Rated R, for lustful magic.
Note: Merc recently changed their name, so while the podcast lists an old name, they are now going by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, the name credited on the website.
Fathoms Deep and Fathoms Cold
By Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
Tage lights a cigarette and watches the man in the scarlet fedora come nearer. Hat like that’s hard to miss. This one’s his contact. His heartbeat gets quick. The docks are loud, briny, thick with bodies. Storms scrape the horizon, kick up sharp winds. He can’t show desperation. It’ll get him killed or left stranded. Same difference.
“Afternoon.” The man tips his hat. Long black duster hangs about a too-thin frame, but he don’t look weak. Dual revolvers rest on his hips. “I hear tell you’re looking for passage.”
Tage grunts, shifts his weight for better balance. He didn’t expect another wizard. The twisty, rusted aura ‘round the man is too fucked to be purely one Clan. It puts his guard up, fast. “Depends whereto.”
The man smiles, charming. It never reaches his faded blue eyes. “We’re headed for Aldare. Whale Fall’s a good vessel, and we have room for a couple passengers who’ll work for it.” He speaks with a slow drawl. “You left a calling card with the barkeeper.”
“I can work,” Tage says. He don’t have enough to pay even a modest fare. He ran, scarce a fortnight ago. Left everything behind. He ain’t got much experience, and when word gets out he’s VanDrake, a wizard from one of the most feared Clans, no crew will risk taking him on.
The Clan thinks he’s dead. He keeps trying not to wish it, too.
“You ever been on a submersible?” the man asks.
The man hooks his thumbs through his belt. He might’ve been eye-catching once. Sharp-boned face, shaved, with odd-shaped tattoos across one cheek that match his hair — black and gray. He looks Tage up and down, critical. “It’s cramped. Not much space, and no deck. Can you handle living in metal and glass for long days?”
Tage ain’t sure. There’s nowhere to run in the sea. “What’ll the work be?”
“Manual, easy enough.” The man’s gaze is iron-hard. “Do what you’re told and no magic. Clear?”
Tage’s gut turns. Something’s wrong here — not just the threat. The man should be asking more questions. “Yeah.”
“Good.” Suddenly, the man smiles again and proffers a hand. “I’m Marcus Grey.”
“Tage. VanDrake.” Last test. If the other wizard balks, shows any sign he’s here to grab Tage, he’ll run. Or fight. Ends the same — he won’t be taken back to the Clan.
Marcus Grey’s expression and body language don’t change. “May I welcome you aboard the Whale Fall, VanDrake?”
Self-exile. He don’t want to see the ghost-memories of everything he’s lost, the ones that won’t let him rest. It’s Kane’s face, mostly. He got his brother killed and he can’t forget. It hurts too much to stay here.
Tage takes a final drag on the cigarette, drops it, then crushes the butt under his boot heel. He takes Grey’s hand, shakes it once. “Yeah.”
The Whale Fall ain’t even docked. Tage squints against the salt spray whitening the wharves. Waves shatter against piers, rock the ships at anchor. He’s so close to the furthest pier edge, one step and he’d be in the sea. He leans hard against the barnacle-crusted post.
Beside him, Marcus Grey holds his fedora down with one hand, shields his eyes with the other. Wind scratches their coats, bites with ice.
Tage shivers. He’s soaked through. Has to shout above the storm. “Where’s your boat?”
Grey leans into the wind, teeth bared in delight. “She’ll be here. Hold steady.”
Water froths, peels aside, and blackened steel rises from the ocean, well away from the dock. Tage can’t see more than the front of the Whale Fall. He almost steps back off the wood planking.
The vessel’s long, arrow-shaped with a domed front made of shadow-darkened glass. Sharp fins line the top like a razored spine. Under the water, he glimpses pale light: circular windows dotting the sides. Even distanced, he feels the hum of unfamiliar power in his bones. Tage ain’t sure the ship’s alive, but it’s close.
A skiff jumps against the waves, zips right toward them. Unmanned. It bumps against the pier, holds steady. A thin cable connects it somewhere near the middle of the submersible’s bulk.
“Last chance to refuse,” Grey shouts.
Wind gusts hair into Tage’s face and salt-stings his eyes. Escape. He tastes it, metallic in the air, sees it in the dark frame and magic-wrapped glass.
He swings down next to Grey in the skiff. Reeled in, the tiny boat skims through the choppy waters. Tage grips the edges until his fingers numb. There’s a narrow ladder curling rib-like down the Whale Fall’s side. Grey climbs, quick, wet duster slapping his sides. Tage follows.
Inside it’s too warm. They enter a small chamber, smooth walls and a ceiling higher than he expected. He can stand without hunching. The smell hits him. Dry air laced with sweat, metal. All ‘round him the ship’s wards brush his senses, solid and . . . safe. He expects hostility, pain. But the Whale Fall feels like a home.
