"They are coming."
The dust cloud, visible leagues away, gave truth to Vel's words, but it wasn't really necessary. With the Fall of Rusellae weeks before, the arrival of the dreaded legions to Pupluna was only a matter of time. The Etruscan army simply wasn't large enough or strong enough to contain the growing power of Rome.
Of the Twelve immortal Cities, only this one was still free - and its elders had already decided that fighting would gain nothing but pain. Rumors were circulating that Romans wanted allegiance, not slaves, and the population was willing to give the southeners a chance.
Septhre exchanged a disgusted look with his wife. Like himself, Peci was appalled at the prospect of living under the thumb of an upstart empire whose only claim to glory was that they were partly Etruscan themselves. But they weren't sufficiently Rasna to be acceptable.
Peci - as head of a noble house - had the wherewithal to put together an escape plan. Not for her husband or retainers the ignominy of sliding into oblivion under the new rulers. They would, if necessary, found a new Etruscan city-state at the uninhabited edge of the world. But the truth was that neither she nor Vel Camna, her chief advisor, believed it would be necessary. They were certain that salvation lay just beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
Although his wife believed the old man's evidence without question, Septhre had had his doubts. Although every civilized person had read or heard of Plato's musings about the island empire beyond the bounds of the inner sea, none but a handful gave it any credit. Most scholars over the last century concluded that it had been invented purely to provoke thought and open minds, not to be taken seriously.
Yet here they were, gambling everything they had and the very future of a free Etruria on the slight chance that the stories might be true. Of course, once Vel had convinced his wife, there was nothing Septhre could do but comply with her wishes. But he saw no harm in making one last attempt to make her see reason. "Are you sure about this, Peci?"
"As sure as I've ever been about anything. This is what I was born to do, my love. This is my destiny." She paused, looking deep into his eyes. "And though you might not believe, as head of the house of Churchle, I have knowledge that others do not - that I have not even shared with you. Can you forgive me?"
"Of course," Septhre replied. He would have to have a long, hard talk with Vel regarding this privileged information. It was unclear whether the man was a mystic or a philosopher - possibly a little bit of both considering his preoccupation with the physical and ethereal planes - but either way, he would have to have a very convincing body of evidence if he wanted Septhre's support. The trip they were contemplating would be risky enough if the lost continent actually existed - suicide if they found only empty ocean.
But the time for that particular discussion would come in the future. Right now, their only option was to set sail for the sunset as quickly as possible, and to thank Uni that the Romans were not noted for their naval prowess.
The preparations to launch were well advanced. All that remained was to round up the stragglers on the pier, and set off. The three rows of oars worked in synchronized perfection to push them into the open sea. Two more triremes followed the flagship, a magnificent sight, and yet a sad one: to think that the fortune of a great house could amount to so little in times of strife.
There was nothing to gain in looking back. The fleet would move west, to the island of the Corsican tribes, to supply for the long journey ahead.
Septhre wondered if any of them would survive to see civilization again.
Her eyes filled with tears, Peci watched the mast disappear below the waves. The trireme had been taking on water for two days, but there had been simply no way they could transfer the crew to the other ships, which were both critically overloaded already. The family members and some of the more trusted advisors had been saved, as had some of the irreplaceable Churchle family treasures on board, but the rest had gone down with the ship. All hands, including valuable slaves and loyal Rasna would never see the dawn of the new Etruria.
"This is madness," Septhre exclaimed. "How many more lives must we lose before you will allow us to return to the coast?"
"Return is no longer an option. We are guided by the hands of our gods, the third ship was the sacrifice we had to pay for their help," Peci replied. Only the pain of losing good people had caused her to reply, Septhre knew that she loved her secrets.
"Payment? Uni does not demand blood tribute for his aid." Uni was the father of all Etruscan gods, the guiding light for the Rasna.
"Uni is no longer relevant. He is a god of the living, and most loyal Rasna are dead. Those who still live fall into three groups: traitors who have given their allegiance to Roman rule and Roman deities, prisoners in Roman dungeons and the people on these two ships. It is obvious that no god of the living would have the power to aid us."
"But then ..."
"But then we asked for help to the only gods who could be of any use, and Manus himself has answered our supplications - for a price." She looked sadly out at where the ship had been, a small patch of water marked by some floating bits of debris, and a few crew members who, being stronger swimmers than their shipmates, had prolonged their agony.
