Hours later, a group of us have gathered around a lantern to figure out the next steps. Besides myself and Angelique, the congregation consists of Robin, Tsura, Anamaria, Gloria, the ship’s carpenter Nadia, and the four mates—Manuela, Jimena, Ruido, and Eden. All of us are in varying states of injury, though—whether fortunately or not, I’m not sure yet—I’m the only one with an incapacitated limb. None of us mention the painfully obvious vacancy where Lucia would normally be among us.
My legs are oriented uncomfortably in front of me as I lean close to the lantern to take the best possible advantage of the light. Even with the brilliant illumination from the cavern walls, it’s still incredibly dim on the main deck. The map is spread out across the floorboards between Angelique and me, its careful stitching looking more insidious than ever in the wake of our recent adventure. Angelique’s hastily scrawled notes lie beside it, though her script is so messy I can hardly make it out.
“At this point, we should be somewhere over here,” she says, pointing to a spot on the map along the eastern coast of Cuba. “It’s hard to tell since we can’t see constellations—”
“Or even tell the time,” Robin chimes in morosely.
“Yeah. So, keeping in mind this is all guesswork, since I can’t tell how long or fast we’ve been travelling or which direction the caverns are going in, this is the most likely possibility that I’ve been able to think of.”
“We’ve had a steady current since we got here,” Gloria points out. “Now, there are two reasons why rivers have currents—gravity is at work, or more water is getting poured in than is able to rush out the other end. Up there, we knew it was because of that waterfall—gravity just doing its God-given job. That means either this canal is sloping downward, to what we cannot tell, or so much water is coming in from up there that it can’t get out the other side all at once—it’s backed up, if you will. Whichever it is, I don’t like our chances.”
“What d’ ya think we’re supposed to do about that? Wanna turn around and try climbin’ back up that waterfall?” Robin replies. She places her hands on her hips and nods over her shoulder in a clear “be my guest” gesture.
“As if. I’m not that illogical. All I’m saying is, we don’t know anything about these caverns. They could pop us out safe and sound in just a couple minutes, or they could lead us on an eternal twisting path to our doom. Or there could be a big dead end, and we’ll be stuck here, just waiting around for death.”
“Please don’t say that,” Manuela peeps, starting to look a bit ill.
“Look, I know you went to a fancy college and everything, but in case you’ve been on an entirely different planet this whole fucking journey, you might have realized that the rocks we’re floating around in are supposed to be imaginary,” Robin says, ignoring Manuela. “Pretty much everything we’ve gone through so far is totally against logic, miss oh-so-logical-and-intelligent.”
“Hey, now,” I say, holding up a hand for peace. “I know this is stressful, but you don’t need to be an asshole, Robin.”
“I’m just telling the truth,” she insists. “We stranded ourselves in the middle of the Caribbean, got sucked into these big scary cliffs, then survived a five-hundred-foot drop in this big ass ship after some weird lightning bug fairies fucked with our lanterns. Now we’re sailing around in an underground cavern with glowing blue walls and shit. I say screw reason. None of what has happened to us in here goes along with any definition of reason, and I don’t see why that might change or why I should try to protect her from it.”
“Okay, now you’re just blowing things way out of context,” Gloria says. “You don’t think there’s any possible logical, scientific reasoning behind what’s happened to us? None at all? That’s what you’re telling me right now?”
“Yes, that is what I’m telling you, cunt,” she shoots back.
“Both of you be quiet,” Tsura says, giving them a simmering glare that brings them to silence. “Our situation is very frightening and none of us have experienced anything like it. It does not help anyone to think about this. We must pay attention to the map and work together so that we can figure out a way to escape alive.”
I give her an approving nod. “Well said, Tsura. Angelique, you want to tell them the plan we decided on?”
“You already decided? But I thought the point of this meeting—” Jimena breaks in, but Manuela nudges their shoulder to hush them.
Angelique rotates the map so that the rest of the group can get a clearer view. “I believe we’re in an aquifer—an underground deposit of fresh water from precipitation on the surface leeching through the soil. Or, in this case, rock. If you look closely at the rock, you can tell it’s porous. I think a combination of rainfall and ocean water seeping through has resulted in this canal.”
“So that would make it salt water, not fresh water,” Gloria points out.
