Whispers from the Waves
Summary: An Ottoman expedition to India is scattered by a storm, driving the survivors into uncharted waters. What they find was never intended for human eyes to behold.
The Obscure Janissary
With all options but an ignoble death left to me, I leave this account for posterity. An inglorious demise and obscurity in the face of eternity is a fate I would gladly accept to ensure the continued survival of my adoptive father and homeland. In the vaster world, my individual name is no more important than the lapping of waves upon the side of a ship. While I once cared for the glory and pride due a valorous soldier, I find my mind unceasingly wracked by lethargy born of madness.
Like a palimpsest scoured clean of prior inscriptions, I find myself similarly removed from all trappings of my prior life. I am not altogether new to such experiences, as they began well before I could remember. While my comrades nicknamed me the Greek due to my philosophical ruminations, I am most likely of Serbian or Slavic stock. I was taken by the Sultan's men at a young age (which undoubtedly was an honor for my peasant parents), and I was raised with others like myself in the corps of yeni cheri, better known to Christendom as the feared janissaries of Ottoman Turkey.
I will not bore you with the details of my upbringing in the palace and barracks, or the minutiae of the battles I partook in. Let the historians debate such matters and my possible place in them, as I am content to be one of the nameless, faceless warriors forgotten by the chroniclers of great victories and disastrous defeats. While I am familiar the din of clashing swords to the thunderous report of the abus guns, I will not detail every engagement I partook in. Suffice to say, when one is raised for the sole profession of slaughter, then it becomes an easily forgettable endeavor.
To better explain my predicament, I will disclose some of my background. I was born on land, but blooded on water. For a time, I served in the Danube River flotilla, with the 31st orta in the Second Division. My weapons of choice were my arquebus and yataghan. I have neither relatives nor descendants that I know of, which relieves me of the burdens of raising ungrateful offspring. While the petulant subjects of our Empire grow soft and decadent, they know not of the sacrifices that made their slothful lives possible. Only the brotherhood between my fellow janissaries and I enables civilization to continue, lest the barbarian hordes and foreign usurpers raze all we have built into the eon-old dust.
To these ends, I was assigned to Basrah to reinforce the Indian Ocean fleet against Portuguese depredations. The Christians had become increasingly emboldened in the Persian Gulf, necessitating reinforcement with every able-bodied sailor to replace the experienced crews we lost. I still remember our departure from Damascus, and the long march through the desert that followed. I felt the tugging of forgotten eons as we passed the ruined fortresses, fanes, and cities of lost antiquity. I wondered what secrets the sands concealed, and if it was fully wise to throw open the curtains to the terrible light of day. Some lore was not mentioned for good reason, as the author of al-Azif reportedly ripped apart by invisible beasts in the very same Damascus streets my unit paraded through.
Nevertheless, I considered myself a neophyte antiquarian. As the ruler of Istanbul, our Sultan was the rightful heir of the Caesars. We were surrounded by adversaries that traced their roots to the pagan past, from the Egyptian pharaohs to the bastard scions of Rome, which beheld us as mere upstarts. It was my duty to understand the cultural wellsprings they emerged from, as to better understand the adversary and from whence they came. Likewise, I would be particularly remiss in my own knowledge if I did not study the classical tradition which my homeland inherited. Even a sciolic understanding of our philosophical forebears and the Quran were invaluable to my profession, providing me with the means and reasons to fight, even when the day seemed lost. Such was my experience on learned matters that the Sultan would often send me to procure rare books from merchants in the Grand Bazaar to added to his own collection.
Such was the reasoning behind my alias, but not all of the janissaries I was sent to Basrah with understood the reference. Some assumed it to be a moniker of my heritage, while others assumed it referred to the duplicitous tendencies attributed to the subjugated inhabitants of the sybaritic Byzantine Empire. By the end of the march through the sweltering heat, it was my tales they listened to nevertheless. I recall them particularly liking to my recounting of Xenophon's Anabasis, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the creative license I took regarding some of my own material.
On sleepless nights around a campfire, I recall being asked about my own thoughts on recent events, and questions of how they may be recounted in a thousand years' time. I possessed no satisfactory answer, so I would dance around that question in conversations remembered and imagined. I uttered strange conversations in my sleep, but their words were lost forever in that Lethean torpor. A few of the lower-ranked soldiers started spreading rumors about me, but these were squelched by the necessities of dealing with life on the march.
Departure from Basrah
Our arrival in Basrah was not merely to repel the Portuguese incursions, as I'd initially suspected. An expeditionary force was being assembled to assist the Mughal Emperor in distant India, of whom our glorious Sultan wished an alliance. He was warring with the kaffirs of that far-off land, and our task would be to assist our fellow believers against the infidels. As a foothold in India would undoubtedly be of great strategic value against the Persians and Portuguese alike, we prepared every vessel at our disposal.
Our fleet was commanded by Seydi Ali Reis, from a flagship equipped with both sails and oars for navigation in any wind. The fourteen other vessels in the fleet included sail-rigged galleys of smaller sizes, primarily retrofitted as transports. The general quality was abyssal, but we made due with the craft we had. While the armada possessed ample firepower, we'd be relying on speed and numbers in case we encountered any Portuguese galleons. A flotilla of this size would undoubtedly draw attention, so we expeditiously prepared for departure with a mechanical efficiency. We'd learned our lessons from Modon well.
We departed under blue skies and strong winds, with the ocean a sheet of blue glass marred only by our wake. It was 1552 by the Christian calender, but I did not care about such numbers as I gazed upon the unending blue. The ocean predated the first Sultan, and it would remain long after the last. The shore vanished from site, and I prayed we would depart by the time any enemy vessels sorted out to meet us. That night, I beheld the naked stars unmarred by city-lights, and I gazed upwards with a preternatural inclination towards certain constellations. The stars seemed different from the Gulf, as though I had once gazed upon a primeval sky unseen by human eyes.
