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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Winter Tide

The Innsmouth Legacy (Volume 1)

Ruthanna Emrys

Tor.com

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CHAPTER 1


September 1948

I shut the door of the old Victorian behind me, and the stuffy atmosphere closed in: overheated, dry, and redolent of mothballs. Remnants of cool mist clung to my skin, already transmuting to sweat. A whiff of old paper cut through the miasma. I focused on that familiar, beloved scent, and steadied myself.

Charlie, clearly untroubled by the warmth, took off his fedora and looked around the estate sale with a practiced eye. Choice artifacts adorned a table in the foyer—an antique globe and a few Egyptian-looking statues of uncertain vintage. The newly dead patriarch had been not only well off, but a professor emeritus of ancient history at the university. That combination was sufficient to draw us both away from the bookstore on a busy Saturday morning.

A woman approached us, frowning. She wore a floral dress and pearl necklace, but the black veil pinned over her curls marked her as part of the family hosting the sale. A daughter, perhaps? I was never good at estimating ages. Her eyebrows drew together as her gaze lingered on me. I smoothed my plain gray skirt—the color of storms and of mourning—then forced my hands still. She might not like the shape of my face or the pallor of my skin, but I wouldn’t give her any reason to complain about my composure. In the privacy of my chest, my heart beat faster. I tried to reason with it: beyond my chosen family, almost no one in San Francisco could know how to interpret my bulging eyes, thick neck, and receding hairline. She’d see an ugly woman, nothing more—the disquieted frown would likely be her worst reaction.

Charlie frowned fiercely back at her. Silence lingered while she twisted her strand of pearls between ringed fingers. At last he said: “I’m Charlie Day, and this is my assistant, Miss Aphra Marsh. We’re here to look at the books.”

“Oh!” She startled back to some semblance of her script. “Yes. Father was quite a collector. It’s mostly old academic junk. I don’t know that you’ll find anything interesting, but you’re certainly welcome to look. All the books and magazines are downstairs.” She jerked her head at the hall beyond the foyer.

Charlie led the way. The wooden stairs, hollow under our feet, shook with our steps. I held out an arm to help Charlie down, but he waved it off.

“Cheer up,” I murmured. “If she’s dismissing them as junk, she’ll likely sell cheap.”

“If she’s kept them in a damp basement, they will be junk.” He gripped the rail and descended, leaning a little to favor his right knee. I stared at his back, wondering how he could expect any part of this house to be damp.

The basement was not only dry, but hotter than the entry hall. A few books had been laid out on shelves; others remained piled in boxes and crates.

Charlie huffed. “Go ahead, Miss Marsh.”

Embarrassed, I picked up the nearest book—a thirty-year-old encyclopedia, Cartography to Curie, Pierre—and inhaled deeply. My pulse slowed. Over two years now since I’d gained my freedom, and above all else it was the scent and touch of printed paper that assured me of safety.

He laughed. “Let’s get to work. And hope she’s too busy sucking lemons to bother us before we’re ready to haggle.”

I immersed myself happily in the crates, laying aside promising volumes for Charlie’s approval while he started on the shelf. His store had no particular specialty, serving discerning antiquarians alongside anyone willing to pay three cents for a dime novel. The dead professor, I discovered, had maintained an unacademic taste for gothic bodice-rippers, and I amassed a stack of the most promising before moving on to the second box.

Here I found more predictable material. Most were histories and travelogues mere decades old. There were a few fraying works dating back to the 1600s—in languages I couldn’t read, but I set them aside anyway. Then, beneath a reprinted colonial cookbook, I found something unexpected, but very much desired.

I probed the clothbound cover with long fingers, confirming that the volume would stand up to handling. I trailed them over the angular letters embossed on the spine, laid the book—perhaps two hundred years old, and clearly a copy of something much older—on the floor, and opened it. My Latin was far from fluent, but I could make out enough.

“Mr. Day, take a look at this.” I set the book on the table where he could examine it without squatting.

“Something for the back room?” he asked hopefully.

“I think so. But your Latin is better than mine.”

