DargonZine 33, Issue 2

A View From Above: The Underground

Mertz 15, 1002 - Mertz 21, 1002


This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series A View From Above

     Simon awoke at first light to the sound of someone moving through the brush not far away. Instinctively he lay still as the person first came closer, then moved off. As Simon lay there his memories reassembled themselves; memories of his sennights marooned on this forsaken island populated with incomprehensible naked natives; memories of his flight from the village, driven away by accusations of adultery and by terrifying apparitions of sea-spirits; memories of his work building a strange, airborne device to fly himself off the island; and memories of last night’s disastrous attempt to use it. The final set of memories were cemented in place by the lingering acrid odor of smoke that hung in the air, proof that he had not merely dreamed of having torched the villagers’ boats, the only reliable way off the island.
     Simon soon realized that the hunt for him had resumed. Based on the sound he had heard, the first pass missed him by a dozen paces, but he could not expect that luck to hold for long. Ignoring the many aches and pains that reminded him of the injuries he had sustained during his abortive flight, he abandoned the foundation for a more distant bit of scrub. His earlier days of hiding paid off now, as he had discovered some secret hollows scattered about the scrub. Over the next several bells Simon used them to conceal himself. Despite the repeated sweeps, Simon only had to relocate twice, and eventually the searchers gave up and headed back to the village.
     Simon spent the next two days in similar fashion, dodging the men as they hunted him, gathering fruit and tubers to eat and sipping water collected from the seeps. At night, he climbed the spire and slept on the ledge. He left the ledge in the morning, not wanting to risk getting caught there with nowhere to run. The number of searchers seemed to diminish steadily as the time passed. While he hid, Simon had plenty of time to think. He considered and reconsidered his plan, and alternatives. He considered surrender, and suicide, and how those two were almost certainly the same thing. He thought about Danni, and home. He thought about the cave and the floating stones. After a while, he thought hard about the art of the cave walls.
     The third day after his fall Simon spent gathering food and supplies and water. The last was the hardest, since he first had to find something to carry it in. Just before morning of the fourth day Simon slipped back into the cave, carrying his goods and brandishing an almost-whole war club. The cave was empty, and Simon quickly lit a fire and made his way to the back. He dug a hole in the wall and moved into the larger cavern, then covered the hole back up as well as he could. Simon set up camp, then hiked around until he found the water that could be heard dripping in the still air. It turned out to be a deep well with steep, wet walls. Far below the lip of the well there was water, into which a seep dripped. An ancient cord attached to an equally old ceramic pitcher. Simon lowered it down and pulled it back full. The water was slightly salty, but potable. Satisfied, Simon returned to the front of the cave, then sat down and started studying the drawings.
     It was obvious that whatever magic performed the transformation revolved around the black bugs. They were everywhere in the wall art, appearing large and small, crawling and standing and curled up. It was also obvious that not all efforts at the magical transformation were successful, as skulls were also a persistent theme. Simon studied the postures of the people involved in the magic itself, hoping to see some sort of trigger. He had never been much of one for magic, preferring those methods that could more reliably produce results. Now he was looking to enter into a world that had hitherto been closed to him. The bells passed very slowly, without much to mark them.
     Of special interest were the drawings that showed the people holding the bugs. These were all clustered around a central, large carving showing a person with a bug inside their belly. The art around that central image showed various narratives, with different lines of drawing having very similar icons. In one line a person was definitely ingesting a bug whole. The person seemed to morph into some sort of half-fish, half human, and finally ended up a mer-person. A second line of art showed a man with the bug. He was inserting the bug into his rectum. He also morphed into a half-man, half fish creature. The next image in his line showed him as a man again. In both cases, a meal seemed to be involved after the transformation. Simon paused there a long moment, the grotesque nature of the drawings simultaneously repelling and fascinating him. On the wall, the narrative continued. The mer-person was shown eating a fish, and the other narrative showed the man eating fruit from a tree. Simon was not entirely sure what the significance of that was, but tucked it away in his brain for future thought.
     Simon examined the niches carefully, including the mummified insect. Each was carved to match the form of the bugs. He suspected he would soon be making a foray back into the daylight, to gather up some of the hated insects. He needed more information, though, about how to trigger the magic, something he wasn’t sure was possible for someone as prosaic as himself. All his life he had known that magic was in the world, and more times than he knew he had seen things that could be explained no other way. The fate of Danni’s mother was one example, as was, potentially, his own recovery after the bug bite. For all that, though, he himself had never had any inkling of how magic might work. It was wild, unexpected, and frightening.
     Simon took it upon himself to examine the wall art, walking around the perimeter of the cave. In most places the floor was clear, having been cleaned long ago of debris. Here and there were places where recent rock falls littered the floor, making progress slow. Fortunately for Simon the air was relatively warm. He had lost the last vestiges of clothing during his escape from the floating machine, and he had not had time to make any other clothes for himself. Happily, it seemed that his nudity would not be a hindrance in the cave any more than it had been anywhere else on the island.
     The theme of the black bug continued with the wall art around the cave. A lot of the art of the cave walls showed scenes of daily life: fishing, eating, dancing, weaving. Some showed celebrations, some showed funerals, many of which seemed to be related to the bugs. Some of the scenes drawn were more intimate, with a fair number showing sex in reasonable detail, and one or two showing the inevitable outcome: childbirth. Many scenes showed war. Simon noted that quite a few drawings were worn away, either intentionally or not, and were illegible. There were some carvings mixed in with the drawings, but few were carved with any skill. Simon eventually tired, having made it only halfway around the chamber. He felt weak, and somewhat nauseated. He returned to his camp and ate, then lay down and slept.
