The sea forgives all. That’s what they say, thought the tall, dark-eyed man standing vigil at the stern of the Aquilon. His eyes were set on the waves trailing them in the fading light of dusk. Every ripple was another step away from his mistakes; another moment away from the past. There would be people that would hate him. He was used to it. Others might try to hunt him down. They could try. Only one person might miss him. That one, though…that one would hurt.
He remembered how he had left England, sneaking away in the night like a thief. A small boat had picked him up on the coastline south of Falmouth and ferried him by moonlight out to the Aquilon waiting in the Channel. Although his contract specifically stated that no questions would be asked, the mate that picked him up had been suspicious, fairly so. None of their other passengers had asked for such secrecy.
“What’s your name, Englishman?” the mate had asked with a heavy French accent as their dinghy was tossed about by the rough waters. His passenger had raised an eyebrow as he met the sailor’s gaze. After a moment, he sighed and responded.
“John Barons,” he said. He supposed he could give him that much. It wasn’t as if it was his real name anyways. The man nodded. As they were nearing the ship, he brought the small boat to a stop and stared down Barons.
“And what are you that we have the pleasure of going through this cloak and dagger nonsense? Disgraced noble, I presume. Catholic? Separatist?” Barons mulled the question in his head. He realized that he had no simple answer to give. Assuming he had to reply, he gave the only response he could.
“I’m a liar,” he said with a smirk.
“Aren’t we all?” said the Frenchman. Minutes later, he was onboard the Aquilon and headed for the new world. He believed it then. The sea forgives all.
They had been at sea for two weeks and he had finally gotten used to life on the ship. For the first week he had been as sick as a dog, holed up in his cabin and completely useless. He couldn’t be held down for long, though. After getting his sea legs, he had set about making as many friends on the ship as he could. It was a gift he’d always had. He could get anyone talking like an old friend in no time at all. Instead of lying low like he should have, he had spent the last few nights below deck telling the most thrilling tales he could muster. Some were even true.
For a moment, Barons could see his reflection in the water between the ripples beneath him. How many times had he looked in the mirror and seen the same look in his eyes? He pulled himself away from the shimmering waves and turned to head back below deck. It was the perfect time to head to the mess hall when one required a brief period of peace and quiet. The majority of the crew was already above deck, having finished their evening meal, and there would still be some food left before the bottom of the barrel. While the night’s leftovers weren’t the finest food in the world, he doubted it would have been any better fresh.
From the whispers among those onboard, the glory days of the Aquilon had passed, its trade routes usurped and undercut. It had been forced to find a way to survive, and shipping undesirables across the Atlantic had made it money. The captain, Cartier, would take anyone that paid onboard. Religious refugees, wanted criminals, deserters, and the like could reach the new world if they had the money to pay. Still, rumor was that if profits didn’t pick up in the coming months, the captain may have to take more desperate measures.
Barons made his way across the deck, greeting crewmen of more than a few nationalities. He could pick out words of English, French, and Spanish being shouted across the ship. The crew seemed to be as much outcasts as the people they were ferrying. As he went along, his eyes moved up the mast to the web of rigging and the sails soaring above him. They rose like the spires of a cathedral into the briny air. For an instant, they reminded him of the high, vaulted ceiling of the mansion he had inhabited for the last few years. He hadn’t felt comfortable there either.
As he reached the stairs down to the lower decks, Barons heard an argument raging on the deck above him. He saw the French captain, Cartier, arguing with a bearded, heavyset man with wild eyes. Barons believed his name was Owenson. He was an Irishman that was avoided by most of the ship’s denizens, although it had not been explained why. He was supposed to be a professor of some kind.
“We can’t go this way, Captain!” said the man with half-suppressed panic. “These waters aren’t safe!”
“It’s water like any other, Owenson,” said the captain. “The Royal Navy and the East India Company control the other routes and we don’t want to meet either. They don’t come by this route.”
“They don’t come this way for a reason!” was the reply. “Too many ships not coming back. These are the waters where Lanti fell! This is the Festering Sea!”
“The day I change my plans based on your…myths is the day I stop sailing.” Barons could tell “myths” was not the word he wanted to use.
“Fine,” said Owenson. “But pray to whatever god you want that I’m wrong.” The Frenchman scoffed and walked away.
Barons was about to continue below deck when he caught a scent in the briny air. At first, he assumed it was the galley below. Off odors coming from below deck were not uncommon. For a moment, though, he caught a whiff of something below the normal scent; something rotting. He ignored it and headed down the stairs.
Entering the mess hall, Barons was pleased to see that his plan had worked almost to perfection. Besides the cook in the back, there was only one occupant remaining: a large, dark Spaniard by the name of Lastres. The man glanced up questioningly as Barons passed by him. The Englishman quickly procured his rations from the cook. It wasn’t much. A biscuit that one could safely use as a hammer and a chunk of meat that was only beef in the crudest sense. He supposed costs had to be cut somewhere.
Scanning the hall with its sole diner, he decided that he should probably attempt to socialize. He was one of the few men onboard he had not talked to yet. Barons approached the table where Lastres was seated.
“May I join you?” he asked jovially. The Spaniard looked him over for a moment, then grunted and motioned towards the seat opposite him.
“You know, I had a cousin that was engaged to a man from Barcelona a while back,” said Barons. “Beautiful part of the country I hear. It was a pity when they had to break it off. Politics, you know.” He was about to continue with this narrative when a voice interrupted from behind him.
“I wouldn’t associate with the cultist if I were you,” said Owenson, appearing suddenly from above deck. “Not the most trustworthy of people.” Lastres’s cool demeanor was gone in an instant.
“Don’t you dare call me that,” he said.
“Why not?” asked Owenson. “Doesn’t that mark on your forearm denote a member of the Cult of Holm?” Barons noticed a tattoo on the man’s arm before he quickly pulled a sleeve down over it. He had never seen it before. It looked like a line between two mirrored triangles meeting at the tip, one with a curved side. The Englishman, despite his distrust of Owenson, backed slightly away from Lastres.
“Oh yes,” he continued to Barons. “You see, this distasteful group has a book called the History of Holm. Now, it doesn’t just tell the past. They think it tells the future, up to the very end of creation. And they think it’s their job to make the things in it happen. Unfortunately, it contains mostly disasters, wars, that sort of thing.” Barons noticed Lastres growing more agitated by the word. “And they take their orders from a man they think is an immortal messenger of the gods. They call him the-“
“You will watch your tongue or I will cut it out, Ashbough scum,” said Lastres, his voice dripping with spite. “You think I don’t recognize what you are, as well? There are no others that seem to value their own lives so little.” He pointed at a large satchel that hung at Owenson’s side. The Irishman quickly put a hand over it protectively. “If any of them other than you still exist. I seem to recall your ‘college’ being burned to the ground.” Now it was the other man that began to seethe.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve read the History of Holm. I’ve read it beginning to end. Have you ever even seen a copy of it? Or do you just follow blind orders? How many people have you killed?”
“Perhaps one more, today,” said Lastres, rising to his feet. Barons dropped all subtlety, rose from his seat and backed away from the two with his face aghast. Another voice suddenly erupted from the doorway into the mess hall.
“You will stop this at once!” screamed Captain Cartier. “Or I will have both of you thrown overboard! Do I make myself clear?” The two combatants glowered at one another. Owenson was determined to have the last word.
“You all need me,” he said. “Not just you. Humanity itself. I know things. Things no one else knows. I know of the Dirge of Lasaria and the Bitter Oath! The Decay of the Black Sun! The Gallows of Lanti! The Malgam War!” Even Lastres had a look of shock on his face now as the Irishman ranted.
“I don’t care if you know the combination to the king’s personal safe!” said Cartier, advancing until he was in Owenson’s face. “You will cease this raving when you are aboard my ship!”
The man finally fell silent and nodded his assent. Lastres made a swift retreat from the mess hall as Owenson walked across the room and collapsed into a seat.
“I’d keep a wide berth between those two and yourself,” said the captain to Barons. “In fact, I’d just keep to your cabin if I were you.” It sounded as though Cartier was not a fan of his. He stormed off and left Barons alone with Owenson in the room.
Barons was about to take Cartier’s advice when something occurred to him that piqued his curiosity. He sauntered over towards Owenson and sat down, hoping this interaction might fare better than the last.
