“Fishing is the sport of drowning worms.”
Master Salvo walked casually to the docks. From the blockhouse on the hill, Varro had seen a ship pulling into port and sent him to fetch any word from the Marion or post that may have come for the men. The overcast morning showed signs of clearing toward noon and the air was warmer than it had been earlier that week. Salvo enjoyed his stroll to the shore despite his descent into the dank town.
“I bid you good morning, sir,” he called to the postman who examined some papers in a leather sleeve.
“Ah, Master Salvo, and a fine morning it is.” He and Salvo had become acquainted due to Salvo retrieving letters from him on several occasions. One might say they were close friends by watching their interaction.
“Any mail for the Count or the men?”
“No letters today, but a rather annoying parcel has been delivered for the Count.” Salvo followed the postman’s over-the-shoulder nod to a man barking orders at some dockhands who were unloading crates and luggage. The loud man wore an emerald hood with the University of New Franton’s insignia embroidered on it.
“An alchemist? Here?” Salvo asked under his breath, then sighed an oath.
The dockhands were obviously perturbed. Salvo was certain the man’s hood meant nothing to them. He was just another nameless snob trying to throw his social rank around. The longboat rocked as the men passed heavy crates to hands on the sturdy boardwalk. From there, they loaded them into the back of a wagon.
A corner of a heavy crate slipped out of a man’s hand as he tried to lift it onto the flatbed. The sound of breaking glass pierced the air. A larger man quickly helped the smaller man heft the crate into the wagon.
“What have you done?” The alchemist stormed toward them, throwing his hood off. “You idiot. You’ve broken it. I would not expect an ape to understand what these things are or what they can do, so I will not ask this of you. There is no question you are as ignorant as you are clumsy. However, you must be able to understand that these things hold a value that surpasses yours.” The alchemist smacked the smaller man hard in the back of the head. The larger dockhand stepped between them and pulled a simple stiletto from his belt.
Salvo quickly pushed the alchemist back and stood square with the large man. The dockhand’s gaze remained fixed on the alchemist and he refused to sheath his blade. Salvo placed his hook on the man’s wrist and twisted swiftly. The man winced and dropped the dagger onto the cobblestone. Salvo kicked it away and slipped two silver coins into his hand.
“I am sorry for the trouble. Please, take the lad and get yourselves a pint and something to eat.” The man reluctantly nodded and turned away, retrieving his dagger.
Salvo turned and introduced himself to the alchemist.
“I am Sir Uric Valencia, a professor of Alchemy at the University of New Franton.” The alchemist lowered his voice and looked over one shoulder. “I have been dispatched by Admiral Kro himself to inspect the source of these strange happenings.”
Salvo remained silent. He had been hoping for more fighting men in response to their letter.
“Where may I assemble my laboratory?” the professor asked nervously.
“Our findings thus far do not indicate any alchemic anomalies.”
“Ah,” Uric said, raising a single finger. “One mustn’t dismiss the possibility until examined properly. Also, I understand that you may have a biological specimen or two I may examine.”
“We did,” Salvo said. “They’re either burned or rotting in the ground now. We did not expect an alchemist and therefore did not put forth any effort to preserve them in any way. We shall find you accommodation, however. We may have use for you soon.”
“Of what nature?”
Salvo smiled and turned to watch the Alchemist’s reaction. “Monster.”
The alchemist scoffed. “No such thing. Anything of biological origin can be explained by scientific methods. Something once thought to be a supernatural monster can be explained, once examined properly, and proven to be completely natural.”
“Whatever you say, Sir Uric Valencia.”
Ducking through the low doorway of the blockhouse, Salvo turned to his and asked him to wait where he stood. Jake noticed his green hood immediately. An alchemist.
As Salvo ascended a narrow staircase, the alchemist seemed to realize he had ten eyes trained on him from under inquisitive brows. Brutus, Jorn, Margaret, Brom, and Jake. The alchemist pulled back his hood and shifted under his cape. His measuring eyes darted to each knight as they stared back. Jake could tell a moment of staring was enough to make the man uneasy so he returned to what he was doing and the other knights followed his example.