Alas, fortune was not on our side in that first week. As we rounded the Straits of Hormuz, we had an perilous encounter with three Portuguese vessels ready for war. They sortied out against us, and the sea itself was an accomplice in that parlous skirmish. The two most heavily armored vessels in our fleet unleashed broadsides against their flagship, a floating fortress of a galleon. They were quickly silenced when a caravel's own fusillade ravaged their upper decks. Their crews disappeared under the waves, never to be seen again. Considering what transpired afterwards, I believe their ends were merciful.
My own vessel was boarded after the third caravel approached our battle line from the windward side. A launch of Portuguese marines decided we were a prize worth capturing. As the grappling hooks latched onto the side like voracious lampreys, I readied my weapons and rallied my men. We greeted the first wave with a volley of arquebus fire, before drawing our swords for the second. We hacked at those lines that remained, sending the men climbing on them into the drink. During my first seaborn engagement, I felt vindicated in my selection of the yataghan's recurve blade for hacking through rope and flesh. From the shocked expressions on their faces, they were not expecting the Sultan's greatest naval infantry to so thoroughly thrash them. It is a small point of pride that my own vessel escaped with minimal damage, especially considering what happened to our flagship.
The shifting winds allowed our fleet to escape, with more than our pride battered. Our most heavily armed vessels were damaged irreparably, and we'd almost collapsed into a disordered rout as we sailed to safety. The Portuguese ships tried to pursue us, but they fell behind as we left the Gulf behind them. We had two ships sail after us as we reached Yemen, but our exchange was limited to a few spiteful shots in either direction. We continued onward, while they slunk back into their port due to unfavorable winds.
They undoubtedly had other foes to watch, while we were naught but minnows that escaped the jaws of a shark. Considering what happened to us afterwards, I am not sure how much of our escape was merciful providence and how much was divine retribution for some illicit sin of tremendous, terrible gravity. While faith brought the Crusades, the profits of the Silk Road lured the Portuguese and their ilk back to the Middle East. I knew this would not be the last time our fleet faced them in the Gulf and beyond.
Under Walls of Water
As we faced fair weather and no further hostile ships, the following weeks lulled us into natural complacency. Once more, I found myself recounting and regaling the crew with tales of ancient mariners and mythological voyages, from Odysseus to Sinbad. When I exhausted my store of maritime legends and war stories, I changed to historical tales of our nation's rise. I remembered their excitement as I recounted the fall of Constantinople to our basilica guns on May 29 in the Christian year of 1453. I recalled their shock at my story about the Vulture's head being sent back to the Sultan in a box, with a mocking note from two mercenaries that found him in Vienna. I recalled the hushed tales of Alhazred, and of the doom that came to him on a clear Damascus day.
When those were exhausted, I changed once more to what few myths I had not previously told. I told stories from the Quran, from the books of the Jews and Christians, and the traditional tales of subject people I recalled. The fall of Ubar and the Nameless City seemed to be particularly well-received. By the second week, I was on the verge of recycling or inventing new material. Haunting images that lingered from forgotten dreams provided more than sufficient inspiration for those purposes. From black basalt cities to unspeakable creatures, I vainly struggled to comprehend what I beheld.
Nevertheless, I felt as though I was being interrogated by unseen authorities that impassively judged my every action. While I followed my regimen of daily prayers to the best of my abilities on that ship, I nevertheless wondered if they were anything but the mad images of strange dreams. One night, a comrade of mine claimed I awoke and held an entire conversation with him, of which I possessed no memory of the following morning. While he was stricken by a newfound unease around me, my nocturnal inquiries were subsumed beneath more immediate considerations.
The storm came on an otherwise clear night, while I awoke to find myself wandering on deck without apparent purpose. There was an ephemeral sensation of disorientation, as though someone else borrowed my body without my permission. Simultaneously, I felt as though a terrible shadow loomed over me, observing me as a circling raptor would behold a field-mouse. I had kept my weapons ready beside my bunk, although I knew they'd be of little use against whatever maleficent force loomed over me. Much to my dismay, nature itself struck first.
The sea churned like the boiling waters of an apothecary's kettle. The salty air was now cold and biting, like some rime-fanged beast of the boreal forests. The winds lashed the masts like a slaver's whip. The bloated, fungoid moon was smothered by clouds as black as a funereal shroud. The lanterns across the fleet were blown out, forcing us to search for light candles and handheld oil-lamps for illumination. By the time the frigid rains started, the waves rose high enough to reach the deck.
I am still unsure of the exact events that transpired. All I recall is a pandemonium of shouting men, crashing waves, and cracking wood. In the flash of lightning, I saw one of the galleys taking on water, and I heard the horrible sound of two vessels crashing into each other in the darkness. There was a frantic shouting from behind us, and then a total silence. The so-called elephant storm had merely started, and we were as helpless as ants beneath the legs of a dancing pachyderm.
I shouted commands to the crew as best I could, but my own orders were barely audible above the howling winds. The poor quality of our vessels was wearing becoming apparent, as I saw another vessel go down in the pre-dawn light. The frantic minutes became hours, and adrenaline alone kept the crew struggling as hard as they did. We struggled to keep any semblance of formation, but I knew it would be a lost cause. A wave swept over the side, smashing me into the mainmast. I thought I saw the water beneath me become white in the instant before everything went black.
