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Black, White, and Everything Between

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It arrived in the mail on a stormy spring morning. Amidst the tangle of white flowers on the street, I found a letter with a rather odd seal hanging out of the letterbox. The writer claimed to be a distant relative of mine, and its contents gave details of some great unnameable horror slumbering beneath the manor.

It seems fate has deemed me worthy for this monumental task, as my ancestor has asked me to take up residence in the old family manor. I am to partake in a quest, a crusade of sorts against a terrifying beast. My sword, an old family heirloom, lusts for blood, and its steel will once again be put into action.

I shall set off as soon as I am able, taking the sea road to reach the ancient hamlet where the manor resides. The letter urged me to make great haste towards the settlement, and I do not aim to disappoint. A good ship should not be too much trouble for me; It's time I put the funds that have laid dormant since my inheritance to good use at last.

As for the matter of a crew, a team of mercenaries should suit my purposes. My focus now should remain on reaching the hamlet first and foremost. Only then may I redirect my concerns to hiring men of suitable prowess for the perils that are to come.

But before I depart, there is someone I need to see to first. One Odysseus Necrodeus, an acquaintance of my ancestor. His knowledge of the dark arts and things beyond the other side may be of use against the horrors we will have to face shortly.

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Foreboding to both allies and enemies alike, this man is an archive of forbidden incantations and ancient rituals-a relic of an age long past, yearning for an end.

It seemed like just a few minutes ago, the sea had been perfectly calm. Like most things in his long life, Odysseus could recall with great clarity the feeling of the sun shining down on his face, and the feeling of the sea breeze combing through his hair. The floor beneath him rose and fell, like the chest of a wooden giant, while the crew went about their duties wordlessly.

That was gone now. Replaced by a storm tearing the ship at its seams.

Shrieking winds slammed against the sails, and giant raindrops threw themselves against the deck, splattering into a watery mess. Waves crashed into the sides of the deck, and water swept under the feet of the crew as they scrambled to keep the ship together. There was a flash of lightning overhead, revealing the commanding form of the captain as he shouted orders to the men below him.

Odysseus watched it all from afar, content to remain silent as the rain tickled his white-tipped mustache. In his arms, he held a heavy tome. His sleeves covered the title from anyone curious enough to sneak a glance. Just as he liked it.

As the captain struggled to keep the steering wheel steadfast, he yelled, "Murphy! Bring down the sails! Smee, lock down the anchor!"

On the far side of the deck, a stout man ran over to the mast to catch a rope as it snapped in the storm, and another man with a bandana thrust his hands into the anchor reel, pulling down a lever on the side. A wave struck the ship, and the floor beneath them tilted to an odd angle. The captain let out a roar, and the steering wheel in his hands transformed into a blur until the deck was level once again.

Through the pounding rain, the crew managed a sort of rhythm to their intertwined work. One would stagger through the salt-soaked water, and another would brush under their flailing limbs as they moved in the other direction.

The captain would shout orders, the crew would obey. Through endless precipitation, through crumbling floorboards. Even Odysseus had to admit, the loyalty of these men knew little in the way of boundaries.

Then, something struck the deck. He could feel it in the way the deck shuddered just a tiny bit; but enough. Enough for him to dismiss the notion of it being just an uneasy tick. From the way the third, emaciated crew member stiffened as he clung to the edge of the ship, he had felt it too.

When the wood trembled again, the third crew member finally said, "Captain! Somethin's on the ship! Something to the left!"

"First this bloody storm, now that? What in the blazes is goin' on with these seas?" Although he might have yelled at the top of his lungs, the captain's voice barely wafted over the wavering ocean air. Odysseus had to strain to hear him, and even then, a minute was wasted on trying to decipher the elusive words.

"Smee! Make yerself useful and check by the board, port side!" he said, waving his arm to the left as if to dislodge an unwanted passenger.

"Aye aye, captain!" the bandana-wearing man said.

