08 Mar The Unfamiliar
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"The Unfamiliar"Written by
Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
The darkness is insurmountable here. The air reeks of saltwater, decaying fish, and other human stenches that I cannot even begin to imagine even if I felt the desire to. An unearthly black fog has settled over the city, as it does every night, and I yearn for a daylight that feels as though it may never come. The night in Malaveara is oppressive, almost as though it were not night at all, but rather the natural state of the world around the city. Of course, there is hardly a problem with the town itself.
The problem is what inhabits the town.
Beneath the cover of darkness that invades the streets every night, I can hear the sounds of shuffling, weary feet drunkenly stumbling toward some unknowable destination, if one actually exists. From outside, I can hear the sharp words of ghouls wandering around, starting fights and wreaking havoc. The one place that they never venture is Port Luna, for all of Malaveara knows never to descend to the seaside before the sun had broke over the horizon; stories of disappearances and unexplained occurrences led to the superstitions and urban legends of deceiving demons and malevolent spirits haunting the area. Instead, these creatures (for they could never be called human) roam the streets throughout the rest of the city, a nightly disease that infects the city once dusk falls that is purged as soon as the sun rises. Life here is almost unthinkably dangerous.
And yet, I call Malaveara home.
The grim undertakings of the nocturnal do not consist of life in Malaveara, rather as a mere part of life. During the day, the city is an entirely different place. The oceanside air carries a scent of tranquility and freshness through the streets. The people who fill the roads with the daily hustle and bustle are polite and kind, and I used to have friends among them. The sun overhead shines down, and when I look out to sea from the port and behold the glistening waters shimmering beneath the warm sunlight, I think that there is no jewel upon this Earth that can rival its beauty.
If the city truly is cursed, it only reveals itself at night. When the sky takes on that dark blue hue, the clouds fade under the cover of night, families retreat into their homes and lock the doors, and the sea loses that glimmering beauty, I too barricade myself in my quarters to wait out another night. It has been that way for as long as I can remember, and it will be this way until the ocean itself rises, seizes the city in its wet grip, and drags Malaveara down to the briny depths.
I would be content with this crude system, were it not for a particular night that I spent outside the safety of my home. I am a man who has survived a Malavearan night, but at the unexpected cost of my very sanity. Whatever still dwindles within my head presents you with what I can recollect of that terrible night, but with this dire warning.
Never go outside in Malaveara at night.
I was a young man of about twenty four years when it happened, and, I am ashamed to admit, I was not of an agreeable reputation. Indeed, I had made mistakes in my life regarding my career choices, though were it not so damned easy, I would not have been bothered. At my side was a fellow whom I had long revered and called a friend. His name was Amicus, and together we managed to successfully swindle many sailors out of their money.
Our original scam was a relatively simple one: in addition to docks holding large ships from faraway places, Port Luna also held a thriving market that began at dawn and ended shortly before dusk. Sailors would come to trade with the local merchants, and Amicus and I would disguise ourselves as such in order to fool the sailors into buying our goods. The items in question, such as fruit or spices, were actually purchased from other stalls. We would then sell them to eager sailors for twice the price, which meant that we would purchase a dozen apples or oranges for six pieces, and then sell them to sailors for twelve or thirteen on days that we felt particularly bold. On one occasion, we sold a dozen oranges to a group for thirty pieces. They were outraged, but begrudgingly paid the thirty pieces after we informed them that, due to a drought, it had been a difficult season for harvest. The sailors, who had been out to sea for so long that they had become desperately in need of fruit, were pitifully easy to fool.
Over time, our scams became more elaborate. We would take simple balls and paint them to resemble fruit before filling a crate with them, stacking real fruit on top in order to conceal the deceit. We would then deliver the crate to a newly-arrived ship for the ludicrous price of fifty pieces, and the captain, upon inspecting the fruit on the top, would pay us. Soon, we realized that painting all of the balls was unnecessary effort, and instead wedged a large piece of cardboard halfway into the box, filling the bottom part beneath it with sand to make up for the difference of weight and give the illusion of it being full of fruit.
