The vendors on Angler Row sell the best fish this side of the Evergloom. The other squids might tell you to go over to Benthos Plaza, but there’s two things wrong with that: one, that place only sells meat that’s been dead for a month, and two, it’s on the opposite side of the Grand Bazaar. That makes it a waste of both time and money.
I toss a few shells over to Oddtooth and tell her to get her fishing line away from my face. She laughs through a wicked mesh of black needle teeth and turns off the glowing light at the end of her head-stalk.
“Sorry, beakface. Sometimes I forget to switch off the old meat-nabber, you know?” She nudges a slab of white meat towards me and I chew it down in a flurry of tentacles and beak bites.
I tell her I’ll see her later before shooting a jet through my siphon and swimming up, up, up above the Bazaar, until I can look over the city with a single dinner-plate eye. The city doesn’t have a name, not yet. It’ll get one when we can find the words that do it justice. It’s a long sprawl of luminescent green, the busy lanes lit with the studded lights in squidskin and fishscale and the walls glowing with cool blue colonies of scuttling shrimp. Jellies light the houses and tenements with a pale silver light that goes real easy on the eyes.
At the center of it all is the hot bubbling of the Vent, the red mountain where each and every single one of us first found the power to think and to speak.
The prophets who live there never tell us exactly how our awakening happens, but I suspect it’s an act of the gods. Which god? I don’t have a clue. There are more of them than I have tentacles, though we only have names for three.
I angle the spearpoint of my mantle and rocket towards the Vent on a trail of cold water. The prophets said they’d have an important task for me and my pod, and that I should return to them as soon as I was rested and strong. My siphon pumps with the force of a whale-jaw, and I know I’m ready.
The crab masons wave hello as I zip by their projects and deep-dug rock quarries, so I give them a one-tentacle salute. I still remember the first time they unveiled their statues of the dread Triumvirate. They pulled off the kelp veils on all sides of the Vent and showed them to a waiting crowd.
The first was Rhyzirr, God of Cruel Fates, made of black rock with a volcanic sheen and oversized hooks on each of his violent arms. His eyes were glassier than a normal squid’s, and you could almost taste his apathy. Hunters sent a few prayers his way before strangling some poor creature in the dark.
The second was Leraki, Queen of False Promises. She was made of cheap basalt, but her rough sharkskin was beaten from thin shining metal ferried from all over the Evergloom. She was a favorite in the Grand Bazaar, and every merchant gave her tribute in one way or another.
The last of the three was the most moving. Uburu, Sad King of Bitterness. He was made of some strange blue stone, and took the shape of an animal we’ve never seen before. He had four limbs that were not made to swim, with a small head crested in a spiked crown of yellow rock. The masons said they took their inspiration directly from the minds of the prophets, who whispered from the ridges of the Vent.
I can hear them now, speaking amongst themselves over the ceaseless bubbling. They use strange words and mental pictures that I can’t quite understand, but they grow silent as they see me approach.
The prophets are hard to get a hold of. From far away, they take the shape of the Sad King, but when you swim close you can see them as a colony of shrimp. Their bodies are a roiling mass of claws and legs, but the whole always looks the same. Their words are just as confusing as their forms, like a whispered net of skittering shrimp-tails.
“Young Architeuthis, how has the ocean been treating you today?”
Architeuthis is what they call us squid. As for some of the others words, I don’t know. Some fish say that these little spoken mysteries are proof of the prophets’ divinity. Many spend their entire lives searching for the meanings, but the closest we’ve got to ‘ocean’ is our Evergloom, and even the brightest of us can’t understand ‘today’.
I raise a confused tentacle in salute, and say, “What do the gods need from me?” They stand in scuttling silence and let loose a long sigh. It’s odd, but I don’t think the prophets care much for the gods.
They say, “If they exist, all they want is for you to be miserable.” It’s true. After all, they did make us live down in the Evergloom. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful to them for our creation.
I rephrase my question, “Okay, then what do you want from me, prophets?” Usually they had us corral other creatures and bring them to the Vent for edification. The dumbest fin out there shook and shuddered under shrimp claws, and suddenly came away awake and speaking, by some miracle of Uburu or Rhyzirr.
