Bogleech.com's 2014 Horror Write-off:
" Ghost Tide, Part 3: Jonah "
…Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.
–from Jonah 1.12
We were called before the Priest-General on short notice.
“Attention all Seekers,” his resonant voice blared over the barracks loudspeakers. “Report to the Grand Chapel at once.”
We didn’t ask questions. Somewhere, in the backs of a few of the more recent recruits’ minds, there must have been questions, concerns, but they went unaired and unasked. Seekers do not ask questions. They answer them.
We put on our formal suits and ascended from the dank barracks into the upper levels of the Lighthouse, the domains of the academics and the religious scientists and the Monks. They watched us with annoyance or bemusement as we flooded through their halls, scientists gaunt-faced and scrawny, Monks bald-headed and sharp-featured. We looked only ahead. They had nothing to offer us. We knew everything about them that we needed to know.
We poured onward and upward, higher, higher, until we emerged atop the master staircase in the Grand Chapel, the domain of the Priest-General. It was a vast room, black-walled, lit only by the sunlight that filtered through the vast stained-glass windows. In the window on the left: The God-Empress in her younger days, black hair flowing, slaying a vile sea-beast. In the center: The blinded God-Empress, eyes covered by dishes, arms extended in embrace. On the right: The God-Empress dressed in rags, descending into the sea.
The sun was directly overhead, and shone brightly down through the skylight, spotlighting the sealed glass bed of the Dreaming Consort. She ruled the empire in the God-Empress’ long absence.
In front of her bed stood two Cenobites, the Priest-General’s elite guards drawn from the ranks of the Monks, dressed in their violet suits and eye-concealing hoods. They flanked the Priest-General himself, a soft-faced old man with a strong body, dressed in a gray-purple suit crusted with metallic medals and a miter embroidered with fishbone-like designs. Around his neck hung a medallion of a sea serpent skeleton - the mark of the Monks. His eye-dishes were flipped upward, revealing his lidless eyes that, although reddened, were filled with nothing but kindness, with nothing but pure and unconditional love.
“Greetings, Seeker Corps,” he said kindly, spreading his arms in greeting.
We bowed as one. “Good day, Your Eminence,” we said.
The Priest-General smiled sadly. “Ah, but if only it were a good day, Seekers,” he said. “But today is a very bad day indeed, for we have received an omen - a sign of God’s displeasure.”
He and the Cenobites stepped aside, revealing the bed of the Dreaming Consort. She thrashed about within, face contorted into a grimace of pain. Her face, unmarked by its usual white makeup, was streaked with tears.
“Our God-Empress’ consort is suffering,” the Priest-General went on, walking in front of her again. “Her nurses discovered her this morning, convulsing in great pain. She is being punished, dear Seekers, for our failure – our failure to find the God-Empress.”
He paused, letting us soak in his disappointment. We were silent.
“The God-Empress left us sixty-five years ago today,” the Priest-General went on. “Many of you were not yet born. I myself was but a boy, only days into my initiation as a Monk, but I remember like it was yesterday when the God-Empress disappeared. This was before the waters rose so high, before we needed the Seekers. But now we need you more than ever.”
The Priest-General turned around, resting his hands on the Dreaming Consort’s glass bed. She continued writhing around inside. He turned back to us quickly.
“We have survived in the face of God’s wrath for too long,” he said. “The ghosts with which He plagued our city in the old days, the flood that swallowed up our glorious empire, the sea-beasts from the bowels of the ocean He sends to assail us. We have stood in the face of it all. But if we do not appease God soon, all shall be lost. We must find his chosen child, and soon.”
He looked around the room, scrutinizing our faces. Some of the younger Seekers and trainees were shocked, glancing at one another, at the Priest-General, and at us. We were unsurprised. We always knew it would come to this.
“We are currently positioned directly above the old seat of the empire,” the Priest-General said. “I’m sending you all down. All of you. You will scour the ocean floor with every ounce of your energy. No matter how long it takes, the God-Empress will be found. As the prophets wrote in Ambrose 5.15, ‘The shark was blind to the lonely pilchard, and the fisherman flourished.’ You, my fishermen, shall flourish in turn – if not in the Lighthouse, than in your heavenly reward.”
He raised his hands again and waved us off.
We returned to the barracks as quickly and formally as we came, flooding back down the stairs from the top floor of the Lighthouse to the bottom, to the great submerged ring where we spend our lives, eating and sleeping and preparing to work. Right now we had a lot of preparing to do.
