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Caribbean Sea. 1758
“Go in, get the treasure, and get out again,” Captain Redscalp addressed the three crewmembers before him. He inspected them with whisky-brown eyes, the only part of his face – apart from the gnarled scar scrawled into his cheek, visible under the brim of his hat.
“We heard you, Captain,” his quartermaster Lewis said, rolling his eyes.
“Get the treasure, get out again,” repeated Arti, the parrot perched on Redscalp’s shoulder.
“I heard you, too,” Lewis snarled at the bird, who responded by ruffling his feathers.
“There shouldn’t be anything too dangerous down there,” Redscalp said, rubbing Arti’s belly with a russet-coloured finger.
“What do we do if there is? Something dangerous, I mean,” Priscilla whispered to Lewis when they were out of Redscalp’s earshot, pulling on diving helmets and flippers.
“Aim between the eyes. That’s an instant kill shot,” Lewis said, pointing between his own mud-brown eyes.
Priscilla nodded. “Between the eyes. I’ll remember.”
“You ready, me hearties?” Redscalp asked, a hand poised on the airlock door.
“Ready,” they replied, the shortwave crackling to life in their helmets.
“Ready,” Arti squarked.
“Alright, if what the merfolk told me is true, the stone is in a tunnel. It’s difficult to spot, so look for a skull and crossbones carved into a piece of amethyst. The smugglers left it there to mark it out,” Redscalp instructed. “Got all that? Then out into the briney deep you go. Remember, no prey, no pay.” He hit the airlock button and they were out in the open ocean, the Varuna floating above them, waiting for their return.
Priscilla would never tire of this feeling. She smiled at Robert through their helmets and took his hand.
“This is more romantic than any starry sky,” Robert said as they floated in the sapphire waters, schools of colourful fish skittering by and beams of sunlight basking from the surface.
“Yes, but not quite as stable,” Priscilla said as she grabbed him to save herself from floating away.
“Are you sure you’re feeling alright? You look a little green,” Robert said, cupping her cheek, his jade green eyes sparkling with concern.
“I’m fine. Stop fussing,” Priscilla said. She didn’t want to tell him she’d thrown up before they’d left. She’d been throwing up for the past few days and couldn’t figure out why. Perhaps it was the oysters the Varuna’s cook bought in Port Royal.
“Did you two forget we’re here to do a job?” Lewis hissed. “We’ll all get it in the neck from Redscalp if we don’t bring him back this stone.”
“Of course. Sorry, Lewis,” Priscilla said, reluctantly releasing Robert to swim down and join him by the rocks.
“Someday I’m going to drown that parrot of his,” Lewis said, inspecting the rock face.
“What did he mean by ‘merfolk’? Like mermaids? He hadn’t met actual mermaids, has he?” Priscilla inquired.
“I doubt it. He was probably pissed again and got a little too friendly with some narwhals. I’ll bet he heard about this stone from someone in a bar.”
“I found it!” Robert exclaimed.
They swam starboard, finding him brushing away sand from an amethyst no bigger than a tea saucer, the algae-covered remains of a skull and crossbones barely visible. Robert’s upbringing in a family of art collectors had gifted him with a keen eye. Priscilla would never have spotted it.
Looking closer, they saw the cave mouth, covered by seaweed tendrils. She would never have spotted that, either.
They pushed the seaweed aside and Priscilla snapped a torch, filling the cave with warm, golden light. It was so winding and twisting that they could easily get lost and never find their way out.
Thankfully, Rescalp had given them directions – ten feet inwards, second on the right, third on the left. They had no idea how he’d found that out, either. It was less of a headache not to question their Captain.
“There it is!” Lewis said when the torchlight hit a wooden box with a rusted brass clasp.
It had been locked once, but the metal had worn away after so many years underwater. He wrenched it open to reveal the stone – green with black spirals. It almost seemed to shimmer as Lewis cradled it, as if there were life within it and it knew it was being released from its prison. Lewis shivered.
“That didn’t need all three of us,” Priscilla griped. She often wondered why Redscalp sent her on these missions, for she always ended up lingering at the side doing nothing.
Lewis was a seasoned Pirate and Robert had a sharper eye than anyone else Undersea. She wondered if she would ever find her place on Redscalp’s crew. Perhaps it wasn’t the right place for her. Perhaps Robert didn’t need her as much as he claimed. Maybe she was holding him back.
