Once upon a time, a star fell from the sky and into the sea with a great crash. Samael found the cold stone by following the stream of tiny white bubbles that trailed from it and drifted up and up to the dented roof of the sea. He brought it back to his brothers, amazed, for he could feel the light pulsing within. It was warm to the touch, even still. But his brothers were uninterested in anything that came from beyond the roof of the world. To prove them wrong, Samael brought his stone up to the height of the water column where the moonbeams danced, and he sang, long and triumphant, and the world transformed; the night plankton around him blazed with light, bright enough to stain his body. The fishes who played in his wake glowed, too, for he’d given the gift of light, what men would one day call bioluminescence. The sea folk called him Lucifer forever after, the Light Bearer.
Later, when he was banished to the deep for his disobedience, all the glowing things were banished with him, down, down to the dark of the abyss. It was a terrible punishment, for these were the souls who loved light the most.
…. but everything sneaks to the top, sometimes. Nightly, his smallest glowing creatures slip to the surface, in memory of their origins. Stars above, echoed by stars below. Occasionally, he even follows them.
Chloe Decker had no particular love for boats.
She’d had fun jet skiing as a kid, or rather as a wild teen, and she’d gone fishing with her dad, but other than that, they held little appeal. She especially had no love for boats at night.
This was reckless.
But she needed a win. She needed a win badly enough that when her partner said, “I know a guy in the coast guard, come on—we can catch him!” She’d agreed. She was regretting it.
The little airboat’s engine roared in the night. Connor—her partner—was swearing. So was his buddy, Sean.
“They’re getting away!” Connor said.
Up ahead, their perp in his stolen whaler roared off, too stupid, or too cautious, to turn off his lights in the night.
“We can get him,” hissed Sean, and gunned the engine. The airboat jolted forward, and Chloe staggered.
“We need backup,” she called over the wind.
“I called the patrol,” Sean said. “They’re on their way. Hold tight!”
The hull of the ship crashed against the waves, so loudly that Chloe almost missed the following crash of thunder.
“If he gets to Mexico,” Connor said, “He’ll tell the rest of the cartel. We’ll never get them.”
Sean looked at her.
“Keep going!” she called, another idiot move, but she really did need that win. And this guy, Kyle Unten, was a total scumbag. He’d joined the Mexican drug cartel after he’d killed his first girlfriend, because he’d wanted their protection. He’d been with them for years; now, having killed his second girlfriend, they had the chance to bring him in—as well as some of his associates.
Sean whooped and the engine roared. They sped off into the night with the winds at their backs. Salt spray hissed over the bow. It was hard to distinguish at first, but soon Chloe realized that it was rain dampening her hands and shoulders, not the sea. But Unten was just up ahead.
“Kyle Unten!” called Sean over a bullhorn in the boat, “You’re under arrest for—”
The boat juddered in the sea, jolted and skidded abruptly. She staggered as the world spun. Rain lashed her face. That sound wasn’t thunder, Chloe realized. It was the hull. They’d hit something.
They’d hit something big.
Unten had roared off into the storm, and she was about to call out to Connor when he yelled.
“Down—get down!” called Sean, and something cold and wet crashed into her and the world went tumbling and tumbling and there was no air—
The world went dark.
Cold water lapped at her legs. Chloe came to the slow, dawning awareness that her toes were freezing.
Then her back complained, then her head. Something was digging into her arm, her ass, her shoulder blade. She groaned, shifted her weight, and the cold water sluiced over her feet again. Cuts and scrapes all over her arms and legs made themselves known, stinging harshly. She coughed, and it rattled her whole body. Her next inhale smelled of salt and seaweed.
It was…. a beach, she realized, opening her eyes slowly. She must have been on a beach, but without sand. Instead the water hissed against stone, and she was extremely lucky she hadn’t brained herself. Those were rough rocks digging into her, and as she coughed again, another wave crashed over her, larger this time, the spray sending her spluttering. She dragged herself away from the surf, coughing.
She looked up. Where the hell was she?
The sun was—rising or setting, she couldn’t tell—in a fiery, orange sky. She was on a rocky shore, where the waves crashed hard. Did she have a concussion? Those waves looked vicious. She had certainly blacked out—that meant concussion, right? For how long? She put a shaking, damp hand to her head. It hurt, but not badly. There were birds everywhere—mostly calling, or flying home to their nests, and droppings. One of the bird sanctuaries, maybe?
