(1) Seashells in your hair
The first thing I recalled when touching the earth was how soft the soil was beneath my bare feet. The ground here was moist and pliable. Unlike the firm rocks of the mountains.
I held the fragile package tightly in my palm. It was my reason for being here, that and it’s receiver.
I had met Aqueam while chasing my brother Hangul. A beast like me but of different birthright, and yet being older he still seems to be as reckless and a hatchling. He runs down the mountain on human feet and buries himself along the sand on warm days, summoning rain and flashes of fire amongst the skies.
Hangul had dove far into the water and was most likely toying with me, but I had stepped into the surf anyway. He was the more prominent swimmer, seeing as water was as out of my element as I could get. When bright green eyes had suddenly popped into my vision I had gasped out in a flurry of bubbles and summoned the air to funnel down and ****** me out.
I huffed at the memory, definitely not my most flattering moment. The beach was bare and the booming crash of waves hurt my delicate ears, causing them to pin back against my head in distaste.
Aqueam and I had met up frequently. The delicate frame of tanned pink skin went by ’they’. Something I had never heard of but I definitely was in no place to pass judgment. They were half selkie, a seal-like creature that could change between the animal in question and a human form, and a siren. The sirens I had heard of the selkies I had not.
We met between the hours of midnight and dawn. Hangul was most often preoccupied in thought and mother was normally curled up in a hole somewhere so there was no one to question my disappearance when I left.
I had been to this beach many times but I had yet to take Aqueam my residence in the clutch of mountains I c, tonight mother had been in my path when I went to leave again tonight.
While staring at the void of sky above me I let my mind wander. Mother had scolded me again for leaving the mountains. “To risk your hide for a sea creature makes you even more of a fool than the ones who hunt us.” She had said in the venomous rhythm of growls and huffs.
Mother still refuses to take on human form. It makes her even more foolish to think I cannot watch out for my own skin.
While I disagree with her, I do understand where her reasons place. She is a beast of the stars. Her home is above the mountains and in the void of night. While I am a creature of the air. Dissolving into it and harnessing it is my birthright.
For me to suddenly risk my safety for a sea dweller, concern is advised. Aqueam, while reckless and stupid at times, is utterly worth it. To even glance at them in the soft moonlight is worth the sacrifice of my safety.
And then there is the matter of my devotion. Simply colleagues. Nothing more nor anything less. And while friend seems like a poor word to describe whatever this feeling is, it is the only word that can name it and not overcomplicate it.
I run my fingers over the silken cloth in my hand. This is foolish. Absolutely foolish. I spent my time to craft a ridiculous gift that they might not even understand.
I used my knowledge of craftsmanship and magic to create two hair sticks with spiraled shells seeming to flow into the wood. As one might make a piece of jewelry or clothing for one they are courting.
I waited. Keeping watch as to ensure no one interrupted the serenity of the evening. That would only lead to disaster. Most likely involving swords and bows.
I’m startled from my thoughts by a soft thud against the sandy shoreline. Looking up, I see Aqueam pulling themselves out of the water. I approach but otherwise remain silent.
“Ahh Heilong! Wonderful to see you.” They laugh with no venom in their voice. It’s somewhat soothing and alarmingly disarming.
“It good to see you too, Aqueam,” I reply with as much openness as I can muster. They smile up at me, making the stars seem to dim in comparison.
He holds up a finger in a ‘wait a moment’ gesture and I can see as his tail morphs into two pale legs covered by a silvery fabric. He stands and pulls the cloth over his shoulders and buttons it where the neckline meets.
He’s dressed in deep green shorts and a blue blouse that seems to ripple and shift into purples and whites. I swallow around the tongue in my mouth and keep my eyes trained to their face. A very soft face. Something not commonly found in either selkies or sirens.
Their cheeks are riddled with freckles and you can painfully see more of them travel downward if you glance at where the shoulder of their blouse is hanging on loosely to their skin.
