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Lord Of The Depths

"Lord of the Depths" is a more or less conscious copy of "Queen of the Black Coast," one of the best of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. The details of my story grew out of classical models, however.

I have a Latin edition of Pliny's Natural History, and during my honeymoon I read chunks of it. One interesting bit was that Alexander the Great sent a squadron under Nearchos from the Indus to Babylon by sea while Alexander himself marched back overland with his army. Pliny noted that en route the sailors found very large, aggressive squid. I assumed that Nearchos had been on an exploring voyage with a few ships.

The other classical influence was Juvenal's 14th satire. In it he rails against the mad lust for wealth that causes ships' captains to load their vessels to the gunwales, risking death for a fraction more profit.

Juvenal is a brilliant and evocative writer. Critics always talk about his bitterness and invective, but I find far more interesting his remarkable ability to draw character with a line or two. I hope I've been able to learn something from his craftsmanship in general, but the scene just mentioned certainly shaped the present story.

I didn't specifically reference Alexander in "Lord of the Depths," and I deliberately didn't learn any more about Nearchos' voyage than what I'd found in Pliny's passing mention in a discussion of squids. I didn't want to sully my fiction with reality. (If this seems very silly to you, it seems even sillier to me now. I can't imagine why I felt that way, but I know that I did.)

In fact Nearchos was in command of a fleet of thousands of ships which were intended to supply Alexander and the army on the march. They failed to do so because the Greeks didn't learn about the South Asian monsoon until some two centuries later. I could have turned the real event into a story; but it would've been very different.

I wrote "Lord of the Depths" during my first year in law school and sent it to Mr. Derleth. He requested that I cut a scene which he said didn't fit: the viewpoint characters are chased by a giant lizard which is killed by an arrow from the catapult on the deck of one of the vessels. (Mr. Derleth wasn't exactly wrong—the scene was unnecessary. I don't think it hurt the story, though. He liked to fiddle with things.) When I made that change, he bought the story for $50, the most he ever paid me.

This was my second sale. Those of you who've already read "Denkirch" will note that I made an entirely different set of mistakes in this one. I like to think of that as the story of my life: an unending quest to find new fashions in which to screw up.


There were five of the ships. I, deck watch on the leader, the kerkouros Flyer, turned from the invariance of sea and moonlit jungle to glance back along our wake. Behind us stretched our sisters Foresight and Crane, dragged like us over a thousand leagues of plain and desert to reach their element at last in the Great River and thence to the sea. For all their mishandling, the light craft were far more seaworthy than the trieres Service or the Dominator, a great fiver wallowing far astern. Built on the River, the larger ships had suffered for lack of knowledgeable craftsmen and seasoned wood. Both had leaked from the start and the Dominator had warped to the point that a dozen crewmen choked in the bilges to keep the level down.

We were running by night, for the heat of the days was too great to live, much less row, on the glancing oven of the water. At dawn we would beach our craft, cook what had been caught during the night or foraged on the shore, and pray to find fresh water—all but a handful of our casks had been of green wood also. Then we would seek shade and rest, cursing all the while the madness of our leader to order the voyage, and our own to obey him.

The breeze was gentle and we scudded before it, easily distancing the heavier vessels though their sides crawled with oars. Their captains had formed the crews into shifts to work some of the oars at all times in a vain effort to keep abreast of their nimbler kinsmen, but only in rough seas where weight told and we needs must reduce sail did they succeed. The larger ships had been a mistake. Whereas we had crews of only eighteen and the beaks stripped off for ease on the long portage, the decked ships had been sent off in full fighting trim. The Dominator bore three hundred men, artillery fore and aft, and a bronze ram of ten talents, cast from our leader's spoils and fit only to warp the seams worse on such a voyage as ours.

Far back from the silvery darkness came the triple soughing of the Dominator's command horn: Close up! It meant, as always, reef sails and await the sluggards. I sighed in vexation, for we were many months from home as was and with the penteres leaking like the pails of the Belides the situation could only get worse. A flash from starboard and shore recalled my attention as I leaned over to roust Hipporion, our bosun; the moon was glinting from something smooth in the jungle, metal or polished marble.

