Helena tossed the coins on the table and glared at them when they told her what she already knew. There was no rain for two days. And until then the Immigrant Realm would be miserably hot and humid.
"Like, I don't think you've ever liked the fortune you get when you cast that spell," Camila said. "Maybe you shouldn't bother."
"It's my hubris," Helena muttered as she turned to the jiang-shi sitting next to her. "Besides, that weather prediction thing on your phone said there might be thunderstorms today."
Camila grimaced. "Not happening then?" The dark skinned woman leaned back in her chair. "And here I thought Sao Luis got bad. Are you sure we can't get a fan?"
"Do you see an electrical outlet?" Helena said gesturing around the apartment. It was well made, but most of the Immigrant Realm was imitating the late nineteenth century. "Your phone happens to be a unique magical construct, and most of it was Lyudmila's work. We aren't going to be able to put together a magic fan. Even if we could afford it."
"You'd think being undead would make me immune to miserable weather," Camila muttered. "My creator sucked. It couldn't have been that hard to put in cooling spells or something."
That was a lie of course, Helena mused. Camila was possibly one of the best designed jiang-shi in existence. Even if her original creator was a terrible person. The very fact that Camila could feel heat and cold was an incredible feat.
Helena put that aside and focused on their current problem. Today was the day her shop was closed, which means she could either wallow in the miserable weather, or go somewhere else.
It wasn't a hard choice.
She stood and swept up the coins she'd used for her divination. "Are you going anywhere for work today?" she asked Camila.
"Nah. Next exhibit worth looking at is tomorrow," Camila said. She twisted in her chair and raised an arm and Helena helped her stand up. "So what's the grand tradition in Thebes for dealing with summer days without air conditioning?"
"Just hide inside and be miserable. It's usually a dry heat, so days like this are a rarity. The Immigrant Realm takes pains to pick the worst weather from our homelands." Helena paused. "Why do you ask?"
Camila hopped back a bit. "Like... I figured you were going to head to the library. Since you've gone every day off you've had for the last two months. Which is fine because you're a huge nerd, but it might be nice to do something different for once."
"Ah." Helena had to admit she was fairly predictable in that regard. A proper witch was working on several spells at any given time, and the library was a useful resource for helping her research along. It was also one of the buildings that had air conditioning which made studying there much more enjoyable than working at home.
Camila on the other hand was a more active woman. The fact that her joints didn't naturally bend had slowed her down some, but she still prefered seeing new things and new people. Helena knew sitting in the library for hours wouldn't be nearly as fun for her.
"Alright then, something different." Helena smiled at her friend. "How about swimming?"
"Swimming?" Camilia blinked and waved her outstretched hands a little. "Sounds nice, but can I even swim like this? And won't being dunked in the ocean damage the seal that keeps me from going on a murderous rampage?"
Helena tapped the seal. "Your seal has more waterproofing than all the fleets at Salamis. Its wards are better than my own. After all we don't want any idiot with a bucket of paint to damage it." She went to start looking for towels. "As for swimming, well, you can fly underwater. That's like swimming."
"Sounds a little different to me, but sure. It beats trying to figure out how I can be so hot and sticky when I can't even sweat," Camila said. "I'm gonna need a swimsuit though. Or whatever people use in this primitive era. I wasn't able to bring my wardrobe when I got murdered."
"Swimsuits. They're useful and the city people are happy to sell them to us," Helena said as she fished out her own. "I think I'll invite Aoi as well."
Camila smirked. "You think you can drag Aoi away from her shrines? Did she lose a bet with you or something?"
Helena shook her head. "No. I'm just going to use all the painfully cliche 'spending more time with your friends,' arguments that she uses on me." She looked up at Camila. "Do you have any outside world platitudes about overworking? Because she's guilty of that as well."
"Sure thing," Camila replied happily. "I suppose it's my job as an undead monster to make priests suffer after all."
"You're learning fast," Helena said as she finished gathering all the supplies they'd need into a pile. "Alright let's grab Aoi and then get you that swimsuit before the day becomes even more stifling."
Aoi was fiddling with her long black hair as they walked towards the beach. "I hope no big parties show up. Kei's just started training...." The shrine maiden was fretting.
"She knows enough to be able to send you a message," Helena said. "And you set up at least three magical sensors to warn you if something happens. Relax Aoi."
