Finally, she seemed to realize that I wasn’t getting whatever it was she was trying to tell me, because she gestured for me to follow her. I didn’t move. Everything that had happened since I left my birthday party caught up to me all at once, and suddenly I was more than a little stressed out. I needed to find Kona—if he was even at this strange underwater city.
And if he wasn’t—if he wasn’t then I was completely screwed. I had nowhere else to look for him. I would have to head back toward home and hope that I could somehow find my way.
But the mermaid—or whatever she was—wouldn’t take no for an answer. Instead of leaving me to look for Kona in peace, she reached for my hand. I yanked it away, but still she didn’t turn away—just reached for me again and started to tug me toward one of the caves I had noticed after my less-than-graceful entrance.
I wanted to resist, wanted to flee, but the part of my brain that was still functioning figured that following the one person or thing down here that actually acknowledged my existence might not be a bad thing. It wasn’t like I had such a great alternative plan going on.
Besides, I figured if she’d wanted to hurt me she probably would have done it already.
She led me over to what looked like the smallest of the caves. I have to admit when she started to tug me inside I almost lost it. After that last, harrowing descent into total and complete blindness, the idea of trading in the strange and beautiful lights of the city for another blackout did not appeal to me. At all.
But her grip had turned to iron around my wrist. Not going was obviously not an option, which annoyed me all over again. This whole lack-of-choice thing in my life was really starting to get on my nerves.
In the end, I went along without making too much of a fuss, unsure at that point of what else I could do. She led me through a dark and winding cave—room after room of low ceilings and narrow passageways. I’d never been claustrophobic, but after today I might very well have a number of phobias if I ever made it out of the ocean. Absently I wondered if the fear of turning mermaid had an official name, like agoraphobia or hydrophobia. Somehow mermaidaphobia didn’t quite cut it.
When we finally stopped, it was in a room with just enough light for me to distinguish that I was standing underneath a small, narrow, vertical passage. A very small, very narrow, very vertical passage.
“No,” I tried to say, backing away. But of course, all that came out was an odd gurgling sound as I swallowed a huge glug of sea water that left me gagging. The salt content was even higher down here than at the surface, something I might have found interesting if I wasn’t on the verge of completely and totally wigging out.
She smiled, tugged on my arm. I shook my head vehemently. There was no way I was going up that tiny little death trap. No way in hell.
Her eyes were kind and she nodded like she understood. I knew, deep inside, that she didn’t want to hurt me, but still I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
Stop being such a wimp, Tempest, and get your butt up here. Kona’s voice—rich and deliberately snotty—slipped into my thoughts like it had always been there.
For a moment everything inside of me shut down as I worried that I was finally losing it. That the events of the past two weeks had become too much for me.
Even so, his name was a question at the back of my mind. Kona?
Who else would it be? he demanded. His voice was weaker than it usually was, but it was definitely him.
Oh, I don’t know. How about a sadistic sea monster who seems to be doing her best to kill us both? I couldn’t help the sarcasm that leaked through.
Oh, right. He paused. Tiamat won’t hurt you here.
Is that her name? Tiamat? I racked my brain, trying to figure out if I had ever heard it before.
Come up and I’ll tell you all about her.
I stared at the narrow passageway with extreme consternation. Are you up there?
I am. His voice turned impatient. And tired—so tired. Come on, Tempest. Trust me.
Said the spider to the fly, I thought to myself, only to hear echoes of his laughter in the back of my mind.
I take exception to being referred to as an eight-legged, bloodsucking bug.
Yeah, well, spiders are insects, not true bugs. And if you don’t like it, then stay out of my brain.
But I was already inching forward, my gaze on the hole that was now almost directly above me. I wasn’t even sure how to get up there …
If I do this, I told him in the most hard-ass voice I could manage, you are going to owe me so huge.
There was another pause, this one longer than the first. Then, I already owe you huge. I can’t believe you came after me.
My cheeks grew warm despite the nearly frigid temperature of the water. Nice to know I could still blush twenty thousand leagues under the sea. Doesn’t this mermaid gig have any advantages to it at all? I wondered as I put my arms above my head and grabbed on to two narrow handholds on either side of the passageway’s interior.
Don’t be embarrassed.
Stay out of my head! I slapped the words at him as I pulled myself up.
There was just enough room for me to wiggle into the tubelike structure—and maybe enough for me to kick my feet shallowly. But my arms weren’t much use. They were still stretched above my head and there wasn’t room to pull them down to my sides.
I looked straight up, could see nothing but blackness above me, and felt my already shaky resolve weaken even more. That plunge downward I’d taken earlier had really messed with my head, and the idea of going back up in the same darkness scared me to death. Especially since I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to swim with such limited use of my limbs.
It’ll be okay. Kona’s voice was a soft, warm caress to my frazzled nerves. Do you trust me?
Do I trust you? I echoed the question incredulously. I had plunged into the icy Pacific after him, had followed him for what felt like days without having a clue where I was going. Had actually tried to become mermaid to get to him. I would have done none of those things if I hadn’t trusted him implicitly.
So do this, he said. This one last thing. I promise you, when you make it to the top you won’t be scared anymore.
Yeah, I’ll probably be catatonic. But I reluctantly shoved off. Just keep your eyes on the prize, I told myself as I made my way slowly through the odd tunnel. Or at least your brain on it, since it’s too dark in here to keep your eyes on much of anything.
I kicked a little, used my hands to scoop water, but it was slow going—at least until I was about seventy feet up the passage. Then I heard a strange, roaring sound—like the crash of waves on the surface—and a wicked, whirling current caught me and shot me straight up. Like an elevator at the Empire State Building, I climbed hundreds of feet—thousands maybe—in mere seconds.
The apprentice scuba diver in me was horrified, worried about surfacing too quickly without plateauing numerous times. All of my father’s warnings of the bends or nitrogen embolisms bombarded me.
You’re not breathing oxygen—or nitrogen. You don’t have to worry about that.
Right. Of course. I had gills. There was nothing to worry about, except whatever was waiting for me at the other end of this very kick-ass ride.
I’m waiting for you.
I tried to enjoy the experience, told myself it was just like one of the roller coasters at Six Flags. Except dark and closed-in and scary as hell.