Verse 35: INTO THE MYSTIC
When the sirens began, Lex and Polglase were on the deck enjoying the cool morning air and a pipe respectively. They exchanged puzzled looks, then went inside. Gloria, tying her robe, came down a minute later.
"What is the significance of this alarum?" Polglase inquired. "Are you under attack?" She looked almost pleased at the prospect.
"Damned if I know," Gloria replied, turning on the television. "Let's see if the news has anything to say on the subject."
A woman on the screen informed them that a Severe Weather Warning had been issued for the Connecticut-Rhode Island coast, with waves up to eighteen feet expected. "The United States Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have ordered a mandatory evacuation of all beaches and low-lying coastal areas, effective immediately." The newscaster put a particularly delicious seriousness into her reading of the word "mandatory." The message repeated.
"What's going on?" Hannah asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
"Wake your brother and tell him to get dressed," Gloria ordered. "Storm's coming straight at us." Hannah ran to comply. Soon Zoot and Tully, each wearing half of a pair of Tully's pajamas, joined them. Everyone watched the television as the newscaster's voice continued over a very confusing Doppler radar display. No one felt the least bit enlightened by the news report.
"What do they mean, "Severe Weather Warning'?" Tully asked. "Is it a hurricane? Tornado? Rain of frogs? Does this strike anyone else as a little vague?" Everyone nodded in agreement.
"I get the impression that what they're not saying is more important than what they are," Gloria observed, muting the set. "Lex? Is there any way you can get a better idea of what's happening with your spellengine?"
Lex started pushing up his sleeve, but Polglase put a hand on his arm to forestall him. Instead, she telepathically activated her battlengine. In an eyeblink, six large viewalls, packed with information, appeared around her head. She pointed at one and the rest shrunk away to nothingness. The remaining panel showed the surrounding geography in breathtaking detail, down to the miniature vehicles snaking their way along the winding roads. A large dark green dot pinpointed their location. South of them were a few islands, and a spur of land several wings away. Below the tip of that peninsula, a thick line moved, blurred and slightly darker than the surrounding sea, an arrow aimed straight for their general vicinity.
"What's that thing just south of Montauk Point?" Zoot asked, pointing. "That doesn't look like any storm system I ever saw."
"It is not," said the Captain spoke. Two spider-web thin lines intersected directly over the rapidly moving object, and the view enlarged to show an immense blue-green snake.
"What do those runes next to it mean?" Nate asked.
"Those are not runes; they are Seshnei letters," Lex explained. "Captain, can you switch to Ganta?"
The characters changed at once.
"Seaserpent?" Hannah squeaked.
"All right, fess up," Zoot confronted Polglase. "Did you bring any fruits or vegetables infested with parasites with you when you crossed the border?"
"That's just not possible," Gloria said, then looked around. "Strike that. This week should've excised the word 'impossible' from my vocabulary."
"I take it by your reaction that such creatures are not indigenous to this region," Polglase observed. "Do you not have such beasts anywhere else on this world?"
"Just in legend," Hannah replied. "Most people believe they're only myths."
"Apparently based in solid – sorry liquid – fact," Zoot commented wryly. "Can you tell what it's doing here?"
Polglase shook her head. "Not without reading its mind. I can plot its most likely destination based upon its current vector, however." A bright yellow line appeared at the creature's head and proceeded north through the map. It went up the river channel, cutting across a couple of islands, before it reached the mainland and continued through the very heart of the downtown district. The line passed through the parcel of land upon which Gilda's stood.
Nate piped up, "Do they, y'know, breathe fire or spew poison gas or anything?"
"They do not need such powers," Lex told him. "They have sufficient strength to sink the largest fishing boat with a flick of the tail. At least that is what my father used to tell us. But he said that they were generally peaceful."
"You really think it's coming to Mystic to see the sights?" Tully asked. "Any idea what it wants?
Gilda's remains glowed hot red. "Based upon its trajectory," Polglase hypothesized, "the serpent most likely was attracted by the opening of the portal last night."
"I doubt it will be pleased when it arrives to find the gateway no longer there," Lex added.
"Nevertheless," said Polglase. "Unless it changes course, it should miss us by a comfortable margin."
"But it’s gonna make Mystic look like a jigsaw puzzle fresh out of the box," Zoot countered.
"Hold on a second," Tully said. "Let's not spazz out. The government obviously knows this monster is out there. I'm sure they're taking steps. Captain, can you detect any ships or aircraft heading to intercept it?"
The screen enlarged until it filled the room from floor to ceiling. Two distinct groups of airborne craft were indeed moving towards the creature.
"See?" Tully smiled. "Here comes the cavalry! They'll bomb Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent there back to the Stone Age."
Polglase watched the planes' contrails and shook her head. "I doubt they will bother it anymore than midges would bring down a charging bull. A Seaserpent is an elemental construct. What we and your vaunted military perceive as its body is a mere shell of hardened water. Somewhere buried deep within lies its true body and the seat of its consciousness and I sincerely doubt they rest in such an obvious target as its head. They could strike at any place along its considerable length and do no more than carve off a slice unless they were extremely fortunate."
"Well?" Gloria yelled. "Aren't you going to do something?"
Polglase cocked her head to the side, "What do you suggest?"
Gloria fairly shook with frustration. "You're the would-be conqueror of Planet Earth! Can't you fight it?"
