It was a clear and moonlit night, and the sea shimmered beneath a sky that seemed to go on forever, and the Queen of the Ocean was wandering again.
She had always been the sort to wander, of course, but now, heavy with child for the seventh time in her unending life, she was more restless than ever. She had given her husband six daughters over the years, each of them infinitely precious, beautiful as coral and gifted with grace and music, and she loved them all dearly...but they did not share their mother's curiosity. But this one, the child growing within her now, almost ready to emerge...she was a kindred spirit, the Queen knew. It yearned just like its mother did to experience all it could, learn all there was to be learned, seek out new vistas and hear new voices. And so she and her unborn child goaded each other on, through their silent connection, and each and every night, of late, had seen her leave her husband's gold and shining halls to explore the stranger waters beyond.
She knew her husband worried, and he would probably be terrified beyond reason if he knew she had been traveling as far as the surface, slipping just outside the boundaries given to Poseidon and into the realms of Zeus. Poseidon himself had decreed that his chosen people were not to break the surface of his waters. But Poseidon was long gone, and his son ruled the oceans in his stead, and though the stricture technically remained, the King would deny his beloved wife nothing.
Still and all, the Queen was not entirely foolish. She knew to avoid the hard-shelled vessels human men used to skim across the upper bounds of their kingdom; knew, too, to avoid the lands where they dwelt.
Except tonight her heart had felt near to breaking, troubled by some distant sorrow she could not name, and when she tried to follow its lead, it had pulled her here, to a large island she knew only in passing. They called it, quite plainly, the Isle of Women, for no men would sail its waters or step on its shores, and the women who lived there would not leave. Their vessels were small, and used chiefly to gather fish near their shores, returning as swiftly as they left.
None of the women were on the water tonight, and as she broke the surface, she saw that the human settlement on the island was dark, save for the torches that gave a handful of sentries light. They didn't see her; they weren't keeping watch for a single mermaid. All was as she would have expected, at first – but as she swam carefully closer to an isolated cove, nestled into a part of the island that was still given over to wilderness, she heard a song, as beautiful as any the most talented siren might sing.
The Queen found herself moving closer still, captivated by the strange melody. It was low and slow, filled with sorrow and passion and desperate yearning. The language was close to the tongue the merfolk spoke among themselves, though different enough that she had to think about what she was hearing. It was a prayer, she thought, to goddess after goddess, to anyone who might hear the singer's plea.
That very singer came into view, suddenly, as the Queen rounded a rock outcropping, and the ancient mermaid quickly hid herself behind the stone, peeking out only with the utmost caution. But the singer was consumed with her prayer, and took no notice. She was a striking woman, clad in a short, simple white shift, a girdle of gold about her waist and a gleaming tiara nestled in her sand-colored hair. Her bare arms were tautly muscled, and her jaw was strong, for all that it quivered as she sang. She knelt in the sand, gazing down at...the Queen took it for a human baby, at first, still slick with its birthing blood. But no, there was no sign of a new mother resting from her labors, and the red was too uniform, and the infant did not move. It was red clay, she realized, sculpted into the form of a human baby. The singer stared fiercely at the clay doll, her blue eyes dimmed with tears but still almost fever-bright, as though she could somehow will the doll to life simply by glaring at it.
That, the Queen realized with a start, was what she was asking the goddesses, and even Zeus, and finally any who might listen. To give her a child. She ached for the poor woman, even as she wondered why the singer and all the others who lived on this island were set apart, why they were denied fathers for their children. Had the gods cursed them? If so, surely they had suffered enough. Was there anything she could do? Her husband's powers could extend beyond the sea. Perhaps, if she could find the right plea, if she could convey to him the depths of this woman's sorrow...
