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Into The Mystic

Chapter one–Danger From The Depths

The oars made no sound as they methodically dipped into the dark blue river. As each smooth stroke came to an end, they surged back out of the water, so clean they scarcely dripped. With each follow through the Outlaw's body surged forward, neck muscles bulging. It took some doing, but they had convinced him to row across the river in the dead of night. Daylight was too risky, especially now that a patrol of crows was on the lookout from dawn to dusk. From the expression on the man's weathered face, it was evident that he was not 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 couldn't tell 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 any of this.

            From this vantage point he had no way of telling how close they were 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 realizing it, Pauly drifted off to sleep.

            Without warning, 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 anorak, 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 think about the fishing on this particular body of water. Probably can't eat the fish here. No telling what kind of enchantments Tout has made in these waters? Don't think I'd want to take the chance.

            In many ways, it was funny. Not in a "ha ha" kind of way, but in an odd or difficult way. Though he had long since given up 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. In all that time he had only seen Tout once, for less than five minutes. He barely knew what the man looked like.

            Owen knew him, and so did Beth. And from what Pauly gathered he had done some terrible things to both of them. Unbeknownst to him, "done" was not the proper tense to describe Toddathon Tout's dealings with his brother. Unbeknownst to him, Owen was a prisoner in an underground place called Lydia, and had been for several days.

            A sudden thump against the skiff's bottom brought his attention back to the water. Fish didn't usually bump into boats, but 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 out his flashlight and turned it on.

            What happened next almost caused him to drop it in the river.

            A ghostly humanoid creature stared back at him from just below the surface of the water. As soon as the light struck its large blue eye, it dove back toward the safety of the dark river. Simultaneously, from the opposite side, 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 to escape it, causing Beth to slide forward and wake up. Any initial grogginess left in a hurry when she saw the creatures, and her natural reaction was to scream. If such a thing as a blood-curdling scream ever existed, that's exactly what it sounded like. The girl her sister once dubbed the "scream queen" had struck again.

            Whatever these beings were, they were after her. The first creature grabbed hold on her arm, while the second made a move toward her legs. They may have caught her off guard, but she was not going to go down without a fight. With a hard kick forward, she struck one of the pale creatures in the chest. It was an abominable blend of human and fish, and 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 river. Something moved behind him, and his right elbow shot back, landing heavily against a second attacker. Others were now joining the fracas, so many 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 ill-effects. After all, it stood as one of the easier incantations. Done properly, it should have lit up the night like a thousand spotlights, striking the unusually large eye with the force of a hammer shot to the head. For some unknown reason, it hadn't. Instead, the attackers continued to advance, undeterred, swarming both sides of the boat and threatening to overwhelm them. Pauly fought valiantly, but there were too many.

            A bony, claw-like hand grabbed Beth by the shoulder, pulling her back toward the stern. Two more seized her, and she screamed again. The Outlaw, oblivious to everything around him, simply maintained his 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 river's depths.

            All at once, everything changed.

            A massive fish burst up from out of the water, grabbing two of the attackers by their tails before returning to the river with a loud splash. The force rocked the boat, and Beth stumbled forward. Somehow, she managed to latch onto the gunwale to steady herself and did not fall overboard.

            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.

 

* * *

 

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 challenges to deal with. Whatever it was that had come up out of the water with a splash had taken care of two of the intruders. It wasn't close to being 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. She saw no use attempting another spell. Instead, she was embroiled in a fight for her life. Rough hands grabbed her from every direction as her hold on the gunwales faltered.

            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 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.

 

* * *

 

The water felt far colder than Pauly 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 for Beth and soon realized it was a mistake when his mouth filled with water. Coughing and battling to breathe, 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.

            Cold, slimy hands grabbed each of his legs and pulled him 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, able to hold his breath for over a minute. That was not going to help him this time.

            One of the creatures let out a piercing shriek. He opened his eyes to face his attackers, and the expressions of fear on their humanoid faces were startling. They did not hesitate to leave, and without warning scattered in different directions. The splashing plunge of several other creatures followed as they dove from 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.

            Eyes wide in disbelief, he gazed at the mermaid. He had read plenty of stories about the mythical sea creatures. Until then, he always dismissed them as being just that—something you read about in a story. Now, here he was, staring at a warrior woman clad in lobster shell armor who was part human, part fish, and fierce enough to send panic into the ranks of the one-eyed monsters. Green eyes matching the scales on 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.

 

* * *

 

Beth didn't have to wait long to find out what had frightened her would-be abductors.

            It wasn't a ghost, but it was just as unexpected. When all her attackers abruptly let go at the same time, she stumbled and fell to the floor. As she righted herself, something surged up out of the water. Now, like Pauly, she found herself eye to eye with a green eyed, green haired girl.

            And like her companion, she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

            They had been saved by a pair of mermaids.

            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. Until that moment she hadn't given much thought to their existence. Dressed in red armor fashioned from lobster shells, these mermaids would never be mistaken for Ariel. Holdovers from a time long past, the mermaids, Inara and Luna, rarely showed themselves in this manner. Instead, they roamed the deepest water to avoid contact with anything or anyone from the surface world.

            But in this case, they had made an exception. They had one just real nemesis in the river, the single-eyed humanoids that 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 have a reputation for vanity. In this case, something so simple as appearance had not 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 additions to 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. She was able to blurt out a hasty "thank you," before being splashed in the face when the mermaid's tale slapped against the surface. A quick look down into the water revealed nothing. Inara was gone, vanished into the blackness of the cold, dark 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 appear to be 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.

            "Why didn't you help us!?" 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 saw no change in the man's expression. He wasn't joking.

            He stood up and was about to call the Outlaw on it when Beth interrupted. "I know what they were." Her voice was grim. She shot the man a look of disgust before motioning to her friend. "Sit back down—I'll tell you all about them."

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