The City of the Drowned: Chapter 11

Chapter 11
The Maelstrom
Circling high above the turmoil, raven eyes watched, as Thelana and Arrow burst from the stables and Meridius erupted into flame, as the grayquid were vanquished. When all appeared calm, she glided from her crow’s nest again onto the ship.
The feeling of transformation was like the climax that comes with copulation—it stirred every fiber of her being, the feathers sprouting to tickle her as bones and flesh shrank away. It was at once nauseating and liberating, like casting away heavy manacles while plummeting down a cliff. Now, in human form, she felt supple and heavy. Hastily, she snatched up her robes lest anyone see her unclothed body in the dim corner of the ship’s stables.
Climbing to the top deck, Emma surveyed their situation. Before them was a thing she had never seen before, but had heard much about, the Temple of Sargon. How much of it extended below the water, she could only guess, but it was already more massive than she had imagined.
“We have only twenty-seven men,” Archimedes was saying to Cambses, “one of our oars is broke thanks to the Batal, and Nabonus is no more! Who will navigate?”
Cambses gritted his teeth, fingering the stone ring on his hand nervously. “Do not tell me my crew perished in vain, now that we are so near!”
Having witnessed many acts heroism, Emma overcame her timidity and attempted to be of use, approaching the men on soft feet. “What seems to be the problem, Captain?”
Archimedes stared at her aghast. “Where in Sargon’s briny beard did you come from? Has she been aboard the whole time?”
“There is no problem,” Cambses answered her, “should my men show some backbone. Look!” and he pointed, describing what she could plainly see, “There’s a maelstrom about the pyramid; the sea is drawn to it, and the ruins that linger beneath the surface will tear the hull apart.”
“And at half crew,” the old man added, “we’ll have less than half the power to resist the current! We’re at Sargon’s mercy, like a dinghy without a rudder!”
Xandr and Thelana, returning from the laborious task of returning the horses to the cargo hold, were quick to join the debate. “I can row for two men,” he boasted.
“And I for three,” Thelana quipped.
Emma glared at them both and shrugged. “Doubtful I could row for one.”
“Then it is agreed!” said Cambses. “Archimedes, you are the most able sailor, but the years have been unkind to your limbs; you shall man the tiller, and I will join in the rowing with Xandr and the lady Ilmarin, if she truly feels to the task.”
“I counted more grayquid dead from my hands, than from you or your men,” she answered.
“Pulling a bow is not like pulling an oar, miss. This is man’s work if ever there was, and it will wear every part of you like wheat on the millstone. But since I am short of recruits, you’ll have to do. Keep with the pace or lay off.”
Xandr rubbed his beard, still moist from the sea, and looked out over the railing at that uninviting monument. When last he laid eyes upon it, it was from the clouds, soaring upwards in the arms of a bird man. Within its confines he had been witness to many horrors, to the massacre of the Hedonian people by vengeful merquid, to the suicide of the High Priest’s young daughter and the revelation of an unspeakable secret. He wondered what Cambses or his crewmen knew of these events, whether any of them would believe his recollection of that fateful day, when doom came to the city. But beneath the dungeons of the temple, he had also met Thelana, and his lonesome wanderings had come to an end. It was impossible to believe that only a year before he’d climbed those steps into the pyramid temple’s cavernous interior. So much transpired since, it seemed a lifetime ago. Looking again upon those steps, he turned to Cambses, saying, “Should we reach the foundation without capsizing, where do we anchor? The stair is broken and the archway is too high above.”
“There!” Thelana pointed, before Cambses could contemplate the matter, “We will make for the fallen obelisk, away from the maelstrom, and from there cross to the pyramid. Ships are not my trade, but I am well versed in strongholds such as these.”
“Too risky,” Xandr replied. “Besides, how do we get inside once we cross?”
“We can climb the outer wall,” she said, “as I did once, but with the help of the vines.”
“Then to the obelisk we go,” Cambses answered. “Every man to an oar! . . . And woman also.”
