Dropping a round of drinks upon the table, Grum glanced around at his crewmates. A grin on his face assured the others that they were in for a treat.
“I suppose you’ve got a story for us?” asked Samantha with a playful roll of her eyes.
“Ai, smart girl!” Grum’s expression lit up. “An’ it’s a good one too. This one’s true!”
“Is it the story about how Tiberius got that scar?” asked Clay, drawing that infamous wound across his face with a finger.
“Oh! I know!” beamed Samantha. “It’s the story about the enchantress from Helios! Did she ever return your letters?” she teased.
“Heh heh,” Grum slowly chuckled, revealing an incomplete set of front teeth. “Apologies admiral, dearest lady Samantha, but I’em afraid ye ain’t heard this one,” his burgeoning grin igniting his rough features.
“This ‘ere is, The Night of the Slunk!”
“A ‘slunk’?” questioned the unconvinced Clay. “What’s a slunk?”
“The slunk ain’t a thing so easily described, ye see. But ma story is true, fer I know all ‘bout the beast.”
“Oh, is that so?” said Samantha as she adjusted herself a bit. Despite her obvious doubt, it was clear she was eager to hear this tale.
“’Tis so. Ye see…” Grum began in a low voice, leaning in close to the spellbound figures. He cracked his thick knuckles and cleared his throat. “It all began on a dark, cold, night. The mighty crew of the Jackfoot went in teh the mountains of the Hoganmar, never teh return. Ye see…”
The Night of the Slunk
Years ago, at the end of the Antifordian revolution, a light airship known as the Jackfoot set out on a mission to patrol the furthest west region of the Hoganmar to search for possible dissenters rumored to be in the uncharted area. However, by the time they reached those white caps, night had long since fallen.
With a clouded evening sky and no moon to guide them, the crew soon found themselves lost between the deadly peaks that threatened to slice the ship’s hull in two with every turn of the keel.
Captain Olyn Greenfeld had been flying the region and guiding vessels through the treacherous terrain for years, but he could not continue the fruitless search with such low visibility. It was no small upset when the captain reluctantly commanded the eight-gun skiff to land.
It was a steep descent past those shadowy crags, but the Jackfoot was able to secure a safe landing atop the broad summit just as the full weight of the darkness and cold bore down upon the crew. Chills dug deep into their bones, but the crew disembarked and began to tie down the ship.
“Yuli!” called out first mate Halix as he trudged through the deep powder skirting the hull of the ship, the howl of the harsh mountain wind shunting his voice. “Is the mainline secure?”
“Aye Halix!” Yuli called back as he returned to the ship. “But ya think it’s safe up ‘ere? I couldn’t a see a dtruva if ma life depended on it!”
“You really worried Yuli?” Halix laughed with confidence. “What sort of chanka would be up here!?”
Yuli tried to smile back, but that unseen world past the reach of the lanterns bore the man no comfort. He didn’t dare show it, but deep down Halix had the same uneasy regard of the black unknown.
Halix motioned to the mooring line and Yuli grabbed hold before dragging the thick rope out towards the edge of the faint light around him.
“Ya really think these rebels are up ‘ere?” asked Yuli as ran the rope around his arms.
“Nah,” Halix shook his head. “But it’ll make that new commandant of the baron’s happy if we lose a few digits to frostbite shoveling’ snow off the deck for a few days. Don’t worry your pretty little head though. We’ll be back in Antiford in a few days with nothing worse than a hungry crew. You’ll see.”
Yuli wasn’t as convinced as the first mate, but he took the man for his word before marching out across that vast white terrain with a hundred pounds of rope unraveling in his arms until he reached the edge of the lantern’s glow.
“Hey,” Djur muttered over the wind towards Irit and Greyson as the two men finished lashing down an anchor. The Vibranni looked about to make sure no one else was watching. “What do you guys think? This crazy or what? I mean, way up here? Why can’t we set down in the desert and then climb back up here tomorrow?”
“No idea,” Irit sighed as he cleared the snow that had accumulated on his goggles. He was a lot smaller than the others were, but they respected him for his good nature and eagerness to lend a hand.
