“We’re going to the cave.”
Thomas looks up from his phone and frowns at me. It’s the first thing I’ve said to him since our stand off in the bathroom, and I think he fully expected me to continue giving him the silent treatment. Which I would be happy to do, if I weren’t itching for us to actually do something.
After the blow up I sat on Kit’s stoop and tried to think of our options. I stole the list Tanis made yesterday with the intent of trying to brainstorm like Kit does. But it wasn’t that helpful. My handwriting is shit and my hands were freezing and I kept getting distracted by the wind chimes Kit has hanging next to his door. Tiny little bees made out of stuck together seashells, clanging against smooth black rocks and hanging amongst lank strands of dried seaweed.
Every time the wind blew, they clattered together, setting my teeth on edge.
It was useless. I couldn’t come up with any new ideas, but I kept circling back to an old one. The cave.
There has to be something there. Signs keep pointing to the causeway and the freaky cave, and it’s the only lead we have. At the least it’s better than faffing about the house getting pissy and listening to Thomas nearly break his phone while he texts his angry Glasgow friend — probably to bitch about me. Tanis has been anxiously cleaning the kitchen, which is productive at least, but is doing nothing to further our search for Kit.
She called off work even though I told her not to, but she said she wouldn’t have been able to focus, anyway. I’m glad she did. Having her around steadies me a bit. It’s easy to get swept up in Thomas’s flustered neurosis without someone else around.
Plus, she seems to take my side a lot. I need that if I’m going to convince Thomas to work with me. Which I think is going to be difficult.
“Okay.” Thomas doesn’t look up from his buzzing phone. “Go ahead.”
“No, all of us,” I snap back. “I think it might lead to Kit.”
“Kit isn’t on the causeway. You can literally look out the window and see it,” Thomas says, raising his eyebrow. “I don’t know why you think he’d be there.”
“He could be in Eòghan's Cave,” Tanis says, throwing her arm into her attempt to get a bit of jam off Kit’s backsplash. The towering mass of blonde hair on top of her head jostles back and forth with the motion. “That’s where the causeway leads.”
“Why would Kit be there?” Thomas argues. I want to fucking throttle him. I want to pull his phone out of his hands and put it through his skull.
“Someone could have put him there,” I say, trying to sound as patient as my mum. I don’t think I’m succeeding. “Or he could have gotten stuck there.”
“We’d need a boat,” Thomas counters, shaking his head. “It’s all underwater. Christ, we’d have to swim there.”
“Not right now we don’t,” I say, pointing to the window over Tanis’s shoulder. The strange little half-submerged bridge is visible, jutting up out of the water, cutting the inlet in half as it leads to the dark sea cave. “It looks like the tide is almost low enough to pass.”
“For now,” Thomas argues. “But I’m serious, if we get stuck there it’s almost impossible to get out without a boat. That’s why no one takes tourists there, it’s a safety nightmare.”
“The tide is coming out. We have time. I’ll know when the tide is coming back in, and I’ll get us out.”
“Can you tell tides?” Tanis asks. She’s smiling as she pulls off her large yellow rubber gloves and tosses them into the sink, and I can’t help but smile back. “That’s dead useful.”
“There are some perks to the seal thing.” I turn back to Thomas and my smile drops. “Now. Boots on, get your coat, we’re going to that cave.”
“I like you more when you’re greeting about being hungry,” Thomas mutters. But he does stand up from the table and begin to put on his boots, his mouth curled into a mean grimace. Whatever. Let him pout.
In short order we’re making our way down the bleak shore of the beach, scrabbling along the slick seaweed-covered rocks until we come to the causeway. It’s the first time I’ve looked at it — properly looked at it — when the tide is out, and I have to admit, it’s impressive.
I’ve seen the first part of it, the large basalt rock formation close to the shore that juts out of the water. But now, as if by magic, a long, creeping bridge of rock and stone have appeared out of the ocean, curling parallel to the coast until it reaches the other side of the inlet, straight into the mouth of a huge sea cave.
When I’ve been in my seal form, I’ve never come this close to it before. I usually stay at the other side of the inlet.
The cave is at the edge of the cliff, facing out into the ocean, and even from here I can see that it’s shaped from the same strange boxy rocks that make up the large part of the causeway. It’s surrounded on all sides by water.
And the water is humming.
Not a good hum. Not the hum of an incoming tide on a new moon, or the soft vibrations that warn a storm is coming. As my boots make contact with the pools of water still covering the causeway, the salt shakes and sings and sends up a fearful little cry. I want to fall to my knees and put my hands in the pools and listen, but we don’t have time.
