01 Jun Between Ice and Stars
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"Between Ice and Stars"Written by MrDupin
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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
The hull of the ship moaned and groaned under the strain of its frozen enclave. HMS Stargazer and its crew had initially set out into the deep unknown to map uncharted territories, but winter descended quickly upon them and they found themselves trapped between stars and ice for months. Supplies were running thin and the captain of the ship, a tall and clean shaven gentleman by the name of Gerald Northington, had assembled groups of hunters to venture out in search of seal meat. The most recent hunting expedition had yet to return and Northington was pacing anxiously up and down his quarters.
A knock on the door. His first mate, William Ward, called him. He was a gruff man with a strong jawline, harsh mutton-chops, and dark eyes, and the hard-boiled personality to match his rough looks.
“Sir, the hunting party has returned. John Hopkins is dead. The rest are in the bridge of the ship.”
The two men made their way up to the bridge, where they were greeted by the shivering and mumbling hunting party. The most resolute of the group stood up and took it upon himself to report the happenings of the tragic excursion.
“We spotted a seal on the other side of the big frozen lake, the one near the ship. We tracked it down and we decided to split in order to flank it. We managed to ambush and wound the seal, but John was nowhere to be found. We searched for him across the northern coast of the lake, and we eventually found him near the opening of a cavern.”
The sailor took a moment to regain his composure.
“It was too late. He was already stiff, clutching in his hands this damnable statue. We did the decent thing and carried him to this ship, so he can rest under British sails.”
“He is now in Dr. Edgar’s office, getting an autopsy,” William, the first mate, interjected.
“Alright. Gentlemen, my condolences. Get some much-deserved rest now,” Captain Northington motioned to the hunting party. With that, Northington and Ward made their way to Dr. Philip Edgar’s office.
The two men entered the infirmary, a claustrophobic, dreary old room. The dim light from a lone candle revealed neatly shelved flasks and vials, and a collection of leather-bound, worn books stacked upon a chairless desk in the corner of the small room.
Hunched over a pull-down table was Dr. Philip Edgar, a tall and lean man, with pale white skin and gray eyes. He had a solemn look on his face as he examined John Hopkins’ corpse. The body of the deceased sailor had taken a hue of an otherworldly light blue and his skin was frigid. The sailor bore the singular mark of inexorable insanity, with wide open eyes and mouth agape, his face carved into a mask of abyssal dread.
Most peculiarly, the man was clutching in his hands a crude statuette. The idol was jet black and depicted some anthropomorphic creature in the fetal position. The man’s fingers were frozen in place and removing the object risked breaking the fingers off.
“So, what is the verdict?” the captain asked as calmly as he could muster.
“He died from a heart attack. Extreme shock and exertion, I imagine. No signs of ill health or struggle.”
The captain nodded gravely. “Put him in the storage bay, and we will bury him first thing in the morning.”
* * * * * *
That night a hazy mist of unrest fell upon the stranded ship. The creaking of the hull, the scattering footsteps, echoes of whispers and the death of one of their own loomed tall over the crew. Sleep did not come easy, and when it came it was restless and riddled with nightmares of empty skies and bottomless seas.
Captain Northington watched over them as the crew pressed on, the plague of their situation weighing heavy on their slouched shoulders. They were all his responsibility, and he had vowed to return each and every one of them safe to their homes. Last night he had to come to grips with the crushing realization this was a failing endeavor. With a heavy heart, he ordered two crew-members and Dr. Edgar to go and fetch the body of John Hopkins. He was to be buried with the honor and dignity this god-forsaken land allowed. In a shallow grave of snow and ice.
Northington and the remaining crew had gathered outside, waiting in sepulchral silence to put one of their own under. The minutes passed excruciatingly slow. The members of the crew were throwing sideways glances at each other, growing increasingly uneasy and agitated.
Then, Dr. Edgar appeared above deck and made his way to the gathering. With trembling feet, he moved up to his captain, leaned in and whispered something in a frail tone. The rest of the crew watched as the captain’s face morphed into a grimace of confusion.
“Show me,” he ordered the doctor.
The two men left the group and made their way to the storage bay, where John’s body rested. The door was open and the two men sent alongside Dr. Edgar were stood at either side of the doorframe.
“S-sire, this is how we found it,” one of them uttered, feeble and pale.
The captain entered the storage bay and was greeted by the image that shook his men. The bay was in a state of disarray. Crates were broken, sacks were cut open, barrels were flung across the room and the floor was ridden with stray apples, potatoes and an assortment of vegetables, fruits, and meats.
Most distressingly, John’s body had vanished!
