An edited and improved version of this story is now available for purchase as part of the ‘Prophecies of the Drowned Oracle’ collection.
When the Drowned Oracle confirmed the death of Captain Agustin, the winter ended. It had been a long one, characterised by bright sunlight refracting off snow and ice, cold and timeless. And while the end of winter was celebrated by all, there was also a sense of loss. For that winter was warmed by the flourishing light that was Agustin, and the captain was now lost.
Agustin was a prominent figure in the general Overijssel area. A poet and storyteller known all across the various cities and villages. With a sharp top-hat, even sharper goatee and round gleaming glasses, Agustin cut a distinct figure. They were rather fluid about their form of address, often going by ‘they’, but sometimes going be ‘he’ as well. But at the end of the day, throughout the winter that would forever carry their name, they would prefer to be known simply as ‘captain’.
That the winter would be long became apparent early on in November, when icy winds cut through the streets, snow lay thick on rooftops and shards of ice drifted along the river. It was probably the sight of that ice that led one old sailor to retire and put her old vessel up for sale.
It was a raggedy thing. A small steamer with room for no more than ten. With peeling paint and rusty pipes not even hidden from sight, barnacles and fungus taking over the sides. They say Agustin took one look at it and bought the thing without even a cursory attempt at haggling.
No one knew quite what to make of it. Agustin had never shown an interest in the sea before, and when looking at them, they didn’t seem the type. Always wearing a well-tailored trenchcoat and slacks, pointed shoes with a clicking step, and of course the before mentioned top-hat, they looked rather proper. Not like a sailor at all.
They were the type for slow walks in the city. Parties and dinners in polite company. Evenings in well-maintained bars where they told their stories to captivated audiences. They were not the type of person to set off to sea in a ragged little boat filled with burly sailors.
When asked, Agustin would smile politely, and give an infuriatingly vague answer that didn’t explain anything at all. Most people decided they were looking for inspiration for a new story. More likely though, the reason was simpler. The same reason so many others drop their livelihoods to do seemingly nonsensical things;
It can happen to anyone. Be it a calling to the sea, like with Agustin, or a call to go live in the forest filled with dangerous creatures, or check out the lighthouse that’s said to be haunted. It lights up the mind, brightens the eyes until they almost glow with it. Parents live in fear of seeing that light in their children’s eyes. For no matter what they do, no matter the horrifying warning tales they tell, there’s no stopping someone with a calling. They move with a purpose only they understand, a purpose that can’t be swayed. And that was certainly true for Agustin.
Soon after buying the ship, Agustin went in search of crew. By all rights, this should have been difficult. Some wannabe high-society poet who’d never before set foot on a ship calling themselves captain and thinking experienced sailors would listen to them? Who’d put their lives in the hands of someone like that?
But Agustin had charisma in spades, as anyone who ever met them could tell you. Sailors flocked to them, almost begging for a spot on their ship, and it definitely wasn’t because of the offered gold. Agustin just had this air about them. The same air that drew in invitations to fancy parties, allowed them unquestioned access to restricted areas, and led people to tell them their deepest secrets.
It was this same air that led to Agustin and crew’s triumphant return, just two weeks after leaving for their first voyage.
Now what success meant exactly to Agustin and their crew, no one knew. The ship wasn’t big enough to be a proper merchant, and they weren’t working for the navy either as far as anyone knew. Freelance captaining? Is that a thing? If anyone could do it, it would surely be Agustin.
If anyone had payed attention to a certain shadowed corner, they might have noticed the man listening to their whispered conversation with a smirk. Had they recognised this man as Admiral Kennedy, then maybe they would have revised their opinion. Agustin might not be working for the navy, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be compensated for any information they might glean in foreign ports.
Agustin’s charm didn’t end with the people of the Netherlands. No, foreigners were just as taken with them as everyone else. And so just like back home, Agustin schmoozed themselves into parties and dinners, and left with a stomach filled with food, and a mind filled with secrets.