The puddles scattered on the deck beneath the man's feet as he made his way to the port side. Odysseus tracked him with his careful gaze, curious as to what he would find. The man flung his sun-pressed hands onto the railing as he leaned over. A strange tension stuck to the air like sugar to honey, and the seconds ticked by as Odysseus waited.

"There's nothin' here, captain," he finally said. "I think this ship wouldn't be the only thing the storm's weathered away."

Odysseus let a sigh of relief pass through his lips, and to his surprise, he found his hands tightly latched on to his arcane tome. One by one, his fingers released the book, and he let himself breathe easy again.

"Wait! There's something here!" the man said, and Odysseus straightened himself, his interest rearing one more time. "There's something here and... and..."

"What," the captain called out, attempting to raise his voice over the air-borne chaos. "What is it, Smee?"

There was no response. Something trickled up Odysseus's spine, cold, slithering-a beast of old, no longer appreciative of the lock strapped over it, eager to break free.

Through the coat of wet glaze clinging to his waterlogged clothes, a bead of sweat dripped down his face, and he struggled to find a name for the beast. As the chains keeping it suppressed rattled, he racked his memories for a name. And he received nothing. Nothing but vast emptiness.

Then it hit him. The name of the beast.

It was fear.

At last, Smee spoke again. "By the light," was the last thing he ever said. Then a hand reached over the railing, grasping his throat as he let out a strangled gasp. One moment, a man was standing on the deck, clutching his neck. The next moment, his shoes were sailing over the edge. And just like that, he was gone.

Pulled overboard by a gnarled hand emerging from the sea. They all heard the splash that came next. The fate of the man was a mystery to Odysseus, just like the rest of them, but a sense of terror kept anyone else from solving that mystery. No one knew what had happened to him, and no one wanted to know, either.

It seemed like the world heard their cry to be left alone. It also seemed like the world had a twisted sense of humor, and the next flash of lightning revealed a silhouette crouched on the wooden railing of the ship.

What little light slipped through the flaws in the thick grey blanket draped over the sky glistened off the fringes of this new figure, like sapphires under a lamp. In what little light he had, Odysseus could make out the jagged bumps on this thing's skin, and the thought of what those could be terrified him.

The creature's arms ended in a set of claws. Two fins on the side of its head twitched in the wailing of the downpour, and it let out a long hiss smelling of rancid flesh.

The shaft in its hands moved upward as it leapt down to the floor with a thud. It opened its maw revealing rows upon rows of jagged teeth, and it let out a wispy scream that swirled between the winds, trailing off into the night.

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Crafty, sly, and deceiving, such as one would expect from someone of his craft; this man has traveled the high seas and knows his way around a rough situation.

Captain James never considered himself a superstitious person. After sailing the seas for so long, he had seen many things in the water. Most of them had turned out to be nothing more than figments of his imagination, so he became used to ignoring the strange sights and sounds out over the ocean.

But there was no ignoring the pelagic nightmares swarming over the deck. The stench of rot and decay, the grating screech of a thousand claws against the floorboards, all of it so very real.

A shot rang out as the captain pulled the trigger, leaving a shrill buzzing in his ears. In an instant, the creature in front of him slumped over to the side, what remained of its head splattered on the deck in a blubbering mess. As his pistol slid back into its holster by his side, he felt something breathe against the back of his neck, and the smell of saltwater curled around into his nostrils.

In one fluid motion, he swung his blade over his shoulder, just in time to intercept a harpoon from entering his back. The monster behind the spear pulled its lips back into a snarl. It stepped towards him, pushing even harder against James. He took a step back, but his arm refused to give, and before the monster could make another move, a bulky man rushed in from the side, piercing the monster's side with a spear.

James muttered an approval as the man dislodged the corpse from his weapon.

"Where's Jukes run off to?" he asked.

