Bayla staggered back at Vince’s declaration like he had slapped her. His apologetic face might as well have been a physical blow. I do not need anyone’s pity!
She felt her face flash as jabbed her finger at him. Some part of her knew she ought to calm down, but she boiled over. “What? Impossible! Champions do not steal the strength of their mistresses; we only lend them some of our mana and magical talent. It has nothing to do with physical power.”
“Maybe normally, but none of this is normal,” he replied. “Didn’t you wonder why Nanora could wrestle you?”
That was strange… Bayla’s dark eyes widened. “I-I am sure she used a spell to enhance her strength, or to steal mine.” Her voice raised towards the end of the declaration as her confidence began to crack.
“I have no spells like that,” said Nanora, her apologetic face irking Bayla even more. A wave of the witch’s hand had her back in her civilian clothes. “There may be spells like that in the archives, but I’ve never learned them. The Prismatic Order focuses on summoning and morphic field manipulation.”
Bayla stared at her hands, clenching and unclenching them into fists. Nothing felt different, but her performance in the fight had been pitiful. I struck the last blow, but that was because I manipulated my Aqua Armor, not because of my strength.
Her pale skin grew paler as she replayed herself confidently charging in against the two summons, Aqua Spear in hand. “M-Marazza wanted me alive. I-if those two landbeasts did not have the same orders, I would have been…”
Bayla felt like she was falling apart; her knees shook, and she felt like there was a typhoon in her gut. Saltwater leaked from her eyes, and Vince’s strong arms wrapped around her. She struggled against his embrace, but his grip was as unbending as coral.
“It’s alright,” said Vince. “We’ll figure it out.”
For just a moment, she let herself return his touch. Was this so embarrassing? They had shared a bed, and she had embraced him a few times since their meeting. Besides, I feel so safe, and he is handsome as landmen go. If I must be a Landmaiden, it might not be so bad if I am with…
Her face went lobster-red and she forced those deviant thoughts from her mind. “Let me go! It is unseemly for a champion to be so familiar with his patroness.”
He released her, but kept a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Sure, but we’re friends too, right? You looked like you needed it.”
Vincemeyer’s blue eyes still had the same patronizing pity she saw in Nanora’s. Are they right to look down on me?
She steeled her jaw and dried her eyes, rubbing her tears and adding them to her depleted Aqua Armor. No! I am still a warrior and a leader of the Pod, by all the shades of the abyss! She thrust her hand towards the fallen Aqua Spear at their feet; a thought turned it back into water, and the equivalent of a one-piece swimsuit turned back into her original clothing, save that it ended above her knees.
“We will need a source of water,” she said, rubbing the last of the sadness from her eyes. “I must rebuild my armor.”
Vince shrugged, seemingly content to let sleeping sharks swim and not probe her confused feelings further. He did always seem sensible enough. “Plenty of places we can do that. One of us needs to go grab Luis, though.”
“Please wait a moment.” Nanora had not intruded on their moment, but she had not let the time go to waste. She had pulled out her scanning crystal again and slowly circled the pair. “I see, I see! That explains so much.”
“What do you see?” asked Vince.
Nanora donned her reading glasses, the same set she had worn at the store before. She peered at the thumb-sized crystal, studying its shifting color patterns. “Well, from the beginning, I was able to track your magic field once I found that dagger. You have a distinctive magical signature, which is basically unheard of among down-planers.”
“That’s news to me,” said Vince. “I didn’t know magic was real until I met Bayla.”
“That’s where things become unclear,” said the witch. “Did you even have that magical signature until yesterday? What I can tell is that your morphic fields have been completely corrupted, and you are tightly linked to each other.” She waved the crystal in the air, showing the readouts as though either of them would have the slightest clue. “You keep passing magical information between each other. You two read like you are one being now.”
Vince’s eyes went wide; Bayla almost felt some relief that he could be as flustered as her. “Is that possible?” she asked.
