By Vaughn Heppner
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Vaughn Heppner and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
…Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.
— Isaiah 27:1
Whistles trilled. A drum beat and chains clanked. In the terrible gloom rose three hundred naked oar-slaves: five men to a bench, a four-foot plank covered by sheepskin. None had left the hold for over three weary months, ever since the old hulk had been pried from the crocodile-filled lagoon. The stench was vile, each rower forced to urinate and defecate where he sat.
The drum boomed and three hundred wretches rose from their planks as ankle chains clattered, one foot on the stretcher, the other lifting to set against the bench before them. The vast loom of each oar was too big for any mortal hand. So cleats had been stapled to them, the cleats grasped by dirty, callused hands. The slaves pulled the huge loom, dropping back onto their plank and causing the tholepins to creak.
Three hundred slaves, three hundred desperate men were packed into this hellish pit. Above on deck, sailors shouted and stumbled. Their voices were barely heard over the screaming wind. Rain lashed the galley, and rotted timbers groaned.
Officers staggered down the middle aisle, stuffing wine-soaked bread into mouths. Boom… boom… boom… went the beat, created by leather-wrapped mallets upon the kettledrum. Three hundred tortured creatures, three hundred animals; they were the source of power to his naval machine.
The Serpent of Thep rose upon a wave and slid into a sickening trough. Another wave, a powerful force of nature, took a mighty oar and moved it contrary to human muscles. Slaves screamed, the loom ripped from their grasp and smashed against chests. Bones snapped and chains rattled as the unfortunates flopped about.
Whistles blew. The rest of the slaves dragged the huge looms inward. Shorn of its motive power, the Serpent of Thep slued in the sea.
Armored soldiers clanked as they raced after the key officer. Groaning slaves looked up like beaten dogs. A heavy lock clicked and a chain rattled as the officer pulled it from iron manacles. Soldiers picked up the damaged rowers. Every slave knew those would not be tended by a bone-doctor, but pitched over the side like so much garbage. The last extras were pulled from the bilge, sick slaves shivering with ague. Soon the key officer and his guards retreated from the hold.
A whistle blew, but the three hundred slaves glared at their tormenters. Again the silver whistle blew.
Word of the sullen mutiny spread like balefire and in moments Captain Eglon lumbered down the steps and into the rowing hold. Rain lashed into the hatch above him and a jagged flash of lightning starkly illuminated the scene. Amid crashing thunder, silk-clad, ponderously fat Captain Eglon shook his fist at the three hundred chained beasts. The captain’s other hand held a perfumed hanky against his nose.
“Row!” bellowed Eglon.
Snarling whip-masters lashed naked backs. Still the slaves refused to push out the giant oars.
“Row, damn you!” shouted Eglon, “or I’ll heat irons and blind you all – and then you’ll row, by Yorgash you will!”
The captain never made idle threats and the three hundred wretches knew it. Yet still they sat sullenly, those who weren’t bleeding or crying out from the whips.
“We’ll die unless you row!” bellowed Eglon, his fear adding urgency to his voice.
Then a strange slave stirred, said to be an old one from the line of Adam. He was a leader (the end man) of a bench. When the leader or end man rose he pushed his handle as far aft as he could. His stroke was the longest and heaviest, his work the hardest. This slave had no fat, no symmetry to his frame. Already a big man, his muscles coiled and writhed like oak roots upon his arms, chest and thighs. He dwarfed his mates, and his hands no longer seemed flesh and bone, but strange talons, claws of calluses with iron strength. Six months to a year killed most slave-rowers, two or three years for the toughest and most strong-willed. Yet the awful brute on the bench had rowed twenty long years, he had survived and lived where everyone else died. A long white beard fell upon the massive chest. His weather-beaten face held two fiery-blue eyes that blazed fury like some desert prophet gone mad.
He rumbled, “Let us row.”
Chains rattled as three hundred slaves turned to peer at him.
“You will row because I order it!” shouted Eglon, “and for no other reason!”
“Out oars,” said the brute.
Despite the raging waves, the wild sea and the chances that all their chests would be caved in, the slaves slid out the oars.
“Measure the beat,” the brute told the startled drummer.
Three hundred slaves rose from their benches and pulled.
With an inarticulate shout of rage, Captain Eglon spun round and clumped out the hold.
Savage yelling caused the brute to stir from his sleep. Every muscle ached and his hands were like lumps of clay. He blinked bloodshot eyes. Slaves shuffled down the middle aisle.
The brute noticed that the Serpent of Thep neither creaked nor rocked. The galley lay still. Outside, pterodactyls cried and he heard carpenters sawing and hammering.
“Keep your hands on the oar, White-Hair.” A soldier waved a curved dagger in his face.
A different soldier bent down and unlocked his chain.
“Slide to the end, White-Hair, to the oar-port.”
The brute slid over the soiled wool, over the empty places of slaves who had perished last night.
New wretches were shoved off the middle aisle and down to his plank. One slave tripped and gashed his cheek against the bench.
The brute, who had witnessed a thousand such cruelties, stared up at the whicker lattice. It was in the middle of the hold’s low ceiling. The sun shone. He bent his head and peered out the oar-port. To his delight he sniffed the salt sea. His eyes widened.
Masses of galleys, in their squadrons, cruised upon the waters. Oars moved rhythmically, giving each vessel the image of a huge wooden centipede. Seen from this distance the galleys were beautiful, at least the largest were with gilded forecastles and purple stern awnings. Bronze-armored soldiers packed the decks and thousands of archers (given this incredible armada) waxed their bowstrings. Pterodactyls wheeled overhead and sometimes triangular fins cut through the green sea.
The brute leaned the other way. He saw a vine-covered seawall and behind that slender towers with pearl-colored turrets.
“Iribos,” he whispered. They had made it.
“I’m sorry,” whispered a slave, who bumped against him.
The brute turned from the oar-port and peered at the man. He was a small fellow with a shock of tawny hair, black circles around his eyes and a bruised face.
“My name is Zeiros,” said the man, holding out his hand.
The brute frowned. It was forbidden for others to speak with him. That this slave hadn’t been warned… the brute’s heart thudded.
“I hope you bear me no ill will,” said Zeiros.
The brute had to concentrate. He reached out and dwarfed the other’s hand.
“My city is Larak,” said Zeiros. “I’m a moneylender there from the House of Commorion.”
“You’re a coin-monger?”
Zeiros shrugged, and despite the evil of the hold, the snick of locks all around and the rattling of chains, the moneylender grinned.
They hadn’t broken any of his teeth, noticed the brute.
The oar-master blew his whistle. “You pigs listen now! Captain Eglon is going to speak!”
Captain Eglon brushed aside the oar-master. His eyes seemed haunted. “You are here to die for Yorgash,” said Eglon, as if reciting a creed. Then the captain turned abruptly as his triple chin quivered. He fled the hold.
For a moment no one said anything.
Several officers bent their heads, whispering together.
Behind them the grizzled key officer cleared his throat, stepping forward. “You new boys shouldn’t think that your allies will board us and free you from your chains. We’ll kill you if it looks like that will happen. Your only worry is to row when I say or if not to expect a knife in the kidneys. So that’s fair warning. I don’t give orders twice. Now grab your oars. I’m going to teach you what to do while we still got time.”
Soon thereafter they rowed. At the end of the grueling training stint a whistle shrilled. Weary slaves dragged in the oars, the new men with bloody palms.
The crack of leather told of the mainsail catching a breeze.
“Your hands aren’t bleeding,” said Zeiros.
The brute peered at his hands: ugly lumps of calloused flesh.
“Do you have a name?”
The brute considered the question. “I am Lod.”
“Of what city?”
“Caphtor, I am Lod of Caphtor.”
“Strong-walled Caphtor of the Nine Gates,” said Zeiros. “Were you a soldier there?”
Lod brooded. Once he had been Captain of the Guard. But that was long ago. He no longer spoke about such things.
