continental shelf Nov 2, 2010
In the deepest part of the ocean, where the rocks glow with the heat of the Earth's belly, lies the Bonewhale, dying. Its enormous toothed jaw heaves as its frayed gills suck unnaturally at the silt-swirled waters of the cradle of life. The tube worms hide their fans, tentatively spreading them between the great skeleton's gulping breaths. There is a rumbling from its cold hollow gut and those in attendance cover their eyes (that have them). At first, it is only the sound of a capsizing vessel, and then words:
"Wwe aall hhear ttheir aair ffins, aand tthe ppounding oof ttheir ccarts."
A great heaving breath.
"Tthey ccreate ffire, aat ffirst oof vvegetation, aand llater oof tthe mmountains ffor ttheir oores. Oour ssharks ffeel ttheir rradio wwaves. Tthey cconsume eeverything aand ddo nnot ggive, sshielding tthemselves ffrom tthe wworld iin ccages oof bbrick aand tthought. Mmy bbillion ffossilized cchildren aare bburned aand mmy bbrothers aand ssisters hharvested ffor ccandles."
The Bonewhale blasts out a bellyfull of hot water, scaring the worms and tumbling the urchins. The eels grin in anticipation.
"Iit iis ttime tthat wwe ccome uup tto ttheir llevel, iinto tthe bburning aair tto qquench ttheir ffires. Bbalance mmust bbe ppreserved."
From underneath a large rock slowly comes in circling motions an eight-legged coral beast. It turns and moves as it does, its eyes following every sea slug and leaf of algae stirred up by the commotion outside its resting place. The head bubbles and its stature becomes greater (like that of a giant man, think the eels). He says, "Bonewhale! Malleus will answer your call. We shall move against Shorc'sel in the morning. I ask only that you pledge me your greatest warrior."
A long, low, thoughtful rumble comes from the dim-eyed king of shale. It emits a powerful sonar click, an answer in the affirmative and call to the sleeping demon.
She dreamt, the night before, of sailing. On an endless blue and sparkling sea (the way beautiful sunny days are in dreams) she laid on a boat and listed through time and space and thought. The sails flapped. Rigging clattered and rang against the mast. Waves slapped the hull. The cool breeze slid her gently into the water, which was warm, and she turned her face down into the darkness and spread her arms. When she opened her eyes, a dark green infinity filled her vision, punctuated with drifting sea motes. Enormous shadows slid just beyond her vision, and one growing shadow, curving around in a lazy arch, and rapidly coming straight toward her. But instead of making contact it passed right through her, and in place of its terrifying approach she could suddenly see as if the water were glass. Towering rock formations, striped with reef life---and below them, fields of kelp and sea plants tended by tiny flowing figures.
This morning, she cannot remember what they said to her when she floated down among them to chat. In the cool morning light, blues and warm yellows on the stones and stone walls and thatched roofs of the market stalls, it has come back to hunger. Ialiom, child of the street, begging and stealing and thinking of the eel farmers, tending their kelp fields at the bottom of the sparkling sea over the walls.
As the horizon blocks the sun and the sky goes through its spectrum toward black, the underwater army swims and bubbles toward the castle town at the edge of the ocean. The old fishermen, in wading boots and beards full of seaspray, glance nervously to each other.
A sudden crash rolls on like thunder, like the wind through a tree with a hundred thousand leaves, and each leaf is the popping of the trunk of a tree. Screams. The alarm sounds and the town watch runs about in the street, up and down the way, carrying orders or ushering people. Ialiom stays huddled on the roof, in the corner just outside a window. Inside, a pair of lovers are dressing and lighting the lamps, scared and not knowing what else to do. Through the smoke are the outlines of arms larger than trees, and tiny falling fragments of houses and walls from below. Everyone is awake except the sky, the stars an eerie counterpoint (like a dark sky above a bright field) to the fires and the smoke below. Ialiom covers her ears as the second giant arm brushes aside a hundred buildings like autumn leaves.
