Rothrick knew his death was imminent when he felt the clammy hands of the merman clasp around his flailing ankles, panic opening the literal floodgate that was his windpipe, the salt of the ocean water grating against his throat and filling him with a state of nausea that seemed comparably inferior to the nothingness of death. Death, in fact, seemed a gladder and gladder prospect as Rothrick felt the grasp of the merman pull him deeper and deeper, the ocean becoming more solid overhead, a curtain of saltine moisture that pushed down upon him even as the merman pulled. Death was preferable to this state of not-living, this in-between-ness, for at least in death there would be nothing, and in death he could forget the horrors of what led him to this abrupt burial at sea.
Ciaralyn was her name, and it sounded soothingly like the bodies of water Rothrick had previously so often called his home–Baltic Ciaralyn, Caspian Ciaralyn–a woman whose name had the sound of the sea itself within. Ciaralyn Driscoll, a fair woman with hair so golden it was almost white. Ciaralyn, whom the embrace of death might mean he’d see again, if there was anything beyond death besides Nothing and Forgetting.
Forgetting would rid Rothrick of a character that some demiurgical bard in a mad flight of fancy had thrust upon the tale that was his life, that pompous squire named Garman Bohn, who fancied that Ciaralyn’s fairness was his and his alone–her fairness and her virtue. Garman Bohn, to whom Rothrick had experienced the misfortune of becoming apprentice. Garman Bohn, whose will overpowered all that he knew, will beyond benevolence or munificence; indeed, Squire Bohn’s highest ethic as far as all could tell was that of will, and he would regularly mock the priests after mass in public sight, declaring the words of the Deceiver: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” The powerlessness of the church to silence such talk was evident one Sunday when he made this declaration aloud following a sermon on Christ’s rescinding of His own will in the garden of Gethsemane. The parishioners sweat and gnashed their teeth, but all knew that Squire Bohn gave the majority of the church’s income, and thus all were silent to oppose him. The church was nominally Roman Catholic, but in law it was the Church of Bohn.
Despite his longing to forget, Rothrick, even as he felt the slippery fingers of the Merman tighten around his ankle, remembered that Sunday, 22rd June of the Year of Our Lord 1794, in his hometown of Somerset more clearly than he had first experienced it.
Rothrick had been sulking, as he was wont to do ever since he had first heard that Bohn and Ciaralyn were to be married, an announcement that had been made the week prior. The wedding was to happen in October, after the Squire returned from a voyage he had scheduled to Oslo, a voyage where Rothrick would be working as a deck hand. Though Rothrick was of noble birth himself, his parents had seen fit to have him learn a practical trade, and he had complied, with dreams of sailing the seven seas and perhaps working as a privateer or lawyer for Ronocom Trading company. Easily distracted, Rothrick’s ambition had given way to passion for the Squire’s ward, the fair Ciaralyn. She had no love for the Squire, a man in his middling ages, and indeed he had taken her into his care more as a daughter than as a lover when her parents had mysteriously died in a fire.
“Oh, Rothrick,” Ciaralyn said after mass, “It pains me to see you in such wretched spirits.”
“It pains me,” Rothrick said, “to see you in such wretched company.”
“Do not harp upon it,” Ciaralyn said. “Let what is done be done. It is not an easy thing for me to stomach, even with your support.”
“Then steal away!” Rothrick said. “Steal away with me! I am a man of the sea, we could commandeer a ship, and go somewhere the squire would never think to look!”
“I wish that were so easy,” Ciaralyn said, casting a furtive glance before she took his chin in her hand. “It is not a moral solution I suggest, but perhaps, the squire could have my hand, and you could still have my love?”
He felt an intense pain at her words, and shook his head.
“I could not,” he said. “Not for morality, but for sanity.”
She nodded. “If he were to ever catch us, the consequences would be dire.”
“We wouldn’t be punished for anything we hadn’t already done before he had asked for your hand,” Rothrick whispered. “Perhaps…perhaps this is punishment from on high for our sin.”
“Nonsense,” Ciaralyn said, “if God were to see fit to punish for petty misdeeds, the squire would have already burned alive where he stood.”
