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Sailing to Darkness

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  • Sailing to Darkness

    As usual, I'll be getting a bit ahead before I start posting, since I tend to have a lot of false starts.

  • #2
    Sailing to Darkness
    by Charles R. Rutledge

    “At the door of life, by the gate of breath,
    There are worse things waiting for men than death...”


    Lost in a dream, he could hear her screaming. Lenora. His love. Brenner ran through narrow corridors of ancient, moss-encrusted stone, his feet slipping on the slimy foot-stones and whenever he brushed against a wall, he came away befouled by the filth of centuries. He looked neither left nor right, focusing on the sound of Lenora’s voice, but he was aware of movement in the dark, side corridors he passed.
    Brenner had lost all sense of time and direction, but eventually the winding hallway led to a massive, high-vaulted chamber. A small figure in white huddled in one corner, her face turned to the wall.
    “Lenora?’ Brenner said.
    Slowly the girl turned her head to look at him. Recognition filled her eyes and she scrambled to her feet and ran into Brenner’s arms. He clutched her to his chest, reveling in the feel of her, the smell of her. Gods, how he had missed her. Part of Brenner’s mind knew that he was dreaming but he didn’t care.
    Lenora pulled away from him with a jerk, her red-rimmed eyes gone wide. “No,” she said. “This is some other cruel jest being played on me. You’re not real. Any moment you’ll turn into a living corpse or something worse.” She pulled away and staggered backwards.
    Brenner said, “It’s me Lenora. I’m here.”
    “If you’re alive you can’t be here, and I pray to all the gods that you haven’t died and joined me in this evil place.”
    Brenner raised his hands helplessly. “Where are we? This can’t be what waits beyond life. Tell me it isn’t”
    “No, my love,” she said. “This is the domain of some horrible creature.”
    “A creature?”
    “A demon. A fiend. Oh Brenner, I don’t know what it is or how it brought me here or why, but I’m not the only one. There are other lost souls in this foul place. This creature keeps us here to torment. You don’t know the things I’ve seen. The things I’ve done. And I still can’t be sure that you’re not some new torture, giving me hope, only to be snatched away.”
    “No, dear heart,” Brenner said. “I don’t know how I came here, but I believe that I am asleep and dreaming.”
    “That may well be,” Lenora said, “I have heard some of the others here say that this place passes close to the world of dreams sometimes. But there are no dreams here. Only one unending nightmare.” She pushed a stray lock of hair from her face and Brenner felt a tug at his heart. How many times had he seen her do that when she was alive?
    “There must be something I can do,” Brenner said.
    Lenora said, “You mustn’t. You must never come here again. If you became trapped here too I couldn’t bear it. I…” Lenora turned toward the doorway, standing stiffly, as if listening.
    “What is it?” Brenner said.
    “Something’s coming. You have to go now.”
    “I won’t. I won’t leave you.”
    Brenner became aware of a soft sound. A whispering, slithering sound from the corridor. He turned to look at the door. The doorway was full of rotting corpses. Of long dead things that somehow still moved. They were crowding into the room from the corridor and the stench of decay was overwhelming. Some of them were little more than skeletons covered with bits of black and putrid flesh, while others still were recognizable as things that had once been human. Maggots crawled in their flesh and fell like an obscene rain when the dead men moved. The corpse things shuffled forward with reaching hands and gaping mouths. Lenora began to scream again and Brenner found that he was screaming too.

    “Brenner!” a voice was calling. “Brenner! Wake up!”
    Brenner sat up. He was in the spare bedroom in his sister’s house. He was covered in sweat and his sister Helene was sitting on the edge of the bed. A candle flickered on the small table beside the bed. He glanced toward the window. Still full dark outside.
    “The dream again?” Helene said.
    Brenner nodded. “The worst yet.”
    Helene shook her head. “She’s gone, Brenner. It’s been almost a month since she passed. You have to let her go.”
    For a moment Brenner felt the urge to strike his sister and he fought to control himself. He wondered, not for the first time, if he were going mad. He took a long, shuddering breath. “I know that. Do you think I want this?”
    Helene put her hand on his brow. “I think that something up here hasn’t accepted Lenora’s death yet.” Her hand went to his heart. “Or something here. It’s as if you’re torturing yourself, brother.”
    At the word torture the dream rushed back to Brenner. He slumped back on the sweat- drenched sheets. “She’s suffering. She’s lost in some dark and terrible place.”
    Helene said, “No, Brenner, no. She’s with the gods now.”
    “She’s not! Something captured her spirit and won’t let her go. I’ve seen it.”
    “Listen to yourself, Brenner. It’s a dream. Just a bad dream.”
    Brenner said. “I’m starting to think there’s more to it.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “I don’t know. But at first light I’m going to the hills. I’m going to see the wise woman.”
    Helene’s brow furrowed. “You mean the witch.”
    “Aye, the witch.”


