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Against the Venom Tide

Against the Venom Tide
by Henry Szabranski

At first Osami drifted alone in the cold and the dark, the ache in her chest unbearable, the weight of the seawater above crushing the air from her lungs. But what terrified her most was the dim light far below. Growing brighter. Growing closer.

Because this was a memory as well as a dream.

The dark erupted into life. Countless glowing tentacles squirming out of the murky depths, tapered ribbons studded with suckers and venomous spines. No matter how much she struggled and kicked against them she knew there was no escape from the many-fingered hands of Ueldu. They slithered and rasped against her skin, pulled her down towards the hungry maw that waited below.

This was when she usually woke. Struggled upright. Dizzy and gasping for breath.

Her skin drenched with salt water.

* * *

Half-starved, dressed only in rags, the young woman pressed her scarred face against the glass wall of the temple, struggling to peer inside.

Osami watched from a distance, crouched below one of the huge bellows forcing air into and out of the temple. She was supposed to be checking the wheezy bellows for cracks and wear, but the cloth she used to polish the creaking apparatus lay abandoned near an amphora full of fish-oil. Instead of concentrating on her work, Osami's attention was fixed upon the disfigured woman. It was years since she had seen another storm survivor. Galipo had said they had all been driven away: sold into slavery, forced off the islands, or simply starved or gone mad -- but there she was, her storm-sister, reflected and distorted by the great salt-rimed sphere of the temple alongside the setting sun and the distant wheeling gulls.

For what seemed an age Osami could not bring herself to approach the woman, afraid she was some wishful apparition who would simply melt into the gathering sea-mist. But Osami's feet had a determination of their own. She found herself striding across the matted reed floor of the temple plaza, reaching out to touch the woman's shoulder. "Excuse me..."

The woman whirled, fast and feral.

Osami stumbled back as a knife blade thrust towards her. "I'm -- I'm not going to hurt you! Look." Without thinking, she pulled open the collar of her grease-stained tunic to reveal the scars around her throat.

The woman's eyes widened. Aquamarine and dark-lashed. Osami's attention wavered between them and the blade pointed towards her. She said, "My name is Osami."

The woman took a step back. Hesitated. "Leesha."

Osami pointed at the circular scars along Leesha's thin arm, the ones that had first drawn her attention. "How did you get such marks?"

Leesha pushed back her braided hair from her face, tucking it under a rag tied round her head. A splay of bright red tentacles embroidered the dark cloth. "I was touched. By the hands of Ueldu."

"Then you are blessed."

"Oh yes. I am blessed." She grimaced. "I feel Ueldu's love every second of every day."

As Leesha spoke, Osami noticed her blue-black stained gums for the first time and her heart sank. A venom addict. For some time, judging by the darkness of the shade. "The temple -- the priests." Osami struggled to keep the disappointment from her voice. "Maybe they can help you."

Leesha's expression was withering. "They'd sooner sacrifice me to Ueldu than look at me."

As if to vindicate her, the late-evening chimes to prayer rang out from the spires surrounding the temple. Osami gave a guilty start. She should have finished cleaning the bellows she had been assigned today, but she hadn't even begun. Now it was too late. Galipo would be furious when he found out.

A line of crimson-robed priests shuffled across the square towards the temple's oblique entrance. Osami automatically bowed her head as they passed, the way she had been taught. She didn't expect any acknowledgement -- she was unrecognizable in her greasy robes, and her spilled fish-oil stink discouraged attention -- but she looked up when the line stopped moving.

The lead priest stared at her, a frown on his leathery face. His right eye sagged, its socket riven by some old wound. Osami clutched her tunic tight, realizing her open collar still exposed her scars. She could almost hear Galipo's voice reproaching her: "Don't ever show your wounds. Don't ever reveal your past."

She flinched and drew back as the scarred priest stepped forward, but a colleague grabbed his shoulder and murmured urgently into his ear, pointing towards the temple's entrance. The priest grimaced. With a sharp parting glance, he resumed his progress towards the heavily guarded tunnel's hatch. The others shuffled after him.

Osami turned back towards Leesha, but her ragged storm-sister was gone. Taken advantage of her momentary distraction to flee back into the rat's nest of streets from which she had emerged.