She turned, her thoughts troubled, and scarcely caught the rumbling all around, like distant thunder. She looked up at the sky, her actions mirrored by the singer on the shore. But the sky was still clear, as far as the eye could see. Then, accompanied by a massive boom, a fork of lightning flashed out of the depths, crackling through the water, surging through the Queen's body as she convulsed. Darkness exploded behind her eyes, taking her breath, her heart, her very thought, so swiftly she did not feel her muscles seizing or her teeth sinking into her tongue. A sudden undertow ripped her from her hiding spot, tearing her body down into the crushing depths.
And the strange lightning struck upon the shore, spending itself against the wet clay, as clouds raced from the horizon to blanket the island. As darkness swiftly fell, a baby's shrill cry split the night, loud enough to hide, from anyone who might hear, the sound of deep and distant laughter.
The swift and terrible current cut through the water like a sword through tender flesh, and pierced the shining city of Atlantica to the heart. The royal daughters bolted awake, hearts pounding, as though in the grip of terrible nightmares. King Triton himself, already awake and swimming restlessly back and forth across his great hall, stopped suddenly and stared at the enormous doors opposite his throne, something cold and hard wrapping its fingers around his very soul. A commotion rose through the city, starting at the walls by the gates and swiftly proceeding up the grand boulevard to the palace. He sensed it more than heard it, but found himself frozen in terror, unable to move even an inch as something dark and terrible came straight for him. All the courage that had driven him to fight the greatest monsters the Titans could spawn, all the determination that had allowed him to cast his own elder sister from these shining halls, had seemingly left him in an instant. There was only the fear, now, and the waiting.
It lasted an eternity. It lasted a moment. In the years that followed, he would never be able to tell a soul precisely how much time passed between his premonition of doom and the terrible events themselves. But the doors flew open, the strength of the guards just outside overcoming the resistance of the water. The Captain of the City Guard, a normally cheerful merman named Atlas, swam in first, his face pale and half-slack with shock and uncertainty.
"Your Majesty..." he began, his voice faltering as he looked back at the dolphins that followed him, bearing the body of a heavily pregnant mermaid, her red hair floating about her like a cloud, her skin scorched and blistered in strange patterns. Triton's heart was sinking before Atlas found the will to speak again. "Some...current carried Queen Athena to the gates. The sentries recognized Her Majesty at once by...by her hair, and her crown..."
"No," Triton whispered, drifting forward to his wife's side, reaching for her but unable to quite touch her ruined flesh. His body shook with a sudden fury, and he rounded on the Captain, fairly roaring in his anger. "Where was she? What happened? Why was no one following her, watching her? Report!"
"Sir – Your Majesty – the Queen never liked to be followed, you know this...forgive me," Atlas said, bowing his head, as Triton's eyes blazed. "She had talents all her own, the skill to evade the scouts we set to follow her, and I have set many, I assure you. It...was not enough. I have failed you. I have failed Atlantica. I can only beg your mercy."
"My mercy?" Triton began – but something caught his eye before he could continue. He turned to look fully at his wife's swollen belly, now still, but a moment ago, he could have sworn...there. There it was again. A jolt in the flesh. A quickening. The child...the child!
Triton's gaze turned back to the Captain and his palace guards, his anger forgotten, a new fear warring with a desperate hope. "Fetch the royal physician. At once! Drag him from his bed if you must, but go!"
The world above Triton's kingdom had turned to howling chaos. A sudden storm had blown up all around the island, rising from nowhere to smother the moon and stars. The wind roared, rain sheeted down from the sky, and great crashes of thunder came from out at sea as lightning shot between the clouds. It was as if Zeus himself had become enraged, and even the faithful Amazon sentries who stood tall upon the walls of the city, keeping their vigil no matter the weather, felt the thrill of fear in their bellies. The torches had all but gone out, the guards only managing to shelter a few from the rain, and scarcely anything could be seen through the downpour.
Antiope stood at the forefront of the guard, that night, commanding her Amazons from her post above the main gate. Her sister and queen, Hippolyta, had left the city hours ago. She would not say why – only that she might not return until the next day. It happened, now and then, that one Amazon or another sought solitude in the wild places of their home, and of late Hippolyta had been troubled and restless. It had seemed a good enough night for the queen to take her leave, when the sun had barely set and the first evening stars had emerged, but now Antiope could only hope she had found shelter deep in some cave, safe from the storm.
