Song of the Siren: Chapter Five

If you haven’t checked out the first four chapters, be sure to click here first!

 

CHAPTER FIVE: THE ASCENT

What on Earth am I still doing out here? Malcolm thought to himself, staring out at the vast expanse of glittering stars.

He heaved a sigh, casting a glance around once more for Claude, or anyone else who might take an issue with his being on deck. As if star-gazing was a crime. Seeing no one, Malcolm nestled back down on the long bench he’d found on the starboard side of the ship. 

I should go inside. It’s got to be past midnight by now. And those lab samples will be done at six am sharp.

And he was going to have to face Molly Parker tomorrow. They were partners in the saltwater lab for this trip. Malcolm groaned, thinking of their uncomfortable encounter a few hours ago. Molly was older than him by a year or two, and Malcolm had assumed she was like the other two female grad students in thinking that he was “just a kid”.

But that assumption had quickly been proved false. He’d been sitting on one of the rec room’s battered sofas, watching Jaws with his fellow grad students. Lindsey and Sameera had been on one couch, he and Molly on the other. It was a large sofa, and there was plenty of room for both of them, so he had been mostly unaware of her presence.

Until the scene in the film when the crew of the Orca sees the killer shark for the first time. Malcolm had been prepared for the sight of the robotic great white, but utterly unprepared for the soft weight of Molly’s head on his shoulder. Or the feeling of her fingers coming to rest, butterfly soft, on his thigh.

Startled, Malcolm had jolted as if he’d been electrified, upending a bowl of popcorn over both of them in the process. Then, mortified, he’d stumbled off the couch, his long legs moving in a jerky, puppet-like fashion. 

From the other sofa, Lindsey and Sameera had collapsed in fits of giggles at his slapstick performance. Molly’s eyes were filled with reproach. She’d hurriedly brushed the popcorn off her jeans and left the rec room.

“Way to go, Romeo,” Lindsey scoffed, still fighting back laughter.

“Hey! Be nice,” Sameera said, trying to soothe any potential conflict. She turned to Malcolm. “Really, we’re sorry for laughing. But you looked like you sat on a cactus!” 

Malcolm’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. He stammered something about getting some air, and headed towards the upper deck, the opposite way as Molly. While he trudged step after step, the echoing voices of Lindsey and Sameera followed him.

“Shit. I feel terrible. We shouldn’t have laughed.”

“Whatever. It’s not our fault that Ginger can’t figure out when a girl has a crush on him. What does Molly even see in that kid?”

“Aww…I think he’s sweet,” Sameera replied. Somehow, her defending him almost hurt worse than Lindsey’s deliberately spiteful words.

***

But there was no getting around it. He would have to face Molly Parker in just a few short hours. With a groan at how much work he had to get done tomorrow, Malcolm sat up on the bench. Then he paused, looking once more towards at the glittering spectacle of the heavens above him. 

Just a little longer. How could he go inside? It was like the heavens themselves had split open and revealed themselves to him. The brilliant white and pink band of the Milky Way stretched like a lazy tendril across the sky. Next to it, all other stars paled in significance, but Malcolm could still make out the bold bright arc of the Southern Cross.

Completely different stars than at home. But for Malcolm, this wasn’t entirely unusual. Some of his earliest memories had been of stacked cardboard cartons, and dusty moving vans that arrived at regular intervals to cart their belongings from one Navy base to another. By the time he was twelve, Malcolm had attended more than seven schools. By the time he graduated high school, he’d become an expert at not letting himself get close to anyone except his younger sister, Jo. 

It was just easier that way. Easier to not bother making friends that he would have to leave again in six or eight or twelve months. To not lie and make false promises about keeping in touch, when both parties knew that there was no point. Instead, Malcolm focused his attention on his books. On his schoolwork. And on the water.

One major perk of his mother being a Commander in the U.S. Navy was that Malcolm’s family was almost always stationed near the coast. From his earliest days, the ocean had fascinated him. Its ever-changing moods. The secrets hidden away beneath its depths. The way it could lap at the shore like a playful puppy one hour, only to crash into the rocks with brutal force the next. While other boys had spent their hours playing football or sneaking cigarettes, Malcolm more often found himself splashing around in tidepools, examining the various forms of life.

Vibrant blue starfish. Wickedly barbed purple sea urchins. He’d even found an octopus once, shyly tucked into the hollow of a large conch shell. It spat black ink at him and dashed off for a safer place to hide. Something about those tiny ecosystems–whole worlds that existed for only a few short hours in between the tides–fascinated him. 

Unlike the majority of his classmates, who were obsessed with surfing and sport-fishing, Malcolm felt no need to conquer the sea. And unlike his mother–and later Jo when she enlisted at eighteen–he didn’t see the ocean as a military tool to be wielded against one’s enemies.

No, for Malcolm, the sea represented one of the only constants in his life. He’d watched the sun sink into the horizon over the waters of Belize. He’d seen it break across the sky while standing on the pink-tinged sands of the Caribbean. 

Even now, aboard the cramped and uncomfortable Surveyor, Malcolm couldn’t think of a single place he’d rather be. On the wooden bench, Malcolm folded his hands behind his hand and took a deep, calming breath.

Clad only in a thin T-shirt and board shorts, the night air felt blessedly cool on his skin. The constant rocking of the ship was less pronounced up here, and Malcolm felt his earlier headache subsiding. His eyes fluttered shut, but the blazing path of stars still winked beneath his closed lids.

Like a waterfall of diamonds, he thought before he fell asleep.

 

***

 

As the highest-ranking and most seasoned warrior, Syra usually swam at the head of her warriors, her keen black eyes on the lookout for any danger. But not tonight. Tonight her sisters-in-arms swam around her in a protective phalanx, their krakanas poised and ready. Ceremonial tradition dictated that they escort her to the Barrier.

Normally, the Sereen never ventured this high, except for the unlucky scouts who were sent at intervals to scan the waters for offerings. So many of these females perished–eaten by sharks, or attacked by schools of ravenous tuna–that the expeditions had been limited to only three of four times a year.

A miracle, really, that this offering had been found in time to appease the restless gods. Syra took the human male’s timely arrival as a sign, a message that her time had come to take her place in the ancient ritual. And to avenge her mother.

Surrounded by her warriors, Syra swam upwards. The others rotated their bioluminescent flashes, creating a symphony of flickering light that sent a clear signal to any other forms of life who might be swimming in the vicinity.

These are our waters tonight. Do not trespass.