“Even the demons know–and tremble,” Rothrick muttered, but the words comforted him not. He looked at Ciaralyn longingly. “Perhaps we could enjoy each other’s company but one more time?”
Ciaralyn nodded. “We must be discreet.”
She took him by the hand and they stole away to an alcove of the church’s bell tower, where no one dared to go, to make love a final time. Rothrick felt his heart sink as he noticed the Emrick, Vicar of Somerset, in the shadows, watching them steal away, a horrible grin on his face. He considered telling Ciaralyn that they had been spotted, but realized their fate was sealed either way.
There were horrible, horrible rumors about what went on within the stone walls of Bohn cathedral. By day, the Vicar, Emrick, would warn the townsfolk to beware of the Sanctus Umbra cult, rumored worshippers of Satan himself.
“Wander fearless by day,” the vicar would say, “but come nightfall, hasten to your homes, lest the hands of shadow touch you.”
In any other town, the certainty of the priest’s words might have been suspect, given that the town regularly had young people go missing, always at nightfall. But to question the vicar was to question the Squire. Indeed, the vicar was, like the squire, not a man whose company was pleasant to share. He strode about with a cane and a priest’s collar, and a hat upon which was embroidered a giant red star, a hexagram. None of the townsfolk were educated enough to question why a star was upon his head and not a cross, and most passersby were too polite to ask. Rothrick knew, from his days of apprenticeship upon the squire’s ship, The Afturganga, that the Squire and the Vicar’s friendship predated the former’s nobility and the latter’s piety. He surmised the two had made a pact to jointly rule their corner of Somerset in both a clerical and political sense. He had suggested this to Ciaralyn once, and she had said, simply: “The Church is so big, its shadows make for the best of hiding places for salamanders.
Therefore it was no surprise when Rothrick returned to his room at the Inn that Squire Bohn was waiting for him, sitting in the corner, illuminated only by the dim glow of candle light.
“Something further to discuss before we set sail?” Rothrick said, his tone moderate.
The Squire stood silently, and strode across the room, firmly putting his hands on Rothrick’s shoulders. He began to sniff the young sailor, like a bloodhound.
He stepped back, his brows furrowing.
“So the Vicar speaks the truth, then?”
“About what?” Rothrick said.
“Don’t be insolent, boy. I can smell her on you. He says you saw him, even. You could have stopped; I don’t trust the Vicar for his every word. I’ve been waiting for him to cross me and I even thought it might be like this.”
He put his hand on Rothrick’s chin, as Ciaralyn had, but his grip was iron.
“Little did I know it was not the Vicar’s loyalty I had to question.”
He squeezed as though with intent to wrench off Rothrick’s jaw.
He released, and stared.
Rothrick stared back, and the Squire chuckled.
“Still you do not confess. Perhaps God is mocking me,” he said.
“Do you not wish for me to sail with you, Squire?” Rothrick said, coldly.
“I will not waste the hours I have spent training you,” the Squire said. “And if you are not on that ship, you will be hunted from here to Cardiff for the murder of my precious Ciaralyn.
This sent Rothrick into a fit.
“You bastard!” he shouted, lunging for the Squire’s throat, even as the Squire knocked him back with a well-timed butt of his head.
“Silly boy,” he said. “I have done no such thing. But I will if you don’t show.”
Rothrick sat down, reeling.
“Now that you are calmed,” the Squire said, “it seems a reasonable time to tell you she shan’t be bearing a son within the year. In fact, if she does have a child, I will personally hand it over to the Vicar. He has been needing…well, he has been needing something so pure as a baby.”
“Truly, you are a monster,” Rothrick muttered, clutching his temple.
“I am not the man making a cuckold of another man. Think about that when the woman you love mysteriously miscarries. Or perhaps when she mysteriously dies by allegedly your hand. The choice is yours, but I expect to see you on deck tomorrow. Don’t be late.”
And with that, he was off.
Rothrick did not sleep that night; instead, he devised his revenge. And he arrived at The Afturganga an hour and a half early.
