The expedition to Lonikka had begun with a miserable storm-tossed ride. Herman knew he never should've agreed to help explore the temple, ever since he got his fortune told. The soothsayer's runes had made him double-take and refund Herman's money without explanation. Then Sergeant Oskar brought Sven along too. Sven, of all people, who'd made stupid jokes the whole trip and complained about wasting his time. But Oskar was their officer, and neither of them could really say no. Herman and Sven were stuck with him.
Oskar at least paid for wine when their ship reached Lonikka. The port city was the Empire's latest conquest, and there were still bad feelings here about the siege, so he claimed it was a legitimate military expense to have them all get a good meal here and "build relations".
Their real task was to investigate the Seathrone Temple. It stood on an uninhabited island near the city. During the battle, the city's tricky siege engines sniped any boat that drew close to it, and the army had eventually shrugged and focused on the city itself. The only man in Lonikka who knew much about the place had been the genius who organized the defenses. Soldiers from Herman's own unit had thoroughly stabbed the man. The survivors only admitted knowing that the temple was ancient and supposedly magical.
As the soldiers' borrowed boat reached the shore, Oskar said, "Magical, ha. If they'd had mystic spells they'd have used the stuff already instead of just machines."
"Does that mean we can go home?" said Sven.
Herman hefted his sword and shield, which he'd secretly gotten blessed by a local priest before they set out. The three of them had their standard iron armor and rations, and unfortunately Herman's skill at surveying and mapmaking had landed him with this job and the tools to do it.
Oskar shook his head and hopped ashore in a clanking of metal. "We go in, we study whatever we find, and we leave. Should be an easy job if you two can concentrate."
He ordered the boat's owner to stay here and wait, giving him a spare canteen of wine and a few coins as an incentive. Then they walked inland to the jumble of broken white stones that stood there like a skeleton.
"Not their usual type of stone," Herman noticed. Even mostly broken, the columns towered over them. "And it's so big; was this a whole temple complex?"
Sven said, "They should've put more effort into the city walls instead."
Herman was just strolling for the moment, holding a slate writing tablet and chalk to make preliminary sketches. The other two had swords in hand, but nobody had leaped out at them in anger.
There was a pond with a dolphin peering up at them. When Oskar approached, saying something about lunch, it spoke in a squeaky voice. "Hail, intruders! There's nobody here to conquer, so you're wasting your time."
"What in the gods' name?" said Oskar.
Sven recoiled in surprise too, but he said, "How did it even get into that pond?"
Herman muttered a prayer. "What god or spirit are you?"
"Ha, you rate me as a god?" said the dolphin, and slapped the water with one fin. "I am Atticus, guardian of this temple, and I live there with plenty of water and fish. But it has nothing you soldiers would appreciate."
Oskar brandished his blade and said, "We'll be the judge of that. Come on, men."
Herman was afraid the sergeant would attack the spirit, but Oskar just marched on past the water. Ahead lay an arrangement of stones that seemed different, somehow newer than the rest and with mist in between the fallen pillars. The pond was fed by a stream that ran through it. Herman said, "Sir, something's wrong about this place." Why was Oskar even headed in that direction when there was no building to enter, just the rubble?
Atticus whistled and looked around at the shattered, ancient walls and at the square-edged boulder that had toppled into the water near him. "Oh, you noticed? Fair warning, intruders; this place is not for you."
Oskar turned to the others. "Well. Maybe there's something to the rumor about unusual power here -- and we'll be the first to get it."
"Suit yourselves," said Atticus. He dipped beneath the surface and was gone.
Herman let the others go first. As they passed between the pillars they didn't comment on the fog. Reluctantly, he went in after them.
They were indoors. There were walls around them, decrepit ones that looked ready to tumble in the next storm. The others were looking around with suspicion, and Oskar was tapping the walls methodically with his sword. "How did we miss this?" he said.
Herman said, "I don't like overlooking entire buildings. We know something's up in this place, now; we can report back and have a priest go through it first."
Sven scoffed. "And get called cowards and liars?
Oskar added, "No. If I'm going to report something like this I want proof. Fall in."
Two against one. Herman sighed. The ruined temple building had a corroded brass door that he rather hoped the others couldn't open, but Oskar went right up to it and yanked it open on the second try. Beyond was a building they definitely hadn't just failed to notice in the fog. It was like a rich man's villa back home: a courtyard seemingly open to the sky, a starry sky even though it was day, and surrounded by little rooms.
"Flowers?" Herman said, looking at the colorful blooms in the courtyard. They looked untended yet healthy.
"I'm more bothered by the sky," said Sven.
Oskar peered up at it. "It's a painted ceiling, people! By the gods, are you going to get spooked by every architectural detail?" The sergeant sighed. "Sorry. I'm just eager to get to the bottom of this."
Sven chuckled. "It's nice to hear you admit you're not perfect." He peered at Oskar and said, "When did you shave?"
