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THE MASK OF THE ANCIENT MARINER

MASK OF THE ANCIENT MARINER Book One: AQUARIA RISING By Patrijk Anton-Piers (Chapter Three: The Interloper) Ive been one with the mask for so long the memory of who I was has long since been lost to me. - Nicholas Faraday "It is the final proof of their omnipotence that we need not know the Domiceti exist in order that they save us from ourselves. - Gideon Fell, Order of the Finmasons _____________________________ In the half-light of a midwinters eve a young man staggered out of the rolling surf and dropped to his scaly knees, convulsing as he struggled to remove the creature that engulfed his head. With a fistful of blood-filled orbicles in each hand he pitched forward, hunching his naked body over a clump of rotting seaweed. Lurching backward across the storm-tossed beach, trying in vain to shake it loose, he felt the creature suddenly tighten its grip. he thought. The creatures gill slits flared and with a sickly wet hiss, it filled its leaky airbladder. He released the slimy tendrils, feeling around in the sand for something hard: A shell, a rock, any brand of flotsam or jetsam would do. The creature thrust another probe down his throat. He groped the wet sand, clawing through a tangle of tendrils and seaweed, and finally he found it. He jabbed the stick into the thing, over and over, feeling every blow as it reverberated into his own dying flesh. his mind screamed. The creature hissed and spat, and from its mouth agape there came an eerie scream, rising in the still air, a plaintive howl that penetrated the mist. Dribbles of green bile trickled from its aubergine lips, burning into his neck; he arched his back, shuddering with the pain. Suddenly sensing an ebb in the flow of the creatures life-force, the young man let his muscles slacken a bit, his arms and legs spread-eagled, his body gone limp. And as he relaxed himself, there came to his inner ear a distant call peeling through the haze: a womans voice, delicate and clear. He rolled onto his belly and jerked up his creature-covered head, thinking hed just heard his mother and convinced hed see her standing on the stoop, pale hands circling her mouth as she called him to dinner. Breathe. He remembered the word and tried to say it aloud, but could not; the creatures prehensile probes had swelled inside his nasal passages, at least one snaking down his throat, stifling his words and nearly suffocating him. Take a deep breath, he thought. Then he remembered something else; it had been more than fifteen years* since he had tasted even a wisp of terrestrial air. Of course, he hadnt needed to; so why did he yearn so desperately for it now? Determined to save himself the young man reached behind his head, fingers digging deep into a crack in the creatures slippery carapace. He felt a little give, then a tightening grip as its posterior orbicle cinched his neck. He dug deeper and felt a little more give. Then ripping. Sucking. Gurgling. Finally the creature yielded, the greasy rift in its body opening like a chasm in the earth. Its lips parted too, and from that gaping maw came a cry that pierced the calm, twilight air with an inhuman tenor. He vomited the creatures salty probes, felt the sticky veins tear and snap inside his sinuses, then smelled the bite of copper as fresh blood filled his nose. The creature went limp, its orbicles slackening as it fell into the stinking pile of seaweed heaped around his sallow feet. Finally free of the unearthly thing the young man braced himself, hands on his knees, coughing up phlegm and gasping for air. Then he opened his eyes and actually screamed, though the low, wailing timbre of it conjured an image more muskoxen than human. He was blind. Squinting into the dying light of a balmy Sunday evening an old woman cautiously approached the pale but shimmering body of the young man. She had called out to him as he struggled, fearing that he was in a fight for his life and might need her help, and was stopped dead in her tracks by an ear-slitting scream. Now drawing nearer she was again halted in mid-stride, her toes curling around wet sand, and with a sharp gasp she stifled a scream of her own, promptly falling to her knees. He lay face down in the rising surf, nestled in a frothy wreath of seaweed, a glowing, gelatinous mound of bloody orbicles and ruptured carapace flattening out in the sand at his side. Son, she whispered, poking him in the ribs with a porcelain finger. You all right? She fell back as another shallow wave washed over them, but he didnt move. At least, not in the way she had expected him to move. What was it? she wondered. Where had she seen this before? The old woman crawled back to his side and checked his pulse. His skin felt odd to her, vaguely reminiscent of a soft-shell crab slathered with butter. And it was molting or sloughing off in some places, though it still looked quicksilvery, shimmering with a faint almost prismatic iridescence in the dying Suns last rays. Of course, she blurted out. Like a fish! Only- She clapped her hand over her mouth, having caught a glimpse of his face in profile. His eye was wide open, the iris glowing with milky phosphorescence, staring straight into the blackening weed only inches from his bloodied nose - or at least, what was left of his nose. The old woman leaned in for a closer look and saw something moving; a wormlike creature slithered over the young mans lip and disappeared into his nostril. Repulsed by the thought of something crawling up her own nose she struggled to her feet and backed away, but then, could not resist taking another closer look. Say, whats all over your ear, she asked, hovering above him in a circular holding pattern. Can you hear me, son? She barely got a glimpse of the receding web between his fingers as he slashed the air and struck her, an electric sting hurling the old woman backward and slamming her body into the next wave. She sank like a rag doll, the jolt having momentarily knocked her out cold. But before she touched bottom she came to and bobbed to the surface - just in time to see the creatures pearlescent airbladder jet past her, its orbicles trailing behind it. ___________________________ The rising tide tried to swallow up the young man, its relentless swells foaming at the mouth, lapping at his ankles as he stumbled to shore. Where am I, he wondered, standing there alone in the alien dark on that desolate stretch of beach. And who am I? With his eyes still closed he stroked the smooth skin of a hairless pate; it made his scalp prickle and sent tremors coursing down his lateral line. With webbed fingers he explored his face and discovered a flap of loose skin stuck to his cheek. Peeling it away he realized that it was still attached to his right earlobe. With a gentle tug he ripped it off, then panicked and reached for his left ear. He pulled that lobe, but it held fast; both ears, he was relieved to know, were identical. In a flash he realized he had just heard the faint sound of his own flesh tearing away and suddenly his head filled with the crashing of waves breaking at his feet, growing louder and louder. Bloody nostrils flared as he filled his lungs again and again with fresh air and tasted the sweet scent of something he vaguely remembered. What is that, he asked. The sound of his own voice startled him. Certain he had heard it before, he sensed a distant memory that held it in a deeper, more resonant tone. But now it seemed foreign, somehow alien. He rubbed his eyes and opened them, then turned. Hello! he said, and almost laughed. A gust of cool air swirled and eddied about his naked head, sending shivers up his lateral line; a whisper of a breeze brushed against his cheek, and he caught his breath. How long had it been, he wondered. He touched the side of his face and saw the lights. Stars! he thought, as millions of shimmering pinpoints swam - under his feet? He suddenly felt giddy and staggered, losing his balance. Close your eyes, came a stout and commanding voice from behind him. The old woman slogged through the burgeoning surf, clutching her abdomen, but apparently heedless of any further threat the young man might pose. Drop to your knees and bow down, now, she commanded. Suddenly fearful, the young man did as he was told. Still, he tried just once to look over his shoulder. Head down! she said. And with that he keeled over and found himself back in the Royal court, staring at the gilded base of an ancient throne, his nose pressed hard against a cold wet slab, a giant blue claw tapping next to his ear. ___________________________ In relative darkness the old woman lowered herself to the young mans side, wincing as she drove a swollen knee into the sand. Feeling for his carotid artery with one hand, she pulled a keychain from her pocket with the other and fumbled for the switch on the penlight before flicking it on. She inched the narrow beam up his mottled torso, gasping at the ragged sight of vestigial scales, finally arriving at his face where her fingers had already found an eye socket. She bit down on the end of the penlight and pried open the young mans eyelids to check his pupils, but couldnt find either one; both eyeballs were sheathed in a milky white membrane, aglow with a shroud of phosphorescence. Tracing circles round his sockets with the beam she saw the shadow of a disc lazily swimming about beneath the membrane, as if trying to avoid the bright light. She touched the membrane and moved it around, then plucked it from the socket and tossed it aside. A bold blue iris looked up at her, dilating ever so slightly when she jerked the beam away from it. She opened his right eye, snatched the other sheath, wrapped it in her kerchief and tucked the little parcel neatly into her soggy shirt pocket. She patted it and muttered, Cant wait to see that un-under the scope, and then she slapped the young man. Hard. Ill bet youre Navy, she said, in a scolding tone. One of them Seal fellas, arent you? She slapped him again, but harder this time. He sputtered, then suddenly coughed up a short length of phlegm-covered tendril that stuck to the old womans cheek and entangled itself in her matted hair. Lovely, she said, as she peeled the thick, pinkish appendage away and held it up in the penlights beam. I didnt know giant squid was still on the menu. She balled up the tendril, rolled it neatly into the kerchief next to the eye-sheath and stuffed the whole business back into her pocket again, muttering to herself, No telling where the likes of that came from, and thats when the penlights beam inadvertently fell on his privates. Or, at least, the region where she wouldve expected to find them, had she actually gone looking for them. Good Lord, son; what on earth have they done to you? As she drew the penlights beam near to his crutch, the young mans hand shot up and grabbed her forearm. Where am I, he asked stridently, pulling her to him. Youre hurting me, she said, her voice shaky. Why are you dressed like this? Please. Let go of me. You need immediate medical attention. I can- No, he said, releasing her, tossing her backward into the surf. I dont belong here. I shouldnt have come up. Ive upset the order. He stood and looked around. Its nearly high tide. Come. He pulled her to her feet, nearly lifting her out of the water. Where are we going, she asked, trying to pull away from him. No! I wont come with you. Why should I follow you anyway; you dont even know where you are. Worse, I dont even know you. He sighed and said, Forgive me, Madam, but it seems that along with my own name I have forgotten my manners, as well. Taking stock of his surroundings, he gestured with palms up and said, Im afraid I find myself at somewhat of a disadvantage for I am none but an interloper here, and though I know not even your name, our whereabouts or the time of day, yet do I persevere, standing before you, naked and unashamed? Mara, she said. Mara Fauss. A pleasure, he said, taking her hand and bowing. She smiled demurely and said, You dont remem- Oscar, he said, interrupting her. Oscar the- No. Thats not it, he muttered, shaking his head. Then his eyelids flickered and he said, Do I know you? Mara chuckled and said, I think I wouldve remembered someone like you. The young man looked down at his mottled legs and brushed away scales and molting skin that had sloughed off, now barely hanging on. A thick flap of scaly skin, much like a codpiece, pulled away from his groin and fell with an unceremonious splat in the sand. He turned himself away from the old woman. Looks like Ill be in need of a tailor and soon. Mara smiled as she peeled the sodden sweater from her shoulders and proffered it to him. Tie this round your waist for now, she said, taking charge again. Hmm. You seem to be about the same size as my Roger. Come with me. We need to find something warm to wear before we catch our death. Our what? A cold, silly. Its an expression. Where are you from, Oscar? I thought you were Navy. Oscar? He said, his sallow brow tied in a knot. Oscar. No, no. My name is Faraday. Nicholas Faraday. ___________________________ With the sweater cinched tightly about his waist the young man followed behind the old woman. Trudging over the uneven shore, barely able to lift his leaden feet, he struggled to keep up with her. He felt drained and strangely empty, as if he had lost someone dear to him, while at the same time the crushing weight of his own body pressed down on him, filling him with apprehension, striving to bury him in the sand were he to give in to it. Unable to steel his will against feelings of tribulation he tried to focus his thoughts solely on Mara, and the kindness she had shown him. Peering into the moonlit gloom, he scanned the beach ahead of him and found her, just as she reached a narrow stairway carved into a sloping bluff. He called out to her, staggered and called again, then collapsed face down in the scrub. She hurried back to his side and rolled him over, and he said to her, My apologies, Madam. Apparently I havent the strength to keep pace with one such as yourself, though judging from your appearance I quite suspect youre an Elder; I simply cannot account for my appalling lack of vigor. How could you have forgotten? said Mara, holding his head in her lap. When I found you, lying over there on the beach, I thought you were dead. Or, as close to death as you can get without actually being dead. Ive seen dead, Nick; you looked positively dreadful. As I imagine must still be the case, if not now a bit worse, though I cannot imagine why, said Nicholas. You were attacked, Nick, said Mara. Dont you remember? I saw it. Look at yourself; whatever it was it infected you with something. I saw that, too. And after you sent my old bones un-under, I came up and saw the ungodly beast swim right past me. Nick sat bolt upright. Beast, you say? Oh, I dont know what I saw. Something beastly? No. More like half Man-O-War, half squid, with swollen orbs trailing behind long, red tentacles," Mara said. Then in a whisper, she added, "So alien, yet strangely beautiful." Yes, said Nick, looking out to sea. It is. Was, you mean. Nick looked into Maras eyes, as if begging forgiveness. What have I done? he said. Id say you won. This, beast, as you call it, said Nick. Do you have any idea where it went? Not a clue, but it couldnt have gotten far, she said, jabbing a thumb at the oceans horizon. Probably wash up soon anyway. Why? I must save it. What do you mean, save it? That thing nearly killed you! Whats going on here, Nick? Maybe I should call the- Madam, please! Nick said, coughing up blood before continuing. I am fine. Just help me back out to the water. Certainly not! she said. Young man. Navy or not, you will do as I say and Ill hear nothing more about it. Now come with me. Maras eyes bulged as she tried to hoist the young mans bulk and stand him on his feet. She grunted and groaned, then collapsed at his side, laughing out loud. She playfully said, You could at least try to sta- then stopped abruptly, raising her hand to shade her eyes from the penetrating beam of a flashlight. Nana! ___________________________ Tessa? Ive been looking everywhere. Do you have any idea how late it is? said Tessa, in a scolding tone. Whos this? Nicholas Faraday, meet my granddaughter, Tessa Graem. Tessa jerked the high-powered beam away from her grandmother and aimed it directly into Nicks pallid face; she gasped, and he winced and turned his head away. A pleasure, Mademoiselle, he said, deliberately rising to his full six-foot, three-inch height. He straightened Maras sweater, cinched the arms tightly around his waist again, then proffered his hand. Nana, said Tessa, ignoring Nicks gesture and shining the light-beam on the soggy sweater hanging from his hips. Isnt that yours? Got it at Saks. So whys he wearing it like that? said Tessa, scowling at her grandmother. Then she ordered Nick to turn around. He grinned and swung around with a flourish, offering his hand to Mara, and as he did the pale green flesh of a flaky pair of buttocks came into Tessas full view. What is wrong with you? Tessa shrieked. My, my. You certainly seem to have gotten your strength back, young man, said Mara, grinning right back at Nick as she helped herself to her own feet with his assistance. Come, dear. Lets help Nick get cleaned up and find a nice warm berth for him, shall we? You have a ship? said Nick. I dont know about this, Nana, said Tessa. Theres something very wrong here. Last time I saw the Molly Mawk she was taking on, and the only thing I remember was the captain screaming, Get to the longboats, mates! To the longboats! Nicks words hung in the still air as Tessas face clouded over with a look of puzzlement. Does he sound funny to you? said Tessa, pointing the beam at Nicks bloodstained mouth. Mary and Joseph, she said, her alarm suddenly going off. Nana! Hes been in a fight! She took her grandmother by the hand and said, Thats it. Were leaving, Nana. Im in enough trouble as it is. But you dont understand, Tess, said Mara, yanking her hand out of Tessas grip. He was attacked by, by - well, something. I saw it. He needs our help. Why, just look at him. Tessa pointed the flashlight at Nick, then turned to shine the beam back on her grandmother. Wheres he from, Nana? Whered you find this guy? Mara said, I found him lying unconscious in the surf right up there, and she pointed to a spot fifty yards up the beach. That figures. From the looks of him he was washed up with the rest of this garbage when the first wave hit, said Tessa, walking past him and using sweeping gestures aimed at the debris. Then her face screwed up like shed just gotten a whiff of boiled cabbage, and she added, Smells like it, too. Goodness! said Mara, grabbing Tessas arm and stopping her. Where are your manners, young lady? Im sorry, Nick. No trouble, Madam. I probably look like something the cat dragged home, anyway, said Nick, squinting as he looked up the beach and down again. Looking for something Tessa asked, sarcastically. or maybe some one? Nick stopped and closed his eyes, but when he opened them Tessa was standing in front of him. He took a step back. Think we should call the police, Nana? said Tessa, as if challenging Nick. She pursed her lips and added, Maybe nine-one-one? She held the flashlight steady, Nicks face awash in its beam. In a lightning quick move Nick snatched the flashlight away from Tessa and flipped the beam around, pointing it directly into the girls face. She gasped, and her hands flew up to block the light. Jerk. Nick cautiously reached out, took Tessas hands in his own and gently lowered them. At first she resisted but she felt his strength surging through her and for some reason allowed the light to linger on her face another moment or two. She felt Nicks penetrating gaze scanning her, as if he were studying her and recording the data. Then he briefly turned his attention to the flashlight, flicking the switch off and on and staring directly into the beam before handing it over to Mara. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them wide and said, Beauty apparently runs in your family, Madam. Nice try, pal, said Tessa, grabbing the flashlight from her grandmother. Stop this, Tessa! Mara said, and they wrestled for it. Once again, Nick reached out and grabbed Tessas left wrist, then Maras right, and the flashlight fell, blinking out when it hit the beach. Ladies, I really could use a rest. He looked down at Maras sweater, piled up around his feet, and he added, And perhaps some dry clothes. Tessa giggled. Though the light from the rising moon revealed little, she imagined a lot. Nick released the women, picked up the flashlight and Maras sweater and said, Lead the way. ___________________________ The idea that Nick should wear the sweater like a diaper wasnt his. Tessa had suggested he thread his legs through the arms, but with thighs as big around as a gaff, Nick had insisted, Itd be easier to shove a belaying pin up my arse. It had been Maras idea to diaper him. So, it had come to this: a strappingly young, six foot sailor with noticeably mottled skin, his buttocks swaddled in a sweater, now at the mercy of two strange women marching single file up a deserted beach in the middle of the night. Nick thought to himself, The more he dwelled on his current predicament, the more his mind filled with visions of the sinking of the Molly Mawk. Vivid memories of a rogue wave flashed before his eyes, towering over him like the white cliffs of Dover, a wave that ultimately capsized the great ship, sending it and all its crew into the oblivion of the black abyss. He tried to jog the images out of his mind, but like temptation, the harder he tried the stronger they became. As the women climbed the stone steps with Nick in tow they continued bickering. I was on the phone with Smithson, Nana. He said not to worry, the Company will pay and the inn will be restored. Whos worried? said Mara. As his vision strengthened Nick became more and more mindful of a ghostly pall cast all around him, a light that illuminated the leafy scrub and sea grape as it drew long, faint shadows. he thought, then halted and turned round, and there it was, beaming down on him like the great pearl that hovered over Gilgatan. The quiet sovereignty and sheer elegance of it soon overwhelmed him with a feeling of reverence, and he dropped to his knees. Seems like Ive waited for this moment all my life, he said, in a rasping whisper, but not even in my dreams had I imagined that it would be so- Nick? Mara called out to him. You all right? Nick struggled to stand up, then turned and waved to Mara, calling out in a hoarsened voice, Coming! and he added in a whisper, May Luna look down upon you and bless you. And as he reached the top of the bluff he halted, having come face to face with a sign hanging off kilter on the wooden gate through which the path before him lay. Lilac Inn, he said, reading aloud. The Historic Radcliffe House, circa: eighteen-forty-three. Acquired by the, and here the words had been obliterated with a film of detritus. He continued reading: Eightsevennine, and restored in the year nineteen, and he could read no further. His attention returned to the ladies, who were waiting for him on a dilapidated veranda, its pillars plastered with an assortment of dried seaweed. They were watching as he staggered up the walk when the doorbell chimed from somewhere within, startling Tessa. Mara smiled at her and said, Ill get it, Tess. Meanwhile, be a dear and show Nick the shower room, would you? Hes ripe as a fishmongers cart in August. Tessa, Nick called out to her. May I trouble you for the days date? June six, of course. And the year, Mademoiselle? What do you mean, and the year, Mademoiselle? she said, mimicking his question in a haughty French tone. "What do you mean, and the year, Mademoiselle?" said Nick, screwing up his nose and mimicking her. Tessas mouth dropped open, and she stomped her feet and said in a scolding tone, "What's that supposed to mean?" It means hes not sure, said Mara, as she pulled open the screen door with a creak. Maybe something to do with that thing that attacked him affecting his memory. Mara called out, Its oh-six, Nick! Remember? and she disappeared through the doorway. Oh-six? he called back to her. You mean, in the year of our Lord, nineteen-hundred-and-six? Jerk, said Tessa, Cant be, said Nick to himself, in a whispery voice. Whats happening to me? Come on, sailor-boy. Time to get hosed. Down.2009 Patrick PiersonWhy are you trying to kill me? Let go! Get off me! what have I gotten myself into this time? Wait a minute,

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"Behold. The unfathomable deep. Mysterious and foreboding, keeper of strange secrets, of timeless myth and legend that stoke the fires of the imagination. ‘Tis a place where few have ventured, from which still fewer have returned...

To some, the sea can mimic the comfort of a
mother’s womb, and to others, ‘tis none but the bowels of the Beast."

- C. Finneas Waddingpoole, Marquis de Sole of the Royal Court of the Exalted High Cerulean Blue Order of Mariners, Third Class

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