Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 2: Flow of the Deep – Part 2

Schools of silvery fish, following subtle currents in the water, rushed past Dolanon’s bulbous snout. He picked out one individual and studied the shape of its body. Once he had it firmly fixed in mind, he released his hold on the dolphin and molded himself into the fish’s likeness, though his mass meant he was several times larger than the original. The startled schools darted away from him, cutting a serpentine path away from a potential threat.

Dolanon laughed again as he watched them go, his gills releasing a thread of bubbles toward the surface. Fish weren’t overly bright in his experience, but he loved trying to blend in with the larger ones. Testing his new form, he found the proper rhythm to move his fins for maximum speed. The view of the ocean when his eyes were on either side of his head always felt funny, but he adjusted to it and peered at his surroundings. He spotted a small reef of colorful coral and raced toward it.

With a flick of his fins, he brought his momentum through the water to an abrupt halt just before his snubbed face collided with the barrier. A lobster scuttled across its surface, hunting for smaller fish among the myriad crevices. Dolanon opened and closed his mouth in his best approximation of a fishy frown. He’d always had trouble with trying to mimic a lobster. Control over that many limbs, without tripping or falling off whatever he was walking on, had consistently eluded him. Instead, he reformed himself in the likeness of a seal and watched as the lobster swiftly ducked into a hole. It stuck one of its claws out and gave a warning snap, but Dolanon had no desire to trouble it further. He turned away from the reef and sped into deeper water.

The ocean grew darker and cloudier with particulates drifting through the water. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he spotted movement and turned his head quickly. He saw nothing, but he felt the currents left by something large in front of him. Too large to be a shark… maybe a whale? Dolanon looked down at his translucent body with some concern and shifted back into dolphin form before chasing the wake of the creature. It wouldn’t do to startle a hungry whale, even if they couldn’t do much lasting harm to a water sohntar. They could be persistent in chasing down what they thought might be prey, and while he was confident in his maneuverability in many forms, it wouldn’t be worth the expenditure of energy.

The thing moved fast, he could tell that much. Faster than most of the large, ocean creatures he’d encountered. He pumped his tail and flattened his pectoral fins against his body to gain more speed. The tip of a tail emerged from the gloom ahead of him, swaying back and forth like a fish’s. He’d never seen a tail quite like it before. Instead of bearing fins, its flattened surface ended in a sharp point, with hard protrusions jutting out at regular intervals both above and below the central ridge. He sped forward, trying to see more.

The tail grew thicker, several times wider than his own body, and still it kept going. Curiosity drove Dolanon on through the water. At last, more shapes appeared below the line of the tail, a pair of scaled feet tipped in claws.

Dolanon halted in the water. The only ocean animals he’d ever seen with claws were seals and sea lions, and they didn’t look anything like this animal. He remembered the lessons his mother had taught him from some of the ancient scrolls, about water creatures that lived in places called lakes and rivers in distant lands. These feet more closely resembled the pictures of some of those animals. But what would one of those strange creatures be doing out in the ocean?

The beast’s shadow had drifted away during Dolanon’s reverie. He raced to catch up, eager to see more. He followed the tail back to the feet and the thick, muscular legs they were attached to. The line of the animal’s body swayed with a swift but sinuous rhythm, effortlessly gliding through the water. Dolanon found himself entranced by the hypnotic motion and drifted closer to the body, straining to outpace it.

He caught sight of the back first, the color of its scales a darker blue than the surrounding water. Thick, rigid spikes grew from its spine, while its belly was covered in whitish scales that blended well with the surrounding water unless one got close, each one longer than a grown queferi’s hand. Dolanon felt his energy beginning to lag. The thing just kept moving, never slowing its pace or showing signs of tiring. Tensing his elongated jaws, he poured on as much speed as he possibly could.

He managed to catch a glimpse of its shoulders before the creature finally noticed him. A massive, horn-crested head whipped around on a serpentine neck, and a pair of jaws clamped together inches from his snout. Startled, Dolanon twisted in the water and sped away from the snap. A deep, warning growl vibrated through the water around him, and he raced the other direction, sudden fright lending him speed before he came to his senses.

Dolanon’s gaze darted all around, but the swimming shadow was nowhere in sight, and only a faint churn in the water currents marked the direction it had gone. The growl seemed to linger in his ears, however, filling the darkened sea around him with a sense of foreboding.

