Chapter 4: Changes
The seas grew darker and darker the deeper they swam. Around
Atlantica, all was well-lit, as it should be in a kingdom of that caliber.
Ursula’s home, however, was far from that light. She had made her nest in the
ancient skeleton of a Leviathan, in waters so deep that the sea floor was
littered with steam vents. They bubbled and hissed, releasing the heat that lay
inside the earth’s core. It was almost exactly as Averil had pictured the
witch’s lair as a child. The Leviathan’s skeleton cast distorted shadows in the
As Ursula’s eels led the way through the Leviathan’s mouth and into their mistress’ domain, Averil heard a terrible screeching, moaning sound. His mouth twisted into a grim line as he glanced down and saw that the sound came from a grouping of ugly polyps that grew from the floor. Unlike regular polyps, though, these ones bore miserable, ugly faces. They writhed and twisted on the sea floor, moaning horribly.
With a snapping sound, one of the polyps stretched itself thin and wrapped itself around Averil’s wrist, trapping him in place. Averil tore his hand out of its grasp with disgust. He rubbed at his arm, shuddering at the sensation of the polyp’s slimy touch. It sent shivers up his spine.
“Come in,” a low, drawling voice drifted from up ahead. It echoed monstrously, and the little polyps flinched and writhed even worse at the sound. Averil peered up the passageway and into the main cavity of the lair. For all it was dark and dank in there, Ursula’s had managed some semblance of décor. Pink, red, and peach-colored strands of seaweed and coral hung from the ceiling like streamers at a party. At the back of the room, a hollowed-out shell embedded in the wall provided the sea witch a place to sleep.
From the darkness of the shell, her voice echoed through the lair.
“Come in, my child,” she repeated. A set of black and violet tentacles emerged from the shell, preceding the sea witch’s body, and Averil realized what she must be. He hung back as far from her as possible, as she slid her voluptuous body out of her hiding place, coming to rest on the floor in front of him.
“We musn’t lurk in doorways,” she chided him in her sultry tone. “It’s rude.”
The sea-witch Ursula of legend was, in fact, a relatively ordinary creature. She was a Cecaelia, a lesser-known cousin of the traditional mermaid. While her torso was humanoid, from the waist down she bore the tentacles of an octopus. Averil had met only one in his time prior to meeting Ursula. He was puzzled by her lavender-tinged skin. Usually Cecaelia had green skin. He shuddered to think what spell she had cast that rendered her violet.
Ursula was an imposing woman from the start. In any other scenario, Averil might have dared to call her obese. However, that didn’t seem appropriate here. The tuft of white hair that grew from her head was styled to point skyward, though like every other seaperson, it moved and flowed with the water that surrounded them. Averil swallowed his commentary.
Ursula flounced across the room to her vanity table and mirror, her tentacles swirling around like a human dress. She delicately took a seat (impressive for such a large woman) and began tending to her appearance as a classic diva.
“One might question your upbringing,” she added offhandedly.
Averil had expected someone terrifying and loud, or wizened and decrepit. This smooth, debonair entrance was enough to throw out Averil’s expectations completely, leaving him feeling a little off-guard. A small part of him wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Still, the faint echo of the polyps’ moaning at his back convinced Averil to stay put.
The sea witch smiled at herself in the mirror as she freshened her lipstick.
“Now,” she said, smacking her lips. “You’re here because you have a thing for this princess girl, right?”
She glanced at him over her massive shoulder, a sly grin on her face. Averil could only nod in response. The sea witch chuckled.
“The solution to your problem is simple,” she said casually. She turned back to the mirror and inspected her face as she talked to Averil.
“The only way to get what you want,” she said, “-is to become a human yourself.”
Averil had somewhat expected this possibility. There were, after all, a limited number of ways to bring a human and merman together, if you looked at it logically.
“Can you do that?” he asked softly, as he watched her massage mousse into her white hair.
Ursula smiled, and abandoned her primping. She flexed her many tentacles and floated to hover right in front of Averil, a sweet smile in place.
“My dear, sweet child,” she crooned, like an old aunt talking to a young child. “That’s what I do.”
Averil willed himself to stay in place as she wandered around him, the same way her eels had done. He didn’t like the sensation of being surrounded, or watched from all angles, but he was on her turf. One did not needlessly question the most dangerous witch in all the ocean on her hosting style.
