Chapter 4. Syriot
In places deep, where dark things sleep
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
--JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Storm had no clear idea of how long they traveled through Syriot, but it must have been days. Shaw told him that the ealy-ary had brought him to the beach in the far north—well away from ferryshaft or creasia territory. The telshees moved sometimes through night-black tunnels, but more often along the banks of underground streams, glowing faintly with acriss. Storm was certain that the telshees could have moved much faster—both in the water and out of it. They were going slowly for him, but they did not complain.
Sometimes the walls of the caves glittered with color—blue, green, red, or a clear crystal that threw back the light in rainbows. Sometimes the riverbank disappeared, and they had to swim. Then, Storm would put his front legs over Shaw’s body, near her head, and hang on as she undulated through the water.
They traversed vast, echoing caverns, with ceilings lost in shadow, and along the banks of rivers as wide as the Chebly. Pale fish swam there, along with taste little shrimps—almost transparent. Some of these caves were completely black. The acriss, Shaw explained, could not live in freshwater. However, the little jellyfish thrived in salt and brackish water, especially where it was warm. “Hot streams bubble out of the heart of mountain,” Shaw explained. “They’re all over Lidian, but even more common down here.” The sea often mingled with the hot springs, so that some of the rivers appeared to have tides.
Storm had no sense of day or night. They slept when they grew tired and moved on when they woke. All my friends must think I’m dead. That gave Storm a pang, but also a sense of relief. He felt freed of all obligations…except, perhaps, to his rescuers.
Twice, the drove encountered the scent of lishties. Then they would grow agitated and restless and travel in silence until the next meal or nap. When their rivals did not appear, they relaxed again.
Storm got the idea that the telshees did not often come this way. Shaw was certainly their leader, but even she frequently had to cast about to decide their route. Storm did not like to bother her when she seemed to be concentrating. However, when the going was easy and straight, he would ask her questions, or she would teach him writing signs.
“You sing to each other before going to sleep,” he observed. “Why?”
Shaw had to think before answering. “Do ferryshaft never sing together?” she said at last.
Storm smiled. “Sometimes. When we’re trying to entertain one another, we sing stories. But you don’t usually sing words at all. You sing…” He searched for a word and couldn’t find it. “Feelings. Sensations.” He gave up in frustration. “Did you heel me with your singing?”
“We helped,” she said. “It’s easier when you’re in our pools.”
One of the other telshees spoke up. She was the smallest of the pups, no bigger than Sauny, and quite shy. “Shaw healed you,” she whispered. “We only sang with her.”
Shaw laughed. “Your songs will be powerful, Ulya. Just give it time.”
“So older telshees can do more powerful things with their singing…” said Storm slowly.
Shaw inclined her head. “Our pups leave and return to breed,” she told him, “and many return only once. A few return again. A very few…return to stay. These are the telshees of Lidian. Most of us are either quite young—and not yet ready to leave—or quite old and have seen many shores. I am an old telshee, but Keesha was swimming the deep mountain when I was no older than Ulya. His song is like nothing you’ve ever heard.”
“You asked why we sing before we sleep,” said Ulya. “It comforts us. Also, Shaw is teaching us songs. Sometimes, we practice them together.”
“Aren’t you afraid that lishties will hear you?”
Ulya giggled. “Oh, they’re more likely to run away if they hear us. Lishties don’t like telshee songs.”
All this talk of songs put the drove to humming. They often did that—not a full-mouthed song, but a harmonized humming as they moved along. It was a little eerie. Far more eerie was their ability to speak while humming. They could carry on a conversation without breaking their hum, although if the discussion required concentration, they often stopped. Once, during a song, Storm could have sworn that Shaw was harmonizing with herself in two voices. Storm thought he understand why their songs might frightened lishties. In full cry, the drove sounded much larger than seven animals. Listening to them, Storm could have sworn there were fifty or more.
“I frightened a creasia once by pretending to be a telshee,” he said.
Of course, they had to have the story. The entire drove was delighted and begged Storm to demonstrate his telshee song, but he was overcome by sudden shyness. “It doesn’t sound anything like you,” he said. “Really, the cat must have been half-deaf.”
“You must tell Keesha that story,” said Shaw. “He will be terribly amused.”
Storm had noticed how the other telshees looked at each other whenever Shaw talked about Keesha. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but he didn’t think it meant anything good. “Is Keesha sick?” he asked.
“No,” said Shaw, a little too clipped.
Storm tried again. “He’s one of the old ones, though—one of the males. Is he the oldest?”
“The oldest that wakes,” said Shaw. “He does not lay eggs anymore, and I cannot remember the last time he could be bothered to sire a pup. We call him Syra-lay. It means Lord of the Deep—not just the deep ocean, but the deep and secret ways beneath the mountain.”
“And he wants to meet me?” asked Storm in a small voice.
