Group Novel 2013-2014

(Page Summaries Coming Soon…)

Page 1 – Ross Van Gogh

Far from the shore stood the grey lighthouse, shining out its wane light to passing ships for more than a century. It stood on a collection of rocks and shingle that charitable observers would say passed for an island.

In the days of the keepers grandfathers the passing ships had been many their cargos from far off exotic lands with names so beautiful they must have been given by poets. By the keepers fathers time these ships had dwindled to a slow trickle and by the present to so few he felt so alone, like the last man left alive on the planet Earth.

Presently the keeper sat next to a fire constructed from driftwood on the beach his silhouette cast against the lighthouses edifice clutching with a small brown paper bag.

Once, long ago, a lifetime ago it seemed to him, it had carried a loaf of rye bread and a tub of unsalted butter on their lunchtime kitchen rendezvous with a cheese sandwich.

More presently however this bag contained love letters.

The bag closely wrapped around love letters tightly bound with a white piece of silk had until an hour ago been hidden at the bottom of a sea chest in his private quarters.

He opened the bag and fed the fires flames with its contents one by one. As words such as “sweetheart”, “forever”, “I love you” and “always” burned away the keeper fought against the tears that stung his eyes.

He was not successful.

His task completed he returned to the lighthouse walking the short distance in less than a minute leaving the fire on the beach to burn behind him.

Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?” he allowed himself to muse.

Now in the relative comfort of the keepers lodge he removed the heavy jacket he had been wearing to protect him from the elements and sat in the large leather armchair.

I feel like a tiny mouse that has been swallowed whole by a monster”, he thought, “and the monster feels my tiny little mouse movements inside it.

Though the previous hour had not been physically exhausting he felt a fatigue steal over him. He would have easily succumbed to this had he not been almost startled out of his skin by a sudden unexpected, unaccustomed consistent and insistent wrapping at the lodge door.

Regular booming knocks at the door hard and heavy enough it seemed to him to take the door off its hinges. The pounding stopped as suddenly as it had begun to be replaced by the sound of something pacing up and down outside the door with an impotent impatience at not been admitted immediately, alert for movement inside.

“Who’s out there” the keeper cried trying to keep the tremor out of his voice.

Page 2 – Sarah Mclean

“Who’s out there?” the keeper cried, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice.

There was a short pause, and then a voice as booming as the knocks on the door said: “I wish to speak with you. Open up. Are you a man or a mouse?”

Having already established himself as a mouse, the keeper felt no shame in sitting for a further few moments, his eyes darting to the door and away again. When the stranger once again subjected the door to the mercy of his fists, however, the keeper rose slowly and swung it open.

The man on the threshold was tall, taller than average, with an impressive bulk and somewhat intimidating beard. He gave a kurt nod and smile, and strolled inside so confidently that the keeper had to step quickly aside to avoid a collision.

“You are the lighthouse keeper,” said the stranger, sitting heavily down on the small sofa and pulling a flask from his huge red bag.

It was not a question. Why should it be? Who else but the keeper would be sitting alone in this all but forgotten lighthouse on this lonely island? No, the offspring of an island, a mutant, a crumbling, inadequate, destitute man. It was not a question, and so the keeper said nothing, closing the door on the voice of the wind as she attempted to charm them both with her singing, and sitting down at the wooden table, facing the stranger.

“I have business,” he continued, taking a gulp from his flask and pouring half the contents into his beard in the process.

It’s so thick, the keeper thought, that there probably won’t even be drips in his lap.

“Business,” the stranger repeated. “I apologise for my lateness, but you know this is a challenging place to locate.”

The keep nodded mutely and spun his bracelet around and around his wrist. It was a lot looser than it used to be.

“My business here,” the stranger said, taking another gulp of his drink, “concerns a message, a message that is too important to put in a bottle. Not that I ever believed this was a reliable method of communication. I once picked up a note from a girl who had been attempting to contact her father. The date fell some two-hundred years previous to when I discovered it. I daresay they are reunited now, but the point is still the same.”

He paused to throw back another measure.

“I repeat,” he said after a moment, “this message is important. It is from, as they say, the current Lord Merman. Why they never say King, I don’t know, but then they have many faults which humans cannot cure.”

He stopped again, but this time, the keeper did not notice whether he had taken a drink or not. His mind had begun to spin and whirl as if it had been thrown on to a merry-go-round, and an almost painful mixture of apprehension and excitement was scorching his insides.

A message from the Lord Merman. A message from the Lord Merman. A message from the Lord Merman. Could it be? Was it possible? After all this time… Her?

Page 3 – Rachel Gladstone

After all this time… Her?

His mouth must be hanging open; his eyes must be huger than saucers as he tries and fails to find his voice; futilely trying to banish the bitter onslaught of memories that have suddenly begun their silent, deadly attack on his fragile psyche; hopelessly trying to smother their dark, clinging tendrils with the enormity of the thought. Because it couldn’t… could it? And even if it was… Then why? After all this time? Why? Why now? The stranger sitting in the chair simply watches him in silence; his bearlike profile seeming to grow in stature by the flickering, guttering shadows thrown onto the bare stonewall by the fire’s leaping flames.

The lighthouse keeper can just about make out a small smile of grim satisfaction tugging at the lips shrouded by the thicket of black hair that caressed the strangers’ chin as he feels himself swallow painfully and begin to speak; his voice feeling weak and white and useless compared to the deep, booming rumble that had filled the tiny room moments previously.

‘Is… Is… It… Is it about…’ He tails away as the stranger nods and the man has the strangest feeling that the stranger has just read his mind; although how that can be possible, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t believe in such things; although he does believe in magic; how can he not when his childhood sweetheart had been one of Them and not just one of Them but the only daughter of the Lord Merman; one of those fabled creatures of the deep who had haunted his every childhood bedtime story as he had listened to the comforting sloshing slap of the waves crashing against the rocks far below the cliff top cottage of his childhood? A ringing, salty slosh mingled with the guttering, flickering hiss of the candle propped inside its’ tarnished bracket and the warm, deep securities of his Grandmothers’ voice as she had recited him the stories that she; like her mother before her; like the myriad of islanders before that had heard from her mothers’ knee and learnt off by heart.

‘She wishes to see you,’ the booming echo of the strangers voice pulls him back the spiralling pit of his memories like a quick, painful twist to the wrist. This statement is followed by the swallowing of another measure from the bottle still clenched in his fist as the keepers’ mouth suddenly feels as if he has swallowed sandpaper; the words, the questions that he desperately needs answers to rising and dying in the sudden, bloody barrenness of his throat as he waits; hardly daring to breathe.

‘You,’ he pauses and looks up at the ceiling for a moment that feels like an eternity but in reality is only the length of a ragged breath forced through screaming lungs.‘ You are to go down to the Black Cliffs at midnight on when the next full moon is at its’ highest.’ The words have an air of rote to them; as if they are the message and he clings to them like a drowning man clinging to a scrap of driftwood amid a storm-tossed sea. ‘One of Them will meet you. You must speak to no-one, tell nobody where you are going and,’ at this point the stranger leans in closer to the keeper; his voice low and thick with seriousness; what little the man can see of his guests’ eyes now dark with urgency. ‘Understand this for it is important. You must not; under any circumstances make eye contact with Them. Good night.’

With that the stranger stands, stretches and lets out a great, bearlike yawn that rumbles through his massive chest and ripples through the great black ocean of bristles making up his beard before stowing away his bottle within a hidden fold of his cloak and yanking open the door onto the cold, harsh night with a blast of icy, salt sprayed sea air and disappearing into the abyss.

Page 4 – Hayley

Summary: The lighthouse keeper eagerly waits on the pier for the Lord Merman’s messenger. But the mermaid that greets him is far from the beautiful damsels he remembers and is instead a scarred and grotesque creature. Disobeying his instructions the keeper gazes in to the mermaids eyes only to discover she has none, causing him to faint and plunge into the sea.

The night had finally come, the moon was full and hung high in the sky, swollen with exuberant light which spilled over the grumbling clouds below. It was on this night that the keeper found himself perched on the ancient splintering pier which protruded awkwardly from the seaweed strewn mess of sand and shingle that some might call a beach. The keeper sat alone on, leaning with his legs dangling over the edge of the final few angular wooden boards, allowing the dark stillness of the night to envelop him. In his ands he clutched a bottle- not filled with alcohol as one might expect, although he had seriously considered retrieving the flask that dwelt beneath his pillow lest the nightmares gripped him- no, this bottle contained a message. A message he should have sent years ago. The bottle was old now; coated with a thin, permanent layer over dust which frosted the glass surrounded the slowly yellowing roll of paper that it contained. But although the words themselves may be worn and faded, they still burned in the keepers mind as bright and as poignant as the day he had written them.  Just meagre four words which spelt a simple question, yet he had been too much of a coward to utter all those years ago – Will you marry me?

