Chapter 5: The Forest

Keahi was tired, but he supposed that’s what drowning did to a person. He hoped this wasn’t becoming a thing with him. He’d never had great luck, but this was getting ridiculous.

When he opened his eyes again, it looked like no time had passed. It was entirely possible none had, but Vorca’s hair was dry and Keahi’s own clothes seemed at the very least less damp.

“So,” he tested his lips. They were rough like sand and his throat felt like salt water had evaporated on it.

Vorca turned his attention from the ocean. Keahi thought he saw something in his eyes — sadness? Regret? Homesickness…

“So?” The merman said in response.

“Sorry about your boss,” Keahi said sheepishly, if only because he didn’t want to seem insensitive about the situation. He had no regrets about stabbing someone who had tried to eat him.

Vorca shook his head, but it slowed into a sort of half-hearted shrug.

“I parted with the witch months ago,” He replied. “Though, she likely won’t let me back so quickly now…”

The merman looked out at the waves that rolled lazily onto the sand. Keahi watched the foam as well, and he was certain he saw the glint of something more than just water.

“Or at all…” Vorca whispered. Keahi wasn’t sure if he should pretend to not have heard it.

“What…will she do,” Keahi asked, hesitantly. “When you go back?”

Silence. Vorca was either thinking or trying to disconnect from the thoughts.

“She will keep me in a cage,” he said, finally. “I’m too valuable to kill.”

“Right…” Keahi hummed. “Because, uh, you’re a Finder. Which reminds me, why couldn’t you find your charm yourself? Why did we have to go to her in the first place?”

Vorca finally turned his violet eyes back to Keahi. He gave a small smile.

“Finders can only locate what others are looking for, never their own desires. Our talents exist only to serve others.”

Keahi didn’t reply. There wasn’t anything he could think to say. Perhaps it was best to just… move on to other thoughts.

“Well, at least you’ve got your legs,” he tried to sound cheery.

“Yes, but I walk as well as you swim,” Vorca gave a snear.

“If by that you mean amazingly well, then yes, you do,” Keahi threw back. He saw the smallest hint of a smile on Vorca’s lips.

“So… the forest then,” Keahi looked to the tree line. He did not have any great enthusiasm to go back into the brush after his last experience with the inhabitants there. “Are you sure there’s not another way?”

“Yes,” Vorca said, without hesitation. “Your ship is on the other side.”

“I was afraid you’d say that…” Keahi took a deep breath. “I don’t think I’m ready to die again.”

Vorca blinked, a look of surprise on his fair features. “I… guess you do have a penchant for near-fatal trouble…”

“I always have…” Keahi nodded. “Though more so the last few days than usual.”

“The fae should not bother us now,” Vorca said, but he didn’t seem very sure. “They don’t trust humans. But with me, they should be fine…”

Very reassuring. Keahi took another breath, then stood. He offered a hand to Vorca. The merman-turned-humanlike was still looking for his land legs, but he managed to stay upright. Keahi grabbed the leftover bottle from the night before and shook it, testing how much was left. Not much.

“Liquid courage,” he said before tipping the bottle back, downing the remaining booze in one go.

Vorca had been into the forest once before, when he was much younger. Each of the merfolk must travel to the fae village to receive their gift, a task made difficult by the lack of legs. Traditionally, whole families would travel to the village, helping those who sought their gems for the first time. Vorca’s sisters helped him, but there was no big production — no songs, no caravan. Simply his strongest sister carrying him in her arms while the others acted as guards.

Back then, he had watched the trees with excitement, wanting to see something, anything other than the lagoon. But now…

His strong and knowledgeable sisters were gone. Instead, he had a human who liked concussions and had already angered the guardians. Where there was thrill before, anxiety now lingered.

Keahi couldn’t know it, though. Vorca stood tall — or as tall as he could considering the low branches. He needed to be strong for the pirate. Vorca didn’t know why, but he felt compelled to match the man’s confidence. He wanted to… to protect Keahi, he supposed. He hadn’t done a great job of it so far, so he wanted to make up for his failures.

Next to him, Keahi sneezed. The man grumbled and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.

