The next few days alternated between rough and recovering. Lauranya’s stomach would rebel at water occasionally, but be fine after the initial vomiting. Standing not always the wisest choice. Dizzy spells were common, tapering off as the days went on. Lauranya’s dreams no longer were of Tine (a relief) or Maison (heartbreaking) but she would dream of fur and four legs occasionally. Those dreams made her smile for no particular reason.
Routine became re-established. The early morning for the livestock and gardens, with the mid-morning and early afternoons for the lab. Arie had frozen the fish body for Lauranya to study at her leisure. Lauranya spent hours on slides and notes. There were naps but they became fewer and fewer. The days passed as Lauranya’s stomach settled down and her joints became less inflamed.
The fish yielded information Lauranya hadn’t realized she’d been searching for. When she connected the dots, she sat back on her stool. Arie sitting across from her, making sketches on the other side of the table. She chewed her lower lip. The information could make the patronage of safety she would need for her and Arie back on the ships or it could get them both shot out of hand. Their lives depended on how well their work might be judged, worthy or dangerous. Lauranya compromised with herself. The notes on the fish and it’s unusual viral interaction, written in encrypted notes. Only she would be able to open the notes.
The evenings both Lauranya and Arie would spend watching various vid tapes of famous singers. Sometimes Lauranya would sing along. Arie would attempt to join in but would fumble some of the higher or lower notes, causing them both to giggle.
Singing wasn’t the only new thing, Arie had discovered personal pleasure which needed the occasional discretionary comment.
“Arie, we do not play with our vulva while watching the projector. If you want quiet time please go to your room until you are finished.”
Arie stopped masturbating, sitting up. With a yawn and a stretch, she gave her mother a sleepy smile. “Okay.” Arie swung her feet off the couch, heading to her room. Lauranya returned her attention back to the singer, singing along.
Part way through the door, Arie stopped. “Mommy?”
Lauranya blinked a couple of times, only partially taking her eyes away from the screen. “Yes, dear?”
“You and dad had sex to have kids, right?”
“Ah…you have been reading the reproduction section of your studies.” Lauranya gave Arie her full attention, with a smile.
“Yes.” Arie twisted a toe on the wood floor, looking down.
“Then the answer, as you know, is yes.”
“What happens when I want to have sex with someone?” She looked up at her mom, through long blond tousled hair.
Lauranya stopped the projector, with a flick of the remote. “I am sorry, love. There is almost no way you will ever meet someone here, unless the ships come back.” The question was years earlier than expected, but still deserving of a full answer.
“Which would be bad.” Arie said, with a firm nod. The vid’s made ship life, with slaves and Gods, unappealing.
Lauranya didn’t answer for a moment. “The ships, coming back to the world, would mean the reinstatement of rules that I have been lax in enforcing.” She frowned at a new thought. “Why do you ask?”
“You asked me to tell me when I heard voices again.”
“And you are hearing the dead now?” Lauranya asked cautiously, swallowing a lump in her throat. The bitter copper taste of fear.
“Yes, a woman from the water. She knows she’s dead, but mourns her husbands.” Arie’s mouth turned down, as she blinked her eyes from excess moisture.
“From the water?”
“Yes. A shark killed her.” Arie said, tilting her head a moment listening. “A flat head shark.”
Lauranya hesitated but pushed ahead. “Have you animated the body?’
“Is the body moving under your direction?”
“It’s next to the lobby door.”
“When I was throwing up.”
Arie nodded, her hands fluttering nervously. “I forgot, just heard the voice and asked her to waituntil you were better.” She looked at her mother anxiously.
“You are going to have to release her soul, my dear.” Lauranya said, with a heavy sigh, cautiously moving to her feet.
“And lay the body to rest?”
“She should animate it and use it for a guard on the building.” Jacks’ voice hung in the air for both to hear.
Lauranya rolled her eyes. “Hanging around like the family banshee I see.” She muttered. The idea was solid and Arie could use the practice.
“How do I animate the body but let the soul go?” Arie asked confused, walking back to her mother, her head moving from her mother to Jacks’ ghost.
“Can you feel the body now? Sense it in the water?” Lauranya asked, flaring her nostrils releasing a pent up breath.
“Yeesss?” Arie stuttered, concentrating with furrowed brow.
“Do you feel the soul as well?”
