1-7b The Haunted Shore

My grandfather always told me to beware the fog.  Superstitious I would call him.  I’d ask why our lake would be haunted.  All he would ever say, it’s not our lake, and never was.  The ghosts were here before, and they would be after, lest I joined their number.

All stories, and foolishness.  The fog was a terrible beast to be sure.  One could get lost half a day out there, but there was nothing to sink a boat.  Nothing more than the fish I wanted to catch beneath the waters.  So fog or not, I strode down to the lake shore, I tipped down our old boat where it was leaned, and pushed it to the waters edge.

I shoved off, pulling my foot clear before it could sink into the mud.  I’d done it a hundred times before, rarely got my foot wet any more.  Almost as soon as I left the shore it vanished.  I rolled my shoulders, and steadied myself.  Just stories, just stupid stories of an old cranky man.

I set the oars, and gave a few pulls away from a shore I could no longer see, before bringing them up to rest.  I baited an old hook with a worm, and cast it into the lake, closed my eyes, and dreamed of my betrothed who lived three miles down the shore.  I’d take her my catch, and share, and my cranky old father could eat dry bread.

That was the dream any way.  Its hard to judge time alone on the water, with nothing to keep you company but fancies of the one you love, the creak of an old boat adrift, and the fog.  No sun in the sky, a wind so gentle it was hard to guess the direction.  It was as bleak and dreary a day on the lake as I could recall.

I saw the old dead ash a mile down the shore peak its gangly branches through the fog for barely a moment.  I thought perhaps my luck was improving, and the fog would lift, but those knotted limbs vanished again as quickly as they appeared.  There was a dock near the tree, and having caught nothing I considered it might be a better place to fish from, rather than keep drifting towards the river that lead out of Avrale to the south east.

I pulled up my line, and brought down my oars.  I turned the boat around, and towards shore.  The more I thought about it, the more it didn’t seem likely I had drifted so far south.  Even if it had been an hour of daydreaming with no catch, I shouldn’t have been half way to the ash by then.

I checked over my shoulder several times, but neither the ash, nor shore appeared.  I kept rowing, and still nothing.  The boat was coasting along, and if I dipped the oars in the water I could gage the speed.  Not that the old boat could go far without a constant pull.  I brought up the oars, stood carefully, and looked towards where shore should be.  I tried very hard to make out anything, but there was nothing.

I wondered if I’d miss judged my turn, but I doubted it.  Hundreds of times before I’d turned that boat around.  I knew how to do it blind.  I scratched my head, sat down, and stared at white nothingness.  It wasn’t nothingness though.  As still as the air was the fog seemed to roll, and shift, rise and fall.  It was like something breathing, sleeping, about to wake.

I shook the idea from my head.  It was just fog.

Giving up on the idea of reaching shore, I set back to fishing.  The fog would clear, eventually, and then it would be an easy mater to row towards, or away from some landmark.  There was nowhere on the lake  that shore was out of sight once the fog cleared.  Only a mile or two across at the widest, and there were islands amidst that widest part, and miles north.  I was drifting south.

At the worst I would find myself at Helmsmoth, where the lake narrowed, and became a slow flowing river down into the forests of or eastern neighbor.  It would be a nuisance to row back home, take a few hours, but that was the worst, and unlikely to say the least.  I’d never drifted farther than half way there in a day.

I mulled that all over, and tossed my line back in the water.  After all, if I started rowing again without knowing which way I faced, I could very well take myself all the way down to the river.  I shook my head, and closed my eyes, and dreamed of my lovely Annae.  I imagined an afternoon we’d spent beneath old Caster’s beech tree, kissing, and daydreaming of our wedding day.  Falling asleep with my head on her shoulder.

I couldn’t say how long I drifted off from that thought, perhaps a moment before tipping over, and hitting my head hard on the side of the boat.  I was seeing stars, and rubbing the spot I’d hit when I almost missed my fishing rod jerk, and barely caught hold of it before it could be pulled over.

