And so it was that Moogh, son of Moogh, found himself standing at the very edge of the ocean watching the water churn and tumble without cease upon the beaten sands. Having never seen or heard or dreamt of such a thing, he did not know what it was but assumed it to be an enormous river under sorcerous cast or some other dire and unnatural influence. For one thing, instead of moving in harmony alongside the land, the water was flinging itself upon the bank in frank opposition. For another, the far shore was completely hidden from view, and no river could be that wide without draining the world of its water in very short order.
He stepped forward into the waves, fully expecting that a simple disruption would dispel the illusion, but it remained, and the sand moved treacherously beneath his feet. He was forced to retreat back to land or risk tumbling in.
Moogh considered, then set his pack down and drew out the carefully packed kit his sister Oome had sent along. He untied the string that held the leather bundle closed and unrolled it under the burning sun. From its pockets he drew out a small blue stone and the dried flowers of the night herb, and he placed them gently in a small depression he pressed into the dry sand. If Oome had been there, she would have had smart and proper words to say, words she had tried and failed to teach him. In defeat, she had impressed on him the idea that intent was what mattered most anyway, so he knelt beside the tiny offering and bowed his head to the cursed river. “Be free!” he said, and waited with optimistic patience.
After some hours, he realized that the water had not changed, but did seem to be creeping steadily closer to him in a way he was not at all certain he should take as an encouraging sign. Also, he was getting hungry, his knees were sore from kneeling, and there was sand in places that might not work free until his annual birthday bath.
The sun had begun its decline from the sky, and the water still showed no signs of becoming less of an obstacle. He decided, with regret, that he would have to temporarily abandon his trek due west and instead walk alongside the water for a bit until either he outlasted or outpaced whatever curse made it seem to go on forever. He declared its true name to be the Tricksy River, and decided if he ever found the trickster responsible for it he might justifiably commit some minor violence upon their person, probably involving a stout stick and no small amount of invective.
By nightfall, the Tricksy River had still not given up its trick, so Moogh built a small campfire from gathered deadwood, roasted some scuttling things he caught near the water’s edge, and resolved to think of something clever to defeat the river if it had not exhausted itself back to normality by daylight.
He sat wearily upon the sand, slipping off his boots before laying his sword Grawk beside him. Using his pack as a pillow, he stared up at the sky and furrowed his brow the same way he’d observed in others as they tried to conjure serious thoughts. And so he fell soundly asleep.
Morning brought him awake with the raucous call of birds wheeling overhead. The pile of shell-shards he’d discarded from his night’s dinner had been picked through and largely scattered. He sat up, stretched, checked his sword and his pack and the dead embers of his campfire, then stood to survey his surroundings.
The Tricksy River remained as it was, still adamantly endless along the edge of the sky. The sand stretched away along it, curving in and out in gentle arcs and bows, broken only by a profusion of boulders marching down into the waves from the shore in a scattered line, not far ahead in the direction he’d been walking. On one of these boulders, a woman with shining blue hair was perched. She was watching him. She was also, he was further surprised to note, lacking in any and all apparent clothing.
It had been some time since he’d encountered any other people on his journey, especially on the long, lonely walk across the Hurtlands that had brought him here. Half of him was glad for the potential of brief company; however, the second half was unsettled by the obvious strangeness at hand. A third half was deeply peeved at not having even modest cover behind which to take a desperately wanted, first-of-the-morning piss.
There was, he figured, no dishonor in subterfuge in such a needful cause. So he threw his hands up, as if in great surprise and alarm, and shouted, “By the Fire and the Hammer that first forged the Moons, what is THAT BIG SCARY THING BEHIND YOU?!”
When she turned to look behind her, he spun around and dropped his pants, emptying his bladder as quickly as he was able. To his regret, it was not quite fast enough, and when he’d tied back together his pantlaces and turned to face the lady, she had her hand to her forehead in a too-familiar gesture of disappointment.
There was nothing for it but to pretend as if nothing had happened, and perhaps even as if she was not there at all. So he shouldered his pack more squarely, rolled his shoulders a couple of times, and continued his trek along the shore, trying not to meet her eyes, or in fact notice her at all.
Indeed, so diligent were his efforts to keep his focus on the distant horizon that he tripped over a rock and fell, earning himself a mouth full of salty, wet sand. This only furthered his resolve to believe himself alone, with no one at all to witness his clumsiness.