Where was Connor? And Sean? She licked her lips.
Something whistled near her, loud and close. She jumped and looked back to the ocean.
There was a beautiful man lying on his belly in the surf, his arms crossed on a large stone. He’d put his chin on his wrists, and he watched her with very dark eyes. His short, damp hair dried in ringlets, and he was artfully stubbled. Those eyes positively twinkled at her, crinkling up in a frankly gorgeous smile. As she watched, a wave crashed over him. He didn’t so much as flinch.
“Hello?” she asked him. “Are you alright?”
He whistled again. It wasn’t a wolf-whistle; more like a bird or a dolphin. Wreee-raw.
She blinked at him. He cocked his head. He didn’t seem injured, though now that she was looking, she could see there were small red—patterns, maybe, on his temples, curling up above and into his eyebrows. It was hard to tell in the dying light.
“Are you bleeding?” she asked cautiously.
He clicked. It sounded positively delighted.
“Listen,” she told him, “I’m a cop. I can help. My partner is around here somewhere, and, and the coast guard should come looking for us.” She got herself into a seated position carefully. “You want to come out and help me look for them?” She offered a hand.
He looked at the hand, and then he looked into her eyes. He gave a great silly grin, like this was the best thing that had ever happened to him. And then he sang.
She was about to think it strange, but there was something—that song, there was something—captivating. He sang it quickly, as if to get it over with, but he also sang it like he meant it. And the weird thing was, the song hadn’t started in English, but it sure as hell ended there.
--and the darkness oh it blazed,
and here I fan amazed
But the light will still prevail
and all that that entails
Now watch me turn your mind
just let it all unwind—
and I’ll have you understand;
You’ll see it’s true that I’m not a man!
He grinned at her, apparently very proud of himself.
“What?” Chloe blurted.
He frowned. “Well. I thought you’d be a little more entranced,” he said, sounding put out. “Generally people dash themselves against rocks when I sing to them.”
“I’ve already done that,” Chloe found herself blurting, showing him her hands.
He made an unhappy warbling noise. “Yes, I am aware. You brained yourself against some stones after your silly little vessel hit the mount. I fixed what I could, but healing was never my forte.” He shrugged elegantly. “You’ve been here a day.”
“What?” Chloe blurted again.
“You were injured,” the man said plaintively. “I fixed it. Mostly.”
“How?” Chloe managed, head spinning. “And—won’t you get out of the water?”
He sighed. “Honestly. Humans.” Behind him, something made the water ripple. Chloe was about to warn him when—well. It became apparent that he needed no warning.
A great, red dorsal fin unfurled from his back, and the thing undulating in the water—that was—that was definitely a tail. A big, fishy tail, with scales and everything, blood-red.
“I would rather keep my gills submerged, thank you,” he said haughtily, and Chloe gaped.
“Impossible,” she breathed.
“I could say the same of you!” He grinned at her. “You know how hard it is to find a human in the deep sea? Oh, you find evidence all the time, but a real living human? And anyone willing to talk! Even rarer. The last one I saw had the nerve to put wax in his ears.”
She gave a tiny, disbelieving laugh. “How—how did you get here?”
“Why, I swam, do keep up!” He swished his tail side to side, irritable. Trixie would go insane, Chloe thought faintly. There was no disputing it—this was a real live mermaid! She tried not to stare, but it was hard.
She inched toward him, back into the surf. Even in the sinking sun—setting, it was clearly setting; he said she’d been here a day? Unconscious?—she could see his eyes light up as she got closer. “Why did you save me?”
He looked down and away. “You were alive to save,” he said. “Your compatriots – not so much.” He grimaced.
It struck her like a blow. “Connor and Sean—they’re dead?”
“Male? Large muscles? One with strange markings around his—his—” he gestured, apparently not having the word, and if he had some kind of translation thing then how did he not have a word? That didn’t make sense.
Unless he lacked the concept entirely in his language. Connor had a tattoo around his ankle. She swallowed. Pointed to her own. “Foot?”
“Foot,” the merman agreed. “Yes.”
She put a hand over her mouth. God, Connor. Young, impulsive Connor. He still went home to have dinner with his parents on Sundays. This was all her fault. She never should have agreed to this—
She didn’t realize she was crying until the merman started crooning. And that was what it was, crooning, a low melody that wrapped around her like a blanket. It was comforting. She wiped at a tear, and looked back at him, at his big spellbound eyes.
