“Impossible. No way.” The knife slipped through Vince’s fingers, burying itself up to the hilt in the sand. Not that he noticed; he was too busy processing the impossible sight before him. Where there had been a killer whale now lay an unconscious young woman. Not even an especially tall woman. Where did all of that mass go? Wait, that’s the least bizarre thing about all of this. There’s got to be a rational explanation for all of this, right?
Vince had never been one to believe in magic or the supernatural at all. That was more his friend Luis’ bag, with his conspiracy radio shows. Demons were trying to steal their vital essences, there were visitors from other worlds the government kept hidden, and so on. He had given up talking his friend out of it when they were fourteen, mostly to keep the peace. Still, there had been that little bit of superiority, wondering how a smart man like Luis could believe in such drivel.
That self-assurance was completely shattered, along with at least three or four laws of physics that Vince could think of. “Maybe I should have been listening with him? Never said anything about magic whales, but I usually tuned him out…”
Maybe Vince had just snapped? Which was worse: Luis being right, or him losing his grip on reality?
The woman’s pained moan snapped him out of his existential crisis. “She was in bad shape before you cut her, too. Help now, panic attack later.”
Vince gulped, his fluttering heart telling him it was going to hold him to that promise.
He lifted her up in a delicate carry, being sure to cradle her head. It’s a bad idea to move somebody who’s injured, but it’s a worse idea to leave her in a muddy streambed. Especially if we get another cloudburst like before.
The black and white robes shed their water at his touch, soiling his clothes with thin mud. The unconscious woman shivered in his arms. She’s freezing! I’ll need to do something about that first.
Finding a fir tree whose canopy had kept the forest floor relatively dry, he quickly cleared a space for them. The soaking dress had to go; better to be embarrassed than hypothermic. Vince felt his face flush as he realized the young lady had not received any undergarments to go with her clothes. He tried to be businesslike about it, though he could not avoid catching a quick peek while he wrapped her in a metallic space blanket. Hey, I feel warmer already; too bad it wasn’t my cheeks that were cold.
He dug a small firepit and set about gathering some kindling. A match and a bit of lighter fluid from his backpack did the rest. The crackling fire felt delightful; it had been a sunny day, but not especially warm.
Vince shook his head. No time to rest; she was in rough shape even before the impossible happened. He tried not to look too closely at her while he studied her for injuries. There was still a gash on her left thigh that needed tending to. Not that he could see it. Maybe he should study her a little closer?
No, stop ogling! While he checked his pack for a first-aid kit, a pop from the newly stoked fire startled the orca-turned-woman awake. Vince saw her eyes for the first time since her change; they were dark as obsidian, nearly a match for her jet-black hair.
Her eyes also betrayed her complete bewilderment. She held her arms stiffly, trying to raise herself up without bending her elbows. The attempt failed and she flopped down on her back with a pained yelp.
“Hi there! Glad to see you’re awake.”
Her head snapped towards Vince and he felt like a mouse in the gaze of a snake. She tried to shuffle backwards, but she really seemed to have no idea how her joints worked, so she mostly flailed uselessly. A brief, irritated squeak left her throat, escaping through clenched teeth that looked more pointed than the human norm.
“Hi?” He was more reserved this time. “Uh, I’m Vince?” He held his hand out for her, as if the former cetacean was going to know what a handshake was. Still, he did not have a better alternative. “I hope you speak English, because I took German instead of whale.” He laughed a little at his own joke.
The young woman before him did not join in. “You are that Landman with the knife from before…” Her own voice startled her, and her hand shot to her mouth. Her fingertips brushing against her lips was just as shocking, and she finally looked down. An ear-piercing shriek echoed through the forest. “What is going on here?”
Vince scooted closer. “I can’t rightly say. Sounds like you’re just as confused as me.”
She lunged at him with surprising speed and strength for her size, pinning him to the ground. “What did you do to me, Landman?”
“What? I don’t—”
“Do not bother lying,” she spat, her sharpened teeth glinting dangerously in the firelight. “Your allies were trying to catch me before! You clearly cast some sort of spell on me to make me easier to capture. Why else would I have legs?”
