The viciously cold waters of Lake Huron closed around me like the icy jaws of a very moist Death. In an instant, reflexes kicked in. Reflexes honed bone-deep inside of humans. Unfortunately, they were not very useful reflexes.
I thrashed violently for several seconds, trying to claw my way to the surface. When it became clear that there was no surface nearby, I twisted, panicking. My lungs began to ache. My vision grew dark. And all too soon, I had no choice but to take the fatal gasp that would draw water into my lungs, my survival reflexes dooming me. My mouth opened-
And the sensation was very odd. Like simultaneously taking a drink of cool water, and a breath of cool air. The water rushed down my throat in a way that made me choke and gag, but suddenly, the darkness receded from the edges of my vision. I couldn’t exactly pant- the water filling my lungs was too thick for that. I was hardly breathing at all, but my lungs still seemed to be full.
I opened my eyes, slowly. I’d never been good at opening my eyes underwater, finding it painful and disorienting, but this, too, was surprisingly easy. There was a moment that felt like my eyes were spilling over with tears, and then they cleared, and I saw that I floated within a small chamber. A woman was there, sort of. Sort of a woman, not sort of there. She smiled at me, with rows of sharp, needle-like teeth.
She was humanoid, from the waist up. Not human- her skin was a slick green color, and those teeth didn’t belong in any human mouth. From the waist down, her body was like that of a snake- or more like an eel, I reflected, noticing the fringe of fin that stretched down her spine. She was dressed in delicate bangles, and I noted that she was not tattooed. I wondered if that made Ku the odd one, or the woman.
“Tell me. Did you really think that she would bring you here if you would drown? She’s naïve, but not stupid. She understand the consequences of her actions.”
My heart sped up, but I didn’t let it show on my face. “Who do you mean?”
“I can feel your heart racing from over here, you know. The water conducts the sound well.”
I screamed a litany of curses, but only internally. “I still don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Oh, goodness. Someone’s paranoid, hmmm? But, well, I suppose you can hardly be blamed. And I certainly couldn’t be the one to blame you, even if you could be. After all, both of our lives dance on a razor’s edge. I am referring to Ku-kaili-moku-polemo.”
“You really pronounce the whole thing?”
The woman gave me a pitying look. “It’s the little things that make your short lives so poignant. Like the fact that you live so briefly that an extra seven syllables is treated as an unbearable burden. Would it take you so long to give her the proper honor she deserves?”
“It’s just… a nickname. You know?”
“Yes. You assume such deep and intimate familiarity with her, then rebuff her when she responds as one might expect a young, lonely woman to respond to the first man who is ever willing to show her kindly disrespect. You use familiarity, intimacy, like a weapon.”
I recoiled slightly, stung by the words, not least because they were the same thoughts that had run through my head more than once. “What the hell are you?”
“A good question.” She turned, slipping through the water in a curious motion, her body forming an S shape. It reminded me of a snake’s swimming as she gathered up a bundle of small slices of meat, binding them into a satchel, a net woven of some strange white fibers. “Look around you. What do you feel?”
I paused for a moment, looking at the walls. The chamber we were in was roughly spherical, with hooks jutting out from the walls above and below. Nets hung from the hooks above, and below. The ones above were filled with heavy tools of various kinds, the occasional food. The nets below had the opposite, light things, eggs. Using buoyancy to manage living space. That was… interesting. “Nets. Tools. Are you a hermit?”
“Ahahah. Yes, of course. You do not feel the spark of divinity. Humans of the modern age almost never do. Even in the classical ages, it was a rare talent. More often mistaken for madness than seen as talent. Like the currents of electromagnetism, or the subtle tug of gravity, humans cannot perceive the force itself. They can only see its effects. And yet…” She waved her hand around the room. “If you could see divinity, if you understood this culture, you would be shocked by the fact that there is none in this room.”
“You’re not much for direct answers, are you?”
“A direct answer solves the problem you know you have. An indirect answer solves the problem you do not know you have. Of the two, the indirect answer is often the one that is truly needed.”
I took a deep breath, and let it out. “Ku talked about gods-“
“And about respecting a name.”
