Authors: Leigh Michael
Of course, I found this door locked as well.
Two options remained: go back through the door I came from or go up to the next level. Thing was, I didn’t want to pass Adrian empty-handed. The look of broken expectation on his face eliminated that second path.
Shaking my arms, I gathered courage, and then swam in the direction of the floor above me. Ever so slowly, my head poked up until my eyes leveled the ground. I exhaled a breath I didn’t even know I held when I didn’t see another sprite.
The space around me mirrored the foyer below, except with different hallways to explore. Straight ahead two huge double-doors blocked whatever waited on the other side. Long corridors lined with more closed doors stretched far to my left, right, and behind me. They weren’t like the doors downstairs though. They didn’t look heavy. Rather, they appeared normal, like ones in any old house.
The foyer itself held a gray undertone. No pictures hung on the wall and, clearly, little attention was dedicated to decor. Even though the temperature of the water didn’t affect me, the blandness of the foyer left a cold sensation behind.
Suddenly, I heard an outburst of noise. My attention whipped to the right, my hair shifting to cover my face. Frantically, I cleared the stray strands from my sight as I peered down the long hallway. No one was there. I assumed the voices came from behind one of the closed doors. If my excited lungs didn’t relax, I wouldn’t be able to muster a single stroke in the direction of the sounds.
You could do this, Annabelle.
Adrian was trapped below.
My breathing calmed, steadier than before. I took one stroke, then another, the sounds becoming more distinguished each time I pushed the water behind. It revealed the barks, clicking noises, and squeals from encantado and selkie. The resemblance to Clemente and Shamus stung. I knew it wasn’t my friends. And I didn’t know what had happened to them… after we left them behind.
By the pitch and tones of the sounds, I’d bet money the mystery sprites were in the midst of an argument. One outburst overlapped the next, each sprite talked over the other, and the decibel level soared with each passing second.
Then, a loud crash escaped from the room. The strong voice of a man brought the chaotic chatter to a stop.
His voice rung out, instantly binding my limbs in place five yards from the door. It was the first non-selkie, non-encantado sound I heard.
It was a low, deep growl—one that came from the mouth of an authority figure. A male. There was no way to mistake it.
His next statement boomed out as a command, hitting me hard. “The chest has been opened. She no longer has value. Dispose of the girl.”
After the announcement, the dim from the room went silent.
From where I hovered in the hallway, I knew without a doubt, I knew I was that girl. The news of my impending death kept me frozen in place. I knew I should’ve fled. Two things were crucial to my survival: to find the key and to get the hell out of there.
But I couldn’t move. The panic that flooded my body paralyzed me in a moment of disbelief. Slowly, I pressed my hand to the olive leaf pendant around my neck in an attempt to quiet the seemingly audible sounds from my heart.
All of a sudden, the door swung open and I looked straight into another set of deep blue eyes.
Before I could react, I was thrown against the wall—an arm across my neck held me in place.
“Shh, don’t say a word,” I heard.
Trust me, I was too shocked, scared, and probably a handful of other emotions to scream. I faced nose to nose with a young mermaid probably half my size with golden hair tumbling over her shoulders.
With the use of her free arm, she pointed down the hallway before bringing her finger to her lips. I understand her meaning clearly: don’t dare say a word.
Her eyes stared intently into mine, until I nodded once, twice, and then in a hurried fashion.
Satisfied, she loosened her fare-skinned arm from across my neck and led me away from the room.
Every few feet she glanced behind her, only stopping once we safely reached the foyer.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered. “You are lucky they didn’t catch you.”
I looked back down the corridor then again at the young girl in front of me.
How could this have been?
My mind raced, my hands shook at my sides. Not from the powerful voice who sentenced me to death, but from the small girl mere inches away. Life had thrown yet another curve ball in my direction.
“Did you hear me?” she demanded, still in a hushed tone. “How did you get out of the dungeons?”
Instead of an answer to her question, I stared blankly back at her. I tried to piece together a response in my mind. Each time the words never left my lips. The girl watched expectantly, the twitches of my lips and eyebrows confusing her.
