PART ONE

Sierra awoke in her bed gasping for air and frantically searched her room for her husband.  As her vision cleared in the dark, recognition set in and she remembered that he was not there.  She snuggled under her fur blanket for warmth and stared vacantly at the wall.  With a longing she remembered her old home. 

It had been almost a year since they had traveled to this foreign land and made a new home for themselves.  Unable to find the way back, they had begun anew under this lush land with its two looming moons that hung like fruit in the sky every night.  Sierra remembered with a pang of regret the day they had traveled through the portal that looked to her like a tall pool of clear liquid in the middle of the forest.  Someone in town had discovered it, and it had quickly become the center of attention.  People came from far and wide to view the strange standing pool, and finally someone gathered enough courage to touch it.  Nothing happened at first, but after he stepped through he did not return for many hours.  He came back ranting and raving about a new unexplored land, and it wasn’t long until they had all gathered their belongings and joined him.

But now, as she lay far from the comforts of her old home, waiting for her husband to return from his expedition to explore the new land, she regretted it all.  She should be cooking meals and raising children.  Instead she spent her days helping the others build the town that they had created.  There was no talk of ever returning home, and with the dangers that they’d experienced thus far, Sierra wouldn’t dare speak of children with her husband.  Here, children often vanished in the night, and people who’d gone exploring came back crazed and convinced that gargantuan lizards walking on their hind legs stalked the area.  This was not her home.  Sierra shivered and fell into a restless sleep. 

Not long after she drifted off, she heard a loud keen in the distance.  She bolted up straight in her bed and listened again.  The small house was silent for a long while, and just as she rested her head back on her pillow, a cry rang out very close.  It sounded too much like the wail of a child, and Sierra bolted from the bed and threw on her shoes.  She poked her head out the front door and surveyed the row of houses.  Save for the wind, the town was eerily silent in the dead of night.  Most did not dare leave their houses after dark for fear that the tales of the giant manlike lizards were true.  Sierra thought about this and pushed the black hair from her face and tied it in a knot behind her head.  She would need to keep her wits about her if she were going to venture out into the night.

A sharp wail in the distance pushed her from her home and she found herself tearing down the dirt streets towards the edge of the town where tall walls made of logs had been erected to protect them from danger.  With most of the men gone on the expedition, there were few watching atop the wall.  Sierra hesitated near the opening of the wall and looked for the guard.  She smirked seeing the man sleeping at his post.  She could slip through easily without his noticing. 

After squeezing through the small opening left by the two large doors, she raced towards the direction of the sound.  Almost as if guiding her, another keen rang out, and spurred her to run faster.  She frowned at the direction the cries were taking her.  She was running towards the ocean.  It was as if the night itself was alive with her running.  The cries led her on towards the waters, and the rushing of the waves on the shore greeted her presence.  The sound grew louder as her shoes found the sand, and her feet sagged into it, slowing her down.  When she saw the shoreline with her eyes she searched eagerly for the source of the noise.  Off to her right, near the water a figure lay in the sand crumpled in a heap.  Sierra stopped in her tracks and stared hard at it attempting to see if it was the source of the cries.  Another loud wail erupted from the form in the sand, as if to answer her question, and Sierra raced forward towards it.

“You there!  Don’t worry, I’m coming!” Sierra shouted, thinking it was someone from town who had injured himself.  A low growl emitted from the form unlike any human sound she had ever heard.  Sierra froze mid run and listened.  The figure twisted towards her and her mouth opened in horror.  A dark blue skinned man barred his teeth at her menacingly.  His strong arms held up his body on one side, but where his legs should have been, a long fish tail lay twisted in their fishing nets.

  Sierra took a step back, now wishing that she had brought some kind of protection.  He lashed out the other hand at her as if to strike her from where he was but lost his balance, falling back to the sand.  Rolling on his back he let out another loud cry of frustration and laid there defeated.  Whatever he was, it was obvious that he needed her help.  Sierra edged towards him slowly and he hissed at her.  She frowned and crossed her arms.

“Look, if you think you can get out of that yourself, be my guest.” she answered perturbed.  The creature returned her response with a flat look and let out a sound that was more a grumble than a growl.  Sierra nodded and continued towards him.  When the distance between them was only but a few feet, she took off her bulky shoes and crouched down into the sand in her nightgown.  Up close she marveled at the beauty of this creature.  His face was very humanlike, but his forehead was much larger, and a triangular hole resided in the center of it.  Long wet hair fell past his back and was also tangled within the nets.  The hands that had tried to attack her before were similar to her own, but webs of thick skin interlinked them together.  He looked up at her with black eyes that gave her pause.  They were completely black from edge to edge and Sierra felt as if he were looking into her mind.  She knew instantly what he was.  He was what the sailors had called a merman.

He gritted his teeth and brought her back to reality.  Sierra fell to her knees and searched the sand for something that could help her free him.  Near his arm a broken seashell poked out of the sand and she reached for it.

Instantly his hand gripped her wrist and pulled her towards him shouting foreign words in her face.  His voice was deep and hallow, chilling her to her core.  She screamed and turned away from him, struggling to escape his tight grasp.  She did not understand the language that he spoke but knew he must be warning her of what would happen if she tried to harm him.  He stopped his shouting and stared at her dumbfounded as she continued to reach with her other hand near his arm for the shell, despite him yelling in her ear.  He opened his mouth again but closed it upon seeing the broken shell in her hand.  Still startled, her breath came in sharp rasps as she went straight to work sawing through the rope nets they had woven together from horse hair.  It was hard work, but with the aid of the sharp edge of the shell they broke away easier. 

When she had freed his other arm, he sat up and pushed Sierra hard in the shoulder.  She fell to one side at the force of his shove and glared angrily at him.  Snatching the shell out of her hand he furiously went at the remaining ropes in the net to free his hair and tail.

