The pond is clear and deep, sink hole and swimming hole both at the edge of the town. Bordered by brush and boasting an old swing on a rope that some parent probably copied from a movie and hung up for the local kids, it hangs empty and forgotten. Even the wind seems quiet here without voices on it. Two children died here last week; four others are in the local hospital being given a barrage of tests they don’t respond to. There are things mising inside them that the water has taken.
I have come to take them back, because sometimes that is what a magician does. I take Jay’s cell phone and have him play on the swing, which he does while muttering about buying a waterproof phone and he that he was getting a high score in Tetris thank you very much. I cough and he rocks the swing back and forth, losing himself in the motions of it. Jay looks to be a human boy of about ten; he’s neither of those things but hides his true nature better than anything else I’ve run across. As magicians go, I’m one of the best at making bindings: Jay’s skill with them is far beyond mine. He binds himself to the fun the children had here and makes it his own so quickly it would be mood whiplash in a human.
The waters stir. I wrap earth and air and adult disinterest about me as a ward and wait. I have no idea what lives in the pond, but I’m not expecting what emerges from it to yank Jay off the swing and under the water. I can count on two fingers the number of times I’ve seen mermaids; they’re mostly found in oceans and uncommon at the best of times. This one yanks Jay under the water and attempts to eat his energy. Jay is tough: he bound himself into the universe at a cost, and into my service as well, and there is nothing in him the mermaid is able to hold onto.
It does not stop her from yanking him back under the water with her hands strangling his throat. That I wasn’t expecting at all. I reach for the loss and confusion of everyone in the town and push it into the water, turning the lower depths into ice that spreads upwards to the surface. Jay scrambles up the forming ice and out of the water; the mermaid flings herself out at the last moment, sea-foam eyes wide in shock and fury.
“Magician,” she hisses. “This is not your place.”
I just smile as Jay shakes himself off and rubs his throat.
“The mermaid tried to thtrangle me,” he says. “You never thaid anything about that.”
“That’s because I didn’t expect that.” I crouch down beside the mermaid, who hisses at me, and thread power into my voice. “Talk.”
“Magician. Heh.” She laughs like drowning sailors. “You made a deal with water once, drowning deep under the waves. Water will kill you in the end, and I am of water. You cannot bind me so easily.”
I blink; I hope I don’t look as surprised as I feel, since this is news to me. I don’t point out I was a child and had no idea what I’d done; the mermaid would neither know nor care. I smile slowly, and the mermaid’s laugh fails like the tide as she seems something in my face that makes her go still.
“You tried to kill my friend,” I say. “I was being polite with the binding. I can do far worse if you do not tell me what is happening here.”
She blinks, sitting up as best she can. “I was trying to scare the – whatever that is away,” she says, waving a hand toward Jay. He mutters something about fish and chips as he peels his clothing off and binds sunlight to dry them. The mermaid stares in shock. Jay seems human, until one realizes he has no genitalia at all. And still seems entirely human, even when one knows he isn’t at all.
I resist the urge to sigh; he didn’t have to take clothing off to bind sunlight to it at all. “Jay.”
“Hello? Thhe tried to thrangle me,” he snaps. “I’m making a point!”
“I apologize for the harm to your throat and voice.”
Jay bristles at that. “You didn’t hurt me at all! I alwayth lithp!”
“Then why are you angry at me?”
Jay blinks, stares at the mermaid, then at me. “Honcho? Why am I angry?”
“I did have you bind the four wounded children children in the hospital to life so whatever hurt them couldn’t hurt them further; I imagine something of their pain rubbed off on you.”
“Oh. Okay.” And to Jay, that’s that and it’s fine.
“You don’t think I did this,” the mermaid says to me.
“Let’s say killing two kids and draining four others isn’t what I’d expect from a mermaid, unless you decided to diet after the first kills?”
She laughs at that, soft and inhuman. “No. I was trying to warn children away from this place. I hurt some without meaning to; they are far from the ocean and I touched them with too deep a truth.”
“Will you let us undo that?”
She takes a deep breath and nods. “I will,” and Jay pulls energy out of her and wraps it into the kids as he puts his clothing on, doing it without any effort at all. The mermaid shudders, her scales taking on a dull lustre.
I let the ice become water so she can return to the pond. “Do you know who killed the other children?”
“An adult who saw me and sought to use me with fishhooks as bindings,” she says, and has the waters draw a picture of a severe-looking woman. “She killed the children before she saw me, and tried to bind me to disposing of the bodies for her. I scared the others away to mock the attempt.”
I ask the water to lead me to the owner of the face and ask Jay to stay with the mermaid; he takes the hint, willing to make sure she cannot leave but does ask me for his phone back so he can finish his game of tetris. I return it and walk back into the town, following the water’s whispers to the owner of the voice. She is at home, and doors open when I ask, and her shell of false grief shatters when I demand answers. One of the children was her own, another a nephew. She was due a great deal of insurance money, money she’d planned to use to sue the town for the waterhole and get that much more out of it.
Her husband does not know; he is at work, trying to drown his grief in toil. I smile, the one smile I’ve never let Jay see on my face, and the murderer goes pale at it as I bind her to follow me, wrap illusions about us that hide us from all prying eyes. I take the woman to the pond and ask the mermaid to dispose of the body in the depths of the ocean to never be found or seen for some time.
The mermaid returns after a time, though I did not bind her to do so. “She will surface miles from here, where the river meets the ocean. You could have asked me to do far worse things, magician.”
“Revenge doesn’t do anything for the dead. Tell me: can you take on human form?”
She blinks at that, surprised in turn. “If a magician aids me. And not forever, but for a time.”
“There is a man in this town who has lost his son and now his wife as well. He will need someone to speak to, someone who can bring a small bit of magic into his life. To make sure that, when they leave, he is left with hope.”
“You ask much of me.”
I pull the tire off the branch, bending it with will and desire until it becomes a small black ring I set at the edge of the pond. “This will give you the magic you need, for as long as it can. If you wish the binding to ask longer, you will some day need to find Jay and ask him to do this.”