CHAPTER SIXTEEN: ABYSS (4/4)

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In the open sea, away from the twisted tunnels of the Sacred Springs, Anyel moved at a pace which was almost frightening. Sol wondered how fast she might go if she didn't have to drag him behind her. He was certainly not providing her any assistance; all he could do was keep a tight hold on her arm and gaze into the endless inky void ahead of them.

"About this Great Snake..." Sol said.

"Don't worry," said Anyel, "it's not the living kind; it is what we call the great current which circles the world. Most creatures avoid it because it can be hard to escape from. If you're not careful, it can suck you in and carry you for many miles before spitting you out into unfamiliar waters."

"But we're going into it willingly?"

"Yes."

Sol nodded, grateful to know that it at least wasn't a real snake.

There was little to see, if anything at all at times. The water was near black, even near the surface, and Anyel went out of her way to avoid as many creatures as she could. At one point, Sol glimpsed the murky shadow of what looked like a whale silhouetted against the moonlight, though it was shaped more like a swordfish with a long, sharp nose. Whatever it was, Anyel took them far beneath it and kept it as a distant shadow.

After what may have been one hour or three, Sol felt the water grow cooler and realised Anyel was taking them deeper.

"We are coming to the Great Snake," said Anyel over her shoulder. "Whatever happens, do not let go."

Sol nodded and tightened his grip—and just in time. The next thing he knew, he felt like something had just shoved him from behind, only it didn't stop. It pushed him and Anyel forwards with greater and greater force, so much so that Anyel stopped swimming and diverted all her energy into steering them into the current's flow. Whatever speed she was travelling at before suddenly seemed like a crawl. Sol felt almost like he was falling from a great height, picking up more speed with every second. He was convinced they were about to be thrown into a spin when the turbulence ended as abruptly as it had begun, and suddenly the water seemed still once again.

"That wasn't so bad," said Anyel, though she sounded a little shaken.

"We're inside it?" Sol said. "It doesn't feel like we're moving at all."

"Oh, we're moving alright. Just stay close; we can't risk getting separated. The current will do most of the work for us, but it will still be a long journey."

*   *   *

Travelling within the Great Snake was quite eerie. No matter how fast Anyel assured Sol they were going, time continued to drag slowly behind them and the night seemed like it might never end. Anyel added her speed to the current's during those dark hours to make sure they had a good head start, but when the first light of the morning poked its slender fingers through the surface of the water and the dark ocean canvas began to lighten, she allowed herself to rest and let the Great Snake do their swimming for them.

"We have gone far already," she said, peering into the waters around them. "We are south of Taristila."

"And that's good?" Sol said.

"Yes. At this rate, we should intercept the Kharkalis a full day before it reaches Teruntila. We may even reach it by sunset. What we'll do when we get there, however... I am not so sure."

"I've been thinking about that. I figure all we have to do is get the Captain's attention and get me taken onboard."

"Your plan is to hand yourself over to them?"

"Why not? If I can talk to the Captain and explain that the Emperor's the one who killed Pan Magal and that Goone's innocent, he will have to listen to me."

"Why should he listen to you?"

"Because I'm a human... and I've got the ring."

Anyel nodded but she still didn't seem too sure. "You may be right... but I still have a bad feeling about this."

"Me too, but I have to try."

*   *   *

Hours came and stayed and went like a long line of unwelcome visitors. Anyel rested and swam and rested and swam. They were making excellent time but the current had become much colder and Sol was starting to shiver. They were deep in the Ailuan Ocean, Anyel explained, referring to it as the Great Snake's belly. When Sol asked why it was called this, Anyel seemed reluctant to answer, but Sol was persistent and, eventually, Anyel explained how this was where many centuries of shipwrecks and the skeletons of mythical ocean monsters now rested. That was the power of the Great Snake. It sucked the debris from the ocean and dragged it down into the icy depths of the Ailuan where it deposited it in a vast graveyard.

"Sounds dangerous," Sol said.

"It's just cold and dark," said Anyel.

"So there are no creatures down there?"

Anyel did not reply.

"Anyel..."

"I do not know; I have never been here... but the Ailuan Ocean is home to the Ailu Merfolk, and we are now deep in their territory."

Her mention of the Merfolk rang a bell in Sol's memories, as though he'd heard it somewhere before. It took his a few seconds to remember.

"They're the ones who protect Teruntila, aren't they?" he said.

"So you've heard of them."

"Goone told me. He said they've been known to sink ships and leave those onboard to swim back to land."

"Yes... they've been known to do that. They are not the friendliest of Merfolk, but they are effective at patrolling the waters of Teruntila in case anyone should try to escape."

"Are we likely to come across them?"

"I shouldn't think so. We are hundreds of miles from Teruntila. The chances of coming across the Ailu here are as remote as—"

Sol was struck by a blow to his body so hard and fast he felt like he'd been hit by a train. He could not tell if he was still holding onto Anyel or not. All he knew was he was spinning and tumbling head over heels as the furious rush of the Great Snake's current announced itself once again.

When his brain and body stopped spinning and he was back in control of himself, he realised he had been ripped from the Great Snake and spat out, just like Anyel had warned. He could see the current in front of him, floating in the water like a translucent tube bending with the waves, very much like a snake's body.

Anyel, however, was nowhere to be seen.

"What kind of beast are you?" said a gravelly voice behind him.

Sol turned around as best he could in the water, and was met by the sight of what he assumed to be one of the Ailu Merfolk. Everything about him was white, from his long hair to his skin to his tail. He was nowhere near as big as King Phedeus, but he was just as muscular. In his hand was a spear, raised high and waiting to be thrown.

Sol felt the ring grow tight.

*   *   *

Yeah, yeah, I know... quit it with the cliffhangers already. To which I say this...

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