“Distress at the loss of your companions,” he said, sounding fascinated. “Yes?”
She huffed a small laugh at his outright curiosity. What kind of world did he come from, where mourning a friend was unusual? “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Connor was my partner. What’s your name? Do you have a name?” She wiped her eyes.
His dorsal fin puffed up with pride. “Yes. I’m called—” he sang a funny downward spiral of notes. “In your language it means He Who Glows, or He Who Carries Light. Light Bearer.” He frowned. “But archaic. Lucifer.”
“That has—some bad connotations for us,” Chloe told him. “Lucifer, I mean.”
He scowled. “It does for us too. What is your name?”
“Chloe,” she told him. “Do you—glow?”
“Yes!” He grinned at her, bright and mischievous, as he shook off his brief melancholy like salt spray. “I glow the brightest in my whole, wretched family. Want to see?”
The surf lapped at her knees, and it was nearly full dark, now. “Yeah,” she said.
He positively beamed.
All along his dorsal fin, the funny spirals near his eyes, down his sides and to his great, fishy tail, blue and white light erupted in a thousand pinpoints, bright as starlight. Patterns of light glowed in lines and spirals down his chest, down his arms and sides. Tiny lights marched in lines down the rays of his dorsal fin, the webbing a dark curtain between. Chloe heard herself make a small, delighted sound.
“That’s amazing!” she said, and he preened, vain as any swan.
“I’ve always thought so,” he said, not in the least modest.
Out, beyond the surf and towards the horizon, there was a splash. Over the crashing waves, something made a squealing noise.
Lucifer huffed, annoyed. His glowing dorsal fin flattened against his back and he twisted to look over his shoulder.
“What was that?” Chloe asked, hushed.
“Mazikeen.” He sounded sulky. “She dislikes coming this close to shore. You humans are very loud. She’ll get into all kinds of trouble if I don’t return to her.”
“Will you come back?” Chloe asked him.
“Would you like me to?” His smile was coy.
“Yes,” she told him honestly, smiling back. “I might not be here, though,” she added with a frown. “I—need to get back to the mainland, I need to—my daughter—” her voice trailed.
He clicked his tongue. Over the hush of the sea foam, another squeal.
Lucifer turned his head and gave a shrill whistle in response, irritated. Then he turned to her.
“Stay here another day,” he told her urgently. “Just one. I’ll tow you to shore tomorrow night. And I can find—a whistle. So you can call me.”
“I—don’t think I can promise that,” she said. “If they come to find me, I have to go with them. I have a daughter—she needs me.”
He huffed. “Needy spawn are to be fed to the hagfish. Wait here.” With an almighty, glowing splash, he disappeared beneath the dark waves. She had a glimpse of frills and fans and bright lights before he was gone.
A cool breeze blew across her shoulders and she shivered. Had that actually happened? Chloe watched the crashing waves, disbelieving. Had she just had a full, weirdly engaging conversation with a—a merman? A merman who glowed, and preened at her regard, and it was somehow deeply charming and not obnoxious?
Bright red scales, bright blue lights. Laughing, gorgeous dark eyes.
She must be dreaming.
There were campers on these islands, she thought. She got to her feet. If she was lucky, maybe she could find someone’s discarded lighter? And start a fire?
The night was not particularly cold, but the breeze was chilly, and she was wet. Carefully, because it was very slippery, she made her way across the rocky beach. There wasn’t much to be found by way of driftwood, though she did scare a few lizards out of a hiding hole. Her lighter hopes were dashed, but she still dragged what little wood she found back to her beach.
She was out on her second trip when she heard him singing. Long, forlorn notes slipped past her ears, beckoning. She hesitated.
There was something strange about that song, she thought. And then something bumped into her foot.
She looked down and barely refrained from screaming.
Whole armies of crabs were marching along the store, following his song. When she looked up to the island cliffsides, she could see beaks, like he’d woken the birds. Some of them were even spreading their wings, starting to fly.
“Holy—” she whispered. But she wasn’t compelled—just kind of freaked out about the birds and the crabs.
She raced down to shore, as fast as she could, crying, “Stop! Stop! I’m right here—stop! Some of these birds are endangered and I’m pretty sure they can’t see at night! Stop!”
She skidded on some kelp, though she kept her balance. Lucifer was lying sprawled on the rocky shore, glowing like a damn sun. In his light, she could see his gills: one slit on either side of his ribcage, and they fluttered open and closed with every swell of the tide. He was resting his chin on his fist, like something out of The Little Mermaid, but just a little more sinister.
