Lynn Abbey,Elaine Cunningham,Peter Archer,Ed Greenwood,Richard Lee Byers, Clayton Emery,Mel Odom, Troy Denning,Larry Hobbs,Thomas M. Reid,Steven E. Sckend,Keith Francis Strohm

Realms of the Deep


Lynn Abbey

19 Ches, the Year of the Gauntlet

'What happened here?' the gray-bearded merman asked.

'Sahuagin,' Shemsen replied.

Yesterday there had been twenty-two sentry posts out where the Waterdeep outflow channels cut through the sea shelf. Today there were twenty-one.

The merman frowned, all shifty shadows in the soft, greenish light of the living lanterns he and his companions strung from the reins of their seahorse mounts. Forty fathoms up, through wisps of plankton, the moon danced on a becalmed sea. It had been different at dawn.

'They came riding a squall,' Shemsen explained. A sea elf refugee from warmer water, he'd been swimming Waterdeep for a decade, long enough to master the local underwater dialect. 'We looked up, and there they were.'

Sahuagin weren't the only sea-folk who hid in the heavy water that fell from the sky. Any hunter with wits swam with the rain: merfolk, sea elves, selkie, dolphins. Though the sahuagin were, perhaps, the best at hiding their stench in freshwater torrents.

'We were outnumbered from the start.'

The merman's frown consumed his face. 'You survived.'

It wasn't something a man liked to admit, but one-on-one, sahuagin over matched both mermen and sea elves. If Shemsen's patrol had been ambushed and outnumbered, there should have been no survivors.

Gashes in Shemsen's silvery green flesh winked blood as he shrugged. 'What happened, happened.' Fatalism was bred in salt water. 'They were in a hurry, bent on destroying the beacon. They didn't stay to feed.'

The gray-beard's second levered his trident against a mauled sea elf corpse. Shemsen closed his eyes, remembering how Peshhet, trailing his own blood and gore, had come between him and death. Shemsen turned away before reopening his eyes and found himself facing the charred remains of the outpost beacon.

'We heard it shatter,' the merman said, guessing Shemsen's thoughts. 'It will be a tenday before the Waterdeep mage-guild enchants a new one-more than a tenday with Fleetswake on the tide. There'll be a blind spot now, till it's replaced. Not a big one, but a gap in Waterdeep's defenses all the same. And sahuagin! What are they doing so far north?'

Shemsen turned; they faced each other. A vagrant current-an underwater breeze thick with plankton- passed between them. Krill swam with the plankton, a school of young menhaden swam after the krill. Conversation stopped as Shemsen and the mermen each snatched a menhaden meal.

Umberlee's will: Only a fool ignored what She provided.

'Can anyone of us claim to understand the sahua-gin mind?' Shemsen asked afterward.

'Well said, sea elf,' the merman second said. 'Eadro watches!' He touched the blood-coral amulet of his private god. 'We thought Waterdeep was beyond their reach.'

Shemsen didn't know the four mermen. If they'd all been in their native water-their balmy, crystal clear southern seas-they'd have swum around each other's wakes. Instead sea elves and mermen alike had been driven north by shadowy enemies that were not sahuagin, or not exclusively sahuagin.

'Who's to say they weren't fleeing something larger and darker themselves?'

The second clutched his coral amulet in his fist, but the gray-beard was carved from stouter stuff. 'Let them try Waterdeep Harbor. One eye blind, and they'll still meet their match. Outnumbered, you say, but they took a loss and you survived. Let them tell that to the sharks, if they dare.'

The gray-beard swept out an arm to clap Shemsen on the shoulder. Through his wounds, Shemsen braced for the blow. His heart rate doubled and his muscles relaxed, even so he flinched as it fell.

'I have salve,' the gray-beard said as one of the two juniors swam over with a wax-sealed shell.

Shemsen shrugged off the merman's hand and offer. Til tend myself when I get to the harbor.'

'You can swim, then, and not fall behind?'

'I'll keep up or fall behind. I've swum alone before. I waited here only until you or someone else came to investigate and relieve me. This was my post for Waterdeep. I'd not have it said that I abandoned it.'

The gray-beard shook his head. Mermen kept their own customs. They were brave enough, when riled, and dutiful, but no two pairs of eyes saw honor the same way in air or water.

'Call for a mount, if you need one,' the gray-beard said from his seahorse, 'or hitch onto the dorsal.'

All four mermen rose from the silt.

'You're leaving no one behind?'

'The beacon's gone, sea elf. A dark spot, true, but a small one. If the sahuagin are clever enough to return without catching another beacon's eye, then let them try the inner defenses. Until after Fleetswake, any one posted here is as isolated as he'd be in Umberlee's Cache. I'll not leave men where they can do no good.'

Cold water surged over Shemsen's gills as he sighed. Only a fool refused what Umberlee provided.

There were no reefs in Waterdeep harbor, no kelp forests or gardens, and despite the concerted efforts of all those living above and below the waterline, an unpleasant taste or texture wasn't uncommon. Shemsen never forgot he was a refugee. Even his home-quarters reminded him. When sea elves first sought sanctuary here, the mage-guild had carved straight-lined niches into the cliffs that gave the harbor its name. A woven net was fastened over the niche, lest the scouring tides steal what little he'd accumulated during his ten-year exile.

Shemsen shared the niche with another sea elf. Eshono had been shark-mauled during their long retreat to Waterdeep. Their surviving healer had done her best, but what Eshono had needed most, a month's rest and regular meals, were beyond provision. Eshono's leg had withered. He got around well enough in the harbor, but he couldn't handle the long patrols that the refugees claimed as both right and obligation. Instead, he'd trained himself as an advocate who labored on the lubber's dry ground, mediating the disputes and confusions that plagued the sea elf refugees in their safe, but utterly strange, sanctuary.

They were an odd pair, Shemsen and Eshono, with little in common but a destroyed village and a harrowing journey to cold water. These days, though, that was enough.

To Peshhet,' Eshono said, saluting the dead sea elf with a paste-filled shell. 'While we live, we remember him.'

He swallowed the paste. Shemsen mirrored the other sea elf's movements.

'I tell you, my friend, you must take a wife before there's no one left to remember us,' Shemsen joked bleakly.

Him, Shemsen the Drifter, telling jokes! His gill slits fluttered in disbelief. Against all odds, he'd come to think of crippled Eshono as a friend.

'When you do,' Eshono replied, scooping another portion of paste from the bowl floating between them. 'And not a day sooner.'

Too old.'

'How old? Four hundred? Five?'

'I feel older,' Shemsen replied honestly.

'All the more reason. Take a wife. Make a family before it's too late.'

Shemsen lowered his head, a gesture most refugees understood. All carried scars and secrets and guilt for surviving what so many others had not. Shemsen had more than most. His friendship, such as it was, with Eshono survived because the other man had a keen understanding of where the uncrossable boundary lay.

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