Legends tell of a dark horse, a bad omen, every sailor’s bane: monster, they call the fish, but that is not descriptive enough. The creature is said to be little more than a dark shadow, so large that it could swallow a ship full of men if only it would open its gaping maw. Sent by the gods, foretold, it selects its targets without warning, without negotiation. The wind rises, the waves swell, and the sea is still—and empty—at blood-red dawn.
Those who have lived to tell the tale, few though they be, say that survival is not an escape from nightmares of mottled fins and gnashing teeth. Survival is a curse, for when the sun rises, that dark horse never stops chasing them. Marked for death, they say. Bad luck for years, for the self and for those around him, straight on to the end of his life.
Maybe it’s the reason that life ends in the first place. No one dodges fate. No one.
No one except Ajax.
“I suppose a little fishing wouldn’t hurt.”
Captain Ajax did not come by his position honestly, and he will be the first man to say so. After ten years as first mate over a crew of one hundred men, he took umbrage with—well, it doesn’t really matter, for the story changes with every telling. Working conditions were poor, they were starving, they were mad with scurvy, he wanted a greater share of the treasure, he was fucking the Captain only to be betrayed. All plausible. All enough to drive a man with a belly full of seawater to drive his sword through his captain’s chest and take the wheel.
The captain’s life suits him just fine. The rum never runs dry, and at every port, there’s a bed to warm. They love his eyes, they tell him. They love his rough hands and his roguish smile. Captains are so often haggard and sea-worn; Ajax is wild and bright-eyed, quick to grin and devilishly charming.
He’d be the first man to say that, too.
Nights at sea are long, and the stars do not often make for good company. As such, Captain Ajax takes often to the decks, eyeing the stars for guidance or listening to the rumblings of his sailors. They are happy, he thinks. He makes sure of it.
After all, he knows the consequence of unhappy sailors, and there’s more than one way to a red dawn.
Happy sailors tell stories, and it was over a bottle and a pair of loaded dice that he first heard the story of the monster that lives within these waters. Whether a ship be full of pirates or merchants, it cares not. Indiscriminate, it is a tool of the gods to cast judgment on the hearts of sailors.
If there is any lesson Ajax has learned at sea, it’s that a man does not get what he deserves; he gets what he can take. Perhaps it’s no different for those that lurk beneath the surface. To pretend they do not exist would be to tempt the sea to prove him wrong. Many sailors have come to sea not believing in monsters and fairy tales, but a summer spent on deck will teach a man the wisdom of believing otherwise.
Some things cannot be explained.
“Captain, you shouldn’t; it’s too dangerous. Our nets are not half as large as they need to be, and if you cast a line, you will surely drag us to the depths.”
But Ajax has never run from a challenge. He’s not about to start now.
The thing about the gods is this: they’re as mortal as any man. They can be killed. They can be conquered. Once, Ajax conquered the strongest man he knew, and there’s only one way to go from here. He lifts his eyes to the clouds and smiles, feeling them up there. They watch. He dances.
If he can kill his Captain, he can kill a god. If he can kill a god, then he can fight for his place amongst them. There is no doubt in his mind that the nightmare that swims in these waters is a god, none at all, and Ajax believes with his whole chest that he can succeed.
At their next port, he visits a man in an alley shop and makes a trade: one golden goblet for an unbreakable javelin suited for hand-throwing. It feels good in his hand, properly weighted, balanced, deadly. The goblet was painted tin, but the javelin is perfect, and when they take again to the seas, he stands at the bow like he is the master of his domain.
He could be the god of these seas. This, too, he believes.
His crew believes him mad.
It does not take much to break faith, however happy the men may be. The first few weeks that Captain Ajax spends at the prow are met with mild amusement, a flight of fancy. The skipper swore he heard the captain muttering in his sleep, propped against the railing as though he will miss his mark if he steps into his cabin.
With every storm, he proves himself mad, though perhaps it’s not a bad thing. These storms are deadly, but he navigates them with ease, as though there is some golden path only he can see charting a safe course before the ship. Tied to the railing, javelin in hand, Ajax screams his challenge to the gods and the sea (but really, is there a difference?), and his crew watches him in awe.
A little madness might be just what they need.
Weathering storms has an unintended effect: where other ships dare not go, they sail bravely into dangerous waters. Around tricky capes, between too-close islands, even within seas rumored to be inescapable: there is no challenge they do not meet.
