The map of Atleos spread out on the wooden table was almost finished. Reardo sketched relentlessly in the flickering glow of a candle with only a fingernail’s breadth of whick left, connecting the last stretch of coastline they had sailed that day to the northern shore of Jackwing Bay. The small body of seawater was surrounded in a wide embrace by a snaky peninnsula. The route of the Shira Atleos was drawn in a dotted line sweeping back and forth across the whole continent. Reardo remembered every day of day of the journey in its own legend. It was the work of nearly three years of exploration. The yellowed parchment had seen better days—torn at the edges, crinkled from perhaps a thousand foldings, and the upper-left corner singed from a fire on the ship. Many maps of the world had been charted before, but they had been drawn based on assumptions, rumors, or cultural bias. Reardo had laughed when he saw the maps of the other kingdoms; each one seemed to have the greatest territory and put itself at the center of the world. Now he was about to show them for the fools they were.
Finally he set the quill back in the ink pot, sat back in his chair and examined his work. What he saw was so astounding he bolted up from his seat and cried out.
The mainland of Atleos was symmetrical! The continent was a crescent turned on its back like a smile, its two points extending north in thin penninsulas that broke up into a trail of islands leading into the cold north. Reardo seized his compass and ruler and he took measurements, scaling every mountain, lake, and island. True enough, every landmark had its match in a precisely mirrored location. Even the climate was symmetrical; a patch of jungle surrounded by two distinct mountain ranges on the southwestern coast showed itself equally opposed on the southeastern coast. Reardo released a breath of wonder.
A swift rap came on the door to Reardo’s quarters; Sanjin, Reardo’s first, came into the room. The man was tall and lean, akin to the tribal folk who delt in the deserts far inland, with a studded-leather quiver slung to his back. He’d been the greatest archer among his people.
“Look here, Sanjin!” Reardo exclaimed, waving a hand to bid his ally closer. “Study the map and tell me if there you can’t find anything peculiar about the shape of Atleos.”
Sanjin glanced half-heartedly at first, but as he peered closer, his brow furrowed with puzzlement. “It do remind me of a water drop,” he said flatly.
“It’s exactly the same on both sides!” he shouted, beaming with the thrill of discovery. “See Jackwing Bay in the east? Look westward, and you’ll find the Sea of Nymilium is its exact mirror.”
To Reardo’s disappointment, Sanjin’s angular features hardly registered a fragment his of enthusiasm. “How could the mountains and seas all line themselves up like an old maid who do be choosing threads to weave in a quilt?”
“Exactly the same question I’m asking myself,” Reardo shot a finger up at the roof. He was very glad Sanjin had asked. “If the shifting of tectonic plates is responsible for the current formation of land and sea, a popular theory among Atleans today, then are the chances they aligned themselves into this pattern? Could it have really been designed?”
The hull of the ship creaked and the candle flickered weakly. The idea was so profound they allowed it to simmer in their minds for a minute.
“I swear, you be either very bold or very stupid to defy teachings that have been uttered by theoretical naturalists for over three hundred years,” Sanjin finally replied. “If we were in the mainland, Lord Belteshar would have your head off your shoulders. You know how he do feel about ignorance.”
Reardo grumbled, not so much at Bathemos’s unbearable pessimism but at the extent to which tyranny and corruption had darkened his own country. Ignorance was the new word for treachery. Another reason he became an explorer, to flee political hostility.
“I’m not saying theoretical naturalism is wrong,” Reardo replied. “Whether the world spontaneously formed or if it had been designed, there must be a perfectly rational explanation for the peculiar shape of Atleos. We, as men of reason, simply have to find it.”
“And where do we find it, sumê?” said Sanjin, referring to Reardo with his native word for “friend.”
“In the one place we haven’t yet gone, the only place left no man has ever been,” Reardo glanced back at the map and pointed to the heart of the vast ocean inside the arms of Atleos. It was left blank and seemingly empty, because while much of the voyage had been spent sailing along the shore and aroudn the northern archipelegos, they had never taken the Shira Atleos into the ocean. He traced his index finger slowly, starting from their current location and bringing it slowly up north. A fierce resolution stirred within him.
“I’m going to cross the Ocean of Avalon,” he said.
The rising sun struggled to shine through the solid slate-gray fog that sat on the surface of the water. It lay over the port city sprawling on the rocky ridge above the shore, wreathing through the streets and shrouding its lights.
Atleos had become a world of mist and fog in the last one hundred years, both in its politics and climate. They would roll in without warning, at any time of day, and mask whole countries in such thick mist it made travel impossible. The fog today, Reardo could tell, wasn’t that bad, though it certainly wasn’t a laughing matter. Their cause was a mystery, save that the fogs had an ominous habit of arriving in the darkest of times and places—battlefields, famines, sometimes even over a castle before an assassination. Theoretical naturalists had explained the fogs away as changes in the air due to man’s disruption of nature. Reardo had never disagreed, but his discovery from the map of Atleos that previous night clouded his brain with doubt.
Reardo stood alone on the deck of the ship, gazing out towards the north. A salt wind swept through Reardo’s long, rusty hair, pushing the fog inland. The Shira Atleos slowly bobbed beside the dock, a proud glittering vessel set among a row of dull splintery sloops. Besides the dismal pall, it was a gorgeous morning. At least it never spread further beyond the mainland; the curse appeared restricted to land. It would only be a few minutes of sailing before it gave way.
He crossed the deck and peered down over the railing. His crew kept busy with the final preparations, shuffling up and down the gangplank with loads of food and rum. Then he spotted Sanjin coming up from town, not carrying a single thing. It irked Reardo and he marched down, pushing through his servants, and met him on the cobblestone walkway. Instead of flinging into a rage, Reardo put on a pleasant guise.
“I see you’ve come back from what must have been a pleasant stroll through the marketplace,” Reardo said conversationally. “Now why weren’t you here to help stock the ship?”
Sanjin’s strong face tightened with indignation. “You truly be readying to start another voyage? We just moored in last night! We will need at least a week for restocking and maintenance. I will not be forced in this manner.”
“And I will not wait a whole weak,” Reardo snapped back. “If we sit around even a day or two, at least one theoretical naturalist will want to know where we’re headed. If they find out what we’re doing, we’ll all be excecuted before the sun sets!” He briskly walked back towards the gangplank, unaware that Sanjin wasn’t following.
“I am not going.”
Reardo froze in midstride. He glanced back, incredulous. “Is this a joke?”
“No, sumê, that be why I had to think it about it for so long.” Sanjin faltered, casting his eyes at his feet.
“But you were the first man to join my crew,” said Reardo. “We’ve charted the whole continent together. Why now?”
Sanjin’s swarthy features remained stonelike, but Reardo knew from long experience traveling that he was deliberating. At last, he shook his head. “I cannot, sumê. I think I do come to the end of my travels. I cannot leave my family and my clan longer than I already have.”
“I’ve taken you for granted, and I apologize. It’s just that we’re on the brink of a major discovery, and I’ve been preoccupied. You’ve become more than just my first mate. You’re my greatest friend, Sanjin. The Shira Atleos needs your skill with the bow. Just think, when this voyage is finished, we’ll turn every theoretical naturalist on his head!”
“That is exactly what I’m afraid of,” said Sanjin. “I joined you because I thought we would be doing good for this world, and I was looking for adventure at the time. But what you be doing now is more than just dangerous. No man did ever know what reside far in the ocean — whatever be waiting for us might kill us.”
Reardo stared. The disappointment seared him, but he didn’t let himself betray it. He realized that Sanjin was right; there were great implications for continuing the project. Theoretical naturalism justified Lord Belteshar’s reign. As long as his armies remained stronger than the subjects who they ruled, he reserved the priveledge to do whatever he pleased, and there was no hope save their own strength that the serfdom could have any say about it. But if the tyrant’s philosophy were dispelled, if Reardo found reason for the peasantry to believe in a power greater than their sovereign, it could mean dissent, or even worse—revolt. So of course Lord Belteshar would reach out in all his power to snuff out a speculation that even remotely threatened his power.
“But we are doing good for the world,” said Reardo, placing a hand on Sanjin’s shoulder, his voice gentle with assurance. “If there lies a secret in the ocean that could give my people hope, wouldn’t it be worth sacrificing our lives?”
To Reardo’s satisfaction, his words struck Sanjin’s strong heart. He clasped the raven’s feather on his beaded necklace and seemed to pray, torn between two dire needs. “If you do believe our mission is just, then the spirits of my fathers will be pleased. I do give you the service of my bow one more time.” He unslung the bow from over his shoulder and presented it to Reardo, as if offering a precious gift.
Reardo beamed. That in and of itself was another giant leap towards his dream.
They returned to the docks as soon as the last crate was carried over the gangplank. Three crewman out on the docks untied the ropes and swung from shore to the hull of the ship, a acrobatic feat only a veteran sailor could perform. The Shira Atleos, freed from its bonds, veered out into the bay and plowed through the azure waters. Its masts bloated from a fierce gale and the sharp prow pierced and parted the miasmal fog. It wasn’t until Reardo glanced back and saw the spired shapes of the port city vanish into the mist that he fully experienced the finality this voyage would bring.
The fog didn’t reach out far into the ocean; only the land of Atleos appeared burdened with its curse. It gradually disappated and fell behind the ship in time to see the sun sinking into the water in its full bronze splendor. A fleet of wsipy clouds sailed the sky and seagulls soared over the shimmering water. It was a sight Reardo had taken in so often throughout the three years of the exploration, yet now he looked out upon it a new wonder.
“Who could have designed all this?” he mused.
One of the archer’s arrows launched into the bleeding sun, arching for an extraordinary distance, diminishing until it struck a seagull. The black dot quivered and fell into the water. “My people believe in a spirit of creation,” said Sanjin, “a being comprised of all life and substance around us. He exist as a lifeforce, gives the righteous strength and the wicked ailment. Those who pass into the earth be bound to become one with him once again.”
“But you just killed that bird.”
“I be a little low on faith lately.”
Reardo glanced to Sanjin beside him. He was sullen, his eyes cast down towards the folding waves, glossed over with lusterless sadness. Perhaps the journey really had taken too much out of him. He just didn’t have the same drive as Reardo to discover anymore. But they couldn’t turn back now.
His thought was interrupted when he heard a soft thud under the deck. Reardo flashed a puzzled expression at Sanjin. Sanjin raised a brow. He’d heard it too.
“We couldn’t have run aground yet,” said Reardo.
“Mayhap there be a sunken island beneath us,” said Sanjin.
Reardo turned and found a man dumping the chamber buckets over the railing. He was probably twenty years older than Reardo, his hair and beard were braided with bright beads. “Sigs, go down and check the depth marker.” The depth marker was located near the ship’s rudder, consisting simply of a rope marked along its length and a lead weight tied to one end. One needed only to drop the weight and let it unravel until it hit the seafloor. Reardo had improvised the device himself. It wouldn’t give any accurate depth while the ship was at full speed, but it could still work to measure if the waters were shallow enough to be dangerous.
Sigs looked up and blinked at Reardo, as if surprised. Sigs stared blankly past Reardo until the command registered, dropped the bucket clumsily over the railing and scuttled away.
“These men are getting more and more incompetent,” Reardo grumbled. “You’d think a crew you’ve commanded for years would become loyal, maybe even love me, but I’ve only seen them getting dumber and slower.” Reardo suddenly felt uneasy. “You don’t think it’s a symptom of mutiny, do you?”
“I did see many clans split apart in my days, each war as bloody and grueling as sawing off the infected limb of a wounded soldier,” Sanjin replied, “and you also did see your fair share of failed rebellions against Lord Belteshar. It takes more that a few dimwits to bring about an uprising. We all be just tired and frustrated, but I be still here, right?”
Reardo wanted to feel assured, but he couldn’t. “I—”
“By all the powers, what is THAT?!”
Reardo and Sanjin whipped around at the sound of the terrified cry. Sig had cried out, and he staggered backwards from the railing, away from a giant lobster crawling up onto the deck, as long as a man is tall. Its rust-colored chitin was splotched with ancient barnacles and coral, water spilling off its rising body as if it hadn’t surfacd in eons. It raised its arms wide in a bizarre welcoming gesture, as if it intended to give its prey a hug, opening claws wide enough to lob a man in two. Its open mouth overflowed with tiny pincers moving frantically for any morsel of meat, babbling in a vaguely human voice, one that said hello and asked if it could help itself to a small serving of his flesh?
“Get away!” Sig screamed pitifully. He swung at the monstrosity. The blade grazed one red armored claw with a dull chop like chopping wood, leaving a shallow scar in the chitin. The force of his own blow made him stumble over on his back, but the creature showed no sign of pain, didn’t even seem to notice, just kept jibbering and drawing closer to Sig. Sig wailed and crawled on his elbows.”Powers above, someone HELP ME!”
Before Sig even finished his plea, an arrow struck the creature’s shoulder, successfully lodged in a fleshy spot between segments of chitin. Its alien shriek punctured the air and the garbled nonsense changed to confusion and rage.
Reardo turned to find Sanjin already nocking a second arrow.
The lobster lunged to strike Sig, but Sanjin’s arrow leaped and soared clean through the lobster’s babbling mouth and out of its back, carrying bits of chitin through the air with it.
The sea monster shrieked again and swayed. Its speech changed from anger to despair, accusatory mumbling as slimy blue blood pumped from the spitting mouth. At last it convulsed with death pangs, once, twice, and then fell limply, the head thudding an inch from Sig’s toes. Within the course of six seconds the sudden confrontation was over.
There was shocked silence among the crew, and Reardo could hear the waves again lapping against the ship. Sig still lay curled up, balling hysterical broken-up prayers. He continued for some time, until he peeked up to find the lobster dead. Then he got up weakly, still mumbling deleriously, and fled into the cabin.
Reardo moved, pushing men aside and approached the lobster carcass. Despite the puddle of blue slime spreading over the deck, the lifeless compound eyes staring wide and dumb on the cocked head, and the antennae wilting like dried up roses, he felt incredibly uneasy trusting it was dead.
Sanjin stepped passed him, kneeled by the corpse and wrenched his arrow from the shoulder. He studied it with displeasure but wiped it with a rag and sheathed it in his quiver anyways. “These sure not be looking like the kind of catch our fishers make in the mainland, eh sumê?”
Reardo gathered the courage to touch a claw with his boot. To his relief it didn’t begin snapping widly on its own or bring the monster back to life. “Good thing it isn’t. I don’t think a steel cage could have trapped this monster.”
Around them, the crew began to linger off, their murmurs the beginnings of new rumors that would flourish by the next morning. Reardo ordered four men to dispose of the carcass and clean the blood. He noted their lethargic obedience, their begrudgedness, again reminding him that he had both sea monsters and mutiny to deal with.
“It do make me wonder what the nature of this creator of yours could be,” said Sanjin, a hint of darkness in his tone, “if it would create such a horrible creature.”
Reardo looked up at Sanjin. It certainly raised a lot of fearful questions, ones he was sure to ponder for the rest of his life, unless there was anything else in the Ocean of Avalon besides water.
The winds had shown the Shira Atleos favor until the dawn of the third day, when it abruptly flagged and now blew against the masts, forcing his crew to row under the deck. He’d put Sanjin in charge of the oars; his drum’s steady DRUM…drum…DRUM…drum below Reardo’s cabin shivered the light of his newly lit candle, steady as if it were the heartbeat of the ship, and occasionally punctuated the rhythm with threats of being thrown to the horrific lobster creatures.
Once again Reardo sat in his dim quarters, utterly engrossed in the map of Atleos and its remarkable symmetry, pouring over the mystery whose secret could unlock the difference between salvation and damnation for all his people. He spread the compass over his chart, marked their position and drew another straight dotted line from the previous day. Despite the betrayal of the wind, they had already progressed a hundred leagues closer to the heart of the sea.
But he already knew there were worse things to worry about than wind.
For starters, there were the lobster ceatures that paid them a visit every night, crawling up onto the deck and probing the vessel for meat while everyone laid silent in their cabins, evey door barred and locked and propped with chairs and chests. No man dared venture out onto the deck after the last sliver of sun vanished into the sea. Even during the day, the shadows of the lobsters beneath the water circled the vessel in silence, waiting. Even now, Reardo could hear them outside, conversing in their excited alien tongue.
If threats from without were not enough to put the voyage in jeapordy, Reardo also counted those within; they’d nearly run out of food. The first night the lobsters emerged from the deep, the cargo hadn’t been locked, and the monsters tore open the wooden crates into splinters and ransacked the salted beef and wine until morning. The sight of the riven crates and unedible scraps spilled onto the floor sent the crew into outrage. Since Reardo noticed Sig’s reluctance several days ago, the crew had clearly grown more bitter and reluctant. It was then that he’d seen the true direness of their outrage, and Reardo realized he had far less time than he’d thoguht to set them under control. He and Sanjin had hardly managed to keep them together, but after the commotion settled, Reardo remembered the swarthy man, on his way down to the oars below deck, casting a fierce glare straight at him. Despite his loyalty, even his greatest companion was being stretched to his limit.
Whose side are you truly on, my friend? Reardo wondered that whole night.
Reardo listened. The chatter of the lobsters had fallen. They must have given up their nightly plundering and fled back into the sea. That brought a cool wave of relief through his whole system. But it also meant that dawn was breaking, and he was shocked to realize he’d spent the whole night examining his maps, though it was without shame. Then Reardo noticed something else, something that alarmed him so much that he stood up from his chair.
Sanjin’s drum had stopped beating.
That only meant his men had quit rowing, and the ship stopped moving.
Before he could contemplate what all of it meant, someone pummeled at the door from outside, obviuosly intending to bring it down. Yelling and shouting erupted. Reardo cast a search and found his rapier, the ruby studded in the crosspiece glinting in the candlelight, against his cot. He seized it narrowly in time for his door to splinter, snap, and fall flat with a hollow thud and enraged sailors to come barreling into his quarters, barefooted and half-crazed.
Reardo didn’t bother with words, only brandished the rapier straight before him and set a stern, confident air, hoping it would affect the men. But they gritted their teeth and their own dull, serrated blades bristled around him, and before Reardo had fended back four of his own crewmen, his legs were yanked from under him and Reardo toppled, weaving to avoid falling onto his own sword. Then he could not help but shout and spit curses as they swiftly snatched him by the wrists and ankles, lifted him, and dragged his face out onto the deck.
He couldn’t move his neck as the wood gashed bloody splinters into his face; he could only see crowded bare feet, all pounding and kicking him as two men brought him across the deck. First he felt oddly relieved they didn’t kill him, until he realized they may be preparing a more ceremonial fashion of executing him.
They reached the middle of the deck, and by that time Reardo was in a half-daze. Two of his men propped him up on his feet so that he wavered drunkenly. His back was against the mast. With blood and splinters masking one side of his face, Reardo dimly recognized the figure standing before him as Sanjin. Of all the consequences he’d forseen, Reardo wished down to the raw pits of his heart he’d never seen this one coming.
Sanjin folded his arms and shook his head, full of pity. “I did never wanted the voyage to come to this, but it had to be done.”
“You led them in mutiny,” Reardo said hoarsely. Then he was angry, seething, and it brought a sudden vigor to him. “You, my second, led my own crew in mutiny! You’ve lost your mind, Sanjin!”
“Lost my mind?” His eyes widened with shock. Then he gave a short, disbelieving laugh. “Sumê. Sumê! You be the one whose lost his mind!”
Sanjin grew calm. He approached Reardo, knelt, and spoke in a voice soft yet firm. “I was on your side when this be a simple mission to chart the homeland and enlighten our people. But now it be changed—you be changed! I bet you spent the whole night looking at that silly piece of parchment, while we did slave under the deck to bring us across an empty ocean, not to mention risking all of our lives to the sea demons that be coming out every night!”
Reardo felt shame, but no way in the eternity of eternities would he ever show it. “You simple-minded fool!” he replied, and turned his face to spit blood.
“This is so much more than that! I know there is something in this ocean, something no man has ever seen, that could completely undermine every fact and theory man has ever compiled in his history!” It occurred to Reardo that he was yelling, and showing animosity would only make the bitterness between him and Sanjin greater and worsen his already-dire situation. He spoke his last words softly, sincerely meaning to be a friend once again. “Trust me only a little while longer, and I promise we’ll all uncover a secret so grand it will change the earth forever!”
It didn’t work: Sanjin clenched his teeth, visibly repressing an urge to smite Reardo’s face. “We do not care about your secrets or discoveries anymore. Let them sink and crumble under the depths of the sea, for all they’re worth. We want to go home!”
All the men on deck cheered at once, flinging arms up in the air, widly cheering. “Bring us home! Bring us home!”
“And if you do not bring us home,” Sanjin continued, turning back to Reardo, “I be keeping you tied to that mast until sundown.”
“Do not fear,” Sanjin replied, standing up and staring down firmly at Reardo, “we do lock you up in your quarters before the lobsters come out tonight. This may be mutiny, sumê, but we still be civilized and merciful aboard the Shira Atleos.”
With that, Sanjin whirled his back at Reardo and marched towards the high deck where Reardo’s steering wheel waited. “Traitor!” Reardo screamed as Sanjin walked away. “You fools have no idea what you’ve just done!”
The sun climbed from the horizon, casting a red blaze on the water like glass heated in a furnace, and Reardo kept shouting and writhing against the mast through the entire morning. Sanjin veered the ship all the way around towards the fog-ridden continent. As morning gave way to noon, he shouted himself hoarse, yet no one on the deck listened, only scurried about to the swift orders of his second from atop the high deck.
Soon Reardo collapsed and gave way to labored panting. He hung his head to one shoulder and rested.
The day was still clear and bright, but there lay an eerie stillenss on the waters and in the air. That more than worried him.
He looked aside and sure enough caught sight of black thunderheads gathering over the east, building into a dark tower, rapidly approaching to challenge the immense brightness of the zenith sun. It was a superstorm, and at the horrific speed it was coming, it would be upon them within the hour. He smirked.
Would Sanjin know how to handle the ship in a hurricane?
Sanjin peered down from his perch behind the steering wheel and spotted Reardo’s grimace. “What be so funny, sumê?”
Reardo nodded towards the massing clouds. “It appears you have a slight problem on your hands.”
Sanjin cast his eyes in the same direction and gritted his teeth, but besides that betrayed no sign of frustration or panic.
“So what are you going to do about it?” Reardo asked, maintaining his sly and bloodied smirk.
Sanjin remained for a moment, staring eastwards, and for a moment Reardo was sure he might give up right where he stood. Reardo called out to him. “You don’t have to guide the ship through a storm alone. I can help you.”
But Sanjin flashed a defiant glare, one that struck Reardo even from so high up. He leaped from the steering wheel and did what any charismatic captain would do, and ordered all hands on deck and secured the masts. Reardo dared not admit it, but he was impressed with Sanjin’s handle on the crew. By the fogs of Atleos, how did he manage to gain control of all my men without even my realizing it? He wasn’t even sure whether to admire Sanjin or hate him even more. Either way, he knew they wouldn’t be letting him go anytime soon.
As clouds as black and solid as obsidian tumbled closer across the sky, an ominous wind swept over the ship. The dark storm wall enveloped the sun and their shadow swollowed up the ship in darkness worthy of challenging the night. A thunderclap shook the boards under Reardo’s feet. The ocean seethed, spitting up onto the deck in sharp waves. Reardo waited; any moment now and the ship would be tossed aside like dice in a giant’s hand.
But to his further astonishment, the storm did not unleash its fury. It seemed only to be passing over, and wouldn’t threaten to destroy the ship after all.
Reardo had been hoping for an excuse, any excuse, for Sanjin to release him, but now there wouldn’t be. His voyage truly was doomed. Reardo looked up at Sanjin, who flashed a victorious sneer; his disappointment must have been obvious.
Oh well, Reardo thought, at least I’ll make it back home alive. Reardo sighed with relief.
There was another bump against the hull, not hard, but enough for the deck under their feet to murmur and sway.
Reardo quickly glanced back up at Sanjin, and found him also wide-eyed with the same horrible realization.
All at once the lobsters swarmed the deck, splashing up onto the ship garbling frenziedly in their alien tongue, and Reardo’s men hardly held back the onslaught. Quickly they backed away into a tight crowd as the sea demons launched themselves at their prey. Reardo caught sight of Sig poking his sword at one, but didn’t find himself so lucky, as the creature lunged at Sig and furiuosly bit into his face. Sig howled, but three more joined the feeding frenzy and piled on him.
Reardo screamed and writhed, calling out for someone, anyone, to cut his ropes, but everyone scrambled past him, either avoiding the lobster claws or loosing limbs or worse as the demons came upon them. A nearby lobster craned its head and spotted Reardo. It cocked its head in a curious gesture, babbled gleefully, and rushed towards him. Reardo kicked and screamed even more furiously. It closed in and snapped and deep ravine in Reardo’s thigh, and he shrieked with the agony.
Before it could do further damage, three arrows struck the lobster’s chitin hide all at once, knocking it to the ground in a wild twitching fit. Reardo felt hands working at the ropes.
“What do be going on?” Sanjin growled. “It be not even dusk yet and the sea demons be already awakening.”
“It doesn’t need to be night, apparently,” said Reardo. “The storm has blocked enough sunlight to let them come up.”
The rope fell and Reardo struggled to his feet. Pain flared all along his right leg and he found blood pumping from the wound. Sanjin grabbed him and helped him up. For some reason, it made Reardo feel like fisting the archer.
