The passengers stormed through the lower deck of the ship. Those lucky enough to survive the hook's assault fled from their lodges. Their screams and cries filled the lower floor. In their eyes was only one destination: the exit leading to the upper level, to the outside, and freedom and safety under the moonlight.
That was their first mistake.
From the upper deck, passengers stormed. Screams and cacophony emerged from both directions. And as the passengers saw the masses fleeing from the opposing side, their subconscious realized there was no escape.
But would that stop them? Of course, it would not. One of mankind’s hallmarks was its refusal to die – to deny, struggle, run, and – once cornered – to fight. Against odds and logic, basic instincts, no civilizations could suffocate, kicked in, and controlled their minds in an intoxicating hormone rush.
The two sides collided, and their feet stepped through the streams of water gushing out of torn rifts in the metal. In their fright, the passengers kicked and bit. They pushed, tackled, punched, and trampled over those not strong enough to endure the flood. All to access a false sanctuary they couldn't reach in the first place. An endless stream of refugees and obstruction in the middle led to a blockage. The leaking water began to take a crimson hue as bodies splashed in it.
A crashing boom overshadowed all noise the chaos inside the deck made. The passengers froze in their actions and turned their attention to the source.
Altera had raised her partisan like a scepter. Its head pointed towards the ceiling to direct the attention of the masses. Millimeters away from her position was a frozen area the size of a kicker table. Icicles hung from it, while more ice closed the leaks in the metal.
“Everyone. Please listen to my voice.”
The eyes of the refugees shifted from the ice to the deep voice. Grendel stepped forward. His pupils narrowed to a slit.
“I know you are all scared.” His voice rang in their ears, sweet and reassuring, like a father cradling his infant child. “But there is nothing to fear. Just listen to my voice, and I promise you, nothing will cause you harm.”
Grendel smiled. His eyes shone in a violet electric light, luring them like moths to the candlelight. All the while, they followed the movement of his lips. “I promise you will be safe. Nothing will cause you harm. Just listen to my voice. Be calm, and there is nothing to fear. Help each other, do not fight, and stay put.”
They repeated Grendel’s words. It took seconds until his speech had seeped into their minds, and they understood his orders. They were logical. If they followed him, they would be safe.
“I promise you there is nothing to fear,” Grendel said again. His voice had found a rhythm: A melodic pendulum that might as well be a song. “Come with me, and we will survive. Nothing will cause you harm. I promise. Come, and you all will stay alive.”
The refugees stood still, awaiting orders. With his hand, Grendel pointed in the direction towards the main hall. “Please go that way, and don't rush. You all will be safe. Attend to everyone in need of help. Do not cause harm. Once you see that others have gathered, stay still. Wait until I come. Do not move unless I say so.”
They started to walk, calm and orderly, in a homogenous mass like an ant colony primed towards one signal.
“I’ll admit that parlor trick of yours is quite a handful,” said Altera. She looked back to the walking mass. “The ways one could misuse this ability are plentiful.”
“Hey, it’s not…” Grendel wanted to protest but backtracked. “Yeah, okay. It’s a parlor trick. But don’t worry, I only use it for the pursuit of justice."
“Didn’t you use your eyes to dodge paying the fare?”
Grendel was silent. It took him a moment to find a rebuttal into which he put all the vigor he had. “A mere step that leads to greater justice in this world."
Altera was unimpressed.
"But anyway. How did you know I use my eyes?”
Altera wondered herself.
He had a point. How could she have known his power was vision-based. His ability felt familiar. Had they crossed paths before? That couldn’t be the case. She would have remembered. It was hypocritical coming from her, but Grendel's appearance was unusual. She could count on one hand the number of young people with grey hair, and violet eyes weren't a common attribute either.
But for now, it didn't matter. Even if she didn’t like Grendel, he didn’t come across as a villain who would misuse his power. It might be arrogant, but her instincts were usually right when judging the morality of others. She wasn’t in a position to criticize him either. Had she not remembered his ability, and had he not agreed, a blood bath might have ensued, and the guests would have continued to block the passage. It was luck that they had encountered him back at the pier.
Altera had no opportunity to answer because Ragna and Eric arrived.
“Everything’s clear,” said Ragna. “All remaining passengers in the lower deck are safe. They’re all in the main hall.” She pointed at Grendel. “And his friend is getting rid of all the tentacles and closing the leakage.”