The man shrugged, and his spear impaled another creature. "He abandoned ship at the first sign of trouble. Took the lifeboat and fled."

James cursed. He swung again, and a harpoon glanced off his sword and dove into the floor, pushing up the planks into the air from the force behind it. The creature wielding it hissed, but James silenced it with a sword between its eyes.

With Smee, his first mate dead, and Jukes, his bard, gone, that only left him, Murphy, the man in the cabin, and-


The robed man in the corner found himself staring down the end of the captain's finger. He raised an eyebrow behind his glasses, and he pointed to himself as if looking for confirmation.

"Of course I mean you," James said, wiping away a few stray raindrops that crusted his eyes. "Who else is there?"

The robed man opened his mouth to speak, but James tossed his sword at him before he could get a word in.

"Make yerself useful. You should be able to cut off a few heads before you kick the bucket."

"Wha-" A fish creature lunged for the man before he could speak, and he leaped away with a yelp.

James watched the man sprint away from the creature, wildly flailing the blade in front of him as his robes trailed behind him. Without a noise, he stepped back, leaving the two other men to draw the attention of the monsters as he reloaded his pistol. The creatures were only too happy to take up the distraction, and they surged forward in a massive blue-green tidal wave. As he continued to back away, a giant shadow cast over him.

He turned around slowly. Behind him was a hulking crustacean beast, covered from head to toe in thick, red plates of armor. The creature's mandibles clicked, and its two, beady eyes stared down onto James, regarding him like an eagle watching a rodent skittering on the forest floor. James looked over the beast in turn. Jame's gaze was immediately drawn to the giant claw on its left, caving in the floorboards it rested on.

"What in the pit," he muttered, and the beast raised its claw. A bolt of lightning flashed in the distance, gouging the towering figure into the floor as a distorted shadow.

With a roar, the beast sent the claw into the ground. It slammed into where James had been standing moments before, and splinters jumped into the air around them. James was back on his feet in an instant, and he set the barrel of his pistol to the beast's face.

A crack split the air. Sparks shot out in every direction, a few landing on his coat. The raindrops doused the embers before a serious flame could set in, and a cloud of smoke gushed out, obscuring the beast's face from view. For a moment, James dared to let the tiniest flicker of hope slip into his mind.

Then the smoke cleared, revealing the beast, completely unscathed. James's face fell, and the beast reared its claw back to strike. Again, the captain managed to evade the attack, but he was close enough to feel the wind on his face as the claw swept past him. In his panic, James slipped on the slick wooden floor. He hit the deck with a thud, his coattails sprawled out in the rain. The beast loomed over him, and James could only watch as the claw raised into the air. His demise seemed imminent.

Then someone yelled out. Murphy launched himself at the beast, forcing it aside with his raw strength. The beast lifted its right claw as Murphy hefted his spear. There was a sickening crunch, and the spear pinned the beast's claw against the deck. Murphy tore his weapon out of the ground, but before he could prepare another attack, the beast caught him in its other claw.

James winced as he heard bones snap. Blood pooled on the deck. Some of it seeped down into the cabins below, while the rain washed away the rest, sending the thick red liquid into the churning sea overboard. The beast tossed Murphy's lifeless body away, spear still held tightly in his grasp, leaving James to suffer his fate alone.

Something pulsed in his ears. His heart pounded in his chest and his muscles screamed at him to get up and move, but a great terror kept him stuck to the deck. He tried to get to his feet. All he managed to do was pushing himself further down the deck as the monster lumbered closer. He aimed his pistol at the dead center of the beast and pressed down on the trigger, but a click resonated through the empty barrel.

The beast's step shook the floor, taking it closer and closer to him. A growing dread pooled in his stomach as he watched it draw nearer.

And then it lurched forward. The glint of metal caught his eye under the beast's chin—a spearhead protruding from the squishy white flesh of its neck. The beast fell away, revealing Murphy standing over the large corpse. James would have felt relieved, but something was off.

