Malcolm gazed across the lake's pale blue mirror-like surface while breathing in the chilly morning air. This early in the day most of the creatures that disturbed its surface would still be asleep, so seamless and peaceful it remained. Indeed the sun itself was only just rising across the horizon, banishing the fog and cold with its warming rays.
Satisfied he'd waited past sunrise proper, Malcolm fished a small wooden token out of his pocket. It was a simple thing he'd carved himself out of a piece of lake jetsam which bore nothing more than a simple swirl pattern as he was not a sculptor by any stretch of the imagination and a simple pattern was enough for its purpose.
He closed his eyes and allowed the image of the pattern to take residence in his mind, pushing out all other distractions and errant thoughts so there was nothing but the vortex. Under his fingers the piece of once-waterlogged detritus began to perspire. Beads of water seemed to well up from its surface and roll down its face before falling to that ground with a muted thap.
"Kali" mumbled the covenanter.
With that simple name, a sound like the distant roar of surf on some faraway beach burbled forth from nowhere and surrounded him. For a moment he forgot he was at the shore of a calm lake, instead he felt as though he was enveloped by the overwhelming presence of the ocean. The feeling, though potent, was fleeting and the din soon died with it leaving nothing but the occasional ephemeral dripping noise.
Malcolm opened his eyes to find a small humanoid made of water standing on the shore. Well, standing in that it was balanced on what appeared to be a swept cone of water instead of legs. Indeed the rest of the body was about as defined as a children's mud doll. It had a round head with light indentations where the eyes and mouth would be on a person. The chest seemed to undulate and flow with invisible currents while whip-like pseudo-pods swayed back and forth in time with the growing procession of waves that slid up along the shoreline.
"Good morning, Kali." said Malcolm as he leaned down to dent-level with the little elemental.
"Greetings Malcolm," it replied with what could be charitably referred to as a modulated burble. "How was your dormancy period?"
"It's called sleep," he sighed while pocketing the summoning token.
"Yes it is... difficult for us to remember something so... human."
"Well you're lucky you don't need it. It's a big time-waster." Malcolm placed his hand on the ground beckoning Kali who slithered up his hand, across his arm and settled on his shoulder. In spite of appearing to be made of water the elemental was more of a spirit than a collection of real liquid so all Malcolm felt as the watery stump moved across his bare skin was a fleeting wet sensation.
Kali wrapped a pair of tentacles around his head as if to stabilize itself while its mount rose to his feet. "What are we doing today?" the tiny spirit bubbled.
"Farm nearby needs a canal but the owner can't afford the time and labor to make it himself. I thought it would be good practice for my abilities."
"Will you receive more metal disks for this service? The squishy companion inquired.
He ruffled his dark hair with a thin, gangly limb. "No, farmers usually pay in produce or occasionally livestock, although the prospect of dragging a pig home isn't an attractive one."
"What use are animals and plants to you?"
Malcolm sighed. "Humans need to eat, Kali."
The elemental shook its head. "Yes I remember now."
"Well let's get started then." Malcolm held his hands out, gesticulating wildly as he rattled off his plan. "I thought to make a new canal we could just drag a river there and let erosion create it for us. Would that be possible do you think?
"Easily, provided you've been doing the proper training exercises I instructed you." A slight twitch of the shoulder it stood on did not escape the elemental's notice.
"Yes, of course I have." He lied.
Kali's body made a rushing noise that somehow sounded accusatory but did not push the matter, instead adopting a commanding teacher's candor. "Close your eyes and imagine the water flowing out to meet you. Do not move closer to the water, draw it out to meet you. Through our bond you are its master."
Malcolm entered a similar trance he had adopted to summon Kali in the first place. He breathed in and out in time with the natural pulse of the shore and the elemental on his shoulder. He imagined the water flowing out of the lake to meet him in defiance of nature. When the water met Malcolm's hand in his mind's eye he felt a cold wetness on his hand and could not suppress opening his eyes to observe his accomplishment.
A tendril of water, just as it appeared in his mind, existed for all of a brief second before crashing to the ground in a wet thud.
