By Richelle E. Goodrich
She first comprehended the warmth.
Every inch of skin sensed moist pressure. The weight seemed heavier on one side, as if something rested across her arm and hip. Naturally, she went to breathe in, finding a thick draw of liquid enter her lungs—lungs already sorely bloated. It was déjà vu of an awful kind that initiated the terror.
She was drowning…..all over again.
Her eyes flashed open to liquid blackness, and the nightmare rushed to the forefront of her mind. She recalled it as real. Her arm shot upward, reacting to the surge of panic; the other arm was pinned by whatever warmed her side. She tried to swim but was prevented from moving toward the surface. She fought against what acted like an anchor—believing she would drown otherwise— yet it held fast. Engrossed in a struggle to live, his voice didn’t register at first. Numerous times her name rang like a lucid dream in the back of her mind before she comprehended it. He spoke her name repeatedly, his voice purposefully calm in an attempt to ease the panic.
Blinded by her environment, she imagined his handsome features etched from memory; however, they refused to stay beautiful. His dark main of hair turned to seaweed while the smooth feel of his skin became scaled and slimy. She imagined him as a sea monster scouring the ocean bed in search of drowning humans on which to prey. Her Aquarius became a selkie in her mind’s eye—a savage, ocean-dwelling vampire she recalled biting into the side of her neck and drawing blood.
A sound of light amusement echoed in her head as if the monster were mocking her fears. Two hands grabbed at each side of her face and pulled her forehead to his. Aquarius looked into her eyes. His strong stare was accompanied by the parroting of her name.
“Safire. Safire, stop.”
She stilled on cue and squinted hard, straining to really see him in the dark. A prayer formed in her heart, hoping this was simply a nightmare from which he meant to wake her with a morning kiss—a prelude to reality’s dawn.
“Safire, you’re alright. I promise you, you’re safe. Please calm down; it’s important that you lie down.” He kept her face sandwiched between his large hands, their foreheads touching. He was hovering over her, setting her gently on a bed of silt.
She wished to see his face, but his dark eyes consumed her vision, nearly close enough for their lashes to entwine. Everything felt gloomy and heavy.
“I’m not a monster, Safire. Nor am I any kind of vampire-selkie half breed. It’s me—Aquarius. Your Aquarius. I’m here to help you—to save you from the one thing you’ve feared all your life. You will never drown now; you can’t. The water is no longer an enemy to you, Safire. No longer. You can breathe within it. You can breathe, just as I.”
Her mind spun like a cyclone whipping around a thousand questions and uncertainties. Her lips formed voiceless words…. “You bit me?”
She barely made out his perfect mouth—pursed lips that never parted when he spoke. Instead, his voice seemed to permeate her mind with the resonance of surround sound.
“You bit me,” she repeated, thinking each word clearly.
He nodded vaguely against her brow. “I did. I had to, to save you. I couldn’t let death have you, not you. I couldn’t bear it.”
The image of a vampire slipped into her head again—a cruel, bloodthirsty creature digging his fangs into her neck. The pain had been horribly real.
Amusement echoed internally once more—his amusement. Aquarius stroked her cheek with a thumb as he addressed her worries. How did he know her thoughts?
“I’m sorry I hurt you, I am. But it was necessary. You needed oxygen in your blood; it couldn’t wait.”
Safire drew in water through her nose and then tried to cough up what filled her lungs. Every natural act felt wrong. Being immersed in liquid, inside and out, brought on another attack of panic.
Aquarius covered her mouth with his own. She almost turned away, but his lips proved a powerful magnet. His voice again echoed in her head as he kissed her—words meant to ease her anxieties.
“Don’t try to breathe, Safire, it’s not necessary. Your body has a new way of obtaining oxygen. It can filter what it needs from the water. The process is automatic; you don’t have to think about it.”
Resting on the seabed, she couldn’t pull away from Aquarius, so her hands wriggled between them and pressed against his chest. He ceased his tender kisses and retreated only far enough for his full face to be perceived. Without a source of light, a clear image of his features was impossible; though, it seemed the more she concentrated, the more he appeared like a phthalo-green shadow against a background of night. She sensed a smile on the man.
“In time you’ll see in the dark. Your vision will improve and adjust.”
“How? How is any of this possible?” She mouthed the question, realizing it was pointless. Communication was clearly telepathic. Thinking out every word, she asked again, “How do I—you—we—breathe underwater?”
Aquarius ran a finger around her ear, combing aside long strands of floating hair. The ocean kept his long hair afloat too, and Safire noticed the scars on his neck. She had once caught a glimpse of them under campfire light. They had appeared like scratches at the time—claw marks perhaps. As she watched, his neck seemed to swell and deflate the slightest bit, flaps of skin rising and then falling in sync like bird wings or………or fish gills.
Her fingers went to feel at her own neck, checking. It was sore and tender to the touch. She would’ve gasped at her discovery had it been possible. Aquarius took her other hand and placed it against his own neck where she could feel his gills opening and closing as if alive. It didn’t seem to bother him when her finger slipped between a soft slit behind his ear.
She was astonished. And curious. And scared.
“Don’t be scared,” he told her.
But accepting any of this—evidence or not—was more than she could handle. Certainly, she had daydreamed her share of outlandish stories, but they were crazy nonsense pretended in her brain. None of it was real. Yet here was Aquarius asking her to believe he’d actually turned her into a fish?
“No, no, no; you’re no fish, Safire. You are still the same sweet, wonderful girl I met on the shore. Only now you can dwell both on land and in the sea. Now, I can show you my world as I’ve longed to.”
His words upset her instantly. She’d had no idea he was some water beast and not human. There’d been no clues to suggest such a thing……because he’d hidden them. He’d covered his neck beneath long hair and a high collar. He’d deceived her—purposefully. He’d lied to her!
“I never lied to you.”
Withheld the truth, then; it was the same thing. “You meant to do this to me all along! You scarred me intentionally! Without asking permission or divulging who or what you are!”
She wriggled beneath him, wanting to get away. Her struggles stirred up a layer of silt, but neither the cloud nor the water’s murkiness was enough to hide a wide, rising, fan-like appendage that appeared attached to Aquarius’ movements. Again, he attempted to keep her down.
“You need to remain still. You’re not healed enough to move yet.”
But what her eyes had glimpsed—her imagination filling in any obscurity—made her fight him even harder. He had a tail! A fish’s tail!
And what about her? Had he stolen her legs, her feet, her pretty painted toes? She twisted enough to rise on an elbow and steal a peek at her lower limbs. Every effort to lift a foot failed.
Aquarius rose in the water and repositioned his body to where he could grab her hips and force them flat against the ground. She got a decent look at his outline then—still a phthalo-green shadow against the blackness. He was upset with her when his voice boomed in her head.