De Anima Pluvia. The soul of the rain.” He turned the pages slowly, touching only the edges. “It looks like the author, at least, thought it belonged in our back room. We’ve had no luck trying…” He glanced at the stairs, confirmed them empty, lowered his voice anyway: “… to affect the weather, with everything we already have. Do you think this’ll be any better?”

“I’ve seen it before. That was an older copy, and translated, but from what I can make out this is the real text, not a fake with the same title. It’s supposed to be one of the best works on the subject.”

He nodded, accepting my judgment. And didn’t ask where I’d seen it.

For two years now, Charlie had granted me access to his private collection in exchange for my tutelage in its use. And for two years, he’d never asked where I got my first training in the occult, how it had ended, or why a pale, ugly woman with bulging eyes lived in Japantown with a family clearly not her own. I’d never offered to tell him.

After two years, I willingly called Charlie a friend. But I told him nothing of my life before I walked into his store, and he told me nothing of his. We shared the secrets we’d created together, and respected each other’s privacy for the rest. I didn’t even know whether he kept his own counsel out of pain or shame—or both, as I did.

But I did know that I couldn’t keep my own secrets forever—not if he kept studying magic at my side.

De Anima Pluvia, if we were able to make use of it, would allow a ritual that I’d long missed—and that, done right, would surely require me to reveal my nature. I tried to imagine his reaction. I didn’t think he would flee; he valued what I had to offer too much. But I feared his disgust. I would still trade my knowledge for his books, even without the camaraderie. I valued them too much to stop. But it would be a harder bargain, and I could taste the sting of it already.

The people of the water have always hidden, or tried—and suffered when we failed.

* * *

Spring 1942, or possibly 1943: My brother Caleb sits on the edge of Silas Bowen’s cot, while I keep watch by the cabin door. The older man thrashes and moans, but stills as Caleb tilts a bowl of water between his thin, protuberant lips. The water is alkaline and without salt, but seems to help. It’s been years since the camp guards allowed salt at our tables—with only the three of us left it’s a wonder Caleb was able to sneak water out of the cafeteria at all. It’s a wonder, in fact, that no one has checked Silas’s cabin since he stopped coming to meals over a week ago. The guards are distracted. We speculate, knowing the reason can’t be good.

Motors growl through the still desert air. Truck engines, unmuffled, and many of them—more than I’ve heard since they brought the last of Innsmouth’s straggling refugees to the camp fourteen years ago. Or perhaps thirteen years; denied a scrap of paper or coal to mark the walls, Caleb and I disagree on how long it’s been. My breath catches when I think of what this new incursion might bring. The sharp inhalation turns into a sharper cough, hacking that tears at my lungs until I double over in pain. Caleb stares, and his free hand clenches the ragged mattress.

Silas pats the bowl clumsily. “Aphra, child, drink.” Membranes spread between his fingers, but even this new growth is chapped and flaking.

“You need it,” I manage between coughs.

“What?” he rasps. “So I can die slowly enough for them to notice and kill me more painfully? Drink.”

Caleb brings me the bowl, and I haven’t the strength to refuse it.

* * *

Usually at estate sales, we were lucky to find even one book for the back room. So when Charlie called me over a few minutes later, it was a shock to hear him sounding out Enochian with his finger hovering above brittle, yellowed paper.

He broke off as I came near. “Good—maybe you can make this out better than I can. Damn thing’s too faded to read all the words, not that I know most of them.”

Dread warred with yearning as I approached the journal. In the years since the 1928 raid, a stolen diary could have made it from Innsmouth to San Francisco. If so, this would be the first trace of our old libraries that we’d managed to retrieve.

But as I examined it, I realized that we’d found something far stranger—if anything at all. I blinked with difficulty and swallowed, surprise making it easier to ignore the dry air.

“What is it?”

“I’m … not sure,” I said. “Or rather, I’m not sure it’s real. If it is what it appears … it purports to be the notes of a visiting Yith.”

“Borrowing a human body?” Charlie sounded doubtful, and I didn’t blame him.