    • #3
      Brenner tethered his horse on a small sapling and started toward the witch's hut on foot. The hut had been built at the back of a narrow ravine and could only be approached from the front. The ravine was so narrow and so steep that sunlight could only fall on its floor for a few hours a day. Now the ravine lay in shadow and the hut stood in the deepest part of the darkness.
      Brenner was still several yards from the hut when a shrill voice called out. “What do you want boy? If you've come seeking a love charm, I've none to give.”
      “I've come about love,” Brenner said. “But not for a charm.”
      He waited for a few moments but received no reply. A chill wind whipped down the ravine, bringing autumn leaves and clouds of dust. Finally, Just as Brenner was about to call out again, a hunched figure appeared in the huts door. He had never seen the witch before, but she was much as he had expected. Small and bent with a wild shock of white hair.
      “You have lost someone,” the witch said. How could she know?
      “My wife. Several weeks ago. The plague took her.”
      “It took many,” said the witch. “And I can bring none of them back. They are with the gods.”
      “Not my wife. I think...I think something stole her soul.”
      The witch turned her head slightly to one side and looked at Brenner for a long time. Then she raised one gnarled hand and beckoned before stepping back inside the hut. Brenner didn't wish to enter the hut, but he had come this far. He would see it through. He crossed the rocky ground and stooping low, stepped inside.
      He had expected the interior to be dank and foul smelling, but instead the place was dry and smelled of herbs and dried flowers. Many such plants hung from the ceiling and there were pottery jars and bowls holding what looked to be ground seeds and plants resting on a small table.
      The witch, moving with surprising agility for one of her apparent age, dropped to the floor and sat cross-legged. She motioned for Brenner to join her. When he had seated himself the witch said, “Tell me.”
      Brenner told her everything. About Lenora's sickness. About her death. About the dreams and the dark place where he had seen the shade of his wife. Through it all, the witch made no comment. When Brenner finished his tale she nodded once, then sat still for several moments as if lost in thought.
      Finally she said, “Soul Eater. Your wife has been taken by a Soul Eater.”
      “What is that?” Brenner said. “I've never heard of such a thing.”
      The witch said, “A malignant spirit. Soul Eaters live on the despair of mortals. It is meat and drink to them. They lurk in the dark places near battle fields and hospitals and other places where many die in pain and despair. It was probably drawn here by the plague.”
      “But where has it taken Lenora?”
      The witch raised a finger. “Sometimes a Soul Eater finds a place where it grows powerful, usually the site of some great tragedy. If the spirit is strong enough, it can draw the departing spirits of dying men and women to this place of power and hold them there as toys for its nourishment and amusement.”
      “How long can it hold them like that?”
      “Forever, boy. It can feed off of them forever.”
      “And one of these damned things has my wife. What can I do?”
      The witch said, “Usually I would say nothing. There is no way to find the Soul Eater and they are very dangerous to confront. But these dreams of yours make me think you have a chance. There is something you could try, but it is so faint a hope as to be barely worthy of the name and the price you would pay if you failed would be more than most men could bear.”
      “Just tell me what I have to do. I can't leave Lenora to an eternity of torture and fear. I can't.”
      “I believe you. I can see that you must try.” The witch nodded and got to her feet. She rummaged through several bags and boxes, mumbling to herself as she went. After several minutes of this she held up a dull bit of metal and said, “Here it is.”
      She handed the object to Brenner and he looked at it. It was a small metal disk, rather like a coin, and it had what appeared to be a stylized image of a sailing ship cut into it.
      “When you go to bed tonight, place that disk under your pillow.”
      “What good will that do?” Brenner said.
      “It will bring you help, I think, but I can't tell you how.” She held up her hand when Brenner started to protest. “For one thing, I'm not entirely sure what will happen. But I can tell you this. You'll be given a chance to find your woman. After that you must deal with the thing that has her.”
      Brenner wasn't sure if the woman was mad, but she seemed sincere enough. She obviously believed that the disk would help him. He said, “What price to you make for this?”
      The witch shook her head. “Take it and the gods be with you.”
      “I had heard you gave nothing without demanding a price,” Brenner said. “Why are you helping me like this?”
      “I was not always a withered crone, boy.” the witch said. “There was a time in my life when if my love had come for me, I might not have become the pitiful thing you see now. Now go, but heed my warning. If you take this path your life and more could be forfeit.”
      “What more do I have than my life?”
      The witch leaned forward and grinned a gap tooth grin. “Pray you never learn.”

      That night, despite his sister's protests, Brenner returned to the home he had shared with Lenora. He had told Helene that it was time to learn if he could still live in that house or if he would have to sell it. His sister's eyes had told him that she hadn't believed him, but eventually she had shrugged and let him go.
      It was only the second time he had entered the house since Lenora's death and he soon found that the prospect of sleeping in the bed they had shared was still too daunting, so Brenner made up a pallet on the floor in the main room before the fire. As the darkness without grew deep, Brenner stretched out on the pallet. He slid the metal disk under his pillow and waited. He had expected that it would take him some time to fall asleep but he had been wrong. He fell into a deep slumber only moments after lying down and almost as quickly he began to dream.
      But it wasn't the same dream. Instead of the tunnels of the Soul Eater's lair, Brenner found himself on a narrow rocky stretch of beach under a sky heavy with dark clouds. He made his way along the beach, looking out to sea where white foam skittered across waves of bottle glass green. As he watched the waves a bank of dense fog began to roll in toward shore, bringing with it a smell of seaweed and ancient water. The white tendrils of fog reached the beach and flowed past where Brenner stood, the mist so dense that he could see no more than a few feet in front of him.
      Brenner became aware of a creaking noise, like ropes gone taunt or the slow squeak of old floor boards. He looked toward the source of the noise and saw a massive, dark shape looming in the fog. A ship? It had to be, and yet how had it come this close to shore in the brief time since the fog had rolled in? He reminded himself that he was dreaming and there was no logic to dreams.
      As the ship came closer, Brenner could make out a dim light. Someone was standing by the rail, slowly waving a lantern. Brenner walked into the surf to get a closer look. He had never seen a ship of such a design. It had high castles forward and aft and it appeared to have a wheel at either end. Someone stood at the rear wheel but in the dark and the fog he was little more than a shadow with a human shape.
      Brenner was close enough now that the light from the lamp reached him and the man holding the lamp called out. “You are the one called Brenner?”
      “I am,” Brenner said.
      “Then come aboard,” the man said, and a rope ladder clattered down the hull. Brenner waded further out until the water was shoulder deep, then grabbed the bottom of the ladder and began to climb. The ladder swayed and turned, making the climb difficult but he managed to get to the deck, where he stood for a moment, gasping for breath.
      “This is the most realistic dream I can recall having,” Brenner said, more to himself than to the man with the lamp.
      The man answered. “You're not dreaming now. You're in a dream and that's a very different thing.”
      Brenner looked at the man. He had long, red-gold hair tied back in a single braid. He wore a scarlet sea coat over dark tunic and hose. The man's eyes were pale and completely devoid of sight.
      “I don't understand,” Brenner said.
      “One man's dream is another man's reality. You have left your dream, my friend and entered another plane of existence. You're as real here as you are anywhere. Given your destination you would do well to remember that.”
      “Then you know where I wish to go?”
      “Of course. I'm to take you there. This is the ship that travels between worlds and you've a token of passage there in your hand.”
      Brenner looked down at his hand. He hadn't been holding anything a moment before, but now when he opened his fingers, the metal disk lay in his palm.
      Despite his blindness, the man reached out with a frightening precision and took the disk. He said, “Welcome aboard. I'm the captain.”
      “You said you know where to take me,” Brenner said. “I've only visited the place in a dream. Can you tell me, where does it lie?”
      The captain motioned toward the sea beyond the ship. “Out there,” he said. “In the dark.”


      • #4
        “That is all you can tell me?”
        “It is for now. When we get closer to our destination I can perhaps reveal more. I must tell you, young sir, that this isn't a trip I make gladly. The Dark Ship has seldom sailed into more treacherous waters.”
        “That is what you call your vessel? The Dark Ship?”
        The captain shrugged. “That is what she is called. That or the ship that sails between worlds.”
        “Can I ask you captain, how did you know you would find me here in this place on this day?”
        “The summons came days ago. Very few have these tokens of passage.” He held up the disk and it gleamed dully in the lamplight. “This is the first one I've seen in many years.”
        “Days ago?” But I only received the token today.”
        “Time works differently in different worlds. Now come along, young sir. There is someone on board whom you should meet.”
        “Another passenger?”
        “Aye, and one with the same destination, though for reasons of his own.”
        The captain moved with sure steps along the deck toward the back of the ship. Brenner could see the steersman now in the dim light thrown by the lamp and to his surprise and wonder he saw that the steersman seemed to be an exact physical duplicate of the captain, save that his eyes were clear and obviously sighted.
        The captain opened a door on the aft cabin and stepped inside. Light and warmth flowed from the door and Brenner was glad to follow the captain within. The cabin was large and well lit by the light of several lanterns hung by hooks from the rafters. There were four tables in the cabin but only one was occupied.
        The man at the table was possibly the largest individual Brenner had ever seen. He had long, dark hair and several days growth of stubble on his scarred and craggy face. He looked up as Brenner and the captain came in and such was the intensity of the man's eyes that Brenner had to resist the urge to take a step back.
        “Master Brenner, this is Kharrn.”
        The man known as Kharrn stood up. He was almost seven feet tall with massive shoulders and a barrel chest. He was clad in a sleeveless tunic of supple brown leather and matching breeks. At one hip he wore a heavy axe, and at the other a long, straight knife. He said, “This is the other passenger you spoke of?”
        The captain said, “Aye, Kharrn. He seeks the broken fortress and the foul thing that dwells there.”
        “Are you also seeking the Soul Eater, Kharrn?” Brenner said.
        The big man shook his head and sat back down at the table. “I seek a book and an enemy. Both may be there. Or one. Or neither.”
        “A book?” said Brenner.
        “A grimoire,” said the captain. “A tome known as the Silent History, which contains spells that could unmake the Multiverse.”
        Brenner said, “And why would this book be in the lair of the Soul Eater?”
        “Again I must ask you to wait for answers, young sir,” the captain said. “It is dangerous to speak of such things until we get closer to the fortress. You must remember that we sail between worlds and even to speak of our destination can change our route. Such is the nature of the Multiverse.”
        Kharrn lifted a silver jug which sat on the table and poured some of its contents into a mug. He slid the mug across the table. “Have a drink boy. It will take off the chill.” He filled his own mug and took a deep pull.
        Brenner lifted the proffered mug and drank. Wine, and of a fiery sort which did indeed warm him. He pulled out a chair and sat down across from Kharrn. He said, “Has the captain told you why I'm seeking the Soul Eater?”
        Kharrn nodded. “The thing has your woman. We'll get her back or die trying and don't you doubt it.”
        Brenner said, “Then you're willing to help me, just like that?”
        “Just like that.”
        “If the Soul Eater kills us, I am told we could be in for a horrible fate.”
        “My fate can't get any worse, boy. Now shut up and have some more wine.”
        Neither Kharrn nor the captain were any more forthcoming after that and when the captain offered Brenner a bunk below decks, Brenner took him up on it. He wondered, as he climbed into the narrow bunk, how he could be going to sleep within a dream. And yet the captain had said that Brenner was no longer dreaming. It was all too much for him and between the wine and his muddled thoughts, Brenner soon sank into a troubled sleep.

        Brenner didn't know how long he had slept when the captain shook him awake. “Come up on deck. We're close to our destination and I must prepare you for what is to come.”
        Brenner followed the captain up the stairs. The first thing that struck him was the cold. His breath steamed before him and his hands felt frozen only moments after he had stepped onto the deck. The second thing he noticed was the almost complete lack of light. If he had thought the lamps dim before, now it was almost as if something was devouring the light. Beyond the ever present mist was nothing but pure blackness.
        “Do not stray near the rails,” the captain warned. “This darkness isn't empty.”
        “Where are we?” Brenner said.
        “Some call it the void. Others call it the outer dark. It is part of the space between worlds, the dark shadow of the Second Ether.”
        “You said we were close. How can we find anything in this darkness?” said Brenner.
        “My ship sails true. Even when I don't want her to. We're close enough now that I can tell you more about your destination. The Soul Eater has made his lair in an ancient fortress. Once it was part of a thriving kingdom in a world you never heard of.
        “ The king of that land was a man called Belaskus. From what I understand he was a just king, but he thirsted for power and knowledge and that led him to madness. Legends say some of his agents found a book, an ancient and terrible book and that late at night, King Belaskus would read by candlelight, whispering the words for he feared to speak them aloud.”
        “The Silent History that Kharrn spoke of?”
        “Perhaps,” said the captain. “In any event the contents of the book changed Belaskus, making him cruel and ruthless. He began to prey on his subjects, taking their lands and taxing them heavily and eventually taking their children for horrific rites performed in the fortress his ancestors had built. Many died in the castle dungeons and many wished that they could die.”
        “Just the sort of place for a foul spirit like a Soul Eater to flourish,” Kharrn said.
        Brenner jumped when the large man spoke. He hadn't heard him approach. Brenner said, “And what became of this King Belaskus?”
        “His subjects rose up in revolt. The fighting went on for days, but in the end, Belaksus's army lost heart for they feared Belaskus more than they respected him and most of them deserted. A group of men made their way to the central chamber of the fortress and there they slew the evil king. They sealed his body, along with the ancient book,within a cell somewhere in the dungeons.
        “Some attempt was made to rebuild the kingdom, but the wounds ran too deep and gradually the citizens drifted away. The town around the fortress fell into ruin and the great dark structure stood abandoned for years save for the inhuman thing that had come there to bask in the pain and despair. The Soul Eater grew fat and powerful on the stored misery of hundreds.”
        Brenner said, “And the fiend has been there all this time.”
        “For centuries,” said the captain. “It has trapped and tormented countless souls. And in doing so, it has grown mighty.”
        Brenner turned to Kharrn. “So you seek the book to learn if it is indeed this Silent History.”
        “Aye, and I'm looking for a man who covets the book. A great spider of a man. A necromancer. A sorcerer of the darkest kind.”
        “What do you want with him, if I can ask you?”
        Kharrn leaned close and his grin was a terrible thing. “I want to kill him. I want to break his limbs and cut out his heart and tear out his throat with my teeth.”
        “You must hate this sorcerer very much.”
        “As much as a man can hate,” said Kharrn. “And more.”
        “Will you tell me why?”
        Kharrn's face darkened and for a moment Brenner thought he had asked too much. Then Kharrn said, “You know why. The same reason you're risking your life and your spirit here now.”
        “Then this sorcerer...”
        “Aye. He killed my wife. My Sahir. I've followed him across time and across many worlds, and I would follow him to the gates of hell itself. And that's why, book or no book, I'll stand with you against this demon.”
        Brenner didn't know what to say to that. He clasped Kharrn's wrist as he had seen soldiers do. Kharrn gripped Brenner's wrist in return and Brenner realized that the big man could easily crush the bones in his arm.
        “It is almost time,' the captain said. “I see you have no weapon, Brenner. There are a few in the forward cabin. You are welcome to take what you need.”
        “Thank you, captain. I'll certainly take advantage of your generosity.”
        Last edited by Thongor; 08-25-2011, 04:04 PM.


