The girl laughed. Her hand held up a small piece of shale, polished with a wet shine from years in the bed of the salmon river. Attached to it was a small chrysalis, perfectly formed and perfectly empty.
The woman looked over at her charge. The red sunhat she wore gave her skin the look of an overripe cherry, and her hair was a rather shocking blonde. She sighed.
"Not Mama, auntie."
But the girl had already moved on. She dived down into the clear waters and blinked her eyes open, bubbling delightedly at fish as they darted away. With a quick kick of her legs, she propelled herself towards a large rock and clambered up on top of it, leaving wet stains. She stood up and turned to face the sun.
The ruffled skirt of her swimsuit was off, Asha thought. And the mother- or was it aunt?- didn't even try to fix it. Even now, anything could happen to the girl and it would not be noticed for some time.
The girl looked to the woman once again. "I'm on top!" She said. "Top! Look, Mama!" She jumped on the rock to prove her point.
"That's very nice, dear."
The woman turned the page of her book.
Asha glared. Such a waste. The girl was so happy, so full of potential, and here her guardian didn't even bother to look up. If the child was taken, Asha doubted the guardian would even notice.
"Asha? Have you chosen?"
She turned towards her brother. He shrugged at her guiltily, adding "It's just, the council has been getting on my back about it, and..."
Asha returned to watching the girl. She blinked, slowly, and blew water through her gills. Her brother fidgeted next to her.
"So, should I tell them you're still deciding on someone?"
The girl slipped off the rock, only to find a crevice that would fit her tiny hands. The woman never looked up from her novel.
Asha leaned back on her elbows.
"No. I've made my decision."
"So... when are we going to invite them?"
Asha pushed herself off the ledge and turned towards Aldwin.
Sam had three main rules for herself: first, don't mess with alpacas (the incident with the seaweed was too horrible to remember as anything but a cautionary tale): two, don't mess with Mom's books (also an incident too horrible to remember): and three; don't do anything stupid.
She might have broken that last rule.
"Listen, I'm just saying, I only said I could swim through that tunnel. I didn't say I would." She said, glancing around nervously. The resultant jeers were a bit discomforting.
"Right. Got it. Going in."
She fiddled with the bottom of her shirt.
"Well?" One of the people she didn't know- some guy with a scruffy almost-beard and forearms as wide as her waist- pointed at the water. "You going in or what?"
"Oh! I'm going, it's just- I don't have a swimsuit, and-"
"Just go in your underwear!" Was the resulting cry.
It had been worth a try. Sam took a deep breath, then pulled off her shirt and shucked off her shorts. She turned back to face the group of sort-of-friends that she had come here with. "If any of you breathe a word of this to my mom, I will send your remaining body parts to your families in ring boxes."
Annabelle- who was supposed to be her best friend, the traitor- laughed and poked her in the shoulder. "Just swim! It's your nerdy talent, or whatever."
With a final glare, Sam faced back towards the river and did what she did best; she dived.
The water was clear and cold along her skin. She swam upstream for a bit, then poked her head out to gauge her location. Trees on left bank; check. Cheering mob of teenagers on right bank; check. Tunnel below; check. She looked downwards nervously. The entrance hadn't seemed as dark the last time she had looked, and there was an intimidating spike of sharp rocks that would be very easy to cut yourself on.
She pulled her head out of the water and looked one last time at the group of people on the shore. Scruff-beard looked like he was about to make a rude comment.
"What, did you just strip to show your tits? Cause you can come back to my place anytime to do the same!"
The sharp rocks were better.
She inhaled and plunged towards the tunnel. The sides loomed closer, and she adjusted her position slightly so she wouldn't be nicked by anything.
The tunnel, she had been told, came out onto the riverbed a few feet downstream. It wasn't supposed to be hard to make it through the whole thing. The only problem was holding your breath- and, of course, the supposed ghost that haunted it.
The ghost was the entire reason Sam had taken the dare in the first place. Scruff face and his cronies had been going on and on about it- some kid had disappeared or something?
Sam didn't put any faith into ghost stories, so when they had started telling her that no-one had ever come out of the tunnel since the kid had died- well. She could hardly be blamed for telling them it was complete bullshit, right?
Especially since Scruffy was so annoying. "You can't make it through the tunnel either!" and "Well, if you're so confident swim through it yourself!"
Fine then! She was swimming through it right now. She could even see the exit drawing closer. Take that, Scruffy. Sure, she was a little short of breath, but she'd make it-
THERE WAS A HAND ON HER ANKLE, SHIT.