“That’s usually the kind they wear, during humanity’s span on Earth. But when they end the exchange of bodies and cast their minds back to their own time, they try to destroy this kind of record.”

I’d told Charlie about the Yith, as I’d told him about all Earth’s species whose civilizations and extinctions they traversed aeons to document. For me it was vital knowledge—at my lowest, I found comfort remembering that humanity’s follies marked only a brief epoch in our world’s history. But for Charlie I suspected that those species, and the preservation of their memories in the Great Archive, might still be a half-mythical abstraction: something he tried to believe because I did and because it served as foundation to the magic that he so deeply desired. He’d never said otherwise, and I’d never been certain how to handle his unstated doubt.

“And one of them just happened to leave this journal behind?” He pursed his lips against the unsatisfying explanation.

“It seems unlikely,” I agreed, still trying to make out more of the text. If nothing else, the manuscript was the oldest thing we’d found that day. “I suspect it’s a hoax, albeit well-informed. Or the author could have fallen into delusion, or intended it as fiction from the start. It’s hard to tell.” The fact that I recognized most of the vocabulary, alone, suggested an entirely human origin.

“Should we buy it?” His eyes drifted back to the page. I suspected that he, like me, was reluctant to abandon anything in one of the old tongues.

“It’s beautiful. As long as we don’t expect to gain any great use from it…” Further examination confirmed my guess—the all-too-human author had dropped hints of cosmic secrets, but nothing that couldn’t be found in the Book of Eibon or some other common text. I suspected a real member of the great race would have been more discreet and less boastful—and made far more interesting errors of discretion. “If it were real, it would be priceless. Even the fake is old enough to be worth something. But our host doesn’t seem the sort to know its value either way.”

The door creaked, and Charlie jerked his hand from the journal. I flinched, imagining what my mother would have said if she’d heard me judge someone so in their own home. At least it was a young man in army uniform, and not the woman in the floral dress, who came down the stairs. He nodded briefly, then ignored us in favor of the vinyl albums boxed at the far end of the room. He muttered and exclaimed over their contents while I tried to regain my equilibrium. His uniform kept drawing my eye—making me brace, irrationally, against some punishment for my proximity to the books.

“I hope her father did,” said Charlie more quietly. It took me a moment to recapture the conversation: our host’s father must have seen some connection between the journal and his studies, or he wouldn’t have owned it. “I hope he got the best use he could out of the whole collection.”

“You wouldn’t want to waste it,” I agreed.

“No.” He bent, wincing, to rub his knee. “It makes you think. I’d hate to have someone go through my store, after I’m gone, and say, ‘He had no idea what he had.’ Especially if the Aeonists are right—no heaven where we can read everything we missed and ask the authors what they meant.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “I can offer you magic, but only in the universe we’ve got. Except perhaps for the Yith, immortality isn’t a part of it.”

Though he might not see it that way, when he learned more about who I was. I really couldn’t put it off much longer.

* * *

My brother was very young when they forbade us paper and ink. “The scollars,” Caleb wrote,

refuse my evry effort to beg or bargin entre. I have not yet resorted to steeling my way in, and in truth don’t beleev I have the stelth to do so nor the skill to pass unseen throu Miskatonic’s alarms. Sister deer, I am at a loss. I do not kno wether they forbid me do to knoing my natur or in ignorranse of it, and wether it is malis or uncaring dismissel. Pleaz rigt. Yors in deepest fondness.

“He should come home,” said Anna. “He should be with his family.” Mama Rei nodded in firm agreement.

“He is home. As close as he feels he can get, anyway.” I put down my fork, half-grateful for the distraction from the hot dog and egg mixture that clung vertiginously to my rice. The Kotos had somehow developed a taste for hot dogs in the camps, where we ate the same surplus rations for days at a time. To me they tasted of sand and fever-dry air.

Mama Rei shook her head. “Home is family, not a place. It does not help him to wander through his memories, begging books from people who do not care about him.”