We dispersed once we reached the bottom floor, all of us heading to separate rooms, the cafeteria or the library or the break room or our dormitories, preparing in our own ways.
I entered my dormitory and shut the door behind me. I was alone.
Not entirely, I realized. I looked to my desk, where Jonah rested in his jar.
“Hello,” I said, approaching him. “Are you hungry?”
Jonah was a wharf roach. I had found him in the halls only a few days ago. I took pity on the tiny thing and brought him to my dormitory, where I kept him in a jar and fed him vegetables snuck from the cafeteria.
I tore some lettuce from a decaying sheaf I kept hidden and sprinkled it into his jar. He scuttled over to it and ate. I was relieved at his apparent happiness. I was no longer so lonely.
As I took off my formal uniform and changed into sleeping clothes, I looked around the room at my few possessions. Bed neatly made, as per regulations. Stark metal dresser for my clothes. Desk with one book and Jonah’s jar. Maps and charts papered onto the walls.
I always liked maps. I liked discovering new things. It suited me. I, like all the others, was born into the ranks of the Seekers. It was good that I enjoyed it.
I took another look at my map of the Lighthouse, pasted onto the wall above my desk. I leaned in and lightly placed a hand on it as I looked it up and down, imagining all the people who lived inside.
At the very top, the Great Chapel and the sacred chamber of the Priest-General. Beneath that, the halls of the Cenobites and the lower-ranked Monks, the keepers of order and defenders of the Lighthouse against sea-beasts and pirates. Beneath that, the academics who studied our finds, looking for order in the whims of God. Beneath that, the workers, growing food and making clothing and printing books, giving us the things we need to survive. Beneath them, us – as it should have been.
Beneath us there is nothing, save the Well through which we descend on our missions. The Well leads to the ocean. There is nothing in the world above the ocean save for us. There might as well never have been. God willed for us to live in Hell, and so we will all return to Hell – some of us sooner, more often, than others.
I stared into the dark ink of the printed ocean for many minutes. I felt my eyes drying. I grabbed a bottle of drops from my desk, tilted my head back, and squeezed a few drops into each eye.
There was a knock at my door.
“I am here,” I said.
The door opened. It was Micah, still in his formal dress.
“Hello,” he said. He had his eye-dishes on. I greeted him in return as I guided him into the room and to my bed, which he sat down on the edge of.
Micah was a new Seeker, not yet accustomed to the dishes. He was much younger than I, almost too young. We found comfort in each other’s company.
“Are you busy?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I was just feeding Jonah.”
“When are you going to smash that thing?”
“He doesn’t deserve that. He’s innocent. I want him to have a nice place to live.”
“What do you care?”
I shrugged. “We have our haven from God’s wrath in the Lighthouse, right? Maybe bugs should have a haven from man’s wrath too.”
Micah didn’t answer. He lied down on the bed, hands crossed over his chest.
“I’m frightened,” he said to me.
I lied next to him and put an arm around his shoulder.
“I know,” I said. “I am too.”
“You aren’t frightened like me.”
“This is the most important mission any of us will undertake in our lives, maybe in history. Of course I’m frightened.”
“That’s not what I mean.” He squirmed away from me and sat curled on the bed, back against the wall. I followed him and sat next to him.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Take your dishes off.”
He did so, setting them on my desk. His eyes, de-lidded only a few short months ago, were still white. He kept his dishes on constantly to keep them protected. He was afraid of going blind.
“I don’t want to dive tomorrow,” he said. “I’m not ready.”
“You have to be ready.”
“But I’m not.” He turned away from me. “I don’t want to die.”
I searched for an answer for him.
“I hate going in the water,” he said in my silence. I only nodded. “I’m going to die if I get back in the water. I don’t want to do it. I can’t do it.”
“You have to,” I told him. “We all have to.”
“You don’t understand,” he said.
“No,” I said. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand.”
I took his chin in my hand and turned his head towards me. His eyes were dark grey, like the sky in a storm. They were beautiful.
“We all have to be ready to die,” I told him. “We were born to be Seekers. We were all born to dive, Micah. We have to be ready.”
“I’m not ready,” he said quietly.
“Neither am I,” I said.
He put his eye-dishes back on and lied down on the bed, facing away from me. I lied down behind him, putting my arms around him, resting my old face in the side curve of his neck. We stayed like that for what seemed like hours. We didn’t talk. I didn’t know whether he was sleeping.
Poor thing, I thought.