Unexpected, Tage wants to run. He don’t deserve to feel safe again.
“Put your weapons here.” Grey touches one wall; a panel pops open. A small locker. Blue-green light rings the ceiling, thin piping he don’t recognize. No flames. “No one will touch your effects.”
Tage eyes the other wizard. Grey’s magic still ain’t distilled into something he can pinpoint. It itches his nape, constant. He notices his clothes are drying fast.
Grey grins. “We’re surrounded by an ocean. I don’t need wet crew dripping in the halls.”
Above them, a hatch snaps closed and Grey spins the lock. Air hisses, then the hatch is sealed. Tage puts the pistols and two knives in the locker. Don’t take off the charms ‘round his wrists, or the boot knives.
Grey only lifts an eyebrow. “If you harm anyone on this vessel without my permission, VanDrake, I’ll give you to the sea.”
Tage narrows his eyes. Long as no one gives him reason to hurt ’em, he won’t. He’s an enforcer. He’s used to threats. He nods once, shows he understands.
A narrow hallway leads them to another room, this one with windows. Tage blinks. Some mirrored trick or illusion on the glass lets him see the full length of the Whale Fall, prow to tail.
“I can sense everything inside and out on this ship,” Grey says. “But I like to give the men a good view, too.”
Tage gives Grey a sidelong glance. He shifts, can’t entirely dismiss the way the wizard’s damp clothes cling against his body.
Engines hum, propellers turn. They begin sinking. He grabs the wall, his stomach near his throat. The storm-tossed waters turn from slate to deeper blue, then black. Downwards. Lights snap on against the Whale Fall’s sides, illuminate the deeps.
The turbulence eases.
Tage touches the glass. It sparks with a rust-tinged magic bite, but it don’t hurt him.
“I’ve warded the whole ship,” Grey says. “I won’t say it was easy, or gets easier with each voyage, but it’s what I live for.” The madness ain’t faded from his eyes. “To traverse the ocean deeps, where no man can live . . . It’s like walking among the stars of Heaven.”
More like Hell, in the dark, where there’s nothing alive.
“Giving your usual poetic spiel to the unwary, Mr. Grey?”
Tage turns, sharp. He keeps his back straight, don’t drop hand to his pistol. Realizes too late he’s already locked it away.
“You wound me, Captain.” There’s a smile in Grey’s voice. “I did warn Mr. VanDrake what life aboard this ship was like.”
A woman in an immaculate white smoking jacket and high black boots strolls towards them, flanked by two crewmen. Big, broad, hair as white as her coat, the captain projects authority, calm. She ain’t one to trifle with.
Tage nods, polite. “Captain.”
Captain Norris’s sharp gaze sweeps Tage head to toe. It’s got none of the suggestiveness Grey’s looks do. “Another wizard, Mr. Grey?”
Tage glances at Grey, who shrugs one shoulder.
“Very well. You will follow Mr. Grey’s orders to earn your passage.” The captain offers a hand. “Might I welcome you aboard, Mr. VanDrake?”
Tage shakes Norris’s hand, still tense.
The captain turns. “We dive to fifteen fathoms, and then continue deep across the sea.”
The trio leave Tage and Grey alone.
“This way,” Grey says. Down the hall again, into another shallow room. Brass-rimmed circular windows dot the wall. These don’t show the full vessel, just the sea’s darkness. “This is the port observation pod. It’s got a fine view, if you fancy.”
Grey leads him through all of Whale Fall: the bridge, the tiny crew bunks, the engines, the galley, one observation pod that smells of tobacco smoke. “If you want to smoke, you do it here and only here,” Grey says.
They arrive back at the tiny cabin Tage has been given. A narrow bunk built into the wall, a chest, nothing more. It’s enough.
“We run on engine power for a while,” Grey says. He leans against the door, left open. “I’ve a few volumes of nautical research, if you like dry reading. Savatori has cards or dice. You can always ask Alton, the ship’s cabin boy, if you want anything else.”
Tage nods. “So what do you do?”
Grey’s teeth show. “I’ll show you.”
Behind the bridge there’s a ladder that leads up to a small domed chamber hidden among the sharp fins atop the ship. The air smells of dried sweat and leather. Tage squints. His nape tenses. Too easy to get jumped in the dark.
“Watch,” Grey says, and the darkness changes, shifts. Takes a moment before Tage realizes the walls have slid back. They’re in a glass bubble, nothing but the sea above and all around them.
Tage’s breath catches. The submersible is descending at a slow incline, lights wrapping the ship in faint luminescence. Sleek fish flit past, a silver band in the soft headlamp’s glow. The edges of rock formations shimmer with crabs and clams, and he spots a school of multi-colored fish dancing around long strands of kelp that float like ghosts.
Grey lays a hand against the glass. “This is what makes it worth it. Our cargo manifest, the jobs we take. It’s mercurial. Necessary. This is what reminds me there are beautiful things in the world.” He rests his forehead on his arm. “It’s the closest I feel to home.”
