On the Sea
March 24th, 2023
The cold blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea were calm today. The sun was shining and the breeze was steady, a good day for fishing all in all. Analita Rhode, with one hand on the tiller of her family fishing boat, guided the boat smoothly across the water about a kilometer off the coast. The fishing was better closer in, but coming too near the shore had become more dangerous these days. Of course, going too far offshore was just as treacherous. Analita had seen her fair share of ships sucked beneath the waves by unseen monsters without a moment’s warning and her little eight-meter sailboat would likely prove little more than an hors d’oeuvres for a ravenous sea serpent. No, one kilometer out was the safe spot. Too far for a determined coastal monster and too close for the hungering sea beasts, it was a line of sanctuary in a deadly sea.
She was just off the northeastern coast of Sicily, not far from what had once been the bustling coastal city of Milazzo. Now it was quiet, a shadow of itself in the process of being reclaimed by the hungering claws of nature. So many cities were like that now, but Analita tried not to think about it. She had spent her life, as had her family, in a relatively small fishing village further down the coast. She wasn’t sure if they were spared due to their small size or if they were simply overlooked, but she wasn’t complaining. Her younger sister, Carmen, was in the boat with her, watching the coast slowly pass them as they moved at a steady pace across the water. Their father had taken ill and couldn’t join them, but he had taught Analita and Carmen everything he knew.
“We’re moving pretty far from the village.” Carmen noted, one elbow resting on the railing as she stared at the coast.
“It’s where the best fishing is.” Analita said, nodding her head, even though she knew Carmen wasn’t watching.
“Do you think the city is empty?” She asked. Her eyes were looking towards Milazzo.
“I doubt it.” Analita said. “Most of it is, but there’s smoke coming from the castle on the hill, see?”
“Oh…ya I see it.” Carmen nodded. “I thought it was Etna at first.”
“Etna’s further west and much further away, though it’s a good day…yes I can see it from here. Besides, Etna’s smoke is different, you can see it from here, it’s-“
“Black smoke” Carmen finished the sentence for her.
“You should see it at night.” Analita said. “You can see the fires from here.”
“When have you been here at night?” Carmen pulled her eyes from the coast to glance at her sister.
“Now and then.” Analita shrugged noncommittally.
In truth, Analita loved to sneak out at night and take the boat out for a night sail. It was irresponsible, she knew. Dangerous too. What little warning she had of monster attack during the day was negated entirely at night, the black waters concealing what might lurk beneath. If the family lost the boat they might starve. They needed the fish to trade with the few farmers who remained. It was a close-knit and small community, and the loss of a fishing boat could spell disaster. The harbors were virtually empty as is.
Still she could not help herself. It felt like sailing through space, the stars and moon reflected in the inky black waters, shimmering and vanishing in the waves. She liked to pretend she was an old time explorer, ignoring her ship’s compass and navigating by starlight. Father had always told her that she had a talent for sailing, that she had a gentle hand the boat responded to, even in rough seas. While Carmen was quite gifted, and a better sailor in technical terms, she lacked this same touch Analita had and the boat was rougher to her than it was to her elder sister. In those quiet times, when Analita was alone with the boat, the moon, and the stars, she felt at peace.
Night time revealed that civilization still clung to Sicily. The castle on the hill of Milazzo was lit up at night, the fires going around the clock to some unknown purpose, perhaps simply to keep warm. There were plenty of rumors and stories on the wind. Analita’s home was well off the beaten path and thus what few travelers they received tended to have odd or contradictory stories. They told of terrible monsters roaming the lands, and of people with magical powers. The tales of monsters she believed, as if there were beasts at sea then it stood to reason there were beasts on land. Of tales of magic and wizards, she was less sure. Magic? That was quite a stretch. They spoke of people setting themselves up as kings and dictators. That one she believed strongly to be true. Sicily may have been autonomous from the rest of Italy, but that autonomy ceased to matter hardly two months after things began.
“Is it really that impressive?” Carmen asked. “From here it would just look…orange.”
“Mmm you’d have to be there, I think.” Analita said. She ended it there. She didn’t say any more about the volcano that had been active for months now, and she certainly didn’t say anything more about the things she had seen dancing in the distant flames.
Carmen was terrified of monsters, though Analita would not be so mean as to call her on that. Though Carmen was a proud girl, particularly regarding her rationality and precision, Analita could tell that she was so fixated on the coast because the alternative was looking down at the water, and Carmen was terrified of what she might see looking back.
Analita was scared as well. Any sensible person would be terrified of the one-hundred meter sea serpents lurking just below the waves, moving about unseen as they decided whether or not to make your small boat prey. She had seen them once or twice. Loaded fishing nets attracted them. They had been pulling in a net when she saw the last one, or rather part of it. It moved, a great shadow in the water that shifted in the light. Carmen hadn’t seen it, too focused on the fish to notice as the water itself seemed to change. Analita’s stomach had turned to ice, her mind frozen in fear as her hands kept moving automatically. The scale of it was what got her. There was no great fin or crest or massive eye, just a movement of colossal flesh beneath the water, a leviathan beneath them.
