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HE WATCHED the mighty coastline of the Wolfsnake drift out of sight over the next week. The weather was superb, the winds in the Selaki's favor, the skies relatively clear during the day, at night completely so, giving him an unobstructed view of Ammalinaeus as the great ringed sphere cast a broad multicolored highway upon the
. Verisimilius Ocean
On the second day out he glanced aft and spied the Anthtrees, no longer obscured by mountains and cliffs. It was approaching summer, and it was long known that the great floating trees drifted north until autumn, when they returned to the southern coast. From here he could count well over a hundred of them; a great mass of them, uncountable due to distance, could be seen well off to the northwest. From here they looked like snow-streaked brown and green curly-q peaks hanging over blue fog.
The clear air also gave him the constant light of the lighthouse, its beam swinging into sight every twenty-four seconds. He timed it on numerous occasions to assure himself that the light's gears weren't slipping up or some other unlikely occurrence. He knew Orion, Brinkley, and Tal would keep a careful eye on things; even so, more from boredom than anything else, perhaps, he timed the beam, which, a week out and nearly four hundred misons away, could still be seen, if but barely.
The Apprentice has come, it proclaimed. The Apprentice has come ... The Apprentice has come ... The Apprentice has come ...
In another universe a grand armada readied for war. Over the years Anurag had gotten to know some of the warriors who would be fighting in it. They were without doubt the finest human beings he had ever come across. It seemed trite to think of them so; after all, warriors had one and only one purpose: to kill the enemy. It hardly seemed relevant to consider their characters.
At first glance, perhaps. But not in this case. For as dark as the Imperium was, as overwhelming as it was, as horrifying as it was, the forces fighting it had to be, if they wanted to vanquish it, that much brighter.
Like the lighthouse, he thought.
The king has chosen well. He squinted in the direction of the distant beam and let his heart swell with the pride of knowing he was one of those chosen, of being on the side of light and right. It was pride he'd never let himself fully appreciate in the past, and it surprised him that he so willingly gave into it now. But he'd had two very recent and close brushes with death—the illness and the storm, the first of which he'd escaped purely by the slimmest of chances, and the second by means of a quick, light-as-air decision to get the Arrowsparrows on their way instead of first setting sail. The gale was stronger than anything he'd ever attempted to sail through before; he was certain he wouldn't have survived it had he tried.
He wasn't immortal. One day, probably sooner than later, he'd breathe his last, probably in battle. If it wasn't time to appreciate his place as a proud member of a kingdom of light and right, then when would it be?
On the morning of the eighth day he woke to see a tremendous storm brewing in the far east. Though hundreds of misons away, it was tall enough to be plainly visible. Lightning flashed in all that billowing, rotating virgin white; beneath it was a sweeping, ominous navy-blue band that bordered on black.
An Edge storm.
No one really knew how they formed or why they were so ferocious. They could appear out of a completely blue sky in minutes, giving sailors no time to get out of the way or to protect their vessels.
Years ago, the infant Saeire Insu was caught in an Edge storm. Thousands of the king's troops perished. That storm overwhelmed Necrolius Anaxagorius' pursuing fleet too, almost certainly claiming thousands of Gyssians.
Edge storms were fearsome.
Even here, hundreds of misons distant, the storm surge, which would arrive in a day or two, would probably be difficult to negotiate, and potentially deadly all by itself.
As a cautionary measure he adjusted course, turning due west. He knew he was still in the Fronterum Maris, the sea that bashed the dramatic cliffs of the Wolfsnake, and that in another day or so he'd see those cliffs close up if at that time he didn't again adjust course.
The Imperium was little more than a thin, spotty film out here, and so he did not worry overmuch about running into warships. Besides, he had Antarctic Cottonwood. He was invisible to the Imperials. He had no intentions of being spotted.
In the late afternoon of the ninth day he spied high, snowcapped mountains poking above a solid line of sea-surface fog directly in his path. The Edge storm had since died, but its surge was just arriving. The Selaki was soon riding rough and cold seas. He adjusted course to a south by southwest heading. In another day or so he could turn the boat to its original course towards the Eastern Tangent.
Day ten—and he'd spoken too soon, he thought to himself. For there were two Imperial ships due west at 1.9192i by 78.0112 e-degrees, some seventy-five misons out, and heading straight for him at six misons per hour, a little less than half a day away at present course and speed. One was a frigate. The other turned out to be a very disturbing mystery.
