Disclaimer: The Power Rangers in general and the Rangers of Aquitar in particular do not belong to me. Nor do Cestria, Ninjor, and the Hydro Hog. My only inventions here are various townsfolk, the se'kanan, and Coldtooth and the other Razorfins.
Author's Note: I started this story a long time ago - specifically, some two or three years ago. If anything here isn't as good as my current work, I apologize. I've done my best to spruce it up.
Cestria forced herself not to turn around as she listened to her parents' footsteps moving steadily away from her. They never hesitated, as far as she could tell, and she refused to look back to be sure. It would shame them, both in seeing that sign of weakness in the daughter they had such high hopes for and in her seeing them showing that same weakness. She couldn't help but wonder, though, if they would miss her as much as she would miss them.
Well, there was no use in worrying over it. As long as anyone could remember, all the way back into the most ancient times, Aquitian children were sent to the Hall of Learning as soon as they were old enough to look after themselves adequately. Cestria thought her parents must not have been looking forward to sending their only child out on her own; they had allowed her to live with them for a time even after she had reached the age of maturity.
She kept her eyes fixed firmly on the door of the building, trying to keep herself focused. The massive hall was a daunting place, built entirely of gleaming white marble with a set of pretentious steps sweeping up to the wide doorway. The doors were the only welcoming things she saw at all; they were flung wide open to admit any incoming students. They would remain open all day, but as soon as night fell, they would shut again, and they would not admit any more newcomers until the next year. This night, also, they would release any would-be students who couldn't pass their admittance exams.
*That would be so humiliating,* she thought, her footsteps slowing as she reached the doors. They were larger than they had seemed from a distance, and even open, they were formidable. *I've never taken an exam before. What if I do poorly? I don't think I could stand watching those doors shut me out, and my parents would be so disappointed. Why couldn't I have waited another year or two to grow up?*
"Name!" barked a voice.
Cestria jumped. The voice seemed to come from nowhere at all. She cast around, searching for the source, and finally noticed a man in a green uniform standing in the dark hallway beyond the doors, half hidden in shadow.
"Name!" he repeated. "Come, child, you don't have all day. Gawk later. What's your name?"
"Cestria," she said. "Daughter of Pylaric."
The man in green took out a thick notebook and flipped through it, muttering, "Cestria, Cestria," to himself, as if he might forget it.
"Ah, here," he said at last. "Yes, you're on the list. Go down that hallway and turn left. The tests are being issued in room 106. Just follow the signs."
"Thank you, sir," she replied. She slipped through the doors like a minnow darting through the seaweed that waved just beyond the glass walls of the dome.
Tap, tap, tap... her footsteps echoed loudly in the bare rooms. Everything here was very grand, a bit overwhelming to a girl from the outskirts of the pod-cluster. Her family seldom ventured into the inner pods. Noow here she was, right in the middle of one of the most prestigious buildings in the city. She tried to take some courage from that, looking at it as an adventure. That helped a little. So did the presence of easy-to-follow signs that led her to the testing room without mishap.
The room, she discovered, was already full of other students, some working on their entrance exams, the others amusing themselves quietly. A tall, thin, gaunt-faced man presided over the event with a dour expression, which he turned without alteration to Cestria as she walked into the room.
"Welcome," he said, without a trace of any such thing in his voice. "I am Ossodil, Headmaster of this school. You will refer to me as Master Ossodil. Take a seat at any of the empty desks, and I will issue your test. You will answer as many questions as possible. Do not lie, do not make up any answers and do not copy anything anyone else has written on their papers. You will regret it if you do. If you do not know the answer to a question, leave it blank. Do not guess. Are there any questions?"
"No, Master Ossodil," Cestria answered, a bit dazed by the monologue.
"Good. Sit down, and I'll be with you in a moment."
Cestria nodded and went in search of an empty seat. There were still several of these, clustered in the back of the room as well as scattered amidst the other students. Working in a secluded area would probably make it easier to concentrate on her work, but Cestria was eager to make new acquaintances in this overwhelming new place.
*The sooner I make new friends, the sooner I'll stop feeling homesick,* she told herself. She picked out a seat among a few of her peers and began examining them with a curious gaze.
To her left was a dark-skinned boy, serious-looking even for an Aquitian. He was still hard at work on his test, his pencil flying across the paper as if the answers might get away from him if he didn't move quickly. In front of her were two other boys, obviously known to each other, judging by the easy way that chatted and laughed. They were apparently done with their tests, and they were now amusing themselves by telekinetically arranging a pile of interlocking sticks together in midair, seeing how complex a pattern they could create before they lost their mental grip and let the construction fall. On her right, a solemn boy in black had also finished his work, and was now filling the margins of his test paper with drawings, depicting multi-legged sea creatures climbing up the page. The teacher was not amused. As he passed the boy's desk, he snatched up the paper with a glower.
"This is not a proper place for artwork," said Master Ossodil sternly. "From this point onward, you shall draw no octopi upon your test papers!"
A few of the students found the phrase funny and began to giggle. Master Ossodil looked up sharply, and all of the children became immediately occupied with something else. He frowned fiercely, but there was no way of pinpointing who had snickered. He turned back to Cestria and dropped a thick packet of paper on her desk.
"Fill these out, as completely as possible, please," he said.
Cestria nodded and began to answer the questions, hesitantly at first, and then with more confidence. She had been afraid that the questions would be difficult, but most of them were actually quite easy. Though some of them were obviously there to test her knowledge, just as many of them seemed more concerned with her personality - her likes, dislikes, hobbies, even her favorite colors! Whoever had written the test had done so cleverly. Putting the more informal questions toward the beginning set her mind at ease, and she was relaxed enough by the time she reached the difficult ones to think clearly. As nervous as she had been when she had begun, she would have gone blank and forgotten half of what her parents had taught her if she'd begun with questions of higher mathematics. She hoped it was an example of the kind of teaching that would be at this school. It would be very dreary if all the professors here were as stern as Master Ossodil.
She finished sooner than she would have expected, and she sat up to stretch and look around. The two boys in front of her had given up on their construction, and were now playing some kind of game with a deck of cards and some colored stones. The artist had taken out a stack of clean paper, on which he could draw octopi to his heart's content. The boy in back of her was also done with his test, and now had poured a boxful of metal parts onto his desktop, and he was busily piecing them together with a set of tiny tools. His hands moved with great skill, and the bits and scraps came together as swiftly as if he were working a child's picture-puzzle. He noticed her rapt fascination and smiled at her.