But something tells me the present task will not be like the others. Late members of my hunting pod begin to appear as the prophets whisper their divine commands. Hartingii and Dux arrive just as they start to say,
“Now is the beginning of a great Metamorphosis.”
Kirkii and Martensi show up when they tell us,
“It will allow us to finally go where we belong, and be as we belong.”
Some squid say that the prophets were fallen gods. Maybe now is the time that we help them regain their divinity? I don’t know. You can never tell with them.
Kirkii speaks up, “Where do you belong, exactly? Didn’t you come from under the Vent?”
I put a tentacle between him and the prophets. “Excuse my younger brother. He hasn’t yet learned to keep quiet about what lives under the Vent.” I turn an eye on Kirkii and speak deeply. “It is hot and miserable below those bubbles, and it was all our prophets could do to escape it.”
The shrimp-pile bodies are ruffled by bad memories, but they answer Kirkii’s question. “No, we did not come from beneath the Vent. We simply passed through it, like squid through a whale-gut.” My pod and I shudder at the thought. “We belong in a place that is not so dark. The gloom only lasts the night. During the day, the sky is lit brighter than the claw-strikes of a pistol shrimp.”
More mysticism, and talk of the prophets’ old home. I’m sure Hartingii’s busy memorizing every cryptic word. He’s going to meditate on them, later. He tells me this will bring his spirit closer to Gloom’s End, where the prophets once lived and where life is not so dark and miserable.
Dux, the most practical of us, raises a sucker-lined arm. “What exactly do you need us to do? How can we begin your Metamorphosis?”
“We require you to bring us a whale.” I see a sliver of ink slip out of Martensi, but he calms himself. “It is not just any whale. This one has skin that is hard and cold to the touch, and shines like the skin of Leraki.”
“Where might we find this Hardwhale?” I ask, putting an arm on Martensi’s mantle to calm his heart.
“That is for you to discover,” they say, before falling apart in a crumbling tower of claws. We say we understand, and the shrimp crawl up the slopes of the Vent to bask in the heat, leaving us to fend for ourselves. My pod and I agree to split up to hunt down information. Hartingii will be at the Insistor’s Temple, Kirkii will go to the Outpost, Dux will ask around the Merchant’s District, and Martensi . . . Well, I tell Martensi he can go home to gather his strength.
As for me, it looks like I’ll be paying a visit to the Viper.
With a little nudging, Oddtooth points me in the right direction.
I hand her a few extra shells and she whispers, “He’s at Sixpair Borough.”
It’s darker here than most places, because the crawlers like to eat all the glowshrimp. No common sense of decency. Prejudiced, too. If you don’t have twelve legs or a pair of mandibles, they’ll jump you in the street and chew the skin off your vital bits. No one but a crawler comes to Sixpair Borough.
I guess that’s why the Viper likes it so much. The place gives him some privacy.
The click of legs scratches through the sand and I know I’m being followed, so I turn around with a whip of my arms. “I know you’re out here.”
There’s only silence, so I swim on. And then I hear the scritch-scratch-scritch from my left and right, so I flare my tentacles and say, “If you’re going to follow me, you may as well tell me where I can find the Viper.”
Then I turn and find myself bitten in twenty different places as crawlers run their jaws over me and skitter about on six pairs of legs. Idiots. I twist like an eddy running off the strongest current and send them flying into the dark. Then I lash out and grab them with the toothed suckers on each of my lethal arms.
“Don’t you know,” I say, bashing two shells together and sending them flying, “not to provoke,” I continue, taking bites of chitin shell with my beak, “a child of Rhyzirr?”
I pound a crawler in the head with a flurry of tentacles and say, “Attack a squid, and the God of Cruel Fates will personally make sure that your end is untimely. Do you understand?” A few of them begin to retreat into the darkness, but I grab one quicker than the snap of a goblin-shark’s teeth.
“Not so fast. Where’s the Viper?”
A squirming in the darkness alerts me to someone else’s presence. Scale-lights switch on ever so subtly, and I see the shape of the fish that the prophets call Viper. According to them, he resembles a creature that lives at Gloom’s End—a kind of slithering eel with a mouthful of fangs.
The Viper swims close and I can see that he’s more mouth than tail, with bright eyes looking all kinds of wary. I let go of the crawler in my arm and address him directly. “Viper. You’re a hard fish to find.”