"Yeah, it'll be fine. Besides you need to live a little!" Camila said as they walked towards the beach. "Get outside. Feel the sea breeze."
Aoi looked back towards her shrine. "But-"
"But nothing," Helena said. "You're going to come with us and have fun and that's final." She smirked. "It's payback for years of playing mom." She'd been plotting something like this for a long time, and it was everything she could have hoped for.
"I don't play mom," Aoi muttered. "I'm your friend. The friend that tries to keep you out of trouble."
Camila nodded. "Yep! And we're the friends that get you in trouble. It's that universal harmony thingy."
"That's Buddhism," Aoi said. The shrine maiden sighed. "Still... maybe I could use a break."
"Nike smiles upon me," Helena said. "And just in time too. We've arrived at our goal."
The beach was a thin patch of sand facing the gleaming realm of the Big Apple, but it was the best place to swim in the realm. The Immigrant Realms sent their sewage towards the ocean, so Helena had no intention of swimming on that side of the island. Not even surrounded by an air bubble.
Besides this section was next to the government area, which meant there were all those lovely modern amenities nearby. Cars were just wasteful, and as a witch she didn't really need a phone, but public restrooms and changing stations were a wondrous luxury. The idiots of the realm might still relieve themselves in the streets, but around here Helena didn't feel bad cursing them.
As the trio headed to the changing stations Camila peered over the lockers. "Wha-? Do they use mainland money? No one uses that here except tourists." The jiang-shi woman sighed. "Typical. Everything for them and nothing for us lowly Immigrants." She turned to Helena. "So how are we keeping our stuff safe?"
Helena pulled out her lockpicks. "We're going to use the lockers of course!"
Aoi gently pushed Helena's hand down. "I can use my barrier magic to keep our stuff safe, if that's alright with everyone."
"I'm never going to get to pick a lock," Helena muttered. It was intolerable. She'd have to start practicing around the neighborhood if this kept up.
Her friends ignored her suffering, as always. "Will you two be fine changing?" Aoi asked.
"We're fine," Camila replied. "No problems when I bought the suit. This should be easier, since we aren't in a fancy broom closet."
"Okay. Well if you need something just call." Aoi headed into a room, while Helena went into another with Camila.
"Thanks for helping," Camila said as she fished out her swimsuit.
"Don't worry about it." Helena replied. "You want to save your free movement time after all."
"Always," Camila replied.
Helena helped Camila change, the jiang-shi woman wordlessly shifting her locked arms to help. It was surprising how quickly they'd gotten used to working together. Helena helped Camila do things like change, sit down, and bend her arms to eat. And Camila paid most of the rent and kept the pantry stocked. Helena should have found that humiliating, but for some reason she couldn't stay jealous with her undead friend. Maybe it was the link between the two. Or maybe it was Camilia's personality.
She rarely admitted it to herself, but she was far more worried about how Camilia viewed the arrangement. The athletic woman had to hate needing help all the time.
And on that note- "You didn't need to get a two piece to make helping you easier you know," she said as she finished adjusting Camila's suit.
"I like two piece suits. I'm not gonna stop dressing up just because I'm dead." Camila smirked at Helena. "I suppose you wouldn't get that. Sorry, but your fashion sense is terrible, Helena. Witch hats don't go with everything."
Helena sniffed. "I suppose only a witch would understand the importance of a proper hat."
"Like, you can't swim with it," Camila pointed out.
"I'm tempted to figure out a way now," Helena said. It couldn't be too hard right? And it would give her more combat options....
Helena forced the thought down and turned around to change into her own suit. She was here to relax, not kill someone. She turned her attention to other matters. "By the way, I'm going to put an anti drowning charm on Aoi and me. We'll still breathe above water, but...."
She heard Camila shift uncomfortably. "You're gonna be blurry when it kicks in. Ugh. I should be happy I can see at all, but it's a huge pain."
Helena nodded in sympathy. Camila could sense people's chi by smelling their breath. That meant the woman could 'see' everything breathing around her. It also meant her normal vision was weakened as her brain tried to make sense of the strange information being pumped into it. Helena had tried to get Lyudmila to explain how it worked so she could give Camila a workaround, but the brain was too complex even for her technical friend.
