As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I’m a huge fan of propping up and promoting other writers. Most of the time that has been spotlighting and reviewing new novels and short fiction, but today I present to you Archipelago, a serialized online adventure fantasy series jointly written by authors Charlotte Ashley, Andrew Leon Hudson and Kurt Hunt. This isn’t just serial fiction that you can read and enjoy – it’s collaborative and competitive, where the readers get the opportunity to influence the fictional world. Here’s an official blurb from the project’s Kickstarter page:
Four hundred years ago, when control of the world came to depend on naval power as never before, a courageous few set off on journeys of discovery and conquest that would alter the fates of nations in ways no-one could imagine.
But once they’d sailed the seven seas, what if they found another.
This week I have been given the opportunity to share an exclusive preview of the Archipelago project. Below is my interview with Charlotte Ashley, one of the authors behind the project, followed by her prologue, “The Ur-Ring,” which will be continued in a series of serialized episodes, alongside similarly-structured narratives by her fellow writers. Her prologue will be exclusively available here for the next week, after which it and the other prologues will be posted on their Patreon page (see below). It’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the coolest projects I’ve looked at since I started writing for Black Gate, and I hope you enjoy the sneak peek below.
Okay, imagine that I have no idea what Archipelago is and give me the elevator pitch (cuz we writers love those).
Archipelago is a shared-world serial novel where three nations from 18th century Earth vie for dominance of a newly-discovered portal world! Patreon subscribers get not only three episodes each month, but the right to interact with the world and story. We’re pushing to make this the most reactive, agile, reader-participatory seafaring adventure fantasy out there.
And if I understand this correctly, Patreon supporters can influence what happens in future episodes?
Exactly! The most regular form of influence will be our “Pearl” polls — White, Blood, and Black. White Pearls happen once a month, giving subscribers an array of small boons or curses they can vote on. The writer whose turn it is has to incorporate the winning boon or curse in an upcoming episode.
Blood Pearls occur once every four months, and dictate a 1-shot episode that writer has to write.
Black Pearls will come up once a year…well, the results of this poll will be catastrophic.
But we want to experiment as much as possible with ways readers can get involved. We’re offering Tuckerizations of escalating importance through our Kickstarter for example. The more readers challenge us, the better!
Aside from how brilliant the writing is (we’ll get to that), I love the way you’ve structured the reader involvement; I’ve seen other projects where readers get to influence the story, but the way you’ve layered Archipelago is really compelling. Where did you folks start — did the reader involvement occur to you first, or the premise of the stories?
Interactivity came first – but the interactivity we were originally counting on was between the writers. Once we’d agreed to do a shared world, I immediately knew I wanted it to be competitive – like a narrative RPG – where all three writers have to try to outmaneuver each other for key goals in the narrative.
Then we started building the world. Later, once we’d started writing and quietly telling a few select people about it, we realized that interactivity was the thing that was most compelling to people. So we decided to centre that interactivity and draw it out as much as we could! Bring in the readers, bring in guest writers, heck, bring in die rolls if we have to. Let’s make things interesting.
So this is almost like a turn-based strategy game told through narrative?
Absolutely, only with a little more commitment to telling a good story than “winning.” We’ve set some ground rules about what kinds of things we can do, to what extent, saving the real drastic stuff for audience-participation. We’ll be shaping each other’s stories rather than wrecking them!
I hope you wouldn’t wreck them! I’m assuming the choices available for each of the Pearl levels will be designed so that none of them will take the story in a direction you don’t want — when you say that the Black Pearls will be “catastrophic,” are we talking epic world change, character death, etc?
We have tried to strike a balance with the White Pearls between being simple enough to incorporate on the fly, but interesting enough to actually make a difference to the story. Each poll will have two “boon” options chosen by the Nation whose turn it is (so, for example, I might choose to discover an unexpected ally or tame a cool pet), and then each “opposing” Nation will offer a “curse” option each (perhaps, a vital instrument becomes broken, or an ally betrays you.) There’s some room for interpretation in each option, but the effect will definitely be felt by the Nation.
The balance of boons and curses is also going to reflect Nation Fealty, which is another feature we will be unlocking in a few months. Readers will be given the option to choose a favourite Nation, gaining access to additional stories that the other Nations do not have access to. So the White Pearls are a chance to support “your” Nation, or hamper an opposing one.
As for Black Pearls, yes, that’s exactly it. The exact nature of a Black Pearl event will be announced closer to the end of each year’s storylines, but they will be things that will radically change our plots: major character deaths, battle victories, catastrophic natural disasters, and so on. We will build up to a focal point in the plot, and then put the major decision in the hands of the readers.
I love it. So with the Nation that your writing is focused on – which begins with the prologue “The Ur-Ring,” featured below — how much have you planned and plotted out for future episodes, including potential twists once the Pearls start to come into play?
