The Maeril (MĀĺR-íl), or merfolk, are a species that are descended from the human woman Neria (NĀR-ē-ä) and the sea-god Wvelkim. While they are often fancifully referred to as "half-human, half-fish," in truth they are an entirely new form of creature that were crafted by Wvelkim to be his chosen people.
Anatomy & Physiology
Mers look similar to humans, but they are quite different in a number of ways. Some key features:
Large and prominent. Nearly their entire exposed surface is black, but this is because they have black irises; their eyes are very sensitive to light, and they need to block out as much as possible when they're near the surface to avoid being blinded. At depth, their eyes open up and they can see extremely well in almost total darkness. They can spot the bioluminescent glow of a fish from 100 feet away at a depth of 200 yards. Their eyes don't see color very well, however, and in air they are very nearsighted.
Shaped somewhat like an Elf's, pointed and streamlined. The sound chambers (auditory bullae) that contain the inner ears are disconnected from their skull, so don't hear vibrations traveling through their whole head; instead, a special fat-filled channel directs sound from the partially-hollow jawbone directly into the bullae. This helps them to better localize sound underwater, where sound travels faster, but as a result their jaws are a little more fragile than a human's. They also have acoustic sensors in the fins on their forearms — when they spread out their arms they can determine the position of any sound they hear with extraordinary accuracy. Their hearing covers the same range as a dolphin's, and with their arm-sensors they can pick up the very low frequency sounds of baleen whales, as well.
They don't really have them, at least not in the sense that humans do. Instead, they have a system that can be best thought of as a cross between the gills of fish and the lungs of birds. The lungs have been replaced by a pair of rigid structures that resemble radiators: long, thin plates stacked on top of each other and joined together by vertical cross-braces. These gill books are smaller than human lungs, and the remaining space is taken up by a set of four sacs that act as bellows. The sacs expand, drawing in water through the trachea, then contract, pumping the water through the gill books and out of the body through six gill slits that line the abdomen just below the ribcage. Blood flows through the plates (called lamellae) of the gill books in the direction opposite to the flow of the water, which helps them pick up 80% of the dissolved oxygen in the water and get rid of carbon dioxide in the blood. Valves in the bronchi make sure that the water all keeps flowing in one direction.
The really cool thing about this setup is that it works on land, too: as long as the lamellae are kept moist, they can continue to exchange gas even if air is flowing through the passage instead of water. The only problem is that the gill books tend to dry out faster than lungs do, so a mer has to periodically inhale water to moisten the system if she's going to be in air for more than a couple of hours.
Because the air or water a mer breathes only flows in one direction, mers have no "breath" with which to speak. They can speak Common in air, but because they can only make sound with the air traveling in to the gill books, their voices have a high, thin, and airy sound to them, and they can't pronounce some sounds very well. Still, they can be understood easily enough.
Underwater, mers' voices are really in their element (literally). A mer can produce sounds anywhere from the low midrange clear up into the ultrasonic registers used by dolphins for their echolocation clicks.
Mers use clicks too, as a companion to their excellent low-light vision. The clicks are not actually made by the larynx, but by a special set of muscles in the sinus passages; a set of tiny air pockets around these muscles, derived from the sinuses, acts as a back-stop to keep the sound of the clicks directed into a beam that goes out straight in front of the mer. The mers don't have the benefit of the dolphin's melon to more accurately focus the sound, so their echolocation isn't as sharp as a dolphin's; however, they can use it to determine the ranges of objects they spot visually and tell a little bit about their shape and composition. They can also use blasts of sound to stun fish at close range, just as dolphins do.
Mers speak in a complex language of whistles, buzzes and trills; it's not the same as the language used by dolphins, but the two species can learn to understand each other. Dolphins can only learn to speak Mer on a relatively simple level, equivalent to a young child, but they can understand quite complex instructions once they know the language, and the mers can understand the dolphins in return. Mers often form alliances with resident pods of dolphins, especially bottlenose dolphins (which share the same habitat as the mers and are arguably the smartest of the various dolphin species).
Mers are hairless except for the hair on their heads, which Wvelkim kept when he created the merfolk because he thought that they would not be as attractive without it.1 The hair does produce some friction when they're swimming, which keeps them from being as fast as they could be, but most mers are quite proud of their hair. Anyway, their hunting tactics depend more on teamwork, tools and traps than on raw speed.