"Assuredly. Defeat it?" Polglase shrugged. "Probably not. Such beings, especially ones that size, are virtually impossible to kill… especially in its natural environment."
"But you have to do something?" Gloria cried. "If our military can't do the job, hundreds of people could die!"
"Your authorities have commanded everyone to evacuate the area," Polglase reminded her.
"Not everyone will evacuate," Tully interjected. "Some would prefer to stay with their homes."
"Anyway, if that monster plows through downtown Mystic, your precious portal could be covered in tons of rubble. What then?" Gloria added with an air of 'take that!' triumph.
The Captain watched the inexorable progress of the line on the viewall, then switched off the battlengine. "Very well. Perhaps your airmen will deal with the beast, but if they do not I suppose I should provide a second line of defense. Gloria, I saw a boat tied to the jetty down on the beach. Is it fast?"
"It’s a Stingray 190LX, with a 220 horsepower engine and a 21 inch propeller," Hannah reported, as if by rote. "Fully loaded, it has a top speed of around fifty knots."
"What is that in wings per hour?" Polglase asked.
"What's a wing?" Hannah asked in return. "A knot is one nautical mile per hour. I need to set up a conversion table –"
"It's fast, dammit!" Nate shouted.
"It's as fast as anything we're likely to find around here," Gloria added.
"Can you pilot it?" Polglase inquired,
"Betcher ass," replied her host.
"Then you shall have to do so. T'Lexigar, come with me." Polglase headed towards the still open deck doors.
"Tully, you better get Zoot and the kids out of here," Gloria ordered, and started following Polglase.
"No need," the Captain observed. "The house is sufficiently elevated that the waves will not reach it, and I will create an Air Shield to lend additional protection. Now we had better get to the beach and make preparations."
Lex did not budge.
"Come, Minstrel," Polglase ordered. "Your ladyfriend and I cannot do this by ourselves."
Gloria took Lex's hand. "It will be all right."
His knees started to buckle, but the touch of Gloria's hand gave him enough confidence to shuffle after her. He allowed himself to be led down the stairs and onto the sand. Still, he breathed a sigh of relief once they entered the field pavilion.
"What Fire and Storm magics have you prepared?" Polglase asked him point blank.
"Me?" Lex reacted to the unexpected question with surprise. "I never studied those disciplines." He considered for a second. "I know some Water spells, such as Dehydration Mist. Would those help?"
"Ha! The Serpent is immune to Water magic. You might as well cast Fireblast on a Salamander. I despair at the state of modern education sometimes." She shook her head ruefully. "Never mind. It cannot be helped. How good is your aim, Minstrel?"
"I am reasonably skilled in the use of the javelin," he answered cautiously, unsure where this line of questioning was leading.
"Excellent!" The Captain opened a large closet whose shelves were filled with long boxes and pointed to a specific crate. "Take that one to the boat."
"What are they?" Lex asked.
"Fire javelins. Picked them up at a rummage sale." She turned to Gloria. "I trust your craft is fully charged?"
Gloria nodded. "I gassed up the Stingray last week and haven't used it since. I'll get her ready." She pushed open the tent flap and left.
Lex had picked up the crate as directed but had gone no further. He stood, watching Gloria framed by the terrifying blue expanse of the sea. The woman he loved against the background of his greatest fear. The juxtaposition paralyzed him with indecision.
"Minstrel!" Polglase snapped her fingers in his face.
Lex snapped to attention. The Dragoon regarded him expectantly, but he could no more lift his feet than he could have lifted the Yadra Palace.
"I – I cannot," he stammered. "I cannot go back to the sea! I will be no use to you there."
"Then this endeavor is doomed, and your ladylove and I with it. These airmachines in which Tully puts so much reliance cannot stop this beast; only magic can. I don't possess sufficient power to carry the day alone. With you by my side, there is a glimmer of hope. You must lob these javelins at the Serpent while I try my damnedest to create Force Walls of sufficient strength to slow its progress while concurrently protecting the village from the waves."
"Will these things kill it?" Lex looked at the crate.
"No, but they might annoy it enough that it'll take its business elsewhere. They and you are essential to the overall battle plan."
"I cannot go back to the sea!" Lex moaned, painfully aware how close he was to whining. "You don't understand!"
Polglase regarded him soberly. "I have neither time nor words to help you overcome your fears, lad. It all comes down to this: join us or live with the knowledge that you could have made a difference and chose not to."
She turned on her heel and strode out of the Pavilion.
Move! an inner voice boomed in his head.
Lex willed his frozen feet forward, but they refused to obey.
One person could make a difference, had he said something like that? He couldn't remember. He tried again and managed one babystep but could go no further. His eyes sought and found Gloria, on board the sleek blue-and-white speedboat. She looked so brave, ready to face anything, to risk her life to save her home. Could he do no less? He took another step, then another.
Before he knew it, he'd left the security of the tent and stood wavering on the sand. As he watched, Polglase's sword cut the struts of the boat's canvas canopy. Gloria waved encouragingly. The rising sun and the brisk wind turned her hair into a blazing halo. Love welled within him, pushing dread aside. He had lost a friend to a sea monster, and that fateful event had diverted his life's course. If he lost Gloria to another…
Still unsteady, he tottered towards her, the box heavier with each pace. Next he knew he was stepping into the boat, bobbing at quayside. Polglase assisted him over the gunwale. She clapped him on the back, then helped him lower the crate to the deck.