Much to my surprise, I awoke dry on the deck of the ship. The same wave that knocked me over had delivered our vessel, and three others, on a current that brought them clear of the storm. While I still felt the residual dampness in my robes, the sun dried up the deck of the craft. While some of the crew were swept overboard, we still had more than enough rowers and sailors to keep us afloat. I began to ask who the commanding officer was, and I learned of how dire our predicament was.
We'd lost sight of the admiral's flagship and the rest of the fleet, assuming there was still a fleet. With an alarming alacrity, baleful weather reduced our number to four vessels with barely half the crew to man each. With the other commanding officers among the missing, I became the de facto leader of the remaining squadron. A number of the men, egged on by an old sailor nicknamed Baba, declared their intention to head home. Considering the likely distance from land, we'd undoubtedly run afoul of Portuguese patrols. Thus, we had to find our bearings first.
Fortunately, a sailor brought me our former navigator's charts, which were prepared with the help of Piri Reis himself. With these in hand, I again felt as though another looked through my eyes, but this time with an insight beyond that of man. I pressed my hand at a dot within the Indian Ocean, with an inexplicable confidence that I'd located our exact position. With knowledge of currents I should not have, I pointed the way to a land that existed only in my wildest dreams.
"We sail east," I said. "Either we hit India or new lands."
The rest of the crew eagerly agreed to my decision, although those around Baba kept silent during the ordeal. I made a note to watch them over the coming weeks. While our crew was down by half, we'd at least be able to stretch out our meager provisions for longer. The gunpowder stores on two of the vessels were swamped completely, so we jettisoned all the useless cannon and ruined provisions from those vessels. If we did have the misfortune to come across a Portuguese vessel, I was honestly inclined to surrender, given the pathetic state our galleys were in. Unlike nature, human enemies would occasionally accept a surrender.
The Green Death
The following weeks were made shorter by the loss of our commanding officer. As we sailed, we did so at our own pace, without the drums of a distant war to motivate us. While I supposed we might come to India at some point, I came to reflect in the newborn freedom we had, out away from shore. My life had been an unceasing tenure of service to my father, the Sultan. As we traveled far beyond the boundaries of his dominion, we were his representatives and will. While I was tempted to slip my proverbial leash like an errant hound, my desire to keep some semblance of order amongst the remaining crew overruled my nascent autonomy.
I had scarcely been tempted in such ways on my prior service, surrounded by my fellow, faithful warriors. Out here on the sapphire-blue waters of the Indian Ocean, I was down to the two dozen or so remaining janissaries and perhaps twice as many sailors. Unlike my time in the Danube river flotilla, there was no shore we could retreat to if our craft foundered. Thus, when I had to make choices regarding keeping the vessels afloat, I nevertheless made concessions to pragmatism.
Among the first things to change was our prayer schedule. While the cardinal directions were easy enough to discern, due to the movement of heavenly bodies and our compasses, our damaged ships required constant attention. Thus, we had the crew alternating shifts, with those resting given time for prayer for the rest of us. Should Allah look upon us unfavorably for such compromises, I would easily take any responsibility for such decisions. Such is the burden of any leader, especially in times of duress. I find myself sometimes wishing for a siege or field battle, as at least the peril is known. The ocean is a far more perfidious and implacable foe, which no man may best.
Even with our careful rationing, our provisions started to run dry. As the oarsmen had their rations reduced over a week, their ability to perform when necessary was such that even the lash failed to motivate them as it once did. Despite Baba's ceaseless yammering, the crew has nevertheless have maintained higher morale than I would have expected. Favorable winds have helped our voyage, although I wonder if and when our next brush with unfavorable weather will transpire. The ocean's false tranquility conceals an every-hungry tiger's maul. Sometimes I wish I could ram a sword down its gullet.
We nevertheless came to sight land on a particularly auspicious day. I tied a sailor to the highest mizzenmast in our fleet, and he became hysterical in the moments before the rest of us beheld it. He saw fog-shrouded hills over a sea of green, a distant jungle land before us. While much of the shores were rocky and surrounded by dense reefs, we quickly espied a soft, sandy beach that seemed a promising landing site. I organized a shore party, so that we would have chance to scout around. I did not know if our foraging efforts or offers to barter would be well-received, so I ordered our men to equip their arms and armor.
In that sweltering heat, I was tempted to utterly remove my armor. The jungle was pregnant with life of all sorts, from the calls of birds to the incessant buzzing of insects. I could not shake the feeling of unease, as the thick foliage could conceal an army waiting to ambush and enslave us. I heard some men of these lands followed the Prophet, but that would not mean they'd be any friendlier to armed interlopers on their land. I know I would not be.
We came ashore in the smallest galley for several reasons. The first reason was that it was the most damaged of our fleet still above water, so its loss would not hamper the rest of our fleet. The other was that it would be best for making an expeditious retreat if need be. Its shallow draft would be best for avoiding being stuck on any reef when the tides shifted. As such, we brought it in close, with a small watch remaining aboard. Like crocodiles beneath the surface, just because we had not seen any locals did not mean they were not there.
As I waded through the surf to reach the shore, I struggled to keep my powder horn and match dry. I did not know what arms the locals possessed, but I was more than willing to provide firsthand demonstrations of Turkish armaments, should they test us. As my boots sank into the soft sand of that jungle coast, I thought I could feel small fish swimming by my legs. I wondered which of the colorful things that dwelt in those translucent littoral waters was venomous or febrile. Having survived campaigns where diseases claimed more lives than battle, I knew of how fast such a contagion could spread amongst our cramped, bedraggled fleet. Thus, I watched the dozen other men to watch where they stepped.