“Not necessarily. I’m not a scientist, but something in the rock could be naturally purifying the water. Or,” she adds with a shrug, “like Robin said, it’s magic river water. Whatever. I’m pretty sure it’s safe to drink.”
“’Pretty sure’ doesn’t work for me,” Gloria interjects.
“Then why don’t you go try it out for yerself? Just end the suspense,” Robin says sarcastically. “Otherwise ya can sit down, shut yer damn trap, and let the lady speak.”
Angelique gives her a grateful smile. “I figure we won’t run out of drinking water before we get out of here,” she continues. “Food is another matter. We’ve left rationing decisions to the cook. You can talk to her later to find out.”
“Aw, man,” Ruido grumbles, pouting and hugging his stomach.
“As for deciding where to go next—well, it’s not like we have a ton of options. Someone will always be alert and watching out for a fork in the canal. We’ve already set up shifts. Our goal is to head as northwest as we can, and hopefully this tunnel pops us out somewhere in Cuba.”
“How are we supposed to head northwest if we don’t have a helm?” Gloria asks, a bit softer.
I look to Robin. “We were kind of hoping you’d figure something out.”
She taps her chin and looks up at the ceiling, apparently deep in thought. “Well,” she muses, “I could probably find a bunch of broken wood to make a really big stick that we could use to shove off of the walls.”
Angelique and I exchange glances. “We were actually thinking something more, uh, practical?” she says. “Maybe some oars?”
Robin brightens suddenly. “Yeah, I can do that!” she says.
“Awesome,” I say, rubbing my hands together with finality. “So, if we’re all set, we can—”
I freeze as I see the shadows beyond our little circle shift. A small, lithe shape is twisting in the near darkness just behind Robin. Angelique follows my gaze and squints to see what it is. Suddenly, she scrambles backwards until she bumps into the mast, eyes filled with fear. My hand jumps to the sword at my waist and I wait for the aggressor to move closer. The rest of the group, sensing the danger, similarly arm themselves.
Robin and Gloria scooch back, allowing the full light of the lantern to fall on it. When it’s completely lit, Angelique winces and gives a small yelp.
“Lasirn,” she whispers.
I look from her to the creature, then back. “You alright? It’s just a snake, Angelique.”
“But how did it get on the ship?” Gloria says.
“Lasirn sends them to show that she’s near,” Angelique says.
“A powerful water spirit.” As she speaks, she begins to edge away from the snake, which has plopped down in a little bundle on the deck and is staring at her quizzically. “She goes by many names and has many appearances, but is most often associated with snakes. If you follow her, she will bring you good fortune, but if you disobey her, she brings sickness and pain. It’s not uncommon for her to lure sailors down to early graves.”
“Captain!” someone calls from the other side of the deck. “There’s something in the water here—you should have a look.”
“Take care of that thing. Don’t hurt it,” I instruct Robin, nodding toward the snake. Then I get up and cross the deck to survey the commotion there. I peer over the railing into the glowing canal. Nothing but the water churning slowly in our wake and the colorful plants growing out of the rocks.
“I just saw it, not two seconds ago,” the crew member insists.
I humor them for a few more moments, and am on the verge of dismissing the claim when a stirring along the keel catches my eye. Something silvery and bright—and big—just flashed through the water.
Anamaria appears at my side, sporting a neck brace and slight limp. She’s trying to restrict her words because of the damage to her throat, so in lieu of speaking, she nods toward the water and raises an eyebrow at me. I shrug and train my eyes unwaveringly on the canal bottom.
In my peripheral vision, I spot it again, just a few yards along the hull—a brilliant flash of scales. A big fish? Something worse? Dread gathers in the pit of my stomach.
I start to head along the deck toward the source of the movement when it suddenly appears again, directly below me. This time a shape rockets out of the water, spraying me with mist, and executes a series of flips and twirls. The creature is like a lightning strike, rapid and bright, and gone before I can fully realize what I just saw. But this time, instead of darting away, it pops its head back up out of the water and turns to me with a devilish grin.
“Holy shit,” I say aloud. “It’s a mermaid.”
The others rush to the side of the deck and peer over. Immediately the excited whispers begin. The mermaid wrinkles its nose and sticks out a papery white tongue at us.