Rothrick was more obedient than the most trained of hounds on the voyage to Oslo. He made no friends on deck, for he did not question the Squire when he beat sailors for slacking, and eventually Rothrick was made to perpetrate the corporal punishments himself. Rothrick was the first mate of the ship, the Squire serving as a De Facto captain. The lawful captain was a certain Gottheld, who had garnered the ignominious title of The Round Knight, for his tendencies towards drunkenness and sloth. The Vicar too was on board the ship, but thankfully reclusive. The Squire claimed Emrick was “studying up” for their journey, for they were sailing to Oslo for “religious reasons.” The captain himself was unaware of the reason for their voyage; he was barely aware of which day it was or what time of the day they were at.
In this manner, Rothrick had full run of the ship, under the Squire.
“Thou art love,” the Squire said to Rothrick one night after joining the captain in drink and song. “And I am will.” He grinned and lifted hand, dainty with drunkenness to point at Rothrick. “Love is the law. Love under will.”
And so it was. Rothrick’s discipline and sternness made for a smooth sail through the ever-cooling waters of the North Sea. Rothrick kept his interactions with the Squire to a minimum during these times, thinking his revenge would best be enacted at a point where the Squire was convinced Rothrick was merely indifferent to him. In truth, Rothrick’s hate burned more brightly than ever, and he was thankful for the spray of the sea to soothe his smoldering heart.
Rothrick had no friends on deck, but Fate and gratitude made him a fast friend of the physician onboard, a young man who had just left university at Cambridge and planned to open hospitals in The New World.
“I hope you are better at your craft than I am,” Rothrick said to him one night two weeks in as the doctor set his leg following an incident involving heavy winds, the mast, and a rope that Rothrick had improperly secured due to preoccupation with the slacking of the crew.
“I hope so too,” the doctor said, “I have ambitions for my studies that surpass healing.”
“Lucrative ambitions?” Rothrick said.
“Aye–and here, bite this ladle, the procedure will hurt whether I am a good physician or a poor one.”
Rothrick could feel the pain travel from the stick through his teeth and to his brain, and was thankful that it was there to distract, even in part, from the wrenching, awful sensation of the doctor forcing his bones back where they belonged. He tried to ignore that he could feel bone scraping bone, or the erratic loosening and tightening of his muscles by his tibia, where it had happened. Even so, he screamed through the wooden ladle.
“You handled that well,” the doctor said, wiping his brow with his arm. “I reckon you’ve earned yourself some whiskey, the captain certainly doesn’t seem to be keeping very good track of the ration, I’m sure he won’t mind.”
Rothrick drank freely of the bottle as the doctor secured his leg into a splint.
“Unfortunately,” the doctor said, “you won’t be able to be on deck for a while. Fortunately, we’ve almost arrived. This should heal during the return journey; you may even be able to stand on deck near the end.”
“Who do I have to thank?” Rothrick said.
“Name’s Theophanus; Theophanus Ultrencht. Hopefully you’ll see my name on a hospital one day,” the doctor said.
“If I’m not thrown overboard,” Rothrick said to himself.
The Squire was less displeased with the debilitation than Rothrick had feared.
“You were overworking them anyway,” Rothrick said. “Not that I hold that against you. I can’t forgive you for your indiscretions on land, but at sea you are as worthy as they come. Rest up, and join me and the vicar when we reach the shore.”
“Whatever for?” Rothrick said. “I thought I was indiscreet on land.”
“A chance to prove you are discreet on land,” the Squire said. “Look, your debt is more than paid, and a man who lives by his will is a man who will appreciate what we have found. Or are you not my apprentice?”
“Aye, I am your apprentice,” Rothrick said.
They called him a Noaide, which the Squire explained was a sort of Norse Shaman. The Shaman, Øyvind, lived in a hut near the fish market. The smell of freshly caught fish on the air mixed with the salt of the nearby ocean burned Rothrick’s nose, but he maintained a stone face as he followed the Vicar and the Squire, the men he hated most in the world.
The Noaide was blind, his eyes milky, his cheeks rosy in a way that was more alcoholic than mirthful. He had a crooked nose, and a beard that traveled to his waist. He remained seated as the men entered, and Rothrick sensed this quietly offended the Squire.
