(Note: The original title of this story is Offshore #173, but seeing as how Wikia doesn't allow hashtags in titles, I had to change it.)
by Adrian Simmons
The helicopter roared over the rugged hills and out over Kinnairds Head, leaving Scotland behind and cruising out over the North Sea. Thomas Kilfane put his face close to the glass and watched his breath fog on it, obscuring the rapidly shrinking tip of the land. Below them the sea rolled on as it had since the world was shaped, lapping up against the land and the islands, natural and man-made, that dotted its surface.
It was a steel island that was Kilfane's destination, PetroCo Offshore #173, a bitter destination indeed. He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. He looked forward to the trip with a mix of unbound enthusiasm and quiet dread. Number 173 was the most remote of PetroCo's offshore wells, remote and dangerous, remarkably dangerous in a field where injuries and accidents were still pretty high. Three weeks on, three weeks off, truly a baptism by fire, or in this case water, for him.
"So," the pilot shouted over the blades, "you nervous?"
"Aye," Thomas said, no use in lying about it.
"Don't worry, chap, everybody's nervous," the pilot answered, "No matter how many times they come out here everybody's nervous about #173."
"Well then," Thomas said, "I don't feel so bad since this is my first offshore rotation."
The pilot might have been surprised, if so it was lost behind his big sunglasses, "First rotation? Number 173? Those bastards at home office must have something against you, chap."
Thomase shrugged and ran a hand through his hair, "I doubt it, just think I'm up to the challenge."
The pilot shrugged, turning his attention back to the controls.
Kilfane looked back to the water, the rocky islands around the Shetlands passed beneath them. Seals and white birds crowded the shores, ringing each island in living creatures. It was an impressive sight and he fought down his excitement and air-sickness to enjoy it.
An island came into view lifeless and barren, as if the creatures of the sea would not stay on its shores. Beyond those shores a mile or so rose the concrete pillars and iron platforms of PetroCo #173. A combination oilwell, storage facility, hotel, hospital and airport, it was an amazing creation. Although not overly superstitious for a Scotsman Thomas felt an eerie chill upon seeing the dangerous well and its lifeless rocky guardian.
Number 173 had its fair share of bad luck. Injuries and mechanical problems were high. He looked forward to the mechanical problems, as he always did, but not to the injuries.
"There it is, chap," the pilot said, "home."
He dropped the craft down low to let Thomas get a good long look at the citadel of steel and cable that stood on the edge of the wild sea. The gas flare roared to life as they approached an orange and red greeting against the gray of the sky and the green of the sea.
"Right then," Williamson shouted, "Limey, you and the Mac watch yourselves now, and pray that the Mic can keep away from the spirits for fifteen minutes!"
All eyes, English, and Scottish were on the crane and its load of pipe as it moved toward the deck. Kilfane only hoped that O'Roy the kept his eyes on it too. The piping and the nylon netting that held it crunched to the deck and all Kilfane undid the hook and signaled the Irishmen to move the hoist away. Williamson began shouted and barked into his radio and the well began to hum to life again as the work started again. Hours passed in the cold wind as Kilfane and his new comrades drove the steel pipes into the rock under the sea.
"How can you stand it out here in the cold, mate?" O'Roy asked after they had finished the day's, Kilfane's third day, work.
The two leaned on the railing outside the mess-hall, facing east. On the other side of the rail the world simply dropped away and the ocean waited. Fog pushed in around the well, trapping everything in a blanket of gray, pockmarked by the yellow sodium lights that dotted the rig.
"Don't like the cold, mate," Kilfane answered, "just endure it to do my job." He had spent all day in a small cage suspended by one of the cranes working on getting yet another series of leaks in the nitrogen lines repaired. "Learned to take the cold during my carefree days when I worked on a trawler."
O'Roy's eyebrows shot up into his hard-hat, "Naught to be carefree about on those fookin' things, give me a pint and a warm bed any day."
Above them the flare fired again. Its noise was astounding, rushing down even over the wind and rain and machinery. The world was orange and yellow until the plume of fire died away.
"Now that trawler," Kilfane went on, "that was some hard damn work, work you could feel. 'Course the owners didn't know the first damn thing about how to keep their tools in working order." Kilfane smiled at the memories, he had been fifteen at the time.
They talked the Scotsmen and the Irishmen, about the company, about the rig, about the weather and families left on the mainland.
Kilfane watched his gloved hands at the railing the whole time. He liked O'Roy, he liked everyone on the crew. Robinson and McCulvin, the other Macs, Donald the Darkie, Sandhill the Yank, even Williamson and Hardred the Limeys, Kilfane got along with them as well as he got along with anyone. Hard men who bitched and complained the days away but reveled in the work they did, the work only they could do.
O'Roy's words faded away as he went inside. Kilfane looked at his hands. Sometimes it seemed his hands, not his mind or his heart, pulled him through life. He had always been a hard worker and a natural born tinkerer. He could have stayed in his small hometown and set up a welding sop and made a good living. But those hands had pulled him from his home, not wanting to stay in one place, nor willing to wait until he had been through school and college and what not before he could start his life. Those hands, with their skill at fixing and cobbling machines together had gotten him jobs on ships; the trawler and the cargo boats; jobs in mines and manufacturing, and finally the oilfield.
There was a business that he could wrap his hands around. Hard work, good work, and since he wasn't a junkie or drunk like so many roughnecks he had become a very valued, even respected, member of PetroCo's team. The offshore sites had been to sweet to resist, the added element of danger and the call of the sea being a siren's song to him and his hands.