“She allowed me to use it. It’s good for gods to be questioned and treated like people, sometimes. Now. Ku talked about gods.” I struggled to remember our conversations. “The way she talked about it was like…” I froze. “A civilization that uses gods as tools.”
“Not so different from your own. Granted, industrialization has taken you away from that concept. But a god is often just something that is not human, which is treated like it is by humans. Anthropomorphic. And humans have always treated their tools like people.”
“But- that’s not how the world works, it’s-“
“What makes you think that you know how the world works, when you always perceive it through the lenses you have made?”
I went quiet at that, and considered what she had said. “So- If this room isn’t divine, it means you’re either… crippled, somehow, in your faith, or…” I stared at her. “Can gods have faith in something?”
“Ahahaha. Of course not. Faith is the province of mortals.” She smiled. “You see how useful an exercise an indirect answer is? And it feels so much sweeter and truer for you having achieved the answer yourself.”
“Unless you’re lying to me, and want me to jump to conclusions.”
At that, her expression grew soft, and sad. “You really have been badly hurt in your life, haven’t you, young man? No wonder you have such difficulty with faith. And yet, in her… You can muster such a great certainty.”
“So. What god are you supposed to be?”
“An old one.”
“Lost?” I asked, sharply. She smiled.
“No. Though perhaps I was never truly found, but no, I am not twisted and inimical, towards the Atlanteans, nor your kind.”
“And were you the one who brought me here? Where’s Ku?”
“I did not bring you here. Nor did Ku. It may have been intentional, or an accident. I do not know, which is not entirely unusual. But Ku has been captured by the forces that she sought to flee.”
“What?!” I whirled in the water, a more awkward movement than I had expected. I spotted a door- of sorts, more like a hinged section of the room, set out by dark lines against the wall. “Shit! I was joking about the fucking dramatic irony! Why is my life-“ I pressed my hand against the wall, and felt something let out an eager shock of delight. The door sprung open, and revealed to me a vast swath of Atlantis.
I couldn’t see far. It was like a bad fog, though the water itself was miraculously clear. Perhaps two hundred, two hundred and fifty feet, and all hard lines faded. The area near us was full of great towers of these curious pods, strung vertically like pearls on a necklace. There were lights visible on this one, but none of the others. I could see a half dozen similar such towers nearby, stretching down into the abyss below, and up towards an uncertain infinity. The view was dizzying, and just a little bit terrifying. I couldn’t tell how far it reached. For all I knew, it went on forever. Beyond that two hundred and fifty feet, it all faded to green, Rayleigh scattering shattering perspective.
In the distance, I could see lights. The shape wasn’t clear, but the lights were strong enough to cut through the water, smeared like the lights of New York on a rainy night. A great white smear, that spread across half of the view from the pod. And in the other direction… Darkness. Blackness.
A shudder ran through me, entirely involuntary.
“And how do you think you will save her, human? You do not know the first thing about this place. You do not know where she is. You do not possess the senses to find danger, nor the capabilities to escape it, nor the spirit to fight it. You are out of your element so much, here. Possessed of no tools. And a human with no tool is… nothing.”
My hand slipped down, to my pocket. And the small rubbery bundle there. “I’m not helpless.”
Her eyes widened. “That is not what I mean! You fool. Do not use that. Under any circumstances! There is nothing, nothing worse than what will happen if you do. I am not telling you these things to mock you or trap you here. I am telling you so that you will let me travel by your side.”
I frowned at that. “Why?”
“Because I owe a debt to Ku. Because I owe a debt to Betty. Because I owe a debt to the people of Atlantis, to protect them.” She pointed towards the door. “But first, and foremost, because that door was dead, and now it is not.”
I paused for a moment, and looked down at the door, and then back at the witch. “What the hell does that mean?”
“That you can heal things. Bring something back to a dying world. And that is important.” She approached me, swimming closer, moving in strange and hypnotic patterns, her eyes fevered. “Do you know what it means, for the world to be entropic?”
“It means things fall apart.”
“A simple notion, yes. It is harder to build than to break. Everything broken takes more effort to rebuild. The world is full of breakers and killers. But you can fix things.” She reached up, and took something out of one of the nets, holding it out to me. A broken, rust-covered length of blade. “Try touching this.”
