The Fate of Topper Shelley

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Fantasy Realm

A frustrated sailor intends to spend a rare evening off by himself, but his peace is broken when he is forced back to work by a captain he resents. When grim fortune finds the vessel, his humanity is challenged in an unexpected way.

NOTE: This story takes place in the same world as The Starmist Poet.

Thirteener = A member of one of the Thirteen Families, bloodlines who each have their own supernatural gifts.

Another storm stirred around us, its waves slapping against the hull as I sat and tried to focus on my carving. The little room was dark, illuminated only by dangling lanterns and what little evening sun could manage to shine through both clouds and meagre windows. I had gotten to her nose. For reasons that eluded me, noses were always the hardest thing to carve. Perhaps because they were so important to get right, yet so difficult to pin down.

"What makes a nose beautiful?" I pondered to myself, alone in the empty storage room as everyone else was at work on deck or sleeping in the crew's quarters. All we did was work, eat and sleep here on Topper Shelley, a way of life built and maintained by our captain.

I stopped carving and shuddered. So fast I had done it, once again steered my thoughts towards the one person I swore not to think about. From my work on the figurine to the subject of noses, to the crew's way of life, to that joyless cunt I had told myself I would forget all about for one blissful evening. In response, forced my thoughts back to what I held in my hand, the same way one would steer a ship to avoid a collision.

The woman I was carving was a stranger. I had never seen her in my life, but she felt familiar due to how often she appeared in my head. It was always the same person, too, black-haired and green-eyed. She provided me with clarity and comfort.

We, the crew of Topper Shelley, were sailing through the northern reaches of Varvdunkall. We shouldn't be. Great Misty, the ocean further north, was safer and our usual route, but our captain had changed it half a cycle ago to reduce our sailing distance. We were on our way to Estichi to restock our supply of sugar and tea, and it was the third time in a row that we sailed this route. We always sailed four journeys in a row, followed by a mere five days of rest before we started over, and life at sea was wearing me thin. The shitty meals, the storms, the abysmal hygiene after the second trip. Even the shorter distance came with the most awful catch: The threat of monsters and thirteener pirates.

But Captain Roleo Valiet gave not a single shit, for he had heard few reports of trouble from the northern reaches of Varvdunkall, and so found it worth the small risk to increase efficiency. Efficiency was all he cared about, which was why the repetitive routine and small work breaks were ideal for him. The monotony seemed not to affect him nor any other arsehole on this damned ship. I'd heard that other ships had shanties and dice games and comradery, but Topper Shelley was a serious ship with a serious crew, and work was all that mattered to us - or so it was meant to.

A large wave shook the ship enough for me to lose balance, and I cut myself on the middle finger. "Gah, shit!"

In a careless moment, I slid the finger over the woman's face, staining the figurine with a stripe of blood. Only then, as I sucked on the wound, did I realise that I once again had wasted my thoughts on the captain. He lived in my head and refused to leave, like a curse.

Just when I was about to make a serious effort to return my thoughts to anything else one could think about, I heard the footsteps. They made me wince. I hoped so desperately that it was someone coming to check something in the storage room, even though its crates and shelves were empty.

"Hey, Elnar," I heard, holding back a full-body shudder. "Captain wants to see you."

One evening. All I wanted was one full evening to myself and my thoughts, where I was the happiest, and now that was being taken from me. I inhaled, trying to keep it all in.

"What's it about?" I asked.

Eunno, the first mate, stood before me, black-haired and clean-shaven. He was no Roleo, but his presence could be every bit as hard to stomach.

"Can't say," he claimed. "He asked me to fetch you, that's all."

"And it has to be me? Even tonight?"

I tried to sound calm and collected despite my endless frustration.
"It has to be everybody," said Eunno. "He's awoken the sleeping men too."

I shot up. "What? Because of a storm?"

"Get on deck and find out, Elnar. I can't have all the answers."

Not wanting to argue, I put down the figurine and walked to the stairs, hearing him sigh behind my back as I got there.

"Horny little rat," he mumbled, no doubt expecting me to be out of hearing range.

I stopped for a moment, right at the foot of the stairs, so overwhelmed with anger that I lost control of myself. Then I regained it, continuing up towards the deck. Not in a hurry, however, much as I wanted to be done with whatever task I had been sent for. My honour was bleeding, and it would take a little while to patch it up, so I dragged my feet as much as I could get away with.

