Author's Note: New story, a bit different this time. I'm working on a new world with a new species, so I'd appreciate any feedback you feel like giving. Assuming I can find the time, I'd like to write a novel featuring these creatures, so I'd like to hear what works and what doesn't. And just to warn you, there is a bit of M/F romance in this. Weird, I know!

I don't know if there will be future chapters. This isn't part of the "big story", this is me writing a scene to do some brainstorming on the species, setting, characters, etc. I may do more scenes to try to flesh out the environment, but right now, this is not part of any overarching plot.

I know I don't usually write M/F (although I do have a story in my head for the drac RA and gryph professor from Broken Wings), but if I did, there would be no M/F sex in the story. The eschellians require a third party in order to reproduce, a neutral gender species that takes milt from the male and roe from the female and fertilizes and protect the eggs within its own body, in order to add its own DNA to some of the developing embryos. This other species would resemble the eschellians, since it uses their DNA as a base for its own species, but it would use tentacles to penetrate both the male and female eschellians to retrieve their genetic contribution. Just a weird idea that I had and wanted to try out. I was going to put that in this story, but I ran out of time, lol.

Thanks for reading and reviewing! ^_^


The hunt had begun!

Liimoo streaked through the cold, gray water, his tailfin pumping up and down as he raced for the shallow water where the kelp forest grew. Weaving through the thick brown stalks just above the ocean floor, he made his way to his corner of the forest, then with a flick of his fin, darted upward, into the gently swaying enclosure of woven kelp leaves. It was dark inside, the only light filtering in through the opening in the bottom, but a few short, quiet clicks painted a vivid picture of the interior. As the sound waves bounced back at him, his mind created an image of the hammock against one wall where he slept, the baskets hanging from the ceiling full of clams, shells, bones, scales, and kelp fruits, his worn and chipped leviathan scute shield, the braided harness for his hippocampus, a giant black sea snail shell–empty at the moment since Ink was out playing with the other pet octopi–and his leviathan bone spear, cut and carved from a single massive rib.

The shield had been given to him by the tribe elders after he had participated in butchering a leviathan for the first time. Mostly, he had hauled giant chunks of flesh down to the cold storage caves hewn into the walls of the K'reesha Trench, endless days of driving a team of hippocampi back and forth, from just beneath the ice to the deepest part of the ocean that his people could safely visit. Safely, of course, was not the same as comfortably, and he'd been dizzy and achy with pressure sickness for days after the work was done. The shield was small and worn, taken from near the leviathan's tail–one of the oldest scutes on the great fish's body, just one season away from being shed.

He had been allowed to craft the spear after helping to secure his first leviathan. Using long ropes made of braided kelp fibers and huge hooks carved from leviathan bones, he had helped sink the hooks into the leviathan's tough skin, which the creature hadn't even seemed to feel, continuing to swim slowly along, straining its food from the rich, cold waters. Once the dozens of hooks were in place, every eschellian strong enough to drive a barbed anchor spear into the ice gathered above the leviathan and as one swum upward, securing the great fish in place while the hunters fought to end its life.

And now, finally, he was old enough, strong enough, with his own spear, and the waiting was over. Grabbing the spear down off the wall, Liimoo dove down through the opening in his dwelling, clicking and squeaking as he called to his hippocampus, Blackstar. Half again as long as an eschellian, the powerful creature swam up from the thick beds of sea grass, his tail sweeping back and forth as he restlessly circled Liimoo, his hooves churning the water in front of him. Not very useful for swimming, they made excellent weapons against sea dragons.

Blackstar, named for the scattered silver scales on his back body, allowed Liimoo to slide the harness over his slender forelegs and buckle it across his back, one bone buckle above his rippling dorsal fin and the other below. On either side of the find, the harness had thick handles of braided kelp wrapped in tough leviathan hide for Liimoo to hang on to while the hippocampus swam, pulling him along. It even had straps on the side for Liimoo to secure his spear to.

He was just tightening the straps around the bone haft of the spear when Shaalii swam up, already riding her hippocampus, Rockblood, named for his black and orange scales which resembled the bright orange blood that sometimes flowed from the black rocks on the ocean floor, spilling out and making the water bubble, too hot to even swim near. She too had her spear and her scales were flushed a bright blue in excitement. Liimoo found himself staring, clicking repeatedly so the waves rolled back over him, the image of her etched into his mind. She was beautiful, her body sleek, her scales clean, her arms muscular, her tailfin with only a few small nicks and scars.

