NaNoWriMo 2019, #10: Under the Sea

Mermaid

Lytha had never turned one of her students into a toad before, but she seriously considered making an exception.

“Then again,” she told herself, “I might need something more immobile to keep Tiane on task. A chair or a stone might do.”

The girl had crept through the hall as carefully as she could, but Lytha’s years as a schoolteacher—even before her current experience as a wizarding instructor—had trained her senses well. By now, she could practically smell misbehavior.

Tiane returning to her room bore no suspicion on its own. In fact, if she had finished cleaning the dining hall in a timely manner, she was right on time. However, her punctuality itself raised Lytha’s suspicions. The fact that her head and shoulders appeared to be stained purple only caused more questions.

“I’ve seen thieves peek through keyholes when they prepare to break into a building,” came Garyl’s voice from behind her, “but I don’t think I’ve seen somebody in a secure room peeping out of one before.”

Lytha gritted her teeth, stood up, and whirled around. She had indeed been crouching by the keyhole in her personal chamber, spying on Tiane as the girl crept away from her discipline. Garyl now sat in the large comfortable chair that served as a centerpiece to her sitting room. A table next to him bore a silver platter, a glass of wine, and five small biscuits that were to serve as Lytha’s evening snack. The night folk’s hand wavered above one of the biscuits in a threatening manner.

“Don’t you dare touch those,” she hissed. “If you eat even a crumb off that platter, I will cut your hand off, transform it into biscuits, and serve them to tomorrow’s transmogrification students.”

Garyl’s eyes widened at the threat, particularly since it was delivered with all the determination and anger of somebody who planned to follow through. He moved his hands away from the biscuits and folded them neatly in his lap.

“Why are you here?” As soon as Lytha spoke the question, she changed her mind and asked another. “How are you here? Teleportation is—”

“Not allowed on campus grounds,” Garyl finished. “Yes, I know, so I didn’t try.”

“Well you certainly didn’t come through my door,” Lytha said. She shot a glance toward the chamber’s large shuttered window, but it remained latched from the inside. “So how?”

“Isn’t it fun sometimes not to know?” Garyl asked. “When you spend all your time inside the walls of a magic academy, you forget the fun of not knowing how the trick is done.”

“Wonderful,” Lytha groaned. “You vanish for almost a year, and then you reappear here to give me lessons on magic.”

“Why did you make Tiane scrub the floors?”

“Punishment,” Lytha answered.

“For what?”

“Assault and attempted arson. Are you just here to interrogate me?”

Garyl stood up, paced around behind the chair, and inspected the oak bookshelf that stood next to the shuttered window. He made a vague gesture toward the chair. Despite feeling insulted by the invitation to sit in a chair she owned, Lytha sat down and grabbed a biscuit.

Lytha followed the biscuit with a sip of wine. Garyl walked into her field of vision again, each footstep making no sound at all on the stone floor. He crouched by the doorway, looked through the keyhole much as Lytha had done, and then stood up again.

“I hear she’s not doing very well at her studies,” he said, turning toward Lytha again.

“Her studies are nonexistent,” Lytha answered. “She has shown no focus toward actually learning even the simplest of spells. Whatever innate ability you think she possessed seems to have vanished. I’ve tried putting her under stress to ignite the spark, but the only thing I accomplished was causing her to try to scratch my eyes out.” She folded her hands and frowned, feeling the wrinkles creasing along her brow as she did so. “You might want to consider that her ability was never meant to last. I’ve seen blessings and hexes before. They can manifest as powerful magic, but then vanish and never return.”

Garyl muttered to himself and moved his fingers as though he was counting something. Then he returned to the conversation. “Have you tried to kill her?”

“What?!” Lytha gasped. “No! What kind of person do you think I am?!”

“It’s a legitimate question,” Garyl defended. “Sometimes innate magic only manifests in life or death situations.”

“I don’t attempt to murder my students!”

“Okay, okay,” Garyl said, patting the air as though that patronizing maneuver did anything but make Lytha’s mood worse. “I don’t know the details of how you run your school, remember?”

“No…you just pop in and out whenever you see fit to pester me.”

“Pester?” Garyl placed a hand to his chest. “I’m hurt. You’re my oldest friend, you know.”

“If that’s a crack about my age—”

“No, no…I meant in terms of how long I’ve known you. Why, I still remember the conversations we used to have when you were cleaning out stables in Lorinth as a little girl.”

