It was early evening on the docks of Vinay-Rin, a hot day with no breeze. Men perspired and dogs slept in the shade. The corpse of a Merlangai merchant rotted in the alleyway under the Sign of the Fish. No one attempted to move it. It smelled like molluscs and shrimp.
Gorel of Goliris sat at a table at the nearby No Way Inn. He wore his twin guns that bore the seven-pointed star of vanished Goliris. He was clean-shaven, relatively sober, and his boots, for once, were clear of mud. He was everything a half-decent gunslinger ought to be. He was about to go looking for sunken treasure.
He took a pinch—only a pinch—of the dust they called the Black Kiss and snorted it. He had been keeping the habit under check, recently. Ever since that botched job had taken a somewhat darker turn than he’d expected in that nameless kingdom where the White Queen ruled, when there’d been all that unfortunate business in the forest. He’d been running from his troubles for a while now, since the Zul-Ware’i mountains and the fall of Waterfalling, taking on odd-jobs, bounty hunting or monster killing mostly. All to feed the habit. Buying gods’ dust from the local priests along the way.
But now he was back. He was focused. His mind was clearer than it’d been for years.
He sat back, sipping on rice whiskey, waiting for his contact to arrive. He let the conversations carry on around him. The chatter of merchants, pirates, tradesmen and spies. The port city of Vinay-Rin stank like a decomposing, bloated corpse. It was an ugly, old, and ruined place, a cesspit into which drained all the disreputable elements of the World.
Gorel quite liked it.
“The shadow from the Black Tor grows ever long,” said a Nocturne sitting in her own pool of darkness. “Since the mage’s forces captured Waterfalling, his influence has grown tenfold.”
“They say the god of Waterfalling’s dead,” said a white-face. By his scarred cheeks and the company he kept—two silent, carapace-clad insectoid Ebong—Gorel had him pegged as a mercenary. There were a lot more of them around, these days.
“Waterfalling, the Zul-Ware’i range, mighty Tharat...” The Nocturne counted them out on shadow fingers. “He’s been amassing power like a greedy man hunts for gold.”
“They say he has no liking for gold, for all that he pays handsomely,” the white-face mercenary said. “That he cares not for money.”
“Then what?” said the Nocturne.
The white-face said: “War.”
There was a lull in the conversation, and a server glided amidst the tables, topping up drinks.
“War, yes... so I’ve heard,” the Nocturne said. She drummed her fingers on the table. “It could be profitable.”
The Ebong mercenaries turned helmeted heads. The white-face grinned.
“But war with whom?” the Nocturne said.
Gorel watched the others in the room. All sorts sat in the corners, or with their hats pulled down low. All sorts were here to listen, not just to talk. A wizened wizard near the jakes perked up then. He twiddled with an amulet of power round his neck and kept his voice low when he spoke.
“You heard of Stingbite?” he said.
The Ebong moved their heads again but didn’t speak. Gorel wasn’t sure the insectoid creatures were capable of producing sound audible to human ears. They communicated mostly by scent. They were vicious, ruthless, hard to kill, and in high demand.
“What’s Stingbite?” the white-face said.
“Was,” the wizard said. “What was Stingbite.”
“All right, what was it?” the white-face said testily.
“A small outpost on the edge of the Yanivian Desert,” the wizard said. “Out there in Apocrita land. Only it’s not there anymore. Something came out of the desert. Something, or some things. It was a military outpost. They had trained soldiers, wizards too. But whatever it was killed them all.”
“So what?” the white-face said. “That’s hardly news. People die all the time.”
“The Apocrita had gods,” the wizard said.
Gorel had met an Apocrita before. They were benign parasites, colonising and growing on the bodies of other species, riding them and using them as hosts. They were generally considered a highly civilized species, with a fine taste in wine and music and an almost fanatical devotion to the writing of poetry.
“So why didn’t they do anything about it?” the white-face said.
The wizard twiddled with his amulet.
The Nocturne, in her bubble of darkness, said, “Had.”
The crowd in the No Way Inn digested this in silence. Gorel closed his eyes. Images, from nowhere, came flooding into his mind.
The shadows from the desert came to the town. They passed silently, and anything alive they killed. When they came to the temple of the twin gods, an Apocrita priest—the insectoid parasite riding an elderly human body—confronted the invaders, raising a staff, and the stench of sorcery rose in the air, and the ikon of the twin gods came alive then, the gods rising to defend their land against the invaders.
The shadows neatly cut the priest’s human host’s throat. Then they stomped on the Apocrita itself, leaving a broken carapace lying in a pool of green slime.
They burned the temple as an afterthought.
Then they killed everything in their way, slaughtered soldiers and civilians alike, and left the bodies where they fell.
When dawn came there was nothing left of the town. It had burned to the ground in the night. Of the shadow attackers there was no sign, and when an investigative force arrived, a day later, they could find no trace of where the invaders had gone.
“Did you say something?”
“What?” Gorel opened his eyes. They were all staring at him strangely. He shook his head. “You think these are what the Lord of the Black Tor seeks to fight? These... things?”
The wizard shrugged. “Perhaps. But the World is large and full of strange and inexplicable things. Perhaps the Sacking of Stingbite means nothing.”
“Did you... hear anything more?”
The wizard stared closely at Gorel. “A word,” he said. “A whisper out of that desert. A single word.”
Gorel, his heart constricting: “What was it?”
The wizard said: “Goliris.”
It was heard more and more, these days. That whisper from some place so far removed from this corner of the World, it might well be in another.
Goliris. That greatest and most ancient of empires. Goliris, from whose throne the kings and queens of that land wielded enormous power, subjecting continents and oceans to their will. Goliris, of which all had heard yet no one knew, no one in this part of the World.
Only Gorel. And he remembered it still with every fibre of his being; for every cell in his body cried for his home. He remembered the vast halls of the palace, the scent of the sea beyond the black cliffs, the whispers of the eternal forest beyond the imperial city. He remembered sitting on his father’s knee on the throne.
And he remembered the night it had all changed. How his life was stolen from him, how his fate changed forever. The traitors, his father’s wizards. What eldritch bargain they had made he didn’t know, but he had heard the screams of the dying, and then they came, and took him, and flung him from there and across the World.
Now, forever exiled, he sought his home, his birth right, his throne. He would not rest until he found it.
