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The Death of Us


a story from

The Parasomnic Chronicles


by Jay Kerschner

Contents

Opening

Captain Harland’s Report

Closing

Acknowledgements

More from The Parasomnic Chronicles

Copyright Information

Opening

The chairman nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Coleman; that concludes the regular agenda for this meeting. Before we disperse, I’d like to take this opportunity to give the floor to our own Mr. Whitlock. I understand he has a matter of some importance to share with the guild.”

When he heard his name, Verne Whitlock looked up and glanced about the room, nervous as the many eyes of the Midcrest Mariners’ Guild fell upon him. Verne was a merchant, with a warm and well-known smile, but on that particular day he was not his usual cheery self. Those seated nearest him might even have described him as looking grim. He twitched erratically, and his sunken eyes revealed a disturbing lack of sleep. It took him some time to gather his thoughts.

“Thank you… yes… I do have a matter to bring to the table,” he said. “So… right… to get to the matter at hand. It concerns my husband and business partner, Captain Morris Harland. He failed to return to port nine months ago from a trading voyage to Sutasi. We’ve… we’ve not heard from him since. I long ago assumed the… the worst…”

Verne trailed off, drawing some concerned murmurs from the gathered merchants and sailors. His assistant, Emilia, gave him a light tap on the shoulder and he came to.

“Last Monday, however,” he continued, “I came into the possession of an explanation of sorts. The details are troubling—worse even than I had feared—but I think they are potentially relevant to… everyone, perhaps… at least to many local families… perhaps also to any sailors going near Felira’s Cape. I’d like to share with you what Morris has written… what I believe are most likely his last meaningful words.”

The chairman silenced the questioning crowd. “Mr. Whitlock, how did you come by this?”

“A messenger approached me with these.” Verne indicated the somewhat curled papers before him. “He said they were found along Glimmerfall’s shore. He… he didn’t describe how he came to possess them, and by the time I realized what they were… well, I’m afraid I was too distracted by their contents to ask him anything before he left. But, uh… to begin…”

He took the papers to start reading, but his trembling hands couldn’t keep them unrolled all the way.

“Let me,” whispered Emilia.

Verne handed them to her. “Yes… thank you.” He looked back up at the full room. “I’m… it appears I’m in no condition to speak. My assistant here shall do so in my stead, if she may…”

“By all means,” said the chairman. He glanced to Emilia. “Go on then.”

And so she began.

Captain Harland’s Report

My name is Morris Harland. I am a co-owner of Sunrise Sky Mercantile in Midcrest and captain, formerly, of the ship Sapphire. I address this letter to my husband, Mr. Verne Whitlock, also of Sunrise Sky Mercantile and a longstanding member of the Midcrest Mariners’ Guild. I implore anyone who might receive this message to have it delivered to him as soon as possible. If the distance to Midcrest is far, he will surely compensate you for your troubles.


My dearest Verne—

I’m afraid that, as I write this, I am not long for this world. My ship and crew have been captured by a malevolent force, and I fear I will soon succumb to that same evil. As I write this, I am lucid, or at least more so than I have been in any recent days. I hope for this account to chronicle events as they actually happened, but I cannot be certain it does. In these trying days, it has grown difficult for me to distinguish reality from mere illusions.

The first signs of trouble came several weeks past. I’ve long since lost track of the precise day. It began during our return voyage from the Sutasi Highlands, where trade went more or less as expected. Sapphire was heavy with ores and coin, and I sought a fast return so we might share in the profits. In our journey home, we had just passed Felira’s Cape, but I’ll not be more specific about our whereabouts. It would, I think, be best that nobody try to follow in our wake.

It was Lennis who first noticed something amiss, and that seems as good a place to start as any. He was our new seeker—I’m not certain you ever met him. Suffice it to say, his arcane sight was far stronger than that of any other seekers I’ve worked with. Our cargo included many enchanted relics he found in a lost city buried along Sutasi’s coastline. Again—best that I not give directions. I suspect that place may have been the true beginning of our troubles.

When Len spoke to me, a storm was fast approaching, and all my crew were frantic in preparing for it. “There’s something the matter with that storm,” Len said, or that’s as near as I remember it now. I didn’t pay him any mind and told him to either help out or get below deck. I wish now that I’d listened closer to him, but what’s done is done, and the storm was soon upon us.

I’ve navigated through my fair share of tempests, but this was surely the worst. My crew and I did all we could to keep her steady and somewhat on course, but there was no hope for it. A thunderous crack and a sudden jolt told me that we’d failed. We’d hit upon unseen rocks, and Sapphire didn’t stand a chance against them with the storm still raging.

The ship rocked as she stumbled against the shoreline. I was tossed aside with such force that I bashed my head against the wall. For my last conscious instant I was certain the blow had killed me. Of course, now I can only imagine how sweet such relief might have been. Then, at least, I’d not have had to live through all that has come after.