Soon he reached the line of rocks and began to clamber up and over, doing his best to remain oblivious to all but the shore stretching away ahead of him. “Man,” the woman said, startling him. He pretended he had not heard, but she leaned over from her rocky seat and stuck her face right in front of his. “Man!” She said again.
There was, of course, no polite way now to continue ignoring her. He stopped and again feigned surprise, as if he had not earlier seen her or ever spoken to her. “My lady!” he said. “Take care, this place is cursed!”
She peered at him, as if he was a puzzling thing. “Man,” she said, and held out her slender hand. In it, among the sodden remains of flowers, was the blue stone he had left a half-day behind him. He could not help but be aware that she too was wet, from her seaweed-laced hair down along her iridescent body, which was fine indeed and not something he should be gazing quite so rapturously upon as he feared he was. He lowered his eyes, and he noticed that her feet were oddly flat, her toes long and thin and connected by a fine webbed membrane.
“Did you leave these for me?” she asked.
That was a difficult question. Had he? “I left them to appease the anger of the river spirits.”
“...river?” The water woman asked. “Man, look at me!”
She said it with such command that he raised his face to meet her eyes, which were as black as the bottom of nightmares. “My lady?”
“This is the sea,” she said, and it was clear this was a point of some importance to her.
“See what?” he asked.
“The sea,” she repeated, and then spelled it out for him, which would have been more useful had he been schooled in letters, which he was not. “Not a mere, mortal river. This is the Sea of Tears, and were it not for your curious pebble, I would have sung you sweetly to your death in it already.”
“Hurmmm,” he said, thinking very hard about this. “Then yes, I definitely left it for you.”
“Did you come here, for that purpose?”
“No. I am on a quest, but I do not know how to cross. The water may be deep.”
“It is deep. Would you like to see what lies at the bottom?” she asked. Her eyes did not leave his, but there was a hint of a cold smile upon her ice-blue lips.
She began to hum, awaiting his reply.
Words failed him. The haunting notes, barely beginning to rise, were like water surging around him. The melody pulled at him, threatening to topple him off his feet and pull him down, as irresistible as fate itself. It was the warmth of Grawk, seeping through its scabbard across his shoulder, that brought him back to his sense of self.
“The bottom?” he asked, mightily confused. “Would you turn the river upside down, just so that I may see lost shoes and dead fish parts?”
She broke off her lovely tune and blinked at him in some surprise. “Do you talk to people much?” she asked, at last.
“None so lovely,” he said, and then considered that he should be careful in his answers. It would be most unkind of him to let this strange maiden be swept away by affection. Surely that was the warning Grawk meant to give him?
“I fear the sun has shone a bit too hard on you,” she said.
“No, I have a hat,” he replied, and drew out the red cloth his youngest sister Maon had hand-dyed for him as a gift of luck on his journey. He laid it across his hands proudly, to show her.
“May I?” She asked, and before he could answer she reached out and plucked it from his hands. She must have noted the immediate anxiousness on his face, because she leapt nimbly down from her rock and held it out to him. “Apologies, Man. I did not realize it was dear to you, to take it so casually.”
He reached out to take it back, and she firmly wrapped her fingers around his hand. Her touch was a pebble tossed in the calm lake of his soul, sending ripples through him, and he stared at her uncomprehendingly as she opened her lips and began to sing again, of storms and lost ships and dead men tangled in the weeds, their unseeing faces turned up towards the distant light. And all of it was, inexplicably, beautiful to him in that moment, his hand in her hand.
“Come with me,” she said, and he truly had no choice—nor wanted for one—as he dropped his pack and his beloved sword without thought on the beach and let her pull him into the cursed surf and down.
They walked until the water closed over them, and he found his head suddenly entrapped in a large bubble. When the sand dropped sharply away, she led him, swimming, and he saw that her feet moved together with practiced and powerful ease, seeming almost to have become one. He could still hear her singing, amplified and accompanied by the water around them, and could not think beyond how good his fortune was, to have found someone who knew the trick of the Tricksy River after all.
He kept expecting to reach a far shore, or at least the beginnings of its slope, but the water only grew deeper and darker, drawing ever tighter around him. The mysterious lady continued to lead him downward with her song, so full of comfort and confidence he could not help but be entirely trusting of her care.
“Surely, now you see,” she said, her voice clear inside his bubble. His feet dragged along the bottom, stirring up small forlorn clouds of sand that settled quickly.
“See what?” he asked.
“Look up, Man,” she said.