I loved the Kotos, but sometimes there were things they didn’t understand. That brief moment of hope and fear at the estate sale, when I’d thought the journal might have been written in Innsmouth, had made Caleb’s quixotic quest seem even more urgent. “The books are family too. The only family we still have a chance to rescue.”

“Even if the books are at Miskatonic—” began Neko. Kevin tugged at her arm urgently before sinking back in his chair, quelled by a look from Mama Rei. It was an argument we’d gone through before.

“They didn’t take them in the raid. Not in front of us, and so far as Mr. Spector can determine from his records, they never went back for them. Anyone who’d have known enough to … scavenge … our libraries would have passed through Miskatonic, to sell the duplicates if nothing else.” Even books with the same title and text weren’t duplicates, truly, but few outsiders would care about the marginalia: family names, records of oaths, commentary from generations long since passed into the deep.

“Caleb’s a good man,” said Neko. She was perhaps the closest to him of us all, save myself. He had been just enough older to fascinate her, and her friendship had been a drop of water to cool his bitterness, the last few years before we gained our freedom together. “But a group of old professors like that—I’m sorry, but what they’ll see is a rude young man who can’t spell.”

“Nancy,” said Mama Rei. Neko ducked her head, subsiding under the rebuke of the given name she so disliked.

“They will, though,” put in Anna defiantly. “She’s not saying it to be mean. He should come back to us, and learn how ordinary people make friends, and take classes at the community center. Aphra is always talking about centuries and aeons—if Caleb takes a little time to learn how to spell, how to talk nicely to people who don’t trust him, the books will still be there.”

That much was true. And it was foolishness to imagine our books locked in Miskatonic’s vaults, impatient for freedom.

* * *

May 1942: It’s been years since the camp held more prisoners than guards, months since I’ve heard the shouts of young children or the chatter of real conversation. Over the past three days, it seems as if thousands of people have passed through the gates, shouting and crying and claiming rooms in long-empty cabins, and all I can think is: not again. I’ve done all my mourning, save for Silas and my brother. I can only dread getting to know these people, and then spending another decade watching children burn up in fever, adults killed for fighting back, or dying of the myriad things that drive them to fight.

When they switch from English, their language is unfamiliar: a rattle of vowels and hard consonants rather than the slow sibilants and gutturals of Enochian and its cousins.

Caleb and I retreat to Silas’s bedside, coming out only long enough to claim the cabin for our own. Most of the newcomers look at us strangely, but leave us alone.

The woman appears at the door holding a cup. Her people have been permitted packed bags, and this stoneware cup is the most beautiful made object that I’ve seen since 1928. I stare, forgetting to send her away. She, too, is a different thing—comfortably plump where we’ve worn away to bone, olive-skinned and narrow-eyed, confident in a way that reminds me achingly of our mother.

“I am Rei Koto,” she says. “I heard you coughing in the next room. It is not good to be sick, with so many crowded together and far from home. You should have tea.”

She hands the cup first to Caleb, who takes it automatically, expression stricken. I catch a whiff of the scent: warm and astringent and wet. It hints of places that are not desert. She starts to say something else, then glimpses the man in the bed. She stifles a gasp; her hand flies halfway to her mouth, then pulls back to her breastbone.

“Perhaps he should have tea also?” she asks doubtfully. Silas laughs, a bubbling gasp that sends her hand back to her mouth. Then she takes a breath and retrieves the confidence she entered with, and asks, not what he is, or what we are, but: “You’ve been hiding in here. What do you need?”

Later I’ll learn about the war that triggered her family’s exile here, and crowded the camp once more with prisoners. I’ll learn that she brought us the tea five days after they separated her from her husband, and I’ll learn to call her my second mother though she’s a mere ten years older than me. I’ll be with her when she learns of her husband’s death.

CHAPTER 2

December 1948

Charlie, shivering beside me on the San Francisco beach, looked doubtfully at the clouds. “Do you think we can do this?”

“I’ve ignored Winter Tide for too many years.” Not precisely an answer. We’d done our best with De Anima Pluvia, but our biggest challenge had been finding a place to practice. The Tide itself was worth the risk of discovery, but any pattern of larger workings would draw notice. We’d managed a few small pushes to mist and rain, but couldn’t be certain we were capable of more.

