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Diary of a radical merma.., p.19
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       Diary of a Radical Mermaid, p.19

           Deborah Smith
 
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  The bastard threw back his big, silver head and smiled at the stars. Then, his eyes black, he headed for me with his teeth bared.

  This time would be the end.

  * * * *

  Molly Martha Oceanwalker, you’re lost. I felt like a minnow trapped in the tentacles of an octopus. Swimming through Echo Marsh was like trying to find my way inside a maze of tiny veins full of black blood. I couldn’t see, and whatever underwater prowess the average Mer had — meaning their mystical sonar — eluded me. My bum leg kept veering me off-center. I bumped into mushy banks covered with submerged, rotting grass. Small fish and shrimp bumped into me. Larger fish slithered by, flicking me with their sharp tail fins. I felt naked in nothing but panties and a bra. The handgun Rhymer had given me, safely encased in a waterproof bag, was a ton of bricks strapped to my waist. I’d left the girls on the boat, bound by their vow to stay put, but I had no guarantee they’d actually do so. What if they followed me and got hurt? I’d promised Rhymer I’d take them away from danger, not bring them back. I wasn’t quite terrified, but I was desperate. And lost.

  You still think of yourself as separate from the water, a soft, milky voice whispered inside my head. But, no. Be part of it. Be who you are, and you’ll find your way.

  I froze. The most amazing sensation filled me. Warm and ancient, comforting and wise. An image shimmered inside my eyes, not quite clear. Who’s there? Who’s speaking?

  I’m part of you. Believe in me. I’m the essence of the waters of the world. So are you.

  The internal image shimmered again, then came into soft focus. In my mind’s eye, I glimpsed the portrait in Lilith’s sunroom. Melasine. A legend, an illusion, a kind of angel?

  No. She was real. Out there in the deepest waters of memory and myth, she was speaking to me.

  Believe in me, she whispered. Believe in the waters of the world. Believe in yourself.

  I’ll try, I whispered back.

  Her image faded away but left a pearl of confidence. I quieted my desperate thoughts, relaxed my squint-shut eyelids, and concentrated on a memory of Rhymer’s voice in my ear when we made love.

  And suddenly the water came alive.

  I sensed the shapes around me, like neon outlines inside my mind. Shrimp, fish, oysters burrowed in the muck, crabs clinging to the floating roots of the marsh grass, the grass itself, and the soft breasts of earth, the ripe islands peeking from the tidal waters. I could even feel the vast shape of the continent a few miles away, and the endless ocean behind me, as deep as outer space, filled with canyons and mountains, ancient river beds and vast, lost lakes, surrounding the bones of Mers and Landers among the ruins of cities older than any ordinary historian had ever dreamed possible.

  All I have to do to be part of all that, all I have to do to find Rhymer is go with the flow of the water.

  I went.

  A few minutes later, a tremor led me down a long channel that began to widen. More tremors, like distant miniature earthquakes, jarred the water. I sank deeper beneath the surface, creeping along the muddy bottom, tracking the ripples of each violent vibration. The clash and struggle of bodies. Rhymer and Orion. I was close. Suddenly, a wrenching pain went through my neck. I flailed, sucking down water, gagging. A powerful grip closed around my throat.

  I was being strangled.

  And so was Rhymer.

  * * * *

  Orion had beaten me, and we both knew it. He had me by the throat. I was on my back, my ribs broken, gashes draining blood from my shoulder and back, my mouth bleeding. My sword lay in the edge of the water, where he’d slung it. His hand — a huge, thick killer of a hand, webbed and clawed — encircled my throat. Kneeling beside me, he held me down with just that grip. He bent over me, his eyes like the black abyss, his skin gleaming like a dolphin’s silver sides in the star light.

  “Rhymer McEvers, you brave fool,” he growled. His claws pinched the arteries on either side of my neck. With one flex of his fingers, all my blood would gush into the marsh. “Tell me now, Rhymer, or die. Where are my daughters?”

  I’d always thought I’d die in some battle like this, some war, fighting for a good cause. And I’d always understood that the cause, all along, would be those nearest to my heart, from the girl I’d loved decades ago, to my family — Tara, the older sister who’d been my dearest friend — to her web-handed daughters — to Moll. Moll. We had barely had time to find each other, much less find out how to make a life together. Yet I loved the fragile, bookish, warrior of a woman with my last breath. Her and the girls. They would survive, even if I did not.

  “My sister’s daughters,” I rasped to Orion, as his talons dug into my neck, “are safely hidden from you. ’Tis all that matters. So kill me.”

  He uttered a long, low roar of a sound, deep in his throat. His hand convulsed around my throat. I arched upwards on the sand, grabbing at his hand, fighting to the end.

  Abruptly, he released me.

  I fell back, coughing, gulping air, tasting my own blood in my throat. I never took my eyes off him. What game was this? He stared down at me, bending lower, looking through the dark night into my eyes. His hand still rested on my throat, but it relaxed. “You passed my test,” he whispered. “I only needed to know that you were willing to die for them.”

  * * * *

  Molly Martha Revere, action-thriller heroine. The new me. I burst from the water with Rhymer’s gun in my shaking hands. In the dim light I saw a horrible tableau — Orion, a monstrously oversized human figure — lurking over a downed Rhymer.

  I pointed the gun. “Get away from him.” Orion straightened. I could just make out the dark silhouette of his massive head, turning my way. I shook the pistol in a menacing way. Was Rhymer dead? Was I too late? “I mean it. Back away from him, or I’m going to shoot you!”

  “You have too much faith to shoot me. Your hope for me outshines your distrust. Or you’d already have fired.”

  “I will shoot if I have to.”

  “Moll, no.” Rhymer’s voice, coming from the darkness, hoarse and coughing.

  I nearly fell over. “Rhymer?”

  “Yes. Do no’ shoot. It’s not what it seems.”

  “Rhymer! I don’t understand —“

  “Molly Revere,” Orion intoned. His voice was like the rumble inside some ancient sphinx. He straightened to his full height, a dizzying eight feet, at least. It tilted my head back and made my knees quiver. “You and Rhymer have proven that you’ll defend my daughters against all enemies,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

  “What kind of ruse is this? Rhymer?”

  Rhymer pushed himself upright, swaying. “Bit of confusion here,” Rhymer managed to say. “But I think it’s all right, Moll. Do no’ shoot.”

  “Rhymer!” I clambered out of the water’s edge and headed for him, demurely (always the prudent librarian type) placing the loaded pistol on the ground. As I limped past Orion I tripped in the churned, boggy soil. He caught me under the elbow with a hand the size of a baseball mitt. I shrank back and stared up at him. With the gallant aplomb of a knight, he held me steady as I slowly knelt beside Rhymer. I wrapped my arms around Rhymer’s bloody shoulders as if I could shield him from an eight-foot-tall humanoid with claws. Orion looked down at me with his head tilted, as if I fascinated him. “You’re a remarkable person. I mean you no harm, Molly Revere. Nor him, either. He’s the uncle of my children.”

  “You certainly have a strange way of showing your family loyalty!”

  “I had to know what the two of you were willing to risk for my daughters’ sake. They’ll need strong guardians on their side. Guardians who will never stop fighting for them. I’m satisfied that you’re both worthy. I’ll leave you for now. I’ve been out of the water and undisguised more than long enough for my tastes.”

  He turned away.

  “Wait,” Rhymer rasped. “I have questions—”

  “Not now.”

  Orion pivoted gracefully toward the water, a startling
man-shape in the starlight, huge and terrifying and beautiful, silver sheened, blood dripping from the claw tip of one webbed hand. I glimpsed a powerful back and thick, muscled haunches; he was naked except for a thin, leather-like loin cloth of some kind. I saw feet more aquatic than any traditional Mers’, impossible to hide inside a human shoe, broad at the toes, webbed. Yet he moved with the power of a being who lived between water and shore. A missing link. He was about to vanish into the water as easily as a dream evaporates.

  Two explosions slapped him backwards. Gunshots. They burst in our ears. Rhymer pushed me down and covered me with his body. I screamed and looked wildly toward my pistol, as if it had jumped up and begun firing on its own. Orion staggered, put a hand to his chest, then slowly sank to the sand. “Oh, no,” I whispered.

  A boat roared up between the marsh grasses, as if gliding on watery ground. Someone turned a light our way. It flooded the island with an intense white glow. “Keep your head down,” Rhymer ordered. He lifted his and looked into the light. “Stop your shooting, you bloody idiot! He’s no’ the threat that we thought he was. Dammit to hell, don’t shoot him again!”

