The City at the Bottom of the Lake
Kenia, Mhyrre, and Tyrael discover something wonderful, something magical at the bottom of the lake. But they’re not the first ones to find it, and now they may be the last.
Kenia splashed eagerly into the lake’s small waves, laughing. She adored the water, and often told her mentor she should have been born a mer rather than an elf. The tattoos running around her ankles and calves flashed with each lick of the water. They sent tingles of anticipation up her legs.
”Come on, slowpokes,” she teased.
Mhyrre had lagged behind at the treeline. The blue stones around her neck indicated her feminine gender today and she fiddled with them as Tyrael took their sweet time about stashing everyone’s clothing in a bowl of smooth rocks.
Kenia had simply thrown her light sun dress on the beach somewhere. She’d find it again after the swim. Neither Tyrael or Mhyrre took the chance a stray gust of wind could steal their covering.
Mhyrre called, ”Don’t go too far out, Kenia.”
”We’re going to go a lot farther than that,” said Tyrael. ”You don’t have to come.”
Mhyrre dropped her hand from the string of blue stones and said firmly, ”I’m coming.”
Kenia kicked glittering water up the beach. ”You don’t believe me, it’s fine. I don’t mind.” And she didn’t. Most of the clan didn’t believe her. It just meant she could keep them all to herself.
”I believe you,” Mhyrre said unconvincingly. ”I just… want to see for myself.”
”Come on, then.” Tyrael hooked Mhyrre’s bare arm with theirs and marched them both toward the water’s edge. Mhyrre went along with only a little hesitation.
Neither Tyrael’s nor Mhyrre’s tattoos flashed in the water. Of the three of them, only Kenia had specialized in elemental forces, and she was constantly abuzz with the power around her. The lake held more than power, though. She waved her friends closer. With the lake water around their knees, Kenia put her hands on Tyrael and Mhyrre’s shoulders and closed her eyes. Water immediately began to churn around them. Kenia felt the magic in the ebb and flow of the lake abutting the walls of her mental self. The looming gate set within her walls cracked open less than an inch, and the magic rushed in.
Kenia tightened her grip on her friends when they gasped. All three of them began to tingle and glow. Bones shifted and fused. Skin stretched. Their tattoos morphed. Everything changed from head to toe, and then suddenly all three of them fell apart into the shallow water.
Kenia rolled on the smooth stones and kicked deeper. She’d done this so many times before that her new form was as familiar as her old one, and she stretched new muscles in the welcoming water without fear.
Mhyrre, on the other hand, splashed in the shallows. Her hands moved quickly from her eyes, to her mouth, to her neck where new gill slits flexed and opened as she breathed. Her torso had elongated, her legs fused and become flat. Her tattoos were now dark stripes of ink across her body and she wiggled a broad, transparent tail ineffectually at the surface of the water.
Tyrael wiggled with more purpose. Their mouth gaped as they tested breathing under the water and found it worked. They ran their hands down their belly, where a new set of muscles lead to a powerful fluked tail. Their tattoos had blended into a large patch of black stretching from tail to arms across their back.
There was a huge variation between the three of them. Mhyrre’s form resembled that of an eel, while Tyreal was more dolphin. Kenia kicked a long-finned tail that reminded her of a shark. She’d seen similar variation down in the lake-bottom.
Tyrael was first to make it out of the shallows, and swam purposefully in Kenia’s direction. Stopping turned out to be harder. Their hands flailed as they failed to steer, colliding with Kenia in a rolling pile of confused muscles. Kenia grabbed Tyrael by the hips and spun them both around, laughing. Once oriented, she signed, It’s awkward at first, don’t worry about it.
A frustrated hiss burst from Mhyrre, still stuck in the shallow water, followed by a string of unintelligible speech. Probably curses. The air languages didn’t translate well to water.
Kenia kicked herself closer and grabbed Mhyrre’s hands. She pointed her deeper, then tapped Mhyrre’s hips. Mhyrre tried to kick like a dolphin, but her tail wasn’t fluked, it was vertical. She didn’t get anywhere.
Look, look, Kenia signed to her, then pointed at her own hips. She swayed side to side, as if she were dancing and her shark tail pushed along, more by instinct than design.
Mhyrre swayed. Her broad, transparent fins rippled in the water and she was propelled forward suddenly. She signed her excitement back at Kenia. Then Tyrael grabbed Mhyrre’s hands and they both signed at each other too quickly for Kenia to follow.