I am a solid plotter who used to be an avid pantser, so my approach has been to plan and write out the year’s storyline – including the side plot, which will be for my Fealty supporters – but to assume that on a moment’s notice I might have to scrap entire episodes and rewrite them to accommodate new information. A lot of our first year is already in final drafts, and we have read each other’s chapters to pieces, so we’re accommodating each other as we go. “Oh, you have a settlement on that island? Cool, I am sailing that direction – I have an idea for that channel. Can I borrow one of your lost sailors?” That kind of thing. We have a Wiki, outlining who can use which characters for what.
But, at the end of the day, I don’t mind scuttling entire journeys if I have to. The best laid plans often go awry! That’s part of the fun of this. Sometimes the best drama comes when you have to think of a solution on the fly. I know what my characters want and how they would react to situations, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they deal with the shifting reality of this new world.
I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how Umur deals with the challenges of this new world. For anyone reading this who’s new to Archipelago, your storyline deals with characters from Mogadishu, dealing with Portuguese aggression toward Somalia in the 17th century – which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a spec fic story. What decided that as the basis for your storyline?
I have been a bit obsessed with pre-18th century Indian Ocean trade ever since reading Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies in 2008, so I knew I wanted to set my story in one of the great trading nations of that area. When Westerners think of naval powers, we tend to think of Europeans — the British, Spanish, Dutch, etc. — but there are thousands of years of trade between India, China, and Africa that gave rise to great naval powers there as well. If a series of portals opened on Earth, there is no reason they should all be in the Atlantic.
So I did a little research about what the big ports of trade were on the Indian Ocean and picked Mogadishu because of the events “The Ur-Ring” deals with. I don’t want to spoil my story, but I’ll spoil some history: The Portuguese were very powerful in Goa and Zanzibar, but they didn’t make much headway up the Horn of Africa. Why is that? Hmmmm…
And what about the prosthetic forearms Umur uses? Is that more a speculative aspect of your storyline, or is there a historical basis for those designs?
I think Umur’s prosthetics fall under the category of being historically plausible. “Ingenious mechanical devices” were quite sophisticated in the Islamic Golden Age (which was earlier than 1600, but I’ve let it thrive in my Mogadishu,) so there’s nothing impossible about his hands. But they are not modeled on any existing historical examples.
I’ll add that to my list of things to research — and I’m interested to see how Umur tackles things in coming episodes.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Charlotte! If any readers want to find the prologues (one of which is included below) and support Archipelago, where should they go?
Thank you! The rest of the prologues can be found free to read at our Patreon site. Starting June 1st, three regular episodes per month will be released to subscribers through Patreon. But we also have an exclusive ebook available through our Kickstarter that includes three flash-length stand-alone stories, Nation guides, character profiles, and more. Should be good!
Below is Charlotte’s prologue, “The Ur-Ring,” which introduces her Nation and some of its principle characters. I’ve read all three prologues, and they are all excellent, so I highly suggest you check out more via the links above!
By Charlotte Ashley
Umur Aziman Mohammad was there in the beginning, when the portal opened.
He saw it all: the deafening crack in the sky, the sinkhole in the sea, the moon-sized disk of distance snapping into focus like a gargantuan lens tossed over the bay. Then, the whale, cresting out of nowhere, soaring over the fishing vessels and net weavers, landing with a wet splorch on the beach. It skidded half a league over the white sands to the foot of the lighthouse before finally exploding in a shower of noxious gas and offal that rose a hundred feet in the air and covered the entire point in an oily layer of gore.
Umur, pacing the boardwalk as he awaited a shipment of greenware, was coated entirely, then mistaken for fisherfolk and rounded up by the Suldaan’s guards. By the time his uncle came to claim him, rumours about what he had just witnessed had already begin to circulate in lower Xamar. It was an accident, it was an invasion, it was the arrival of a prophet. A hole had opened in the sky. Something had come through.
Nobody was allowed on the beach, not even to claim their boats, but you could see the shimmering portal from any rooftop: as tall as the main mast of a xebec, ringed by a shimmering silver aura, and inside, a strange horizon.
“…but there was nothing left of the creature, Adeerka, not a flipper. I saw it as close as you stand to me now!” Umur enthused, scraping sand and filth off his trembling legs before lowering himself into the bath next to his uncle. “It was larger than a rorqual, longer and sleeker than any snake. And it was so pale, like a ghost, or –”
“No, listen, the Suldaan called it an eel but I tell you, that was no eel. It was too thick. Like a galley, or a cutter-”
“It was an eel, Umur. From the deep seas, you know they grow large-”
“No, Adeerka!” Umur stood again, restlessly shifting from one bench to another, unable to stay still. He removed the metal caps from his arms, set them aside, and sat again to soak away the gunk that had built up in the folds of his stumps. His uncle, Saleebaan, passed him a sponge. “It came through that silver door, I tell you! It was not a thing of this world. If you would speak to the Suldaan for me, I can go back, I can be the eye of God for him! I could tell him what I saw, and perhaps he would allow me to take a boat — a very small boat — through that great door-”
“Yes, Adeerka, I know; I am chattering. But it was very exciting, you know. A leviathan burst out of a tear in the sky, flew over my head, and exploded. Ah, if only they hadn’t herded us off so quickly! There was — something — a crest across the creature’s belly-”
“Are you even listening to me, Saleebaan-ka? You keep muttering my name like a hiccup. Umur, Umur, Umur. Yes, I am right here. What? What? Why are you rubbing your eyes like that? Did you get water in your eyes? You don’t want to do that, Adeerka, I’ve brought a lot of the creature into this tub with me — ha! Better get someone to drain it after this.”