        • #5
          Brenner went to the cabin and looked through the selection of weapons. He didn't try and fool himself that he had much skill as a warrior, so he took a curved saber that had a good edge. For a man of little skill, cutting would be better than stabbing, he thought.
          When he returned to the deck he thought he could make out a slight lightening of the darkness in front of the ship. Tendrils of white mist began to become visible and Brenner could hear breakers.
          “This is as close as I may come, gentlemen,” the captain said. “I wish that I could go ashore with you, but it is not my lot.”
          Brenner said, “You've done your part, captain, and I thank you. Will you wait for our return?”
          “The ship will be here if and when you return,” the captain said.
          Kharrn tossed the rope ladder over the railing. Brenner stepped up to the rail and looked down. The water was mostly obscured by the mist, but things looked normal enough. They had made it through the darkness of the void.
          “Keep that wine handy,” Kharn said, swinging one leg over the rail. “I'll be thirsty when I get back.”
          “That I will, sir,” said the captain.
          Brenner watched Kharrn descend the ladder. The man went down as if he had ape blood in his veins, his feet barely touching the rungs. Standing in the shoulder deep water, Kharrn anchored the ladder, which made Brenner's descent easier if still far clumsier than Kharrn's.
          Brenner caught his breath as he entered the cold water. The two men sloshed through the waves until they reached a desolate shore. Brenner allowed his gaze to travel up the hills beyond the beach and he could see a massive and broken structure looming against the night sky. He felt his stomach tighten. There would be no escaping whatever waited inside by simply waking this time. But none of that mattered. Lenora was in that place, and he would find her.
          Kharrn said nothing but began to make his way up the beach and Brenner fell in behind the giant man. They passed through the barely recognizable wreckage of the village that had once stood below the fortress. There was little left but the outlines of foundations and standing bits of walls. A road, so overgrown as to be almost invisible, led up a steep slope to the fortress proper.
          The two men went up the road in an eerie silence. There were no calls of night birds. No sound of insect or animal. At the top of the slope they paused before two shattered gates. The wood itself was long since rotted into piles of formless loam. A gibbous moon hung above, throwing stark shadows across an inner courtyard. Brenner thought he saw movement, something flitting from one shadow to another, but it was gone so quickly that he wondered if he had imagined it.
          Kharrn unhooked the axe from his belt and hefted it in his right fist. Then he began to cross the courtyard, heading for a great, gaping black hole that Brenner assumed was the front entrance to the fortress. So many stones had fallen away that it could simply have been a hole in a collapsed wall.
          Kharrn paused at the hole and cursed. A moment later Brenner realized why as he caught a whiff of a great stench flowing out of the opening. It was a carrion stink, a reek of things long dead and left to corrupt. Kharrn cursed again and the two men stepped into the opening. Within it was the opposite of the courtyard, blackness broken by pools of silver moonlight that fell through holes in the walls. They started forward, moving cautiously over rubble and piles of rotted refuse. The charnel house wind blew ever toward them, seemingly generated from deep within the fortress.
          After they had traveled several yards down the corridor Kharrn stopped so suddenly that Brenner almost ran into him. “Careful,” Kharrn said. “The floor has fallen away here.”
          Brenner looked past the giant man and saw that the floor had indeed collapsed, leaving a wide opening that gaped like a hungry maw. There appeared to be no way past it. Brenner said, “Now what?”
          “We go down. That infernal stink seems to be coming from below anyway.”
          “How will we see, Kharrn? We brought no torches.”
          Kharrn said, “There seems to be light down there. Of a kind.”
          Brenner looked down into the pit. He could make out a few details of the chamber below by an unhealthy blue-green glow that seemed to permeate the room. Brenner was about to ask Kharrn what he thought the source of the light was when Kharrn dropped over the edge of the hole. Brenner heard a splash and a moment later Kharrn called for him to come down. Brenner gritted his teeth and jumped.
          He landed knee deep in cold, brackish water. Now he could see the source of light. The walls of the chamber were covered in a thick layer of twisted, bulbous fungus which gave off a baleful glow. Brenner waded through the oily water to where Kharrn stood.
          “This is beginning to look like the tunnels from my dreams,” Brenner said.
          Kharrn said, “Perhaps we’ll find your woman’s shade soon. We must be in the dungeons the captain spoke of.”
          A high-pitched moan came wafting into the chamber from a doorway at the far end. Kharrn and Brenner sloshed across the room and found themselves in a low corridor. The moan came again and they followed the sound to another room. Both men stopped in their tracks at the sight that greeted them.
          The floor of the second chamber was covered in water as well, but the water was choked with heavy vines and roots. Near the center of the room a man hung suspended in air, held there by a network of limbs and branches that grew into and through his body. He was impaled in a hundred places by sharp limbs and questing vines. The man opened his mouth when he saw Kharrn and Brenner and another anguished moan escaped. Brenner could see small vines crawling about the edges of the man’s mouth. Crawling from within.
          “Gods above,” Brenner said. “Is this some tortured phantom or a traveler who wandered into this place?”
          “It doesn’t matter,” Kharrn said. “There’s nothing we can do for the poor bastard except grant him a quick death if he’s human.”
          As Kharrn stepped toward the man Brenner felt a sharp pain in his ankle. He jerked his foot clear of the water and found a thick vine clustered with wicked looking thorns wrapped around his leg. He felt the vine tighten and his foot was pulled back into the water.
          Other vines whipped up from the water, rearing like cobras. Brenner fumbled his sword from its scabbard and hacked at the vine around his ankle. The plant proved tough and fibrous and while he was trying to cut it another vine coiled around his other thigh and yet another wrapped about his left arm. Brenner gasped as the thorns pierced his forearm. In his mind's eye he saw a vision of himself trussed and impaled like the poor man in the room's center, dying slowly and horribly over many days.
          Then he heard a storm of curses and Kharrn's axe whizzed by, severing the vines that held Brenner's arm and thigh. In the weird half light, Brenner could see that Kharrn too had been attacked by the vines. Cut streamers of the hideous plants clung to him, trailing black fluid from their nether ends. The big man continued to cut and hack at each tentacle-like tendril.
          “Make your way to the other door!” Kharn yelled. “I'll be right behind you.”
          Brenner used his sword to hack his way past Kharrn. He could see a door on the opposite side of the chamber now and he could only hope that the room beyond wasn't filled with the plants as well. Out of the corner of his eye, Brenner saw Kharrn's axe rise and fall upon the skull of the pinioned man. Blood and plant matter exploded from the shattered skull. Then Kharrn was beside Brenner, his axe whirring. They passed though the door and while there were a few plants in the next chamber as well, they weren't as numerous, so that by the time they climbed out of the water onto a pile or rubble, there were only a few stray strands of the deadly plant crawling after them. These Brenner cut as they approached and the attack gradually ceased.
          Kharrn began tearing the remaining vines from his flesh, ripping free thorns and clumps of tendrils. Brenner said, “Thank you, Kharrn. Those things would have killed me.”
          Kharrn shrugged. He said. “You did well back there. Better than I expected.”
          “What did you expect?”
          “I figured you for a screamer,” he said. Then he grinned.
          Brenner said, “Believe me, my friend, if a few more of those things had gotten hold of me, you'd have heard plenty of screaming.”