“Tell me, Lod of Caphtor, will you die here?”
Zeiros lifted his eyebrows. “How can you possibly escape, my friend?”
Lod peered out the oar-port. A wet hand touched his forearm. He jerked round.
Zeiros shrank back. After a moment when nothing happened, the moneylender relaxed, glanced around and whispered, “I won’t spoil your plan, Lod. As I told you before, I’m a moneylender for the House of Commorion. How do a thousand gold shekels sound as way of reward for helping me escape?”
Zeiros looked startled. “You don’t trust me?”
“You won’t live long enough to escape.”
Zeiros blinked before a snarl touched his lips. “Maybe I’m not a mass of muscles like you, my friend, but don’t doubt my courage.”
“The oar bench slays all,” rumbled Lod, who had heard a hundred such boasts from men all dead now but for him.
“Why won’t the oar-bench slay you?” said Zeiros.
“Elohim… calls me.”
Zeiros pursed his lips. “You are a prophet, I think.”
Lod noticed the bloody handprint on his forearm where Zeiros had touched him.
“It must bother you that Elohim’s Temple in Larak has seen better days,” said Zeiros. “Our King seeks guidance from the stars, from seers and astrologers. It’s said he even sent emissaries to Gog the Oracle.”
Lod spat upon the creaking wood.
“An ill deed,” Zeiros said smoothly.
“First Born are sons of the Accursed.”
“Quite true, quite true” said Zeiros. “But as I was saying, Elohim’s Temple has fallen into ruin. Free me from the oar-bench and bring me to Larak, and I will put a thousand gold shekels into Elohim’s coffers.”
Lod stared at the moneylender. “No one but a king’s son could raise such a sum.”
Zeiros smiled ruefully. “You’re no simpleton, my friend. The truth…” He glanced about. “I am the House of Commorion.”
Lod shook his head. “You are too young.”
“As you are gifted with an extraordinary physique, so I am able to make money.”
“Yet you row.”
Zeiros nodded. “I row.”
The barest of smiles cracked Lod’s lips.
“The tale is simple enough, my friend. The King of Larak begged the moneylenders to help him against Yorgash. We agreed and paid for the fleet’s increase. We also hired Jogli charioteers and lent our King the sums to sway the city of Eridu. Now Larak and Eridu shall join fleets off the coast of the Hiddekel Delta. There they shall sink this armada of Yorgash. Then charioteers will be unleashed and the Siege of Larak broken. With Yorgash’s dream of empire shattered, we can recoup our outlays and collect interest.”
“None of this explains why you row.”
“With a bank draft I sailed from Larak to Eridu, to personally give the draft to the lenders of the Exchange. Alas, privateers caught us, and brought us to Iribos for booty. Yorgash has offered a man’s weight in silver for any officer or noble of Larak brought before him.” Zeiros shivered. “A Gibborim spoke to us in the dungeons.”
“One of Yorgash’s children?” rumbled Lod.
Zeiros turned pale. “Yes. They know now that Eridu sends its terrible fire ships. They know now that they have no chance for victory against our combined fleets.”
“You told them your King’s plan?”
“Have you ever faced a Gibborim?”
“Once… In battle…” Lod’s face grew stiff. “I killed it.”
“That is a bold boast, my friend.”
“No man can slay a Gibborim. They are too ferocious, too strong and inhuman. What you say… It is impossible.”
The fires in Lod’s eyes burned and a terrible smile stretched his lips.
Zeiros shrank back, and several nearby slaves glanced fearfully at Lod. Perhaps he recognized their uneasiness, for Lod strove to hood his passions.
“Gibborim are evil,” he rumbled . “They are children of the bene elohim, the fallen angels.”
Zeiros hunched his shoulders. “I had to speak,” he said in a haunted voice. “Many of those that now row did likewise. Early this morning they roused us and said we had been given a second chance. They jeered us, saying they would only take volunteers. I raised my hand as did everyone else there. I would have done anything to leave that dungeon, that wretched pit of misery.” The moneylender peered at his bloody hands.
“Fire ships of Eridu or not,” said Lod, “we sail to do battle.”
“We sail to our death, my friend. That is why you and I must escape. No one can survive the ships that spew fire.”
Captain Eglon whirled in his cabin as a trumpet pealed from outside. With the purest of silk handkerchiefs he wiped sweat from his jowls. The trumpet pealed again. It was strident, commanding, a clarion call of doom.
Eglon ripped a drumstick off the half-devoured fowl at his table, gnawing the greasy flesh. Then he pitched the bone out the porthole, and with his thick fingers he tore off a strip of breast. This too disappeared into his mouth. To ease his nerves he plucked a choice vintage from under his pillow. It was a green bottle of Shurrupak wine, from the gardens of Prince Amraphel. With a savage motion he smashed open the neck, and he gurgled the fine wine, ah… He smacked his lips and pitched the empty bottle out of the porthole.
For the third and final time the trumpet blared.
He sucked down air and dipped a rag into scented waters, swabbing his face and fingers.
Why his galley?
He lumbered to the cabin door. He yearned to kick it apart, to burst through like a bull. Instead, he twisted the handle, composed his features and stepped outside onto the deck.
Rows of archers stood at attention, their peaked caps oiled, their wooden bow-cases hanging from their belts and lacquered so they shone. Vendhyan sailors scampered into line as shrill whistles blew from the rowing hold below.
Eglon recoiled from the vicious slave stench. He dug into a pouch and brought up his nard-soaked hanky, holding it against his nose. A thump told of a punt striking the side of the galley. Sweat prickled Eglon’s scalp and now his turban felt too tightly wound.
A dark-haired, painted harlot of exquisite beauty strode up the wooden stairs hung alongside the galley. She had purple-shadowed eyes, blood-red lips and wore a golden tiara. She moved with a dancer’s grace and possessed marvelous charms. They were ill concealed by diaphanous strands of silk and dazzling strings of jewels.
The rows of archers stirred. They stared at her with obvious longing, a few of them glancing at each other in amazement. Those apparently had never been before in the presence of a Gibborim. It was as if the Goddess of the Embrace walked among them. She was wanton, lewd and bold, arching, strutting and taunting them with her smile.
Eglon swallowed in a tight throat. It had been so long since he had stood in the Master’s court. He had forgotten the aching beauty of the courtesans and the way each with a glance could ignite him with consuming passion. He had to remind himself that this harlot was a Gibborim’s pet. As well embrace a viper.
“Prostrate yourselves!” she cried. “Do not dare to behold the approaching magnificence. Fall and grovel, for Lord Lamassu comes!”
For all his bulk, Eglon threw himself face-first onto the deck faster and with more agility and servility than any of the archers, sailors or soldiers. He well knew the Gibborim and their studied attempts to ape the Master.
After the last rustle of cloth had stilled and the clatter of a wooden scabbard, dread silence ruled aboard the Serpent of Thep until somewhere below a rower coughed and then from above a pterodactyl screeched. Eglon trembled as the silence continued. He felt the scrutiny, sensed the evil stare and the oppressive aura of the other, the Gibborim, the Nephilim-born, a child of Yorgash.
“You may rise, Captain,” said the harlot.
Willing himself to cringe, to cower and whimper if need be, Eglon huffed and grunted as he worked himself to his feet, all while staring fixedly at the deck.
“You are the wrestler?” The words were softly spoken, as if a cobra had whispered.
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Eglon said.
“You’re more bloated than a hog,” said with the same cobra whisper, “a ripened pig for the feast.”
Eglon dipped his head. He had learned long ago not to take offense at anything a Gibborim said.
“Look at me, hog.”