Reardo saw men climbing up netting with giant lobsters pincing after them, and men hiding behind barrels hopelessly ripped to pieces.
“Sumê,” said Sanjin, “I am sorry.”
Thunder groaned overhead.
“It’s too late,” he declared dismally. “They’re going to kill us all.”
As if summoned, nearby lobsters finished their meals and turned towards the cartographer and archer. Their antennae probed and their hysterical conversation deafened them.
“Creation still do favor us,” Sanjin said, assured beyond the point of belief.
And as if he, too, had made a summons, the black clouds above flickered and flashed. A thick bolt of lightning speared through the ship, fountaining riven splinters. Several lobsters flared up and squealed, then fell to the ground as lifeless charred husks. As the lobsters closed in, another bolt of lightning struck nearer, incinerating more of them and rocking the ship. The smell of their fried meat made Reardo’s mouth water.
Reardo shouted for joy and then one last lightning bolt engulfed Reardo’s world in blinding white light.
Then there was impenetrable darkness.
Dull awareness crept through Reardo’s mind. The sweet-salty smell of the sea entered his nostrils and a sharp pale light bled weakly in the crack between his eyelids. After a struggle, Reardo opened his eyes.
He woke up in the sand of a lonely beach, hugging a board of wood riven from his ship. A wave swept over him and he coughed and spat, lifting his neck. The pale light shown from the rising sun to his right, but it was a bizarre sun, outlined with an alien glow that shown like amythest. A hedge of tangled wilderness began about a hundred strides inland. Reardo rolled over and saw the sand glittered with pearlescent purity, like no sand he’d ever seen. He fingered it with dazed fascination.
He planted a fist in the sand and limped to his feet, his brain buzzing. His torn clothes draped from his body and he was soaked to his very bones, split by pain as if he’d fallen all the way from the heavens, and the agony in his right leg nearly sent him to the ground again. The wound still gaped open, inflamed by the salt in the water.
There was no fog here.
Reardo turned away from the otherwordly sun and began a wandering hobble along the beach.
Splintered planks, crates, and other remains from the ship littered the shore. He passed by many human corpses washed in, as well as several blackened lobster carcasses. They were more than dead, but their delinquent chittering still echoed in his ears. Seagulls flocked over the wreckage and picked at the carrion. He cast a bleary glance towards the water, where he saw more wood and corpses floated far out and carried in with each gentle wave.
After a distance, he came across the pole that once held the largest mast and the crow’s nest fallen across the beach, protruding from the water at a haphazard angle. The mast, ripped and scorched, blanketed the sand. He walked across the sailcloth. It was here he found most of the corpses of his crew.
Some were intact, but more than not he found limbs and entrails strewn so vastly it was impossible to identify their owners. One body even hung itself over the pole, holding on with a death grip that almost seemed as if it still had a powerful will to stay alive.
He heard a gurgling noise somewhere behind him, and he looked back. The corpse hanging onto the pole slipped and fell onto the cloth with a splash and a pained groan.
Reardo limped to the body, dragging his burning leg. The man lay on his back and Reardo knew the brown, swarthy features of his traitorous friend Sanjin.
Sanjin gurgled again and retched seawater, his eyes shot open, and he came to life in a fit of gasping and coughing. When he finished, he squinted up at
Reardo and grimaced.
“You ought to kill me,” he said, and then his features contorted in agony. He lifted his left hand; all the fingers were missing, sliced at a precise angle from pinky to thumb, and blood still ran thinly from the stumps down his wrist and forearm. “Powers curse those lobsters,” he moaned.
Reardo kneeled and tried ripping part of the sailcloth, but it held together. He felt useless without his rapier.
“Do not even bother,” Sanjin groaned, “I be useless without my hand. I will never wield a bow again. Leave me here, sumê, just leave me for the birds and sea demons.”
Reardo didn’t listen. He searched and saw the archer’s quiver still held an arrow, retrieved it, and sawed away at the mast, ignoring the archer’s complaints.
The silver steel arrowhead that pierced through lobster armor like a rock smashing glass cut the mast easily and he tore out a strip from the fabric. Sanjin trailed off as Reardo wrapped his hand with the bandage. When Reardo finished, Sanjin studied his hand with dull displeasure while Reardio tore off more sailcloth to bandage the wound in his leg.
Then it occurred to him that he had lost everything. His maps he’d worked years charting, now he could never present them before the Court of Atleos.
Howver, the situation wasn’t as dire as he might have supposed. He would be fortunate just to make it back to the mainland alive.
“We need to eat,” said Reardo. “I wonder if there is anything left from the ship?”
Sanjin looked over his shoulder and Reardo followed his eyes. There were a number of crates lying about the beach, but they were all torn apart either from the lobsters or the storm. Somewhere else two seagulls fought over a human foot in a tussle of flying feathers until a third swooped and snatched the leg from both of them.
“There’s our answer,” said Reardo glumly.
“What about the lobsters?” asked Sanjin.
Reardo’s stomach lurched. The idea of eating the lobsters was horrifying. “We can’t. Their meat could be poisonous.”
“I do also say it could be, but we be too weak to catch a gull. It be either risk the lobster or starve. If I am to die, I would rather die quick than slowly.”
