By Greta Timmins
SWALLOWED IN THE SEA
It began like this, with a girl and a monster.
The lighthouse rose from the rocks of the island like a sentry in the night. Its beam cast a soft and lazy glow as it moved through the air, silent and sure. The sea was quiet, and so still that the stars reflected on it like a mirror. The only sound was the gentle lapping of the water against the rocks, and the faint lilt of a violin.
At the top of the lighthouse stood a creature who had once been a boy. His hands were steady as he tossed more logs onto the fire. Around him were many mirrors, polished until they shone. He didn’t need to watch the flame all night. But he liked it up here. Sometimes, if the light was right, he could almost see land, far off in the distance.
In the ocean, a few yards away, floated the body of a human girl.
He had not yet seen her.
The sea whispered to her like a lullaby. Wake up, it sang. It is time for you to wake up.
Nina coughed, once, then twice, and her eyes flickered open. She tasted blood. With each breath, her memory came back to her in fragments. A large ship, dozens of other passengers. A hand, clutching Nina so hard that the knuckles had turned white. The feeling of great heat on her face. Screams. But she could not remember how she had gone from being on a ship to floating in the ocean. When she tried to comprehend them, the memories flickered and disappeared.
There was a hand grasping her wrist. Nina turned and saw a scaly green creature, murky beneath the sea. White hair floated around its wide, flat face, and a grin split it like a wound. Nina screamed, but only a faint noise escaped from her throat, rubbed raw by the sand and salt. She tried to yank her wrist away, but the creature had a vise-like grip.
“Hello, girl.” Its voice had a strange quality, as if more than one creature was speaking. “We haven’t seen one of you in a while.”
The creature brought its fingers up out of the water, and drummed them up and down Nina’s arm. Its nails were sharp, thin as needles, and covered in barnacles. Where they touched Nina’s skin, blood drew to the surface.
“We could take you down to the sand… you’d make a wonderful decoration… those eyes! But he wouldn’t like that… No. I suppose he wouldn’t like that at all,” it lamented. “I suppose I’ll have to summon the others.”
Nina began to flail.
The creature sighed. “Oh, don’t be like that. This isn’t going to be fun for me either.” It brushed its fingers against Nina’s scalp. “Sleep.” As Nina was pulled down into blackness once again, she swore she heard it whisper: “Soon you’ll be praying we had taken you after all.”
When she awoke, she was lying in a white feather bed, and there was a boy sitting beside her in a chair peeling a pomegranate. A white canopy floated around her, blown by the gentle sea breeze. She watched him. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Nina herself, maybe nineteen or twenty. His skin was golden brown, and his black hair had been combed carefully back. He wore a simple white shirt and dark pants. But when the boy looked up and smiled, Nina saw that his eyes were shot black all the way through. An icy feeling trickled down her back, for this was no boy at all.
If he saw her reaction, he didn’t show it, simply continuing to pluck fruit out of the pomegranate.
“Did you ever hear the story of Hades and Persephone?” His voice was gravelly, but surprisingly youthful. “When she ate a pomegranate, Persephone was bound to the underworld forever. You know, people say that she was kidnapped? But there are some stories where Persephone chooses to go. Some say she ruled so strongly that even Hades himself was in awe. Anyway, that’s not the point. These pomegranates won’t do that to you.”
It was with great effort that Nina was able to speak. “ Once, I saw a boy on the street who could play with shadows. They danced around his fingers like puppets. I wanted to stay and watch, but my parents forbade it. They said that I was not to talk to demons. I took one last glimpse as we turned a corner. The boy had become a shadow himself.”
“Well, you would be dead without my help,” he said. “Imagine what your family would say to that.”
Desperation, or maybe hope, flickered across Nina’s face, because the boy’s face changed too- to pity. “A shipping boat should pass by here in the next few weeks. It is run by your kind. You can paddle out to it, and they’ll take you to the mainland.”
He stood in one fluid motion, eyes already on the door. “My name is Nik. Your world hates magic. This place is a sort of sanctuary for it. You will need to be very careful. Know that this place is alive. Know that this place is trying to kill you.” His fingers drummed lightly on the wall. “The room next to us is rare in that it is both beautiful and safe. If you’re feeling up to it, I’ll meet you there for lunch.”
