The blast of sunlight forced her to close her eyes. Normally, such an act would greatly inhibit vision. But Sarah found that with the light pulsing against her eyelids the image of the ground below her was even clearer than before she jumped. What surprised her was the difference. She was prepared to land in the swirling, stormy river that was underneath the bridge she had just crashed into, but with her eyes closed, she saw flat ground. It was wooden, but not the rough kind you see in nature. This floor was sanded down and polished. And it was close to impact.
Sarah flashed open her eyes, gasped in a deep breath and braced herself for impact.
It never came.
As soon as she opened her eyes, all movement stopped. And sound. The rushing of water and wailing of sirens and screaming of helpless people on the sidelines, all faded. It was replaced with nothing, so all she heard was her fast breathing and her heart beat pounding in her ears. All she saw was the polished wood floor an inch from her face. No part of her touched it. She was suspended in air, in the diving pose she'd taken as she leaped off the bridge seconds earlier.
Slowly, she straightened her body. Her limbs moved easily through the air as if it were a solid thing, there to help her get back on her feet. As soon as her feet were solidly where they were meant to be, the air went back to being as thin and helpless and empty as before. There was much to take in about her surroundings, but the thing Sarah noticed first were the patterns They were swirling blues that danced across every surface. It reminded her of the zoo at the underground caves where you could see the penguins swimming through a glass. The reflection of the water danced like that. When Sarah looked up she saw why. The ceiling was made of water, but it wasn't smooth like glass or clear like a swimming pool. It was thick and choppy and had bumps for seaweed and little moving objects like fish. Beyond that was a faint light with dark objects outlined around the water. She would never know how long she stood there, gazing in wonderment at the sight before she realized what she was looking at- the river bed. She was underneath the river.
"Adeline." She whispered it at first, then it became her mantra, growing louder as she looked for the reason she'd jumped in the river in the first place: her car. And trapped inside of it was her daughter. Then her logic kicked in despite the obvious discrepancies in her current surroundings. If she was under the river at the point where she jumped in, her car would be further ahead, being pulled by the current. She ran forward, searching the ceiling for any large, quickly sinking object.
She brushed against objects as she ran, but she never hit anything. It was as if they moved as she rushed past them. She heard the hushed whisperings but mistook them for the flow of the water above. Finally she spotted it. A barely functioning teal green P.O.S., but it was her barely functioning teal green P.O.S. and it was lodged between two large rocks near the edge of the canyon, completely submerged and not going anywhere any time soon. It was stable. If she could reach it, maybe she could get Adeline out. It was a long shot, but she couldn't give up on the hope. The hope was all that was keeping her in one piece.
Sarah jumped up. The ceiling wasn't that far away. It looked like she could just reach up, grab onto a piece of seaweed and pull herself into the water and get to the car from there. Maybe that was why she was brought to this place, so she could reach Adeline faster than if she had tried to swim there. But every jump was the same. No matter how hard she pushed or how deep she bent, it was always just beyond her fingertips.
That's when the tears came. Tears of frustration, of helplessness, of anger and every failed jump brought a deeper cry of anguish. She shouted at the ceiling, like it was all its fault she couldn't touch it. When she looked for something to boost her up, the room was suddenly empty of all objects. When her legs gave up from fatigue, she collapsed into a pile on the floor and wept.
When she had no tears left, a hand touched her shoulder. Sarah whipped around, batting the arm away and getting to her feet with an energy drawn from surprise. She thought she was alone there. But the room was full again and this time Sarah looked at its occupants.
The hand that touched her was webbed and the creature it belonged to was the most beautiful she had ever seen. Her skin was blue like the ocean, her features human-like in the way that Sarah recognized them, but they were so much more delicate. The bottom half of her long body curved into fins that hovered above the ground. If Sarah didn't know better she would have used the term 'mermaid.' On top of the creature's head was a glittering crown. Queen of the mermaids.
The sight of her immediately calmed all of Sarah's worries. She felt peace and happiness and hope again. But deep in the pit of her stomach, Sarah was cautious of this sudden change, however much she liked it.
"What do you seek?" The creature asked.
"This Adeline you speak of?"
Sarah nodded, finding it too painful to speak.
"She is safe."
All the air rushed out of Sarah's lungs. "Where is she? Can I see her?"
The creature hesitated. She looked over her shoulder to a man who floated behind her. He also had a crown and a glowing trident in his right hand. The name Titan came to Sarah's mind, but she shook it away. This brought a smile to the man's lips. He nodded to his wife.
She brought both hands to the ceiling and parted the waters above. A glowing bubble appeared in the middle of the river. In the middle of the bubble was Adeline, asleep and peaceful and covering her cheek with one hand while the other made a pillow under her head. The familiar sight brought such joy to Sarah's heart that another tear escaped. This time its warmth on her cheek was welcome.
