“Boss, stop,” Stan’s voice somehow sounded clear underwater.
“-ut up,” Lynn responded without slowing down.
“I’m in yer head, no need to scare the fishes. And a desolate place it is, reminds me of the Grey Wastes.”
“Since when are you in my head?” Lynn thought hard at the claw.
“No need to shout either. Since you’re holding my claw, oh hands-on leader. I’m only talking to you, I can’t actually read your thoughts not directed at me. Your fantasies about that boy are safe.”
At a different time, this would have thrown Lynn for a loop. Right now, she didn’t have the time for Stan’s mockery.
“You can talk to me, noted. Now either help me find Nessa or be quiet.”
“Yeah, about that. Why? The little squirt’s either home safe or gutted like the last merman we saw.”
“They are not mermen. I think mermen are the ones attacking them.”
“Like I care about their identity crisis.”
“Not the point, we’re looking for her.”
Lynn called for Nessa again, swiveling her head desperately as she swam. The sound that came out didn’t sound much like her name, but it was better than nothing. The entire world had turned crimson, the visibility diminished to only a few meters. The unceasing taste of blood in the water made Lynn feel like she’d been punched in the nose, constantly swallowing her own blood. Except this blood must have belonged to someone else. Someone like Nessa, or Nicholas.
“You want to find the brat, fine,” the demon continued to annoy her. “But do it smart. You can’t just run around screaming at the top of yer lungs, attracts attention.”
“I do need to attract her attention.”
“What about these merfolk attackers? I don’t fancy spending the next few centuries at the bottom of the sea.”
“Do you have any better ideas, then? Bottom of the sea can be arranged.”
“You’re being snarky! I’m rubbing off on you.”
“Never say that again.”
“I do have better ideas, actually. A rather low bar, that. Do you have anything that belongs to her?”
“These pants? Maybe she helped make them.”
“Good enough. We’ll need a piece.”
Without hesitation, though with some regret, Lynn cut a chunk of her new pants off with the claw.
“Normally, I’d say quarry’s blood is best, but I’m not so sure it’d actually work right now. Take the cloth, and say exactly this.”
Lynn winced at guttural snorting sounds pouring straight into her mind.
“What was that?”
Strangely enough, the magic words, if that is what these were, almost made sense to Lynn. They reminded her of something, like a hummed tune reminds one of the characters of a forgotten lullaby. She tried to say what Stan was saying. It sounded no less atrocious, while also entirely different.
“Terrible. Hopeless. The girl’s done for. Oh well, we tried, time to go.”
“We are not going anywhere until we do this,” Lynn pressed her lips together.
“Then would you kindly try and stab the first merman that finds you with my claw? You’ll still die, but maybe they’ll take it as a trophy.”
“Instead of being insufferable, teach me to say it right.”
“It was a silly idea. Takes weeks for a gifted neophyte to learn to do that. And you’re hardly gifted. Thought maybe you had innate talent. No such luck.”
“Well, can’t you do the spell, you seem to know how to pronounce it.”
“Sure, get me back to a room with air in it. I’m not getting my delicate face crushed by the pressure.”
Lynn looked around. She didn’t know up from down, much less the direction back to the sunken temple.
“What if you had the water breathing amulet, would you be able to do it?”
“Don’t see why not. Don’t see where you’d get a second one, either.”
“Then do it, and quickly.”
Lynn tore off the Menar’s Embrace amulet. The gentle embrace of the long-dead god was replaced with the crushing weight of the sea. Lynn felt like she’d been simultaneously hit from all sides, her ears ringing, her chest caved in. And the dazing initial moment of being hit, when the outside world disappears, narrowed down to the point of impact, had lasted on and on. This time, her entire body was the point of impact.
The water she had been breathing in so harmlessly now turned into cold dead weight in her lungs. She wanted to vomit it up, to breathe in, but could do neither. Lynn clutched at her throat, at her chest, at anything that would help her. She would have torn open her own throat in blind panic, if not for her grip weakening with each agonizing second.
In the crushing darkness, she floated, helpless.
What a silly way to die, trusting a demon. No one would know what had happened to her, her body eaten by fishes, unrecognizable when it washes ashore. Or maybe she’s right in the middle of Under Valenar, meters away from someone who’d help. No, better to disappear. One last disappointment for anyone who may still foolishly rely on her, and then they’ll be free.
Except Nessa relied on her right now, even if she didn’t know it. She’ll have plenty of time for self-loathing in the Grey Wastes, if Stan is to be believed, Lynn decided. She couldn’t give up, couldn’t let unconsciousness take her. She had to trust the demon’s self preservation, not the demon himself.
After a few seconds that lasted a lifetime, Lynn drew a shuddering breath. The Menar’s Embrace amulet was back on her neck, and the water had become pleasant and warm again, its touch soft and gentle. It still hurt. Everything hurt, especially breathing.
The claw! The claw was gone from her hand, slipped out while she was busy dying. So was the piece of cloth which would have, presumably, led her to Nessa. Lynn dove down, or at least towards what she thought was down.
She didn’t travel far before arriving at the seafloor. Tall seaweed swayed heavily in the red storm, making it seem like beasts were rampaging through it. Maybe they were. Lynn hesitated, just out of reach of the moving green stalks. She was still feeling lightheaded, not at all up to facing giant crabs or whatever it is that dwelt at the bottom of the sea.
Something moved at the edge of Lynn’s vision, above her. Better giant crabs than murderous merfolk, she decided, and dove in. Lynn pushed leafy seaweed stalks aside as she moved. They parted easily, closing ranks behind her. The water was clearer deep within this aquatic forest, and schools of fish took shelter there. Or maybe it was always this populated, wondered Lynn as they brushed against her.
There was no claw in sight. Lynn would grow more desperate, if it were at all possible. She squeezed through the ticket at the sea floor, rummaging through algae sludge while cursing herself. Something bit her ankle. Lynn spun around, prepared to fend off the giant crab that undoubtedly came to eat her, only to find the demonic claw, stuck in a tangle of seaweed, the piece of cloth from her pants impaled on it.
“Took ya long enough,” greeted her Stan.
Lynn was too relieved for a coherent reply. She extracted the claw from the tangle, grabbed the piece of cloth in another hand, and took a deep breath.
“So. How does this work?”
“The hard pat is done. Now you just let it go, and follow it, oh insane leader. It will float to the nearest owner who isn’t you – I’ve made sure of that. If that’s the girl, we’re in luck. Otherwise, well.”
“Great. And thank you.”
“Hey, someone’s got to be the sexy voice of reason who saves everyone.”
Lynn got out of the seaweed forest and released her cloth guide. It fluttered in the bloody storm, hopefully driven by magic and not by the currents. She had already went through too much to get it, Lynn reasoned, and had no better options, to suddenly doubt it. After the cloth she swam.
By now she had lost any sense of where she could possibly be. There was just the swirling crimson and the cloth before her. She could have traveled a kilometer or a hundred meters, an hour or a few minutes. At last, the cloth changed the direction of its movement, veering to the right. Lynn followed.
“-ynn!” a distant voice called, tiny and exhausted, “-ynn!”
And there she was, just as frazzled as Lynn. Red had stained Nessa’s clothes, got stuck in her hair, beneath her fingernails. Lynn wasn’t an experienced enough swimmer not to tackle-hug her, but maybe that was for the best. The cloth guide had joined in, fluttering against Nessa. Its mission fulfilled, it lost its animating force seconds later and drifted away.
The two girls held on to each other in hard-earned relief. Nessa must have been searching for her, just as Lynn was searching for Nessa, thought Lynn. Silly Nessa. But at least they found each other. They still weren’t safe, though. Having extracted herself from the hug, Lynn tried to communicate with Nessa using her rudimentary knowledge of thieves’ sign language and expansive miming.
“Not danger where?”
Lynn demonstrated the last word by pointing in different directions and shrugging. Nessa shrugged too, fear returning to her face.
“Down,” decided Lynn after brief deliberation, “hide.”
The seafloor was different here, current-swept dunes rather than floating forests. The water was still clearer, or maybe, hopefully, the storm was subsiding. Nessa followed Lynn as she searched for a shelter. They found one beneath a small outcropping rock. Huddled there, they couldn’t be seen from at least some directions.
Nessa was shaking slightly, so Lynn tried to comfort her. She attempted to hug Nessa again, but the girl was stiff, refusing to join in. Now that the immediate danger had passed, she must have remembered about the demon, realised Lynn. There was fear in Nessa’s eyes, and there was nothing Lynn could do. She couldn’t talk under the water, and even if she could, what would she say?
Good people didn’t consort with demons. She couldn’t even say she had Stan under control, she wasn’t that delusional. The horrible creature made it perfectly clear he would get her killed at the first chance he got, provided he could escape.
But however evil the demon was, the Beast was worse. She needed Stan to stand a ghost of a chance. If she could rid the world of Karadash, that would outweigh any harm she did along the way. Right? Lynn looked at the trembling Nessa, close to her yet distinctly apart, and wasn’t certain anymore.
Someone passed over them, their shape outlined by the swirling red. Rescuer or invader? Lynn held her breath and felt Nessa push herself further into the rock. The figure disappeared, and the girls exchanged relieved glances. Lynn smiled reassuringly, or maybe her mouth just twitched a bit. By now she was exhausted of being on the edge.
Minutes went by. The water grew clearer, bit by bit. Just as tension began to leave Lynn’s body, a merman peered over the rock beneath which the girls were hiding. Lynn would mistake him for a large fish – scales, bulging eyes, huge tooth-filled mouth and all – if not for a spear he held in his webbed hand.
Without thinking, Lynn moved forward, shielding Nessa with her body and drawing the claw she had tucked into her pants. Nessa let out a startled cry. The merman echoed it, the expression on his inhuman face indecipherable to Lynn. He stuck out his spear, which Lynn had barely managed to deflect. Before she could grab a hold of it, the merman drew the spear back, ready for another attack.
Lynn kicked off from the rock, trying to cover the distance between them. Her weapon was much shorter than the merman’s. As terrified as she was at her first and quite possibly last life-and-death fight, she knew her only chance was to get close to her enemy. Unlike him, however, she wasn’t born in water, hadn’t spent a lifetime moving in it. The merman evaded her easily, spinning out of the way.
It was a ponderous, dance-like struggle. As he moved, the merman brought up the blunt end of his spear. Lynn saw it, but could not dodge, carried forward by her own momentum. The spear slammed into her stomach, knocking the breath out of her.
Lynn watched him rotate the spear over his head, preparing for a killing blow. Stan was screeching in her mind, whether encouragements or death wishes, she didn’t know. She knew that she was going to die if she didn’t move, and knew she couldn’t.
Nessa could. Appearing out of nowhere, she grabbed the spear from behind, standing on the merman’s shoulders. With the extra second Nessa bought her, Lynn lunged forward. She grasped the merman’s arm with her left hand, and pulled herself forward. She pressed herself to the merman, and drove the claw clasped in her right hand into him with her entire weight. The merman gasped, his mouth right next to hers.
Lynn tore the claw out and plunged it in again, and again, and again. She screamed, and Stan screamed with her, their voices becoming one in her head. She watched the merman’s face slacken, saw his eyes glaze over, his hands let go of Nessa and the spear, felt warmth envelop her arm. In that moment, holding the dying merman in her arms, Lynn finally recognized his facial expression, unchanged since the moment they saw one another. It was fear. Same fear Josh felt as he died.
She recoiled. The body spun from her movement, revealing gashing wounds on his back. He must have been hurt during the attack and looking for shelter, just like she and Nessa were. Those wounds were likely the only reason she could actually defeat him. Lynn looked at the dead merman and saw Josh. Mean and trapped on a bad path, but not deserving of death. She knew nothing about the merman, but felt like she knew enough.
She didn’t have a choice, Lynn knew. The merman would have killed her, and then Nessa, had she not won. But it didn’t feel like a victory.
Stan gurgled in her mind, satisfied. Lynn almost threw the claw away in disgust. Blood was spreading from the merman, and Lynn pushed further away in a panic. The red storm was almost over, it seemed, as this blood was actually visible.
Lynn looked around, to find Nessa floating nearby, just as scared as her. They couldn’t stay here. Not after what just happened. Not near the… the man she just killed. Lynn motioned for Nessa to follow, and began to swim. Away. Anywhere.
They swam, exhausted yet unwilling to stop. Eventually, Lynn’s worries began to lift. The water was almost clear now, and she breathed easier. Even her ribs, bruised by the spear, didn’t hurt as much. They’ve made it, she thought to herself. It was all behind her. The merman didn’t matter. The scared girl that was following her didn’t matter. Neither did Nicholas. She could finally be free, be apart from them all. She hadn’t felt this good in weeks. Even the deep ache in her eyes had dissipated.
Lynn stopped. There was slime in the water.