She moved through the darkness, all but silent. Her senses reached far into the distance, testing the gloom. Nothing. Just cold emptiness.

  She knew she was dying.

  The ancients used to hunt huge cats they called Lions, all sharp spears and daring glory. Death a glorious rite of passage to the hunter, a terrible closing darkness to the prey.  Then the lions died out, hunted to extinction, their final death something of a harbinger; all the ways of the ancients ended when the old kingdoms died.

  She supposed this line of thinking was her mind trying to quantify what was happening. The world around her stuttered, flickering like light through a breaking wave… she didn’t have much time.

 

  According to what records had survived and made it to the abyssal repositories, the sea levels rose, their towns and cities choked, and that age was finished.  It wasn’t the end though. Far from it - it was the beginning. It was the reason she was now here, in the darkness, on her own.

  In their final death throes a new kind of faith arose amongst the old ones, a hope of salvation through machines of dazzling complexity. Demi-gods arose from a fabulously wealthy kingdom, the Valley of Sand. Small orders of god-men and god-women worked together to wield their wealth on a gargantuan scale, pouring all their resources into carbon, metal, electricity and hope…

   It didn’t work. War broke out.

   She tried to wrench her focus back to the present. Tiny bits of debris were drifting down from above, beautiful white flecks that settled softly around her, stirring up in tiny eddies as she passed.

 

  A distant sound, indistinct but growing in the darkness… until the moan of traumatised metal and wood was unmistakable, descending from above, thudding into the featureless mud about a hundred fathoms off to her right. Great clouds of silt rose up.

  She remembered why she was here, and how something she’d hoped would save them all was now reduced to her only lifeline. What could have changed everything was now a selfish prize she had to claim if she wanted the slimmest change of stemming the flow of life from body. Things had gone so wrong.

 

  Before the final collapse, a maverick branch of these technological zealots proposed an idea at complete odds with all that they stood for; they suggested that Magic, at that time a long disproven and mocked notion, was real.

  They were right of course. Her own body proof of that, holding firm despite the pressure of a thousand mountains pressing on every inch of her gelatinous flesh. The huge gash running down her side, punching deep into her inner organs, provided the counter; she was still very much mortal.

  And that, so the story would have you believe, was what drove the birth of her kind - the fear of the mortal. Those few mavericks locked themselves away as white-hot fires birthed from tiny stars the ancients detonated around the globe seared, tortured, and destroyed the land. As they went deeper in to the shelters they had constructed as insurance against this outcome, they turned their intellects inwards; deep, deep down into the fabric of their very beings. Down in the dark places where no others could see them, they reformed their bodies, weaving magic and flesh, literally re-building themselves cell by cell. Most of them died in the process. But a few, those who must have been the most attuned to this wholly new form of natural energy, succeeded.

 

  As far as they were concerned the humans who they once called family, were done. Heat-seared in the initial blasts, or deep frozen in the subsequent winter.  They emerged unrecognisable, transmogrified into the hardiest life-form they could conceive, perfectly adapted to the flooded, frozen wastes outside their deep level shelters. They slunk beneath the waves. Insulated and indestructible, their acid blood soon turning away even the most aggressive marine predators…

 

  She grew up hearing of the dark years, those millennia where her kind, the first to be birthed from pure and deliberately wielded magic, had ruled without match. Their kingdom may have been barren, freezing, and dark, but it was theirs alone.

  You made the best of what you had.

  And that, it turned out, was a lesson old humanity had never forgotten. Left to die by the rich - the chosen few - the drive to survive had been just as strong in those without magic. Living in caves, under rock, they started again, their frail bi-pedal bodies still carrying their essence, uncorrupted.

  Now, millennia later, they had rediscovered Magic for themselves.

 

  She snapped back to the present; a tiny, glittering form had moved, somewhere right on the periphery of her range. What was she doing here? Her grasp on reality was fading fast; the world juddered again, nerves brutalised by the battle she’d fought feeding all their confusion directly into her mind.

  She turned her face towards the weakly moving shape, pushing herself to reach it.

  Through the waves of pain, that same small voice that was always there mocked her. It whispered and taunted, reminding her that they’d all missed it, because those at the start had never asked.

  Was it worth it?

