They were trapped.
Captain Romanus. Destroyer of Monsters, Fighter of Phantoms, Defender of Truth, Plague of Devils. He had many names. But only one did he want now. In the midst of rain, hail, and lightning, he steered the ship through the roaring waves of the sea.
Defender of Lives.
He had been so strong before. He had fought many battles, gained honor and glory before kings and emperors. Pirates fled when they saw his banners wave across the sea, and foes of his country began to dread their last hours. Many men died in a worthy cause, but something always protected him. Sometimes he always wishes he could save those lives in exchange for his own. But nothing could be done about that. He had no power to trade lives with Death. Just as he had no control over the sea-tossing storm.
There was nothing he could do. Captain Romanus turned the wheel, steering in vain. For all those times he had power to save lives, for all those times he had the power and authority to do…something. Now he was left to the water’s will. Left to do nothing but wait and steer to their deaths.
A streak of lightning crossed the sky, and the sails cut in two, drifting into the endless ocean. Denzo, Captain Romanus’ best friend, leaned over the railing, covering his neck with his soaked raincoat. “Everything is useless,” he yelled back to Captain Romanus. “Why suffer drowning when we could die much faster?” Captain Romanus caught the sharp edge of Denzo’s knife being drawn from its sheath.
Leaving the wheel, Captain Romanus spinned around and caught Denzo’s arm. He twisted the knife out of his hand effortlessly and tossed it into the sea. “No. We are not giving into despair. I am getting this ship back to port, and I’m taking you along with it.”
Just as he finished speaking, a cry from the crow’s nest broke through the howling wind and splattering rain. Captain Romanus never caught it before it was too late. Wood splintered off the deck and the ship was torn in half. A rock jutted upward and headed faster and faster straighter towards Romanus.
Cold water reached his neck. He fought to breathe, but no air filled his lungs. He swung his hands through the water, hoping to cling to some piece of wood, but nothing was there. The despairing cries of the sailors filled his ears, but they slowly died away…
A chilling feeling crept up his spine. He wasn’t in the water anymore. And he wasn’t struggling for dear life. And he wasn’t yelling for help. He wasn’t doing anything. He wasn’t…anyone. All he felt was an empty bleakness surrounding and choking him.
“At last, I acquire the great hero,” an emotionless, empty voice cracked behind him. Romanus whipped around, but saw nothing.
“Who are you?” he asked, hating the quiver in his voice.
“I am Death,” the voice answered. “Follow me to your chamber.”
Romanus followed involuntarily, despite the numbness in his legs and his extreme headache. Around him, he could see nothing but blackness. He could hear the soft moans echoing into silence, only to begin with another. But there were no shouts for mercy. No screams of horrible torture. Just a simple, miserable bleakness.
Romanus heard a door creak open, though he still didn’t see anything. Death uncovered his hooded face, revealing a glowing, pale face. “This is your chamber. Make yourself…comfortable,” he added with a chilling grin.
Romanus saw many small visions appear before him. They slowly grew in size, until their noises were beating in his head. Romanus burrowed his head in his hands, trying to block the petrifying cries for mercy. But nothing could stop them.
“Before you is every single mistake you ever committed in your life,” Death spoke. “On earth, you were one of the greatest admirals that ever lived. Here…you're nothing.”
“That’s…not true,” Romanus gasped.
“Then look around you. What do you see? Darkness at your back. Blackness at your sides. Me at your front. No prestige, honor and glory will get you anywhere here. Here you are simply Romanus. Here there is nothing to do but look at your faults and tremble with despair.”
Romanus peeked through a finger and watched. He saw the time when he watched one of his friends drown. He could have done nothing about it, save watch. He saw the time when he was too busy fighting a skilled warrior, but while he was distracted the rest of his own fleet was burned. He could have done nothing about it, save watch. He saw the time when he was helpless to the storm-tossed seas, waiting for him and his crew to die. Nothing to do, save watch.
Tears flowed down Romanus’ cheeks, and he shook in anger. He stood up and glared Death in the face. “I’m going back. I’m going to save the lives that were lost. I will be Captain Romanus once again!”