Tage glances sharp at Grey. He didn’t expect that — the other wizard sounds lonely. Adrift, like him.
“Where you from?” Tage asks.
“Originally? Aldare, but I’ve not called that home in a long time.”
A manta ray glides past them. Tage cranes his neck, watches the winged fish sail through the water graceful as an angel. His throat tightens. He wishes Kane were here. His brother would’ve loved everything about the submersible. Would’ve asked all the questions Tage can’t think of.
“You look like you need a drink,” Grey says.
In the galley, Alton the cabin boy sets two wooden mugs on the narrow table. Can’t be more than fourteen. Pale, sandy-haired, bright-eyed.
Grey catches Alton’s elbow and offers a wry smile. “Get the cook’s old brandy, and grab a mug for yourself. New hands need to be properly christened!”
The kid grins, scuttles off. Tage don’t miss the admiring glances Alton casts at Grey over his shoulder.
Grey sobers soon as the kid is out of sight. “I won’t ask who you lost.”
Tage opens his mouth, the words dried in his throat. Sharp pain scrapes behind his eyes, salty. He glares and clenches his hands on his knees. Grey looks at him — Tage never did find the line between pity and sympathy. Neither will bring his brother back.
“May the one you lost rest well until the Heavens return.” Grey touches his knuckles against his chest and then spreads his hand, palm up.
The gesture throws Tage. That a stranger would care don’t make sense. He looks away.
Alton returns. Grey takes the bottle, pours them each a brandy. He passes one to the kid.
“To our new crewmate, Mr. Tage VanDrake. Long life and health to you — and may you always stay on the ocean’s good will.” Grey tosses back his drink.
Why not. Tage drains his mug.
A day passes. Tage checks for any loosened bolts along the ballast tanks. Wrench in his hand’s like a club. Still, it’s work and he don’t have to think. Marcus Grey comes to check on him, nods in approval at the job done, Tage feels good. Ain’t lost that want for appreciation.
“What Clan are you from?” he asks. The odd sensation any time he’s near Grey unsettles him. He needs to know.
“Originally VanMere.” A Clan renowned for its fascination with and power of illusions. As if to prove it, he twists his hands and cups the life-like image of a fire dragon, the symbol from which the VanDrake Clan took its name. The palm-sized dragon hisses at Tage; its teeth look all-too sharp. Tage is impressed.
Marcus tosses the dragon into the air and it slithers into the ballast tank and vanishes. “That was a long time ago. You know how invasive magic is.”
It’s in blood and seed, the whole body. The magic spreads through sex: wizards taking the uninfected and turning them. Ain’t always consensual. Wizards need other wizard lovers to keep the magic strong, replenished. The magic can also be taken: pulled through skin and breath. It’s agonizing, messy, deadly. Takes a skilled wizard to channel another’s power and use it as their own without killing their partner. Tage’s handler, Bonnie Frost, is one such woman. She did it to him rarely, but he sometimes has nightmares about the pain.
“So happens, I had a few too many partners who weren’t VanMere. Including VanDrake wizards.” Marcus winks. “Over the years, it changes a man.” He rubs a thumb along the steel-plated wall. “I call claim to no Clan anymore.”
Tage’s fingers twitch. He used to hunt rogues. How’s he any better now?
Unexpected, Marcus laughs. He streaks his hair back with one hand. “Clanless doesn’t mean rogue, Tage. The VanMere Clan disowned me. Not the other way around.”
“Clans don’t let anyone go.” Kane’s dead because of that. Because of him. He clenches his fists before he chokes on guilt, on tears he ain’t shed.
Marcus eyes him up and down again. “Hell’s saddle, you’re a piece of work. I forget how hard they break you in.”
He tenses, throat tight. He ain’t broken.
No, he fought to keep Kane safe. Except he pressed too hard, and Kane ran, joined a murderous rogue to escape. A malfunctioning portal killed Kane and the rogue. Alive one moment, dead the next. Nothing Tage could do to stop it.
Tage needs air, needs it bad. He turns, stumbles into the hall. He’s so alone it hurts. Knife wounds and crushed bones don’t bring pain like this. He wants it to stop. All around, the water presses at him. The sea is forever, massive. It’ll crush him. He needs out.
A hand claps his shoulder. “Breathe, mate.”
He jerks away, turns.
Marcus lifts his arms, non-threatening, and steps back. “Easy there, easy. You’re pressure sick. Happens to some on first dive. Breathe slow, it’ll pass.”
Tage leans back against the wall, fists clenched. Focuses on what’s real: his coat. It’s his pride. He’s been VanDrake for ten years, since he was fourteen. Heavy, supple leather presses against his shoulders and spine, grounds him. Air in his lungs is enough. The panic ebbs.