“What was that for?!” Sierra cried, returning to her knees and brushing the sand off of her dark tanned skin.  He paused momentarily as if he’d understood her question and responded with more angry shouting.  Sierra brought her hands to her ears at the unnatural sound of his voice.  He continued berating her until she grimaced at him.

“I can’t understand you!” she yelled back, and he instantly ceased speaking.  Reaching forward he grabbed her face in one webbed hand, and gently touched her forehead with the other. 

“Do you understand now?” an irritated male voice rang within her mind.  Sierra gasped and fell back onto her bottom in the sand.

“What did you do to me?” she asked shocked.

“I made you hear me.” He answered.  Sierra held her breath and met the endless voids that were his eyes.

“Could you understand me before you did this?” she asked quietly.  He nodded.

“We understand all.”

“But how?” Sierra began trying to comprehend someone being able to have the power to understand universal language. 

“I can understand the intention in every syllable of your speech.  By touching your mind, I am able to read your memories to instantly learn your language,” He explained and began cutting his knots again.  She watched him with interest, confused and intrigued. 

“Why are you angry?” she inquired at the obvious bitterness in his expression.  He sawed harder at the nets and ground his teeth.

“You do not belong in this world.  You came here uninvited, you made traps in our home, and you ask too many questions!” he barked, shaking the insides of her skull with the forcefulness of his voice.  Sierra sat for many long moments in silence, contemplating what he’d said.  Finally she rose from the ground, shook the sand off of her nightgown and faced him. 

“Who are you to say where we belong?  I may not like this world very much but it is my home!  You may live in the water but you do not rule the land.  I will tell my people to take in their nets when they’re not in use, but we will not leave.”  She stated firmly.  The merman snarled at her and finished cutting the last rope before crawling on his stomach into the water. 

He disappeared beneath a wave and when he rose again, he slicked his hair back.  His demeanor changed in the water and he calmed himself.

“Stay if you like.  I care not for your land, but keep your traps out of our home.  I wouldn’t want to have to hurt any of your people to protect mine…” he warned, staring at her from across the water.  Sierra nodded in response and turned to go. 

“Wait…” he called softer than he’d spoken before.  She looked back to the waves and met his gaze.

“Come back again at night if you wish.  I would speak with you again, but we cannot be seen.  Most of my kind are not so…understanding.” He offered.  

“What are you?” she called loudly enough for him to hear over the crashing of the tide.  There was a long pause, and because of the darkness she’d thought he’d left.

“I do not have a word for what we are in your language, but I will try.  You may call us the Riossien.” He answered before disappearing beneath the waves.  

 

 

PART TWO

Sierra woke the next morning with a splitting headache, and tired eyes from the lack of sleep.  She sat herself up in bed slowly, feeling the bones in her back protest.  She pushed stray tangles of hair from her face and smiled thinking of the strange dream she’d had about a merman trapped on the beach.  Reaching to the back of her hair her hand froze in mid-air.  The knot that she had tied when rushing out the door was still there.  She held her breath and ripped back the fur blanket in one quick sweep.  She gasped loudly and her eyes widened.  Her bed was littered with sand that had clung to her legs, and her feet were dark with dirt. 

Absentmindedly she looked across her small house in the direction of the sea and thought of the man.  He’d called himself a Riossien, and spoken through her mind.  Sierra sat for many long moments recalling the memories until she finally sighed.  It just had to have been a dream.  There was no logical explanation for the dirt and sand, but there was no such thing as mermen, or mermaids.  On that deciding note Sierra left the bed, washed up, and exited her house to see what news would come today.  The town was alive with sound as the expedition groups were slowly making their way back to their homes. 

Walking down the streets she thought about all the times her husband Luis had come back from his expeditions.  When their eyes met, he would drop whatever he was doing and scoop her up into his strong arms, just as he’d done when they were newlyweds.  He’d always bring back a flower and say that his love for her was life itself, and the life of the flower should be a reminder.  But unlike the flower, their love would not wither and die with time.  She wondered what kind of flower he would bring her this time.  Her collection of dried flowers grew with each expedition.  Sierra smiled and raced excitedly to the main square where Luis would surely be standing around with the rest of them bragging about what they’d found. 

When she reached the cobblestone that marked the main square she stopped to scan the crowd.  Fewer men had returned than she’d expected, and with a quick search of her eyes she saw that her husband was not one of them.  Her heart sank and she sat down on a nearby supply crate to gather herself and cease the rumblings of anxiety within her stomach.  Where was he?  Luis had never been gone for this long.  Sierra waited on the crate for a long while, watching the crowd dissipate until only a few people were wandering the area.  Luis did not arrive and Sierra left for home with a feeling of dread.  On her way back home, she asked a few neighbors if anyone else in his party had returned, and she learned that no one from his group were back yet.  Sierra entered her silent home and flopped onto her bed depressed.  They had been gone for weeks without any word.  A tight fluttering feeling held her chest in a vice and wouldn’t let go.  Anxiety gripped her and she crawled under her covers, ignoring the gritty sand and closed her eyes, willing the day away. 

            Sierra’s eyes opened in the darkness and she groaned softly.  Forcing herself asleep so early in the evening had been a bad idea.  She sat up feeling wide awake, and with that came a jolt of curiosity.  The merman.  What if he was waiting for her at the shoreline, and she wasn’t there?  Surely that would prove his existence.  Sierra tore from her bed and left her home without even putting shoes on.  Her nightgown blew in the cool night air as she raced along the streets between the houses.  Again she had no trouble leaving town and she ran through the tall grasses, laughing under the light of the two shining moons.  When she heard the ocean calling to her with its raspy breath she ran faster until she felt the sand tickling her feet.  The moons shown on the water like a lamp that reflected across it, lighting the area.  The sea breeze blew her hair to one side and she took in a deep calming breath. 

