Chapter 18 – Eldritch and twisted

The passengers stormed through the lower deck of the ship. Those lucky enough to survive the hook’s assault fled from their lodges. Their screams and cries filled the lower floor. In their eyes was only one destination: the exit leading to the upper level, to the outside, to freedom and safety under the moonlight.

That was their first mistake. From the upper deck, passengers stormed. Screams and cacophony emerged from both directions. And as the passengers saw the masses fleeing from the opposing side, their subconscious realized there was no escape.

But would that stop them? Of course, it would not. One of mankind’s hallmarks was its refusal to die – to deny, struggle, run, and – once cornered – to fight. Against odds and logic, basic instincts, no civilizations could suffocate, kicked in, and controlled their minds in an intoxicating hormone rush. The two sides collided, and their feet stepped through the streams of water gushing out of torn rifts in the metal. In their fright, the passengers kicked and bit. They pushed, tackled, punched, and trampled over those not strong enough to endure the flood. All to access a false sanctuary they couldn’t reach in the first place. An endless stream of refugees and obstruction in the middle led to a blockage. The leaking water began to take a crimson hue, as bodies splashed in it.

A crashing boom overshadowed all noise the chaos inside the deck made. The passengers froze in their actions and turned their attention to the source.

Altera had raised her partisan like a scepter. To direct the attention of the masses, its head pointed towards the ceiling. Millimeters away from her position was a frozen area the size of a kicker table. Icicles hung from it, while more ice closed the leaks in the metal.

“Everyone. Please listen to my voice.”

The eyes of the refugees shifted from the ice to the deep voice. Grendel stepped forward. His pupils narrowed to a slit.

“I know you are all scared.” His voice rang in their ears, sweet and reassuring, like a father cradling his infant child. “But there is nothing to fear. Just listen to my voice, and I promise you, nothing will cause you harm.”

Grendel smiled. His eyes shone in a violet electric light, luring them like moths to the candlelight. All the while they followed the movement of his lips. “I promise you will be safe. Nothing will cause you harm. Just listen to my voice. Be calm, and there is nothing to fear. Help each other, do not fight, and stay put.”

They repeated Grendel’s words. It took seconds until his speech had seeped into their minds, and they understood his words. They were logical. If they followed him, they would be safe.

“I promise you there is nothing to fear,” Grendel said again. His voice had found a rhythm: A melodic pendulum that might as well be a song. “Come with me, and we will survive. Nothing will cause you harm. I promise. Come, and you all will stay alive.”

The refugees stood still, awaiting orders. With his hand, Grendel pointed at the direction towards the main hall. “Please go that way, and don’t rush. You all will be safe. Attend to everyone in need of help. Do not cause harm. Once you see that others have gathered, stop, and stay still. Wait until I come. Do not move unless I say so.”

They started to walk, calm and orderly in a homogenous mass like an ant colony primed towards one signal.

“I’ll admit that parlor trick of yours is quite a handful,” said Altera. She looked back to the walking mass. “The ways one could misuse this ability are plentiful.”

“Hey, it’s not…” Grendel wanted to protest but backtracked. “Yeah, okay. It’s a parlor trick. But don’t worry, I only use it for the pursuit of justice.”

“Didn’t you use your eyes to dodge paying the fare?”

Grendel was silent. It took him a moment to find a rebuttal into which he put all the vigor he had. “A mere step that leads to greater justice in this world.”

Altera was unimpressed.

“But anyway. How did you know I use my eyes?”

He had a point. Altera wondered how she could’ve known his power was vision-based. His ability felt familiar. She didn’t know why and pondered if they had crossed paths before. That couldn’t be the case. She would have remembered. It was hypocritical coming from her, but Grendel’s appearance was unusual. She could count the number of young people with grey hair on one hand, and violet eyes weren’t a common attribute either. But for now, it didn’t matter. Even if she didn’t like him, he didn’t come across as a villain who would misuse his power. It might be arrogant, but her instincts were usually right when judging the morality of others. She wasn’t in a position to criticize him either. Had she not remembered his ability, and had he not agreed, a blood bath might have ensued, and the guests would have continued to block the passage. It was luck that they had encountered him back at the pier.