"A siren's song to me and my hands…" he rumbled, "what the fuck kind of talk is that?"
"Better go on, lad," he admonished himself, "got eight more days with them after all."
He half turned to go in when the flare went off again and he stopped. He stood in the fiery light, bathing in the mist. Turning to go he caught the sight of another flame, red and wavering, answering the flare from somewhere on the sea.
The storm came on Kilfane's fifth day, the blanket of fog exchanged for a pounding rain and flashing lighting. Offshore #173 held up in the tempest. The roar of the wind dominated Work on the tower, and the tasks on the platform were drowned out by the boom and crash of the waves against the concrete pylons that held up the structure.
The meeting room was crowded with nearly the full crew during break. Williamson shouted and barked into his handset at the crewmembers who were still at their posts before he turned back to the crowd.
"Right then, this storm's not getting any better anytime soon. Home office just radioed and said that they're delaying the helicopter until this blows over. No relief personnel, and nobody goes home for at least another day."
Rumbles of anger answered the foreman's words.
"Fook this," O'Roy snarled, "'been here too long already. You push your luck on 173 if you stay to fookin' long."
"You tossers can call your nannies and cry after we get the pipe pulled up," Williamson added, getting more grunts of complaint from the crew.
"Bloody hell!" Kilfane swore.
"Right, lad," O'Roy said, "one thing worse than working this damn thing would be sitting here with a broken pipe for a week."
"Kilfane, you, O'Roy and Sandhill get some harnesses, your working the crown, chaps."
Williamson's lack of ethnic slurs drove home the seriousness of the situation as Kilfane, O'Roy and the Yankee hit the door and walked into the cold rainy night.
The lift carried the three men up into the air where the rain pelted them with even more fury. The flare blasted out its light above them as they ascended. Out of the corner of his eye Kilfane saw a blast of red flame shoot up in the black void of the storm.
"What the hell was that?" he demanded.
"What the hell was what? You getting fookin' spooked?" O'Roy asked.
Kilfane opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it, O'Roy had been looking out to the east just as he had. Kilfane could tell by looking that the Irishman wasn't joking, this was no prank that he was trying to pull on the new hand.
"No, just caught a funny reflection," he answered.
In the crown they clicked their lifelines into place and set about the job. O'Roy ran the controls that began to pull the pipe up from the hole while Kilfane and Sandhill did the grunt work. Catching the pipes as they came out of the casing before moving them over to a giant holding cage that hugged the side of the derrick was hard enough on a good day but tonight it was almost surreal in its difficulty. The elements buffeted the crown while nearly frozen lubricating fluid gushed from the casing with each oily pipe that the crane pulled up. Footing was treacherous and the entire scene was lit in the harsh yellow of the sodium lights, the bright orange of the flare and the white flash of lighting.
Kilfane worked as hard and fast as he could, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something... else was out there in the storm, something horrible and malevolent, watching and waiting. Again he saw the red flame shoot up into the night and he paused to get his bearings. It was higher this time, and it came from the south.
"Kilfane!" Sandhill barked in his odd American accent, "Keep yah mind on what yah're doing, man!"
He clamped his great metal gripper around the pipe and began to move it over to the cage, trying to clear his head of the feeling of dread that hung over him. Around them the storm seemed to grow worse by the minute, by the second. Then in a flash of lighting he saw it.
It hovered by the derrick, draping its coils about itself as it watched them. In the brief flash of light Kilfane could see that it was something between a serpent and a fish, its long snakelike body sprouted spines and wings, two or four or seven he couldn't tell, flapped spastically in the air, looking more like fins than anything else. The head that hung on the neck was a creation of nightmares, two milk-white eyes glazed out at the world over a wide long muzzle, teeth needle sharp like some deep-sea predator framed a dull black tongue. Red flames slithered from its nostrils for a half-second before the lighting flash ended and only the mist and the rain and the darkness surrounded the rig.
"Save me Boave!" Kilfane shouted, falling back on the superstitious sayings of his grandmother.
"God dammit, Mac, the pipe!"
Kilfan'es hands worked on their own, clamping his gripper down on the spinning section of pipe as it shot up from the casing.
"We have to go!" he shouted to the yank, "we have to go now! It isn't safe here!"
"For fuck's sake! Did yah come here in a long bus or a short bus? Yah wanna loose yah job?" Sandhill hollered back.
Kilfane motioned to O'Roy in the control booth to shut down the operation, Sandhill caught his arm and jerked him around.
"What the hell are yah doing?" the yank shouted.
"We have to get the furk out of here!" Kilfane roared at the American.
Somewhere on the platform an alarm klaxon sounded, blaring into the night. O'Roy hit the kill switch in the control booth and jumped out, holding his radio up to his ear.
"Williamson's sayin' that fookin' storm is worse than the sods at home office reported. We're shuttin' it all doown, if we break pipe we break pipe!"
"Right, get to the lift!" Kilfane yelled, pushing Sandhill toward the escape route. They took two steps before Kilfane saw a sickly brown coil slice through the air, lashing over the side of the crown toward him. He half fell and half ducked as it ripped past. His sense played cruel tricks with him as he watched. Somewhere he heard a cracking metallic snap and the tail of the beast turned into a thick steel cable before it smashed into O'Roy's gut, lifting the Irishmen full off the walkway and tossing him over the side.
"Christ!" somebody shouted as both men rushed to the railing. The looked over the edge, following the lifeline down to where O'Roy swung in the wind. Together they hauled on the line pulling O'Roy up with surprising ease. The Irishman gave them a stunned look before he tilted back. Kilfane felt his vision constrict, blackness pouring in around the edges, in the middle of his gaze he could see O'Roy's coat and shirt flapped raggedly about him and bits of flesh and bone mingled with them, dangling from where his stomach and legs should have been.