Jake rolled paper cartridges and Brom took from his finished pile to load a stack of muskets. Margaret loaded pistols, checking each three times before hanging it over the back of her chair by bootlaces. Jorn sharpened the three barbed points on his trident, checking each with his thumbnail. Brutus carefully rolled and folded several large fishing nets. Brutus wore his usual scalemail on his torso and his helm sat close by.
“You might want to take that armor off, Brutus,” Margaret said with a grin. “If you go in, you’ll sink like a rock.”
Little things she did when she wasn’t fighting, drinking or swearing reminded Jake that Margaret was indeed a woman. Sometimes she would straighten one of the other knights’ uniforms as a mother would tidy up her child before school. Other times she would ask if anyone was hungry, then offer to cook something. Even tiny things, like the smile she just gave, attested to a very female side of Margaret. It wasn’t that she seemed masculine otherwise. It was more like the things she could do in combat kept her from falling easily into the female archetypes most men, Jake included, would consider.
“He can’t swim anyway,” Jorn interjected. “If he’s going to drown, why not speed up the process? Eh, big fellow?” He slugged Brutus’ meaty shoulder playfully. The giant nodded and smiled in silent agreement.
“Drowning is a horrific way to go,” Jake added. “Better to get it over with.”
Uric stifled a gasp. Surely he was not familiar with the group’s shared style of sarcasm and dark humor.
“And what is that you’re doin’ then?” Brom asked, pointing to Jorn’s weapon with his ramrod. “Sharpening your carp gig? You think we will get that close to the thing?”
“If we do, it means things will get wet if they haven’t already. Are you using some dark magic to make those muskets waterproof?”
Brutus chuckled briefly.
“Ah, you see? You see? I even got the big guy to laugh. Carp gig beats your puny boom sticks.” Jorn gestured to his trident with an open palm as a vendor might as he showed it to a customer.
The knights laughed heartily and Brom threw a carbon-stained cleaning cloth at him.
Trotting down the steps, Salvo raised his hand to be heard. “Load the wagon and take it to the site. Prepare the cannon and check the goat traps. We will join you shortly.” The knights jumped to their work as Salvo motioned Uric to follow him upstairs.
Before Uric did, he tapped Jake on his shoulder. “Where are you going?”
“We’re going fishing,” Jake said with a grin which widened when he saw the confusion on the alchemist’s face. Who needs muskets, cannons, or goat traps to go fishing? Jake turned to follow the other knights, amused with his answer.
Varro sat behind a simple desk with several maps and other papers scattered over its surface. He scanned a set of notes from the interview of young William Mayberry, the sole survivor of the Albatross attack. With the boy calm and more sensible than when they’d found him, Varro was able to extract much more information on the creature. He had been studying these notes for the past few days, preparing for an encounter with the beast.
Salvo returned with the alchemist he had mentioned following closely behind.
“Sir, I am...”
The Count cut Uric off. “I know who you are. I know who sent you. I know why you are here, and I know what you need. You may set up your laboratory in the back room of the justice building. I have made the arrangements.” Varro gathered his papers and hung his sword around his waist. “What I do not know is why he had sent you via merchant vessel. I had been expecting word from the Marion.”
“The admiral requires the Marion’s aid in transporting troops to the current area of operation. They should arrive in a few days if the weather is fair.”
“Captain Albreight does not require fair weather. They will arrive all the same. That man would sail through a tempest to get where he was needed and maintain a fighting condition in doing so,” Varro said with a crooked smile. He brushed past the stationary alchemist on his way downstairs.
“My lord, I must inspect the well.”
“The well can wait. I must deal with more pressing matters,” the Count called over his shoulder.
“Where are you going?”
“Fishing,” is all the Count said as he ducked out the door, leaving Uric with a stupid look on his face.