We garnered a notorious reputation around Port Luna, though our tricks continued to prove effective for many months, as sailors would not fathom our treachery until they had long departed out onto the sea, at which point it was far too late to voyage back to Malaveara. Of those who were so infuriated that they returned to the port to seek us out, we would simply leave the port and not return until we were absolutely sure that it was safe.
It was in this fashion that we operated for months, until the day came that I had never anticipated would find me trapped on the streets of Malaveara after dark. Amicus and I were convincing the captain of a crew of newly arrived sailors of the quality of “our” product (which, for the curious, was a simple crate containing a dozen or so oranges, our carefully made fakes, and the sand) when a delivery boy happened to pass from the same stall that had sold us the oranges a week prior. He caught on to our trick once he spotted the oranges and loudly informed the captain of our attempted trickery and stated that the oranges were not only soon to be overripe, but were no longer fresh. However, the captain still seemed uncertain, and we may have still salvaged the scam with our pride intact had the delivery boy not gestured to Amicus’s face and declared it a “dishonest face”. This short remark irritated Amicus so fiercely that he, holding the crate with one arm, made to grab the boy with the other hand and was so careless as to let the crate fall from his grip. Upon hitting the dock, the crate broke in half, spilling ripe fruit, balls, and sand at the captain’s feet. He must have been warned of our scams by other sailors, for at the revelation of our deception, his face became quite red and he reached for the cutlass at his belt. The first few raindrops of a seaside storm fell as Amicus and I hurried away, leaving the crate where it lie like a monument of our shameful falsehoods on the dock.
Amicus and I were forced to flee from the wrath of not only the sailors, but the police overseeing the market when the delivery boy alerted them to our tricks. Amicus and I tore out of Port Luna into the streets, spurred onward by that fabled adrenaline rush of fear as the sailors yelled profanity as they pursued us, and the policemen blew their whistles as they attempted to maintain order. I remember roughly bumping into a woman on the street as I hastened to keep pace with my friend, knocking her to the ground and sending the foods that she had been carrying in a basket into the air, though I hardly noticed at the time. Instead, all that mattered was our escape.
Fortunately, at that moment, the clouds opened and a downpour of rain fell. Seaside storms are hazardous, and in the chaos as people fought for shelter, Amicus and I believed that we would make our getaway down an alleyway until we heard the captain’s boots still clamoring after us in a determined hunt. I could feel the polished blade of his cutlass whistle through the wind behind me. At that very moment, much to my relief, his foot landed on a recently made puddle of rainwater and he slipped and fell onto the cobblestone. Amicus and I were free to make our getaway, but at that moment some fool pulled a large horse carriage at the end of the alley and stopped, blocking our route of escape.
Behind us, I could hear the captain rising to his feet to resume his chase. Our time to escape was limited, and I began to panic. The driver had stopped his carriage with the wheel blocking any hope that we had of climbing beneath it. Amicus did not hesitate; with his superior height, he leapt into the air and seized hold of the carriage’s roof. His boots kicked the side of the carriage as he pulled himself atop it, and he looked back to cast me one last pitying look before he disappeared over the other side of the carriage, leaving me to my fate.
The captain advanced upon me, but at that moment, a policeman appeared at the far end of the alleyway, loudly blowing his whistle. The captain lowered his cutlass in confusion, and turned away from me to face back to the policeman. Behind me, the door to the carriage opened and a man in a black hood, a man whom I presumed to be the carriage driver, peered out at the scene in the alleyway.
I wasted no time in pushing the man out of my way and climbing into his carriage before opening the door on the other side and tumbling out, falling to the ground in the process and dirtying the sleeve of my jacket with flecks of mud. Behind me, the man in the black hood closed the doors to the carriage and whipped the reins, spurring the horses onward. I fought to climb to my feet, and I fled, leaving the encounter with the captain behind me.