A sight worse than that came upon him, beneath the ruin of O'Roy two red flames were racing upward toward the crown and two great white eyes followed. Kilfane felt more than saw the mouth gape with its needle teeth before he let go of the line and pulled Sandhill back from the railing. The tower shook and leaned drunkenly as the beast smashed into it. Again Kilfane's senses went wild on him. He could see the thing streak past, a great scaly roller-coaster, but all he could hear was the crash and boom of metal on metal.
Then another sound, came to his ears, it sounded like a woman, a drunken woman giggling insanely.
"The crane, Jesuzz somebody lock-down the damn crane!" Sandhill shouted pointing down. One of the lift cranes swung wildly in the wind, smashing into the side of the derrick.
Kilfane looked over the railing, the nylon harness at the end of O'Roy's lifeline swung torn and frayed in the storm.
Wordlessly he pulled the Yank to the lift, unhooking their lifelines and handing them to him before climbing into the tiny cramped cage himself. They dropped, sliding with unbearable slowness down the side of the derrick as the rain lashed at them, almost falling vertically. The thing was all about them, he could feel it, he could smell it. A wet rotten smell permeated the air. The hectic laughter was everywhere too, pushing is already stressed nerves over the limit. Orange light bathed them as the flare went off above them.
The thing seemed to hover near the orange flame of the flare, its dull eyes watching it for long seconds before it stretched its horrid jaws wide and its own red flames bathed the flare unit. Kilfane watched in horror as a fiery explosion shook the rig, the flare unit broke off from its housing and fell burning to the deck, smashing into one of the sheet metal buildings there. The monster followed it down, its red fire licking at it, and then the building. Flames shot up and sparks burst from the building, the hundred yellow lights of #173 flickered and died as the generator fitfully destroyed itself in the red inferno.
The lift ground to a halt.
"Oh no-" Sandhill started.
"Out," Kilfane ordered, climbing out of the open car to the emergency ladder that ran beside it. Sandhill hesitated a moment and followed.
In spite of his coat and rain gear, life vest and clothes, Kilfane felt naked as the day he was born as he scrambled the endless yards down the ladder in the absolute blackness. Once on the deck they could hear the shouts and yells of the other crewmen. They struggled in the dark, trying to find a way through the maze like area of walkways, pipes, and support beams. Kilfane noticed that there was a light, a whitish light edged in blue that lit the area around him. Something fell in front of them, at one glance it seemed to be a metal support, and in the white light that flooded Kifane's vision he could see the pulsating scaly side of the monster as well, blocking their path. An evil red haze spilled upon him from behind and the insane giggling grew louder.
They yank swore and clawed at the support to clear their path while Kilfane turned and saw the thing's grotesque head lift over the side of the rig, flames licking up from its nostrils and its goggle eyes fixing on him with a look of ravenous bestial hunger. The jaws opened wide and bits of clothing and flesh clung to its needle teeth, grim proof of the fate of poor O'Roy.
Kilfane lifted his arms to protect himself from the horrible beast and saw that the blue-white light was coming from him, pushing from within his skin and surrounding him with a glowing nimbus. The arms in front of him were those of a stranger, nearly red and covered with tattoos of swirls and whirls. The clothing was different too, he still wore the heavy jumpsuit and the bright yellow raincoat, but there was course linen on his arms, and the smell of finely worked leather wafted to his nostrils. His steel-toed boots had changed, ancient thick leather workbooks now covered his legs from the shins down.
As the monster flowed forward to devour him the white light sank back into his skin and coursed down his body to his feet and he jumped.
Kilfane had never been particularly good at sports but he jumped. The deck dropped away below him as he shot up into the air, passing the machinery of the rig on his way. He felt sick as he realized he was halfway up the side of the derrick before he slowed.
"Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!" he shouted as he upward ascent turned to a downward descent. Below him he saw the monster searching the deck for him. Whether by thought or design his fall took him to the side and he crashed to the helipad. How he didn't break every bone in his body he didn't know, nor did he question.
He had no sooner gotten to his feet before the hideous head on its horrible neck peered over the side at him. He stumbled back across the pad as the eyes gazed at him hungrily. The thing's mouth began to open and Kilfane felt a sinking helplessness. Whatever force had enabled him to jump to safety had abandoned him, he was trapped on the pad with nowhere to go. He made a scramble toward the metal stairway knowing that he would never make it in time.
The widening jaws stopped as he ran and he saw the eyes fix on something beyond him, hunger drained from them and naked hatred replaced it. As suddenly as it had appeared the monster flapped its great fins and rose over pad before diving down and out of sight, the infernal laughing sound fading away as it fell.
His hands shaking in his gloves Kilfane gripped the railing of the stairway. Panting from fear and exhaustion he looked behind him. A haze of light filtered through the storm in the east as a barely visible sunrise kissed the horizon.
"So O'Roy forgets to lock down the crane, the crane swings and snaps the derrick support cable," Williamson said gloomily, "the cable snaps and cuts the housing on the flare- which explodes and falls to the generator house."
"That's such load of shite!" Donald shouted back, his broad black face creased with anger, "The Mic always locked down his equipment. Home office was probably trying to save a few pounds and put a cheap crane on the rig."