The jiang-shi gave a weak chuckle. "Got addicted to a superpower in less than a year. Papa would scold me for getting lazy."
"I've gotten that way with my quick summoning charms," Helena admitted. She finished putting on her own suit and smoothed down the frills, before taking out her bell charm and tying it securely to her wrist. "Ready." She turned around and found Camila grinning at her. "What?"
"Looks like I was wrong. You do have some fashion sense," Camila said.
Helena glared at her friend before heading out the door. "Just because I'm not interested in attention like Aoi and you doesn't mean I try to look plain."
Camila chuckled. "Aoi probably does it by accident."
"Does what by accident?" Aoi looked at them from the front of the building. Helena noted that Camila was right. The shrine maiden's bathing suit somehow fit her perfectly. The woman's innate grace was painfully unfair.
"Look simply gorgeous," Camila replied happily. "If we were back in Sao Luis we'd have to fight past your admirers to get to the water."
Well that was one way to handle it, Helena thought as Aoi blushed. Camila really was was never one to hold back. Still if she let Camila tease Aoi forever they'd never get to the water.
"Fortunately people are less forward here, so I won't have to turn people into sand crabs. Now let's find a place to leave our stuff and put on sunscreen before Helios makes the weather even worse."
The cool ocean water was a blessing. Helena offered a quick thanks to Neptune as she dived in and swam out past the surf.
She resurfaced and looked out over the straight before her. Now that she was a bit further from shore, the rippling distortion that separated the waters of the Immigrant Realm and those of the Big Apple was more visible. The unreal twisting in time space was strangely beautiful.
Camila glided through the water near her. "So that's the barrier? Wonder what would happen if I swam into it?"
"You'd swim forever trying to reach it," Helena replied. "The only way across is on or under the bridge. Anything else and you'll get stuck like Sisyphus."
"So how does that work?" Camila asked as she looked over to the massive steel bridge spanning the waters.
"It's complicated." Helena honestly didn't have a clue, but given Lyudmila muttered darkly about the metaphysical details every time the woman visited it was probably very complicated.
Aoi floated over to join the group. "The bridge represents a connection spiritually as well as physically." She slapped the water lightly. "I'm more confused by the barrier that separates the sea above from the sea below."
"The underwater ocean?" Camila nodded slowly. "Yeah that makes my head hurt too. You can swim there?"
"Only if you dive very deep," Helena replied.
Camila looked away. "Well it's that or staring at the fish," she snapped bitterly. "Floating like deadwood isn't fun. Not why I wanted to go to the beach."
Helena winced at the nasty tone. Her anger boiled up but cooled off just as fast. Camila's mercurial moods were a side effect of the spells that kept her sane. If she was letting her anger show, things were pretty bad.
"Why don't you use your magic reserve to move freely for a bit?" Helena said. "We can replenish it later tonight." Filling Camila's magical stores would be exhausting but that was a small price to pay for her friend.
The jiang-shi woman tensed and sank a bit in the waves. "It's fine. Something I have to deal with myself. Sorry for yelling at you."
"Damn it Camila, it's not fine," Helena growled. "We came here to have fun. If you're going to be-"
"I'm not gonna let you wreck yourself just to give me fifteen minutes of swimming," Camila interrupted.
"I don't wreck myself. That level of magic is nothing. Besides we can stretch it out to thirty minutes with some ambient magic," Helena said.
A light hand fell on her shoulder. "Helena, you shouldn't lie to your friends, even for their own benefit." Aoi drifted forwards between Camila and her. "And Camila you can be selfish now and then." The shrine maiden smiled. "Or at least remember your brilliant shrine maiden friend who can help fulfil both your wishes."
"Eh?" Helena blinked at Aoi while Camila turned around.
Aoi gave an exaggerated sigh. She was obviously picking up some of Helena's bad habits. "I have a shrine. A shrine that contains a barrier with a massive amount of spiritual power stored up. Spiritual power I can donate to Helena to restore her magic."
She held a finger up, "And before either of you complain, I am not doing anything with that spiritual power. You are not taking something from me, you're using it before it goes to waste."
Camila's eyes brightened. "Really?" She caught Aoi in her unique arm locked hug. "You're the greatest, Aoi!" The shrine maiden blinked, but didn't pull away from the sudden embrace.
