“So this is sober,” he muttered into the sand. “Don’t much care fer it.”
The sounds of surf assailed his ears. The cries of the gulls, water pounding sand, and the angry percussionist in his chest pounding out a rhythm in his abused ears. He quickly took stock of the situation. He was lying face down in the sand on some unknown beach in the middle of what he assumed was nowhere. He was naked. He’d been there for some time, judging from the vaguely cooked feelings emanating from his back and backside. He knew his name, had a distant memory of how many fingers and toes he had, and the barest trace of how old he was. The rest of it, unimportant details such as how he came to be in this rather unusual predicament, were gone. They were just plain not there.
He pushed himself to a sitting position, ignoring the screams of agony from his joints and skin, and only dared open his eyes once he was upright. Less than five feet from where he had been lying, a crate stamped “Devil’s Own Rum” lay, cracked open. Most of its contents appeared in tact, eight lovely bottles of beautiful bliss. He leaned forward, grabbed a bottle and smashed the neck against the crate and took a hearty swig.
“Slap me sister and call her Jezabelle,” he said with a contented sigh. “At least I’m not lonely.”
“Ya know it be bad luck ta drink by yer lonesome,” a gruff voice informed him. Drake didn’t turn. He knew that voice.
“‘Tis worse luck ta drink with you,” Drake returned, and put the rum to his lips once again. As he drained the rest of the bottle, the other trudged around him and reached into the crate, removing a bottle and opening it in a similar fashion. Once Drake had drained the first, the man handed him the second, then hunkered down on the crate as Drake partook in the proffered beverage.
The man was about as tall as Drake, but heavier set, with wide shoulders, a good-sized drinking belly, a bright red bulbous nose, thick reddish-gold beard and twinkling black eyes. He wore the vestments of a captain in good standing with the Guild of the Gentlemen of Good Fortune; a deep blue long coat with whalebone toggles and matching vest, white shirt and collar, canvas breeches matching his coat and vest, soft-soled leather boots, and, oddly enough, wire-rimmed spectacles. His hat was massive, feathered, and festooned with musket balls, he wore a cutlass on his left hip, and a bandolier of pistols over each shoulder. His left hand was missing and replaced by a wicked-looking three-pronged fork with bladed tines. His boots didn’t fit him quite right and shifted around as he walked, and the back side of his breeches had been cut to make room for the vestigial tail that hung down a foot or so behind him.
Drake knew him as Jak Severstring, but he also knew that this was not his real name.
“That’s one more ye owe me, Drake,” Jak rasped. Drake didn’t answer. He was halfway through the second bottle and he’d be damned if he was going to talk to Severstring sober. “I make that ta be four times I hauled ye out of the deep.”
“Who’s counting?” Drake said weakly. Jak’s soulless black eyes twinkled.
“The deal was fer three,” Jak growled, gesturing with the three-pronged fork that was his hand. “That means we need to renegotiate our deal.”
“Ya didn’t have to pull me out,” Drake muttered into the bottle. Jak’s smile widened.
“I suppose I didnae… I’ll just throw ye back then,” the big man’s right hand shot out and grabbed Drake by the throat. Drake sprayed rum all over the other sailor as Jak stood and began to drag him toward the ocean.
“Gragglesplork!” Drake managed to squeak. Jak slowed, loosening his grip on Drake’s windpipe.
“I’ll renegotiate!” Drake translated passionately. Jak dropped him and walked back the crate, leaving Drake gasping. Eventually, Drake pulled himself to his feet, hefting the rum bottle (which he had clung to for dear life when Jak had grabbed him) and wet his whistle with the wine of the seas. Then, he resumed his sitting in supplication before the crate of rum.
“So what do you want?” Drake said. “My soul?”
Jak shook his head with a grin, the great feathers swaying in counterpoint to the great mangy beard. “Nay. I’ve already got that.”
Drake took another swallow. “Oh right. What then?”
“Yer gonna’ work for me, Drake,” Jak’s smile widened to a grin. Drake felt distinctly like he was looking into the maw of a particularly hungry shark with really bad breath.
“Work for you?”
“Aye,” Severstring said softly. “Yer a good cap’n, in spite of yer tendency ta sink, and people trust ya. Fer some reason they’re uncomfortable around me.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Drake polished off the second bottle and accepted a third from Jak.
“So here’s wot I’ll do fer ya,” Jak informed him as Drake took a swig. “I’ll clothe ya, feed ya, get ye off this God forsaken rock,” Severstring’s smile turned vicious at this, “and give ye one of me ships. In return, ye’ll get me souls.”
“How many?” Drake asked. Severstring shrugged.
Drake shook his head. “One hundred at the most.”
Severstring guffawed. “Fer savin’ yer skin and given ye me ship? Five hundred minimum.”
Drake’s head was swimming from drink and from sun… just the way he liked it. He tried a different tactic. “Ye must need these souls pert-badly if’n yer commandeering me services… King Phillip’s Inquisition starting ta take its toll?”
Jak’s face darkened. “Aye. Nobody can beat a conversion out of a sinner like the Spanish.”
“So ye’ll be needin’ a lot of souls very quickly less’n ye lose this cosmic bet of yorn?”
Jak’s eyes narrowed, trying to see what Drake was playing at.
“I’ll make ye a deal. A wager, if you like.” Drake said smoothly, taking a dainty ship from the bottle. Jak’s eyes brightened. He’d never been able to pass up a bet.
“The stakes?” he asked, scratching his beard with his forked hand.
“Feed me, clothe me, give me yer ship,” Drake stated. “And if I can’t roust you one hundred souls inside of a month, I’ll stay on for five-hundred.”
Jak shook his head. “Any one can convert one hundred souls in a month. For this ta be a fair bet for a man of yer talents, one hundred souls in a week, minimum.”
“Three weeks,” Drake murmured.
“Ten days,” Jak countered.
“Tell you what… two weeks, one hundred and fifty souls, and I get to keep yer ship when I’m done,” Drake threw out.
Jak’s eyes narrowed to mere slits. “Yer terms are acceptable, but if ye fail, ye’ll stay on fer a thousand, and I leave ya right were I found ya.”
“We have an accord,” Drake said, offering his hand. Jak went to shake it but found instead he was holding the empty bottle of rum. Drake sprang to his feet. “Right!” he exclaimed. “Where’s me ship?”
Jak stood, and gestured. To the east, the skies over the ocean darkened into a fast moving storm, and soon it was pouring rain. Out of the storm’s ferocious maw, a ship spewed forth, and Jak’s voice rang in Drake’s ears.
“This be the Ragewind. Ya have two weeks. Fourteen days ta get me one hundred and fifty souls. Yer time starts now.”
Drake glanced around for Jak Severstring, and was not surprised to find him gone. He was surprised and dismayed to find that the rapscallion had made off with the rum. He sighed.
“So this is sober…”