Gloria gave him a quick hug. "I knew you could do it!" she whispered in his ear. She pulled back and Lex saw her eyes gleaming with excitement. If she felt any fear, she masked it admirably. "I love you so much," she said.
"And I you," he replied, voice an octave higher than usual.
"Very touching," Polglase separated them. "Time enough for tender sentiments later. Shall we attend to the small matter of the giant Seaserpent?"
"Absolutely," Gloria agreed, taking the helm. Polglase cast off the mooring line and the craft veered sharply away from shore. Lex lost his footing and fell onto the stern bench hard enough to bruise his tailbone. The pain momentarily blinded him, but all too soon his vision cleared. He was on open water! He glanced back at the rapidly receding shoreline and had to stifle the urge to jump overboard and swim for land. Instead, he gripped the railing until his knuckles turned to chalk, closed his eyes tight, and began to pray to every deity whose name he could remember, including those of Winter Sports and Household Cleansers. As the boat skipped over the turbulent waves, he tried desperately to forget where he was.
"Wahoo!" Gloria cried in triumphant exultation. The sound pried his eyes open. Gloria stood at the wheel, straight and defiant, as much in her element as the Serpent. Polglase sat to her left. Lex yearned to take up position between them, to draw strength from their resolve. Alas, it was all he could do to keep from vomiting and only his grip on the railing kept him from pitching face first to the deck.
"How you doing, Lex?" Gloria turned, beaming at him. "Isn't this great?"
"M-marvelous," he grunted. His jaw refused to unclench.
"Stout fellow," Polglase cheered. "I should check to see if the aircraft had any effect on our aquatic friend." The screen appeared over the prow. "Hmmm… They have whittled it down a smidge," she observed, her tone one of grudging admiration. "Still big and fast, though."
"Won't be long now," Gloria announced. "The chop's picking up something fierce!"
Meanwhile, in Noank…
"My people have a saying," Jorge told Bobbie as he parked the newsvan in the Robinettes' driveway. "We call it loco in the cabeza. You heard the radio. Something wicked this way comes and we're heading into it instead of away."
"Don't be such a wuss," she shot back. "You think it's a coincidence that this freak weather heads for Mystic less than eight hours after that armored goon steps out of a hole in the air and says she's here to rescue Machallo? The two have to be connected. So get your camera, grow a pair, and come with me. I'm gonna knock on that door, force my way in, and get all Mike Wallace on these people."
"If they are people," Mitch interposed himself between their bucket seats. "They may look like us, but what if they turn onto things with tentacles and a taste for human flesh?"
"I saw that movie, too," she sneered. "Whatever they are, they're news and last time I checked the side of this van the word News was featured prominently."
Bobbie opened the door and strode up to the house. Mitch hurried after her, and Jorge reluctantly joined the parade. He caught up just as she rang the doorbell. Nothing happened, so she pressed it repeatedly. After perhaps three dozen rings, the door opened a crack and a teenage boy peeked out.
"Whaddaya want?" he growled.
"Roberta Halliwell, In the Know News," Bobbie said, ignoring his bellicosity. "Is Gloria Robinette at home?
"No," came the surly reply.
"And who are you?" Bobbie asked.
"My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." He shut the door firmly in her face.
"What now, Senor Wallace?" Jorge chortled.
"Button it!" Bobbie banged her fist on the door. "You can't stonewall me forever! I can wait here all day!"
"I'm going back to the van," Jorge said, turning away.
"Take one more step and I'll forcefeed you that camera," Bobbie threatened theatrically, then resumed her pounding. "Machallo! I know you're in there! You and that Captain! You can talk to me or you can talk to the feds. It's your choice!"
"Feds?" Mitch asked. Jorge shrugged.
The door opened again. A short African-American woman, wearing only a pair of black lace panties, greeted them. "Are you here for the orgy? You're just in time. We haven't summoned our Dark Lord yet and you can help sacrifice the goat."
Jorge raised his Betacam.
"No photography allowed," the woman told him. "Baphomet's orders."
Bobbie gaped, totally nonplussed, then found her voice. "What's going on in there?"
"Let me show you," Zoot said cheerfully and stepped aside. Hannah, crouching behind her in the foyer, took aim and let Bobbie have one right between the eyes. The reporter spluttered, and Hannah pumped the Super Soaker's handle and squirted her target again. This time the stream of vinegar-laced water caught Bobbie right in her open mouth.
"Th-th-that's all, folks," Zoot quoted. "Come back at 11:00. The late show's completely different!"
She slammed the door. Hannah handed over a Gilda's t-shirt, which she put on, pulling at the hem until it covered her to mid-thigh. "Nice shootin', Tex," Zoot drawled.
"Can I come out now?" Nate's muffled voice came from the closet. Tully, standing guard, opened the door for him and the boy came out scowling. "What a total gyp!"
Back in the van, Bobbie fumed as she repaired her make-up, Jorge and Mitch cracking up in the equipment area behind her. "This isn't over by a longshot," she swore. The laughter redoubled.
Out at sea, a new player threatened to complicate matters. "This is the U.S. Coast Guard," a voice boomed over the approaching ship's loudspeaker. "There is a severe weather alert in progress. Prepare to come alongside and be taken aboard for your own safety!"
"What do we do?" Gloria asked Polglase.
"The Serpent will be upon us within minutes," she replied. "Ignore them."
