Fjord is walking through a vast and empty plain, sun beating down on him, the earth beneath his feet barren and cracked. He feels how the earth feels, he too is dry and empty. He doesn’t even have enough moisture in him to sweat, and his tongue is like a piece of old leather in his mouth. He can barely see for the sun reflecting back at him from the dried out wastes, the air around him so hot that it burns his lungs when he tries to breathe. The only sound in this place is his gasping, each pained inhale and exhale so loud in the silence. He doesn’t remember how he got here. All he remembers is walking, walking and heat and the cruel sun.
Fjord focuses on his feet. There are bones scattered in the dust, blinding white, bleached by the sun, the gaping jaws of sharks, the ribs of whales rising up like pillars. The delicate bones of eels create serpentine patterns that he destroys with his footsteps, scattering them, crushing them to dust under his boots.
The ground burns when he falls to his knees, his hands clutching at his throat. He feels like he is choking, but there is nothing to choke on, nothing but air, hot and thin and wrong—
Fjord wakes up gasping, curled up on his side, his heart racing like it’s trying to pound itself to pieces against his ribcage. The air in his lungs is cool, not hot, the air of a forest night in autumn and not the baking heat of the desert, but it is no easier for him to breathe. He knows from experience that this will pass, he has been waking from such dreams for what feels like so long now, but there is always the fear that this time will be different.
“Fjord?” Beau’s voice, groggy and rough from sleep, reaches his ears. “Shit, again?” Her hand on his shoulder, firm, strong, an anchor. The first time this had happened Beau had whacked him hard on the back, thinking he was coughing up salt water, like that one time. Fjord actually wishes there was water in his lungs, something he could expel so he could breathe normally again. There is only air, and all he can do is try to calm down and wait, close his eyes and slow his breathing even as his brain screams that he’s suffocating, drowning, dying.
Between one ragged breath and the next it’s like the air suddenly contains oxygen again and Fjord sags against his bedroll in relief and exhaustion for a moment, his chest aching, his throat dry and raw. He half sits up and Beau is already handing him his waterskin, which he takes with a shaking hand. The water is from the lake nearby, cool and tasting of minerals, and Fjord drinks as if it’ll dispel the feeling the dream always leaves him with, as if it’ll fill up the dry, empty place in his chest. It doesn’t.
“Thank you,” Fjord says, the normal smoothness of the accent he has adopted as rough as coral. “Sorry I woke you up.” His eyes search the near darkness to see if he has disturbed anyone else. He hasn’t. He has taken to sleeping away from the others to avoid waking them, to skirt uncomfortable questions and concerned looks. The fact that Beau has continued to place her bedroll close to his is either a sign of her friendship or her stubbornness, Fjord isn’t sure which one.
“It’s no big deal,” Beau says easily, but a yawn betrays her. “I have next watch anyway.” Her hand on his shoulder, a comforting weight, turns as heavy as an albatross around his neck with her next words. “Getting worried about you. Hells, this is what, the third time this week?”
It’s the fourth, but Fjord isn’t going to correct her. “I’m fine,” he says quickly, reaching up to squeeze her hand while at the same time moving it off his shoulder, sitting up straighter. A quick glance reveals Caleb sitting over by the fire, yawning, his shoulders slumped with exhaustion. “You might want to take your watch a little early,” Fjord says, nodding his head in the wizard’s direction.
Beau’s eyes flick over to Caleb, but immediately return to Fjord. She’s not stupid, she knows Fjord is trying to distract her, to take attention away from himself, even if he’s not wrong about Caleb needing to be relieved before he falls asleep on his watch. “I just wish you’d tell someone. Jester maybe.”
“And what’s she going to do, Beau? I’m not sick, it’s just something that happens when I have those dreams, that’s all.” He hasn’t told her about the empty feeling in his chest, about how if he breathes too deeply he’ll start coughing, how he feels short of breath all the time now. He keeps telling himself that it’ll pass, that he’ll be fine, tries to make himself believe the lie so that Beau will too.
