Chapter 1: Fait Accompli
Over a year ago, on a sunny noon in Kingshead...
"HEY! ZOOMER!" Came the holler of a familiar voice from outside amidst a steady stream of knocks. I jolted out of my nightmares and up from my bed.
As I tried to open my eyes, the sunlight invaded and knocked the sleep right out of them. It now permeated every inch of the room, so I could only surmise it was about noon. I opened my window to investigate the source of the sounds which dared wake me from my sweet sleep, and was greeted by a rock to the face.
"Rise and shine, baby!" Said the familiar voice, unapologetically. A display both annoying and heartwarming characteristic of my neighbor and best friend.
"Last I checked, I didn't hire you to wake me up, Solomon! If by any chance I did, consider yourself unemployed!" I shouted at him, feigning anger. Honestly, I can't see how the guy could infuriate even the most bellicose of souls.
"I did a great job, though! Besides, today's the day we check out the secret spot! All the grown-ups are gone!" He replied, unfazed.
I remember. We've been longing to reach the top of Kingshead since we were tiny lads, about five years old. All the big, menacing guards would always threaten to tie us to a crate and set us adrift, though, so we didn't do it for a while. Today was THE day!
"Alright, alright, I'm coming..." I said, trying to contain my excitement as I jumped from the window to the ground. Solomon was a jocular young man, and it reflected in his choice of clothing; a plain white tank top, sack shorts tied with a box belt, and comfy boots.
"Don't break any bones, lazy landlubber!" He jested. Although I was a stoic teenager myself, it was these lighthearted jokes that kept me going. The pervasive usual hustle and bustle of the Kingshead barracks invaded my ears, and the day began. Due to the lack of adult supervision, little kids were running amok, with some older siblings giving chase to no avail. It was the way I liked things, though.
"Hey! Hey! Mr. Thoomer!" Said the voice of a young child from nearby. "Down here!" They added. I looked down to see a boy no taller than three feet, and holding a pristine wooden sword up to me expectantly. "Can I hath your autographs?"
"Wow, another admirer! Do they ever stop, Zoomer?" Joked Solomon. Now, while being constantly badgered by obstreperous kids would irritate the average sixteen year-old, I'm not the best at ignoring these kinds of things. Situations a "staid young adult" like me would be expected by others to deem infantile. Using a small rock to the best of my ability, I managed to carve "Z00M3R" into the sword. Once I returned his toy, he gave us a beaming smile and ran off, presumably to show off to his friends.
"I can't imagine saying goodbye to a life like this, really." I said to Solomon. "Maybe if you woke up earlier, you'd get to live this life more!" Replied Solomon jokingly. He was an irreplaceable part of my life, too, and I wish nothing more than for it to remain that way. As we walked up the steps to the fort, built ostentatiously by lowly EITC Grunts in desperate need of their superiors' approval, I tried to make sense of the nightmares I'd been having earlier. I was blinded, and all I heard was layer upon layer of terrified shouting and crying.
"So, fellow Swashbuckler, what do you think awaits us up there? Money, fame?" He asked, with a touch of dramatic to his question, intercepting my dismal line of thoughts. "Don't run away now - we'll find out when we get there!" I replied, even though I was likely more uneasy than him.
As we traversed the long, winding paths of the top of the fort, we could see the settlement much more clearly. Kids dueling with their toy swords, others digging through EITC crates, and some looking from their balconies at the sky through a toy telescope. It's our own small little world with so much going on inside it. Suddenly, however, this world of ours stopped moving.
"Say, Zoomer, what's that over there?" Asked Solomon, with a trace of dread in his voice, pointing at the sky with a trembling finger. It could barely be seen initially, but as it grew, we could tell there was a light engulfing the sky. A palpable wave of dread washed over me as millions of thoughts swirled around in my mind. A throbbing, terrible pain accompanied my steadily hastening heartbeat as I stared at the sky, transfixed.
"Look out!" Shouted Solomon. He pushed me away, and a light ray engulfed the area he once stood on. I scrambled desperately to get to cover, and from there, I looked down in abject horror at the bedlam in the settlement. For only a split second, I could see it: the lights of all our friends and neighbors shining brilliantly, and then vanishing. I waited my turn.
