A/N – There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the archangels posted over the weekend. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can see it right here
Pretty soon, Sinbad had us all divided into trios. Our job as a group was to work together to navigate one of several underwater mazes he had set up, reach a ship that would be waiting for us somewhere within, and then find the treasure on that ship. We were being scored on how efficiently we got through the challenge, how well we worked together, and how long it took. And, of course, on how much treasure we safely retrieved. There were actually six mazes, ships, and treasures, all of them apparently different. When one trio finished, another would start.
As far as the groups went, one person would stay up on this ship above the surface, using the makeshift map and notes they would be given to direct the other two through the maze and into the ship. From there, it would be up to the duo underwater to find the treasure safely. Apparently, whoever won would get a special prize from the man himself.
Of course, it wasn’t just about navigating the underwater maze and then ship. The pair down in the water would also have to deal with traps and fake attacks from ‘sharks’ and other potential monsters down there. Not my sharks, of course. I wouldn’t even put them in as fake opponents, just in case someone got carried away or they were confused. No, these ones were apparently entirely fake creatures summoned and controlled by magic. Though from the large octopus thing that Sinbad made poke its tentacles out of the water and wave, they were very realistic. Only once he made one of the tentacles extend and allowed us to touch it did it become clear that the thing wasn’t real. It felt like a warm solid-light hologram of sorts. It would definitely seem real in the heat of the moment, and they would react to being hit the way a real one would. We were going to have to defend ourselves, and do so underwater as best as we could while using the powers and magic we had available to us. Sinbad wanted to see how well we all did like that.
In my case, I was grouped up with Shiloh and Felix, Triss’s Nekomatan-human hybrid half-sister. She was the one who looked like a pale caucasian woman with very light blonde hair that was cut short, with a secondary set of cat ears atop her head and a long, fluffy white tail. When I’d first met her back before the whole thing with Fossor happened, she was hitting on some guy’s girlfriend, and had made it clear that she was very bisexual. Also, she was into Tristan and Vanessa. Like, Tristan and Vanessa. Which quite understandably weirded them both out.
Anyway, according to Sands and Sarah, Felix had mellowed a bit after being told about certain people being a little uncomfortable. She still teased and played things up, but made sure to leave anyone alone if they didn’t like it. Triss had convinced her half-sister to avoid, as Felix put it, ‘throwing bait out there’ for anyone who made it clear they weren’t interested. In her words, she wanted to have fun, not make people feel creepy.
In any case, as the three of us stood at the edge of the deck staring down into the water while waiting for one of the other trios to finish their run, I asked, “So which of us is going down there and who’s staying up here to play director? Uh, Shiloh, your computer thing?”
“It’s fine with water,” she assured me, waving her arm around so I could get a good look. It was a pretty sleek device, running from her wrist almost to her elbow along the back of her arm. The sides were slightly rounded, with dark blue edges while the bulk of it was white, including the screen whenever it wasn’t displaying anything (it could show images and text across the screen itself like a regular cell phone, or project a hologram image). There were various buttons along it which only Shiloh seemed to know the functions of. Well, her and anyone who had built the thing or helped her maintain it. But it was all Greek to me. Aside from the fact that I actually understood a little bit of Greek, thanks to some late-night study sessions. When you only had to sleep a couple hours a night, you had time to pick up a few extra things.
Felix’s cat-ears twitched a little. “Not to lean into stereotypes, cuz I’m fine with water, but I’ll stay up here and let the big bad Heretics–sorry, big good Heretics go explore the boat. Besides,” she added slyly, glancing around before lowering her voice in a somewhat husky whisper, “this way, I get to stand here and watch you two jump in the water. If it’s not too much trouble, could you do the Baywatch slow motion thing when you come out?”
Yeah, I said she was being a bit better about leaving people alone who were demonstrably uncomfortable. That didn’t mean she had totally changed. She was still Felix, after all.
Beside me, Shiloh choked a little before retorting, “I thought you said you weren’t leaning into stereotypes, Miss Sexy Cat Girl.”
