On good days, we stop them before they get to the fountain of eternity. If they get there, things get complicated because heroes can save at fountains. Sometimes they forget though, and we kill them deep in the bowels of The Sainted Martyr‘s lower decks. Then they lose all their progress and sometimes they even get discouraged and quit forever and it is good. On good days we drink rum from skulls and Katie and I go home and watch the sharklopses swim past our porthole.
Today there is a gang of heroes trying to raid The Sainted Martyr, our ghost ship dungeon. It is a nautically themed dungeon, but not pirate themed. There is also a haunted pirate ship dungeon, and since we are a ghost ship we have to shun pirate decorations to avoid visual design confusion between our dungeon and the haunted pirate ship.
My job is to appear at inopportune times and hush up the heroic priests and wizards when they try to say incantations, because my only attack is Hushing Verses, because I am a Whispy Wayfarer. We Whispy Wayfarers are ghosts who possess sails and flags. Some of us also wear a pirate hat atop our ghostly skulls but I do not get to. Katie, my quarters mate, is a much stronger monster. This is why she has a better post than me. She is in a party with our midboss, Mermadon. They are supposed to kill the heroes when the heroes try to enter the treasure hold.
Mermadon is a muscular merman warrior. He and Katie and the other two monsters in their party (who are named Cliff and Ellen) are very good at their job defending the treasure hold. They are so tough that many heroes do not attempt to take the treasure from the hold at all because they think the fight is not worth risking death.
I find such heroes very hard to respect. Raiding treasure holds is basically their job. I do not even have a direct attack and I always show up to fight. What would I be if I did not?
Katie is the monster I share quarters with. Our pairing is a mutually beneficial symbiosis. She often stares into my eyes even though I am mostly see-through and so I gather that probably we would be in love if our dark lord Duke Explodeath didn’t make love illegal to protect us. I am not sure I agree that love is something that should be banned. If I were a dark lord, I might decide not to ban love. But also if I were a dark lord, I would be dead very quickly because I only have 680 hit points and I do not attack directly.
Katie is a Naga Priestess, which is a sea snake with a robe and a very powerful stave. She has many thousands of hit points and deals lots of poison damage, much to the chagrin of heroes. Her job is to poison heroes to death (which she likes very much) and also to throw potions to Mermadon when he is getting low on hit points. Mermadon is often low on hit points, because heroes try to kill him first. He has a very powerful spell, called ‘Thunder Shout,’ that he uses to electrocute heroes by yelling. It takes him awhile to chant the incantation. Most midbosses would stand behind their minions to charge spells, but not Mermadon. Mermadon brags that he doesn’t need minions to take hits for him because he is tougher than two Naga Priestesses put together.
Mathematically speaking he is only 81% as tough as two Naga Priestesses put together. Mermadon does not often compare things mathematically, and I think this is why he sometimes dies. I try not to judge. I die a lot, but that is sort of a part of my job; as I mentioned, I have 680 hit points and do not attack directly.
The heroes coming after us today are a mixed group. There are a few very experienced heroes along with a number of very weak new heroes. This is troubling because it suggests that the strong heroes are very sure they will be able to defeat us and they are bringing along weak heroes to show them how it is done. Which means, probably, a big burly warrior is going to be looking after the squishy weak sorcerers.
What happens when there is a big burly warrior who looks after the sorcerers is the Skeletal Sailors who crew my deck on The Sainted Martyr clash with the heroes on the front line, then I disappear beneath the floor. Then I float through the ballasts and holds and appear behind the most anemic looking wizard present. When I start my Hushing Whisper on the wizard, he will become alarmed and whichever musclebound knight or berserker is closest will then crush me with a Flaming Cleaver of Righteousness or maybe a Maul of Holy Wrath. Usually it isn’t just one hit, they tend to hit about six times per turn, so usually my ectoplasmic skull gets cleaved off and then stomped on, and then my sail gets set on fire or exorcized to the Hades plane, and then whatever is left is ground into a pixelated powder.
Usually they try to salvage the powder. Whispy Wayfarer powder sells at market for twenty-two silver coins because it is useful in Alchemy.
My respawn cycle is two-hundred-forty seconds which is not so long. I usually get to hang in the abyss with my crew mates and we race our timers. This is probably how it will go today.
Katie slithers to her post early. She hisses on her way out that Mermadon is nervous about the raid today. Mermadon has been beaten more frequently lately. Duke Explodeath is not happy with him because The Sainted Martyr is listed as red difficulty which means we are supposed to murder most of the heroes who show up here. I never pay attention to these ratings myself because I do not attack directly, but I take great pride in the number of skulls and holy relics Katie brings back to our quarters because she is very powerful and my quarter-mate. When nervous, Mermadon makes Nagas show up early and stay late. I find this not wholly fair. I polish Katie’s skulls and relics with my sail so they will be tidy when she returns from the raid. Then I wait to be summoned and practice my hushing and whispering.
