Ritual By the Sea

When I came to the cove, I knew it immediately as the place I sought. The wind that had battled my advance across the open sea died as I brought my boat around the outcropping of rock that formed the entrance to the small harbor. I did not need to look at the aged photograph that was tucked in my breast pocket to know that this was what I had been searching for. The sand, so white it was like snow, stretched between black cliffs too sheer to climb. But for the ripples caused by my movement, the blue water was like glass.

I dropped anchor and stepped into the warm shallows. The rucksack containing all the materials I needed swung from one shoulder. I waded to the beach, dropped to my knees, and began emptying the bag’s contents onto the sand. There was no time to lose in that cove beyond the waters. My heart beat faster at the very sight of those unnamable substances, my anticipation quickening with each cloth pouch laid upon the sand. Months of searching, travelling, struggling were drawing to a close; the end of a journey lay mere moments away.

The aroma of ritual wafted in the air around me. Each pouch contained a vital ingredient—nothing could be left out. The last items I removed from the bag were a metal vessel, circular, with intricate markings engraved along the rim, and two candles of pure black wax wrapped in cloth. My circle of protection I drew in the damp sand between the low tide and the dry upper part of the beach. I glanced upward and saw the ghost of the moon, still visible though it was only a few hours past midday. I could almost feel its tidal force, its unrelenting grip on the ocean that pulled the waters inexorably toward me. The encroaching foam that lapped at the sand was a clock ticking away the minutes until I would lose my chance.

At the center of the circle I placed the marked vessel, then plunged the candles into the wet sand on either side of it. There was no wind to fight against me as I lit a match and gave its fire to the black wicks. Although I knew the words to be spoken by heart I could not afford to risk a misstep, so I removed the book I carried within my coat and laid it open before my makeshift altar. One by one I placed the ritual materials into the bowl, speaking the required words over each. When all was finished, I spoke the final incantation, then took hold of the two candles and turned their flaming wicks into the vessel. The flame spread like oil over water, then flared a deep, startling blue. My heart beat madly at the sight of that spectral hue—a sure sign of success.

I waited.

I did not move.

The minutes passed in utter silence.

There were no other signs.

Despair began to claw at my heart. What had gone wrong? What crucial step had I forgotten? What single word had I misspoken? I read and re-read the incantation until I was certain there had been no mistake. Every step, every warning, every precaution I had followed, and still in the final moment I was left abandoned.

In anger, I kicked the bowl and its contents into the ocean and watched them disappear beneath the surface. My head in my hands, I fell to wallowing in my defeat. Thousands of miles from home, seven months along the trail, and all had ended in nothing. As the minutes passed, the hard edges of grief softened somewhat. The small seaside village from which I had set sail that morning lay far across the archipelago. I knew I would not be able to make it back there before darkness fell, nor did I have any desire to find myself at sea when night fell. I resigned to wait for morning beneath the cliffs and leave at first light.

Even through my disappointment, I was not immune to the beauty of that place. The warmth of the sun and gentle movements of the water beckoned me toward relaxation, so I stripped off my clothing and entered the sea. It soothed my muscles and gnawed away at the tenseness that held me in its grip. This would not—could not—be the end of my journey. My search would go on. I would find the answer to what had gone wrong, and I would fix it. Then I would return. I must try again, and again, though the quest might outlast my life.

As these thoughts continued, I swam deeper into the water, past my drifting boat, until I could no longer feel the sand below me. Then I lay atop the surface, arms outspread and eyes to the heavens. Time passed without my notice, and though I did not sleep I was not fully conscious of myself for a period.

The first sound from the deep I dismissed as imagination. It was so quiet, so distant, that I could not be sure I had not conjured it from my tired mind. The second was slightly louder, and I was slightly more certain that it did not come from within me. When a third sounded, it struck fear into my heart. Whatever was the cause of those concussions was growing louder, closer. It had the quality of an animal’s call—a deep, booming cry that rumbled out of the ocean’s depths.

Near panic, I moved upright in the water. I became aware that the ocean around me was much colder and realized with a shock that I had floated beyond the harbor wall back into the open sea. There had been no perceptible current as I moved, or was pulled, into the deep.

I tried to control my flailing limbs in a way that would propel me toward shore. Far beneath me stirred unfathomable terror. My arms grabbed wildly at the water, and finally I succeeded in pulling myself onto the sand. When I had completely escaped, I couldn’t help turning back to watch the nightmare unfolding beneath the surface. The ground beneath me trembled with the booming calls that continued to sound. The ocean surface shook and rippled with the power that was surging within it. Beyond the harbor wall, the sun was dipping quickly toward the horizon, and behind me night crept over the black sea cliffs. The thought of those horrible calls continuing into the darkness of night nearly drove me mad with fear.

Out upon the water, a few yards off the port side of my boat, I saw something break the surface. My eyes conjured up images of a great arm, the tentacle of some foul monster reaching up from the depths, but I quickly realized it to be something else—something smaller. I stood and peered at it, trying to make out its shape against the darkening water. Suddenly it erupted in blue fire, the flames contained within a hollow, and I understood: it was the ritual vessel, returned to me from the deep and held aloft by some unseen power. A small part of my fear melted away into triumph as the truth washed over me: I had not failed.

The vessel still floats on the surface, its flame still burning though any fuel should long ago have been spent. Night has fallen, and the stars own the sky. They are not alone, however. Even now I watch as miasmic shapes, beings, writhe beneath their light, sometimes dipping to skim the black surface of the ocean, or to dip behind the black cliffs before climbing back into the sky. The blue flame burns like a beacon, calling to those forms above, and still from the deep is sounding the master’s call. I feel I cannot stay on this beach any longer. There is a place for me beneath the waves. Even as I stand on the edge of the sea, its gentle waves caressing my feet, I feel no fear. I can even see a pathway of blue fire leading into the black depths, and it is clear that it has been built for me to follow. I leave this journal, along with all my belongings, for whoever is next to come to this magical cove. This is a testament to my journey. If you who reads this have come to this place for the same purpose as I did: do not hesitate; do not despair. The master awaits your coming.


Original Photograph

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