Palaemon
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The triplet suns shone warmly over the coastal city of Jabhan, their golden light spreading like fresh paint over the clear, infinite canvas that was the sky, its bright blue mirrored by the greenish and aquamarine depths of the sea below. Not a single cloud was visible on the horizon, and a calm wind blew from the west, gently guiding the sails of many a wandering ship to safe port. The world was at peace, and not even an act of the gods could disturb its tranquility. The same, however, could not be said of the people.

It was a busy day on Jabhan, for though the sky and the sea were calm, the toils of man had not stopped for a second. Being the largest hub of commerce in the known world, and the only land settlemet in nearly five-hundred leagues, it was only predictable that this should be so.

All across the ports of the island city-state, sailors readied to venture out to sea, or returned from a night of challenging the watery depths. The markets were crowded to the point of bursting, merchants bellowing the quality of their wares from exotic lands. At the docks, ships of all shapes and sizes, from modest skiffs to armored titans, unloaded their cargo or simply rocked peacefully, caressed by soft winds and tranquil waters.

Seabirds cawed and scavenged whatever scraps they could find; men sang songs and ballads of old; children frolicked and laughed, their minds filled with tales passed on from the mouths of drunken sailors. Life was good and the sea was gentle.

It was not to last.

The suns were just leaving their zenith when a multitude of voices began carrying a cry of terror through the island, as merchants and sailors scrambled to dock their boats and hide their wares. The children's laughter had been replaced with screaming and crying, and even the birds had fled to the skies as the day's peace crumbled. Fear had taken hold of the island like an invading army, and dozens of heart sank low as the people of Jabhan realized how the horror had manifested itself.

The Turquoise Baroness was a ship known far and wide on the ports and coastal cities of the Nhaer ocean, both for its beauty and its speed. The flagship of the Dulmet Merchant Fleet, it was an enforcer of peace and order on the high seas. With six rows of cannons on its gunports, it had little to fear from pirates and corsairs; even the monstrous beasts from the deep avoided it whenever its shadow passed the water's surface. What, then, could ever hope to damage it in such a brutal fashion?

The ship's main mast was broken and hung precariously from what little of its structure still held together; the foremast was completely gone. Burn marks, some of them still scorching, soiled the Baroness' aquamarine paintjob. Half the cannons were missing and the captain's cabin had been crushed into nothingness. A fire burned on the crow's nest and the lifeboats' remains still smoked. Not even the figurehead had been spared, its head torn off with great force, undoubtedly swallowed by the sea.

In many ways, it was almost like seeing the corpse of a ship, barely kept afloat by whatever foces still animated its carcass. And still, it moved. The once-magnificent ship sailed towards the port, limping like a cripple missing its crutch. Despite the damage, the wind still pushed the Turquoise Baroness's sails. At its current speed, it would reach Jabhan in less than half an hour. Panic reigned as the people wondered if the dying ship had been followed by whatever had wounded it, and if they would be the next to suffer the bane of whatever wrathful gods, monsters or men had made war on the Baroness.

Eventually, with the island on the brink of mass hysteria, the elders of Jabhan assembled a small task force of men to intercept the Baroness before it reached port. Under the watch of a thousand pairs of nervous eyes, the sailors ventured into the sea, where the doomed ship had yet to stop its advance. Minutes felt slow and heavy as the men reached the corpse of the Baroness and climbed inside like little more than wretched pirates, off to search for any survivors or clues about the grim fate that had befallen the turquoise ship.

In the hours that followed, tension did nothing but grow. The people of Jabhan, though reassured by their elders that all would be alright, felt restless even after the Baroness had stopped on its tracks, the sailors having anchored it in place. The suns had already began their descent back into the depths of the sea when the expedition returned to the coast, faces bearing grim news for the island of Jabhan.

Lit by the dying light of day, the sea almost seemed like it was made of blood, the men on board the returning boats little more than heralds of oblivion. The look-outs on the island quickly spoke of what they saw: On one of the boats, a figure laid still, stiff and barely breathing, covered in tattered, bloody garments. From the way the men treated it, it looked like it could barely cling to life; a survivor had been found.