I awoke the next morning alive, but not the least bit well. The splitting pain felt like someone had taken a hatchet and buried it deep in my skull. I was in my cot, and my wound had been bandaged. The knowledge that Sapphire had somehow survived brought some initial relief, but it did nothing to dull the pain.

Once I recovered enough to step outside, I only had to take one look at Sapphire’s hull to know she’d never sail again. Jagged rocks lined the shore, and though she leaned upon them to keep from sinking, they had torn into her like I’d never dared imagine.

The storm had been a vicious one. It had injured many of my crew and taken the lives of seven: Burch, Cramer, Hodes, Graham, Ballard, Casanell, and Winters. Each died with their own wits well and full about them, fighting for the survival of both themselves and their fellows. Looking back at it all now, it is clear to me they were the fortunate ones.

We’d run aground on a small, rocky island. I saw no life other than ourselves. Not even plants seemed willing to sprout in the island’s few earthy places. The only other thing in sight was a ship, likewise run aground but not quite so damaged as Sapphire. On the ship’s side, where you might expect to see a name, was a series of unfamiliar runic symbols. I decided I would investigate the wreck after seeing to the rest of our own situation.

I went to our maps, figuring the isle might have been charted, but there was no sign of it. Indeed, the maps showed nothing at all in the whole area where we possibly could have crashed. I checked my compass, to get some better idea of our alignment, but found the needle spinning lazily, unwilling to settle on any fixed point. I determined north, roughly, by the sun, and resolved to tend to the compass later, though I never got around to doing so.

I next saw to my crew. The survivors’ injuries would heal with time. Since Hodes had perished, we were fortunate that Wilburn had decent medical skills. If it hadn’t been for him, I’m sure we’d have had to deal with quite a few more infections.

Nothing of particular note happened until I checked on Len. I found him on the main deck, his arms arest on Sapphire’s rail. He was staring out at the grounded ship I’d seen earlier, with a mix of eagerness and fear plain in his golden eyes. When I approached him, he spoke, and what he said chilled me to my very bones.

“We’re not going to leave here.”

Myself and the rest of my crew tried to deny our situation, but he said what we were all thinking, and he sounded convinced of it. He did not cling, even in vain, to any hopes of rescue or escape. I tried to reassure him with my hollow words, but I don’t think he believed me any more than I believed myself.

“That ship,” Len said, pointing at the foreign craft. “That ship right there. It’ll be the death of us. There’s something a’matter with it, something bleak and dark and hungry. Enchanted, yes, but not in any way I’ve ever seen. It’s brought us here because it wants us, and it will not stop until it’s had its fill.”

I never did understand much about magic, and I still don’t. But Len was a seeker. He had his special eyes and his years of study, and I would have been a fool to ignore such a warning. I asked him what he thought we’d best do next.

“Doesn’t much matter,” he said. “It’s too late for anything to change.”

I told him to think on it, that I’d check back in with him after my rounds. I didn’t tell the others about his portents. There wasn’t any reason to. If something magical and evil lurked nearby, either Len would figure out how to banish it, or we’d simply avoid it. I pushed the topic to the back of my mind as I saw to the rest of my crew, who were in as good a shape as could be expected given the circumstances. Some were hurt, but they would heal, and most were scared but not yet ready to admit it. The whole ship seemed quieter than usual, and not solely because we had lost seven people.

Later that afternoon, I went below deck to inspect the damage to Sapphire’s hull. It had been torn open and flooded, and many of the heavier goods had fallen into the sea. There also I spied Len, crouched over an open crate in one of the few drier spots, sifting through relics he’d recovered from Sutasi’s lost city.

I asked him if he was looking for something, and he said he was. A moment later, he pulled a book from the chest. It was large, thick, with a gray cover and several loose papers held inside. He explained that the name of the other ship was written in the language of the lost city, and he meant to use the book to see if he could translate it. He thought that perhaps, if luck was on our side, the book might even have some mention of such a ship, or at least of something to explain the strange presence he saw surrounding it.

I told him it seemed as good a plan as any, and we headed back up. Had I noticed Len pocket one more thing from that chest of enchantments, I might have spoken up and perhaps prevented some of the catastrophe to come. But at the time I saw nothing, and it is only from the visions I’ve had since that I know what transpired while my back was turned.

The evening was fast approaching. We buried our dead as best we could on the isle, though Casanell’s body could not be found. Most likely, he was flung aside in the storm and lost to the sea. We carved his name in stone just as we did the others’.

My crew kept a watch going that night, hoping to sight some passing ship which might have been able to rescue us. I let them have their hope, but I knew there’d be no such ships. An isle not charted on our maps could not be one that was often seen.

