Fern closed her eyes and waited for the end. Any moment now, the demon’s terrible talons would wrap around her body, and that would be curtains for her. It was a pity. She had hoped for a long life of thieving ahead. Why had she ever come to this awful place? Why had she not gotten away once she had found out what was happening, when there still was time? And most of all, why had she thrown her lot in with Seymour de Winter, Cedric Markason and Seoc MacInnes? Of all the people in the world…
But the end did not come. No demonic claws closed around her flesh, and when something did finally tug her to the surface, it was Seoc and not Jhra. Jhra, in fact, was no where to be seen; however, the water seemed significantly more muddy than before.
“Hah!” crowed Seoc while Fern coughed up brine. “The stupid thing forgot it had made itself out o’ sand! The demon Jhra,” he declared, “is quite thoroughly dissolved.”
“What…about the…invisible portion?”
“I suspect it will need a few centuries o' dormancy ta recuperate from this. It had a significant bit o’ itself invested in the creation o’ a Form. Anyway, it needs at least a few souls under its power ta pose any danger, an’ I think it lost all o’ them with the sand. See them?”
He pointed down into the now-murky water. At first, Fern did not know what he was talking about, but then she noticed them. Dozens of tiny, glowing orbs drifted slowly upward from the cloud of settling sediment, meandering as they came. As Seoc and Fern watched, they began to break the surface, continuing upward into the morning sky until their light was eclipsed by that of the sun. Seoc held out his hand, and one of the souls broke off its ascent and settled in his palm.
He nodded, biting his lip.
“How are you going to get it back inside him?”
Seoc averted his eyes and shrugged one shoulder. “There must be some way,” he mumbled, his voice breaking partway through.
They waded to shore and stood side by side, dripping in the sunlight. Cedric joined them shortly and pulled his still-unresponsive uncle up onto the beach.
The merboy shot Seoc a withering glare. “Do something,” he snarled. “This is all your fault anyway.”
“Don’t say that,” Fern admonished. “The demon’s to blame, not Seoc.”
Cedric pulled a face at her in reply.
The glowing orb still safely in his cupped hand, Seoc knelt beside de Winter’s body and hesitated, studying him as if expecting to find instructions. Then he tried placing the soul on top of the merman’s chest. This brought no change, so Seoc picked it up once more and set it on the detective’s mouth, which was slightly ajar. When the merman inhaled, the orb vanished into him. But nothing more happened.
“Why isn’t he waking up?” Cedric asked, his tone desperate.
“I dinna know,” Seoc answered earnestly. “It might take a bit o’ time t—agh!” The man rolled onto his side, clutching his ribs where the merboy had kicked him.
“You’d better figure it out, then!” Cedric screamed, tears rolling down his cheeks. “’Cause if he dies, you’re the one who killed him! You knew we were up against a demon, and you never told him! You didn’t warn him at all. And then you ran off and led him right into its clutches!”
“I did no’ mean—!”
“It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to! You still did it. All you ever think about is yourself. Who cares if he insulted you? You didn’t need to run off into the desert, when you knew he would follow you. When you knew exactly what was out there!”
Seoc adopted the fetal position and hid his face in his hands. "No," he moaned.
"I suspected, I did no' know," he insisted.
"What's the difference? You still had a better idea of the situation than Uncle Seymour did. It almost seems to me as if you wanted this to happen."
Seoc dropped his hands from his face and regarded Cedric with a look of utmost incredulity. "Excuse me?"
Cedric folded his arms across his chest. "I dunno. You could have planned this."
The man snorted derisively. "An' they call me mad."
Cedric opened his mouth to respond, but Fern intervened. "Leave him alone."
He rounded on her. "Why should I? Uncle Seymour's the only family I have left, and now I may have lost him, thanks to him," he grunted, jabbing his foot into Seoc's side.
Seoc squealed in pain. At lightning speed, de Winter's hand whipped out and caught Cedric around the ankle. His eyes flickered open to fix his nephew with a withering glare.
"If you ever do that again," he hissed through his teeth, "you will regret it for the rest of your life. Understood?"