An old story dredged up from almost a decade past; it's pretty bad, but entertaining.
By David M. Mayeux
I traveled to the pubs where sailors sat and drowned memories of their mistress the wine-dark sea her terrible siren call. Libations were made to mother earth in hope that she might cradle them once more in her arms and shield them from the temptation of the fickle sea. I listened for tales of sunken treasure and the fearsome kraken, or advice on how to keep one's heart form desolation when separated by endless leagues from those they love and cherish. But this night, all the travelers of the whales' road held their tongues and made their silent prayers of drink.
I feared that nothing would come of my night's excursion when one sailor, gaunt and chin flecked with a sea-salt beard began to speak, the glow from the solitary candle on his table dancing in his eyes. His voice whispered, and yet it was heard all too clear above the wind, and even when the wind howled with fury, he did not raise his voice, yet still he could be heard and this stilled our souls in fear and wonder.
"We had traveled to the edge of the world, to the places marked 'Here be Dragons,' and dragons we saw, and much beside. We traveled as far as the Isles of Kathoon, for we'd heard rumor of spices and oils whose very scent and sight of shifting colors in their smoke could transport men to the lands of dreams, where all desires might be fulfilled.
"And the strange dark men, dark from tattoo and the dream smoke they were ne'er far from, gladly traded with us, took our stores of silks and opals in exchange for their queer herbs and incense, and yet they did so with such a leer and frightening glance we were given pause and wondered at the deal we'd made.
"And yet their hospitality could not be rivaled as they brought us to their feasts and filled our stores with good meat and barley and jars of fiery wine, all spiced and pungent with the spice of dreams.
"A week we stayed there, and under their calm direction they showed us our fantastic dreams. We traveled to the kingdoms of Tabrinth and Laize whose cities are carved into the living rock of the Mountain of Shadow, and saw the kingdoms of cats and gryphons on the far side of the moon. We traveled with the prophets of Time on the river of souls and saw the places where the Lord of Rule and Kaos meet once every eon to dine and sing songs that keep the universe on its eternal whirling dance.
"But the winds changed, and the time was ripe to return to the sea. The men of Kathoon gathered on the shore and with zither and hors of ivory, played haunting songs whose notes hung on till we lost the sight of their glittering city.
"For three days we had fair winds and peaceful nights, and our spirits were bright with the journey and the amber spiced wine that warmed our throats. Each night, the spice returned us to the wondrous lands we had been shown and we wandered the realms of dream seeking out its treasures of story and song.
"Then, on the fourth day out to sea, the boson dreamed that he was walking in the perfumed gardens of the Kaliph Al-Hazrad, and he picked on of the silver Lunesca flowers. When he was startled awake by the ship's bell, the petals, slightly crushed were still in his hand. He showed the crew, and all were amazed to see the dream stuff solid in his hands, its blissful odor filling the cabin. Then you could see the gleams in our eyes and had we not all been infected with greed, we might have seen what evil would be wrought. What we saw before us were the untold treasures of our dreams--the gold and silver plate of the countless courts, the jewels, sapphires, rubies and opals, that served to adorn the idols of the endless small gods, the exotic spices, the finest silks, all could be brought back from our dreams.
"For nine days our ship wandered like the Flying Dutchman, and a ghost ship we might as well have been for no one on the ship stayed awake for long. If woke we did, it was merely to store our treasures, stolen, hoarded and robbed form the realms of Morpheus, and then return to the narcotic sleep of the Kathoon Spice. We had turned pirate and highwaymen, robbers of the phantasms, while our corporal bodies wasted away, but we grew rich and richer still and told ourselves we'd wake when we had enough. And so we plundered, and as we hoarded we drained the lands of those who'd served as hosts and had offered us nothing but hospitality, and to avoid their newborne wrath, we drifted farther from the bright civilized lands of Oneiros, toward the greyer, darker borders.
"It was on that thirteenth day at sea, though years had seemed to pass in dreams, that the first mate's screams woke us all. Unused to the waking world, and our bodies week from atrophy, we stumbled to his hammock but could not make out what was wrong till we were right upon him. I will not describe the horrors that were done unto his body, and truth be told, the madness of that night has ripped it blissfully form my memory.