          • #6
            Brenner looked around the chamber. It was bigger than the last two they had passed through and there were remnants of what looked like furniture scattered about in the shallow water. The glowing fungus wasn't as thick here and as Brenner's eyes adjusted to the light he could see dark, thin shapes hanging from the ceiling. For a moment he feared more of the hideous plants, but moving closer to one of the shapes he found it was a heavy, rust-covered chain.
            “Come on,” Kharrn said, stepping from the rubble pile. “I think I see some stairs in that far corner.”
            “What do you think this room was?” Brenner said.
            “Torture chamber,” said Kharrn. “What did you think all the chains were for? This wreckage here on the floor was once a pillory and there's what's left of a rack over there. I've seen a man's arms pulled out of socket with one of those things.”
            Brenner shuddered but he didn't ask where Kharrn had seen such a thing. He didn't want to know. When they reached the corner they did indeed find a flight of stone stairs leading upwards. With Kharrn in the lead they ascended the steps. The big man moved out of the stairwell with axe at the ready, but nothing moved in the corridor. Looking around, Brenner realized he had been here before. He said, “Kharrn, this is one of the places from my dreams. The chamber where I found Lenora should be somewhere along this corridor, I think. I could never keep track of direction too well in the dream.”
            “We’re getting closer to the source of this stench as well,” Kharrn said. “I was on a battlefield once, at the height of summer. The battle went on for days and no one could claim or bury their dead. That’s what this is like. A thousand corpses rotting in the heat.”
            Brenner nodded. His foot and arms ached where the thorns had stabbed him. He hoped the plant hadn’t held some poison in its thorns. He limped after Kharrn, who seemed oblivious to his own wounds. Whatever world in the Multiverse the big man came from, they grew true warriors there.
            The two men made their way through the twisting network of tunnels. Water dripped from the ceiling, making the floor slimy and treacherous. From his dreams, Brenner knew to stay clear of the filth-encrusted walls.
            “There’s a light up ahead,” Kharrn said. “It looks like torchlight.”
            Brenner looked past Kharrn to where a dim light wavered far down the corridor. As he watched it, something blotted the light out for a moment. Then yet another dark shape moved between them and the light and was gone.
            “There are things moving down there,” Brenner said.
            Kharrn said, “I see them. Keep your sword ready.”
            The light grew brighter as they neared the end of the corridor and Brenner almost wished that it hadn’t. In the flickering light he could make out misshapen forms. He recognized them from his dreams. They were the walking corpses he had seen before. The reek of putrefying flesh was overwhelming. Brenner felt bile rising in his throat as the dead things began to lurch toward him. He felt panic rising but he gritted his teeth and gripped his sword hilt so hard that his knuckles turned white.
            There were more of the dead things than in his dream and they were pouring out of the fire-lit chamber. Kharrn didn’t wait for them to reach him, but instead lunged among the walking corpses, hewing left and right with the great axe. Limbs and chunks of rotted flesh filled the air.
            “Try to get to the next chamber where we’ll have more room to fight!” Kharrn yelled. “They have the advantage in this corridor!”
            Brenner couldn’t help but be amazed at the giant. What had his life been like that he didn’t blink an eye at carnivorous plants or reanimated corpses? What must he have seen in his travels?
            Then the things were upon Brenner and he had no time to think. He began chopping his way into the mass of dead flesh. The creatures ignored his attacks, and moved relentlessly forward, claw-like hands grasping at his clothes and hair. Brenner cut and stabbed and tried to break through, but the weight of the dead men was too much. The stench of death was so thick that he couldn’t get a deep breath and he couldn’t even call out to Kharrn. He had lost sight of the big man and could only hope that Kharrn was still alive. There were just to many of the creatures.
            The dead men had pinned him to the wall, but they didn’t seem intent on killing him. Instead, once he became too tired to fight, they began to pull him toward the chamber beyond. Brenner half staggered and was half dragged into the room. He still saw no sign of Kharrn.
            It was indeed the room from his dream. The chamber was as he remembered it from before, with its vaulted ceiling and massive support columns. He wondered what purpose it had served when the fortress was whole. Not that it mattered, for now it served as the court of hell.
            Dead bodies were piled up in the center of the room to a height of six or seven feet and more of the walking dead milled about the pile. And at the very height of the gruesome mound, a bloated and nightmarish figure reclined on his throne of the dead. The Soul Eater.
            Its flesh was dead white and drooped in great rolls of fat. Its arms and legs seemed far too long for its torso and its head too large for its body. It had no nose to speak of, merely two wet, raw slits, and its mouth was incredibly wide, and full of what looked like hundreds of needle-like teeth. Small eyes of glowing red, set in deep sockets, regarded Brenner.
            The Soul Eater leaned forward. It didn't speak, but Brenner heard a deep, sonorous voice echo inside his head. It said, “You have come here in the flesh this time.”
            Brenner felt his stomach roil, partly at the appearance of the creature and partly because the voice in his head seemed to leave a residue, as if some noisome snail had trailed slime across his thoughts. He said, “I've come for Lenora.”
            “The woman,” the voice said. “Yes, I saw you speak to her. She is here, but you may not have her. I release none who I have claimed. But, you may join her once you are dead.”


