The sea had been lapping against the shore of the Hook in a lazy, placid way, undisturbed by the elements after three days without a trace of a breeze. All that changed the minute Mander charged into the waters for his bath, ratty tunic and all. At first, it seemed as though the sudden churning of waves was no more than the result of the disturbance of his body, but as the old man sunk down into the waters up to his neck, the agitation of the waves about him only increased. To Ein Sof and Ericious, who watched with puzzled faces from the shore, it seemed as though the ocean was attacking their new ally, trying to pull him away from the surface and down into the murky depths below.
Mander seemed oblivious to this antagonism, though, scrubbing his face and armpits while whistling a jaunty tune. When he was finished, he walked up onto the shore while the waves crashed against him in a final attempt to dash him to pieces. He approached the other two, dripping, with a broad smile on his face.
"Much better," he said, wiping the salty water from his eyes, "Shall we?"
Ein Sof narrowed his eyes at the strange hermit. "I begin to worry that your presence on the ship might upset the other sailors."
"What's the matter?" the old man asked, "They don't take baths?"
The musician turned to Ericious and shrugged. The frail young man just blinked back at him. What a strange group we three make, Ein Sof thought to himself. And on the shoulders of men like this rests the fate of the Iatkosi? It seemed like madness, but he had long ago learned that the divine could work in strange ways. He would have to trust in his god and press forward.
"Right, then," he said at last, resignation in his voice, "Let's head out."
There was very little conversation amongst their party while they journeyed back to the little shanty town and the docks. Ein Sof adjusted his harp so that it rested more comfortably against his back, vaguely wishing there was time to play a song or two to calm his mind and help him find focus. Ericious moved his fingers restlessly, lost in his own mysterious thoughts. And Mander seemed preoccupied with feeding Meraxes, who was now perched comfortably on the old man's shoulder.
As they neared the collection of shacks, Ein Sof began to have an unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach. There were far more people milling about than earlier, and they seemed agitated. Once the distance was closed, it became clear who was the center of the disturbance.
"There he is!" the fat tavern owner yelled, and the mob of fisher folk turned to look in the direction of his pointed finger.
At the musician's side, Ericious flinched and looked as though he might run, but it soon became clear that the finger was indicated Ein Sof himself and not his shifty-eyed companion.
"Said he's too good for my beer!" the fat man roared, and the others hissed in the direction of the offender. They had surrounded the three companions and were now effectively blocking their path back to the docks.
"Really, is this necessary?" Ein Sof said impatiently, "I said I didn't want any beer, why are you making such a big deal out of it?"
"Look, here, you foreign bastard," the tavern owner said, speaking loudly so that all could hear, "My beer is the best brew on this island, and that's a fact!"
The musician looked at the man levelly. "It's the only brew, isn't it?"
The man turned red in the face. "That's not the point! I will not accept an insult to my famous beer. You are going to drink this --" (he produced a full tankard) "-- and you are going to tell all these good people of the Hook that it's better than anything you have in your backwards little country you scurried here from."
"That's not a good idea," Ein Sof said.
"It's what's going to happen, or you're not going anywhere," the man insisted.
"You wouldn't like me when I drink." A bead of sweat trickled down Ein Sof's neck as he tried frantically to come up with a graceful way out of this. Not now. Not this. Anything but this.
"I don't like you now!" The crowd laughed at the fat man's rejoinder, then began to chant "Drink! Drink!" over and over with manic insistence.
The musician eyed the two at his side. Ericious had crouched into a defensive ready position, like he was preparing for things to get violent. Ein Sof wondered if the man had any combat experience. Unlikely, he reasoned. The man seemed too sickly - a street orphan, no doubt, and an admitted troublemaker, to be sure. He'd probably seen some street scrapes and brawling, but a far cry from the discipline of a professional soldier. Still, he wouldn't go down without a fight, and he'd probably fight dirty. I pray it will not come to that.
On his other side, Mander was regarding the crowd quite calmly. Ein Sof noticed many of the locals were giving the old man a wide berth, but the hermit himself seemed unperturbed. He flashed the musician a slightly irritated shrug, one that said, "Well, what are you waiting for?"