“Don’t move, for your own good! Hate me if you must, but I will not let you sacrifice your well-being over a sudden ire against me! Now, lay still or I’ll tie you down.”
She obeyed, stunned by his anger, shocked by the sight of his unnatural figure. Aquarius, with his tail waving behind him, went about wrapping up her legs in long, thin fibers of some plant leaf—or rewrapping them as was the case.
Safire closed her eyes and wrestled with her own sanity. How was it possible he was a fish, and he’d turned her into one too?
An annoyed grumble interrupted her thoughts. “I am not a fish, and neither are you. And your legs are no more lost than mine. You walked side by side with me on the beach—that’s proof enough. But legs are for dry land, not for the sea.”
It was true, he had walked with her as an ordinary man. Those precious evenings spent hand in hand, ambling aimlessly along the seashore. He had covered his gills, showing nothing of his true nature. No hint that the man she’d come to love was some ocean-dwelling…
“What are you exactly if not a fish?” she asked. “A merman? A male siren? A selkie?”
Again, she detected a hint of humor in his reply. “Selkies may appear as men on land, Safire, but they live as seals in the ocean. Do I look like a seal to you?”
No, he definitely did not.
“And sirens are female—daughters of Achelous. They prey on sailors. I have nothing to do with them.”
“Sirens are real?” It was hard to fathom. Sirens were a myth. A fairytale.
“Yes, they are real. They are awful creatures.”
Safire guessed, “So you’re a merman.”
“The name is fitting I suppose; although, in the ocean I’m more commonly referred to as an undine.”
“An undine?” It was a new word for her.
“A humanoid being who dwells in the water,” he explained. “But the sailors’ idea of a merman is correct.”
She reflected on this while his silhouette wrapped more lengths of plant life around her bundled legs. She shifted the slightest bit, wanting to feel her lower body. Every inch was imperceptible as separate parts. Her toes, heels, calves, knees—they’d all melted into one solid limb. She felt Aquarius press upon where her calves ought to be, but they were indistinguishable as detached. While attempting the simple task of flexing her toes, she experienced a reaction completely foreign. Rising from flat against the seabed, a wide tailfin curled forward. This one moved at her bidding.
“Hold still,” she was warned again.
It took a moment for a reply to come in answer to the question strongest on her mind. She could sense worry from Aquarius. He didn’t want to upset her.
His face moved in close to where she could make out his eyes shaped in the form of concern. His fingers brushed through her wet hair—a consoling action.
“Yes, Safire. Like me, you now transform when submerged in water. That is your tail, and it is beautiful. It reflects your complexion as well as the soft green in your eyes. The color is a perfect match.”
She grappled with this news. Her mind tried harder to think—to process what could only be a dream, especially enclosed in the darkness of night as they were. She yearned to take in a deep breath of air but dreaded the liquid atmosphere. She didn’t need to breathe; nonetheless, the inclination was strong.
“Am I really green?” The idea was worrisome. It conjured up images of tiny martian men invading the ocean before venturing onto dry ground. She frowned, sensing more amusement from Aquarius. It wasn’t funny; the idea of being green disturbed her. She’d never liked the fact that her skin was freckled; however, peach-freckled skin was preferable to pea-green pigment…
“Your skin remains the same, Safire, with its lovely, golden speckles. And they have migrated to your tail as well—a magnificent blend of gold and emerald. Only your tail is colored, I assure you.”
“Only my tail,” she repeated. As if a girl with a tail was any sort of comforting notion.
She felt Aquarius’ hand land on her forehead. “You should go back to sleep. What you need is rest, not worry. Know that you’re alive and well—that is enough. Try to sleep.”
His fingers moved low and gentle across her brow, coaxing her eyelids closed. Perhaps he was right. Sleep sounded peaceful.
“I’ll watch over you. No worries, Safire. Sleep.”
No worries. She was a green fish, but no worries.
She heard him groan in her head without comment. He continued to stroke her forehead until her thoughts transitioned to dreams as strange as reality.
When Safire awoke, she felt as if she’d sunk to the bottom of a giant bowl. There was light to see by, but only a portion penetrated to where she lay. It seemed to originate from far above. The water was dark on every side, creating the sensation of being enclosed in a hole—or a bowl, as had been her first impression.
Beset by alarm at the fear of drowning, her arms bolted upward. She stroked forcefully, desperate to reach the surface where she could breathe in air. It seemed too great a distance to swim in time. A tragic picture from the past revisited her—a body motionless on the bottom of a cement swimming pool. Her brother. Drowned as a boy. Too young. She’d always feared they would share the same fate.
A hand clasped onto her arm as a familiar face came into focus. Aquarius. His calm, deep voice saturated her mind. “You’re alright, Safire. You won’t drown; you can’t.”
Wide-eyed, she stared at the man who had a secure hold on her. His dark lengths were suspended behind him, held up by the ocean. He appeared to smile—a careful gesture. His brown eyes glanced up.
“Truthfully, you’d be more likely to drown up there, outside.”
Her eyes followed his to where sunlight appeared as a bright yellow smear painted over the water’s surface. It seemed contrary to instinct not to swim toward that light. She looked at Aquarius again. His chest was bare, sculpted like an Athenian warrior. Below his navel, the skin tone gradually developed shimmering blueish hues over pearly scales. Her eyes dropped to his tailfin streaked blue and silver. It had an impressive reach, the shape reminding her of the flukes on a Blue Whale. His, however, was thin and striated and slightly iridescent.
Her focus shifted as he gestured low, pointing to where her feet ought to be. She looked down, her fingers moving by force of habit to tuck strands of floating hair behind one ear. She froze at the sight of a fanned tail much like his, only on a smaller scale. It was green with gold spots. The dainty speckles traveled clear up to her torso and then transitioned into pale, freckled skin. She realized at that moment the only piece of clothing still covering her was a red bra she’d worn under her floral summer dress the night of their last date. Her arms went to cover her body as she remembered that night. Aquarius had proposed; he’d asked her to stay with him forever. It was the same night she’d chased after him only to fall off the dock into a bay of mucky, black water. It was the night she’d drowned.
Her eyes locked onto his, believing he could read every concern troubling her mind. Taking her by the hand, he guided her down to a soft seabed and settled beside her.
“I will answer all your questions, Safire, if you promise to rest. Give your body a chance to heal and adjust to a different environment.”
She looked again at the most noticeable change—her freckled tail. The scales covering it shimmered green, no longer wrapped in strands of plant life.
“Kombu seaweed,” Aquarius informed her. “It has curative properties that prevent infection and promote quicker healing. I used the leaves to cover your scales as they formed and hardened.”
He peeled off a small patch of brown seaweed still attached to her freshly-formed scales. She could feel it like the removal of a dead layer of skin. Aquarius continued to peel away small, leftover patches as he rehearsed an unlikely story.
