So the black Chimaera says to the mermaiden, 'You have displeased me, and for this I will carve your heart out and feed it to you.' And the mermaiden says, 'I would not mind so much, but I am a vegetarian.'"
The small off-duty complement of Sarakkon laughed at the first mate's joke, and why not? The Oomaloo was nearing the end of its long journey north from the bustling port of Celiocco on the southern continent. The air belowdeck was turgid and sweet with laaga smoke. But they sprang to as they heard the lookout's long-awaited call of "Land-all!" and thundered up the companionway. Halfway there, however, their high spirits evaporated, as the ship abruptly heeled over. Thrown against the polished wooden bulkhead, they shook their heads as the ship righted itself. But now they could feel the thrumming of the heavy seas, and they heard the storm-call even as they rushed on deck.
The captain stood amidship, his eyes tearing in the high wind. Like all Sarakkon, he was tall and slender, his skin, sun-washed, wind-scoured, the color of ripe pomegranates. One eye squinty from a fish hook through it in intemperate youth. He had a full beard, sign of his rank, and through its thick curling black hair were threaded carved blue-jade spheres, silver cubes, tiny conical striped shells. He wore a lightweight kilted skirt and the kaldea-a wide belt of cured sea-grape that circled his waist and hung down in front in a complex series of knots, identifying his status as well as his lineage. The moment his crew appeared, he gestured them to their stations. Moments before, the wind moaning its intentions in his ear-bones, he had signaled the lookout down from his nest. One glance to the northeast had confirmed what he knew: within minutes the storm would overtake them. Already they were being buffeted by fistfuls of sleet. Sensing the storm's powerful heart, he was reminded anew of how arrogant and small they all were.
Like virtually all Sarakkonian ships that made this long journey, the Oomaloo was a marvelously sleek three-masted merchanter, but loaded down as it was with valuable cargo, the ship was less maneuverable and thus more vulnerable to inclement weather. On top of that. the sleet, catching rigging and brass fittings, looked to bring down the sails. Although the captain was both clever and experienced, he was under an inordinate amount of pressure due to the nature of one piece of cargo. It was not something he had wished to transport, but he had been given no choice by the Orieniad, the Sarakkon ruling council.
The Oomaloo, borne by the last great storm of winter, heeled over, and the high slate seas overran its scuppers, flooding the deck. The next wave, more towering than the last, took three of the crew, his lookout among them, as it crashed obliquely across the canted deck. The howling wind drowned out their screams as they tumbled across the canted deck, carried overboard into the wild and punishing sea.
The second mate, a parsimonious devil, and therefore in charge of the larder, made an unwise lunge for them. The captain grabbed him from behind, kept him close to, thus ensuring that he would not lose a fourth member of his crew to the cruel Sea of Blood. Then he loosed him aft to tie down rigging the gale had ripped loose.
Tearing his mind away from the tragedy, the captain yelled to the navigator to turn west. He and his first mate scrambled across a deck shin-deep in sluicing water, the whorled tattoos that covered their shaved heads and bodies seeming to come alive with the actions of their muscles.
As he seized the mizzenmast, the other asked him what he meant to do.
"You will help us put the ship under full sail," the captain replied over the roar of the storm.
"Full sail?" The first mate, a knot of muscle, a face all gnawed bone, was aghast. "That will capsize us for certain." He turned his eyes fearfully to the mainsails already straining their sleet-grizzled grommets to the limit. "We should be furling all sail."
"We will founder and be taken under."
"Then we should be making all haste for Axis Tyr."
"We are now heading west, the same direction as the storm."
"But that is away from Axis Tyr. The port is our only-"
The captain was already unwinding the rigging from the brass stays. "We are going to use our sails to race ahead of it."
Still the first mate balked. "That is certain suicide," he shouted, wiping spume off his sharply triangular goatee.
The captain grabbed his first mate by the wet flaps of his tooled sharkskin vest, slammed his back against the mast. "Listen to us. Our only chance is to round the Cape of Broken Meridian, where the Sea of Blood meets the Illuminated Sea. There the ship will be protected. The ship will be safe!"
"Safe?" The mate shot him a horrified look. "No Sarakkon ship has sailed this part of the Illuminated Sea, and you know why. The legends-"
A wall of water smashed into the Oomaloo, and the ship dipped dangerously to port, taking on more water. The captain, seeing his navigator wrestling the recalcitrant tiller, bellowed at the second mate. With that worthy's help, the navigator put his shoulder into it and slowly, with a painful creaking, the ship turned her high carved prow more quickly to the west.