Micah had been born for some other calling. He would have made a good academic, up there in the higher halls of the lighthouse, nose in a book, safe from harm. Unfortunately, his parents were Seekers, and so he was a Seeker as well.
We were all Seekers from heredity. None of us could escape the destinies that had been laid out for us.
I moved my hand down from his belly. He grabbed my wrist and held it still.
“I need to eat,” he said. He threw my arm off of him and left the room. He did not invite me.
Eventually I turned over and fumbled my hands over the top of my desk, searching for my eye-dishes. I wanted to sleep. Jonah scurried back and forth in his jar.
It seemed like only moments passed after I put on my eye-dishes before the morning announcement blared into my dormitory from the loudspeaker, the first static blast jolting me awake.
“Attention all Seekers,” the Priest-General said. “Please report to the Well at once.”
I left my room and joined the others. We ate our plain breakfasts and showered together. We did not talk.
The younger Seekers were hesitant, and had eyes full of fear, but the older ones – and myself – were grimly resigned. Most inhabitants of the Lighthouse would only go to Hell once. We were going there for the fiftieth, hundredth, thousandth time. It held no surprises for us.
We put on our warm grey inner-suits and marched through the lower halls of the Lighthouse, descending even deeper into its lower ring. The air grew colder and thick with water vapor as we descended. Water droplets hung on the dark metal walls. Periodically, the sound of dripping water would echo from somewhere in the labyrinth of halls.
The halls were dim and unmarked. We knew the way instinctively. We moved as one.
We descended down the final narrow staircase. Above the entranceway to our destination, there was a greenish bronze plaque emblazoned with a quote:
“I lower myself into the great unknown, but I am guided by the map of God, and I need no spear or dagger, for I am shielded by the armor of my faith.” -Descent 1.22
These were the prophet Matthias Carson’s final words to his family before lowering himself down the rope into Hell, on his quest to seal its doors and keep the world safe from evil. It comforted me. Like the prophet, we were armored by our faith. Unlike the prophet, we wore real armor as well.
We burst forth into a great circular room. It was massive, hundreds of feet wide, taken up primarily by a vast round gap in the floor – the Well. The Well led straight to the ocean. The white lights around the room illuminated the water in the floor, casting a flickering blue glow across the ceiling.
We stepped forward to the edge of the pool. I saw Micah on the other side of the room, to my left. I do not know if he saw me. He stared down into the water. I couldn’t see his face from that distance.
Workers stepped up to us, pieces of our suits in hand. They set our heavy boots at our feet, and we stepped forward into them. Then came our leg pieces, lower, then upper; the dark grey steel pieces snapped shut horizontally over our legs and were screwed together by masked workers wielding massive rivet guns. Some of the newer Seekers winced. Their neighbors and attendant workers urged them not to move, and assured them that their suits would be disassembled once they resurfaced.
Our torso pieces were bolted into place – a layer of interlocking plates that slid across one another for mobility – and the arm pieces clicked together. The pod-like pieces around my hands were roomy enough. I flexed my fingers inside them before curling them around the interior levers that operated the suit’s gripping pincers.
Finally, the helmet was lowered over my head and balanced on my shoulders. I felt it squeeze down on my collarbone as the workers bolted it to my chest piece in six places around the rim. The pressure was always uncomfortable at first, but one always got used to it.
I heard a muffled click and felt air rushing down onto my head. The air hose had been attached. Moist air was being pumped into my suit, providing fresh oxygen and keeping my eyes from drying.
Through my helmet’s single round viewport, I looked the Seekers standing across the Well from me up and down. We were all identical now, sealed in our bulky gunmetal diving suits. We looked like giant wharf roaches, all itching to swarm free from our jar.
There was a moment of uncertain quiet.
The workers tapped our backs, indicating we were cleared for diving.
I am shielded by the armor of my faith, I thought.
We stepped off the rim of the Well and fell into the sea. Water rushed toward me, powerfully swirling across the glass of my viewport. As it flooded across my field of vision, I instinctively tried to shut my eyes. I struggled for a moment to block the water rushing in. My face felt stiff.
Suddenly, my descent slowed, and the water cleared up around me, leaving my vision a void of blue. I laughed privately at my attempt to close my eyes. We never got over that impulse.
I glanced around at the water around me. Most of the other Seekers were above me, invisible, and a few were deeper, their oxygen cords connecting the top and bottom of my field of vision. I saw only a few on the same level as me. They were cloudy silhouettes obscured by the currents in the water.
