The call came too quickly, just as Leura was getting a bit more comfortable with Ilzenor than she ever had with another person the old god spoke. Leaving was a hard thing to do, but the promise of looking for a means to turn this unexpected lover into one such as herself was too great a thought to let die. As she swam through the tunnels, Leura let Chysial-iun put the target, this time targets, into her mind, and after they registered with her, worry crept in. What if there was no means to turn Ilzenor into a merm? Worse, what if the witches got a hold on him, and she never saw the man again? So enamored with these concerns, Leura almost ran headlong into a net that sat over the threshold to the tunnel.
Avoiding the fisher’s net that had been sucked in by the passageway’s vortex, Leura began for the anemone she had so recently robbed of a guardian. As she made her way, the mermaid had to convince herself that her paranoid fears were nothing but anxious thoughts playing on her mind. Witches knew how to turn people into all sorts of things, so perhaps they may even know or just as possible they could turn Leura into a human. The thought of having legs didn’t quite appeal to her, however, and serving Chysial-iun while on land would be nearly impossible. No, she would have to stay in the sea, Leura knew, but then it hit her. Was it possible for the old god with all his power to change someone’s form? She’d have to ask once she delivered the offerings, a task easier said than done.
Again, with her mind so preoccupied with thoughts of Ilzenor, Leura almost smacked into a very obvious obstacle ahead of her. The massive slate gray tail hung suspended just below the surface of the water, a series of barnacles and bottom feeders slowly dismantling the tip. A moment of confusion preceded a sudden realization for Leura. Absolutely astonished by what she saw, Leura swam up and down the length of the eel’s corpse before final stopping by its head. Poking up from the water, she took a close looked at the side that had been exposed to the guardian’s toxic cloud. Yet, as she lay eyes on the half laid bare to the surface, Leura realized there was no face to be seen. All but the portion closest to the head was being taken apart by scavenging birds while what had been an eye and mouth had sunk deep into the body. A rim of scaly flesh looked nearly melted to a point, and what had sat there fell into the empty cavity of the skull. Leura couldn’t believe her eyes, the potency of that venom was so far beyond what she feared, but more importantly, she couldn’t imagine how she would have forgotten about the eel.
Sinking below, Leura let the picture remain in her mind an extra moment. The utter devastation was so vastly contrasted by how lively and powerful the eel had been only days prior when chasing her. And then there was the simple fact that Leura had managed to snag the guardian without being injected with even a drop of venom. Had she been on the receiving end of any sting like that, Leura could only guess that she would not have even made it to Chysial-iun. The worry and realization left shortly; however, Leura still had to return to Chysial-iun with the next offering.
His first request was an egg or something of the sort, that would be hidden deep inside the anemone the guardian had resided in. Swimming down to the ocean floor, Leura was met with the ruined remains of the anemone. Some of the lower sitting plants remained intact, but almost anything that didn’t cling to the sand was ripped up and shredded. The bites were not those of predators moving in to take fish and other critters but the enormous chomps of what could only have been the eel. Leura hated to see it, but she knew it was only one anemone, and in time it may recover, but before it could, she needed to recover this egg.
Coming to the very center where the next guardian would grow if the plants could support it, Leura began her search. After an hour or so, Leura had nearly turned the anemone inside out and was close to giving up. This egg, a jellied sphere with a transparent outer shell and dense black yolk, had clearly been scattered by the eel’s attack. Leura would have to go before Chysial-iun and explain the situation after she found the other item. With any luck, the old god would relocate it and send her after it once more; Leura only hoped that things would be that simple. There was precedence, she had lost a human before, and Chysial-iun had found him once more. Leura received some punishment for the failure, but that was better than what the god could have done.
Bringing to mind the second location, Leura instantly recognized it to be the den of the eel. Had she not seen the body beforehand, Leura would have been more than hesitant to swim into that dark cave. Yet she felt a bit more at ease knowing it was likely empty now. Few other creatures of the coast would find that kind of shelter particularly homey. The eel must have been an exceptional outcast to have taken up residence in the cliffside. Cautiously, despite a knowledge that should have quashed any fear, Leura swam into the tunnel and then the pitch-black cave.
Upon entering, Leura scuffed her head on the roof of the cave, not realizing how low it sat and that if briefly terminated. Confused as to how the eel had fit inside, she caught a glimpse of light directly below the entryway. The tunnel led down into the earth rather than into the cliffside, which made only a little more sense to Leura. Diving down, Leura noted all the little things that gave life and light to the cave. There were jellyfish and shrimp, crabs and starfish, but most numerous were the slugs. The sea slugs were of such different design and color and size that Leura doubted that there were more than two of any given species. Though the vibrant, glowing rainbow of slugs was intensely beautiful, a sight she wished to treat Ilzenor too, Leura knew she couldn’t stop now. Her query sat somewhere at the bottom, a ring of peculiar make.
Reaching the sandy bottom, layered heavily with shells and husks, Leura looked on to where she sensed the ring. In a rounded off space that no doubt sat below the ocean floor was a nautilus easily the size of hippocamp. To see this creature that should have been insignificant to Leura grown to the size of a horse was a bit shocking, to say the least. The merm did have to admit that the past few weeks had been more than a surprising change of pace, and this one was not too far out of this new normal. Warily entering the cave, Leura noted the great golden eye of the creature focus on her. She stopped, allowing the nautilus a moment to calm, as it did, Leura found her halo.
As the merwoman prepared to attack, a booming voice rippled the water, “Wait. I have no quarrel with your kind, child. And what I do here does no harm to your people. Why not swim away before that eel returns?”
“I’ll swim away, but you have to give me the ring that’s down here or show me it at least,” Leura responded without hesitation.
One of the tentacles produced the ring, “This can not leave the First Cave. Were this to leave me, the last pilgrim would die in vain. Please, reconsider.”
“I don’t have that luxury, and though I don’t want to hurt you, you wouldn’t be the first or last living creature who became an offering,” Leura bolstered her own confidence in the face on the nautilus’ ominous tone.
A minute passed in silence, Leura waiting for the nautilus to make some sort of move and give her free reign to attack. Yet, the nautilus only pulled its tentacles in tight to its shell, an act that did not conceal the ring. With great zeal, Leura shot in, swept low with the halo, and took off every last tentacle in only a couple swipes. In the cloud of appendages and mollusk screams and pleas, Leura snatched the ring and spiraled out and up the cave until she floated just about where she first saw the eel. She rolled the ring in her hands, it wasn’t gold, but an untarnished red copper formed in the likeness of a dragon’s claw. Three came down from above while a forth met on the opposite side of a queer gem. It was shaped like a cross, the length taller than the width, set into a copper sphere. What it looked to Leura was something like an evil eye, a chaotic hatred sealed inside a gemstone, but she gave it little time for examination before dropping it in the satchel.
Heading towards the abyss, Leura glanced once more at the anemone, hoping to spot the egg but, of course, found nothing. Then, peering up at the eel for a final time, Leura swore she could see just the faintest glimmer in the monster’s eye. Halting, then moving closer, she confirmed that something was suspicious in that otherwise dull orb. Coming within reach, Leura noted that something was floating free in the eye and had begun pressing against the filmy surface. She knew it couldn’t have been a scavenger, they were avoiding the skull. Noticing a shimmering silver ring inside the otherwise black void of the eye, Leura got a sudden impulse and pulled up the eleus halo.
The eye opened wide, and as blood began to cloud the water, Leura saw that delicate sphere with its solid black yolk. She seized it with her free hand, but with all her focus on the egg, Leura didn’t notice how the blood cloud turned. From the red, a darker substance flowed into the water with a few remain pieces of eel that hadn’t been fully dissolved. As the thick violet cloud fell onto her, Leura took flight but not before she began feeling the impact of the poison. Her skin began to burn, and little coins of flesh degraded away until she looked like one of the spotted slugs from the tunnel. It was clear the acidic toxin had been diluted from going through the eel, it stopped before Leura reached Chysial-iun, yet it had taken a toll.
Falling into the abyss with opened wounds didn’t feel like a safe
move, but Leura felt that if the old god had ever desired to consume merms, he had his chance at any moment. The eyes rose to meet Leura, and she felt suddenly more aware of her singed open skin and loose scales. Still, as she produced the ring and egg, Leura relaxed, seeing only they vanished, and she was not pulled down with them. As the eyes still faced her, Leura hazard to speak, “Great old one… Lord Chysial-iun? I have a question that I do not know if I should ask or if you can answer.”
“Time brings answers, many, all, ask,” the voice rang in her head, still causing fear despite all the familiarity of it.
Leura pried open her lips, “Can you, or would you, be able to transform a human, one that lives on land, into a merm like me?”
“Human to merm? Yes. Merm to human? Yes. Now, away,” replied the ancient one, causing Leura to instinctively flee. Yet hoped pounded her heart harder than any war drum, Leura had found a way for Ilzenor to be by her side or she by his. The time between the sea and the Gardens would feel like an eternity, but she was bursting to tell him the good news.