Previous: Episode 3Dragon Fall, by Thomas C. Mavroudis. Episode 3
Like the fishing vessel, the moon itself was stranded. It was slotted into place at permanent midnight and crack appeared down its center—a jagged line of thickening black that Duma knew was blood. Quillton surely suspected it, as well.
The two men and the captain circled the deck, analyzing the state of their arrest. One by one, lanterns were lit and brought to the ship’s railing. Despite its size and weight, the galley buoyed on the spongy element that spread wide in every direction. No doubt the membranous form arose from beneath them rather than the ship passing onto it.
“I’ve seen all manner of blobs dredged up from deep down, but nothing like this…Hold that match, Mr. Hawkins!” A draft of sulfur and lilies pervaded the ocean’s perfume. The captain said to Duma, “Compliments on fulfilling your pledge to astonish. Is this what you expected to find?”
“More or less. I can’t really say. I believe Osgood has granted us the vision to see it as it truly is. Not the cyclic worm or black whale of myth.”
“Or dragon,” Quillton interjected.
The captain snickered, then turned to a patiently awaiting crewmate, “Mr. Ewes, how is our under-crew?”
“Holding,” he reported.
“Mr. Sloan, what is our bearing?”
“According to the chart, our plotted destination lies at least three more days away. However, the…contrary star patterns are near impossible to read, and I hesitate to draw a certain conclusion.”
“Conclude, Mr. Sloan, please do conclude,” the captain demanded.
“We are many thousand knots eastward.”
“Creation has folded,” Duma expressed.
Chilled by Duma’s words, they held paralyzed in thought until Captain Phinn broke them free, asking the priest, “How should we proceed, Friend?”
“If you can spare an oarsman, I think that’s a sound gambit.”
“You may do the deed,” Phinn complied. “Please take the curate below, Mr. Ewes.”
The twenty undead laborers manning the oars were skeletons. They sat silently, their arms and hands still, positioned as the moving parts of any mechanism at rest. Imbued with the strange essences that powered the dead, a skeleton was a basic form and easy to manipulate, therefore often tasked with menial work. They were at the command of the clergy, so Duma selected one no different from another and said, “Come with me.”
The lifeless set of naked bones climbed from its berth and followed its taskmaster and the cleric to the galley’s bow, where the others gathered. A rope ladder hung from the gunwale, a few rungs pooled on the bubbled turf.
“Do you want to arm him?” Quillton suggested.
“Against what?’ the captain asked.
“No. We do not want to antagonize.” Duma pointed to the ladder and down to the bizarre surface, telling the skeleton, “Explore.”
The skeleton did as it was commanded, descending the ladder and walking a straight path across into the dark at the rim of lantern light.
Quillton nodded his head. “Well, the stuff looks sturdy enough.” He began to follow the undead scout.
Duma held a hand to the thief in caution. “We should wait for it to come back.”
“If it comes back,” a crewmate added.
“Just cover me.” Quillton hailed the men armed with pikes and gaffs. “Duma, your idea is sound, but perhaps a test of flesh and blood is unavoidable.”
Quillton, much more cautiously than the skeleton, disembarked the ship. Hanging at the bottom of the ladder, he put one foot judiciously down, and then the other. He tested its durability. “Feels like marshland,” he called up. He let go of the ladder, walked a few paces from side to side. “Doesn’t feel alive. Rather, doesn’t feel dead, either.”
Quillton climbed back aboard. “Let’s tie on a couple men, maybe another skeleton and solve this”
Captain Phinn turned to Duma. “Are you sure this is the thing you seek?”
Duma closed his eyes. The eye on his staff flashed with a white burst. “It’s alive,” he said. “But…”
They waited anxiously on his words—words the priest struggled to conjure. “Oh, Creator,” he mumbled. Then collapsed.
“Great and Friendly…,” Quillton began to grumble, but spat instead out of respect to his stricken companion. “If you would, please,” he asked around. Two men hauled the limp priest up like a corpse ready for the furnace.
“A comfortable spot in the stateroom,” Captain Phinn instructed. “Your mission, sir” he proclaimed to the thief.
“Thank you.” Quillton grabbed a coil of rope, tied it to himself and tossed it to a rugged deckhand. “Maybe we can figure this out before Duma comes to. We can hardly imagine his revelation. The horror of it all.”
Guide ropes secured, Quillton and three shipmates, two lanterns between them, stepped onto the springy, black membrane. “Don’t go anywhere,” the rogue quipped. In turn, the captain saluted Quillton.
