Salt-filled air greeted Maka’s nostrils. She sniffed.
She was laying on something hard and moving. Her arms were limply dangling from her sides, swaying back and forth in a steady rhythm.
Groggily, Maka opened her eyes. She was greeted by a pervasive darkness, one that stretched forever and in all directions. She could make out shapes on her right-hand side. On the other, there were only sounds of lapping water.
“Gah…” With weakened hands, Maka propped herself up, realizing she had been lying on some sort of thin beam. She sat up with one leg on each side and rubbed the burning salt from her eyes. Slowly, as her mind returned to working order, her training took over and she stopped relying on pure instinct.
Questions about where she was and how she ended up here took a backseat. Instead, she gave herself a quick-check up.
A strange exhaustion and a curious feeling of nostalgia clouded her mind, her entire body was covered in dry salt, but otherwise she was uninjured. Good.
Now she had to get her bearings. Questions flooded her mind. Where was she? What sort of environment was she in? Was anyone else with her, or was she alone?
Maka blinked and rubbed her eyes again. The all-encompassing darkness was as impenetrable as before. Maka felt it seep into her bones and taste her soul… She shook her head and frowned at those intrusive thoughts. Madness? But with her Grigori soul…
No, she had to focus on the task she had assigned herself. Even if she couldn’t see a thing in this strange blackness, she had another ace up her sleeve.
Closing her eyes and letting out a small breath, Maka activated her Soul Perception and almost fell off the beam she was holding on. Her inner sight lit up with so many different souls that all their different Wavelengths hit her like a spray of water from a water gun. They were detectable but not strong enough to physically shake her, so what had...?
With a gulp, Maka looked up at a familiar large yellow soul whose energy flowed erratically through it, as if it had been hit with the Soul Wavelength equivalent the size of the Eiffel Tower. The epicentre of the assaulting Wavelength came from somewhere to Maka’s right, where incidentally, all the other souls were.
The Grim Reaper’s soul pulsed again and his Wavelength washed over Maka’s soul like a tidal wave. As Maka regained her balance and realised that it was this Wavelength that had thrown her off balance before. She braced herself when the next one came, followed by another, as they travelled from the centre of the soul to its far edges. In it, Maka felt the darkness subside and the cold feeling that had almost grasped her heart fading, leaving her with the familiar feeling of being within the Grim Reaper’s soul.
Finally, there was one last pulse of energy, slower than the others but thick with heat like a warm blanket, and peace was restored. The place became just a little brighter and Maka was able to make out the outline of a ship on her right and a dark sea on her left.
Maka blinked. What had just happened?
She looked at her right where all the other souls were. Apart from Kid’s towering soul, she could see… Soul, Black*Star, Tsubaki, Liz, Patty, Ox, Harvar, Kim, Jackie, Kilik, Fire, and Thunder. So all of Spartoi had been transported- the last thing Maka remembered was taking an afternoon nap in her room because of Blair’s antics- on some sort of…
Maka squinted her eyes. Were they on a boat? An honest-to-Death ship in the middle of nowhere?
Well, that would explain the salt air, though not how Maka had ended up being covered in salt. She wasn’t wet and neither were any of her clothes, so she couldn’t have been in the sea… Unless she had fallen and someone had dragged her out a while ago. Was that what happened to the others? Yet she couldn’t see another person on the ship…
Maka realized she had been sitting on the rails of the ship overlooking the sea. Carefully, she climbed down on the right-hand side of the beam, her boots hitting against a creaking metal floor.
Using her Soul Perception to guide her, Maka blindly stumbled around the ship. Once or twice she bumped into a wall or some other obstruction, which only increased her dislike of the blinding darkness. If only she had a light source at hand…
The tip of Maka’s boot collided with something solid and heavy, which sent the girl tumbling down with an undignified squeak. Clutching her ribs, Maka grabbed at what had caused her fall. The object was a metal box roughly the size of a small dog and had a protruding handle on one side. Maka sat cross-legged and lifted the box onto her lap. She ran her fingers around it and eventually stumbled upon a switch, which she flipped on.