Ein Sof sighed again. Just a sip, he said to himself. Just enough to make the fat man happy and end this before things get ugly. Nothing will happen. It won't be enough for me to loose myself. I can keep the visions at bay... I hope. He took the tankard, and the crowd cheered in victory, then grew silent to watch. The musician brought the brew to his lips and, hesitating only briefly, let a tiny swallow flow down his throat.
At once he knew he had been wrong. The warmth of the alcohol seeped into him almost immediately, and instantly Ein Sof could feel the immense pressure of divine weight that, in his soberness, had been hidden from him. The spiritual realm was seething in this land, and before he could summon his will to prevent it, the trance, his gift and his curse, seized him.
He was being pulled up, far up into the sky, away from his body, where he could see the flat seas being held still by a power far greater than anything he had imagined....
Ericious was busy watching the crowd for signs of an attack; mobs could get unruly quickly, as he well knew. He'd turned plenty of crowds into mobs himself, when occasion demanded. Because he was distracted, though, he was one of the last to notice the strange change coming over Ein Sof. It was only when he saw the pale, slack-jawed stares of the locals directed at something behind him that he grew aware enough to turn around and see what was happening.
The foreign musician stood perfectly still, his hands at his sides, having dropped the tankard to the ground. His face seemed to glow with an intensity that almost burned, and the fat tavern owner before him cowered in confusion. Ericious reached a hand out to check on the man, but suddenly Ein Sof spoke, and his voice seemed unnaturally loud. He spoke in words that Ericious did not understand, a breathy, musical, enchanting language. Then, suddenly, Ein Sof started to speak in Iatkosi, but Ericious was stunned to note that no trace of the man's usual accent remained:
"The seas lie dead and flat, and all is still,
And e'en the wind does dare not show its might,
Pressed down, held back, by a King's mighty will.
Life's Lord of old commands by ancient right,
The sea beneath his briny hand obeys
And we like children lost within his pow'r
Are left to wander in the divine haze
Bereft, with all our hopes turned sour.
For o'er the far horizon comes our doom
An unforgiving, ceaseless wall of gloom."
The words ceased at last, as though Ein Sof had used all the breath he had in him. The crowd cringed, seeming to tremble like a pile of leaves in a breeze. Simple people are superstitious, and therefore easily manipulated. Ericious knew that all too well.
"Oh, no!" Ericious said, feigning terror, "He's possessed by a DEMON!"
At once the crowd vanished, disappearing in every possible direction with squeals of terror. Even the fat tavern owner was running away as quickly as his little legs could carry him. Mander chuckled and eyed Ein Sof with an appraising look. The musician seemed to be returning to himself, shaking his head as if to dislodge the memory of what had happened.
"Are you alright, then?" Mander asked.
Ein Sof rubbed his temples. "Alcohol and I do not mix well," he said. His accent had returned, and his flushed glow about his features was rapidly fading away.
"Duly noted," replied Mander, patting Meraxes on the head, "Shall we continue onward?"
Ericious noted the casual tone of Mander's voice, but on their journey to the docks he caught the old man giving their new foreign friend very serious and contemplative looks. Not that one could blame him - just what the hell was that? Ericious cracked his knuckles thoughtfully. He'd have to keep an eye on this foreigner. The man was.... weird.
The ship might have been still and calm in the peaceful waters, but Ein Sof's stomach was not. His bowels still clenched and heaved at the thought of the trance that had just come over him. A single sip, he thought incredulously. That's all it took. It's never been so easy before, so close. What is going on in this land?
As long as he could remember he'd seen strange things, things nobody else could see. He's spoken words that had changed minds and broken hearts, and he couldn't even remember them later. Many in his homeland, far on the eastern shores of the seas, had taken it as a sign that Ein Sof was chosen, singly blessed by the god. But not everyone had been as pleased by his talents....
Shaking his head as though to shake off the memories of the past, Ein Sof focused his attention back onto the matter at hand. They were down in the bowels of the ship in an enclosed area reserved for the captain, where they could have some privacy from the curious eyes of the restless crew. Philandros paced back and forth, regarding the two newcomers skeptically. Nearby Eugenios sat by his wine cask, his sole remaining possession, and continued drinking himself into oblivion. Ein Sof had never understood the exact nature of Eugenios' position on the ship. Though Philandros led the crew, the other had said that the merchant was the owner of the vessel and leader of the voyage. Ein Sof had long chosen to regard this distinction as semantics, for in practical terms there was nothing of a leader about the man. The way he had fallen apart instantly after their escape from the enemy fleet was evidence of his weak character. Such was the result of basing all on one's identity on material possessions. Ein Sof went back to ignoring the man, just like everybody else was already doing.
