A lone pelican fluttered against the gentle breeze, silhouetted by the orange hues of sunset. It swooped down—slow and accurate, spiraling in long loops before perching against the weathered wood of the pier’s railing. Its size and appetite interrupted the scavenging gulls and their rapturous caws, driving them away.
It was feeding time, and the bird was ready to indulge amongst the spoils slung into the sea.
Cy lifted his eyes from the chopping block, staring at the gluttonous creature. It seemed to return the favor, locking onto him, waiting for the next handful of guts to be discarded. The young boy set his curved blade down and wiped his slick and bloody hands on his apron. They both stood in silence, challenging one another with slitted eyes.
The bird bobbed its head, a slight sway in its balance as it waited. This wasn’t a new game, though. Over the past few moons, Cy grew fond of the bird, knowing it would always return before dusk. He even learned which parts of the fish it favored.
After some tense moments, the stand-off ended, and the corners of Cy’s mouth curled up. “Okay, okay, old friend. Enough with the teasing. Dinner is served.”
He reached to his right and grasped an iron bowl, half full of pieces of that morning’s catch. It was a common routine now. Most days, Cy didn’t realize he was doing it. During his shift, he collected the organs of each tuna and salmon he fileted, along with the occasional eggs from females. These were the treasures he saved, knowing his friend would drop in right before the shift ended. He also knew the bird expected a gourmet feast. The gulls could have the rest.
He chuckled as he stepped forward with the bowl set carefully in his hands. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve got your favorites, friend. Hand picked them myself.”
The bird hopped from its perch on the railing, landing on the sun soaked planks of the pier. It waddled forward to meet him, bill gaping wide.
Cy reached into the bowl, grasped a fistful and dropped it into the bird’s waiting mouth. He smiled as the animal’s mouth closed around the raw meat, throat bopping as it swallowed. With all that had transpired lately, blissful moments like this were rare, and he cherished them. It was an escape, a way to forget about his hardships and worries. A chance to pretend he was someone else and not his father’s son. A chance to live without the hate, the stress, the knowledge of his kin’s crimes.
Suddenly, a thunderous voice boomed nearby, returning him to reality. “Cyrus! Get ya bloody ass back to the block, boy!”
Cy whipped around, eyes wide with distress. His fingers released the bowl, and it clattered to the deck, spilling the remnants of its contents. Before him was a thick, towering Florian, agitated and scowling.
“Coppers don’t grow on trees! Ya clean fish to work off the debt, not gallivant with these damn pests.”
Cy froze, immobilized by the sight of this monstrous man sauntering forward. “I… I…”
The butcher, Montavious, slowed as he neared the adolescent, hovering over him like a mountain casting a shadow. He leaned forward, getting within inches of Cy’s face, veins pulsing in his long forehead. “Ya break when I say ya do.” His rank, hot breath blanketed the quaking boy’s face.
The harrowing statement forced a swallow from Cy. He leaned backwards, trying to escape the wrath, eyes welling over. Ever since the indictment against his father, Montavious had had it out for him, pushing the boy harder than the others, bullying him at every turn.
“Did ya not hear me, boy? Or are ya as dense as ya thievin’ father? Get. Back. To. Work.”
Cy shook off the tension of the exchange without a verbal response. He dropped his head, staring at the deck and side-stepped around the behemoth, trudging back to his chopping block. With each shameful step, he sensed the piercing eyes of the butcher, as well as those from his best mate Jed, stationed at the next block.
The thin, bronze-skinned friend watched on as Cy rounded his chopping block and lifted the knife once more, returning to the mundane labor (the work he had to do to clear his father’s debt). Jed’s look shifted to Montavious, watching the arrogant butcher saunter off to harass another unfortunate fool. With the situation dissolved, and their boss out of earshot, he leaned over, whispering. “Bloody Monty. Don’t let him get to ya, Cy. He’s an ass.”
Cy didn’t respond, though. His mind swirled, thinking about his father. Thinking of his role with the family now that dad had disappeared. Wondering how he could fill the void and attempt to repay what was stolen (allegedly).
Jed cocked his head, sensing the worry meandering through Cy’s mind. “Hey man… ya okay? Just blow him off, eh?”
Cy stopped his work and glanced over, locking onto Jed’s green eyes. These two had been friends since they were toddlers, running around camp, causing mischief. Jed was really the only friend left. Everyone else had shunned Cy and his family after the accusations surfaced…after the local lord’s claims about his father.