“Moogh,” he said. “I am Moogh, son of Moogh.”
“Then look up, Moogh!”
And so Moogh did. The water was like the twilight sky, stretching up and up through the dimness to where flickers of light penetrated. A multitude of fish dodged and darted in flashing clouds, like birds wheeling overhead, and ominous sharp-shadowed things slid along the floor around them in lazy circles beyond the reach of the lady’s voice. It was more water than ever should be in one place, something so vast he scarcely could find the words. She waited patiently for him to speak, to utter something profound in this moment. “Oh,” he said. “This is a very large river indeed.”
“It’s the sea,” she said, gesturing around them. “The sea.”
“As you say, so it must be,” he conceded. He hoped she would start to sing again, because he was beginning to feel cold and hungry, and only just realizing the foolishness of having left his sword behind on the beach.
“Are you just saying that to be polite?”
“Right. Where are you from?” she asked.
“The Village of Fah, in the Hills of Bairudoon.”
“Is that not in the Barbarian Lands?” she asked.
“You are very polite for a barbarian,” she noted.
“It is the duty of every man to embrace his nature but also live in harmony with the nature of others.”
Her thin blue eyebrows shot up. “That is surprisingly wise.”
“So I am assured, as our village Wise Man beat us with a stout stick until we could recite it back to him without error. I have not yet entirely learned what he meant by it.”
“I believe some small wisdom will come to you sooner than you think, and be a disappointment,” she said. She began to hum again, a tune that instantly reassured him that all was still well.
“Seesa!” someone called.
The water woman turned. Two more blue-haired people—a man and a woman—swam towards them in the dusky light of the deep. “You have brought a Man!” the new woman said.
“And he’s still aware?” the water man asked. He was fit and muscular despite his pearl-white skin, although not as large or fit or as muscular as Moogh himself was.
“I was just about to deal with that,” his water woman said, clearly peeved. “Moogh, come closer. I—”
“You know his name, Seesa?” the man asked. “Were you thinking to make a pet of him?”
The other water woman nodded her head. “He is quite handsome, even for a land-dweller. I can see why you might want to keep him a bit.”
“Aaf! I don’t—” Seesa began to object. Even in the dim light, the pink blush was unmistakable across her pale cheeks. Her words were lost, though, beneath the low, sonorous bellow of a horn that rang through the water around them. Moogh was certain it did not portend well, and the dire sound seemed to penetrate and dispel some of the happy malaise that had enveloped him since the shore.
“And that,” the water man said, “is the end of this nonsense. Sing him out quickly, so that we can drag him to the edge of the Great Trench. The kraken wakes.”
Seesa extended her hand towards his bubble of air. Moogh managed to muster enough willpower to push himself back from her. “Um...” he said. “Before you do that, what’s a kraken?”
“It is an ancient and terrible monster,” the other water woman, Aaf, said. “It sleeps in the deepest trenches of the sea, warmed by the fires of the earth, and stirs itself only to come up and feed. If we cannot find someone else to give it, it takes its victim from among our people.”
“It is our good fortune that Seesa found you, though not your own,” the water man said. “We will take your worries away from you, until your final moments. Your death will be quick and certain, and you will not suffer long. Understand, we are not a cruel people, merely desperately needful.”
Seesa began to sing again, and he recognized it as his own death-song, for surely that was what they meant for him? “Wait,” he said, barely able to resist the calm that threatened to drown him again, “why don’t you fight this monster?”
“Fight the kraken?” the water man asked. “It cannot be fought. It is deaf to our voices and compels such abject terror that all who see it are paralyzed and blinded with fear, their very souls crushed in an icy grip. We are utterly helpless before it. We can no more fight it than run from it, once it has set itself upon us.”
“Still,” Moogh said, “if my fate is to be eaten by this monster, I choose to face it and fight.”
“You really don’t want to,” Seesa said.
“What will you fight it with? Fists and teeth?”
“I had a good sword, until you bid me leave it on the beach.”
“Oooh, he has spirit, too,” Aaf said.
Seesa let out an audible breath. “You can’t have him, but you have a point. Laan, fetch him your trident and be quick about it.”
The water man made a shocked face. “No! How would I retrieve it, after he dies? The Great Trench is too deep! Aaf can give him hers.”
“I don’t have one!” Aaf said.
“Fine!” Seesa said. She put her hands together and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she outstretched her hands and a gleaming silver trident flew through the water to her, long and sturdy, ending in three wickedly sharp tines. She caught it with ease, swung it around, and then held it out to Moogh.
