Hours, or was it moments later? Michael woke sitting upright, his heart thudding inside his chest, trying in vain to escape from between his ribs. Shivering, his skin clammy in a cold sweat, Michael blinked and tried to discern what had scared him so in the darkness of the inn room. Hunching over and lowering his burning forehead into his shaking hands, he closed his eyes and attempted to sift through his cluttered thoughts against the background noise of Gnaeus’s snoring. Tattered images of hectic dreams pressed themselves to the forefront of his mind, but not in any discernable order. Had his dream-self been pitched overboard before the thunder storm or after? Whose bloodied hand had gripped at his wrist on his way over the starboard railing?
Michael felt the nausea return to his stomach with vehemence as though it had been further angered by the way in which exhausted sleep had pushed it aside. The room spun once and the young man stood, clinging onto the edge of the bed in case his knees decided to automatically give out as they threatened to do so with their uncontrollable wobbling. But then a wave of vertigo rushed over Michael, and all weakness forgotten, he lurched for the closest thing at hand—the cold ash bucket next to the empty hearth.
After his sudden attack of sickness had passed, Michael lowered his head onto the cold floor, knowing that his body was not incapacitated from any normal strand of illness. He had not been so viciously sick in at least a decade…not since he had been an adolescent and both he and his brother had gotten caught by the influenza outbreak that had flared throughout his home village.
After that, he had never become so seriously sick, even on the long voyages from the colonial docks of the New World, to the ports of the West Indies, and even to the shores of India, the spice capital itself. Around him he watched crew members succumb to the rolling illnesses of the sea while he was able to continue on being a fine sailor, climbing and tying rigging, swabbing decks, and mending sails. On some accounts he had been expected to help nurse his fellow sailors back to health, his hands being one of the relatively few pairs still capable to operate free from an ill fogged mind. He had been exposed to more than enough sickness and infections to last a lifetime, perhaps enough to rival even a doctor. But not once had he contracted anything as severe as now.
Why now, so far from the sea, and in an inn that by rights should not have a grain of salt anywhere in its construction?
Again it felt as though his stomach was trying to force itself up whole through the tiny opening of his esophagus and Michael quickly picked up his head and bent over the chilled sides of the ash bucket.
Wiping his mouth on the end of his sleeve, Michael listened to the darkness, trying to discern if his noises had woken Gnaeus. But unsurprisingly, the old man continued to slumber on, his snores even louder than before.
However, Michael froze as he heard heavy but slow footsteps from out in the hall beyond the bedroom door that was mostly shut. He began to wonder whether he could abandon the bucket long enough to feign sleeping in his cold bed if the inn woman dared to come in and inspect the source of his dreaded noise. But as he wondered, the footsteps out in the hallway stopped. Hair on the back of Michael’s neck stood on end as he realized that the person to whom the footsteps belonged was situated directly outside of his door.
Too late for anything, now, Michael thought, grimacing. But despite his vexations, something inside him knew that it was not the inn woman. At the same time that he realized it, Michael did not want to acknowledge the notion and have to guess as to who it could possibly be.
The sour fire miraculously evaporating from inside his stomach, Michael slowly situated himself to get back onto his feet, wanting to get back and lie down on the bed and just will that the stranger out in the hall would continue on their way. But as he slowly got onto his knees and placed his hands upon the cold hard floor, Michael stopped as he saw the two dark shadows from the stranger’s feet breaking the dim band of light that glowed weakly at the bottom of the door.
Even if Michael had thought to wake Gnaeus, he would not have been able to, for he was frozen with the kind of terror that wracks little children when they encounter the dark unknown all by themselves for the very first time. If he had tried to call out, his voice would have died in his throat, if he had tried to stand he would have fallen heavily to the floor, for all the joints and bones in his body had fastened tightly together.
“You, you are the one that has lived their life with the sea.”
It was the ancient man’s voice from before, the one that had sat before the fire and had gripped his sleeve hours ago.
Michael’s head began to pound.
“You are far from where you ought to be.” The door slowly began to swing open, creaking loudly enough to raise the damned. The old man’s raspy voice grew louder as the opening into the room expanded. Michael’s heart threatened to burst. “You must return to where it is that you belong.”
“W-who are you?” Michael stuttered his challenge, his voice high and weak in the darkness.
The door painstakingly eased open, revealing the hobbled old man that slouched forward in his stance. Gnarled old hands hung heavily at his sides, his thick blue coat swarming his small and withered frame. The boots on his feet were old and worn out, and appeared exceedingly large in comparison with the small stick-like legs the man perilously balanced upon. The little bit that Michael could make out about the man’s face was that it was wrinkled and tanned beyond anything else he could possibly compare it to. Short grey whiskers grew out at all sorts of odd angles, covering up much of the lower half of the ancient man’s visage. Thick bushy eyebrows pushed put from his brows, nearly covering the old man’s eyes.
Or what should have been the old man’s eyes.
Nothing gazed back at Michael.
Save for two deep holes, each as black as the pit of death.