Head and Neck
A mer's head is oriented on her neck to face forward, in the direction that she swims. Mers can tilt their heads down to look below them — in the direction that would be "straight ahead" for a walking human — but for them it feels the same way staring at the ground feels for us. They're necks can't bend much more than 110 degrees off of their main body axis, so they can't stare at their navels the way a human can. Mers have to approach life pretty much head-first — if they need a look at their tails, they can always bend around and look at them.
A mer's tail is an extension of her spine, just like a dolphin's, and it has flukes like a dolphin's. Unlike a dolphin, mers still have vestigial remnants of their legs; these take the form of two fleshy, flexible pelvic fins just below the "hips".2 These pelvic fins are quite strong for their size, and they are used in copulation: one mer wraps her fins around those of the other mer, and this helps keep their bodies together while the male extends his organ into the female. Given their role in reproduction, it should come as no surprise that the pelvic fins are among the most erogenous zones on a mer's body.
Unlike many artistic depictions of them, MK mers do not have scaly tails — the skin is very much like that of a dolphin. However, this skin can be marked in any of a wide variety of colors and patterns. Even though mers can't see color very well, they can see color patterns, and the various stripes, swirls and splotches that mark their bodies are as much a point of pride for them as their hair. Patterns run in families, but every individual's exact pattern is unique, like a fingerprint. These patterns do not usually run above their waists, though — the upper half of a mer's body is usually, to all appearances, covered with normal human skin, though its coloration can range from near-black through brown, gold and pink to a dolphin-like slate gray. Occasionally a mutant will be born with green, blue, or other odd colors of skin, matching the color and pattern of her tail. Such children are celebrated and seen as a good omen for the family that bears them, but they don't usually pass on their coloration to the next generation.
Hands and Arms
A mer's hands are webbed between the first joints of the fingers; this is useless in high-speed swimming but it helps them maneuver more effectively at slow speeds. As noted above, they also have fins on their forearms, reinforced with ribbing of hard cartilage; these also help with slow-speed maneuvers, in addition to their role as hearing organs. The fins can be retracted against the body during fast swimming to reduce friction.
A mer's teeth are pretty much indistinguishable from a baseline human's. Mers eat fish, squid, octopi, shellfish, and some kinds of kelp. They also keep herds of sirenians (sea cows, dugongs or manatees, depending on the region) for their meat and milk. Sirenian milk is very rich, much like the milk produced by the mers themselves: high in fat, low in water and lactose. Most humans can't stomach it, but for mers it's a cherished food source. It's expensive for the beasts to produce, though, so they can't milk one animal for too long unless they have an unusually abundant food source available.
Merfolk have very good kidneys, comparable to those of cetaceans, so they can drink seawater without it harming them. They usually do not do so, however, as their food provides all the water they need for normal day-to-day activities. Mers who spend prolonged periods of time in air do drink freshwater, however, and it tastes sweet and pleasant to them. Mer bodies have good enough osmoregulatory controls that they can get along equally well in salt or fresh water.
The merfolk's ability to stay warm in cold water is the one thing that is completely magical about them. Just as dragons have inherent magical fields that enable them to fly with wings that would otherwise be too small, merfolk have inherent fields that trap heat under their skin and keep them from freezing to death in the cold water of the oceans. This field can be adjusted unconsciously by their bodies if they need to bleed off excess heat from exercise, or if they're in air and don't need the thermal blanket the field provides, but it's always at their disposal, and it provides them with a constant link to the Aether. This has the side benefit of giving the mers a natural aptitude for magic, which they often use to shapeshift into human form for meetings with their terrestrial neighbors.
The mers are all descended from Lord Wvelkim and a human maiden he took as his bride thousands of years ago. The girl was uplifted to divine status and transformed into the archetypal mermaid, the immortal Queen Neria of the Merfolk. As such, the Wave-King is the mers' one true master, and all merfolk pay honor and reverence to the Sea-Father (as they call him).
Tribes & Settlements
Mers are typically organized into small tribes of 20 to 200 people, centered around a set of underwater caves, an isolated piece of shoreline, or some other geographical feature that gives them access to both land and their underwater food sources.3 Access to land is necessary because only in air can they harvest wood and forge bronze and iron for the weapons and tools that they depend on. Many spells require reagents that are found only on land, as well; if they cannot find these things locally, they will trade with humans for them. Mers will also trade with humans for steel weapons and tools, since most mer tribes do not have the infrastructure to produce steel weapons themselves.
