“The queen stole your hearts?!” I exclaimed loudly.
“Ssssh!” Viera slapped her hand sharply across my mouth. I realized then, that her hands were webbed together, like a frog’s. “It be a deep, dark sssecret.”
I wrenched her hand off of my face. “Why would the Queen of Quanxi do that?” I asked sceptically.
Viera blinked her eyes, glowing green in the dark like flashing orbs. “No one knowsss. We have sssome ancient ssscrollsss. Much good they do.”
“Why?” I asked.
“No one can read.” The kelpie stated.
“What?!” I started to exclaim, then paused for fear of seeming rude.
Viera shrugged, not seeming vexed. “Our eyesss can’t handle the ssstrain in thisss deep. Our predecessorsss gave up the ssstruggle yearsss ago.”
A thought crossed my mind. “Do you mind,” I asked, “If you could show me these scrolls?”
The kelpie thought in silence for a moment. Her brow furrowed, creating lines in her pale skin like wrinkles in white sand. Her glowing eyes stared at me with fierce intensity. “Promissse no tricksss?” she asked, the last word coming out in a low hiss.
I automatically lifted my hand, palm facing up. “You have my word,” I replied gravely.
Viera scowled at me, then shoved open the door with a hard flip of her tail. The door banged back so hard that it created a small tidal wave that rippled down the poorly lit hall. The kelpie held me in place while she poked her head out of the closet. Once she was satisfied that the hall was clear of prying eyes, she swam out swiftly, pulling me after her.
We hastily made our way down the corridor. All the doors that we passed hung open like empty, hungry mouths. Moss lined their rotting frames like drool. Every single room was cold, dark and empty. Just like the kelpies’ hearts.
We reached the end of the stone hallway and came to a large opening with double doors hanging off the sides on rusty broken hinges. Beyond was just the open water at the bottom of the sea floor. Viera swam through, pulling me after her with that invisible thread.
As I floated through the water, I realized that we were leaving the only building standing. It was a monstrous castle, raising it’s crumbling turrets defiantly against the dark. Yet, all its windows were hollow and empty, like they had had their eyes plucked out. No kelpies swam out of its doors.
Instead, as we swam deeper into the dark, more and more of the cursed creatures started appearing out of rocks and cracks like worms wiggling out of a rotten apple. Several of their piercing, soulless green eyes followed me as we passed. I shivered as many of them licked their chops with their long, pale tongues or bared their teeth with a hiss when I happened to look their way.
I edged a little closer to Viera. She ignored her fellow kelpies, just kept her view straight ahead and calmly pulled me along after her. Yet, I could feel our speed pick up.
We left bubbles behind in our wake as Viera started to take several sharp turns, both left and right. With the darkness and the similar, repetitive surroundings, I was soon lost. Yet, I was rather shocked when the kelpie came to an abrupt halt in front of a large cave.
Seaweed hung across the rock, completely covering its mouth in a curtain. “You go in alone,” Viera hissed in a low whisper.
I could feel the mysterious, invisible tether loosen. “You’re not coming with me?” I asked.
The kelpie shook her head. “There is an air pocket in the cave. It protects the paper scrolls. But my scales can’t take the pain for long. They dry too fast.”
I nodded and started to swim towards the cave, but stopped. “Are you still going to be here?” I turned to Viera.
Her eyes narrowed. “Yesss. Don’t think you can essscape that fassst.”
I put my hands up. “I didn’t mean that!” I declared defensively, “I just want to make sure that I can find you after I’m done.”
Viera looked surprised. “Why?” She asked suspiciously.
“I don’t know the way back.” I said helplessly.
The kelpie didn’t reply. However, I thought I saw a tiny smile tug at the corners of her otherwise stoic mouth. Then she frowned. “We haven’t got much time.”
I turned abruptly back to face the cave’s entrance. “See you soon,” I called over my shoulder before plunging its seaweed curtain.
I immediately fell into some sort of air bubble, scraping my knees as I collapsed to the ground of rough rock. Pulling my wet, dripping hair from my face and hugging my arms close to my body as a cold draft blew over my damp skin, I looked around curiously.
Large wax candles were perched on every shelf of rock in the cave. Their flames were warm and bright, and not cold and a distant green like the kelpie’s lights back at the ancient castle. The room was small, yet, though inside a cave, it was cozy. I walked unsteadily towards a cluster of candles to warm myself with their heat.
