Domiq's jaw dropped at the mention of the one place in all the ocean every mer feared. Castle Grinnich had been carved out of the edge of one of the world's deepest trenches by an unknown, and greater feared, creature whose name had been long forgotten. Every mer-child had heard stories of a great evil resided there and claimed the soul of any trespasser who dared enter and none of those who ventured there ever returned, lending credence to the old tales. What resided there now something powerful, dangerous and always willing to strike a bargain. The idea that Antoni would go there frightened him.
No! He grabbed his friend's wrist. You can't go anywhere near that place!
Let go of me, Domiq. The look in Antoni's eyes told him just how far his obsession with the yellow-haired boy had gone. I will go wherever I please. He ripped his arm away and swam off.
Think about what you're doing. I know you think you'll get what you need but we both know that whatever the price, it will never be worth it. He followed close behind though not close enough to grab and force Antoni to stop. Let go of this... infatuation and be the prince you were born to be.
Don't try to convince me I'd be happier here; we both know that's not true. He looked back, his eyes filled with determination and something else Domiq was afraid to acknowledge. I must do this. If I don't, I'll never fill the hole inside.
If mer were capable of tears, Domiq knew he would have shed them. He knew there was something missing from Antoni, something that he, no matter how hard he wished to, could never fill. He also knew that his friend would travel to Castle Grinnich with or without him and decided to follow along in the hop that he could keep him from making a grave mistake.
* * *
The area around Castle Grinnich was different from that of the empire; the moment the border was crossed, it was known. It was both warmer and cooler, strangely at the same moment, and heavier, as though something other than water covered it. The narrow entry to the castle’s front gate was littered with the bones of many failed attempts to capture its inhabitants; every war raged in the empire’s name against him was met with a brutal and efficient loss.
Domiq felt nothing but evil in this place and wished to turn back but Antoni seemed determined to go all the way; he was convinced his future began here and would not leave without finding it. Domiq, ever loyal, stayed with him, though fought hard against the fear that threatened to paralyze him.
* * *
Have you ever journeyed this far? Antoni asked.
Never. Honestly, I don’t even want to be here now.
So go back home.
Not without you.
I’m not turning back.
That’s why I’m here.
As they approached the entrance, the gate opened before them. Hidden behind the reefs that surrounded the castle was dark, murky water around and above them and, what seemed, and endless pit below. Domiq grabbed Antoni’s hand and squeezed as they swam across to, what most believed, to be the entrance.
So, how do we get in? Domiq ran his hands against the smooth rock as he searched for any evidence that they were at the door. There’s nothing here.
There has to be. Antoni pushed against the wall, put pressure on various spots. Others have come here before us. Just keep looking.
Come on, Ant, just stop-
The ground rumbled and shook as the wall split and slid open. On the other side was a long, dark hallway. Without a word, Antoni swam in and disappeared into the darkness. Domiq said a silent prayer before following him in.
The water felt different to Antoni; it seemed almost lighter as a cool tingle traveled along his skin. Small bursts of bright light sparked around him and in those quick glimpses he saw he had left the hallway and entered a large, round room. The bursts continued until they filled the room in a giant flash and illuminated the large, near-empty space.
In front of him, dead center of the room, was what looked to him a small, blackness. He swam closer to it, reached his hand out. A sudden shock stung his fingers and he pulled his arm to his chest.
It’s rude to go touching other peoples’ thing, you know. Didn’t your mother teach you proper manners, dear prince?
Antoni spun around, sought out the source of the voice. I’ve come to strike a bargain.
You have, eh? And why would I be interested in a bargain?
That’s what you do.
Don’t toy with me, witch.
I would never even think to do such a thing, prince. The blackness began to move and grow and filled the room with its strange essence. Now in the center was a boy, or at least what looked like a boy, with a long, serpentine tail coiled beneath him. Now, dear prince, what do you wish of me?
I want to be made human.
The boy-witch smiled. Why would you want that?
Why do you need to know?
So why do you care.
Antoni balled his fists, annoyed and ready to lash out. Will you help me or not?
The boy-witch smirked. Yes, I think I will. But, it won’t be cheap. Are you ready to pay the price, prince?
I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.
Alright. I’ll give you legs. But you must have a human give themselves to you completely, body and soul. And you must do this in one year and one day. If you do not, what you give me shall remain mine to do with as I please.
Fine, fine, just tell me what you want.
The boy-witch uncoiled his fin and wrapped it around Antoni, pulled him close. Your soul. He ran his fingers through Antoni’s hair. Do we still have a deal?
He stared into the witch’s eyes, his expression hard and his resolve harder. Yes.
In that case, let’s kiss on it.