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Chapter 15

“Don’t be lazy,” Ethan muttered when John stopped in the middle of their trek to catch his breath. John hunched over breathing in and out before looking up to give Ethan a dirty look. He straightened up soon after before continuing the trek with Ethan.

“These men have barely had legs for two days and they’re keeping up fine,” Ethan mocked, as they continued to walk. John ignored him, looking down at his boots as they stumped on the coarse sand.

They’d been to two out of the three islands and this was the third one. They’d searched by the beach before deciding that if the witch was attempting to stay hidden she would probably be keeping Jeffery in a cave or by a rocks giveaway.

Aquas walked about, fiddling with the collar of the long-sleeved cotton shirt he was wearing. Everything from it to the trousers to the boots he had on was unnervingly uncomfortable. Aquas frowned in irritation, rolling up the baggy sleeves although he was well aware they’d roll back down within minutes.

He turned to his side to observe his brother, his best friend and the gatherer’s head Althorn. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who was finding the clinging pieces of cloth uncomfortable.

He wondered how humans paraded in them, especially the women who he saw occasionally on the decks of ships with their puffy garments and towering hairstyles.

A feeling of anxiousness and strain started to take over Ethan when he saw that the search was becoming fruitless.

John, seeing his friend’s frustration stopped the search and asked everyone to take a break. They soon set up a small camp, lighting a fire before getting comfortable around it.

Aquas and the other mermen stayed far away from the fire. John and Ethan had made fires in front of them prior to that but it still instilled fear in them. The myths regarding fire and the destruction it could cause still unnerved them even though John tried to assure them it was safe.

Aquas kicked off his boots soon after, wigging his toes. His toes were pink and bruised from being squashed too long within small-sized boots. He watched his toes with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. Toes looked like overfed worms to him, and it became apparent that he wasn’t the only one who thought so when Ramie glared at him to stop wiggling them.

The afternoon passed before their very eyes and it was soon officially evening. Ethan and John only had the night and the next day left on the harbor. If they couldn’t find Jeffery by that time they’d have to leave without him.

When the others slipped from small talk to sleeping, Aquas wasn’t sure what to do. He’d fiddled with his fingers as he looked from sleeping person to sleeping person. Their camp wasn’t exactly sited on the beach. They were a little into the vegetation.

Aquas sat up blinking back tears that had started to whirl up due to worry. He blinked furiously, cleaning his eyes with the back of his hand. He was frustrated and he wasn’t sure why water was coming out of his eyes. He wondered whether it was normal for humans before his thoughts drifted into wondering why Encaca wasn’t there yet.

He sniffed, running a hand through his hair as he looked at the fire that had burnt out to a brightly glowing red pile of sticks and ashes.

His attention was soon taken by the sound of shuffling in the dry leaves. He panicked, hugging his knees to himself. He’d seen walking creatures on land and they scared him. He held his breath again when the shuffling resumed, briefly contemplating whether he should wake the others or not. He didn’t want to make a scene over anything, so he settled with shaking out of fear until whatever animal it was passed by.

The sound of shuffling became more clear — closer. Aquas shivered as it became evident that the sound was coming from behind him. He blinked furiously, biting his lip to prevent himself from letting out any sound. The noise faded away soon after, but it got the best of Aquas’ curiosity when he spotted moving human legs from the gaps in the bushes.

It’s a human? He thought to himself, placing a hand on his forehead as he tried to recover from the fright he had just received.

Aquas’ mind started to wonder what in the world a human doing on the beach this late at night on the beach when he began to feel calm. It didn’t make sense to him, no one lived around.

A small gasp left Aquas’ lips when a wave of realization overcame him.

The witch. He thought, getting up before looking down at the others. He contemplated waking them up but the thought of the witch getting far made him think otherwise. Without even slipping his feet back into his boots, Aquas hurried into the bush, following the small path of newly tampered grass. His heart sunk in fear when he spotted the witch’s strolling figure in front of him. He slowed down his pace, making sure to stay by the bushes as he followed her through the path.

His heart beat against his ribcage as he thought of what would happen if she just decided to turn. It would all be over and he wouldn’t be able to see his human again.

He followed her until they came into a clearing in the bushes filled with displaced rocks about a small hill.

Aquas’ eyes widened. They’d only been searching the caves that had been carved out by erosion by the beach, they hadn’t thought of looking within the vegetation itself.