            Out here near the ocean her anxiety left with the wind and she opened her mouth in a wide grin.  Sierra looked to the waters and approached them where the nets had been cut.  Someone had removed them during the day, probably to be repaired.  There, where the nets had been, was the broken seashell.  Sierra held her breath with excitement.  It had happened, and there was no doubt now that the merman was real.  But where was he?  Sierra waited for a long while, enjoying the night air but after a while when he did not appear she wondered if she had dreamed all of it up.  The thought of wandering out on the beach alone and imagining wild stories disturbed her.  She willed the thought away.  He had to be real.  A rustling in the grass atop the hill that led down to the beach caught her attention.  Despite the moonlight, Sierra could not see what lay in the grass behind her and she stood up backing away toward the water.

            “Hello?” she called softly, but there came no response.  Instead another rustle of the grass jolted her to attention and she stiffened.  Sierra did not know what animals lurked in the dead of night, and the women had been warned many times to never leave the city walls alone, even in the daytime.  After a long silence, Sierra let her breath out and in one movement turned back to the sea.

            “Are you there?  Riossien?” she whispered, but only the waves answered her call and brushed against her feet.  Sierra sighed and turned to go but ran into a solid wall.  She gasped startled and looked up meeting yellow glowing eyes that towered over her in the darkness.  A dragon-like mouth filled with long, jagged teeth opened before her, and her face was bathed in the heat that emitted from it.  A lizard man from the stories loomed over her tiny form and growled low before letting out a booming roar.  Sierra’s scream pierced the night air and she was running down the beach like a deer from its prey.  Her arms flailed at her sides as she ran, and her feet sunk into the sand clumsily with every step, slowing her down.  He would soon be upon her and Sierra’s heart beat like a rabbit’s, filling her with cold fear.

            Despair engulfed Sierra as she saw a wall of rocks before her that would stand in her way.  The only means of escape she had now was the water, which seemed even more frightening during the night than the creature behind her.  Who knew what lay below the black surface?  When she neared the wall, the creature caught up with her, and a fist the size of a cantaloupe smashed into her shoulder from somewhere behind, throwing her into the sand.  She slammed into the sand as if it were a brick wall and her breath left her with the impact.  She groaned as the pain coursed through her body, but there was no time to feel.  The creature crouched in front of her on all fours, leaving the sea as her only escape.  Sierra swallowed the pain like a thick pill and scrambled to her feet, kicking up sand behind her, and took off towards the water.  An icy cold wave brought a cry from her throat but she pushed on, scraping her feet against the slushy sand below her to get away. 

            The wall of rock led out for a short distance and stopped.  If she could only swim around it she stood a chance to get away from the massive lizard.  However, swimming was futile.  Something was seriously wrong with her right arm, and as the water climbed up to her throat, she could not move it hard enough to keep herself afloat.  A wave blasted her in the face without warning, forcing salt water down her throat.  Sierra gasped and choked, attempting to survive in the strong current with one arm.  The sea floor eluded her and she struggled amongst the waves.  Suddenly something gripped her by the arm fiercely and jerked her out of the torrent, up into the air.  She coughed up a mouthful of water and moaned with agony as someone, or something, held on to her injured arm.  Her vision swam and confusion set in until her eyes focused on the row of teeth only inches from her face. 

Sierra let out a desperate cry and a roar from the beast followed, before she was dropped back into the sea closer to the shore this time.  Sierra tiredly swam for her life with one arm as hard as she could until she was dragging herself in the sand.  Exhausted, she fell on her side still half in the water and inclined her head to find the monster that had attacked her.  Surely now she was easy prey.  Before her in the water the lizard laid dead on the ground at the water’s edge, and the Riossien man from before let out a guttural cry at its corpse before yanking his spear from its head.  Sierra sighed with relief before her vision darkened and she blacked out.

            When Sierra awoke, she was staring at the two moons in the sky, and the water brushed her hair, tickling her neck.  Her arm no longer hurt, and she felt as if she were floating.  As she lay there in a dreamlike state, she slowly became aware of the sound of breathing very close to her face.  Sierra turned her eyes and met the black pools of the man from the night before.  Sierra gasped and jolted upright looking around.  He held her within his arms, and when she glimpsed their surroundings she realized that they were far from the shoreline.  He was holding her in the middle of the water, and Sierra wasn’t sure whether to be frightened or intrigued. 

            “Are you alright?” the male voice from before rang in her mind; a hint of worry added to it.  Sierra blushed at his concern.

            “Yes, thanks to you…” she answered.  He nodded in response and began swimming back towards the shore.

            “Why did you take me all the way out here?” Sierra asked quietly. 
            “I wanted to keep you safe from the other Slaads that would surely follow the one that attacked you.  I also needed to heal your wounds in safety.” He responded, not looking at her but at the beach ahead of them.

            “Slaad?” she inquired.  He stopped and turned his eyes upon her.

            “The creature that attacked you is called a Slaad.  A lizard creature that has a large appetite and will eat whatever it can.  I should not have asked you to come here at night.  You could have been killed…” he said and continued swimming.  Sierra remained silent, contemplating his words until she remembered her arm.

            “But how did you heal me?” she questioned.  The Riossien stopped swimming again and lifted the hand that was holding up her legs.  A bright glow emitted from his palm and he smirked.

            “The ocean lends me its strength, and I gave some of it to you.” He explained as they finally reached the beach.  He released her in an area where she could stand and her hands touched his strong chest as she regained her balance.  She looked up at him, hearing her heart beat inside of her ears.  He smiled down at her.