Septhre's stomach churned. Manus was the logical choice for a trip to the west. Out beyond the sunset, his realm held the souls of all the honored dead of the Etruscan race. But dealing with the lords of the undead was never something to be contemplated lightly by the living. Their values were skewed, their logic was different - it was said that to understand what they wanted, one had to be dead oneself. It was unclean.
Peci went on, "Who else would you trust to take us safely into the depths of the endless western ocean?"
Icy fingers took sudden hold of Septhre's heart. "Depths?"
"Of course. That's why you and your skeptic friends never found Atlantis. You were looking for an earthly empire - but Plato was writing about a historical one, whose power has been under the sea since a time before memory. It now exists in a place where only the chosen can go. There is nowhere nearer to Manus' domain than Atlantis."
"Are you insane? Manus is planning to drown us all."
"No Septhre, Manus has taken his price, and he will keep to his side of the bargain. He is devious, and strange, but he is a god of the Rasna, and the honor of our people comes partly from him."
He said nothing. The orders in Rasna households were given by the matriarch, not the husband. He felt the hand of fate wrapping around him, and knew that there would be no escape for him from what was coming. When one played games with the gods, one could only lose, in whichever way the god chose.
He said nothing, feeling the distance between himself and his wife in the cold look she gave him, and retreated below deck. He wondered whether Vel was privy to her thoughts, and decided that, more than privy, the man was probably responsible for them; no one else would possess the knowledge necessary.
He wondered idly where his wife spent her nights, and was unsurprised to discover that he no longer cared.
The clouds above were bruises in the dark sky, and nothing hinted that noon was only moments past. A roar echoed dully in the distance and the sailors made signs to ward off evil spirits. Septhre did not join them. He was well aware that they'd made a pact with a power much greater than any mere spirit.
A shout from the bow brought him running across the deck. After that single exclamation the lookout just stood mute, arm forward, pointing. At first, Septhre thought that the ocean simply disappeared from sight a league in front of them, even thought that they'd reached the edge of the world, but soon realized the truth. A huge whirlpool, larger than the entire city of Tarchna spread before them.
"Back!" Septhre shouted. "Turn back!"
The sailors began to relay the order, the slaves began to row in reverse, and the ship turned slowly, too slowly, to take advantage of the wind.
"Go forward," this voice, calm and commanding, cut through the gale. Vel strode confidently across the deck, seemingly unaffected by the ship's lurching. The sailors hesitated.
"No," Septhre screamed. "That's madness. Only death lies ahead. Go back!"
The sailors' pause lasted for another instant, but then sanity broke through and they frantically attempted to escape the whirlpool's tug.
Vel showed no signs of irritation. Instead, he watched the crew's effort with an indulgent smile, making no further attempt to interfere. Only when the edge of the growing vortex finally reached the trireme did he allow himself to look into Septhre's eyes with quiet triumph. "Don't worry, my lord. You'll live to see the dawn of another day." He walked to the rail and looked down into the depths of the maelstrom.
Septhre sagged. He'd heard stories of whirlpools from sailors, stories of how ships would be dragged into their depths and broken into splinters while their crews, captured by spirits of the deep, became slaves of the water people. How he'd scoffed. But now, looking at the wall of water to his right, every word rang true. The bottom of the funnel seemed leagues away. Even the second trireme, which had just now been caught by the spinning water, looked to be infinitely far above.
The crew stood in silence on the strangely calm ship. No jolt or shudder marred their passage, the only sign of their increasing speed was a strong wind, silent compared to the roar of the grey water.
Their final destination could be clearly seen. A shining, almost metallic surface was rising to meet them as they descended. It looked completely unlike any seafloor Septhre had ever encountered - it seemed almost mirror-like. And it was approaching quickly.
The ship shuddered as it came into contact with the surface but, instead of breaking apart, the prow pierced it and broke through. Suddenly, they were falling much faster than before, no longer supported by the wall of churning water.
The fall was short. An instant after Septhre saw the shimmering false seabed flicker past, the trireme landed with a shudder that threw him off his feet. He was fortunate not to hit anything.
He took a deep breath, and then stopped himself, near panic. He shouldn't be breathing underwater, he would drown. But when he instinctively took another breath despite his own admonition, no water filled his lungs. He was breathing as normally as he did on land. How could that be?
