Artwork by Tommy Chandra
From the memoirs of the late Jarod Grimes, of Edgewall:
There is a patch of shore, nestled in the distant reaches of the enigmatic South, where the fearless and faithless go to drown. It is no small blessing that the journey there from lands civilized is long and arduous and fraught with peril, for I fear that should the mountains that keep its malevolence at bay crumble into dust, the allure of its accursed madness may prove too much for even the most sensible of good folk.
At first glance, the beach looks innocuous enough, even pretty. The craggy slopes that line it are shingled and steep, but its cerulean waters sparkle brightly in the sunlight, and its pale sands are soft underfoot. Indeed, the casual visitor – were there any – would have little reason to suspect anything amiss as they walked across its length, but for the odd scrap of abandoned clothing and the inexplicable silence of nature.
But on moonless nights, furtive silhouettes break from the surrounding groves and stride forth into the lapping waves. Where they exit the treeline they sometimes leave a small heap of worldly effects – but often by this time they have none left, having spent all their worth in the last villages on a final spree of drink and debauchery. The figures clutch chiselled fragments of sharpened rock close to their chests as they wade intently through the dark water out to sea. Once they can walk no further they stop, and as they grip their makeshift knives tight even the wind stops breathing.
Some say that there are chants, or invocations, or other rites to perform in those final moments, and during my travels I have heard no shortage of claims. A tribe of horsemen hunting in the foothills of Nem recounted to me how pilgrims would bring fetishes made from the ink-stained shells of sea-dwelling molluscs, and crush them in one hand as they prepared the knife with the other. The tavern drunk from the town of Stegard pulled me close, and, breathing vile spirit into my ear, told me that should I seek as they did, I should repeat ancient phrases of fiendish origin, from a soggy parchment that he would now sell me for a hundred gold pieces. And one wizened hag, whose hermitage I stumbled upon in a forest full of wrinkled trees, whispered through toothless gums that after releasing the blood from their necks, the pilgrims would further drive a sharpened spike of lodestone into the wound. Perhaps, she said as the skin around her mouth cracked and flaked, they believed that by embedding themselves such, the strange properties of the material would somehow serve to guide them on their unholy journey.
Each of these tales was told with as much sincerity as there was embellishment. I discarded them mostly as the trappings of ritualism, superstitious by-products of prolonged exposure to the mythos of that damned shore. Only two themes did I find to be sufficiently recurrent to give any credence to. The first regarded the subject of the knife. It had to be constructed from the stony secretions of corals, found in shallow reefs and coastal deposits, and bound together by strands of dried kelp. The resulting blade was brittle, but one edge could be filed as sharp as a razor, and for its purpose would work as well as any iron.
The second commonality was to do with the depth of the cut. You see, contrary to my initial assumptions, the purpose of the laceration was not to sever an artery in the neck – which would quickly result in a lethal amount of blood loss – but instead to breach the windpipe. Upon performing the deadly cut, the pilgrim would fall forward and seawater would rush through the wound into the lungs, providing death by drowning rather than exsanguination, for only the former drew the attention that was sought.
Reading this account, it may be difficult to believe that the ocean does not see fit to wash the remains of these unhappy folk back on the shore. Indeed, given the lack of scavengers, one might envision a coastline traced by yellowing bone and rotting flesh, and a seabed littered with corpses; a graveyard of unearthed bodies consigned to lie forever stagnant amidst the rocky crevices and tangled kelp of the shallows.
One would be wrong. The tenacious pull of some fell current tugs at the fallen, pulling the bodies further out to sea. Or perhaps it is the corpses themselves that provide locomotion, crawling along the seabed like parched travellers in a barren desert. As they drag along mindlessly, their trajectories are marked by long, straight trails in the sand and mud. The trails do not last long, but each can grow up to a mile long before the ocean begins to sweep away its tail. Such is the irresistibility of the force that drives the pilgrims.
I once spoke to the grizzled captain of the Damsel’s Reprieve, a merchant cog that I had bought passage on to take me from Therrin to Sorrow’s End. He told me that when he was a common seaman, his ship had been forced to venture along that very coastline on a number of occasions. During each transit, the crew had been forbidden to peer overboard, for drowned pilgrims were the supposed harbingers of misfortune, and seeing the trail of one was enough bring bad luck upon the vessel. Curiosity had got the better of him, though, and on one occasion, he had spotted a lonely track under the noonday sun, not a hundred feet below the surface. As the ship passed overhead, the ragged corpse at its end had looked up and smiled at him with a hideous grin.
The pilgrims journey on in this manner for days or weeks, never tiring nor deviating from their course. Eventually, they come to where the continental shelf ends in a sudden escarpment; a steep drop to depths unknown. Onwards they hurl themselves, unfazed and unstopped, like limp puppets freed from their strings, tumbling down the slope into abyssal darkness.
What happens to them after is beyond any wisdom I could find, for who could return from such a fall to tell the tale? So here it is that my research ends and the legends begin.
Where the rock of the land meets the rock that supports the sea, there is located a series of trenches. These ruts in the world are long and deep, running along the edges of the continent, like furrows ploughed by the gods, dug up as they piled the earth to build our world.
And it is said that in the fathomless depths of these unlit trenches, there is a gap. A gap between what is above and what is below; between the sunlit lands known to man and the hidden places deep beneath the earth, where a different kind of life spawns. It is this gap that the pilgrims seek, and when they find it it swallows them gladly, taking them down, down, down, beyond the awareness or comprehension of those who live above. From its maw, none have returned, and perhaps the world is better off for that.
Such is the fate of those who seek the world undersea. I sought out the final comfort of that cursed shore, once. I was young and impetuous, disillusioned with the teachings of the priests and clerics, when I came across stories of cities eternal, far beneath the bedrock of the earth, free from pain or suffering or mortal desire. In my readings, I came to know of this beach where the dead do not stay, and so I left, with nary a goodbye to my parents and peers. I set out, first as a seeker of knowledge, but it was not long before I found myself a pilgrim. Of the journey, I will write more about in another sitting, for the hour grows late, and my eyes grow heavy in the dwindling candlelight.
But even now, the shore still calls me. Nowhere I go am I freed from its siren song. Every night, as I lie in the straw and pray for sleep to come, I hear the soft crashing of waves the beach and remember the ruinous folly of my youth. I feel the supple sand between my toes, the chilly seawater around my waist, and the coarse outline of the rock in my hand. The scar on my throat prickles, and even as I leave my thoughts behind and drift into unconsciousness, I know that for as long as I draw breath I will never be able to leave that shore behind.