Episode Five: Giver of Life, Host to Terrors
While the varied inhabitants of the Lowcity have as many differences as they do similarities, on some level most can at least comprehend one another’s existence. Two citizens might not have the same number of limbs, and their way of life might be completely different, and they might not even be able to pronounce one another’s names- but they both have names, and that’s a start. Then there are the less familiar, but still recognisably sapient beings, such as the faceless Gasbags and the Golnur… although some are less sure of the latter’s sapience than others. Such a wide variety of form exists within the Lowcity’s tunnels that, while divisions between races are certainly present, the passage of time has left most inhabitants with a baseline understanding that the people around them are people.
There are exceptions, though. They do not walk the tunnels and halls that the rest of the Lowcity’s inhabitants do. They do not walk at all. In the great, fathomless, darkness of the Reservoir, uncounted and unknown things thrive. An enormous subterranean sea separated from the Lowcity’s eastern border by a colossal shelf of rock, it provides almost the entirety of the city’s water supply. Its clear waters are pumped throughout the city where the populace can drink it, bathe in it, and use it to water crops. Its existence was not known when the Umbressi chose the site of their mine so very long ago- and, indeed, in those days the borders of the mine did not reach very near to it- but its discovery did contribute to the decision to convert it into a city. Today, and for many years now, it is core to the continued existence of the city, and the lives of all who live within it. But they are not the only ones who benefit from its cold and dark waters. There are those who benefit rather more directly.
The things that dwell in the Resorvoir’s waters are strange, even by the standards of the Lowcity. Pale, and warped, some bear a resemblance to the fish and squid and skates that once dwelled in the oceans of the world above- and perhaps still do- whereas others very much do not. For the most part they are only glimpsed, as either shadows below the surface or as soft rippling disturbances of the surface itself. Sometimes, on those rare occasions where one of these creatures can be seen in their entirety, there are similarities between different specimens, but much of the time they look as different from one another as a Grib from an Umbressi, so it is unclear if the creatures of the Reservoir have breeds or if they are all unique. This, among other things, makes life somewhat difficult for those brave- and foolhardy- sorts who make their living fishing in the Reservoir.
Fishing… a word apt, and yet strangely inappropriate for such an act, as folk in the days before the Lowcity would be unlikely to recognise a Lowcity Fisher’s quarry as “fish”. Nonetheless, it remains the word used by those who ply such a trade simply by manner of tradition. If one took the long tunnel up and out of the Lowcity proper, heading first toward the surface and then back down over the buried rock wall that kept the Reservoir and Lowcity separate, one will eventually arrive at the shores of the Reservoir, along with the scattered collection of shacks that crowd around near the tunnel’s exit. The cavern containing the Reservoir’s surface is the most spacious place that most of the Lowcity’s residents have ever, or will ever, see: the stone ceiling is beyond the sight of all but the occasional Gasbag visitor, but its position can always be seen by the twinkling of the bioluminescent larvae which climb to its stalactites. By their light, the Reservoir is always lit- if very dimly- by a blanket of what would look like stars if only the Lowcity’s residents knew to make such a comparison. The dark surface of the water itself stretches on and on out toward a darker horizon so distant that few claim to have reached it, and fewer believe those who do. And below, at depths unknown, live the Reservoir’s inhabitants.
There have been, on occasion, attempts to make contact with the creatures who swim deep below the surface. After all, while they are utterly alien to the inhabitants of the Lowcity, relations between the Lowcity’s people are the result of generations of hard-earned familiarity and proximity. And besides, is the difference between an Umbressi and one of those swimming things really so much greater than the difference between a Skitterling and a Gasbag? Perhaps, some argue, there could be new knowledge and prosperity to be won if communication was brokered between the Lowcity and the Reservoir’s things. Or, when the argument is made in private, by the Lesh, perhaps an advantage could be gained. Usually, these arguments are made only after enough years have passed since the last attempt, that the memory of how disastrous that attempt was has faded.
For the most part, fishers do not stray beyond the shores of the Reservoir. They stick to the shallow waters, where the creatures are smaller, less clever, less likely to hunt them back. Lining the banks of softly lapping waters, they cast their rods side by side, Grib and Umbressi, some Skitterlings, the occasional Lesh standing a little farther apart from the rest. There is little talk. According to some, to speak would risk scaring away potential catches. According to others, it would risk giving too much away to their quarry- or perhaps, the other things in the depths, whose attention they would rather avoid. The fishers who line the shore are a mixture of old and young: those for whom the life of a fisher is a recent decision, and those for whom it has been their life for many years. There are some in the middle of these two groups, but fewer in number. Because they are more commonly found on the boats that roam the Reservoir, searching for more adventurous game than that which drifts near the shore. The young are too fearful and inexperienced for such game. The elderly know better. They are still haunted by the dreams, the visions. The memories of those who did not grow old.