Her shoulders sagged. The only other survivor she had seen in years. Apart from herself, perhaps the only one remaining in the whole of Saltris. Did she remember the storm? The hands of Ueldu? Did the same dreams haunt her?

So many questions now with no chance of an answer.

* * *

Sunset had long since faded by the time Osami stumbled back home. The circular scars covering her body itched and burned, an unfading reminder of the storm and the dwellers it stirred from the deep. Her brief excursion into the temple district's outer streets to try and find Leesha had been frustrated by the growing darkness and terrifying glimpses of open water.

The High Khresmon's private quarters were humble: a tight-woven reed hut, domed-roofed in imitation of the temple under whose shadow it nestled. Galipo stood waiting for her, leaning in the hut's doorway, tendrils of greasy whale-fat smoke drifting from the lantern he held aloft. In his other hand he clutched a shell-encrusted goblet half-full of wine. A knot of fear tightened in Osami's belly. She had hoped he would be asleep by now.

"You asked for responsibility, so I gave it to you." The strength of Galipo's voice belied his age. "Now you throw it back in my face?"

Osami hung her head. A guard or supervisor must have complained about her abandoning the bellows. Probably the hard-faced priest who had stopped on his way to the temple, the clawed-eye one who had stared at her as if she were bilge-waste. She knew she owed the High Khresmon, knew she should be grateful for all he had done for her, but all she could think of was Leesha and her dark-lashed, aquamarine eyes. She only hoped Galipo didn't know the reason she had been distracted from her job. He wouldn't understand. Not until after he had calmed down some. Probably not even then.

"The bellows need maintaining." Wine slopped from Galipo's goblet, spattering the reed floor. "D'you mean to choke all the priests on their own stale air? Or the bellows to spring a leak and sink the entire city?"

Osami knew better than to argue. Galipo's temper was up and fresh drink lay in his belly. "Of course not," she muttered. She had a sudden image of the airtight couplings between the giant bellows and the vent holes drilled into the temple breaking loose, air and then water spuming out in great jets, the whole vast structure listing and then sinking, taking much of Saltris with it. A great crystal blow to Ueldu's upturned face as He slumbered below.

"Oh, Osami." Galipo's expression suddenly softened. He stumbled inside the hut, holding the door open for her. After a pause, she followed. "The currents are unpredictable these days. People are hungry. They're sick of living on boiled barnacle stalks and gilly crabs; they're looking for someone to blame." Galipo leveled a trembling finger at her as he sat upon his cushioned, throne-like chair. "You especially should be careful."

Osami made no attempt to hide her exasperation. "It's not my fault the catch is poor."

He waved her words away. "You've heard the protesters, Sami. On every island. We've strayed too far from the old ways. It's not enough to feed Ueldu the city dregs, the slop and the night earth and the rotting carcasses of the dead. It's not enough for the people to lose themselves using the venom from His cast-off spines." Galipo slumped lower in his chair, his chin buried in his chest. "It's not enough."

She had heard the rumors too. Even around the temple and the wealthier inner districts, whispers of bloody rituals, of a desperate priesthood struggling to appease Ueldu's insatiable appetites. But it was all nonsense, bitter rumors. Or for some, wishful thinking. That the priests had the power to change matters, regardless of the means.

The High Khresmon suddenly launched himself upright, caught her in a bear-hug. They both staggered across the hut's rich serpent-patterned rugs, she half-supporting his weight. "Don't worry, Sami," he slurred. "This tide'll soon pass. Ueldu will smile up at us once more."

She endured his grip, thankful at least for his change of mood, and guided him back to his seat, covering his thin legs with a blanket. In this humble hut of his, in the shadow of the temple but not part of it, he eschewed the servants his role entitled him to. He kept only her.

Later, as he often did, he became even more garrulous with drink. He reminisced about glories past, before the storm, when Saltris had ruled the waves, floated amongst plentiful shoals of fish; the gleaming jewel of the seas. He spoke of his hopes for Osami, how she was like a daughter to him, a precious catch turned up in the wake of the storm, her beauty shining through the devastation. She nestled beside him in his cocoon of blankets, the way he liked, and she asked him, "Did you ever see Ueldu Himself? Beneath the altar pool?"

As always, Galipo paled, reached for more wine, changed the subject. "Be a good girl, Sami. Rub my sore old bones. That's it. Like that. Snuggle close, the way you used to."