"Salutations," he said. "I am Cestro. Who are you?"
"Cestria," she answered with a shy smile.
Cestro grinned at her. "We have something in common! How nice."
"What are you doing?" she asked him.
"Building. Just watch. I'll be done in a minute," he replied.
During the whole conversation, his hands never stopped moving. Piece by piece, his creation began to take shape, until Cestria could see that it was meant to be a crab. He added a few final touches to it, twisted a key in its underside, and wound it up.
"Give it a push," he said, indicating a small lever.
Curious, Cestria touched the switch, and it clicked to one side. The crab began to walk, wobbling along and clacking its claws just like a real crab. Its beady eyes bobbed on their stalks. It lumbered around in circles a few times before it finally ground to a halt in midstep.
"Fantastic!" said Cestria. "You're very clever. It's so realistic!"
"It was nothing, really. I make them all the time for the children at home," Cestro answered, but he looked pleased nonetheless. "You may keep it, if you like."
"I would't want to rob you of your creation..." Cestria began.
"Think of it as a gift. I can always make another," said Cestro. "Crabs are easy... so are octopi, for that matter," he added, with a nod in the direction of the artist.
"It's not my fault that the Headmaster has no appreciation of artistic talent," he said. "I think my drawing is rather pleasant, is it not?"
He held up his finished masterwork. The picture he had drawn was of a very large octopus crawling through the classroom, holding a man with an exaggeratedly gloomy face in one tentacle. Cestria giggled.
"Quite pleasant," Cestro agreed.
Just then, the door of the classroom opened, and a new student walked in. There were gasps and murmurs in the crowd of students, including from Cestria. The new arrival was a young woman with a regal countenance and long flowing hair. Looking at the way the two boys in front of her were staring, Cestria couldn't help running her fingers through her own short, dark fringe and sighing. The girl was very beautiful, but it wasn't just her appearance that was drawing attention. There was something about her face and eyes that put her on some other level from the other students. A silver scarf was slung over one shoulder and held beneath the other with a seashell pin. The Headmaster bowed slightly to her as she entered.
"My lady Delphinia," he said. "Welcome to the Hall of Knowledge."
"Thank you," she said politely.
Trying his best to seem grand and important and managing only to look nervous, Master Ossodil ushered the young lady to an isolated seat and handed her the entrance exam without any of the stern lecturing he had given the other students. She took out a pen and began working quietly, ignoring the stares of the other students and giving them no looks in return.
"She is... quite aesthetically pleasing," said the artist.
"I agree completely," said one of the two boys. His friend, the thinner and quieter of the two, just looked at her, shrugged, and went back to shuffling his cards.
"Have any of you been introduced to my friend here, yet?" asked Cestro, indicating Cestria.
"Not as of yet," said the artist. "I am Corcus."
"I am Aurico," said one of the two boys, wrenching his attention away from the blonde girl, "and this is Tideus."
"Greetings," Tideus said with a smile and a nod. "Who might I have the pleasure of addressing?"
"My name is Cestria," she answered. "Pleased to meet all of you."
Just then, a bell began to boom out the hour - midday. Everyone looked up from their work or play as the Headmaster rapped on his desk with a pointer.
"Meal hour has begun," he said. "If you have not yet completed your tests, close the booklets and turn them in, and I will hand them back to you when your meal is over. If you are already done, you may explore the grounds. Report back here when the next bell sounds to receive your test scores. Proceed in a quiet, orderly fashion, if you please."
"Come," said Aurico to Cestria. "You can eat with us."
"I'd like that," she answered.
She tucked the mechanical crab in her purse and trailed along after Aurico, Tideus, Corcus, and Cestro. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the young woman who had caused such a stir with her entrance as she carefully folded up her test and carried it up to the front of the room. She kept her eyes to the floor, and no one spoke to her. It was as if someone had placed an invisible shield around her that kept her from noticing or being noticed by anyone.
"Who is she?" asked Cestria, pointing in the girl's direction.
"A noblewoman," Cestro explained. "Or the daughter of one. The sash represents her status."
"I suppose that means she will not be associating with us," said Aurico - a bit wistfully, Cestria thought.
"It appears she does not care to associate with anyone," answered Corcus. "How sad."
"I'll tell you about something sad," Tideus said. "Headmaster Oh-So-Dull and his speeches." He pulled his narrow face into an exaggerated glower and said pompously, "Ahem! I do hereby decree that thou shalt not deface thy test papers with octopi! Starfish shall only be allowed on alternating weekdays! Violations shall be dealt with most harshly!"
The others abandoned their masks of proper solemness and let their serious expressions give way to laughter.
"Oh, my, you sound just like him!" said Cestria.
Tideus winked at her. "Perhaps you should report me for copying."
"Stop fooling around," Aurico scolded him. "We are not children anymore. Try to behave like a civilized being, please."
"I dispute that," said Cestro. "There is nothing uncivilized about seeing something foolish and presenting it in such a way that it is seen as entertaining rather than insulting. As a matter of fact, I think that a sense of humor is something we might do well to have more of - as long as it is not taken to extremes."
"You do have to admit, the Headmaster is a bit too serious about his work," said Tideus.
"And he doesn't appreciate art," Cestria added. "I thought they were very nice octopi."
Corcus smiled and bowed. "Thank you. So glad you approve."
"You are not from the city, are you?" Aurico asked her.
"No," Cestria replied. "How did you know?"
"Your accent," said Cestro. "City people do not talk like that. You sound so... informal."
"Do not take it as an insult," said Tideus quickly. "Just keep it in mind. You will have an easier time fitting in here if you are more careful not to mark yourself as an outsider."
"Oh," said Cestria, a bit taken aback. She had never even thought about her speech as a barrier between her and acceptance.
"Hey, don't worry, we're here for you anyway!" said Tideus, in an uncanny imitation of her own lilting speech.
"Thank you," she said. "You all are from the city, then? Do you all know each other?"
"I know him," said Aurico, nodding to Tideus. "We grew up together."
"All of us were early arriving," said Cestro. "We explored the campus together, so we are all somewhat acquainted with each other."
"And what about me?" Cestria asked.
"You?" Corcus considered. "You just fit. I have no explanation as to why, but you do."
The others nodded solemnly. Cestria glowed. Fitting in was easier than she'd hoped.