            “I am glad that you are safe.  Please return home, and do not visit me again.  It is not safe here for you, and I will not have your blood on my hands…” he told her.   Sierra felt his firm skin beneath her hands and realized that he was very human.  How had they come to be?  Could their races coexist?  Even…be together?  She wondered these things until the thought of Luis out in the black of night at the mercy of the Slaads jerked her back to reality.

            “You’re right…I should not return.  It is not fitting of a married woman to leave her home for the company of another man…” she trailed off and looked away from him.  He backed away not meeting her eyes with his own.

            “Then we will say our goodbyes.  I am glad to have met you Sierra.” He said warmly, and Sierra smiled.

            “How unfair!  You read my thoughts when we first met and learned my name, but I have yet to learn yours…at least tell me your name…” she said.  The Riossien man stared down at the water rippling between them and opened his mouth.

            “My name is Naleau.” He said aloud; his voice hallow like the mouth of a cave.  It brought a shudder from Sierra hearing the sound, but before she could say anything he leaned forward placing his wet lips on her forehead.  Sierra shivered at the chill of his touch and backed away from him.

            “Thank you Naleau…but I am spoken for…” she murmured feeling befuddled and suddenly lonely.

            “Do not worry.  That was not meant as affection.  I was giving you a blessing.  Now your mind will be linked to mine by a single thread.  If you are ever here in the waters and are in need of my aid, just call out with your mind to me and I will be there.” He instructed and Sierra nodded in response. 

            “I hope that you will not need it…” he added and vanished.  Sierra stood in the sand confused and alone.  She raced back to her home praying that she was not attacked by another Slaad, and that Luis would soon return.  

 

PART THREE

Sierra spent the next couple of weeks living a fitful existence.  Sometimes she found herself staring in the direction of the ocean, listening to the seabirds calling and wondering about Naleau.  Then there were days that were spent entirely on her bed, depressed and rummaging through her pressed flower collection longingly.  There were some nights she lay there shivering, not recalling how the warmth of Luis’ body felt, and aching for him to hold her again.  And when hopefulness doused the hopelessness, she would sit on a crate in the square waiting for her beloved to return. 

                One morning Sierra left her home with a feeling of excitement.  She knew that today would be the day for the answers to arrive.  As the feeling built up inside of her, she found herself speeding down the streets past wary onlookers until the square came into view.  Just as she’d suspected, a large group of people was gathered in the center of the square.  Sierra smiled to herself, picked up her skirts, and ran until she met the crowd.

                 As she neared, her heart dropped into the pit of her stomach and her feet skidded to a slow tentative walk.  There was blood on the cobblestone around their feet, pooling on the stones and seeping into the cracks between them.   She was suddenly shoving people out of the way despite their outcries.  She pushed until she found the center where one man was being tended to by the doctor, but was bleeding profusely from a leg wound.  Another man sat beside him staring distantly, his shirt stained with the injured man’s blood.  Neither of them was Luis.  Part of her sighed with relief, but then the other half froze.  These men were the same ones who left with him on the expedition.  Where were the rest of them and more importantly, where was her husband?  She dropped to her knees in front of them, grabbing the unwounded man by the shirt.

                “Luis!  Where is he?  Where is my husband?” she shouted over the noise of the crowd.  The man seemed unshaken by her roughness and moved his eyes to look at her.  There was a distant, broken look in his eyes and Sierra drew back from him, sitting on her heels.  Something terrible had happened.

                “Sierra right?” he managed to say.  “Luis’ wife,” he added.  Sierra nodded furiously, and the man sighed, looking away from her again.  Sierra waited but he said nothing.  She growled under her breath and grabbed him again, shaking him this time, startling him.

                “What happened?!” she screamed desperately.  He pushed her off and put a hand up.

                “We were attacked!  Attacked by those lizard men!” he yelled in response.  A collective gasp erupted from those around her.

                “There were six of us when we were attacked.  It happened so fast, and two of the men were lifted up and eaten right in front of us.  The damn things just took chunks out of them, like they were a roast chicken or something!” he recanted horrified.  Sierra held her breath.

                “The rest of us ran.  We ran for our lives, but we got separated.  Me and Joseph here made it out alive, but we couldn’t find the other two.  We didn’t even know who we were looking for, it had all happened so fast.  We looked for days for the other two…and then Joseph fell.  I had to carry him the rest of the way back.  It took five days just to do that.  We almost died of starvation…” he finished, and put his head into his hands ashamed.  Sierra realized she was standing, with a hand to her head.  The square swam before her eyes.  It couldn’t be true.  Someone touched her shoulder to support her as she swayed, but she flailed violently at them and shoved past them again until she found her escape.  She ran and ran until the sand found her feet again.  It had been weeks and the ocean greeted her comfortingly with the sound of its waves.  

                “Naleau!” she cried as she dragged her feet across the sand.  “Naleau!” she called out with her mind.  Sierra didn’t know to whom to go.  She didn’t have anyone who she called friend.  No one had come to her during those weeks when there was no answer.  Sierra pushed herself forward until the sand was wet and coating her tanned feet.  Her black hair blew in the wind and flew up all around her.  

                “NALEAU!” she screamed raggedly, hunching over and hugging herself.  Her insides hurt in a way she’d never felt before.  It was as if she’d been hungry for the past few weeks, and now that she’d heard the terrible news she was starving.  Sierra waded into the waters clumsily until the chilled waves caressed her waist.  She waited for Naleau to appear, but no one came.  She covered her face and let out a sob, covering her eyes.  Luis was dead.  He was gone.  It seemed impossible, but she knew that she would never see him again. 

                Warmth encircled around her, and Naleau held her in an embrace against his chest.  Sierra looked up at him briefly before choking out another desperate cry. 

