A chorus of the most eerily beautiful music he’d ever heard woke Andrew. It called to him even though he couldn’t understand the words. He looked over at his sisters, but they were still sleeping. He should do the same, but the music singing in his blood would not allow that and he found himself tiptoeing outside. Even the music couldn’t stop him grinding to a halt, however, when he caught sight of the sky. If he’d had any doubts they weren’t on Earth, this would have squashed them. The moon was pale green, far larger than Earth’s, and a black chasm split it from top to bottom in a ragged slice.
He would have gawked longer, but the magnetic singing caught him again and led him to a deep pool where the singers waited. Three pale skinned women with silky blue-green hair and the silvery tails of fish sat on rocks around the pool. As he approached, he saw a pearl set into each of their foreheads. As one, they turned to look at him with pupilless eyes which matched their hair, and he saw slashes on their ribcages which he took for gills.
“Oh look.” One of them broke off singing. “A human, what a surprise.”
“Would you like to swim with us?” the second said. “Humans like swimming, don’t they?”
“Yes, come into the water… it’s a lovely night,” the third chimed in.
Andrew took a step towards them, but now they’d stopped singing his head cleared. “Mermaids!” He clapped his hands over his ears and took a step backwards before they could start singing again. “No, thank you.”
He turned to flee, but a naked man with a spear blocked his path. A man – but he wasn’t human. The fish scales on his legs and fins on his arms proved that.
“The ladies gave you a polite invitation, boy. I think you should accept it.” He prodded Andrew with the stone point of the spear. “Don’t keep them waiting. We’re very hungry, and we’ll only hurt you more if you fight.”
“No!” Andrew grabbed at the spear. As soon as his hands left his ears the mermaids started to sing again. This time, however, the adrenaline in his system was stronger. He kicked the merman between the legs, wrenched the spear away and whacked him over the head with it, knocking him out cold. Another two mermen with spears emerged from the pool, and ropes of water spun towards him. He swung at them with his stolen weapon and began to scramble up the bank.
“You’re not escaping us, human. Come peacefully and at least your death will be pleasant.” The water ropes pulled the spear from his hand and wrapped around him.
“No!” He struggled against the bonds but could not break free.
“I don’t think he wants to come into the pool, mother.” Another younger mermaid broke the surface.
“It doesn’t matter, Mela,” the first mermaid said. “He’s not escaping us.”
“But we aren’t supposed to force anyone who resists our music. You always told me that.”
“The law doesn’t apply to humans,” Mela’s mother said in a clipped tone.
“I don’t know. She could be ri–” the second mermaid began.
“Shut up!” Mela’s mother snapped and looked back at Mela. “Leave adult business to adults. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
“Yes, mother.” The mermaid gave him an apologetic look and dived back under the water.
Andrew struggled against the pull of his bonds and the slippery mud but slid inexorably towards the pool. He gasped in a breath and screamed as loud as he could.
The mermaids flinched back from the sound. His energy was ripped from him and he sank to his knees shivering in the mud.
“What?!” one of the mermaids cried.
He raised his head wearily and saw the pool was clogged with ice. A creature which seemed half speckled white eagle and half snow leopard with visibly frost coated fur leapt across the pool and landed in front of him.
“Heart friend!” She clacked her hooked beak at him. “Get on before it melts!”
“Huh…” Andrew didn’t need a second bidding. He struggled to his feet and scrambled onto her back.
“Hold tight!” She bounded away from the mermaids and their pool as he clung to her fur. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner. I had to dodge Queen Valeria’s patrols. I’m Kimi.”
He could barely hear her over the mermaids’ furious screeches. It was hard to believe they’d been singing so melodiously earlier. “I’m Andrew.” He laid his head against her fur. “My sisters are in a building up there.”
“The Flame Palace – what’s left of it anyway. Queen Valeria tried to destroy it. So one of your sisters is the Flame Warrior. That’s fortunate.”
“I guess you mean Lydia and her phoenix,” he said. “But what are you?”
“An Arctic gryphon,” she said. “What else would I be?”
“No idea,” he said. “Damn, if this is what Lyd felt like earlier how did she stand up?”
“We need to find your heart bracelet.” Kimi came to a halt as Lydia and Karen ran up to them.
“Drew!” Lydia said. “Are you okay? We heard you scream.”
“He had a run in with some merfolk,” Kimi said.
Karen made a choking sound. Andrew looked at her curiously. She was staring in the direction of the pool with a frown. She muttered something under her breath that he didn’t catch. He was about to ask what was wrong, but Lydia interrupted.
“But is he okay?”
“It was close, but I got to him in time.” Kimi waited while Karen and Lydia helped him from her back then shrank into the form of a snow leopard. “They forgot the laws that bind them.”
“One of them said the law doesn’t protect humans,” Andrew said. He sat on the broken pillar Lydia had used earlier and rubbed at his foggy head. “So tired…”
“Foolish. They’re wrong,” Kimi said. “They’ll pay the price for breaking it soon enough. Can you feel your bracelet yet?” She laid her head in Andrew’s lap and looked up at him with her big amber eyes. He scratched at her ears absently; her fur was very soft. “The stories say they help.”
Andrew could feel something calling him. “That way.” He pointed in the direction the sensation was pulling him. “But not close.”
“Will sleep help?” Lydia asked. “Because we really can’t leave until morning.”
“Well it won’t hurt,” Kimi said, “but it won’t help much either.”
“Okay, then.” Lydia motioned to Karen to help her with him and then looked back at Kimi. “You’re his heart friend? He forgot to introduce us.”
“I am. I’m Kimi.”
“I’m Lydia, and this is Karen.” She turned and pointed to Bennu who was perched nearby. “This is my heart friend Bennu.”
“Ah, the phoenix.” Kimi stood up, stretched and dipped in a feline bow. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Same here,” Lydia said as they helped Andrew inside to his heather bed.