The keeper could feel his hands tremble with the cold, yet no wind rose on the sea that night and the water was as still as the glass frozen in his hands. Absent-mindedly the keeper stared at his alien reflection in the mirror below. If he stretched out his leg he could make the tip of his greasy old brown boot fracture the image of the pitiful, wizened face staring back at him. This intrusion on the water’s flawless façade caused little ripples to spread slowly outwards from the depression he had made. The keeper watched, mildly bemused as the ripples continued to grow. The ripples gathered pace and soon began to swell, like a sudden surge of waves encircling the pier. The water directly beneath the keeper’s feet began to burble like a boiling cauldron and huge bubbles began to rise from the depths below. The keeper’s eyes were transfixed with silent awe as he observed a hand rise from amidst the chaos and five porcelain white fingers torturously unfurled as if grasping of the world above. The keeper made no move to aid the figure; he merely pulled his legs from the water’s edge upon to the pier. His heart fluttered in his chest a moment with tempered anticipation, that perhaps it was his beloved herself that was rising to meet him. His hopes were sorely dashed when he saw the flicker of a tail flail above the water in an attempt to propel the reaching hand further. Her tail, he remembered, had been the most beautiful pearlescent hue of rose, that flowed effortlessly with elegance and grace amongst the waves, and shimmered silver beneath the moonlight. The tail the keeper now observed unsteadily flapping above the water was dull, unimpressive and green, like the sickening clumps of rotting seaweed.

The tail began to thrash more wildly, dousing the keeper with stinging droplets of salt water before throwing its owner from the ocean. Without rising the keeper quickly rocked himself backward as the mermaid frantically grasped for the pier. Her fraught fingers clawed at the edge of the flaking wood as she drew her torso from the water, and she tossed her head back desperately inhaling several large gulps of air. The keeper glared at her, astonished. He had fondly remembered the mer-people with admiration and wonder as a proud and insurmountably beautiful race but when he looked upon this warped creature before him all he felt was disappointment.  Far from the mer-people’s usual regal decorum this frail specimen before him was not even clothed; all that was covering her modesty was her matted black hair that resembled the tangled nets of the fishing boats the lighthouse keeper used to guide to shore. Through the gaps in her hair the keeper could see her sharp ribs prominently jutting out beneath her paper-thin flesh. The length of both of her arms was heavily dissected by scars; some old and white and faded, others that were appeared fresh and angry. Her fingernails which were anchoring her to the pier were black and talon-like, and around her left wrist she bore a weighty metal bracelet. No, it’s not a bracelet, the keeper realised with sudden vivid horror as he looked again at the remnants of the shackle, which was clamped round the girl’s delicate wrist. The coarse metal was flecked with blood from the slicing wound the choking cuff had created. The keeper felt a swell of bile began to pool in his throat.

The girl dropped her head suddenly, and finished heaving long enough to compose a sentence.

“You are the lighthouse keeper?” she spluttered.

Her voice was melodic and joyful like the others but rather a bitter rasping, like the hissing of a snake. The girl kept her head down and did not face him. The keeper vehemently recalled the instructions the stranger had given him not to the meet the messenger’s eyes but the keeper could not help himself. He felt drawn as if by some enigmatic force to gaze in to those eyes and felt his pupils wander helpless across her down-turned features.

“You are the lighthouse keeper?” she repeated.

“Yes,” the keeper replied in a small, trembling voice. “Yes I am.”

He stared again at the grotesque form of the creature before him with an inexplicably unquenchable desire to meet her eyes.

“A lot has changed since I was last there.” The keeper asserted, glancing again at the cuff which encircled her wrist.

“Everything.” She answered, raising her head as she spoke. The keeper’s eyes eagerly darted to meet hers but the girl had none. Instead only puckered flesh that surrounded the two gaping chasms, so empty they appeared to trap the very blackness of the night itself.

The keeper suddenly felt some small measure of sanity slip from his grasp, along with the treasured bottle; which fell from his hands and shattered on the pier. He felt the edges of the world around him begin to blur and envelop his sight before his other senses followed suit and he plunged from the pier in to the beckoning depths below.

Page 5 – Rachel Norris

Summary: Richard wakes up and finds that the tortured mermaid slave Mary has taken him to her secret underwater cave. She tells him that a new Lord Merman, the brother of the former ruler, has taken charge of the Mer kingdom alongside his niece, the Princess Ariella. Mary tells Richard that there is a curse on their people which The Lord Merman believes Richard can prevent. Once Richard has agreed to meet with him, Mary kisses him, allowing him to breathe underwater, and then she returns him to land.

The darkness peeled away slowly, gathering and retreating at the corners of the keeper’s vision, back and forth like the inky tide in the small hours of the morning. Orbs of pale orange light began to shift deliriously before his stinging eyes.

He blinked. When the balm of his tears had soothe the rawness of his eyes, he saw above his head a low ceiling of rock, where needle-sharp stalactites, crusted with all manner of barnacles, mussels and mysterious aquatic flora, dripped like the resting fingers of the dead, just out of reach. Along with his vision, his curiosity returned. He began to probe the slimy floor beneath him with trembling hands; wet and puckered hands which were chilled to the bone and barely functioning. He felt scraping, brittle objects, which cracked and crumbled at his clumsy touch. These he soon discovered to be fish bones: some ancient, some still retaining slivers of stringy, putrefying flesh. This also accounted for the disturbing smell. There were also several razor-sharp shells, strewn among far slimier and more mysterious items of detritus, away from which the keeper eagerly retreated his hands.

The keeper made an attempt to stand. The room – the cave – shifted sickeningly, and the urge to vomit became too strong to resist. Heaving himself onto his front, he retched, and found that he had been half full of seawater. He took a few sore, ragged breaths, and steadied himself against a rough wall, which was slick with moss and stagnant seawater. Once his ragged breathing had subsided, he examined the only sources of light in the cave: small, makeshift lanterns, consisting of candles trapped inside various receptacles. There rusted tins with holes bored into the sides, glass jars and bottles, even the eyeless head of a porcelain doll…

The keeper felt a choking sensation in his gullet. Staring into the twin voids of the doll’s eye sockets, through which even the comforting glow of firelight became an eerie sight, the keeper began to remember what had sent him plummeting into the frigid sea. Now alert, and now that his own heavy breathing had grown quiet, he began to determine a soft, irregular sound emanating from the darkest corner of the cave, where the light of the many mismatched lanterns could not reach. It was a frothing, whistling sound; a sound of illness and suffering; the ragged breaths of a creature so abused that life itself was an on-going torture. The keeper instinctively backed himself against the rock wall, ignoring the bite of pain as his spine rubbed against its sharp, irregular surface.

Who’s there?” He asked, his voice far louder than he had expected, reverberating around the confines of the cave like an alarm. There was a brief pause in the pattern of rattling breaths, and then, slowly, the sound of the bones, shells and dead things littering the floor of the cave being disturbed, as the creature crawled into the pool of flickering candlelight, dragging herself with skeletal hands, paying no mind to what she touched, or to what caught and scraped her delicate tailfin, which already resembled a fringe of tattered muslin.

Looking at her, the keeper felt an inexplicable surge of guilt, along with his natural revulsion, as though it had been he who had turned this mermaid into the broken creature she was now. The urge to look into her eyes had gone – her power was lost, and the spell was broken. That, at least, was a small relief.

Keeper…” She murmured. “You are awake. I must give you my message, and then I will take you back to land.”

Where are we?” The keeper ventured.

A hidden cave.” She replied. “Not far from your island. Hidden from you, hidden from them. One of many. Only I know. But I cannot hide here long. They will be searching for me. Hear my words, and then you must go.

As the mermaid raised her head, the slick, matted tresses of hair parted slightly to reveal an elfin face – thin, grey and mutilated, but in which the characteristic features of the mer race were still visible: the high, angular cheekbones, the full lips, the pointed chin. She resembled a ruined painting, tarnished and faded, but whose form still stirred in the viewer an eerie feeling of reverence for what it had once been. Whether this maid had been a beautiful one, or rather plain, before whatever fate had befallen her, she was irrevocably damaged now. Who among the merpeople, the keeper asked himself, could have inflicted such torture on one of their own? What had happened in their domain that could have excused it.

What is this message?” The keeper asked finally, to break the awful silence which had descended, leaving only the competing sounds of their breathing, and the dripping water echoing around the cave. “What does the Lord Merman want from me? He severed all ties with the Keepers, with humans, thirty years ago!”

And it was a terrible crime.” She said gravely. “He broke an oath and brought a curse upon our people which, without the keepers, will destroy us all.

Is that what happened to you?” The keeper asked, swallowing hard to keep back the tremor in his voice.

A slow, faint smile began to curl the white lips of the mermaid. “No.” She replied. “Mine is a different curse. But it grows late. The sun is rising in your world, and in mine they will be awaiting my return, awaiting your reply. The Lord Merman whom you knew is dead. His brother now rules, with his niece, the princess, at his right hand. He wishes to right the wrongs of his brother, and to restore the ancient pact between merman and keeper. He would like to meet with you, when the time is right, but until then he sends his slave, to ensure that you are trustworthy…”

Slave?” The keeper repeated. He could not reconcile this idea with his memories of the merpeople, who had always looked with horror on all violence, and who punished with the highest sentence any who brought harm to their own.