"Lay your dream-wench aside, Hylas," I said, for with such a nickname we mocked the grizzled old bosun. "There's something to be seen."

He only grunted as he awoke, but his eye followed my gesture right enough.

"I suppose we're to bugger ourselves while the Fornicator closes up again?" he growled, and at my nod roared, "Off and on, ladies, it's time to pretend we're sailors again. Begging your pardon, sir."

This last to Antiopas, a brave man and our captain, but a better horseman than sailor. He snapped awake, pawing for the long cavalry sword now stowed below as too awkward even for dignity. "What's the matter, Hylas?" he complained. "What couldn't a detail handle that we all must be up for?"

"Xenias has found something of interest, sir," the bosun answered and pointed toward the shore. More was visible now, stonework and what seemed the remains of a pier jutting from the jungle.

"Would it be a difficult landfall?" Antiopas questioned.

"With a pier for hope and a leadsman for certainty, I don't see any problem," the bosun decided, and I took the lead while he shouted orders to the rest of the crew. The Foresight, following or perhaps anticipating our action, trailed us in while the Crane's less adventurous captain held position offshore.

I swore as I retrieved the third cast and we stood but a bow-shot from the shore.

"What bottom?" Hylas queried.

"None at all," I answered, well aware of the fool I sounded. The bosun, surprised, took the line without comment and cast it himself. The twenty fathoms shot through his hands butter smooth."Horns of Tanit, there is no bottom!" he snarled. "Take it gentle," he warned the four men on sweeps. "We've a strange coast here and I've no desire to learn of further oddities the hard way."

I continued to sound as we crawled toward the shore. Finally, within a ship's length of the pier, I found bottom at sixty feet. There was no rise to speak of after that, even when the crumbling stone was alongside.

The climate had long since devoured the bollards, but an ornamental stone bench at the end of the pier and parallel to the shore was still sturdy enough to hold us by a couple turns of hawser. The pier was almost the only bare stone visible. The buildings, not bathed in salt, were completely overgrown save where a massive pediment had been pried loose by questing tendrils recently enough to leave the substructure bare. Without that there would have been little to catch my eye, for the pier was low among the waves.

"I'm going to take out a party," the captain remarked to Hylas. "You'd better be ready to get us out of here fast if we must."

Antiopas took five others with him, carrying javelins and staying within sight of the ship for the most part. The Foresight docked across from us but her captain kept all on board to wait for Antiopas to report. The arms chests had been opened and that, more than the ruins themselves, made us uneasy. Just as the Dominator signaled again one of the men on shore picked something from the ground and called to his mates. The six of them gathered but distance and the uncertain light hid the object they were discussing. Then they began to jog back in evident excitement. "Sir," called Hylas as the captain approached, "the flagship is signaling."

"Call 'em in!"Antiopas shouted back."We're not leaving here till we've done a mite more searching."

He raised his hands and the heavy torque he carried shone softly in the moonlight. Colors were washed out, but the perfect lack of corrosion left no doubt of what the ornament was made. If a single piece of jewelry contained several pounds of gold, a further search was indeed worthwhile.

For the night we dragged the lesser ships including the Service ashore stern first. There was a sand beach and it appeared that the bottom sloped rather gently in most places. A channel of some sort, far too great not to be natural, led straight seaward from the pier. The fiver, too massive for us to beach it, was lashed to the pier with some difficulty as it seemed that there never had been any bollards or other provision for docking ships. Between the bench and anchors the Dominator was adequately held, but it seemed a queer thing to some.

A few men spent the night searching, but for my own part I felt that sunshine and a clear head were better comrades than enthusiasm and stretched out on the beach. Events proved me right for dawn and the third hour had come before more gold was found.

When the discovery came it made up for the delay by its sheer magnitude. While I led a party through a ruin on the west of the city, which was laid out as a semicircle with streets raying out from the pier, someone in the far quadrant tugged on a bronze ring and raised a shout that soon had almost everyone milling around him.