"You haven't been practicing." Kali surged with irritation. He could see froth on the edges of the elemental's body from the corner of his eye. "You are too impatient."
Malcolm glanced morosely at the now damp patch of earth. "You know," he sighed laboriously. "I've been at this for almost half a year I thought I'd be better at it by now."
"Our bond alone allows you to skip miles ahead of conventional practitioners but you still do not know how to control your energy properly. You release it wildly and without purpose. For the manipulation of water it requires a constant rhythm of power and ebb and flow. If that stream becomes erratic you lose control." Kali smoothed out into the metered instructor's tone it had before. "Try it once more but this time keep your eyes shut. Listen to nothing but the currents of my form and feel nothing but the wet touch of water against your hand."
Taking the sage advice of his burbling teacher to heart, Malcolm once again summoned the image of a tendril of water and once again synced his breathing with the sounds of Kali and finally felt the same touch of water against his hand.
"Turn around," Instructed the elemental.
Malcolm did so.
"The ground is sloped; take care and move forward."
With tentative steps he did so, carefully making sure that each foothold was stable before shifting his weight to the extended limb. Above all else, however, he made sure that steady breathing and the damp sensation on his hand were always in the forefront of his mind.
After a score or so of steps the covenanter heard the calm, measured voice of his instructor. "Now open your eyes and calmly observe your work."
He did so, noticing that the tendril of water in his mind was all but glued to his hand, reaching back all the way to the lake itself. A gentle pull gave the impression he was pulling a transparent cord of material out of the lake rather than a tube of water.
"Very good." Kali observed. "Now go to this farm of yours, once we've reached it you may call more water through this connection and wear a furrow into the land."
Malcolm was silent through most of the trip since he needed all his concentration to keep the link going. If he failed he would have to trudge all the way back to the lake and try again. Physically and mentally exhausted from the first attempt; it was unlikely that he would succeed with a second.
This wasn't as easy as Kali said it would be, thought Malcolm with the few free thoughts he could spare.
Eventually he made it to the farm after a few close misses involving stealthy rocks and an infuriatingly inquisitive squirrel. Ignoring the slack-jawed farmhands gawking at the fantastic display of a man leading a river by the hand, he carefully made his way to the marker that indicated the end of the planned canal, taking extra care as his concentration was starting to waver. He placed the stream of water down onto the dirt and imagined his own exhausted body opening up like a yawning chasm that drew liquid through the stream.
"The water obeys you. You are its master." Kali whispered into his ear.
The thin cord of water gradually fattened until it engulfed his hand. Noisily the sounds of a babbling brook filled the air and a surge of water followed the line like a puddle would move along a crack in the floor. The torrent of water shot past Malcolm, soaking half of him as he couldn't move before the flow encountered his hand. Without a guide it continued in a straight line before following the natural curves of the earth and the almost imperceptible incline all natural rivers follow.
He shook the excess water off him, almost dislodging his instructor along with it who managed to cling to his shoulder with one franticly twisting pseudo-pod. When he lifted his head he saw the farmhands all clapping at him with wide eyes and open gap-toothed mouths. It was only natural. When the most interesting thing that happens to a man is finding an unusually shiny rock while tending the fields, this display of raw magical power nearly drove them catatonic.
A man so large and dense he could be best described in geological terms appeared out of nowhere, locked an arm around Malcolm and lifted him sputtering off the ground.
"Ah, thanks! You magical bastard! That would have taken days with my lads but you did it in one morning!" He noticed Kali dangling off Malcolm's back, unable to adjust to the violent movements the farm giant was causing. "And I guess this is your little helper! Isn't it?"
"Y-yes, Mr. Grant." Malcolm managed to spit out. Between his mental exhaustion and the attentions of the overenthusiastic farmer he couldn't get his bearings.
"Aww that's cute, it is." He tried to lift the exasperated elemental up but his hands passed right through it. If he was surprised, not a bit of it showed up on his face. He was the sort of man who could regard a volcanic explosion with a good natured laugh so the lack of shock wasn't terribly out of character.
