Best friends Chachel and Glint, a merson and a cuttlefish, are returning from a shark hunt when they stumble upon an unconscious female demon. Taking her back to their reef community to recover, while they decide what to do with her, they wind up stumbling into a unique friendship, one which will change their lives and community for better as the reef dwellers and the demon together fight to preserve themselves and their way of life in the face of enemies and their blue magic.
In this adventure under the sea, Oshenerth, New York Times Bestselling author Alan Dean Foster (Alien, Star Wars: Force Awakens) uses his extensive knowledge and experience from diving and traveling to bring to life the mysterious world of reef dwellers under the sea in an imaginative, fascinating new epic fantasy that takes place entirely underwater.
Alan Dean Foster—what more needs to be said? I've read this man's work since I was in Junior High, countless Star Trek, Aliens, Star Wars, as well as his original works. When Alan approached me with a new novel, his never-before-published undersea fantasy adventure OSHENERTH, I didn't have to consider for more than a nanosecond. We're very proud of this book, and I'm glad to include it here. – Kevin J. Anderson
"Action packed into an alien landscape. Once more Alan Dean Foster delivers a page turner. Keep writing Mr Foster. Please."– Amazon Review
"In a call back to some of his earlier 'fish out of water undertakes a world saving quest' novels like the Spellsinger series, Foster does what he does best, creating vivid new worlds, engaging characters and unpredictable and inventive plot twists."– Amazon Review
— I —
As soon as he had the sleek, toothy slayer cornered, Chachel knew the shark was going to use magic. He was not worried. The heavy spear of pure white bone that he held had been shaped and carved by Fasalik Boneworker himself from the massive, scavenged lower jaw of a dead rorqual. You could slam it against rock and the shaft would not shatter. Furthermore, he had surprised the shark from below while it was busy patrolling the mirrorsky. Now it was trapped between the waterless void above and reef wall behind.
Cradling the spear under one arm and aiming it with the other, Chachel adjusted the strap that held the woven patch over the socket where his left eye had once resided and swam forward. The webbing on his left foot and the fin growing from the back of his calf fluttered in perfect synchrony with the artificial counterparts that occupied the space where his right leg was missing below the knee.
Above and in front of him, the blacktip's eyes darted nervously from side to side as it searched for an escape route. If the shark made a dash for it, Chachel was ready with the spear. If it began to spout time-honored shark sortilege, the hunter's well-honed vocabulary contained a clutch of stock counterwords. The gills of trapped shark and merson alike pulsed furiously, flushing water and extracting oxygen as they strained in expectation of the coming confrontation.
A powerful, yard-long tentacle slithered over Chachel's taut left shoulder.
"Watch for a combination of teeth and talk. It may try to attack and invoke at the same time."
Chachel nodded tersely. He knew that Glint was only trying to help. But it would have been better if the cuttlefish, who was as big as Chachel himself though not nearly as heavy, had stayed back out of the way. The last thing a hunter needed at killing time was to feel crowded.
Then the blacktip charged.
To anyone who has never seen a shark strike, it can be said that the great fish does not actually appear to move. One moment it is swimming lazily, and the next it is somewhere else, as if no water in-between has been transited. Some mersons called it wish-swimming: wish you are another place, and without a single kick or flick of a tail you find yourself therewith transported. After all, to catch something as fast as a fish, the shark must be faster still. Couple this intrinsic speed and ferocity with traditional shark magic, and surely an intended target has no chance to escape at all.
But Chachel was ready for the charge. Ready physically, because over the years he had pushed and worked his body to compensate for the loss of his left eye and right leg. Ready mentally, because he had laboriously learned the appropriate counterspells and protections. And ready emotionally, because he liked killing. He especially liked killing sharks because it was sharks who had taken his eye and the lower half of his right leg. It was sharks who had killed his father and mother in the same unanticipated pitched battle.
It was always sharks.