When I finally got close enough to see what had been found—it wasn't until crewmen had begun to empty it—I saw a huge underground room, bare but for the tons of gold jewelry scattered over its floor. It was circular and reached by eight staircases around the rim, the only integral marring of its emptiness. A man writhed in mosaic at the bottom of the stairs at which I stood. The design was continued in a widening wavy line leading toward the center. It was too far and too dark to see what lay there or at the other entrances, and I did not care to remain in the room. Perhaps it was a theatre of some sort, though there seemed no provision for ventilation; certainly the jewelry had not been stored there. Yet why would thousands of people have packed the great room, then closed the doors and died so many years ago that not even bones remained? For thus it must have happened. I am not a philosopher; say only that we met stranger sights before we were clear of the port.

During the day three more chambers were found; it was easier when we knew what to look for. There was gold aplenty; in fact, there was more than perhaps the ships could safely hold. The sailing master of the Dominator held several angry conclaves with high officers but to no avail: gold continued to stream into the fiver's hold.

We had the Flyer loaded before the evening meal. This was poor enough, dried fish and bitter fruit, but the gold gave it the savor of ambrosia. We had not been able to fish as normally and the hunting parties found nothing but a few birds that graced the Admiral's table. Perhaps they had spent more time looking for gold than for food; still, the jungle appeared more barren than expected.

Work continued for most of the next day; the Admiral seemed bound to leave no scrap of value behind him though it meant he must follow it to the sea bottom. Antiopas was a sensible man for all his lubberliness, and when the bosun pronounced us loaded to the limits of safety he refused to have more aboard us. There was no small sparking of tempers at his announcement, but because Antiopas had high connections indeed, no one cared to overrule him on a point bearing on his own command's safety. Not, at least, when he was so obviously correct.

As a result, we of the Flyer's crew were free while others hauled metal aboard. I proposed a genuine exploring jaunt—not just a search for more gold. The captain gave permission to any who cared to go though he was of two minds himself, fearing the ship might be overloaded in his absence. In the end he decided that he could easily enough dump such excess over the side if it came to that and joined us.

We were six altogether, Antiopas and the bosun, and four of us crewmen, more adventurous or more bored. We followed the central street, heading with unspoken agreement for the huge domed structure on the edge of the jungle. Clearly it was a temple or palace, more likely the former, and when a people dies as this one had, one wonders what Gods it had worshipped. The jungle had recovered everything and the state of the road made me wish I had brought along a chopper. In some spots saplings had displaced paving blocks and had grown into trees, and vines covered practically everything.

The distance was greater than expected as well as being fatiguing; the enormous size of the dome had made it seem deceptively close. When at last we reached the treble base of the structure we all were spent and rested a while in the shade of the dome.

Without any particular intent I rubbed a patch of stone clear of vegetation. The result was disquieting: a round, slit-pupiled eye glared at me from the center of a nest of carven swirls. A cat, I mused, but didn't care to look at the decoration again. To avoid it I started climbing the steps to the yawning portal and the others followed.

There was little left of the bronze doors, but the building itself, which was black and not of marble, had been very well preserved. The jungle had made few inroads on the interior, perhaps because relatively little light came through the top of the dome which was open save for a flat ellipse that spanned it. It could have been for structural reasons—I know little of domes, barbaric, inward straining things that they are—but the effect was unpleasantly similar to the carven eye outside. We could see well enough when our eyes adjusted, however. Much of the floor had been cut away in a pattern of swirls like that surrounding the eye graven on the plinth. The central portion, directly under the dome's center, had a small platform raised like an altar but the floor around it was sunken also.

"A sunburst, do you suppose?" the captain asked.

"I saw a carving outside," I replied. "It looked like some kind of eye."

"If this isn't the damnedest thing," Hylas said. "How do you get to the altar?"

I walked a few steps around the hall to get a different view. It was just as the bosun said: The altar was completely separated from the walkway around the edge of the building by a sunken area some ten feet deep. Then a sailor jumped down and made another discovery.

"Look, a drain," he called. "This whole thing must 'a been a pool."

We all looked where he stood beside a stone grating in the sunken part.