Ironically, I felt unease at my separation from the others. One can never be lonely in the ocean, surrounded by the constant dull noise, but the water is not a good companion. It is like a frightening stranger.
I could not see Micah. I doubted I would have recognized him even if I could see anyone clearly. I wondered where he was.
I tilted my weighed-down head to look downward as best I could. My helmet’s light shone on a great black spire rising out of the imperceptible depths. I leaned to the side to avoid it.
I sank past the spire slowly, and very close to its side, about two feet beside it. I examined it as best I could as I passed it. The spire was black brick all the way down. Only one window broke up the brick, revealing a dark room filled with rotting effects and furniture. A faint, pale figure darted out of the room just as I passed. I pretended it had been a jellyfish.
After I sank for a few minutes more, my feet planted on the seabed. A cloud of silt rose around me. I looked up as the cloud dispersed.
I saw that I was standing at the base of a great tower, part of the former palace of the God-Empress. I had seen sketches in books. They did no justice to the real construction’s majesty.
Faintly visible all around the building were the oxygen cords of the other Seekers. Assuming they landed safely, I attempted to reorient myself. I turned around, stumbling in my diving suit’s bulk.
The lost seat of the empire, once the most glorious city in the world, stretched out in front of me, plunging downward and curving with the slope of the vast skeleton it was built upon. The ribs of the Great Adversary – killed by Matthias Carson, the city’s founder – rose up around the city’s edges, embracing it. They were hundreds of feet tall. Above them, hundreds more feet of water pressed down – the weight of history bearing down on us all.
I plodded down the hill, following the seaweed-covered cobblestone road into the city. The buildings on either side of me were houses for the rich, large and palatial, the once-pristine stone now covered in algae and barnacles. Scattered fish swam in and out open windows and doorways where wooden doors had rotted out. I tilted my head up as I walked, looking at the bones. Next to the house I passed, one of the shortest ribs – only about fifty feet tall – loomed over me. The bones, oddly, were pristine white, seemingly untouched by sea life.
A pinkish shape undulated in the darkness behind a house. I walked past it without turning or acknowledging it. Nothing good would come of that.
As I combed the city, I started to put a map together in my head.
The God-Empress’ palace was built at the end of the Great Adversary’s neck, where Matthias Carson lopped off the monster’s head and cast its skull aside. The land sloped downward and the skeleton followed it, trailing for miles. The city was built atop the Great Adversary’s spine, and the buildings were arranged into erratic blocks within the ribcage. I started my search in the formerly rich neighborhoods near the God-Empress’ palace, gradually moving into the darker waters of the inner city.
The city appeared desolate. Not even skeletons remained. I wondered where all the people had gone. Only a select few had been taken from the surface to the Lighthouse when the great flood came. The rest were left behind to face God’s judgment.
Not even many fish seemed to live in the old city. Slim spiny fish and gray eels darted into crevices to hide as I passed. A few sandy-colored rays rose from the sand as I walked and flapped away from me like otherworldly birds. Occasionally, I would look up and see other sea creatures swimming hundreds of feet above me, outside the grasp of the ribs, barely more than specks against the bright surface – large schools of fish, several sea turtles. I saw one shark, a massive black diamond-shape silhouetted against the surface, but it took no notice of me. I counted my blessings and prayed I never saw anything bigger.
On occasion, I noticed other Seekers lurching around in alleyways, their cords trailing up to the surface. At a glance, their inhuman silhouettes were terrifying, but we waved at one another and were momentarily comforted.
The only other source of activity in the city was the ghosts.
I tried to ignore them at first, but as I ventured deeper and deeper into the city, their numbers grew so thick that they became impossible to ignore. They constantly flickered about in front of my eyes, looming in the distance before quickly swimming away or darting in and out of my field of vision as if taunting me. The ghosts were once a plague on mankind. They lived in the cities people dwelled in before the flood, haunting them, tormenting the children of God. The souls of the godless, rejected from both Heaven and Hell, took revenge in death on the pious.
The ghosts were left behind when we escaped to the Lighthouse. They lived only in the sea now. It seemed nice that they had a proper place now, even if it was in Hell.
I was always sturdy of faith, but whenever I looked upon the ghosts, I found myself doubting that they had ever been human. This time was no different. As I walked through the dark streets, their gelatinous bones glowed with a faint cream-colored light through their ethereal flesh. They bared their sharp teeth at me. Those with hands lewdly stuck their webbed fingers through hollow sockets. I heard their noises, wheezes and whale-noise and creaky laughter, through my helmet, muffled and warbled by the water.