“Water spirit,” it says disdainfully. Its voice is soft and lilting, but still with a cold, razor-sharp edge. “Not mermaid. Water spirit. Priestess of Lesirn. Once a pathetic mortal fleshbag like you, now a supreme ethereal being with cool water powers.”
“So, um. How should we refer to you, then?” Robin asks.
“Her Superior Omniscient Kick-butt Excellence is my official honorific,” she replies, “but for the sake of your precious material time, just call me Olufemi.” She cups her hands around her mouth and calls out, “Hey, you! Weirdo cowering in the back. Come say hi.”
Angelique appears at the railing in moments, looking shaken. “Hi, um. Your Majesty?” she says with an anxious smile.
Olufemi snorts with laughter. “Okay, so we have a nervous one here. You don’t need to freak. I’m not gonna, like, banish you to the bottom of the sea or anything if you disrespect me.”
She folds her hands behind her head and lies on her back, using her enormous tail to move herself in lazy circles. The tail, like all but a few parts of her body, is covered in tiny silvery scales that reflect the light in the cavern so that she seems almost to glow. Her chest, in direct conflict with what countless movies have led me to believe, is bare and featureless, and her face is surreal and fish-like—slits in her eyes where pupils might normally go, thin lips barely distinguishable from the rest of her face, gills on the sides of her torso in lieu of a nose. Her hair floats sinuously about her as she floats, silvery and brilliant in the cavern’s light but almost a separate being from her body.
“You know, you’re actually the first humans I’ve seen down here in like, sixty Earth years. You wouldn’t believe how lonely this place gets,” she says. Although the words are rather sad, her tone is more bored. She strikes me as the kind of person who only talks to fill the silence, because she knows she’s the most interesting thing in the room.
“There were other humans here?” Angelique asks, losing her shyness.
“Oh, yeah, a whole bunch of ‘em. Came in on a pirate ship kinda like yours. Except, like, huge and better in every possible way,” she replies. “They were looking for—don’t interrupt me, sonny.”
An instant after she mentions the ship, Emilio opens his mouth to interject, but as soon as she speaks to him, he falls silent. “How did she know I was going to ask about the treasure of San Abel?” he whispers.
“Omniscient, duh. Mortals, I swear to Lesirn,” Olufemi mutters with a snort. “Anyway. Yes, they were looking for Abel’s treasure, just like you all. Of course, they were basically helpless. So whiny all the time, like, ‘I’m hungry! There’s no more food! The canal is poisoned! Wah, wah!’ It’s like she thinks I’m a freaking babysitter.”
“I’m sorry, did you just say that the canal is poisoned?” I ask.
“What, did I mumble? Yes, of course it is. What, you think it’s normal to go around drinking water that glows blue?”
“Um—” She’s quickly making me feel like an idiot. Not wanting to be embarrassed in front of my crew, I gesture to the walls and say, “Well, we thought the whole glowy deal came from those little creatures hanging out on the rocks.”
“My point still stands. Those are cochlea—basically tiny sea urchins that glow blue and excrete a clear, odorless, highly poisonous substance. What, did you think they were just pretty decorations?”
She stops circling, turns herself upright, and gives me an angry huff. “Typical mortal ignorance. You all just act like you’re gosh darn invincible, don’t you? At this point, I’ve half a mind to just drop you and forget the whole spirit guide business.”
“Spirit guide?” I echo. “You’re here to help us?”
“I mean, that’s technically my job description,” she replies. “I was put here because I disobeyed Lisern, so she punished me by making me stick around this boring joint to help out lost travelers and learn to use my powers responsibly, yadda yadda. But I could totally just ignore you if I felt like it. I’m not bound by contract or anything. Which is good,” she adds, “because, you know, when a water spirit makes a contract, it becomes physical law, and she literally can’t escape it ever. The whole immortal thing, you know.”
“Uh huh.” I lean against the railing with my chin resting in my hand, giving her my best casual-suave look. “So, should we ask for your help, one might say that you are disinclined to acquiesce to our request?”
“God dammit, Ingrid, nobody else likes your obscure Pirates of the Caribbean quotes,” Robin exclaims, whacking the railing with her fist in frustration.