At some unknowable sign, some intangible change in the biological chemistry of the water, the warriors came to a halt. This was the Barrier. They could all sense it. The border between the silent darkness of their world, and the sunlit dangers of the Realm Above. From here, Syra must venture alone.

“May the gods send strength to you, my leader,” Mara said, pressing a hand to her forehead.

Regally, Syra nodded her head, then extended the arm that clutched her shark’s-jaw krakana. “In case I do not return. May it always strike true.”

This too was part of the tradition. Even though Syra’s second-in-command was not of her bloodline, she would be responsible for leading the hunters, should Syra fail to return. 

Should she be caught, and butchered by the humans. Just like her mother. 

Mara bowed deeply, and accepted the krakana on outstretched limbs. “I will watch over it, until your safe return.”

The sacred vows exchanged, Syra swam away from her comrades, up towards the surface. There were no tearful goodbyes, no pleading for her to stay. Everyone knew their duty. Syra most of all. 

The magic required to undergo the transformation was as old as the Sereen themselves. Ancient legends told of groups of females as many as twenty strong–all capable of changing form to lure young men down beneath the waves as offerings to the ever-hungry gods. But now, there was only Syra.

In a season or two, she would reach full maturity, and be ready to begin reproducing. Appropriate males were already being selected based on their virility. Her mother had died so young, after only one breeding season. It was of the utmost importance that her bloodline continue. 

But first, Syra must pass this test. She must lure the human down into the waters. And drown him.

For only the second time in her life, Syra felt the immense, crushing pressures of the deep ocean loosen their grip on her body. For many of the creatures that lived in her environment, an ascent to the surface would be a death sentence. But the Sereen were well equipped to withstand a variety of conditions, and Syra’s lungs expanded slowly to compensate for the difference in pressure. 

Her skin underwent a change as well, losing its scaly silver lustre and becoming smooth and golden-tan. This was the first part of the transformation, and Syra eyed her changed limbs in curiosity and revulsion. The fingers were shorter, with rounded nails instead of the pointed claws that Syra used to snatch up smaller prey.

Useless. However do the humans manage to survive? She felt the  straight, smooth ridges that had replaced her usual needle-sharp fangs. They have no teeth to speak of, either. Without these weapons, and absent her krakana–which was as much a part of her as her own tail fins–Syra felt naked.

The steadily brightening waters only added to her unease. For most of its residents, the ocean would appear as black as ever, but Syra’s enormous eyes, built for piercing through total darkness, were already beginning to ache from the light of the moon.

But then the next step of her transition began, and Syra’s eyes shrank back into her face, their solid black color gradually replaced by irises of vivid purple, rimmed with white. For the first time since beginning her long journey, Syra paused her upward swimming–alarmed as her keen night vision faded, leaving her nearly blind in the churning ocean waves.

She was near the surface now. She just needed to go a little farther. 

A few struggling moments later, Syra’s head broke through the waves. Her sensory tendrils were gone, replaced by flowing hair of the darkest black–the color of the waters of the Abyss. Her tail was intact, for the most part, though its dull purple undertones had brightened to the same bright purple as her eyes. But at least these eyes were designed to see above water, and she looked around at the surface, blinking in the light of the moon.

The light. Syra held one hand over her brow to block out the glow. Besides the half-moon, the sky was alight with stars. It was more light than Syra had ever seen in her life. It would take a hundred thousand teora to compete with this radiant brilliance. For a minute, she bobbed with her head above the water, transfixed by the beauty of the Realm Above.

Her body felt different, heavier in places than it had before. Where before there had only been sleek, well-trained muscle, now her upper body was curved and supple. At least my gills and tail fins are unchanged. As long as I remain mostly submerged, I will be able to swim to safety. But if she were to leave the water entirely–no, that must not be allowed to happen.

Syra lifted an arm, watching the way the drops of seawater sparkled under the stars. Then, she realized that hunting on the surface presented her with a significant disadvantage. With all this light, her prey would be able to see her coming before she got close enough to strike a killing blow.

Not that it mattered. Her most deadly weapon didn’t require close contact. But losing the ability of surprise only intensified the feeling of dread that had been building in Syra for hours. There is a touch of destiny on the seas tonight. Premonition tingled up her spine, and she flashed blue streaks up her bioluminescent ridges.

Except–nothing actually happened. Reaching around with one hand, Syra felt along her base of her spine, running carefully up and down. Her bioluminescent ridges were gone. They must have disappeared in the transformation. 

Syra clamped down on the panic that threatened to rise in her veins. Fear was unacceptable. She had known the risks when she accepted the honor of venturing to the Realm Above. She turned in the water, peering out with her surface-adapted eyes.

Still, she spotted the vessel easily. A long, hulking shadow, silhouetted against the bright sky. Her prey lay within. Syra dove beneath the waters, carefully not to make a splash as she kicked her tail powerfully, headed towards the ship.

An offering. It could mean the difference between survival and destruction for her people. The last time the Sereen had failed to deliver a sacrifice in time to appease the rage of the gods, the results had nearly meant their extinction. 

Syra’s head felt strangely heavy as she broke the surface once more, weighted down by the strange black hair that swirled around her. 

Finally, she was near enough to the vessel to begin summoning her prey.

The Sereen mainly communicated through clicks, flickers, and silent hand signals. But Syra’s transformation had shifted the arrangement of her vocal cords, allowing her to make more complex sounds.

Looking out towards the silently floating boat, Syra’s violet eyes narrowed with purpose.

She began to sing.

Song of the Siren: Chapter Four

If you are interested in reading a free fantasy romance novel, be sure to check out chapters one, two, and three!

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.”

Click here to continue reading!

 

Song of the Siren: Chapter Three

Be sure to check out chapters One and Two!

 

CHAPTER THREE: Betty and Veronica

 

Doctor Lydia Wu was a tiny woman in her mid-fifties. Her jet black hair was shot through with gray, but her eyes were lively as she addressed the group of four graduate students standing on Surveyor’s foredeck. All of them were sweating profusely under the tropical summer sun.

“Welcome everyone, to the Tonga trench. Over the next three days, we will be collecting saltwater samples from different depths using these two manually controlled ROV submersibles.”

She gestured towards two machines that resembled overly-engineered pool cleaners. One was a shiny daffodil yellow, the other a gleaming ebony. Both were mounted with a framework of powerful LED bulbs and equipped with a row of glass vials for collecting samples.

“By now you’ve all completed a virtual demonstration on how we control these remotely operated vehicles, but you’ll soon find that the real thing is much different. For example, Betty–” she laid an affectionate hand on the fiberglass hull of the yellow submersible, “Betty’s left arm sticks a little when retracting, and you’ll have to be careful negotiating any tight spaces, or it could become bent out of shape.”