When the evening bell rang, all the students crowded into the room to collect the results of their tests. There were almost twice as many as there had been before, owing to the new arrivals, and the room was very crowded indeed. Cestria and her friends had difficulty finding seats close together, and she ended up sitting with two strangers in front and back of her, Cestro on her right, and the aloof Lady Delphinia on her left. She offered the young noblewoman a shy smile and was met with a cold glare. She looked away quickly.
"Are you nervous?" Cestro asked her.
"Very," she replied honestly. "I've never done anything like this before. I would hate it so much if I had to go back home. My parents would be so ashamed."
"I have faith that you will be accepted," said Cestro. "You do not strike me as unintelligent. Only the most hopeless are turned away."
"I hope you're right," she said. "My parents wanted so much for me. We don't have a lot of money. They wanted me to live a better life than they did."
"If you made it this far, I think you have nothing to worry about," he replied. "Look around you. How many other females do you see?"
Cestria did as she was told, counting. There did seem to be a disproportionately small number of females present, and most of them wore scarves or sashes that marked them as part of the upper crust, though she couldn't see anyone other than Lady Delphinia who wore a silver scarf.
"I think I'm outnumbered," she said.
Cestro smiled reassuringly. "You have made it further than most young women do. Most of them do not even bother to try. You will do well."
Just then, the Headmaster rapped sharply on his desk. "Order! Order! May I have your attention?" he shouted.
The room fell silent as all eyes turned to him. Cestria held her breath. Next to her, Lady Delphinia was calmly inspecting her fingernails, as if this were all very dull and unimportant.
"I have the results of your tests," Master Ossodil said, gesturing at several stacks of envelopes. "In these, you will find your scores, your selected courses of study, and your roommate assignments. You will report to your rooms for the night once you receive your scores. If any of you are caught trying to exchange rooms, you will be dealt with most severely. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Master Ossodil," the students chanted.
Cestria tried to stifle the urge to squirm in her seat as the teacher went about the laborious process of distributing envelopes. The other students were doing such a good job of preserving the illusion of unconcern... or maybe this all was no big deal to them. She had heard that there were some who didn't care for the idea of going to school, but it had always struck her as strange, not like something she would ever encounter in her lifetime. How could anyone be so calm when their future was at stake? Perhaps they had family businesses they could go into, or could arrange for apprenticeships somewhere, but Cestria didn't think she could bear going back to her home pod and living the rest of her days as a farmer.
Her hands were shaking when she finally accepted the packet. It was heavier than it looked, made of thick, rough paper that completely obscured whatever was inside, and she hesitated to open it. As long as it was shut, she could go on hoping that the news inside was good.
Cestro ripped his envelope open with the tip of a small screwdriver and spilled the contents across his desktop. The top sheet had a large red stamp on it, spelling out the word, "ACCEPTED." In other parts of the room, cheers and groans could be heard as the other students learned their fates. Lady Delphinia actually yawned as she slit her packet open with one perfect nail, glancing casually at the acceptance letter before pushing it back in the envelope again. Cestro looked at Cestria with curiosity.
"Are you going to open it?" he asked.
She shoved the packet in his direction. "You open it. I'm too afraid."
Cestro shrugged and did as he was told. His screwdriver slashed the envelope open in one easy stroke, and he peered inside. He slid out the top sheet. Cestria covered her eyes.
"It says, 'You are hereby accepted to the School of Healing. We congratulate you on a job well done and welcome you to our school.'"
Cestria looked up in complete shock. "I got in? Really? I made it?"
"It appears so," Cestro replied. "Do you want your papers back now?"
To Cestro's amazement, she leaped out of her desk and hugged him. She took the envelope from his nerveless hand while he was still realizing what had just happened. He turned to stare at her in puzzlement as she read over her acceptance letter again and again, smiling broadly. People did not act like that in the city at all - not, he reflected, that it wasn't a charming mannerism.
Eventually, Cestria felt comfortable enough with her achievement to look at the rest of her packet. There were two schedules, one for the schoolwide events and one that outlined her daily classes. There was also a set of well-drawn maps, so that she wouldn't get lost in the sprawling campus and massive buildings, and a list of rules and regulations. The very last page was her rooming information - her dormitory, room number, and the identity of her roommate. By the time she reached the bottom of the page, she was feeling as shocked as she had when she had been as she'd listened to Cestro announcing her acceptance. She let out a small gasp.
"You certainly are excitable," said a voice.
Cestria proved the speaker right by jumping. She turned to face Lady Delphinia.
"You're going to have to get used to it," she said, with boldness born of her surprise. "We're going to be roommates."
Cestria was the first to arrive in her new room. It was a good room, she thought, as she surveyed the neat little cube of space she would be occupying for the next few months. The walls were painted pale blue, and the floor was carpeted in a darker shade - nothing luxurious, but enough to keep the room from looking stark. The two matching beds were arranged beneath the windows that looked out into the open ocean, offering a pleasant view of fish and plant life. Everything was arranged in a mirror-image style, with desks and wardrobes and dressers all facing each other across the room. Right now, it looked very plain, but that would change quickly once someone moved in and started adding personal items. She had a few of her own things, but they were mostly practical rather than decorative, and she briefly considered whether she could convince Corcus to part with some of his artwork to adorn her walls. She wondered what kind of decorations her roommate might have.
Closer inspection of the room revealed that both beds had small name tags resting on the pillows. Cestria stared in puzzlement at the card that bore her own name, wondering why the school felt the need to monitor her life right down to which bed she slept in. She had been hoping for a bit more personal freedom than that! She hadn't realized just how spoiled she had been back home, where she had been free to come and go as she pleased. Before homesickness could renew its grip on her, she dropped her suitcase on her bed and set about the chore of putting all her things away. Lifting out the first of her outfits, she went to open the wardrobe... and everything made sense. She laughed aloud.
Hanging in the wardrobe were a row of school uniforms, all in royal shades of purple and gold. She trailed her fingers across the smooth material of one of the shirts, touching it lightly, as if she thought it might tear or vanish. She compared it to the simple garments she held in her other hand and decided she could forgive the school for taking away some of her freedom. Even a noblewoman like Lady Delphinia wouldn't find any fault with these clothes.
"Where is she, anyway?" Cestria wondered aloud. "It doesn't take that long to get here."
She looked at the door, half-expecting the words to cue the young woman's appearance, but she did not arrive. Cestria shrugged. Delphinia wasn't very friendly, anyway, and in the meantime, she had new clothes to try on. Not caring that there were only a few hours left of the day, she slipped out of her more ordinary costume and into one of the school's outfits.
Just as she was pulling on her new gold boots and wondering where the school had discovered her shoe size, the door finally opened, admitting a rather puzzled-looking Lady Delphinia. Cestria looked up in curiosity.