The riches this endeavor yields are beyond their imagining. Perhaps they are gods, untouchable even in the most violent waters. With Captain Ajax at their head, there is nothing they cannot do, no treasure beyond their grasp.
Then, on a late afternoon with storms rolling on the horizon, Captain Ajax takes his place as with any other storm. The seas swell, rising thirty, fifty feet above the ship. The wheel cranks hard to starboard and will not be moved, the rudder jammed or broken or gone, but they feel no fear, for they are lords of the seas, and none can harm them if—
Captain Ajax throws his javelin for the first time in the two years he’s held it. The rope around his waist, tied not to the railing, snaps taut.
Darkness. Silence. No matter how violent a storm, beneath the surface there is only silence and black, black as far as the eye can see in all directions. The motion of the waves at the surface is nothing compared to the rush of water around him as the rope connecting javelin and man drags him fast, faster, deeper.
It would be a good way to die, he thinks. But he does not intend to die today. In peace is not the death he desires.
He will go with a mouth full of blood and a knife in his hand, or he will not go at all. He wraps the rope around his hand and jerks, and the resultant screech is high-pitched and deafening. Nevertheless, it twists, pulls down, down into darkness until the pressure in his ears is too much.
Another scream. Maybe it’s his. This is the only sound in the world, and the javelin will not come free. What a fool he was. Unbreakable. His eyes slip closed.
The sun rises as it always does on the mornings after these storms: blood-red and burning. Ajax vomits saltwater, delirious and dizzy and miserable, while hands push hard on his chest. Soft murmuring near his ear makes no sense, and he is sure his eardrums have ruptured in his plunge into—
Well, whatever this is. An afterlife, perhaps, and even here, the sun is agonizingly hot. Something cool and salty presses to his lips and he takes it onto his tongue, raw fish, followed by something so sweet and cool that it makes him want to sleep. Coconut milk, maybe. There are fruits aplenty on islands in these seas, many with thin juices. All he tastes is the sea.
Fitting, that. He’s spent a lifetime in and on the sea; this is his just desserts.
He knows not how many days pass before he wakes and has his wits. Sunburned and salt-sticky, Captain Ajax (but is he a captain without a ship?) sits up and takes in his surroundings. The island is small, solitary in a vast sea of nothingness around it, but it has fresh water and coconuts, mangoes, lemons—yes, he can survive here. Small fish bones scatter in all directions around him, but he is otherwise alone.
This does not last. Arrogance. He has a nasty habit of it.
The sun is high in the sky when something appears in the surf; squinting, he lifts his chin and his eyes widen as he takes in the sight of a boy making for the shore.
He is not alone, then. He pushes himself to bare feet, making for the waterline. “Are you alright?” But he gets no answer. The boy swims for shore, blinking bright green eyes in visible confusion as Ajax swims out for him, catches his arms. “Have you been shipwrecked? You’re lucky you landed on this island; the gods know there are plenty with nothing but bones.”
The boy shakes him loose and aims for the shore, casting a wary look over his shoulder first towards Ajax then to the sea itself. He tosses a wriggling sack onto the shore but doesn’t stand in the shallows.
Only then the sea spits him onto the sand does Ajax realize what he’s seeing: mottled golden and white and black, shredded fins, scales scarred by boats and teeth and rope. The creature bears an open wound, bloody and raw and deep, as it crawls onto shore.
This is no monster, no nightmare, no divine retribution. He will not become a god here.
Yes, a sailor would be a fool not to believe in myth. He thought he knew this lesson well, but seeing what he sees, Ajax knows now: he doesn’t know anything at all.
Every day passes like the one before it; the island is small with little to explore, so Ajax must do what he can to survive here. His companion—he knows not what else to call it (him?)—does not speak in anything but low clicks and nonsensical sounds, even when he tries to work it out.
“Ajax,” he says, gesturing to himself. The resultant sound from the creature is low and short and humming, so Ajax calls him what he thinks that sounds like. “Alright, Ben. What’s on the docket today?”
No answer, as usual. The creature goes into the sea regularly, sometimes just into the shallows to wet its scales and sometimes deeper. There is a reef nearby, which means these waters teem with life. Ben is never gone for long, and Ajax doesn’t need to ask to know why.
For hours after Ben returns from longer excursions with fish to eat, sharks circle the island. He almost feels guilty for the javelin wound, does when he realizes how quickly he will surely die without this help. The first time he tries to touch the wound, Ben screams an unholy sound and gnashes sharp teeth at him, claws gleaming.