I reached out, and gently grasped the blade. Absolutely nothing happened. “I guess that’s not a great sign?”
“Mmmm. You have difficulty acting with conviction, don’t you? In the moment, on instinct, you are fierce. When you act with intention…” She sighed. “Such potential, wasted.”
“Yeah. My uncle always said potential was a story people told themselves to glorify their failures.”
“Your uncle,” she said, not unkindly, “Was full of bad advice. He sought to keep you from following the route that he did. It was done out of love, and it will not destroy you, but… He could have done a far better job had he been able to trust.”
“You’re pretty hard to trust yourself. If you’d give me a straight answer…”
“If you knew all of what I am, you’d ask me to do more. And I would not be able to refuse you.”
I closed my mouth, some hard comeback dying as I thought better of it. I frowned. “Assuming you’re telling the truth.”
“Yes.” She took two of the nets off their cables, one tugging up towards the ceiling, the other falling towards the ground. “Come. We will take a circumspect route to reach your new friend. She is in no immediate danger. And it will give you the knowledge you need to save her. And as to my name… Well, you would just toy with it, anyway. You can call me by my title, The Lass.”
The two of us began swimming. She watched my attempts for a few moments, and then sighed, reaching into the lighter bag. She withdrew a pair of old swim fins- blue by the heels, yellow at their tips. The kind a surfer might use to let them swim faster, harder. I accepted them, and realized that I had nowhere to put my shoes. She took them from me, shaking her head as she stored them in the lighter of the two nets. “Thanks.”
“Always so helpless, humans and men alike. What would you do without me?” She flashed me a warm smile. “But then, where would I be without you.”
I nodded, trying in vain to follow along with her mood swing as I pulled on the fins. The rubber straps were tight around my heels, but when I kicked my legs, I moved through the water far quicker, and easier. The two of us continued among the great towers. They rose around us, from the light, and fell back into the gloom. After quite a while, I noticed that we were gradually descending. I didn’t ask her any more questions. Not until we reached the sea bed. I stared. “What is that?”
A great ridge ran along the seabed. On one side was a vast and rippling surface of sand. On the other… blackness, just below a thick rime of crystalline ice. “You know what that is,” murmured The Lass. “You have seen it before.”
“Yam-“ I began, before shutting my mouth tightly.
“Oh, you respect that name. Or fear it, at least, and the two responses are easily mixed up.” She nodded. “She only comes where she is welcome. And it only takes one to welcome her, doesn’t it?”
I noticed a great crack in the crystalline ice. “What happens if that opens?”
“We’ll soon find out. Not today.” She smiled. “This place is under siege from all directions.” She began to ascend again.
The towers we passed now had a few lights on them. Other Atlanteans- in all manner of shapes- swam alongside them. I recognized dozens of lifeforms that might have inspired them. Fish. Turtles. Crustaceans. Among them, though, I did not see any mammals, any penguins, anything like that. I also noticed tattoos. Less elaborate than Ku’s, sometimes far less elaborate, but still there. “Aren’t I going to stand out?”
“Not while you’re by me. None pay too close attention to me. They can tell what I am. And so, they stay away.”
“Isn’t that going to attract more attention?”
“They don’t stay away because they fear me. They stay away because I am beneath contempt.”
There was something deeply, ineffably sad in her voice. I reached out, and rested my fingers on her shoulder, giving her a gentle squeeze. Her flesh was slick to the touch, and yielded strangely- as though there were no proper bones beneath the skin. “Thank you,” I murmured. “For helping me. For everything.”
“You do not need to thank someone who is repaying a debt.”
“Yeah. I know. I do it anyway.” I squeezed her again. “I’m grateful.”
“Ah,” she murmured, and turned her head away. “What a charmer you are. No wonder you make such an impression on Betty. But no need to try to spread your influence further. You have enough troubles.”
“I’m not-!” I began, and she turned to face me, grinning, a hand going over her mouth. Her eyes twinkled with mischief.
“Sorry. You humans are so fun to tease. Forgive me for prodding you, but I can see how much it affects you. You want to return their feelings so badly, don’t you? You want to show them how much you feel for them. But you can’t just come out and say it. And there are so many reasons. Guilt. Learned helplessness. Fear of not measuring up. Pride. Tell me, Horace. Why do men seem to have so much trouble choosing?”