"We have no time for superstition," the captain said to his first mate. His thick beard was rimed with saltwater and spittle. The silver runes woven into it glistened in the dim light. "We have our lives to think of."
"Not our lives," the first mate shouted back. "The life of our passenger. It is evil luck to sail with a female on board."
"More superstition." The captain struck his first mate a massive blow to the side of his head. "You have not shipped with us before. Aboard the Oomaloo our word is law." A dirk with a wrapped shagreen handle bloomed in his fist. "Now unfurl all sail and make it quick!" The dirk's point grazed the side of the mate's neck. "Else we swear by Yahé's sweet lips we will slit your throat."
The first mate leapt to, but not without a look dark with ferment. He and the captain worked smoothly and efficiently, their muscles bulging, their booted feet planted wide on the pitching deck. Methodically, doggedly in the raging face of the storm, they repeated the same procedure with the sails on each of the Oomaloo's masts. And as the ship came to full sail, it leapt forward as if propelled by the engine of a V'ornn hoverpod. Its hull fairly lifted from the boiling sea as it skimmed along on the leading gusts of the gale.
Waves had ceased to overrun the deck, and to starboard could be seen the rocky tip of the thick finger of land known as the Cape of Broken Meridian beyond which lay the uncharted waters of the Illuminated Sea. The captain noted the fear in his first mate's eyes, but behind the Oomaloo was a growing wall of water, black and ugly and lethal. No matter what-if the legends were true or no-there was no turning back. A sure death rode their stern and would doubtless overtake them should their speed falter.
He strode aft, climbing the short slippery companionway to where the navigator held the juddering tiller steady.
"When we come abeam of the cape make ready to turn her hard to starboard," he growled. "We want to get land between us and the storm as quickly as possible."
The navigator nodded. He had shipped with the captain since their youth. His teeth were gritted and the cords of his neck stood out in stark relief with the effort of holding the Oomaloo on course. For an instant, he caught the captain's eye, and the look that passed between them served as silent tribute to the crew that had perished. Then they directed their attention to what lay ahead.
The area of ocean off the tip of the Cape of Broken Meridian was known as the Cauldron because it was aboil even in the calmest of weather. Its extreme turbulence could be seen, and ofttimes felt, by Sarakkon crews as they headed to and from the port of Axis Tyr. These deep and dangerous cross-currents at the confluence of the two seas were fearful enough even without the alarming Sarakkonian legends attached to the Illuminated Sea.
The captain squeezed the navigator's shoulder. No need to voice his trepidation. The gale was hurling them directly into the heart of the maelstrom. Grey spume flew over the high prow, which was carved into a Protector-a composite image unique to each Sarakkonian ship. The Oomaloo's was of the lithe body of Yahé crowned with the noble head of the paiha. In this way, the very bones of the ship were infused with the goddess' wisdom and the mythic bird of prey's great healing powers. As the Oomaloo began to pitch and roll in the fierce cross-currents the captain knew that they would need all of their Protector's powers if they were to survive.
The ship dipped precipitously as they came abeam of the cape's tip. He could see the frothy spume geysering high into the turbid sky as the sea beat itself against the jagged black rocks. He saw the navigator pushing the tiller, trying to take them hard to starboard. Since the winds were still too high and unpredictable to risk sending the lookout up the mizzenmast, he dispatched the first mate to the prow to keep a sharp eye out for any sign of rock outcroppings or reefs.
A great shuddering began to work its way through the Oomaloo as the ship entered the perilous cross-currents. The captain got his first look at the Illuminated Sea and it was not reassuring. Despite its name, the water was dark as night, the same color as the rocks that jutted from the tip of the Cape of Broken Meridian. Even the most expert eye would have difficulty differentiating the two.
The speed of the ship, which had been their savior against the storm, now worked against them in these uncharted waters. The captain called for all sails to be reefed and his crew sprang to. He was battening down the canvas when the first mate rushed up to him. His face was pale and pinched and his eyes rolled in his head.
"We gave you an order," the captain growled, now sorely vexed. "Why have you abandoned your post?"
"We have-" The first mate swallowed hard. "We have seen it, Captain."
"Seen what?" The captain had his hands full, prepared to order the navigator to alter course. "A reef?"
Mate shook his spume-wet head. "Not a reef. We-"
"Well, out with it then!" The navigator was winning the war with the cross-currents. The ship was slowly but surely turned to starboard, putting the finger of the cape between it and the storm. "What did you see?"
"A Chimaera." The first mate was shaking. "A black Chimaera."