Reardo glanced wearily at the seagulls, and it seemed they were more ready to eat him than him eat them. He couldn’t argue with the archer.
They crawled to the nearest lobster carcass, and Reardo fonud that the archer’s arrow cut nearly as easily through the charred chitin as it did the cloth. He wrenched the husk open and pulled out a strip of glistening white meat. It was still warm in his hand, cooked thoroughly by the lightning.
He looked to Sanjin who had already finished wolfing down a handful. So Reardo ate gingerly, then hungrily, and prayed to whatever creator watching over him that the meat wouldn’t kill him.
They were still alive by the time they had their fill, and just in case the meat wasn’t poisonous, they filled a sailcloth sack with rations. One helped the other up and they trekked across the shore, laboring shoulder-against-shoulder into the forest at the top of a shallow rise, leaving the cries of the feasting birds behind.
The land progressed in a steady rise while the jungle grew thick, yet it was silent; no howling animals, no birdsong, not event the drone of insects. It was silent, an island only for the plants. Flowering vines laced the narrow stalks of palm trees, their wide leafy blossoms unfurled in shades of crimson, jasper, and cerulean. As Reardo’s shoulder brushed one scarlet flower speckled with blue, the bulb contracted back into the vine. He noted it with only mild curiosity before moving on.
Their passage through the jungle was brief. The foilage dwindled away as they came to a clearing at the summit of the hill. As they climbed higher Reado could see this was an island, for water glimmered on all sides below. The surrounding jungled hedged the site from the rest of the island.
At the top the crest, the hill was shaved off into a circular plateau of smooth stone about twenty strides across. Four monoliths stood in each corner, crowning the hilltop. The cyclopean structures curved wickedly like talons with each sharp point drawing converging vectors over a gold altar in the center of the stone floor, lustrous gold which beamed under the white shine of the sun. Reardo wandered to the edge of the stone grounds, his throbbing leg becoming a distant thing.
“This do be a very strange place,” said Sanjin, with a touch of fear.
“It is the place we have been looking for this whole time,” said Reardo, filled with eager wonder. Their voices echoed dangerously. He stepped into the shallow basin. As he did a rising wind stirred the dust of the rock, its sound like a whispering madness.
The stone floor was carved with what seemed to be a vast and intricate pattern, the shape of a meteor plummeting from the heavens, but Reardo quckly made it out. It depicted the world of Atleos. The altar was placed in the heart of the Ocean of Avalon, precisely the location of the island under their feet.
Entranced, Reardo wandered further and further into the ancient site, towards the looming altar. Around him was stone which had survived all Ages, had stood impervious and unchanging in the chaos of the universe. They sensed it existed outside of everything, and yet presided in the nexus of everything.
Somwhere here, Reardo knew, laid the origins of Creation.
“This is it!” he cried, so suddenly it seemed to shatter the air. “This is the place where it all began! The theoretical naturalists are wrong. There really was a creation, and a creator, tracing back before the beginning of time, and these ruins prove it.” He laughed, overjoyed, yet it pierced the sacred silence like blasphemy. “But then… who made this place? I must know the answer.”
Sanjin suddenly shouted from the edge of the stone ring. “Stop, sumê! There be blood all over the stone!”
Reardo looked and found a thin dripping trail of crimson trailing from his leg. His bandage had come loose ealier. He wasn’t sure what would happen now. He set his eyes back onto the altar and approached it, unaware of the malevolent blackness growing in his eyes. It called to him. Reardo reached his fingers out for the altar.
The world flickered into a distant time and place. He saw vast civilizations sweeping the world with magnificent cities of skyward spires and sun-glowing deathless lands, a legendary people who dominated and mastered all knowledge. It was a nameless age, one so far beyond his own it transcended cognition, which terrified Reardo, yet these pillars remained as they always had through all, and his gaze held on it. He watched as men found it, but they could not remove the altar, prizing it for its gold, and so left for their homes. One man happened to have a skin-wound, and a drop of blood fell onto the stone. No one paid it any mind, until they returned to hear a whole town had disappeared—not simply abandoned, but erased, leaving behind a huge blotch of transparent nothingness which none dared to venture. From then on, they kept the golden altar a secret.
Their secert, however, did not last. Reardo watched as rumor drove men back to the golden altar, and the altar’s function as a world-destroyer was confirmed. Whoever owned it would be God. Men could trust each other no longer; suspicion, terror, and greed broke the world and nations competed for the golden altar. Reado watched those spires crumble, legions perish in valleys, and all hope left him. Nations warred until one remained, and from that cities split and fought among themselves, until the golden altar fell into the hands of one man. It did not matter who, for he executed his brothers and washed the stone with their blood; in turn, the world vanished, wiped away and left like a clean slate. He was free to design a new world into whatever image he found pleasing.
But this wasn’t the first time it had happened. He watched this same story play itself indefinitely, different worlds and different players, but it always ended the same: blood spilled on the stone pattern killed that world, and the victor forged a new one, until they were in turn defeated and wiped clean from the memory of the earth. Blood flooded Reardo’s vision, time wiped it up, and blood ran again, over and over and over. Oceans and planets of crimson passed Reardo’s sight until withered bones grabbed him and dragged him under fathoms of endless blood.