“I guess we’re just scared of being abandoned.” I considered that answer for a moment, and really wished I hadn’t given it. But The Lass nodded understandingly.
“I know that feeling all too well.”
So many questions I could ask her. But I didn’t even know that I could trust her, let alone whether she’d answer properly. She had a strange knowledge of my life, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected when dealing with gods. And she had let me think she was a goddess, but she had never stated it directly. “Do you know why I’m special?”
“No,” she said, and shook her head. “Not a clue. I have some ideas of how you are special, but why?” She smiled. “Mysteries are good when you’re as old as I am. To have no idea why is a rare and sweet thing.”
“Yeah, Betty loves it when I do the three-card monte trick, too.”
The woman chuckled as we approached another structure. It took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing. At first glance, it resembled a tremendous slice of moldy swiss cheese. As we grew closer, I realized that it was a thin but porous plane, suspended in mid-air by chains attached to four of the great towers, and covered with Atlanteans. Tethers above, and below, swarmed with nets; some floating up, others sinking down. Just like in The Lass’ home. I could see, now, holes through the plane, where the Atlanteans swam between upside and downside.
As we drew even closer, I could see things being exchanged. Coins, ancient yet without tarnish or rust. Small tools, gewgaws, items. Occasionally, larger ones.
“Faith is a force, here. Of course, the same is true in your world. Faith cannot move mountains, but it can move men. And men, with faith, can most assuredly move mountains.” She smiled. “But I understand how strange it must seem to you.”
“It reminds me of Phoebe,” I murmured softly. “Are they intelligent? All of those gods they’re trading?”
“No. The vast majority are little more than momentary impulses. An object needs a great deal of faith to become a person.” She swam closer, and I heard the babble of voices refining itself as we swum nearby.
“Heard that there was an attack again-“
“-called the godwhisperers, but they said it wasn’t actually a porthole-“
“-saw one of those shaggy white beasts-“
“-said he thought The Dead Ocean was our hope, that foolish child-“
“-priest of Ku-Thule-“
“-‘s back! They say she’s back! Our princess-“
I turned my head sharply at that. A group of Atlanteans stood nearby, shelled. They seemed to notice my sudden attention, and after a flickering glance between me and The Lass, they hunched away, murmuring.
“They weren’t alarmed at seeing a human,” I murmured.
“The vast majority of Atlanteans have never seen a human. And they certainly would not expect one swimming beside me.” She hovered among the shopkeepers, picking out an item here and there, replacing it with one of those in the two nets. Everyone studiously ignored her, conversations muted as we passed, until she moved on.
“You know what’s going on here, don’t you?” I asked, as we moved past the floating marketplace, and once more into the quiet expanses, moving towards those great lights.
“No, no, don’t bother. I bet you’re not going to tell me a goddamn thing, because…” I waved a hand vaguely. “It’d be too simple, probably.”
“Because it’d invite further intrusion. Trust me when I say that would be unwelcome.”
“Yeah, god forbid we get another god involved in all of this.” I was quiet for a moment. “Betty. You know her?”
“She came to these lands, once before. The tyrants of this land offended her, and she slew them, one and all. For that, she was heralded as a savior, and thanked.”
“That… All of them?”
“Well, all of the big ones. The ones who had forgotten which way the relationship goes. This is a strange place for your kind. Here, there are no priests; for a priest is a way for gods to command humans.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’ve got a weird way of conversing?”
“I’m really just trying to be helpful. Don’t you have questions?”
“I’m not going to fit in here no matter how well I know the culture.”
The Lass sighed. “Think about it. Priests.”
“I’m a priest. Technically. Of Bastet. And it doesn’t work that way for me.”
“Yes, that’s true.” The woman smiled. “Isn’t that interesting?”
We swam on in silence for a while. I noticed a line of Atlanteans passing beneath us, at surprisingly high speed. I opened my mouth, and looked over at The Lass. She was watching me with an incredibly smug grin. I bit down on the question, hard. “Curious?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“It’s a current spirit. A god of mass transit, creating a self-sustaining current-“
“I said I’m not interested.”