The lightning flashed, and Antiope thought she saw an answering flash of white upon the road. It flashed again, and yes, there: white cloth and chestnut brown flesh, burnished gold and sandy blonde hair. Hippolyta raced through the storm upon her loyal steed, riding full-tilt toward the promise of safety, gripping the reins with one hand and holding some dark bundle to her chest with her other arm.
"The Queen!" Antiope yelled, the guards to either side of her taking up the cry, warring with the thunder in their struggle to spread the word. "The Queen has returned!"
Hippolyta passed through the gate, her steed swiftly turning to duck into the small stable in the guardhouse to one side. Antiope fairly flew down the stairs to meet her sister in the chamber below, arriving just in time to see Hippolyta undoing the bundle she held, pulling clay-stained leather away to reveal...
No. It was impossible. And yet, somehow, Hippolyta held a baby girl in her arms, squirming and damp from the rain despite the careful swaddling. Her skin already held a bronze cast, and there were short black curls on her head. A strange, branching pattern of angry red scars was spread across the skin of her left arm. Her eyes, when she opened them to peer warily at her surroundings, were already a deep and piercing blue. Antiope only had a glimpse of those eyes, though, before the girl screwed them tightly shut and reddened, letting out a long, healthy wail.
Hippolyta laughed for joy, even as she tried to comfort the bawling child, and looked up at her sister with a wide, fierce grin. Her eyes reminded Antiope of the oracles of old, half mad, half holy.
"Antiope," she said, her voice low and reverent, but compelling all the same. "The gods have answered my prayers. Come – behold your niece. Behold Diana of Themyscira, our last and most precious daughter."
The physician, Chiron, had come to Triton's palace as commanded, and though sleep had still haunted him on his arrival, he had woken fully at the sight of the queen. He and his attendants had taken Athena into a side chamber, to see to their solemn, desperate task. The king was once again left to wait and worry – but he would not simply meander uselessly through his chambers. Not this time. He had fetched his father's trident, and though he wasn't entirely sure what good it might do, the power that thrummed through its enchanted gold shaft brought him some comfort.
Some. Not enough.
Just when Triton thought his heart might break from the waiting alone, he heard it. A baby's cry, long and loud. He could bear it no longer: he burst into the room where Chiron worked. He did not look at Athena's body – he could not bear it. He looked, instead, to the infant mermaid cradled in the physician's arms, already partly washed by the ocean currents, with one of Chiron's attendants taking up a sponge to finish the work. Even from across the room, the king could already see the vivid red of his youngest daughter's short, fine hair. None of his other girls had hair that color – such a perfect match to his wife's. He swam forward, and as the baby's cries subsided into soft whimpers, Chiron looked up, drawing himself straight.
"Your Majesty," he said, inclining his head and carefully holding the infant princess out to the king. "You have a daughter. She is healthy, though as you can see, there is some scarring..."
Triton's eyes caught on the scars even as the physician said it: vivid red marks that branched across the girl's right arm. He scowled, rumbling low in his chest, and raised his trident. Chiron stiffened, instinctively backing up, incrementally, but there was no sudden bolt from the weapon's prongs: instead, a soft, glimmering golden cloud of light emerged, drifting over to the child, suffusing her skin, causing the scars on her arm to vanish. She stopped crying altogether, all at once, her eyes fluttering open, revealing the soft blue of the sunlit sea.
"Ah. Yes, of course. Your Majesty is most..." Chiron seemed at a loss for words. He shook it off. "Had you...decided upon a name?"
Triton carefully held his trident to one side, taking the little infant mermaid in one mighty arm and pulling her close to his chest. She gurgled and gazed up at him, infinitely curious, and her flailing arms ran through his long beard. Despite everything, he couldn't help giving her a bittersweet smile, as love surged at once through his battered heart.
"Ariel," he said softly. "Last and most precious of my daughters."
