There’s blood and salt water in my mouth when I wake.
At some point between my head splitting open with pain in front of the Washer and blinking awake into the wet darkness I’m currently in, I bit through my tongue. The coppery taste is foul and sharp, and it wakes me more than the cold does.
Spitting the blood out onto the ground, I push myself up with aching limbs and look around. It’s pitch black all around me, but I’m in water. I’m soaked through, and my movements cause splashing noises to echo off the walls. Stone walls; they scrape at the cuts on my hand when I reach out to steady myself.
The sea cave. I’m in Eòghan's Cave.
Panic rises in me and I take a shaky breath. The nuckelavee has to be around here, then. Somewhere.
I can’t see it, though. I can’t see anything. It could be standing right in front of me and I wouldn’t even know.
Slow breaths. In and out. I wait for my vision to adjust and try to rely on my other senses. I only hear myself breathing. No other noise. I taste salt and blood still, and I feel cold, and I can smell the ocean and kelp and—
I don’t smell the nuckelavee. It’s not here. At least not right now.
The panic subsides a bit and my breathing evens out. This is fine. I can work with this. I just need to get out of the cave.
Running my hands around the wall, I take careful steps forward. I’m not in the mouth of the cave; that’s a gaping cavern with huge ceilings and uneven, narrow rock ledges. I’m in some small antechamber, one where the seawater comes up almost to my knees. There has to be a way in and out of here; there has to be.
I couldn’t have teleported to an inescapable chamber. Not even the universe hates me that much. Right?
My eyes have adjusted now, revealing a crack across one of my glasses lenses. There are shadows running along the walls; not moving or speaking to me, not jumping out to startle me. Just there. Calm. There’s a light source high above that’s casting the shadows along the walls, and if I squint I can just make out the dark purple of the night sky.
It’s far too high for me to climb. Fuck.
I need light. I need more light than this, at least. Digging in my pockets, I scrounge for anything I can find that might burn, but all I have is my nearly empty pack of cigarettes. Fuck. I’d be better served setting myself on fire.
Pulling out a cigarette, I hold it gingerly in my left hand and then scratch three times at my wrist. My nails dig into the welts, and when I blow on them the end of the cigarette burns weakly to life. In that moment, that one flash of light, I see it.
I can’t hear it, but there it is, hovering in the air in front of my face. Lazily levitating, watching me.
I jump back, dropping the cigarette into the puddle at my feet. The ember glows hot for a moment, and then goes out.
It’s fine. The bee isn’t real. This isn’t real.
I pull the last cigarette out of the pack with shaking hands and scratch at my neck. It lights again, and I take a quick, frantic drag of it first, trying to steady my nerves.
The bee is still there. Watching me. It’s not trying to swarm, not trying to attack. Just… hanging in the air.
Ask the bees. That’s what the nightmare vision of Rimi and Resha said. We think bees have magic.
“Hello,” I whisper. This is how I realise how desperate I am. I’m talking to a fucking bee. I rake my nails over the welts on my wrist and the cigarette flares again. It’s still there. “Can you show me the way out?”
The bee starts buzzing.
It starts slowly, the sound gentle and building. I can see the dark shape of the bee as the sound grows louder, angrier, and then suddenly the one shape is two, the two four, the four eight.
I take another deep drag of the cigarette to steady myself and then scratch at my wrist again. Suddenly I’m faced with a swarm of bees, their buzzing rattling against my jaw. They’re pure white; strange milky shadows against the darkness of the cave.
My arms fly up to shield my face and I flinch back, waiting for the swarm to attack, but they don’t move. Hesitantly, I lower my arms and watch the bees. They’re just hovering, buzzing, waiting. Humming.
“How do I get out?” I whisper. My voice cracks on the last word.
The bees turn and dive through the water to my left.
Their pale forms are like floating ghost lights in the dark water. They move down, further and further through the blue-black depths until they illuminate a gaping passage in the rock wall, and then disappear.
I’ll have to swim, then. Fuck.
Not taking my eyes off the passage beneath the water, I drop my coat. It’s freezing in here, but the coat is heavy and padded and will weigh me down, and I’m not a strong swimmer on the best of days. And right now I feel nauseated and groggy. My head is ringing with pain and panic is making me clumsy. I can’t take any chances.