“You ran after me the night we parted, afraid I wouldn’t return to see you off in the morning. You had every right to fear such was the case.”
“How do you know this? I never told you. I couldn’t find you to tell you.”
A guilty grin pinched the corners of his mouth. “I could hear your thoughts. I’ve been in tune with them since the first morning I became aware of you so many months ago on the beach. You were standing alone, barefoot in the sand, watching the sunrise. You imagined the sun as a ball of flames dipping in the ocean, evaporating every last drop of seawater until all that remained was a vast billow of steam. Your wondrous imagination attracted me to you. I was intrigued by the unusual way you viewed the world, always staring up at the sky, wondering. Always altering reality in your daydreams. It was you who lured me onto shore. I left the ocean—my home—so I could meet the woman owning such beautiful thoughts. You might say I fell in love with your mind.”
Safire was stunned…..and flattered. “You fell in love with my mind?” Embarrassment swept over her, knowing how her thoughts tended to wander down paths of fantasy and make-believe.
“Your mind is constantly chasing after whims—forming kingdoms in constellations and demons in the water’s depths. It’s unlike any other mind I’ve ever encountered. Your thoughts are mesmerizing.”
“They’re silly and embarrassing.”
“On the contrary, the way you turn the world into a living fairytale is charming.”
She blushed at his words. What a strange way to describe a childish tendency.
“It was both a blessing and a curse to finally meet you, Safire. My heart was won over before I ever laid eyes on the goddess of a woman to possess such a fascinating mind. I knew then I would forever be the saddest, loneliest man alive because you were a land dweller who of all things possessed a paralyzing fear of water. And there I was, incapable of surviving for long without being immersed in the very thing that caused you terrible anxiety.
“I tried to convince myself your fear of drowning was the only real obstacle between us. I believed if I could bring you safely into my domain, I would there win your heart.”
“But you did win my heart—despite my fears.”
Aquarius placed a hand against her cheek. “Yet, it wasn’t enough. You were determined to go home.”
“Not forever. I had loose ends to tie up. I meant to return…” Her amorous stare sobered as she trailed off, thinking. What would she have been returning to? “You asked me to stay with you, to follow you. Follow you where? Into the ocean? What was your plan—to marry me, drown me, and change me into this….?”
He took her face in both hands and insisted she was wrong. “No, no, Safire, no; this was not planned. I would never have done anything against your wishes—never! You must believe me. There was no real plan, only the vague hope that you might choose to join me someday of your own free will. I wanted to show you my world, yes, but I did not intend to harm you. I was prepared to let you go, but then you fell off the pier. You were nearly drowned when I got to you. I had to do something to save your life.”
“So why didn’t you pull me out of the water and drag me onto shore?”
“Because your lungs were full; you couldn’t breathe.”
“You could have tried to drain them—pushed on my chest or something!”
“It was hopeless, Safire.”
“How do you know? You didn’t even try!”
“I wasn’t about to let you die on the shore, uncertain of what might happen. And I couldn’t exactly go run for help either. It takes time for my legs to reform when I surface, and it takes time to clear the water from my own lungs. I refused to waste precious moments you didn’t have. I did the only thing I knew would save you.”
He was telling the truth. His thoughts rang sincere.
Not wanting to condemn him for what he clearly perceived as a noble act, she attempted to see a bright side to the tragedy. At least her legs would reform on dry ground, even though in water she looked like a fish. No, wait—a mermaid. No—an undine. An undine bearing a strong resemblance to a freckled, green fish.
“You do not look like a fish,” he protested. “Not even remotely comparable.”
“Ah, indeed, my friend is right about that!”
Safire stiffened at a strong, concurring voice and glanced around to find who was speaking. It came from a stranger for certain, but her eyes, scarcely able to peer through the water more than twenty feet, found no one near. She could barely make out the shadow of a large fish in the distance—at least it appeared to be a fish. A very large fish, actually. Her mind immediately envisioned a dark abyss from which a huge mouth appeared, gaping wide to reveal double rows of jagged, angled teeth belonging to some savage, sharkish beast. She drew close to Aquarius, not certain if it was the imagery spooking her or the fact that this big fish was quickly closing in.
“Did this child just call me a fish?”
Safire was stunned. “Did that fish just call me a child?”
Aquarius patted her shoulder, assuring her nothing was out of the ordinary. “Safire, may I introduce my good friend, Apollo. Apollo, meet Safire; she doesn’t understand about fish yet.”
The sleek, gray creature came into full view. He was a dolphin. A huge dolphin named after a Greek god.
“He chose it himself,” Aquarius seemed to mutter. His next thought resounded with more volume. “I told you not to come around here, Apollo.”
The dolphin actually cocked his head as if gesturing surprise. “Oh, you expected I’d listen to you this time?”
There was definitely an assertive air about the animal, not one of arrogance, really, but a sure confidence.
“I was hoping out of consideration for Safire you would keep your distance awhile so as not to cause her anymore anxiety than circumstances have already created.”
“Oh right, because dolphins tend to be such a terrifying sight. I see why you’d be concerned.”
Aquarius groaned at his friend’s sarcasm.
“He’s really talking!” Safire marveled.
Apollo nodded his long, sleek beak. “She’s a bright one, isn’t she?”
“Be kind,” Aquarius warned. “Telepathy isn’t exactly commonplace for land dwellers—especially not with lower life forms.”
“And yet she seems to have no trouble understanding you. Perhaps she needs to chat with someone of higher intelligence.” Apollo gave the merman a slight nudge. “Step aside, lowlife.”
Safire gawked at the dolphin. “This is unreal.” Her wide eyes jumped to Aquarius. “Can you talk to other fish too?”
Apollo groaned irritably. “And again, she insults me!”
“She doesn’t understand about fish,” Aquarius said, coming to Safire’s defense. “She’s barely been conscious for minutes, and you expect her to know every oceanic truth and detail. You’re not even supposed to be here, Apollo; it’s your own fault if you take offense to an innocent remark.”
“I assumed you would need a hand educating the girl, and I see I was right.” The dolphin swam close to Safire, facing her directly. “Look here, child. Lesson number one—we are not fish. Aquarius is not a fish. I am not a fish. The fact that you can form a coherent sentence means you, also, are not a fish. Listen carefully and learn—fish are soft-headed, mindless drones incapable of communication outside instinctual behavior. This is because the negligible space inside their heads where one might expect to find the tiniest functioning brain actually stores a worthless pebble. Fish are therefore about as intelligent as a rock.”
“I’d be careful about insulting rocks.”
“Quite right, Aquarius. I withdraw my comparison. Fish are truly less apt to comprehend a fraction of what a rock might reasonably grasp.”
“For once, I agree with you.”
It was becoming evident to the new arrival that certain inhabitants of the sea held a strong distaste for fish.
“We simply don’t care to be referred to as floppy boneheads.”