"First, we are in uncharted waters. We are relying on your eyes to keep us from breaking apart. The daemons out of your imagination-"
"But we did see it, Captain. By Yahé's full lips, we swear it. We saw a black Chimaera. The legends are true!"
At that moment, they were all pitched violently forward as, with a great grinding scream the Oomaloo's forward momentum came to an abrupt halt.
The navigator's cry was nearly drowned out by the grinding and rending of lacquered timbers. The captain, picking himself up off the deck, saw a crack like a finger of doom zig-zagging up the side of the Protector, and he knew all was lost. They were impaled upon the thrice-damned obsidian reef. He knew his duty, the one he had been made to swear before he had set sail. Immediately, he made for the aft companionway, leaving the first mate's screams behind him.
Down the wet companionway he slid. The lower deck was already awash with seawater, with more imminent. There were multiple rents in the forward hull, as if the sea were eating the Oomaloo alive, and the cross-currents ground the ship against the jagged reef, as if to leave only wormy powder behind.
He reached his cabin, tore open the door. Krystren was standing as if anticipating his appearance. Sea-green eyes, a face of extremes, like iron and velvet. She was wrapped in her wine-dark sea greatcoat. Her hair, dark and glossy as sea-wrack, was wound in a thick braid, like a coil of stout rope that wouldn't fray in the worst of winter weather.
Without a word, the captain grabbed her hand and hurried toward the aft companionway. Already the seawater was up to their shins. The ship gave a great lurch, tossing them to their knees. Up ahead, torrents began to pour through the widening rent. They regained their feet and ran.
Krystren was silent. What was there to say? She had seen he was a good captain, not that made any difference, the sea would have the last word today. Up the companionway they clattered, while boiling seawater flooded belowdeck. As the captain appeared on deck, Krystren in his lee, the first mate fixed them with a murderous eye.
"We knew it!" the first mate crowed, advancing on them. "The accursed female!" He had drawn his dirk, an oddly small weapon, whose short, diamond-shaped blade seemed most unsuitable for hand-to-hand combat. "It is because of her that this voyage was doomed from the start!"
"See to your position!" the captain cried, interposing himself between Krystren and the first mate. "That is an order!"
The first mate laughed a cruel laugh. "Your ship is dying, captain. Your command is mercifully at an end. We have gathered what is left of the crew to our side."
"Impossible." The captain automatically looked to the helm. "You could not-" But the position was vacant, and now he saw the body of the navigator, face-down on the deck. Around him, blood mingled with seawater and the remnants of sleet.
The first mate grinned as the captain's gaze swung back to him. "Those who disagreed have gone to kiss Yahé's sweet lips." He waggled the point of his dirk. "We give the orders now. The smallboats are in the water, but neither you nor she will board them. The sea gods have spoken. They have produced the black Chimaera. They demand her as sacrifice."
"Your fear had made you mad," the captain said. "We will see you hanged for this."
The Oomaloo gave another sickening groan and the deck canted over as it began to list. The first mate waggled his filthy fingers. "No more talk, Captain. Hand her over or you will feel our blade between your ribs."
"You know we cannot," the Captain said, drawing his own dirk. "You know we will not."
With an almost casual gesture, the first mate flicked his wrist. The captain's eyes opened wide as the weapon pierced him to its hilt. Expertly cast, the narrow blade passed between his first and second ribs, puncturing his heart.
"You-" the captain said, blood already bubbling on his lips. "We should have guessed." Then he pitched onto the deck, his corpse sliding to the rail that was now just above the water line.
Already, the first mate had another dirk in his fist, the mate to the one that had killed the captain.
"Sintire," Krystren said.
The first mate spat. "You must be very valuable indeed. We will receive a fortune when we see to it that you never set foot on the Northern Continent."
"Who is paying you?" Krystren asked.
The first mate laughed. "Even if we knew do you think we would tell you? We serve the Oath."
"How well we know," she said as she threw the small dirk she had been holding beneath her seacloak.
The first mate's weapon struck the deck as his hands clutched at his throat. Desperately, he clawed at the sea-cor hilt. He staggered back, falling to his knees as he drew out the narrow, diamond-shaped blade. He knelt, staring at it as his ragged breath sawed in and out of the wound.
"We serve it, as well."
"You are Onnda bitch. You serve the Oath in perversity."
Krystren took her weapon from his nerveless fingers, kicked him over onto his back. He tried to speak but blood bubbled out of his throat. She picked up his weapon, then knelt beside him.