"They refuse to change it," were Delphinia's first words.
"I'm sorry. Change what?"
"Our room assignments," Delphinia replied. "I asked if one of us could be reassigned, but they said there was nothing they could do. I am sorry."
Cestria was glad she was sitting down. Lady Delphinia was apologizing to her?
"Sorry? Whatever for?" she managed to ask.
"Because you have to live with me," said Delphinia. "I know you would prefer living with someone... closer to your level."
"What do you mean?"
Delphinia didn't appear to be listening. She had started a speech, and she intended to finish it without interruption.
"And we are not even studying the same subjects. You will be a Healer - you need the company and guidance of other Healers. I will be learning only how to rule when my parents are gone; there is nothing you can learn from me."
"Let me get this straight," said Cestria. "You're upset because you think I should be upset that I'm living with you?"
"Well, yes," Delphinia replied, looking startled. "Are you not?"
"Of course not!" Cestria replied. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"My parents. They told me that the ordinary people would not want to talk to me. They said no one here would be able to understand me... and I was afraid I would not understand you. I have never had the opportunity to spend time with many people, until now. I know nothing about what you talk about or what you do or how you act-"
"And how do you expect to learn if you never talk to us?" asked Cestria. "How can you ever expect to lead people if you don't know how they think?"
"I don't know!" said Delphinia unhappily. She sounded so completely lost that Cestria couldn't resist trying to comfort her.
"Oh, now don't get upset!" she begged. "It will be all right, really. Just relax." She rested a comforting hand on the other girl's shoulder and felt her flinch away.
"How will it be all right? I have no idea what I should be doing," said Delphinia.
"You can start by learning to talk to people. We really don't bite," Cestria assured her. "I know people who would love to meet you."
"Some of my friends," said Cestria, thinking of Aurico and Corcus. "I'll introduce them to you tomorrow. I think you should like them."
"You are so lucky to have friends here already... but it is easy to understand why. You are a very kind girl."
"You talk like you don't have anyone."
"Well, you have me," said Cestria. "You aren't the only student in this school who has to learn to fit in. Don't you think I stand out?"
"Now that you mention it... your accent is a bit distinct."
"Then I'll tell you what. You tell me how to get by in the big city and I'll help you meet some people. Deal?"
Lady Delphinia finally smiled. "You will do well here, I think. You certainly have enthusiasm. I think I will accept your offer. What is your name?"
"I am Lady Delphinia... but you may call me Delphine," she added, almost shyly. "It is what my family calls me. If we are going to be friends, I would rather not have to deal with titles."
"Thank you. I'm honored," said Cestria.
"You mean you are honored," Delphine corrected her gently. "We will have to work on that, I think."
"I know. I really will try," Cestria said. "So, tell me about where you came from. I want to know what it's like to live in a palace."
"It was not a palace... but I will be glad to tell you about it anyway if you tell me about where you grew up. Perhaps we will learn something from each other, after all."
Cestria caused a bit of a stir when she arrived at breakfast the next morning. Actually, it was Delphine who drew all the attention, walking alongside her roommate and chatting quietly. All the other students in the room stared, intrigued at the sight of the aloof young noblewoman and the shy country girl walking side by side as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Cestria smiled quietly, enjoying the thunderstruck looks of her other friends as she sat down at their table.
"Good morning," she said. "I hope none of you mind that I brought a friend."
"All friends are perfectly welcome," said Cestro. "It is an honor to be visited by such a distinguished guest."
"Thank you," Delphine answered. "May I know who I have the pleasure of addressing?"
"This is Tideus," said Cestria, "and that's Aurico, Corcus, and Cestro. Everyone, this is Delphine. She's my roommate."
"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance," said Delphine graciously.
"The pleasure is ours," Aurico answered with a slight bow.
"Enough formalities!" Tideus cut in. "I find them very tiresome. Can we please have some real conversation?"
"What would we talk about?" Corcus asked.
"For starters, what about our classes?" asked Cestro. "What is everyone taking? I have Mechanics, naturally."
"Today, I have Beginning Medicine," said Cestria.
"Art," Corcus said with a smile. "They planned to put me in some other course, but they liked the pictures I drew on the test so much that they changed their minds. It would have been a waste of talent, they said."
"I told you they were nice octopi," Cestria replied.
"Self-Defense," said Aurico in bored tones, "and Military History. Someone has decided that my destiny is to be a soldier."
"You would be good at it," Tideus replied. "You were always better at it than I was. I'll be taking Natural Sciences."
"All your studies sound so much more interesting than mine," said Delphine. "I have been assigned Politics, and I will be the first to tell you that there is no drier subject in the universe."
"Everything becomes dull if you do it often enough," Corcus pointed out. "Interest comes from curiosity."
"Then why do you not grow bored with your art?" Delphine asked.
"Because, Art is a passion, and one does not grow bored of passion."
"You look so serious when you say that," said Tideus.
"I am serious," Corcus answered, looking affronted.
"I think he was teasing," said Aurico.
As the boys began an argument, Delphine watched, smiling with faint amusement.
"You have very interesting friends," she said to Cestria. "I might enjoy listening to them."
Cestria smiled back and nodded. "I think you might."
The discussions continued well after they had finished their morning meal, and Delphine eventually grew comfortable enough with her dining companions to join in the debate. Cestria was pleased; her new group of friends seemed to be working out just fine. As Corcus had said yesterday, they all just fit with each other, in the same mysterious way all their new school uniforms fit. They didn't part company until the bell began to ring again, warning students that it was time to go to their classes. They said goodbye to one another before hurrying off to other parts of the shcool, and Cestria found herself walking alongside Aurico.
"You really are living with Lady Delphinia?" he asked.
"She prefers to be called Delphine," Cestria replied. "And yes, I am."
"What is she like?"
"Well... she's rather reserved, but very nice once you get to know her. It's just that she has been raised to be so proper, and she never really had any real friends before. That's why she wouldn't talk to anyone the first day."
"I see," said Aurico thoughtfully. "We will have to make sure she is not lonely here."
"I agree," Cestria said. Aurico didn't appear to hear her.
"Well, it has been nice talking to you," Aurico said. "Enjoy your classes. I will see you later."
Before Cestria could reply, he darted down a hall and was lost in the crowd. While she was still trying to adjust to his abrupt disappearance, another one of her friends miraculously appeared next to her.
"Hello again," said Corcus, smiling shyly.