The two men's summed up the mood of the crew as they crowded in the dormitory trailer. What had happened? How could it have happened, was it equipment failure or human error? The storm went on outside, less than it was the night before but enough to keep any choppers or boats from getting to them. The rig was shut down, the search for O'Roy and the other three missing members was over and there was nothing to do but wait and wonder. So they waited in the trailer, the lights shut down so that they wouldn't over-tax the emergency generator. The heater kept the room just above being too cold.
Kilfane sat starring at his hands. A dozen repairs had been made since dawn, it seemed that no part of the rig wasn't damaged somehow. He had even been the hero of the day when he had finally got the back-up generator working.
But his hands had changed. He had an old man's hands, lean and knobby, gnarled as old roots. The tiny lines that crisscrossed his palm were, he swore, schematics of some kind. And it didn't end with his hands he had changed. His skin was brick red traced with the black lines of the swirls that danced over it. His ears flayed out from his skull, wide and tapered, and his face was… interesting. Okay, not interesting, horrible. The red gave way to black on the end of his nose and his cheeks and his eyes had a kind of sooty bloodshot look to them. His teeth were not to pretty either, which was to be expected from Scottish dental care, but they hadn't all been pointed before. But the hands were the most drastic change, the worse they looked the better they worked. Given time and materials he felt there wasn't a thing on #173 he couldn't fix.
Time, however, was something that he did not have. Williamson had radioed in and found that the storm wouldn't ease until sometime in the small hours of the next morning. The thing, the dragon, the wyrm, the whatever it was, would be back as soon as the sun went down, back for them, back for him. He was, he knew, somehow kin to it. He could see it, it could see him. It also, he felt sure, could and would eat him.
"Why do yah keep starring at the map, Kilfane?" Sandhill asked.
"Just looking at the names of the island, yank," he answered. the map, a great old thing in a Plexiglas pane was up on one wall. In the dim light Kilfane ran his pointed nail over the hard plastic. The rocky island to the east of #173 was called Knucklas.
He tapped above the island. That name was familiar, although he was sure he had never heard it. That didn't matter much, he had never tanned hides or pounded steel out at a forge, at least not in this life, but he had full memories of those tasks. Or maybe it was just his hands that remembered those things.
"You know anything about Knucklas Island?" he asked.
The Yank brightened. He was one of those irritating twits who was in Scotland to rediscover his 'roots' and loved to talk about history that most people already knew. Used to drive the Mic crazy with it.
"Let me see… been bad luck for boats for a long time. Coffin ships, steamers, yachts, lots of bad luck on that one. Too small to use for anything, and just big enough to get in the way of everything. "
Kilfane nodded, understanding too well where all the bad luck came from, "Anything else? Folklore?"
The American nodded, "Well, yah get a lot of that on all these island out here. Not a one of them that doesn't have a doorway to the elves palace, or was witness to a saint's miracle." He rubbed his stubbly chin, "There are a lot of stories… they all get a little confusing after a while, something about a castle of glass and the young gods driving off the giants, or the sea devils, or the devil giants or something-"
"The Fomorians?" Kilfane offered, remembering it from stories he had heard and read in his youth. Now, though, the word sent a chill of fear through him, like he was looking down the barrel of a gun.
"Yeah, that's it! maybe something about the grandson killing the grandfather and the evil eye and shit. Wait… that's Irish, Tory Island or something. " Sandhill waved his hands, "But there is something like that here, a glass rock and the sea giants, the Fomorians, and the younger gods or something. There may even be some seal-people involved, I don't know."
"Thanks, mate." Kilfane said turning to go.
He pushed through the melancholy crowd toward the door.
"Where the hell you think you're going, chap?" Williamson said, breaking off his argument from Donald.
The foreman had lost three crewmembers already and had a handful in the infirmary with injuries major and minor.
"I'm furking tired of listening to you two argue," Kilfane said, "I'm going to go see if the crane broke or if it wasn't looked down.."
He threw on his coat and passed through the door before anybody cared to stop him. He didn't' go to the crane, though, instead he went an equipment locker and grabbed a life vest and plenty of rope. His steel toed boots clicked across the deck as he went to the tool locker and got out one of the giant crescent wrenches. It was as long as his leg with heads as big as both of his fists and he carried it down to the maze of struts and supports that clustered under the deck and into the machine shop.
Number 173 was built to be as self-sufficient as possible and the tiny chamber was crowded with cutting and grinding equipment, as well as half a dozen other machines.
"Home at last," Kilfane said, feeling a wave of relief as he stepped into the remarkably familiar surroundings.
When had had made the jump he had no idea what he was doing, it had just happened, but he felt that he could do this task. It was like a dream where he could see the future or where he 'knew' things. He took a few minutes to remove the safety shielding from the biggest re-tooling machine they had and then turned it on. The thing hummed to life and he hefted the wrench for a moment. The machine would never be up to the job, but that didn't worry him. He lit a match and tossed it in, and a cheery yellow flame, an impossible fire, started somewhere within the device. Its hum turned to an eager roar as Kilfane fanned the flames with his leather cap. Pulling on a pair of welder's goggles he took a deep breath before pushing one end of the great wrench into the maw of the machine.
The tooling machine squealed horribly, the ground shook, smoke poured from the stack but Kilfane pushed harder, forcing the machine and the impossible fire within it to bend to his will. Heat licked up at him, and the pungent scent of hot lubrication oil filled the room. The thunderous howl of the machine, the shaking, all the good stuff lasted for hours, until sweat soaked through Kilfane's clothes, the flame grew so bright that he couldn't look at it, even through the welder's goggles. He watched his hands in the heat-proof gloves as they held the wrench into furnace.