“Um, king,” I reply, tossing my head.
“No one understands those but you!”
“Anyway,” Angelique interjects, “Olufemi, it would be so great if you could help us out of this cavern. We would be eternally grateful for anything you could do for us. We’ll give you as many offerings as you need.”
“I’m not a vending machine, sister. You don’t just keep inserting offerings until divine blessings fall out,” Olufemi replies. “And to be honest, it’s not really necessary. I don’t actually, like, do anything down here, I’d help you just to relieve the boredom. But hey, I’ll still take a look at what you’ve got.”
I grab hold of Angelique’s arm as she rushes past me, tugging her to a stop. “Hey, what’re you doing here? She said offerings are not necessary. You can’t just start grabbing things off my ship to try and appease some crotchety—”
“Captain, I know how you’re planning on ending that sentence, and trust me, you really ought to consider shutting your trap.”
Angelique jerks her arm away and gives me a scathing look. “Omniscient,” she reminds me in a sing-song voice as she hurries off toward the hold.
I’ve rescued an old lawn chair from the miscellaneous junk in the crates and set it up on the main deck, alongside the port bulwark. Olufemi swims beside the ship, presumably guiding it along with her water spirit-y powers. Every couple of minutes she speeds up and swims in front of the vessel, then slows down until she’s back at the side, like an impatient pet on a walk with its painfully slow human. Despite her annoyance, though, I can tell she’s pleased to have people to speak to—i.e. mock and push around—for a change.
I drum my fingers against the railing and lean back in my chair, hoping to catch a little sleep. Although it’s impossible to tell time here, it’s definitely been a while since our huge altercation earlier this morning, and I’m ready for a break. My brain, however, doesn’t seem to agree. My head is buzzing with questions that I’m too proud to ask the abrasive spirit.
“Okay, there are like, twelve different ways this conversation can go, and all of them start with a different question, so let’s skip the suspense and you just ask the first thing that pops into your head.”
I peer over the edge of the boat. Did she just—
“No, I can’t read minds. I just know everything. I’m omniscient; it’s what I do. And yes, I will be keeping this up the whole trip. Next question.”
I snort and settle back in my chair. “Fine,” I say cautiously. I wait for her to interrupt me with an answer, but she seems to be purposefully staying patient for this one. “Why don’t you swear?”
She snorts. “Your language is ugly enough already. Plus, it’s unbecoming of a priestess of Lasirn to have a pottymouth, or whatever.” I can hear the eye-roll in her voice. “Yeah, this gig comes with a lot of rules. We have to act all pure and good and set examples for the righteous mortals who worship us. Immortality sounded a lot more fun when I was alive.”
“When was that?”
“Oh, I dunno. Three, four hundred years ago, maybe? In your world, I mean. We don’t really have a concept of time in the spirit world.”
“So there’s another world besides this one? Or are they, you know, symbolically merged?”
Her voice is dripping with disdain. “It’s not a big conspiracy or anything. With every religion, you got your heaven, your afterlife, your Hades, whatever. We have this big mirror on the ocean floor that gives us sick powers when we die.”
“Okay, pretend for a moment that I am in complete ignorance of what you’re talking about.”
“Explain, as simply as you can, what exactly you mean.”
She heaves a massive, long-suffering sigh. “You’ve heard of sirens, right? Weird bird-ladies that sing to sailors and cause them to crash on the rocks and die? It’s kinda like that, except, you know, not completely boneheaded in every single way. Lasirn is this super powerful water spirit who carries around a mirror and is always combing her hair. Her mirror is supposed to, like, symbolize the boundary between the mortal world and her super awesome underwater spirit world, or whatever. If a sailor disrespects her, she’ll lure their crew to their deaths.
“If she happens to meet one of her devoted followers, such as moi, she brings them down to her cool mirror-portal and it gives them magical powers and they become a water spirit. That’s how I got here. And no, don’t ask because I’m not going to tell you about my human life. It’s personal.”
I fold my hands on my stomach and lean back in my chair, slowly digesting all this sudden information. I feel like we’re nearing the end of her train of speech, so I don’t object when she reads my thoughts again.
“Yes, I did have tits when I was mortal. That’s all I’m telling you, though.”