Glaring down into the black cove, Jake thumped nervously on his rifle stock with his thumb. He and the other knights were perched like gargoyles on the cliff tops with the arsenal of a fighting vessel, watching for any stir in the dark water below. Margaret and Jorn’s lives were under their keen watch. The two knights below anchored a goat atop a small raft in the center of the cove.
Silently, the two rowed back to the cliff. Jake hoped they had not stirred the water too much. As soon as they were clear, Jake exhaled his relief. Brom, Jake, Brutus, and several marines trained two cannons and three swivel guns loaded with grapeshot on the goat. Marines stood poised with a large net along the cliff top. Another net lay rolled and ready in front of Brutus. Dozens of loaded muskets and rifles waited in reserve, propped nearby for quick and easy access. The warm sun hung high overhead but most of the water lay in the shade, making visibility ideal.
Varro steadied his long spyglass on his knee. It was no great distance to the surface of the water. Jake was sure Varro could see every ripple. Each knight readied themselves, tense, gripping their weapons and watching the water. Jake even tried not to blink for fear of missing the creature.
Several long moments passed and not a single unnatural ripple manifested. Jorn and Margaret reached the cliff top and each took up a rifle. Salvo traded a marine a musket for a place at the cannon. He could operate the field gun easier than trying to hold steady the long musket with his hook.
Then, Varro’s eyebrows raised, as if he had suddenly discovered something. “It did not attack intruders for intruding,” he said seemingly to himself. “Blood in the water excited a feeding frenzy.”
“A feeding frenzy? Like sharks?” Brom asked.
“According to William Mayberry’s account, the crew had shot a goat for supper just before the attack.” Varro grasped the nearest rifle, took a sharp aim and fired. The bullet struck the goat behind the shoulder blade. It let out a shrill bleat and fell into the water with a splash.
“Steady,” Varro whispered without taking his eyes off the flailing animal. It struggled to keep its nose above the surface. Hooves splashing churned the blood into the frigid water. The animal thrashed for several moments before its struggles became more and more sluggish. Then it stopped moving altogether. Its limp body began to sink into the black. Varro sighed. They would need another bait goat, Jake thought.
Then the corpse was savagely attacked as if by a large shark, breaching above the surface. The black water turned red and Varro gave the order to fire. All guns sounded with one echoing report. Impact splashes speckled the center of the cove. The raft splintered into oblivion.
“Throw the net,” Varro called down the line. Three marines threw one half of the net into the water. Brutus heaved his alone. They pulled them up with only bits of wood and goat flesh snared.
“There is no possible way the creature escaped a barrage like that unscathed,” Salvo spoke solemnly as he searched the water.
“The beast is wounded without question,” Varro said. “If it is dead and its body settles on the bottom we shall never know.”
Without a word, Jorn began stripping to his knee-long underwear. Varro placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“It is the only way to confirm the creature is dead,” Jorn said.
“And what if it isn’t?” Varro asked.
Jorn flicked his eyes to his trident.
“I don’t like it, but he is correct,” Salvo interjected. “And who better for the job than Lieutenant Fritzand?”
Jake noticed that Jorn’s toes were webbed. So the stories of Norfolk had some truth to them. He always thought the stories were exaggerated. Webbed feet, a layer of extra insulating flesh, a clear pair of eyelids and increased lung capacity were among the most common aquatic adaptations in the tales. Jorn did not appear to have too much extra insulation and he did not have an extra set of clear eyelids as far as Jake could tell.
Jorn strapped a knife around his thigh and re-tied his hair back tighter. He picked up his trident and jiggled his arms and hopped around for several minutes, increasing circulation and warming his extremities. Varro grasped him by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes.
“Mind your surroundings. Leave enough air to surface. Do not take any unnecessary risks. That’s an order. Hurry back but do not rush your judgment.”
Jorn nodded and set himself for a dive with his toes over the cliff’s edge.
