Welcome! Thank you for taking the time to read the latest installment in our new book. If you’re just joining us, you may prefer to start at the beginning. The Introduction, which is beneficial to understanding the story, can be found here. If you would rather jump straight into the story, click here for Chapter 1.
Dasheng Sen had sent the Ondine clans into hiding along the many small lakes that dotted the formerly glacial region of North America because, having the form of human females, they had long caused trouble across Europe to the point interfering with normal magical life. By the time of the great human migrations, the Ondine clans had become numerous to the point that they often fought among each other for who had access to which body of water. Dasheng’s solution was to spread them out across thousands of lakes that would slowly be discovered as the European humans began exploring what they saw as a new continent.
The water queen had failed to account for the indigenous people who already lived there. The native peoples were not as gullible to the songs and seductions of the spirits. The Ondine clans became frustrated because the indigenous humans couldn’t be fooled into breeding with them. Neither were native women as likely to die in ways that grew the ranks of the Ondines. By the time the white settlers began moving into the land, over the objection of native peoples, the number of Ondines had shrunk considerably. Their communities struggled to survive.
As the white walkers drove out the cautious natives, they began building large cities. As they did, the water in the cold lakes became less pure. This drove the Ondine clans deeper into the woods where they inhabited smaller bodies of water less effected by human industrialization.
For many seasons, the Ondines and the Nawa’ Diyo lived peacefully in the forests that hid the smaller lakes. At times, the land spirits would help lure wandering men toward the water and the Ondines where the water spirits would entice them and more often than not, drown them. Their mutual dislike for the pale-skinned humans created a bond that had never been questioned.
The war changed everything. The sylphids struck the water with lightning making it unsafe for the Ondines. Dasheng Sen would then turn the charged water on land spirits who took their anger out on the Ondines, certain they had been involved in their queen’s battles.
The Ondines hadn’t been involved in the battle, though. Their magic was too limited and focused on tricking humans to be of much use in a war against other magical souls. Instead, they spent most of the battle hiding from all three sides, fearing that they could too easily become victims of the crossfire.
News of the truce was welcome but the Ondines returned to find the lakes full of debris from the storms, the water dark and murky, and no offer from their queen or anyone else to help them clean. Neither were they in any hurry to again trust the Nawa’ Diyo clans in the forest. Their attacks had surprised the Ondines. They assumed that the land spirits were aware of their limitations and would leave them alone. When they were attacked, many of the Ondines were defenseless, unsure what to do or how to guard themselves against the stronger magic. Only by hiding deep in the springs feeding the lakes had any of them survived.
The underground waterways became the only safe means of travel between lakes. Pools hidden deep in ancient caves became the places the Ondines gathered. Here, the clan leaders began to talk among each other as to what their best response would accomplish. Some wondered who their enemy was. The land spirits only attacked in response to Dasheng Sen’s magic, which came in response to the sylphid offensive against the water. Some reasoned that made the air spirits their enemy. Others considered the affront from Nawa’ Diyo to be a violation of their not-quite-official friendship. What grew quickly among the clans, though, was concern that Dasheng Sen had used their home water with no regard for their safety or any warning. While there was some consideration that, in the heat of battle she had used what water was available to her, that there hadn’t been time for warning and there wouldn’t have been much they could do to help, many now wondered if they were best served to continue trusting the water queen. Well aware that raising such a question could be considered treason, the Ondines were careful to keep their conversations in the pools underground.
Dominant among those voices was Kuhr, a clan leader known for her ability to trap men’s boats in whirlpools. She was a striking figure, especially by human standards, with mud-brown hair and dark, soulless eyes. Her thin body had led many men to believe she was in danger, needing their help, only to drown in the effort of reaching her. She sat at the edge of a crystal blue pool deep in a limestone cavern, surrounded by other clan leaders from nearby lakes. “Hiding out, away from our home water irks me,” she said to no one in particular, though several other clan leaders acknowledged what she said with nods and short murmurs. “From the moment Dasheng Sen brought us to these lakes we’ve had trouble existing. She’s made enemies of our friends, stolen our own water, and left us with no protection other than what we can cobble together for ourselves. She seems, once again, much more concerned with her salt-water friends than she is with us.”