And promptly blinded herself as the contraption turned on and a bright white light was emitted from the end pointing at Maka’s face. Rapidly blinking, she instinctively pushed it away and rubbed the stars out of her eyes.
“At least I got a flashlight…” Maka muttered to herself as she picked up the strange contraption again, this time making sure the bright end was pointing away from her. It was unlike any flashlight she had seen- it looked like something pulled straight out of a retro fantasy novel. It was big, bulky and bore a greater resemblance to a lantern than the modern flashlights Maka was used to.
Oh well, it would do.
She used the flashlight to illuminate the ship’s deck and approach the soul closest to hers -Soul’s. On the way, she found out that the ship had rust that was gathering on some of the metal railings, and the deck was covered with grime and worn away by time. There was a set of stairs leading to the upper and lower decks, with narrow winding steps and paper-thin railings.
“Hello?” A familiar voice came from around a dark corner.
Maka’s eyes widened and she dashed around it, a smile on her face. “Soul!”
“Maka-? Augh!” About a meter away from her, the albino boy raised his arm to shield his eyes from the bright light. Maka grimaced and turned the light away from him.
After some excessive blinking, Soul finally got a look at Maka and his posture relaxed. “It’s you. Phew.” His eyebrows steepled as he looked at the strange contraption and at the areas illuminated by it. “Where… are we?”
“I’m not sure.” Even if she still had little idea of what was going on, Maka couldn’t help but smile. Soul’s presence made her feel a little safer, a little less alone. “We’re on some kind of ship, but other than that…”
“Just the two of us?”
Maka shook her head. “I can sense other souls as well. The entire Spartoi team is here-”
“Maka? Soul?” A new set of voices called.
The Meister and Weapon turned around towards the voices, Maka careful not to blind anyone this time. Ox, Harvar, and Kilik appeared, with Kilik holding Fire and Thunder on his shoulders, and made their way to the ground floor from the upper decks.
Harvar frowned. “You’re here too?”
“Hey, I’m not complaining,” Kilik said with a grin. “The more of us, the faster we can figure this out-”
“Have you seen Kim?!” A desperate Ox yelled, practically jumping over the last set of stairs to land on his knees in front of Maka. “What if she’s here with us and lost-!?
Maka made a pacifying gesture since she could sense Kim’s soul somewhere below deck along with a few others. “She’s-”
“Oi, is anyone here?!” came a booming voice somewhere on the upper layers of the ships.
“And that’s Black Star…” Maka murmured. “I can sense Tsubaki’s soul next to him.”
“Oi, we’re down here!” Soul called out. Before he could say anything else, a dark shape landed on the deck. Maka turned her flashlights towards it to reveal Black Star wielding Tsubaki’s katana form.
“Hey, I can’t see!” Black Star protested, covering his face from the light.
“Sorry,” Maka sheepishly said and turned the flashlight away.
“So we’re not the only ones on this ship,” came Tsubaki’s voice from her Weapon form. “That’s a relief.”
“There are more people below deck,” Maka said. “Kid, Liz and Patty are there, along with Jackie and Kim-”
“Kim!” Before Maka could even finish her sentence, Ox was off, barreling down the flight of stairs like a madman, Harvar going after him with an expression somewhere between concern and exasperation.
“...Let’s be a little more careful,” Maka said and began descending the stairs like a sane person, everyone else following after her.
Below deck, the air remained salty but with an extra layer of musk. The hull groaned as the sea lapped against it and each noise was amplified tenfold, making its inside sound like the stomach of a very hungry whale. It was dark, with the exception of a small light, which, upon closer inspection, came from the hand of a human figure, surrounded by other human silhouettes.
“Jackie?” Maka asked.
“Kim!” Ox excitedly stepped into the orange light and hugged Kim, who physically cringed at the gesture,
“Ox?!” As Maka’s group came closer, Ox’s, Harvar’s, Kim’s and Jackie’s faces became visible. “Oh, and the rest of our merry little group is here. Joy.”
Maka frowned at Kim’s tone. Even if the Witch wasn’t among the friendliest, she usually tried to hide the more sour parts of her personality. “What’s wrong?”
Wordlessly, Kim pointed at her side, where a kneeling Liz and Patty congregated around an unconscious Kid.
“Kid isn’t waking up,” Liz said, not bothering to look at the rest.
That was strange, Maka thought. Normally she’d thought the opposite would be true. Kid, being a Grim Reaper, usually recovered faster from injuries than the rest of them, so Maka expected him to be among the first to wake up. Though… when Maka woke up she had sensed his soul act strange and send out repeated bursts of his Wavelength… Maybe those bursts, whatever they were, had drained him?
“Leave it to Black Star!” He walked towards Kid, placing one foot on one side and one on the other. He took a deep breath, puffed his chest and leant down.
Maka blinked in confusion. “What-?”
“Oi Kid!” The yell was loud enough to make the ship groan from the inside. When Kid didn’t respond, Black Star yelled again, this time louder, and Maka had to cover her ears.
“I don’t think that’ll work-”
“I’ll help!” Patty yelled and grabbed Kid by the collar and began shaking him as if making frappe coffee.
Kid’s hand shot up and covered Blackstar’s mouth like a Band-Aid. The rest of Kid stirred and let out a soft groan. Patty let go of his collar and gently lowered him to the floor.
“Loud,” the Grim Reaper groggily said, opening one eye. Upon seeing Maka and everyone else’s worried faces, he opened the other one and sat upright. “What’s going on? Where…?” he trailed off.
“Join the club," Liz said and crossed her arms. "Anyone know how we ended up here?”
No one spoke. A metaphorical cricket cried.
Liz cursed under her breath. “I swear this better be the hangover of a rocking party we just had or so help me…”
“Where are we?” Jackie asked.
“Not on Earth,” a breathless Kid spoke up. “This place is...”
“Let’s get above deck first…” Liz said as another groan reverberated through the metal hull like the cry of a famished orca.
They did so, going up the stairs in single-fire, in fear the battered steps would give out considering the abuse they had endured earlier.
“Hey, I see light!” Soul called and pointed to where a faint light illuminated a row of neat shapes and sizes, probably some sort of city, in the distance. “We must be near a shore.”
“If we can dock to a port, we can talk to the locals and figure out our location,” Harvar said.
“But how are we going to get the ship moving?” Tsubaki asked.
“Can’t we turn on the engine?” Soul suggested.
“Do you know where the engine is? Or how to work it?” Kim scowled. “Hell, does anyone know how to steer this hunk of junk in the first place?”
“Oi, calm down,” Liz said with a dismissive gesture. “Worst case scenario we swim.” She frowned and considered and her words. “In an unknown sea. At night. Where there may be sharks…” Liz’s face paled. “You know what, you’re right, let’s panic-”
“Let’s not,” Kid said and narrowed his eyes at the faint light. “The light does not look very far away. Perhaps those of us that can fly can carry the others with-”
“Hey, there’s a ship!” Ox called out and ran to the other side of the deck where a dark shape approached them. He held out his hands and waved at the faintly-illuminated shape. “Oi!”
Soon enough, they all leant against the ship’s railing and shouted, Jackie at one point transforming her hand into a lantern and sending a pillar of flames high into the sky. Slowly but steadily, the large ship veered off its course and headed towards them. From what they could see, the ship was much bigger than theirs. A large dark pillar extended from the centre of the ship, like a lighthouse that had run out of fuel.
Eventually, the old ship approached them carefully and Maka could make out a crowd of people working on the deck, shouting commands in thick accents. A wide and thick plank was extended from the unknown ship to theirs and a lone man approached them.
“You lads having some trouble?” the approaching man said in a thick rural English accent. He was wide as he was tall, with a scraggly beard hiding a small collection of scars and burns.
“That’s a weird ship you have,” Soul commented off-handedly.
The man looked fondly back at the ship. “Aye, a real beauty ain’t she? We’re an old lightship stationed South near the coast of the Elder Continent, returning for maintenance." He looked over at their ship, his eyes scanning the dark deck. “You look like you’ve run out of fuel, you poor souls.”
“Uh, yeah,” Maka agreed, not quite sure how to explain that they’d ended up in this boat with no explanation without sounding crazy. “Can you haul us with you or something…?”
The man scratched his beard. “I reckon we got enough fuel. The Wolfstack dock is straight ahead,” he said and gestured to the faint light in the distance. “But, times are hard, and we were hoping we could save up on costs...”
“We can pay you,” Kid offered.
A wide grin, showing off missing and rotten teeth. “Now we’re talking!” He patted Kid on the back and Maka could tell Kid exercised what willpower he had not to flinch from the gesture and smooth his jacket. “Look, since for us this is a standard return trip, we know how much fuel we ought to be spending. How about we settle on an agreed amount of Echoes for each extra unit of fuel spent-?”
“Echoes?” Maka asked. She wasn’t sure if she’d heard correctly, but echoes did not sound like a type of currency.
The man paused and frowned. “Yes? Something I said, miss?”
“We can offer American dollars,” Kid said with a frown.
The man paused again. He looked at each one of them carefully.
Then, he let out a bellowing laugh. “Pahahaha, you almost had me there! Didn’t peg you for a jokester!” He wiped a fake tear from his eye. “Oi, you got to listen to this,” he turned around and called out, waving the other sailors with his arm. “American dollars, hah!”
“It’s not a joke,” Kid said and crossed his arms. “Are echoes your currency? Surely, we can work out an exchange rate.”
The man laughed again. “There ya go with yer jokes again. Echoes are the only currency down ‘ere.” His grin faltered. “You lot sound like Surfacers-”
“Maybe we are...?” Maka hesitantly said. Even if what Kid had said before was true and they weren’t on Earth, well, their Earth, the fact that the man had recognized what American dollars were meant there were some similarities with their world. “Um, we’re all from Nevada in the States. We don’t know how we ended up…” she looked around her, “here.”
The Captain gave them a long look. “You pulling my leg?”
“Not in the slightest,” Harvar replied.
The sailor looked around everyone else to see serious faces. “Oh dear,” he muttered. “Did you lot end up getting zee mad?”
“We’re being perfectly reasonable! You’re the one making demands for a currency that doesn’t exist-”
“Yup, zee mad. Salt’s curse or something,” he muttered to himself and looked them over once again as if seeing them for the first time. “Say, this ship’s supposed to have a max crew of 20, but I can see only…” his eyes darted between them, his mouth silently moving as he counted each face, “fourteen of ya, most of you kids. Where are yer parents?”
“That’s all of us,” Maka said. “There’s no one else on this ship.” Liz’s protests of ‘hey, I’m an adult’ went unheard.
The sailor stared at them with mute horror. “Salt’s curse alright,” he muttered to himself again. With a fallen expression, he shouted an order back at his ship and gave them a sorrowful look. “Come, let’s get you back to land. These waters ain’t safe enough for kids.”
“And the cost of fuel?” Maka asked.
The man waved his hand. “Don’t matter. You can make it up to me later with whatever extra supplies you have,” he said nonchalantly. “Or maybe give me a discount on the ship. Always wanted one meself even if it’s a lowly tramp streamer,” he said, though is tone was more jovial than serious. He turned around. “Oi, get your hooks ready! We’re hauling this ship with us,” he hollered.
“Where will you be taken up? What’s the closest port?”
“I thought I made that obvious by saying the Wolfstack docks -oh never mind,” the sailor muttered. He gestured at the light, where a few buildings could be made out in the darkness.
“Welcome back kids,” the man said with a smile, “to Fallen London.”