Within a tribe the female members form into smaller communities, called pods, of 4-10 people. The members of a pod are usually not related, although they may contain a few sisters or cousins; they are united by friendship rather than blood. Pods are generally formed between mermaids of similar age in their adolescent years and become finalized by the time they become sexually active. Pods are cohesive units of mer society; a tribe may split or fuse with another tribe, but the members of a pod stay together for life.
Male Pair Bonds
Mermen do not form pods, but they do form long-lasting pair bonds with each other. These are like very strong, loyal "best-friend" relationships, formed about the same time that the mermaids form into pods. The members of a pair bond refer to each other as tai-ji (TĪ JĒ), meaning "oath brother". Oath brothers assist each other in hunting, competing for the right to mate (see below), and defending their mates and children. Not all mermen form pair bonds, but those who do stay together for life.
While Wvelkim is universally honored as the Father of the mer race, they have not forgotten that their people started out with a mother; the sea-god is often away from his people on divine business, so it is Queen Neria who truly rules the mer race for all practical purposes. This is reflected throughout the rest of the hierarchy, for mer society is matriarchal at the tribal level: a priestess of Wvelkim holds the position of tribal chieftain and alpha female. The priestess is always a fertile female of reproductive age, but older females are revered and cherished for their wisdom and experience. Males serve the tribe as warriors, hunters and herdsmen; women are the artisans, wizards, scribes, gardeners, and builders.
Courtship and Mating
Mating is seasonal; the courtship phase takes place in the late spring and early summer. As alpha female, the priestess has her pick of the males of the tribe. She will only bear one child each year, so the males compete in games of strength, skill and endurance for the right to mate with her. These games go on for several weeks during the summer before the priestess chooses her mate. After she has chosen, the other females of the tribe can seek out mates of their own.4
A male bears joint responsibility to care for the children he sires, but he is not required to stay with her beyond the time when the child is weaned. Still, the human tradition of marriage has not been totally forgotten. Couples that have raised a child together successfully often choose to remain together in future years. Unless another female challenges for the right to mate with that male, these lasting bonds are rarely questioned — it is ultimately the female's right to mate with whom she chooses, provided that she does not choose a mate that has already been taken by a female of higher station. If such a challenge does occur, the priestess weighs their respective arguments, questions the male in private about his own wishes, and then renders her decision.5
Mers show a strange form of sexual dimorphism: the size of a female's breasts is related to her social status within the tribe. The main reason for this is that females that spend more effort on physical labor don't build up body fat reserves to the same extent as females in more prestigious fields, such as wizardry or the priesthood; however, there might be a sort of hormonal/pheromonal regulation to it, as well, with the alpha female suppressing the breast development of the females under her.6 Whatever the reason, the bigger a mermaid's breasts, the higher her social status, and the priestess has the largest breasts of any female in the tribe — a fact that is the subject of many a joke among human sailors.
After the courtship phase, mers mate exuberantly and repeatedly over the next four to six weeks. They are, at least officially, monogamous — they mate only with their chosen partner during a given year. (Cheating does occur, but it is severely frowned upon.) Not every female gets pregnant every year — a female who is nursing is almost never impregnated, and those females who work in the more strenuous jobs are less likely to be fertile than those who live less active lifestyles. It has been hypothesized that the upper-level females exert some sort of pheromonal control over subordinate females that reduces their fertility, but this has never been proven.
Females give birth in the spring of the following year, always to a single child. They nurse their young for two years or more. The milk is rich in fat, which is the primary source of water for the infant. Because it's so rich, the infant doesn't need milk as often as a human infant does, which gives the mother more time to participate in foraging trips and the other activities of tribal life. The children are kept in a crèche [communal nursery], often in a cave or other naturally protected area, guarded by a subset of the nursing females and a few male warriors; the mothers of each pod take turns watching the infants while their fellow pod members are performing their other duties. This pattern continues throughout childhood, and as a result mer children develop a strong bond to their entire pod — while they never forget their true mothers, the other females in the pod are like very close aunts. The pod, in turn, teaches them loyalty to their tribe, and by the time the children reach adolescence they view their tribe as one very large extended family.
Exchange between tribes
Of course, since tribes frequently are one large extended family, mers need to trade members with other tribes on a semi-regular basis in order to insure continued vitality in the race. This is facilitated by Olympic-style games held every five years at the sites of the largest Mer tribes. These games are essentially an expanded version of the courtship games that are played out every year on the tribal level, and tribes will come together from hundreds of miles away to compete in them. While the males play out their competitions in the arenas, the female elite of the various tribes engage in a constant stream of negotiations and backroom deals to snag the strongest, smartest and fiercest competitors for their own tribes. A tribe may exchange up to 20% of its male population for fresh blood during these games. (Pair-bonded males are always exchanged between tribes as a single unit — no mermaid would think of breaking up a pair of oath brothers.)