The instant I stepped out of the water, I savored being on solid ground. For almost two months I was used to naught but the rocking deck beneath me. The soft sand yielded slightly before my weight, but I was in no position to beg. Scurvy was beginning to set in amongst the crews, so I was tempted to immediately begin plucking the ripe-looking fruit I saw hanging from a nearby tree. One of my crew, a fellow janissary with a compound bow at half-draw, lowered his weapon and succumbed to that temptation. He bit into it and chewed, but ended up spitting it out. I had two sailors take him back to the ship, so he would join the watch while the rest of us explored.
I stepped into the jungle as though it were a portal to some fantastic realm beyond imagination. As I hacked through the brush with my sword, I heard a vivid medley of rainforest life. Animals called, insects swarmed, birds sang, and life thrived. I made a note of certain plants, deciding that some of them would be edible based upon knowledge I recalled as though from a prior life. Ignoring the example of my comrade, I bit into a pump, round sphere sweeter than an apple. The other sailors stared at me incredulously, but I kept it down with ease. I stared at the half-bitten fruit as though it were the Apple of Eden, before spinning up a yarn to tell the men about how I'd read about such things.
They cheered me on, celebrating the Greek's insight before I directed them to pluck as much fruit as they could carry. I kept a half-dozen gunners in the woods while the rest brought our bounty back to the vessel. I didn't know if or when we'd come across foot again, so we'd have to stock up when we had the chance. While I saw no signs of villages, I did come across a handful of signs of human activity. Even in these remote jungles, the touch of humanity was apparent. I did not know if we were in India or the lands beyond, or even if we could understand these locals. Nevertheless, I thought it necessary to make contact if possible.
The first of the signs was a sword of a peculiar design I'd never seen before, placed against the gnarled and rugose roots of an ancient tree. The wooden sheath was in the beginnings of rotting, but the blade beneath showed few signs of rust. The sword's grip was curved like that of an arquebus or crossbow stock, but the blade was as sinuous and almost ophidian in shape. The short sword had three such wave-like undulations in it, raising my curiosity as to the forging techniques involved. The shape suggested its usage in thrusting techniques, but I was in no mood to find out.
The second sign of human habitation was the road we found in the woods, not far from where we landed. It was undoubtedly a path trodden by human feet, as evidenced by broken pottery shards and refuse by its side. The passages of some animals was evident in the ground, but I could not determine which ones, nor how recently they had passed through. My preferred battlefield was on the water, rather than scouting enemy movements. While I feared potential enemy action in my first day there, I found myself becoming complacent.
On the fourth day, we exhausted the fruit in our immediate vicinity, so we elected to follow the road to the south. Even if we saw no humans, we'd at least broaden the range for future scouring. The decision was selected by my own whim, as well as an instinct that most of the traffic originated from that direction. We followed the path until noon, when we saw fires rise somewhere to the south. At first, I wondered if there was a cooking fire in a nearby village or some conflagration in the jungle, but the smells carried by the wind brought more ominous tidings with them. I ordered my men to make ready for battle.
True to my instincts, we were set upon shortly thereafter by an enemy host that emerged from the jungle like an army of phantoms. Given how they crashed into our position, I would not be surprised if they'd been observing us for days. They were shorter in stature than my own troops, and their brown skin and eyes were moistened by sweat. They wore daggers like the blade we found, as well as machete-like implements they hacked through both brush and bodies with. We opened fire with a volley of gunfire, but the ropes they wore around their silken robes acted as a sort of ad-hoc armor. They descended on us like a horde of screeching demons, but never quite breaking the loose skirmish line they relentlessly advanced in.
I stepped into the fray with my yataghan in hand, allowing my height and reach to strike with impunity. I shouted battle-cries in Turkish, Arabic, Serbian, Greek, and others, but only my soldiers responded to my polyglot calls. I hacked down the tallest of them, a man with a short-spear and a rattan shield. His long hair and manic grin made me think he was undoubtedly a chieftain of some sort. He went down swinging wildly, but his followers did not route. A line of women-warriors instead sprung forward from the flank with a feral celerity, brandishing blades like the wolf talons. As a result, we were driven back down the road.
When we were pushed back to the beach, I expected a volley of arrows and spears to finish us off. Instead, the enemy vanished as quickly as they appeared. I wondered if they realized we were not whom they thought they were, or if we unknowingly stumbled into someone else's war, but I did not care for the reasons. Two of the janissaries were mortally wounded, along with three of the sailors. Our whimsical excursion cost our dwindling crews in blood and manpower. With more of the oarsmen sick from some tropical illness, we were forced to leave the galley on the reef. We consolidated the remaining crew and cargo among the other three vessels, and we set the wreck alit before getting underway. I suppose it was for spite, more than anything else.
The Southron Drift
As the roiling pillar of smoke vanished over the horizon, I desired to head north. However, the weakened crew was in no position to resist the winds that sent us south instead. Our defeat demoralized the other vessels, despite the vital supplies we retrieved. Like a shoal of feeble fish, we were helpless to resist where the waters drove us.
Meanwhile, the conditions on the fleet deteriorated worse than I'd hoped. I was displeased to learn that in my absence, Baba began writing missives using parchment and writing implements he'd taken from the late captain's cabin, each a rambling litany of a plan to get us home using powers Alhazred spoke of. As the late captain was a calligrapher and amateur cartographer in his own right, it was unsurprising Baba was able to acquire that material in my absence. I tried confiscating it, but he'd cached enough to continue when I was not present.
I immediately considered executing Baba if he did not stop, but I realized something else about the precarious nature of the situation. He'd built a following among the remaining three galleys, including the handful of janissaries that remained. Attacking him would mean a civil war between us, and the utter ruination of the paltry crew left. We'd survived the Portuguese, the storm, and an irate tribe, but a threat from within would undoubtedly finish us off. As loyalties were still in flux, I had to determine whom I could trust.
