The contraption let out a sputtering puff of smoke before settling into a low rumble that sounded, at least to Belle’s ears, like it was stable. It was hard to tell with this old-world tech, so loud and flashy, and having a gnome do the repairs didn’t help the case. Nevertheless, she was excited to see what this machine could do and about the possibility of her deepest dive yet.
It had been dragged up from the depths only a week ago and at first it’s function was a mystery. A large portion of the barge’s Holming population had taken turns gathering around its crate-like body and long tubed appendages, but as usual it was a gnome who figured it out. The body held a mechanical pump that would gather air and send it down the tubes.
Word spread quickly among the divers, who began to concoct tales of how deep they would be able to explore with such a device. But in the end it was Belle who had been chosen, along with one other diver, Nibs, so called because of his collection of old-world writing tools.
Nibs was running a little late, which gave Belle a chance to squeeze in some practice with the new gear, and when he finally arrived she was able to quickly get him up-to-speed on its operation. A few trial dives convinced the two that the contraption wasn’t about to explode and so they prepared for a proper descent. Underwater weaponry, short spears and crossbows, were strapped into place and empty salvage bags tucked through weighted belts.
They left the warm bright sunlight behind them, held at bay by the shifting veil of the water’s surface, and pulled themselves downward hand-over-hand. Above them the myriad hulls of the massive barge, roped together to form a pile of dwellings, stores, and feast halls, cast a thick column of shadow that stretched down past the divers and into the dark blue beneath. There at the edge of their vision, a slender point started to emerge. Jutting up out of the gloom came a rusted metal spike, the vanguard of an ancient tower that soon followed. Belle and Nibs dragged their air-tube down past a cracked clockface, its hands hanging heavy with barnacles, as more and more rooftops came into view.
It was a familiar site; a cluster of tall buildings whose upper floors had been scoured clean by divers almost a year ago. The salvage had been good back then and the Holming had only been able to wonder at what other riches could be found there, if only they could dive deeper. Belle swam through a broken window frame and turned towards Nibs, moving her hands to speak. -Set up here, catch our breath- and then with a smile, -then deeper.-
Nibs returned the grin and simply held up a thumb.
With their makeshift base camp in place, Belle and Nibs began to delve into the ruins. An internal stairwell that once marked the edge of where a diver could safely reach before turning back had now became the entry point to a whole new treasure trove and the two Holming were filling their bags quickly. A well-preserved set of silverware, with only a few forks missing, went into Belle’s bag; It would no doubt fetch a decent price the next time the barge stopped to trade. Nibs treaded water for a moment as he marvelled at a knife with a retractable blade. They found gnomish firestarters, old-world jewelry, and an untarnished and gilded longsword that sat amongst a pile of its rusting kin.
A rotted four-poster bed sat in the middle of one particularly large bedchamber, its shredded canopy floating about it like a halo. But Belle’s eyes were drawn to a heavy looking chest that had come to rest in a corner. Gliding over, she slid a set of tools from her belt and began to test the lock. After a minute of fiddling, Belle decided the lock was too far gone and was forced to return after a visit to the air-tube, this time with a short, fat crowbar in her hands and a chisel and hammer tucked into her belt. As she passed Nibs, she flashed a few signs, -Follow. Help me.-
Soon after, Nibs was positioned to apply pressure on the crowbar as Belle attacked the chest’s hinges with the chisel and hammer. On the third strike the old metal gave way and the lid of the chest came loose. Reaching inside, Belle found a beautifully carved hand mirror, untouched by the ravages of salt and time, and when she looked into it she let out a surprised bubble of breath.
The face looking back at her from the mirror was undoubtedly her, but some of the details were wrong. It had the same waving auburn hair, although richer and redder in colour; The same shaped eyes, but green, not brown; The reflection’s teeth were too square and straight, showing no sign of the little overlap she could feel with her tongue; and the eyebrows! There wasn’t a stray hair in sight.
Belle smirked to herself and shoved the enchanted mirror unceremoniously into her pack with all the other salvage. “Some vain land-lover will pay handsomely for this,” she thought, and as she looked back up she saw Nibs at the window, signalling excitedly.
He was leaning out a window and simply pointed for Belle to look down. The grin on his face betrayed the fact that he’d found something interesting and so she tucked away the chest-cracking tools and drifted over to see for herself.