Much has changed.” She cooed softly. “Much has changed…”

Then what is it that I have to do?” The keeper asked quickly, growing more and more eager to leave the foul cave.

Nothing. You wait. I will come again with the Lord Merman’s orders. But you must agree to meet him. You must agree!”

Somehow, without him noticing, she had managed to crawl close enough to him that she could reach out and clutch at his hand, which she now did, gazing up at him. The look on her face was no less fierce and imploring for want of eyes. Her fingers were icy cold, but smooth and dry; the feel of them, though colder and thinner than hers, brought back old and painful memories which the keeper had long ago attempted to lock away in an old sea chest. Memories which he had tried to burn on that driftwood fire, along with the letters. Evidently, the matter of his thoughts would not curl and crumble into ash so easily as that of the yellowed papers.

Yes.” The keeper replied, dizzily, certain that it was a terrible idea, but equally certain that he had no real choice.

Then you must go. I will see that you are brought safely to land.”

She looked towards the exit of the cave, where a pool of murky water led down into a deep, underwater tunnel.

But how will I swim to shore from here…I’ll drown!”

It is not far, but I must give you the Kiss, if you are to survive the journey. Forgive me…it was foolish to bring you here, but I was afraid, out of the water…”

The mermaid looked away, and the keeper almost fancied he had glimpsed the slightest flush in her cheeks as she tried to hide her shame behind a curtain of tangled hair. He could not pretend that the idea of kissing those cold, pale lips appealed to him, but he knew that without the Mermaid’s Kiss, he would die before he reached dry land. He nodded quickly, and repressed a shudder.

Closing his eyes tightly, to avoid gazing into her empty sockets, the keeper allowed the mermaid to touch his lips with hers. As she breathed a little air into his lungs, he felt the eerie effect of the Kiss taking hold. With her bony fingers clasped tightly around his wrist, the mermaid plunged into the pool, dragging the keeper behind her. Somehow, despite all her injuries, the mermaid swam fast, and held with frightening strength to the keeper’s wrist, and together they coursed through the channel towards a distant pinprick of shifting, greenish light ahead.

Page 6 – Maria

Summary: Back in his lighthouse, the keeper awakes from the terrible realm of sleep, dismissing his underwater encounters with a strange mermaid as mere reverie. Standing on the pier gazing at a green light, he comes face to face with a giant sea monster, who, after demanding ownership of the island, tosses him back through time and space. The keeper ends up on the ‘archipelago of his youth’ and a familiar girl – his former lover, perhaps – approaches him. 

Thrown at once from the twilight world of calmness and stasis, the keeper awoke in a wreckage of sweat, to the dank cavern of his chamber; the only room in the lighthouse. The vision immersed him, sent surges of terror straight through him as he remembered. Yes, that green light; the peridot glow across the bay. Those rimy hands gripping his wrist; he still felt them, felt the sting of their tingling imprints. The harsh breath of the present bursting as he punctured the surface, drank the rushing oxygen.

Better not to mull it over. Some sort of dream; a hallucination. The keeper got up, shivering, and devoured a draught from the hip-flask hidden beneath his pillow. It was only then, with the whisky igniting his nerves, that he noticed the storm. The battered sound of flotsam being thrown upon rock, of wind roaring through walls, of waves tossing and hurling and flinging their vicious rhythm upon cliffs. Anxiously he hurried up the spiral staircase, thinking of all the ships, drawn into whirlpools of incessant peril. At the top he re-lit the great flame that powered its luminance across the bay, and as he stared out into the misted, turbulent abyss, he felt all the comfort of somnolence dissolve; felt the weary pit of his heart.

Alone again, he coldly stood on the pier, with nature exerting its wrath upon him. Taking thick, rasping drags from a tobacco pipe. He thought of that poor, ragged mer-girl; how she’d reminded him of…That green light! It came to him, piercing out of nowhere the blackness of sky and sea, shimmering in the distance. The keeper’s excitement grew and dashed itself upon his brain like the sea-spray splashing the rocks. The dream, then, was it real? Her voice – here my words, and then you must go; and her voice – I guess this is goodbye. Voices swelling up in a cacophony of anguish. The ocean moaning, splitting and churning in great, aching shudders.

Suddenly from under the waves burst forth the pulsating body of some sea-monster, a grotesque assemblage of tentacles and throbbing slimy skin. Erupting from the water it blinked out from a thousand mismatched eyes, a collage of stolen souls. The wreckages of a ship scattered from one of its massive tentacles. In horror, the keeper dropped his pipe. He thought back to the legends of the merpeople, who had spoken of such a leviathan. It was said that these brutal beings roamed the seas, and that one contained the immobilised body of the Mer-Prince, whose destiny was to bring harmony to the worlds of men and women, Merpeople and humans. Before him the tentacles danced obscenely through air and water, tossing out miniature tidal waves and bunches of seaweed. Beams of yellow warning swept over the monster’s face as the lighthouse made its sweeping rounds.

“MY NAME IS ARGUSANA.” The voice bellowed from a dark opening in its skin. It continued:

“FUTILE HUMAN, YOU MUST RELINQUISH THIS ISLAND!” The keeper felt acutely the thousand eyes fixated upon him, terror hurtling through his veins. If only he were back in the hidden cave, if only he could touch the soft flesh of her long-forgotten face…

“YOU LEAVE NOW.” Another roar sent ripples through the air, ripples that stank of the algae and pollution of the bottom of the ocean. “NOW.” The foul air of its breath threw the keeper backwards, helplessly.

The octopus-like creature then reached out and with one of its tentacles clutched the keeper from the pier, and held him tightly, suspended above the sea’s tempestuous yell. He felt the slimy cupping of its suckers against his body and felt the bile rise in his paralysis. With one almighty roar the monster swung back the tentacle that held the man and flung him, soaring through the bleak void of the storm, through space and time back into the starving shadows of the past…

He awoke with his body stung with the bruises of a violent fall. This new air he breathed was sweet and still. Waves lapped gently upon sand like kisses of sound. The keeper achingly stood up and looked around; the familiarity of the place struck him with the painful loveliness of nostalgia. He was on the archipelago of his youth: the scattering of islands with their swaying palms and secret enclosures concealed within rocks. With every breath, he felt more purified of the horrors of the creature and the lighthouse; felt himself growing the keen green shoots of boyhood. He took down from a nearby tree the chocolate-coloured jewel of a coconut, splitting it expertly on the ground. The keeper sighed with relief as he drank the sugary juice from its bitter shell, relishing the instant nourishment of his body.

And then some strangeness of feeling prompted him to look up. Was he dreaming? The air turned warm and heady, his vision swaying like the branches of palms. Dreaming, dreaming…She…She came out of the water that filled the cove, her body transforming before his eyes…Could it be? The rosiness of her tail, disappearing in the glistering sea-light, becoming – becoming human. Those pale legs that held up the frail torso, the waterfall of thick red hair. The coconut rolled heavily from his grasp, bouncing upon the ground. Walking towards him…Walking towards him; her figure slipping in and out of the sinuous shadows that rippled around her; the dance of morning light, a halo around her – above her.

Yes, it was her – it had to be – walking towards him. He felt all earthly longing swelling within him. It was she, she, she…

Chapter 7 – Ailsa

Long red hair waving like the flames bursting forth from a dragon’s mouth. The Keeper smiled and raised a hand. He wished with all his heart that she would greet his fingertips with the delicate flesh of hers, and inch by inch – she acquiesced to his request and brushed lightly the nerve endings, sending a tremor of delight and desire along his arm and into his body. Warmth, striking, soft skin. He sat up, eyes widening with a plea, looking at her longingly. The girl, the woman threw back her head and laughed, a chiming note of a glorious bell, then turned on her heel and ran barefoot and naked, perfect features and perfect form, away across the white sands into the blue blue sea.

She turned back and giggled, “Come on silly, you’ll miss the perfect tide.”

The Keeper’s eyes rounded, huge and disbelieving. He paused and looked around him at the beach, with the series of islands stretched out beyond and before him, drifting like giants’ stepping stones into the water. Slowly, very slowly he sat up, watching her naked body turn back towards him and gesture to the sea. Was not he in the – where had the lighthouse gone? The mermaid who was grotesque and without eyes, the levithan, the island, everything… he shook his head and slowly stood, watching the girl with the red hair as she giggled at him and – threw herself off the edge of a stone into the water.

His next breath was fast and claustrophobic to his chest. He watched as her body hit the water and her legs seemed to intertwine together, the flesh merged and it became a tail once more, a rosy pale and glittering tail.

Beat beat, slam slam in the water and she was diving and away beneath the surface.

“Come on,” she had said, “Come on.”

Come.