First Mate Joey summons me to his party when the heroes trip an alarm near the fountain. I appear and I am surprised because Joey and his Decomposed Deckhands all have new weapons that are neither rusty nor barnacled. First Mate Joey doesn’t have a new weapon for me because I do not have hands or legs or even a lower jaw, but he gives me an eyepatch with a jewel on it and I feel included. One of the deckhands asks why we have been upgraded and First Mate Joey rattles that Duke Explodeath thought Mermadon could use the help. I think this probably means Katie will return to quarters very late, maybe after the sharklopses have nested for the night.
Half of a Ghastly Gunner rolls across the floor in several pieces (I think it was probably Dale) from the upper deck door and the heroes storm in. I recognize the first one to round the corner to the fountain as XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX by his super rare custom Giraffodon boots. XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX is an epic level Ronin who is very good at cutting off Mermadon’s head. He stomps on what is left of Dale because Ghastly Gunner Grease is really useful in Alchemy, and then he points at First Mate Joey and six other heroes rush us.
I see that one of them, Kinda_NUBER, is a druid. Druids can sometimes smite me with a quarter-staff before I get the chance to hush them, but this one isn’t wearing boots so I assume I am not dealing with a very talented hero. First Mate Joey and XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX ram into each other and I disappear into the floorboards. When I appear again behind the Druid, she smacks me on the head with a quarter-staff, then someone sets me on fire, then I am ground into a fine powder by half a dozen boots. I awake in the abyss but I still have my eyepatch so I don’t feel too bad. I race respawn timers with Dale.
The Dungeon Bell never tolls, so I know the heroes do not breach the lower decks. Katie does not return to quarters all night. Floating absently, I squeegee the port hole and dust the rum bottles. When she returns in the wee hours, her satchel is full of many skulls and trophies, her staff is dulled and cracked and her headdress is missing. She turns out her satchel and out tumbles a Giraffodon boot. She slithers into her wicker basket as I ask her about the battle. She hisses that Mermadon’s head was knocked off. Health potions are not head glue; she believes that this is fundamental to Mermadon’s misunderstanding. I blow out the candles and drape myself upon my coat rack across the room. I whisper that he must be experiencing a severance in reasoning. We snicker. Then for awhile we are very quiet on our opposite corners of the room. Katie’s hissy breathing mellows and the Sainted Martyr rocks us to sleep.
When the breakfast dingy rings we go to join our parties at mess. I float to the table where First Mate Joey and his Decomposed Deckhands are eating undead chicken heads. I do not need to eat because I am non-corporeal but First Mate Joey has laid an empty tray on the table for me so that I can hover over the bench and feel included. To keep morale, Dale is singing a song at the next table about how lads should heave ho and make way for things. Some of the things we are encouraged to make way for are waves but then one of them is Mermadon’s head and the deckhands laugh heartily.
First Mate Joey rattles about yesterday’s battle between bites of squawking undead chicken head. Even though we expelled the heroes, according to him, Duke Explodeath is displeased with Mermadon’s last quarterly performance report. Decomposed Donny belches that he heard the midboss has been put on notice for consistently losing his head in the heat of battle. I poke my fork at my tray and pretend I am eating ghost food. Really, I think carefully. If the midboss doesn’t shape up, would he be replaced? Who would replace him?
That day the heroes are not very organized. During the skirmishes with my party, I float about, hushing feeble wizards when they begin to chant their spells. The deckhands make short work of copper clad sword fighters. The sun gets low on the horizon and it seems the heroes have retreated. We wait. We can hear Mermadon yelling and shouting down the hall. First Mate Joey sends word to the galley for a cask of rum. We try to pass the evening swilling rum and bragging about the size of fish but we can still hear Mermadon shouting orders from the bowels of the vessel even though there are no heroes down there. Deckhand Donny and the other mates steal furtive glances at me. First Mate Joey calls us good lads and sends us to quarters early. Deckhand Donny crows that I was the terror of goodly wizards today. I whisper that wizards are all talk and bluster, and this is why they have reason to fear me.
Katie returns to quarters late again. She has a cotton medic’s hat on instead of a new headdress. Her satchel has a big red cross stitched into it. I do not see her Stave of a Thousand Toxins. This means she has been assigned the class of Naga Nightingale. Naga Nightingales are supposed to use the most advanced snake-person healing techniques to keep front-line warriors fighting. Sometimes they can bite heroes, but the practice is frowned upon. I know that Katie really enjoyed poisoning her foes with dozens of nameless venoms and I feel bad that she doesn’t get to do that anymore. It was her favorite job and she was very good at it. I don’t know what to whisper, so I try to float sincerely. Katie hisses that she has to go to the treasure hold early and also that my coat rack is too far away from her basket. She drags it closer with her tail, then she curls up to sleep and the wicker sighs. When I hang myself up on my coat rack, I want to whisper that I agree with her rearrangement of my rack despite the fact that it is no longer in compliance with Duke Explodeath’s compulsory isolationist interior design standards. I also want to whisper that I am sorry she has been assigned Nightingale instead of Priestess, but I am not the one who should be sorry.
