I stood at the cliff’s edge and stared at the tablet in my hands as the first stars of the evening appeared in the bruise-black sky.
Here, here, here, here, here. The words swam across the etched bone and echoed in my bones.
“This is it,” I called to the gathered crowd behind me. “We’re here.”
Here, here, here, here.
“This can’t be it,” a voice cried back.
“It’s impossible,” said another.
“Shut up,” said a third, and I recognized it as Samuel, the healer-boy.
“Look — in the water.” Samuel again. “What is that?”
Everyone had been in a festival mood for the preceding week. Every last one of the Children of the Gods knew the timeline of the tablets backwards and forwards. On the first night of the dead moon in the Thirty-First year, the Children of the Gods shall cross out of the scrubland and into the Promised Land. Rich hunting and plentiful fish and good, clear waters await you, and your spawn shall be many, and no harm shall befall you from above or below. The Gods had never lied to us. We had weathered flood and famine and fire and fever, all with their guidance. We had wandered through the desert, the rock flats, the grassland, the mountains — we had seen loss and endured fear, and the Gods had always told us that we would make it through.
Everyone, even my most troubled followers, had been looking to the horizon all week. They would trail off in the middle of sentences, staring into the distance, their eyes bright. It’s there, they would whisper to each other. Just over that hill, just around the corner. The Promised Land. It’s there.
Marc ran up, Ducky clutched in his arms. She was fighting at her swaddling clothes, and as Marc pulled up short beside me, Ducky wrenched an arm free. She grabbed at a lock of my hair as it flailed in the cold wind that blew off the sea in front of us.
“Is this it?” Marc asked, his eyes fever-bright. He grinned so widely that I could see the shadow of his missing molar.
“I… it can’t be,” I said, searching his face for a sign of doubt. There was none — his faith was as intense and unwavering as the lightning that had instilled it in him. “This can’t be the Promised Land, Marc. There’s no land here.” I was ashamed at the note of pleading in my voice. “It’s all scrubland behind us, there’s no — this isn’t — stone and sea don’t make land.”
“It is, though, Fisher. It’s their land. Don’t you see?” He peered over the cliff’s edge. His sandal sent pebbles skittering down the cliffside; they landed in the water below, close enough that I could hear the splash but too far for me to see the ripples. A vast moon shone in the water. “They’re inviting us. We can join them. All we have to do is trust.”
I blinked. I looked up at the sky and rubbed my eyes with the hand that did not hold the Gods’ tablet. “This can’t be, Marc. Maybe… maybe they just don’t understand?” I let out a hoarse laugh. “We can’t live underwater. This can’t be it.”
There was no moon in the sky. It was a dead moon — the great bowl of the God’s light was empty.
But there it was, floating in the water below us.
Cries rose up behind me as my followers began to notice the light. I held up a hand to silence them, and listened hard for the Gods Whispers to tell me what to do.
Here, they repeated, maddeningly persistent, here, here, here, here, here.
In the water, another moon rose. And another, and another — and then there were dozens of them, hundreds, green-white and bobbing gently with the rocking of the sea. Tendrils floated between some of them, drifting with the motion of the water. Here, here, here, here, here.
“Do you hear them?” Marc asked, absentmindedly patting Ducky’s back with one hand. “Do you hear them, Fisher?”
I snapped my eyes to him. “What?”
“The Gods,” he said. A smile had spread across his face; his eyes were locked on the water.
“What do you hear?” I asked him.
He looked up at me and pointed to the water. “The Gods,” he said again. “They’re here.”
I would wonder later if I had reached for him or for Ducky. I would wonder if I had seen something in his face, illuminated by the bright light from below. Had I tried to save them both, or had I hoped to catch only one?
It didn’t matter, either way. My hands closed around a corner of swaddling cloth, and a too-small weight fell into my arms, and Ducky began to scream against my shoulder as Marc plummeted silently to the water below.
We made our way down the cliffside single-file, the pack animals left behind. I stumbled across the rocky slope in front of everyone, my hands and...