Eglon raised his head, for the briefest moment daring to look into the Gibborim’s eyes. They were like dots of heated ink, with as much humanity as a preying mantis shows while chewing its kill. With an inward shudder Eglon dropped his gaze. The Gibborim’s face was stiff, stark white and flawless as Pishon marble, his features handsome as a god, a mask almost without emotions. The thin lips betrayed a gigantic haughtiness, a surety of vast superiority. Lord Lamassu, as most Gibborim, was tall and thin, clad in black leather and bearing a narrow sword at his snakelike hip. Eglon knew the Gibborim to have muscles like bands of steel, and they were fast to an unimaginable degree. He had seen one before scale a wall like a lizard and another snap the neck of a stampeding bull. Worst of all Gibborim practiced necromancy to an inordinate degree. It gave all of them – Lord Lamassu included – the taint of handlers of the dead, a sense of crawling things hidden under moist rocks or the sinfulness of a corpse stirring in its tomb.
“He is a buffoon,” Lord Lamassu said softly.
The harlot strutted around Eglon, plucking at his silk coat. “His garment clings to him.” She sniffed loudly. “And he stinks.” She laughed. “Look! He holds a perfumed handkerchief, no doubt because he despises his own stench.”
“I do not tolerate buffoonery,” whispered Lord Lamassu. He scanned the deck. “Over there, an archer dares stare at me.”
Eglon stepped toward the fool.
“Hold!” hissed Lord Lamassu, throwing out a thin arm.
Cold sweat leaped upon Eglon. For an instant he had felt the Gibborim’s strength.
“I gave you no leave to move,” whispered Lord Lamassu.
Eglon threw himself onto the deck, groveling and whining for mercy.
“There is a semblance of wisdom in this one,” said the harlot.
“No,” Lord Lamassu whispered. “It is base cunning you witness. He thinks himself clever. It is stamped upon him as if he wore a fox’s pelt. Perhaps that is what so amused the Master, or maybe that he is so obese. I could dine a week on him, perhaps nine days if I kept him alive for the first several carvings.”
“And yet he is so quick,” said the harlot, “almost nimble. There is a nicety of obscenity to it. The fact of his nimbleness bespeaks great strength. How else can he heave his lard so quickly one way and then another?”
“My pet, you anger him.”
The harlot laughed, a brazen sound, as she knelt beside Eglon and grabbed a handful of his jowls. “Not so clever after all,” she said, “Just another boar with rutting instincts. A pity,” she said with a sigh, wiping her hand on his raiment.
“Rise,” whispered Lord Lamassu.
Eglon scrambled to his feet.
“You will turn your vessel south, and move with haste until I say otherwise.”
Eglon dipped his head.
“The offending archer… Use him as shark bait. And line up your soldiery to watch. I detest this simian curiosity. I will cull it from this herd. But if that does not suffice to do so… perhaps you will next trail as bait, but not for sharks, my bloated buffoon.”
The harlot laughed.
“Go,” whispered Lord Lamassu. “Attend to your tasks. And make certain that your cleverness does not interfere with your obedience. Your fate has been set by Unrelenting Yorgash, and nothing you do can alter it.”
Eglon paced the stern deck beside the pilot plying the tiller. Subdued archers and soldiers sat in clumps about the galley, whispering and casting fearful glances at the captain’s cabin. The sun sank into the western horizon, casting gloomy shadows, long, menacing shades. They were alone in the vast sea, a small island of rotten, creaking wood, alone but for the triangular fins cutting the waters behind them. The screaming archer had lasted a scant minute. During the proceedings a few archers had betrayed their unease with twitchy fingers, as if they planned to string their bows and sink shafts into the sharks. Hard looks from soldiers, those who had served before with Gibborim, had dampened such mutinous thoughts. Now the archers sat ashen-faced, mumbling among themselves, forgoing their usual banter or the rattling of dice.
Whistles trilled from below. Giant oars slid against wood as the slaves drew them inward. Other slaves pushed out their oars. It was the changing of the watch.
Then an eerie moan emanated from the captain’s cabin. Wood rattled and a harsh red light poured through the chinks between the boards. The hellish glare startled the soldiery, many crying out and pointing. The moan became a high-pitched scream, but not one a woman would make. It grated on already tense nerves. The shadows nearest the cabin flickered as if with infernal life. The scream lasted too long. It stretched impossibly, and then the wicked light snapped off and the scream died.
“Necromancy,” whispered Eglon.
“Skull magic,” said the white-faced pilot.
“Do you know his plan?” whispered Eglon.
The pilot eyed him sidelong.
“How do you think we shall defeat the fire ships of Eridu?”
The pilot scratched his curly black beard.
“Through black magic,” said Eglon, “by summoning —”
A creak of wood stilled his speech.
Every archer, swordsman and Vendhyan sailor turned toward the cabin. Out stepped the harlot. Tears had streaked her painted face. Fear twisted her beauty. Like a sleepwalker she closed the door and shuffled to Eglon.
She seemed glazed, drugged. “You are…” She frowned. “Head west, and make haste. Time…” Her shoulders trembled. “We have little time left.”
“He summons the kraken?” asked Eglon.
Her eyes widened. Then a touch of her old haughtiness returned. “Do not question me, hog. Obey.”
Schooled in the Master’s court, Captain Eglon simply dipped his head.
With an even more leaden step than before she returned to the captain’s cabin, disappearing within, the door closing with a snick.
“Kraken?” whispered the pilot.
“Captain!” shouted a barefoot sailor. The small man ran the length of the galley, panting as he said, “There’s a vessel dead ahead, Captain, one of ours, I think, one wallowing in the sea.”
Eglon grabbed the small Vendhyan. “Show me! Hurry, go!”
The sailor scampered ahead with Captain Eglon lumbering behind. Archers at the prow hastily moved out of the way. Eglon squeezed between newly placed catapults and peered where the sailor pointed. The long shadows and sinking sun made it difficult to see. But Eglon made out the almost submerged galley. Some men splashed about it in the waters. Some stood upright upon the deck awash with waves. Others clung to the mast. The wretches shouted and waved, their voices drifting over the darkening sea.
“Do we pick them up?” asked the pilot.
Eglon jerked around. “Pick them up? Are you mad? Lord Lamassu has ordered us west?”
“Then they’re dead men,” said the pilot.
Eglon gaped. “Yes! They’re already dead. But we’re not.”
“Seems obvious,” muttered the pilot.
“Don’t you see?” Eglon cringed, his shoulders hunching as he eyed the captain’s cabin. Then he yanked the pilot to him and began to whisper fiercely into his ear.
The stars shone overhead as a cold wind blew across the Gulf of Ammon. Choppy waves slapped against the Serpent of Thep.
With an eerie creak the cabin door opened. Out stepped the harlot, with a woolen cloak draped over her shoulders and an octopus-shaped lantern swinging from her hand. The flame showed her lascivious features to be as haughty as when she had first boarded ship. She had repainted her face, and now she shouted, “Bow before Lord Lamassu! Abase yourselves and stare not at his glory.”
Archers, soldiers, sailors, everyone vied with Eglon to be first as they threw themselves prostrate. The rattle of the harlot’s lantern was soon the only noise except for the wind humming between taut ropes. Even the rowing-hold kettledrum had fallen silent, all the oars drawn in and the slaves at rest.
“Captain,” whispered Lord Lamassu, his voice as poisonous as ever.
Eglon groveled full-length upon the planking, his heart laboring hard and his breath a wheezing sound. He hadn’t heard the Gibborim’s approach. At times they moved soft as a cobra slithering over a sleeping man.
“You will assist my pet, Captain.”
Eglon heaved himself upright, sick with fright that Lord Lamassu would pierce his disobedience, that the Gibborim would discover his artifice. Fortunately, his time spent in the Master’s court now kept Eglon from collapsing in terror.
“Come,” said the harlot.
Eglon followed her into his cabin, grunting as he picked up a large bronze brazier. It was warm, and oily ashes stained the center. He lugged the massive bowl to where Lord Lamassu stood frowning out to sea. At this Eglon’s scrotum shriveled. He hurried after the harlot, taking up a bronze-limbed tripod as she gingerly lifted a necklace strung through three human skulls. Eglon almost dropped the tripod when a distant scream, one of terrible agony, threaded through his mind. It was an ethereal wail of despair. Trembling anew, but this time with a sick fear of the supernatural, he staggered after the harlot.