Holding my breath, I put my glasses in my trouser pocket and dive.
The opening isn’t hard to find. The cave floor is sloped down and the tunnel in the rock wall is just wide enough that it’s not a struggle to get through. I’ve never travelled through one this narrow before, but I know the cave is full of them. When Owen, Kit, and I used to explore it as kids, Kit was constantly diving in and out of them, going deeper and deeper into the cave system.
I was never a strong enough swimmer to follow, but sometimes Owen did.
The water is freezing and my body is seizing up as I push through, but I keep going, following the hazy light in the water just ahead of me, and soon I break the surface. I gasp for air and strike toward the light.
It’s the bees, still hovering just out of reach.
They’re hovering over a body.
I swim faster toward the ledge and pull myself out with aching arms, splashing onto the outcropping of rock. My fingers shake as I pull my glasses from my pocket, and the tremor gets worse when I try to wipe the wet lenses clear with soaking hands, desperate to see what’s lying in front of me, even though I already know.
He’s lying on his back, his hair fanned out around him. But it’s not in a graceful halo of black locks; it’s clumped and tangled and wet. His skin is ashy and grey and looks slick and sallow, and his shirt is covered in blood. There’s blood all over; across his body and clothes, smeared over his hands, staining the rock shelf below him. There are cuts and scabs and scratches and bruises all up and down his arms. Only some look like the work of a knife. Most of the others look self inflicted. Like he’s been beating his fists against rock and tearing at his own skin.
He looks like he’s been shredded.
And he’s shaking. Just slightly. His breath rasps out in thin huffs through his parted blue lips, a terrifying but reassuring sign he’s alive.
“Kit?” I ask, nudging his shoulder carefully. “Kit?”
He doesn’t answer. His skin is wet and cold to the touch. How long has he been like this? Has he been here the whole time? Has he just been laying in this cave, slowly bleeding out? Slowly waiting to die?
Did I trap him in here with the nuckelavee when I brought the mouth of the cave down?
“Kit?” I ask again, shaking him. “Come on, wake up. Kit?”
There’s no answer except for his rasping breath.
I look around the interior chamber, trying to find any way out. This chamber is smaller than the one I woke up in, and I move around the walls carefully, checking for a passage or a crack or anything. Something crunches beneath my feet and I freeze as the sound echoes off the cave walls like a gunshot, reverberating through my pulse. Bending down slowly, I feel around for it in the dark.
It’s a polystyrene take away box that smells of cod and grease. It probably came from the pub, which I suppose answers two questions: whether Kit was left here to starve, and why Isla saw Owen lurking around Towe.
Because this has to be Owen. This reeks of him. Literally. He knew this cave better than anyone, and his idea of nourishment would be a fish supper from the local. In the midst of this mind boggling deceit, cold rage washes through me at this unwelcome reminder of the person I knew as my best friend.
If I ever get out of this cave, I’m going to lock him in cold iron and drown him myself.
A dim purple light is filling the chamber and I seek out the source, running my hands along the rock wall, searching for a change in temperature, seeking the feel of wind. This would be easier if it were still daytime. It’d be less cold, too.
Just behind Kit I find it: a gap. Tall but not wide, running deep through the rock face. Looking through it, I can see grass and the purpling night sky. I can feel the fresh air biting at my wet skin.
I reach my arm through first, then turn my body sideways and start to push through. It’s just wide enough that if I force it, I could make it through. It’s big enough for a person; it’s probably how Owen has been coming and going. It would let him bypass the nuckelavee altogether.
My heartbeat ticks up. I could get through. I could get out of this cave.
My pulse stutters.
I wouldn’t be able to bring Kit.
Even if he were awake, he’s too large to go through this gap. His chest would never fit, and with him limp and unconscious, I’d never be able to drag him. But I could leave him. I could get free and meet up with Tanis and Isla and Murray and try to come back and find him again.
I look back at Kit, bloody and wet and broken on the floor of the cave.
I can’t leave him.
“Alright,” I whisper. I don’t know if I’m talking to myself or Kit, but the sound of my words buoys me a bit. “Let’s think through this. There’s loads of these antechambers, aren’t there? They all connect to the main entrance of the cave. You told me that.”
Kit doesn’t answer.
“But there’s a nuckelavee in the main chamber. And I caved in the entrance, so we’d have to climb through the rocks or dive deep to get out.”
