Mist rolled about the domed edifice, caressing the corroded stone, entwining the Mare Nostrum as though something living, coiling about the tall pillars and the oars. The fluted columns reflected in the ebbing water like the tendrils of some monstrous cephalopod waiting to greet the wary sailors.
Cambses donned his helmet, its horsehair crest bristling like flame. With little cheer, he led ten of his best to the topmost step of the library, the plank groaning and shuddering under the weight of their oval shields and bronze-tipped spears. Xandr followed in nothing but his kilt and sandals, with his sword at his back, as did Emma behind him, drifting like a wraith, and sure-footed and bare-footed Thelana, her quiver at the shoulder and bow firmly in hand.
The Hedonian raised a pair of fingers, and without word, the naval warriors spread across the steps, their shields half-masking their front. Complementing their formation, Thelana nocked an arrow in her bow, scanning the impenetrable haze for targets. Only the Batal stood tall, somber and unwavering.
Sunlight penetrated the cracked dome like a lance and a cloud of vapors drifted from the keystone like a silk to reveal the words etched in stone across the pediment: EX-LIBRIS. Cambses turned to Thelana, as if to confirm her assertion. “It means books, I think, in the old tongue.” Emma’s eyes reeled. She wondered whether any of the brutes had ever visited a place of learning, or even knew to read.
Passing between the pillars, under the great shadow of the library, Xandr could sense the growing unease in the others. The tale of lost Hedonia was known within trading distance of the Empire.
“Come, men!” Cambses voice resonated powerfully. “There is more to fear from the living than from corpses that jitter like marionettes.” And with that he motioned them beyond the heavy black doors of wood and bronze, which opened into a dim recess.
The walls vanished in the shadows, the boundaries of the chamber remaining in obscurity. Silhouettes hinted at ornate moldings rimming unseen balconies. A garish light washed over the center of the library from the crack in the dome high high above, which gave the sense of untold vastness. The air was stagnant and felt—not cold—but devoid of warmth. Dust the thickness of snowflakes spun in the air as if caught by some spider’s invisible thread. And there was the unmistakable stench of rot hanging over all.
Emma’s voice disturbed the silence, “This is all wrong,” she said. “The lines are all backwards; it’s like giving birth in reverse.”
No one, not even Xandr, had any idea what she meant, nor did anyone wish to know. Cambses noted her trance like state and grumbled. As if his men weren’t spooked enough! “Hey, Batal, keep that witch of yours quiet!”
Xandr started to speak on her behalf, but decided it better to hold his tongue.
Moving further inward, they found what was expected, and that was comforting. Passageways of books on marble shelving like towering colonnades, tomes set higher than the tallest man could reach. Despite adequate storage, amorphous mounds of papyrus lay scattered about the marble floor, while other books were stacked with apparent intention into bizarre, towering forms, enough to bury passersby should it topple. But the large granite slab directly beneath the dome was what gave the visitors pause. Behind a desk with decorative Ionic curves, in a chair like a throne of thick cedar and blood-red velvet, a corpse glowed luridly where a beam of sunlight touched it. The corpse wore a small black hat, and its head lay, as if resting, against an open tome. As if stricken dead while writing, the corpse’ bone-fingers still held to a peacock-feathered quill, leaving a crooked line upon the page.
“He was a publican, in life,” Cambses murmured.
“What’s that?” asked Emma. “And how do you know?”
“Look, you can tell by his hat. Only publicans wear them. They decided which books went into the library and which were unsuited for the public. In truth, I know little of such matters.”
“It looks like he died writing,” said Thelana.
“You mean he drowned writing,” Cambses corrected, making her realize the absurdity of her statement.
And yet, there it was, the ink running long against the yellowing paper. Xandr joined the others about the desk, brazenly tearing the tome from under the corpse. The crooked line formed a single word: REPENT, with the last letter drawn to the edge of the page in a bubbling inkblot which had grown from under the tip of the quill.
“Repent,” Cambses intoned. “For what?”
“Wait.” It was the voice of Meridius. “I know–knew–this man. Here lies the body of Ptolemns! I had many a chance to speak with him.” He gnawed on his fist, terror and despair growing in his eyes. “Where are your jests now, my friend? Where the laughter that so oft rang from those merry lips?”
“I knew of him,” Cambses replied. “They said he was a philosopher, a critic of the Empire. He believed we had become a society of greed, that we were too focused on wealth and pleasure.” The captain’s disdain for the man and his beliefs was evident in his tone.
