A glance into the past of one of my characters from the Elementals series I'm working on.
He had gone with his father to help capture some decent fish to sell. The bigger and rarer the fish, the higher the price, the more variety of food they could eat. His sister had been complaining loudly for two weeks that eating the little fish that were common to these parts was getting tiresome.
“I’m thinking, if we get a really good catch today, I can get your mother those cakes the humans make, for her birthday.” Dad informed him as they swam over the crest of a hill. The village disappeared from their view behind them. The ocean floor was dark, with uninviting shapes looming out of the rocky floor. Were it not for the seapeople’s ability to see in the dark, they would never dare venture far enough out of the village to do things like the father and son were going to do now.
“Gayges?” Rarbyakh said, rolling the word around his. “What are those, Dad?”
“Cakes, son. With a ‘kuh’.”
Rar wrinkled his nose as if someone had just let their emissions fly free. “Doesn’t sound very nice.”
“Oh, they are. I’ve had a look. One kind fella at the market even let me have a taste once! It was sweet!”
Rar wasn’t convinced. He much preferred the savoury flesh of the creatures that lived in warmer waters. “Are you sure Mum will like it?”
Dad shrugged. “I suppose so. I mean, I hope so. She has a sweet tooth, your mum.”
They swam in silence for some time, until new creatures entered their sights. “Do you reckon we should grab some from here or go further up? Ugh, that gives me the chills! But you know how the richer folk like their bright fish!”
“It would be nice to go up,” Rar shrugged. “Feel warm for a bit.”
Dad scoffed as if offended by the very thought. “Put these notions out of your head, son! We don’t need things like sunshine and warmth. We were made for the ocean floor!”
Rar rolled his eyes. The seapeople got defensive about little things like that. He supposed it had something to do with the above-landers. They lived in the air and felt the sun and needed warmth. The seapeople didn’t.
Still, what was wrong with just admitting that it felt nice to enter the warmer waters?
Dad shrugged off a coiled net from his shoulders. “Right, you grab this end.”
The youth made to grab the net but movement in the gloom ahead caught his eye. He looked up. “Ah…D-Dad,” he stuttered, forgetting the net and taking hold of his father’s arm instead. He was transfixed, staring out across the darkness. “Sea…Sea monster!”
“What are you talking about?” Dad said dismissively, still fidgeting with the net. At his son’s persistent attempts to get him to move, he finally looked. “Son, sea monsters don’t appear around this…”
The seapeople didn’t lose or gain colour with their various emotions like the above-landers, but they had many similarities. Wide eyes. Trembling. Breathlessness. “Es…Es…Esc…” he wheezed, taking his son’s hand in a tight grip. “ESCAPE!”
The average seaperson was not the fastest thing on the ocean floor. However, for the folks of Tronrus, who lived far from any other settlements and who could not get aid quickly in times of trouble, learning to swim fast was a matter of survival. By the tender age of eight, Rar had already been the fastest amongst his peers.
His father, though still quite shaky, nevertheless swam straight without glancing back even once. For those who ventured out of the village, for whatever reason, swimming fast was more than just a personal need to survive. It was a law.
“Dad, we can’t head back to the village!” Rar cried as they approached the hilltop that would bring the village in view. “That’ll lead the monsters straight to the people!”
His father gave a determined nod and swerved before they reached the top of the hill. Rar, reacting at the same moment, didn’t see that his father went the other way, expecting that they’d think alike and retreat to the rocky area some ways to the west of the village.
It was only as he entered the first of the rocky outcroppings that he looked back, ready to share a laugh of relief with his father. The laugh died before it could come alive. He looked around and called out. “Dad?! Dad! WHERE ARE YOU?!”
Heart in his throat, he swam back to the hill that overlooked the village. There was chaos. Though the ability to see in the darkness of the ocean floor didn’t stretch far enough to make out exactly what was happening down in the village, the cries were horrific enough to tell him what his eyes could not.