"Hecate bless you, Aoi," Helena said. The priestess really had saved both of them a lot of trouble and misery. Helena slipped a hand behind her back and summoned up a bone charm she'd gotten from Madame Lecroix. "So, let's get started. No reason to wait until later."
"Okay!" Camila floated back and raised her arms. "Starting... now!"
Helena activated the charm's magic as Camila triggered the mystical runes embedded in her talisman. There was a series of sickening pops as Camila stretched, every joint in the woman's body loosening up.
Then Camila slipped under the water, resurfacing with a laugh. She used her flight for a moment to wave Helena and Aoi forwards .
Helena smiled at Aoi before diving down and swimming after Camila. She'd have time to thank the woman more later. Both for her help and for cutting off that argument before it could get really heated. Right now she'd need to work to keep up with Camila's exuberance.
Helena was a strong swimmer. And not in a 'didn't flail about and drown' sense. Her grandmother had insisted she learn modern swimming techniques, given how important water travel was to the Helenic Realms. But Camila was swimming circles around her. Literally. The jiang-shi's speed was incredible, and her form was near perfect. Helena had to stop herself from tossing out a spell to knock the woman down a peg. Camila had every right to enjoy what time she had.
Instead Helena turned her attention to Aoi. The priestess was keeping pace with Helena but it was obvious she was struggling to match the two.
Helena decided to slow her pace a bit. Aoi waved her on, but she shook her head. She was only here to cool down after all, and leaving Aoi exhausted would be impolite. Especially since this was all thanks to her. The two took a more relaxing swim as Camila did her best to outrace every fish she could see just to prove she could.
Eventually Helena just stopped and let herself float on the surface. Aoi surfaced next to her. "Is this a common problem?" the shrine maiden whispered. "I thought you two were doing well together but..."
"She's reluctant to use her movement time," Helena admitted. "Constantly worrying about needing it later. As if I can't kill any assassin on my own. But she almost always uses nine minutes a day. I'm not going to force her to use more."
"And you aren't straining yourself, right Helena?" Aoi said. "I know you're very strong, but that's a great deal of magic."
Helena hesitated before nodding. "It was a problem at the start, but I've gotten stronger. Or maybe supplying her magic has gotten easier. Either way I'm fine now." She met Aoi's eyes so the other woman could tell she wasn't lying.
There was a splash as Camila surfaced near them. Helena noted the woman's arms were back in their rigid position. Still the jiang-shi woman was beaming. "We gotta do this again sometime. This is way more fun than just flying. It's gotta be good exercise for you two as well, since you aren't, like, dead."
"Sure," Helena said. "Though next time we should bring a net so you can catch a few of those fish you were chasing."
"Why not just blow up the ocean? That's your usual method right?" Camila said.
Aoi shook her head and sidestepped the banter. "Well I still have to keep an eye on my shrine, but if I have time, perhaps."
Helena exchanged glances with Camila and mentally agreed to drag the priestess out here again. Aoi spent far too much time either working at her shrine or working with the community.
The trio turned their attention to the distortion in reality before them. Their swimming had taken them closer to the barrier, but the twist in time space still kept them a distance away.
At this distance Helena could watch the strange play of water. The waves acted as if the barrier was real, but the water tried to bond as if the ocean was unblocked. The end result was a chaotic mirror of quivering water.
After watching the ripples in reality and space interact for a bit Helena turned away. It was pretty, but they probably wanted to head back soon. She was just about to call her friends when Camila spoke up. "That's weird. You hear someone singing?"
Helena froze. Singing at sea was not a good sign. Her ears instinctively sharpened.
And then she heard it.
It was a faint song, one without words, but it conveyed longing and sorrow. The melody surrounded her and teased at her mind, offering more if she just came closer and listened. She wanted more than anything to hear more of that song. Her mind slipped into the music and words started to form in her mind saying-
The sharp ring of a bell cut through the song banishing it. Helena shook her head as the bell on her wrist sounded again, freeing her from the compulsion. Once again she silently thanked Tamamo no Rei for giving her the artifact. The haze cleared from her mind-
-just as Aoi dove beneath the surface.
"Shit!" Helena quickly activated her charms against drowning. "She's being lured away! We have to follow her!"
Camila dove in immediately, chasing after Aoi's shadow. Helena appreciated how the woman didn't waste time with questions.
