With every creaking yaw, the lantern swung on its hook. Its glow played over the Captain's pockmarked cheeks, slipped through scarred divots and crinkled crow's feet. He sat, chin tucked to scruffy neck. His breathing matched the rhythmic slosh of waves.
Across the table, there was a sigh. "We could try a sunward heading, Sir. The Dorndallow method," said the Chief Officer, cautiously, running her finger over a stained map. *
The Captain grunted, blinked his greasy eyes. "No use."
"We've no time. Down to a week's rations. Dorndallow takes at least two."
"We must try something," said the CO, running a hand through stringy hair. "The crew are rowdy and half hopeless, convinced we've no plan."
The captain's lips crinkled. He rubbed a thumb over part of the map, a western stretch of sea. There, wriggling in inked waves, was a tiny sea serpent. Beside was penned a phrase: Here there be monsters. He tapped it, hummed idly.
"Aye, we shall," he said, not meeting her gaze. He chewed his lip. "You ever been lost a'sea before, Petunia?"
"No, Sir. Hoped I never would."
The CO stuttered a moment. "You managed to become un-lost?"
"Aye. I did return to the shore of Nören."**
There was a brief silence. Petunia's eyes flickered over the Captain's face, looked for a response.
"How?" she said, anxious.
"Don' bear repeatin'."
The captain lifted his chin, tapped a finger at his neck. The CO frowned, put a hand to her own throat, to the pendant which hung there on a silver chain. A tiny lance with a five-pointed head, like a star.*** She looked at the man, brow knitted.
"Tale a faith like yours wouldn't abide," said the captain.
"What tale can be so awful?"
"Well," said the pockmarked man. "Suppose there's no hurt in tellin'." He pulled a dark grin, showed muddy teeth. "Since I reckon your Lord can't hear us, here. I'll tell."
He rose from the table, went to a little round port in the hull. Outside swayed a field of stars. A navy field with no horizon; only dots of white. Reflected, gobbled up by the hungry sea.
"We was a hundred-sixty days afloat," he said. "A whaler. Big ship. Sailing low with a fat load of oil in our belly. As we'd been gone so long, we'd drunk up all the liquor." He grinned again. "And we mortal men and women was spoiling to wet our tongues and respective nobs on somethin' tha' weren't water and each other."
"So," he continued, raising an eyebrow. "The helmsman concocts some course to get us home a week early. We jump at it. O' course, tha's the mistake. You know a boat don't just go plottin' new routes amids' the Isles."
Petunia watched her Captain lean an arm above the porthole, shut his eyes to the swaying blue night. "Tha' mistake brought us into a fog. Thick as smog off a burning boot. Lasted months and more. By the end, we'd grown sick and wily. Lots had just disappeared. They'd been hearin' songs in the fog. Sirens."
The man scratched his scruff, curled his lip. "And we tried everythin' to gain our bearin', but stars just weren't the same. Not like these, but no more helpful," he said, waving a hand at the hole. "Pink and winkin' stars, we had. Too-close stars. The kind to stare back if you payed 'em a glance."
"Tried the Dorndallow and everythin' else. Just got sicker off blubber and the sight o' empty water."
He trailed off. Petunia shifted where she sat, waited for him to continue. "How," she started. "How did you get back, in the end?"
"There was a man," said the Captain. "Said he knew a way. Odd fellow. Pretty and pale, 'spite the sun. Black eyes. Only ashore did I come to figure he was an älf." He shook his head. "No right human could know what he told us, see. He gathered a lot of us down in the hold, those who he thought'd listen, made a proposition."
At this, he spoke direly. "Proposed we make an offerin' to the sea. In exchange for a way home."
"What kind of offering?" said Petunia.
The Captain fixed her with his grease-grey eyes. "Flesh. Man's flesh," he said, soft. "Tweren't hard to convince us, at tha' point, for it weren't to be any of ours."
"Whose?" whispered Petunia.
"A certain fellow from Corvoy. He were so surprised when we pulled him from his hammock." The Captain chuckled, stopped suddenly. "We was so anxious for home, we hadn't a hesitation when the älf told us to gut him. Black-eye creature strung him from a whalin' line, watched sirens gather round. Sirens, just like on the rocks at Ponte Godot. All bare and beautiful with paddle-legs. Still remember how they fed."