Tage sucks in a shaky breath, then another. The ocean don’t feel as close, now. The submersible’s shielded, safe. He won’t drown. He nods once, not trusting his voice.
Marcus offers a wry, honest smile. “Good. Just rest. It gets better, one way or another.”
Third day into the journey, Marcus swings by his cabin after evening mess. “How you doing?”
Tage is reading one of the books Savatori lent him — a pulp novel about pirates. He’s not impressed. Pirates ain’t nearly that civilized in his experience. He sets the book down. “Fine.”
Marcus leans on the doorframe. His shirt’s unbuttoned, and he ain’t wearing his hat. Looks relaxed. “Glad to hear. We’ll be in Aldare by midday tomorrow. We’ve just entered the Trench of Heaven.”
Marcus grins. “Norris dubbed it. It’s a rift cut deep between bedrock. Total blackness. I think she meant it as a joke. Still, it’s a direct path and still waters for a dozen leagues or so. Couple hours and we’ll start purging the ballast tanks and rising towards the shallows.”
Tage nods. “Been wondering. What’d you do before this?” Jerks his chin at the cabin, means the submersible.
Marcus pulls off his shirt. Lean, muscular, he sports more tattoos than scars. Great black and blue whorls in intricate patterns cover his back and slip ‘round his waist and dip lower. Faint scar ridges show under the ink. A whale skeleton sinks towards a sandy seabed on one arm; the other’s covered with words Tage can’t read.
“I’ve been many things, for a lot of people. I’ve traveled the world and seen . . .” He clears his throat. “Wonders and horrors is close enough to describe it. Bet you’ve known the same, huh?”
Tage shrugs. He’s seen horrors, yeah. Maybe some wonders, too.
Marcus smiles. “Being aboard the Whale Fall is the most rewarding job I’ve had. Besides, I meet such intriguing people.” He winks.
Tage hides surprise, but it’s secondary to building arousal as he looks at Marcus. It feels like forever since he’s been with anyone. He swallows. The loneliness is as bad as the ache, the need to be touched. Tage has always — only — wanted partners older than him. Can’t stand the idea of younger lovers. It’s too easy to hurt the ones who can’t fight back.
And with Marcus, he don’t got to worry about hurting no one.
“What are you going to do with your life now?” Marcus takes a step closer. In the cabin, he only needs one step to be nearly touching Tage.
Tage can see the other wizard’s as hard as he is. “What do you mean?”
Marcus shrugs, runs a hand through his hair. Tiny barbed tattoos trace the sides of his neck and link across his spine. “You’re not going back to your Clan, are you?”
Tage tenses. “You’re one to talk.”
“I know the look . . . they hurt you, and they’ll do worse again if they get you back.” He grabs Tage by the shoulders, brings his face close. “You could stay on, you know.” His voice turns husky. “No one can find us under the sea. On this ship, you’d never be alone again.”
Tage don’t want to know how Marcus can read him so well. Don’t want to think about that offer, or how tempted he is.
Marcus says, “Ponder it,” and kisses Tage hard on the mouth.
Tage’s heartbeat pounds his ears. He snags Marcus’s shaggy hair and pulls him closer. Marcus’s tongue against his teeth makes his whole body tingle. Skin is hot against his.
“You consent?” Marcus asks, his hands against Tage’s chest.
Tage is almost caught off guard, being asked. But it snuffs out the lingering doubt. “Fuck yes.”
Marcus chuckles, knees apart Tage’s legs, unbuckles his belt. Tage sucks his breath in. Marcus kisses him again. Heat — pleasure — curls up Tage’s belly. He wants more. He drags Marcus closer, desperate. He shifts his weight back, lets Marcus pull his jeans down, out of the way. Marcus pauses long enough to shuck free of remaining clothes. Tage appreciates the view, leans forward, cups his hands ‘round Marcus’s hips and pulls him close.
The cabin lurches, throws them both against the side wall. Tage flails, catches himself before he falls. “What the hell —?”
Marcus staggers back, cursing. The Whale Fall keels again. He scrambles for his trousers, pulls them on, bolts for the door. “Something just slammed us starboard.”
Tage fumbles for his jeans. The strain in Marcus’s voice has his nerves edged. Goddamn it.
Sailors brush past him, scrambling for stations. Swearing echoes. The floor tilts again. Tage grabs at the wall, his stomach lurching opposite the ship. He pushes his way into the bridge, stops cold. Can’t speak, can’t even breathe.
Outside the domed glass and steel mantle, all he sees are monsters.
They float, glowing in the dark. Spiraled shells rimmed in blue-green luminescence. Big shallow eyes rest on either side of a swarm of tentacles that curl out from the shell. The tip of each tentacle has a pinkish-white glow. There’s a dozen creatures, maybe, big as draft horses.