He pulled it out and looked at his creation. A sword, cherry red from the heat, was in his hands now. One piece of steel as tough as nails and sharp as a razor. There was no hilt, nothing between the hilt and the handle, which annoyed him to no end. But he didn't have time to screw with it so he wrapped duck tape around the end to serve as a grip and then carried it outside to quench it in one of the icy flows of the gutters from the deck.
In other days, older days long gone, he had made things like this before and put them into the hands of ready blue-skinned giants. But there were no trolls on #173, just a lone nocker with a hard task before him.
He carried his weapon to the edge of the platform where the smaller of the two cranes waited. He hooked his lifeline to the cable and hit the controls. The metal cable began to lower over the side. He set the crane for its slowest setting and holding his sword tightly he jumped over the edge into the Dreaming.
He swung woozily through the storm, passing the metal body of the rig until he was descending down with only the occasional support beam passing him. He seemed to go down for hours and still the sea stayed somewhere below him in the mist he could hear the sea, the lapping of the heavy waves against the concrete pylons that held the entire operation up. He had already seen too much to really wonder why the water was further below them than it should be, he just dropped slowly through the air.
The smell of rotten fish and mixed with the sea salt on the wind. At the foul odor he tensed, the monster came slowly into view below him. Through the wind he could see it, coils upon coils wrapped around a support beam.
"It must be fifty furkin' miles long!" he swore softly. It was everywhere, a huge green-gray oily mass, sometimes ten, sometimes twenty feet high, like a snake wrapped about a sapling.
"Where is its head, dammit?" he hissed.
He began to swing in toward it before he dropped past. He aimed for what seemed the thickest coil and landed it on, his feet squishing into the scales.
It began to move, a horrible assembly line of slick flesh, cruel spines and fluttering fins taller than he was. Kiflane struggled for balance, slipped on the slime and fell to his knees on the thing. It was perhaps as wide as a car and he looked about wildly for any sign of the head. The giggling began to sound again, but he couldn't tell if it was above him, or below him, or where.
He held his sword up for a moment and then stabbed down with it with all his weight. The steel blade bit through the scales and sank into the body of the creature. Blood, thin and pink sprayed up from the wound and the giggling sound rose a pitch, sounding like two or three more drunken hags were at it. Uncoiling itself from the support the monster heaved beneath him and Kilfane held onto his sword to keep from being thrown off. Somewhere from the middle of the mass two red flames shot up, rushing toward him. The creature's body lifted Kilfane up into the air away from the rest of its coils as the two pale eyes fixed on him and the jaws opened. Tearing his blade free Kilfane jumped off the monster, falling until all the slack was out of the cable and jerking painfully to a stop just as the beast's maw closed on the space he had been a mere second before.
The thing hissed and began to snap cruelly at the cable, biting and shaking it while Kilfane bobbed helplessly below it. One of the flapping fin-wings came too close and his sword slashed out, cutting off a sail-sized chunk of it.
Above him the monster held off its assault and turned to look down at him. It hissed and inhaled sharply before its whole body pulsed and flames shot from its mouth at him.
Kilfane's sword bit through the nylon lifeline and he fell free from the blast furnace heat. His hair and eyebrows singed and smoked and pain welled through his skin where the flames had touched him. The tongue of fire lapped at him as he fell. He plummeted so far that the dragon was nearly fully obscured by the wind and the mist.
Then the sea finally rose up and hit him with its icy fist. He held to consciousness long enough to realize that he would freeze to death in a matter of minutes. Then he passed out.
Cold water pressed against his naked skin and flooded his mouth, nose and throat. There was something horribly wrong with his throat, he couldn't move his neck without moving his whole back and when he inhaled he could feel the water course through his mouth and out the sides of his neck. He kicked and his tail sped him forward and down.
Kilfane realized he wasn't drowning, about the same time he realized he was a fish. Having never been a fish he had no idea what to do so he simply turned a slow cartwheel in the water. Below him was darkness and as he turned toward the surface he could see light flickering dully down. He was maybe thirty feet down, which frightened him to no end. Although he had no idea what he would do if he got there he began to struggle up.
Swimming was a bit easier if he kind of flapped his 'elbows' and shook his 'butt'. As the distance to the surface closed he saw five sleek forms streak above him then twist and swim down. The seals darted past him and then rose and circled, their big brown eyes looking him over. Kilfane wasn't happy with the situation but he was at least relieved to see that he was a big fish, at least as big as the mammals that zipped beside him. One of them even touched his side with its nose before flinching away as he struggled.
The five seals left him and slid easily up, breaching one by one before falling back into the water. Taking advantage of their distraction he tried to swim away but they followed above him, jumping and falling the entire time. He could hear them barking and calling. He could hear something else, a rhythmic clomping sound, almost like horses, and something else, like loud skis. Some kind of boat was moving across the surface, he could see it as it came over him. And yes, there were horses, he could see their great feet sink a few inches into the water before being yanked up, and behind them they dragged something, two parallel poles or skis cut through the water. Behind that he could saw something hit the surface and in a fearful second he realized that it was a net.
His newfound swimming skills were woefully unprepared for any kind of flight and in a moment he was helplessly trapped and being pulled to the surface. He left the world of water and seals behind as he was hauled into the biting wind by a legend, a story from his childhood.
Mannon Mac Lir stood in his chariot atop the sea, he had a kilt with a dozen colors of yellow and orange over his deep blue tunic and a great golden three-ring pin held kilt and sealskin cloak and silk mantle together.
"Quite your struggling, bold nocker!" he said as he dumped him bodily into the chariot next to him.
