The Sea Spider's Tomb

Michael Panush

Pliny Periwinkle awoke floating in ankle-deep water, staring at the ceiling of the state room in his uncle's yacht and tasting pungent salt water in his mouth. His throat burned, and his clothes were soaked. He sat up and looked out the shattered port hole, at a deck torn to splinters like a child's toy destroyed in a moment of wrath. Beyond that, the ocean stretched out like an azure carpet to the horizon. The ocean waves crashed against the smashed yacht, as regular as the beats of a metronome. The first time Pliny stood, his thin legs twisted under him and he fell down as the yacht shifted. The second time he grabbed onto wall and stayed upright. He wiped salt water from his freckled face and his straight, tawny hair.

"Oh god," he whispered, his voice sounding small and thin. He had turned thirteen-years-old just a few weeks ago, and now he was certain he was going to die. He was an orphan, his parents having died in a storm a few years after he was born. Now it seemed he would join them.

Pliny made his way to the door, his Buster Brown shoes sloshing uneasily through the flooded cabin. He pushed back the door and peeked outside. Half of the deck had vanished, the wheelhouse gone with it, leaving only a dark gap overlooking the water. "Hello?" Pliny asked, raising his voice to a shout. There was no answer. "Cripes," he whispered, and looked around.

Then he realized his uncle's yacht wasn't moving under his feet. All through the trip to Havana, passing by Bermuda and the other islands, the yacht had bucked and rolled like a living thing under his feet, and Pliny got terribly seasick. But now it was steady.

The Periwinkles were prone to seasickness, which was odd, as they made their living in shipping. His Uncle Thaddeus had inherited the business after Pliny's father died, and ran it well. He was a stern, gray-bearded man who was averse to seasickness and it seemed every other possible weakness. Even during the Crash and now, in what people called the Depression, he had made the business flourish. He had asked Pliny to join him in Havana during the spring vacation from the boy's boarding school in New England, and the quickest course led past Bermuda.

The sailors didn't like going into that area, and they were uneasy as the weather got warmer and the water more clear. One old salt had explained his fear to Pliny, nearly chewing the edge of the corncob pipe as he talked. "It's a bad place, the Triangle," he had said. "There are places in the sea where the waves don't wash on no earthly shore, and the Triangle is one of them. But here, the boundaries ain't thick-like, and I'll wager something might slip in, lad. Slip in, from the other side." That was all he would say.

And now the yacht had been destroyed in a storm, and all the sailors were gone. Pliny pulled the spectacles from his upturned nose and cleaned them on his felt vest. He straightened his sodden tie and turned around. He stopped when he saw why the reason for the yacht's sudden stability.

It was buried in deep yellow sand, which stretched out into a wide beach that in turn gave way to dark, rocky hills, black as obsidian. Pliny smiled slowly. He wasn't going to starve to death in the sea. He was on a deserted island, and now, if he had to die, he could at least do it on dry land. That seemed to him a major improvement.

Pliny walked back into his stateroom and found his suitcase. It miraculously remained on its upper shelf, and most of Pliny's clothes were dry. He changed quickly, standing on his bed to avoid soaking his toes any more, then grabbed a flashlight, a flare gun, and anything else that looked useful and could fit in the suitcase, before walked back on deck.

"It won't be that bad," he told himself. "Just like Robinson Crusoe. Hopefully, they won't even be any cannibals." He walked to the edge of the deck, tucked the suitcase under his arm, and slowly lowered himself onto the beach. His arms ached after he landed and he sat down on the sand, catching his breath and watching the tide rolling in and out.

The beach was wide and pitted with deep sink holes. The ocean water would spill inside the holes when the tide went in, and partially rush out as it departed. It was interesting to watch, and Pliny did that for a while, before standing up and going to investigate a little closer. He walked down the beach and looked back up at the dark rocks. They weren't really hills, he saw now, but more like jointed, squat columns reaching up into the orange sky. He wondered idly if they had once supported a roof.

Pliny had now reached one of the sink holes. He looked down into the black, brackish water and wondered how deep it went. He knew he should start making a shelter, and finding food, and all of that other important stuff, but he figured it could wait a few seconds. Pliny found an oval rock near the hole and dropped it down. It was a long three seconds before he heard a splash.

"Cripes," Pliny said to himself. "This island's kind of weird. I wonder if it's near Bermuda…" He turned away to walk to the stone columns and start making a shelter, when another splash sounded from inside the pit, and water shot up. Pliny turned around, and saw a broad, jagged, crimson claw reaching for him.

The claw belonged to a crustacean creature the size of a small horse. Its twitching antennae flicked every which way, its glassy eyes focused murderously on Pliny, and its many, spiked segmented legs, and its spade-shaped body poised for murderous action. Its chitinous skin was the color of dried blood, and Pliny felt terrified just looking at it. "Cripes!" Pliny shouted, as he threw himself backwards into the soggy sand.

The monstrous crab lunged forward, burying a claw into the sand, inches away from Pliny's head. The boy stood up and turned to run, pausing to grab his suitcase as the crab scuttled after him. The spiked legs threw up great clots of sand, and Pliny gasped in air as he pounded ahead of the crab, up the beach and towards the imposing stone pillars. He could hear the crab gaining on him and doubled his pace. Pliny ran through a cluster of brightly-colored shorebirds and they rose in a clucking, brilliant cloud of flashing feathers. The stone columns loomed ahead of him, and Pliny closed his eyes and ran.

As he passed under the dark shadows of the pillars, he turned to look over his thin shoulder. The giant crab stared back at him with its black beady eyes, unmoving.

"Okay," Pliny told himself, leaning against a pillar as he caught his breath. He wiped sweat from his forehead and felt sick. "Okay." He straightened up and looked back at the giant crab. The gargantuan crustacean was slowly crawling backwards towards the surf, still sending clumps of sand and water flying as its spiked legs tore through the ground. Pliny turned in the other directed and hurried away.

He followed a winding path of yellow sand through the forest of stone columns. The sides of the pillars were dark, glassy and sharp as dried coral. Pelicans and other seabirds, all shocking shades of electric blue, red, or green, wheeled high above the obsidian jungle like circling vultures, but none would land. It was very quiet, and Pliny didn't even want to hum to break the monotony.

