With one fell, destructive swoop, all fifteen thousand, nine-hundred and twenty-three books were destroyed. The Brigadier’s Bounty, the galleon that had been used to store and transport the arcane texts from isle city to isle city crashed into the water under the weight of the Nautilus Leviathan’s gargantuan tendrils.
It was all Elsbeth could do to manage her way through the thrashing waters into the remains of a lifeboat. Just as the fate of the galleon, the lifeboat was smashed in fragments, leaving only vaguely artificial pieces of lumber left afloat.
As she clung on for dear life, the waves carried high over her and her buoy, giving her brief glimpses into the ocean below. Already, she could see the rain of books and papers, drifting down into the black depths.
Some great mass floated just beneath the wreck, devouring books and people as they sprinkled out of the demolished vessel.
Elsbeth screamed into the depths. Her friends were on that boat. Her life was on that boat.
Without that knowledge, the capital cities of Garguana would suffer from magical illiteracy for another decade. This was a means to solve the inequality that plagued the four seas of the West. And now, her part having failed, she was doomed to suffer the same fate of her lifelong dream.
And still, she clutched onto life dearly. Captain Bourdain was a close friend of hers and she knew he was one of the first to die. That monster, a sea creature she was only vaguely familiar with from maritime legends, had taken all she had cared for.
Within hours, the sea returned to the perfectly idle state it had been at before the attack. Any evidence of the Brigadier’s Bounty having ever sailed these waters sunk away.
Frighteningly, for Elsbeth, her wooden lifeline was slowly sinking. She kicked off her shoes, cursing herself for not having done that sooner. Next to go were her jacket and pants. She felt a tremendous weight lifted from her as her last possessions sank to the ocean floor.
Another thirty minutes and she was paddling with her feet to keep her head above water. With a final heave of effort, she lunged herself on top of the floating platform, dunking it down back into the water. But at least, this way, her head was above the waves.
She didn’t dare sit up, afraid to corrupt the balance she'd tried so precariously to secure. But soon, something tapped her right hand. She screamed, dreading that the sharks or other creatures were finally privy to a free meal.
But the thing tapped again and she recognized the touch of loose wood at her fingertips.
She reached over carefully and gripped it. It was heavy and waterlogged, but the board had potential to be a makeshift paddle.
Now she just needed to find something worth paddling to.
These waters had great ravines between outcroppings of land, which is why the navigator had chosen this path. Considering the abundance of cays and small isles between FistFort and Saber’s Wharf, there was supposed to be little chance of trouble.
A Nautilus Leviathan, Elsbeth thought. Creatures so large they could attack full fleets and come out alive. Children were taught that those beasts craved the flesh of man-things and so they would cunningly find ways to crack the people from their vessels.
The creature had stole upon them in the morning, attacking without any warning.
As the diving bell had shafted from the ship, a great roaring from the water’s depths had raised to meet them. It sounded like a bleating fog horn from the dock-side fishing vessels only much deeper and louder.
In the chaos, Captain Bourdain managed to get Elsbeth within the vicinity of the lifeboats. Before either one of them could lower the boat to safety, a tendril lashed out, destroying Bourdain and the life vessels. Elsbeth was flown so far off of the ship, she was left alone with only her debris and no weapons.
Now, as the day matured into the afternoon, Elsbeth spotted darkness on the horizon. It must have been tiny, but any land was better than no land. She could fashion herself a fishing pole and live off the ocean’s boons until rescue came! But she was getting ahead of herself.
She brought up her makeshift paddle and rowed with vigor.
Beneath her, the water vibrated.
Faintly, she thought she heard the thunder of the Nautilus’s call. As she twisted on the remains of the boat, her leg sunk deep into the water. Being so cold and with land within sight, she became frantic.
She attacked the water furiously, but the tide made it feel as though she’d made no progress at all.
Her craft became completely waterlogged as she splashed with the waves.
Her grip on the paddle loosened. A splash of ocean tore it from her hand.
The wood beneath her knees began to sink. She was soon free-paddling in the direction of where she thought she’d seen the island.
Waves rushed over her head, causing her to swallow gulps of ocean water. She managed to keep her head out of the water only long enough to cough out what she’d inhaled in.
She felt so heavy. She dropped her shirt next, and was soon swimming in only undergarments. Even still, fatigue weighed her down. She’d had to submerge herself to rid of her clothes and the effort to reach the surface was five times harder.
Her lungs felt like they would burst. Even with the occasional, merciful breath, the pressure remained.
Her arms felt like spaghetti and her legs grew numb. It was the return of the Nautilus’s call that urged her onward. A deep, primal fear pulsated through her veins as the sound rattled her chest.
She lost track of the island completely. She prayed to the gods that she was facing the right direction as she poured her last energy into her swimming.