Agustin’s return was celebrated with boisterous nights in town, everyone welcome to join in. It soon became tradition, every time the captain was in town.
On those nights, Agustin regaled captivated audiences with tales of foreign ports, clandestine meetings and invitations to secret clubs.
One time, they proudly recounted their victory over a pirate vessel. An exciting if standard tale of cannons, pistols and various near-misses. It’s only after the action was over, when the story seemed to end, that Agustin’s eyes really lit up with excitement. They let the attention of the audience wane for just a moment, letting them believe it was over, but then raised their voice to continue.
Long after the other ship vanished under the waves, when they were already turned around to continue their journey, the crew called out, “A survivor!” Someone was still clinging to floating debris. Agustin smiled as the audience hushed in anticipation, letting tension build as they described their hauling the person up the side of the ship. The only survivor, drenched in salt water, defenceless and completely at their mercy. And who would it be that they rescued, but the pirate captain herself!
The audience gasped, what did Agustin do then? Throw her back overboard? Lock her up to face justice once they returned home?
“Alas,” Agustin said, “she was too fast.” They held out their arm, rolling up the sleeve to reveal a deep gash, halfway healed. The pirate captain was a fearsome warrior who had used her hidden blade to attack before they realised. She’d run away to the emergency rowboat and used it to escape.
A curious ending to such a triumphant tale, isn’t it? You’d think they’d embellish a little, maybe lie and say they won the battle on deck, killing the pirate captain heroically and getting wounded in the process. It would have made them look better to the audience. A proper tale of victory.
But as Agustin later regaled to the admiral they were getting increasingly close to; the ending was already a lie. Once they dragged the captain aboard, she didn’t attack at all. No, Agustin actually handed her some supplies and led her to the boat, let her go off to find a new ship to captain.
The wound on Agustin’s arm came from a sailor who didn’t agree with letting murderous pirates free without facing justice. Said sailor was regrettably killed in the scuffle that resulted from the pirate captain’s escape, according to the official story at least.
So yeah, for once, Agustin chose a lie that would make them look a bit stupid, because they couldn’t exactly admit to helping a pirate without getting in trouble themselves. But why then, were they so excited to tell that particular part of the tale? They could have left out the surviving captain entirely, after all.
Well, Agustin was a poet at heart. This tale wasn’t yet complete. That night, they were laying the groundwork for a more epic story later on. For what was a more compelling story than that of a captain and their rival?
Subsequent returns to town were from then on often accompanied with more tales of run-in’s with the same pirate. Tales that of course ended with her getting away once again.
And afterwards, they’d retreat to the darker recesses of the bar and listen to the stories of others. Other captains, sailors, poets, writers and braggarts. And it’s there in those quiet corners they met with Admiral Kennedy again and again.
Himself a prominent figure around port, there were many rumours about the man. Some said he was a spy, others that he ran shady business under the table, still others believed him the only non-corrupt political figure. None of them were entirely right.
Kennedy wasn’t a spy for anyone but himself and the navy. He wasn’t a perfectly innocent angel either, since he’d be forced to arrest Agustin if that were the case. Shady business? Well, paying Agustin for information could be seen as shady. Accurate rumours or no, there was something remarkable about the admiral. Where for years people had been drawn in by Agustin, it seemed they’d finally found someone who drew them in turn.
That first night they were seen leaving the bar together, eyes only for each other, chaos reined behind them.
When Agustin left port once more, the engine glowed even brighter, resonating with their happiness. Agustin and their ship’s radiance cutting through winter like not even the sun could.
With a few successful voyages now under their belt, it seemed nothing could go wrong for Agustin. That, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. Agustin’s inexperience at seafaring had to surface at some point. And it wasn’t in their lack of knowledge of steam engines, or in managing the crew, or in finances that honestly shouldn’t be as favourable as they were. No, in this case Agustin’s downfall came from the small fact that not all sailor’s superstitions were well known to land-dwellers as Agustin had been not even three months before.