The further they crept from the galley, the stronger the odor of sulfur and flowers: roses and fruit blossoms added to the bouquet of lilies. “Smells like the wars,” the heavy browed mate called Doyle said.
“You don’t look that old,” Quillton commented. All the proto-saints of the Hallowed Conflict were several centuries deceased and outright declarations of war were forbidden by Osgood’s Book.
“Salt air keeps my youthful.”
Not far above their heads in the murk, a bird, bat, or moth fluttered on wings not audible so much as sensed by the hairs on their arms and necks, knowing well it was none of those creatures.
A mere forty yards away, the light from the galley was but an ember which their ropes were ambiguously attached. Equally, their lanterns unveiled a scant radius of visibility.
“You see well in the dark?” Doyle asked Quillton.
“Not this particular dark, no.” A dash of concern peppered the thief’s words.
After many more woefully tread yards across the unlikely waste, Tabby, a scarred and sinewy woman, paused examining her rope. “These are only 600ft of this,” she said.
“We have a good 200ft to spare, I feel,” Quillton merrily remarked.
Before they could continue, the last man of the party whispered, “Look there!” Quillton failed to learn the man’s name, expecting one of the three salts to not make it back to the ship. Away in the shadows radiated a pale figure that couldn’t be immediately discerned as whole or disjointed parts in orbit around each other.
“Let’s hold,” Quillton said.
The unnamed man expressed, “Is a will-o-the-wisp.” His voice squawked on the verge of tears.
“Hold, now,” said Doyle firmly.
They held until Quillton sheathed his dagger. “It’s our friend the oarsman, coming back ‘round.”
They waited there to meet the skeleton. It made its way in the same track as it departed. When it came to them, they stepped aside to let it pass, inspecting it as it walked by, still exploring, seemingly discovering nothing more than the boundless bed of inky sponge beneath their feet.
“What do you think?” Doyle asked Quillton.
“He looks decent.” Quillton pulled back his hood. “Which is both good and bad for us.”
The skeleton walked on between their ropes, and when it was only a few feet past the group, it stopped, as though coming to a realization. It turned around, a notion in its empty head, and strode back, halting before Doyle.
“What’s this?” he asked the undead drudge.
Quillton, swift as an alley cat, armed his sap, ready to give the thing a sound cracking. The other crewmates brandished their arms, knowing the sharp ends were—ironically—pointless against the animated bones. But the skeleton just stood there.
“Don’t take your eye off him, Doyle,” Tabby urged.
They watched and waited. Not for long.
Soon, there was a slurping sound, and the dissonant noise of joints popping and tendons creaking. Before they comprehended what was happening, the skeleton was half coated in the mossy ground. The turf rolled upwards like wax from a black candle in reverse. The party backed away, except for Doyle—the thing grasped his throat.
Only Quillton was sound enough to react, but the viscid substance clung to his feet so he toppled, rolling his body to protect his face from the foreign lifeform. The others were restrained as well. In no time, the transformation was complete, culminating in a duplicate of Doyle, except it was eyeless, grey as old meat and stark naked. Releasing Doyle, it said to Quillton with a voice like clotted cream, “I need to see your Holy man.”
“Bread’s molded and the pickled eggs have hatched,” Mr. Ewes announced, reporting on the ship’s rations.
“Mercy,” Captain Phinn replied, pouring a cup of cane liquor, drinking it down, pouring another. He sat in the stateroom at a window facing the direction of the expedition. Duma lay unconscious on a sofa. “And the pots of curdled herring?”
“I didn’t check, sir. Kept them sealed, sir.”
The captain waved the man off.
There was little to see through the window except one sort of darkness crossing with another. The captain was nearly fearless. A successful captain had to be. Cane liquor, naturally, assisted this success. He drank his drink, and in spite of the situation, nodded his head.
Captain Phinn took a deep, somnolent breath. He fast arrived in the thin dream of a large subtropical landform, roughly cruciform in shape, with a tall, long chain of hills running along one axis. He rode toward the island in a dory pulled by a plated and blubbery thing beneath the water. All he could see of the creature was its dorsal spine, twice as long as the boat, with little apertures in the fleshy knobs along the spine that spouted jets of perfumed sebum. Pacing the shore was a naked and incorporeal human figure, shifting its sex with every couple of strides, briefly embracing a static form both male and female when it stood still. Thunder rumbled from a storm collecting at the tallest peak, a familiar and soothing sound.