"Thank you." She told the creatures. "How can I ever repay you for saving her for me?"
The coldness in the woman creature in front of her was unexpected. Humans show pride and humility and a shared happiness when thanked for a good deed. It put the caution back into Sarah's happiness. "Did I say something wrong?" She asked.
"We saved her not for you." The woman bit out. "Our kind is unable to procreate. We must turn the likes of your young into our own and raise them as such. We have harvested your daughter for such a purpose."
Harvested. Purpose. The floor beneath Sarah spun as if the water had broken free from its ceiling barrier and swept her away.
"Such opportunities do not present themselves often enough." The creature continued. "We must take advantage of them when they occur."
Sarah kept shaking her head, as if that would erase the creature's words and make it so they never happened. "Why?" She asked.
"I believe I explained our inability to procreate."
"No, why did you bring me here if you weren't planning on giving her back?"
"We brought you nowhere. You are trespassing on our property. We know not how you came to be here. But we have decided not to execute you for such offense. We will give you the choice to go back to your world, free of harm. You should know this offer is not made to everyone."
"But I would be leaving alone."
"I am not leaving without my daughter."
"So be it. Your death will be easy to arrange."
Sarah kept shaking her head. This could not be happening. "There has to be another way."
"There is." The voice was male, deeper than the king's and it belonged to a creature on the sidelines who stepped forward. His gaze was on Sarah alone, though the gaze of every other creature was on him. Especially the two with the crowns. The queen's face turned purple, which Sarah could only assume was from a red blush mixing with her blue skin. She wore a pinched expression that didn't quite fit her delicate features. She was angry. The male continued despite all this. "The old rules state that a duel could settle the matter. Should the human win, her daughter would return to the surface with her."
"He is correct." The queen had retained her composure and spoke in her matter of fact voice. "But he fails to mention that should you lose, you will die. The offer we give now to return you to the surface unharmed will be revoked should you accept the duel."
"I accept." Sarah didn't hesitate. There was no question. No way could she go back to her life knowing she didn't do everything in her power to save her daughter. Death would be a welcome alternative to life without Adeline.
"So be it." The pinched look was back on the queen's face. With a wave of her hand the floor dropped away.
Sarah couldn't tell if another floor rushed up to greet them, or if they dropped down to it. Either way, no one moved while the surroundings replaced themselves, but Sarah tensed until her feet had a solid bearing beneath them again. When she saw what was now around her, she wasn't sure if it was a good change or not.
The young man who had spoken up in her defense walked toward her. He held his head high while studiously ignoring all the glares and whispers pointed in his direction.
"I am known as Bartholomew." He greeted her and then bowed.
"I'm Sarah." She wanted to curtsy, but felt awkward doing so in the jeans she was wearing, so she just kind of nodded at him. "Why did you help me?" She asked. "Everyone else is pretty mad at you. Won't you get in trouble?"
"Depends on the outcome. If you win, I suppose some measure of retribution will be played out. But do not be fooled by the external reaction of the crowd. Many of them are pleased at the distraction a duel presents. They merely exhibit shock and anger because that is what the queen wants from them."
"Oh. So you're not helping me. You're doing this for entertainment."
"I am sorry to disappoint, but our kind feels that the truth should not be lightened in order to spare feelings."
"Don't get me wrong, I do want a fair fight, as does everyone here. So I will explain the rules for you. Over there you see the glittering lights of the varanidae. You must reach them first and extinguish them. The queen is on her own starting point across the way." He pointed to the figure Sarah could barely see. "You are both exact distances from the lights."
Varanidae? Did he mean veranda? There were lights on a porch that she had to run to and put out? "Doesn't seem like much of a duel." She said, "Not that I'm complaining." She could totally do that. She ran track in high school. Then she saw the wicked smile that came to Bartholomew's lips and her confidence once again shattered.
"There will be challenges along the way." He said, but that was all he said.
"What kind of challenges?"
"The queen will be creating obstacles to stop you."
"Isn't that cheating?"
"You may also create challenges for her."
"Create? How do I do that? I can't create anything. I can barely bake a cake."
"You must be able to create. You would not have been able to breach our barriers if you could not create." Sarah just looked at him with wide eyes and crooked eyebrows. He sighed. His webbed fingers brushed against her stomach. It tingled as it often did when she was nervous about something. "You feel that?"
"That is your core energy source. Call it what you like. That is what you must use when you envision what you want to create. Then it will be."
"As simple as that?"
He nodded slightly, bowed in farewell and stepped back from Sarah and into the crowd floating on the sidelines. The crowd then disappeared from sight, but its voices were loud and clear as they shouted encouragement and disparities in equal force.
The tingling nervousness pitched higher in her stomach. She thought for a second she might throw up. It was about to begin.