Aquarius tried to clarify further with a relatable example. “It would be like your friends calling you a dodo bird.”
Safire bit her lip to keep from grinning with humor. She did get the point. However, her appearance was nothing like that of a dodo bird—no wings, no beak, no feathers. Not like the fan-shaped tailfin and scales now covering half her body; they seemed remarkably alike the walleye and bass her grandfather used to catch from the lake when she was a little girl.
“The child is hopeless! She’s determined to be a fish!”
Safire moved closer to Aquarius, afraid she might have upset his large friend. It crossed her mind that Apollo might in actuality be a slighter species of whale. His long, gray body appeared to shake right then, and his beak patted against the water. Safire got the clear impression he was laughing.
“Oh, dear child, a whale?” He continued to quake with laughter, amused by her ignorance. “Although, I’d sooner be compared to those magnificent creatures than a pathetic fish.”
Okay, so being called a fish was demeaning. She grasped that. But in her defense, most humans considered the word a general term for aquatic life with tailfins.
A side-hug from Aquarius provided a distraction as well as reassurance that no real harm had been done. Safire relaxed in his hold, grateful for his kindness and comfort. There were no accompanying words, but she didn’t need any to understand he would look out for her; he would teach her the ways of the ocean. She closed her eyes at his silence—at a mutually encompassing silence. It seemed odd when the quiet extended for a length of time without a word from Aquarius or a sarcastic quip from Apollo.
The arm around Safire squeezed more firmly, and she looked up to find Aquarius staring with a furrowed brow at his dolphin friend. The two appeared focused hard on each other, concentrating intently….. or perhaps……was it possible they were engaged in conversation and somehow blocking her out?
“Aquarius?” She mouthed his name, wishing she could speak it aloud to gain his attention.
He immediately dropped his eyes on her.
“Are you two talking to each other?” she asked.
“But, I can’t hear either one of you.”
He patted her hand. “I know. It’s alright; it’s a private discussion.”
“But how? How is it done?”
“Selective concentration—a skill you’ll acquire in time.”
“How much time?”
“In enough time, Safire. You need to be patient with yourself. Essentially, you’re starting over again, learning a new way to communicate and maneuver in a world unfamiliar to you.”
“Much like a child,” the dolphin threw in. She understood now why he called her such. Maybe it wasn’t a real insult after all.
“Not like being called a half-witted fish.”
“Drop it, Apollo. She meant no offense.”
Safire offered a simple apology, hoping it would appease the obviously-intelligent mammal. He graciously accepted.
“I know what we should do,” the dolphin began, “I say we introduce the child to her new home. Let her experience some of its wonders firsthand and perhaps meet a few of the sea’s kinder inhabitance.”
Aquarius disagreed right off. “She isn’t ready to go anywhere. Her scales are soft, her muscles sore and weak. She needs rest and quiet and time to grow stronger. It’s only been a few days since…”
“It’s been seventeen and three-quarter days since you dragged her unconscious form out here. That’s time enough for anyone to grow stagnant and bored out of their minds.”
“Neither of us is bored…”
“Seventeen days?” Safire cut in—shocked by the news.
“See? Even she agrees that is too many days to be sitting on one’s tailfin.”
“Have I been unconscious for seventeen entire days?” She couldn’t believe it. What must her friends think? Her boss? What about her job? Brook, Jen, Wade….they must be worried sick!
“They were very concerned about your disappearance,” Aquarius agreed. “For an entire week divers combed the ocean floor in search of you. Eventually, they considered you drowned—mostly the truth.”
“But it’s not true, I didn’t drown; I’m alive!” She began to worry. “Oh, my gosh—what if Brook called my mother? Aquarius, I have to go tell them! They need to know I’m okay!” Had it not been for Aquarius’ anchoring hold on her, she would have swum off to deliver the message herself. But then there was also a question of which direction to swim. And the tiny problem of being a half-human, half-aquatic creature.
“How do I turn into myself again?” she asked, desperate for instructions.
“Safire, you are yourself. What makes you uniquely you has not changed.”
“You know what I mean. How do I make my legs reappear so I can find Jen and Brook and tell them—show them—I’m okay? I just hope they didn’t call my mom. I have to get news to them before…”
Aquarius took her by both shoulders and waited for her full attention. Safire sensed his sadness before seeing it clearly in his face.
“I’m sorry….I am….but you can’t go back.”
But of course she could. He, himself, had walked on the shore with two legs. She refused his apology—it was nonsense. She pressed for what she needed to know.
“I have to be on dry land, right? My legs will form once I crawl onto the beach. So I just swim to the surface and…..how long does it take? Do I need to be in the sun?”
Aquarius frowned. “Safire, stop.” The more desperate she became, the deeper he agonized. He placed a hand on her cheek, holding her head still while he spoke. “Eventually, you will be able to return to the surface and again feel your legs and enjoy a walk on the beach. But that won’t be for a long time. You are too new in your transformation; it would do you serious harm.”
“But my friends…my mom! Oh, Aquarius!”
His sorrow visibly deepened. It pained him to have to explain how things were changed. “Your friends believe you to be dead. They’ve accepted it.”
“No, no, I can explain to them…”
“No, Safire, you can’t.”
“But you could.” She begged him with a look. “Please, Aquarius, you’re strong enough. You’ve been on the land.”
“Only for short periods. Even for me it’s taxing to breathe dry air. I never go far from the sea, Safire.”
“But you could at least call my mother and explain…..please! Please, Aquarius, don’t let her cry over me! Don’t let her think I drowned like my brother.”
He pulled her close and held on tight. Her body trembled in his arms, and her tailfin curled up as if wilting. She continued to beg him to somehow, someway, get news to her mother that she was okay. But he refused.
“I’m deeply sorry, Safire, but this is how it must be. If people were to learn the truth of our existence, we would never be safe. They would search for us, and out of fear they might harm us. Undines are considered mythical in the world above, and it is best for our welfare and safety that we remain a myth to all. Even to your mother.”
“But she’s my mom…”
“I know, I know.”
“And my life still waits for me up above…”
“No. Not any longer. You belong to the sea now. You belong with me.”
Apollo, who had been swimming circles around them at a short distance ventured in to make a suggestion.
“If this is to be her new home, it seems only right that we show her more of it. There are treasures in this ocean, child, and reasons why we hide them from land dwellers. Like the Caves of Capreae where the daughters of Achelous keep their golden gifts from men. Or the capricornus nests at the western edge of the continental drift. There you can experience the grandest of this world’s canyons! Or better yet….. Aquarius, let us take her to the Octopoda Forest. She should learn the secret of the stream running through it.”
Aquarius was quick to refuse moving the girl at all, despite her clear show of interest. “No, Apollo, she’s not going anywhere. She’s not ready to travel, and I will never venture anywhere near the siren’s caves with Safire; she doesn’t need their shameless influence.”
