CHAPTER ONE

Few things resonate with me as much a child's plea for aide – perhaps it is some long forgotten memory of times I have repressed or some deeper folly, but no matter how hard I try to push it aside, I always return to the seaside expecting something to break the cresting waves and approach me from the black monolith of salt water and crackling foam. Mistress Brames says I shall go mad. Perhaps I already am.

The early morning sun breaks through the stained glass panes of my room, the frail sheathe of my plum colored curtains doing little to halt its progress. The blinding rays lay across the stone and carpet upon the floor, until they eventually reach my eyes. Once again, I feel the faint buzzing of a time I'm not certain is mine, and I reach for the black book atop my nightstand, thumbing through its yellowed pages until I reach the symbol.

It's an odd thing – black, curling tendrils of oblivion around a crescent moon. Sister Errling, my aide and savior from my near death experience, says she found me cradling the book upon my terrible fall, my hand resting on this exact page. I recall not sketching it, but my signature sits there in the bottom right corner – a brand of contrary marked in ink.

It is for a good half hour that I stare at this strange page before the customary tapping comes at my chamber door. 'You may enter,' I say, but my eyes stray not from the page before me.

Sister Erlling, tall and gaunt, her head the shade of acorns pulled back into a bun, dressed in her black and white robes, enters. Her frail hands are clasped before her silver necklace, the Cross of Christ dangling about it. Behind her is a round woman, kind looking, but very tired as well. I do not recall her name but smile pleasantly nonetheless.

'How do you feel, Mister Simmons?' Erlling asks, crossing to my bedside. My brain scrambles itself before I remember my name – Yes, I am Brandon Simmons.

'I feel… fine.' I place the book to my side and sit on the side of the bed. 'I believe better than I've felt before. But, I still can't remember exactly how I came to be here.' I look up at Sister Erlling. 'I did fall, yes?'

'Yes,' she says, 'from your carriage. Your driver didn't even notice your fall, and by the time we found you they were long gone.'

'I was worried you'd had a heart murmur,' the other sister says. I notice she's carrying a jug in her hands, of what I'm not sure.

'You were absolutely sopped when we found you too,' Sister Erlling continues. 'Where you by the seaside before you fell, Mister Simmons?'

I open my mouth, but don't recall. Was I? It would explain the yellow pages of the book, and the numerous nightmares I've had of drowning recently. 'I must have been, but… I cannot recall why.' I stand from the bed and look to the other sister. 'Is that milk?'

She nods and walks to my nightstand, opening the small door carved into it and retrieving a small cup before filling it with milk.

'We're having morning mass soon, if you wish to join us,' Sister Erlling says. 'Father Lionel has noted your absence, and I've assuaged his concerns, but I cannot hold him at bay forever.'

'Which concerns?' I ask.

'He fears you are feigning this illness, as a way of receiving food and board – taking advantage of the good natures of the church.' She grimaces at that, a blush touching her pale cheeks. 'But I have told him otherwise.'

In the mist of memories, few things are truly solid. My lack of faith is among those. I've never been one for belief in a greater beyond, but I've learned it good custom not to turn up your nose at your host. 'I will attend, then. Show him I'm worth all this trouble.'

She smiles, and for a sister sworn to celibacy she's awfully beautiful. 'Tremendous! I'll let him know right away. Sister Hollin and I will let you ready yourself and wait outside.' She nods at me and leaves with the kindly sister and her jug.

I drain my milk quickly and begin to ready myself. My clothes are kept in the dresser, a modest white dress shirt and black pants, with black dress shoes to match. A comb and a mirror help me clean myself to a decent level, my brown curls straightening into something presentable, and soon after I find myself being hurried into a great monastery.

Any churches that come to my mind are cold and frightening, but this one is warm and oddly comforting. Among the pews are dozens of brothers and sisters of the church, watching a tall man standing atop a dais. This must be Father Lionel, I realize.

I take a seat near the back with Sister Erlling and watch the priest preach. And I will not lie. I feel genuinely moved. The words that utter from Father Lionel's mouth are fierce and honest, and tears prick at my eyes as he speaks of fire and Heaven. Of any priests I can recall, he is the only one to evoke such a reaction from me.