That seemingly facile task was made infinitely harder by my own doubts, which resounded like cacophonous mockery in my own mind. We represented the suzerainty and sovereignty of a Sultan that could be on the other side of the world for all we knew. My prior desire for remaining a stalwart bastion of Ottoman power waned as our numbers did. I now simply desired to return home, or at the very least, to a place that would not kill us on sight.
In the absence of contact from home, I almost succumbed to Baba's bizarre messages. He claimed he'd be able to return us home, but he'd require my assistance. Only I, he said, could help him find an item that would enable such a trip. He talked with me in an oddly conciliatory, respectful tone as I could not help but stare at his jowls. I presumed his delusions were such that he thought he needed my help for something, but at this point, I was glad to have common cause in him. In the utter absence of a better plan, I played along with his tawdry rituals and inane sermons. I began to recall dreams of strange conversations, of whisperings my crewmates eagerly transcribed. My crewmates reported sometimes I'd sleepwalk and even indulge them in all manner of strange queries, but I bore no memory of these exchanges.
Both my instinct and Baba's ramblings said we'd reach land again soon, but this time would be different than the last. He spoke of a great southron continent, unpeopled by any human societies more complex than small tribes. I would have stared at him incredulously, had I not had some vague sense of déjà vu about the entirety of his narrative. We passed small islands as we continued our voyage south, but he warned us to avoid them, for they would be costly distractions we could scarcely afford. Just six months ago, I would have found myself so casually slipping out of my entire upbringing unthinkable. Desperation has an odd way of making one concur with maniacs.
Against an Ochre Palette
Despite a palpable, vivacious urge to get back on land, I failed to lose faith when a riptide took us away from the sight of land. The first vessel was caught in it without warning, and the two others were caught despite the valiant efforts of their oarsmen. Fortunately, the current took us in the general direction we desired. I thought it best that we follow the current and conserve our strength for when we needed it, an assessment which proved correct after some days of drifting.
When we saw land again, it was a low, sandy coast that simultaneously seemed familiar and frightening. The wind carried sand over an unbounded horizon of gold, and I wondered at the entirety of such an expanse. If the calculations from my own amateurish cartography was current, such a wasteland was larger than the desert we crossed between Damascus and Basrah, if not rivalling the Sahara. The delta of a low and silty river-mouth was visible, disgorging its contents into the ocean like a vomiting whale.
"Our destination is upriver, so we'll use the vessel with the shallowest draft," I said in a stentorian voice. Even Baba was quick to assent, although a few of the men offered protestations. Our provisions were once more running low, so we'd need to find new sources of food and potable water. Our crew was thankfully savvy enough to avoid drinking the briny sea water, although they stared very closely at the river. I found myself mentally searching through a list of plants and animals I'd never seen before, but immediately knew were edible or envenomed. I did not know where such thoughts came from, but I was in no position to argue or doubt based on prior experience.
Despite the zest for exploration, the galley would only fit about a dozen of us. As such, we decided to proceed with a scrounging expedition before heading further upstream. This time, the open terrain greatly aided our view of the ambient landscape, with only small hillocks breaking the land's flat profile. We nevertheless kept constant watch, for snakes, spiders, and other creatures that could easily lurk beneath our bootheels. A shot from the arquebus was more than enough to deter or slay any offending beast that came too close, but most were content to keep their distance.
The first day returned more than ample provisions, and we appointed a secondary crew to continue scrounging provisions. My own nocturnal babblings continued unabated, to the point where the other crew members sometimes suspected me to be having an intense conversation with someone. I began to read the crew's transcriptions of such things, as I became curious if these carried any deeper significance.
Much to my surprise, these matched much of what I felt I knew without learning. They included descriptions of this continent and its inhabitants, discussions of places and politics, and even philosophical debates. The nature of the questions and responses was as such that they were framed as if to educate an uniformed outsider of unfamiliar concepts. I found the conversations regarding home the most interesting, as they seemed as commentary regarding another's dwelling. As to the location, nature, or even era of the place, I was utterly bereft of answers. As I focused on more immediate concerns, I put such solipsism out of my mind.
I was asked to penetrate deeper into the continent, as we set up a basecamp where the river narrowed. The horizon was still an ochre plain, and I swore I could occasionally feel simooms like those between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The horizon and immediate landscape were an unceasing stretch of sallow sand, broken only by scrub brush and the gentle sloping of the occasional mound. Nevertheless, we pressed on, eager to see what lay within the continent.
We once came to what might have been a human village, but it was deserted by the time we arrived. There were few footprints at the base of a rocky area, and we were in no mood to risk a confrontation with a group that wanted us gone. With neither food or provisions worth stealing, we proceeded passed it along a small tributary stream I had a gut instinct about. It was from that point that the dominion of humanity ended, and that of a forgotten eon began.
Nestled between two boulders was a black basalt archway of unmistakable antiquity. It was coated lightly with a layer of saffron sands, as though recently revealed by temperamental winds. Instead of the uncouth, hand-hewn architecture that I expected to find, it was fitted together with a degree of perfection impossible for human hands. I doubted the material that comprised it was basalt stone, either, but the entrance was too large and too Cyclopean for human proportions. Like a rat wandering into the mouth of a waiting snake, I entered that chthonic realm beneath the desert.
As a sailor, I've been exposed to a certain degree of antiquarian lore, in addition to what I've learned on my own initiative. One vessel I served on in the Danube flotilla, for instance, existed in some form for almost a century, having been commissioned during the siege of Belgrade. I harbored no illusions that what I found in those lost chambers were ancient to the point of primeval obscurity.
