by Renekton Bot (edited by CupcakeTrap)
This is a Beyond the Battlefield story, set in the early days of the League.
The sun bore down from overhead, warming the crew of the Saltskipper even as the ocean waves sent blasts of freezing mist across the deck.
“How much farther?” complained a junior researcher. He’d come up from below when he’d heard they were nearing their destination.
“Not long now,” an older man assured him, then turned his head back to look towards the ocean. The man, one Vero Feld, wasn’t part of the Saltskipper’s original research team, but had been brought aboard after the discovery of the ‘ebon calm’ was first announced. As the good ship was a scientific research vessel his presence would prove invaluable, for Vero was an expert on magical anomalies.
A cry went up as one of the crew members spotted something. The rest of the Saltskipper’s crew came up from below to see.
Sure enough, they’d found it. The ebon calm. A stretch of ocean that spanned to the horizon, flat and black and utterly motionless. It looked as if the water itself had turned to obsidian. The crew stared on in awe.
“Drop anchor, we’ll get no closer.” said Vero. The crew did as they were bade, and the sail was taken down as well.
“So, mister…Feld, was it? What can you tell us about this…thing, whatever it is?” asked the Saltskipper’s captain, a man with a long brown beard and a windburned face.
“Nothing.” Vero replied. He let the word hang in the air a moment, “…from here. It doesn’t seem to be resonating with any sort of magical energies at all.”
“Well, it’s certainly nothing science has ever encountered before.”
“Indeed it is not,” agreed Vero.
“So what do we do, then?”
“We’ll need to have someone take a closer look.”
“You want us to move closer?”
“No. Not us. Send your diver.”
Eddin Locke stood upon the deck staring out at the calm, arms crossed. He turned as he felt their gaze.
“You’re not serious,” he said.
As he stood in the depths of the ship, his close friend Jori Barnes helping him into his heavy diving suit, he found that they were. Eddin “Nautilus” Locke was the ship’s resident diver, so named for his affinity for the diving suit he wore under the waves, his “shell.” He had bought it more than two decades ago with his share of a particularly large haul of undersea treasure, from a then-unknown Piltovian engineer named Gloria Hanaphy. Gloria was barely keeping the lights on in her workshop at the time, but he had been impressed by her work and commissioned a customized diving suit. Now, Hanaphy was held in esteem equal to the likes of Corin Reveck, and when last appraised—for insurance; he would never sell it—the suit was worth more than just about any ship it had ever been carried on. It was a masterpiece of Piltovian craftsmanship, forged of enchanted metal and operated by ingeniously designed techmaturgic pistons and motors. He often said it was like a second skin to him, and the crew joked that he might as well leave it on all of the time. Sometimes he thought he might like to do just that someday.
But of all the times he’d been helped into his suit before a dive, this was the first time he’d not wanted to go. Something about this ‘calm,’ whatever it was, rubbed him the wrong way. Why couldn’t it have been just another wreck? As he sank into the suit and felt it tighten around him, humming to life, he sensed that it too was perturbed.
He made his way back onto the deck and stood upon the edge, the ship starting to list with the weight of him. He stared down into the blue of the ocean.
“Alright, Eddin, give us a test to make sure the transceiver’s working.”
“Test,” he responded half-heartedly, his voice crackling through a portable hextech transceiver on the deck.
“Alright, we’ve got it. You may dive when ready.”
The first dive had always been his favorite part. Stepping into the water and going down, down, as the pressure pressed the material of his diving suit to his skin and he felt the water’s heavy embrace. Usually he could see the ocean floor around him as he descended… But not today. The calm, whatever it was, extended below the surface as well like a gigantic tower under the waves. It devoured all of the sunlight and cast a hideous shadow across the bed. Eddin was descending into darkness.
“Saltskipper to Nautilus, is everything alright?” the radio operator asked his device.
“Fine.” came Nautilus’ response.
Vero stood by the transceiver and watched the calm carefully, his expression unreadable.
“Do you see anything?”
“Whatever this is, it goes all the way to the bottom.”
Some of the crew members began to mutter.
“Are you on the floor yet?”
“Just touched down.”
“Tell him to get closer.” said Vero.
“What?” asked the operator.
“Closer, I said.”
“Nautilus…Vero wants to know if you can move any closer.”
“Closer? Is he crazy?”
“I need to know what he sees,” said Vero.
“He said he needs to know what you see. Get as close as you can, but back off if it gets dangerous.”