* * * * * *
After a fruitless search for the body, the crew retreated below deck as nighttime rolled in. Haunted by the mystery of the missing corpse, the sailors laid sleepless on their swaying hammocks, with eyes darting around and peering into the impenetrable darkness.
Doctor Edgar, in his cabin, was sitting up on his bed. The squeaking of the ship was grinding his composure to a pulp and every time the ship settled his heart would jump to his throat. But worst of all was the scattering of footsteps, echoing unnaturally outside his room as if crabs were skipping their way across the wooden floor. The doctor had his eyes fixed intently on his door, almost expecting it to fly open any moment and ghouls of the deep to storm his room.
Then, the footsteps abruptly stopped and the night went silent. Even the moaning of the ship had ceased. The stillness of the night was broken only by hushed voices. The doctor, bewildered by the strange whispers, slowly got up and approached the door. He placed his ear upon the wood and listened carefully. Harsh voices speaking in alien and arcane tongues filled his ears. He stood there for what felt like hours, eavesdropping on the maddening serpentine chants, until the whispering stopped and their footsteps trailed off into the distance.
Edgar, either by devilish curiosity or divine vigor, grabbed a lantern and opened the door. The fierce darkness outside greeted him. The doctor steeled himself and lit his lantern, the light sending flickering shadows dancing up the walls, and walked down the way he thought the figures outside his door had gone. The narrow corridors seemed to be getting narrower and narrower and from the cabins on his left and right, Edgar heard no sound. He felt perfectly alone in his bubble of light until the clacking of footsteps echoed on his left. Edgar went completely still, covering his lantern as best he could with his robe. From a corner further down the main corridor, a faint light broke the darkness. At its center, Edgar spotted the cook, who looked at him and sighed in relief.
“You heard them too?” the cook whispered.
“They went this way. Come!” the cook urged him on.
The two men made their way down the bowels of the ship, which creaked hoarsely under their trembling footsteps. The light of their lanterns illuminated the dark corridors, which seemed to close in on them the further down the abyss they delved. They soldiered on, side by side, their determination to put an end to this trumping their growing fear.
When they reached the stairs leading down, they noticed a peculiar clue. Snowy footsteps and puddles of water. The men looked at each other, and without uttering a word, descended further down.
They were now at the storage bay, which was made up of a large corridor with small rooms, once filled to the brim with supplies, on either side. A low rumbling sound reverberated from the end of the corridor, and almost imperceptible mumbling. The men looked down the bay, and they could just make out a quivering candlelight escaping one tiny room. Slowly they made their way towards it, the sounds of rhythmic chanting getting louder and louder. The door was slightly ajar and the cook pushed it open.
The dully illuminated room was a scene of unfathomable horror. Five sailors were huddled in a circle, raving in unpronounceable tongues. The one at the top of the circle wore a tight leather bag over his head, while the rest sported piercings of teeth across their faces. Behind them, propped up against the wall, was the corpse of John Hopkins! His skin was stretched across his face and his hair was frozen in thick patches. His eyes were open wide and his mouth was stuck into a toothless grin. On the floor were scattered symbols drawn in blood and candles that burned with an unholy light.
In the middle of the ritualistic patterns was a small, black statue of an anthropomorphic creature. The same infernal statuette John Hopkins was found gripping in rigor mortis! The mad sailors had broken off the cadaver’s fingers, which were strewn across the room, to rip the idol from his grasp.
At once the sailors turned towards the two intruders and hissed with rabid fervor, saliva dripping on the floor. The man in the impromptu leather mask raised his arms in the air and shouted in his forbidden language. The other pack members jumped on the cook, scratching and biting in a primal assault, subduing him and dragging him down. A bloodcurdling scream escaped the cook’s lungs. The doctor, in a haze, turned and ran away, shouting for help.
The captain was sitting at his desk, downing a glass of brandy when the shrieks broke the silence of the night. He immediately grabbed the gun sitting at his side and strode out. There he met William Ward, his first mate.
“It’s coming from below deck, sir!” Ward spoke and the two men ran after the sound.
“Stay put, all of you!” Ward shouted at the sailors, who were peeking out of corners trying to discern what was going on.
As they were reaching the stairs to the storage bay, the doctor fell on them, his eyes wide with horror.
“Compose yourself, lad! What is going on?” Captain Northington grabbed Edgar’s shoulders, trying to shake him out of his daze. The doctor tried to speak, but no words came out. He could only point faintly towards the source of his terror, before collapsing on the floor. The captain and his first mate stomped down the stairs, guns shining with fiery justice.
The sound of munching and crunching stopped abruptly once the two men approached the candlelit room. A sailor, his clothes ragged and torn, walked out on all fours and stared at them, his eyes bright with madness, before galloping towards them with a wild screech. The captain could only stare with mouth agape at this monstrosity, but Ward found the courage to take a shot, which hit the sailor straight between the eyes. Then, the first mate moved forward, followed by the still shell-shocked captain.