The corridors I walked through were old when Commorium, Rome, and Atlantis were young. Beneath us were flagstones of the same materials that comprised the walls and ceiling. I could see rooms that once housed titanic banks of machinery, now reduced to mounds of rust. I saw rooms where half-remembered conversations were carried out. Each step deeper into the complex brought with it furtive quasi-whispers. Like murmurs of a forgotten past, the air eerily whistled through those black subterrene halls.
We moved like wraiths through oblivion, fearful of disturbing some unseen denizens of that tomb. The fault is not with some sailors' superstition, as I instructed them out of a fear that could only be instinctive. Something old and malignant stirred in these caverns, something not of the world I knew or believed in. Nevertheless, it was something that caused me to comport myself more in the manner of a roving brigand than a proud son of the Sultan. As I saw curvilinear characters written into the walls that I somehow recognized, I harbored no illusions I was an illicit interloper out of time.
The pall of tyrannical antiquity overlaid that ruin like a funereal shroud. I had little idea of what I was searching for, but an unknown urge like a half-forgotten memory gnawed ceaselessly at my awareness like a burrowing worm. I had a man marking our progress into the labyrinthine chambers with a chisel and pick, so that we could easily exfiltrate in haste if need be. I had two other men with arquebuses, keeping their matches ready and lit. The remainder of the men armed themselves with bows and swords, ready for whatever might spring out of the dark at them. Somewhere down those forsaken halls, the whistling continued.
I reached the terminus of my journey when I came to a room filled with oddly familiar curvilinear script. Rows of stelae occupied the central chamber, and upon each were scripts of more conventional writings. I was honestly disturbed to see recognizably human language on that primordial masonry. Among that litany of transcribed characters, I recognized letters from Latin and Greek alphabets, with Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform off in a distant corner. There were others, of which I could only surmise. Most peculiar was one in the third of seven rows, which bore Arabic writing.
Under other circumstances, I would be relieved to see the familiar language of the Prophet, peace be unto him. However, there was something unnervingly familiar about this. As I raised a lantern to examine it closer, I felt goosebumps rising on my arms. The script was one innately familiar to me, in good reason. It was my own handwriting, scrawled on some monument that predated my own existence. Questions of the immutability of history, or lack therefore of, swirled through my mind as I found myself reaching into a compartment in the curved pillar.
I withdrew a metal book, comprised of some non-rusting alloy that rattled like chainmail when its pages struck each other. The chiming hypnotized me for a second, but I found myself sliding the object into my pack for later retrieval. As my fingertips caressed the edge of a page, I found myself drowned in a deluge of memories crudely removed from my own brain.
I remembered conversing with the creatures that built this complex, in a body not of my own birth. My mind, like those of other beings from across space and time, was transferred into a conical body by some infernal power or device of its original inhabitant. My nightly risings were that alien awareness learning more of its surroundings, while my somnolent mutterings were in fact fragmented conversations I had with others in a similar predicament to my own. That was how I knew about this place, even if I could not remember how to read these pages before me.
I recalled my knowledge of flora and fauna was given to me by a naturalist from five centuries hence, Dr. Tan. My knowledge of this complex and its builders was granted to me by Professor Peaslee, a researcher in a country that will arise in the New World in a few centuries. I recalled my conversations with a philosopher of the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan. I remembered the knowledge of this land, this Australia and its geography, came from a physicist that would die in 2512 on the Christian calendar. I remembered the way in which an ancient Cimmerian chieftain recounted tales of his exploits to me. I remembered the litany of ribald blasphemies recited by an occultist of the final, human-inhabited continent of Earth. I remembered conversing with a Suffolk gentleman and a French courtier from Averoigne. I remembered a conversation about city-building with a star-headed creature from a now-frozen continent. I remembered our minders, the Great Race of Yith, and the unspeakable flying polyps that burst forth and annihilated them.
Yet the Great Race would have the last laugh upon their conquerors and captives alike. They exchanged their minds with an insectile race in Earth's far future, escaping with the same method they used to facilitate their research. In that way, they could outrun the extinction fated them. I wondered if my own contribution to eternity was to be a footnote in some inhuman library. Considering my own bibliophilia, I wondered if it was a suitably ironic fate for me.
I did not have time to react, as a scream centered me once more in the present. A sailor was lying dead as a shrill whistling echoed through the chamber, a sound reminiscent of mocking laughter. In the eerie light of our lanterns and torches, a translucent pseudopod impaled itself through the man's body. It lashed at another of us as the arquebuses thundered with a deafening discharge in those cramped warrens. The pseudopod lashed at me, but it momentarily recoiled from the spark of my own weapon.
I know not if it saw easier prey or the heat of burning powder wounded it, but I did not care to study it further. A gust of air blasted two of the men off their feet, and what was left of us sprinted out of that antediluvian archive. I am still unsure what happened in that frantic dash for sunlight, but I remember leading the retreat by virtue of my own blurred recollections of the building's layout. My men were close behind me, some having dropped their arms in the madness of that withdraw. I had faced down cavalry charges, raving fanatics, and freak storms, but I had never steeled myself for battle with trans-galactic horrors. Therefore, I take no shame in leading the eight surviving men to safety, instead of certain death. We cannot kill that which our weapons cannot touch, and that is the most fearful thing of all for a seasoned warrior.
When we emerged from that tomb, we scarcely had enough time to caught our breaths before facing another confrontation. This one was a more mundane standoff, the sort I would have welcomed under another circumstance. With our arquebuses' matches extinguished and our archers missing their equipment, we were unable to stand against them at a distance. As I observed the shadows around me, I had no doubt we were surrounded and outnumbered, like a quarry driven to a killing ground.