A groan diverted his attention, and he filed the question away for future contemplation. The lookout who'd initially spotted the whirlpool was lying nearby in a pool of blood. A broken spar protruded from his abdomen, slick and red, and he tugged at it with fingers that grew weaker and weaker before they were finally still.
The ship itself would never be seaworthy again. Leaning over the side, Septhre saw that they had landed on what seemed to be a grassy knoll under a strange sky. The turf below had sunk under the impact, but it was clear that the lowest deck - where the least important slaves rowed, had been crushed. It was unlikely that anyone in there had survived. The second and third rowing galleries seemed intact, and everything above that was in remarkably good condition. He moved back toward the ladders that led into the living quarters to investigate.
A loud crash stopped him in his tracks. The second trireme had just come down, ninety or a hundred paces away. The scene was one of devastation, as it had landed prow-first and splintered like a dropped egg. He could hear the screams even at that distance, but again decided that further investigation would have to wait.
Below deck, chaos ruled. Cabins had been bent into strange shapes, and everything not tied down securely - and many items that had been - had flown about during the impact, striking structures and people with impartiality.
Septhre found Peci in the dark remains of their own modest chamber, nursing a bruised wrist and a faraway look, but otherwise unhurt. "Where are we?" she whispered when she recognized his face.
He hesitated. There was only one possible answer, but it was so completely fantastic that he was afraid to voice it out loud, especially since he wasn't certain whether he wanted it to be true or not. "I think you should see for yourself."
They pushed past a crowd of dazed crew attempting to climb onto the deck and into the strange light. As they reached the top rung, smoke and screams began to filter out behind them. Some of the torch oil must have ignited in the impact.
But Septhre and Peci had more important things to consider. Just ahead of the ruined ship, a group of strange people, tall, thin and pale, had gathered and seemed to be waiting for someone to acknowledge them. They looked normal, save for a nearly imperceptible scar or slit of some sort on their necks beneath their ears.
Vel, who seemed to have survived the fall unscathed, rushed up to them, excited and flushed. "Peci, we have done it, we are here!"
She took his hands. "Are you certain? How can it be? Are we breathing the water, then? Have we drowned?"
"I don't think so. It is a mystery."
"A mystery..." she whispered.
"Yes! This is why we came. To find mysteries and to find the answers to them. We are here, Peci. This is Atlantis."
"But where is the glorious golden city?"
Septhre worried for Peci. It wasn't like her to be so vague. Perhaps she'd suffered a blow to the head in the landing. Perhaps she was injured, somewhere it was impossible to see.
Vel seemed not to notice - or not to care. He waved a dismissive hand. "Probably over the next rise," he replied. "After all, we can only see this hill."
"And what about those people?"
Vel nearly choked. "I hadn't seen them." He waved frantically, and called out in Etruscan. He looked around until he saw a rope ladder coiled on the deck, threw it overboard and, pausing only long enough to make certain that Septhre and Peci were right behind him, began to make his way down.
As the Etruscans made their way up the hill, the locals waited. The stood their ground, swaying slightly like willows in some invisible breeze until the Rasna were mere paces away, then the foremost made a slight gesture with one hand - and Septhre's little group immediately found themselves surrounded by a ring of polished metal spears.
Vel bowed. "We've come to ask you for guidance and help," he said. Septhre nearly snorted in irritation. Why would a people who lived under the sea, thousands of leagues from Etruria, speak Rasna? Did Vel truly believe that Etruscan was the language of the gods, that all enlightened peoples must speak it? Perhaps at the height of the power of the Twelve Cities, all Rasna believed it, but that was before the Romans burned through the Etruscan armies like dry kindling.
The leader of the locals, resplendescent in shimmering golden robes, studied them for a moment. When he spoke, his tone was deep and rich, somehow seeming too resonant. "Welcome to Atlantis," the man said in archaic but understandable Greek. "Before we put you to death, I would like you to explain how you breached our defenses. This is only the second time since we withdrew from the surface world that it has happened, and I am curious."
The three Etruscan nobles, taught Greek at the knee of their teachers since an early age, stood mute.
"Do you understand me?"
Seeing no reaction from his companions, Septhre stepped forward. His Greek was rusty from lack of use, but it would probably serve better than silence. "Yes, we understand. We are civilized people, Etruscans, and we have come here to learn from you."