I sigh and sit down on the ground. I’m shivering and soaked, and I’ve grown so cold I can’t even feel it anymore. My whole body is numb.
“But we can’t just stay here.”
I reach out and brush my fingers against Kit’s knuckles. He’s colder than I am. My fingers trail along his knuckles and up his hand, until I can wrap my hand around his wrist and feel for his pulse. It’s there, but it’s weak. A weak heart pumping weak blood.
My head is throbbing and my own pulse is spiky and jittery, and I’m scared. I’m absolutely fucking terrified. I’m two steps from bricking myself, and all I want is to be out of this cave and to get Kit warm.
“We’re going to have to swim,” I tell him, letting out a shaky breath. I’m a shit swimmer. He always told me so. “I’m so sorry, Mac.”
I have the upper body strength of a child, and Kit weighs more than me — twice than me wet, probably. And I’m going to have to get him through underwater chambers and around the nuckelavee.
It’s like a fucking water level in a video game. I hate water levels.
With shaking hands I unlace his work boots and pull them off, and then toss them to the corner of the antechamber with sick, echoing thuds. I’d strip his jacket as well, if he were wearing one, but he’s not. Owen left him here in a sodden jumper with the sleeves half ripped off. It’s knit, heavy enough to hold more water, so that comes off too. No extra weight.
I have to pull his limp body up and press him to my chest to get his arms out of what’s left of the sleeves, and the way he flops lifelessly against me makes revulsion and terror roll thick in my stomach.
He shivers as I lay him gently back on the ground, and his breathing rasps.
“Kit?” I ask, panic spiking again. Did I hurt him? “Can you hear me? Can you wake up? Please?”
His eyes flutter open for a moment, and all I see is pure white before his head rolls to the side again.
A hysterical sob escapes me. I can’t keep it in.
I swallow down the rest of my gasps and breathe. In. Out. In. Out. Fuck I wish I had another cigarette. My hands are shaking like I’m coming down from a fucking bender. I’ve never felt this strung out.
I turn back to the ghostly bees, still hovering just above us, silent again.
“Can you show us the way out?”
The buzzing starts again, crescendoing right as the bees dive deep. I watch them move through the water like it’s mist and head toward another opening in the wall, farther down than the one I came in through.
“Please don’t drown,” I whisper to Kit as I drag him across the floor of the cave toward where the water begins to lick up at the rock face. The splashing is horrendous and each sound reverberates through my chest as I pull him into the water further and further until he’s slightly floating. “Isla will kill me if you drown.”
I take a deep breath, clamp my hand over his nose, and push him under.
Diving down, I tuck Kit under my arm so that I can keep a hold on his nose and I strike out, pushing through the water to follow the ghostly bees. By the time I reach the passage and enter it, I feel like my lungs are going to burst.
The Washer was right; I have to stop smoking.
The bees are gone by now, but I keep swimming, pushing toward light. It’s muddied and dim, but there is light ahead through the water. Literally at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
When I break the surface, gasping, I’m in a small cavern flooded with twilight. Above me, I can see the stars.
I remove my hand from Kit’s mouth and pull him closer to check for a pulse. It’s there still, weak. But he’s freezing, even colder than before, and the weight of his limp body makes it difficult for me to tread water. I keep swallowing big mouthfuls of seawater and sputtering when the icy liquid sends shocks into my lungs.
Calm. I try to remember what he used to tell me about swimming. I let my muscles loosen. I steady my breathing. I keep my arm around him, and let us float.
Lifeless, unmoving, we float in the water; the stars above us, the dark depths of Eòghan's Cave below.
At least I know where we are now, though. The second biggest chamber, just off the entrance. There’s a chasm in the earth above that lets in rain and sun, and if you’re daring enough, you can climb up the cliff to find it and then jump down into the deep water below.
(I did it once, when I was thirteen. I was the only one who would, because I was the only one who could handle the height. Owen climbed up with me, but Kit wouldn’t. He just waited on the rocks below and took a nap.)
The water in this chamber is softer and often warmer that the ocean, because this chamber fills up with rain water. Fresh water. That’s what’s been keeping the nuckelavee from diving through the passages to get to Kit. The freshwater in this chamber.
It’s clever. It’s really fucking clever.