“You mentioned something about Lanti,” said Barons. The supposed professor met his gaze as soon as the name was uttered. “You said something about that above deck not long ago, too. What is it?”
“It’s a where,” he replied. “And a who. The cities of old were ruled by gods. And the names of the gods were the names of the cities. You’ve heard the story of Atlantis? That myth is a bastardization of the true story. Lanti was an outcast city. The gods cast dark and monstrous shadows on their cities. Horrible things happened in them. Most of them. The first cities would not tolerate dissent, you see. They thought that people that went against the common beliefs would weaken their gods. Some were killed. Many were exiled. And the exiles, still being drawn to the divine, created new cities and new gods. The outcast cities.”
“Sounds a lot like this ship,” said Barons, a wistful quality to his voice. “People with no home trying to find a new one.”
“You’re more right than you know,” said Owenson. “Lanti was right around here, in these waters.”
“I didn’t think there was any land around here.”
“There isn’t,” came the reply. “They created a great floating city, built of wood and iron.”
“That can’t possibly be true,” said Barons dismissively. “Something like that would never survive the open ocean.”
“It wouldn’t survive without the power of a god holding it together. And not only did Lanti’s power preserve the city, it rose a monstrous, eternal storm around it, protecting it from anyone that would do it harm, but allowing its citizens to come and go as they pleased.”
“Then how did these exiles get there?”
“Ah, yes,” said Owenson. “There’s the rub. You see, the god Lanti lived on a tiny island just outside the storm. Any exiles that wanted to enter the city had to stop and confess.”
“Lanti asked them why they had been exiled. Then, after they had told him, Lanti would tell them to take their vessels and steer them directly into the storm. If you were deemed worthy, you would pass through unscathed, the same as a citizen. If you weren’t, well, the storm did not leave survivors. Large ships were dismantled to add to the ever-growing city. Valuables were added to the treasury. For a time, life in Lanti was peaceful.”
“If it was so peaceful and protected, why is it gone now?” asked Barons. Owenson grinned broadly, obviously enjoying his audience.
“That, my boy,” he said, “is a tale for another day.” Barons noticed his hand moving towards the satchel at his side. A symbol on it showed five parallel lines, decreasing in length at the sides. To Barons, it looked oddly like bars over an arching doorway. He was about to inquire further when a loud scream came from above them. It was followed by more commotion and yelling. Owenson turned pale and froze while Barons bolted out of his seat and scurried above deck.
The smell that had been subtle as he went below deck was now overwhelming. The stench of rot and death filled the air like a fog. Barons’ stomach heaved as it washed over them, but he was able to keep himself from vomiting. Many other denizens of the ship were unable to do so. The screaming had stopped and the sound of retching now echoed through the otherwise silent morning. Noticing that most of the crew was at the sides of the ship, Barons hurried over, hoping he didn’t miss whatever they were gawking at. Upon nearing the edge of the deck, he realized he hadn’t had to rush.
At first, he thought that the setting sun had turned the sea red, but, as he watched and the sun lowered beneath the horizon, the ship’s lanterns showed them the reality. The sea around them had turned to gore. As far as one could see, the tide had turned a brilliant crimson. Masses of nightmarish flotsam were everywhere as chunks of flesh floated by them. Looking up at the awestruck faces of the crew, Barons noticed Cartier not far from where he stood.
“Captain!” he said. “Is this a dead whale?” The captain merely shook his head and pointed at the water below them. Barons followed his gaze to a heap of gore beneath them. A human skull was clearly visible in its center. He slapped a hand over his mouth and backed away from the side of the ship in terror. He tried to think of any other explanation. “A shipwreck?” he muttered to himself. “A sea battle?”
“There was no battle here, boy,” said a voice from behind him. Barons turned to see Owenson behind him, looking like he had seen a ghost. “This is the Festering Sea.” As fearful as his voice was, there was a tone behind it saying “I told you so” that Barons could not stand. He grabbed the Irishman by the collar.
“What the hell does that mean??”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Something is coming, but I have no idea what.” Barons tightened his grip. “Not yet! I don’t know yet! But I will.”
“I was part of the Ashbough Society. We’ve been scouring the world for information about the gods, the cities, and the shadow war for decades!”
“What the hell is the ‘shadow war’?” asked Barons.
“Dead gods and their servants lurk in the shadows. They hunt down and mark souls for their own consumption. They become more powerful every day. Eventually the dam is going to burst and then the real war will begin!”
“What does that have to do with this?” Barons said while motioning to the panicked crew and the bloodied sea.
“If I’m right, we’re about to become ammunition in that war,” he said, his eyes scanning the horizon. “Our souls are about to undergo a trial. Architects preserve us.”
As if on cue, the crew began to murmur once again. Barons released Owenson and ran back to the side of the ship. Just ahead of the horizon, the waters had begun to stir, a mist rising out of them and into the air. In moments, massive clouds have risen. Yelling from the other side of the deck brought a cold feeling to Barons’ gut. He looked behind him to the main mast. He ran to it and began to climb. As he ascended high enough to have a good line of sight, he scanned the horizon and his worst fears were realized. The clouds completely surrounded them. Inside the blood red clouds, lightning began to flash. Thunder pounded the air around them. They were caught in the eye of a storm. From below him, Owenson beckoned him down.
“No matter what happens,” he said as Barons dropped to the deck. “You have to save this book!” As the Englishman gave him a questioning look, the Ashbough scholar pulled a ragged looking tome from the satchel he had been carrying. The book’s cover was a shimmering blood red. The same symbol of five parallel lines that adorned his bag was branded at its center. “This is Ashbough’s last copy of the Emberbog.”
“The Emberbog was written by Dae Recik himself! The last librarian of Minock! It names every one of the shadow gods and their aspects! This is the oldest and most complete copy! It has to be saved!”
“First, we have to be saved,” said Barons. “If that thing can help us, get to it.” Screams erupted from the men watching the waves. “And fast.”
“I think we’ll have to save ourselves this day,” replied the Irishman.
Sprinting back to the railing of the ship, Barons saw something that would haunt any man forever. From the flesh and blood filling the tide beneath them, something was stirring. Dozens of shapes began to move through the waves towards the Aquilon. The gathered seamen, for the first time, began to back away from the deck.
As Barons watched, an arm reached over the edge of the ship. It was like nothing he’d ever seen. It stretched and bloated like it was a liquid. From below, a creature pulled itself over the railing. It had the same fluid quality, but it was terrifyingly shaped like a man. Where a face should have been was pure nothingness. The crew gathered in a tight mass around the mast as more of the things appeared on all sides. They heard Owenson shriek and point beneath them. A swirling mass seeped through the boards of the deck beneath them. Chaos broke out.
Seeing no safe haven, the crew scattered. Many ran below deck. Some pulled blades and pistols and attempted to take the fight to the invaders. Barons watched as Captain Cartier put a pistol to the face of one of the creatures and pulled the trigger. The shot passed through, the mass of its head distorting like fog and then reforming. The captain, who had not uttered a word to this point, finally let out a cry of fear as the thing reached out for him, completely unfazed.
One of them approached Barons. Getting a close look at one for the first time, he was awestruck. The creature was a twisting mass of liquid of two types. Parts of it were gleaming silver while the other half was a sickly green. Acting foolishly out of instinct, Barons threw a fist at the head of the monster. He immediately regretted it. His hand passed through as though it were falling rain. The sickly, green part of it was searing hot. The silver, however, was as if he had placed his hand into the seas of the Antarctic. Pulling his fist back in agony, the abomination thrust its limb into his shoulder and twisted him to the deck, the pain forcing him down as if it was a solid mass. Bending his head around, Barons could see that almost every other human being on the deck had been put into submission. The stragglers from below deck were being herded back up. Beside him, Owenson had been forced to his knees. Cartier was still standing, but had been backed against the mast.
“What are these things, Owenson?” asked Barons. “You’re the expert on everything, right?”
“Not everything,” said the Irishman, his voice thick with fear. “I have no idea what these are.”
“Not what I wanted to hear.”
There was dead silence on the Aquilon. Every living being held their breath, waiting to see what was going to happen as their faceless captors stood over them. After what seemed like forever, Lastres, who was closest to the side of the ship, let out a gasp. Every eye followed his gaze.