There is a vessel making its way out of the shabby little dock on the shore of the Reservoir right now. Like many other vessels of its size it is of Lesh make, but unlike most Lesh vehicles it possesses no automation of any kind. A large paddlewheel at the stern carves through the water steadily, powered not by steam but by the might of an Umbressi who stands amidship, rhythmically pumping away at a long crank. The crew, rather than the usual Lesh automata, are flesh and blood.Grib dash back and forth across the deck, tending to mechanisms and preparing for the job ahead; in the cramped and dark hold below, a pair of Skitterlings do much the same, making sure that all is well. In a cabin atop the centre of the boat, a keen-eyed Fallen grips the boat’s wheel and scans the horizon. Beside her stands, both arms folded behind her very straight back in her crisp uniform, both feet planted firmly against the deck, the boat’s captain. Of course a vessel such as this would have a Lesh for its captain. Her dark eyes survey the deck below, a striking contrast with her utterly pale skin. She makes note of her subordinates' actions, the skill with which the Grib’s hands work at the lines and other tasks. The crew, for their part, do their best to ignore her gaze; unsettling as her observation might be, letting her think they were distracted or insubordinate might risk their payday. This is a more well-funded expedition than most, the sort that only a Lesh could have arranged. And Captain Lluwhn is not just any Lesh. She has led more expeditions out into the darkness of the Reservoir, out into what sailors call The Nothing, than anyone else the crew can name. More importantly, she has made it back alive, and with all her faculties intact, with a hunger to return- which can be said of very few others. Her expeditions have made her prosperous even for a Lesh, the sort of figure about whom tales are told in taverns all throughout the Lowcity. She does not tell those stories, however. They are disseminated, those that are true, by loose-lipped clerks who file her reports to the Lesh Ministry. According to the stories, she has little time for such vainglory, no need to trade tales for drinks or bask in her celebrity. Her time is instead spent on organising her next expedition, repairing or replacing her vessel and crew, arranging financiers. Then, when all is ready, she sets back out into The Nothing. The tavern chatter is ripe with speculation as to her goals: while the stories she brings back of encounters with strange beasts and bizarre sights are the main interest of the public, surely they are not her main interest? Her expeditions always bring back the carcasses of some previously unseen and unthought-of creatures, but is that their true purpose? They bring back descriptions of places unlike any that can be found in the Lowcity or the long-abandoned surface, but is that all there is to be found in The Nothing? Or is there something else that draws her ever back to that black sea, some other purpose known only to her, or perhaps the Ministry? The Lesh do love to scheme, or so the barflies say. It makes sense that they would have some secret, strange motive for why Lluwhn was never short of supplies and crews for her expeditions. Maybe she has made contact with some intelligent thing or things that live in the deeper waters, and her missions are of a diplomatic nature? Or perhaps, go the rumours, she is searching for something else, some unknown quantity, that will give the Lesh an edge?
As the shabby little collection of shacks that few even bother to call a port disappears over the horizon- or perhaps just into the darkness- Lluwhn nods to her helmsman and steps out onto the deck. The Fallen does not respond; she continues to scan the horizon, her avian eyes alert for any sign of danger, or anything else. They are fixed on the horizon with a focus that might be called admirable… or tragic. Every now and again they flicker down toward the vessel beneath her, attention briefly caught by something on the deck or in the water, but they return always to the horizon. And no higher. Because, for Talons Scratching, this is more than just a job: it is a punishment. Once, when she was barely more than a fledgeling, she and some of her friends had attempted to mount an expedition of their own: one to the surface. Only Talons made it back, the atmospheric suit she and her companions had made with materials stolen from some Umbressi workshop torn and leaking. She never said what had happened to her friends, to him. She rarely speaks at all. She did confess, though, to the Fallen Elders. And for the crime of seeing the sky, when such a privilege had not been earned, they exiled her to a place worse than the surface: the Reservoir. A place where the ceiling is so much farther above than anywhere else in the Lowcity… and made of stone, what parts of it can even be seen. A hideous, taunting mockery of the sky at which Talons Scratching had stolen a glimpse, hanging over her head for the rest of her days. Perhaps that is why Talons now spends her days as Captain Lluwhn’s Helmsman, her only constant companion on her many voyages: in the hope that her days might be cut shorter in the process.
