We had nearly reached our destination when I began to feel the familiar heavy presence of Cal weighing on my thoughts. He appeared at my side, menacing yet comforting all at once. His deep voice reverberated through my mind almost like an echo.
“Princess, this terrain is becoming familiar. We are nearing the chasm into which my old home sank. I worry about what we may find on our journey down to the Mariana Kingdom. The enchantress holds incredible power over her victims and I am certain she has not left the entrance to her lair unguarded. The path will not be easy.”
I swallowed hard at the thought of facing whatever loomed in the pitch black of the enormous chasm. “Any helpful advice you could give us on what to expect?”
“Calisto demonstrated the strength of her power through her control over the Great White Shark. I presume that she will try to keep her army hidden for as long as possible, so she may send us some of her mindless creatures to try to turn us away. I do not believe she knows exactly who she’s dealing with as of yet so we may still have the element of surprise on our side. If she doesn’t know that you are with us, Princess, then her hold on her pets will not be as ironclad and you will have a better chance of breaking the bond between them. Do you think you can manage that?”
Just the thought of the oncoming mental battles was exhausting, but I nodded. “I’ll try.”
“We’re here.” With that Cal’s presence quickly slipped away and I was left feeling much lighter. It didn’t last long, however. As we drew near what I had previously seen as a thick stripe of black sand, my stomach dropped. The sheer size of the chasm was overwhelming; it seemed to stretch on forever in either direction. A silence, broken only by small gasps of awe, settled on us all as we stopped at the brink of what looked like a fracture in the globe. The pure black abyss extended as far down as I could possibly see and it appeared to grow deeper before my eyes.
“What do you think lives down there?” Crystal whispered, voice shaking.
“Only one way to find out,” I said sounding much more confident than I felt. With a nod at Brynn, I moved closer to the edge and watched as a large orb of light fell from her fingertips and lit just a small portion of the cavernous darkness below. Something flashed at the edge of my vision, fleeing back into the shadows. With a deep shaking breath, I led the way and we started our slow descent into the Mariana Trench.
The deeper we swam, the stranger everything became. It was like we were dropping into a whole other world, one filled with bizarre creatures and even more peculiar plants (though the vegetation seemed to grow more sparse the further we descended). Luminescent mushrooms littered the walls of the trench and dark tangles of black seaweed reached toward us from every angle. Down, down, down we swam. Every once in a while, some strange creatures would make an appearance at the edge of our sphere of light but they rarely stayed with us long. Most of our encounters were brief and harmless… so far.
Suddenly, an odd flat fish detached itself from the trench wall and swooped at Destiny, making her scream and Frank nearly faint. We continued on. Then a sly little jelly slid past our group and gave Serena a tiny shock at the last second before quickly disappearing. On we swam.
Out of the darkness two slimy eels slithered up Obsidian’s tail and crossed themselves over his chest. He couldn’t break free until he heated his skin enough to make the water against it boil. And just as we began to think we had seen the worst of the lot, the creatures grew even larger and more ominous.
One such monster scuttled out of the shadows just as Waverlee turned to ask how much further (for the seventh time). It looked like a sea spider crab, only I’d never seen one so huge before! The creature’s pinchers were extended out before it, reaching for Waverlee. Its beady eyes caught mine in an evil stare and from one glance I could tell that it had an agenda that I didn’t want any part of! Its gaze shifted and then whole body flashed toward Waverlee. The monster lunged and, to my horror, I was only just able to catch the slippery ends of its mind in a desperate throw of my power. Once I caught hold, I thrust into the monster’s thoughts and blocked his attack. Waverlee, who turned just in time to see the next of the spider-like crabs enter our sphere of light, reacted faster than anyone else. A powerful wave flew from her hands as she punched the water and sent the horrible beast thrashing back into the shadows with a chorus of angry clicking.
“Look out!” Crystal cried, pointing behind me with an ice-tipped finger. I ducked just in time to avoid a razor sharp icicle that flew over my head and shattered against yet another of the gigantic spider-like crabs. They seemed to be coming from every direction now. We instinctively formed a tight circle around Jia and Scarlet, who were still weak from their encounter with the Great White.
Obsidian’s searing heat drove off some of the monsters, while Crystal’s ice froze others in their tracks. Brynn’s light was blindingly bright, especially to the beasts whose eyes were well accustomed to the dark, and Serena added to the confusion with sudden bursts of color that helped to hide us from our attackers. My head felt like splitting open as I repeatedly grabbed hold of the mind of the nearest monster and forced it back. Their barriers were so fragile, I felt a stab of guilt when I easily tore down their defenses. But I had to protect my friends!
Within seconds, the short battle was over and the stream of monstrous crabs slowed to a trickle. As Obsidian beat back the last of them with a wave of heat, I surveyed the scene to make sure everyone was unharmed. “You all alright?”
“I think so,” Brynn answered, breathing heavily from the excitement. There was a slight pause as we all stared forward, fighting the urge to flee yet unable to summon the courage to plunge back into the darkness.
“Well? Don’t just stand zere!” Frank’s narrowed eyes were the only visible part of the cranky crab among Destiny’s curls. “Ze crab does not want to be here when those filthy creatures return to eat us up! Get moving!”
Destiny sighed in exasperation at her little friend and flicked him once, much to his annoyance. “I guess Frank’s right,” she said as he burrowed farther into her hair, apparently deeply hurt. “We should start moving before those monsters come back.”
Brynn nodded once and then took the lead, holding her light high and steady. We moved in a tight pack, a difficult feat with our tails constantly bumping one another. The shadows on the walls of the trench, crooked and uneven, did nothing to help our nerves. Even worse, an eerie hush had come over the trench, like somehow it was aware of our presence and none too happy about it. Defying logic, the water even seemed to grow warmer the further we swam into the deep, desolate darkness.
It felt like we were swimming for days but there was no way to know for sure how long we had been moving until we began to see the trench widening and, in the distance, small lines of red light slowly emerging from the darkness. They intertwined with each other as we drew closer, like a map marked in flames. My eyes were glued on those red rivers of light and a daunting idea of what they might be started to form in my head. When finally the steep black outline became visible, backlit by scarlet light like a scene out of a nightmare, I stopped dead in my wake. I felt Serena stumble, trying to stop in time, but I hardly noticed when her forehead collided with the back of my head. The others had paused as well, squinting and gaping at the hulking mountain of rock and lava before us.
Waverlee gasped slightly, “Holy Poseidon, is that a…”
“It’s a volcano,” Jia’s rasping whisper finished the sentence quietly.
Cal’s words resonated so powerfully within my mind, my mouth opened to speak them. “Welcome to the Mariana Kingdom, the Fortress of Fire.”