Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chapter 18 concluded

Around the backside of the “desert island” (which turned out to be bigger than it looked from afar), there was an enclosed area of water.  “It’s a lagoon within the Lagoon,” Johnny breathed.  Aidan gave him a sideways grin.

Roger pulled The Sylph into the inner lagoon and let it float aimlessly.  She rejoined them in the bow and shaded her eyes with her hand, looking towards the shoreline of the island proper.  “I think we’ll be able to pick up some water here, after.”

Johnny looked back at the island, surprised.  To him it still looked like a roughly circular pile of sand with a single tree growing in the middle of it, no bigger in circumference than he could walk in ten minutes or so.  Where could there possibly be water?  He opened his mouth to ask, but then realized that was a tangent that wasn’t likely to get him anywhere, not to mention that there were more interesting avenues to pursue.

“So ...” he ventured.  “Who exactly are we going to talk to?”

Roger just smiled enigmatically and cast her eyes toward Aidan.  Johnny turned to the Water Guide to repeat his question, but the young man had already turned his back on them and was holding his staff over his head in both hands, looking out over the water.  The mumbling was low this time, but still retained all its fluid qualities.  Suddenly he began to twirl the staff, parallel to the deck, hands nothing but a blur as they manipulated the hunk of wood so fast it almost resembled the rotor of a helicopter, the stroboscopic effect making it appear to spin in reverse.  Then, in a split-second move, the staff stopped, pointing straight out to the ocean-like lagoon, and Aidan brought it down sharply until it struck the railing.  A rippling wave of force seemed to shoot out of the end of it, and Johnny could see the wake it left in the water, and a shimmer in the air as it shot off into the distance.  Aidan turned and put the butt of the staff back on the deck, leaning heavily on it.  “That should get their attention,” he said.

Johnny reached out to help steady him.  “You okay?  You’re dong a lot of that ... whatever it is you do.”

Aidan gave him a quick smile to show he was fine.  “Not to worry, son.  That last one wasn’t as strenuous as it looked.  Just a quick hail to grab the attention of the locals.”

Indeed, the water below them suddenly seemed to be teeming with life.  A few of the flying fish that Johnny had last seen during the overground trip into the selvage shot up and did some fancy figure eights before dropping back into the water.  Here and there a large, red crab claw popped up and waved at them.  Several fins broke the surface and shot back and forth; some appeared to be fish, others dolphins or porpoises.  Even the little blue water snake around Larissa’s wrist had raised its head and was tasting the air with a flickering tongue.

Suddenly a bigger, darker fin rose up, way out in the open water, but speeding towards them so quickly it almost seemed mechanical.  By the time it reached the edge of the inner lagoon, all the local aquatic life had decided it had business elsewhere.  The little blue snake ducked its head into its coils and went back to doing its impression of a bracelet.  The fin shot straight at the ship; when it was within two feet of the hull, the head of the creature emerged from the water with a mighty splash.

Johnny wanted to call it a mermaid.  Certainly that was the first thing to spring to mind.  But, if it was a mermaid, it was some monstrous version.  The main part of the body wasn’t that of a fish: it was a shark’s body, gray with just a hint of blue, and white on the underbelly.  The large dorsal fin that had announced the coming of the creature looked perfectly at home on the thing’s back.  It had arms, though they were also covered in sharkskin, and they ended in long hands with obscenely long fingers that looked more like gnarled twigs.  The thing had human breasts, so Johnny supposed it must be a “she,” but those too were covered with the leathery skin—even the nipples were covered over in gray, although surrounded by white rings where areolae should be.  The rough skin covered the neck and lower jaw as well, then began tapering off, and most of the head and face appeared to be layered in human epidermis. The shape of the face was mostly human, although also somehow triangular and sharklike.  The eyes were beady black dots, exactly like a shark’s, and the hair was long and black and stringy, interwoven with seaweed and small seashells, but not in an attractive way—more like the creature just let any sort of garbage collect in it.  Johnny’s mind was reeling with trying to take it all in, and then the thing opened its mouth.  There were rows of ragged teeth: not the perfect arrowhead shapes that you might expect to find in a shark’s maw, but jagged little blades of ivory, pitted with age and set at crazy angles so that it seemed impossible the thing wouldn’t tear out its own gums when it closed its mouth.  The nightmarish vision hissed at them, a warning or perhaps a challenge, but Johnny was already backpedaling.  The teeth had been more disturbing than any sound it could make.

And now others were rising up, but they were not shark-mermaids; they were composed of other creatures.  One had the dark mottled brown hide of a moray eel, and brown fisheyes with blue rings around them; one had white-blotched black tentacles and the horizontal pupils of an octopus; one had the forehead protrusion, spikes, and luminous eyes of an angler fish; here was the blue-green shell and eyestalks of a lobster; there was the silver-blue scales and slightly ovoid pupils of a marlin, set into large, reflective cyan sclera.  And, on each one, the long, lank hair, always some dark and dingy shade; on each, the frightening fingers and teeth; and each carried a hint of its progenitor in its facial shape, from the bullet-like head of the moray to the heavy lower jaw of the angler, and the bulbous and vaguely squishy head of the octopus.

When the lead creature spoke, its voice was like rusty hinges and oozing sea muck.  Johnny could hear the howling ocean wind and the clacking together of bits of gravel and shells and old shark’s teeth rendered perfectly smooth by the sea.

“Why have you summoned us?” it said.

Aidan looked down at them gravely.  “Shallédanu lei shonta,” he said.