"Easy for you to say," Gloria grimaced. "Steady as she goes." She spun the wheel sharply to the left, and the Stingray responded, swerving to port.
"Attention! You are in serious jeopardy!" the disembodied voice rang out.
"No shit." Gloria grunted; she swung the wheel back the other way as the MLB came about to intercept. All at once, the sea beneath their hull rose and nearly tipped them ass over teakettle. Gloria fought for control. The Stingray's nose cut through a particularly nasty swell like a razor through silk and sped past the lurching Coast Guard vessel's prow. They felt the water ripple below them and watched in horror as the MLB listed to starboard, taking on water.
"The creature is directly under us!" Lex shouted. He could see the huge form mere spans beneath the churning billows. The other boat, caught in the monster's massive wake, continued to founder. Soon, to the Minstrel's horror it completely capsized. "We have to help them!" he yelled. Without thinking, he began to stand.
"Stay put, you young idiot!" Polglase bellowed and held both arms palms upward. The speedboat stopped rocking as it lifted a span or two above the surging waves. It hung there for several seconds until the serpent passed them. Polglase gently lowered them back into the trough between the creature's twin wakes. By then, to Lex's astonishment, the larger vessel had almost righted itself.
"They'll be okay, Lex," Gloria called to him, "but how do we catch that thing? I've got the throttle wide open, Captain, and she's giving us all she's got!"
"But not all I have got, lass," Polglase replied. "I shall have to hasten our progress." She rubbed her palms briskly together then stood and held her arms outstretched. A blast of blue white radiance streaked from each hand and enveloped the boat, which shot forward as if kicked by a giant foot. They gained perceptibly on their prey.
"Open the crate, Minstrel," Polglase ordered. "See that island directly in the Serpent's path? Since I cannot believe it will cross land unnecessarily, my money would be on it slowing to navigate the channel. With any luck, it will rise and present us with a target."
"You're right!" Gloria exclaimed. "Thar she blows!"
Lex watched in awe as the Serpent's head lifted from the waves. Upwards it ascended towards the darkening sky, gradual and majestic, until it seemed like it could brush aside clouds. Water swirled around it, a miasma of mist and spray that almost, but not quite, obscured its terrible features – and that was only the back of its head. Dozens of thick tendrils waved high in the air, medusa-like. Lex did not want to contemplate what the creature looked like from the front. It stood like a great blue tower against the sky, glistening and swelling as it rose.
"We're going to need a bigger boat," Gloria gulped.
"Too late for that!" Polglase yelled. "Try to get us closer and stay in the middle where the turbulence is lowest. If we get caught in its wake, we can kiss our posteriors farewell!"
"Aye, aye, Cap'n" Gloria cried. They were over the creature's tail, the hull skimming the swells like a flat stone. The serpent's neck loomed larger and larger, and then it was dead ahead.
"Let us see how it likes this!" Polglase howled, and held both hands, thumbs linked, palms upraised, at the charging tower. An immense grey-green wall of force appeared two dozen spans in front of the Serpent, which hit squarely. The Forcewall held for a second, slowing the creature's forward progress a hair. Polglase cast again. The second Wall, taller and thicker, took the serpent longer to shatter, but shatter it did. The backlash rocked the boat, and Gloria had to struggle to keep the hull in the trough between the white water on each side. A third Wall fared no better.
"T'Lexigar – get forward!" Polglase commanded, shouting to be heard over the crash of waves and the blasts of wind. "We need your arm!"
After opening the crate, Lex had once again latched onto the railing with both hands. As they neared the Serpent, the fear reasserted itself to a nigh-intolerable level. The thing fair filled the sky and overwhelmed his senses with sickening dread. Beside it, the Liparus of his memory seemed like a gnat. Nay, a gnat's larva!
"Minstrel!" the Dragoon bellowed. "Unless you plan to throw with your teeth, you had better relax your grip and come join the fray!"
Lex unlocked his hands and groped for the crate. His fingers felt numb and clumsy; he slapped them hard against his thighs to get the blood flowing. His knees knocked as he bent to heft the bulky box, and then he stumbled past Gloria and Polglase. The bow seemed wings away, and his feet filled with lead, but he grimly shuffled them until his shins banged against something unyielding. He had reached the nose and could advance no further. He almost dropped the crate overboard before he caught himself and lowered it to the deck. With trembling fingers, he felt along the long, thick rods, red-and-yellow, pointed at one end with stabilizing fins at the other and a black leather band in the middle, obviously intended as a grip. He took one, tested for heft and balance, cocked his arm back and let fly. The shaft soared through the air and plunged into the foam a good twenty spans short of its intended target.
"I thought you said you could throw!" Polglase roared behind him.
"I can," Lex screamed without turning to face his critic and reached for another.
"My Force Walls are slowing it, but not enough and soon I will have to devote my attention to protecting the town ahead of us! You have to hit it!"
"Nag, nag, nag!" Lex muttered. He took aim, and threw so hard that his elbow popped upon release. The javelin struck the Serpent's ever-closing body dead center, blasting a hole in the creature the size of a cow. The crew of the Stingray were immediately scalded by steam and hot water. Gloria cried in pain, but held onto the helm.
"Damn me for a raw recruit!" Polglase berated herself. "This should help." She touched Lex on the head. He immediately felt as if encased in a thin shell of ice but not uncomfortably so.
"What did you do?" Gloria asked.