“The Octopoda Forest is close by; it will do her no harm to venture a short distance.”
“Take her to the nearest edge.”
“Take her there to see Kraegan.”
“No, Apollo, she’s not ready.”
“She’s not ready? Or do you mean you’re not ready. You’ve become used to hiding in the dark like a shamed eel. But you can’t hide forever, Aquarius, and she certainly will not make it any easier…”
“No, I don’t believe so. Just look at her. She’s ignorant and vulnerable and miserable and curious. She needs to go see Kraegan. She wants to go. Let her go. Kraegan can offer her hope—hope for a decent future in this unfamiliar world you’ve sentenced her to. He’ll answer her questions…..and yours.”
A refusal was slower in coming this time.
“Come on, Aquarius. You want to hear what he has to say as much as I do.”
“No. No, you’re wrong, I don’t care what Kraegan has to say anymore. It makes no difference to me. I told you to stay away, Apollo, and I meant it! Now, go away!”
But Safire wasn’t ready for the dolphin to swim off. She believed he was correct to call her ignorant, and frightened. If this mysterious Kraegan character could really give her hope and answers…
He didn’t move. Perhaps he never meant to leave.
Aquarius pulled Safire closer to him. His tense manner communicated uncomfortableness with the situation, but he didn’t prevent the ensuing conversation.
“Why do you want me to see this Kraegan? Who is he?”
“He’s an old fool,” Aquarius grumbled irritably. Apollo partly agreed.
“He is old, yes. Ancient in years. How long he’s actually lived, no one knows. But Kraegan is wise—gifted with sight beyond the past or present.”
“What do you mean—gifted?”
“He only needs to touch you to see into your future. He’s predicted events for many……and he’s never been wrong.”
Aquarius crossly disagreed. “He was wrong at least once. Deadly wrong.”
Safire looked up at the man, wondering at the hardness of his features.
“You don’t know he was wrong,” Apollo argued. “It’s too early to know for certain.”
Aquarius’ jaw locked as he insisted, “Kraegan. Was. Wrong.”
“You may prove him wrong by continuing to do nothing but hide in empty, dark holes, hoping to avoid your fate. I tell you it’s pointless. You’re dafter than a guppy if you believe you can hide forever. This girl changes everything; you know it. Kraegan predicted it.”
“She changes nothing. The prediction wasn’t referring to her; she’s just a child, like you said.”
“I’m not a child.” No one bothered to acknowledge the girl’s soft-spoken objection.
“If you’re so certain, then take her to him. Let his word erase any doubt. I swear, if Kraegan agrees with your assessment I’ll bother you no longer. You can turn your back on the world and go on pretending your inaction won’t prove more harmful than one failed attempt at…”
Aquarius spoke over his harasser, cutting him off. “Alright! I’ll take her if it will shut you up!”
The dolphin appeared smugly satisfied.
“But this is it, Apollo. You will never bring this up again.”
“Not a word if I’m wrong,” the dolphin agreed. He swam up to Safire and bumped her gently, adding, “I am never wrong. Now, grab onto me, child. There’s no need to exert yourself, I’ll take you where we’re going.”
She looked to Aquarius, uncertain and confused as to what was going on. He ran his hands along her arms and then curled her fingers over the dorsal fin of the dolphin. No one offered a clear explanation as to what the two disagreed on, but Aquarius assured her everything would be fine.
“But who is Kraegan? And what do you mean he predicted it? Predicted what?”
Aquarius hesitated with an answer. Apollo, however, spoke up immediately, meaning to prepare his young pupil for an encounter with one of the ocean’s most colossal creatures.
“Kraegan is a relic of the deep. No one really knows his age, but I don’t believe there’s a soul beneath the sea who can recall a day the beast wasn’t nestled in his mud hole near Icicle Stream.”
“Is that the stream you mentioned running through the forest?” Safire asked.
“Yes it is! You were listening. It’s an arctic current that courses through Octopoda Forest, straight through a shallow gorge in the earth.”
Safire was confused. “How is it possible to have such a thing in warm waters?”
“Does it seem strange to you?” Apollo asked. “Surely, you’ve heard of undercurrents. It’s the same sort of phenomenon. Kraegan eats from the stream—whatever food gets caught up in the flow. He has an enormous appetite to satisfy.”
“An enormous appetite,” Safire repeated. “What is he?” she asked with some trepidation, “some kind of whale?”
The dolphin seemed to chuckle beneath her. “No, no, no, he’s not a whale.”
She waited for Apollo to go on, wondering at an extended pause. When he eventually continued, there was a newfound reverence in his tone.
“Kraegan is the gentlest of creatures; he would harm no one unless they proved themselves a threat. But in size, child, he puts whales to shame.”
It was hard for Safire to imagine an animal larger than a whale, even on dry ground. What was he—some sort of seafaring dinosaur?
“Something like that. He’s an endangered sort. Not many of his kind still exist. He’s been referred to as a Livyatan or Leviathan. Ancient cultures dubbed him a Kraken. He is what sailors fear as a genuine serpentine sea monster.”
A terrible image formed in her mind’s eye, a behemoth rising from the depths. It was made more frightening by the dark and empty environment they were swimming through. Safire could barely make out anything but what appeared like rolling hills ahead. Or were they the curvature of a monster’s back, undulating in his approach like a giant marine serpent. She imagined fangs and a snake’s tongue and long, slimy, reaching tentacles used to coil around helpless victims.
Safire was unaware her hold had slipped off Apollo, leaving her sinking in the darkness a degree. Her imagined monster vanished at the touch of Aquarius’ hand. He embraced her with reassurances.
“Kraegan is nothing to fear. He is large, certainly, but docile.”
Safire peered into the distance at the flowing landmark her eyes couldn’t quite make out. She then looked to Aquarius, wondering if her imagination had been partially correct.
“No, that’s not him. It’s a hillside that protects this hollow.”
Again she squinted at the barrier, frustrated by her limited vision.
Aquarius combed away the hairs floating forward into her face, and his thumb traced along a worried eyebrow.
“I told you, your sight will improve over time. Your eyes haven’t fully adjusted, but they will, I promise. Soon, you’ll make out details in the water’s depths with no trouble at all.”
That news was a relief, still she wondered how long she’d be doomed to a world of near blindness.
During this exchange, the dolphin made his way around and back to her side. Safire reached for his dorsal fin.
“Don’t let go, child. I won’t ever steer you wrong.”
Aquarius kept close as they swam through steel-gray waters toward the rolling mass that slowly began to resemble fuzz-coated hills. They steered upward to cross the higher terrain, diving on the opposite side as if having climbed a cliff only to jump off the far edge. Safire noticed at once how the water turned clearer and blue. She twisted her neck to look back, seeing how the hills had sheltered the dark pit left behind. The natural wall barred the light, holding in stagnant, black waters except during midday when sunlight shone directly overhead. Outside the bowl, sunlight filtered in from multiple angles, giving the ocean more color. It was easier to see ahead.