The lobster woman shook her body to make a sound like lobster claws snapping; the octopus woman thrashed the water with her tentacles.  The shark woman said: “Your benedictions hold no sway over us, priest!  Spare us the niceties and get to the point.”

Roger stepped forward.  “We need an opener.”

The moray woman just gnashed her teeth loudly, but the others made a tittering, screeching sound that Johnny eventually comprehended as laughter.  Roger waited calmly for them to finish.  “And why would we give you such a thing, landbound one?”

“Ye’ll give it me when I earn it, and I’ll thank you not to call me ‘landbound.’  I was born to the waves, same as you, and I live for them, same as you.  Not my fault the gods give me these things”—here Roger slapped a leg—“instead of proper fins like you ladies have.”  Apparently Roger saw the creatures as female, although that was still too much of a leap for Johnny’s brain to make.

“Born to the waves, you say?” shark-woman asked.

“Aye, same as you.  Straight from me mother’s womb into the water, and had to swim for me first breath.”

Shark-woman’s beady black eyes flashed.  “We have no need to breathe the air as you do.” It was obviously a point of pride.

“Six o’ one.  Ye had to swim to get somewhere when ye popped out ... or were ye hatched?”  Roger raised an eyebrow.

Shark-woman hissed again, but the others repeated their eerie laughter.  It was clear Roger was scoring points, somehow.

There was a pause while the creatures considered.  They looked at each other, but did not speak aloud.  Johnny wondered if they could communicate telepathically.  Finally shark-woman spoke again.  “You say you can swim, then?”

Roger snorted.  “Best swimmer with two legs.  At least as far as you’ll ever see.”

Shark-woman smiled, and Johnny shuddered.  “Then challenge us to a race.  Beat us, and we’ll give you your opener.  Lose, and we’ll pick our teeth with your bones.”  That screeching, grating excuse for laughter rang out again.

Roger appeared to examine her fingernails.  “Oh, sure, challenge you to a race.  What, all of ye then?”

Shark-woman shook her head.  “No!  Choose any one of us.”

Roger nodded.  “Still and all, I did say I was the best swimmer with two legs.  I’d say none of you gals has any legs to speak of at all.”

At this, all the monstrous mermaids dove and flashed their tails at the watchers to show that Roger was indeed correct: threshing shark tail, wavy eel tail, stubby angler tail, powerful marlin tail, curling lobster tail.  Only octopus-woman had anything approaching legs, but she bunched her tentacles together as if she too had a tail.  After much splashing, they righted themselves and were staring up at the humans on the deck again.

Roger spread her hands.  “See my ketch?  You all have me at an unfair advantage.  Wouldn’t matter which of you I chose.  It still wouldn’t be a fair fight.”

Marlin-woman pointed at Aidan.  “The guide,” she said softly.  Her voice was just as grating as shark-woman’s.  Now the others picked it up, and repeated it as if chanting: “the guide, the guide.”  The sound of their voices left a feeling on Johnny’s skin as if he’d touched a snail.

Roger looked at Aidan, as if considering this suggestion.  “Why, yes, I suppose me bucko here could put a charm on me that might even the odds.  I don’t know ...”  She rubbed at her chin, speculating.

Shark-woman threshed the water with her tail.  “Hasten, landbound!  Do you mean to challenge or not?”

Roger put up a hand.  “Hold yer line there missy!  I’m considerin’.  Ye did just say ye was going to eat me if I lost, did ye not?  I reckon that means I ought to be right careful what I say long about now, don’t it?”

Johnny took a look at his companions.  Aidan was staring at a spot on the deck just in front of his feet.  Larissa was gazing at Roger, her face unreadable.  Bones was bouncing up and down on top of the crates behind them, hyperactive as always, but in a small, contained space so as not to disturb anything.  And Roger was back to scratching at her chin, practically pulling on an invisible beard.  This was not a characteristic habit for her, so far as Johny knew.  And there was something in her eyes ...

“Very well,” she said finally, taking another step forward and putting a gloved hand on the deck railing.  “I’ll challenge one of you, but only if ye’ll grant me one boon.”

Shark-woman hissed yet again.  “No more conditions!  We’ve given you all that you asked for.”

Roger leaned down and fixed the creature with a steely gaze.  “I think ye’re mistaken, missy.  I’ve not asked for aught.  Ye offered all that’s been said so far.  I’ve got but a single request and ye’ve yet to hear it.”

The mermaid creatures grew suddenly stiller, to the point where Johnny couldn’t imagine how they kept their upper bodies above the surface of the lagoon.  Their different eyes all flashed, although they studiously avoided looking at each other this time.  Finally shark-woman spoke.  “You speak the truth.  You have not yet made a request of us, and we are bound to hear it.  If we agree, we will accept the challenge.  If we do not, we will leave here and you must continue your journey on your own.”

Roger smiled again.  “Oh, I think ye’ll agree to this request all right.  It’s right up your alley.  I call for a race with no rules.  Pick the start, pick the end, and first one across the finish line claims the prize.  Whatever happens in between is fair play.  Do we have an accord?”  Roger plucked off her right glove, reached over the railing and offered her hand to shark-woman.  The creature thrashed over and reached out those long fingers.  Quick as a flash, they scratched Roger across the palm, and several drops of blood fell into the water.  Roger did not seem at all surprised by this, and used the small knife which had somehow sprung into her hand to slice into shark-woman’s hand before she could retrieve it.  Some black, tar-like goo remained on the blade when Roger straightened up; she had to wipe it forcibly onto the deck railing.

“Very well then,” Roger said calmly, making the knife disappear again.  “I’ll take the lobster wench.  Pick yer endpoints and I’ll have Aidan slick me up. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a contest.”


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