The Marauders of the Frozen Sea
In a forsaken future eon, the city-state of Onisah sat on a temperate peninsula at the northern reaches of the known world. As the glaciers of the ice age retreated, the Polarian people advanced. Inventive and egalitarian in spirit, the adventurous folk established colonies across the unpeopled wastelands at the edge of the world. Onisah was the last Freeport in the known world, a mercantile republic in the manner of the Polarian heyday of five centuries prior.
The origin of their forebears was a constant enigma that plagued the scholars of the city. Lured by the promises of undiscovered markets, untapped resources, and the tantalizing possibility of discovering their lost homeland at the far north of the world, the affluent Arazi merchant family sponsored an expedition to uncover what lay at the roof of the world. To these ends, the former war-galley Dauntless was purchased and refitted specifically for the undertaking.
The scrivener Pollus Hespros was one of the hundreds signed on for the expedition. While a soft man adapted to a comfortable living, he was nonetheless lured from a lucrative job in a bank as by the hefty sum promised to all those who had signed on. When his eyes first fell upon the hundred meter ship with its banks of oars and massive sails billowing in the wind, a repressed sense of adventure swelled up within his large belly like a sudden squall. Unlike other lands, the pragmatic Polarian custom of gender equality ensured both male and female sailors filled the deck.
At the center was a thin middle aged man of unquestionably martial background and authority. Beside him was a black skinned southron warrior woman, barking orders as the vessel's guards loaded and discharged ballistae and a handful of black powder cannons. As he soon learned the captain was a former Onisahian Navy officer and the gunnery commander was his wife Ul-shur-nil, brought back from the wealthy and civilized lands to the far south. As foreign spouses were something of a status symbol in the aristocracy, a trophy that Captain Riez Eranos was keen to flaunt like the gilded basket-handled cutlass he wore around his hips. Nonetheless, Pollus wondered about the others he would meet aboard.
His familiarity with the esoteric trade-cant used by the merchant families had assured him a valuable place aboard ship. Their departure from the city had been accompanied by grand fanfare and celebration. The slanted green-steel rooftops and alabaster white marble of the city's buildings laid behind them like a grand cemetery fit for the southron kingdoms.
It was a week into the voyage that the euphoria faded and trepidation replaced it for Pollus. He felt the pangs of withdraw from hunger, due to the strict rationing of food stores aboard. He was charged with updating the captain's documents on a daily basis with the proper seals and encoding in trade-cant. His records were stored with the log in a sending-box, a waterproof metal container that uncomfortably reminded Pollus of how isolated and vulnerable they truly were. Enchantments on the box would send drifting it back towards Onisah if a tragic fate were to befall the ship. Fulfilling his expeditionary responsibilities was a trivial matter for him, but one he was uniquely qualified for aboard ship.
No longer able to consume pastries from a local bakery, he began to take strolls along the deck of the ship in his free time, imagining that he might find some relief from the succor from the monotony of sea travel. While the daytime temperature was still comfortable, the nights had grown noticeably colder. He wondered if the next spray of ocean water upon deck would give some unlucky soul hypothermia.
As he walked, Pollus reflected that his light blue silk-trimmed tunic now seemed baggy on him. While not as corpulent and gluttonous as other members of the merchant elite, he nonetheless took some that his profession could present themselves with hygiene and a clean appearance. Now, he was stricken with pity for the sailors, due to the filth they were exposed to on a daily basis. He noted that while his own skin was the pale tone associated with Polarian stock, most of them had ruddy and tanned appearances. His own straight black hair had been immaculately combed, while theirs grew wildly and was tied to prevent it from catching. The one constant he noticed with landlubbers back in Onisah were the distinctive Polarian eye colors, a range of steely gray, green, and blue.
In the midst of his ruminations, Pollus had failed to noticed that his wish had been granted. His eyes followed the prowl of the vessel towards the waterline, and his attention was immediately drawn to the ram beneath it. The ram had been reinforced to carve through the frozen waters of the far north, but he was not the only one interested in it.
A thick rugose and rubbery tentacle had coiled around the icebreaker, with other arms breaching the wine-dark surface of the water. He did not need to see the bulk of the teratoid monstrosity to know of the remainder lurked just below the surface. A multitude of iridescent eyespots shimmered beneath the surface like the lanterns of an unnatural army. He felt the deck jerk beneath him as he went to shout, but his terrified vocal cords betrayed him by remaining in paralyzed in silence. He tried repeatedly, until at last a very loud shriek left his mouth.
