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Short Story

In Sight of Land

By Ian St. Martin

The waters were eerily still at night. Their surface was so undisturbed, one might mistake it for dark glass mirroring the starlit skies above. Moonlight bathed everything in cold, silver light, though its radiance was slowly dying.

Lore

The waters were eerily still at night. Their surface was so undisturbed, one might mistake it for dark glass mirroring the starlit skies above. Moonlight bathed everything in cold, silver light, though its radiance was slowly dying.

The moon was being suffocated. The sky between it and those who looked upon its beauty had been overtaken by questing tendrils of shadow that branched across the night like living, malevolent storms. Their like had been seen many times before, and many were the souls carried off within them into fathomless torment, but never had they grown so large, or reached so far.

For all their horror, the world had grown used to Harrowings, tempests of darkness teeming with monstrous wraiths that emanated from the horrid Shadow Isles Crest icon.png Shadow Isles. Those in their path learned how to watch for the signs, how to survive their wailing fury, and how to mourn those taken by them. But what was happening now, what was reaching up to swallow the sky, was something different.

Almost like there was some unseen hand guiding it.

Tonight, though, one could still glimpse the world and the stillness of the sea. Tonight, its perfection was marred only by tiny islands of splintered wood, torn cloth, and the bobbing forms of the newly dead.

Tudre tried not to look at them. In the first hours after their doomed flight and the desperate struggle to abandon the ship, he had screamed himself hoarse, calling out in hope that anyone else might have survived. But it was in vain. He was alone.

And so Tudre marshaled his remaining strength to cling to a hunk of driftwood, and resist the icy waters seeking to carry him down to their lightless depths. He could almost hear the deep calling up to him to join all the others, her silver tongue carrying the promise of sleep, if he would just draw her water into his lungs.

The sea had numbed his legs, but Tudre willed himself to move them. He shut out the clarion call of despair that tugged at his boots with the gentle comforts of death. Tudre had not reached this far in life through submission, and he would not start now.

He just had to get to land. Tudre had sailed with all speed to make for Fallgren, a small island off the Valoran mainland. They had gotten so close—it couldn’t be far.

Though exhaustion and the cold blurred his vision, Tudre caught movement out of the corner of his good eye. He focused, revealing it to be a scrap of oiled vellum drifting close to the splintered sanctuary he held fast to. Tudre peered at it. The marks and ink on its surface were marred and smeared by water, yet still intelligible.

It was a piece of their navigation chart. Scrawled onto it was a rough, timeworn map of trade and shipping routes and measurements of maritime distance. The names of known places, and even a few secret ones. Crude drawings of clouds with faces, breathing out gusts from between their lips to mark the best lanes where the winds might bless a ship with speedy passage, for those who dared—

“You’re insane.”

Tudre snorted, reaching up to catch the swinging lantern that was the cabin’s sole source of light. The seas were getting rougher, and he had no time to suffer his quartermaster’s nonsense.

“Gettin’ soft in yer old age, Mister Bowsy?” Tudre grinned his big, cunning grin as he baited the old corsair next to him. “No shame if ye are. Y’can tell me, though do me a kindness and say so now. I would need someone else in your spot, to keep the crew in line.”

“I ain’t scared.” Bowsy steadied himself to spit a wad of phlegm onto the deck through the gap made by a missing tooth. “But I see sense. This’ll get us killed, skipper. And I ain’t the only one who thinks so.”

“We go fast, we get rich.” Tudre stabbed a finger down at the old map set on the table before them. He swept aside a tiny puddle that had collected on it from a drip above their heads, and then traced a route denoted in dull red ink. “Every other ship around is docked, crews actin’ like they be back on dear ol’ mum’s teat. But commerce ne’er sleeps, Mister Bowsy. Think on what’s sittin’ out there, unguarded! We make a run, we can get what they’re all too craven to collect.”