“Ah, well. If it doesn’t work, I suppose it just means we’re not ready yet.” He wrapped his arms around his chest, and glanced at me. He wore a sweater to bulk out his slender frame and a hat pulled tightly over his sandy hair, but still shivered in what to me seemed a mild night. When I left the house, Mama Rei had insisted on a jacket, and I still wore it in deference to her sensibilities. California was having an unusually cold winter—but I’d last celebrated, many years ago, in the bitter chill of an Innsmouth December. I would have been happy, happier, with my skin naked to the salt spray and the wind.

“I suppose.” But with the stars hidden, there would be no glimpse of the infinite on this singularly long night. No chance to glean their wisdom. No chance to meditate on my future. No chance to confess my truths. I was desperate for this to work, and afraid that it would.

We walked down to the boundary of the waves, where the cool and giving sand turned hard and damp. Charlie’s night vision was poor, but he followed readily and crouched beside me, careful not to put too much weight on his knee. He winced only a little when a rivulet washed over his bare feet.

I glanced up and down the beach and satisfied myself that we were alone. At this time of night, at this time of year, it was a safe gamble that no one would join us.

I began tracing symbols in the sand with my finger. Charlie helped. I rarely had to correct him; by this point even he knew the basic sigils by touch. You must understand them as part of yourself, no more needing sight to make them do your bidding than you would to move your own legs.

Outward-facing spells had been harder for me, of late. To look at my own body and blood was easy enough, but the world did not invite close examination. Still, I forced my mind into the sand, into the salt and the water, into the clouds that sped above them. I felt Charlie’s strength flowing into my own, but the wind tore at my mind as it had not at my body, pressing me into my skull. I pushed back, gasping as I struggled to hold my course and my intentions for the night.

And it wasn’t working. The clouds were a distant shiver in my thoughts, nothing I could grasp or change. The wind was an indifferent opponent, fierce and strong. I fell back into my body with cheeks stung by salt.

Charlie still sat beside me, eyes closed in concentration. I touched him, and they flew open.

“It’s no good,” I said.

“Giving up so soon?”

I shivered, not with cold but with shame. As a child we had the archpriests for this. Not a half-trained man of the air and me, dependent on distant memories and a few scavenged books. “I can’t get through the wind.”

He tilted his head back. “I know De Anima likes to talk about ‘the great war of the elements,’ but I’ve been wondering—should it really be through? When we practice other spells, at the store … I know these arts aren’t always terribly intuitive, but ‘through’ doesn’t seem right. When we’re working on the Inner Sea, or practicing healing, you always tell me that you can’t fight your own blood.”

I blinked, stared at him a long moment—at once proud of my student, and embarrassed at my own lapse. My eyes felt heavy, full of things I needed to see. “Right. Let’s find out where the wind takes us.”

I closed my eyes again, and rather than focusing on De Anima’s medieval metaphors, cast myself through the symbols and into the wind. This time I didn’t try to direct it, didn’t force on it my desires and expectations and memories. And I felt my mind lifted, tossed and twisted—whirled up into the misty tendrils of the clouds, and I could taste them and breathe them and wrap them around me, and I remembered that I had something to tell them.

I knelt on the strand, waves soaking my skirt, and gazed with pleasure and fear as the clouds spiraled, streaming away from the sky above us, and through that eye the starlight poured in.

“Oh,” said Charlie. And then, “What now?”

“Now,” I murmured, “we watch the universe. And tell stories, and seek signs, and share what has been hidden in our own lives.”

My last such holiday, as a child, had been a natural Tide: the sky clear without need for our intervention. They were supposed to be lucky, but my dreams, when at last I curled reluctantly to sleep beside the bonfire, had been of danger and dry air. Others, too, had seemed pensive and disturbed in the days following. Poor omens on the Tide might mean anything—a bad catch, or a boat-wrecking storm beyond the archpriests’ ability to gentle. No one had expected the soldiers, and the end of Tides for so many years to come.