“Did you sneak in here just to stroll down memory lane?”

The beginnings of a nostalgic smile died on Garyl’s face. His posture stiffened and his body tensed noticeably as his mind returned to the present.

“If she has no potential, why have you kept her around this long?” he asked. “Don’t your duties make you too busy to waste your time on somebody who can’t learn?”

“I didn’t say she couldn’t learn,” Lytha defended. “But she doesn’t show any desire to do so. With no magic potential of her own, it would take her years of intense study to be able to learn the art of magic. Frankly, she seems more interested in causing trouble than learning anything. But you paid enough to keep her around for a time. Besides…she doesn’t have any other place to go for the time being.”

“Given what I saw in the dining hall, I assume she doesn’t get along with the other students?”

“No,” Lytha confirmed. “The students here either had to pass rigorous exams in order to prove their worth, or they belong to an aristocratic family and are still foolish enough to think the world owes them something. They see somebody who has neither the talent nor the family connections they possess. Since I haven’t explained to them why she’s here, they see her as a threat or fair game.” She leaned forward in her chair and folded her hands. “Did you happen to see who played the prank on her?”

Garyl shook his head. “Somebody who was smart enough to use an invisibility spell. If Tiane had seen them, she probably would have given them the bruised shin she gave me instead.”

“Hm…no matter. Invisibility narrows it down. They’ll be punished accordingly. Of course, if Lytha just reported the problem to me instead of trying to take matters into her own hands, she wouldn’t have to sneak into her room to clean up.”

“Oh, that’s only part of the reason she’s sneaking around,” Garyl said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Is that so? Dare I ask what the other reason is?”

“Nothing serious,” Garyl responded. “She’s just slipping out so I can take her somewhere outside the city.”

Lytha scowled. “We have a curfew, you know.”

“Yes, but she’s already out the door. Don’t worry—she’ll be back by morning and we can talk more then.”

Lytha stood up and stormed to the door. She reached out to grab Garyl by the shoulder and push him out of the way, but her hand passed right through him.

“Now you’ve done it,” Garyl said with mock dismay. “You’ve gone and figured out how the trick was done.” The illusory Garyl’s form blurred, then began to fade away into mist. “But at least I got the wall clean downstairs before you figured it out.”

With that, Garyl disappeared entirely.

For a moment, Lytha considered throwing on her robes and looking for the wayward pair. Returning to her chair and her biscuits, she thought the better of it. She could think her revenge through much more effectively with a full belly and a good night’s rest.

***

“This is stupid,” said Tiane. “Why do I ever listen to you?”

“Would you rather spend your night scrubbing stone?” Garyl retorted.

They had left the city behind hours ago, and now climbed a steep slope that pointed in the direction of the rising sun. Garyl moved energetically, his eyes flashing and a smile beaming on his face. Tiane had already worn herself out on the trek. Sweat streamed from her brow and she gulped for breath as she struggled to keep up with her fleet and slender guide.

The slope ended so suddenly that Tiane almost didn’t see it coming. Garyl stopped abruptly and dropped into a sitting position right on the edge of the cliff, letting his legs dangle over the side. Still hustling to catch up, Tiane almost found herself carried by momentum over the edge. She stopped less than a foot away from a sheer drop that ended in ocean waves some 50 feet below. Following Garyl’s lead, she sat down. She didn’t put her feet over the edge, instead sitting cross-legged at a point where she could see the ocean but didn’t feel like a strong breeze would send her plummeting to her doom.

“Look,” Garyl said, pointing to the horizon where the light had begun to shift from indigo to red-orange. “The sun rises and a new day begins. You have no idea how many people thought they could stop that from happening.”

“Don’t tell me we came all this way just to watch a sunrise,” Tiane said after she had caught her breath. “We could have done that from the top floor at the academy.”

“No,” Garyl said. “This is just an opportunity to appreciate something beautiful. There’s still a lot more fun to be had.”

More fun?” Tiane asked sarcastically. “How will I ever manage to contain myself?”

“Okay, make fun of me,” Garyl said. “Or enjoy the sunrise. Which would you prefer?”

“I’ve seen a million sunrises,” Tiane replied. “I don’t need to see anymore.”

“No you haven’t,” Garyl said. “I haven’t even seen a million sunrises, and I have quite a bit of an advantage of you. You’re at…let’s see…fifty-one hundred sunrises, at most.”

Tiane rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the careful tally.”

“Just look,” Garyl said. He pointed to the horizon, where the top sliver of an orange sun had begun to rise. “Look at the sunrise. Don’t roll your eyes and tell me how stupid I am—you can do that later on. Just look at what’s happening in front of you, focus on that alone, and tell me how you feel.”

Tiane took a deep breath and looked toward the horizon. The purple clouds immediately made her think of the prank somebody had left for her at the academy, and she felt her blood boil. When she was through with this little field trip—and after she had endured whatever punishment Lytha had in store for her for sneaking out—she would find whoever did that and make her pay, one way or another.

Her mind calmed down, however, as she continued to gaze at the horizon. The sun crept its way up the sky with a slow, methodical nature that seemed completely alien to her. The wind brought a chill to her skin, but in a comfortable way that made her appreciate getting outdoors. The surge of ocean waves far below had a calming effect and seemed to move at roughly the same pace as her heartbeat. Before she knew it, Tiane felt calm for the first time in years. Without thinking about it, she even felt a smile start to creep onto her face.

“See?” Garyl said, almost ruining the moment. “It was worth the trip.”

“It’s nice,” Tiane admitted. “But it’s going to feel a lot less worth it when I have to talk to Lytha again.”

“Don’t worry,” Garyl reassured her. “You’re under my supervision. Think of this as a field trip.”

“I didn’t know you were a teacher.”

“I’m not—not a very good one, at least. But even though I don’t have a post at the academy, I have a way of getting what I want out of Tiane. She’ll blame me for this one, not you. Although if you didn’t physically attack students, you could probably avoid more punishment in the future.”

“The girl I punched had it coming,” Tiane defended.

“Doubtful,” Garyl replied. “And even if she did, it’s never wise to pick a fight with a wizard when you have nothing but your fists.”

“I don’t try to go in unarmed. Every time a fight starts, I try to remember what I did to Falden’s guards. If that ever comes back to me, those little schoolchildren had best watch out.”

Tiane spoke with a wicked smile on her face, but Garyl didn’t return her expression. Instead, his face grew grim.

“You don’t want to do that,” he said. “You really don’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because then Lytha would have to really put a stop to you. And if she didn’t, I would.”

“You can’t scare me with threats.”

“It’s a fact, not a threat. Do you know how long Lytha tried to deal with Falden without killing him? She must have spent years trying to get through to him through diplomacy, through the law, and even through magic. It was only when she had no other choice at all that she called me in to finish him off.”

“And during all those years, he kept using and abusing people,” Tiane replied hotly. “How much suffering happened because you two took your time?”

“And how much more suffering will happen because Lytha couldn’t get Falden to tell her about his contacts, who bought slaves from him, what officials he bribed…the list goes on.” Garyl sighed. “I don’t know how to balance everything out on a cosmic scale. I can’t see all the threads that unravel when I pull a loose end. But I do know that I hate killing. I think there was a time when I didn’t mind it, and I think before that I even liked it. But now it hurts my soul every time. If there’s a way to do some good while not ending somebody’s life, I want that every time.”

“Says the person who calls himself Shadowslayer,” Tiane retorted. “How did you come by that name, anyway? Is it some weird sort of family name, or did you earn it as a title?”

Garyl chuckled. “I gave it to myself.”

Tiane laughed out loud. The noise surprised her and seemed to carry for miles along the open countryside. “You must have thought pretty highly of yourself, then.”

“It was supposed to be a metaphor, I think,” Garyl said. “I wanted to reinvent myself—to move away from the person I had been. I saw my past as a shadow that seemed to fall over everything…and I wanted to kill it.”

“Oh goodness,” Tiane chortled. “Did you write poetry, too?”

“Look,” Garyl said, a slight defensive tone creeping into his voice, “at the time I didn’t know how long I’d keep on living. I just knew that I hated myself and I wanted to become somebody new. I made up my first name, too. It’s combined from two words in Old Capertian. Gae means moving forward, reyl means the future. Put together, my new name reminded me to move toward the future and kill the past.”

“But you just said you hated killing.”

“I did. It’s not my fault the name stuck long after its meaning fell away.”

Tiane flopped backwards and laughed louder. “You…you just keep making it sound worse!”

“As far as dumb things I did when I was younger, that doesn’t even rank. Besides, I’ve come to quite like my name. It and my sword have been the only things that stuck by me all these years.”

Tiane didn’t hold back her laughter, and Garyl didn’t try to make any more excuses. Eventually, she sat up again, holding her sides.

“It’s not nearly as funny as you’re making it out to be,” Garyl objected.

“No, but it feels good to be the one laughing at somebody else for a change,” Tiane said. Then she furrowed her brow as a new question came to her mind. “If Garyl Shadowslayer isn’t your real name, then what is?”

Garyl didn’t answer the question, instead holding a hand up as if to hush her. His orange eyes examined shadows in the water down below. Tiane tried to follow his gaze, but she couldn’t tell if the movement she saw was from fish, the churning waves, or something else entirely.

“Normally I hate going under water,” he said, “but this time it’s worth it.” He offered his hand toward Tiane. “The first part might be a little scary, but I promise it will get fun later on.”

Tiane’s mirth faded into apprehension. “What are we going to do?”

Garyl sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s really more fun when I get to catch people completely by surprise, but…” He pointed toward the coastline below. “We’re going to go down there, the quick way.”

Tiane regarded Garyl carefully, then took his hand. The contact gave both of them a little jolt, as Garyl jerked in surprise that she trusted him well enough not to ask any more questions.

“Okay, then,” Garyl said after he had overcome his shock. “You might want to hold your breath.”

Garyl pulled Tiane closer to him, locking arms with her, then leapt off the cliff. Tiane closed her eyes despite herself, expecting to feel her bones dashed against the rocks at any moment. She opened one eye, then another, as she saw that they were not plummeting toward their doom but rather floating gently toward the surface of the water like a feather caught in a breeze. Casting her eyes to her side, she saw Garyl gesturing with one hand and whispering something that she couldn’t hear against the crash of the waves.

Remembering what Garyl had suggested, Tiane took a deep breath in and held it. The salty air stung her nostrils, and for a moment all she could smell was the scent of wet seaweed. Just after she had breathed in, Garyl traced a circle in the air above them. The sky shimmered a silvery color, but nothing else happened. As their slow descent continued, Tiane braced herself for a very cold, wet experience.

She heard the splash as something impacted the water, but she remained dry. Air bubbles pulsed upward around them in a circle that was about 20 feet in diameter. It took Tiane until her boots touched something solid to understand that they were in an invisible but very solid magical sphere. They touched down in the shallows of the sea, but soon drifted away from shore, carried along the bottom by some invisible force.

“Why did you tell me to hold my breath?” Tiane asked. “We’re fine in here, aren’t we?”

Garyl sniffed the air experimentally, then nodded. “Yes, but I haven’t done this with two people before. If the bubble didn’t form properly, we would have had to swim for shore.”

The invisible vessel bobbed up and down with the tide, although it routinely bumped up against the bottom of the ocean and kicked up a muddy mist all around them. Tiane watched schools of fish float by and saw what she suspected to be an electric eel.

“How much air do we have?” she asked. Then, with a little bit of worry, “And what happens when we run out?”

“Enough…probably,” Garyl said in response to her first question. “I mean, I always have plenty. Two people do use twice the air, but I think I made the right calculations.”

“You ‘always’ have enough air? How many times have you done this?”

Garyl made some mock calculations on his fingers. “Three times,” he said at last.

“Thanks. That really leaves me feeling confident.”

“Well, as to the second matter,” Garyl said with a smirk, “preparations have been made.”

“What preparations?”

Garyl pointed behind her. “Look.”

Tiane didn’t realize how dark the bottom of the sea was until she tried to focus on the distant figures to which Garyl pointed. They hadn’t drifted very deep, but already the rising sun seemed painfully distant. Still, the creatures weren’t very hard to make out, especially since they came swimming toward the pair at alarming speed. Soon Tiane saw a trio of scaled humanoid creatures with fins protruding from either side of their heads. They had wide black eyes, webbed hands and feet, and bandoliers that held a variety of pouches and trinkets—and, Tiane couldn’t help but notice, more than a few knives as well. The creatures formed a circle around the bubble that served as an underwater vessel for Garyl and Tiane. One of them drew a knife and touched it experimentally against the border of the sphere. When it didn’t penetrate, it looked at Garyl and tilted its head quizzically.

“What are they?” Tiane asked.

“People,” Garyl responded.

“Okay, that’s very charitable and all, but what do you call them?”

“People,” Garyl said emphatically.

