The Unsettled Sea

📅 Published on January 25, 2022

“The Unsettled Sea”

Written by Heath Pfaff
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 8.50/10. From 2 votes.
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The lantern on my desk flickered and then went out, drenching the cabin in a tar-like darkness.  I cursed quietly to myself.  It seemed only the day before that I had filled the lamp, and I’d been ashore since.  Carefully I placed my quill into the rest affixed to my desk and then fastened the lid of my ink.  I’d cleaned up spills too many times to make that mistake again.

The light coming in through the porthole was just enough that I could make out the furnishing of my cabin.  I turned and stood to find the flask with my lamp oil, and that’s when I first saw him.  He was standing in the far corner of the small space, not five feet from me, an unsettling smile on his face.  He had a mouth packed with needles that reflected the light of the moon, and I couldn’t make out his eyes.  They must have been sunken into his face so far that they were invisible in the dark of the room.

I startled, stepping back and tripping over the chair I’d just departed.  I almost fell over, but caught myself by grabbing onto the corner of the desk.  My attention was only pulled away for a second.  A fraction of a second, but when I looked back up the man in the corner was gone.  He’d not moved, or attempted to hide elsewhere, he was simply no longer there.

Years at sea had given me plenty of opportunities to see all manner of strange phenomenon, and never had I doubted what my eyes told me, not until that moment.  No matter how certain I felt that what I’d witnessed was real, it was impossible to see the now empty cabin and not believe that I must have been mistaken.

I’d have sworn I’d seen a ghost, but there were no men dead or otherwise that looked like the one I’d just seen.  Perhaps it had been a demon.  That was a thought I didn’t wish to dwell on.

The voyage, I knew, was ill-fated.  I’d felt it even before boarding the ship, and now that we’d been underway for nearly an hour, I was more certain than ever that we’d made a grave mistake in taking on this commission.  The pay had been high, two months of shipping between the isle and the mainland to be made up in a few hours, but there was a reason the price was high.  There was also a reason that we’d been asked and that there had been little competition for the job.

When the light in the sky had burned the night so brightly that it was as a second sun falling into the ocean, everyone awake had seen the spectacle.  As the light faded over the horizon, a thunderous roar had shaken the earth and shattered glass in the windows of houses.  It had been like a physical strike, so deep and powerful that it rumbled your bones and turned your stomach.

The waves had come next, great white-crested walls of water smashing into the port and destroying ships and buildings alike.  A few dozen vessels remained undamaged, with hundreds more broken and in need of major repairs.  The Water Queen, my hard-earned brigantine, had been lucky, at least in the sense that she took almost no damage.

I retrieved my oil flask and went to fill the lamp, but soon discovered the lamp wasn’t empty.  The wick had gone out on its own.  The glass was down.  There was no possibility that it had blown out.  Oil lamps didn’t blow out easily when they weren’t covered, and my storm lantern certainly hadn’t just flickered out in the stillness of my cabin.  This was another dark portent.  Superstition went hand and foot with sailors, and though I tried to keep myself above such things, I could feel the churn of evil in the air.

A knock on my door grabbed my attention just as I lit my lamp again.  I turned about with a sense of trepidation.

“Yes?” I called, suddenly convinced that the man I’d seen in the shadows was standing on the other side of the door, his needle filled mouth gaping wide, just waiting for me to pull it open so that he could step inside and rend my flesh to strips like a tattered sail.

“Captain, the lookout has spotted something in the waters ahead.”  I recognized the voice of my first mate and the tension building in me flickered out like my candle had not long before.

I came to the door and opened it.  “Mr. Travis, what was there to see?” I asked, sliding out of my room with a feeling of relief, a feeling that fled as I turned to draw the door closed and saw that the lantern was out again.  Ice ran down my spine, and I had to disguise my hesitation with a small cough before pulling my cabin closed fully.

