Written by Gwendolyn Lopez
Art by cottonbro
The sea liked to wind its way into the hearts of humans. It liked to slip into the cracks it wasn’t supposed to slip into, and eat up anything that might have once been loved.
Aera had seen it happen, far too many times for her own liking. She’d seen the freshwater havens slowly disappear; she’d seen the salt take far too many innocent lives.
And today, she would most likely be next.
Aera tightened her hands into fists. She stood at the edge of one of the infamous saltwater dens—those deep tunnels that ran under cities in freshwater havens. It was where the saltfolk were sent to die. But these days, it was more like a place where they thrived.
Beside her, Kaede knelt and dipped a hand into the water that flowed into the den’s entrance. It was a bright turquoise, shining white in the parts that reflected the sun. Aera found it strange that the dens looked so peaceful, masking the horrors that lay just below the surface.
“Never thought it’d be us going into a den together,” Kaede said, shaking the water off her hand. She turned and grinned. “Especially on a … what is this again? A suicide mission?”Aera glared at her. Kaede gave a sheepish smile. “Too soon?”
Aera sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Hey, wait—” But Aera was already walking into the depths of the den. She stepped into the shallow river that flowed into the den. Above her, the white marble entrance shone like a mouth full of fangs, and Aera got the unsettling feeling that she was being swallowed.
Loud splashing came from behind her as Kaede caught up. “Aera, I really—I’m sorry—”
“Be a little louder won’t you?” Aera hissed.
“Look, I just…” her voice quieted to a whisper. “If it’s really going to be our last day… I don’t want it to end on a sour note.”
Aera sighed. “It won’t be our last,” she said, after a long pause. Kaede’s eyes widened in the semi-darkness, the whites of them glistening like half-moons.
Then she nodded, and the two of them descended into the den.
It got darker the deeper they went, but never so much that they couldn’t see. Aera kept a hand on the wall as she continued on. Every single one of her senses seemed to be on high alert. The water here went to her knees and had the sort of chill that felt like claws, and the air was thick, with a strange smell that made breathing difficult. Mushrooms and other fungi were scattered across the dark gray tunnels of the den, giving the entire place a dim blue glow. The whole place was eerily quiet. Aera could almost taste the salt on her lips.
There hadn’t been any saltfolk yet, which was unusual, but not enough to cause suspicion. Aera would have been relieved if the entire purpose of the mission hadn’t been to find them. She could do without seeing those dark, empty eyes and scaly, rotted skin. She could do without hearing their terrible, broken voices as they attempted to drag her into the depths.
Suddenly, a loud shriek split the air. Kaede cursed loudly, then put a hand over her mouth.
Aera whipped around to face her. “Does it sound familiar?” she whispered.
“How am I supposed to know?” Kaede hissed back.
“We’re looking for your brother.”
A look of hurt flashed across her face, but it was gone so fast Aera thought she might have imagined it.
“We need a closer look,” Kaede said. “Just to make sure.”
Aera beckoned for her to take the lead.
Minutes passed, achingly slow. Aera was beginning to wonder if this was a trap. Or if maybe, the saltfolk had abandoned this den and deemed it “unlivable,” somehow. Her thoughts began to wander, from the saltfolk to the freshwater humans up on the surface. Aera thought about Kaede and her brother, about how certain she was that there was no chance he could be saved. She thought about those she had lost, those who could never be recovered. She thought about the sea. Why was it so angry, anyway? What did it have left to gain?
What did Aera have left to lose?
She didn’t really know why she’d chosen to accompany Kaede here. Maybe a part of her wanted to believe a saltfolk could actually be saved. Maybe another part wanted to succumb to the salty waves. Maybe—
Wait. Aera turned, unsheathing the knife strapped to her thigh.
They weren’t alone in here.
A saltfolk emerged from the darkness. His hair was streaked with white, like all saltfolk, and the scaly skin of his face was gaunt. And Aera knew, she knew as soon as she heard Kaede’s sharp intake of breath, that this was the one—this was her brother.
She also knew that there was no way they’d leave this place untainted and that the saltfolk—those clever, wicked things—had planned a trap.
“Jiro,” Kaede whispered.
Aera could hear the scratchy murmurings of saltfolk from behind. She elbowed Kaede and gestured over, where the dim glow of fungi illuminated several approaching shapes.
Kaede grabbed her brother’s wrist, and he gave a strangled cry out in return.
“We should leave him,” Aera insisted, even as Kaede ran with him in tow. “There’s no way we’re going to make it like this.”
“We’re going to make it.” Kaede smiled, looking decidedly more optimistic. Jiro, on the other hand, looked ready to collapse. Aera had to admit—for a saltfolk, he seemed to be more calm than the others. Could it be that under all those layers, all that poison from the sea, there was still a glimmer of the man he used to be?
For a moment, she almost believed it. They were going to make it. The den was already looking brighter, and the broken “singing” of the saltfolk, albeit persistent, didn’t seem as close as it was before.
And then Jiro let out a wild, guttural sound and sunk his teeth into Kaede’s arm.
Kaede let out a wail, clutching at the wound as blood oozed between her fingers. Aera took the knife in her hands and slashed at Jiro, who was already falling—was that the hint of a smile on his lips? Monsters, all of them, Aera thought fiercely. She wanted to cry, strangely. After all that hope, all that progress… Were some things really just meant to stay impossible?
The saltfolk were faster than they were, and the surface seemed so much farther away than it had a few moments ago. Kaede looked up at Aera, her eyes watery and her arm bloody.
“It’s okay,” Aera said, even though it wasn’t. There was nothing else she could think of that would reassure her. The very air seemed to be shattered with the constant screaming of the saltfolk—it was deafening. Aera would have liked some quiet. She closed her eyes.
Dimly, she could hear Kaede pleading with her, Kaede tugging at her arm, Kaede telling her to hurry up. But Aera couldn’t move. She couldn’t open her eyes. She couldn’t hear anything except the screams, except now, they were beginning to sound more like a song. Just a little longer, Aera wanted to tell her. She was certain that if she listened for just a little longer, that song would begin to reveal its meaning.
The salt of her blood, her tears, her sweat. It was at that moment that Aera finally understood. She was a child of the sea—they all were. The time had finally come to be reunited with the place she’d come from. The time had finally come.Welcome home, sang the melodious voices of her brothers and sisters.