Chapter I: The Maw
Peridas stumbled and fell as the Omicron lurched to the side. Enormous waves crashed against the sides of the ship. Wind howled through the sails like screeching banshees. The sky overhead was black as pitch, though it was only mid afternoon. Curtains of rain bombarded the few crew-members that had not yet been swept overboard. The Greek and Viking fleets were in complete disarray.
Peridas painstakingly crawled through the horrid mixture of water, blood, and vomit to the ship’s mast and held on to it as tightly as he could. He stared at the carnage, horrified. Crates and barrels tumbled and rolled back and forth at the whim of the ocean. All the bodies had been swept off the deck by the ravenous hurricane, but the shifting streaks of blood running across the deck betrayed the storm’s attempts at concealment.
He turned his head and puked over his shoulder just as the ship lurched again, and the airborne vomit turned mid-flight and splashed back into him. He gagged, revolted and even more sick. Still… I am better off than them, he thought, glancing at the vacant railing; any crewman who was foolish enough to attempt to retch over the side of the Omicron had instantly been washed overboard.
Debris smashed into Peridas; chunks of wood, shards of glass, rent metal; it looked as if all the objects on the ship were possessed by spirits as they dashed through the air. One such shard struck Peridas on the brow, leaving a deep gash that traveled over his eye and onto his cheek. Hot blood oozed from the wound, clouding the boy’s vision and tinting the already hellish scene red. Dark amber ropes twisted and writhed like burning snakes. Crimson cannonballs and broken boards were constantly being tossed about.
The splintering mast dug deeper into his soft hands. Blood seeped out from under his fingernails. His boots might as well have been filled with lead. They had long since been completely saturated with water.
Curse those mewling wretches, the Vikings, he thought, enraged. All these pointless deaths…. The destroyed homesteads, murdered citizens, the terrorized orphans constantly flooding into the cities; it was all on account of the Vikings. But these were not the medieval savages of popular myth and legend, these were the true Elder Nords of the northern reaches. They were brilliant tacticians, expert shipbuilders, and master smiths; these Vikings were enemies capable of razing Greece to the ground. And that seemed exactly their intention.
Old resentments and hatreds were remembered, bitter and dark from festering unresolved in the caverns of the Vikings’ minds. They remembered the time when Greece was young and wild, the time when they, too, proudly called themselves Greeks, but their neighbors scoffed at their beliefs, scorned their gods and mocked their rituals, and preferred instead their own deities of logic and science. War broke out, fathers killing sons, brothers killing brothers, and eventually their neighbors drove them into the icy reaches of the North, where for centuries they bided their time, growing in numbers and body until they were prepared for their revenge. Tens of thousands of their kin had lost their lives on account of their enemies arrogance, their foolish pride, and now the reckoning had come. They had started by sacking all Greek territories near the western coast, every town and village that was accessible by river or canal. And now they were through the Strait of Gibraltar with Greece in their sights. The Greek fleet was assembled, underage soldiers were conscripted, and swords were hastily forged. Then the Greek fleet mobilized and raced to meet their foes. The two massive fleets met in uncharted waters in an unmapped part of the sea, but before any blood was spilled a hurricane of unparalleled might was upon them.
The rain had turned to sleet, and lightning crackled through the sky. A bolt struck a Nordic ship on the mast, igniting its sails. Even through the deafening wailing of the wind and pounding of the waves the almighty boom of the thunder was clearly audible. And then he heard another sound: screaming. The Nords, the hardy, “honor in death” Nords on the burning ship were screaming and offering prayers to their gods. He knew not what they were saying because they were speaking Old Norse, but the intensity of their wailing paralleled that of the Greeks still on the Omicron, who were bemoaning, and sometimes cursing Poseidon. “I beg of you, Brothers- spare us! Direct your fury elsewhere!” Peridas pleaded, as his grandfather had taught him. Another flash of lightning, another volley of screams, this time from a Greek ship. “NO!” He screamed. Have we provoked Zeus and Poseidon? He wondered. Things cannot get any worse. Another flash of lightning cast a rapidly expanding shadow directly on Peridas. He sidestepped the shadow, then started with a horrified yelp as a body hurtled toward the deck and crashed through it into the flooded quarters below. Peridas stared, gaping, at the hole in the deck. He traced the man’s fall upwards; he had been the lookout in the crow’s nest.