“Gorel of Goliris,” a voice said, and a tall bluish-green figure slid into the chair across the table. “As I live and breathe on land.”
“Jericho Moon,” Gorel said. He stared at his old friend. The half-Merlangai’s eyes were hooded as though a film was cast over them. The gills at his neck opened and closed as he breathed. “I thought you were dead.”
Jericho grinned. His teeth were long and sharp, and there were far too many of them. “I thought you were.”
Gorel shrugged. “I see you got new teeth,” he said. He’d broken Jericho’s some time back, when they were both doing a job out on the sands of Meskatel. He’d had no choice at the time.
“You like them?”
“Who did the dental work?”
“Some backroom teeth farmer in Tharat, after it flooded. You remember.”
“They grow teeth on these coral reefs in the canals.”
“All right, if you say so. Anyway, yes, I do remember Tharat. You were working for Kettle.”
“The Dark Mage of the Black Tor,” Jericho Moon said, “should not be called Kettle.”
“That’s how I knew him.” Then the gun was in Gorel’s hand and pressed into Jericho’s stomach under the table. “Do you still work for him, Jericho?”
Jericho sighed. “No, Gorel. I’m freelance. Besides, I heard you’re the one who’s been doing his dirty work. Everyone’s heard of Waterfalling.”
Gorel made the gun disappear. He did not wish to discuss Waterfalling, or how Kettle had used him there. Kettle, who he’d known first as an itinerant seller of pots and pans. In this disguise the Avian mage travelled the lands he was soon to conquer. Kettle, who had been Gorel’s lover... no, he did not wish to think of the Lord of the Black Tor. Though sooner or later he would have to.
“So tell me about the ship,” he said instead.
Jericho motioned for him to huddle closer.
“Well?” Gorel said.
His old companion grinned with those disturbing new teeth. “After I left Tharat and the Lord of the Black Tor’s employ,” Jericho said in a low voice, “I went back to the Down Below.”
Outside, the sky slowly darkened, and the ocean waves lapped at the foundations of the docks.
“Down there?” Gorel said.
“I missed the breath of salt and the deep sea swell,” Jericho said. “And the great cities of the deeps—Nimrat, Moss Otul where the shark maidens dance, and the coral minarets of Issir-in-the-Gloom. While I was there—”
“Loafing about?” Gorel said.
“Doing a bit of this and that,” Jericho said, and smiled. “More of this than that, if truth be told. Took on a couple of jobs while I was there, to keep me in shell money.”
“What kind of jobs?”
“The usual. Let’s just say I won’t be welcome back in Little-Havfrue-Under-Waves any time soon. Not that I’d miss it, it’s a shithole. Anyway, on the last job I took, we broke into this old whaler’s house. The coral was dying all around us, the whole place was a rubbish tip. The old guy didn’t have much worth stealing that I could see, mostly books and old maps. I didn’t take any of that crap, but I did find a nice, long, very thin dagger. It was made of some black material I’d not seen before, Gorel. We had the old guy tied up to some rusted anchor out back and he was begging us to let him go, and the boss on the job sent me to shut him up. That’s how I came across it.”
“The map. The old guy kept promising me treasure if only I’d release him. He didn’t make much sense, but he said when he was very young, he was on a whaling expedition—you know whalers, they follow whale pods across the ocean and kind of, worship them or something—anyway he said they came across a black galleon ship, deep down. What happened after that I couldn’t really make it out, he said there were, well, ghosts, and things that killed the other men, and he alone survived. But he had a map, and he told me there was treasure. And there was this, Gorel.”
He took out a long, thin, nasty-looking dagger and passed it under the table between them. Gorel held it in his lap. The colour of the metal sucked all the light from the room. Gorel stared.
Etched on the handle was a seven-pointed star.
The ancient symbol of lost Goliris.
“Anyway, he told me where he hid the map and then I cut his throat with this very nice blade,” Jericho said. “Exquisite workmanship. And then we split.”
“You think it’s true?” Gorel said. “There really is a ship?”
Unspoken, on his mind, was the thought: a ship of Goliris. A ship from home.
Jericho Moon said: “There’s only one way to find out.”
It was a beautiful day when they sailed out of Vinay-Rin. The sea was as almost preternaturally calm, the sun shone in a clear blue sky, and gulls circled aft and cried overhead before diving to peck at the remnants of the dead Merlangai merchant still decomposing peacefully under the Sign of the Fish. As they passed the breakers and headed out into open sea, Jericho Moon held on to the ship’s railings, bent over, and threw up his lunch into the water.
“What’s the matter with you?” Gorel said.
“Just ate... something... bad.”
Jericho retched again, and his bluish-green skin turned ever greener. Gorel suppressed a laugh.
“I didn’t know your people got sea-sick,” he said.
“We live... under the fucking sea,” Jericho said. “Not over it. It’s unnatural is what it is.”
He tried to throw up again, but there was nothing left but a thin trickle of foul-smelling water. He spat into the sea.
“A fucking disgrace,” he said, looking down sadly.
The ship was named the Albatross—perhaps because it was large, ungainly on water, and its sails stained with soot. It had also survived twenty-two near-wrecks, several fires, and was once trapped for an entire winter in the enormous ice-sheets farther north, where the crew had been forced only somewhat reluctantly to eat each other. Or so the ship’s captain had informed them.
Gorel didn’t know about ships any more than he knew about swords, and more to the point he didn’t give a damn. It was simply a means of conveniently getting from one place to another, just as a gun was a means of killing someone as quickly and efficiently as possible. He helped Jericho back to his feet.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll buy you breakfast.”
He jumped out of the way just in time.
Life on board ship moved at a different pace to anywhere else. Gorel mostly kept to himself. Jericho had his crew—some twenty of them, too close together on the ship. Merlangai riff-raff, salvagers for hire, who took every opportunity to jump overboard and swim alongside. Among them, Jericho Moon, with his half human heritage, stood out, bigger and bulkier, a slower swimmer. Gorel well knew why he himself was there. Jericho wasn’t sentimental. He didn’t need a friend. Gorel was, simply, his insurance.
He’d interrogated Jericho in their cabin. “Exactly what did the old man say, before you cut his throat?”
“What kind of treasure.”
“Old treasure. The best kind.”
“How old a treasure?”
“What happened to the others?”
“What killed them?”
