The smell of rotting fish hit his nose. The pirate sputtered and coughed himself into consciousness. He thrashed, his hand instinctively moving to his side, to where his sword should be. Gone.
All he had on him were his trousers and his boots… and the hand-me-down belt he’d had to twist into knots to keep on himself. He checked one other place quickly and breathed a sigh of relief — his notebook was still in his possession.
The pirate dragged himself onto unsteady feet. He covered his face, the smell of the fish swiftly overwhelming him. As his eyes adjusted to his surroundings, however, his arms fell to his sides and his mouth fell open in wonderment.
He had been in sea caves before, but this wasn’t an ordinary cave. It had one entrance: a fathoms deep pool, about a foot to his left. It was so unearthly still, it seemed like a mirror. Bio-luminescent algae covered patches of the walls, while large jars and basins held jellies and slugs that writhed behind the glass. The pirate saw a lantern had been placed next to where he’d rested, and upon closer inspection, he realized it was full of wiggling glowworms.
The rest of the cave, meanwhile, housed a literal treasure trove. It was a grotto where an unspeakable assortment of items (waterlogged nautical flotsam and jetsam mostly) had been lovingly placed onto craggy outcrops and broken stalagmites.
Everything fit perfectly where it had been situated, as if the spot had been carved out for it specifically. Though, that didn’t mean it was in any logical order. It was as if the collector didn’t understand the real purpose of those items. The pirate spotted a spyglass and a porthole next to each other, for example. They complimented each other greatly, though the only thing they had in common was the glass they were made from.
The pirate shivered, still wet from his time in the drink. As he studied the assorted items, he stumbled over a loose rock. He caught himself on the cave wall, letting out a curse when a slick, hidden edge sliced into his right palm. Looking at it, he felt more panic than such a small cut allotted for.
Suddenly, the grotto didn’t seem so wondrous. The pirate cursed again as he realized the only way out was to sink into that mirror-smooth water. Biting his lip, he leaned over the pool, looking down into the brine. He smirked.
“Hey, I know you’re here somewhere, or you wouldn’t have left the kettle on for me,” he gestured over towards the lamp filled with glowworms that illuminated the cavern.
There was no response. The pool didn’t as much as ripple. The pirate shuddered again, and hugged his elbows. He took a step away from the edge.
“Yeah, alright…” He looked around himself again. The dim light of the glowworms and bio-luminescent algae on the stalactites above, told him that there must be a tide here, and the popping in his ears told him he was already fathoms below the surface. If he stayed too long, he would drown. If he tried to swim away he’d never make it to the sky. He cleared his throat.
“Maybe I’m dead,” he thought aloud. “These are the deadlights, huh? Thought they’d be more majestic. Less… made out of bugs.” He sighed.
“You going to give me passage to the other side? Because my earrings seem to be missing. Did you take them? Pure gold. Course you did.”
Still nothing. The pirate felt a tightness growing in his chest.
He laughed it away, or at least he tried to, hoping to feign a sense of bravery he didn’t feel.
“Come on! I don’t have anything else on me!” His voice cracked from the growing panic in his gut. “We were just trying to get our things back! You have any idea how many of my crew mates your lot has killed?”
As silence greeted him for a third time the pirate yelled out, frustration overtaking him. He grabbed the item closest to him— a simple glass bauble — and chucked it into the pool, the smooth mirror acting as the origins of his frustrations.
As he watched it splashed and ripple, the pirate slumped back down to sit by the edge of the water. He wiped his face and took a deep, calming breath before lying flat on his back, the dramatics relieving some tension. He spoke again, resigned.
“The Captain is going to kill me if I come back empty handed. I really am dead. Might as well just stay here and save Davy Jones the trouble.” The pirate’s gaze went to the pool, which had quickly regained its calm appearance.
“I can see your eyes down there, you know. They glow.”