"Elemental Shield: Fire," the Captain told her. "It wards away damage from heat. Now a little Rain Bane… There! That should keep us dryer. Hit it again, lad. It felt that last one!"
Lex was not so sure, but did not feel in the mood to argue. A third javelin flew, hit, ignited and exploded. Again steam and spray showered them, but most of it sloughed off the protective fields as if from a pelican's posterior and Lex barely felt the heat. He spared a quick look at Gloria, who also appeared unaffected. When he looked back at the beast, the solid sheet of blue bore nary so much as a scratch to indicate where he had hit it with force sufficient to level a stone building.
"Keep at it!" Polglase called, and threw another Force Wall in the Serpent's path. "Trust me, our efforts are having an effect."
Lex reached for another projectile. When it connected, it made a rather satisfying boom and the Serpent roared. Whether it was pained or peeved, Lex was unsure, but he accepted the crumbs of success gratefully.
"You hear that?" Bobbie asked. "Out to sea?"
"Sounded like thunder," Jorge observed gloomily.
"Not really," Mitch disagreed. "More like mortar fire. I heard something like that in Iraq."
"You were never in Iraq," Jorge scoffed.
"No, but I saw the fighting on CNN," Mitch countered. "Hey, Halliwell! Where ya going?"
Bobbie left the van and marched resolutely towards the ramp on the west side of the house. "To get a better look," she called. "I heard this unconfirmed rumor that we were here to report the news."
When the crew caught up, they found her at the chainlink fence, staring out to sea. "What is that?" she asked no one in particular, her voice full of wonder.
"Tornado?" Jorge guessed as he shouldered his camera.
"Waterspout," Mitch corrected. "They're called waterspouts when they're over water." He turned on his sound equipment and checked the uplink status. "Whatever it is, it's playing hell with our link, Bobbie."
"Do the best you can," she said absently. "What's that flash of light at its base?" A second later they heard a reprise of the sound that had caught her attention in the first place. "Is that lightning?" She pointed.
"It doesn't look like it." Mitch commented.
"No, it certainly does not," Bobbie agreed. "You know what it looks like to me, boys? It looks like breaking news!" She rolled the words around her tongue, savoring the intoxicating taste of them. She cupped one hand over her earpiece and spoke into the mike. "Are you there, Boston? This is Halliwell. I've got one mother of a live weather update for you." No answer came. "Can you boost the gain, Mitch?"
"Then just keep shooting," she told Jorge.
"Hey, peoples," the cameraman announced. "I think there's a boat out there!"
"Where?" Bobbie demanded. "I can't see anything through all the spray."
"Near the base of the funnel," Jorge told her.
She squinted. "I still don't – wait! Yes! I see it! A blue and white speedboat!"
Jorge adjusted the lens for maximum zoom. "Damn, I wish I'd brought the telephoto with me. I can't get a decent shot of it."
"Is there anyone in it?" Mitch asked.
"Quien sabe?" Jorge replied. "I'm amazed it hasn't been smashed to matchsticks by now. Would you get a look at that thing! I never seen anything like it!"
"I have," Bobbie commented. "I grew up in the midwest, Tornado Alley."
"But do they usually bend down like that?" Jorge asked her.
"Uh oh," Gloria said, pulling back on the throttle as the Serpent slowed, narrowly avoiding a collision. "I think we got its attention." She passed the neck to port and found herself in front of the beast. The head lowered towards them, and she yanked the wheel hard a-starboard to avoid it. The grotesque writhing head smashed into the water where the Stingray had been moments before. The impact still managed to lift the speedboat out of the raging surf. It landed with a sound like a whale's tail slapping the waves. "That was too close!" she cried, wheeling about so Lex could target again.
He did so and another explosion tore through the creature and the surrounding air. Without pause, he reached for another javelin. The head sought them again, but Gloria anticipated its attack this time and weaved around the torso. The serpent's cavernous maw snapped at the boat and its occupants, but when it closed, it consumed only salt water.
"Steady!" Polglase called. "At this point, it is all I can do to keep the waves from crushing us!" Her hands blurred as she threw one Force Blast after another at the towering waves, shredding them to harmless mist.
Lex's arm ached. The javelins, heavier than they looked, grew heavier still each time he bent for a new one. The box was half empty and he remained unconvinced that he had accomplished anything besides making the beast angry and turning his arm muscles to so much wet leather. The best interpretation he could put on the battle's progress was that at least the monster no longer seemed intent on destroying Mystic. The thought gave him little cheer, since it was all too evident that now the Serpent's wrath focused directly on him and his companions. He got one very clear look at the monstrous face: jagged-toothed, insanely malevolent, writhing and glaring and hungry. He threw his incendiary spear straight at one of its immense lidless eyes and blew it to jelly. The scream that accompanied the explosion almost had the same effect on his eardrums, and the head showed no sign of wavering from its path. Lex waited for the death that he could see no way of avoiding. At the last possible second, the speedboat veered to the right. One of the serpent's flailing tendrils smashed him across the chest, practically jerking him out of his boots. He windmilled his arms, trying vainly to keep his balance, but his hands found nothing to latch onto, and he toppled over the side of the boat into the cold roiling brine.
"Lex!" Gloria screamed. It was the last thing he heard before a wave smashed into him and sucked him under.
"Are you getting this?" Bobbie demanded.
"Oh yes," Jorge replied. "Every thrilling moment."
"We have to go live!" Bobbie shouted. "Mitch, how's our satellite feed now?"