Kiflane did just the opposite as he felt the precious life-giving water drain out of his gills and began to smother in the air. He flopped fishlike in near panic before Mannon could finally get his hand on his forehead. Suddenly he had arms and legs again, and lungs that were disgorging water.
"- jurbingurbinburbibmurbinmitzermurbilin!" He also had a voice and finally could give sound to the non-stop stream of swearing that he had began to utter the moment he woke up.
"Ah hearty nocker," Mannon shouted, helping to pull the netting off of him, "your profanities, vulgarisms, and obscenities are music to mine ears!"
"Then you get a furkin encore!" Kilfane said, launching into a second, even more scathing tirade and stopping only when his teeth began to chatter too much to speak.
He had his clothes on, his rain gear, even his life-vest, but it was all as soaked as he was. Mannon Mac Lir handed him a thick wool robe and a jacket, along with a pair of pants and dry socks. Chattering and cursing Kilfane stripped out of his clothes and managed to dress on the tiny platform of the chariot, not caring where or when the items may have come from, just that they were dry. A cloak made from a polar bear finished the outfit and Mannon clipped it into place with a golden pin worth more than most of the money Kilfane had ever earned.
"Good nocker, brave nocker, hearty commoner!' Mannon said, embracing him tightly after he had warmed up a bit, "I worried that we would not be able to find you in time. When I heard that you had come into my realm after fleeing the battle with the Jormdorcha I could not abandon you to die."
"So it was you who did that," Kilfane waved his fingers , "that fish thing?"
"Aye," the legend said, beaming with pride, "to breath the water and stand the cold, a good choice all around, although you made an ugly ugly fish."
Kilfane shrugged, he supposed that turning people into fish was no less extraordinary than jumping thirty feet straight up. For that matter it was no more amazing than hearing this man speak a language he knew he didn't understand, yet being able to understand it. Much less the fact that Mannon Mac Lir was here, riding about in a chariot atop the waves just as the children's stories said.
His rescuer was handsome, no that wasn't right, he was beautiful, almost to the point of being grotesque. An aura of magic and power clung to him and his eyes shined out, always looking over the horizon.
"That thing," Kilfane said, "the monster, the Jormdorcha, what is it?"
Mannon's face grew serious, "It is doom and death, fire and darkness, hatred and vengeance. Few fae have the courage to face it, fewer changelings still, and none within two hundred years can claim to do what you have- faced the monster and lived to tell of it."
"Where does it come from, I've heard stories of these islands but nothing about this."
"Ah, that's a tale and one that I don't want to tell, and but for the Mists I would not," the charioteer said as he took the reigns and urged his two horses forward. "The Dubhformori, the Fomorians of the Black Court, and their slaves the Fir-Bholg were driven to these islands as the Tuatha De Danaan took the lands of the young from them and gave them to their children to rule and dwell in. Great wickedness did the Fomorians work from these lands, the Black court building the great crystal palaces and citadels to guard their remaining realms in the air, on the land, beneath the sea. But the Tuatha de Danaan and their children again waged war and pounded their shields within a spear's throw of the gates of the Black Court."
The Sidhe's face was almost trance-like, and Kilfane worried that the past and present melded too much in the brain behind that perfect face. "Hard was the fighting, but the Black Court was driven even from here, and they fled and were imprisoned beneath the Evertide Sea. Put in a place so far away you could ride your chariot until the oceans dried up and yet so close that we are both nigh standing in it. The fae took the islands as their own and held them and the ages turned around them. The Tuatha De Danaan left the worlds that we know and the sons of Adam grew and spread. It was in that time that the Jormdorcha came up from the depths.
"Again the glass walls were shattered and splintered as it laid everything waste. How the world, how the children of Danaan had changed. The Jormdorcha, whether pet or war-beast of the Fomorians, or something more, had the old power in it and the fae were devoured or destroyed."
He looked around at the water, "Many fled to the sea to be killed in their boats, and many a fae and mortal alike did beg me to open my land to them for sanctuary. Woefully what they wished was beyond me, but I gave shelter to those I could by what means were mine, and on flipper and wing many poor souls escaped the ever-hungry jaws of the beast."
The chariot stopped in the water and its master looked at Kilfane, "But time has made prisoners of us both, the Jormdorcha and me, and it hunts always for fae flesh to feast on. One day, I fear, it will grow strong enough to come into my realm and it will be a deadly tide for all the changelings left in the Autumn World should my holding be devoured."
"Can't you do anything about it," Kilfane asked, a bit angry as he got to thinking about it, "you've had several thousand furkin years."
Mannon Mac Lir looked at him and his eyebrow raised sharply, "Nay, I have not the power to leave this sanctuary, nor does it yet have the power to enter. Only to your kind, those who endure the Changeling Way, and the poor mortals who have not understanding of their foe, only you are in danger now. Its hunger is great, it must be for your presence to draw it from its lair."
"My presence? What the hell does that have to do with it?" Kilfane demanded.
"It could sense you, sense the power of the dreaming within you. Your chrysalis was like a beacon to it, a hundred times brighter than the Sons of Adam that work in roaring steel tower."
Kilfane had finally warmed up a bit, but the Sidhe's words turned his blood to ice. The thing had come there because of him. O'Roy and the others were dead because of him.
"That's a cruel fucking trick of fate," he muttered.
"Aye," Mannon said, "and there is worse in store yet. Many said that I should have let you drown in the waves, but I would not have it so. You are free to go, here at the border of my domain. Fate may be kind and you could get back to your own kingdom and forget this ordeal, or it could be cruel and your spirit could be that which tips the scales and lets the Jormdorcha into my own house."