The men and women that surrounded us were bare chested, with dark brown skin, brown eyes, and curly black hair. Some of them had white lines on their chests and faces, circular designs painted with some dye or pigment. Each held at least two spears in hand, with some carrying four or five on their back. The stares on their faces were as fiery as the cinders from some diabolic furnace, and I smelt some somewhere off in the distance.
The oldest man amongst them, undoubtedly a tribal elder, uttered something at us that was too furious to be anything but a statement of immense displeasure. He hurled his spear into the ground, and his companions drew their own weapons back. I stood impassive, partially ready to submit to a tranquil death rather than some other grisly fate. I wondered if these were the people whose village we ransacked. In that case, they'd see us as nothing other than common thieves. I wondered if they held some additional taboo about the subterranean structure, given how quickly they arrived.
Instead of executing us in a flurry of thrown javelins, the others merely repeated the old man's curse. A young man with the chieftain's likeness retrieved his father's spear and handed it to him. He gestured to us dismissively, with a glower that would have earned him a slap in the face had I seen similar behavior in Istanbul. We were not on friendly ground, so I had no choice but to suffer whatever obscene indignities the hunting party would foist on us. To be honest, we more than deserved it.
The chieftain stepped away, refusing to turn his back to us. His followers did the same, never breaking ranks or showing any sign of weakness we could exploit. They left us as abruptly as they appeared, vanishing like a desert mirage. As I turned once more to the ship, I remembered the prior scent of smoke. What remained of our vessel was set aflame in the river, the wreck still smoldering. Cursing them quite loudly, I began the long march back to shore.
We made contact with a scouting party from the ships two days afterwards, which saved us from perishing due to a lack of provisions. In our threadbare tunics and robes, we were most assuredly worse for wear than when we departed. Our three vessels had been reduced to two, and three more of us would be denied a burial at home. While the Quran did not put much stock in funerals or the extravagant tombs of long-dead emperors, it did not feel right to leave our comrades to molder in some forgotten tunnels beneath an antipodal desert.
I returned to find Baba excited I had returned, and he eagerly inquired about the volume that I'd nearly forgotten about. I unthinkingly handed it to him, as though it would absolve me of the horrors and inexplicable things I'd witnessed underground. As much as I'd wished to purge such discoveries from my memory, I had suspicions regarding the old sailor's intentions. I saw his bulging eyes illumed as if by some otherworldly radiance as he thumbed through those metallic pages. He rubbed his hands atop them, and I noticed the webbing between his fingers seemed especially reddened and raw.
"This," he said, his fat thumb stopping midway down a puddle-like pictograph. "This is how we will arrive home."
I pressed him for more details, to which he replied with uncharacteristic frankness. He said that while we were far from civilization as we knew it, the elements alone would not allow us to return on our current stock of provisions. So, he'd be calling forth a creature that would convey us back to civilization, like a maritime beast of burden. Typically, whales and the like would be too unruly and impractical for such things, but the tome I absconded with provided the means to contact such a creature.
I worried about dark rituals, and the strictures against witchcraft and sorcery. Baba claimed while the method would bear some superficial trappings of an occult ritual, it was nevertheless quite mundane. The creature only heard certain types of sounds inaudible to humans, and that the sound would take time to propagate. Like a charmed snake, it would be drawn to our vessels, and it would follow a series of commands, issued to it as part of the original call. When I inquired how he knew such things and how to interpret the text, he simply said he was older than most. I was unsure of how to interpret such an evasive response, although my implanted memories assured me it was nothing good.
Nevertheless, I ordered the men to prepare for the summoning. I wondered if such things were like the Spear of Iblis, dark powers better left forgotten, but our current predicament could not be resolved by mundane means. I told myself all manner of comforting lies, but I knew it would not end well. With my reservations shoved aside by desperation, I took the lead on preparations.
We started by lashing the two ships together with the remaining lines. I ordered the men to assume in four lines, one on each side of the combined hulls. Standing in a formation that was loosely square-shaped, I directed them to leap, chant, and bang swords together in unison. I timed the coordinating jumping of troops on port and starboard sides while Baba uttered savage ululations I scarce though him capable of vocalizing. Whatever sounds he attempted to generate underwater, I had no idea. Perhaps it is better I did not know, as pilfering a tome from a long-dead library had already led directly to such horrors. For some reason, I could not help but think about Piri Reis' charts, and the continent at the world's bottom.
Baba set the tome down after an hour of such bizarre ceremony, and I found myself greatly relieved at its termination. I breathed a sigh of relief, as if the world itself had been raised from my shoulders like Atlas of old. Whatever sins I had wrought against nature, my faith, and all that is good in the world, I felt, paled in comparison to whatever Baba was involved with. Still, I found myself increasingly curious about the man, so I made a note to ask the crew about him. As his ritual had no apparent effect after an hour or so, the crew became restless. If they desired to throw him overboard, I would not stop them.
Throughout the second hour, the sun began to set, but Baba still stood on deck with a smarmy grin. He ignored any chores I commanded him to do with an infuriating recalcitrance, perhaps because I was so incensed. I bore no urge to explain my participation in Baba's blasphemous rituals to anyone that asked, but something wore heavy on my soul like the burden of guilt. I wondered if I had performed part of the ritual wrong, or that I had damned myself through such willful participation. Either way, I felt sullen and melancholic as the sun set over that distant continent.
I did not see the thing that crept over the side before dusk, but I heard it. It made wet, sucking footsteps like marching through mud, but it bore no terrestrial cadence I was familiar with. I turned to see it, with my hand on my sword hilt. I had little doubt this is what Baba called towards us. I thought I saw a canopy over my head, a vast and luminous thing like a midday sky. It descended upon me, and that is all I remember.
