Demons of the Deep
|Grayquid are inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones
All eyes fixed on the beams not three feet overhead. A latticework of sunlight and shadow played over their terror stricken faces. The men moved frantically in the narrow quarters below, watching, waiting, listening. Little noise came from the upper decks, as the forsaken oarsmen did not have armor or shields or spears, only the swords at their sides, which, if used at all, none in the shadows could guess. Shortly, the sound of panic echoed onto tranquil waters and died away. Where the slaughtered were fallen, human shapes blocked the light that spilled from between the beams, deepening the darkness in the bowels of the ship.
The walls of the lower deck pushed on the survivors, too narrow a space for thirty-one oarsmen, its captain and three passengers. Through the seams of the outer hull, the air came thinly, fouled by the brine of the sea and the stench of sweat. The most cowardly among them snatched at breath like netted fish. Despite knowing war and death, when faced against something so ravenous and supernatural, their most primal fears had taken hold. And then the blood poured from between the timbers, bathing them in the gore of their comrades as if in some perverse ritual. Meridius cursed the shipbuilders for not better waxing the upper deck. When the blood turned to drips, the roof groaned and bulged under inhuman feet, followed by a scratching sound. Half-seen claws were raking and raking, splintering the beams.
Meridius moved under the light. The wound in his neck looked to have worsened despite their healing efforts, the purple flesh spreading from beneath his bandages. And he was pale, so pale, some feared a drowned had materialized in their midst.
“My wife and daughter live in Campania,” he began, out of nowhere. “She, my wife, has dark hair like a raven’s wing that falls in curls and always smells of pine. It is on a small lot that I own, in the plains of Campania. We grow potatoes.” He smiled weakly. “My little one is nearly two and just learning to speak. She can say ‘up’ and ‘down’. But, who knows what new words she’s learned since last I saw them? It’s been more than a month . . .
“Last night, I dreamt that my wife was washing beside the porch where the bougainvillea grows. She looked at me, smiled, beautiful as I remember. White sheets hung from the clothespins, but as I stepped closer to embrace her, the sheet she pulled from the basin, I saw that it was red, all red as blood.”
Cambses, who listened across the space of three men, pushed his way toward him. “What good is telling us this? Save your remembrances for later, the bawdy bits about your wife, for when we feast in the high halls of Thetis.”
“Aye, Cambses, very well that I should,” Meridius answered, “but if I don’t return, who amongst you will go to Campania, to seek out my waiting wife and child and tell them of my fate? It is not marked, you know, and there are no paved roads leading to it. But if you look with a will to find it, you shall.”
“You are not the only man here with those in waiting,” Cambses replied grimly. “And if none of us survive, none will know our fate.”
“Quite right,” Meridius somberly replied.
A woman sounded, her voice as uplifting as a nymph song, for the men longed for the comforts of their wives and lovers. “I will go to Meridius’ family.” It was Thelana. “I am Ilmarin, and do not know your customs, but in our country we do not fear Death as you; if he comes, so be it; we are born again in the Goddess. But now is the time for action. Let us rise up and meet our doom with bravado!”
At that, a plank cracked between them, and through the open space a milky hand groped for someone’s hair. “We need a plan!” Cambses exclaimed. “We cannot simply run out blindly.”
“Sir, there is the Hellenic fire,” came an answer, from a short, gray-bearded man.
“The Hellenic fire? Are you mad, Archimedes? We’ll burn down the ship.”
“What is this Hellenic fire?” asked Xandr.
“It is a wicked concoction,” Cambses replied, “an alchemists’ brew; it burns like kerosene, only worse, much worse. Its flames can scarcely be put out. Just a thimbleful may turn a house to ash. There are times I wish it’d been left to the denizens of hell where it belongs. But still, we carry it aboard, to ignite enemy ships.”
Xandr was quick to reply, “If we die by fire, that is our choice—better than be ripped apart by those fiends. Who agrees, say ‘aye’.”