Eglon set the tripod near Lord Lamassu and hefted the heavy bronze brazier upon it.
“What is that I see in the distance?” whispered the Gibborim.
Eglon spoke despite the parchedness to his mouth and the hurtful thuds of his racing heart. “Lord, it is a galley.”
“Men swarm upon its watery deck,” whispered Lord Lamassu. “Sharks circle it.”
Eglon could no longer see the galley, but he wasn’t surprised that the Gibborim could. Yorgash’s children saw in the dark much better than a man. As the silence lengthened, Eglon’s heart fluttered and agony lanced his chest. Did Lord Lamassu realize that instead of heading due west they had for hours been widely circling the galley?
“The galley is sunken,” whispered Lord Lamassu.
Eglon blinked, trying to regain his wits, trying to explain.
Lord Lamassu turned toward him.
“Excellency,” whispered Eglon, “g-galleys are mostly wood. It will only truly sink once it smashes upon rocks or a storm breaks it apart.”
“No,” whispered the Gibborim, “there is a third alternative.” A strange smile stretched those thin lips, a smile that made the nape hairs stir on Eglon’s neck.
Lord Lamassu turned to the harlot and took the skull necklace from her hands, and with a clattering of bones he draped it over his head.
Unbelieving at the success of his plot, Eglon stepped back. In a daze he watched Lord Lamassu stroke the skulls, hissing to them in sibilant speech.
Suddenly the Gibborim flinched as if a whip had struck him. His mouth gaped and he shivered in something near ecstasy. Lord Lamassu seemed to expand, to swell and grow in vibrancy. He raised his arms, and it seemed to Eglon that ghostly, silently shrieking forms swirled out of the skulls and whirled round and round the taut necromancer. Lord Lamassu laughed as a god might in jest at the schemes of puny humanity. He scooped from a box at his feet hot coals, holding them in his marble-white hands. They radiated an eerie glow, illuminating his face, making his black eyes blaze with madness. With an imperious gesture he flung the coals into the brazier. They exploded with sparks, and puffs of greasy smoke whooshed upward.
Eglon staggered from the stench, viler than any in the rowing hold.
Lord Lamassu began to scream a chant. It was awful and weird, diabolic in its undulating rhythms. With his arms outstretched and his head flung back, the Gibborim wove a web of fierce enchantments. A terrible, dreadful feeling of evil radiated from him like heat. It was a sickening thing, inducing terror as if the dead rose and walked among them.
How long this chant continued was impossible to tell. On and on it went, reducing the crew to a pitiful state and exalting Lord Lamassu to necromantic heights. The dark majesty of his evil became unbearable. Men groveled in abject terror as if one of the bene elohim descended from the celestial sphere and walked among them.
Then a hideous cry almost beneath human hearing issued from out of the darkness. Lord Lamassu laughed shrilly.
Strange, awful sounds came from where Eglon had last seen the wallowing galley. A vast, colossal shape darker than the starlit night seemed to rise out of the depths. Eglon blinked and squinted, and he moaned. Was it his imagination or did he see huge tentacles that reached higher than the ship’s mast? From the submerged galley came horrified shouts of terror, gibbering men calling upon the gods and wailing desperately. There were sounds of explosively splintering wood, shrieks and heavy things slapping the water.
“O Kraken!” chanted Lord Lamassu. “Heed me, monster of the Deep! Follow me this night to a feast of blood!”
There were more hideous sounds of lost seamen and galley destroying wood-smashing. It was a terrible and dreadful noise to listen to alone and in the middle of the Gulf of Ammon.
Then Eglon was aware of the harlot at his elbow. Her fingers dug into his flesh as she hissed, “As you value your life, man, turn this galley around.”
He stared at her dull-eyed.
“Fool! This is our one chance. Lord Lamassu is in disgrace. He was to sacrifice this galley and thereby bring the kraken nearer for others more gifted to call. But your hog cunning has aided him, as he knew it would. O, do not be deceived, man. He knew that you would deceitfully circle the stricken galley, hoping to sacrifice it instead of yourself. But what do you think he will tell the Nobles Ones if they ask him what occurred?”
Understanding filled Eglon and the horror of his position.
The harlot laughed. “Someone will surely feast on you, hog. For you are doomed. But if you would scheme another night we must stay ahead of the kraken while we are able.”
Eglon jumped as if branded. He lumbered to the rowing hatch, bellowing orders into the hold as he crashed down the steps.
A moment later whistles trilled and out slid all the giant oars.
With a weary heave of his arms, Lod and the others of his bench drew in the mighty loom until the counterweighted end rested in a Y-slotted piece of pine. The Serpent of Thep swayed with the roll of the waves, water sloshing in the bilge below. Slaves draped themselves over the giant oars, exhausted, spent from a night of manic rowing.
Lod peered out the oar-port. Land smudged the horizon. Then the harsh cry of pterodactyls jerked up his head. Through the latticework he watched a reptilian beast wheel overhead, sunlight glinting off its copper message tube.
From on deck Captain Eglon bellowed orders.
Through the oar-port Lod searched for sign of the fleet. Spotting nothing, he lay down his head.
Zeiros nudged him later as cooks passed out bread, meat and wine. Lod thoughtfully chewed the salted beef and nursed the wine with misgiving. Such tasty fare meant sea-battle. The meat gave strength and wine dulled aches and fears.
He slept again and groaned in his sleep. He twitched and his face grew pale. He woke like a bear from hibernation, red-eyed, groggy and fiercely scowling. He lifted his shaggy head off the loom.
No slaves rowed. The wind drove the Serpent of Thep.
“What do you see, my friend?” said Zeiros.
Lod turned haunted eyes upon the moneylender.
Zeiros frowned. The purple bruises wrinkled upon his face. “Are you well? Did the meat upset you?”
Lod peered at his hands. He had crooked fingers, callused, some of the fingernails cracked and broken, others black. With these ugly talons he had pulled the weighted oar ten thousand leagues. His hands were twisted lumps of bone and sinew, trained and beaten to one task: grip, hold and never let go. He flexed his hands. He squeezed his fingers into fists, listening to the knuckles crack. With a churning in his gut he pounded the giant loom once, twice, three times.
The oar-master looked up from his stool beside the kettledrummer.
“Careful,” whispered Zeiros.
Lod closed his eyes.
“They’re watching you,” whispered Zeiros.
“Aye,” rumbled Lod. A terrible grin cracked his lips. His eyes snapped open. Madness shone there.
“Sit up,” Zeiros whispered in his ear. “The oar-master points at you as he speaks with the commander of the guards.”
Through his nostrils Lod drew a deep breath. The galley stink burned into him, filling his lungs, driving some of the madness from him.
Like a bear, a bruin of the high mountains, he raised his head and squared massive shoulders. With an effort of will he blanked his face. He hooded the wild light that sought to leap out of his eyes. With ogrish slowness he stretched his muscled limbs and clamped his hands onto the wooden cleats.
The oar-master squinted at him. The commander of the guards whispered into the oar-master’s ear. The oar-master hesitated and then nodded. Grinning, the commander of the guards strode down the aisle.
“You,” he said, jutting his chin at Lod.
Ponderously, Lod swiveled his head.
The commander of the guards drew a wickedly sharp sword. He pointed at Lod. “No sly fouling of the oars during battle. No bouts of craziness today.” The lean-faced commander scowled. “If you do such things or even think them I’ll hack off your hands.” He laughed. “I’ll hack off your feet. Then I’ll save you for the Gibborim. Let Lord Lamassu peel off whatever soul a monster like you has left and stuff it into his necromancer’s skull. Do you understand me, you brute?”