“He predicted,” Meridius continued approvingly, “that doom would come to the city, and to the Empire, due to its waywardness. Even the word, hedonistic, has come to mean, in other kingdoms, a life of waste, of decadence.”
Emma came forth, daring to speak. “What was he reading?” Xandr passed the book to her. It was a collection of poetry. On the page where Ptolemns had written, the stanza read:
I looked out across the waters
and there came Tsunamis
mightiest of the depth’s demons
that with flailing arms,
shook the seas,
and split beams of ships,
and made cities fall
—Memoir of Hedonian Oarsman
“Tsunamis,” she whispered to herself, letting the book slip back to the desk.
Xandr looked into her dark eyes, seeing more than she wished to reveal. “What is it, Emma?”
“Just a poem,” she replied. “Words on paper.”
“Alright!” Cambses cried suddenly. “No reason to tally longer. Spread out; search this ruin. There may yet be survivors.”
As the men scampered cautiously about, Emma approached the shelves with wonderment. “Have you ever seen such a collection? Here is all the knowledge of the world! I could spend . . . a lifetime here. We must seek out what is of importance, carry what we can onboard . . .”
“We take nothing,” Cambses retorted. “We came here for one thing and one thing only.”
Thelana stumbled across a book that had fallen to the floor. She lifted it, flipping to a random page:
In the 333rd year of the Suleimani Dynasty, Empress Tetẻ expanded the Empire to include the northern provinces, of what is today known as the Massad Province, having conquered and subdued the primitive mountain peoples of the Assanti and the Verber tribes, and the even more primitive Argolith, after only one month of sieges.
There was more history, detailing the glorious conversion of the primitive peoples to the religion of Hedonia, as directed by the glorious Empress Tetẻ, but Thelana was too disgusted to read further. “You want to save this self-righteous drivel?” she asked Emma.
“It’s not all drivel, Thelana,” she answered. “Look, a book discussing the writer and his struggle with his craft.”
A sentence can play and play until it becomes madness. This is the burden of the writer. He does not tell the story; the story tells him.
“Writing about writing?” she replied. “How ridiculous! Besides, everybody knows writers are weak and effeminate. What do they know of struggle? Let them forage for food in the wilderness! Then they’d know the meaning of struggle.”
Nabonus returned at last with a small contingent of men. “We checked the upper levels, Cambses, but found no one alive.”
“Good. Return to the Mare Nostrum and bring me a flint and a tinder box.”
“What do you intend to do with that?” asked Emma.
“Burn the place. There are enough books here to set a mighty blaze.”
“You’re mad!” she wailed. “This is the culmination of all your history; the fabric of your society is here, preserved on each page, all its discovery–”
“I am not a savage,” he replied coolly. “I know the value of this place. But as we cannot bring these books to Thetis; we must not allow the knowledge to pass into foreign hands.”
“You’re a greater fool than I thought! This knowledge belongs to all men, not only to citizens of Hedonia.”
“No, witch, this knowledge was paid by the blood of countless citizens. No one else has any right to it!”
“I won’t let you!” she scoffed.
Cambses turned, at last, to Xandr. “I thought I told you to control your wench!”
The Batal stepped between them. “She is not my wench, nor my witch, and I can no longer control her as you. But should you put a hand on her–”
His threat was cut short as a scream resonated from the desk of Ptolemns. It was Meridius, who had remained behind to study the remains of his old friend. He was reeling backward, wrestling against the quite animated corpse of the publican, the quill pen inked with the blood spouting like a fountain from the oarsman’s neck. The once articulate orator, writer, and poet, had lost, in Death, its capacity for argument, but words still managed to escape from some part of its frame.
“BURY ME!” it said, it asked, again and again.
Xandr was the first to action, unleashing Emmaxis in a flurry of silver. But the sword felt unusually weighted in Xandr’s arms; it pulled toward the ground like a battleaxe, ringing against the marble tile. Cutting through the rotted flesh was like sinking his sword into a beehive, slow and sticky, not like the effortless severing of living tissue. Nonetheless, the thing that had been Ptolemns lost its hat, with its head soon following to the floor.
“Meridius,” he asked. “Are you all right?”
He had already removed the quill from his neck, though the collar of his leather jerkin was darkened with blood. “I did not expect that from an old friend,” he stammered, forcing a smile through a sweat drenched jaw.
Jolting backward, his spear over the shoulder, the Hedonian signaled to one of the other men. “Get him back to the ship!”