     Simon awoke some time later, still nauseated but somewhat more rested. He lay still a while, listening. What had awakened him? Had it been a dream? A sound? He listened for a while, but could only hear the ever-present drip. He arose and forced himself to eat and drink. He needed to urinate, but he also was not sure how long he would be hiding in the cave, so he needed to be wise about where he left his own waste. He resumed his walk about the perimeter, noting the wall art he had already seen, and quickly coming back to the place he had left off. He picked up again, looking over the artwork for clues or ideas.
     As Simon walked the cave wall he took note of the general layout of the cave. The entrance had been a simple cavern, which in turn connected to a straight tube that narrowed as it went. It terminated in rubble at the shark shrine. Both the entrance chamber and the tunnel had been melted from the stone. This chamber appeared much more like a great hollow. The floating boulders and stones concealed the true ceiling, but Simon expected it was just more stone. The floor had been mostly leveled and packed long ago, but was littered with rockfall. The center of the cavern was filled with the floating rocks, and was mostly impenetrable. Just behind and to the side of this dense clot of aeroliths was the well. Simon had followed the wall and the art half-way around the cave, and was now almost directly opposite his small base camp. The omnipresent blue light had not dimmed, but here the cave wall was broken by another tunnel, which intersected the larger cavern higher up than the entrance did. The rough and crumbling entrance was mostly circular, and a small ramp of non-floating boulders and stones led up into it. Judging by the way the wall art ended neatly at the side of the ramp, Simon assumed that the new tunnel was as old as the cavern.
     A thin path picked its way through the jumble of stone and up into the tunnel. The tunnel itself was not glowing, but seemed well-enough lit for a bit of exploring. Indeed, Simon could see where the tunnel ended a few dozen chains in. He started to follow the path. He hadn’t gotten far when the nausea, which had never really gone away, reasserted itself. Simon found himself out of breath and his head was pounding. He stopped on a stone to rest, noting how cold it felt. After a few menes he was able to continue. The path straightened out a bit, but did not branch or widen. The tunnel narrowed, becoming merely as large as a house. Ahead Simon could see crystals glittering in the walls. Only at the very end of the path did it widen, stopping at a small circular clearing. In the center of the clearing were small, round, glowing objects. At first Simon took them for stones, but on closer examination they proved to be mushrooms growing on some sort of dark substrate. Simon was not even a bit surprised to realize it was the decaying carcass of a large shark.
     From his vantage point high up in the tunnel Simon could see down to his own tiny camp. It struck him that this place would be much more secure than his original camp in case the villagers decided to break through the wall and look for him in the cavern. Someone had obviously visited not too long ago, for the shark’s body was still recognizable as such. He had a better chance of concealment in the stones and boulders than on the cavern floor. He also decided this would be a suitable place for a latrine. Walking back down the path he found a good spot to head into the field of stones, and once concealed he was able to relieve himself without fear of fouling the path. That taken care of, Simon descended to the cavern floor and continued his survey of the wall art.
     The tenor of the art continued much as before, with a mix of calm domesticity and violence well seasoned with the ever-present image of the bugs. One scene in particular struck a chord in Simon’s mind. It showed a battle of sorts, with one side in boats and one side in buildings. Simon thought he recognized the buildings. It came to him finally; it was the ruins outside on the island. Simon studied the art. There was no easy way to tell from the art which side won. Simon suspected he knew, though. Whether it was this latest batch of pirates or a previous generation, the cultured and landed folk had succumbed to the simple savagery of the sea-folk.
     Not much farther along the wall Simon noted an improvement in the quality of the art. Glancing up the line Simon saw that he had just about reached the three-quarters mark of the cavern wall. He also saw that there was a very large and rather detailed carving coming up. Simon tried to step back to see the whole, but the floating stones kept blocking his view. He continued his patient walk along the wall. The art was becoming more grand. In addition to the bugs, sharks were now coming in as a motif. The mer-people, which had played a relatively small part of the wall art so far, started to appear with greater regularity. There was a story going on, for sure, although Simon wasn’t entirely sure what. Certain of the figures were drawn or, more frequently, carved, larger. The mer-people seemed to be associated more frequently with the taller characters. Simon reached the big drawing, and stood and studied it. He finally decided it was showing a great battle between two of the figures. One, standing with arms outstretched, looked for all the world like a male version of Danni’s mother when she was a mer-person. The other figure, seemingly all human, knelt before the other in defeat. Their weapons seemed to be flames, or rays of light.
     As Simon stood and studied the carving, his eye was drawn to a spot above the large carving. There was something there about the size of his hand, and it seemed to sparkle. It was hard to make it out in the dim blue light, but to Simon’s eye it looked like a great red gem. The more he looked at it, in fact, the more sure he was that it was a gem, for he was sure he could see the light shining through it. He looked up and down the wall to see if there were more, but there was only the one. Now he was convinced it was a gem, and he was also convinced that it was glowing. This took him aback, even in an underground room filled with glowing, floating rocks. He stared at it as the glow intensified. Simon shivered nervously and his balls shrunk. He wondered if he should step back away, in case something happened. He could imagine all the stones falling suddenly. In fact, he could hear something, and turned to see what it was.
