CHAPTER SIXTEEN: ABYSS (2/4)

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The darkness rushed by in a deafening roar.

Sol could not tell what direction Anyel was taking him in, only that they were moving quickly. It had been decades since he'd last gone underwater, but the feeling of suffocation had never left his memories. He'd barely had time to take a breath before he was stolen from the surface and he was desperate for air. He could feel his lungs shrivelling up as his heartbeat started to slow.

The water's roar quietened to a whoosh and a soft blue glow ahead gave him hope. If there was light, then that must mean the surface, he thought.

His body started to convulse like it was kicking him from within, trying to force him to take a breath. He kept his lips sealed tight.

The blue glow was becoming brighter. They were not far now, he told himself, just a few more seconds...

Sol's chest kicked again, and while he managed to keep his mouth shut, this time he could not stop his nostrils from sipping at the dark water.

And then it was over.

He gagged before taking in a large gulp of darkness. He immediately tried to cough it back up but only succeeded in taking in more water. His entire body spasmed as his organs fought for survival, every one failing.

The blue glow was all around him now... but it was too late. His jolting body became still as his mind turned to darkness.

*   *   *

"Solomon..."

The voice was muffled, as if spoken from the surface of a dream—one which Sol was quite happy drifting beneath. The troubles in his mind were gone, replaced by a feeling of perfect serenity.

"Open your eyes..."

The voice was closer, now, but still unwelcome. Sol wanted to tell it to go away, but he didn't have the strength.

"Solomon."

This time it came from right in front of him. He teased his eyes open. His vision was terribly blurred, but he could just about make out the shape of a woman looking back at him.

"Are you alright?" she asked.

Sol's vision slowly sharpened as Anyel came into focus, but there was something different about her.

"Am I dead...?" he asked. His own voice sounded strange, he thought, as though he was hearing himself from behind a wall.

"No," said Anyel. A lock of her hair drifted past her eyes and floated upwards—and Sol suddenly realised what was wrong. He looked down and saw his feet dangling idly beneath him. The ground of the cave was many feet below, covered in brightly coloured plants which emitted a dim but pleasant glow. He watched as a shoal of little blue fish swept through the water beneath him and turned up sharply. They swam straight past him and above his head, disappearing through a narrow fissure in the ceiling.

"We're underwater..." Sol said, and he immediately clamped his hands over his mouth and nose as the feeling of suffocation returned.

"It's alright," said Anyel. "These waters give life; they do not take it. Try it. Breathe."

With some hesitation, Sol removed his hands from his face and took a small breath. The sensation was utterly bizarre. He could feel the water rushing through his nose and down his core into his body where his lungs swelled to receive it. Not only didn't it choke him, but it felt clean—cleaner than any breath he'd ever taken.

"I'm breathing water," he said.

"Yes."

"I... I thought I was drowning."

Anyel's expression changed suddenly to one of sadness. "I am so sorry. I wish I had time to tell you but I had to get you away from the Palace. I am so very sorry." Her chin started to quiver.

"It's alright," Sol said, though he was still very shaken. "It was a shock, sure, but I'm alright now."

Anyel shook her head. "But you must have been terrified!"

"Honestly, I'm alright. I just... I'm still getting used to it. Where are we, anyway?"

Anyel wiped her face as though she was wiping away tears. "We are in the Sacred Springs, far beneath the Palace."

"Beneath the Palace?"

"It's alright, they won't find us here. It's very easy to get lost down here if you don't know the way—and I have brought us somewhere only I know about."

Sol didn't know if that was supposed to reassure him, but he suddenly felt quite claustrophobic. The cave was not small, but every direction he faced looked the same and there was no clear way out.

"It is believed that the Elders acquired their long lives by drinking from these waters over many centuries," continued Anyel. "Many of us also believe that the trees who took the Spring's water into their roots eventually became the first Dryads, but that was so long ago that nobody can know for certain."

"What about you?" Sol asked.

"What about me?"

"Do you live as long as the Elders?"

Anyel shook her head. "The Pacisian Merfolk can live for several centuries which is a lot more than any other Merfolk clan, but it's nothing compared to the Elders. You would think we should live longer. Perhaps it's something to do with breathing the Dryad's air."

"Why did you help me?" Sol asked.

Anyel frowned. "Because you needed my help."

"But how did you know you could trust Tiruk? He was trying to take me away from the Palace."

"I know."

"But do you know why?"

"I imagine it's because he doesn't trust the Emperor."

"And do you? Trust the Emperor?"

Anyel paused to consider her reply. "I have known Farahl for a very long time. He is like a second father to me. He has always been kind and generous..."

"But?"

"But in recent years, I have seen him change. It is hard to put my finger on what has changed, exactly, but there is something there which wasn't before. I can see it in his eyes. He is old, even for an Elder. His body can withstand time, but his mind, I think, has slipped. I think he might be close to his end; he is drinking from the Spring much more often than he used to. And lately, I have heard him muttering to himself."

"Muttering what?" Sol asked, remembering Tiruk saying something similar.

"I never heard what, but I did not like the tone of it. He seems much angrier than he once was—under the surface, at least. And now with Pan Magal's death... well, it would not surprise me if Farahl had something to do with it. I believe he is getting desperate."

Sol nodded. "Desperate to extend his life." He looked at the ring on his hand and felt like a big piece of the puzzle had finally clicked into place. Whatever small amount of trust the Emperor had earned from him instantly dissolved... and yet he felt more pity than he did anger.

He had seen only too well what time could do to an old mind, the way it could twist and manipulate it into something dark and unfamiliar, like a reflection in a broken mirror.

"What should we do?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," said Anyel, "but we can't stay here forever. By now, I expect the Emperor will have sent word to my father of what I've done."

"Your father... the King?"

"Yes. He will not be happy, but it will be better if we go to him rather than him come to us. I may still be able to calm his wrath." Anyel took his hand and pulled him gently towards the ceiling where the fish had escaped.

"How do you know he won't send me straight back to the Palace?" Sol asked.

Anyel shrugged as her great tail propelled them through a dark and narrow gap. "I don't."

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