"But the smell of the dead I'll ne'er forget and the realization of our feet stuck fast to the planks by his blood. His arms were flung before him as if he'd grappled with some horrible foe, and his eyes were frozen wide with terror. As the cabin boy turned to be sick, though none of us had eaten for days and had not stomach to lose, he noticed that which made our souls sick with horror. On the planks were footprints marked with the first mate's blood that went off into the hold. Footprints no mortal man could make, but only from a creature of Nightmare's realm.
"Scarce few of us—minds and bodies still weakened by the Kathoon's spice—thought to grab up pistol and sword to guard against whatever hid in the shadows of the ship. Many were lost to shock, eyes staring at the distant abyss, and others began to gibber and quail--the sound of their maddened keening filled the ship and wore at all our nerves and fears.
"Finally, a dim grey light filled the lower decks, Dawn had risen with rose-tipped fingers to shine again on the cursed sea. We took the first mate's body, wrapped it in plundered silks for a shroud, and by the light of the rising sun cast the first of our dead into the wine-dark sea.
"With the horror of the body committed to the ocean's depths and the risen sun came a hope that with the light, perhaps the nightmare had returned to the Land of Nod. There was no sight of it, nor sound, though none of us dared venture too far into the hold, and with gladdened hearts that we had survived many set to restoring the ship and charting our course to home again.
"But no sooner had the heat of the noonday's sun began to fade than the terrible report of gunshot rang out followed by the yet more terrible scream of man, inhuman in its terror. Once more men began to break down and weep but those of harder hearts screamed for their silence--the cries of distress tearing at their sanity. Finally, the captain and I, armed futilely with pistol and sword descended down into the Hell that was the lower decks.
"The cook we found and one other of the crew, both slaughtered, both mutilated as they had gotten food to prepare for dinner. Twelve of us now were left upon that cursed ship.
"Before we could stop them, two of the crew screamed they would not die here and gorged themselves on the Kathoon spice to escape to dreams. I myself slit their throats and cast their bodies in the sea for we all feared what terrors they might return with.
"The steersman and one sailor we lost to babbling madness; we bound them gagged to the mast for their safety and our sanity. Their screams, those terrible insane screams still ring within my ears. We eight who were left, we closed and barred the doors to the hold and sat in alternating watches, hunger gnawing at our bellies, sleep clawing at our eyes and mortal dread keeping us from satisfying both.
"Those not on watch holed up in the captain's cabin our eyes red with tears and exhaustion, fear and sickness brought by lack of food and drink. As they sun began to set, darkness grew in our hearts. The hours, minutes, seconds sped to fast with the suns last rays dying from the earth. The sun set. It must have crawled out of the cannon ports for the hold's doors were still barred when in a moment of bravado I rushed to save my fellow crew from whatever drew their screams.
"But no bravery, no courage served me when I saw the creature bent o'er the bodies of the cabin boy and the navigator. Though the moonlight shone upon it, I could not make out its features, but I could see all too clearly, the image burns my eyes, that boy and mate were still alive as the creature feasted. Terror welled within me and oblivion took me as I fainted on the deck.
"When terrible consciousness returned, the nightmare was nowhere to be seen. I turned my head form the bodies of my mate and the boy and returned to the captain's cabin. Of the six, I drew the short straw. To return to dreams, to find what ways could kill the monster the first mate had unleashed upon us. The captain held the gun that would kill me should I seem to be faced with yet another horror that might threaten to return with waking, and still we did not know if the hidden thing would find us there. And I slept.
"In the dark and shadowlands, I found myself, and over months of Nightmare Time, I followed rumor and signs of where the first mate had been. I was pursued by many a faceless thing, confronted versions of myself and loved ones that were always wrong and searched many haunted realms, when at last I am to the Tombs of the Emperors of the Desert Waste of Nuhl. There the first mate had been plundering the tombs to fuel our greed for dreamland treasure.