A dark shape appeared in the flashes of lightning filling the crimson storm surrounding them. An enormous ship emerged from the clouds and approached them. Barons’ jaw dropped as it came close enough to make out. Echoes of Lanti filled his mind. The ship was a ramshackle dreadnaught that appeared to be created from the shattered husks of countless other ships. He wanted to believe the thing was a hallucination, that nothing like it could survive on the ocean, but the eyeless creatures holding them captive had taken away any doubt of dark sorcery in that cursed sea.
As the battered vessel pulled alongside the Aquilon, a single figure stood out in the pallid light of lanterns hanging from its yardarms. As it moved towards them, the crew remained deathly quiet. It was the shape of a man, but the head was disturbingly wrong. As it met the railing of its ship, the creature disappeared. Moments later, the thing reappeared; directly in front of them onboard the Aquilon.
Barons’ eyes slowly rose from the hulking figure’s feet to its head. It was clad in what must have been black leather of the finest quality at one time. Now, the material was scarred, faded, and half-covered in greenish sea scum. In one hand, it held an elaborate trident. The weapon was ornately crafted of silver. An elaborately woven net hung over most of the creature’s torso. It shone like pure gold, with gemstones and filigree reflecting the flashes of lightning in the distance. All of this was overshadowed by its head, which lolled to the side at a horrific angle, the ends of shattered neck bones visible through pallid flesh. His eyes blazed with an inner fire.
“The Hanged Man,” whispered Owenson, his voice resonating with fear. “The Blade of Carn.”
“What does that mean??” said Barons impatiently, growing tired of the man’s proclivity for dispensing nonsensical words instead of useful information.
“It means the Aspect of Judgment has come,” was the bleak reply.
The creature began to move among the subjugated crew, looking them over carefully, as if looking for something. Most of them averted their eyes, too terrified to look the Hanged Man in the eye. As he moved, he struck the bottom of his trident onto the boards of the deck. The noise echoed through the entirety of the Aquilon, cutting through the thunder in the air like a knife. The scent of brine and death emanated from the thing. When he reached Owenson, Barons was shocked to see the Irishman return the creature’s gaze with a glimmer of spite in his eyes. A grin appeared on the aspect’s lips as it turned and retreated to the edge of the deck. It began to speak in some ancient tongue. Its voice was a low and throaty growl, croaking its way through a twisted neck.
“Ra’an tev’arugal,” it said. “Kel ayasal tev valak.” Barons couldn’t understand the words, but their meaning was clear. They were in trouble. When the thing opened its mouth again, Barons heard it speaking English. He couldn’t tell if it was real or another dark magic at work.
“You have entered the Sea of the Fisherman,” it said. “The realm of ancient Lanti. And as the exiles of old were judged in the shadow of the storm, so shall you be as well.” The Hanged Man looked over the huddled mass of humanity and, suddenly, pointed towards the mate that had rowed Barons to the ship the first night. “That one.”
The aqueous creature at the man’s back thrust an appendage into him, the pain driving him forward. As he stumbled to his feet, the hulking aspect grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to the side of the ship. As before, the Hanged Man disappeared, but, this time, the mate vanished with him before reappearing on the deck of the crumbling ship across the gap. Barons saw a look of utter shock on the man’s face. It was more than just being dragged by the monstrous captain. He had the look of a man who has seen something he knew he was not supposed to.
Enthralled though he was, a flurry of activity to his right drew Barons’ attention. He found Owenson flipping frantically through the book he thought was so important. If the creatures detaining them noticed, they made no movement to stop him. They must have only cared about their captives staying put. With their master present, they did not seem to have much autonomy. Out of the corner of his eye, Barons watched the man finally stop at a page containing a single symbol. It was two mirrored arcs intersecting near their lowest point. An “X” shape between the two gave it the strange appearance of a sprouting plant.
“The symbol of Carn, the Firstborn,” muttered Owenson. He began to continue into the section when a loud gasp echoed across the deck of the Aquilon, distracting both him and Barons. The sight they witnessed onboard the ship alongside them made the pages fall silently out of Owenson’s fingers.
The Hanged Man had backed their ship’s mate out onto a plank hanging over the bloodied sea beneath. His trident pressed up against the man’s chest, keeping him immobile. From the rigging above, a long rope descended and attached to a noose around his neck. Jaws dropped throughout the crowd and not a sound was heard until the aspect spoke.
“Your sins,” it said. “Your worst. Tell me. Why are you here, outcast?” Silence hung in the air like a fog as the man on the plank struggled to meet the creature’s gaze. For a moment, he glanced back at the crew. Barons couldn’t tell if he was seeking support or fearing judgment. As the Hanged Man pushed the tip of his trident into the man’s chest, he finally found his voice.
“I was a thief!” he cried, his voice wavering. “I am a thief. I robbed women, children, beggars, anyone with anything.” He glanced back towards the Aquilon, his voice becoming steadier. “Hell, half of the people on the ship are going to find something missing. What are they going to do? Go to the authorities? I don’t even do it because I need it anymore. I throw half of it overboard. It’s the thrill of it. Maybe it always was.” The mate’s eyes finally met those of the monstrous figure in front of him. They dropped immediately afterwards, his courage fading. “Heaven help me.”
A seeming eternity followed as the crew watched to see what would happen. Finally, the Hanged Man dropped his trident and pulled the man roughly from the plank, the noose falling limp behind him. Barons didn’t see how it had been removed. He briefly thought it might be some kind of illusion, but the softly swinging rope looked far too real.
Once again, the aspect and the mate disappeared as they crossed the gap. Reappearing, the man was tossed viciously to the deck at the feet of one of the faceless, swirling figures. The man’s eyes were wild as he looked up at the blank face of the thing above him.
“They’re souls,” he said, his voice a monotone whisper. “They’re souls.” He curled up into a ball on the deck as the Hanged Man had another man brought to him. As they crossed the gap, Owenson turned to Barons with a new expression on his face. It was rage.
“Marked souls,” he said. “Souls enslaved by a shadow god. They shouldn’t be here. They should be at the Western Crossroads in the land of the golden-eyed one. The Realm of Death. This is an abomination. Although what do I expect from the one that betrayed Lanti?”
“I thought you said it was a servant of Carn,” said Barons. “Now it’s Lanti?”
“He only served Lanti in life,” replied Owenson. “The Fisherman chose not to come back as a shadow of itself like Carn did. Why would it choose an aspect that betrayed it in life, anyways?”
“Why would Carn?”
“No one knows why the shadow gods chose certain dead souls to serve them,” replied the Irishman.
“Perhaps, some they knew in life. Some might just have been perfect examples of an attribute of the gods. Maybe some of them just amused them to take.” He turned his attention back down to the Emberbog. “These are the aspects of the Firstborn.” He turned the page and pointed to a picture of a woman with six arms in a long flowing robe. “Memory.” The next page contained an image of a man with pure black eyes and a salesman’s smile. “Deception.” Flipping one last page, Barons saw what could only be an image of the creature holding them prisoner; a hulking figure with its head lolling to one side. “And Judgment.” He paused. The next man had been dragged onto the plank of the ship across from them. It was Lastres, the supposed cultist.
“Confess your sins,” said the Hanged Man, looming over the large Spaniard. Even with the noose around his neck, the man did not show the same fear as the man before him. He spoke with a courage that Barons could not fathom.
“I have killed two men,” he said. “I was involved in a plot to kill an English lord. All of it was ordered by the Cult. So it was written in the History of Holm. I help save the world by following its direction. I have no guilt. I will be rewarded at the Crossroads. The King that Never Was will preserve my soul.” Lastres looked the Hanged Man in the eyes without blinking. The aspect returned his gaze, a demonic grin playing on its lips.
“Allow me to tell you something about your beloved king,” it said. It leaned forward and whispered something to the man on the plank. The men onboard the Aquilon couldn’t make out the words, but Lastres’ face went pale. Whatever information he had received had taken something out of him. With a look of satisfaction at breaking the man’s spirit, the Hanged Man thrust his trident into his midsection. Lastres fell backwards towards the crimson water below. The rope went taut. The snap of his neck echoed like a thunderclap.
With a sweep of his trident, the aspect slashed through the rope above the dangling body. It feel into the sea below with a loud splash and a spray of gore. As the Hanged Man turned and headed back towards the Aquilon, Barons watched the frayed rope behind it slowly snake downwards and form into a new noose. A minute later, another man had the rope around his neck and the cycle continued. Barons turned back to Owenson. If anyone had any information they could help them, he did.
