Bioluminescent jellyfish followed Vorca as he returned, his own eyes still glowing under the mirror pool’s surface. He raised his head up out of the water, just enough to see onto the ledge where the human was sleeping. He watched the pirate’s chest rise and fall, a great rumbling noise escaping with each breath.
His name was Keahi. Vorca had never seen a pirate up close, much less spoken to one. He seemed… not as dangerous as his sisters made them all out to be, though his arm… the thought of it made Vorca’s scales itch.
Vorca lifted himself up out of the water. He leaned over Keahi. He studied the human’s features while he slept. So much of him was intriguing — his skin was smoothed and freckled in spots, he had no thin webbing between his fingers like Vorca did, and his hair was so brittle, and his scars…
Vorca didn’t notice the water dripping down his body until it had already fallen onto Keahi’s cheek. Keahi began to stir, then he yelped once his eyes opened, Vorca being so close.
“Saint Elmo’s Fire!” He shouted, moving away from Vorca in a single swift movement.” Wh… h-hi! You… did you just get back?”
Vorca felt his cheeks grow warm. He dipped back under the water.
“You were growling.”
Keahi made a face, frowning, “I was… what?”
“It was so loud. While you were asleep…” Vorca slipped further under the water. Speaking out loud was so strange and made his mouth dry…
Keahi blinked. Realization crossed his face and he smiled some. “Wait, you mean snoring? I was snoring?”
Vorca had no idea what that word was. If only the human could speak with his mind, they would be on the same page.
Keahi hummed, then he bit his lip.
“You… So… you don’t leave the lagoon much do you?”
Vorca’s cheeks and ears burned now and he slipped quickly under the water, wanting to get away from the man who mocked him. But he knew it wouldn’t be long until he returned.
Keahi looked in the now clear and deserted pool. He sighed, annoyed — frustrated? — with his situation. It was impossible for him to tell how much time had passed since he’d fallen asleep. The tide didn’t seem to have changed, but that didn’t mean much in The Neverlands.
He settled in, finding the most comfortable spot on the rocks. There was no telling when the merman would return and he was still beyond exhausted, his eyes threatening to close again. But Keahi felt the cave walls pressing in, even if the water wasn’t rising. This grotto felt like the hold of a ship — dank, dark, and stifling. There’d once been a sickness that swept through the crew and the ill men had to huddle together in the hold. Keahi had been spared the illness, but he remembered the coughs and moans of those who hadn’t been so lucky.
Suddenly, a fish flopped onto the cave floor, inches from where Keahi sat, the plopping noise smacking him out of his memories. As the fish gulped breathlessly on the wet stone, Vorca surfaced, bright eyes staring at Ki from the hovering darkness. The merman gestured to it.
“I brought you dinner,” he said. “Since you’ll have to stay here tonight. My sisters are hunting…”
Tonight. Then it was the same night as when they’d raided the lagoon?
Keahi looked at the raw fish, slowly tiring itself out. He shied away from it, but tried to offer Vorca a smile.
“Oh… that’s… lovely,” he stammered. “Thank you.”
Vorca smiled and stared expectantly at Keahi.
Keahi stared back for a moment, then got to his feet, clearing his throat.
“Um, maybe there’s something in here I can start a fire with…” He looked around at the random piles of things, but he knew there was nothing there that would hold a flame. Everything was far too wet to be tinder down here.
Vorca watched his movements with great fascination. Keahi was certain that never once did the merman’s glowing eyes leave him. Keahi was starting to feel a nervous knot in his stomach from all the attention, when his eyes caught the swirling jars of energies he’d noticed before.
“Hey…” he looked back to his audience. “What are these anyway?”
Once again, Keahi saw Vorca’s cheeks flush with color.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I just find them.”
Keahi frowned, not completely understanding. “Find them?”
Vorca nodded, getting closer to the edge of the water.
“Sometimes I just know where things are…” he said. “My sisters ask me to find things all the time. Say it’s why they keep me around,” Vorca stated.