The Keeper laughed, and leapt up, then found he could run. He had no need to worry about his injuries, of the great suckers of the squid beast that had clutched onto him because he knew what this was now, he knew. His lithe legs carried him faster and faster across the plains of his memories, carrying him across the sands that he had been playing on since he was a little boy. A tilt of the head and there – there! Was the white house with the wide windows where he had been brought up, and there was the rock pool where he had found a hermit crab, and there was the large white sea-dashed rock where the emperor of all seals like to perch and bellow to every other seal that this was his island, his world, and there was she, the mermaid, diving into the depths. Down, down, down…

Just before he ran and jumped off the end of the rocks he looked down into his reflection beneath him. A face framed by blondest of hair, blue eyes, a soft smile and handsome features – this was him in his prime, with the body perfect of any man, this was him as his dreams remembered him, and this was him as he had met her first, then spent the many gorgeous hours of swimming, diving and stealing a mermaid princess’ virginity.

He felt a tug on his loins, on his manhood as he enlonged his body form and pierced the waters with his hands before him, one over the other. His eyes open he searched around, looking for her fast in the salty cold sea, before kicking his legs and returning to the surface. His memory mind and his aged mind worked together. This was the sixth, no – seventh time that they had met and already they had slept together, sharing the lustful bed. She had laughed that night and promised that she would remain faithful. He had considered it, and was still considering it. At the surface he caught a breath, gasping and sculled as he waiting for her to rise again out of the depths. Her pink tail splish splash breaking the waves in two.

“Oh my love,” he sang joyfully, “Oh my heart is pounding with love, and I am not free, I am bound my love oh joy oh me!”

She popped up beside him, her red hair splaying out. He twisted around towards her just in time to feel her warm wet lips on his cheek.

“I love you,” she whispered, “I love you so much.”

The Keeper closed his eyes and threw himself to fall back into the water.

Fall back, then forwards as he smack hit the cold cold water of the future and his island was stolen by the great leviathan of the demon sea world. Demon. Demon indeed. His eyes widened, he watched as the memories faded away again, and he once more felt lost and broken-hearted like the time he had gotten up and she had no longer been there.

“Oh my darling,” he whispered, sculling with freezing skin and bony limbs. “Oh my darling, once my future-wife.”

For when the question had been asked, “Will you marry me?” the answer had been a solid one.

A mindful one.

An immortal one.

“Yeah, sure. Why ever not?”

Chapter 8 – Scott 

Summary: The keeper, Richard, is drifting in open sea after being flung from the island by the kraken. He reflects on what’s happened so far and resolves to keep going, enthused by the love he feels for Ariella, the mermaid.

The storm had passed, the rolling of waves and the gentle hush of the ocean were all that could be heard. The sounds soothed the keeper. He floated in open water, clinging to a large piece of rotting wood that had once comprised the hull of a mighty ship, now destroyed. Remembrance of the eyeless merslave and the great leviathan surfaced in his thoughts. Vivid hallucinations of the beast and the storm took over him. He kicked and screamed and tried to escape. He could hear the thunder booming in his ears; he felt the wind and the rain tearing at his skin. In his hysteria, he let go of the driftwood and begun to sink below the waves, salt water filled his lungs and shattered the illusion. He arose abruptly, coughing and gasping for air. Visions of the beast sunk rapidly back into the recesses of his mind. The image before him was shattered and replaced by a vast clear night sky which shimmered upon the crystalline ocean surface. The melding of space and water produced a mesmerizing effect upon the keeper; he felt weightless, a celestial body floating in galactic limbo. But the gravity of pain and cold drew him back to the present. His core had been penetrated by cold and pain pulsated throughout his body. He wished to become numb. Numb to the unbearable cold and the ravaging pain but most of all, numb to the remembrance that toyed with his heart. His eyes closed and his breathing slowed, unrepentant blackness stole up on him. It sought out the fire of his life, intending to quench the few embers that still smoldered. But his fire would not be beguiled, it danced and weaved and fought back. It stubbornly rekindled, blazed anew, affronted by the attempt to be doused. The keeper’s eyes opened and reality was forced upon him. This time he regarded it under new light. He observed the omnipotence of the cloudless sky interrupted by speckles of stars. He saw the greatness of the low lying moon, which shone pale white and bathed in hues of blue, as it drifted seamlessly through space. It showed the scars of its long circular journey proudly upon its surface and so long as it exits, it will be guided on by the earth. Perhaps we are led by something bigger than ourselves. This thought gave the keeper courage, his torn heart wished upon the moon and the stars to be with the one he loved once more. To hear her laugh and her cry. To see his future entwined with hers. To listen to her speak of her dreams, of the peace they would bring to all of man and merkind. He had accepted she was as much a part of him as the lungs he breathed with. To let go of her would be death. The hope that at least one in the eternity of space was listening gave him comfort. Summoning the remains of his energy, he pulled himself out of the water to lie upon the driftwood. Clothes clung to him and his body ached but the night was still and perfectly calm. His ears were filled by the hush of waves and he was soon taken by a merciful sleep.

Page 9 – Maria

Summary: Still floating on the ocean, the keeper hallucinates through visions of the past, remembering the relations between his father and the Lord Merman, remembering his lover. He reflects on the political and economic relations between the Merpeople and his family. He awakes to the scarred mermaid saving him. She informs him of a war brewing, and takes him to a city where they will make plans to retrieve her eyes and the keeper’s lover.

It seemed possible that he might float forever. Only nature was there to watch him, cradling him like an abandoned child as he lay in slumber upon the driftwood, as the sea bore him from day to night. Moon-shine rippling the waves, lines of white splitting his skin, seagulls swirling over his head as if he were no longer alive. The sea, moving swiftly through time. The irregular rhythm beat mystery through his dreams: the sea, the sea, the sea.

Asleep he slipped through visions. His father sitting by the water, an upright imitation of the lighthouse behind him, smoking a cigar as he talked in low tones to the old Lord Merman, whose marble-white chest shone bright in the moonlight. A whole childhood evoked in the stench of tobacco, the growl of the sea Lord. Those grave discussions saturated his memories; the exchange between man and beast, between reality and myth, that peppered his whole mind. How he longed to forget it all, and forget her too. As if it wasn’t enough, seeing her walking towards him in all her playful effervescence, her cunning beauty; now he was chained to the sea, where they lived. How awful to be in limbo, to float and not set foot on solid ground, in solid time again. His mind would not break from his body; would not awake from the oceanic labyrinth of sleep. There she was again, the passing of ruby tresses and pale long limbs. He saw the old ships like dark phantoms on the horizon, being lured by the lighthouse for the merpeople to eat. Crunching wood and meat between their fish-like teeth. Ancient bargains between Men and Merpeople. Navy vessels slaughtered, pirate ships looted for gold. The Merpeople had always been hoarders. Maps, rum and other treasures. How wonderful, a draught of rum and a mermaid’s caresses…

Richard, Richard! Voices seeped through him, penetrated layers of dreams until they dripped to the centre where he was awakened. The keeper sat up with a start, immediately feeling bile rise to his throat with the change in sensation. Real, hard land underneath him. Instead of vomiting, he choked up a lungful of sea water. He shivered violently as he looked up at his seeming saviour.

‘You?!’ he gasped. A thin draping of gauze barely concealed her glaring scars, or the emaciated body that was crouched over him, a honeyed sunset spilling light on her wearied features.

‘Alive! Thank mercy!’ Gently she swept the tendrils of hair from his face. She bent down to lightly kiss his forehead. He looked up at her, a chill falling over him as he looked into those black absences that were her eyes.

‘Blessing of the sea,’ she murmured. Richard started, his cheeks flushing with indignation.

‘Blessing?! Blessing?! What that bloody sea has done to me in the last few…hours? Days? Months? Who knows?! I thought I’d drowned. The sea is full of monsters. I’d lost my senses, consciousness; I was all but memory! They gave her back to me, like a fragile charm, then stole her again. My father, mother, the laws of the land. To offer such things so tantalisingly, then to snatch them from my grasp! Ha! As if the sea had a blessing for me!’ She smiled at him wistfully.

‘No matter, you must be exhausted,’ she paused, ‘there are still laws of the land. Secret contacts. I know where you can go to recover, here in this city. I know who you seek, and how to find her. There is some kind of a war going on.’ As she spoke, the world became more lucid for him. He saw the silhouettes of sailing boats, and then the great sprawl of distant skyscrapers, a looming metropolis.

‘City?’ He had never set eyes on the urban world before.

‘They call it the City of Sunsets, the City of Promises. It is where I now live.’

‘But I thought you were a slave?’ he tried not to stare at her scars, ‘forever kept under curse…’

‘That is another story. I have escaped, but I – we – are in constant danger. The Mer Lord needs your blood, the blood that contains ten generations of lighthouse keepers, the blood that will unlock the magic in his lethal potion…’ Her eyes were fixed on a crab, scuttling along the dirty shoreline, its legs tangled in the plastic debris of human waste.

‘There is something you want, and something I want. I have gotten to know this city through sound and touch. The fish markets, the boardhouses, the people who offer you coins for…favours. People that pay to run their strange hands over my scars. They give coins that are smooth and heavy in your hand, that can be exchanged for comfort and dinner.  I have grown to like the human life. If I could get away from the sea forever…’

‘But why can’t you? What’s stopping you from never setting foot in the water again?’ Richard interjected.