“Come now. There’s no shame in being interested. Isn’t it fun to find yourself in another world?”
“But it’s just like-“
Us, I realized.
The Atlanteans were very much like us. The source of their technology was different, certainly, but they were still very familiar. We could get along.
“Now there’s that glow of faith. Belief can move mountains, and no one’s beliefs can move them like yours. You should be more confident in yourself, Horace.”
“That’s just the problem, isn’t it?” I said, and I was surprised again by how bitter I sounded. “Power is dangerous. One person with that much power can hurt so many people with… anything they do. If I’m as powerful as you claim I am… What if I do things wrong? Being powerful doesn’t make you wise, or kind, or just. It doesn’t mean you make the right decisions. It just means that the decisions you make can do so much more damage.”
“That’s a good question. That’s the kind of question you should never stop asking yourself.” She considered me for a moment. “You’re surrounded by powerful beings that trust your judgment. That trust you. Why do you not trust your own judgment?”
“It’s always easier to solve someone else’s problems than your own.”
She smiled. “Don’t I know it.” Then she looked up. “We’re getting closer.”
“Is that a palace?”
“No,” The Lass whispered. “It is a temple.”
The building was colossal. It stretched out of sight in every direction. Of course, this was not particularly impressive here, where ‘sight’ ended quite quickly, but the scale of it was still beyond belief. Perhaps it was being underwater; perhaps it was the materials they used. The building was large in a way that no simple structure on the surface could be. It was more like a cliffside than anything humans ever built. A single endless plane, made of a curious translucent substance, blue-gray in color. I could see lights from within, and lights mounted on the outside. It was the source of the brilliant light I’d seen from miles away.
“We will need to part ways, soon.” She smiled. “But that’s okay. You will be able to take it from here.”
“Will I, now?”
“Yes.” She took out a small vial as the two of us swam, the wall growing larger and larger. I could see portals through it. “The doors are locked. They’ll open for you, though.”
“Because gods have a hard time saying no to you. Here.” She placed the small corked vial into my hand. It was filled with something pearly and white. “When you need an escape, crack this, and do not breathe it in.”
“Handy. Anything else? The sword, maybe?”
“No. It’s not a special sword, anyway; just a very, very small god.”
“Then why did you give it to me?”
“Because you’ll need to repair one someday, and you might as well get a start on that. When it comes to tools, and gods, it’s easier to restore faith to something without it- something dead- than to repair what has been broken. No, my other gift for you is advice.”
“You’re going to have to choose, and it won’t be easy, so think hard before you refuse to marry Ku-kaili-moku-polemo.”
“Second, think hard before you refuse a pity-fuck from Betty.”
“Also, get a nicer haircut. The girls like a young man who puts effort into his appearance, you should dress to impress more.”
“Also, you should eat healthier. You put all that work and care into Betty’s diet, but none into your own?”
“I’m sorry, what the hell!”
“Oh.” She smiled. “And don’t keep giving without taking a little something for yourself. You can’t give forever, and you’ll have a lot more to give when you accept some help from those around you. When you let them into your heart, instead of always keeping them at arm’s length. You are powerful beyond reason, Horace. But that power is not infinite.” She rested a hand on my shoulder. “You’re a good kid. Trust the people around you.”
“You want something from me, don’t you,” I said. The Lass looked quite surprised.
“Well, of course.”
“What is it?”
“For you to be you. For you to heal people, and to save people, and to always shy away from breaking, from hurting, from killing. And… maybe, someday… to save someone I care about.” She smiled. “No pressure, though.”
“Sure,” I said, and rolled my eyes. “Thanks.”
“Hey, Horace.” She smiled at me. “Good luck.”
I rested my fingers on the portal, and it slid open quickly, a little wordless burst of joy emanating from it. That made me feel like a manipulative bastard. The interior was full of long, sloping hallways, crawling vertically along the surface of the great building, splitting off occasionally to delve, at 45 degree angles, down and inwards towards the base of the structure. It was a dizzying, maze-like array, and I didn’t have the slightest idea where Ku might be. My stomach fell.