Looking upon their horrid bodies, I reminded myself of Matilda 2.12: “Faith changes the body, as does lack of faith, as the godless degenerate and the faithful ascend.” As punishment for their denial, they became monsters. As a reward for our faith, we were stripped of our eyelids, so that we could be ever-vigilant for their kind.
I kept walking, ignoring the ghosts as best I could. I thanked God that they could not touch me. Our limbs passed through one another harmlessly like twin streams of water, unbroken.
I walked down a wide street into a large open square. The stones were littered with scattered coins and merchants’ carts, but no bodies, as if the city’s inhabitants had all disappeared in an instant. Ghosts drifted in circles around the objects, reaching out for them languorously but never touching them. Across the square, a man sat on an overturned cart.
I almost passed over the man completely, so used to the abandoned nature of the city that I hardly noticed him. I stopped in my tracks and turned my head, suddenly afraid of being seen.
He wore no diving suit, only a shirt and pants, but seemed in no distress. He was moving his left hand up and down as though tossing something to himself, a small object slowed by the water.
I took a step forward. The ghosts all turned to look at me.
The man put his hand down at his side, then raised his right arm high and waved to me. Hesitantly, I waved back.
He jumped down from his cart and walked away despite his lack of ballast, as easily as if he had been in air. I followed him.
He quickly ducked down a street and turned a corner, out of sight. I followed him.
Once I had lumbered over to the alleyway he had taken, he was out of sight. He had disappeared into the city. I felt as if I had no hope of finding him.
Several ghosts floated over to me. I watched them, unmoving, as they spiraled into the alley and hung there, stationary, staring directly into my eyes with their empty sockets. Their blank gazes felt urgent to me, for reasons I cannot explain. They wanted me to go onward. They wanted me to go down that alley.
I turned to the right and took another side street. I would never listen to them.
As I continued searching, I felt as though there was no hope.
Carson’s Landing was a massive labyrinth, and in my search for the strange man I had encountered, I had become completely lost. I stumbled down streets and through alleys, bringing my feet down slowly and heavily onto identical cracked sidewalks and seaweed-choked cobblestone streets. Every barnacle-covered building around me looked the same. The ghosts that clung to their walls shook their jaws open and shut – silently mocking me, I was sure of it.
The water grew darker and darker. Was I descending? I felt like I was only walking in circles. It might have been the sun going down. Either way, everything grew darker around me. Everything became black. The only light came from my helmet’s lamp and from the glow of the ghosts who continued to surround me.
As I continued to wander the city, the ghosts’ presence started to become usual. They became an almost comforting presence. But for them, I was alone.
I tried to shoo them away at first. I wiggled my arms and clacked my grippers as menacingly as I could, and even shouted at them from within my helmet, trying to scare them away. They took no notice, or regarded me with what seemed like curiosity. They had nothing to be scared of where we were.
Eventually, the city came to an abrupt stop at the edge of a tall cliff. One of the Great Adversary’s tallest ribs, hundreds of feet high – taller even than the Lighthouse – poked out from the side of the cliff and curved upward, dwarfing the buildings that teetered on the crumbling cliff edge.
I shined my light on the rib and saw the man again. He was clinging to the rib with his hands and bare feet, apelike, his dark skin covered with jagged spiraling tattoos. His head stuck out at me out of the darkness; light reflected back at me from his bald head and the sunglasses propped up onto his forehead. His teeth were crooked and broken, and his eyes were a pinkish color.
“Evenin’, squire,” he said.
I heard his voice in my ear with perfect clarity, as if he were inside my helmet with me.
Before I could react, he let go of the bone and sank down off the cliff.
Cursing my suit’s weight, I ambled over to the cliff’s edge. By the time I got there and looked down, there was nothing there. My light shined into the blackness over the cliff’s edge and revealed nothing.
I turned around. The ghosts were gone. I was alone in the pitch darkness.
I shined my light at my surroundings. There were no other Seekers nearby, and not even any other fish.
I began to panic. I was alone, in Hell.
As I hyperventilated, a small ghost came floating into my field of vision. I barely noticed it as it approached. It was a blob of creamy light in my periphery.
The ghost swam into my helmet, its body passing through the glass as easily as air. It passed less than an inch in front of my eye, showing me its tiny pin-like bones in perfect detail. Its proximity caused a tingling sensation in my face.
Too frightened to move, I watched the ghost flit about inside my helmet. It made several slow back-and-forth paths and pirouettes in front of my eyes before slithering back out through the glass and swimming to my left.
I turned to watch it go. It dipped downward and plunged over the cliff.
I looked down and saw the tiny ghost slowly sinking into the darkness, blurring into a speck of yellow-white light before vanishing into the darkness entirely.
It was trying to lead me somewhere.
I took a deep breath – in, then out.
I reached upward and checked the tightness of my air hose. It was not at all taut. The workers must have unspooled more hose for me, or the Lighthouse had moved closer. Either way, I had plenty of slack.
I thought, momentarily, about Micah, and where he could be. I spent a brief moment in prayer for him, that he would be safe, and that he could ascend from this hell.
I gritted my teeth, and I jumped.
As I drifted down through the blackness, I felt more alone than I ever had.
As a Seeker, I was hardly ever alone. We lived together constantly, and were truly alone only to sleep. When we descended, we were still connected to one another; our air hoses stretched up to the Lighthouse that bound us all together. Now, I felt unbound. I felt as though my air hose had been severed by someone above and I was cut off from my brother and sister Seekers forever, and I would never come to rest on the ocean floor and would instead sink forever into the bottomless abyss beneath me.
I was surrounded by silent featureless darkness. I wished I could still cry.
“I lower myself into the great unknown,” I whispered, “But I am guided by the map of God, and I need no spear or dagger, for I am shielded by the armor of my faith.”
Suddenly I was surrounded by a flurrying swarm of ghosts that burst upward from beneath me and swam up and out of the abyss. I flinched as they burst into view. Their glowing bones passed by rapidly, blurs in my helmet’s viewport, and quickly disappeared into the darkness above me. I watched them go and stared up to where they had gone long after they were out of sight.
I was alone again.
“I lower myself into the great unknown, but I am guided by the map of God, and I need no spear or dagger, for I am shielded by the armor of my faith.”
After what seemed like hours, I finally came to rest on the sea floor. A cloud of grey silt billowed up around me as my feet planted in the sand. I waited for it to clear. I felt myself sweating inside my suit.
When the dust cleared, I saw a light – a bright bluish-white spot in the darkness, about one hundred yards ahead. It illuminated two strange shapes. At that distance, I could not make them out.
I had no choice but to forge ahead.
Silt rose around me every time one of my feet hit the ground. When the water around me was clear, I occasionally saw a piece of detritus float by, but otherwise the water was clear and black, completely uninterrupted. I felt as if I were trapped in a dark hallway, with nowhere to go but forward.
As I got closer, I saw that the two shapes were chairs, each seemingly carved from a single solid piece of bone, detailed with complex patterns of spiraling lines and arrowheads like serpents’ spines. In each chair was seated a human skeleton. The one on the left was completely fleshless, nothing but bones, but clad in a white gown that clung tightly to its bones in the water. The one on the right was more recent, with scraps of flesh clinging to its bones and a decaying cloud of black hair drifting around its head.
“Together again at last,” said a voice in my head. “Don’t it just touch you right there?”
“Where are you?” I shouted. My voice echoed maddeningly inside my helmet.
“Right here, squire,” the voice said again.
I turned as quickly as I could. The man I had seen was standing right beside me, arms extended in front of him, almost pressed against my suit. His eyes were not pink at all, but red and bloody underneath a crusted layer of salt. I looked into his eyes with horror.
“These botherin’ you?” he asked. Before I could answer, he brought his sunglasses down over his eyes.
“Who are you?” I asked. “How can you be down here, as you are, in no suit, nothing?”
“You ain’t from around here, boy,” the man said, seemingly ignoring my question. “Haven’t seen one that looked like you, not in a long time.”
I immediately felt stupid. Of course he couldn’t hear me from inside this helmet.
“Oh, I can hear you just fine,” the man immediately said.
I shivered. He could–
“Yeah, yeah,” the man said.
I frowned. “What is this? Where am I, what’s going on?”
The man smiled. It was a hideous sight. “One question at a time, boy.”
“I am no boy,” I said. “I am a Seeker.”
“Is that right.” The man reached beneath his sunglasses and scratched a fingernail across the surface of his eye. Specks of salt and blood flew out. He seemed unperturbed.
I felt my stomach lurch. “Yes,” I said.
“Where’d you come from?”
“I asked you first.”
The man laughed. “I didn’t come from anywhere, boy, I’ve always been here. Now where’d you come from?”
“You came from the Lighthouse, eh?”
“How did you-”
“You don’t catch on too quick, do you, boy? I already know, I just thought for your little pea-brained benefit I might play along a while.” The man’s grin had disappeared, but his lumpy teeth were still bared.
“Don’t insult me.”
“Don’t insult you? You really gonna tell a man you met walkin’ on the bottom of the ocean what to do? Shut up. You got nothin’. You’re nothin’ to me.”
I did as he asked.
The man regarded his dirty fingernails with deep concentration. I lurched to the left, trying to get a better look at the skeletons.
“Don’t touch,” the man said, without looking up.
“Who were they?” I asked him as I approached them.
He looked up at me and smiled. “I see you’ve met the family. That’s the wife there on the left, and on the right’s my dear daughter.”
“That’s the God-Empress.”
“Boat off,” he spat suddenly. “Don’t insult my daughter that way. Ain’t no such thing.”
“Yes, there is,” I told him. “Or... there was, at least.”
“And who told you that?” The man strode over to me, stopping just in front of me, nearly pressing his sharp shark-snout of a nose up against my helmet’s glass.
Despite his small size compared to me in my suit, I was intimidated by his closeness. “Uh. Um.”
“Are they still spittin’ that nonsense up there? And after all my polite warnings, too!” He grinned again and backed off. “You’d think you all’d get the hint after a few decades, eh?”
“Who are you?” I asked him.
“Friends call me Mutt,” he said. “It’s short for somethin’.” He reached out and grabbed one of my suit’s graspers and shook it, nearly popping the suit’s heavy metal arm off its screws. I was shocked by his strength.
“You can address me as Sir,” he added. “Don’t tell me your name, by the by. I already know it. Not that it matters.”
“No, I mean… But, but…”
“You mean who am I, eh? What am I doin’ down here?” He stepped away from me and wagged a finger in my face.
“Yes!” I said. I contemplated swatting his hand away, but I would never have lifted the suit’s arm in time.
“Oh, I’m just hangin’ around,” he said. “Catchin’ up with friends in the city. I ain’t been in town for a long while, but they all remembered me. Ain’t that right?”
He gestured around. I heard creaky, wheezing laughter from all directions.
“Visitin’ family, too,” he said, sauntering over to the two chairs and putting his arms on top of them. “You got family, squire?”
I thought of Micah.
“No, eh? Shame. Gotta have people to believe in you.” He looked back and forth at the skeletons and looked upward wistfully. “Guess two people is better than none, eh?”
“They’re dead,” I said dumbly.
“Nah. Might look that way, but they’re doin’ fine.”
“Who are you?”
Mutt took off his sunglasses and put them into his shirt pocket. “You ever hear of Kramut?”
It wasn’t familiar. “No,” I said.
Mutt stared at me in disbelief. “Not even the name?”
Slowly, Mutt walked over to me.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “Back a long time ago, when the world was new, there were many gods, y’hear? Now I know you’re gonna start spittin’ some nonsense about the one true god and the prophets and whatever the hell, so I’m tellin’ you now, leave it be, alright? I won’t tell you no stories if you interrupt me.”
“I don’t want to hear a story.”
“There were many gods back then, and they all got ate up, ate up by Kramut, see?” said Mutt. He suddenly sounded very tired. “And now he’s been sleepin’ on the ocean floor and he’s gonna get back up soon, real soon, unless all you washouts up there in your big fancy lighthouse realize how wrong you are. Then maybe he’ll let you live, alright?”
He sighed and sat down in the sand.
“I’m tired, boy,” he said. “I’m so tired.”
I regarded him for a moment. Nothing about this man was normal. I was in the presence of a demon, or something worse. I withdrew my hands from my suit’s arms and made the sign of God over my chest.
“Hey, stop that,” Mutt said, alarmed.
“I lower myself into the great unknown, but I am guided by the map of God,” I recited.
“Stop it!” Mutt said. “Shut up!”
“And I need no spear or dagger, for I am shielded by the armor of my-”
He leapt to his feet and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Liar!” he roared, shaking me. “Liar, liar!”
My head banged against the inside of my helmet, forward and backward, forward and backward.
“I’m sick of you people!” he went on. “Lyin’ to yourselves, lyin’ to me, all the time! Why don’t you see me? Why don’t you see me? Why don’t you believe?”
I lower myself into the great unknown, but I am guided by the map of God, and I need no spear or dagger, for I am shielded by the armor of my faith.
“You’re gonna see the truth!” he roared, hands squeezing my suit’s shoulders so hard that the metal began to dent. “You’re gonna see the truth if it’s the last thing your eyes see before they pop!”
Please, God, guide me with your map, shield me with armor of faith.
Mutt screamed, a guttural rattling shriek that sounded as though it had been pent up for a hundred years. Then, suddenly, he wrenched my helmet off my shoulders. The metal groaned sickeningly as it bent, snapped, and pulled free. As the water crushed in, I felt as though my head was being squeezed in a massive fist.
He grabbed me by my shoulders, planted his feet on my chest, and pushed me downward. There was no sea floor beneath us anymore. I flew through the water as though I was falling through air, with Mutt clinging to my chest, still screaming.
Please, God, shield me with my faith.
I rushed forward, feeling as though I was being sucked down a drain. Ghosts appeared in my periphery as blurs of creamy light, first one, then two, then another, then more and more, until the blackness of the abyss was replaced by a golden shining light, and the rushing sound of the water was supplemented by a chorus of dead laughter.
Mutt screamed and screamed, his jagged mouth opening wider and wider, his eyes shattering and billowing into clouds of blood and salt that trailed behind us as we flew. His mouth grew wider and wider. His teeth grew longer and longer. His voice strained, broke, and became something else. It was words, words in an ancient language that I somehow understood, words of wrath and hatred denouncing me, reprimanding me. I had been a liar. I was a blasphemer, a practitioner of false traditions, and it was time for me to receive my punishment - to be unrecognized by my true god. I had ignored my true god my entire life in favor of a fantasy, that of a kind god who loved and granted mercy. The true god had no mercy and no love. Kramut was merciless in his punishments, and as I hurtled headlong into the jaws that screamed in my face, I was ready to receive mine.
I began to fall unconscious. I accepted it. I was ready to receive my punishment.
And so Matthias Carson reached out for the handle to the door of Hell, and the coldness of the metal of the handle chilled him to the core; and he pulled with the might of the prophets, and the door shut and locked from the outside so that no inhabitant of Hell could open it from that day on until Armageddon. Descent 31.8.
The Priest-General sighed and closed his bible.
He gazed out the window of his bedchamber at the full moon, glowing white in the cloudless night sky. It filled his mind with memories of nights past, nights in his childhood. He remembered looking up at the Lighthouse as it was constructed. He was eighteen. He had just completed his Monk training. The streets of Carson’s Landing were beginning to flood.
“Carson’s Landing,” he sighed.
He quickly dismissed his pang of pity. He had been chosen to carry the torch of faith, to keep the empire alive in a time of divine wrathfulness. He could spare no sentimentality for those lost along the way.
Still, he was only human.
He turned and left his bedchamber, emerging into the Grand Chapel, and approached the glass bed of the Dreaming Consort, who continued to thrash.
“Oh, Lidia,” he whispered. “We’ll find her soon. I’m sure of it.”
A ghost rose out of her body.
The Priest-General stumbled backward, catching himself before he fell. The ghost exited the glass bed and wriggled over to him, baring its needle-like teeth in a ghastly alien grin.
“What is this?” the Priest-General said. “We banished you! You and your kind are not welcome in our domain!”
The ghost laughed.
“Begone, ghost!” barked the Priest-General. “Return to the coldest corner of Hell! Leave my sight and return to whence you came!” He made the sign of God over his chest.
The ghost floated away, slithering through the door to the Priest-General’s bedchamber and out the open window.
The Priest-General rushed over after it and stuck his head out the open window. He looked down at the Lighthouse’s exterior, the great metal wall of his tower.
The Lighthouse was covered with ghosts. Every available surface was host to dozens, even hundreds of them, clinging to the metal at impossible angles, blanketing the Lighthouse.
As the Priest-General watched, unable to look away, the ghosts’ fins and fingers congealed, taking on solid forms, and gripped the Lighthouse with the force of a god’s will.
The ocean was still and quiet beneath the dawn sky. If there had been anyone to observe it, they might have found it almost primordially peaceful, as if the sea had been unbroken and untouched since the beginning of time. Nothing broke the sea’s surface from beneath; it might have been empty.
The waves broke against only one object – a small jar with an insect inside that scuttled back and forth across the jar’s glass bottom as the waves pushed it, rocked it, and carried it out into the empty world.