He paused, watching the witch disappear into a cave whose entrance was skillfully hidden behind the vegetation surrounding the hill. Aquas hurried after her, making sure his feet didn’t make any noise as he tried his best to walk on his tiptoes in other not to crush dry leaves and twigs.

He let out a breath of relief and lowered his feet when he got to the cave’s entrance. He flatted himself against its side, peeping through the vegetation to stop Jeffery who was bound into a rock with a series of ropes.

Aquas’ heart fell at the sight. He couldn’t miss Jeffery’s hopeless expression. It was getting dark and the burning candles on the table the witch was working on at the corner of the cave was the only thing providing a dim yellow light. Aquas looked on at Jeffery in the partial darkness until the witch turned her head making him look away.

“It will take a while. I don’t have everything I need...” Aquas heard the witch’s voice trail. Her steps were almost soundless against the cave’s floor but Aquas could hear the low gasp Jeffery had let out. He clenched his jaw, knowing that the witch had made her way to him, and was hurting him in some way.

“Be a man and bare the pains, I only need a substitute to carry on with my spell. I’ve been away for a while. My Madame only gave me a few days of grace. I don’t have the time to source for the actual ingredients. I just hope it works. Time is running out...” Aquas heard the witch trail. She continued to talk in a hushed tone, her voice only interrupted by the occasional growl or whimper from Jeffery.

Aquas hugged himself as the chill breeze of the near night started to wear on him. He started to ask himself why he’d decided to come alone knowing fully well that he couldn’t help Jeffery. He didn’t know his way back to the camp either since he’d been more concentrated on following the witch instead of putting some thought into marking his path.

More hushed tones then a scream was what sent Aquas yelling in panic. His hands clapped over his mouth when a realization of what he’d just done hit him. He let out a gasp of fear before scrambling for the nearest bush in sight.

“What was that?” Aquas heard the witch’s voice ask as he hugged his legs to his chest. His hiding spot was unfortunately itchy and crawling with disturbed insects but Aquas tried to shut out the stings and bites he was receiving. There was no way he was letting himself get caught.

Aquas shivered when bright yellow light painted the clearing outside the cave. The witch was obviously out with a candle searching for whatever made the noise.

Aquas watched as the light beamed brighter then faded off from time to time. She was searching the areas around him and it seemed like an actual miracle that he hadn’t found him yet.

A feeling of relief filled Aquas’ chest when the light faded into the distance. The witch was wandering away, leaving the clearing for the distant bushes.

Aquas observed the light completely disappear into the bushes before he got up from the hell hole of stings and bites before hurrying to the cave the witch had abandoned. Aquas’ heart skipped a beat when Jeffery let out a gasp at the sight of him.

Aquas didn’t say anything as he approached Jeffery before hugging his bound body awkwardly. The human rested his head on the merman’s shoulder as the merman ran a hand through his blonde hair. Aquas’ hand left Jeffery’s hair to feel the line of small fresh slashes on his arms. Aquas blinked back his tears. What in the world had the witch done?

“What is she doing to you?” Aquas whispered, breaking the emotional and heart wrecking silence. Aquas’ cheeks were red from insect bites but Jeffery couldn’t miss his tear-stained face and his red partially swollen eyes.

Jeffery opened his mouth but nothing came out. He wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure how to put what the witch was doing to him into words since he’d been losing and regaining consciousness repeatedly.

“I don’t know...” he stuttered, pressing his lips against Aquas’ neck as the merman cried silently. “It’s good to see you,” Jeffery added, closing his eyes as he tried to live in the moment with Aquas.

Aquas didn’t acknowledge his greeting; he only pulled himself from Jeffery’s bloody figure that was in obvious pain.

“We need to get you out of here,” Aquas muttered, running his fingers over the rough strong ropes that bound Jeffery to the oddly shaped moss infested rock.

“Knife?” Aquas asked Jeffery in a low tone, knowing that the mere word was a reminder of the pain that had been inflicted on his human.

“It’s on that table — the area with the glowing candles,” Jeffery answered, making Aquas turn to the table adorned with burning candles.

Aquas shivered at the thought of fire but nodded at Jeffery before heading over to the area anyway.

Aquas walked over to the table, feeling the table that was cluttered with weird ornaments, containers, and books for a blade while trying not to knock down any candle that was bleeding wax onto the wooden table.

Aquas found the blade soon after, gripping at the wooden hold before hurrying back to Jeffery to begin to cut the ropes. The ropes were thick and Aquas began to worry if he would be done by the time the witch was back.

