SONG OF THE SIREN
CHAPTER FOUR: The High Priestess
The endless chasm of the abyss appeared out of the darkness, like a great yawning mouth waiting to snap up unsuspecting prey.
Which, of course, it was. Syra’s people were not the only predators lurking in these depths.
They weren’t even the largest–compared to the sluggish six-gilled sharks that roamed the ocean floor, or the terrifyingly clever sperm whales that dove down from the Realm Above, Syra’s people were positively tiny.
But they had two advantages over their fellow deep-sea hunters. The first was that the Sereen–for that was the formal name given to the People of the Abyss–worked together in coordinated packs to take down their prey. The second was that they had nimble fingers, with thumbs capable of grasping and manipulating objects. In a world of fins and flukes, the Sereen alone were able to fashion tools.
Syra’s own weapon, her hard-won krakana, was clutched tightly in her hand, the shark’s teeth catching flickers of her bioluminescent flashes as she neared the edge of the abyss and dove inside.
Sheer walls of stone plunged endlessly down, their outlines impossible to discern against the overall darkness. Her bioluminescent flickers went black as she descended, aiming for a spot on the western edge of the canyon.
Only the specialized sensory tendrils in Syra’s hair, combined with years of memory, allowed her to find the narrow crevice in the side of the trench. Even for her thin-boned frame, it was a tight squeeze, and there was a familiar, heady moment of breathlessness as her gills became temporarily obstructed by the unyielding rock.
She emerged into a cavernous space of light and beauty. The city of Tessai was lit from above, where its domed ceiling twinkled from the lights of millions upon millions of incandescent glow worms. Below, the rough-hewn houses of her people beckoned. As always, Syra’s heart lifted at the sight of her home.
The bioluminescent worms, known as teora, were the lifeblood of the Sereen. Not only did they provide illumination, which allowed them to develop culture and religion far beyond that of their fellow deep-sea dwellers, but they also provided seasilk. This sturdy, weavable fiber was harvested from the worms and woven to create rope, nets, baskets, and garments.
The teora were worshipped as the divine light of the Gods. They that reigned from the kingdom of eternal darkness had provided the Sereen with the single source of light in the abyss. And the Gods guarded it jealously.
Despite the efforts of Tessai’s best cultivators, the worms refused to grow in any other environment but this one. In the one experiment that had been allowed, the transplanted teora shriveled and died within days, which led to the priestesses declaring that they had provoked the displeasure of the Gods. The experiments had quickly been discarded, and the scientists punished.
Privately, Syra wondered if the attempts to farm the teora in foreign environments had been disbanded too quickly. After the first batch died, her grandmother had intervened. The High Priestess claimed that a sacrifice was needed instead to appease the wrath of the Gods. It had taken a long time to find a suitable offering, and even now the worms had not fully recovered.
But if she had doubts, Syra kept them to herself. The priestesses did not abide dissension. Even from the one who would eventually become their leader. Syra’s grandmother, the High Priestess Furae, held reign over the spiritual lives of the Sereen, as she had for more than two hundred years. And when she eventually passed and her body was given to the Abyss, it was expected that Syra would take up the honored position. From the moment of her birth, she had been destined to be the High Priestess.
At only nineteen seasons, she was incredibly young for the role, but it couldn’t be helped.
Syra’s mother had been caught by a fisherman when Syra was but a few months old. Though she’d managed to escape the fisherman’s net, she had been mortally wounded by the barbed spear through her lungs.
Syra could still remember the coppery scent of blood when her mother had finally been retrieved from the Realm Above. The way the beautiful purple scales of her tail fins had faded to a pale white. Her mother had died from the pointed hooks of the monstrous humans who dwelt on the surface.
Even now, the memory was enough to fill Syra with rage as she swam towards the Temple. It was a towering structure, encrusted with shells and barnacles, and given heat by the very breath of the Gods themselves. It was from here that the life of Tessai flowed, bestowing energy and heat to the glow worms, to the city itself. It was because of the Temple that the city continued to grow and thrive, unlike so many neighboring clans which had succumbed in recent years to plague and famine.
The guards at the Temple entrance stood up their arms as they saw her approach. Both women were loyal servants, who had known Syra for most of her life. Her grandmother was waiting in the sacrificial chamber.
When Syra first saw the High Priestess, she had to stop herself from flickering blue in surprise. I was in the city only a few months ago. When did grandmother grow so old?
Furae had ruled over the temple for generations; she was as much as part of the city as the glowing teora, or the stone roof of the cavern itself. Syra herself had been raised at her grandmother’s tail fins, had learned the ancient traditions of the Sereen, the necessary prayers to the Gods Below. It was because of the High Priestess’ teaching that she had grown to respect her duties, her responsibilities as the heir to the Temple of the Abyss.
But now Furae’s sensory tendrils were fading, losing their luster and becoming limp and gray. The same with the lustrous purple scales on her tails, which were now nearly translucent. It was no surprise–at more than two hundred seasons the High Priestess Furae had lived longer than any Sereen could remember. She had born hundreds if not thousands of young through various male breeders over the years, and of those, nearly sixty had survived into adulthood. An astounding feat, in these dangerous waters.
The weight of her position settled around her shoulders, and Syra raised her chin as she swam forward and bowed low. “You sent for me, grandmother?”
“You have been gone a long time, my child,” Furae said. Syra’s heart gave a surge of relief to hear her grandmother sounding tired, but strong. “The Gods are growing restless.”
Syra nodded. “Not to worry. My warriors are already on their way with a mighty gift for the Abyss. The eyes of a giant squid. And the meat will feed our people for many months.”
“The offering will not be enough. Two hundred eggs have died in the past month alone.” Furae’s bioluminescent flickers went dark as she conveyed the news.
Syra clutched a fist to her forehead in grief. Her gills fluttered as she tried to comprehend this devastating truth. “Have the acolytes come any closer to determining the cause of this plague?”
“The ancient prophecies say nothing of this wave of death,” Furae said, her pale face a grim scowl. “The usual sacrifices are no use here. I fear for the survival of the Sereen, if we have no youth to carry on our bloodlines. We must beseech the Gods. Grant them a sacrifice of old. If we are lucky, this will appease them.”
“But grandmother, is it worth the risk?” Syra cried. “Think of what happened the last time the Gods demanded a sacrifice from the Realm Above!”
The last time a Sereen attempted to lure an offering from the surface had been the night Syra’s mother died.
“You are strong, child. You can face this task. But you must face it alone,” her grandmother said. “Only then will you be ready to inherit the role of High Priestess.”
Furae’s sash of pearl-encrusted seasilk glimmered on her chest, illuminated by the glow of the teora. “Are you prepared to do what is expected of you?” she asked, more out of formality than as an actual question.
Syra had no real choice but to answer, “Of course, High Priestess. I will carry out my duty. I will bring the offering down to the Gods of the Abyss.”
Furae’s satisfied chuckle vibrated through the water. “See that you do.”
“Are you sure we can’t accompany you?” Mara asked, twitching her fins in irritation.
“You know you cannot. It is my sacred duty and mine alone,” Syra replied, sorting through the supplies she might need for her journey.
It would have to be quick. Suitable offerings weren’t often found.
Young human males were required. But only those old enough to be considered as worthy offerings–that is, those having lived to at least eighteen years of age.
But the Gods preferred the ones who had a certain–innocence about them.
Difficult enough to find among the sailors and tourists who cruised these waters. Harder still to find one that stayed in the vicinity more than a day or two. Long enough for the Sereen to learn of the potential offering, and gather the magic needed to draw him in.
“Have you ever been to the surface?” Mara questioned, so filled with questions that she lost her usual respect for Syra’s high-ranking position. Not that Syra minded. It was nice, actually, to have a distraction as she braced for the long journey upwards.
“Only once. When my mother died,” she answered.
Immediately, Mara flashed blue lights of submission. “I’m so sorry, my leader. I had forgotten…please forgive me.”
Syra placed a thin-fingered hand on her Beta’s shoulder. “There is nothing to forgive, my friend. All of Tessai knows the story of my mother’s death.”
“Do you look forward to luring the human to its death? To finally avenging the death of your mother, Princess Syrnae?
Tonight it would be her duty. Her opportunity. Her life’s dream. To swim the perilous miles up through the night-dark waters to the surface. To undergo the change that only the females of her bloodlines were capable of. And to sing the young male down to his death in the black water of the Abyss.
His kind, the ~humans~ were the ones who were responsible for the death of her mother. She would enjoy watching this sacrifice die. Kyla slung a long, whale-bone dagger into the seasilk belt at her waist.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for years.”