The trail spiraled off into two sections, and Pliny Periwinkle paused to consider which way to go. One led downwards, moving into a dark land of jagged cliffs and gulches, all drenched in clinging, salty-mist. Pliny peered through the fog and saw a fantastic outline, like a many-limbed circular figure reaching towards the heavens, looming high above him. It was a statue, a building of some kind, made of the same dark stone as the columns. It made the boy shudder, and he stepped back and looked down the other trail.

This one led uphill, and looking at the rise of sandy ground with its patches of green grass made Pliny realize how much his legs ached. He was really tired, more fatigued than he had ever been in his life, and he blinked several times and sucked in air in a terrific yawn. Pliny saw the road led to a low, sandy hill perched on the edge of the ocean. A large, three-story building of wood turned dark by sea spray rested on the hill, with a sagging gambrel roof, a bent porch giving way into a rickety pier, and windows flickering with a fire's warm glow.

It was an inn, identified by the swinging sign near the door as 'The Jolly Codfish.' Pliny nodded to himself and hurried down that way, stepping quickly over the sand. He left the large columns of black rock behind and walked around the inn, stepping over the sun-scoured cobblestones resting in the ramshackle dwelling's courtyard, before approaching the swinging door.

Pliny straightened his tie and red vest, opened his suitcase to set a newsboy cap snugly on his head. He tried his best to shake away the panic and sweat caused by the giant crab, and then walked inside. As soon as he stepped within the Jolly Codfish, a dozen or so eyes looked up from mugs of rum and stared at him. It was dark inside the inn, with smoke from countless pipes and cheroots adding to the suffocating atmosphere. Pliny caught sight of a few tables and unbalanced chairs all of rough wood, standing before a bar piled high with bottles of a hundred different shapes and colors.

"H-hello," he said, folding his hands behind his back. "I'm, um, I've been shipwrecked here, I guess." There was no response from the inn's patrons. He considered that he should tell them about the giant crab before he mentioned his own name and situation. "My uncle's yacht, it crashed up on the beach, over there, and I don't know if I'm the only one to survive or not. It was cracked in half, you see. And while I was walking over here, I found a giant crab."

There was more silence. "It's real, I'm sure of that," Pliny said, nodding vigorously. "I mean, maybe it was a hallucination, but it seemed real, and well, it chased me."

A rotund woman came out from behind the bar. She resembled a manatee in a dark, low cut dress, with graying blond hair falling over her shoulders and overly reddened lips. She had a dark patch over her left eye, and her right one glinted in the dim tavern light. "Well, you oughtn't to be going near them, dearie. They'll snap you in half, and no mistake," she said, approaching Pliny. "What's your name, then?"

"Pliny Periwinkle," he explained. "My uncle is Thaddeus Periwinkle, and I was going to see him, in Havana."

"Havana?" the wide-bellied woman smiled sweetly and shook her head. "No such place, dearie. We're a week's sail from Spanish Town, here on Sea Spider Island. There's Terminus Mundi past that, and then a big strip of little islands what don't got names. But I never heard of no Havana."

"It's on Cuba," Pliny explained. "The big island? You must have heard of it."

"No such place. My name's Maggie, by the way. One-Eyed Maggie, I'm called." She reached forward, brushing Pliny's vest with thick fingers. "Here now. This don't look like any kind of clothing I've seen before." Her eye glinted and she smiled. "Oh. I know what you are. You're a castaway."

"Well, I suppose I am," Pliny agreed.

"No, from your own world, to ours. I thought the last ones stopped coming a few years ago. I thought all the holes had been sealed up. But I guess there was one open, and you came through. You ain't in the world of Cuba, or Havana, or none of them places no more, young Pliny. You're somewhere else altogether."

"Um, where exactly?" Pliny asked. He suddenly felt very light headed, like he had just come up from air after being underwater a long time. He looked at the faces of the inn's guests, and saw they were scarred, rough men, wearing tattered sea cloaks and battered tricorne or broad brimmed hats. Knives, flintlock pistols and cutlasses hung at their waists. Pliny gulped. "Where exactly did I end up?"

A dolphin came into the room. It didn't crawl along the floor, but swam through the air, moving its silver body and fins in a constant, sinuous motion to propel itself forward. It wore a dark vest and a slouch hat, and twisted about in midair to look at Pliny. "Hello, Maggie," the dolphin said, its voice a shrieking chirp. "Who's this, then?"

"He's a castaway, Jim," Maggie explained.

"Aye, is he?" Jim asked. "Thought they had stopped showing up."

"It talks?" Pliny asked. "Cripes." His tiredness, fear and shock finally got the best of him. Pliny tumbled backwards and landed on the wooden floor of the Jolly Codfish. After that, everything went quiet and dark.

When he woke up, he was lying in a bed and wrapped round with a faded quilt. It was raining outside, and Pliny saw the sea outside of his window. The water was dark green and choppy, crashing against the dock and the single ship moored there. Pliny leaned forward, staring at the ship. It was a little larger than his uncle's yacht, and made of riveted, half-rusted metal. Cannons peeked out from under the deck, and the odd vessel's prow and sides were sleek as a blade. A pair of long smokestacks protruded from the rear of the ship.

"That's a clankship. They make them of iron, fill them with steam and set them off." Pliny turned around and saw the dolphin hovering near the bed. "Just arrived afore the storm. We don't expect no more visitors until it blows over."

"Oh," Pliny said. He reached for his spectacles and secured them on his nose. The dolphin remained. "Well, thanks for letting me rest. And for taking me in, out of the rain and everything."

"Aye, there's no trouble for it." He swam through the air to a table in the corner, and returned holding a porcelain tray within his beak. A glass of milk and a plate of some round, white meat rested on the tray, and Pliny gratefully tucked into the meal. The meat was chewy and spicy, and he nodded his enjoyment. "You like, sonny?" Jim asked. "It's Kraken!"

"Um, thank you, sir, it's swell," Pliny agreed, pausing to take a sip of milk. "So, where exactly am I?"

"You don't think you're going crazy?"

"No. I can taste and feel and see everything just fine, and I've never had any problems with nervous disorders. Just nervousness, I guess."