  She had spent hundreds of years in the libraries, scouring every resource, melding with every organic network she could find, but whilst every trail led back to the earliest magic of her forefathers, not a single root went right to the start. Why this way? It seemed that magic could be wielded in almost infinite ways back then. So why did they choose a form so specialised; the life it led to was in many ways worse than the final darkness the first ones so feared.

  It was a growing realisation that the rest of her kind were slowly succumbing to, the fact that hope had always been there, yet their ancestors had hedged their bets too early. They had destroyed themselves to exist in a half-life. Some form of genetic memory reminded them of how they once were, a constant torture, worming its way deep into their collective subconscious. It became clear much too late that whilst Magic could change the form, it could not change the soul.

  Generations grew, reproduced, and died. The collective memory of each wave of progeny seemed to distil the essence of this shared loss. Each new generation felt it more keenly than the last; they were an anomaly. An abhorrence. This was not how they were meant to be.

  Rage grew, anger and violence replacing everything else, the last light of their humanity waning to nothing, and the final breath to quell that last candle an irony - they could no longer fix themselves. Something had changed. The magic no longer worked. They became monsters, feared by all.

 

  This was the reason she had tracked and attacked the humans on their pathetic ship. Why she had unleashed the full fury of her body on them, consuming everything that separated her from the precious prize that had been contained within the vessel’s wood and steel belly.

 

  And then she had tasted, for the first time, the terrifying power of magic. That it had come from the very being she was placing her hope in seemed only appropriate. Except, it hadn't been the warm, cleansing magic of her madness-driven desires, but the concussive thunder of War-Magery.

 

  The remains of the hull now half buried in mud, the silt from their impact settling, she finally reached the prize.

  It was so small, lying on the seabed.

  She had no idea they were capable of such destruction, so beautiful and delicate, so close to a human in appearance. The creature must have been utterly terrified to even attempt it. Guilt rippled through her.

  Reality shifted once again, and she remembered: they were the originals, the first beings to wield magic. So rare that most believed they were myth. The only ones who might be able to undo what they had done to themselves.

  She was not going to let the splinter work its way any deeper. For all their sakes, she would undo all that had been done.

  And she had so nearly succeeded. She had found one. Captured and broken, held in a tank aboard a human ship… but she was real.

  The mermaid was supposed to change them back.

  But as she lifted the beautiful creature from the mud, her heart broke. It was nearly dead, devastated from the use of War Magic, her body so finely tuned to healing. The mermaid’s mind looked right into hers, seeing the savage pain there, the twisted remains of what once was… the desperation for release.

  Please.

  He has to live. They need him. No one will mourn him, but all dreams are hidden within him.

  At first, the words made no sense.

  Then she saw: a little human, floating down into the depths from above. He was nothing to look at, just a boy. A clump of the mermaid’s hair trailing from his hand, marking the speed of his descent as it rippled in the water.

 

  The Slopharui’s huge, twinned hearts stuttered again, the pressure of her blood falling dangerously low.  She had a choice: turn for the coastal shelf and dive deep, settle near the abyssal plain and let the ocean restore the equilibrium her body could no longer sustain… or breach.

 

***

 

The rushing currents thunder into her, further ripping the wound left by the mermaid’s desperate attempt to save herself. Three fathoms, a lifetime measured in rolling currents and waves, then… nothing and everything.

***

“For three days the beach had been littered with washed up bodies. Those that survived told wild tales of sea-slugs the size of mountains and warned of the curses from mermaids. Yimyan found the boy first, and thought he was dead. It was only as she sized the boys’ boots up against hers that he gave a violent cough and rolled over, groaning. She moved closer to have a look at his face. A live one might be of help on the fishing boats. Yimyan grinned; the gods had smiled upon her today. She noticed the boy’s hands seemed to be clenched tightly around something. With care she pried open his palm and pulled out some silver-blue hair that glittered in the light. She tossed the mermaid hair into the wind, and began to drag the boy up the beach.”

A huge pyre burned on the exposed rocks beneath the headland.

  It was the spring tide festival; for the few hours of the year the moon’s pull released this land from the ocean’s blanket, rows and rows of tables were set up and a feast laid out.

  This year was something more. Hundreds had gathered; all the villagers, the fishing crews, travelling traders, even the crew of a Belishi naval frigate that was holding over, trapped by the abnormally low water.

  All eyes were on the flames. Or rather the huge, hulking body encased within them. One more demon scourged from the earth.

  A cry went up, soon joined by every able voice present. A cry of victory over the monster.

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