Nate watched as the trio approached and landed on the island, relatively unimpressed; they certainly weren't the first to make it that far. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling of foreboding that had settled heavily in his chest, and he almost wished they'd failed. Then he choked on his next breath, nearly dropping his binoculars as a native woman appeared on the beach out of thin air. He couldn't tear his eyes away, but the exclamations around him told him that he wasn't the only one who noticed. He'd never actually seen one of the island's guardians before, and he could hardly believe his eyes as the wind began to howl and the Armstrongs disappeared beyond the treeline. The woman turned to face him, and a shiver crawled its way down his spine as Nate got the feeling that she was staring into his soul. It lasted only a moment before she dove into the water and did not surface again. Nate couldn't breathe. Could there really be something to the mermaid rumors?
"Tell me you got that on camera," The producer muttered.
His words broke the spell, and Nate shook his head slightly before joining his peers in their excited chatter. Everyone had a theory, and they all seemed eager to get Nate's opinion on them. For a while all he could do was lean against the rail, halfheartedly listening to a few, preoccupied with the worries abounding in his own mind.
"AHHHHHHH," A scream carried out to them, making them jump. "HELP MEEEE! PLEASE! ABIGAIL, AUSTIN, HELLLLLLP M-" It cut off abruptly.
Now Nate really couldn't breathe; he'd sent them off to die. He was frozen in the midst of his admirers, invisible for all intents and purposes as they waited with bated breath. They didn't have to wait long.
Another scream, this time distinctly feminine, sent birds scattering from the treetops. Nate felt his nails biting into his palms and was sure the next scream would send him over the edge, but it didn't come. Instead, it was as if a wave of calm washed out at him from the island. He swayed, basking in the feeling as it swept over him again and again.
Without warning, it ended. Nate glanced down, brows furrowed, and found with a shock that he was perched at the edge of the ship, ready to jump. The other men, and a few women, were in similar positions with the unaffected teens holding them back by their shirts. Miriam gave a tug, and Nate stumbled back into her. He expected a sharp rebuke, but Miriam just stared at him with wide eyes.
"Are you okay? That freaky singing started and it was like you couldn't hear me. I've never seen anything like it."
"I'm fine, I think. Could you tell what it was saying?"
"No. Whatever that was, it wasn't English. Do you- Do you think it was trying to drown you?"
"I don't know for sure." He bit the inside of his cheek. There was something familiar about the situation, though the details eluded him and he couldn't fathom when anything like this could ever have happened before. "But it seems like it. The brainwash singing, the whole mermaid thing… What if it's true? Don't laugh." He added quickly, but again Miriam shocked him with her seriousness.
"I think you might be right. When I was a mermaid in that pageant a couple of years ago, I had to do a little research for my costume. A lot of the websites talked about Sirens: mermaids who sang to lure men into the water. It's crazy, but… This whole Mako Island thing has creeped me out since the start."
Nate considered her for a moment. Maybe there was more to her than he'd given her credit for. Still, when confronted with the possibility of actual supernatural creatures, he just couldn't bring himself to take it seriously. There had to be a reasonable explanation; mermaids weren't real.
"Jesus, we spent too much time around Zane when he was obsessed, and look where that got him. Though, a big mystery like this might cheer him up." Nate muttered the last part to himself; he was worried about his friend, but he still wasn't sure whether he wanted to virtually abandon his spotlight. Or that he wanted to drag Zane into whatever it was that seemed to want him dead. The thought was interrupted by the growing volume of the others' conversation, and Nate mentally set it aside to join in.
"I'm telling you, it's just hypnotism." One of the high schoolers who'd accompanied them, Claudia Martin, had her hands on her hips. The tension in the air was reflected by the rapid darkening of the sky.
"So when were we hypnotized? And why didn't it work on everyone?" Jason Harris's adrenaline from his near-drowning seemed to have redirected itself into fueling his temper. Lightning flashed. "Let me guess, you're just better than the rest of us?"
"Jason, dude, calm down." But Nate's efforts proved fruitless as Claudia thrust her finger at Jason's chest.