Somehow the opportunity to mention Leesha never arose.

* * *

Below her, the face of Ueldu slowly rotated, hideous and divine. A thousand glowing arms twisting and dividing like the rays of a submarine sun. They grasped Osami ever tighter, drew her ever closer; all fear gone, dissolved by sweet poison. Her flesh was torn by the venom-tipped spines jutting from the tentacles that gripped her. Only deadening calm and a vague sense of loss remaining.

It was going to be all right. Soon she would be together with her mother and father, her sisters and her brothers. They were down there, waiting. They had been ever since the day of the storm.

No need to be afraid.

She was going home.

* * *

The next morning she loaded an old knapsack with a handful of hard-boiled cormorant eggs, a fold of flatbread and a skin of watered wine. Who knew how long her search would take? Galipo remained snoring on his ornately carved driftwood bed, oblivious, his dreg-stained goblet clutched to his chest as if it were some precious relic.

Osami tried to suppress her growing nervousness as she emerged into the mist-ridden dawn. She stood no chance of finding Leesha unless she ventured from her familiar haunts around the temple. Her scars itched and burned at the very thought. She would need to cross wide swathes of open water, and the prospect terrified her. Normally she did her best to keep away from the canals and the inconstant gaps between the islands, staying close to the great crystal temple at the heart of Saltris. It was where the reed island was thickest and most stable; where the ocean's undulation could hardly be felt.

She had been barely four summers old when the wrath winds blew and swept the island on which she lived beneath the sea. Memories of her scoured-away family were more wish than reality now, but the all too vivid images of the storm's aftermath remained: the floating maze of smashed timber and woven reeds that once made up her home; panic-stricken livestock floundering amongst the bodies that slowly tumbled in the water like sodden bags of grain. Worst of all, concealed below the water's dark surface, the waiting hands of Ueldu, their razor-sharp teeth and writhing tentacles ready to drag down anyone who strayed into their path.

Osami had been luckier than most. Picked out of the wreckage at random by Galipo and provided food, shelter, a chance of a new life. Thanks to his intervention, she had avoided the worst of the prejudice and mistreatment the other survivors suffered. For surely the outer islanders had brought this upon themselves? Committed some dreadful sin to stir up Ueldu wrath? Now the storm and their fate had faded from memory, it was a subject to be avoided. Just a bad dream. But she could never forget. For days after Galipo rescued her, as the priest struggled to nurse her back to gray life, she had lain feverish and full of strange dreams.

And like memories of the storm, those dark visions lingered still.

* * *

The morning sky shone like fresh-boiled shellfish as Osami passed through the central plaza. Ueldu's temple glistened beneath the rising sun. The dread pearl of Saltris, the buoyant core around which the city's countless islands orbited. The hollow sphere's true origins were lost amongst the layers of myth and history grown round it, varied as the laminar veins of cratered limpets and salt crackling that etched its uneven surface. Some said the great crystal bubble had erupted full-formed out of the fires that raged deep beneath the waves; others that it was dislodged from the jaws of a monstrous clam by even larger beasts lumbering across their seabed arena. Galipo insisted Ueldu Himself had welded seawater together to forge his godkin a vast hollow cathedral, a gift so that they might better worship Him. Osami was pretty sure no one knew -- or could ever know -- the actual truth.

She steeled herself before crossing the first rickety looking pontoon bridge that led out towards the islands she had not visited since she was a child, when she was Galipo's freshly rescued new attendant. She swallowed hard and forced herself to stumble forward with eyes half-shut, refusing to look down or to acknowledge the increasing queasiness in her stomach. If she continued on, as she planned, the islands would become smaller and less rigid, eventually nothing more than haphazard rafts loosely tied to the central mass. She consoled herself that at least she could not get lost, not for long. The temple's globe and ring of spires were visible from every point in a city of low-rise huts. Most were made of dried seaweed and reeds, the most expensive daubed and domed so that they could withstand the winter winds and not act as sails to disturb the complex configuration of the archipelago.