The room was a marvel. There must have been thousands of books, rising all the way to the top of the high ceiling. Light fell from the windows in interlocking patterns. In the center of the room, a large eel coiled lazily around the fountain, as easily as if it were in water instead of air. Schools of fish darted about, ranging in colors from blood red to bright gold. A shark went gliding past her ear, so close it could have bitten her. Staring up toward the ceiling, Nina felt as if though she were at the bottom of the ocean.
“What,” she said breathlessly, turning to Nik, “is a library like this doing here?”
Nik smiled, though not without bitterness. “Hiding, I suppose.”
Nina watched in wonder as a large, translucent octopus oozed its way between two bookshelves. “This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen.”
Nik threw his head back and laughed. “Just you wait.”
He had set a table for lunch. On it was a salad, some meat, and a glass of water. Nina took heaps of the salad, but eyed the meat with distrust. Nik, she noticed, had nothing on his plate.
“It’s chicken,” he said. “We have them here on the island.” He muttered something to himself, and a large goblet appeared on the table. It was filled with an oozing black liquid that smelled like tar. He took a long sip. Nina watched, half in disgust, half in awe.
“Don’t look so impressed. I only brought it up from the kitchens. Creating something out of nothing would be impossible.”
“I know.” Nina admitted, blushing a little.
“Oh?” Nik cocked an eyebrow. “You know something about magic? Forgive me if I’m rusty on my human laws, but isn’t that illegal?”
“It’s only illegal if you get caught.”
When Nik laughed, the shadows of his eyes seemed to dance too. “We are going to have great fun, you and I. Great fun.”
Nik was right. The library was only the beginning. The island was filled with strange and beautiful things. One room was filled with stars, and standing there felt like standing in the middle of the night sky. In the garden, pumpkins grew as large as houses. And there was a small wooden door on the second floor of the lighthouse that opened out onto a forest. The trees formed a canopy, so close together that only slivers of golden light were able to dance along the forest floor. The trees whispered in a melodious language that Nina did not understand. Nik told her that the trees told riddles, riddles so old that the answers were no longer known. Nina insisted on walking there an entire day, but even then, they did not see the whole of it.
Unlike some of the other rooms of the lighthouse, Nina was allowed to go into the forest on her own. The only rule was that she had to take a ball of twine, tie it to a post by the door, and hold onto it as she moved through the woods. That way, she’d always be able to find her way back.
Nina learned that the lighthouse had a mind of its own, and that not everything on the island was kind. When she lay in her bed at night, sometimes, she thought she could hear screams. Other times, she thought she could hear singing. Neither sound was human. But Nik stressed over and over again that to leave her room at night was to risk death. So she spent her nights safe in a little round bedroom, watching shadows shift and change beneath the door.
It was early morning when a tiger with a woman’s head, appeared as Nina sat in the gated garden.
“You smell delicious,” the beast purred. A forked tongue poked out of her mouth. “So much better than a bird.”
Nina froze. The closest thing she had to a weapon was the butter knife she had taken from the small kitchen that morning. She grasped the handle tighter in her hand.
“...and Nik would be angry, but Nik would recover, now wouldn’t he,” the beast mused as she paced around Nina. “Tell me girl, what has he told you? Do you laugh as you look at us, locked up here? What is it that he’s told you, that you will board a boat? Will this place become nothing more than a strange little story that you tell your friends? Do you long for home?... I long for my home too.”
With a whisper, Nik appeared next to Nina. Black shadows had oozed from his hands, pooling at his feet. “How nice of you to show up here, Lila. I see it’s time to redo the garden wards.”
The beast Lila smiled, revealing rows and rows of sharp teeth. “Nikolai. Always so protective of your humans. We could feast on her together, you know. Are you not hungry?”
Time stood still for a terrifying moment. But then the shadows at Nik’s feet began to writhe and spin towards the beast, and Lila backed away. Her amber eyes found Nina’s. “Ask him what the trees want.” Suddenly the beast leaned forward, so that her hot breath was right against Nina’s ear. “Ask him what is beneath the lighthouse.” Then, Lila turned and bounded away.
Nina’s hands were shaking. The shadows still licked at the ground, sweeping over her feet. When they touched her, a piercing cold shot through her body. Slowly, the shadows receded.
Nik took a heavy breath. “I’m sorry. Lila’s mostly harmless. She just wanted to scare you. But I’ll fix the shields tonight.”
“What did she mean when she said to ask you what the trees are saying?” Nina said, voice wavering.