“I’m just trying to help.” Soft, soothing. It’s all in the tone. Eventually, it works.
The first time he puts a hand on his savior, his prey, Ajax is pleasantly surprised—he expected Ben to be slimy, but he isn’t. His scales are smooth to the touch where they are not scarred, and he is a surprisingly warm creature for something that’s just come out of the water. The wound is deep and healing poorly, and the area around it is hot to the touch and raised. Ben watches him with wide eyes, fearful and tense.
It is unlike Captain Ajax to be gentle. He scoops Ben into his arms to carry him to the freshwater stream, muttering nonsense in a tone meant to soothe the creature as he puts him into it to clean him up. Clawed hands clutch at his arm, scraping and digging in, but the job must be done.
The problem is quickly revealed. Ajax shows him, pulling back injured flesh so he can see the shard buried within the wound. Unbreakable my ass. But what else could he expect, when he traded painted tin masquerading as gold? When he draws his knife, Ben screams again, but Ajax clucks his tongue and shows him what he means to do.
Eventually, Ben looks away. Ajax wonders if his tears are salty like the sea or if they’re something else.
With the shard of metal removed from the puncture, Ben begins to heal better, but when he makes for the usual hunt, Ajax stops him and points over the horizon. Dolphins, a pod of them. Ben shudders and stays at the water’s edge, tail outstretched.
Every scar has a story, but not every scar is visible.
It’s enough to make him mad, every day beginning and ending the same way. He rises with the sun, makes a fire for smoke, checks Ben’s progress, and then...well, nothing.
What else is there to do? With a shelter built of large leaves and precious wood, he exhausts the extent of what he’s able to build here. No, he must rely on rescue.
Ajax hates being rescued.
Once, when he was a boy, he was sold into servitude at the docks following his mother’s death. His father wanted little to do with him, so he became a sailor and that was that. But as a boy, he was no wiser than he is now, but he was much weaker by contrast. He was rescued once.
Sailors deserve only the things they can take; sometimes, they decide to take whatever they can get. He was a pretty boy, they told him. They could give him things he’d never dreamed of.
That’s when he met his captain. Angry and vicious, he killed three men and took Ajax from the dockside tavern to put him to work on his ship. There, he grew up. There, he learned the ropes, climbing the ranks to his captain’s most trusted man. First Mate.
His captain deserved the blade through his chest for forgetting the moral code he’d put on display all those years ago. Ajax found him with one of the boys they’d picked for deckhands on their last port and that was the end of it.
No, Ajax hates to depend on a rescue because it always comes with conditions and always sours in the end; nevertheless, he must. He makes his smoky fires. He teaches Ben the words for things around them but cannot explain how to string them together. He watches the stars he is unable to navigate by.
Then, Ben is gone for nearly an entire day. After a few hours, Ajax gets cagey, nervous. By nightfall, he’s pulling at his hair, running through the worst scenarios he can think of.
He needs to make a bigger fire. He cannot be here alone forever.
A loud splash near the middle of the night has Ajax’s attention immediately, and he hurries to the beach, scooping Ben from the water and carrying him to the fire so he can see. He’s bruised, cut up in a few places, clawed. Something had a hold of him, but he got away with minor injuries, it seems.
Still, he clings and hisses when the wounds are touched. Ajax takes him back to the stream to clean him up by moonlight.
How familiar this is, he thinks, though he has no real sense of how long he’s been here. With careful hands, he rinses the wounds on his upper body first, testing bruises and feeling for anything residual beneath. He finds a spine, pulls it free and sets it aside for later use, and feels for anomalous swelling. Satisfied, his fingers slide over his tail, searching, pulling more spines—six here—before he presses to feel.
Ben hisses, mutters his name in broken syllables, looks away. He presses here again, blinks at the sharp intake of breath and Ben’s hand grabbing his wrist. This, he thinks, must be painful, is a matter of trust.
“It’s alright. Let me see.” So he presses his fingers upward, blinks at Ben’s tightening fingers and the feeling of slime beneath his own. The only time he’s ever felt slime on Ben’s scales is with an injury, a natural protective barrier between water and something healing.
But Ben does not screech in pain now; no, he presses on Ajax’s fingers with his own and lets loose a series of clicks that he only ever makes when something pleases him. Good fish, good weather, relief. Now, as Ajax’s fingers slide in instead of over, Ben’s tail smacks the shallow water and he makes that very same sound.