The lake surface lapped above their heads, glittering and bright in the sun, spotting their transformed skins with glowing lines—a reverse of their tattoos. Kenia knew those reflective lines would fade the deeper into the lake they swam.
She urged both of her friends along. Her magic was strong, but there was a limit to these new forms and Kenia didn’t want to waste any more time. Mhyrre quickly got the hang of her sinuous tail and the three of them swam together in the warm waters. The lake was broad. Kenia had never been all the way around, nor had she ever found the bottom. It didn’t surprise her at all that an entire city lay in these depths.
Kenia led her friends deeper. The bottom of the lake dropped away below them, plunging like a cliffside into darkness. The water cooled. When the lakeweed came into view, Kenia made a sharp left turn and plunged even deeper. Mhyrre touched her shoulder and signed, Can you make a light?
She could, but it would shorten their time in these shifted forms. You won’t need one. I promise. She signed back. Then she took Mhyrre’s hand in hers and swam into the depths.
The sunlight collapsed, first fading from their skin, then dancing overhead as if to call them back to the surface. Kenia ignored the temptation and forged onward. The darkness enveloped them, but for Kenia it was a sign of progress. They were almost there.
In the distance, soft green and blue light outlined the ragged arc of stone. Kenia reoriented toward it, and kicked her tail harder. She angled under the arc. This was the first time Myhrre and Tyrael would see the city and she wanted to give them the best possible first impression. The lights brightened and separated, dancing in the water. Melodic voices echoed over the ridge. The lights had been stationary when Kenia visited before, illuminating columns and structures carefully cultivated out of the lake’s slow-growing coral. But some of the lights had been captured in airsacs and tied like glowing balloons where convenient. Were they being moved now? Had they arrived during a celebration?
Spurred by the activity, Kenia released her friends’ hands and swam to the top of the rise in a burst of excitement. She froze at the peak, her joy suddenly rotten. The dancing lights weren’t a celebration, and the voices weren’t singing.
They were screaming.
Arches and pillars of coral, grown meticulously over decades, were crumbling and falling to the lake bed. Mer swam frantically about the city, weapons in hand that Kenia had never seen before. A bolt of green energy flashed overhead and Kenia ducked closer to the rock face. Alarmed, she sought to make sense of the chaos that had enveloped the city. A coral structure crumbled and Kenia spotted several tentacles writhing in the dust. Mer rushed to the area, casting magic and tridents into the mass, screaming in their melodic language discordant fury.
Mhyrre and Tyrael crept up the rock and settled beside her, their eyes wide and afraid. Kenia winced. They’re being attacked, she signed. Then pointed to another crumbling structure. A dark creature wrapped several arms around the pillars and arches of coral. It was twice as large as the mer swimming around it, and had more dark tentacle arms than an octopus. Several faintly glowing swirls across its body throbbed and the coral it consumed crumbled to dust.
And there were dozens of the beasts, moving inexorably from structure to structure while the mer frantically defended their home.
When the coral structure was nothing but sand, the inky tentacles lashed through the surrounding water. They stirred up mud and debris. One meaty arm crashed into a mer and reflexively coiled around him, squeezing. Kenia couldn’t separate his scream from the other sounds of chaos, but the mer writhed and the water around him quickly frothed with his blood. Just as suddenly, he stopped struggling and the tentacle released his body to float where the currents willed.
Tyrael grabbed Kenia’s shoulder and signed roughly, We need to go.
Kenia shook her head, but Mhyrre’s pale and queasy-green face made her pause. She hadn’t brought her friends down here to fight a battle, and what good would the three of them do anyway? Kenia couldn’t cast any further magic, Mhyrre’s experience lay with bows and arrows, and Tyrael had more skill with wheat than warfare. What did she think she was going to accomplish?
Kenia’s heart ached as she turned her back on the mer city, but it was the right choice. They hadn’t been spotted by those dark, tentacled creatures, and if the mers were unable to fight them off, the three of them had no chance. Kenia kicked her tail faster. Now that her friends had seen the mer city, though, she could ask the council for help. More elves could come next time. Elves with water and weapons magics. Elves that could drive off the invading creatures and maybe save some of the mers. But only if they hurried.