The vessel, which has no name except the obligatory one scrawled on some document somewhere, waits until the lights of the port are out of view before changing course. It stays to this course for two days and two nights, as Talons Scratching keeps a careful eye on the charts and Lluwhn keeps a careful eye on the crew. The crew are growing more obviously nervous with every hour that trickles by, glancing up from their work every now and again to check that they were, still, all alone in the darkness. They work by a scattering of lanterns attached to the gunnels: the only source of light in all the world apart from the lamp up in the cabin by whose light they can just make out the forms of their captain and her helmsman, smudged and anonymised by the filthy glass windows. At the stern, the Umbressi pumps away at the crank; tireless, uncaring of the darkness and the terror that is slowly tightening its grip on her crewmates. Below the deck, the Skitterlings are spared the terror of the void surrounding the ship. But every now and then, more and more often, their ears pick up… something. Or perhaps nothing, an absence of sound, that drifts in over the lapping waves. Perhaps that is more unnerving. Most of the crew take turns sleeping in the hold, those who sleep at all, with the exception of the Umbressi who simply sleeps where she stands… and Lluwhn and Talons Scratching, who never emerge from the cabin at all. If they sleep, the rest of the crew do not see it.
On the dawn of the third day- as measured by the clock that rests in the cabin- something changes. It is impossible to say what: if there was light, it would have shifted; if there was a breeze, it would have picked up or died down; perhaps the lapping of waves against the vessel’s side changed in frequency somehow? Everyone onboard can feel it, even the pair safely tucked away in the cabin. But nobody can put their finger on what had caused this feeling, this sensation that all is not the same as it had been before. The crew work faster than ever, tying and untying, mopping the deck, oiling the gears on the great paddle that propels them ever further into the unknown. In the cabin, Lluwhn watches carefully as her crew go about their duties, alert for any sign that they might slip up and jeopardise their mission. She notices just a moment too late as a Grib crewman finishes oiling the mechanism on one of the lifeboat loaders, then pauses, as if hearing something, and with barely a moment’s hesitation dives over the side. The cries of the sailor’s comrades erupt even before they hit the water, the splash drowned out by the sound of thundering feet as people rush to throw lines and flotation devices overboard. In the cabin, Lluwhn and Talons Scratching are silent. Lluwhn gives her second in command a glance of disapproval; they have arrived at their destination, and ahead of schedule. Navigation in this part of The Nothing is difficult, but it is still Talons’ responsibility and she has failed in it. They will discuss this later, but for now Talons simply adopts a contrite expression on her avian face as she flips switches and readies the vessel for what comes next. After a moment, she gives Lluwhn a nod, and the captain reaches up and pulls a chain that dangles from the ceiling. A horn sounds, so low and deep that it is almost below hearing, vibrating the hull beneath their feet. Out on the deck, the sailors pause at the sound and feeling of it, stricken as they watch their comrade swim out and away from the vessel, slowly disappearing into the darkness, leaving the lifelines behind without so much as a glance. Then, as the horn sounds again, the sailors move away from the gunnels. Slowly at first, then with alacrity, heading for the hatch at the fore leading to the ship’s hold. One pauses, fetching a hood from a hook and tightly affixing it to their Umbressi comrade’s head before closing the hatch behind them. From the cabin, Talons and Lluwhn listen closely for the sounds of hatches closing below them, as the Skitterlings seal off all the portholes along the ship’s hull. All is silent for a moment, and Talons Scratching nods. Lluwhn draws in a breath, then pulls a lever by the door. Shutters come clattering down over all the cabin windows, heavy metal things that block out all light from the decklamps and the haunting view of The Nothing. The last thing Lluwhn sees is the Grib crewman, now some distance from the ship, disappearing below the softly lapping water of the Reservoir. Then nothing.
