Despite a blanket of gloomy clouds, a few rays of sunlight shine down on the Triumphant Heron. Below, the ocean stirs restlessly as currents send waves wandering through the sea without aim. A wave crashes against the Heron’s hull, briefly casting a thin haze of sea spray over its deck. The diver turns his face away from the mist for but a moment before returning attention to his companions.
“You sure this thing will work all the way down?” The diver taps his finger against a jewelled silver necklace laid against his collarbone. The captain of the ship steps towards the edge of the boat and briefly peers over, into the deep.
“No way to know. Nobody’s ever gone all the way down before. Still,” the captain steps closer to the diver now. Her voice tries to carry a reasonable tone, but her eyes turn downwards and to the side in that way that eyes often do when they try to conceal ambition and excitement. “Isn’t the risk worth it? We have the chance to see something that nobody has ever seen, that might change the course of history, and you can be the one to see it first.” Nervousness still drips from the diver’s face, but it begins to fade. He becomes more upright, more open, until eventually pride and conviction radiate from him. He nods.
“Give me the weights.” A sailor hands a belt covered in metal plates to the diver, and he promptly secures it about his waist. Another crew member, this one much older and dressed in arcane robes, briefly pages through a book before extending his hand towards the diver. His palm shines a purplish light on the diver’s shoulder, briefly illuminating it before erasing the skin from sight. The invisibility spell spreads across the diver’s body as he steps to the edge of the ship and stares into the abyss below. “Alright. Hey, cap’n,” he says over his vanished shoulder, “if your little enchanted trinket fails and I end up crushed at the bottom of the ocean, you can expect a strongly worded letter from my wife.” The captain chuckles. The diver laughs too, but more to convince himself that the prospect is actually funny. He takes a breath. He jumps.
The ocean swallows him whole.
As he plummets into the deep, the chain wrapped around his neck quickly constricts about his throat until it forms a taut band. For a moment, searing agony tears across his skin and he screams his only breath away into the sea. All thoughts flee his mind save terror and shame at the thought of drowning before his venture even begins, of falling prey to the hunger of the ocean. But suddenly, the pain is gone, and more importantly, the diver finds that he can breathe again. Saltwater filters through him as newborn gills take their first breath of the deep. With time, he grows accustomed to the sensation and focuses his gaze forwards as intently as one can focus on darkness. Deeper he goes.
Minutes pass. Maybe hours—he does not know, but finally, he sees it: the threshold. A great, glowing ravine slowly fades into view, casting rays of green light across the ocean floor. The diver is awestruck, but rapture turns to terror as the light catches something else. First, he sees only a conical silhouette drifting through the abyss, moving continually towards him until at last the glow reflects against a massive, bulbous eye. He holds his breath as the creature’s body enters his view, concluding in a swarm of boneless arms that seem to never end. The diver cannot help but quiver as a squid three times the length of the ketch waiting for him at the surface jets past him, its carriage-sized eye staring straight through him. A brief eternity passes before the creature is gone, and the diver finally reaches the opening. The light cast from the gorge’s walls now nearly blinds him, reflected and refracted from the cavern below off of tremendous geodes lining the entrance. This is insane, he thinks to himself, yet nonetheless he grips the edge of the threshold, shuts his eyes, and forces himself through.
When he opens his eyes, the diver gasps aloud. The cavern is lined in peculiar greenish bubbles, glowing by some unknown mechanism. More daunting, however, are the pillars: legions of great white obelisks organised into concentric circles, each containing dozens of shelves with hundreds of books upon them. The diver stops sinking when he lands on top of one of the pillars in the centermost circle.
WHY HAVE YOU ENTERED MY SANCTUARY?
A deep voice booms throughout the cavern, vibrating the walls and the water with such force that the diver is knocked to his knees. He whips his head about, searching for the source, and though he cannot find the speaker, he knows what it is. He attempts to respond, but the uncontrollable quaking in his jaw leaves him unable to form words. Above, the seam in the ceiling begins to shudder before closing, sealing the diver inside the Sanctuary.
I KEEP THE THRESHOLD OPEN ONLY SO THAT MY ATTENDANTS MAY PASS THROUGH AS NECESSARY.
The stones and sand at the floor of the cavern shift and stir with every pulse of the voice. The diver is further knocked down by the reverberations, reduced to curling his body into a coil and covering his ears in a vain attempt to shield them. Only one thought remains in the diver’s mind.
I never should have come here.
NOT FOR THE ENTRY OF DISTURBING…
The diver gasps as he realizes something terrible. The voice isn’t what shook the cavern. In the center of the pillars, the sand bursts upwards to form a cloud of sediment. A draconic silhouette grows within the haze, emerging from the ground below. When the sand disperses, a leviathan sea-dragon hovers at the heart of the Sanctuary, a terrifying wonder of ten thousand scales, ten thousand teeth, and a gaze that bores directly through the diver’s invisible, cowering body. An irritated grimace hangs from its maw.