Sam inhaled instead of exhaled. As the black spots crowded her vision- not cool- she only thought of one thing; Mom is gonna kill me.
Sam woke up slowly, blinking the sleep from her eyes as black rocks came into focus. Ok, fourth rule: don't swim through tunnels. Ever.
Her head was throbbing- had she hit it on something? she didn't remember that- and there was a depressing ring in her ears. On the bright side, not dead. Which was actually rather disconcerting. There was no way she could have gotten out of that tunnel to this place when she was unconscious.
Maybe it had been the same person who grabbed her ankle. Or she was crazy. Either was possible, though she was leaning more towards the crazy option. She didn't see anyone around now, so if they had pulled her up here they must have left afterwards.
She sat up with some difficulty. There were cuts all along her thighs and arms, and the friction of the rock against them was painful, though not unbearable. After sitting up, it was easy to see that the crevice she was situated on was actually quite small. Sam couldn't quite tell where the soft yellow light that illuminated it was coming from; it was reflecting off the water near the ledge, bringing everything into view.
Good job, Sam, now make a plan. She pushed herself into a more comfortable position and sighed. You're in some cave underground, in your underwear, covered in cuts. And you have no idea how to get out.
Her head thudded against the wall. "I'm so dead."
"Um, I... I don't think you're dead? Because you're talking, and I, uh."
"Ah!" Sam jumped at the sound of another voice, knocking her head against the wall. Ow. She whipped her head around to face the speaker as she brought up her hand to check for blood.
"Who are you?" She could see a figure in the water, but it was hard to make out her facial features.
"My- my name's Madeline."
That's when Sam felt the last of her sanity slip away. "Your name is what?"
"Madeline? But you can call me Maddy."
"You've got to be kidding me!" Sam waved her hands angrily in the air, finally settling on pointing at the girl. "I got attacked by a ghost?? You're not supposed to exist! This is ridiculous!"
The girl came forward, and yep. She looked like an older version of the girl who disappeared- did ghosts age? What did they eat? Did this one attack every swimmer or just- ugh!
"I, uh-" The girl looked very uncomfortable.
"And another thing! Why did you even take me here? And your answer better not be that I'm dead, because I have exams next week and I refuse to let death stop me!"
"I'm really sorry, it's just that-"
"Or are you just an actress? Did scruff guy hire you? I bet scruff guy hired you, didn't he? He's such a jerk! How much is he paying you!?" Sam was breathing hard now. "And why does he even care? I mean, who even enjoys this sort of-"
"Stop talking, and I'll tell you!" The girl- Maddy- shrieked.
Sam stopped talking. An uncomfortable silence settled over the cavern. Maddy was rapidly turning a red usually only seen on tomatoes. Finally, Sam couldn't take it anymore.
"So. Are you going to, uh. Tell me? Anything?"
Maddy flushed even more. "Oh, I'm so sorry! I was just caught up in thinking- well, I can explain now."
"So, uh- wait, before I go on, are you ok? Are you injured?"
Sam rolled her eyes. "What does it look like, genius?"
"I- sorry. I have some bandages, we can fix you up now?"
Wait, no. Sam could see her answers slipping away. "No! No, I'm fine. Explain."
"Ok. Uh, to start off, my name's Maddy! And I'm not a ghost, in case you were still, y'know, convinced that I was. Or anything." She gave Sam a hesitant smile. Sam gave her a stern glare in return and folded her arms.
"Moving on! I brought you here because I'd like to offer you an invitation! To become one of us."
"One of who?"
"What? No! I'm telling the truth!"
"Well, it's a pretty bullshit truth then! There is no way you're a mermaid, because mermaids don't exist! And even if they did exist," Sam said, looking at Maddy- who did, oddly enough, have her legs concealed in the water (maybe to make her lies more believable?), "Why would they live here? This is a small, sad, underground river!"
Maddy looked incensed. "Are you going to listen to my explanations, or not?"
"Or not! Listen, I don't care why you've decided to act crazy, maybe you have some disease or something, but don't drag me into it!" Sam pulled herself forward until she was almost touching noses with Maddy. "Take me home!"
"I thought it was an invitation!"
"That was a figure of speech, you don't actually get to decide!"
Sam slouched back. "Let. Me. Go."
"You're crazy! Let me go!"
"I'm not crazy!"
"Then prove it!"
"Fine!" and Maddy gave her this look, the kind that predicted murder, then hoisted herself up on the ledge.