Inhaling deeply then exhaling with a hiss, he inflated his chest. His ribs bulged further than Jake thought possible. Jorn repeated this breathing pattern several times, his exhales becoming steadier each time. Finally, Jorn tilted over the edge and rotated slowly as he fell. With his arms over his head and his back straight, the trident punctured the water and his body followed like a knife. Barely a splash manifested as he slid into the water and disappeared into the black depths. An expert dive.
A thick column of bubbles trailed behind Jorn as he plunged into the dark water. He let his momentum carry him as far as it could before he turned himself upright with a flick of his flattened hand and a kick of his heel. He checked the knife on his thigh as he looked around. The cliff continued under the surface into a sheer wall made up of jagged black stone. Above, the splintered boat bobbed on the surface. Just under it, Jorn spotted a dark cloud. It behaved as blood would in water, but it was much too dark. As the cloud dissipated, he found a fainter trail of the same dark liquid spiraling downward into the deep.
Swimming to much darker depths, Jorn followed the trail to an inlet in the stone. He carefully peered around the corner with the tips of his trident at the ready. The passage seemed bathed in shadow and the cloud grew thicker, making it difficult to peer through it. Jorn thought he could see a dark shape, like a head with yellow eyes peering out at him. Before he could get a closer look, the figure melted deeper into the corridor of stone. Jorn felt a pang of the fear he’d had as a boy. Fear of a bottomless sea. Of what might be waiting for him. Fear of the unknown.
He cautiously swam into the opening with smooth foot-strokes and his trident at the ready. It led under an overhang which should have made the light fade faster but a faint blue light shimmered ahead. Upon turning a corner, the source of the light became apparent. Shelled creatures stuck to the walls gave off a luminescent glow as they siphoned the surrounding water through featherlike tentacles. These limbs most likely collected small aquatic creatures foolish enough to go to the light.
As Jorn made his way through the tunnel, it curved upward. Ascending into the tube, his thoughts turned to when he must backtrack to surface. He had not been training his lungs for long dives. I have five minutes of air, he thought. Maybe six. He decided to play it safe and turn back after the next few curves. The creature had almost certainly fled to this underwater cavern. Jorn hoped he could find the opening again without the aid of the blood trail. Just as he was about to swim back, a shimmering light caught his eye. The bioluminescence was a steady blue glow, whereas this new source flashed white light.
The light refracted through a rippling surface ahead. An air pocket. Jorn smiled. He did not have to turn back after all. The creature may be cornered and cornered beasts are more dangerous than one that has options. Unsheathing the knife with his left hand, Jorn prepared for short range attacks as well as mid-ranged with his trident in the other hand.
He allowed the top of his head to breach the surface but stopped once his eyes had a clear view of the chamber. More of the shelled creatures lined the walls and ceiling, suggesting the chamber may fill up with water at high tide. It was a long space with jagged, step-like stones leading upward to the back. The beast was nowhere to be seen.
Jorn sprung out of the water, grasping his weapons firmly. Stooped into a defensive posture, he took his first breath since his dive. His nose shriveled. The air was rancid. The room smelled as if it contained thousands of rotting fish. As if low tide smell had been bottled and allowed to ferment. Jorn carefully sheathed the dagger and placed both hands on the trident haft.
He treaded lightly, maintaining his aggressive stance. Dark mounds lined the walls. Upon closer inspection, Jorn realized that they were piles of bones. Gnawed and mangled human remains. Whatever flesh that remained was decayed and brown. The bones were notched with teeth marks. Some were broken, the marrow had been slurped out.
Suddenly, a crash echoed in the cavern. Jorn whipped his body to face the sound. A skull rolled down the steps to his feet. A dark figure melted into a dark corner at the top.
“Face me,” Jorn challenged. There was no answer. He thumped a fist on his chest, “Face me, coward!”
The creature stepped into the light revealing its scaly skin, sharp features and yellow eyes. Its clawed hand grasped a number of gushing holes in its armored torso. A dark slime flowed freely like rivers of liquid ebony.
