Jacob Mooney is a Game Designer working in Chicago, Illinois. He majored in Game Development and minored in Fiction Writing in college. Since he was young he’s been enchanted by fantasy, and now all he wants to do is take apart his favorite games and stories to see how they work.
by Jacob Mooney
Hernam regularly left his Magic lessons early to wander. And when he wandered, he always wandered to shore.
It was a bright morning with brisk wind and the call of gulls overhead. A strip of beach separated the woodland from the sea. It was as if the forest and the water were kissing, and the beach and the shallows were where their faces met. Hernam admired the trees for their strength and their flexibility. Like water, they could crash or they could wave.
Sudden movement caught the merfolk’s eye. He watched as a pale-skinned woman, an elf, emerged from around a bend in the shore pushing a small boat into the water. The merfolk sank down and swam closer. He had never seen an elf on the water.
A small anchor was dropped a little way from shore. Then something else was dropped. Something large. It made a dull crash as it broke the surface and threw up a curtain of bubbles. The merfolk watched as the curtain pulled away to reveal the elf again, this time wearing some sort of ingenious contraption over her head and shoulders. It looked like a knight’s helm and pauldrons, except for the large panel of glass over the face, and the tank of air strapped to her back. When she saw him, her eyes lit up. Her first instinct was, for some reason, to reach out and grab him by the shoulders. Startled, the merfolk squirmed out of it, and the elf apologized. Or, she appeared to—no sound escaped her enclosure, but he could read her expression.
On the surface, she opened the face of her diver’s helm, and words spilled out.
“Oh my gods I am so, so sorry. I just—this is my first field test with this prototype—and I didn’t think it was going to work, and I certainly didn’t think I would meet a merfolk and—”
The merfolk smiled and laughed, which confused her. “Let’s start with names,” he said, lifting a palm above the waves they tread. She touched her palm to his in the merfolk greeting.
“Hernam,” he said.
“Shallah, nice to meet you.”
“B’isgual,” he returned. It was Elvish for “likewise.” For some reason he wanted to impress her.
“Oh—you know some?” Her reply came in Merfolk. Though her accent was terrible, she clearly knew it better than he knew Elvish.
They spent the day together. Hernam aiding Shallah in various tests of her new breathing apparatus. They found it easy to speak to one another. They found a shared history between themselves.
“You know, I often take walks in this forest,” he said. He was in the water, his hands gripping the rim of the boat. She was inside, making miniscule adjustments. They were ringed on three sides by rock cliffs, and Hernam was showing her the entrance to a cave beneath the surface.
“You do?” She cocked her head as if she could not see why he would. Her braid of blonde hair spilled over her shoulder.
He nodded. “Though it wins me less than love from my school.”
“What does ‘school’ mean in the common tongue?” she asked, for they had been speaking in Merfolk.
“It can mean my classmates and teachers, or it can mean my whole community—everyone I migrate with. In this case, it’s both. Because nobody likes a landwalker. It’s ‘irrational behavior’. And that can’t be trusted.”
“Can’t be trusted!” Shallah laughed, then grinned rebelliously, “I certainly know how you feel.”
“You do?” Waves clucked about the side of the boat as Shallah straightened up and donned the helm. Hernam moved to better see her face.
“Absolutely.” Her words echoed slightly in the helm. “You’ve never seen an elf look anything like this, I’ll wager.”
“That I have not.”
Shallah descended into the water with a crash, then tread beside him, opening her panel to speak. “My clan has all but disowned me.”
She nodded, “It is true. Nobody will speak to the girl who left the forest at a young age to travel south, and learn Artifice in the city. It’s unnatural. And for elves, nothing that isn’t natural is to be trusted.”
“Well,” Hernam’s arms slid back and forth across the tops of the waves, “I trust you.”
“Good to hear! I trust you too, Hernam. And I really have to thank you—I’ve gotten more research done today than I would have all week… So thanks.”
Hernam waved it off, “It’s nothing… But you will have to show me around the forest in return some day.”
“Well that’s only fair I think.” She looked at him then, recognition in her eyes. “I’m looking forward to it.”