That past, those losses, were the hardest things I must confess tonight.

We lay back on the sand. Cold and firm, yielding slightly as I squirmed to make an indent for my head, it cradled my body and told me my shape. Wet grains clung together beneath my fingers. The stars filled my eyes with light of the same make: cold and firm. And past my feet, just out of reach, I heard the plash of waves and knew the ocean there, endlessly cold and strong and yielding, waiting for me.

I said it plainly, but quietly. “I am not a man of the air.”

Charlie jerked upright. “Truly.”

“Yes.”

I was about to say more when he spoke instead. I had not expected the admiration in his voice. “I suspected, but I hadn’t felt right to ask. You really are then—one of the great race of Yith.”

“What? No.” Now I pushed myself up on my elbows so I could see him more clearly. He looked confused, doubtful. “How could you believe I … no. You would know them if you met them; they have far more wisdom than me.”

“I thought…” He seemed to find some courage. “You appeared out of nowhere, living with a people obviously not your own. You found your way to my store, and my collection of books, and acted both singularly interested in and desperate for them. And you know so much, and you drop hints, occasionally, of greater familiarity in the distant past. And sometimes … forgive my saying so, but sometimes you seem entirely unfamiliar with this country, this world. I’d suppose shell shock, but that wouldn’t explain your knowledge. I didn’t want to pry, but after you told me about the Yith—how they exchange bodies with people through time—it seemed obvious that you must have somehow become trapped here, unable to use your art to return home. And that you hoped to regain that ability through our studies.”

I lay back on the wet sand and laughed. It was all so logical: a completely different self, a different life, a different desperation, so close and obvious that I could almost feel what I would have been as that other creature. My laughter turned to tears without my fully noticing the transition.

Charlie lifted his hand, but hesitated. I struggled to regain self-control. Finally I sat, avoiding his touch, and scooted myself closer to the waves. I dipped my palms and dashed salt water across my eyes, returning my tears to the sea.

“Not a Yith,” I said, somewhat more dignified. “Can’t you guess? Remember your Litany.”

“You sound like a Yith. All right.” His voice slowed, matching the chanting rhythm that I’d used to teach it, and that I’d taken in turn from my father. “This is the litany of the peoples of Earth. Before the first, there was blackness, and there was fire. The Earth cooled and life arose, struggling against the unremembering emptiness. First were the five-winged eldermost of Earth, faces of the Yith—”

“You can skip a few hundred million years in there.”

His breath huffed. “I’m only going to play guessing games if you are a Yith, damn it.”

I bowed my head. I liked his idea so well. I briefly entertained the thought of telling him he was right, and placing that beautiful untruth between us. But ultimately, the lie would serve no purpose beyond its sweetness. “Sixth are humans, the wildest of races, who share the world in three parts. The people of the rock, the K’n-yan, build first and most beautifully, but grow cruel and frightened and become the Mad Ones Under the Earth. The people of the air spread far and breed freely, and build the foundation for those who will supplant them. The people of the water are born in shadow on land, but what they build beneath the waves will live in glory till the dying sun burns away their last shelter.”

And after humans, the beetle-like ck’chk’ck, who like the eldermost would give over their bodies to the Yith and the endless task of preserving the Archives. And after them the Sareeav with their sculptures of glacier and magma. I could take this risk; even the worst consequences would matter little in the long run.

I raised my head. “I am of the water. I am ugly by your standards—no need to argue it—but the strangeness of my face is a sign of the metamorphosis I will one day undertake. I will live in glory beneath the waves, and die with the sun.”

His head was cocked now—listening, waiting, and holding his judgment checked. As good a reaction as I might expect.

“I will live in glory—but I will do so without my mother or my father, or any of the people who lived with me on land as a child. Someone lied about us, about what we did in our temples and on beaches such as this. The government believed them: when I was twelve they sent soldiers, and carried us away to the desert, and held us imprisoned there. So we stayed, and so we died, until they brought the Nikkei—the Japanese immigrants and their families—to the camps at the start of the war. I do not know, when the state released them, whether they had forgotten that my brother and I remained among their number, or whether they simply no longer cared.