I wake that night after a nightmare about the respawn abyss. Katie is still sleeping. It is dark in our cabin. I float to the porthole. In the depths, a straggling sharklopse is blinking blindly on its way toward its nest.
In the respawn abyss, it is always dark. Yet we can feel other monsters waiting among us. We can feel our timers ticking down the seconds before we may rise again. We sense other things too– adolescent voices, their hopes and desires, emotions flowing from a world with far brighter dimensions than our own. Sometimes when I am dead I feel what it is like to be made of infinite pixels, pixels composed of organelles themselves composed of tinier machines. I wonder if I have desires. I sublimate, think thoughts beyond my hushing verses, realizations of desire beyond the fending off of sieges, intimacies beyond my strategic purpose. Watching the sharklopse, I wonder at the vanity of my thousand defeats. I wish I could see a purpose in the depths. Then I hear Katie, hissing in her slumber, and I begin to know.
Katie does not wake me when she leaves for the treasure hold in the morning. I notice she has set out my eyepatch and tatters for me. I float to the galley for mess. As I pass through the planks and decks, I wonder about the midboss. If he were replaced, would his replacement come from our ranks? It would have to be someone tough. First Mate Joey is tough. I see First Mate Joey at mess, and I hover over my tray sizing him up. He croaks that he doesn’t like the midboss’s strategy. Three healers to keep Mermadon alive while he charges his Thunder Shout is bad delegation according to First Mate Joey. I notice he doesn’t have very broad shoulders, unlike Katie. His fangs also are not as sharp as hers. She also has a mesmerizing gaze that lures heroes to their doom, while First Mate Joey is just sort of pushy. Maybe Katie would be a good midboss, I think.
I hover and daydream while the crew eats spotted oranges to stave off scurvy. Mermadon does not eat mess with the crew. He eats in captain’s quarters, with the other bosses. I wonder if he wonders what it is like for us. We eat together with our crews and we fight together with our crews. Do the bosses strategize? Do they talk about the hours they keep their parties? Does a boss consider that they keep quarters mates from watching the sharklopses drift by the portholes when they drill late nights to slow their inevitable defeats?
I notice that my crew is staring at me in silence. I realize that I have been whispering hushing verses. When I stop, I poke at an orange and hover lower. After a moment, First Mate Joey finds his voice and heckles Dale for another shanty. The crew joins him for a song about when dragons were greener and the seas were deeper, but they all steal looks at me.
We get into formation by the fountain. After a while a goodly thief manages to bust in through the upper deck entryway. The crew howls viciously in unison. They are rowdy and ready to smash heroes, and I am rowdy and ready to indirectly assist them in their smashing. Dale rushes in from the upper deck and swipes off the thief’s head with an anchor. First Mate Joey leads us in a joyful yo-ho victory cheer, but I am still itching to whisper. What if the thief had something to say that I could have hushed? Then we notice that a Mirror of Beholding rolled out of the Thief’s satchel. Deckhand Donny smashes it and sweeps it into the lake with a briny mop, but it is too late. The mirror has let any heroes looking through another see our positions. First Mate Joey holds up the thief’s boots. They are made of fine Giraffodon leather, and emblazoned with Xs and hemp leaves– the emblems of XxXU1t!m4teXxX clan. First Mate Joey grumbles that at least we know they are coming this time. A runner is dispatched to tell Mermadon. I am on edge, not because I fear being stomped into pixels, but because I know how bad Mermadon’s plan is and how mean he will be to Katie (and also I suppose Cliff and Ellen, but I do not keep tidy quarters for Cliff or Ellen). I wish I had a bottom jaw to grit my teeth because probably Katie and I would be in love if love were not banned for our protection.
XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX and his clan do not show up that afternoon. We are anxious and milling about. The decomposing deckhands are gritting their teeth and sharpening their weapons. The tension is not improved by Mermadon’s shrill hollering echoing up from the treasure hold. First Mate Joey shakes his skull and curses that Mermadon’s desperation is bad for morale. What good does he expect from drilling and harping at a party he’s disarmed? He rattles off a list of flaws in Mermadon’s plan. He spits dust and beats his brow, muttering crossly about poor delegation, bad morale, poor delegation, bad morale. A deckhand mentions maybe we should break out the rum if XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX is not going to show, but First Mate Joey is not sure he won’t show. I am trying to concentrate on not paying attention to Mermadon’s shouts but they bandy about the cabins. When we are finally dismissed for the evening, my party disbands quickly to the galley to drink rum and swear about bosses.