"That älf talked with them. Dunno what words they had, but I figure they gave him a course, for we sighted the red shore of Maples within a month."
For a small moment, there was silence, but for the creak of the lantern swaying on its hook.
Petunia's lips rounded, as if to speak. She stuttered, frowned, tried again. "But, why the man from Corvoy?"
The Captain took three steps. Light from the lamp slid off his marred face. He stopped behind Petunia, face in shadow. He placed a hand on the C.O.'s shoulder, squeezed. The woman tensed.
"You see, the älf was particular in his offering, for sirens prefer a faithful man. Religion does somethin' to the blood." Another hand joined the first.
"And he were the only child o' faith aboard." One hand drifted, slid over stringy hair, silver chain, clammy neck.
Petunia twitched, stiffened as cold digits plucked the pendant from her breastbone. She breathed shallow as they fingered the little star, watched it flash in the lantern light. The Captain scoffed, let the thing fall. He clapped Petunia's shoulder, stepped away.
"I'm off to gather the crew." He took the lantern from its hook, unlatched the cabin door. The light vanished. The lock clicked behind.
Petunia sat alone, in the quiet and the dark, save for the rush and glitter of the hungry sea.
Sorah startled awake. Flailing a moment, she twisted, turned to sit in her hammock. She parted a curtain of dreadlocks, peered about.
The sleeping hold was void of life. A dozen knit hammocks swayed to the sea's lull, empty. Clothing and remnants of a meal were scattered about, abandoned. Above, the hatch was open. Sweet breeze played through the belly of the ship.
"He-" choked Sorah, attempting to speak. She heaved. A clot of gunk freed itself from her throat. "Hello?" she managed, weakly. Not a response met her ear.
Groaning, the sailor touched thin, tan feet to the planking. She put her weight on them, swayed. Veins and bone stood out from those wobbling limbs. A soft layer of pale, white fluff clung to them. Sorah rubbed at the stuff, crinkled her nose in confusion. Her hands were the same; near-emaciated and covered in some rot. "Hello?" she tried again.
She tried a few steps, unsteady. A tin bowl bumped her feet, filled with green and black mould. She crossed to the hatch ladder, peered up. A cloudless, aquamarine sky hung close beyond. The ladder creaked, shed a skin of mouldy dust as she clambered up.
The sailor pulled herself to the schooner's deck, looked about in horror. The deck was oddly soft, clad as it was in centimeters of some soft moss. Sails hung, black and holey with cloying-sweet mould. Not a person was to be seen aboard. Sorah crept to the rail, beheld an even stranger sea.
A soft, flat plain stretched beyond. A yellow carpet of fuzzy mold, interspersed by treelike twists of blue spirals. Not far off, clusters of odd, gasping sphincters the size of drinking wells burbled and spat puffs of spores and goop. A particulate haze, sweet on the tongue, floated and glittered under a pair of small and winking suns.
Sorah turned briefly in incredulous circles, stopped. She frowned. The gangplank was down. Investigating, she found it rested on the green sea. Down the plank, she prodded the green with a cautious toe, found it soft and damp as fresh grass. She pressed a heel to it. It bore the weight.
"Is anyone out there?" she called, standing on the squashy sea. The land produced a soft echo.
Something moved on the horizon. Sorah squinted, shaded her eyes. A human shape, distant and green as the surrounding land, was waving. "Yes, I see you!" Sorah cried, waved back. The shape beckoned.
With uneasy steps, Sorah ventured into the vast and alien sea.
Folk fear the open sea. Unmapped tracts of blue, where land slips from sight and fog devours space, inspire a terror matched only by the very darkest depths of wilderness. A vessel on the Trackless Sea may become truly lost, for on those misty waters, one’s hull may wreck on the rocks of another world’s shore.
All sailors know there's an end to the World. The blank, far Western spaces of maps, where cartographers doodle curling sea monsters and messes of made-up islands, are a jolly recognition of the awful bounds of Litoran knowledge. Though, for certain, these bounds may be shifted and detailed by clever minds (as new routes are discovered every year,) they rarely expand. This is because the World is indeed starkly limited. Beyond the horizon, there's little telling where a stray ship may land.