One nudges into the Whale Fall’s nose, tentacles sliding across the glass. Wards flare bright. The creature pokes the ship again and wiggles more appendages free of its shell. The others crowd nearer, tentacles still bunched inside.
“Nautiluses,” Captain Norris says. “I was not aware they migrated this high so early in the year.”
Tage wants them away from the glass. He keeps picturing those tentacles ramming through the window, letting in the sea.
Marcus laughs, leaning on the captain’s chair in relief. “They’re just spawn.”
Norris’s scarred jaw tightens. “They are big enough to damage my ship, Mr. Grey.”
“But not a threat,” Marcus says. A swirl of tattoos, thin teal lines, shine iridescent on his skin. “We just intersected with a passing stream. Dim the forelights and they’ll lose interest. They must think we’re one of them.”
The headlamps on Whale Fall fade. The great beasts still dart and twirl around the ship, bumping into it with glowing shells and tentacles. The ship rocks, holds.
Marcus laughs again. “They’re just curious children, Captain. They aren’t trying to hurt us.”
“Their intent matters little,” Norris says. “Madam d’Flay, ready the harpoons.”
The gunnery officer, a swarthy woman with thick braids hanging down her back, cranks a series of wheels. Slides her hands to a bronze lever. Outside, Tage catches sight of the edge of huge bladed harpoons swiveling towards the monsters.
“No, wait.” Marcus’s voice has steel in it now. “Whale Fall will hold. Let them be.”
The captain and wizard stare at each other.
“We’ll be fine, Captain,” Marcus says, near a whisper.
Norris looks back at the nautiluses flitting about in the deeps. “Stand ready, d’Flay, but hold.”
Marcus dips his chin, turns aside.
Soon the monsters drift farther away.
Norris stands, glances between Tage and Marcus. “Is all well, Mr. Grey?”
Marcus nods, tendons taut in his neck. The tattoos almost burn against his skin now, darker, duller. “Unexpected, that’s all.”
“Dismissed from the bridge, Mr. VanDrake,” Norris says.
Marcus flicks a hand at him, arm trembling. “I’ll meet you back in your cabin?”
Tage hesitates. He don’t need light to see something’s badly wrong. Both the captain and the wizard are too tense, trying not to show worry. Or pain, in Marcus’s case.
Tage backs out. The bridge door snicks shut — it’s a thick grille. None of the inside walls block sound too well. He leans a shoulder against the metal. Hall’s empty. It digs under Tage’s thoughts, the slow realization that rarely are any of the crew near Norris or Marcus. Or him.
“Assessment?” the captain asks, deceptively even-toned.
“They didn’t rupture any skin. No engine damage. It’s the shields that took the brunt of it.” Marcus sounds out of breath. “As I said, I reckon they were just curious as to what we are.”
“You’re shaking.” Sharp accusation. “I want a full report, Mr. Grey, and I want it now.”
A pause. Tage leans closer, breathes shallow so he won’t be heard.
“The wards are strained,” Marcus says at last. “Well below half capacity.”
“Is our hull pressure compromised?”
“Not yet, ma’am.”
A scuff of boots on the floor. “I haven’t yet rebolstered the spells. They’ll hold fast to our destination if we remain steady and don’t run into any more nautiluses.”
“I’m not an optimist, Mr. Grey.”
“Neither am I.”
“So we’re at minimized defenses, and we have over fifty leagues to landfall.” Norris sighs. “How soon will you be able to reinforce and repair your wards?”
“We were interrupted,” Marcus says slowly. “Sea monsters kill a mood right fast.”
“Then you’d best be back to your acquisition before we encounter any other unexpected elements.”
Tage grits his teeth, his spine chilled.
“Begging your pardon,” Marcus drawls, more bitterness than sarcasm. “It’s not as if I can pin him against the bunk and fuck him.”
“Make it that simple.”
The captain’s lucky there’s a metal wall between ’em. Tage swallows a curse, shaking.
“I don’t coerce my lovers,” Marcus says, angry. “Don’t spit on my honor, Captain.”
Norris’s tone don’t change. “We’re over twenty fathoms deep, Mr. Grey.” There’s finality in those words. “We have ten leagues before we’re clear of the trench and there’s no room for us to surface until we’re clear. I won’t risk the lives of my crew on your sense of honor.”
“I reckon you should remember it’s my honor that keeps this ship intact, Captain.”
Tage holds his breath, so tense his muscles hurt.
“There’s Alton,” Norris says. “Or the VanDrake. Those wards will be repaired within the hour.”
Silence leeches out, heavy in the narrow hallway. Tage’s heartbeat bruises his ribs.
“We have an understanding, Mr. Grey?”
Marcus don’t answer right away. Then, “Yes, Captain.”
The door latch grinds. Tage lurches backwards, wedges himself into the ladder well. Slides a knife from inside his boot into his palm. Anger chokes tight. He ain’t being used by anyone, not again. Goddamn it. He don’t know if he’s more mad or hurt. Worst of it is, he still wants the other wizard. It’s fucked up, he knows that. Wishes he didn’t care.
Marcus steps from the bridge. Tage bulls from the ladder well just as Marcus passes, slams the other man into the wall. Marcus grunts. Tage has the knife under his chin too fast for the other wizard to react.
“Ain’t happening,” Tage snarls.
Marcus scowls, don’t look surprised. “Put that away. My wards are life-linked. You kill me, the pressure will crush Whale Fall like a tin can.” He nudges Tage hard in the belly with a knife of his own. “Put it down, VanDrake.”
Tage is tempted to ignore the threat. But he ain’t gonna sentence the whole crew to death; he’s got enough blood etched in his hands. Slowly, he lowers his arm. Marcus removes the knife.
“You want a proper explanation?” Marcus’s worn eyes look old. Tired and hurt, for all his expression is steel. “Eavesdropping leaves out salient details.”
Tage’s jaw aches, teeth clenched. “Talk fast.”
Marcus scoffs, shoulders past him. “My cabin’s soundproof.”
Tage is torn. He don’t fear a fight. He’s got weight and muscle on the other man. He’s been well trained how to use it. And if Marcus’s words ring true, his magic’s tied into wards and spells lining the submersible. Gives Tage more of an advantage. No, he ain’t afraid. He wants to hear the clanless wizard’s explanation, even if it makes things worse.
Stiff-backed, he follows. Marcus’s cabin is in the submersible’s aft. Not much bigger than Tage’s bunk, but there’s ink drawings on the walls — crinkled and faded, near unrecognizable with water stains — and sea charts, maps, sketches of marine life.
There’s room for one chair nudged tight against the bunk, draped with Marcus’s duster and red fedora. Tage ducks through the door, stops on the threshold. Blocks the way out.
Marcus slumps on the bed. “I’m hardly in a seductive mood. Relax.”
“This why you brought me aboard?” Better rage than pain. “A goddamned tool to run your fucking ship?”
Tage could beat the hell out of the other man, easy. He’s done it often enough. It never fixes the dull guilt or hurt when he’s done, but that don’t stop him, either.
Marcus glances up, don’t raise his guard. Like he wants to get hit. “It wasn’t that difficult to find out who you were when you left your card at Anna’s. One of Madam Frost’s enforcers: her prized Tage Ranheim.”
Tage freezes at that. How much else does Marcus know?
Marcus rests his elbows on his knees. “The only scuttlebutt I could find was that you’d gone missing, suspected for dead. It wasn’t that hard to figure out what happened after that. You wanted to get away, and I could help. I didn’t hire you to warm my goddamn bed, VanDrake.”
“You did it just to help?”
“Oh, I had hopes for more, true. Do you blame me? Madam Frost isn’t exactly shy in choosing her entourage for their looks as much as skill and size, now is she?” The corner of Marcus’s mouth quirks. “I made mistakes, long ago. I’ve tried to make them up ever since. So yes, my friend —”
Tage punches Marcus in the jaw. The other man’s head snaps back. He kicks out, catches Tage in the hip, rolls off the bunk and lands crouched, his eyes suddenly flat. Tage staggers back, widens his stance, readies himself for a brawl.
“Don’t call me that,” Tage snaps.
Marcus stands, licks blood from a split lip. “Don’t lay hands on me like that again, unless you mean to carry through.”
Tage glares, wills Marcus to attack him.
As sharp as bone snapping, Marcus’s mood shifts again and the threat fades. “The wards didn’t need bolstering yet, for Hell’s sake. We shouldn’t have dived this far. Norris is impatient. We have sensitive courier messages and some, ah, goods that port masters aren’t keen to allow. Expensive spices, items for spellwork. She’s pushing too fast.” He twists his wrist, sleight of hand, and in his palm he holds the paper scrap Tage left for contact with Anna. “You asked for help. I reckoned I could offer that.” He snaps his fingers and the paper turns to ash. “Earlier? I wanted you in bed because I like you, Tage, there’s no other reason.”
“Your captain seemed pretty fucking clear what she wanted.”
“Norris is my captain, not my owner. We’ll make this simple. Will you help me?”
“Then I won’t touch you. You can finish your stint as a hired hand and put off at Aldare.”
It ain’t that easy. Never is. “What’re you gonna do?”
“Find a way to channel energy reserves to fix the godforsaken wards so we aren’t pulled into the lockers.” He yanks his fingers through his hair, tilts his head up. “I told Alton no. I’m not using him any more than I’m using you, and I’m not taking an apprentice.”
“And if you got no choice?” Tage’s voice is a rasp.
Marcus stares at him flatly. “Then Whale Fall will be lost with all hands.” There’s no conviction behind the words.
Tage swallows. He ain’t responsible for this crew. It ain’t his old gang, or his family.
