“Hold the head steady, Mr. Walker, I don’t want to c**k this up.”
Swelling waves cause the ship to roll beneath my feet as I do my best to follow Professor Olik’s order. Unfortunately, the ox is not cooperating, and pulls jerkingly against the rope securely fastened to the ring through its nose while emitting low panicked bellows, its eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. Penned in the makeshift stable below deck there’s nowhere for it to run, even if it wasn’t currently on a vessel somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and several hundred miles from the nearest thing resembling land. Something has the beast terrified, although it could be it simply senses the striking woman standing in front of it with an air gun has less than peaceful intentions.
“For f**k’s sake, Charlie, I know you can pull a rope tighter than that… I’ve got the burns on my wrists to prove it.”
I flash Helen a glare as I struggle with the rope, my cheeks flushing bright red from equal parts anger and embarrassment. She responds with a wicked grin. It’s no secret we’re sleeping together, that’s how I was conned into going on this little cruise after all, but I still don’t feel the need to blatantly parade the fact around in front of her father.
Dr. Reynard Olik is a visiting professor out of Oslo whose expertise is in cryptozoology. I hadn’t realized such a degree even existed but apparently I’m not as informed as I thought. The Loch Ness Monster, the Wendigo, the Tatzelworm… Olik has dedicated years of his life to studying and cataloging the stories and legends of these and dozens of other fantastic creatures, going so far as to conduct extensive field research into claims of their existence. Due to his lean, sharp features, surprisingly cunning intellect and, most probably, his parents’ choice of names, Olik has been dubbed “The Fox” after the French fable in pretty much every circle he inhabits.
His daughter Helen serves as his primary research assistant and as such is accompanying him for the duration of his stay at Pocotonic University where I’m studying for my doctorate in engineering. Her raven black hair and oddly shaded eyes, steel grey flecked with purple, give her an exotic if decidedly un-Nordic appearance. Still, she has the muscle tone of an Olympic gymnast, and at five foot ten could easily be imagined falling into the ranks of the fabled Valkyrie. I first saw her at a social mixer last fall and was immediately taken. Imagine my shock when my lame attempts to talk to her were accepted and even encouraged; two weeks later we were f*****g like it was going out of style.
Our relationship stayed on that course for about six months when she informed me she would be going with her father for an extended trip during the summer as part of his research. Would I like to accompany them? The fact that she’d been naked when she asked probably helped guide my decision. That’s how I came to be wrangling a terrified ox on a Korean manned fishing boat six hundred miles off the Japanese coast.
Wrapping the rope more firmly around my hands I brace my foot against the bulkhead and pull as hard as I can, momentarily arresting the panicked animal’s movement.
“Hit it! Jesus, hit it now!” Helen professionally places the air gun between the ox’s eyes and smoothly depresses the trigger, punching the tiny metal rod through skin and bone and into the creature’s brain. Its eyes roll back in its skull and its slack tongue lolls out of its mouth before the ox collapses to its knees and finally slumps to the floor on its side.
I disentangle myself from the rope, angry red depressions crisscrossing my hands and up my arms, and wipe the sweat from my forehead. “Christ! I’ve never done this before, but, I mean, don’t they usually use a cattle prod or something to stun these guys first?”
The Fox gives me a pinched look. “In your typical slaughterhouse, yes, Mr. Walker, but I’ve found it best to avoid using electricity whenever possible in these matters. There can be… unforeseen complications. Besides, certain research suggests the chemicals released in the brain due to intense fear serve as something of an intoxicating marinade for more predatory creatures… all the better for our purposes here. Stunning the beast beforehand could rob us of a potential advantage. Helen, if you would, please.”
Exchanging her air gun for an enormous bone saw, Helen enters the pen and begins working on the dead ox’s neck. The metal teeth slide through muscle and tissue as Helen manipulates the saw as smoothly as a lumberjack. It catches briefly when it hits vertebrae, but she pulls the blade free with a sickening cracking noise of snapping bone before repositioning and continuing her grisly work. I feel my gorge rise to the base of my throat and glance down at the floor only to leap away from the slowly growing pool of blood that has spread from the pen and now threatens to soak my boots.
I hastily move away from the danger zone and turn my eyes from the butchery, desperately wishing I could turn off the squelching sounds as easily.
“So, doc, tell me again exactly what we’re doing here?”
Olik sighs, “As I’ve explained, Mr. Walker, we are in search of Jormungandr, the World Serpent. Most likely it and the creature known as Leviathan in Christian tradition are one and the same. Legend has it the beast was so large it could encircle the world, to the point of holding its own tail in its mouth, although that is likely an exaggeration. According to Norse mythology when Jormungandr releases its tail it will initiate Ragnorak, the twilight of the gods.
