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This is the fourth chapter of my dissertation, my mermaid novel in the making. Here the narrative returns to the dark underwater world of a young merman following the Nameless, a servant of the Queen of Shadows. To freshen up your mind you may want to revisit the first chapter:

For hours the Nameless had guided the merman of the Atlantic through dark and cold water. The only source of light was the yellow orb of the monster fish, a foul light in the deep, the only light the merman could hold on to.

A silver glow appeared from above and he looked up. He could sense her again. There was the surface, not too far away, and the moon had broken through the clouds. Her light felt distant now, not like the merman was used to. She had always been a friend, a companion at night. Now she felt like an intruder.

‘I hate the moon’s light. I can feel it all over my body. But there is nothing to be done about it.’ The fish said and his voice cut through the water like an ice-cold stream. The Nameless’ voice was filled with hatred.

‘You hate the moon’s light? But how can that be, you can’t even see it.’ the merman said.

The fish growled and answered ‘But I can sense her. Her light. Her magic. She mocks me.’

The merman did not say anything in response. Again, he felt a strange form of compassion, a sadness within him, knowing that the giant fish felt this way. A fish like that should not be alive. He wondered if he would ever feel this way about the moonlight. There was a change in him already, he felt it inside of him, his inner ocean. He had sensed it when the moonlight had reappeared, when he had looked up, his eyes were almost blinded, as they had already grown used to the darkness around. The moon had never done this. She used to be a cool embrace.

The young warrior focused on the foul yellow light in front of him and felt better. Somehow, it had a comforting pull and a numbness spread inside his body, like something, or someone else was in control. Was it the fish’s magic or already the dark magic of his new Queen Mirah he could sense within the ocean?

In the emptiness ahead, voices and whispers began to ripple through the water. More than one fish was moving in the darkness. The sound of their tails was numerous, the fell voices appeared to belong to many horrid creatures.

‘As the foul moonlight shines light into the realm of darkness tonight, behold, the city of Mirah. The city of black marble.’ The Nameless said and swam straight ahead.

The merman could not believe what he was seeing. There, in front of him, in the dark blue water, stood a city. Towers of black marble and columns of grey stone appeared out of the blackness, the moonlight dipping all of it into a silver light. Blocks of marble appeared like tombs of ancient times. Faded writing was carved into gates and archways, impossible to decipher. It must have been an old language from when this city did not belong to Queen Mirah but to the merpeople of the Vert Kingdom. Back then it was green and golden, shining brilliantly under water. But now it was a grave, a place of shadows.

The two travellers swam past the first buildings, towering above them like petrified monsters. One of the towers had an archway, leading into absolute blackness. The merman tried to make out something with his silver-blue eyes, tried to find any shape within. Then he saw movement within the shadows. A pale arm reached for the merman! A bony hand with claws as long as the merman’s arm tried to snatch his fin but he backed away. The Nameless growled and quickly the hand retreated, scratching upon black marble. A painful screeching sound echoed through the city. With powerful strokes of his fin, the merman followed the Nameless.

‘What was that?’ He whispered, terrified.

‘This was a skeletal creature. They are always hungry but can never eat. They do not have teeth to bite. They do not have a tongue to taste. They do not have organs to digest food. But our Queen has created them, always hungry. She has just made them forget that they cannot eat. They are only bones and some rotting sinews holding them together. They kill anything that comes into their reach. They tear it up, try to swallow it but they cannot. So, they keep on killing. The Queen has made them this way.’

The merman looked to his left, right and down, afraid to witness any more horrors. But there was nothing there. Only black towers and stone buildings like tombs, black archways and gates leading into deeper shadows.

‘Where are all the citizens?’ The merman asked.

‘The other servants, you mean. The creatures of the deep, the shadow merpeople, the red skull sharks and many more do not like the moonlight. Just like me. But even when the moon is gone, they rarely come out. They are waiting for their Queen to command it.’

‘But don’t they have to eat?’

‘Most of them do not. Their life force is bound to the Queen. Many others do not dwell in this city, so close to the surface. A lot of her servants live in deeper and darker waters of the sea. They linger there until their Queen calls for them.’

The merman decided not to ask any more questions. With every horror he saw, with every answer he received, he wished to forget it all. But he could not. He had swum into a nightmare, a dark dream he had chosen to chase.

The Nameless and the merman continued their journey through the city of black straight ahead. While they swam by more giant towers, there were also ruins among the buildings. They were remnants of a time when this city stood proud in sparking golden sunlight. The merman wondered what it must have been like. These ruins were over seven thousand years old. And even those crumbled stones, their architecture, their carvings, still radiated a beauty that stood out among all the darkness. They appeared to be visible for a moment, as if they echoed sounds from a past long forgotten, only to be swallowed by shadows again.

