The Second Lesson

We could hear the songs calling us into the ocean but we couldn’t do anything about it.  Mirna and I sat strapped to chairs in the late captain’s quarters while Axbelis studied us from the nearby love seat.  What crew we’d seen bringing news to Axbelis, or the occasional meal, kept wads of wax crammed in their ears.  Axbelis seemed immune to the songs.  So did Mirna, in truth.  I, on the other hand, strained against the leather belts binding me, though I knew that the water promised certain death should I break free.

We were near the city of Azminan now.  Mirna and I had made a valiant escape around the southern spit, but Axbelis hadn’t had to look for too long before he found us cowering on a small island, trapped by churning waters and a city’s worth of merfolk after our blood.  Mirna and I surrendered to captivity with something near relief.

“Tell me,” he mused, again studying the large seashell on the table.  “Why would the daughter of a world-shaper be blind?”

Mirna stiffened.  “It’s just the way I am,” she said.

“Your father can reshape reality,” said Axbelis.  “Curing blindness wouldn’t be beyond his reach.”

You’re a world-shaper,” I said.  “Can’t you make her see?”

Hope warred with annoyance inside me.  Not that I expected benevolence from him, but if there was any compassion in there, it was possible that he could help my friend see.

Axbelis shrugged.  “Probably.”

“Then do it,” I challenged.

Again he shrugged.  “There’s no benefit in it,” he said, drumming his fingers over the shell in a repetitive rhythm.  I’d known what to expect, but his cruelty still stung.  “You don’t understand much about world-shaping, for a pupil of the craft,” he added.

“I’ve only had one lesson,” I said saltily.  Though it could hardly count as a lesson.  Anuaxi, world-shaper and Mirna’s mysterious and terrifying father, had simply told me to keep a secret that I had eventually, unwittingly, told to Axbelis.  I was pretty sure that there wouldn’t be a second lesson in my future as a world-shaper.

“See, that’s what doesn’t add up,” said Axbelis.  “I’ve known Anuaxi for a very long time.  That old man wouldn’t send his blind daughter out into the world protected by a pseudo-student with no training.  The man I knew wouldn’t let his only child go through life blind, for that matter.”

“You assume I have less of a life than you somehow,” said Mirna, her tone acidic.  “You’re wrong.  Sight is just one sense, and as far as I can tell, overused and overrated.  In my world, it’s the rest of you who bumble around blindly.”

Axbelis sneered in amusement, pointedly a gesture that was lost on her.

“You are your father’s daughter,” he said, “I’ll give you that.”  He lifted the shell and gave it a spin around his finger.  “Is this what I think it is?”

“It’s a seashell,” she said flatly.

“And by that I can assume this truly is Arambil’s Shell,” he said.  “King of those agitated merfolk out there and not the easiest man to plunder.  Which one of you managed the deed?  My money’s on the blind one.”

The appraising gaze he gave me said with perfect clarity that he didn’t believe me capable of much, let alone stealing Arambil’s Shell.  Neither of us replied.  The last thing the world needed was for Axbelis to possess an object with that much power.  That shell, in my hands, had turned the legendary mer-city into mounds of coral.

“What do you want with us, anyway?” I challenged.

“Mm,” he nodded, “a good question.”  He placed the shell on the table with care and turned his full attention on me.  “You, my dear Shevus, have little worth to me anymore, it’s true.  But I’m not a rash man.  Until my work is finished, and I’m sure I need no more Shevus translation, it would be foolish of me to send you on your way, no?”

“And me?” asked Mirna.

“Anuaxi’s daughter?” he laughed.  “Insurance, obviously.  Until I know who destroyed the Council of Azminan, I’m best served protecting myself in every way.”

“It wasn’t my father,” said Mirna.

Axbelis stared out the porthole for a while and I grew distracted as the songs from outside swelled into the cabin in the absence of conversation.  My skin felt like it was on fire.  All I needed was a little water to cool down.  The ocean lapped on the other side of those wooden boards, taunting me.

“He left his training with those monks early, did he not?” asked Axbelis.

I realized that I’d been leaning against my straps with such vigor that my arms were numb.  They tingled as the blood rushed back into them.  Mirna’s look of defiance answered Axbelis’ question.

“Then he’s still weakened,” he concluded.  “That’s to my favor, if there’s no reasoning with him.  Don’t worry, my blind little bat, I don’t intend to harm you if it isn’t necessary.”

“Is it necessary to be so mean?” I spat.

“Let it go,” muttered Mirna.

Axbelis laughed.  “I’m beginning to think you two were a decoy,” he said, rising.

He gave us a ridiculous bow, full of hand flourishes and mockery, and tucking the shell into a pocket, left.  I don’t know how much time passed, as the songs filled my mind again with longing for the ocean and I strained against my bindings to the point of unconsciousness several times.

When I awoke finally to silence, it was the kind that sends the small hairs at the back of your neck crawling upward.  Something felt wrong.  Mirna dozed in her chair beside me.  What was it?  I had the uneasy feeling that there was someone behind me.  That shadow voice, the one that lurks in your mind, waiting for opportunities such as these, began its nudging.  Was that breath at the nape of my neck?  Did I hear a floor board groan?  Teeth.  Terrible, sharp teeth awaited in the shadows, just out of sight, I just knew it.  I had to stop this.  I had to get control over myself before I ended up summoning myir… and then I knew what had quieted the merfolk.  Myir, creatures attracted by fear, were close by.  And a lot of them, by the feel of it.

The door swung open and a thick beast of a man called Gov stomped in, barking orders for our straps to be released.  None of the men who followed him in had wax in their ears.  So.  We’d made it to Azminan.  That explained the myir.  The last time I’d been here, Azminan was swarming with every type of foul thing imaginable as Axbelis cultivated his army.  I still had no idea what the army was for.  Further insurance against Anuaxi, perhaps.  The army was nowhere in sight, though, when we disembarked the ship.  If anything, the ruined city looked deserted, and that much more tragic in its state of devastation.  It had once been a city unrivaled in its beauty.  Gov and his thugs rushed us past the remains of the Council building, where an unsettling hum was punctuated by loud cracks and sizzles, as if the air within were alive and whipping around an angry tail.

“It’s started,” said Mirna.

“What has?” I asked.

“The breaking of the barriers between worlds.”

“How do you know?”

“I feel it.  Don’t you?”

I felt many things, mostly fear, but the breaking of barriers wasn’t among them.

“What does it feel like?” I asked, hoping Mirna was wrong.  Mirna was never wrong.  I’d traveled with her long enough to know that with certainty.  Still I clung to hope, as if the habit of hope would create the miracle we needed.

“Like being torn apart,” she said quietly.  She didn’t look well.

“There you are,” I heard a familiar voice say.

“Molly?”  I looked around everywhere, but saw only broken buildings and curious glances from our captors.  One of them gave me a rough shove for good measure.  “Mirna,” I whispered, “I just heard my sister.  She’s here.  How is that possible?”

Mirna shook her head.  “Your sister is asleep in her bed, back in your world.  She saw you for a moment in a dream.  Don’t say anything to her.  She could get trapped here if she finds you.”

“Where are you?” I heard Molly say, and I bit my lip to keep from calling out to her.

“You’re sure?” I asked under my breath.

“I’m sure,” Mirna said.  Her breathing was labored and she stumbled, though I’d been watching where I was guiding her and there had been nothing to trip over.

“Mirna, what’s wrong?” I asked.

She shook her head, and I realized with horror that it was as much as she could do in answer.  I stopped walking, supporting her weight.  She was trembling.

“Get moving!” barked Gov, but I held still.

“What is he doing to her?” I demanded.  “I want to speak to Axbelis right now!”

“Ax-what?” snorted Gov.

“Axbelis.  Alpha.  Him!  I know he’s behind this and we’re not taking another step until he stops it.”

“Too late,” gasped Mirna.

She shuddered violently, sending me to the ground.  When I righted myself, I saw that our captors were on their backsides as well.

“What kind of trick is this!” shouted Gov.

Mirna was gone.

“What did he do?” I cried.

I was crawling around on the cobblestones, feeling around for her blindly as if she’d simply gone invisible, but there was nothing there.  Several nearby streetlamps shattered, arcs of purple dancing between them.  The stones beneath us rumbled and shifted subtly.  Gov’s eyes grew wide with fear and he scrambled to his feet, chasing the other captors down the deserted street in retreat.  Something was coming.

I stared blankly at a wall of approaching mist, unable to will myself into movement.  Mirna was gone.  It was an unreality.  Impossible and fact breaking.  Untrue.  She had to be somewhere.  A world without Mirna didn’t exist within sanity.  The stones shifted again, vibrating to the rhythm of someone’s footsteps.  The mist thinned and a man’s figure emerged.  He wore a strange long coat and his black hair lifted and wandered as if propelled by a private breeze.  Anuaxi had arrived.

“She disappeared,” I said weakly.  “I told the secret, and Axbelis did something, and she’s…”

I stared at the spot where Mirna had last stood.  I had failed utterly.  The world-shaper had asked me to guard his daughter.  To guard our worlds.  It was over now.  Part of me prayed that his punishment would be quick and decisive.  A clean death.

“She’s magnificent,” said Anuaxi.

The awe in his voice brought my senses into strange focus.  It sounded, incredibly, as if this were the most joyous, proud moment of his life.  He lifted me to my feet with gentle hands.

“Mirna was in her larval form here,” he said.

“Larva?” I managed stupidly.

“She has emerged now, in her true form, and she’s so beautiful.”

“And what is her true form?” I asked.

The shock that had frozen my mind upon losing Mirna was dissolving with rapidity as anger welled within me.  Suspicion.  Anuaxi seemed as if he’d been expecting this.  As if this had been a… plan.

“What true form?” I repeated.

Anuaxi’s look of paternal pride grew shadows at my tone and I was reminded of how truly terrible and frightening a man he was.

“A world,” he answered.  “A tremendous, amazing world.”

I blinked at him, comprehension easing into me by degrees.  Anuaxi, world-shaper.  World-creator.  Mirna wasn’t his daughter, she was his creation.  The secret I’d let slip to Axbelis, the one that I couldn’t tell because in his hands the walls between worlds would come down… Anuaxi had known I’d tell it.  He needed the walls to come down so Mirna could take her true form.  But why put us through the months of running?

“How could you?” was all I could manage.

“And that would be lesson two,” said Axbelis, emerging from the mist.

Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com.  This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure.  Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure.  Thanks!

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