"Well, thank the Green God for that." Pliny floated a little closer. "There are stories about castaways thinking that they're dreaming when they end up in here, or thinking it's all the devil or madness what comes from drinking salt water, and they just waste away. It's real, sonny. It's another world, another sea. The Oddest Sea."

"Oddest Sea," Pliny repeated at a whisper. The name was familiar. "How did I get here, exactly?"

"There's holes, like One-Eyed Maggie said. Portals, you could call them. In the old days there was a lot of them, and monsters and islands went from the Oddest Sea to your world. A lot of places were neither here, nor there, but in both. And by and by, ships and people went through the holes and ended up here. They been sailing around, and settling on the islands, and making descendants ever since. New folks still come in, by and by. Castaways, we call them."

"What kind of things were in this place that came to my world?" Pliny asked, sitting up in the bed.

The dolphin's bright black eyes sparkled. "Oh, all manner of nasty things. Giant crabs, like the one you spotted, Shorekillers, we call them, cause they kill you sure! But there's sea serpents, mermaids, Deep Ones, and island dwellers like the occasional Cyclops or gryphon."

"And what kind of people live here now?" Pliny wondered. "Just descendants of sailors, I guess?"

"Oh, aye, aye. There's the Northmen, big stinking, hairy brutes always up for going a-Viking, and the Greeks and Latins, of course. Lot of pirates from the Caribbean, as it was, and their types sailing around. North African Corsairs. Diemans, now free forever from the penal colonies they was sailing for." He waved with his nose to the door. "The crew of yonder clankship's in, actually. You can go and see them, if you like."

"I won't bother them?"

"No, sonny. That's Captain Nikos Burns of the Fortune's Fancy, and he likes company. Wenches mostly, but any will do." He bit the edge of the blanket and pulled it back, letting Pliny out. The rain pounded against the windows like an attacker's arrows, and Pliny shivered as he reached for his vest and coat.

He followed Jim down the narrow hallway, and into the main bar. It was empty now, except for three figures sitting on stools before One-Eyed Maggie at the bar, and she was busy in filling their glasses. She held a long, thin bottle the color of an overripe lime in one hand, and a round, ruby red flask in the other.

"Now, captain, was it whiskey or rum you'll be having?" she asked. "And what will rest of you seadogs be lapping?"

"Rum, good woman, is every gentleman's chosen libation," replied the fellow in the middle. He was tall and gangly, like a scarecrow draped in a sailor's black cloak, vest and tricorne, with a thin, scraggly black beard. A jagged cutlass and brace of pistols rested on his belt. "And none's better for Captain Nikos Burns, sovereign of the seas!"

"Some sovereign," Jim muttered.

"Shut your beak, you floating codfish!" Captain Burns replied. He turned to his crew. "And what'll you have to coat your throats, my fine, bonnie lads?"

"Mead." The man on Burns' right had a thick graying beard in two braids, a round steel helmet and a blue cloak cast carelessly over his shoulder. His eyes were like frosted steel, and he spoke with a strong Scandinavian accent.

"Salt water for me." The man, though was not the right word for it, on Burns' left was stranger still. He was a humanoid fish, with mottled green skin still shiny with water, bulbous frog-like eyes, webbed hands and feet ending in claws, and slits for nostrils. He wore a double-breasted red and blue coat and a peaked cap. "And not too much salt, you understand? Damn landlubbers always get it wrong."

Pliny stared at the strange trio as One-Eyed Maggie prepared their drinks. The fish man looked up and stared back at the boy. "What's you looking at?" he asked, his voice a raspy squeak, like a broken toy. "You dumb and dry both?"

"Don't mind him, Tarsby," Maggie said. "He's a castaway. Just arrived this afternoon."

"Ah, one of them," Captain Burns said. "Well, lad, it's a right pleasure of mine to introduce you to my fine crew. The fish is Tarsby, science officer aboard the Fortune's Fancy. The fellow with the beard bigger than mine is Od Blue-Axe, Viking extraordinaire and my first mate."

"Um, pleased to meet you, Mr. Burns, Mr. Blue-Axe. Mr. Tarsby. My name is Pliny Periwinkle. I guess I'm knew here." Pliny regarded the fish-man carefully. "Pardon me, and I hope you don't mind me asking, but are you guys, um, are you pirates?"

"We are dust on the wind, child," Od Blue-Axe replied. "And as the cold winds blow, so do we make our wage. Sometimes in honest work. Oftentimes not."

"Ah, but what is 'honest work' these days?" Captain Burns asked, beckoning Pliny to take a seat next to him. "Slaving under the yokes of fat merchants? Or getting up to skullduggery for the Blessed Empire of the Holy and Eternal Cross, the Neocadian Greeks, or even the gilled and treacherous slimy sea creatures of the Coral Kingdom? An honorable man should do nothing of the sort. It's a pirate's life for us, by thunder!" He drained his cup and slammed it down with a smile wider than the sea. "Any other questions?"

"There is one," Pliny said, thinking of the dark thoughts at the back of his head. "Do you guys know if there's any way out of the Oddest Sea? To go back to my home?"

A hushed silence fell upon the tavern. Od Blue-Axe was the only one to speak. "There is not," he said. "Sunken ships don't float back to the surface from the bottom and castaways don't leave the Oddest Sea."

"Oh…" Pliny sat down on one of the hard stools and looked at the chipped counter. "Well. I guess it's good to be sure." He had friends back in New England he would never see again. There was his uncle too, and his parents' grave, and a few favorite teachers. And there was no way he would inherit the family business now, or find any kind of decent career. But beside all of those hardships, Pliny felt a tiny glimmer of happiness to be free and lost in this fantastic new ocean.

Before he could come to terms with his situation, something crashed against the door, like a thrown baseball. Captain Burns stood up. "Hellfire!" he swore. "That'll be Feathers, the squawking cuttlefish." He walked to the door and opened it. A parrot hopped out from the rain and into the inn. Its few feathers were thoroughly drenched, and its pink eyes were wide and frightened. Pliny looked and the spindly, threadbare bird, and wondered if its name was ironic.

"Is that your pet?" he asked Captain Burns.

"Pet, navigator, quartermaster, and voice of reason," Burns said, letting Feathers hop onto his arm. "He does it all." Captain Burns lifted the parrot up and the bird stretched his shabby wings. Feathers looked like a brightly colored feather duster, frayed from many years of use.