"Maybe for sacrifices?" someone suggested, thinking of the Orphic rites in which the communicants knelt beneath a grate while the victims were slaughtered above them.

"Zeus, no," the discoverer disagreed, peering through the grate."I can't even see bottom."

"Say, there's something on the altar," somebody called.

A shaft of sunlight was splashing from a green gem of some sort on the altar. None of us could see just what it was because of the dazzle but we all had hopes of a huge emerald.

"Did anybody bring a rope?" I asked, and blank looks answered me. "Well, who'll give me a boost, then?"

Leon, a brawny fellow and just the man for the job, was willing and we jumped down into the empty pool with the others following us. The central orb was surfaced and drained just as the tapered, recurved arms had been; neither gave any clue to its purpose.

The altar was on a floor-height pedestal, round and about four feet in diameter. Since the altar itself was rectangular there would be no trouble standing if I could mount to begin with. After a moment's discussion Leon braced himself against the pedestal with one hip jutting. I took a short run and jumped from his hip to shoulder, then swung myself up in front of the altar. There was an awkward piece of balancing for a moment since the ledge was only a foot and a half wide at most, but there was no need of a second attempt.

My first feelings on seeing the stone were merely of disappointment. It was a delicate piece of carving about the size of my fist, but the material was only some sort of glass. A second glance changed my disappointment to horror; I finally recognized the temple's motif. Dropping the little figurine into my tunic I leaped down beside Leon again.

"What's it worth?" he questioned eagerly.

"Damn little," I said. "Let's get out of here."

We padded across the smooth floor to the others who had managed to pry up a grating with their spears.

"Well, let's see it," Antiopas demanded. I dropped the little stone in his palm.

"By Castor!" he swore, "a glass octopus."

"Hell of a thing for a temple," somebody muttered."Do you s'pose it belongs here?"

"Take another look at the pool," I said, "or these eye designs all over. Eight arms and a cat slitted eye; that's what they worshipped, all right."

"And that explains what this pool was for," the captain added.

Leon blinked and looked shocked. He'd been a Highlander raised and I don't think he much cared to be in an octopus pool, even after the beasts were long gone. Well, I wasn't too happy about it, either.

"Captain!" one of the men called. "There's noises down here."

We all gathered around the drain, uneasily aware that we had to climb a ten-foot wall to leave.

"Just water sloshing down there," Hylas said. "It's what you'd expect under a drain."

"A long way down," Antiopas said thoughtfully.

There was a flicker of yellow in the depths.

"Zeus Father and Savior!" cried Antiopas, leaping back as we all did.

Then, while the rest of us stood in trembling panic, his face cleared and he began to laugh, pointing at the top of the dome.

"The reflection," I gasped in sudden understanding."It wasn't an eye, it was just a reflection of the skylight in the water."

No one was quite sure what happened then because we all were looking up when Hylas screamed and pitched through the opening. There was a splash, or perhaps that had come before; when I instinctively peered over the edge there was nothing below but a roil of bubbles.

We lifted each other out in tense silence, all but Leon, that is, who babbled to himself of what he had seen at the corner of his eye. He screamed during the night and my own dreams were bloody and mare-wracked until a gray dawn awoke me.

The captain was waiting when I opened my eyes. "Sleep well?" he asked.

I winced. "And yourself?"

He turned his palms up."It was bad enough when I only dreamed of drowning. Though it looks as if that too may come today."

I glanced at the sky. It marched solidly with black cumuli though the wind was still for the nonce.

"We'll not set out today," I said.

"Really? You're bosun now, you know, and I'll take your word for it—but the Dominator seems to be making ready."

I nodded."The Admiral wants some sea room," I guessed."Remember, we've no proper harbor here and the fiver can't be beached. He'll try to keep her bow to the storm with the oars and take no chance of her being pounded to pieces against the shore. Though for my own part, I'd worry more that the wallowing slut's keel would split and spill me in the middle of it."

A messenger bore out my prediction within the hour and the Dominator put out alone. The storm refused to break, however, and she rode a half-mile out on a smooth sea while the sultry heat grew more and more oppressive. The water was so calm that Antiopas and I, sitting in the bows of the Flyer, could see the channel in the sea bottom as a straight dark streak in the green.