There was no response, but a second later, the bauble he’d thrown into the pool arched its way back up through the water and into his lap. He sat up and chuckled.
“Good aim,” He turned the bauble over. “I’m sensing a pattern, I think. You like shiny things. All mermaids do… You’re like a little flock of sparrows. Or this nymph I knew once.” He smiled at the memory.
Finally, slowly, his savior and, seemingly, captor emerged from the pool, though only up to the eyes, long dark hair spreading out across the water.
“Ahoy there, Glowworm,” the pirate extended his hand to the mermaid in the pool, “Name’s Keahi. To whom do I owe my life?”
With a tilted head, the mermaid came out of the water just enough for Keahi to realize his mistake.
“Oh, merman, sorry. I didn’t know they had those. Guess I should have figured.” He finally lowered his hand since the aquatic resident didn’t seem too interested in reciprocating.
Met yet again with silence, Keahi let the awkwardness stretch out until it was as thick as the humidity in the cave.
“So…” He huffed, “Are we squared away? After all, we were just trying to get our gear back.”
The merman’s eyes narrowed, seeming to contemplate this second question. He moved silently through the water his lavender eyes reflecting against the mirror-pool. A minute later a look of… consternation and frustration crossed his face. Finally, he opened his mouth.
“You can’t hear me,” the words were whispers — a song, flowing like the water itself.
Keahi blinked at him, giving out a sharp breath through his nose.
“I… I can now.”
That same look of concentration passed over the merman’s features. He rested his arms on the ledge of the cave, an inch away from Keahi.
“But not the way I’m used to,” he said. “What was your question? From before? It won’t stay in my mind. You’re not asking it right.”
Keahi cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. His heart was pounding in his chest. He wasn’t sure if he liked the way this merman could make him feel.
“I’m not? Okay… I’ll work on that. I… I only asked if there were no bad feels between us…”
“Bad feels,” the merman repeated, and there were another few seconds of deliberation. “Considering my sisters killed all of the others, no. No bad feels left.”
Keahi’s smile disappeared.
“Right. Yeah. About that,” he looked away. “Why… I mean you saved me, didn’t you? Why bother?”
The merman’s head tilted again. His eyes seemed to be scanning over Keahi. He lifted a thinly webbed hand, the salt water dripping onto the cavern floor. He reached for Keahi’s right arm, the one that he had cut on the wall earlier.
“There’s something different about you.”
There was a second of electricity between them, but then Keahi snatched his arm away, trying to seem casual about it. He offered a lopsided grin and shrugged.
“Not really. Nothing I can see…”
“But there is,” the merman responded. “What you can see of it is of little concern.”
Keahi didn’t mind the words but the look the merman returned made him shiver, as though he was regarding Keahi as an exciting new prize to place under the lagoon’s rainbow, or perhaps to just keep here in this grotto, high tide be damned.
“That’s great, Glowworm, but when do I get to go back to my ship?”
The merman hummed a sick melody, then quickly slipped back underneath the water. His eyes seemed more intense in their luminosity.
“In the morning,” he whispered above the still pond. “My sisters are eating now. And you wouldn’t want to interrupt them.”
Keahi was suddenly very aware of the headache he still had, as well as the sting of the salt water in the gash on his forehead. He’d thought it would be much worse than it currently was; at least based on the few seconds of the “fight” with Glowworm’s sisters he remembered before slipping under the lagoon’s waves.
“Point taken,” he put a hand to his forehead. “Did… did you patch me up some?”
The response was a deep blush that turned the skin under the merman’s scales from a rosy pink to a salmon color. Keahi took it to mean yes. He smiled at him, his eyes softening.
“Well. Thank you for that, Glowworm.”
There was a deeper blush as the merman looked away. “Not Glowworm. Vorca,” he offered and Keahi nodded in acceptance.
“Vorca. I like it. Thank you for saving me, Vorca.”
Vorca gracefully moved back to the edge of the water to be closer to Keahi. “I couldn’t fix your arm though. What did you do to it?”
Keahi’s eyes went wide at that and he laughed, again trying to trick himself into being brave.
“What? My arm. It’s… just a scratch. My arm is fine.” The bandages he usually wrapped around it were, of course, gone from his run in with the mermaids. He looked down at his hand again.
A pattern swirled like liquid moonlight right beneath the skin on his palm, so close to the surface it could be seen, like a vein or a bruise, but seeming to move with its own sentience, its own purpose. Keahi had no idea what that purpose was and he had no interest in finding out.
“It’s not,” Vorca mused. “What’s wrong with it?”
Keahi let out a breath and he shrugged. “Just a curse. Pirate’s hazard. I haven’t told anyone. They’d feed me to Tick Tock for sure,” he made a humorless noise, knowing it was true.
Vorca took Keahi’s hand again, and this time Keahi didn’t pull away, though he felt caution rising up from his throat. He didn’t want this merman to contract whatever it was he’d been cursed with after all the trouble he’d gone through to save him…
Vorca, to his credit, didn’t seem afraid in the least. Maybe he was too naive, or maybe he’d had practice with these sorts of things. Perhaps both.
He looked at Keahi’s palm, running a finger slowly across it as though doing a reading. His face contorted like he was trying to interpret a very fine print.
“I’ve seen this before…”
Keahi perked up, “You have? Where?”
“I don’t know,” Vorca slinked back into the water, away from him. “But it makes the air taste like death…”
Keahi’s shoulders fell quickly, “Yeah, that’s what I figured. Nothing like this ends well.”
“Maybe. But you–” Vorca started, but then he froze and his eyes darted around like he was trying to pinpoint the location of a sound. Keahi hadn’t heard anything.
“What is it?” he asked.
Vorca put a finger to his lips and then slowly sank back down under the water.
Keahi watched and then pulled himself away from the edge of the pool to the relative safety of the back of the grotto where all of the items were. He wasn’t certain where Vorca had roamed off too, but he didn’t like being alone again, especially if he was unarmed and there was possible danger around.
He grabbed the lantern stuffed full of glowworms. His first thought was to go through the piles of items around him for a weapon, but there was no rhyme or reason to them. He blundered through a few piles, but most were just items salvaged from ships very much like the one Keahi himself belonged. There were items Vorca could have only found in the ocean as well, perhaps things from beyond even the Neverlands.
For all of the teasing he gave to the merfolk for their magpie-like tendencies, things that shimmered and glowed had always caught Keahi’s eye as well. There were pearls and gemstones, coral and aquamarine, as well as a few jars full of dark liquids and swirling masses made him take pause, despite the danger he could potentially be in.
The mesmerizing nature of the jars almost hypnotized Keahi from his real mission to find something to defend himself with. It took him longer than it should have to find the stack where “Things with Sharp Edges” had apparently been the qualifier in assembling it.
He came out of the pile with a polearm, but not before knocking into the surrounding piles. He cursed and tried to put the items back but suddenly his face felt itchy. He scrunched up his nose before a huge sneeze echoed throughout the grotto. His eyes widened and he clasped his hand over his mouth, cursing himself that he’d just done something so idiotic while trying to be stealthy. He tried to replace everything once again but his body rebelled, trying to sneeze once more. In efforts to stop himself, he contorted, bumping into a stack of treasures. He watched through watering eyes as the baubles rolled into the mirror pool and disappeared into the fathoms below.
He stared. He was a literal walking human disaster who was so obviously cursed. He hoped those items wouldn’t be missed as he watched them sink below the water.
He gave up on being a good house guest and grabbed the polearm and the glowworm lantern once again before going to the back of the grotto. He fortified himself in the back corner, hoping that his host decided to return before the tide did. Hoping it was only his host who returned.
On the bright side, at least he’d be able to say he died with his pants on when Davy Jones asked…