He’s not in the mood for a friendly conversation. He speaks in a bored, joyless lisp: “What does the squid want? Nobody ever talks to Viper.”
“Nobody ever sees you, either. Not when you want to stay invisible.” His lights go out as if to demonstrate, and he swims dark circles around me. I say, “And everyone knows that the unseen end up seeing a great deal.”
“What does it want to know?” Straight to business. Good.
“Have you ever seen a whale? With skin like Leraki’s?” He swims slower, as if he’s remembered something. I tell him, “The prophets want me to find it.”
“And what would be the reward?”
“Well, you’d be doing the gods a personal favor, and . . . well, I can help you with your little problem.”
He switches directions and looks me in the eye with those glowing orbs of his. “Problem? And what problem would that be?”
“What, you thought you could hide it from me? It’s obvious to anyone who stops to think. No one could live down here in the Borough unless they had it.” He shakes, because he knows I’m right. “No fish goes ignored here, unless they’re dirty. Unless they have the tonguebite.”
He goes back to swimming nervous circles. “And you can help me with this? How? No fish has been able to cure it.”
“I’m not a fish. I’m squid. Now tell me where I can find the Hardwhale and I will help you.”
He hunches his back, reluctant. Suspicious. But then he points with his tail. “You must go to the Sunken City, and swim up beyond the Whale Wall. You will see it there, if you are lucky.”
Solid information. Now to help him with his problem.
He speaks through ugly teeth, “Now, how can you—”
I put an arm on each of his jaws and pry his mouth open. I switch on my bright body lights and get a look between his teeth, and I see it. The crawler that’s nested in his mouth, and taken hold of his tongue. It hasn’t been feeding for too long, so most of the tongue is still there. I can get it out with minimal damage.
“This will only hurt for a second,” I say, as he wildly thrashes his tail.
I whip my tentacle inside his mouth and dig my hooks into the bug’s shell, flexing tight and hurting it as much as possible. Come on, you little dungheap. Let go. I send through another tentacle and dig a suckertooth right into its eye, pushing as hard as I can. The pain gets too much and the tongue-biter lets go. Then I smash it against a rock.
“You’re welcome,” I say, and the blood streams from the Viper’s mouth and hangs limp in the water. A scritch-scratching comes from all around us and I put an arm around his body, holding him tight. “Now that your little passenger is dead, I don’t think the crawlers are going to be too welcoming of you here.”
He just nods in response and sways weakly in the current. The scratching of claws comes closer, and he whispers, “Swim away, squid. Swim.”
My body gulps water and I blast towards the light of the city.
I leave the Viper at Oddtooth’s and make my way to the Insistor’s Temple.
I can see its minarets tower over the city even from the border of the Grand Bazaar, the columns painted with spirals of glue and glowing plankton. The place has an interesting history.
At the very beginning, when the first fish were woken by the prophets’ power, a group of them came to the Vent every other moment to ask about what it all meant, about the gods, the greater purpose, and everything their souls thirsted for. The prophets stayed silent, or they said they didn’t know, or they told the fish that their questions had no answers. But the fish always came back, asking for more. They insisted for so long that an entire generation of shrimp lived and died.
And so the prophets famously relented and gave the Insistors what they wanted: the fact that there were creator gods. They even gave them Rhyzirr’s name. The Insistors never stopped, though, and that’s why we know about Leraki and Uburu, too.
The Temple is where Hartingii lives and studies, and I find him waiting there. I tell him what I know, and we set off to gather the others. We meet Martensi at the Squidhouses, Kirkii at the hunter’s Outpost, and Dux deep in the heart of the Merchant’s District. I tell them what I know, and they concur. The way to the Hardwhale is above the Sunken City, beyond the Whale Wall.
The Sunken City is a relic that some say comes from Gloom’s End, dashed against the rock and sand. It’s a rusted favorite of unwoken fish, and it’s not so far from the Vent. When we get there, we pray to Rhyzirr for a fate that’s not so cruel, and swim up to the borders of the Whale Wall.
It’s a blank space of yawning darkness where the toothed whales of the Evergloom swoop down and eat unsuspecting squid, especially if they’ve been behaving badly. I tell my pod that we have nothing to fear and that we’re invincible emissaries of the gods, but I can still smell ink in the water.