Just as she felt her body sinking and her limbs failing, she spotted land, not fifty meters away.
But she was tapped. Her limbs refused to respond, and her heart felt it would explode. Her still body sunk down. And stopped.
She opened her eyes, the salt burning into them. She was underwater, yes, but she was in a shallow part of the cay. With minimal effort, she rolled over and sat up. Her head and shoulders emerged from the water.
She coughed out water and heaved in sweet, fresh air.
She’d made it.
* * *
Her first twenty hours were spent sleeping. The exhaustion she felt was complete and impossible to overcome. When the night had bled out into the day, she finally lifted her head, only to discover she was once again in the midst of the afternoon.
She scoured the beach in search of any luggage, remaining debris, or most importantly, books.
Aside from useless scrap and splinters, she found five soaked pages. Three were once recipes in the chef’s cookbook. The other two were pages from spellbooks or grimoires. Sadly, neither could be used to cast a complete spell. Sadly, even if Elsbeth had had those spells memorized, without a focus, she couldn’t cast them.
But as she lay upon the beach, a glittering gem caught her eyes, submerged beneath the shallow ocean waves. She managed the effort to stand up and walked over to her new prize.
Digging her fingers through the sand, she unearthed a fully-intact scroll. It was bound in a red, satin ribbon, topped with an actual emerald.
She tugged it out of the water and brought it back to shore. As soon as she was able, she unclasped the seal and tossed the gemstone. Her eyes were automatically driven to the calligraphy on the parchment. She felt the welling of power in her eyes as the scroll presented itself to her.
Binding… listen… speak were the only words that stuck with her as she pulled her eyes away from the mesmerizing effect of the scroll. She knew that if she read through the whole thing, the scroll would destroy itself and cast its intended spell.
How lucky she was, she realized. The incantations on the scrolls made them invulnerable to the elements, but very delicate to the scholarly eye.
It was known that the only people who could decipher the spell and intention of scroll without casting it were their authors and non-magic types called Dwindlers. Sadly, Elsbeth was not a Dwindler. Fortunately, though, she could cast the spell should it come down to it.
But what was it? There would be no way of knowing until the time came.
* * *
The Nautilus Leviathan would not go away. Elsbeth could hear it calling throughout the night. Several times over the course of three days, she spotted vessels out beyond the cays. Without fail, each time, she watched as the vessels crumbled under the assault of the sea creature.
She whispered into the wind, a tiny cantrip her mother had taught her to do as a child, and the wind whispered back. She would need to survive the coming week before a vessel well armed enough to come to kill the creature arrived.
How had it come this close to shore? Why, when Nautilus attacks were rare enough to be considered legend, did it suddenly have a taste for man-flesh?
The wind did not answer these questions. The little seashells and fish bones Elsbeth used to speak with the wind simply kept falling in the direction of… Elsbeth.
It hadn’t made a lick of sense to her. She had never caused harm to any sea creature, especially not one as titanic as the Nautilus.
And yet she heard its call. Even in the middle of the night when she fell into a slumber, the creature haunted the waters with its ghastly song.
Elsbeth fed herself on a diet of fish and seaweed. With enough wood washing ashore from the wreckages, making fires to cook food was reasonable.
But somehow, with every passing day, it seemed that the nautilus grew closer.
Three days out from when the wind claimed help would come, the call of the mammoth creature woke Elsbeth from her nap.
She had left the fire on the West side of the beach going as she had drifted off to sleep. What had started as a gentle breeze had evidently caught up into something more dramatic, spreading the flames to the rest of the wood she’d gathered. Now, before her was a bonfire
The flames had been the final catalyst. The Nautilus shred its stealth and breached from beneath the waters nearby.
Waves larger than ship sails crashed upon the cay, demolishing the tiny shelter Elsbeth had managed to build for herself. She screamed as the Nautilus launched its tendrils into the sands of the island above. Slowly, it heaved its massive shell onto the beach. Great, inhuman eyes peered out from within the shell’s depths at Elsbeth.
The time was now or never.
As the tentacles swayed in the air above, preparing a death blow to Elsbeth, she produced the scroll and read it aloud. Her eyes were possessed as the scroll enacted its will through her. Elsbeth’s voice became the scroll’s, and the scroll cast its spell.
Power twisted the sands about her as the parchment turned to ash between her fingers.
And so the great creature was still. Absolutely still.
“What would a mortal have me speak in its final moments?” The voice was beautiful, unlike any Elsbeth had ever heard before. She wondered if she were dead, or if the beast was commanded somehow by her spell.
“Can you… understand me?” she asked the creature.
Elsbeth stumbled backward. To have such a creature before her was enough to turn her legs to jelly. To understand it was another thing entirely. “Why? Why do you destroy our ships and kill my people? Why did you take everything away from me?”