"Hello," she said. "If you are looking for Aurico, he went that way."
"Well, actually, I was looking for you," he admitted. "Or, well, actually... I did want to ask you a favor. It is not anything large. I was just wondering if you might possibly talk to Delphine and... just put in a good word for me. Please?"
Cestria looked into his pleading eyes. A number of replies went through her mind, but she settled on the easiest.
"I'll be sure to do that," she said. "Perhaps you could visit sometime? Our room is a bit bare. Your artistic touch would be very welcome."
His look of apprehension melted away to a smile. "I would be glad to. Thank you, Cestria. Have a good day."
"You, too," she replied. He waved goodbye to her as he wandered away.
*He's so nice,* Cestria thought, *and so talented. I'm sure Delphine could learn to like him... but what would Aurico do then?*
The only part of Aquitar where none of the pod-cluster cities had been built to illuminate the deep ocean was in a place where the water was eternally and impenetrably black. No lights would pierce it, and it was bitter and unwholesome to drink. No Aquitians could live long in the blighted place - that strange black water didn't provide them the revitalizing forces they needed to survive. However, the rumors told that there was still something living in the depths of the Dark Waters.
Some said he was true Aquitian in origin, metamorphosed by magic or dark science. Some said he was a remnant of some ancient race that had all but died out. A few thought he was from some other world altogether, but most deemed that unlikely. It seemed most probable that he was some kind of mutant, both like and unlike the more peaceful Aquitian beings. He was a bloated, fishlike creature of great power and evil temperament. He called himself the Hydro Hog.
A servant, limp and shriveled as dead seaweed rotting on the shore, half slithered into its master's throne room. Its skin had a diseased look, as if it were withering and falling away even as the creature still lived. It tottered along on skeletal legs, its form hunched and scuttling, as if it expected to be whipped at any moment. The whole thing looked like it might decompose and fall to dust where it stood... all except for its eyes. They were very alive, wide and full of fear. Trying to pull the rags it wore around its body so that it would be covered in some semblance of decency, it padded into the darkness of the great hall.
The hall echoed. Water bubbled and dripped from pipes running up and down the walls, and the sounds of rushing and dripping rebounded off the room's slick surfaces until it sounded like the chamber was about to be flooded. The servant tried to block out the noise, but the floor itself trembled from the constant vibration, and he couldn't help shivering as well. He knew all that water meant power, and this was the center of the power. It could all be turned on him at any moment. For a moment, he was frozen in place, teeth chattering in blind terror.
"Who's there?" growled a voice from the shadows. "I hear your miserable knees knocking! Come out and show yourself, coward!"
"P-p-p-please don't hurt me, my lord!" the thing begged. Its voice was a thin squeak.
"I'll hurt you if I feel like it! Don't you tell me what to do!"
The servant shrieked and fell prostrate, quaking. Out of the darkness, the mammoth form of his master came to loom over him, and he kept his face pressed to the cold, damp floor, not daring to look up. The Hydro Hog kicked him in the ribs, and a crackling noise resounded through the hall. The servant shrieked again, but remained where he was.
"Well? Speak!" the Hydro Hog demanded. "If you don't tell me what you're doing here and tell me now, I'll have you thrown on the beach to bake like the half-rotten jellyfish you are!"
"The p-p-p-plans," the servant whispered weakly. A bit of blood fell from its lips and dripped on the floor. "They... are... comp-p-p-plete."
It gave a final, shuddering gasp, and then lay still. The Hydro Hog kicked it again, but there was no reaction. He snapped his thick fingers, letting the dull pop ring through the air. Other creatures glided out of the shadows, forms with sharp fins making jagged silhouettes against darkness.
"Dispose of that," he said, "and then rally the rest of the guard. We're moving out."
"All right, Cestria. Stay just like that, perfectly still."
"This isn't a very comfortable position. How long do I have to stay like this?"
"Just a little while," Corcus assured her, his pencil flying across his sketch pad. "Just let me rough it in, and then you can stretch a little. This is only for practice, anyway."
Cestria, Corcus, Cestro, Aurico, and Delphine were gathered in a small courtyard, working on various homework assignments. Delphine sat primly in the grass, delicately turning over the leaves of a dull-looking book. Cestria was also peering at a book, trying to read it without moving around too much and spoiling her pose. Aurico was free from such encumberments as paper and pencils; he was practicing his routines for his Self Defense class, making sure that Delphine could plainly see how skilled he was. She did glance up at him occasionally, but that was just as likely to be because her book was so boring, rather than any particular interest she had in him. Cestro was sitting in the corner with a small electric device in his lap and a toolbox in front of him, frowning as he tried to coax the machine into working. Every once in a while, it would shoot off a spark, making everyone jump, and Corcus would have to erase a line from his drawing.
"Why is it always Cestria you ask to model?" Cestro asked, pausing to glance at his friend's progress.
"Because you aren't pretty enough," said Aurico. Corcus ignored him, but Cestria giggled a bit.
"She is a very good model," Corcus explained. "It takes real talent to sit perfectly still for so long."
"My arm is full of pins and needles," she complained. "Are you sure I can't move yet?"
"Go ahead. I finished that part already."
Aurico finished his set of exercises and went to have a look at the picture. "That is very nice. You have made a remarkable likeness of her."
"As I said, she is a good subject," said Corcus, but he sounded pleased nonetheless.
"Might I have a look?" asked Delphine, putting her book aside.
"Well, it isn't yet finished, so I'm not sure-"
"Everyone else gets to look," Cestria interrupted. "Hold it up, Corcus. I want to see, too. I promise I won't say anything if I don't like it."
"Oh, all right." Corcus held up his sketch pad like a white flag of surrender, and the girls leaned forward to peer at it.
"Oh, that's nice!" said Cestria. "But it isn't fair. You draw me prettier than I am."
"Not so," Delphine said. "I think it is a perfect likeness. You are a wonderful artist, Corcus. I would rather have talent like that than be a queen."
"Thank you," answered Corcus, blushing slightly.
Just then, Tideus dashed into the courtyard, grinning broadly.
"There you all are!" he said. "I've been searching for you. I was starting to think I would have to leave without you."
"Leave?" asked Aurico. "Where are you going?"
"Up," Tideus replied.
"Up?" Cestria repeated. "You mean, to the surface?"
"Precisely," answered Tideus. "It is my assignment for my Natural Sciences class. I am to go to the surface and collect specimens of the plant life, and I have been given permission to borrow a small aquacraft. Would any of you care to join me?"
"A brief respite would be welcome," Delphine admitted, closing her book.
"I'll come," Corcus added. "The light is different up there. I should be able to capture some interesting views."
"Count me in," said Aurico. "I haven't been to the surface in ages."
"I've never been there at all," Cestria added.
"We will all come," said Cestro decisively.
"Fine. Follow me, then," said Tideus. He turned and began walking away, beckoning for his friends to follow. Carrying their various personal belongings, they hurried along after him.
Cestria was amazed at how calm her friends were as the little aquacraft floated up through the dark waters. Tideus guided the ship with the expert touch of one who had done what he was doing a hundred times, and the others chatted with each other as if they were only on a bus to the library. As for Cestria herself, she stayed near the window, watching the city grow further away and the water shade from midnight to royal to turquoise blue. Little colored fish flitted by, different than any she had ever seen on the ocean floor. Then they found the shelf of a nearby island, and there was coral and anemones and even more rainbow fish. If the shallows were this exotic, what must the land be like?
"This is where we are heading," said Tideus, pointing at a small green blip on his map. "It is a bit out of the way, but I'm hoping to find something there that no one else brings in. The more specimens we can gather, the more complete our study will be."
"Are you sure it is prudent to go wandering around on unexplored islands?" asked Cestro.
"It will be all right," Tideus assured him. "This is only a very small island. I doubt any of us could get lost even if we tried, and large predators like wide spaces. Just be careful not to step on anything that bites."
"Nothing would dare bite Aurico," said Delphine.
"Oh?" asked Aurico. "Why do you say that?"
"Because," she answered, "I would not put it past you to bite back."
Aurico looked insulted. Delphine gave him her most regal smile, and Cestria giggled.
Soon, the craft slid out of the water and lay on the beach like a tired sea turtle. Aurico opened the door and took the first steps out into the air. The others followed nonchalantly. Cestria stared.
"It's so bright!" she exclaimed, shading her eyes from the brilliance.
"No water to protect us from the sun," said Tideus. "Strange, eh? You'll adjust in a minute."
"Oh, I don't mind. I think it's beautiful!" Cestria replied.
She stepped out on the sand, watching the water lapping at the shore. She had heard of currents and tides, but seeing the water moving was another thing entirely. It was odd, too, being above the surface instead of hundreds of feet below it, and not being surrounded by immeasurable gallons of water. The air up here was lighter... and it moved, she realized in amazement, just like the water. Everything here was so alive.
"Is it not incredible?" said Delphine, standing at her friend's side. "I remember when I first saw all this as a little girl. You remind me of myself - so excited."
"I am excited," Cestria admitted. "Just look at all the flowers! They have nothing like this back where I come from."
"They do not survive well under the deep waters," explained Tideus. "Explore a little, if you like. I will be busy here for a while."
"I think I'll do that," Cestria agreed. "Who knows when I'll have another chance?"
She ambled along the beach for a while, savoring the tangy sea-smell and listening to its hypnotic rushing. A few pink and blue seashells were half buried in the sand, and she picked up a small collection of them. The seagulls fascinated her, things that moved through the air like fish. What held them up if there was no water beneath them? Then, off in the distance, she spied something, a blackish lump lying on the shore. Curious, she moved a little closer... and screamed.
Her friends came running, but froze in their tracks as they spotted the object in the sand. It was a body, something shaped almost like one of their own kind, but horribly deformed. Its dark skin hung loosely from its skeleton, as if the muscle had been drawn out, leaving only an empty husk. There was something leprous about that skin, or perhaps molded, dark and slimy. The face was frozen in an expression of pain and horror, with a faint splotch of blackish blood at its mouth. The eyes were open and staring, glazed in death.
"What is it?" asked Tideus.
"Better ask, what was it?" Aurico replied. "I think this thing has already taken its last breath... whatever it is."
"It looks to me as if it has been gone a long time," said Corcus in faint disgust. "Do we have to stand here and look at it? It's probably rotten."
"No, look here," said Cestria, overcoming her aversion enough to kneel next to it. "This blood is fresh. It hasn't been here more than a few hours, I think. It's resting peacefully. It looks like it didn't have a happy life. Poor thing."
"I have never seen anything like it," said Cestro, moving closer to get a look at it. "Is it one of us, or..."
"I recognize it," Delphine said quietly. "It is se'kanan. They were bred as slaves."
"But that's not possible!" Aurico spluttered. "Slavery is outlawed! No one would dare keep a slave these days, and they would not leave it here on the beach for someone to find if they did."
"How many people come on the beach?" asked Tideus rhetorically. "This is a remote island. No one ever comes here except for students like us... and most of those go to the islands that are a bit more conveniently located."
"I cannot explain how this creature came to be here," said Delphine. "I was told that the se'kanan perished centuries ago, and yet this one lived when the sun rose this morning."
"Maybe we should go home," Corcus said. "Something wrong is going on here."
"If something wrong is happening, we ought to look into it," said Aurico. "We could find it. There is not a lot of ground to cover. We could search the whole island in no time."
"Do we want to find whatever caused this?" asked Cestria.
"Someone needs to look into it," Delphine said, "but I do not know if we are the ones."
"If someone does come out here, they would want more evidence than this," said Tideus. "There is only so much that can be divined from a dead body."
"I say we have a duty to investigate further," Aurico insisted. "There is no need to launch a full-scale attack, assuming there really is something here. All we need to do is explore a little and see if we find anything suspicious."
"I concur," said Tideus. "There is a crime being committed somewhere, and I say that if we can prevent it, we should."
"Delphine, let's go with them," said Cestria, "for the sake of this poor creature. Nobody deserves to live like this."
"Oh, very well," Delphine said. "You do have a point. Let us make an exploration, but can we please be careful?"
"Of course," said Aurico. "We can split up in pairs, and we will all meet back at the aquacraft in a half-mark. If anyone is not back by that time, we go searching for them."
"A good plan," Cestro agreed. "I move we follow it."
There were murmurs of agreement. The group paired off, Aurico with Tideus, Cestro with Corcus, and Cestria with Delphine. With a few final exhortations to be careful, they set out, each team in a different direction.
Cestria was relieved that Delphine chose to go into the forest. She was still a little in awe of her friend, and she didn't enjoy arguing with her unless it was absolutely necessary. Still, she might have said something if they had continued walking along the beach. The sun was not at all pleasant as it beat on her sensitive skin, and the contrasting shade of the trees and humid air was a blessing. The trees held in the moisture of the earth, and that meant she would dry out that much more slowly. Besides, there was so much more to see in the forest - every kind of vegetation imaginable bloomed there, and strange animals and birds roamed through the foliage. It was hard to imagine that anything sinister could really be happening amidst all this splendor.