They explored the cave safely, and said goodbye near sunset. Shallah returned to her clan to make calculations and adjustments. Hernam went back to his school to lie about where he’d been all day.
The next week they met in the Forest. Shallah taught him the names in Elvish of the plants and trees which Hernam had admired for so long yet had never investigated. It was sunny and hot, but humid. Shallah explained that, in the City to the South, it was never this humid. It was always hot and dry. Hernam would not last one minute there, she explained. But Shallah loved it. The bricks upon bricks upon bricks of the city. And where there were no bricks, there was tile. Gorgeous and in as many colors as there were shells in the sea.
“Then why come back?” Hernam asked.
Shallah laughed as if it should be obvious, but then had difficulty forming her answer. “I suppose you could say my studies brought me home,” she said finally. “I’ve always loved the water and there is precious little of it in the south.”
Hernam sat at the bank of a river, his feet cutting into the clear waters, “You could say it was Destiny that brought you back.”
“My father would say that, but… I don’t believe in destiny,” she said with a hint of disdain. She sat cross-legged beside him, not getting her boots wet. “It was rational to leave the desert in order to study the ocean.”
Hernam placed his webbed hands behind him and leaned into a shaft of sun that was warming his back. “Suit yourself,” he said placidly, then closed his eyes.
“You aren’t mad?” She placed her hands behind her as well. They fell close to his own, inches from touching. “Mad I don’t believe in… what you believe in?”
Hernam snickered, “I don’t believe it’s my Destiny to be mad at you.”
Shallah rolled her eyes.
“Besides, I already don’t believe in what my school believes in. This overriding notion that every little thing needs to be carefully reasoned and perfectly logical.”
“Sounds like a wonderful change of pace to me,” Shallah said. She let her voice trail off into quiet.
They sat there for a little longer, nobody saying much, listening mostly to the wind in the trees. The birds overhead. The gurgle of the river before them.
“When do you migrate away?” she found herself asking.
Hernam turned to look at her. “In a little over a month…”
“Ah.” Shallah nodded, but looked sad.
“When do you resume class at the Academy?”
“A month and seventeen days. I could argue for a continuation, but either way you’d be gone before I got back.” Then she looked at him. “It seems we weren’t destined to know each other very long.”
Hernam closed his eyes again and sighed contentedly. “We will see. Besides, you don’t believe in Destiny, remember?”
They continued like this for some time, meeting every few days, sometimes for hours, sometimes just briefly. Inevitably, someone from Hernam’s school was sent to see where he was wandering. Inevitably, someone from Shallah’s clan was sent to follow her. And inevitably, the two were seen together, alone, where sea met shore. Kissing.
For their part, Hernam’s school had sent his sister after him. When she saw their lips meet she sprang from the shallows despite herself.
“Hernam!” she cried, her voice a muddled twist of confusion, surprise, and anger.
Simultaneously, a thin wiry elf in fabrics and face paint emerged with a rush from the nearby tree cover. Shallah looked at the elf. Hernam looked at his sister.
“Wait!” he called, but she was well away, her bright blue face bruised red with shame. A splash only, and she was gone. Hernam glanced back to Shallah, who continued to stare angrily at the distant painted elf. The painted elf turned and spat, then fled into the forest like a startled deer.
“Who was that?” asked Hernam.
“A despicably nosy cousin.” Shallah turned from watching the painted elf go. Her forehead was wrinkled in deep, worried thoughts. “I assume you knew the merfolk?”
Hernam nodded. “My sister. My entire school will have heard within the hour.”
“Mine too.” She sighed, then covered her face with her hand.
“Well, what do we do?” Hernam asked. He was used to Shallah always having a well-reasoned plan at hand. But while she’d known this might happen, she had nothing. They kissed goodbye, and braced themselves for what was waiting for them at home.
“How could this happen?!” Hernam’s mother cried, hands fluttering to the brooch which marked her as headmistress of the school.
Hernam did not answer. The question was rhetorical. In the corner of the chamber floated his sister, scowling. She would have cried, could merfolk shed tears.