The sonorous horn sounded again, two long blasts, and the water folk all jumped at the sound. “Two notes,” Laan said. “The kraken is rising from the Great Trench. The Man must go now.”
“Where is this trench?” Moogh asked.
“That way,” Laan said, and pointed. “You really can’t miss it. Nor it you.”
Seesa put her hands out and Moogh’s bubble of air grew larger again, the air inside refreshed. “That should keep you for a little while,” she said. “Longer than that... well, I doubt air will be your biggest concern. Good luck to you, Moogh, son of Moogh, of the Village of Fah, and may you fight well and suffer little. Now go.”
He turned his back on them and began to march as best he could across the ocean floor, using his arms to help propel himself through the water. At first he wished he had the familiar heft of Grawk in his hands instead of the trident, and felt some justified irritation at how he had been compelled by supernatural means to abandon it, but as he twirled and thrust with the lightweight trident, it became clear that the sharp fork was a weapon well-suited to the depths. It had a cone-shaped guard on its haft that he had at first mistaken for useless frippery but now perceived that, in a direct lunge, it allowed for a smoother and faster motion through the waters. Any sort of slashing motion of his arm, such as Grawk was best intended for, was painfully slow.
So, then: stabbing it was.
The sand beneath his feet began to slope down again, gently at first, then more sharply. Then, suddenly, it disappeared, and he was left at the edge of an inky blackness that defied all attempts to peer into, and so thereby comprehend, its depths. What Moogh could tell was that there was a rush of bone-chill water swelling up from below, as if fleeing the path of something larger than his imagination could encompass.
Moogh shifted his footing back from the edge and tightened his grip on the trident.
It came out of the trench first as a wave of tentacles, swarming up and over the edge like snakes that grew and grew in size until they were as big around as Moogh himself and then bigger still. He stood his ground as they flowed past him and became so thick on the ground he was nearly lost among them.
Already he could feel the giant mind, bearing up on him, its thoughts reaching out around it like a nightmare on the verge of stepping into the daylight. Never before had he encountered such magicks, that the very mind of a predator should be unleashed upon him, but he understood now what Laan had meant when he said the water folk were paralyzed and helpless before it. The kraken’s fell thoughts swirled around him, as if it was tasting the mettle of his soul upon the currents. Behind him in the distance he could hear the tiny mental echoes of the water folk—men, women, children—overcome wherever they hid, their fear feeding and drawing the kraken towards them.
He could see, as well, the advantage that Seesa and Laan had tried to press upon him, that of being blissfully unaware of approaching doom until it was so strong and so near as to overcome the charms placed on him. In that moment his confusion and terror would have become a sudden beacon to it. But he was not charmed and could full feel its approach, and as well feel his own self dwindling under its awful fire.
And so, when a single great eye appeared before him, unblinking and ancient and awesome, he kicked off from the edge of the cliff and dove at it, trident held like a spear before him. The kraken reared up and back, but it was too late, and he plunged the silver trident deep into the center of its eye.
The scream—half sound, half thought—ripped him from the kraken’s head and flung him, stunned, towards the trench. Tentacles writhed around him in every direction. It was only as one slammed him against the trench wall that he realized that the terrible pressure in his mind had vanished with that one agonizing blast. He tried to swim up from the trench as another tentacle flailed into the wall, knocking rocks loose just below him. On inspiration, he grabbed for the tentacle as it passed, sinking his fingers as tightly as he could into the bluish, slimy flesh.
The tentacle reared up, back out of the trench. The kraken was thrashing, trying to find and crush whatever had blinded it. The silver trident still protruded from its eye, encrusted now in a seeping green ichor.
Moogh wrapped his legs around the tentacle and began to shimmy down it towards the kraken’s body, trying to stay clear of the thick line of pulsating suckers. Even in its distress it sensed the danger. Other tentacles whacked at him as the one he rode tried to batter him against the rocks. He twisted and turned along it, avoiding the worst of the blows and moving ever closer. At last, bruised and exhausted, he was near enough to grab the haft of the trident, tearing it free in an explosion of dark, viscous fluids.
He hit the sand at the edge of the trench and managed to scrabble his way up onto it without losing the trident. Pushing himself up, he tried to crawl far enough away from the kraken to look for another opening. If he had Grawk in his fist, he might have patiently hacked away the tentacles one by one, but he did not; further, his bubble of air was growing small and stale, and he did not doubt that if his next blow did not kill the kraken, he would not get another.
