Despite the boy’s kicking and screaming, Leura managed to bring him through the tunnels and all the way to Chysial-iun without any trouble. The only issue came when she tried to place a bubble around his head so that he would make it to the old god alive. He was so terribly worried, Leura could see it in his eyes, that he might be drown or devoured by some creature of the deep. In truth, had he given over that weird weapon he carried, he would have been able to go free. Leura had even tried to beguile him, laying herself out in the most sensual way she could on the shore. She could never figure out why but human men always seemed overly enticed by merms, at least the women. Yet, when he was given a chance to drop the tool, he kept it sheathed, and Leura decided to take the boy as a whole, against her own wishes.
The boy continued to fight against Leura even after making it in and out of the tunnels; reaching the rift was no great battle. He didn’t seem to understand that in the water, all his armor was just extra weight to slow his every movement. Most humans didn’t stand much of a chance once brought this low; of course, the water just was too heavy for them. If his weapon had been of any worth, it was a wonder why he didn’t use it on her, but Leura wasn’t about to question why this transaction wasn’t made any more problematic. Nearing the abyss was usually hard enough in and of itself, and this occasion was no exception as the young man began to spasm wildly. Yet, as always, once in the dark, the human fell limp as though so paralyzed with fear they were nearly dead already.
Chysial-iun’s eyes rose, they focused more on the human than Leura, but the merm wasn’t going to complain about that either. She watched patiently as invisible appendages snapped the polearm off the boy’s back with ease. It vanished into the abyss, and the giant eyes hummed with a strange sense of satisfaction. Leura didn’t like watching as the golden strands vibrated in Chysial-iun’s eyes when he was particularly overjoyed. It was like watching lightning dance through the clouds except it was only an arm’s reach away. Quietly, Leura reached out to grab the boy’s collar and drag him back up to where he came from, yet found her way stopped as soon as she was reaching.
“This one mine, child of sea. No return him now. Never come back same, once here. Go. City safe, still,” boomed the voice inside Leura’s head. She watched helplessly as the boy was pulled away from her slowly. Yet before he was from her reach, the movement stopped for another call, “Take bubble. Not need for where go now. Take.”
It didn’t make sense to Leura, but she reached out and grasped the bubble conjured by her halo and returned it to the tool. The boy didn’t seem to struggle then or fight for air like the swimmers some other merms would take under at times. He appeared at peace as those hidden limbs caught him and dragged him into the even darker depths. Leura grimaced but knew it was beyond her ability to debate what would come next. She had brought enough humans to their death here; this would be only one more scar on her conscious.
Leura made a hasty getaway from the rift and did not stay to lament her inability to return to any real home. Instead, she was quick to take to the tunnel, hoping wherever she would go would make her forget the look on that poor boy’s face. Unlike a vast majority of merms, Leura didn’t like killing humans, but different from that slight minority that loved humans, she didn’t quite care for them. Sure, humans were interesting and had plenty to show those in the sea, but that didn’t make them so great. How could any race of creatures be so fantastic if they valued the scales that grew on a merm’s tail? They were worthless little things that would periodically fall off if shook right while swimming or scraped off collisions. Yet, there were some who seemed to only value the scales as far as what other men put to them. Those were the type Leura liked, humans who would swap a few scales for an equally useless item of the land. They were in short supply and usually took some coercing just to have them listen to her.
Breaking through the gently rumbling waves, Leura took in a deep breath of forest air, mushrooms and dirt smashed gourds, and cinnamon trees filled her nostrils. It was a pleasant and relaxing fragrance, yet it seemed a bit off to Leura. Looking about, finding the stone divider between the forest and the pond she emerged in, Leura felt this place looked very much like another she had recently visited. It wasn’t the beach she had nabbed the boy from; that was only a ways down the coast. Leura had only used the tunnels to take him to the abyss because it was convenient. No, this was not that beach; it was too familiar, though. Looking around, Leura began to patch together all the pieces and realize when she had been here. This was the pond that old hag had stood by trying to snap Leura with her old barbed whip.
The fact she had ended up at this place twice was already an odd thing to Leura, but finding herself there two times in a row, so close together, was another thing entirely. Thinking back, Leura had to assume that she had visited at least one of the locations at the end of the tunnels twice, weather she remembered it or not, but this wasn’t the same thing. The notion she would make it back to this place, two times running despite all the places those labyrinthine tunnels could take her was merely impossible. In fact, were it not for the fact she could see that knotted piece of whip lying tangled in the foxtails, Leura wouldn’t have believed this was the same pond. She immediately wanted to go back down and try again, not because she wanted to see another place in particular but to test if she would wind up here once more. Yet, before Leura could test her theory, a voice called down to her, this time luckily, in a more friendly tone than that witch had used.
“Hello, down there! Say, you wouldn’t have happened to see my magnifier down there, would you?” the swarthy man asked, tugging at his silverish goatee.
Cocking an eyebrow, Leura gestured confusedly at the man before making a slow realization, “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”
“I suppose we have. I didn’t think it was you, but I suppose there could only be so many merms as beautiful as you. Ilzenor of Ahlcestor, do you remember that name?” his smile was kind, patient, and as warm as the sun filtering through the leaves.
With an unexpected grin, she looked up to Ilzenor, “This isn’t your land of ice and snow, why have you come all this way?”
“Business, I should be much further along the path, but I’ve stopped in the Gardens until the rioting in Bullin Down quiets. I needn’t scuff my armor up too much if I’m to look into this dragon business in the mountains. I should ask you, though, my little merm, what are you doing here?” his inquisitive look was not so prying as it was simply friendly.
Leura pulled back a bit from the edge of the water now, worried that this knight may be one of those sent to catch merms. They weren’t uncommon among land folk. Those who were very aware of what merms did and could do would sometimes turn to hunting Leura’s kind. She remarked hesitantly, “Just a little vacation from the sea and lighthouse, nothing more.”
“A good spot you’ve chosen for it then. The Gardens are always so peaceful, no matter the time of year. I’ve only visited this place a handful of times to see my great aunt, but I am always delighted how this spot seems to defy time. It is as though the land is always in the mood to turn from summer to autumn but never fully decides. Sometimes I think I’ll do as she has and retire to this place in my twilight years, how about you?” he asked, beginning to slip his boots off as he sat at the water’s edge.
Leura was still skeptical but maintained politeness, “It’s all well and good, only if the residents of this Garden are kindly folk to merms. I don’t think they would be, though.”
“Not too many are, or if they are, they’re just after scales. That reminds me, I have another like that lens you wanted back at the docks. This isn’t the same thing; it won’t make the heavens any clearer to see, but should you want to see the designs of a shell closer, it will make the image incredibly clear. Would you like it?” Ilzenor held out a small golden cone with a glass bottom.
Leura was only more paranoid by this offer, “And how many scales will that cost me?”
“None, you may have it for free. I still have the last you gave to me, couldn’t part with it, I guess,” he produced the shimmering blue scale from a pouch around his neck.
Leura watched cautiously as Ilzenor slipped his feet into the pond, both hands full with nothing that could hurt her. Carefully paddling to him, she reached and snatched both items from the man before retreating. First, she looked through the cone and found the man was blurry through the lens, then she looked at the scale with it. The network of octagons that made up a microscopic pattern on the scale was laid bare and made more detailed than she had ever seen before. That was if Leura could claim to have ever seen the design before at all. With an increased curiosity of the man, she shifted her gaze to Ilzenor before taking the cone and tucking it in a small seaweed satchel. She placed the scale inside with the microscope lens and then came close to the human again.
Reaching her hand deep past her waist, Leura grunted before pulling up four of her scales and placing them gently in Ilzenor’s hand. Humbled by the man’s calm and lack of deceitful intentions, Leura remarked, “That wasn’t one of my scales I gave you at the dock. It came off a hippocamp. It would have fetched you the same as one of mine would, but it wasn’t truly one of mine. I owe you an apology.”
“Not at all. You didn’t need to give me scales to show you’re sorry,
just your name,” Ilzenor’s snowy eyes looked remorseful for the merm in front of him.
Leura bit back an unintended smirk, “Well, you can keep the scales anyway, you goon, I can’t put them back now… And it’s Leura.”