“Aqueam.” I state gently. “I made this for you.” They make grabby hands for the object. The silk package is placed gently into their waiting palms and a grin breaks across that delicately freckled face as they carefully unwrap it.
“Heilong as much as I appreciate the gift I have no idea what these are.” The two wooden sticks roll in their palm and the shells knock against each other with light cuffing noises. They toy with the shell ends, and even I must admit they are quite beautiful. I think they came from this beach in all honesty.
“They are hair sticks. And I must admit I do not love the name, but they are very useful.” I motion for them to hand the sticks to me and they comply. Aqueam turns around so I have access to the back of their head.
I direct the beautifully red hair up into a ponytail and twist it around itself until it’s in a bun. I take the two shelled sticks and pin it in place against their skull.
My mouth suddenly feels far too dry at the realization the their freckles are more prominent back here, and that their shoulders are tanned a barely brown. Which is too be expected from swimming belly down for most of one’s life. I fight the urge to trace the freckles path with my fingers and muster out an “I’m finished.”
Aqueam lets out a happy noise and run up to the water’s edge to admire their reflection. I placed the bun rather low on their head. Something I normally refrain from doing, but Aqueam’s face isn’t best suited for a high bun.
“I love them! Thank you, Heilong.” They chitter excitedly. While they run back over with their arms open, there is a falter in their step.
“Is it okay if I hug you?” They ask suddenly. I can feel my ears twitch upwards. An embarrassing response but a natural one. I try to flatten down the nerves spiraling in my gut and reply. “Yes, I suppose that would be alright.”
A bright joyful grin fills my vision and Aqueam’s arms pull me into a tight hug. I lightly settle my hands on their upper back and wait while Aqueam does their best to squeeze my torso.
The peaceful moment is ruined by the all to familiar rumble at the base of my neck. My instincts urge me to rake my nails through flesh and let loose of my mortal guise.
Why must every good moment be ruined?
I let out a growl and lightly pull away from the hug. Aqueam’s face looks up at me, a mixture of confusion and worry etched into their features. “Hei-, what’s wrong? Are you alright”
“Yes.” I reply. Even though it doesn’t feel like the truth. The insistent growl of anger in the back of my mind flares and I clutch the side of my head. Mother. She wants me home. I can feel it in the familial bond we so inconveniently share.
“I do believe I must return home, Aqueam.”
I pull them against me, as if for another hug, and whisper into the delightfully pale ear in front of me.
“I will meet you here again tomorrow at first light.” I muster up as much finality as Ipossess. “I have another surprise for you.” I add after three seconds of questioning my own sanity.
I pull away briskly and let my form dissipate. Even as I become one with the air I catch the slack-jawed expression of my colleague. They look startled and… pleased? Or am I reading it wrong? Emotions have never been my strong suit.
No matter. I must hurry home. Sounds that quite resemble a thunderstorm are echoing inside my skull and if I don’t stop them soon I may not be able to think clearly enough to fly.
I reach the opening of the cave with ease. It’s dark from the outside, ominous and threatening by design. I cross the threshold and heave a sigh of relief as the pain behind my eyes ceases.
“You are late young one.” Comes the chitter of one of my siblings. I peer over to see Hangul reclining, in human form, against a column of glossy black rock. “Mother was about to have your head.”
I nod with a displeased huff. Of course, she wants me home. Even though it’s still deep into the night our mother worries about our safety as if she was designed for it.
“What of Phì-siâ?” I ask of our brother while patting my silken robes down where they had become rumpled. I needed to wash them soon. A thin layer of dust is clinging to the fabric and it was firmer where salt and water had ingrained itself.
“You know -Siâ.” Hangul laughs. “He’s late again. If nothing but to agitate our mother.” I huffed and went to sit over by him.
I may be the most “well behaved” of my siblings. But with Hangul constantly sleeping and Siâ purposely enraging our mother any chance he gets, it’s not that high of a standard.
A deep melodic sound forces my ears upward inattention. Much like horses in that regard.