“You cannot go back to the beach.”
“Yes, so you said. It is very strange, don’t you think, that the Suldaan should close the beaches because of an eel, hm? Speak with him, Adeerka. You know I can be trusted –”
“No, Umur, you cannot go back to the beach because I have spoken to the Suldaan.” Umur stopped twitching, finally, and met his uncle’s eyes. The older man’s narrow face was squeezed tight on his long head, his eyes bulging nervously as if it were he, and not his nephew, who had witnessed the impossible that afternoon. He toweled the sweat from his high brow before continuing.
“You spoke with him?” Umur prompted. “Since that great door opened? When?”
“He came to ask for you. He wanted you at the beach.”
Umur flashed a broken-lipped smile. “You are coming at this good news in a very strange way, Adeerka. What the blazes are we doing in a bath? I’ll get my good hands.” He stood and waved one arm at a servant, who brought him a fresh towel.
“Because I refused for you, Umur,” Saleebaan replied.
Umur froze, then slowly rolled onto the prettily-tiled ledge of the tub and sat up. “I think, perhaps, we have both started our tales in the wrong place, Adeerka. You seem to have heard the part I am telling, and you finish the journey so far along that I have no idea where you have gone.” He accepted the servant’s help in capping his arms again, snapping finer hands of white ceramic on where he had worn iron pincers earlier. His uncle, barely ten years his senior but clumsier and fatter, waited for the servant to help him to his feet before continuing.
“Yes, Umur, we are speaking past each other. You are clean enough now. Come to my workshop with me. You have a new job.”
“I didn’t have an old job, Adeerka. Is my new job to pack up the household before dawn? To steal horses for the family? Because I am quite certain you’re not meant to be refusing the Suldaan, not for me or anyone.”
“By God, you talk and talk. Move your feet, not your mouth.”
“Where is Lize?” Umur asked uneasily as his uncle carefully unlocked each of the three intricate mechanisms securing his workshop. It was peculiar for the workshop to be shut up so tight at any hour, for Lize, his 12-year-old cousin, was almost always in the big room, building model ships of glass and gold, or improving on the ones she had. Saleebaan, her father, was the greatest machinist in Mogadishu, but some day, Umur was sure she would surpass him.
“Lize will no longer be free to work here. For the time being, nobody must enter this place but you and I.”
Umur stood, stunned, as his uncle entered the huge room and began lighting the lamps in their braces. Every surface, from the mosaic columns to the domed ceiling, the grated storage lockers to the shuttered windows, was hung with precious metal that caught and reflected the flames: tools, toys, frames, and mechanical devices of every description. But it was not this that confounded Umur, for he was used to the dazzling clutter of his family’s craft. It was, rather, the enormous ring of bone leaning on an easel in the centre of the room that caught his attention.
“Is that-” he started, taking a few steps with his arm outstretched.
Saleebaan moved quickly to slap his arm away.
“Don’t touch it,” he snapped. His brow softened sheepishly. “– yet. That thing probably cost a dozen soldiers their lives this afternoon.”
“Then… why is it here?” Umur asked, moving forward more cautiously. “It came from the sea beast, didn’t it? It was on the beach?”
Umur heard the shuffle of his uncle’s robes and assumed he was nodding, but he could not take his eyes from the strange ring. It looked to be something between a spinal column and a rib cage; one large ring made up of hundreds of smaller, delicate rings, somehow interlocked. The whole was big enough to girdle an elephant. Like a spiral, it looked as if it could expand with a tug. It was the white of bleached coral, without a scrap of blood or ichor to show it might have been part of a larger creature mere hours ago.
Saleebaan took Umur’s arm and released the clamp on his false right hand, removing it. He replaced it with the piece Umur used for formal dining; a jeweled hand with eight spider-like digits articulated for precision movements.
“Yes,” he said. “That is all that is left of the creature you saw. The Suldaan wanted it as a prize, but it is not what he expected.” Saleebaan moved closer to the ring, but did not touch it. “The first man to try to lift it was thrown away from it — nearly half a league. I am told he died. Two more tried, and were somehow smashed together with such force that their skulls were crushed.”
“God is great,” Umur murmured, but Saleebaan held up his hand.
“Next, a troop of these fools all tried to lift it together, using only the fingers of one hand each. These circlets-” He indicated the rib-like rings that made up the whole. “– somehow came apart from the rest, and shot up the arms of all those who touched it. The force was such that their arms were torn off.”
Umur was horrified, but too curious to respect these sacrifices with a little silence. “Then how, how did this thing get here?”
“Six soldiers, under threat of death, were able to lift it using sickles. The ring, it appears, has no effect whatsoever on anything but living flesh. But we know little enough about it.”
“And so you, genius of mechanics, have been tasked to unlock its secrets,” Umur guessed.
“But it could kill you!”
“That is my punishment.”