Pushing the nauseating wave of anger aside, I try to focus on the next steps. I know how to get to the main chamber from here. And then we’ll just have to handle the nuckelavee. The very thought of it gives me the anxious boke. Why did this come down to me? Why did I have to do this alone? Isla would have been so much better at this. Literally everyone I know would have been better at this.
“Just a few more dives,” I tell Kit. He gives no indication of having heard me. My arm has gone numb around him from the weight and the cold, and I have to switch him across my body to support him on my other side.
I wish he would wake up. He’s such a good swimmer, he can go for hours. I wish he would wake up and swim us out of here. I wish he would wake up, so I wouldn’t feel like I was dragging a corpse.
Taking a breath, I hold Kit’s nose closed again and dive. The passage here is wide, set off by jagged columns and piles of rock. I know this part. It’s not far to the cave entrance, but once I enter the main chamber, the water will be rougher; the tide washes in and out of the sea here, and I don’t know how strong it is now, or if my cave-in will have impacted it.
We break the surface again at the back of the cave, as far from the entrance as possible, and I try not to be loud as I gasp for breath.
I’m gulping down air when the smell hits me. Rotten and musky like steamed decaying shite, so thick I can taste it. So thick I could chew it. The nuckelavee is in here with us.
It’s dark. Darker than the last chamber was, which means I can’t see the monster. But I can hear it. The splashing of its hooves as it moves back and forth near the cave’s entrance. The sick sound of its knuckles dragging through the puddles of water. The gentle snort of its fucked up demon horse head chuffing.
I don’t want to be in the water; it’s noisy and this is where the nuckelavee has its strength. As unmatched as we are on land, if it comes for me in the water, it can latch its fingers around my ankles and drag us down without a fight. Water is the worst possible place for me, and I’m flagging. Kit is slipping in my arms already. I need to rest.
Feeling around for a place to hide, I haul myself up onto one of the stacks of odd hexagonal columns and drag Kit up with me, trying to be as quiet as possible. Every breath I take sounds ragged and as loud as thunder, but there’s nothing for it.
My pulse is racing, fear wiping out all anxiety and pain and tension. There’s no room for anything anymore except terror.
I wish the bees were here. I wish Isla were here, or Tanis. I wish Cormac were here. I wish this wasn’t down to me.
I scrunch my eyes closed and wrap my arms tighter around Kit, and try to focus. Breathe. Clear my mind. Try not to panic.
When I open my eyes, Isla is crouched in front of me.
It’s not Isla, though. Of course it’s not. Her curls are made of seagrass and her brown eyes are almost cartoon size. Deep and vast and black, more like a seal’s than they usually are. Her freckles seem to glow against her face, and she holds her head at an unnatural, animalistic angle.
She presses a finger to her lips.
“It can hear you,” she whispers. Her voice sounds like the sea. “But it can’t see you.”
Of course. It’s blind. Between my blinding spell and Tanis scratching at its eyes, we probably did a number on it. It can’t see me. It can’t see us. It probably can’t smell us, either — not over its own scent, at least. I don’t know much about the olfactory senses of nuckelavees, but I doubt anything is detectable over the stench of rotting corpse.
So I just need to be quiet.
“Isla,” I whisper. It’s barely a breath, but the creature who looks like Isla blinks at me. I don’t know why I expect her to help me — I don’t know why I expected the bees to help me, but they did. The creatures have always been helping me, haven’t they? In their own way, with their own fucked up approach, the creatures and visions have been guiding me, slowly and roughly toward the path I need to take. What I told Tanis and Isla actually was true: my nightmares have never hurt me.
I hold up my palm and make a slicing motion across it with my other hand. Nightmare Isla blinks, and then points at a jagged rock near Kit’s foot. I shift him in my arms and reach for it.
“Thank you,” I breathe. Nightmare Isla blinks again, two long, slow things, and then holds her finger back to her lips.
I adjust Kit in my arms and when I look up, Isla is gone.
Holding the rock, I grit my teeth and then slice it down across my palm. The rock skids off with a dull pain, unable to get purchase on my wet, wrinkled skin. Fuck. Fuck, why can’t I even manage to fucking cut myself? I try again. This time it catches on the scab and red droplets spring up.
I’m going to have fucking tetanus by the time this is through.