"Are you ready, runt?" she asked, flicking her tail at him playfully. Normally, Liimoo didn't like to be reminded that he was smaller than most eschellians his age, but for some reason, when Shaalii did it, he didn't mind.

"Ready," he said, wrapping his webbed fingers around the handles of the harness, his mouth opening and closing as he pumped water across his gills, suddenly feeling out of breath.

"It's okay to be scared," Shaalii said. "Just stay behind me and I'll make sure you don't get swallowed."

"I'm not scared," Liimoo replied, "but I am wondering how I can stay behind you when you'll be so far behind me." He clicked to Blackstar, giving him the signal to swim, and the waterhorse took off, leaving Shaalii in a cloud of greenish-gray silt. Being small did have some advantages, and being less of a burden on his hippocampus was one of them. He gripped the harness tightly, lowering his head and sweeping his tail in time with Blackstar's strong strokes, fitting himself into the waterhorse's slipstream as much as possible.

With the thick lenses drawn over his eyes to protect them from floating bits of plankton or careless fish, he was nearly blind, but a steady stream of clicks let him see where he was going better than his eyes could have. He followed the sloping sea floor out to the continental shelf, then turned upward, rising to just beneath the ice. Up there, it was an ever-changing wasteland, but he could feel the presence of the leviathan in the distance, the slow beating of the great heart a pulse against his sensitive ears, the thin skin stretched over the opening vibrating with each massive beat.

He was still almost a mile away when the first of his navigation clicks echoed back to him, bringing an image distorted by distance and differences in water density, and even though this wasn't his first leviathan, he was still amazed that something so large could exist. Over eight hundred feet long and with a gaping mouth a hundred feet wide, this creature grazed the seas, straining the water of its abundant plankton. The meat from this one fish would feed his entire tribe for the year, packed away in deepwater caves filled with chunks of ice carved from the surface to keep it from spoiling and protected from scavenging crabs and fish by a pack of domesticated octopi.

Liimoo chirped, signaling for Blackstar to slow down, and the hippocampus backfinned as they drew up alongside the other waiting hunters. He stroked the waterhorse's neck as he pulled his spear free, then turned the beast loose to swim with the other hippocampi. That far out to sea, the ocean floor lay half a mile beneath them, too deep and dark for any sea grass to grow, so their mounts could only mill around, playfully chasing each other as they waited for the riders.

Swimming over to the elder hunters, Liimoo tried not to draw attention to himself, but he could feel them turn to look at him, their movements causing the water to press against the sensitive membrane over his ear opening. He ignored them, choosing instead to watch the activity surrounding the immense fish as the other members of his tribe attached the bone hooks into the skin of the Leviathan. They looked like fry–no, more like zooplankton–swarming around the creature, and it paid them about as much attention, the massive tail rising and falling with agonizing slowness, propelling it forward at a sea snail's pace.

"Not long now," Chief Maasaavoo said, his spear half again as long as Liimoo's, the length of the shaft carved with intricate designs and inlaid with dark shells and chips of stone. He flicked his battle-scarred tailfin, rising up above the other hunters and signaling to Eesooshii, the tribe's shaman, who was overseeing the attachment of the hooks. Liimoo waited, gulping water as he adjusted his grip on his spear. Finally, the reply came, a low thumping made deep within Eesooshii's chest, a sound that carried far through the water, and a call for the attack to begin!

The hunters surged forward as one, but the larger, stronger eschellians drew ahead of Liimoo and he struggled in their wake. He lost precious speed and time as he rose up out of their turbulent slipstream, his clicks short and angry as he followed after. The echoes told him that the others had begun securing the leviathan to the ice, racing to get the anchor spears fixed deep before the ropes pulled taut.

Chief Maasaavoo led the pack up to the gaping maw of the leviathan and then into the cavernous mouth. Liimoo pumped his tailfin, his muscles burning from the exertion, and followed them in. Tiny, vestigial teeth lined both the upper and lower jaws, useless for feeding or defending itself, but no longer needed for either. Once inside the mouth, Liimoo found it hard to see, the water clouded by untold millions of tiny creatures, gathered from the water and circling inside the mouth, slowly drifting toward the back as the water flowed on out through the gills, the plankton thicker than the mud on sea floor.