One cold day in February, when the sun glinted harsh of the ice-covered deck, so bright its heat wobbled the air, a cry sounded from the deck. A sailor, a young lad barely old enough to work, was in hysterics. “It’s watching me! It follows…”
He pointed to a big white bird perched on the railing. Piercing grey eyes, rimmed by blue, were indeed locked on the poor young sailor. Agustin had never seen such a bird before. Its beak, blue grey in colour, had black streaks running from back to front, like it’d once shattered and was then glued together again.
As it lifted its beak to the sky to let out a guttural cry, the eyes remained focused on the sailor, peaking out from either side of the beak. From above, an answering cry sounded.
There, hovering on the wind, were more of them, only these didn’t seem interested in the crew. They hovered on strong wings, more arm like than of a regular bird, stiff and tipped with black feathers like gloves. Birds of Wake, the sailors called them.
Agustin looked at the bird on the railing, its head tilted down-wards once more. A bird of wake… They knew of Wake of course. The force that destabilises reality, drives people mad, makes them vanish.
But never before had they heard of a bird of Wake.
“A Jan Van Gent,” a sailor whispered in their ear, “a Gannet. They come from the other world. Wake sends them, to watch, to warn…”
Agustin was a poet, a storyteller. Their whole life had been spent both listening to the stories of others and telling their own. If they were an expert at anything, it was in this. They knew exactly how to make people believe, how to start rumours, weave fantastic imaginings together with truth until they couldn’t be told apart.
In the case of Wake, most stories could be taken with a grain of salt. And so despite never having heard of the birds of Wake before, Agustin thought they could see where reality and fiction ended.
They dismissed the warning with a careless wave of the hand. All that mattered in that moment was that this bird was upsetting one of their sailors. As captain, it was their duty to make any danger, perceived or real, go away.
They drew their gun, took aim.
The crew looked on, petrified.
The bullet sailed, hit the bird right in the chest.
For a moment, all went still. Then red bloomed on the white feathers, piercing grey eyes switched to Agustin before turning glassy, and the bird toppled over the railing to fall limp into the sea.
Satisfied, Agustin holstered their gun and looked back to the previously upset sailor to give him a pat on the shoulder and send him back to work. But then they noticed the silence, the tension. The young sailor was pale, still shaking, and wouldn’t look in Agustin’s direction. The other sailors as well looked away. Unnerved, but also irritated, they retreated to their quarters.
Wake, the god of endings. The power that makes people vanish, erases minds. Loss without the opportunity for goodbyes. To be cursed by Wake is not nothing. That night as they fell asleep, all Agustin saw behind their eyelids was the momentary reflection of a top-hat in glassy eyes.
While the crew would talk to Agustin as normal and the ship remained on course back home just fine, no one would look them in the eye. When they arrived at port, Agustin was the first to leave the ship, completely done with the tension that had loomed the whole way back. They couldn’t wait to warm themselves at the bar where everyone would treat them like usual. Maybe the admiral would stop by as well.
Just half a step off the plank, they were stopped by the harbourmaster, a spark of something in her eyes that set them even more on edge.
“A message for you, Captain.”
They took it, opened it. The letter slipped from shaking hands, landing on the docks where moisture soaked into the paper. The harbourmaster picked it back up before the words turned illegible, pressed it back into Agustin’s hands all while patting their shoulder consolingly. As the water-blotched message declared, the admiral was gone. Agustin would never see their love again, no one would.
Wake is the god of loss. Before you scorn Wake, think of all you could lose to its curse.
Agustin had learned their lesson.
Without the warmth of their lover, or at the very least the knowledge their lover was waiting for them somewhere out there, Agustin was cold. The following days and weeks the winter picked up a notch. Agustin’s melancholy permeated the entire ship. The engine struggled to stay alight and the crew had to sleep in piles around the fire to stay warm.
