The cloudiness in Irian's mind receded slightly.
As his senses awakened, he became aware of aches and pains coursing through his body.
His head hurt. There was a burning in his shoulder. Gradually, his memory came back to him. He'd been shot there. It felt worse than before now. The shock had worn off, and now the throbbing pain was all too apparent.
Groaning, Irian sat up, and opened his eyes.
His mind stopped in its tracks. He was having trouble interpreting what lay before him in his vision.
As his brain began to operate once more, he began breathing heavily. His blood jolted through his veins, and his eyelids squinted shut in protest at the sight before him.
Amidst the uncontrollable shaking of his muscles, he finally examined what he saw.
Where his legs should've been was now a tail covered in blue scales, with two large fins growing from its end.
Irian began going into a frenzied state. He realized that his hands were bound––
With leather strips. The ones that he'd forgotten.
As his body spasmed with shock, he caught sight of Tarn sitting off aways with the gills. And he too, had a tail. One with a brownish red tint.
Tarn floated up through the water, and unnaturally swam with his thing over to him. One of the gills joined him, and they settled down next to Irian.
Irian's muscles were still quivering violently as he slowly turned his head towards them.
"What. Did. You. Do. To. Me...."
"Saved your life probably," the gill said.
"You ended it," Irian said through clenched teeth.
The gill ignored his ferocious emotions, and drew closer to him. He examined Irian's shoulder, where he now noticed several bands of rough cloth wrapped around it.
"Prepare yourself," the gill said, "this'll probably hurt."
The gill began unwraveling the makeshift bandage, and sure enough, it did.
Irian grunted, pressing his wrists his tight bonds. In his face however, he did all he good to maintain his composure. The last thing he was going to do was let his tormentors see him squeal like a pig.
Beneath the bandage was an ugly looking wound, but surprisngly, one that was closed.
"Cora's basic healing seems to have at least staunched the blood," the gill said. "But the bullet only grazed your shoulder. Be thankful it didn't hit you in the jaw or something."
Irian tried to pry off the leather strips again. He hated this place. He hated this horrible thing attached to him. He hated all that these beasts that had done this to him.
Shame came to Tarn's face as Irian burned his anger into the foolish child. The gill rewrapped Irian's shoulder.
The instant the gill was finished, Irian began tearing into it again.
"You gills ruined my life. You took me away from everything I cared about, and you've caused a monstrous change to come over my body with your perverse powers."
"Oh surely it can't be that monstrous," the gill said, "it's at least nice enough that you humans enjoy chipping off some pieces as mementos."
Irian seethed at the gill's smug, relaxed expression.
He hated them.
He hated them so much.
His sister was as good as dead, and that fate seemed to have less drawbacks than what had happened to him.
They'd made him a gill.
They'd transformed him into a merboy.
"Irian, I -" Tarn began.
"By Toret's grandeur shut up," Irian swore. "I don't want to hear your calculated argument for why you're right and I'm wrong. I don't care about what happens to these stupid gills. My sister is going to die, and it's ALL YOUR FAULT!"
Tarn seemed to inwardly collapse, shrinking like a dried fruit. Then he slithered away.
Irian was little more stable. He dropped his head against his hands, struggling to keep himself from saying blasphemous things.
Aliya's creatures had done this to him, with their dark power. Toret had abandoned him. He had been deemed unfit for his species, and dumped like unwanted garbage into the sea.
Cora glanced nervously over at Tarn's fellow apprentice.
"Don't worry," Reef said."We've bound his hands, and if he breaks them, I'll knock his lights out."
"I know," Cora said. "I'm not afraid of him attacking me... but he just generally makes me feel uncomfortable."
"He makes all of us feel uncomfortable," Echo said, "including our rescuer it seems." She eyed Tarn, who was similarly off by himself.
"I actually kind of find him amusing," Scute said. "Wriggling in the sand like a worm and all."
"I don't much care for either of them," Reef said. He tugged on his fingers, popping the joints. "Once we get to Carved Cove, we're going to turn them both in for sure."
"Really?" Echo said to her brother, "Tarn saved us. He gave a heartfelt apology––"
"Just because a murderer apologizes––"
"Tarn is not a murderer," Echo interrupted his argument. "And he decided to do something. He willingly gave up his life on land."
"Echo," Scute said, "up until now, we've been taken from our life in the sea because of them."
"But they aren't the ones who got us there in the first place," Echo said.
"Oh yeah," Reed said, "you're right. They're just good friends with the person who did."
"All of you... just...," Echo grumbled. "Cora, don't you think we should let Tarn go free?"
Cora raised up her hands. "I... I don't really have a say in this. The rest of you have spent years in scale farms. I've only been here for a month, and I was only scaled once."
"And look what it's done to you!" Reef exclaimed.
Cora looked down forlornly at her pale tail-skin, with its ugly cuts in a few places.