By the law of Poseidon and right of conquest, all of the ocean was Triton's domain. In practice, however, he could not be everywhere at once. His power was great, but it was not boundless. There were shadows cast even by the great light of Atlantica, and even near to his palace, there were places the wise did not go.
Of course, there were things that could rob the wisdom from any man.
Days had passed since the death of Triton's queen, and the birth of his daughter. Though Ariel brought a fragile joy out of the tragedy, all of Atlantica still mourned, and none more so than the King of the Ocean himself. But it was not simple grief that had driven him to slip, alone, out of the palace, ordering his guards and attendants to remain behind. It was not grief that haunted his course, as he left his shining city behind, passing through the great kelp forest into the desolate, rocky wasteland beyond. The king's mind was troubled, still, by the circumstances of his wife's death, and the return of her body. Some great and terrible power moved through his waters, and he would have answers, even if he had to break all his own vows to get them.
He knew where the sea witch lurked. He had known almost from the moment she slunk back into the waters around his city. He had studiously ignored her because...he wasn't sure why. Or at least he wasn't ready to admit the reasons to himself. Perhaps he had thought it would be easier to keep tabs on her if he allowed her to stay close. Perhaps there was still some role she had to play in their society. Or perhaps it was simply this: for all her crimes, for all the terrible things she had done during her reign, she was still his elder sister. He had loved her, once, and thought she had loved him, and perhaps hope for them both still lived in his heart.
His reverie was broken as he arrived at the cave, its mouth bristling with stone spikes, like the teeth of a lamprey. In the gloom, he thought he could see the faint glow of grayish white eyes among the stone. He felt a wash of uncertainty – but in a heartbeat, he steeled himself once more, tightening his grip on his trident and swimming through the tunnel before him.
The chamber beyond was simple in its furnishings: bedding piled upon a stone shelf nestled in a natural alcove. A high-backed chair, a table that held a great, glowing green orb. Natural shelves crowded with bottles, jars and oddments. A curtained doorway that led...he couldn't be sure where. He watched it warily.
A pair of eels slithered out of the shadows, each with one yellow eye that seemed, for a moment, to glow brightly. Perhaps it was only a trick of the light. They swam around him, taking his measure.
"So," one of them said, "the son of Poseidon has come to see his wayward sister."
"Welcome, Your Majesty, to the palace of the sea witch," the other hissed, his tone mocking.
"What is it that brings you here, King Triton?" the first asked.
The other chuckled softly. "More importantly...what are you willing to sacrifice?"
Both of them began to laugh, but another voice – Ursula's – floated in from beyond the curtained door, bringing them up short. "Oh, no, boys! No, no, no! I would never ask Triton to pay for my favors. He's family!"
The curtains parted, and the sea witch swam in, tentacles swirling dramatically about her. She grinned widely at him, all red lips and white teeth that put him in mind of nothing so much as a bloody-mouthed shark. "One never casts family out in the cold. Wouldn't you agree, dear brother?"
Triton regarded her coolly, refusing to be shaken. "That's certainly an ideal I try to cling to. I'm glad to hear you've come around to the notion," he said carefully, his voice dry. "Hello, Ursula. You look...well."
"Oh! So serious! Darling, you are simply too much," Ursula exclaimed, waving her hand and shaking her head. She seemed to sober, then, looking him directly in the eye. "But I suppose you have reason to be. I heard about Athena. That poor, sweet girl. I'm so very sorry, Triton."
She actually sounded sincere, and Triton had to blink, though he fought not to show any more surprise than that. Still, his voice, when he spoke again, shook slightly. "Yes. Thank you. She was..."
"Oh, she was an angelfish, I know. And it hurts. The pain must be terrible," Ursula said sympathetically, moving to her chair. "It's strange. No one seems entirely sure what took her from us. But that's why you're here, isn't it? For answers."
"Yes. Ursula...there are some things I will trade. And some things you know I cannot," Triton replied, as firmly as he could, planting his trident firmly against the rock beneath him.
"Oh, pish-tosh," she said, waving him off, her eyes already locked on the green orb before her. It began to swirl with myriad colors, slowly at first but steadily picking up speed. "I told you, Triton dear, I'm not going to charge family. Not for this. Now...let's see. What killed our poor, dear queen?"
The colors swirled faster and faster, merging into a brilliant white flash, and then the image of Athena's face appeared. She seemed confused, her gaze distant, her expression wondering, her wet red hair draped over her shoulders – and then her expression became one of pain, as lightning flashed across her skin, scorching the once-clear flesh. Triton stiffened, staring in horror.
"Oh! Oh, my sweet little brother – I'm so sorry you had to see that," Ursula said, waving her hand, dismissing the image.
"Lightning. She was killed by lightning? She was on the surface?" The king still stared, though there was nothing left to see. "But she wouldn't...she might go to the surface, but never during a storm. She knows better. Which means..."
Ursula frowned thoughtfully. "Zeus? Perhaps. But why? Athena had been to the surface before, had she not? Even, perhaps, when our father still reigned. Oh, no need to look guilty, Triton, we all flouted his rules at one time or another. Zeus wouldn't have struck at a curious mermaid for encroaching on his territory. Not without some greater reason. Perhaps..."
She gestured at the orb again, and events flashed through it, too quickly for Triton to follow. Then, abruptly, the flashes resolved into a single image, an island at night, with torchlight just visible on the walls of a human settlement to one side.
"The Isle of Women?" Triton said, his eyebrows rising.
"Is that what you call it? Those who dwell there call it Themyscira. Beautiful place. A haven for women of great power who nevertheless found themselves persecuted by men who could not bear the thought of such things," Ursula returned, a slight, biting edge to her voice. "They are called Amazons. They worship the goddesses, primarily, honoring the gods mainly as an afterthought. But of all the goddesses, the one they love best is Athena."
Triton's eyes widened. "Athena? But what...my wife was named in her honor. As a gesture of peace, to try and end our father's long rivalry with her. What would these Amazons have to do with her death?"
"What indeed? The gods are strange and fickle, dear," the sea witch said. "And insults – or what they perceive to be insults – can fester long after they're given. Look."
With a wave of her hand, the scene was set into motion. A clear, moonlit night, the waters rippling calmly around the island, as a haunting song rose from its shores. It was as compelling as any of the mermaid's siren songs – but here was a mermaid caught in its spell, drawn from the water toward the shore, a complete reversal of the usual way of things. Triton recognized his wife as she swam to a rocky outcropping, hiding herself and watching, and he could faintly see the kneeling singer who had lured her in. He could not quite make out the words, but whatever they were, Queen Athena was utterly entranced, until a low rumble filled the scene, and the queen turned to look around. Lightning came from nowhere, surging through the waters around her, striking her dead, and the sky above abruptly filled with rushing storm clouds. More lightning flashed among them.
Triton's knuckles, where his fingers wrapped about his trident, were bone-white. His eyes were filled with a blazing fury. His voice, when it came, was a low, ominous rumble. "These...Athena worshipers. They lured my wife to the surface. So she could be slain – murdered by the gods. For a slight?"
Ursula gestured, dismissing the vision. "So it would seem. Zeus, I imagine, taking Athena's part. His cowardly daughter couldn't even fight her own battles."
A great, abiding rage clawed through Triton's heart. His trident glowed bright with power, and his voice resonated through the cave as he spoke, then, to all of Atlantica. "The goddess Athena is never again to be worshiped by any who dwell beneath the sea – or even named! She is forever forbidden! And if any of you encounter women warriors upon the water, the ones who call themselves Amazons...you are to give them no quarter. This is the word of your king!"
The power left him in a rush, the glow fading and his shoulders slumping. His voice grew tired, as he turned, slowly, to look at his sister once more. "Thank you, Ursula."
The sea witch's grin was wide and feral. "Not at all, dear. Whatever is family for?"