                “My…my husband!” she cried shaking and he pulled her in tightly.  The ebb and flow of the waves around them shushed her into submission and she let out a long breath of air.  The air around her calmed and the sound of the waves marked the many minutes that passed.

                “I am sorry about your love…” Naleau said aloud, and Sierra met the black voids of his eyes.  His voice was so hollow, like the mouth of an open cave.  

                “I don’t know what to do…” she whispered, suddenly aware that she would have to fend for herself or find another husband among the unmarried men.  The thought sickened her.  As if hearing her thoughts Naleau spoke up.

                “Death is a simple part of life, though it does not feel so simple.  We all come into existence to spend our brief time among the living, only to be cast back into the darkness.  It will happen to all of us, at some point or another…  You do not need another to support you, Sierra.  Over the past few weeks alone I assume you’ve proven that much haven’t you?” he offered, and Sierra took a deep breath before pulling away from him.

                “Yes…” she nodded bleakly.  She had done everything on her own while Luis had been away, and no one had even come to call on her to see if she was alright.  She’d been alone, and she was still alone.  Naleau placed a hand on her shoulder and pushed her towards the shore gently.

                “Go now…endure your grief as is natural.  When you are ready, return to me if you like.  You do not have to be alone in life,” he offered, and disappeared before she could say another word.  Sierra stumbled back to her home in a daze and ignored the strange looks she was given as she walked down the streets with her dress half drenched with sea water.  Sierra entered her home, and the silence of it overwhelmed her.  It would always be silent, she realized.  There would be no Luis, and never any children to bring life into the room.  Sierra went to the far corner of the bedroom and brought out her pressed flower collection.  Each flower was vastly different than the other and far more exotic than any flower from home.  She looked at each one carefully, placing it to the side and recalling the memory associated with it.  Luis had always reminded her how their love could only continue to grow as these flowers did, and she smiled.  He’d been a hopeless romantic since the day they’d met. 

                When she’d finished looking through them, Sierra gathered them up in a bundle of cloth and took them to her fireplace.  After coaxing the fire to life, she warmed herself before taking each and every flower and tossing it in, watching them vanish in an instant before her eyes.  When they had all been incinerated, Sierra went to bed and fell into a fitful sleep.

                When she awoke the next morning she felt no different.  Her insides still gnawed at her, and she still ached to see Luis again.  Each morning after that was the same.  She attended the funeral at the church that was held for the lost men, and remained silent throughout the ordeal.  They prayed over the empty coffins and said their goodbyes as if the bodies were inside.  Then the coffins were buried in the graveyard beside the town.  Sierra lingered behind until everyone had gone home despite their warnings of dangers, and she sat beside Luis’ grave.  What was she supposed to do now?  Sierra stared at the loose dirt that covered his empty coffin and sighed.  Her eyes wandered to a wildflower growing beside the makeshift headstone that his name had been carved into.  Even the weeds in this land were exotic.  It was a pink flower with pointed petals and long extending pollen stems that curled at the edges.  She leaned across his grave, picking it and placed it on the dirt, leaving her hand on it.

                “You said that our love was like the life inside the flower…beautiful and alive.  You promised that it wouldn’t wither like the flower does, but you lied…” she whispered and tears welled in her eyes until she couldn’t see.

                “I thought if I waited long enough that you would return but you didn’t...  But if you’re somewhere out there alive, please come home to me…” she pleaded to the sky above her, hoping somehow the divine would hear her and show him the way home.  When her eyes fell to the dirt again, a hard gust blew around her, pulling the petals from the flower and casting them into the wind.  She watched with wide eyes until the wind stopped blowing and she was left with the empty grave and the stem.  Then she wrapped her arms around her knees, placed her head on top of them defeated and cried loudly, not caring who could hear her.  He couldn’t be alive.  She was sure of it.

                Several weeks passed and slowly but surely Sierra started to feel somewhat like herself again.  She began visiting Naleau on a daily basis, bringing him items from the town to show him.  They talked about life above the water, and below.  He was happy to share his history with her, and Sierra spent many long hours lying in the sand beside the water talking with him.  His life sounded barbaric compared to hers, and the Riossien had so many rules.  She knew he was breaking one of them to come see her, and another by sharing secrets of his world with her.  After some time she began to look forward to her visits with him, and would find herself eager to see him again. 

                On one particular afternoon, Sierra was livelier than usual and went into town.  She bought herself a dark blue dress with money she’d earned by working odd jobs around the town.  Without a husband she suddenly had a lot of free time, and was often bored.  She put it on, and combed her hair before leaving to see Naleau.  No one in the town had met him, but Sierra heard whispers among the people that a merman was visiting her.  She let them talk because it was true, and being a widow she had every right to spend time with any man she chose human or not.  So far no one had invaded her privacy, and she liked it that way.

                When she walked over the hill that met the ocean she smiled.  Off in the distance Naleau was waiting for her, resting on a rock near the shore.  She picked up the dress and ran to him, waving excitedly.  Naleau greeted her with his mind and she grinned.  When she reached him he stared at her for a few moments before speaking.

                “You look very beautiful Sierra.” He complimented, and Sierra blushed.  She seated herself in the sand near the water, minding the waves that neared her dress.  Sierra watched Naleau on his rock, and he fidgeted nervously.  Sierra raised an eyebrow at him and laughed.

                “What is the matter with you?” she asked playfully, but it only got worse.  He took a breath and beckoned her to enter the water.

                “But my new dress will get wet.” She warned jokingly, motioning to it.  Naleau smiled.

                “Please?” he asked aloud.  Sierra paused at this, picked herself up and waded into the water until she stood before him.  He produced from behind his back a flower, clearly grown in the water.  It had long, fat, golden petals that fell over the tops of his webbed hands.  The thick stem was forest green, and he had fashioned it into a loop.  He reached down, took one of her hands into his and fitted the flower onto her wrist.  Sierra stared at it dumbfounded before looking up at him.  It was beautiful, and the sunlight shimmered off of it, creating sparkles on the water.  She held her breath and met his gaze.