Umur’s eyes widened as he realized what he had missed. He moved to his uncle’s side and pressed his hands to his forehead in apology.
“The Suldaan wanted me to move his strange prize,” Umur concluded. “He thought, with my false hands… But he wasn’t wrong, eh? I’m as good as a sickle.” And then, I could have shown the Suldaan my worth myself, he thought.
“We did not know that, then. The Suldaan was willing to sacrifice your life on a gambit.” Umur shuddered. “But I would not sacrifice you, Umur, my nephew. You are too much like my son.”
“Thank you, Adeerka.” Umur drew his uncle into a tight embrace. This was not the first time his uncle had shielded him from the disregard of others — as if I had been born without a soul as well as hands! He pulled back with a grateful smile. “What is my new job, then?”
“You can share my punishment,” Saleebaan said dryly, drawing up the sleeve of his robe. “You are my assistant now. I cannot touch this murderous thing, so you will be my hands. Together, we will learn what we can about it.”
“Ah,” Umur said, his smile drooping only slightly. “I am honored, of course, Adeerka. But you know I would be a terrible artificer. It is Lize, not I, who should be your apprentice.”
“I didn’t say I was making you my apprentice, man! I said assistant. We will either succeed or die trying in these next few months. After that, you can go back to mooning over the merchant fleet.”
“I don’t moon. And anyway, surely it will take more than mere months to make any sense out of that — that thing! Look at it, there’s nothing to know!”
“Be that as it may, Umur, we have only months to solve this puzzle.” Saleebaan looked around unnecessarily, as if to be sure nobody else had entered his vault-like workshop to spy on them. “The Imam has sent word from Mareeg: the Portuguese have regrouped at Goa and are making for the cities to the south of us. We expect an attack on Mogadishu in the spring.” He returned his attention to the ghastly bone ring dominating the room. “The Suldaan expects us to use this to arm the fleet. The Portuguese are not to be allowed anywhere near the portal in the bay.”
“Oh,” Umur replied, at a loss for words for the first time in his life. And what happens if we can’t make anything useful from it in time? he would have asked, but he really, truly did not want to know. He tugged at the levers in his arm caps, snapping his golden fingers one by one, then he cleared his throat. “Shall we get to work then, Adeerka?”
“I thought I had seen everything when I saw a whale fly,” Umur said, standing at the window of his uncle’s workshop, “but now I measure the trajectories of airborne gerbils.”
“Weigh it first,” Saleebaan warned Umur, whose job it was to wrangle their projectiles before laying them on the ring.
They had discovered that the Ur-ring, as they had come to call it, could launch living things at incredible speeds. The fine-bone weave of the ring contained no mechanical apparatus that they could find, but the rib-like circlets could be slipped off the whole and lose none of the original’s powers. Saleebaan, ever the mathematician, was trying to establish a correlation between the size of the animal, the circumference of the circlet, and the distance it could be launched. It seemed obvious to try to adapt the Ur-ring as a projectile weapon, but even the fastest-moving toad was still a toad, and had not the destructive capabilities of a cannonball.
And they were running out of toads.
A distant splash indicated a measurement to be taken, and Umur raised his sextant with a sigh. “900 meters. Incredible.”
He noted the details of his gerbil’s ill-fated flight and turned his attention instead to the portal. He saw it every day — everyone in the city did – but the fact of it never ceased to take his breath away. It was a shimmering silver miracle. The Ur-ring held not one-tenth the appeal, for Umur.
The Ur-ring was incredible in its own way, but they had still discovering nothing about it that might be used to deter the Portuguese fleet. The Imam’s intelligence proved to be excellent, if disheartening. Two months after the opening of the portal, they received word that Mombasa had fallen, then Kilwa Kisiwani. Ships had been sent down the coast to harry and skirmish the Portuguese, but they could not win an all-out battle.
“Umur,” this uncle roused him from his thoughts. “Wake up. These creatures aren’t going to launch themselves.”
“Adeerka, you know I love you, but this is a waste of time and tiny lives. The creature on the beach carried the Ur-ring through the portal. Could not other such creatures be on the other side? Perhaps, if we could find one in its natural habitat, we could understand better how to wield the ring-”
“Are you a naturalist now, Umur?” Saleebaan chided him. “Turn your curiosity to what you can do, not what you can’t. If you encountered one of those, alive, in the wild, what the devil do you think you would do?”
“Have the fleet at my back empty its cannons into it,” Umur replied. “As I am certain they would either follow or pursue me there.”
“Just weigh the next gerbil, Umur,” Saleebaan sighed.
“Wait,” Umur stood up straight, squinting out the window. “Pass me a spyglass, Adeerka.”
He did. The two men looked through the window framed by the Ur-ring, Umur pointing the glass beyond the rippling shores of the portal. “Is that — is that one of our harriers?”
He passed the glass to Saleebaan, but they no longer needed it. The smoke rising from the distant ship could now be seen with the naked eye. The frigates in the harbor had already begun unfurling their sails. Umur’s heart started to race. “Oh no…” his uncle breathed.
“It’s them. It’s the Portuguese.”