Altera had no opportunity to answer because Ragna and Eric arrived.

“Everything’s clear,” said Ragna. “All remaining passengers in the lower deck are safe. They’re all in the main hall.” She pointed at Grendel. “And his friend is getting rid of all the tentacles and closing the leakage.”

“Then let’s go to the upper deck. Whatever is attacking is outside.”

“I’m staying here,” said Grendel. “Gotta keep an eye on the passengers, or the hypnosis will wear off.”

Altera nodded in affirmation. “Please take care of any newcomers. And thank you.”

“Don’t. That’s is the least I could do.” His face became serious. “I wish I could help you. It’s just my gut feeling, but whatever is out there, it’s an abomination.”

“I worry that you are right.”

Altera ordered her companions to move, and the three ran upwards.

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As they arrived, all three displayed the same expressions. Their faces petrified in light of the horror they saw. Blueish green arms – as thick as skyscrapers and as twisted as the vines of ivy – slammed against the wooden platform of the cruiser. At times, their metal surfaces reflected the moonlight, and at times, its flesh squeezed and squished like suction cups when it rammed against the ship’s façade. Their hook-like appendages scarred its metal hull. The passengers on the upper floor – too many to save them individually – screamed in terror and tried to escape downstairs. The tentacles coiled around anyone too slow and dragged them into the bottom of the sea.

They begged and screamed and prayed and cried, and the only question that remained was: What would their sentence be? The streams of water and salt flooding their lungs? Perhaps the increasing pressure of gallons and gallons of water that would explode their bodies? Or the circles of foul teeth tearing them apart? Like the trap of the antlion, its fangs protruded from the waters. Left, right, up, down, in front of them, and from behind – sludge oozed out of the monster’s arms. Any surface it had contaminated, it used to expand like an oil film. It dripped from the tentacle’s pores with the intensity of a falling anvil.

“J…Just what is that?” Ragna’s knees wobbled. Her eyes reflected the forest of tentacles that had emerged from the water. Like snakes dancing in the moonlight, they struck without hesitance or mercy.

“We are fucked.” Eric gulped and buried his head deep in his hat. His eyes narrowed, and he formed a smile wide enough to show his teeth. “Compared to that, the Forest God was just a fawn.” Eric laughed. “I can’t believe I am saying this, but this might be the Twisted.”

Ragna shook her head in disbelief. “Are you serious? That thing from the temple records?”

When they had searched for an exit and explored the temple, they also studied its documents and scriptures. Several texts spoke about the gods of the other societies. Ragna couldn’t remember them all, but some like Ymir had stuck with her. The temple scholars had respected most of them, or they were either indifferent or scientifically curious about the other religions. There weren’t many creatures that caused fear and hatred in them, but two did. One was the “God of Destruction” – Nucklelavee.

The other was a creature with no name. Only the now-extinct Sea People dared to worship it, and the scholars weren’t even sure if it was a god or a titanic monster, so they called it just the Twisted. A sea-dwelling creature swimming between the border of this world and the void. With its million twisted arms, it would drag everyone who dared to leave the land into the endless void where their souls would wander for all eternity, and one would wish it had eaten them.

“Can you think of a better explanation?” Eric pointed towards the opulent arms that would dwarf any sea creature the people of Aes knew – which, given how unexplored the deeper parts of the seas were, was a relatively small number.

“B…but that…”

“After the god at the temple, everything’s possible.”

“Myth or not.” Altera drew her partisan, and an ice block encased one of the tentacles. “That thing in front of us is real. Eric, teleport the passengers to safety and help Grendel in case his hypnosis stops working. Ragna, come with me. We have to drive it away. Follow my lead, understood?”

Eric and Ragna nodded.

“Be careful,” said Eric, and the three separated.