“Wretch,” Jorn frowned with disgust and spat. The creature laughed through his rows of dagger-like teeth then coughed up some bubbling black muck.
“Call me what you will, human,” he hissed with a forked tongue. “But it is you who is the wretch. Your whole kind shares the same fate. You are all doomed.”
“What evil is this? The monster speaks,” Jorn said with a lowered brow. “What fate does it speak of?”
“The curse of mortality of course. Every son of man is doomed to one day die.”
“You differ from mortality in what way, creature?”
“Those who follow my masters shall never know the bitterness of death. The eyes that seek their enemies. The hands that do their will. The feet that walk through the garden of flesh and bone. Those who believe shall live on as lords in the realm of shadow. Forever to serve our masters.”
“Come test your faith, monster. You shall die by my hand.”
The monster laughed again between violent coughs. “If it is your wish, mortal, let it be so.”
The monster crouched low, preparing for a leap. His tail wiggled in the air behind his head. A deep growl rumbled up his throat. Jorn braced himself with both hands on the trident haft, bearing his teeth like a rabid animal.
The creature lunged down on the knight. Jorn plunged all three points of his trident deep into its torso while simultaneously taking a side step. The monster slammed into the steps and gnashed its teeth, trying to take a bit of the knight. Jorn grasped his knife and stepped toward the writhing reptile.
“You bleed much for an immortal, wretch. Your gods have abandoned you.” The monster swung his clawed hand at Jorn’s leg. He lifted it with ease and avoided the strike.
“My lord never promised an easy transition to the realm of shadow, mortal. Your transition will be just as difficult should you continue living as a soldier. Only you will not be greeted by your master with open arms on the other side.” The beast grasped the trident’s shaft to steady it in his breast as he propped himself up. “Finish it.”
Jorn moved behind the creature, who put up no more resistance. Raising the knife above his head, Jorn drove it downward, severing the creature’s spinal column. The reptile convulsed briefly, then relaxed with a deep exhale. Jorn pulled his trident from it and kicked the corpse into the water. Once again he sheathed his knife and stepped to the water’s edge. Taking a deep breath of the foul air, he followed the creature’s body into the freezing water.
“Should we send someone else in?” Salvo asked nervously.
Varro nodded. “In a moment.”
The knights were captivated by the still water. Jake watched for any sign of their comrade or the monster. They had reloaded the cannon just in case the monster had slain Jorn and was foolish enough to resurface. Jake thought about offering to enter the water himself and look for their companion, but without the adaptations of the Norfolk, what could he do? Varro kept insisting that Jorn could hold his breath longer than any could expect.
The men grew impatient. Jake could feel it too. No man could hold his breath for that long. Jorn had either been taken by the monster or drowned. Jake began undressing.
Varro nodded reluctantly. He was almost ready to allow Jake to enter the water when Brom called out.
A shadow in the water appeared as if something big was surfacing. The men saw the shape of a tail and trained their guns on it.
“Wait! Hold fire!” Varro barked, raising both hands. The shape drew closer to the surface.
Large air bubbles burst through the placid water. Jorn’s yellow hair followed. He gasped for air and struggled to keep the dead thing afloat.
“Send the nets down. He is so dense. He might take me down with him,” Jorn called up. There was obvious relief on everyone’s face as Brutus and the marines tossed the net over the edge.
“Are you injured?” Salvo asked.
“No. I slew him with little effort. The grapeshot had terminally injured him. I just helped him along.”
Rummaging through a crate of papers and scrolls, Uric was busy setting up his new laboratory in the spacious back room of the justice building. Originally built as a carriage house, tall double doors occupied the wall facing a dark, side alley and a heavy beam blocked them on iron hooks. A long table occupied the center of the room. Uric had already begun arranging his glass chemistry set at one end.