The eyeless man raised his shriveled hand and pointed with a stunted finger at Michael, or rather, unnervingly at Michael’s heart.
“You cannot choose to be part of the sea,” the old man hissed. “The sea chooses to be a part of you. And it desires you back. You may try to run, but you will never escape. You cannot. Your destiny has been marked for you. You can do nothing to change it.”
“Ridiculous,” Michael attempted, a sudden wonder in his mind trying to grasp if he was still dreaming or not. His heart pounded somewhere in the back of his throat. “You are speaking nonsense. I am not a part of anything!”
The old man’s hand faltered slightly in the air as he continued to stare straight ahead at some point above Michael’s head. For a moment, silence rushed in, uncomfortably filling the gap and reminding Michael of how long it had been since he had last taken a breath to fill his lungs. But his chest seemed paralyzed as his stare was trapped upon the absences of the old man’s eyes.
Then, in a move that made Michael swallow his heart, the man stumbled forward, and his hands reached out, pulling at the air. His tooth-pick legs gave out underneath him and he landed on his knees with a thud just a foot before Michael. The young man could not stop the alarmed cry that fell from his mouth as the two puckered hands gripped the lapels of his sweat-stained coat. Some rotten smell like that of an onion recently gone bad wafted from the old man, and his breath was akin to that of a recently opened grave as he leaned onto Michael to deliver his words.
“Your guilt for what happened was proved by your actions. Fleeing condemned you, sailor.” Michael clamped his eyes shut, trying to block out the empty holes in the old man’s head. “If you continue to run, you will forever run, and your life will be dead before you have lived it.” The horrendous man’s fingers tightened into the fabric of Michael’s coat, his dead fingers lead weights that were pulling, pulling Michael down. Weights on the end of a fishing net. “Return, return to the sea that you abandoned. She is waiting. She is calling.” His twisted weighted fingers began to knead the front of Michael’s clothes, pulling and groping at his jacket and the strings of his over shirt.
“But I can’t—”
“But you must!” The blind man insisted, his dead breath blowing straight into Michael’s face. “You must!”
Something jarred within Michael and he shook his head, the urge to get up and run flooding through his body. But the old man pulled him down, pinned him, prevented him from doing anything but gripping the thin wrists that pulled at him. The skin Michael’s fingers encircled was scorching. I had to kill him,” he gasped, feeling the confession ripping free of something he had held onto so tightly for so long. “He would have killed me if I hadn’t—I had to, I had to—!”
The eyeless man shook him, with a surprising amount of strength that belied his appearance. “Then go back and prove it, prove what you have done!”
Michael swallowed nervously and tried to inch back away from the blind man’s hold. His voice shook in his protest. “But if I go back to port, they will find me, and they will shoot me. They said as such. I am a condemned man.” Was it his hands that were shaking or the dead man’s? “Condemned!”
A distorted, large hand that was the embodiment of iced stone reached up and gripped the side of Michael’s face. “Her surf pounds for you, her breath whispers your name, her white foam longs for your skin. You are her. She is you. You must return, sailor! She needs you!”
“It will be my death—”
“But a death that you will live!”
Each time that Michael tried to separate himself from the man’s hold, the old man would cling tighter onto him. Pressure began to beat at the sides of Michael’s head and his heart was gradually tiring of its madman rush. Pain before unacknowledged was building up in his chest and Michael could feel his lungs starting to restrict the amount of air that they could hold. “Sir—!”
“Return, sailor, return!”
Michael shook to clear his head, but it did not help. Black spots began to dot his vision.
A strange red hue, like a thin film of blood, began to seep into Michael’s line of sight.
A heavy, heady rush as though from an extensive waterfall tumbled downwards in Michael’s mind.
As a mixture of black and red covered his vision, he cried out in his pain, frustration, and confusion.
With a burning strength that rose inside of him like trapped steam, he struck out with all the strength that he possessed.
When Gnaeus woke seconds later, he sat bolt upright in bed, clutching the bed sheet to his chest as though it was some sort of shield. “What by the Holy Father was that?” He said out loud, the scream that had broken through and into his dream still echoing in his ears. “Boy, did you—”
But as Gnaeus looked over at Michael’s bed, he was shocked to find that the bed was empty. It had not even looked as though Michael had bothered to pull back the covers. “Boy?” Gnaeus swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood on his large feet. Scratching the top of his head, he turned to walk towards the door.
He stopped fast before he had even taken a single step.
There, lying on the floor, was the outstretched body of an incredibly old man, his arms out above his head, his mouth open in a silent scream. Empty sockets of absent eyes stared in horror at nothing beneath Gnaeus’s bed. A spilled ash bucket that had sick trailing from it was on its side beside him, and the window in the wall opposite was shattered open.
Gnaeus shivered as the cold morning air rushed in, battling the mingled scent of the old man and the sick. “Boy?”
But as Gnaeus looked down at the foot of what had been his companion’s bed, he noticed that Michael’s bag had vanished.
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