The Heart of the Sea – James Robinson

This story is a sequel to “The Silver Sphere,” which you can read here.

Content warnings: Violence, Thalassophobia

Remind me, my child… where last we left my story, had I yet left Capital? No? Then I shall resume there.

Just once, my child, should the war there ever come to an end, make a plan to visit Capital. I remember the last time I saw the city. My Gods, it is like a thousand cities at once. On every corner of that ancient metropolis you can find merchants from every corner of this globe, and with them the sights and sounds and smells of a thousand nations. Dig down by an arm’s length, and you can unearth the ruins of no fewer than three older cities. And the music – the opera houses are as large as the cathedrals!

Does my tone surprise you, my child? Capital has that effect, I suppose. I have not even mentioned the most wondrous part of the city: the sea that surrounds it. I can easily remember that day twenty years ago, looking into the brooding waves. The waters were so mighty, they cowed mighty boulders into meager sprays of gravel. In the distance, a vast autumn storm glowered above the waves. The roar of the sea was like the march of a thunderous army. It was a perfect day for home and hearth and poetry. But alas, no tavern’s warmth would find me that day.

The ship’s name was Lacrimae Draconis—Dragon’s Tears. Its captain was Sullivan Stormblood, and what a man he was! Ten years prior, the venomous polyp of some deep sea creature had claimed the use of both of his legs. As a result, he had a carpenter fashion a wheeled chair for him. With a pull of a switch, a pair of clasps would descend from the chair and snap into the ground, so on the open sea he could become as stable as a mountain. He had deep brown skin and handsome features. A spray of hair, dyed dark blue with woad, sat under a tri-corner hat, and a black beard hung to his belt buckle.

The crew hailed from every nation that had ever raised sail. Raiders and reavers, explorers and wanderers, sages and scholars, drawn from every sea on the planet. The result was a crew of thirty so loyal, so strong they saw the storm that brooded above the horizon and laughed.

I had a good enough pair of sea legs to help string barrels, lift sails, and raise anchor, but it would take a lifetime of experience to match even one of Sullivan’s crew. I was just a passenger, and I got in their way more often than not. Luckily, none of us were seriously tested in those early days; the storm I had seen on the shore faded well before we reached it.

Our destination? Ah, what a fool I am. Thank you, my child. I should have said sooner. We were bound… oh, where was it again? By the Gods, I cannot recall. Now now, my child, there is no need to shout. As you shall see, I was waylaid by something far more important than the cities and borders of mortal folk. Allow me to resume.

Once we were on the open ocean, and had enjoyed a few more days without a storm, Sullivan summoned his crew to the upper deck. Without another word, they sprung into action. The chaos was so swift that it took me many moments to realize what was happening: all over the deck, the crew was beginning to pray and sing. To divine, with two dozen languages and two dozen rituals, what the future had in store. I saw a cloaked man read a set of pickled goat entrails. I saw a tattooed woman cast a fistful of bones into a smoking pile of tinder. I saw a tall, broad-shouldered man unfurl maps of knotted seaweed, tracing imaginary angles in the sky with his fingers. And I watched as, one by one, their faces became shot with fear.

Less than five minutes after Sullivan had first summoned them, the crew again descended into chaos. They swarmed their captain, and I—clinging onto the railing of the ship to stay out of their way—lost sight of the poor fellow. But all the same I heard his voice, shouting as he silenced his crew. He demanded that one of them tell him what the future held, and it was at that moment that thirty pairs of eyes all turned to me.

“This one you have brought with us,” the hooded man said, pointing a long-nailed, carbuncle finger at me. “He is an ill omen. A shroud of darkness covers him. We must cast him into the deep, a sacrifice for the sea, lest we all perish!” 

In those thirty faces I saw not a single speck of disagreement. I felt as though I had swallowed cold iron.

The silence was broken by the rattle of spoked wheels, as Sullivan disentangled from the crowd and wheeled between them and me. He spread a pair of muscular arms to either side of himself and spoke with a deep, clarion voice.

“My crew. I have sailed with you all since the chains of the port of Lyannon were broken. Together, we defeated the Pirate Queen in the Autumn Sea and hunted the Green Death in the fjords of the Uttermost North.” He moved his right hand in a chopping motion as he spoke. “We have lost friends, lovers, family. We have all sacrificed much to do what we have done. And yet, never have we slain one of our own. The laws of mortals and Gods are clear: if a stranger eats your bread and drinks your ale, you may not strike him. My word is final. Return to your posts.” To punctuate his speech, Sullivan placed one hand on the hilt of his rapier, a grim reminder every bit as steely as his words.

There was no response for a time, as my heart galloped in my chest. Make no mistake my child, I was afraid. The treachery of men can be deadlier than any storm, and I knew to fear these folk more than most. My fear only lessened slightly when the crew dispersed and returned to their posts.

That evening, I ate alone, gnawing my share of hard tack as the pit of my stomach burned with anxiety. Normally, I would have joined the crew in the lower deck to sing and dance until midnight. That night, not only did I not join them, I didn’t hear so much as a whistle.

I lay in my hammock, surrounded by the snores of thirty strong warriors and the slow, turbid yawning of the sea beneath me. Sleep seemed all but impossible, but eventually my exhaustion outweighed my fear.

I awoke with a leathery palm over my mouth. I smelled alcohol, thick and pungent. The air around me was bitterly, intolerably cold. Above me, I heard peals of thunder so loud they shook my ribs. A snarl of lightning flashed, sending blue light streaming through the holes in the ceiling boards. For five heartbeats, I saw thirty sets of eyes glistening hungrily, and beneath them, knives and swords and axes, gleaming like stars. Once darkness consumed me again, I felt pairs of calloused hands descend on my wrists, ankles, and armpits. I was lifted and carried, helpless.

The deck of the ship was as dark as an oil slick, its satiny surface illuminated by a massive fire. Lightning had struck the mast, and flecks of orange charcoal glittered as they fell from the crow’s nest. The bolt had split the mast in two, and the two halves of the post framed the sky like heralds beside a throne.

The clouds were twisted into a vast maelstrom that girdled the horizon. Bolts of lightning spasmed in the upper darkness while the rain came down not in sheets but jets, with a force like a blacksmith’s hammer. I was soaked to the bone in the blink of an eye, and I felt my skin begin to itch and burn as it was scoured by harrowing blasts of rainwater. Through it all was a roar like the gates of hell opening, met only occasionally by the bitter crack of thunder. Dimly, I heard the shouts of men. Though they were right beside me, their voices were damped to near silence by the overwhelming violence of the storm.

Slowly, tremulously, I felt my left shoulder dip, then raise. Then my right shoulder: dip, then raise. I was being walked, carried, from the deck of the ship to the railing. I confess, in that moment I released a howl the likes of which I have never heard out of a living man; a cackling, manic cry of sheer desperation unfurled from my lungs. Yet over the power of the storm, I could barely hear my own screams.

There were six men carrying me: two each on my arms and legs, one lifting my torso, and one holding my head and covering my mouth. We were three paces from the railing when I saw the two grasping my legs look towards some unseen distraction behind us. Pressing my weight against the mighty hand that covered my mouth, I rolled my head back to see what had stopped the grim procession.

It was Sullivan Stormblood, seated in his chair and looking angrier than Hell. The six mutineers carrying me and the two dozen others froze in their tracks. The captain began to shout, though it was impossible to hear his words. For the span of a long breath, the crew was perfectly still. Then, I watched as one of the men not carrying me—a tall, broad, ax-wielding Northman— slowly creeped towards his captain with his haft drawn.

There was a sound like a pack of starving hounds being released from a kennel. Cesare, Sullivan Stormblood’s jewel-encrusted saber was, in one liquid motion, drawn, readied, and thrust into the mutinous axman’s chest. The Northman quivered, gurgled, and died.

Three more men charged to apprehend their former leader. Half a heartbeat later, two sprays of lifesblood and one steaming chunk of brainpan painted the deck. One of the crew began loading a twenty-pound crossbow, and I watched as Sullivan wheeled over to the man quicker than a cut could bleed. The bowman’s head rolled into the briny deep, Sullivan secured the crossbow, and I watched as another mutinous crewmate suddenly sprouted a bolt from their neck. By the Gods, Sullivan was like a living whirlwind of death. If he killed fewer than a dozen, then may I be cursed. But alas, they were too many and too skilled. Moving in tandem, six of the crew were able to surround the poor captain. They wrenched his precious saber from his grip and lifted him from his chair, carrying him just as their co-conspirators were carrying me. He joined me next to the railing, and I looked into his eyes in desperation. He seemed to have accepted his fate.

He and I were hurled from the deck of the ship, and for a moment it was just us floating in the torrent. Then, we plunged into the frigid waters. Darkness enveloped me, and the last thing I saw was a crack of lightning shaped like a sickle.

My child, you have retreated so far into your blankets all I see are your eyes. Come out, little one. There is more I have to tell you. 

I awoke to the stench of rotting fish and the cool sensation of wet marble on my cheek. I was laying, supine, upon a smooth white shore veined with light pink and deep, chromatic red. Around me, I could hear what sounded like the gurgling of fathoms of water and the slow, quiescent lapping of tideless waves. I pushed myself up, and noticed that the surface on which I lay had a gentle upwards slope. I looked up.

The sky was dark and blue and leaden, as if I were looking from the seafloor to the surface. Shafts of light graced the white marble surface, providing only brief, meandering light. The smooth marble shore continued upwards for a quarter mile before terminating at a jagged, irregular peak. There were no clouds, no trees, no horse carts or houses against which to judge the size of the vast island mountain. Yet from the way the details of the marble vanished in comparison to its bulk, I judged it to be larger than any tower wrought by mortal hands. Even that vast landscape was dwarfed by the enormous swath of pseudo-sky that lingered behind it. In the half-light, I saw shadows moving. And as I watched them appear, reform, vanish, and appear again, my eyes caught a shape.

Out, far out, beyond where the light seemed to end, a vast blue shadow cut across the abyss. At first it looked to be a mere trick of the light, an accidental alignment of the sky, the sun, and the mountain below. But it did not fade as the water shifted. It was real in every sense. 

It was a titanic, winnowing fishlike creature, pawing at the under-deep with unnumbered limbs. Vast as a storm cloud, shifting the very sea with its fathomless bulk, straining my mind with its sheer unimaginable size. It undulated once, and out where I stood leagues away, I felt a tugging against my chest, as a current rushed to fill the space left by a distant fin. As far as I was, I could see no detail of its nightmarish dorsum. Only its gargantuan silhouette was visible to me, in all its unthinkable scale. Looking at the aquatic monstrosity, and the dim and insubstantial light around me, I could only believe that I had drowned, and that my soul was now wandering the depths of the ocean, soon to be devoured by this primordial aspect of the sea.

I tore my eyes away from the great shade, unable to bear the sight of it for even a second more. As I did, I witnessed something that, as I look back twenty years later, I can say without question saved my sanity. Purpose bloomed in my chest and lucidity returned, as I saw none other than Sullivan Stormblood, crawling across the marble ground with the fury of a wingless dragon.

I rushed to him, and he spat at the ground between my feet. “I was screaming your name, boy, and now you come to me?” Despite his complaints, he grumbled a thanks as I lifted him onto my back. He was as light as a peck of apples, and I realized as I raised him effortlessly that I truly was underwater, kept alive by the will of either the Gods or the sea.

As the captain settled onto my shoulders, I once again turned to the shape in the sky—no, the water. It had shifted during my respite, and I noticed with horror that it was facing towards me and getting ever larger.

My child, let me teach you an important lesson. Although your life may seem stable, controlled by your choices, in reality it is anything but. There are powers beyond the ken of any single mind, which may arrive like a comet at any time and change your life forever. Some, like the conflicts and changes of nations, were created by mortal folk long ago. Others are products of the natural world, like storms and famine and drought. These forces alone may define the entirety of someone’s life.

But some of the forces that shape our lives are beyond even the pillars of heaven and earth. Some were wrought not by thousands of mortal hands, nor the motion of the sun and moon, but by Spirits and Demons and Gods beyond the Veil. 

In the face of these things, which may change or end your life in a heartbeat, what is to be done, you ask? I tell you this: only the strength and support of others, and our own indomitable will, can offer us respite from true, primordial chaos. To cling to life together like bees to honeycomb, like vines to the mangrove, like barnacles to a sinking ship: you may chuckle, but this is what it means to be human.

And so, as the great tectonic shade, the blue-within-blue-within-blue, the great wyrm of the sea, bore down upon me and the captain, I raised one tremulous hand before me and refused.

The shadow drew nearer, and as it did I saw details percolate into existence, becoming visible as the silhouette became flesh. Glassy eyes and palpating pseudopods; vast, wet scales and a cracked, susurrating maw.

Yet before it reached us, the ground lurched. Despite the buoyancy provided by the surrounding sea, me and Sullivan were thrown aside. The sea roared in protest as it surged past us. To my astonishment, I realized: the mountain was ascending with meteoric speed. Up into the azure sky it bore us, faster than any mortal velocity, before impacting into the underbelly of the beast that pursued us.

There was a sickly and impossible silence as the beast’s flesh was torn and its bones were crushed. Unthinkable quantities of pink, slick gore splattered outwards like a black powder bomb. The beast let out a thunderous wail that shook the water, and for a moment Sullivan and I were stunned into silence. The ocean grew still.

Then, another shadow materialized above us; larger, far larger than the leviathan. A second white mountain, nearly identical to the one on which we lay, plummeted to us from the heavens – though who is to say which way was skyward, disoriented as we were. This second mountain, our second savior, came down and speared the upper back of the beast, which, now impaled by two vast spires of rock, spat a gout of swirling lifesblood into the water and died.

My Gods, I thought distantly. They’re teeth.

That is the last thing I remember.

Some days later, Sullivan and I were found, floating in the mouth of one of the rivers of some eastern steppe. A team of copper miners fished us out, I’m told. As for how I survived, I cannot say. And as for what I did next, that shall have to wait for another evening. My Gods, it is late.

What’s that, my child? Oh, I apologize for the sudden exit. It’s just… when you realize how small you really are, it can feel like swallowing cold iron. You had best get to bed.