People were fleeing, terrified mothers tucking little children under their chins so they wouldn’t look back. They were the ones lagging behind, the extra weight slowing them down. Then there were the elderly, who could no longer manage to swim at the speeds those fitter than they were capable of. As Rar dove through the crowds, he kept calling out for his father, his eyes darting this way and that. People yelled at him to turn around and swim away. Some even grabbed him and tried to force him away but he shook them off, yelling that he needed to find his father. In their hurry, they didn’t insist and let him go.
The seamonsters were huge, several heads taller than the tallest seaperson. They were an ugly grey-black colour, dappled in yellowy stains, though he wouldn’t know just by looking. This information was popular knowledge, passed on from someone who had seen the creatures in light. To most seapeople, everything at this level registered as either black or white. They were squid-like, with long tentacles that they used to grab their prey. Travelling in packs of four or five, they dispersed to get their own food when confronted with prey.
Rar heard screams and wondered if people were being eaten. Just the thought of it made him feel sick.
His heart had been pumping hard in his chest since he’d first spotted the creatures, the rapid ba-thunk, ba-thunk, ba-thunk reverberating throughout his body. “Dad!” he screamed, hoping for some response. He hoped his father had stayed away, if he had gone the other way. But knowing him, he would have come back just like Rar had.
If he’d come back, he would have gone to check up on his family. Rar raced through the water, avoiding a few straggling villagers and all the places the monsters were at.
To survive in the deep, the average seaperson had quite the set of lungs. Rar stopped when he heard a long, drawn-out scream. The voice was familiar. He had no problem following it to its source since it continued without a stop for breath.
He nearly reeled back when the scream led him to his family’s housing box and he saw that one of the beasts was sitting atop it. The scream was coming from within as the creature swept a few tentacles through various openings. Unlike the above-landers, who felt the need to have doors and windows that only opened when there was need, the seapeople used slim openings at the top of every chamber to enter and exit their buildings, which didn’t have the gaps between them that the above-landers’ dwellings did. They built upwards, with various families living in one housing box, each allocated a storey.
The scream finally stopped. Heart beating extra hard, Rar didn’t pause to let his fear distract him or give him reason to flee. His sister was in there! He had to save her!
He dove down to the ground and searched for some kind of weapon. All he could see were bits of old buildings and rocks. Something rusty caught his eye and he reached for it. A length of metal, so bronzed by age that he wondered if it would be of any use at all. Perhaps it was from the old shipwreck that people claimed had been here before the village. He tested it out, swinging it this way and that. The water pressure didn’t allow for much, but it didn’t fall apart in his hands so it would have to do.
He was just swimming up towards the creature when he caught sight of his father, moving determinedly towards the creature, some rocks in hand.
“Dad!” he cried, relief flooding through him.
“Shut up, you idiot!” Dad hissed as the boy drew nearer. “I’m trying to sneak up on it! Marrlirin is trapped!”
“I know. I got this. I thought it might help.” Rar showed his dad the length of metal. Dad nodded and took it from him.
“Wha…Dad, you can’t!” Rar hissed. “I’m the faster swimmer! I should go!”
Dad made angry motions for the youth to stay back. “As if I’d let you! Go to your mother. She’s worried sick!”
Rar felt more relief. “She’s safe?”
Dad nodded and waved him away.
The gills on Rar’s neck open and shut rapidly. He tried to keep calm as his dad headed towards the beast. His father was an easy-going person, but if his kids disobeyed a direct order, he could make life difficult.
He sat on the roof of a nearby box, watching as Dad swept at the creature with the rusty rod. He couldn’t stay still so he got up and tried pacing like an above-lander. Although on the surface, his people disliked being associated with the above-landers, it was also true that a lot of seapeople traditions came from above. Like housing boxes and birthdays, and individual groups or organisations which had been established to help the community in some way.
Like the Defenders of the Deep, whose sole purpose in the village was to protect from rare attacks by monsters like these. Unfortunately, there were only six of them, and several were needed to defeat so many monsters. Maybe, if the Gurrgish family was lucky, one of the Defenders would amble past at this very moment and prevent Dad from being shoved at a building or something. Or swallowed whole.
No such thing happened. A tentacle grabbed his father and tossed him away like trash though. Livid, Rar swam at the thing. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t sit back and watch his dad get hurt. “MARLI,” he roared, picking up the rod his father had dropped, “GET OUT OF THERE WHEN I SAY “NOW”! YOU HEAR ME, YOU LITTLE BRAT?”