“We had a couple different men check the glass, but we’re not sure what it is.  It looks as though the water is aglow, lights rising up from the brine like ghost lanterns.  Something seems to be submerged, but the lookouts say it doesn’t look like a ship, and it’s not a natural island of any kind.  At this juncture, your guess is probably better than ours.”  He explained as we walked up the stairs onto the deck.

The men were quiet now, all looking off the side of the ship facing the lights ahead of us in the ocean.  It was an uncanny kind of glow, pale and strong.  It didn’t flicker like fire, but neither was it the shade of sunlight.  It was unlike any light I’d seen before.  We were cutting our way through the water in the direction of the glow, and it was coming closer quickly.  The deck was strangely quiet as everyone watched the unknown draw closer.

“Come alongside the lights!” I called out loudly, getting the crew moving again.  I watched as the men, remembering themselves, went back to work, but not without some clear signs of anxiety.  I could see the look of fearful superstition in their eyes.  Sailors didn’t care for the unknown, and I could understand their sentiment.  At that moment I would have preferred to do anything else other than steer my ship towards those damnable lights.

“Something about this doesn’t sit right with me, Captain,” Mr. Travis said quietly, his deep voice pitched just for my hearing.  “This whole voyage has been strange.  Crew have been reporting all kinds of weird happenings since we left dock, and I myself thought I heard voices rising up from out of the water, like men screaming for help out amongst the waves.  I’ve been sailing many years, and nothing like this has ever happened to me before.  I’m not the kind to fall for tales of sea beasties waiting to swallow us up, but this whole voyage has a foul reek about it.”

I nodded once.  “I am agreed, Mr. Travis, but we are beholden by contract to make the investigation our governor requires.  He would not be pleased if we came back and told him we were frightened off by some lights, lights we knew we would find when we left shore.  We must at least have a look.”

The first mate nodded his head as though this was the answer he expected.  “When I first saw the star fall across the sky, I felt sick down to the marrow of my bones.”  He looked over at me, and his eyes held a specter of terror I had never seen there.  “I thought to myself, Mr. Travis, this is the end of you.”

The falling star had terrified everyone who’d seen it.  We’d all seen the occasional star streaking across the night sky, but this one had scorched the night, as bright as the noon sun, but boiling with fire.  It blotted out all the rest of the stars, even the moon, and then it crashed into the ocean.  The glow lit the horizon for hours.  The waves had come crashing into the shore, even through the natural breakers made by the volcanic mountains that ringed the island.

Ships were crushed, and the people unfortunate enough to be in the streets near the docks were washed away, dragged out to sea and shredded on the volcanic rock, only to be returned with the tide in the form of tattered chum.

“We’ve come back from fiercer seas than these, Mr. Travis.  We’ll come back this time too, and with enough coin to drink ourselves well into the next shipping season.”  It wasn’t easy to muster good cheer, but I did my best to make a show of it.  The ship was carrying 65 souls, and I didn’t intend to lose a single one of them.

As is so often the case, fate cared little for the intentions of men.

The lookout was the first to die.

I was standing near the ship’s wheel, watching as the glow from the sea began to brighten the night, turning it into some kind of haunted semblance of what dawn should have been.  The light that came from the sea had an unnatural hue to it, a white starkness that was almost cold, and I kept thinking that no light should be cold. Since man had first mastered fire, heat had become the comforting, calming touch associated with light.  Not only was the dark chased away, but so was the ice and snow.  Why, then, did this eye-scouring brightness make me shiver in my coat?  My first mate had called the light source, “ghost lanterns” and I thought the name was apt.

…and then the glow was gone, out like someone had thrown a black curtain over the whole thing.

A terrible dull thump that was somehow both weighty and wet at the same time was accompanied by the horrified voices of my men. Screams and gasps were not the kind of sounds you liked to hear aboard ship, and they got me moving immediately.  Without the light of the sea, the ship felt darker than it should.  The lantern light seemed to barely cast more than a few feet.