The room sat quiet for several minutes. Trash talking the queen was never an activity that many joined. While sentiments were often shared among them, the weak nature of their magic against a powerful and vindictive queen caused most to feel as though any objection might lead to punishment later.
When another finally spoke again, perhaps as much out of boredom than any greater interest, it was Uhndeyt, a younger Ondine who often appeared as a bikini-clad blonde around the shores of a lake popular among college students. Her voice sounded distant, almost disassociated when she spoke. “The longer we hide down here, the more we might wonder whether we have been forgotten. Many of us already know the curse of being abandoned and left alone. For some, that is the reason we are here, souls trapped not in heaven or hell but more loneliness and desperation with no chance of escape.”
“Why? Because from the moment of our creation, we see ourselves as victims?” asked Murj, a raven-haired wisp of a spirit often given to dance. She had a rebellious streak to her, so much so that she had in recent seasons drowned as many human females as she had males, leading them with kisses and a delicate touch. “We perceive our magic as weak because unlike other magic souls, we are born of disaster and disappointment. We start with nothing and assume that’s all we have.
“We could be stronger if we weren’t all consumed with this passive-aggressive haunting stereotype we’ve played into. If we can cast enchantment spells on humans, who says we can’t use them on magic souls as well? And if we can cast enchantment spells, what is keeping us from casting spells to make others do our bidding in more foreboding ways? We could turn humans against each other I’m sure, and we could possibly do the same with those who turned on us. If we want to make sure that Dasheng Sen does not forget us, then we need to do something unforgettable on our own. She thinks we’re weak. Let us show how powerful we are and she’ll not only remember who we are but she might see for once how much value we have in the realm. There are thousands of lakes and millions of Ondine. We need to stop being pushovers.”
Her words were greeted only with more silence as small ripples splashed along the smooth limestone. There was little light in the cave as only a few of the spirits knew how to create it. For most, they had never needed such magic. Being hidden and sequestered was bringing into sharp focus all they didn’t have and the severity of what they didn’t know.
“I wonder where the Naeads are hiding,” Kuhr said. “I’m surprised we’ve not seen them in the pools as well, given how similar we are. They’re almost exactly like us.”
“Except short,” someone said.
“And blue,” mentioned another.
“And that green hair…” said a third.
The casual derision was enough to elicit the first giggles any of them had felt since going into hiding. The Naeads were similar to the Ondines in many ways, but despite being half the size, the Naeads possessed much more magic and had considerably practice using it. They were also more comfortable among contemporary humans, often forming relationships before luring them to their deaths.
“My guess they’re hiding closer to the human villages,” Murj said. “They can be away from the water longer than we can and most humans never notice that spirits are walking among them.”
“How can anyone miss that blue skin of theirs?” Uhndeyt wondered aloud. “Granted, humans only see what they want to see, but still, you can see that blue in the muddiest waters.”
Mers, a taller Ondine with silver hair and long limbs joined the conversation. Mers was older than others around the pool which gave her some respect, but she tended to keep to herself and not join in communal activities. The others were caught by surprise when she said, “Perhaps we might gain an advantage by partnering with the Naeads. We have physical strength and speed to offer. They can teach us the magic they use. Together, we could take on any of the land-born clans that live near our lakes. Wipeout a few of those pesky fungi-born souls and we’re likely to be treated with more respect from both realms.”
“Ugh, I stepped on a Mushkin once,” Uhndeyt said. “You would have thought I was trying to wipe out his entire family for all the noise he made.”
“But there’s a truce,” Kuhr said. “If we do anything now, both Dasheng Sen and the Nawa’ Diyo come after us.”
“And do what?” Murj asked. “The worst they can do to us is take what little magic we have left, maybe force us to stay here, underground, where we already are. Tell me how that is any worse than what we’re experiencing now?”
Once again the room went silent as the assembled spirits considered what Murj had said. The number of ripples in the water showed how seriously the proposition to attack was being taken. The Ondines had never bothered anyone but humans before. To change now, to make enemies of the land realm, meant changing their entire way of life.
