(Part One of Four)
In Spring, the god at the bottom of the Well slumbered deeply. Shiraz’s father went away as he did every time the currents warmed, leaving Shiraz and Lilith alone for weeks on end to swim and play as they liked. The warming of the waters brought yellowfish and seahorses and silvery shoals of squid laying tangles of eggs in the coral. The seaweed was bright green, the coral itself seemed to brighten, and the fish were endlessly active.
When Shiraz swam all the way to the surface, she saw clouds as dark as octopus ink. Spring had not yet come to the surface world. There were mountains all along the coast, stark piles of stone as high as the Well was deep. There was rain coming down in sheets of cool, fresh water lifted from seas a thousand miles away. Even as she watched, the rain thickened. The coast, with its wonderful mountains, was hidden from her view.
She was enraptured by the rain and the wind, and she was drifting lazily without listening or feeling the currents. The gunboat was almost upon her before she noticed it, and she barely had time to throw herself backwards and kick down hard with her tail when the gunboat came crashing out of the rain. It rushed over her head with inches to spare, and she fought against the turbulence of its passage for a score of seconds before she could push away, safe from the murderous propellers. She kicked out with all her strength, and when she was far enough away she turned to watch the knifelike hull passing overhead.
She blinked. Following the propellers, bucking and biting in the wake of the warship, was a swarm of small, transparent creatures. They were thin, with long glass tails like blades, broad paddle fins, and clawed hands. Their mouths were full of needle teeth, gaping open in evil smiles.
The rain seemed to subside in the boat’s wake, and the surface began to clear up. When she was sure the gunboat was a safe distance away, she surfaced. A shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds, then was swallowed again by the gray dimness.
There was another boat coming, slower than the gunboat. This was a small, white-hulled diving boat, coming from the north end of the sea, heading directly towards the Well. She dove to watch it from beneath the surface, feeling its approach as a pointed wave and a thrumming of engines. Her vision was dull, but she had other senses that were sharper. They told her the size of the boat, its speed and displacement down to the finest details. It was slowing as it neared the Well, and she could tell it was going to stop dangerously close to her home.
She started to swim as fast as she could, angling down towards the floor. Lilith was down there somewhere, probably playing with the octopuses, doubtless paying no attention to her surroundings. Lilith was the reckless one.
Shiraz swam down to the floor, where the corals covered her. Swimming through coral passages, arrowing between schools of fish that darted away from her just before she touched them. Towards the great pool of deepest blue, the blue where the ocean floor dropped away into impenetrable depths. The Well was famous amongst human divers, and they came regularly to see it. Her father had carefully hidden the entrance to their home, but if Lilith was out in the open she would not be protected. And the water in these parts was as clear as crystal - she would be visible almost from the surface.
Just as she had suspected, Lilith was teasing a large eel, waving an octopus in front of its hole to tempt it out of its dwelling.
“Leave it alone. Come into the nest,” Shiraz told her.
“Wait. I’ve almost got this eel,” her younger sister protested.
“Now! There are divers coming.”
With a disgusted face, Lilith released the octopus, which immediately inked and disappeared, changing its colour to exactly the same rosy shade as the surrounding coral. With some reluctance on Lilith’s part, the sisters swam to their grotto’s entrance and hid themselves, waiting for the humans to come.
It was not long before they could feel the wave distortions of the humans swimming down to the Well’s entrance. Shiraz pulled at the greenweed to make sure their grotto was covered, and peered out through the fronds to watch the humans.
There were two of them, swimming several yards apart. They stopped above the Well and looked down, awestruck. One of them seemed frozen. After a few seconds, his partner moved closer and tapped him on the shoulder.
The frozen diver looked around, startled. He spread his arms, fingers flaring to encompass the magnificence. The other diver nodded. Shiraz had seen this exact scene before. The humans were always stunned when they first saw the Well. Divers were used to the floor deepening slowly, gradiating into the benthic depths and giving them time to prepare themselves. The Well was not like that. Here, the floor dropped away without warning, and many of them were simply incapable of entering it. It was too deep, too sudden, too infinitely blue, like a gateway into another world beneath the ocean floor. Of course, none of them realised that it was exactly that.
After a minute or so, the new diver recovered his wits, and they began to descend slowly. The new one hugged the walls, afraid to plunge directly into the azure gateway. Instead he examined the coral and seaweed walls of the hole, watching the schools of unfrightened fish and the polyps with their dazzling colours. The other diver swam away, having reassured himself that the new one would not suddenly lose his senses.
The new one was coming very near their grotto. When he was about twenty yards above them, he stopped to watch an eel in its hole. His face could not be seen, but Shiraz had the sense that he was smiling. Her heart opened to him, just a tiny bit.
Lilith was smiling. “I like this one,” she told Shiraz.
“I thought he wasn’t going to be able to come down.”
They watched him moving slowly downward. Soon he was almost at the entrance to the grotto. Shiraz tensed, never completely sure their home would not be seen through the veils of greenweed. They had always been safe before, but now that the humans came here regularly, she wondered how long it would be before some enterprising diver poked through the camouflage.
“I want him,” said Lilith.
“Please, Shiraz. I haven't had one in ages.”
“You had one last winter,” Shiraz reminded her. “You killed it. You know Father doesn’t like you playing with them. And he’s right.”
“Just this one, Shiri." Lilith was whining now. “The other one won’t know a thing. He’s far away.”