The note sounded deep and low and long, the crowd cheered and the figure in the distance she knew to be the queen launched from her starting place. Sarah ran forward, keeping her eyes on the lights, in order to keep her goal in mind, remind her of why she was doing this in the first place. She was thinking of Adeline when the flat road changed into sand and her feet tripped over the sudden difference. She hit the ground with a thud. She jumped back up, spitting sand out of her mouth, but still able to run. Although the sand slowed her down considerably, she could still do this. That was the mantra that repeated in her mind. She could figure this out.
She had to tell herself not to look over at the queen. It will not help. Scary movie rule #3: Never look behind you when the bad guy is chasing you. It only slows you down.
The ground shook slightly, that was the only warning before a giant scorpion crawled out of it, teeth bared, pincher swinging. It was bigger than she was. She slammed on the brakes, closed her eyes and thought, briefly, of what Bartholomew said about the tingly nervous feeling being the core of her energy source. She crashed into something solid. When she opened her eyes she expected to be staring into the belly of the scorpion, but once again, she underestimated the realm she had entered. She stared, instead, at a wall. It was as high as the water ceiling and, apparently, strong enough to keep the scorpion at bay because she could hear it crashing around on the other side. She touched it gingerly and smiled. She did this. It was on her mind as she thought about the energy source. If that was all it took, she could totally do this. Her confidence wasn't just bluffing anymore. She actually felt capable. Still nervous, but less like she was going to die at any moment.
The scorpion couldn't go over the wall because it was too high and it couldn't go around the wall because it extended as far as Sarah could see; which meant it also reached into the queen's path. Sarah allowed herself a moment of triumph when she saw the queen picking herself up off the ground, having hit the wall much the same way Sarah did. Her triumph was short lived when the queen waved a hand and a hole blasted through it and she continued on her way, unabated. That would have to change. If she could create a wall, certainly Sarah could create a beast as well. The first one that came to mind was a jaguar. She made it bigger than life and venomous, just to get even.
Now she had her own beast to contend with. There were chants from the unseen crowd for her to "kill, kill, kill" the scorpion. But she wouldn't even know how to go about doing that, let alone with what. She didn't watch scary horror movies filled with different arrays of killing methods and tools. What she did do, was play World of WarCraft. So she took a page from her favorite character, a Priest, and she created a protective bubble around her. Then she burst a hole in the wall, took a deep breath, and barrelled through. She had no idea if this would even work. So when the scorpion screamed its battle cry in her face and lashed at her with its tail, she didn't breath, she just kept running as fast as her feet would take her.
The tail bounced off her bubble, rebounded into the scorpions face, maiming its eye and leaving it behind in the dust. Yes! She made it! And the queen was behind her now, still battling with the leopard. The queen noticed Sarah's advance and made some sweeps with her hand. A hole caved in the floor, but Sarah countered it by giving the bubble levitation powers and she sailed right over it. Two large crocodiles snapped at her feet, but they couldn't pierce the bubble, either and they couldn't keep up with her fast pace.
The beasts kept coming, faster and more of them, but Sarah dodged and kept her bubble up and just ran and ran, keeping the finish line in sight no matter how many creatures were following her. If she could make it to the lights, she would be safe. So she assumed. She had no idea what it would take to extinguish the lights, if she would need water or tools, but those would be easy to create at this point. The trick would be doing that with this herd of things trying to kill her at the same time. That was one downside of not killing each one as they came up. But she would worry about that when the time came.
Finally, the lights were within her reach, but they were up on top of a raised cage-like structure so she couldn't see them until she climbed the stairs. But as she climbed, she wasn't looking at the lights. She was looking at all the creatures that were ravenous man-eating beasts only seconds ago. Now they stopped clawing and swiping at her and they sat down on the floor and looked up, watching. This unnerved her slightly. Was it because the game wouldn't let them go beyond that point or was it due to the animal's hierarchy where they step down when a larger foe is around. For some reason, Sarah didn't think it was the first one.
She was right. How she wished, for once, she could be wrong. The lights inside the cage were inside a cage for a reason. They weren't simple, pretty lights attached to candles or even torches. They were attached to large, slithering lizards. She recognized one as a Komodo Dragon she'd seen in a zoo once with Adeline. Only this one had large scales and sharp teeth poking out of its snout. And it stalked around like it was hungry. Each dragon had a light at the end of its tail that whipped around, out of reach until you dealt with the business end.
And she had to extinguish the lights. Meaning, she assumed, she had to extinguish the animal.
There were loud, shuffling noises behind her when she got to the top step and she looked behind her at the animals to see them all parting to the sides and backing away slowly. The queen was making her way to the front. She was more haggered than when Sarah first saw her and she was covered in dark red and blue liquids. All the beasts the queen had created to attack Sarah, Sarah created a duplicate and sent it to the queen. And the queen was covered in the remnants of their deaths. She didn't look like she was going to start hacking away at the beasts lined up to watch Sarah, but they weren't talking any chances. They gave her a wide berth.