“It’s what I live for,” Ursula continued dramatically. “To help unfortunate merfolk, like yourself. Poor souls with no one else to turn to.”
That smile never left her face. He voice was thick with honeyed words, which reminded Averil of every nosy old granny he’d ever known. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, and the merprince was slightly ashamed to admit to himself that he was a little frightened of her.
As her eels twined about her like catfish, Ursula dragged a streamer of pink seaweed from her ceiling garden and draped it around her shoulders like a boa. The polyps behind Averil grew louder, their wailing nearly unbearable.
The sea-witch threw her new ‘boa’ around Averil’s shoulders and dragged him in close. If he had thought her lair was uncomfortable, this was a thousand times worse. She radiated heat, and her tentacles flexed in every direction at once. She was beyond overbearing. If Ursula got her hands on him and decided to hold on, Averil knew he was a dead man. He gulped, and forced himself to ignore it.
“Now, here’s the deal,” the witch hissed. With one hand, she gestured at the center of the room, where the toothy skeleton of the Leviathan had provided her a craggy cauldron. It glowed with an eerie light. Towing Averil closer, Ursula used her magic to produce a visual representation of her offer.
“I can make you a potion that will turn you into a human for three days,” she said, her tone suddenly sharper, more business-like. “Got that? Three days.”
Averil nodded, his lips pursed. His eyebrows knit in concentration. He swiped at one of her creeping tentacles as it danced across his arm, unwilling to be distracted.
“Now listen carefully, this is important,” she warned him. The cauldron spit out three glowing, golden spheres that spun like miniature suns.
“Before the sun sets on the third day, you’ll have to get your darling little princess to fall in love with you,” Ursula declared saucily. “That is, she’ll have to kiss you.”
She vanished from one side of him, appearing instantaneously on the other.
“Now, this isn’t just any kiss,” the witch added with the firm tone of a reprimand. “It must be a kiss worthy of true love.” She chuckled darkly.
“A handsome young lad like you shouldn’t have a problem with that,” she drawled, winking.
The cauldron, seemingly ‘listening’ to Ursula’s speech, produced images to match her continuing deal. First a glowing tiara, then a heart. It was like puppet theater. Creepy, slimy, uncomfortable puppet theater.
Ursula gave Averil’s arm a squeeze, then turned her attention to the cauldron. Suddenly, it glowed a brighter, warmer gold. Averil saw an image of his own silhouette, and couldn’t hide his sharp intake of breath when he realized that the image had a pair of human legs in place of a tail.
Ursula’s smile was sharp as a razor’s edge.
“If you do manage to kiss her,” she said wryly, “You’ll remain a human permanently.”
Averil’s bright blue eyes glowed in the reflection of the image, transfixed by it. To be human- and with Erryn –was all he really wanted out of his life. There was nothing left for him under the sea. What he had right now was a chance at perfection, a chance at heaven itself.
The sea witch didn’t miss that expression.
“But,” she continued cruelly, “If you don’t...you’ll turn back into a merman.”
The image flashed blue, and when Averil looked again, he saw himself as he was now, a long, turquoise tail where he wished legs would be. After his hopes had risen so, it was almost painful to see. The realization settled itself in Averil’s mind, steeling his resolve. He would not let that happen.
Unfortunately for him, Ursula wasn’t quite finished.
“Oh, and did I mention the fine print?” she added in a tantalizing singsong fashion. “If you fail.....”
Her eyes narrowed, and she stared hungrily at Averil, as if he were a morsel on her plate. That look made him shiver.
“You’ll belong to me,” she said, her voice low and dangerous. The young merprince was forcibly reminded of why exactly the legendary Ursula was so very feared in Atlantica. The moaning and screeching of the polyps grew to a terrible volume, but was suddenly shushed by an evil look from the sea witch. The implication that ‘belonging’ involved being transformed into one of them was impossible to miss.
From underneath the wailing polyps, Averil’s ears caught another sound, a muffled sort of gurgling sound. When he turned to find the source, he found that both Flounder and Sebastien had followed him to the witch’s lair. The eels had captured them, wrapping their flexible bodies around the pair, stifling their mouths.