And then, when the Atlantean believed not to see anything more intimidating than the black towers and their shadows, the Nameless and him stopped in front of a giant wall reaching up beyond the surface. Silver waves crushed against it, illuminated by the moonlight. It went on to the left and to the right, slightly curved, a ring wall, stretching out into darkness.

As if the Nameless had sensed the terror of the young warrior he said: ‘This is the first of the seven gates of the Queen and in between lie the seven circles of doom. They are borders in the water and reach beyond the surface. Here, her magic runs deepest. Here, her dominion is strongest. She raised these walls long ago. Even if enemies were to take the city, they would not be able to pass the seven walls. Her magic stands strong.’ The Nameless explained. ‘To pass through you must tell the wall of black who you are. It wants your name.’

For a moment, the merman lingered there in the water, afraid to say his name. But he could not return. His name would belong to the shadows now. He had made his choice when he had decided to come here.

‘My name is Thundolfor Armon, first warrior of the Atlantic Kingdom.’ He said and his words echoed through the water and were swallowed by the giant wall.

Thundolfor felt something leaving inside him. He sensed it deep within his inner ocean. His name did not belong to him entirely, anymore. He was now part of something else, something bigger, something dark.

‘Your name has joined the shadows now.’ The Nameless said amused.

The fish swam on and the merman feared the yellow light of the Nameless would bump against the black stone as he swam towards it, but the moment his lantern touched the wall, the stone began to ripple and an opening appeared. It was a black hole, an all-consuming shadow, even darker than the archways the skeletal creatures hid within.

‘Follow me.’ The Nameless ordered and Thundolfor could do nothing but follow the yellow light.

They passed through the first wall arriving in the first circle of doom. Behind Thundolfor the marble wall rippled again, and the stone wall was closed. The water here was very still, and strangely, tasted very fresh, as if there were corals or sea plants nearby. And when the merman looked down into the circle, the moonlight shone upon beautiful dark green seagrass, slowly moving with the current, peaceful and quiet. But when he looked closer, he could see that the leaves of the plants were razor sharp, they were formed like hooks, as if they were waiting to catch something.

‘This is not normal sea grass, is it?’ He asked his guide.

‘This is snatcher grass. Once entangled, you will be cut into pieces. But not only your flesh and bones. Your soul, your inner ocean as well. Take a closer look.’ The Nameless said.

Afraid to witness something he did not wish to see again, he looked, because he could not resist. There, among the leaves, in the thickness of the seagrass, he could make out something. When the moonlight shone down from the right angle, he could see shards of something, like broken silver glass entangled in the shadows.

‘What is that?’

‘They are broken inner oceans, torn to pieces. They will never find peace. Enemies, or traitors who especially displease the Queen are thrown in here. Although their physical pain is long gone, their inner oceans will forever be tortured by the never-ending cuts of the snatching seagrass.’

Thundolfor’s hands began to tremble.

‘I have heard about the horrors of this place, the unspeakable shadows living here. But this- this is worse than my darkest nightmares.’

‘There are more horrors to come, Thundolfor Armon. But you will be fine for now. As long as I am your guide.’ The Namless said and for the first time Thundolfor was grateful about the presence of the monstrous fish.

 He stayed close to the Nameless. He and his yellow light were his only guide, his only ally now. He looked up to the moon once more but he could not feel anything. She felt distant, as if she was just a light to shine upon all these horrors. Thundolfor felt almost angry that she was up there, that she illuminated all these horrors he would never wake from. He wished he could tear her down, stab the moon, slaughter her, make her light go out.

They swam over the field of seagrass, this outermost circle of doom, and reached a second wall. This one was of grey stone. Again, the moment the yellow light touched the wall, the stone began to ripple and they swam through. Thundolfor backed away immediately when he saw what was on the ocean ground of the other side. Skeletal creatures, thousands of them. In the moonlight their bones shone white and grey, crawling and towering above each other, trying to swim but unable to, their bony, greedy claws reaching out for the merman and his guide. Their empty sockets of their eyes tried to see them. The black holes where their noses should have been tried to sniff them out. But they were senseless, only hungry, always starving. The Nameless did not even pay any attention to them. And how could he when he was blind? He might have been distracted by the noise they made, by their hungry calls, but he must have swum above them so many times, he did not even care anymore. This time Thundolfor swam next to the fish, close to the yellow light, just looking at it, fearing the terror below.

Quickly they reached the next circle wall. Surprised, Thundolfor realised that this one was white. It was pure shining marble, a great contrast to everything he had seen previously. The moonlight made it glow within the dark, but it did not feel like a kind white, like the merman remembered the fluffy clouds drifting on above the sea on a sunny blue day. This white was pure and radiated power, an energy beyond the merman’s comprehension. He could sense ancient and dangerous magic within its stone.