I wandered through the streets of Malaveara, but there was no sign of Amicus. The rain fell like a veil, cloaking the figures on the street from my view, making it even more difficult to find my friend. The storm was overpowering me now; a screaming gale nearly forced me off my feet. I knew at once that I should seek shelter. Unfortunately, or through some cruel karmic retribution by the will of an angry God, my residence was on the other side of Malaveara. The storm was growing in intensity, so much so that debris was beginning to fly amongst the fierce winds. Water was flooding the streets as puddles formed, overflowed, and grew to consume the bricks.
I was desperately in need of a place to wait out the storm, so I began searching the shops that adorned the sides of the street for one that was open, to no avail. It was getting far too late for any respectable establishment to have its doors open to customers. Rather unwillingly, I found myself huddled deep in an alleyway. The rain soaked my clothes and chilled me down to the bone. It was there that I suffered for an unknowable amount of time, though the buildings around me weakened the wind to a slight, frigid breeze, and the downpour was barely tolerable.
By the time the rain stopped, I was shivering. My clothes were damp, and each movement that I made sent droplets of water flying from my body. My shoes were nearly ruined from being submerged for so long in the growing ocean that had once been the street, and my toes were numb from the icy temperature. When I exhaled, a cloud of white mist emerged from my mouth and my spine would quiver. I was shaking, though I know not if it was from the unbearable cold, or the sudden realization of my predicament.
Even from where I was hidden in an alleyway, I could see the sky above, though even though I already knew what would be waiting for me, my stomach sunk deeper and deeper as I slowly left my refuge for the Malavearan streets, my gaze still fixated on the sky.
A waning gibbous moon, cloaked behind clouds of stone, hung within an abyss of black that sparkled with white stars.
I was in disbelief, though I could not tear my eyes from the sight of a night sky. I hadn’t seen one in so long, and believed that I never would so long as I lived in Malaveara, but here I was. I was so suddenly overcome with emotions of such a powerful fear that when I finally did manage to tear my gaze from the moon, my face contorted in a wide smile and I began to laugh until tears were streaming down my cheeks and my breathing had turned ragged and tired.
A memory of an event that had taken place mere months before that night had come to mind as I stood, shaking, in the frosty night. I had been in my den, taking shelter for the night, when from outside came a sudden ruckus. A panicking man was running from house to house, banging on the doors. Even now, so many years later, I can remember the sound of his screams.
“I’m not one of them! I don’t belong out here!” he was shouting, pleading to be let inside. I had the blinds pulled over the windows, yet I still ducked down in front of my desk when he came to my door and rapped his fists on the wood. “Please! Somebody! They’re coming!”
I froze in place; I did not dare to rise from my chair to cross the room. From where I was safe inside my own home, I listened to the man attempt to rush to the next house, but I never heard him knock on the door.
He began to scream, and then his screams turned to howls, and the howls to whimpers before all outside was silent. As quietly as I could, I rose from my chair and went to my bedroom before closing and locking the door and tiredly climbing into bed where I would toss and turn for the rest of the night.
The morning after, I left my home to see a tattered jacket lying in the street in the same area that the man had been shouting. People trampled on it as they made their way down the street.
Was that to be my fate? To fall victim to whatever foul nightmares prowl the streets in the darkness? It appeared that my only chance for survival would be to seek shelter in my own home on the other side of Malaveara. I feared that if I remained in place much longer, whatever unseen monstrosities that I had heard every night would soon be upon me.
I had no time to waste, and began my long trek. I strode along the streets, weary to be travelling in plain sight. I looked to the shadows of the alleyway, thinking that they would prove an invaluable hiding place, but the darkness was so absolute that I could not tell if there was anything moving within the shadows, and it was then that I caught my first glimpse of a denizen of the night.
He looked to be old, as his hair was ashen and his black eyes seemed sunken and filled with a hollowness dug through years. His crooked teeth smiled at me beneath a wide-brimmed black hat, and his black trenchcoat seemed long, almost too long. He was a tall man, so tall in fact that at first I believed he was levitating in the air.
