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by Julian Maven
The first thing to break the surface is a crocodile snout, grinning and toothy. It is upright, jaws slightly apart as if to swallow the midnight moon, and there is a mildly malevolent sense of humor about it. It is old, old, and laughing at the world.
* * *
We had been blown off course by an unforeseen storm. It died suddenly, leaving us in preternaturally calm waters. The skies above cleared, allowing us an unhampered view of the stars, but through some degree of disorientation, the captain was unable to mark our present position.
"They do not correspond to any charts with which I am familiar," said the captain, puzzled.
It was decided that we would allow a night and a day to pass, giving the captain a chance to study more archaic star charts in his library. It was not predicted that the storm would whip up again; the water was like blown glass, the sky a faultless mirror. And so we retired to our respective quarters for the night.
I, first mate of the San Peregrino, a vessel shipping spices and textiles from Eastern Shores to Gibraltar, have been thus confined for the better part of an hour in my sparse stateroom, floorboards roughhewn and a swinging lantern casting perverse shadows on the dark, splintering, and salt-rotted walls. It is not my night on the watch, but I am often compelled to gaze out across the sea during the evenings, looking for pirates and the breaking heads of storm clouds; years at sea have made me cautious. I sit on a crusted wooden stool, peering out through a brassy spyglass across the fathomless waters, trying to make out details. The crocodile is two hundred yards away, and lit only by moon and starlight, but my seafaring days have also lent me an eagle's vision, and this is sufficient enough for me.
Or so I had thought. When the crocodile's head is mostly revealed, it slowly and intently turns in the direction of the San Peregrino, and gazes me straight in the eye. And chokes out a sputtering cough, all salt-water and seaweed, which seems uncannily like a laugh full of contempt.
With a start, I pull my eye from the spyglass. I rub my eyes and shake my head to clear it of any vestiges of boredom and drowsiness. After all, I had been staring out this porthole for hours, looking for anything to break the monotony. It was the product of imagination, not empirical fact. At this distance, a crocodile with his poor sight would not be able to make out a single man standing at a porthole in a distant merchant ship, even were that man not hidden behind a spyglass.
For that matter, I ask myself as I raise the spyglass to my eye once again, what is a crocodile doing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
The answer is short in coming, and I soon wish I had never asked. For the crocodile's head has broken the surface completely by now -- what on Earth or beyond is supporting it, raising it up from the depths? -- and continues to rise at a steady pace. And, shockingly, what is attached to the crocodile's skull is not the length-wise, leathery body I might expect, but instead something approaching a white-skinned human female frame. Naked and gleaming in the scant moonlight, with strange bear-like claws sprouting from the tips of fingers and toes. Despite the shock which has immediately taken hold of me, I retain presence of mind -- I am a first mate, after all, and accustomed to seeing strange things at sea -- and count the fingers and toes. I count seven on each hand, six on each foot.
Now fear truly grips me. Things outside the realm of human understanding cannot be judged on physical appearance alone, however terrifying and unearthly they seem, but there are rules for these encounters, a universal index of traits, emblems, ciphers and talismans which can be relied on to indicate a certain alignment towards or opposed to the human nature. Cloven hoofs, cat's eyes, the trilateral nipple -- these are all badges worn by the Court of the Unseelie. As are extraneous digits.
I drop the spy scope to my side. Hell-bent for leather, I throw wide the door of my stateroom and make for the captain's quarters. I must tell him the fates would bring ill will against this vessel. He is iron-willed and resolute; he will know what to do.
I am on the plank-board hallway between the ship's galley and the captain's stateroom when I hear a voice in my head. It is speaking a language older than Sumerian, older than any known tongue of man -- the language from which all languages have their root, the bark-noise of the primal brain. Still, horribly, I am able to comprehend it, for no reason I understand, and slowly I realize the creature across the sea is speaking to me, though I am out of her sight with six inches of starboard between us:
"I am Ahemait of the Deep, Devouress of the Dead. I lurk under the Scales of Justice in the Hall of the Two Truths, as Osiris and Nephthys gaze on and judge if ye heart be heavier than the weight of ye sins. If ye are found guilty and ye heart is laden with blackness, I am called upon, and my mighty jaws crush and destroy the basic parts of ye. I am not evil, for my Everything is the essence of evil, and thus I am simply of evil. And Yea, I have been called upon to devour the basic parts of the Earthly Realms."
The captain is not in his quarters, and frantically I push my way past his oaken desk, perpetually cluttered with maps and sextants, compasses and inkwells, stumbling in my panic over his well-dressed bunk of Persian silk and Oriental quilts. I stare wide-eyed past the glass of his porthole towards the damnable presence -- Ahemait, did she call herself? Oh, I wail, what evil this portends!
Behind this hideous being of unplumbed demesnes, something else is breaking the waves. Unwilling to turn away, but even more terrified of what could potentially surpass this creature in sheer cosmic loathsomeness, I fearfully train my scope on this newly risen being.
It appears as an amorphous, blackly jellicated being with simultaneously one mind and three. It is like a microscopic creature, an amoeba or germ, exploded to massive proportions and filled with a demented hunger for life. Deep within its translucent mass, I see a tiny white spark of what was once a human -- or possibly more than one. It rears back, if such a thing is possible, and slowly, gradually begins to change form. It adopts three black-skinned bodies, so dark they absorb all light. The arms of each are outstretched and merge into one another, so that the trio of bodies make a complete circle, and from the backs of each one sprout outward a pair of eternally wicked wings.