In reply, a loud knock at the door. Both men turned as one. “Aw Saleebaan!” someone called. “It’s time!”
“How long do we have?” Umur asked, packing tools into a trunk as quickly as he could. His uncle shut the door behind him, having just returned from an emergency briefing.
“The harrier was caught by the fleet maybe fifty leagues down the coast, but the Portuguese were at anchor. They’re a day away, maybe another day to make up their minds. The Suldaan has given us the first day to arm the fleet.”
“Arm them? We have nothing!”
“I told them we could fix the circlets into cannons, blood some cannonballs –”
“How? What? Adeerka, the Ur-ring does not drink blood, it drinks life! The only time we managed to fire a blooded ball, we had to bleed the poor, living shrew directly onto the apparatus! Do you propose handing rodents and pocket knives out to every sailor? That’s not a weapon, that’s cookery!”
Saleebaan ran his sleeve over his head, sweating nervously. “At least it’s silent! The circlets are quick, quiet, powerful — that’s an improvement over the cannons we have…”
“Oh my God, I am going to have to catch –” Umur tried to estimate how many cannons were in the fleet. “– millions of gerbils. By tomorrow. Adeerka, we’re doomed!”
“Well, do you have a better idea?” Saleebaan exploded, hurrying to a storage locker, fumbling with the keys at his belt.
“Yes!” Umur blustered, and then stopped, surprised at himself. “Actually, I do.”
And he did.
The Suldaan gave him a ship. Any other time, even yesterday, Umur would have been the happiest man in Mogadishu, but today, the circumstances behind his realized dreams were too grave. The ship — a small, single-mast dhow in terrible need of a new rudder — had only been granted to him on the understanding that it, and he, would likely never be returning. Now that they knew enough about the Ur-ring to handle it with precision tools, Umur was disposable.
The Suldaan therefore agreed to allow him to steal through the portal before dawn the next morning to pursue his unlikely plan. Umur quietly renamed his sad little ship the Bellweather.
Saleebaan saw him to the pier and helped him carry a few empty trunks up the plank in silence. Umur’s small crew — four incompetent old men who had none of them been allowed to crew a ship in decades — watched them with glassy eyes, not offering to help. Finally, Umur turned to his uncle and embraced him.
“Shouldn’t you be trying to talk me out of this, Adeerka? This is madness, I won’t allow it, all of that?” he said, smiling affectionately.
“What, and hold you back from a voyage to Heaven? No, my nephew, in fact, I think this is the best thing that could have happened. Look-” He nodded in the direction of the portal. “– the new sea is as smooth as my wife’s cheek. You are a smart man. This may be the occasion of your destiny, the moment that enriches you; physically, mystically, spiritually. Someone should have passed through that portal already, but for superstition and fear. I am glad you have the courage to be the first one.”
“The Suldaan only allows it because he thinks we will be killed,” Umur said, embarrassed. “And anyway, I’m only going to collect crabs.”
“So you say,” Saleebaan said, stepping onto the gangplank and returning to the dock. “But I think you might find something greater than mere crabs.”
“If it is God’s will.” Umur shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant. Inside, he was trembling with excitement. “Farewell, Adeerka.”
“I will see you in a few hours, Umur. I hope you find what we need.”
As the Bellweather glided gently towards the portal, soon taken up by the current that sped towards its heart, Umur mentally went over what they knew about the Ur-ring and the portal. The strange, impervious bone reacted to living things – including itself. Once they had dislodged that first circlet, they had to isolate it far from the main ring, for the little hoop would be drawn back into line with its brothers and sisters if it was held too close. It was alive, Umur was sure of that. The Ur-ring had been part of the sea-creature that had emerged from the portal.
Could not, then, other creatures on the other side of the portal have similar bones, and be similarly drawn to the ring? Perhaps, he hoped, there were smaller, shelled creatures in that new sea that were as strong, as resilient, and as indestructible as the Ur-ring. Even clams made of this incredible bone would make deadly projectiles — and be easier for him to catch.
He prayed that the new sea was as calm as it looked.
They passed the line of frigates guarding the portal as the horizon turned pink. They allowed the stiff new current to carry them, pulling them swiftly towards the forbidden door with mounting strength. Day was breaking within the portal as well as over Mogadishu, and their little ship had not much dark left to hide under.
“Here we go,” Umur muttered. The silvery ripple of the portal’s border formed a sparkling arch over the sea, which continued seamlessly from the Arabian Ocean into that new place without so much as a ripple of disturbance. Umur stood at his boat’s prow as his crew huddled near the rear, he determined to know as soon as possible whether or not he was destined to be killed. He braced himself as the portal approached-
— then watched in marvel as he passed from under one sky to another.
Nothing changed, and yet everything did. The smell of salt and sea, the warmth of the breeze, and the sound of the current remained, but Umur could not name one dimming star in the sky. He whirled around to see the portal retreating behind them, Modadishu and the Ajuran fleet framed by the same silvery arch. Behind that familiar portrait was the hulking darkness of an unknown shore.