Shaw sighed. “He will. You have something that belongs to him…and you will remind him of a friend.”
Storm looked down at the blue stone with its black core. He was still wearing it around his neck. “Coden was friends with Keesha?”
Shaw inclined her head. “No one knows how long a telshee may live…if she manages to avoid all the dangers of the sea and land. But we do know that old telshees enter periods of torpor—like hibernation. They sleep, sometimes for years. Eventually, they never wake. Keesha was sleeping a great deal when Coden first started coming here.
“Telshees and ferryshaft have an ancient history, but we had not been much involved with one another for generations. Coden would sit and talk to our Syra-lay. He always called him Keesha—to remind him of his youth. Eventually, Keesha started listening. Coden would ask him questions about other lands, and Keesha would tell him.”
Shaw shook her head. “I think he told Coden things he won’t tell us! They made plans—mad, insane plans—but it made Syra-lay happy. Coden talked of traveling the ways of the deep mountain. Preposterous! I don’t think a ferryshaft would survive in the otherways—”
“Otherwise,” corrected Storm suddenly. ”Walk with me otherwise.”
Shaw cocked her head. “That is a way of saying it, yes. Where did you—?”
“Did they do it?” interrupted Storm. “Did they leave Lidian?”
“No. Arcove had become a threat, and the ferryshaft chose Coden to lead them. Coden was well-liked, known for his tricks. He convinced Keesha to help in the war.”
“Why was there a war?” asked Storm. “I asked Pathar once, and he said that ferryshaft and creasia have been fighting forever. Is that true?”
Shaw considered. “Near enough. Creasia have always been the largest land predator on Lidian. Our stories say that they were the last to learn to speak—because cats are stubborn and hate change, and they would rather fight than talk. They do not write, as far as I know.
“Other species banded together to protect themselves from creasia. Ferryshaft went into the wood every spring and killed most of the cubs. Creasia were not well-organized. They fought among themselves and even killed their own cubs frequently. They are a vicious species. Their king was the cat most capable of beating all the others in a fight—a bully, not a leader.”
“But Arcove was different?” asked Storm.
Shaw’s lib curled. “Different, yes. They say he killed a member of the creasia council when he was only a cub himself. He was certainly very young when he came into his power. He began organized attacks on the ferryshaft almost at once. By the time he was finished, there were hardly any ferryshaft left. The entire southern plain is empty now, except for lowland curbs, which I hear have become quite numerous. The ferryshaft were overconfident, it’s true, and their leaders at the beginning of the war made many mistakes. By the time they put Coden in charge, it was all-but hopeless. It would have been hopeless without us. Keesha let Coden use our tunnels and secret caves to hide and to ambush. He sent telshees to fight alongside ferryshaft.
“We can be very fierce, Storm, but adult telshees have never been numerous. Lidian is our nursery. We come here to rest, to make love, to raise our young, to share our histories, and to die. We are not a warring race. We had not involved ourselves in a land war since the days of the humans, but Keesha did it for Coden, and we did it for Keesha.
“Many telshees died in the fighting—too many. We lost knowledge, lost history, lost pups and lovers and friends. In the end, we lost the war and Coden. I thought Keesha might grieve himself to death.”
Storm didn’t know what to say. “But he didn’t?”
Shaw gave a faint smile. “No. He’s tougher than that; I should have known. He went to sleep, though, and he hasn’t woken much since. It’s been difficult. With our numbers so reduced, lishties overran parts of our territory. They broke into our brooding dens and destroyed eggs and young pups. It’s been fifteen years, and things have improved a little. Some adults have returned from their travels and been persuaded to stay and help us defend the dens.”
Shaw hesitated. “Surely you understand, though, why we have made no move to help the ferryshaft. We are barely surviving ourselves.”
“Oh!” said Storm quickly. “I wasn’t thinking that at all.”
“We would love to send all of Leeshwood to the bottom of the sea,” said Shaw darkly. “We must look to our own first. But know this, Storm: telshees have long memories.”
The way she said it made Storm shiver.
Over the next sleeping and waking cycles, they began to encounter more telshees, and Storm could see that the drove relaxed. “We are unlikely to meet lishties here,” Shaw explained. “The telshees we just met are a border patrol. This territory is ours.”
“You came a long way for me,” said Storm.
Shaw smiled. “Yes.”
“The ealy-ary…he’s your friend?”
Shaw gave a noncommittal motion of her head. “Ealy-ary and telshees have an understanding. We are the only two species who leave Lidian. They do not travel as far as we do. However, I have encountered the occasional wind-blown bird alone on the vast sea, and I have guided those creatures home. Ealy-ary remember such debts.”
They were coming now to a series of caves amid a confusing mixture of underground rivers and hot springs. Curtains of steam billowed between fantastic, lacy walls of stalactites and crystal—all lit by the faint, green glow of the acriss. Shaw navigated this maze with ease. The telshees were clearly home. Others called to them as they passed, splashing out of pools and uncoiling from the shadows and out of side passages.
