M A N A S"Which is why we don't go around throwing knives, do we?"
Manas flashed a small grin to his younger brother, daring him to make a sarcastic remark whilst the merfolk still held his hands tightly across the kelp and seaweed bandage. To the youth's credit he had the decency to look disappointed in himself and shook his head glumly. Every member of the family had an assortment of tools to aid them in the jobs they were required to do about the home. Recently, Haltoi had been given his knife and it had taken all of a week for the first injury more serious than a slight cut. Manas had tasted the irony tang in the water before his brother had appeared at the entrance to his cell, having cut himself more times than he cared to count. Whilst Haltoi had been inconsolable at first, caught up in the pain of his wound and the shame of having done so to himself, it had been the work of a few minutes to suture the puckered wound shut. Wailing had summoned both their parents but, once they saw that Manas had it in hand, they had been happy to leave this life lesson to their responsible offspring and return to the other duties of life under the sea. A sticky, pulpy compress sealed the fresh injury from infection or taint and now the merfolk was cleaning up from his first aid."You don't think they'll take the knife off me, will they?"
Haltoi asked, faltering with anxiety. He'd always possessed a nervous disposition and, having just received the prized blade, losing this sign of his maturity would be worse than any stabbing possible. Manas shook his head, reaching up to ruffle the short, emerald locks of his sibling."No, I do not think they will. You see here-"
Manas lifted his arm, pointing to a pale zigzag scar just below his armpit. "I got caught in some fishing line. I was so scared I stuck myself whilst I was trying to cut myself out. In my panic I didn't even realise until I noticed the sharks following the trail through the water."
Manas laughed, remembering the incident fondly, though Haltoi was wide eyed."Sharks! But, how did you get away?""Papa could smell it too, he swam out to find me and the two of us made it back in one piece. Then, I sat about where you are now and listened to the same lesson I just told you. Well, except mine was about looking where you stick a knife, not throwing it at rocks."
A reminder of his accident brought a hint of violet to the cheeks of Haltoi when be blushed. "We'll change that dressing tomorrow and see how it looks but I'm hopeful, I reckon you'll keep the arm."
The younger merfolk rolled his eyes, a degree of teenage petulance returning as Manas winked. When Haltoi left, propelling himself from the small room and into the larger tunnels of the caves they inhabited, Manas was left alone with his thoughts. That had been the last of his compress and he'd have to make some more. The thought didn't fill him with joy, given that it meant a fairly long swim into deeper waters to find the long, stringy seaweed that seemed to possess a natural healing ointment. His mother swore by its properties and she hadn't led her son astray yet. It had also been a number of days since his last venture to the surface and he could tell his body was beginning to crave the air. Whichever way he worded it, Manas would need to brave his own anxieties and leave the comfort and safety of his home. The thought was bothersome, like excessive baggage, and he cursed his physiology for requiring such small necessities as oxygen. There was plenty in the water, he thought, but apparently not enough.
A pouch on a strap was hooked around a hanger and he threw that over his shoulder, checking it was tied securely so that it wouldn't escape in the rush of the water as he swam. Next, a belt upon which hung most of his own tools was strapped around his midriff, just below the waist of his kilt. Well aware he had made the same foolish errors as Haltoi, Manas had grown up enough now to know the proper use of everything he carried. It was what kept him alive and, more importantly, how he helped keep their family flourishing. So long as Manas was around they would never need to worry about a thing, or so he resolved. Just as everybody in the home did. They pulled together in all things, especially when it mattered. Finally, in case hunger struck him, he stuffed a barma into his pocket. The spongy bar of roots and shellfish had been coiled tightly together and then left to cook next to a volcanic vent. It made a filling, if slightly smelly, meal. As prepared as he could be, Manas departed with a chirpy whistle, poking his head around doorways and down other passages to see if he could spy any of his family on his way out. Ostensibly, he was checking in to see if there was anything he could do. Only, he knew he was actually off putting the need head out. An awful, black cloud lingered over his shoulder and he had a terrible feeling that it had something to do with leaving.
Not so arrogant as to assume he had an oracular powers, he ignored the feeling as a simple anxious dread and swam quickly through the exit and into the brighter waters of the reef. Their home was a majestic complex of brightly coloured coral that intermingled kaleidoscopically around a central pillar of black rock. It was their mount under the waves and they had lived in it all of Manas' life. Deep enough to be immune from the impacts of storms or ships above but close enough to enjoy the refracted rays of sunlight, the place was as close to perfection as Manas could imagine. Alcoves and furrows in the knobbly coral were home to eels and other lithe, worm-like creatures that snaked through the water whilst schools of multicoloured fish circled like flocks of glittering birds. They didn't flee or disperse at the emergence of Manas, used to the presence of their erstwhile shepherds, which granted him an opportunity to pass a quick eye over the state of their homestead. A few of the shoals were larger than he remembered and, in the name of balance, might need shrinking. Manas would bring it up to his father when he returned, the thought of a fish supper almost made his mouth water. Not that you could tell, being submerged and all. Close to the seabed small plots of various flora were being nursed to bountiful yields and even now, no less than a month from harvest, they were blossoming with startling flowers that leaked nectar into one another and raising bulging fruits. Some of the plants appeared to be struggling, targeted by the locals for a tasty snack, and Manas added another reminder to inform his sister. She took great pride in her horticultural pursuits. She would not be best pleased by this punitive raid. Manas suspected the insidious sea snails, though that was a prejudice from the last time they had eaten through almost a quarter of their harvest. Some molluscs couldn't change their spots.