After a few moments, Cy’s words returned. “No, Jed. I’m not okay.” He shook his head, agitation percolating before straightening up and facing his best friend. “Why is this my life now? Why must I carry this burden? Even if my father stole that bloody horse, that’s on him, not me!”
Jed nodded. “Ay, I know that, but—”
Cy cut him off. “There’s no but, Jed. It’s not fair. Nothing about this bloody port is fair! The lords of Floria rule with an iron gauntlet, controlling the merchants like meek puppets. Montys’ just like the rest. I’m always going to be viewed as my father’s son, no matter what. That’s it!”
Jed held Cy’s stare, feeling the agony pumping through his friend’s veins, yet remained silent. He didn’t reply. He knew Cy. Knew he just needed to vent, to ease the pressure out. The stress that was bottled up. He nodded in his friend’s direction again before returning his thoughts to his block and the ripening pile of fish.
The two worked in silence for the next hour, placing the fresh filets on trays and dropping the discards into the foamy depths below. Younger boys would periodically come and collect the meat, delivering it to the market where Montavious reaped the benefits.
As the last sliver of sun dropped below the Leumerian Mountains to the west, a whistle blew. The sound, shrill and harsh, still brought comfort, signaling their shift had ended. The two lifelong friends left their posts, lined up with the others near a spigot to cleanse their grimy hands. Once the task was complete, they dropped their blades into a tub near the dock’s end filled with sea water and scraps of soap. Montavious’ rotten son sat on a stool counting each blade, making sure no one left with a piece of his father’s property. But their shift was finally over.
They walked together, leaving the pier. Each had his head hung low, and they had yet to communicate. No joy came from their days, and they knew their work was not finished. Once they stepped through their crude doorways, other tasks of labor would be waiting. Relief and rest weren’t possible in this bitter life.
They hugged the railing of the docks, as they had done countless nights before. Burning lanterns topped the rail’s posts, illuminating the long pathway leading towards the City of Floria. Halfway down the stretch, Jed broke the solemn silence, still matching each stride of Cy.
“Hey mate, I know things aren’t great.” He paused, clearing his throat. “I mean, life is shit now, but it won’t always be this way. Eventually, you’ll work off the debt and clear your kin’s name.”
Cy didn’t respond, nor did he acknowledge Jed. He just kept walking, eyes flowing between the path’s planks, watching the tide slosh against the granite boulders below them. He was deep in thought, wondering if Jed’s comments were true. Was there hope, or was he trapped? A vicious cycle of unjust servitude?
Jed cleared his throat again, glancing upward toward the half-moon. “Monty’s a piece of steaming dung. We both know that, but you have to ignore him, mate. Work it off. It’ll be over before ya know it. If not for you, do it for ya, mum.”
The mention of his mother got his attention, and he glanced over. In truth, she was all Cy thought about when he wasn’t seething about his father. He thought about his mother’s pain; her suffering. How her infliction had escalated after his father abandoned them. How the disease took root, digging deeper with each passing day, relentless and unyielding. Visions flooded his mind of how she could barely sit up in bed most days, and he knew he couldn’t do anything about it.
He delivered a meek nod, then readdressed the planks of wood separating them from the emerald waters below, listening to the tide and the natural sounds of the bay.
I will get us out of this, mom. I’m going to get you the help you need, the elixir, and then get us out of this bloody port. That’s a promise, he thought.
A snicker rang from Jed’s mouth moments later, and he delivered a playful jab to Cy’s bicep. “Hey, I was just thinkin’… do ya remember when we were young, causin’ hell around camp? Throwin’ rocks at those girls and—”
Jed’s eyes drifted back to his friend. Listening to him reminisce was nice, hearing the equable words flow so freely. Void of their problems; carefree. He joined in with the nostalgia after clearing his mind of worries.
“Yeah, yeah… of course I remember. It was my backside she took that thick ladle to. Ya just ran out of the yard once her voice boomed.” He paused, shaking his head, laughter spewing from his dry lips.
“What?” Jed stopped mid-stride. He faced his friend, holding his hands outward. “She nearly got me, too. I,” he held up his index finger, “escaped that day. Barely. Ya forgot. She grabbed the back of my trousers as I ran.”
Cy cocked his head, lips curled. “Oh, yeah.”
“When she yanked me backwards, I flew forward and slid right out of ‘em. Landed face first into the dirt. I swear I can still taste it to this day.”
Cy wrapped his hands around the back of his neck, pacing the area. A loose smile adorned to his face. “That I remember, well. You were on your feet in less than a second, though. The vision of ya skinny, bare ass running out of the yard is hard to forget, mate. I think it’s permanently branded in my mind.”