The creature that had touched its knife to the bubble made a sign with one of its hands that resembled the movement of a wave. Garyl nodded and made a series of rapid hand signs of his own. The creature sheathed its knife and made a gesture toward the others. Then all three of them pressed against one side of the bubble. The vessel lurched, almost causing Tiane to lose her balance. Then it began moving out to sea at the same rapid pace with which the sea-dwellers had approached.

“They’re taking us away!” Tiane cried.

“Well, they should,” Garyl replied. “I asked them to.”

“And where did you ask them to take us?”

Garyl grinned. “A fair.”

***

They reached their destination in a matter of minutes. Tiane looked agog at the sights she saw during the journey. Sunken ships and ancient corals. More of the strange sea-dwellers, many of whom helped to propel the magic bubble along at an even more rapid speed. Just as the light started to fade entirely, she saw a green webbed hand press against the space in front of her. It smeared some sort of luminescent plant that gave off a blue-green glow across the bubble. Others did the same, and soon Garyl and Tiane had a halo of light by which to see even in the ocean depths. Dozens more lights glowed in the distance. As they grew closer, Tiane saw a whole community of sea-dwellers, many holding glass orbs that glowed with a light similar to the one which enabled her to see, but with different colors that ran throughout the ocean depths.

“The weather is starting to turn cold,” Garyl said. He sat down cross-legged on the invisible floor which sat near the bottom of the bubble and signaled Tiane to do the same. “The fish are migrating toward faster-moving currents that will keep them warm when the water temperature drops. The seasons shift, even down here. This festival marks the change. These folk don’t have a permanent home near the shores of this land—they’ll move out deeper into the ocean and then return when the weather gets warmer. Some of them will, at least.”

“Only some of them?”

Garyl pointed toward a school of tuna that swam well overhead, apparently oblivious to the festivities down below. Some of the fish were as long as Tiane herself. “Those are relatively small creatures compared to what waits out further in the deep. The sea is perilous, and that’s not even counting merchant vessels from Blackwood or the pirates that will kill anything if they think it can turn them a profit. This is a celebration of the seasons, but it’s also a recognition that some brave souls won’t make it back to the shallows. Some of them will die to protect their loved ones.”

Tiane sat on her knees next to Garyl. “Why are you bringing me out here? Just to depress me?”

“It’s not meant to be depressing…it’s life. The people who die out there, they’re going to die the only good death I can imagine. They’re going to go out fighting sea monsters or other perils, and they’re going to lay down their lives to make sure that the rest of their society thrives for years to come. What else would you want out of life?”

“There’s always the option of not dying in the first place,” Tiane said.

“That’s a fool’s dream. Everybody dies eventually.” He looked at Tiane with an intensity that made her feel vaguely uncomfortable. “Even Derrezen died.”

The sound of the Dragon-God’s name sent a chill through Tiane’s body. She realized for the first time how cold she had begun to feel. But something else rose inside her. She felt suddenly angry, as though Garyl had accused her of some horrible crime.

“No,” she hissed. “Derrezen’s not…not…”

The moment passed. Her thoughts felt scattered, and Garyl’s intense stare returned to the casual, playful expression he had shown through most of the journey.

“How much more air do we have?” Tiane asked.

“Enough to get us back to shore.” Garyl caught the eye of one of the sea-dwellers and made a rapid series of hand signs. “One more thing first.”

He took Tiane’s hand and pressed it to the side of the sphere. Tiane shook at first, half expecting the bubble to pop when she touched it. Instead, she felt a strange series of vibrations. It took her a moment to identify what it was, but then her mind conjured up the image of drumbeats and it made sense.

“Is that…are they playing music?” she asked.

Garyl nodded. “Sound doesn’t travel the same down here. That’s why they communicate through hand signs. They still play music, but they hear it through the vibrations.”

The bubble shifted as the sea-folk began pushing them back to shore. Tiane kept her hand on the side, feeling the vibrations and looking at the colored lights in the distance until she could sense neither anymore. Some time later, the people brought them to a sandy beach not far from the cliff from which they had dove in the morning. The sun was higher in the sky then, although it was still far from midday. Tiane pressed her hand against the side of the invisible sphere, placing it exactly against one of the webbed palms that had guided them back to shore.

“Thank you,” she said, knowing that the creature wouldn’t understand her.

The sea-dweller titled its head, nodded, and then dove backwards into the water. Tiane wasn’t sure if the person could smile with its small, strange mouth, but it looked to her like it did before disappearing entirely.

 

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