Finally, Kuhr spoke again. “We don’t know that the Naeads would partner with us. They’re not hiding underground so they may not be as desperate. A partner who is not wholly committed to the task is only going to get in our way. We should talk to them, but in doing so we risk tipping off Dasheng Sen. Granted, she might be supportive, I suppose that’s possible, but if not, she could exile us down here forever. We would never see our precious lakes again.”
Mers was standing in the pool, about to respond when the cavern around them began to shake. The Ondines looked at each other, panicked, unsure of what to do. A thin, nearly transparent spirit rushed into the room. “It’s the troubled ones!” she exclaimed. “They are below us and looking for anyone magical. We do best to hide ourselves, perhaps in the trees above.”
As the frightened Ondines began to scatter, Murj warned.”Stay alongside the water, not in it. We don’t want to be caught if they should decide to drain these likes like they did the river!”
The spirits disappeared, scattering to the thousands of lakes, waiting to see what chaos the troubled ones might bring.
The idea that the troubled ones had ever been quiet was wrong. Carpinus had led those from the western home eastward, below the great rivers, and north to the land where lakes were plentiful and the number of magical souls was most dense. The journey had not been a quick one. There were not always existing tunnels for them to use, especially as they went deeper below the surface. Fortunately, troubled ones do not tire easily and digging through the layers of rock, though time-consuming, was not bothersome in any way. The journey was an end to their means and none had complained or bothered to question what they were doing.
As they moved east, their numbers had grown. Troubled ones who had made homes in various areas across the continent joined them so that now the hoard numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Carpinus had chosen generals to help keep them all together and moving in the same direction. Now that they were below the lakes, he separated them so that they could act in unison against the water realm and the murderous queen.
While the exact numbers of trouble ones varied from lake to lake, so great were their number that no body of water was watched by fewer than a thousand of the beasts. Their plan was a simple one. They would dig up beneath each lake, shaking the mantel and pounding the rock until they punched holes in the bottom of each one. As the lakes drained, they would capture any magical souls and kill them. Unlike the area around the Colorado River, there were not as many underground caverns suitable for holding captives. They would kill the magicians that fell through, then emerge into the empty lake beds to crush any remaining souls they might find, whether water or land bred. With such a broad attack, there would be no way for the magicians to mount a cohesive defense.
As the troubled ones slowly spread out over the thousands of lakes, Carpinus waited patiently. He had no concept of time to make him feel rushed on impatient. He could sit quietly for days until they were all in place and ready. This attack would be their greatest victory against the magic realms yet. Carpinus would leave them weak then march across the surface until they came to the great ocean. Triumph and domination waited.
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Bockwimen looked panicked as he rushed into the throne room. Apa’ii, who had been discussing the magic around the false mountains with Fleau, motioned him over. His anxiety and alarm were almost overwhelming.
“We’re getting some reports from the North around the land of many lakes,” he said. “The ground is shaking deep below the surface. It is almost certainly the troubled ones. Only they could travel so deep.”
“How deep are we talking?” Apa’ii asked.
“They’re in the mantle,” the scout answered. “The entire lake region is on guard.”
“I’m surprised any of our souls are aware of their presence if they’re that deep,” the queen said. “How did we come by this information?”
“The Ondines, your majesty,” was the reply. “Our communities along the lakes knew they were lingering in the cavern pools below the surface. They came rushing out and are hiding among the trees near the lakes. The Naeads, too, are also on alert, though they have been hiding among the humans. We’ve heard them talking back and forth. Their fear is strong and the region seems vulnerable.”
Apa’ii motioned for the other counselors to come close. “You hear of the dangers. The troubled ones are unpredictable except that we know they intend to create chaos. Whose magic is strong enough and ready to battle these monsters?”
“All the elven clans are ready,” Pausnuk said. “I suggest employing the strategic magic of the Tratumm clans as well. Their keen senses of hearing and movement work to our advantage.”
“Arviss and his brothers have been distributing new weapons already,” Bockwimen added. “They can dismantle the troubled ones with a single blow yet can be wielded by the smallest magicians with little magic. We can make sure those weapons are abundant in all the lake region communities.”
“Freyr and his ilk have been looking for a fight,” Pockwatch said. “Bogmenak hasn’t been the fountain of military activity they were hoping. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind the change of scenery and the chance to toss their arrows around a bit.”
Apa’ii listened to each report and nodded. “Those are all good measures,” she said. “I am pleased that we are already so well prepared. I still have some concerns. The lake region communities are quiet souls. Many of the magicians there are ground-based, unable to fly out of the way of stampeding troubled ones. There is also the issue that many of the communities go right up to the waters’ edge. I perhaps have enough magic to place protective shields around them but I cannot extend those to the water. Too much of my magic is already consumed with the mountain traps.”
“Perhaps this is a good time to call on the sylphids for help,” Pausnuk suggested.
Apa’ii shook her head. “We need them for all the prisons we have floating in the air plus the mountain traps. Since none of those are attached to the ground, we are reliant on their magic in portions equal to our own.”
The queen paused for a second then said, “Our battles have not yet extended heavily to the Asian regions. There are many souls there who have strong magic and considerable battle experience. With the truce in place, they might not be as worried about having to defend their own homes for a moment. Perhaps they could be convinced to come help in this matter. Pockwatch, do you think you can talk to them without seducing half the clan?”
Pockwatch blushed, his core turning a bright purple. “Yes, your majesty. I’ll leave immediately,” he said bowing.
“Very good, my love,” Apa’ii said as she smiled and acknowledged his bow. “Bockwimen, you are in charge of strategy. Go quickly to the lake region. Make sure everyone there is aware of the danger and as well-equipped for the battle as possible. We may not have long before the troubled ones attack in whatever way they’re planning. The instant the ground begins to shake near the surface we have to take the offensive and stop them through any means you find reasonable. It is not enough that we keep them underground. We must make them retreat or leave them in piles of rubble.”
Bockwimen bowed and quickly disappeared.
Apa’ii continued. “Meliae, dear, you have a broad network. We need some help making up for the elemental magic the sylphids can’t provide at the moment. I know the lake region is larger than the area your clan is accustomed to covering, but could you perhaps help us out there with some winds strong enough to at least slow the movement of the troubled one? We don’t want outright storms as it would be devastating to the ecology of the region. There are ancient trees that must stay in place at all costs. If you can help confine the troubled ones to more open areas that will help our cause dramatically.”
Like the others, Meliae bowed and took off on her quest.
Apa’ii looked at Pausnuk. “It is not enough to have the troubled ones on the move. The humans are battling hard in their attempt to reach the new landmass. Dasheng Sen has, to her credit, made that journey difficult for them but she won’t be able to stop them for long. They’ll approach from the air just as they will our mountain traps. They like their planes and the power it gives them. Truce or not, we need them on that ground. We need them, as ferociously stubborn as they can be, to acknowledge that the mer exists. It is in our best interest in dealing with them for them to think of the water as an aggressive and dangerous enemy. Get them on that land. Take whatever resources are best suited.”
The queen didn’t wait for the counselor’s bow before she turned to Fleau. “I need you here with me,” she said. “Our attention is divided across too many areas of battle. Any one of them would be enough to occupy my full attention. I can’t keep up sufficiently on my own. I need your sharp mind and your candid evaluation of all matters as you see them happen.”
Fleau bowed deeply. “Yes, your majesty. I will use every resource in my power to help you. I do worry that we have committed to magic beyond our powers. I have wondered if we would do well to ask for help from other continents. Our African friends are especially adaptive in matters such as these.”
“They are most fierce and noble souls,” Apa’ii agreed. “The challenge there is that pulling them away from their homeland inherently reduced their power by at least half. The same applies to the souls indigenous to the polar regions and what the humans call Australia. Those most ancient lands, especially around the places where all life first began, are different than the land here. In the Pangea, what is now the African continent was the center of all things, the home of all that is. It was the epicenter of all magic because of its magnetic strength. What was born there and the souls who live there still were and are unique among all souls in the universe. They were honored by the gods, given powers and authority beyond our imagination.
“When the great realignment happened, though, the change in the magnetic structure of the earth hurt them, diminished their power, and tied them strongly to that land. To pull souls away from there leaves them vulnerable. I fear our war will come to them soon enough and when it does we need them at full strength to preserve the most sacred land on the entire planet.”
Fleau nodded. “So, we have only our own resources and whatever Pockwatch may bring from Asia,” she said. “Granted, that alone is quite formidable.”
“Yes,” Apa’ii agreed. “I am confident in our resources. And we do still have options should the troubled ones prove to be more than we anticipate. I hesitate to use them, though. Once unleashed, they could prove to be more difficult to control. Their reason is not always aligned with ours and their allegiance is shaky at best.”
“You speak of the exiles,” Fleau said softly, her voice trembling. “Would you dare bring them back?”
“You were here when they made their offer,” Apa’ii said. “They hold great magic that could help us on every front of this war. They have done great and powerful things in the past. We cannot dismiss the advantage they would bring to our cause. The question is not if but when is the best time to release them. Do we wait until our backs are against a wall or do we deploy them as part of an offensive strategy and hope they do not overwhelm us?”
Fleau wrapped her arms around her body as though she were suddenly chilled. “I fear the sight of them,” she said. “They were never kind in any way. All they know is war and when one would end they would go in search of another. They were never satisfied and too many of us lived in constant fear. I would not be anxious to see their return.”
Apa’ii nodded her understanding. “Your reluctance is well placed,” she said. “Perhaps it is best that the exiles are kept as a weapon of last resort.”
Conference calls were a normal part of Brad Lofton’s routine. More often than not, they tended to be video calls, prompting him to keep a tie and sports coat hanging on the back of his door. The calls typically included various managers and administrators from other agencies within the Department of Interior. This call was going to be different, possibly the most significant of his career. If he was right, there might be a chance of stopping all the lake water from being drained from Minnesota, Michigan, Ontario, and Quebec. If he was wrong, billions of dollars would be wasted and he’d be lucky to find a job at even the smallest university.
The list of attendees was daunting. In addition to Dr. Elliot and Secretary Harrison, administrators from Canada’s Council of Ministers on the Environment and representatives of the Integrated Water Reserve Management project were included as well. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was joining Admiral Hodgkins and there were four aides from the White House. All Brad had to do was explain the situation and the relevant danger. He would not participate in the decision-making process unless specifically asked a question related to geoscience.
He looked at his watch, concerned that despite what were break-neck speeds for government, they may not be able to act fast enough to prevent catastrophic damage. Two hours had already passed since the first tremors were picked up by USGS instruments. Within 15 minutes, the event had grown from a small tremor in Minnesota to a peak of 5.6 on the Richter scale covering more than 6,000 square miles, most of which was in Canada.
No one questioned the reality of the event. Phones were still ringing outside Brand’s office as town mayors and emergency managers worried about aftershocks or even stronger shakes. For the moment, the standard answer was that plates were resettling because of warming conditions and that additional tremors were likely. Brad knew that answer was a lie, though. The source of this rumbling had deeper origins below the tectonic plates into the earth’s mantle.
Whatever, or whoever, was causing this had the potential to do more damage than the draining of the Colorado River and its tributaries. The seismic readings were similar, the difference now being there was no single epicenter. Instead, there were multiple source points as though something was traveling and spreading across the Northeastern portion of the continent. There was no existing scientific evidence to explain what was going on other than some form of direct human interference.
Brad had already checked. There were Russian satellites in low orbit over the area. Russia wasn’t supposed to have any kind of disruptive space weapon but the timing of the satellite and the seismic activity was too perfect to be a coincidence. Even if the Russians were only conducting tests, this would be considered an act of war.
Political protocol being what it was, Secretary Harrison was hosting the meeting. He would make introductions then pass control to Dr. Elliot who would assure everyone of Brad’s credentials and qualifications before allowing him to speak. The pomp and ceremony of it all slowed down what Brad saw as a time-critical situation. He could only hope that the problem wouldn’t worsen while all the bureaucrats wrestled with the diplomatic one-upmanship.