Oh. But some things don’t require a shared language or, it seems, a shared anatomy. Ben pulls and Ajax follows.
Any port in a storm. This one, as it happens, is slick and warmer than expected, and as Ajax moves deeper, Ben grabs him by the hair and hauls him in close to sink sharp, vicious teeth into his shoulder. The passage pulses a little tighter, oozes around his fingers, and with that bloom of pain…
Well, he hates to call himself predictable, but.
For once in many, many years, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s looking for. He traces the inner walls, feeling for something—anything, really—that might give him a better idea of what Ben wants. When he presses a third finger in, a series of too-fast clicks sounds near his ear, and a hand pushes between his thighs.
He doesn’t expect it, the sudden touch; the creature has never been forward with him like this, but to say he has no interest would be to lie. Ben is a strong swimmer, well-built above the waist at least, and Ajax has always allowed himself to be a curious man.
Intellectually stimulating. This is the excuse he will use later.
Every slow, rhythmic slip of his fingers warms him further, helped along by Ben’s inexpert groping. It’s best not to think of the implications of this, what this might mean for a creature like this, but again, when pulled, he follows.
Ben whispers his name against his ear, undoubtedly a plea. “Ajax,” he hums.
And Ajax has never moved so quickly to undress, to crawl on top of this monster, this savior, and slide his cock in to the hilt. A shocked, not-displeased cry rends the night air and Ben tightens around him, something shifting against him from within.
He moves, and Ben is a wild thing in his arms. Writhing, flushed and aroused, he scrapes sharp claws along Ajax’s back and bucks against him. Slick and slicker by the moment, every thrust is wet and squeezing in a way that diminishes every such encounter in ports and whorehouses and taverns that he has ever known.
There are tales of creatures like these and what they’re best suited for. It is this, this—the squirming desperation, the reactive body that leaves him dripping, the sharp teeth that sink into him again and again and will not let him move away.
Ben screeches and cries out like he’s being slaughtered, and when he squirts something warm and thick between them, Ajax forgets anything else but this.
He finds his first orgasm buried deep there, but desperate hands will not let him go until the sun rises. Unable to yield another drop of his seed, Ajax pulls out and blinks when Ben doesn’t get up but pushes roughly over the scales, slaps his tail against the water and cries out still. He screeches, half-sits up, and shudders as he visibly strains.
The eggs come in a rush, soft-bodied and one after another, apple-sized and entirely too numerous for Ajax’s liking. Several dozen slip off of Ben’s tail to either side of him, and he strains until what looks as much like a cock as Ajax’s own pushes from within.
He collapses back, panting and moaning, and no more than a few quick strokes later does he gush milky fluid over his belly and chest.
Ajax stares at him, first at his flushed and satisfied face, then to the—what, three? Four?—dozen eggs around him. Ben gestures vaguely at the water, still gasping for air, and Ajax starts to push him into it again before his hands are smacked away and the eggs are indicated.
One by one, trying not to think about it, he does as bidden, watching the stream carry them to the sea.
The ship comes the next afternoon while Ben rests in the shallows and Ajax...well, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Fretting, he alternates between tending the fire and eyeing Ben as he naps in the sun. At first, he thinks the dot on the horizon a mirage, but it comes closer, and he fans the smoke until it billows high in the sky. He would recognize those sails anywhere.
As they sail closer, he nudges Ben awake and points; the look of terror is expected, but he doesn’t slip immediately into the sea to hide. Instead, he clutches at Ajax’s calf and whispers his name in an exhausted chorus.
Ajax, Ajax, Ajax. It’s the only word he reliably knows.
Ajax has a choice to make.
Sailors deserve only what they can take, and legends never die. They persist on, changing but always bearing a grain of truth at their centers.
The creature is said to be a prophecy, to be a punishment. Yawning shadow beneath ships, herald of hurricanes and shipwrecks, it is every sailor’s nightmare. It kills nearly everything it comes across, leaving few survivors and fewer still who will speak of it. To encounter it is to suffer bad luck for the rest of one’s short—shorter by the moment—life.
These truths are predetermined, understood, known. They are fate.
No one dodges fate. No one.
He steps onto the deck of his ship, the dark horse cradled in his arms, and grins at his staring, disbelieving crew. “I caught the monster!”
No one except Ajax.