Any small variation from known, proven Coastal routes may lead a ship astray. Careless lapses in navigation, disorienting storms, or attempted shortcuts may lead a ship into alien waters. Lucky sailors regain their bearing by the recognition of stars and island shores. The unfortunate become lost near-immediately, find themselves amidst strange shores and unfriendly stars.
What lies beyond the Sea is rarely predictable. Most reliably, a lost ship will enter some neverending plain of water. Others, unusual lands. In any event, efforts to reverse course rarely bear fruit. Wherever a stray ship winds up, there's rarely any easy return.†
Those lost at sea are apt to encounter many strange waters.†† Green reaches, choked with pats of weeds. Warm and misty tropics, steamy as a hotspring. Still and silent nights, so dark and clear as to make a ship float amidst stars.
These waters are ceaseless reaches between lands. Without some storm, or luck, or cleverness, a ship may simply float for all time. By some oddity or trick, though, the waters may change. Land may appear on the horizon. A ship may find itself brought to an alien shore.†††
Those who have become un-lost at sea bring home odd tales of the lands beyond extraworldly waters. Many speak of warm, shallow reefs, interspersed with monster-inhabited deeps and never-ceasing clusters of subtropical islands. These are the most familiar.
Other lands are stranger. In the drunken corners of seafarers' pubs, ragged men will tell you of the legendary Dark Continent, a sunless place, lit only by glaring stars and the glowing eye of a burbling red mountain. There, obsidian-black giants lead brutal, heroic lives in the near-dark. Others tell of mountainous Tefelk, a long-sought land of many riches and odd, hairy folk. No once-lost sailor can tell you absolutely for sure, however, the trick to return to any of these lands, nor how ever to return to the Coast.
For as long as Litorans have feared the Trackless Sea, they have sought to conquer it. Countless generations of scholars and sailors have worked to reason paths through Coastal waters, safe passages which risk not a fateful departure into lands or waters unknown. This pursuit has been successful enough. How else are cargo and passengers ferried from North to South, from island to bay-side port? ‡
Routes between worlds are another matter. Attempts to cross from the Coast to other seas or coasts of lands are patchy, at best. Attempts to make way from unknown lands back to the Coast are even more uncertain. Such pursuits are usually composed of equal parts rumor, sorcery, and desperate superstition.
Some say, to navigate from unknown waters back to the Coast, a crew must simply capsize their vessel at the instance of sunset. Another method, said to route a vessel to the golden waters surrounding the Land of Awn, dictates a ship must forsake all her gold. Other practices are more dire. To return home from the tarry foam of Leal, a ship must contain only a single sailor. To escape a sandbar with no end, walk to the horizon.
No quantity of failure or daunting, watery void will dissuade the Coast's sailors from their old methods. Perhaps, such practices remain in the minds of seagoers, for those who do fail never return home, and those who do return to the World are apt to believe that even their maddest attempts bear fruit. Perhaps, even still, lost Litorans will believe in even madness when stranded in the watery void between a thousand shores.
* The Dorndallow Method, named for Master Sailor Marebell Dorndallow, is a old theory of gaining orientation in extraworldly waters. Supposedly, by sailing reliably sunward, a vessel may gain alignment with one world or another (preferably Nören,) much like a metal filing acquiring magnetism. Most modern scholars dismiss the Dorndallow method, but some sailors will swear it is effective.
** Nören is an uncommon name given to the World as a whole. It is typically a name used by sailors and magicians.
*** This symbol, known as the hastella, is the devotional charm of Aveth.
† Very much like attempting to escape the Underworld.
†† Though these are supersitiously regarded and described by sailors as individual, legendary "seas," such waters are really individual Worlds, each a marine expanse in its entirety.
††† Very rarely will randomness bring a ship home to Nören, however.
‡ In 2.881, the first provan passage between Firlund and the South (through what are now the Sovereign Isles) was discovered by the famed Royal Cartographer Holt Van der Eyk, of Aren. Trade boomed. The Coast was, for the first time, fully connected. This also facilitated new intercostal war.