“My son, highest in his studies.” His mother pinned him with her gold-eyed glare. “That he—that you—could make such an error, it’s—”
“Inconceivable.” Hernam mouthed it. He dared not speak.
“Inconceivable!” his mother thundered.
In the water, it was work to gesture with one’s whole arm. Hernam’s mother worked. She pushed forward, swimming closer and chopping her hand down like a blade.
“She is not of your school.” The blade came down.
“She is not of your culture.” The blade came down.
“She is not of your species!” The blade came down. “The relationship is completely irrational, and it reflects poorly upon your family.” She glared at Hernam, nostrils flaring with her gills. “I forbid you from seeing her.”
Hernam met her gaze all at once. “You couldn’t be more wrong. She is more like me than anyone I’ve met. To pursue someone who makes you feel at home… is perfectly reasonable. And I am far past the age at which you can forbid me from doing anything.”
The confidence left his mother’s face. In the corner, Hernam’s sister drifted forwards, sensing it was coming to a head.
“I will call a vote tomorrow,” his mother said. “We will begin the migration early.”
Hernam called the bluff. “To call the school to migrate on account of your troublemaking landwalker son… Now that would be irrational. And besides—when the next migration begins, I will not be coming with you.”
“You can’t be serious!” Hernam’s sister butted in. But she was cut short by his mother.
“…I can assure you he is,” she said. Hernam expected her to go on, but she didn’t. She just looked into him wearing a face weathered with wisdom and worry. The silence grew painful before she finally beckoned him over, and they hugged.
“There is nothing I can say to change your mind?” she asked, sadly.
She pulled away to look at him again. “Then it is an experiment… One which I still think will fail, but one which will hopefully bear fruit. You will be here when we return, at the least. A year is not such a long time.”
“Thank… you.” Hernam said, completely astonished by his mother’s reversal.
“You can’t allow this!” Hernam’s sister exclaimed, “What he’s doing is… It’s more than irrational, it’s disgusting!”
“You show your bias, then.” Hernam’s mother turned to his sister. “I don’t condone this line of action—even slightly—but I cannot stop your brother from doing what he feels is right. So even though I think this is the most absurd of follies, I am hoping to be proven wrong.” She turned back to Hernam. “Every set needs its outliers, Hernam. I was always glad you were one of mine. Even if I didn’t show it.”
They hugged again. “We will miss you,” she said.
“As I will miss you,” Hernam replied.
The next day, Hernam found Shallah sitting in her boat—anchored, but drifting. “Hello,” was all she said when he surfaced. She shifted to compensate for the weight he leaned on the lip of the vessel.
“How did it go?” he asked.
After he told her how his school had taken the news, Shallah said, “That’s amazing… I’m so glad you’ve decided to stay.” Then she began to tear up. She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and let out a shuddering sigh.
Shallah paused, as if waiting to say it would make it less true. “I have finally been disowned by my clan. The elders are erasing my name from the histories of my people. When they are finished, it will be as if I never lived.”
“Gods, Shallah… And your family is okay with that?”
“My father is the one who called for it.”
Hernam gaped. “There is nothing we can do to stop it?”
She took a deep breath and blew it out. “No,” she said, “but it hardly matters. If I will not be remembered by the Elves, I will be remembered by the Humans. I will be remembered for this.” She lifted her breathing apparatus and placed it over her head.
From time to time they would be witnessed by some curious merfolk or wary elf, but for the most part they were left alone over the weeks that followed. When Hernam’s school migrated, he was there to see them off. There were those that did not understand, and those that cursed him, but there were more who wished him well, and more who would miss him. Shallah threw herself into her studies. She changed, though never into someone who Hernam did not love. But her invention was what she spent all her energy on. When she needed to rest was when they strolled through the forest, was when he felt closest to her. He helped her build a modest hut hidden in the forest, but close to the sea. Trips were made back to her clan’s enclave to retrieve maps, notes, books, and tools, and the looks they got were far less than savory. In time, Shallah left for the Academy and argued to continue her field study. Several weeks passed before she returned with raw materials and a small forge. “I’m going to need a bigger hut!” was the first thing she said to Hernam before running into his arms.