The parrot leaned forward, eyes bright with panic. "Revenue sloop coming in!" he squawked. "They're flying the Black and Silver Cross of the Holy Empire! They'll be docking soon enough!"

Burns nodded slowly. "And who'll be commanding her?"

One-Eyed Maggie shuddered. "Commodore Templeton Snit, I'll wager. He's got a Heart of Oak, and a wooden head to match."

Captain Burns grinned, setting Feathers down on the bar and reaching for his cutlass. "Then it's a bellyful of steel he'll be getting!" he cried. "We'll make a fight of it, and sink me if we don't send the lot of them running for their worthless lives!"

"You crazy?" Feathers asked. "Snit will destroy us! We're outgunned! Outmanned! Doomed! Doomed!"

Pliny felt like he was with a bunch of adults discussing business. He had no idea what was going on. "Excuse me?" he asked. "What's going on, exactly? What's the Holy Empire? And who's Commodore Snit?"

"The Blessed Empire of the Holy and Eternal Cross are the descendants of Monks and missionaries who wandered here, deep in the mist-shrouded past. They are more concerned with earthly matters than heavenly ones," Od explained. "And Commodore Snit is one of their men. He commands a platoon of Blackcoats, as their warriors are called" He faced Burns, his bearded head lowered. "A fight will do no good, Burns, and you know it. We must find another way out of this."

"Swim?" Tarsby suggested. "Oh, I forgot. You bunch of landlubbers can't swim in stormy water. Bunch of weaklings."

A deep rapping came at the door, and Jim floated towards it, waving his tail madly. "Get them in the hall, Maggie!" he cried. "Get them there and hide them! I'll try and talk him away!"

Maggie nodded, and led the three pirates away from the bar. Pliny watched from his stool, clasping his hands and wondering if he could do anything to help. Before he could ask, Jim had opened the door and a dozen men stormed inside, with all the presumed authority of lords returning to their castles. Like Od had said, they wore black coats, with matching tricornes and crossed white suspenders. Their leader was a short, constantly shivering man, who looked like a drenched dog. He had a thin moustache and a hooked nose.

"I'm Commodore Snit, Holy Navy," he proclaimed to Pliny and Jim. He paused, his chest puffed out like he was expecting praise or worship.

"Well, good to see you, good to see you." Jim floated behind the bar. "The Jolly Codfish ain't much for company at this hour, and not with the storm outside. No, sir."

Snit turned to Pliny and narrowed his little eyes. "Oh? And what of him?"

"Pleased to meet you, sir. I'm Pliny Periwinkle. I'm a castaway," Pliny said, keeping his eyes downcast.

"Is that so?" Snit's voice oozed with malevolence. "Just popped in from another world, eh?" He grabbed Pliny's throat and slammed the boy's head against the bar. Pliny's head spun and pain shot through him. Jim squeaked in panic and swam quickly to Commodore Snit's side.

"For the Green God's sake, leave the boy be!" he cried. "He's telling the truth! He just wandered in this morning, still dazed from his journey here!"

Commodore Snit released Pliny, leaving the boy to clutch his temples and throat. The Navy Man looked back at his Blackcoats. "There are pirates here," he cried. "Mark my words. That vessel we saw moored at the docks – that's no innkeeper's pleasure craft. And I'll sniff them out."

Jim floated back, like he was caught in an invisible current. "You'll find nothing, sir. We're just an island in a storm. Bit odd for you to come this way actually."

"What is odd about the Blessed Empire policing their waters?" Snit asked. "What is truly odd is the unexplored ruins on this island, no doubt bursting with treasure, that have yet to be explored because of local superstition." He stepped forward, throwing his cloak back. "That's the reason for our presence here."

Pliny remembered the statue he had seen through the mist. "I think I saw that," he said, keeping his voice to a whisper. "When I was walking over here."

"Like enough you did," Jim said. "And a good thing you didn't venture there. It's the Sea Spider's Tomb, one of the old ruins, left by whatever folk dwelled in the Oddest Sea before castaways ever came here. Before man every came here, and long before my kind started swimming about on land as well as water."

"They were like gods!" Commodore Snit exclaimed. "And their treasures, their artifacts, their glory, are simply waiting to be grabbed!"

Pliny considered this and stared at the commodore. "Well, if it's so great, why don't you go and get it?"

Snit looked like he had been slapped in the face. He stared angrily at the boy. "You would do well to keep a better tongue, boy," he said. "And, if you must know, that's exactly what I and my brave men were doing when we decided to come here. And sniffed out the stench of practitioners of the Sweet Trade!" He paused and looked at the dark, dirty floor of the inn. "Ah." He bent down and pulled up one of Feathers' feathers. It was a dark crimson, and electric blue at the tips. "What's this?"

"That's a feather," Pliny said. He stood up, feeling anger about his whole situation rising inside of him. "Look, Mr. Snit, you can't just come in here and terrorize people if you think there's pirates here!"

"Commodore Snit! You will remember my rank!" Snit drew out one of his pistols, and slammed it into Pliny's forehead. The boy stepped backwards, shivering as his bravado left him. Snit's mouth was caught in a snarl, and his face was red. "And though every blessed bastard in the world may give me orders, I'll be damned if some castaway runt presumes himself my better!"

Jim floated forward, bucking up and down. "Leave him alone, sir! Please!"

Snit drew his rapier and held it over the dolphin. "Tell me where they're hiding. Only pirates have parrots. No one else would like those stinking squawkers!" That didn't exactly make sense, but Pliny didn't want to argue. "Tell me where they're hiding or I'll shove this blade up your blowhole!"

"No need to ask him, villain!" Captain Burns slammed open the door, drawing out his own cutlass. "We're right here." Burns had a cutlass in one hand and a pistol in the other, and his crew stood behind him, both Od and Tarsby ready for battle. Feathers was even perched on Burns' shoulder, glaring angrily at Snit.

Burns ran forward, already leveling a pistol at Commodore Snit. He fired, blasting the flintlock from Snit's hand, and then crashed his cutlass against the commodore's rapier. Od had produced a large battleaxe from his belt, and swung the double-bladed weapon down at the nearest Blackcoat, who parried with his musket. The great axe hacked the musket in two, and Od swung around the axe and split the Blackcoat's skull. Tarsby drew a strange, sharply curved short sword, resembling a fish hook made of sharpened steel. He leapt into a group of Blackcoats, hissing and snarling as he battled with claws and sword.