            • #7
              Exhausted though he was, Brenner lunged forward, seeking to free himself from the grasps of the dead men, but they held fast. The Soul Eater raised one pale white hand and made a beckoning gesture. The corpse things began to drag Brenner forward. Merciful Gods but he didn't want to go any closer to the creature. His struggles were useless though, and the dead men stopped when he was just in front of the mound of mouldering bodies. Brenner noted a gaping hole in the floor behind the grisly throne. Was that what had become of Kharrn? Had he fallen in battle down into the dungeons?
              The Soul Eater leaned out until its face was mere inches from Brenner's own. He could see the pink and swollen gums in its fanged maw and smell its breath, worse even than the stench of the roomful of dead men.
              “You are afraid,” the voice said. “Good. Let me show you what fear truly is.”
              The Soul Eater reached out and touched Brenner's face gently, almost caressing him with its pallid fingers. Images and sensations flooded Brenner's mind. He was the man in the flooded dungeon, punctured and devoured by the carnivore plants. He was someone else, thrown into a furnace, burning alive and yet unable to die. He was another lost soul, every bone in his body crushed to paste, thrown into a pit of centipedes that crawled in his eyes and his mouth. And he was Lenora, buried alive, suffocating in worm filled earth over and over. He was boiled in oil. His flesh was flayed from his bones. He was a hundred times a hundred suffering spirits. Then he was looking into the red eyes of the demon again.
              “All of these tortures I will show you over the centuries and oh so many more,” the Soul Eater said, “You and your bride. But your suffering will be more exquisite, because, for at least a little while, you will still be alive. The despair of the living is so much sweeter than that of the dead.”
              Brenner felt a scream rising but he fought to hold it back. The witch had said that the Soul Eater fed on despair. Giving in to it would only make it stronger. He had to hold on to his sanity.
              “Now,” the voice went on, “How to kill you? It should take days I think. I'll start by having my servants break your legs and ankles so you won't try and escape.”
              Brenner felt his blood go cold. Again he struggled, but the dead men bore him to the ground and pinned his limbs. Another corpse thing shuffled up holding a large chunk of stone.
              “Slowly,” the voice said. “I want him to feel the joints grinding and the bones twisting and the marrow leaking.”
              The corpse raised the stone to strike. Then it toppled backwards as its leg was cut from under it by a two-bladed axe. The axe sang again as Kharrn leaped over Brenner and cut another creature from hip to thigh. Feeling himself freed, Brenner scrambled to his feet.
              “There was another?” the voice said. “Impossible. I should have sensed you. Nothing can enter my domain without my knowledge.”
              Kharrn grinned a savage grin and hefted his axe. “This weapon was forged by a master sorcerer in an age long lost. It hid me from your view.”
              The voice said, “No matter. I know of you now.”
              “Aye,” said Kharrn. “But do you know of this?” He held up a heavy book. The cover was made from some thick leather, now grimed by the ages.
              “Is that the Silent History?” Brenner said.
              Kharrn said, “No. Belaskus's book wasn't the history. But it is a grimoire of some note, written by the hand of the ancient necromancer Semethkar.”
              “That is nothing to me,” said the voice. “You are but another plaything. It will be wonderful to crush one as strong as you.”
              Kharrn said, “Will it, demon? I think this book is more to you than you realize. It was buried below this very chamber, the seat of your power, and once the throne room of King Belaskus. Have you ever wondered why your power is so great on this spot, Soul Eater?”
              “The suffering that occurred here over the years gives me my power, mortal.”
              “Aye, that's some of it,” Kharrn went on. “But the eldritch energies of this grimoire fed your own powers, granting you a hideous strength far beyond that of your kindred spirits. What would happen, do you think, were the book to be destroyed?”
              The Soul Eater's jaws opened impossibly wide and it screeched,this time with its true voice. “Kill them! I will take my revenge on their helpless spirits!”
              The corpse things began to shuffle forward. Kharrn lifted the ancient grimoire and grasping the covers, he ripped it open. The spine tore and the pages fluttered into the air. The walking dead things stopped and one by one they fell, melting into a dark liquid as they dropped. The Soul Eater's throne collapsed into a mass of foulness. The creature rolled in the slime and attempted to stand.
              “You see, I know of such as you,” Kharn said. “Your power should exist only in the lands of the spirits. You should not have been able to call the corpse things from their graves. That power was granted to you by the book of Semethkar.”
              “I will kill you myself,” the Soul Eater said, finally managing to stand. “And feast on your pain for eternity.”
              Kharrn grinned again. “Come on then.”
              The bloated creature moved with surprising speed on its long legs. It swung one of its clawed hands in a disemboweling arc toward the giant man. Kharrn sidestepped and chopped through the Soul Eater's wrist, sending one grotesque, long-fingered hand flying.
              The Soul Eater howled and struck with its other hand. Kharrn was knocked backwards and he lost his grip on the axe. The weapon skidded and fell into the great hole in the floor. The Soul Eater uttered a triumphant hiss and rushed forward.
              Brenner's sword still lay in the corridor where it had fallen. He caught up a large stone and hurled it at the creature's misshapen head. The stone bounced off the Soul Eater's skull and the monster turned and glared at Brenner. Then Kharrn slammed into the Soul Eater and man and creature were carried over and into the gaping hole.
              Brenner rushed to look down into the hole. The Soul Eater was on its back, but beginning to rise. Kharrn was already on his feet and he had regained his axe. On the floor near Kharrn's feet lay a pile of yellow bones topped by a broken skull.
              “Looks like the men who killed Belaskus split his skull for him, Brenner” Kharrn said. “Seems a fitting way for this misbegotten whore-spawn to go as well.”
              “You can't kill me,” the Soul Eater snarled. “I'll reform and return and in the end your spirits will be mine.”
              Kharrn said. “I think not. I did warn you about this axe. It can kill such as you as easily as it would split the gullet of any alley beggar.”
              The Soul Eater was still screeching as the axe fell on its skull. Then its form began to collapse upon itself, leaving a mass of thick, gray-white fluid.
              Kharn looked up at Brenner. “Can't climb up. I'll have to go around the long way as I did before. Damned dead men bore me down here the first time. Find your woman, Brenner. With the Soul Eater dead her spirit will fly soon.”
              Brenner nodded and turned to seek Lenora. But there was no need. She stood only a few feet away, her form already growing indistinct. Brenner hurried to embrace her but she was no more than a wisp of mist.
              “Thank you, my love,” Lenora said, her voice no louder than a whisper. “Now go back to life. I will see you again one day.”
              Brenner felt his face grow hot and the beginnings of tears stung his eyes. “I don't know if I can go on without you.”
              Lenora smiled. “You don't have to, silly man. I'm always here. In your memories and in your dreams. But don't let me catch you wasting your life mooning over me. There are other women who need so fine a man. Farewell, Brenner.”
              “I love you,” Brenner said. But she was gone. Brenner took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had done what he had come to do. Why did he feel so empty? He heard footfalls behind him and he turned to find Kharrn standing in the doorway.
              “Come on, lad,” the big man said. “I doubt this place will stand for long without Semethkar's magic.”
              “He must have been a powerful sorcerer for his magic to still be potent after all this time,” said Brenner.
              “He was a son of a bitch,” said Kharrn.
              “You knew him?”
              “Who do you think killed him?” said Kharrn.
              “But the captain said the book was already ancient when Belaskus's agents found it centuries ago?”
              Kharrn said. “Time doesn't work the same in all the planes of the Multiverse, but even in my own time line my search has carried me through the centuries.”
              “Then that's how you knew of the Soul Eaters.”
              “Aye. And like many, it thought me some mindless savage. I was raised in the hills of the northern lands and once I was just what the Soul Eater thought me, but I have seen much and learned much in my quest. I know far more of dark sorcery than I ever wished to.”
              “Well your knowledge saved me and Lenora's spirit. I can't begin to thank you.”
              Kharrn slapped Brenner on the back. “Speak no more of it. We're comrades now and comrades have no need of such words. Now let's get back to the dark ship. The captain promised me wine and the gods know I could use it.”

