The boy swam unaided through the patchy gloom of the ocean floor, wending through a forest of seaweed, his way lit by the faint light of nearby fish. He made for the side of the cliff face that ringed the outer edges of the underwater canyon; a thousand foot wall of smooth stone and coral.
His companion was restless. The boy knew it. He could feel it through their bond; an empty, hollow sort of agitation. The closest word the boy had for it was loneliness. But that didn’t really do it justice. Loneliness wasn’t normally a driving force. It didn’t energize like this. It was hunger, plain and simple. His companion had to feed. He never liked this part.
The boy reached the base of the cliff face, and set his eyes upward. It was dark down here, a fact little aided by the sparse notes of bioluminescence from the sea life all around. That wasn’t a problem. He could deal with the dark. A practiced motion in his mind, a brief expenditure of energy, and the world lit in vibrant indigo, the ocean depths a rich, faintly pulsing neon.
That was better. He could see the cliff-face now. He pulled himself roughly upright, and made a portal to a point some two hundred feet further upward in the water. He swam through it, and from his new vantage point, scanned the surface of the rock.
Spots of coral; small crevices where nestled grey hued crabs almost larger than the boy was; none of it what he was looking for. He moved on. Another portal, another unbroken stretch of canyon wall.
They sang together as he worked, his companion and he. A shared melody across their minds. His own voice was quiet and light, almost lilting. The other was deep and resonant, slow and grand as the tides themselves. Once upon a time, the sound had almost caused him pain. He was stronger now. The song was good. It helped distract his companion from its need. It soothed the pain of wounds that had yet to heal.
It was on the eighth portal that he found it; a deep crevice in the surface of the rock, a faint glow coming from within. He let his sight fade back to the fractionally more than human level at which he kept it, and swam forth into the cave.
To his eye, the plants that sprouted all throughout the cave’s interior were much like any other kind of algae. In form, at least. They grew extensively, without the limitations of pollution or nutrition. That was the norm on his new world. What made these ones different from the majority was the way they glowed, a halo of cobalt emanating from the tips of every stem until, even half a mile beneath the surface, the sunken furrow outshone the moons above.
The boy found it beautiful.
He sent images flowing through the song to his companion, each met with the kind of interest that comes from only caring about a subject because a loved one does. He called his companion a spoilsport. It didn’t understand the word.
With a shrug, the boy swam deeper. The furrow angled upwards into the cliff, pushing up through a narrow crevice in the rock, then into the cavern’s true interior.
What he found when he squeezed inside was unusual. It was organized. Maintained. Natural, yet not untouched. The space was wide and not quite flat, perhaps a hundred feet across. A rough circle, like the interior of a discus, gaining depth towards the middle. On the outer edges of the ring, there sat more of the glowing algae shrubs, in whose light basked a crescent ring of coral. Within that, a forest of upraised crawler vines obscured the true centre of the space from view. Charlie grinned. He knew a dwelling when he saw one. Something lived here.
He sent a chirp of confirmation through the song to his companion, and a moment later, felt as the harmony shifted. Even now, he knew, his companion would be lifting itself up from the seabed, positioning itself at the entrance of the cave.
He swam closer, peering in through the tendrils, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever lay within.
There was a brief image of what might have been a clamshell; a luminescent pearl sitting in its mouth, before the space’s occupant chose to manifest. It was like a shark, in a way. One of the smaller ones with the extra fins sprouting from the tail. There were differences, of course. Where an earthly shark would be a mottled grey, this one was patterned in stark lines of black and white, weaving across its form as if daubed by a calligrapher. That and the tendrils, trailing backwards from the tips of the larger fins, each sporadically discharging lightning against its body whenever they were still.
It materialized in the reeds above him, its presence made known by the disturbance it brought among them. He looked up, and met its gaze. There was no aggression there. Not that he could tell, at least. This one didn’t seem too territorial. It looked him over, sizing up this new, four-limbed land dweller that had somehow wandered into its domain. It was curious, as all guardians were of new life. In the part of him that was still human, Charlie felt the urge to bow. He restrained the impulse. It wouldn’t have understood the gesture anyways.