"You will die. All of you." She turned the bloody blade of her dirk so that it glinted dully in the starlight. "This is my Oath, my religion."
The Oomaloo was fast breaking apart. Krystren rose and hurried to the rail. There, she saw two smallboats, manned by what was left of the crew. They had not waited for the first mate, and now they were more than three hundred meters away. They appeared to be making for an island to the north whose dark and ominous cliffs loomed out of the storm haze. None of them looked back at the doomed ship that had been their home for months and, in some cases, years.
Krystren was obliged to grab onto the rail as the Oomaloo gave another lurch downward. Groaning mightily, it began its death-throes. She looked over the side, saw in the wreckage spars and timbers large enough to support her. She was about to clamber over the rail when she heard frantic shouts floating over the turbulent water. To her right, she could see that something was happening around the lead boat. The sailors were pointing and gesticulating madly, at what she could not say. Then, all at once, there was a great fountaining of water in the midst of which she could just make out a huge shape, black as night. Then it opened enormous jaws and snapped the smallboat in two. The Sarakkon screamed as they tumbled into the water, and the monstrous shape rose again. Its gaping jaws crashed closed, crunching through muscle, sinew and bone. Blood and gore fountained in a rosy halo.
The Sarakkon in the following smallboat had now changed course and were frenziedly rowing away from the island cliffs. No matter. The thing pursued them with relentless precision, so swiftly it took Krystren's breath away. Within moments, they shared the same doom as their compatriots.
Now she alone had survived the wreck of the Oomaloo, but she knew that would not long be the case unless she jumped from what was left of the ship. Without another thought, she threw off her seacloak and leapt into the churning sea. The shock of the cold water ran up her spine with a jolt. She kicked upward, broke the surface and swam to a section of the prow that had been sheared off. Wrapping her hands around the carven image of Yahé's body, she climbed on, straddling it. Retrieving a long piece of flotsam to use as a paddle, she tucked her legs under her and struck out toward the island. Behind her, she could hear an awful groaning as the last and largest of the Oomaloo's beams shattered against the knife-toothed reef.
She bent her back, putting all her strength into steering through the cross-currents. Happily, she was nearly out of the Cauldron. Up ahead, she could see the last vestiges of pinkish foam, all that remained of the two smallboats and their crews. In order to make landfall she would have to intersect the path the smallboats had taken. She knew what had destroyed them; she knew the legends of the Illuminated Sea as well as any Sarakkon.
With each stroke of her improvised oar she was making greater headway as she left the swirling Cauldron behind. She concentrated on the island's cliff face, which looked high and sheer. Its top was obscured by a dense, roiling mist, doubtless a residue of the storm that was still raging on the other side of the Cape of Broken Meridian. Angry dark-grey clouds scudded overhead, but the sleet had turned to a chill rain and the brunt of the wind was being sheared away by the intervening landmass.
Now Krystren was oaring through the smallboat debris field, a grisly insight into the origin of legends. She oared even faster, trying to redouble her pace. It was all she could do not to look around for the thing that had feasted terrifyingly on the others. She could only hope that its fearsome appetite had been at least temporarily sated. To occupy herself and also as an exercise in survival she turned her mind to estimating how far she was from the island. She judged it to be a half-kilometer distant, perhaps a bit less. But if the blackness of the water was any guide, she was still in very deep water. Had the captain been with her he would have been puzzled by how a reef could exist so close to the surface in such deeps, but she was no sailor and so remained ignorant of this conundrum.
Each stroke brought her closer to her goal. This island was, of course, nowhere near Axis Tyr and when she reached it she would still have to find the means to make her way to the mainland. However, this question was for later, after she had rested, foraged for food and availed herself of a good night's sleep. For the moment, she needed to concentrate on this last half-kilometer of water. She could begin to see more clearly the creaming line of surf as it crashed and boomed at the base of the rocky cliff. Ignoring the growing stiffness in her shoulders and back, she continued to bend into each stroke. Now the sounds of the shoreline came to her across the bosom of the sea. She was breathing a sigh of relief, when the section of the Protector that carried her dipped so violently she was almost cast off it. Obliged to drop her oar, she gripped the splintered wood with both arms. In the process, the lower half of her legs slid into the water and she could feel the ripple of a very powerful current, and it took her a moment to realize that the current was localized beneath her, making her blood ran cold. She felt the ripple again, stronger this time and she crouched atop her makeshift craft. Small tremors passed through the powerful muscles of her thighs. She knew what must be swimming below her. She looked around for her oar, but it was floating twenty meters behind her. Now she was at the mercy of the off-shore tide, which in the interregnum was already exerting its force, pushing her further west, rather than north toward the island. She tried to paddle with her hands, but it soon became apparent that this was an exercise in futility.