So I shake off my unease and keep going.
“Does something feel… off to you?” Tanis whispers from beside me.
“No, I don’t feel anything,” Thomas says, splashing loudly as we walk. I wonder if he’s doing it on purpose, being comically loud because he’s a petulant wee man. “What do you feel?”
“I don’t know,” Tanis answers, looking around. A gull cries overhead and her shoulders hunch as she turns to look at it, her face flattened out into a distinctly canine expression. If she were shifted right now, her hackles would be raised, her fur on edge.
I kind of wish I hadn’t seen her as a wolf, because now when I look at her, it’s impossible to unsee it. It lends her soft human form a sharpness that wasn’t there before, even with the leather jacket and heavy boots.
“I’m not sure if this is a good idea,” she whispers. We’re getting closer to the gaping mouth of the cave now, and her footsteps are slowing. “Something here feels… evil. You feel it, right?” She turns to me and puts a hand on my arm. “You have to feel this.”
I nod. I do. The humming has turned into a dull thrum, like the noise Kit’s toaster oven makes when plugged in, like it’s plucking through my body. It itches. It makes me want to slip off this skin and swim until I’m fully submerged in deep, clean water.
“I feel it too,” Thomas says suddenly. He’s stopped walking and is staring at the sea cave. His brown canvas jacket is blindingly bright compared to the dull, drizzy grey landscape behind him. “I rather expect that means we’re in the right place.”
He doesn’t sound happy about it. He sounds like he also wants to bolt.
“Come on then,” I say, grabbing his wrist and starting forward again. We’ve come this far. I’m not going to let him run away now.
We have to climb up and over rocks and more basalt columns to reach the entrance to the cave. My boots get submerged in water and my hands scrape against the slimy rock, and I know I’m going to reek of seagull shit and kelp when this is through. But Kit could be in here, so I keep going.
Inside, the cave is silent. The waves and gulls and ambient noise of the coast almost completely disappear, and it’s like all sound has been dampened. But that shouldn’t be the case — our voices and breath and footsteps and splashes should be reverberating off the stone walls and echoing against the pools of water.
But all I can hear is the humming of the ocean, getting louder and louder in my bones, telling me to run.
“There’s nothing here,” Thomas says, feeling along the walls. “There are other chambers, but you have to dive to get to them.”
“So we dive,” I say, gritting my teeth against the vibrations while I try to peer down through the dark water.
“You dive,” Thomas snaps. “I’m not a strong swimmer.”
I put my hand into the water slowly, carefully, meaning to test the depth, when it ripples around me. Snatching my hand back, I turn to the others, blinking against the bright grey sky at their backs that’s causing them to look like black smudges.
“Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe we should—”
Something moves in the entrance of the cave. A large shape, emerging from the water, dark against the cave mouth.
The smell hits me before I’m able to process what I’m seeing, rolling over us like a cloud of rotting fish and burning kelp and decaying flesh.
“Oh my God,” Tanis breathes. The shape in the mouth of the cave rises fully from the water and lands on the large rock ledge before us, its details hazily visible against the bright light behind it.
It’s a black horse, if I squint at it in the right way. It’s horse-shaped, at least, with four legs and a snorting equine head, but it looks as though a strange, misshapen rider has grown out of its back. The rider isn’t human, though — it’s like a humanoid growth, except for the arms. They’re impossibly long and the sharp, claw-like fingers at the ends of them curl up, so the knuckles graze the rocks below. Its humanoid head lolls uselessly backwards, the mouth open and unmoving, revealing uneven, jagged teeth.
And it has no skin.
“What the hell is that?” I shout, backing myself into a wall. The smell is everywhere, choking me and burning my eyes, and I almost can’t look away from the single, blazing red eye set in the middle of the horse head. I can see the monster’s blood — black, viscous, oozing away between its angry red arteries and veins, fully on display like the skin casing has just been peeled away.
“Nuckelavee,” Thomas breathes, and then hell breaks loose.
The creature reaches for Tanis slowly, the motion fluid and graceful despite its uneven body and disproportionate arms. Instead of ducking back, Tanis charges to meet it. She’s changing right before my eyes — not into the wolf, like I would expect, but into something that looks like Tanis but is somehow… more. She seems taller, stronger; impossibly, even painfully beautiful to look at, and her nails have grown into sharpened points.
She’s like something out a dream.