“It’s nonsense,” Greyson added with a grumble, hard-headed as always and eager to blame others for his miseries. “No ones up here. The captain just wants to impress the new regime. I say piss on them.” Greyson spits hard, his saliva turning to ice before disappearing through the hole it made in the snow.
“Come on Greyson,” said Irit. “It’s not that bad. Maybe we’ll get medals for this, a commendation or something.”
Djur shrugged when Irit looked to him for support. Djur was the only Vibranni aboard the ship, but the crew had always treated him as an equal. Just the same, he wasn’t expecting much recognition. Rewards from the top didn’t come too often to his type.
The Vibranni looked out to the swirling wind and stood there almost mesmerized by that foreboding darkness. He would have kept on staring had it not been for Irit tugging at his sleeve.
“Huh?” Djur turned back with a blink.
“Check on Lorrin,” Irit replied, clearing his goggles again. “See if he needs a hand.”
“Yeah, right,” mumbled Djur as he tried to collect his thoughts, soon wandering off through the thick snow in the navigator’s direction.
Yuli looked down at the snow around his feet. He could almost make out a solid line in the snow where the light from the ship ended and the emptiness began. Despite the several feet of rope remaining, Yuli stood there debating if he should go any further than the light would allow.
“I’ve never seen a night like this,” Yuli whispered to himself as the vapor rose from his dry lips. “If I stick my hand out, will it still be on my arm when I pull it back in? Will I touch a black wall?”
“Hurry up Yuli! We ain’t got all night!” called Halix still back by the ship.
Yuli turned his head to hear the words over the whistling winds.
“YULI!” Halix shouted so loud that half the men outside the ship heard him clearly and took notice. Out at the very edge of the darkness around them, Yuli now lay face down in the snow.
Halix sprinted across the snow and dove to the ground. He lifted Yuli up, held the man in his arms and desperately tried to bring him back to consciousness.
“Yuli! You alright Yuli!? Speak to me!” Halix barked in anger and worry. The men who had heard Halix’s cry soon swarmed all around him, pistols were drawn as they surveyed the area as best they could. As they squinted and stared, none of them could see anything but blackness beyond the flickering veil of the dim lantern light.
“Quick, let’s get him back to the ship. Irit, Greyson, tie down that line and be careful for skret’s sake!”
Three of the men, Halix included, rushed the lifeless body back to the ship as Irit and Greyson took up the line and plotted out where to stake it. Had they paid more attention, they might have noticed the odd markings in the snow.
The lanterns inside the hull blew out as the men hastily swung the main hatch aside. In the dark, Halix dragged the body of Yuli down the stairs with only his years of experience aboard the ship to guide his every rehearsed step.
Halix didn’t need to see the table was within the medic’s bay to know where it was. He guided the body onto the sturdy wooden planks and blindly guided the other men to do the same.
“What happened?” asked Dr. Pritchard, a faceless voice until another sailor relit the lanterns.
“Don’t know,” Halix panted, clearing the sweat from his brow. The other men took note of this. It wasn’t like the first mate to be nervous. “I was watching him tie down the line and then suddenly it looked like he was struck by lightning! He jumped into the air and just as quick he fell down flat on his face.”
Pritchard nodded as he listened, turning on a series of machines. Steam whistled through them as they came to life. Needles, blades, and calibers swung about, each with its own unique function.
The doctor took hold of a thin implement attached to a bending mechanical arm. He then began to gently probe along the body. Using his free hand, he tenderly inspected the unconscious man’s vitals.
The rest of the crew that had followed the first mate inside stood there watching in suspense. Halix didn’t even have it in him to order them back to work just yet. This was a strange territory and all of them were feeling a gut fear of the unknown.
“Hmm, this is really odd,” said the doctor as he finished his preliminary inspection. “I can’t seem to find anything wrong with the man. I would say it was a shock to his system, but that would be an understatement and I have no idea what could have done it. I’ll have to run a few more tests. Have Irit come down here, I’ll need a second set of hands with this one.”
Halix nodded and then ushered out Djur and Lorrin to fetch the medical assistant, neither of them hesitating long before rushing back up the stairs towards the deck.
“Think he’ll be alright?” asked Halix, a look of sympathy in his old eyes.