“Interesting,” he told her. “You don’t seem affected. Your eyes are clear.”
“You—you sang that song to hypnotize me?” she blurted.
“Just to make you come back,” Lucifer said, affronted. “I found you something. So you can call me. It isn’t very good or very strong, but I’ll hear you, at least.” He lifted his head from his fist and then uncurled his fingers. It looked like a whale’s tooth.
Carefully, she approached and took it from his cold, webbed hand. It was hollowed out on the inside, and the tip was shorn off.
“It’s a whistle,” she said.
He nodded, enthused. Behind him, his tail slapped the waves, all delight. “There’s a great—you call them sperm whales? How odd—who died many years ago. Her body lies on the seafloor. Mostly now there’s little more than worms in her bones, but that tooth was intact. She can help you call me.” He smiled at her, teeth shining just a little too sharp in his own illumination. “Old magic.”
That was—that was something else. Magic? “Thank you,” she told him, anyway.
His smile widened. “You’re welcome. Now tell me, in trade for the whistle: How in dad’s blue seas did you get on that boat?”
She hesitated, but then, well—he was a merman. It wasn’t exactly like she was talking to a civilian who might run to the papers or have some connection to the case. She sat on the hard stone, let the waves rush over her feet. It was cold, but the whole experience was so unbelievable and incredible that it almost didn’t matter.
“I’m a homicide detective,” she said slowly.
He licked his lips as though tasting the words. “You find the killers of other humans—am I understanding that correctly?”
“Yes,” she said. “You don’t—have that?”
“My people don’t kill each other outside of war,” he said, fascinated. “Even Maze’s people don’t often kill each other without good cause. This translation aria really isn’t cutting it—I’m going to have to learn your language, aren’t I?”
“The little ditty I sang so you could understand me.” He cocked his head. “You don’t have that either, do you?”
She shook her head.
His eyes were really very compelling.
“Well, we’ll have to trade stories, then,” he said. “You were—searching for a killer?”
She nodded. She told him about Kyle, and his two murdered girlfriends—something that made him gape and ask but why would you kill a mate? What’s the point? which she agreed with, really. She told him about finding witnesses and chasing the bastard down, finally, into a marina, where he ran off with that stolen Whaler. Connor had called the coast guard, and there her story broke down, because Connor was dead, and so was Sean, and it was utterly her fault. It was Palmetto Street all over again. She choked on the end of her story.
He warbled at her tears, unhappy to see them. His red, fishy tail, black in the darkness, punctuated by brightly glowing points that marched all the way down to his flukes, slapped at the incoming waves.
“What can I do?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing,” she sighed, wiping her eyes. “They’re dead. It’s—it’s not my fault, but I could have—told them to go back, or, or called off the search—”
“Then your parasite Kyle Unten would have gotten away.”
“He got away anyway,” she sighed.
“I can find him,” Lucifer offered, dark and dangerous. She looked up at him, at his gleaming teeth that weren’t quite square, at his dancing eyes. The little, pointillist spirals on his temples made him look feral. “I could sing to him so he walks right to you, and lies at your feet. And you can punish him how you see fit.”
He had fins on his forearms, she realized. They flickered like a lizard’s dewlap, small glowing spots on the rays like stars.
“Thank you,” she said. “If I get news that he reaches the Mexican border—I might take you up on that.”
He beamed at her.
“How did you end up here?” Chloe asked him. “Where are you from, anyway?”
His glow dimmed. He looked down.
And then an angry squeal from the sea had him turning his head. “Mazikeen!” he hissed.
Something very large and very dark leaped over the waves, alarmingly close, and then fell with a great splash. It was far too big to be a dolphin, but also too small to be a whale. It moved like a mammal, though.
“Your coast guard is near,” Lucifer told her. “Maze says their sonar is hurting her ears. I should go.”
“What—is—she?” Chloe asked.
Lucifer clicked thoughtfully. “Translation says orca whale?”
Chloe grinned. “Seriously?”
He shrugged at her. “But your men will burn out her ears if we don’t gain some distance,” he told her.
“Then go,” Chloe said. “I’ll call you. When I’m home.”
He whistled at her so cheerfully that she whistled back. He chuckled, and then splashed away and down, down in the black depths of the sea.
Chloe clutched her whale tooth, and she waited. She could see the lights from the coast guard in the distance.