That earned her a Cheshire grin from Felix, “The thing about stereotypes is that some of them are fun to ride as far as they’ll take you. And speaking of–”
“Okay!” I quickly interrupted, clapping my hands pointedly. “Felix is staying up here and Shiloh and I will go underwater. Works for me, considering I promised my buddies down there I’d go for a swim with them anyway. This is their big chance to show off for an audience.”
“Yeah, having a bunch of sharks at your beck and call does give you a bit of an advantage that way,” Shiloh noted, watching me for a moment with a curious look. It seemed as though she was about to say something else, but stopped and simply shook her head.
Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Is something wrong?” Yeah, I knew people were looking at me funny after… everything. Between being abducted by Fossor, my mother being the one behind the first rebellion, the fact that I had triggered the spell that restarted that rebellion, and… and everything else, people were staring at me a lot since I’d come back. It made me feel funny.
Shiloh shook her head quickly. “No, no, not wrong. Actually, it wasn’t really about you at all. I just–” She paused to consider her words before continuing. “I was just thinking about how I spent the whole year on a team with someone who has like… all the advantages and never even had a hint about it. I umm… guess I spent awhile wondering if I was just dumb.”
Eyes widening a little at that, I insisted, “What? No. Come on, you were on a team with freaking Lancelot-Guinivere. Do you have any idea how good she is at that sort of thing? Seriously, she fooled Gaia! And Gaia actually knew her! She tricked people who had a hell of a lot more time, skill, and power than any of us have. And it definitely wasn’t about making you feel dumb. She–I’m pretty sure she’d be upset if she thought she made you feel dumb, Shiloh.”
Shiloh started to nod. “I guess you’re–wait.” She blinked at me then, head tilting as something else occurred to her. “What do you mean, Gaia knew Harp–I mean, Gwen? They met before?”
Oh. Right, most people didn’t have Gaia’s adopted daughter as a girlfriend/teammate so they wouldn’t have been told about Gaia being Morgana. And boy had that been a surprise to find out about over the summer in my case. But Shiloh apparently didn’t know about that yet.
My mouth opened to say she should talk to Gwen about it (at least she was involved in that situation), but before I could even get that far, Sinbad called our names along with Felix’s. The man was standing up towards the front of the ship, waiting for us to join him while the previous pair who had been in the water were pulling themselves, soaking wet, back onto the deck.
Reaching out, I patted Shiloh on the back, murmuring that she should talk to Gwen about who she knew and how. Then I walked with her and Felix while trying to run through everything I needed to do before we jumped into the ocean, all the spells I had available, the ways I could get my shiver to help, the tricks and threats that might be waiting for us down there, and so on.
We all glanced toward the three who had been ahead of us, but that wouldn’t reveal anything. Sinbad had erected a soundproof barrier around the member of each team who stayed on the ship, specifically so that the rest of us couldn’t hear what sort of problems that group was dealing with and get any sort of advantage for not going first. And the teams who went weren’t allowed to talk to anyone who hadn’t gone yet. He had a whole section set aside for the people who were done to get dry, have snacks, and gush over how they’d done, what they’d fought, and how much of the treasure they’d managed to bring back.
“Good luck, Flick!” Sands called from where she, Roxa, and Sarah were waiting to do their own run together. The three of them waved, and I waved right back before focusing on the matter at hand once more. There were a lot of spells I could use that might be helpful, thanks to all the extra training I’d received from the Chayyiel ghost in my head (and the fact that I could think of that without being weirded out really said how much had happened in the past year and a half). The problem was knowing exactly what spell was the right one, and how to dole out my use of magic so I didn’t run out of energy to cast. Especially when I had no idea what was going to happen down there. Yeah, I had a lot of options, but I still needed to pace myself.
Once we passed the little barrier line that prevented people outside it from hearing what was going on, Sinbad offered one of his trademark gem-filled toothy grins. “Now then! First things first, which of you three will be going under the sea? Hah! You see, I make poetry without even meaning to! Truly, I am a man of many skills! But now, tis time to see yours! So, who shall it be?” His intense gaze (everything about him was intense) passed over the three of us eagerly.