"Never mind." Sven looked upward again. "Yeah, it's painted black with stars. Nice."
Herman asked, "What about the flowers? How are they growing here?"
"Magic!" Sven said, grinning.
They looked through the crumbling rooms. These were just storehouses with traces of rotten lumber, fossilized bread, and fish bones. To one side was another heavy brass door.
Herman made a quick sketch, but already suspected his mapping efforts would do little good. Oskar said, "Help me with this. It's stuck."
Sven said, "It's not stuck; you're just pushing instead of pulling."
It took the three of them together to pull it open. The door swung open so suddenly that they all tumbled to the floor and landed in a heap, while the metal hit the stone doorframe with a tremendous clang! Herman groaned and picked himself up, then stepped through into the next room. It was a decorative temple entrance in white marble. The room had waterfalls crashing on one side of a hall, and a calm stream running along the other, leading gently downward.
That dolphin was splashing around in the stream. "Ah, outsiders. You're supposed to enter the temple from that doorway over there, not the storerooms! You've spoiled the majestic impression you're supposed to get."
Oskar said, "Spare us your threats."
"What threat? I just don't think you appreciate the place the way its builders did."
Sven said, "Well, they're dead and we're not, so we're your best customers."
Herman looked toward the real front entrance, but it was choked with rubble. He felt faintly disappointed; what remained of the huge arch suggested masterful construction and artistry. The view of this long hall made him feel there was power in this place, something he didn't want to make angry at him. "Spirit, are you the master of this temple?"
Oskar tapped at the walls, looking for hidden threats or doors and making loud echoes. "Would you stop that?" Atticus said. "It's making a racket."
Oskar glared. "No. Just ignore him, everyone; we're here to..." He trailed off, distracted by his search.
Atticus prompted, "Yes yes, to explore the majesty of the temple. We've had few tourists in ages, so maybe I shouldn't complain."
Sven said to Herman, "I hope you have enough scrolls and paints to make a decent set of pictures. Nobody's going to believe this place from our words alone."
"Paints?" Herman said. "I was just supposed to make useful maps; when did anybody say anything about art?"
Oskar said, "You should've known, if we were going to be visiting such a place."
Atticus said, "If it's paint you're after, I know just the place. Follow me." The dolphin led them down the hall, but paused and flipped around in the water to look them over. "I've been wondering, though. Isn't that armor terribly uncomfortable?"
Herman's back itched, and he couldn't get at it under his breastplate. Sven looked like he was having the same problem. He was the first to undo the straps on his own, and let it crash onto the floor so he could scratch. Herman stared at him as he pulled off his undershirt. A grey triangular flap was stuck to his back as though someone had glued a little sail to him.
"Ah, better," said Sven.
"Help me with mine," Oskar said.
Herman walked over to him, worried now, and winced at the feeling of something cramped painfully against his own back. "What's happening?" he said, as Oskar's new addition got freed: a similar fleshy thing, but tinged pink.
Sven meanwhile undid Herman's breastplate without asking. Herman felt like he'd slept on a limb wrong. Wide-eyed, he felt along the thing and tugged at it, but it was fused to his back. He crouched in front of the stream and tried to see. Black, sharper-angled than the other two soldiers', sticking out of him like someone had put a curved sword in his back.
Atticus was near him, inspecting it too. "That's an interesting one. Why in your gods' name did any merchant sell adventurers a bunch of military breastplates without accounting for their dorsal fins?"
Sven said, "It's good to be out of that thing, anyway." He looked puzzled. "Why did we ever agree to wear standard ones, if we have fins?"
Herman felt a danger here, the same sensation he'd had one night when a man really had nearly put a knife in his back. "We should go," he told the others. "Something's not right. I'm not supposed to have a fin! None of us are. And it's not just our armor that's wrong; what about our shirts?" He pointed to the three undershirts on the floor, none of which had been made for fins either.
Herman nodded slowly as though working through some confusion of his own. "Yes. Did we actually buy this armor? I thought we were issued it."
Sven started to chime in, but Atticus interrupted. "You clearly bought it from the wrong vendor, but it's not your fault you had to get something uncomfortable. Not many people make armor for the sea-touched."
"The what?" said Oskar.
"For you, silly travelers! Were you raised among barbarians? Of course you are; you're outsiders." The dolphin began to spin a legend, though Herman imagined the creature was making it up as he went along. "In their twentieth summer, some folk draw the Sea God's attention and gain his blessing, growing fins of their own. It's no wonder that people with your heritage would want to see the god's home for themselves after living in ignorance of him."
Oskar said, "I suppose."
Herman picked his shirt back up and carefully used his sword to cut a slit down the back. He put it back on and felt a little more confident. "Want me to get yours too?" he asked the others. The act of cutting the thing had made him a little more aware of his new addition. New from his twentieth birthday? No, from just now! Herman shook his head.