To think that was all Eunno saw in my work. To think anyone could have so little appreciation for artistry. I was surrounded by lesser folk. My equals did not sail the seas or work the docks. They lived in Nelkingdon and Gasmodo's greatest cities, the breeding grounds of art and culture, and all that kept me from living among them was the misfortune of having been born in the wrong part of the world, the bankrupt towns where halfwits reigned and mediocrity thrived. It felt as if there had been a mistake at my birth. I belonged in better places than this.

Rain poured and crewmembers walked all over the deck. By the port railing stood Captain Roleo himself, with his gut and his brown sideburns and, of course, that always dissatisfied expression on his withering face. He held something that I couldn't make out due to the weather.

"Reporting for duty, captain," I said, trying to stay polite. I could not afford to accidentally step over his toes and risk another argument or punishment. I needed to get back to my carving.

Roleo looked my way and handed me the object without as much as a word, and I now stood with a rain-soaked crossbow, loaded and ready to fire.

"What is this?" I asked, forgetting to hide my frustration this time.

"It's a crossbow, Elnar," he said, the insufferable fuck. "I've seen you fire one before, so I figure you can handle it."

"Why?"

"I saw something move out there," Roleo said, turning away to once again look over the railing. "In these waters, it could be a monster. I've got four men with rifles, seven with pistols, two with crossbows, and five manning the cannons below."

A monster. Certain death for anyone aboard a ship like this. No, of course not. This was not happening, but I knew that didn't matter. My evening was ruined.

"With all due respect, captain, it's a prick of a storm tonight and you've probably got rainwater in your eyes," was what I wanted to say, but instead I said: "Aye," like the obedient little moss-maggot I had become.

"Get to it then," ordered Roleo. "There will be no more rest until we're out of Varvdunkall. Can't risk it."

I shook again. "W-with all due r-respect," I finally dared to say, "we're not equipped to fight a monster."

"We just need to deter it."

"I don't think they're deterred by pain. They're all aggression and no self-preservation."

"That's a myth, Elnar. They're animals; they feel pain."

"But I've read-"

"I don't care what you've read. Go stand guard."

I paused. Much as I knew I was right, that wasn't what bothered me. I needed this break for my head to stay straight.

"This was my one evening off for the trip," I muttered, unsure if I was even audible in the storm.

"You'll have to do without this one. Our safety comes first."

"You argue this thing is just an animal, but we can't spare one man?"

Roleo groaned and looked me in the eyes. "I have no patience for your whining, Elnar. Do your job."

"But-"

"No! I hear one more thing out of you, and it's docked pay and ten lashes. Are we clear?"

"A-aye," I said and walked off, trying not to break down. I had so been looking forward to this evening, and now it had been taken from me by the same man I so wanted to escape from. Thoughts of mutiny came to me, as they often had before, but I knew nobody would back me up on it.
 

 

---

 

The last sunlight disappeared as the storm raged on. All of us patrolled the deck, keeping our eyes peeled for anything unusual among the waves. It was unbearable, losing both my carving time and my sleep to this pointless task. I didn't believe the captain had seen anything out there but the shadow of his own vacuous paranoia. I was even prepared to believe that he hadn't seen anything at all. Given the exact timing, it wasn't beyond reason to think he held a severe grudge against me. He would make sure to keep me miserable just because we had brushed up against each other a few times in the past.

I looked over the unruly ocean, the same waves over and over, and I tried not to fall asleep to their melodies.

"There's no monster out there," I mumbled to myself. "There's no fucking mon-"

Suddenly, a loud bump shook the ship and almost knocked me over. I raised the crossbow to firing position and looked in every direction, my heart thumping. The crew went wild, yelling and screaming and running around to try and get a look.

"Anyone see anything?" asked Eunno through the storm.

Before anyone could answer, the ship was shaken again, this time with a loud crunching noise. Something was penetrating the hull, somewhere in the back. I thought of the figurines and rushed down to the storage room, almost slipping on the wet deck as I went.

Down the stairs, I was met with something so strange that I raised the crossbow in response. It had a corkscrew shape, huge and beige and twice as thick as my forearm, not to mention long enough to go all the way through the room, floor to ceiling. I fired a bolt, but it bounced off with a clink. Approaching carefully and with my weapon raised, I went over to my gathering of figurines. Whatever had penetrated the ship no longer moved. I picked up the carving of the woman, the blood smear still on her face, and pocketed her.

Eunno and Roleo came running down, both stunned at what they saw, both holding pistols. They were followed by seven other men.

"Save your bullets," I said. "This thing is hard as iron."

Eunno came closer. "A corker," he gasped.

"Are we taking in water?" asked Roleo.

I shook my head.

"But we're relying on the corker to keep it that way," said Eunno. "This is grim, captain."