That this solitary blacktip had not been part of the murderous frenzy that had destroyed his family and crippled and half-blinded him did not in any way temper his fury. Exploding straight at him, it opened its mouth and conjured. Jaws suddenly gaped wide enough to swallow a grouper. Teeth expanded instantly to the size of the knives the villagers used to pry gastropods from their protective shells. On the surrounding, multihued reef, startled fish scattered for the nearest bolt-holes in the coral.
"Uraxis!" Chachel snarled as he kicked hard, driving himself toward the sandy bottom below.
Using his spear to shove off a huge nearby brain coral helped to drive his body downward. At the same time, his terse recitation countered the shark magic. The water between hunter and hunted blurred. Powerful jaws and formidable dentition returned once more to their actual size. The blacktip's teeth were still big and sharp enough to shred a merson's flesh, but with the countering of the shark magic, they no longer appeared so fearsomely intimidating.
Forcefully expelling a burst of water through his siphon, Glint blasted clear. His body color and pattern changed instantly from bright red stripes on white to a shifting, mottled blue-green that matched the surrounding water perfectly and made him almost impossible to see. A cloud of dark brown spurted from his ink sac. Writing in the open water like a pen on clear plastic, it formed several of the special words known to manyarms that were designed specifically to confuse an attacker. Most predatory fish would be sufficiently confused by the swirling sepia alone, but not a shark. The pores lining their snouts enabled them to detect prey by other means. Shot through with embedded sparks, the cuttlefish's inky conjuration was intended to blind the toothmaster's other sense as well as confuse its mind.
Unable to see, unable to locate its attacker by other means, the blacktip slowed as it passed through the far side of the ink cloud. As it reappeared, Chachel kicked hard with both his real leg and his artificial one. Gripping the spear tightly in both hands, he thrust it straight up and into the shark just behind the lower jaw. Then he let go, allowing the plaited line fastened to a hole in the blunt back end of the spear to run free.
The blacktip spasmed violently as it attempted to dislodge the length of polished bone that had pierced its skull straight through from bottom to top. A target with a more complex brain would have expired sooner, but the shark's simple nervous system kept it thrashing for long moments after it had been speared.
Knowing it was already as good as dead, Chachel busied himself scattering a masking spell. From the pouch secured at his waist he withdrew a stoppered bone container. Whipping it back and forth in the water, he muttered the appropriate complementary words as it dispersed a green, metal-based powder. Both powder and spell would adhere to the shark's spirit as well as to its body and act to mask the smell of blood. Without the talismanic cover-up, he and Glint would find themselves fighting off sniffing scavengers and curious sharks all the way home. Drifting next to the reef, he waited as the blacktip's violent side-to-side spasms lessened and finally ceased altogether.
Transparent lateral fins rippling hypnotically and normal color and stripes restored, Glint approached the blacktip's body and clasped it in six of his ten short tentacles. With his two longer, sucker-lined hunting arms, the cuttlefish leveled the corpse in the water. Pulling it close, he took a tentative bite. One S-shaped pupil swiveled toward Chachel.
"The kill has a good flavor, my friend. Tastes nothing of disease, and I cannot see or feel any parasites. Good for the larder."
"Good that it's dead," Chachel muttered upon concluding the cloaking spell. Swimming upward, he rejoined his friend. With Glint holding tight to the sleek carcass and using his siphon to maintain his position in the water, the merson hunter yanked and tugged in the other direction until the spear pulled free of the now lifeless body. "I can tow it," he added.
"No, let me." Pointing his tail to the east, the cuttlefish used all ten tentacles to secure his grip on the dead shark. Drawing in water and squirting it through his siphon, he accelerated backward, taking care to moderate his speed so that the much slower merson could keep pace.
Behind them, the finger of reef once again came to life with hydrodynamic splotches of color as wary fish and cautious crustaceans began to emerge from their hiding places. His dark fin cutting the boundary between void and mirrorsky, a solitary gray shark cruised lazily over the top of the reef. Thanks to Chachel's oft-employed and reasonably effective cloaking spell, she did not detect the recent kill—or the killers.
Fully occupied with the task of manipulating the dead body, Glint did not ask his companion if he intended, as was customary, to share the meat with the other manyarms and mersons who lived in Sandrift. He knew Chachel too well for that. Expecting nothing from anyone else (and usually receiving it), his "special" merson friend was not inclined to contribute so much as a sliver of his hard-won prey to the town's communal pantry.