Atticus' sleek beaky mouth seemed to be frowning. "You don't need shirts, do you?"
Oskar nodded, and after a moment Sven did too. Herman ignored him and kept his ripped one.
"I can see a challenge here," the dolphin squeaked in a tone almost too high to hear. "But you mentioned art. Come on then; this way." Atticus led them around a turn to a lounge that gave Herman vertigo. The entire rounded wall was a towering waterfall, giving him the impression that the cracked central platform and its ring of stone cabinets were endlessly rising. The dolphin waited outside the pounding current and said, "Help yourself to whatever you like, wanderers."
"Maybe there's better armor," Oskar said, and started forward. He paused and looked to the others. "I mean... do you think we should go in?"
"Why are you asking us?" Sven said, and went in. Benches sat in the middle, creating a good place to relax. Sven didn't bother; he opened several wooden doors on the cabinets and then blinked. "This place is more intact?"
Herman entered. The room was dusty as though the waterfalls had never sprayed it down at all, but it was more intact than the hall outside. The storage compartments held scrolls and slates, charcoal and brushes and colorful paint-pots. He opened one and saw blue pigment that only needed a few drops of water to revive.
Feeling skeptical, he took several colors and a palette along with parchment and brushes. "I don't think I can use these very well."
"Why not?" asked Atticus. "They did bring you along to draw, right?" Which was true...
Oskar said, "Think we're ready to move on?"
"Your friend hasn't even had the chance yet to paint this room!"
"Oh, right, I suppose we should wait a bit for Herman." Oskar sat, admiring the waterfalls. Sven, too, seemed intent on them.
Herman, though, had work to do. He began sketching the room with parchment on a slate, trying to do justice to the place's size and haunting beauty. He tried to work it into his simple map of the temple's layout and outdoor grounds. He found himself adding colors and detail, and when he next turned toward the others he saw them facing away and chatting, oblivious to the grey of their skins and their long, wide-finned tails. Herman took a step back, tripped, and crashed into the water. He tumbled, pounded by the torrent from above, and felt his legs kick him back toward the surface... except that wasn't a leg, and his whole body wriggled when he swam. He still had his leg armor and boots weighing him down. He reached air again and sputtered for breath, but something was wrong and he couldn't seem to breathe through his mouth or nose. He slapped one arm over the nearest ledge, gasped, and a puff of air came from the top of his head. With shaking hands he felt around there and discovered what seemed like his nose, but well above his eyes. His hand came away with a clot of hair on it. "My hair!" he said, or tried to, and the words buzzed from above his mouth without his jaws even opening. He looked toward the others and said, "Help!"
Oskar hopped up from the bench and grabbed his sword, to start toward Herman. Sven was slower to react but was up and looking around. Oskar said, "What? Why are you swimming?"
"I tripped," Herman said. He shook his head and more of his hair slipped loose to land on the stones in front of him. His friends had just sprouted tails, their skin was an unnatural pink and grey like their bizarre back-fins, and they didn't even comment on either. "Aren't you seeing this? You're bald, and you have --"
Atticus interrupted. "You have entirely the wrong clothing for a place like this."
"No, that's not it!" Herman found his sword laying on the floor along with the drawing he'd been doing. He held it in both hands and menaced the dolphin. "Whatever you're doing, stop it!"
"I'm trying to help, is all," Atticus said, looking ready to dive out of threat range. In that barely-audible pitch he added, "There's got to be some way..."
Sven laughed. "You know, just because you're part orca doesn't mean you should bully us dolphins."
"Orca?" said Herman. He turned to look into the nearest calm water and saw that his whole body was now covered in stark black and white, with hands like dark gloves. The middle two fingers on each hand were getting stuck together, merging even as he watched. He started to be aware of his tail, a heavy thing hanging behind him and throwing his balance off. How long had it been there?
Oskar said, "Um... 'us dolphins', Sven? That doesn't sound right."
Atticus said, "Right. Technically you're a porpoise. See? You have that short beak, and don't your teeth feel flattish instead of pointy like mine?" He opened his mouth to expose his own needle-like set.
"Oh, they do!" said Oskar. "Porpoise, huh?"
Their guide asked Sven and Oskar, "Do you feel at all uncomfortable going around here bare-chested?" Herman thought he heard a "yet" at the end of that.
"Nah, it's kind of fun!" Sven said.
Oskar nodded. "It's nice to be out of that heavy armor. But we've still got the boots and all. Never should've bought these." He began to wriggle out of those and the armored skirt and greaves he wore, leaving just his lightweight shorts. "Ah, that's easier on my tail too."
Herman's own heavy tail itched and scraped against his armor. He didn't take it off, though; there was trouble here. He took up his sword and shield in hands that felt clumsy, with too few fingers.
"What about your art supplies?" Atticus asked him.