As none wished to await Death trembling in the cold and in the dark, the chorus of approval was clear. But it was Thelana whose voice rang again above the clamor. “Wait, we cannot march out, one by one, as sheep to the slaughter. We’ll need to startle them.”
“Startle them?” a question sprang, “they are soulless fiends, what could startle them?”
“I have a plan,” she said. “But I will need one other, someone who knows to work this Hellenic fire.”
“I will do it,” said Meridius without hesitation.
“Then what would you have me say to your wife and daughter,” she asked, “should I need to meet them?”
He smiled. “When the moment is certain, I will tell you.”
Without warning, more of the planks crumbled about them, and hooked hands sprouted down like demonic weeds.
“Wait,” Cambses interrupted, facing the Ilmarin woman, “you will need armor. Nabonus died with his breast unshielded.”
“Your armor won’t fit me,” she replied with a grin, “and besides, when I’m naked, I’m invincible.” She then turned to Emma, who stood like a long shadow at her side. “Enchant me.”
Across the flat double doors of the Mare Nostrum’s cargo hold, which served as both stable and storage for rations, citrus and water, there was an iron latch with a simple loop and hook. Normally, the cargo hold was not connected with the crewman’s quarters, but with some effort, a passage was made. Rather than be unhooked, the latch burst from the wood to which it was nailed, and to the surprise of the gray creatures skulking and disemboweling and devouring, a lone raven fluttered skyward, followed by a toffee hued mare. Mounted atop the shaken but intrepid beast was Thelana, the jade and gold of her bow glittering in the faint sun. Following from this compartment was Meridius, Cambses, Xandr, and a contingent of warriors. Without pause, the grayquid abandoned their feast to pounce, letting bodies and parts of bodies slip quietly to the sea.
A simple, unmarked pot was in Meridius’ hands. No shield or spear was on him, only the gladius at his waist. As he ran across the uneven flooring toward the grayquid, Meridius uncorked his flask. Clear liquid spilled in globs about his feet and jerkin as the cork rolled into the sea. Old Archimedes, all the while, handed an arrow with a flaming tip to the mounted archer. Pulling the arrow to her ear, its flame flickering in the breeze, she aimed for she knew not what. Meridius then did what none could have imagined, a last moment modification; turning the flask over, he emptied the fluid down his own throat and let it wash over his lips and trickle from his clothing.
Meridius. Thelana mouthed the words, but could not speak. No . . .
The grayquid, being mindless killers, did not heed the other men, but piled atop the single being who dared to charge into their midst. As they tore at him, he turned peacefully to Thelana, saying, “Tell my family it was a good adventure.”
Moisture pooled about Thelana’s eye, smearing her aim, and for a moment she feared missing her mark, but she did not fail him. Her fingers loosened and the taut string snapped. Whether those fingers were the death of him, or the grayquid pulling out his spine, she did not know, but the flaming point struck Meridius squarely in his breastplate and instantly the fire burst from his vestments like a furnace beneath his sternum. The whole of the man became fire. Even the grayquid, in all their uncanny swiftness, were unable to escape. It engulfed them. Other grayquid leapt over their disintegrating brethren. But Thelana slowed their onslaught. The fire of her arrows caught scent of the Hellenic liquid below, erupting along the floorboards, up to their lower extremities.
But her quick timed shots were unable to avail the whole crew. Fires streamed along the beams of the groaning ship. Cambses, disregarding the imminent peril, let out a cry of battle, and pushed against the gray mob with his long oval shield. Claws glanced off his mail and toad-like feet hopped and raked at the crest of his helmet, but he kept a protective stance, and brandishing his gleaming gladius, hacked at their soft sinews, finding that their heads and limbs rolled from his blade with ease. The oarsmen, likewise, stood ground, forming a wall of shields across the narrow portion of the bow, but the lashing webbed-fingers found gaps in their defenses as the ship swayed, and the less steady fell away with their throats missing, slipping and writhing.
