As easily as the sea water plankton drifted in the ocean currents, so too did Tara's mind drift back to her encounter with Willow. It certainly had been a life-altering change for her. But as much as she felt excited about having met and struck up an apparent friendship with a human, it also gave her pause. She had used magic to help Willow, and by doing so had broken one of the cardinal rules that she had been taught while growing up. Tara kept telling herself that it had been the right thing to do. Regardless of how her people felt about humans, she just could not allow her to die, especially since Willow had become trapped and could not find her way out on her own.
That too had given her much to think about. If Willow had gotten lost on her own, it would be easier for Tara to justify her actions. But she had been responsible for putting Willow in danger in the first place. And that, more than anything else, made how she felt conflicted. She was told to distrust and leave humans alone, believing them to be a disease that would infest the ocean. And yet, she could not see how damaging they, and Willow in particular, could be to their society. If anything, her actions made Tara believe that she was born to live her life in the ocean.
Tara's thoughts turned briefly towards how magic had come to exist for the mermaids. It certainly was a rare talent, and there were few not only in her own clan but throughout the entire mermaid race that could wield the power that she could. Even those few would never fully realize the untapped potential that they possessed. Those clans whose members carried the potential for magical talent also had a mage who taught those few adepts how to use their craft for the betterment of the ocean.
Tara had often questioned what "betterment of the ocean" meant. Obviously it meant preserving the purity of the ocean as much as could be possible, but how did it apply to others? Mermaids often feasted on the fish that they shared the ocean with. Clearly they were not above the need to preserve the integrity of the clans. And what of humans? That was a question she had long thought about, ever since she first learned that they often came beneath the surface of the ocean. They shared obvious qualities, such as a family structure and a need to explore, but there was nothing that signified a lasting connection between the two.
She herself had no real connections. Ever since the death of her mother, Tara had been raised by her father, who had disowned her when she was twenty years old because she reminded him too much of the woman who had been his wife. Tara was not overly sad, as he had not treated her well even before her the death of the woman he claimed to love. Since that time, Baji, the elder Mage of her clan, had been responsible for her upbringing. She treated Tara in every way much like her own child, looking out for Tara's best interests, making sure that she was needed, comforted her in times of woe and provided a shoulder to cry on. In addition, she also taught her the fundamentals of magic and how every incident had a consequence on the ocean around them. Or, as Baji had put it, "every stone thrown in the ocean, even in the most inconsequential ways, affects the world around it."
One of the lessons she had taught Tara was that she should never use the Craft on humans. She knew that Baji was one of the few in the clan who held no ill will towards the surface dwellers and made no secret of it, which had caused her to become the object of suspicion and ridicule. But she also knew that it would be dangerous to approach them and make them aware of the mermaid presence in the ocean, as it had the potential to bring down disaster on them all. That was a point that she had driven home to Tara on many occasions.
It was because she knew that Baji would understand what she did that Tara traveled to her now, in order to seek the guidance and comfort that Tara knew she could not provide herself.
Tara's thoughts turned once again to Willow, and she found herself thinking how beautiful she looked. Her red hair looked long, but compared to hers, was rather short. Willow's face was, even in her unconscious state, a sight to behold. As for the rest of her body, it was certainly attractive, even if it was...different. It frightened Tara that she found herself attracted to Willow, even on a subconscious level.
She had to be comforted. And she knew that there was only one person who could ease her mind.
On the outskirts of her clan's colony was a makeshift dwelling composed of several large stones supporting a flat disc that served as the roof of the structure, the whole of which thrummed with the magic that was holding it together against the ocean current. This was where Baji lived when she wasn't required by tradition to participate in the affairs of the clan. Tara was one of the select few who could come to her private sanctum without fear of reprisal.
Tara found Baji meditating outside the small hut. The long silver hair that was her most prominent feature flowed from her head out into the ocean in all directions. Her legs were crossed and she was humming a chant that Tara knew was meant to cleanse the spirit and revitalize her soul. The fact that it was so similar to what she had done to Willow made her ill at ease, as if the one person who could understand her already knew why she was coming.
As Baji's eyes opened, Tara grew relieved as the older mermaid's face broke out in surprise, signifying that she had not been aware of her approach. "Tara. My dear, sweet child. How are you?"
"Fine, Master Healer," Tara responded in the way that was proper to address someone of Baji's standing. Although she was rather unconventional, she still held onto the basic traditions of her clan, and she didn't want to be disrespectful.