It was the feistiest fish I think I ever caught, or I was just dazed.  When I finally pulled the whopper up I wasn’t surprised it had fought so hard.  A good foot long trout flailed and thrashed from the end of my line, but before I could get the fish into the boat I nearly jumped out of it myself.

For a moment she was beautiful, stepping from the fog, the water rippling around her feet.  She was naked, thin threads of fog leaving some vestige of modesty.  She was striding towards me, but I was clearly drifting rather fast towards her.

“Watch out!” I called, as it looked like my boat was going to hit her.  A bit foolish maybe, to be telling someone walking on water towards you to watch out.  I’d seen magic before, plenty of times, there was even an old shaman who lived on an island up north who had chased me off once with a tornado.  All of that kind of vanished from my mind as I collided with the woman, and nothing but fog rolled over me.

I looked around, rubbed my eyes, and realized I’d lost my fish and pole.  I turned full around and there she was, though she no longer looked young.  Her skin was wrinkled, and hung from her bones.  She turned back at me with a haggard old face, and glared with a singular hate before vanishing into the fog again.

I grabbed the oars, and started rowing.  I didn’t care where I wound up, but not there, anywhere but there was all I could think.  I hadn’t seen what I had seen.  I hadn’t hit something that wasn’t there.  None of this stopped my rowing.  No reason, or sense slowed me for a moment.

I kept glancing over my shoulder as I rowed, watching for shore, for anything.  Nothing, more nothing, just an endless expanse of white nothing.  Then something, emerging fast out of the fog, a human form, her.  I dug my oar into the water, and turned hard.  She glowered at me as I avoided her with my turn, standing there leaned towards me.  I dug my oars in again and rowed harder than before.

I didn’t check behind me a good minute after she vanished into the fog again.  When I did, still nothing, and then suddenly the boat lurched violently, and the scraping sound of small rocks made me wince.  I’d hit shore, though what shore I couldn’t guess, or see.  Looking behind me was still just a pale gray world of fog.

I brought up the oars, and moved to the front of the boat.  I could see the pebbles immediately below the bow, but not more than a foot inland from that.  I jumped out, and pulled the boat up well onto shore, and tried to convince myself all of that had just happened.  I flopped back, and tried to catch my breath, I had been rowing far to hard.  I’d been seeing things, that had to be it.

There was a scraping sound suddenly, and I bolted up right.  The boat was sliding back into the water.  I jumped up, and tried to grab it, but it was gone.  There was no way it had just slid back into the water on its own.  No way, I had pulled it fully up onto shore.  I backed away from the water, and the quickly vanishing boat.  My heart was racing cold, sweat dripping down my brow.

I turned, and looked around, but there was nothing.  I could barely see the pebbles beneath my feet.  There was nothing, nothing anywhere.  I panicked, and ran, that was foolish.  I didn’t know where I was running, which way, where I was, but I ran any way.  I felt the ground change to grass beneath my feet, and slowed.  The shore was mostly clear around the whole lake, but once you were into the grass there were rabbit burrows, old logs, and other hazards.

I looked around again,  a futile endeavor, everything looked the same.  Everything was the same nothing, featureless gray.  Everything but a dark spot, a tall wobbling dark spot that moved towards me.  It shifted from a shapeless blob to the younger form of the woman.  Her stare was cold, heartless, her eyes nothing but black, her skin seemed ashen, lacking color.

I stood there frozen, unable to think what to do.  Running hadn’t worked, and running was no longer really an option.  At best I would just run back to the shore, and she could walk on water.  What ever she was.

“What do you want?” I demanded.

There was no answer, just a slow plodding step of bare feet through the grass towards me.  She stepped up close, and the colorlessness of her skin became all the more daunting.  Her skin was almost white, with something darker underneath.  She loomed over me, seeming to grow taller.  I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move.

“What do you want?” I demanded again as she seemed to breath cold fog down upon me.