“Karn has fallen from the lookout!” someone cried out.

“Where is Cordry?” someone else shouted.  “Someone get the doctor!”

“It’s too late for that.”  Someone else said, their voice quieter as I cut my way through my men to the side of their fallen comrade.  I needed look only for a second to realize that they were correct.  No one could help Karn now.  He’d landed on his head, and the force of the blow had liquified his skull before shoving the shrapnel back up into his neck, even as his organs had attempted to compress out through the newly torn opening.

Someone gagged and threw up, and I turned my head away.  “Someone bring a tarp and cover the poor boy up!” I growled, keeping my voice steady with the force of my will alone.  I’d seen someone fall from the crow’s nest before, but they hadn’t landed head first like this.  Doing so by accident would be the absolute worst of luck.  There were lines and beams all along the mast on the way down, and the people I’d known that had fallen had at least attempted to slow themselves down, and none had landed head first.  Had I not known better, I would have assumed he’d dived from the nest intentionally.

It was at this moment that the ship struck something.  I’d never been aboard a ship that had run aground at full speed, and even had I done so, nothing could have prepared me for the force of the impact.  Men were thrown to their knees, and Karn’s body went sliding across the deck, leaving a trail of gore in his wake.

I hit the deck hard enough that my knees were bruised and battered, and I managed to rip my coat.  I was struggling back to my feet when my first stumbled towards me, offering me his hand, which I gladly took.  I wasn’t as young as I once had been, and the wood of the floor had been far less forgiving than I might have liked.

“What did we hit?” I asked, trying to get my bearings in the chaos.

“I don’t know, sir.  There are no reefs out here, and we are in open water as far as I can see.”  The first seemed as lost as I felt.

I made my way carefully to the railing of the ship, which was the same action most of the men aboard were taking.  Everyone was trying to figure out how we’d run aground.  The light that had been glowing from below the water was gone now, and that left everything eerily dark.  Other than the whispered voices of the crew, there was only the sound of water lapping against the hull, and the creak of distressed wood as the ship settled on whatever had caught it beneath the water’s surface.

“Jensen, get below decks and figure out where we’ve hit.  I need to know if there is damage to be worried about,” I ordered a man standing nearby.  He didn’t look pleased to be taken from his place at the railing to go belowdecks, but I needed information, and I needed the crew back in operational shape.

“Aye, sir,” he called, and then he was off to do as ordered.

With the light from the sea gone, things were dark out to sea.  We couldn’t make out anything down at the water line beyond the fact that there was a water line.  I tried to figure out which way the lights had been from where we currently were.  It didn’t seem that we should have reached them yet.

Someone on the other side of the ship screamed, and all attention turned in that direction.  The scream grew louder, and then dwindled before a splash sounded in the ocean on that side.

“Something dragged Enders over the side!” someone shouted, and then the voices of the crew erupted into chaos.

“Get the guns!” someone shouted, and suddenly men were surging around me, running for the doors down towards the store rooms.

“Stay yourselves, men!” I called out, trying to regain order.  “Marshal, Avery, you head down to the store room and bring up the weapon crates.  The rest of you keep your stations!  This is still a ship, and onboard ship we keep order, you hear me?”

As I was saying this my eyes caught movement along the portside rail, just opposite from where I was.  I saw what looked like the arm of a man reaching over the railing and grabbing hold of a sail line that was lashed down.  The arm was too long, maybe five or six feet, and narrow.  Someone else saw it and let out a scream of terror.

“Demon!” a voice shouted, and now chaos really was upon us.  The thing coming over the rail used its grip on the line to pull itself up and onto the deck.  The impossibly long arm was followed by a second, and then a head that looked like it had torn its way free of a sailor’s nightmare.  It had the black eyes and mouth of a shark, but the head was long and mobile like an eel, flopping around as if no bones attached it to the rest of the thing.  Those black eyes were on three different sides of its head, for a grand total of six of these terrible sensory mechanisms.