Thelana fought with the oar and it fought back. Whether she was rowing well enough for three men, or even for one, she could not guess. The Mare Nostrum rocked and tumbled violently, and with each shudder and groan of its ribbed frame a swell of water crested hard against them, blinding her with spray. The sea poured onto the benches, numbing her quivering body. Sounds of angry waves rolled about like thunder, drowning any drumming that might have guided their strokes. Only Cambses’ shouts rang above the din, but in the maelstrom’s fury, his commands came in fragments and lone syllables. Whether the crew maintained an even pacing, she was doubtful. Through the porthole, she could make out the oars, flailing like an upturned centipede. Somewhere, Xandr wrestled against his own oar, but she could not hope to see him through the blinding mist and the incessant pounding of waves.
Should Emma have remained in raven form, she could have watched the pentaconter climb toward the base of the pyramid, carried by the winds and the vortex like current, over a rolling swell of blue and white webbing. Teetering at the water’s apex, where the air blasted the surf to streaming white vapors, the whole of the ship pitched on its broadside and went down. Oars cracked down the middle against the submerged ruins, but the ignorant crew continued to battle the water, with desperation, with broken shafts, gritting their teeth and swearing profanities.
Now the sea rose up to assume a vaguely human shape, and a wave like a hand lifted the Mare Nostrum up into the sky, as if Sargon himself regarded them like a toddler would a bath toy. And then, as though uninterested in what it saw, the wave hurled the pentaconter down, letting it skim along its broadside toward the sharp end of the collapsed obelisk.
Cambses’ keen eyes caught sight of the threat, knowing from a succession of naval battles that should the Mare Nostrum be rammed on its broadside, it’d break apart like a stalk of wheat, outer planking, ribcage and all. Their only chance was to rotate the ship into a stronger angle, where it could take the hit, where it had been designed to take a hit. He only hoped his men would hear him.
“Reverse oars, men!” he bellowed, as loudly as his lungs could carry. “Turn this ship around or we’re dead men!”       
Somehow, whether from hearing the command or understanding the threat on their own, the oarsmen reacted with miraculous uniformity. Every oar struck the water at a precise angle, in a way only experienced sailors could manage, rotating the pentaconter backward. All Thelana and Xandr could do is brace themselves in their benches, and Emma against a support beam in the deck below. The obelisk grew rapidly in their sights—to immense proportions—until its basic shape vanished and only a wall of ancient writing spread across them.
The thunder of cedar striking granite made Thelana and Xandr certain that the ship was destroyed. But to Cambses experienced ears, the pentaconter was saved, its stern knocking and grating against the obelisk intact. He released his oar, the wood a dull crimson from the blood of his palms, and stood contentedly. He made his way across a floor of seawater, sweat and vomit, and accosted Thelana directly.
“You said you could get us up this slope. I got us this far. It’s your turn to lead.”
The waters were calmer about the temple complex. Only where the surf broke against the obelisk wall, a white mist surged, showering the already damp crew. Cambses hand picked ten of his finest warriors, including old Archimedes for his craftiness, to join Xandr, Thelana, and Emma into the pyramid. They donned their breastplates and greaves, torn and tainted with gore, slipped helmets to their heads, set spears and shields to their backs, and followed. Thelana had only her tunic, which was in tatters and concealed little of her lithe figure, but it was also damp, which made her feel numb with cold. She agonized over whether she should cast the hateful thing away, to let it vanish forever under the sea, but the rapacious eyes of the oarsmen made her feel ashamed, despite never having worn clothes for the first decade and a half of her life. Xandr came behind them, his blond beard and braid disheveled, his pale eyes impassive. Emmaxis gleamed faintly from his shoulder, a kilt was about his waist, and his powerful, scarred torso was bare but for a simple baldric. Making their way forward, a raven fluttered atop his opposite shoulder, and Archimedes turned and stared with wonderment.
“Now where did you come from, little bird?” he remarked playfully, reaching out a hand. Its black beak snapped and he snatched his finger away with a yelp. “Bad omen, these wretched birds.” 