That was.... not a pair of legs.
Sam found herself unable to breathe. She squeaked. "You're a mermaid."
"Oh, so I'm not crazy?" Maddy was still angry, obviously. Oops.
"Not crazy." Sam tried to calm herself down. There was- there was a reasonable explanation to all this, right? There had to be! Of course. "Explain. Could you. Please."
Maddy frowned and shifted, obviously uncomfortable on the rock. "It's a tradition. Among my people, I mean. My people being the mermaids. And, I guess humans too? Cause I used to be? And anyway, I can still change back, so it's-"
"You're really bad at this." Sam didn't understand anything. "Do you want to write it out on notecards first or something?"
Maddy blushed again. Sam was amazed that she had such a variety of expressions. "No! I've, I'll start at the beginning." She shifted again. "I'm gonna go ahead and change first, though. Wait a second."
She was rummaging around in a pouch that hung around her neck; Sam hadn't noticed it before, it was so small. She retrieved a leaf and swallowed it. Just as Sam was rethinking her decision that Maddy was sane, there was a flash of light- and there sat Maddy, with real legs this time.
No pants, though. Sam noticed. She would have felt sorry for Maddy, but she didn't have pants either. Note to self; ask if mermaids have clothes I can borrow.
"So!" said Maddy brightly, pulling on a swimsuit bottom (Sam had no idea where it had come from). "Explanations!"
"Yes, that would be nice."
"Well, to start off; mermaids are real."
"Kinda got that already."
Maddy leaned back on the stone and rolled her eyes. "Do you want to hear the whole story or not?"
"Sorry. Go on."
"Well, we're real, and we prefer to frequent underground rivers. Less pollution. You're currently quite close to where I live, the quartz cavern. It's a pretty big town, there are almost twenty of us."
Sam leaned forward.
"Yes, I know, not very big by human standards. Anyway, the reason that I've brought you here- it's a coming of age ritual, for us. We choose someone to turn. Into a mermaid, that is." Maddy shot her a nervous look. "Sorry for not telling you beforehand, it's just that I've seen you here, and I thought that since you liked to swim, you might want to be a mermaid, and stuff, and why are you letting me keep talking please say something because that's kind of a scary look in your eyes."
"You thought wrong, I don't want to be a mermaid, let me go home."
Maddy frowned. "I can't do that."
"Actually, you can. You just don't want to."
"No, I- I actually can't, you've already been scheduled and everything. You're becoming a mermaid whether you want to or not." Maddy looked nervous. "If it makes you feel any better- it's kind of fun being a mermaid? More fun than being a human, anyway."
"How would you know?" Sam asked. Then it hit her. She's the girl that disappeared! Well. I already thought that, but I also thought she was a ghost, so it still counts as a revelation, right? "You totally were kidnapped too, weren't you."
"I wasn't kidnapped! My mother changed me because she saw that my human guardians didn't care for me well!"
"Right. So she kidnapped you."
Maddy sighed. "Look, just... let me bandage you, then we can swim to quartz cavern and you can begin preparations for the ritual."
Sam shook her head. "Alternate idea! We swim out of here, then you go and tell your new mom or whatever that I died tragically or something and that you want a redo, and we never see each other again!"
"Please be reasonable!"
Sam backed away from Maddy. "I'm being reasonable!"
Maddy reached back into her pouch.
"What are you doing?!" Sam flattened herself against the wall of the cave.
The other girl pulled out some more leaves and crumbled them into her hand. Even as Sam tried to evade them, they hit her full on in the face when Maddy blew them towards her.
"I'm really sorry about this," Maddy said, as Sam's eyesight began to blur again. "It's just that I really need to turn you!"
I really need to stop passing out. Sam thought. The walls of the cave swayed- Maddy picked her up- and as they plunged into the water, everything went black.
"I just realized I don't know your name," said the dark shape at the foot of Sam's bed. She blinked her eyes open, and- yep. Dear Maddy, of the kidnapping mermaids. Apparently.
"Shouldn't you know my name already? With your magical mermaid mind reading powers?"
Maddy looked confused. "I don't have any mind reading powers. No one does."
"Sorry, bad joke." Sam looked around at the place she was in; it wasn't so much a room as another, larger and better lit crevice. Maddy was in a wheelchair, leaning forward nervously. Sam supposed that answered the question of how merpeople maneuvered on land.
The whole room was rather odd, actually; the rock it had been formed out of was some sort of white crystal, and it reflected the lamps- electric, Sam approved- off of every surface. It was bright enough to give her a headache. The only piece of furniture was, conveniently, her bed.
