Book 1: Chapter 3 (Reflections)
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Chapter 3

“Hiking is awful,” declared Bayla, her complaint nearly swallowed by the dense underbrush and near-constant birdsong.

“So you keep saying,” said Vince. For an orca, she sounds an awful lot like my buddy Luis. They had found their way back onto the marked trail at some point, though the orca’s mood had not improved much.

“Because it’s true!” She bent down to rub her shins, ignoring how her dress’ hem was getting muddy. Then again, the outfit had been half-ruined as soon as she had created it in a mud hole. Vince made a note that they would need to find her a replacement. “This was diverting at first, but swimming is far simpler. How do you stand this?”

“You’ll get used to it,” he said, stopping at her side. He hunkered down and winced at the developing blisters on her heels. He rummaged through his backpack for his first aid kit. “It’s a lucky thing your spell made you shoes, too, or you’d really be sore.”

Bayla’s face grew pensive again. “Shoes? Oh, these foot coverings? Yes, that is fortunate.” She focused again and a golden glow flowed across her muddy ankles, curing the angry red chafing. However, it spent the water in the slurry, leaving her coated in caked-on dirt. “Much better.”

“You should stop doing that,” he said. “You’ll do better in the long run if you build up some calluses.”

“I shall not be here long enough for it to matter,” she said. “Why are you so far away from your village?”

He shrugged. “I go out hiking for fun. It’s nice to get away from it all.”

Her jaw dropped, revealing her triangular teeth. “You walk for amusement?”

“Well, yes.”

Bayla’s only response was something between an exasperated sigh and a moan.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost to the car.” They set out again, though he set a slower pace this time.

“Good,” she said. “Is your village near the sea?”

“It sure is,” he replied. “Port Harrington’s got a great wharf with a lot of history. It’s a real tourist trap.”

She cocked her head at him. “Tourist? You keep saying that word; what is it?”

“People who come here to see the sights. We have the ren faire every summer, and a lot of artists run shops out of here.”

“I see,” she said, her frown betraying her lack of understanding. “Is that like a pilgrimage?”

“Sort of, yeah.” I guess an orca wouldn’t have much concept of a shop.

“Religious observance, I understand,” she said, nodding with an unearned confidence.

They arrived at the small parking lot shortly after. The asphalt had seen better days, and the lines denoting the parking spots were more memory than fact. A handful of cars and pickup trucks were parked wherever somebody found a space they liked, usually seeking the shade from the towering pine trees. Vince was a little surprised they had not seen anybody else on the trails, but he was satisfied with their good fortune.

I don’t want to have to explain why we’re covered in mud, and why she’s dressed all wrong for a hike. Somebody might get some strange ideas.

“Is this the ‘car’ you referred to before?” asked Bayla, pointing to a red pickup truck. “That lovely red color reminds me of the fire.”

“Close, it’s the hatchback at the end of the lot.”

“More hiking,” she groaned.

Vince pasted on a thin smile. “Tell you what, you stay here and I’ll pick you up.”

Funny, he had never felt so self-conscious about the Meyer-mobile before. It had been his since High School, earned over a summer working double-shifts at the local drive-in in between his normal duties at the shop. It was a clunker, but it was his clunker. It got him from Point A to Point B, but not often through Point C, the carwash. When it was prime hiking season, it was only going to get dirty again.

Still, knowing Bayla was about to ride in it, the Meyer-mobile’s filthy state stood out like never before. It was in need of a good cleanse, though the rainstorm before had peeled off some of the splattered mud and pollen. She probably won’t know the difference. Nice thing about dealing with a newb at being on land.

He brought the car around, and Bayla stood before the passenger door with her eyes wide. She pressed herself against the side of the vehicle. Vince could not make out what she was saying over the engine’s purr. She seemed flummoxed by the glass window. It took him a minute to realize she had no idea what a door handle was for.

“Do I smash through this barrier?” Her shouts penetrated through the thick glass, even as she cocked her fist back.

“Wait, stop!” She obeyed, thankfully. As he put the car in park and hopped out, he reflected that this was the disadvantage of her lack of experience. I’ll have to be more mindful.

“That was astounding,” she said as he opened the door for her. She remained outside the car to study the still-idling vehicle. “What made it move?”

“It’s complicated,” he said, trying to think of terms that would make sense to her. “I guess you’ve seen ships get around with their big engines, right? It’s like that, but on a smaller scale.”

“Engines? Is that a word for sails? I don’t see any…” Her eyes looked up at the rearview mirror and she trailed off, an instant before an ear-splitting shriek filled the parking lot.