Roughly two (maybe three) floors below them, the dark and unmistakable shape of a ship hull jutted out from the side of the building. This wasn’t a sailing ship however, the lack of rigging, mast, and sails meant it must be an old-world airship, one of the rarest sights in the Boundless Ocean.
With the excitement having claimed both of the Holming divers, they quickly swam back to their air tubes, each took a deep breath, and flung themselves down the stairwell towards the wreck. They found it in what looked like an old dining hall, grand in dimension but now thick with seaweed. As the divers drew closer they quickly located a breach in the ship’s hull and pulled themselves through.
Inside, the sheer amount of plant life that had taken root seemed to make the water thicker and somewhat cloudy, forcing Belle and Nibs to stay close lest they lose each other in the murk. Up ahead, a faint glow called them deeper into the wreck, it’s pale purple light piercing through the darkness in rhythmic pulses. Pushing past some hanging seaweed Nibs revealed a crack in some machinery’s housing where the light was slipping through. The crowbar was back in his hands in a flash and with no way to assist, Belle hung back to watch.
The crack widened, little-by-little, and Nibs was clearly eager to pry this secret loose before retreating for another breath. A tearing sound rippled through the water as the metal housing tumbled free and Nibs reached for whatever was creating the light.
No sooner had Nibs pulled the object out, its glow spilling between his fingers, than a nearby weed whipped out towards his leg. The violent red and white streaks hidden on the underside of the plant now revealed its dangerous nature, as Nibs’ body turned rigid. But Belle’s terror only grew as her eyes caught movement behind the now still Nibs. A wide grin, filled with needle-sharp teeth, hung fish-like from the bottom of an eerily humanoid face which slowly pressed forward into the light.
Belle had heard tales of divers running afoul of Sea Hags before, and figured that this creature must be one of them. The wreck of an old airship had made the perfect bait to lure divers into its lair. With her fellow Holming stunned or paralysed by the strange flora, Belle knew it would be up to her to fend the creature off. It’s eyes were currently fixed on Nibs as it drew closer and closer, a long thin tongue lolling out over its distorted jaw, giving Belle a chance at a decent shot.
The crossbow swung around on its sling and into Belle’s hands, but as she reached for a bolt the first one got caught. It’s barb was stuck in the tough fabric of one of her bags. Still the Sea Hag crept forward and now its boney torso and long thin arms were illuminated as it reached out for Nibs. The crossbow bolt came loose as the salvage bag ripped, setting its contents adrift. Belle nocked quickly and aimed.
Just as the creature began to open its jaws wide and pull Nibs towards it a metal bolt scraped across the side of its skull. Even through the murky water, Belle heard the raspy cry as the Sea Hag turned to face her and charged. It had moved slowly before, fixated as it was on the paralysed Nibs, but now it was putting its twisted piscine anatomy to use and bearing down on its assailant.
The second bolt came up easier, but the crossbow was taking too long to draw. As the creature flashed past Nibs’ light and turned back into shadow it loomed large in front of Belle and fearing the worst, the Holming closed her eyes.
Expecting to be torn to shreds by those terrible claws, Belle opened her eyes a few moments later to a strange sight. The long and cruel talons of the Sea Hag were curled around a strange metal object, which it slowly drew towards its sallow face. The mirror! It must have fallen from Belle’s bag and somehow caught the creatures attention, and not a moment too soon.
A warbling noise began to issue forth from the creature then, almost a purring or cooing sound, and Belle recognised she had a chance. Slowly gliding around the now still creature, she grabbed Nibs by one of his straps and began to drag him out of the wreck. A quick look over her shoulder as she swam away confirmed that the Sea Hag was still in the same spot. Although now she appeared to be stroking the front of the mirror.
Belle knew it was dangerous to surface too quickly, but with Nibs most likely drowning from the paralysis she barely stopped at the air tube to clear the spots from her vision before making for the safety of the Barge.
As she breached the surface, many hands reached down to help her to the deck. She fell to her knees as her head spun and the darkness threatened to take her into unconsciousness. The last thing Belle saw as she gave in to the exhaustion was Nibs’ hand, breaking through the ring of healers tending to him. As the paralysis faded, his fist opened up to reveal a small crystal, still pulsing with that bright and purple light.