"What do we do?" asked Roleo, who seemed to have plenty of questions and no answers now that he was finally getting his way.

"N-nothing we can do," said Eunno, "except maybe prepare some nails and boards and hope the monster lets us go."

Roleo's jaw hung open for a moment as he took to his head, but he was quick to brush it all off and stand upright again. "Very well," he said. "Bring the carpenters down and have them ready for—"

The old captain didn't get to finish his thought before I leapt at him and clobbered him on the cheek. He fell back on his arse as he dropped his pistol, and I was soon detained by Eunno and another crewmate - one of the new hires whose name I hadn't caught.

"You've killed us all," I seethed. "You just couldn't have that extra day of travel, could you? Forced us all closer to Varvdunkall and led us to our deaths because you wanted to make your money a little faster!"

Roleo shivered, his eyes wide and his cheek swollen.

"We're not dead yet," noted Eunno, sounding like he was trying to keep calm. "Even if we were, it would come for us eventually."

"It's not just that, you daft fuck! He broke me down! Dragged me to his miserable level with this life, day in and day out, made me someone I'm not meant to be, and now I'll die the wrong man! I'll never get to where I belong because of him!"

In spite of his age, Roleo sprung to his feet before he grabbed my shirt's collar and looked me in the eyes. "You'll have those lashes coming, lad, and when this trip is done you’ll be out of work."

A yell came from the crow's nest above. "Vessel ahoy, hard port!”

The men let go of me, and we all rushed back up onto the deck. All the remaining crew stood by the railing, looking to see if they could spot another ship out in the stormy waters.

"Vessel approaching!" came the next report.

Roleo pushed two men aside to make room for himself. "See anything?"

"Not yet," came the response from Gelrard, the ship's cook and oldest of us all. I had not seen him for most of the day.

Roleo pulled out a spyglass, extended it and looked into it, grimacing as he did. He then lowered it with shaking hands. "It's not an ordinary ship," he said.

Not long after, the rest of us could see what he was talking about. Between the tall waves, a most hideous and unorthodox ship revealed itself. The vessel was dark and almost red aside from brighter spots that seemed to dig into the hull, resembling teeth or tusks. Its sails were torn at the edges and there was something on the sides of it that matched the colour but appeared to breathe and pulsate.

"It's the Varvagus ship," said Gelrard, his voice solemn. "We may all face a cruel fate tonight."

My jaw dropped and a wave of terror much taller than the literal waves washed over me.

Neezer Varvagus was perhaps the most feared man in the world. Horrific tales of his cruelty echoed throughout every port, every town, every city and every plantation. He was a cannibal, devouring people while they still breathed. He rearranged his foes like they were made of clay, pulled out their guts and feasted on them, reduced them the piles of meat and bone and robbed them of the slightest respect. The Varvagus family had always lived and breathed violence, leaving trails of blood wherever they sailed, and Neezer was said to be the worst of them all.

"So be it," said Roleo and merely adjusted his coat "It doesn't thrill me having to negotiate with a man like Mr Varvagus, but this is what it has come to."

"Negotiate how?" asked Gelrard. "Even if this bloke has an affinity for sugar and tea, we haven't stocked up. What could we offer him now?"

Roleo cleared his throat. "A long-term deal," he said, sounding less than confident in the idea. "We may have nothing now, but our business is thriving. If Varvagus is as... gifted a pirate as his reputation claims, then he'll be sure to see the value in our business."

"You want to give him a cut?"

"Indeed. It would be a waste to kill us."

Roleo sounded less sure of himself with every word he said. I was about to crack with fury.

Gelrard gave his head a subtle shake. "It's the noose for us if anyone finds out we've been working with pirates; especially these ones."

"We will get through this one step at a time. Any objections?"

Nobody spoke up.

"Good," continued Roleo. "Now make sure to carry yourselves well. Have Elnar removed from here so he won't be able to ruin the negotiations with one of his tantrums."

As Eunno and the fresh one dragged me off, I made sure to glare at Roleo with all the hatred I had for him.

The walk down to the crew’s quarters was longer than it had ever been. My captors looked as if they were trying to convince themselves that the captain was right, that some sort of deal would be struck, but I knew better. I spent the walk trying to accept my fate, and to deal with the unspeakable regret over the misspent life that I had forced upon me from my earliest days.

When we got down there, where part of the corker’s claw could still be seen, they Ennuo tied me to a diagonal beam right by the doorway. The knot was too tight. The rope scratched the skin of my wrists and felt like they were blocking the flow of blood.

"Shame," said Eunno when he was done. He cleared his throat. “I always thought you just needed a little discipline...”