When the nuckelavee reaches for her, she lashes out, whipping her nails across its forearm and balancing back on one leg to kick at it with her heavy boot. A thin spray of dark blood shoots out from the wound and hits Tanis in the face. She gasps in pain, then doubles down, spinning around to kick at the monster again. I can barely keep up with the movement of her limbs, she’s going so fast.
“Oi!” Thomas shouts from the other side of the cave. While I was backing myself away from the fight, Thomas has run toward it, boxing the monster in. The nuckelavee turns to look at him, and he begins pelting it with rocks. They bounce off its slick hide and splash into the water.
“Rocks?” Tanis screeches, slashing at the monster’s chest. “Really? You’re going to kill it with rocks?”
“Got a better idea?” Thomas shouts back, dodging the nuckelavee’s grasp. The long arms reach for him again, the knuckles dragging, and Thomas jumps back further, splashing through a pool and nearly losing his balance.
“Oh, I dinnae ken,” Tanis pants, scrambling up onto a nearby rock ledge. “How about ya remember you’re a fucking magician?” And then she hurls herself onto the nuckelavee’s flank with a shout.
The black horse mouth opens and lets out a scream that isn’t a scream. It’s the crashing of waves and lightning striking water and the cries of gulls and it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I clasp my hands over my ears and crouch down lower, trying to get as far away from the sound as I can.
Its tail — a combination of slick, oily hair and seaweed — flicks out in a violent slash and catches Thomas across the chest, sending him struggling back. I push myself back further into the crevice of the wall, my chest tight, my limbs frozen. I don’t want them to be hurt but I… I can’t move.
Tanis digs her claws — because there’s no other way to describe them at this point — into the monster’s flank and it screams again, and she claws her way up its back until she has her arms around its torso. The monster bucks, scrabbling with its long fingers to knock her loose, but she stays locked on, her hands coming up to grip around what I guess is its human-ish neck.
I don’t how she manages to handle the smell of it, being that close. I feel like I’m on the verge of vomiting, and my eyes watering even from here. I want to help — I wish I could help her, but I have nothing to fight with, and I’m rooted to the spot in fear. I’m safe, wedged behind my rock, and I don’t think there’s anything that could get me to leave it.
The nuckelavee bucks again and manages to grab Tanis just as she’s drawn her long nails across the eyes of its human head. It doesn’t even pause from the pain, just grabs her around her throat and shoves her down into the water. Her legs are kicking, her arms pinwheeling, but the monster’s grip is too strong.
She can’t get free.
She’s going to drown.
“BURN,” Thomas shouts, his voice echoing through the cavern. He’s panting, a huge smear of blood streaked across half his face. His hand is bleeding at his side; with a sickening lurch, I realise he’s scratched his old wound open against one of the rocks he’s been hurling.
The nuckelavee screams again and releases its hold on Tanis as its tail goes up in flames.
I scramble out from behind my rock and crawl on hands and knees over to the knee-deep pool of seawater that Tanis was being held down in. By the time I reach her she’s already sitting up, gasping, clutching at her throat.
“Are you okay?” I ask, breathless. She nods, grabs my hand, and pulls us back to our feet and over to Thomas, who is advancing on the nuckelavee as much as the limited floor of the cave will allow. His hand is still dripping blood, and he keeps reaching up to smear it further across his face.
He’s impossibly fucking calm.
“BURN,” he commands again, and the flames dance from the already burning tail onto the nuckelavee’s back. But there’s nothing to burn, and the fire sputters out on its oily blood. The monster gives another scream, and then dives back into the deep water at the mouth of the cave.
The sound echoes through the inner chamber, and then everything is silent.
“Is it gone?” I ask, not letting go of Tanis’s hand. The clawed nails are digging into my wrist, but I can’t let her go. “We have to leave. The tide is coming in, it’s early, but I can feel it, we need to—”
The nuckelavee explodes out of the water, the flames gone, and crashes onto the rock floor in front of us with a thunderous clatter of its coral and shale hooves.
It screams again, and the tide rises.
“Isla, get behind that rock, Thomas, at my side,” Tanis orders, her voice raspy but calm. How are they both so calm? Thomas is covered in blood and Tanis is soaking wet, rivulets of water streaming down from her hair. The strangeness of her appearance hasn’t faded — the painful, unearthly beauty is shining through. It almost hurts to look at her.
Thomas pushes me toward a large column of rock jutting out of the cave wall and takes his place at Tanis’s side. I don’t go, though. I don’t hide. I stay just behind them. I can’t keep hiding.