I hear a splashing sound, and when I glance over the edge of the deck, she’s disappeared under the water. She pops up again just in front of the hull, swimming on her back in a lazy line.
The cavern has been on a gradual curve for some time, and now a fork is appearing up ahead. Olufemi, her body floating effortlessly on the water’s surface and hair shimmering beneath her, begins to hum, a clear, delicate tune cutting through the ambient noise of the cavern. It’s one of the most indescribably beautiful sounds I have ever heard. Slowly, I sink down in my chair, every part of my body relaxing as I listen to the lovely melody. Even the vague aching in my shoulder that I’ve mostly learned to ignore seems to soak out through my skin and evaporate, leaving me weightless.
Through half-lidded eyes, I can see that the crew members who elected to spend our journey belowdecks start to come up, drawn to the spirit’s song. The others already on deck have paused in their respective tasks to listen, completely rapt.
Angelique, who moments ago was helping Robin sort through some of the crates retrieved from below to assess our losses, actually drops a golden scale (we’re talking genuine gold here) onto the deck by her lap, where it lands with a painful thud, and sits frozen, completely captivated. She appears stiff at attention and incredibly serene at the same time.
Ignoring the incredibly expensive artifact she just dropped on the deck like a sack of stolen potatoes, she gets to her feet and goes to the edge of the deck to watch Olufemi doing her weird spirit ritual. Her actions are so unusual that my curiosity rouses me from my trance. I lean forward and peer at the translator’s face, empty and unbelievably peaceful. It’s actually kind of eerie.
Even the ship seems drawn to the spirit’s song; up ahead, as Olufemi directs her path toward the left tunnel in the fork, the ship follows, as if pulled by some invisible rope. Once we’ve entered this next passage and are again on our course, the humming stops and the water spirit swims lazily back toward the side of the ship, racing playfully along the hull.
The drowsy calm leeches out of my limbs and the dull pain returns to my injured shoulder. A little ahead of me along the side of the deck, Angelique is still clinging to the railing, visibly shaking. Okay, now this is getting freaky.
“What’s up?” I call over to her.
She glances up sharply, as if I’d just interrupted her from an intense reverie. Her eyes are wide and her expression is frazzled. “Sorry,” she says hoarsely. Clearing her throat, she comes over to me and leans against the railing. “I’ve never heard a water spirit’s song before. It’s—it’s something I’ve been wanting to hear my whole life.”
“Uh huh.” I raise a concerned eyebrow. “Maybe it’s not really my beeswax, but, Angelique—why are you freaking out so much over this whole water spirit deal?”
“It’s kind of a weird story. You sure you wanna hear it?” she asks, sounding a bit more like her normal self.
“I doubt it’s weirder than anything I’ve gone through myself. Shoot.”
“Alright.” She takes a deep breath, training her eyes on the distance like she’s suddenly shy about looking right at me. “My grandparents were born in a small country town in Nigeria. They grew up together, they were best friends—childhood sweethearts, really. They told their children so many stories about their town and growing up, about the spirits that guarded their town and their people and would watch over our family as long as we paid them tribute. They didn’t want to forget. ‘Cause, see, shortly after they got married, when my grandmother was pregnant with their first child, they were captured and put on a slave ship.”
My eyes dart instinctively away from her face. No matter how many times I hear people tell me stories about slave ships and stolen relatives, I’ve never really gotten a grasp on the whole “empathy” business. I prefer to look away and pretend the conversation is happening elsewhere, between other people. When I say nothing, Angelique continues.
“The ship brought them to Haiti, where they were made to work a sugar plantation. Even with all the terrible things happening to them, my grandmother was strong and gave birth to a healthy daughter, my mother. They had three more children after that, although my mother was the only one who lived past childhood. All the slaves, even the little kids, were put to work. A child doesn’t survive something like that.”
Her voice warbles slightly and I risk a glance at her face, but she doesn’t appear to be crying yet, so I just return my gaze to the railing and nod to show that I’m still listening.
“My mother was strong and brave. She knew, her whole life, she was going to get free one day. Her freedom came in the form of my father. He was the leader of a local vigilante group that was leading a resistance movement against the French trying to gain total control of the island. Together, he and my mother planned a massive slave revolt. And it worked—everyone on the plantation escaped.