Chachel's status as an outcast was self-imposed, he made no effort to alter it, and he was content with his existence on the fringe of the community. It did not bother him that one of his two faithful companions was a ten-tentacled, color-changing, ink-spewing manyarm given to the occasional display of rude body-patterns, and the other an enduring melancholy.
As befitted hunting partners, they took turns towing the kill. Once, a quartet of blue sharks swam within sight, but with the corpse cloaked to mask the smell of blood, they paid the travelers no heed. A cluster of caucusing prawns spewed the usual spralaker invective that crustaceans reserved for mersons. Busy hauling the blacktip, Chachel ignored them. When Glint diverted in their direction, they promptly vanished into a labyrinth of available holes in the reef. The cuttlefish could have winkled them out—manyarms loved the taste of hardshells just as much as hardshells loved the taste of manyarms—but Glint was concerned the prawn taunting might have been a diversion, an attempt to separate him from his friend and their catch. So he contented himself with mumbling a short, simple, transitory enchantment and squirting a shot of the resultant stink ink into the nearest coral cavity. The polyps would filter it out without suffering any harm, and his effort was rewarded with the sound of chitinous choking from the prawns hiding within the stony maroon warren.
Spralakers hated manyarms, and the feeling was mutual. Their relationship meant tentacle versus claw, and so it had been since before the time of Remembering. The fact that the manyarms had forged friendships diverse and frequent with the equally soft-bodied mersons had made the relationship that much worse. And while the spralakers had their own methodology of magic, its parameters tended to be flimsy, suitable only for fooling fish. Though there were known to be exceptions.
Exceptions that sometimes proved unexpectedly dangerous.
None of the hardshelled conjurers or warriors appeared on the reef to contest their passage, however. When they cut upcanyon through the coral into Yellecheg Lagoon, Glint allowed himself to relax a little. Despite the lagoon's considerable extent, few large predators came inside, preferring to patrol the outer reefs where they could not be challenged or cornered. It allowed him and Chachel to let down their guard.
Halfway across, a couple of massive drifting jellies posted the usual warning signs by flashing their bioluminescence in sequence. Jellies being even dumber than fish, Chachel and Glint had no trouble avoiding them. Merson and manyarm paused briefly to chat with some small squid. Then they were out again via a channel that cut through the reef on the opposite side of the lagoon. It being slack tide, there were no predators lying in wait.
It was while crossing the deep channel that separated Yellecheg and Singarol, with Sandrift less than an hour's swim away, that Chachel spotted the strange floating object. Frowning, he left Glint and their catch as he swam upward to inspect the curious intrusion.
At first glance it appeared to be a merson—but if so it was unlike any merson he had ever seen before. Though it seemed unlikely, there was always the possibility that it might be a clever spralaker trap designed to draw him away from his companion. So, as he would have with any unfamiliar manifestation, he approached it with caution. It was well that he did. On closer inspection, the true nature of the floating shape was revealed.
It was a dead demon.
At least, it appeared as if it was dead. You could usually tell with demons. To encounter one was exceedingly rare. In his life, Chachel had only seen one other. That demon had been brought into the village when he was still a child. He remembered his parents being among those who had marveled over it, noting the pale color, the lack of webbing between fingers and toes, and the absence of gills on the neck. To all outward appearances it had been drifting for a long time and had reached an advanced state of decomposition.
It had tasted bad, too.
This demon differed greatly from the one of his childhood memories. Its body was dark, very dark, though its webless hands were quite pale. On its feet it wore artificial fins not altogether unlike the one that was affixed to his own truncated right leg. Strange bulky objects hung from its back and the torso appeared to be bloated with some slick, black material. A few shiny objects whose purpose was unknown dangled from its chest. Remarkably, it floated in a vertical position, its body half beneath and half above the mirrorsky, so that he could not see its face or if it had gills.
"What a peculiar creature!" Still firmly gripping the dead shark, Glint had jetted up to rejoin his friend. "It looks like a demon."
"It is a demon, I'm sure of it." Hanging in the water, Chachel bobbed up and down in the slight swell that was rippling the mirrorsky. "But it is unlike any I have ever heard described. The color and the fins, they are entirely new to me."
"See how swollen its upper body is," Glint commented. "Could it be some unusual type of merson, from another sea?" A tentacle indicated the strapped-on fins. "Those are similar to the artificial one on your right leg."
Chachel shook his head in disagreement and found himself blinking. This near to the mirrorsky the light was intense and hurt his eye. In contrast, his vacant, patch-covered left socket was not affected.
"I don't think it can be another type of merson. The way it is floating, its head stays continually above water, so it must have drowned."
"Do demons drown?" Glint wondered. "Don't they dwell in the empty void?"
"Now you're confusing me." Chachel's expression tightened. "If it is a demon, it appears to be a dead one. We should take it back to the village so that Heranleck and the others can study it." Reaching up, he grabbed a dangling leg and tugged. The black skin was slick and taut, not unlike that of a shark. So unexpected was the texture that he almost let go. He tried a second time, grabbing onto the hanging leg and pulling with both hands while kicking backward. Still the dead demon refused to descend.
"Some kind of spell," he finally muttered, "is keeping it fixed to the void."
"Here, hold this a moment." Fins rippling, Glint passed the dead blacktip over to Chachel and gingerly approached the inert demonic shape. Sensitive appendage tips probed the bobbing body. Taking a deep breath, the cuttlefish shoved his head through the mirrorsky and out into the void. Chachel looked on uneasily.
Slipping back down, Glint inhaled strongly. "It's a demon, all right. It has no gills." Avoiding the metal cylinder fastened to the creature's back, tentacles tapped the bloated black shape that surrounded the rest of the upper body. "This material collapses inward when I push on it. Perhaps it is some kind of external swim bladder."
"There's one way to find out." Holding the shark by its tail, Chachel removed the razor-shell gutting knife from his pouch and pushed the sharp tip into the black sac that surrounded the demon.
He and Glint quickly drew back in alarm as a flower of bubbles burst from within. They dissipated in seconds. But the demon still drifted half in and half out of the realworld. Determined to give it one more try, Glint swam forward, and for a second time, wrapped his tentacles around the submerged waist of the creature. This time when he descended, the demon came with him.
Its face was mostly concealed behind some kind of hard, protective transparency. As soon as its head was pulled beneath the barrier of the mirrorsky, its eyes opened. The first thing they saw was Glint, staring back at them. They got very wide.
"It's not dead!" Letting the body of the hard-won shark drift free, Chachel hastily unslung his killing spear from his back. What hunter's spell-words would be useful against a void demon? He could not think of any. "Let go, let go of it!"
Moving fast, he maneuvered to get behind the creature so he could strike at it without endangering Glint. The cuttlefish, however, was in no hurry to release his grasp. As it flailed wildly at him with both unwebbed hands, the demon's actions indicated it was trying to claw its way back up to the barrier. It flashed no weapons and gave no indication it knew any magic whatsoever.
"Let it go," Chachel shouted again. "You're killing it!"
"How can I be killing it?" Glint wondered aloud. Then he remembered. Demons lived in the void. They could not survive in the realworld.
But this demon was different, and it proceeded to surprise them both.
Once it had broken back through the barrier, it paused there for a long moment. And then it stuck its head back down into the realworld. This time it had something clutched in its mouth; a small rounded dark object that was connected to the metal cylinder attached to its back by what looked like a piece of soft tube coral. Bubbles intermittently emerged from one side of the rounded object gripped between its lips. Reaching down with its right hand, it drew something from a sheath attached to its right leg. Chachel immediately recognized this as an object of great value: a knife made of metal.
Metal could be smelted only by magic or in the heat generated by the black smokers of the dark depths. Perhaps this strange demon knew more than it was letting on.
Now that the puffed-up black material that had surrounded its upper body had been collapsed, he was able to see that while the apparition might be lacking in webbing, it was possessed of something else. Unmistakably, the demon they were dealing with was female. That did not mean it was potentially any less dangerous. Since they were always found dead or dying, no one really knew what a healthy demon might be capable of doing. Chachel was not afraid of anything, not even the void. However, it was well known that the highest degree of bravery could be negated by an equal volume of stupidity. So he stayed cautious.
The fact that the void demon had drawn a knife instead of a spell suggested that it was not a very powerful demon. Perhaps its mastery of the arcane was as feeble as its swimming. Staring up at the blue eyes that peered back at him from behind the flat transparency, he wondered why it continued to remain half in and half out of the realm of void. Clearly, the strange mystical device that it held in its mouth was critical to its ability to breath in the realworld. Equipped with that capability, why then did it not descend to challenge merson and manyarm directly? Could it be that it wished to avoid confrontation?
Well, that was fine with Chachel. Pivoting in the water, he turned to leave. When they found out that one of their own had been given the chance to study a living demon, Telnarch and the other village elders would be aghast at his decision to depart. That realization did not weigh on Chachel. A good part of his life had been spent leaving others aghast.
Then a strange thing happened. One would have thought the demon would have been relieved by the imminent departure of a pair of potentially dangerous foes like Chachel and Glint. Instead, she began thrashing violently about, raising so much commotion that it commanded their attention. Together, merson and manyarm turned to gape.
"What can it want?" Glint spoke through arms once more clasped securely around the body of the dead blacktip. A free tentacle shooed away a curious remora, which departed muttering glumly. "Is it not enough that we are leaving it in peace?"
Chachel squinted upward out of his good eye. "See how it spreads its arms. Is the she-creature insisting on a fight?"
Turning to one side in order to see better, Glint's color changed from white with red stripes to a pale green spotted with brown that reflected both curiosity and confusion.
"I don't think so. It—she—is certainly gesturing, but in a fashion that I perceive to be non-hostile." Fins rippling, he looked over at his friend. "Maybe she is hurt, or hungry."
"She doesn't look injured," Chachel muttered. "Though on a merson, skin that black would indicate death. Perhaps it is normal coloration for this kind of demon." Kicking effortlessly with both his real leg and the prosthetic, he swam slowly up and forward toward the creature.
"Be careful!" Glint's body turned pure white, a sign of warning. "One should not trust a demon."
Glancing back over a shoulder, Chachel smiled thinly. "You know I don't trust anyone."
He stopped just out of arm's reach, hovering in the water. Male merson and female demon regarded one another. Swimming past at a safe distance, a silvery school of big-eyed trevally offered insulting remarks. Chachel ignored them. One did not waste time quarreling with food.
What did the demon want? Its gestures and its actions remained mystifying to him. Then it finally did something comprehensible. Slowly and deliberately, it slid the precious knife back into its sheath. He wanted to comprehend its very merson-like stare, but the hard transparency that covered its eyes and the device it held in its mouth combined to render any meaningful expression unfathomable. At least, he found it so.
What wouldn't elder Telnarch give for a chance to examine such a creature—alive? If he could bring it back to the village, Chachel would gain considerable standing among his peers. Alas for Telnarch, Heranleck, and the other elders, the hunter did not give a clam's damn for such "standing." Nor did he regard himself as having any peers. But doing something to satisfy his own curiosity—now that was another matter entirely. Would the creature come with him? Surely she must have demonic priorities of her own.
Swimming closer, still trying to interpret what lay behind those surprisingly normal-seeming demon eyes, he spoke to her.
"I don't know what you want or what you're thrashing about for, but if you like, I'll take you with me to Sandrift and you can parley there with the elders."
There was no reaction from the demon, unless one counted what might have been a look of some confusion. Again, with the objects in place over her face it was difficult to tell just from looking at her what she might be thinking. Was it possible that demons did not understand normal speech? She had not reacted to the impertinent comments from the passing trevally, either. Holding his position, he beckoned to his many-tentacled hunting companion.
"She reacts as if she doesn't understand. Actually, she's not really reacting at all. If not merson, perhaps she understands manyarm talk."