Without the admiral, Agustin had no one to sell information to, and what was previously a successful voyage to celebrate, was now a futile endeavour that quickly dried out the small bit of gold they’d saved. The crates of fuel and food they could afford became smaller and smaller, until the rations weren’t enough to stave off the constant hunger, until the engines fire slunk ever smaller.
Before, Agustin might have saved them by talking to rich benefactors or charming free meals for their crew from kindly restaurant owners, but now it just didn’t work. Their grief was still too raw. The happy person people flocked to was lost under a veil of gloom.
Two sailors left the ship one day at port and never returned, taking their chances on other ships. The remaining crew gathered and whispered while Agustin slept. They were sick of this, it couldn’t go on like this. If the captain didn’t get a decent meal together for them within the next week, they’d take matters into their own hands.
And sure enough, a week later Agustin was cornered on the ice covered deck. Four of their burliest sailors had them surrounded, their faces contorted in anger. For the first time in weeks, Agustin snapped out of the haze they’d been living in and properly took in their surroundings. Beyond the four in front of them stood the others, looking less angry, a little more hesitant, but not stopping their fellows either.
Despite the anger directed at them, Agustin couldn’t find it within themselves to feel threatened. Strong as they were, they all looked exhausted. Eyes bruised from bad nights, clothes loose from lack of food, anger barely covering desperation and fear.
All Agustin could think in that moment, was that this was all their fault. They had to fix this, somehow. Deep in the heart of the ship, the engine sparked a bit brighter.
But then the sailor in front of him talked, and Agustin went cold. “We’re taking over the ship.” No, that wasn’t right. They couldn’t take the ship. The ship was all they had left. No house, no money, no admiral. But the ship was still there, still keeping them moving despite the fact they hadn’t had enough fuel to stoke a proper fire in days.
They looked around at the crew, four standing ready for battle, another watching their backs. Three others standing unsure, not really agreeing but not standing up for Agustin either.
Agustin could have given up, maybe they should have. The numbers weren’t in their favour. But Agustin was just as desperate, had been driven mad just like the rest of them. And those words, that declaration, sparked a depth of feeling that’d been missing since the Admiral vanished. Rage twisted their features, and before anyone knew what happened their gun was drawn and smoking, and the first sailor lay bleeding on the deck.
The battle that followed was violent and brutal. Warm blood hissed as it hit the frozen deck. Blades clanged together and gunshots echoed in the still air.
Then finally, it was over, and Agustin stood victorious over the bodies of their mutinous crew. Battered but alive, three sailors stood with them. The engineer—a mysterious woman whose words always held a double meaning—, the young sailor for whom Agustin angered Wake, and a strong woman who was once a soldier.
Four people wasn’t enough to properly keep the ship running though. They set course back home, but the going was slow. While the engine kept warmer than it had in the last weeks, the lack of fuel set an agonising pace. They didn’t say it, but they all knew they’d run out of food before they ever made it home. Still reeling from the violence they couldn’t scrub off their minds or the frozen deck and without hope for the future, it was no surprise they were quietly driven ever closer to madness.
The last day of winter arrived at the beginning of April. It was a bright noon, the sun so violent and present it warmed right through the winter-chill. The light rippled the world, warping reality until they were never sure what they were seeing and what they weren’t. It’s in this state they were besieged by pirates.
The pirates took them by surprise, the rippling air having hidden their vessel from sight. But even if they’d spotted them earlier, they never stood a chance. Four wounded against a full crew of bloodthirsty pirates.
The young sailor was so frightened by the sight he was taken by Wake right then and there, vanished before their eyes. Maybe his fate was preferable to death by pirates or drowning.
Canons fired into the defenceless ship. One shattering through the hull and hitting the engine full on. With the death of its heart, the ship swayed one last time—
—and vanished beneath the waves, just five short months, one long winter, after Agustin first left port.
It’s said that the remaining crew survived though. Agustin might have been gone, but their legacy survived. And just as Agustin had once fished a pirate captain out of the sea only to let them go free, now the very same pirate captain picked up the two women clinging to the floating debris.