There was a pause, and then a less than sincere expression of gratitude. “Yeah, thanks. Hang on…”
The crew waited, listening to the sound of Eddin’s breathing. It began to quicken as he drew in closer.
“Nautilus to Saltskipper.”
“Go ahead, Nautilus.”
“I see something.”
The crew leaned in towards the transceiver.
“What? What do you see?”
“It’s…it’s a great big gods-forsaken black thing in the middle of the ocean. What the hell did he expect me to see?”
The crew laughed. Vero scowled. “How close is he?”
“Nautilus, how close are you?”
“Ten feet, I think. No, I…wait a minute. Saltskipper, it’s moving! The calm, it’s…Pull me up! Pull me up now!”
“Pull him up!” yelled a crewman, and several of them ran to the winch. They tugged down the lever and the winch began to turn, retracting the rope. The ship rocked again as it caught Nautilus’ weight. Most of the crew had their eyes locked on the transceiver, and some of them stared down at the ocean, waiting for Nautilus to appear from the depths. Vero stood as he had since the diver had gone under, staring off the bow at the calm, black expanse.
“Nautilus, what’s your status?” the operator asked the transceiver, almost shouting.
“It’s after me!” came the crackling response. “It, it—! Gods, the hands, they’re—!”
The ship lurched as the winch stopped suddenly.
The crew felt their blood chill as they heard the panicked scream of the stalwart Eddin Locke. There was something in the background of the transmission, something that was not static. Like voices, but such as no human mouth could produce.
“It has me! Gods above, someone help me, someone—!”
The ship lurched again, hard enough to bowl several of the crew over. His gauntlet broke the surface of the water. He was dragging himself up by the rope. Aquamarine arcs of thaumic energy surged around the actuating fingers of the suit. The ship banked to the side, nearly capsizing. Something was pulling him down. Something was pulling them all down.
“Sever that line!” commanded Vero. Seeing the crew’s frozen expressions, he threw back his hood and transfixed them with glowing blue eyes. His voice deepened, suffused with arcane power, as Summoner Vero Feld spoke again. “By order of the Council, SEVER THAT LINE!”
Barnes broke down in tears as he fought through the compulsion. “I’m not leaving him behind!” He seized the winch controls and threw the emergency lift lever. It barely began to move before it spat sparks and died.
The alien voices rose, as though fed by their fear.
They could hear them through the speakers, louder and louder.
It wasn’t long before they drowned out Nautilus’ screams with horrible sounds, menacing, on the verge of becoming words.
The transceiver operator ripped the device out of its mount and flung into into the ocean, desperate to make it stop, before they could hear what those words might be.
Nautilus’ helmet rose into view. The suit’s hextech arms strained. They could hear his voice again, through the suit’s vox unit. He howled like a man being ripped to pieces from the inside. His ragged voice formed slow, agonized words. “Please…let me out…”
Barnes shook. The voices in the background of the transceiver’s audio. They were back. They were coming through the suit’s speaker, now. They were inside. He looked down over the railing at his pleading friend. He heard what the voices were saying, and fell to the deck, clutching his head as though he wanted to crush the memory out of his skull.
The ship’s crew grabbed rifles and aimed them down. They fired past Nautilus at whatever might be below. The captain grabbed Feld’s lapels and shouted at him over the din. “Do something, Feld! You damn coward!
Vero Feld thrust a palm into the captain’s chest. Amber energy coursed through him, dropping him to his knees. The spell sapped his strength until he could not even close his hands. Feld lunged past him and drew a slender half-sword from his cloak. He sliced through the heavy braided rope with one swing. The other end disappeared into the ocean.
He aimed the tip of the sword at the first mate. “Turn this ship around and get us out of here immediately.” He seemed to be the only man who wasn’t in a state of panic.
The captain croaked a curse up from the deck. “Vero, damn you to the eight, what have you done!?”
Vero ignored him and turned to the crew. “Raise anchor.” They raced to comply, but found they could not.
“It’s stuck! It’s STUCK!” one cried.
The calm had the anchor.
Vero raised his sword again. On the downstroke it cut through the anchor’s metal chain as easily as it had sliced through the winch’s rope.
“NOW!” he barked. The crew raised the sail, but there was no wind.
The captain stared up at Feld. “You know…you know what it is.”
Vero met the captain’s eyes. For the first time, some measure of guilt showed in his face. “Yes. I do. …I did.”
The captain sank down to the deck.
“It’s coming!” shouted a man. All hands looked off the side of the Saltskipper. They could see it now, the calm had begun to move…and it was coming for them.