“Why do humans do that?” Vorca blurted out before he could consider the tact of it.

“Do what?” Keahi sniffed. “Sneeze? Well I mean, I’m allergic to fairies…”

“Allergic,” Vorca frowns. “That’s… not good,”

“Why not?”

“Well…” Vorca ducked under a branch. “We’re going to visit the fairy village…”

Keahi couldn’t hide his thoughts on the subject, his face tightening into a frown.

“I’d rather eat hardtack with no water,” Keahi waved a hand dismissively, though Vorca wasn’t clear on what hardtack was exactly.

“It’s rude to pass through lands without paying respect to the caretakers,” Vorca was surprised he even had to explain this, but then he remembered that Keahi made his living off of thievery.

Keahi made a grumbly noise, but said nothing more on the matter.

To be honest, Vorca did not know how to find the fairy village, but Keahi’s increased sneezing told him they were on the right track. He honestly had no idea how long they’d been traveling through the forest but in his periphery Vorca saw movements from all directions. They were being watched if nothing else.

Vorca turned his head back in front of him and found himself face to face with two young fairies dressed in shades of yellow and gray. Keahi made a surprised sound as well and jumped behind him.

“Those are the ones that stung me!” Keahi hissed into his ear.

Vorca nodded some, eyes never leaving the two guards. He opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off before he could utter a syllable.

“The human should be dead,” one of the guardians stated.

“His trespassing must be punished,” added the other.

Vorca swallowed hard. He took a breath and tried to find the words.

“He came looking for passage to the human side of the island,” he stated, carefully. “I was to guide him. I returned for my gem, but he was… impatient. His trespassing is my fault, though his impatience is his own.”

The fairies looked to each other. They didn’t speak, but their wings moved ever so subtly that it seemed like a trick of the eye. Vorca’s ears buzzed to the point of annoyance, but he didn’t dare move.

“The human’s punishment is decided,” they said in unison.

“For his impatience,” the first fairy said. “He will be bound to you for the remainder of his stay.”

She waved her hand. Vorca felt his wrist burn for a moment, then there was a weight against his skin like a rope hung from his hand. He looked down and saw only a glimmer of magic, though the shine left a trail connecting him to Keahi.

“And for your forgetfulness,” the second fairy continued, turning to Vorca. “You will have this idiot human attached to your wrist.”

Vorca blinked, but nodded, Keahi making a face at being called an idiot. Luckily, he was smart enough to stay silent. It could have been worse… He considered them lucky as the twins led them into the forest’s heart.

The pep in Vorca’s step had disappeared by the time they reached the village proper. Keahi imagined having bare (once-fins) feet walking through the forest was not something the merman was entirely prepared for. He slowed his steps, trying to walk at a pace that seemed better suited for Vorca, but the wasp twins kept looking back at him like he was trying to escape.

He shook his wrist. He’d seen a glimmer when the wasps gave out their reduced (if slightly late) punishment. It felt like there was a shackle there, and he wondered if Vorca felt the same. He had little time to ponder such things, however, as a sneeze interrupted his thoughts every other minute or so.

By the time the forest gave way to the village, Keahi had wrapped his nose and mouth the a soggy rag he was fairly certain Vorca had used to bandage him a day or so before. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but neither was sneezing, and at least the rag seemed to help a little.

The fairy village was about how Keahi had expected. Buildings were made out of branches, leaves, and fallen trees. Everything had a glow to it, not unlike Vorca’s grotto. The fairies themselves flitted around, not bothering to walk as they went about their day. Keahi hated them, he decided after a particularly long fit of sneezes.

Fairies that noticed them turned to watch. A human and a mermaid, bound together by some sort of magic was sure to be a sight. Whispers passed between them, and they retreated away when they got close.

“Wait here,” one of the wasp guards commanded.

“You will be collected,” finished the other.

“Fantastic…” Ki muttered behind his cloth. One of the guards buzzed at him as she flew back to her post.

Vorca crouched down, evidently wanting to take some pressure off his legs. Keahi sat on the dirt, simply no longer wanting to be upright.