Baji smiled. "Please, Tara. There is no need to be so formal. I know it is in your nature. But out here, where it is just the two of us, let us drop tradition, if only for a little while."
Tara sighed as she kicked her feet to approach Baji as the elder mermaid moved to sit down in a more comfortable position. "Speak, child. I sense that something troubles you."
Tara knew that she couldn't try to keep what she had done a secret, especially not from Baji. So she told the elder mermaid everything. How she had encountered Willow, how she had endangered her life, how she had brought her back and the promise Willow had made to come back. Despite this, however, she did keep from Baji the fact that she was beginning to feel something for Willow. Tara didn't know how long she could, but she figured that it would be for the best to keep it quiet as long as she could until she had a chance to sort it out for herself.
As Tara finished her tale, she looked into Baji's face, and was not at all surprised to find her looking back at her with a disappointed expression. "Tara, I've told you before..."
"I know, I know," Tara sighed, shifting rather uncomfortably as her best friend and teacher began the disciplinarian speech that she had been expecting. The fact that she knew that it was coming made it all the more difficult to endure. "But I couldn't help it. I was curious about her. You know how I am. I tend to get rather...possessive about that which I find curious. And I nearly caused her to die! I had to do something to help her. I owed it to myself to make sure that she lived...and that I..."
Tara trailed off and sniffled, fighting and losing the battle to keep herself from crying. The emotional way she said those words was mainly due to her attraction to Willow, which would not let anyone, not even the one she respected most, speak any ill will of her. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to look at Baji, whose face had softened somewhat, no longer looking at her with disapproving eyes.
"I know how you feel, Tara," she said, her tone of voice telling Tara that she did indeed understand what it was that Tara was going through, and not simply saying that it would be better for her own comfort. "I know that you feel that we are unnaturally cruel to the humans, and that you wish to prove yourself better than those who feel that way. But you should know that to interfere with the affairs of humans directly."
Tara held her head, accepting the mild dressing down. She wasn't aware of which incident of interference Baji was referring to, but she had the feeling that it didn't matter. "Yes."
"And do you know why?"
Tara nodded as Baji held out her hand, palm facing forward. A light began to shine from the center of the palm, growing slowly as she began to move her hand, using the light to transform the water in front of her into a reflective surface upon which played one of the many stories she had been taught to convey in this manner.
The story of how humans and mermaids had come to separate.
Baji began to narrate the story being shown out in front of them. "A long time ago, child, there was a human male who traveled into our underwater kingdom. Most of our clan was indifferent to the intrusion, with the exception of one."
The image of a beautiful mermaid appeared a perfect vision of loveliness with skin bronzed by the sun and shoulder length brunette hair. Unlike either Tara or Baji, this mermaid had a tail, which was covered in beautiful green and purple scales.
"Lorelei was the mother," Baji continued. "The first. The one who gave birth to our race as it exists today. She fell in love with the human. And, in a desire to learn more about him, performed the Spell of Transformation."
Tara watched as Lorelei began to chant a spell. She recognized several of the incantations, but was unfamiliar with much of the spoken word, most likely being an archaic form of language she didn't understand. Tara watched in astonishment as concentric rings appeared and slowly enveloped Lorelei's tail until it was replaced by two powerfully muscled legs. Tara also noted that the scales from her tail were now sprouted from various areas on her body, including heavy concentrations on her forehead and feet.
"Yes, Tara," Baji said as she noticed Tara's shocked expression. "She became half human, retaining all of her aquatic tendencies, but appeared in all other aspects to be human. It was then that she then set out to meet this male, encountering him near the Forbidden Cave."
Tara stared in amazement. She had always wondered what incident caused the intense distrust between mermaid and human, and she knew that it had to do with that cave. But what connection could it possibly share?
Then it hit her. There could be only one answer. There was only one thing that could irrevocably alter the balance of the sea.
"I'm afraid so."
The reflective surface once again showed the nude body of Lorelei, this time with the equally nude form of a human male with short dark hair, a beard and a powerful build. And the two...
Tara gasped. She had known that it was coming, and had done her best to be mentally prepared for it. But hearing about an incident and actually seeing it occur were two separate things. She realized that the pair must have been deeply in love for them to have committed that action. Tara quietly sympathized with them, knowing how it felt to love someone who was not her own kind.
Baji continued her narrative. "When the Elders found out, they were furious. They assumed that the human had come from the surface to corrupt us. The fact that one of their own could so easily be taken in under his charms showed how dangerous he could be. So the next time he came underwater, the Elders ordered their strongest warriors to..."
Baji fell silent, and Tara nodded in understanding, her eyes a mixture of deep thought and profound sadness. The Elders had seen the human as a contaminant and feared that he was merely the first of a supposed invasion from above, so they had killed him. It made her sick to her stomach. The pair was obviously in love, and could have been the first step in a successful merging of their divergent worlds. And their love had been repaid by those who could have accepted it with nothing but suspicion, fear and outright hatred, even to the point where they had been forced to kill, all in the name of preserving their way of life.
It made her ill. The Elders preached not to upset the delicate balance of the sea, but saw no qualms about doing it if it meant preserving their secrets. Could they not understand that in order to survive, all things must live in harmony?
"What happened to Lorelei?"
Baji's eyes grew said. "It was felt that her acts warranted her banishment from the clan. And in order to ensure that she could never do again what she had done, the Elders arranged for her to be killed. Unfortunately, there were...complications."
Baji pointed to the reflective surface, which was now showing an image of Lorelei, whose appearance no longer matched the strong nubile aquatic beauty that Tara had first seen, now appearing instead to be very much with child.
"The Elders decided that they could not harm Lorelei for fear of harming the child. They decreed that, though born through illicit circumstances, the child was an innocent in the whole affair. So the Elders declared that Lorelei was allowed to live only until the child was born. After which, in order to hide the child's birthright, she was immediately put to death."
"But how did they explain his heritage to him?" Tara asked. "They could not keep such a secret from him."
Baji's head tilted slightly. "Indeed, Tara. But they could not tell it of the circumstances of its birth. Therefore, the Elders enacted the Spell of Transformation on our entire clan, remaking all of us in the image of that which we now despised the most."
Tara couldn't believe it. Understanding finally hit her brain like the crest of a wave. Despite all that they had done, an apparent contaminant had been introduced into their society, and in order to keep it secret, the entire clan underwent a dramatic change into that which they had hoped to keep buried forever. No wonder they came to loathe humanity.
"And...and that's why..." She paused as a sudden thought struck her. Her mother had died under mysterious circumstances after preaching that the dangers of the Forbidden Cave were little more than lies. Her desire to show this to the clan and her eventual murder seemed less than coincidental. "Did...did...did they also...kill my moth...?"
"I do not know," Baji sighed. "Your mother was an intensely private individual. She did not share to me all of her secrets. I would not put it past her, however. She had a curious streak about her." Baji gave a soft smile. "One that you seem to share."
Tara returned the smile. Her teacher's approval remained unspoken, but it was indeed present. It meant that she was free to explore her feeling for Willow without regret. "So you wouldn't be upset if I went...if she came back..."
"No, Tara," Baji replied. "You are old enough to make these kind of suggestions for yourself. I shall not pretend that I can tell you not to see this human again and expect you to follow my wishes. If you wish to see her again, that is up to you." She gestured with her hand, and the reflective surface disappeared, changing back into water. "It is late, child. Perhaps you should return home."
Tara nodded and got up as Baji got up from her cross legged position and moved to swim inside her private cave. As she reached the entrance, she turned to face Tara. "But I would suggest that you tell her about your involvement in her near death experience. It is not a good thing to keep secrets from other people. Not even humans."
Tara watched with growing sadness as Baji retreated into her home. Her friend had effectively killed the elated feelings she had. Baji told her that she could make the decision to see Willow again on her own without fear of her reprisal, but at the cost of having to tell Willow that she had accidentally killed her. It did not set well with her, as she didn't know how Willow would react if she realized that the reason for her salvation was also the reason for her near death experience. And what if others were to find out? Not all of her clan was as accepting of humans as Baji was, and she couldn't bear the mark of being branded a human lover.
As much as Tara knew it would be a problem, she also knew it was one that was not likely to happen. For all she knew, Willow was not coming back, and she merely said that in order to get away from her.
Still...the kiss...and the promise...perhaps there could be happiness there. Tara owed it to herself to try and find out, if for no other reason than to soothe her conscience. And she owed it to Lorelei, who had once had a chance to merge the two races. If she could do this, she could bring about a whole new change in their society.
And Tara could finally be with someone who shared her passions. There was indeed something about Willow told her that she was someone who was as like minded as she was: respectful, kind, courteous and gentle to everyone. Her activities before the incident in the cave also indicated that she held a special kind of love for the water, one that gave Tara hope that Willow would return to her.
Turning around, Tara began to swim home, knowing that Willow would be very much on her mind the rest of the night. And perhaps, just perhaps, for a long time to come.