Pliny ran to Jim's side, watching the battle tear through the Jolly Codfish. Od grabbed a Blackcoat by the neck and hurled him over the bar. The Blackcoat slammed into the neatly arranged bottles, shattering them almost musically. Tarsby looked up, an eyeball glistening in a clawed hand. Captain Burns continued his brutal swordfight with Snit, clashing his cutlass against his foe's rapier.

"Scurvy scut!" Burns shouted, pushing his inches away from Snit's face. "Rather pick on a lad than a man, eh?"

"Say what you will about my tastes, but my purse and belly are always full, and so are the coffers of my crew," Snit replied. "Far better than your situation, sea beggar!"

Rage flashed across Burns' eye like sudden fire. He slammed his foot into Snit's chest, forcing him backwards. But Commodore Snit tumbled into Jim and Pliny, and he grabbed the dolphin's tail and kicked Pliny to the ground. Pliny felt the impact exploding in his back, and then he was on the ground, a pistol muzzle pressed against his neck. He turned around to see Snit's rapier held near Jim's throat.

"Throw down your arms!" Snit yelled. "Or I'll gut the fish and blast off the boy's head!"

Captain Burns stared at Commodore Snit, but slowly lowered his cutlass. Tarsby crept to his captain's side, dragging his hook sword behind him. Od dropped his battleaxe. Burns sighed. "It grieves me sore," he said. "To drag you fine fellows into this mess."

"I guess it's more of my fault…" Pliny said, staring at the dirty floor. "If I wasn't around, I wouldn't have made Snit angry and maybe things would be different. I'm sorry." He felt a chill creeping into his guts, and the knowledge he had stumbled into a wonderful new world – and ruined it.

"Shut your mouth!" Snit cried. He looked back up at Captain Burns, as One-Eyed Maggie appeared in the hallway and let out a wail of dismay. Snit glared at her. "You want the dolphin and the boy to live, do you? Well, I've got a task that must be done."

"I'm no errand boy, wretched dog!" Burns replied, but Feathers pecked his ear, tugging his eyes down to look at Pliny and Jim. Captain Burns nodded slowly. "What is it?" he asked.

"The Sea Spider's Tomb." Commodore Snit looked outside one of the inn's windows, where the rain drummed ceaselessly on the glass and the casement. "Go there and find what's inside. Bring it back to me. I'll let the dolphin and his sow keep their miserable lives."

"And us, you dry-skinned skunk?" Tarsby asked.

"We'll see," was all Snit said.

The crew of the Fortune's Fancy exchanged a glance. Captains Burns slowly nodded. "We'll need our weapons, I suspect," he said, reaching for his sword. Snit and the black-coated soldiers let him and his friends grab their blades. Pliny watched as Tarsby, Burns and Od shouldered their weaponry and walk slowly to the door.

"May Odin guide us," Od Blue-Axe said, opening the door to the thundering downpour. "For I doubt anyone else will." It was wrong, and Pliny knew it. He was a newcomer in this world, and Jim and One-Eyed Maggie had taken him in, showing him nothing but kindness. Now they were being held at gunpoint, and it was his fault that the brave and noble pirates of the Fortune's Fancy were marching to an unexplored tomb, like condemned men walking to their place of execution. He couldn't stand it.

As they were leaving, Pliny stood up. "Wait!" he heard himself shout. All eyes turned to him, and Pliny suddenly felt very small. "I'm going with you," he said. "I'll help. However, I can." He picked up his suitcase, which lay against the bar. "I have flashlights and things in here. You'll need them, if it's dark."

The crew of the Fortune's Fancy considered it. Tarsby grinned. "What's one more smelly, dirty mammal?" he asked. "Bring him along."

Burns nodded. "Aye, lad," he agreed, beckoning for Pliny to join him. "We'll give these bastards a barrel of hellfire yet."

Pliny ran to the door, took one last look at the Jolly Codfish and then stepped into the rain.

The pirates headed for their clankship, and clambered inside. Once they were all huddled together in the warm cockpit, before a wall of gears and levers, carved from wood, brass and coppers, and below a wide window looking out at the dark sky, Tarsby plopped into his seat and started them out. Feathers flapped from one end of the control panel to the other, pulling the occasional lever to keep the Fortune's Fancy level.

"Take us about, Tarsby," Captain Burns ordered, upending his tricorne to let rain splash onto the metal floor. "And around the island. We'll approach the Sea-Spider's Tomb from the ocean, and not through those gloomy columns."

"Afraid that ain't happening, skipper," Tarsby said, pointing a clawed hand at the window. Sure enough, dark pillars stretched out of the ocean, forming a wide forest before the mist-shrouded ruins. The choppy sea water crashed and broke against the tall rocks, and the clankship sailed through carefully, weaving between the columns.

Pliny leaned forward, trying to glimpse the Sea-Spider's Tomb. He could see the outline dimly, and it was a dark circle, topped with a smaller orb, and ringed with long, twisting limbs. All of it was made of dark, corroded stone, drenched fully in the pounding rain. Pliny turned to face the pirates. He took off his spectacles and cleaned them on his vest. "Do any of you guys know what exactly is in there?" he wondered.

They all looked at each other. Od shrugged his broad shoulders. "Only the gods know, child," he said. "And they aren't talking."

"There are rumors, of course, legends whispered in the flickering lantern light around taverns and holds the world over," Burns said. "They say there was another race in the Oddest Sea, before the sea creatures or men ever journeyed here. I've heard them called Atlanteans, or Lemureans, or the sons of Mu. But most people think they have no names at all. But the legends all say two things – that it's very good they're gone. And that they might not be totally gone. They might just be waiting to come back."

"If they're uglier than dirt-grubbing mammals, that's a good thing," Tarsby said, trying to add some levity with a derisive snort. "Okay. There's the shore a little bit ahead. It's rocky, full of sinkholes, but seems solid. I can keep the Fancy anchored here, and Feathers should stay to keep the engines going."