“What did he do?” asked Barons. “How did Lanti fall?” Hearing the question, Owenson raised his eyes to the storm on the horizon, his gaze unfocused. After a moment and with a glance to the creature on the ship opposite them, he slowly closed his tattered book and placed it back into his satchel. His voice was cold and steady when he spoke, the story having taken on new importance.
“We had another book at Ashbough College,” said Owenson. “The Book of Godfall. It tells the story of the end of the cities. It tells the story of a man that would come to be called a demon. But whatever he became, he was a man once. A man of Carn, the first city, where the men had dark skin and blue eyes. He was exiled from the city, like so many others. But, unlike the others, he returned. And, when he did, he had come into possession of strange and terrible powers. The city was burned to the ground and the Firstborn god was slain.”
“How does a god die?” asked Barons. As he did, the Hanged Man returned to the ship to gather another man for the rope. The number of men to his side was dwindling. It wouldn’t be long before it was Barons’ turn.
“Not well,” said Owenson. “After his city was burned to ash, the man of Carn looked out at the rest of the world and decided that one god was not enough. He believed that the gods had become dark and merciless. He decided that the gods of the cities must all be destroyed.”
“Did he succeed?” asked Barons. Owenson was silent for a moment before answering.
“He did,” replied the professor. “And the last of the cities was Lanti. By that time, Lanti had grown too large for its own good. Many exiles had been allowed entry and the population had grown over the years. There were too many to feed and house inside the protection of the storm. To survive, they had become violent and cruel, pillaging ships and villages for supplies. But it wasn’t enough.”
Another man was returned to the Aquilon and another was taken.
“There was a certain man that was regent in the city. He was a cold and pragmatic man that viewed himself as the purveyor of Lanti’s will. He acted as judge, jury, and executioner as he saw fit. He looked out at the floating city in the storm and wondered what he could do to save it, to keep it from tearing itself apart. And the god slayer was there at his side, having destroyed eleven gods and having become extremely efficient at it. He whispered three words into the ear of Lanti’s regent. ‘So many unjudged’.”
“That’s it?” asked Barons. His blood had slowly turned to ice. He thought he knew where the story was going, despite the utter madness of it.
“That’s it,” said Owenson. “Then the god killer waited and watched. The regent understood what he meant. The original exiles had been judged as worthy by the god on his little island outside the storm, but their sons and daughters were born into the city. They had never confessed. They had never been tested. So, one at a time, he went through the population of Lanti and decided their fate. He found hundreds of them unworthy.”
“They exiled them?” asked Barons. Before Owenson could answer, the crack of a neck echoed through the night sky like thunder. From the look on the scholar’s face, Barons could guess the answer.
“He deemed it too costly and too inefficient,” he said. “Gallows were erected across the edge of Lanti, dangling over the sea. And for two days and two nights, the regent and his loyal followers put those he considered leeches on the city to death, throwing the bodies into the waters below. Over the following week, the waters filled with blood and rot. They called it The Festering Sea.”
Barons closed his eyes tightly, forcing himself not to look at the crimson sea around them; a sea where another body had just been added to the bloodshed of the past. The professor continued.
“And on the morning of the final day, when the last body was cast into the sea and even his followers had become sickened by the slaughter, the man who wanted to be Lanti was the only one standing to see the morning light creep into the eye of the storm. They gave him another name after that; one that was part mockery and part truth for the man that had found the darkest path to hope.” Owenson paused a moment and glared at the creature taking yet another captive. “Dawnseer.”
Chills ran down Barons’ spine as the crew watched Captain Cartier dragged in front of them and towards the void between ships. As he struggled against the aspect’s grip, the captain’s pistol fell from his belt and landed on the deck in front of Barons with a dull thud. As the rest of the crew watched their captain in horror, Barons grabbed the pistol and tucked it into his belt. He didn’t know if it would be any use, but the thought of putting a bullet between the crooked eyes of Dawnseer gave him a dark thrill. Before long, Cartier was on the plank with the noose around his neck. The trident of the Hanged Man pressed into his flesh more deeply than any others so far.
“Your sins, Captain.” The Frenchman’s normally steadfast demeanor collapsed all at once, a sob wracking his body.
“I knew this day was coming,” said Cartier, steeling himself slightly. “I worked a slave ship for five years. I saw death and torture and cruelty as you would not believe. And I was paid well for it. Very well. And when I had been paid well enough, I got out and I bought the Aquilon. I tried being a good man. I really did. But it is not working.” Another sob went through him. “I swore I’d never go back to the slave trade, but God help me, I might.” A look came onto the captain’s face then that Barons could not place. It looked like…acceptance? “Or I might not, after all.”
The crew watched in horror as, completely without prodding, the captain took a step backwards. Barons, along with most of the crew, looked away at the sound of breaking bone. When he looked up a moment later, he caught a glimpse of an odd sight. A look of shock flashed across the twisted face of the Hanged Man. In an instant, it was replaced with rage at its prey escaping it. The aspect stormed back onto the Aquilon and viciously grabbed the next man. Barons could tell his turn was approaching quickly.
“You still haven’t told me how the city fell, Owenson,” he said. The professor spoke more quickly than before, feeling the same pressure.
“After the slaughter, the bloodied waters reached the god Lanti on his island. For the first time in hundreds of years, the lord of the city entered the storm and demanded answers. It is not written what happened during the confrontation, but in the end, Dawnseer ran Lanti through with his blade and threw his body into the Festering Sea.”
“Christ almighty,” whispered Barons.
“And with their god slain, the power holding the timbers of Lanti together vanished. The storm calmed and the city began to crumble around its people. But before it completely succumbed to the sea, the doomed people of Lanti grabbed their regent, dragged him to the last remaining gallows, and left Dawnseer broken and dangling as he sank into the waves.”
“And that is how Lanti fell,” whispered Barons.
Heavy footfalls in front of them made the two men turn and look up into the lopsided eyes of the Hanged Man. It looked back and forth between the two, deciding which it wanted first. Finally, it settled its gaze on the Irishman.
“I believe you have told enough stories, scholar,” said the aspect. It grabbed the professor roughly by the collar and marched him across the void between ships. Barons almost jumped forward, trying to see more clearly as his only remaining ally on the ship was dragged to the noose. The shimmering creature behind him moved an arm closer and he thought better of it.
Looking across the expanse between ships, he saw the professor standing on the plank, rope around his neck. However, unlike the others, who had been turned to face the contorted face of judgment, Owenson was left looking across the water at the Aquilon. His eyes searched the deck for any semblance of aid. His gaze lingered on Barons for a moment and then fell to the water beneath him.
“Confess,” said the creature once called Dawnseer, its trident at the back of the professor’s neck. A look that was oddly familiar came onto the captive’s face; a look with wild eyes and a calm face.
“We did many dark things in the Ashbough Society,” he began in a wavering voice. “There was theft, extortion, blackmail, blood rituals, sometimes a killing. The upper echelons told us it was necessary to learn everything about our enemies; that we had no choice. I avoided doing most of those things, but, still, I saw them happening. I stood by and watched and did nothing. Because I believed.”
For a moment, nobody spoke or moved. For a longer time than any others, the aspect of judgment stood with his spear at the man’s back. Then, finally, a smile passed over its lips and its arm dropped. Owenson’s quaking legs gave out as he was grabbed and literally dragged back onboard the Aquilon. As the man was laid on the deck beside him, John Barons’ eyes rose and finally met the harrowing gaze of the aspect dead-on. There was no running; no hiding; no escape. Judgment had come at last.
“You,” said the Hanged Man. As he was grabbed by the arm and dragged towards the gap between ships, Barons had no idea what he was going to see. He braced himself for anything. He was still unprepared.
As they met the railing of the Aquilon, the world around them dissolved. Barons found himself hanging in an endless, black void. The ships to his front and back, the waves beneath, and the sky above vanished in an instant. The hard wood beneath his feet turned to a gelatinous mass of shadows. The air was empty, with the thundering storms on the horizon silenced. Looking behind him, he saw what he knew were souls, half-silver and half-sickly green, filling the air where the deck of the Aquilon would have been. But the creatures keeping them captive were nowhere to be seen. The souls he saw were those of the men being held against their wills on the deck. With a sinking realization, he looked down at his own arms. What he saw were in the exact shape of his hands, but shimmering in the void like a beacon of swirling colors. His body began to tremble as Barons looked to his left at the creature holding him.