“My grandparents at that point were dead. But my mom had their stories, and she made sure to remember. She carried two worlds—that of her parents and the mother land, and that of the people who had established themselves on the island. She and my father made a home for us on another island and made sure that we, too, could carry those worlds, and remember our spirits and our heritage.”
She takes a shaky breath. “That’s partly why I became a translator, I think. Language, religion, family—we’re all so unique, yet so connected by all these things that make up our lives. I wanted to learn other languages and cultures, and make sure that none of them ever get forgotten. I know that’s really silly,” she adds with a self-deprecating laugh.
“It’s not silly,” I say quickly. “I think that’s actually pretty cool. Learning all those languages—not too many people can do it. I know I definitely couldn’t.”
“Oh, it’s not that big a deal,” she says bashfully. “It’s not like I’m fluent in everything. I know linguistics. I study their patterns and use what I find to figure out more patterns. Like putting together a big puzzle.” She sighs. “I’ve tried so hard to remember. I don’t want to ever forget my heritage. Since I left the island and all my siblings, my religion is the one thing I have left that really connects me to my parents, you know?”
I nod sympathetically. “I definitely get that,” I say, glancing around the ship.
“So just, having this spirit here, a little piece of my heritage guiding us, talking to us—it’s just so wonderful.” She leans farther over the edge to gaze down at Olufemi, entertaining herself by leaping out of the water and doing a series of elaborate flips.
A question burns on my tongue. I start to ask, then change my mind. Seeing the pure happiness in Angelique’s expression as she watches the water spirit makes my heart inexplicably heavy. In the back of my mind, a voice is screaming at me that this is so wrong—shouldn’t I be happy at seeing my friend filled with so much joy?
“Hey, Captain,” Ruido calls from the bow. “Olufemi says that if you’re done making sappy goo-goo eyes at your friend, you should know that there’s some land coming up ahead.”
I make a show of rolling my eyes as I rise from chair and shake out my legs, which have begun to feel somewhat numb from sitting down for so long. Ducking my head to avoid Angelique’s eyes, I hurry along the deck toward the bow to watch our progress.
The curve of the passage gradually straightens out into a shadowy passage, beyond which I can see a brilliant light. My heart gives a leap—sunlight? I’m bouncing with anticipation as the blue glow on the walls slowly recedes and the rock once again appears gloomy and impenetrable. It feels like ages before we at least reach the end of the stretch of tunnel and into an enormous, wide cavern.
The light is coming from an opening in the towering, cathedral-like ceiling. Through the gap, I can see what appears to be a sky covered in a thick cloud cover. Feathery green and brown vines pour over the edges, some dangling low over the water, some clinging to the ridged gray rocks. Aquamarine water, not quite as transparent as the canal from which we come but beautiful nonetheless, laps gently against a bank of smooth, powdery brown sand undisturbed by human footprints.
“Bring her in! Drop anchor,” I call to my crew.
“Uh, Captain?” Ruido says meekly. “Even if we did have a helm to bring the ship in, the anchor fell overboard, uh, earlier. Sorry.”
I look at him for a moment, contemplating. “I knew that,” I say at last.
“It’s alright, Ingrid! I’ve got you guys covered!” Olufemi calls up. She darts beneath the water until the silver flash of her tail has disappeared in the murk, and then the ship is propelled forward very suddenly, the bow sliding easily onto the shore with a slight bump. The water spirit appears again in the water alongside the bow, beaming up at me with a self-satisfied expression.
I snort. “Wow, nice power you got there. Getting a ship onto land. Real impressive,” I mutter.
The rope ladder is thrown over the side and the crew climbs down to look around the shore. Robin offers to help me down, as navigating the ladder is usually difficult enough for me when I have use of both my arms, but I refuse and clamber down on my own. I skip the final rung and leap the short distance to the ground, overshooting and almost ending up flat on my face.
“Hope your pride is worth it,” Olufemi, who has come to tread water as near the shore as she can, says as I struggle to regain my balance and ignore the stab of pain in my jostled shoulder.
“Your advice is appreciated. Pop a note in my suggestion box and I’ll get right to it,” I snap.
