Author's Note: This is a companion piece to Chapter 22 of Moonlight. It'll probably make more sense if you've read Moonlight, but I don't think it's necessary to enjoy this short story. Feel free to let me know if I'm wrong, LOL! ^_^
The salty sea air chilled Charias' bare arms and tugged at his shoulder-length white-blond hair as he strode down the narrow trail that led to the rocky beach at the base of the cliffs, his steps sure and easy. As he neared the beach, he pulled a black ribbon out of his jeans pocket and combed his fingers through his hair, pulling it back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. He paused to check his other pockets, taking note of his pocket knife and a couple of laenes. Shessikea always managed to keep his clothes and possessions safe during shifting, but it made it easier if they both knew exactly what needed to be shifted.
In shoes, jeans, and a T-shirt, Charias headed for the surf, the frigid waters swirling around his ankles as he splashed into the flattened waves. Rocks and driftwood shifted under his feet, making walking treacherous, and as soon as he safely could, with the water rushing up over his knees, Charias stretched out on his stomach, letting the retreating wave carry him out, his long arms and broad hands pushing through the water. He neared the breakers, the rumbling wave rising up, hissing and foaming. Taking a deep breath, he dove under the water, letting the wave roll over him, the power of the crashing water pushing him down against the bottom for a moment and dragging him back toward shore.
Charias popped back to the surface, blinking stinging salt water from his eyes as he stroked toward the next incoming wave. As it reached him, he took another breath and went under, only that time, he didn't come back up. Surrendering his form to the unknown had not come easy to him, taking many years to get over the fear of fading to nothingness, his soul stripped bare and left to hang in the ether. Shessikea, his spirit, was good at what she did, shifting his form from man to shark in the blink of an eye, so fast that the displaced water boiled to the surface like an underwater geyser.
Even after all the years that they had been together, Charias still marveled at how perfect his shark form was for the environment in which it lived. The salt water no longer stung his eyes, the cold no longer penetrated his hide, the water no longer fought his movements. He glided through a twilit paradise, his large, black eyes picking up on movement and light variations from above, the silent world filled with smells and tastes and electric pulses that danced along his skin, telling him in an instant that a group of selkies were playing in the surf in the next cove, a pod of whales was migrating north for the summer a mile offshore, and a big storm was blowing up from the south, pushing warmer waters before it.
His jaws parted to allow the water to flow through his gills, Charias pumped his muscular tail from side to side, propelling himself out into the deeper waters, beyond the surf. He needed to do some shopping in Braevern ry Maas and a forty-five minute swim along the coast was preferable to a four hour ferry ride down the river. Before he could do that, though, he needed to make a withdrawal from his private bank, the Sea Scorpion.
As far as he could figure, she was a pirate ship, sunk in battle or storm about a hundred years before. When he'd found the wreck thirty miles off the coast of Alyrrawood, he'd done a bit of research to see who she belonged to and if it would be stealing to take her treasure. Since it was a pirate ship and the wreck was more than fifty years old and it lay in international waters, that made it fair game for whoever found it. At first, he'd been thrilled - he was rich - but aside from his tuition, he couldn't think of anything to spend it on. So he'd left it where he'd found it.
Cruising just above the sea floor, he skirted the forests of brown and gold kelp, his lateral line humming with the electrical signals from the beating hearts of the sea otters that played or napped amongst the sea weed. It would be too easy to charge up from beneath them, his four foot wide mouth open, a hundred serrated teeth ready to sink into soft flesh. Ignoring the instinct that called out from within him, Charias headed for deeper water. He hunted fish on occasion-big tuna or striped dorivan-but never mammals.
When he was younger, with less control over the animal inside of him, he had attacked a dolphin, the mortally wounded creature beaching itself to escape him, the blood hanging thick in the water. When he had shifted back and seen the damage he'd done, it just hadn't felt right. He wasn't really a shark, even if he looked like one. If he was hungry, he could leave the water and get a cheeseburger - a real shark couldn't.
Past the kelp forests, the sea floor dropped off, the first of several shelves, this one only plunging another fifty feet to a flat, silty plain of blue-gray, the light filtering poorly through the rich, cold waters. With slow, easy swipes of his powerful, crescent-shaped tail, Charias lazily glided through the gloom, past a small, black cat-eye shark hunting flatfish on the bottom, past a large ray buried beneath the silt, only its dark eyes visible but the electrical signals coursing through its body flashing like neon in the darkness, past a giant octopus crawling across the bottom in search of prey, one intelligent golden eye looking up at him as the fifteen-foot wide body flattened against the sea floor and took on the color and texture of a large rock.
Five miles from shore, the bottom dropped off again and Charias descended to almost two hundred feet down, moving away from the hundred-foot cliff honeycombed with caverns, the black openings hiding unknown dangers. This was about the right depth for juvenile sea dragons, and while most creatures would avoid a twenty-foot eating machine built of muscles and teeth, young sea dragons were terribly unpredictable and territorial. He'd only encountered one, far from there, but it wasn't an experience he cared to repeat. He'd barely escaped unscathed.
In less than an hour, the water took on the taste and smell of rusting iron and rotting wood. His lateral line prickled, feeding him information on the size, speed, and distance of all the fish that had made the Sea Scorpion their home. Most were small and fast - too hard to catch and not worth picking out from between his teeth - but he could also sense a couple of other sharks in the area - large bluebacks most likely, but still only half his size.