"You invade our privacy and expect to be welcomed?" The man's tone was imperious, his indignation real.
"We come as friends. We know about you, and admire you for who you are. We beg forgiveness if our presence here disturbs you." Septhre hoped that Vel would come out of his cocoon soon, because the man's knowledge of Atlantis would be needed. Septhre himself knew almost nothing about the sunken city, its history or its inhabitants - most of the people he knew were aware of the legends, but most of them considered them to be Plato's most transparent joke.
The man looked down at the three Etruscans. "I shall decide whether forgiveness is possible once you have told me your stories. Come with me."
The man turned abruptly and strode toward the top of the hill. Septhre and his companions were forced to follow at spear point, not allowed to come too close, but not permitted to lag. Septhre spoke again. "What about our people? Some are injured. Can't you help them?"
"I see no reason to aid a group of invaders that has shown me no proof of friendship. But I give you my promise that as long as they do not try to come closer to our city, they shall remain injured - as opposed to dead."
"Charming fellow," Septhre muttered under his breath in Rasna, and saw Peci stiffen beside him. Well, if she wanted diplomacy, she should get herself together and speak up. After all, it was her fearless leadership that had gotten them into this mess - well, hers and Vel's - and she should be shouldering the burden of this conversation, not him.
Then they crested the rise, and all thoughts of responsibility flew from Septhre's head.
On the plain below them, a city unlike any he'd ever seen spread out into the distance. White stone - could it truly all be marble? - seemed to reflect back from every surface. A colossal circular building that seemed to be an amphitheater, but built on a much larger scale than any Septhre had ever seen before, dominated the a great plaza. Around it, domes and towers seemed to stretch to reach the heavens.
Septhre looked up, following the spires, and almost lost his footing from the shock. Where the sky should have been was simply a green dome, and his stomach turned at the realization that the entire ocean was suspended above their heads. The light didn't come from above, rather from the stone itself, and the tops of the towers were tinged with green from the reflected water.
The sight of the city and its fantastic sky was breathtaking, and the three Etruscans walked in stunned silence as they descended the hill and moved among the buildings. The view from ground level was even more impressive. Every building seemed to tower above them, seemingly too tall to stay upright, eternally on the verge of collapse. The streets teemed with people, all intent on going about their business, all wearing shimmering clothes of strange designs, all with those strange slits on their necks. Strange ethereal bubbles floated in the air, and glowing columns stretched up into the air.
Septhre could not comprehend how such a city could exist, and wanted to ask about everything around them. What technology, what magic, supported the buildings? What were the floating bubbles?
But Peci, recovering, beat him to it. "Why doesn't the sea come down on us? What's holding it up?"
The man in the golden robes turned to her. "I am glad to see that your society is enlightened to the point where others can talk, not only the leader. I know that many of the surface people do not allow this. Especially among the women."
She pulled herself up to her full height. "I lead this expedition."
"Ah. And do you have a name?"
"I am Peci of house Churchle. This is my consort Septhre, and our advisor, Vel Camna."
"I know not of this house but, as you speak our language passably, I will honor you with my name. I am Stellen." He glanced upward. "And to answer your question, the water is held at bay by the pressure within the bubble."
"Yes. The giant air bubble around us keeps us dry. We've found it much more convenient to live in air than under the water, so Wessina the goddess of the sea, has kindly created our bubble."
Peci looked sick and changed the subject. "Where are you taking us?"
"The small council is in session. I was called away to investigate the reports of intruders, and they anxiously await my return. We will decide what to do with you then."
"You said we would be put to death."
"That will be my recommendation, yes. But there are mitigating circumstances. You speak the language, and you attempted to apologize. Perhaps you three will be allowed to live. To study us and be studied in your turn."
"That is of no use to us. We need your help, and to return to Etruria."
Steller did not reply and walked ahead. They were passing the enormous building Septhre had seen from afar. It looked to be perfectly circular, and had layer upon layer of arched stories stacked one on top of the other to make it the largest man-made structure that Septhre had ever seen. It should never have been able to survive under its own weight. "What is that?"
"That? Nothing of consequence. It is an arena, where we hold sporting events. The important buildings are just beyond it."
To Septhre's eye, the buildings beyond were nowhere near as imposing as the arena. Yes, they had an endless marble colonnade, and columns themselves were two paces wide, but the sheer mass of the sports complex behind them was astounding.
