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Into The Mystic

Chapter one–Danger From The Depths

The oars scarcely made a sound as they methodically dipped into the dark blue water. As each smooth stroke came to an end they surged back out of the water, so clean they barely dripped. With each follow through the Outlaw's body surged forward and his neck muscles bulged. It took some doing, but they had convinced him to take them across the river in the dead of night. Daylight was too risky, especially now that they knew a patrol of crows was on the lookout from dawn to dusk. From the expression on the man's weathered face it was clear that he wasn't very happy about this late night trip. Not that he would have told them. He hadn't spoken so much as a word following a short verbal exchange with Beth. Pauly didn't know what she said to him, but whatever it was, he did not seem pleased.

            They sat next to each other in the back of the small skiff, facing the ferryman. Exhausted by her battle with the red knight, she was asleep, head leaning on his shoulder. Normally this would embarrass him. Just then he was too tired to feel uneasy about anything.

            And besides, there was nothing normal about their situation.

            At this point there was no way to tell exactly how far it was to Heart's Ease Island, which loomed ahead of them, little more than a dark specter on this moonlit night. To their good fortune the weather could not have been any more suited for the trip. A calm river made for a smooth ride, and that was fine by him. The oarsman's stroke was so consistent that it clicked like a metronome, and without even knowing it, Pauly drifted off to sleep.

            Suddenly, something splashed in the water to his right, and then again on his left. Head snapping up, he glanced over at the Outlaw. If something was amiss, the man's face gave no indication of it. Head covered by the hood of his black robe, his grouchy expression never changed. Pauly chided himself for over-reacting. Of course—we're on a river. Those were fish jumping. I must be tired. Having spent many evenings in his grandfather's boat in pursuit of walleye made him wonder about the fishing on this particular body of water. Probably can't eat the fish here. Don't think I'd want to take the chance.

            It was funny really. Not in a "ha ha" kind of way, but in an odd or difficult way. Although he didn't bother keeping track of time, according to his friend Mariah he had spent years searching for his brother, Owen, hoping to free him from Mr. Tout's grip. And in all that time he had only seen Tout once, for less than five minutes. He barely knew what he looked like.

            Owen knew him, and so did Beth. And from what Pauly gathered he had done some pretty terrible things to both of them. Unbeknownst to him, "done" was not the proper tense to describe Toddathon Tout's dealings with his brother. He had no way of knowing that Owen was currently a prisoner in an underground place called Lydia, and that he had been there for several days.

            A thump against the bottom of the skiff brought his attention back to the water. Fish didn't usually bump into boats, but it was nighttime, and their behavior changed when the sun went down. Anything was possible at night, especially one as bright as this. When it got dark, particularly on a calm night, the sound of jumping fish was commonplace as they surfaced to feed.

            The moon's reflection against the river created a beautiful, mirror-like effect. It also made it impossible to see into the water. Pauly thought he could make out shapes lumbering along beside them, but figured they were probably just carp. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and turned it on.

            What happened next nearly made him drop it into the river.

            A ghostly humanoid creature stared back at him from just below the surface of the water. But as soon as the light struck its large blue eye, it dove back toward the safety of the dark river. Just then, from the opposite side of the boat, two pale white hands latched onto the side of the skiff. The same thing happened next to him, drawing Pauly's attention away from the first intruder, who was now attempting to climb into the boat. The water was turbulent now, and without warning something grabbed him from behind. He lurched forward to escape it, causing Beth to slide and wake up. Groggy at first, the sight of the creatures brought her back to reality in a hurry. Her natural reaction was to scream. And if there was ever such a thing as a blood-curdling scream, that's exactly what it sounded like. The girl her sister had once dubbed as the "scream queen" had struck again.

            Whatever these beings were, they were after her. The first creature grasped her by the arm, while the second made a move toward her legs. They may have taken her by surprise, but she was not going to go down without a fight. Kicking forward, she struck one of the pale creatures in the chest. It was an abominable blend of human and fish, and the sight of it repulsed her. The attacker had not anticipated any pushback, and Beth's kick knocked it off balance. Pauly shoved it out of the boat and into the water. Something moved behind him, and his right elbow shot back, landing heavily against a second attacker. There were more of them now, so many that they threatened to overwhelm the boat. Her hands free, Beth curled her fingers and locked them together directly in front of her before quickly pulling them apart. A tiny flash of light surged from her hands and fizzled out, like a defective sparkler. She tried again and this time nothing happened, not even a flicker of light.

            What just happened?

            Confusion flooded her consciousness. This had never happened before, and she had no idea why.

            She had cast this spell before, dozens of times, without any problems. After all, it was one of the easier incantations. Done properly, it should have illuminated the night like the bombardment of a thousand spotlights. It should have struck their unusually large eye with the force of a hammer shot to the head. For some unknown reason, it hadn't. Instead, the creatures continued their advance, undeterred, swarming to the sides of the skiff and threatening to totally overcome them. Pauly fought valiantly, but there were too many.

            A bony, claw-like hand grabbed Beth by the shoulder, pulling her toward the stern of the boat. Two more seized her, and she screamed again. The Outlaw, seemingly oblivious to what was going on, simply continued to pull on the oars with an unchanging blank stare. Pauly reached toward Beth to offer assistance, but felt helpless against the sudden onslaught of these hideous creatures from the depths of the river.

            All at once, everything changed.

            A massive fish burst up from out of the water, grabbing two of the creatures by their tails before returning to the water with a loud splash. The force rocked the boat, nearly sending Beth overboard. Somehow, she managed to latch onto the gunwale to steady herself.