While it’s not any human tongue, I recognize the words with ease. ‘Where is the eldest?’I recognize between the symphony of growls and purrs that emit from deeper into the darkness of the cave.‘Has he decided to not show himself?’
“No, mama,”Hangul says next to me, seeming to straighten in a palace. I have a stranglehold on my emotions and keep my face void of expression.
‘Heilong.’ She growls out, a sharp pang of venom laced in her words. ‘You’re here. I thought you had gone off to visit that piece of ocean filth you have decided is more important than your flesh and blood.’
I can’t tell if she means I’m risking my life or I’m risking my family. Both sound like threats and I feel the sharp points of nails bite into the flesh of my palms in warning. I struggle against the snarl creeping across my face and breath deeply against the feeling of blood pooling in the dip of my hand.
“No mother. I’m home. And they aren’t filthy or impure despite your views on the matter.” She growls at that, sending a spike of fear up my spine. Both me and Hangul jump where we sit as we hear the sound of impenetrable scales dragging against smoothed rock echoes across the walls.
A litany of light cascades against and bounces off of the obsidian walls, reflecting blues and pale yellows against my skin. A single claw the size of my human chest hits the ground just outside of the darkened cavern wall in the back of the cave.
Her regal face peers into vision and it’s almost impossible to focus on anything else. She is in her beastly form, yet beast would be the last word to describe her. She has the look of a queen. Of someone who can crush the world underfoot as if it’s a daily activity.
Her blank white eyes find where I’m sitting and even without pupils I know she’s staring at me. Her head of pearly horns weave in and out resembling a crown and her body is covered in iridescent jade and deep blue scales.
I whither under the force of her glare.
Phì-Siâ chooses that moment to come padding into the cave. He’s in his pixiu form. Something I know mother despises. He didn’t inherit our mother’s reptilian scales or horns but instead takes on the form of a regal lion with feathery wings of that of a bird of prey jutting from his back.
He didn’t inherit powers over the elements as Hangul and myself have. He soars through the skies as if it’s his conquest by days and by nights he curls up under the light of the moon.
Mother never seems happy to see him. And often enough he avoids her as often as possible. Leaving a happy middle ground for me and Hangul.
Today was obviously not one of those days.
Mothers head snaps sideways to peer at her eldest son. His golden coat is gleaming in reflection of her light. His stance widens upon seeing her and a snarl erupts from his throat.
‘You.’She snarls. It contains no traces of motherly love. No hints of compassion or semblance of empathy. Only pure bitterness and spite.
“Why, hello mother.” Siâ exclaims jovially. It’s quite loud and mocking in my ears.
“Mother.” I state harshly. “Was there a reason for calling us to you? It was very immediate and interrupted something important.” She just growled at me and turned to return into the recesses of the cave. Hangul, who had laid down completely against the floor at some point, started snickering.
“Is there a problem, Hangul?” I say his name bitterly. Mother huffs at being ignored an slinks against the back wall. Phi-Siâ just chuckles and morphs back into human form.
“Oh nothing, dear brother.” He covers his mouth, giggling into his hand. “I’m just upset you and your little boyfriend got interrupted.”
I feel myself bristle with anger, and glare daggers into Hangul’s chest. “They are not my boyfriend.” I state roughly.
Phi-Siâ just clasps a calloused, dark hand on my shoulder and let out a bellowed laugh. “You have nothing to worry about little one. Although,” he raps his chin. “A sea dweller? I would have expected something like that from me, not you.”
I flush in shame. “You two are quite literally the worst.” Hangul chuckles and says “Siâ, be sure to tell me how it goes. I’m late for something.”
He leaves in a gust of dripping wind and Phi-siâ just laughs with amused eyes and a particularly annoying smirk.
A peek at the entrance of the cave told me it would be a few more hours until sunrise. I groaned internally, wishing for daylight to approach so I could return for the beach when mother was asleep and hiding at the bottom of the mountain.