I had nothing to say. I could tell he was scared. The pair walked back up, leaving me to myself and my thoughts. If only they had locked me up with my knife so that I could have one last ideal evening. Closing my eyes, I tried to picture her. Green eyes and black hair, she reached out to me. Called my name. I shed a tear and accepted my fate.

Various sounds came from above. I heard wood against wood as if something was being built, and it continued for a while. I jolted as the corker claw moved a little before once again being still. Several footsteps sounded, as did more voices. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, though there were a few words I could make out, such as “welcome” and “Varvagus” and “deal”, all spoken by that basterd Roleo.

I heard another voice then. A stranger’s voice, indifferent and cold, speaking only a few words. A short moment of silence passed before Roleo talked again, and something about his speech pattern was different this time. He was stuttering. More footsteps. I couldn't even feel my sore wrists, nor anything but the pit in my stomach and the hairs on my neck. The stranger’s awful voice spoke again.

Then came the screams. Eunno’s voice was the first one I recognised, but he was soon to be joined by the others. My ears caught slashes and cracks. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the green-eyed woman one last time, but all my mind could do was try and picture the atrocities that were happening above.

Soon after, I heard footsteps approaching. Someone was running down the stairs. Roleo emerged from the doorway, shivering and with bloodied clothes. He ran with his arms raised forward and a soft whimper, but he looked unharmed. Looking around the room without sparing me a glance, he spotted a large pile of unwashed clothes and buried himself under them.

Then came more footsteps. Odd ones that made my blood freeze by their unnatural rhythm. This one wasn’t as busy, which scared me even more. Had I only been tied further away from the doorway so that I could at least see what this stranger looked like.

The newcomer crawled past me. I held my breath. It appeared to be an old woman with long, grey hair and pointy nails. She stopped in the middle of the room and made the sound of sniffing the air, then her heard to look at me. I gasped in horror. She had no eyes, staring back at me with empty voids. Then she began to crawl my way, and I saw that she had a sharp claw where her left hand should have been.

In a moment of panic, I spoke: "He's hiding under the clothes.”

The woman stopped and flashed a hideous grin. “I know,” she slithered in a voice like a dying breath. She was soon right at me, and I was overcome with terror. Her breath stank of rotten fish. She cut me loose and grabbed me by the wrist, then walked me over to the pile, reached in and dragged out Roleo. He looked horrified, but I had to wonder why we weren’t already dead.

We were dragged by this strong creature, I by the wrist and a weeping Roleo by the ankle. My employer tried to struggle while I made no such effort. I knew it was futile. My life was in the hands of whatever this presence above me was. A thirteener pirate. I couldn’t even imagine…

Horror awaited me at the top of the stairs. Topper Shelley’s deck was bloodied and littered with the corpses of my old colleagues. Not friends, for I had never formed much of a bond with any of them, but people I had known mere moments ago. Several dead faces to which I could put a name. Even Gelrard’s dry wisdom hadn’t saved him from such a fate, and soon it would be my turn.

But the real horror was the ship beside Topper Shelley. Varvagus’ ship wasn’t just dark and covered in strange growths – it was fleshy. Chunks of it pulsated like a beating heart, and what had resembled teeth at a distance looked more like exposed ribs up close. The thing looked like a monster that had been skinned alive, but which had refused to die in its own rage and now sailed the salty waves in defiant agony for as long as time would be.

Sssuch a beautiful shipah," said the eyeless woman in that same uncomfortable voice. “You made a good choice, friend, and you’re ssso close.”

Soon, someone joined us. It was a tall, hooded figure whose face was hard to make out. Then what appeared to be a person made out of dead branches. Then an old man, lacking a single eye and his lower jaw. They kept popping up, this strange crew, following us over to a wide gangway going from one ship to the other.

On the other ship’s deck, I saw a figure wearing a long, black, well-worn coat and a captain’s bicorne hat, standing over the mauled remains of someone as he tore at the corpse with a spear of sorts, picking wounds open and pulling the flesh apart. It was sickening. Only when I boarded the ship and got close enough, however, did I see that it was the remains of Eunno. His face was so torn and bloodied that only his clothes let me recognise him.

When we got close to the scene, the old woman pushed me to the deck before the figure's decorated boots.

I looked up to face a sight that froze my blood. He was tall and stained with old blood. His hat rested on his head with his tip turned forwards and down. His face was characterised by flaking skin, filth, an unkempt beard, black teeth and piercing yellow eyes, staring down at me like I was prey. The threat of Neezer Varvagus was real. He, a man I had but heard of in horrific tales of distant waters as a child, now stood before me.