The arms slammed against the ship, crushed the metal, and ripped holes into it, as debris crushed the people under it. Altera summoned a wave of ice shards. She used her rune and accelerated towards its appendages. The shards crashed into the metalorganic texture and fell into the water. Altera’s thorn stakes grew from the edges of the ferry and shot into the tentacles. Small streams of liquid escaped the flesh. The creature didn’t flinch or make a sound. Altera grimaced. Had she more surface area on the reels, she could have increased the number of stakes and dissected the tentacles. As it was now, the damage they dealt to it was like trying to empty an ocean droplet by droplet.

Altera materialized a javelin made of ice. Its surface reflected the target as an amalgamation of smaller pictures. She threw her weapon, but the hook attached to one of the neighboring tentacles moved in front of the other. Acting as a shield, it blocked the attack. The javelin shattered, and its pieces dropped into the sea.

Altera spread her wings and flew into the sky outside the tentacles’ reach. Trying to ignore that every second she spent up here, was a second she couldn’t protect the guests, she observed the situation and the ferry. Time seemed to slow down for her, as all the facts she could pick up raced through her brain.

They had to bring hundreds of civilians into safety – number dwindling and all scattered around the ship. The monster had backed them into corners, trapping them with its arms. If they ran, it would grab them. Was it playing games, using them as bait, or guarding its food? How could she save them all and defeat the monster? Eric was able to teleport around and rescue guests and slow down the tentacles, but he couldn’t get to everyone in time.

Altera looked around. About 500 sailors were in key locations including the control room. Their numbers dwindled too. As official sailors, the Captain’s crew was part of the Vikings. So, they had access to firearms. To defeat the monster, they had to coordinate strategies. Her eyes searched the deck, trying to spot the Captain. He should have created a plan on his own. She should talk to him, gather intel on the logistics, and adjust her own plans. The Captain should already have contacted Veil for Air Support. So, they could arrive any minutes.

Altera had found the Captain. He fought at the ship’s center against an arm, trying to rip the MS Verne apart. Ragna was there with him. She summoned a wave of water, covering the tentacle. The arm froze immediately, and Ragna shattered it with her saber, as her seax clashed against a metal hook. Altera beat her wings and descended.

“What’s the situation?” she asked as she landed.

“Just gimme a sec.” The Captain loaded his gun and shot a bullet into the tentacle in front of them. It ate into its flesh, ice leaked out of the hole, and covered the tentacle’s head. Before the monster could do anything, Altera had summoned a stake and dissected the arm. The frozen head fell off, and its innards rained down on the ship as black rain.

So, it was weak to ice. She had an inkling when one of the hooks tried to protect the flesh from her javelin, but to see it confirmed was another matter.

“Don’t celebrate just yet,” said the Captain.

The amputated arm retreated into the sea. But where one tentacle fell, two others rose their heads and emerged from the water.

“That thing may be a wuss in the cold.” Before the arms behind him could grab his body, the Captain, without looking, shot four bullets into their heads – one for each tentacle. Again, they froze, and Altera’s thorns amputated them. “But with so many arms, it can afford to lose a few dozens or even a hundred.”

“We cannot fight that thing forever.” Altera threw a wave of icicles at a tentacle that slithered on the ground like a snake. “Eventually, it will destroy the ship. Have you contacted Veil already? When will Air Support arrive?”

“I did a while ago.” The Captain said. “But for some reason, they still haven’t arrived. I tried to contact them again but there was no response.”

“Did something interrupt the connection?” Altera threw a javelin into the tentacle. “Even if the support was delayed, they should at least respond.”

“It was complete radio silence. Either that oversized ink-dispenser had found a way to jam our signal, or there’s something causing trouble over there,” the Captain said, shooting another round of freezing salvo. “I don’t know what the problem is, but it seems reinforcement won’t be coming. We have to manage without it.”

Altera grimaced. Having Air Support had been their best bet. Without it, their chance of survival had gotten lower than it already was.

The captain smiled. “Don’t worry, I have a contingency plan. Believe it or not, but the ol’ Verne has a few aces in her sleeve.”