The Fortune's Fancy came to a stop before a dark sheet of wet, cratered stone. Tarsby grabbed his hook sword and a long rifle, Od took his battle axe and a wide-muzzled blunderbuss, and Burns had his pistols and cutlass. Pliny opened his suitcase, but the only thing he could think to take out was a flashlight. He brought the suitcase along, just in case.

Feathers hopped off Captain Burns' shoulder and landed on a tall throttle. He looked back at his captain and let out a mournful squawk. "Be careful, captain," he said.

"As careful as I can, mate," Burns agreed. He walked to the ladder in the corner and was first to shimmy up, onto the rain-blasted deck. Od, Tarsby and Pliny followed him. They walked past the railing and onto the shore, feeling the full fury of the storm. The stone shore stretched out, dotted with deep holes. It ended at a wide stone staircase, which led up into the bottom of the statue.

Captain Burns pulled up the collar of his coat, Od remained motionless as the rain slid across his large body, and Tarsby opened his mouth, spread his web-fingered and danced about in the rain. Pliny was soaked in seconds, and found that he couldn't stop shivering. He remembered his mother telling him to come inside when it was raining once, when he was very small. She had promised he'd catch his death, and he hadn't really believed her. But now he wanted nothing more than to be out of the rain.

But he still looked up at one of the sinkholes. Tarsby was dancing near one, chattering with glee. Pliny remembered what had appeared out of a similar hole previously. "Mr. Tarsby!" he shouted. "Watch out! There's a Shorekiller!"

The water in the sinkhole erupted outwards, a spray of dark liquid followed by the segmented body of a gigantic crab. Tarsby leapt away from the hole, the crab's claw tearing through the air where he had been. Tarsby raised his long rifle and fired. A glass tube rested in the center of the rifle, filled with shining white light. The rifle fired a long bolt of lighting into the crab, blasting a smoking hole straight through the crustacean's head.

"Hah!" Tarsby cried. "Lightning rifle! They never see it coming!" But more crabs were emerging from the sink holes, snapping their claws malevolently as they clambered up to the slick surface of the shore. Their pointed, spiky feet beat out a dull staccato rhythm on the stone.

Captain Burns steadied Pliny by firmly gripping his shoulder. He held up his cutlass, Od and Tarsby drawing near him. "As much as I'd like to hack these clattering devils to shreds, I doubt Commodore Snit is a patient man. We don't have the time." He started walked back to the stairwell, waving his blade at the crabs. One Shorekiller reached forward to snap through Burns' head. The lean pirate quickly drew a pistol and fired into the claw, sending out a spray of dark meat and blood. The crab stepped back, and Captain Burns turned to the stairwell.

He and his crew pounded up the slick, crumbling steps. Pliny followed, feeling the clinging mist added to the cold as they approached the ruins. The Shorekillers didn't follow them up the stairs, and soon Pliny noticed large statues, some broken and lying in fragments on the ground, of the same round, many-legged creature that loomed above them. They weren't spiders, exactly, for they had too many limbs, and their bodies were too asymmetrical. Pliny shuddered, and it wasn't from the cold.

"There!" Od cried, pointing to a narrow passage in the stairwell, which led into darkness. "An entrance."

"Said the fly as he flew into the spider's web," Tarsby muttered. But he still followed Od, Captain Burns and Pliny to the entrance.

It was a circular tunnel, carved straight into the stairwell and the shadows lay heavily inside. Pliny opened the suitcase and took out a flashlight. He turned it on and cast a wide beam of yellow light inside the tunnel. The rocks were still black and jagged, but they were at least dry. Pliny and the pirates hurried inside. They walked deeper into the tunnel, hearing the rain pounding down behind them and spilling over the island.

Suddenly, a horrible smell hit Pliny's nose like a physical blow. It was pungent and sharp, full of rot, corruption and the stench of death. "Cripes…" Pliny muttered, squeezing his nose shut. "What is that?"

Captain Burns gestured with his cutlass further down the tunnel, to a place where the narrow hall widened into a larger chamber. "That'll be it, I'll wager," he said. "And it seems we ain't the first to wander hereabouts."

He pointed to a large bunch of old seaweed, brown with age and horribly curled and intertwined, that lay like a grotesque garden on the chamber wall. Skeletons were mixed into it, some bearing the frayed plumed helmets of Greeks or the battered round helmets of Vikings. All the skeletons had their mouths open, as if in a final scream, and the seaweed strands were wrapped thickly around the ancient browned bones.

"Oh god," Pliny said, turning away from the scene of decay and horror. "I don't…I don't think we should go any further." Then he remembered One-Eyed Maggie and Jim the dolphin. He thought of them in the hands of Commodore Snit, and steeled his heart. He gulped and looked back at the skeletons. "No," he said. "We've got to go on."

"And straight through the cold gates of Hel," Od agreed. They proceeded down the tunnel, leaving the trapped skeletons and rotting seaweed behind. Pliny looked at the sides of the illuminated tunnel and saw they had changed from the round, natural surfaces to regular, carved walls.

There were carvings on the wall, more of the strange, many-legged creatures that were more like spiders than anything else Pliny could think of. He couldn't decide what was the worst part of them – the many-jointed legs, the bulbous, ovoid bodies, or the complete lack of eyes or faces. Their legs seemed to point further down the hall, urging the pirates on.

After a few more halting steps down the tunnel, they reached a final chamber. It was a wide, high-ceilinged vault, with a single statue in the center. It was one of the Sea Spider's and in three of its twisting, spiky legs, it held aloft a pedestal on which rested an oval jewel the color of the dark green sea. As the three pirates and Pliny approached, the jewel glowed with a fierce emerald light, harsh enough to make the boy's eyes ache.

"Cripes!" he cried, turning away from the jewel and covering his eyes. "Brighter than the sun!"

"Aye, and I bet it's worth a fortune!" Captain Nikos Burns said with a harsh laugh. "And scuttle me for a parson if Snit doesn't leap at the chance to possess it." He turned away from the jewel and approached it slowly. "Let's see if I have something to do with that light…" He withdrew a silken handkerchief and wrapped it around the jewel. The light dimmed, and Burns grinned. "I won that from the hand of a fair wench on Paradise Atoll. Good to know it has its use."

"Just take the damn jewel and let's hasten out of this tomb!" Tarsby hissed.