"How did you know the name of that thing?" asked Cestria. "What did you call it? A sek... seka..."
"Se'kanan," Delphine supplied. "It is actually part of an old legend. I only half believed that they existed at all, but that one matches the descriptions I have heard perfectly. The legend says that centuries ago, there arose from the depths of the earth a terrible demon, or some kind of monster. They called it the Taker. It had the power to steal the life right out of people's bodies and leave them drained of all strength. Some of these people were stolen and poisoned, body and spirit, until all they could ever be were the monster's slaves. That is what se'kanan means: it is broken. However, the legend also said that a mighty wizard came and brought forth five lights, and the lights became warriors that fought the monster off and banished it to the darkness forever." She considered a moment. "No one ever mentioned what became of the se'kanan, though. Perhaps some of them are still living, somewhere."
"I hope that's all it is," Cestria said. "I don't want to think that whatever created that thing is still out there, hiding somewhere... maybe here."
"How could it be? That happened a thousand years ago, if it happened at all."
"I know, but some things live that long. And we have physical proof that the legend has at least a little reality in it."
"All legends do," said Delphine with a shrug. "A wise man once said that it is best not to believe in things until you have a good reason to think that they exist. As for me, I will not be believing in demons and monsters until I see them."
"I see something," said Cestria. "Do you see it? Up ahead, there's something white."
Delphine stared. "I believe you are right. That does not look natural. Do you think we should look more closely, or should we go looking for the others?"
Cestria paused and examined her find. It was difficult to see from this distance, not only because there were so many trees and bushes in the way, but because the structure itself was so overgrown with vines. It was only here and there that she could make out a glint of white stone. She thought she could pick out designs beneath the foliage. It must have been a magnificent place once, she thought, admiring a statue that peeked out at her among the leaves. It almost looked like a temple.
"I think it wouldn't hurt to look," she said. "There is something about this place that doesn't feel evil. I think it might even welcome us."
They moved forward. The closer they came, the more they could pick out the details of the structure. The outside of it seemed to be covered with carved designs, sculptures of animals and fish leaping across the walls, half-lost in a sea of greenery. Even the profusion of plant life did nothing to dim its inherent beauty. The vines only softened the angles, without disguising its graceful lines, and a multitude of colored flowers bejeweled its surface and cast up their perfume as incense.
*There's no one here,* thought Cestria. *Whoever built this place took pride in it. They would never let it be overgrown like this if they were still here to look after it.*
"Look!" said Delphine. "I think I can see a door."
They ascended the front steps, being careful to avoid tripping over the snarled vines. There was indeed a large stone door set on pretentious metal hinges, which had somehow managed to resist rusting or corroding over the years - they looked as if they had been forged yesterday. The door had probably been closed long ago, but probing roots and stems had gradually forced it open a tiny crack, revealing mysteriously inviting darkness within the temple. Unfortunately, those same climbing plants were holding it firmly in place, and it didn't look as if it would move again, except on their terms. Cestria and Delphine exchanged looks.
"It is a bit daunting, is it not?" Delphine commented.
"Even if all those plants and things weren't in the way, I still don't think I could move that," said Cestria. "It's too bad. I wanted to see what there is inside."
"I rather doubt we will be able to, unless we come back with several helpers and several pairs of hedge trimmers. Besides, if there is no one here, as appears to be the case, I do not think we will learn anything relevant to what we wish to know."
"Maybe," Cestria admitted, "but I still wonder..."
She trailed her hand along the edge of the door, stirring the leaves. A little shiver ran through the vines, not only where she touched them, but across the length and breadth of the door and onwards across the floor and ceiling, rippling beneath the feet of the amazed onlookers. The portal creaked a little on its hinges. Cestria touched it lightly, and it swung open, almost of its own accord. What little light there was spilled through the opening, pointing the way.
"Well," said Delphine, "that was an omen if ever I saw one."
"Have you ever seen one?"
"Not until now. Come. I think we are meant to explore here, after all."
They slipped silently through the door. It did not, as they had half expected, slam shut on them, but continued to stand there just like a normal door, and not one that opened by itself at a touch. Nor did any magical lights spring into being as they entered. The most remarkable thing was that the meager light that did filter in managed to reflect and scatter throughout the room so that, even if it wasn't precisely bright, there was still enough illumination for them to see where they were going. All they needed was that tiny touch of magic to show them all there was to see... practically nothing.
They walked in slowly, the hard soles of their boots clicking loudly in the empty room. Though the room was all but empty, there was the feeling of significance was heavy in the air, warning them that their presence was only accepted, not welcomed. All they could see were bare walls, painted with more beasts, birds, fish, and stars, forming patterns that could only be half- seen in the darkness. The floor was done in a mosaic, depicting a large circle with extending rays around it set in the middle of the room. The far wall had a kind of altar set against it, inlaid with a large round glass, slightly curved, like a lens. There was writing above it, but the characters were unfamiliar to Cestria.
"Can you read these?" she asked Delphine. "Or are they even words?"
"They are words. It is an old language... I am not sure I can translate all of it, especially in the dark."
In response to her words, the crystal on the altar lit itself, throwing up rays of light like blue fire. Delphine's jaw dropped in a most uncharacteristic expression of disbelief.
"All right, maybe I can read it now," she said. "It says... let me see... 'A world of water, a world of earth, and a world of three to make three - these shall come together to wield the Power in times of need. In this place, the Power came to rest. Let all people of Aquitar remember.'"
As soon as she finished reading, the light went out... but not quite. Sparks still danced across the crystal, as if it were not yet sure it had finished its task. The two girls stared at it.
"I could be wrong," Cestria said, "but I think we might have found something significant."
"I think that would be one of the greater understatements I have heard in a long time," said Delphine. "We should definitely tell the others about this."
"I think we should look around more closely, first. Whoever it was didn't build this temple just for a little writing on the wall and a fancy lamp. There's got to be something else in here."
"That may be so," interrupted a voice, "but you are not going to find it!"
Both girls jumped as a tiny image sprang into being above the crystal. It appeared to be a man in heavy blue armor that was trimmed in gold. Though the flickering hologram was only six inches tall, it hovered high enough to be on eye level with the girls, and still managed to give the impression of looking down on them.
"Just what do you think you're doing here, anyway?" he demanded.