"Where do you suppose it leads?" he asked.

"Where does a mountain lead?" I replied with a shrug.

Antiopas persisted. "This end leads to the pier," he said. "At least that far; the other end . . . ."

He was voicing thoughts that had occurred to me also. "The drains," I said. "I suppose they have to lead somewhere."

Neither of us spoke for a while. When I did, I deliberately avoided what both of us were thinking of.

"Pity the baggars below decks on her," I said, thumbing toward the penteres.

"Pity the all of us, damned to this voyage," Antiopas replied and fumbled in his pouch."Do you suppose there is any value to this?"he continued, bringing out the octopus figure.

I took a closer look at the little idol, hefting it in my hand. "Just glass," I answered. "Not very pretty, the Gods know. Besides, I don't much like the idea of carrying other people's Gods around. Why don't we just drop it over the side and be done?"

"Images of Gods," Antiopas corrected me. "A stone is not the God but the symbol of the God."

Then why go to temples if the Gods aren't there? I thought but said nothing and watched the play of light within the figurine. The glass was so smooth that it slipped in my grasp and a tiny drop of blood formed where one of the arms pricked me.

"Castor!"Antiopas swore, "The Dominator's moving; she's heading in. Now what under heaven for?"

I looked up from the idol. The surface had been roiled by the fiver's oars and there was another patch of foam far beyond her, almost on the horizon from where we sat though much nearer the penteres. I rose and pointed to it without speaking.

Antiopas stood too, and his face had gone white. One part of my mind remembered the little brown men telling us how these seas could rise in minutes, horizon to horizon, and sweep everything beneath them. Still I felt no fear, neither of that nor of what I knew in truth was approaching. The idol burned in my palm.

All along the shore men were staring in confusion at the Dominator, whose battle-gong was clanging. As we watched, the sea darkened in front of the penteres and there was another splash of foam.

"That's no wave—" Antiopas began and broke off in horror to stare at the figurine in my hand. "Herakles who purged the world," he whispered, "be with us now."

Some started to run then but I think only the two of us realized what was coming. The crew of the Service was readying the catapult on her forecastle. Although the Admiral must have realized by then that the Dominator was not the quarry, the great fiver continued to cut through the sea pursuing now instead of fleeing.

The third time it arose it was half the distance between the shore and the swiftly approaching Dominator. The sacklike body squirmed—Gods, it was huge!—to bring one slit-pupiled eye around to glare at us. Then it dived with another spurt of foam.

Someone had fired the Service's catapult before joining the rout. The bolt glanced off the waves, probably useless even if better aimed. Men were streaming away from the shore, their shouts drowning the thunder of the penteres' drummer hammering out the strokes as the bronze prow boiled through the glassy sea. There were only two men on her deck now, the helmsman and the Admiral himself. Even as I watched the helmsman dived overboard and the Admiral took the wheel. Probably the crew had no idea of what was happening; their only view was through the oarslots and ventilator gratings.

"Run, you fool!" someone shouted in my ear and it was Antiopas, my captain. But I could not move for it was not yet time, though the God was as fire in my hand.

"The bench," I whispered, "I should be on the bench."


An arm snaked over the side and wrapped about the rail. The Flyer shuddered as she slid off the beach and continued to slant into the water toward the great weight that was dragging her down. I stared into the water as the ship lurched again and two more arms rippled up, two arms and a chalk-white beak larger than I was.

Antiopas screamed and slashed with his sword, not at the tentacle that curled toward him but the God in my hand. Then our bow heaved up and disintegrated, hurling us shoreward, as the Dominator's oak and gold and great bronze ram smashed through the Flyer and ground what was beneath her into the mud of the bottom forever.

We buried our dead—and there were many, for the penteres had crumpled to the mast step—beneath an honest mound with none of the decaying marble to defile them. The gold we gave to the sea, may it lie there forever. Yet still there is that which rots unburied in my mind, and my dreams are ill dreams for a sailor.

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