“Cut me,” he says, holding out his other hand — the hand that had previously been uninjured — and Tanis does it without hesitation, her long nails slicing a thin ribbon of flesh down the middle of his palm. Just looking at it makes me feel faint.
“How do you kill it?” Tanis asks, crouching into a defensive position. The nuckelavee is standing still at the mouth of the cave, but not advancing. It’s like it doesn’t plan to attack us; it just wants to keep us trapped.
“You don’t,” Thomas says, his mouth a thin line. His strange accent is pushing through, stronger than before, and his hands are shaking. “You just banish it or trap it in freshwater.”
I’m so glad I’m not the only one.
“Can it speak?” Tanis whispers.
“I don’t know!” Thomas hisses. “Why would I know?”
“Didn’t your parents take down a nuckelavee?” Tanis whispers back. Thomas laughs — a sharp, hysterical thing that echoes off the walls.
“Clearly not successfully!”
“Just see if it can talk,” Tanis pushes.
“Why me?” he screeches. Jesus fucking Christ.
“Do you speak English?” I shout at the nuckelavee. It screams again, and the tide washes even higher into the cave.
I suppose that’s no.
“If he keeps that up we won’t be able to get out,” I say, hitting Thomas in the back. “Keep it from screaming.”
“I didn’t do anything!” he shrieks. “And how the fuck am I going to keep it from screaming?” he adds, but I’ve already moved from my spot behind them and dived into the deep water.
“Isla, no!” Tanis yells, but then the cold seawater claims me fully, and all sound is erased.
It’s odd, being submerged in this body. My limbs don’t work like they should. The water is cold and heavy, and not in a familiar way. I kick instinctually, and the water parts around me and allows me to move through it, but there’s no grace. No ease. I’m struggling, and my lungs are burning, and I can’t breathe.
I keep going though, pushing toward the floor of the cave and then striking as hard as I can toward the light in the distance, at the mouth of the cave.
When I emerge from the water, sputtering, I’m at the entrance, right behind the nuckelavee. The stench is even stronger here, almost like a physical wall, and my stomach roils as I gasp for breath and inhale the fumes of rotting flesh.
“Oi!” I shout, clambering onto a slick rock on the side of the cave wall. “Hey! You creepy horsey fuck, look over here!”
The nuckelavee doesn’t even look at me.
I keep shouting, trying to distract it and get it to turn so maybe the others can slip by, but it just begins to move toward Thomas and Tanis. Each step of its hooves echoes through the sea cave, ringing off the walls. It’s the only sound we can hear.
“BLIND,” Thomas shouts, wiping his bloody hand across his closed eyes. The nuckelavee screams again and rears back as black oozing blood begins to trickle down its equine eye, but it wipes it away with a long, grisled knuckle and begins to advance again.
“Can you do some useful magic?” I shout, looking around for rocks to throw.
“No, not really!” Thomas responds as he jumps back away from the long grasp of the creature. Tanis darts forward and slashes at it again, grabbing hold of its arm and hacking away with her claws, but she’s gotten too close. The creature grabs her with its free hand and sends her flying into the side of the cave. She bounces off the wall and rolls onto the rocks and lays there, motionless.
The creature opens its mouth again and the sound of a thousand mocking gulls fills the cave.
It’s laughing at us.
“Tanis!” I shout, jumping across the strange basalt columns of the cave to try to get over to her. My boots slip on the slick surface and I fall once, twice, ending up crawling over to her on my hands and knees. She’s still not moving. Angry red welts slash her face from where she’s been hit by the creature’s greasy blood, and a small line of blood is dribbling out of the corner of her mouth. A bruise is already beginning to spread on her chin.
“Do something!’’ I yell to Thomas, frantic with fear. Whatever change came over Tanis is gone; the painful beauty has faded, the untouchable strength nowhere to be seen. She looks like an ordinary girl now, rumpled and discarded in the corner.
Thomas is ducking in and out of the nuckelavee’s grasp, darting around rocks, slipping on the floor as he dashes around it. The creature keeps reaching for him, occasionally rearing back onto its hind hooves to get better reach, but it doesn’t move. It’s not chasing him down. It’s like it’s playing with us. Thomas keeps slashing at his hand with a rock, as if trying to rip his skin to shreds even more than it is.
“I’ve got a very stupid idea,” he shouts, clambering up onto a large rock.
“Just do it!” I yell back. I’m crying. I didn’t realise I was crying, because my body is so numb from shock and fear, but here it is. Wet tears dripping down my face and into my mouth. Or maybe it’s seawater.