As they got closer, three other men walked out, licking their lips hungrily, blood and gore spilling from their mouths. Ward shot one of them in the torso and aimed for the next one. At the same time, the bulkiest of the sailors made a run for the captain and tackled him to the ground. Northington struggled with the beastly man, who bit and clawed at him, the stench of fresh meat emanating from his mouth. Finally, Northington broke free and hit the sailor with the butt of his pistol, again and again until he was hardly recognizable. At the same time, another shot echoed in the storage bay, and with a flash, the last sailor fell.
The two men composed themselves and stared at each other with disbelief, before moving to the entrance of the room from where these demons had come from.
There they found the half-eaten, disemboweled corpse of John Hopkins, and behind it the leather-masked man on his knees clutching the black statuette, reciting unearthly psalms. The man didn’t react to the intrusion and when a bullet was shot through his skull, he fell backward in silence, his diabolical monologue reaching an abrupt ending.
The statuette fell down hard, making a dent on the wooden floor. The two men stood on top of it in silence. The small item seemed to have a strange pull on their psyche. Their minds were filled with blurry visions of cyclopean cities and fallen stars, of shadowy figures and unearthed tombs. Then, an image rose above the others with crystal clarity. That of a frozen cave, throbbing with antediluvian malice.
No word was exchanged, for the men knew what they had to do. They had to return the wretched statuette to that abhorrent cave.
When they reached the upper deck, an eerie stillness enveloped them. They took tentative steps forward when they felt movement on their side. Ward grabbed a lantern and shone it down the corridor. A group of sailors scattered away at the shining of the light. The captain and his first mate slowly made their way across the deck, Northington holding the statuette in a white-knuckled grip. All around them they could feel eyes staring at them from the darkness. In the middle of the deck, the doctor, lantern at hand, was waiting for them, fidgeting and jumping at each and every movement and sound.
“S-sir, the men… they have gone mad!” the doctor whimpered.
“Come with us lad. We are going to put an end to this foulness,” the captain said sternly.
The three men walked down the main corridor, the possessed sailors surrounding them from the oppressive darkness. Some were moving alongside them, bodies twitching and twisting, others were speaking in raspy voices, whispering unnatural incantations, while others were simply leering behind a fish-eyed mask.
When the group got closer to the stairs, the whole crew had gathered around them, eyes frenzied with hunger and drool dripping from their mouths. The light seemed to keep them at bay, but they were getting more and more confident with each step. Every time a sudden movement was made, the crowd would jolt and get closer.
With the captain in the lead, the men pressed on. Edgar, despite the chattering of his teeth, had managed to stay composed up until one sailor called out his mother’s name with a grave growl. The doctor shivered and jumped, which caused a ruckus in the crowd, the men wailing and shivering in anticipation. A man broke from the rest and with a feverish yelp jumped for the statuette. Ward plucked him from the air and punched him violently on his nose, which exploded into a bloody mess. The first mate shot a vicious look into the crowd and swung the lantern around, forcing them to recoil back into the shadows.
The three men hastened their pace and moved swiftly up the stairs to the top deck, the crew trailing behind them lethargically. They made their way to the bridge, and from there they left the ship. The crew, as if stunned by a spell, stopped their pursuit. Amidst the snowfall, their unmoving figures peered down at the three men from atop the ship.
William Ward led the group onto the frozen lake towards the cave. The elements raged around them, nature itself bent on preventing passage. The men fought through, pushed on by unnatural and unexplainable forces. Upon reaching the entrance of the cave, exhausted and beaten by the harsh wind, the pull on their self had grown far too strong. Unblinking and unfazed by the imminent danger ahead, they entered. The entrance, much akin to a maw of a great beast with stalactite teeth and jaws made of rock, swallowed them whole.
The descent into the depths of this hell was an arduous one, for the hostile terrain kept slashing and stabbing away at them. At times they had to move sideways into the claustrophobic corridors, or move crouched close to the ground. The silent arteries of the cavern led them further down, where they would occasionally spot a torn cloth from John’s apparel, confirming that they were indeed on the right path. After a particularly narrow passage, the men stepped foot in a gigantic opening. The ceiling of the cavern was shrouded in darkness, and the light of their lanterns didn’t even reach the walls of this opening.
Led by their captain, the men moved towards the center of this abyss. There, an altar was revealed. Two large sarcophagi, one black and one white, sat in the middle of a perfect circle drawn in a crimson powder. An array of books and small statues, much like the one John Hopkins carried, were neatly placed at the feet of the sarcophagi. This was a tomb from out of time, which pulsated with a malignant energy. The captain stepped forth and into the circle, letting the statuette drop on the floor. He moved up to the black coffin and observed it closely.