Lod gave a slow nod.
“Right,” said the commander. “Just so we understand each other.” He hefted the iron blade. Then he slid the sword into its scabbard and marched back to the oar-master.
Lod shivered as sweat oozed from his armpits.
“Careful, my friend,” whispered Zeiros. “They’re still judging you.”
Lod’s nostrils flared.
“What ails you?”
Lod squeezed shut his eyes. Around him, slaves stirred uneasily. Then the moment passed. Lod glanced sidelong at the moneylender. “Elohim came to me in a vision. It was…” His face tightened, and in a hoarse whisper he said, “Today I bring doom.”
Two wooden herds glared across the choppy waters. The sun rode high, reflecting off the scintillating sea. To seaward drifted the fleet of Yorgash. Many of its galleys were unpainted and therefore greenish because of the newly-cut pine logs used in their hasty construction. The galleys brimmed with soldiery wearing bronze helms that gleamed like gold and holding glittering swords. Each galley bristled with catapults and ballista. The opposing fleet was composed of two unequal parts. The yellow-painted galleys of Larak maneuvered smartly. They were sleek and slender and their rams were sheathed in polished brass. In a checkerboard pattern they advanced. The other, smaller fleet was black-painted. Those ships were larger than the Larak galleys. One tiny part of the fleet of Eridu detached itself from the others. These galleys projected brass tubes. They were few in number, less than twelve. Alone they surged, pulling ahead of all the others, their oars moving rhythmically to drumbeat.
“The fire ships of Eridu,” whispered the pilot.
To greet them, yea, to meet the fire ships, a lone galley from the fleet of Yorgash set out.
For the last several hours pterodactyls had landed with fiber bags and left them with the Serpent of Thep. At the harlot’s orders sailors had pushed the galley’s catapults overboard and erected a tarp above the forward fighting deck. Eglon, at the harlot’s bidding, had huffed and puffed before his watching archers. He had carried the tripod, the brazier and a large sack of what sounded like coals. He had set up the brazier on the forward fighting deck and now awaited Lord Lamassu.
Cold sweat slicked Eglon’s skin. His beloved scimitar was slung at his side and in place of a turban he wore a helmet. It gave him the appearance of a bloated beetle.
The archers tested their bowstrings, the sounds humming about the galley. Soldiers hefted heavy shields and drew swords. Sailors tossed bucketfuls of sand onto the deck.
“Why us?” whispered Eglon, “why my galley?”
The harlot wore her finery, the little of it she had. Her form, her beauty, her charms, they were all too visible. “Why not us, hog?”
With his sleeve Eglon wiped his eyes. His lone galley had shed its sail, throwing it overboard, and the mast along with it. They would never need it again. It was his galley that went to meet the fire ships. Behind them watched the fleet of Yorgash. All the masters, the Gibborim, and the eyes of Yorgash above, the pterodactyls, witnessed his sacrifice.
The flutes and cymbals from the fleet of Larak piped and clashed a merry tune. The sounds carried easily over the intervening water. None of those galleys advanced. It seemed rather that they mocked the slaves of Yorgash. The behemoths of Eridu swayed in the sea, waiting for the fire ships to spew their wrath. Did the men of Larak and Eridu wonder what the lone galley rowing out to intercept the fire ships could possibly conjure? Were they worried, or did supreme confidence fill the thousands of spectators from the Land between the Rivers?
On the Serpent of Thep the door to the captain’s quarters creaked open. Tall Lord Lamassu stepped out. He wore black leathers and a long, slender sword. Only the shawl thrown over his head seemed incongruous. He hurried from the cabin, his movements too fast; his speed more lizard-like than human.
Archers and soldiers blanched, turning away from the sight.
The Gibborim greeted Eglon with an evil smile. “No groveling today, toad.” A laugh such as a crocodile might have made grated the wrestler’s nerves. Lord Lamassu snapped his fingers.
The harlot opened a pot, with prongs extracting hot coals and depositing them into the brazier.
Lord Lamassu snapped open a fan and fluttered the brazier. The movements were too fast, too flicker-like, much like a dragonfly’s wing. The coals glowed hot.
“Open the sack,” whispered Lord Lamassu.
Eglon unwound the string, expecting to see coals. He paled. His stomach knotted.
“Pick one up,” whispered Lord Lamassu.
Eglon stared at the Gibborim. Lord Lamassu wore his evil necklace of skulls. Those were bleached white. Some of the eye-sockets contained rubies or emeralds. The skulls in the sack were pitch-black. Many of those eye-sockets contained lumps of tar.
“You want me to touch one?” Eglon said hoarsely.
Lord Lamassu watched him like a snake. “My harlot dares not handle them, for she is not dead.”
Eglon tried to puzzle that out.
“Haste, my hog,” whispered Lord Lamassu, “take up a skull.”
“I’m not dead either,” said Eglon.
“Untrue,” Lord Lamassu said in a dreadful whisper. “You are good as dead, for your sins have condemned you. It is merely your manner of passing that should concern you.”
Eglon blinked and blinked again. He couldn’t tear his gaze from those hypnotic eyes. Greasy sweat oozed from his cheeks and his stomach burned hollow. Ah… Strength leaked from his limbs and it seemed that his knees would unhinge. He struggled to keep from toppling before the dread Gibborim.
“Fail me in this task, hog, and I shall flay you myself.”
Eglon felt his lips part like a rusty mantrap. To his ears his voice sounded distant. “And if I do this task, Lord?”
That stark white face, so handsome, so like a perfect mask, like a god among men, seemed most mocking. “Several days on the wheel-rack will suffice the masters, provided you can keep yourself alive this day.”
Eglon stood immobile, straining to rip out his scimitar.
“No, no, hog. That is futile. Hurry, pick up a skull.”
In a daze, telling himself that it was death to disobey (that if he stayed alive he could yet plot) Eglon reached into the sack. The black skull was oily, and a shock went through him as he lifted it.
“Hold it over the coals.”
Eglon did so. The skull grew warm.
“Drop it into the fire.”
Wrenching loose his fingers, Eglon heard the skull plop upon the coals. A whoosh sounded and billows of angry smoke chugged from the brazier. It was thick sooty smoke. It reeked, and it funneled out of the brazier in quantities that weren’t natural.
“Take another skull.”
“L-Lord?” stammered Eglon.
“How can the fire ships burn what they cannot see, hmm? I must fashion a cloud, a fog. I must turn day into night. Then we shall see how these vaunted fire ships fare against the kraken.”
Choking, sulfurous smoke drifted within the hold. Rowers gagged. Shouts lifted from the oar-master as the kettledrummer pounded out the beat. Chains rattled and whip-masters loomed upon the aisle, a bloody scourge in one hand and a crackling torch in the other.
“Keep the beat, you dogs!”
Lod stood up, pushed the giant loom together with his bench-mates and then heaved backward at the beat. His eyes stung from the smoke, his nostrils burned with the stench.
A scream sounded from the other side of the aisle. Wood clouted against wood as two looms struck together.
“Hold the stroke!” shouted the oar-master. “Draw in the oars.”
Lod drew in the mighty loom. Beside him Zeiros hacked and spit. Outside water lapped against the Serpent of Thep as it glided through the sea. Lod cocked his head. He leaned his ear against the oar-hole.
Across the smoky waters men screamed just as they had last night. Something immense struck timbers. The planks that made up… a fire ship… burst apart and the human screams became loud and long. Then a whoosh and the crackling of unseen fire added to the demented howls.
Lod’s skin crawled.
Above them, on the Serpent of Thep, the Gibborim’s chant lifted several octaves.
Lod shuddered. In the murk, the hell-spawned fog, it seemed as if dead men had risen to walk the planking above. The necromancer practiced forbidden arts. He used knowledge brought to Earth by the fallen angels.