But even then they could see it, things that should not have been, shambling silhouettes from beyond the bookcases. Since they were drowned, their bodies were more slowly decayed, and thus more horribly preserved in varied stages of rot. Skin hung from gaping wounds made by barbed teeth; pink flesh flowered grotesquely along half-devoured limbs; swollen organs dangled along the decorative tile leaving slippery trails of gore. Whole sections of body were missing for some, and it seemed hardly possible that the shambling bipeds could keep from collapsing in on themselves. But reason, as the living trespassers were now discovering, gave quickly way to the irrationality of terror.
Cambses was familiar with battle in its most gruesome guise, and yet, the look of sanity receded from his whitening face as though sanity were a reflection of skin tone. “By the gods!” he bellowed. “Will horrors never cease? Back to the Nostrum!”
Some of the oarsmen tossed their spears upon instinct, but most, with their quivering limbs, missed their mark. Of those well-placed throws, the steady advance of the smitten did not slow, nor did the drowned bother removing the shafts from their impaled bodies, but left them as new additions to their non-living forms. Thelana drew an arrow to her ear. The point struck the forehead, and the sound of it, like a bone rattle, raised the small hairs of her skin.
“BURY ME!” the words came, over and over, from many distinct voices.
Everyone fled, save for Emma, and Xandr who pulled at her arm as though she were cemented to the earth. He noticed she was muttering, so quietly as if to her own ears. “We cannot bury you,” she was saying, “the city is flooded, but we can release your spirits in the old way, by smoke, through fire.”
“Come on, Emma!” he cried. “We haven’t the time!”
“But they’re suffering! Can’t you feel it?”
The drowned were nearly upon them and as he had no time to argue, he swept her into his arms and carried her out of the library.
Volleys of flaming arrows were sent into the Ex-Libris, though none could tell which lit the fires that set the structure ablaze. The flames parted the fog enough so that the Mare Nostrum could be navigated further into the interior of the city. As he watched the flames rise up, Cambses lamented, “Tall Hedonia, jewel of the world . . . what centuries’ wisdom was lost with you, and what dark epochs once trod lay before us!”
As there was not a gust to be felt in any direction, and the waters were still as a bog, Cambses ordered his men to the oars. They obeyed despite much grumbling and gossiping. Only one was absent. Though his neck was heavily bandaged, the blood had flowed excessively from the pen wound, so Meridius remained below, trembling, pale, and sweaty, as though afflicted with sudden fever.
After some strange time, which could not be determined without sun or moons, the bands of white thinned out, revealing much of what had been hidden. And of the fog the oarsmen once cursed, they immediately wished would return. It was as if Nature, in her wisdom, had blanketed the city in a shroud woven from air and water, so that no man might look upon such horrors. Now the shroud was removed. Bodies plagued the eye, refusing to sink, drifting along distant avenues; others gathered on street corners like rafts of flesh for maggots, the air blackened by flies. Occasionally, bodies would entangle the gently dipping oars, and the men would curse and blaspheme the gods.
The white rolled low over the streets. Domed and vaulted temples were overwrought with seaweed and green glowing plankton, passing from view like galleys adrift in the mist. Columns of marble reached up to nothing, and rings of granite, ripped by vines, lay submerged in the silvery stillness. Statuary of forgotten men stared outwardly with smiles betraying their state of degradation, brine eroding their once gleaming shoulders, their stone lips and stone ears homes for skittering crab mites and lichen. In the far reaches of doomed Hedonia, magnificent monuments emerged from beneath distant veils of fog and were swallowed up again, passing in and out of view like lucid bits of memory, like a dream of some great empire.
A bronze statue passed into view, green with lichen, of a warrior in full Hedonian armor. “Alas, who remembers mighty Damakles?” said Cambses with a sigh, “who slew a hundred merquid with his bare hands? Oh, how fleeting is all things, how temporal the world and every proud thing in it!”
Overhearing, Emma accosted him. “I misunderstood you,” she said. “I figured you for a dumb brute. Truly, you love your country.”
He turned to her, his face a solemn mask. “Madam, I am no mercenary. A man does not risk life as I, for a nation he does not love. Burning the library was akin to slaying my own child. But I would readily do so, before letting my children into captivity.”
Her eyes settled uneasily over the rail. Aspects of architecture rose from beneath the rippling surface, startling in contrast: great colonnades without walls or roof, the upper seating of an amphitheater, a coliseum turned to rubble. “I suppose we did not need the horses.”