Blood still poured from two jagged cuts on his sides, and his chest was bent in an odd angle. And his eyes were still cold and lifeless, staring down at the captain with an unfeeling gaze. James kept his eyes on the man he knew to be dead, still clutching his pistol to his chest.

A hazy black mist streamed out of Murphy's mouth, a waterfall of dark magic and unnatural sludge. As the last wisps of magic snaked away into the howling storm, the man immediately crumpled into a heap, becoming a carcass again. The sinister haze, however, slithered through the air, weaving through raindrops and holding together in the downpour until it finally disappeared into the hands of the robed man.

For a moment, James seemed to forget how to speak. The only sound that escaped his lips was a stutter, and his eyes couldn't seem to stop getting wider.

"You're a sorcerer," were the words he settled on.

"I get that a lot." The robed man flicked his hand off a page of a giant tome. A black shard of some dark matter shot out of his fingers, and James had enough time to blink before it zoomed past his head, inches away from cutting into his skin.

With a ragged gasp, the crab monster returned to life. Three fish creatures sprung forward in a fit of hissing and snarling. A single strike with the beast's heavy claws splattered them against the deck, before the dark magic left the beast, leaving it to lie still in the rain.

As the three creatures hit the deck, five more took their place. James reloaded his pistol, spilling some of his gunpowder on the floor while he scrambled to rearm his weapon. He took out another creature in a single shot, but they just kept coming—nothing seemed to deter their bloodlust, and they continued to climb onto the ship in massive droves. Another bullet entered the chamber as James glanced over his shoulder to check on the necromancer, but he seemed exhausted, clutching his stomach while letting out heaving gasps. Even in the rain, he could make out the sweat pouring out of the man's body. It seemed there would be no more undead reinforcements for now, leaving their numbers squarely at two.

Turning back to the crowd of monsters amassing before him, James scanned them with a glare, holding up his pistol as if daring any of them to come any closer. A hundred blank eyes returned his gaze, seeming to blend into a flowing river of black in the rain. Spearheads slick with ocean water and worn with rust clinked against each other as the creatures moved in closer together, their intent to kill clearly shown on their faces.

Just when all seemed lost, the cabin door behind them opened with a creak. All eyes instantly snapped on to the man who stepped outside, a lamp in one hand, a mirror in the other. Completely unfazed by the storm, or the water sloshing over the deck.

Wordlessly, the man lifted the mirror against the clouds. He tilted it at such an angled that it caught the lamplight below, sending off a beam of light into the distance. James followed the light, over the sea of heads, over the ocean, and to a far off shoreline he hadn't noticed before. From their distance, the rocks on the beach barely stuck out on the horizon, just tiny indents in the grey sky. It was empty, devoid of any sign of life like the corpses lying on the floorboards, as the wooden planks creaked in a threat to fall apart.

There was a light. Small, faint, flitting between a bright and dark contrast, but it was there, a speck against the cliffside. As James watched that pinprick of light flutter and bob like the waves, he thought he heard a noise. A seed, insignificant and barely visible, but there. And it started to grow from that seed, springing forth into something bigger and much more grand, like from a mewling kitten into a whale call. Sorrowful and hollow, unearthly and hypnotic; such was the song of the siren.

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Quiet, unassuming. The very seas bend to her call, and mortal minds warp beneath a whispered song. Yet she remains a lonely waif.

At last, the crashing waves finally calmed down, the constant cracking of the water fading away into a low hiss and crackle. The ocean slammed against the rocks with such force, flecks of water leaped over the edge of the cliff. Thelxiope dragged her feet away as specks of moisture sprinkled her toes and splashed on the fringes of the short blue dress wrapped around her, sliding them further behind the rock she was leaning against. The salty air breezed over her face and pulled back her dirty blonde hair, and she absentmindedly brushed the pink conch in her hands.