As the third out of six rope knots snapped, Aquas let out a relieved sigh.

“What if she comes in?” Jeffery asked as Aquas started to cut the fourth one.

“I don’t know...” Aquas answered honestly, pausing briefly to let his shaking fingers run over the bright pink marks the ropes had made across Jeffrey’s chest.

“I’m sorry this happened,” Aquas muttered with a choked voice. Jeffery’s condition affected him so much. It was as if he was the one physically injured. How wouldn’t he feel that way? Jeffery was the person he’d fallen in love with through an unnatural series of events.

“I’m sorry,” Aquas muttered again as he got up from his kneeling position to kiss the side of Jeffery’s face. Jeffery turned a little, silently asking for a more intimate one. Aquas let out a low chuckle that was stained with pain and hurt before he placed his lips over the chapped one of the human’s.

It was odd not kissing underwater. It fell warm and rough yet tender. Aquas shivered when Jeffery’s free hand ran across his cheek but the moment was cut short when a loud shout caused them to pull away from each other.

“Get away from him!” Aquas heard the witch scream as he distanced himself from Jeffery. He turned, his heart racing when he came face to face with the dark-haired woman. She was wearing a black dress and her anger stained features only made her look more terrifying under the yellow light of the candle she was holding.

“How dare you! I—” the witch was saying before her face clouded with a sudden shock. She placed her hand over her chest, gasping as Aquas and Jeffery watched in mixed horror and relief as she burst into a cloud of fine sand, her clothing and accessories making a neat pile on the floor.

“Are you two alright?” Encaca’s deep powering voice echoed through the cave as her figure came into view. Her human form was freakishly tall, probably accounting for her long mermaid tail. She was dressed in human garments with her wild curly hair held under a scarf. Aquas and Jeffery watched as she crushed the end of the still-burning candle that the witch had been carrying before she burst into a cloud of dust.

“Why did you leave without us? If it wasn’t for the lights and the screaming we would never have found you!” Althorn yelled as he came into view with the others. He was more than a head shorter than Encaca’s human form, and Yanus and Ramie were even shorter in comparison.

“Jeffery!” Yanus yelled as he half ran, half walked to a still bound Jeffery. Ramie smiled awkwardly at the pair before proceeding to help Aquas cut at the remaining ropes until Jeffery was completely free.

“What did she do to you?” Yanus asked, trying to engage with one of the closest friends he’d ever made. Jeffery gave him a small smile before his eyes drooped shut.

“He’s tired,” Aquas said, making Jeffery’s condition known.

“We found you mate,” they heard Ethan’s voice say as he and John came into view. Jeffrey’s eyes opened halfway to see his friends. He smiled awkwardly as they made to hug him and pat his shoulder in brotherly affection.

“You look terrible,” Ethan commented as a half-asleep Jeffery hung on to him in a hug.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be okay,” Encaca said. She was by the corner inspecting the witch’s table. “A little magic and rest will do, but I’m not sure he will be fit to leave with you by the time you have to leave,” Encaca confessed, tucking the red book she’d found on the table into a small waist bag.

“We understand,” John said as he and Ethan gave the witch a knowing look before looking down at their friend who had now completely passed out in Ethan’s had. He grumbled when Ethan tried to wake him up only to make his way into the arms of Aquas he was standing nearby. Jeffery sighed contently as he latched on to the smaller man like a second skin.

“Did you kill her... the witch that is?” Ethan asked just noticing the pile of human clothing and dust on the cave’s floor.

“No,” Encaca said turning to face the pile herself.

“I lessened her being and stripped her of her consciousness. She’s now part of the earth itself and unable to cause harm.”

“In other words, you turned her into sand,” John said, earning a crackle from Encaca. She smiled, turning to the table to pick up a potion bottle.

“Yes,” Encaca admitted, undoing the cover of the bottle before sniffing the potion. “Yes, I turned her into simple harmless sand.”

John nodded, looking over at his friend who was passed out on the small merman’s hands. The merman was holding on to him like he would break his face red and glazed with tears. John wasn’t sure what their relationship was but he could see they took a liking to each other.

Jeffery was taken from Aquas a while later so that Encaca could take a look at him. She occasionally communicated his condition to them, letting everyone know that Jeffery would be fine.

From the way Encaca looked at him when she did that, it was obvious she was trying to calm him down and give him assurance. Aquas appreciated it. He just wanted Jeffery to be fine- he just wanted his human to be okay.

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