“Let’s go to the upper deck. Whatever's attacking is outside.”
“I’m staying here,” said Grendel. “Gotta keep an eye on the passengers, or the hypnosis will wear off.”
Altera nodded in affirmation. “Please take care of any newcomers. And thank you.”
“Don’t. That's is the least I could do.” His face became serious. “I wish I could help you. It's just my gut feeling, but whatever's out there, it’s an abomination.”
"I worry that you are right."
Altera ordered her companions to move, and the three ran upwards.
As they arrived, all three displayed the same expressions. Their faces petrified in light of the horror they saw.
Aquamarine arms – as thick as skyscrapers and as twisted as ivy – slammed against the cruiser's wooden platform. At times, their metal surfaces reflected the moonlight, and at times, its flesh squeezed and squished like suction cups when it rammed against the ship’s façade. Their hook-like appendages scarred its metal hull.
The passengers on the upper floor – too many to save them individually – screamed in terror and tried to escape downstairs. The tentacles coiled around anyone too slow and dragged them into the bottom of the sea.
They begged and screamed and prayed and cried, and the only question that remained was: What would their sentence be? The streams of water and salt flooding their lungs? Perhaps the increasing pressure of gallons and gallons of water that would explode their bodies? Or the circles of teeth tearing them apart?
Like the trap of the antlion, its fangs protruded from the waters. Left, right, up, down, in front of them, and from behind – sludge oozed out of the monster's arms. Any surface it had contaminated, it used to expand like an oil film. It dripped from the tentacle’s pores with the intensity of a falling anvil.
“J…Just what is that?” Ragna’s knees wobbled. Her eyes reflected the forest of tentacles that had emerged from the water. Like snakes dancing in the moonlight, they struck without hesitance or mercy.
She coughed as the smell of oil burned into her nose and forced her to close her eyes.
“We're fucked.” Eric gulped and buried his head deep in his hat. His eyes narrowed, and he formed a smile wide enough to show his teeth. “Compared to that, the Forest God's just a fawn.” Eric laughed. “I can’t believe I'm saying this, but this might be the Twisted.”
Ragna shook her head in disbelief. "Are you serious? That thing from the temple records?”
When they had searched for an exit and explored the temple, they studied its documents and scriptures. Several texts spoke about the gods of the other societies.
Ragna couldn't remember them all, but some like Ymir had stuck with her. The temple scholars had respected most of them, or they were either indifferent or scientifically curious about the other religions. There weren't many creatures that caused fear and hatred in them, but two did. One was the "God of Destruction" – Nucklelavee.
The other was a creature with no name. Only the now-extinct Sea People dared to worship it, and the scholars weren't sure if it was a god or a titanic monster, so they called it the Twisted: a sea-dwelling creature swimming between the border of this world and the Void.
With its million twisted arms, it would drag everyone who dared to leave the land into the endless void where their souls would wander for all eternity, and one would wish it had eaten them.
“Can you think of a better explanation?” Eric pointed towards the opulent arms that would dwarf any sea creature the people of Aes knew.
“After the god at the temple, everything’s possible.”
“Myth or not.” Altera drew her partisan, and an ice block encased one of the tentacles. “That thing in front of us is real. Eric, teleport the passengers to safety and help Grendel in case his hypnosis stops working. Ragna, come with me. We have to drive it away. Follow my lead, understood?”
Eric and Ragna nodded.
“Be careful,” said Eric, and the three split up.
The arms slammed against the ship, smashed the metal, and ripped holes into it, as debris crushed the people under it.
Altera summoned a wave of ice shards. She used her rune and accelerated towards its appendages. The projectiles crashed into the metalorganic texture and fell into the water. Altera’s thorn stakes grew from the edges of the ferry and shot into the tentacles. Small streams of liquid escaped the flesh. The creature didn’t flinch or make a sound.
Altera grimaced. Had she more surface area on the reels, she could have increased the number of stakes and dissected the tentacles. As it was now, the damage they dealt to it was like trying to empty an ocean droplet by droplet.
Altera materialized a javelin made of ice. Its surface reflected the target as an amalgamation of smaller pictures. She threw her weapon, but the hook attached to one of the neighboring tentacles moved in front of the other. Acting like a shield, it blocked the attack. The javelin shattered, and its pieces dropped into the sea.