The females, on the other hand, never leave their home tribe, unless a large tribe divides into two smaller ones because it has become too large for the resources in a given area. The frequency with which this occurs depends on the amount of resources in a given area and the survivorship of the tribe's offspring.
Hazards and Enemies
The biggest and most consistent threat faced by the mers is from other aquatic predators who look on them as tasty snacks. These are a far more common threat than enemies from the surface world.
The mers' most intelligent opponents are the fishmen known as the zanash'ka (zə-NÄSH-kä). Mutated descendants of the Lost Kingdom of Men, mad cultists of the long-forgotten deity that made them what they are, the zanash'ka view themselves as the rightful masters of the world and hope to one day drown all of the landwalkers and take the planet for themselves. While they are backward, primitive, and far too chaotic to accomplish any really long-term plans, the zanash'ka are savvy and intelligent hunters who have no qualms about eating other sentients. They consider mers and dolphins particular delicacies, ideally suited both for the table and for the sacrificial altar. Zanash'ka dwell mostly in caves along the edge of the continental shelf, and sometimes in huge ruined, sunken cities of the ancient human realm that spawned them, but their numbers are relatively small in most parts of the world.
Other threats include white sharks, which share the coastal waters mers inhabit, and giant squid, which occasionally come up from their homes in the deep ocean waters to scour the shelf for food. The most common threat for the mers, however, is an orca hunting party: 4 to 10 killer whales, out looking for food.
Orcas will eat anything under the waves that they can catch and kill. To make matters worse, they're extremely smart, work in teams, use complex strategies, and can communicate orders to each other in the midst of a hunt. They speak a different dialect from that of the smaller dolphins, and no mer has ever been around them long enough to learn how to translate it, but it seems to be every bit as complex as the language used by the bottlenoses, if not more so. Worst of all, they just seem to enjoy killing. And there are tens of thousands of them in the oceans.
Mers and their dolphin allies have developed defensive strategies to protect themselves against orcas, but it isn't easy. The killer whales are bigger, faster, and stronger than their prey, and one solid bite from one is enough to kill a mer or a dolphin. Thousands of mers are killed every year in orca attacks. Fortunately, orcas like easy prey, and they will break off an attack if it isn't going their way; there are plenty of other animals to go after, like fish, squid, seals, and great whales. Most of the time, orcas eat great whales, which is good news for the mers and dolphins; the orcas only come after them when they're looking for an interesting challenge, or a somewhat different flavor from their usual diet of whale meat. If all the sea's orcas actually preferentially hunted merfolk, they could exterminate the entire race in a matter of years.
All of this isn't to imply mers have no enemies on land. They do — but these battles are usually ones that the mers pick for themselves. As the protectors of the sea, mers will go after any vessel or any seafaring nation that pollutes the oceans or over-exploits their bounty. They will sabotage ships with magic or tools, cast weather-spells to leave sealers and whalers stranded in dead calms, and even attack enemy ships and "liberate" their cargo, sometimes killing all those aboard. Occasionally a pirate or privateer ship goes out to try to deal with the "merfolk menace", but the mers simply go into hiding or move their base of operations until the hunt blows over. Most legitimate nations have recognized that it's more worthwhile to them to parley with the mers than to try to exterminate them, especially since the latter would provoke the wrath of Wvelkim himself. Nations with large coastal settlements do well to avoid raising the sea-god's ire.
Despite their warlike attitude toward those who would despoil the oceans, the mers are generally quite cordial with their human neighbors. Often they are responsible for saving passenger ships from raiding parties of zanash'ka, and they will offer their own services and those of their dolphin allies in searching for shipwreck survivors. Mers have a reputation among sailors for being "friendly" in a personal capacity, as well, and this is not entirely undeserved; given the high mortality rate among the male warriors, many mermaids are often without partners during the mating season, and their drive to mate is so strong during these times that they will seek out the companionship of humans in order to satisfy their urges. (They can't breed successfully with humans without the use of magic, but under the circumstances they don't really care.) Sometimes they even resort to charm and compulsion spells to draw men to themselves; this has led to the stories of the bewitching siren, calling men to their doom with her songs. The mermaids don't mean to harm anyone with their actions, but during mating season instinct can often prove stronger than reason.