As well as fear, Osami fought a mounting sense of hopelessness. What chance was there of finding any single soul amongst these teeming islands after all? She had no idea which district Leesha called home, or whether she called any place home. She thought only that Leesha might still linger somewhere near the temple, for she had seemed drawn by it. But once beyond the plaza surrounding the temple, the temple district itself was a warren. Crammed with bustling fish stalls and apothecaries and suppliers serving the priesthood's needs; all types of business that a large metropolis of any kind, floating or otherwise, required to exist. Beyond the markets lay a ring of islands housing the temple's functionaries and lower order priesthood, the craftspeople and bureaucrats that made their living near the center. This was the farthest Osami had ever ventured; she knew little of what lay beyond the perimeter canal, only that Galipo held the outer areas in little regard. "The border islands swarm with venom-addled fools," he warned her. "Most hardly know whether its day or night, and care less."

A flag slapping in the breeze caught her eye. Red tentacles vibrating across black cloth. The dilapidated drinking den to which it belonged was no more than a shack leaning near the edge of the last island before the true outer zone began. The Red Kraken, a hand-painted sign read. Osami supposed the material for the den's sigil had belonged once to some entirely different and more upmarket establishment. But was it only coincidence that Leesha's hair scarf had been of a similar design?

A brawl's worth of disgruntled-looking fishermen clustered outside the Kraken, staggering and obviously drunk. Or worse. A faint bitter tang in the air. Despite the looks the men gave her, Osami approached closer. They lost interest when she began to rummage around in the mounds of garbage behind the shed. Just another starveling, searching for whatever she could find.

But soon Osami's heart jumped. Her instinct had been right. There: a form lying slumped against the woven kelp rear wall of the Kraken. Leesha, crumpled, her mouth slack, her aquamarine eyes rolled back to better regard her venom dreams.

Osami's surprise and relief were swiftly replaced by anger and disappointment. Leesha's head lolled in response to Osami calling her name. A thin loop of tar-dark spit escaped her lips. A handful of discarded venom spines littered the ground nearby, crunching apart beneath Osami's feet.

Osami cursed. Of course she had known this could happen. That she would discover Leesha collapsed in a drugged stupor. Hadn't she, in fact, relied on it? How else had she planned to ever find her? Still, she was shocked. Where was the vital young woman she had glimpsed yesterday?

Osami heaved Leesha up until she leaned against her shoulder. She was surprisingly light, her skin all parchment, her bones like tinder beneath her waste-soaked rags. Osami checked to see if anyone was looking, but the Kraken's clientele were too busy arguing amongst themselves to take any notice of another pair of ragtag drunkards staggering away from the shore.

* * *

"Do you remember the storm?"

A stirring in the shadows. Osami woke from a doze, bleary eyed. She had been more tired than she realized. "Hmm, what?"

Deep aquamarine eyes stared up at her. "It's why I take the venom. So I can forget."

"It's your business. What you do. Why you do it." Osami rubbed her face with the heel of her hand and stared around the place she found herself in. An abandoned warehouse near the temple district, an old fish market unable to sustain enough traffic during the current famine to remain open. Only rats, seagulls, and a pair of survivors of the storm who had literally stumbled inside called it home now.

"Don't pretend you don't judge me."

"I can't judge you. I hardly know you."

Leesha made a dismissive noise.

"Anyway, I don't believe you. About taking the venom to forget."

Leesha dry-swallowed, looked away, changed the subject. "I dream of them every night."

"Of what?"

"The hands. His hands."

Osami did not reply, did not mention her own dreams.

"They say once you've been touched by Ueldu you belong to him forever."

Osami said, "We all of us in Saltris belong to him." Something Galipo had once told her.

Leesha shook her head. "He wants more than us to just belong to Him." She wriggled up onto her elbows. Osami could feel the heat emanating from her sweat-slicked face. "He wants us down there." She stared down at the reed floor. Beyond it. Beneath it. "He wants us down there with Him."

Leesha was shivering. Instinctively, Osami reached out to hold her. She expected to be rebuffed, pushed back, but instead Leesha clung tight. Her thin fingers gripped Osami almost painfully. She could smell the bitter venom aftertaste on Leesha's breath; she shuddered at the memories it evoked. The urge to scratch her old wounds was almost irresistible.

For a long time they clung wordlessly to each other as the streets and canals outside the old warehouse hazed golden beneath the nooning sun.

Eventually Leesha stirred in Osami's arms. "You said you didn't believe me."


"That I take the venom to forget."

Osami hesitated. But with her storm-sister, why not the truth? "You don't take it to forget." Her voice firmed with conviction. "You take it to remember."