I outstretched my hands towards the flames and for a moment I forgot what I was there for. A drip of water from my wet hair landed on the hot wax causing it to hiss like a kelpie, restoring my memory. I reluctantly stepped away from warmth of the candles, searching for anything that looked like books or scrolls of paper.
No luck. All I could make was rock, dripping marble, and rough sponge-like stones that coated the walls. There was not a sight of paper anywhere. I searched some more, but the trembling in my limbs caused me to draw back to the cluster of candles.
I stretched my hands out and sighed contentedly as warmth began to seep back into my bones. Relaxing, I closed my eyes. As soon as I did, a sensation began tingling at my ear. As I listened closer with my eyes still shut, I could make out a silent voice. Silent, because it wasn’t really speaking, but a voice nonetheless that was calling out to me.
Blindly, I slowly shifted my hands and began walking towards the voice, letting it pull me towards it. I began to walk away from my post beside the candles and nearly opened my eyes a few times when my feet stumbled on a loose pebble. However, whenever I did, the voice would disappear.
Keeping my hands outstretched, and praying that I wouldn’t burn myself against one of the open flames, I ignored the doubts that plagued my mind and focused on the sensation. As I drew closer the voice became stronger, like a thunder of water in my ears. Closer still, and it changed into a windstorm raging across the sands of a desert. My hand met rock and I heard singing from a thousand birds.
I opened my eyes and the music hushed into a silence that echoed throughout the entire cave. My hand was touching against a slab of stone. It moved ever so slightly when my fingers grazed against it. I then realized that the slab was about the size of a book wedged in between two rocks. Shoving, pulling and prodding with my fists, I managed to break it free.
As soon as I held the slab of stone in my hands, I realized that I was standing in a library. The slab was not rock at all. It was a glass box covered in barnacles and remnants of cave drippings, but inside was a book with a leather cover and aged yellow pages. I looked back to its empty spot and realized that the rocks that it had been wedged in between bore similar shape to the one in my hand.
Looking around the room with new eyes, I realized that this cave’s walls were comprised entirely of hidden books. Setting the book in my hands carefully down on an empty ledge, I closed my eyes and opened my ears.
There was still singing. This time it sounded like the rustling of leaves. And it was coming from the other side of the room. I rushed over and, with some effort, managed to pluck another book, this time encased in a glass cylinder. Repeating the process, I continued to allow the books to guide me to them, till I could no longer hear any more singing.
By the time the cave finally grew silent, quite a pile of books and scrolls had compiled on the ledge with the first one that I’d found. All of them whispered and sang quietly among themselves. I just hoped that they all contained something I might learn as to the kelpies’ plight.
I settled down on the floor and crossed my legs. I grabbed the first book, opened it and began reading. Though written in a strange dialect, just like with my grandmother’s memoir, I could make sense of the characters.
The first book was a short history on the mermaid’s way of life. Highly interesting, and containing a bunch of little tips on how to make one’s tail shine brighter, or hair grow longer. The only page that began to sing softly when I flipped it over was the one that contained a passage about how a mermaid’s heart.
“Ought not to be given away lightly. Only one possessing a love strong and good enables that a mermaid’s heart then be given away safely. Even then, strong consequences could occur. Strongly advised not to do so as a precaution.”
After that the book felt silent. I put it aside and picked up the next one. This book happened to be filled of tales to be told to little merlettes. It was filled with sweet stories of Kings and their queens, of princesses and knights. However, the heroes in all these tales were mermaids or sirens. They always came in the hour of need, performing magic out of a pond, a well, or even a jug of water.
The story that sang strongly while I read was the one of how a mermaid’s lover was deadly wounded while protecting her, and how she ended saving his by giving him her heart. Thus united, roses returned to his cheeks and they both lived happily ever after.
On and on, each book contained similar messages all pertaining to a mermaid’s heart. Even the cookbook mentioned how one without a heart will not be able to taste food without the one they had given their heart to.
The pile dwindled lower and lower. Eventually, I reached for the final book. It was weather-worn and very small. So tiny was it, I was sure it held next to nothing but a footnote of what I needed. Yet, as soon as I opened the cover, music blew hard in my face, causing my hair to fly to the ceiling.
And as soon as I started to read, I knew.
I knew that this old, insignificant looking book held the key to helping the plight of the kelpies.