The Mountains of the Eldritch Sea
by Harry Lang
The port of Gadarr was a garden by the sea where the sailor’s blood could race to the thrill of limitless base diversions, the priest could burn his incense to the overgod Oranthus and the warmth He sent across His cloudless sky and the artist could go mad as lines and pigments failed him in his struggle to master the storms of color and form.
It was the singing that drew me in and worked the transformation, turning the ears from the sweet, sleepy hiss of the grassy fields outside the city of Hkhmadd to the salty purr of the Eldritch Sea. Some day I would sing like the rough old hands who stood on two feet, hauling the heavy lines with all four hands, eyes serenely scanning windy horizons as the black ship bobbed lazily at anchor, smelling of sawdust and spices, new wood and old steel.
Riggers ran like spiders up the masts, gripping for dear life with the strong hands while the nimble hands threaded the lines and tied the knots. I had signed on as an apprentice rigger with my friend Tirgash and now, as the ship squirmed beneath my trembling feet and hands I wondered what demon had possessed me.
The training was as good as I had hoped and better than I’ d expected. Not once did I look down to the distant deck as I sped deliberately and calmly through the routine, swaying far above the swells as if born upon the mast. Each of us along the main yard finished at precisely the same instant and up sprang the translucent blue sail, light enough to be carried by one man, strong enough to capture and tame hurricane force winds. The sea was sharp as emerald, bleeding white where the prows cut her glistening skin and pale Oranthus nested high in a sapphire sky.
Every boy on the planet Thal dreams of sailing or so say the sailors. Space merchants roam the precise and predictable skies because they fear the living sea. The priests are too timid to swear and no sailor fails to spit upon an image or curse his family’s god. As for me...
I don’t remember.
Stars taunted me in the warm mysterious night, seeming to grow as I stared, shooting their divine illumination into the black depths. Sometimes every planet in the system could be seen, as if Oranthus had called a reunion of His sons the Ultra-gods. On clear nights (and there were no others) I would string a hammock on deck and watch the schools of luminous fish keeping pace alongside or racing before the prows, filled with the mindless joy of their existence. How like the old sailors they are, I thought and if they had voices they would sing their own profane magnificent songs. And then the shapes blacker than the sea would stretch from as far as I could see and close in from behind. Out would go the little lights.
Along with the shapes came thirst and sometimes hunger. The water casks were nowhere to be found as I searched the ship from bow to stern, losing my way among the miles of unfamiliar passageways and compartments. The crew were occupied with their duties and offered no help but soon the thirst would be forgotten, the ship would be sensible and familiar again and the fair tropical breeze would wash the deck with its radiant incense.
We were bound for Molkoth on the eastern shore of the continent of Minak. A routine passage, to be sure. The sea was placid, the hands unconcerned but how were we to cross the black and glassy mountains lying dead ahead?
Gently rocked the hammock in the little cabin, back and forth upon the swells and the mountains moved closer in the star crazed night. Tirgash slept fitfully in his rack fixed to the bulkhead, one limp nimble arm waving in time with the motion of the ship, his three eyes open and staring, reflecting a strange gray sky. He was not well, I knew and as I listened his breath came like a hurricane, fierce and whistling.
It’s a dream, I told myself, he’s having a dangerous dream. I opened my mouth to shout his name but no words came. Struggling to free myself from the wildly pitching hammock I thought if only I can wake him! I reached and reached with a strong arm, tearing through the netting but daylight broke and I knew we had gone to separate worlds.
“Dawn watch, on deck!”
The breeze was fresh as I sat aloft, tethered to an auxiliary arm. Red Oranthus spread His ruby rays upon the ripples of the glittering sea, turning our dull blue fur to glowing lavender. Tirgash frantically practiced his sailor’s knots, mumbling the directions from The Sea Book under his breath.
“What will you do in Molkoth?” I asked.
“Sea serpent squeezes desert snake, bows to hunter... Damn!” He dropped the lines in disgust. “I don’t know. Everything I couldn’t get away with back home in Hkhmadd. What about you?”
I let the breeze sing through the rigging, fixed my eyes upon the clear horizon as seasoned wind pulled at my hair. I’d given Molkoth less thought than Tirgash. “Pray at the family shrine,” I groped. “Eat too much thunder stew; buy worthless jewelry for the puppies back on the farm. No wallowing in fleshpots.”
“So say you now!”
“So say I...”
Rising swiftly off the starboard side behind Tirgash’s back were the mountains of the Eldritch Sea. So they were not a dream after all! The shining scarlet water was pulled from under the ship to race up the approaching slopes, exploding at the summits into showers of frigid brittle white. They came rushing, rushing at the cowering ship, louder than thunder, passing over us like senseless black ghosts, touching nothing.
The passing mountains left in their wake a feeling, a revelation focusing all things to a clarity beyond simple reality. What could be finer than to be a youthful Thalin sailor on such a sea, bound for such a port with a comrade like Tirgash? It was as if every neutron had settled into its appointed place, at once serene and ecstatic.
And yet, somewhere deep underground, unseen but undeniable, stretching forth like the black predators of the night moved a serpentine certainty, the knowledge of disasters of the remote past or near future. Something catastrophic had happened, something catastrophic would happen. This idyllic emerald sea with its sapphire sky was not forever.
But it was for now. The good sea air filled the ghostly blossoming sails, filled my strong and grateful lungs, carried the silver centered words of friendship from my perch to Tirgash and back again. Yes, the good sea air, pushing us into the eternal west, toward Minak and its cloudless shores, into the warm and golden abode of setting Oranthus...
* * *
“Day twenty. Master rigger Tirgash is finally dead. Must have been during the night. We were yelling, arguing about what sort of creature had collided with the ship. To keep us going, you know. He was losing coherence, babbling about wooden ships driven by wind and a sky with no clouds. Now he hangs limp, lashed to the weather boom on our little piece of wreckage, left nimble arm waving back and forth with the motion of the swells. If I could reach him I would eat him.
Said nothing to Tirgash but I too have had dreams or visions or hallucinations about sailing ships and cloudless skies, about a strange sensation which could be ‘color’ and a bizarre flat ocean.
It was a calm day; swells under forty nautical units, lightning less than thirty percent. We were fifteen days out of the force enclosure at remote Gadarr, bound for the receptacle at Molkoth. The priests tell us that Thal was once a different world. No one lived in tunnels as everyone does now, except spacers and sailors on duty. They say the First War changed Thal and Thalins. They say a lot of things, those priests.
Anyway, we were skimming west by southwest, threading our way through the troughs. A black shape — I say a dragon fish, Tirgash said a rope serpent — broke the surface dead ahead. Tirgash and I were above, maintaining the weather station. Our section was thrown clear, the ship went down without a bubble, the creature vanished. I lost consciousness. Tirgash lashed me to a post before securing himself.
The wind is rising. The gauge says gale force. Could be a hurricane blowing up.
Don’t know if I believe in the overgod but if he does exist why does he make his sailors so strong? Feeling has long since passed from my legs and strong arms, salt spray has just about blinded me. It is the season of acid rain — white clouds — so there is no end of thirst. My fur has been scoured from me. Yet I live. Why does not Oranthus the Never Seen clasp me to his shining bosom and sear all consciousness with the heat of his blessed countenance? Why do not the mountains fall upon me? Why do the creatures not devour me?
This is my final entry. I have no voice. It takes two nimble hands to operate the recorder and I must eat one.
I sealed the log in the watertight container which would never be found, dropped it over the side and away it sailed beneath the writhing gray sky and lightning, up the glassy black mountains of the Eldritch Sea, the only sea I had ever known.
Copyright © 2006 by Harry Lang