We swim with our lights off, and the blackness is excruciating. Every ripple and every current is a scarred fin or a smiling tooth. From somewhere far above is the keening whine of a whale song, searching for something delicious to eat.
My pod and I bunch together, and that’s when it happens. A wall of water washes over us and we blast on our lights, throwing the shadows of white teeth and beady eyes into startling relief.
“Break!” I yell, and we split up and latch our hooks into the beast’s hide as it thrashes through the water with the muscles of a mountain and the tail of a god. We hold on for dear life, but none of us can break blubber. I think back to the crawler in the Viper’s mouth, and I’m seized with a sudden idea.
“Hold tight!” I yell, before thrusting a hook deep into the whale’s glassy eye.
The water rumbles with a scream of pain, and the beast swims up through the Whale Wall with the cling of desperate passengers clawing at its back. Dux follows my lead and pokes out the other eye, and we hear another scream as the whale kicks harder.
We go up, up, up, until the darkness seems to ebb, and a kind of golden light sinks through the water. Hartingii is the first to say it.
“This is it.”
The rest of us stay silent until the whale slows, and we detach and swim away as one. Hartingii lags behind, with a single tentacle reaching for something we can’t quite see.
“It’s there, beyond that veil. It’s right there.” He’s desperate. “Gloom’s End.”
It’s true, I know. But that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibilities.
“We have a job to do. We don’t have time for this.” I look at Kirkii, Dux, and Martensi, too. “That goes for you as well. The prophets are relying on us. The gods are relying on us.”
Hartingii floats, heartbroken.
I say, “Would the Triumvirate want you to live in Gloom’s End without having earned it?” I smash a tentacle into another. “Or would they end your life for insolence, for daring to enter their home?”
Hartingii’s guts feel a slow squeeze and he rises through the water.
“I’m sorry. I can’t turn away from this,” he says. His silhouette shrinks into the blinding light, and we never hear from him again.
The discovery of the Hardwhale is quick and unexpected.
It’s got the shining skin of Leraki and a single bright eye where its nose should be. We snap towards it and latch on with all the ferocity of a hungry squid-pod that’s been hunting for far too long.
The thing hums and we begin rising through the water, and that’s when I see that the eye is not an eye. I can see through its lens, and inside are the little children of Uburu: shaped like prophets, but not made of shrimp.
“Dux! Kirkii! Martensi! Stop this beast!” They search frantically but they find no flippers to bite and no tails to tangle, though Martensi spies a spinning fin. It’s moving faster than anything I’ve seen before, and I know a squid can’t stop it.
But I’m slow to tell Martensi, and he reaches with his arms and disappears in a cloud of ink and blood. The sound of strain echoes through the water, and I know the rubber corpse of my podmate has slowed the monster’s course.
With angry jets, we drag the Hardwhale deep down to the Vent, and hope the prophets have violent plans. But all they do is gently smother it. The tiny clicks of their claws skitter up and down the shining shell of the Hardwhale, searching. Probing.
Then they go mad and boil like the Vent.
They’re yelling at each other, now. “These aren’t simple shrimp, to be taken over so easily.” Some sound hopeless. Some frightened. Others are plainly angry. “This isn’t fair. There are more of us than there are of them.” A few calm voices say, “We’ve had our time.”
But the anger wins out and the Hardwhale is crushed into a crumpled skin streaming bubbles and blood. The pale children of Uburu inside go limp and float amongst the wreckage, squeezing bubbles from the siphons in their heads. I approach the prophets slowly.
“What’s happened? I don’t understand.”
They bristle. “We’ve failed. There’s no going home.”
I think of Hartingii. “I’ve seen your home. It was bright, and not so dark and miserable.” They sit silent to listen. “But down here we can make our own light.” My skin sears with fluorescent color. “And it is just as bright.”
Dux and Kirkii join me with flashes of yellow and jellyfish blue.
Behind us the soft green of the nameless city spreads out like the fallen body of Rhyzirr himself, with a thousand arms collapsed and wound around bazaars and homesteads all. Our city.
“Look,” I whisper. “It is not so dark and miserable.”
The shrimp pause and sway in the gentle current, and I say, “It is home.”