“YES!” the screamer yelled back.
The monster had seen him approach and tried to bat him away with one lazy tentacle. He looped around it, and then under it when it tried to swat at him again. He kept dodging, moving backwards every time. The creature eventually got off the building box, now trying to catch him with several limbs.
“NOW!” Rar screamed. “GET OUT NOW! GO! GET DAD AND MOVE!”
She didn’t say anything but out of the corner of his eye, he spotted movement from their family box. Marrlirin’s hair, which looked white like his own, streamed around her head as she turned it this way and that, looking for Dad. Breathing out a slew of bubbles, he relaxed a little.
As soon as his guard dropped even a little, a tentacle wound around his abdomen. He felt slimy suckers on his skin and plunged the metal rod into one to get it to loosen. The tentacle immediately retracted, only for two more to come at him.
He didn’t know how long he kept it up, but he was getting tired of dodging. The metal rod felt like a deadweight in his hand even though he kept switching it from one to the other. It took a phenomenal amount to energy to lift it again as the seamonster kept at him.
Fastest swimmer in Tronrus, so much for that, he thought bitterly. What good was being a fast swimmer when he didn’t even know which way was safe? He didn’t want to lead the things towards more villagers.
He wondered if his dad was okay. He would miss his dad most. He enjoyed their adventures together. He liked testing the old man to see what he’d say when Rar mentioned that he wanted to go to the warmer places.
“Put these notions out of your head, son. We don’t need things like sunshine and warmth. We were made for the ocean floor.”
It brought a tired smile to his lips as he swerved around another tentacle. The creature was trying furiously to capture him now. It pursued him with single-minded determination, following him wherever he went. He’d tried poking it in the eyes but there were too many tentacles to get through.
Warmth would be nice about now, I suppose, he thought with a pang of regret. Bigger seapeople than him had lost to seamonsters before. He didn’t think he would be able to cope much longer.
You idiot! he heard his father berating him. We were made for the ocean floor! So were these things! Go up! To the warmth!
He cursed himself for a fool. The seamonsters rarely left the ocean floor. Feeling a burst of adrenalin, he swam upwards. The seamonster came after him, tentacles reaching out for him, but he was too fast for it. He swam away from Tronrus, checking every few seconds to make sure the creature was following.
At one point, he turned and threw the metal rod at the monster, though the metal rod floated away in the general direction he’d thrown it, missing the creature by several metres. He groaned and continued up. The water pressure gradually lessened. The temperature became a little less cold. The waters were still murky and dark, but his discerning eyes could see some more colours. The more he travelled, the lighter the waters became. If he continued going up, he would be able to see the sunlight filtering in through the water if it was daytime up there – he had no idea if it was.
He felt so much lighter up here. On the whole, his people didn’t like that feeling. They liked to be grounded, thousands of feet below. That was why the idea of leaving the ocean floor was sickening to some, although there were certain seapeople who had to do so. Like the Child of the Water, for instance, who ruled the Water Province and had to keep peace with the above-landers and frequently went to meet with the other Elementals, the rulers of the other Provinces. The leaders of the above-landers – two in total who split the land between them and one who lived even further up than they - also came down to the capital, he’d heard, though he’d never seen any of them. Above-landers travelling through the deep. He wondered what they thought of the seapeople and their cities.
At some point, the seamonster had stopped following and he’d stopped looking back for it, kicking back and letting the adrenaline pour out of him, though his concern for his villagers’ wellbeing made him descend before long. He didn’t encounter the monster. When he returned to the village, he saw that some semblance of peace had returned to the settlement.
To his surprise, he saw that everyone was gathered in the centre of the village, where the Chief usually stood to address the populace when there was an issue to be raised. By the banners the guards carried – a crest made up of a stylised whirlpool behind a black trident – it appeared that the Child of the Water had come to visit.
Rar stared at the ruler in awe. This was his first time seeing him in person.