“You thought that I hoped, through our studies, to return home. I have no such hope. Our studies, and my brother, are all that remain of my home, and all of it I can ever hope to have.”

“Ah.” The unclouded stars still burned overhead, but his gaze was on the water. At last he fell back on: “I am sorry for your loss.”

“It was a long time ago.”

He turned toward me. “How long were you imprisoned?”

That figure was not hard to call up. “Almost eighteen years.”

“Ah.” He sat silent again for a time. One can talk about things at the Tide that are otherwise kept obscure, but one cannot suddenly impart the knowledge of how to discuss great cruelty. It was hardly a piece of etiquette that I had learned myself, as a child.

“Aeonist teachings say that no race is clean of such ignorance or violence. When faced with the threat of such things, we should strive as the gods do to prevent them or put them off. But when faced with such things already past, we should recall the vastness of time, and know that even our worst pains are trivial at such a scale.”

His mouth twisted. “Does that help?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes. Sometimes I can’t help seeing our resistance and kindness, even the gods’ own efforts to hold back entropy, as trivial too. No one denies it, but we need the gods, and the kindness, to matter more anyway.”

We talked long that night, memory shading into philosophy and back into memory. I told him of the years in the camp, of the sessions with my parents where I first learned magic, of my brother’s quest, far away on the East Coast, to find what remained of our libraries. I told him, even, of my mother’s death, and the favor I had done for Ron Spector, the man who gave me its details.

I knew nothing of Charlie’s childhood or private life, and he told me nothing that night. Still, as much as I had learned of him in our months of study, I learned more through his responses now. Charlie was a brusque man, even uncivil sometimes. He was also an honest one, and more given to acting on his genuine affections than mouthing fine-sounding words. And he had been entirely patient with his curiosity until the moment I made my confession.

Now that I had shown my willingness to speak, his questions were thoughtful but not gentle. He would pull back if I refused, but otherwise ask things that drew out more truth—a deftness and appropriateness to the season that I might have expected from one of our priests, but not from even a promising neophyte.

At last, worn with honesty, we sat silent beneath the stars: a more comfortable silence than those we had started with, even if full of painful recollection.

After some time had passed, he asked quietly, “Are they out there?” He indicated the Pacific with a nod.

“Not in this ocean, save a few explorers. There are reasons that the spawning grounds were founded in Innsmouth—and in England before they moved. I am given to understand that the Pacific sea floor is not so hospitable as the Atlantic.”

This led to more academic questions, and tales of life in the water beyond the Litany’s gloss of dwelling in glory. Few details were granted to those of us on land, as children miss so many adult cares and plans despite living intimately alongside them. Still, I could speak of cities drawn upward from rock and silt, rich with warmth and texture and luminescence in lands beyond the reach of the sun. Of grimoires etched in stone or preserved by magic, of richly woven music, of jewelry wrought by expert metalworkers who had practiced their arts for millennia.

“Is that what you’ll do down there?” he asked. “Read books and shape gold for a million years?”

“Almost a billion. I might do those things. Or consider philosophy, or watch over any children who remain on land, or practice the magics that can only be done under the pressures of the deep. Charlie, I don’t even know what I’ll do in ten years, if I’m still alive. How can I guess what I’ll do when I’m grown?”

“Are we all children, on the land? I suppose we must seem like it—I can’t even think easily about such numbers.” He glanced back toward the mountains. “And such badly behaved children, too, with our wars and weapons.”

I grinned mirthlessly. “Be assured that the atomic bomb is not the worst thing this universe has produced. Though no one knows the precise timing of the people of the air’s passing, so it may be the worst thing that you produce, as a race.”

“I suppose it’s a comfort, to know that some part of humanity will keep going.”

“For a while,” I said.

“A billion years is a long while.”

I shrugged. “It depends on your perspective, I suppose.”


Copyright © 2017 by Ruthanna Emrys