For its part, the guardian of the canyon drifted towards him, its semi-spectral snout passing once above his head to sniff, then pulling back. A snap of sparks along its tendrils, the discharge seeping through the water enough to stand the hairs on Charlie’s neck on end. A display of power. It wasn’t a threat. Not quite. Just an assurance. It was the master of this domain. He was to consider himself warned. Once that was done, the spirit seemed to lose interest. It looked away, returning to float amid the reeds.
Charlie folded his arms, quietly impressed. This guardian was powerful. This would do.
Another short stream of images through the song, and his companion let out a groan. It was so hungry.
Charlie found he couldn’t look at the guardian anymore. He never liked this part. With a thought, he opened up his portal. With a gesture, he smashed its barriers to dust. The protector spirit of this realm stared through the hole in space, right into the eye of the Whale. His companion began to feed.
Charlie swam back to the entrance of the cave, asking quietly that his companion restrain itself enough to let its prey survive. It might heed him. He did not know. For now, the hunger would be bearable for a few more weeks. That would be enough.
He made a portal to the surface. He felt a need to breathe the air again. A few moments treading water, letting his shields adjust to the sudden change in pressure. He squeezed the water slowly from his lungs. Never a pleasant feeling. Then came the inhale. Fresh, morning air, scented with iridescent salt. He cast his gaze around, and saw a mountain island just barely poking over the far horizon. Another portal, and he was standing on the shoreline.
The sun felt good against his shoulders. Might as well make use of the warm, while it was there. He braced his hands against his knees, and did his best to shake the water from his hair. Time to deal with his own hunger. He wondered if the trees here had fire melons.
Lewis Themps stepped through the portal and took a long breath through his nose, checking for the telltale scent of his chosen quarry.
Foreign fruit. Tree sap. Bird shit. Seaweed. A faint tang of that ever present saffron smell. Nothing recent.
A brief jog across to the other side of the micro-island, a government agent running alongside him for his protection, and he tried again. Still nothing of what he was looking for.
They went back to the portal and crossed back over. Lewis shook his head.
“Not that one,” he said, addressing the words to the woman holding the portal open. “Hasn’t been there in months.”
The portal snapped shut. An agent drew a cross on a map.
“Right,” came the reply. “On to the next, then.”
Lewis grunted. They’d been at this for five hours, transiting piecemeal between every landmass Jacqueline Vance had identified. Check the trail, see how recently her son had been there, move on to the next. That had been destination number twenty, not that the lack of tangible results had diminished the woman’s optimism any.
Lewis leaned his back against a tree trunk, habitually feigning relaxation as Jackie set about conjuring her next portal. It was hard to be at ease around the U.S. government. He folded his arms. That felt stiff, so he unfolded them again, hands shoved into his pockets.
“Next area’s the central landmass of section B-3,” Jackie called, the fifty or so assembled souls of the search party nodding along at the words. “It’s near two miles from end to end, so we’ll be sending everyone through at once. When you’re all through, fan out and do a full sweep from one end of the island to the other. Set timers for half an hour, then regroup and move on.”
Around them, the assorted specialists, military types, and office workers began to set their watches.
“I can’t get a full sense of the area moving with a search cordon,” Lewis spoke up. “Not in half an hour, at least. Too wide of a space. Not enough time to check it all if I’m moving slowly.”
“No searching alone,” she answered. “My son is powerful enough to pose a threat to the strongest fighters we have available. We do this as a group, for safety’s sake. Take some people with you.”
Lewis inclined his head.
“I need the fastest runners,” he said to the group at large. “Whoever thinks they can keep up. If you fall behind, go back to the cordon. I don’t have time to slow down for you.”
The challenge drew looks of consternation from a few, mild annoyance from others. Five or so of the more military types raised their hands, along with one of the scrawnier looking specialists.
Lewis cocked his head towards the scrawnier one and sniffed.