Sarah stood there, waiting for the queen to make her move, but the queen only smiled a wicked smile, bowed to Sarah and waved for her to continue. She was waiting for Sarah to die before taking her turn.
Well, Sarah wasn't exactly one to do what other people expected.
The moment Sarah stepped onto the top stair, the bars of the cage widened to encircle her within their confines. The lizards didn't waste any time. They lunged and snapped and fought each other for the right to rip her limb from limb. When all they met was bubble, it only enraged them further. Sarah didn't have much of a plan beyond this. In order to kill them, she'd have to break the bubble but she'd only be able to kill one, maybe two at a time and the other lizards would surely get her by then. So she circled them, watching for weaknesses, while searching her brain for all the Animal Planet episodes involving reptiles she could think of.
The heckling from the crowd grew louder. "You're going to have to come out of that bubble sometime!" "Just do something already!" "Where's you're human superiority now?"
There was something about the way they said 'human' like it was a curse word that inspired Sarah. She did have an advantage. She had legs and unwebbed fingers and the internet. Mainly gaming sights. She stole one idea from World of WarCraft and it worked out pretty well for her. So she came up with a plan, took a deep breath and released the bubble.
There was no safe place on the ground to stand, so Sarah jumped onto the back of a pile of three lizards too busy fighting each other to worry about her. When the bubble fell away she blew all the air in her lungs into the palm of her hand where she had created a sleeping potion. She made sure it was all gone and didn't take another breath until the bubble was around her again so she wouldn't accidentally breath any of it in.
One by one, the lizards stopped wrestling, stopped fighting and fell heavily to the ground. When the last one twitched its tail, Sarah dropped the bubble again, this time with a sword. She went to the closest one and hacked off the very tip of the tail with the light on it. The light fell to the ground, fickered and went out. It worked. And the lizard was still breathing. She didn't have to kill them after all. She went to each lizard, one by one and cut off its light, sometimes having to heave one lizard off of another one below it to get to them all.
When she was finished, she headed toward the stairs, wanting to get out of there before the lizards woke up, but the queen stood in her way. Her smirk was gone and that pinched look was back on her face. Sarah held her sword up, but all the queen did was wave her hand.
The ceiling crashed. Sarah barely had time to drop the sword and get in a breath before the water swept over her. Instinctively she pushed her feet off the floor and swam up to the surface. Off to the right, Sarah saw a glowing bubble. Adeline! She changed her direction to grab her daughter, hoping that she was still asleep inside a nice, warm bubble. The water was freezing cold and moving in the opposite direction as Sarah. The air in her lungs pressed against her insides, bursting to get out and Sarah could see the choppy waves just above her. She could get to the surface, get a breath and come back down but fear kept her on a straight course. There was no way of knowing if she'd be able to find Adeline again once she left the water.
By the time Sarah reached the glowing bubble, her head pulsed from the pressure and her vision was blacking out. The last thing she remembered was reaching into the glow, touching her daughter, alive and well, before passing out.
She came to sputtering water and coughing hot fire from her lungs. She sat up fast and hit her head on something hard that groaned. Groaned? Hard things don't groan. She dared to open her eyes. A man in a fireman's outfit was leaning over her, rubbing his head. Her hands were covered in mud from the shoreline where she was laying.
"Adeline!" She didn't have to search frantically for long. She was laying right next to her, soaking wet, but asleep and breathing. Sarah hugged her against her chest and sobbed quiet tears of joy. Another fireman was next to Adeline, smiling. Sarah looked at the two men by her. They were both, also, soaking wet.
"What happened?" She asked.
"You were in a car crash."
"Right. I was behind a semi that hit a patch of ice or something because it crashed into the bridge and I didn't have enough time to stop so I crashed into him. We were both dangling over the edge. He got out and came to help us. I got out, but Adeline was asleep in the back and she and the car both went over."
"We arrived just in time to see you jump in after the car. When we came to the water edge, you were both right over there," the fireman pointed to a short distance from shore, "trying to fight the current and get to the surface. We helped you out and gave you mouth to mouth, but the little one here, she was just fine. Sleeping through the whole thing, I think." He laughed but it wasn't a funny laugh. More like a thinking laugh. "It was wierd. When we saw you under the water it was as if you glowed or something. If it wasn't for that, we probably never would have found you. You were lucky."
Luckily Adeline chose that moment to stir around and wake up, otherwise Sarah may have been tempted to tell them the whole story and how luck didn't have much to do with it.
"Mom?" Adeline asked. She sat up and snuggled into Sarah's outstretched arms. "Mom, what happend? Why am I all wet?"
"We just went for a little swim. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Just tired. I think I'll go back to sleep. I was having a great dream about these mermaids and the fun palace they live in. Maybe if I go back, they'll let me stay with them."