“Shiloh and me,” I announced, gesturing to the other girl. “We’re going down there. Felix is staying up with the map and directing us. Right?” I clarified, looking at them.
The other two confirmed that with a pair of thumbs up, and Sinbad immediately pivoted to me. “Excellent! I was hoping you would jump in so we can see your shark friends get involved!” He visibly sobered a bit then before adding, “Of course, you know the so-called monsters you may face down there are not real. We have guardians standing by just out of sight, ready to jump in just in case anyone gets… stuck or has any problems. And, you have these.” From seemingly midair, he produced a couple small badges. They were red circles with a white triangle inside. “They allow the three of you to communicate with each other. Push the triangle, hold it for three seconds, you’ll be transported right back here to the deck of the ship. You can also use that to get back here once you have the treasure. Push it three times quickly and you’ll be transported all the way over to the hospital wing.”
Shiloh, Felix, and I each took one of the badges and clipped them on. After Sinbad was assured that they were secure and working properly, he clapped his hands loudly. “Safety first!” His voice lowered a bit conspiratorially, “I have to say that to keep my job. Do any of you have any idea how terrifying your principal can be if she’s annoyed?” He eyed me then. “I bet you do.”
Smirking despite myself, I offered him a somewhat casual shrug. “I guess I have some clue.”
“But!” Turning cheerful and cocky once more, the man waved a hand encompassingly toward the sea. “Now that all that is taken care of, on to the more exciting business!” His eyes took in Shiloh and me once more before slyly adding, “I trust you both know how to cast a water breathing spell, or something of that sort?” When we both nodded, he asked, “And what of a communicate underwater spell? The badges will carry your words to one another, but if you can’t talk, your words will be a bit… indecipherable.” The man laughed loudly, adding, “You know, glub glub glub. Hard to talk under the sea without a little help.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we know how to use the talk underwater spell,” I assured him.
“We do?” Shiloh was looking at me with a bit of confusion, clearly taken aback by that.
“Wh–oh.” Right, that was one that I had learned from my special tutor. Coughing, I waved a hand. “No big, I’ll show you how to do it. Here.” With that, I took a blank metal coin from my pocket and held it up for her to see. “First, you put a half circle line along the top like this.” My finger tapped the coin as I used my image-inscription power to do just that. “Then you want two little triangles just under it, with the tips just barely touching the inner part of the half-circle line, but they have to be exactly here, with the lower inside corners exactly as far from each other as they are from where the curve of the circle is here. As soon as you have both of them done, you want to put just a tiny bit of energy in the left triangle, then sort of… focus on letting that energy bleed through from that into the right one, until they both feel full to you. Once they are, you stop and finish the bottom half of the circle, like this. Then you write the letter C on the left side of the circle and L on the right side. That makes the circle stand in as the O in COL. It stands for the first three letters of Collucutio, Latin for conversation. Once that’s done, in that exact order, just put some power into it again, starting in the circle and spreading out to the C and L. Let the energy fill it until you sense that it’s full. The spell should last about an hour with a normal amount of power. You can refill it with a touch if you need to.”
“Dude,” Felix managed once I’d finished all that, “you know a lot about magic.”
“What she said,” Shiloh agreed quietly, her eyes darting from me to the coin I was holding up, then back again. “I’m starting to think I should ask you to tutor me. Or, you know, teach a class or something around here. You sure you were raised with Bystanders?” Even as she said it, the girl seemed to remember the whole thing about my mother, flushing visibly.
With a very small, embarrassed smile, I shook my head. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve just had a few teachers who knew what they were doing. You know, my own tutors. It’s–yeah, it’s nothing.”
From the looks that Felix and Shiloh were giving me, they didn’t quite believe the whole ‘it was nothing’ response. But they didn’t push it beyond that, though Shiloh did reiterate that she was going to come to me for help learning other spells in the future. Especially once I guided her through the water communication enchantment once more to make sure she had it. Then I showed the girl how to push it against her lips and trigger the spell. Now whenever she (or I, after triggering the same spell on myself) spoke underwater, it would actually be audible.
