Introduction: In a nation where only water spirit summoners are born, Zyri is the black sheep, a girl with potential magic but no aptitude for summoning water spirits. And what happens to a black sheep when told she cannot swim? She tests the waters.
By Marilag Angway
Admitting defeat was not an option Zyri used. Ever.
Not against her colleagues who’d teased and bullied her for achieving the lowest rank imaginable at the university. Not against her teachers who’d pushed and cajoled and told her that no amount of studying magical theory could make up for lack of skill. Not against her parents who’d been surprised when the chief Mambabarang came to their door to tell them that their daughter–yes, their seemingly non-magical daughter–possessed the Talent.
Not against herself. Even in throes of disappointment on a summoning gone wrong, Zyri had told herself early on–very early on–that she wouldn’t admit that her Talent was practically useless. That she couldn’t summon the water spirits like every gifted Mambabarang and Mamalarang in the gods-accursed islands, and whatever the old chief summoner had seen in her was merely a fluke, one she’d time and time again managed to confirm to everyone else watching. And spirits above, summoners were watched closely.
She was not a proper trainee. She would not amount to much. She would never become full-fledged Mamalarang.
Dammit, she had to do something about that, didn’t she?
Which immediately led to her current predicament.
It had taken luck finding the catfish spirit. Luck and time, of which Zyri had myriad amounts of now that she’d passed her grueling written exams. Passed with flying colors, she’d admitted smugly, remembering her teachers’ astonishment. The memory faded quickly, only to be replaced again with the fact that no amount of knowledge could have prepared her for what the catfish spirit turned out to be once it had figured out she was there to capture its corporeal skin.
Whatever it was that she’d angered, it was definitely no catfish.
Still, let it not be said that Zyri was easily deterred. She took one huge, calming breath, recalled the information about summoning she’d read in one of her tomes.
Water spirits will answer to a summoner’s call with a firm word. It is not necessary to have power over a spirit’s skin, for any gifted Mambabarang can trap it into a vessel of his choosing. Mambabarangs must take note, however, that a summoning is only as good as a summoner’s magical source. Stronger Bantay Tubig are less susceptible to the Mambabarang’s call and may result in reverse enslavement.
The water spirit reared up, its skin stretching grotesquely to morph into something bigger, more fluid, tendrils of water gathering and taking shape. Zyri tried to push down her fear, tried to keep her concentration focused on the words of summoning, tried to keep her voice loud and clear and unwashed by the water. She was soaked to the bone.
“You think to best me?” The angry voice boomed in her head, loud, violent, constant, like the crashing waves that threatened to tower over her and drown her into the depths of the ocean. “You think a pitiful human summoner could best the Kataw?”
Zyri’s heart skipped several beats. Her teeth rattled, and it was not from the cold. She groaned inwardly, knowing full well that she wouldn’t live to survive a battle of wills against one of the most powerful of the Bantay Tubig.
The Bantay Tubig pride themselves in their hierarchy of spirits, the lowliest taking on the form of fish and other sea creatures. Normally this is what the spirit summoners call forth because they do not take as much energy and are more than happy to serve humans with any aptitude for summoning. Above them stand the shapeshifters, the Siyokoy and the Sirens, sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. They take the form of humans to try to lure unsuspecting folk to their deaths with their beauty and their voices. And much above them are the Kataw, the rulers of the ocean. Many a powerful Mambabarang has tried–and failed–to trap a Kataw. To date, there has only been one incident of success. It was short-lived, as the entire island in which the Mambabarang lived sank to the ocean depths a mere fortnight later.
Doomed either way, Zyri thought gloomily. She tried to find her voice, but the Kataw did not give her a chance. Instead, it lunged, its powerful tendrils snapping at her like a whip, so that she was thrown onto the pebbled shore. She sputtered once, tried to get up, only to be forced back into the water by another tendril.
There had been no chance. And in that, Zyri had to admit defeat. She could not contain a Kataw, could not summon it to any vessel of her choosing, could not steal its skin because above all, the Kataw did not need one.
She thrashed anyway. She kicked and flailed, and often the tendrils let go. Water was strong, and it beat at the body with surprising intensity for something so fluid. It was also easily changed, and Zyri was nothing if not adaptable to the situation. She pushed the fear away, pushed as she pushed the water, and she raised her head out of the water to take a deep breath.
She let out a scream, then a whistle, then another scream. She was pushed back down.
Zyri did not wait for death. But she did not have to.
The Kataw’s anger throbbed in her head, its screams reverberating within the walls of her mind. Yet just as quickly, the screaming stopped, replaced with surprise, frustration and–though Zyri could have sworn she’d imagined this–respect. Just as suddenly, the water pushed and pulled, and before she knew it, she was thrown back onto the wet rocks and sand.
She lay there for a long while, unable to muster the strength to stand, let alone sit up. The Kataw had long since disappeared, back into the folds of the water, back into its domain.
A warm wind tickled Zyri’s neck, almost like a caress. She closed her eyes, letting it soothe her shivering body.
She sat up quickly, winced. The warmth that she’d felt only moments before disappeared, and she looked around, confused. Nobody was there, yet she could have sworn she’d heard a giggle echo in the air. A giggle, a helpful puff, warm words of comfort in her ear.
“I don’t know what you are,” Zyri said carefully, in the attempt not to anger any more spirits, “but thank you for saving me.”
She tried thinking back on what she did when the Kataw attacked. The actions she took were a blur, and she recalled screaming. She also did something else.
Zyri pursed her lips and blew a whistle. She whistled several times, ending the tune with a higher note, posing a question.
The wind whistled back.
For those not aware, I am basing this particular magic system on Filipino folklore. Hence some of the terminology.
Mambabarang = Male spirit summoner
Mamalarang = Female spirit summoner
Bantay Tubig = Water demons (equivalent to the western merfolk)
Author’s Note: I’m trying this writing exercise where I write about different characters within my fantasy world. It might–eventually–help me write the actual story I want to tell. Which, let’s be honest, I’ve tried doing many times, with at least two different novels (one finished, the other half-finished) taking place in the same damn universe. Maybe at some point I’ll eventually smooth the stories out and send them out again for querying purposes.
I meant this to be much shorter than I originally planned, but as many of my friends know by now, my stories tend to take lives of their own and run off into the wilderness, leaving me scratching my head with wonder. “Whistle” was supposed to be a brief outlook on a woman who will later be at the forefront of much of the magic system being developed in my fantasy world. Who knows what she’ll be up to next, though knowing Zyri, probably something scandalously reckless. 😉