She shrugs and disappears under the water. I go to join my crew in exploring the beach. There isn’t a whole lot to it; a wedge of light brown sand refined to a remarkably soft consistency, almost like walking on loose flour, tucked into the side of the brightly lit cove. I kick off my boots, slide out of my braces, and dig my feet into the sand, relishing in the cool, slightly damp grains running between my toes. I smile a little to myself; much as I do love the sea, I don’t get on shore like this often enough.
“Hey,” Ruido calls out, “since there’s a big skylight right up there, couldn’t we just, uh, climb out and get to a town or something?”
“Ruido, dear, do you ever think about what you’re going to say, or does it just sort of spill right out?” Gloria replies.
“Nah, I’m serious. We could climb up those vines, it would be easy.”
“Honey, even assuming there’s a town nearby, which is an extremely slim possibility considering theses caverns aren’t even technically supposed to exist, what would we do with our ship? All of our things? We can’t exactly get those through that hole.”
“That’s what she said,” Robin chimes in with a giggle.”
“And besides,” Gloria continues, ignoring her, “there’s still the matter of a hefty chunk of our group being physically incapacitated. You know, from going over that giant waterfall a couple hours ago? So, to sum up, I know your intentions are noble, but that’s frankly the worst suggestion I’ve heard on this trip so far.”
“So far,” he echoes. Gloria sighs and ignores him to continue combing through the sand.
I go to the nearest section of the cavern wall, which is coated in a layer of thick vines. I brush my fingers over the plants, feeling the thick, flexible stems and smooth leaves. The latter are remarkable to the touch—veined and wide, with ridges along the edges, but slick as wet glass, so much so that my fingers can barely hold on, and the air surrounding them is slightly cooler, as if they are emitting a chill. Funky. With my good hand, I trace the lines of the stems along their twisting paths against the wall.
A hint of color on the stone beneath one of the leaves gives me pause. I pull back the plant—not an easy task, as the stems seem to cling to the rocks as if they are part of the same being—to reveal a little group of human-like figures scrawled in chipping red paint on the wall. Intrigued, I tug at more of the leaves to get a better view. There appear to be more drawings just like this beneath the plant cover, but the plants aren’t budging.
“Guys,” I call toward my crew, “someone come be my other arm.”
Robin jogs across the sand to aid me. When I show her the drawings I’ve discovered, her curiosity is struck as well. Together, we get as firm a grip as we can on the sturdy stems, avoiding the slick leaves, and heave. Little by little, the vine peels away from the stone with a series of little popping sounds. By the time we pull it back enough to see more of the drawings, we’re both breathing heavily and sweating slightly in the moist cave air.
The image is a lot bigger than we can fully make out. What we’ve managed to reveal is a depiction of the edge of a crowd of people in crudely rendered, unrecognizable dress, apparently running from something. I know I’ve heard of people in pre-writing times drawing stories about their lives on cave walls to keep records; could we have just discovered one such story?
“What do you think?” I ask as we lean back to catch our breath and examine our work.
She shrugs. “Just a bunch of random scribbles t’ me. No idea what they could be fer.”
“Here,” I say, now feeling mostly recovered from our exertion, “help me pull away more of the vines. I want to see what’s behind them.”
We get to work without speaking, tugging at the plants as hard as we can. Even so, we can’t seem to pull the stubborn buggers away from the stone.
“Ugh. Lousy vines,” Robin mutters, delivering a sullen kick to the rock wall.
A low rumble travels through the earth, making all of us freeze on shore. Robin glances at me fearfully. Suddenly, the light from the opening in the ceiling above is extinguished and is replaced by a sickly green illumination from the water. In the gloom, I can see the vines shriveling and retreating into the stone—yeah, into the stone—revealing the paintings in full.
As I gaze about at the crude artwork, my stomach sinks into my toes. The walls are covered in depictions of enormous crowds of human figures running from chillingly rendered thousand-armed monsters. It’s like a Lovecraft story come to life.
A scream from behind makes me jump. Before I can locate the source of the commotion, I feel something wrap around my ankle, and the next instant I find myself on my back. The jolt to my injured arm makes me howl in pain. I bite back against the agony and struggle into a somewhat elevated position so that I can spot my attacker, but there’s nobody within yards of me besides Robin, who’s now backing away and looking about fearfully.