But then the direction of the tide became a moot point, for directly ahead of her rose an apparition out of a nightmare. The black Chimaera was huge-perhaps half as long as the Oomaloo. Its body looked to be all muscle with a tapering forked tail and a trio of wicked-looking dorsal fins. Its cold red eyes took her in with what appeared to be daemonic intelligence.
Krystren's heart was in her throat. She had worked long and arduously to become Onnda, and her training had prepared her for death. But nothing could have prepared her for this.
As she watched, mesmerized with a mixture of fear and awe, the Chimaera waggled its wicked-looking tail and started moving toward her. It was so large that the fore wave had already reached her. If there had been something to do she would have done it. There wasn't. Instead, she recited the Oath, repeating it as a kind of death-prayer.
The Chimaera was up to speed, and she prepared herself to be crushed by its massive jaws. But the bite never came. Instead, at the last moment, it dived beneath her. Before she had a chance to turn her head, a powerful wave seized the Protector, pushing her due north, out of the tidal flow, toward the island. As she gripped the Protector more tightly, she could feel the vibration of the wave growing and extending until she fairly flew over the water on its crest. Risking a quick glance behind her, she saw to her astonishment the triple fins riding in her wake. The Chimaera was, in effect, propelling her toward the shore.
How could this be? she wondered. How could a monstrous beast that had just slain and devoured twelve Sarakkon help save her life? It made no sense at all, and yet it was undeniable. The cliff line was coming up fast, in fact too fast for her comfort. Those rocks, monstrous in themselves, were jagged and saw-toothed. Surely, at this speed they would instantly rend the Protector to smithereens.
Just then, she felt the wave behind her dissipating, and almost instantly she slowed. As the water at last grew shallow, she took one last look back and an intense shiver passed through her. There was the great black Chimaera, with a flick of its powerful forked tail gliding broadside, fixing her in its cold red eye.
Krystren rolled off the Protector, swam gingerly through the flying spume, trying her best to avoid the worst of the rock outcroppings. The air was sharp in her nostrils, thick with phosphorus and brine. She stumbled through the suck and roar of the surf, her feet and shins scraped and bleeding, and nearly out of breath. Flinging herself into a tidal pool that was more or less protected, she dragged herself onto the base of the cliff. There, she lay panting, her back against a barnacle-encrusted slab of rock that rose like a grave marker. Her eyes scanned the Illuminated Sea but of the Chimaera or the Oomaloo there was no sign.
Almost at once, she fell into an exhausted slumber, from which she awoke hours later to find the twilit sky scrubbed clean. Long-winged pelagic birds called and swooped among crags iced with their droppings. Several first-magnitude stars twinkled in the pellucid heavens. A gentle on-shore breeze nevertheless made her shiver in her wet clothes, urging her to get up and find food and suitable shelter. That was when she noticed that the tops of the cliff were still shrouded in dense mist.
Food proved to be no problem. The tidal pool was swarming with small-clawed crabs encased in shining greenish-black shells, their flesh tender and sweet even when eaten raw. That left shelter. A brief reconnoiter of the cliff base located no sea cave which could protect her from the increasing chill of encroaching night. She lifted her head to where the mist lay, and choosing a likely series of foot- and hand-holds, commenced her climb.
The going was easier than she had expected. The scouring wind and rains had etched the cliff face with myriad chips and cracks ideal for ascent. Her chief concern was inadvertently disturbing a bird's nest, for the occupants were possessed of long curving beaks that could puncture her flesh as efficiently as the blade of a dirk.
She was perhaps a quarter of the way up when she came upon a cave mouth invisible from below. Clambering onto its projecting lip, she quickly realized that it was unlike any cave she had ever seen before. For one thing, the interior was absolutely smooth, shiny as glass. For another, it appeared lit from within, for a sickening crimson luminescence revealed the interior to her. Hard as she searched, however, she could find no source for the light, which imparted an even glow to every section of the arched cave.
It did not take her long to discover that the cave, as wide as the hall of a grand palace, was quite shallow. This too spoke to its unnaturalness. In the center of the rear wall, which was made out of the same smooth, vitreous substance as the rest of the interior, she came upon what could only be a door. This clinched it, she thought. The cave had been constructed by the hand of the Kundalan. Why? What was it for?
What was behind the door?
She ran her fingers over the almost seamless outline. There were no hinges or handle, no indentations or visible lock o