“Sounds like there’s a “but” in that plan,” said Ragna, parring a hook with her blade

“There is. The tentacles are jamming the tubes and preventing the torpedoes from launching. We can’t attack them from the torpedo room, so someone has to remove them from the board side.”

“So, one has to dive right into the tentacles. That’s suicide.”

“I’ll do it.” Altera widened her wings. “Ragna, protect the passengers at all costs.”

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The waves began to slam against the ship as well, trying to make it tilt and the passengers fall over. Rain started to pour. The waves had found their master. Under its command, they grew into tides and banged against the ship. Over and over. They washed away those not strong enough to grab a hold.

Humans had thought they could conquer the sea. But at this moment, it was apparent who the true sovereign of the sea was. Humanity was ever so eager to control what they didn’t understand, to prove superior over the nature that surrounded them. And as the humans lost control, they remembered the unknown, the things they could not explain. Their minds revived the instinct that urged them to understand the unknown in the first place.

Fear ran through their spines. Cavemen facing the dark of the night, animals in the tight clutches of the shadow of death, like insects crawling through one’s skins. Some stared into the storms on the horizon, not moving an inch. Broken dolls who stopped functioning, who saw no point in it, ready to become one with the sea.

But not everyone. Fear – for some, it’s a disease or an animal hounding them, and for others it was the drive to progress, to go beyond, and to fight.

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At the Verne’s board side, Altera flew and eyed the first torpedo tube. A tentacle had coiled itself around it and stuck its hook into the hole. She covered her partisan with a layer of ice and accelerated her speed. Lowering her altitude, she attacked the arm. The moment the frozen weapon came in contact with the monster’s flesh, ice invaded the metalorganic tissue, freezing the tentacle’s frozen head. She summoned her thorns. They pierced the frozen pieces and fell into the sea alongside the rest of the tentacle.

Good. She had freed the first tube. Only one remained.

But new arms rose from the water and tried to grab her. The arm writhed around her. Altera attacked with her partisan and cut through it. The arm retreated into the water. Three more tentacles appeared in their stead. The arms beat like wings in the hope to crush Altera beneath the weight of their hooks. With the grace of a circus artist, Altera circumvented them all.

Rain splashed against her face, and the waves grew stronger. With each movement, the sea reached for Altera, trying to swallow her whole. And every time, their masses were about to pulverize her, Altera turned up the power of her runes to their maximum capacity and jetted through the waves. She zapped into the sky; The tentacles followed her trail and as they were catching up, Altera’s flight grew erratic like the movements of a snake. The monster’s arms imitated her, and they all soared into greater heights, their dance creating the image of a double helixes. Eventually, the arms caught up to her. One, two, three, four…ten arms at once presented their hooks, their surfaces reflecting her image.

Did it think that she was a threat it couldn’t get rid of through mindless attacks?

Altera swung her partisan, freezing and cutting off any tentacle its winged diamond head touched. Rain and liquid soaked her hair and clothes. The arms that managed to avoid her weapon, targeted her, but the Orichalcum blocked all attacks. The ensuing impact caused a clang, stunning the hooks, and Altera amputated them as well.

She inspected her clothes. Impressive. Not a single scratch. Even that monster couldn’t chink an armor made of pure Orichalcum.

Altera smiled and dashed towards the second torpedo tube. Now was not the time to celebrate. She had an objective to fulfill.

New arms surfaced and started to chase her or black her way. Altera flew around them in a slalom, but there were too many. They attacked her from all directions. Rotating her weapon, she cut through as many as she could. The numbers didn’t dwindle. New arms appeared and latched on to her. They grabbed her at her legs, wrapping around her naked flesh, and dirtying it with ooze. Altera shuddered at the cold sensation that touched her body. She shot ice at the arm and dissected it, but a new one replaced it. And a second, and a third. They all coiled around her legs.

“Let go. Of. Me. Motherfucker.” Altera gnashed and tried to get rid of the tentacles. She struggled and pulled her legs, but even with her runes, she couldn’t destroy all of them. Instead, they coiled around her arms. In a reflex, Altera opened her palms, and her partisan fell out. Her eyes widened in horror, as her weapon sunk into the water.