“Velkomen,” the Noaide said. “Who is the boy?” His voice was low and sallow, almost beastly, and when he spoke, his lips smacked.
“My apprentice,” said the Squire. “A witness.”
“The priest would have been enough,” the Noaide said.
Rothrick was unnerved that the Noaide seemed to be fully aware of his surroundings despite his blindness, but knew it was not his place to ask how this was accomplished.
“You have the book?” the Squire said.
The Noaide nodded.
“Where is it?” the Vicar hissed.
The Noaide held up his hand.
“I have taken great care to procure this manuscript. I poisoned its last caretaker, a Mad Roman who lived with it in the Aventine Hill of Rome for a hundred years. In his dying words I coaxed from him its origin, though he did not know for certain–he claimed it dated back before the Great Flood.”
“That seems highly unlikely,” the Vicar said, and the Squire shot him a look. The Noaide, however, did not take offense.
“Agreed. It is much more likely that he meant to say its words dated from before then, but the writing itself was most likely dictated by an…unknown speaker.”
“So there is someone else in this world who possesses this information?”
“I do not believe that to be true,” the Noaide said. “Perhaps, once; but whomever dictated the words to the Mad Roman seemed so wary of their power that he vanished shortly after, leaving the Roman as the sole keeper of the secret. He seemed relieved to have died. The words of this book…they linger with you, and they had stayed with him for many years. His villa was well kept, but its shadows were full of menace. Which is why I returned to my native Oslo, where the elements would be more unkind to supernatural pursuers.”
Rothrick was unnerved by the implications of this conversation, but tried to remain calm as he scanned the shadows that the Noaide’s fire cast.
He almost yelped as he felt the Squire nudge him.
“Boy,” the Squire said. “This man is no ordinary man. Perhaps you have noticed he has sight, in spite of his blindness. Indeed, he can see further than almost any man alive, for living within him is an ancient spirit. The man it lives within has died long ago. If you are to be my apprentice, if you are to appreciate the power of will, then you will embrace and understand such things.”
Rothrick nodded, a tremulous sense of numbness setting in.
“Well, boy, do not squander this opportunity!” the Squire said briskly. “Ask the spirit a question, as I once did at your age, long ago.”
Rothrick inhaled deeply, to avoid a stutter, then asked: “What is the name of this forgotten volume, the only of its kind, a book that even you, an undying spirit living within the body of a man, have murdered to obtain?”
The Noaide smiled, revealing rotten, black teeth.
“The book…it is known in forbidden legends as the Codex Impius ex Saligamus. It tells many stories…some that could inspire, others that could drive normal men mad. It speaks of a man who became a god, when he came to an understanding about the nature of faith itself…and then he dared to usurp all measures of power, and ways of living. In this manner, this is a book about books themselves, for while an author may write of the story of an other, seldom do heroes write their own stories out of air.”
“This man–was he a hero?”
“Saligamus,” the Noaide hissed, even as he trembled at the name, “is the father of all heroes.”
“Then why does he sound so evil?” Rothrick said, nervously.
“We all fear what we don’t understand,” the Noaide said. “I used to live in fear of God. Then I was taught to fear Saligamus instead, for Saligamus understood God, but not I him.”
Rothrick was learned in many things–be it Latin, sailing, horticulture, and even a game of polo if it suited him. He was not, however, much learned in the ways of religion, of the nature of good and the nature of evil.
Even he knew that these parting words of the spirit that lived in the body of the man who called himself the Noaide were the most evil words he had ever heard drip from a man’s mouth.
The Noaide stood abruptly, not as a man’s legs carry him, but as though some unseen puppeteer had yanked him up by the midsection of his spine, and set him upon his feet–perhaps even against his will. In this manner he slowly, uncannily limped to a mirror that was perched upon a wooden table. The Noaide flipped the mirror to reveal a drawer hidden on the mirror’s backside. The drawer was locked by a medallion with various locks, which he flipped until they made a hexagram. Then the drawer popped open, and he procured the book, itself little more than a bound leather journal.
“Guard this with your souls,” he muttered. “And let no triflers read the words of the book aloud, for they have great power.”
He was about to hand the book to the Vicar, but then is brow furrowed and he handed it to the Squire. The Squire in turn handed the book to Rothrick, shooting him a threatening look.
They turned to leave, and as they did, they heard the Noaide laughing. The Squire and the Vicar did not pause, but Rothrick cast one final glance as he closed the door to the hut.
There lie the body of the Noaide, draped over the chair in which he had been sitting, a black ink floating heavenward from his eyes, even as flies descended upon what must have been a very old corpse.
The first night of the journey back to Somerset, Rothrick found a note left beneath his pillow:
My quarters. Sundown. Bring the Book.
The Vicar was wasting no time. Rothrick himself had been entrusted with the care of the book, with the understanding that it was part of his debt to the Squire. If no harm came to the book, no harm came to Ciaralyn. A fair trade, the Squire claimed, if only Rothrick had any understanding of what lay between the leather bindings.
Rothrick had already snuck a glance at the book, albeit furtively. It was all written in Latin, and while he had studied Latin, he was not fluent to the point of reading it prior to translation. The actual work of translating and understanding the text would take him time and privacy, neither of which he had. Rothrick had, however, begun transcribing what he could of the book, documenting what it was and what it meant. He thought, perhaps, that if he could prove sufficiently that the Vicar and the Squire were in possession of this text, he could prosecute them for witchcraft in a court of law. The book certainly seemed to be one of witchcraft, as he recognized odd occult symbols that seemed to allow for the summoning of evil spirits, such as the one who had been living in the Noaide.
The Vicar, though: he knew Latin intimately. Any translation of the work would better help Rothrick know if he had a case against the men or not. Perhaps it was a trap, but then, Rothrick was afloat in the midst of an enormous trap, was he not? Forced into the service of a man he hated, for fear of losing the woman he loved. If treachery was his fate, Rothrick decided to meet it boldly.
He made for the Vicar’s quarters, come sundown, a dagger hidden in his belt.
The Vicar was furiously writing by candlelight, at a desk by a porthole overlooking the sea.
“Shut the door behind you,” he said. “Does anyone know you’re coming?”
“No,” Rothrick said. “I assumed it was private.”
“Bohn doesn’t know?
“Good.” The Vicar sighed and removed his spectacles. “The Squire and I have known each other for a very long time. We have ascended the ranks of power together, but always our alliance has been an uneasy one.” He gave Rothrick a doleful look. “I am sorry about that business at the church. I cannot begin to imagine the frustration you feel at seeing such a fair woman with such a foul man. Truth be told, I did what I did to get you on board this ship. You see, I want the Squire dead before we reach Somerset. And I need a confidant to intercede for me if I am suspect.”
“And to take the fall?”
“Only long enough for suspicion to pass, and then I would pardon you. In the absence of the Squire, the town would be mine.”
“Why does the Squire want me on this ship, then? He must know I hate him.”
“You can trust a man whose loathing of you is certain, in an odd sense. He and I both knew we couldn’t trust each other, and you have become something of a mediator. That is why you have the book. For one thing, you couldn’t hope to understand its power, but it was our hope that in coming ashore with us, you would at least fathom its value.”
“This is the only one, is it not?” Rothrick said. “Explain to me then what its ‘power’ is, what stories it holds.”
“The stories it holds…they are not stories people like to hear,” the Vicar said. “Not a story a man of the cloth would typically tell at any rate. But its power goes beyond stories. It can be used to replicate the power of Saligamus, who walked the earth in our stead–and some say eve walks the earth now. He dared to take control of evil, that he might be the ultimate good. To domesticate evil the way that one domesticates a bull. And I happen to know we are sailing over a sea of Untold Terrors, just waiting for our command.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me there’s a slumbering sea monster beneath us?” Rothrick said derisively. “A Kraken, maybe? Or a demon with the face of a squid?”
The Vicar laughed, but he was clearly unnerved by the thought.
“Hand me the book, and we’ll see if I’m right,” he said. “Tell me, boy, can you read Latin?”
“I can, but it takes me a while to translate. I haven’t had a chance to give this book a good shot.”
The Vicar nodded, putting on his spectacles once more, flipping through the pages with his bony fingers.
He stopped, three quarters of the way through, and grinned.
“Mari Hominum,” he said. “Sea men. Or we might call them Mermen.”
“Are we going to summon an army of sirens, to seduce the Squire into the sea?” Rothrick said with a snort.”
“No…” The Vicar said, then breathed deeply before continuing. “What I am about to do, no man should do, yet I am greater than all men, for I dare what no men would dare to do.”
He looked at Rothrick.
“Get ready,” he said. “I am about to curse the Squire.”
“How good is your Latin?” Rothrick said.
“Good enough,” the Vicar said.
This gave Rothrick pause.
“I would think you would want to be very sure of your Latin,” Rothrick said quietly, but the Vicar glared daggers at him.
“It is good enough,” the Vicar said again, annoyed. “Now seat yourself. Be ready. We shall be attacked by ocean men when my fingers have lifted from this manuscript. Defend the ship, but let them devour the Squire. I will preserve myself in the spell.”
“What about me?” Rothrick said.
“It will be best if the ship’s defender is neither safe from or directly affected by the spell,” the Vicar said. “So as not to arouse suspicion.”
Rothrick rolled his eyes, but at the same time was somewhat relieved not to be mentioned in the Vicar’s incantation.
It was an unsettling poem of pure, malicious Latin, bearing all the piety and stiffness of a mass, with a hateful scorn. Rothrick did not understand all of the Latin, but was a bit confused when he heard the Vicar say what sounded to be “I will be sealed with the mermen, myself one of their number.” Rothrick knew it was to protect the Squire, but it sounded almost as if…
The Squire lifted his finger from the book, the summoning complete.
They heard scraping at the hull almost immediately.
“It’s working,” Rothrick said, then looked at the Vicar.
The Vicar looked quite ill.
“Are you all right, sir?” Rothrick said.
“I feel unwell,” the Vicar said. “The power of the book…perhaps it was too much for me.”
“At least you’re safe from the Mermen, sir.” He said, as he heard shouting above. “Shall I go defend the ship?”
The Vicar waved his hand. “No, stay with me, I am…I am…not feeling…”
The Vicar began to vomit a substance that looked like black tar. He looked at Rothrick in terror, and then vomited more. He fell to his hands and knees, vomiting what seemed like his own organs, though Rothrick doubted that was possible. He noticed the Vicar’s lips began to stretch, his jawline pulling back into his own neck. His beard seemed to fall off of his face, and upon his cheeks, the skin was stretching and separating.
Rothrick heard a groan outside the door of the quarters.
“Don’t…leave…” the Vicar wheezed, before vomiting again.
Rothrick peaked through the keyhole of the door, to see who was outside.
He could not see much, but what he could apprehend did not look human.
The smell of the Squire’s vomit was becoming unbearable, it reminded Rothrick of the fish market. He knew he couldn’t open the door to the quarters, but all the same he ran to the porthole, to let any fresh air in.
Too late, he realized there was a creature trying to climb inside. It had a body in the shape of a man, but with skin like a salamander, and frills like that of a fish on a reef. Its eyes, though, were the worst, bearing the same inkiness that had come across the Noaide in his final moments.
Without hesitation, Rothrick reached out with his dagger and stabbed the creature in the head, through its gills.
It let out a howl that was reminiscent of the cry of a horse in a burning barn, filled with terror and inhuman confusion. The wound was mortal enough that the creature let go, and as it fell Rothrick noticed the same black ink shot forth from its neck that the Vicar was currently vomiting. Unfortunately, the creature took with it Rothrick’s knife.
He looked at the Vicar once more, who had finally stopped vomiting, but his body was prone on the ground. At first Rothrick feared the man was dead, but noticed with an odd sense of relief that he was breathing.
“I’ll be back, Vicar, first I need to claim this ship.”
“Don’t…leave…” the Vicar wheezed.
Rothrick slammed the door of the cabin open, knocking down the Merman outside, and took advantage of its loss of footing to try to garrote it with a length of rope. The Merman’s skin was thick, and it had sharp claws and sharper teeth that were all of concern to Rothrick. The creature picked him up and tossed him down the hall, with the strength of three men. In terror, Rothrick scuttled away, in search of a scabbard.
When he arrived on deck, battle-ready, Rothrick counted seven of the creatures, and while they were outnumbered, they were quickly making short work of his men. The mermen had rough hands, which seemed to be able to catch a sword without injury.
“Aim for their gills!” Rothrick shouted.
With disgust, a man nearest him grazed a merman’s gills, creating an awful sound, sending the creature reeling in pain. With a kick, the man shoved the creature off of the deck.
“We need to kill them if we can,” Rothrick said. “The sea is home to these things, and if any survives, they will surely bring more of their kind.”
“We should return for Oslo,” a deckhand said.
“Until the captain dismisses us, we hold our position.”
“Gawain is dead, sir. Too drunk to defend himself. You are the captain.”
Rothrick nodded, and ran up the deck to the starboard, where a merman feasted upon the remains of the captain. With a swift thrust of his sword, Rothrick ran it through the creature’s head at the gills.
“All right, men, we will reset our course for Oslo!”
The deckhands still alive who were not currently fighting mermen scaled the masts and opened the sails. The wind was in their favor if they returned to Oslo, and it was Rothrick’s hope that when he returned, it would be without the Vicar and the Squire. Perhaps from there he could send a letter to Ciaralyn, to join him in Norway.
“You there, boy!” he shouted to a deckhand as the ship changed course. “Maintain the starboard as I check on our passengers.”
“What if they come back?” the boy said nervously.
“Pray they don’t,” Rothrick said, and handed him his sword before making his way into the hold.
Rothrick descended into the ship’s hold, lantern in hand, listening for any sounds of shouting or altercation.
Instead, he heard the voices of the Squire and the physician, Ultrencht.
“Truly, it is a marvel, sir. I have never seen anything like it.”
They were in the Squire’s quarters. Rothrick knocked on the door.
“Come in,” the Squire said.
Rothrick opened a door to find a merman on the Squire’s table, his stomach cut open, the physician examining it.
“Fascinating,” the physician said, “it seems to have most of the organs one would find recurring in a human, except it also has an air bladder and a gill system for breathing. We simply must save this specimen.”
The Squire glowered at Rothrick, his expression telling.
“This thing tried to kill me,” he said nonchalantly.
“It tried to kill me too!” Rothrick said, perhaps too earnestly. “Or at least, one of its brothers did. There was one in the hall that I faced, unarmed, before securing the deck. Is this the same?”
The Squire raised his brow. “Where’s the book?”
“The book, of course!” Rothrick said. “I, eh, left it in my room when I heard the commotion on the deck.”
“Grab it!” The Squire hissed. “And check on the Vicar.”
Rothrick nodded, leaving for the Vicar’s quarters.
He knocked on the door.
“Vicar, are you all right? The Squire is…suspicious, for sure.”
No response. Rothrick wrenched the door open, the smell filling him with nausea.
The Vicar was on all fours, surrounded by black liquid. He still had his hair, but his skin was greying, matching the color of the mermen onboard. His chin had pulled back into his neck, surrounded by flaps of skin. His fingers were long, their nails longer.
He raised his head to meet Rothrick’s gaze, and his mouth was filled with rows upon rows of sharp teeth, like an anglerfish, his eyes empty and black.
He was one of them.
Behind him, lying precariously on the desk, just above the black ink, was the Codex Impius.
Rothrick knew the Squire would kill him if he didn’t return with that book.
Making the best usage of the tools at his disposal, Rothrick frantically swung the lantern at the Vicar, who screamed ferally.
Rothrick couldn’t bear to run through the black pool, so he ran around it, sweeping up the book with one hand while intimidating the creature that was once the Vicar with the other.
Then he made haste out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Upon returning to the Squire’s quarters, he handed over the book, wanting nothing more to do with it.
“Good boy,” the Squire said. “Now tell me, what caused this? Your Latin is not this advanced.”
“It was the doing of the Vicar,” Rothrick said. “He intended to double-cross you.”
“And you didn’t stop him?”
“See for yourself,” Rothrick said. “He is becoming one of them.”
“If I might…” Ultrencht said, leaving, “I’d like to have a look at that.”
“Leave us at your own risk, but feel free to do so,” the Squire said.
Ultrencht nodded, and left.
“You lied to me,” the Squire said. “You tried to usurp us both, the Vicar and I, didn’t you.”
“Not true at all,” Rothrick said.
“Boy, you are lucky this book is intact, or I would kill you myself. However, all actions have consequences. When we return to shore, to prove your loyalty to me, I will make you kill Ciaralyn yourself.”
The suggestion was so absurd that Rothrick said nothing, only staring at the Squire, confused, as the Squire paged through the book.
“I would sooner die,” Rothrick said.
“I know,” the Squire said, “and that is cowardice, and my punishment for cowardice is harsh. By the words of this book, I shall kill you and resurrect you and kill you and resurrect you once more, until you kill your beloved as man who has died a thousand deaths.”
He drew his sword.
“Prepare for your first.”
Rothrick threw the lantern at the squire, which shattered and began to burn the man alive, engulfing the book as well. The book cracked and popped, like a bonfire, until combusting in a brilliant explosion, impossible for a small book of that size to make. The blast sounded like an ear-piercing scream, and it blew out the wall of the Squire’s ship, letting water flow in freely. Rothrick thought he saw something leaving the book as it burned, a wisp that almost looked like a violet line drawn in the air, squirming its way into the ether like a lost leech.
Rothrick ran ran for the door, opening it to find Ultrencht.
“I couldn’t find the Vicar, he seemed to have–oh God.”
“Yes indeed,” Rothrick said. “We need to make haste to the deck.”
The two ran to the deck to find all of the deckhands, including the boy at the wheel, dead.
“We’re the only ones left,” Rothrick said quietly.
“Are there any rafts?” Ultrencht asked nervously.
“Yes,” Rothrick said. “Mount this one while I cut you free.”
Rothrick ran up to the Starboard and retrieved the fallen deckhand’s scabbard.
The ship was beginning to sink fast.
He turned to find more Mermen.
“Hurry!” Ultrencht shouted.
Rothrick kicked one off of the deck and stabbed the other in the gills. Then he began about the business of releasing the boarding raft. He noticed a jar in the doctor’s hands as he cut at the ropes.
“What is that, doctor?”
“Some strange, black liquid I found on the floor of the Vicar’s room. I want to bring it ashore and test it for healing properties.”
“I’ll have you know that was vomited up,” Rothrick said. “I doubt it heals.”
The doctor shrugged. “The ways of science are very strange indeed.”
“Yes they are,” Rothrick said. “I hope we live to discuss that further.”
He cut the other rope, and pushed the raft off of the deck and into the water. He thought of jumping into the raft, but did not want to risk capsizing it.
He jumped, feet first, into the water, and opened his eyes as he prepared to swim up.
He was surrounded by teems upon teems of mermen.
Their soulless, black eyes glowed in the water.
Frantically, he tried to pull himself up, but panicked as he felt a hand firmly grip his boot. After some struggling, he pulled his foot out, hope briefly returning.
He resurfaced and shouted to Ultrencht.
“They are upon me! Please, hold out your row!”
But the doctor was already frantically rowing away.
“I will tell of your story!” the doctor said. “I will erect monuments to you in my hospitals! Sailors will sing of your bravery!”
“God damn you!” Rothrick shouted, as he felt a hand grasp the other boot, and pull him under once more.
Again, Rothrick was able to kick the boot free, but he knew his death was imminent when he felt the clammy hands of the merman clasp around his flailing ankles, and begin to drag him deeper and deeper. His eyes stung from the salt and he could already feel the water filling his lungs the way it had filled the ship. With hatred and disappointment at the prospect of his life ending so ignominiously, he used his last bit of will to look below him, that he might gaze upon the face of the creature that refused to let him live.
It was the Vicar, his transformation nearly complete, his hair human and his clerical clothes still upon the amphibious body.
Together, the two entered the abyss, one dead man dragging another.
12 February 2017
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