"So?" Maddy asked. "Your name?"
"Oh! Right. Uh." Sam made a halfhearted attempt to sit up. "I'm Sam."
"Short for Samantha?"
"No, just Sam." She shrugged. "My parents weren't too big on thinking of multiple baby names."
Maddy frowned slightly. "Right. Nice to meet you, Sam."
She stuck out a hand that was much too far away from the bed for Sam to shake.
"Uh, no, I think we're past that point now." Sam said. "Once you've kidnapped someone it counts as a formal introduction."
"I didn't kidnap you!"
Sam didn't deign to respond. Instead, she winced as her stomach gave a frightening growl. "So... what do mermaids eat, exactly?"
Maddy brightened, giving Sam a smile. "I'm glad to see you're starting to adjust! I'll go get you some food!"
She wheeled off rapidly, leaving Sam alone.
Right. Now's your time to escape, Sam thought. She swung her feet over the side of the bed and stood up, and- oh, wow. They had removed her underwear. Um. Shit. How am I supposed to get out of here when I'm totally naked?
Just as she had thought of a brilliant plan- that mostly consisted of it's better to be naked than dead- Maddy wheeled back into the room. There was a tray of oatmeal on her lap. Sam was just glad she hadn't been holding the oatmeal, because it would have been dropped.
Sam took a deep breath and tried very hard not to blush. Maddy had already lost her own battle, and was now going steadily red, her eyes looking everywhere but Sam's breasts. Sam appreciated it.
She darted back to the bed (such a sweet bed, with such lovely covers that covered how naked she was) and pulled the sheets up to her chin. Maddy made a noise somewhere between a sigh of relief and an embarrassed shriek. It sounded like a dying cat.
Swallowing hard, Sam gave an awkward smile. "Uh. Sorry about the whole, uh. Naked thing."
Maddy was now avoiding looking at Sam at all. "It's no problem! It's not like you have anything to be ashamed of, and oh god that sounded horrible, and I'm just going to leave this here, and I should also probably warn you not to escape because we will stop you and it won't be fun for anyone, and also you're going to get clothes soon I just forgot to ask the healer and I'm going to go now goodbye!"
She had been wheeling steadily towards Sam during her monologue; an impressive feat when she wasn't looking anywhere near the bed. Sam looked down at her oatmeal- by the time she looked up again, she was alone in the room once more.
Sam sighed. "If this is all mermaids have to offer," she said mulishly as she poked the oatmeal with the spoon, "I definitely have to get out of here."
It was once Sam had finished eating that the nurse- or healer? whatever- came with clothes for her.
"Yes! Clothes, the most wonderful thing, thank you." She said, looking up at the nurse- the woman was also in a wheelchair, presumably because she was also a mermaid. The nurse looked unmoved by Sam's exclamation of gratitude.
Sam held the clothes. She waited for the nurse to leave so she could put them on- the nurse didn't leave.
"Well?" snapped the nurse. "Are you going to put them on or not?"
"You're standing right there..." Sam said, fiddling with the shirt. Was nudity regular for mermaids? Maddy certainly hadn't seemed used to it, but then she didn't seem like she would be comfortable around anything.
The nurse sighed. "I will turn around, and you will check if the clothes are acceptable. Yes?"
"Yes." Sam waited until the nurse was completely faced away from her, then slipped on the clothes as fast as she could. They were a fairly loose fit.
"I'm finished, you can turn back now."
The nurse spun her wheelchair around, and then inspected Sam. "Well. It's acceptable."
Sam stood there awkwardly. "Uh. So what do I do now?"
"You go find Madeline, obviously." The nurse waved her through the door. "And I don't want to see you here again, you hear?"
As Sam walked along the hall, she could hear the nurse mutter "too old to be getting out of the water all the time nowadays..."
But Sam was too preoccupied with the hallway to listen. While the crevice that she had been staying in had been covered in crystal, this was beyond that. There were massive spikes of clear stone- one of them made the floor, and others made doorways. The entrances, however- they weren't to more floors. Instead, they all lead to small streams, big enough for an adult to swim through. Some of them must have been more than nine feet deep.
Maybe if I follow one it'll let me out, thought Sam, but it might also kill me, so. After a moment of deliberation, she made the executive decision to actually do what the nurse told her to and find Maddy. Right after she looked down one of these tunnels. (or three.)