"Upgraded to lousy," the sound man grumbled and fiddled with a knob. "There's too much atmospheric interference. Signal strength is thirty percent."
"That will have to do." She flipped open her cell phone and speed dialed the newsroom. "Sam? It’s Roberta. You have to speak up, I can barely hear you! I'm in Mystic. Mystic! Yes, right in the midst of the storm. Of course I'm crazy! I'm sending you live feed of the damnedest waterspout I've ever seen. Can you pick it up?" She waited a moment for him to find the right monitor. "I know it's a fuzzy picture, but it's the best we can manage! I said it's the best – right. No, tornadoes don't usually bend like that. Yes, we can do that. I'll wait for your signal." She flipped the phone closed. "We're going live in a minute."
"Where do you want to stand?" Jorge asked, lowering the camera.
"Forget about me! Keep filming that thing!" she screamed. "I'll just do voice-over. You think I want people to see me looking like this?"
"You don't look that bad," Mitch commented.
"That's sweet, but forgive me if I don't take grooming tips from a man who still wears zipper jackets." Still, she ran one hand through her windblown tresses. A voice came crackling through her earpiece.
"All right, fellas, we're on in five, four, three, two… This is Roberta Halliwell, reporting live from Mystic harbor, where as you can see a huge waterspout is approaching this popular tourist community. The Weather Service ordered a general evacuation of coastal areas earlier this morning, and now we can see the reason why. A waterspout of this size so close to land is rare in itself, but this one is even more unusual. It has been twisting and folding in ways completely atypical of meteorological phenomena of this nature. There, I believe you can see it double over again. And I don't know how clear it is, but earlier I saw a small craft apparently trapped by the waterspout's high-velocity winds and the whirlpool it almost certainly is creating at its base. I can't see it right now, and there is a definite possibility that it’s been sucked under… No, there it is! I don't know how this is possible, but the boat is still afloat. How long it can remain that way is hard to say. It must be taking a terrible pounding out there. I cannot tell if there are people on board, but if there are, they could use our hopes and prayers."
Lex could no longer tell which way was up. All he could see was fizzing water. His lungs burned as he fought to keep his last breath inside. I always knew the sea would claim me, he told himself. Oddly enough, even as he experienced his worst nightmares made reality, what he felt at the moment of his death was not fear. It was, at worst, regret: regret over the songs left to learn, the audiences he would nevermore entertain, and the places old and new his eyes would never again behold. Most of all, he regretted that he would never again hold Gloria close, watch the rise and fall of her breast as she lay beside him, hear the sound of her voice as she cried in passion or merely told him that he looked silly in that garish robe.
"All the thousands of years I had left to me," he told the uncaring depths, "and I would give them all for just one more minute in her arms."
He relaxed, accepting the inevitable. The last sackful of air, depleted of all oxygen, passed his slack lips and formed bubbles that ascended out of his sight.
Goodbye, Gloria, he thought, watching them disappear. Goodbye life. Goodbye bubbles. He waved languidly as the last of them rose beyond his reach…
Bubbles float upwards! the inner voice broke through his dying reverie. Any idiot knows that!
"Oh, do shut up," Lex told himself and clawed at the water in the bubbles' path. He had no breath left, and little strength. All that propelled him was will and the elusive quality called hope. For all he knew, the surface could be a day's travel away, but still he fought, though his head felt fit to burst. Just a little further. Just one more..."
Air had never tasted so sweet.
Lex took great heaping gobsful of air, drinking it greedily. He felt it fill his sodden body, giving it the gift of buoyancy, and promised he would never again take breathing for granted. His euphoria was interrupted by something hard smacking him on the head. He struggled to turn about and face his attacker. A metal hook narrowly missed his nose, and he grabbed for it reflexively. He missed, then tried again. The second attempt met with success and he held on tight. Gloria, holding the other end of the grapple, pulled and with Polglase's assistance they hauled him over the gunwale. He lay there, panting and aching as Gloria threw the pole aside and flung herself into his limp arms.
"I thought I had lost you," she sobbed.
"No such luck," he replied, smoothing the soggy hair out of her eyes. All of a sudden, he remembered why they were there in the first place. "The serpent! Did we kill it?"
Gloria shook her head. "When we stopped to find you it got away. It's heading for the river and town. Don't worry about it, though. Maybe we hurt it badly enough that it can't do much damage. Right now, we have to get you to shore."
"Help me up," he coughed.
"Help me up!" he demanded, a little louder. "Perhaps we can still catch it." He pushed against the wet deck and water sloshed around him.
Gloria tried to hold him down. "You're in no condition –"
"Help me up, damn it!" He clutched at her shoulders and fought for leverage. Gloria looked extremely doubtful, but together they set him on his feet. Polglase stood in the prow, casting Force and Fire Spells at the Serpent, which weaved drunkenly.
"Captain!" Lex called. Polglase, intent on her casting, took no apparent notice. Lex lurched to the bow, gently fending off Gloria's attempts to steady him. "Captain!" he smacked her on the head.
"What?" Polglase glowered. She looked haggard and worn. Wet hair hung in her eyes and she brushed it away.
"What is our status?" Lex asked.
"Status?" She seemed to have trouble understanding the word. "Ah, yes. You are half-drowned, I am nearly spent, and we have seven fire javelins left. The Serpent is much slower and smaller, though; I think your last salvo blinded it for the moment. But even if we catch up, I doubt there is much we can do. We have taken a lot of fight out of the creature, but it has more than enough left. The beast is angry and determined, lad, and I think it means to have its way with the town no matter what."