  After a second, a tart female voice called out, “How was I supposed to know that you and he had . . . had bonded? What is this — some kind of blood-brotherhood ritual? Should we build a campfire for you Boy Scouts and sing a song? Okay, so maybe I made a bad judgment call. So sue me.”

  “Juna Lee,” I hissed. Rhymer shifted enough to let me squirm from beneath him. I squinted into the bright light. On the deck of the boat stood a horrified Tula, a slack-jawed Charley, a scowling, beautiful, chocolate-skinned stranger, a wounded Jordan — who was leaning on the boat’s bow rail, pale and frowning — and finally, Juna Lee. She cradled a massive rifle in her hands and gazed at us with pouty chagrin, an uh-oh of dismay on her face. The dark-skinned stranger snatched the rifle from Juna Lee’s arms and launched into a sinister harangue at her in Spanish. Juna Lee put her hands on her hips and began arguing back in Spanish with a sarcastic Southern accent attached.

  Orion groaned.

  Rhymer crawled to him. I crept up close beside and reached out, slowly, to place my hand on Orion’s arm. It was cold and smooth, the fine silver scales as soft as silk. He opened his eyes. In the center of his chest, two bullet holes gurgled crimson blood. The heart’s blood had already flooded his hard silver belly and was pooling in the muscular, concave indentations of his groin. Rhymer pressed his fingers to the wounds. “Steady now. A figure of our imagination can’t be this easy to kill.”

  Orion smiled, showing a glimpse of blood-tinged teeth, his smile so like any man’s expression it could break a woman’s heart, despite the dual sets of fangs. “Even Swimmers are capable of dying.”

  “We’ll get you onto the boat. There’s help to be had—”

  “Where would you seek a doctor for a monster who can’t possibly exist? Even my ability to create illusions couldn’t manage to overcome that.”

  “I’ll think of something.”

  “No. I’ve done what I came to do. That’s all that matters. I’ve made sure the girls are safe. I’ve kept a vow I made to Tara.” His voice gurgled with blood. “Listen quickly. Remember this name: Leviathan. He’s a Swimmer. The most powerful Swimmer in the world. He and his cabal at UniWorld intend to capture every Mer and Lander who can be of value to their cause. They have already enlisted several Swimmers. It was a Swimmer who drew me away from Tara that day at the UniWorld ship. I fought him, but it was a ruse, a trap. Tara was killed because I was distracted.” He paused, struggling for breath, his eyes icy and black. “I killed that Swimmer, but there are others. They want to catch me for Leviathan. And they want my daughters.”

  “Tell me where to hide the girls,” Rhymer whispered. “Where will they be safe?”

  Blood bubbled from his lips. “Many places. You’ll learn.” His eyes began to dim.

  “Orion, please try to fight,” I said brokenly. “Your daughters need you. They need to meet you.”

  “They did not need to see . . . the monster . . . who fathered them. Do not let them . . . see . . . my corpse.”

  His eyes closed. His chest slowed its rhythm. Rhymer cursed and pressed his hands harder on the pulsing bullet wounds. “Come on, you bastard,” he said hoarsely. “You did no’ come down through all the centuries to die like an ordinary soul. Fight.”

  “Please don’t give up,” I echoed, squeezing Orion’s arm.

  “Move aside and let us see him,” a small voice said.

  Rhymer and I turned quickly.

  Stella, Isis, and Venus stood there, their sundresses plastered to them, their long hair streaming water and bits of grass. I should have known they wouldn’t stay on the boat. They stared with horror at the strange and broken figure of the creature — the man — their mother had loved. The man who had been trying, all this time, to ensure their future. Their father.

  “Slide back,” Rhymer whispered. “Let them have a look at him.”

  “Yes,” I whispered.

  We eased out of the way. The three girls never took their eyes off Orion. They inched toward him, holding hands tightly. The movement of his chest was just a flutter, now. They took one last step that put their bare feet close enough to nudge one of his massive arms. Venus lifted one small, trembling foot, then touched it to his skin.

  All three girls gasped as if an electric jolt had hit them. It was an invitation, a recognition, a connection. “Papa,” Isis whispered. “You’re real. And you’re good.”

  They threw themselves down on him, hugging him, clutching him, burrowing their heads into either side of his neck, murmuring incoherent sounds of fervent joy.

  I gripped Rhymer’s hand. “Can they save him?”

  “I don’t know. He’s shot in the heart. It may be too late.”

  We waited with agonizing uncertainty. For several minutes he didn’t move. His arms, ending in those massive hands, remained unfurled by his side. But then, suddenly, his hands flexed. Slowly they rose. The deadly arms closed gently around the delicate bodies of his daughters. The girls stroked his face and smiled at him. I could hear them singing inside my mind. The most beautiful, healing symphony. His eyes opened. He took a deep, reviving breath.

  And he smiled back.

  * * * *

  All right, so I, Juna Lee Poinfax, shot and nearly killed Orion. Mea freakin’ culpa. How was I supposed to know he was a good guy hiding behind some secret agenda? Besides, anybody who hurt Jordan deserved to be blasted. And anyhow, Orion didn’t die from the shooting. His daughters rescued him. In the process, they bonded with their big silver daddy like ducklings to a duck. May I point out that him getting plugged by yours truly led directly to a beautiful Fathers Knows Best moment? And that, in fact, he smiled? Mr. Fangs. He smiled.

  I mean, give me some credit.

  Not that anyone noticed. Orion got up, sang something in private to his girls, then dived into the marsh without so much as a thank you. Apparently, Swimmers are loners with a capital Lone. After that there was a lot of somber hugging between Molly and the girls, and Molly and Rhymer, and Molly and Tula, and Tula and the girls, and Charley and the girls. Then the little sweeties performed a laying on of hands to heal Rhymer, who looked like shit, and Jordan, who looked like very handsome shit. I cried when I touched my hand to the smooth, tanned spot on his side, where several deep gashes had been. I bawled with happiness.

  “He’s lucky, no thanks to you,” Aphrodite jabbed. She was still pissed about me grabbing her rifle. “Oh, sure, now, after you nearly ruin everything, you boo-hoo. Muchacha del idiota.”

  “Shut up. I’m only crying because Healers can’t heal an Ann Blegis dress. I’ll never get Jordan’s bloodstains out.”

  We were a disheveled, traumatized group, to say the least. Jordan tossed his ripped and bloodied shirt aside then, bare-chested, grabbed me for a long kiss. Rhymer’s clothes looked like an ad for a slasher movie, but Molly didn’t seem to mind when he swooped her into his ar
ms.

  By the way, Molly had turned into some kind of muddy, kick-ass sociopath. Suddenly, she picked up Rhymer’s pistol and pointed it at me. I shrieked. Rhymer drolly clamped a hand around the little ingrate’s wrist. “Now, Moll, my brave beauty. What’s the challenge in battling Juna Lee after you’ve already proved you can face a Swimmer? Bit of a letdown, hmmm?”

  “I’m just going to wing her.”

  Laughing, he took the pistol. I put a fluttering hand to my chest and pretended to swoon in Jordan’s arms. Tula rolled her eyes at us all. Charley guffawed, and even Aphrodite smiled. I guess seeing me get threatened by a geeky, gun-waving Ali McBeal was a big treat.

  Standing at the edge of the little island, looking out at the dark waters where their daddy had disappeared, Stella, Isis, and Venus weren’t having such a high ol’ time. Looking wistful, they kissed their hands and held them out, letting the ocean wind carry their love after Orion.

  Transformation

  Chapter 24

  Aunt Molly, the girls hummed inside my dreams. Wake up. We have a surprise for you.

  I resisted. The mansion at Sainte’s Point felt like a wonderful cocoon, and I didn’t want to lose the sensation. My back was warmly snuggled to Rhymer’s front, and I liked the weight of his arm draped over me. When we’d returned from Echo Marsh long after midnight we’d crawled, fully dressed, into one of the big downstairs bedsteads, along with the exhausted girls and Heathcliff. Rhymer had put his arms around me, and I’d put my arms around the girls. All piled up together, a family. Juna Lee, Jordan, Tula, Charley, and Aphrodite were asleep elsewhere in the mansion.

  The morning sunshine warmed my face. An open window let the ocean breeze curl through the suite. I sighed and tried to drift back into the heady relaxation of sleep. Aunt Molly, wake up. It’s important.

 
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