"It doesn't matter which one of them it was," Reef said. "Echo and Scute both were scaled by him."
The two of them looked down at their tails. Their scales had gone far in growing back, but their scales still formed only a patchy covering.
"I'm just baffled that you're defending him," Reef said to Echo. "He was the one who scaled you."
"I would've been scaled anyway," Echo said. "After all, you and I have been scaled by many others. Few have shown even a grain of the remorse Tarn has."
Cora's mind remembered when Irian had been scaling her. She shivered at the horrible memory. But she also thought of how it hadn't been what she suspected. She'd expected scale farmers to be snarling, laughing as they violently gouged off her scales.
It had been very painful still, but it seemed like they weren't trying to do it aggressively. Not that it was even slightly humane.
But what confused her was when Irian had gone bone white. When he'd become suddenly gripped with terror, just after she'd pleaded for mercy.
She looked again at him. She wasn't sure if she was happy that he was now getting a taste of what it was like to be them, or nervous that someone who hated them so much was now in the place that they felt protected from humans.
Maybe she shouldn't have used her channeling on him. They should've just left him above.
She scolded herself. Irian would've likely been shot even more. Did she really want him––
"Cora," Reef snapped his fingers, "I asked you if you were alright with going to Carved Cove."
"Yes," Cora quickly answered.
That was not true. She wanted to find what scale farm her sister was in, but going back near scale farms seemed to be the last thing Reef wanted to do.
"I suppose we better do something about the tailed humans," Reef said.
"Do you think they can handle swimming long distances with their undeveloped tail muscles?" Echo asked.
Reef rolled his eyes. "I've been thinking about just leaving them. They'd be so much trouble. We saved their miserable lives. What more do we owe them?"
Echo stifled her anger. "Would you object to them coming?"
"No," Reef said, "as long as they end their journey in a prison."
"But we don't have any way to keep Irian from swimming off," Scute pointed out.
"Does it matter?" Reef said. "If he wants to swim off, he'll probably starve."
"I still think that sending Tarn to prison is a pretty callous thing to do," Echo said.
"We can talk about later," Reef said. "Drag them out of the sand for now. I just want to get moving."
Echo accepted her brother's plans for the moment, and swam off.
To Cora's shame, he left a bit of his glare for her. Reef didn't like those who were lukewarm.
Seeing Irian, she felt a little empathy. She too, wanted to be left alone.
Irian despised himself and his invisible tears. He'd left home to learn to become a man.
Instead, he'd now found himself a twisted perversion of a human, a monster.
Yet, somehow, he was still just as much of a crying child.
He had spent an untraceable amount of time tormenting himself in his thoughts. He'd laid on his side, and buried the side of his face in the gritty sand, so angry and upset that he ignored the pain of his shoulder against the ground. After a time, a hand rested on his other shoulder.
"I know you hate us," the gill said, "but we're leaving, and Tarn is coming with us. Either pout here and die, or swallow your pride, and come with us."
Irian lay there for a moment longer, then sat up. He looked towards the gill. It was a mermaid Tarn had scaled several weeks ago. Patches of lavender scales were growing on her tail.
"We don't care if you come with us," she said, "as long as you don't insult us again."
"I refuse," he said sharply.
"You have no other option. You do not know how to survive underwater."
Irian's face contorted in frustration. He glimpsed his horrible change again in the corner of his eye, and looked away as fast as he could.
"You're going to have to acknowledge it sooner or later," the gill said. "We had to change you into a merboy so that you wouldn't drown. You also would've gotten shot if we'd left you behind."
Irian remained silent.
His mind felt deadened.
All of his muscles felt slack and numb.
"I'll help you up," the gill said.
She swam above him, and wordlessly, he took her hand. He was wrenched up into the water.
He flailed around, grimacing against the strange sensations in his lower body.
"You've got to move it or you won't be able to swim properly," the gill said.
"I know gill."
"I'll help you," the gill said, "but I prefer to be called Echo."
She held him up in place, staring him down.
"Fine," he submitted.
"Fine to what?" she asked.
"Fine to both," he answered in annoyance. "What do I do?"
"Bend your tail the way I am," she directed. She curled it forward, in a too-flexibly, unseemingly way. Then she flexed it backwards, curling it slightly behind her in turn.
Irian breathed in slowly, disliking the sensation of the gills on his neck.
Cora let go of him, forcing him into compliance.
He flicked his tail, grinding his teeth together at the strangness of it all.
"There," she said. "Just keep doing that."
She swam over towards the others, leaving Irian alone with his deformity.
He winced, and slowly tried to move with it.
Adding to the bizarre experience was the feeling of floating above the ocean floor. Normally, when swimming, he'd never been beneath the surface long, and always had to force himself further down.
For whatever reason, the water didn't seem to push him up, but simply flowed around him, so it felt like he was hovering above the ground.
The others exchanged conversation as his mind was embroiled in thought.
They paid him no attention.
He offered none in return.