With a thought Helena followed her friends. The dark waters quickly flowed over her as she headed down.
Aoi was diving as fast possible. And of course the spells that kept her from drowning also made it easier to sink. Helena cursed her bad luck and miasma swirled about at her call. Not just her own curse but the dying curses of others. This wasn't the first time someone had been drawn to their death. But Helena couldn't focus on that. She had to follow Aoi.
As they approached the black curtain that served as the bottom of the ocean Helena saw shadows circling. They weren't the source of the call, but they might still be dangerous. She poured her frustration into the miasma around her, wishing ill fortune on everyone who dared think her a meal. That should delay the watchers. By the time any sea monsters figured out what was going on they'd be gone.
Helena hit the black curtain and her stomach churned as gravity flipped on her. She wasn't going down anymore, she was going up, and her body reeled at the sudden change. But her discomfort didn't matter. She needed to get to the surface quickly.
The change in gravity could help her actually. She stopped fighting the water pressure and let the air in her lungs shoot her upwards. Camila and Aoi wouldn't be able to use that trick.
Sure enough she saw the two above as they headed towards the surface of the underground ocean. Helena pushed forward, calling on her reserves for a quick speed boost. Aoi would be heading for the buoy darkening the waters above. Helena just had to pick the best place to surface.
She watched as Aoi surfaced, closely followed by Camila. And then Helena burst free as well.
For once the situation was just as she'd expected. Camila was advancing threateningly, Aoi was blinking in confusion, and the feathered woman sitting on the buoy was staring in shock at the three people bursting out of the water near her.
Helena shook her head to clear the water from her ears then gave the siren before her the best glare she could muster. "Raidne, what in Hades name are you doing?"
"You know this chick?" Camila asked.
Raidne's eyes focused on her. "Is that you little Helena?! Why are you here? I was trying to practice my singing away from humans and then you three all just burst out of nowhere."
Aoi blinked a few more times then snapped back into the present. Her eyes of course immediately fell on the siren before her. "Youkai!" The priestess raised her hands to defend herself.
"Wait! Wait!" Raidne waved her clawed hands as disarmingly as she could. "This has been a misunderstanding. I'm not hunting. In fact I have no idea how you got here."
"I have no idea how your song got through one hundred feet of water," Helena said. She didn't completely trust Raidne, but she knew the siren wasn't going to hurt them.
Raidne cocked her head in confusion. "That's not possible. I mean, it'd be nice! But you know we're creatures of air and earth, not water."
"Okay, like..." Camila raised an arm. "Who is she, how do you know her, and why is killing everyone not the solution to this problem?"
Raidne giggled. "I see little Helena's living up to her reputation still."
Helena sighed. Apparently the universe wanted her to suffer through stories of her childhood. "Raidne's an actual siren, a muse of the underworld. Grandma took me to meet them, when I was a kid. After all Hecate is a goddess of the underworld, so we're connected."
"The Aoedes are so much more polite then Circe is," Raidne added.
"That does explain how you know each other," Aoi said. "But not why you're here in the Immigrant Realm. Someone of your station rarely visits our realm. Especially since we have laws against murder."
Raidne nervously smoothed the feathers on her arms. "Well, you see, Venus was having an argument with the muses and suggested that we sirens might be better at our jobs these days. And people started talking about having a contest. So we all talked it over and decided to make ourselves scarce for a bit."
"Smart," Helena said. Any contest involving the gods was something to avoid. Even if you won it almost always ended badly for anyone not named Zeus.
"I get it. You figured any place Helena could hide from Apollo'd would be a good place to lay low," Camila said.
Aoi nodded and relaxed. "That makes sense, I suppose."
Raidne smiled. "And I could practice my freeform songs! I mean, sure it's interesting knowing exactly what to sing to draw people to certain death, but an artist needs to branch out. Sing their own story!"
"Wait, so those were our desires you were singing?" Camila smirked. "Oh you gotta spill! This has gotta be good."
Aoi blushed, but fortunately Raidne shook her head. "Nope! Not telling. An artist's gotta keep her secrets. Besides if someone hears my song and isn't drawn to me, well... there's a bit of a backlash and it really hurts."
"Perhaps it is best that some secrets are kept," Aoi said. She ran her hands absently through her hair. "Though all of this doesn't explain how your song reached us. If we were in the Realm of Illusion I'd assume it some trick of the waters, but the Immigrant Realm is rarely so fickle."