Curiosity proved mightier than fear, and the people of Jabhan gathered on the beach as the sailors carefully unloaded their finding: the man was skeletal, famished to the point where his bones threatened to pierce his thin, pale skin. Dehydration and hunger had ravaged his form, and he looked so frail that even the slightest fall would undoubtedly shatter him. His torn clothes had once been worthy of a captain or first mate, but they were now so damaged that they did little to hide the infected, leaking wounds that covered the man's body. A long, scraggly beard appeased some of the face's hopelessness, but the eyes screamed tragedy and horror. This, thought the sailors and people of Jabhan, was a man who had seen hell in the flesh.

The sailors hurried the dying man to the elders' palace, where he was given milk mixed with honey for his thirst… and a sip of rum for his soul. The corpse man from the corpse ship then told his tale and, though the elders sought to keep his words as secret as possible, the tragedy that had befallen the Turquoise Baroness was soon known through the entire island.

The man claimed to be Meval of Goem, first mate of the Turquoise Baroness. Having been tasked by the Dulmet Empire to seek new trading routes and islands to conquer, he and the crew had come across a strange archipelago in the eastern reaches of the known world, a small group of islands whose sands were the brightest shade of red. The clear waters of this place seemed tinted with crimson, like blood flowing from a freshly carved wound: even the strange, twisted trees that made up the forests and the beasts that lived in it seemed to have been coated in the same bright color.

On this mysterious archipelago, the crew of the Baroness had found a ruined temple, with signs of having been recently sacked. The ancient grey stones with which it had been erected, the only trace of a color other than red, were carved with runes that none could read. The fossilized corpses that littered the central altar indicated that sacrifices had once taken place within, but unto what god or demon they had been made, no one on the crew could tell. It almost seemed like something was missing, something that had once presided over the temple's altar and the devotees that prayed in it. Whoever had looted the temple had taken more than just a few ancient artifacts: they had taken the one who was worshipped by the long dead inhabitants of the Red Archipelago.

The men of the Turquoise Baroness implored Meval of Goem and the captain to leave that place, for though no god or people remained on the islands, they could not help but feel like they were being watched. It was, they said, as if an ancient rage still loomed over the islands, waiting, observing. Meval of Goem, after some consideration, agreed to convince the captain of leaving as soon as possible. After resupplying, the Baroness set sail and departed from the Red Archipelago, never to return.

No sooner had they left the crimson islands, however, when the crew was attacked by pirates, who undoubtedly sought to plunder whatever cargo they could from the famed ship. In the ensuing battle, the Baroness crippled its rival when she forced them to crash into a nearby sandbank. The cannons soon reduced the pirate ship into an unrecognizable carcass, and a small force was sent to seek any survivors to execute and any plunder to claim.

And indeed, plunder they found, though this time it was different from any gold or treasure the men had seen before: in the depths of the ruined ship, they found a glowing, pitch black statue shaped like a half-human god. It glowed ever so slightly, a faint light that allowed just enough clarity to gaze at its detailed sculpt: Its eyes were beady, polished orbs, as bottomless and black as the sea's abysmal depths. A coat of scales, wet and fishlike, adorned its lower half, though its legs were those of a man. Instead of a left hand it had a strange, crab-like claw, sculpted so intricately that it almost looked like it was made of flesh, rather than cold, dead stone.

The statue, as large as a man and thrice as heavy, was carefully loaded onto the Baroness, whose crew, including Meval of Goem, thought of presenting it to the Empress as a sign of their claim to new lands and trading routes. Whatever magical properties it may have, the Empress' mages would undoubtedly find them fascinating. This, thought the men, was their claim to true glory. They loaded it like vulgar cargo, like another coffer about to burst with gold and gems. This they did with a song on their lips, though in their hearts, something had began churning, a feeling of unease brought about by the statue, whose grotesque visage they had tried to ignore, even as its eyes pierced their hearts and minds…

The Baroness spent three more weeks exploring new, uncharted parts of the sea, before beginning the long way back to port. With the wind on their sails, Meval of Goem calculated, they should reach the island of Kebre, the nearest dry-land settlement, in one week. His mind was tranquil as the sea itself, for he knew they had more than enough food and fresh water to last until they reached Kebre. A peaceful end to a hardy journey, he thought. With how easy the sea had been recently, and with triumph nearly in their grasp, Meval of Goem almost forgot about the black statue hidden away in the bowels of his ship… almost…

The week passed and Kebre did not appear on the horizon. All that laid before… was the sea. The captain and Meval were baffled. How could this be? Had they miscalculated the time of arrival? The direction on which they were sailing? Impossible! Both men and their crew had lived most of their lives at sea, so much that they could find the way towards any port with barely any navigational instruments. Something was amiss, and the crew grew restless as the captain informed them of what had transpired. For now, they would have to ration the food and, most importantly, the water, until their predicament had been solved. The only way now, thought both Meval and the captain, was forward.