‘This wall will demand something of you again. Every newcomer has to open it on their own.’ The Nameless said.

‘But how?’ Thundolfor whispered anxiously.

‘Touch the wall and give it a precious memory. One of light.’

Thundolfor closed his eyes. He tried to block out the horrific sounds of the skeletal creatures below. He focused on his inner ocean, and deep inside within the blue and silver waves of his mind, there it was, a memory of his childhood. He remembered his mother. Her kind face, her brown eyes, sparkling in the light of the broken sunrays reaching down from the surface. She smiled at him and handed him a little yellow coral to take care of.

Thundolfor touched the shining wall and it ripped the memory apart. It was not gone, it was still there, no longer whole but like a shadow with no more kindness left inside, a memory broken in two. But the magic had worked. An opening appeared.

‘Well done.’ The Nameless said, impressed.

But Thundolfor did not like the Nameless complementing him. The young warrior felt sick. More shadows had spread inside his inner ocean. What once glowed silver inside of him had now taken on a darker shade.

Thundolfor opened his eyes. The radiancy was so strong, it almost blinded him. A moment later they were in the next circle and the crawling sounds of the skeletal creatures had disappeared. There was silence all around them.

Thundolfor was ready to witness another horror of the deep but all he saw on the ocean ground below him were beautiful marble sculptures. They were not realistic figures, not sculptures one could immediately identify as an actual merman, mermaid or some animal. These were ideas of things, bodies whose meaning went beyond imitating the natural world.

‘They are beautiful.’ Thundolfor whispered.

‘Many have said so. I cannot judge. Many do not know what they really are.’

‘What are they?’ Thundolfor asked and immediately regretted his question.

‘Do you really want to know?’ The Nameless asked.

 The next sound he made appeared to the merman like laughter. Thundolfor wondered if the fish took pleasure in his fear and his feelings of disgust about all these circles.

‘I am afraid of the answer, but I must know.’ He said and looked at the sculptures, these perfect bodies, these perfect shapes, standing tall like immortal beings.

‘Our Queen has encountered countless intelligent, outstanding merpeople and other magical creatures of the free world during her reign. Some of them appeared to be wiser or smarter or more creative than our Queen. Their minds were able to create better ideas, greater magic than hers. But that was not allowed to be. Whenever she noticed a magical creature appearing to be intellectually brighter than she was, she found them. And before she killed them, she ripped their ideas from their brains, from their inner oceans, and would make sure they would know that she would take their ideas from them before they died and make them despair. She took the mutilated ideas with her and transformed them into these sculptures, making them her own. Enormously potent magic flows through these figures; all tortured, all twisted, all belonging to her.’

Thundolfor felt even sicker. He wanted to throw up but he could not. His eyes were too busy taking in every bit of the sculptures. They were wonderful and terrifying. He could not help it. He admired and feared the Queen of Darkness.

The next gate pulsated dark red, as if it was alive, as if it had veins filled with blood, held together with transparent skin.

‘This wall demands blood.’ The Nameless said and Thundolfor understood.

‘But I don’t have anything sharp to cut my hand.’

‘You will not need anything sharp.’ The Nameless said and for a second Thundolfor thought he would bite him but he simply swam aside and gave Thundolfor space.

‘Touch the wall.’ The Nameless ordered. ‘It wants your blood.’

Thundolfor did not hesitate. He was a warrior. He was not afraid of blood. He touched the pulsating wall. It felt warm, like skin with blood pulsating beneath. As if it was alive. He could feel something move within it, something sharp, like little teeth. Something unknown clawed at his hand, cut through his skin, and drops of the merman’s blood joined the horrid wall. Thundolfor felt that it held absolute control of him. He was at its mercy. It did not hurt, but fear filled up his entire body, nonetheless. What kind of evil magic was this? Then, as if the wall had a tongue, it licked over the merman’s cut, and his wound closed as he drew back his hand. His blood had joined the shadows now.

This time there was no ripple, but it looked as if the gate split in two, like a cell dividing. They swam through the cut and utter blackness was beneath them. Even the moonlight was almost completely swallowed here. The Nameless swam faster, as if he wanted to leave this circle as quickly as possible. The merman could sense even greater fear growing inside of him. Again, his hands began to shake. There was something down there in the dark, something watching them, hungry and waiting for them to not be quick enough. This time, he did not dare to ask the Nameless what was down there. He was so afraid. No sound passed his lips.

Moments later they reached the next wall. It was one of ice, coldness Thundolfor had never felt before. He waited for the yellow light to touch the wall and create a gate again. Please, let there be no more giving of memories or blood. He did not want to stay here! But the fish began to swim through it, ice clawing at him, making him move slower, as if he had to fight his way through it.

Thundolfor panicked. He did not want to be left alone in this circle with some malice watching him. Swishing his silver fin with all the force he had, he rushed at the ice wall and although it seemed as if a billion needles would pierce his muscular body, he tried to swim through. The ice wall was so cold, it did not just burn his skin, he felt it deep inside his inner ocean too. It clawed at him, almost froze him inside out, but then it let him pass. When he reached the other side, he breathed ice cold sea water through his gills.

‘What was that?’ He asked the Nameless, louder than he anticipated.

‘It was the wall of eternal ice. Ice so cold it can never melt. Your inner ocean will feel it for some time. The wall is a torture of its own. It is one of the Queen’s finest creations. This icy wall is thinner than seagrass yet it is stronger than all others that came before. No enemy of hers may pass through. Their inner oceans would freeze before they reached the other side.’

‘And the darkness before? In the abyss? What was down there?’

The Nameless backed away, as if afraid of the question.

‘The Nameless do not speak of it. It is a monster even older than our Queen. She commands it and I hope she will never have to wake it.’

The coldness around him, and his guide’s answer, made the merman shiver. This was another reason why his plan to become the Queen’s spy had to work. She must not unleash her full power on the last free kingdoms. If they were to be defeated soon, the Queen might show mercy. She would kill a lot, but not all of the free merpeople. It was a sinister hope of the merman but the only hope that was left for him.

They swam through this empty but cold circle with nothing there but frozen sand on the ground. It glittered like diamonds in the moonlight, beautiful and cold. Some sand grains appeared to be bigger than others though. They were strangely shaped, almost like diamond rocks.

‘They are frozen inner oceans, aren’t they?’ Thundolfor asked the Nameless.

‘Yes, indeed. They are inner oceans of enemies and friends of our Queen alike. Inner oceans she admired when they were alive. She is working on magic of a certain kind to find new bodies for them. Make these remarkable inner oceans her slaves. And in the meantime, they remain here. Frozen so cold they are burning.’

It was not the coldness that made Thundolfor shiver, but the thought of his inner ocean ripped from his body and put into another, forever a slave serving Queen Mirah. But wasn’t he already her slave? Not really, he thought. After all, he had come to her willingly, with a plan of his own.

 Thundolfor looked onward and realised that something was glowing in the distance. It was the sixth wall, the sixth gate ahead. This was a wall of pure magic, glowing bright green in front of them. The merman could sense it within his beating heart and within his inner ocean. This gate was pure power. All the might of Queen Mirah was glowing in front of him.

‘I always feel energised at this gate. Every servant of the Queen can feed on her power here. Every enemy would be ripped apart.’ The Nameless sounded relieved, touched the magic wall with his yellow light and a round opening appeared, like a portal. They swam through. Inside, pure power rushed through the merman and he could feel how mighty magic filled up his inner ocean, an essence of magic, he would never dare dream about.

‘Did you feel it too?’ The Nameless asked energised.

‘Yes.’ Thundolfor said and for the first time since he had come into the realm of the Queen, he wanted to experience more of it.

Once they had left the green wall behind, Thundolfor saw that the penultimate circle was another dark place. It was a strange one, where black buildings, similar to those in the city, rose like tombs from the ground. But these ones had no windows, no archways. They were square blocks of dark marble.

‘The Queen’s closest servants live in the houses of black. Her strongest warriors and her closest allies, like Celeborn, Waron or Kataja. Have you heard of them?’

A shadow passed over Thundolfor’s face and he simply responded as cold as the wall of ice: ‘Yes.’

They swam over the black houses. No sound or light came from them. And there, in the distance, stood the palace like a diamond in the dark. They came closer and marvelled at a palace shimmering with power. It was a round building, a dome of crystal glass but the merman could not see inside. It glittered silver in the distant moonlight. Still, he knew that within was a terror greater than all the ones he had passed this night.

‘This is where I leave you, Thundolfor Armon, first warrior of the Atlantic Kingdom. I sense you have a powerful inner ocean. Our Queen might let you live. And if she will, you will live a cursed life.’ The Nameless said and again Thundolfor was not sure if it was sadness he could sense in the monster’s voice.

He wanted to thank the Nameless for guiding him and the words had almost passed his lips when he chose not to. Why should he be thankful for the fish who brought him here? He was the one who showed him darkness, the one who guided him safely to a gruesome possible death.

One last time, the merman looked up, beyond the surface, to the moon, which, like a shining shadow, was no longer part of his world. He was with darkness now. He remembered why he had come. What he tried to do. He still wanted to go through with it. He had come this far. A wave of courage went through his body and he sensed a glimmer of moonlight still sparkling within his inner ocean.

The yellow orb of the Nameless touched the silver glass and a crystal gate opened before the young merman. He was ready to pass into the seventh and final circle of doom.

One comment on “Chapter Four: The Seven Circles of Doom

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