            Pauly was not so fortunate.

            In a vain attempt to fight off the attackers, he lost his balance and went over the side, plunging into the dark blue water.


* * *


The water was far colder than he expected, not that he had a lot of time to think about it. Whatever these things were, they showed no sign of backing down. So now he faced an entirely different challenge. Staying afloat while fighting off their attacks from below, he tried to call to Beth. He realized that was a mistake when his mouth filled with water. Coughing and battling to catch his breath, he continued to kick at the marauding one-eyed monsters threatening to pull him down into the depths of the river.

            It was no use.

            Hands grabbed each of his legs and pulled him down below the surface. He managed to kick free and came up gasping. The same thing happened again, only this time he was unable to free himself. He was a good swimmer who was able to hold his breath for nearly a minute. That wasn't going to help him this time.

            Something near him, likely one of the creatures, let out a piercing shriek. He opened his eyes to face his attackers, and the look of fear on their humanoid faces startled him. Without warning they scattered in every direction. He heard the splashing plunge of several other creatures as they bolted out of the skiff and headed downward, out of sight. Something had frightened them, but what? A large tail covered with green and silver scales slapped against his face.

            Out of nowhere, he was close to a mermaid. He had read plenty of stories about both mermaids and tritons. Until that moment he always considered them to be just that—something you read about in a story. But here he was, staring at a beautiful glimmering sea creature who was part girl, part fish, and fierce enough to send panic into the ranks of the one-eyed monsters. Green eyes matching the scales surrounding her side fins locked onto his eyes, piercing him. A second mermaid swam to her side. They looked at one another and nodded. Then, in unison, they swam toward him.


* * *


A sense of helplessness tore through Beth when she saw Pauly lose his balance and tumble, head-first, over the side of the boat. As much as she wanted to help her friend, she had her own problems to deal with. Whatever it was that had come up out of the water with a splash had taken care of two of the creatures. It wasn't nearly enough. In their place half a dozen more of the pale attackers clamored around the skiff, their minds set on taking her away with them. There was no use attempting another spell. Instead, she had to fight for all she was worth. Rough hands grabbed her from every direction as she felt her hold on the gunwales falter.

            A second loud splash caught her attention, and she looked over just in time to see a formidable tail send water flying in every direction. She had no idea what it was, but the things that were trying to abduct her appeared to know exactly what they were dealing with. One of them let out a loud shriek and dove back into the river. The others followed, swimming away like they had just seen a ghost.

            She didn't have to wait long to find out what had frightened them.

            It wasn't a ghost, but it was just as unexpected. When all of her attackers abruptly let go at the same time, Beth stumbled and fell to the floor of the skiff. As she righted herself, something surged up out of the water. Just like Pauly she found herself eye to eye with a green eyed, green haired girl. At first she didn't realize what she was seeing. Then, it dawned on her.

            They had been saved by a pair of mermaids.

            And if that wasn't startling enough, they began to sing, their voices intertwining to become one beautiful, mesmerizing song


Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop to drink

Face the ningen if you dare, they're tougher than you think

It doesn't matter where you go, or even what you do

The water creatures always know, just when to come for you


Darkness is their time to scare, to pull you in the drink

Boat or skiff they do not care, you'll feel your body sink

They will be back, they will not go, until their task is through

And when they do, their angst will grow, so here's what you must do


Take this shell, to guard with care, signal us and we'll be there

We're always closer than you think, and from this duty we won't shrink

Please listen now before we go, there's something else that you should know

River deep and water blue, Mermaid's promise will hold true


            Other than the popular children's movie about a princess from under the sea or the girls who portrayed them at the big aquarium back home, Beth had never seen a mermaid before. Up until now she hadn't really given much thought to their existence. Holdovers from a time long past, the mermaids, Inara and Luna, rarely showed themselves in this manner. Normally they roamed the deepest parts of the river to avoid contact with anything or anyone from the surface world.

            But in this case they had made an exception. They only had one real nemesis in the river, the one-eyed humanoids that had swarmed the skiff. Known in some circles as ningen, the mermaids despised them. While they didn't like the fact that people often mistook these ghastly creatures for mermaids, their animosity went much deeper. On the whole, mermaids may be considered vain, but it wasn't a simple manner of vanity that put them at odds with the ningen. Instead, their long standing practice of stealing mer-children was at the root of this acrimony. Had they succeeded, Pauly and Beth would have become two more in a long line of victims taken away by the strange white creatures.

            Inara pulled herself up above the side of the skiff and handed Beth a small shell. All she could manage was a quick "thank you," before they dove back into the water. Their large green tails sent water splashing everywhere as they plunged back into the depths of the river.

            "Hey, give me a hand, will you?" Pauly's plea for help brought her back into the moment. It took some doing, but she was able to help him return to the skiff. He was cold and he was wet, but other than that he did not look any worse for wear.

            He was, however, furious with the ferryman. Other than stopping to watch, he had done nothing to help them during this late night attack.

            "What was that?" Pauly demanded.

            The Outlaw sat up, took his hands off the oars, and looked straight at Pauly. "Don't know what you're talking about," he said with a blank look on his face. "I just row the boat." Pauly waited for a smile, but there was no change in the man's expression. He wasn't joking.

            Pauly stood up in the boat and was just about to call him out on it when Beth interrupted. "I know what it was." Her voice was grim. She shot the Outlaw a look of disgust before motioning to her friend. "Sit back down—I'll tell you all about it."

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