“About face!” Umur cried, rousing his crew from their stupors. They stumbled quickly onto the main deck, apparently anxious to tack around and head for land, even an unfamiliar one. The current coming from the portal was losing strength, and a cross-breeze was easy enough to catch. The land behind them was still cast in shadow, but it appeared to have a clean, white beach extending a league or two to the south — was that still south? — and turning to a curling sandbar to the north that created a natural bay, much like back home. Not far back from the beach was a line of bluffs, and past them, a sharp incline towards the distant peak of a single wooded hill.
“Anchor us there,” he ordered the crew, picking a shallow spot in the crook of the sandbar’s embrace. He drew his spyglass from his belt and scanned the shoreline more carefully, but there was little enough to see. No sign of civilization, no sign of hostile life. The pale sand was occasionally scored with the slow-ploughed lines of migrating mollusks, and here and there lay driftwood, shards of shell, limp seaweeds.
Focus, Umur, he chided himself. They weighed anchor parallel to the portal, then lowered the dinghy. One day. You have only one day.
He left the most cowardly men on the boat, giving them orders to fish. The other two, those with a more cunning look, he took to shore. Equipped with his sturdiest iron pincers, he could not row, but the water was shallow enough for him to lean over the edge and trawl the bottom, scooping up items of interest. The sealife here was, like the land, familiar, but not. Schools of strange minnows swarmed his metal hands, and drowsing, half-buried shelled things scuttled out of the path of the boat. He scooped up a long, thin mollusk the length of his foot and squeezed it experimentally. The lined shell started cracking under the pressure almost immediately. Umur frowned and tossed it back in the sea.
“That might’ve been good eating!” one of his codgers protested, so Umur reached into the water and clasped another one, tossing it into the man’s lap. The sea was thick with them, with life, as if nobody had ever fished here. Yelps of delight from the ship suggested the fishermen were having just as bountiful of time of it. Umur smiled, but uneasiness grew in his belly. Nothing he had seen yet was anything like the Ur-ring. These creatures were just as frail as those back home.
Three hours later, Umur’s uneasiness had turned to anxiety. This new land was plentiful, to be sure, but that only made it a fatter prize for the Portuguese when they inevitably arrived to claim both Mogadishu and its portal. He had found boatloads of new life: crabbish things and fishy things, mollusks and reptiles, even odder, sand-born things which were something like horned frogs with none of the softness – but none of it had the same miraculous bone of the Ur-ring, and none of it would help them defend their home. As the sun rose, the day grew oppressive, the air heavier and wetter than that of Mogadishu. Head pounding, Umur kicked a clump of sandstone into the sea.
“Come on,” he barked at his crew, who were laying about in the sand with wet linens on their faces. “We’re going up the mountain.”
“What?” This proclamation elicited a lot of whining and moaning. “But what if there’s leopards?” one man asked. “Or boars?” another added. “What if there’s savages?” the last said rather viciously, as if to scare the others. They all grumbled in agreement.
“Bring your blades,” Umur said, gesturing to the thin fishing knives they all carried. He threw open the trunk they had been filling with curiosities, pushing aside shells to reveal his satchel of tools. He released the clamp on his left pincer-hand, allowing it to drop into the bag, then slid the bare metal cap into another limb entirely, a long tube bearing a harpoon. He held it up to his crew. “Come on, get up.”
“You’ve only got one shot,” the last man protested again. “And I’m thirsty.”
“By the sands, but you fellows whine! Fine.” Umur fumbled with his satchel, strapping it over his body. “I’ll go alone. You can explain to the Suldaan why you live, if I die.” The old men exchanged glances, but did not move or reply. Yes, yes. We all know the Suldaan would not give a fig. What a pack of gnat-cocks you are. Umur turned and left them without another word.
Umur picked his way up the bluff and strode across a stony shelf towards the treeline without much thought for anything but his own frustration. The forest buzzed with the droning cries of something, perhaps an insect, which he took to mean no larger predators were prowling about. Vines of a thousand shades of green and blue built a thick netting around every upright thing, forcing Umur to follow the treeline north in search of an opening.
He eventually came to an exposed point where the salty residue of the sea had weakened the plants enough to leave a sparse clearing; swampy, saline, and dead. Umur threw a few rocks at salt-coated stumps in fear that they were crocodiles, but nothing responded to his barrage. His frustration turned to despair as he contemplated how to cross a foreign salt-bog whose silty and probably treacherous bottom he could not even see, but there, at the far end, he caught sight of a log that bolstered his hopes. It was a bone-white shaft as tall as two men. He had at first mistaken for another dead, salt-crusted tree trunk; but no, there was more. The white was too perfect, the lines too straight. It was some ancient column, or the tusk of a gargantuan elephant. It was as perfectly polished as the Ur-ring.
“Hey!” he called for his men, but he was too far to be heard. The sun here was still directly overhead, but he was sure it was well past noon – evening, even – by now, too late to spend hours running back and forth along this shoreline, convincing his useless crew to act like proper explorers. He hesitated only a minute, then stepped into the water.
It was only waist-deep. The swamp’s bottom was crunchy and hard, but each touch dislodged a cloudy white murk that obscured his footing. Well, I’m already in it, he reasoned. Any harm has been done, and this is quicker. He slogged towards the column.