Her research advanced in leaps and bounds, as did Hernam’s knowledge of the forest. But sometimes he felt as if life had gotten away from him, as if he bore no resemblance to the him that had existed before. He imagined himself unanchored to the future, adrift amongst several possible Destinies, each a river with a depth too dark to judge.
Winter was difficult. The waters finally ran too cold, and Hernam moved ashore, into Shallah’s hut, which they had expanded. Her dives had stopped too, but her work continued. A new design—lighter, stronger, greater air capacity. She spoke of a shipwreck at the bottom of the bay that had caught her interest. A dive deeper by far than any they had tried before.
“Is that safe?” Hernam asked. A hot damp towel combatted the chill and dryness of the winter air.
Shallah regarded a chalkboard festooned with calculations. She rolled the chalk across her knuckles. Finally, she said, “The chance of an accident is insignificant enough that I would risk it.”
“So it isn’t safe.”
“It’s roughly as safe as that cave we explored the first time I met you.”
Shallah left her notes to come sit by Hernam. She took his hand and said, “Thank you, though.”
“For being worried.”
Hernam smiled, then exchanged his towel for a new one from the pot of water by the fire.
“I never see you studying Magic,” Shallah said.
“That’s my problem. I’ve never needed to. My teacher would show me the next spell and I would simply get it. Now all my teachers have gone and I have no idea how to teach myself anything new.”
“Oh.” Shallah sat still as if an idea had struck her. “I could teach you that. That’s basically all I’ve ever known. How to teach myself, that is.”
“I’m honored. But you’re too busy with your research right now.”
“I could make time.”
“That’s okay… Maybe after this next dive, huh?”
At the height of spring, the waters finally warmed. Shallah had been working ceaselessly on her new diving helm. Meanwhile, Hernam scouted the shipwreck they would be exploring. There was nowhere Shallah could dive that merfolk had not already been, but Hernam had not visited the wreck for many years. He did not remember it well. When he arrived, he found it even larger and grander than he remembered. An immense galleon, snapped in half by some monster or storm, its many masts collapsed inwards and leaning against one another like the legs of some exhausted spider. Seaweed and mold colored its rotted bulk. Inside, there were dozens of rooms. Hernam spent the day there and saw perhaps half the ship. “If all goes well, Shallah will be picking it over for eons,” Hernam thought.
It was a week later that the diving helm was ready. Polished bronze alloy with shiny steel rivets. A wider view-panel that bubbled outwards from the wearer’s face. Canisters which held more air more securely. Shallah was very pleased with the results of her effort.
“Don’t forget,” Shallah continued, “if something unexpected happens and I need your help getting to the surface, don’t rush. There’s just enough of a pressure difference that it could cripple me.”
“Delightful,” Hernam called, picking his head out of the water as he powered the rowboat out into the open bay with his kicks.
She wore her rebellious grin.
They had picked a good day to dive. Clouds flew scattered overhead, but there were no signs of storm. The sun warmed them, and the air was calm and fresh. When they reached their destination, they dropped anchor, and Shallah donned the diver’s helm.
“How do I look?”
“Enchanting, but it’s got nothing to do with the helm.”
She laughed, sealed the viewport, and slipped over the side.
Shallah was much more graceful underwater with the lighter diving helm. Hernam took her by the hand and led her gradually to the ocean floor, passing in and out of shadows thrown by clouds as they went.
“Amazed,” Shallah said, using the underwater signs Hernam had taught her.
“Amazing?” Hernam signed back. Shallah nodded from inside her helm. They were at the sea floor, and the ship towered above them.
“What was her name?” Shallah asked.
“I never found out. Must be hidden.” Hernam pointed to the exterior of the hull and signed, “Seaweed,” then, “Barnacles.”
Shallah floated for a moment, thoughts rising and falling with her body. “I’ll call her Daugerrodeen.” She had to sign the sounds to Hernam, who could only scratch his head at the name.
“I’ll explain later.”