There was a whisper on the wind, a voice but not words.  They were harsh, and sharp, hissing, and spiteful.  It was a voice, but not words, not words I knew at any rate.  Forgotten words I guess, words of something that had been there long before me, that would be long after.  Words that were not for mortals to know, but for us to fear.

Sense, or insanity finally took me.  I spun on my heel, and dashed headless into the blank expanse.  I tripped over something, what I don’t know, I didn’t see it before, or after.  I tumbled, and fell, and felt water splash over my hand, then my face.  I struggled upright, and coughed out a mouth full of water.

I looked around, as useless as it had ever been.  Nothing, but I knew I hadn’t gotten away.  Everywhere I went, there she was.  I felt the water rise around my arm, and scrambled away from it.  There were forms in the mist, a dozen, more.  Whispers and swishes like whipping wind.  The forms were closing in, but even as they started to take shape they fell away, just the impression of a face, and then they were gone.

I jumped up, and ran through a break in the figures approaching me, but more kept appearing as I ran along the shore.  Their faces were agonized, weeping, melting into nothing.  I felt fingers, or hands try to grab my arms, fingers slick, and slippery they fell away.  The voice in the air seemed pleading, like wails begging for something.  There were cries, terrible cries that stabbed at the soul like death.  They were the unmistakable sounds of those dying horribly.

I stumbled over a log wedged in the pebbled shore, and failed to quite catch myself, the arm I’d thrown out skipping off wet stones, and my face meeting them.  There was a flare of pain, and I quickly brought my hand to my face feeling the blood running form my nose.  I pulled my feet under me, and began to weep like a child, holding my bleeding nose.  The cries of death had stopped, but there was still an ill, unintelligible sound on the wind.

I felt water wash up around my legs, and looked down as water rose up to my waist.  I tried to get up, to jump up, and move out of the rising water, but my feet were swept out from under me.  I caught myself better that time as I fell, but it was all for naught as I felt myself pulled out into the lake like I was caught in a riptide.

I barely had time to grab a deep breath as I was pulled under the swirling water, down into inky blackness, down, down, sinking faster than a stone.  I flailed, and struggled against the current, but as the light began to fade I could tell I was spinning, and tumbling.  I didn’t know if I was swimming up, or down, which way the world went.

All I could see was blackness, all I could hear was a roar of something monstrous, all I could feel was wild eddies of freezing cold water that felt like they could cut my skin.  Then suddenly there was light.  I struggled towards the light, I swam harder than I have ever swam, as my breath was about to give out, as my lungs burned with an agony that demanded I exhale, but there would be no air, no air if I did, only water.

The light grew brighter, and dimmer, and the current swirled around me maddeningly, making it hard to swim in the same direction.  Then suddenly I felt the water rush up past me, the light grew, and I gasped for air as I broke the surface, and still I was tumbling.  I was tumbling through the air, lost in a void of absolute nothing.  No water, no ground, no sky, nothing but a perfect unbroken  expanse of the same featureless gray.

I’m sure it lasted but a moment, but it felt a life time, and then I felt the fall begin, I saw the dark water for barely a fleeting moment, just long enough to inhale once more before it crashed painfully across me, like being slapped with the force of a horse’s kick.  It forced some of that precious air from my lungs as I trashed trying to upright myself again.  The current still was trying to drag me down, but I got upright, I got to the surface, and tread water fiercely to stay afloat.

I panted, and gasped, and looked around frantically.  I could see a few feet of water around me, the outline of an uneven stretch of the cursed fog.  There were figures again walking towards me, footsteps disturbing the surface of the water, but never reaching me.  Then a pair of legs emerged from the fog, crisp, clear, but wrinkled and old.  I did not look up, I was too terrified to look up.  The ankle bent, and a knee set before my face.  Hands gripped my cheeks, and forced me to look up.