“Yes!” Arie said emphatically. As if summoned by the question, a form coalesced in front of them, a woman with long dark hair floating in a dark halo around her as if in deep but slow moving water. The woman’s bottom half looked like a scaled fish, beautiful in coloration. Lauranya walked slowly forward from the couch to look at the woman’s ghost closer, studying the scales on the woman’s tail. The front, a dark red while the back scales were whorled in blues and green. The scales ranged from one inch to a quarter inch in width. There were dorsal fins and side fins. Lauranya could not say if the fins were overly large or small on a mer. The woman flared her fins for Lauranya’s observation. The fins flowed lusciously like crimson silk in a hidden current, with streaks of deeper burgundy along the thick caudal fin veins. Lauranya could feel her hands itching to touch the woman and study her. The mer-woman was just as intense with her looks at both Lauranya and Arie.
The woman wore a necklace of smooth stones that shifted between pearl opalescens with flashes of blue/green/red. Complimenting her natural fin coloration.
Lauranya didn’t have to ask. The ghost’s soul self-image saw herself as a warrior. Her chest and arms were covered in thick leather armor, leather but not of a hide Lauranya knew or was familiar with. Grey in color, probably the natural leather coloration as dyed leather did not last long in water. The armor fitted to the mer’s body, yet in several horizontal pieces, the width of Lauranya’s hand, that would move with her, not made from one singular piece. Lauranya caught glimpses of red and green ties tying the armor together, as the woman floated in front of them.
“How did you die?” Lauranya asked, after a moment of surprised silence.
“The flat heads are thick in this area. They may not always be as the water grows deeper.” The woman’s voice oddly accented. The ghost didn’t seem to mind talking to the two of them, more bemused than upset.
“They can’t get in through the doors.” Lauranya said, off handily admiring the symmetry of the woman’s unusual body build.
“Not all the lower windows have survived. At least one cephalopod can climb steep hills for a few feet in search of prey.” The woman’s voice was laconic as she looked, not at them but at the foyer of the building. “Gorgeous in here.” She breathed, motioning with a slow wave of her hand. The motion spoke of a lifetime moving in water.
Lauranya blanched, clutching Arie close at this unexpected news. “That would answer our question about needing a guard.”
The mer-woman grimaced, changing her features from lovely to fierce. “I can feel Death calling but something is keeping me here.”
“Do you have family that you need to say goodbye to?” Lauranya asked, reaching a hand out solicitously than dropping it, the dead rarely needed comforting.
The mer-woman opened her mouth then closed it, with a shake of her head. “My husbands.” She tapped a sharp triangular fingernail against a bracer. “They will find another wife or others that make them happy.” A shrug. Death robbing most heat from her anger or sorrow.
“Arie, we are going to release her spirit.”
“Will she hurt us like Tass did?” Arie’s eyes grew huge, her chin started to quiver.
Lauranya hugged Arie tight. “No, baby. We are going to release her spirit back to Obatala so that she will find her way to her next life.”
Arie swiped back a tear, returning her mother’s tight hug. “Okay.” Her voice only quavered a little.
Lauranya turned to the mer-woman’s ghost. The ghost’s head tilted with a sad smile. “I had wanted a daughter.”
“You have only boys?”
“Not even that. We aren’t prolific breeders, shifting from water to legs takes a toll on the reproduction.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Lauranya had no other words to offer.
The woman gave a slight shrug. “Nothing you could do to help.”
Lauranya opened her mouth, then closed it. She couldn’t help at this point, but she would definitely get tissue samples to study, now that there was a body close. A thought occurred.
“Is this part of your usual area or were you exploring?” Lauranya asked cautiously.
“Sister sent out an observer when the rains were coming. She asked if we would keep an eye on the tower when our hunting took us in this area.” The woman shrugged. “I became curious about the interior and didn’t pay attention.”
“I am sorry for your loss. Do you know if others will venture to the tower?”
“Maybe but not for a few months. This isn’t a prime hunting spot yet.” A slow shrug, moving the drifting hair in a slight swirl.
“Who is Sister?” Lauranya asked, turning her head slightly questioningly.
“The Torch, who sees some of the future.” The mer-woman said, continuing to gaze around the room.
Lauranya blanched at the mention of an unfettered Power, but there was nothing more she could do for them or the dead woman.
Lauranya took a deep breath. “I need your name for us to send you on.”
“Ready, Arie?” a quick hug to her daughter.
“Yes, mommy.” Arie looked up to her mother with an eager smile.
“Okay, repeat after me.” Lauranya took a deep breath. “Sachiko, may you find peace in your next life. Back to Obatala. Leave this plane.”