Doctor Wu turned and ran her other hand along the black frame of the second machine, “Now Veronica, she’s a spitfire. She responds to the slightest change in the controls, and if you’re too heavy-handed she’ll rocket straight into the bedrock. 

“Both of my girls can take a few bumps and keep going, but have a care. It would be a shame if anything happened to either of these machines because they cost me five years of begging for grant money. Most of the modifications, I’ve done myself. Basically–I like both of them far more than I like any of you,” 

Her words were stern but the professor grinned as she continued outlining the technical aspects of the ROVs. 

Both Betty and Veronica had been specially designed to navigate the crushing pressure and pitch dark of the deep ocean. Their fiberglass hulls were nine inches thick, and metal rods around the bottom formed a kind of roll cage around the inner workings of the battery-powered motor. 

Both submersibles had arms that could be extended and used to remotely manipulate objects. Three cameras, enclosed in titanium pressure casings, were spaced at various intervals along the side of the machines, facing downward, outward, and back in toward the submersible itself. 

They were operated by a combination of computer navigation and manual controls that resembled two old Nintendo joysticks. A portable electronics bay had been assembled on Surveyor’s deck, complete with three HD display screens, a sonar system, and an infrared sensor. Every available bit of data would be recorded and sent to the backup drive in the main science laboratory. Whatever the ROVs saw, the control team would view instantly.

With a sweep of her arm, Doctor Wu stepped aside so that her class could have a full view of the machinery. “Who wants to take one of my lovely girls for a spin? Mr. MacGregor?”

Malcolm blushed scarlet red as all eyes suddenly turned towards him.

Doctor Wu either didn’t notice his discomfort or didn’t care. She waved him forward. “As the sole gentleman among us, would you care to ask Betty for a dance?”

The three female students in his research group tittered as Malcolm hesitantly left the safety of the group and joined his professor next to the yellow submersible. It was about the size of a Labrador, and something about the positioning of the lights suggested curious, friendly eyes. For a robot, Betty was really quite cute.

Now he just had to make sure she stayed that way.

A thick cable extended from the back of the submersible, which was currently attached to a metal winch. Doctor Wu moved to a large control panel, which was lit up with green and red buttons. Malcolm fumbled with the joysticks, trying to get a feel for the buttons that controlled the ROVs arm movements. 

The metal davit which held Betty began to swing in a slow arc. The little robot was lifted into the air, swaying gently as the mechanical arm swung across Surveyor’s deck until Betty was poised expectantly over the side of the ship. 

With a creak of metal, the winch was released and she dropped into the aquamarine waters of the Pacific. The monitors flickered to life as Betty’s motion-activated cameras turned on.

 “We’re at your leisure, Mr. MacGregor,” the professor said dryly. 

Malcolm stared at the controllers in his hands, struggling to remember the hours he had spent with the simulator back at university lab in San Diego.

Forward. He cautiously pushed the joystick forward a millimeter.

Nothing happened. The eyes of the rest of the class burned into his back, and Malcolm felt his cheeks flood again with heat. Competition among graduate students was fierce, and while Malcolm was on friendly terms with his fellow research assistants, he knew they would secretly love to watch him fail.

He applied more pressure on the controls, and there was a whirring sound from beneath the deck as Betty’s battery-operated generator came to life. The group peered over the sides of the ship as the little yellow robot came to life.

Malcolm watched on the monitors as the submersible pushed quietly through the crystalline waters. He waited until the ROV was a safe distance from the belly of Surveyor, then began exploring the underwater world that teemed beneath their feet.

It was a riot of color and movement. Schools of fish were swarmed under deep belly of the research vessel, drawn by the promise of cool shade and shelter. 

Malcolm smiled and felt himself relax when he turned Betty’s in the water just in time to catch an enormous swordfish, at least ten feet long, shoot past and out of sight.

As Betty ventured further away from Surveyor, the metal davit extended over the deck continued to feed out a thick black cord. This cord ran from a port on Betty’s back, onto the deck and down into a large storeroom in the main hold of the ship. 

This cord was nearly two miles long. Veronica’s was even longer, at three miles. These cords could be attached to create one single length that would extend nearly five miles down into the Tonga Trench.

This was why they had come. The goal was to land a submersible on the bottom of the abyss. 

Malcolm shifted forward, and Betty began descending. The darting schools of fish were left behind as the waters began to grow darker. Colder. He flipped a switch on the central control panel near the monitors, and the ROVs powerful LED flashlights clicked on, their bright beams shining in all directions but focused on the area directly ahead and beneath the submersible.

Everyone gathered behind him, watching the monitors as Betty’s lights cut a path through the increasingly dark waters. Malcolm ignored them, completely absorbed in the silent, eerie world displayed in the view of Betty’s cameras. A pinging came from the navigation system, indicating that they’d reached their target. A wide grin spread across his face.

This was it.

Far below Betty’s gleaming yellow body, like a fatal wound carved into the surface of the Earth, was the trench. 

“That’s far enough for today, Mr. MacGregor,” Doctor Wu said from over his shoulder. Malcolm had no idea when she had appeared at his side. Reluctantly, he passed the controls over to one of his classmates and moved to the back of the group.

“Well done, Malcolm. You were a natural,” the professor said approvingly before turning back to the monitors. She began outlining their various duties over the next three days.

 

****

 

Later that evening, Malcolm climbed exhaustedly into his tiny cabin. He yanked off his sweat-soaked t-shirt and threw it in the corner. He followed this with his pants and shoes then collapsed onto the narrow bed, groaning with frustration that his window didn’t open. 

He had just spent the last eight hours in the confines of the main scientific laboratory on the main deck of Surveyor. His task was to run various saltwater samples that were collected by Betty and Veronica as he and the other graduate assistants took turns learning how to operate the ROVs in preparation for tomorrow’s long descent into the trench.

The process was long and tedious, but he normally loved the quiet repetition of lab work. Malcolm tended to stammer through any conversation not strictly on the topic of marine biology, he reveled in the relative silence of sample analysis.

The problem was that the science lab, like everywhere else on the ship, was unbearably stuffy. The rooms were temperature controlled, and since the samples they were currently studying had been taken from warm, tropical waters, the graduate students sweltered in rooms that were kept at a constant 82*F.

Thousands of miles out on the open ocean, Surveyor had different priorities than air-conditioning. She was only two hundred feet long from port to stern, and ran with a crew of ten, plus Doctor Wu and her research assistants.