"I'll get your payment." He hailed his closest worker. "Hey Jimmy! Get our friend here a slab of smoked ham and one of the bottles of whiskey!" Grant turned back to Malcolm. "You like whiskey right?"
"Yeah." He hadn't expected to receive drink as payment. Normally such things were kept by the distillers themselves or sold to taverns. However the idea of a large piece of meat sat well with him. He wasn't much of a hunter and the most he could do with control over water was fish.
Malcolm hated fish.
The absent farmhand returned with a good natured grin carrying a bundle wrapped in straw and an opaque brown bottle. "We'd normally throw a fit about losing one of these," he raised the hand that held that bottle. "But that was some show, man."
Malcolm didn't usually think himself above accepting praise and of course today was no exception. He accepted the bundle and bottle with a self-satisfied smirk. "It's no trouble for me."
"No trouble he says," grumbled a voice on his back. Kali flowed up onto his shoulder, returning to its perch.
Malcolm gave his detractor a quick glare and returned to his grateful employers. "If that's all, I'll take my leave now. You know where to find me if you need anything else."
"Aye we do," said Grant who grabbed his free hand in granite vice and gave it a jolly crush.
The trip back to the lake was more pleasant when Malcolm didn't need to keep absolute concentration and could instead utilize the beaten path instead of the untamed underbrush he had dragged the water through. Still, he liked to cross paths with the new stream, a physical indication of his growing magical prowess.
Along the way they sorted out unplanned deviations in the flow. Slight applications of will deepened the canal where the flow was in danger of spilling out randomly. It was a simple touch up to make sure the job was done right. Malcolm did not relish the idea of getting an angry visit from Grant.
Looking at his reward, he came about a bit peckish. He partially unwrapped the chunk of ham and gave it an experimental nibble. It was pretty good, though a bit over salted in his opinion.
"Was that a good reward?" inquired Kali once he had swallowed.
"Better than usual," replied Malcolm, who replaced its wrapping.
"What was the other item you received? The brown bottle."
He held up the musty flask to Kali's undulating form. "Grant said it was whiskey but you can never tell with farm distilleries. It's whatever they want to call it, made out of whatever they had lying around; hopefully potatoes or grain. I suppose you don't know much about this sort of thing since I've never taken liquor with me when I came to visit you."
"Liquor is a poison, the water in that bottle is sad" Kali said solemnly before reaching out for the glassware with one tendril. "But don't worry I can fix that."
"Ah!" Malcolm jerked his bottle-clenching hand away from the wriggling tentacle. "No! It's supposed to be like this, don't clean it up." He uncorked the bottle and gave it a quick sniff to make sure everything was in order. Satisfied, though rendered momentarily breathless by the biting fumes, he replaced to stopper once more. "And what do you mean sad? How can water be sad?"
"It is corrupted by the presence of this 'liquor.' It's not pure as water was meant to be."
Malcolm rubbed the back of his head. "I suppose it's difficult for a water spirit to understand the appeal of a little recreational poison."
"You would be correct."
Eventually Malcolm and Kali reached the lake again though it was no longer the seamless mirror it had been in the morning. Now it was painted with a light orange color as the sun sank to the other end of the sky while choppy dark lines gave it a wrinkled texture. Malcolm was honestly surprised, he didn't realize today's job had taken as long as it did but with most of said day being eaten by bouts of intense concentration he supposed it was only natural the passage of time would escape his notice.
"I guess that's all for today."
Kali churned but didn't say anything.
"So how did I do?" he muttered staring at his feet. "I mean really how?"
"You... performed well. You have made great strides since we initially forged this covenant though you still lack control. I still think it would be better if you stayed here constantly. The ever-present ebb and flow of the lake is the greatest teacher for proper control of water."
"Nah, I can't do that. My straw mattress may not be kingly, but I can't do without a good night sleep on proper bedding." Malcolm kicked the ground, a little embarrassed by this declaration.
"Nevertheless it would help you." Kali insisted.
"But I am getting better about it, right?" asked Malcolm in earnest as he turned to his teacher.