The room had few other objects in it, besides a workspace for the Captain that included a desk and a few of his personal possessions. Ericious was hovering near these while Mander sat calmly, stroking the shell of his pet crab and muttering to himself.
"You are sure about these two?" Philandros asked the musician.
Ein Sof nodded. "I witnessed the old man summon a thunderclap. He clearly has power, though whether it will be enough..."
"Yes," Philandros scratched his beard, "This... vision you had... a prophecy, was it? You surprise me, musician. I didn't think you were the sort of man to put stock in such things."
The foreigner was framing a response when a loud crash pulled their attention towards Ericious. Even Eugenios looked up from his stupor to see what had happened. The lowborn fellow had put on his best attempt at an innocent face, a look Ein Sof had seen on him before.
"It was like that when I got here," he protested.
"Dammit, boy," Philandros said, brows furrowed, "That was a gift from the priestesses at the Oracle of Dawning! It was irreplaceable!"
Ericious just blinked back at him. Mander cleared his throat and said, "Forgive my, uh, apprentice. He has a curious nature, in multiple senses of the word. But surely there are more important matters at hand, captain?"
The captain sighed. "You are right, sir. You must be made to understand the exact nature of the danger at hand. The Council of Peace, a bunch of Madman-spawned fools if you don't mind me saying so, thought they could protect our city from the hungry eyes of the eastern Empire by buying off the great Emperor with goods and valuable trade agreements. That drunk over there was selected to be their Envoy, and I am the unlucky man he chose to captain the ship. Well, we got no further than Clay before we ran into the Imperial Fleet - hundreds of damn triremes massing for nothing less than a full scale invasion! We ran up the white flag for parley, but were attacked on sight. We managed to escape by jettisoning our cargo of goods--"
At this Eugenios wailed to himself and took another drink.
"--and," the captain continued, "Because the Maiden's Kiss is the fastest damn ship on the seas, thank you very much. We must return to warn the Council of this danger, but as you have seen the wind has abandoned us. And now, if the musician's visions are to be believed, we find that this strange weather is no accident! So, weatherwitch or whatever you are, are you prepared to stand opposed to a god in order to save our city and our people?"
Mander was silent a moment as he contemplated the question. "To defy a god," he said at last, "Is no small thing. Mortals defy the heavens at their own peril. There is great danger, make no mistake." He shrugged. "But what the hell? Let's do it anyway."
Philandros nodded, relieved. "What do you need? How soon can we begin?"
Mander stretched his arms and cracked his knuckles. "Give me a bit of space at the prow of the ship and we can get this started right now. No time like the present, eh?"
"And your.... apprentice?"
"My what? Oh yes, him. He'll need to stay nearby me to... help. Or something. Come on then, apprentice." Mander and Ericious headed up onto the deck together.
Ein Sof moved to follow them, but was stopped by Philandros' hand on his shoulder.
"Musician," the captain said, "You've done well, beyond my expectations. Can I count on your support in what comes next?"
"Your cause is just," Ein Sof said, "And I owe no allegiance to your gods. We must do what we must do."
"Excellent. However, the other men may not be so open-minded. You were right to hide your... strange talents. They fear what they do not understand, and they will attack what they fear. Should they resist our intentions, I will count on you to help me calm them. Agreed?"
The foreigner nodded. With a grim smile, he followed his captain out onto the deck.
At first glance, it didn't look like Mander was doing much of anything at all. But as Ericious peered at the old man closer, he could sense a growing pressure, as though power were building up in the air around him where he sat clamly in meditation at the front of the ship. Slowly, the crew of the ship, restless and scared, were starting to notice it too, and Ericious did not like the looks he saw on their faces. Already they had made an attempt to question and stop Mander's work, and only the intercession of Ein Sof had quieted them. The foreign sailor had apparently earned some measure of respect amongst his peers, but it was not at all clear just how long his good word would last. The real problem, as Ericious saw it, was their lack of activity. They needed something to do, something to occupy their attention so that they had no time to dwell on their fears.
Come on, you hairy old fart, Ericious thought, his foot tapping impatiently, Let's see this magic of yours already!