                “Sierra…you saved my life once, and in turn I saved yours.  We’ve learned so many things from one another, and I can’t imagine a life without you in it.  This flower is imbued with magic.  It will not wither and die like those from the land.  Nor will my feelings for you…” he began nervously, and encircled both of her hands with his.  Sierra felt heat rush into her face.

                “But…your people…” she managed to whisper.  Naleau shook his head and took her face into his hands.

                “I don’t care what they think…” he answered and pressed his mouth against hers.  Sierra let him kiss her, feeling his soft lips warm her, and when he drew back she sighed.  He looked at her hesitantly waiting for a response, and she answered him by embracing him passionately and kissing him again.   The gnawing hunger from before had long subsided, and now she felt a fullness that she hadn’t felt since Luis had been alive.  Luis.  She stopped.  The flower.  She was suddenly empty and confused again.  Sierra pulled away from him and looked down into the water.

                “Naleau I…” she began while shaking her head, and he stopped her with his hand to her lips. 

                “You don’t need to say anything…I understand.  Just know that I care deeply for you and want nothing but your happiness.  Think about what I’ve said, and return to me if you share my feelings.  If not, I will be here for you regardless,” he said.  Sierra smiled and nodded before turning to go.  When she returned to her home she placed the flower on her bedside table.  Just as he had said, it hadn’t begun to wilt.  She dressed into her nightgown, warmed herself by the fire, and crawled into bed letting the fire die down to embers.  She stared at the flower drowsily until her eyes drooped and she fell asleep.

                She awoke in the middle of the night aware that she wasn’t alone in her bedroom.  She could feel the eyes of someone upon her and she froze.  Everyone in town knew she was alone and this left her defenseless against restless, drunken men.  She thought quickly about what she could do to protect herself, but there was nothing near her but the flower.  Her eyes drifted across the room slowly until they met the figure of a man standing beside the fireplace watching her.  The embers from the fire emitted a glow into the room and his face was illuminated by them.

                His skin was tanned and flawless, but tattered garments covered his body.  Long, jet black hair trailed down to his waist and pointed ears extended out from beneath it.  Sierra sat up swiftly, and drew the covers around herself.  She could see that he held the golden flower in one of his hands, and something in the other hand, concealed behind his back.  He stepped towards her and Sierra jerked backwards but there was no escape.  She was trapped in a corner on her bed. 

                “This is a lovely flower…” he mused and Sierra froze.

                “Much more beautiful than the one that I brought for you…” he said softly before producing a pink wildflower similar to the one she’d left on Luis’ grave.  Her mind spun around and around unable to comprehend what she had heard.  She did not know the man that stood before her, but she would recognize that voice until the day she died.  It was her husband.

 

PART FOUR

 

Sierra stared at the strange man who’d just spoken and could feel herself crawling to the other end of her bed out of curiosity.  He continued to watch her, saying nothing and holding the two flowers.  She knew what she had heard, and would recognize his voice anywhere.  She’d memorized every sound of his speech as she had heard it through every argument, every sigh, his throws of passion, and every gentle whisper of love he’d bestowed upon her.  But now, as she left the bedside and stood before him, she did not recognize the face that looked down on her in the darkness of her home.

            “Luis?” she asked softly.  The man placed the golden water flower on the mantle and brought a hand up to Sierra’s face.  He stroked her cheek with one long finger before pushing his hand into the back of her hair.  He pulled her against his body and embraced her roughly, pulling a gasp from her lips.  He let out a whimper of relief, and held onto her tighter.

            “I thought I had lost my way.  I thought I would never see your sweet face again.  The loneliness you must have endured…I am so sorry…” he murmured.  Sierra bathed in his words, feeling as if she hadn’t heard them in ages. 

            “Luis!” she cried, overwhelmed with joy.  “I thought you were dead!” she choked out, sobbing hysterically into his clothes.  He caressed her hair and pulled away to face her.

            “I was dead Sierra.  I’ve been dead my whole life until now.” He said with a serious tone.  Sierra paused, sniffling and stared at the shadowy man before her in the dark. 

            “What do you mean?” she asked, wary of his response.  Luis sat on the chair near the fireplace as if he were very tired.  The embers from the fire were just tiny little red dots in the black fireplace and she could only see his outline on the chair.  The encounter was bringing a slight twinge of fear into her stomach and she drew back from him.  What if he was not her husband?  What if some kind of magic had taken her husband’s voice or spirit to trick her?  Sierra edged to her bedside and sat on it to listen.  Finally the man with Luis’ voice spoke up.

            “Alano and I were separated from our party.  A huge lizard monstrosity attacked our camp and took down two of the men.  The rest of us fled, but we lost the others in the process.  We ran for days, only stopping for a few hours each night to sleep.  We rarely ate and during one of the nights I was bitten by a poisonous snake while I slept.  Already fatigued and dying of starvation, Alano and I wandered for a day or two in a delirious state.  I was gravely injured, but Alano kept me going, trying to find a way back so that my wound could be treated, and the poison stopped.” He said.  Sierra eyed him from the bed and listened.  Some of the story she knew to be true.

            “Finally we came across a very large pond with the clearest blue water I’ve ever seen.  The bottom was pure white sand.  No vegetation grew in the water, and there were no fish either.  It didn’t make sense at all since we were surrounded by trees, but Alano laid me down beside the water and poured some of it into the wound to clean it.  It immediately healed before our eyes, and I could feel the sickness leaving me.  After a moment’s pause we both eagerly entered the water, bathing ourselves in it.  I could feel all of my scrapes and bruises healing, and energy filling me.  At some point, I cupped the water into my hands and drank of it.  Alano did the same and something strange happened…” he said, stopping to collect his thoughts.  Sierra held her breath, waiting for his explanation.