“We expected the sea would have receded by now.”
“The world is ever changing,” she murmured. “Our lives are too brief to see things as they are. If we could live for millennia, as the Ancients did, mountains would race before us, and the seas and continents change shape, as they did after the Great Cataclysm.”
“For this reason I do not devote myself to personal matters, but to that which benefits the Empire, which may last for untold eons.”
“Your empire has already been lost, with the shifting of the sea.”
“Ah yes,” he said, “but this is our sea—mare nostrum, and the kingdom that controls it controls the world.”
“Once, bodies of water called oceans covered this planet. The Dead Zones was an ocean that would make your sea look like a fish pond. Enya does not care for your religion or your politics; it simply is, and will be long after we’re gone.”
“Until then,” he replied, “I will fight for what is mine, with my dying breath.”
Over the bronze ram of the Mare Nostrum the Batal stood with troubled a brow.
Thelana longed to embrace him, her heart aching without knowing when she could again do so. “What troubles you?” she asked. “Or do you hate ships as much as I?”
“Emmaxis did little against that animated corpse in the library,” he replied. “I’ve seen it cut through the iron-hard scales of a dragon, split the heart of a giant made up of flesh and steel, but never has it felt so heavy, so sluggish against mine enemy.”
“It wasn’t alive,” she replied. “Emmaxis thirsts blood, living flesh. The body of that poet; it was not living.”
“I know, Thelana, but why does the sword thirst? It is a piece of metal, finely wrought, but nothing more. It has no tongue to taste or throat to swallow, no stomach with which to hunger.”
“Do not ask so many questions, my love, accept it as a gift of the Goddess.”
“I do trust in Alashiya, but–”
A scream like Xandr had never heard resonated from middeck, and the sound of crashing waves. Over the hull, a rowing bench and an oar were drenched in blood, its oarsman gone. In seconds, the forty-eight remaining sailors abandoned their positions, milling in a panic about the top deck.
“He’s gone!” Nabonus was shouting. “Gone!”
Cambses threw one hand to the pommel of his gladius, sprinting across the deck. Where the oarsman had been, a trio of claw marks marred the blood stained wood. “I had feared this,” he muttered to himself.
Xandr moved quickly to his side. “You had feared . . . what, Cambses?”
“Did you see the wounds of those corpses in the library?” came the answer. “Did you truly believe fish could do such things? There are worse things here than drowned men. Older spirits, more angry, more terrible . . .”
“Cambses!” Xandr cried. “What have you not told us? What are you hiding?”
“Frazetta lied to you,” the Hedonian replied, resignation in his voice, and already as he said this, webbed-fingers were reaching over the bow, milky-white, with gray scales, so thin and gelatinous as to be nearly transparent. Eyeing the thing that came climbing onto the vessel, Cambses blood went cold, his palm shuddering at the hilt, “some men didreturn from the previous expeditions, but they were insane, completely insane, gibbering on about . . . impossible things . . .”
“What things!” Xandr demanded, drawing Emmaxis from its sheath.
“First they spoke of corpses that walked, but they also spoke of merquid, of, dead merquid. They called them the Gray Ones. Grayquid, they called them.”
As if summoned by its name, the gaunt creature leapt onto the deck with unnatural agility, its legs frog-like. Its face was broad and flat and finned, but it was wrong somehow; its flesh was a most unnatural hue between white and clear, and was slick with mucus. The mouth was implausibly broad, with painfully barbed teeth, and its eyes were cold, clear, lifeless. Without the slow, awkward gait of the human drowned, the grayquid leapt again. Too close to use his spear, Nabonus fumbled for the gladius at his hip, but his face contorted strangely, and even from ten paces the onlookers could tell that something was choking him, like hands about his throat, a pungent odor emanating from the grayquid like rotted fish multiplied a thousand fold. Paralyzed by his absence of breath, Nabonus stumbled and the slimy creature pounced, eviscerating him, digging through the man’s entrails with its great hooked fingers as if in search of some digested morsel. Organs were tossed across the deck and blood spilled between the beams to the lower decks where the horses in the stables neighed with distress.
Before any of the crew could react, more gray-white hands clawed up over the bow, too many to count.
“Get below deck!” Xandr shouted, and Cambses gave the nod of approval. All rushed to the narrow steps, trusting in the safety of the cedar roof. But of the forty-seven oarsmen left after Nabonus, only thirty managed the descent, to the illusion of safety.
Move on to Chapter 10 (if you dare!)