The magic conch. The shell she had found on the shore one fateful day, stuck between the jagged points carved out by the ocean. The shell that could sway the sea when she whispered her songs through it, silently slipping her influence between the rolling waves. Sure, its influence over the salty water was very limited, only powerful enough to raise a wave a few feet high, but it was still something. That something might have helped her save someone, so she wasn't complaining.

It was a regular occurrence for Thelxiope to wander out to the cliffs overlooking the cove as the moon shone down on the dark rocks, letting her voice spread over the rhythmic breathing of the ocean, weaving over and under the song of the waves climbing up the rocks, before falling back into the whirling blue sea. By chance, she had seen the signal cast out into the distance, set against the stars, flickering on and off. The speck of light drew her eyes to the ship on the horizon, bobbing in the sea, half of it already torn away to reveal the hollowed-out pit within. From the way it tossed and turned, she could tell it was struggling to stay afloat, so she did the only thing she could. She blew into her conch, weaving a hastily thought out tune through the folds of the shell, bringing its magical powers to light. The air through the conch coaxed the writhing ocean to bring the boat closer, and hopefully, bring whoever remained on board to safety.

She hadn't meant for it to crash against the rocks.

To her relief, no one seemed hurt from the crash. There was no blood splattered against the dark rocks, at least. She watched the wreckage from a distance, hiding behind a rock as a group of two men wandered among the shattered planks, and the ripped sails stretched over the shoreline. It was how she usually found out about things she wanted to know, observing people from a distance. She was just too shy to approach them in any other way.

One of the men, the figure with broad shoulders, scraggly beard, and blue coat, yelled something. It wasn't loud enough for her to hear, but from the way his face twisted into a snarl, and the awkward way he jerked as he said it, he had probably tripped and cursed the Light. He didn't look important, so she barely paid him any heed.

The other man, with a deep red robe draped over him and the grey hair, turned on him and said something back. His voice barely carried over, and where the bearded man's words were a distorted mumble, no words the grey-haired man made reached her ears.

Whatever he said, the bearded man wasn't happy with it. He yelled something back, and Thelxiope was able to catch a "paid for" and "wasn't expecting", whatever those implied. The grey-haired man remained still, taking his companion's shouting with a calm face. He waited until the other man stopped talking before his lips started moving again, speaking in the same quiet voice.

This went on for quite a while, with the bearded man yelling something, and the grey-haired man saying something in return. Back and forth they went, some exchange going on between them that Thelxiope could neither hear or care enough about to try to listen in. With a sigh, she ran a hand through her hair, letting her fingers roam over the conch, uninterested in the scene playing out before her. She was about to sneak away when her eyes caught movement from farther out into the mess of splintered wood. She glanced over the rest of the shipwreck, looking over the broken floorboards and the giant wooden shaft split in half, and found a man in a dark crimson overcoat stepping out onto a door thrown to the ground.

Her face lit up in recognition, and her gaze traveled down to the base of her neck. Nestled just above her chest was a tiny bird doll, worn and made of stitched rags, dangling limply from a string wound about her neck. Her free hand slowly reached up to grasp at it, turning it over as she mulled over the doll in her hands, a reminder of sorts to something she'd rather not dwell on. She glanced around the area around her, but there was no one else present on the cliffs. Just to make sure, she checked, and double-checked before she finally made her way over to the wreckage.

Quiet as an owl's feathers combing through the wind, she tip-toed down the cliffside, carefully placing her feet on small ledges protruding out in descending order. Having been to the cove numerous times before, Thelxiope knew where to put her feet, and she crept down to the shore below as easily as if she were scaling a set of stairs. Occasionally, her feet would find themselves submerged in the small puddles pooled up in the uneven rocks, sending a chill up her leg as the cold water swallowed her bare feet, but she was quick to pull them out. Against the dark cliffs, she barely stood out in the shadows cast by the moonlight. At least, until she reached the bottom.