As if summoned by his thoughts, Mander suddenly leapt to his feet and began an elaborate dance of gestures and incantations. He moved with surprising grace for his age, and even the anxious crew grew quiet and watched with raised eyebrows as the hermit worked his strange arts.
And then Ericious could feel it, a stirring of a breeze across his face, welcome for many more reasons than just a blessed relief from the heat. A certain amount of tension started to fade from the crew as they breathed a collective sigh. Smith's balls! The old man is the real deal after all! Ericious found he was genuinely surprised. After all, the display of magic back in the hermit's shack could have been little more than a showman's trick. Ericious had learned to distrust all claims to power, after all. He was just a orphan and a pauper, perhaps, but in the realm of cynicism, he was a prince. But the old man was a revelation, and not just because he was a real magician. Anaxomander was nothing less than the firstborn nobleman of one of Peace's oldest and most influential families who had given up everything to live as a hermit. To a general of class warfare like Ericious, such a figure was more than simply fascinating. A man like that was, potentially, revolutionary. No time for those thoughts now. Later. Later...
The wind grew in strength, a steady force pushing westward towards the peninsula. "Ready sails!" Philandros called out, and the men lept into a flurry of activity. Soon the ship was speeding away from the Hook (good riddance) and Ericious was at last on his way back to Peace, where he belonged. I'm coming, my children. I'm coming home.
Mander let out a massive sigh and rested his old bones on the deck of the ship. He'd done all he could, and the ship was making good progress now, but it had not been easy. It had been years since he'd attempted anything on this scale, and never in the face of such heavy opposition. Yes, he could feel the stubborn presence out there weighing down on everything. The salty old bastard was probably cursing Mander's name right now, but then that was nothing new and Mander barely noticed the enmity these days. Of more concern was what this particular presence indicated about the coming conflict. It seemed one god at least had taken a side, and where one god meddles the others were sure to follow. Everything - the Iatkosi peninsula, Peace, the Empire, this ship -- was just a piece in their elaborate game.
We are but playthings to the gods, Mander reminded himself. Truer words had never been spoken. Legend had it that the great forefather Iatkos had first uttered them, and now the man was a god himself, the Champion of the domain of War. Mander had always appreciated that bit of irony.
Leaning against the railing of the ship wearily, Mander stared out at the open seas. The magic had taken its toll on his body, that was certain. He could feel the exhaustion, the price that his power had exacted of him in his aching muscles and sudden weakness of breath. It would be some time before he was fully recovered from this one, but then there'd be no other choice, had there? His eyelids grew heavy and slowly his head drifted down towards his chest.
Oh, Anaximedes, you fool. You damn fool. Father warned of this threat all his life, but you didn't listen, did you? Now the Council will be caught with their damn togas around their ankles and we'll all pay the price, our whole cursed race. Father, you spoke of this, but your words were a waste of breath. Nobody listened to your warnings.... Not even me.
No, Mander had run, wanting to believe that if he could forget about the world, all of the big problems would just disappear. Out sight and out of mind. But without his absence, he was acutely aware, his damn brother would not have been able to take a seat on the Council at all, let alone get himself elected as the First Speaker. It's not my fault, he grumbled to himself. I won't be blamed for his stupidity. Father couldn't get through to those stubborn old men, I would have fared no better. There was nothing I could do.
But guilt was a much more thorny problem than any posed in Mander's games of strategy, messier and with no clear objectives for victory, and so to escape this unsolvable puzzle he found himself descending into sleep.
He dreamed, as he so often did, of the sea. He plunged into its murky, endless depths, and rested in the cool darkness of the deep waters. The strange creatures that lived their lives in this alien realm were no strangers to him, and as they floated past he felt their greeting. This was a realm in which he felt quite at home, indeed, so was it any wonder that he should escape here in his dreams? In answer to his presence, a giant shape swam past him, a mighty princess of the ocean floor. Her skin was barnacles and coral, her hair was seaweed, and from her massive lips came a cooing, needy sound. One massive arm seemed to reach out towards him desperately.
With a jolt, the hermit awoke. Ericious stood above him, shaking his shoulder. "Wake up!" the shifty fellow was saying, "Something's happening. Something bad!"
Mander blinked, wondering how long he'd been asleep. It had felt like just a moment, but the skies were much darker than they had been before, and night was clearly close at hand. Squinting into the distance, he could at last see the source of Ericious' distress. Ahead of the ship loomed a massive wall of black clouds, rumbling ominously. Mander could smell a storm. A big one. A very big one.
"You've overdone it!" Ericious said, shaking the older man, "Make it stop!"
"That isn't me," Mander mumbled.
"I didn't do this!" the hermit hissed, pointing at the clouds.
The merchant was offering his flask of wine quite willingly, and there was clearly enough left in the barrel to share, but still Ein Sof hesitated. The strength of his last vision had been overwhelming, and quite disturbingly so, unlike anything he'd experienced in his homeland. And yet... he didn't know what else to do. Something had gone wrong. Mander's gift was turning against them, and that storm looked nasty. If there was anything he could discover through his talents that might aid them in surviving... well, that would be worth the discomfort, he hoped.
"You wanna drink or not?" slurred Eugenios.
Trembling, Ein Sof took a swallow and lost himself. The cabin and the drunk envoy vanished from his sight, to be replaced with a vision of the terrifyingly powerful presence he'd seen earlier. But whereas before there had been weight and stagnancy, now there was only destructive, brutal rage. It rolled off the massive power in waves, agitating the seas. A storm was coming, alright, one born straight out of the angry heart of a god. With a gasp, he collapsed back into his body.
"What's that?" Eugenios was mumbling, "Were you just reciting poetry?"
Ein Sof disregarded the man and rushed towards the deck of the ship. He'd wanted to help, that was all. Something to give them all hope. But all he'd seen was their doom.
His graying hair billowing behind him in the strong breeze, Mander frowned up at the gathering storm clouds. Things were going from bad to worse, and far too quickly. The first drops of rain had begun to fall, and waves were beginning to buffet the ship, forcing everyone to cling on to whatever was at hand in order to stay upright. Ericious, who was unused to travel at sea, had turned a pale shade of green and was already heaving the contents of his stomach over the side of the ship. Nearby, the crew were struggling to draw the sails, all the while throwing dark looks in Mander's direction.
Ah, well. Mander had been in worse situations than this. He couldn't think of any specifically at the moment, but he was sure there had been some.
He raised a fist and shook it at the storm. "Upset you, have I?" He spat into the sea in defiance.
This did not, to say the least, have a salutary effect on the morale of the crew, who, though they could not hear Mander's words over the din of the wind, needed no help interpreting his attitude. Something broke at that moment, something that cracked in the air, and it wasn't lightning. It was human fear and anger. Mander turned to see several of the burliest sailors pressing their way directly towards him, and knew at once they weren't interested in a game of shells.
Suddenly, Ericious was standing between Mander at the angry sailors, still looking sick but clearly intending to oppose their violent intentions. Mander was impressed the lad was standing at all, and couldn't dream of what he intended to do to stop men so much larger than himself.
"Out of the way, runt," one of the sailors screamed over the storm, "The old man has angered the gods with his witchery, and now we're all paying for it."
"Throw him into the sea!" shouted another, "Sacrifice him, and perhaps the Master of Seas will be appeased!"
Ericious, still too seasick to speak, merely shook his head.
"We don't have time for this!" the lead sailor growled, and raised his beefy arm to brush Ericious to the side.
To Mander's eyes, the fidgety lad seemed to blur, ducking out of the way before anyway had a chance to even blink. In another heartbeat, he'd pulled a long slender knife seemingly out of nowhere and with a quick, effortless thrust, drove it through the palm of the sailor's hand. The big man stared at his hand in shock, and then screamed. Ericious calmly removed the dagger and wiped it on his tunic. Stunned by the man's speed, the other sailors backed away in fear.
At that moment Ein Sof appeared from the hold below the deck, shouting some kind of warning. The gathered crew were still trying to decipher what he was saying when there was an incredible flash of light and thundering crack. Mander lost his balance entirely and fell backwards onto the deck. From his new viewpoint, he could see the bolt of lighting that had struck the sails and the rapidly growing flames that had no sprouted on the canvas and mast. He tossed about, looking for Ericious, just in time to see a massive wave break over the side of the ship, sweeping several of the crew overboard, lost. Mander coughed and sputtered seawater out of his mouth, then let loose a string of curses in every language he knew while attempting to regain his feet. Suddenly, hands were lifting him up, and blinked into the rain to see Ericious and Ein Sof, dripping wet and looking miserable.
"We've got to abandon ship," Ein Sof was shouting, "The flames are spreading too quickly!"
"I can't swim!" Ericious protested.
Mander laughed mirthlessly and picked up Meraxes. "Well, you're going to have to learn, lad!"
But the shifty fellow just grabbed Mander by the ratty tunic and shook him desperately. "I. Can't. Swim!"
"The barrel," Ein Sof exclaimed, "The wine barrel in the hold. It will float, and you can hang on to that!"
"Right," Ericious released Mander, "Be right back."
The ship was really bucking now, and as he stumbled down the steps to the cargo hold, Ericious wondered to himself what miracle was keeping the whole thing from capsizing. Not that he was complaining.
A wailing sound drew his attention to the back part of the hold. There was the wine barrel he was after, and, sitting next to it looking half-drowned, was the very drunk man they'd all seen earlier when they were talking to the captain. Ericious hadn't really been paying attention to the part of the conversation where they covered who he was, exactly, but no matter. Now there was an extra burden to carry.
The wine barrel wasn't very big and was fairly light, being mostly empty, and Ericious was thankful for both as it meant it would be easy to carry and float all the better. Tucking it under one arm, he used his other hand to pull the drunkard to his feet. The man was far gone, and in fact would have had a hard time standing on his own even without the added obstacle of the storm. Thus, it was slow going, gruelingly slow, to maneuver back towards the steps. Meanwhile, of course, the hold was rapidly filling with water, and the pitching movement of the ship knocked the two men off of balance and to their knees more than once.
How do I manage to get myself into these situations? Ericious wondered as he picked the drunk man up yet again. The things one does for the repressed working classes!
The stairs proved their most difficult challenge yet, and Ericious eventually had to settle for literally dragging the drunken man up the steps with his sheer force of will.
"Good gods," Ericious snapped, "You've more wine in you than blood, I wager. What are you, some kind of priest of the Drunken God?"
"No, no, no," the other man slurred in his ear, "I'm not a priest! I'm a merchant."
Ericious froze and turned to level a flat stare at the man. "You're a what?"
The drew himself up to the proudest and surest stance he could muster. "I am Eugenios Milekrates, master merchant and Envoy of the Council of Peace, and a wealthy nobleman from one of the finest families! I assure you, you will be richly rewarded for rescuing me."
There was long moment of stunned silence. Ericious shook his head incredulously and, placing one hand on the merchant's chest, sent him tumbling back down the steps. "That's for the repressed working classes!" he shouted, and hurried onward with the wine cask.
And so the three men found themselves adrift in the raging seas, clinging onto the small wine cask for their lives and wishing they were someplace, anyplace, else. Ein Sof muttered quick, frantic prayers to his god in his native language. Mander found himself escaping into a daydream about a particularly fascinating combination of moves in the game of shells, all while making sure to keep a firm hold on Meraxes with one hand. And Ericious mostly just focused on hanging on the barrel and not passing out.
Wave after wave tossed them about, and they watched in scattered, brief moments of clarity as the Maiden's Kiss at last broke apart and sunk out of sight.
"This is bad," Ericious said, in what he then considered to be his greatest moment of understatement to date.
Ein Sof readjusted his grip on the cask. It really wasn't big enough for all three of them to get a good hold, and all it would take was one really big wave...
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of one really big wave.
Suddenly the cask was gone, and Mander was flailing in the waters, alone. Frantically treading water, he turned about looking for the others but could see nothing. Another surge pressed him below the surface, and with a sigh of acceptance the old man just let himself start to sink, clutching his pet crab to his chest. Well, it's been a good run, he thought to himself, goodbye, Meraxes, old friend. Thanks for everything.
But then there was a familiar cooing sound, and Mander felt a massive hand grip his leg and pull. Suddenly he was speeding away, being pulled to safety. Making sure his grip on the crab was tight, he decided it was a good time to pass out.
Ein Sof was surrounded by the murky darkness of the sea, and realized he could no longer tell which direction would lead to the surface. He thrashed about, his lungs beginning to burn for want of air, and tried desperately to regain his bearings.
At his most desperate moment, when all hope seemed lost, a brilliant light blossomed before his eyes, looking incredibly like a brilliant fire, burning here beneath the waves of all places. A calm settled onto him, a calm he knew well.
He was in the presence of his god.
Ericious was either sinking through water or falling through the air - it was impossible to tell which, as he seemed incapable of moving and had lost all sensation. He tried to remember the last thing that had happened. There had been a wave, and then Ein Sof and Mander were gone, leaving only poor little Ericious still clinging to the little wine cask. Then there'd been a flash and a bang - another strike of lightning? - and then he was here. Falling. Sinking. Or whatever.
He had the sense that everything about him was cold, very, very cold, but the fact didn't bother him at all. Indeed, he felt... fine! Not wet or miserable or scared, like he'd been feeling not too long before, and that was nice. He was glad of that.
He was falling for a very long time, but it didn't get boring and he didn't fall asleep. He was enjoying it, actually. Much better than thrashing about in a storm. This was much better.
Eventually, his feet came to rest on solid ground, and Ericious looked about to see that he had landed on the rocky banks of a dark, slow moving river. It was enormous in size, so vast in fact that he couldn't make out the far side, though that might have been because it was so dark. Why was it so dark? Was it night? He couldn't remember.
He decided to walk along the bank. He couldn't swim anyhow, and he'd had his fill of being in the water recently. Or at least he thought he had. His memories were getting pretty faint - in fact, he wasn't sure if he could remember his name. Oh, well. He had the distinct feeling that none of that was important, not at all. Which was nice.
He looked out over the river to see a small boat heading in his direction, being pushed forward by a hooded man with a long pole. He was glad to see somebody else in this strange place, and waved at the boatman happily.
"Greetings," the hooded man said as the boat pulled up to the bank, "I welcome you, as I welcome all mortals, to this realm. Come aboard, and we will depart." The hood that covered his face was deep and dark, so that no trace of the man's face could even be seen.
The man on the shore shrugged and climbed into the little boat. "Where are we going?"
"To the final place of rest, the kingdom of my master and lord." The boatman turned away and began readying for their departure. "This is the fate of all who walk the mortal world, and my fate to guide them to their rest. So the gods decreed, before the dawn of time."
But the boatman's passenger was no longer listening. A strange feeling was coming over him, a strange and yet familiar itch. His fingers began to tremble and fidget of their own accord, seeking new targets to touch and explore. And the boatman's cloak and hood looked soft, so very soft, like some kind of black velvet, blacker than even the night sky. It was fascinating, entrancing. His hands began moving of their own will, as he sensed they had often done before, and he could not but look on helplessly.
"Now then, mortal," the boatman said, turning back to face his passenger. He got no further, for the fidgety man, with a conflicted look of terror, darted forward and pulled back his hood.
Beneath, a charred skull without flesh grinned back at him, and the man flinched away with a terrified scream. The boatman was screaming too, it seemed, for there was a high pitched and unearthly wail that suddenly echoed across the still waters of the river. The boatman frantically raised his hood once again, sputtering in indignation.
"How dare you, mortal! Since the creation of your kind I have shepherded the dead, and in return I have been feared, venerated, respected, and worshiped. But never have I been so insulted! Oh your punishment, your suffering, shall be unending..."
But the boatman was interrupted by a new sound that arose from the far side of the river, a deep, resounding boom that shook the frightened passenger to his very bones. It was several moments before he realized, with inexplicable dread, that the sound was laughter.
The boatman stared out across the water, stunned into silence. "He laughs," the hooded figure breathed, "Impossible..." A sudden aura of darkness bloomed around the boatman. "Yes, master! Yes, I understand... Well, this is highly irregular... No, impossible. I don't make the rules! ..... You don't make the rules either, if I might.... yes, sorry. Forget I said anything.... No, no, whatever you want, you're the one on the throne! ... Well, just don't come to me with complaints if it comes back to bite you! .... Yes, my lord. Sorry, my lord. At once." The darkness faded.
The hooded face turned to regard his passenger, and the poor trembling man could swear, though he could see nothing of its features and knew now that there were no features to be seen, that the figure was scowling.
"You do not find your eternal rest this day," the boatman said, pointing towards the shore, "Get out!"
Wordlessly, Ericious obeyed. Yes. Ericious! That is my name!
"You are chosen, mortal. Marked by Death himself to be his instrument in the mortal world. I doubt anyone will envy you! Now, begone and good riddance!"
The figure gestured, and with a yelp Ericious felt himself being pulled up and away and back toward a world of light and warmth.