The response was immediate. The ship's alarm bells began to ring as armed crewmembers surged up on deck. Clad in the dark turquoise fabric favored by the Onisahian militia and fleet, they were helmets reminiscent of seashells, etched fins, and other creatures of the depths. About half carried crossbows of some style, a handful with magazine fed repeaters and smaller number with blunderbusses. The remainder carried an uneven mix of boarding pikes, naval axes, sabers, and light blades. Pollus felt two of them drag him away as wood groaned beneath the deck. While he was both curious and glad to be ignorant of what was occurring below decks, he tended towards the latter.
Ul-shur-nil emerged from the lower deck, carrying a wooden barrel in her thick arms while barking orders to the marines. Smashing open the top of the cask with the hilt of a cutlass, she ordered the others to coat their weapons in the pungent smelling mixture. Pollus saw her issue handfuls of crossbow bolts, their heads glistening in the poison with which they had been liberally slathered. Following this, spear-tips and sword-points were dipped in the noxious substance, which Pollus hoped he would never be forced to see used. While he read of several types of undersea leviathans, meeting one was an entirely different ordeal.
The tall woman looked condescendingly at his mewling form, and handed him an armed crossbow. She directed him to take position at the stern of the vessel with a wordless gesture, and Pollus was in no position to resist. While the weapon quivered in his uneasy, untrained hands, he knew if he was forced to use the weapon, his own demise was likely imminent anyhow. With a grim curiosity, he watched the situation unfurl at the bow.
The soldiers had formed ranks along the side of the vessel, with two rows of lancers sandwiching their gunners and crossbow-armed comrades. A tentacle thicker than a man lashed over the side of the vessel, only to be met by a volley of crossbow fire. As the monster tried to bring another to bear over the other side of the vessel, the explosive report of the blunderbusses thundered across the deck. The pike and blade-carrying marines began to hack and slice at the tentacles before them, spilling foul ichor that reeked intensely enough that Pollus could smell its putrescence from across the deck of the ship.
At their commander's orders, the marines emptied the remainder of the cask's contents over both port and starboard. Almost immediately, the tentacles withdrew from the surface, vanishing back into the lightless depths with the haste of a routed army. The glimpse of a toothy maul flashed over the side before both vanished back into the depths. Despite his curiosity as towards the appearance of the creature's body, Pollus prudently realized that seeing the remainder of the creature was not in his best interests.
In the immediate aftermath of the kraken attack, Pollus ceased his idle wanderings on deck. While the monotony of the office still bothered him, he now preferred the safe monotony of the room onboard when compared to his ignorant wanderings outside. Over the following month, he took up reading the voluminous tomes of lore leant to him from the ship's doctor, hoping to learn more in the esoteric field of anatomy and physiology. Even such diversions did not prepare him for the next incident.
Two months had elapsed since they had set out by Pollus' reckoning in which he overheard a noisy throng of sailors outside his office heading for the deck, called by their fellows. While his inquisitiveness as towards encountering uniqueness had largely been extinguished after the sea beast's attack, he could not help but feel it stirring once more. If a jaded crew of sailors found it interesting, then he certainly wished to know about it.
Pollus clambered up on deck, greeted by a blast of air far more frigid than he last remembered it. He momentarily saw his breath condense as he exhaled, before struggling to get through the crowd that was forming on the prowl of the vessel. He felt embarrassed as he ducked under the held hands of two male lovers, bypassing them to see what had drawn the rancor that ousted him from his duties. Apathy to the private lives of others, save in matters of danger and commerce, was an Onisahian virtue inherited from the Polarians that Pollus loathed to break even unintentionally. With equal parts yearning and apprehension, he looked out over the void-dark sea.
The sailor to his right exclaimed the gods in disbelief: the Tyrant, the Liberator, and the Observer. Of the Triune, Pollus was most included to invoke the impartial Observer out of sheer disbelief. Pollus almost missed the sight as he scanned the white clouds near the horizon, but immediately found it on his second look. He exhaled the near-entirety of his lungs before taking a long and voluminous breath. He blinked several times before rubbing his eyes, as though a waking reverie of sleep continued to deceive his vision. It was then his jaw went agape.
The structure was easily the size of a mountain. A massive statue of a man towered high above the waves like a forlorn peak. The upper half of his head above the nose was completely absent, as if cleanly sliced off by some divinely sharp vandal's razor. While incomplete, the cast of the monument's face was like no race or people Pollus had ever seen. He wondered if the statue was meant to commemorate some ancient hero or king, only for the rising of the waves to cease his eternal memorial in stone.