Startled by his sudden appearance, I quickened my pace, leaving that vile alleyway behind me. I dared not look back over my shoulder, for fear that he would be following. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the street that I ventured a quick glance over my shoulder and saw- to my immense relief- that there was no one. My relief was short lived, as I looked back down the street and was met with a shock.
I was fully aware that the amount of nighttime ghouls wandering the streets of Malaveara was vast, though I was not aware of the full scope until that very moment. The street was lined with a wide array of strange creatures, and I now knew that my assumption of these nighttime stalkers not being human proved true.
The pungent stench of decay and squalor filled my nostrils as I stood paralyzed by the horrifying sight before me. Creatures sat in doorways, motionless, paced the streets, restless, or stood huddled in unsettlingly close circles, whispering in indiscernible voices. None of these nocturnal freaks seemed to pay me any attention, however, so I wondered if it might be possible to simply walk down the street. My only other option was to detour through an alleyway, but without knowing what sinister entities lurked in the shadows, I could not bring myself to enter the alley.
Trying to keep myself from shaking so harshly, I began walking down the street and past the ghouls.
As I wandered past a circle of people who had no color to them whatsoever, not on their skin or clothing, I could catch only a few select words (Catalyst, Crystal, Gates, Oblivion) before the group went silent when I approached while keeping their heads bowed in the circle, unmoving. I passed by a man in a faded gray cloak who was lying against a shop and peered at him as I passed, only to discover, to my horror, that he had no face beneath his hood, though as I stared, two eyes began to push outwards through his skin before the skin opened, pushing the eyeballs out onto his face where their brilliant blue radiance watched me. When more eyes began to appear on his cheeks, forehead, and chin, I walked a little faster and hurried away while feeling the heat of their intense gazes on my back.
It took everything that I had to not break into a sprint, though my face glistened with sweat, and I now buried my hands in my pockets to hide the shaking. My breathing was heavy, and I struggled to quiet my gasps. At this point, I hadn’t even made it halfway down the street. Nothing about this was natural. The monsters were real, and they had come.
I passed another circle of Colorless People, catching a few more words (Ends, Corsair, Syndicate), but I was almost wheezing. Finally, I reached the end of the street where a raven-haired woman wearing black clothing and holding a white umbrella was standing with her back to me. She looked around at me, and caught my eye. Her face was pale, her skin almost ghostly. The lady turned to face me, slowly reaching out a weak hand.
“Please… are you here for me…?” she asked in a voice that was little more than a whisper. “So empty… so cold…”
“N-No,” I stammered, backing away as the empty lady slowly moved closer, her hand still extended. “I’m sorry, I can’t help…”
Suddenly, a rough hand clamped down on my shoulder and pulled me so violently that I was nearly yanked off my feet. Instead, I whirled around to find that a sailor, covered completely from head to toe in a muddy grime, had grabbed me in his cold, unyielding grasp. His eyes flashed darkly, filled with a bitter malevolence, but his beard seemed to be made of something other than hair. I felt my stomach sink when I saw his beard move and realized that it was made of fingers, some twitching, others pointing toward me as if trying to grab me.
“Ye ain’t one of us,” he croaked in a hollow, gravelly voice that sounded as though it had come from an abyss at the end of the ocean floor. “Ye don’t belong here…”
“Let go of me!” I struggled to pull away from his hold. The empty lady was still crooning behind me. He was slowly pushing his face closer to mine, and the fingers reached out for me. At the last second, I pulled my head back and threw it forward, feeling a satisfying crack where his nose was as he stumbled back, releasing me from his powerful grip, but the clammy fingers seized hold of my face. Shrieking, I pulled away, but the fingers did not relinquish their hold. His beard stretched as though he had a long arm protruding from his face, and I could hear the gruesome sailor’s cackling in my ears. It was only when I opened my mouth and bit down on the fingers trying to climb inside that he howled in pain, and the fingers retracted. Disoriented, I scrambled to get away, my footsteps sounding like thunder on the bricks as I ran for my life.