Then I glance down at my feet and see it—one of the vines, hardened into a sinuous black rod and sprouting thorns in place of leaves, has twined itself around my ankle. I crane my neck to look at the rest of my crew and see that several of them are also on the ground. A few have gotten the idea and are retreating to the ship, but the rest have drawn their swords and have gone on the defensive.
“Robin!” I cry. She spares me a glance just long enough to shake her head no, practically shaking with fear. I groan aloud. Oh, to sail during the days of fearless seamen.
Struggling into a half-sitting position, I stretch my good arm down into the boot that’s not currently held in the grip of an evil plant and feel around for my dagger. Before I can get to it, however, the vine gives a lurch and heaves me across the sand, causing me to twist myself into an awkward face-down position to avoid landing on my hurt shoulder.
“Oh, so that’s how it is,” I snarl. I hastily scramble for my dagger before it can move again. This time I get my fingers around the slim wooden handle, but at that same moment, the plant hurls me off the ground again, this time slamming me into the wall. I can hear the sickening thud of flesh against stone and a horrible agony shoots through my unhealed shoulder. I bite down on my lip until I taste blood, not wanting to give the beastie the pleasure of hearing me cry out.
When I land back on the ground in an aching heap, I take as much advantage of the pause to pull out my dagger and drive it as hard as I can into the vine. It sees me coming, however, and yanks out of the path of my weapon. I try to stop myself, but too late, the blade sinks into my own calf. I suck in a huge breath and let it out in a frustrated huff, refusing to give even a whimper as I yank the dagger out and scarlet blood seeps out of the cut.
“What is this, children’s recess? I’m practically falling asleep over here,” I cry as I aim again for the vine. I hesitate to bring it down right away, careful not to hurt myself again; the plant sees this and takes advantage of my pause to yank me up again. This time, rather than heave me about like a rag doll, it dangles me upside down by the ankle several yards above the ground. While the sand is wonderful enough to walk on, I doubt it would feel as nice when landing on my head after a fifteen-foot drop. The vine gives me a shake, like a dog trying to rid itself of a clinging flea. I tighten my grip on the dagger and, ignoring the shaking as best I can, work on getting myself into a somewhat upright position so I can kill the beastie.
It anticipates my move again, though, and swings me with a rather sudden jolt out over the water. I nearly drop the dagger, but luckily maintain enough of my strength to hold onto the weapon. In the fraction of a second when the momentum is still going, I haul myself up, like a snake gripped by the tail raises its head to strike its opponent. My arm heaves back—and then I strike.
The sound of my blade slicing through the vine is eerily like that of a knife through flesh. That’s my first thought. My second thought, as I plummet backwards toward the water, is, Whoops, maybe shouldn’t have done that.
Hitting the water flat on my back is, like they say, truly like falling onto concrete. There is an audible smacking sound as my body meets the surface, and a horrible pain, like my entire backside is being whipped, spreads to my every limb. I open my mouth to shriek in agony, but my cry is swallowed by the canal. I’m sinking, immobilized, every cell in my body howling in torment. My eyes are wide open, too frightened to close them, and I see everything around me as if through emerald colored glass—the shore sloping down to the murky depths beyond my field of vision, the twisting kelp-like plants brushing my arms as I sink down, the tiny, glimmering air bubbles floating out of my mouth and trembling on their way up to the surface. Everything is cold, like being submerged in liquid ice. Which, I guess, water technically is. Give me a break, I’m drowning here. Literally. Ba dum tss.
Oh, yeah. I should probably work on that.
I try to give a feeble kick, but my legs don’t seem to want to respond to my brain. A moment of panic strikes me, but is quickly numbed. Are legs really all that important, anyway? I remember that I left my braces on the shore along with my boots. So even if my legs were listening to me, they wouldn’t be doing me a whole lot of good, anyway. The thought doesn’t make me frightened or sad, like my mind is telling me it should. I just feel very drowsy and cold.
I close my eyes, blocking out the eerie emerald world. My lungs are starting to burn from lack of oxygen, but I don’t feel the kind of panic I probably should. I feel nothing but calm. And so, so drowsy. I open my mouth and let out the sigh I’d been holding in, one final, shimmering silver bubble making its perilous journey up to the surface.