            “We changed, body and soul, Sierra.  My hair grew long, my skin unmarred, my ears extended, and I grew tall.  The water was life itself within me, and it saved me from the brink of death.  I truly believe that I cannot die, Sierra.  Not by sickness or old age.” He finished, and Sierra had to see.  She had to know what he looked like.  She was on her feet suddenly, grabbing the stick that she stoked the fire with and stabbing it back to life.  She added a log, and when the room was illuminated with its light she whirled around to Luis.  A beautiful, unnatural man stood before her.  She could see the shape of his eyes was the same, and the same color brown.  However, his face had narrowed; giving him sharp features and his ears were long, pointing out of his hair.  His hair was black like hers, but fell to the middle of his back.  Sierra could see her husband within this man, but realized that she was afraid of this change.

            He spoke to her softly of the travels he’d endured, and how his new body felt.  Sierra sat on the floor next to him listening, but dumbfounded.  When the sun began to rise in the sky and the darkness lifted she saw him clearly.  Her husband was beautiful, but he was not the man she married.  Something within him had changed other than his appearance.  He took her by the hand excitedly.

            “We will go to the square now so that all can bear witness to this miracle.  I will tell them what happened!” he exclaimed, and pulled her from the house.  She followed him wordlessly until they reached the square.  People were just leaving their houses bleary eyed with sleep when they saw him.  They instantly woke and a crowd was soon gathered around him.  Sierra stood stiffly beside him while he recanted his tale to the town.  Something in his voice was different; there was urgency there and she couldn’t figure out why.  She tuned him out until he’d finished his story and vaguely listened when he began to make a speech.

            “We were brought here for a reason!  Why else would I be lead to a pool of eternal life if I were not meant to bring all of you to it as well.  There are no other humans here!  We are the chosen people meant to inherit this land, and the gifts of immortality.  I propose that a large group of us go back to the pool, drink of its water and bring back jars of it for the women and children.  We can start our new life without fear of death.  Without fear of sickness!” he proclaimed, throwing his fist into the air triumphantly.  A good deal of the town shared in his cheers, excited by the news, but others lingered, silent and uncomfortable.  Sierra frowned at him, as did many of the other villagers.  No one else said anything, so she asked the question.

            “But what if we do not want that life?” she questioned, turning to face him in front of everyone.  He raised an eyebrow at her, smiling with his new perfect lips. 

            “Why wouldn’t you want this?” he asked, gesturing at his body.  She chose her words carefully and finally sighed before letting out her true feelings.

            “Because this is not of God.  God did not make us to be immortal.  We have but one life, and it has always been short.  We are meant to do as much as we can with what we were given before returning to his house.  If it was God’s will for us to live forever he would have already made us that way.” She said, crossing her arms.  The villagers who had been frowning silently before were nodding and speaking in agreement.  Luis let out a scoffing laugh and then scowled at her.

            “God is not here my love.  In this place God does not matter…” he began, taking her face into his hands and leaning down close to her.  He smiled devilishly at her.

            “In this form…I…AM…a God.” He whispered, grinning.  Sierra’s eyes widened and she pulled back from him.

            “You can’t mean that!” she gasped.  Grumbling arose from all around them.  Sierra was confused and afraid now for her husband.  People would take what he said very seriously.  She quickly tried to convince him otherwise.

            “God helped bring you back to me…  I prayed for him to bring you back to me should you be alive, and he did.  You stand now before me because of him!  Truly a miracle!” she shouted.  Shouts erupted from the people standing before them.  Anger twisted on Luis’ face.  He closed the gap between himself and Sierra in an instant.

            “NO!  I am the one who saved myself!  I brought myself back to you!  I survived on my OWN!  WITHOUT GOD!” he shouted loudly, and the square was silent.  He looked to the people and gathered himself.

            “I will lead an expedition tomorrow back to the pool.  If you wish to bring water back for your families, take containers with you and supplies for yourself.  It is a long journey, but once we drink we will have no fear of death.” He said, and took Sierra by the hand before leaving the square.  Sierra waited until they were out of the reach of other’s eyes and pulled away from him.  He stared at her with a wild expression.

            “Luis you have changed…” she whispered.  Luis smiled at her sympathetically.

            “I feel now like you are a child.  You do not know what is right because you have not been enlightened.  You do not know any better in your childish ways.  You think you know what to do, but you will only know once you have drunk from the waters,” he told her, grabbing her hand more roughly and dragging her along back to their house.  Sierra ripped herself away from him.

            “I do not know what you are anymore!  How I feel anymore!” she yelled at him, not caring who could hear.  Luis grit his teeth and pulled her into an alley between two of the houses.

            “It does not matter how you feel.  Everything will change once you’ve drunk of the water.” He said attempting to feign patience.  Sierra glared up at him.

            “I do not love you like this.” She growled low.  His eyebrows rose in shock and then narrowed.

            “You do not have a choice, wife.  We are married, and there is no changing or breaking that.” He answered, his eyes thinning.  Sierra looked away.  He leaned into her ear slowly until she could feel his hot breath against the nape of her neck.

            “And if you have been unfaithful in my absence…” he began.  Sierra’s eyes opened wide with horror at the threatening nature of his voice and she looked at him.

            “No amount of life giving water will save you…” he finished and shoved away from her before stalking off to their home.  Sierra stood tense and frozen for a moment, waiting for him to leave her sight and then she ran.  She ran as fast as her feet could carry her towards the ocean.  She was still in her nightgown, and her hair was untamed from sleep.  She ran barefoot across the grasses, ignoring the biting vegetation that nipped the soles of her feet.  When she reached the top of the hill that opened up to the ocean she stared at the horizon; her stomach turning to knots.  Almost as if it were an omen, the sky curled into angry dark clouds.  A low grumbling echoed across the vast sea, and Sierra hugged her arms before racing to the waters. 