Heavy slaps struck the nearby waters. Lod peered out the oar-hole. He tried to pierce the fog that drifted all around them. Across the choppy waves wood exploded and men shrieked. A terrible, subsonic cry grated upon Lod’s being. The kraken of the depths destroyed a fire ship.
Then a breeze stirred and the Serpent of Thep slid from out of the thickest part of the gloom. Lod saw further than before: perhaps a hundred feet.
“Out oars!” cried the oar-master.
Lod’s eyes widened. A lean galley, a yellow-painted bireme of Larak, swung its bronzed beak toward them. On the enemy deck archers pointed and shouted in rage. The bireme of Larak leaped ahead like a living beast. Its oars dug in perfect unison and flutes piped and cymbals clashed.
“Out oars!” shouted the oar-master.
Scourges whipped naked flesh. Rowers cried out in pain.
“We’re going to be rammed!” screamed a slave.
“Out oars, you dogs!” roared the oar-master.
Steel slid from a scabbard as a whip-master bent on one knee and stabbed a hesitant slave in the kidneys. “Row or die!” the whip-master screamed, his face a livid mask of terror.
Wood scraped as slaves hurried to obey.
Lod watched, frozen to the view. The enemy galley aimed at them and seemed monstrously huge. Archers stood on the enemy foredeck, humming arrows. Several thudded murderously near his oar-hole. Above, Serpent of Thep archers twanged in return. A Larak archer screamed, with an arrow sticking in his shoulder. He toppled overboard, his own galley sliding over him.
The hiss of seawater, the groaning of enemy planks and the galley filled Lod’s vision. He jerked back from the oar-port and threw his arms over his head. Slaves screamed all around him and chains clinked wildly. A thunderous crash drowned all other noises. Rotten wood splintered and exploded as a bronze ram smashed through the side. Fist-sized, wooden chunks rained upon howling oar-slaves. The ram crumpled a shrieking slave.
A flying chunk struck Lod. He slid dazed under a bench. Cold sea water flooded past the ram as the Gulf of Ammon demanded entrance into the galley. The water flooded the Serpent of Thep. It splashed Lod in the face, waking him from his stupor. He gazed out the jagged hole and at the enemy galley and then out beyond at the gloomy sea.
Steel clashed above. Grapnels thudded upon wood. Gangplanks were hastily shoved out and laid down. Soldiers shouted war cries and armor jangled and feet pounded upon decking. In the hold, bronze groaned upon rotted wood.
The sound of piping and cymbals on the enemy galley changed in pitch and intensity. Men shouted and screamed and blades clashed.
Lod shook his head. Through the hole he saw Captain Eglon lead soldiers over the gangplanks and onto the enemy ship. Larak galleys never carried many marines. A blur, a fantastic leap could only have been the Gibborim. But even as the soldiery attempted to capture the Larak galley, the ram began to ease backwards. All the enemy rowers moved their oars in unison.
Lod’s eyes widened. He felt a mighty tug on his ankle. The fetter around his swollen leg was connected to the ram-slain slave. That slave’s chain was lodged upon a metal splinter on the ram.
Above, the few ropes attached to grapnels parted with great popping sounds. Gangplanks fell away and soldiers of Yorgash dropped screaming into the sea. They splashed, and those in heavy armor sank out of sight. One soldier grabbed a fallen gangplank. He shouted for help. An enemy archer leaned over his railing and drilled an arrow into the man’s neck. The soldier slid into the depths.
In the hold, the ram inexorably drew out of the maimed Serpent of Thep. It dragged Lod and those slaves attached to him. He and Zeiros and others frantically grabbed at the rowing bench. Relentlessly the chain pulled at his ankle. With a cry of despair Lod let go, bumping across wood. He hit and struck whatever lay in his path. He tucked, rolled and managed to land on his feet. He grabbed the rusted chain with his twisted talons. He braced his feet against a rib of the galley. The enemy ram slid and then cleared the Serpent of Thep. Lod jerked the chain and cried out, “Elohim, save me!”
A spasm shuddered through his shoulders. Each muscle seemed to leap from his skin like cables, warring against the power of the Larak galley, against two hundred straining rowers. The rusted chain grew taut. It shivered, and with a scream of metal the weakest link snapped apart.
Lod catapulted backward, smashing into Zeiros.
Seawater meanwhile poured into the jagged hole.
The Larak galley backed away even as Captain Eglon and Lord Lamassu led Serpent of Thep soldiers upon its forward deck.
Lod bounded upright with a roar. He threaded the torn chain through his manacle, freeing himself.
“Back to your post, slave!” shouted a whip-master.
With a snarl Lod spun round. He leaped the distance, took the startled soldier of Yorgash in his arms and broke him.
“Your doom is at hand!” roared Lod. “All your bones shall be shattered!”
It was murder in the Serpent of Thep hold. Water gushed through the jagged rent and sloshed over the middle aisle. Half the slaves shrieked for release, the other half howled as archers hissed pointblank shafts from the latticework above. Those free charged the stairs, snarling at jabbing spears and the wall of shields at the hatch. Every charge was sent reeling back.
“Slay them all!” shouted the commander of archers.
“Mercy!” screamed chained slaves, their hands held up in the age-old imploring sign. “Have mercy on us, masters!”
“We’re running out of arrows!” shouted an archer.
From the stairs, the commander of guards shouted, “Get down in the hold, you dogs. Kill them before they all get free, before they organize.”
Armored spearmen advanced at a walk down the stairs and into a howling sea of desperate, hate-maddened slaves.
From out of the darkness a spear flashed, impaling a spearman. The soldier tumbled down the stairs. Slaves howled, charging anew, grabbing ankles and yanking spearmen off-balance. Those unlucky few fell into a forest of iron-strong arms and savage snarls.
“Back up! Back up!” screamed a spearman.
Slaves picked up fallen spears and shields and charged up the stairs.
Arrows shot through the latticework drilled some in the back. Others faced the armored reserve at the hatch and a vicious, short battle took place, slaves jabbing up and soldiers thrusting down. Soon the last slave on the stairs thumped down, gorily dead or dying.
“Flee out the hole in the side!” bellowed Lod. He had hurled the killing spear. “Then crawl up the sides of the ship!” He and Zeiros stood in the shadows. Lod held keys and had from time to time dodged to the aisle, unlocking yet another bench of slaves as Zeiros held a shield over him.
“Save us! Save us!” shrieked chained slaves. Seawater lapped upon them. A cruel death by drowning awaited them.
Freed slaves fought against the torrent of water gushing into the Serpent of Thep. A man was swept off his feet and smashed against a bench, lying with his head at an odd ankle. Three men held hands, coming from the side, water sloshing above their knees. The first man grasped the jagged edge of the hole and drew the other two beside him. Then he grasped the edge with both hands and struggled and fought through the torrent and onto the other side.
With that success as evidence, a crowd of slaves rushed the hole.
“I need arrows! Where are more arrows!” shouted an archer.
Lod shoved the keys into a slave’s hands and told a fellow slave with a shield to guard him. The pair rushed the aisle, and the man with keys felt under the swirling water, unlocking another bench of slaves.
“Keep your shield high,” Lod growled at Zeiros. They still stood in the shadows. Lod lifted an axe that had been kept in a tool trough beside the oar-master’s stool. He thudded it into rotten, worm-infested wood. He rained a flurry of blows, wood chips flying.
Hiss, thwack, an arrow quivered in Zeiros’ shield.
A second arrow struck an inch from Lod’s latest axe-blow.
“Keep the shield up!” snarled Lod. He hammered the axe as three more arrows hissed into Zeiros’ shield.
“I thought they were out of arrows,” shouted the moneylender.
“Here they come!” said a slave.
Spearmen thundered down the stairs, jabbing, hurrying this time, and splashing into the hold. Water lapped at their mid thighs.
Lod smashed through the wall. A terrible grin split his face. He rained more blows as sweat ran in runnels down his face. Expertly he widened the hole to the foggy gloom outside.