The Nautilus was silent for a moment. “I could ask the same of you. Why does your kind trek where it doesn’t belong? Why does it hunt what it does not need? Why does it poison what was perfectly well off before its… interference?”
There was grave anger as the Nautilus spoke. Its tendrils slithered and squeezed at the sand bar of the cay.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Elsbeth. “The world is wide enough to share for both of us, I think.”
“Ah… so one would think. Man thing: killer of whale and wood. Destroyer of seas and forests. I speak to the creatures of sea, land and sky. I know your kind holds hoards the greatest of dragons would envy. I know that you hunt my kind for sport. I know that my child’s shell hangs upon some King’s mantle in the bowls of what you call Garguana.”
The tentacles seized Elsbeth, twisting about her like angry vines.
“I know your kind better than you know yourselves. You kill what doesn't need killing, you hunt what does not need eating, and you conquer what was promised freedom. You are a plague. An extermination in flesh.”
“No!” cried Elsbeth, perhaps out of pain or out of denial. “No! Not all of us. “
The tentacles eased a little. So Elsbeth continued. “Yes, manthings like to destroy, and kill, and all those things you accuse them of. But they also create and learn and teach.”
The Nautilus bore its eyes into her, “And you consider yourself among this faction? You believe you are so different and that your life deserves to be spared?”
Elsbeth struggled. “That is entirely up to you. You alone can see what I– what we are about. The cargo of my vessel; all of it sunk to the sea floor. We did not carry bombs and nets, nor things capable of destruction.”
“Oh?” said the Nautilus. “And should I find things meant to maim or kill me?”
“All the things that could do you harm belonged to the people you’ve already slaughtered.”
The creature was silent. Slowly, it released Elsbeth back onto the ground.
“The scrolls,” said Elsbeth, “They are yours to read. The books are gone. But you can see what I meant to teach.”
“Very well,” said the Nautilus. “I shall return to the site of your vessel’s demise. Should you have lied, I will slay you like the rest of your pitiful species… But should you be telling the truth… I will not only spare you. I will return you to the isles of man-folk.”
Elsbeth agreed and watched in terror as the creature retreated back off the shore and descended into the depths of the ocean.
All that was left to do was wait. As she stood there on the beach, the sun began to set. She tapped her foot frantically in the golden light of the sun, straining her eyes, watching for the Nautilus’s return.
But then came the explosions. First it was the intensity of the waves, raising higher and higher onto the shore. But then it was the lights. Grand rainbows of color and light seeped through the water below Elsbeth’s feet. For a moment, the entire ocean lit up with an enchanted glow. The tides reversed, the ocean welled. Suddenly, the very sand beneath Elsbeth's feet abandoned her in favor of the ocean’s pull.
As Elsbeth tumbled and screamed, sounds like thunder and harps struck the air. She was suddenly leagues above the ocean below, falling along with the remains of her isle.
A great tentacle wrapped about her waist.
Debris and water alike fell across the ocean in a cacophony of chaos. Rising through the storm of Earth and ocean was the Nautilus, clutching Elsbeth in its tendrils.
“I see you were not lying,” said the Nautilus. “You did not mean any harm with your magicks and spells. You only sought to educate and uplift.”
Elsbeth nodded emphatically.
“But… You were dishonest by proxy. For there were spells capable of great power, and thus great evil.” The tendrils tightened. “But I shall let you live.”
Elsbeth glanced about her. The cay was gone entirely. Whatever the Nautilus had done down there had caused a great upheaval of sand and ocean.
“My kind is solitary. We live in great reefs far beyond the depths mankind has yet been able to conquer. But we see the threat that is upon us.” The sand and ocean began to shift. Great things writhed and ascended from the murky water. “You have given me the power to reunite my kind. As well as the gift of foresight.”
“I– I don’t– You don’t mean to destroy my kind, do you?”
“No,” chuckled the Nautilus. “Not entirely.” The tentacles wriggled thoughtfully, “Good predators know that there does come a time to hunt. There does come a time to kill. There does come a time for destruction.” The Nautilus rose.
As did its hundreds of kin. A hundred shells, all as massive as its own, all sparkling with unique markings and colors. “We shall remind mortals of that time.” A thousand massive eyes turned to Elsbeth as the Nautilus spoke, “And when the flames of mankind’s civilization succumb to the ocean’s spray, you may rejoice, little mortal. For you and your high morals shall be ushered in as the new leader of Manthings.”
Elsbeth cried out as the Nautilus charged toward the nearest isle city, its forces rallied. Behind it, from the depths, followed hundreds of Nautilus shells. And carried within each and every one of the thousands of tentacles were the scrolls Elsbeth had promised.
The End (: