|THE WILL OF THE GODDESS
by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
I awoke amidst the echo of waves lapping against rocks. It was pitch black. I concentrated, whispered a phrase, and summoned a sphere of light into my hand to look around.
I was in a small cave whose only entrance was by water. I was soaking wet. I whispered another phrase and flung the water out of my clothes -- it was harder than if it had been earth. I hated water, the antithesis of magic.
But how had I arrived here? I remembered the sudden storm, and the efforts I had made to resist it as it dragged down my poor Anna-lina. I had fought the storm with all the power I could command, but the driving rain gradually sucked the magic of Anna-lina's flight from her keel. I remembered the shock as the bolt of lightning struck her and flung me from contact with her being. I remembered hearing the crack as she broke open - the screams of my crew, the smell of flames. I remembered falling and hitting the waves. Then nothing until I awoke here.
Then I saw her. A Sirene. She was laying half in the water, unconscious. I crawled closer to her and stared at her hideous form - the two inch claws on her hands, the wicked barbs along her tail. But I couldn't tear my sight away from her face, from her hair. They were so beautiful. Looking at them one could forget the monster and fall in love.
Was she alive? Yes, I could hear her breathing. I noticed some blood seeping out of wounds in her tail, staining the water black. Then I remembered the tales I had heard. Whispers of what Sirenes did with those they caught. Tales of their faces spattered with blood as they gorged. I shuddered and drew back. I had to kill her before she awoke and consumed me. I had to destroy her. I began searching my mind for a spell, any spell, that could save me.
I remembered that a Sirene was one of the Faerie. If I knew her true Name she couldn't harm me. She would have to obey my every command. I, a mage, with power within the ocean. Power within water. I smiled. Then I sobered. I would have to pry her Name from her mind. I knew a way. I stared at her form and began to chant, to send my will in search of her soul, to send my mind to see her thoughts. I let the light fade and go out.
"That one!", I sang claiming him for my own. But a sister, befuddled by the blood in the water, dashed towards him. "No!", I sang, and dove into her path. I screeched my hatred and raked my barbs along her. Her blood filled the water and I sensed others coming. I turned away and dove towards what was mine.
He was still struggling, but feebly. The smell of his terror aroused me and I clasped him against me. Warmth began to fill me. To finally eat some flesh. Warm flesh.
I tried, but I couldn't. I couldn't! He was Sheshanka's gift to me, the gift of the ocean's bounty. But I couldn't kill him. Other sisters moved towards me and I screeched and warned them off. Then I dove to take him to a cave I knew. There he would be mine. Mine!
Another sister grabbed for me, and I tore my claws across her face. She screeched and fled. The man stopped struggling. That was wrong - wasn't it? I was almost there. Another sister, poor Lesina, still hungry after feeding her daughter, came towards me. I turned and smacked her with my tail. Its barbs scraped across her and she sank slowly into the depths, our mother's womb, unmoving. I screamed with pain, for I felt Lesina's poison in my tail. I had to hurry. To my cave. To eat. I must eat . . .
I was back in the cave, in the dark. Such a memory to steal, of beasts fighting over one's own self. I shuddered and turned away. Then I collected myself. I had to steal her Name before she awakened and consumed me. I turned back and began again to chant.
I sang with my sisters as our ocean mother tossed and turned. Together we sang, our voices melding with the whistles we made inside. Together we summoned the storm. My sisters were hungry, especially Lesina who had her child to feed. A bolt of lightning and then the skies opened and the rain poured out. We sang louder and called our prey to us.
My sisters and I joyed in the rain driving in our faces. We could smell the magic within it. We could taste the magery it drained from far overhead. Another bolt of lightning. Another. Soon our prey was visible. It was still small and far away, but I could see it clearly. Once it had been beautiful, but the storm had destroyed that. Its sails, both above and on the sides, were but tattered shreds. I watched the rain wash the magic of its flight from the vessel's keel; watched the ship sink lower and lower. I licked my lips.
My sisters and I sang, louder still. We called upon Sheshanka, the Ocean Mother, to aid us. She heard our plea and another bolt of lightning struck the vessel and smashed it open. My sisters and I sang in triumph. Then the tender meat the vessel had sheltered hit the water.
At once our singing stopped and we dove for our food. We fought over the morsels, hand and claw reaching out. I watched Lesina grab one and drag him struggling into the depths for her child.
I gasped for breath in the darkness. Dear gods, what were these Sirenes? My poor crew, dragged from the sky to feed their appetites. I swallowed. I would have to go deeper to get the beast's Name, else I would soon join my crew. I began to chant again.
I was swimming through the depths of the ocean, staring at the sandy bottom. None of my sisters were nearby but I could hear them whistling in the distance. A fish darted in front of me and I grasped it in my claws. I stuffed it into my mouth and swallowed. It helped only a little for its flesh was so cold, so very, very cold.
Then ahead I saw a mass of weed. I smelled real meat. I swam into the weeds from beneath and slowly let myself drift upward, breathing only a little. The water grew lighter; the weed greener. I could smell food. I almost dashed towards it but stopped myself and just kept drifting. Closer. Closer. Almost at the surface -- there! It was small but had such a wondrous scent. With a flick of my tail I was instantly upon it, hugging its bulk against me. It whistled, singing wordlessly of its fear. I held it tight and stroked my tail to drag it down into the depths. Some bubbles drifted from its blow hole; its blood filled the water. I eagerly began ripping meat from it with my fangs, but it was not enough. Though it was warm, it still tasted cold. So very cold.
I awoke from my trance spitting and gagging, the memory of the dolphin's wiggling flesh still fresh on my tongue. And that still hadn't satisfy the craving. I gasped as I realized that I would. If only I could kill the beast now. But I had no knife, no sword. And I had never learned the spells that could kill one such as her. I had to find the beast's Name before it awoke. I began the spell anew.
A shock filled my body and I screamed with pain but only blew bubbles in the water. I gasped for breath and choked on the water I sucked in. Another spasm, and another. I became faint as my consciousness left; I began to quiver in fear. I swallowed to still my fears before death overcame me and found that I couldn't stop swallowing. Why would I want to?
I looked around. I was in a small chamber, walled in worked stone with a bottom covered in soft mud. More mud was drifting through the water. Things were draped over me, wet and clinging. I struggled free as my barbs tore them to shreds. More mud puffed up from the bottom as heavy slabs sank into it. But where were my sisters? I was so lonely, so very, very, lonely . . .
I settled to the bottom and felt the cool water flicker over my gills. I sang a high whistle to call for my sisters and than began to swim aimlessly around the chamber. So small a room, so small and enclosed, my whistles bouncing all around. Then I heard an opening, my whistles vanishing in the distance. I followed the echoes into the ocean. The mother ocean, blessed by the sea mother Sheshanka! All the world was Her creation, created to feed Her chosen, my sisterhood. Then I heard a faint whistle. My sisters were here! I began to call them and swam hurriedly towards the singing. Soon I would be with them.
What was this? Choking in water? I had gone deep, but I still didn't have the beast's name. I began again, concentrating, willing myself into the beast's mind. Willing myself to go deeper and find its Name. But there was resistance. I couldn't go any deeper. I had to. I pushed against the barrier, sought it for weakness, and finally burst through --
That morning I awoke, the sun shining through the slits high above. At first I was startled, expecting to be in the chambers of Sheshanka's Maids with my sisters, but instead I was alone - in the inner, secret temple. Today was the day. I had been chosen by Sheshanka for this day. Happiness filled me, for today I would serve the goddess.
The morning air was chill on my naked skin as I walked over to the basin beneath Sheshanka's statue. As I had been taught I kept my eyes on the floor, not looking on the statue as sight of it was forbidden to all but the High Priestess. I cupped some water from the basin and swallowed it. The ocean tasted bitter but the warmth of Sheshanka's Blood filled me.
I raised my palms to Sheshanka's statue and praised her as I had been taught. Then I turned and slowly stepped away from the altar. The granite doors silently swung open as I approached and passed through. The doors closed.
Then my sisters were all around me. They bathed me in Sheshanka's Blood and the warm ocean water lulled me to drowsiness. They sang the sacred chants over me, as I had once done to others. I almost joined them, but managed to stop myself. For me it was now forbidden. I saw tears in Alysia's eyes but I could say nothing to comfort her. It was forbidden.
When the bathing was done, I began to sing as I had been taught. I continued to sing praises to Sheshanka as the maidens dressed me. First in a transparent blue silk robe, and then with successively heavier and denser materials. All were blue. The robes grew heavier and heavier but I remained standing and continued to loudly and joyously sing. The bronze woven within the cloth clinked as my body slowly moved back and forth, just like the waves of the ocean. I stopped as the maidens pulled the last of the clothes over me, a huge robe of blue velvet, its embroidery showing Sheshanka's destruction of Valdanis.
Its weight almost made me stumble. But then I felt Sheshanka entering me and with her strength I remained standing. I could see a pale blue light reflected from the eyes of the maidens around me and I knew that I radiated the spirit of Sheshanka. Then the maidens fell in behind and I began to move slowly through the chamber toward the wooden doors that led into the public temple. They too opened silently as I approached.
I passed through the public temple. I stared straight ahead at Nistala, the High Priestess, but I could still feel the eyes of the masses on me. The poor fishermen in what clothes they had. Rich merchants all bedecked in their finery. A silk merchant from one of the islands that were all that remained of Valdanis. Caldaya from their empire, their cat-like eyes staring. Many were starving, and all were poorer than they had been, for Sheshanka's rage had been hard on them all. I reached the pedestal upon which the Priestess stood and she kneeled before me. I sang a blessing upon her, and upon the entire congregation.
As I sang I turned and faced all but Nistala. The maidens, tears still in Alysia's eyes. The merchants and the governors, the wizards and the fishermen, the poor and the rich. I finished and turned back to face the High Priestess. I watched as she stood up. Then she lead me to a pool before a smaller statue of Sheshanka. I stopped before the statue and felt Sheshanka's spirit leave me. I stumbled but kept from falling.
The pool beckoned me and I stared into its depths. I knew what I must do. The Priestess began to chant, and the congregation to sing praises to Sheshanka. I felt them staring at me. I swallowed. I had to do it. Last year the sacrifice had resisted, and struggled, and the year had been hard. I heard a storm building outside and knew that Sheshanka was watching. More would be destroyed in Sheshanka's raging if I resisted. I stepped forward. I swallowed again. Then I jumped into the pool and plunged into the depths, dragged into Sheshanka's womb by the weight of my clothing. I would not struggle.
Oh dear gods - I recognized that temple! Just three days ago I had been there to witness the sacrifice, summoned by the High Priestess herself. I watched the chosen maiden given unto Sheshanka. And I had thought it was holy! Never again. But I still had to find the woman's true name. I would have to go deeper. Then she moaned. She was waking up! "Oh Luani," I whispered, "you who gifted magic to humankind, let me succeed and save myself." I began the spell once more.
I was sitting on something warm and soft. The room was warm, bright. Everything glowed with light. I smiled for the world was good. All warm, all soft, all happy. I began to bounce up and down. I laughed and giggled and looked up --
My face! I recognized it, even though it was long ago. I remembered playing with my niece Naome when she was a child before she had been given to Sheshanka. She was so young when they had sent her away. I had hardly known her.
"Curse you, Sheshanka!", I shouted into the cavern. "May Kor kill you as he killed Vashigan!" The echoes slowly faded.
Then I heard a moan. Naome was waking up. I couldn't kill her, not now. But why hadn't she killed me?
I backed away. I would have summoned a light but I was just too tired. I wanted to sleep but that would mean death. I had to stay awake. I had to reach what remained of my niece.
"Naome?", I called.
A rustle. The splashing of water. Movement on the rocks. I began to sweat. A light, I had to have light. I concentrated, I willed the light to come. I felt pain as life was sucked from me to create the light. It had to come. I heard another rustle. More splashing of water. By the gods, "Light!"
I shouted the last bit, and for a second the light flickered. Then it went out. I was so tired, so very tired. So tired I couldn't even will a simple light. Then another splash of water. It echoed around the cave, clinking off the rocks.
"Naome?", I called again.
A loud screech pierced the air, like the whistle of a dolphin. It reverberated around the cave, driving into my skull. Then I could hear nothing. The ringing stopped and I heard the faint splashing of water. Something slammed against rocks. The slap of flesh on water. Then silence. I prepared myself for Vashigan's halls.
"I know no Naome.", I heard from across the cavern. The voice was faint but I recognized in it the singing I had heard from my niece before she was sacrificed.
"Remember your youth. You were on my knee. Your time in the temple with the maidens. Remember -- " I paused. Name, name, what was that maiden's name? "Remember Alysia."
I heard a whisper, "Alysia . . . "
"When you were young. When there was always warmth and happiness. Being bounced up and down -- "
"No -- ," she screeched. "I am Whyenin!" Her name was more whistle than word.
"You were Naome. You are still Naome. Remember me, your uncle, Milisar."
"Nao -- "
"Remember, you must remember!" I crawled across the cavern towards her voice and clasped her. My left hand raked across a barb but I ignored the pain, the dripping of my blood. As I held her I remembered what my niece had been. I couldn't see her but I pictured her as she was when she sacrificed herself. My blood dribbled onto her arm.
Naome sniffed and I felt a tongue licking my arm, sucking at the blood. I swallowed but resisted the urge to pull away.
Eventually she stopped.
"Who are you?", I heard her whisper.
"Your uncle, Milisar. Years ago you were on my knee. You were warm and happy. Remember the light, the warmth. Remember the land."
"You were like me once, not long ago. Sheshanka cursed you, made you what you are now -- "
Suddenly she pulled away from me and I heard a splash and then a wave of cold water rolled over me. I gasped and felt around for her, but she was gone.
I choked back sobs. I was too late. She was too far gone. I crawled into the corner and couldn't stop sleep from overtaking me.
I awoke to the shock of more cold water. Was Naome back? Another Sirene? I willed a light but was suddenly wracked with shivering and lost my concentration. I would not die in the darkness. I would see the end! I willed it and the light came.
The cave was the same and a Sirene was there. But was it Naome? Then I saw the blood still seeping from her tail.
"I don't know. I don't know! There's something, something . . . ," her voice faded out. Then she suddenly turned away and screeched like a dolphin. She cried out, "Sisters, sisters, where are you?"
"They aren't your sisters. Alysia -- "
"Alysia? I can see . . . Alysia . . . I think. I don't know -- "
"Let me help. I won't hurt you, I promise. Just stay still and I will free you from Sheshanka's curse."
"No! I must stay what I am!"
I swallowed. "Not your form, just your memories." I smiled at her. "Trust me." Then I waited, watching her.
She turned and stared at the water. I could see her tail moving slowly up and down, pushing the water into larger and larger waves. Then with the suddenness of a cat she spun to face me.
"Do it!", she hissed.
"The light will go when I try -- "
"Just do it!"
Again I concentrated. It was easier entering her mind this time. I found the barrier again, and found the hole I had left in it. I tore at the hole, widening it. It was slow work until suddenly the wall shattered and a brilliant light burst through. And her Name! I saw it and grabbed it. Someone else was there -- then I was back in the cave.
I called the light back. "Naome?"
"Yes.", she whispered. I had done it! I could see her face soften in a blue glow.
"What do you remember? Your drowning? The sacrifice? Your fellow maidens -- "
"All of it."
"I can save you. Bring you back to your true body."
"Because it isn't right. This must be."
"But why? You're Faerie now. Always the same, never changing."
"It is my fate."
"For all time? Never learning anything beyond what you know. Learning of a new joy and then forgetting it. Do you even know what two and two added together make?"
"And you never will. Never!" She turned away and I lowered my voice. "I can tell you, but you won't remember. Every time you hear it, it will be new."
"I don't need that knowledge."
"I know all I shall ever need. Sheshanka gifted me with that when she blessed me."
"Blessed you?", I shouted. "Cursed is more like it! Struggling for human meat, fighting when you feed. Always the same. Always!"
"It is right."
"Do you remember the sacrifice. You were there. Sheshanka made sure you were there."
"Yes. My sacrifice was fated from birth, as is yours."
What? "Mine?", I whispered.
"It was foreordained that we would meet, and that you would restore me. But you must choose."
"Choose what? That I abandon you?"
"We must finish the sacrifice. We must appease Sheshanka. We must prove to her that humankind still respects the ocean, and her. You must give yourself to Sheshanka as have I."
"I have to die too? Why should I? Who needs the oceans? I wish Kor had killed Sheshanka instead of Vashigan!"
"You may regret those words."
"As Vashigan is the sun, so is Sheshanka the ocean. Without Vashigan the world froze until his resurrection. Without Sheshanka the world would dry up and all life would cease."
"But why the sacrifice? Why does Sheshanka need the sacrifice?"
"It is enough that She requires it. We need know no more to serve."
"Serve? You consider your death a simple service? You would kill yourself just to serve!?"
"It is my place."
I just shook my head. "And so you can serve I must die too."
"It is Sheshanka's will."
I sighed. "You said I had a choice. What choice? I'm trapped here. How can I live?"
"Your choice isn't to live or die. It is to accept your fate, or reject it as I tear your heart out."
I lost my concentration and the light went out. Only a faint blue radiance remained. I would die. I couldn't escape. I couldn't slay the monster that Naome had become. And all just to keep Sheshanka happy! Did no one care about my happiness? I shouted out into the darkness, "Why me?!"
"It is why you were created."
Tears entered my eyes. I didn't want to die. I had so much to live for. My colleagues at the academy. My family -- what family? My parents were dead, my niece was here in front of me. My "colleagues" were all egotistical morons who would steal my knowledge if I let them. Even if I wanted to live, how could I? But I did have a way. I had her Name. I could order her to take me back to the air and the light. I could order her not to kill me. But my niece my slave?
After a while I whispered into the blackness, "What happens if I go willingly?"
"You will die. I can tell you nothing else."
"And if I go screaming?"
"You will still die."
"Why can't you tell me a single thing!?", I shouted at her. "How can I choose?" Should I take the third choice?
"You must choose as you believe in your heart. Nothing else matters."
The gods never made things easy. There was one way out - the enslavement of my niece. I pictured her Name in my mind, tried to utter it -- but I couldn't. Not to Naome. Tears formed. I would never see the World again, never hear the birds singing. Never again hear the wind in the trees, the shouting of vendors under Kitrana's arch. Never sail through the clouds again. Only to die in the cold. In the dark.
Naome interrupted my thoughts: "Your choice?" Her voice was cold and insistent.
What should I do? I remembered Sheshanka's temple. The fishermen, starving, watching Naome give herself to the sea. I remembered their hope as they watched her go willingly. I swallowed. I had lived a long life, a full life. I had enjoyed my life.
"I am ready.", I whispered.
I closed my eyes to hide from the dark and remembered Vashigan lighting the world. I remembered the songs of the birds and the scents of the flowers. I held those memories to me and finally answered: "Willingly."