Even from this distance my blood is chilled and my skin shudders as a howl of inhuman misery and torment is emitted from the triple mouths of the demon. It is a sound not of this Earth, nor of this plane of existence. It is a sound I was not meant to hear, that all the benevolent powers have conspired to keep from the ears of humanity. And in this howl, I understand truths:
"I am the Morrigan, the Three-in-One. Aspects of me have been called the Moirae, the Holle, the Matrone. I foretell the coming of death and guard the realms of the deceased. I am the Great Queen. I bring to warriors battle ecstasy and lead them down the path of Holy Passage. I writhe in their blood and gnaw on their femurs. My spawn is the demon-beast Grendel, who sought to
destroy the Empires of Man, and the Valkyries, great woman-warriors of godlike strength. I am the heart of all of Humankind's terrors, and am thus known as Fear. I bring sooth of the World's passing. I will see it done, and then keep it from departing the Realm of Death."
These are monstrous omens, things that seem to regard matters beyond this mere boat and its occupants. These are no will-o-wisps or dragon's-tails. I must tell the captain what I've seen. Perhaps he is up on deck, watching these self-same proceedings and pondering them, in his grim and determined way. Perhaps not. Regardless, I must find him. The ship has been cursed; the waters themselves are rising up against us. I am no mystic but even I know that there will be many deaths ere this ominous tragedy has ended. I resolve to tear this ship beam from beam, if need be, and locate the captain.
But before I can lower my spy scope, the brine begins to froth again and wanting nothing more than to shut my eyes tight and pray for divine intervention, I turn to observe this new horror.
It appears to be the walls of an ancient stone city. The towers and balustrades are hung with seaweed, and marine life cavorts in the slowly draining pools behind square windows. Horrifically, it dwarfs the crocodile-woman, and even the already huge three-in-one creature is gnat-like compared to this cyclopean settlement. It is almost perfectly circular in appearance and ancient in architectural design, primitive yet monstrously large, as if designed to accommodate a race larger in physical aspect than mere Man. It is a god's city, lost at the bottom of the sea until now, and the mere sight of it reduces me to quaking. The disturbance in the waters causes the ship to rock sharply, as if buffeted yet again by the hellish storm of a few hours hence. No doubt this, if anything else, has alerted the captain to the danger off the starboard side, along with the rest of the crew.
But I can no longer watch. These beings, monsters created of human myth and mind but come to horrible existence through their own imported powers, are sprouting up from the ocean depths all across the surface, more than I can count, gods and goddesses and demons and spirits, all come with judgment on their lips and justice on their claws and fangs and blades. Each one speaks in its own tongue, and each one looks straight into my eye as they speak their name and the vengeance they will wreak on an unsuspecting populace.
My head is filled with words and names that all run together in one hideous nonsensical string, and though I drop the brass scope with a clatter and fall to my knees, clutching my temples with claw-like fingers, they will not escape me. Dagon... Fenrir... Chnubis... Gong Gong...
I come to my senses and hurtle blindly out of the captain's chambers, down the hall past the galley, clutching out at the walls and torches for a steady handhold as the ship rocks back and forth violently. I climb two flights of stairs in a daze and savagely shove the iron trap-door leading to the rain-slicked deck open. The air is still, iron-salt in my lungs, heavy and humid. Immediately, I am stung with a most unearthly stench -- it smells of something long dead, a sea-bloated corpse so rotten even a pack of sharks would keep their distance. I clamber from the ship's belly on hands and knees, feeling the moist and unpleasantly cold planks beneath my palms, and begin to crawl towards the bow. I realize, belatedly, that I am praying and sobbing and wracked with a terror such as I have never before known. Where are the other mates? Where is the captain? Am I alone on this great creaking vessel, abandoned to face these risen creatures of the underworld with only my faltering faith and the small silver cross slung around my neck?
I pray fervently for something, anything to stop this otherworldly stream of words, and my prayers are soon answered by the one voice the entirety of the human species, deep in their shared genetic spirit, has hoped never the hear, for to hear it means the end of all humanity has accomplished, indeed, the obliteration and sudden no-being of all things of this world and universe. It is a strong voice, a voice like that of all the fathers of the world, and I know that it is the creator of all things, itself a creation. It speaks, and all other voices grow silent in my mind.
I stand slowly and gaze across the deck, across the sea, at the risen city. I am filled with a new strength, that of the condemned man, facing his mortality with a calm certainty for the first time. There, I notice almost as an afterthought; there is the captain, the crew, crowded around the railing at the far end, the elevated foremost portion of the bow. There is a look of drained revelation on the pale and bearded face of the captain, but this does not surprise me. I even manage to force a humorless chuckle at my own presumptuous foolishness; this ship is not cursed. Indeed, if anything, we are blessed, for we will die first.
The foundations of the city have broken the surface but still it continues to rise. And beneath the base of the walls is a brow, and beneath that, great eyes the size of whole mountains, a volcanic anger stirring in their pits...
It is not a city but a god, The God, the towers and stone walls not a fortress at all but his great crown. He is composed of the basic elements of earth: lime, sediment, gold and silver, ash, magma. And he says to us, just moments before a great tidal wave crashes down over us, embracing us in its curling, brackish arms and wrenching the San Peregrino into little more than driftwood:
"I am I, the basis of all things. I created Man and his world, his galaxy and his universe, and he created Me, and I created him, and such did the cycle run. I am called Enki, Baal, and God, but of all these things, I am simply I. I am in every man, every being, the spark of life and of death, and as all things run in an endless circle of living and dying, such does all creation and destruction. This cycle of creation has come to an end, after billions of years, and enters the portion of the cycle which represents destruction. Thus have I risen to play out the part of dispensing my minions, to destroy all creation in a span of millions of years, and when all has been undone, I will stand in the nothingness and undo myself. Such is the cycle."
Story copyright 2001 by Julian Maven firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright 2001 by Jon Eke email@example.com
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