“Still,” Beau says, frowning as she gets up and grabs her staff, but Fjord knows she won’t press the issue anymore tonight. Soon maybe, but not right this moment. “You okay now?”
“Yeah,” Fjord lies easily, forcing a smile. “Don’t think I’m getting back to sleep anytime soon though. Might go for a walk.” They’re far enough away from the lake that he shouldn’t be able to hear the water lapping at the shore, but he swears he does. It’s not the ocean, they’re so far from the ocean, but the water seems to call him nonetheless. The thought enters his mind that, after dreaming about a desert, it’d do him good to look at the water.
“Want some company?” Beau rubs at her arms, either because she’s anxious or because she’s cold, Fjord can’t tell. “I could switch watches with Jester, probably. She wouldn’t mind.”
No, Jester probably wouldn’t. She’d ask questions though, and Fjord doesn’t want questions. He wants to be alone for a bit, somewhere he doesn’t have to pretend everything is fine, just for a few hours. “That’s all right,” he says, the honey back in his tone as he stands up, settling the strap of the empty waterskin over his shoulder and walking with her towards the fire, and towards the line of trees past which the lake waits for him. “You go get warm by the fire. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t forget—“ Beau starts to say, then laughs, a little uneasily. “That’s right, you always have your sword with you, don’t you?”
“Sure do.” Fjord summons it for her, ignoring the lurch of his heart in his chest at the feeling of longing the resulting smell of seawater stirs within him. He wants to gather the dripping salt water in his palm, wants to drink it. Instead he dismisses the blade with a smile. “Just like you, really. Hell, you don’t even need that staff, it’s your fists that anything creeping up on us should be watching out for.”
The flattery eases the expression on Beau’s face into a grin. Fjord suspects that Beau’s hunger for praise has something to do with her father, and he half hopes that maybe someday he’ll meet the man somewhere where they can have a little private chat. The man has a lot to answer for, in Fjord’s eyes.
“Be careful,” Beau says, not sounding worried anymore as she punches Fjord gently on his bicep and walks over to relieve Caleb.
“You know I will,” Fjord drawls back, smile still fixed on his face as he gives Caleb a nod in passing. Fjord keeps smiling until he is well away from where Beau or Caleb with their weak human eyes can see him, then lets the expression fall as he makes his way through the trees and to the lake beyond.
The water of the lake is just calm enough to reflect the moon’s light as Fjord approaches. It’s not the ocean, but it’s beautiful in its own way. Fjord kneels at the shore and refills the waterskin, promptly drinks half, and then fills it again before staring down at his own reflection.
His reflection is different than the one he had before, he’s not the same half-orc that sailed out one unremarkable day as a simple merchant seaman. How could he be? He drowned that day, or at least, he thinks he did. Something had happened in the dark water— pain, air rushing out, water rushing in, darkness, a question, an answer— and then he had been staggering onto shore, his blade waiting for him and strange magic burning in his blood. He hadn’t realized what else was different until later, how his tusks had vanished and the shape of his jaw had changed so that it was as if they had never been there at all. How his skin, once uniform green, now shaded towards lighter green from his cheekbones downward. That paired with his eyes, still yellow gold but now with slit pupils, made him think of sea serpents, of dragons.
The thing was, no one else seemed to think his appearance was strange.
Fjord had thought at first that his traveling companions were just being polite and not bringing up what he supposed could be seen as deformities, though he didn’t think of them that way. That was before he realized that Jester practically specialized in bringing up things that made people uncomfortable and Beau could be just as blunt as her staff when she had a question she wanted answered. Hells, Molly would have pointed out Fjord’s lack of tusks just to see if he could get a rise out of him, Fjord was sure of it. Not even other half-orcs looked at him sideways, Bo the Breaker back at the carnival certainly hadn’t. Fjord only had two explanations as to why this could be. One, his change in appearance was all in his head and he actually looked as he had always looked before the incident. Or, alternatively, he did look different but there was some sort of magic at work that made people think nothing about his appearance was wrong. He wasn’t sure why he leaned toward the second theory.