The diver screams. An unseen, ethereal tendril reaches into his being and rips something out, and with an instantaneous flash of purple magelight, his form becomes visible once again.
YOU ARE A FOOL TO BELIEVE THAT YOUR QUAINT MAGICS CAN KEEP YOU HIDDEN FROM THE GOD OF WISDOM IN HIS HOME.
With surprising quickness, the dragon of the deep drifts towards the diver until the human is dwarfed next to the serpent’s titanic eye.
USUALLY I WOULD HAVE YOU IMMEDIATELY RETURNED TO THE SURFACE, YET SOMETHING ABOUT YOU INTRIGUES ME. TELL ME, DEAR MORTAL, WHY HAVE YOU RISKED SO MUCH TO COME HERE?
After a moment, the diver stumbles to his feet. He unconsciously arches his back away from the god floating but feet away from him, but he gives his best effort to present a bold face.
“Novask, patron of mages, Scholar of the deep—”
DO NOT WASTE MY TIME.
The diver cowers as the dragon’s voice shakes his entire body.
“Yes, yes of course.” The diver regains his posture and gathers his thoughts. “I came here seeking your knowledge of the sparks. There are rumors at the surface that you have studied aspects of them unknown to any human.” Novask’s eye blinks once before disappearing below the ledge of the pillar. The great beast drifts with an uncanny grace through the expanse of monoliths behind the diver as he looks among the thousands of books.
I DO NOT OFTEN MEET WITH YOUR KIND. I FIND YOU TO GENERALLY BE A DULL AND INSUFFERABLE LOT.
The dragon pauses at one of the pillars and begins to look through the various shelves of books.
YET THROUGHOUT HISTORY, IN THE STRANGEST OF TIMES, I HAVE OPENED THE DIALOGUE TO IMPART MY KNOWLEDGE UNTO YOU.
Novask makes a motion much like a nod, though somehow more alien. The diver is suddenly swept off of his feet by an overwhelming current and brought to the wisdom dragon’s side. Directly in front of him is a series of books, but one stands out: an extraordinarily thick tome titled A Treatise on Abnormal Metaphysics: Abridged (Vol. I-XVII).
THESE ARE STRANGE TIMES INDEED.
The diver reaches out and takes the book. As he begins to page through it, he sees that it is not written in words, but in understanding; it is not written of ink, but of thought. Pages of inscrutable non-words written in non-ink brand themselves directly into his mind, burning his retinas with embers of revelation.
YOU VALUE THE PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE ABOVE EVEN YOUR OWN SELF. THERE IS A VALUE TO THIS. I GIFT THIS TOME TO YOU, THAT IT MAY ILLUMINE YOUR KIND AND GUIDE YOUR FUTURE.
The divers hands tremble. A force in the water helps him to guide the book back to its place on the pillar as proofs of impossible geometries dance across his vision. He nearly laughs, not out of madness or delusion, but out of realisation: the sudden simplicity of what once was so arcane.
TAKE THIS KNOWLEDGE TO THE SURFACE. DO NOT RETURN. I ACCEPT YOU TODAY, BUT I AM LOATH TO BE DISTURBED AGAIN.
Before he can respond, the diver feels a lurching sensation in his stomach and suddenly feels very, very heavy. One second later, he crashes onto a floor of wooden planks, writhing both in pain from the impact and a burning sensation in his throat. A crew member rushes to his body and cuts the chain of the enchanted necklace with a pearling knife, instantly shutting the gills on the diver’s neck and returning his breath to him.
“Out of the way!” The captain pushes her crew out of her way as she approaches the diver. “What—what happened? Did you find anything?” The diver coughs a mouthful of seawater onto the deck. He rubs his eyes dry and takes a deep breath when he realises that he is once again aboard the Heron. “Tell us! What happened?” the captain badgers him.
“Pun. Pepper.” The words fall from the diver’s mouth like weights. He shakes his head in frustration. “Punn. Peper.” The Heron’s crew looks at him with both concern and confusion. The diver spits more saltwater onto the deck before speaking slowly and carefully. “Pen. Paper.” The man in robes rummages through a satchel next to the boat’s main mast before producing a quill, a reservoir of ink, and a square of parchment for the diver. The diver begins to write feverishly, his hand seeming to operate of its own accord. Formulas, arguments, axioms: all manner of new ideas pour out of the divers hand and onto the page until it is completely full. “More,” he demands. “More paper.”
The captain squats next to the diver and pats him on the shoulder. “We should get you some food and wa—”
“More.” After exchanging glances with the man in robes, the captain reluctantly nods to him. The man in robes gives more paper to the diver, and the diver writes.
And he writes.
And he writes.