But instead of thunder, it was the scrambling of feet above deck. First Mate, Mr. Loving, shouted into the cabin, “Captain Phinn, they are returning!”
The captain was unstartled, yet disappointed, lifting his head, stretching his neck. He looked at Duma and shook his head.
The captain rejoined his crew. Squinting, he could tell the group increased by one, but even through his spyglass, he could not say if it was the oarsman or not. He turned to Mr. Loving and ordered, “Wake the priest. Be bold about it.”
Mr. Loving rushed to the infirmary, which was little more than a seawater worn casket crowded with mostly sun-bleached cotton rags and a few rusted medical tools. “For Osgood’s sack,” he cursed, digging through the junk until he found a leather pouch filled with potent hartshorn—the stuff onboard was used primarily to revive the drowned. He thought twice about testing its strength himself, the ammonia corrupting the leather.
Mr. Loving put the hartshorn pouch right at Duma’s face, barely touching his nose and almost spilling some of the finely ground powder. “Fucking…” Duma arose with a start, his hands at the First’s Mate’s collar bones. He focused his eyes on the man and released him. “Generous, Osgood! Don’t you ever do that to a living soul again.” Duma applied great pressure to his forehead with both of his palms. He could not recall the state he’d been arisen from. It was not sleep or a trance. Even the recollection of the moment before was absent. He reoriented himself with the surroundings and the situation, as best he could. Freeing a quiet snarl, he mumbled something incomprehensible.
“How can I aid you, curate?”
Duma rolled his neck. It got caught in a spasm and he stopped. “Is there any foam on this rig? Any at all?”
The man shook his head.
“Bring me a bottle of that infernal syrup, then. But first, what’s happened? I’ve never been in such a stupor before.”
“Topside, Friend. There is a matter of urgency.”
Duma glanced at the man with one half closed eye, and tightly shut them both, contorting his face in many agonizing expressions. “Very well.” He stood shakily with his staff, placed his hat askew on his head. “Be quick with the cane liquor. I assure you, it is also a matter of urgency.”
The scene on deck stirred vague memories. Then he realized Quillton was missing. He uncorked the bottle of liquor and took a snort, shaking the alcohol through his system. “Pardon my abandon, Captain. I won’t be seized like that again. What have I missed?”
“You tell me. I can’t separate the sixes from the fives of it.” The captain directed Duma’s attention to the arriving expedition.
The party drew close, yet the frail light of the plain safeguarded the details of the fifth member. Duma asked the captain dubiously, “And the skeleton?”
“Exploring. Still. But I don’t know. This whole matter is beyond my intercontinental expertise. Further than I anticipated.”
They heard a calling from the distance, a muffled sound curiously strangled by the dark. One of the oncoming figures, presumably Quillton, waved. Not frantically, but with sure effort.
“I might like to hear that sermon, I think. Or psalm or whatever you were going to perform.” The captain tapped the priest with the spyglass.
“Vespers,” Duma said. “No time for that, now.” Duma could feel the Captain’s masked seeds of terror take root. “I fashioned a blessing though, regardless of your protest. It should do.” He peered through the instrument. The party harnessed its stamina, approaching speedily so that Duma discovered—in the least—they were accompanied by an immodest and awkward soul. At least the thing was alive and could be killed, if need be.
Instantaneously, the ship’s hull groaned. Captain Phinn and Duma exchanged alarmed expressions.
“What’s the order?” croaked Mr. Loving.
There was a sound, not exactly like wood being shattered. Instead, the boards of the hull were simultaneously separated, de-articulated by some powerful, unanticipated force. But the vessel didn’t collapse, merely settled at a minor tilt.
The words, we’re under attack, were cried by a chorus of voices. Duma and Captain Phinn delivered commands that vibrated in vacuous ears; the deck was a chaos of confusion.
Across the dense air of the wasteland below, Duma heard a man’s voice shout, “…the sludge!” Captain Phinn peered over the railing. “Troubles,” he vexed.
Duma strained his eyes to see the issue, but it became clear enough. The boggy mass that bore the ship not only engulfed its lower decks, but erupted from them, the acrid and sweet scent of sulfur and flowers afresh.
Men and women who hadn’t properly prayed since childhood begged, “Deliver us!” and “Osgood, be here!” Others sobbed, “It’s the Great Glutton!”
Duma, utterly powerless, awaited the violence to begin. He would save who he could, if it even mattered at all. It occurred to the priest, at that moment, he was mostly reluctant to stride into the good death he so long desired.
Next Episode: February 3