“What kind of things?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Well, what else did he say?”
“Because you cut his throat.”
Gorel massaged his temples. He took a pinch of dust. He had a limited supply. He was determined to measure it out. From time to time the craving flared, consuming him. In those moments he’d have given anything to have bestowed upon him once again the Black Kiss. He remembered the twin goddesses, Shalina and Shar, in that far-away land where the ghouls of the forest lived... Shalina and Shar, who kissed him and cursed him, forever.
“Explain this map.”
“I... can’t. It’s complicated.”
“What are these lines?”
“They’re whale migration routes.”
“Of course they are,” Gorel said. “What are the large green areas?”
“Poison weed fields.”
“And the round red-coloured things?”
“Volcanoes, I think. It’s an old map.”
“Volcanoes,” Gorel said. “In the ocean. Really, Jericho.”
Jericho looked at him and shook his head. “Wherever this is,” he said, “it’s a place of deep ocean volcanoes chockfull of deadly weed. It’s not an easy job, Gorel. It’s almost like this wreck, or whatever it is, isn’t so much lost as... well, hidden.”
“A ship of Goliris.”
“Presumably. Or how else do you explain the dagger?”
“I don’t know. I am not sure I like it, Jericho.”
“You don’t have to like it, you just have to survive it,” Jericho said, and smiled with those awful coral teeth. Gorel remembered him saying it before, back when they fought together in the Mosina Campaign. It was hard to believe they’d ever been so young, or survived this long.
“Anyway this is why I’ve charted a... floaty ship. Trying to get there through the Down Below would likely be fatal. I guess the old guy and his crew got there following whales, but to be honest with you, Gorel, I don’t even like whales. Anyhow, all we have to do is find the approximate site, and then we’ll dive.”
“How exactly are we going to find the approximate site?” Gorel said.
Jericho stabbed his finger at the map. “Right here,” he said. “I think I know exactly where this is.”
“What is that, a mountain?”
Jericho sighed. “Yes, Gorel. It’s a mountain.”
“There are mountains under the sea?”
“Yes, Gorel. And do you know what you call such a mountain, if the peak rises above the water surface?”
“What?” Gorel said.
Jericho sighed again and brought out a second map. This one was made of regular paper, not the thick woven reeds used in the Down Below. He put one map over the other and pointed again, where two features converged, one on top of the other.
“You call it an island,” he said.
They sailed for days, and the continent was left far behind them. The next nearest continent remained a far longer journey. Gorel had once seen an atlas of the World, compiled over several centuries out of the often conflicting maps of various explorers, geographers, astronomers, and mages. Some claimed as many as twenty-seven continents, though many were little more than a sketched outline that was otherwise left blank. Others said sixteen, or twenty-one, or seven. The truth was, nobody knew. The atlas was painstakingly detailed in its attempt to capture the World.
But none of the maps Gorel saw mentioned Goliris.
They sailed for days through endless water until there was no more land. Only sea remained. Beside Jericho’s crew there was the ship’s: a motley assortment of humans; Avians who flew over the ship and maintained its sails and lookouts; a lone Nocturne who haunted the cargo hold; a white-face cook whose only method of food preparation was boiling it until all flavour had departed. Gorel kept to himself. He smoked cigars and oiled his guns and bided his time.
On the seventeenth day out of port, they saw two dark-green islands rise on the horizon. Gorel felt the sudden tension as the lookout cried land. He sought out Jericho, who was huddled with the captain over maps. The captain, a leathery old man with matted hair, kept shaking his head with some force. “No, no,” he said. “There is no land here.”
“Perhaps we made good speed? Or drifted off course?”
“No, no. Not unless... but no.”
“Not unless what?”
“Oh, shit,” the captain said. He raised a shout, and an Avian rose from the deck and took swiftly to the air to scout ahead. The captain said, “Do you two have any enemies?”
Jericho and Gorel exchanged a glance. “A few. Why?”
“Does anyone... know about the purpose of this journey?”
Gorel thought of Vinay-Rim, and how it was full of people paid to listen to rumours.
He said, “Why?”
The captain said, “Because those aren’t islands. They’re—”
There was a shout. Far ahead on the horizon they saw a burst of smoke, followed by the unmistakable sound of gunfire. The Avian scout dropped from the sky. He fell into the waves and vanished in the foam. The captain raised a spyglass and stared. The islands were larger, and closer now. Weirdly, they were also wider apart. He swore again, softly.
Gorel snatched the spyglass. He looked through, adjusted the sight, looked again. He saw the islands, thickly forested; no beaches ringed them but smooth black stone. He looked closer. He could see buildings now, installations, gun towers. He stared at the shores. Not stone.
A shell, it was a fucking shell!
He moved the spyglass and saw a giant head peek out of what he had at first mistaken for a cave. Two reptilian eyes stared at him with dispassion.
He lowered the spyglass. The two islands were coming closer, converging now on the ship, one on each side.
He said: “They’re giant turtles?”
The attack was short and quick and merciless, with the sort of well-practiced efficiency Gorel rather admired. The two islands sailed close, locking the Albatross between them. He no longer needed the spyglass to see the giant turtles, their flippers moving in the water, their huge eyes staring at the ship as at an unappetising snack. Their shells were covered in earth and on this earth grew trees, and in between the trees moved people. Each floating island had its own small town or garrison, and Gorel noted gun emplacements and canons. He also noted they were now aimed at the Albatross.
“Do they want to negotiate, or—”
Cannon boomed. The ball arced across the distance and hit the deck, shattering the wood and sending out an enormous cloud of dust and smoke.
“I don’t think they do!” Jericho screamed. He and his men lined up and began shooting at the wave of approaching pirates with long blue-green tubes that fired canisters of white phosphorous. The spectacular explosions drove the pirates running back, and the turtle withdrew its head back into its shell and now remained to float there without further motion.
“Who are these people?” Gorel shouted.
The captain, reaching for an ugly looking sword, said, “The Yug-Nossah. Well, not the people. The turtles. Or rather, both, I suppose. They have a semi-symbiotic relationship. And not people, really. Well, it’s complicated. Shit. They shouldn’t be this far away from land! Unless somebody sent them.”
“Who would send giant fucking turtles!”
The captain glared at Gorel. “You tell me,” he said.
They were being shelled from both sides, now. Gorel looked around for Jericho’s men, but they were gone. The whole deck felt eerily deserted. Then he saw one tiny figure, for just a moment surfacing out of the water, near the eastward island. It looked back at Gorel and waved.
Which was when the giant turtle exploded.
That attack was short and quick and merciless too, with the sort of well-practiced efficiency Gorel rather admired.
It occurred to him, later, that it was almost as though Jericho and his men had expected to face something like the Yug-Nossah.
The eastward turtle had exploded in a huge cloud of shell and flesh and trees. The smell of cooked meat filled the air, and it made Gorel’s stomach growl. A scaly claw as large as a house grazed the side of the ship and landed with a burst of salt water and foam. When Gorel recovered his vision he saw that Jericho’s men had risen out of the water onto the westmost—now only remaining—turtle. Two dove back into the cave hole of the shell. What they did there it wasn’t clear, but they soon shot out of there, and out came the head of the turtle. It tried to snap at them unsuccessfully. Then Jericho, with a shout of triumph too weak to be heard over the distance, jumped onto the turtle’s long neck and drove two metal spikes through the tough skin, directly at the back of the turtle’s skull. Eldritch energy crackled between the two spikes. Jericho grinned in savage satisfaction.
From the direction of the island, all fire immediately ceased.
Gorel reached in his pocket, returned with a soggy cigar. He lit it up as the captain came and stood beside him, and together they watched as the Yug-Nossah sedately drifted their way.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the captain said.
Gorel drew on the cigar and blew out smoke.
“Yeah,” he said. “But how does your cook feel about turtle?”
The sun set, as always. The sky was painted in red and purple hues. The sea was calm, and gentle waves washed against the turtle-shell shores. Gorel of Goliris sat by the fire and watched the pirates bustle.
The island was small. Well, it was small for an island. Rather large for a turtle. The layer of dirt was relatively shallow but enough to support the roots of several species of trees. Birds lived in the branches, and there were snakes and ants on the land. There was no natural water source, but several small lakes and pools that formed from ancient dents in the turtle-shell filled up with fresh water whenever it rained.
The pirate-things were weird. They were, or had once been, people. Or at least, they had looked like people, from a distance. Up close, they had too many things growing on and, well, in them. What they really looked like, Gorel thought, was rocks that somehow resembled people, the sort of old sea rocks you got in the shallows, that were covered in hundreds of hairy barnacles and molluscs which grew over the years.
They were pretty handy with guns, though.
The pirate-things lived in a shanty town and took care of the cannon, and Gorel might not have known much about, well, things like the Yug-Nossah, but he did know about arms, and these were new, and well-maintained. Someone had to have been supplying the Yug-Nossah.
He bit into a chunk of turtle steak. Beyond the shore, in the distance, a whole swarm of sea monsters had risen to the surface and circled the remains of the exploded giant turtle.
“You knew they were coming,” he said, accusingly.
“Not... this, exactly,” Jericho said. “But something, sure. Maybe.”
“Why? It’s not Kett—the Lord of the Black Tor. If anything, he has too much of an interest in Goliris.”
“I know he has an interest in one thing that came from Goliris,” Jericho said, and smirked. “But you’re right, no.”
“Then who, you fucking fish?”
“I told you, not a fish! Mammal.”
“Stop trying to change the subject!”
“Fine! It’s just that, well... it might be cursed.”
“What might be cursed?”
“So what!” Gorel yelled. “You brought a mage, right?”
“Sure, standard operational brief.”
“So they could just un-curse it, right?”
“Not... exactly.” Jericho pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look, what do you know about the Drowned God?”
Gorel chewed thoughtfully. “I know he’s dead.”
Jericho Moon made a strange gesture. Gorel had seen him do it before. Like looping a hanging rope over a neck and... pulling.
Gorel knew gods. He needed gods. He needed faith the way others needed water or wine. He needed the gods’ black kiss. And gods needed followers to live. A god lived, like a symbiotic parasite, through its believers.
But that was the thing about the Drowned God.
He wasn’t, in any sense, a real god. He was dead.
They called it the Drowned God’s Heresy. That he was a god from Above, who went to the Down Below, and had to die in order to be re-born. His followers were many, and they believed that one day he would rise again. In all the World, no one else believed in gods who weren’t there—that, Gorel thought, would just be crazy. “It’s easy to believe in what is actually there,” Jericho had once told him. “It takes real faith to believe in something that isn’t.”
Gorel did just think he was mad, though. But he figured maybe the rules were different for those who lived underwater.
“Down there, the legend says,” Jericho said, and he gestured to the dark sea, “the Drowned God first descended into the infinite depths. This is where he drowned.”
“And you only thought of telling me this now?” Gorel said.
Jericho shrugged. “Would it have mattered?” he said. “You wouldn’t have come?”
Gorel inched his head, conceding the point.
“This part of the World is taboo for my people, Gorel. It’s under several protections. I’m afraid it’s only going to get harder from here on.”
“By protections, you mean sorcery.”
“I hate sorcery.”
“I know you do.”
Gore reached for his twin guns. He stared at them in the firelight. The seven-pointed star of Goliris shone on the handles.
He said, “Whatever it is, it can’t outrun a bullet.”
“That’s the spirit,” Jericho said, though he didn’t look convinced.
“Mmmmf!” Jericho said. He was sitting in a chair and his mouth was full. His gills opened and closed helplessly.
“I told you so,” Gorel said.
Two days after the Yug-Nossah attack they had spotted the island. It jutted ominously into the sky, its peak a concave mouth belching smoke and steam. A thick layer of clouds lay around the volcano, and below, the island was covered in dense evergreen trees. Ringing the island was a shore of dazzling white sand, and beyond lay the shallows, their water a beautiful green-blue, until they reached the depths of the sea and the floor dropped abruptly beyond the black rock breakers.
They had anchored the turtle some distance away from the island and used the Albatross to come ashore. When they landed on the white sand beach, the island seemed like paradise. Fish were to be had in the shallows just by plucking them out, and coconuts were lying on the sand, filled with sweet fresh water or, even better, the spongy white flesh of fermented coconut meat.
Gorel, his mouth full, said, “This doesn’t seem too bad.”
It rained. The rain was hot, the drops large and heavy. The Merlangai danced under the drops. Tiny insects scurried in the roots of the trees, and tiny crabs popped out of holes in the sand as the tide came in. Gorel found shelter under a natangura tree and Jericho came to join him.