“In theory, no,” said Nanora. “I do not think you actually are merged, but I also have never had a chance to study Blackfish Champions before. Maybe the grant of magical talent is behaving normally?”
“It absolutely is not,” protested Bayla. “He stole my strength! How in the Abyss did that happen?”
“Not on purpose,” murmured Vince.
“My best theory?” Nanora bit her lip thoughtfully. “When you transformed into your humanoid form, your strength from your full body was contained in your new, smaller form. If you pack the power of a blackfish into a human, they would seem almost godlike. However, that was not exactly natural. It might have been some instinctive magic, or a byproduct of having your default form being changed.” She nodded Vince’s way. “When you made him your Champion, it was passed along to him.”
She rose up on her tiptoes, trying her best to stare Vince down. This would be easier if I was taller again. “Vincemeyer, you need to return that spell to me. I am almost completely helpless!”
“Um, sure.” He reached out and took her hands. “Okay, now what?”
“I hoped that you might know,” said Bayla, dropping back onto her heels. “There is a spell for revoking Champion-hood when the danger has passed or if the champion is unworthy, but I never learned it.”
“Y’know, for a prodigy, there’s a lot you don’t know about your magic,” groused Vince.
Bayla felt her eye twitch. “Do you feel anything bubbling up inside of you? Can you move it about? Magic feels like a whirlpool inside of you; imagine if it was beset by winds or waves.”
Vince closed his eyes and grunted. “Sorry, I’ve got no idea what I’m even looking for.”
“Wonderful! Simply wonderful!” Bayla released his grip and set to pacing, the crunch of shifting gravel marking each step. After nearly tripping, she adjusted the lifted heels into a copy of Vince’s tennis shoes. Why my Aqua Armor took such an inefficient form is beyond me. In fact…
She copied his plaid shirt and blue pants wholesale again. The shirt was soft and billowy, while the pants reminded her of the hard but pliant texture of sharkskin, minus the teeth. “Much better.”
“At least you’ve got your Aqua Armor still,” he said. “Anyway, we’ve been in one place too long; I doubt whoever sent those Kaleekos after us is going to let up now.”
Nanora nodded, taking a seat on her staff. “I’ll go collect Luis.” She shot off with a speed that turned Bayla’s stomach; heights were bad enough on the land, but the idea of falling at such high speeds filled her with more dread.
Bayla was forced from her reverie by a cough from Vince. “Hey, I am sorry about all of this. I had no idea this could happen.”
“These are new waters for me too,” she replied, looking down at her hands. Especially now that I am so soft. No stronger than one of those Landmaidens I saw at the concert, save for Aqua Armor and weapons.
Bayla finally understood something Vince had said when she had been inebriated, about the risk she had run letting her guard down around those strange men. Sharks don’t just live in the sea. Jorge and his companions had proven harmless, but she was surrounded by dangers that had seemed beneath her concern before. She had gone from an apex predator to a seal in a sea of sharks and orca.
Feeling tiny and vulnerable, Bayla wrapped her arms around Vince. He rocked at the unexpected embrace.
She kept her face buried in his shirt. “Did you mean what you said before? That you would be my tooth and fluke?”
“Yes, of course.”
She felt herself smile for the first time since Luis had stopped their van. “I am glad that it was you who stumbled across me, Vince Meyer. I cannot think of another Landman I would want to be my champion.”
“You don’t know a lot of them,” he said, punctuating his joke with an awkward laugh.
“Then it is lucky I found one of quality. Please, continue to look after me until we can get to Greene Point. Then we can get this all sorted out.”
“Y-yeah,” he replied. Bayla felt some satisfaction that he was just as out of his depth as she.
Bayla did not see the look of surprise on Vince’s face at the sudden confession. Neither noticed the only crow who had not dispersed with the rest at the start of the fight, or the unnatural, green glow emanating from its eyes. It tilted its head, as if responding to a voice that only it could hear, before taking flight away from the man and orca.