     Simon froze at what he saw behind him. Where before the cavern had been filled with the floating stones, now all those stones were silently, or mostly silently, rising. What he had heard was the tiny tapping sounds as here and there two would touch. They all rose, and left the entire cavern floor open. There, in the center of the floor, Simon saw something remaining. He studied it, and as recognition dawned in his mind his testicles drew the rest of the way up into his belly and his hair all stood on end. There, in the center of the floor, was a man.
     It wasn’t a man of flesh and blood; Simon saw that immediately. For one thing, the entire lower half of the person was embedded in some sort of pedestal or stony outcropping. The figure’s arms were thrown wide, and the face was tipped back and looking toward the ceiling. Simon edged a bit closer, daring a closer look. The face was contorted in shock and pain, and the muscles stood out in stark relief. With sudden conviction Simon realized this was not a carving — it was too realistic — this was the loser himself, turned to stone.
     As Simon stood there he noticed that the stones were once again falling slowly downward, and would soon cover over the unhappy soul entombed there. Simon backed away until he was again at the side of the cavern. He watched as the stones quietly covered up the petrified figure. He looked around at the cavern with its wonders, and was overwhelmed by the feeling of being surrounded by magic. Suddenly he felt nauseated again. He quickly walked over to his camp and gathered up his things. He carried them around to the back of the cavern and up to the top. He found a spot off to the side of the mushroom patch and laid it all out. He then lay down, and closed his eyes. As he lay there on the hard dirt, with only the thin woven mat to cushion him, he tried to imagine who the entombed, petrified figure must have been and what he had been fighting for. Images of Danni’s mother continued to come to his mind, along with images of sharks, endlessly circling. Finally, he fell asleep.
     How long he had been asleep Simon wasn’t sure. Why he awoke was also uncertain. The same dim blue light illuminated the rocky alcove where he lay. Simon felt congested, something he had not felt for years. He got up slowly, his body aching and his head swimming. His stomach turned, and he nearly vomited. He stood, eyes closed, for a while before trying to move. It was as he was standing there that he heard the voices.
     Whoever was speaking was making no effort to be quiet, and yet their voice was soft. Simon immediately ducked down. He carefully and quietly moved into the nearby stones and hid himself. The voices continued. He listened to them, but was unable to make out what they were saying, both because of the language barrier and because they were muffled. Simon realized that whoever was speaking must still be in the tunnel. He uttered a silent prayer that his awkward repair of the wall escaped detection. He realized that his campsite was still in the open for any to see that might venture up the path, but he decided the noise he would make trying to conceal the camp might give him away, so he just crouched low and stayed quiet. The voices continued for what seemed like an eternity, then faded away slowly enough that Simon didn’t realize at first that they were gone. Only when he could no longer stand to crouch did he straighten up, and it was some time before he would venture down to the cavern floor.
     Once he was sure he was alone, Simon ate and drank. Afterward he felt stronger and more hopeful. He also knew what he needed. Surrounded by a magical world in the cavern, Simon needed to become part of that world. Somehow, Simon needed to tap into that magic. All his life Simon had heard of magic, and had seen many things that could be explained no other way, but never had anyone ever told him exactly how to make it. Of all the places he had been in his life, if there was magic anywhere, it was in this cave. Somewhere in all that cave art there had to be some mention of where all this magic began. With determination Simon descended on the floor and started walking around the perimeter of the cavern, studying the walls.
     After a half a bell or so of study, Simon came across his first hint. Ironically, it was not actually in the art on the wall, but rather in the wall itself. Simon had become slightly more engrossed than he planned in a drawing of what appeared to be several couples engaged in sex when he caught a glimpse of something sparkling off to his right. It turned out to be more of that red crystal. Unlike the great, hand-sized orb over the carved battle scene, this was distributed throughout the matrix of the cave wall itself as many tiny crystals. He had not noticed it before, but once he was stopped he could see the myriad tiny flashes of light. As he stood there, admiring the crystals, he glanced back at the drawings. To his amazement and delight they seemed to be moving. As he watched, the couples rocked back and forth in their amorous play. The more he stood still and watched, more and more of the drawings above and to the sides began to move as well, until it seemed the whole wall was at play. Smiling like a little boy, Simon wandered along the wall, enraptured by the scene, until he realized that the art was no longer moving. A quick survey of the stone showed no trace of the red crystals. Simon walked back to the spot where the crystals were and waited, concentrating on the pictures. The effect was more rapid this time, and more pronounced. Simon’s heart sang in his chest. He was onto something.
     Simon walked rapidly around the cave, looking for more of the red in the rock. In three other places, he found it, and in each case, he could make the pictures dance for him with ease. In one spot, he could actually hear the art singing to him. He wondered how he was going to translate that into a way off the island. He walked back to the great carving with the large gem, and willed the stone to rise, and fall. It did. Simon tried to move the stone in other ways, however, and it ignored him. It was enchanted, to be sure, but not by him. It was still obeying its original master. Simon sent the stones up and down until his head hurt and his stomach was turning, trying to see if there was anything else, but the stones did not change. After a while he had to pee and headed back up to the rocks. He found his designated area and assumed the position. As he stood and watered the rocks he looked about the great alcove. It was then that he saw the glitter of crystal winking high up at the far end of the tunnel.