During the final battle, the serpent will confront its father Loki’s hated enemy Thor, resulting in their mutual destruction. All of my research indicates the creature’s head will be located somewhere in this vicinity, near the Mariana Trench. As the lowest point on the planet and one of the few environments not fully explored by humans, it is the most likely location a creature that large could remain relatively undetected.”
“And it’s a fan of ox roast, huh?”
Olik glares at me, “Yes. In one of the most commonly artistically rendered stories, Thor managed to accidentally catch Jormungandr on his hook which he baited with an ox head. He attempted to kill the serpent with his hammer Mjolnir but, oaf that he was, managed to let Jormungandr escape. We are attempting to recreate this event.”
“But, professor, what exactly are you planning to do if you actually manage to catch this thing?”
“Finished!” Beaming, Helen hefts the severed ox head to her shoulder. Her hands and face are spattered with crimson and a slow trickle of blood continues to seep from the stump of the creature’s neck and drip to the floor. Her strange speckled eyes are alight with excitement and anticipation.
“Excellent, my dear, let’s get our bait up to the main deck.” Ignoring my question, the Fox turns and leads the way up the stairs, Helen following closely carrying her macabre prize. I stay a little behind and glance back at the pen. The ox’s body remains slumped where it fell, the muscles of the legs twitching and jerking ever so slightly as the onset of rigor mortis slowly takes hold. I involuntarily shudder and turn after the professor and his daughter.
Once on deck I move to the fore of the ship where Olik and Helen are already baiting an enormous meat hook with the ox head still dripping blood and ichor. The hook is in turn rigged to a large crane that Olik had installed specifically for this excursion. Helen works the controls as Olik guides the grotesque lure over the side and slowly lowers it into the calm seas.
“So what do we do now, professor?” I ask.
The Fox smiles, “Now we wait.”
And wait we do. For weeks the seas are calm, the skies clear. Every few days we repeat the exercise below deck with another terrified ox as the sea water rapidly rots the heads to a state where I doubt even a monster would find them appetizing. By the fifth time I find I have become quite proficient with my duties; I do not know if I am pleased by this.
Soon, one day is lost in the next with little to distinguish them other than the occasional morning slaughter. Our Korean crew tends to the needs of the ship and generally keeps to themselves, leaving us to our own devices, and my few brief encounters with individual sailors convey they are a surly lot. Something tells me they feel very little goodwill towards us; it’s obvious our strange work frightens them and it is likely only the fact that Olik is paying them double their normal rate that they are out here at all. Still, money only goes so far, and I wonder not for the first time if the Fox has been as transparent with his plans to the captain and crew as he has with me. It’s just as well that the sailors mind their business as Olik is adamant that only he and Helen be the ones to operate our makeshift fishing lure. This makes for extremely long days for both of them and yet it is nevertheless only with reluctance and due to a certain necessity that he even allows me to participate in the preparation of our grotesque bait.
As for myself, the biggest threat to contend with is growing boredom. Each day the merciless sun beats down upon the deck out of a cloudless sky, the seas calm and clear as glass. This far out there are not even birds to watch, and other than the occasional dark spot on the horizon, the existence of land is only a steadily fading memory. Olik and Helen are completely absorbed in their work and in no mood to socialize. One evening in desperation I consider trying to invite myself to the sailors nightly card game to break up the monotony, but the malicious looks I receive as I start over towards the group send me hastily retreating back to my cabin below. Lying there, feeling the gentle shifting of the ship beneath me and bored almost to tears, I wonder if I can convince the Fox to let me cut off the next ox’s head.
Gradually the mood of our little research party has grown increasingly tense and prickly, mirroring the crew. Tempers are short and more than once innocent remarks erupt into full out arguments. Although we share a bunk, Helen has stopped sleeping with me, the stress of the voyage tempering our previously insatiable libidos. Lying beside her during the few hours we try to rest, I feel the gentle rise and fall of her breathing under my arm and wonder what this trip will ultimately mean for our relationship. As our supply of oxen is quickly dwindling, if we don’t find the creature soon, we will be forced to turn back empty handed. The question of what we will do if we manage to actually hook the beast still remains ominously unanswered, and at this point I am hoping, almost desperately, that we fail in our search.
At last a night comes when I wake up only to find myself alone in the bunk, the spot Helen usually occupies beside me still warm; she can’t have been gone long. The ship seems to be rolling considerably more than it has up to this point in the voyage, and I stumble across the cabin several times as I try to get dressed. Finally pulling on my boots, I go off in search of Helen and Olik.
When I reach the deck I notice that the sky has turned completely dark, with no light from stars or moon alike. Storm clouds above seethe angrily and the waves beneath respond in kind, rocking the boat more and more violently beneath my feet. The crew has gathered in a tight crowd off to the side surrounding their captain. I don’t speak Korean, but it’s obvious they’re arguing and he is attempting to talk them down. Abruptly one of the sailors steps forward and throws a haymaker catching the captain in the jaw. He crumples to the deck as a general melee breaks out around his fallen body.
It takes me a few moments to locate Olik and Helen near the crane. Seemingly oblivious to the weather and the battling seamen, the professor is standing at the rail, his gaze fixed on the churning waters while his daughter works the controls. I shove my way through knots of fighting sailors and struggle to make my way to them as the ship continues to heave to and fro, causing me to stumble like a drunk. The wind has picked up and howls like a banshee, so that I have to shout to be heard when I finally reach Olik.
“Professor! It’s not safe here! We have to get back below deck! The storm is coming!”
Freezing rain suddenly erupts from the heavens, the screaming winds whipping the drops against my face so hard it stings. Lightning bolts the size of houses flash down from the sky accompanied by peals of thunder so loud they make my head ring. “Professor!” I grab the man by the shoulder and spin him around only to fall back in shock.
The man facing me bears a certain resemblance to Olik certainly, but only just. He’s younger, his face holding a certain agelessness that makes him seem paradoxically youthful and ancient in equal amounts. His eyes are alight with the glow of madness, his mouth open in a wolfish grin, “Too late! He’s too late to stop me now!” He giggles like a lunatic. “We have found it!” Shrieking peals of laughter accompany him and I turn to see where Helen was operating the controls. Gone is my stunning Valkyrie, replaced by a hideous creature. Half of her body is covered in pale, perfect skin, the other rotting lumps of flesh the same purplish hue as the flecks in her eyes. Her cackles are lost as the wind whips itself into even greater fury, the ship rocking so hard I’m terrified we will capsize at any moment.
The ship is thrashing too hard for me to even contemplate trying to make it back to the hold. Just as I have this thought, an enormous wave washes over the deck, sweeping several sailors over the side. Their screams are quickly drowned by the raging storm and they disappear beneath the waves. I spy a coil of rope tumbling across the deck. Desperately grabbing it, I manage to lash myself between two cargo brackets. Helen was right; I pull the ropes very tight. Temporarily secure, I look around. Astonishingly, the man who was Olik has jumped upon the bow, deftly riding the ship like an enraged bronco. Raising his arms towards the screaming heavens he howls into the storm, “Come, brother! Meet your doom!”
With that, the largest wave yet slowly tilts the ship so that it is riding almost completely on its side. From where I’m lashed to the deck, I am now practically vertical so that I have a perfect view of the roiling seas disappearing far off into the horizon. In that moment, my mind breaks.
From out of the sea protrude miles and miles of glistening serpentine coils. The scales are the dull color of seaweed, encrusted with barnacles and all matter of ocean life, for that is where they have remained for a very long time. An enormous head the size of a mountain erupts from the depths, blind white eyes fixed above a cavernous mouth glistening with dozens of rows of fangs. Opening its great maw wide, Leviathan lets loose its battle cry, its roar so loud I feel my eardrums shatter in my skull. High above in the clouds my eyes can barely make out the tiny figure of a man at the heart of the storm. Bolts of lightning seem to coalesce around him, filling him with their impossible power. Shining like the sun, the figure streaks out of the sky like a comet, flying directly at the head of the serpent.
The beast rears up to meet its foe, and on impact the world is enveloped in an incredible blast of white light brighter than the core of an atomic bomb. The stress of the heaving seas is finally too much and I feel the ship shatter beneath me. Slowly, the two broken halves descend into the seething waves. I struggle against the ropes securing me to the deck, but the wet knots slip in my fingers, the restraints that were only moments ago my salvation becoming my doom in the merest instant. Flailing about for something that I might use to cut the ropes, my fingers grasp only salt water. My frustrated scream is lost in peals of thunder as the vicious battle carries on. As the storm continues to rage, the surety of my fate becomes clear. I relax as the raging waters roll over me, ultimately accepting the inevitability of what is to come. I breath in deeply, welcoming the water into my lungs, my only thought that I may be one of the lucky ones. Soon, even that thought is lost as I sink deeper into the depths, my mind as black as the sea embracing me.