            “Naleau!  I need you!” she shouted into the air, and repeated it in her own mind.  She paced along the edge of the water, feeling panic rise inside of her.  Naleau appeared in a ripple of the eerily still water.  It was the calm before the storm, both literally and figuratively, and Sierra didn’t know what to do.

            “Naleau!” she gasped and raced knee deep into the chilly water.  Naleau approached her cautiously.

            “What disturbs you my love?” he asked.  Sierra felt the tears pooling in her eyes and they were cascading down her cheeks.

            “My husband…he has returned…” she whispered, and Naleau paused before nodding.

            “I can see that those are not tears of joy Sierra…should you not be rejoicing?” he asked looking confused, and gently touching her arm.  She shook her head, letting the tears drop down and join the water around her knees.

            “My husband is changed Naleau…in body and spirit.  He won’t stop talking about this water that he drank, and now he has changed.” She said, feeling the revulsion in her voice.  Naleau smirked.

            “So the humans have discovered magic…I wondered when it would happen…” he mused.  Sierra looked at Naleau baffled.

            “Us Riossiens debated on when this would happen, and how it would change your race.  It seems your husband has become drunk with its power, and I don’t know what could change that.” He explained.  Sierra looked back to the shoreline, expecting Luis to appear at any minute.

            “Then take me with you!  I love you Naleau, and I want to be with you.  If this is how magic is going to change my people, then I want to be with your people!” she cried, throwing her arms around him, and splashing water about them.  A thunderclap boomed in the air.  Naleau paused before removing her from his body and placing both of his hands on her shoulders, looking her in the eyes.

            “I am glad that you share my love Sierra, but I cannot take you with me.  You are not a Riossien, and no magic here in Cellestria could change you into something that can survive in my world.  You cannot breathe in the water like I can.” He explained sorrowfully.  Sierra stared at him with a pained expression.

            “Why would you ask me to come here then?  Why tell me you love me and ask me to be with you if you knew that we couldn’t be together?” she asked, feeling shocked and overcome with sadness.  Naleau looked away, and sprinkles of rain began to lightly wet them from above. 

            “I’m not sure what I expected of our relationship.  I felt like a young man again, filled with energy and excitement.  I enjoyed every day that we spent together, and the kiss that we shared.  I don’t know how we could have been together, but I wanted to try, Sierra,” he began, and she shook her head before going back to her feet.  Sierra was overwhelmed with grief and fear.

            “You do not understand,” she said quietly, while wiping her tears away and watching the roiling clouds above her.

            “He will kill me when he learns of our love…” she told him somberly.  Naleau looked passed her at the hill above the beach.

            “I already have my darling.” Luis’ voice called.  He held a vial in one hand, and a sword in the other.  Sierra’s insides froze and she looked from one to the other.

            “Forgive me husband!  You were dead…you were dead!” she cried hysterically.  Luis shook his head at her.

            “Something inside of you knew that I wasn’t, and still you betrayed me,” he said low, while walking down to the beach.  Instinctively she stepped backwards and felt her heel in the chilly water.  Naleau remained silent behind her.

            “It will not take much to earn my forgiveness Sierra.” He began, and held up the vial.  Sierra knew instantly that the life giving water must be inside of it.  Naleau spoke up now.

            “You should not force immortality on her.  It is a heavy burden that I know well,” he warned.  Luis scoffed at his words.

            “I care not for your opinions, beast!” he barked at Naleau. 

            “Sierra!  You will drink this now, or I will injure you beyond your escaping and make you drink it when you cannot fight me,” he uttered low.  He was closing the gap between them, and Sierra’s only escape was a line of rock that made a short line out into the ocean like a bridge.  She took it, stumbling in the sand and racing clumsily away from Luis.  He chased after her, and she expected him to be upon her at any minute.  Instead she heard him cry out and she whirled around to see Naleau with a jagged fish bone covered in blood, and Luis lying on the ground bleeding from a deep gash in his leg.  She took her cue and ran up onto the rock away from him.  The sharp edges cut her feet but she ran until she was at the end of it.  And then there was only the ocean. 

            The wind picked up and the dark waves slapped the rocks, spraying her with sea water.  She whirled back to see what was happening just as Luis was driving his sword through Naleau’s side.  She heard his cry of agony, and felt him scream within her mind.

            “Get away from here Sierra!” he bellowed in her head, rattling her insides.  There was no way out.  No escaping.  Luis left Naleau bleeding in the water, and the rain was pelting down on them.  It was dark and the storm had begun in full force.  Luis looked up at her from across the beach, holding his sword at one side, dripping with blood.  She could see a sadistic smile creep on his face and he held out the other hand with the vial in it.  Sierra shook her head violently and looked to Naleau.  He had disappeared into the waves and a black pool was surfacing from where he had fallen.  She called out to him with her mind, but met silence.  It was as if he weren’t there at all anymore.

            There was nothing left for her.  Naleau must be dead.  Her love killed by her crazed husband.  She could never look upon Luis with passion again, and he was sick with power.  She could see him through the blinding rain staggering towards her, dragging the bloodstained sword through the sand.  He was close to the rocks that began the bridge.  Sierra turned to the black waters whipping up around her and closed her eyes.  She let out all of her breath and smiled.  She knew her future now, and she had totally control over it.  Sierra leapt off of the edge of the rocks and felt the water collect her into a cold embrace.  It threw her against the rock hard, and she felt her mind ease.  The pain was gone.  There was only darkness in the tide.