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Deeplie

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For now, however, he was aware of others in the crowd, still mustering the courage to raise their voices. The old woman with tattoos from three submarines along her thin arm. […] Hark could see the stories they yearned to tell, glimmering in their eyes.

When the old woman began to speak, her voice was rough, but stronger than Hark had expected. Years of diving aged the people of the Myriad before their time.

“I have dived in these waters since before the Cataclysm. I have spoken with the gods. And now it is the time for the hidden tales to be told.”

A ripple passed through the room. Everyone loved the old tales of the gods. And rumours continued to circulate, about how the old gods had in fact been brutish monsters, barely conscious, and of Hark and Selphin’s daring dive to kill a new, young god before it could emerge and destroy Lady’s Crave.

The old woman continued:

“I can tell you the tale of a monster. People now say that the gods were monsters, but truly, the greatest monsters walk among us, with a wry smile and a knack for telling stories that reshape the world.

“I was a young priest when the Cataclysm came. For centuries, we had protected the gods, and protected the people of the Myriad as best we could. Please understand, the gods were wild beasts, fickle but not cruel. Yes, they killed people, in the same way a shark will devour a sailor who falls overboard, but even sharks have a right to live. They do not kill for sport, or greed, or to gain favour with a gang of smugglers.”

She caught Hark’s eye. Something about that piercing look made him uncomfortable.

“For no reason we could discern, something was wrong with the gods, and we were losing our careful control over them. They had always been dangerous and wild, but we had managed to live in harmony with them, and for every life that was taken, hundreds more were improved by the safety they brought and the riches of god-glass and the other things we harvested from them.

“Suddenly, the gods were turning against each other. Cities were destroyed, and thousands of lives were lost. Travel between the islands of the Myriad became all but impossible. Our scholars concluded that a new god must have arisen, and disrupted the delicate balance. We sent out a fast boat from Sanctuary, with a team of senior priests, to try to gather information. Only one returned. Quest.”

She paused dramatically, and surveyed the tavern. Hark could see her tweaking her tale, holding her audience, keeping the crowd on edge.

“Yes, I knew Quest. I loved him once, in a way. But that was before I became a priest, before he became the man you have heard so many tales about. He was always clever with his words, quick to take advantage of a situation, subtly twisting it so that you could swear it was your idea . . . and your fault when things went wrong. He followed me into the priesthood, and was quickly promoted to a senior position. And when the Cataclysm started, Quest was on the team charged with protecting the gods against this new threat.

“It was a terrible time. Whatever we did seemed to go wrong. Every strategy we tried seemed to lead to further death and destruction. And when Quest returned alone, he told us that all the other gods were dead. Only the Hidden Lady remained, and she too was in mortal danger.

“Worse still, he confided in me that he suspected traitors in our midst. The failures of our strategies were not just bad luck, but the result of a conspiracy to destroy the gods we’d sworn to protect. He had even managed to identify and confront one of the traitors on his voyage, and killed him with a wind-gun in the resulting fight, but it had been too late to prevent the tragic death of the other gods.

“He convinced me that the only way to protect the Hidden Lady was to take a large bathysphere down to her, and keep watch ourselves. If we felt the new god come close, we could convince the Hidden Lady to move her heart to the end of her hair, and hide it in a deep cave so that they wouldn’t sense each other.”

The words had a ring of truth, as they washed over Hark. This was not a story Quest had ever told him. Perhaps some stories were too painful to acknowledge in words.

“It was surprisingly easy to arrange. Quest had made no secret of his feelings for me, and we pretended that we wanted some time alone together. Our world was in chaos, and nobody would begrudge us that comfort. And besides, Quest was always the Hidden Lady’s favourite, and having him down there would help to keep her calm. To make it more believable, we smuggled wine and sweetmeats down with us, and a friend lowered us down using the crane on one of the Strides.

You can guess the rest. I think Quest half-believed his own tale, that we were going down to re-kindle our relationship, but as we passed into the Undersea, I felt a terrible undercurrent of foreboding. The Hidden Lady was near, and we could feel the pulse of her heart. The fear of death was in her, and her thoughts were more lucid than I had ever seen them before. She was a starfish hidden in a crevice, and a rain of priests was falling from a boat. A monster from the world above was pursuing her with a knife, and cutting off her limbs one by one.”

We talked to her, and when her pulse came again, Quest convinced me that we could feel a second pulse echoing back, like the one he had felt in the boat. And so we convinced the Hidden Lady to play a game with us. She would hide her heart in a dark cave, and one of us would go looking for it.

We had played similar games before, because her thoughts were always clearest when her heart was as far away as possible. She liked us and trusted us, as much as any god ever could. I stayed and kept talking to her, comforting her, telling her that she would be safe, as Quest swam out to look for her heart. Time passed, but don’t ask me how long. Time passes differently in the Undersea.

And then I felt it, an overpowering wave of loss and betrayal, and the Hidden Lady began flailing wildly. And as she did so, I saw her falling apart, dying before my eyes. There was nothing I could do, but watch helplessly. Quest swam back, and we signalled that we needed to surface, but the bathysphere was caught in the Hidden Lady’s mass of hair, pulling us back down and wrecking the crane. We barely escaped with our lives.

How we made it to the shore, I never will know. But once we got there, on the worst day of my life, Quest was grinning, dancing like a man possessed. ‘We’ve won! I have won! I killed them all . . . and I did it all for you.’ "

She looked Hark dead in the eye as she finished her tale. “We tell everyone that the gods were monsters, because we cannot believe what real monsters we keep as our friends.”