"But where am I supposed to go?" Kilfane asked, "What the hell am I supposed to do, swim back to Scotland? I don't even know where I am!"
Mannon Mac Lir pulled out an old brass spyglass from his belt and unfolded it before handing it to his guest.
Kilfane took it and looked hesitantly out into the storm. Through the eyepiece he could see clearly, as if no gale existed. He swung the glass along the horizon and found #173, it stuck up impossibly far into the air, with the Jormdorcha still clinging to it halfway up its length. He turned the glass the other direction and found Knucklas Island. It looked different as well, bigger than it was before, with a high cliff rising up from the water and great piles of glass boulders along the top.
"And to get you away I have another gift," the sidhe said and pointed to water behind him.
At first Kilfane thought a whale surfaced next to them as a great bowed black form burst from the sea. It bobbed on the water for a few moments before the five seals that swam around it tugged on its side. Slowly the boat rolled over and the two sails became visible, emblazoned on each was a great red Celtic cross.
Kilfane drew in a breath, the sight of the boat momentarily driving away all his fears.
"... is that a ... curragh? A real leather curragh?" he asked.
"Aye," Mannon said proudly, "Good Brendon owed me a boon, he was chased by the Jormdorcha as well."
A real leather curragh, and a famous one at that.
"Did he really get to America?" Kilfane asked, entranced by the deceptive simplicity of the vessel before him.
"Oh aye, the boat will go wherever you ask it to." Mannon said, "The monk had many a great adventure on his journey." He wiped a tear from his eye, "But the Great Navigator lives now only in my memories. But it was your kind that made the boat for him, though he did not know it, so now he repays the debt to your kith."
As he looked Kilfane could see that the boat was full of stuff, junk mostly bits and pieces of things that had fallen from the waking world into Mannon's hidden kingdom through the centuries.
"Its all yours, if you wish," the Hidden One said, "perhaps there is something there that can help you."
Squarely on top of it all Kilfane's sword lay and he breathed a sigh of relief at seeing it. He grabbed his wet clothes and his life-vest and jumped to the boat feeling like a king in his castle among all the wonderful junk that was packed within the hull of the ancient ship.
His mind tingled at the workmanship of the curragh, he knew it as if he had worked on such crafts himself. Maybe he had sometime between his glass-blowing days and the coal mining.
"By God, this is a find! Good oak bulwarks and an ash frame tied with horse-hide thongs. Ash from the high mountains, from the west side of the trunk or I'm a fool!"
He turned to smile at his host but Mannon Mac Lir was gone.
The rain and wind came back with a vengeance, and the ship began to heave in the suddenly rough water.
"Furbinrabbin!" Kilfane shouted, in a few fumbling seconds he had his life vest on and began to struggle with the oars before remembering the words of the Sidhe. He thought on his problem. He could go back to #173 to almost certain destruction, or he could go back to the mainland to an almost certain existence of self-loathing for leaving behind his mates to perish at the teeth of that brutish nightmare.
"Tough damn choice..." he muttered into the rain. But he was thinking like a second rate mechanic. No, not thinking, just reacting. There was always another way to work on any problem, an angle that nobody else had thought of. He worked at the mental nut for a few moments before grinning a snaggle-toothed grin.
"Curragh," he shouted, "take me to Knucklas Island."
Everything that would burn was piled on the rocky beach beneath the cliff. As much as Kilfane hated to destroy perfectly repairable junk he felt he had no choice. His decision was made easier by the fact that it was all truly junk nothing at all that would really help him in his current situation. He had one flare one working flare from the whole mess. He pulled the tab on the flare and dropped into the pile. In a few moments the fire spread as old blankets caught and burned fitfully in the rain. Wooden deck chairs caught too, first the fabric then the wooden frames, and the old Nazi uniforms burned nicely. In a few minutes a small bonfire roared to life and the whole island seemed to glow as the light was caught and reflected by the great glass boulders that mixed among the rocks.
Kilfane huddled down and watched the fire as it burned, and the curragh as it sat next to the fire. It took only a few minutes for an answering flame, an angry red flame bright enough to see through the rain, to shoot out over the ocean. Kilfane drew his bearskin cloak about himself as he waited a bright bolt of lightning showed the creature, a sickly green stain in the sky, as it approached. Sickly and deadly, and he hoped not as stupid as it looked. He prayed that the beast would have brains and spite enough to remember the one that got away. Or in this case the two.
He was scared, that much was true, he was no warrior, had never been as far as he could remember. On the plus side he no longer felt the confusion that he had the night before on the rig. He was fae, a changeling, the two parts of his being had come to a kind of truce, the memories of his mortal life weaving together with the bits and pieces of experience from the long lives he had lead in the past. He could remember fondly the tools toys and devices he had made in the past, and he even had a feel for what his cantrips had been. Fire and water and wood he could create if need be, and he could move. He had jumped already, and he could remember being able to open passageways through walls and stones. He had his sword, and his plan.
Red flame erupted from the sky above his bonfire and Jormdorcha hovered there, a roiling mass of coils and spines and fin-like wings. Its pale eyes searched over the fire and then fixed on the two crosses that decorated the curragh's sails. The hateful giggling started again as fire erupted from the beast and poured down upon the boat and Kilfane flinched as if he himself had been burned.
"What a waste, damnable furbinliburnin-" he swore.