The shipwreck jutted up out of the silt like a deepwater reef, lying on her side, every square inch of her hull colonized by anemones, tubeworms, and giant barnacles. Green sea stars and delicate golden bristle stars and spiny black sea urchins all raced about at a snail's pace, trying to find food and avoid being eaten. It was a harsh and fascinating world, and Charias found himself circling the ship, just looking at it.
After a while, Shessikea reminded him that he hadn't come to sightsee, the spirit turning him away from his endless circling.
You're right, as usual, he said as he headed for the black mouth of the open hold, schools of tiny silver fish darting back and forth in the opening and scattering as he approached. In shark form, he was the disembodied voice and she was rendered silent by their body's lack of vocal chords, and he found himself missing her rich voice and dry wit.
With barely a flick of his tail fin, he glided through the opening and into the darkness, his jaw working up and down as the still water, largely devoid of oxygen, flowed through his gills, making him feel out of breath. He couldn't stay inside the ship long or he'd suffocate. Luckily, what he was looking for wasn't hard to find. Diving to the bottom, he nosed around in the silt, clouding the water as he felt about for the ship's cargo. The sensitive pits in his skin registered the different metals as he brushed over them, ingots of silver, gold, and platinum, but those were a little conspicuous and hard to exchange for cash.
He bumped against something made of wood and bound together by bands of corroded iron, the rusted metal leaving a gritty feeling on his skin. It felt like a small cask. He pushed it with his nose; it was heavy. Sinking his serrated teeth into the old wood, he picked it up and shook his head from side to side, the contents shifting and giving off the vibration of silver and stone. Jewelry. Perfect.
About an hour later, Charias neared the shore, seeking out a small cove protected by jagged rocks and steep cliffs. He was able to get past the breakers, into three feet of water before his belly scraped sand. Shark instincts flashed through him, a sense of panic and being trapped, but he ignored them and spit out the cask before shifting back to human form.
Soaking wet, he stood up and wiped seawater off his face, his eyes stinging from the salt. He shivered as he bent down and picked up the cask, about the size of an average watermelon, and tucked it under his arm. Splashing through the shallow water, he headed for the highest part of the beach, the rocks bathed in sun and protected from the wind by the cliffs. It was almost warm.
Taking a seat on a wave-washed rock, he set the cask down between his feet and regarded the mysterious container. The wood was swollen with water and encrusted with salt and barnacles-there was no way he was getting the lid out. He didn't just want to smash it, either. If he could keep it intact, it would making taking it back to campus easier.
You're missing Biology, Shessikea said suddenly.
"He's just going to talk and collect the assignments," Charias said, taking his pearl-handled pocketknife out and starting to stab at the waterlogged wood. "I've heard it all before."
But Izeri is going to wonder where you are.
Charias concentrated on making an opening in the lid of the cask, prying up chunks of dark, salt-soaked maple. It was still a bit of a shock to hear his spirit refer to Izeri by name. Fhekir; his sister, Merreal; and Izeri were the only people he'd ever heard her do that with. For all the good it did, it was nice to know what she liked him, too.
He broke through the head of the cask, forming a hole roughly the size of an ilae, though he doubted any of the large platinum coins were inside. Picking up the cask, he turned it over, pouring the water out onto the sand, but that was all. Salt water corroded even precious metals, coating the silver with a thick, black layer and fusing individual pieces together. He'd found opened chests that were nothing but solid blocks of coins, more trouble to retrieve than they were worth. He was sure he'd sense something rattling around inside this cask, though.
Charias gave the casks a hard shake and sure enough, a metallic rattling issued from within. Grabbing a stick of the driftwood that littered the cove, he began to pound down through the hole in the lid. After a few solid hits, he felt something give. Turning the cask over again, he gave it a shake and grinned to himself as several small pieces of treasure came spilling out.
Setting the cask down, he picked up two rings, a broach, a pendant, and a bracelet. Using the tip of his knife, he loosened the setting on one of the rings and popped the large, round cut emerald out of it. Even if he got ripped off trading it in town, it would more than pay for the things he needed. He started to drop the other items back into the cask, but the bracelet caught his attention, the links blackened and fused, but the stones sparkling in the sunlight. Sapphire and onyx, blue and black in silver...Izeri's colors.
That would look good on him, Shessikea said. She was right, if he could clean it up. He stood a minute, the sun drying his clothes, and scraped at the corrosion, trying to free the fused links. After a minute, he sighed and shoved the bracelet into his pocket.
"He wouldn't want it," he said and picked up the cask before turning and striding toward the sea. "Can you keep this safe until we get back to Alyrrawood?"
Don't I always? She always did, but he needed to change the subject. His spirit, though, knew him too well. When are you just going to tell him how you feel instead of waiting for him to wake up? He's the most oblivious person I think I've ever met.
"He's also the only friend I have," Charias said as he waded out into the water. "I can't risk losing that. Not when he's made it so clear that he isn't interested in me that way."
I think he's been a bit ambiguous, actually, she replied, her voice thick with subtle humor. He's sent mixed signals, at the very least - you've seen each other naked, you've embraced, you've slept together, you let him see me - you might as well be dating.
"But we're not," Charias said, stopping with the waves rolling past his knees. "What if you're wrong? What if he really doesn't like guys? What if- if..."
If you lose him? Give Izeri more credit than that, dear one. If he is truly your friend, as I believe he is, even if he did not, could not ever love you, he would not stop being your friend.
Charias sighed. She was right, of course, but that didn't make the prospect of utterly humiliating himself any easier to swallow. Tucking the cask more firmly under his arm, Charias strode out into the breakers and shifted, disappearing beneath the waves.