The only remaining kill point he could see was the creature’s great maw. It swung its blind head side to side, the mandibles on its mouth opening and closing in fury as its tentacles sought out its attacker on the sloping sands.
His only regret was not having been able to fulfill the quest that had drawn him to leave his village and the hills of home.
Bracing against a rock, he drew in what little air his bubble had left and sprang forward towards the enormous crushing jaws. As he flew into its mouth he heard behind him the horn of the water people, blowing madly in the distance. It was cut off by the jaws slamming closed behind him, trapping him in the pitch dark. Something giant and squishy slammed into him, trying to propel him towards the back of the kraken’s throat, and it was all he could do to slide around it to one side. He jumped on top of it and, as it thrust him backwards, used the kraken’s own force to jam the trident up to its guard through the soft roof of its mouth and tissue beyond, into the creature’s brain.
The reaction was immediate and unequivocal; Moogh was vomited back out of the kraken’s mouth with so much force that the trident was torn from his grasp, and he was nearly crushed by the awful velocity of his exit. He was already short of breath, growing dizzy within his depleted bubble of air, as, lost within the sticky mass of ejecta and blood, he was flung across the sea floor to an ignominious and painful landing in the sand.
In his last moments of consciousness, he considered that he had killed the kraken, even without Grawk at his side, and that it was not at all a bad legacy to leave behind, if not the one he had sought. He raised his fist through the vile muck in a final gesture of triumph and defiance.
Someone grabbed his hand and pulled.
Seesa and Laan were there. Hundreds of other water folk swarmed around them, making short work of the twitching corpse of the kraken as its body slowly slid back down the trench walls to the final depths. Seesa’s hand flew out towards his face, and in an instant his air bubble was renewed. “We came as soon as the kraken’s spell broke and released us,” she said.
“I fear I have lost your trident, my Lady,” Moogh said.
“You gave me a beautiful blue stone,” she said, “and saved my people from a centuries-old torment and death. I suppose we could consider us even.”
Laan swam forward. “It is to my shame that I did not lend you my trident, when asked. Please, I give it to you now, that it may serve you well.” He held out his own silver trident, and Moogh took it and bowed his head as best he could. It was a fine trident, the equal of Seesa’s, and although he did not foresee future occasions where a giant water fork might come in useful, it was no small gesture for a man to gift his weapon to another.
“You honor me,” he said.
“Please, though, if you will—I don’t understand,” Laan continued. “I mean, how did you overcome such terrible, unnatural dread, and not be held fast and helpless by its grasping mind? Surely it was not that you out-thought it?!”
“As strong as the kraken was, it could not overcome our natures.”
“I am a Barbarian of the Village of Fah, and my nature is to fight instead of to fear,” Moogh said. “It was a monster, and as such, its nature is to be defeated. For that is how it happens, in all the good stories told around the fire, so it must be so.”
“What if only the good stories are told because no one lived to tell the bad ones?” Seesa asked.
“Then I do not know.” Moogh said. He frowned.
“Do not think too hard upon it,” Seesa said. “You defeated the monster. It will make a good story to tell, and many will tell it, longer than either of us should be lucky to live. The far shore is beyond our reach and knowledge, but we can take you to the Middle Islands, where other Men of land live. They have boats. Perhaps they can take you where you wish to go.”
“Alas! Even for that, I would not willingly abandon my sword. It has been in my family for many generations, and is bound to my quest.”
“Then we will take you back to it, and wish you luck on your journeys,” she said. “There are other villages of Man on this shore, though they are some days’ walk away, and I warn you they may regard you with suspicion for carrying a weapon of the water folk. Is there anything else we can provide you for your journey, in gratitude?”
“Perhaps,” Moogh said. “The truth is, I may have to take my yearly bath sooner than planned. Do you suppose there is a part of this river calm and shallow enough that I might clean myself?”
“It’s the sea,” she said, then threw up her hands in defeat. “Never mind. Follow me.”
And she led him out of the deep and back to the beach, and best yet, to a small spring of fresh water that he might cleanse himself in. Grawk was where he had dropped it, and they were happy to see each other again, and when he had finished rinsing out all his clothing and hanging it carefully on the tines of the trident to dry beside the campfire, he told Grawk the story of his adventure under the water.
In the night, half lost in dream, he was sure he heard someone out among the waves, singing it back to him.