatted by Toad’s side with the crate and the pirates quickly loaded up a dozen flasks.
“It’s so warm!” Toad told her, but this did not appease her.
“Oh, yes, let’s all have a dip, why don’t we? We’re only standing over Slinkwing nests, after all,” she hissed.
Smedley laughed, his voice carrying over the hot spring.
Finished, the flasks safely tucked away in Melena’s bag and the create once more lifted between two pirates, they made their way back to the boat.
Toad felt that he could finally breathe easy when his feet hit the Firefly’s deck. Horace only waited until the boat had been hoisted just out of the sea, and then he was spinning the wheel; the wind caught the sails, the steam faded and the current was a rope, tugging the ship away from Mirg and the Slinkwings.
Horace cracked a grin, his clear, blue eyes crinkled. He turned to Toad.
As Toad untied Joe from his belt loop, their eyes met and the warmth in Joe’s marble ones made the heated spring seem lukewarm. When Toad passed the mug to Horace and the crew let out a victorious cry, he told himself that his eyes were stinging due to the cold and nothing more.
A bystander would think the crew of the Firefly had plundered a palace from the celebration that raged below deck. Barrels of beer were uncorked, drums and flutes were whisked out, and Toad and Melena found themselves in the midst of a roaring party. Joe was at Horace’s side. Periodically he was hoisted into the air without warning over clanking mugs, beer sloshing. It was impossible not to be swept up in the pirates’ exuberance and soon Toad and Melena were grinning just as broadly as Joe. Even Hazel couldn’t hold onto her waspish attitude and was out of Melena’s coat, snapping playfully at the dancing pirates’ ankles.
Perhaps Toad would wake with regret in the morning that he had given up Joe, but then, at that moment, he was filled with a happiness he could not put into words, as if he’d drunk an entire bottle of Mirg water. They’d done it. They’d slipped through dragon-infested waters without a hitch. What would Cutter say the next time he laid eyes on Toad? The coward probably hadn’t even gotten off the train. And Owl — Toad let out a great burst of laughter. That gent was going to be speechless!
“Come on, lad!” Smedley roared, clapping his hands to the drums. “Surely a former lord such as yourself can dance!”
Toad’s sharp grin could have rivaled Bone’s as he turned to Melena.
“Oh, no!” she said quickly. “No, Toad, really—”
Toad yanked her into the swarming pirates and they were whisked into a foot-stomping romp, pink-cheeked and breathless with laughter, Horace’s laugh the loudest of the lot at the sight of them. Toad swung Melena around and nearly lost his balance, tumbling backward just as Mabbott rushed down the narrow stairs, his pale face bloodless. He shouted something but the clamor was too loud for Toad to hear. Mabbott pulled out his pistol and with a shot that made Melena scream and Toad’s ears ring, silence fell swift and sudden over the crew.
“Slinkwings, Captain!” Mabbott roared.
Half a breath passed before Horace was on his feet, all traces of ease wiped from his face.
“At arms!” Horace bellowed into the silence, unsheathing his cutlass and thrusting it into the air. “Send the devils to the depths, or I’ll skin yeh myself!”
The change in the pirates’ attitude was jarring; they roared in reply, pulling out their own cutlasses, surging up the stairs. Toad’s brain felt slow, as if he were missing half the conversation. Melena had disappeared in the throng and Toad was caught in the stream flooding up deck.
At first Toad didn’t understand what he was seeing: the prow of the ship was illuminated with a brilliant green light that was as unnatural as it was vivid. For the Firefly’s lamp to burn so brightly, a Slinkwing must be practically under the ship. The moment this horrific thought came to him the ship gave a violent lurch. Toad tumbled, sliding five feet on his stomach before grabbing the main mast. He righted himself, arms wrapped tight around the wooden beam as the ship pitched again.
Where was Melena? Toad tried to shout, but no noise issued from his mouth. He couldn’t see her anywhere in the mass of pirates, rushing to their stations. Was she still below deck?
A blast erupted directly behind Toad. He spun around in time to see Mabbott loading another cannon with one of the wicked-looking harpoons.