Lex gazed at the Seaserpent, which had a significant but far from insurmountable lead. It moved with far less purpose now, and writhed from side to side as it churned towards the inlet that led to Mystic proper. The sight reminded him of something, but he had difficulty putting his finger on the precise memory it tickled.
Think, T'Lexigar! the inner voice demanded. Think about what you're doing!
He had been hearing that voice a lot recently, first in the field pavilion, and later beneath the waves when he nearly drowned. He still could not recall what the undulating body of the serpent reminded him of, but that inner voice could, he sensed. It taunted him, it sounded so gods-be-cursed familiar…
Then recognition staggered him. The words, the tone, the air of command, the Yadraport accent pickled in time and brine – the inner voice was clearly his father's. No, he did not honestly believe his father was actually speaking to him through the gulf of space and dimension; the voice and the thoughts behind it were his own. Yet, in a time of indecision and inaction, Lex had chosen to speak to himself in Hussak Machallo's gruff growl. With that realization, words his father had actually spoken to him in days cloaked in the mists became clear as if as the fog had been burned away by the rising sun.
"The fish is tired, son," Hussak had pointed at a huge marlin cresting above the waves off the port bow, its silver scales flashing. "It fought us and, with the merest shift of fortune, it could have prevailed. Now all it wants to do is rest, yet its pride will not let it. At heart, it wishes to be caught. Our job is to help it accept its fate."
Lex knew what he had to do. "Get us close," he told them. "Leave the rest to me."
Polglase regarded him for a long moment. "Yes, sire," she said at last. "By your command."
Bobbie found herself running out of new things to say. She had used up all her superlatives dealing with wind, water, and destructive power two minutes earlier, shortly after the waterspout ceased its calisthenics and resumed its original journey straight towards the mouth of the Mystic River. She duly informed the viewing audience of this fact, predicting dire consequences for the people, homes, and watercraft that remained in the phenomenon's path. The pillar of water was now less than a mile away, its progress slowed, its movements almost tentative, but its goal remained clear and inevitable. She could see the little boat, still inexplicably intact, in the swells it left behind. She was not sure, but she thought she could see people on it. Alive or dead? That she could not tell.
"It now seems only a matter of minutes before this storm hits populated areas," Roberta Halliwell told the folks out there in television land. "If I were a poet, I could find better words to describe the sheer towering presence of this freak of nature. A poet could convey how it almost seems to possess a rudimentary consciousness, a will behind the wind and water. One could almost swear that there is a face to this storm – not a human face, but more like some creature from antiquity, newly risen to wreak primal vengeance on our modern world."
She stopped, and the import of her flight of fancy sunk in. Heedless of the dead air that was all she supplied the hungry airwaves, she gazed at the impending cataclysm. Was she hallucinating? Had she let her imagination carry her away?
"It does have a face," she resumed, awed and shaken. "Lord, it does have a face like some Chinatown dragon made of equal parts water and wonderment, terrible and still somehow glorious. I – what is it?"
She felt someone tapping on her shoulder. Mitch looked devastated. "We lost the live feed," he reported dolefully.
"Shit!" She punched at the air. "Can you get it back?"
He shook his head. "Too much static. Maybe the transmitter's fried."
"Shit!" she repeated. "When did we lose transmission?"
"Right about the time you started in on that crap about it having a face," he replied. "Have you completely lost it?"
"Look for yourself!" She turned him around and pushed his face into the fence where Jorge, oblivious to everything besides the images coming through his eyepiece, continued to chronicle the morning's weirdness. "Can't you see it?"
"No," Mitch whined.
"Oh, for pity's sake!" Bobbie snatched his wire-rimmed spectacles off. Ignoring Mitch's protest, she pulled the still dry tail of her blouse from beneath her skirt and cleaned off the soundman's glasses. She shoved them back at him. "Here," she said. "Look again."
Mitch hooked both curving sidepiece over his prominent ears and settled the lenses on the bridge of his nose. He looked where she was pointing. "Great googly-moogly," he exclaimed.
"Told ya," Bobbie smirked.
"Excuse me for butting in," Jorge said, without taking his eye from the camera, "but could one of you make yourself useful and run back to the van for me?"
"Why?" Bobbie asked.
"Because that boat is moving like El Diablo was kicking it in the ass, straight after that thing that suddenly grew a face. There are definitely people driving that speedboat, and they're getting close enough that, with the long lens, I should be able to see their faces. Doesn't that sound like a good idea?"
Bobbie looked at the boat, then on a hunch down at the beach below. She had not thought to look there before, concentrating her full attention on the drama unfolding out to sea, but suddenly she remembered the story that had originally drawn her back to Mystic for the third time in as many days. Two things caught her eye: the first, a large tent displaying a blazing sunburst on its center pole, above a multi-colored banner; the second, a small jetty with no boat tied up but a rope and canvas canopy lying on its damp wooden slats that indicated one had, until recently, been moored there.
"Jorge," Bobbie said. "I think that's an excellent idea."
Gloria had little difficulty overtaking the sea serpent. The boat caught up with its tail and began to pull alongside its still imposing torso. Only a few more seconds, Lex knew, and it would be time.