The smell of earth and freshwater. None of the telltale scents of sweat or antiperspirant like those on either side.
‘Huh. Goblin. Well, at least that one might keep up.’
“Right. You’re with me then.”
When the portal opened, his team was the first through to the new island. Another deep breath. No scent trail. Nothing out of the ordinary here. He glanced about, and set his eyes on a point several hundred feet further in along the shoreline.
Check there next.
He set off through the sand at a sprint, his escort following suit less than half a second later. He was surprised. They were keeping up relatively well, in spite of the enhanced speed his own abilities allowed him. Of the humans, three had managed to remain within a few dozen feet of him, the fourth had fallen well behind. The goblin, for their part, had matched his stride.
A minute or so of running later, he took another deep breath through his nose. Still nothing out of the ordinary. He grunted, turning back toward his team.
“We’ll do a full circuit of the island,” he murmured. “Pausing every couple hundred feet for a deeper check. You three,” he gestured to the three remaining human agents. “You three fan out behind me. Keep me in line of sight, but not too close. If something gets the drop on us, I don’t want us all grouped up.” He turned to the goblin. “You stay with me.”
The others nodded their assent.
“Radios at the ready,” the goblin spoke up. “We keep in contact the whole time. Just on the off chance.”
As one, the agents each flicked a button on a handheld radio at their belts. Lewis belatedly did the same. There was a buzz of static as a frequency was set, echoed mutely by those of his companions as they joined it.
With that determination made, the group set off. Another short sprint across the shoreline. Another pause. Another smell. Still negative, so they set off again. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. When they reached the point at which the island began to broaden out, they pushed into the forest. Their sprints became highlighted by the lush new scents of their surroundings, rich and heady to Lewis and his nose. They proceeded quietly, no communication beyond a visual check in every time they stopped. No sound beside the gentle thud of footfalls on the earth.
They were reaching the far end of the island when he finally found something. First came the smell, drifting across Lewis’ path as he ran. Dry coral over saffron. The scent of the wayward child and the creature that had taken him. It wasn’t faint this time. It was recent. Within the last few hours, even. He swallowed the small burst of elation at the scent. There was pride to a successful hunt.
He threw out an arm for his companion, both of them drawing rapidly to a halt. Behind them, the other three members of his escort followed suit.
Lewis didn’t respond to the questioning look the goblin shot him, instead taking up his radio, and switching to the main frequency.
“I’ve got a trail. It’s potent. Last few hours, maybe.”
A short crackle of static, then Jacqueline replied, suppressed excitement evident in her every word.
“Is it him?” she asked.
“Hell if I know,” he grunted. “Just smells of the slime you gave me, but it’s the same stuff. Looks like it leads into the forest. Do you want me to zero in-”
“Fall back,” Jackie ordered. “Mark your position and return to the main group. We’ll surround the area, then you’ll guide a retrieval team.”
“On our way.”
He clicked the handheld back off.
“Alright folks. Back the way we came-”
That was as far as he got before the sense of dread fell over them. He’d been warned about this in the briefing: A quiet, oppressive kind of fear, like a scratching in his skull.
The Whale had noticed them.
“Back to the others,” the goblin ordered. “Double time.”
From somewhere in that endless ocean, the Whale roared.
It was like running through putty. A sense of weight. Unending, uncaring pressure, setting deep about arms, shoulders, and knees. It was exhausting, the tiny stresses of movement failing to fade with each new breath. Worse than that, though. It was apathy. The desire to run leeching slowly from his limbs. Fight or flight flickered out. He didn’t care. He made it twenty steps before he lost his feet. The goblin made it only a little further before they joined him, slumping to the ground, whether from exhaustion, or simple apathy, he couldn’t tell.
“The radio,” the goblin muttered. “Call for help.”
Neither of them did. Neither of them cared. Ahead of them, the others began to fall as well.
The crunching of sand underfoot. The scent of coral and saffron on his nose.
“Did my mom send you?” the boy asked.