The warped and decaying shape of the Hanged Man was nowhere to be seen. In its place was a towering soul of pure, shining silver. In the split second before they reached the deck opposite the Aquilon and the normal world flooded back, Barons saw a black shape hovering like a mist at the back of the being’s neck. It followed as though it were branded into the air itself just above the flesh. He recognized the mark of Carn.
Barons felt solid mass beneath him again as his feet hit the splintering wood of the warped ship. He was tugged towards the plank hanging over the Festering Sea below. The fight in him had left him temporarily. He had just seen into a world that mortals were not meant to know; not meant to understand. The endless void suddenly filled every shadow of the ocean around him. Before he knew it, he was above the water and he felt the frayed rope around his neck. He spun around and gazed into the crooked eyes of the creature that had once been called Dawnseer.
“Tell me, exile,” said the aspect. “What is your worst crime? What have you done to find yourself here?” The voice echoed in the air around Barons with the weight of ages. He couldn’t help but think it was powered by the very souls of the dead city of Lanti. As that thought sent a chill down his spine, a fire was ignited somewhere in the back of his mind.
Who was this thing to judge them? It had done worse than any of them. It had killed a god! It had destroyed a city! It wanted an answer? It would get one.
“You want to know what I did, monster?” said Barons. The gaze of the Hanged Man faltered at the steel in the man’s voice. Unlike the muttered confessions of the others, his voice rang out over the thunder. “I lied. A lot. I pretended to be a nobleman for years. I even wooed the daughter of one of the richest lords in England. I made the girl love me. Hell, I almost talked myself into loving her!” He glanced back towards the Aquilon. A dim light had appeared in the eyes of the crew. It told him one thing. Give him hell.
“But men like us cannot have good things, can we? No, sir,” continued Barons. “One day, a girl from up north got a hold of me in a tavern. God, she was a pretty girl. That look in her eyes; like a lioness.” Barons’ eyes moved dreamily to the horizon and he chuckled lightly. The Hanged Man’s arm dropped a fraction of an inch. “And then, do you know what happened? She comes back two months later, to my very home, and tells me she’s going to have my child, threatens to tell everyone, demands money, plays me at my own game!” Barons stifled a laugh. “Then, the next day, my wife comes to me and tells me she’s pregnant!” At that, a full-on, hysterical laugh broke out of Barons. For an instant, the creature in front of him took a step back as he cackled like a madman. A moment later, it returned its trident to the center of its captive’s chest, the point piercing the flesh, forcing him back to his senses.
“Oh, but you don’t know my father-in-law,” he said. “If he’d found out, which he would, I have no doubt, he’d have me killed, the girl killed, the child killed, and God help anyone else who knew.” He paused a moment to inhale. “He has a temper. So what else could I do but flee; sneak away in the night like a thief, which I am, I suppose? So, tell me, regent of ancient Lanti,” he said, punctuating each syllable, “Which of those sins was my worst? The lying, the laying, or the leaving? Take your pick.”
With that, Barons stood like a royal, met the gaze of the aspect, and spat in its face.
“Dawnseer, my ass.”
Wiping the spittle from his cheek, the rage of the aspect raged like a furnace. It pressed the point of its spear harder into the man’s chest, striking bone. Barons shuddered from the pain, but held fast. He expected at any moment to find himself falling towards the sea below. He didn’t know how long he had stared down the monster in front of him as the trident retreated and he felt the noose fall away from his neck. He expected to be dragged across the gap again, returned to the shadowy realm that he could never forget. Instead, the Hanged Man grabbed the front of his shirt in a death grip and, in one fluid motion, spun him around and sent him flying across the water. At the last moment, he saw the storm on the horizon, a grin on the face of the Hanged Man, and then the world turned black.
He awoke to the feeling of sand on his face. For a moment, he had a glimmer of hope that he was awash on some shore and that the entirety of the ordeal had been a dream. As he pushed himself onto his feet, that hope was dashed immediately. The world around him was nothing but cold and gray. He was on a small island full of spindly trees and short, brittle grass. The foliage and the water were the color of an overcast sky. The sand beneath him could have been ash. Only a few yards off the shore, a silver mist hung in the air, obscuring any vision. He was never one to dream vividly. He hoped that this was, in fact, a dream. What Owenson had said earlier about the realm of Death and the Western Crossroads echoed in his head. Had he died when he hit the deck of the Aquilon? Had any of that even happened? Reality seemed to be a fluid concept as he climbed to his feet.
Judging by the curve of the shore to either side of him, the gray island was tiny. Most of it was taken up by the swath of trees in its center. Barons was about to go and investigate what looked like a clearing when a man emerged from the trees and walked towards him. After so many strange things had happened, he was almost overjoyed to see it was just an old, portly man walking towards the edge of the water. In one hand, he held a long walking stick. As the man approached, however, Barons was not quite so sure. The man’s face seemed more youthful than he had first believed. Perhaps the lack of color in his beard had thrown him off. He could imagine it being a fiery red outside of the twilight world he was in.
The man ignored Barons as he passed him on his way to the shore. A net hung over one of his shoulders. Barons circled around the possibly old man and watched as he reached the edge of the water and cast his net into it. He was no expert on fishing, but he was reasonably sure it took more effort than the strange man exhibited to catch fish. He was proven wrong as the fisherman pulled his net back in teeming with fish. A dozen or more fish gasped and strained in vain against the lines of the net. They were species that Barons was not familiar with in the least; plump and beautiful even in shades of gray. The man gathered up his haul and draped it over his shoulder.
He began to walk back towards the woods at the island’s center, but something in the waves caught his attention. He reversed the grip on his walking stick and wielded it like a spear. For the first time, Barons noticed that the tip of the tarnished piece of wood had been whittled into three razor sharp spikes. The fisherman’s arm moved with a speed he could not have imaged as the spear plunged into the water and retreated just as quickly. On its end was a fish more majestic than anything Barons had ever seen. A glittering sail fin ran the length of its body. As the fish gave a final spasm, the fisherman looked back towards the silver curtain of haze surrounding the island.
Barons watched as the fog retreated back from the shore and a small boat approached the island. Its make was foreign to anything Barons had ever seen. He would have compared it to a Viking longboat, but broader and blockier. The brittle-looking wood it was composed of barely looked seaworthy. A cracked and blackened carving of a cloaked woman adorned the prow. The wrinkled surface of the sail was imprinted with the faded image of a symbol he had only recently become familiar with: five parallel lines.
The boat stopped a short ways from the shore and a man, the only occupant of the ship Barons could see, leapt out into the tide and waded ashore. Barons watched the man storm by him, also oblivious to his presence. The man wore thick furs that were completely incongruous with the warm, island setting around them. Turning around further he saw that the fisherman had vanished back into the glade. Smoke rose out of the clearing in its center. Barons followed the newcomer into the trees.
Pushing the trees aside, the two of them entered the fisherman’s domain. The strange, old man sat on the edge of a fire pit cooking the newly caught fish on several spits. A small, wooden cabin, barely large enough for a bed, sat on the edge of the woods behind him.
“Ah!” said the fisherman in a jovial tone, as if expecting them. “Come, my friend! I’ve just finished cooking these.” The man in fur stood silent for a moment, seemingly as confused as Barons as to how the man was expecting him. “They are a fine delicacy, I assure you; found only in these waters.”
“Um…thank you,” the man stammered, cautiously approaching the fire. His host happily handed him a spit as he sat down by the fire. He slowly took a bite, as if expecting it to be poisoned. After a few moments, he became more at ease and turned to the old man.
“I am indeed the Fisherman,” said the god through a mouthful of fish. “And you are?”
“My name is Alsan.”
“And where do you come from, Alsan?”
“I am from the god city of Minock, far in the icy reaches of the north,” he replied.
“Ah, the frozen library!” said Lanti with a grin. “I have always wanted to see it. I have heard stories about the great tiered library far beneath the icy mountains, hanging over a great abyss. Are the stories true?”
“They are,” said Alsan, gazing into the fire. “But I was not part of the library. I worked in the darker half of the city.”