Their catch and boat were either too small or simply unappetizing, as nothing had happened for the next gut-wrenching hours until they were safely back in harbor. She had not said a word to Carmen, had laughed at her jokes and chatted with her as they finished, not once betraying that she knew they could be within a massive maw in seconds time if the beast so wished it. There were some things you didn’t need to share.
The sea monsters were just the start. Analita worried herself less with the land beasts, though. She’d never seen one close to their village. She had heard the last remnants of their echoing roars and occasionally found what could be an odd footprint, but not one of the villagers had ever seen one nearby. Carmen, however, slept with her door and window bolted shut, as if those little bits of iron could hold back all the hungry monsters of legend. Analita didn’t think less of her for it. Carmen was fourteen, and fear could turn anyone into a child at times.
Analita had never seen one of these monsters near the village, but she had seen something in Etna’s flames.
“Are those birds?” Carmen asked, looking towards the distant volcano. Above the scorched black earth they could see black shapes in the sky.
“No.” Analita said simply. “They’re too big to be birds.” She didn’t have to say more.
About three months ago, she had been on one of her night voyages. Sicily was still Sicily then, the monster epidemic was not yet at its peak, though one still avoided the cities. Disease and famine had reduced them to rioting. Piracy had been an issue in those days and they never dared risking sailing into those waters during the day. One night, however, under silent sail and without a light to betray her, Analita drew closer to the city. She had a pair of binoculars, and wanted to see the volcano more closely. She regretted her decision to this day.
Etna’s primary caldera had been billowing smoke and fire for two months by then, burying Catania and other nearby cities in ash and tephra. When she looked at the epicenter, at the summit of the mountain wreathed in fire and smoke, she saw something shifting amidst the flames.
At first she thought it was a trick of the light, a mirage brought on by fire. Something appeared to slither and coil in the blaze, like a great serpent moving amidst the explosion. Then she saw another, and another, a mass of coiled serpents, their skin a black armor of ash and open sores of lava, their eyes and mouths burning from within like tiny stars. A sound came rolling across the island, echoing across land and water as the mass of serpentine heads bellowed with one voice. Analita stared through the lenses, unable to pull her eyes away from the great thing, its shape a chaotic mass of fire and stone, writhing with a hundred serpentine heads as great clawed arms and limbs ripped free of the mountain’s embrace. She kept reminding herself of the mountain’s immense scale as it birthed this colossal monstrosity. More claws ripped free before the smoke of the mountain billowed and roiled around it, disturbed by the opening of great black wings that seemed to consume the sky. The roar continued, screamed from a hundred mouths with a single great intent. Freedom, anger, power, a great leveling mythic roar that sent a wind across the water.
Etna exploded in one last fierce burst of fire, its summit cracking and bursting asunder as this monstrosity pulled itself free. Black smoke ran down the mountain in a curtain as this terrible beast of fire took to the air, hidden in the plume of smoke that would soon cover more than half of Sicily.
“Think this is far enough?” Carmen asked, and Analita pulled herself back to today’s blue sky and calm water.
“I do” she nodded. “Get the nets ready and I’ll set the lines.”
Carmen set quickly to work, and Analita brought in the sails before shaking the tiller to slow them almost to the stop, only the gentle current pushing them along while they worked.
“So I read that werewolves hate silver.” Carmen said, and Analita could only stare in confusion.
“What on earth are you reading about werewolves for?”
“Well it pays to be prepared.” Carmen shrugged. “Do we have any silver bullets?”
“Of course not.” Analita scoffed. “All we have is Father’s old hunting rifle which you’re barely big enough to shoot.”
Carmen frowned. She hated it when Analita brought up her height. The elder Rhode sister was tall for her age, the younger was the opposite.
“Do you think the shots have gone bad?” Carmen asked as Rhode began untangling lines.
“They’re not milk.” Rhode scoffed. “Really you are much too worried about these things. Be worried about sensible things, like whether we’ll get enough fish.”
“We always get enough fish.” Carmen complained.
“All the more reason to be worried about it, because what will we do if we don’t.” Analita said.
“What will we do if a werewolf comes knocking?” Carmen shot back.
“Shoot it with Father’s gun and hope for the best.” Analita shrugged. “Who knows, maybe his bullets are silver.” She smiled as she could see Carmen, her back turned to her, trying to stifle her giggles even as her quivering shoulders gave it away.
Analita didn’t want her sister to worry. She knew that there was plenty of reasons to be scared these days. Not just of sea serpents or werewolves, but of the thing in the volcano. She doubted bullets of any kind of metal could kill that thing, if it could even be killed.
She remembered the old myths she had learned as a child. How in days of antiquity the ancients had believed that Zeus, King of the Gods of Mount Olympus, had defeated the most fearsome of the vengeful Gaia’s children. How he had sealed the great mountain-tossing and fire-spitting force of chaos beneath Mount Etna. How could she tell her sister, who slept with locked doors and bolted windows, that the work of the King of the Gods was undone, and a terrible unkillable thing now walked free on Earth. She couldn’t, Analita had decided, and still she hadn’t.
Carmen did her best to ignore the sea monsters by staring at the shore, and Analita chose to focus on fishing, feeding her family and the village as Typhon roamed free, choosing instead to look the other way and hope they were small enough to ignore. Fear could turn anyone into a child at times.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=23&sl=509 ))