The question that eventually poured out was simple, straightforward. “Aurelia?”
It hit her like a violent wave. She rocked backward.
Shaking her head, she backed further away, her own face now ridden with confusion and surprise. “What did you just say?”
My next response came faster but didn’t help to ease the bewilderment of this poor girl.
“Your name. It’s Aurelia, right?”
She gasped at the sound of those three syllables. “How’d you know that? No one has called me that in years.”
“Your hair, your age, the shape of your eyes.” I paused for a moment, my face softened. “Adrian.”
Aurelia distanced herself again with a stroke of her arms. “That’s impossible.”
“My brother is dead. How dare you talk about him,” she contested, anger rising into her eyes.
“No, no, no. He’s not. I swear.”
“They told me they killed him after my capture… along with the rest of my family.”
My mind couldn’t keep up. Aurelia was alive after all those years, the Trackers deciding to hold her captive.
“Aurelia. I, um, Adrian is down in the dungeons.”
“What?!” she shrieked, whipping her focus down the corridor to make sure her outburst went unheard.
Then, she took off. In an instant she dove down through the opening, leaving me in the foyer alone. Once again I stood helpless to whoever stormed from the room.
Unsure of any other action, I quickly followed her. By the time I reached the lower level she disappeared through the first set of heavy doors with a large bang. There went my desire to stay incognito; Aurelia wasn’t worried about any noise left behind.
As I reached the same door, my eyes darted over my shoulder, exhaling loudly at the emptiness before I hastily opened it and raced through.
“Aurelia!” I called, also not bothering to keep my voice low.
She ignored me as she cut through that cellblock and dove into the next, barely squeezing through the crack she created.
Moments later, I threw open the last door myself. Adrian and Aurelia held each other in an embrace through the bars, both sobbing.
I instantly stopped in my tracks, bringing my hands to my chest and finding my necklace. It felt like I was interrupting a very private moment.
I didn’t have any instances in my life to use as comparison for what I witnessed. Blake’s betrayal now seemed insignificant, so trivial. I understood the comparison was like apples to oranges, but I couldn’t fathom the emotions that accompanied the thought of forever losing someone I loved, then for that person to be returned.
I wanted them to have that moment, but in the meantime, my head swiveled in all directions with the desire of getting the hell out of here alive and unnoticed.
“I really don’t want to intrude, but we just made a ton of noise. They’ve gotta be right on our heels,” I offered.
Ignoring me, Adrian and Aurelia exchanged whispers in a frantic conversation masked with tears. Each drop from their eyes added to the water around them.
I tried not to listen. Still, words of Adrian’s mother reached my ears. She had fallen sick only days after her capture. Aurelia could do nothing but watch as her mother grew pale and slipped away. Aurelia’s own life was only salvaged due to the fact that one day she could be of value. In the blink of an eye, her life once of luxury was transformed to that of servitude.
At the beginning, she wished for her own death. But as she developed into a young woman, she left behind her fragile shell. The Trackers were never the wiser. Aurelia’s stoic face never revealed how every moment she watched, listened, and learned from her enemies.
Leaning forward, the water held me in place. I tried again. “Adrian, we need to get out of here. Now!”
My words finally cut through as he tore his eyes from his sister’s. “Do you have the key?”
“No, I saw Aurelia and—“
Aurelia cut in. “I know where they are.”
“You do? Go get them!”
“Wait, no. Aurelia, it’s not safe,” Adrian said, grabbing her arm.
My eyes pleaded with him. “Adrian, we’re running out of time. We need her help.”
Before he could respond, Aurelia broke his grasp, leaving Adrian to stare at the bubbles she left behind.
I reached to comfort him, but I wasn’t sure he acknowledged either my hand or my words. “She’ll be right back, I’m sure of it.”
“I can’t believe she’s alive. My sister is alive,” he muttered, shaking his head.
Then he turned his tear-filled eyes to me.
“Thank you, Annabelle. You found my sister.”
“Well, she kind of found me,” I replied, a feeble attempt to lighten the mood.
Just then, the door flew open and Aurelia darted back into the room. She instantly threw the key into the lock and swung the door open.
“Let’s get out of here!” Adrian said, his fingers wrapping around both our wrists. “Which way?” he asked Aurelia.
She pointed to the other door and Adrian launched toward it, creating a triangle shape with our bodies as he surged forward.
Before I knew it, Adrian led us through two more cellblocks. As soon as we entered the third, I threw out my free arm, seeking whatever resistance the water provided.
“Shamus!” I said, twisting my head in the other direction.
They were both there.
Seeing them alive…
I didn’t think I’d ever lay eyes on Natasha and Shamus again.
Pulling my hand from Adrian’s grasp, I motioned to Aurelia. “Hurry! Unlock their cells!”
As soon as Natasha was free, I threw my arms around her. She felt stiff under the weight of my embrace, but I didn’t care. I needed to hug her for myself.
Then a fresh pang of guilt hit my insides. It wasn’t that we left them behind before. My guilt came because the thought never crossed my mind that Natasha and Shamus could be in the dungeons as well. When I pulled my arms away from Natasha’s neck, I avoided her eyes.
It worked out well that there wasn’t the time for words… or continued thoughts of self-damnation. Our group hurried toward the next door, Adrian leading the way once more. Once it closed at our backs, faint sounds of slamming doors reached us. The Trackers were in fast pursuit.
Without a fleeting look back, Adrian shouted toward his sister. “How much further?”
“Just ahead through those doors. There’s an exercise yard for prisoners.”
We burst outside. I blinked my eyes repeatedly, willing my vision to adjust. It took a moment for the random merfolk to take form, all scattered around the yard.
I didn’t know if they were innocent, guilty, or what. But I knew there wasn’t time to find out. I avoided any type of eye contact as we swam tightly knit right past. Some stopped, put down whatever they held, or sneered in our direction. I heard one call out, but I shielded my brain so no words would be understood.
While we raced from the building, it became clear that the yard wasn’t enclosed, just a wide-open space. Examining further, I noticed the prisoners had those same dog collars on their wrists that the hippocampus wore on their legs in Tritonis.
As I looked at my own wrist, I felt relieved that an unwelcomed accessory didn’t bind me. One by one I peered at my friends. None of them wore a bracelet, except for Aurelia.
“Faster!” Adrian’s gaze jumped from one to the other, making sure no one was missed.
But as we distanced ourselves from the area, Aurelia slowed.
Adrian’s head twisted toward her, eyes blazing. “Aurelia, what are you doing?”
She simply held up her wrist.
Now his face went pale, paler than usual. Uncertainty plagued his eyes as his hands latched around her wrist and pulled at the bracelet. It wouldn’t budge. It was a seamless metal and the red light on it blinked rapidly, signaling that she would get zapped if she went any further.
With a bang, the door of the prison burst open and two merfolk poured out.
“I won’t leave you!” Adrian insisted to his sister.
“Don’t be stupid! There’s nothing you can do. Get out of here!”
Hearing their exchange, the pain in their hurried voices made my head spins.
I could not, would not accept what this meant. Nothing about the loss of Adrian’s sister after he just found her was fair.
The gap the Trackers closed now measured less than half a football field away. Still, I stopped and shot back toward Aurelia as well, pushing the hair from my eyes. Adrian’s continued efforts to pull at his sister’s wrist didn’t make any progress. An anguished look crossed his face, but nothing else had changed. Without a single hesitation, I rammed my shoulder into Adrian’s, knocking him out of the way.
“Let me try!”
I didn’t know why I thought I’d be able to get the bracelet off. I wasn’t as strong as Adrian. But, I dunno, I felt compelled to try.
My fingers wrapped around the bracelet as I pulled. When Aurelia’s face scrunched in pain and a cry escaped from her lips, my hands jerked away.
There had to be another way. I willed myself to do something, anything to get it off of Aurelia’s wrist. The words in my head clouded my vision. The fact that it wouldn’t budge for me didn’t come as a surprise; it was the burning sensation in my hands that caused my eyebrow to rise.