"There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. Magic!"
"I'm not about to listen to some crazed conspiracy theorist who-"
"HELP! HELLLLLP MMM-" The sheer panic in the cry, so abruptly cut off, gave Nate a queasy feeling that lasted long after the initial shock had faded.
No one dared to make a sound, struck with the unshakeable terror that they would be next. There was no question about the fate of the voice's owner. The reality producer sank to his knees as the sky finally opened up to unleash its torrent. Still, no one could bring themselves to move.
A heavy thud shook the boat, throwing everyone to the ground like so many bowling pins. Nate was forced into the railing, knocking the wind out of him. Wheezing, he tried to straighten himself but the boat heaved again and he was immediately thrown back down. He flinched as a loud splash came from somewhere right in front of him, and he jerked his head over the side to see if he could spot the man overboard. Instead, he found himself nearly face to face with a pale and unmoving Austin Armstrong. His siblings floated beside him, along with their camera. In the distance, three torpedo-like figures raced back to Mako beneath the waves.
Rikki let out a whoop as the palace came back into sight, finally allowing her pace to slow. The others soon emerged and echoed her, still dressed in their disguises. The clearing seemed thick with a palpable sense of wild abandon.
"They're all gone!" She crowed, neither capable nor particularly inclined to hide her excitement.
"We did it!" Zane lifted her above him and spun, laughing. "All thanks to my brilliant wife."
"Thank you, thank you," Rikki gave a few bows. "But it was a group effort. I mean, Emma was so scary it gave me chills." She winked.
Emma rolled her eyes, though she made no move to hide the color of her cheeks.
"Oh please. But it really was a brilliant plan, Rik. I'm pretty sure we scared them shitless."
"That we did. I just hope it was enough to keep them away from Mako long enough."
"Come on, Lewis, how could they come back after that? And who's going to believe them if they try to tell? We'll be fine." Cleo rubbed his shoulder soothingly, and Lewis's brow relaxed slightly.
"I know, I know, and we've certainly proved we can handle them. But eventually they're just going to get even more curious, and we won't just be dealing with teenagers and people our age; we'll need to be ready."
"We will be."
Nate was decidedly not pleased with the situation. He'd wasted his energy feeling guilty about sending the Armstrongs off to die, only for them to literally resurface with the proof required to win the contest and collect the prize. The contest that he, Nathan Cunningham, had created. To top it off, their bizarre story about magical island natives and a mermaid goddess, while obviously too outlandish to actually be believed, had actually attracted the attention of a few major news outlets. His only consolation was that he was getting some of the media attention himself, and that the Armstrongs were finally leaving the continent after their week of extended preening so he was finished with the annoyance of playing host.
His duties as host were the reason he'd had to postpone this particular mission, which so far had proven equally as fruitless as his attempt to win the Mako contest. He huffed and checked the slip of paper yet again, but he was indeed in the parking deck indicated. She just hadn't shown.
A scraping sound from somewhere in the darkness ahead made Nate jump, and he tightened his grip on the wheel, both thankful that he'd had the foresight to lock his doors and keep the engine running and frustrated that he'd allowed himself to be lured to such a sketchy part of town. He leaned closer to the windshield, squinting, trying to form the shadows into something resembling a possible source of noise. Or danger.
But there was nothing. He slumped back with a huff, only to jump again as a pale flash appeared at his door. Linda Denman just smirked as she peered in at him, drumming her nails against the window.
"What the hell?" He griped as soon as the glass had lowered enough. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
"Oh relax; no need to be so jumpy. Maybe you need your blood pressure checked."
"I didn't come all this way for a checkup, I came because you said you could help with the Mako Island problem. So help."
That wiped the smug look off her face, to his satisfaction, her mouth tightening as she regarded him seriously.
"You know the police can't do anything, and I'm sure you've also discovered that the military can't either, despite the suspicious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Will Benjamin. So if you're truly serious about investigating the island, you need to find someone with the same resources at their disposal, but without the same hangups about jurisdiction."
"And something tells me you have someone in mind."
"I do. His name is Butch Helman, and he leads a small but elite group of mercenaries. He's one of the best, but not cheap."
"Money shouldn't be a problem, just get me in contact with him," A sudden thought gave him pause. "What's in this for you, anyway? Why are you helping me?"
"The satisfaction of solving a mystery?"
He gave her a look.
"Fine, I want revenge on the assholes who blocked my research and I want to find out what they're hiding on that island. I don't want anything from you except the promise of sole rights to the study of Mako Island and its occupants."
"And you need me to take care of accessing the island to get what you want." He nodded, examining her. She might be a bit older, but it certainly hadn't had any ill effect on her looks.
'Yes,' He decided. 'I could see us working very closely in the future.'
"Alright, you've got a deal: sole research rights once I take Mako. Now how do we get started?"
Cleo trailed her fingers lightly along the soft leaves of the bushes lining the walkway, scanning the garden beyond for signs of a certain blonde merman. She'd already combed through the palace - which at this current moment she was cursing for being so expansive - but he hadn't been in the lab or the libraries or, well, anywhere.
"Cleo!" Nakia's cheery tone drew her attention to the pool in which she and Emma were lounging. "What's the hurry? Come splash around; the water's fine!"
She giggled, but shook her head regretfully.
"Wish I could, girls, but I'm trying to figure out where Lewis has swum off to!"
"Oh, I think I saw him headed to the cavern!" Emma called.
"Thanks, Em. Save me some water for later!"
She waved and altered her course to take her to the nearest fountain, each of which concealed an entrance to the complex underwater tunnel system below. She paused a moment to snag a few bananas off a nearby tree, tucked them into the satchel at her side, and dove into the fountain.
The glow of her royal tattoo faded back to normal as she swam through the enchantment Lewis had rigged over the entrance into the crystal-illuminated cavern. Sure enough, through the water she could see a dark opalescent tail. She broke the surface to find the rest of her boyfriend perched carefully in a low alcove, nose buried in a rather ancient-looking scroll. He looked up as she approached, face breaking into a grin that made her stomach flutter.
"Hey, what are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," She grinned back at him, resting her elbows on the cool stone beside him. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm not really sure," He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I keep feeling like I'm being drawn here, like something is pushing me to go through this stuff and learn as much as I can."
"No offense, Lewis, but that doesn't seem too odd for you. In the time that we've lived here, I don't think there's been a single day when you haven't been studying something. That's just you."
"No, no, this isn't like that, though. That's the way I've always been, like you said. Studying the science side of what we are, firsthand, it's what I've been looking for even when I was human. This is like… Like this deep part of me is trying to pull me away from the human stuff and push me to focus the Mer instead. I think," He swallowed. "I think our transformation changed us more than we think."
"What do you mean, love?"
"Well, look at us now compared to before we found the Herald. Back then we still enjoyed swimming, but our lives were dominated by human things. The Mer part was like a secret identity, a bonus part of our normal lives. But now, we are Mer. We speak Atlantean all the time, we spend way more time in nature than we do watching TV or other normal human things, and the only time we're even around humans is when we visit with our families. We have to face it; we're not the same people we were two months ago, and we may never be again. Shit, supposedly we're immortal! How can we know who we'll be in hundreds of years if we can't figure it out now?"
He looked at her like she held all the answers, and Cleo shifted uncomfortably under the intensity of the emotions pouring from him.
"I wish I knew what to say," She bit her lip. "You're right, Lewis; we may not be the same people. But we're not alone, are we? I have you, and you have me, and we have the others. We'll watch out for each other." She reached up to cup his cheek in her hand. "I'll watch out for you. Always."
Lewis's eyes softened, and he caught her hand in his larger one, bringing it up to brush a soft kiss across her knuckles.
"You're amazing Cleo, you know that? You always know how to make me feel better; it's why I love you."
Author's Note: Well, it's finally updated! The going has been slow, between life getting busy again and dealing with writer's block (so not fun). Thanks so much for reading and please review, it really helps motivate me and give me new ideas. Hope you liked this chapter!
Much love, Miss Luxe