“They’re tied to dock because it’s a damn Harrowing.” Bowsy crossed his thick, tattooed arms over his chest. “Biggest anyone’s seen, mind you, even the oldest ones. Whatever’s out there ain’t worth bein’ swept up in that, I’m tellin’ ya!”

Tudre straightened, finding some of the red ink had come off the map to stain his finger. He stared his quartermaster in the eye. His voice dropped, settling into the colder tone that meant the discussion had run its course. “Anyone wants out can go, no repercussions. Less hands means a greater stake for those with the grit to be going out. And we are going out, make no mistake.”

Bowsy tried, one last time. “At least let it be put to a vote. Let the crew have their say in it.”

“Not this time.”

Tudre’s good eye bored into the quartermaster, unyielding. Bowsy held his gaze for a moment that stretched into another, but no further. He looked away.

“Now.” Tudre’s grin returned, full and cunning. “You in or not?”

Shaking his head, Tudre tried to banish the memory from his mind, but the effort left him dizzy. The unwelcome remembrance held fast despite his efforts, clinging behind his eyes like pitch. Or as though something was holding it there, forcing him to see.

He felt a strangeness fall over him then, almost like mist curling up off the water. A sailor’s life was fraught with omens and ill portents, gut feelings and lucky breaks. Tudre had long become attuned to a world that existed side by side with his own, and every now and then the walls between them thinned. It was happening to him now, like a dull throb. An insistent sense of dread and anger, seeking to work guilt into his bones. But he’d have none of it.

“Boat’s made fer sailin’, ask any man,” Tudre wheezed through chattering teeth. “I done that run dozens o’ times. See a chance at fortune, ya take it. Can’t live this life if ye ain’t the darin’ sort!”

Tudre’s words bore the hallmark bravado he had carried so well in his life, a bounty of natural grit and ruthlessness that had seen him not only rise to captain his own ship, but keep it. The high seas were unkind to the weak, as was Bilgewater and any big port whose doors he had ever darkened. Pass on an opportunity, and you might look back and see it was the last chance you had to hold onto your stake, or keep your guts in your belly.

But out in this night, and this cold, there was no one to be cowed by his speech. Only the dread that rolled up from the deep. It persisted, undiminished.

“Land is close,” Tudre told himself. “It has t’be.”

Tudre had not realized he was moving. His hunk of driftwood lived up to its name, lazily edging forward into a tangled field of debris. The corsair looked over the floating collection of scraps and splinters, but found no better means to keep from drowning. There was a bolt of sailcloth among it, but Tudre knew it would prove more a hazard than a savior. He had seen more than one panicked sailor ensnared by such in a storm, as good as chains if the winds and spray carried them over the side.

Concern creased Tudre’s weathered features as the sailcloth came closer. He put out a hand, trying to push it away, but his arm sank into it to the elbow, stealing his balance. He snarled through clenched teeth, fighting the sails—

“Hold fast!” Tudre bellowed, trying to raise his voice above the storms. “Secure that line!”

He couldn’t tell if anyone could hear him as he moved about, shouting orders. Rain and spray and shadows lashed the deck, the sails, the crew. Gales roared over and around them, not with wind but with voices. A howling choir of the harrowed damned had befallen Tudre on the last leg of his run. His ship was fast, but not fast enough to stay ahead of it.

Their hold was swollen with treasure. Goods pilfered from coastal stores, trade ships at anchor, all of it easy taking as their keepers had abandoned their posts to flee the Harrowing. That fortune was slowing them now. Bowsy would have admonished Tudre for not believing him, if he hadn’t been the first man plucked up by the darkness bearing down on them.

“Skipper!”

Tudre whirled around, hearing the boy Flir and seeing him grappling with a bolt of sail. Flir was fighting desperately to lash the sail to the mast, to keep it from stripping and snapping loose, but he was losing that fight.

Tudre locked eyes with Flir, the boy pleading for his help as the oiled cloth whipped and defied his every attempt to secure it to a spar of timber. Tudre weighed going toward him, but then saw splinters fly from the base of the spar, and all doubt fled.