With little else to note, the merfolk turned towards the west and kicked his legs out, shooting through the aqua and off towards where he had last seen the thin vines he was after. Mottled patterns played through the swell and Manas paused now and again to peer up. It seemed the surface was choppy and through the break he spied the bloom of dark, angry clouds. Furthermore, harsh, kinetic rumbles seemed to make the waters around Manas tremble with force. A great wind was dragging waves into furore above him. Good, he thought, that should mean there wasn't anybody out to sea. All the sensible folk would be safely tucked up on land, only a fool would sail in this weather. Journeying west seemed to be taking the merfolk ahead of the storm as it advanced towards landfall. It was a race, Manas decided. Who would reach their destination first? Could the merfolk harvest his herb and take in the air, or would he be subjected to an awful shock as the storm inexorably marched on? The thought made him laugh, delighted by the sheer absurdity of the notion. It reminded him of being a child. With all that in mind, it didn't stop the merfolk kicking harder and driving himself on. Thin, papery lids closed around his eyes to protect them from the impact of debris in the water and he almost snarled in excitement. His blood was up, this was something to live for, and his wake was a whirl of bubbles.
When he finally caught a glimpse of his quarry Manas was almost dissapointed. He'd almost forgotten what it was like to swim freely in the wide expanse of the ocean. He had seen nothing else, likely due to the oncoming storm, which left him with the sensation of possessing a vast empire. A whole world at his feet. Heady stuff, he decided. There was a reason for this outing, however, and Manas was never one to forget his responsibilities. The seabed had fallen away long ago, lost in the murk and mire of the gloomy depths. Creatures lived down there that made his skin crawl, yet he had no need to find them. The plants he was after were kind enough to grow in skinny tendrils that rose hundreds of metres up to collect as much sun as possible, even when bedded where no light could pierce. For the next few minutes Manas swam amongst the pillar of greenery, using his knife to cut away bundles of the vine-like flora and stuff them into his pouch. Careful never to over-prune one spot, he ensured that his harvesting had no lasting impact on the health of the plant. He was just about done when he noticed a shadow pass overhead and looked up. A whale-like silhouette had momentarily blocked out the sun, pointed out towards the east and the direction Manas had swam from. The pointed nose, wide aft, and tapered sides were unmistakable as being of one of the ships the humans used to traverse the surface.
The appearance of the ship caused Manas to offer curses towards nobody in particular. There was no chance of him surfacing here then, resolving to simply avoid the humans and not even run the risk of being spotted. Right below the ship, hidden amongst the foliage, he was certain he couldn't be seen. Staying for a little longer they would pass on soon enough and then he could safely scarper to somewhere more secluded. Yet, even as he planned his escape, Manas was drawn towards the ship. The humans, whilst evil, were also utterly alien. Their world and their way of life was one that defied comprehension. Just as he had sought out the wonders of the deep, he wanted to know about the enigmas on the land. Momentarily, he was tempted to follow the humans. To find out what they were doing. Then, sanity prevailed and he returned to his original idea. The plan had taken seconds to formulate and Manas was already congratulating himself on his maturity when there was a muffled splosh from the side of the ship. Something had been dropped into the water. An anchor, perhaps? It swirled about, constellations of disturbed water circling the erratic motions, until it had righted itself and became very still. The edges had resolved into a round orb of darkness, growing in size as it descended towards him. He still had no idea what it could be and, curious at this newfangled technology, slunk up between the strands of plant. Lingering in the shadows like a thief. It was only when the shape had sunk far enough that the light allowed some semblance of detail that Manas realised his error.
He now knew why the thing had been so agitated before and why it had formed the shape it had. It was a woman, outfitted in some long dress that parachuted in the swell, who was quite still as she fell deeper into the abyss. Her hair was alive around her, floating like his did when he trod water. yet the details of her body passed him by almost entirely, so captured was he by her eyes. Almost certainly stung by the salt in the water, there was still flashes of them that caused his body to go rigid. This was a person. A real, living person. There was life behind those eyes and a story inside her head that she could tell. Part of him wanted to hear it, just to know what her voice sounded like. Then there were bubbles, fear, and shock; she was drowning. This wasn't the world of the humans and Manas was content with that. The existential danger of the humans was oddly numb when married to the sight of one slowly sinking to her doom.
These thoughts were a rush through the mind of the merfolk and left him almost stunned. Stunned enough to forget to hide. Steadily, gently, she drifted down to the point where their faces were perfectly level. A moment, caught for eternity in the mind. The discovery of the merfolk. The most tragic crime that could occur. She may have been drowning but it wasn't enough to think, Manas would have to make sure. He was calm, peaceful even, as the sight of the woman had stolen every sense except numb shock. Autonomously, gently, he reached out towards the woman. His body was thin, hairless, and almost iridescent. Obviously humanoid in design but lacking a humanity that clung in the spirit of every man and woman on the land. His fingers were deft and nimble, they worked the water in front of them as he sought to take the woman in his arms. Reaching towards her, desperate to drag her to the end.