The sail was raised, and the wind had begun to blow. Perhaps the gods had not forsaken them after all. The ship began to move, and as it skirted the edge of the calm in a turn, the blackness rose up to grab at them. Fortunately, it was just short of reaching the ship itself, and soon the Saltskipper was clear.
“Vero, you miserable cur, I should have thrown you in after him!” snarled the captain. “You knew what that was, and you brought us out here anyway! Now one of my men, one of my crew is dead!”
“Dead? I doubt it. If so, it is most fortunate for him.” Vero laughed, genuinely astonished by the captain’s ignorance. He envied it.
The Summoner’s laughter enraged the captain, who shook off the spell to lunge at him. Vero spun to the side, and when the captain turned to press his attack, he found himself facing the extended tip of his sword.
“I wouldn’t advise that.” he said, and the captain stepped back, scowling as deeply as he’d ever scowled at a man. “You are understandably upset. I will not press the charge of assault upon an agent of the League that by law you would be subject to. Please understand that I’m not a cruel man, only one given a cruel task.”
Vero turned to the crew.
“I would advise all of you to forget everything you’ve seen here today, and never speak of this to another living man. You will be compensated generously. I suggest a vacation. Ionia is lovely this time of year.”
“How are we supposed to forget that?” asked one. The others nodded.
Vero did not answer them. He turned again and began to walk.
“When we arrive in Bilgewater, each of you will book passage to the mainland. And you will stay there.”
“For how long?” asked one of the crew.
Vero did not answer as he went below decks.
Months after the event there were still whispers through Bilgewater. Eddin “Nautilus” Locke had been one of the town’s most popular residents, and his disappearance did not go unnoticed…but none of his crew had ever spoken of him since, and the stories of his disappearance differed wildly. A shark, some said. Forgot his breathstone, claimed others. Acute scurvy said some. Somewhere between the breathstone and shark theories, on the continuum of perceived probability, was the notion that Hanaphy’s techmaturgic diving suit had malfunctioned somehow, perhaps twisting or bending beyond human tolerance.
The day Eddin had vanished was the last journey the Saltskipper’s crew had ever made together. Nearly every man had given up sailing afterward and taken Vero’s advice, sailing for the mainland with their families (if they had families) and never returning to Bilgewater again.
One morning, a ship had capsized in Bilgewater harbor. Sailors, dockworkers, pirates and other denizens of the town had gathered on the dock to speculate, share opinions and help the crew offload cargo before it went under.
One of the men who had gone into the flooded lower reaches of the ship returned, screaming his throat raw. It took three men to keep him from lunging off the ship and seriously injuring himself on the dock below.
There was a great cracking then as the back of the ship was blown clear by a tremendous force and a titanic, hulking figure stepped out onto the dock. The crowd was staring wide-eyed as the rusted, barnacled diving suit stood before them, clutching a ship’s anchor in one-hand and staring at them with glowing red eyes, the glow so unreal and terrible to behold that it froze them where they stood.
Then the suit leaned back, lifted its helmeted head and howled, a sound so terrible that those closest to the monstrosity immediately lost their minds.
The rest screamed and began to run.
The creature hurled its anchor at them. The force of the impact obliterated those it hit, and one man unfortunate enough to be on the inside of the hook when the creature recalled it was pulled screaming back to it and impaled. It flung his corpse into the sea.
Then it began to walk, and those who had a mind to fight it before now quailed in terror and fled.
The call went out to the League for assistance, and in short order there arrived a task force of Summoners and Champions, Vero Feld among them. They met the monster in Bilgewater proper. It had destroyed much of the town in a blind fury…But then it laid its glowing red eyes on Vero. The normally stone-faced man went pale as the creature howled again and charged for him with horrifying ferocity. It took the combined strength of every Champion and Summoner present to stop it, and even then the monstrous thing endured. It locked its red eyes on Vero as the Summoners prepared to send it back to the League for containment and study.
The body of Jori Barnes, or at least what remained of it, was pulled from the harbor and given a proper burial. The story of the creature’s attack on Bilgewater was soon colored by implications that it was in reality Eddin Locke, trapped within the suit he had loved so dearly, come to exact his revenge on the men who had left him to die.
Superstition gave way to fear, and in time even uttering his name became taboo within Bilgewater. The citizenry took it upon themselves to see that Eddin Locke was forgotten, or at the very least never mentioned in public again.
The League had their Champion. Let him stay there, it was decided, and hope that whatever caused his monstrous transformation was locked away with him until the end of time.