“Hey,” Jed stiffened, a playful sneer forming. “I got away, right?”
“Ya sure did, Jed. Ya sure did.”
The two shared a good laugh together, Cy slapping Jed on the back. They both lurched over, hands on their knees, enjoying the moment. Enjoying eachother’s friendship.
Once they caught their breath, and the giggles faded away, they resumed their trek down the path leading to the city. There wasn’t any silence, though. The two continued to share fond memories of their childhood, sharing stories of cuts and bruises and mischief. A peasant boy’s life.
They finally cleared the wooden path and stepped foot onto the cobblestone road of the city. It was dark, silent, except for the few taverns heavily illuminated by candlelight.
“Man, life sure was easier back then, huh, Cy?” Jed smiled, never looking away from the line of dark businesses they walked past. “I mean, we had to help around the camp some, but it wasn’t bloody slave labor like Montavious forces us to do.” He reached over, tapping Cy’s forearm. “Hey, remember how ya poor old mum used to scare us? Keep us in line, out of trouble.”
“She usually just looked at me. That was enough.” Cy’s mind swayed to the ladle again.
“Nah, nah. The stories, remember?” Jed squished up his nose. “The legend?”
Cy glanced sideways at his friend as they tuned left, entering an alleyway cluttered with empty crates. Suddenly, drunken laughter rang out from the backdoor of a pub, startling them and garnering their focus for a moment. They both paused their slow advance, peering in through the doorway. A group of disheveled sailors huddled inside the establishment, cursing and clinking their glass mugs together. They envied those men. Free of choice and will. Spending their few coppers as they seemed fit. They moved on after a few heartbeats.
The two shuffled forward, meandering through the cluster. Rounding crates and stepping over debris. “What… what were ya saying before, Jed?”
Jed turned and locked eyes with Cy. “Uh…” He scratched the side of his face. “We were joshin’ about the ol’ times. About ya, mum. How she used to scare us with those fairytales.”
Cy’s mind worked, cogs turning as he thought of the past. He remembered those stories, the legends of the city. How could he forget them? The thing that hunted children after sunset. The monster. Those tales terrified him as a child, but he wasn’t a lad anymore. His father’s indictments forced his hand, and he had to abandon his innocence and youthfulness. He had to become a working man before he truly hit puberty.
“Fairytales, huh?” His eyes shifted to a second-story window, glimpsing a scarlet haired woman staring down at them. Her light complexion highlighted by a candle’s dim glow and the radiant moon high above, and she smiled at him. The Legend, he thought, not able to look away from her.
Jed noticed his friend’s focus and looked up as well, seeing the beauty in the window. His eyes ballooned, craning his neck as he continued forward. “Whoa… Um, mate. She’s definitely out of ya league, but myself, ya know…”
Cy broke the alluring gaze and faced his friend. “Oh, shut it, idiot. I was just thinking about what ya said. Ya know the legend.”
“With ya tongue hangin’ out ya mouth, mate.”
Cy ignored the jab, shaking it off like a rogue lice sifting through his hair. He wasn’t really thinking about the woman, even with her looks. The memories of his youth continued to strike him with ferocity. The Legend of Floria.
Jed’s vision flowed forward, stepping over a pile of long forgotten glass bottles. “Nah, nah, mate. I’m just teasin’. In all serious, though, ya mum’s stories caused some serious trauma. I still think ‘bout them some nights when I can’t sleep. I mean, that thing in the streets?”
Cy puckered his lips. “Are ya having bloody nightmares, Jed? Ya need me to tuck ya in, little buddy?”
Jed stopped, facing Cy with a contemptuous smirk strapped to his face. “Maybe.” He paused, holding Cy’s playful leer. “But only if ya bring that lady from the window back there.”
Cy broke out in laughter. “Jed, ya are something else, mate. Born from another breed and destined to live a lonely, long life.”
Jed shook his head. “Only time will tell, mate. And time is what we both have.”
The two picked up their pace and followed the alley until it forked. They veered right, as they had done countless nights before, following the dingy alley and heading deeper into the city. All around was silent, dead. No wind, no voices. No drunken laughter or slurs pouring out sailor’s mouths. The few torches that lined the backdoors of the pubs and brothels were extinguished, too. Bellows of faint smoke fluttered above them, chasing the dark sky above.
Cy noticed the change in the atmosphere first, acknowledging a drop in temperature. He wrapped his arms around his torso, rubbing his skin to create some friction. His pace quickened and uneasiness escalated with each step. His mind continued to loop, thinking about the stories of his youth, about the myths. And his eyes shuttered in all directions, feeling as if they weren’t alone in the darkness.
