Cold steel rang dull in the dusky sky. Milo’s shovel hit something hard. Multiple thumps followed along with grunts and groans, the tone of excitement rising. All five men dug with more vigor, sweat beading in the tropical air. Shovels cleaved into the thick, wet sand faster and deeper. A moment later, the wooden slats of a treasure chest lay bare. A solitary, scarred taskmaster paced behind, cracking his knuckles.

“Bring ‘er on up, boys,” Burns yelled. “Sun’s goin’ down and the captain’s hungry.”

“Cap’n’ll get what we give ‘im,” Hawks said. The others guffawed, their laughs carrying across the water.

Not much larger than their three-masted barque, the island boasted four palms and the captain’s ransom of sand. Whispers across the Knuckles Archipelago hinted at buried treasure, hidden from the prying eyes of privateers and pirate hunters. When Iron Eyes caught wind of it, no matter how ridiculous the idea, he set the Leviathan to discovering it.

Milo could picture the captain, giving a curt nod when they brought the treasure aboard. Aside from their regular pay, that would be their only thanks. No one minded, since the money more than made up for it.

Keeping away from Iron Eyes was a reward unto itself sometimes. Something about the captain didn’t sit right with him. The man exuded cold, even in these tropical seas. When he spoke to someone, it was like he looked everywhere but at that person. Milo shuddered at the thought.

“Burns, get yer flap ass over here an’ help us!” Cooper, one of the crewmen, never had any qualms about yelling at the first mate. Burns shook his head, still cracking his knuckles.

“Pull, you worthless dogs! If yeh just put yer backs in it, we’d be back on the ship already.” Tall and blubbery, the only work Burns did was put food in his mouth.

Milo gripped one of the ropes tied around the chest, veins bulging in his bronzed arms. As one, the men dug their feet into the loose, slippery sand. They heaved stronger than when they hoisted sails in full-on wind, but the wooden chest stayed put.

A shot cracked in the sky behind them. Milo’s heart picked up pace, gripping the rope tighter. Leviathan officers often shot pistols in the air to encourage the crew, but never turned their guns on the men. Still, everyone tugged with their last vestiges of strength. Either the chest itself or whatever lay within fought against the men.

Milo panted as red and yellow flashes exploded in his vision. A second later, the chest slid up onto the sand. The men collapsed, puffing and panting despite their victory. Even Bear, the biggest, strongest man, doubled over.

If Iron Eyes had come ashore with this expedition, no one would rest. Instead, Burns flopped atop the chest, wiping his drenched forehead with a bandana.

One by one, the men stood. Milo rolled his broad shoulders, relieving the tightness after such a massive undertaking. Twisting at the waist, he noticed something in the endless brown sand—a red lump near a palm tree.

Probably just a macaw, he thought. Maybe a colorful rock. No parrot ever grew that big, though, and no rock was that bright a red.

Wexley joined Milo, following his gaze. “What ya see down there? Sommin’ ya think th’ Cap’n would want?”

“Probably not.” Milo took off. Crunching sand followed him.

“Iron Eyes ain’t payin’ us t’ go sightseein’.”

“Then why are you following me?” Milo stopped at the lump. A partially buried red woolen jacket wrapped around a crumbled skeleton. Milo pointed down, eyes wide.

“I see it,” Wexley said. “He’s missin’ a leg.”

“Marooned,” Milo said. “Iron Eyes wouldn’t hesitate to leave your salty hide behind if you prove worthless.”

Wexley squinted. “Yeh sayin’ I’m worthless?”

Milo grinned up at his shipmate. Wexley’s horseshoe moustache covered his cracked and flaking lips. Tall, pale and gaunt, he spent the majority of his time below decks, mixing tar.

“You wouldn’t have come here if you weren’t standing next to Burns when he was volunteering mates is all I’m saying. Better hope you don’t lose a limb.” Milo chopped his hand on Wexley’s shoulder. With a laugh, he turned back to the corpse.

Sea breeze cleared some sand away, revealing a dull brooch, stuck into the jacket’s lapel. Milo reached down and plucked it free.

Blowing away more sand, he examined every edge. Crusted by the salt air, a silver starburst covered with small blue jewels retained the hint of a sparkle. After a good polish and some time picking it clean, Milo might pass it off to some unsuspecting rube next port town they wound up in, walking away with a hefty purse.