Another week passed, and the situation did not improve. Though the rationing of food and water had succeeded on keeping the crew healthy, their spirits were anything but calm. The endless expanse of the sea was maddening, they said, for though they had often meditated on the apparent infinity of the oceans, they knew that this was but an illusion: all things have their end. But this… this was something else, something unnatural and otherwordly.

Restlessness turned to anxiousness as another week passed and the Baroness seemed no closer to shore. Supplies had began to dwindle, and no crewmember held any hope that they would last for another week. Despair had began to take hold.

Meval of Goem, in the meantime, had began hearing rumors from the lower decks. Murmurs circulated through the crew that a few sailors had began praying, not to any god they had known before, but to the thing that had remained locked away in the depths of the ship: the black, glowing statue of the strange god. Its glow, so heard Meval, was maddening to look at, but in that madness there was freedom, freedom from the hopelessness of the shore that never came. This behavior, Meval and the captain decided to tolerate: if it allowed the sailors distraction from their predicament, perhaps it was best to leave it unmolested. Tough days still awaited them.

Four more days passed and food ran out. The situation was getting truly desperate. At this point, they should have at least come across a small island or another ship. None of that had appeared to them in all this time. Sailors resorted to eating the animal specimens they had collected in their journey, and even the rats that crawled in the lower decks. None wished to think about what would be necessary next if they did not reach port.

Feverish dreams took hold of the crew. Those most famished spoke of visions and voices emanating from the statue; they said that in its glow they saw the promise of being one with the sea, free of any need of dry land or material want. Some sailors began sacrificing drops of blood to the statue, letting them drip over the god's mouth, hoping that it would show them mercy. Rumors began circulating that some of the most religious crewmembers wished to enact a sacrifice unto it, an offering of flesh and blood and bone to sate the thing's dark desire.

A sailor by the name of Yvan became a sort of high priest for the god. He claimed to speak with its voice, and promised much the same the crewmembers had seen in their dreams: eternal peace through the sea, apotheosis through sacrifice. He was the first to sacrifice his very life for the statue, convinced that his newly found devotion had bought him paradise in the afterlife. His corpse was dumped into the sea the very night he killed himself, and the statue's glow grew brighter.

Not a day passed since Meval heard of Yvan's death when two other members of the crew went missing. A search found nothing of them but two mangled corpses, flayed and spread before the black statue, whose glow seemed to grow more intense with each minute it remained soaked in the sailors' blood. Horrified and enraged, Meval and the captain had those who worshipped the statue whipped and thrown overboard, left to drown in the infinite sea. Why he did not throw the very statue overboard at that moment, he himself could not answer. Perhaps, he thought, with this demonstration of authority, those who still felt like praying to the statue would think twice before allowing themselves to devolve into fanaticism.

He could not have been more wrong.

That night, forty of the men mutineed and tore the captain apart, his limbs, tongue and eyes strung into a makeshift necklace and placed around the statue's neck. It was, they said, an offering of flesh and salt and water for the dark god of the Red Archipelago.

Meval and the rest of the crew seized these fanatics and beheaded them before throwing the corpses overboard, though his men suffered many casualties during the battle and he himself barely survived the ordeal. The next day, however, his mind was made: the statue was the source of their troubles, and they would see to it that it sank beneath the waves.

Easier said than done: when Meval and the remaining crew tried throwing the black thing into the depths of the sea, they found that none could move it. None could lift a finger against it. Meval cursed and spat and stomped the floor in anger, and even tried to blast the thing with a cannon, all to no avail. It was almost as if they were entranced, incapable of destroying the entity that had cursed them to never reach shore.

