Hartmut gripped my hand hard. The water was starting to recede! I’d never seen anything like it—as if some gigantic mouth were sucking the water out from under us!
Several boats were already beached, left stranded on the wet, oil-coated sand. Those boats standing farther out were being sucked along with the water! The sailors pulled on the oars, battling frantically to halt their forward motion. The submersibles sank lower and lower, then, rocking back and forth, they struck bottom with a tearing, grinding sound.
And then, an enormous head soared upward out of the waves. Its skin was gray-green and covered with scales that glistened in the weak sunlight with an ugly iridescence. Its head was small, the same size as the neck. It seemed to be all neck, unless one counted the back part as tail. The serpent moved in a horrible, sinuous curve. Its eyes were green when it first looked at us, but then the eyes changed, began to glow a dreadful fiery red. The serpent drew itself up and up and, as it rose, it sucked the water up with it. It was huge, monstrous. It seemed half the height of the mountain, at least. I watched the seawater rush away from me and I had the sudden, frightening feeling that I was about to be carried out into it. Hartmut put his arm around me. His body, thick and stocky, was solid and reassuring.
The serpent reached what seemed an impossible height, then down it dropped, smashed headfirst into the flagship, punching a huge hole in the ship’s hull. The seawater surged back to shore in a great wave.
“Run!” my father shouted, his voice booming over the shocked cries of the crowd. “Run for the mountain!”
The Gargan turned and fled. Even in our fear, there was no confusion or disorder, no panic. Elder dwarves, who couldn’t move fast enough, were whisked off their feet by their sons and daughters and carried bodily. Mothers grabbed infants, fathers lifted older children to their shoulders.
“Run on ahead, Grundle!” Hartmut told me. “I must return to my command.” He raced off, hefting his battle-ax, to rejoin the army that was grouping at the water’s edge, prepared to cover the people’s retreat.
I knew I should run, but my feet seemed to have gone numb; my legs were too weak to do anything more than keep me standing upright. I stared at the serpent, who had risen, unharmed, out of the wreckage of the submersible. Toothless mouth gaping in what might have been a noiseless laugh, it hurled itself down on another ship. Wood splintered and broke apart. Other creatures that looked exactly like the first rose out of the sea and started to break apart the remainder of the submersibles and any other boat they could find. The waves created by the creatures thundered down on the shoreline, completing the destruction.
Boats capsized, hurling their crews into the water. Some were simply swallowed up, the dwarves on board disappearing in the oil-covered foam. The army stood fast against the serpents. Hartmut was bravest of all of them, advancing into the water, his ax raised in challenge. The serpents ignored them, contented themselves with smashing all the boats in the harbor—except one, the royal ship, the one we used to sail back and forth to Phondra and Elmas. The serpent paused, looked at us and at the havoc its creatures had wrecked. Its eyes had changed from red to green, their gaze was flat and unblinking. It turned its head from side to side in a slow, sweeping gesture, and whenever its dread gaze touched any of us, we shrank beneath it. When it spoke, the other serpents behind it ceased their destruction to listen. The serpent spoke perfect dwarven.
“This message is for you and your allies, the humans and the elves. We are the new masters of the sea. You will sail it only with our permission and our permission can be obtained only by paying a price. What that price is to be, you will be told later. What you have seen today is a sample of our power, of what will happen to you if you do not pay. Heed well our warning!” The serpent dove back down in the water and vanished. The others followed, swimming rapidly through the bits and pieces of wood floating on the slimy surface. We stood looking at the ruins of the sun-chasers. I remember the silence that fell over the people. No one even yet wept for the dead. When all were certain that the serpents were finally gone, we began the grim task of retrieving the bodies of those who had died—all of them, it turned out, appeared to have been poisoned. Once pure and safe to drink, the seawater was now coated with a foul oil slick that killed anything unlucky enough to swallow it.
And that was how all this began. There is more, much more, to my story, but I hear Alake coming through the ship, looking for me, calling to me that it’s time to eat. Humans! They think food is the cure-all for every problem. I like my dinner as well as the next dwarf, but, just now, I don’t seem to have much appetite.
I must end for the moment.
Alake keeps insisting that we eat—to keep up our strength, she says. What she thinks we’re going to need our strength for is beyond me. Battle these dragon-snakes as I suppose we should call them now? Three of us? I said as much to her; curse the dwarves for our blunt tongues.
Alake was hurt, I could tell, though she was kind enough to say nothing to me in rebuke. Devon managed to cover our awkward moment, and he even made us laugh, though that put us close to tears. Then, of course, we all had to eat something, to please Alake. None of us ate very much, however, and all of us—even Alake—were glad, I think, when the meal ended. She left, going back to her magic. Devon went back to doing what he is always doing—dreaming of Sabia. And I will go on with my story.
Once the bodies of the dead had been recovered and were spread out along the shoreline, their families, having identified them, were led away by friends to be comforted. At least twenty-five people had been killed. I saw the mortician dashing about aimlessly, a distracted look on his face. Never before had he had this many bodies to prepare for their final rest in the burial vaults in the mountain.
My father spoke to him, finally calmed him down. A detail of soldiers was sent to assist, Hartmut among them. It was a heavy, sorrowful task and my heart went out to him.
I was doing what I could to help, which wasn’t much; I was too dazed by the sudden upheaval in my orderly life. Eventually I just sat on the platform and stared out to sea. The sun-chasers that had been left anywhere near intact floated belly-up in the water. There weren’t many. They looked sad and forlorn, like dead fish. I still held the blue ribbon and lock of hair in my hand. I tossed it in the water, watched it drift away on the oil-coated surface.
My father and mother found me there. My mother put her arm around me, hugged me close. We stood long moments without speaking.
My father heaved a sigh. “We must take news of this to our friends.”
“But how can we sink between the worlds? What if those terrible creatures attack us?” my mother asked, frightened.
“They won’t,” my father said heavily, his gaze on the one ship the serpents had left unharmed. “Do you remember what they said? ‘Tell your allies.’” The next day, we sank down toward Elmas.
The elven royal city of Elmasia is a place of beauty and enchantment. Its palace, known as the Grotto, is built of pink and white filigree coral and stands on the banks of the seamoon’s many freshwater lakes. The coral is alive and still growing. The elves would as soon think of killing themselves as they would of killing the coral, and so the shape of the Grotto alters on a continuing basis.
Dwarves use the more appropriate term sinking rather than sailing to describe travel in a submersible. Humans and elves prefer the ancient terminology.