Apollo leveled off and swam through a lucid environment. Though her vision had improved, Safire found very little to observe. A downward glance eventually transitioned into total darkness far below, so she looked up—her natural tendency anyway. Refracted light gave the feel of layered shades of blues that eventually reached a clear, colorless surface. It felt like a glass lid covered them, blurring the sky and muting the world above. In a strange way, it gave the impression of being buried alive….and yet she continued among the living. She was aware of a life before but was separate from it—almost as if she really had died.
Brook and Jen believed it. The girls would miss her. They would mourn her loss and shed plenty of tears; she was sure of that. Maybe Wade would extend an arm of comfort. He truly was a gentleman. Unless they wrongly blamed him for not watching their friend close enough. No, no, Jen was too kindhearted to pass blame, and Brook—poor Brook—would likely blame herself for encouraging the trip and not accompanying her best friend. Eventually, they’d all move on. They would be okay. It was her mother she truly worried about.
Her mom had lost a son in his youth and a husband only a few short years ago. Now, she’d be forced to accept the loss of her last child. It was wrong. Such a kind, warm, God-fearing woman didn’t deserve to have to bear another tragedy; it wasn’t fair.
“Safire, it does no good to dwell on what can’t be changed. What’s done is done. Your friends and family—they’ve already accepted your loss. You must learn to accept theirs.”
“How do you know they’ve accepted my loss? Maybe they’re still looking for me—seeking evidence of how I disappeared. They don’t know what happened, and my mother would never rest without knowing.”
“They did find evidence, Safire. I left it for them. The boys, Wade and Troy—they retrieved your necklace from the bottom of the bay beside the old pier. It was a logical presumption you’d drowned.”
“Oh.” Safire recalled telling Wade about her time spent on the pier. He’d warned her to be wary of the weakened handrail.
“There was a search for your body; it lasted about a week. Wade and Troy continued the search on their own for another week. They eventually concluded the tide drew you out where the ocean claimed you. Both have their suspicions about me. I don’t blame them, it’s reasonable to suspect a stranger.”
Safire recalled Wade’s advice to be wary of Aquarius until more was known about him. He’d told her to ask questions of the man—to insist he unveil his mysteries before getting too involved. She had tried, but a profession of love had been enough to pacify her; she’d asked nothing further. Maybe it would have been wise to press for more information and even threaten to walk away if he refused. Perhaps. But she knew she would never have walked away from him.
Aquarius didn’t comment, though she was certain he was aware of every passing thought. She longed for the ability to keep her internal ramblings private.
“Child, look beneath us. Tell me what you see.”
Safire held tight to her escort and lowered her eyes to peer into the murkiness below. Narrowing her sight, she tried to make sense of what appeared like ripples in the water. Was it an undercurrent of some sort like Apollo had tried to explain?
Areas of movement appeared to undulate and then immediately smooth out only to roll again a short distance after. It seemed unnatural. She watched the odd pattern roll and rest when her eyes adjusted in a blink to what she was actually seeing—like finally noticing a picture within a picture. The ripples were in reality sea creatures with flat, wide bodies waving… gliding….flying through the water! Between each form, a void accounted for the stillness in the pattern. The animals were black, sprinkled with dark splotches that acted as excellent camouflage. No wonder she hadn’t seen them right off.
“It’s a small school of manta rays,” Apollo said.
Safire was impressed by their size, guessing on average each measured fifteen to twenty feet across from wingtip to wingtip. They seemed to keep the same pace, coursing through the water in the same direction. Safire heard nothing from the creatures.
“Can they talk?” she asked the dolphin.
“Oh yes, but hardly ever do manta rays interact with others.”
The entire group of winged animals descended at that moment as if proving Apollo’s words to be true. The trio kept on their own course, parallel with the sunny surface.
There was little to see ahead or below; although, Safire checked with repeated glances. Her concentration rested mostly above where the real world remained a blur kept behind a glass barrier. Only sunlight was capable of breaking through, and it had to twist and wriggle in at strange angles to do so.
Apollo scoffed at her thoughts. “The real world? Truth is, the majority of this world is situated underwater, child. You have yet to experience even a portion of the real world.”
She could hardly imagine what existed in the depths. Most of the earth above she’d never seen firsthand but on television and in printed photographs. Such beautiful pictures had given her only a taste of each continent. Despite having viewed the occasional marine-life documentary, the ocean’s wonders remained a genuine mystery.
“And portions of it will always remain so.” Aquarius was adamant with his statement.
“So you mean to hide her away; a marvelous plan,” Apollo groaned. His tone communicated the exact opposite of his words.
“I mean to protect her; that is all.”
“By trying to hide a child with blaring thoughts—good luck.”
“I will not discuss this with you now,” Aquarius snapped. That seemed to be the end of it.
Safire was understandably concerned. From what exactly did she need protection? She could envision all sorts of predators to beware—sharks, electric eels, giant squid, maybe even those enormous manta rays. Keeping out of areas those creatures might infest seemed a wise idea for anyone. Apparently, the ocean was a dangerous place. Of course it was! If a Leviathan was considered a kind soul, how awful must the dangerous monsters be?
Her eyes scanned the blinding darkness, feeling a new sense of foreboding. Imagined horrors came to life in her head, each with razor-sharp claws and fangs and an appetite for flesh. Her eyelids closed tight, trying to erase the scene, not for fear’s sake but out of sheer embarrassment. What must they think of her crazy imaginings?
It occurred to her that neither had said a word in a while. Perhaps they considered her thoughts too ludicrous for comment. Maybe the dolphin was right about her being a child—at least in this foreign place. She knew nothing of its secrets. It wasn’t even within her capacity to think privately.
Her eyes opened, aimed purposefully upward as she pined for the world above. She yearned to feel the warmth of the sun on her skin and smell the dry air and exist where nothing could avoid illumination on a bright afternoon.
It was hard to tell how much time passed in silence, traveling through empty waters, when the dolphin grumbled a remark she could hear.
“As usual, you’re being completely selfish. This effects a great many more lives than yours, Aquarius.”
“You won’t last in seclusion, hiding in holes. You’re a leader not a…”
“She will never respect you this way.”
Safire tried not to venture a guess at what that meant. Maybe they weren’t talking about her. One thing was certain, she’d misjudged the silence. Again, they’d excluded her from a heated conversation that left Apollo and Aquarius at odds. Safire looked back to the blurred sky, imaging scuba divers slipping into wet suits and strapping on oxygen tanks, preparing to sink into the ocean with high expectations. All they would find was empty darkness.