What Brad hadn’t counted on was the dominating and intimidating presence of General Alistair Almondale, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Even over the video feed, General Almendale loomed large and imposing, his close-cropped gray hair and dark eyes perfectly matching a harsh, square-jawed skull in a uniform adorned with ribbons covering most of his chest. The General had a tough reputation for how he dealt with politicians and bureaucrats, not wasting time with how a topic might “spin” or what language might be politically expedient. He was harsh and straight to the point in most conversations and this one proved to be no different.
“We don’t have time for niceties, Mr. Secretary,” The General said as he interrupted Harrison’s long-winded introduction about US-Canadian cooperation. “Who’s your front-line person and how bad a situation are we looking at?”
“That would be Dr. Brandly Lofton,” Dr. Elliot answered, covering for the stunned, soon-to-be-offended Secretary. “He heads our seismic center and…”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure he’s qualified,” The General interrupted. “Dr. Lofton, I have seven military bases on full alert following this morning’s shake. Tell me what’s going on and whether I can have our personnel stand down.”
Brad gulped hard, set his notes to the side, and jumped straight to his analysis. “General, the seismic readings we have are at the same depth and show a similar pattern of movement as when the waters of the Colorado River were drained. Following that pattern and the extended movement from this morning’s readings, we have good reason to believe that the thousands of natural lakes across the Northern US and Eastern Canada could be in danger of a similar fate, catastrophically damaging the ecology and safety of the entire region.”
“Do you have any indication as to what is causing this phenomenon?” asked Gary Thibedeau, the head of Canada’s delegation.
Brad cautiously answered, “We have no direct evidence of specific activity other than the passing of a Russian communications satellite in exact parallel with the movements of the seismic activity. We didn’t pick up any kind of radiation or other energy transference, but the timing and movement of the satellite are concerning.”
There were grimaces and frowns across all the faces on the call. General Almondale didn’t wait for anyone else to speak. “So, there’s a potential act of war. We stay on full alert. The next question is whether we know which lakes are being targeted.”
“All of them,” Brad said. “It’s almost eerie how there was activity under the center of every one of those lakes, regardless of size. The accuracy seems to demonstrate a level of technology we’ve yet to consider. This is coming from the mantle, mind you. We don’t have anything that reaches that deep.”
“So, you’re saying this could be an intentional and highly targeted attack?” asked Minister Thibededeau. “Russia’s trying to poison our freshwater?”
“I don’t think poison is what they have in mind,” Brad said. If the Colorado incident is any indication, they intend to make the water disappear.”
From that point forward, Brad sat and watched as the heads on his screen argued and fussed not only over a course of action, but who was going to lead, what information could be shared, and what kind of troops to deploy. He’d look at his watch, get Dr. Elliot’s attention, and shake his head as five minutes grew to fifteen and fifteen to thirty. The urgency of the situation seemed to be lost.
Nearly 45 minutes had passed when a figure appeared at Brad’s door holding a digital tablet. Brad made sure his microphone was muted and motioned for the specialist to enter. The chart on the tablet showed the latest seismograph readings. Satellite imagery confirmed his worst fears. Brad sent Dr. Elliot a private message, “It’s started.”
Dr. Elliot interrupted a heated conversation between General Almondale and one of the president’s aides. “Excuse me, Dr. Lofton has an update you’ll want to hear.”
All the other microphones went mute as Brad’s went live. “Whatever we were planning to do, we’re too late. By the time we can finish this phone call, all the lakes will be dry.”
There was a moment of stunned silence before a cacophony of accusation and arguing began. No one noticed when Brad left the phone call. He walked out of his office and up the two floors of stairs to Dr. Elliot’s office. When Time saw him at the door, he left the call as well.
“There’s nothing anyone on that call can do now,” Brad said. “I’m not sure there ever was. This is land management’s problem. We’ll continue monitoring, of course, but there’s no solution we can offer.”
Dr. Elliot stared at Brad for a second then asked, “Every lake?”
Tim sighed. “God save us from ourselves.”