In the end, the night passed in silence, aside from the cries of Adelbert Matson. The poor man—this voyage was his first and his last, and he wept for fear he’d never see his dear wife and daughter again. I cannot blame him for doing so. No one should ever have to cry in such a way, but in the month or so since then I’ve had enough tears myself that I can’t hold it against any others. I ask you, Verne, do be sure that Gail and Jossie know that Adelbert loved them very much. I don’t believe he ever forgot them for an instant, even through the worst of the affliction he suffered in his final days.

By the next day, some of my crew were beginning to speak of investigating the other ship stranded by the rocks. They figured that, seeing as it was in better shape than Sapphire, it would be worth seeing about repairing that one instead. Their logic was sound, but Len’s words from the day before gave me pause, so I told them they were not to investigate it.

That morning, Len came to me and explained he had translated the other ship’s name. It was called, as near as he could tell, the Eidetic Cradle. Unfortunately, the book said nothing of the ship itself, leaving us as in the dark as we had started. All we had to go on was his hunch, albeit one which was backed by his years of study in understanding the arcane auras he could see.

I asked him, seeing as how our options were so few, what course of action he thought would be best. To this, he was at a loss, but he still insisted the Cradle was a dangerous ship we would do well to stay away from.

I should have listened to him, and for a time, I did. I told my crew to hold out hope that help would come. In the meantime, we used what parts of Sapphire could be spared to patch up the damage she had sustained. It was a hopeless task, as my crew knew all too well, but it was the only course that seemed worth trying. Anything else would have involved investigating the Cradle, and though I don’t myself have a seeker’s eyes or knowledge, I know well enough to listen when one of them gives a warning.

As one day turned into two, and then three, it became increasingly clear our plan was destined to fail. Sapphire had suffered too much damage. While we worked, Len pored through the book, seemingly able to read its strange symbols as though they were common words, but still he learned nothing of use. I could sense the unrest building in my crew. I feared if nothing was done within a couple days more, I’d have to start worrying about a mutiny. They’re good men and women, but they saw the Cradle as a potential solution to our problems and saw me as simply standing in the way.

No mutiny came to pass, but something far worse happened that next dreadful night. As best as I can recall, it was soon after midnight when a pained scream echoed against the island’s rocky crags, followed by another man’s cry of “Ervin!”

Most everyone aboard Sapphire awoke and rushed outside, and those who weren’t woken by the sound itself soon were by the ensuing commotion. The cries of pain and cries for help continued, and I realized at once that they were coming from the Cradle. Ervin Bent and another of my crew—Hershel Shorten, going by who was missing—were on that ship, and something was horribly wrong. They sounded like they were fighting for their lives.

In a foolish instant, my fear of the Cradle slipped away from me, and Len’s warnings were forgotten. Two of my crew were in danger, and nothing else mattered. I and a dozen of my crew took what weapons we had and made for the Cradle as fast as the sand would allow us to. Even Len came with us, setting his superstitions aside for a time, though he trailed somewhat behind.

We arrived at the Cradle minutes after the trouble started, but already the two voices had been reduced to one—whose, I couldn’t tell. It was too incoherent. Those screams of pain and horror were such that even the horrors that lurk in the deepest ocean depths could not begin to frighten me so much as they did. They should have been enough to make me turn back, to make me flee rather than approach, but I was stubborn. I suppose I still am even now, as I chronicle this tale, doing my best to ignore the deadly song which rings through my every bone and dances through the hidden corners of my mind.

We boarded the Cradle with what weapons and lamps we had, not knowing what to expect. The last screams had come from the belly of the ship, so we went to go below deck.

The ship was different from all others I have seen. Rooms and hatches were not where I expected them, almost as though the ship’s builders had never seen inside another such vessel. Such it was that, even once we were aboard the Cradle, it took some time for us to find our way to its center.

Worse, the cries we were following ceased before we could reach their source. All that remained was the sound of our own feet and a faint, anxious whimpering from Len in the back.

We wound through the corridors until we saw a strange, soothing light flooding the passage from a side room. I heard some commotion from behind—from Len, I think—but as I looked into that room it seemed a distant sound.

Being in the lead, I was the first to see the thing within the room. It was beautiful. The center of the room glowed with that soothing light, but the light itself seemed to have an almost solid shape. I still don’t rightly know what to call it. It wasn’t large, perhaps a yard round, but it was difficult to be certain of just where it started and stopped. It was too soft to tell, almost like its place in the world was not quite set. You hear tales of the in-between places where certain fae lurk, and I felt as though I was looking straight at such a place, seeing something no mortal man should ever see, but this thing was not fae in nature. I could tell as much just by looking at it, looking into that light and the ineffable Beyond which it contained. As well, there was some physical object at the heart of it, too obscured by the light to see with any clarity, but that object seemed hardly notable as I gazed at the enchanting glow. In the luminescent white, I saw hints of an entire spectrum of colors both real and imagined, faint glimpses of patterns emerging and dissipating in the space of seconds. But, through it all, I wanted it. I wanted to reach for the light, to reach into it, and take hold of the calming warmth which seemed to permeate the room.


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