     Simon finished and almost ran to the top of the path. The highest point of the mushroom patch was only a few arms-lengths from the wall, and Simon stood and stared up at it. The wall itself was composed of crystals, huge crystals. These were dull, however, and allowed no light through, for the most part. The glinting Simon had seen was the reflection of the light below off smooth surfaces. Disappointment tickled Simon’s heart. He stood there anyway, stock still, willing the wall to show him something better. Finally, deep within a large crystal right before him Simon saw the faintest of glimmers. There was magic here, as well. Simon clambered over the debris until he could touch the smooth mineral prism. He could feel its life, and see its glow. Simon embraced the smooth pillar of rock, which was almost as big as he was. He looked up and around, and all over the wall faint glimmers of red answered.
     For many menes Simon balanced precariously atop a short boulder and clung to the crystal, surveying the interior surface of the tunnel, trying to pinpoint the brightest spark he could see. He finally homed in on a particularly vivid crystal not too far away and made his way there. In response to his approach the rock began to glow brighter. Simon got close enough to run his hand over it, and it responded. He studied it, taking in its shape and texture. He controlled his breathing, and was gratified to see the pulse of life inside the rock synchronize itself with his breath. Closing his eyes, Simon tried to visualize the inside of the crystal. He could feel it, inside his head, he was sure of it. Opening his eyes, Simon picked out a stone lying in the mushroom patch not far away. With one hand on the crystal, and with one hand pointed at the stone, Simon mentally commanded to stone to rise. For many long moments, nothing happened, and then nothing continued to happen. Simon finally tired, and went back to examining the crystal.
     Simon could see that there was a large crack at the base of the crystal. He wondered if he could somehow break it free from the wall and take it down to some of the other crystals, to see how they could interact. Simon clambered back down to his camp, retrieved the war club, then climbed back up to the crystal. He considered the possible weight of the rock, which was much smaller than the first but formidable nonetheless. Taking care not to leave any part of his body underneath it, Simon wedged the club into the space between the live crystal and a neighbor. He was about to start to pry when there was a loud snap, and the crystal fell free. It hit the rock beside him, and shattered to dust.
     Simon’s yelp of surprise at the crystal popping free turned into a wail of despair when it disintegrated. This wail in turn became a hacking cough as he accidentally inhaled the very dust his prize turned into. Simon stumbled down off the rocks and onto the smoother floor of the mushroom patch, his chest heaving with cough after cough. He coughed until he was wheezing and his head spun, then finally got to his feet and walked down the path a way, out of the dissipating cloud. It was them that he saw the sparkles, and heard the voices, and felt the breeze. Simon stood, stunned. Where there had been a dimly lit hole in the mountain there was now a realm of light. Wisps of mist floated by with elfin faces, singing ethereally. Simon could feel the wind, and smell it too, and he could feel the world spinning. Simon could feel the magic. He willed it, and his body arose, and floated down to the chamber floor.
     For what seemed like ages Simon floated and danced among the drifting stones. He walked all the way around the cavern looking and talking with the wall art. He learned the whole story of the island, of how the original inhabitants grew strong and wise in an isolation that was broken when one member of their race discovered the magic, and began to make followers for himself of the mer-people. Simon watched the war unfold and escalate to the final great battle between the heretic and the hero that gouged out the great cavern and filled it with latent magic. Most importantly, he solidified in his mind what he already suspected; the black bugs were the key to the creation of the mer-people, and only one method — a terrible, degrading method — would bring a temporary change.
     Just as during his trial in the cave, Simon was not sure of the exact moment the magic wore off. He found himself standing at the lip of the well, staring down inside. All about was silence, broken only by the slow drip of water. He had been replaying his time on the island over and over in his head, lost in a psychedelic funk. Simon pushed himself back away from the edge, suddenly frightened of falling. The rush of blood the fear brought to his head cleared his mind some, and his heartbeat quickened when he realized how much power he had at his disposal. How much power, and how much danger. He had the power now to just fly off the island, if he wanted, but he could not trust that power not to confuse his mind and dump him dazed and lost in the ocean. Perhaps there was another way, however. Now that he was coming back to himself, the elements of a plan were coming together in his mind. He could become a mer-person for a day, and swim to the mainland. He needed only two things for this, he knew now: magic, and a black bug. He knew where both were to be found, and how each was to be employed. All that remained were the ticklish details. Simon set to work.
     The easiest and most straightforward part was the magic. He had seen something while in his magic-induced trance. The red crystals held the remnants of the magic unleashed so long ago in the great battle that formed the cavern. Simon had unintentionally released some when he shattered the crystal. If it worked once, he expected it would work again. Simon climbed back up to where the alcove ended. He stood and concentrated until the red glow revealed the presence of the wild magic. Selecting a reasonably sized specimen, Simon again set to prying it free, taking more care to catch it when it fell. Nonetheless, it still cracked in two. Simon could feel reality ripple as the fracturing stone released a bit of its captured glamour.
     Sudden inspiration struck him. While the wave of distortion still reverberated in the air, Simon cast his gaze and his focus on the crystals. He wanted red crystals. He could feel the magic in the air. He had wielded this power once before. He willed the magic to himself, and then commanded all the hidden power to reveal itself. In response, the wall lit up as dozens of stone prisms blazed red. Simon focused on the ones easiest to free and carry away, and all but two dimmed. Simon climbed over the debris until he could reach the lowest, and simply lifted it free from the wall. He carefully hauled it down to the mushroom patch, then returned for the other crystal. This one was smaller, but brighter, and higher on the wall. Simon fought his way there, climbing the wall like it was a tree. Once there he was unable to move the crystal, and had to back down and fetch a good-sized rock. He climbed back up, and with a well-aimed tap snapped it off at the base.