‘The Lord Merman has my eyes,’ when she said this, Richard’s own eyes widened, ‘he keeps them locked up in a cavern deep underwater. Now that I am without shackles, I may seek them, but at the possible cost of my life. The thing is: this mermaid you seek, Ariella, she too is free. I think she could help me. She has powers of protection.’ As she spoke her name, Richard burned inside. So she was still alive, not a mere hallucination of memory. Silence fell around them. Then:

‘I still don’t know your name,’ Richard blurted. She smiled mysteriously.

‘I am the Unchristened One, but you may call me Mary.’ But she left him no time to ponder irony.

‘Come, you must be hungry, and this beach is no place for strangers at night. I have a place we can stay. I think they call it a hotel and I have a deal struck with a waiter there. We will have food and warmth and sleep; anything you like. Then tomorrow we must plan.’ He shivered as she took his hand, their frigid fingers mingling. They walked together, not as a man leading a blind woman but as two pale souls melting into bustling, neon streets, leaving behind the shadowy desert of the beach.

Page 10 – Nina

Summary: After being contacted by a messenger from the new Lord Merman (who has taken over and turned the Merkingdom into a much stranger place than what Richard remembered) and being flung from his island by the Kraken before the rest of the message could be delivered, Richard has now ended up on a strange shore –  where the scarred mermaid, Mary, finds him.

The street was almost empty, save from the soaked man and the scarred woman, yet the noise was deafening to Richard’s ears. He was cold and disoriented and from every corner, sign and window both light and sound streamed continuously. It was  dazzling after the quiet beach. Mary walked in silence, but he could tell it wasn’t a brooding one/silence. It was one of planning, and plotting, and hope. Despite the fact that her scars and injuries were as bad as when he’d first met her – whenever that had been  – she didn’t move like a defeated, broken soul anymore. Richard could swear he saw a smile curve her lips for a fraction of a second.
‘I-‘ Richard croaked, the salt water still stinging his throat. ‘I have so many questions – ‘ Mary raised a hand and stopped him.
‘Not now. When we are inside.’ They continue in silence for a few minutes more, and now they were entering a more populated area of the city. Luckily he did not need to stay in the crowds for long as Mary quickly led him down narrow alley. How she found her way so easily and without hesitation Richard did not understand. A heavy door led into a filthy corridor with green walls, covered in mold.
“Charming.” This remark made Mary chuckled as she felt her way along the walls and up a narrow staircase.
‘Kind words from a man who spends his days in a rotting, stinking lighthouse.’ To that Richard had no reply. He had not cared much about himself or his surroundings in a very long time and he had no reason to start now. The small apartment they entered was considerably nicer and more comfortable than the outside, yet not so welcoming that Richard felt inclined to sit down and relax. He covered by the door and studied the room carefully while Mary sank into an armchair. It wasn’t until he spotted the huge fireplace that he finally moved, acutely aware of his cold and wet clothes.
‘So… I take it the Lord Merman has not contacted you since we parted ways?’
‘Not unless he sent the Kraken, intending to kill me.’
“Not even the Lord Merman controls the Kraken. You agreed to meet him.”
“I did.”
“Then you will, eventually. The question is when.”
“So tell me why he wanted to meet me.” Richard pacing in front of the fire and looked at her, at her dark tussled hair.
“I cannot. But I have my suspicions. I know who you are, the last Keeper, and I know what the kingdom was like once. The kingdom you knew. But it has changed and an even greater war is coming.”
“Greater war?” Richard asked. “When was the first one?” Mary chuckled quietly again.
“Well, I suppose war is too strong a term, rebellion more like, an overtaking. It happened in a matter of hours. That’s when I lost my eyes.”
“I’m sorry,” Richard muttered, turning away from the gaping black holes.
“No you’re not,” she gave him a croaked smile, “but thank you nonetheless. The Lord Merman took my eyes, as incentive.” Her voice dropped even lower and he clearly heard venom in her voice. Then she seemed to shake it off. “He might still have them of course, even though I’ve lost my value.”
“I just don’t understand any of this,” Richard said. “Of course I’ve never understood much of the ways of the mer-people, but our peace treaty was…it doesn’t matter. I was evicted from my island so what use am I to the Lord Merman?”
“To find that out, and to find her, you need to return to the sea.” Richard shook his head sadly and inched closer to the heat.
“I don’t know if that is such a good idea,” he sighed, “but I know I won’t have a choice. A promise to the sea is a promise. But I’m not the Keeper anymore, though I was the last.”
“No, you are still the Keeper, ” Mary stated in a matter-of-fact kind of voice. “As long as you’re alive, and the island can be reclaimed.” Richard snorted,
“I doubt that, it was the Kraken, and greater men than I have tried and failed.” Mary did not say anything to this.
“Who are you in all of this?” Richard asked after a moment. “How come you escaped and ended up in this strange place?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she said. “The Lord Merman took my family, my eyes, my pride. Even the sea is denied me, and you know as well as I that that will eventually be the end of me. Though I like the human life, I’m living on borrowed time. And if I can use that time to help anyone willing to bring them down, then that’s time well spent.” Richard nodded, then realised she couldn’t see him,
“Yes, if one has been through what you have…”
“You agreed to meet him” Mary repeated, “And if you return to the sea he will summon you, I would like to be there when he does. If you take me with you, I can help you, prepare you, teach you what has been forgotten and warn you of the dangers ahead. You have spent a long time away from the company of the living, and I fear you might have forgotten what it is like to fight.  In short, I doubt the Lord Merman wants anything but to use you as a pawn in the growing rebellion. So it will be up to you whether or not you choose this position on the board,  or decide to take action.”

Page 11 – Rebecca

Turning his face towards the fireplace, Richard stood in silence and tried to take in everything Mary had just told him. Despite the sights he had seen and the torment he had already endured she was constantly warning him that things would only get more dangerous and this shook him to his very being. Taking on the Lord Merman and preventing the outright destruction of two opposing civilisations seemed like a Herculean task and a crippling doubt in his ability to achieve it began to creep on him with growing urgency. Then he thought of Ariella, the woman he had left all those years ago and he felt a glimmer of hope begin to pierce the darkness that seemed to be consuming his every thought. Despite the many years he had spent repressing his memories of her he still found himself growing weak even at the mere mention of her name and he knew he would endure a further lifetime of pain just to hold her again one more time. However he soon found that there was another face that came to his mind, a face far closer to home than the one that filled his fervent dreams and fantasies. Turning back from the fireplace, he gazed at the amber flickers that danced across Mary’s scarred features and illuminated the slick sheen of her ragged hair and realised that even her empty gaze no longer filled him with fear as it had done that first night on the pier. Yes it still unnerved him, though not to nearly the same extent, but he also felt the stirrings of another emotion building within him. Something not quite tangible yet and lying just beyond the realms of his understanding but which was simultaneously something he had already felt a thousand times previously. Before he could muse on this any further, Mary wearily lifted herself from her chair and turned her face towards him with a tired expression.

“There is nothing further that we can achieve here, and knowing the Lord Merman and his armies it won’t be long before you are called upon for a meeting. You should return to the lighthouse before it gets dark and I’ll find you again when necessary.”

Richard felt a strange pang upon hearing this but he knew the mermaid was right and, bidding her a quick goodbye, he stole off into the murky alleyway outside her home and made the uneasy journey back towards the lighthouse. The streets were cold and silent, with Richard’s footsteps providing the only proof of any living presence in the area yet somehow he still felt that he was being watched. Picking up his pace and pulling his collar closer to his cheeks, he slipped off down a further side street towards the harbour and felt some comfort in the anonymity the shadows provided him, an anonymity he had often longer for since hearing of his destiny as the last Keeper. His dreams had been even more troubled since his encounter with the Kraken and he could feel his grip on reality growing weaker by every passing day, with his increasingly powerful visions of Ariella providing the sole comfort in his dreary existence. The rhythmic slicing of the oars against the gentle waves helped break the eerie stillness of the night and soon Richard felt the glow of the lighthouse beacon wash over him as he drew closer to shore. This was replaced by the faint glow of lanterns within his home and he found his gaze drawn to them as he sank onto his faded armchair and let out a frustrated sigh. Despite the pit of fear that filled his stomach whenever he thought of his inevitable meeting with the Lord Merman, the constant waiting and uncertainty that had invaded his once quiet existence was beginning to cause him more anger than fear and he longed for some sort of consensus to be reached that would allow action to finally be taken. Even his own home was starting to feel like a prison, a place he had previously felt comfort in but in which he was now forced to remain in order to receive the message that would ultimately decide both his fate and that of two societies on the brink of chaos. A sudden knock at the door startled him out of his bleak mindset and Richard made his way warily towards it, already knowing who he would find on the other side and dreading the message they would bring. As the door creaked open he saw a familiar mess of dark hair which provided a stark contrast to the ivory white limbs it covered and felt that strange mix of fear and comfort once again. His eyes were drawn to a strange corked pouch hanging from a piece of string around her neck but before he could ask Mary about it she clasped at his wrist with a desperate urgency and he decided to remain silent.