"I descended to those shadowy crypts with flickering torch to find whatever clue might save us from that creeping Death. There in the gloomy dark I found those ancient kings, fierce and mighty warriors they had been, now laid upon their biers, taken by that cold Death that comes for all. Each was surrounded by the fantastic treasure, treasure that had drawn the first mate here those many . . . what? years? months? Had it only been last night in the distant world of men? Even now I was tempted by that wealth, even in face of horror. But a sharp cry from deeper in the crypts focused my mind and fear and I searched about till I found the inscription.
"'Here we lie, the warrior kings of Nuhl
vast and mighty was our Empire
terrible and swift our sweeping armies
here we lie with treasures got from distant lands
and wrought by magic in dwarven halls.
Know you who might steal our treasures
intended for the Lands beyond Life
that guarded they lie and cursed you'll be,
who disturb their place, by the Ta'narack
the Barrow Wight, who feasts upon the living flesh
and yet leaves the dead as the soul doth flee.
Across Time and Space our curse will follow
and none escape the Creeping Dread.'
"I fell to my knees and wept. Hope all but fled my heart. I cursed those fallen Kings of Nuhl and raged against their greedy pride and ours. And as my curses faded in the darkness, in reply came a low holing that drew louder with each wail. I bolted to my feet and up the long passageways to the desert surface not daring to look behind. My legs and lungs burned and yet the howls grew nearer in the dark and I could feel the barrow wight’s presence at my back. In final desperation I drew my pistol and racing in the inky black I shot my hand.
“Screaming and sobbing with pain, I woke facing the captain’s pistol. My hand was bleeding, and its bones shattered. The captain released the hammer and said, ‘two hours. Three more dead.’ His eyes grew dark when I told him what I’d seen. His face grew hard, and he left the cabin for the deck silently. There was no scream, only a gunshot and a splash.
“Beside the men insane, who’d been left thus far untouched by the barrow wight, there was only myself and one other. Carter his name was, Carter and I sat, and Carter told me of his wife and child back on land. He’d wanted treasure so that his lad, but newborn, might never have to sail the lonely sea, or break his back working the docks of their town. He had their daguerreotype and wanted to show me, but I begged him no. I could not stand to see something borne of love and joy just then.
“As Carter stared at their picture, soft and low the howl began. So tired, I didn’t even lift my head though it chilled my bones, that herald of Death. Carter merely looked at his family. Then his eyes steeled and he grabbed a pair of pistols. He would not die like the captain, yet nor would he wait for Death; that was not the father wished to be. On all my voyages, I had not met a braver man, and when he died at the hands of evil, I prayed his soul would find his family.
“And I was alone with the dead, the mad, and the Creeping Dread. And on the ship, in the middle of the sea, there would be no place to hide. Blood dripped to the floor form my hand. My bandage could not staunch the wound, and I began to go into shock as the low howl began again.
“The barrel of the gun felt so cool against my fevered brow, and my last lucid thought was that at least the horror would find no living flesh to feast upon . . .
“At that the madness born of fear and animal survival kicked in. I remember only flashes; getting the two madmen, the moving of the bodies, and through it all the sickening, plaintive howl of the barrow wight, the Ta’narack, growing louder and louder still till I remember no more of that night or the days that followed. And I blacked out hearing the shambling, approaching steps . . .
“As best the crew of the Santa Dymphna could tell, they found our ship three days later drifting in the seas off the coast of Chile. The smell of death was so strong they feared the plague. But as they were setting fire to the ship, one of the crew heard my ramblings, and they pulled me and the two madmen from beneath the cairn of bodies I had made to hide our smell of living flesh.
“The nuns tell me that I did not sleep, but stared in unnatural stillness the month I was under their care, and still I do not sleep for perchance I’ll dream, and it has been a year since I left the convent. I travel, though ne’er by boat and never stopping; for the maddened sailor, he died of fever, but the steersman . . . the steersman was found after a night when the wind was heard to howl, and yet there was no storm. The steersman was found in a pool of his own blood with wounds inhuman.”
The wind outside, thank God it was the wind, howled as we all fled the pub and the accursed man, and I go no more to hear the sailors’ tales.
07 January 2007