“They’re pointing at us,” said Zeiros.
Maddened slaves rose up against the soldiers splashing in the hold. Flesh verses steel. Skin verses armor. Slaves swung chains, flinging them into the ordered squad.
“Get ready, Moneyman,” said Lod. He hacked three more times and then embedded the axe-blade into the wall of the ship. He grasped both sides of the hole and heaved up into it, wriggling through as splinters dug into his flesh.
The Serpent of Thep rode dangerously low in the water. It was sinking. Lod squirmed free and plopped into the cold Gulf of Ammon at the same instant a soldier at the railing thrust a spear at him. Sharp steel bloodied his side.
“The axe, Zeiros, hand me the axe.”
A hand shot through the hole and pitched the axe to the floundering Lod. Lod snatched it as he treaded water. The spearman glared at him from the ship.
Lod grinned. “Do you care to die, boy?”
Zeiros popped his head out and began to wriggle free.
That startled the spearman standing above him.
“Hurry, Zeiros,” said Lod, who had floated out of the spearman’s reach.
The spearman hesitated.
Lod laughed at him.
The spearmen snarled and thrust at Zeiros.
From the water, Lod hurled the axe. It was a clumsy cast, but powerfully thrown. The top of the axe hit the spearman in the face, dropping him from view.
Zeiros plopped into the water, kicking beside Lod.
“What do we do now?” said the moneylender.
Lod shivered with dread as something vast passed below him. It was a hideous feeling. It felt bigger than a shark, something whale-sized. Zeiros must have felt it, too, for he turned pale.
“The kraken,” whispered Lod. “Perhaps he seeks his tormenter. Lord Lamassu must have—” He knit his brows.
“Shhh,” said Lod. “Listen.”
On the other side of the Serpent of Thep grapnels struck wood. Shouted orders roared above the mayhem of butchery. An unseen Captain Eglon bellowed for men to lash the two galleys together.
“Follow me,” said Lod. “And get ready to hold your breath.”
From the deck of the captured Larak galley, Eglon shouted orders. Soldiers ran with collected arrows, thudding over the gangplank and onto the floundering Serpent of Thep. The stricken galley listed dangerously. Sailors lashed the two ships together, using the captured galley to keep the Serpent of Thep from rolling onto its side or sliding under the waves.
Lord Lamassu waited beside the brazier. He kneaded his forehead as his harlot plied the brazier with coals. Around them but unseen in the foggy gloom, flutes and cymbals played and enemy sailors shouted. They seemed further away than earlier, perhaps fleeing the kraken-infested waters.
“There!” said Eglon, pointing at the sea.
Archers drew their bowstrings and twanged, drilling swimming slaves.
The pilot approached as he scratched his black beard.
“You let them get out,” said Eglon.
“Not me,” said the pilot. “They fled through the ram-made hole.”
“We’ll have to bring everyone aboard this galley,” said Eglon, who studied the conjured fog.
“A stiff breeze and we’ll be exposed to the fire ships,” said the pilot. He glanced at Lord Lamassu aboard the Serpent of Thep. “We ought to bring the brazier onto this ship.”
“And who will carry a hot brazier?” asked Eglon, “You?”
“Gibborim worry about such things?” asked the pilot.
At that moment Lord Lamassu threw his arms into the air.
From every corner of both ships men cast fearful glances at the Gibborim.
Lord Lamassu opened his mouth. Before he uttered a word, however, the waters around them churned. The sea boiled, and the Serpent of Thep and the Larak galley lurched. Their lashed sides crunched together.
Eglon stumbled against the pilot. Men everywhere shouted in surprise and terror. The few surviving slaves swimming in the water screamed.
Out of the depths wriggled vast tentacles. They were black as night, wet and rubbery. They rose higher than the masts ever had. The ships lurched as planks groaned. Timbers splintered and cordage horribly creaked. A gross bulk of monster broke the surface. The kraken, the impossibly giant squid, was larger than the two ships combined. It had evil eyes and a hideous mouth with a great parrot-like beak.
Wetly, like falling trees, tentacles slapped upon the doomed ships. Railings crackled like kindling. Men in the path of those rubbery limbs were hurled like flotsam.
Lord Lamassu, who was perhaps ready for such horror, howled unearthly speech. With his stark white fingers he plucked a skull from his necklace. Brazier light flickered from the emeralds embedded in the eye-sockets. The white-bleached skull seemed alive, knowledgeable and grim with wicked counsel.
Men crouched with their hands pressed against their ears.
Eglon, further away than most, groaned in dread.
The kraken, the monster of the depths, fixed a terrible eye upon Lord Lamassu. One twitch from those tentacles must destroy the galleys. One convulsive jerk and the lashed-together ships must splinter into junk and wreckage.
Before that occurred, Lord Lamassu lifted the emerald-eyed skull.
It was impossible that such an ignorant monster could know the importance of such an action, but to Eglon it seemed that the terrible eye of the kraken watched the bleached bone, or perhaps it watched the necromancer’s hands.
Lord Lamassu chanted in the screaming speech. And his fingers moved like a baker kneading dough. The skull crumbled. It dissolved in the Gibborim’s hands. Crumbs fell at Lord Lamassu’s feet. Strange wispy currents swirled around the necromancer’s hands. The wisps shrieked and spun faster and faster. And for a moment, a sick instant, it seemed to Eglon that faces, screaming, tortured souls howled in agony.
Lord Lamassu pointed at the kraken.
The wisps tore like arrows at the beast. They darted down the parrot-like beak and thus entered the monster.
A wretched, subsonic screech emanated from the kraken. The tentacles peeled off the galleys and the entire bulk of the beast stiffened, and it began to slide out of sight.
Eglon gaped. His eyeballs protruded outward. It felt as if he dreamed.
A massive, white-haired brute, a naked man with a spear, climbed over the railing and charged past cringing soldiers. Archers with their hands clamped over their ears paid the man no heed. Others stared wide-eyed at the beast of the deep. Even the harlot was immobile, with coals in her hands.
As if in a dream, Lord Lamassu turned. He stood at a tilted angle because of the canted deck. The naked slave, the one called Lod, his blue eyes ablaze with monomania, shouted to Elohim for aid. Then Lod swung the butt end of his spear. It connected with a skull dangling around Lord Lamassu’s throat. The skull exploded in a spray of bone, and shrieking wisps swirled into the air. Lord Lamassu staggered backward. The hair stood up on Lod’s head. The naked oar-slave struck again, smashing a second skull. This time Lord Lamassu shrieked in tune to the wisps dissipated into the sky. Much worse for the Gibborim, with impossible control a tentacle reached down. The tip wrapped around Lord Lamassu even as he awoke to his danger. Lord Lamassu wriggled his shoulders, perhaps in an attempt to free his arms. Yet even his inhuman strength was unequal to this monster of the depths. The kraken lifted a squirming, ordering Gibborim high into the air, higher than a mast would have reached.
“In the name of Yorgash,” shouted Lord Lamassu, “I command you to set me down.”
The great, rubbery tentacle whistled in its descent. It slapped the water an awful blow, and broke the child of Yorgash in its grip.
Lod turned and ran. The mammoth man sprinted, dropping his spear, and he dove overboard. Others stared in dread upon the beast. Eglon blinked, wondering when the nightmare would end.
The kraken screeched a final time in that sick, subsonic sound. Then tentacles began to rain upon the galleys. They smote with fury and splintered the ships, smashing planks as if they were sticks.
It was the end of the Serpent of Thep.
Lod and Zeiros held onto a plank, bobbing in the sea. The kraken had departed. Around them – it was impossible in the gloom to tell the distance – the fleets of Eridu and Larak engaged that of Yorgash. Screams drifted from everywhere and the clangor of battle rose above the crash of rams and the beat of drums. Had the city-sent galleys rowed around the fog? How many fire ships had survived the kraken’s embrace?
“Who will win?” asked Zeiros.