It was startling when the dolphin in fact took a steep dive into that very darkness. Safire gripped onto him more securely, remembering his instructions ‘don’t let go; I will never steer you wrong.’ She wondered if his promise applied to Aquarius too. Was Apollo steering him wrong with well-meaning advice?
“Most certainly not. But if one stubbornly refuses good direction and insists on behaving like a fish….”
All communication ceased with the insult; nothing more was said.
The world became blind but for a mass of shadows. Safire tried to picture things entirely opposite of the spooky images wrestling to steal center stage in her mind. Being blind in itself was frustrating enough without imagining the slender silhouettes reaching out like octopus arms hoping to trap her.
“They’re trees,” Aquarius said about the shadows. “We’re right above the forest, at the western edge.”
She remembered Apollo calling it Octopoda Forest. The name conjured up images of octopus clinging to tree trunks with tacky tentacles. She wondered if the forest was infested with them.
“Don’t worry, Safire, you’re safe.”
Was that a yes or a no?
“The name was inspired by the way the tree limbs sway in passing currents, mimicking the movement of an octopus.”
Apollo was quick to slap on a fact with sour sarcasm. “The name has absolutely nothing to do with the hundred species of octopus living in the area.”
“A hundred?” Safire repeated. “Is that true?” She wondered why Aquarius hadn’t just said so.
“Why do you insist on frightening her?”
“Why do you insist on keeping her in the dark? The child’s already at a disadvantage. You only make it worse by maintaining her ignorance.”
“You know nothing at all about females.”
“Oh, that’s right, you’re the expert on women now. Never mind that it’s been two hundred years since a pretty, young thing showed any interest in you.”
“Uh, guys? I think someone else is here.”
Safire had heard another voice, a near whisper penetrating her mind. It was quiet and unhurried, but the tone lacked any timidity. Deep and raspy, it suggested a male being of mature age. He beckoned her closer by name.
“Safire Morgan……Skygazer……Baby Bird ……..come closer.”
“What are you?” she asked, enticed by the unusual names he chose for her.
“It is I. Come closer.”
Apollo told her a truth as he dove into the trees. “We are all open books here. No one hides anything from Kraegan.”
It was blacker than madness inside—a disconcerting fact for Safire. She gripped the dolphin more tightly, afraid of being separated from her guide. Aquarius placed a hand on the small of her back that remained in place as he swam close beside her. After a few seconds, the black began to partition into shadows of charcoal and steel gray. Trees took on vague form, outlined in deep phthalo-green. It was a far cry from clear vision but better than none at all.
Aquarius reminded her, “In time you’ll develop keener sight.”
The ocean had felt as warm as a blanket during their short journey, but as they moved deeper into the woods, a chill began to creep in. It was eerie how the cold took effect, like walking into a spider’s web and feeling tiny, little bugs crawling on your skin. It made Safire shiver from head to tail. The temperature seemed to drop by degrees with every yard of progress.
“That’s far enough,” Aquarius said, stopping in cold waters. The raspy voice urged Safire to dare an inch closer.
“Come, Lonely Star.”
Apollo nudged her forward, separating himself by moving out from beneath her hold. “He means you, child. Go on.” But Aquarius seized her by the wrist.
“No. She’s already shivering from the cold, and her strength isn’t nearly enough to resist the stronger current if she steps too near the stream.”
“Kraegan needs her close enough to touch,” Apollo argued. “Let her go.”
But Aquarius was adamant; he would not put her in harm’s way. “She stays here. Let him come to her. It’s either that or we leave, and I will not return once we go.”
The dolphin made a frustrated grunt. “Good move. Threaten the one whose favor you seek!”
“The beast has served me nothing but ill favors; I seek no more such favors from him.”
“That, of course, is why you’re here?”
“It was you who insisted we come, Apollo. This misguided venture was to satisfy your curiosity alone. After which I hope it shuts you up so I don’t have to hear any more disparaging remarks about…”
Safire was hardly aware of the bickering on either side. Though their voices rang the loudest, she had suppressed the argument as background noise to Kraegan’s ghost-whispering. He urged her forward into colder waters.
“Come, Goddess of the Mist…..come closer.”
She took a step, wanting to come along as the whisperer instructed, but Aquarius held tight to her wrist. He was distracted by Apollo, but not enough to slacken his grip.
She finally replied to the Livyatan. “I can’t go any further. Please, won’t you show yourself to me?”
Her heart beat rapidly—fearful and hopeful at the same time. The expectancy was enough to make her jump when a cold, oily arm touched her skin.
Aquarius let go and retreated a short distance with his dolphin friend. They were all at once attentive and silent.
It was hard to say what kept her frozen in place, if it was fright or the belief that the mystery shrouding Aquarius might be dispersed by this gifted Leviathan. Apollo certainly seemed confident in Kraegan’s ability. Safire remained as still as a tree while a thick, spongy arm encircled her entire body. It felt like being encased in ice. She reacted with uncontrollable shivers—her thoughts overwhelmed by images of frozen death on an isolated glacier or buried in an avalanche or falling through a sheet of ice into freezing waters.
“It’s only for a moment. You’ll be alright,” Apollo said.
She wondered how this sea monster could live so near an arctic stream without perishing. It seemed incredible. But then again, she’d been turned into an unreal creature herself. She would’ve believed it all a dream—immersed in lasting night—if not for the coldness too harsh for sleep.
Something seemed to attach itself to her skin momentarily before releasing. It was a strange sensation happening in numerous areas simultaneously. A moment of confusion elapsed before she understood that suctioning cups as large as dinner plates were feeling at her, lining the inner tip of Kraegan’s tentacle. She could only guess at his actual size if what could be considered the equivalent of his finger encased her body.
A swarm of questions buzzed in her head wanting answers. They were washed aside when Kraegan’s calming presence reached in, not only quieting her internal storm but stopping the shivering with a flood of warmth. The beast spoke, not to her but to those who had brought her to him. His voice, no longer a whisper, mimicked the vibrating boom of thunder as he preached a message, brief and shrouded in imagery.
“You have brought me a queen,” he declared. “A jewel to one, a golden coin to another—the envy of many. Only reluctance can steal her crown. She is the eye, ever-observant, following the hand that leads. But her trust rests in a hero’s heart. This is good, this is good. Time is of the essence, for two armies will fall unless the queen abandons the first. She will. Go then! Wait no longer! What is hidden shouts from its hiding place, unable to be silenced! The husband beware; her hesitance will be his death.”
Kraegan made a sound of weariness, and his voice diminished until it was once again a low whisper. “Go on. Go now….go now….” he repeated until his mental presence faded entirely.
Safire found herself standing alone, hit by the returning chill and blinding darkness. The Leviathan’s message echoed clearly in her head like a permanent recording. She felt Aquarius grab her hand. He pulled her back to warmer waters.
“I saw him,” she said, bewildered and yet excited.
