Morning came, but brought no relief, only numbness. Lynn may have passed in and out of consciousness a few times – the light outside her alcove seemed to grow rapidly. If she did, she didn’t dream. Unless it was all a dream, a haze of terrible events, all blending together in her tired mind. Wouldn’t that be nice. Would explain how she ended up in an underwater coral cavern some crazy merfolk called home. Lynn tried to will the wavering seaweed curtain to dissipate, to turn into an actual cloth curtain on the wind, to wake up inside her tower, to hear the breathing of Tim and Eric instead of the omnipresent susurrus of the currents. No such luck.
Lynn blinked. Whether a second passed or an hour, she couldn’t tell. A face was looking at her from within the seaweed. Lynn jerked up and out of her corner, and the face was gone. Was that a dream?
“Hello,” she tried to call out, but it didn’t sound right. The word came out distorted, quiet, more air than sound. “E-oo,” she tried again. Stupid water. A giggle came from behind the curtain. Lynn scowled. Of course, of course merfolk laughing at her would sound just fine.
The face appeared again, a child, even younger than the twins. Lynn’s scowl grew angrier, and the child disappeared, frightened. Good. She didn’t feel like being a laughing stock, for merfolk or their children.
Glad to be left alone as she was, Lynn soon realised she’d have to go out of her cave. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s morning, and was even more thirsty than hungry. Somehow, drinking the sea water didn’t seem like a good idea, even if she could breathe it now. Lynn’s fingers found the water breathing amulet at the thought, checked the string around her neck. It would not be pleasant to lose it.
Lynn approached the curtain with trepidation. Who knew what waited for her on the other side. What scurrying things lurked within the curtain itself. She’d been marched down here so fast, she had no chance to look around. Nicholas lived here, but who else? Was that girl his daughter? Sister? Were there many merfolk out there, waiting to laugh at her?
Lynn pushed through the curtain to find none. Another room, larger than her alcove, much smaller than her tower. The ceiling curved unevenly, as did the floor. The corridors entering the room were sloped, two leading up, one down. It actually was an underwater cave, after all.
There was a table in the middle of the room, but no chairs. Instead, mysterious planks protruded from below it, too narrow and low to be benches. Strings hung from the ceiling above it, some with food items on their ends, swaying with the flow. At least Lynn assumed they were food items. With the exception of an apple, she couldn’t recognize any of them.
Another giggle sounded behind her, and Lynn spun clumsily, provoking more giggling. The annoying girl was there, poking her head out of a downwards tunnel.
“What?!” Lynn asked, and to her relief it sounded at least somewhat recognizable.
The girl responded with a series of clicks and flashing fingers, then giggled again at Lynn’s puzzled expression. She repeated her movements slower, fingers flowing into patterns and breaking up again, tongue clicks accentuating some signs. Lynn could only shrug.
The girl raised her hand palm up in a universal gesture that meant “stop, wait” and dove down. A short while later, two sets of clicks followed and Nicholas swam out, still groggy from sleep. He and Lynn exchanged angry glares.
Nicholas tried to communicate to Lynn in a similar manner, to which she responded with the only gesture she knew. Annoyed, Nicholas mimed his message: pointed at Lynn, then at the girl, then shook his head energetically as his hands drew a cross. “Stay away from the girl.” Or what, Lynn thought to herself, she’ll get her surface filth on the little brat? But she nodded in acknowledgement. Not like she wanted to spend time with her.
With the method for communication established, Lynn moved on to a more pressing need. She mimed an explosion coming out of her rear, and watched the disgust on the merman’s face with vindictive glee. He led Lynn through the downward tunnel, pointing at another seaweed curtain at its end.
“Drafty”, is the word Lynn would have used to describe the experience, had it transpired on the surface. There were two holes on the sides of the room near the floor, opposite one another. A strong current ran through them, sucking everything in the room down and out. Lynn wondered where it led, then realized she didn’t know where the sewers of the surface city led either. Some things were better left unknown.
When she returned to the living room, Lynn found the rest of the family gathered there for breakfast. In addition to Nicholas and the girl, there was an elderly couple, probably their parents. They had assembled around the table, their legs hooked around the protruding planks, keeping them from drifting away. “Clever,” thought Lynn, before correcting herself: “Stupid mermen.”
As she entered, the clicking, hand-waving conversation stopped, with four pairs of eyes staring at her. At least they weren’t laughing. After half a minute of awkward silence, the mother gestured for Lynn to join them at the table.
Something green, leafy, and wrapped in a net was placed in front of her in a stone bowl, and the conversation continued. Fingers flew, tongues clicked and glances were cast her way. Lynn picked at her food, feeling utterly alone. As far as she could tell, Nicholas was being berated for dragging her in. Not surprising.