"Indeed. The darksome halls of the underworld are better than this," Od agreed. But as Captain Burns pulled his hand back, Od suddenly held up his hand. "Wait. There may be foul magicks attached to that bauble, holdovers from the age of the Sea Spiders. And I can almost feel the jewel….calling to me…"

Pliny could feel it too. It was a faint buzzing in the ears, making his head feel a little heavier and his eyes blur. He wanted to get close to the jewel, to lose himself inside the flaws and refractions of emerald light. Od, Tarsby and Burns felt it too. They were walked forward, reaching out to touch the jewel.

The clatter of Pliny's suitcase falling to the ground stirred him. "Wait!" he cried. He opened the suitcase and withdrew a dark sock. "This should cover it up. Hold on a second…" He stepped forward, turning away from the jewel, and then picked it up. Despite the handkerchief, the jewel was hot, burning into his palm. He closed his eyes and winced, nearly dropping, but forcing himself to hold on.

He dropped it into the sock, letting it fall to the bottom so he didn't have to hold it. When he looked back up, the glow had faded slightly, and he could see. The longing had also vanished. Od, Tarsby and Captain Burns seemed fine. "Okay," Pliny told himself. "Everything's fine. Everything's—" Then the ground under his feet started to shake.

Pebbles and chunks stone drizzled down, and the many arms of the Sea Spider seemed to shake and wave. "Thor's hammer!" Od shouted. "The tomb is collapsing!"

"Then run, lads!" Captain Burns cried. "Run like the Green God himself is bringing storms at your heels!" He grabbed Pliny's shoulder and pulled the boy down the tunnel, Tarsby and Od following him. They dashed down the tunnel, hearing the roar of crashing rock behind them.

They ran towards the dead men in their tangle of seaweed, and the skeletons were moving, jarred about by the collapsing cave. But then Pliny saw it wasn't just the shock of the cave's collapse. He wasn't sure if it was the bones or the seaweed that was moving them, but the skeletons stood up, clutching rusted swords and axes as they advanced towards the pirates.

With a wordless bellow, Od raised his blunderbuss and fired into the skeletons, shattering bone with a wave of lead. He drew his axe and ran forward, smashing overgrown skeletons in half and clearing a path through the collapsing tunnel. Pliny hurried forward, feeling sharp, fleshless fingers tearing at his coat. Captain Burns hacked wildly with his cutlass, and Tarbsy fired his lightning rifle and flailed with his hook sword. Bits of seaweed and shattered bone tumbled to the heaving ground.

"Now run, by thunder!" Burn shouted, blasting a skull with a pistol shot. "Just a little bit further!" They dashed through the remaining skeletons, and though fingers and blades clawed and cut at them, they didn't stop. Pliny was bleeding from a long, but shallow, cut in his shoulder, and he ignored the wound to keep running. He saw the end of the tunnel, and the gray, stormy light that waited outside.

He tripped, falling over an exposed rock and hitting the floor of the tunnel. "On your feet, child!" Od cried, grabbing one of Pliny's arms. Tarsby grabbed the other, and they helped him up quickly. They ran the rest of the way, and leapt out of the tunnel mouth just as the stone crumbled shut behind them.

Then it was down the jagged stairwell and back to the sea. The rocks were slick and the pathway windy but Pliny and the pirates made it down, and then it was just a dash against flat rock and back to the deck of the Fortune's Fancy. The Shorekillers lay in their holes like old men on porches, bold enough only to wave the occasional snapping claw at Captain Burns' crew. They hurried across, and leapt onto the deck of their ship.

Captain Burns helped Pliny to the ladder, and soon he was warm and dry in the cockpit of the ship. Tarsby and Od Blue-Axe followed him. Feathers squawked happily and fluttered around the room, making joyful circles around the heads of each pirate. "Well," Pliny said, slumping down in an armchair and holding up his dark sock and the dark jewel inside. "At least we got the treasure."

"Aye, and now comes the hard part – getting that snake Snit to hold true to his word," Burns said with a shake of his head. "He'll try and stick a knife in our backs, and no mistake. We must keep a weather-eye on him and his lackeys."

"Can do, skipper," Tarsby agreed, snapping off a clumsy salute with a webbed hand.

"They'll be another fight?" Pliny asked, as Tarsby started the engine.

Od shrugged. "Such is life," he replied.

"Not from where I come from…" Pliny said to himself. He leaned back in the chair, and tried his best to keep warm.

The Fortune's Fancy sailed back around the island, away from the collapsing Sea Spider's Tomb, and then arrived before the Jolly Codfish Inn. The storm seemed to have already loosed its worst on the island, and the rain that fell now was a light spray, with only the dark sky and the occasion roll of thunder to remind anyone of the cataclysm in the far heavens. Pliny looked out of the porthole and saw the Blackcoats standing on the rickety pier in front of the Jolly Codfish, Jim and One-Eyed Maggie kneeling down before them, strong ropes binding their legs, fins and arms.

"Take her in slow, Tarsby," Captain Burns ordered. "And why don't you stay on board and watch the little trade from the deck? The turret should provide an apt viewing chamber, if you catch my drift?"

"Oh, I catch it, skipper," Tarsby agreed. He grabbed his lightning rifle and scampered away, as Od, Burns and Pliny walked to the ladder. Pliny still carried the jewel inside his sock, and it swung pendulously in his hands, though there didn't seem to be enough gusts of wind to move it.

They stepped onto the splintery pier, and Captain Burns doffed his tricorne to Commodore Snit. "Ahoy there!" he cried. "We have ventured into the tomb and found you a bauble that should win any pretty maid's eye."

"Just one?" Snit asked. "That's hardly worth the lives of even these simpering fools." He aimed a savage kick at Jim's side, making the dolphin squeal in pain.

"You promised!" Pliny cried, glowering at Snit. "You gotta keep your word!"

"To a bunch of pirates? Do I, really?" Snit asked. Almost carelessly, he waved his hand and his Blackcoats leveled their muskets at Od, Pliny and Burns. "Now show me this jewel, and I'll see if mercy is the proper response."

Pliny upended the sock and let the green oval fall onto the pier. He rolled it towards Commodore Snit, who crouched down and grabbed it with both hands. Snit's plump features were illuminated by the sickly green light, and Pliny saw his eyes grow wide and his lips slacken. "S-sir?" Pliny asked. "Is it, is it any good?"