Jed struggled to keep pace, watching his friend’s long strides. “Hey, wait up, Cy. Ya gonna leave me all alone out here.”
Cy looked back, seeing his friend paces behind, but the nerves and anxiety pulsating through his blood forced him to keep going. He cocked his head and waved his arm, urging Jed to jog to catch up.
Jed shuffled forward, thin legs moving as fast as they could. Within seconds, he reached Cy, matching his stride, breath a little ragged. “What’s wrong, mate? Why are you in such a hurry to get back to the shacks? Worried ‘bout ya, mum?”
Cy delivered a weak shake to his head, eyes still shifting to his left and right. “I don’t know, Jed. Something feels… off. Strange.”
A chuckle escaped Jed’s throat. “Eh?” He looked over at his lifelong friend. “Ah, ya just spooked, mate. Thinkin’ about the boogeyman ya mum used to talk ‘bout. It’s just a fairytale, Cy. I didn’t mean to rattle ya wits.”
There was no response. As they trekked further down the alley, the tension ascended. Every shadow, every whispering sound caused Cy to flinch, and the fear resonated in Jed as well, watching Cy’s reaction to a scurrying rodent. Slowly, the two merged closer together, keeping a steady pace, eyes frantic and wavering in the dimness.
Up ahead was an incline, dark and motionless, mirroring the last five minutes of their journey home. Faint illumination hazed beyond the crest, creating a sliver of hope because their makeshift village was right on the other side. They were merely home.
Strolling upwards, Cy slowed his rapid pace. He was still weary of his surroundings and turned round, scanning behind them. His eyes focused on the ground, the walls of the structures enclosing the alleyway, as he backpedaled.
Jed’s intent stayed forward, seeing the comforting glow of the village ahead. Unconsciously, the two separated.
After a dozen steps, Cy whipped around, seeing the back of Jed in the distance up ahead. He cocked his head and bit his lip at the sight. His friend had stopped his advancement, motionless. He stood still, facing the direction of the crude village. “Jed… Jed? What is it?” No response. Jed didn’t even turn to acknowledge him.
Cy strolled forward with cautious slow steps, eyes locked on his friend. He could see that Jed’s stance was odd, unnatural. The young seemed to stop mid-stride, frozen in place, immobilized. “Jed? What’s wrong, man?” He wavered forward, nerves pumping through his boiling blood.
He inched closer, fear dripping from each word as he whispered his dear friend’s name again and again. But the result was the same; utter silence.
Before the next breath exited his lungs, a thunderous hum pulsated throughout the alleyway, flowing in rhythmic waves. Each cycle struck Cy with intensity and force. Agony ripped at his senses, and he squeezed his eyes shut. He buckled over, dropping to his knees, skinning them on the grimy cobblestone. He covered his ears with his hands, attempting to muffle the pounding his ears were taking.
He kneeled there on the cobbles, absorbing the blunt, chaotic force. Slowly, he forced his eyes open, attempting to see through the haze swimming in his head. All around was dim, darker than possible, with the moonlight dancing above. But there was something there, strides past his stoic friend in the alleyway. He tried to focus, take in the scene, but the haze dominated his senses. Only a faint, shrouded vision laid before him.
Past the outline of Jed was something black, dark, blanketing the space. Through the obscurity, he could see subtle motion; swirls of pulsating movement, mimicking a pebble disturbing a still pond. The moonlight danced off of each ripple, flowing on top of each passing wave. And whatever it was, it was descending the hill towards them.
Cy tried to scamper backwards, retreat from the scene and the thing in front of him, but found himself like his counterpart, immobilized, frozen in place. The violent hum suddenly intensified, shattering any nerves and will to run. Unconsciousness drifted in, trying to carry him away from reality, but he would not be so fortunate. Whatever was about to happen was inescapable, and he was destined to watch.
Through the haze, he watched in horror as Jed lifted off the ground, levitating into the cool night air. The boy hung there, knees buckled and neck craned back for several heartbeats, before his position changed. He advanced in the air, sliding forward towards the blackness that was creating the ear shattering noise. And slowly, parts of his flesh peeled away, projecting into the ripples of blackness and disappearing.
Within seconds, Jed- his lifelong friend, almost a brother- was gone, and Cy found himself alone, facing this terror. Panic flowed in tides and he felt the comfort of blacking out creeping in once again, but it wouldn’t take him.
The thing continued down the slope, inching closer and closer. The ripples flowing rhythmically with the deafening hum. And slowly, Cy's knees lifted off the ground and he began to elevate.