He was unmistakeable, surrounded as he was by an entourage of similarly well-built seapeople who looked like they could crush a kraken in their sleep. Like all seapeople, they wore clothing enough to cover their privates. But the Child stood out. His blue-eyed gaze seemed to shine with an inner light of its own, which was especially attention-grabbing on the gloomy ocean floor. There was an ageless quality about those eyes. They seemed to see so much more than the clusters of villagers gathered before him. It was impossible to tell, from his skin or from his black hair, how old he really was. Some said he’d been in office for a century. Others said it had only been seventy years.
In his hand he carried an enormous trident that was almost as tall as he was and every time he spoke, the foot of the trident thumped the ground.
“What’s going on?” Rar muttered to a villager beside him as he landed at the back of the crowd.
“The monsters,” the toothy villager informed him without looking away from the Child, “apparently, someone in Larinar has been collecting them.” Larinar was the name of their area of the Water Province.
“Collecting?!” Rar asked, feeling sick. “Why would anyone do that?”
“To cause chaos, is what he said,” the villager replied, nodding towards the Child. “Anyway, he’s been up and down Larinar these past few days, trying to make sure he got them all.”
“I wish he’d come a bit earlier,” Rar grumbled.
“At the mention of these names, if you could please offer a silent prayer, I would be most appreciative.” the Child said, trident thumps the floor again.
“What’s he calling names out for?” Rar asked.
“Don’t you listen, boy?” the villager sighed. “He’s calling out names of people who put up a fight and got killed.”
The youth swallowed hard past a lump in his throat. Immediately, his thoughts went to his family and friends. He hoped they were safe. But what did that matter? Tronrus was such a small settlement that he knew almost everybody in it. The names were called and though few of them were close acquaintances, his heart still ached for the people he’d lost and the families who were now bereft. He knew them all. They were like family.
“And now,” the Child said after a few solemn minutes of silence, “I would like to call out the names of people who’ve done a great deal today to protect the village. When I call your name, please step forward.”
There were the Defenders, Rar couldn’t help but note with some annoyance, though he felt ashamed when he remembered that one of their names had been called out among the list of the dead. A few other people, mostly those who had to deal with monsters of some kind on the ocean floor when business demanded that they travel beyond the village.
“And our youngest hero,” the Child said, smiling. He gazed through the crowd, heads taller than everyone else, and Rar didn’t know why but it felt like the Child’s eyes found his across the great space and among the many other pairs of eyes that were no doubt visible from his vantage point. “Rarbyakh Gurrgish.”
Rar didn’t react until the toothy villager beside him thrust an elbow into his ribs. “Ow! What?!”
“That’s you, idiot!”
“What?” He shook his head. Rarby…Oh yes! It was him! Stunned, he looked around as people pointed him out and the crowd ahead of him parted to let him through. Smiling faces greeted him. Some even smiled through tears, grief-stricken by those they’d lost but happy for him all the same. Hands patted him on the shoulders, on the arms, on his back. Some ruffled his long, tangled hair. A young lady even patted his rear and winked, making his heart lurch in painfully fantastic ways.
The Child’s blue eyes were gentle as the youth approached. He bowed before the ruler.
“Rarbyakh Gurrgish, I have heard a great many accounts of your deeds today. Most of all from your father, who I’m sure is feeling very proud right now.”
Dad, what did you say? Rar wanted to groan. “Um…Thank...Thank you, sir.”
The Child studied him a moment. “You’re very young, Rarbyakh.”
Nobody called him Rarbyakh except his no-nonsense teachers from his old school.
“How old are you?”
“You showed remarkable resolve today, taking on a seamonster all by yourself and leading it away from the village. Similarly to what I have offered the other heroes of your home, I will now grant you two choices. You can have a monetary reward, or I can grant you status as one of the village’s central figures, if you are willing to work for it.”
Money? Status? He needed money to live, but he made enough to do that. He didn’t know a thing about being a central figure in the village. He didn’t get the world of adults. But perhaps if he chose the money option, Dad could finally get Mum that gayke that he thought she wanted.
When his silence stretched on, the Child cleared his throat. “I have another proposition, since you are so young and appear to be having some difficulty choosing.”