He studied the scroll of sea paper as the Selaki rode up and down big green swells, ignoring the foul stench from this stretch of sea, which had insinuated itself gradually over the past few hours, and which he’d just noticed. A smell like rotting fish. No, not rotting fish, but flesh. Rotting flesh.
He refocused on the data beneath the second ship.
It was also a warship (he'd never run across an Imperial vessel that wasn't), somewhat larger than the frigate. That wasn't what disturbed him.
What disturbed him was what appeared in parentheses immediately under its name, which was the Cunoc. It was written in a language he recognized as one that came from beyond the Tangent. From Earth.
"La Ar-jen-t-een-a," he muttered, trying to decipher the language. He was sure now: those letters ... he'd seen them on Earth and nowhere else. During his training with the Saeire Insu he'd been given lessons in speaking the Gaian language known as English. But this didn't appear to be English, though the letters were, clearly, in English script. It was the 'La' that bothered him. Could it be a different language even though it had the same letters as another? He didn't know. It seemed absurd to him that it could.
He thought he was pronouncing it correctly.
The Cunoc—or La Argentina, which was the name he knew he'd think of her as now—was a Dronus-class destroyer, which by means of his training he knew ferried a crew of over a thousand Tracluse, a hundred or more demons, and boasted sixty-six forty-cardum cannons, powerful enough to shatter the hull of a dreadnought. The frigate, the Gourei, scary enough in her own right, trailed like an orphaned son.
What were they doing this close to the Wolfsnake?
The Selaki heaved that moment, listing dangerously to the side. He dropped the sea paper on his desk and hurried, stumbling, up to the deck.
Rogue waves from the Edge storm! The singleship careened down the back of the first one as he gained the wheel. He unlocked it from dash control as the second, even larger, loomed blackly over him. He spun the wheel to line up with it when it broke over the bow. He wrapped his arms tightly around the wheel and hung on for dear life.
The ship knifed into the surging green-white crest, which slammed into his bowed head like an avalanche. He yelled against his fear as he gripped his forearms with everything he had. For a moment there was nothing but the white roar of seawater and his will to defeat it, which that moment he was sure he wouldn't. He was lifted off his feet for a terrifying second, and then the Selaki abruptly summited the rogue and rode down its great back. Soaked to the bone, he goggled up to see if another was coming, muttering incoherent words of thanks that he hadn't capsized.
No more rogues. Only cold, regular swells.
He hadn't had time to close the dash. The sprig of Antarctic Cottonwood, and its container, were gone. The rampaging seawater, touching the sprig's leaves, would've rendered the Selaki visible. The Imperial frigate and the beyond-the-Tangent-named La Argentina could see him now if scouts on those ships just happened to be looking in his direction.
Waterlogged and dripping and shivering, he began a frantic search for the sprig and its container.
But after an hour he was certain it had washed overboard.
He thought of coming about and searching the sea itself, but knew it was hopeless. The Antarctic Cottonwood was gone.
He'd given the only other one he had to the Poets.
He stomped back to the wheel and pointed the ship south by southwest again, set the dash, and slammed it closed. He beat his fists against the wheel, bellowing curses.
It was then that he noticed that he was covered in that rotten flesh stench. The entire sea reeked of it here. It was so powerful that he could scarcely breathe.
What the hell was it?
He marched down to his cabin, swearing all the way. Water had pooled on the cabin floor and against his desk and had streamed on into the bathroom. He kneeled at the edge of a puddle and studied it.
Indeed, there was a thin, oily, dark film of something over it. Something that smelled truly awful.
He changed out of his reeking clothes, throwing them in a sightless corner, then set about mopping up the water. That done, he washed himself off with soap and water, praying the Selaki's freshwater hold hadn't been tainted by the wave (it smelled all right, though he couldn't be sure, so inundated were his nostrils with the foul odor), then dressed in dry clothes. He returned to the top deck and peered over the railing at the sea.
His nose didn't want to take in the air. He could see a filmy sheen over the water, but only when the Selaki rode down a swell and the sun's afternoon rays caught it just so.
A hand over his nose, he marched to the bow where he opened the deck chest and retrieved his telescope. He extended it and peered through it, casting about for the Imperials.
There they were, coming in and out of a massive fog bank that threatened to swallow them completely. They had turned to a southward heading, not towards him.
Perhaps his bad luck was changing.