Kenia darted back through the coral arch ahead of her friends only to stall abruptly at the edge of a rock formation. Just ahead, one of the dark tentacle beasts was crawling slowly along the lakebed. It reached several tentacles forward, feeling into crevaces and gaps, probing corners and sliding into the sand. It’s bulbous body crept after, the glowing swirls pulsing faintly. Kenia could see no eyes or breathing vents. Just a black blob with nearly thirty arms, some of them longer than she was.
Tyrael and Mhyrre caught up with her. Kenia stuck her arm out to stop them and pointed. They needed to go around if they were going to avoid the beast. No one argued the point. Kenia led the way back through the rocks, hesitant to angle too far up and expose herself. There were ways other than eyes for sea creatures to detect living things and Kenia didn’t know anything about these monsters. She used a growth of young weed to cover their escape. They were nearly free.
Something snagged Kenia’s shark-tail. She whipped around, scared and ready to fight, but it was Mhyrre. She signed frantically, pointing down into the lake weeds. Look, it’s one of them! I think she’s alive?
How Mhyrre had caught sight of the stunned mer on the lakebed, Kenia didn’t know. Her bright lionfish colors were obscured by the weed and she lay too still. Kenia approached slowly. If the beasts attacking the city were near here, she didn’t want to be caught. Mhyrre and Tyrael might be able to escape, but Kenia didn’t know how long their mer forms would last without her.
They saw no sign of danger, though, and when Kenia reached the lake bed she gasped. She knew this mer. Her brow was studded with lionfish spines and her large eyes blinked from the sides. Kenia touched the woman’s shoulder and saw those glassy eyes try to focus, then the spines on her brow came together as she furrowed it. Her mouth gaped, but she sang no song. One long-fingered hand, tipped in dark black nails, and webbed between the joints with gossamer silk, rose up to her throat, where an ugly line of red had been pressed into her skin. A tentacle had been wrapped there. She had been left for dead.
Lord Dione, what is happening? What are those things?
The mer-woman’s hands drifted slowly together and she pieced her reply with simple, elementry signs.
Old enemy. Ancient.
How do we stop them?
Kenia snorted an annoyed sound. She glanced up through the weeds, feeling vulnerable. Lord Dione’s hands on hers brought Kenia’s attention back down.
Take the stone. Lord Dione’s fingers tapped a shell ring pierced into one of her ear-fins. Keep it safe.
Kenia tried to find a way to unclasp the earring, but it seemed to be a permanent decoration. Then Lord Dione grasped the ring in one hand and yanked it through her ear-fin. Blood seeped from the ragged tear. Kenia flinched, but when Lord Dione pressed the jewelry into her hands, she took it.
Tyreal dove lower into the weeds and grabbed Kenia’s shoulder, signing. It’s coming back this way.
Go. Lord Dione urged them. Take the stone. Go!
Tyreal didn’t let Kenia even say good-bye. They hauled her deeper into the weeds, and Mhyrre swam quickly on their tails. When they ran out of weeds, Kenia angled them upward. She grasped Lord Dione’s earring tightly in her fist, whipping her tail as hard as she could toward the surface. She didn’t dare look back. She didn’t want to know if one of those inky monsters was chasing them toward the light.
All three of them breached the lake’s surface in an immense rush of water. Kenia arched expertly toward shore, urging her friends to follow swiftly. In the shallow waters Kenia let her hold on their mer forms relax. Her magic untwisted, their tails split and shrank, and in moments they were elves once more.
Mhyrre staggered toward shore on feet that didn’t remember how to walk. Kenia helped Tyreal to their feet and followed.
The three of them exchanged silent looks, wide-eyed and confused. What kinds of creatures had those been below the surface? Why were they attacking the mer? Where had they come from?
Kenia opened her clenched fist. In the afternoon light, the shell earring glittered with lake water. Kenia turned it over in her palm, but there were only a cluster of clam-like shells. No stone, that Lord Dione had mentioned. Kenia closed her hand over the earring again. Whatever it was supposed to be, Lord Dione thought it was important to keep safe from those things, and that was something Kenia knew she could do. Maybe her people didn’t believe in mers. Maybe they wouldn’t martial a force to dive down there and help. But Kenia could keep this earring safe, and she’d start by boxing it up in the bottom of her trunk in her bedroom.
Then she’d talk to the council.
Kenia met her friends’ eyes again, her mouth a frown of determination. ”Let’s go home,” she said.
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