"Let me take a look," Helena said. She reached out magically to see if there was anything obvious.
A deadly magical intent washed over her and she instinctively dodged to the side. "Look out!"
A massive fish with arms and the head of a woman leaped out of the water where Helena had been hovering seconds before. The creature twisted in mid air, angling down towards Aoi. The priestess screamed and conjured a hasty barrier. The fishwoman hit it with a sharp crack of lightning, its claws rending the shield.
Camila barreled in from the side, catching the creature mid leap. Helena's surprise turned to vicious glee as the fishwoman desperately tried to fight off Camila.
Helena summoned that vicious glee and mixed it with the rage swelling up in her heart. How dare that filth interrupt her day off? She'd teach it the punishment for trying to hurt her friends.
She held out her hand and the emotions roiled out into five oily black spears. With a thought she turned them solid and gave them purpose. "You shall be bound as Prometheus, knowing death comes for you."
The missiles fired towards their prey. Helena forced them to spread out so the fishwoman couldn't easily dodge, but it didn't matter. Camila had caught the monster in her iron grip, and her friend's strength was greater than any pathetic sea creature.
The center spear slammed into the fishwoman and it shrieked like a harpy before freezing in place, paralyzed by Helena's curse. Camila blinked at her helpless opponent, then gave a twisted grin before grabbing the creature's shoulders. "You picked on the wrong women."
With that Camila opened her mouth and inhaled. A rush of light came out of the fishwoman's body and into Camila's open mouth. Within seconds the creature paled and slumped, its life force drained away. Helena's curse faded, its purpose fulfilled.
Raidne picked Aoi out of the water and let the shrine maiden sit on the buoy next to her. "Well that was shocking. What was it?"
"Ningyo," Aoi gasped. The shrine maiden was shivering as the adrenaline wore off. "That's why we could hear you through the water."
Helena nodded in understanding. The Japanese merfolk had some magical talents, including sound manipulation. "It must have been using its ability to send Raidne's song across the boundary. People would drown on the way, and it could eat them without Raidne even knowing about it."
"How cruel!" Raidne pouted. "Doing all that without even telling me! I work hard on my songs! Even the ones twisted by the desires of the listeners. It's hard composing properly discordant melodies."
Helena shrugged as Camila and Aoi looked at her. Sirens weren't as vicious as the legend, but they still casually murdered people. It was best not to expect normal morality from them.
Aoi was first to let the matter drop. "Well I've done my extermination for the year," she muttered as she folded her arms. "Helena you take the rest of the jobs that involve youkai trying to kill you."
"Sure thing," Helena said. "I've got Camila to help with the heavy lifting now anyway."
"Yep," Camila said as she let the corpse fall on the water next to the buoy. "You won't need to help Helena recharge me either. That fish was stuffed with magic or chi or whatever. I'm full."
Helena looked down at the corpse. "You know, it probably still has magic in it even with its chi drained." She smirked at Aoi. "A human who eats it will live for eight hundred years I hear. Want to stay head priestess for a little longer?"
"No thank you," Aoi replied. "Why don't you try it yourself?"
Helena felt her stomach flip. "Raw? I don't think it'll make good sashimi. No thanks." Not that she'd eat it cooked but she had to pretend to be properly witchy.
"Well I'm out of the brain eating business so none for me," Camila said happily. "Chi drinking's weird enough."
"Then I'll take it! If you don't mind, of course," Raidne said as she smoothed her feathers.
Helena nodded. It was probably the best solution. "Go ahead. We should probably start heading back anyways."
Raidne pouted again but turned most of her attention to fishing up the ningyo corpse. "Have a good day then. Do come by again sometime Helena. And bring your friends too. It would be nice to talk without interruptions."
"Of course," Aoi said. Helena was certain the woman didn't mean it, but Aoi was very good at being polite.
"Sure thing," Camila chirped. Unlike the shrine maiden, Camila probably did mean it. Probably because Camila didn't feel threatened at all by the siren.
Helena reached behind her and pulled out a wand. "So shall we teleport back? It's a long swim and we're all tired."
"Please," Aoi replied.
The shrine maiden shivered as she looked down at the ningyo's corpse. "And if we go out again, let's stick to the shallows."