As it drew itself over the railing and rolled haphazardly onto the deck, men ran over one another to get out of its range.  It had a body that was somewhat like a man’s, but it was too long, too narrow.  It wore no clothing, and its greenish hewed flesh was taut over a rib cage that seemed to take up all of its torso before it shrank into hips that gave way to a set of three legs which were each of a different length.  This should have made it difficult for the thing to move, but as soon as it was on the deck it flopped onto these limbs, using its arms to counter the unbalance of the rest of it, and then it was perambulating with unnatural speed.

It tore across the deck after the nearest man as screams lifted into the air.  Someone grabbed a boat hook and threw it as the creature streaked past them towards a man who had just turned his back and was attempting to run towards the nearest door down into the ship.  The boat hook struck the creature, but was quickly knocked away without breaking its monstrous pace.

We all watched as the thing sprang from the deck and slammed into the running man with enough force to crush him against the deck of the ship.  He let out a wail of horror, but a moment later the mouth of the terrible thing was ripping into him, tearing strips of flesh from his back and choking them down before moving on to the next bite.

“Hooks, knives, grab what you can and kill that thing!”  I shouted, reaching for the saber I’d forgotten down in my room.  I cursed to myself and grabbed a boat hook from a barrel near the railing.  It would have to do.  We advanced on it in a group, and it paid us no mind as it continued to eat the man it had slammed into the deck.  He was still screaming.  It was the kind of sound that I knew would haunt my memories for as long as I lived.

Not wanting my men to think I wasn’t ready to put my life on the line, I charged the creature with my makeshift weapon out in front of me.  I thought I’d be able to stab the beast before it knew I was coming.  It seemed distracted, but I was still a good four feet away when it’s head sprung up, a massive chunk of human arm falling from its still chewing jaws.  Two of its eyes looked right at me and I stopped in place, skidding closer against my desire to do so.

One of those hind limbs, the leg-things, struck out blindingly fast.  It reminded me of the leg of a locust, but only in shape and function, not in physical characteristics.  It looked more like a human leg than an insects’, other than the green color.  Either way, it stretched far further than I thought possible, and small claws that I hadn’t seen slashed at me, cutting my boat hook neatly in half and then slicing my left arm wide open as easily as a man might gut a fish.

It was my turn to scream then.  I fell back as the beast rounded, coming in for what I thought was going to be a kill, but it didn’t attack me.  Instead it snagged another of the crew, using one of its massive arms to yank him out of place as he attempted to turn and flee.  He dropped the knife he’d had as it dragged him back across the deck, grabbing him with its other arm as well.  There was a terrible cracking, ripping sound and the creature tore the man in half, splitting him like a dried wishbone.  Entrails splattered across the deck.  The first man attacked by this new monster was attempting to drag himself away with his one remaining arm.  It wasn’t going well.  There was so much blood.  I knew he was dead already.  There was no way we’d stop the bleeding in time, even if the deck hadn’t been in chaos.

I struggled to stem my own bleeding as the monster tore into the man it had just spilled open, voraciously consuming his insides.  I used my belt to apply pressure to my wound as one of my men came up and helped me to my feet.  Everyone was running for the long boats now.  Somehow the ship was on fire, the flames licking across the deck with a hunger matched only by that of the beast devouring my men.  A sail took alight, the tarred stays spreading the fire as quick as could be.

Fire, the kind of fire that was breaking out on the ship now, it was the death knell of any sea ship.

“Abandon ship!” I called out, though I hardly needed the words.  People were scrambling to get away, but other things had gotten aboard, more creatures similar, and yet different from the first one were dragging themselves across the wood planking.  People were dying everywhere, gruesome slaughter filling the air with a cacophony of wailing agony.