Arie repeated the words verbatim, her voice growing in depth and timber as she spoke. Lauranya felt the hair on her arms raise from the power Arie commanded, setting this one soul free. A strong child would grow to be a strong necromancer.
Sachiko’s ghost glowed softly, haloed for a brief moment, before her ghost faded away. Arie’s shoulders slumped as she leaned against her mother heavily.
“Is she gone?” Arie asked softly, with a tilted head listening.
“I do believe so.” Lauranya gave Arie another quick hug.
Brother stood at the newly formed beach, his feet squelching through the mud, the smell of rotting vegetation and ocean air distinctive, mildly revolting during low tide. Crabs and shallow tidal creatures were in heaven, with the rich feeding grounds. Decaying plants and the occasional bit of animal protein mixed in made for good tidal flats. Sand would be carried onto the shores but for the next few years there would be only mud.
Brother walked out into the water, where he knew the old rock outcroppings had been. The night sky holding the stars high above, brilliant pinpoints forming patterns in the heavens. He stared upwards, as the water moved around his calves.
“Someone is a cat in water.” A sultry voice caught him off guard as he star gazed.
“Good evening to you, Keyma.” Brother flashed a tired but warm smile, recognizing the voice floating through the air..
Keyma frowned as she undulated closer through the high tide water. She swam over dull rocks and mud. Pulling herself out of the water, she sat on a flatish rock next to the standing Brother.
“I heard about Leah. A rough time for her parents on their loss.” Keyma said softly, looking to the sky, leaning back on her elbows, arching her back in a distracting manner.
Brother took a deep shaky breath. “It hit us all hard. No one thought Toithan would actually kill her, or anyone could harbor that much hate to kill a child.” The words bitter still. His fists clenched and released.
“His brother passed the mental review by Treasher. Do you think he’ll still be able to honor that when or if another child is a shifter?”
Brother shrugged. “I don’t know, but the likelihood of another land shifter is rather slim.”
“Leah happened, surely another couple’s child could be a shifter.” Keyma said, perplexed at Brother’s comment.
Brother let out a bitter snort of laughter. “Not Gods spacing likely.”
It was Keyma’s turn to frown. “Why not? Genetics for us all…”
“Leah was my genetic daughter. I’m the only one who can shift or has the genetics for it.”
Keyma’s eyes widened in shock as she stuttered. “Oh. I… I am very sorry. I didn’t know.”
Brother gingerly sat down next to her. The weight of Leah’s death still heavy on his mind. “Almost no one did, until Toithan killed her.”
“How…” Keyma shook her head. “Never mind. I do know how children are made.”
Brother kept his words short, the story still painful. “Nori isn’t able to have kids. A childhood accident left him sterile. He and Yearra asked me.”
“Why you?” Keyma asked, turning wide eyes to him, then slapped a hand over her mouth. “Gods, I’m an idiot. That’s not how I meant to ask.” She tried to backtrack quickly. “You’re handsome and of sound intelligence.”
“But not everyone is going to want a shifter in their bed. Yes, I know what you meant.” Rueful laughter, at her and himself.
“I am chewing on my fin, trying to find the right apology.” She bumped his shoulder with her bare shoulder in apology.
Brother actually chuckled. “No. You’re fine, darlin’.” He stared up at the stars for a few minutes before continuing. “They wanted someone who wasn’t a part of the regular villagers’ genetic DNA floating around and the occasional bed hopping that goes with consenting adults.”
“No worries of a child trying to sleep with a half brother or sister.”
“Something like that.” A flash of a smile.
“And you are discreet.” Keyma flared her fingers, as if dismissing the others and the normal gossip of a small group.
Brother tilted his head in assent. “And that too. No one would have thought of me as the father, only that Leah looked much like her mother Yearra and not much of Nori.”
“So what brings you out to the new beachhead?” Keyma tried for a change of subject.
Brother looked up into the night sky, with its distant stars. “The stars and the quiet.” His voice almost wistful.
“Ah. I will leave you in peace then.” Keyma started to push off with her tail, when Brother rested his hand on her shoulder, stopping her.
“I like your company. I didn’t mean for it to sound like you weren’t welcome.”
She quirked a smile at him with a tilt of her head. “So you do want company.”
His eyes crinkling at the edges, in warmth and humor. “Possibly.” He smiled back at her with a lilt of his lips. She leaned forward to kiss. Her teeth catching his lower lip, tugging gently playfully. Brother sucked in his breath, tasting her lips. His arm reached around her waist, snagging her closer, kissing her hard with want.