His body sagged, still tingling with fright, and for the first time he realized how exhausted he was. Reforming his body into the figure of a large jellyfish, he let himself drift into a warmer current that flowed in the direction of the island. It would take far longer to return home than swimming, but he was too tired to care, willing to let the ocean carry him along where it would.

Waves of life… would it have tried to eat me if it caught me?

Ordinarily, water sohntar had little to fear from predatory teeth in the water. Shifting and reforming their bodies was second nature. But there were stories, older than old, of massive monsters living in the ocean’s depths that could swallow a sohntar whole and hardly even notice the morsel they’d just gulped. The memory of the jaws snapping shut in front of his face sent a small shudder through Dolanon, and despite his weariness, he reformed himself into a dolphin and propelled himself a little faster through the water.

It was sunset by the time he crossed the fog barrier again. Nearly spent, he surfaced and dispersed his dolphin form in favor of his normal body, coasting on the waves and letting them carry him all the way to shore. They dumped him unceremoniously on the sand, and for long minutes he just lay there, wave after wave rushing over him. He remembered that his mother had asked him to bring home some mussels, but he was too tired to think of digging around the rocks for some now. He dragged himself up from the beach and onto his feet, and began trudging his way back home.

His mother was in the kitchen, helping Melyna with the dishes from the evening meal. Both looked up and smiled as Dolanon found a bowl-shaped chair to collapse in.

“Someone had more fun today than their storm-charged body could handle,” Melyna teased.

“Did you bring the mussels?” his mother asked.

Dolanon shook his head, and salt-tinged drops flung onto the clean floor. “I’m sorry, mama,” he murmured, both for his dereliction of responsibility and his poor manners. He looked around for a rag to clean up his mess and spotted one across the table, but his tired limbs refused to budge from his sides.

“Dolanon, are you all right?”

He looked up blearily at his mother’s concerned expression. “Uh-huh. Just… really tired.”

“Why? How far did you go today, lad?”

Far.” He pumped his legs to pull himself out of his chair and spilled onto the floor. He felt solid hands grip his wavering shoulders and pull him upright. “I’m okay,” he assured. “Promise.”

“You look completely exhausted.” His mother helped him to his feet and stood him in front of her with faint disapproval. “No more venturing out to practice for you for a while.”

Dolanon nodded with agreement.

“How did you let yourself get drawn so far away from the island?” Melyna asked. “Don’t tell me that pod of whales is back in the area again. Come winter, the fishing will be poor for us if so.”

“Not whales, Grandma,” Dolanon told her. “Just one sea creature. Big, big creature out past the barrier. I followed it for a while, trying to figure out what it was, and it was going so fast it was hard to keep up, but then it snapped at me and I got scared and swam away.”

“A single creature?” his mother asked. “Are you sure?”

His head wobbled in assent.

“What did this creature look like, Dolanon?” Melyna asked, her tone sharper than before. “Show me.”

He groaned. “Oh, Grandma, please. I’m so tired right now.”

“It’s important, little one.” She came to stand beside his mother and shared a nervous glance with her before looking back down at him encouragingly. “Go on. Show me.”

Trying to shake himself free of his exhaustion, Dolanon let himself dissolve into a puddle on the bare floor for a minute. He conjured all the details he could remember of the creature, even though the memory of his moment of fright made him want to shy from them. His substance rebelled against reforming another shape, but little by little be pulled himself into a close approximation of the beast. The proportions were off, so he straightened them out. The form felt… powerful, even in its incomplete state, and Dolanon managed to shake himself from enough of his stupor to set his new tail thrashing against the kitchen floor. He stretched open his teeth-filled jaws and looked at his mother and Melyna. Their expressions turned shocked, even horrified, but some part of him didn’t seem to notice. He pulled himself up onto his forelegs and lifted his crested head proudly, even menacingly.

“That’s enough, Dolanon,” Melyna ordered and turned to his mother. “Visha, go to the temple and inform the high priestess of the sighting. If that… thing has ventured from its lair again, then the entire village must be warned.”

His mother flooded from the kitchen. Dolanon lost his grip on the form and fell back into his normal shape. Melyna’s wiry arms encircled him fiercely. “Never, ever, ever venture anywhere near that monster again, Dolanon,” she warned. “Do you understand?”

He nodded against her chest. “What was it, Grandma?” he mumbled, feeling the beginnings of fear stirring inside his heart again.

“Never you mind, my dear. Just rest now. Grandma’s got you.”

Snuggling deeper into the circle of her arms, Dolanon felt his eyes slip closed with sleep.