Dove El-Shea sat at the edge of the water, waiting. She dangled her toes in the gentle waves, impatient for Joshua to arrive.
There was no guarantee that he would be there, but his owner typically sent him down to fetch fresh fish from the day’s catch whenever the boats came in. She wriggled anxiously atop the rock on which she sat, twirling a strand of her golden-brown hair around one finger.
Her heart jumped when she finally saw him, as it always did. He had the perfect smile, and he was always wearing that grin when she saw him, despite his circumstances – despite that awful sparkling collar locked around his neck that marked him as the possession of another.
It was wrong, but a lot of went on in the Kingdom of Seaforest, even in a town as small as Fisher’s Cove, was wrong.
They had not spoken often, but often enough for Dove to know how he had come to wear that collar, and often enough for her to desperately want to see him freed from it.
The only way that would happen was if he managed to work through his indentured service contract, his means of paying his debt to the kingdom for his supposed “crimes”.
Dove had committed some of those same “crimes” but was fortunate enough to have never been caught. The potential punishment did not stop her from using her Renegade magic. That was part of her heritage. It was her family’s legacy.
Dove was aware that Joshua would likely be an old man if she waited for him to pay off his “debt to the Crown” through his servitude. His kind aged so much faster than hers.
As an Aquatu, a coastal elf, she was not as long-lived as her other elfin brethren, but she would certainly outlive any human. She had other plans, however. She intended to buy his contract from his current master, and then she would be free to do with him as she pleased, including liberating him. She longed to see him free, and if she granted him such a boon, maybe he would be willing to show her his gratitude. Her pulse raced at the thought.
At her current rate of saving for this purchase, however, she would be an old woman herself before she could bid on that contract. Her trade as a pearl diver was enough to support her own needs somewhat comfortably, but there was rarely anything left to save at the end of the day.
She had a plan, however. It was a foolhardy plan, and she would be taking a chance that would cause the others in her line of business to question her sanity, but she was already mad for Joshua, and driven to go to extremes for him, if that was what it would take.
With a smile and a wave to the man with the sunny disposition, potentially her last to him, Dove slid into the water. She hyperventilated, making sure that her lungs were filled to capacity and that her blood was as oxygenated as possible, and then she went under.
As much as Dove loved basking in the sunshine on the shore, the sea always felt like her proper home. The colours below the surface always seemed that much more vivid to her than those on land, and she reveled in the feeling of the water rippling across her skin and teasing at her hair.
The slight webbing between her fingers and toes allowed her to propel herself along much more easily. She breezed past knots of coral, great swellings of sea sponges and the swaying fingers of sea anemones. This was her haven.
A few seconds later she found herself perched at the mouth of the underwater chasm that was considered to be off-limits to her kind – Kraken Chasm. Only the most experienced of pearl divers had ever returned from its mysterious channels alive, with stories of death-trap terrain and encounters with the most horrific of monsters.
A few of the younger, cockier divers, ones who assumed incorrectly that they had the skill to brave its dangers and had attempted the dive, had washed up on shore days or weeks later, their mangled remains bloated and chewed by tiny teeth.
A school of bright yellow fish with black stripes swept past Dove and brought her back to her senses. She had a limited supply of air, and she could not afford to hesitate or stop and contemplate. Fighting back her fear, for Joshua’s sake, she started into the chasm, pushing her way in with forceful kicks.
There was a purpose to this risk, and it was that purpose that emboldened her. The reason so many of the braver divers had bothered to venture into Kraken, was because of the treasures that could be found within. The ones who had returned successfully had been wealthy from that point onward, because of what they had brought back with them.
The prizes to be found, if you could beat Kraken Chasm, were often priceless in value. Dove needed something like in order to have any hope of a life shared with Joshua.
As she swam deeper into its shadowed interior, Dove came up in one of the chasm’s many air pockets. It would be a very long swim and one that she could never make without refreshing her air supply at every opportunity.
That was one of the tricks to actually surviving the trek to the very end of the series of underwater channels. Those who had been washed up on the shore in tatters may have drowned because they had chosen to skip a pocket for the sake of saving time, but Dove knew better. Slow and steady was better than bloated and blue.
Dove enjoyed the trip, despite the quiver of fear to her every movement and her constant awareness of the blackness of her environs. The tunnels were illuminated only occasionally by the odd phosphorescent morsel of ocean flora or fauna, offering their luciferin glow.
She had been traveling this way for almost an hour and a half when she emerged in an air pocket that was much larger than any of the others and oddly shaped, with unnatural lines, suggesting a man-made structure. Dove glanced about in the dim light, and instead of moving on, waited for her eyes to adjust to the soft bioluminescence around her.