Like an iceberg, Pollus mused that perhaps the portion that they were seeing was merely the slimmest portion of sunken lands that once stood above the sea. He wondered if divers, perhaps equipped with the diving bells favored by Onisahian salvagers, would uncover some traces of a lost Polarian settlement or secrets far more antediluvian. Unlike the stone and copper statues of Polarian origin in Onisah, the enigmatic sculpture bore no telltale signs of weather, erosion, or the passage of time. As he ruminated, Pollus mused that perhaps the omission of the upper half of head was deliberate, due to some long forgotten taboo in the countless civilizations that had reigned over world in its younger eons.
Pollus, the ever-diligent scribe, was eager to transcribe the details of the day's sightings. While he could not hold the merest flame up to the statue's long vanished creators, he could record the rediscovery of it for posterity. He wondered if perhaps the expedition was the first group to gaze upon such a find in decades, if not centuries or longer. When he arrived back, he swore that he would have the first person he saw punch him in the face to ensure he did not dream the entire episode.
Despite the excitement raised by the discovery of the colossus dubbed the Sentinel, the hopes of Pollus and the rest of the crew waned over the following month. The sky grew darker and daylight grew more scarce, but the Dauntless pressed ever onwards. The ship's undertaking became slow and deliberate, as the thin pack ice that now formed over the horizon could be the only herald of a submarine hazard that would rip the vessel's hull to pieces. Pollus rarely ventured out in the cold without bundling himself in blankets, exposing as little of his flesh as he could to the biting winds.
It was half a month after seeing ice that land, or the forever-frozen ice realms that sages had theorized to exist at the foremost ends of the world. It was the snow-crowned jokulls rising above the distant horizon like icy fangs that mesmerized Pollus. He thought he spied something shining on the horizon, but his attention was soon turned to more immediate obstacles. Between the ship and horizon were the titanic icebergs, all dwarfing the mightiest vessels of Onisah. The titanic crash of two distant icebergs sent a cascade of icy boulders tumbling into the wave below, producing wake that would have capsized the craft if not for the well-honed reactions of the rowers beneath.
Pollus held on for dear life, wondering if the expedition would turn away in the face of almost certain death and suicide. When Ul-shur-nil and a contingent of marines came to the upper decks to fetch the wayward passengers to their quarters, he immediately knew that nothing would stop the ambitious officers from their mission. While he would have lodged a protest under normal circumstances, he was curious how Captain Riez Eranos planned to deal with the ice-wall. How the Polarians had navigated such seas in ancient times was a mystery, as were the routes they used. Pollus assumed that if the ancients had passed through such waters, so to could their descendents.
On the return to his quarters, Pollus saw the simple and direct solution that the Captain had to their problem. The artillerists were loading the entire battery of cannon and ballistae with black-powder bolts. As he reflected upon how rash blasting their way through the ice floes was, he began to wonder if it was not completely insane. Many of Onisah's problems had been solved by violence, and not all of those problems were wars. Rangers fired makeshift mortars at overhanging ledges in the Bulwark Mountains outside the city to trigger avalanches and landslides from a safe distance, so that they could clear the perilous alpine trails. He wondered if the ice-wall that barred their progress north was any more treacherous. He remained on the gunnery deck while the crews ignored him, making him an unwitting witness to what occurred afterwards.
The answer was granted in the rapturous discharge of munitions at an iceberg that looked to be the thinnest picket in the cyclopean barrier before them. As the shells and bolts struck the icy cliff side, fragments tumbled into the dark waters below. Like broken glass, scarred and jagged edges remained in the side. The floe precariously yawned towards the water, groaning like a stumbling dragon. Pollus again thought he could see a distant source of light for a moment. It listed to the side like a sinking ship before finally collapsing beneath the waves. Pollus and the other crew members braced themselves as the wave struck the vessel like the last vengeance of a felled foe.
A cheer went out from the crew, and Pollus could not help but join in the contagious celebration as a safe channel north appeared in the ice. The vessel immediately proceeded forwards, eager to exploit the gap before choppy seas could again seal off the safe channel from them. As they proceeded into a channel surrounded on either side by sheer icy walls that dwarfed the icebergs they had seen earlier, Pollus could not help but feel as though they were entering the maul of a hungry beast. Judging from the faces on the other crew, he could not help but fell they also could sense something was amiss. At least Ul-shur-nil did, from the look on her face. Pollus found some consolation in the fact his sentiment was shared by a senior officer.