Averil shot Sebastien a dirty look- he hadn’t forgotten the crab’s betrayal –but turned his attention back to Ursula. The best way to all get out of there safely was to finish his business with her.
“Have we got a deal?” the sea witch purred expectantly.
Pondering, Averil raked his fingers through his vibrant red hair.
“If I become human,” he murmured to himself softly. “I’ll never see my father or brothers again.” A miniscule smile twitched at the corners of his lips. To never have to face the condescension of King Triton or his perfect princely sons again....it was tempting.
“That’s right,” Ursula encouraged, her voice soothingly persuasive. “And you’ll have your girl.”
She held out a hand, which Averil reached out to take.
“You say a word to anybody about this and I swear I’ll drag you down with me.”
As if burned by a steam vent, Averil suddenly yanked his hand back.
“He knows! He knows, you have to get this stuff out of here!”
“Alec,” Averil muttered. He tore his gaze away from Ursula’s prying eyes. He cast a disappointed look at the mottled sea floor. He arms instinctively wrapped themselves around himself as if he were suddenly very cold.
Averil could trick himself into believing that none of his family truly cared about him, if he wished to do so. With his father, it was particularly easy. The only exception to this rule was Alec. Alec and Averil had been partners in crime (literally) since before Averil could remember. It was Alec who had kept Averil’s secret, and Alec who had tried so valiantly to warn him when his father found out. It was Alec who threw Averil to the ground to keep him from harm when Triton destroyed the grotto.
Was Averil’s love for one brother enough to outweigh his desperate desire for freedom?
“There is one more thing.”
Ursula’s sultry voice dragged Averil out of his distraction. He only turned his head slightly to the side to indicate that he was listening, rather than face her.
“We haven’t discussed the subject of payment,” the witch continued. “You can’t get something for nothing, you know.” Averil could feel her gaze boring holes into the back of his head.
“I don’t have anything you’d want,” Averil mumbled darkly. It was true. Everything of value had gone up in bubbles at the grotto.
“I’m not asking much,” Ursula declared. “Merely a trifle. You won’t even miss it.”
Confused, Averil finally turned to look the sea witch in the eye. He raised a brow at her, wondering what she could possibly want that he might have.
The Cecaelia grinned at him with the sly smile of a trickster.
“What I want from you is...” she purred. “Your voice.”
For a moment, Averil thought he had to have misheard her. But judging from the look on her face, that possibility was slim.
“My voice?” he repeated. The witch nodded.
What on earth was she going to do with the voice of a sixteen-year-old merman? How would she even get such a thing? On second thought, Averil realized, he probably didn’t want to know how she’d get it. Don’t question the witch.
“You want me,” Averil said slowly, “-to get a human girl to fall in love with me in only three days without my voice?”
“You got it, sweetcakes,” Ursula confirmed, eyes flashing with mirth. “No more talking, singing, zip.”
This new development made Averil’s plan seem, if possible, even more preposterous. It was nearly impossible to get a girl to fall in love in three days to begin with, but to do it completely mute was nothing short of insane.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said blithely.
Ursula sniffed haughtily.
“You’ll have your looks,” she told him firmly. “It’s the era of the modern woman, angelfish, she won’t need you to talk. These days, a lady doesn’t need a man to speak for her.”
As she spoke, Ursula drifted up to a large cabinet and began collecting bottles and containers filled with suspicious contents. She tossed them into the cauldron, which smoked and glowed in several interesting colors.
“Besides,” Ursula crooned, glancing at Averil sidelong. “It’s not like I asked for your hands.”
Averil blushed bright red as the sea witch chuckled under her breath.
“If you want to cross the bridge, you’ll have to pay the toll,” she said sagely. “Now I am a very busy woman, I haven’t got all day. Do we have a deal?”
She snapped her fingers and produced from nowhere a large golden scroll, covered in very small, official-looking script. There was a line at the bottom, clearly designed for a signature. With the scroll came a fishbone pen, which Ursula offered to the young merman.
“Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it?” she taunted him.
Without a moment’s hesitation (or as some might say, without a bit of common sense), Averil reached out and took the pen in his hand. He took a deep breath, then hastily scratched his name onto the signature line, praying fervently that he wouldn’t live to regret it.