She eventually noticed the opening at the far edge of the recess, clearly a portal, with an archway. This was no ordinary tunnel that had been eroded into the rock. Someone had carved this out with intent.
Dove moved towards the opening, mostly submerged in the water of the pocket. She made sure that her air supply was replenished, and then started into to the mysterious area beyond. The natural lighting from the sea life was more consistent there, almost as if designed to be that way.
The symmetrical designs that traced the stone walls of the tunnels that surrounded her spoke of ancient cultures. In some instances it was just geometric shapes embossed upon or carved into those walls, but on the rare occasion, there was a full motif of battle scenes, angry gods or groupings of lovers.
Dove wished she could stop and examine the age-old artwork, but time, and her air supply, were precious and could not be spared on such frivolous things. She had to keep to her specific objective.
Moments later, the tunnels opened up into a huge chamber, nothing like the tiny niches that Dove had encountered on her way in. As she splashed to the surface, the air around her echoed with every small sound and the phosphorescent glow was so bright that she could see into every crack and crevice, with little in the way of shadows.
She was surrounded by large bulbous shapes giving off that soft light. It reflected in the water all around her and the slight waves caused by her movements made the stone walls around her glimmer with gentle greens, yellows and oranges.
Dove drew in a sharp breath. This was not any ordinary chamber. The walls were lined with a grand mosaic, depicting the ancestry of some magnificent king, a king of an ancient race that no longer existed.
There were various holes and alcoves with platforms and shelves intended for storage, some of them embedded into the rock. Also in this elaborate hall, there were a series of pottery urns, large metallic cauldrons, and heavy rock coffers that dotted the edges of the room, some overturned and displaying their rich contents.
Dove had no doubt that she had found it – this was the treasury that had granted the prize to those who had come before Dove, those who had accepted the challenge of the Kraken and won.
Cautiously, she approached the containers spilled open and offering their riches to the outside world. She would have so much to choose from, and yet could take very little. Too much, and she would be heavily laden and unable to control her movements effectively when she swam, making the return journey more dangerous than the one that had brought her here. Too little, and she would not be able to liberate her Joshua.
Gazing at the gems and jewelry before her, Dove knew that she would have to select very carefully. She decided to take one larger piece of jewelry, but she was no appraiser. She was not capable of judging the worth of a diamond or the craftsmanship and quality of carefully worked precious metals. But there was one thing Dove knew for certain.
The moment her eyes settled upon the intricately detailed golden collar, she knew that it would be her claim. There were a series of opals, and what looked like might be rubies, interwoven into the filigreed body of the necklace, but that was not what had caught her attention. The main pendant, a bauble of massive proportions, was primarily fashioned from an enormous black pearl.
Dove knew pearls, and that monster would be worth a fortune. That would be the ticket to Joshua’s freedom.
Dove carefully pulled the treasure loose from the others that entangled it, and once it was sitting neatly in her hand, she slipped it securely into the pouch at her waist. She slid the small pack around to the back of her belt, so its bulk would be less distracting as she swam, and then she turned to leave again, taking many deep and hurried breaths.
That was when she noticed one of the luminescent bulges at the far end of the chamber begin to move. Not just any bulge, but the biggest one. With a jolt of fear rippling through her body, Dove splashed into the water, diving as deep as she could manage, and swimming as quickly as her tiring limbs would allow.
She did not look back until she had arrived at the original pocket that had led into the ancient treasury. The illuminate shape was far behind her and moving at little more than a snail’s pace, but something was definitely following her.
Her pursuer was immense, tentacled and glowing with a dim yellowish-green radiance, all things that made her skin crawl. Emerging into the empty space at the top of the cavity, Dove refreshed her air supply, and then rushed to start her journey back to the waters of the bay.
She had hoped that once she had left the area of the treasury, the beast would leave off his pursuit and she would be free to return to her home unhindered, safe and relaxed. This was not the case. When she reached the next pocket on her way back through the tunnels, she glanced over her shoulder.
It was still following, and while it continued to move very slowly, Dove could see that eventually, it would begin to lessen the gap between them. If she had a shorter swim, twenty or thirty minutes, it would not be likely to reach her, but in the course of the hour and a half trek that she had before her, it certainly would come close, especially if she dawdled.
Dove continued the same pattern on her return trip as she had during her venture into the chasm. She was careful to stop at every opportunity to refresh her air supply, but this time, two things were distinctly different. She could feel the slight pressure of her newest find resting against the small of her back the entire time that she travelled, and she was fidgety and nervous, aware that the unidentified creature was creeping ever closer to her with every stop that she made.
This knowledge made the return journey torturous and she was anxious to finally spot the end of the chasm and her escape route out to the light of day.
It was still a sufficient distance from her, by the time Dove reached the second of the last air pocket, that she was fairly certain she would leave the chasm before the beast would reach her. That was until her hasty attempts to escape the cavity resulted in her thrashing a little erratically as she kicked away. Shin met jagged rock, and the collision left her with a deep gash that started to bleed immediately.
As Dove exited back into the central tunnel, movement caught her eye, and not the sluggish gait that her pursuer had been exhibiting a few moments before. It moved now with heightened speed, breaking towards her in a watery charge. Startled, she launched herself in the opposite direction. The mouth of the chasm was not that far away now. If she swam with everything that she had in her, she might be able to get out before it could reach her.
The race for the bay was a blur to Dove, her heart pounding and her thoughts only of escape. She even did something that she never would have considered doing, under normal circumstances, and skipped her last chance at restoring her air.
Doing so would have meant certain death in this instance, and she was willing to risk the slight chance that she might drown versus the undeniable likelihood that she would be mauled if she paused for even a second.
It seemed like an eternity, and her lungs were burning, but Dove eventually caught sight of the light that marked the end of the chasm. The beast was still gaining on her, and had proved to be much faster than she would have imagined based on its original crawling pace.
With one final burst of speed, Dove finally emerged from the shadows of the tunnel and tore on out into the light. The sunbeams danced through the waters above her as she rapidly made for the surface, desperate to breathe.
So fixed was she on reaching that goal that she was aware of little else around her, not the branched pink and orange corals that surrounded her, not the silvery school of tiny fish that scattered upon her approach. Bubbles trailed from her mouth and nose as she cleared the last few feet.
Dove broke through the waves and was in the middle of taking a great gasping breath when something entwined about her ankle and pulled her under again, while she was in mid-gulp. Instead of drawing in air, the second half of her inhalation sucked in water. In a panic, she grabbed for whatever it was that had her bound, choking and thrashing about frantically.
Her webbed fingers met cold smooth skin, the surface of a tentacle with an unyielding grip, no matter how hard she punched and scratched at it. She caught the briefest glimpse at the creature attached to the tentacle, an enormous yellowish-green squid-like monster with a horrific beaked maw and a single violet eye. It dragged her down further, drawing her in towards its mouth.
Her lungs requirement for air unmet, Dove felt her mind blanking and her thoughts graying. She was seeing everything in a shadowy haze, when the faint glint of a knife blade catching the sun, a simple tool for filleting fish, flashed through the water before her. Then everything went black.
Dove roused to a terrible pain and pressure in her chest. Someone was leaning into her and there were lips resting upon her own, as someone breathed into her mouth. The lips pulled away for a few seconds.
“Dove,” a familiar voice murmured frantically. “Speak to me. Please, tell me you’re okay.”
Her eyes fluttered open, and she found Joshua’s welcome face a few inches from her own. His expression was despondent and his beautiful blue-green eyes sparkled with concern, but that changed in an instant, once he saw that she had come around. His entire face lit up with joy and relief.
The slave had watched Dove go underwater when she had departed for the chasm, but instead of returning to his master’s manor with the catch of the day, he lingered, hoping to speak with her if only for a little while.
He had become worried when she had not reappeared within a reasonable amount of time and had sat on the shore, anxiously awaiting her return. Joshua had remained there long past the point that he should have arrived at the Lord’s kitchen with his bounty, thinking that something terrible must have happened to her.
He had been too crushed by the notion that she was lost to him to consider the horrible punishment that he would likely suffer when he got home. This was truly fortunate for Dove, however, or nobody would have been there to rescue her from the chasm beast’s assault.
Dove wanted to respond to that inviting smile, but she felt too weak, at that moment, to even lift her head. She was forced instead to turn her face to one side as she coughed, gagged and spewed what seemed like half an ocean onto the pier beneath her. Joshua’s strong hands gripped her shoulders to steady her, an appreciated gesture. It was almost as appreciated as the sensation of the hard shape of the golden collar she had retrieved pressing uncomfortably into her back.
She shifted her head so that she was facing her savior, who still hovered mere inches above her. Losing all inhibition, and finding her strength again, Dove managed to raise her face so that her lips brushed his and then stretched even further so that they locked on his fully.
She was not necessarily expecting him to reciprocate the kiss, but suddenly she was in his embrace, and he was returning her advances with great passion. It made her toes curl and her skin tingle.
Dove celebrated inwardly, enjoying the warmth of his touch. She had braved Kraken Chasm and she had succeeded, just barely. Joshua would be hers. He would be free.