At the edge of the swath of destruction, the air is thick with salty mist. The men feel it corroding both their armor and spirits, even before seeing the eels come slithering from the mist. They slide up the men's legs and tear at their necks. As more arrive, they begin fighting over the corpses. Once the beast's enormous beak dissects three men at once, those with their sanity strip their armor and run back to their sleepy families. The urchins pour in over the streets, clicking across the cobblestones. Behind them glides the formless silhouette of the octopus king.
The library is dark and dry. In the lower floors, a soft green fungal glow comes from a corner window. Malleus lands with a wet plop on the floor, burbling to human height and holding an encrusted arm up to light the way. The carpet darkens behind him, absorbing corrosive water. The bookshelves seem silently terrified at this dark avatar of the ocean; they remember the stories of libraries that were destroyed. They begin to envy the cuneiform tablets, immune to elemental damage. But Malleus passes them all, and instead goes down the spiral stair and through (with the liquid flesh of an octopus) the cage door into the archives.
On the table are stacks of reference books, histories and pages of notes---a bookman's work in progress---and lying asleep at the chair is the bookman. Malleus trudges up behind her and wraps a cold tentacle around her neck. She screams and struggles, but Malleus shakes her and asks for a certain volume. She points and he moves, her suspended body trailing just behind him. As he pulls the red leatherbound book from the shelf, he drops the bookman. She is confused, and Malleus is gone with a sound not unlike the splash an escaping fish makes.
In the basement of the Laughing Clown Tavern, the commanders of the underworld army discuss the next stages of the attack on Shorc'sel. Malleus stands away from the tables, feeling slowly the old pages of the red book. He hides it within the folds of his dress and interrupts the conversation.
"We must return to the underworld; we have done what we came to do."
The slender seacucumber captain scoffs and says, "We are only beginning! The men are fleeing their homes and we are in complete control. We should crush them as clams before a boulder."
"Stay if you wish. I am returning. The longer you stay above, the more likely you will either burn or become traitors. So it is." And with that, Malleus slides out one of the high windows to the road.
The old octopus had forgotten what it was like to be among men. So much time spent at the bottom with the urchins, sharks, and mantas had made him complacent. Confronted now with three armed guards, this was an error he would not soon repeat. The first blow cracks the eye socket of the leftmost man with his own weapon, and the second brings the middle (already dead) to his knees. The third man flees, and Malleus lets him go. This turns out to be another mistake.
Ialiom, from the roof, sees a dark netted blob being pulled down the street by a pair of guards, and a squad of them trailing behind. She wonders who this struggling creature is that they are hauling away.
Across the rooftops she runs, pausing to predict which road the group below will take, navigating around gaps which are too far for her to leap. They arrive at the jail, a place Ialiom knows well. She works her way down the adjacent buildings to the barred window just below street level by the sewer access tunnel. Small enough to slip through, she slinks into the lower levels of the jail, slowly creeping and listening for the guards towing the new prisoner. They stow him in a cell on the floor below, and Ialiom climbs down a ventilation shaft and into it.
Before her is the damp hunched form of an old beggar. He turns and she notices a shine to his skin. He says, "Who are you?"
"Ialiom. Who are you?"
"I am called Malleus."
"You smell like a fish."
"You smell like a human. Help me escape or I will kill you."
"Fine. What do I get in return?"
"I have nothing you want. I am the king of sludge."
"If you make me queen, I will show you the way out."
After a moment of strained reaching, the cell door clicks open. Malleus scoops up Ialiom and slides down a dark corridor, as she directs. Soon they are on the street, and then at the walls (the bodies of soldiers rotting even in the pools of saltwater), and then the beach. Malleus does not speak, carrying Ialiom roughly into the tide, beyond the shallow waters (she is choking), and down over the shelf into the black depths. When he arrives at his chamber, carved from the roots of an island, he places the drowned child on his chair. Malleus leaves, and she sees him go. The world is blurry to her, and everything is cold. But the clownfish soon arrive to welcome her in their quiet curious way to her new waving home. She laughs at the way they turn their flat heads to eye her from one side or the other. It feels strange to laugh at the bottom of the sea.
A blast of hot water washes over Malleus as he approaches the Bonewhale. "You have brought one of them into our home!" it rumbles. The octopus carefully removes the book from its garment with a slow, curving gesture, and holds it aloft. The Bonewhale is silent.