A ladder led to a loft with a single bed and nightstand situated atop it. Possibly the worst accommodations Sir Uric Valencia had ever been allotted. But what could be expected of Adeline? The whole town was made up of brothels, saloons and opium dens. A seafaring man’s paradise. The Knights of Apollo occupied the only decent inn in town and they had declined Governor Bradford’s offer to stay in his home. No matter, Uric thought. If what Count Varro says is true, most of my time will be spent in the laboratory.
A loud crash nearly shook the heavy doors off their hinges and stirred the professor from his seat. A loud knocking followed. The terrified intellectual stood gripping his chest and managed to ask, “Who’s there?”
“I, Count Varro. Open the doors,” he spoke in a loud hoarse whisper. Uric struggled to remove the barricade. The doors swung inward and the knights rushed in, cloaked and hooded. Brutus pulled a hand-cart behind, its contents covered with a canvas tarp. Six men lifted the object onto the table with difficulty.
“Why have you come in secrecy? Are you pursued?”
“No. We merely wished to keep our cargo from the public eye so as not to raise alarm.”
“Alarm? What is it?” he asked gingerly. His voice cracked.
“Look for yourself and you will see what evil plagues this place.” The Count hung his head as he spoke gravely. Uric lifted a corner, peeking under. He drew back with a loud gasp.
Growing impatient with the fragile professor, Salvo slammed his hook on the table. “Grace of the gods! Be a man of science, professor.” He whipped the tarp off, revealing the reptilian creature of the black cove. Hideous. Grotesque. A lump rose in Uric’s throat and the sour flavor of bile burned the back of his tongue.
It lay flat on its back with its mouth open, forked tongue hanging to the tabletop. The body had grown rigid on the long trek back to town, freezing its limbs in a familiar way. Uric had seen this rigor mortis many times in the dead cats his students would dissect at the university. Both hands were on the right side; its left arm under the torso. The oafs hadn’t bothered to straighten the thing out when they rolled it into the cart. The milky eyes were open, glaring upward through the high ceiling.
Uric fumbled through one of his bags for tools. When he looked back to the creature, the milky eyes were staring right at him. His stomach churned and he tasted that sour, bitter lump in his throat again. He clinched his own eyes shut tight for a moment and upon opening them, the beast gazed upward again. Most importantly, it was still dead.
“Are you alright?” Varro asked.
Uric heard him but could not answer. His eyes stayed fixed on the creature, watching closely for movement. The rising and falling of its chest. The flair of nostrils. A flick of the eye. Nothing.
“Are you alright?” This time, Varro asked firmly.
Uric snapped his attention to the Count and flitted his hand dismissively, still unable to speak. He briskly walked to a small table and scooped up some parchment, a quill and a vial of ink. Uric took several gulping breaths before turning back to the knights.
“Be a good lad and write what I dictate,” Uric said as he placed the writing utensils in front of Brom. Brom slid the items to Jake’s front.
“He can write better than me,” Brom said.
“Very well.” Uric flicked his hand dismissively. The alchemist pulled a neatly-wrapped rope from one of his boxes and straightened it out. With knots tied at even lengths, Uric took several quick measurements of the limbs, torso and head. He then began a thorough visual inspection, dictating what he saw.
“The entire epidermis appears to be covered in hard scales. Much like a crocodilian. Green in color with a brown hue, assumingly for camouflage. The digits are webbed between them and tipped with sharp claws. The thick tail tapers into a thin whip at the end. Ribbed fins stand vertically on the top and bottom of the tail. Fins are ribbed with what appears to be cartilage, much like a fish. Red finger-like gills under either side of the jaw line, like a salamander.”
Salvo patted Jakes shoulder and took over his scribe duties.
“Go get some food and some good rest,” Count Varro said. His knights left slowly, each stealing one more glance at the specimen on the table.
Uric fell into a chair, exhausted. Out of the corner of his vision, he thought he saw Master Salvo roll his eyes. Uric dismissed the blatant disrespect and ran his fingers through his straight brown hair.
“I must see where such a creature was spawned. Do you know the place of its origin?”
“In the morning, Professor,” Varro answered. “We dare not tread there under the shadow of night.”