Peridas had never seen anyone die before. He hadn’t even wielded a sword before. He was an Athenian youth who had just become old enough to be conscripted, not a hardened Spartan warrior who had known battle all his life. Not for the first time he thought of home. He remembered the smell of the vineyards drifting over the walls of Athens, the pleasant chatter of the marketplace, the perfume of his sweetheart Lenise which was always about her, no matter the time of day. Lenise…. She was an individualist, an adventurous, fiery soul. She was the pride of his life. Thinking of her led him to think of her brother and his friend Ionus, whom Peridas had met soon after he was conscripted. Ionus was a Spartan, which was odd, since he had been born Athenian; Ionus’s father had gifted him to a general in order to heighten his own standing. Ionus had known only war, but his quick wit and dry humor bespoke a lightness of the soul that Peridas would not have expected from a Spartan. Peridas took a liking to him immediately. They had both been sent to Ibiza, but on separate ships. Ionus was aboard the Fist of the Gizmothian. Peridas worried, now, for the safety of his friend.
The storm persevered, and Peridas was aware of an immense current, powerful enough to haul both fleets, pulling the ships ever so slowly South-West. The waves had ceased, at least enough for another man to climb into the crow’s nest. “Pray, what do you see?” yelled Peridas. The man opened his mouth to speak but he could find no words. He simply stared, transfixed, at some unknown point. “What. Do. You. See?!” He shouted again along with every other warrior on board. Broken from his reverie, the man replied, “I-I see a… void.” “A whirlpool?” someone asked.
Again: “HOW LARGE?!”
“Uh… well- large. At least two miles across.”
A pit of fear formed in Peridas’ stomach. Two miles! A silent gasp ran through the crew. For a brief instant they stood, absorbing what they knew would be their last moment of relative safety, at least compared to what they would face in the open ocean. And then the order was given to abandon ship.
The frigid water engulfed the crew as they leaped from the crippled vessel. Underwater, the great vibrations caused by the whirlpool were already painfully evident. Peridas’ eardrums felt ready to shatter. The crew remained submerged as long as possible to avoid the warships being swept overhead. Whenever lightning bolts flashed in the heavens, the entangled fleets were visible; nearly solid masses of disarrayed ships being drawn toward the fatal abyss. Huge clouds of phosphoric green algae swirled around the funnel, illuminating the mortal danger; an enormous underwater twister, two miles wide at the surface and reaching all the way to the ocean floor. It was as beautiful as it was terrifying. Soon, the lightning revealed that the first of the ships had reached the maw. They were mercilessly drawn in, borne down the funnel, and crushed against the sea floor where dark clouds of sand and rubble erupted at the base of the whirlpool. One by one, warships were devoured by the ocean. Two of the largest fleets in recorded history gradually reduced to a hazy, drifting, underwater debris-field.
The crewmen too were being pulled toward the funnel at a frightening speed; their lungs were bursting, and the last of the warships had been obliterated, but there was no struggling against the ferocious arbiter. All they could do was watch as they were continuously drawn closer to their grim fate. Then, to the amazement and dumbstruck joy of the entire crew, the funnel slowly retracted, eventually vanishing at the surface with a deceptively calm ripple. The current ceased with a jolt, the pressure lifted somewhat from Peridas’ ears, and his body was at his command once again. As the men began their long ascent to the surface, some went unconscious and died silently in the cold embrace of the sea; others thrashed about uncontrollably, expelling what precious little air they still had. Peridas worried that he himself might pass out as his vision dimmed, his head throbbed and his limbs refused to work in cohesion. He struggled desperately for the surface but it seemed impossibly far away. So far…. A startling realization took root in the boy’s heart. He stopped struggling and drifted limply. He believed he was doing himself a mercy, preventing days of suffering on the open ocean. His will to live deserted him; he exhaled air… and inhaled water. And he was at peace as his eyes closed.
Peridas awoke confused. Where- what…? Why was he still underwater? Or… was he? Had he died? What is…. His senses flooded back to him with a curious whooshing sound. He was indeed underwater, he had not died, and a familiar-looking man was blowing air into his lungs. His vitality returned to him in part. He was now half alive- and scared. He nodded to the man and together they clawed ferociously to the surface. They emerged and quickly filled their lungs and Peridas had never been as grateful for anything as he was for that single breath. “Thank you.” he coughed, glancing at the man and realizing it was actually the ship’s skipper. Skipper grunted in response. Peridas scanned the horizon. The moonlight revealed the true devastation of the storm. Miles of wreckage floated calmly on still water where just moments ago thousands of men stood trembling with fear as the heavens poured down upon them and the ocean pulled them into it’s mouth and rent them to pieces. Precious few ships had been spared. Four or five mangled silhouettes were all that remained of the two colossal fleets.
The crew remained drifting for several moments, paying their respects to the fallen warriors. There wouldn’t be any bodies to bury. Ionus… Peridas turned his thoughts away from his friend. It was too painful. There was, of course, the minuscule chance, the insane hope, that among the miles and miles of carnage Ionus was there somewhere, grieving just as strongly in his own conviction of his friend’s death. There would always be an impossible hope… a prayer.