Back at the wheel, he unlocked the dash control, spinning the wheel until his singleship was heading due north.
With any luck they hadn’t seen him. The Wolfsnake was in his direct path now; he would have to turn east before sunset just to be safe. A few hours at that heading and he'd bear south by southeast again and get back on his way to the Tangent.
Two hours later the stench was so overpowering that he skipped dinner. He had since wrapped a rag around his face, for all the good it did.
The water's hue had steadily changed as well, from a healthy settling navy blue to a thick, oily black. The day's wind, which at times was stiff and unrelenting, had died out completely, leaving him almost motionless. The storm surge had petered out.
He grabbed an oar and dipped it overboard, pulled it up. Black goo dripped thinly from it.
He threw it to the stern of the ship, then dropped sails. After another sweep with his telescope (the Imperials had vanished into the fog), he retreated into his cabin.
He plopped down at his desk after lighting an oil lamp and reopened the scroll of sea paper so he could get an exact fix on the Imperials' position and velocity, and to see if local currents were going to pull him into the cliffs in plain sight to the north.
But the data on it was fading. He held it up, brought it close to his nose.
Dare he dip it into the polluted ocean to renew the data?
Of course not.
He snatched the scroll and brought it up against the oil lamp, studying it intently.
The Gourei and La Argentina ... they were still on a south heading. And the current ... he grimaced and pulled the paper as close to the light as he could get it while still being able to read it …
The current ... was ... north. Towards the cliffs. But its speed ... he couldn't read it!
Spitting curses, he rolled the scroll up. Listening to a warning voice in his head (his Storyteller friend advised him never to discount such voices), he hid it along with his money (he'd stolen liberally from the Constable), along with his special pen and anything else that gave him away as a possible traitor, or was of particular value to him. He lay out the Constable's last manifest in plain sight on his desk, along with an old compass that he rarely used, but would have to now as long as he sailed in these foul waters.
If the Imperials caught him and boarded the Selaki, he'd be prepared.
He grabbed a bottle of a Gaian liquor known as rum (given to him by the king himself) and drank it straight up, from the bottle. If he got drunk enough, he reasoned, he could perhaps numb away this unholy odor and forget this crappy day.
He jerked awake.
Something just hit the Selaki.
Was he about to smash into cliffs? Was he being boarded by the Imperials?
He sprang out of bed and out of the cabin.
No Imperials. They were nowhere to be seen. He gazed north again to be sure he wasn’t crashing into rocks.
No. The cliffs were certainly closer, but still a safe distance away.
A reef? Had he struck a reef? Or a submerged sea stack?
He peered overboard. He couldn’t see even a few inches into the black goo.
The Selaki heaved, toppling him. He was up instantly. It happened again.
Something was under the boat!
He didn't wait. Scrambling, he raised sails, fearing that at any moment he was going to be capsized by whatever was beneath him.
What was it?
He rushed to the wheel. But—which way should he turn the ship?
It was academic at best. For there was no wind, not even a slight breeze. It was as if Nature herself had died in the midst of this stench.
The sun hadn't yet fully risen. Its infant light was muted by a dark band of sea mist.
The Selaki heaved again. He caught motion beneath the slime. Huge, startling, astonishing motion, far larger than his ship. Whatever it was passed quickly; its movement raised the surface in a smooth swell that followed swiftly behind. The goo sucked the life out of the wave with unnatural haste, the sea settling back like a cesspool.
With no wind, he could only watch in horrified helpless wonder as the giant mystery monster made another underwater move towards him. The Selaki rode up the long ridge of the motion, then down again.
He wouldn't Transform and have a look, no way! The layer of black slime was so vile he probably wouldn't survive it, and the monster beneath it would utterly dwarf his shark self.
"Son of a bitch!" he bellowed as he got back to his feet. He hurried down to the cabin and grabbed his bow and arrows, then rushed back to the bow, ready to fire. He gazed down.
His mouth fell open.
The Selaki had run aground. But it didn't look like any ground he had ever seen before. Green and black, a sickly, mottled shade of both, the "ground" had huge ridges and bumps and crevasses that spread along its breadth and length, which was slowly becoming apparent.
Because the "ground" was lifting out of the sea.