Mers take two names, one in their high-pitched underwater language and one for use while communicating in air. The latter is generally similar to the former, but shifted down a couple of octaves. As such, mer names tend to sound musical: Kylie, Lila, Malianya, Israla, Hymaea, and Teerii are typical mer names. If there are any major distinctions between male and female mer names, human ears cannot discern the difference.
Dolphins only have one name for themselves, their so-called "signature whistle". Mers use this name when addressing them or speaking of them underwater, but they "downshift" the names into the human speaking range when discussing them in air, just as they do with their own names.
Wvelkim's most famous story in the annals of the bards is of the time he fell in love with a human girl, Neria. The story is illustrative of Wvelkim's personality and temperament, though all the sages and bards alike agree that this event was one of a kind.
The story takes place thousands of years ago, after the war against the Great Darkness but before the rise of the Suielman Empire or the Lightbringer Order. Neria was a shepherd girl who lived in Western Sathmore and tended her flocks on the grassy hills and cliffs overlooking the Western Sea. She was both beautiful and kind of spirit, and she had the loveliest voice that the realm of men had ever heard. Wvelkim had come up from his depths and was walking along the shoreline one day when he heard the girl singing. Entranced, and curious as to what creature had been given such a voice, he climbed to the top of the cliffs and found her there. Now, Wvelkim has always been a rather startling figure to look upon, with his fierce dark eyes, his unkempt hair and beard, and his clothes that were always drenched with water and covered with seaweed. But Neria showed no fear at the appearance of this fearsome stranger, and instead offered him food and wine from her own meager meal. Thinking him some castaway who had washed ashore, she offered to take him home to her father. She assured Wvelkim that her father would give him some food and new clothing and assist him in returning to his home, wherever that might be.
Wvelkim was struck by both the girl's beauty and her kindness, and while he refused to let her take him home to her father, he returned each day to eat with her and listen to her sing. Eventually he revealed his identity to her and brought her gifts of food and pearls from beneath the sea, professing his love for her, "the human maiden who warmed this cold and watery heart" (or so the bards would have it). Neria, realizing that she could not bring a god home to her father, also realized that a god did not need her father's consent to take her to wife; and so she lay with him, for she was in love with her strange suitor and wanted very much to bear his child.
It wasn't long before she was pregnant, and unfortunately she soon learned how little regard her people gave to the word of a shepherd girl. They dismissed her talk of Wvelkim as a pure flight of fantasy: she was a fornicator, and had given herself to some wild man from the hills. All her beauty and her marvelous voice were nothing now, for no man would pay a bride-price for a girl who carried another man's child. What was worse, she had committed blasphemy, for she had dared to claim that it was a god who had fathered the bastard growing inside her.
The town shamans — freelance priests, not Lightbringers, for the Lothanasi had not yet been formed — decided that for fornication and blasphemy the girl must be offered to Wvelkim as a human sacrifice, in the hope that her offenses would not be counted against the entire community. Neria was bound hand and foot and taken to the highest cliff above the town. There, with all the people gathered, and with much chanting and ceremony, the priests had her thrown off the cliff and into the sea.
As Neria fell, however, a spout of water rose up to meet her, catching her gently and bearing her aloft again. As the astonished crowd watched, Wvelkim appeared from amidst the waters, and Neria herself was changed, becoming part woman, part dolphin and part fish — the first mermaid. As they rode atop the column of water, Wvelkim rebuked the townsfolk for their evil hearts, for they had called his bride a liar and mistreated the kindest, purest soul among them. In truth, they had always resented her, and had sent her into the fields because they could not bear their own envy of the face and voice the gods had given her. Now, at the last, they had sought to destroy her — she, who alone among all mortals had taught him love.
Neria might have been too good-hearted to wish for the townsfolk's destruction, but Wvelkim was a god and judgment was his to dispose as he saw fit. He cursed the townsfolk for their jealousy, their hardheartedness and their spitefulness, and at that moment a great earthquake struck the town and the surrounding hills. The cliffside gave way and the townsfolk fell to their doom, while a great wave rose out of the sea and wiped out every trace of the town itself. Only one pious man, a fisherman who alone had refused to condone the girl's execution, was left alive to witness the disaster, and he took his boat to the next town and spread the tale far and wide. Meanwhile, Wvelkim took Neria to his palace under the sea and made her a minor goddess in her own right. They live there still, leading and judging the mortal descendants of their eternal union. And that, say the bards, is how the Maeril race was born.