“It’s time, we have to go right now” She panted.

“Time to meet the Lord Merman?” Richard asked with a growing sense of panic.

“No,” Mary replied, “it’s time to find Ariella.”

Page 12: Josh Curran

“Tell me again why you couldn’t give me the kiss like you’ve been doing whenever we’ve needed to travel by water so far?” The Keeper flashed his obsidian-haired companion a quick glance as he continued to row the small boat out into the dark expanse of the endless sea.
He had been pondering over the question since Mary had first indicated that they would need to spend what little money she had amassed on the purchase of a small, two-person rowing boat. It had seemed redundant, no, more than that, a hindrance.
We need to move as quickly as we can! If she’s in danger then I have to get to her, I have to tell her!
Her cracked voice roused him from his thoughts. “This trip would take too long for me to use such magic upon you. The kiss is a temporary, fleeting thing, and I feared that your body would not survive the strain of journeying in the way of the Mer”.
The Keeper had nodded, making a grunt of acknowledgement as he continued to strain his back and arms with the effort of dragging at the oars, which seemed to cling to the water, an ominous warning for him to turn back.
Before he had set foot in the boat he had made sure to check the pockets of his greatcoat for the familiar, cold touch of the corked bottle which he had kept so close to his heart all of these years, both figuratively and literally. Richard had let out a small gasp when he realised that the bottle was gone, but reason made him continue on into the boat anyway, it was too late now to go searching for something he had clung onto for so long. It was not a surprise to find that it had finally left him, as if it was tired of his hesitation.
But will it reach her? And if it does, what will she think? Will she even know me as I am now? An old, decrepit man, long past my prime…
He could feel every strain of his long years coursing through him like fire as he heaved at the oars of the small rowing boat, the pain blotted out by freezing rain and the desperation of a man nearing the object of his desire.
It seemed to go on for an eternity, the moon rising high overhead, and then finally coming to its rest. It was not until dawn that they finally reached the place which Mary had guided them to, her talon-like hand stretching out to point behind him, unsettling him, as he had been unable to see their destination until now and he had no understanding of how, and by what sense or perception she had been able to guide them thus far.
It rose out of the sea like a blunted spearhead emerging from the back of a defeated warrior, and around its base white water frothed and surged in anger, bitter besieger of a pillar of black rock which had no right to exist this far out into the deep.
It was at least a hundred feet in height, with rough cracks and uneven surfaces as a result of the relentless pounding it had taken from the furious waves and the howling, raking claws of the fierce seaborne winds which whipped fiercely, buffeting the Keeper and their small vessel.
At least a hundred feet, yet as the pillar loomed closer it seemed to grow enormous in height, the finger of an ancient, drowned god beneath the waves. And as he looked over his shoulder, craning his neck so that he could gaze the monumental form, he glanced upwards, the rock illuminated by a shaft of dawn sun which seemed only to fall upon the pillar, whilst the sea around remained shrouded and murky.
There was a figure shackled to the blunted peak of the spear of rock, a figure with hair like tongues of fire, cast against the dawn sun, and overshadowing it in every way. A woman, naked and still, and alone. Even at this distance, he knew who it must be.
Dropping the oars so that he could turn fully to look up to her, Richard began to frantically wave his arms, attempting to catch her attention somehow. So engrossed was he in the desperate need to alert her to his presence, far below, that he paid no heed to the throaty warning cry from Mary who threw her arms about his shoulders and bodily hauled him to the deck.
“Why did you do that you wretched creature!?” The Keeper cried, anger boiling over in an instantaneous lash of aggression, but the blinded creature did not even seem to register the insult. She sat in the boat, mouth open in terror, her face growing paler than a corpse in the cold dead of night.
That was when Richard heard the roar.
It was a terrible, unnatural sound, not meant to be heard outside of nightmares. A noise like the blaring of a thousand horns from the depths, like the agonizing cry of a mad man driven to starvation. And before Richard could form any kind of words to express his terror, the beast broke through the surface of the dark, frothing sea.

THE FINALE: Rachel Norris

The wave that ensued sent their boat heaving backwards, and the force of the water splintered several planks on the side. Richard felt the claw-like hands of his companion grasp his shoulders as they were wrenched from the pitiful vessel, and with her he was dragged several feet under the surface of the sea.

Richard kicked out, treading water violently, and when he wrenched his eyes open with a cold, salty sting he saw the beast’s black tendrils swirl around them, melding with the darkness of the deep in shadows so impenetrable that the eye recoiled from their sight.

Instead, Richard focussed on Mary. Strangely, she was sinking, struggling. How was it that he, a mere human, was out-swimming a woman of the Mer?

And then he saw it – legs.

The Keeper’s eye’s widened, and he almost gasped in a lungful of ocean. But there was no time to be shocked – Mary, beyond all reason, was sinking into the mass of curling limbs.

Richard dived, kicking his heavy-booted feet, and threaded his arms around Mary’s bony waist. He floundered for what felt like an hour, and just when his lungs felt fit to burst, and blue stars were popping behind his eyes, they broke the surface of the churning sea, and gulped in the sticky air. There was a terrible warmth emanating from the beast – in a brief moment of stillness, the Keeper saw steam floating from its vast, slippery flanks, and it seemed to be wreathed in a stagnant fog. Its putrid maw opened and it let out an unintelligible roar of such fury and disdain that the Keeper felt his soul shrivel within him. Would it be so bad, he thought, to simply sink into the darkness? Anything must be better than ending up in the belly of that godforsaken beast…

“Richard!” A shrill cry shattered the gloomy thought.

“Mary!” He searched the sea around him. Out of the waves, a tentacle came soaring, dripping, and in its many-suckered grasp: the fragile form of Mary.

The creature slowly drew the tentacle in, a slow process considering the competition for attention from all its associates. Several others had claimed large fish amid bundles of seaweed and the remnants of long-lost flotsam. But Mary, despite her lack of flesh, seemed to be the prize catch. Richard swam in a panic towards what he hoped was its source, clutching in his left hand a splinter from the boat: a pathetic weapon in most circumstances, but laughable when it came to this monster. Nonetheless, it was all he had.

“Keeper!” Called another voice. It was distant, falling down to him from somewhere up above. “My love! Help me! Save me!”

“Ariella…”

The name came to his lips like the restless murmurs of a recurring dream, and his eyes darted to the gleaming form bound to the pillar. There she was: the flesh golden-white, the hair like underwater-fire…certainly she was a picture of the love of his youth, of his life, though her face was partly hidden behind her wind-whipped hair. In fact she was just the same as she had appeared to him in his vision of the past, of that encounter that had sealed his love for her, like wax around a corked bottle. She was perfect, exquisite, and in danger. Two or more of the tentacles were spiralling up the pillar, gripping it tightly like a child’s fist around a stick of rock, their very tips almost stroking her glittering tailfins…

Strange, he thought, that Mary’s tail had failed to form in the water, and Ariella had failed to lose hers…was this the curse that Mary had spoken of?

Mary.

Richard swallowed hard. He tore his eyes from the beautiful sight of Ariella, his lost love, and searched for Mary amid the chaos of tentacle and tempest.  She was mere feet from the toothless, cavernous maw of the leviathan, and she had ceased struggling. The Keeper braced himself, and then wriggled out of his heavy greatcoat, and pushed his boots of with alternate feet. Now lighter, though still weary to the bone, he swam toward the great slimy cave.

But if he were to die, he had to have one last glimpse of his lover’s beautiful face. He only hoped that she would forgive him for abandoning her…hoped that someone more noble, more capable, would come to her rescue. Surely an army of mermen would swim, tridents in hand, to the rescue of the Princess? No legion would come for Mary the slave.

He lifted his eyes once more to the pillar, and felt a strange, glowing warmth in the pit of his stomach as her face turned to him. The gale had changed its path, and now her hair fluttered behind her, revealing features so beautiful that the Keeper felt his body melt in reverence, as though he had been subjected to some righteous, purifying fire.

His limbs were pulled from their original course, he could think only of Ariella, the most perfect, the most beautiful, the future Queen of the Sea…he thought back to the Archipelago, to their fleeting encounters, that were each branded onto his soul in indelible ink…he remembered the touch of her skin, the pearl-bright flash of her smile, her songs that were more beautiful than any human music, her eyes that shone with the brightest shade of…

What?

This sudden thought disturbed him. What colour were her eyes? She was the only passion of his life, she was the only woman whose eyes he had ever gazed into, full of love, searching for her soul…and yet, in his memory there was a void where those beautiful orbs should have been. A void so empty and black, she may as well have been Mary.

 

You must not; under any circumstances make eye contact with Them.” That was what the mysterious emissary had said. But he had to look…what sort of a man can’t remember the eyes of the woman he was to marry? Her eyes…he thought, almost weeping with distress…what colour are her eyes?