They began at the back of the ship. A massive gouge where the hull had run up against a stony outcropping made it easy to swim inside. There, they found some sort of vault or trophy room. Large empty cases of tarnished bronze were arrayed all around them, their glass panels long since shattered and embedded into the sodden crimson rug, and their treasures long since stolen by opportunistic merfolk. Shallah was taking notes using an enchanted pen and journal left by Hernam’s school. Her words were inked white on green kelp pages.
The next door led to a hallway lined with rusted candelabras and ruined portraits. Another room was storage. Everything had been touched by the sea. Barnacles, mold, anemones, urchins, mollusks—it all covered and was covered by the paraphernalia of this decadent coffin. They swam up some stairs, where the first door they tried was stuck. Shallah braced herself against the wall and pulled. The door popped open, tearing a chunk off the rotten frame. The interior of the room was dark. And flat. It was a moment before they realized they were staring into a wall of skin. Then a barrel-sized knot of flesh opened to reveal a yellowed eye.
Hernam and Shallah reflexively clasped each other’s hands. With a deep groan, the great octopus twisted and shook, then exploded upwards through the galleon. Timber flew through the water. A hole was punched through to the top deck. The current created by the beast tore at them and sucked them through the ruined doorway. By the time Hernam realized what had happened, he was upside-down, sinking back towards the sea floor along with tons of debris that had been kicked up by the monster’s departure. At some point, he had let go of Shallah’s hand. He looked for her, but she was lost somewhere beneath him in a cloud of settling sand. A shadow passed above, and he turned to see that one of the ship’s masts had cracked in two, and one of the halves was tumbling down upon him. It nearly took him out, but he avoided it. Then he thought of Shallah.
The sand had settled and the sun was shining down through the hole in the ship clear to the bottom when he finally found her. She was alive, but pinned beneath a shattered desk. Weighing down the desk were layers of debris and the fallen mast. All he could see of her was her upper body. Her bubble visor had hairline cracks, but wasn’t leaking. Despite that, there was water in the helm. Something had ruptured.
“Oh,” she said into the visor, “There you are.”
“Don’t speak,” Hernam signed.
“Right… Sorry…” she signed back. Her fingers were sluggish, as if she were ready to go to sleep.
“Are you hurt?”
“Yes, but not bad. I’m pinned. Lost an air tank. My full one.” There was some life that came back to her eyes. He had to move her, but how? She was low on air. He could conjure more, but not forever. He also couldn’t fix her suit. He needed more time. He needed more power. He needed…
“Stay calm,” he told her. “I’ll be back soon.” He began to swim away, but she caught his foot. When he looked down, she was pointing to something half-buried in the sand. It was the kelp journal, with the enchanted pen. When he picked it up, she motioned for him to leave it by her. He gave her the journal, and held her hand as he pressed the pen into it. Then he was gone, swimming like an arrow through the water.
Hernam had not checked the sandhomes in weeks. It was still early, but there was a chance they might be back. But when he crested the dunes overlooking the sandhomes, merfolk were in sight, tending to the damages inflicted by a year of neglect. He found his sister amongst a handful of workers. A crowd had already gathered around him to see what was going on. When he explained what had happened, one of the merfolk beside his sister scoffed.
“You expect us to care?” the merfolk signed. “Deserter, you are owed nothing. And besides, you and that revolting woman are getting just what you deserve!”
Then Hernam’s sister unsheathed her blade. Fortunately for Hernam, it was not pointed at him. “Stow that talk,” she signed, “before I make you eat those fingers. This is my brother you’re speaking to. And even though we might not like it, he’s done nothing wrong. If he needs our help, we’re helping.” And as simply as that, he had the school behind him.
Shallah was not moving when they returned to the wreck. The water in her helm had slowly risen. She had laid on her side to keep her mouth above the water. The merfolk, through their strength and their Magic, set to work shifting the debris, while Hernam conjured air into her helmet. Her eyes fluttered awake.
“Just in time,” she signed. Each word came so slowly.
Hernam held her hands still, “Take it easy now, we’re getting you out of here.”