Death snapped his fingers and Romanus crumpled to the floor, useless. “It’s too late for redemption, now. You could have saved so many lives. But you never did anything about it.”
The man quivered on the floor. His mind…what was happening to his mind…who even was he? Who’s memories were he seeing? But uncertainty and forgetfulness only spurred him on to more anger. “I don’t care who I am,” the man said. “I know I was someone. And I’m going to get that someone back.” The man trembled on the floor, but he made no attempt to harm Death. “Give me a sword,” the man said.
“And pray tell me what you would do with that?” Death answered.
“I would fight,” the man said. “I would fight until I escape from this accursed place.”
“I do admire your persistence. But, alas, it is no use. All you can do here is despair.”
Then something in the man’s mind clicked. He looked up. His veins started to flow with blood again, and his joints began to move. He stared Death in the eye. “So you say.”
Death frowned. “What do you mean, ‘So I say?”
“Despair would keep me down here for eternity. Despair would lead me to Hell, but…this is only the doorstep to Hell.”
“How…how do you know that?” Death snapped.
“Because I haven’t given into despair yet. Once I walk down that slippery road, there is no return. But if I stay close to the path of hope…” his eye glinted with a pure light, “...Then I might become Captain Romanus once again.”
Death growled. “You really want to return to that life?”
Romanus panted and slowly began to move on his feet.
“How…how are you doing that?!” Death shouted.
“Because you have no power over me. Now I shall be the man that everyone believes that I am. And I shall act according to my honor. I shall be Captain Romanus. Destroyer of Monsters, Fighter of Phantoms, Defender of Truth.” His eyes glinted in humor. “Plague of Devils.”
Death screamed. His pale face slowly drifted away with a fierce wind, and the ground under Captain Romanus’ feet gave way.
Captain Romanus came up sputtering. He looked around him. The ship was torn to pieces, only small wooden planks left behind. He latched onto one and let it carry him between the rocks. He bobbed up and down, the salt water sloshing into his mouth. The sailors’ cries for help, if even shouted, were never heard through the splashing of raindrops in the ocean and the cracks of thunder. Captain Romanus' eyes slowly began to close, and his grip on the drifting wood loosened.
“No!” he whispered hoarsely. “I will not give in to you again, Death. Never again.”
And so he drifted until he came across a small, abandoned island. The sand was wet from the storm, and Captain Romanus’ clothes were soaked. He plodded across the shore, inspecting to see if any other sailors had survived the shipwreck. But he saw nothing but the endless pieces of wood drifting to the shore.
Then he heard a man coughing down shore. As he looked, he saw a sailor struggling to stay alive, his body half immersed in the water. A wave covered his head, and when it drew back again, the man lied still. As Captain Romanus drew up close, he recognized him as his dear friend, Denzo.
He knelt beside the body, pumping his chest vigorously. But he didn’t respond. The deathly eyes stared through him as if a phantom were standing near them. “No. Don’t give in, Denzo. Don’t give in.”
“Do you hear me? This is your captain speaking!”
Still, no response.
A single tear rolled down Captain Romanus’ cheek, but he didn’t give up. “Listen to me. So many times have I watched friends die in combat. I don’t want to see it any more. I want to help them! Beginning with you. So don’t give up. Death wants you to give up, he wants you to despair! So don’t! Hope! I beg of you!”
Captain Romanus bowed his head onto Denzo’s chest. And in the midst of the storm, he couldn’t care less if he was swallowed by the waves.
And then the stomach began to move.
Captain Romanus jumped up as Denzo sputtered water from his mouth and coughed. He coughed and wheezed for minutes until at last he had controlled himself. Captain Romanus took his arm under Denzo’s shoulders and supported him. They slowly approached the inner part of the island, and headed for a small cave to take shelter in.
Captain Romanus propped Denzo against the wall of the cave. He looked at him one more time.
Denzo met his gaze and managed a weak, humorous smile. “Aye Aye, Captain. Followed orders.”