No. Without it, she was helpless against the monster. There was no surface area for her to summon her thorns. She had to summon her weapon back.

Another tentacle wrapped itself around her neck. It pressed against her windpipe. Altera gagged, and the arms dragged her into the depths of the sea. Her vision grew dark. There was nothing she could see. Water got into her nose, ears, eyes, and mouth before she was able to close anything. Her eyes and ears burned, and the taste of salt made her body wish to vomit. The tentacle’s pressure increased.

Nonononononono. Please no. She didn’t want to die. Not like this. Please no. She had to get out. She had to get out. Now. She had to get out now. Or she would die. Now. Everyone would die. She had to protect everyone. Everyone. If she died…No. Everyone she had to protect. Out. If she didn’t get out…

Her mind displayed the same words in an endless loop, merely rearranging their placement in an illusion of normalcy and variety. Altera’s movements became frantic, and without realizing, she activated the Hagal rune. But she couldn’t use it, and the monster wouldn’t let her out, dragging her further down. The water pressure increased, the burning intensified. Her lungs burned.

She wanted to breathe, but she couldn’t. But it hurt. It hurt, it hurt, it hurt so badly. The water, the monster, the salt, the lack of oxygen. Everything hurt, hurt, hurt. Please, she wanted to breathe. Air… She needed air. But if she did she died. She couldn’t die. Everyone would die. Nonono.

Fear, desperation, and panic infested her mind, and her thoughts grew out of control: The burning, the water pressure, the desire for air, the nausea. And every time a new sensation razed through her body and brain and brought her closer to death, her runes would activate. Their usage intensified alongside Altera’s death struggle. But there was no way she could utilize them. They reached out for Altera’s mana, unable to convert it. And as it built up, and Altera’s mind was on the verge of breaking apart, her subconscious released it all at once.

The tentacles froze within an instant. Altera’s wings beat at a velocity they had never reached before, and the water that surrounded her turned into a whirlpool. With a speed that not even a jet could reach, Altera charged out of the water, tearing away the frozen tentacles, and crashed into the ferry, ripping a new hole into its coating.

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How did I do that?

Altera emerged from the debris she had created. She was in luck. Her armor had protected her, and there were only a few bruises on her face. Immediately, she vomited the water she had swallowed. Her clothes clung to her like a second skin and were damp and heavy, dripping with every step she took.

She looked around. Her vision was blurry, but she could see that everyone was occupied with the monster and didn’t notice her crash landing. It didn’t matter. She had to fulfill her objective. She walked towards the board side. Unable to make out her surroundings, her steps resembled the walk of a drunkard. She might trip at any moment. It didn’t matter. She had to move forward.

The first torpedo tube was still free. Perhaps the monster’s focus on her had not allowed it to retake it. But the second one was still an issue.

Altera closed her eyes. Her head hurt. A white noise buzzed inside her, hammering into her brain. She had to ignore it and concentrate. She could feel it. Most of her Mana was gone, but there was enough to continue to fight, and she could feel the runes she had engraved on her partisan.

Thank Twice, it was still within her reach.

She activated the runes. Ice covered the partisan’s head, and it spurted out of the water, levitating towards her. Her breath became heavier.

Unlike her ice constructs, controlling her weapon without direct contact required much more finesse, control, concentration, and mana. It wasn’t something she wasn’t keen on doing, but it was preferable to losing her weapon forever, and it allowed her to remove the tentacles from a distance.

The partisan cut through the arms and flew into Altera’s hand.

“Mission complete.” She smiled and summoned a bird construct, which she sent towards the Captain.

A boom erupted, and torpedoes flew from the ferry into the water. Where they hit, fountains rose and fell like rain. The water froze and transformed into ice sculptures connected to a platform of ice that floated within the sea.

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In the distance, they heard a scream, and the arms strengthened their grip. They shook and destroyed, tearing the ship further apart. The MS Verne didn’t give up either; its canons fired relentlessly.

“Just a little bit more.” The Captain widened his arms like a priest praying to the sun. Following the movements of his arms, the sea split, and all the passengers stared at it.

Obsidian eyes floated everywhere, glowing in the light of an inferno. Circles of teeth desired to tear – ragged and crooked, positioned in a recursive pattern. One, two, three…No tens, maybe hundred until they disappeared in a soaring dark void where no light could ever shine through.  Arms stretched out for the visitors like a carpet. A jungle of tentacles, orbs, and ragged circles had grown from the abyss. The sea was supposed to be open for a second; One second that allowed the humans on the ship to see a fracture of its form.

A second that stretched into infinity.

They had to go. Into the circles. They had to go. It was where they belonged. It called. Come. Come. Come to me. They had to go. It looked so beautiful. These circles of teeth. To be pierced by them. They would tear through one’s flesh and bones. Don’t you want to hear it? Is there a greater joy than to be swallowed by me? To become one? They had to go. They had to go. Go.

Shattering Grendel’s hypnotic commands, the passengers began to move. To it. It called. Closer and closer. Their minds distorted. Something had transformed every thought and mixed it with this new instinct. With its voice. It made so much sense. They had to go. It was wonderful. Baptizing. A new life had started.

Yes. New. All these unnecessary thoughts were gone. Who needed to think about anything else? There was no reason. Just listen to my beautiful voice. One step after another. Why should they not follow? The weak followed the strong. They had to go. To the sea, to its mouths, to its arms. To it. That was natural. That was good.

All would be one. You would be one with me. No boundaries. No separate consciousness. Let me think for you. Isn’t that easier? So, come. They had to go. They heard and answered. Come. Yes, they would. Come. Come. Come. Yes, please. Just wait a little moment. Just a little bit until they were there. They couldn’t stop. Not now. They had to go. They had to g-

It stopped. A javelin made of ice was sticking from one of the orbs. Altera breathed and coughed. She drummed against her breast and stared into its numerous shining eyes. Illuminated by the moonlight, it truly had a grotesque beauty. She was gazing into the endless abyss of a gem, and for a moment, the abyss gazed back.

More, she could not notice, as, in that same moment, the ferry shot a beam. It traveled the open path and connected with the beast. A white gleam erupted a mist of ice. Within an instant, the creature was frozen. Every single eye and arm – no matter how far from the core creature – turned into ice. The sea merged and became one again.

Altera couldn’t believe her eyes. It was common practice to enchant weapons with runes. But an entire ferry took decades of practice at least – and Mana reserves she couldn’t imagine. This was power and experience that could easily rival a Captain. She wondered, just who was the ship’s owner?

She shook her head and ousted the question from her mind. She could think about this once they were all in safety. As powerful this attack was, it was unlikely that the creature was dead. She looked at the sea. Cracks started to build on the frozen tentacles that stuck out of the water. It would break out soon. They had to leave immediately.

Thorns rose from various parts of the ship and separated the frozen arms that were still clinging to the ferry. At that same moment, the Tyr rune on the flag began to glow. Both parts of the broken ship quacked as if they were the epicenter of an earthquake.

What was now going on? Altera rammed her partisan into the ground, hoping that the floor was sturdy enough.

“Dear passengers.” Out of the ship’s loudspeakers, a female voice spoke. “Please hold onto something solid. Things will get turbulent because we are going to lift.”

Altera’s face turned white and blue, full of shock and disbelief. “Don’t tell me they are using the Fehu rune too. This is madness.”

“This. Is. The Captain.”

The Captain laughed. Not even thinking about holding onto something, he embraced the wind blowing against his face and folded his arms. He stood like a figurehead as the ship’s two halves levitated into the sky far outside the reach of the tentacles.

They torpedoed past the monster, and slowly – as the runes didn’t lose their power at once, but over time – they descended back into the sea and touched the water in the only manner a dissected ferry could.

In other words, they still crashed.

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