The moment she hit the floor, she took off running. The other two men called out to her as she ran past, but she ignored whatever they said. They didn't matter. There was only one who did.

She called out, and the wind carried her voice further. The man turned his head, a clear indication that he had heard her. A confused expression flickered across his face, an eyebrow climbing up his face as she approached. He didn't recognize her, it seemed. It had been several years since she'd caught a glimpse of him, so that was understandable.

Thelxiope crossed the mess of sheets tangled in the broken wooden boards, careful not to step on any splinters revealed by the crash. A few of the rocks poked the soles of the feet, but none of the protrusions amounted to any more than a few bumps, certainly not enough to pierce her skin.

The man hadn't moved from his spot by the time she came to a stop in front of him. Her lungs were beginning to strain as she slowed her pace, not used to much physical activity. She stumbled for a few feet, brushing aside a plank that lay in front of her. The man didn't seem any more perplexed as she bent over to catch her breath, pulling aside the strands of hair that dropped over her face. It didn't change the strange mix of emotions she felt seeing him again.

"It's you," she said between short gasps, her voice a strangled and disbelieving whisper. "After all these years–you came back!"

A breeze passed between them. An awkward pause settled following her words, as the man seemed to take a moment to recall her face. He probably had no recollection of her, but that was fine. She had waited years for a chance like this. A few more seconds couldn't hurt.

Behind her, the grey-haired man opened his mouth to speak. The man cut him off with a pointed look, tilting his head towards the grey-haired man to make it more clear. Then, he turned his attention back to her, and the raised eyebrow lowered itself again.

He greeted her in return, attempting to pass himself off as recognizing her. Internally, she preened a bit at his attempt, seeing as he still tried to remember her in the first place.

"You don't have to pretend," she said. "I-I don't think you would remember me."

The man chuckled at that as he flushed a bit, no doubt a little embarrassed at being caught out. He asked for her name, motioning towards her. It wasn't surprising since he had always been so formal and polite.

"Thelxiope. My name is Thelxiope."

A nod. He was taking that in, marking down her name in his memory. Maybe he'd even keep it around for a while, so she wouldn't have to introduce herself again the next time they met. His eyes wandered to the mangled heap that was once a ship, broken into pieces lying around them before they snapped back to her. He asked if she was the one to bring them to shore, and how she had done it.

"W-well, it was really nothing I did. Just this magic conch."

Thelxiope didn't think he'd look as surprised as he did. It was common knowledge around here that he was a practitioner of the dark arts. Then again, it wasn't often that a girl could find a shell capable of stirring the ocean to its beck and call. Maybe it was some kind of elusive artifact? Of course, he swept it aside in a matter of seconds. He brought up the topic of payment, offering to pay her a sum of money in gratitude for her rescue.

"Oh no, you don't have to. But there is one thing I'd like."

The man leaned forward, eager to listen. She'd caught his attention.

"My sister," she said, lowering her voice to barely even a squeak. "She's been missing since before you left. I've been trying to find her for years, calling out to her with this conch. But now that you're back, do you think you could help me find her?"

He agreed almost instantly. There was no hesitation there, just a firm conviction to help a lost soul. It seemed the man hadn't changed much over the years he had been gone, still as kind as she remembered. Back when he used to live in the giant manor on the hill, he would help her whenever she got lost in the woods, so he had to be a good person.

Okay, maybe he'd only helped her four times out of the hundreds of times she had lost track of the serpentine paths winding through the corrupted countryside, but she'd refuse to believe that an evil man would help her like the few times he did. That had to mean something.

She motioned for him to follow, as she turned back around. "Come on, then!" she said. "Let's get you back to the hamlet. You look like you could use a moment to rest after your trip at sea."

With one last look over her shoulder, she took off towards the cliff. His two companions were sure to follow after them, but she couldn't find herself to worry about them. At least she had the man from the manor back in her life, and she was on the track to finding her sister.