Chapter III: The Shape of Things to Come Part: One
“Wake up, boy…”
Peridas ruefully opened his eyes to Skipper’s not-angry face, which meant something wonderful must have been happening. “What is it?” The boy attempted to ask, but his dry tongue and throat allowed only a hoarse croak to escape. He coughed, sat up, and gazed about him. The salty air stung his damaged eye. He winced and cupped it with his left hand. Skipper reached out and moved the boy’s hand. He studied the cut for several moments. “Well…?” Peridas asked nervously.
“It’s healing. Slowly.” Skipper responded. “And it isn’t the same color anymore. It’s green, not brown. Wonder shot through the boy. “Just… keep it closed when you can.” the seaman concluded. And so, using only his good eye, Peridas studied his surroundings.
The third survivor, Keeja, a short, irritable and overall ratty-looking overweight, was laughing gleefully, his mouth opened to the heavens. Above them was a gray sky, which was showering the survivors with its blessed freshwater. Peridas exclaimed joyfully, and, removing his shirt, began to construct a makeshift water basin out of it.
As he waited for the basin to fill, Peridas scanned the seas for any sign of life. It was surprisingly misty, but large waves could be made out in the distance. Peridas’ thoughts turned to his Spartan companion. Where are you, my friend? He thought. Are you safe, aboard the Gizmothian? Or are you buried in a watery grave, gazing up at us with the rest of your brothers?
Peridas’ reverie was broken by the smell of smoke. He looked for the source and found it to be the basin. The rain had eaten a large hole clean through the padded fabric. The boy yelped and tossed the ruined tunic into the haze, and he realized with a shock that it wasn’t fog drifting over the water; it was steam. Fear sunk its icy tendrils into his gut, and with every raindrop than struck him his fear increased. “Burning rain? What is this, Skipper?” he shouted, over the hissing and the rain.
“I’ve heard talk of this among other sailors, though I’dn’t ever witnessed it meself. It only occurs around the summer solstice near a chain of islands South of Ibiza, from what I recall.”
“Will it burn us?”
“Only our clothes from what I heard,” he said, removing his own rapidly deteriorating shirt and dropping it into the roiling sea. “So long as we don’t drink it… .” A horrific realization took hold of the three men. Peridas and Skipper looked at Keeja, wide-eyed. “You mean… you think I am going to burn too!” the sailor asked, hysteria edging his voice. Skipper fumbled for words, “N… no! People exaggerate. I’m certain it was mostly lies. You will be fine. Fine… ,” whispered the weathered seaman, more to himself than to Keeja. “Yes- you are right. S- surely only a little water would not have caused me harm,” but even as he spoke clouds of smoke began to pour from his mouth and nostrils.
Mere moments later the ratty man was flailing about desperately as he was devoured from the inside. “Help… me!” he gurgled, stumbling into the other two men. Peridas rolled to avoid being knocked into the boiling ocean, but Keeja and Skipper’s sizable weight tipped the raft. The boy started to slide back toward the water and quickly grabbed a board to stop his descent as did Skipper. Keeja however, had not reacted as quickly and slid into the ocean with a single, desperate yelp. The raft tipped again, on Peridas’ side, and slammed back into the water, splashing the remaining two with the boiling mixture. Peridas hissed; it felt as if his entire body had been soaked in hot oil. He rose, scrabbling at his skin while scanning for Keeja. All that remained of the sailor was a thick mat of bubbles where he had fallen in.
The burning rain had stopped, but a heavy blanket of steam still hung over the water. Skipper suggested Peridas rest his shaking limbs, but he couldn’t close his eyes without seeing Keeja disappearing into the black waters. So, instead Skipper told tales of adventure and daring to keep the boy from slinking back to that memory.
Peridas took the ever-present locket that was hanging by his neck and studied his appearance on the polished, reflective surface. An unfamiliar face stared out at him. His left eye had nearly healed, but it wasn’t the eye he lost. This eye was bright green, not the dull brown of his old one, and it gazed with a haunted stare that even its master found unnerving. A scar remained, though, travelling from his brow to his lower left cheek. His round jaw was filling out with black stubble, and his neck was thinly layered with small blisters where he had been splashed with the boiling water.