Lod shrugged moodily. It had been some time since the kraken had slain Lord Lamassu. He scanned the wreckage around them. Two rats sat atop a half-submerged water casket. Rope drifted like seaweeds. He pointed at something further away.
Zeiros glanced there and shook his head.
“I see fins,” said Lod.
Zeiros frowned with incomprehension.
Zeiros looked again. He paled, and turned Lod a sick face. “We escaped the Serpent of Thep and the kraken and now this. It isn’t fair.”
“No,” said Lod. He clambered onto the plank, lifting himself higher as it sank. A grim smile touched his lips and he slipped back beside Zeiros. “Can you swim a little further?”
“To what purpose?” Zeiros asked. “If we survive the sharks the fog will part and pterodactyls will find us.”
Lod searched his face impassively.
That stirred something in the moneylender. “What?” he said.
“A thousand slaves have told me that they will survive the oar. If I could, they could. So I have heard for twenty long years. Each time I saw the spirit dwindle in their eyes. Then their spirit died, and soon so did they. What of you, Moneylender? Will you give up now?”
Zeiros peered up into the gloom. “I hope you’re not planning to swim all the way to Larak.”
“If I must,” rumbled Lod.
Zeiros shook his head, but he said, “Very well, lead on.”
Lod released the plank, and the two men struggled through the choppy sea.
“Where are we going?” panted Zeiros, seawater spilling into his mouth.
“Save your breath,” suggested Lod.
They swam, and in time neared a wider plank than before. Upon it draped a sodden, weary Captain Eglon. Perhaps he heard their splashing. He lifted a puffy face, and at the sight of them he scrambled to his knees. He lacked a sword, but drew a knife.
“Keep away,” warned Eglon.
Lod and Zeiros kept swimming until they bobbed ten feet from the raft. It looked big enough to comfortably hold all three of them, to keep them out of the shark-infested waters.
“I’ll kill you,” said Eglon.
“Wait here,” Lod told Zeiros. He circled around the raft, swimming strongly, until Zeiros bobbed on one side and Lod the other.
Eglon had shifted so he always faced Lod, although he kept casting nervous glances at Zeiros.
“Put down the knife,” said Lod.
Captain Eglon laughed harshly.
“Let us deal,” suggested Zeiros.
Eglon glanced at the moneylender.
“If Yorgash wins we are your prisoners,” said Zeiros. “If Larak wins you are my prisoner.”
“And that improves my position how?” mocked Eglon.
“We might win our way onto the raft and kill you,” said Zeiros.
“I hold the knife,” said Eglon, “so I deem your threat a weak one.”
“Tread a little closer,” shouted Lod. He closed the distance to nine feet, eight, seven and then six.
Eglon struggled to his feet. He had a blood-crusted gash in his right leg.
“You’re wounded,” said Lod.
Eglon snarled silently. His eyes seemed hot, perhaps he was feverish.
“We will outwait you,” said Lod.
Eglon shook his head. “Not with sharks in the water.” He exposed his teeth. “It will be a pleasure watching you die.”
Lod bellowed and swam for the raft. Yelling, he clutched the edge.
Eglon dropped to a knee and slashed.
Lod shoved himself backward into the water.
The slash missed, and on the other side of the raft Zeiros heaved up against the bottom edge.
Eglon struggled to keep his balance.
“Climb onto the raft!” shouted Lod.
Eglon fought for balance and twisted to see what Zeiros did.
Lod struck for the raft.
Lod took the blade in his forearm. His other arm darted up, clutched a silky sleeve and yanked. Eglon shouted and toppled into the water.
Lod slid past the wrestler and scrambled onto the raft. Zeiros climbed up on the other side.
“Your arm,” said Zeiros.
Blood dripped from Lod’s forearm, trickling to his wrist and onto the raft. He ignored it, facing Eglon.
From in the sea the wrestler frowned.
“Pitch me the knife and I’ll let you climb aboard,” said Lod.
“Why would you do that?” said Eglon, “to torture me?”
Lod shook his head.
“I cut you, at least,” said Eglon. “It was a clumsy stab, but then I’ve been wounded myself.” He sighed wearily, staring out to sea.
“The sharks will come,” said Lod.
Eglon peered at him. “You want me to come aboard. Why?”
A grim light burned in Lod’s eyes. “I had a vision. You… you will help me.”
Eglon gave a barking, mocking laugh.
“You will guide my ship to Poseidonis,” said Lod.
Eglon stared at him, finally saying, “You’re mad.”
“Perhaps,” said Lod, “but my madness will save your life.”
“What ship will you sail to Yorgash’s Isle?” Eglon asked, “The plank you stand upon?”
Lod used his good arm and clapped Zeiros on the shoulder. “The moneylender owes me one thousand gold shekels. With it I will buy or build a seaworthy ship and man it with vengeance-driven warriors. Then let Yorgash beware.”
“Why do you need me for that?” said Eglon.
“You have been to Poseidonis,” said Lod. “You will be my pilot and help me chart the path there.”
Eglon heaved a weary sigh. He was having trouble treading water. “I dropped the knife,” he said, “and it’s no doubt sinking to the bottom of the sea. But I accept your offer.” He floundered toward the raft.
The other two stepped back as the huge captain struggled aboard.
Then Lod stepped smartly forward and clouted Eglon a terrific buffet on the back of his head. It took two blows before huge Eglon sagged unconscious.
“You lied to him?” asked Zeiros.
Lod shook his head as he began to strip the wrestler. He found the knife and said, “I trust him like a viper.” He cut up the rich Caphtorite cloak. With the silk strips he had Zeiros bind the knife-wound on his forearm. Then the two naked slaves clothed themselves at Eglon’s expense.
“Are you serious about building that ship?” Zeiros asked later.
“Were you about giving me one thousand shekels if I helped you escape?” asked Lod.
The moneylender grinned. “You are not like other men, but at least you’re human. Yes, my word is good. As I said before: I am the House of Commorion.”
Lod finished binding Eglon. Then he dove off the plank, returning with pieces of wood, throwing them onto the raft. “These will be our oars, and today this is my ship. Now let us see if we can reach Larak before those pterodactyls you spoke about find us.”
SF Site called Lod “a cross between Conan and Elric of Melniboné.” His first appearance in Black Gate was in “The Oracle of Gog,” (BG 15), in which Lod first matched wits with the Nephilim in a decadent and dangerous city. In his review at Tangent Online Kevin R. Tipple summarized the tale this way:
“The Oracle of Gog” by Vaughn Heppner follows in a complex tale of slave revolt and fate. Lod is used by a rat hunter not only as a slave but as human bait for huge water rats in a city where water is everywhere… His stunning act of rebellion will not only make him marked for death, it will make him legendary in a far different way that has the power to change the future of all.
Matthew Wuertz also called the story out for special attention:
The Nephilim, Kron, comes to his master – the terrible Firstborn named Gog – who has peered into the future and sees a threat. Kron’s mission is to eliminate that threat, while Lod’s mission is to simply survive in his newfound freedom. This was my favorite tale within the issue. Heppner’s narrative style wrapped me into each scene and into the characters’ minds.
A classic sword & fantasy tale. Lod had urged the last of the human soldiers, who worship the god Elohim, to rise up and rebel against the conquering Nephilim giants since “it was better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
But all the soldiers were killed or captured. Now Lod is prisoner of the Nephilim, slated to die in the arena as a pit slave…
Read “The Pit Slave,” a complete 7,000-word sword & sorcery tale offered at no cost, here.
Vaughn Heppner has plunged into the new world spawned by the E-Book Revolution. He has written some Amazon best sellers such as Star Soldier, Invasion: Alaska and People of the Ark. He has a new SF novel, Assault Troopers, hitting the top of some Amazon SF categories.
Vaughn tells us, “This is the greatest time in history to be a writer. Write what you love and put it up for the people who like the kind of stories you do.”