“Didn’ they teach you anything in that fancy school o’ yers, Meelow?” Wexley snatched the brooch away.

Milo spun around. “That’s Milo.”

Wexley scowled. “Yeh got, like, everythin’ in there, right? All o’ them cultures, mixed into one big, brown Milo?”

“What of it?”

“No superstitions? No respec’ fer yer dead? Think! These” —Wexley waved both hands in the air— “ghosts, these sluagh, they hold on t’ their prized possessions. This is all this man was left with, and yer gonna take it from ‘im?”

Milo bit his lip and examined his boots. They could stand a polishing of their own. He swallowed hard and looked up at Wexley.

“We bury the dead on land,” he said. “But remember, Iron Eyes always says to look out for anything that might make us rich.”

Wexley pointed behind himself. “Like that, over there, th’ treasure!”

“So we steal from a hole, but not a man?”

“It was left here for someone t’ find. He was left ‘ere cuz he’s useless. Use that big ol’ brain o’ yers!” He smacked the side of Milo’s head and tossed the brooch back at the body. Shaking his head, he turned and rejoined the crew. A moment later, Milo followed.

“We don’t even know what’s in that box,” he muttered.

The men gathered around the unburied chest, its broken lock on the sand. Burns winked at Milo and threw open the lid. Everyone gasped at the sight.

A massive silver cup lay on a bed of various coins. Dull and tarnished, it was easily over two-hundred years old. Attached to the top of the trophy, a solid green rock, veined with shimmering blue and black, glowed softly in the early evening dusk.

“Beautiful,” one man said.

“Never seen anything like it.”

“Captain’ll want it all fer ‘imself.”

“Think of the money.”

“Think of the women!”

“Think o’ the drink!”

Wexley eyed Milo. “What’s it say?”

“Yeah, professor,” Burns growled. “Read it for us.”

Milo cleared his throat. “Please don’t drink from this cup.”

Everyone laughed. Burns shut the lid, eyes narrowed.

“Be serious, Milo.”

“‘In memory of the most honorable Captain Ebenezer Carrigan,'” Milo said. “‘May he sail the waves eternal.'”

In silence, everyone looked to Burns.

“Carrigan’s been dead for years, and his treasure’s never been found. Looks like we have it, boys!” They all cheered. Burns raised a hand. “Bear. Skiffer. You two carry it back.”

Now uncovered from the wet sand and much lighter, they hefted it with ease. The others followed to the small outrigger, cheerful voices discussing their cut of the prize, how happy Iron Eyes would be, and why anyone buried the treasure in the first place.

Milo looked back as he walked. The skeleton remained, forever a resident of this tiny island. He shuddered at the thought of stealing from it. It was the same feeling he got whenever he stood near the captain.

Shoved off and on their way back to the Leviathan, Burns cleared his throat.

“I know you dogs worked yer tails off for this,” he said. “Still, remember that Cap’n gets his say on how it’s paid out. I’m puttin’ in a word for ya’s to get extra since ya helped, but don’—”

A mighty wind interrupted his words. Cold, salty spray blew in everyone’s face. The sea had been calm all day, nothing more than the typical light slapping against the ship’s hull or lapping onto shore. This squall almost pushed the dinghy to its side, soaking everyone aboard. As soon as it had appeared, it was gone.

Everyone sat still and silent. After a moment, the sea remained calm. Burns nodded. “Just a rogue. Now get yer backs into it so’s we can eat somethin’.”

Grumbles from everyone agreed. As one, they rowed fast and hard, pulling their way back home.


Later that evening, the crewmembers celebrated their new find. Even after the night watch took their positions, men remained on deck, rolling dice, drinking grog, and wrestling. Milo joined in with his usual gang, hiding behind his forced smile. Thundergut made his typical jokes about sharks and krakens waiting for an unsuspecting sailor to drunkenly fall overboard, but Milo’s laughter didn’t linger like Cole’s and Perry’s. Not after what he almost did.

The Leviathan cut through mild waters, far from any coast. No birds flew above the ship’s masts, no fins or flippers in the frothy wake. Warm, southern winds pushed the barque across the sea. A blanket of stars lit the night, surrounding the half-moon high above.

Something thumped against the hull.

Voices hushed. Grog spilled, cups halfway to mouths. Dice lay forgotten. Milo’s heart beat heavy, a cold drop of sweat running down his neck. Two grapplers, locked in a tangle of arms and legs, froze. All eyes pointed starboard. After a moment, conversations resumed, like nothing ever happened.

Milo blinked and returned his attention to the knuckle bones. Bear and Squalls’ wrestling match rolled close. Dice skittered to the deck while the others cheered.

Nearby, someone whimpered.

Perry, part of the gambling group, gripped his mug close to his chest. His face, tanned and leathery, lacked all color and emotion. His mouth drooped low. White and empty, his eyes rolled back.

Cole, across from Milo, sputtered on his grog. He pointed at the sallow man. “What’s ‘is problem?”

Milo inched away, eyes on Perry. Others did the same.

“I gots a secret.” A mere whisper on the breeze, Perry’s voice intertwined with the din of revelry. Tears ran down his craggy cheeks. His grip remained tight, knuckles chalky around the cup.

“What’d ‘e say?” asked Cole.

“Something about a secret,” Milo said.

Perry laughed, hissing through what few of his clenched teeth remained. “I gots a secret,” he sang, “I gots me a secret!” Normally hunched over, the aging pirate held his head high. “Come closer, dearies. Lemme spinnit for ya’s.” His eyes, back to normal, focused on nothing and no one, yet everything at once.

Milo looked back to Cole. “Help me get him down to Sawbones.”

Before anyone could say or do anything, Perry shot to his feet, empty mug clattering on the deck. Cole and Thundergut jolted up as well, ready to defend themselves. Faster than an old salt like him had any business moving, Perry darted in and punched both of their faces.

Cole, nose bleeding, lunged forward. He swung with reckless abandon, rapid fire strings of curses and epithets spilling from his mouth. With arms like cannons, everyone around ducked away from his solid fists. Milo dashed aside, behind Perry. Thundergut tumbled to the deck like a helpless walrus, hands clutching his eyes.

Two larger crewmen jumped on Cole, urging him to calm down. Perry remained in place, fists still raised. Whatever he stared at, no one else saw it.

“We need to get you down to the infirmary.” Milo reached for Perry, but the man swung. Blood dripped from his cracked yellowed fingernails as he scraped Milo’s cheek, missing anything of importance.

Milo ignored the sting. Lessons from his youth in pugilism, fencing, and dancing took over. Ducking down, he grabbed hold of Perry’s ankles. Holding his breath, he yanked hard and stood, pulling the man’s legs out from underneath. The old pirate landed hard on his back, head banging on the rail.

Something heavy slammed between Milo’s shoulder blades. His breath escaped him, along with his balance. Falling forward, Milo managed to land on his hands before face-planting into the planks.

Rolling over, his eyes grew wide. Cole loomed above, wooden mug in his grip. The man’s eyes, dark and wide, bore down on Milo as if he had murdered Cole’s brother. Milo’s shoulders and arms shuddered with a chill. Why did he fear Cole? He had dealt with worse.

It was those eyes, so distant and empty. Where had he seen them before?

In an instant, everyone aboard the Leviathan fell silent and still. Three knocks, separated by a breath, like someone pounding on a door, echoed across the water.

Just as soon as the bangs began, they stopped. Silence reigned. Cole relaxed, stepping back. Hushed conversations scattered around the deck. Some men gazed upwards, while others hugged themselves in spite of the tropical air.

Milo stood and looked up—the stars had disappeared. Clouds covered everything. When had that happened? Conditions were clear and calm, but now a nor’easter loomed.

A door slammed on its hinges. Seconds later, a voice roared louder than anything.

“What’s going on up here?” Captain Iron Eyes burst from his cabin, all heads turning his way. Fully dressed in his shining black boots, gray pants and olive jacket, his dark skin reflected his mood. “There’d better be a damn good reason you bilge rats woke me up! What’s all the bangin’ and slammin’?”

No one spoke. No one moved. Tall, broad, and stiff, Iron Eyes shook his head, thick graying dreadlocks swaying along. “Pathetic. If this happens again, I’ll execute the lot of ya! Now, put up the dice, and not a sound until daybreak!”

Screams responded. All eyes turned towards the forecastle to see three men standing close together. One clutched at his face, blood oozing down his fingers and arms. The other two backed away.

The man continued screaming, the blood still flowing. He jammed his fingers into his eyes, deeper with each new scream.

“It’s coming! The end…I saw the end. I saw it!” He repeated himself, his voice hoarse.

Closer to Milo, the impromptu wrestling match began again. It finished a moment later, one man knocked unconscious. The victor stood, his shrill laughter louder than the screaming man. He began tearing out handfuls of his own long, stringy hair, massive clumps falling to the planks. He reared his head back and hollered, “I killed him! I killed him!” Once the majority of his hair lay at his feet, he ran to the rail.

Leaping overboard, a small splash followed. Few, if any of the men onboard actually knew how to swim. Milo and Cole spun around, hoping to find an unused line to toss down to the man.

Standing behind the captain on the poop deck, two men charged at each other. They grabbed each other’s shirts, yanking at hair and necks. A punch smashed an eye. A knee to the gut forced a massive exhale. Despite all their aggregate force, the blows only served to agitate. Attacks delivered with fierce hatred, both pirates clearly hoped to kill their adversary. Iron Eyes stepped forward, but neither paid their captain any heed.

The suicidal pirate forgotten, Milo looked between the fighters and the captain. With another shiver coursing through his body, he rubbed his temples. Assist the captain? Break up the fighters? Mind his own business, even?

Everyone else above decks remained in silence. Clumped in various areas of the deck, confusion washed over faces. Most held still, watching the random outbursts of insanity, but others joined in.

Two men near the capstan scratched all over their bodies. Another at the bowsprit fell to his knees, punching the planks of the deck.

Blinking in confusion, Cole nudged Milo.

“What’s happening? What’s wrong with everyone?”

“I have no idea,” Milo said. “Was it something in the dinner?”

“Poison sludge?”

Both grunted.

A gunshot once again silenced everything. Even the two fighters at the wheel froze, eyes registering each other and what they were actually doing. Iron Eyes lowered his smoking pistol. His jaw clenched, steam practically coursed out his ears.

“You worthless bastards are all about to get keelhauled! Now, I said silence!”

Near the port rail, two men risked the captain’s wrath.

One spit on the deck. The other barked an epithet Milo had never heard before. Both grabbed the nearest belaying pins, indifferent to whatever they held in place. As they charged at the captain, some of the rigging tumbled to the deck, but no one stood underneath.

Their footing slid, but not from whatever madness had overtaken them. Milo felt it too, the Leviathan rocking harder than usual. He braced himself on the rail, his mind racing.

Iron Eyes held his ground. “Stand down, you bottom feedin’ urchins!”

The duo continued charging, wielding their impromptu weapons. In one fluid motion, the captain pulled a second pistol from under his jacket and fired.

Steps away from the captain, the man on the left fell, blood spraying everywhere. Iron Eyes dropped his spent weapons to the deck, empty hands becoming fists.

When his right fist connected with the oncoming pirate’s jaw, the belaying pin met his left leg. Milo had no doubt that every man on board heard the captain’s knee shatter, like a cannonball through a fortress wall. Even though the man thoroughly unsettled the crew, sympathy groans resounded. Iron Eyes crumbled to the deck. The man attacking drew back his weapon, poised for another blow—

—but a gunshot killed the moment. The pirate’s eyes grew wide and clear, realization of his actions washing over his face. He collapsed next to Iron Eyes, the bloody hole in his back finishing his narrative. Burns stood at the foremast, smoke erupting from his gun into the night.

Milo, head swimming, grabbed the rail with both hands. The rocking increased with each passing second. Above, the cloudy sky churned just as rough as the sea around the Leviathan.

“Secrets.” The whisper cut through the bedlam like a cutlass on a grinder. “I’ve got a secret.”

“Who was that?”

“What’s the secret?”

“The secret is mine!” A shout this time, but doubtless the same voice.

Above the poop deck, a figure materialized amidst the snapping sails and coursing clouds. Luminescent with a greenish-gray misty shroud, a man in a long coat hovered ten feet above the deck, arms out to his sides, eyes wild and blank. Half his face was covered with long strands of thin, pale hair. A skeletal jaw, barely attached to his skull with scant strands of rotted muscle and skin, flashed a grin composed of very few teeth.

Men ran, bulling past each other through the hatch to below. Others climbed rigging while some cowered behind larger men nearby. Milo, Cole, and a handful of mates remained at the railing, frozen and at the phantom’s mercy.

“Stand down!” Iron Eyes roared. Lying on the deck with obvious pain etched on his face, his voice still powered over the din. He struggled to sit up, but fell back.

Bursting up from the hatch, four men charged at the captain with boarding sabers in hand. Crying havoc to the night, they stabbed and slashed. Blood and flesh erupted from the mess that once was Iron Eyes. Milo clutched Cole’s arm, both shaking despite the humidity.

“It was that trophy!” Milo looked up at his friend. “When we brought it aboard, that’s when all of this started.”

“It’s in the safe in Iron Eyes’ cabin.” Cole’s voice trembled.

The phantom soared above the crew, twisting and spiraling with laughter. One man dove overboard, while another flew up into the air, face drained of color. The ghost cackled, waving his arms like a deranged symphony conductor. His jacket flapped in the wind, despite him being an apparition. The jacket looked very familiar. The airborne man clattered to the deck, unmoving.

Milo’s eyes bulged. “Cole! Where’s Wexley?”

“Wexley? Why ya want that worthless dog?”

“He’s responsible for this! By my mother’s eyepatch, I should have known he’d do this.”

Above, the phantom screeched and weaved through the air. Cole took off at a run towards the hatch, waving Milo to follow. They both tromped down the stairs.

Huddled against a cannon, Wexley held tight to the massive gun. Pinned to his shirt, that castaway brooch from that desolate beach in the middle of nowhere glinted, even in the dim light of the hold. He blinked at Milo and Cole as they approached.

Milo punched him in the nose. “You son of a turtle lover! You told me not to take that brooch because this exact thing would happen! This is all your fault!”

“Wh-what are you t-talking about?” Wexley’s lip quivered, blood running from both nostrils.

“You didn’t even bother hiding it!” Milo backhanded the mustachioed pirate’s face. “You’re the one who should be left in the lurch.” Yanking the brooch from Wexley’s shirt, he spit on the man’s eye before storming off.

Cracking his thick knuckles, Cole stayed behind with a smile. Milo jogged up the stairs. Cole laughed. Wexley screamed. No one ever heard him again.

The instant Milo emerged from below, the spirit halted in midair. With a wake of greenish mist trailing him, the specter zoomed his way. Suddenly embraced in the coldest, tightest clinch of his life, the deck dropped beneath Milo’s feet. Unable to move and shooting higher into the air with every tight breath, he struggled against frigid air. The phantasm cackled, taking them above the highest mast, higher than the main topsail.

“Just…take it!” Milo loosened his feeble grip on the brooch. Falling fast from his fingers, it plummeted to the deck.

The phantom released him, following its prize. Warmth returned to Milo’s arms and spine, as did gravity. His stomach lurched into his throat as he descended, tumbling faster than the ghost had carried him up.

The masts and sails were too far away, but rigging and errant lines hung all over. Reaching out for something, anything, Milo squeezed his eyes shut before everything rushed up to meet him.

Something hard slammed his left forearm. He grasped for purchase with both hands, kicking his legs beneath. Fingers clenched a rope, digging into him while burning, white-hot lances of agony coursed through his arm.

After a moment, he opened his eyes. High above the ship between two masts, Milo hung from a line by his right armpit, clutching it with both hands. Down below, the ghost charged at a pirate holding the brooch.

Milo bellowed with all his might. “Throw it overboard!”

The pirate stared at the oncoming spook. Cole and two others rushed him. Seconds before the ghost reached the pirate, they grabbed and tossed him overboard, the phantasm following in a green misty puff.

Screams and fighting continued. Milo fought through his pain, crawling along the rope to a mast. Below, the chaos subsided. As he climbed down, the wind calmed, the clouds dissipated, and the Leviathan sat serene in the gentle waters, the moon above shining bright.

The captain passed by, not stopping. “Grab a swab, mate,” Iron Eyes said.

“Aye, sir.” Milo clutched his left arm close to his stomach. Sawbones could set and wrap it when this was over. For now, the crew had to band together.

Milo joined a group with Cole and Bear. Sidelong, he looked at Iron Eyes, up near the forecastle giving orders to Burns. The captain moved just fine, but Milo was certain a man had shattered his knee with a belaying pin.

And hadn’t four men cut him to shreds with boarding blades?

Iron Eyes looked over at Milo. Their eyes met for a split second before Milo turned away, a harsh shiver squeezing his spine. The captain’s eyes matched the brooch-seeking phantom’s, and always had.