“So, we in trouble?” Keahi asked, his stuffy nose causing his words to be truncated.

“Trouble?” Vorca sounded tired. “No, I don’t think so. They just want to make sure our needs have been tended to.”

“Tended to…” Keahi closed his eyes. “Sounds suspiciously like being killed off…”

“Have you always been this paranoid?” Vorca asked.

“Maybe? I don’t know. I’ve died a lot recently…”

It was another couple minutes before an envoy came to greet them. She was a beautiful wisp of a woman, dark skin and hair that shimmered blue beneath the light of the village.

“Ocean brother, your visit is a pleasure,” she addressed Vorca, who had stood up straight once more.

They exchanged pleasantries, but Keahi couldn’t be bothered to pay attention. He scratched his forearm and fought off another sneeze. He didn’t notice when Vorca and the envoy began walking, leaving him behind in the village square. He did notice, however, when he felt a strong yank on his arm, causing him to stumble forward. He looked in the direction the merman walked and saw a glimmering thread leading to him.

Another yank and Keahi was forced to move. This, evidently, was what his punishment meant.

They were given a small tent on the outskirts of town. Originally they’d been offered a very elaborate guest house, but Vorca had declined, citing Keahi’s allergies. It earned Ki another disapproving look from another disapproving fairy. Still, the small distance from the rest of the buildings did improve Keahi’s allergies and temperament quite a bit.

Vorca was happy for a full set of clothing that had been gifted to him, though if he was being honest, Keahi preferred him wearing just the jacket he’d offered him at the beach…

“I need to find a gift for them,” Vorca declared rather suddenly.

Keahi raised an eyebrow and looked at him from his position on his bedroll.

“I don’t understand all these formalities,” Keahi sighed. “Just let it slide this once.”

Vorca shook his head. “If I did that, I’d be soiling the relationship between our people that has taken centuries to–”

“Yeah, okay,” Keahi put up a hand. “I get it. What sort of gift should we get them?”

“There are flowers and berries that grow by the river,” the merman said. “My sisters use them to dye their hair sometimes. Perhaps the fairies could do the same.”

Keahi sat up. “Alright. Shall we go then?”

Vorca hopped to his feet, though he seemed to regret it. He limped out of the tent and Keahi followed.

Ki looked up at the canopy above their heads. He squinted, trying to see the sky beyond it. The clouds looked orange, which either meant the sun was going backwards or it was getting ready to set.

“We best get home before it gets dark,” he said. “With or without the berries.”

Vorca looked up as well. His eyes went wide.

“I need water,” he declared.

Keahi blinked. “We can…go back to the tent,” he stopped walking, not understanding what that had to do with anything.

“No, no,” Vorca shook his head. “The gem. It requires the wearer to return to the ocean once a night.”

“Oh,” Keahi looked around. They were very far from the ocean if the blisters on his feet were any indication. “Every night?”

“Yes,” Vorca said, a certain panic edging into his voice.

“I’ll get the water, you get the berries,” Keahi offered.

Vorca hesitated, but nodded. “You can’t touch the water though.”

“What? Why not?”

“The witch,” Vorca’s voice hushed. “All water which flows to the ocean is her domain. She’ll find us if you touch it.”

Keahi rolled his eyes and made a noise of frustration.

“Magic! Everything is magic!” he rubbed his eyes. “Why can nothing be simple.”

Vorca said nothing. When Ki opened his eyes, he saw the merman was scared, pulling the fairy gifted clothes close to his shoulders. Keahi’s let out a breath, forcing his frustration out through his lungs.

“Hey…” he walked towards him, arms open in comfort. “I’ll find a way. You’ve protected me — despite my best efforts. I’ll find a way to protect you.”

Vorca gave a soft smile. He nodded a little. “Thank you, Keahi.”

Keahi had no idea how he was going to do it. How much water did the gem require? If it was a bucket’s worth, then they were out of luck. But maybe a boot full…

Ki felt the shackle on his wrist tightening. Damn all this magic… What if he couldn’t reach the stream because of it? What would happen if he went too far — would it tighten until his hand fell off? Would it simply prevent him from going past a certain point?