They were ushered through a towering arch, down an echoing corridor and into a chamber that was probably designed to intimidate visiting dignitaries - although which dignitary would be visiting a city under leagues of ocean was impossible for Septhre to imagine.
Seated in a loose semicircle inside the chamber were six Atlanteans that could have been Steller's brothers and sisters. All were thin and tall, with pale skin and dark hair. All had the thin slits on their necks beneath their ears that seemed to characterize everyone in the city. Steller took his place on the empty seventh seat.
Vel surprised Septhre as soon as they entered. "Leave this to me," he whispered in Rasna, and took a step forward. Not waiting for permission from the council, he launched into his speech. "People of Atlantis, the greatness of your past deeds has been heard by all and admired by all. We are delighted to learn that the legends - no, the myths - that our forefathers have transmitted to us are true. And assuredly, the magnificence of your city goes beyond anything we could have imagined."
The council members looked unimpressed. "Tidings have reached us of our fame on the surface. It seems that those you refer to as 'forefathers' are composed of one Greek philosopher who found some clues and made a lucky guess. And from what we've been told, everyone with even an inkling of education laughs at the idea of a city to the west."
"I do not know who has spoken that way of you, but do we look like we're laughing?"
"No. You look desperate."
Vel hung his head, a theatrical gesture that Septhre had seen him make countless times. "That we are. Your powers of perception are great indeed. We are here as supplicants, to beg your help, to keep a great, educated, enlightened civilization from falling under the dominion of petty, jealous brigands. Surely you, the keepers of the flame of eternal knowledge will find it in your hearts to answer such a plea."
"And these brigands, what are they called?"
"They call themselves Romans."
"We are the Rasna, true rulers of Etruria and the Italian peninsula."
"We remember the peninsula, from out time on the surface. Goat herders you were, not a single town bigger than ten huts."
"We have come a long way, following your lead."
One of the council members, a woman slightly older than the rest, chuckled drily. "You forgot our lead the moment you were free of our reign. And you only grew because the land was fertile, and now you have stagnated. That is why the Romans are conquering you."
"But with your wisdom, your technology, your aid, we can fight back. We can seal the enemy inside Rome, make them kneel to the Twelve Cities."
"I don't think that will be possible."
"But why?" Peci took a step forward and stood shoulder to shoulder with Vel. Her voice was that of a petulant child used to getting its way suddenly thwarted. "It would cost you nothing to let Vel study your secrets. Nothing at all. We are an old civilization. We are worthy!"
"Only we decide who is worthy. And we have already chosen."
"Who have you chosen?"
"Are you truly so blind that you can't see the obvious? We have chosen a young, vigorous race, and have given them the secrets to overthrow the older, dying breeds around them."
"You can't mean..." Peci was unable to finish the sentence. Horror veiled her features. Vel put an arm around her.
"Yes. I'm sure the newfound power of the Romans was quite a surprise to their neighbors, as it will be to all who encounter them." The woman made an almost imperceptible gesture and two guards led Vel and Peci out of the room, leaving Septhre to face the council alone. "And you," she asked him. "Have you no honeyed words to bandy about?"
"No, venerable one. I am simply honored to have been allowed to see your city."
"That is good. Unlike your companions, you will not be executed."
"Thank you." Septhre was surprised by the fact that Peci's death meant nothing to him. He knew that he'd lost her on the voyage - and had probably lost her without knowing it well before they set out.
The woman smiled sadly. "Do not thank us. There is much you don't know about our city. It is not always covered in air. Every two turns of the moon, the bubble disappears, and the city is reclaimed by the ocean until the bubble is replaced by another, filled with fresh, clean air. This is how our goddess keeps us alive." She pointed at the slit below her ear. "We can breathe in the water, but I am almost certain you cannot."
"How long do I have?"
"It is enough," Septhre said. He would use those few days to see things that few men had seen before. He would begin by walking out to the arena, that circular colossus of marble and brick and arches. He would get permission to go inside, to imagine the stands filled with spectators. He could die happy in the knowledge that no matter how much earthly power Rome accumulated, they would never see its like.
He smiled. "It is enough."
x x x
A nice mix of historic fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy from our Argentinian friend. Our ezine seems to attract lots of visitors from far-flung climes. When the tales they spin are this good, they are more than welcome. Say hi to Gustavo on our BBS. -GM