“All good experience,” Lewis said as he safely stowed the gemstone in his inside pocket, patted it to double check it was secure, and turned.
Priscilla was about to tell him that watching the two of them doing all the work hadn’t felt like experience when they heard a noise. Faint but echoing. Coming from deeper inside the cave.
“What is that?” Priscilla asked, peering into the darkness.
“You hear all sorts of strange noises in caves like these. Don’t worry about it,” Lewis said, swimming back the way they’d come.
The sound continued, echoing across the walls.
“There’s something down here,” Priscilla said, her breaths coming so fast they threatened to short out her oxygen.
“It’s here,” Robert said, his face white.
They turned to see a creature emerging from the inky depths. It resembled a giant crocodile with several huge mouths, a scaled back, and angry eyes.
“Cipactli!” Priscilla cried, forgetting to swim and thrashing in place instead.
Robert froze, unable to tear his terrified eyes off the monster. Even Lewis stared with his mouth hanging open.
“It’s fine,” Lewis said. “These things can’t see well. I’ll turn on the sonar so the Varuna can find us.” He flipped a switch on his helmet. “Just back out slowly and it won’t-”
The monster roared, shaking the cave and pelting them with loosened stones. It propelled itself forward with its mighty tail.
Priscilla and Robert grabbed for each other’s hands at the same moment, holding on tightly as they swam.
They were barely out of the cave before the cipactli crashed out after them. Priscila tried not to think how close or how fast it was. She focused only on swimming to the Varuna. Redscalp would rescue them. He always did.
The breath left her suddenly. Something constricted around her waist. She was pulled backwards.
She beheld the cipactli’s fearsome eye. It viewed her with what she assumed was malice. She tried to move but something sharp dug into her torso.
Tears burned in her eyes as she realised she was in one of the cipactli’s mouths. She tried to struggle, which made a tooth rip into her stomach. She tried to free her arms. If she could at least reach the shortwave button on her helmet, she could signal for help. If she could grab one of her weapons, she could hurt the cipactli enough to release her. But her arms were held firm. One snap of the creature’s jaws and she would be ripped apart. One swallow and she would be in its belly.
She glimpsed around to look for anything which could save her. Instead, she saw something which stopped her heart. Robert was caught in the monster’s claw.
“Lewis, help us!” she shouted, even knowing he couldn’t hear her without the shortwave. She caught sight of him just above them.
He met her eyes and their gazes hung for a long moment. He didn’t move to help them. He didn’t even freeze or stare wide eyed in fear. He only reached for his own shortwave button. Good, he was going to call Redscalp for help.
“Captain, cipactli! It’s taken them. Start the engines, I’ll be right there,” he said, before releasing the button and turning away.
“Lewis! Lewis, help us,” she called, hoping he could at least hear her through their helmets, even faintly.
He didn’t turn back.
“You’ve betrayed us! Lewis!” Priscilla cried. She struggled harder and lost more breath, like her innards were being crushed and ripped apart.
In her hazy vision, she saw Robert wrench an arm free. He took his blade in hand, ready to hack at the crushing claw.
Only then did he notice her. His eyes, as bright and green as the jade stone, hung on hers. Pain floated in his eyes.
Her heart started beating again, uncontrollably fast. She knew what he was going to do. She tried to scream for him to save himself.
He gave her that calm, gentle, beautiful smile which always filled her heart with warmth. He slashed at the creature’s jaw.
It screeched so loudly that it could probably be heard all the way to Mexico. It recoiled and released Priscilla, who took in a gulp of air from her helmet’s rapidly depleting oxygen supply. The creature now had both claws wrapped around Robert. It observed him for a long moment, its mouths turning up into something almost like a smirk. Then, it dragged him down into the murky depths.
Priscilla tried to scream, but no sound escaped her. She tried to swim downwards, but it was already too far away for her to possibly catch up. She coughed violently. She was almost out of oxygen.
She tossed the helmet aside. It was weighing her down. She tried to swim, but paralysing pain wracked her body. The beast had broken her ribs. She floated alone in the wide-open ocean.
She could hear something. Not a monster. This almost sounded mechanical. Through her swimming vision, she saw another beast, nearly as big as the cipactli, coming towards her. This one resembled a shark, but ten times bigger.
No, it wasn’t a monster, she realised when it came closer. It was a submarine.
Its metallic jaws opened with a roar of metal and gears and engulfed her. They closed upon her and she saw the open ocean no more.