As he approached his destination, he grew more excited. He had not been wrong. The column was flawless: uniform in color, unmarked by dirt or age, and completely unscratched. It was straight as a plane for ten or twelve feet, then came to a sharp, tapered point, like a cut reed. The base was hidden by the bog, but it was close enough to solid ground that Umur was sure he could reach out and touch it with the tip of his harpoon when he reached shore.
He was only steps away when he was attacked.
The creature came out of nowhere, or rather, out of the bog; as cloudy-white as the water and branch-sharp as the desiccated trees. One moment, Umur was standing, awe-stricken, looking up at the spire before him, and the next he was falling, tripped by the lashing bite of a long snout filled with a million jagged teeth.
Umur splashed into the foggy bog full-length, becoming submerged for one desperate second. He kicked with all his might, but whatever bit him was still clamped on his ankle, smaller than he’d first thought, but long and prickly, inside and out. He broke the surface with a gasp and a shout and saw its body, as long as a mongrel dog, limbs indistinguishable from fallen branches, whipping back and forth with a jackknife motion. His ankle burned like it was caught in a trap as plumes of blood bloomed pink in the water around him. Get up, get up, he thought, before its blasted grandfather comes to finish the job.
All at once, he planted his free foot on the bog’s bottom and leaned into the creature, hoping to crush its jaw and force it to release him, but it was more snake-like than he’d thought, and merely rolled with the motion. His trapped foot touched bottom, giving him enough purchase to stand, but the thrashing, whipping motion of the long, thin body was causing the jagged vice around his ankle to rip and tear in a sawing motion. Pain and fear threatened to overwhelm him, but he swallowed the panic and focused. Kicking wasn’t helping him, it was helping this monster sever his foot. He needed to trap it, come hell or higher water.
“I don’t have limbs to spare, you wretched beast!” he hollered, fortifying himself with the rather sardonic battle-cry. “Take my foot and I’ll make a replacement of your bones!” With that, he threw himself on his assailant.
He lurched straight forward with his arms outstretched, ready to draw the thing into a bear-hug. He couldn’t tell its lashing body from the foaming water, but he knew, at least, where one end was, so the rest could not stray too far. He pitching under the water once more, only to discover much of the rest of the creature’s body was as painful as its bite. Hard, sharp spines pierced and lacerated him, but he squeezed tighter, pushing through the surprise and pain to hold the creature still. It was not heavy and not strong. He ignored the scream of every nerve in his skin telling him to let go and twisted into a horizontal roll, over and over, until his head broke the surface and he found he had wrestled the creature to shore.
Umur could see the whole of the monster now: a milk-white beast the size and shape of a small crocodile, but limbless, like a snake, and covered in a joined shell with spines protruding every which way. He could not make out eyes, gills, or any other vulnerable spot; nor had the creature ceased thrashing in its effort to rip him to shreds.
With a cry of exertion, Umur slid his arm up the jagged length of the creature’s body to catch its tail in his clamp-hand. He pushed it away from his body, tearing out its barbs with a hundred tiny explosions of blood. Vision swimming with pain and nausea, he lifted his harpoon hand and fired its one shot.
It would have been impossible to miss. The bolt pierced the chitinous shell of the creature and ripped it from his clamp, firing it into the ground. It thrashed several more times with weakening conviction, then grew still, nailed to the sand. Only then did it release Umur’s leg.
“Thank you, God,” he gasped, sinking to his knees. He slowly closed his eyes and focused on breathing.
When he opened his eyes, all he could see was purple light.
It was the bone column, just feet from where he knelt. My blood, Umur realised. I bled on…. that.
Gone was the perfect white of bone. Instead, it glowed an intense purple from base to tip. Umur’s gaze followed the light up and up, to where the tower of light continued out of the column’s pointed tip endlessly into the clouds. The purple light was so bright it was white at its core, shining clearly even against the bright midday sky. And along the shore, a hundred thousand broken shards, the remains of another column, echoed the violet gleam.
This is not a bone, Umur thought. This is no creation of Nature.
It took Umur the rest of the long afternoon to return to his crew. It was not just the long route around the bog he forced himself to take, nor the blood he had lost, nor the painful – but superficial – injury to his leg. All of this he could have managed in a couple of hours, but the extra burden of the makeshift sledge and the weight of the white shards he collected slowed him considerably. He was relieved to find his men still lounging on the beach, ready to return him to the Bellweather, and even more ready to return them all to Mogadishu.
Saleebaan met them aboard the Tidebreaker, a huge smile on his face that faded as he saw the poorly-fashioned bandages bound about Umur. They helped him disembark, past crews wearing thick leather gloves, bloodied knives in one hand. One by one, they were luring the circlets of the Ur-rings into the mouths of the cannons, clamping them into place. Good. Then, to a doctor.
“So?” Saleebaan asked, anxiety in his voice. “What happened? What is there? Did you find –”
Umur shrugged off his satchel and let it spill to the ground, scattering the faintly-glowing shards across the deck. Saleebaan jumped backwards with a cry.