He struggled against her iron grip, but he had no leverage. “Lady, I don’t have any ‘allies’, and I sure as hell don’t know how to cast a spell. Let me go!”
Her dark eyes flashed with anger. “Absolutely not. You will be a useful bargaining chip when those other hunters show up. Now tell me: who are you all working for?”
“I’m not working with any—”
She tightened her grip. “Don’t waste your breath on lies. You don’t have much of it left.”
Vince’s eyebrows furrowed as his patience ran thin. “I tried to help you, you crazy…” He stopped himself. She’s got you by the throat; getting mad isn’t going to do you any favors. “I cut you out of that net. Would a hunter do that?”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “True, you did. You also emptied out your flask on me.”
“And who do you think gave you that blanket?” he continued.
“What blanket?” she asked.
What blanket indeed? Vince’s eyes goggled as he realized she had left the metallic sheet behind during her attack. “It’s a space blanket, that aluminum foil looking thing over there.”
“What foil? What is an aluminum?”
He gulped, trying to keep eye contact. “Uh, miss? You may want to get back under the blanket before we continue.”
“Whatever for?” She shifted her weight, and Vince saw her lithe form in all of its glory.
Vince swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. At least her cuts are healed. “Let me rephrase that,” he said, more insistently. “I’m going to need you to put the blanket back on before we can continue.”
She frowned thoughtfully. “I still do not understand. And why did you close your eyes?”
“Do I have to spell it out? You’re completely naked!”
Vince had expected her to cry out in feminine modesty, or perhaps strike him. Her deep throated laughter caught him off guard.
“Oh, I see,” she said with a playful lilt, poking at his cheek. “I’ve seen Landmen wearing extra hides. I thought it was because you don’t have much blubber. I didn’t realize it was because you were so bashful.”
“It’s both,” he replied. “I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d cover up. Then I’ll answer all the questions you want.”
He breathed a sigh of relief when the orca woman’s weight lifted off of him. The space blanket’s crinkle told him it was safe to open his eyes again. His hand rubbed his bruised throat. “You’ve got a hell of a grip.”
She studied her fingers, flexing and unflexing them. “That’s good to know. I haven’t had it long.” Her tone had shifted from threatening to casual.
“You seem calmer all of sudden,” he said.
She laughed again. “If you’d been one of the hunters, a little skin wouldn’t have bothered you. You’re pretty much harmless.”
“I… am honestly not sure how to take that.”
“It means I will not attack you again.” She gathered the blanket around herself and began shivering again. “Son of a shark, it’s freezing! How do you deal with this? Even lousy otters have proper fur!”
Vince smirked at her. “Get closer to the fire. It’ll help while your clothes dry.”
“The what?” He pointed to the roaring flames. “Is that what a fire looks like? I’ve heard of them. It’s gorgeous.” She reached out with her newly acquired fingers.
Vince gently took her wrist. “Careful, don’t touch. It’s… well, you’ve never been burned. It’ll hurt very badly.”
She nodded, looking disappointed as she went back to hunkering. “Did you make this?”
“That’s right, miss. Say, now that you aren’t crushing my windpipe, let’s get our introductions out of the way. Vince Meyer, at your service.” He stood, reaching out his hand again.
She cocked her head at him. “You have done that twice. Why?”
“It’s a greeting ritual,” he said. “How do you orcas do it?”
She emitted a set of rapid clicks from her throat, all without opening her mouth.
“Yeah, I don’t know that trick,” he said.
She puffed out her chest. “Of course not; Landmen lack a decent vocal range.”
He let the slight go. “Like I said, I’m Vince Meyer. Where I’m from, it’s polite to offer your name in return.”
She nodded once. “Of course, my apologies.” Rising to her feet, she turned to present her profile to him and stood up on her tiptoes. Even then, he still towered over the woman. “You may also call me Bayla, of the Northern Kelp Forest Pod.”
“Bayla?” I guess she wasn’t going to be a Kathy or a Jessica. It’s pretty, though. “It’s a pleasure, Bayla.”
