Chapter 21

“Don’t trust her – please, don’t trust her.”

The girl’s voice pleaded inside Aveny’s head, blocking out any other sound or thought. Mary Catherine hadn’t let up since Aveny consented to Rionach the night before.

Aveny tried to reason with her, to explain that this was the only way. She couldn’t let her children suffer and perish like their ancestors had. She couldn’t risk losing them, like she’d very nearly lost Tali. And although it made her cringe at her own selfishness, she also couldn’t forsake the skin. There was no more life for her without it – Aveny knew that more than anything.

However, none of this had placated the girl, whose pleading continued unceasingly. Aveny tried not to let her words shake her resolve. It didn’t work. But it also didn’t matter.

I guess I’m not completely crazy, Aveny mused to herself over the verbal onslaught. Because this is driving me insane.

Only a little longer…

She focused on the calming sensation of water engulfing her toes. It swirled around her feet as she stepped deeper in, liquid slowly claiming each foot, and circling each bare ankle. All was dark and calm. No wind disturbed the grey mirror of the sound which lay serenely before her, casting shadows back at the night sky.

Aveny paused and turned to see Brand, his dark form barely visible against the evergreen backdrop. His medic’s bag was nothing more than a dark lump blending with the rocky shore. He’d even brought one of their kayaks.

“Just in case,” he’d said before stuffing his coat with pocket warmers.

The kids were home with Miriam, who had given Brand and Aveny bracing hugs before sending them out the door. “I don’t know what the future holds,” she’d whispered in Aveny’s ear, “but I know you’re ready for it.”

Aveny wished she’d had something wise to say in return but the disembodied voice in her head made it difficult to formulate complete sentences.

And now they were here, just moments before the moon reached the highest apex of its arc through the sky. 

Rionach’s instructions had been simple enough. She was to enter the ocean as the moon reached its highest point. She was not to transform, but submerge and surrender herself knowingly to the sea. In her right hand, she clutched the skin, which would soon unite with her body, a separate entity no longer. In the other, she clutched a stone.

The latter had washed ashore at Aveny’s feet only moments before, just as Rionach had said it would. It was a simple stone, slightly greenish in color. It’s only distinguishing mark a small hole worn straight through the center.

“A Cloc Cosanta,” Rionach had called it.

What that meant, Aveny didn’t know. But its smooth surface felt strangely comforting in her sweaty palm.

Aveny turned to face the open sound. A pang of fear seized her chest. She felt poised on a great cliff, ready to fall or fly, unsure of which would ensue.

But she had to jump – she knew that now with a burning resolve that neither faded nor waned. She would never be safe with or without the skin. Nor would her children. As for the consequences of following Rionach, she could only hope her humanity would be preserved.

In the end, what was there really to be afraid of? She wasn’t doing anything different than she’d done 100 times before. Just walking into the sea, skin in hand. But she knew, if Rionach was right, this time would be different than all the others.

You loved your father, didn’t you? She asked the voice in her head. And your children?

“Please, don’t do this,” the voice replied.

I believe you did, Aveny pressed on. And I’m banking on that kind of love to pull me through this – to set right what went wrong. I have to at least try.

She inhaled deeply and stepped further into the water. The cries in her skull intensified. “Don’t! Don’t do this! Please, don’t trust her!”

Aveny felt the water rise, coolly encircling her calves, her thighs, her waist, her chest; until finally only her head and neck stood out, reminding her of the girl floating in the open sea, vulnerable in her human form as the ships’ battle raged on before her.

“He knew what she was,” the girl’s voice broke, now verging on hysteria. “He tried to warn me. To keep me from becoming like her. He knew her kind could only love in one direction – family or freedom – never both. You’re making the wrong choice. Please, don’t do this. Don’t trust her.”

You made a terrible choice to protect your children, Aveny replied. Now I must protect mine. With that, she slid beneath the surface, extinguishing all sound.

Aveny’s heart accelerated as she surged deeper into the void. Her lungs felt heavy with deprivation. She longed to transform but she held on, waiting, just as the woman had instructed. Her chest ached, begging for expansion, but still she pressed onward.


Finally, she could wait no more. She broke the surface with the gusty inhalation of a whale.

“Are you ok?” Brand called from the shore.

“Yeah,” Aveny panted. I had to breathe. Nothing’s happening.”

“Well, it looks like the moon is at its highest point,” he called back. “What should we do?”

Aveny froze. Tiny tendrils of sensation were creeping up her legs. It felt like every grain of sand on the ocean floor had begun to breathe.

“Just wait,” she called before disappearing quietly beneath the surface.

This time, sound increased rather than extinguished. The whole sea seemed to be humming – vibrating with a strange, unearthly cadence.

Its ethereal blue glow took on form, breaking into pathways of light. The beams illuminated her pupils until she was no longer alone in the dark but suspended in an ocean of light. The golden brilliance danced around her – but, wait, not light alone.

A sea of faces.

Thousands of them.

They moved about her in concert, a symphony of motion. Each gazed upon her intently. In their eyes, Aveny saw endless stories unfolding, one after the other, an unbroken chain of experience that was part of her, too.

A strange crawling vibration slowly coiled up Aveny’s legs, tickling her skin. Each tiny hair stood erect and electrified. The vibration wrapped Aveny’s torso, binding until she couldn’t move.

Her heart raced.

She felt the breath draining from her lungs. She struggled for the surface. But she could no more unclasp her arms from her sides than she could sprout wings and fly away. Fear spiraled outward from her chest, unleashing a gut response as she thrashed against her constraints.

It was futile and far too late.

Her body was possessed by some great, invisible kraken. There was no hope of escape.

It pulled her down, deeper and further into the dark. Its tendrils coiled up and around her neck, crawling over her face and pouring into her throat, choking out any possibility of air.

A savage burning sensation shot through her palm. Her fingers flashed open, ejecting the stone into the sound’s black depths, glowing as it went, like a prowling anglerfish. In her other hand, the skin flailed wildly.  

Aveny tried to scream, but the words were nothing more than an echo inside her own head. The blackness around her poured in and she could perceive neither fear nor pain, only a mad rushing of wind, like she’d been swept up in a great tornado.

From the darkness emerged a violent nausea, retching from every pore in her body. She was a salted slug, slowly turning inside out. She no longer cared to breathe – or live, for that matter.

She was on fire and excruciatingly cold. She couldn’t move and couldn’t stop spinning. The pitch blackness was so bright, it hurt her eyes and the silence was deafening.

She felt her body contort and seize, and then everything went still and she was falling, falling down through the darkness, falling – not flying – off the cliff.

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