He tries not to wish they hadn’t been interrupted, earlier. Tries not to wish he’d never listened in on Marcus Grey and Captain Norris. He thought, in his bunk, maybe he could have something good again.
“Go back to your cabin,” Marcus says, boot toes against Tage’s. “I’ll tell you when your muscle’s needed. We pump the ballast tanks —”
A shudder slams the length of Whale Fall. Marcus staggers, flinches as if kicked in the ribs. “Hell’s whisky.”
Tage backs out. “What’s wrong?”
Sweat beads across Marcus’s forehead. “We’ve been spotted.”
“Only thing in this trench that’s bigger than us. The nautiluses — the adults.”
Tage’s stomach lurches as the submersible lists again. “How do you kill ’em?”
“You don’t kill the gods of the sea, partner. You pray to your own. If we can’t outrun them, we’re dead men.” He sprints for the bridge.
Tage curses and follows.
More of the crew has gathered. Savatori. D’Flay. Alton. This time, Alton’s expression is glazed, content, drugged. He leans on Savatori’s arm.
Tage don’t get a chance to protest. Outside, lit by the ship’s lamps and its own luminescence, a giant nautilus hovers in the water. Massive tentacles half the Whale Fall’s girth slowly extend from a blue-grey shell. Tage can’t even see its full bulk, just one huge pearlescent eye.
“Mr. Grey,” Norris says.
Marcus leans against the captain’s chair. “Hour’s not up, ma’am.”
Tage feels the tension, so thick it chokes out any panic. No one moves.
“Stations, men. Prepare to fire harpoons, Madam d’Flay.” Norris’s commands are obeyed in silence. They’re all dead men walking, and they know it.
Savatori shoves Alton at Marcus, who catches the boy, supports him.
Tage reaches for a pistol he don’t have. “Don’t,” he whispers.
He ain’t gonna stand idle while anyone — wizard or not — rapes a kid for magic-fuel. It won’t work fast enough, anyhow. Those tentacles will crush Whale Fall long before Marcus has the strength to boost shields.
“I need your help,” Marcus says, between threat and begging. He shoves Alton to the floor.
The nautilus glows whitish-green, a hypnotizing series of lights that etch the shell and tentacles.
“Harpoons ready, Captain,” d’Flay says.
Norris lifts a hand. Marcus shakes his head. Despair masks even fear. Harpoons’ll do no good, and they only got two shots with the forward guns.
Tage keeps telling himself if he wanted to die, he’d have shot himself when Kane was killed. He won’t be used. Even if he gave in, there’s no time.
Tage can’t set the nautilus on fire, can’t shoot it or knife it. Frustration at his lack of options bubbles under dull terror. He don’t want to drown, crushed in metal and glass as the ocean pours in.
But there’s more than one way to use magic.
“Make us look like it,” Tage says. “Illusion the ship.”
The captain says, “Fire” just as Marcus cries, “No, wait —” and d’Flay releases the harpoons. They bounce off the nautilus’s shell and it rumbles.
Tage hasn’t got time. He shoves the raw, unchecked magic at Marcus. It’ll either work, or it’ll kill them both. Marcus said his magic is different. Adapted. Changed and strengthened and malleable. He’s had VanDrake lovers before. Tage won’t be used, but he can give Marcus some of the energy he needs. Power shared.
The magic burns, raw fire in his veins. It’ll hurt Marcus worse. But the other wizard don’t scream. A small, choked sound escapes him as he pulls the magic into him. Tage feels it being swallowed. He gasps, pain sparking white behind his eyes.
Startled, he realizes he’s seeing what Marcus sees.
The whole ship, outside and in. It don’t change, but its appearance does. Its skin ripples, shifts from metal and glass to shell and flesh. The outer lights dim, become luminescent. Eyes appear where the bridge is, and instead of Whale Fall, an adolescent nautilus stares back at the giant before it.
The questing tentacles pause.
Tage feels his body stretched, expanded beyond proportion. Against his skin, the weight of the sea presses, cold and solid, the world’s bones. It will turn him into nothingness and he’ll welcome it . . .
Inside the shell, heartbeats flutter. His. Marcus’s?
The ship-nautilus meekly pulls in its tentacles, waits before the sea god. Humble. Harmless. May I pass?
Tage can’t find his body. Panic touches cold inside the shell, in him. The illusion wobbles, pulled at the edges. The giant nautilus reaches again.
Hands grab his shoulder, his chin. Does he have a body still? The sea takes no notice of tiny motes, fragile bones crushed to nothing.
“Hold fast,” Marcus is saying, forever away. He’s pulling Tage apart; inside there is a vast expanse, never filled. The other wizard feels hollow, not-real. A shell washed clean on a beach. He’ll pull everything from Tage, unmake him.
Stop, Tage wants to say. He has will, somewhere. Knows he does. He ain’t . . . weak. Promised Kane he’d never be weak again, that he’d always protect them both. He can’t lose himself. He won’t.