Rar looked up, perplexed. Why offer him something else when he was already stuck? He hadn’t offered anybody else a third option.
“I have seen amazing inner strength in you, Rarbyakh. I believe, with the right training, you could move beyond Tronrus.”
“What…What are you saying, sir?” Rar asked, afraid that he might have sounded a bit rude but also quite offended at the thought of going “beyond Tronrus”, as if he couldn’t achieve much by staying in his village, his home, as if he was somehow less of a person for wanting to stay here.
“People keep pestering me to look for an apprentice.” the Child of the Water looked over his shoulder, narrowing his eyes. One of the guards, who remained as still as a statue, smiled. The Child turned back to Rar, his guard’s smile mirrored on his own lips. “Perhaps you’d want to take up the position?”
Murmurs rippled through the crowd, some excited, some apprehensive. The Child tapped the floor with his trident. “Silence!” he called. The noise immediately died away.
“But, sir,” Rar began.
“I have decided that I shall stay a few days in Tronrus.” the Child stated. “I will grant you an interview prior to your decision, so that you may make an informed choice.” The end of his trident thumped the ground again and he looked out over the crowd. “That is all. Thank you for your time and, once again, I cannot apologise enough. I will, of course, make preparations to repair the damages.” He bowed his head and retreated with his guards.
There was much rejoicing at the news that the Child of the Water would be staying in the villagers’ midst. Lots of people came to congratulate Rar on becoming an apprentice to the Child of the Water as the crowd began to disperse. Others jokingly bowed to him and called him Future Child. Rar was confused. Did the Child really think he had what it took to be the next ruler? He was just a nobody. A very fast nobody, true, but a nobody nonetheless. He’d happily live out his days just swimming out to collect fish.
His family found him amid the clusters of villagers coming to congratulate him and offer their gratitude.
“Oh, Rar!” Mum cried, throwing her arms around him. “I saw you swimming off with that thing after you! I thought you were done for!” She pulled back to look at him, checking him over to see if he was all right. “Oh!” Looking like she was about to start bawling, she hugged him again. “I’m so glad! I’m so glad!”
He felt Dad’s hand on his shoulder, and Marrli’s arm around his waist. Today had been unexpected, to say the least. “I’m glad too, Mum.” he said, holding her as she tried not to cry.
Rar approached one of the openings of the ramshackle guest box which nobody ever stayed at, wary of the two enormous guards who floated on either side of it. A third, who now swam behind him, had come to fetch him while he’d been slouching around with his friends. He’d said Rar had an audience with the Child of the Water.
“Can I enter?” Rar asked.
The guard behind him nodded. Casting another wary glance at the two flanking the opening, he went in.
The room beyond, as expected, was small and barely high enough to accommodate the guard who stood inside. The Child of the Water sat at a small, rather creaky-looking desk, chiselling words onto a sheet of metal. It was their way of writing, though he seemed to have an easier time of it than normal seapeople did. He traced whatever word he wanted to write along the metal and, with a flurry of bubbles, the strokes appeared, following his fingertip. Already, a small pile of metal sheets sat at the side of the desk.
He looked up when Rar came in. “Ah, yes! Rarbyakh Gurrgish, thank you for coming to meet me.”
It was so odd to be called by his full name. He bowed. “Good day, sir.”
“Come, sit.” The ruler waved his hand towards the chair on the other side of the desk. “Borlu, some refreshments, if you please.” He nodded at his guard. The guard bowed his head and left.
Rar sat, feeling very uncomfortable.
“So, have you given my proposition much thought?”
“Um…A little, sir.” He’s barely slept!
“Have you any questions?”
He scratched at his thigh, where the threads from the frayed edges of his pants kept brushing against his skin. “I…” He thought about what he wanted to ask before he opened his mouth again. Did he want to go to Kyargain, the capital? He didn’t see how he could be the Child’s apprentice if he didn’t. He’d have to leave everyone behind. Dad would go on his fishing trips alone. Marrlirin would be happy at least, since she’d have more room to stash her seashells and the other useless objects she had a habit of picking up. Mum…What about Mum? What about his friends? What about all the villagers?
That was just the beginning of his concerns.