“Tomorrow we dive,” he said.
“So what are we talking about here?” Gorel said. “Giant monsters? Re-animated corpses? Flesh-melting ghosts?”
“Let’s hope so,” Jericho said. “I’d hoped to avoid the island entirely but we need a base from which to start the search. I couldn’t find much out. They do say it’s haunted, though.”
“Haunted by what?”
“Excuse me,” a voice said. It was a polite, apologetic, yet strangely determined sort of voice.
They both turned.
A small brown-robed creature stood under the trees holding an umbrella. Water dripped down from the canopy above and fell around him in a circle.
The creature wasn’t one Gorel had seen before. It was small and rather thin, with a rodent-like face, a pair of spectacles, slicked-forward hair, and in one bony hand it was holding a sort of official-looking satchel.
“You are here on the Drowned God’s business?” the creature said, officiously.
“What’s it to you?”
“I am the Mid-Level Mogg of the Directorate of the Down Below,” the creature said. “Please state the nature of your business.”
The rain had ceased, or, in any case, somehow wasn’t there anymore. The beach, which had seemed so close a moment ago, was gone as well. Gorel blinked, but the sounds of the surf and of the rain and the merry shouts of the Merlangai had all faded, and the trees grouped around him in such a way that they resembled nothing more than a grey, drab corridor. The mulch on the ground now resembled a grey, dull carpet.
“Salvage operation,” Jericho said.
“Did you fill in the requisite forms?” the Mogg said.
A look of confusion filled Jericho’s face. “I’m sure I had them here somewhere just a moment ago...”
“If you don’t have the requisite forms, you must speak to the High Mogg in the Sacred Halls of Mogg,” the creature said.
“So how do we do that?” Jericho said.
“Follow me,” the creature said. “But there is rather a queue, of course, one does not simply get to see the High Mogg—this way, left at the next corridor, then a right, please don’t touch that, this way, left at the next junction...”
Gorel’s nose twitched. A fog had descended on his mind, and he trailed after Jericho and the creature, down the endless corridors of the Maze of Mogg. Sorcery, he thought. He hated sorcery.
“Let me shoot him,” he said.
“Shooting me won’t do any good,” the Mid-Level Mogg said, apologetically. “Just think of the paperwork.”
Gorel’s fingers itched for his gun. He drew it and put it to the creature’s forehead. “Make this stop,” he said.
“Not without Form 74-Sag,” the creature said. “Accompanied by a signed Form 17-Ud—”
The creature’s head exploded, and bits of brain and skull smudged the grey walls and spattered the grey carpet.
“Oh, dear,” someone said. Two further Moggs materialised beside them. “A Code 32-Musen.” He stared at Gorel accusingly. “You can’t shoot someone without filling in an Ud-72/ae-23 first,” he said. “Or you’d have to fill in a triplicate Incident Report Form available from Level 19, Sub-Level 3 West. Which is closed for lunch.”
“How long is lunch?” Gorel said.
“It is always lunch in the Sacred Halls of Mogg,” the Mogg said.
“Of course it is,” Gorel said.
The dead Mogg, he saw, was already fading into the carpet and the walls, becoming just another stain. The corridor stretched ahead of them.
“This way, please,” the new Mogg said.
Defeated, Gorel and Jericho followed.
How long they’d been trapped there, in the hallowed halls of Mogg, there was no way to tell. There were no days or nights in that place, only the same unchanging, unending twilight, the endless corridors, the grey carpet, the grey-dirty walls. Their feet trod endlessly along the endless floors. The voices murmured all the while, “For spells cast underwater see form 12-72-Ga as pursuant to Treaty 109 point seven—” until at last, days or hours later, Jericho and Gorel found themselves in a vast waiting room, and there they sat on benches.
There was one food stall there. It was never open. Jericho munched inconsolably on a piece of a dried fish.
“Mmmmf!” he said.
“I told you so,” Gorel said.
They waited to see the High Mogg. There were no doors and no windows. Whenever they tried to escape they merely found themselves back in the grey corridors. Sitting now, Gorel could see the other men from the Albatross, Jericho’s team, each sitting alone, at other benches, waiting. They did not acknowledge their leader or each other.
Gorel stood up. If only he could clear his mind... guns were no use here. He’d lost count of how many Moggs he’d shot. With each new one there was just more paperwork. He could no longer remember the Yug-Nossah nor the Albatross nor the smell of fresh air nor the taste of food.
He glanced at Jericho, who had taken a long thin blade out and was using it to scrap away at the piece of hard dried fish. Gorel stared at the blade.
“What is that?” he said.
“You need form 8-73 Musen for knives,” Gorel said. “Sub-Level 15 West.”
“They were closed for lunch.” Jericho scraped at the fish some more and then put it back in his mouth and chewed without enthusiasm.
“Can I see that?”
Gorel took the blade. He traced a finger over the seven-pointed star etched on the metal.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, a cold clear peal cut through the fog.
He had seen that star somewhere. The metal felt so cold in his hands. It sucked away all light. The Halls of Mogg faded around him and he was a child again, holding his mother the queen’s hand, walking through the ancient docks of dread Goliris.
He could smell the sea. It was always there, the water like a black mirror, upon which glided the enormous black ships with the seven-pointed star on their hulls. From time to time spells crackled in the air above the port. Wind-mages and speakers-to-whales and astrologer-navigators and sun-talkers and battle-sorcerers with the power to level whole cities. Goliris’s fleets sailed across the World and brought the civilising influence of the empire to its furthest reaches. They came back laden with the World’s goods; with all the riches the World had to offer.
The docks were a maze of busy industry, porters and loaders, supervisors and officers, and all moved aside for the queen and her son, this heir of Goliris. He could feel their eyes; even as they looked down or away he could sense them, their attention, their greed and fear and lust for power.
As Gorel watched, a trawler came into port with a giant squid caught in its net. It dragged the enormous beast behind it still alive, its eyes staring, its beak opening and closing without words. It was brought to port and set to, quickly.
They stopped that day in a quayside stall where a wizened old man with three eyes on his face served fried squid. Gorel held a chunk as large as his arm. The flesh was so soft and tender, fresh from the kill. The old man had used a black blade, standard navy issue, with the seven-pointed star etched on the handle. His hands moved quickly, dextrously, chopping off chunks of squid flesh from the giant arm that flopped on the ground. Gorel found himself hypnotised by the movement, the flash of metal, the rhythmic chopping, the pieces falling effortlessly into the hot oil.