Two more days passed and the water finally ran out. The ocean remained calm, infinite.

Three crewmembers of the thirty remaining hanged themselves in the galleys. A fourth one blew himself up, along with half the Baroness's powder magazine. A fifth member was killed by two others over scraps of food, and Meval himself was forced to shoot them when they came for him next. Hunger and thirst took many others: one by one they fell, lifeless lumps cast into the sea. By the end of the month, only Meval and six others still stood defiant against the curse that had befallen them, intent of surviving for as long as possible.

For the next two months, the seven remaining crewmembers, Meval included, drew lots for whomever would be killed and eaten, his blood drank to stave dehydration. Sometimes, the unfortunate sailor would resist, resulting in the deaths or wounding of additional crewmembers, who were then murdered and consumed in stead of the actual loser. Meval himself managed to survive this way in the two occasions his name was drawn, until only he and two others remained.

The next month, Meval murdered his companions while they slept, their bodies finally giving in to fatigue despite the risk that meant closing one's eyes. He subsisted on their rotting corpses for nearly another month, until even the bones had gone dry. He then began cutting off parts of himself, prostrated before the glowing statue of the dark sea god, the cruel tormentor who had turned his voyage into a nightmare.

First, he lost his little finger, swallowed in one gulp. Next, the ring finger. Next, the middle one. So on he went until he had no more fingers left, and what remained of his left foot went down his throat, barely able to sate his hunger. And then he continued. More and more flesh disappeared, his drive to survive fueling his own mutilation. The black statue of the god simply stared, silent, unmoving… watching…

Hurt, disoriented, famished and dehydrated, Meval dreamed of the black statue talking to him. Whether these were merely dreams or the actual voice of the dark god, he did not know or care, but the voice remained clear and terrible in his mind.

The god spoke of the abyss and the calm it brought. It spoke of the darkness and the peace of the ocean, of the graceful, monstrous things that inhabited the most oppressive depths. Its words were soothing as much as they were terrifying, for they were the words of oblivion, words that told of a time before light, before the creatures of the sea ventured onto dry land. The god tempted Meval to join them, to return to the crushing calm of the sea. It mocked him for his weakness, for his desire to return to land. Meval could do nothing, nothing but lay still… and wait for death.

Meval did not know how many days or weeks had gone by as he rested, curled up and barely conscious, in the bowels of his once glorious ship. Fires had broken out due to the damaged powder magazine, and he had hoped to be consumed by one of them, or starve to death. Anything would be better than sinking into the depths, into the domains of the cursed god thing that observed him with its cruel, beady black eyes. When the men of Jabhan finally found him, he silently cursed the black statue, even as his mangled form was lifted from the filthy, stained floor and taken aboard the boat towards salvation.

Thus, Meval of Goem concluded his tale before the horrified elders of Jabhan, before imploring them to sink the Turquoise Baroness and the cursed statue that still blighted its belly. With that, he let out his last breath and, as the suns finally disappeared beyond the horizon, he expired on dry land, away from the cruel ocean that had been his hell.

The elders of Jabhan, still shocked by the dead man's revelations, raced outside and ordered the Turquoise Baroness be sunken into the black maw of the ocean, along with the accursed idol it carried. Two of Jabhan's best ships were sent towards the corpse of the Baroness, cannons ready to blow the ship and its baleful god into oblivion.

What followed, no one knows, but one thing is certain: the Turquoise Baroness is no more. Its crippled, maimed form was swallowed, swallowed by the very ocean it had once dominated, off to depths of the abyss. Gone is its aquamarine silhouette, tainted by the suffering of two hundred men.

What none can assure, however, is the fate of the statue, the dark visage of the half-man god. Though believed to have gone down with the ship, news came to Jabhan, many months later, that an archipelago of red sands, located far away in the eastern seas, had been declared off-limits by authority of the Dulmet Merchant Fleet. The sailors that passed near it, they said, heard nothing, not even the cawing of birds or the ocean rocking against their ships.

The silence, painful and primordial, was only overshadowed by the sight of the red islands. There, fashioned from primitive grey rocks, a temple stood, its innards lighted by no fire. At that distance, only a dark shadow contrasted by an unnatural glow was visible within. The god, it seems, has returned to its temple and, through its silence, beckons.

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