“Am I really good enough?” he asked at last. “I mean…surely, you must have come across many people more suited for the role than me. I-I don’t know a whole lot. The idea of being your successor is terrifying.”
The Child cracked a wide smile. “Do you think I began as an apprentice with a full understanding of what I would do?”
“The answer is no. I was born on the outskirts of Kyargain. It might have been near to the capital but the hustle and bustle of the city was a whole world away from my little neighbourhood. I was like you, Rarbyakh. There was a celebration because the Child of the time had had his firstborn. The streets were lively. People from all over came to join in the fun. One of the other Elementals came too. I just happened to pull someone to safety when an enormous rock came hurtling to the ocean floor. The Child saw it and thought it a good sign.”
“Why did he ask you to be his apprentice when he had a child? Wouldn’t it have been better to wait for the child to grow up?”
The Child shook his head. “The title of the Child is not inherited. Don’t you know this? At times throughout our history, a father has chosen his son as an apprentice, but that is only if the feeling is there.”
“What sort of feeling, sir?”
“The feeling that an Elemental gets – I suppose you could call it intuition – when they see someone who might be a good successor. The previous Child saw something in me. I saw it in you.”
Rar felt a nervous flutter of the heart at these astounding words. “You…You really mean to tell me that I…that I can be the next Child of the Water?”
People had been teasing him about it since the Child’s public address, calling him “sir” or “your lordship” and bowing low. He’d had difficulty digesting the idea yesterday, but now he felt overwhelmed.
“Yes, Rarbyakh. I do believe so.”
“What will be required of me, sir? Will I have to leave Tronrus?”
The Child’s smile was a little softer this time, a little sorry. “Yes, I’m afraid so. But you can come to visit them whenever you like, so long as it doesn’t interfere with your duties. There will be plenty for you to do as I train you to take over my roles.”
“What sort of duties, sir?”
The Child thought about it. “That’s an interesting question. There is no fixed response. You will have your set duties, of course. Documenting things, for example,” he hefted some of the metal sheets he’d been chiselling. “So you will need to learn to read and write.”
“Oh.” The feeling of being overwhelmed just kept increasing. Only those with authority, and those with plenty of money, could learn to read and write. There was only a need for it if you had to urgently notify someone else further away of something.
“You will also have to learn how to interact with the above-landers, since we have a treaty to uphold with their Provinces.” Rar’s jaw must have fallen open as he stared at the ruler, because the Child laughed. “Don’t look so surprised. It really isn’t that big of a deal. You get used to being above water if you have to keep doing it.”
Rar couldn’t think of an appropriate thing to say so he just nodded.
“You will also have to listen to the people. They can complain a lot, but more than anything, they need to know that you are there for them. They need to see you being an active leader.”
Instantly, he heard Marrlirin’s high-pitched voice in his head. “Brother, you haven’t fixed the roof!” or “Brother, why haven’t you bought a new mattress for my bed?! The old one is worn out! I told you to get it yesterday!” He shuddered at the thought of thousands of Marrlis all shouting at him at once. But if they just needed to see his face, he supposed he could do that. That would never work with Marrli though.
“On top of that, there are general everyday tasks like fixing things, meeting with important people, agreeing to projects that will make life easy for everyone, attending dinners, holding charity events, attending others’ charity events…”
Rar tried to hold back a grimace. The man looked like he was tired just after listing all of that.
“But,” the Child continued with a smile, “you haven’t asked what the upside is.”
“You will find that many things will become easier.”
“Like what, sir?”
“Travel, for instance. Mastery of the water. You can go anywhere at any time as long as it is within the Province. Also,” he put his hand out to the side. Rar exclaimed in amazement as the water around the hand started to whirl. It grew faster, the whirlpool becoming wider and beginning to draw in a few lightweight items nearby. And then it was gone and, in its place, the Child now held his black trident. “And some more things, but if that amazed you, I think I should hold off on mentioning them since you might explode from sheer excitement.”
The youth’s heart stuttered with embarrassment. “Mastery of the water. That’s…That’s…something.”
“Yes, it is. So, do you need more time to think about it?”
Rar smiled. “No, sir.”