“What? What’s the matter?” Vince was at her side in an instant, looking for what could have so frightened her.

“My face! My… my everything!” Bayla shoved past him, clutching at her head as she began to pace back and forth in front of the hood.

“Huh?” Vince narrowed his eyes. She’s clearly upset, but why? “You already knew you changed, didn’t you?”

“You don’t get it,” she said, running her hands down her bare arms. “The form my people use to visit the land doesn’t look like this!” She peered at the Meyer-mobile’s windshield. “This ‘car’ is completely filthy.”

Vince winced. So much for getting one past her.

Her hand glowed again, drawing the moisture from the air into a sphere the size of a volleyball. She lashed out, splashing water all across the windshield to give her a clearer view in the larger reflection. “No, this is all wrong. I’m completely indistinguishable from a Landmaiden!”

“What should you look like?” asked Vince.

Bayla ignored him a moment, pulling down her lips to study her triangular teeth. “Those are normal, but I shouldn’t have so much hair. My dorsal fin’s missing, and my skin should be white and black! And this blowhole shouldn’t be in the middle of my face.”

“I… see. Would it help at all if I said I liked how this form looked?”

“Of course you do; I’m still me.” She turned away from the reflection. “How did this happen?”

“You said it was your first time casting the spell,” he offered. “Maybe you made a mistake?”

“Mistake? This isn’t a mistake, this is a complete backfire!”

“Or, it’s the best transformation spell ever,” he countered. “If you looked like you were describing, I wouldn’t be able to take you into town.”

She turned, eying him suspiciously. “Why not? Because of the hunters?”

“No, because…” Well I might have gone running if some were-whale had appeared instead of a helpless person. Er, not that she wasn’t already a person, but still. I didn’t know that until she changed. “Because everybody in town would have panicked.”

“Why should they?” she demanded, her hands on her hips. “We come ashore all the time!”

“Not around here you don’t,” said Vince. “Wait, treaties? With who?”

“The kingdoms of the coastlines,” she replied. “You Landmen love to overfish. Rather greedy of you, when you already have the land to yourselves. We have to keep you in check.”

That made no sense to Vince. Kingdoms of the coastlines? Did she mean Washington and Vancouver BC, or something different? Is she one of the demons Luis said the government was keeping secret? No, he never said anything about whales.

“If I turned into a Landmaiden, what if I can’t turn back? I need to find Mother and the others.” She rubbed at her eyes. “Why is saltwater leaking out of there? A-and there’s a knot in my throat. Am I ill?”

He decided to put a pin in his questions. Those could wait; Bayla was clearly distraught. He took a step closer, putting a hand on her shoulder. She flinched at the unexpected touch, but he flashed her a reassuring smile.

“I don’t know much about magic, but if magic made the problem, I’m sure it can fix it. You are a prodigy, after all.”

Bayla grinned up at him. “I am, aren’t I?”

“Besides, this isn’t the time to try and reverse it,” he replied. “Imagine trying to hike back to the beach on your flippers.”

She chuckled at the thought. “Very well, I shall not worry for now. I will count my blessings that I have the right form for the job. It does explain some things,” she said. “I should be much taller than you, and broader. I thought you were a giant!”

“Good thing you aren’t, or you’d have to ride in the back. Speaking of which, we should get going.”

Bayla nodded, though she stopped again to admire her reflection in the mirror. Vanity chased away her panic. “Vince, as Landmaidens go, am I pretty? I feel like I am.” She traced her hands down her sides, emphasizing the curve of her hips.

It was his turn to have a knot in his throat. “I already said so.”

“No, you said you liked it; that’s different than true beauty. You could be a deviant.”

His eyebrow twitched, but he let it slide. “Any Landman would find you attractive.”

She nodded once. “Of course; I wouldn’t do subpar work. It is only natural I’m a beauty.” She frowned, looking at his reflection towering over her petite form. “I would not mind being a bit taller. Maybe tall enough to look you in the eyes?”

“You can figure that out later, too,” he said. “Though it isn’t a bad height for you.”

A thought crossed Vince’s mind as they made their way back to the winding dirt road that connected the national park to civilization: if she had taken this form by accident, then she might be staying more than the day.

There’s worse things. Even if nothing Bayla said seemed to add up, that could wait for another time.

Thanks for reading!

I’ll be getting this caught up with Chapter 8 this week, and then we’ll be switching to a 2 chapters a week posting schedule.

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