What Lies Beyond: Chapter 26

“The stars aren't out tonight”, he noted as he stared up at the empty black sky. Here and there, he could spot a faint twinkle, but on the whole the sky was darkened by clouds. “I hope this is not an omen”, he thought, taking a deep breath and returning to the helm of the ship.

He knew they were after him. Three nights ago, he had narrowly avoided detection by one of their ships, and chalked it up to coincidence, but just last night he had spotted a different ship, and then he had been sure. Luckily, they didn't seem to be paying a lot of attention, he had merely lowered his sails when they were near, allowing him to slip by unnoticed in the dark. Though he wished they would stay out of his business, they had helped him in a way: he could deduce that they must not have found the Black Ship yet, or they could have simply followed it rather than searching aimlessly for him, so he could use their positions to narrow his search. Between his own investigation and what he had learned from the others, he no longer needed the stars tonight.

Still, Pack couldn't help but feel apprehensive. His determination had brought him this far, but boldness was not something that came naturally to him. If any of the rumours about the Black Ship were true, he doubted he or his crew were ready for them. Even now he felt ill at ease, and he had his memories of Lapse to give him strength. He took a quick glance out towards the horizon, looking for the black sails, but the waters remained eerily calm, as though even the sea itself was waiting for what was about to happen. He shook his head to put such thoughts out of his mind and went to find Minute, whom he instructed to gather the crew for the evening's address.

The crew filed in without a word. They were usually well-disciplined, but tonight the silence was so complete that he could barely bring himself to break it.
“My friends”, he began, surprising himself a little, “if my calculations are correct, tonight will will find the Black Ship.” He paused, but no one spoke. They hardly dared to breathe.
“Your support during this difficult time has been invaluable.” he continued. “It is no exaggeration to say that without you all, we would not be here. I could not have done this alone, and for that, I thank you.” Some of them turned to look at each other, but still not a whisper rose from the crowd. Pack cleared his throat. “...But I cannot ask you to put yourselves in danger for someone you barely remember. The responsibility to save Lapse is mine and mine alone. After I finish speaking, I want you all to go below deck and bar your doors, and don't come out until night falls again. I will settle things with the Black Ship myself.”

This time there was a murmur from the crowd. “But boss-!” Snag protested.
“That is an order”, he stated firmly. “Snag,” he continued, softening his tone, “if something should happen to me, I'm putting you in charge. Take the ship and get as far away from here as possible. Without me around, I think you should be able to handle it.”
Snag stared at him, dumbfounded, his mouth hanging slightly agape.
Silence fell over the deck of the Devotion. “Look!” Someone cried, pointing past Pack to the horizon.
Sure enough, as the first rays of light peeked out beyond the sky, a black sail was clearly visible in the distance.
“Now go!!” Pack bellowed, and the crowd scattered immediately, scrambling and fumbling towards the hatch to the lower deck. Pack himself darted to the helm, and steered the ship hard toward the ship with the black sails. Slowly but surely, the gap between the two ships became smaller and smaller. “I'm coming, Lapse”, he said solemnly, “one way or another.”

As the sun rose higher, he could see the Black Ship just ahead, but just then, he caught a glimpse of another ship off the starboard side in the corner of his eye. He quickly turned the other way, and there was another one off the port side, and yet another one was closing in on him from behind! “Not now!” he cried, pounding his paws on the wheel. The ships were quickly overtaking him, and they closed in from the sides, blocking the path in front of him. As the channel in front of him disappeared before his eyes, he had no choice but to reel in his sails and bring the ship to a stop as the Black Ship pulled away.

A familiar face came aboard his ship: “What were you thinking, Pack?” Corsair asked him.
“Going after the Black Ship alone?” Lay appeared from the other side, puffing her cheek. “How stupid.”
“I can't believe it, Pack”, Sister said, from behind him. “I thought you had it all figured out, but you don't. You don't understand anything.”
“Can't we talk about this later?” he begged them. “We need to keep going!”
“I knew we couldn't rely on you to handle things yourself.” Minute said, arriving from below deck. “We left things in your hands, and now the Black Ship is gone.”
“We can still catch up to it!” he insisted, though it was completely out of sight now.
“You're even more of a screw up than I am, boss”, Snag jeered, cruelly.
“How could you?” Pack demanded of him. “I put my faith in you!”
“And we put our trust in you, in error. To think I let you waste my star charts on such a foolish endeavour”, Quill shook his head.
“It wasn't foolish!” he protested, unable to believe what was happening. “There was good logic behind it!”
“The simple fact is that I'm a winner and you're a loser”, Corsair said, holding his nose up high, “and that's how it's always going to be.”
“That's right!”, Sister and Lay chimed, in unison, hanging off his arms.

Then they all started to laugh. All of the people he had thought were his friends were pointing and laughing at him. He tried to back away, but they were all around him, laughing at what a fool he had been. The sound flooded his ears, until all he could do was slump down to the deck and curl into a ball, covering his head. Still they laughed even harder as he tried to block them out.

Suddenly, a deep voice cut through the laughter. “Who is it who matters most to you?” it asked him. “Her, or you?”
“Her, of course!” he told the voice, still not looking up.
“I wonder.” the voice responded. “Are you really sure of that?” Pack couldn't tell where it was coming from.
“It's true! I would do anything! I would... I was...” but the laughing droned him out. His heart sank into his stomach as he realized what they were getting at. Everything fell silent, but he was in even more pain than before.
“...On that night, I chose myself.” He admitted, in a voice scarcely above a whisper. “I was more concerned with how other people saw me than being there for her. But every night since then I've regretted it. Not a night has gone by where I haven't thought about the laughter and the companionship and the warmth of her arms that I should have had. And even worse, I know that she's out there somewhere, frightened, lonely, and alone, and it's all my fault. That's why I have to find her and bring her back. It doesn't matter what people think of me. She always cared for me, and that's enough.”

He opened his eyes. It was dark, and his tormentors were gone. The deck of his ship was empty, apart from a thin, dark-furred creature. His heart nearly jumped out of his chest as he thought it might be Lapse, but he quickly realized it was not. This creature had black fur that was much shorter than Lapse's fluffy coat. “For your sake, I hope that's true”, it said, and turned to walk away.
“Wait!”, he cried. “Do you know where to find Lapse?”
“I can do nothing more for you”, the creature replied, turning back towards him. He had piercing, yellow eyes, that seemed to stare right into his heart. “You have met your darkness. Perhaps that will help you. Perhaps not.”
“Now what should I do?” he pleaded desperately.
“If I knew that, things would be very different.” The black-furred creature disappeared into the night without another word.

“Boss!” Snag called, running from below deck. “Are you all right?”
“Snag? I thought I told you to- Wait, it's nighttime again?”
Sure enough, the rising sun was completely gone, as though it had never been there.
“Who were you talking to, Boss?” Snag asked.
“Did you not see anyone else here?”
He scratched his flat ear sheepishly. “Sorry Boss, I heard you talking to someone, so I ran up to see who it was, but you were all alone when I got here.”
“And Corsair? Sister? The Black Ship? You saw none of them?”
Snag shook his head and shrugged.
“So... it was all just to make me realize my failings” he said, stroking his whiskers with his paw. “The Captain of the Black Ship... just who or what is he?”
“Now I know what I have to do”. He walked casually to the helm of his ship and slowly turned the wheel all the way around.

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