It never came.
Almost as if a joke by some god, a wooden sword fell from the sky and dug with the last of its strength into the concrete column I was hiding behind. I could see the word "Z00M3R" carved haphazardly into its side.
Solomon is gone. The kids are gone. Our friends are gone. There's a massive hole in the sky, in the ocean, and in my soul.
There's also nothing. I went from confusion, to fear, to nothing. Our settlement is absolutely desolate. Everyone is gone.
And, from that day on, a part of me would be too.
Chapter 2 - Mire
The vivid nightmares released their icy grip on my heart as my own fervent crying summoned me to the present. What little escape I had from dismal reality and my hopeless existence was plagued by the tenacious past.
Evaluating my surroundings through my foggy eyes, that dismal reality hit me once again. For the past few days, I sought solace in the abandoned King's Arm, where I foolishly concluded I could live to the end of my days due to the abundance of fresh food.
Day after day, however, there were less provisions. Jerking my head back and forth in an almost animalistic way, I searched desperately for any leftovers to sate my dry throat and my empty belly. The once bustling tavern was now desolate, and where I looked for sources of alimentation, my eyes were met only with a farrago of dust and splinters of rotting wood. A pungent stench permeated my surroundings, but I was too deep into hunger and sorrow to care.
I tore into the counter hoping to find at least stale bread, but to my disgust, all there was to be found were beetle carcasses. "Damn it!" I brought my fist down on the counter with all my might in a pitiful display of rage, but instead bought it down on a sharp wood splinter, adding a fresh layer of physical pain to my grief. Tears of blood formed on the edges of the wound and fell on to the dusty counter, almost as if my skin shared my sorrow.
Just then, a jug of rum fell from behind me and unto the floor, dispersing shattered glass everywhere.
With only a beaming smile, I cupped my hands, ready for today's meal. The cool rum coursed through my dry throat and eased the fire that had been burning my insides for days. What little didn't make it into my mouth seeped its way through the cracks of my skin and softened them. Just as I was about to return to my prison, however, something horrible caught my eye. I looked at the man in the image illustrated by one large glass shard with absolute disgust and scorn. His long, brown beard was disheveled and littered with rotten food. His hair was an unkempt mess, and his red eyes stared back at me as if he were an animal.
He was what I had become, and I absolutely despised him.
"What're you looking at, idiot?" I shouted at it with uninhibited resentment. I had become an absolute madman. I wondered what the people back at the settlement would say if they had the disgrace of laying eyes on the creature I was.
"Halt! We do not accept abject failures in our settlement!" I'll make you vanish overnight, old man...
"Try not to hold your face so close to the stove!" Yeah, yeah, stop your nagging...
"Mr. Thoomer, when ith you gonna give me the thword lessonth!" It takes lots of practice to be me, boy...
A new wave of energy washed over me, and I jumped over the counter. Whether I was fueled by rage, grief, or just plain foolishness, I don't know. I burst out of the tavern and out onto the barren beach. It was midnight, and had been for over a year. I trudged down to the seashore and lay helplessly under the starless sky as the cool waves washed over my legs and the gentle breeze attenuated my worries. Part of me even hoped that perhaps the night sky would just embrace me and whisk me away.
"I'm a complete imbecile! Where did I think I could run to this time?" I asked the air, almost as if I expected an answer. Just then, a scintillating light split the sky in twain. It was a sight for sore eyes: a shooting star. "Ah...!" I gasped, awed by the trail of light the celestial body left behind in its wake.
Dozens upon dozens of fond memories of my childhood in Kingshead flashed before my eyes. Some of Solomon and I gazing at the stars with our other friends in some restricted area I've unfortunately forgotten. The pain of last year's events had long since overwritten all the joys of my life.
A drop of water fell from the sky and splashed onto my forehead, and it began to pour for the first time since I can recall. It was also the first time water touched my skin since that day through means other than tears. I crawled towards the water to get one last good look at the abomination whose level I stooped to.