There was no sense to any of the creatures.  No creator would make beasts of so little order, and nature had not the stomach for this kind of horror.  They were an embodiment of chaos, of violent hatred.  Had I reached into the heart of humanity and drawn out the black tar of every evil and vile thought we’d ever dreamed, I still would not have had the spark necessary to draw these horrors into being.

“Captain, come on.  We have to move.”  I looked up at the man speaking.  I recognized him as one of our skilled craftsmen.  He had an arm tucked under mine, and a steadying hand on my shoulder.  “There is nothing here for us to save.”  He said, drawing me after him.

I knew his words were true, but I still couldn’t fathom how this had all happened so quickly.  How long had it been since I was writing in my journal in my room?  Five minutes?  Ten?  Somewhere between the two, I thought, and yet in those fleeting minutes everything had changed.

“Abandon ship!” I called again, one last time, and then I let myself be drawn to an escape craft.

The boat hit the water hard, and then the men were at oars, trying to get us clear of the burning ship.  I pulled out my compass and pointed the direction back to Portsmouth.  “Due east!” I pointed the way.  “Keep a hard pace.” I just wanted to get everyone left away from the burning ship and this whole chaotic mess.  The ship was the primary light source now.  It was a flaming pillar of screams and nightmares.  I wasn’t sure whether the men were luckier to burn or encounter the monsters that lurked the decks amidst the flames.

The men paddled hard, and it seemed we were moving away from the ship at a good pace, but then the light from the sea came aglow, and it was all around us.  The intensity of it was blinding.  It was as though the very water itself had been reborn as a star, but as I looked over the edge of the lifeboat I could see that this wasn’t the case.  There was something in the water, some massive structure that bubbled and burned even beneath the sea.  It looked to be made of metal, but I had never seen anything so big made entirely of metal before.  It would have fit my ship inside with no difficulty many times over.  There was writing upon its outside, but not in a language I recognized.

“Is it a sunken ship?” one of the other men in the raft asked.

“Not one of ours, that’s for sure.”  I looked over and saw that Mr. Travis was standing at the opposite side of the boat.  He was looking out over the side before he turned back over his shoulder and looked at me.  The light reflected in his eyes, making them look like two black marbles, though it was just a matter of the shadow’s being cast by the bright light below us.  It had to be.

“Look, Captain!”  He turned and pointed.  “There is a place to land over there.”  Where he pointed there was a pulsing light of dark red, and there did appear to be something at the surface there.  It made me feel uneasy though.

“No,” I spoke firmly.  “We should follow the compass east.”

“Sir?” one of the men near me asked, looking up at me.  “Are we still going east?”

I looked down at my compass again.  The needle was slowly shifting, as though it was floating without a firm cause.  I turned it, and the needle swam about in a circle, not settling on any given point.  Why was it doing that?

“We should land and get our bearings,” my first called across the boat.  “The compass isn’t working.  I don’t want to get lost at sea.”

That red light hung ominously to our port side, and we seemed to be drawing closer despite paddling the other way.

“Seas be damned,” I cursed quietly.  “Make for the red lights.  We’ll draw up there and gather ourselves,” I said, deciding that Mr. Travis was right.  We didn’t want to paddle deeper out to sea.  That was a death sentence as much as anything else.

“Sir, are you sure?”  One of the others in the boat asked.  Everyone was looking at me as though my idea was insane, and for some reason that made me angry.  Why were they questioning me?  Travis had made it clear that this was a good idea, and with his opinion and mine for consideration, they should know better than to ask questions.

“Yes, I’m sure.  Paddle hard!  Let’s get our feet on firm ground.”  I made the command firmer this time. My head was feeling a bit light, likely due to blood loss.  The others looked back and forth amongst one another, but then they started to turn the boat and we were moving.  There were so many screams in the air, rising up all around me.  Did they come from the water, or were they from the boat I was in?  It was impossible to tell.  I tucked myself further into my coat.