“You mean the great prison?” asked the god. “Where the iron bars are so cold they rip flesh and prisoners from across the world transcribe books night and day to earn their freedom?” The man from the north looked into the god’s eyes in stunned silence, gauging his next words. Finally, his head sank, unable to meet his gaze any longer.
“Yes,” he said. “That is what I was part of.”
“And why are you here now, might I ask?” asked Lanti. Barons stared at the god as he conversed with the man. This was not what he had expected of a god at all. It merely sat and listened like a grandfather. There was neither arrogance nor pride in its voice. What were the gods of the ancient world?
“The Lord of the Abyss ordered horrible things in the darkness below the library. While the librarians studied in the light, we brought in gold below. Prisoners were sold; some to the men of Relk that are cannibals; some to work the mines of Intar, far beneath a great mountain; others to the brothels of Eden, the frozen garden. Many were made to fight to the death in the forgotten libraries of the pit.”
“And what did you do there?” asked Lanti with no hint of judgment in his voice.
“I was a guard,” said Alsan. “I killed seven men. Three tried to escape. Two disobeyed orders. Two of them the Lord of the Pit ordered dead because it amused him to do so.”
“And can you put those things behind you?” asked Lanti, the god’s voice suddenly and disturbingly cold and calculating. “Can you change if I allow you into the city in the storm?” The eyes of the god locked onto Alsan’s. The man’s eyes met his and did not falter.
“I have to believe so,” he replied. His voice was iron. The god smiled broadly.
“You will pass through the storm unharmed,” said Lanti. “And when you reach the city, your ship will be taken from you to be used by the city’s fleet or as lumber to expand the city. Then, you will go to the treasury at the city’s center and declare all that you own. What they ask of you, you will give them. Are these terms acceptable?”
“Yes, Lord Lanti,” said the man of Minock, rising from his seat and kneeling. The god laughed.
“On your feet, man of Lanti,” he said. “I am merely the Fisherman. Now, go with my blessing.”
Alsan rose, bowed his head, and left the clearing. Barons followed him out to his ship, still surrounded by the silver curtain of the vision. As the man climbed back aboard his craft, the silver mist fell apart all around the island. A large, gray sun cast cold light onto the beach. On the horizon to his left, a monstrous storm filled the horizon, much like back in the real world around the Aquilon. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled.
Barons watched the ship take off and head towards the storm. His stomach churned watching the ragged looking boat close in on the hurricane winds. He could not imagine what the man aboard was feeling, but still it went straight. He saw the mast bend and the sails stretch to their limits. The ship bucked on the churning waves.
Then, in an instant, without warning, the waters around the ship calmed. As it met the edge of the storm, the clouds cleared and the arcs of lightning seemed to curve around the opening, creating a tunnel through the storm, flanked by wind, rain, lightning, and death. The ship vanished into the storm and the opening closed as though it was never there. Barons collapsed onto the ashen sand of the beach in wonder.
He had not even had time to catch his breath when he saw something out of the corner of his eye to his right. Looking about, he saw another ship approaching the island. This was nothing like the boat before. This was a true ship, huge and imposing against the backdrop of the gray ocean. Barons had seen something like it in a book before. It looked like a dhow used by the Greeks or the Arabs, but larger than he had ever expected. Its huge arcing sail pressed towards the island of Lanti. Carved wave crests flowed from every piece of woodwork. A mob of a crew scurried about its deck. Barons made his way to his feet as the ship lowered a dinghy into the water and a small group headed for the shore.
Barons watched the newcomers curiously as they climbed out onto the gray beach and made their way towards the grove of trees where smoke still rose from the campfire. The three of them were obviously from very different places. One man wore thick, padded leather. The woman was dressed in oilskins. The last man, the leader, wore a black silk robe that flowed with the wind. Like the man before them, they entered the shadows of the woods.
The Fisherman looked up expectantly as they entered the clearing he called home. The look on his face was as friendly as it had been for Alsan. Barons remembered how quickly the god’s voice had gone cold, though. He wondered how much was real and how much was fantasy.
“Welcome!” said Lanti to his guests. “Which of you will speak for your party?” The three of them looked at each other in confusion. “Although you are all welcome, of course, I must first speak to one of your crew’s choosing alone. I advise you to choose wisely.” The man in the robe stepped forward without consulting the others.
“I will speak for our ship,” he said. The other man began to step forward and say something, but the woman placed a hand on his chest and glared. He stopped in his tracks and sighed.
“Excellent,” said Lanti. “Before you leave, please help yourself to some of the fish. It is very good, if I don’t say so myself.” The two of them took a skewer each with a bewildered look and then turned to exit the clearing. The man tore into the fish as if he hadn’t eaten for a week. The woman took a light sniff of it and then handed it to her companion.
“Now, tell me more about you and your crew,” said Lanti as the man in the robe sat down beside the fire.
“I am Cul Vahar,” said the man. “Former priest of Sted.” Barons could see the man being a priest. He could just sense the sanctimonious pride of the man. From where he stood, he could see a silver symbol embroidered into the priest’s robe. It looked like a slanted hourglass. “The crew of my ship is from many of the cities of the gods. Many are from Carn, Holm, and Zatan’Nataz. A few are from Lasaria and Eden. We have all been exiled and we all seek refuge.”
“I have heard stories of Sted,” said the Fisherman. “The grand necropolis delving endlessly into the sands; where sacred stones bind the dead to the physical realm, keeping the bodies from rotting and keeping their souls from finding the Western Crossroads.”
“Only temporarily,” said the priest hastily. “What we do lets the loved ones of the dead find closure, seeing their souls almost alive for a short while longer.”
“For a price,” said Lanti.
“A reasonable price,” said Vahar. “We must survive as well. Some may not understand, but the Priesthood of Sted offers a valuable service for the world.”
“What does a member of this Priesthood do to become an exile?” asked the god.
“I could very easily tell you what every member of my crew has done to find themselves here.”
“I want to know about you, Cul Vahar,” said Lanti with a curious tone. “You have already told me you speak for your entire ship. So, please, speak.” The priest’s eyes moved away from his host and into the fire for a split second. In between flashes of light from the shimmering flames, Barons saw the shadow of a look come over the man’s face. He had seen that same look somewhere before; sometime recently, in fact. He just couldn’t place it. The man of Sted steeled himself and turned back to the Fisherman.
“The desecration of a corpse is an unforgivable sin for one of my profession,” said the priest, his voice strained, but steady. “There was a body brought in one day of a man I knew long ago. He cheated me, robbed me, and left me half dead in a ditch. I had never let go of my hatred for the man. It blinded me and I stabbed his body many times, doing what I would have done having seen him again in life. I was stripped of my rank and cast into the desert. Now, I find myself here.” The man’s head slumped, but the god’s calculating eyes would give him no rest. After several tense moments, the Fisherman’s voice broke the silence.
“Very well, priest of Sted,” said Lanti, his voice retaining its jovial luster. “You may return to your crew and sail into the storm. I believe the city will be thankful for what you can provide them.”
“Truly?” asked the priest incredulously.
“Of course,” replied the god. “Would you like the last piece of fish for your journey?” He offered the final spit of meat to Vahar. The priest waved it away as politely as he could muster.
“I have never had a taste for fish,” he said abashedly with a grin. “I do hail from the desert, after all.”
“Pity,” said Lanti. The priest turned and began to walk back towards his ship. After a few steps, he stopped in his tracks. He hurriedly turned around and took the skewer from the Fisherman, who still held it out towards him. The god grinned broadly.
“I suppose I will have to learn to like it,” said the man of Sted. He turned towards the shore and made his way back to the beach. Much like with the man before, Barons followed him unseen back towards his vessel. The priest joined his two compatriots in the dinghy and they made their way back to the ship. Vahar tentatively picked a few pieces of fish from the spit as they went.
As they reached the huge ship they had come from, Barons felt a sense of dread he had not for Alsan, the guard. Something was wrong. Maybe it was the look he had seen on the face of the priest. Maybe it was the calculating tone of Lanti’s voice. As he was deliberating, he heard footfalls in the sand to his side. He glanced and saw the Fisherman standing on the beach watching the ship.
The craft turned towards the churning, perpetual storm. Barons could barely make out the shapes of the crew on the ship. Even so, he could see the tension and fear in their bearing as the raging winds of the eternal hurricane drew closer. The sail of the ship began to whip around. The waves tossed them like a ragdoll. Even though, Barons still expected the storm to calm as it had before. Instead, he watched a catastrophe unfold.
