In times past, I pretended to be human and engaged in activities alongside mortal kind; among them, but never of them. During one of these excursions, it was the winter solstice — Yule. A group of hunters prepared for the Wild Hunt ritual. We wore animal furs and leather. Tales of Odin had faded in fervor, yet villages still remembered and celebrated various pagan religions.
Christianity was rising, but it was still acceptable to worship whatever deities your ancestors had. Tales were passed from medicine men to women, and minor alchemy was practiced with confidence and regularity. Monks and their churches had yet to spring up and spread across the lands.
Fairies, demons, wolfkin, and various spirits were often spotted and sought for blessings and rituals. For the Wild Hunt, the revelers wished to contact a spirit or demon to guide them to a fertile land where meat would be found and dark visions would be gifted to those seeking word from the beyond.
We fasted and drank mushroom tea while musicians played string and drum instruments. Singers trilled and chanted prayers, calling for whoever was listening to guide our journey. Children and the elderly were safe in their homes, many sleeping communally, surrounded by salt circles, magic runes, and miscellaneous wards tied in pouches and placed nearby.
“Do you think a powerful spirit or fairy will heed our call?” A pretty young woman asked me. Recently married, this would probably be her last hunt. The child quickening in her belly would consume her time, and she would assume the role of mother, tending her home and garden, cooking and foraging, remaining in the village. A noble life, but not one I desired.
During holy day rituals, it was common for visitors to join in the celebrations. Most knew one another from nearby villages, but it wasn’t alarming to see a new face. My “husband” was always just over there talking to a friend, and it wasn’t difficult to dodge probing questions using a touch of my goddess persuasion. We all have it, and you need but give a small nudge and think with intent, nothing to see here, you were saying? It was easy business to slip in and pretend to be human when the fancy struck.
This was many, many long years after I had mastered my form and could remain on land for indefinite periods of time. I no longer had gills or webbed fingers. I could make my body into a young man or an old crone’s. I typically chose to become a young woman – not too young and never very pretty. It would have been easier to take the form of a male, but I simply didn’t care for it much.
The tea tasted of leaves, bitter, biting, earthy. I could feel the effects slowing trickling in. The edges of my vision blurred, the scene before me softened, and it seemed as though voices whispered from the trees. It was quieter than I expected. “I believe so,” I answered. “I can almost hear…”
A man’s voice boomed out, “It’s time! Mount up or be ready to go on foot. Be prepared to make your way back on your own.”
People would go out on horse or in groups on foot. Some ran in small packs until they drifted apart. Some would not return for days and a few would never be seen again. No one knew whether they had been eaten by a wild animal or snatched into the Underworld. Sacrifice as payment; it was the way of the Hunt.
A hunter blew on his horn and everyone roared and launched forward into the woods, running or walking. They would see each other again on the other side – or not. I made my way forward with a small group of women. A full moon lit our way so torches were not necessary.
“This is my first time.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“I’m a little scared.”
“I bet we go out for a nice walk, high on tea and mead, and then stumble back just in time to hear the men squawking tall tales about spotting a centaur or falling bewitched by a nymph. Rubbish!”
Mystical creatures were as real as the moon and stars above. I hoped to make contact with a dragon and try to procure a flaming pearl as a gift for my husband. A long shot, but you never knew which entities would be summoned during a Wild Hunt.
I slipped away some time later, eager to move forward and see if my quest was a futile one or perhaps, with a bit of Tyche’s luck, be a prosperous endeavor. My target was an East Asian (or Chinese) dragon. They were long and serpent-like, not the fire-breathing sort, but more spiritual in nature, with power over water. The gift for my husband would be impressive if I could acquire it. The flaming pearls they own are said to grant wishes and increase wisdom and luck to those deserving.