“Skip—”

The timber snapped, carrying Flir up into the roiling dark. Tudre saw his eyes, wide in terror as he flew into a cloud of twisted faces and outstretched, clutching hands. A heartbeat later the boy vanished, just one more scream added to the choir.

“Better him than I,” Tudre snarled against the silent accusation of the sea. He felt the pressure of it inside his skull, the feeling of being watched even though he was alone.

The sailcloth tangled around his forearm, holding tighter the more he tried to escape.

“Better him,” he repeated, glaring down at the scrap of sail clinging to his hand, “than I.”

Why? The cloth encircling his wrist seemed to ask.

Tudre shivered, but not from the cold. The mind was playing tricks now, beaten and worn out and desperate as he was. He tried to yank his arm free, but stopped midway as he nearly lost hold of the driftwood.

“Because I be the damn captain!” Tudre spat. “’Tis my ship, and my charge. Mine’s a duty to every lad and lass aboard, not just Flir the boy. I run off to aid him, get snatched up too, what then? What becomes of the rest of me crew, without me there?”

For a moment, anger got the best of Tudre. He twisted, pulling his arm back sharply, and the sail finally relinquished its hold. But it swung him around, putting his back to the driftwood, and it was another second until his grip left him and he was under the water.

Silence rushed over him, and shocking cold. Tudre flailed for a few heartbeats before asserting control over himself. He was a seasoned man of the sea, not some green deckhand. He looked up, seeing the surface just above him, and tried to pump his arms, his legs, to raise himself back up. But he couldn’t move.

It was more than just tired muscles numbed by cold. Tudre’s good eye flicked this way and that, seeing only faint silhouettes in the waning moonlight. More debris, the lighter bits of a ship that had yet to settle down into the inky deep. And bodies. Bodies of women and men who called him captain.

Who relied upon you...

The words struck Tudre, a feeling rather than a sound.

... and you betrayed them.

Tudre broke free of whatever had been holding him, panic lending the strength he needed to surface. He gasped for air, twisting about in search of the driftwood. He spotted it and grabbed hold, embracing it like his first love.

It was only then, as his fingers sought purchase on its slick shape, that Tudre realized what it was. It was part of a lifeboat. One of the lifeboats—

“Into the lifeboats!” someone was screaming. “Abandon ship!”

There were things on board the ship now. Wretched, horrible, blighted beasts that had detached from the storm like lice shed from a dog. They stalked through the torrent without effort, undisturbed by the chaos as they butchered Tudre’s crew with fang and claw.

Tudre and his mates had earned monikers over their careers. Privateers, merchants, businessmen, all true, but just as true were pirates, corsairs, reavers. They were not strangers to violence, and every one of them walked the decks with more weapons strapped to them than they had hands to carry.

But they fell to the wraiths like wheat before the scythe. Men and women Tudre had seen brawl, hunt great leviathans of the deep, fight in the vanguard of boarding actions braving cannon and steel, begged like children to monsters that couldn’t understand a thing like mercy, much less provide it. All they provided was the severance of body and spirit.

Tudre punched and shoved his way through the mass of panicked faces crowding around the few leaky lifeboats the ship had. Several had been left behind at port to reduce weight so they could load more spoils, and now men and women packed the tiny wooden craft, far more than the boats could carry.

“Make way!” Tudre cuffed a shipmate aside, swinging one leg onto the closest lifeboat.

“Hold!” a man called out from the bow of the lifeboat. “This one’s full up! Any more, and she’ll roll us all down below.”

“Cast off!” said Tudre, fingers tightening on the hilt of the cutlass at his waist.

“Can’t risk it with this many on ’er now!” the man replied.

Tudre put a hand on the back of the man’s neck, pulling him close as though to whisper a secret in his ear. Instead the captain’s cutlass found his gut, steel bursting out the man’s back in a welter of blood rendered black by the madness swallowing them all. In one smooth motion, Tudre withdrew his blade and pitched the lifeless body over the side.

“There,” he hissed. “One body fewer. Now cast off!”