Gripping his spear, Liimoo clicked loudly, trying to pierce the dense cloud with the sounds, but they echoed back like he was trying to swim through a cliff. Sweeping his tail up and down, he entered the living mass, feeling the tiny fish and krill and polyps brushing against his scales and pressing against his ears; he took a gulp of water and choked, his gills filling with plankton. He coughed, expelling a cloud, but the next breath was no better. He gasped, drawing more into his body, his gills aching as the delicate filaments were scraped by abrasive scales and legs. He couldn't breathe.

A hand grabbed him by the tailfin. He tried to shake it off, but the grip was strong and he could do nothing as he was dragged backward out of the leviathan's mouth. Once out in the clear ocean, he sucked water backward through his gills to clear the plankton from them before expelling the particles. Taking a greedy gulp of water, he caught his breath before turning on the eschellian who had pulled him out.

"I didn't need rescued–" he started, but stopped when he recognized Shaalii. "Finally caught up, did you?"

"Thanks for waiting for me," she said, swimming around him and using the wake from her tailfin to clean the clinging plankton from his scales. He wiped off the protective lenses over his eyes before opening them, then turned and looked up at the leviathan towering over them.

"Do you want to go in together?" he asked, glancing at Shaalii.

"No," she said, her graceful tail sweeping slowly back and forth as he she floated beside him. "There's no point. They'll be to the heart soon."

"They better hurry," Liimoo said, motioning with his spear toward the ropes stretched taut between the fish and the ice. The leviathan hung for a moment, its progress stopped, and then a great shudder quaked through the massive body, a rippling wave of bunching muscle racing down its length, and the giant tail rose up and up, gaining speed until it slammed into the ice sheet overhead, fracturing the thick ice. The sound echoed through the water, so many sound waves that Liimoo was momentarily blinded by them, the concussion pounding against his ears and making him dizzy. He reached out, grabbing Shaalii's arm until the disorientation passed.

When he could hear his own clicks again, he saw the tribe fleeing from the struggling fish, its tail sweeping downward, the ropes creaking, some snapping, but enough held to pull a massive piece of the ice sheet down into the water, the leviathan surging forward, dragging it beneath the rough underside of the ice, the grinding and squealing sending Liimoo and Shaalii swimming away as fast as they could go, blindly trying to get away from the agonizing sound. Liimoo bumped into her, their tails slapping, and went tumbling through the water, his tailfin flipping back and forth as he struggled to right himself.

A hand closed around his wrist and he looked up, peering through the gloomy gray water at Shaalii. She tugged on his arm and together they swam away from the leviathan, down into the deeper, denser water where the sound waves had more trouble traveling. When they finally stopped, both of them gulped water as they floated in the dark, her hand still on his arm.

"Thanks," Liimoo said. She could have swum on and left him.

"Well, I wouldn't be a very good friend if I left you behind," she replied.

He huffed, forcing water out through his gills. "Like I would have had a chance against you otherwise," he said.

She laughed, a squeaking sound, and brushed her tail against his, startling him with the casualness of the touch. "I was just teasing you," she said. "Relax. There will be other hunts." They looked back up toward the surface, where the dark mass of the leviathan had grown motionless, the grinding of the ice sheets fading away. It was time to go up and help with the butchering, but neither of them moved.

"I know there will be other hunts," Liimoo said after a moment, "but I wanted to do good on this hunt."

"Why?"

"Oh…you know…Spawning season is coming up and I thought if I killed the leviathan… But who wants to spawn with a runt?"

"I would," Shaalii said, reaching out and trailing her webbed fingers down his cheek. Liimoo just stared at her, so surprised he forgot to click, the echoes of their voices fading and leaving them alone in the blackness. After a moment, she pulled back. "Unless you wanted to spawn with someone else, of course."

"No, no!" Liimoo said quickly, flicking his tail and closing the distance between them, juggling his spear as he wrapped an arm around her, pulling her sleek, muscular body up against his. "You're the one that I want, the only one that I've ever wanted."

"I thought so," she replied, stroking her tailfin against his. "Now come on, let's go help with the leviathan and afterward…we'll start looking for our third." She pulled away and together they swam for the surface, hand in hand.