The resting place of whatever was within was adorned with elaborate carvings of stars, cities and runes. What caught the captain’s attention, though, were depictions of bipedal creatures. Some were standing in fields, others above the walls of a divine palace, others were riding chariots and others were operating machines of technology far advanced.
He ran his palm over the intricately engraved lid, feeling the chiseled stone under his skin and letting the wave of eons past wash over him.
His trance was broken by a loud thud, which echoed like thunder around the cavern. Northington looked over and saw Ward, eyes wide and unblinking, looking into the opened white sarcophagus, its lid resting on the side. In a fit of madness, the first mate had pushed it off! Cracking was heard from within the sarcophagus, and a white talon shot up and stabbed Ward in the chest, retreating back inside and letting the poor man fall to the ground. The two remaining men could only stare, drenched in dread, as a white, slim figure rose up from its resting place. The anthropomorphic, bipedal creature was standing tall above the men, its head elongated and its eyes whiter than snow. It moved clankily towards the black sarcophagus and with a swift motion, it threw the lid away. Then it waited.
A black hand with sharp claws grabbed the edge of the sarcophagus. A beast similar to the first one, but black and bulkier, stood up. It towered over the captain, who could only stare in disbelief as a long claw struck his neck, cleanly cutting flesh and skin. Blood spurted out of the wound as the beast grabbed the captain from the shoulder and lifted him up to meet its gaze. Then, it brought its face closer, its maw opening wide. A fleshy tube emerged from the creature’s mouth, approaching the newly opened incision. Then, it spilled a myriad of black insectoids down the wound, which crawled under Northington’s skin and disappeared in his body. The captain’s lifeless corpse was dropped to the ground.
At that, the doctor started running, his heart pounding heavily against his chest. He ran through jagged grounds and narrow passages, the hard edges tearing at his clothes and skin. Pushed on by fear most primal, he flew up the rough terrain and reached the opening of the cave, his mind in shambles.
He stumbled out, his knees buckling under the weight of the horror in the cavern and his eyes burning with the travesty that had unfolded. Outside no snow was falling and no wind was blowing, as if nature herself cowered away from this damned corner of the earth. The sky above laid bare and starless, a heavy veil of blackness over the pale ice.
In his derelict state, Edgar stepped on the ice and started walking aimlessly further down the maw of nothingness. He must have been walking for ages towards the monochromatic horizon, when a crack echoed across the air and sent shockwaves down the ice. Then another cracking sound, and another, and another. When the sounds merged into one crescendo of cacophony, the surface in front of Edgar exploded.
When the storm of ice shards settled, a gargantuan head was revealed. A perfectly symmetrical, hairless head, much to the image of man, but distorted and corrupted. Its onyx black skin seemed to eat away at the surrounding light, while its lid-less eyes gleamed a malevolent white. With a creaking sound, its mouth opened. A murky ooze dribbled out and from the pits of this monstrous creation, a tendril-like appendage appeared. At its top stood a single white eye, with its black as midnight iris darting around manically. Suddenly, the infernal eye locked its gaze on Edgar, boring into his very soul like a cyclopean drill. A wave of primal dread washed over the doctor’s body, relegating him to mere vermin cowering under an apex predator.
He tried to run, but his shattered nerves failed him. He collapsed on his back, his eyes glued to the third eye of this unholy giant staring down at him. Then, it turned away from him uninterested and rose towards the sky. Edgar’s sanity slipped away in an instant, as if a grip on his mind had been loosened and his thoughts all spilled out into a heap of incoherent drivel.
His eyes trailed upwards, where they got lost into the infinite darkness of the sky, just before the overwhelming tyranny of black was broken by a streak of red. Followed by another, and another, and another, wounds of crimson opening on the sky above, fireballs spiraling towards the wretched Earth below!
He was calling them down! His children, his outcast angels, he was calling them all down!
* * * * * *
When Edgar regained his senses, he was in the middle of the glacial lake, snow falling heavily around him and the stars shining brightly from above. He tried to get up, but he slipped back down.
“Here, grab my hand!” Captain Northington shouted through the wind.
“No!” Edgar shouted as he stumbled to his feet. “It cannot be…” he whispered, strands of insanity beginning to slither in his mind. He stood bewildered in front of the once-dead captain and that’s when he saw them. The captain’s eyes!
They were blank and gray, all the color drained from his irises. Then, with a blink, they went back to normal!
Teetering on the brink of madness, Dr. Philip Edgar ran into the snowstorm, his screams echoing in this frozen antechamber of hell until the eternal night claimed him.
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