It paused for a moment, bubbling with thought. "Yes, given years of training you should make a fine water covenanter. The things I've taught you will become easier and easier until you will do them almost unconsciously. Of course," it explained rather pointedly, "If you keep ignoring you exercises..."
Malcolm held out a placating hand to steady the surging spirit, "I got it, don't worry." He looked out over the horizon as the sun continued its rapid decent. "I should get going before it's too dark to see. See you tomorrow, Kali."
Kali's consciousness ebbed and flowed freely in the lake. With so much water around it could abandon the strain of keeping a spirit body coherent and become one with the elements it was born from. It normally enjoyed the feeling of absolute freedom; however this night the waters were too turbulent. The detritus and particulates that normally settled to the bottom roiled and churned in the massive cauldron.
It couldn't settle down for some reason. Thoughts swam through it; odd thoughts it had been having recently regarding Malcolm. He was important to Kali; as its covenanter he provided it with the power necessary to become more than a simple, barely conscious amalgam of natural magical energies.
But Kali had seen how humans who enter in similar bonds expressed their commitment to one another, the lake being a popular spot for romantic or clandestine liaisons. Some part of it wanted to do the same with Malcolm, to hold him and form a physical bond of some kind, and the more energy it received the stronger the connection and the attraction to him became. However it had no body to act on either of these desires nor the instincts to guide it. He was close yet so far away.
So it languished in its watery torment.
Late at night, when the moon rose to its zenith, Kali gradually became aware of a presence bleeding into the lake. Even with the waters as muddy and restless as they were, it could see there was a trail of a contaminant of sorts. It wasn't like the alcohol from earlier that day, the liquid in that bottle was murky and stained by poison but this odd material shimmered with glints of purple. Kali drew closer to one of the strands of energy which writhed and twisted with no regard for the currents of the water it was suspended in. Looping and curling it appeared to have a life of its own.
Tentatively, Kali allowed its consciousness to touch it. It felt familiar like the power it received from Malcolm, yet fundamentally different. The energy from its covenanter made the elemental feel content and energized, however this nebulous corruption made it feel a yawning hunger for something it could not properly identify.
Kali rationalized this as another pollutant to the lake and attempted to use what power its meager magical ability afforded it to erase the contamination. Focusing its power, it tried to purify the water permeated with the corrupting influence but was shocked to find that there was no effect. The writhing tentacles continued to spread, unimpeded by its efforts. The guardian of the lake repeated its spell numerous times before giving up the fruitless task. Instead it followed the corruption upstream to find out what it was and perhaps stem the polluting tide.
It wasn't long before the inquisitive spirit found the source.
A nearby waterfall, which was the source of most of the lake's water, roared with the thunder of millions of gallons crashing into the river below. Large stone slabs, undoubtedly fragments of the cliff above, dotted the basin like tiny islands in a swirling maelstrom. However there existed a certain arrangements of rocks that served as a shelter from the fast moving water while still retaining a small current that formed a small vortex within the hollow.
Lounging in this whirlpool was the strangest person that Kali ever saw.
In as much as Kali knew about humans, it knew most of them did not possess a pair of curling ram's horns, glassy black bat wings and a whip-like spade-tipped tail, however it may have been willing to accept this deviation from the norm had it not been for the fact that this woman seemed to ooze the corrupting energy that was leaking into the river and flowing down into the lake.
Kali never encountered anything like this woman before and had no idea of how to proceed. Being an unaccompanied elemental, it had no power over the material world besides the waters it merged with; though even that power seemed to be failing it now. With no other options and an instinctual desire to halt the corruption guiding its actions, the little elemental did the only thing it could do.
Kali crawled out of the water on top of the rocks not a foot away from the mysterious woman's head. "Excuse me, miss?" it burbled as loud as it could over the waterfall's ever-present cacophonous roar.
The oddity rolled one eye open and glanced at Kali, calmly assessing the watery humanoid that was speaking to her.
"I would appreciate it if you could stop letting this energy into the water. It's polluting my home downriver and I can't seem to clean it myself!" Kali had to be nice, with no power over the physical and Malcolm likely dormant it couldn't do anything to affect the material world. The only power afforded to the little spirit was the power of words.