Monday, October 22, 2012

Underwater Fantasy Part 1/4

[Merfolk Coming of Age] Excerpt #1


Dark, cold waters surrounded them, a world where sunlight was scarce and fire unknown.  The two merfolk carried glowing angler-stalks, the equivalent of torches in the murky depths, and moved among the roots of a massive kelp forest.

"How much further, master?" asked Lalug, the younger of the two merfolk, big, bright eyes peering around them.  His voice passed blue lips and carried easily through the water - he had to speak softly to keep from attracting unwanted attention, for these waters were not completely safe.

But then, no place was completely safe in the realm of Sable Deeps.

"Not far, now," gurgled the other merman, aged and wizened after decades of scholarly study.  His name was Gleeb, though his disciples always knew him simply as 'master.'

They swam carefully, they're bottom halves, long and thin like that of an eel, swished fluidly to and fro.  They went between giant sprigs of kelp, which stretched a hundred feet above them.  Many things made their home in the kelp forests, plenty of which might consider a lone merfolk a tasty meal, but Gleeb and Lalug knew that the greatest threats were the things that lurked in the open waters beyond the cover of the forest.

Lalug shifted, adjusting his shoulders as he held the lantern with both of his webbed hands.  He was young, but showed signs of maturity; his spines had grown in and the stripes along the lower half of his body were becoming more visible.  Like Gleeb, Lalug belonged to a sect of merfolk that bore a resemblance to sailfish, though each individual was different in small ways.  Lalug shared the characteristic blue-gray scales and the length of spines along his back and tail, but as an emerging adult his markings were not as pronounced as Gleeb's or the other elders.

As they pushed past the tightly grown roots of the kelp forest, a shadow watched them from overhead.  Amidst the great leaves, it was impossible to see everything around them, but for other things to see a pair of glowing lights in the gloom...

Master Gleeb stopped suddenly, and signaled for Lalug to do the same.  In that time Lalug's eyes widened and he looked around frantically, hardly able to see anything in the claustrophobic weeds.  There were many things to fear in the Sable Depths, and as Master Gleeb's disciple, Lalug dreaded the day of his first test.

It was night, but the difference between night and day was not as noticeable in the Sable Depths, for only during the brightest of days did sunlight reach the sea floor where Lalug's shoal made their home.  Within the kelp forest, however, there was plenty of cover, and most things that made their home amidst the roots or leaves had no need to venture out into the open waters.  The glowing angler-stalks were required for passing through the forest during night as well as day, and while they offered precious illumination, every merfolk knew that they also advertised their presence to otherwise hungry eyes.

"We're being watched," Master Gleeb said, "Follow me, swiftly.  Do not look back."  And they darted forth through the roots.

No sooner did they take off than Lalug could feel movement of something large behind them, pushing aside kelp stalks as it pursued.  As an apprentice mage, Lalug had always been taught to be curious of the world around him, but he was also taught never to question the word of the Master.  Yet, as he followed, thrashing his tail frantically to keep up, Lalug chanced a glance over his shoulder.

It was difficult to see in the murk, but he could make out a large, bulbous black shape, tearing its way towards them with a multitude of long legs.  It was probably a sea spider - huge and terrifying and known to inhabit kelp forests like this - but Lalug had no intention of waiting around long enough to make absolute certain.

It was difficult to keep up with the Master, for aged as he was, Gleeb was far from feeble.  But terror fueled Lalug's resolve, and he dodged roots and darted around stalks, mimicking the Master's course.

Then, abruptly, they were out of the forest, shooting out the other side and into open water.  The sea spider followed, but stopped after leaving the cover of the leaves.  Two tail swishes later and the two merfolk were safely up and out of reach of the sea spider, a creature that could not swim and relied on grasping the kelp in order to propel itself.

Lalug's chest heaved, his waterborn lungs sucking water through his mouth and gills.  Gleeb held the angler-stalk aloft, illuminating what he could with its little light.  They watched the sea spider assess its current predicament - cumbersome and vulnerable outside the forest - and slowly withdraw back into the sway.

"That was close," said Lalug, trying to hide the fact that he was nearly scared witless.  Gleeb grunted emotionlessly, and they turned to continue their journey, the angler-stalks glowing softly around them.

"Keep up, lad," said the Master after they slowly lowered to the seafloor and swam along the bottom again.  The land was nearly featureless, sandy and rocky in all directions.  It was open water like this that creatures of the deep typically avoided, but beyond it lay that which was important enough for a pair of lone merfolk to risk themselves out here.

"And keep alert," the master added.  "Always remember that there's a lot more water out there than there is danger, but never forget that danger moves more swiftly than light and more mercilessly than shadow."

"Yes, master."

As they made their way along, they followed the incline of a small hill, keeping their bellies close to the ground.  Swishing their long, eel-shaped lower-halves, the merfolk covered much distance at an even pace until they peaked the hill.

Lalug peered over, holding his glowing angler-stalk aloft.  He stared out upon the next valley, and a sigh of relief escaped him.

Master Gleeb looked at the youngling and a small smile crossed his visage, but was hidden.  Lalug was Gleeb's most promising disciple, but the test that lay before him would determine the boy's place in the shoal; either as an honored novice scholar, or as a memory of a failed, dead, student.

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