I awoke in sweltering and humid darkness. There was a stench in the air of mold and putrescence and I was lying on what felt like damp stone. To my left was the only thing visible in the black: a tiny shimmering speck of golden light, like a firefly moving slowly and steadily towards me. With great effort, I pushed myself from the ground and managed to stand. As the golden light grew nearer I could discern that it was made up of many smaller points, each shimmering independently.  Lanterns - at least fifty of them - hanging upon poles and dangling from the mast of a small boat.

     The boat swayed as it moved towards me, and something shuffled on board. A croaking voice called to me and a webbed hand waved, beckoning me to climb aboard as it passed. I stepped onto the slick wooden deck as it glided quietly past me. The vessel tilted with my weight, sending the multitudinous lanterns swaying on their tethers. I saw the thing that had invited me aboard as it climbed its way up the sail-less mast to relight a lantern that had extinguished. It was a diminutive thing dressed in rags and stinking of liquor. As it climbed back to the deck, I saw the face of the wretched creature. Frog-like eyes set above a wide slit of a mouth that was lined with tiny needles of teeth.  It would grant me passage, it said, if I would assist in keeping the lanterns lit. The creature uncorked a clay jug and began swigging the noxious clear fluid from it. It offered me a drink of the vile stuff, which I politely refused. With a shrug, it finished what remained and hurled the empty jug over the side. I turned as I heard the jug splash somewhere in the darkness. When I turned back, the creature was handing me a long thin pole with a lit wick upon the end of it. It told me to get to work as two of the lanterns had already burned out as I stood. It was time to hunt for dinner, it said, and drew a small wooden bow and a quiver of arrows from a box on the deck. How the creature, who was swaying with intoxication, planned on hitting anything in the dark from the deck of a moving vessel I didn't know. As I reached to light the nearest lantern, I saw the creature scurry up the mast and perch on top. It began singing some sort of drunken limerick as it tied a string around the shaft of an arrow. No sooner had I lit the nearest lantern then two more had burned out on either side of me. I lit the closest one, then moved across the boat to the other, steadying myself on the lantern rods along the way. All the while, the creature sang in its sickly voice and drunkenly fired arrows into the dark. I stepped up on the bow of the boat and reached to light yet another lantern that had gone out. I heard a shrill squeak from the darkness, and the creature began pulling its line back in. Skewered on the arrow at the end of the line was rat the size of a small dog. It shrieked as it writhed on the deck of the ship, the arrow shaft buried in its side. The creature continued its unintelligible song as it placed the bow and quiver back into the box and removed from it a small hammer. With two quick strikes, the rat was silent. The creature admonished me, as three more lanterns had burned out while I watched it dispatching the rat. I returned to my work.

     The creature had never told me where the boat was bound for, and I had never asked. I kept the lanterns lit and it hunted the rats that scurried and swam outside the glow of our ship. It would skin the animals, gut them and throw them whole onto the coals of a small brazier. I resisted the offerings until I was on the edge of starvation. Even then the sour and gamy meat was unappetizing. We had nothing to drink aboard the boat but the horrible liquor the creature swilled from the jugs. I eventually partook even of that once thirst had taken my voice, but I could only manage a few swallows of it.

     I don't know how long I was aboard the boat. Days, possibly weeks, I imagine. I slept on my back at the opposite end of the vessel from where the creature would slaughter and cook the rats. I would watch the lanterns tilt above me and listen to the sounds of the small waves along the side of the ship. At times it was almost pleasant.

     I was awoken by the creature poking my midsection with an arrow point. I had to wake up, it told me. As I sat up, I saw through the darkness something approaching along the side of the boat. It was a small door, set into a stone wall. The creature told me to get up, that it was time to go. I stood and gathered my wits as we grew nearer to the door. When it was alongside us, I stepped off the deck and onto the stone floor. I grabbed the door handle as quickly as I could, as I was afraid I'd be unable to find it again once it had passed outside the light of the boat. I turned to thank the creature for offering me passage, but instead of a goodbye, it began its drunken song once again and returned to lighting any lanterns that had gone dark. I stood silently and watched as the boat moved away, its light shrinking in the distance and the sound of the creature's voice shrinking with it, until all was silence and darkness again. I opened the door and stepped through it.

 

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