She shivered herself now.

The sun climbed and then the sun set. Together Osami and Leesha lay in the cool darkness, and took turns running their fingertips over each others' scars.

* * *

"It's late. Where have you been?" Galipo stood waiting inside the hut entrance, his shaved head gleaming like a fallen moon in the lantern light.

"I'm not a prisoner am I?"

Osami expected him to fall into a rage at her impertinence -- which surprised even her and which she regretted even as she spoke -- but the old priest was silent, his face a mask. He swung the door open and waited until she eventually ventured inside.

"You're smiling," he said, when her back was to him. An accusation.

Osami assumed a frowning expression and turned to confront him. "It was such a beautiful day. Clear blue sky once the mist was gone. You've always told me I should appreciate the second chance Ueldu gave me. Well, that's what I did."

"The city can be dangerous." Galipo appraised her with unblinking eyes. "It's full of hungry, desperate people. Thieves and venom addicts."

"Not my fault."

"Maybe true. But your problem if they ever discover you once escaped Ueldu's hands. They'll make sure you're returned to Him. Only I can keep you safe."

Osami's stomach clenched. She felt suddenly dizzy. "I don't feel well. I have to lie down." She stumbled away, to her own little corner of the hut.

A little later, when Galipo called for her, she stayed prone on her blanket, pretending to be asleep. He clomped into her room and pulled drunkenly at her arm, but she rolled over so her back was turned to him. Muttering and cursing to himself she heard his goblet being tossed against the wall. She lay still, mouth dry and heart hammering against the hide that covered the bamboo ribs of the floor. She concentrated on appearing inert, senseless, uninteresting. An object not a person. Eventually she heard Galipo's muttering subside, the sound of wine being poured into the retrieved goblet. A little later, snoring.

Beneath her the ocean slowly roiled, as if Saltris rested upon the chest of some sleeping leviathan. In stages, she began to relax, allowing herself to be infected by the giant's slumber. And hoping her dreams that night would be aquamarine not golden.

* * *

"We can leave Saltris. Leave Ueldu and His rotten hands behind."

Osami stared at Leesha, considering her words. Saltris was the only world Osami had ever known. Not even Saltris, really, but mostly just the temple district. She tried to control a shudder. If she were to ever leave the city, she knew she would have to cross vast swathes of open water.

"We could go to the Ustormengi archipelago." Leesha was oblivious to Osami's discomfort. In the few days she had known her, Osami had never seen her so full of enthusiasm. So alive. "Stay on one of its islands. One that doesn't float, but is anchored to bedrock. Or we could head north, to the mainland."

Osami rolled onto her back. The ruined warehouse's roof rattled above their heads as a pair of seagulls fought over some scrap. The unassuming building had become Leesha's home, as much as any place in the city was her home. "I move about a lot," she had said. "Never stay in one place too long. It's not safe." But wherever Leesha was, that's where Osami wanted to be. She didn't care about the old fish stink or their rough shelter composed of overturned trestle tables. The rats scuttling in the corners. She hadn't returned to Galipo's quarters or to her job cleaning the temple's bellows for over two days now. She hardly thought of her old life. The future, the unknown horizon, that's what filled her thoughts. Sometimes she wondered if she was caught in a dream. A new one. One she did not want to wake from.

"...We could see mountains, rivers, forests." Leesha was still in full flow. "We could start afresh, where no one knows or cares about the storm or Ueldu's hunger. Somewhere where nobody knows anything about us at all."

Perhaps that's where the other survivors had gone, Osami thought. Not driven mad or killed or starved, but living new lives in places Osami had never heard or imagined of.

Leesha rolled tight next to her. Dark braids caressed Osami's breast. "Will you come with me?"

"Yes," she found herself saying. She grasped Leesha's warm fingers. "Yes, I will go with you."

* * *

She no longer needed to breathe.

Poisoned blood pulsed thickly through her veins, richer and sweeter than any festival brandywine.

There was no pain as the spikes rasped against her skin, flayed it into ever finer slivers. There was no discomfort as her body dissolved; more flesh shed each time Ueldu's hands coiled around her, pulled her deeper, deeper, deeper.

Down into the tightening gyre.

* * *

"Look at her: it's obvious she's been touched. I knew it the first time I saw her."