The Selaki tilted port, crashed to a halt before coming to its side. He was thrown to the railing, slamming painfully back first against it. He got to his feet as quickly as he could, the wind knocked out of him. The "ground" was quaking violently now, rising and falling in sudden movements that flipped his stomach and sent the ship tilting starboard, throwing him against that railing. He lost his grip on the bow, watching in horror as it flew overboard. The arrows had scattered harmlessly over the deck.
Without the bow he had no contact with the Saeire Insu and could not communicate with the kingdom's agents hidden across the face of Aquanus.
He pulled himself to his feet, gasping for air, and glanced overboard.
There it was. If the "ground" it lay upon disappeared beneath the goo, he'd lose it forever.
He jumped over. The fall was more than three times his height, and when he landed he thought he might break his ankles. But the "ground" gave way very slightly, and was quite slick with the heinous-smelling substance. He lost his feet instantly and came to rest on his lower back, his pants immediately soggy. The Selaki was dry-docked between two bumpy, long crests tall enough to keep her from tipping completely over. The "ground" was massive, running fore and aft many boat lengths, and was as wide as a small island. It was shaking again, and as he stood, fighting to keep his feet and grabbing the bow, it dipped. The thick sea came rushing blackly towards him—
—and then retreated as the "ground" rose again just as quickly. His ship groaned and tilted port. He slipped and fell, yelling against mortal fear. Instead of trying to stand again, he tossed the bow ahead of him and scurried towards it on his hands and knees. The goo didn't just smell: it burned like a weak acid.
He couldn't accept it: that he was in fact on the back of a Keeper, a legendary sea monster that could grow to two misons in length and was known to wipe out entire fleets of ships.
He yelled incoherently as he struggled to get to the stern ladder. The Keeper was quaking and rising and falling so dramatically that he was sure he would not survive. But he got around a spine on the right crest and was at boat’s rear, where he made a grab for the ladder as the singleship crashed port, then starboard, then port again. He tossed the bow back on the ship; as the ladder swung by again he jumped and grabbed it and held on for all he was worth.
One rung. Two. He somehow got his feet on the bottom rung and climbed as quickly as he could. The Keeper dipped under completely, and the sea came in at him on all sides, huge black waves rushing towards him. He grabbed the top rung just as the slime slammed against the hull. He hung on, inundated, and fell over to the deck.
He stumbled blindly to the cabin—he didn't dare open his eyes, his face and hair were covered—and in, where he grabbed a towel and frantically wiped the filth away. The whole of his person burned like he'd gotten a serious sunburn.
He jumped under the shower. The goo came off, but not without resistance.
He could feel motion beneath the boat as he stood under the cold water. He hoped the hull hadn't sustained any damage. It was constructed of Antarctic Cottonwood, and so was, according to the Saeire Insu, very difficult to damage. He wondered if Saeire Insu engineers had thought of Keepers when they built it.
He didn't bother drying or dressing. He scurried back to the wheel after throwing the bow into the cabin and closing the door behind him.
The motion beneath him became frenetic. Long waves came at him from every direction, interfering with each other, building or canceling each other out. He held on to the wheel as to his beating heart. It was like a speck of dry grain would feel on the surface of a bowl of oil, beneath which was a drowning, writhing snake. Had it not been so terrifying he would've laughed, for he couldn't imagine something that huge moving that quickly, especially under water.
A mountain-sized dome of bubbles appeared suddenly to starboard half a mison distant, and then the Keeper's head surfaced, rocketing out of the slime and into the misty sky like a god-serpent. It had a head the size of cliffs, a neck like Ammalinaeus' own cane. Anurag rode out the titanic rain and waves from its emergence, fighting to turn the Selaki away, but unable to due to the sea’s swirling, drain-like motion around its neck. He was drifting helplessly closer and closer to it.
The Keeper was hideous: black and green, misshapen and malevolent. Its bottle-shaped head, probably half a mison above him when it quit rising, turned—far too quickly for something so fantastically enormous—and its battleship-tall red eyes flashed and shot great red blinding aecxal beams directly over his head and into the sea. The crack of lightning didn't sound like lightning at all; it sounded like the end of the world.
The Selaki lifted once again out of the sea. It tilted dangerously upward, then slipped downslope and listed hard to port and stopped with a back-breaking jolt. Anurag picked himself up from the stern railing, bellowing against blind terror as the back of the Keeper continued rising, higher and higher.
The monster hadn't noticed him. Not yet. The ship would look like a bit of flotsam to it, nothing more.