Beyond the Mirror of Oceans
All I know about the following interval passed like fleeting images out of the Tartarian blackness. I know not how much time was passed, nor how much distance vanished in our wake. I believe it was substantial, given the sensation of tropical humidity gave way to a biting chill. I laid motionless on the deck for all I know, seeing only broken images of the scenery beyond the vessel. We were on an odyssey worthy of the myths I read so prolifically, but a macabre feeling of mine suggested it would be a final one.
I thought I beheld other crew members during that fateful voyage, their faces twisted into grimaces hinting at unspeakable agonies. My attempts to move were barred from above by the vast and loathsome bulk of a translucent membrane above me. It must have so entirely enraptured me, but did not suffocate me. I could occasionally see the other vessel we were lashed to, as well as the ocean beyond it. I still remember that awful grin, forever frozen on Baba's face.
Over the port side of the ship, I saw a white, triangular shape that brought me hope at first. I thought it was the sails of a distant ship, perhaps even a Portuguese vessel back from the Orient. Instead, however, it was something I'd never seen before. Our conjoined vessels passed perilously close to it, granting me a view of it that was far closer than I felt comfortable with. It was a floating mountain of ice, jagged and gnarled like a dragon's tooth. The scraping of the hull did not bode well for the rest of the voyage, but the bearing of the twinned hulls did not change.
In the night sky above, I saw unfamiliar stars and an enigmatic, dancing ribbon of lights. I'd heard of such things in the far north, and I wondered if we'd traveled there. Given the previous bearing, I came to wonder if similar conditions existed at the far south of the world as well. The frozen ice, lights in the sky, and new constellations would have made sailing perilous, but the creature sustained us and gently guided us between those ever-shifting floes of fatal, crashing ice. I wondered if we were the first humans to ever see these waters, or event if we would be the last. Such morbidity seems natural, as it felt as though I lingered in between the worlds of life and death, just as much as waking and dreaming.
The nightmare ended in an icy cavern with an inlet barely sufficient enough for our vessels to fit through. The creature carried us through like an ox pulling a cart through a narrow pass, damaging the sides as we entered. I felt the ambient chill in the atmosphere, and I saw sunlight filtering down in a crevice from the ice above. It dashed us against a rocky shore, populated by white-bellied birds with a peculiar waddle. The creature withdrew its tendrils, and it vanished into the dark waters with less warning than its arrival.
At once, I stood up with a newfound burst of energy. I saw beyond the shore was an icy wall, with the outline of some dark, quinquangular structure inside. Despite the object behind me, I only saw red. I retrieved my arquebus and sword and approached Baba. I shouted many things I did not remember at him, but he served as the object of my ire for that entire experience. He simply continued smiling condescendingly.
"The creature brought us to its home, not ours," he said. "You ruined the summoning."
I immediately protested, but the other sailors caught wind of what was going on. Some rallied behind me. Others rallied behind Baba. Some tried to interpose themselves between us, but the savviest of them stepped out of the way as the weapons came out. What remained of our flotilla, after confronting the elements, hostile tribes, enemy fleets, and primal horrors, was now prepared to destroy itself. Baba never ceased smiling the whole time.
I will spare you the gory and needless details of that tragic culling. Suffice to say, my own actions would be unforgiveable in that madness that came over us. I shot a janissary that once saved my life in battle, and I disemboweled another I once called brother. I cut down an unarmed man that tried to get between Baba and I, and I killed Baba himself by hacking through his spine. A man I helped train with swords managed to score a good, solid hit in my side, before I showed him the proper technique firsthand. I played a fatal game of cat-and-mouse in the ruined hulls, and I came out one of the few survivors.
The four of us that were left were wounded to various degrees. Two were mortally wounded and euthanized out of mercy, while the third asked me to behead him as his infected cuts became septic. I granted him this, and now I am alone with these strange birds and my own thoughts. As my provisions wane, I fear a fate worse than starvation or dehydration awaits me.
I saw that creature again, or at least part of it. It was dragging the bodies of my fallen friends back into the drink, never to be seen again. It gibbers and pipes incessantly in the night, denying me even the respite of sleep. Perhaps it is another form of ironic justice for my fratricide, that I be denied the solace of my nightly conversations and dialogues with people of distance places and eras. Nevertheless, I will not allow myself to fade while I still have some measure of strength and lucidity.
So many unanswered questions haunt me, as I struggle to keep warm in the light of a dying fire. I will never know more of the Great Race, of the creature Baba called, the summoning method, or Baba's motives himself. I find myself sometimes looking up at the structure entombed in the ice, and wonder how archaic it truly is, or if it has any connection to the creature under the water. I will never again see my father the Sultan, nor haggle for books in the Grand Bazaar. My homeland will not know what happened to that ill-fated fleet to India. Thus, I write my memoirs with the same material Baba once wrote his screeds on, and the captain practiced his calligraphy and cartography with. Then, I will consign the documents into a watertight cask and entrust them to the sea.
After I conclude these documents, I have a final task I will undertake. I owe my fallen brothers a final bit of justice. I will arm myself once more with the arquebus and the sword, and I will confront the necrophagous creature when it emerges from the water once more. I doubt I will survive, but I owe the Sultan a warrior's death. I will find myself either in Hell or oblivion, for I know I do not deserve paradise.
[Translator's Note: The manuscript was recovered by a Royal Navy vessel in 1773 and subsequently translated into English by Miskatonic University faculty. Despite the fate of the unknown narrator, Seydi Ali Reis and six remaining galleys survived the storm to limp to India, and he and his remaining men returned to Turkey overland. He would later write a travelogue entitled, "The Mirror of Countries." Later Ottoman expeditions would secure Aceh in present-day Indonesia as a protectorate.]