Keahi hummed, taking that in. He stopped when he realized Vorca was still staring.
Vorca studied Keahi, eyes locking on him so intensely, Keahi swore the merman was trying to read his mind. And then, the next instant, it was over. Vorca’s purple eyes drifted to the piles around the grotto.
“You touched things,” he stated.
Keahi gave a nervous laugh, “Yeah, sorry… I was, uh, looking for something to defend myself with, just in case your sisters came by.”
“Did you find anything?” Vorca tilted his head and turned his attention back on Keahi.
“Yeah, I got this, uh, pointy stick,” Ki motioned his hand back to the polearm he’d claimed earlier. “And I got this shell that kind of… broke somehow.” Keahi, of course, knew exactly how it’d been crushed by a falling porthole, but he didn’t need to go into details. “I think I can use it as a knife.”
Vorca watched Keahi as he jabbed the air a couple times with the broken shell, but he remained silent on the matter.
Keahi cleared his throat, “So, um… about the food situation… you got anything a little less… fishy? Oysters maybe?”
Vorca thought for a brief second, then nodded. He disappeared under the water without a word. Keahi relaxed once he was gone. The merman seemed friendly enough, but that stare made his skin itch like fairy dust. He needed to find a way out of this fanciful hold… If only his brain would work. He was so tired.
Clearly he needed a drink.
With a belly full of clams and wrapped in an old jacket he’d found in the merman’s treasures, Keahi had fallen asleep once again, depleted still from his escapades. His dreams were fitful, stormy things with jars of bubbling stardust and crocodiles swimming through them. He woke often, trying to shake visions from his bones before drifting off again. In one of these half-awake moments, Keahi saw purple beads glowing at him, and only realized in hindsight what they were.
Vorca waited for him to be truly awake before he attempted to interact at least.
“It’s time to go,” Vorca said as Keahi sat up from his stone floor bed. “My sisters are full.”
Keahi longed for the grotto.
While the view of Davy Jones’ locker was impressive — glowing corals, fluttering jellies, and silvery eels — Keahi would have been much more appreciative of it if the only thing keeping him alive wasn’t a rainbow bubble like the ones the mermaids played with wobbling around his head. The pirate trusted that Vorca’s magic was stronger than his social skills…
The journey was slow. Keahi had warned his aquatic host that pirates who’d gone this deep came back sick, aching all over. The worst returned to the surface with The Chokes — deep pains in their chests and hacking coughs. Of every man on the crew, only one knew of a sailor who’d recovered from The Chokes. The seasoned sailors precautioned them all to return to the surface slowly, and Keahi wasn’t about to question the logic behind it.
The coral reefs gave way to a steep, sheer shelf that would have made an impressive cliff if it were on land. Keahi’s stomach dropped as he passed over it, like he’d jumped from the ledge. His body tensed altogether when he saw the shimmering lights of a city below him.
The merfolk had a settlement? He supposed it made sense, even mermaids had to live somewhere. Why, then, did they keep their riches in the lagoon? Keahi had always mocked the mermaids for their attraction to things that sparkled, but maybe they simply knew how to set traps for people like him…
The darkness of the water faded slowly enough that Keahi’s eyes didn’t need to adjust as they reached the surface. While Vorca had guided him by the hand for most of the journey, the last few feet had seen Keahi giving his best breaststroke.
The rainbow bubble popped as Ki broke the tension of the water. He gasped instinctually, taking in sunshine with each breath of fresh, non-grotto air. Shore was within sight, and Keahi didn’t wait for Vorca before he rushed to the sandy beach.
Ki let the waves help him to shore. He beached himself on the sand, half panting, half laughing as he sprawled on his back.
Though his eyes were closed against the sun, Keahi could feel Vorca’s presence next to him. That stare burned into his skin…
Keahi opened one eye and looked at him. He looked perfectly comfortable on the land, despite being an aquatic creature. His long, black hair clung to his skin as he laid on his stomach in the sand. His tail absently smacked the water as he watched Keahi.
“So…,” Keahi cleared his throat, pulling his gaze away from the curves of the merman’s body. “My ship should be –”
He looked to the horizon, but it was empty. The Jolly Roger was nowhere to be seen.
Keahi scrambled to his feet, legs still shaky from his time in the water. He turned, but behind him was only a dense forest. Vorca sat up, his relaxed appearance fading.
“What’s wrong?” the merman asked.
“My ship is gone,” Keahi’s voice was breathless. “They left me.”
Keahi sank back into the sand. How could they leave him? When he wasn’t on the shore team, Ki remembered waiting at least two, maybe three days before assuming all hands were lost ashore.
“How long was I down there?” He turned to Vorca.
Vorca stared at him with big, purple eyes and gave a small shrug.
“The water makes more sense than the land,” Vorca said, meekly. He looked away from Keahi, almost embarrassed.
Keahi glared at him, but only because he had nowhere else to place his anger.
“Do you know how to get to Pirate’s Cove?” He asked after a moment of contemplation. “I think it’s to the west…ish.”
Vorca shook his head. “West is… anywhere. We travel by the sun, but the sun changes every day.”
Keahi understood what he was saying, even if he said it in a very…mermaid-y way. Time was impossible to tell and directions changed like the Neverlands were spinning on an axis. Nothing was in the same place twice when you approached from the water.
“There… is a town,” Vorca stated, hesitantly. “A human town. Past the forest.”
“Yeah?” Keahi perked up a little. He looked over his shoulder at the cluster of trees. “How far?”
“To the town?” Vorca squinted, then grew quiet like he was thinking. “Not far. But…”
Keahi waited for him to finish his thought. “…But?”
“But the fairies control the forest.”
Ki raised an eyebrow, not sure what the problem was. “I mean, I’m a little allergic to fairies, but I can handle them.”
Vorca shook his head quickly, his wet hair flinging water onto Keahi’s face.
“These fairies hate humans.”
In their short time together, Keahi had never seen the merman so serious. He nodded, not entirely sure how else to react.
“Define hate…” Ki said, trying to keep the nerves from his voice.
Vorca bit the inside of his cheek and looked down. “A long time ago, the fairies and the merfolk fought against humans who sought to pillage our resources. The fae have not forgotten.”
Vorca blinked. He suddenly looked up, the sternness on his face giving way to something that made his eyes sparkle.
“I can go with you!” he announced.
Keahi stared at him blankly.
“I can go with you,” Vorca nodded, grinning wide, showing off his sharp canines. “Just wait here. I’ll be back soon.”
Before Keahi could even react, the merman pushed off the beach and slipped back into the water. Again Keahi was left alone to his own devices. He put a hand to his forehead and sighed.
At least there was sun and fresh air this time.
Everything had its place.
Vorca was a Finder, though the things he found not everyone was looking for. Those things, the found-lost things, had a place in his grotto. His sisters knew of the things he collected, but they didn’t know where his stash was. None of them cared much about locating it — if it wasn’t pretty and shiny to fit in their lagoon hoard, they didn’t spare a second glance.
Vorca burst through the calm surface of the mirror-like pool of his grotto. He went to the section of things that were gifts and started looking. It was all out of sorts, and he suspected the pirate had gone through it in his search for weaponry.
He pulled himself up onto a smooth rock to get a better reach. A comb from his birthday, a jarred whisper from the witch, a gem from his mother… but no fairy stone.
Perhaps Keahi had moved it. The pirate didn’t know what it was and didn’t realize it belonged in the section of gifts. Maybe he’d put it in the section of magic. Vorca slipped off the rock and went to the other side of the cave.
The section of magic had been disturbed as well, and Vorca was beginning to wonder if pirates knew how to properly organize things.
This was going to take forever.
Keahi meanwhile, poked at his water-logged journal. He’d set it out on a sun-warmed rock to help facilitate its drying. He preferred to write in it daily or at least when the suns set, as a way to keep track of his time at sea, but he’d fallen behind since the lagoon.
A rather large lizard dashed away as Ki inspected the book. It wasn’t the first time the pages had gotten wet, and frankly, Keahi liked the way the water made the paper krackle. It wasn’t exactly pleasant to write on, but it was enjoyable to flip through.
His pencil was attached by a string that looped through the pages. It wasn’t the most secure thing, and he’d gone through several pencils before this, but it had managed to survive his trip to and from the grotto. Satisfied that the journal was dry enough, Keahi began writing down what had happened since his last entry.
The sun had set twice since Vorca left, and it was getting ready to take a third sleep now. Ki had eaten from things he’d found near the shore — coconuts, roots, and some slow moving lizards. He wasn’t the best hunter, or fire starter, so his stay on the forest’s edge had been rather unpleasant.
Keahi had decided to give Vorca until nightfall, then he would venture into the forest on his own. Even if there were fairies among the trees, surely the cover of darkness would help get him through to the other side unharmed.
Ki wrote of the mermaids and the lagoon, of waking in the grotto. He wasn’t much of an artist, but he tried to capture his memory of the surreal place before it faded completely. He found his hand sketching Vorca laying on the beach…
A splash broke through the usual sound of waves crashing against rocks and Keahi jumped. He looked around — was Vorca back? His eyes zipped around the horizon, but all he could see was water.
The sunset seemed to take hours. Maybe the sun was trying to give Vorca an extra chance to get back in time, or trying to give Keahi more time to rethink doing something stupid, like walk into a fairy-infested forest.
But even in The Neverlands, the sun had to sleep sometime. When Keahi could no longer see the page he was writing on, he stood and walked slowly to the treeline. He looked into the great pines. There were no signs of foot traffic, not even a real path into the wilderness. If anyone came through these parts, it wasn’t by foot…
Keahi took a breath. He wasn’t going to survive a mermaid attack only to die on a beach. He walked into the forest.
The woods were deceptive. The trail seemed to form its way around Keahi’s feet as he walked. He didn’t think he’d gone that far in, but he could barely see the beach anymore. It felt like the trees were swallowing him, sealing up the path as he went deeper in.
Going in at night was idiotic, he now realized. The canopy blocked off what little moonlight there was. He needed his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but they didn’t want to comply…
“Humans aren’t welcome here,” a whisper, low and emanating from everywhere, stated.
Keahi straightened his back and squared his shoulders. He cleared his throat.
“I’m just trying to get to the village,” he tried to keep his voice steady, but it was hard when it felt like the trees themselves were speaking to him. “I’m not going to hurt anyone.”
“All humans say that,” another whisper, a different voice? It was hard to tell. “All humans lie.”
A flash of light filled Keahi’s senses. Whereas he could barely see before, he couldn’t see anything now. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to get a sense of where the flash originated from.
“I’m not– I’m not lying!” He stammered, shaking his head. “I was waiting for someone on the beach and, and I don’t think he’s coming back–”
Something touched him. No, not touched, stabbed. His shoulder was on fire. Keahi could feel something pierce his skin, but it wasn’t a knife. He’d been shanked before. Knives didn’t burn like this…
And it had all happened so quickly.
He stumbled back, leaves crunching under his boots. He could make out the figures of two…people? If they were humans, they would have been children, but Keahi knew there was no way they were human. His mind buzzed — or was it the world around him?
“Go back to the beach, pirate,” the voice was no longer a whisper.
“Go die somewhere else,” the second voice commanded.
Keahi had no room to argue, or mind. The fire in his shoulder burned out any thoughts he had besides escape. He stumbled out of the forest, slipping on the sand, the world beginning to spin and blur. A look behind him and he could see two sets of golden, glowing eyes back in the trees.
“S-Shit…” Keahi collapsed to his knees, though the rest of him followed quickly after. He panted, the pain consuming him. Soon, he fainted away.
Vorca watched Keahi stumble out of the woods and collapse on the beach. He had surfaced moments before, and had just enough time to realize that Keahi had left the beach and must have headed towards the woods, when the human came staggering out into the sand.
Vorca clawed his way onto the beach before the pirate had even collapsed. Vorca wasn’t used to land, and he especially wasn’t used to dragging himself across it, but he had to get to Keahi. Even at a distance, he could tell Keahi’d been stung.
The pirate had passed out by the time Vorca got to him. Keahi’s shoulder was red, angry. It wasn’t even bleeding. The tree guardians didn’t need to go deep in their attacks to be deadly. He looked to the treeline. He could see the bee twins looking back at him. They watched with blank expressions. Vorca knew the two guardians would be no help. Their loyalty was to the flowers and trees.
Vorca took a breath, trying to steady himself. He needed to do something, or Keahi would die. That thought pained him more than it should for barely knowing the man.
He leaned forward and wrapped his lips around the wound. He’d sucked poison from a wound twice before, and neither had been successful. The tang of toxin filled his mouth. He turned his head and spit the liquid onto the sand before repeating the action.
Vorca stopped when his tongue went numb. The bee twins’ poison was mostly just an irritant to merfolk, but Vorca knew that if he consumed too much inadvertently, he’d be no better off than Keahi. The wound was still angry, but less so. Vorca looked around. There was nothing on the beach but shells.
Struggling for breath, Vorca dragged Keahi closer to the edge of the water so he didn’t have to worry about pulling himself back onto the beach when he returned. Vorca slipped into the water, eyes darting around the moonlit ocean-line as he searched.
Vorca didn’t have to go far. He knew where things were when people needed something, and Keahi needed to survive. Vorca grabbed a fistfull of red seaweed and hurried back to land.
Keahi awoke with sunshine on his face. He was about sixty percent sure he wasn’t dead, but he was still hesitant about opening his eyes. He heard the sounds of the beach around him — soft waves, crowing gulls, swaying palms. He wasn’t in the forest, and he wasn’t with those… wasps anymore.
He opened his eyes slowly, not sure what to expect. He laid in the shade of a large palm tree, looked over by a wide-eyed merman whose dry hair told Ki that’d he’d been in that position for a while now.
“Hey…” Keahi said weakly, much softer than he expected his voice to be. “You’re back.”
“So are you,” Vorca replied, expression unchanging.
Keahi attempted to sit up, but his shoulder screamed at his efforts. He yelped and fell onto his back.
“Stop doing stupid things,” Vorca scolded him, putting a webbed hand on his chest to keep him down. “I told you not to go into the forest.”
“I know…” Ki panted, eyes blurring for a short moment. “I just…got tired of waiting.”
“Waiting is better than dying…”
Keahi opened his eyes again. He dared to look at his wounded shoulder. It was…underwhelming. The entire thing was covered in… seaweed? Long strips of it that made a bandage over his whole shoulder.
“You… you patched me up again,” Ki gave a small, humorless laugh. “What is this stuff?”
“Kelp,” Vorca stated simply. “I don’t know what kind. I just knew you needed it.”
Keahi raised an eyebrow. “And how did you know that?”
Vorca shrugged. He looked away from Keahi and moved almost imperceptibly away.
“I just… know what people need,” the merman said. “Even if they don’t know they need it. I can find things.”
Find things? Keahi frowned, considering this and remembering what Vorca had said back at the grotto. “You… wait, are you a Finder?”
Again, Vorca moved away from him ever so slightly… but he nodded.
“My sisters said not to tell anyone,” he said. “Finders are rare…humans can be selfish.”
“They are,” Keahi nodded. And there were people who’d pay a high price for someone who could locate whatever they had their heart set on.
Keahi’s mind wandered back to his missing ship. Vorca could help him find the Jolly Roger, and he certainly seemed open to the idea. But even if they did locate the gallion, Keahi would have to pay a price to return to the crew. He’d been sent off to recover their cargo from the mermaids, but if he returned with a Finder, they’d never have to go near the lagoon again…
“Don’t worry,” Keahi smiled in a way he hoped was charming. “Stick with me. I’ll keep you safe.”