"This is where we part ways."
I plunged my head into the cool depths, and the water revitalized my dead hair and skin. Scrupulously using my hands to flatten my hair and rinse my beard, my once despicable reflection transformed into that of a dashing young man.
Redirecting my gaze to the idyllic scene, I couldn't help but be mesmerized. The rhythmic sounds of water drops sinking into the moonlit ocean was a heavenly sound, one quite different from the cacophonies I've heard on my journey here. I stood up again, and to the best of my legs' ability, I managed to venture back into the pigsty that was King's Arm.
Rummaging through the supply closet, I found some sizeable rations of tea and fresh steak. The tavern itself, where countless friends once gathered for drinks over a friendly game of poker amidst other revelry, was now completely vacant and devoid of all its magic.
I strode out the doors of the abandoned pirate haven for the last time and towards my light sloop, the Miles. Some superficial simpletons would simply look at her unembellished hull and plain white sails and deem her a child's toy, but I've formed an emotional bond with her over the past year. Despite her tiny, frail frame, she had carried me all over the deserted Caribbean with great alacrity, and showed no signs of abandoning me. I climbed onto her welcoming hull and laid down, her lone mast supporting my weary back.
From here, I could gaze at the shimmering moon that, despite being completely alone in doing so, continued to dutifully illuminate the night and all its magnificent features as its stalwart guardian.
I could also gaze forlornly at the Tortuga beach. I've only come here before on recreational trips, but I always remember dreaming of making this my abode. Now, looking at the silent town and the empty beach under the rain, you'd never know people called the once beautiful island their home.
My mind couldn't help but drift off in remembrance of our nights together back home. I had always wanted to journey to the ends of the seas, to be an intrepid hero, and although these are merely puerile fantasies, I cling onto them and to many others with insistent hope.
Here I was, however, despite all my ambitions. On an interminable journey without a route. All I had was one thing to fuel the undying fire within me I called hope.
I unsheathed the old wooden sword, and in doing so, unlocked a trove of heart-wrenching memories. I thought of Solomon, the little boy, and all our friends. Our moments of joy may have all been fleeting, but they were the only family I had. This dusty, petty old toy was the only memento I had of that family.
I clutched it tightly, and held it up to my aching heart. I sat there, in moonlight's embrace, with the Miles rocking back and forth under the rain, fighting to hold back tears.
An abrupt, ear-splitting bang emanating from the heart of the island intercepted my downward spiral into self-pity. I leaped off the Miles, still clutching my wooden sword tightly, but now out of apprehension. As I drew closer and closer to the Faithful Bride, a distinct sound not unlike that of hasty whispering became increasingly audible.
Taking cover behind a dilapidated wall, I inched my head only slightly out to analyze the source of the commotion and was met with a grisly sight. Two massive figures, covered exclusively in jet black and with their expressions inscrutable, looked down on a fallen man. The larger and more imposing of the two figures held a still-smoking flintlock in hand, and I deemed him culpable of the man's injuries. He was shot in the back of the head, dispersing bits of his skull throughout his grave. The gray, dead soil was starkly juxtaposed with his deep crimson blood.
"How fares the Cleansing?" Asked the larger figure. From the beginning of his sentence until the end, the atmosphere became more unsettling than it already was.
"Now that the traitor has been disposed of, our goals will come to fruition in due time."
"See to it. I expect to be welcomed home with nothing less than a bloody banquet."
Nodding his head in obsequious obedience to his master's every word, the smaller silhouette was engulfed in darkness before vanishing completely.
The remaining one broke into a fit of bloodcurdling, maniacal laughter. As he jerked his head upwards animalistically towards the moon, the moonlight illuminated his ungodly face. His cheek and forehead were caked in dry blood, his sparkling white teeth were unusually elongated and sharp, and his eyes gazed at the moon with primal joy.
"Don't you know eavesdropping is rude?"
Before I could identify the speaker, a sharp pain reverberated throughout the back of my head and I fell to the ground, unconscious.
Chapter 3 - Shadows