Bolts of lightning struck straight into the mast of the ship, blowing it to splinters. Barons stumbled forward into the water in shock. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Screams echoed over the ocean. More thunderbolts rocked the ship. Fires began to light and spread. The flaming sail was torn from its rigging and rose into the air like a flare calling for help. In a matter of moments, the craft floundered, leaned to its side, and sank beneath the waves. Barons watched for survivors to come up from the wreck. He prayed for it. It didn’t happen.
Looking at the god to his side, Barons saw the same satisfied smile that he had seen ever since the Fisherman first wandered onto the sand. As he thought about how many people had been on that ship, how many people had suffered without cause, he remembered something that Owenson had said to him earlier that day. The gods cast dark and monstrous shadows on their cities. Looking behind them on the beach, Barons finally noticed the shadows behind them. His own was normal, a mirror of himself. The shadow of the god spread over the entirety of the beach, enormous and inhuman, far from the shape of the old Fisherman.
As Barons came to that realization, the figure to his side turned to him and looked directly at him. Barons looked right back and saw the eyes of Lanti turn a bright gold. He knew the god finally saw him. He also knew that something had changed. This was not the look of the thing he had been watching. This was something new. Behind them on the sand, Lanti’s shadow, which had already been monstrous, grew less human, more rigid.
“Be careful who you put your faith in, John Barons,” said the creature. “That is all the advice I can give.” The golden eyes flashed and the gray world dissolved away.
Barons came to on the deck of the Aquilon, staring into a black, starless sky lit only by flashes of lightning and the pale light of lanterns.
“You’re awake!” Barons painfully sat up as Owenson scurried to his aid. Looking around, he saw that everything was as he had left it: faceless abominations holding the crew captive as another man was dragged away to the plank. From a quick count, it looked as though two of their number had been thrown to the Festering Sea.
“How long have I been out?” he asked, rubbing a large lump on his head.
“Quite some time,” said Owenson. “I almost thought you were dead. I am glad you’re not.” The professor took the same quick stock of the crew as Barons had. “You’ve missed many men led to the noose. Not many remain to be judged.” Barons looked into the horizon and saw the thunderous storm. He thought back to the gray world he had just left. If anyone knew what to make of it, it would be the Ashbough scholar.
“I had a vision,” he said in a whisper.
“It was like an incredibly vivid dream. I was there. I was on the island of Lanti. I saw men being judged.”
“You saw the Fisherman?” asked Owenson in an awed voice. Barons merely nodded. A thousand yard stare came onto the Irishman’s face as he spoke again. “Did you see silver or golden eyes?”
“Gold,” said Barons, his blood turning to ice. He was shocked when the ghost of a smile passed over the other man’s face.
“Then they are with us,” he said.
“Most who know of them call them the Architects, but there are other names. The Five. The Builders. The Truest Gods.”
“What do you call them?” asked Barons.
“In the oldest texts, they are only referred to as The Remnants,” said Owenson. “Perhaps they are the last of a long-dead race. Perhaps they are all that remains from the previous universe.”
“And what do they have to do with us?”
“Three of them created the world around us. The other two created all living beings. They have a vested interest in us. One is Life, who has silver eyes.” He paused for a moment.
“And the other? The one with golden eyes?” asked Barons, already knowing the answer.
“Death,” said the professor. “Able to assume the form of any of the dead. Sometimes, when they feel someone is important enough to help, they send visions that aid mortals in evading the marks of the aspects.”
“I must be,” said Owenson. “Think about it. I am the last member of the Ashbough society. I hold possibly the most important copy of the Emberbog in existence.”
“Then why did I have the vision?” asked Barons, and offended tone in his voice.
“Isn’t it obvious?” asked the professor. “You were the only one here that was unconscious. It apparently has to come in a dream.” The look of affront on Barons’ face did not subside. “Not to say you might not have a part it in! Gods, a man that has the audacity to spit in the face of an aspect must have use in the shadow war!”
“I doubt it,” said Barons, his tone softening. “I’m not the soldier type.”
“Never mind that,” said Owenson. “What did you learn in the vision?? How do we get out of this with our souls intact?” Barons watched another captive be led back to the Aquilon and another be taken before answering.
“I don’t know,” he said. The Irishman looked at him with disbelief.
“Then what the hell did you see??”
Barons took a deep breath before answering, knowing time was short.
“The first man I saw was a guard,” he said. “He did horrible things. He made most of the people here look good. Then Lanti let him pass through the storm.”
“The next man was a priest leading an entire ship of people,” said Barons. “He said he stabbed a corpse many times. It didn’t seem nearly as bad as the last man, but as their ship sailed into the storm…” Barons paused as he remembered the sight of the ship going down in the storm.
“How many dead?”
“All of them,” said Barons. “And I don’t know why.” The two of them were interrupted as the Hanged Man returned and tossed the latest throwback onto the deck in front of them. The grin on the aspect’s face made it apparent they had garnered special attention. Barons glowered right back at the towering figure. Another man was taken and dragged aboard Dawnseer’s ship.
“That’s the last man,” said Owenson. He paused as the man across the crimson sea was put to into the noose. When he resumed speaking, his voice came quickly and quietly. “I think I know how he is judging us.”
“What??” demanded Barons. “How long have you known that??”
“I’ve suspected for a while,” he said.
“And you wait until now?” asked Barons, his voice venomous.
“I wasn’t sure,” said Owenson quickly. “I believe that Lanti of old let people into his city that he believed could change; that could be a benefit to his people. I think it is the amount of guilt you have when you admit your sins that determines your fate.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“Lastres was the first killed, correct?” said the professor. “He was quite adamant that what he had done was justified. I do not recall any of the survivors being quite as proud. What about this priest in your vision?” Barons recalled the odd look on the priest of Sted’s face. He remembered how he had tried to justify his crime and the steadiness of his voice. It almost made sense. Almost.
“Perhaps you are correct,” said Barons, not feeling that way at all. He felt as though there was something more to it; something that shouldn’t be so…vague. Something tugged at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t tell what.
Faster than he had expected, the Aspect of Judgment returned with their last crewmate, dropping him unceremoniously onto the deck. The Hanged Man made a gesture with one hand and the marked souls surrounding the crew stiffened and then made their quivering way between them and towards the railing of the ship. As they began to ooze over the edge of the deck and back into the Festering Sea, their master addressed the crew.
“Here, above sunken Lanti, you have all been judged,” it said. “You have all been spared. Your fallen will remain here, their bodies added to the Festering Sea and their souls added to my minions. Now, go. Go through the storm, back to your pitiful lives, and never return.” With that, the Hanged Man vanished through the shadows and back onto his craft for a final time. He brought his trident down onto the deck with a metallic clang that echoed throughout the eye of the storm. As the crew of the Aquilon looked around, they saw the storm surrounding them change. The lightning grew less frequent. The clouds became thinner. It didn’t take long for the ship’s mate to rally the crew.
As the sails of the Aquilon were readied, a strong wind arose at their stern. With an unheard of haste, the craft broke away from the battered wreck of a dreadnought that had kept them hostage. The ship raced towards the storm that only moments earlier had carried nothing but death. The ocean on the other side was almost visible through the fading mists. The only man onboard that did not sense freedom at hand was John Barons.
“Think about this, Owenson,” he said, his voice frantic. “In my vision, the storm was the judgment. That was how it worked.”
“It works differently now,” said Owenson. “We’ve been judged. Many of us failed.”
“How many?? How many out of the entire crew were actually found wanting?” The Irishman remained silent, knowing that he was right. Only a handful had been lost to the crimson waves. “Dawnseer wanted to be Lanti. There’s something we’re missing. We have to slow down and think.” For a moment, he thought the scholar would relent, but his eyes went wide.
“No,” he said. “We have to run.” Following his gaze, Barons saw what looked like dolphins leaping through the red waters, but instead of gray, they were shimmering silver and green. The marked souls of the Hanged Man chased them through the waves with inhuman speed. Barons could almost see the sadistic grin on the lopsided face of the Aspect of Judgment as the crew began to panic. There was no stopping. The edge of the storm was drawing nearer.