  The memory was fighting to be found, and yet Richard could not reach it. It was as though it was sinking away into the water, and he could not swim fast enough. Soon enough, he would be close enough to see Ariella’s eyes again, and when he saw them, he would see her soul once more, and learn if there was any love left in it for this old man. Soon enough…

Now he understood the warning of the emissary, and remembered an old lesson from his father – one which he had dismissed as mere ramblings at the time, for his father had been a very old man, almost on his deathbed. The power of the Mer, he had said, is not truly in their siren song, but in their eyes.

No wonder they took Mary’s, he thought. Even without them, she had earned his trust, convinced him to follow her into dark and ugly corners of the sea, dark and ugly corners of himself, in order to save her people. Even without them, she had seen into his soul, and, he dared to believe, he had glimpsed her own. It was a pure one, and strong, and he remembered clearly the feeling of trust that he had found, gazing into those empty spaces.

No, he thought. They had never been empty. They were full of life, and hope…

Richard closed his own eyes, and felt the warming pull of Ariella’s gaze fade. The temptation to keep on swimming towards her, to be her saviour, was intensely strong, and at first he thought his bones might break as he turned away, and savagely tore through the mess of waves toward the beast.

“Take me!” He roared, his eyes still tightly closed. “I surrender, monster. ARGUSANA!”

As if stirred by the mention of its name, the creature let out a low, bubbling sound, half way between a muted foghorn and a chuckle. A fat, juicy tentacle came crashing down two feet away from the Keeper, and in a matter of seconds he was surrounded by a suffocating mass of rubbery suckers, each twice his height or more. Breathing was not an option, and the Keeper was sure that he would be dead within seconds. But then he felt a sudden rush of air hit him with the force of a tidal wave, and for a few moments his lungs were full to profusion with wind and rain.

Then, the darkness closed its mouth, and all was still.

 

*

 

The Keeper awoke in a warm cave, lit with faint green light. Had he been dreaming all this time? Was he back in that dank grotto with Mary? Had he ever left?

He felt around him, as he had the first time, and found the floor was littered with the same sort of debris – dead, rotting, razor-sharp things. But he did not feel hard rock against his back; there was a soft, mulchy surface beneath him, and the fishy smell that saturated the warm, wet air was far more sickening than it had been in that secret hideaway beneath the waves.

Richard scrambled to his knees, but found the surface beneath him too soft and spongy to attempt walking upright. The ceiling was low, and dripped some ghastly ooze onto his shoulder, which promptly began to burn and itch. Quickly, he wiped it off with his wet sleeve, and crawled away toward a dim, reddish light ahead.

There seemed to be luminous plants – or perhaps creatures – growing in the crannies of the cave walls, which accounted for the majority of the light. But the warmer glow ahead seemed to be coming from some sort of opening, and Richard was eager to escape this narrow passage.  He crawled on hands and knees, until, reaching a hold in the floor ahead, he began to slide, beyond his control, down into the chamber below.

His strangled scream was short-lived. He promptly landed in a heap on another heaving, spongy surface, though there was less detritus here. His hands recoiled as he realised that the surface was living flesh, and that the oily residue that was now coating his hands was some vile bodily secretion of the great Argusana.

A shimmer in the corner of his eye distracted the Keeper from the futile task of wiping his hands. Some bright metal object was lodged in the wall, twinkling with the unmistakable splendour of something ancient and priceless, bedecked with precious stones. Beneath it, lying with one skinny arm outstretched, was Mary. Richard lurched toward her across the slippery floor, and fell at her feet. Carefully, he turned her over, and saw that her translucent eyelids were closed lightly over the empty sockets, and she was still, and quiet.

“Mary!” He breathed, half afraid to wake her, more afraid she wouldn’t wake.

“Richard…” She purred. A soft smile curved her round lips, as though she were dreaming of something pleasant. “You survived…”

“Survived?” He grumbled. “I don’t see how. I’ve been swallowed by a monster.”

Mary laughed. Her laugh was not the thin husk he recalled, but a silvery stream of light, like the palest dawn rays glittering on sea foam.

“Quite the opposite. We find ourselves in the belly of one monster, yes. But you have escaped the jaws of another – and a far less noble one, to be sure.”

She suddenly rose to her knees, and held Richard in an embrace that knocked the air from his lungs.

“You survived…you chose me!

Suddenly, she began to weep, and Richard began to suspect Argusana had swept him into another dream – perhaps some sort of test. Was this Ariella, testing his love? Had he fallen into a trap?

Nonetheless, he found his shaking hand was stroking her straggle of hair.

“Yes.” He said. “I suppose I did. It’s strange…I really thought I loved her. I thought I loved her more than my own life…but then…I couldn’t…I couldn’t remember–”

“Her eyes.” Mary finished. “But of course you couldn’t. They were never her eyes.”

Richard slowly let her go. He stared into the open sockets, which, somehow, he had grown so accustomed to that they no longer disturbed him in the least.

“More riddles?” He sighed, once he had given up trying to read her thoughts from that inscrutable face. “I’m an old man, and I’ve never been a very clever one. My father was the wise old Keeper – I’m just a fool.”

“No…” Mary stroked his bearded jowl with care. “True, you know little of our race, for one whose fate is so deeply entangled with ours. But you are no fool. You know in your heart what your head fails to grasp.”

She laid a hand on his chest, and he felt the wizened organ within flutter ever so slightly.

“You chose to save me, but that does not mean that you have abandoned Ariella. Only as much as I have…” She took his hands, and sighed deeply. “Ariella is a name. It may as well be a title. Ariella is the Princess of the Mer. She is the most beautiful mermaid in all the world’s oceans, and she must marry the true Prince of the Mer, as befits her rank and her destiny.” She paused, and looked down. “But Ariella never had real power. Ariella could only follow the will of her father, and when he betrayed the ancient pact between the Mer and the Keepers, and tore her apart from her love and her destiny of peace…she tried to use what little power she had, and she was crushed.

“They locked her away, they put her in chains, beat her, starved her. She was unrecognisable even to those who knew her best. Except, of course, that she still had her eyes, and no loyal subject would be fooled by her replacement while she still possessed her most valuable treasures. And so, they took those, too. Without her eyes, she lost all her power; she was nothing but a shell. The people would never believe that she was Ariella, the princess, and she had no choice but to flee her home, where the very people who had once loved her now shuddered at her sight, took her for a criminal and a rebel, blamed her for the curse that had begun to afflict the Mer…looked to the new Princess, and to you, for a cure…”

Richard staggered, and braced himself against a wall.

“I can’t…” He began, but found that the only words that came to him were: “I’m sorry.”

He bent and wept into her lap.

“I’m sorry, Ariella.” He cried. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! Forgive me, Ariella!”

“Hush.” She cooed. “You are already forgiven.”

Suddenly, a cold gale entered the cavern, carrying a wet slop of seawater, and a strong smell of salt. A wet, flopping sound began to echo around the chamber, and a pale, glittering shape came tumbling through the opening, landing in a thrashing mass at its foot. Suddenly, Richard felt Mary’s – Ariella’s – hands covering his eyes. He struggled, but was as always surprised by her strength and tenacity.

You.” He heard an unfamiliar voice hiss. “Alive still, miserable creature?” She asked, haughtily. “Well, my beloved fell for your wicked trick. Foolish, but I will forgive him. After all, he is my betrothed. My uncle will crown him Mer Prince, and we will bring together the sea and the land once more in harmony. You, vile monster, will not stop us with your lies.”

“That title is not yours to claim!” Mary roared. “Destiny cannot be hoodwinked by a clever disguise. If the Lord Merman wants to preserve the accord, the true heir must marry the last Keeper. It is written in stone – no amount of skulduggery from your father will change that.”

“Yes…” She drawled, and Richard could sense a smirk behind the word. “The true heir must marry the Keeper. But there is no crown on your head. Nor was there one on your father’s, or his father’s before him…I believe that treasure was lost…but not anymore.”

Richard recalled the glittering object he had glimpsed, the one that the unconscious Mary had seemed to be reaching for. Was it a crown? His eyes began to itch beneath Mary’s grip. He began to struggle.

“No, my love.” Mary hissed. “You must not look into her – my – eyes. Even now. They have a terrible power.”

“I won’t look.” He said, gently holding off her wrists. “I won’t look. I promise.”

She sighed, and relinquished her grip. Instantly, Richard felt the insatiable urge to meet the young mermaid’s gaze. Mary gripped his hand tightly, and he steeled himself against the magnetic draw of Ariella’s eyes.

He saw her full, rose-wine lips, the waves of her fiery red hair, her smooth shoulders, the gentle curve of her waist…her tail glimmered like pink quartz, the tailfin ruched and gauzy as fine muslin. But he did not look at her eyes, no matter how they lured him. This was not Ariella, he told himself, only the memory of a dream, or perhaps, the dream of a memory. And yet, the eyes were telling him something else: they were begging him to join her, join her on that Archipelago, with the tropical sun shimmering on jewel-clear seas, with hot sand scorching his nut-brown skin, a gentle breeze whispering the melody of the waves, carrying the scent of rum and spices and exquisite fruit…Argusana can take us there once more, she promised, as the heir to the sea, he is mine to command…let us return to the Archipelago of our youth…

A gentle pressure on his hand brought him back to reality, back the hot, damp bowels of Argusana.

The imposter Ariella, lumbered with her tail, had begun to drag herself in the direction of the crown. The real Ariella, on foot, made the same move. They were locked in a vicious combat, fighting each other with all their strength for the warped piece of metal.

Once they had dislodged it from what the Keeper imagined was the tissue of Argusana’s stomach lining (or perhaps merely an antechamber of his throat) he – and he alone – noticed a faint but disconcerting rumbling begin to shake the floor, walls, roof, of this organic cavern. A low, piteous moan came from all around, and Richard realised that in moving the crown, they had caused Argusana some terrible injury. Viscous black blood was pouring from the hole it left behind, and, in a matter of moments, the whole cave was rocked from side to side as the leviathan writhed in agony.

“Mary, we need to get out before this beast dies and drags us to the depths with him!” Richard cried. She was still struggling with the imposter, and by some feat of vicious strength, had managed to pin her to the ground. She now held the crown like a weapon.

“Ariella is my name!” She snarled. “I am no Mary, I am no slave.”

Richard was taken aback by the fury in her voice. He watched in horror as she plunged a bony finger into each eye socket of the false Ariella, while the mermaid screamed, matching, albeit in a different pitch, the agonised wails of the great Kraken.

Mary held the eyes in her hands, and in that moment, the Keeper could not help but look at them. Even disembodied, they were the most beautiful sight he had ever seen – and no wonder he could not recall the colour, for they had not one, but one million splendid shades. They were at once the brightest azure and the deepest sea-green, the murkiest sapphire and the clearest sky blue. They were silver as surf, gold as a sunset; white as pearls, red as blood…

Mary looked at Richard, who could not tear his eyes away from the brilliant orbs.

“This is what you truly love.” She said, softly. “This is the real curse of my people…never to be loved for what lies within, only for these damned jewels.

Richard was touched by the sadness in her voice. She was far from the girl he had known. Ariella had been beautiful, yes, and passionate. She had recited wonderful poems of her own creation, she had sung him the sweetest songs, and had seemed to teem with all the life of the ocean. And yet, she had possessed none of its depth. The Princess Ariella had been a shallow creature, naïve, perhaps even vain. The Keeper did not doubt that she had loved him, but he knew now that at that time neither she nor he had been capable of a true love. He closed her hands around the eyes.

“I will love you with these eyes, or without them – I will love the princess, or the slave, just the same.”

Ariella gazed up at him, and smiled. But then a shadow passed across her face.

“Alas, my people cannot love me, scarred and ugly as I am. I must keep my curse, if I am to convince them of my right to rule. If we cannot restore the ancient pact, my people will all be gone within a century. And that is if they do not kill each other first…”

“Then wear them like a crown.” Richard suggested. “But never forget the woman behind them.”

Mary nodded. Carefully, discretely covered by her straggle of dark hair, she replaced the eyes in her empty sockets. The Keeper stared, astonished, as he watched her transformation unfold. The mass of tangled black hair began to brighten into a deep, gleaming molten red. Her skin, though it retained the scars, began to glow once more with that pale-gold shimmer, like purest sand. Her white lips deepened to a rosier hue, with a hint of coral red, her sunken skin grew smooth, and the faintest hint of once-familiar dimples began to show through as she smiled. She was by no means the beauty she had once been, but the Keeper recognised Ariella now – he had no doubt that he stood before the Princess.

Argusana groaned and keeled, almost turning upside-down. They clung to the wall, while the red-haired mermaid flopped at their feet. Now that he saw her truly, he thought that the hair was a little yellower, a little curlier, than he remembered. Her skin was pale and smooth, but it did not have the same golden luminescence. And the rose-pink tail, he noticed, was rather more lilac in hue.

“What about her?” Richard asked.

Ariella sighed.

“Ondina…she is a cousin of mine. I suppose I must return her to her father. I hope for her sake they kept her real eyes…though perhaps she deserves to learn what it is to be without them, as I had to.”

Richard lifted the mermaid, with some difficulty, and dragged her toward the opening, which was now below them. They clambered out, and struggled against a tide of seawater that was rapidly gushing along the passage, which was now a near-vertical climb.

“He’s drowning…” The Keeper said, baffled.

They reached another small opening, and paused for breath.

Ariella took the slightly bent crown – which she had threaded over her shoulder – and placed it on top of her mane of wild red hair.

“HEAR ME, ARGUSANA!” She called, her voice thundering through the cavern. “I AM THE QUEEN OF THE OCEAN. YOU, SQUID, ARE MY SUBJECT!”

 

*

 

Argusana half roared, half whined.

“YOU WILL LIVE, GREAT ARGUSANA, LORD LEVIATHAN, KING KRAKEN! YOU WILL NOT BE DEFEATED BY A MERE MERLING! NOW SWIM, TAKE US TO THE SURFACE, I DEMAND IT!”

A low rumbling emanated from far below them. Argusana began to tilt, this way and then that, laboriously, but steadily. He was swimming, waving those giant, crushing tentacle limbs, stretching thousands of leagues into the deep.

“Come, we must keep climbing.” Ariella ordered.

The Keeper dragged the dead weight of the mermaid Ondina for another several yards, before the passage opened out into a dark cavern that was completely full of water. Ariella’s tail had yet to return, and without it she was a slow swimmer. Richard struggled to support both her and the other mermaid. They swam towards what Richard was extremely pleased to see was the beginnings of sunrise, and once they reached the mouth of the cave (or rather, Argusana’s mouth) the narrow crack opened, and in floated a long tentacle, about the thickness of the Keeper’s waist. It wrapped around the three of them, and lifted them toward the light.

It was only when he reached the surface that Richard realised how starved of air he had been. He gasped for a solid minute, before taking in his surroundings.

They were in the middle of the sea, and the first streaks of dawn were glowing in a perfect line along the misty horizon. In the distance, the Keeper could see the pillar of rock jutting out from the waves, which were now perfectly calm.

 

Argusana had lifted them to rest on top of his slimy, grey-black head. The Keeper was glad of the fresh air, and the fact that he was at least spared the view of the Kraken’s many eyes. However, the lurching movements of the great Squid, and the slippery feeling beneath his feet, were less encouraging.

Ondina groaned slightly, and began to feel her way across Argusana’s shifting flank.

“Can she see?” Richard asked.

“Not well, in daylight.” Ariella replied. “She will learn. We Mer have better senses than our sight.” Gently, and without the least malice, Ariella extended a foot, and gave the mermaid a nudge that sent her sliding, with a scream and a splash, back into the sea.

“Well…” The Keeper said. Suddenly, in the creeping light of day, he felt naked before the spectacular gaze of Ariella and her magical eyes. He felt naked, and small, and, most of all, very old. He felt older than he looked, and he looked older than he was. He wondered what those eyes saw. Did they remember him as a golden-haired youth? Or did they see only this grey-streaked, bearded old fool?

“Well?” Ariella prompted.

“Oh!” Richard blinked. “Well, I suppose we have some unfinished business. I…have…I have something that I have meant to say for…well for more years than I care to remember.”

“Then you had better say it.” Ariella nodded gracefully.

“I wrote it, actually. I was too afraid to say it. I wrote it down on a little scrap of paper, and tucked it away in one of those silly bottles. Then I lost it, or I think I did…perhaps that was a dream…”

“Ah.” Ariella smiled. “You must mean this.”

From a cord around her neck, Ariella untied a tiny glass bottle. She uncorked it, and deftly removed the tightly-rolled paper inside with a long, bluish fingernail.

“It is a little stained, and the ink has run.” She mused. “But I believe it reads, ‘Will you marry me?”

“Yes. I remember.” He grumbled.

“And Richard I will marry you. It was always our destiny – not because of your father, or mine, but because we loved each other. And because you loved me, as you would love a human woman, and I loved you as I would love a merman: with eyes that see beyond the body, and into the soul.”

He kissed her, and no longer felt like an old man, or even like a young, foolish boy. He was in his prime, and more than that – he was a prince. Perhaps a king.

“There is work to be done.” Ariella said, untangling his hands from her hair. “My uncle will soon know of his bastard daughter’s fate, and he will know that I am returning to claim the throne. I need you by my side, to show my people that the pact can be restored.”

The Last Keeper nodded. He was ready, finally, to do his duty, because it was no longer at odds with his heart’s desire. He had Ariella, and with her, the task of protecting two worlds did not seem so impossible.

“Well, then. Prepare yourself for a long journey.” Ariella smiled. “ARGUSANA! Take us to the Mer Kingdom, and none of your tricks…”

As the great leviathan sank slowly into The Deep, Ariella put her lips to the Keeper’s and he felt his body fill with the life-giving breath of the Mermaid’s Kiss.

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