“She meant nothing. This island serves as a magical sanctuary. The beings on this island have come here to seek protection, but some of them resent their confinement. They are bored with it. Lila just likes to cause trouble.” He offered her a hand. “Shall we go back to the lighthouse? I promise you, the forest is still safe.”
Nina took his hand, but as he guided her back to the house, she watched the grass blow in the wind where Lila had stood. There had been hatred in the creature’s eyes, real hatred.
She hoped Nik couldn’t feel that she was shaking.
The next day, Nina explored the forest, traveling farther than ever before. The light that trickled through the trees grew dimmer the farther she went. Soon, long shadows swept across the forest floor, and it was difficult to see more than a few paces in front of her.
The trees began to sing. Their melodic voices were forlorn, humming in a steady tune that brought tears to Nina’s eyes. She found herself in a clearing. There were lights here, floating lanterns moving idly through the air. They cast a golden glow, illuminating several dozen large stones. It took Nina a second to realize that these were gravestones. Gravestones bearing human names.
Nina opened her mouth. She was crying, her tears falling onto the roots of the trees. Perhaps she possessed a little magic of her own, because the trees’ songs wove themselves into words that she could understand. They spoke of terrible things. For these were not trees at all. They were ghosts. Nina stood in what might have been the most dangerous part of the dense forest. A pool grew where her tears had fallen onto the ground. Nina wasn’t sure if it was her own will or the whispers of the dead that guided her next movement when she stepped into the water.
Instantly, she stood in a long room on the edge of the sea. Light glimmered through the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was as though she stood at the bow of a great ship.
“Daughter.” A warm hand touched Nina’s arm. She turned, and found herself staring into the worn, smiling face of her mother. “How I’ve missed you.”
“Mother!” Nina cried, launching herself into her arms. She was warm to the touch. Human. Real.
“Do you have any food for your darling mother?” Abruptly, Nina noticed how thin her mother was. Skin hung off of her body, and her cheeks were sunken. Her grip grew hard on Nina’s shoulders, and her nails pierced Nina’s skin. “Hungry. I am so hungry.”
Her mother’s face began to change, writhing and twisting, as wings sprouted from her back. Nina wrenched herself away, and fell back into the blackness. She found herself in a small black room. In the corner sat a small child.
“Hello!” His mouth split into a wide smile. “Have you come to play with me? I do love to play.” He held out his hands. They were dark, slicked red with blood. A tightness began to constrict around Nina’s throat. Her vision blurred. The boy laughed. It was a child’s laugh, high and tinkling. Nina wondered if it would be the last sound she ever heard.
Breathless with laughter, the child spoke: “I’ve missed this, you know. I’ve been locked up here for so long. Not on any map, no way out. Do you know that? Even outside this cell, there’s no way off the island. Anyway, I’ve missed hearing a human scream.”
Nik’s cold voice echoed through the room. “Release her.”
Shadows began to lick across the boy’s ankles and arms. He wailed. The grip on Nina’s throat released. And out of the shadows, Nik appeared, to rest his hand lightly on her arm. Nina flinched.
“There are much worse places you could be, boy.” Nik’s voice was a caress filled with malice, as the shadows danced across the boy’s arms and legs. “Don’t you forget it.”
He turned his black eyes to Nina. In that moment, she thought Nik might kill her too. “Let’s get you out of here.”
A darkness came around them, and when it fell away, they were back in the lighthouse. The boy’s words echoed in her ear: Even outside this cell.
“This isn’t a sanctuary.” Nina whispered. “This is a jail.”
“Yes,” Nik breathed.
“And what are you? The jailor, I presume?”
“There are beings down there that can kill with a mere look, Nina. What’s strong enough to imprison creatures like that? Only something even worse than them.”
There was a thumping in Nina’s ears. “You.”
“Yes. Oh, I am a prisoner here, too. But in exchange for keeping the others quiet, I am allowed to roam the island.”
“How did the people in the forest die?”
He did not seem particularly surprised by the question, or that she had discovered the graveyard in the forest. “Some went down into the jail. They were not so lucky as you. But most of them simply died of old age.”
Nina let that sink in. Most of them had died of old age. She heard the boy’s words again: No way off the island.
“You lied to me,” Nina spat at him, and strode from the room. Nik was silent as he watched her go. In the pounding of her heart Nina could feel the magic that bound her there. It was woven through the very foundation of the island, strong and alive.
But magic can be broken, Nina thought. She smiled.