Till

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The Never Sea is grouchy today. It nips my fin and I slap back at it, shooing it away from the stone base of Rani, the boss statue of Mermaid Lagoon. Positioned in front of a rainbow waterfall, she's taller than the infamous Jolly Roger. That is, she would be if Pan hadn't shipwrecked it beneath Skull Rock.

Her long hair cascades down her naked back, covering her breasts as she leans forward, left hand outreached to the sea. I sunbathe lazily against the arm she rests on. The blue-green scales on my tail and lower abdomen shimmer in the sunlight, a nice contrast to my dark tan and short black hair.

A wave sprays me in the face, pounding against Rani's hand and I sit up, knowing I can't neglect my responsibilities much longer.

In the distance, two starlike crafts hover over the nagging sea. Behind me, the island of Neverland grows darker with each passing hour. Pan's shadow envelopes everything from the peaks of Torth, through the hills and nooks of the Fairy Hollow, down to the creeks and streams flowing into the Lagoon.

Everything is changing, and I must be ready when it comes for me too.

Slipping off the statue, I'm a welcomed splash back into the arms of the sea. She tugs me deeper and deeper, cool on my warm silky skin. She's hurried and troubled.

Pan seeps over her like an oily virus, his shadow suffocating bodies of water like Cannibal Cove and Crocodile Creek. The program corrupts the MMORPG and countless merfolk, a cluster of whom lurk in the depths of the cove, awaiting unsuspecting players seeking coveted treasures. It brings pirates searching the Lagoon for me and my own hidden royalties.

I can feel the heaviness of the sea as she weighs me down, leading me into the rocky tunnels beneath Neverland. The black depths brighten as I surface one laden with glittering turquoise gems. I bob along the way into the clearing of a cave coated in glow worms.

My final dive takes the longest. No beta tester has made it this far, to my relief, as they run out of air before they reach an upside-down city.

I avoid physical fighting when I can. Playing the game isn't my primary objective and it doesn't interest me in the least; Neverland's coding does. And though I'm programed with similar AI capabilities as Pan, I know I'm not nearly as advanced as he.

Through another set of tunnels of gem and rock I swim, my tail propelling the water, gliding me with ease around jagged corners and drops.

The sea sighs my relief as I flip through an invisible dome shield around towering cone buildings. Orbs of fairy light illuminate white stone streets through twisted columns. Like a great coliseum, the city is open and bright despite being underwater.

It's quiet though. Only a handful of mermaids are left uncorrupted, and most stay close to the surface.

I suppose this is how Pan wants it. After all, there's no sense in changing all the boss storylines. Rani coming alive to ward off passing ships and players, with the help of her mermaids, is one more obstacle in the way—one more distraction from whatever it is Pan is up to.

I duck into a dim passageway in one of the five pointed towers at the city's core and descend to the lowest dungeon. A door at the end of the stone hall is chiseled with an ancient text around a star shaped keyhole.

I pull a weighted gold chain from my neck. A cobalt diamond is embedded in the starfish design.

The door opens from the floor, stone disappearing under stone. Inside, a glowing blue orb floats in the center of the marble room. One of three pieces, it is the heart of Neverland, it is defensive coding against intruding threats, and me its protector.

"A bang-up job you've done so far, Till," I mutter to no one. Not only did a hacker player find her way into Neverland, she brought Pan with her. Intentional or not, I'm uncertain, but I avoid them both, fearful the pirate will crack the orb and fearful Pan will destroy me and all that's left of my native home. 

Gold strands of dust and blue bubbles swirl together around the orb. It glows brighter at my approach, casting shadows on the wall, and pulsating in my hands.

The swirling freezes. A warning conk shell blares over the city and vibrates in my ears. I breathe in the salty water, gills on my cheeks flaring, and release the orb back in its place.

On the far wall stands a gold chest plate and shoulder armor made of thick shells. I strap it and a turquoise dagger to my body, glancing one last time at the orb. It resumes swirling, but the alarm only blares louder. 

I race back to the surface, where mermaids' heads bob behind Rani's statue. They chatter and hiss to each other and the Never Sea, preparing an attack.

I grip the dagger at my side. Around the rocky cliffs I hear the swift breaks of water before I even see the black sails.

Horror replaces my confusion as the Jolly Roger approaches, weapons drawn. At the helm, Hook is poised for battle.

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