"This man is the sssort you asked for," slithered the eyeless woman. "Betrayed his captain first chance he got."

“Why wasn’t he on deck with the others?” asked Varvagus, his voice cold, deep and muddied by a thick rasp.

“They had him tied up. No doubt a punishment, which must mean bad blood.”

"On your feet," ordered Varvagus.

I obeyed, scrambling to stand as fast as I could manage. Varvagus looked like he was stifling a smirk.

"Why'd you do it?" he asked.

"I don't know what you mean," I said.

The captain pointed at Roleo. "Are you scared of me or do you hate him?"

"A… little bit of both, I think.”

"No," said Varvagus as he shook his head. “It’s always one more than the other.”

I shook all over, too scared to speak even though speaking was the safest choice I could make.

Varvagus stroked his beard. "I asked your captain why the crew has been sailing so close to my home, and I'm not sure he's telling the truth. Maybe you'll be more honest. Who sent you?”

"Nobody."

"Not Gasmodo? Or Nelkingdon?"

"Neither, we’re independent merchants. We sailed this way to save time.”

"Independent," Varvagus repeated before he spat on the deck. He then began to circle around me, taking slow steps as my shivering intensified. I tried to imagine what he could be thinking. He seemed to be eyeing me up, but for what purpose? I almost bit down on my tongue when he gave me a sudden smack on the back, causing me to stumble forwards. He laughed a raspy laugh before spotting something on deck and bending over to pick it up. It was only then I realised that the figurine had fallen out of my pocket, and she was now in the filthy hand of this walking nightmare that stood next to me.

The captain turned the figurine in his hand, studying its detail. “You make this?”

I nodded, and without as much as a change in posture, threw the carving overboard and into the waves.

“No!” I screamed, despite how little it mattered.

But Varvagus looked at me again, showing no sign that he would raise his blade. “It’s okay,” he said. “You carved her once, you can do it again.”

I shook all over. "But that was the last of my wood.”

“You don’t need wood.”

Varvagus gestured towards Roleo. I was confused until I suddenly understood. Everything clicked into place at once. It was not only a horrifying task that this man had given me, but a personal one as well. Sickening as I found the thought, I wanted to do it, and fate had not given me much choice in the matter.

"You're right," I said. "Got all the material I need."

Varvagus pulled out a knife much larger than the one I owned for carving, and he placed it in my hand. "See me when you’re done.” The captain then walked back to his quarters, but his crew – one of fascinating faces and puzzling shapes – stood by in anticipation.

The eyeless woman grinned and clapped. “He rules the sea and all that lives in it," said the eyeless woman, "and now you will share his glory with all of us.”

With a slow but determined pace, I approached Roleo, still on his back and staring back at me.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Why did he let us live?”

I said nothing.

“You don’t mean…” Roleo began, but he fell silent. I was now standing over him, circling the knife over him as I pondered where and how to begin my work.

Flesh wouldn’t be like wood. It wouldn’t be as sturdy or allow for as many details, but it would do. She called for me, this woman, to be made again. She was not content with being lost in dark waters. At that moment, several corker claws pierced Topper Shelley with loud crunches, tearing the ship to pieces and letting its dead crew drop. Roleo flinched, but I did not.

I knelt before him and patted him on the cheek. “The old world is gone, sir. This is home now.”

"How can you be doing this?” asked Roleo.

“I negotiated, just like you wanted to.”

“With our lives,” coughed the old man, looking at me with fear and sorrow in his eyes. “Please. Whatever this is, you- you’re better than this. You don’t have to it.” His voice was cracking.

For a short moment, a tinge of compassion shot through me. I had never felt sorry for this man until now, and it gave me pause. Then I forced it out. It wouldn't serve me anymore.

“I spare you and die the wrong man,” I said, “or I do this and become something else. At least you got to live as yourself. I hope it was worth it.”

I made the first cut, and the scream drowned out the storm. Soon I would see her again.


Submitted: April 02, 2021

© Copyright 2021 MikHoest. All rights reserved.

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Celtic-Scribe63

As usual, your presentation is immaculate and a little envious.
This is a tall, horrifying tale told with great care and attention to detail. Einar is such a great well rounded, many-layered character. his inner thoughts are the driving force behind this unraveling horror story.
Attention to detail and descriptions of all around him bring this story to life with such vivid splashes of brilliance.
Also laced with sardonic humour. It was a great pleasure to read.

Exceptional writing, exceptional story.
Regards.
CS63

Mon, May 10th, 2021 8:09am

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