The food tasted primarily of salt, or maybe that was just the seawater Lynn swallowed with it. Either way, she could only eat a bit. She tried to untangle herself from the not-chairs, bumped into the mother, then Nicholas, and finally was free, if red faced. Lynn tried to both apologise and thank them for the food, a gesture consisting in equal parts of a shrug, a nod and a spin (stupid water!). The girl giggled again, making Lynn turn even redder.
Not knowing what to do now, Lynn waited in the corner as the family finished their meal. The father, a thin, wiry man with short gray hair, ate quietly and deliberately. There was a rhythm to his movements, an almost mechanical precision: pull down a section of the net, tear the revealed food off, chew it five times, repeat. The girl was the opposite, surrounded by a widening cloud of food debri. Nicholas barely touched his food, but what he did eat he swallowed almost immediately. And the mother was in charge. At her command, the girl sat more still, Nicholas ate and the father participated in the conversation.
Lynn was surprised by how much she had learned about them by just observing the family eat, and also by how relatable they turned out to be. How human. Still, she reminded herself, they may well be just as human as they once were, as they claim they are, but being human has changed its meaning since then. To be human was to fear the dark, to not know when or how you’ll eat next, to huddle in ruins and not trust anyone. To not have a home, or a family. That’s what it meant to be human. Or at least to be Lynn.
The meal at its end, the merfolk family got up. There was something strange in the way the father moved, a bit lopsided. As he swam out of the dining room and past Lynn, she finally noticed the reason: most of his right leg was missing. Lynn gasped at the ugly scar poorly concealed by the trimmed pants, and got a withering glare from the legless father.
The day was starting, and the merfolk were moving around, embroiled in whatever activities merfolk engaged in during the day. Lynn floated, uncertain of what to do. No one was paying her any attention. She went back into “her” room to get her bag, then swam out. She wanted to get a better look at the cavern home. In the diffused light of day, it didn’t seem quite so magical. Instead of a glowing mountain it was a red-brown hill, with other red-brown hills here and there around it.
The father was out here, moving around with some sort of instrument, akin to gardening scissors. He moved his hand along the hill, occasionally snapping off a protruding piece of coral. That’s right, Lynn realised, the coral was a living thing, and it kept growing. She watched the father work for a while, an occupation he approached just like he approached eating, just like he approached most things, Lynn imagined. Row by row, from start to finish, even and dependable.
A short while later, Nicholas came out of the house, on his way into the Under Valenar proper. Seeing him, Lynn remembered just how desperately thirsty she was, so she mimed drinking from a bottle. It took a couple of tries, but he got the message. Nicholas waved for her to follow, and the two swam for about ten minutes, arriving at what looked like an actual mountain, barely covered by the waves. Nicholas swam down, so Lynn followed, to a grand ruined building at its feet.
It used to be a temple to one of the Old Gods. The dead and forgotten deities who failed to prevent the end of the world – or caused it themselves. It sat at an angle, having barely survived the sinking of the bay during the Last Battle.
Statues which used to guard the entrance, no doubt once fierce and awe-inspiring, now wore shoals of seaweed, warriors turned beggars by the fall of their god. Inside, fish swam between the magnificent columns, crabs scuttled across the intricate mosaic of the floor.
The temple may have fallen into ruin, but it still resisted the final collapse. Water couldn’t conquer it in its entirety. Much like the half-sunk tower in which Lynn was interrogated yesterday, the back half of the temple had air in it. Emerging from the water after Nicholas, Lynn looked around.
Similar glowing moss covered the corners and crept up the walls. Within its gloomy light, a lectern could be seen, cracked in two. None of the statues here had faces. The conquering army of Evil must have vandalised the temple. Except it had sunk during the sacking. Hopefully, they had the time, Lynn found herself thinking. The alternative explanation, that all the statues of saints and angels had their faces crumble to dust when their god died, was more disconcerting.
“There is water here,” said Nicholas pointing at a barrel behind the lectern, “For walkers who visit. You can come here when you need to, but don’t stay too long. The air will run out one day.”
Lynn contemplated sneering as a response, but deigned to say “thanks” in the end.
“I’m off to the Tidewatch, and will be back late. Don’t bother my family.”
“You’re not going to watch me? What if I escape?”
“Escape where, to the surface where you said the Beast waits for you? Either that’s true, and you won’t, or it’s a lie and we’d be wasting our time keeping you here. Please do, I’d rather get a chewing out from my officer than babysit you.”
“‘s true. And I ain’t no child in need of babysitting.”
“Then I will see you later tonight.”
With that, Nicholas walked down into the water without turning, causing Lynn to waste a perfectly good glare on his back. As soon as he was gone, Lynn rushed to the barrel, and drank until she washed the taste of salt out of her mouth.
Finally satiated, Lynn looked up just in time to see something leap at her, teeth first.