"...Once I and the other Drowned Men are onshore," Aeron Damphair said, "you are to row away from the island. Not so far that you can't see us, but far enough that anything onshore cannot reach you."
"What are you expecting to come and get us?" one of the oar-thralls asked. "Grumpkins? Snarks?"
Marak stared at the slave. He must have been recently-captured or unusually stubborn; most thralls would have learned better than to question an Ironborn's command. Many of them would throw a thrall overboard for such lip, many more would if they were in a bad mood, but Aeron was softer than they. Or perhaps more desperate; the tiny longship had only Aeron, Marak, several other Drowned Men, and enough thralls to allow them to arrive as quickly as possible.
Regardless, Aeron responded not with a blow but with an explanation. "You might as well know. Listen up, the rest of you, so that you will know what to expect. As I told my Drowned Men, I received a vision from the Drowned God. This island, Ferrfeld, was visited by a visitor, cursed by both the Drowned God and the Storm God. His curse spread to the village on Ferrfeld, its people and livestock, turning them into shapeless ravening monsters. There things hate any form of order, any beings which do not share their curse. For now, they are content to try and corrupt the few villagers who have managed to hold back the monsters...but nothing stops them from taking to the seas, swimming like eels or crawling like lobsters."
The thralls stared at Aeron. None of them believed it—though Marak couldn't hold that against them when he didn't. Well, it don't matter right now. In an hour or two, either I'll be laughing at old Aeron with the rest of the ship, or I'll be fighting for my life, and nothing I believe now will change that.
Marak looked over the island, if you could call it that. It was a scrap of rock, a few hundred acres of which poked above the water's surface. Some sand had been washed over it, particularly near the water, and some of this sand had grass growing in it; however, most of the rock had nothing more than lichens and moss. There were a handful of huts near a crude pier with a small fishing boat tied to it. One hut had a small garden dug next to it, but nearly the whole island had been left to the sheep.
Had been. Now, the sheep were no more. Instead, there were a few dozen...things. Damphair had called them monsters, formless things, but Marak hadn't imagined anything like this. Blobs of quivering flesh, limbs and wings and tentacles and maws and tails and appendages Marak couldn't put a name to springing from extended masses of chaos, lashing out at a structure or trying to support the rest of its unstable frame. Sometimes, a few limbs stayed strong and stable enough for the creatures to lurch to what passed for feet, walking for a few steps, but mostly they slithered or dragged themselves along the ground. About one in three beat at the largest hut with flimsy limbs, while the others wandered the island or fought among themselves. A worrisome number had torn themselves away from these activities to watch the boat sail closer to the island.
"Fear not," Damphair uttered quietly. "The Drowned God will protect us."
"That which is dead may never die," Marak said. "Those things..."
"They live," Damphair admitted. "But the Drowned God will shield us from their curse..." He stared at the island. "It would be wise to avoid touching them, however. And any who fall victim to the curse should be killed before they...change."
Marak and the others nodded silently.
"This will be a great test of your strength," Damphair said, "both your strength of arms and your strength of faith. But our foes are cursed by both the Drowned God and the Storm God. We cannot fail."
Damphair took an empty skin and filled it with seawater, before pouring the water over Marak. He muttered a litany, a prayer for protection, before repeating the process with the seven other Drowned Men, and then himself. "Bring us close enough that we can wade to shore, but no farther. Once we are out, go to deeper water, but not out of sight. Drowned Men, stay in the sea—deep enough to impede them and stay in contact with seawater, but not so deep you cannot fight. What is dead may never die."
"But rises again, harder and stronger," Marak and the others replied.
"Damphair," said the oar-thrall who spoke out against him. "May the Old Gods and the new protect you."
Damphair nodded, accepting the blasphemy as if it were a blessing. "And you as well."
The battle was fierce. The monsters poured into the water, and while they were even more clumsy in water than on land, they were still terrifying. Most of the Drowned Men fell, one by one. One man was mauled by the claws and teeth of the monsters, slowly bleeding to death as he fought. The beasts' corruption caught him by the end, but he died before it came to matter. Four others succumbed to it; two drowned themselves, one submitted to Aeron and had his head smashed, and the last tried to take as many monsters with him as he could but became a mindless, formless monster before he died. Another man was literally crushed under the weight of a dozen or more monsters, and one more lost his nerve and fled into the waters. The ocean's current swept him away, never to be seen again. The worst was when one of the monsters swam past the Drowned Men and made it to the boat. Marak did not see what transpired, but it ended with the boat sinking, most of the thralls dead or transformed, and the mouthy one fleeing to Aeron's side, where he was given a dead man's cudgel and told to fight.
Marak was exhausted at the end, but alive. So few others could claim the same. He, Damphair, and the thrall were the only survivors. But through the grace of the Drowned God (and, perhaps, the Storm God, and maybe even some of the thrall's gods), the monsters lay dead. Their amorphous bodies were not easily broken, but when struck enough they simply fell dead.
The three survivors quickly swept the island. They found scattered items, clothes of the inhabitants, their tools and worldly possessions. One pile in particular interested the thrall; after Aeron stated that they might as well have paid the iron price for it, the belongings were divided up. Marak got a chain mail shirt and a tunic, as well as the weapons present—a sword, a crossbow, and some kind of strangely-shaped mace. (Or perhaps a scepter.) The thrall took the boots and breeches, as well as both rings. Damphair's choices were unusual—an amulet, a bottle, a rope, a hat, a pair of spectacles, and some strange device composed of a tank of fluid with some sort of rope attached to one end.
By then, the last villagers had come out of the large hut. An old woman leading a boy no more than ten, and a middle-aged woman with the eyes that spoke of deep loss. Damphair greeted them, and told them that they were safe, but needed to take the fishing boat to go elsewhere. Anywhere else. They agreed readily, thanking him, Marak, and the thrall profusely for their help.
The child interrupted them. "What were those things? Why did they come here? Does it have to do with the shadow man?"
Damphair turned to the child. "What 'shadow man'?"
The child explained, with the women filling in the gaps where they could. On the day the red comet appeared, a misshapen man—one afflicted with the formless curse—was dropped onto Ferrfeld's shores with a sound of thunder. After a few minutes, the man transformed into one of the ravening monsters Marak and the others had fought. The child, and apparently only the child, had noticed a man made of shadows walking around, before he was dragged into the hut by his grandmother.
A quick inspection of the island quickly found this "shadow-man," curled up in one of the other huts. He looked like a caricature made of solid black smoke, thin and crooked, with sharp features and dull eyes. The man was dressed in garb which looked similar to the pile which they robbed, from the chainmail shirt to the grimy boots to the jewelry. He lay there, muttering gibberish. He barely reacted to Damphair's voice, and when Marak struck the shadow-man with the sword, he dissipated for a moment before starting to reform. The shadow-man wandered out of the hut after reforming, before curling up in the large hut.
Damphair decided to bring the shadow-man with them. "If any of the monsters escaped," he said, "this man—or whatever he is—likely knows more about them than any of us."
"Could they have escaped?" the old woman asked.
Damphair's expression darkened. "We killed many of them," he said, "but we did not count. I believe we killed them all...but if one was swept away by the waves, or hid beneath the ocean's surface and swam away, how could I tell?"
These were the thoughts that occupied Marak as he helped the others load what supplies and useful items they could find onto the crowded fishing boat, and as they sailed for Harlaw with all the haste they could muster.