He falls into the ocean as a pebble into a lake, air streaming from his lips in a string of bubbles. The water is warm at the surface where the sun gilds its waves, but it quickly grows cold as he sinks, fingers stretched up towards the fading light. Below him the darkness waits, sleeping but aware, mind-numbingly ancient and vast. Nothing passes across his vision as he slips deeper; no brightly coloured fish flit by, no sharks hunting for a meal or squids drifting past on their own unfathomable business. The ocean is an empty and lifeless blue around him.
The first tendrils of the darkness touch his back and slide slowly across his bare skin with horrifying intimacy. Their touch is even colder than the water and they wrap around his wrists, his ankles, his hips and throat, brushing against his gills. One slides across his mouth like a kiss, the taste black and cloying. They tug him further down almost gently, turning him to face the greater darkness below.
A woman lies there, cradled by the shadows, her pale hands crossed over her breasts. Her hair, silver and gold, gently waves like seaweed in the current. She’s naked but there’s nothing sexual in her slim body and clammy skin, even to a perpetually horny teenager; the thought of touching her makes him recoil in disgust. The tendrils bring him to within a few feet of her, still sliding all around his body in noisome caresses, and he whimpers in terror and shame.
When her black eyes open and she smiles at him with her barracuda mouth, he begins to scream.
Azhorai jerked awake, arching in his bed with the effort of keeping the scream locked behind his clenched teeth. He dug his fingers into the mattress, tangling the sheet in his hands until his muscles slowly began to unknot and he could slump back down, breathing hard. Beside him, the girl he’d picked up at the docks—her name was Elsa or Elka, something like that—grunted in annoyance and rolled over, tugging the blankets up over her bare shoulders. He spared her a brief glance and made a note to drop her off at the next port, then quietly got up and went up to the ship’s dark deck.
The dreams were always worse when he anchored at sea, when the waves should have rocked him to peace and instead reminded him of that day nearly six years earlier. In three days he would turn 20 and come fully into the inheritance his grandparents had left him when they died, at which point he fully expected his deadbeat parents to miraculously turn up and try to get in touch with him. Thinking of them made him spit over the boat’s railing into the dark water down below and for a little while he just leaned on the bars, letting the wind brush against his bare back and listening to the lap of water against the boat’s hull.
He dozed a little, leaning against the railing while his body moved instinctively with the boat’s motion, and woke at the sound of a large, rumbling engine nearby. Squinting into the darkness, he made out the bulk of a massive vessel drifting by with its running lights dimmed, its outer colours grey and black in the shadows. He gave it a lazy salute and watched it continue on its way, deciding after a moment that it was a merchant ship and not from the navy. He still went back down into the hold and made sure his papers were all in order.
At dawn he pulled up the anchor and set the boat on a course towards the nearest port, informing Elsa/Elka that she was getting off when she wandered up at midday, naked but for the fall of her long hair. She shrugged in response and asked if he wanted lunch first, but paused on her way down to the galley to glance back at him.
“Do you often have nightmares?” she asked. “You whimpered a lot last night.” She flashed a wicked grin. “In your sleep, I mean, not before.”
“Now and then,” he said after a moment. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Not like that, I think.” She flipped her hair back over her shoulder. “I can give you the name of someone who can help. Think of it as payment for the ride.”
“They’re only nightmares,” he said, but before she stepped off his boat at the port—one of the few land-based ones run by humans, where she had to reluctantly wear clothing—he asked her for the name. She stood on tiptoe to murmur it in his ear, bit at his jaw where she’d already left bruises, and disappeared into the crowd.
He filled up on a few supplies and sold some of his cargo while he was there, trying to ignore the children who clustered around him and caught at his hands to study his webbed fingers or begged him to show them his gills. Few of his people came to their port, preferring their own out on the water, and even the adults seemed fascinated by his brightly-coloured coral-built boat where it floated peacefully beside their awkward constructions of wood and metal scraps. He shooed them away from its side and carried his new supplies on-board, glad to sail back out into open ocean.
It took him three days of bouncing from one atoll to the next before he got a lead on the name Elsa/Elka had given him, on the same day that he turned twenty. Another week passed in his search and he was on the verge of giving up—his supplies low and his boat in need of repairs after a powerful midnight storm that had jerked him screaming out of another nightmare—when a chance conversation with a grizzled old sailor pointed him back in the right direction.
He took the time to repair his boat and bulk up on supplies, knowing he would be heading out into the deep waters where his people rarely went and the humans never ventured. He kept no illegal cargo on the boat, knowing that the navy would be patrolling for pirates, and took the journey at a slow but steady pace. The nightmares grew worse the closer he got and he reached the volcanic ridge on barely two hours of sleep a night, his green-gold eyes heavy and shadowed.