“So what did bring you to the islands tonight? Not that I would pass up on such a lovely time gazing at the…stars.” Brother leaned on his elbow, running his free hand over her lovely rounding breast, catching a nipple between forefinger and thumb, eliciting a gasp.
“Keep doing that and I won’t tell you anytime soon!” Keyma gave a shuddering laugh.
“My bad.” Brother replaced his fingers with his mouth, flicking the nipple against his upper teeth with his tongue, his hand moved lower down her belly.
“Well that was lovely. Again!” Keyma rested her head on Brother’s chest.
“So why did you come by again?”
“Hmm? Oh, right.” Keyma sat up with a sigh. “Sachiko has gone missing and Chehreh wants to know if Sister could “See” if she is still alive.”
Brother rolled over, facing Keyma,with a frown. “She’s an excellent hunter. I’ve never seen better. Why would Chehreh think she’s missing?”
“Besides being a controlling jealous dick?” Keyma snapped, with a flip of her blond hair. “Bastard likes to bite fins for fun and not in good fun.”
“To be fair they are married. And he doesn’t like it when she flirts with others.” Brother trailed his hand along the soft skin of her belly.
“Miok isn’t that worried. Yet. Willing to say she might be chasing an elusive opal kraken hunting the edges of our fishing grounds.” Keyma shook her head, erasing Chehreh from her thoughts, damp hair clinging to warm skin in tangled locks.
“Valuable. And Miok isn’t prone to jealousy fits like Chehreh.” Brother said, distracted by the way Keyma’s stomach flutter under his touch than her actual words.
Keyma’s breath caught. “Very.” Her breathless reply. “Still don’t see how those three formed up. Miok’s the better husband.”
“So why is Chehreh so concerned?” Brother asked, idly running nails along the side of her belly.
Keyma gave a shudder, gasping her answer.“He said he saw her ghost.” her left hand flexing over Brother’s bare thigh.
“Chehreh? Said he saw a ghost?” Brother stopped, looking at her with his jaw open, his hands stilled.
“Yes. And not just any ghost. Sachiko’s. Said she kissed him on the cheek, told him her body was by the tower where the flathead shark that killed her left it, but not to retrieve it. She was on her way with Death, but the body stood guarding the child and her mother.” Keyma shook her head, rolling her eyes at the story. Her tail slapped the water in derision. “Seriously how unbelievable can you get to check on your wife might seeing another.”
Brother scrabbled to his feet, grabbing his clothes, spilling Keyma from his chest in his rush.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Keyma looked up startled, her hand half raised reaching for him.
“The deadhead scientists had a large building. There were two survivors. A woman and a child.” Brother looked down grimly, as he hurriedly donned his pants, the shirt he slung over his shoulder.
It took a moment for this to sink in. “Oh, void!” Keyma whispered, her eyes growing huge.
Brother looked grim. “If Chehreh said he saw Sachiko’s ghost…”
“Then one of them is a deadhead!” Keyma whispered in fear.
“They are both deadheads, but one of them can raise the dead.” Brother said, lips pressed together in a thin line.
She swallowed hard. “I need to wait for an answer.” Keyma said, in a small voice. She could imagine Chehreh’s reaction already. Her hands started to shake ever so slightly.
“You’ll need to shift and come with me then, but I’m pretty sure Sachiko is dead.” No more star gazing or relaxing company for this night.
Keyma nodded. She scrunched up her face, concentrating on the shift. The bones didn’t rearrange as painfully as when Brother shifted, but muscles flowed and bones in the tail did rearrange. Painful enough to leave her gasping for minutes afterwards.
Brother picked her up, carefully walking along the rocks, heading back to the village.
“I can walk!” She protested weakly, as she clung to his neck, the quivering in her legs belying the words.
“Yep, but we need to get moving now and these rocks are sharp. The skin on the bottom of your feet is tender. I’ll put you down once we hit sand. Sooner you ask Sister, the sooner you can be back with the bad news to Chehreh.”
“Fuck. I’d rather not be the one to tell him his wife is a zombie now.” Keyma leaned against Brother’s solid warm chest.
“Better you than me.” Brother said, kissing her forehead. Comforting.
“He doesn’t hate you anymore.” Keyma chuckled, her breath warm against his sweat soaked skin. “He does have other worries now.”
“But he hasn’t forgiven me for beating him.” Brother gave a laughing huff as he made it to the muck of the new beach. His footsteps making slurping sounds with each step, as he trotted towards the village.