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The seawater ran sluggishly through the streets of Surunan, the city built by the Sartan. The water rose slowly, flowed through doors and windows, eased over low rooftops. Fragments of Sartan life floated on the water’s surface—an unbroken pottery bowl, a man’s sandal, a woman’s comb, a wooden chair.
The water seeped into the room of Samah’s house used by the Sartan as a prison cell. The prison room was located on an upper floor and was, for a time, above the rising tide. But, eventually, the seawater slid under the door, flowed across the floor, crept up the room’s walls. Its touch banished magic, canceled it, nullified it. The dazzling runes, whose flesh-searing heat kept Haplo from even approaching the door, sizzled and went out. The runes that guarded the window were the only ones yet left unaffected. Their bright glow was reflected in the water below.
Prisoner of the magic, Haplo sat in enforced idleness watching the runes’ reflections in the rising seawater, watched them move and shift and dance with the water’s currents and eddies. The moment the water touched the base of the runes on the window, the moment their glow began to glimmer and fade, Haplo stood up. The water came to his knees.
The dog whined. Head and shoulders above the water, the animal was unhappy.
“This is it, boy. Time to leave.” Haplo thrust the book in which he’d been writing inside his shirt, secured it at his waist, tucked it between pants and skin.
He noticed, as he did so, that the runes tattooed on his body had almost completely faded. The seawater that was his blessing, that was allowing him to escape, was also his curse. His magical power gone, he was helpless as a newborn child, and had no mother’s comforting, protecting arms to cradle him.
Weak and powerless, unsettled in mind and in soul, he must leave this room and plunge into the vast sea whose water gave him life as it washed away his life, and it would carry him on a perilous journey.
Haplo thrust open the window, paused. The dog looked questioningly at its master. It was tempting to stay here, to stay safe in his prison. Outside, somewhere beyond these sheltering walls, the serpents waited. They would destroy him, they must destroy him; he knew the truth. Knew them for what they were—the embodiment of chaos.
This knowledge of the truth was the very reason he had to leave. He had to warn his lord. An enemy greater than any they’d yet faced—more cruel and cunning than any dragon in the Labyrinth, more powerful than the Sartan—was poised to destroy them.
“Go on,” Haplo said to the dog, and gestured.
Cheered at the prospect of finally leaving this soggy, boring place, the dog leapt gleefully out the window, splashed into the water in the street below. Haplo drew in a deep breath—an instinctive reaction, not really necessary, for the seawater was breathable as air—and jumped in after.
The Chalice was the only stable land mass in the water world of Chelestra. Built by the Sartan to more closely resemble the world they had sundered and fled, the Chalice was encased in its own protective bubble of air. The water that surrounded it gave the illusion of sky, through which Chelestra’s water-bound sun shone with a rippling brightness. The serpents had broken through the barrier and now the Chalice was flooding.
Haplo found a piece of wood, caught hold of it, used it to keep himself afloat. He paddled in the water, stared around, attempted to get his bearings, and saw, with relief, the top of Council Hall. It stood on a hill and would be the last place to be submerged by the rising tides. There, undoubtedly, the Sartan had taken refuge. He squinted in the sunlight that sparkled off the water, thought he could detect people on the roof. They would keep themselves dry, free of the magic-debilitating seawater as long as possible.
“Don’t fight it,” he advised them, though they were much too far away to hear him. “It only makes it worse, in the end.”
At least now he had some idea where he was. He propelled himself forward, heading for the tops of the city walls that he could see thrusting up out of the water. The walls divided the Sartan portion of the city from what had once been the mensch portion. And beyond that lay the shoreline of the Chalice; the shoreline and mensch landing parties and a ship to carry him to Draknor. On that tortured seamoon was moored his own dwarven submersible, altered with the magic of the runes, strengthened to carry him through Death’s Gate. His only hope of escape.
But also, on Draknor, the serpents.
“If so,” he said to the dog, who was paddling along valiantly, front paws working like a small machine, back legs not quite certain what to make of this strange swimming business but doing their best to hold up their end, “this is going to be one short trip.”
His plans were vague, couldn’t be formed until he knew where the snakes were … and how to avoid them.
He pushed forward, balanced on the wood, kicking through the water. He could have abandoned the plank and given himself to the sea, breathing it as effortlessly as air. But he detested those first few moments of terror that came with purposefully drowning oneself, the body refusing to accept the mind’s reassurance that it was only returning to the womb, to a world it had once known. He clung to the plank, kicked until his legs ached.
It occurred to him suddenly that this plank was an ominous sign. Unless he was much mistaken, it had come from one of the wooden dwarven submersibles, and it had been broken, both ends splintered.
Had the serpents become bored with this peaceful takeover of Surunan, then turned on and butchered the mensch?
“If so,” Haplo muttered, “I’ve got myself to blame for it.”
He kicked harder, faster, needing desperately to find out what was happening. But he soon tired, his muscles burned and cramped. He was swimming against the tide, against the flow of the seawater that was being channeled into the city. The loss of his magic made him feel unusually weak; he knew that from past bitter experience.
The tide carried him up against the city walls. He caught hold of a turret, climbed up the side, planning not only to rest but to reconnoiter, to try to catch a glimpse of what lay ahead on the shore. The dog attempted to stop, but the current carried it on past. Haplo leaned out at a perilous angle, caught hold of the dog by the scruff of its neck. He hauled it in—the animal’s back legs scrabbling for purchase—and heaved it up onto the balustrade with him.
From this vantage point, he had an excellent view of the harbor of Surunan, the shoreline beyond that. Haplo looked out, nodded grimly.
“We needn’t have worried, boy,” he said, smacking the dog’s wet and shaggy flank. “At least they’re safe.”
The animal grinned, shook itself.
The fleet of mensch submersibles was drawn up in a more or less orderly line in the harbor. The sun-chasers bobbed on the surface. Mensch lined the bows, pointing and shouting, leaning over the rails, jumping into the water. Numerous small boats plied back and forth between ship and shore, probably ferrying the dwarves, who could not swim. The humans and elves—far more at home in the water—were directing the work of several huge whales, pushing crudely built, heavily loaded rafts into the harbor.
Eyeing the rafts, Haplo glanced down at the wooden plank that he’d dragged up with him. That’s why they’d broken up the submersibles. The mensch were moving in.
“But … where are the serpents?” he asked the dog, who lay, panting, at his feet.
Nowhere in sight, apparently. Haplo watched as long as he could, driven by the need to escape this world and return to the Nexus and his lord, yet constrained by the equal need to reach that world alive. Patience, caution—hard lessons to learn, but the Labyrinth was an excellent teacher.
He saw no sign of serpent heads looming out of the water. Perhaps they were all under the surface, boring the holes into the foundation of the Chalice through which the seawater was pouring.
“I need to find out,” Haplo said to himself in frustration. If the snakes knew he was free and was planning to flee Chelestra, they’d stop him, if they could.
He weighed the alternatives. Taking time to talk to the mensch meant delay, risked revealing his presence to them. They’d welcome him with joy, want to hang on to him, use him. He didn’t have time to fool with the mensch. But not taking the time to find out what was going on with the serpents might mean an even greater delay—perhaps a deadly one.
He waited several moments, hoping for some sign of the snakes.
Nothing. And he couldn’t stay on this damn wall forever.
Deciding to trust to opportunity, Haplo plunged back into the water. The dog, with a wild bark, splashed in beside him.