The fire continued to rage and the beams began to blacken. All the while, a high-cresting wave started along the starboard bow, as on the port side, a pillar came quickly from a great rectangular pedestal, threatening to smash the pentaconter to pieces. Leaping down to mid-deck, Xandr grabbed an oar to brace the ship, as grayquid descended upon him, their claws inching for his throat. He caught the slippery wrists in his hands, but the pungent odor was overwhelming. Fighting to maintain consciousness, he twisted away, his last meal gushing from his lips to the waves. At last, there was respite, in the form of a gust of fresh sea air. With a single, desperate gasp, he tugged at the grayquid’s loose limbs with all his enduring might. The lank arms dangled lifelessly against its sides, but it did not feel pain, and lurched forward once more, snapping at him with jagged teeth. In shock and horror, Xandr toppled over the railing, hard against the long oars. Icy waves licked his bruised ribs, and down the grayquid followed, many more of them, clawing their way from oar to oar. But the throbbing in his side gave birth to an idea. He wrenched an oar free of its porthole and the nearest of the monsters paused, having lost a step in its path, and like a giant with a tremendous mace Xandr hoisted the broken shaft and knocked the creature beneath the briny waters.
A sound like thunder turned every eye away. Waves crashed, filling the ship with white, extinguishing every trace of flame. The whole of the Mare Nostrum shuddered against the pedestal, tilting onto its side, throwing every man and creature against the rails, and more than a few overboard. Thelana slid across the beams with the others, nearly falling from her mare and from the ship, but Arrow dug its hooves into the deck as she coiled her fingers about its mane. Xandr caught himself, the oars under his knees, the frothy current rolling overhead. He found his footing again, pushing off the marble that had hit, but not penetrated the hull, and made his way up, hand-over-hand.
As the white waters washed across the bow and receded, the Mare Nostrum righted itself, and where the flames had been was only ash. Snapping her bow into a sword, Thelana kicked at her mare and charged. Mist flared from Arrow’s nostrils and the glimmer of terror in its eyes darkened to bold ferocity. Together, horse and rider dashed between the hooking claws, across the swaying upper deck, her blade swiping clean through whatever mesh of scales and cartilage kept the grayquid’s heads attached. Her charge came up short, as the flooring vanished ahead of them, but there she spotted her lover, clinging from the port bow.
Clasping his arm to the elbow, she caught him, and he came up with his fifteen-feet of oar. Only his massive arms could handle such a thing, albeit clumsily, for he was wise in the use of ungainly things. In the narrow passage the grayquid lunged at him but did not reach. The oar splintered with a WHOOSH and CRACK, swatting them back to the depths, and when the paddle broke away, the makeshift weapon became a spear in his hands, with which to impale their lean bodies. Cambses and his men, having overcome their dread, rushed to aid him, their swords cutting effortlessly through the dead flesh.
When the battle was done and the grayquid were but husks of mucus, the crew counted their dead. Not even ashes could be found of Meridius, but the three bodies that remained were bandaged and tossed into the sea, to Sargon, with all the rites accorded them.
It was during the last ceremony that it appeared, white as a sail in the mists, casting a shadow over everything in sight. The whole structure was enmeshed in vines, its three walls sloping inwardly to a flattened point, forming a low, wide pyramid. The sea beat against the ancient stones and clouds of soot swirled in a fury at its peak like a volcano. A great flight of steps protruded from it like a man’s nose, ascending to a broad archway, but the stairway was incomplete, having weathered to ruin. Three obelisks stood adjacent to the pyramid and evidence of others could be seen beneath the surf, great toppled stones and bronze ribbing that threatened to rip the dwarfed ship to pieces. A fourth obelisk, having collapsed against the pyramid, formed a breach in the wall where the water gushed and foamed violently against the debris.
Cambses straightened at the sight of it, looking weary but triumphant. “At last!” he said. “The Temple of Sargon!”