He watched the creation of his own world, as an exile draped in dirt and rags, starving and mad, forgotten and left to die on the island, stumbled into this very same glade. He’d discover the terrible secret of the altar and bled himself to the edge of death until his own blood covered the entire stone table. The madman brought forth his own world, Atleos, and the pitiful little hermit became a god. He shrouded his domain in fog and set himself as it’s demigod ruler since the dawn of time, and guarded the island with the sea demons spawned from his twisted imagination.
But blood would be spilled again.
It was only a matter of time.
The vision ended with the sound of Bathemos screaming. Reardo lay on the ground staring up at the pale sky. For a lingering moment, his skin felt hot and wet and the tang of iron remained on his tongue. When he craned his neck back up, however, it was only sweat—except for his leg, which bled freely through the bandage and a small pool spread slowly across the stone table towards the altar. When he brought himself up, it was like lifting the sky upon his back, his body trembled uncontrollably from blood-loss.
Sanjin came to his side and picked Reardo up with an arm roped with dark muscle. “You did faint,” he said, “mayhap from all the blood pouring out of your system, you fool.” As the archer lifted Reardo, something far out in ocean caught his eye. A great wall of blankness quickly moved towards the island with the ominous loom of a storm. No substance, no shape, and no form, yet it devoured everything. The nothingness played tricks with Reardo’s eyes that him nauseous, and he looked away, back down at his leg. His eyes followed to the blood seeping close to the altar. He shoved Sanjin away, fell to one knee and wiped it with his palm.
“What do you be doing?” Sanjin demanded. “I be only trying to help you. What do you have to make it so hard for?”
But Reardo ignored him. When he finished he stumbled back onto his feet and looked to the horizon again. As he had hoped, at the same time he cleaned the blood the blankness came to a halt.
“And what do you be looking at?” Sanjin said, trying to steal Reardo’s view with a glare of vexation.
Reardo didn’t answer; the lousy desertman’s questions were getting annoying, irritating. They nearly drove him into hitting him again.
Presently, Sanjin followed Reardo’s eyes and stared out with him. He gasped. “Powers…” He fell silent for a minute. Then his voice was soft and broken, and he did not turn to face him. “Did you do this?”
In that small moment, a powerful idea stole Reardo’s mind. It had been piecing itself together ever since he awoke on the island, perhaps even before that, but now he’d come to a sudden conclusion. He really could fix Atleos. He could set everyone free from Lord Belteshar’s iron rule, dispell ever lie of theoretical naturalists, resurrect that age of glory and make Atleos into a paradise for everyone. There would be no more evil; he would use the golden altar for good.
“Sumê? You be there?” Sanjin talked at him, but his voice was fading at a distance.
It would take a sacrifice. Lifeforce would be required, but in the face of all the good, what was the cost of one life? And that worthless tribesman, what was he but a desert son and a traitor? If anyone deserved death, it was him. He suddenly hated the man, hatred burning so fiercely he forgot every memory but the image of Sanjin glaring down upon him, himself tied to the mast, and the rest of his rebelling crew laughing and brandishing cunning blades.
“Merciful powers,” Sanjin groaned, “you shall never speak to me again, will you—?”
Reardo knew what had to be done…
As soon as the archer’s back turned to him in a gesture of indignation, Reardo sprung and locked his arms around his neck. They flailed, but despite the taller man’s brawn, Reardo wrenched him just right and they both crashed onto the stone ground. As they throttled and fisted Reardo realized that the desert man never left himself open; Sanjin had trusted him. But as quick as the thought came, vengeance blotted it out.
Sanjin found his grip on Reardo’s arm and peeled him off, then tossed him like a rag. Reardo’s head smacked the ground and he tumbled to a stop. He lifted a hand and felt the blood oozing, looked around dazidly to find it smeared all over the stone grounds. How many cities and countries and mountains must I have destroyed? Then he peered up to find the archer with arms spread out in a bear hug, charging at him. His eyes darted about until the silver glint of an arrow caught the corner of his eye. It had slipped out of the archer’s quiver when Reardo first tackled him. Sanjin came down on him, clamping him with his arms and crushed the breath out of him. Reard flailed and his fingertips touched the feathers of the arrow. He reached until he clasped his hand around the haft. Sanjin began to say something, but he drove the arrow into his neck.
The archer choked and wheezed. He relaxed his death grip and struggled to lift himself up. Reardo shoved the man off and crawled away and curled up in a ball, waiting for him to die. He heard gurgling and vomiting. Had it not been his own hand that did the killing, he would have thought Sanjin was drowning.
Cold silence settled back into the glade.
Finally he turned his head and looked across the stone clearing to the body. A timid wind stirred again, as if the fight had scared it off. Reardo edged closer. The man’s back and limbs bent in impossible directions, his muscles sagged, and calm death-glazed eyes stared past him. Glimmering scarlet rushed out to fill the stone basin like an apocalyptic flood, already beginning the work.
Then a curious thought came to mind: while he may not have discovered a creator, he had found the tools the creator left behind.
And that was all he needed.
Important Note: Because publishers will never accept a story that has already been posted on the internet, these stories will be taken down once I begin to submit them to magazines. So relish the read while you still can…