Maddy hadn't ever kidnapped someone before. In fact, she told herself, worrying her lower lip with her teeth, I haven't kidnapped anyone now. The girl- Sam, her name's Sam- doesn't count.
Maddy stopped flitting about the cavern for a second and considered this. But what if it doesn't matter who I sort of kidnapped, she thought, resuming her laps around her room. What if what she thinks about it matters! What if I'm a horrible person with no heart and I deserve to die!
She took in a gulp of water and felt it pass through her gills. It didn't help.
"I am a horrible person!" She fretted, wringing her hands and swimming even faster. "And I bet she's left now, and I'll never graduate, and I'll be stuck as a senior forever!"
"That's a bit of an overreaction, sweetheart." Her mother swam through the doorway, her expression calm as always. Asha perched on a ledge on the right side of the room and patted the space next to her. "Why don't you tell mother all about it?"
Maddy sniffed. It was horrible to cry underwater, she reminded herself. Never worth the emotional catharsis. "Okay."
"Now," her mother said, stroking Maddy's hair, "whatever is the matter?"
"My recruit doesn't want to join! And she said that I kidnapped her, and I kind of did- and- and I accidentally hurt her when I took her down here and she's going to hate me forever!" Maddy said, giving up on the battle against her tears entirely.
Asha patted her on the back and frowned with sympathy as Maddy cried into the water. "There, there, honey. It can't be as bad as all that."
"But she really hates me!" Maddy wailed.
The older woman hesitated. "Well, yes, she probably does. But on the upside, you will have at lease twenty years to turn her around to your point of view." Maddy only sobbed harder. "Don't you remember how unhappy you were when you first came here, dear? We can simply take her to the healer like we did with you."
Maddy looked up. Her cheeks were stained with tears. "Really? And the healer will make her feel better?" She couldn't actually remember her own visits to the healer- only a profound sense of unhappiness before and unbridled joy after.
Asha smiled and nodded. "Of course, anything for my little girl." She hesitated, then went on. "Now, how about we go eat some dinner? It's getting quite late."
Maddy stopped mid sniff. "What do you mean? How late is it?"
Her mother checked a timepiece. "Eight at night?"
But before Asha could ask why the time was so important, Maddy was gone, her parting cry of "I forgot about Sam!" the only goodbye she could think of.
We've only known each other less than a full day and I've already messed things up, she thought miserably. Sam's probably already left.
Sam was lost. Sam was so very, very lost. She had been a bit confused before now, of course, given that none of the merpeople seemed to use signs; but she hadn't been truly lost until she had made that turn a few hours (was it hours? she couldn't remember) ago.
She tried to think logically. She could find her way out of this! She could find her way out of anything! Maybe she would conveniently look around that corner and she would find her way back to the medical room! Or she would see Maddy! Or she would end up back in the river!
She looked around the corner.
There was nothing.
"I am so doomed," she groaned. She treaded water in the middle of the channel, hoping that someone would show up and show her the way to- to wherever she was supposed to go.
She waited for Maddy to appear. Nothing happened.
With a sigh, Sam rolled onto her back and floated, frowning slightly. Were all mermaids blessed with magical location abilities? How did they find their way around? Were they telepathically connected so they never got lost?
"I do not want to become part of a hivemind." She said decidedly. Then, after a moment of thought, "I could probably be convinced to join a hivemind. Depending on the benefits."
"What?" Oh, there was Maddy. Her eyes were strangely bright, and her nose looked stuffy. With a sniff, Maddy swam forward. "You never make any sense." she said miserably. "Come on, we have to get the initiation started."
"Are you sick?" Sam was fairly tired from all the swimming at this point, but she refused to admit any weakness. If the weird mermaids could do it, she could too.
Maddy sniffed again and avoided eye contact. "It's nothing. Let's go."
"Is this about the notecard comment? Because I'm usually nicer than that, I swear." Sam caught up with Maddy as they swam forward. "And the hivemind thing isn't really negative, it's more like it would probably have its ups and downs, and I've seen enough sci-fi movies to know it wouldn't turn out well."
Well, if that was the way they were playing it, Sam didn't see any need to try to smooth things over. She hadn't even done anything wrong!
"We're here. Go straight in. The elders will help you prepare for your initiation." Maddy was still avoiding eye contact.
Sam hoisted herself up onto dry land. Her legs were wobbly after doing so much swimming. Shivering slightly, she moved towards the lights she could see at the end of the passage. "How far does this go?"
She looked back. "Maddy?"
There was no one in the water. She was, yet again, alone.