Aquarius continued to pull her along as he maneuvered hurriedly through the trees. Apollo followed, remaining uncharacteristically quiet.
“Did you hear me? I actually saw him! I saw Kraegan in my head! He’s a….he’s a….”
Aquarius growled a fitting answer. “He’s a demon.”
“No, no, no, not at all! He’s large and frightening to look at, yes, but he’s no demon.” She was trying to explain, but their leader wouldn’t slow his retreat. It was as if he were running away from what had transpired. Safire finally tugged against his hold and asked him to stop. She wanted to look at him and share what she’d mentally experienced.
Aquarius reluctantly turned to face her and waited.
“He’s old, Aquarius. Kraegan is so very old….and tired. He has a gentle, kind heart, and he worries—for me, for you, for every creature in these waters.”
“He was in your head, Safire. You can’t be sure your perceptions are correct. He manipulates your feelings and makes you think things. I felt the same way once; I believed in him. But everything he said turned out to be wrong. His crazy riddles were nothing but lies that didn’t come true. And because I trusted him, hundreds of good, brave, honest undines died fighting for a cause I was fool enough to think we could win. We were supposed to win—Kraegan predicted it! He said with our victory there was to be a new…” Aquarius stopped abruptly.
“There was to be a new what?” Safire asked. Why did he continue to hide things from her?
Apollo boldly spoke up, answering the question. “There was to be a new queen. An unknown and nameless face until the day she was crowned.”
“It’s not her,” Aquarius hissed. He relinquished his hold on Safire’s hand to do an about-face and confront his meddling companion. They looked ready to wrestle one another.
“It is her! She’s the nameless face to be crowned! You heard what Kraegan said, we brought him a queen.”
“Yes, I heard every word of what he said,” Aquarius murmured. Then he repeated the final line of the prophecy. “Husband beware; her hesitance will be your death. My death. He was talking to me.”
“Not your death; he never said it was you,” Apollo disputed.
“Who else would it be?” Aquarius snapped back.
Safire quietly answered the question. “No one else.” She hadn’t pieced all of Kraegan’s words together, but Aquarius had clearly spelled it out. “It can’t be right,” she said, searching for a way out. “You die because of my hesitance. My hesitance. I…I won’t hesitate….not ever again. That’s the answer—I won’t hesitate on anything.” Her resolve was firm. She would not be the cause of death for the man she loved.
“It was a bunch of babble from an old fool; it means nothing. We should never have come here in the first place. I’m taking her away, far away from here...”
“Don’t be stupid!” Apollo was well aware of Aquarius’ intentions. “You can’t run from fate. It will do no one any good.”
“It will keep her—us—safe.”
“No it won’t, Aquarius! Did you not listen?” Apollo reiterated a portion of the prophecy and deciphered it. “What is hidden shouts from its hiding place, unable to be silenced. She cannot be hidden. Her thoughts cannot be silenced.”
“In time they will be.”
“There is no time!”
“Kraegan is wrong! No one determines the course of my life! I will not let a few lines of spouted nonsense uttered by some ancient, senile slug cause me to live out my days in fear! This is your fault for pressing me to bring her here!”
“You’re right, I dragged your worthless tail here with you fighting me the entire way—coward.”
The pair dove into a heated fight, passing blame and finding fault with the other’s reasoning. Safire backed away, unsettled by how their angry voices rang in her head. She felt her heart weighed down by the dire prophecy. Every attempt to barricade the quarreling from her mind was unsuccessful. She wished they would leave her out of it. All at once her thoughts fell silent. Apollo and Aquarius continued to face off in a manner suggesting on ongoing argument, but she didn’t hear another growled word. Distressed and worried, she distanced herself a little further.
“Turn around and come quietly.”
It was a command whispered by an unfamiliar voice. Safire noted a similarity to Kraegan’s rasp, yet it lacked the same confidence.
“Come quickly.” This time a desperate plea.
She turned and peered between shadows of timbers, searching but seeing no one.
“I heard the Livyatan call you queen,” the voice said. “The king will want to see you. Come now, your life is in danger here; the company you keep is an enemy to his majesty.”
Aquarius a danger? An enemy? She refused to believe it.
“Come, you must not remain here. I will explain on the way.”
She moved further into the woods but stayed within view of her quarreling companions. A figure stepped out from his hiding place to stand directly in front of her. He was close enough she could make out his likeness—an undine like Aquarius. A man. He didn’t touch her.
“How did you come to be in a traitor’s company?” he asked.
She didn’t need to form any words; the mental pictures dredged up by his question were enough to explain. The stranger seemed both shocked and horrified viewing the truth so vividly portrayed in her mind’s eye.
Safire wanted to turn away, but a question burned in her head for an answer. “Why do you call him an enemy? To what king?”
“To your king. The traitor led a rebellion against the throne. Even now, he is hunted by the king’s army. All are sworn to cut him down on sight. You are in danger keeping his company, but your innocence may save you. The fact that you are royalty will earn great favor in his majesty’s sight.”
“But I’m not…” she started to say when her name resounded loudly in her head. Both Apollo and Aquarius rushed toward her.
The stranger vanished behind the trees, and Safire felt herself yanked from the spot he’d been standing. Aquarius didn’t address her, only the dolphin.
“Who was he?”
“What’s a scout doing so far from home?”
“I’m not sure, Aquarius, but he knows everything that crossed her mind. And what he knows, the king will shortly know.”
“Not if the squealer doesn’t make it back.”
Aquarius forced Safire’s hands on the dolphin’s dorsal fin, insisting with firm pressure she not remove them. He said nothing to her, avoiding eye contact as well.
“Take her back to the hollow. Wait for me there. I won’t be long.”
Apollo took off in one direction with Safire. Aquarius went hunting the opposite way, digging deeper into Octopoda Forest.
The dolphin remained silent as he rushed off faster than he’d approached the area. Safire was troubled by a horde of new questions. She asked first about the scout who they obviously feared.
“Was that man in the king’s service?”
“He said I was in danger. Why?”
Apollo maintained his silence.
“He called Aquarius a traitor. Is it true?”
Again, she received no answer.
She insisted he respond to the next question. “Apollo, you must tell me the truth. Am I in danger?”
“Not from us, I assure you. Please be patient. As soon as he returns, Aquarius will make everything clear, I promise. If he doesn’t…..I will.”
It was frustrating being left in the dark in every way, but there was some measure of reassurance in the promise that one way or another an explanation would soon be forthcoming.
“One question…” She paused before asking, afraid of what the answer might be. “What does Aquarius plan to do with that man?”
“To protect you, he will do whatever is necessary.”
“Whatever’s necessary…” she repeated. The possibilities didn’t sit well. Apparently, Wade had been right. Her Aquarius was a mystery—a darker mystery than she’d dared to imagine in any wild daydream.
Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich