"Why must you always be so serious, sister?" Leyrra asked Faylith in her annoyingly cheerful manner. They, along with some of the other students at the Guild House, were helping the kitchen women peel tubers, stuff mushrooms and gut fish in preparation for tonight's feast. "I know that gutting is nasty, smelly work but there are worse duties. You don't need to wear that constant scowl."
Faylith bit her lip. If only she could scratch off Leyrra's silly grin with her knife. Leyrra knew that her undying optimism irritated Faylith beyond control; she acted that way just to bait her. If Faylith displayed anger, Leyrra would only laugh in her face.
Faylith drew back her shoulders and pulled her lips into a wide smile.
"I don't mind this work, she said, forcing her voice to remain calm. "But there are more important things I could be doing."
Leyrra burst into an aggravating laugh. Idiot! Faylith inwardly scolded herself. How do you always manage to say the wrong thing around her and set her off? She spites me because she knows that she is the favorite one. An embarrassed flush crept across her face. At least I'll be a great sorceress someday. She thought about her mentor Nip, a magical waterghost whom she had conjured from the sea through a forbidden spell.
"Nothing has changed," Leyrra said, putting aside her platter of perfectly cut and gutted fish, and starting to hollow out a large mushroom. "Ever since we were little you have always considered yourself to be far too grand for such menial tasks." She glanced about, as if checking to see if a certain person wasn't present. Then she momentarily set down her knife, cocked her head to one side, and placed her hands on her hips. "You should learn to function with others," she shrilled in a high-pitched voice, "and do your share of the work or get out altogether and live on your own."
The other youngsters laughed at her perfect impression of Headmistress Skyla.
The flush on Faylith's face burned even hotter. She bowed her head over her work in order to avoid the eyes that were fixed on her.
But Leyrra's words were true: not only Skyla, but almost every other elder, including their father had, at one time or another, lectured that phrase at her.
When I am ready, I will do so. Leave this place where I must follow orders and obey rules. I will become a sorceress and create my own realm on the astral plane. One thing I did inherit from our nymph mother was the gift of magic, something that Leyrra didn't. That gave her a sense of pride and superiority.
Although the twins were halflings, fair-skinned Faylith resembled a pure human with only a slight point to her ears—which she usually kept covered by her hair—hinting at her nymph heritage. But Leyrra's nymph traits were more dominant. She was fine-boned, and her thick hair, which could barely conceal her sharp ears, was black with an iridescent sheen. Her enormous eyes glowed a fire-emerald against her dusky skin. But, unlike full-blooded nymphs, Leyrra was slight in stature and her pupils were round, not oval. And she could shed tears, something that a true nymph couldn't.
I wonder if, when we die, our souls will slip into flowers or trees, like Mother's did. A queer feeling twisted Faylith's chest. Their mother, a pure nymph woman, had died giving birth to the twins. Faylith had never met her, but she remembered the sapling back home that had always held a peculiar golden glow. Father said that it contained Mother's soul. Faylith found a deep comfort in that tree when she was little. She used to lie in its shade and fall asleep to the tingling melody that whispered through its branches and throbbed in its trunk.
A ghost image of Nip appeared behind Leyrra, distracting Faylith from her thoughts. Like all waterghosts, he looked wavy and translucent and was fainter than a pond's unsteady reflection.
It will be soon, he said in his silent voice . . . a voice that roared within Faylith's mind. He grinned and nodded.
A searing pain sliced through her hand. Momentarily numbed, Faylith wasn't sure what she noticed first: the deep red of her blood washing over her fingers and speckling the table, or the startled faces of her fellow workers. Her mind whirled, but one thought remained steady: certainly, Leyrra was laughing at her clumsiness.
But it was she who grabbed Faylith's hand and pressed a rag to her sliced palm to staunch the blood. "Get a healer!" she shouted.
People scattered. In moments Faylith was rushed out of the kitchen, through the banquet hall, and taken to a small room in the back. She was eased onto a pallet and someone held a wooden mug to her lips, encouraged her to drink. The liquid was warm and foamy; it tasted like wine mixed with a tinge of cinnamon. It burned her throat, but made her stomach feel pleasantly warm. In moments her thoughts fogged and drowsiness overcame her.
When Faylith awoke, she found that she had been returned to her own bedchamber. Skyla hovered over her.
Faylith groaned inwardly. She was sure the headmistress would accuse her of hurting herself on purpose to avoid her work.
"I am sorry that this happened to you, especially tonight," said Skyla with what sounded like sincerity. "But the cut was neither deep nor serious." Faylith glanced at her bandaged hand. Although it had been dowsed with a numbing salve, she still felt pain-needles when she wiggled her fingers. "You can rest for as long as you like, but you are welcome to join the celebration when you are ready."
Faylith sighed with relief once the woman left. Now that she was awake, she felt restless, almost giddy.
"I know you are awake." Nip's distinct voice stung her mind like ice.
Faylith opened her eyes.
He stood beside her, his tall form draped in shreds of green and brown kelp. His skin was as pellucid as the finest crystal—it took on an otherworldly glow against the oil lamp's faint light—and his hair resembled a wave of sea foam.
Faylith noticed that Nip was wearing a tiny silver vial on a kelp thong around his neck. He settled onto the bed at her side, took her wounded hand, and slowly began to unwrap the bandage from it.
"Don't!" Faylith exclaimed, jerking her hand away. Nip's hand was cold and moist.
"You must learn to trust me, little sorceress," he crooned without moving his colorless lips. His eyes, fixated on her, were the ghostly shade of a jellyfish. "I will cause you no harm." Faylith shivered. "You must allow me to do this if you wish to become a sorceress," he continued in a chanting tone. As he spoke in his low monotonous voice, Faylith stared at the spiraling, bloodstained bandage that was being unraveled. The wound was revealed: a narrow reddish scab across her palm. The tingle of an itch rippled over it. It would most likely leave a scar. "I am inserting an essence into your veins that will magnify the powers you presently have."
A shuddering chill of excitement trembled within Faylith. She tried to speak but all words were locked in her throat. Instead, she stared as Nip traced the closed cut with his sharp fingernail. A brief stinging pain, then the scab reopened, releasing a deep red blood-trickle.
Nip took the vial into his hand, opened it and spilled its contents along the fresh cut. Faylith looked closer. The fluid was silvery white and the odor was strong; it caused her eyes to water. It did not burn her cut as she had at first mildly assumed but created a warm, pleasurable sensation.
"Your wound is completely healed," Nip continued as he replaced the wrapping. "But you should wear this bandage for several days so as not to arouse suspicion. I will come for you tonight to begin your training with these new powers. Meet me by the sea when the moon is close to setting."
Nip melted away, dissolving into foam, then tiny bubbles that quickly dissipated.
Faylith raced down corridors lined with flickering oil lamps and laughed with excitement. "I'm going to be more than just a healer. More than Leyrra. Goodbye, Guild House!" Her voice echoed against the walls. Fortunately, everyone was outside enjoying the celebration. She didn't wish to explain her uncharacteristic giddiness to anyone.
The celebration was well underway. Stands covered with food lined the streets; colorful banners dangled from the highest edifices, flapped in the evening breeze. In the center of town, a small stage was set for the evening performances. The moon was full and high, drowning the land in silvery light and weaving eerie shadows. The stars dotted the sky in complex patterns. Everything glowed like foxfire: the newly sprouted heather on the foothills to the west, the swelling, restless ocean to the east.
"Are you okay?" asked Leyrra's voice at her back. "Skyla said that the cut wasn't bad. That you'd most likely be able to join the celebration."
Faylith turned. Leyrra was beautiful, clad in a white gown that sparkled with tiny glass gems, resembling stars. Her thick hair was plaited with matching ribbons. Over one shoulder she had slung a little pearl harp with silver strings. It had been a gift from their father when the girls were children.
An unexpected anger tightened in Faylith's chest. Why do I still feel so jealous of Leyrra, even after Nip's promise? she wondered.
"Yes. I'm doing much better now," said Faylith, clenching her bandaged hand. The pain was completely gone. A queer energy, or strength, tingled through her, sang and vibrated along her veins. She wondered if Leyrra was aware of any change.
"That's good," the girl replied.
Faylith stared back at Leyrra, uncertain what to say. She felt her fists tightening at her sides. She knew she ought to thank her sister for her quick thinking earlier that evening but guilt tugged at her. When she was finally able to pry the words from her throat, they hissed bitter and harsh against her ears. "Why don't you go play your harp and leave me alone?" She turned away.
"Faylith, stop doing this." Leyrra grasped her shoulders, roughly turned her around. "I can sense your jealousy. Would you still hate me if I didn't have this musical talent?"
Faylith's jaw tightened. "I don't hate you, Leyrra." Her tone was hard-edged still but no longer so bitter. "It's just that . . ." She could not continue and caste her eyes downward.
"Go on. Say what you are thinking," Leyrra snapped, her voice poison. "You wish that I hadn't been your twin . . . maybe you even wish that I hadn't been born at all." Faylith looked up but couldn't focus on her eyes, fierce and fiery. "Well, that doesn't bother me. I don't feel as if you are my twin at all. We may both be sixteen, me moments older though I feel as if I am your elder by ten years. You are so selfish and immature."
Leyrra stepped back a pace, flushed and breathless. She glared at her sister and clutched the harp to her chest. Words fumbled through Faylith's mind but she could not release them. True. Everything that Leyrra said was true and it angered her.
I'm going to be Nip's apprentice, she thought, and longed to tell Leyrra. No, Leyrra would simply think she was crazy. Only a few people believed in the existence of waterghosts.
"I didn't think you'd have anything to say." Leyrra's voice was softer now, edged with bitterness. "You never do say much. I'll leave you to yourself and your thoughts. Come and listen to my performance if you like. I composed a new song though I doubt you'd be interested."
Leyrra hurried away. Her rapid shadow teased the ground.
Faylith watched her. The metallic taste of blood touched her tongue; it was only then that she realized she was still gnawing her lip.
Leyrra was right, Faylith thought. Why did she have to be born? Especially as my twin?
She wandered around the tables, nibbling morsels that were decoratively displayed upon the tables: sugar coated nuts, steaming tidefish coated with mint sauce, cooked mushrooms stuffed with vegetables and dustshrimp. She was barely aware of the varying flavors on her tongue and ignored those who tried to speak to her; all she could focus on was her meeting with Nip. Would this new training entail more than the exercises he had given her in the past, rituals that required intense patience and concentration? Those had been tough enough! She remembered how her body would ache from sitting cross-legged on the cold, hard floor for hours and how her mind was so numb from the effort of trying to hold a single image for the same amount of time that her performance in her classes suffered.
She watched Leyrra from a distance. The girl sat upon a low chair with her harp on a small table before her. The crowd formed a thick crescent around her. She sang in a lovely voice that prickled Faylith's skin and brought tears to her eyes. Leyrra's slender fingers rippled across the harp's silver strings, the melody enhancing her words. The song described the colorful beauty of the heavens, the glittering gateways that opened into different worlds.
Faylith found herself becoming entranced by Leyrra's song; it was beautiful. The audience was apparently bewitched as well.
Leyrra's performance lasted for some time and each tune, more beautiful than the last, was followed by loud applause.
Faylith's envy grew bitter. Why couldn't she have been musically gifted as well? She and Leyrra were twins after all. Faylith had a fine singing voice, but she did not possess Leyrra's confidence and charisma in performing that made the listeners respond.
Leyrra did have an option to train in the Performer's Guild and become an entertainer. She certainly had the talent for it. But Leyrra felt that, overall, the life of a physician would be much more fulfilling. And she even showed a greater aptitude in the healing arts than Faylith.
I must remember that I have magic and she doesn't, Faylith thought in an effort to give herself a renewed thrust of confidence as she started walking toward the sea. Nip's ghost-image was slowly flickering into view. It was time . . .
"Did you see me?" shouted Leyrra from behind, her words choked and breathless. Faylith turned, feeling annoyed. Why now? "I thought that you wouldn't come but I saw you at a distance." Wisps of hair were slipping from her braid; she brushed them back with a graceful hand.
"Yes. You were wonderful," Faylith said hurriedly. Her heart stammered and she could feel herself trembling. Her stomach felt tight, twisted. "But I have to go. I still want to be alone."
"Am I imagining things?" Leyrra pointed to Nip, who shivered for an instant and vanished. Horror spilled through Faylith. Would he be back? Yes, he whispered within her mind. But do something to get rid of your sister. "I thought I saw something that looked like . . . I don't know. A waterghost, perhaps."
"Really?" Faylith forced a tight laugh.
"I know I saw something." Leyrra started striding toward the sea. The restless, roaring waters, unevenly sprinkled with moonlight that glimmered against it like thousands of pieces of glass, inhaled and exhaled their waves upon the sand.
I thought I told you to come alone! Nip's voice sounded angry. Get rid of your sister now!
She couldn't lose her mentor on the night when her real training started. Faylith's mind scrambled for a spell. There was one that would make Leyrra vanish from this spot and appear in another. She whispered it as quickly as she could.
Leyrra didn't vanish. Instead, she froze. Her face twisted into a look of horror and her skin melted from her bones like wax from a candle. Blackness swallowed her dissolving form.
"Leyrra . . . no!" Faylith dropped to the sand. Her stomach heaved, releasing everything she had eaten that day, leaving her throat burning, her mouth tasting bitterness. Oh, Vast Heavens, what have I done? her mind screamed. How do I bring her back?
Her stomach heaved again and she sobbed, loud and brokenly. Leyrra . . . I'm sorry . . . so sorry . . . she thought in a desperate, mournful prayer.
Once her eyes were dry of tears and her sour stomach empty, Faylith rose shakily to her feet. The moon was low in the sky, throwing down a soft light. It was cold . . . bitterly cold. But Faylith noticed another glow congealing with the moonlight, a soft amber-gold. It was emanating from a single flower that sprouted from a patch of dirt a few paces away.
Faylith pulled it from the ground, took it gingerly into her hands. The flower was faintly warm and seemed to softly hum with a subtle music that reminded her of Leyrra's voice.
"Leyrra . . ." she whispered into the blossom. That was not the flower's natural light. It was Leyrra's soul; it had to be.
A momentary spasm of joy struck Faylith's chest. Leyrra was not dead, just as Mother never had been. Could she somehow be revived?
"Leyrra, tell me if that is you," she pleaded into the flower. "Forgive me, Ley. I didn't mean to hurt you. Please be all right."
The flower continued its soft, trilling hum, no louder than the stirring waves, but did not otherwise respond. Her soul was trapped within it.
I must tell the others what I have done, Faylith thought, holding the flower close to her chest. It throbbed with comforting warmth like a heartbeat. And I'll accept whatever punishment they give me.
"Don't do that," said a familiar voice. "They will lock you away forever, although with your enhanced magic that shouldn't be a problem."
Nip was standing nearby. She could see a distorted portion of the ocean through his diaphanous head.
She swallowed and clutched the flower tighter. "If I'm so powerful, then I should be able to bring my sister back to life."
"There is only one way to do that." Nip glided weightlessly toward her, like a watery shadow. "You must create a new body for her, then cast the same spell on yourself that you did on her."
"I'll do it!" Faylith shouted without hesitation. "It's my fault that she's dead. That's only right, isn't it?"
A wisp of emotion rippled across Nip's nearly invisible face. "You were such a promising pupil, I'd rather you not."
"Don't I deserve to be punished? Shouldn't I do something if I could fix it? Would it be so bad residing in a flower or a tree? It would be a bit boring perhaps, but there are worse punishments."
"But you don't know if the same would happen to you. True, the spirits of nymphs become those of trees and flowers after they die to their flesh forms, but don't forget that you are part human. Your spirit may become one with a plant if it took after your mother's side, but no one really knows what happens to human spirits . . . if humans even have spirits."
"But what about ghosts? I've heard that rumor. Could it be true?"
Nip shrugged, a gesture that rippled his shoulders.
"What about you and the other waterghosts? Weren't you ever a human? You must have been a great sorcerer."
Nip shook his head. "I don't remember being anything besides a waterghost. I suppose our lives are different than yours. We aren't born, but appear out of nothing and live forever, never changing, never aging. We have some magic but, as you know, it is very limited. The most we can do is create potions that can enhance a nymph's innate powers. I was hoping that, once you became a great sorceress with the potion and the training I'd provide you, you would make me human."
Something tore within Faylith. She stared down at the flower, golden-bright with Leyrra's soul. I could replant this flower. It will live a very long life with her soul nourishing it. Just as Mother's spirit kept our sapling alive. And I could visit her often, while I continue training under Nip. She's not dead, not really.
Never mind that I killed her . . .
But how will I explain her absence?
"You could tell the headmistress that she ran away," Nip suggested, reading her thoughts. "Or, with your magic, you can scoop up a batch of damp mud and cast a spell over it, make it resemble Leyrra's body. You could then run back to the celebration and tell them that Leyrra had entered the ocean and drowned. You always did secretly wish to get rid of her, did you not?"
Faylith's stomach heaved again, threatening. No! I never wished for this. Why, why did I always have to be so petty and jealous?
She stared directly into Nip's colorless eyes. "I've made up my mind. I will create the body but, in so doing, I will cast the spell that will destroy me."
Faylith ignored Nip's protests as she tucked the flower into her bodice and scooped up the damp sand, forming a large, bulbous pile. She had come across this spell before, but had never had the magic to perform it. Not until now. She whispered the words as she allowed the waves to wash over the sand mass. Faylith gasped as the water withdrew, revealing a limp Leyrra resting upon the damp ground. She dragged the lifeless body higher onto the beach, where the sand was dry and untouched by the sea.
She gingerly placed the glowing flower on Leyrra's motionless chest. Her heart roared in her ears as she whispered those horrid words that had destroyed Leyrra in the first place. But now Faylith directed them at herself.
Her skin felt as if it were melting. Melting and dripping away from her flesh, leaving her bones exposed. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound emerged.
She collapsed into darkness.
"Nalisse, Nalisse . . ." Her senses gradually returned with that chanted name whispering all around her like a wind.
She was lying upon the ground. It felt damp, almost spongy. Tiny sharp pebbles bit into her skin but she, oddly, did not find that to be a discomfort. The air felt heavy, more like fluid. The chanting continued, over and over, uttering that same word. Nalisse: that was her new name, her waterghost name; it snagged in her mind. Nalisse . . . What was it before?
She opened her eyes. It was mostly dark except for a faint bluish light that spilled from above and the phosphoresce that emanated from the waterghosts that stood in a circle around her. They were shaping something out of kelp as they sang, forming some sort of garment.
Nalisse sat up slowly and discovered that she was naked. Her body was slender, almost spindly, and her skin had a glassy, crystalline appearance. Her hair, which floated around her shoulders, was a striking white.
Waterghost. I am now a waterghost. What was I before? Did I just come into existence? Memories pulled at her but they quickly receded. She was neither frightened nor excited. She felt—after a moment's thought—nothing. Waterghosts do not have emotions, she reminded herself. Such creatures cannot cry and their laughter is hollow. But the chill and darkness of deep water was now an intense pleasure. That was all that she desired. A peculiar feeling that Nalisse guessed was the equivalent of waterghost exhilaration faintly swelled within her as she realized that she was now immortal.
The other waterghosts motioned for her to stand. Nalisse did so, with a weightless grace that might have surprised her if she were still capable of that. They dressed her in the garment that they had been creating. It was a loose-fitting robe of wavering kelp that gently brushed against her legs.
"You now have magic like us," said one. "You can transport yourself to different places and scare people if you like."
"You can also become a mentor to young nymphs or halflings who wish to enhance their magic. You can read their minds and train them, but your magic will never match theirs."
The waterghosts gradually drifted away in different directions, vanishing amongst the shadows. Nalisse calmly accepted that she would see very little of her new companions; waterghosts knew nothing of friendship and preferred solitude.
Only one remained. He briefly touched her shoulder. "I, too, must leave. There is a young halfling at a healing guild that is grieving the disappearance of her twin sister. It turns out that she has deep innate magic after all and is in need of training."
Then he vanished as well, leaving Nalisse with emotions she couldn't understand and memories that receded before she could grasp them.
What did they mean? Were they forgotten dreams? Did waterghosts even dream?
She still had so much to learn.