They shifted the debris, and the water went red. One of Shallah’s legs had been crushed. Simultaneously, water rushed into the helm from wherever it was ruptured, and air started seeping out of the cracks in her visor. Hernam tried to force air back in, but it was no good.
His sister appeared at his side. “We need to get her to the surface,” she signed, trying to hide the shock on her face.
“Not too fast. The pressure could kill her.”
“Drowning will kill her faster.” Then she added, “We’ll be careful.”
They worked together to raise her. Two merfolk carried her while Hernam and his sister fought to flush water out of the suit and to give her air to breathe. It was difficult to say if any of it was helping. At the surface, they loaded her onto the rowboat and Hernam climbed in. Clumsily, he undid the helm. Shallah’s leg was alarming, but he forced himself to focus on her face. He leaned over and started performing compressions on her chest, every few beats checking for breath, then putting his lips to hers and pressing air into her. It was a technique Shallah had taught him for just such an occasion, but now there was nobody to tell him if he was doing it right. He became conscious of the stillness all around him. The wind had died. There were no gulls overhead. The merfolk looked on in a ring around him, silent—scales aglitter on a bright blue day. The only sounds were of his hands against her chest, and of the waves clucking against the sides of the boat.
“Breathe,” he asked.
“Breathe-breathe-breathe. Please, breathe.”
Water spurted out of the elf’s mouth, but she did not cough or move. A cloud drifted over the sun. The body would not breathe.
Hernam sat back, stunned. He was dimly aware of activity around him. Merfolk moved about. His sister asked him a question and he answered, though he didn’t hear himself respond. She put something into his hands, and he recognized the kelp journal. He would have cried, if merfolk could shed tears. A merfolk could still sob though—and wail—and lash about until his sister holds him close.
Figures were standing on the beach. When the merfolk grew closer, they recognized the figures as elves, clad in all manner of skins and bones and scales. There were perhaps seventy of them. The whole clan, maybe. They looked like a painting. Pale faces in earthy clothes against the greens of the forest, with tan beach beneath them and blue sky above. Despite their somber, reserved looks, Hernam clenched fists at the sight of them. The rowboat ran aground on the beach, and seven of the elves stepped forward onto the sand.
Hernam stood protectively before the rowboat and the other merfolk. “Why are you here?” He addressed the elf at the center, who seemed to be their leader. He had a beard with leaves in it, and antlers adorned his shoulders. When the elf looked at him, Hernam was struck by the sorrow that was there.
“It is natural for a father to know when he has outlived his child… We’ve come to mourn her.”
“You struck her from your histories. You disowned her, erased her.”
“Three of my deepest regrets.” The wind put fingers through his beard as he walked up to Hernam and offered his hand. Hernam eyed it warily.
“Will you give her to us? It has been a long time since she was home.”
“Will you write her back into your clan?”
For some reason, this was the moment her father began crying. Eyes wells of tears, all he could say was, “Of course.”
They clasped wrists, in the elvish fashion. Hernam attended the funeral, endured a mixture of looks, from grateful to murderous. Afterwards, he was invited back to the school. He continued to live in Shallah’s hut while he considered it. He still had all her notes, her books. He still had her helm, pristine except for the rupture and the hairline cracks in the glass. It was almost like he was looking at her face.
For what must have been the hundredth time, he took out the kelp journal and read the notes she’d taken that day. Some were plans she’d already had to improve her prototype, others were notes on the ship. He could tell what had been written when because her handwriting changed. After she’d been pinned, she wrote:
“Daugerrodeen: Elvish goddess of death and curiosity.”
“I should have known what I was doing when I picked that name, but as you keep reminding me, I don’t believe in fate—or in tempting her.”
“I promised I would teach you how to teach yourself.”
“Quite simple, really.”
“Then don’t stop failing—slowly, failures get smaller.”
“You’ll get the hang of it.”
“Had hoped dying would feel different.”
“Somewhat let down.”
“Is this what Destiny feels like?”
“I forgot to say I love you.”
“Well, I do.”
Copyright 2019 by Jacob Mooney