On the second day, Pollus rose from his study to find that the vessel still traveled in the ice channel. As far as he could tell, the channel meandered through openings in the ice. As he studied the icy cliffs on either side, he realized what had been bothering him. The consistent spacing of the channel had continued as far back and as far forwards as his eyes could see. As the channel continued onwards, he could see the icy walls became less coarse. He briefly considered how something massive had repeatedly pulverized the sides of the channel, as a sort of humongous polishing and smoothing. Again, Pollus saw something shimmering just around a bend the ship would be turning soon. Pollus wondered if he should tell his theory to the Captain or Ul-shur-nil, or directly to the gunnery crews beneath his feet. He had the unshakeable feeling that he would soon find out if his theories were true. If so, their specialty might soon be employed.
Around the bend, Pollus saw it coming into view. He mistook it at first a mere barrier of ice floating in the center of the channel, but something was immediately different about it. It was made of a type of ice of different consistency and slightly grayish tint than pristine snow. Small holes or hatches at regular intervals remained just above the waterline. Its walls were sloping and angled in a manner closer to a fortress than to a ship. Unidentifiable statues of Onisahian green-steel reflected in an eerily familiar way on the channel walls around them. Pollus wondered if some fell enchantment or peculiar trick of optics had been responsible for his earlier sightings, but he did not stop to think. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it move.
Pollus ran to the gunnery decks, shouting incoherently and pointing to the icy citadel that drifted upon the waves. As he observed the weapons crews trying to take position, he saw something short and fast erupt from the center of the fortress. The lance of light slammed into a channel wall beyond the Dauntless, knocking a monumental chunk of ice into the drink behind them. Pollus held on as the following wave pushed the ship further towards the rapidly descending armed iceberg. He knew not what mechanism or enchantment propelled it, save an unseen force allowed it to effortlessly glide through the waves.
In an apparent stroke of good fortune, Pollus noted the entire battery of artillery had been brought to bear upon their enigmatic pursuer. Bolts and shells smashed into the side of the icy fortress, creating a maelstrom of smoke and fumes. When they cleared, not even a scratch remained from the volley. The gunnery crew began to reload, but Pollus guessed the outcome would be similarly disappointing. Off in the distance, a shrill wail erupted from the floating stronghold. He had to cover his ears as he remembered his responsibility. Their own alarm bell rang as a clamor arose on the upper decks.
In a quick glance out of a portal on the gunnery deck, Pollus could see numerous small launches had been deployed from the citadel, small watercraft that seemed to hover just above the waves. Despite the sheer destructive power of their adversary, he guessed that they intended to board and capture the craft. He thought he saw figures of a not-quite-human build skittering to fill the craft from the fortress. The marines from the lower deck began to issue weapons, and this time, Pollus eagerly accepted the hollow comfort of the crossbow they issued him.
Pollus returned to his study and locked the door. He began to write as fast as he could, transcribing the details of what had transpired since the attack started. He knew he would be remiss in his duties if he had neglected one of the most important clauses in his contract. He wrote with a madman's haste and compulsion, filling words and sketches across the empty pages as fast as he could. He moved beyond the leisurely pace at which he had grown so accustomed to, scribbling at a manic cadence limited only by the already feverish speed of his hands. Finishing his work by adding the final date and stamp, he threw his notes into the sending-box.
It was then some massive force jerked the vessel forwards, sending Pollus crashing to his feet. He did not know if it was another wave, some foul sorcery, or worse, but the silence from the upper decks told him that the battle was not fairing too well for them. He briefly wondered if escape had been possible, against an apparently ponderous opponent with unknown capabilities that nonetheless moved with the fleetness of a predatory jungle-cat across the waves. He wondered if perhaps the channel was some sacred territory to the inhabitants of the fortress, or if in their haste to reach the north, they had stirred some ancient evil upon the high seas.
Whatever the reason, Pollus knew it was too late for reason. Above him, he heard the distinctive impact of grappling hooks against the railings of the ship. The clattering gait of definitively inhuman forms echoed across the formerly silent deck. He briefly wondered as to the nature of the intruders, uncertain if they were some manner of artificial being, undead abominations like the necromancers that plagued Onisah's outlands, or something far worse. Knowing that his own fate would not be pleasant, he hurled the sending-box from the porthole in his room. As it splashed, he momentarily wondered if he should follow it and succumb to a quick demise in the arctic waters below.
Outside his bolted door, Pollus heard the enigmatic footsteps echo down the corridor. His window for a merciful death was rapidly closing with each moment, but he composed himself. He would meet his end, or worse, in the rime-encrusted waters at the edge of the world, but he would have performed a duty unique among the others that were now undoubtedly dead, dying, or worse. If the sending-box worked, he would have ensured their sacrifice were not in vain. Rising to greet his destiny like a true Onisahian, he raised the crossbow in an iron grip at the door. He fired it as the intruders smashed it into splinters.