The monster, no longer having to dodge around derricks or beams brought its full bulk into play, its serpent like body lashed out, catching the leather ship in its coils and crushing. The ribs tore through the leather hull and caught fire as the beast unleashed another fearful blast down upon it. Unfazed by its own heat, or even the small bonfire next to it the Jormdorcha thrashed and tore at the boat before snapping down and tearing out chunks of it with its long teeth. It was a horrible sight, the monster seemed to just keep coming, more coils, more fins, it spilled out over the beach in its fury.
It caught the mast in its maw and began to wrench it from the remnants of the ship. As it was occupied Kilfane stepped out from his hiding place and swung his sword. He ran, then hopped, then skipped, then jumped.
He flew through the rainy night and brought his steel-toed boots down onto the thing's back, landing where the body bent as the head gnawed at the mast. He brought the sword point down and it stabbed through the thick hide and slid deep into the body. A ripple ran through the monster and it shuddered beneath him. Kilfane tore his sword out and hacked at one of the wings, slicing through it before half jumping, half falling, into the shallow water of the shore.
The beast turned its hate-filled eyes toward him as he struggled to his feet. It lunged, anger and pain giving it frightening speed, but it was one wing short and its charge went wide of its mark. The long teeth tore into the gravel and glass of the beach an arms-length from the nocker.
Kilfane swung with desperate strength and speed, the edge of his sword smashing into the hard brow of the nightmare and cleaving through it and into the soft white eye beneath it. The Jormdorcha surged back, its whole being drawing away. The cursed giggling stopped and the air grew heavy and quiet as the thing's right eye trained on him.
Kilfane did the Ali shuffle and jumped away as the Jormdorcha's coils writhed up and tried to swarm over him. He sailed through the air and landed on the hill above the cliff. The monster had seen him and its bulk lurched toward him, the head dragging low with its wounded wing, its eye dripping vile pink blood down to the rocks below. The nocker turned and ran, using what little headstart he had to put some distance between himself and his pursuer. In moments his lungs and legs were burning from exhaustion. Over the side of the cliff he saw a coil of the thing wrap around a rock as the nightmare half flew, half lifted itself up the side. With what strength he had Kilfane hacked into the coil as he ran by.
He neared the top of the hill where the ruins of the glass fortress of the Fomorians lay about like bizarre modern-art pieces, some the size of houses. It was a confusing maze but the Jormdorcha was at least hampered by all the debris and couldn't bring its full body to bear as it had on the beach. But he himself was hampered by his lifelong hatred of sports. His legs were numb from the run and his arms were heavy as lead, and the sword dragged in his hands.
"Should... have used... fourteen centimeter... wrench..." he gasped before nearly falling down against a rock. He scrambled around the boulder and looked for a place to hide. With a huge boulder at his back and another made of glass to his left. Sucking and blowing the wet air he waited miserably for the thing to find him, waited to die.
The Jormdorcha was also laboring, he could hear its ragged breathing as it approached. It was landbound too, Kilfane could hear it dragging itself over the ground. He caught a glow of red from the around the rock and pressed himself into the crevice between the stone and the glass. Raindrops counted off long seconds as he waited and wondered. Should he charge out? Did it smell him? Was it even now about to breathe fire down on him? At last he could stand it no longer and wearily lifted his blade and peered around. The coils of the dragon were there, wrapping around the base of the rock and disappearing again. The body of the beast seemed to be everywhere, its scaly bulk was atop the rock boulder, heaving and pulsing. Kilfane held tight to his blade and wondered what to do. He could strike again at the creature, but he had done that twice now and he knew that he would be lucky to get one more chance, if he failed then the thing would find and kill him.
Lightning flashed out to sea and for a few moments he felt horribly exposed and he hugged the rock, but as the light died away he could see the silhouette of the creature's head through the great glass boulder. It was on the other side, searching for him, he could even make out a faint red light, the fire of the things breath. His mind clicked on the realization that its right eye, its bad eye was toward him.
"One shot, Kilfane," he whispered, "no weekend repair shop jobs tonight," he raided the point of his sword and scratched a small circle into the glass. The wellspring of magic he had felt on the rig was beginning to run dry but he had enough to push into the tiny cut and before his eyes the glass opened up and soundlessly a passage appeared in the crystal. At the end of the passage the monster's head slipped into view, its ruined eye still dripping the foul pink blood. He raised his weapon and took a deep breath.
Hesitating for a moment he realized that beyond the glass was nothing but empty sky, he was facing toward the rig, could see the yellow pinpoints of its sodium lights. So be it, if he failed he would fall and hopefully his spirit would flee his broken body before the thing devoured him.
"How's that for heroic?" he whispered as he forced his legs to run down the smooth passage. He jumped and swung, striking behind the jaw. The sword passed through hide and muscle and crunched into bone before becoming lodged in the flesh of the Jormdorcha. In spite of his heroic plan he held on for dear life as he hung in the air. The monster convulsed and his grip failed him and he fell through the air before crashing into the sea again.
The roar of the helicopter engine brought him back into the bright light of life. His body was beyond cold, into the realm of numb beyond feeling. Except his chest, sweet Jesus his chest hurt. A knelt over him, holding the metal pads of a defibrillator, ready to administer another powerful shock.
"Heart... furkin'... beating..." Kilfane gasped.
"Holy Christ!" the doctor shouted to the pilot, "It worked!" He leaned over Kilfane, "Hold on, lad, we've got you, we'll get you to Aberdeen and put you right."
He could hear the pilot shouting into the radio, telling Williamson that he had been found. The doctor was saying something, but Kilfane was to weary to listen. He turned his head and looked out the window of the chopper, watching the sea streak by. They passed over the island of Knucklas and he could see its beaches swarming with seals, and above them the air was a riot of gulls, puffins and cranes.