The demon's eyes cut sharply sideways as they took note of Glint's approach. They widened when the cuttlefish passed custody of the dead blacktip to Chachel. Her gaze focused on the manyarm's strong, sucker-lined tentacles; she held her space.
Glint began by flashing ripples of maroon and pink the length of his body; colors that designated a universal welcome among his kind. Cuttlefish or squid, octopus or nautilus, it would be recognized as a friendly blush. The demon looked on intently but did not respond with either words or a color change of her own. Chachel's friend tried darker colors like indigo, then offered up a rippling succession of stripes that ran the gamut from subdued yellow to a bold gold. He flaunted audacious stripes and irregular splotches, dark blue spots on gray, utilizing every trick in his epidermal chromatophoric arsenal of visual communication. He even formed words on his body in the merson language—a skill reserved for only the most educated manyarms. The demon reacted strongly to the display of script, but continued to offer no comprehensible response of her own.
Disgusted with the ongoing lack of comprehension, Chachel found himself wondering if perhaps they had stumbled across an especially moronic demon. Was she inherently incapable of any kind of civilized discourse? Very well then. If she could not be instructed, she would have to be shown. Reaching up, he grabbed her right ankle just above the artificial fin and started to pull her down.
Her other leg snapped forward and she kicked him. The blow was lighter than expected due to the pliable nature of the fin that struck his face. It had a strange, alien tactility to it. If anything, it reminded him of a dolphin fin. While its composition might be alien, the gesture was not.
"All right—have it your way." Pivoting fluidly, he turned to leave. When a webless hand reached out to restrain him, he whirled angrily.
"Make up your mind, demon! Stay or come, but I have no time for games!"
Glint slid forward. "Can you not see that the creature is conflicted? We are forcing it to choose between void and realworld, between nothingness and everythingness. Only Oxothyr might make sense of such a contradiction." Advancing slowly, he extended his two long hunting tentacles, wrapped the pads on the ends gently around the same ankle Chachel had grabbed, and exerted slight but unmistakable pressure.
The flow of bubbles from the object the demon held in its mouth slowed. It allowed Glint to drag it downward until it was once more fully in the realworld. Above, the mirrorsky rippled and flowed, defining the boundary between the void and reality. When Glint let go of the leg and drifted backward and down, beckoning as he did so, the demon slowly followed.
"See?" There was more than a slight note of satisfaction in his voice. "Even with demons one has to be patient."
"Then it is not surprising it resisted coming with me." Turning, Chachel headed toward the outer wall of the reef. "It is well known that I have no patience."
Since the preferred mode of manyarm travel was backward, Glint was able to lead the way while simultaneously keeping an eye on the trailing demon. "She swims awkwardly. We must have a care to watch our speed or we will leave her behind."
Chachel switched the tail of the dead shark he was towing from one hand to the other. "We can't go too slow. You know how blood-masking spells weaken with each repeated application."
Forcing water out his siphon, Glint flashed the color-pattern indicative of understanding. "We will reach Sandrift in plenty of time. You worry like a female with a clutch of unfertilized eggs." He gestured with a tentacle. "Why do you suppose the creature keeps pointing to the strange bracelet on its right wrist? It is alive with markings that change continually and whose meaning is unknown to me."
Chachel glanced over. "Are you surprised to find demon markings incomprehensible? Perhaps Telnarch can decipher them. As village scribe it's his business to know script."
"Or Oxothyr might understand them." Glint sounded hopeful. "Even Oxothyr does not know everything Oxothyr knows."
No one troubled them as they descended to the bottom and headed out across the sand flats that marked the base of the reef. The occasional spralaker hiding in the sand cursed their passing, but whether crab or other kind of crustacean, each speaker was careful to keep to its hole. Both manyarms and mersons enjoyed the taste of fresh spralaker, just as the annoying hardshells themselves were happy to feast on any dead or injured they happened to come upon.
The remainder of the journey continued uneventful, except that with each passing moment the demon who had reluctantly chosen to follow them glanced with a frequency verging on agitation at the markings on her strange bracelet.…