Mermaid Stories from Mermaiden Crystal
I sat with my back against the cold trench wall, studying the trails of molten lava outlining the enormous volcano before us. An overwhelming awareness of the ice coursing through my veins put me on edge. Trying to calm myself, I traced the fiery lines with my eyes and then quickly squeezed them shut to burn the image into my mind.
The next time I opened them, Obsidian appeared next to me. I tried to mask my surprised jerk by rubbing my eyes, but Sid smirked. “Why so tense Crys?” he took one of my hands in his and looked at me. “Don’t worry little sis, I’ll take care of you.”
“I’m not scared,” I said weakly, pulling my shaking hands back into my lap and glaring at them for giving me away. “I’m just a little nervous.”
Sid studied me for a moment before nodding and leaning back to let his head rest against the rock. “The worst part about a fight is always waiting for the first person to throw the punch,” he said in a way that instantly convinced me he spoke from experience. I stared at his profile for a minute, wondering when it was that my brother had begun to look so old. His face had changed so much and I hadn’t realized it until that moment. The rounded cheeks that I had known when we were children had given way to sharp cheekbones and a strong jaw. His boyish shoulders and torso were now broad and defined. Veins bulged in his arms and neck and his scales had taken on a lustrous new shine. How do we grow up without ever noticing it? I asked myself.
“It’s a good thing we’ll be the ones doing just that.” Zoey’s voice jolted me from my thoughts and called everyone’s attention to her as she stood. “Cal just informed me that now is the best time to make our move if we want to get inside the kingdom. The guards will be changing shifts soon and he knows a way that will lead us straight into a labyrinth of tunnels throughout the fortress.”
“Where exactly is the fortress?” I asked, squinting at the black heap of rock before us. It didn’t look much like a formidable kingdom to me, although the volcano itself was a sight to behold.
Zoey gave an unconvincing chuckle and then bit her lip nervously. “It’s kind of…inside.”
The silence was deafening while her statement sank in. Eyebrows furrowed in confusion, then slowly rose as understanding dawned. “You mean…inside…inside the volcano?” Jia asked, her voice sounding equal parts impressed and disbelieving. Zoey nodded solemnly. “Cal says it took years to hollow it out and many more to build the fortress inside, but it’s the perfect defensive location, which is what this kingdom was built for in the first place.”
Scarlet nodded thoughtfully and stared up at her long lost home with a certain respect.
“Now wait just a moment, lasses,” Brynn demanded, crossing her arms in front of her. “I don’t mean to put a damper on the adventure, but what exactly are we going to do once we get in there?” In unison we turned to look at Scarlet, who seemed uncomfortable at the sudden attention.
“Well, I suppose I haven’t thought it all the way through,” she said cautiously.
“Oh well that’s fantastic!” Brynn folded her arms and rolled her eyes, voice dripping with sarcasm. “What, you expected us all to just waltz on in and politely ask to be shown around?”
Scarlet’s eyes flashed in anger but, to her credit, she reacted civilly. “No, but what I do know is that there is a very evil witch sitting on the throne that belonged to my parents and, if there’s any way that I can stop her, I’m going to do it with or without your help.”
“We all made it this far,” Serena said stubbornly. “We’re not going to leave you and let you do this by yourself.”
Destiny put her arm around Scarlet’s shoulders. “Exactly. We’re here to help you however we can.”
Brynn groaned and nodded. “Alright, alright. I’m sorry lass. Let’s go beat the witch so we can help you take back your kingdom. Now does the fish know where he’s going or not?”
Excalibur, who had apparently been waiting for this moment, suddenly shot forward like a missile, leaving very little time for doubt. I hope we know what we’re getting ourselves into, I thought anxiously as I took off after Cal.
The base of the volcano was littered with crevices and uncertain terrain. None of us could have possibly found the entrance without Cal. The swordfish flew across the surface with unimaginable grace and when he finally dove down into the tunnel which would lead us inside, it took us all a moment to even realize where he’d gone. One by one, we eased ourselves in after him.
My eyes took their time to adjust to the darkness. I could only just make out the shape of Obsidian’s tail ahead of me, moving as little as possible to avoid beating against the walls of the tight tunnel. I grimaced as one of his tips caught my cheek, knocking my head against the cold stone to my right. A slight mumble marked his apology, which was followed closely by a hissed “Shhh!” from somewhere up the line.
The minutes passed slowly as we dragged ourselves through the long black labyrinth, our fingers digging into the stones searching for a grip to propel ourselves forward as we tried to move our tails as little as possible. I found myself wondering how Cal, a large swordfish, could have navigated these paths with such ease. Of course when he lived here he was probably much younger and smaller, I realized, feeling a pang of sadness for the grizzled old fish. I couldn’t imagine the sort of painful memories he was feeling just then.
Lost in thought, I was tugged back into reality by a cold draft of fresh water breezing past my face. The line took a sharp turn and one by one the tails ahead of me vanished. Just as Sid’s black fluke was disappearing from view, I twisted left to follow into a gap that I wouldn’t have seen if it weren’t for the tips of his tail sliding through. After a few more tight turns and dips, the tunnel suddenly dumped us out into a splendidly wide hall.
I breathed in deeply as the feeling of claustrophobia disappeared and the dim lighting restored my vision. At first glance, the circular hall looked a bit like my mother’s parlor at home, where she entertained guests. However as my eyes slowly adjusted, the room grew as cold, menacing, and unfamiliar as night is to day. Thin, fiery columns of what I only could imagine was lava from the center of the volcano lined the majority of the wall, with short breaks of black rock in between. My mouth dropped open in awe as I stared at the red hot bars, behind which deep pockets of blackness awaited.
“What in Poseidon’s name is this place?” I heard Brynn whisper as she paced the room slowly, staring into the shadows behind the fire columns intently. We turned to look at Zoey, who stood near Cal with the familiar expression on her face that told us she was listening to more than what was going on around her. As her unseeing eyes suddenly focused, she snapped back to life. “Cal says that this part of the palace used to be a small wing for guests, although it was usually left abandoned. He isn’t sure now what it is, but he suggests we leave before we run into any trouble. We don’t want anyone to know we’re here before we’re ready.”
As she spoke, my gaze wandered to Scarlet, who had been floating on my left, but suddenly was no longer there. I turned curiously to find her and was startled to find her hovering dangerously close to one specific set of flaming bars. I hurried over and put one hand on her shoulder to pull her away, saying, “Scarlet, be careful – those are hot.”
She shrugged my hand away without breaking her intense stare. “No, I can feel it,” she whispered as if in a trance. “I can feel his sadness…his loss. He lost someone he loved. He’s lonely now. He’s been lonely for a long, long time…”
A hush came over the rest of the group as Scarlet’s voice rose. I was unsure what to do, hands hovering close enough to pull her away if she tried to grab at the bars, but hesitating at the words spilling from her mouth. “Who?” I asked gently. “Who’s lonely?”
Deep and gravelly, a voice echoed from the darkness that Scarlet had been so intrigued by. It was an old voice, one that should have been strong and loud, but scratched from disuse as it was forced through the mouth of the speaker. “I assume she means me,” it said, accompanied by a dragging sound and the sharp clang of metal on metal. Within moments, a shape appeared behind the red hot bars, coming closer and closer until the hulking outline of a man hovered not a foot from us. His gray hair was matted and wild, the lines in his face intensified in the shadows drawn by the fiery light. A worn cloak was torn and hanging from what must have been an impressive frame in its prime, but was now skin stretched tight over bones that had been broken and never quite healed right. His eyes were squinted nearly closed and, each time he breathed, a shudder passed over his body and I was terrified he would fall onto the bars before him.
“How do you know about me, child?” the crippled old man growled. “Who are you?”
Before Scarlet could open her mouth, Cal was beside her, making a noise I had never heard before in my life. It was a sort of trill that started deep like a growl and rose to a high squeal. Twice more the swordfish made the sound and then stilled, leaving us all waiting anxiously. The old man froze, his eyes open and searching. His arms extended, coming dangerously close to the bars. “Excalibur?” his voice sounded hopeful and dubious all at once.
“Yes,” Scarlet answered in confusion. “Excalibur is here, but how do you know him?”
“He is an old friend of mine,” the man answered, eyes still darting back and forth. It occurred to me then that he was blind and suddenly I was terrified for him, afraid that he would fall forward and burn himself. Concentrating intently on the top of the bars, I slowly brought my ice down the columns. They hissed and popped in protest, but slowly the fire gave way to ice and within moments no barrier stood between us and the ragged man.
“What’s your name?” Scarlet asked, her usual tone of authority absent. In its place was a pleading, desperate hopefulness.
“My name is Caspian,” the broken king told us. “And I am the rightful ruler of this kingdom.”