“A pleasure? I doubt it.” Bayla tsked at him. “I attacked you after you tried to help me. You have had a stormy day.”
Stormy? “I think we both have,” he said.
She chuckled. “It is an honor to meet you, Vincemeyer.”
He shook his head. “You don’t run it together like that. It’s Vincent Meyer, Vince for short.”
“Two given names? Interesting.” She walked over, taking his chafed hand in one of hers. The other was still occupied keeping her space blanket in place as a makeshift poncho. “You’re wounded.”
“It’s nothing,” said Vince, deepening his voice. Am I trying to impress an orca?
“That’s a relief,” she said, releasing his hand. “I was almost worried about you.”
Her toothy grin made his heart flutter, and Vince swallowed another lump in his throat. I’m trying to impress an orca. It’s been too long since I’ve been on a date. “So, uh, Bayla? How did…” He gestured at her. “How did you turn into a human?”
“An excellent question,” she said, cupping her chin thoughtfully. Human body language seemed to be coming to her quickly. “Some of the mages in our pod can turn themselves into a form that can walk on land, but I have only seen the spell performed. I must have cast it on myself in a moment of panic.” She looked down at herself and twirled around. “Not bad for my first time out! I have the proper number of limbs and am apparently comely enough to make you nervous. Mother always said I was a prodigy.”
Vince’s face burned again. “Wait, you can do magic?”
“Obviously, or I wouldn’t be in this form right now,” she replied, smirking at him. “I would offer to heal your wounds, but you assured me they were nothing.”
“W-well, if it wouldn’t be a bother…” He proffered his hands to her.
“I thought as much,” she said. “You are fortunate; I am more of a hunter than a mage, but every calf learns this spell.”
Vince raised an eyebrow. “More a hunter? I thought you said you were a prodigy.”
“Exactly. Imagine what I could accomplish if I truly applied myself.” Bayla shut her eyes and a golden aura surrounded Vince’s hands.
“What’s supposed to happen here?”
She glared at his hands like they had wronged her. “What is the matter? Oh, wait.” She focused again, the golden aura intensifying. A bubble of water formed around their hands, and the gleaming light flowered from her fingers into his, sealing the rope burns. When she was done, she gathered the reddened liquid into a ball in her hand, tossing it away to splatter on the needle-covered forest floor. “There, is that better, Vincemeyer?”
“Yeah, actually. Better than before I set out this morning. You took care of a nick on my thumb.” Her hands were surprisingly soft, and his heart sank a little when she released him. “So, what next? Sounds like you’re trying to avoid someone.”
Bayla frowned, looking pensive. “I should swim back home, if I can…” She bit her lip, a mistake with her pointed teeth. She covered her broken lip, using the lingering moisture on her fingers to cleanse the tiny wound. “That would involve changing back.”
“Can you turn back? You did cast that spell by accident.”
She fixed him with a haughty glare. “Not by accident! By instinct. Clearly I can transform any time I like. I simply do not care to.”
“O-oh, I see,” said Vince, not calling out the obvious lie. “I guess they wouldn’t recognize you.”
“Precisely! Besides, it would be a waste of a grand opportunity. I have never been to a Landman village before. It may be diverting.”
“Port Harrington is a tourist trap, so you picked a good place to wash up.”
She smirked at him. “Would you care to show me around?” She let the space blanket slip a little, which Vince knew had to be on purpose.
He managed to maintain eye contact. Mostly. “Hm, I was a little busy today…” Not strictly true, but I don’t want to seem desperate.
Her face fell. “A pity. I suppose I will have to return to the sea after all.” She turned and began walking away. She ran into trouble with the low hanging branches of the pine.
“Wait, let me finish!” He jogged over, raising the obstructing branches for her. “I was busy, but anything for you… for a guest.”
She flashed him a knowing, toothy grin. “If it is not a bother.”
“O-of course not.” So much for not seeming desperate. “I hope you don’t mind, but it’s a long hike back to my car.”
Bayla cocked her head at him. “A long what to your what?”