At the ringing of the tenth hour bell, the mass departs and Sister Erlling drags me up to meet the Father. He glances over me, his eyes sharply blue. His hair has been cut down to the scalp and his nose angles downward like a blade, much like his jaw. 'So, this is the infamously absent Mister Simmons,' he remarks.

'I apologize for my absence, Father. I've not even known I was in a church until a few days prior, and when I did find out I had already missed three masses.' I bow my head. 'Forgive me.'

He smiles softly. 'What man of God would I be if I would not forgive human folly? You are forgiven, Mister Simmons, so long as you do not miss a mass again.'

Sister Erlling and I retreat to the library where we speak of poets I cannot recall and am thrust into the world of crackling pages and the smell of stuffed armchairs. A fire roars in the hearth – the only light in the small room. I ask if there are any books regarding symbols, perhaps those with tentacles and crescent moons, but Sister Erlling says she doubts it before having to make her leave for a sermon. I search for an hour more, but come up short and leave the library, disappointment heavy in my heart.

The rest of my day is spent walking the church's many halls, trying to find any windows besides the one in my room, which just leads to another wall and a small garden. It is suffocating in the halls alone, torches and lanterns leaving paths of soft light. I recall liking the sight of a wide field and would like to see one again. Meanwhile, my mind continues to buzz, frustrated by its fog and forgetfulness, and I stare at my feet as frontal lobe racks itself over, trying to connect one event to the next.

This path of endless stone leads me eventually to a heavy wooden door, a brass handle poking out like a welcoming palm. Curiously, I glance about the hall and then turn the handle, pulling the door towards me. A long staircase descends before me into what appears to be pitch blackness. The stairs are stone, covered in dust and moss and I smell wine from below. That must be the blood of Christ, so I saw today, or perhaps just ceremonial wine? Dim lights cross across the stone, I can see, and the crackling of the torches from below are soft. I turn to close the door and leave the winery behind when –

There is a splash from below.

I glare down into the darkness, eyes widening.

No. That couldn't have been anything. In the torchlights, dim though they are, I can see the floor is stone. There can be no water to make such a hard impact. And yet... the more I stare… the more I can see the rippling white foam crash against the foot of the stairs.

And without warning, the smell of the ocean and the pungent odor of seaweed tear into my nostrils.

And from the darkness below, I can hear it – a plodding splashing noise…

The torches snuff. I am left in silence.

And then comes the rhythm of webbed feet, pale and covered in sea slime, smacking against the waterlogged wood and stone as it approaches the stairs. Water kicks up and the ocean is at the bottom of this stairwell and at the very foot of the stair I see it: A hand, disturbingly wide and pale blue, with white veins and long black nails, smack against the stone step with a wet noise akin to a fallen fruit. And its nails bear into the step and drag their obsidian points so sharply across the cold stone that they leave bleeding trails in their wake.

My breath hitches and I watch as a pale blue arm begins to slink towards the second step. The veins begin to turn from ice white to a dark blue, and eventually black. It's too thin to possibly sustain life. It can't be real – there is no force on this earth capable of surviving, nor summoning the ocean with it.

Its voice savagely scrapes the silence in the air and directly into my ears, I hear a rasping, harsh word spoken:

Brandon.

I fall back with a shout, and hands take my arm and hoist me up. I turn to see Sister Erlling looking at me with wide, brown eyes. 'Mister Simmons, are you alright?'

'I-in the cellar,' I manage.

She goes to investigate, but seems to find nothing as she glances back at me. 'What was it?'

How does one describe their madness without being proven mad instantly?

They don't.

'I… a rat scurried up. What with the plague nonsense,' I shrug. 'I panicked.'

She smiles the sun at me and takes my arm. 'Let's get you some rest, Mister Simmons.' Closing the door behind her, she hurries me to my room.

And yet, even as we turn the corner I can still smell the salt in the air and the voice grating into my ears and speaking my name, wrapping cold, black tentacles around it as if it were the moon above.

If there is a Lord, I beg him to save my mind, for I cannot in good conscious claim my sanity with events such as this. Perhaps a night's rest will do me good.

If the sea permits me one night of it.