For the first time since telshees had rescued him, Storm felt nervous. Their scent was very strong in the cave, and it trigged instinctive fear. It didn’t help that they all stared at him—not quite hostile, but not quite friendly, either.
Storm remembered what Shaw had said. “We lost knowledge, lost history, lost pups and lovers and friends. Keesha did it for Coden, and we did it for Keesha.”
I wonder if they wish they hadn’t.
Shaw stopped abruptly. Peering around her, Storm saw another adult, almost as big as Shaw. She blocked the way, bristling, and Shaw moved forward to speak to her. Storm heard the other telshee say, “You’ve got some nerve! Bringing that here.”
Shaw answered more quietly. Storm heard the other’s response, “Well, it’s none of our concern if they’re dying! We will be dying if we’re not very careful, or haven’t you noticed?”
More muttered conversation. The pups who’d traveled with him formed a little ring around Storm, keeping the other telshees from coming too near. Storm felt small and vulnerable. He heard the other adult’s voice again, this time with a sneer, “Good luck with that. He hasn’t stirred in a year at least.”
“He has,” snapped Shaw, her voice finally raised in anger. “I spoke with him recently.”
The other telshee sniffed. “Why does no one else ever hear these conversations, Shaw? Keesha sleeps the final sleep. He will never sing again in waking life. We should name a new Syra-lay.”
“And who would that be?” growled Shaw over her shoulder. “You?”
The other telshee lowered her head a little. “Of course not. Emyl, if she ever returns.” She hesitated. “You, perhaps. You may have all the charm of a leopard seal, but you are at least awake.” She said this last like a joke and a peace offering.
Shaw snorted, but didn’t turn around. “Come, Storm. You others, well done. Take your rest.” The drove dispersed immediately, talking in low voices. They did not look back. Storm felt very alone. He followed Shaw into a passage that sloped steeply downwards. It was dark, and they walked for so long that Storm began to grow tired and wished for something to eat and drink. The air grew very warm. At last, he saw the familiar green glow ahead and surmised that they were about to enter a cave with water. He heard something, too—a low, melodic hum that made his skin prickle.
Shaw turned to him, her face in shadow. “Storm, what you are about to see is not for ferryshaft eyes. Coden was here, it’s true, but no other creature, other than telshees. Not even our pups are allowed to come here until they have gone away and returned twice.”
“You don’t have to—” began Storm, but Shaw hushed him.
“It may take some time to get his attention. I want you to be patient. I saved your life, remember?”
Storm bowed his head. He understood now. Somehow I am supposed to save your friend. “I will do my best, Shaw.”
“Thank you.” She stopped a little further on before the opening to a side passage. The hum had grown loud. Shaw raised her voice a little over the weird music. “Welcome to the Dreaming Sea.”
Once again, we’ve got mostly new material here. The original version of Syriot was kind of like the boulder mazes in black light. Basically, the cliffs were hollow, and the area inside and under them was like some kind of giant laser tag gym combined with a waterpark. In this version, I’ve described something that sounds a little more like a real system of volcanic caves.
Like most stories in caves, mine had a conveniently glowing…thing. In the original, the acriss was described as a kind of mold. I decided to let it pass as a plot device, but replaced it with a jellyfish, some of which are, in fact, luminescent.
The telshees in the original story were monotreme seals. Monotremes are creatures that both lay eggs and nurse their young, ah la the duckbilled platypus and the echidna. Telshees hypnotized their prey with their songs. They could call an unwilling victim if that person was within earshot, and they could consume the victim without a struggle as long as they weren’t interrupted. They knew some things about healing, but were not particularly magical in this regard.
In the new version, I decided that if I’m going to make them magical at all, I might as well go for broke. So I made them more siren and less seal. They have two sets of vocal chords and their skills are all connected to their singing.
I’ve also given Shaw what I feel are more believable motives in this version. In the original, he (Shaw was a he back then) brings Storm into Syriot just…because. Keesha has been wanting to meet Storm for a while, but has failed to contact him for…reasons that don’t make a lot of sense. Keesha and Shaw then embark on a vast info dump of everything Storm doesn’t know about the war and the island. It’s sort of weak and random.
In this version, Keesha is not asking to see Storm at all. Shaw saves Storm and brings him into Syriot because she thinks Storm may be able to save Keesha (her friend, teacher, and sometimes-lover). There’s also a little guilt mixed up in it—guilt that the telshees have left the ferryshaft to their fate—but mostly it’s a very immediately and understandable desire to save her friend. The fact that Storm has the Shable (the blue stone) as this point also makes a lot more sense. It gives Shaw hope that Keesha will take an interest. In the original, Storm did not have this stone until much later.