Herman fumed. How was he supposed to do his job of documenting the place while carrying a full array of soldiering gear? He sheathed his sword and put his shield down for now so he could carry the slate, scrolls, paint and brushes. "Could someone help me with these?" he said. Oskar came over to help.
Atticus said, "Maybe there's something helpful I can show you... ah, I have it! Follow me." He darted out of the room along its waterways, and just when it seemed like he'd dead-ended himself he made a leap across the hall that sent a glittering arc of water in his wake.
Sven looked transfixed by it. "Pretty!"
"Stay on guard," Herman said. He was looking slightly down at the others, when he'd been the small one in the group before... before the Sea God blessed them all. The others had lost their hair and now had bald, shiny foreheads, yet neither had remarked on it.
The dolphin said, "Watch your step! In fact, it's going to be tough for you walkers to keep following me to the inner temple. From here you'll need to swim."
Herman's eyes adjusted to the gloom ahead. The pathway sloped down until it was flooded, first an inch deep and then enough to drown in.
Sven said, "Ha, an excuse!" He pulled off his own armor too and belly-flopped into the flooded hall, keeping just his sword-belt. Oskar squeaked nervously and waded in after him. Herman reluctantly took off what was left of his armor. "Wait, what about the art supplies?"
"Oh yes, good point," said Atticus. "One moment." He swam out of sight around a bend and returned with a large wooden tray, pushing it along with his beak. "You can use this. As an artist you know the importance of taking good care of your tools."
"I'm not an artist, I'm an adventurer. When the empire finds out more about this place and sends a larger crew to investigate, we'll..." He trailed off, imagining a military parade at first. But that wasn't something you could earn as a civilian.
"You'll do what?" asked Atticus, leading them through the flooded hall with the three explorers swimming awkwardly along behind him. "You there; Oskar isn't it? What exactly are you trying to accomplish here; getting rich? I assume you're the one in charge." He added a squeaky chuckle. "Or is that a silly guess?"
"Me?" Oskar said, adding a laugh of his own. "It is silly, isn't it? The army... I mean, our group wouldn't put someone with a pink tail in charge, would they?"
"I don't think so. How about you, Sven; aren't you just here for money? Or maybe finding the lost signs and prophecies? Or... fame and statues?"
"Prophecies?" asked Herman.
"Obviously the money," said Sven, and giggled.
Herman said, "What's wrong with you? Did you get drunk while you were sitting around in the storeroom?"
"Lighten up, Herman! We're gonna be rich when we get back." Sven splashed Herman, threatening to overturn the art raft.
Herman defended himself and splashed back half-heartedly. "Listen! The dolphin's claiming there's really something magical here, more than the strange gateway itself. This is important." His voice was coming from the top of his head, buzzing and clicking with each breath.
Atticus laughed squeakily. "Oh, now you listen? It'll become clear to you soon. This passageway we're swimming was once used by the temple's new initiates. The sea-touched folk would arrive from far away, like you, to seek the god's blessing. In a good year you might find a dozen new recruits at once arriving on this holy day. Can you picture it, all that splashing and nervousness from the newcomers?"
"I can understand the nerves," Oskar said, looking around the next bend in the artificial river that gently carried them along.
Sven asked, "So they showed up just hoping for 'blessings'?"
Atticus swam beneath him, backwards. "Of all sorts! Hoping for wealth like you was a common goal. You'd be traversing this same hall, thinking about the sunken treasures of the ages that the god would dredge up for his faithful."
"And then what?" asked Oskar.
The dolphin swam loops around them as they advanced. "Well... Various things. You have to understand, though, that these were all beautiful young women splashing through these halls. Sometimes in twos or threes, hopeful and anxious. Slick-skinned gals unaware of the challenge of the Dark Pool ahead."
The dim light of the stream winked out like a candle. The current began to grow louder. "Watch out!" said Herman.
"What's happening?" Oskar called out.
"Whee!" said Sven, and surged forward to be the first one over the waterfall.
Herman yelled through the blowhole atop his head. He sailed through open air, flailing, and crashed into a lightless pool. The water was like a slap across the whole front of his body, making his chest hurt. He somehow found the surface again and breathed, feeling a convulsive out-in breath through his blowhole. He was dazed and the others were nowhere to be seen.
He heard them, though. Oskar said, "Hold still, everybody. Please?"
Sven said, "I hear you. Hey, your voice sounds funny."
Herman said, "Of course it is. It's squeaky. What did he do to us? Where are we?"
"Who, the priest?" said Sven.
"But we're dolphins, or close enough."
Herman tried to see himself, but it was pitch black in here. He felt his hands where they should be, and his legs, and his breasts. Still mostly human but for the tail. "Think, you two. We got dropped in here by that dolphin, and I haven't even got my sword."
Sven said, "I thought we weren't allowed to have those here. Wasn't it a rule?"
Oskar squeaked in confusion. "That was our armor, I think. He said we should take it off, and that makes sense. We'd have drowned in here."
"And my paint!" Herman said. "I was supposed to be carrying that along to draw it all. Is it gone? Did anybody see it?"
Oskar said, "I think that's the least of our problems, girls."
Herman's voice was higher than it should be, but still could sound flat. "What."
Sven splashed at him. "Did you get hit that hard, that you forgot what you are?" he said. Or at least Herman thought it was Sven talking. His ears felt smaller than they should be, hardly more than dots on his head, but he had the sense that the direction was off. "A bunch of gorgeous --"
"Shut up," Herman said, shaking his head. "Weird echoes in this place. Okay, focus. He said the Dark Pool, so obviously here."
Oskar said, "And it's... where the new gals show up, he said? Oh no; are we failing the test?"
Sven swam around, creating ripples as she twisted and practiced swimming. "I think... yeah! Try whistling. You can hear the walls!"
Herman let out a tentative squeak. It bounced back at him, sounding like empty space and the shapes of a slender porpoise-girl and sharp-angled walls. Fascinated, Herman turned around and heard Sven the same way, a little larger and with the best breasts of any of them. Herman was a little jealous.
Oskar said, "Yeah, I can hear the whole shape of the pool." She spun around, making a racket with high-pitched squeaking and clicking.
Herman tried studying the walls more carefully. They were in a maze. It was easy to take a deep breath and hold it while exploring, finding his way under a low ceiling to a tunnel that led just out of hearing from the main pool. He showed it to the others and they followed, squeaking and exploring.
"Maybe this way?" said Oskar.
"Which?" asked Herman. Oskar took his hand and said, "Um, this way I think. See the gap?"
The sergeant's hand was shockingly slender and delicate. Herman stared into the darkness at his officer, hearing the shape of a cute girl. "We've got to get out of here," Herman muttered. But first they had to get through the maze, to pass the test.
Herman swam toward where Oskar pointed, took another breath, dived, and found a passage forward. The others fell in behind him; he could hear their movements. Why was he in charge, anyway? This temple was dangerous. "Shouldn't you lead us on, Oskar?"
"Me?" Oskar said, swimming along and creating ripples with her tail. "You're our big orca; you can take care of us better than I can."
Herman did feel strong, and larger than the others. He whistled as though the sound were a torch, lighting the way onward. Soon they found light and air again. Herman surfaced and breathed through his blowhole, then grabbed the slick stone ledge. His arms were sleek and dark, and he felt his breasts hang heavily in the chilly air as they slipped free of the water.
"Augh, cold!" said Sven, pulling herself out and hugging her chest.
It was Herman's first actual sight of her, and she was gorgeous. Herman put one webbed black hand against his muzzle. His nipples were chilly under his soaked shirt; had the others completely stripped at some point? "Why are you two bare-chested? What if somebody sees us like this?"
Oskar was completely nude, looking slim and delicate with pink-tinged skin and a blunt snout. There was no hair anywhere on her, and she was covering herself too. Herman looked back and forth between her and Sven, whose dolphin build gave her some more mass. But Oskar reminded Herman of a tavern girl he'd known back home, one he used to lift up and --
Sven said, "Why are you staring? Come on; we've passed the test! We've all earned a blessing, right?"
Herman shook his head. If he wanted to stare at breasts he could do that in the mirror! They had work to do. Maps to make? Or... at least if the paints and scrolls were gone, he could find out about this blessing, and get warm.
The three of them walked along a chilly tile floor, all complaining about the cold and hurrying along. Herman was relieved when they reached a seemingly natural cave that had warm braziers at each corner and benches to sit on. Along one wall stood a row of dressers.
While Oskar warmed her hands by the fire, Sven peeked into the drawers. She pulled out a gauzy white robe that looked meant for dolphins, open for a tail and fin in the back. "Finally some clothes," she said, and wriggled into it. The cloth hugged her body and exposed part of her breasts while still offering some warmth. "Much better. Want your own?"
"Please," said Oskar, and accepted a smaller one that Sven tossed her.
Herman fidgeted, looking them over again and feeling shocked. And hungry. He had at least a head's worth of height even on Sven, let alone petite Oskar, and now that he wasn't hearing shapes anymore from being in the water, he was relying on his natural senses again. His friends shouldn't be grey and pink! "Let's get to the end of this place. Yes, clothes." Sven found a large robe for him. The fabric was something warm and stretchy, leaving his arms and most of his legs bare. It looked good on him, but that wasn't important. He shook his head as he left the post-pool room behind and discovered an aquatic dining room.
The long bench against one wall was placed for people to sit with their legs in the water of another underground stream. On the far wall were plates of steaming hot bread and butter, grilled fish and grapes. The plates themselves were silver. Sven was the first to notice that, saying, "Hey, we've got extra pay coming!" as she upended some of the bread.
"Pay?" asked Oskar.
"Yeah, for when we... uh." Sven turned back to Herman. "Weren't we going to go back to talk with the army?"
The thought shook others loose for Herman. He took some grapes, suddenly starved for them, and ate while he considered. "Right. We have to go tell them about this place. That's part of why we're here, I think. But after we rest."
They all took a break. "Too bad there's no wine," Sven said.
Oskar said, "Not for us! Not in our state."
"Huh?" asked Herman, pausing in mid-bite.
Oskar shuffled her feet and looked down. "If we're acolytes, it doesn't seem like we should be getting drunk. We need to take good care of ourselves."
That made sense, but Herman was still uneasy. He'd had a good meal and his stomach was fluttering oddly. He rested one webbed hand along it and said, "I suppose. Don't we have duties to attend to, if we've passed some kind of acolyte test?"
Sven grinned. "Hopefully they've got some hot dolphin-guys in here to attend to us."
"That's... since when did you get interested in men?"
"Right around the time you did, or a little later, from the looks of things! Weren't you boasting about your conquest at that tavern a month... no, a few months back?"
Herman had said something to Sven about that week-long affair, though not to the sergeant. There'd been a tavern girl... His thoughts were confused. He'd thought of the guy as girlish, almost, what with his smaller size and how easily Herman lifted him up atop her own dark, slick body. That night she'd felt strong, powerful, in control. She blushed at the hazy memory. It was probably almost like what a man felt in bed. Herman squeaked at the memory, looking bashfully aside.
Oskar said, "I don't remember mine. I thought I was on a trip, a long one."
Sven chomped down another fish and trotted ahead, saying, "Girls, look! A heated pool." As she crossed the threshold to the next room, there was a ripple in the air as though Sven had passed through a soap bubble. She staggered, holding her arms around her waist, and splashed into water just out of sight.
Oskar stood. "Sven, are you all right?"
"Ooh, better than that. The water is perfect."
"Should we go on?" Oskar asked Herman.
Herman said, "It's that or brave the tunnels again." She walked forward slowly, one hand outstretched, until she felt the soap-bubble sensation across the threshold. Her fingers tingled but there was no other sign of trouble. Sven had made it through; she was splashing in a round and steamy bath. Herman took another few steps, and stumbled. She put one hand against the wall for balance. She felt suddenly heavy, full. Was it the meal? She stepped forward and eased herself down into the water, where she felt the weight of her belly ease. She glanced over at Sven and went wide-eyed. She'd swollen out big and round along her stomach, pink-tinged on her front. Herman said, "Belly! I... I mean..."
"Really, you're staring at mine? You may've started out being able to hide it, but you've been catching up fast." Sven reached out with one grey finger and poked Herman's navel.
Herman gulped. Then it felt like she'd taken a long drink of water and it was pouring slowly into her, pushing her stomach outward. The warm water rippled as her middle swelled. She leaned back and pushed in on it but she had to be gentle, had to avoid hurting the baby. The thought of that shocked Herman. "How, when!" As if in answer, she got a vivid momentary vision of herself being ridden by the tavern guy. She might've felt manly at the time, but now there was something moving and bumping against her hands from inside, drawing all her attention.
"Hello?" said Oskar. Herman looked up, startled, just in time to watch the sergeant changing. The little porpoise grew fuller with each step, wiggling her hips, blushing with a new glow to her cheeks as she took a seat in the warm pool with them. "Aah. I feel so full already!"
Sven cuddled her, making Oskar squeak and smile. "That's because you're small enough to make your baby big by comparison. Now, Herman here is a natural mother; she's the lucky one with those hips. In fact..." Sven ducked her head beneath the water and whistled. Herman felt herself being listened to, studied by sound. When Sven came back up she grinned. "No wonder. Herman, did you know you're carrying twins?"
Herman gasped. Two little orcas were curled up in her? It didn't seem right even to have a womb, let alone one so wonderfully full.
Oskar smiled down nervously at herself, letting her wet robe fall open to expose her breasts. "I'm a little worried about mine. This is my first. But when I think about the... about the baby it all seems worth the trouble."
Sven said, "Mmm, definitely. We'll get to be mothers together." She shivered happily. A faint white sheen appeared on the water around the dolphin's chest.
Herman looked at it. Now what was happening? The others were so fixated on their babies that they weren't watching out for, for the temple rituals they'd come to learn. It was tough to blame them. A faint thump against Herman's belly made her rub her skin there, thinking about the twins. Her nipples ached, suddenly warm, and she felt them leaking. Trails of fresh milk dripped from them just above the waterline. She imagined herself feeding the twins, and squirmed as the flow intensified, leaking into the water.
Sven giggled. "You too? Oskar, are you having trouble with yours yet?" Oskar just shook her head. "Soon enough. Mmm. Want to stay here a while longer, Herman?"
Herman heaved herself out of the water. She'd gone in wearing the soft robe and it was dripping dry quickly, staying pleasantly damp to protect her skin. She was heavy, standing with her legs far apart, feet angled outward, arching her back to get used to the weight. It was as though she hadn't been carrying her twins for months, like the whole experience was new to her. It actually was new to be an acolyte of the temple. "Still jittery from the Dark Pool," she said. "Where can we go now?"
Sven looked around, then down into the water. "Oh! I found something. A switch?" She pulled it and a section of the wall rumbled into the floor, making them all jump and cradle their bellies.
Herman looked into a room with a grand fountain in the middle, where the dolphin Atticus waved a fin at them. "Glad you've finally found that! Congratulations, acolytes! Come forth and receive your blessing."
Herman said, "Wait. Each time we reach a new room, it seems like something's happening."
Atticus whistled, and this time Herman heard it more clearly. "Don't you want to know all the mysteries of this place?"
Herman breathed loudly, emptying her lungs and refilling them in a quick puff. "What are you doing?" she said, and got up to glare down at the creature, hands on her hips.
"Helping you get acquainted with your new role. Miss orca, you've earned your role as the new priestess of the Sea God, but there's much to learn about his magic."
Sven said, "What about us?"
"A high priestess needs assistants! Especially lovely cetacean gals who know exactly what the boss is going through. Why don't you come forth to begin your training, Herman?"
Herman hesitated in the doorway. High priestess? Magic? She had responsibilities, people to help out... including some very close by. "Will the twins be all right?"
"Better than that," Atticus promised.
Herman led the way toward the fountain room, and felt herself growing heavier. With each step her burden grew a little, settling low between her hips and bumping against her. Herman adjusted her stance to walk with a waddle, holding her belly. Her downward view let her see intricate swirling marks beginning to flow onto her black-and-white skin like hot water, reversing her colors where the markings touched. They were symbols or runes of power, of a kind she wasn't sure of yet. Awkwardly she turned around to see her assistants crossing the threshold too and swelling, stumbling under the weight. Herman reached out to steady Oskar, whose belly looked huge on her petite frame.
Sven had an easier time moving to greet Atticus with a bow and a giggle. "Do we really get to learn magic?"
"Of course, dears! The Sea God has lost most of his power over the centuries, and has been all too forgotten by all but a few of the islanders. It's time to change that, now that we have new acolytes." The dolphin splashed playfully at them. "It's so good to have people here again. And such fine candidates you are, all three of you. Excuse me: all seven!"
Sven giggled. "The god has more followers on the way."
"Indeed! I believe that with the little group we have here, I can teach you a simple trick. Herman, reach into the fountain."
Herman leaned over, holding her middle, and scooped up a little water. "Yes?"
"Now, use these words..." Atticus spoke half in his normal voice and half in that high squeaking that still rattled her, seeming to carry more meaning than the nonsense words themselves. Or were they nonsense? She thought she picked out the word for "sea" in an unfamiliar language. When Herman tried repeating them back, the water swirled around her like the markings on her flesh.
"Now spread your hands," said the dolphin.
Herman did. The water rippled from one hand to the other, and Herman found herself holding a glob of water in one palm and a few grains of salt in the other.
"This fountain is seawater," Atticus explained, looking fatigued. "With this little spell you can drink it safely, and show off with the remaining water. No need for fire to make salt; that's a silly, wasteful method. But use this one sparingly until you've told more people what you found here!"
Oskar said, "We should spread the word of the Sea God's presence?"
"Yes; it's time. This might not have been the best way, but with that empire in charge now, things will change." Atticus squeaked and grinned. "In fact, you should go to the soldiers' garrison next and tell them all about the god. They'll be happy to learn, I'm sure. Oskar, pay attention and memorize this short prayer to help Herman; teach it to the troops..."
Herman looked around and found a grand door with the sound of water behind it. "All right, we'll go. And then you'll teach us more?"
The door clicked open, revealing a path of swirling water that led toward a distant, hazy light. Atticus said, "Of course, for you and your friends as well! This place will be your home now, and once I have more power... once the Sea God has more followers, we'll be able to rebuild and use our magic more easily. Go now and spread the word."
The watery path carried the three of them along like a slide falling through space. They all cried out, worried, but the disorienting fall was over in moments, and they were outside again in the dazzling sun.
Herman looked around. Ruins everywhere, and the pond by which they'd entered. She stood up, checking on her heavy middle and then on her assistants.
"What happened?" said Oskar, letting Sven help her up.
Sven squeaked and looked down at her heavy breasts. Each of them now wore only the thin, revealing robes they'd been given, making their curves plain for all to see. "Part of the sales pitch is going to be showing off!"
Oskar said, "Meeting soldiers, though? Isn't that dangerous?"
Herman hugged her. "We'll manage. I have a feeling they'll let us into their camp." Though she wasn't sure why, other than her looks.
The boatman they'd paid to wait for them was still there dozing, and when he woke up he startled and fell out of the boat. "What are you?"