Gorel of Goliris opened his eyes.
He stared around him, at the grey featureless walls, the grey ugly carpet, the waiting room. None of it was real. It was just another spell, another trap. Jericho still sat there, his lips moving over the same piece of dried fish. He was too far gone.
Gorel said, “I wish to see the High Mogg.”
Two of the creatures materialised by his side.
“Please take a number.”
“To make an appointment please fill in Form 46 dash 3—”
Gorel said, “No.”
He lifted the blade.
The creatures said, in unison, “Just think of the paperwork.”
He knew they couldn’t be killed, not here, not like this.
Instead, he wrapped his fingers round the blade. It was so very sharp.
The Moggs stared at him, their eyes inscrutable behind their spectacles.
Gorel drew the blade through his fingers.
The pain burst like fireworks in his mind.
It cleared away the confusion in his head. The walls seemed less defined. He thought he could see trees through them, and stars. A night sky. He drew the blade again. When he opened his palm it was flowing with blood.
The blood was real. It was his. He let it drop on the carpet. The carpet hissed and shrivelled underfoot, became the jungle floor. He saw tiny creatures scuttle and hide.
He said, “I am Gorel of Goliris.”
The small brown-robed creatures stood still. They adjusted their spectacles. “No,” they said, in unison. “No, it is impossible. There is no form for Goliris.”
Gorel held the bloodied knife. He stabbed at the nearest wall. The wall parted. Beyond it were stars, the sound of insects and free flowing water, the smell of mangrove swamps. He cut until he made a door.
When he turned the Moggs were gone. A giant thing stood there. It was made of all of the Moggs. Humanoid bodies writhing and merging together in a roiling mass. The wall behind Gorel attempted to repair itself, to shut out the stars and the world.
“I am the High Mogg,” the creature said.
Gorel drew his gun and aimed it. His bloodied hand enveloped the metal. He popped out the shells. His blood coated them. He jammed them back in. He stared at the thing before him. It was some weakened godling, feeding on unwary travellers. Before they’d arrived it must have been starved of faith. Now the crew all worshipped him, doomed to forever wander its maze in search of an exit that was never there.
“Do you protect the ship?” he said.
“There is no ship. You know not what you ask for. I cannot be killed—”
Gorel fired. The bullets, caked in his blood, tore through the High Mogg’s flesh. The creature screamed. The walls faded. Jericho blinked. His men stood from their benches, seeing each other again as though for the first time.
A howl of rage and pain, and a searing hot breath of wind, the stench of sewers and fish guts, and then the creature was gone.
Gorel found himself standing in a forest clearing. The volcano belched smoke up ahead. It was night-time, and the air was warm.
Beside him, Jericho blinked again. He stared at the dry fish in his hand and threw it away in disgust. He looked at Gorel. Gorel’s hand bled onto the forest floor.
“You know, you might want to put a bandage on that,” Jericho said.
They baptised Gorel to the Drowned God at dawn the following day.
A shallow rock pool, and tiny fish darted here and there and tried to nibble on Gorel’s toes. Gorel did not understand how any of it worked. It made no sense.
The Drowned God was dead.
Yet somehow, his priests still had power.
One of them stood over the pool now, holding a battered old book in his hand. The book was woven of reeds and was meant to be read underwater. The renegade priest was one of Jericho’s men.
He said: “And so it was that though the God had sailed for many weeks in sea Above, he was not deterred, for all that storms battered his way and the very elements, it was said, rebelled against him. For he had many enemies. Then the God came to his Domain and thought it well. “I welcome the Water’, he said, as his ship was torn asunder and he Drowned.
“The God and his Warriors descended to the Down Below.
“And he said, “I must die, for I shall be reborn.”
“And he bestowed upon his Warriors the Black Kiss of the gods, so that they might breathe the air in their new Domain. And so that they would not forget him, nor his Miracles. And as they went into their new Life, so did the God remain, to await His resurrection.”
The priest drew a breath. The assembled Merlangai hung their heads. The priest made the sign of the Drowned God, like looping a noose over a person’s head.
“Do you accept the Drowned God as your Lord and Saviour, so that he may claim you for his own?”
Gorel said, “Do I have a choice?”
The priest said, “We always have a choice.”
Gorel sighed. “I do,” he said, without much enthusiasm.
“Then by the power vested in me, and in the name of the Drowned God, I baptise you Gorel, to be welcomed by the Deeps and be sustained by the Belief in the One True God, amen.”
“Amen,” the assembled congregation said.
The priest waded into the water and knelt over Gorel. He held Gorel’s head and lowered him into the water. As the water closed over him, he fought the urge to panic. The priest leaned down, and his rough lips closed onto Gorel’s. His breath blew into Gorel’s mouth, into his lungs, and Gorel felt, for the first time in weeks, the shocking, exhilarating touch of the Black Kiss. His whole body felt alive then, aflame with need, greedy for pure unadulterated faith. His body shuddered. The priest pushed him down, deeper into the pool. He couldn’t breathe. The priest’s lips left Gorel’s. He tried to fight, but it was no use. The priest pushed him down.
He opened his mouth. He took a last, desperate breath of air. Expected water to come flowing in, to choke him, to end his life.
Instead he breathed warm, clean air. Gorel opened his eyes. Through the shallow pool he could see the distorted reflections of the men standing above, watching him. He could see the sun rising on the horizon and the movement of leaves on the trees. He breathed out, and in again. Every time he did, bubbles rose up to the surface.
The priest’s grip slackened, and he let go of Gorel.
Gorel rose back to the surface.
He took a shuddering breath of air.
“You are Reborn!” the priest said.
Everyone clapped, politely.
“What the fuck?” Gorel said.
“It’s a temporary measure,” Jericho said, “but it will do.”
They’d gone over it the previous night, but Gorel hadn’t really known what to expect. He was not a Merlangai, did not have gills, and for all their belief, they were not human; they were creatures who had adapted to living underwater.
Yet the ceremony had worked. He could breathe under the sea.
The Black Kiss coursed through him, so powerful that he nearly swooned. He had tried so hard to break free of his addiction, this time around. But the priest had just hit him with enough of the stuff that he knew he could not get off it again. Not anytime soon.