“FIRE!” Smedley screamed and the blast nearly shattered Toad’s eardrums. He released his hold of the mast and hurried back toward the stairs that led below deck, but he hadn’t moved three feet before the Firefly lurched again and, heart skittering, arms flailing, Toad was tossed against the railings, the air knocked out of him with a bruising oof. Icy, salt water crashed over him. Eyes stinging, Toad shook hair out of his eyes and looked down. The churning dark water was lit with long, thick ribbons of brilliant green, pulsing like lightning. There was more than one. More than two. More than —
Melena was beside him, panic-stricken, her bag swung over her back. Relief flooded him at the sight of her, but all too soon it was swept away as she shouted into his ringing ears, “Where’s Hazel?”
Toad’s eyes darted around the packed deck. “I don’t know!” Hazel was so small — she could be anywhere amongst the thicket of legs. “Maybe she’s still below — DUCK!”
Another vicious wave of freezing water exploded over the ship’s side. Toad flung himself over Melena, throwing her to the ground just as Horace, cutlass flashing, lunged at them. Enraged and horrified that Horace would attack them, Toad flung up his fists to retaliate, but froze, his voice again lost, paralyzed in terror. A Slinkwing had erupted from the ocean, just behind where they’d been standing at the rail. A hundred times more monstrous than the mounted version in the Captain’s Quarters, it swayed its long, narrow head like a serpent, its bulbous yellow eyes ablaze, its long green beard sparking and crackling. It lunged, snapping at Horace.
“Get below deck!” yelled Horace, fending it off with hacks of his sword. When Toad and Melena remained motionless, he roared, “MOVE, YEH BLOODY FOOLS!”
Toad and Melena scrambled to their feet just as the Slinkwing’s long eel-like chest glowed like it had swallowed the sun. Horace leapt back; he grabbed Toad and Melena by the arms and raced across the deck at full speed. “TAKE COVER!”
At once the pirates lifted what looked like broad, metal shields; they barely made it behind the nearest one as a jet of yellow-green fire exploded around them. Melena screamed; Toad covered his head, feeling the air crackle and sizzle. Horace yanked Toad’s face up to his by the collar of his coat. “I won’t have yer blood on my hands. Get below or I’ll —”
But whatever Horace would do to them, Toad never found out for another Slinkwing shot up on the Firefly’s port side with another wave of water. Horace was on his feet, joining four others as they stabbed at its muzzle, aiming for its eyes. Toad looked around them in horrified amazement: the very air felt scorched, but the fire had not caught hold, dispersing in waves of hot steam.
“G-g-ghost s-squid ink,” Melena whispered, shaking from head to foot, but Toad’s eyes were fixed upon the latest arrival. Quick as a snake, it clamped its jaws upon one of the pirate’s arms and with a shriek, he was pulled overboard.
“Up! Up, Melena! Get up!” Toad pulled at Melena’s arms and yanked her toward the opening below deck, but Melena let out a terrified gasp, making him spin, expecting to see a Slinkwing’s jaws plunging down upon them —
Melena was grasping at her shoulders. “The bag’s gone!”
Toad’s heart stopped. If they lost the ingredients…
They spun on the spot, back to back, eyes scanning the swaying deck.
“THERE!” Toad roared, pointing toward the stern of the ship as another blast of cannon fire sounded. It had been caught by a wave of water and even as Toad watched, another surge pushed it closer to the railings.
Toad leapt forward, Melena slipping at his side in haste to reach it. The knapsack momentarily disappeared beneath a fresh gush of water. Toad flung out his hands, searching. Suddenly, the Firefly pitched so violently that he and Melena both slid like pucks on an iced pond, down to the snapping jaws of a Slinkwing. The dragon had reared high and slammed its body down upon the stern of the ship, tipping the prow upward.
But the ship was righting; the slick, the dragon’s eel-like body couldn’t stay on the deck, its wing-like flippers unable to gain purchase, and it slipped back into the water. The Firefly crashed downward; huge waves on either side thundered upon their heads. Toad couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see. Blindly he flailed, his fingers scrabbling for something to hold onto when something rough and lumpy bumped against his hand.