"We were... just looking," Cestria stammered. "We didn't mean any harm. We were just trying to-"
"Well, you'll have to do it somewhere else," said the armored figure. "In case you haven't noticed, this is not public property. Now, get out of here, little girls, before I get annoyed with you."
Delphine looked affronted - after all, she was nobility, and she knew it.
"Who do you think you are calling a little girl?" she demanded. "Just who do you think you are, pushing us around like this? By what authority do you speak? Answer, or I will show you what happens when I get annoyed."
"You dare presume to give me orders?" asked the man-image. "Well, I'll show you! Watch this!"
There was a sudden rushing noise, or maybe it was a clap of thunder. Whatever it was, it sent tremors through the floor that nearly threw both the young explorers off their feet. When they recovered their balance and looked up, they instantly realized the dangers of talking back to an angry hologram.
The little image of flickering light had taken on solidarity, as well as gaining several feet in height. Now the armored figure really could stare down at them, and his dark visor did not look at all friendly, nor did the sword slung casually on his back. He stood with his fists resting on his hips, daring them to challenge his authority.
"You still want to know who I am? I am Ninjor! I am the creator of this temple and the one who kept this whole planet from turning into a wasteland a millennium ago, and this is the thanks I get! You two apologize right now for insulting me, or I will make you very sorry you set foot in here!"
"We're sorry, we're sorry!" said Cestria, holding up her hands in a placating gesture. "We didn't know this was yours, really!"
"I am not sorry!" Delphine said. "You have no right to be calling me names like that. If anyone should be apologizing, it is you. We had no idea this place belonged to you. Judging from the outside, no one has been here in years, so we assumed there was no one here. If you had just asked politely for us to leave, we would have."
"I am one of the last remaining Gridmasters in the universe. I don't have to be polite if I don't want to." He appeared to be trying to sound grand and lofty. Cestria thought it sounded like he was pouting.
"My father always told me that noble blood is no excuse for bad manners," said Delphine. "If you were all that important, I would think you would have the grace to act like it."
The armored figure cast about for a retort, but he couldn't think of anything. He sighed.
"Oh, all right," he said sulkily. "I'm sorry I yelled at you and called you little girls. I won't do it again, but I'd very much appreciate it if you would go away and leave me alone. Please?"
"That is better," said Delphine. "Come, Cestria. It is clear we are not wanted here."
"Wait," Cestria replied. "I think we owe our new friend an explanation, seeing as how we were trespassing in his temple and all."
"We do?" asked Delphine, confused.
"Of course we do!" Cestria replied, with a subtle wink. "Manners, remember?"
"Oh. Yes. Of course. Explain it for him, then."
"Yes, do that," said Ninjor. Delphine gave him a look, and he added, "Please."
"We are looking for information," said Cestria. She told him about how she had discovered the body of the se'kanan, and how the group had split up to explore the island in search of clues about its origin. The mage listened solemnly.
"I was hoping," Cestria finished at last, "that you could provide us some insight, you being so wise and powerful and all. You're sure to know so much more than us."
The flattery seemed to please her new acquaintance; some of the initial hostility drained out of his attitude. He considered for a moment, staring up at the letters on the wall as if he expected the answers to be written there.
"I remember the se'kanan," he said. "They were the slaves of an evil creature called the Hydro Hog. Long ago, I chose warriors to defend your world from his destruction, and they sealed him away at the bottom of the darkest ocean. If his servants are resurfacing, it won't be long before the master follows. Perhaps it is a good thing you came here, after all... did you say you have friends?"
"Yes," said Delphine, surprised at the abrupt change of subject. "We came here with four others."
Ninjor made some mental calculations, and apparently came up with a number he liked. He nodded decisively.
"I've been out of circulation for too long," he said. "Perhaps it's time I made a comeback."
So saying, he made a gesture and pulled a handful of seashells out of the air. He delivered one to Cestria and poured the rest into Delphine's cupped hands. They were brilliantly white, glittering even in the dark room.
"Keep one and give the rest to your friends," he said. "When danger strikes, these will bring you all back here, and I'll give you something useful."
"How useful is it?" Delphine asked.
Ninjor shrugged. "It saved the world once. Go now. I will probably see you again soon. Be ready for anything... and may the Power protect you."
There was a brilliant flash of blue light that filled their vision with dancing after-images. When they could see again, the armored warrior was gone. The temple looked dark and haunted.
"I think we have worn out our welcome," said Delphine.
"For now, anyway," Cestria replied, "but I don't think he'll turn us away next time." She slipped the seashell into her pocket, and they walked out into the light and warmth of the forest. The door closed itself behind them.
"All right," said Aurico, "tell me this so I can understand it. You say you met some kind of wizard in a temple out there in the woods?"
Cestria nodded. "You could see for yourself, if you wanted... only I don't think he would let us back in. He wasn't very sociable."
"He gave us these," Delphine said, holding up the white shells. "Each of you are to have one."
Corcus picked up a shell and studied it. It glittered in rainbow colors in the bright sunshine, as if it were a diamond instead of the cast-off husk of a sea creature. "I have never encountered any magic before, but this does not look like your usual seashell. Maybe it does have power."
"Monsters and legends," Aurico muttered. "It has been an interesting morning. I am beginning to think this is all just a little large for just the six of us."
"I agree," said Cestro. "Someone needs to hear about this."
"But will they believe it?" Tideus asked. "We do not precisely have any proof that there are any monsters and wizards here. All we have are six seashells and a dead se'kanan."
"They will have to be enough," said Delphine. "We do have the fate of the world to consider."
"Does that mean we have to bring that... thing back home with us?" asked Corcus in faint horror.
"How else are we going to show it to anyone?" asked Cestro matter-of-factly.
"Well, I am not going to touch it," said Corcus.
"Me neither," Cestria agreed.
"I thought you felt sorry for it," said Delphine.
"I did," said Cestria, "but that still doesn't mean I want to touch it."
"Stop arguing. I will do it," said Aurico. "It does not appear to be very heavy, anyway."
"There is a hatch in the back of the aquacraft," Tideus said. "We can put it in there. At least then we will not have to look at it."
There was reluctant agreement. Aurico wandered off, and returned minutes later dragging the limp remains of the se'kanan. It was so thin and decrepit that from a distance, it looked more like Aurico was dragging a pile of wet seaweed than a body. Cestria tried not to take the closer look that would have shown her otherwise. Even after the thing was safely sealed inside the hatch, no one felt very comfortable. There was no conversation on the trip back.