It was the priest from the procession, the one with the clawed-out eye. He glared not at Osami, but at Leesha as she stirred in their shared tangle of blankets.

Osami tried to wake from the nightmare, rouse herself out of the cacophony of snarling dogs and screeching gulls. There was too much light, streaming in from huge and growing punctures in the side of the building.

Temple guards, armed with tridents and encased in chitinous armor, were pulling Leesha away. Her legs cycled, kicking out, kicking Osami, as she was lifted up.

With growing shock Osami realized this was real. She was awake.

"No!" she shouted. "Leave her alone. She's my friend!"

Galipo was there. At the back, stooping so that his High Khresmon's hat would fit under the jagged border of the ripped out opening. He stared at Osami with dead eyes. "Friend?" he called. "You have no friends. Only me."

Osami's robes tore as she struggled, exposing her scars.

The clawed-eye priest who held her leered, revealing a gap-toothed grin. "You may have got away from Ueldu once," he hissed, leaning down until his nose touched hers. "But He wants you back now."

And that's when Osami saw his blackened gums. Smelled his breath, hot and bitter. And knew there was no hope of escape.

* * *

Priests clustered around the edge of the altar pool like a ring of crimson-robed barnacles. They stared down into the water, their backs hunched as they tried to gain a better view of the depths below. This was their window into their underwater heaven. This was the only place they could glimpse the true face of Ueldu.

Leesha's sucker-marked body lay half in the water, trussed to a wooden pole spanning the width of the circular pool. Torches set in polished sconces focused their light into the water, but even their flickering beams were unable to penetrate far.

Osami searched around for some means of escape, but the curved walls of the temple rose unbroken around her. A vague light source shimmered through the mineral-veined glass, but so dilute that Osami could not tell whether it was the full day sun or the midnight moon. All these years she had been the High Khresmon's protege, this was her first time inside. Only the most senior priests, the most exalted dignitaries were allowed to enter the temple. The entrance to the underwater tunnel that snaked under the city and emerged beside the altar pool was locked and barred. The tunnel, the altar pool, and a half-dozen brass-ringed vents where the bellows forced air in and out of the globe were the only openings in the whole of the great crystal sphere. The air was thick and humid, rancid with the stink of brine and stale venom, water shimmering and dripping from the gray-green walls. Hidden from all but the most privileged eyes, severed tentacles hung on racks, dried and hardened, bristling with dark gleaming spines.

Galipo stood at the edge of the altar pool. He motioned at Leesha. "Cut her." One of the priests, face obscured by a deep cowl, stabbed out with a trident. Osami flinched as if the blow had been against her own flesh. Leesha screamed. Blood welled from the shallow wound.

Galipo leaned over the water and pronounced, "It won't be long."

Osami glanced over her shoulder. The clawed-eye priest had been standing behind her, but now he shuffled forward to get a better look at the pool, an eager look on his ruined face, the discarded venom spines that littered the sloping glass floor crackling beneath his feet. She could see no other guards, none of the armored brutes who guarded the city-side entrance to the tunnel. Perhaps they were not considered high enough status to attend this arcane ritual. Perhaps there was no need of them: she was just a weak woman, after all, and the only escape was no escape at all. Her hands or feet were not even bound. Perhaps Galipo intended to be her savior for the second time. Perhaps he intended her to return to him after this. Leesha only a brief delusion. A bad dream.

The priests gathered closer to the edge.

Osami stood and ran towards the pool. The hunched priests did not even turn. She pushed and they fell into the water with a heavy splash. Clawed-eye first. Then another one, two, three. Old men, once the water stripped the cowls from their horror-stricken faces. They floundered in the water in their heavy robes, spluttering and struggling to grasp the smooth glass edge.

Galipo wheeled towards her. His face a mask of incomprehension. "What are you doing?"

Osami did not hesitate as she pushed him into the water alongside the others. "You'll make as good a sacrifice as any of us."

Clawed hands tried to grasp at her, a whirl of crimson, as at last the others began to react. But she was young and strong and full of anger, and they were old and weak and still not entirely believing what was happening.

Osami ran from the edge of the pool, shaking off her attackers. They did not pursue her. Already some of the bedraggled priests were crawling out of the water, spluttering, coughing. The remaining priests leaned in to help them out. They knew Osami had nowhere to run.