              The End


              • #8

                This is the sort of thing that's only interesting to people who like to know where stories come from. Feel free to skip it. I love stuff like this and always look forward to reading the notes in the back of collections by writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.
                I'd had the basic premise for this story kicking around for a few years, ever since hearing the Evanescence song, Wake Me Up Inside. There's a lyric about a girl's spirit "sleeping somewhere cold, until you find it there and bring it back home." I thought that a haunting image but I'd just never had the proper vehicle to use it. When we decided the Dark Ship would be one of the story ideas for this years challenge, something clicked. Many times Mike has said that one person's dream is another's reality, so I thought, maybe a guy is having dreams that his recently deceased wife's soul is imprisoned somewhere and maybe the Dark Ship can take him to where she is. The title leaped to mind immediately, and I started thinking about tone and plot. I decided I wanted this story to be as much horror as sword & sorcery. A nightmare on paper.
                I find it's helpful when writing short stories to write a synopsis of how I think the story will go. I'm free to change it as I write, but it gives me a basic form to start with. This is what I hammered out. Note that I even stuck a possible opening line at the bottom of the synopsis.

                Sailing to Darkness

                Brenner is tormented by dreams of his dead love. She tells him that her spirit was trapped on an island along with many others by a being that survives on the despair of trapped souls. He begins to realize that they aren't just dreams. Then one night he dreams he is standing on a strange shore and a weird ship made of Dark wood comes close and someone beckons him aboard. The captain tells him that yes, he is in a dream, but all worlds are dreams of one sort or another and in this dream he can take Brenner to where his late love is imprisoned. Brenner agrees to go, but he wonders how he will rescue the girl's spirit. The captain tells him that help will be provided. On another shore they find a warrior.
                Arriving on the island, Brenner and his allies head for the only structure, a broken fortress, but they are attacked by dead things or demons or something. They fight their way to the fortress and must pass horrible nightmarish things to reach the center chamber or throne room. Here Brenner is offered a chance to stay with his love, or to fight to free her and then return to the waking world and lose her forever.

                Lost in a dream he could hear her screaming.

                Reading back over this I see that the main change was at the end. The Soul Eater turned out to be far less reasonable than I'd originally imagined so he didn't offer Brenner any choices. Also there's no mention of the wise woman and there are other minor changes, but basically the story is what I originally came up with.
                I also hadn't planned to use Kharrn, the hero of my 2009 challenge story in this one, but I needed a warrior type so why reinvent the wheel? This raises the question of whether this story takes place before or after The Silent History. My guess is before. I'd like to think that Kharrn and Vanessa are still living happily in Victorian England. For now.

                Last edited by Thongor; 07-29-2011, 02:32 AM.