“I be a survivor,” Tudre argued, though the strength was missing from his words. “The strong live on, and the weak die. I chose life, a chance at it, for everyone in that boat, rather than capsizing it and leaving all to drown. They at least had the chance.”

He didn’t know who he was trying to convince anymore. The sense of guilt that had become a voice was now many, thundering in his mind like broadside cannon.

... you did this...

... our lives forfeit...

... your greed...

... killed us all...

... murderer...

... turncoat...

Tudre lowered his head, resting his brow against the wreckage of the lifeboat, buckling under the weight of their silent condemnation. “Stop.”

The moon’s light was nearly gone. Tudre looked up, seeing a faint blurred strip on the horizon. His soul flared with delirious hope.

“Land,” he gasped.

Nervous, hysterical laughter bubbled from Tudre’s lips, overcome with relief and the prospect of seeing the sun rise over another day. The laughter stopped abruptly, when something jostled him from behind.

He noticed then the dark shapes all around him. He could have sworn none of them had been near just moments before. Yet here they floated, bobbing gently, the still flesh of his crew surrounding him.

“I never did you ill,” said Tudre, his voice shaking. “Anythin’ we did was for yer fortune as much as mine. All of you knew the risks. You’d have done the same as me!”

The voices assailing Tudre seemed to emanate from the corpses. Their cries buffeted him, stripping his nerves bare.

“Stop!” he pleaded. “I beg ye!”

But they would not cease. They merged into a single terrible chorus, repeating a single word like a dirge to drive down and bury in Tudre’s heart.

BETRAYER!

“No!” he screamed in denial, the sound carrying over the lightless water.

As one, the spirits of Tudre’s crew sat up, peeling away from their bodies. Flir, Bowsy, all of them staring at him with slack faces and clouded eyes. No sound left their blue lips, but Tudre’s head was filled to bursting with their rage.

“No,” he wailed, screwing his eyes shut. “Just leave me be!”

Suddenly the driftwood sank a fraction, as though under added weight. Tudre forced open his eyes, and found himself staring up into the face of death.

It was a woman woman, tall and lithe, standing atop the driftwood with a balance that was as effortless as it was impossible. Where her flesh should have been was instead smoldering, spectral blue energy. She was clad in battered armor and a helm with a long, black plume. A trio of spears had been driven through her chest, and she had another gripped in her hand.

The sight of her turned Tudre’s insides cold and leaden. Everyone knew the legends, the whispered things a man could laugh off as stories meant to scare children. Stories of an avatar of revenge, appearing wherever injustice had been done and voices cried out for vindication.

They cried out for Lady Vengeance, and with spear in hand, she would answer with damnation.

Tudre’s crew came closer, the woman’s eerie light reflected in their blazing, sapphire eyes.

“No,” Tudre pleaded, as the sight before him, cutting him off from the promise of land ahead, wrenched away the last of his resolve. “I was only tryin’ to make me way in this world. My crew didn’t deserve their fate, no, but nor do I deserve this. You don’t know what it be like, leading those in your command to their doom, to be responsible for the damnation of their very souls!”

Sudden life was brought to her cold, unreadable features, almost as if there was a sound in the distance that only she could hear. The woman glared down at Tudre, boring into the core of him. Rage twisted her face in a rictus for an instant, and then it was gone.

Slowly she lowered her spear, resting it just under Tudre’s throat. She pushed, though not with enough pressure to pierce his flesh and impale him. Just enough to separate him from the driftwood, and push him under the water.

Tudre’s mind screamed to fight, the urge to survive willing him to rise, but he could not. The spear tip at his throat held him beneath. Tudre looked up at that shimmering, dispassionate visage. Lady Vengeance had come for him at last.

The voices had all gone silent. His crew sank down with him, closing around him like fingers making a fist. All light faded. Tudre finally succumbed to the deep, and drew her into his lungs. The last bubbles slipped from his lips as he drifted lower into the darkness, and he went down, just in sight of land.

References

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