“He’s breathing. It’s really shallow, but he’s breathing,” replied Pritchard with a sigh. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure.”
“Alright, let me know if anything changes,” Halix nodded. “I’m going to inform the captain and get this cursed thing moored even if I have to do it myself.”
As Halix nearly reached the deck, he suddenly heard screams and cries coming from outside. The first mate bolted through hatches and leapt over the side of the ship. His fearless nature failed him as the color began to run out of his face at the sight of the men in the distance.
Six men were struggling to hold down another as they pinned him to the ground. Red snow filled the air around them as the pinned man’s arms flailed about wildly. Beside the huddled mass, a pool of blood and a motionless body.
Halix rushed across the snow to the men. First, he checked on the body, finding it horribly mutilated before shifting his attention and staring dumbfounded at the sight in front of him, Greyson snarling and gnashing at the men holding him down.
Halix decided the dead body must have belonged to Irit by the first aid kit attached to his belt, though the face was unrecognizable. Wasting no time, Halix opened the kit and slipped out a particular syringe before driving the needle forcefully into Greyson’s outstretched neck. The man howled before succumbing to the injection. As he went under, Greyson seemed to stare out lifelessly at something in the distance. None of the men could see anything in that black abyss.
“What!?” was all Halix could gasp out as he stood there catching his breath, towering over the winded men.
“Sir!” replied Emit. “We was finishin the moorin and we sees Greyson here attackin Irit! We ran over fast as we could I swear it, but Greyson already had Irit on his back. It was like the man didn’t even put up a fight! Like he just…just…laid there and let Greyson do away with ‘im! I…”
Emit cut himself short and turned his head to vomit.
“Tie him up!” shouted Halix, retaking command. “And find me our damned captain!”
The first mate marched back to the ship, determined to stop the nightmare that was only just beginning. The rest of the men worked hard to lose their fear in the focus of their work. If any man wasn’t already afraid, they simply hadn’t heard what happened yet.
“Halix!” called up Yor’fon, the ship’s steward, from below the deck in his thick Kuu accent. “Pritchard’s looking for you! Says it’s urgent!”
With swift resolve, Halix leaped through the hatch once more and hurriedly pushed his way past the nervous, idling crew.
“Get back to work you sons of balls!” he barked at them. He knew pushing them to work, showing his own his strength, would only get the men so far, but the first mate knew fear brought on panic and that was the last thing he needed in a situation like this. He needed them alert and ready for whatever happened next.
“In Ghlynor’s name!” Halix stood there stunned in disbelief as Yuli sat upon the table looking rather surprised himself.
“He just…woke up!” Pritchard said motioning to the way Yuli was sitting.
“Yuli! Is that you in there!?” Halix gasped, moving in close as he tightly grabbed hold of the sailor.
“Aye! It’s me!” Yuli replied as he brushed the hands aside. “I’m fine! I just need a second to remember what happened is all.”
“Well?” asked Halix standing back a little, grabbing a rag and clearing a chilly layer of sweat from his face. “What do you remember?”
“I was standing there, holding the line and just looking out past the light,” Yuli explained. “It’s crazy, you know? Beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Then…then I saw this…I guess, shape, coming at me. Fast too. I tried to move, but I felt like I was weightless, like I wasn’t touching Orr no more. Just sorta floatin there. I tried to call out for help. Didn’t you hear me?”
“Nobody heard a thing,” the wide-eyed Halix replied.
“Well, I’m floatin there see, and whatever it was, it was coming at me, then I saw lights, but they weren’t normal lights. Yellow lights that cut right through me.”
Yuli started to shudder uncontrollably. His heart began to race in his chest and he was clearly starting to look very uncomfortable. Pritchard readied a sedative just in case.
“I thought I was dead for sure as they grew brighter and that’s when it…jumped on me.”
“It jumped on you?” interrupted Pritchard.
“Yeah. It landed right on my chest,” Yuli said pointing to his coat. “Pinned me down it did and then jumped right off again like it had better things to do.”
“Did you see where it went?” asked Halix with urgency.
“Nah. Barely even saw the thing. I can’t even tell you what it looked like. Just those eyes. It was like a blur and then everything went black. Lights out. Then I was here.”
“Well, you scared the life out of us,” Pritchard smiled. “Glad you’re okay.” The doctor patted Yuli’s shoulder and then turned to the first mate.
“Can I see you outside a moment?” he asked. Halix didn’t skip a beat and went right out of the room with the medical officer, quickly closing the door behind them.
“He’s telling the truth,” Pritchard surmised, as Halix grew more concerned. “I checked his coat after you left. There’s clear evidence of something hitting it hard, tore it up pretty good too and for the life of me I have no idea how we missed it before.”
Pritchard rubbed his chin in contemplation. Halix took the moment to take a breath and consider their options.
“Could it have been some sort of native animal?” Halix asked. “A vex? It wasn’t a balagore, was it? It would’ve torn him to shreds on the spot.”
“No, no,” Pritchard replied shaking his head. “A vex would be too small to have knocked him down like that and balagore are pretty rare these days. No, this is something new.”
“Why the unconsciousness?” asked Halix.
“I did notice some fine pricks along his neck, but they were shallow, like light scratches. I’m running some tests now, but I can’t say anything for sure, not until…”
“Stop him!” a voice suddenly called out from the deck.
“What’s happening now?” asked Pritchard as he moved towards the hatch.
“Irit was killed,” Halix replied, pulling the doctor back. He listened closely to the muffled noises from outside.
“What?” gasped Pritchard. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he added growing angry. “What happened?”
Halix swiftly turned back to the doctor and tightly grabbed the man’s coat in his hand before shoving him against the wall.
“What’s done is done,” Halix commanded in a hushed growl. “You couldn’t have saved him, and right now I got one good man still alive and probably infected with something and another one gone completely mad. I need you to focus on the living understand? We can worry about the dead later.”
Pritchard winced but nodded. “You’re right,” he sighed, “but it sounds like we better get out there though. The tests will take care of themselves.”
“Lock him in there,” Halix huffed, pointing to the medical bay.
“Just do it!”
Pritchard barred the hatch as Halix made his way above deck. “I said to tie him down!” yelled the first mate. “And find me that damned captain!”
The six men from before were surrounding Greyson in the snow on all sides as the crazed man stared back at them with eyes of fire and madness.
“Why isn’t he tied down!” barked Halix during his hasty decent back down into the snow.
“He was,” whimpered a pale-faced Lemit. “He tore his own arm off!” Lemit was on his knees covered in blood, struggling to make sense of it all.
Pritchard stood there dumbfounded, his mouth hanging open as he looked at the man in the center of the broken circle the men had formed around him. Blood down his side, Greyson tromped back and forth on two quivering legs and flailing his severed arm around at the others as if looking for a hole to escape. Though they had him surrounded, the men were far more afraid of him than he was of them.
Greyson fell to Orr with a lifeless thud. Halix stood there with a smoking pistol, his face showing no signs of sympathy.
“Toss his body far away. I don’t want to see it,” Halix grumbled to the startled men.
“Wait!” cried Pritchard as he approached. “I want to inspect him first.”
“Then do it there,” Halix said coldly. “I don’t want whatever that is on my ship. It isn’t Greyson. Not anymore.”
Pritchard jumped down from the ship and rolled the body over in the red snow, hurriedly checking for any signs of the marks he had seen on Yuli.
“It’s not here…” the doctor mumbled. “Nothing is here. Where is his arm? I want to see it.”
Djur caught his breath and pointed out the limb which had flung loose when Greyson fell, staining the snow nearby. Pritchard dove upon it and quickly tore the sleeve off. Using a handful of snow he cleaned the blood from the flesh.
Pritchard found a series of small punctures all along the arm.
“Halix! You’ll want to see this,” he said.
Halix made his way to the doctor, barking at the frightened men and pushing them to get out of his way. “Get that body out of here!” he shouted, pointing to the lifeless corpse.
“What is it, doctor?” Halix then whispered, stepping to the side with the doctor and the arm.
“These puncture wounds, same as on Yuli only these ones actually penetrated the flesh. The wounds I saw on Yuli were only faint scratches. I think...I think this is how it attacks, whatever it is.”
“It’s a slunk,” whimpered a trembling and cracked voice from behind them. They all turned to see Greenfeld standing there holding his pistol to his head.
“Captain!” choked Halix. Pritchard instinctively pulled the first mate back. The captain pulled down his own collar to reveal a series of familiar punctures along his neck.
“I’ve killed us all,” the captain moaned as his eyes welled up with tears.
“We’ll help you,” Pritchard replied nervously as he extended a guiding hand towards the distraught captain. “Just…put down the pistol and…”
“No, I’m already dead,” Greenfeld shook his head, his words now garbled between sobs. “I didn’t think they were real, just stories. You can’t feel them, you can’t see them. You don’t even know they’re there. By the time anyone’s noticed, the toxins are in your brain, turning you into…into that.” The captain nodded to the lifeless body of Greyson. The gun began to shake as if some invisible hand was trying to wrench it from the captain’s weakening grip.
“You need to get them out of here Halix,” Greenfeld pleaded. “Sail these men home, if they aren’t infected already. If they are…I…I trust you know what to do.”
Pritchard jumped back as the captain’s body collapsed to the ground.
A deathly silence fell upon the area. The remaining crew stood there staring at Greenfeld with the only sounds being the creaking of the ship and the howling winds heralding their fate. The sound of a man crying broke the tension and the crew began to grow restless with fear.
“Are you sure Yuli isn’t infected?” Halix asked Pritchard though his eyes were rapidly scanning the crew.
“He isn’t showing any of the same signs,” Pritchard quickly answered. “He may have only received a light dose of the neurotoxin, but I’m not sure we should take the chance.”
“I’m not sure we can afford not to,” Halix grimly replied. “We’re going to need him. Check on him, but take a pistol with you just in case. If he seems all right, I need him to man the deck and get this thing in the air immediately. I’m not waiting around to see what happens next.”
Pritchard didn’t question. He took the pistol from the captain’s lifeless hand before climbing back onto the ship.
“In the air, now!” commanded Halix turning back to the men rushing up to him for answers.
“What’s going on? What happened to the captain?” asked Emit with desperate fear in his voice. Halix backhanded him hard across the face, nearly knocking the man to the ground.
“I’m the one giving the orders now and I say you get your ass back on that ship! If you don’t want a hole in your head too, I suggest you listen and do your job sailor!”
“Aye captain!” the remaining crew responded and hastily made their way back aboard the ship without hesitation. It was the captain’s job to keep the crew from panicking in a time like this, but that wasn’t the only reason they were so quick to obey.
Djur cut the mooring lines and the ship was ready to lift off in record time. Hearts pounded in the chests of the crew as they did all they could to escape the horrid fate that the darkness devoured below.
Yuli eventually emerged from below and made his way towards Halix manning the helm. The new captain took the sailor aside and spoke rather quietly as the rest of the crew raised the Jackfoot into the moonless sky.
Halix handed Yuli a heavy blunderbuss. Though the very thought of encountering the thing again filled him with fear, Yuli was experienced enough to turn that fear into something else entirely. A method of dealing with the fear as Halix had already been doing since he first saw Yuli fall in the snow. He was betting on Yuli to do the same.
“Stay focused. Eyes sharp. See anyone below deck, send them up here. If you see what you saw out there, do not hesitate, blow its head off. After a quick search, I want you to wait in the medical bay. If anyone goes in there that isn’t me or the medical officer, I want you to kill them. Understand?”
Yuli had no reason to doubt his captain and he nodded obediently. After what he’d seen, he wasn’t about to question the captain’s motives. He disappeared below the deck just as Pritchard was coming back up.
“Doctor,” Halix called the medical officer to him. “I want you to make your way around the crew. Tell them you have to inspect them for frostbite or something and check for any of those marks. If you see anyone with them, send them down to the medical bay, understand? Don’t go with them, just send them down and tell them to wait patiently inside.”
Pritchard pulled a rag from his coat and cleared the sweat from his forehead as he nodded his response. The plan was clear having seen Yuli’s cold expression just moments before, but the doctor understood it was an evil that had to be done.
One by one, the doctor took great care in inspecting the entire crew. On occasion, he’d find the mild frostbite or the wound vaguely resembling the creature’s mark, but with each crew member, it seemed that no other man had been infected.
The loud snap of the lines and the occasional crack of wooden planks caught the doctor’s attention and put his head on a swivel, quickly looking around the ship with nervous tension only to find the place calm and almost serene now that danger was seemingly far behind them.
Pritchard blinked, smiling in astonishment as he inspected the last man and found no signs of the wounds. With a sigh of relief, he made his way back towards Halix as the tension left his body.
“Well, I guess we got away just in time,” said Pritchard looking at the captain who had his hands on the ship’s wheel. His eyes seemed rather distant as they stared out into the dark void.
“Halix?” Pritchard asked as the terror suddenly rushed through his flesh once more.
As the moon’s light sliced through the thick clouds above, it shone upon the captain and the creature clawing and slashing at his back.
Pritchard gasped in terror and began to reach back for one of the crew only to find himself grasping at empty air. He turned to look for a nearby sailor but wasn’t able to see any of them now. The deck was now bare, devoid of anyone else but the doctor himself. It was only then he realized his biggest mistake, he had forgotten to check himself.
Reaching to his neck, right away he recognized the feel of small open wounds upon his flesh. His heart began racing, already knowing it was over. Pritchard tried to think of what to do, but his body denied his mind’s commands. The doctor screamed at the nightmare consuming him, unable to see the blood on his hands or the knife in his trembling grasp.
Pritchard’s vision was fading as Yuli emerged onto the deck. Yuli quickly aimed the gun at the doctor. It was soon over after that.
“Captain!” Yuli trained the gun upon the barely visible creature and fired without hesitation. The slunk reared up and snapped its fangs at the sailor before leaping off and diving through the air towards the deceased doctor.
Yuli fired again. The blast of lead ripped through the creature and sent it flying across the deck towards the scattered dead sailors. Yuli had seen the blood on the doctor’s hands, but there was no mistake. It was the slunk that had killed them all, butchered the crew. It had played with their minds and devoured what parts it wanted. The crew of the Jackfoot never realized the slunk had eaten them alive.
The slunk shrieked with an ear-piercing cry as its black blood splashed across the boards. Yuli hurriedly began to reload, but the creature was already running up the deck away from him. When Yuli finally raised the barrel to take aim, the slunk was gone. It had simply vanished as the clouds captured the moonlight once more.
“We can’t take this back with us,” mumbled Halix, a hard cough bringing blood to his lips.
Yuli nodded solemnly, accepting their fate as the weight of the dead around him emptied his soul of any desire to see home again.
The Jackfoot would collide with the mountains in a ball of flame, sending splintered segments of the hull all across the Hoganmar and burying the dead and the horrific tale with it.
Some say the slunk is still out there though, maybe even more than one. After the Jackfoot went down, sailors of the Hoganmar began telling tales of the evidence still out there. They say they’ve seen sailors launching into unexplained madness after prolonged periods in highest reaches of those mountains. Sometimes it’s mindlessness, and other times it’s fits of sudden rage and wild aggression. After the psychotic spell has worn off, a close inspection often reveals small little punctures on their flesh.
Grum finished his tale and looked up at the many new faces which had gathered around, all staring at him with bewilderment.
“Wow Grum! That was brilliant!” a young cabin boy exclaimed, almost jumping from his seat. Clay smirked, cleared his throat and huffed a brief chuckle. Samantha blushed and crossed her arms, turning her head as she tried to hide her own amusement.
The rest of the crew gather their composures and wandered back toward their posts with whispered comments to one another.
“Aye, thank ye!” Grum laughed with a cheer.
“Wait just a sec,” Samantha interrupted, stopping the celebration early. “How do you know about the slunk if everyone aboard the Jackfoot was killed?”
“Ai, I never said they was all dead now, did I?” Grum replied with a devious grin.
“Pirates off the starboard!” shouted a voice from above deck, the admiral disappearing in a flash to take action.
The cabin boy shifted nervously. He looked up as a large hand landed heavily on his shoulder.
“Time to write our own adventure lad,” Grum chuckled.