By Angela Slatter
“Play,” they said and I did, plucking at a harp made of bone and sinew.
“Sing,” they said and I did, weaving words with water and making my listeners weep. I drew from their depths, from souls no one suspected, the dreams that might make them slumber. I surrounded them with lullabies to send gods to sleep, to keep them below and render them harmless to all that breathed above.
I surrounded them with lullabies to send gods to sleep, to keep them below and render them harmless to all that breathed above.
Too many had been the ages of pain and death, too long had the great old ones reigned. Enough, said my masters, enough. Too long had the dreams of men been troubled with the ructions of the star lords. Too often did they rise at whim from their undersea city, their R’lyeh, to walk the earth and bring darkness with them.
They wondered, my masters, how to keep the beasts beneath the waves. They thought music perhaps would lull them, that in the magic of sound, there might somehow be salvation. But who to play – who could play – such a tune? A competition was held to judge the best musician, the most enthralling player, the finest singer/seducer. They promised immortality, my masters, that no one would forget the winner’s playing – for that one, there would always be an audience. They gambled, quite correctly, upon an artist’s pride and arrogance.
And I won. Gods help me, I won. I was tasked to sit upon a high mountain by the sea, to play there and let the waves of my music swell and flow, to crash against the walking monstrosities, to enchant them, to lead them like stupid children into the deep, back to their sunken city.
The spells my masters had set around me meant I would not – could not – drown, that the water would be to me as the air had been. That my life would not wear out, that I would forever keep them under my thrall, my hideous listeners, eternally asleep. I did not pay attention, though, not carefully enough. Only once I’d been trapped did I replay the words in my head and realise what I’d agreed to do.
Eternally asleep, as long as I continued to play.
I think of the wife I had, sweet and tender.
I think of her belly swelling, rich and round.
I think of how I told her it would be all right. That I would return, my masters would reward me, and we would never want for anything ever again.
I thought, my pride blinding me, I need only sing them to sleep. But when the last notes of my song died away, I watched the great things stir and begin to wake. And I could not bear the thought that they would walk once more, that my wife might be endangered, that our child might be cast upon an altar for the satiation of beings that had come from dark stars.
And so I played again.
But lately, I am tired. I have been too long beneath the storm-tossed waves. Centuries, aeons passing, while I go on in an extended state of decay, neither living nor dying. I know not if I am a thing that remembers itself a man, or a man who thinks himself a thing.
My wife long ago was bones and dust, carried along the river of time.
My masters, likewise, have turned to ash.
What care I for a world I no longer know?
What care I for anyone else, when all I wish for is the balm of sleep? The balm I have given to these things for so very many years?
My fingers slow upon the strings and my song stops.
“Awake!” I say, and they do.
I watch them turn and roll, sloughing off their slumber like giants, like continents rising out of the sea, with the steam and stink of earth-birth hazing their grey-green skin. The water around us boils as if a volcano had grown.
Limbs like monumental trees shift, torsos like cliff faces heave, visages bereft of benign intent turn themselves upward so they might find the underside of the sea’s surface and know which way to go. They uncoil their bodies, stretch towards the sky and the air, think and seek to break the hold the waves have upon them, and to reach once more into the dreams of men.
“Rise,” I say, and they do. Released from sleep, they believe it a time when they might reclaim all that had been theirs.
Their largest, their lord, their priestly god ascends first, speeds upwards fastest to break free. The strokes of his great arms cause tidal waves; the bubbles from his newly-filled lungs, his once-forgotten breath, move big as buildings. Dead Cthulhu rises from his house in R’lyeh, his dreaming done and his waking mind focused upon an end, a finish, a catastrophe. Around me, his kin, his followers hum a tune of destruction, one that sounds so like my song that I feel, a-sudden, the keen dagger of my betrayal.
I think of what I have done. Of the promise I have broken, the covenant I have dishonoured. I think of the disappointment on my wife’s face should her shade discover my treachery. And I weep, though my tears mix with the sea, and no one but I would know of my remorse. I feel my own sleep creep upon me: a death and a forgetting, so close, so sweet.
And I fight it.
I put my hands once more to the sinuous strings of my harp and strum a tune to draw them back, these monstrous mountains, these great old ones who could bring only ruin to whatever roams above, whatever takes wing in the skies. All would fall beneath the merciless behemoth feet.
My voice catches all of them. Most of them. All but one. The others, still close enough to be caught upon the sweet hook of my song, the enchanting notes of my harp, settle once more. They go back to their dead, drowned houses, open the doors of heavy stone and retire.
But the greatest, the first amongst them, him I did not snare.
Cthulhu in rising, not dreaming, escapes the bonds of slumber.
Cthulhu rose and I know not where he resides or what destruction he causes. But I remember his terrible eyes as he swam upwards, as he gave me a single, contemptuous glance and knew what I had done, both to him and his, and to my own kind. He judged me a hollow, water-logged thing, a thing that remembers itself a man, barely worthy of a glance.
And it is that look, that longest, shortest of looks that keeps me playing, praying that my notes will linger forever.
Bio: Angela Slatter is a Brisbane-based writer of speculative fiction. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies such as Dreaming Again (Jack Dann ed), Tartarus Press’ Strange Tales II, the Twelfth Planet Press anthology 2012, and in journals such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer, ONSPEC, and Doorways Magazine. Her work has had several Honourable Mentions in the Datlow, Link, Grant Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies #20 and #21; and three of her stories have been shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards in the Best Fantasy Short Story category. She had two short story collections out in 2010: Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press) and The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales (Ticonderoga Publications). She is a graduate of Clarion South 2009 and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop 2006. She blogs over at http://angelaslatter.com/ about writing and random things that catch her attention from time to time.