There was a sudden sense of alarm. I twisted in the water, and found the wall regarding me. Don’t ask me how, exactly, I could tell it was looking at me; It didn’t have eyes, and there was nothing to differentiate it from anything else. But I felt a sense of growing unease and panic. Then, the presence began to flee. “Stop!”
It came to a stop, almost like a wild animal caught in the headlights. My mind conjured up an image of a cat with its back arched, hissing in terror. I took a deep breath, and swam closer slowly, my hand still held out. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt anyone. I’m not here to hurt anyone. Understand?”
I reached out slowly with my fingertips, and rested them against the wall. Assume that what I’d been told by The Lass was true. That meant that this place was full of gods. For all I knew, it might be a single particularly sizable god. And I had developed a rapport with gods before. I trailed my fingers across the wall, and the tension in the… water, I suppose… eased. My fingers stroked over the material. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I promise. I’m just here to save my friend. Okay?”
The god, if that was what I was feeling, was tense. It reminded me of a dog, almost- That same empathic sense of what those around it were feeling, but without the benefit of being able to hide its emotions. It was stressed. There was something rotten in this place, and it felt helpless to do anything. Someone offering it a solution… That was what was manipulating it. It wasn’t some mystical power on my part. Just a little bit of empathy.
“Listen. I need to find Ku. Okay?”
The wall nodded, or at the very least, gave the impression of nodding. The water around me began to flow. Then I was being dragged through the palace at a terrifying rate, keeping my panic under control only through the experience that came with many years of being at the mercy of others. I was taken at a dizzying right angle, plunging through the water. The temple was constructed in a way that made it difficult to tell how quickly I was going; no visible doors, no decorations, nothing to give a sense of movement beyond the vague acceleration and the roar of the water in my ears as I was pulled forward. Finally, it stopped, next to a wall with small seams that suggested a door.
There was a sense of trepidation in the god as I approached the wall, and rested my fingers on it. This door opened slowly, sluggishly, and hung only half open. I peered inside.
A small bedroom. A glowing orb. One of the Atlanteans- not Ku. His back was to me, and he hung floating in the water in a serene pose of repose. The room was small, spherical, adorned with delicate hanging pieces of glass and floating pieces of ice- more akin to proper tables than the nets in The Lass’ abandoned apartment. I noticed delicate statuary, some carved out of stone, some made from more of what looked like ice, the latter upside down and balanced carefully on the underside floating ice. I shook my head slowly, and touched the door again. It closed silently, and I rubbed my forehead.
“Not that Ku. Uh, Ku… kaili… Fuck.” I closed my eyes, and concentrated. Thank god The Lass had insisted on using that name. If I ever met the goddess again, I would absolutely not thank her and prove her smug ass right for insisting on the full name. “Ku… kaili-moku-polemo.”
There was a moment’s consideration, and then the current started again, the acceleration beginning as I was brought back up, slid through a side passage, and then was taken at a sharp angle back inwards towards the base of the structure. I was getting a sense for how the building was laid out.
As I approached the door, the wall bristled. I could sense its anxiety and tension growing more intense, as I kicked my legs, settling next to the door. It didn’t like what was in that room. “Is it Ku?” I asked. The wall seemed to affirm that, though I’ll be damned if I could tell you how. I was anthropomorphizing a segment of wall in an underwater fish-man temple. What was wrong with me?
Well, a lot of things, but delusional hallucinations weren’t one of them. I lay my fingers on the wall very carefully. It opened just a crack, perhaps sensing my own trepidation.
Inside the room was Ku, though she was not bound. And an Atlantean, with tentacles hanging from where his mouth should be. Wings grew from his back. And his claws were flabby. He spoke in a low, growling voice, which I didn’t understand. My brain, slightly distant and amused, noted that his skin was the same color as the Atlantean I’d seen before.
I didn’t hesitate. I hurled the door open, kicked off the frame, and tackled into Ku. With one arm around her waist, I drew the vial, and smacked it across the tentacled Atlantean’s skull, shattering the glass. As a great volume of slime began to fill the room, white and viscous, I kicked off his chest, and we were through the door, into the palace corridors again.
A distant wail began to sound, as the tentacled Atlantean dissolved.