I paid no attention to the freaks lining the streets or the circles that went silent as I neared. Instead, I was so caught up in my mad dash to even remember which direction I was going. All that mattered was getting away from the monsters, but that feat was impossible in a city filled with them.
My fearful run began to garner the attention of the creatures. Some seemed uninterested, others called after me, but some lunged to catch me. A woman with long, greasy black hair dove at me from a familiar alleyway, her lips parting sideways to reveal jagged, broken teeth, and she hissed at me. Panicking, I nearly lost my balance trying to turn in a new direction and ended up running beneath an archway into…
The nocturnal forbidden area where no stalkers would dare wander after dark, for forces far more chaotic and malign than they inhabited this area. For a moment, I thought I caught sight of the ghostly sailor wandering the edge of the port with a lantern in hand, but his beard was not as proclaimed and he was wearing the garb of a captain.
The sudden howling of a wolf somewhere nearby startled me, and I reflexively tensed up at the sudden sound before it abruptly stopped. Everything seemed so quiet in the port, which I thought was odd at the time, but the reason why did not occur to me until much later. During the day, in addition to the rowdiness of the market, there was the constant crashing of waves against the docks and the squawking of seagulls. That night, the ocean was impossibly silent, and the only living things were watching from the shadows, their presence felt, but unheard.
I so desperately wanted to run from that unholy place, but my feet seemed locked in place. I was paralyzed with fear, my whole body tingling with shivers. It suddenly became very cold. When I looked out over the ocean, the moon did not illuminate the waves; instead, the water was blacker than the sky, so it more resembled an endless abyss yawning over the horizon. It felt as though my blood were turning to ice as I stared, numb, at the unnatural, unrecognizable sight before me.
Rather unexpectedly, I felt an ancient presence nearby, and all of the other malevolent entities seemed to disappear as it drew nearer. Sweat rolled down my brow as I felt it moving over the cobblestone to my side, but I did not dare to look. Instead, I stood in mute terror, trembling and squeezing my eyes shut, praying that tonight was not the night that I met an untimely demise.
When I opened my eyes, the ancient creature passed me by, and I caught my first sight of its massive form. From what little that I can remember, it had skin whiter than anything I’d ever seen, and it seemed to be twisted and pulsating while it prowled on four legs. Whether they ended in paws or claws or some other appendage, I did not see. It turned to face me with a deformed face, though I could somehow tell that it held a mildly interesting, musing expression. Its eyes were hollow, but all-seeing. Its mouth was permanently open, as though it had not finished what it had to say and it never would.
This indescribable creature surveyed me for a moment, and then it spoke in a voice unlike any human’s. This was a voice that a human would be incapable of making, for it resonated with eons of life and whispers of debilitation. It did not move its mouth to say those three words that have haunted me ever since that night, echoing in my dreams and hiding between the sentences of everything that anyone has spoken to me since.
At once, I regained control of my body and turned to flee from that repulsive port, and I have never returned. I do not recall how exactly I returned home, for my mind was a spiral of madness for many months after my encounter with the ancient entity, but despite my slow recovery, I have not remembered. Even most of the creature’s form is a blur in my memory, as the mere sight unravelled my mind for quite some time. From what I have been told, I was found in my house the next day, raving like a madman and laughing to myself. I spent many years in a recovery clinic, and I have not seen Amicus since his abandonment that night.
Now, years later, I live my life quietly in Malaveara. I’ve found honest work, and am often inside my house hours before and after night falls over the fair city. Somehow, I know that I will never be able to leave.
But those three words that the creature spoke are forever engraved in my mind. Even writing them now sends shivers down my back and a dull pain through my head. Despite my uncountable nightmares about the ancient entity saying those three words, I’ve tried to forget. I now write them, hoping that I find some solace in revealing my knowledge and praying whomever reads them will someday find that they do not remember these three words.
Welcome home, human.
Credit: Alex Sorrow