The drilled air vents were set high on the upward curving wall. Osami had to stand on her tip-toes to reach the first one and yank hard on the lever protruding from its large brass collar. For a moment she feared it was stuck, that she truly was too weak to move it, but she jumped and dangled her entire weight on the long handle. It wrenched down, and immediately air began to hiss out, under pressure of the huge weight of the temple. The way the bellows usually worked, the collars were only ever opened in carefully choreographed fashion to allow air to be forced in and sucked out. But no one was standing by to work the huge bellows now.

Osami did not wait. She ran to the next vent, pulled it open too. Behind her she could hear the water begin to gurgle up out of the pool like a storm-driven tide.

Priests began to scream. Suddenly tentacles flashed glistening in the torchlight. The hands of Ueldu, reaching up from the depths, summoned by blood and commotion.

Osami pulled open a third vent. Wind billowed through the temple, stirred her hair so that it streamed towards the opening. Outside the temple she heard creakings and shiftings and crackings as unfamiliar weight settled upon structures never designed to support it.


Leesha's voice cut through her bloody-minded purpose. It was enough. She had done enough. She hoped it was enough.

Osami waded through the surging water towards the wooden frame to which Leesha was tied. It was already almost submerged. Priests waded past Osami, intent only on the vents, closing them. The temple shifted, water sloshed and they stumbled and fell, terror in their eyes.

"You're safe, you're safe," Osami repeated as she struggled to untie the drenched knots that bound her storm-sister's hands. Leesha said nothing. Her eyes were closed. She breathed rapidly.

"What have you done?" Galipo rose out of the water, his soaked crimson robe sagging from his body like flayed skin. "You've doomed us all, you stupid girl!"

"The temple rose from the sea." Osami burned with decades old rage as she brushed away his claw-like hands. "It's time for it to return."

A thin grey limb twined around Galipo, pulled him into the water. Surging foam closed over his mouth and drowned any reply.

* * *

Osami held Leesha tight as the water swirled around them. Above, the great globe of the temple listed and groaned; the escaping air filled with loud pops and snaps, with the priests' desperate shouts and screams.

In the depths below dark shapes twisted, glimpsed before the last torchlight sputtered out.

"Don't worry," Osami gasped. "We'll be all right."

Vaguely seen through the murk, an eager bulk rising. A leathery limb suddenly curled around Osami's foot. She felt a sharp sting. A tug downwards.

Familiar black ice roared through her veins. She was four years old again.

Her grip on Leesha grew weak. It seemed like only yesterday she had felt that delicious darkness. Been swept away by it.

For a moment Leesha's body almost tumbled away to join the slow rain of wreckage upon Ueldu's upturned face. Like everything eventually, swallowed by the ocean. Only Osami would be left, drifting alone in the cold and the dark, the air dwindling in her lungs.

Waiting for the dream to end.

...We could see mountains, rivers, forests. We could start afresh...

With a great spasm she began to kick her legs. Fueled by desperation, determination, burning acid in her veins. A chink of light above, a tear in the floor of Saltris where the temple had pulled away, huge bubbles of air churning through it.

She powered through the undertow, Leesha still gripped in her arms. Away from the dark. Together. Alive. Up, up, up.

Against the venom tide.

* * * 

Henry Szabranski was born in Birmingham, UK, and studied Astronomy & Astrophysics at Newcastle upon Tyne University, graduating with a degree in Theoretical Physics. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Kaleidotrope, Perihelion Science Fiction, Lakeside Circus and Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology, amongst other places. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and two young sons.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I'm a very visual thinker. Often stories emerge from single images. In the case of "Against the Venom Tide," I knew I wanted to write about a city floating upon the sea, but rather than a single rootless island or some villa-encrusted leviathan, the image that struck me was of reed rafts all tied together in a vast cluster -- an image probably half-remembered from some documentary featuring the Uros of Lake Titicaca. Osami's backstory and much of "Venom's" incidental detail arose as a consequence of that choice.

Actually, the above is too clinical a rationalization. I have no idea where story ideas come from. Too much cheese before bedtime, I suspect.


Matencera said...

Nice, unique idea for the reed islands. Bravo.
I felt real disgust for the priests when you described their inner sanctum and how they use the spines from their 'god'.
Sacrificing the lives of others to your god is one thing, but doing so while cannibalizing your god is another.