The Keeper jerked starboard, and he prayed for dear, sweet life. If he fell overboard, he would have plenty of sea monster back to land on ... but over the edge of that great back was plenty of space—more than enough to kill him.
Now to port—SLAM! He couldn't get back to the wheel. The Keeper was shaking and quaking, rising and falling. It fired bolts of lightning from its eyes into the sea, and then, all at once, it dove.
He was in free fall for only a second or so, but it felt like an eternity. The splashing sea smashed up against the bottom of the hull, and his legs shattered. He'd barely missed banging his head into the bridge bulwark fronting the wheel; by some miracle he had fallen backward. He shrieked with pain, grabbing both of his knees. It was by pure chance that the boat was pointed in the proper direction to ride out the tremendous incoming waves. Even so, they crested angrily over him and washed him down the stairs to his cabin.
He thought he might drown. Slime was in his eyes, up his nose. He frantically wiped it away, coughing and spitting, while clawing up the stairs as quickly as he could back to the wheel.
Somehow he got there. Crying in agony, he tried to stand.
He couldn’t. The pain was blinding.
He wouldn't die in battle against the emperor's forces, no. He was going to die before the war even began. He was going to die right here.
The inner voice that his Storyteller friend told him never to ignore was screaming at him to pull on the life buoys, which were hanging directly behind him. He somehow got them over his head and secured them.
Steam from the Keeper's aecxal attack swept over the singleship, the rich odor of ozone mixing with the stench, making it even nastier.
The monster’s head shot skyward again, less than a quarter mison distant. He rode out the splash and wave. The polluted water, treated by giant aecxal lightning beams, bordered on intolerably hot. He was washed about on deck, came to rest against the starboard railing. The monster's enormous eyes once again shot lightning into the water, casting surreal violet shadows from the mainmast.
Its attack this time was much longer and sustained. The sea boiled and steamed angrily, the incessant crack of lightning so powerful he was sure it was going to shatter the hull. He kept his hands over his ears and waited for the moment when that would happen, or for his ship to be crushed or capsized or lifted high again and dropped back into the sea.
None of it mattered. He was dead anyway, an oddly removed part of himself reasoned.
The ship heaved left and right, front and back. Goo waves slammed into her, puked themselves thickly over the railing, covering everything, covering him.
And then it happened.
From out of the water shot another tremendous head and neck.
Through the hazy, roiling steam he could see that it looked nothing like its malevolent brother. It looked in fact like ancient illustrations portrayed it. It launched skyward like a pillar of heaven. The mutant shot lightning at it.
The Selaki floated between the two enormous necks, utterly helpless. Seawater from the second Keeper's emergence rained down on him, flooding the deck and washing him back down the stairs to his cabin. Oddly, the water wasn't slimy, but seawater cold and pure and clear.
Red lightning glanced the second’s neck, which struck out at the mutant with its bottle-shaped head, slamming nose first into its neck, knocking it backwards. The lightning ceased. The noise of the collision was like two fleshy landmasses coming together in a world-ending earthquake, so potent that he could feel the downward pressure of it on his prone body.
The Selaki lifted out of the water again. It heaved to port, coming to a sudden jarring halt full on its side and throwing him overboard like so much litter.
He spun head over heels twice and landed on his head. His momentum carried him to his back, where he slipped and slid amid giant piles of moss and barnacles for an unknown distance until he stopped next to the top of the mainmast. He crawled like a soaked and dazed rodent towards it, the life buoys strapped to his chest. He could reach it if he could just stand! He growled against shooting pain like hot needles in his legs and looming unconsciousness; he scooched and writhed on his belly, whimpering. But exhaustion was claiming him: the muscles of his arms were so spent he could not lift them! He got over on his back and started pushing himself with his shattered legs, shrieking with effort.
He wasn't going to make it.
He wasn't on the back of the mutant Keeper, he knew, but on the back of the second one. Somehow there wasn't as much slime covering it; and what slime was there quickly evaporated away, as though the flesh of this Keeper was anathema to it.
He glanced up to see the mutant recover and come striking back. The second moved—the Selaki groaned and skidded towards him, threatening to crush him—and then wrapped its great neck about the mutant. Its eyes flashed blinding white and beams of blue aecxal lightning chewed into the mutant's head.
The mutant gave a great subsonic shriek of pain as tons of its own flesh dropped towards him like a burning avalanche. The second Keeper shifted suddenly, and the Selaki slid out of control for him.He screamed—