     With the two crystals safely stowed, Simon settled down for some sleep. He had no idea what time it was outside, or how long it would take to get a bug, so he wanted to be rested. He was able to fall asleep instantly. His dreams were wild and chaotic. In them Danni appeared as a grown woman in sailor’s garb and taunted him for having killed her mother. She turned into a shark and spat fire on him which somehow was the coldest thing he had ever felt. He ran away to the keep in Dargon, and spent bells counting the rats as they ran in and out of the sewer grates. When he awoke, he was very stiff and mildly nauseated. He ate some, drank some, peed some, then took the crystals down to where the bug niches were carved in the wall. Returning to the mushroom patch he got the war club, then grabbed the water pitcher from the well. These in hand he walked to the front of the cave. Simon listened intently for many menes, and heard no movement on the other side of the wall. He broke through, and found the tunnel deserted. He piled the stones back up and crept out the cave.
     Even before he reached the mouth of the cave Simon could see the daylight, and could smell the smoke. He stopped at the back of the entrance cavern and waited for his eyes to adjust. When he crept to the mouth of the cave he was stunned by what he saw, and smelled. The air reeked of smoke, and for as far as he could see from the cave all the vegetation was burned away or charred into twisted stumps. The village was still standing, and appeared unharmed, but the scrub was nothing but ash and charcoal as far as he could see. Simon retreated to the dark of the cave to consider. He had one goal and one goal alone; secure a black bug and live to use it. He had planned to move under cover of the scrub, but that hope was now gone. Or was it?
     Simon poked his head out of the cave again. The stumps of the trees might provide enough cover for him if he was careful, but he would need to be very vigilant. He might also need to wait until dark. Simon looked up at the sky, and judged the day to be three-quarters gone. Dusk would fall, and then he could move. It might also help if he darkened his skin with some charcoal. Simon set about gathering up the charcoal scattered near where his fire had been, and smearing it on his body. Once darkened, Simon retreated to the back of the cave and waited. He kept the war-club ready, in case he was discovered. Simon plotted out his steps as he sat in the cool darkness. He expected that the best place to find a bug quickly was to go to the great grave pit. It was a considerable distance from the cave, but it gave the greatest chance of success. As he sat it occurred to him that he needed daylight to find the bugs. This prompted him to get up and approach the entrance to the cave. Again, he could see no one, but he could hear shouting. It all seemed to come from the far end of the island. Simon picked out a largish clump of stumps just below where the path was, took one last look around, and made a dash for it.
     The run was not a far one, but Simon’s heart was hammering in his chest by the time he got there, and his chest was heaving. He pulled up behind the twisted, blackened trunks and stopped, scanning up and down and all about. He was on the lower flank of the island’s one large hill, which was now all char and stubble. He could barely make out the village through the thicket, and he could see the top of the hill if he peered around the edge of the trunks. His heart almost stopped when he realized that he could see two men at the top of the hill. He clutched the war club, his mind racing, his imagination trying to think of places to run, places to hide. As he watched them, however, they made no sign that they had seen him. They seemed more focused on the far end of the island. Simon watched them for a long moment, until he was assured they were not coming at him, then he started to plan his moves.
     The burial pit was almost exactly on the opposite side of the hill. To reach it Simon would have to circle low enough to stay in the scrub, but still reach the pit before dark. Simon scanned the scrub until he spotted another clump of trunks nearby. He studied the lookouts above, gauged the distance, and then ran for it. He arrived without incident. The lookouts did not move. He repeated the move, with the same result. Simon kept on, moving from spot to spot. Soon he was rounding the hill. To his surprise and relief, he was able to spot what appeared to be unburned foliage towards the far shore. Expecting to be able to make better time there, Simon moved farther and farther away from the hill and closer to the foliage. He had never really considered the unburned scrub to be much of a forest, but compared to the denuded trunks he was hiding in the unburned portion looked lush.
     As soon as Simon reached the scrub he dropped all pretense of hiding and moved as fast as possible towards the burial pit. He soon realized that the fires had already reached it, however. To make matters worse, he could now see men posted at intervals along the edge of the unburned wood. There was even one at the far end, not far from where he had entered! He had no idea how he had missed that one, but nonetheless he was now caught behind enemy lines with little time to lose. Simon studied the terrain and plotted a path to the burial site that would provide the best cover. He felt he could make it unseen, and immediately struck out on it. He followed a shallow depression to a narrow alley between two foundations. Sliding up it on his side, he cast glances over the edges of the foundations at the guards, who were quite distant. They seemed intent to watch the forest. The burial site was very exposed, and Simon remembered that it was also alive with nasty creatures. He was on the edge of it now. Even after the fire he could see one of the black devils sunning itself on the central mound. Simon carefully pushed himself out from between the two foundations and onto the sand. He kept moving for fear of getting stung again. He set his eye on a smaller mound not too far away. He had the club ready to dig, and the pitcher ready to hold the creature that he assumed would be just inside the small mound. He was almost upon it when he heard the yell.
     Simon immediately snapped his head up. He could see the guard down where he had entered the wood pointing at him and yelling. Simon’s heart fell. He looked back at the other guard just as he also saw Simon, and then there were two guards yelling. Simon looked at the central mound, and saw the bug was still there. This was his only chance. He leaped to his feet, sprinted to the center of the burial field and with a single great swipe scooped the entire mound into the pitcher. He then sprinted like a maniac back into the scrub. He plunged as far into it as he could, until he felt he could not be seen, the angled sharply to the side, and ran some more. He ran until he could tell the yells of the far guard were close, and then he stopped stock still. Sure enough, the guard ran right past on the burned side of the woods. As Simon expected, they were hesitant to come into the scrub alone to get him. Once the guard passed Simon continued on, quickly but quietly.
     Simon reached the far end of the remaining sliver of scrub and peeked out. What he saw encouraged him. The two men from the hilltop had come down, and were headed at a run towards the burial pit. A hoard of villagers was also coming up from the far end of the island. By now the sun was setting, but Simon could still see clearly enough to know that Danni’s father was in the lead. The entire party plunged into the forest, and for a brief, blessed moment there were no prying eyes to see Simon slip out and move away through the remains of the scrub. He was cautious and stuck to cover, and by the time villagers emerged from the scrub to again set up watch Simon was well on his way back to the cave. The return trip was faster, mostly since Simon was less cautious once he rounded the side of the hill. He was fairly certain no one saw him enter the cave, but he expected it would be searched again when they were unable to find him in the remains of the scrub, which they were sure to burn as well.
     Once he was in the cave he went immediately to the shrine and dug through the wall. Taking his precious cargo with him, he entered the great cavern and again sealed the hole. He knew his window of opportunity was short, so he immediately set to work. He had wrapped his food in some leaves when he first came into the cavern, and he now took up one of the broader ones. He carefully emptied the pitcher out onto the floor until one of the big bugs tumbled free. It immediately scuttled away. Simon was on it in a flash. It stopped when he approached and threatened him, appendages up. Simon was in no mood to trifle. He scooped it up and wrapped it in the leaf. He secured it tightly, knowing where it would soon be going. He went back to the pitcher and repeated dumping. A second bug tumbled free, and Simon caught and wrapped this one also. The rest of the sand came out of the pitcher with no bugs, but one other thing did fall out: a thumb-sized round crystal. Simon recalled seeing it when he first encountered the burial ground. He examined it and saw it was a ring cut from clear stone. He tried it on, and found it fit his smallest finger. It was no surprise to him that it was cut in the shape of a shark.
     Simon stood and faced the wall art. His heart was pounding. The magic had told him how to interpret the drawings, and it confirmed what he had suspected. When the black bugs were taken into the body under the influence of magic, they could transform the human body. If they were swallowed whole, the transformation was complete, and permanent; the man would become an animal. If a woman were to insert one inside herself as she would take in a man, she would join the ranks of the mer-people forever. If, however, the bug was inserted up one’s backside, the spell was temporary, and the person would revert to being human, provided that nothing from the sea was consumed while the person was transformed. This was Simon’s goal. He was just loathe to follow the method. He knew, however, that he had no choice. The magic had also shown him one other thing; the well in the cave had no bottom. More precisely, it was a channel that led to the sea. If he could transform into a fish, he could leave that way and the villagers would never see him again.
     Simon studied the two insects he had wrapped. He guessed that the task would be easiest with the smaller one. He carefully took the larger and set it aside in one of the niches. As a precaution, he covered it with sand, to keep it moist in case he needed it. Simon then carefully put the smaller one in a niche beside it. He went and filled the pitcher with water, and washed himself off, then filled it again and drank. He took the fish that he had left and rubbed it over his hands until they were as greasy as possible. Clearing a space in front of the drawings, Simon studied them one last time, in case any other ideas came to his mind. Finally, after double checking the placement of the two bugs, Simon took the largest crystal and lifted it over his head. He hesitated a moment, then lowered it. Realizing that sharp bits of flying crystal might cut him, Simon moved the other crystal around in front of him, to hide his feet. He then closed his eyes, heaved the stone prism high, and smashed it to the ground.
     The first time Simon smashed a crystal, it had been an accident. This time the effort was far more deliberate, and the result more gratifying. As before, the stone shard exploded into a cloud of dust and fragments. Simon could feel the electric buzz on his skin instantly. He bent down and quickly inhaled, and just as quickly exploded into a coughing fit. The coughing subsided much more quickly this time, however, to be replaced with a greatly heightened awareness. What had seemed like wisps before were full specters now, the aspect of wizards and kings long past. They spoke to him of magic, and destiny. He saw the threat facing him. On one hand lay the magic with its power to maim and enslave. On the other hand were the villagers who were already beginning to realize that their quarry was no longer trapped in the remains of the scrub. Simon stared both sides down and chose to continue.
     With a wave of his hand Simon summoned a blast of air that swept the shards of crystal aside and set the cloud of stone to dancing, lifting the stones just a bit off the cave floor. He stared at the drawings, and at the bugs in their niches. He was not entirely surprised to see a tiny spark of light inside each of the bugs. He could hear the chants of the wizards so long ago as they first crafted this enchantment to change men into beasts and women to fishes. To his surprise and delight the crystal on his finger was also aglow now. In a heartbeat, he knew what it was for; a wizard long ago had made it as a ward against the mer-people, and against sea life in general. It was marvelously made, he could see that now; its beauty brought tears to his eyes. He then remembered where he found the ring, and he clenched his fist around it in memory of the shallow graves in the ruins.
     Simon took up the black bug, wrapped in its leaf. He could sense that it was still alive. Simon took a deep breath. Infused as he was with the magic, he could see now what he was facing. Once inside his body, the bug would sting, and sting, and sting again. The venom could dissolve flesh, and that’s exactly what would happen to him. The magic would reshape his body as the venom loosened it. He needed to know what his goal was, envisioning it in his mind, and allow the magic and the venom to work the transformation. In his mind’s eye, he could already see Danni’s father turning away from the dying fire that had swept the last of the scrub away, and in his inner hearing he could hear the crunch of his footsteps as he started towards the cave. Time was short — best get started.
     Simon took the tiny package in his fingers and rubbed some of the grease off his hands and onto the wrapping. He then squatted and with hesitant touch placed the package down deep between his legs. Once it was in place he started to press it in. He tried to handle it by the wrap, to avoid crushing the insect, but that was difficult. He could feel it, in his mind, with the magic he had inhaled, and so he used that magic now to push it in deeper. The pressure mounted as he pushed it harder and deeper. It felt like the worse bowel movement he had ever had, only in reverse. A wave of nausea struck him as he forced it past the sphincter and in. He toppled over backward with his legs spayed apart. It was in. Simon slowly and carefully climbed to his feet. He could feel the insect inside him struggling to free itself of the wrapping; whether by actual sensation or magically he was not sure. Simon pictured the black bug in his mind, and pictured it gently slipping free of the leaf. He was sure he could feel it moving inside him. Simon decided that he wanted to be as close as possible to the well when the change happened. Taking care to not change the angle of his stance, Simon stiffly lurched forward, moving toward the elevated cloud of stone, and then suddenly doubled up in agony as his entire viscera ignited in a massive spasm of pain.
     One time in his life Simon had made the mistake of accidentally upending a pot of boiling water on himself. He had been in his early teens and reckless, and had knocked the pot off a tripod while trying to slip past someone. He had been wearing short breaches at the time, and the boiling water splashed over his shins and feet. He had never felt so much pain before or since, until now. It felt as if someone had dumped that pot of boiling water inside his guts, and this time there was no one nearby with a pail of water to cool him. He fell to the floor howling incoherently. The muscles of his torso and legs convulsed uncontrollable. He lost control of his bowels in one explosive movement, voiding the bug and its wrapper. He tried to crawl towards the well, which now seemed leagues away, while bawling and weeping. Part of his mind told him that he needed to take control of the situation if he wanted to live, but that was a very small part. Most of his mind was blank with pain.
     After what felt like an eon, but which was really just a few heartbeats, the pain started to fade, replaced by a leaden feeling of weight. That tiny part of Simon’s brain told him his guts were falling numb, and likely starting to dissolve. Fear seized his mind, and panic, but he drove them both away and focused desperately on the image of Danni’s mother. The pain made it very hard to concentrate, but he forced himself again and again to picture her in her blue-skinned glory, with talons and webbing and scales and those deadly sharp teeth. The magic was still with him, and light swirled in his vision. Ghostly faces gaped at him, and he seized those with his mind and turned them into mer-people also, until a sea of naked, scaled bipeds swam about him. Now he could feel the toxin washing through his veins, and to his horror his diaphragm seized, leaving him without even the strength to gasp for air. He reached out with the magic and pushed the air into his lungs, again and again. Knowing what would come next, he willed his heart to keep beating even as a pain just as sharp and hard as a knife stabbed in his chest. He held the image of Danni’s mother in his mind, and willed himself to live, and to change.
     Amid his agony, he heard voices again, muffled by stone. The villagers had reached the shrine. He lifted himself on numb arms and struggled towards the well. Behind him he heard the sound of arguing. He collapsed again, exhausted, and just willed breath and blood to flow while he imagined himself as a mer-man. In response unseen hands tugged and pushed at his innards. What followed was just a blank moment of sheer agony. Then the pain subsided, and after several heartbeats he could feel his chest moving on its own again. The sound of stone being moved kicked him back into action. He lifted himself up on his arms and resumed crawling, slipping under the dancing rocks. Simon was pleased to realize his legs still worked, and he kicked against the cave floor. This sped things up a bit. Overhead the cloud of stone slowly danced in the air, providing some cover. Behind him he heard stones falling, and Danni’s father shouting. Simon imagined himself all blue and covered in scales, swimming freely in the warm ocean. Again his insides writhed, and he blacked out. The sound of rockfall jolted him awake again, and Simon pulled and kicked with all his might, his talons gripping the rock beneath him. More rock fell, more distant now, and then there came the sound of bodies scrabbling over stones.
     From behind him Simon heard orders being shouted, and the sound of feet slapping the floor. Simon pictured himself as a full mer-man, blue scales wet over smooth muscles and iron sinews. A spasm of pain jolted Simon off his feet, dropping him back on his belly. Shouts followed, and he could hear the village men running up on either side of the cloud of rock. He felt different: tighter, better. The ghosts swirled around his head and nodded affirmation. Simon danced up onto webbed hands and feet and dashed forward like a four-legged crab. Shouts again, falling behind now. The cloud of stone fell behind as Simon caught sight of the well. A single villager stood guard, club raised: Danni’s father. Simon tossed himself erect with a single hand, blue-skinned legs pumping like pistons, and looked the man right in the eye. Thin blue lips parted over a serrated smile when Simon saw the fear in the man’s eyes. Simon could feel inside himself enough speed and strength to take the man’s life and still complete the mission, and for an instant he pondered the justice of that. Then Danni’s face came unbidden to his mind, and Simon leaped lightly over the man’s head, easily avoiding the blow aimed at where he had been. The water’s surface fell at him just long enough to breathe a prayer of thanks, and then Simon sliced cleanly into the world.
     It was as if Simon had never opened his eyes until then, or had never heard anything until then. It was like pulling a blindfold off that had been there his entire life, and he was now seeing for the first time. The water carried sound and smell and taste and light like no summer day had ever done so before. It was heaven. In an instant Simon knew where to go. The well narrowed sharply for a few chains, then widened and flattened. It was dark but Simon had no problem seeing. He swam like a thought crosses a mind. There was no current to fight, no seaweed to slow his progress. The water grew cold, then grew warmer again. A glimmer of light appeared, far in the distance, and that drew Simon on even harder. It was like a race, but with no other runners. The mouth of the cave opened up, and Simon shot out into the clear blue ocean.
     Only when Simon reached the open water did he slow, and stop to think. He was suddenly shocked to realize that he had not even paused to consider how he could navigate the pitch-black tunnel. He looked down at his body and took in the changes. He was indeed a mer-man now. The change was more than appearance. He could hear so much better now, and taste. He was actually breathing the water! He noticed a glow coming from one hand, and saw the ring. The magic was still infusing him, and he knew that the ring was actively warding off any large sea predators. The sense of the magic was fading, partly because time had passed since he smashed the crystal, and partly because the change to mer-man had clouded his mind to human things even as it sharpened his animal senses. Simon suddenly felt hungry, and now the magic started to feel more intense. There was a danger here, Simon remembered; the magic was offering him a choice. To eat of the sea was to choose the sea. Even though his method of invoking the change was intended to allow the change to be temporary, eating anything of the sea, while under this guise, would render the change permanent. Simon considered this, and decided he needed to make one last trip to the village.
     Simon drove hard toward the surface. Breaching, he looked about and spotted the village. He set off for it, his new form slicing through the water. Faster than he could have run the distance, Simon swam it. When the water got too shallow to swim, he climbed out and walked, spitting out the water in his lungs. With the magic in his mind, the village looked a bit different. He could now see the totems and charms for what they were, and the healer’s hut shown like a beacon. Simon ignored them and went instead to the fire-pit where the tubers were roasted. Sure enough, there were several roasted roots there. Simon took one and bit into it. He found it quite easy to eat, although no more appetizing. The salted fish beckoned, but he ignored it. He took two more tubers and turned to go back to the water. He found the way blocked by two of the older girls, their eyes huge in shock and horror. Simon looked down at himself. He was as naked as they were, but he was no longer as human. His skin was slick with iridescent blue scales, and his webbed hands now sported black talons instead of nails. He knew by feel that his teeth were now as sharp as shark teeth, and his tongue was much longer. Even his male parts had changed, retracted inside his now-hairless belly, hidden from any nibbling sea creature. He expected that his pupils were now slitted, just as Danni’s mother’s had been. Oddly, none of this bothered him. He stepped towards the two girls, who shrank back slowly, clutching each other. He leaned forward, and in his best islander said: “Go.” They both shrieked in terror, and fled. Simon walked unhindered back to the sea. He cast a last glance back over his shoulder at the village and saw several the older girls standing and pointing. He thought perhaps the old healer was among them, but he didn’t bother making sure. The water was calling now, calling seductively and strongly. Simon waded in up to his shins, then dove.
     As Simon swam he realized that the magic was fading from his mind. Before that could happen, he sought a way to reverse the change. It seemed that time alone was sufficient to affect the conversion back to a man, but Simon did not trust in that. The essence of his humanity was in himself, but its return could be hastened. Simon focused on that essence, collecting it. He saw the tubers still in his hand. He drew that essence, concentrated it, and placed it in one of the tubers. This weakened the magic remaining, but there was still enough left to sense the direction to the mainland. It was quite a way off, but Simon felt strong, and the water was warm even by human standards. As he swam Simon thought about the pirates, and about Danni. With the canoes burned, and with the island burned, they would be forced to abandon their pirate ways. They could probably escape well enough to the mainland, or to one of the larger islands. The threat they posed was gone, and Danni could have a chance to grow up in normal society, or as normal a society as any of these lands had.
     The sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the ocean filled and aroused Simon as he swam. He threaded though the coral outcroppings with their multi-hued fish and sea-life, always headed for the mainland but always looking, always watching, always listening. He tasted the stones on the bottom, felt the sun filtering down, heard the grinding of the fine grit of the sand as his swift passage stirred it up. The lure of the sea was strong, but his time on the island had stiffened his resolve, and Simon kept his focus on the mainland. He swam until he was tired, then found an outcropping to stand up on. To his surprise, when he surfaced, there was no land to be seen. He ate the un-enchanted tuber for strength, and dove in again. Not long afterward he came to the end of the coral, and the sea floor fell away to dark abysses. It was on the edge of that abyss that Simon spotted the wreck. He turned and dove down to it, feeling the depth compressing his bones. It was the front half of a ship, wedged between the slope and a large boulder. Simon checked the bow for a name. He found one, but to his dismay he could no longer read it. He flitted in and out of the rent hull, searching for clues of identity. He cast about, examining the nearby debris. All of it was familiar, but none of it was conclusive. He hung before it, suspended on a stray current of water, listening to the sounds of mysterious life on the darkness far below. He had left his life on the island, and he had also left his life on that ship. All that remained was the life of the sea, as a fish or as a man. He had chosen to be a man, and that was right. Satisfied, Simon swam on.

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