He gingerly opened the locket. A small portrait of Lenise smiled at him, and he felt instantly calmer. Skipper noticed it and asked, “Is that your wife?”
The boy’s eyes twinkled as he gazed at the locket. “I plan it to be. This is her favor.”
“She waits for you, then?”
“Aye. Though there will be no joyful reunion between us. Her father, Fultheim, wishes me dead.” To that, Skipper said nothing. Peridas handed him the locket.
“She is truly beautiful.” Skipper said, then hesitated. “Why would her father wish you dead?”
“Because I, a simple laborer, won his daughter. He is convinced I poisoned her against him.”
“Was he wrong?” Skipper asked, grinning.
Peridas grinned himself. “Perhaps not. But, after all, all is fair in love and war.”
Skipper snickered. “I suppose that be true, eh? But that doesn’t seem reason enough to want you dead.”
The boy inhaled sharply. “‘Tis not. His son and Ionus and I were close companions as well, and I convinced him to come with me on this ill- fated voyage. I know not what became of him, but if he should be dead, I doubt I would survive long even if I made it home safely.”
Skipper gave the boy a questioning look.
“Fultheim is… a nobleman.” Peridas explained. “He gained his position by lingering like a vagabond in dark places, listening to the goings on of Athens. He gossiped with servants and spied through keyholes, and with his forked tongue and discerning mind he finally schemed his way to power.”
“You managed to make a noble your enemy. Well done, boy.” Skipper said mordantly.
Ignoring him, Peridas tapped the locket. “He didn’t allow his daughter to give me this herself, for fear that she would come with me to Ibiza. For that, I despised him- Lenise even more so, but I couldn’t help but admire the fierceness with which he guarded his children. It stemmed, I know, from the conscription of his firstborn son, followed rapidly by the death of his youngest at the hands of brigands. From then on, he guarded his remaining two children with a tenacity befitting only a crazed beast.”
Peridas seemed disinclined to talk further of the subject, so Skipper resumed his story. Drawn out of his shell of silence, Peridas would constantly interrupt to ask countless questions, but Skipper paid it no mind. In many ways Peridas could see his grandfather in the older man.
“…so, whilst I our fathers were out fishing, we were off playing in the sandstone cliffs outside of Athens.”
“Aye, my friend Quentis Novale came with me. Well, while we were playing up in the cliffs, he lost his footing and tumbled down a rift in the rocks, an’ I could hear him cryin’ an’ moanin’ so what do I do but go tumblin’ down after him. When I got down there I saw him layin’ right in the arms of a skeleton!”
“A skeleton?” Peridas asked incredulously.
“Aye, and layin’ next to the skeleton was a map pointin’ to the other side o’ Greece, to a little island of the coast by Sparta. Well there were some enigmatic runes on that map, and neither of us could read ’em, so we took it to the library in Athens, and the librarian said there were maybe two people in Greece who could read it. She said there was a disconsolate old man living in a miserable little hovel down in the city slums. Apparently, he was a praised scholar who ran into a bit o’ bad luck, and fell to gamblin’. First, he lost his coin. And when he ran out o’ coin he bet his house, and once that was gone he bet away his wife! So anyhow, we brought the map to him, and he procured a tablet, which he compared to the map, and he could read it alright, but it was a fairly opaque riddle; it spoke of wants and needs being slaked, and of old allies being snakes.” Skipper chortled softly in his throat.
“The old man said that shortly after he had bet away his life, he chanced upon this very same riddle inscribed upon a stone tablet in Athens’ library. And that was how the librarian first came to know him. He said that he pursued the riddle to the limits of his wits, but came away even more incommoded than when he started out. He warned us that a curse lied upon the riddle, and only woe would come of following it.
“Once Quentis heard the story he was drooling at the thought of some long forgotten treasure. Neither of our families were very well off, mind you, and he saw this as his chance to obtain power. He told me that it ought to have been his since he found the map. I said that he still would’ve been stuck in that cave if I hadn’t went down and got him.”
“So, who got it?”
“You have got to let the story develop, boy.” Skipper responded with a twinkle in his eye. “So our argument came fairly close to blows, and I bet him all I had that I would be the one to find that treasure.”
“And did you?”
“For seven weeks we sped toward Sparta, hoping to arrive before the other. Everywhere I went, signs of his treachery could be seen. Leaf-covered pits where he hoped I’d camp; nets filled with rocks dropping along the main roads; bribed carriage drivers and boatmen that wouldn’t give me passage. Ours was a duel of wits, grand enough to be sung of by the bards for decades.
When I finally arrived at the southeastern coast, I learned that Quentis had already chartered a boat to take him to the island, and he’d threatened anyone with whom I might have procured passage.”
“So what did you do?”
“What did I do?” Skipper laughed. “Well, boy, I swam! Straight through the sea for three days! And when I arrived at that tiny little shoal, Quentis was busy digging up the treasure, hacking at the earth as if he were imbued with the fury of Poseidon. I was perfectly content to let him do the diggin’ for me, and once he brought up a large oak chest I revealed myself and told him to hand it over.”
“And did he?”
“Then what happened?”
Skipper chuckled heartily. “Well, we beat each other to bloody pulps over an empty chest!”
“Yes, bare as a bone. Long since had it been found and pilfered. Why anyone would re-bury it, though, I haven’t the faintest.”
“Well, what about-” Peridas’ voice was shut out by a deafening creak. The men looked in its direction and beheld an enormous ship looming out of the darkness. It suddenly slowed to a halt. Curiously, no anchor was dropped. Its figurehead was a woman, arrayed in armor, with her arms stretched over her head as if she was holding something. Whatever that something was, it had been ripped off in the storm. There was a single lantern alight next to the figurehead. Peridas opened his mouth to signal the ship, but Skipper clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth. “No, boy.” he whispered. “The figurehead, it’s a Viking deity.” The ship released another unearthly groan and lurched toward their raft. “Skkpprr…” Peridas warned. “I know boy. Jump!” The duo dove off the raft in opposite directions moments before the ship struck.
From underwater, Peridas watched the ship ram the tiny raft, smashing it to pieces. As it passed, he resurfaced, paddled to the rigging stretched down its side, and grabbed hold with both hands. Ever so slowly, he began to climb, listening with every pull for cries of alarm. But to his surprise, there was a deathly silence hanging over the entire ship. Peridas feared for Skipper, but dared not call out. So he climbed in silence, mourning and hoping at the same time.
As he peered over the railing at the deck he froze in dread and confusion. A dozen corpses lay strewn across the deck, their bodies hidden and stuffed into every conceivable hiding place. Whatever killed them, it must have terrified them. Peridas thought as he gazed at the carnage. Rubble was scattered about the ship and all that remained of the mast was a jagged stump about three feet high, protruding from the deck like a rotten tooth. He waited and listened for several more minutes. Nothing. He mustered his courage and was about to leap onto the deck when, with a loud screech, the door to the first mate’s quarters scraped open, casting a bright blue light onto the deck. The boy sunk low, watching through a design in the railing.
A figure appeared at the door, throwing a shadow onto the blue ring of light. The figured turned and stalked into the room again, reappearing a moment later. Only this time it cast no shadow on the deck. Peridas realized that it had retrieved the light source and was using it as a lantern. As the figure slowly exited the doorway, its features grew more and more detailed. It was slender, graceful and perfectly symmetrical. The blue lantern reflected off the creature, casting flecks of blue all over the ship.
The light was too close to the figure for Peridas to make out a face, but its small bare feet could be seen, lightly stepping over and around the bodies and rubble. Oddly, wherever the creature stepped, it left a glowing footprint in its wake. It stopped at the mast and, to Peridas’ terror slowly turned and stared directly at him with ember-red eyes that seemed to burn into his very soul. The creature tilted its head and make an awful clicking noise. Then it closed its eyes and extinguished the light with a snap of its fingers.
Peridas eyes were adjusted to the lantern, so he could see nothing but streaks of green and yellow wherever he tried to look. But he could hear it. He could hear it clicking and rustling. As the clicking grew louder Peridas moved farther left on the rigging. He looped his arm through the ropes and rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his vision. It helped, if only a little. He turned and looked over the railing again. A trail of glowing footprints was visible and he realized with dread that the footprints ended right in front of him…