It wasn’t long before we were drawing up upon the red lights, and the boat came aground, though not upon an island.  We struck metal, the firm stop knocking me down into the boat before someone helped me up again.  I looked at this new madness with a critical eye.  We were on a hill of metal, the surface smooth and slick looking.  There was a hole near the top of the hill, a hole or hatchway with a heavy door attached to it that was open.

I disembarked, having the others join me.  “Bring the boat up and fasten it to that door,” I ordered, not wanting to lose our ride.  I turned around, looking for Mr. Travis.  I found our skilled craftsmen first.  I thought his name was Ogdree.

“What is this thing?” he asked quietly as he came up beside me.  “I don’t think we should be here.”

“We need a minute, Ogdree.  We have to figure out which direction will lead us back to the island. If we get lost out here in the longboat then we’re done.  No one will ever find us.” I told him, moving towards the door.  The ground looked slick, but the metal, or whatever the material was, had a textured surface that seemed to hold my boots firm.  I made it to the hatchway quickly enough.

When I looked down inside the hatch I found myself staring down a tunnel that dropped at least a hundred feet, but it didn’t look like any tunnel I’d seen before.  This had clearly been built by something intelligent.  It wasn’t really a tunnel at all, but a hallway that was up on its end.  There were doors off to the sides, and more of those ghost-lights flickered along the hallway, lighting the whole stretch downward.  It looked like there were even more tunnels branching off at the end of this, each meticulously identical, crafted with flawless precision and out of materials I couldn’t identify.

“Mr. Travis, are you seeing this?” I asked, expecting the man to have followed after me.

“Sir?” Ogdree asked.

“Yes?” I replied, looking away from the tunnel and back to Ogdree.

“I’m Lehn Ogdree, sir,” he replied, and I could see an anxiety upon the man.

“I know who you are!” I snapped, my patience a bit more frayed than I’d expected.  “Where is the First?”

“Mr. Travis is…”  He cleared his throat.  “One of those things got him up on the ship, Sir.  He didn’t make it to the boat.”

“No, that’s… I just talked to him.”  I pushed passed Ogdree towards the other men, but there was no one there.  It wasn’t just Travis that was missing.  It was everyone.  Worse, the boat was gone as well.

“Where is the cutter?”  I asked, though I wasn’t sure who I was asking.  I turned back around to face Ogdree, to ask him the same question, but Ogdree wasn’t there.  Instead, there was a man in black finery, with eyes as dark as the abyss of space, the blackest point between the furthest stars.  His smile was too big, mouth full of too many teeth that were all as sharp as broken glass.

“You,” I said, my voice dry.

He nodded, keeping his eyes on me, that smile never fading.

“What are you?  What is happening?”  Desperation crept into my voice.  I was confused and afraid, and I had never felt either of those emotions with the stinging clarity that I did in that moment.

“I am many things, Captain, but you will know me as the herald of the darkness.  I am the voice that comes before the answer to the question your people shouldn’t have asked.”  He spoke in words that prickled at my mind, as though I heard them through the bleeding of my brain, and not through any sound they made.  He stepped towards me, and I tried to retreat but found my body wouldn’t move.  He held up a small black sack with drawstrings.  It seemed to radiate cold.

“Take it,” he urged, and I couldn’t resist.  I reached up and took the pouch from him, meaning to open it and look at what he’d given me, but he clicked his tongue.  “No, no, no, you mustn’t look inside.  Some things weren’t meant for mortal minds to see.  You will deliver this thing for me, and you will take a message to your people.”

“I can’t.”  My voice was fragile to my own ears.  “I just… can’t.”  In the presence of this horror, I felt as though I might die in place, that my heart might explode in my chest, and that would be preferable to continuing this conversation.

“Yet you will.  It has already come to pass.”  He smiled again, the teeth in his mouth grinding together as he did so, making a sound like metal scraping over smooth stone.

Then there was darkness, and forever more there would always be darkness.

Rating: 8.50/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Heath Pfaff
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Heath Pfaff

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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