He could hear the stream, the water babbling through the quiet forest. He just needed to keep walking…

A twig snapped, but it wasn’t under Keahi’s boot. He turned, trying to see where the sound had come from. If it was those wasp guards again, he wasn’t walking away again, he knew that.

A flash of white just beyond his periphery. His mind went to the stories he’d heard of legendary white stags, messengers of the otherworld. Spirits. It certainly wouldn’t be the most unusual thing he’d ever come across.

“Hello!” A voice came from behind him.

Keahi spun on his boot heel. Like the wasps had appeared from nothing before, there now stood a young, lithe-looking and extremely pale fae.

“H-Hello,” Keahi blinked. He took a step back, telling himself it was to loosen the tight shackle around his wrist.

“Who are you?” the fairy was so… excitable, even in his few words.

“Keahi,” the pirate replied. “I’m a guest in the village.”

“Oh,” the fairy smiled. “I heard about you. There’s a mermaid too, right?”

“Merman, actually,” Keahi took another step back. “I don’t remember seeing you around though. Why are you so far out here?”

“Oh, I live out here,” the fairy bounced on the balls of his feet. “I’ve got a hut by the stream.”

“Stream?” Keahi perked up. “The one that leads to the ocean?”

“I think so,” the fairy tilted his head in thought. “I’ve never followed it though. It’s dangerous out there.”

“Can I see?” Keahi knew how to take advantage of a situation if nothing else. “I’m looking for some fresh water, actually…”

“Sure!” And with a bounce, the fairy was off.

Keahi could barely keep up with him. He moved like a deer in an open field, bounding over roots and ducking under branches. Ki ignored the pain in his wrist as he followed, not wanting to lose his best chance at getting that water quick.

There was no clearing for the hut like there was the village. The building just appeared, rising out of the forest itself. It was sculpted from mud and straw and decorated with twigs, leaves and twisting vines. This fairy lived alone out here, though Keahi couldn’t help but notice all the stuff around the hut. It wasn’t unlike Vorca’s grotto, with baubles and charms laying about next to stores of food and clothing. Keahi hadn’t seen anything like this back in the fairy village. This kid was either spoiled or rich…

The stream pooled outside the back of the hut, swirling in a wading pool for a moment before continuing out of sight. It was perfect. He hoped.

“So, my friend,” Keahi panted a little, catching his breath now that the fairy had stopped running. “The merman. He… needs some water for his gem to keep working or something?”

The fairy nodded. Apparently this checked out.

“So, uh, do you think you could help me out?” Keahi cleared his throat. “Um, your name is…?”

“Laurel!” The fairy said brightly. “You can borrow my bucket.”

“A bucket!” Keahi grinned. “Much better than a boot.”

Laurel nodded like he knew what Ki was talking about. The fairy ran off to get it from wherever he thought to keep buckets. Keahi looked down at the swirling pool.

It was probably a trick of the light playing on the canopy above, but Ki was certain he could see eyes in the water, staring back at him…

“Here you go!” Laurel appeared behind him once again and Keahi was wondering if, in addition to being allergic to fairies, he had trouble telling when they were around him.

“Yeah, so…” Keahi cleared his throat. “I was hoping maybe you could fill it up for me?”

The pale fairy tilted his head like a dog hearing a strange sound.

“I… have this curse. I can’t touch water directly,” it wasn’t a complete lie. Plus it was magic so it sounded plausible, right? “I came out here looking for the stream because no one else could do it.”

Laurel’s face changed. His wide, pink eyes narrowed and his lips pursed into a determined pout. He gave a nod.

“Can’t have a mermaid-man get sick,” he said firmly.

Laurel took the bucket and dunked it into the swirling pool. He then heaved it back up, though he struggled with it like he was carrying a cannonball. Keahi watched this from a distance in case he got splashed. He wasn’t sure if running water was the only thing the witch could find him in, or if it was all water. Hopefully Vorca would clarify the matter when they saw each other again.