GROW says a voice in the back of his mind, there and forgotten in the space of a blink.
Fjord had nearly been able to convince himself that the cosmetic changes were basically harmless. After all, nothing else terribly strange had happened after the dream where he had coughed up seawater. It had been nearly a year before the new dreams had started, the dry dreams where he woke up gasping, and now he felt short of breath all the time, like the very air was against him. There had been something else too, something that had appeared after the first night he had woken up choking on air.
Fjord ran a hand across his neck, feeling the raised ridges of dark green flesh under his fingertips. They looked like scars, like he had received a wound from a creature with claws that had since healed over, but nothing like that had happened. The same strange marks had also appeared near his ribs. Fjord wondered what they were, and what the group would say if he pointed them out. No one had said anything about them. Surely someone should have noticed the ones on his neck by now. Was this all in his head?
Fjord stares out at the lake, listening to the gentle lapping sounds of the water against the shore. He couldn’t shake the feelings from his dream, the hot sun burning his skin, being empty, being dry. Maybe… maybe if he went for a swim he would feel better. Just a quick dip, the water would surely be chilly enough that a few minutes would be all he could stand, but maybe it would be enough. He swiftly undressed, casting more than one look back in the direction from which he had come. It would be just his luck if Beau decided he had been gone too long and went looking for him, using those goggles she had found that let her see in the dark.
The water was just as chilly as Fjord had thought it would be, but the feeling of water sliding over his skin more than makes up for his discomfort as he wades out into deeper water and begins to swim in earnest. He’s not afraid of the water even after what happened to him at sea, even after his past dreams of drowning. He swims until he’s a respectable distance from shore, then rolls over onto his back and floats there, staring up at the night sky, the bright moon and the sprawling swirl of stars an ocean of sorts.
“Please…” Fjord hears himself say out loud in his own voice, his real voice. He’s not sure who he is praying to, or indeed if this is a prayer at all. There is still so much he doesn’t know about where his power comes from. “Please, am I imagining this? What am I becoming?”
There is no answer, and in truth Fjord does not expect one. This is not the ocean, and he is not dreaming. He sighs shallowly, air feeling thin in his lungs, and that’s when he feels something wrap around his ankle and pull him underwater.
Fjord feels the water close over his face and he panics, arms thrashing as if he could pull himself towards the surface, which is growing further and further away with every passing second. He looks down at his legs, towards whatever is dragging him under and there is nothing there, but that is not the strange part, or at least, not the only strange part. It should be dark under the water, but when he looks around he finds that he can see just as easily as if it were daylight. He has no time to wonder about this, however. He has to free himself from whatever force is pulling him down. The pain in Fjord’s chest is terrible, and he feels a distant, echoing pain at the sides of his neck seconds before his mouth involuntarily opens and the waters of the lake rush in to fill his lungs.
The water feels like a deep breath of fresh air, and Fjord wonders if the sensation is some sort of final trick his brain is playing on him just before he dies, but no. It’s not like it was the last time, there is no chilling pain in his lungs, his vision does not go dark. There is no pain at all anymore, and even the pressure around his ankle is gone, there is nothing pulling him downward now. He could swim for the surface but he doesn’t. Instead he hangs in the water, weightless, his terror of a moment ago completely forgotten. He’s breathing, honest to gods breathing like he’s barely been able to in weeks. When he closes his mouth he can still feel the water entering and leaving him, a strange sensation, and he reaches up with one hand to touch his neck, the other hand feeling along his ribs. The scar-like flesh has become slits that flutter gently as water passes over them. Gills. He has gills.
Later, Fjord will swim back to the surface, will feel the water pour out of him, leaving him dry again. For a little while he’ll be able to breathe easier on land, for a little while his dreams will just be dreams. He’s going to have to figure out what to tell the group, if indeed he has to tell them anything. For the moment though, he just floats in the water, the mineral taste of the lake in his mouth. It needs salt.