Tage grasps at the things he knows are real. His coat, the scars, the memory of Kane and Bonnie and the Clan and food that ain’t stolen and soot in the air and cities and ghosts and pain and another’s warm, solid body against his. Not alone.
His vision blurs, shows him the ship and the not-nautilus and Marcus’s face right in front of him. He clamps down on the magic, on himself. Realizes Marcus is holding him up by coat-front and chin.
And he’s himself. He ain’t a ship or part of the sea. He ain’t a helpless kid no more. He won’t be broken, no matter how it feels inside.
He takes a breath, jerks away from Marcus. The man lets him go. Tage lands on hands and knees. The glass is blurry, or maybe it’s his eyes. Outside, the giant nautilus drifts by, an endless expanse of shell and light.
Tage feels the illusion burning his skin, his senses. Marcus holds it steady, body rigid and eyes blank. Tage can’t hear nothin’ but his weak heartbeat. Unsteady. Then stronger. He pushes himself to his knees, sways, blinks until his eyes clear. His bones ache, feels like he burned the marrow from ’em all.
“How long until we clear the trench, Mr. Savatori?” Norris’s voice comes at a distance.
“One league, ma’am.”
“Damage report, Mr. Grey?”
“We’re fine, Captain.” Marcus sounds like he swallowed razors. “We’re in the clear.”
Tage coughs. His chest aches, muscles strained, lungs aflame. Pain reminds him he’s alive, whole. Still himself.
Shaky laughter, relieved swearing. The crew calms. Except Norris. The captain stands, looks down at Tage.
Tage tries to brace himself. He’ll still fight, somehow. Ain’t gonna be put down easily. He’s survived because he don’t give in.
Marcus kneels, claps a hand on his shoulder, steadies him. “We’re in the clear now.”
Tage don’t blink or look away, realizes he’s already got a knife in hand.
Norris nods once. “Mr. VanDrake.”
“Captain,” Tage says, hoarse.
Marcus helps him to his feet, offers him an arm. Tage limps on his own until he’s in the narrow hallway. Wobbly, he leans against Marcus until his breath steadies.
“Thank you,” Marcus says.
Tage ain’t used to being thanked. He straightens a little, thinks the scraping ache from so much lost magic don’t hurt as much anymore. “Didn’t know it’d work.”
Marcus chuckles. “I’ve had worse done to me. I like how you think, though.”
Tage looks away. Too much is churning in his head. He stumbles, feet heavy. Marcus keeps Tage from falling.
“Get some rest,” Marcus says.
Tage stares at his bunk. His vision blurs at the edges.
“You’ll be safe,” Marcus adds, backing away. “You have my word on that.”
Tage shuts his eyes before he admits that means more than Marcus could ever realize. Safe. He believes it too, just this once. It lets him sleep.
He’s still thinking on Marcus’s words — “What will you do now?” — when Whale Fall reaches Aldare.
A new country, a new city. He’ll be alone again, this time with no backing from the Clan, no support, nowhere to return.
“You could stay,” Marcus said, the words running over and over through Tage’s head. He can’t ignore ’em.
Stay. Maybe not for long, but it’d hurt less not to be alone. He can’t forget Kane, forgive himself for failing. It can’t be so wrong to want to find a little peace, though, somewhere. Or maybe it is. He’s wanted worse.
The rest of the crew has disembarked. Marcus says he’s staying behind to prep Whale Fall and keep her ready while the crew takes a day’s leave and Norris sees to business. Tage stands on the low, flat deck of the submersible, staring at the rise of forest and mountains distant.
He notices Marcus beside him. The other man offers him a cigarette. Tage accepts. The wind tugs his hair, slides under his coat. One step down, into the skiff, and he won’t set foot on the submersible again.
“You still looking for a crew hand?” Tage asks at last.
Marcus grins. “I like men with previous sailing experience.”
A bit of strain eases inside Tage. They finish their smokes and climb below.
Marcus leans against the wall, his hat tipped back. “Not going ashore?”
Tage shrugs. He looks Marcus in the eyes. He knows what he wants. “Earlier, we got interrupted.” He kisses Marcus hard.
Heat and magic-sense tingles Tage’s mouth, spreads through his belly and legs. Marcus tangles his fingers in Tage’s hair, hooks an arm around Tage’s waist. Tage is pleased. Gentleness scares him, makes him think he’ll break the one he’s with.
“You all right with this?” Tage asks.
“Fuck, yes,” Marcus says, and kisses him again.
Impatient with clothes, Marcus drags him towards his cabin, pulls Tage down on the bunk. Tage unbuckles Marcus’s belt.
He ain’t alone tonight.
About the Author
Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter or their website. They have a story forthcoming in the Do Not Go Quietly and Unlocking the Magic, as well as several other anthologies out later in 2019.