Her eyes were darker than before, hollow voids that opened onto the abyss itself.  Her lips parted, and a hissed word reached my ears.  I could not repeat it.  It is not a word I could speak, that I have heard before, or will hear again.  It was not a word I knew, but it was a word I understood only one possible meaning for.  “Die.”

I gasped for air as I felt the current grab me again, I slipped helplessly beneath the waves despite every struggle.  The light was vanishing quickly, darkness intruded, the cold had made me numb.  It was over, I knew it was, it was the end.  I’m sure I was crying, my tears joining the icy waters that had claimed me.  My heart broke to think of my Annae, when she heard of my death, or when I was never found.

I felt something grab my wrist.  I fought, and struggled against it.  Futile as all other attempts had been I struggled, I would not give in to that dark oblivion.  I turned to face what ever had grabbed me.  A form barely a shadow of greater dark against the depths, a from set against the last glimmer of light from above.  A form pulling me towards that light.

In a panicked moment I realized I was struggling down.  I kicked then, kicked with all my might, and stopped fighting the hand pulling me towards the light.  My lungs betrayed me though far before the surface.  The air escaped, and water tried to rush in.  The light came closer, but darkness clouded my vision.  I kicked with the last of my strength, and then nothing.

That should have been it.  That should have been my end.  What happened next, so far as I know was my eyes snapping open, me rolling over, and coughing water from my lungs, and then throwing up what little breakfast I had eaten.  I looked up, and saw the faint outline of a house shroud in the fog.  I looked behind me, and saw a figure standing with their back to me.

It wasn’t the woman, not her old form, or her young, but the hair was long.  He turned, and glanced at me, and gave me what I could not call a smile.  He took one step towards the lake shore, and was gone.  I lay there, just beyond the densest part of the fog.  I lay there, and collapsed back, staring up at the faintest hint of sky, struggling to regain my breath.  Still occasionally coughing up more water.

I heard footsteps, and tried to get up, and turn towards them.  I doubt I did much more than flop like a beached fish.  I tremblingly pushed myself up, ready for the next assault, particularly as I heard the footsteps hasten.  I could barely raise my head, but hands, warm, gentle delicate hands helped me.  They lifted my head, and for the first time I realized she was calling my name.  My ears deafened from being full of water that was finally escaping.

“James, James, James, are you alright?” I grabbed her arms, and pulled my Annae to me with all the strength I could muster.  I clung to her like life.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“That is your story?” the King asked.

I wiped away my tears.

“Yes, my King,” I answered.

“Seven people died that day,” he said sadly.  “Seven people to the long list of legends of loss from that cursed lake.  My advisors wish me to write it off as foolish people who got lost, fell in, drowned when they could not find their way out of the fog.  Seven people, in one day.  Who would you believe?”

“Your advisors, I am sure are wise, clever men who know a great deal more of the world than me,” I answered.  “Yet I will tell you; seven people would not die on that lake by accident.  All my life I have lived there, and even in the densest fog, it is safe.  Yet something lurks, something kills there.  Something dark, and evil makes it not safe on days like that one.”

The King stood up, marched down his dais, and knelt before me where I was on my knees, he grabbed my chin, and made me look up at him.  His eyes were fierce things, the eyes of a mage in his thirteenth decade.

“When I was a boy,” the King said, “when I was not half your age, a man came before my father, just as you have.  He told a story much as your own.  My father did not believe him.  My father sent him to work for the barons of South Rook as an indentured servant for a year, as punishment for wasting his time.”

“What will you do?” I asked nervously.

“What would you have me do?”

“The river that feeds the lake in the north splits down another channel to the west, into the Sylvan wood.  Divert the river, and the lake will drain in time,” I answered.

“And do you think that will be enough to dissuade what haunts those waters?  That it will be worth the cost.  No more fish certainly.”

“What is a few fish, compared to seven lives, and almost eight?”

The King nodded.  “Go home to your bride young man, and I will consider your tale.”

– Court Records of King Mathias of Avrale, 129 B.E.

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