Talons shutters the lamp that hangs from the cabin’s ceiling, and in the sudden quiet and dark the pair now have no choice but to hear the things they had chosen not to, until now. A scratching sound at the back of their skulls. A soft voice just beside their ears that lacked the heat of breath. Both knew that if they had not shuttered the lantern they would now be seeing… things. Apparitions that resisted comprehension or even coherent recollection but which would have compelled them to leave their sanctuary and face whatever it was that they knew was now outside. Lluwhn gritted her teeth to the point of pain, digging her fingernails into her palms. Beside her she could hear faint grunts of discomfort as Talons Scratching plucked feathers from her chest, anything to distract from himself. A faint vibration shook their feet as, belowdecks, the rest of the crew pounded on the forward hatch, desperately trying to free themselves. The lock on the hatch holds strong, as it will until Lluwhn herself comes to unlock it. She just barely trusts herself and her helmsman to withstand the strangeness of this place; she knows better than to trust the resolve of an untested crew. Amidship, the Umbressi pumps away, slowly now, turning the paddlewheel just enough to overcome the tide. No Umbressi has yet been affected by this place in the same way that all else are. They are alone in their immunity- with the possible exception of the Golnur drones, who have never been brought here. The hood is not for her protection, as the shuttered lantern and closed doors are for the rest of the crew. It is not there to prevent her from seeing and hearing things that are not there; it is there to ensure she does not see what is truly happening on and around their vessel. The minutes creep by as Lluwhn and Talons Scratching endure the horrible false sounds, pushing all thoughts of what could be happening outside from their minds. They know the difference between the hallucinations and reality: despite all that they hear, they know that the ship is utterly silent. They can barely even hear the lapping waves, the creaking of the ship, the-
A sound. A scratching, again from behind the pair- but this time it is real. It is not the scratching of fingernails at the inside of their skulls, but of a latch turning. A rusty hinge creaking open. Lluwhn and Talons glance in one another’s direction, though they cannot see. They listen as slowly, slowly, the hatch to the ship’s lazarette opens, the chamber at the vessel’s aft that none of the crew have dared go near for the last two days. The false sounds stop. The crew’s pounding on the forward hatch stops. The Umbressi turns the crank. Lluwhn swallows saliva that has long since dried up as she hears something which she tells herself could be anything, but which she knows to be a footstep. She stares straight ahead, as if she could see straight through the metal shutters as slow, wet footsteps slap against the deck outside. One after the other, the footsteps come, horribly and impossibly regular- they stop. Silence again, a silence that not even the false sounds dare break. The footsteps return, different… somehow. Lluwhn’s fingernails dig deep and the sound of a single droplet of blood striking the floorboards sounds like a ringing bell in the quiet. She could swear that the footsteps pause, just for a second, as if the person on the deck below could possibly have heard the microscopic sound. Then they resume, and after an amount of time that feels like it should have been long enough for the person outside to have done ten laps of the ship, the hinge creaks, and the latch closes, and all is silent. The false noises resume, but they are already less than they were before, retreating like whoever it was that had sealed themself back inside the lazarette. The paddle carries the ship on, and on, slowly, until eventually the sounds have receded as much as they ever will and Lluhwn clears her throat. At the sound, Talons Scratching reaches up and unshutters the lantern, the sudden explosion of light all but blinding the pair. Wordlessly, Lluhwn reopens the shutters and pretends that she does not scan the black horizon for any sign of whatever it is for which they have come all this way. Out on the deck, she tugs the hood from her Umbressi crewman; she nods respectfully, increasing the speed of the paddle back to its previous levels without missing a beat, but something in the way she meets the Captain’s eye unsettles her. Heading forward, she pulls a key from around her neck and unlocks the hatch that withstood her crew’s pounding. They are quiet now, saying nothing but avoiding her eye as they emerge and set about their work as if nothing has happened. Then, as Lluwhn climbs the stairs back up to the cabin, she makes a mistake: she glances aft, down toward the lazarette, and sees something. Footprints, painted into the deck with the water of the Reservoir, of The Nothing. She’d known they would be there, of course, pretending otherwise would have been ridiculous. But even as she quickly averts her gaze, she can’t help but count the prints, and then she can’t help but look again. She had made no error- apart from the initial mistake of looking in the first place, or perhaps of coming on this expedition in the first place. Captain Lluwhn gazes down at the prints leading from the Lazarette to the edge of the ship, and back again. One leading to the railing. Two, back to the Lazarette. She can feel the gaze of her Fallen helmsman burning into her pale Lesh skin, the skin into which she again digs her fingernails. The water laps against the side of her ship, the mechanics of the paddle grind and spin, and she stares down at the footprints. Then, some crewman or another drops some heavy thing against the deck and spell is broken. Lluwhn glances over at Talons Scratching, who looks straight ahead out the cabin’s window, then down at her bloodied palms. Without looking up again, she shouts out to whatever crewman might hear her command, to swab the deck with all haste. Then she walks up the last few steps to the cabin and slams the door behind her. The job is only half done, but now all that remains is to go home. The rudder turns and the vessel does the same, taking a long arcing course back in the direction it had come- but without coming too close to that strange and awful part of The Nothing that had been their destination. And while the false sounds of that place had almost entirely receded- though the scars they left behind would never fade- the thought of home is more than enough to drown them out for the members of the crew. The thought of friends, of warmth, of light, and of relative safety, that can now only be felt in the Lowcity.