"Begging the Minstrel's pardon," Polglase said, tugging at his sleeve. "Would you care to share your plan with the rest of the troops?"
"Did you ever sing to an angry mob, Captain?" Lex asked.
"I have," Lex continued. "Master Roberlein told me in our very first lesson that the key to being a good Minstrel is reading your audience. If they are happy, sing no sad songs. If they are drunk, sing songs they are likely to know. And if they threaten to bring the tavern down around your ears, calm them."
"First, calm yourself. Find inner peace and imbue your words with serenity. We have been feeding that thing's anger, Captain, like piling dry wood on a raging bonfire. We should have been using water."
Polglase shook her head in confusion, "I do not understand."
"You think as a soldier, and you have encouraged me to think the same. But I am no soldier, and never will be. What I am is a Minstrel, and a Minstrel sings."
"I do not know if that creature can even hear you!"
"There is but one way to find out."
By that point, the speedboat had drawn along even with the Serpent, perhaps even a bit further ahead. Lex started to roll up his sleeve to gain access to his spellengine, but stopped himself. He could use the device to make his next words louder, but he felt, somehow, this was the wrong time for artificial enhancement. The moment demanded a more organic approach. He cast one of the very first spells the Guild had taught him, Amplify Voice. Then he sang.
It was an old Seshnei song, one his father had sung to him as a child when he tossed and turned and cried and would not go back to sleep. His father's voice was far from melodic, but it had soothed him then nonetheless. If only it had the same effect now.
"Toes go to sleep, toes go to sleep,
Toes go to sleep, my precious child.
Then when you wake, then when you wake.
Morning will set your toes a-wiggling."
"What's going on up there?" Zoot spoke into the walkie-talkie. "Can you see anything? Over."
Up on the third floor, Nate stuck his head out the window. "Those creepazoids from the news are still here. Over."
"Don't be an ass, Nate," Zoot said, pressing the button. "Can Hannah see what's happening? Over." She shot Tully a worried look.
"Just a sec," Nate responded. He looked upwards. "So? You see anything up there?"
Out on the roof, Hannah closed one eye and peered through the telescope's sight with the other. "It's hard to tell, but I think it's slowing down!" She raised her head from the instrument. "Beefy, is it just me, or do you hear singing?"
"Feet go to sleep, feet go to sleep,
Feet go to sleep, my precious child.
Then when you wake, then when you wake,
Morning will set your feet a-running."
"It's working," Gloria cut the throttle. The Serpent glided to a halt, and its wake died away. The speedboat bobbed on the still churning waves as it passed the creature's leading edge and she brought the bow around until Lex was face-to-neck with the no longer thrashing beast.
"Legs go to sleep, legs go to sleep,
Legs go to sleep, my precious child.
Then when you wake, then when you wake,
Morning will set your legs a-jumping."
On shore, Bobbie felt awash with bliss, like soaking in a long, hot aromatherapy candle enhanced bath after a long day of yelling at her coworkers and agent. Mitch, unnoticed, slumped against the chainlink fence and began snoring softly. Jorge kept the camera rolling.
"Belly go to sleep, belly go the sleep,
Belly go to sleep, my precious child.
Then when you wake, then when you wake,
Morning will set your belly a-laughing."
Men had blasted the monster's eyes but his true vision did not rest in those gaping sockets any more than that fierce visage was his true face. The consciousness within sought the source of the music, and found it in a long-haired, water-logged man far below with a voice like balm on troubled seas. The Serpent bent down to get a better look.
"Chest go to sleep, chest go to sleep,
Chest go to sleep, my precious child.
Then when you wake, then when you wake,
Morning will set your chest a-singing."
The gargantuan head hung over the waves. Lex cast Water Walk and stepped out of the boat. The sea surged beneath his boots, but he kept his footing as he approached the creature. The hollow gaps where its eyes had once nestled filled with liquid. Lex reached the Seaserpent, held out a gentle hand, and laid it on one cold wet cheek.
"Head go to sleep, head go to sleep,
Head go to sleep, my precious child.
And when you sleep, and when you sleep,
Nighttime will set your head a-dreaming."
The sockets continued to fill, then overflowed. Salt water, first hot then cool, coursed over the Minstrel's already soaked body, but he stood fast. Before Lex's eyes, the awesome ancient face began to melt away. Its once terrible visage and imposing body collapsed into the element from which it had been fashioned, until all that remained was a figure, not too different from the Minstrel's, standing an arm's length away. It stood tall and naked, sleek and hairless, covered in mottled blue scales. Its eyes spoke of longing and aching loneliness. Lex held out a hand, palm upraised. The blue figure stared, then hesitantly extended his own webbed hand. Lex took it.
"Come," he said simply.
The tall blue biped allowed himself to be led back to the waiting boat. As Gloria and Polglase watched silently, it sank to the deck and fell asleep at Lex's feet. Lex looked down at the creature that had filled him with terror. It looked so small.
He turned and faced the women. "It's done," he said. "Let's go home."
Gloria pushed the throttle and the engine roared back to life. Minutes later, they neared the cove and its jetty. As they approached, all could see a woman standing, waiting, holding the mooring line in her hands. Gloria maneuvered the Stingray into place, and the woman handed the line to the Minstrel, still standing vigil over his slumbering charge in the speedboat's prow.
"That was absolutely amazing," Roberta Halliwell told him. "You have one helluva voice, Mr. Machallo, but the time for singing is over. Right now, I think we should talk."