The Batal simply grinned and followed the trail led by Thelana, already a dozen paces above. They followed her example, planting foot and hand into the fissures and niches formed by the weathering winds and waters, and where there were none to find, the glyphs carved deep into the stone served instead. For some time they climbed this way, across the width of the obelisk to the vines growing on the other side, which were as sturdy and thick as rope.
Atop the slanted surface of the obelisk, the tail of the company of climbers could see the whole topside of the Mare Nostrum, tethered to the jutting ruin, bobbing with the current. Sea spray no longer wetted their heels, but the air grew thin and icy, and dragonflies the size of Xandr’s hand buzzed about their ears.
Where the obelisk had crashed into the pyramid, there was an irregular shaped opening, like the entrance into a cave. Crouched panther like, Thelana moved through it, and the roar of the sea hushed to a whisper. The quiet was startling. Jagged bits of debris scraped her bare feet as she climbed further and deeper into the cave of debris. Feeling blindly along the wall, her sole touched upon more refined granite, and she knew she had come to an inner passage, albeit a slanted one.
Signaling to the others, Cambses and his men followed Thelana, crawling on their bellies, awkwardly with shield and spear, through the rocky aperture. Xandr guarded the rear, with Emma perched on his shoulder, slipping more stealthily within. Archimedes used his flint and tinder to light two torches, and in doing so, the darkness receded to reveal the walls, roof, and floor of the hall. Since the whole of it was slanted, it formed a diamond-shaped passage, which was disquieting to the already spooked seamen.
“These are the mason’s passages,” Cambses murmured. “They were used when the pyramid was being built, as ramps to drag the heavy stones. We are fortunate. They should lead us down to the altar where we will find what we’re after.”
Cambses instincts proved accurate. The hall sloped ever so perceptibly downward, the fourteen encroachers carefully making way, feeling along smooth walls to orient themselves to the crooked passage, while Thelana at the head studied the stability of their surroundings with nimble feet and fingers. Ceiling and floor reflected like gold about them, dimming as they crawled.
After a short, awkward march, the light of their torches hit upon a solid barrier, glowing faintly as they approached. It was the corner of the pyramid, but the hall continued, turning nearly back on itself and at a steeper incline, and they followed. Here the walls were damp. Sheets of water flowed from seams where the walls met the roof, steadily pooling about their feet as they went, numbing their limbs, increasing their misery. Thelana could only pray that the many tons of masonry not bury them, as they would have little warning should it occur and no time to escape to where they came in.
On they trudged, their minds turned to unspoken fears, three times across the diagonal of the pyramid in a zigzag pattern, till coming to the foundation where the water deepened to Thelana’s knees. The passage ended in a narrow alcove, where the light hinted at patterns etched in stone, at carved human shapes and runes.
Archimedes felt along the alcove, as though he did not trust his eyes. “Sealed!” he exclaimed. “There is nowhere left to go!”
“No, Archimedes,” Cambses replied, his voice dipping to unusually low octaves, “I was prepared for this.” He handed his torch to the old sailor and lifted his hand ceremoniously. The strange stone ring reflected dully upon his finger, and he stooped in the torchlight, examining the features of the barrier more carefully. Finding a round, coin-sized hole, he clenched his ring and thrust it forward. There was a series of heavy clicks, like the unlocking of an immense bolt, as he slowly turned his fist, and with an echo of stone against stone, the wall slid into a recess. Cambses brushed the dust from the plume of his helmet and peered through the veil of darkness and into a waiting chamber.
Suddenly, he turned toward his followers, suddenly brandishing his gladius. There was a mad gleam in his eye. “Swear to me, by my sword, that what you witness here today you will never speak of! Swear by pain of torture and death.”
The men, including Archimedes, stared at their captain with bewilderment. They were numb, near exhaustion, and filled with dread, and here was a new thing to weigh on them, an oath to the death. It was an over taxation of their faculties.   
“Swear it!” he commanded. And without understanding, or even the capacity for disagreement, each man touched a hand upon the gladius, all except Xandr and Thelana, at whom Cambses intently glowered, but said nothing. 

On to Chapter 12
Retreat to Chapter 10

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