The scroll rolled itself up and vanished in a flash of golden light. When the spots faded from Averil’s vision, he found that the sea witch was wasting no time. Her cauldron glowed a deep cerulean hue, and she stirred it magically with one finger while she chanted the incantation for her spell.
Averil’s skin went ice-cold. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure if he was ready for this.
“Beluga, sevruga, come winds of the Caspian Sea,” Ursula intoned, her voice echoing and reverberating off the walls. It sent shivers down Averil’s spine, but he found himself locked in place, unable to move.
“Larynxes, glossitis, et max laryngitis la voce to me!”
With the last line of the spell, Ursula raised her hands. Simultaneously, the cauldron emitted a pair a large, skeletal ghost hands, which mimicked the witch’s own. Ursula turned her chilling gaze on Averil, who was focusing very hard on not trembling from head to toe.
“Now, sing!” she commanded him.
Sing? Sing what? Averil was never one for improvisation. He tried to sing the first thing that came to mind, calling an image of Princess Erryn into his mind for comfort, but the sound that came out of his mouth was not the lovely notes she had sung. Shaking, Averil closed his eyes, focusing on getting the notes out. He started low and climbed the scale, only using about three notes, the same way Erryn had. As the fear sank into his very bones, his voice grew higher and higher, those three notes rising almost frantically.
Averil flinched visibly when he felt the cold touch of the skeleton hands at his lips. His eyes flew open, widened in pure terror. His entire body felt like it was freezing from the inside out as the hands reached down, into his throat. Averil’s vision blurred. His back arched painfully. From behind him, the trapped Flounder and Sebastien gazed on in fervent anxiety.
The ghost hands withdrew as quickly as they had come, leaving the young merman reeling in place. He coughed, his arms drawn in around himself protectively. He stared at the small orb of glowing light that the skeletal spell-hands had taken from him. His voice still echoed from it, just as if he were singing it himself, but it was not Averil who controlled that voice anymore. It didn’t feel like he didn’t have it, it felt like the voice was no longer his at all.
Ursula’s eyes were bloodshot and crazed with magic. She held out her cupped hands, where rested a golden nautilus shell from a necklace she wore around her neck. Averil hadn’t noticed it until now. It, too, glowed with magical presence as the spell-hands deposited the shining orb inside.
Instantly, the smoky steam that swirled in the cauldron began to overflow, spinning itself into a whirlpool that surrounded both witch and merman. Ursula cackled madly, her purely evil laughter reverberating so loudly that it shook Averil’s bones. The cauldron steam surrounded Averil in a glowing bubble. That was the last thing he remembered clearly before the pain.
The feeling of his tail being savagely ripped in half was not one that Averil wished to experience ever again. Pain shot through his nerves like lightning, blacking out his vision momentarily. His bones began to shift, grating against one another. The turquoise scales began to smooth and flatten, taking on a skinlike peach hue.
Before he knew it, Averil found himself at the mercy of the elements. It had never once occurred to him that transforming from merman to human while underwater would be overly risky. He had always been able to breathe water. It was one thing to know in his head that humans didn’t breathe water, and another completely to feel the needles and pins in his lungs from sharp, sudden oxygen deprivation.
He flailed uncontrollably, fighting to make his way to the surface, but found that having two legs was not anywhere near as efficient as a tail for swimming. They jerked every which way, causing him to sink rather than float. Panicked, Averil reached out his arms, determined to swim at least one way he knew how.
Blue fins tucked themselves under his left arm, pumping furiously toward the surface. On his right, a small, clawed arm wrapped itself around his shoulder, pulling him desperately. They vanished up, out through the gaps in the Leviathan skeleton. Averil didn’t know if Ursula’s laughter was fading away and the light was drawing nearer because they were approaching the surface, or because he was slowly dying.
The cold rush of air hitting his lungs was enough to break the delusion. Averil surged up, out of the water, gasping for breath. Momentarily, he forgot to use his arms and sank once more beneath the waves, but quickly learned his mistake and resurfaced. Flounder and Sebastien continued to help him stay afloat, glancing around to figure out exactly where they were.
Wordlessly, the three of them struck out for the same spit of shoreline they had visited only days before, towing another useless human body.
At least this time I don’t have to care if I’m caught, Averil thought wearily as the dawn sun rose slowly into the sky.