For a little while he floated on the water outside the ridge, studying its sparse sides and the waves crashing against it, then he anchored his boat firmly and stripped out of his shorts, strapping his fishing belt around his bare hips. After a last glance around, he climbed the railing and dived over the side into the cool water, stroking away from the boat before he started looking for the underwater hole in the ridge that the sailor had told him about. Fish flashed by him as he searched and once his highly tuned sense of danger warned him in time for him to turn around and see a massive shark slide smoothly by, its black eye regarding him with curiosity. He held still until it had disappeared into the blue of the ocean and went back to searching, keeping a hand close to the wickedly sharp bone knife on his belt.
It was growing dark by the time he finally found the entrance and he hesitated only a moment before slipping inside, swimming carefully to protect himself from the sharp volcanic rock of the underwater tunnel. The sense of the ridge all around him made him nervous and the lack of light disoriented him enough that he brushed his shoulder against the edge of the tunnel, scraping a series of shallow cuts into his skin. Thinking of the shark, even though his rational mind knew that there was no way it could fit into the tunnel after him, he pushed himself faster, coming out into a wide open area bleeding from half a dozen wounds.
He pushed himself up towards the pale green light and open air he sensed above him, coming out and gasping clammy air into his mouth instead of through his gills. Shaking his hair out of his eyes, he looked around, studying the bioluminescent moss decorating the dark walls, then pulled himself out of the water and onto a rock ledge. A small narrow path led away in the ridge and after a quick check to make sure none of his injuries were serious, he followed it, placing his bare feet carefully.
She sat on a throne carved of bone, her long sinuous tail draped elegantly around her, her dark skin patterned with spirals and whorls of bright paint. Her eyes were large in her broad, beautiful face, a pale silver that reflected oddly with the light given off by the moss surrounding her throne room. Across her breasts she wore only heavy golden chains strung with coins, matching the bracelets that reached halfway up her forearms. Delicate fins, the same pale silvery-grey as her serpentine tail, haloed around her skull and when she smiled at him, she displayed a mouthful of sharp teeth that reminded him uncomfortably of his nightmares.
“You’re late, Azhorai. I expected you, mmm... At least a week ago.”
“You’re hard to find, seawitch.” He bowed to her, the motion short and uncomfortable. “Since you know my name, I guess you know why I’m here too.”
“What did you see?” she asked, smiling.
“Darkness,” he said, studying her eyes. “A woman. Most of it is... fuzzy. I don’t want to remember it. It’s ruining my sleep.”
“You don’t think it may be important?”
“I don’t really care. Can you help me or is this all a waste of time?” He felt blood dribble down his shoulder and wiped it away, flicking his damp fingers at the stone floor.
“You’ve bled for me, I suppose I can offer you something at least.” She took a coin from the chains around her neck and flicked it at him. He caught it automatically, rubbing his thumb against the faded insignia on its front. “Wear it and your nightmares won’t disappear, but they will... reduce. You are aware that there are other worlds out there, correct?”
He blinked a little, caught off-guard by the change in subject. “Yes. That’s how humans got here, isn’t it?”
“So they say.” She shifted her weight, flicking the broad end of her tail. “You have your inheritance, Azhorai. If you will take my advice, you will collect it and go travelling.”
“To another world?” He gave her a sceptical look. “Even if I wanted to, and I don’t, I have no way of doing it. I’m not one of those whatever they are, the ones who disappear and go world-walking. I have a life here.”
“Yes, as a pirate, though not a particularly good one. I have given you my advice. Do with it as you will. Azhorai,” she added as he turned to leave, the coin tucked safely into the pouch on his belt. “My help is not for free.”
“I bled for you, you said it yourself.”
“Not enough.” She touched the arm of her throne, almost caressed it. “Give me your hand, and your knife.”
He hesitated, then did as she said, kneeling beside her throne. Up close she smelled of brine and the deep, and tiny scales patterned her skin. She wrapped strong fingers around his wrist and held his hand flat against the bone arm, first caressing the back of his hand with the tip of the knife, then slammed it down with one sure movement. He bit back a cry of pain, gritting his teeth so hard his jaw creaked, and took his hand back when she released it, cradling it against his chest. Blood dripped from his little finger, where she had removed the first joint.
She gestured almost impatiently for him to hold his hand out again and took it in both of hers, breathing gently across the wound. When he took his hand back the bleeding had stopped and the finger was capped with pale pink scar tissue, though it still ached deep inside. He met her eyes for a moment then turned to go again, hunching his shoulders until she let him leave without further comment. He went through the corridor and dived back into the pool, following the narrow tunnel back out to the wide ocean with relief.
He pulled himself back onto his boat and found a chain to string the coin on, fastening it around his neck and letting it hang heavy against his chest. It warmed quickly to his skin but he stayed aware of it as he moved about the boat, checking to make sure everything was as he had left it and pulling up the anchor to move off. When he slept that night, the coin resting in the hollow of his throat, he slept without dreams for the first time in years.
He made it back to the nearest atoll a little over a week later and restocked on supplies again, spending a few days drinking and sleeping around just to relax. When he left he meant to visit some of his trading partners to get back into the business, but instead he set a course for the atoll where he had grown up, a place he hadn’t been since he was 16. He arrived at sunset and spent a few moments just studying it in the light of the dying sun, surprised by how much it had grown during his absence. As the sun sank down below the horizon, he drifted his boat into a spot at one of the docks and slid down to the smooth stone, walking silently into the town backing the harbour.
A few people recognized him but the majority of the people he passed ignored him completely or only gave him polite nods of greeting. His old house, where he’d lived with his grandparents after his parents had abandoned him as a baby, was owned by strangers now and he declined their offer of dinner, making his way down to the bank instead. When he gave his name, the teller looked at him uncertainly then called out her manager, a man who recognized Azhorai immediately and gave him a professional but distant smile.
He walked out an hour later with a pack containing all his grandparents had left him: a handful of both rough and polished gemstones, a tightly wrapped and sealed scroll of a material he didn’t recognize, and enough coins to keep him living well for a few years or adequately for a few more. He kept an eye on the darkness as he walked back to his boat but no one seemed interested in what he was carrying, and nobody followed him back to the dock.
Once back on board, he took the scroll out of the pack and slit its seal with his knife, unrolling it to read its contents. He’d expected a deed, perhaps to a better boat, but instead the page was scrawled with symbols he didn’t recognize and a word scrawled at the bottom in his grandfather’s distinctive writing. He said it out loud, puzzled as to what it meant, and cringed at a sudden loud thunderclap. Light flickered and he looked automatically towards the porthole before realizing it was inside, outlining his hands and dancing in front of his eyes. He shoved his chair back, snagging his belt, knife, and pack automatically, and stared around in horror as the familiar confines of the boat’s cabin suddenly faded into the stone walls of a room he’d never seen before.
Two men dressed in strange clothing—pants made of a rough blue material, heavy boots, and open-necked shirts that buttoned up the front—stared at him from the table where they appeared to be playing a game using rectangles of a stiff paper. One of them said something in a language that sounded just enough like his own to make him think he could understand the words, until he realized they made no sense. The other shook his head, then said in Azhorai’s language, slightly awkwardly, “How did you get here?”
Azhorai held up the scroll before belatedly realizing it might be a bad idea. When the man got up from the table, he took a step back and brandished his bone knife, but the man only held up both hands and said soothingly, “No one’s going to hurt you. You want something to eat? Some warmer clothes, maybe? Shorts won’t work in the winter here.”
“I’d rather just go home.” Azhorai lowered the knife but kept his weight on the balls of his bare feet, ready for trouble. “Just tell me how.”
“You’ll need another one of those.” The man nodded to the scroll in his hand, smiling a little. There was a quality to the smile that Azhorai suddenly didn’t like. “I doubt you know how to get one. By the way, where’d you get that coin around your neck?”
Azhorai glanced down at the coin where it hung against his chest. “It was a present. How about you tell me where I can find another scroll?”
“I’ll trade you one for the coin.”
“It’s not for trade. I have...” He dug a handful of gems out of the pack and immediately knew how stupid it was when the eyes of both men sharpened. Shoving the gems back into his pack, he took a few steps back, then spun on his heel, yanked open the door behind him, and bolted out into cold misty streets.
He wasn’t sure how far he ran before a stitch in his side made him slow and he realized he was alone in a large, strange city. He walked a little further, becoming aware of the ache in his feet from the cold streets he was walking on, and scrambled out of the way as something that looked like a boat on four wheels suddenly loomed out of the mist. It roared past him then suddenly slowed, showing a pair of red lights, and slowly reversed back towards him. The coin around his neck grew warm against his chest as the car stopped opposite him, and when the window rolled down, he found himself looking at the seawitch’s familiar face, though now she had a halo of silver corkscrew curls instead of fins.
“Boy,” she said in a gravelly voice, the words of his language obviously strange in her mouth, “this is not the weather for nothing but shorts, no matter how nice you look in them.”
“I need one of these.” He held up the scroll. “But you probably know that already, seawitch.”
She snorted. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but that’s a new one.” She reached over and pushed open the door on the opposite side of the vehicle. “Get in. I’ll take you to Xenagoras. They can provide you with another spellscroll, if you can pay for it.”
He said nothing but made his way carefully around the vehicle to climb into the other seat, closing the door behind him. He tried to watch out the window as the city passed by but the mist obscured most of it and after a while he dozed, clutching the pack against his stomach. The seawitch—or whoever she was here—reached out to shake him awake when they arrived, pointing to the tall building looming over them.
“The office is there. They’ll be able to help you. Or,” she shrugged, “maybe not.” She reached over to pick up the coin lying on his chest, her fingers cool against his skin. “Keep this hidden. There’s those around here who’d kill a kid like you for an artifact like this.”
“These bits of magic.” She let the coin thump back against his chest. “Worth a lot to those who know how to use them. Or just to those who collect them.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.” He gave her a smile and got out of the vehicle. “Thank you for your help.”
She waved a hand and pulled away in the vehicle, leaving him looking up at the building’s imposing facade. Taking a deep breath, he walked up to the front door, pausing only a moment to tuck the coin safely into the bottom of his pack before he opened the door and went inside.