“Come on,” Jericho said. “It’s time to dive.”
Gorel rose from the pool and followed the Merlangai to the shore. He was handed a slim pack, weapons, a harpoon. The air tasted strange.
He followed them into the sea, and the water closed over his head. He took a breath, and he didn’t drown.
“How temporary?” he said. The words came out in bubbles. He followed the Merlangai down, down, beyond the breakers, where the island fell down into a smooth rockface with no bottom in sight. Gorel stared into the Deeps.
“Long enough,” Jericho said, complacently.
He dove down, and his men followed him, moving as quickly as fish. Gorel followed more slowly.
“Here,” someone said. They handed Gorel a rope. He held on to it for dear life and half-swam, was half-pulled.
Down and down and down.
The light slowly faded. Gorel, traversing the cliff face of the mountain, could no longer tell which way was up, which way was down. The sun disappeared. He was aware of things moving in the Down Below. Presences, some small, some large, of shadows fleeting at the edge of vision. For a long time he couldn’t see.
Then—some function of the baptism, the Black Kiss that was within him—his eyes began to adjust. Schools of fish, darting with rapid, precise movements. Two giant octopi, mating in a silent frenzy. A shiver of sharks passed the divers but did not attack.
They were climbing down a mountain. Down and down and down.
And Gorel thought. His mind drifted. He thought of the Yug-Nossah, for instance. Who’d sent the turtles? The defences on the island he could understand. That maze of the Mogg was old, had nearly done its job and held them there but for his blood.
And why was that? he thought. And why did the Yug-Nossah seem like something sent in haste, and newly armed at that...
Something felt wrong, and he worried at it.
This was meant to be just a simple job, standard salvage and retrieval.
A ship of Goliris, he thought. Something real, something concrete at last. Something to point him on the right way home.
How long ago? The empire had been ancient long before Gorel was born. And he, last of his line. His parents murdered, and Gorel flung across the World... he’d never found a trace of it.
Down below, a bright explosion. He flinched. The rope tugged at his hands, down, down. Flames shot up, lit the underwater vista.
“Volcanic eruption!” someone shouted up. The words rose up in tiny bubbles, passed him by. It was a long way to the surface.
In the eerie glow of the explosion he could see the bottom of the sea, at last.
He almost laughed. No wonder there had been hardly any defences.
There was no need.
The bottom of the sea was full of ships.
They stretched all the way from the mountain to the horizon, in all directions. Clippers and galleons, longships and dhows, dreadnaughts and junks and schooners and brigs. Fish swam amongst the dead ships, octopi and sharks made their living in their hulls and circled in and out of the portholes. The volcanic illumination appeared on the horizon like a false dawn. No wonder there was no protection, Gorel thought. How would you ever find just one thing, in a graveyard full of them?
He let go of the rope. Swam down. The men assembled on the sandy surface. A semi-circle. Grim-faced. Hands on knives. Gorel landed with a soft bump.
“What is this, Jericho?” he said.
“I... don’t know.”
“What is this!”
Jericho brought out the map. Gorel snatched it from his hand. Stared at it. It was useless, it was worse than useless.
There was that niggling feeling again, that voice in the back of his head. Trying to warn him.
This was a trap.
His knife hand rose. Jericho shouted, “Gorel, it wasn’t me!”
He turned. He wondered if his guns would work in water. He rather doubted it. They were strapped to his back in a waterproof pouch. He only had his knife. He and Jericho stood, back to back, together.
Jericho’s men surrounded them.
No, Gorel thought. Realised. They were never Jericho’s men.
The men held guns. They pointed them at Gorel and Jericho. Gorel had seen this sort of gun before. The Drowned God’s cannon. They fired ghosts.
He said, “Who are you?”
The priest who had baptised him took a step. “My name is Father Enoch. I am a servant of the Drowned God’s.”
“Who hired you?”
“No one hired us, Gorel of Goliris. We work for the God.”
“Your god is dead!”
The priest’s lips curled into a smile. “Until such time as otherwise,” he said.
And why did Gorel not like the sound of that?
“You’re no true priests!” Jericho said.
Enoch shrugged. “We are a new church, if you will.”
“You mean you’re renegades.”
“We seek only the Truth!”
“You hired Jericho to break into that old man’s home,” Gorel said. “And find the map. You knew where it would lead him. And knew that he would come to me. Why me, priest?”
“We can take you to the ship,” Father Enoch said. Side-stepping the question.
“The legend tells it is.”
“What’s in it?”
The priest shrugged.
“Something valuable,” Jericho said. His words bubbled out angrily. “You’re just cheap crooks.”
“Takes one to know one,” Father Enoch said, and his men laughed. “Besides, we don’t need you, Jericho Moon. Only your one-time partner.”
“Wait wait wait, hold on...”
Jericho made a swim for it. He jumped and twirled, and Gorel saw again his old comrade-in-arms, the one he’d fought beside in Mosina and elsewhere. Together they’d survived the sands of Meskatel and the horror that was found there...
The guns fired. Ghosts emerged. The souls of drowned sailors, suffocated, angry, and insane. Jericho swam; in his natural environment he moved as fast as a marlin. He vanished into the graveyard of boats. The ghosts chased him, howling insanity in a multiplicity of tongues.
The priest re-cocked the gun. Smiled at Gorel. “And you?” he said. “You want to try it, too?”
Gorel stared into the priest’s dark eyes. “No,” he said. “I think I’m good.”
It wasn’t as though he could get away. Gorel could barely swim, and they had guns. He didn’t need to be chased by any more ghosts. He had more than enough of his own.
The Merlangai began to move with purpose, pushing him with them. What did you call a group of them? he wondered. A murder of Merlangai. A litany. A swarm. It didn’t matter.
They swam over the wrecked ships. What did you call so many ships. A graveyard. The priest led them. The Merlangai moved fast, with confidence. They didn’t expect any trouble, not now. Gorel thought of Jericho. Hoped he would die quickly. He wondered how many other corpses littered this ocean floor.
Thought of his ghosts.