"Good?" Snit asked, thick ropes of drool falling from his mouth. "My dear boy, it's good enough to eat." He opened his mouth wide and shoved the stone inside. Commodore Snit then tumbled backwards, a placid expression on his face. His stomach bulged, like something inside was trying to get out, and his face turned to a shade of ash gray.

The change came almost immediately, in a flurry of ripping flesh, growing limbs, and snapping bone. Snit's head sank into his neck and his chest bulged madly. His arms and legs twisted about, fingers and toes snapping off to reveal, black glistening limbs ending in spikes. More of the arms and legs erupted from his chest and neck, and they slammed into the wharf. Three of them held him up right, and his bleeding, broken face grinned at everyone on the pier.

"Good enough to eat!" he repeated, and then both eyes left their sockets and tumbled to the ground. What stood there on the dock, stumbling forward on three, spindly legs was like no creature Pliny had ever heard of. It was something akin to the carvings and statues of the Sea Spiders, but clothed in rupturing human flesh.

The Sea Spider that had once been Snit slashed its long legs into the ranks of Blackcoats, tear off limbs and sending great gouts of blood to join the downpour of rain. The Blackcoats broke ranks, screaming in terror as they ran for their ship. They forced their way past the pirates and clambered to the safety of their vessel, already running into the rigging and preparing the sails. The Sea Spider glared down with an eyeless face at One-Eyed Maggie and Jim. The dolphin whimpered, and Maggie covered her remaining eye.

Captain Burns drew his cutlass and ran forward, motioning for Od to follow him. "It just gets worse and worse, eh my old shipmate?" he asked Od, firing a pistol into the spider's midsection. It crashed a thin leg against his chest, knocking him backwards on the pier. Od cracked his axe into the leg, but even the strong Viking steel did not cut the Sea Spider's obsidian skin.

The Spider started stalking down the pier, moving towards Burns and Pliny. The pirate captain came to his feet. "Flee, lad!" he shouted, drawing out a second pistol. "Get Maggie and Jim to the Fancy, and send her away from this cursed rock!" He fired into the Sea Spider's midsection, and the looming beast reached out to skewer him with a long, barbed leg.

A cannons shot cracked into the pier below the spider, sending up fragments of wood and causing the three-legged Sea Spider to sway unsteadily. Pliny looked back to the Fortune's Fancy, and saw Tarsby standing behind a cannon on the sleek vessel's side, waving a clawed hand.

But then the Sea Spider turned away from Burns and ran back towards the inn, and its two trapped owners. Pliny hurried after the spider, dragging his suitcase along with him. "Hey!" he shouted, his shrill voice sounding hollow and small against the storm. "Hey, you leave them alone, you big, spiky bum!"

The Spider swung a leg towards Pliny's legs. The boy stopped running and leapt backwards, but still felt the keen edge cutting through one of his knees and drawing blood. It didn't hit the bone, but he winced and lay uselessly on the pier. His suitcase spilled on the ground, letting some of his clothes get taken up by the wind, and vanish like fluttering flags into the storm.

But something else fell out of the suitcase. Pliny saw the wooden butt and steel firing tube of the flare gun. He grabbed it and held the weapon with both hands. The Sea Spider was moving quickly towards Jim and One-Eyed Maggie, and Pliny drew himself to a standing position, ignoring the free flow of blood in his leg. "Hey!" he shouted. "Spider!"

The Sea Spider stopped. Slowly, its bulbous midsection turned around. Every bit of Pliny's body wanted to break and collapse, and his legs burned from his cut and froze from the rain at the same time. But he kept the flare gun level, and pulled the trigger with all of his might. A blast of fire knocked him on his back, and he looked up at the dark, cloudy sky as a wave of heat washed over him.

Pliny looked back up and saw that the Sea Spider was now burning up and running towards him, tripping over the uneven dock planks as its dark, stony body fell away. Pliny struggled to pull himself away, gritting his teeth and wincing as his wounded leg scraped on the wooden pier. He knew he couldn't move fast enough.

Then Captain Burns grabbed his shoulder and helped him limp away, firing his pistols back at the Spider. Od came charging from behind the Sea Spider. The Viking crashed his axe right into the spider's burning stomach, drawing a long line of chunky purple blood. The spider sank down.

"Stand clear, landlubbers!" Tarsby shouted, readying the cannon for another shot. "This'll put an end to the ugly brute!" The cannon roared again, and the burning, broken remains of the Sea Spider went flying into the storm-tossed sea.

Captain Burns smiled at Pliny, as Od used his axe to free One-Eyed Maggie and Jim. "A fair job, young Pliny!" he laughed, patting the boy's shoulder. "Come aboard, if you please. I'll have Od bandage up that leg and you'll be good as new."

"Did I kill it?" Pliny asked. He didn't like Snit, or the spider monster, but the idea of killing still seemed awful to him.

"No, child. Tarsby's shot and the ocean did that. But you wounded the spider, and weakened it." Od walked across the pier, with Maggie and Jim behind him. Od's steel gray eyes looked into the horizon.

Maggie sighed. "But I doubt the Blackcoats, who saw you fire on their commodore, will think the same."

Jim nodded. "They'll sail back to their masters, and report what they saw."

"Oh no," Pliny said. "They'll think I'm a pirate, I guess." Then he looked at Burns, Tarsby and Od, and shrugged his thin shoulders. "Well, I suppose that's not so bad. I mean, it's the only profession for an honorable man." He repeated Captain Burns' earlier words. "So, maybe I could sail with you guys?"

Burns grinned. "I'd not hear of anything else, lad! You'll be a famous cabin boy, and it's high time the Fortune's Fancy had one!" He steered Pliny to the deck of his ship, Tarsby opening the hatch and motioning them inside. "But first its some bed rest, and warm soup for you, lad. The Oddest Sea is wide as the sky, all brimming with adventure, and we're bound for wherever the bonnie winds take us!"

Pliny thought of his arrival in the Oddest Sea, through a haze of pain as he waved back to Jim and One-Eyed Maggie. He wondered what his new life would be like, and finally decided that it was something he could look forward too.

-The End-