“Well, that all makes things much easier, doesn’t it?” Sinbad noted. The way he said that made me realize that if I hadn’t known the right spell, he would have provided something. Now, he simply spread his arms cheerfully. “Time to see what you are all capable of! Let us–wait!” Clearly interrupting himself, the man snapped his fingers before pointing at me. “As I was saying before distracting myself before! Your sharks are welcome to join in on the adventure, and I assure you they will not be harmed. However, should the enchantment surrounding my little traps and monsters register that a shark should have been incapacitated, they will be transported to an enclosed underwater space over there.” He pointed past the opposite end of the ship. “There will be plenty of room and fish for them to gorge themselves, and as soon as you are through the test, you can have them right back again. I trust that is fair enough?”
“Yup, definitely fair enough,” I confirmed immediately. “Just give me a minute to explain it to them before you start the timer, would you? Actually, I need to explain this whole thing to them. Not fair if they don’t know what we’re trying to do.”
After considering that briefly, Sinbad gave me a broad smile once more. “Of course! Of course, everyone should be on the same page, as they say! Yes, ahhh, you may have a few minutes to speak with your water-bound friends, naturally. But to keep things fair and not give extra time to study the maze or vessel you are about to go into, you must get into the water and speak to them on this side of the ship.” He indicated the opposite side from where our target was. “Take the time you need to make them understand, then you and Miss Lexx here can enter the starting area. And, of course, Miss Laja cannot begin to look at the map until then. No extra time for that!”
Exchanging a look with the other two, I nodded. “Right, yeah, that’s fair.” With those words, I touched the small pouch on my belt that was currently holding the Seosten bodysuit, exchanging that for my regular clothes. It would do for going into the giant lake, given it was waterproof, temperature-controlled, protective, and all sorts of other fun things.
“Dude,” Shiloh abruptly blurted, “you just have something like that with you?”
“Not that we’re complaining,” Felix quickly put in, both eyebrows rising pointedly. “I mean, I’m not.”
Face turning red, I muttered something about understanding why Tabbris had kicked me for the way I had looked at her mother. Then I left the other two to get ready, with a word about meeting Shiloh on the other side. From there, I moved to the edge of the deck before diving overboard. A second later, I hit the water smoothly, dropping down a good ten feet before righting myself. There was no rush to using the breathing spell, considering I could hold my breath for up to ten minutes. And thanks to the aforementioned temperature-control, the water wasn’t cold at all. Some part of me wondered if that part was an unfair advantage. But then again, there were people in the class who had their own temperature resistance. The point of the exercise was to see how well we could do with what we brought in with us, be that equipment or innate abilities. And I had definitely brought the suit in with me. Being able to change into it just by touching the suit and exchanging that with what I was wearing was one of my powers.
Shaking off those thoughts, I glanced off into the distance. Two of the mazes were visible, though one of those was far off to the left. Essentially, they looked like giant underwater buildings made of thick stone, with only one entranceway. Like a massive skyscraper that had fallen on its side. And somewhere in there would be the ship each group was looking for.
God damn, when Sinbad set up a project like this, he didn’t half-ass it.
For just a moment, I had to stop and really let myself feel the reality of this. I was home. I was back in classes (ridiculous as they may have been). I was doing something fun. Challenging, sure, but fun. I was meeting different classmates and spending time with them. I was… I was enjoying this. Seriously, I didn’t really care if we won or lost this challenge. I was going to shoot for the former, of course. But it wasn’t life or death. And that, all on its own, was amazing. No matter what happened with this today, I was going to go to another class afterward. I would go to another class, then to lunch, and then… who knew? My afternoon was open. We’d see when the time came.
The point was, whatever happened in this class didn’t really matter.
And after everything that has happened over the past couple of months, all the life and death struggles and trauma that had seemed to come relentlessly, something not mattering… actually mattered quite a lot.