That day on the docks with his mother—the was air warm, Gorel’s hands were greasy from the fried squid and salt on his fingers—the workers studiously ignored the presence of the royals in their midst. Later, in his journeys round the World, Gorel would visit many principalities and kingdoms. Some were tiny, some were vast. But their rulers were different; had set themselves above their people in a way the royals of Goliris had not. In some way that Gorel, as a child, could not articulate and didn’t understand, the royals of Goliris were of Goliris, or were Goliris, like the rich dark soil and the deep dark forests and the awful dark secrets buried deep underneath the royal palace. As a child, Gorel could go anywhere. As the queen, his mother could be seen on her throne or in a roadside shebeen, consulting with the weapon-makers in the royal labs or discussing ancient spells with the librarians—or eating fried giant squid on the docks.
That day he saw a new ship come in, and he and his mother stopped and watched as it was being offloaded. He saw all manner of creatures and things in cages, hauled off the ship onto the docks. Some were human and many more were not. Remembering it now, he could not say that he had come across any of them again in his later travels across the World. But the World was large, and Goliris ruled across it.
Many of the caged creatures spoke and pleaded and screeched, without attention, and Gorel had watched them, fascinated; their attempts at invocations, their curious incantations, and he said, “What are these things?”
“Priests,” his mother said.
“What are priests?” Gorel said.
“People who worship gods.”
“Do we have gods?” Gorel asked.
His mother smiled at him, tolerantly, and pointed at the cages, and said, “We do now.”
“What is it?” Gorel asked now. “What is it you expect to find? What is it you expect to accomplish?”
“Answer an old riddle,” the priest, Enoch, said. “Satisfy an unsatisfied curiosity.”
Gorel whispered, “The Drowned God.” He began to laugh. His laughter bubbled up overhead. Eventually, it would reach the surface.
“Every legend has a kernel of truth,” the priest said, unruffled. They swam over a fleet of dreadnaughts, turned at a burst whaling ship, proceeded into the horizon, over seaweeds and canoes. Another volcanic eruption lit up the false sky.
“Who is the Drowned God?” Gorel said. “And where did He come from?”
“What is so funny, man of Goliris?” Enoch said.
“We did not have gods, in Goliris.”
“Everyone has a god.”
Then they saw it.
A break in the sea of ships. Nothing but fine sandy ground, not even weeds growing there. A clearing. As though some unholy power had kept the sunk ships from ever sinking... here.
All but the one.
It sat there all alone, majestic, lost, and broken. A black ship, with the white, seven-sided star on its side.
A ship of Goliris.
Everything happened rather fast after that.
They pulled Gorel to them and shoved him ahead. The priests, these spiritual renegades—whatever they were or thought they were—followed behind. As nervous as little boys.
Gorel thought of the story Jericho had told him. The old whaler—a fake, he must have been a fake—and the last people who had found this place. What had he said?
“What happened to the others?”
“What killed them?”
“What kind of things?”
“He didn’t say.”
Gorel walked slowly on the sand. With every step he rose into the water slightly, floated. He didn’t care. A ship. A real ship. No name on the hull. Only that star.
Something whispered in the water.
He thought he saw a shadow, but there was nothing there.
The nearest man behind him stopped. Clutched at his head.
“I don’t...” the man said.
It wasn’t clear what happened next. The man just... was both there and not there. He stared around but it looked to Gorel like he couldn’t see any of the others. He was somewhere else. The others reached for him but their hands just passed through him. “What is this place—” the man said. Then he began to scream.
Another whisper. Another priest or acolyte was taken. This time he just vanished. Gorel thought of red-fire prisons, of hells where the souls of the condemned were doomed forever to a suffering so terrible it could not be set in words.
Another, then another. Then Father Enoch jumped Gorel, his breath in water hot on Gorel’s skin. “Stop, make them stop!”
“So this is it?” Gorel said. “You thought I’d be your insurance? This was what you had in mind for me?”
“I’ll kill you now!” Father Enoch said. His knife was at Gorel’s throat.
Gorel just felt so tired. “I cannot stop them now,” he said. “I wouldn’t even know how to—”
Another whisper, and Enoch was gone. The remaining ones scattered, tried to swim straight up.
Gorel took a step toward the ship, and then another and another. Then rose. Then swam up the hull and onto the deck. Landed, gently.
The guards materialised before him then. And he remembered for the first time the story he’d heard at the No Way Inn, back in Vinay-Rin, at the start of journey. About that small and insignificant outpost called Stingbite, and of the shadows that had come out of nowhere, killed the Apocrite and their gods.
No, no, it couldn’t be—
He stared at them lined up before him as though standing to attention at a military parade. There were five of them; vaguely humanoid, featureless, mute. Automatons, golems, call them what you will.
Soulless, faithless, mindless.
They knelt before him, for he was Gorel of Goliris.
He ignored them. Went into the hold.
And found nothing.
Nothing but rot and bones, floating in the murky waters.
He saw the cargo hold, the prison bars that had been torn in rage, the burned remains of maps and weapons, the skeletons of crew members.
Something had been imprisoned here and had escaped.
It was a prison ship.
There was nothing here! Nothing to point him on his way back home.
He started to laugh. All this, in vain. He laughed and laughed, until he was crying.
But tears aren’t visible under the sea.
Gorel left the featureless guards there to their useless guarding. He stood away from the ship, his back to it, watching that silent graveyard. A new explosion lit the false sky, and far in the distance he could see a pod of whales swim past.
“Well, that didn’t go as planned.”
He didn’t turn. Jericho Moon swam up and stood beside him, and together they watched the dance of underwater sunrise.
“No,” Gorel said. “No, I suppose it didn’t.”
“You all right?”
“I’m still alive. You?”
“So I see.”
“I hate ghosts,” Jericho said.
“...me too,” Gorel said.
“Come on,” Jericho said. “I’ll help you up.”
“You’re coming too?”
“I thought I might avoid the Down Below, if only for a little while.”
Gorel nodded. Fleetingly he wondered what it was that’d been imprisoned on that ship, and where it had gone. Gorel missed home. He had been searching for it for a long time, and it seemed he was destined to keep searching. Would he ever see Goliris again?
He kicked and rose into the sky. Jericho swam beside him. Two tiny figures, fired like twin bullets from a wrathful gun, shot up into the heavens.
Two tiny figures, slowly climbing that enormous gulf from the deeps to air and light.
Two tiny forms, ascending.
In memory of Gardner Dozois, for his encouragement, support, and faith throughout the years. I’m glad I got to write you one last story.