Altera spread her wings and flew into the sky outside the tentacles' reach. Trying to ignore every second she spent up here, she couldn’t protect the guests, Altera observed the situation. Time seemed to slow down for her, as all the facts she could pick up raced through her brain.
They had to bring hundreds of civilians into safety – number dwindling and all scattered around the ship. The monster had backed them into corners, trapping them with its arms. If they ran, it would grab them. Was it playing games, using them as bait, or guarding its food? How could she save them all and defeat the monster? Eric was able to teleport around and rescue guests and slow down the tentacles, but he couldn’t get to everyone in time.
Altera looked around. About 500 sailors were in key locations – including the control room. Their numbers dwindled too. As official sailors, the captain's crew was part of the Einherjar. So, they had access to firearms. To defeat the monster, they had to coordinate strategies.
Her eyes searched the deck, trying to spot the captain. He should have created a plan on his own and contacted Midgard for air support. She should talk to him, gather intel on the logistics, and adjust her plans.
Altera had found the captain. He fought at the ship's center against an arm, trying to rip the MS Verne apart. Ragna was there with him.
She summoned a wave of water, covering the tentacle. The arm froze, and Ragna shattered it with her saber as her seax clashed against a metal hook.
Altera beat her wings and descended.
“What’s the situation?” she asked as she landed.
“Just gimme a sec.” The captain loaded his gun and shot a bullet into the tentacle in front of them. It ate into its flesh, ice leaked out of the hole, and covered the tentacle’s head. Before the monster could do anything, Altera had summoned a stake and dissected the arm. The frozen head fell off, and its innards rained down on the ship as black rain.
So, it was weak to ice. One of the hooks tried to protect the flesh from her javelin, but to see it confirmed was another matter.
“Don’t celebrate just yet,” said the captain.
The amputated arm retreated into the sea. But where one tentacle fell, two others rose their heads and emerged from the water.
“That thing may be a wuss in the cold.” Before the arms behind him could grab his body, the captain, without looking, shot four bullets into their heads – one for each tentacle. Again, they froze, and Altera’s thorns amputated them. “But with so many arms, it can afford to lose a few dozens or even a hundred.”
“We can't fight that thing forever.” Altera threw a wave of icicles at a tentacle that slithered on the ground like a snake. “Eventually, it will destroy the ship. Have you contacted Midgard already? When will Air Support arrive?"
"I did a while ago," the captain said. "But for some reason, they still haven't arrived. I tried to contact them again, but there was no response."
"Did something interrupt the connection?" Altera threw a javelin into the tentacle. "Even with the support delayed, they should at least respond."
"It's complete radio silence. Either that oversized ink-dispenser had found a way to jam our signal, or there's something causing trouble over there," the captain said, shooting another round of freezing salvo. "I don't know what the problem is, but it seems reinforcement won't be coming. We have to manage without it."
Having Air Support had been their best bet. Without it, their chance of survival had gotten lower than it already was.
The captain smiled. “Don't worry, I have a contingency plan. Believe it or not, but the ol' Verne has a few aces in her sleeve."
"Sounds like there’s a "but" in that plan." Ragna parried a hook with her blade
"There is. The tentacles are jamming the tubes and preventing the torpedoes from launching. We can't attack them from the torpedo room, so someone has to remove them from the board side."
"So, one has to dive right into the tentacles. That's suicide."
"I'll do it." Altera widened her wings. “Ragna, protect the passengers at all costs.”
The waves began to slam against the ship as well, trying to make it tilt, and the passengers fall over. Rain started to pour. The waves had found their master. Under its command, they grew into tides and banged against the ship. Over and over. They washed away those not strong enough to grab a hold.
Humans had thought they could conquer the sea. But at this moment, it was apparent who the true sovereign of the sea was. Humanity was ever so eager to control what it didn’t understand, to prove superior over nature. And as the humans lost control, they remembered the unknown, the things they could not explain. Their minds revived the instinct that urged them to understand the unknown in the first place.
Fear ran through their spines: Cavemen facing the dark of the night, animals in the tight clutches of the shadow of death, like insects crawling through one’s skins.
Some stared into the storms on the horizon, not moving an inch: Broken dolls who stopped functioning, who saw no point in it, ready to become one with the sea.
But not everyone. Fear – for some, it was a disease or an animal hounding them, and for others, it was the drive to progress, to go beyond, and to fight.