Any available space that wasn’t strictly necessary to keep the ship afloat was given over to science labs. Surveyor had four temperature-controlled wetlabs for keeping live specimens. There were also three dry labs that were used to analyze the saltwater samples taken each day. There was a tiny room with a salinometer, which was used to track changes in the salt levels of the various ocean depths. There was a separate lab which could be used to study those deep-sea organisms that would die away from the crushing pressure of the abyssal region.

The ship was teeming with research equipment that Malcolm had been itching for to use in a practical environment for more than four years. Being chosen for this internship had been a huge achievement, and competition had been fierce. Sometimes Malcolm could still hardly believe he had been chosen, especially since at twenty-two, he was the youngest member of the team by three years.

That said, Surveyor had been built with a mind towards its fishy inhabitants, not its human ones.. He rolled over on the thin mattress, staring at the rivets and steel beams that crisscrossed the ceiling. 

The gentle rocking of the ship, combined with the intense heat, was beginning to give him a splitting headache. Malcolm pressed a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, brow furrowed.

This trip was the culmination of seven year’s worth of work and sweat and determination and dreams.

And here he was, fighting down a wave of seasickness. 

“Get a grip,” he said to himself sternly.

But there was nothing to be done. The tiny walls of the cabin were closing in.

He thought about taking a shower, but the communal bathroom was even more claustrophobic than his bunk, and was shared between all five of the graduate assistants. Just yesterday he had been washing in one of the three stalls when Molly Parker walked in nonchalantly and took the stall next to him. The walls of each stall were almost floor-to-ceiling, and made of thick, white plastic, but that had not stopped Malcolm from nearly having a panic attack at her proximity.

He was not very comfortable around women. Even women who had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever outside of a professional capacity.

It had been this way for years.

Sighing, Malcolm decided instead to go head back up to Surveyor’s top deck. Doctor Wu had given her research team the evening off, and there were plans for everyone to meet in the ship’s rec room to watch Jaws.

Because what else would you want to watch when thousands of feet of water sat between you and solid ground?

Coming up next, Syra meets with the High Priestess. Click here for Chapter Four!

Song of the Siren: Chapter Two

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Chapter One!

 

SYRA: THE HUNT

Thirty miles to the east and more than two miles down, a group of hunters approached their unsuspecting prey.

Five armed warriors crept through the blackness, moving silently in a world where silence was absolute. They swam in a loose formation; the leader flanked by her most trusted fighters who were in turn flanked by junior hunters. Their powerful fishtails were tense and coiled, barely flickering in the water as the group proceeded inch by cautious inch towards the hulking monster that lurked in the darkness. 

Enormous solid-black eyes dominated their faces; they stared unblinkingly ahead, attuned to the smallest particle of light. Around each hunter’s head floated a halo of thick black hairs. 

These sensory tendrils perceived even the tiniest vibration, the smallest change in the water pressure. Right now each one was sending a wealth of information to the figures as they communicated silently with one another, devising a plan of attack.

Each of their long, thin hands were clutched around their krakana, sturdy bone spears. Each was tipped with a variety of sharpened bone and teeth. The leader’s weapon was wickedly curved, hewn from the lower jaw of a great white shark.

At her signal, all five of the creatures stopped and surveyed their prey.

The giant squid stretched forty feet from its upper fins to the tips of the powerful, dangling tentacles that it used to push through the water with tremendous force. There were ten arms in total, eight short ones and two long. Each covered with rubbery, biting suction cups running along their length. These arms ended at the squid’s bone-crushing beak, and hungry mouth. 

Its eyes were gigantic, almost a foot in diameter, and they pierced through the darkness in search of small fish and other prey. 

As the hunters gathered around the beast, it located an angler fish. Faster than seemed possible, a tentacle shot out and wrapped around the struggling animal. In another heartbeat the fish had been swallowed by the hungry squid, leaving behind only a faint dusting of scales that drifted idly to the ocean floor.

The dark eyes of the hunters were now fixed solely on their leader. She made a series of quick, abbreviated hand gestures, trying to disturb the water as little as possible. Her warriors dispersed, spreading out in a slow fan. They moved into position, each fighter at a distance that would keep her just out of reach of the squid’s gripping tentacles.

The leader swam up a few feet until she was almost directly above her prey. It’s constantly shifting eyes roamed over her and she froze, not a single sensory tendril wafting in the water. The squid didn’t see her in the blackness, and she slowly raised one arm to the side of her head, then jerked it down suddenly.

Now!

Flashes of bioluminescent light erupted from all angles. Its massive eyes unprepared for the sudden onslaught, the animal was struck momentarily blind.

The leader lit up a red stripe of light along her spine, signalling the second stage of the attack.  Her hunters took their places at the base of the largest tentacles, krakanas poised and ready. 

Raising her shark-jaw spear, she slashed down violently into the soft skin of the squid’s mantle.

The wounded beast twisted violently in the water, stretching it’s murderous tentacles blindly in search of its attacker. One of her hunters was knocked sideways by the power of the squid’s movements. She sank heavily into the soft floor of the seabed, kicking up a billowing cloud of sand.

Now the world was a blur of sand and blood and black, inky water as the squid turned and thrashed in the water. Another warrior flashed a bright white glow next to the animal’s sensitive eyes and it shrank back from the sudden light, allowing her sister to get close enough to begin slashing at the squid’s powerful arms. 

 The animal drew its arms protectively into its body, leaving only the two longest tentacles to continue sweeping for the source of its pain. 

Red light began flashing wildly as one of the tentacles wrapped itself blindly around the leg of a hunter and began drawing her towards its snapping jaws. Her powerful tail beat the already cloudy water until all that could be seen was the rapidly flickering red light moving closer to the squid’s mouth.

The leader raced to her trapped hunter, slashing again and again with the serrated blade of her spear. But the squid’s arms were thick and muscular. Her blade scratched the surface but couldn’t penetrate deeply enough to break the squid’s grip. 

The other three hunters began flashing in rapid succession, confusing the large predator. It twisted and doubled back. 

Suddenly the leader of the warriors was face to face with the animal’s enormous rolling eye.

 It was larger than her head, and rimmed in white. It looked directly at her with a terrible intelligence.

It saw her.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she withdrew a sharpened bone dagger from a sheath on her hip and buried it into the squid’s eye, piercing it’s brain.

Dead, the animal sank slowly to the ocean floor below.

 

***

 

The hunters now fell to the task of gutting and butchering the massive squid. They worked mostly in complete darkness, only occasionally flashing a bioluminescent signal to one another. They moved as a well-trained unit; each one falling to their usual tasks with little need for communication.

First, they sawed off each of the long arms, twisting and knotting them together to form a bulky but manageable bundle. The heavy mantle contained the majority of the meat, and they sliced it into long, thing strips. They keep all the edible organs intact, discarding only the black line of intestine that ran along its body.

The squid’s enormous eyes were wrapped in carefully in a square of seasilk and set aside. A gift for the Gods.

Some of them took trophies from the kill. As the one who had delivered the killing blow, the leader claimed the animal’s strong beak as her prize. Another hunter cut away a piece of toothed sucker and affixed it to a bone necklace, where it joined the suckers of eleven previous hunts.

When they were finished, the lingering traces of blood in the water were the only evidence of the recent violence. Already though, scavengers were arriving upon the scene, drawn by the lingering scent of the squid’s entrails. A finless hagfish swam lazily a few inches above the ocean floor, seeking out any scraps of meat that may have fallen to the silty ground.

Dead, the giant squid weighed more than four hundred pounds, and there was enough to spare that the hunters did not begrudge the hungry fish a few mouthfuls. From behind a nearby rock they retrieved several wide, flat pieces of bone, scavenged from the skull of a fallen whale. 

Using thin, flexible lengths of seasilk, four of the hunters bound the enormous sections of squid to the bone, then wound the shimmering white fabric around their shoulders. Harnessed to these makeshift sleds, the warriors kicked strongly, their powerful scarlet-red tails stirring up the silty sediment of the seabed.

Underwater, the hunters were able to carry loads many times their own body weight. They had also been trained in strength and stamina since birth, and their muscular bodies strained at the sturdy seasilk until the heavy loads began shifting slowly, and then with greater speed. The captain of the warriors took her place at the center of the pack, unencumbered except by her sharkbone spear. 

The band of hunters began the slow, four-hour journey back to their city, the heads of the four bent as they dragged the heavy whalebone sleds. The leaders eyes were huge in her face, on a constant swivel as they cut through the infinite darkness of the abyssal plain. 

An auspicious hunt. No one injured except Mara, and even that was only a sucker-bite. 

The leader took a moment to peer back at her Beta, her right-hand fighter. Mara and their fellow pack-sister Tyre were the veterans of nearly a dozen hunts, and the violent bouts against the squid had left all three of them pocked with circular scars left by the animal’s toothed tentacles. Even her two junior warriors, Jada and Aeleon, bore signs of their encounters with the giant squid.

The meat from this kill will feed the people of Lai’lore for at least three months. A sure sign after so many failed hunts. Relief washed over her, though she was careful to keep her face expressionless. Perhaps the Gods have finally been appeased.

The sensory hairs on her head picked up a vibration coming from ahead of the group and she swam aggressively ahead, flashing her B. spinal ridges in warning. A flash of blue lights flickered back, signalling to the group of heavily armed warriors.

No Threat.

Spear still poised at the ready, the leader closed her eyes and focused, summoning her energy. A soft glow began under her ribcage and spread slowly until her entire body was illuminated in a glowing yellow light from the top of her head to the very tips of her tail flukes.

Where a moment ago there had been eternal blackness there was now a shining halo around the leader of the hunters. Her hair flowed wildly, the sensory tendrils swaying in the otherwise still water. Behind her, her fellow warriors bowed low, still dragging the heavy sleds.

It was a display of great and dreadful magic, known and feared by all the denizens of the deep waters. Immediately, the approaching creature froze and began showing red flickers.

A sign of subservience. One of their own. Clearly visible now in the yellow light emanating from her body, the leader beckoned the newcomer forward.

She was thin, with a long silver torso ending in a bright cerulean-blue tail. Across her chest was a gleaming sash of white seasilk bearing a distinctive stylized spiral.

A messenger. From the Temple of the High Priestess. She hovered at the edge of the light shining from the leader of the hunters and, wide black eyes downcast, that she had a message for the leader. She was still visibly trembling in the presence of the leader’s shining yellow aura. 

Poor thing. Why in the Abyss was she sent out here without protection? She loosened the tension in her abdomen, and the glowing light quickly faded, leaving them surrounded once more in safe, comfortable darkness.

“What could possibly be so important that my grandmother would send you all the way out here alone, young one?” the leader asked. She communicated in a combination of high-pitched whistles and clicks, bioluminescent flickers, and broad hand motions which created traveling vibrations in the water. 

“Pardon me, Lady Syra,” the young woman answered with a deep bow, her voice still quaking with fear from the leader’s earlier show of aggression. “The High Priestess commands that you come to the Temple at once.”

The lead warrior, Syra, scoffed and gestured to the heavily laden females behind her,  “My warriors are already returning after a successful hunt. We are tired and thirsty. Tonight we will give our offerings to the Gods. Can my grandmother not wait until then?”

The young messenger bowed again, but was already shaking her head, “She says you are to leave the others behind and come at once. An offering has been found.”

“We have an offering wrapped up in the sleds behind me!” Syra gestured impatiently.

“No, my Lady–”

“Don’t call me my Lady. Syra will do,” she interrupted.

Yes my L– Syra,” the messenger stumbled on her words, misery painted clearly on her features. “But your grandmother said that an offering had been found, and that you were to come back immediately. She said something about it being a “sacrificial” off–”

“That’s enough.” Syra cut the girl off again, and she fell silent. “You will stay here with my warriors. They will see that you return safely to Tessai.”

Now she spoke directly to her first hunter, “Mara, divide your load between the others and take lead. See them back safely, sister”

Mara gave her a fierce, proud look and said nothing. There was no need. The two had been raised together since infancy, they knew each other’s minds as well as their own. 

Still clutching her long spear, Syra left her fellow hunters behind and began swimming in the direction of the City as fast as she could. Almost instantly the dark closed around her and she was swimming alone through the silent blackness. She swam mindlessly, lost in her thoughts.

A sacrifice had been found.

How many years it had been? Before Syra’s time, so at least twenty years ago. In that time, the Gods had grown angry and restless. So many eggs failed to hatch, and too many of the surviving hatchlings were sickly and weak. Most did not survive to see their second year.

The people of the Abyss were growing restless as well, and fearful of what further devastation the Gods might unleash if they were denied their rightful gifts. Already there were rumors from neighboring communities of violent shakings within the Abyss, and plumes of black smoke that spewed up from the chasm.

A sacrifice was desperately needed, and Syra sent a silent prayer down to the Gods that they were able to send along an appropriate offering in time.

Still, her heart hammered as she thought of what surely awaited at the Temple of the Abyss.

A pure offering to the Gods Below could only come from the Realm Above.

One of them would have to undergo the perilous journey to the surface, lure the sacrifice into the water, and drag it down to the Abyss as a gift to the Gods.

Let it be me. Syra clutched her krakana tight, and swam faster through the darkness.The silty sea floor was midnight black beneath her tailfins as she raced to obey her grandmother’s summons.

The High Priestess did not like to be kept waiting.

Click here for Chapter Three!

Song of the Siren: Chapter One

MALCOLM: AWAKE AT MIDNIGHT

Malcolm MacGregor awoke with a start in the middle of the night, and for a long moment he had no idea where he was. 

The room was pitch black; the only illumination coming from a pale strip of light under the door. 

He fumbled blindly in the dark until his seeking fingers found the switch to a bedside lamp and clicked it on. 

The melody of a dream still rang in his ears. Malcolm shook his head, trying to shake away the last echoes. He looked around, blinking rapidly in the sudden harsh light.

The room was tiny–designed to maximize efficiency. The bed was narrow and far too short to comfortably fit his lanky frame. A small wooden desk was bolted to one wall. A small, circular window stared out onto an inky darkness. 

The entire room seemed to be gently rocking. Malcolm’s disorientation lifted as he realized that he was in his quarters on board the scientific research vessel Surveyor, which was currently anchored ninety off the coast of Samoa. The view from outside his window was black because, as a lowly grad student, his bunk was in the lowest deck of cabins. 

The only reason he had a private room in the first place was because he was the only male grad student chosen for this internship. The three female graduate students shared a larger room on one of the upper decks.

Not that he minded. He preferred his privacy, and he had an amazing view of the colorful schools of fish outside his porthole window. 

Sleep faded from his mind, but Malcolm’s heart still hammered in his chest. What had woken him? The past three nights of the expedition he’d slept like a rock, lulled away by the faint hum of the ship’s engines and the peaceful rocking as it moved with the calmly lapping water.

Malcolm sleepily pulled on his glasses and checked the time on his phone.

3:45. Ugh. No point in going back to sleep; he had to be up and dressed in barely more than an hour to begin prepping the day’s saltwater samples. The sun would be up soon anyway; the summertime days in the Pacific began early.

Malcolm crept out of his cabin and down the silent hallway before making his way up the metal stairs at the end of the corridor and up to Surveyor’s top deck. It was eerily still and silent up here; no one else was stirring at this early hour and Malcolm felt like he had the ship to himself. 

Finally away from the low ceilings and cramped belowdecks of the research vessel, Malcolm stretched to his full height and uttered a quiet sigh of contentment. Then he raised his arms above his hand, continuing the stretch and raising his head towards the night sky.

His breath caught in his throat as he beheld the blanket of twinkling stars that stretched from horizon to horizon. Hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the stars shone in their hundreds of millions. The constellations were new and strange to Malcolm’s eyes.

Of course. They’re completely different stars than San Diego.  

 

A tiny splash from the starboard deck snapped Malcolm out of his stargazing, and he peered over bulging walls of Surveyor.

If possible, the water was even blacker than the sky. 

The ship was anchored just off the northern tip of the Tonga trench, a fifteen hundred mile-long gash that ran from New Zealand all the way up to Samoa. Beneath his feet, the ocean floor descended more than thirty-five thousand feet into an abyss.

As always, when Malcolm pictured the six miles of crushing pressure between him and solid ground, an involuntary shiver of apprehension ran down his spine. 

Thirty thousand feet of blackness.

Feeling suddenly unbalanced, he backed from the metal railing. 

Splash.

There it was again.

Probably just a sea turtle. They adored the shade provided by Surveyor’s broad belly, and were constantly bumping into the research equipment.

Malcolm stared out into the expanse, willing his night vision to be sharper than it was. Hovering at the edge of his vision, he thought he could see a shadow. A shape bobbing–almost indistinguishable against the darkness–low in the waters to the west.

CRASH!

Malcolm jerked in surprise, as one of the metal doors leading downstairs was thrown open and a bright light temporarily blinded him. 

“What the hell!” he shouted angrily as the intruder clomped up the stairs in heavy boots. He looked back at the water quickly but the dark shape–if it had been there at all–was gone. 

With a sigh, Malcolm turned back to see who had interrupted his peaceful pre-dawn quiet. 

It was Claude, one of the ship’s navigational crew. A burly man with thick, meaty biceps covered in tattoos, he gave Malcolm a long, measured glance when he saw him.

Fishing a lighter out of his pocket, Claude crossed to the deck railing and lit a cigarette, drawing deep and blowing the smoke out of his nostrils. 

“The fuck are ya doing up here, kid? Top decks supposed to be off limits to students after dark.” He spat the word as if it were a vulgarity.

Malcolm flushed under the man’s accusatory gaze. “Sorry, sir. I had no idea. I woke up early and thought I’d get some fresh air.” He immediately began backing towards the still-open door.

“You kids need to be careful. Maybe you especially,” Claude said, turning his back to Malcolm and leaning heavily on the railing.

“Why me especially?” Malcolm asked in confusion. He was getting fed up with being referred to as “kid”.

Claude shrugged his broad shoulders. “Just keep to your bunk, kid. And we won’t have a problem, now will we?” 

Now Claude did turn his head to give Malcolm a conspiratorial wink.

“I–guess not,” Malcolm replied uncertainly. He headed back down the narrow metal stairs to his room. He swore he heard Claude give a soft chuckle behind him.

 

***

 

One hundred feet from the gleaming red hull of the ship, two dark pairs of eyes watched from the water as the young man was replaced by another, this one larger and uglier than the first. 

The figures turned in the water, and with a few powerful thrusts of their muscular tails, they descended into the sea.

The nighttime blackness of the shallow coral seas quickly gave way to the true, infinite darkness of the ocean depths. As the two strange creatures swam down and down, the raised ridges along their spines began flickering bioluminescent reds and greens, sending a very clear message to the hungry ocean life that shared their world.

Danger. Stay away.

The flashing lights allowed the figures to see one another in short bursts. Long, thin fingers began moving rapidly, combined with a series of high-pitched clicks and whistles. A message was being communicated between the creatures.

Alert the High Priestess. An offering has been found.

***

The hunt is on in Chapter Two! Click here to continue reading Song of the Siren.

Microfiction: “Filthy. Rich.” by Ashley Schlueter

Twelve women eyed one another, not bothering to hide their disdain.

Tonight, cameras would roll, broadcasting live to millions around the world in the fifth season of the runaway hit reality show, What Would You Do to Marry a Filthy Rich Man?

All but one would be eliminated.

Her prize? A ring on her finger, and a rich husband to go with it.

The winner would then debut on the popular spinoff show, Bored Rich Wives of Filthy Rich Men.

Immediate fame. Poof. Like magic.  

Bobbie-Lynn chewed on her fingernail, watching as another woman with legs like a gazelle uncorked a bottle of wine.

Idiot. She’s gonna show up drunk for the Swan Ceremony!

But then Bobbie-Lynn noticed the gazelle discreetly tuck the sharp, chromed corkscrew into the bodice of her couture gown.

One to watch out for…

A producer with a clipboard under one arm clapped his hands. “Okay, ladies! We’re on in five! Now, is everyone ready to prove just how much they love this year’s rich guy!?”

As one, the women shouted, “WOOOO!”

“Are you ready to show the world how much he means to you!?”

“WOOOOO!” came their frenzied screams.

“Then get out there and give us some good TV!”

Bobbie-Lynn “wooed” along with the rest, then reached down and pulled off her stiletto. With a twist, the heel broke off to reveal a slim, glittering dagger.

The producer saw her, and nodded approvingly. 

“I feel like this is going to be our best season yet.”

 

We Looked Up

We look up at the mighty moon

And know it must be sinking soon

The ocean waves are breathless bound

When mortals crumble to the ground.

And when they are at last unleashed

Their pounding violence shall not cease

Until we tremble in their stead

And cradle nightmares in our head.

 

 

 

My Story is Now Available as a Free Novella!

If you like creepy country roads, abandoned farmhouses, and things that go bump in the night, check out

The Midnight Road!

available for free now on Inkitt!!

Help Me Choose a Title!

Anyone who is awake at 2:30 am: what’s a good title for a romance story about twins that doesn’t immediately suggest incest?
Everything that I can think of (Twin Desire, etc) hints at either creepy threesomes or worse.
I need something sexy yet innocuous. Winner gets their title on my latest story 😉

The Faerie’s Princess: Chapter One – The Bargain

The land was dying.

From the narrow windows of Dunnhawke Castle, King Cormac could see the fields of wheat that were withering before his eyes on their usually fertile fields.

You’d never think we’d be so desperate for rain, not here.

Not in Ireland.

The usual misty showers of spring had never come, nor had the heavy summer storms that were so necessary to ripen the crops before harvest.

Now, weeks later, the late afternoon sun still shone a merciless blue, with not a cloud in the sky.

A distant scream echoed down the stone corridor, and Cormac turned suddenly, his stomach wrenched with fear.

His wife, Queen Bronnagh, was in labor with their first child.

It had been a hard pregnancy, and the delivery was taking longer than expected.

The royal midwives were in attendance. He had seen them exiting Bronnagh’s bedchamber with bowl filled with bloody cloth.

The screams persisted all day, until Cormac thought he would tear his own heart from his chest to make it cease.

He had fought many battles in the war to reclaim his kingdom. The cries of dying men were still echoed through his dreams.

None would haunt him like the cries of his beautiful new wife.

Never before had he felt so utterly helpless.

Cormac took a deep, wavering breath and deliberately turned back towards the unpaned window.

His kingdom, so newly won, was crumbling to pieces around him.

How could he expect the people to support his rule when their livelihood stood dying in the fields? In the one hundred days since his official coronation, it had not rained a drop.

All over the peasants were whispering.

They were displeased.

The Sidhe.

The people of the mounds.

The Fae.

Whatever name people chose to call them, they did so in hushed undertones and subtle gestures.

Cormac shook his head. He had ridden himself of such foolish fancies the moment he had been exiled at twelve-years of age to the lonely isle of Innismoor.

The brutal coup that had usurped his father, Ronan, had resulted in the death of the King had ended with the rule of Ronan’s younger brother, Odhran.

He had only just managed to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke, having solidified his claim to the throne with a marriage to the youngest daughter of _____.

In the year they had been married, Cormac had come to love his wife deeply, though his stoic reserve made it difficult for him to demonstrate his affection.

Another wrenching scream came from the open door of Queen Bronnagh’s bedchamber, making Cormac feel half-mad with worry and grief.

A few short months ago, everything he ever wanted had been in the palm of his hand.

Now, his kingdom was plagued by drought, there were rumors of plague in the nearby villages, and it seemed likely that his hard-won alliance with the kingdom of ____ would die alongside his wife and newborn child.

Maybe he was cursed.

Perhaps one of the Fae had put an evil curse upon his reign.

He had never paid much mind to the old-wives tales before, but desperation was high and tight in his chest.

“Your Grace?”

A voice from behind caused King Cormac to start, and he turned to see the midwife, her face bone white in the failing light of the sun.

She looks like a omen of death. Cormac thought as a shudder ran up his back.

The plump older woman shook her hand, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done, sire. The babe is turned in the womb, and the cord is wrapped about it’s poor little neck.”

Cormac Setterwind had not cried since the death of his father eighteen years ago, but now he felt a sob rising to his throat.

“And…and the Queen?” he choked, dreading the answer.

Again the midwife shook her head, and now Cormac’s knees threatened to buckle. He raised one hand to steady himself against the stone wall of the castle.

“I understand,” was all he was able to reply.

Everything. His beautiful, young wife.

His long fight to reclaim his rightful throne.

All of it gone.

The peasants were already on the brink of revolt given the lack of food in the region. The whispers of curses reached his ears even here in the castle.

Odhran, who had escaped across the narrow channel to the Britannic Isles, would be ready and waiting to see upon any weakness.

Something had to be done.

Cormac slammed a futile fist against the wall, resting his head for a moment against the cool stones.

“My son, something must be done,” his mother said from his shoulder, having crept up his shoulder in that silent way that she had. She echoed his own thoughts, as she so often did.

Grainne Setterwind was a tiny, wizened woman with a face full of sagging wrinkles, but her posture was kept rigidly erect by the sturdy oaken cane she carried.

She had been old since Cormac could remember, having borne him late in life after the deaths of her two elder sons, both of whom had died in battle before he was ever born.

“There is nothing to be done, Mother. The Queen is near death, and the child with her,” Cormac said grimly, fighting to maintain control over his emotions.

“There is always something to be done, if one knows who to ask,” his mother replied. Her blue woolen gown was closed high at the throat, but it did not hide the tremor that shook her frail bones.

Cormac’s own blood chilled at the thought. “We cannot go to them. They are not trustworthy. Mother you know this.”

“I know that if you do not ask for help from the Fae, you will lose your kingdom within the fortnight, and all your long years of struggle will have been for naught,” Grainne said in her measured voice.

Bronnagh cried out again in pain, and Cormac could tell from the increased panic in her voice that they were both running out of time.

He had no choice. He would go to the Fae.

 

***

 

The winter sun had already set as King Cormac made his careful way out of the castle and through the grounds.

He took none of his usual guards and personal servants with him.

No one must know of this night.

He entered a copse of birch trees and continued, certain of his route due to his mother’s constant folk tales and his own youthful wanderings.

The stone circles of Dunnhawke were well known to everyone in the area as a place to be generally avoided for fear of disrespecting them.

The Fae did not take kindly to any perceived slight.

Even as he approached, Cormac could see thick gray clouds gathering on the darkened horizon.

An example of nature finally taking its course, or a portent that his steps led towards his destiny?

The dark, rough-hewn stones of the fairy circle loomed through the withered leaves of the forest. What was usually a lush undergrowth crackled drily beneath his leather boots.

The stones were arranged in three concentric rings, each smaller than the other. Despite the dry heat of the evening, an icy trickle shivered down Cormac’s spine.

He had no authority between those rings of stone.

This was the dominion of the Sidhe. The immortal Fae would had inhabited this land long before the rise of Man.

Now, controlled by the ancient power of the stones, the Sidhe were held within their ancient realm, only able to enter the human world through specific sites of offering and worship.

It was a peace that had lasted for more than ten generations. He must do nothing to alter the balance of that truce tonight.

With a shiver of misgiving, Cormac loosened the leather belt that held his sword in place, and let the steel blade fall with a dull thud onto the dry grass.

He hated to enter this place unarmed, but to bring a weapon was to court death.

As Cormac passed within the outermost ring he withdrew a hammered-silver bracelet from a pocket of his cloak.

An offering..

As he crossed the threshold of the furthermost stone, the King felt his heart began to thunder within his chest.

Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.

His mother’s parting words, said just as he mounted his black war horse and charged off into Dunnhawke Forest.

The Fae delighted in making contracts and agreements with mortals, then standing back and watching their hapless victims fall prey to one unforeseen problem or another.

It was their speciality.

Cormac felt the air grow still around him as he entered the innermost circle of stones. All the late night hooting of owls and chirping of cicadas had died off, leaving an almost palpable silence in their place.

The very atmosphere around him quivered with magic.

Before his courage could fail him, Cormac went to the center of the fairy circle, where a low stone table sat, its surface worn smooth from the weight of centuries of offerings.

He laid the silver bracelet upon it, then turned to face the silently watching eyes of the forest.

“I am Cormac Setterwind, King of DunnHawke. I offer precious goods in exchange for the peaceful continuation of my reign.”

He swallowed hard, then continued. “I beg of thee, O’ Mighty Sidhe, end the drought that has plagued my kingdom. Spare my–” here he stopped, swallowing back his desperation, “spare my wife and unborn child from certain death.”

Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his sandy-blonde hair. 

“Please. Accept my valuable offering.”

“A far more priceless offering is required, my good King Cormac.”

A silky voice sounded, making Cormac startle.

“At least, if you seek to achieve all that you desire.” the voice continued. The king looked up to see a figure silhouetted by the light of a torch that had not been there a moment ago.

Cormac’s pulse jumped as he beheld a member of the Fae for the first time in his life.

It was a youthful male with jet-black hair that glinted softly under the rising moonlight.

“We were wondering when you would come, King Cormac,” the young man said. He was dressed in hunting clothes, a green leather tunic and brown pants. Like the king, he was unarmed.

The laws had to be obeyed if the uneasy peace was to continue.

“I — I have come with an offering,” the King stammered, gesturing towards the valuable bracelet that still lay upon the stone table. “Please accept it in exchange for sparing the life of my Queen, and for bringing the rains back to the Kingdom of Dunnhawke.

“You ask for much, King Cormac,  but bring little with which to bargain,” the Fae male said, raising a quizzical brow. His voice was light, almost comical given the dire circumstances.

Despite his youthful appearance, the Fae’s amethyst eyes were filled with a centuries-old cynicism.

“What more could you ask for? I have already lost my wife…my child…” The heaviness his grief began to sink upon Cormac, and he felt his back bend beneath its weight.

“Your wife yet lives, as does your child. They are still between the world of the living and the dead.”

Cormac raised his head at the Fae’s words.

“I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”

The flesh on the king’s arms raised as he anticipated the man’s next words.

“For a price.”

Cormac’s shoulders sagged. A deep weariness settled over him. “What is your price?” he asked.

“The rains will be restored to your kingdom, and your wife restored to health,” the fairy said. “But the baby–”

“Damn you to hell! You will not harm my child!” Cormac’s rage washed away his former despair.

The Fae quirked a dark eyebrow. “We have no intention of harming the girl.”

Cormac went weak at the knees. “A girl? You know this? I am to have a daughter?

The man nodded. “She will be the first of twelve children born to you and your wife. Eight of them boys.”

Cormac’s mouth went dry. Twelve children. Eight sons. A dynasty to carry on his name. An iron vise clamped around his heart and twisted violently. “What would happen to the girl?” he asked, casting a glance towards the Fae.

The male picked idly at a fingernail, seemingly bored with the proceedings. “She would spend her youth in the mortal world, until we came for her. Then, we would come to spend her days with us in the lands beyond the mist.”

~There is no other choice left to me.~ “What fate would await her in the fairy lands?” Cormac said, his heart pounding dully in his skull.

“ I neither know nor care. All I can promise is that she will live out her days unharmed in the realm of King Ronan. The king has expressed a certain…interest in her destiny. Now, mortal, the time comes to make your choice. I fear your wife will not last much longer.” the man stepped forward, his unnatural purple eyes gleaming in the moonlight.

“How long will she be permitted to stay with her family?” Cormac said, knowing his decision had already been made.

The Fae knew it as well. A wide grin came to his lips. “Who can say, King Cormac? We fairy folk have long lives, and long memories. Perhaps we will come for her in a year. Perhaps twenty. Perhaps she will be allowed to live out her entire life without anyone even remembering our bargain.”

His shark-like smile broadened. “Though, that is unlikely.”

“Why my daughter? Why would a ruler of the Fae be interested in my child?” Cormac, asked, still unwilling to resign himself to what he was about to do.

“That is not your concern, mortal. Now, do you we have a deal?”

The Fae male spit into the palm of his silvery-white hand and extended it towards the king.

No. Tell this demon to crawl back into his hole.

Run.

Instead, King Cormac of Dunnhawke spat into his calloused palm, and shook hands with the Fae.

The Faerie’s Princess: Chapter Two: The Fated Princess