“Don’t worry, Adeerka. These — are not like the Ur-ring. You can touch them.”
Saleebaan raised his eyebrows and lowered his shoulders. “They are not crabs.”
“No. And the Ur-ring is no bone. Adeerka – I don’t know anything. We know nothing. That place – it is rich beyond imagining. And dangerous. But … but…” Umur struggled to find the words that would encompass everything he was feeling. Triumph, curiosity, longing, relief, pain… he felt tears begin to pool in his eyes. More than anything, he felt overwhelmed.
Saleebaan slowly lowered himself to sit at Umur’s side. “Umur, You have done a miraculous thing. But the Portuguese are still coming. You need to tell me what these are. Once they are driven off, once we are alone-”
“Yes, yes, Adeerka, of course.” Umur wiped his eyes. “Actually, they’re just shards. Broken pieces of an ancient column. Maybe it was a tower once, or a theatre. Or — actually, it hardly matters. It’s ruined now. There are pieces everywhere.”
Saleebaan sat very still for a moment. “Umur…ancient ruins are — fascinating, amazing, incredible. But not alive.”
“These are. Somehow.” Umur stooped stiffly and caught one of the shards in his pincer. He pressed it to the exposed flesh of his arm and its light intensified like a violet ember, throbbing in time with his heartbeat. It felt gently warm, like the touch of a loved one. “I thought — we could forge them into cannonballs, or bolt them to — well, I don’t know. You are the machinist, not I.”
Saleeban stopped one of the gloved workers and asked him to hold a single circlet from the Ur-ring aloft. He chose a shard from Umur’s trove, no larger than a pebble, and tossed it gently in the direction of the ring. The moment it arrived at the circlet’s threshold, it shot away with such speed and force that all they could see was a star-like speck of violet against the darkening horizon for one brief moment before vanishing into the ocean well beyond the confines of the bay. A moment later, a sucking boom echoed across the water. Every sailor on the deck staggered and ducked, then, finding they were not under attack, stared at the Ur-ring and muttered curses — or prayers.
Saleeban was no less awed than the rest. “Umur, this is a miracle. The Suldaan will reward you well.”
“I just want to go back, Adeerka.” Umur, unfazed, sat up and fixed his uncle with an earnest look. “If the Suldaan is pleased — or if he isn’t. Be it a reward or a punishment, exile or commission. I’ll take any ship.” He swallowed. “I must go back.”
“Alright.” Saleebaan patted his arm. “You have done well, Umur. You have done well. I will see what I can do for you.”
Umur was not there for the battle of Merca, but he heard about it afterwards.
Three days after Umur passed through the portal, the Ajuran fleet attacked the Portuguese under cover of darkness. Every ship in the fleet, including dozens of barely-seaworthy cargo ships hosting skeleton crews — sailed down the coast to exaggerate their numbers, but in fact, it was the Tidebreaker alone that attacked.
Bearing fifty cannons fitted with Ur-rings, the Tidebreaker sailed around the foreign fleet as silent as a snake, spraying cannonballs lit with an evil purple flame. They could fire two balls per second from each cannon without recoil; a ghastly boom following each shot only after it had torn the planks from the enemy hulls. It was more firepower than they could possibly have needed to sink every ship in Goa, but in the end, they did not even need it. The unholy purple fire alone was enough to spook the Portuguese captains, to say nothing of the speed with which the ships of the line were torn to shreds by the dozens of balls flying faster and harder than any ever seen before on this earth.
The Portuguese fled. Mogadishu was untouched.
“This Umuring is the artifice that will make the Ajuran Sultanate one of the greatest powers the world has ever seen,” the Suldaan declared. Umur, cleaned up and bandaged, raised a jeweled finger.
“Ur-ring, Aw Suldaan,” he squeaked, but the Suldaan was not listening.
“Saleebaan, my old friend, your family has distinguished themselves. You will be the first masters of Umuring, but certainly not the last. The portal is open to your family. May the Umuring artifice bring ever more glory to God.”
“Is he — Adeerka, did he not hear? It’s Ur-ring, not — that is, I am flattered, but Umuring is –”
“Alright, yes, But when he learns of his mistake –”
“Umur, I understand you would like a commission,” the Suldaan said. Umur swallowed his whispers and turned to his master, bowing.
“I will make you a captain, if that pleases you.”
“Captain!” Umur yelped. “An Ajuran captain!”
“Not in the Ajuran fleet, Umur. You will be captain in the fleet of Al’Tahj.”
“Al’Tahj? Where is Al’Tahj?” Umur asked, mystified. He turned to his uncle. “Adeerka — am I being exiled?”
“In a way, Umur. Shut your mouth, please, I beg you. Just listen.” He smiled at the Suldaan apologetically.
“Yes, Umur,” the Suldaan smiled indulgently. “Al’Tahj. The capital of the new world.”
It took Umur a moment to realize where he meant.
The new world. On the other side of the portal.
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On Spec, Third Flatiron Anthologies, and elsewhere. His latest short story, “Blaze-of-Glory Shoes,” is now available in The 2017 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. Learn more at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly