The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Six: The Birthday

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

Gwen stood before the burnished copper looking glass that sat propped against the wall of her bedchamber.

“It’s no use,” she said with a raised brow at Moira, “you’ll have to stuff my bodice full of rags again.”

“Yes, princess. You do lack a woman’s figure,” Moira said despairingly, clucking her tongue at her charge.

“It isn’t my fault. I eat more than Ronan.”

“And then burn it all off runnin’ wild like a hill pony when you should be inside sewin’ with your sisters,” Moira grumbled, tugging at Gwen’s dress to make her figure appear fuller.

But there was a note of pride in her voice, and she nodded with satisfaction at Gwen’s blurred reflection. 

Gwen rolled her eyes and grinned back at her. The older woman liked to disapprove–it seemed to be her favorite occupation in life. But that didn’t stop Moira from having a kind, gentle heart underneath her bluster. She’d come to Dunnhawke as a lady’s maid and companion for the queen, and had known Gwen since the day she was born. 

Besides, she was partially right. It was downright unseemly for Gwen to be so thin and wiry, not when she ate at the royal table.

In a country often threatened by starvation, curves were a sign of wealth. Only those who had enough to feed their families through the lean winter months could afford to grow fat.

Most of Gwen’s sisters were plump, with swelling bosoms and the wide, fecund hips of their mother.

Her younger sister Kaleigh, in particular, was considered the beauty of the Setterwind daughters. With raven dark hair that fell in thick waves past her waist, and the pale, milk-white complexion of someone who rarely went out of doors, Kaleigh had already drawn the eye of several noble suitors.

Next to her, Gwen, with her untameable red curls and long, thin face covered in freckles, looked more like a simple farmer’s child than the eldest daughter of Dunnhawke.

“Well, what do you think?” Moira asked, adjusting the dress and stepping back.

“I think I can hardly turn my neck, and this collar itches like it’s made of fleas.”

“You would know,” Moira muttered.

Gwen bit back a retort. It was true, she had gotten her share of fleabites from her nights spent sleeping in the stables with the horses. 

“Well, it’ll have to do. You’re late as it is, and it’s hardly fitting to keep everyone waiting. It is your party, after all.

My party. More like a funeral.

Gwen wished she could wear her riding breeches underneath this monstrosity, but her mother would have a fit if she suspected. 

Queen Bronnagh had sent one of her own gowns for Gwen to wear to the ball this evening.

It was a deep forest green, with thick, stiff white lace edging the collar and sleeves, which trailed almost all the way to the floor.

Moira had stuffed the bodice with rags to make it appear as though Gwen had the hourglass figure prized by noblewomen of the court. The effect was decent, but all the padding made her feel heavy and awkward.

I  don’t think the Fae give a damn what I look like, she thought resentfully. They’ll mostly be interested in ripping my clothes off.

“Thank you, Moira. I’m going to go say good night to Deirdre and Doreen, and then I’ll come down.”

Instead of arguing about the princess’ lateness, Moira nodded sadly, then left the room.

Gwen eyed her reflection in the looking glass for another moment, and then went to make her goodbyes.

 

***

Her foot tapped impatiently, at odds to the rhythm of the music, as she stared out over the throngs of richly dressed courtiers. The men were almost as ostentatiously dressed as the women, and the Gallery was a sea of rich fabrics and expensive jewels. 

A group of minstrels played from one corner, and the music of lyres and drums filled the large room. A space had been cleared for dancing; couples had arranged themselves into lines and were twirling to the traditional steps. 

Seated at her father’s side–a place of honor typically reserved for visiting ambassadors and dignitaries–Gwen tried to keep her face schooled into a calm mask.

Where are they?

She eyed the enormous wooden double doors of the castle’s central keep. They had been propped open tonight–by the weight of two full-grown tree trunks–in welcome to their guests.

No matter which world they came from.

Gwen had asked for this, had argued with her parents until they relented. She wanted to send a bold invitation to the Fae.

Come. Claim what is yours.

I am through waiting. Let it be done.

But by the clocktower, it was already eleven o’clock, everyone was in full festivity, and still there was still no sign that an emissary would come from the lands beyond the winds.

There is still an hour yet. They will come.

They have to come. 

I can bear this waiting no longer.   

Gwen saw her sister Kaleigh among lines of dancers, the dimples flashing in her cheeks as she smiled coyly at her well-dressed partner. Even at thirteen, she knew how to wind boys around her little finger, and had a steady stream of suitors and admirers.

Next to her was their sister Imogen, a year younger than Kaleigh and deeply envious of her older sister’s beauty. She was so focused on matching her steps perfectly to Kaleigh’s that she was completely oblivious to the handsome man dancing opposite her. 

Gwen smiled to herself. Both of them would probably be glad to see her gone. Kaleigh had hinted on more than one occasion that she would make a far better match if her “accursed” elder sister didn’t frighten off the foreign princes.

Her twin brothers, Sean and Seamus, would probably also be happier once she was taken by the Fae. She had yet to see either of them all evening, and assumed they were in the brothels. At least she hoped they were. 

If they were out terrorizing the young women of Dunnhawke village again, she would have to teach her little brothers another lesson. 

At least Ronan will be around to keep them in line. As heir to the throne, he was one of the few whose authority Sean and Seamus still obeyed. And Ronan would miss her, Gwen could be certain of that. Of all her siblings, he was closest to her both in age and temperament. 

Yes, Ronan would mourn when the Fae came to claim her, though she knew he would never let any personal grief show on his face. He had been too well trained in the arts of diplomacy. And everyone knew this day was coming.

Gwen would miss Ronan in return. He was one of the few people she knew who didn’t flinch, sob, or sneer at the sight of her. 

And Deirdre and Doreen. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving them as well.

Over the past eighteen years, Queen Bronnagh had given birth to three sets of twins, all of which had lived–a feat almost unheard of in a land where one child in every four did not live past their weaning year. 

Her four-year-old brothers Colm and Conor, were mere toddlers. Gwen barely knew them, as she rarely visited the royal nursery and they were rarely allowed outside of it.

But she knew Sean and Seamus very well, and had avoided them as much as possible for years. Bronnagh’s eldest set of twins had come into the world screaming and squabbling, and had never stopped. Grainne, Gwen’s grandmother, had once said that they were born with anger in their hearts, and often Gwen wondered if it were true. Now nearing sixteen, they were already more than six feet tall, with barrel chests and bruised, calloused knuckles. 

But if Sean and Seamus had anger flowing through their veins, then Bronnagh’s second set of twins had been born with nothing but gentleness in theirs. Deirdre and Doreen Setterwind represented the only time in King Cormac’s life where he wondered if his bargain with the Fae had been a fool’s errand. 

The queen had been miserably sick during the whole pregnancy; while her belly grew bloated and purple, her limbs had become sticklike and brittle. For almost three days she had sweated to bring the babies into this world, and for the second time in her life she was pronounced on the brink of death on the childbed. 

But in the end, the Fae’s promise had held true. Queen Bronnagh delivered two living daughters, though both were irrevocably scarred by their traumatic entrance into the world. Or perhaps the fact that they had developed differently in the womb had been what impaired the labor. The midwives had been either unable or unwilling to provide an answer, and had left hurriedly with their thumbs between their forefingers in the ancient spell to ward off Fae magic.

Either way, many of the peasant farmers would have left the newborn girls to die in the snow, and it was only the loving heart of the queen and the fearful heart of the king that saved the tiny, deformed infants. Still, it was not for nothing that both of their names spoke of sadness. 

Gwen had gone to see her sisters before coming down to the ball. They were more than welcome to attend, but both–particularly Deirdre–were intensely shy, and hated the prying eyes of strangers. Before she had gone down to the gallery, she had visited their rooms. They had wept together when she had told them that tonight she must go.

She looked again at the clock. Eleven fifteen. 

Forty-five minutes left until she was eighteen years old. Give or take a few minutes. The legends–and Gwen hated that there were already cautionary tales about her–said that she had been born at the very stroke of midnight. But storytellers loved to exaggerate, so it was impossible to know for sure. Her mother had certainly  been in no fit state to remember.

Gwen sighed deeply, sitting back in her carved wooden chair. Her mother. Her father. Her ten younger siblings–eleven if you included the one still growing in the queen’s belly. 

All of it was due to King Cormac’s bargain. If he had not agreed to the Fae’s terms, none of them would be here today. And she herself would have died in the womb.

When put in such harsh, unforgiving terms, it was hard to hate Her father for the decision he had made that night, when he had been utterly desperate—and only a few years older than Gwen herself was now. 

But it was hard to love him as well. Especially when he hadn’t so much as glanced at her all night.

More than anyone, her father avoided her gaze, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the colorfully spinning dancers. Since the long-ago day when he had told Gwen of his bargain with the Fae, King Cormac had removed himself from her life. When she asked to ride, he provided her a horse. When she began training with Lorcan Wolfsbane, she was certain he knew from the beginning and did nothing to stop her simply out of disinterest.

He is as eager as I am for this ugly business to be done with. Gwen could hardly blame him. It must be terrible waking up each day knowing that he had consigned his eldest child to a horrible fate. 

But it was far worse being the one chained to it.

Her mother, who sat on King Cormac’s other side, was greatly pregnant with her twelfth child. She cast sidelong looks at her eldest daughter now and then, but said nothing. She had long ago resigned herself to Gwen’s loss, and had dedicated her life towards raising the children she knew had a future. Again, Gwen couldn’t hate her mother. She actually admired Queen Bronnagh’s pragmatic attitude towards life.

Some things could not be changed. Best to focus on the things that could. 

It mirrored Gwen’s own perspective.  

Eleven thirty. Half an hour to go. Gwen sipped from a glass of wine brought to her by a steward. It was her third, and her head was beginning to feel a little muddled. She reminded herself to stop after this glass. She would need her senses about her if the Fae came.

When they came. Surely they had been waiting for her eighteenth birthday. No one could understand why the Fae had waited this long. Everyone knew they had no interest in the old, the weak, or the infirm. Those that lived beyond the winds liked their victims healthy and ripe–in the prime of their lives.

I will leave Dunnhawke tonight.

One way or the other.

 

***

 

The wretchedly tolling clocktower told her it was two-thirty in the morning.

The guests had long since left. So had her parents, first with a sad look at her, and then at one another.

Ronan had offered to stay up, to see in the dawn, but Gwen shook him off. He’d given her a hard look, as if reading the tumultuous thoughts in her mind, but ultimately nodded and gone to bed. 

Leaving Gwen alone except for the servants, who were already cleaning up the mess–and probably helping themselves to any leftover wine.

Anger hurried her steps as she left the central keep and went out to the courtyard. Her whole body felt rigid, pulsing with tension. Her heart pounded dully in her ears.

The Fae hadn’t come. 

The bastards. Once again, they had left her waiting in the misery of a life she could never fully be a part of, could never enjoy with one foot planted firmly in another world.

Fine. If she could not be free of this anticipation by one way, then she would find another.  

Gwen headed for the stables. It was silent at this late hour, even Rylan the groom was curled up on a bed of hay. She half-heartedly thought of waking him for a rendezvous of their former tryst. If she were successful with her plans, tonight would be her last on earth, perhaps she wanted to experience the embrace of a lover once more.

But she left the lad sleeping. Their previous encounter had been awkward and unfulfilling–had awakened no passion within her veins. And there was no room for lust now, all of Gwen’s being was consumed by despair.

Eighteen years she had wasted, waiting for the culmination of a bargain that might never come. For all she knew, the Fae had long ago forgotten about her. It wasn’t as though her life mattered in the slightest to the immortal ones. They merely liked to toy with humans for sport.

She was through being toyed with. Aoife was asleep standing up in her stall, but she roused with a whicker when Gwen approached with a soft word and a handful of oats.

“Come on, girl. One more ride.” She slipped a halter around the mare’s gray muzzle and mounted her bareback. With a kick of her heels into the horse’s flanks, they took off at a canter through the rough-stoned courtyard and through the open doors of Dunnhawke Castle. 

 

***

 

The summer air was damp and heavy. Gwen thundered west, towards the towering white cliffs that descended more than eighty feet to the crashing sea below.

She dismounted and threw Aoife’s reins lightly over a branch.

Once Gwen was gone, the mare would have no problem freeing herself and finding her own way home.

“Goodbye, my friend,” Gwen said. “Ronan will take good care of you. He’s always been jealous of your speed.” Tears rose in her throat as she pressed her forehead to the horse’s silky muzzle. 

Aoife whuffed out a breath and nibbled her hair. 

With a deep breath, before she could lose her nerve, Gwen gave the mare a final pat on her silvery neck, then turned and walked towards the cliffs. 

From across the horizon, purple thunderheads were advancing upon her like ancient gods out of the abyss. They stacked upon themselves, building higher and higher as they stretched out darkened tendrils across the lesser blackness of the starlit sky. 

The wind picked up, whipping her long hair about her shoulders as she peered over the edge of the cliff. It plummeted straight down, a sheet of jagged, chalky stone ending in a foaming white surf as the waves hurled themselves against the side.

All she had to do was take that one, final step.

The water would rush up to meet her, and if the impact didn’t kill her instantly, she would be dashed against the rocks by the pounding sea.

It would be quick. It would be certain.

It would finally be over.

A crackle of thunder boomed overhead, and a large wave crashed up against the cliff, hard enough to spray Gwen’s face in a salty mist.

She licked her lips, savoring the taste. Her arms trembled as she spread them wide.

She closed her eyes. Felt her body curve forward in an arc, as if being pulled towards the edge.

One step. And it would be an end to this eternal, pointless waiting.

Except…

Over the rising wind, she heard Aoife’s nervous whinny. Rain began to fall, coating her face and hair in moisture, mingling with her tears. 

Except if she fell from this cliff, she would never know. Never know why the Fae had bargained for all those years ago. What they wanted with her.

If her father’s sacrifice had been worth it. 

She could not give the Fae that satisfaction. There had to be another way.

The wind suddenly switched directions, pushing at Gwen’s back until the toes of her leather riding boot edged out over precipice. She pinwheeled her arms, falling backward into the soft earth around the cliff.

Her heart pounding in her chest, she kicked back from the edge until she was ten feet away.

The temptation of ending her fated life had ended, but the desire to face down her foes on her own terms remained.

Thunder crashed overhead as lightning arced across the sky. Aoife reared, pulling her reins free of the rope just as Gwen reached her side. 

“Come on, girl,” she shouted, hauling herself over the mare’s bare back, “I know where to go.”

She turned the horse’s head east, further into Hawkthorne Forest, and kicked Aoife into a trot. When she was young, Gwen had spent hours searching for the ring of fairy stones hidden somewhere in the forest. She’d even tried to map its secrets, spending most of a summer in the effort, but it was like the trees themselves had changed their trunks when she wasn’t looking. Eventually she’d stopped looking. 

But Gwen had the feeling that she would find her way to the fairy rings tonight. 

Above the trees, the storm was rising, but here within the closeness of the forest the sounds were muffled. Rain continued to fall steadily, soaking her blue riding habit until it was as black as the woods around her.

Aoife picked her way through the trees, feeling her way by some deep unknowable instinct.

The fairy circle was calling to her–to both of them. Gwen could feel it, like a nearly silent hum in the base of her skull. 

Thunder continued to boom and roar, and streaks of brilliiant lighting occasionally lit up the forest as clear as day. But the canopy grew thicker, the forest even blacker.

There was a bitter, metallic taste on her tongue, and Gwen realized she’d bitten her tongue hard enough to draw blood. She spat into the forest and thought she heard it gratefully accept her offering. 

An icy chill flooded her veins. Up ahead, maybe twenty yards into the trees, she felt rather than saw a flicker of movement.

Aoife hesitated, snorting. Gwen kicked her lightly, and the mare took another two steps, but then balked, skittering back on her hind legs and throwing her head back in fright. Gwen clutched at the mare’s pale gray mane as the horse continued to rear and shake her head.

“Shhh, it’s okay.” Gwen stroked Aoife’s lathered neck, then dismounted. Without waiting, the horse spun and tore off through the forest, the sound of her hooves quickly lost to the pouring rain.

Gwen would have to continue alone.

She cast a longing glance in the direction of her horse, longing suddenly for a warm fire and a hot brick under her coverlet. 

But her fate lay deeper into the trees. The wind was now a howling gale high above her head, the rain a torrential downpour that sought to drive her into the earth. She stumbled on through the forest, trusting only her instincts to know the way.

This had to be it. She was coming for them. 

Before they could come for her.

There. A faint light flickered. Her clothes heavy and sodden, Gwen advanced toward it. Her outstretched arms eventually met a smooth stone surface. She ran her hands upon the weathered runes blindly, trying to discern anything familiar in the whirls and curls of the language of the winds. 

The light grew brighter. She felt a warmth on her face. She took another step, and now she could see two small circles within the towering outermost layer. 

A man stood in the center of those two circles. His dark hair gleamed in the light, which was emanating from his softly glowing skin. 

She entered the light’s circumference, and he smiled. His canines were sharp and pointed. His eyes burned like winter amethysts. 

“Welcome, Gwendolyn Setterwind,” he said. His voice was the texture of honey and cream. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. I’ve been waiting for you.”

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.”

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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!