I found a small cave and entered, checking for wildlife. I removed an enchanted glowing orb from my pack and the tools I needed for the summoning: a seashell, herbs, a moonstone, and a small jeweled knife for the blood with which to ignite the spell. I used the dagger to slice open my skin and let the ichor drip onto the herbs in the shell. I ground it together with my fingers, reciting the incantation, and chewed the mashed poultice. I spat it out onto the ground and it ignited, creating a swirl of smoke, which tunneled up like a small whirlwind, before dissipating into the shadows.
The air shivered and blurred around an astral portal. I stepped closer and said, “Great One. I would speak with you if you allow it.” I bowed my head in deference to the beast. Dragons could live thousands of years, existing between the mortal world and an ethereal one.
I heard a rumbling growl and my body was sucked through the opening. I stood in another cave and the snake-like dragon looked me over. “Sea Goddess, well met. Why are you here? You woke Shenshe. They were not due to rise for another hundred years.” Water vapor blew from a huge snout and the dragon sneezed.
Shenshe rose and continued to regard me, long neck swaying back and forth in a serpentine pose. “I would ask for a boon as a gift for my beloved husband, Poseidon. I have something you may consider a prize to exchange in return.”
“What does an immortal Nereid have that Shenshe would want? They have jewels, precious stones, gold statues, coins forged from the blood of demigods, relics long forgotten, but worth a dozen of your siblings.”
“You taunt. Though your hoard may be over-full, do you have a Nereid pearl egg in that stash?”
“Their kind do not typically keep a cache to guard, but they have sought to be more than their kind, to be different, and evolve. They do not feel compelled to stockpile treasure, as the fire dragons do.” A contemptuous snort billowed from a huge frame. “They do it for pleasure and experience.”
“As do I by taking human form and living as a mortal – to experience what they do. I came to be here by joining a Wild Hunt on winter solstice.”
“They have not done that before. It sounds intriguing.”
“It is great fun. But, not as fulfilling as being here with you now. I am honored. Are you willing to trade a flaming pearl for a Nereid pearl?”
“How does one keep a goddess pearl? If they accept one, they do not wish it to dry up and become just another pretty gem.”
“Even an infertile goddess pearl is priceless. But, if you wanted it to remain viable, you would need to keep it wet, airtight, and replace the water once a month. You wish to create life from it – a child?”
“They like to keep their options open.”
“It is unfertilized.”
“There may come a time when they wish to create a hybrid.”
“A Long-Nereid child. I am not sure it has ever occurred before. I am not opposed to the idea.”
“They would parent the offspring and raise it as dragon.”
“You would have to be near water until they reached maturity. Even a half-Nereid would require a part-time salt water home.”
“Acceptable. Hold out your hand.” Shenshe shivered and burped. A red-orange pearl as big as a melon slid out wetly onto my outstretched hand. I removed a silk scarf from my pack and wrapped the dragon pearl inside gently. Then, I removed my own pearl. It glistened, and the dragon’s tongue slithered out to receive it, tucking it safely into a cheek.
“If you do decide to gestate it and then change your mind, seek me out. Otherwise, it is yours to do with as you will.” I bowed again, and with the flaming pearl stashed in my pack, I turned to leave.
“They think you shall meet again, but not because of the goddess egg. Another quest maybe? It is unknown. Be well, Amphitrite.”
“Be well, Great Shenshe.” The whirlwind sucked me through and out the other side again. I was back in the mortal world. I rejoined the group of women and led them back to the village. Wandering through the woods, they’d become lost and tired hours after the Hunt had begun. Some of the experienced warriors had returned and were sitting around a great fire, fat spitting from several roasting Yule boars.
I watched as older children ran and laughed, some dancing to fertility and harvest songs played by village musicians, after mothers woke them to partake in the holiday. Spirits were passed around and stories recounted, some true and others fanciful. I overheard a man swear he had met a flying fairy who granted him a wish. Another claimed to have received a message from a dead ancestor. Yet another had outrun a demon, and another glimpsed Thanatos, come to carry off a soul to the Underworld. I laughed with the mortals and enjoyed the food and conversation, whispered a soft blessing, and eventually made my way back to the ocean and my home, Atlantis.
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