“Easy there,” Keahi went to help once Laurel was a little farther from the pool. “No need to strain anything…”

Laurel let out a breath as Keahi easily lifted the bucket from his grip. He panted and gave a wide smile.

“I don’t do much heavy lifting,” he said. “But that was fun!”

“Heavy lifting…” Keahi repeated. It wasn’t even that big of a bucket.

Pain spiked in Ki’s free hand and he hissed. He looked down to see the glint of the spell, binding him to Vorca.

“I need to get going,” he said. “Thank you, though. I’ll return the bucket later.”

“Can I go with you?” Laurel hopped so he was standing in Keahi’s way. “I’ve never actually met a merperson before…”

“Uh,” Keahi’s head needed time to process the request. “No, I don’t know if that’ll be a good idea. I don’t want to attract too much attention… I mean–”

A rumble of thunder interrupted him. Laurel’s face fell, a pout forming on his lips.

“Please?” Laurel looked up at Keahi with big eyes.

Ki didn’t really have time to argue. A fat raindrop fell on Keahi’s head. The sky was growing dark and he wasn’t sure how far he’d come from the village. “Yeah, fine, alright. Come on then.”

Vorca had gathered the flowers and berries. He’d arranged them into beautiful bouquets to give to each of the fairies that had helped them today. And still Keahi had not returned.

He looked to the sky anxiously. It rained briefly, and the dark clouds had nearly given him a heart attack before they cleared. Under any other circumstance, he would have enjoyed the sunset and gentle storm since they were so rare at times. But now…

Vorca’s legs itched. When he touched them, he could feel his scales right beneath the skin. Turning back wouldn’t be the worst thing, no, but he wouldn’t be able to return to human form until he went to the ocean directly. It was nearly impossible for him to do so now. He felt himself drying up already…

The sound of voices outside the tent brought Vorca back from his brooding. It sounded like Keahi, though who he could be talking to was a mystery. Vorca pulled back the large leaves that made up the tent and looked outside.

Keahi approached, carrying a bucket Vorca assumed was full of water. But beside him was a fairy so pale he seemed to glow against the dense foliage. Keahi grinned when he saw Vorca and picked up his pace.

“One bucket of ocean-flowing water, good sir,” Keahi set the bucket down in front of the tent.

Vorca scooted closer to the bucket. He cupped his hand and began pouring the water onto his legs. It was nothing like taking a dip into the ocean itself, but the water seeped into his skin, sending the scales away for at least another day. Vorca sighed happily.

“And who’s your helper?” Vorca said with something of a dreamy voice, losing himself in the sensation of the water running down his legs.

“This is Laurel,” Keahi said, deadpan. “It’s his bucket and he’s never seen a merperson before.”

Vorca opened his eyes to Laurel very close to him, pink eyes inspecting him from head to toe. Vorca leaned back just a little, but he didn’t want to seem rude.

“Thank you, Laurel,” Vorca smiled, and the fairy smiled in return.

“Of course!” Laurel leaned back as well, evidently done studying the merman. “I liked helping, and no one really comes to visit me out in my hut…”

“Yeah, why exactly do you live so far from the village?” Keahi joined them on the ground, squatting down to talk. “Just in the middle of the woods,” he added to Vorca.

“That’s always where I’ve lived,” Laurel shrugged. “The other fairies come by on feast days and give me food and drinks, but no one ever stays long.”

That sounded like a lonely life, but Vorca didn’t say that out loud. The fairy seemed not too worse for the wear, but Vorca remembered how protective his sisters were of him. They made him stay secret and safe away from the rest of the merfolk, but they at least played with him, included him in their conversations.

Vorca reached into the tent and picked up one of the bouquets he’d made for the other fairies. He held it out for Laurel to take.

“A gift for helping us,” He smiled softly. “The berries could dye your hair nicely, it’s so pale…”

Laurel took the gift and held it as if it was something fragile. He looked down at the flowers and berries for a long moment. When he looked back up, his eye welled with tears. He sprang forward and gave Vorca a hug.

Vorca blinked, but hugged him back.

Laurel stayed with them as the night grew dark. He listened, enraptured by their tale, explaining why they were going through the forest, why they couldn’t touch the ocean, and when that was done, Keahi spoke about his adventures as a pirate. Vorca watched the man as their campfire lit up his features as he gestured and pantomimed sword fights and watching Peter Pan in mid flight.

The moon was high above them when the stories started winding down. Keahi didn’t seem ready to sleep, but Vorca’s eyes had trouble staying open. He stretched from his fingers to his toes and laid back on the ground.

“Can I come with you?” Laurel asked in the quiet of the night.

Vorca didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure he had an answer. He knew the longing that came with solitude, but his sisters had done so to keep him safe. If Laurel ventured beyond the forest, he might be in danger.

“I don’t see why not,” Keahi replied, though he looked to Vorca for guidance.

“It might be dangerous,” Vorca sat up on his elbows. “The other humans might… find people like you and me interesting.”

Laurel gave a small frown, though Vorca was unsure if it was because he did or did not understand what that meant.

“I still want to go,” the fairy said. “Your stories were amazing and I just– I’ve never been outside of the forest.”

Keahi gave Vorca a sympathetic look. Vorca wasn’t sure why he’d become the deciding factor in this…

“Until we find the ship,” Vorca said after a moment’s thought. “Once we find Keahi’s ship, you have to come back. Pirates are… most pirates are dangerous…”

Laurel’s face lit up. Just as he was about to speak, the wind picked up, sending embers flying. Keahi stood and stomped them out before they could become more than sparks.

“Perhaps we should retire…” Keahi was wide-eyed now as he looked down at them.

Vorca nodded. He had hoped to save the remaining water in case they couldn’t find a source as easily next nightfall (whenever that might be), but he decided dousing the fire was just as useful. Once the bucket was empty, he handed it to Laurel.

“Are you leaving in the morning?” he asked.

“Yes,” Keahi said quickly. He cleared his throat. “We don’t want to overstay our welcome…”

Or, more likely, Keahi didn’t want to have another sneezing fit. It was serendipitous that Laurel didn’t seem to set his allergies off.

“I’ll be back in the morning!” Laurel hopped to his feet. “Don’t leave without me!”

They were going to have to leave without Laurel.

Dawn was breaking, as it had been for several hours now. Keahi had gotten up, eaten, and now sat restlessly looking at the edge of the forest where Laurel had dashed off to in the night.

“The human village isn’t far,” Vorca said, hoping to entice him into moving out.

“I know,” Keahi said. “I know. I just… have a good feeling about this kid…”

They waited, but Laurel did not come.

Vorca set them on the right path towards the human village, though Keahi seemed to drag his feet. Vorca didn’t mind, a slower pace suited him well, considering his feet still ached. They passed the place Vorca gathered the flowers and berries. Vorca dipped and quickly pulled a small bloom. He handed it to Keahi. Ki stared a moment, as if he’d never been given a flower before. Vorca slipped the flower back from Keahi’s hands and tucked it carefully behind his ear.

“Uh, thanks…” the pirate said, fussing with the bloom.

“Wait for me!”

Laurel’s voice pierced the silence of the forest. He leapt over massive logs like they were nothing. Vorca barely felt confident to walk in this place and he could never imagine himself running.

“What took you so long?” Keahi’s face lit up in a smile.

“Sorry,” Laurel panted. “The guards tried to keep me in the village.”

“They did?” Vorca looked back to where the fae had come from. “Why?”

Laurel shrugged. “I don’t know. They just said that I couldn’t leave. But I wanted to come help you, so I snuck out.”

Keahi and Vorca exchanged looks. Vorca could not think of why the fae would want to keep Laurel in the village, but there must be some reason for it. Keahi put his hands on shoulders of his companions and started moving them along.

“Let’s talk about this later, yes?” the man said. “When we get to the town.”

Vorca didn’t protest and Laurel happily bounded along. For someone who had never left the forest, Laurel found his way easily, like he had a compass in his mind, or someone leading him in the right direction. Vorca couldn’t help but wonder if he was a Finder as well. The wind picked up and carried with it the sound of voices shouting. Vorca hoped they were from in front of them and not behind.

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