Herman gave a careful bow. "We've passed the test of the Seathrone Temple, and been given a task in the name of the Sea God."
The man looked frightened of the ruins despite having seemed unimpressed by them before. He started rowing them back to Lonikka, muttering about omens.
Oskar said, "Have you ever heard this prayer?" She began to speak the words she'd been taught.
The boatman sounded fascinated, but shook his head. "It's just vaguely familiar. Something I heard as a little girl, maybe." He rowed, gradually slowing as they approached the city docks as though he was having trouble with the oars. He sounded distracted, dazed. "...Wonder if it's a girl."
The Sea God's followers left him behind, admiring his cute fin and the tail starting to peek out from under his shirt. The garrison lay ahead.
Herman paused at the entrance, waving for the guard's attention.
"Can we find somewhere to sit down?" asked Oskar, fidgeting with her heavy load.
"I'm hungry," said Sven.
Herman grinned and called out a password to the guard. "We have important news for the commander about the temple of the Sea God."
"What the devil are you?"
"The new priestesses!" said Sven.
The guard called for backup, and soon four men were staring at them. Oskar whispered in a squeaky pitch to Herman, "Should I teach them the prayer?"
There'd been something... dangerous in the temple, something Herman had wanted to warn people about, but what was it? She frowned and cuddled the twins, who were bumping and kicking. It was a dangerous place what with that dark swimming maze, not a good place for a new mother.
"Herman?" asked Oskar.
"Oh! Yes, of course." Herman listened as Oskar repeated the words, adding, "Can we come in and talk?"
The soldiers looked rattled by the strange visitors. One of them said, "Yes, come in. It sounds important. Who are you, again?"
"We're explorers!" Sven said, giving their names.
The commander met them in the base's courtyard, flanked by tents and hastily built cabins as part of the occupation effort. "You creatures claim to be Sergeant Oskar and his men? What nonsense is this?"
"I think I recognize them!" said one of the gate guards, twitching his fluked tail. "They're... um... people we hired, I think?" One of the others chimed in, fidgeting and trying to undo the straps on his breastplate.
The commander went wide-eyed at the sight of them. "Antonius, what's happening? You three, get back! Whatever you're doing, stop!"
Herman saw the guards changing. She was supposed to demonstrate the Sea God's magic and win converts, but this wasn't going as planned. When had changing the troops been part of it? And why had Atticus taught the prayer only to Oskar? Innocent Oskar hardly even seemed to notice her words were having an effect on people.
The soldiers formed a ring around them, drawing their spears and swords. The circle was dented by the presence of the gate guards, whose tails were still growing, and who were struggling out of their armor to make room for their dorsal fins and breasts. The commander said, "Surrender, beast-women! Get down now."
"Beasts!" said Sven.
"What do we do?" said Oskar, squeaking in fright. The troops were closing in, looking just as scared.
Herman hoped she was doing the right thing. She was serving the Sea God, who needed help and could protect his chosen servants in return. "Say the prayer, quickly."
Oskar called out rapid-fire, speaking the unfamiliar words. The commander yelled "Shut her up!" but the troops weren't sure whether to stab or tackle or cover their ears. Then a moment later, they were all staggering, dropping their weapons and looking around at each other.
Herman was aware of the changes, but the soldiers didn't seem sure what was happening. There was a clatter of armor being hastily dropped, and gasps of voices turning higher and squeaky. Nobody was attacking them, now, but Herman didn't feel like staying. "Come on, girls; we'll come back later." She led them to hurry out of the camp as quickly as they could walk to find someplace less hectic.
"What's wrong?" said Oskar, as they sat down heavily in a grove of trees. The people of Lonikka were startled to see them, too, and were only now beginning to approach them instead of drawing back in shock. The priestesses needed a plan.
If the soldiers were changing, Herman wondered, had she changed too? It was a frightening thought. The twins rolled around inside her and made her smile. There was nothing wrong with them. She patted herself and managed to stand, saying, "Let's find someplace to eat and rest. I think the people of Lonikka will want to hear about the Sea God, and his prayer."
A week later
Brannon took another drink of wine. Around him the tavern bustled with gamblers and off-duty soldiers, plus wandering merchants like him. "Let me get this straight. Lonikka has been overrun with pregnant half-dolphin women?"
The bartender kept his voice low. "That's the word from the ship that came in today. Something about the old temple there."
Brannon laughed. "Best tall tale I've heard in years. Any word on what the ship brought in?"
"None of these women, anyway. Heard people were looking to buy up fish and fruit and fancy cloth."
Brannon finished his drink and slid a few extra coins to the bartender. "Thanks for the tip. I'm guessing some drunken idiot had a 'vision' and people are in a panic, but that means profit for me. I'll let you know how it goes."
The merchant headed out to decide on cargo for a quick trip out to the island city, unaware that he was fated to end up with a passenger very close by.