I wipe my hand against each of my ear lobes, and then concentrate. I’ll only have one chance at this, and I’ve never done it before. But just like the cave-in, I have to try. The Seelie blood running through me will help. It’s a stimulant. A magical performance enhancer.
Jesus wept, I still can’t believe it actually was Seelies.
Taking a deep breath, I grab Kit’s hand.
There’s a split second where I can hear the nuckelavee turn and begin to scream, its seagull and crashing waves cry filling the cavern, and then there’s an echoing bang, and everything goes silent.
It’s like being in a bubble. All I can hear is my own heartbeat, the pulse of my blood running through me. Nothing else.
Grabbing Kit’s waist, I dive off the rock face, landing in the water with a splash that makes no noise.
I swim as hard as I can, pushing through an increasingly angry tide, breaking the surface only to beg for more air before diving again and trying not to choke on the poisoned fumes rolling off the nuckelavee. I don’t know where it is. I can’t hear it and I can’t see it. I just keep my eyes forward, always forward, propelling us through the water.
We reach the crumbled basalt columns blocking the front of the cave and I scramble toward them with one hand. There’s a narrow opening — just big enough to fit through, possibly, but small enough that the nuckelavee won’t be able to follow. I don’t bother to try to dive deeper and see if the rocks go all the way to the bottom; I’m out of breath and out of strength. I’ll have to aim for this opening or die trying.
Fuck, I don’t want us to die.
With my last burst of desperate energy, I push at the rubble near the opening. Some of it crumbles away, but not much. I could blast it, maybe, but that might bring the whole cave down on us.
Bracing my feet against the rocks, I hold on with one hand and try to manoeuver Kit with my other. It’s awkward, trying to force a motionless body through an opening the size of a toilet window. I wish he were awake to help me, to try to crawl, to do something. But he’s not, and this isn’t working.
I readjust him and brace him over my back, and try to shimmy out of the opening, feet first. I don’t know what’s on the other side; whether it will be water or more rocks, or maybe the causeway, if the tide is out. My feet pinwheel in open air, but I keep going, wedging myself further and further through it, until the bottom half of my body is out of the cave and I’m bent over, trying to keep Kit’s weight afloat in the water.
Just beyond his shoulder, I can see the nuckelavee. It’s pacing, its human head looking this way and that, and then it dives into the water.
With a thundering jolt of fear, I shimmy myself further out, my feet skidding along the rock until I find steady enough purchase. My head and shoulders are still through the hole, and all of Kit’s weight is on my upper arms. I’ve never held this much weight ever, in my entire life. Muscles screaming, heart thudding, I cup the back of his head and try to pull him through. His shirt snags on the rock and his cheeks are getting scratched, and the fact that he’s stayed unconscious through all of this is really, really terrifying.
If he were going to wake up, he should have by now.
Just as Kit’s body is almost halfway through the crumbled rubble, something tries to pull him back.
I jerk my whole body free and scramble to steady myself on the pile of crumbled basalt columns just below my feet. The tide is in; there’s a narrow bit of rock jutting above the sea, just enough to stand on, but barely enough to balance on. One bad move and I’ll fall into the water.
I wrap my hands around Kit’s torso and pull, but the nuckelavee is strong; too strong.
“Let go!” I shout, pulling at Kit again. I can hear my voice now, outside of the silent bubble of the cave. It’s thin and hysterical. “Please, just fucking…”
With one last wrenching pull, Kit comes free of the nuckelavee and the sea cave and we both plummet into the water below.
Wrapping my arms around him, I try to protect him as much as possible as I twist during the fall. We land on my back in a tangled mess. The rocks scrape against my side and my breath is punched from my lungs, and in my shock I swallow mouthfuls of salt water as I kick desperately toward the surface.
I break out of the water with a sobbing gasp, spitting water and tears and screaming curses as I try to keep Kit and I afloat in the bobbing waves of the North Sea.
The tide is in. The causeway is properly drowned. In the dark I can just see the peak of it across the inlet on the far shore, but the water is too high to follow its path. Walking out of here won’t be an option.
Adjusting Kit, I swim toward the small outcropping of rock that makes up the side of the cave. There’s barely any space there and if the tide comes in any more, it’ll be covered. I could climb higher up the side of the cave; I could climb all the way to the top and pick my way over the jagged hillside until I’m away from the coast and on dry land. But I need both hands to balance, and I could never make the climb with Kit.
We’re so close to land, and yet completely unable to reach it.
I haul Kit up onto the side of the cliff and brace my feet against the rocks as I position him in my lap. His head flops back onto my chest and I try to drag in breath, but it feels like there’s a cold vice clamped around my lungs.
“Kit?” I gasp out, wrapping my hand around his throat to check for his pulse. “Can you hear me?”
I can’t feel his heartbeat.
“Kit? Mac? Can you hear me?” My voice grows more panicked. I didn’t cover his nose the last few times we dove, and a sick, lurching feeling makes me worried he’s drowned. Shifting him, I put his back to me and reach around and try to compress his chest, like some kind of fucked up heimlich. This is the worst kind of medical attention ever given, but I don’t have room to lay him down and do proper CPR. And I don’t even have the strength to pull him further up the cliff face.
“Come on,” I mutter, compressing again. I shift him, hold his nose, breathe into his mouth, and then compress his chest again. “Come on!”
“Kit, please wake up,” I mumble, my voice shaking. I’m cold. I’m so cold, and I can’t tell if I’m crying or if my eyes are stinging from salt. “Kit, please. I’m so sorry. Please.”
His black hair is plastered to his cheeks, his eyes are closed, his mouth slightly open. His lips are blue.
He looks like a corpse.
Looking around, I pat desperately at the cliff face around us. It’s covered in rock and small bits of shale and a few seashells. I grab one of the shells and slam it against a rock until it breaks off into a jagged point, and then assess my options.
My hands are shredded and useless. My feet could work, but I may need to run. I’m too shaky to risk my wrist, and I don’t think the shell could puncture my forearms. Which leaves the least attractive option.
Holding the shell to my face, I take a deep breath and drag it down my cheek.
It burns and flares and I clamp down on my lip to push through the pain, and I gouge deeper. I bite through my lip and taste copper in my mouth. Good. More blood to use.
Before my tears of pain can wash away the blood, I toss the shell to the side and wipe my fingers through the gash on my cheek. Carefully, I dab the blood on Kit’s forehead. His cheekbones. The hollow of his neck. His bottom lip.
“I am yours and you are mine, your blood is mine and mine is yours, your life is mine and mine is yours,” I whisper. They’re the same words we said on the beach four years ago, or close enough. We said more, I know it, but the memory is so faded and stretched. I just remember standing on the beach, Eòghan's Cave in the distance. I remember the spirit of the words more than the words themselves.
“Your blood is mine and mine is yours,” I repeat. “My life is yours.”
I say the words over and over, over and over, until they string into nonsense. I don’t know what I’m doing. If he’s dead, there’s nothing to be done. Magic can’t bring someone back to life. But if he’s wavering, if he’s still here and willing to fight, maybe I can give him some of myself.
There isn’t a spell for this or a process or a perfect ritual. I’m just trying to feel my way through the magic, just like Cormac taught me. Wild. Intuitive. Irrational. Just like magic.
“My life is yours,” I whisper, my eyes shut tight. I open them and look out at the sea. Maybe I should swim. We can’t stay here all night, wet and freezing, waiting for someone to find us. “Your blood is mine and mine is yours, your life is mine and mine is yours.”
In the dim light of the moon, I see something move.
My words die on my lips as I squint through my wet, cracked glasses, trying to follow the rippling movements of the waves, trying to find what I saw. Panic goes through me as it surfaces; a dark head, something wet that glints against the moonlight, and then dives again. Coming closer, fast.
Something large and dark, moving through the water and heading straight towards us.
I scramble for footing, dragging Kit up with me as I desperately try to push us further up the rock face. We’re too close to the water. Whatever it is can reach us easily, barely has to move from the sea to drag us down. We’re trapped where we are. Dead in the water.
Kit’s weight is almost too much to bear as I drape him across my shoulders and try to crawl up the cliff, my hands desperate to find purchase among the basalt columns. My feet slip and my arms aren’t strong enough, and it’s clear I’m not going to be able to drag us out of danger. All I can do is desperately hold onto Kit as I stand precariously on the cliff face and try to keep us out of the water as the dark mass grows closer.
But I’m out of breath and out of blood, and the lifeless body in my arms is too heavy.