Shiraz sent out a short ping, and found the other diver far beneath them, apparently testing his own willpower by diving as deep as he could. He seemed vaguely familiar. Many of the divers came here only once, but there were some who came back year after year. That thought made up her mind.
“It’s too dangerous, Lilith. If they keep disappearing here -“
But Lilith had already shown herself, and the diver, not sure what he had seen moving inside the greenweed, was brushing the veils aside to look into the grotto. Shiraz saw his eyes widen inside his mask, caught by surprise. She knew what he was thinking. She had played the same tricks herself, when she had been much younger. A quick flash of colour, so brief the divers were never sure if they had actually seen it. Their friends would never believe them. A woman hiding in the coral like an exotic fish, pearly bare skin glittering, without diving gear? They could not believe it. The stories persisted, never fully believed but running like an undercurrent through the seas of their history.
But Lilith was more reckless than Shiraz had ever been. She liked the humans too much to restrain herself, and in the last ten years she had already killed half a dozen of them. She never seemed to remember that they could not breathe underwater. Perhaps she didn’t care. Shiraz could not quite understand her fascination. There were, after all, perfectly good men of their own kind living in the sea. None near the Well, but they were not too far away. There was even one that she was thought might make quite a good mate, when and if the time for that came.
The diver was passing through the curtains of greenweed, his eyes open wide. Lilith was moving towards him, smiling to welcome him into their home.
He tried to say something, muffled by his mouthpiece. Lilith reached him and held him tight where he was. His eyes flared again. They were always surprised by her strength. Shiraz had never seen a human woman, but supposed they must be as soft as jellyfish, judging by the way their men reacted to Lilith.
She was holding him by one arm now, her grip irresistible, and putting a finger to her mouth to hush him. He was flailing and trying to backpedal, utterly unable to pull himself away. Lilith reached out and pulled his mouthpiece away, clamping her lips over his, kissing him. He would be quiet now. He would have done anything for her if he had understood her. But they never understood a word. Shiraz had heard their own speech once or twice at the surface, and it was a monotonous rush of gutturals, unlike any voice of their world. For creatures that looked so much like them, the humans were strangely alien.
He floated helplessly, stunned by her kiss and completely bewildered. Shiraz guessed he was not going to last long, even though Lilith had carefully replaced his breathing gear. He was too confused. He couldn’t have had much experience diving.
Shiraz carefully brushed through the veils and looked out for the diver’s companion. He had just noticed his friend’s absence, and was circling around to find him. Apparently he didn’t remember where he had last seen his partner. That was good.
He began to swim towards the near wall of the Well, but had misjudged his depth. He spent several minutes darting around ineffectively, searching through the combs of coral far below their grotto. Shiraz could sense the panic beginning to grip him. He knew the stories, of course. All the tales of the Well’s infamous dizzying effect, and the whispered stories of other things as well. Of course, he didn’t believe the truth, even though he had heard the rumours. The truth was not believable.
Behind her, Shiraz could hear Lilith amusing herself with her new human, removing and replacing his mask. She knew better than to let him make much noise, but the more time he spent breathing her air the more disoriented he got. Her breath had the power to support him for a short time, but it was not the air he was used to. He was fading rapidly. Shiraz took another look, making sure the other one was nowhere near the grotto’s entrance, than went back to talk to Lilith.
“That’s enough, Lilith. You have to let him go.”
“Why?” Lilith never understood these things. To her the human was just a new toy. Her casual cruelty alarmed Shiraz, but she forced herself to remember that it was not Lilith’s fault.
She had always been like this. And Shiraz had always been looking after her. She had long since grown accustomed to the idea that she would spend her life looking after things - her home, her sister, the god at the bottom of the Well. For one day that, too, would be her responsibility. Her family had guarded the gateway from time immemorial, and one day it would be her turn to share the sleeping god’s dreams and feelings. She would keep it fed and contented. She would groom its barbs and fins, swimming in its dream of First waters and impossibly twisted First creatures. Above all, she would have to make sure it never awoke, never rose, never opened the gateway to the First Sea.
Her father never talked about his duties, but it seemed to Shiraz that looking after the god was a lot like looking after a beautiful, simpleminded, unthinkingly cruel older sister.
“I’m going to take him back outside, so his friend can retrieve him. We can’t let any more humans die here, Lilith.”
Lilith grimaced, but let Shiraz take the diver away. Carefully replacing his protective gear, she dragged him effortlessly through the greenweed and launched him into blue space. He spun slowly, drifting towards the opposite wall. He looked lifeless, but he was still breathing, and hopefully he would recover. With any luck, he would think Lilith had been some kind of dream, or would at least be afraid to mention her to others. It was unlikely that anyone would believe him if he did talk, but it would not do to have any more humans spreading tales of the Well. The surface world was already encroaching on the borders of their little kingdom, with more divers coming every year and boats crossing the surface with increasing regularity. And what could they do if the humans came to the Well in force? They were the gatekeepers. They could never leave.
The diver’s friend saw him and swam down towards him. He waved his hand in front of the other’s mask, shook his arm, and finally put the man’s arm around his shoulders and began to swim him towards the surface.
Spring came and went. The water grew warmer, and fish and squid hatched and were devoured in millions before they ever left their little birthing grottos. Shiraz waited, her sleep haunted by visions of bloodshed.
The god of the Well was dreaming of war.