“It doesn’t make sense,” muttered Barons. He kept thinking it over and over. He thought back to the dream of Lanti. The look on the priest of Sted’s face kept coming back to him. He had seen the same look somewhere before; somewhere nearby. Then, he stopped in his tracks as the realization hit him.
He had just seen that look in eyes reflected in the sunset waves.
He had seen that look in his own eyes in the mirror for years.
“It was the look of a fraud,” whispered Barons in awe.
“What are you talking about?” asked Owenson, his attention pulled away from the leaping shapes in the waves.
“It wasn’t guilt,” he said. “It wasn’t hope. It wasn’t belief. It was pure black and white. It was whether they lied. The bastard only killed enough to convince us otherwise. Why does killing four men matter when one liar can bring down a ship and mark dozens?”
“How can you be sure?” asked the professor.
“Because I’m right,” said Barons. With purpose he doubted he had ever had before, he strode to the center of the Aquilon’s deck. He had practiced for years to feign nobility; to carry himself with pride and meaning; to exude an air of command. He summoned every ounce of that fiction to his voice and made sure every man on the ship heard him.
“WHO LIED??” roared John Barons. Every man onboard the ship looked in his direction and, even though they knew what sort of fraud he was, stood at attention. He marched across the deck, looking each of them in the eye. The storm loomed closer ahead of them. He saw fear, foolish hope, and outright hatred in eyes reflecting the arcing bolts of lightning, but not what he expected to see. Eventually, he made his way all around the deck, back to where he began. He thought, for a moment, that they might be safe. Perhaps no one had lied at all. Then, he remembered the one piece of advice that a god with golden eyes had given him.
“Be careful who you put your faith in,” he repeated. He had been putting his faith in a man that thought he knew everything; one that believed he knew how the judgment of Lanti had worked. Might that man have doomed them all? Barons turned and his eyes stared daggers into Owenson’s. The professor averted his eyes, unwilling to meet his gaze. That was the look he had been searching for.
“What did you do, Ashbough scum?” he asked, grabbing the man by the collar.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Owenson babbled. “It was those heretics! I saw them set fire to the building! The college was burning down and I had to choose.”
“Choose what??” Tears welled in the Irishman’s eyes.
“To warn the others or save the books,” said the final member of the Ashbough Society. They were moments away from the wall of the storm. The scent of ozone carried on the wind. Barons reached into his belt and pulled out the captain’s pistol, leveling it directly at Owenson.
“If you’re on this ship when we go through that storm, we all die,” said Barons. “Get off the ship!”
“No,” said Owenson, finding some nerve as he backed towards the side of the ship. “I am more important than any of you! I am a general in the shadow war! Gods will fall at my feet!”
“Not if I kill you here!” said Barons, closing the gap between them.
“Then what, fraud?” asked the scholar. “Where will killing an unarmed man rank in your sins? Higher than a lousy lay with a bar whore, I assure you. Then who didn’t tell the truth? Then who might sink the ship?”
Barons hesitated. Thunder struck the Aquilon like a hammer, rocking the ship. Mist began to envelop them. For John Barons, time stood still for a moment. He saw the storm before them out of the corner of his eye and the leaping souls of the damned opposite them. Behind him, a motley crew of exiles prayed for hope, much like the doomed souls that trusted a priest thousands of years before. Did they deserve a second chance? He had heard much of what they had done. They were thieves, murderers, slavers, and criminals of every other sort. Would it be better if he and these men just died here and added more blood to the Festering Sea? At least Barons knew he couldn’t live with himself if he killed a defenseless man. He also knew one other thing. He couldn’t live with the curse that had once been known as Dawnseer winning the day. He made perhaps the only selfless choice he had ever made in his life.
It was only at the very last moment after Barons had dropped the pistol that Owenson might have had an inkling of what was happening. Barons dug his feet into the planks beneath him and dove at him with a determination that would not be denied. Owenson’s eyes went wide with shock as Barons hit the heavyset man with his full force and drove him over the railing of the ship. Together, they fell for what felt like miles. Finally, the icy, reeking water of the Festering Sea enveloped them. Barons felt the air go out of his lungs at the impact. Barely able to turn himself around in the turbulent waters, he saw the hulking shape of the Aquilon enter the storm and pass through it, the arcs of lightning clearing a path. As soon as it had passed through, the storm dissolved like a mirage, leaving only churning waves and a brightening sky above the suddenly crystal clear sea. Whatever magic Dawnseer had held over the sea was broken.
The icy water leeched what little energy Barons had left. He hung in the abyss, merely waiting for the darkness to take him. He almost wished he could tell his wife about this. He hoped she would have been proud of him for once. She would have been. He always thought, deep down, that she probably knew what he was and loved him anyways. It was then that he realized that he had lied just as much as Owenson had when the rope was around his neck. He said he had almost loved the girl. That wasn’t true. He had loved her.
As his lips mouthed an apology to the ocean, a force came upon him that he had never felt before. Something enveloped him. The burning need for air in his chest faded. Barons wondered if it was what drowning was like. He began to move against his will, whatever dark power it was having a mind of its own. He was spun around in the water, his eyes turning towards the ocean floor below. His eyes went wide.
Beneath him, the bottom of the sea was a monstrous mass of shattered wood and metal. Blackened and algae covered beams and rusted iron went on as far as the eye could see into the water. At first, he thought it must be the ships that had failed the test and been taken by the storm. But, as he looked more closely, he could make out the shape of buildings. There were homes and shops and temples. He saw a massive plaza constructed of planks the size of trees. He finally admitted the truth to himself. This truly was the resting place of Lanti.
The force surrounding him brought him down towards the city. As he neared the ocean floor, he noticed a shape in the water several yards away. It was the motionless body of Owenson, the last member of a now extinct order, sinking into the very graveyard of one of the great and ancient cities of the gods that he thought he knew so much about. Barons couldn’t help but think it was fitting. The scholar’s body finally struck ground at the foot of a great, carven image of the god of the city.
Barons was lowered into the foundations of a great, wooden temple. It must have been incredible in its day. Shards of stained glass sparked from the ruins among faded tapestries and battered altars. Only one thing in the forsaken building remained intact: a stone sarcophagus filling the temple’s center. He felt his feet hit the shattered floor at the foot of the tomb. As he stood, half-floating, among the coral-encrusted place of worship, he saw, for a moment, the city in all of its glory. Golden light flooded through the windows, occasionally broken by a silver flash from the guardian storm around it. The temple shone sky blue and sea green around him. Golden nets hung from the ceiling where empty water had been a moment earlier. A guard from Minock docked at the edge of the city. A ship went down with all hands aboard. The world, for a moment, knew the touch of gods.
The only thing remaining the same was the great sarcophagus in the center of the temple. Barons walked, no longer floating, towards the tomb, knowing what he would see. Inside laid a motionless figure that Barons knew well: an old, bearded man clutching a net and a walking stick with three points at its end. Somehow, despite being far below the surface of the sea, with no knowledge of how he was still alive, not knowing if what he was seeing was real, and with no way to know what was going to happen next, John Barons took a knee before the Tomb of the Fisherman. The golden light of the temple began to fade. Thunder echoed louder through the tomb of the god. As the scene around him faded to blackness, Barons finally closed his eyes and felt the weight of the depths take him.
The next thing he felt was the humid, salt air of the sea and the rough cushion of sand beneath him. A cool breeze washed over him. Barons had no idea how much time had passed as he opened his eyes and coughed out a lungful of seawater. He had just enough strength to crawl onto his side and see the sun rising across the sea and turning the water to gold and crimson. His eyes lowered to the beach in front of him, seemingly a part of a fair sized island. There, on the sand, rested a ragged, blood red tome adorned with five lines. Barons did not even try to question how it appeared to be bone dry. He collapsed onto his back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a swath of white. Something in him said it might be the sails of the Aquilon. Or it may just be a cloud. Had it all really happened? Had he really seen the lost city beneath the waves or was it a hallucination? It really didn’t matter to the exile. Through luck, providence, or pure will, John Barons found himself alive. Perhaps all three. And, somewhere along the way, he had learned something.
The sea forgives all. That’s what he’d heard. And maybe that was true. But there were things on the sea. There were things beneath the sea. And those things? They played judge. They played jury. And, on the seas of ancient Lanti, where storms and gallows rose over the tide, they very often played executioner.
Credit : Alex Taylor
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