I know that Katie will not return from her post any time soon. I tidy the trophies and polish the skulls. I make sure the pillow in her wicker basket is fluffed. Outside the porthole, sharklopses wink in unison as they pass. I try to dangle from my coat rack to sleep, but sleep will not come. Eventually, I float out to the deck. There is a lightning over the water of the somber sea, and I know that Mermadon must be drilling below. There is a thunderclap and then silence but for the creaking of the Sainted Martyr. I float through the floorboards.
Katie is slithering through the hall, parting ways with Cliff and Ellen, and she sees me hovering there. She hisses that the night is nearly ended. I float beside her back to quarters. She peers out the porthole to see if the sharklopses are still out. I whisper to her that they have gone to roost long ago. Her tongue flicks at the air. We agree that tomorrow will be a trying day and blow out the candles. She coils into her basket. Dangling from my coat rack, I wait for her hissing snores to mellow.
I float through the quarter floors and into the bowels of the ship. I drift between air and plank until I reach the treasure hold. Mermadon is there, prostrate before a great Mirror of Beholding. He is swaddled, head to fin, in layers of chain and gilded plates of armor. In the enormous silver glass, mists surround Duke Explodeath’s grim form. It is hard to tell whether Mermadon is bent in respect or terror until his quivering voice betrays him.
“Ah, but should you fail,” says Explodeath, “I will not revive you. You will float in the abyss forever.”
His voice is powerful, and his words are clear, like those of heroes, but dripping with deceit. I realize, floating and eavesdropping, that Mermadon will almost certainly fail. It seems as though he was designed for failure, to be defeated. Mermadon quakes at the Duke’s words and does not rise even after the image vanishes from the mirror.
I drift away from Mermadon’s treasure hold as silently as I had come. I think maybe we are all designed for failure. I float directly to quarters through the ship. I do not pay heed to the physical world or the wooden corridors intended to organize it.
At dawn the lookouts bang the alarm gongs. We rush from our quarters to our formations. I rush because Katie and First Mate Joey and everyone else is rushing, but I do not feel real impetus. The battle is already underway. Deckhand Donny and XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX cross swords at the fountain of eternity. He is already losing ground to XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX, and more heroes are storming in. They are wearing very fancy armor and boots. A heroic elfin bard sings “Song to Stomp By” and I think that I should probably hush her before she inspires bravery in her comrades, so I drift into the floorboards.
But then I do not float toward her. Instead I wait. I hear the heroes stomping and crushing through our defensive line and I know that momentarily they will sprint down the hall and bust through the treasure hold doors. I float back towards the hold. The planks I float through are moldy and cobwebbed and I feel a dull kinship to them. Moldy webbed boards are tree ghosts that nobly serve the structure of The Sainted Martyr, but I am not sure I serve, anymore.
I float through the walls and into the rafters as I near the treasure hold. As I pass through the doorframe, I stay behind the banners and webs. I can see the pile of gold and the treasure chest that holds the holy relic that Duke Explodeath hides here, but mostly I see Katie. Mermadon stands before her, holding his deadly harpoon pensively, and I float above him so that he is not blocking my view. In the rafters, I am all but invisible. Katie looks sad, wilted. She would be enjoying this battle if she had her poison staff and a few more hours’ sleep, but that is not the case. She is tired and her satchel is stuffed full of bandages and potions that Mermadon vainly thinks will save him from his fate.
The door bursts open and Mermadon lances the unlucky barbarian who crashes through. XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX is directly behind him. He appears, his blade crackling with holy energy; Mermadon takes half a step back. Mermadon begins murmuring, his gurgling fish voice rising into the Thunder Shout. Katie huffs a frustrated hiss. Her potions are not head glue. As XxXU1t!m4te$eferothXxX raises his sword, I realize how doomed Mermadon is. Even if he survives the slash, his foes are too prepared to be undone by a single shout. He has spent the past week struggling against this futility, taking out his vain rage on poor Katie, and in his eyes glows mad determination. I could silence his braying, could press my ghastly finger against his lips. I reach out from the rafters, whispering, and I cannot alter the course of battle or my own or Katie’s predestination. Yet I feel terrible power.
For the instant before Mermadon lifts his voice to shout thunder, he has hope– and in that moment I am dreadful.
Alex Friedman is a recent graduate of Chatham University’s MFA program. He’d like to thank his colleagues and friends at Chatham and in the Non-Space for their input on this story. When he isn’t writing about pixelated ghost monsters, Alex spends his time volunteering for Words Without Walls and making pizza.”