“Toad, where are you?” screamed Melena.
Toad opened his mouth to shout out to her and swallowed a mouthful of seawater. His free hand found a rope; he tried to tug himself upright while holding onto Melena’s knapsack.
A splintering, a cracking, and the main mast fell like a tree. Toad barely jumped out of the way, banging his head hard upon the deck. The ship was half-submerged now. He could barely see anything through his stinging eyes. He thought he heard Horace roar, from somewhere Melena was shouting “TOAD! TOAD!” and a sudden, blistering heat had him jerking backwards. The inner wood of the broken mast had been caught. In moments — seconds — the beam was engulfed in green flames; they licked and danced upon the black-inked planks that made up the Firefly like fingers trying to find crevices to hook in their nails.
Strong arms suddenly pulled him upright. Looking around he found himself nose to nose with Smedley. His face was bloody, his one blind eye as bright as the moon in the mess of red. He shouted something, but Toad’s ears seemed to have stopped working, for he couldn’t make out a word. Another freezing burst of water and Smedley was gone from his side, racing toward the fire that seemed to be growing, regardless of the water and ghost squid ink.
It’s sinking, Toad realized with a jolt. The prow was slipping lower and lower.
Toad pulled the knapsack onto his back and ran, dodging pirates, covering his head as another burst of fire shot over him, trying to find Melena. He clambered over a cannon that had slid from it harness, something sharp sliced into his knee as he tumbled over its side, but he paid it no mind. He had to find Melena —
Something zoomed into his chest, nearly knocking him flat.
Hazel was drenched, her sweater scorched black. She was bleeding from a wound in her hind leg, but she was wonderfully, brilliantly alive. Toad pushed her to his shoulders. “Hold on, Hazel!” Hazel dug in her claws, wrapping her tail so tightly around Toad’s neck, it felt like a noose. He started his search again, turning his head this way and that—
Without warning, something knocked into Toad’s back so hard he was sent flying head over heels over the ship’s railing, plunging head first into the sea. The icy shock of the water sliced Toad like knives, turning his nerves to fire. It froze his brain, flooding it with animalistic panic. He didn’t know which way was up, which way was down. He punched and kicked, his lungs searing. A huge form, glowing a violent green appeared beneath him and the Slinkwing’s tail pushed against him, flinging him toward the surface. He gasped a great lung full of air. Hazel was screeching and spitting by his ear, still clamped around his shoulders like a vice. But Toad was sinking. His head slipped under the water again. Though he kicked his legs and swung his arms, he might have been immobile for all the success he was having at keeping himself afloat, for Toad had never learned how to swim. Hazel’s sharp claws tore at his scalp. His face broke the surface again just in time to see the glowing, green body of a Slinkwing cut through the water, inches from him. Toad didn’t even think. He grabbed one of the triangular fins on its back and held on for dear life as it swept him through the crashing waves. It didn’t seem to know he was clinging to it, for it did not swivel its brutish face around. It was taking him to the other side of the ship. The Firefly was groaning and splintering, leaning severely to one side, green flames devouring its remaining sails.
The Slinkwing dove under the waves and Toad was dragged down with it. When it returned to skimming the surface, Toad was hacking worse than ever. He shook hair from his eyes and … Melena was bobbing up and down like a cork as she tried to clamber onto a hunk of wood from the ship. Toad let go of the Slinkwing just as it swerved back toward the ship to slam its long tail against the hull. He kicked the water with all his might, his legs and arms growing numb.
Melena saw him; she reached out her hand and pulled him onto the make-shift raft. It was large enough that it did not sink with their weight. Terrified, they huddled close, clinging to the raft as the angry sea tossed them like a toy, sputtering and gasping with each crashing wave. The illuminated hide of a Slinkwing flashed beneath them, but it ignored their little raft, speeding toward the ship. The crashing waves were carrying them away from the Firefly but they could still hear the pirates’ screams. They were still fighting. They’ll beat ’em, Toad kept thinking. They’ll beat ’em.
With the suddenness of a lightning strike, the flames finally took hold and the Firefly was engulfed in a blaze of green.