“When I cast, grab Tanis and dive into the water and no matter what, just keep swimming,” Thomas says, turning away from the nuckelavee to look at me. “Even if I’m not with you, just keep swimming, aye?”
“We’re not leaving—”
“Jesus fucking Christ, I’m not about to fucking sacrifice myself, just get Tanis and go!”
His glasses are skewed to the side of his face, hanging unevenly on his nose. His whole face is covered in blood streaked through with tracks of water. He scrunches his eyes closed and breathes slowly, and then, in one disgusting movement, licks the blood off his palm and spits it at the cave wall.
“CRUMBLE,” he screams, and the cave begins to shake.
I grab Tanis around her waist and drag her into the water. The moment we fall into the freezing ocean, she gasps awake and begins to struggle.
“Hold your breath!” I shout, praying she’ll listen, and then I dive, pulling her under with me. I kick as hard as I can, trying to cut through the water that’s suddenly fighting back against me, putting everything this strange body has into getting out of the cave. The tide has come up so much that the entrance has gotten smaller and smaller, but I squint through the bracky waters and push.
All around us, rocks and boulders are collapsing into the water. One hits my leg and I gasp, taking in a mouthful of water, but I keep going. I can see the light, if I just push a little bit harder, if I just keep going—
A hand grabs mine and pulls me through the water, just narrowly missing a jagged rock that comes splashing down beside me, and then suddenly I’m in clear, clean ocean, my hands scrabbling against the cold rock of the causeway.
It’s Thomas. Beside me, Tanis is thrashing in the water, trying to get purchase on the rock. I let her go, pushing her gently toward the causeway and then climbing over the wet rocks myself. The causeway is almost entirely drowned — soon the water will be up to our knees, and it will be impossible to keep following it back to the coast without swimming.
I’m on all fours, still in the water, and then I vomit. I can still taste the smell of the creature on me, in me, and it looks like I’m emptying black bile into the ocean. On my other side, Thomas is vomiting too. Tanis is still lying on her back, her submerged chest heaving out of the water as she blinks up at the grey sky and tries to take in air.
I get to my feet unsteadily and take a shaky breath.
“Move,” I say, grabbing Tanis’s hand, “we have to move, come on.”
She staggers beside me as we splash through the water, slipping over algae and kelp, Thomas ahead of us, head down and charging, his legs coming up comically high as he tries to run through the rising water. His white trainers are brutally bright against the dark water and dark rocks and darkening sky.
I look behind us once, back to the mouth of the cave, which is covered with rocks. Thomas caved the entrance in.
“Did you kill it?” I ask, panting. Wading through the water is taking all my focus and energy, and my soaked coat is weighing me down. I want to take it off, but I don’t want to leave it here.
“No.” Thomas’s voice is hard to hear over the lapping tide and wind. “No, it’s still there.”
“What the fuck is a nuckelavee doing here?” Tanis pants, still holding my hand. I slip, nearly falling to my knees, but she grabs my elbow and steadies me. “We haven’t had a nuckelavee here in decades. A century or more, almost.”
“I have no idea,” Thomas reponds. “But someone probably summoned it.”
“Why would you summon a nuckelavee? That’s a death wish. The only person who could do that is a magician or Seelie, but—”
“Nuckelavees eat Seelies, yes. And magic in general,” Thomas answers. “That’s why it was so focused on you and me, I expect.”
“What if Kit is in there?” I ask, breaking my silence. The water is past our knees now, inching up toward our waists, but we’re almost to the other side of the inlet, coming up on the large outcropping of the causeway that stays permanently above water. “What if it was guarding him?”
“Nuckelavees aren’t guard dogs, they have no master,” Thomas responds, pausing as we get to the outcropping. He reaches for Tanis and helps her climb up out of the freezing water. Her movements are slow and painful. “They have only one goal, and that is to kill. Kill and disease and pollute.”
I follow Tanis up the rocks, my too-large boots skidding on the slime, and then we’re on the top, out of the water. Safe. Thomas grabs Tanis by the waist and walks her carefully over the last stretch of rock until we reach the shore.
He supports her up the grassy knoll toward the house and over the sea wall, both of them dripping, but I stay on the shore. They don’t even realise I’m not behind them as they stagger into the house.
I should follow, but I can’t stop looking at the cave in the distance. I hate the idea of going inside right now, of being trapped by walls again.
Everything is overwhelming. Everything here is wrong and unfamiliar and terrifying, and I don’t want any of it. I miss the ocean. I miss my herd.
I don’t have to, though. I could leave. I could put my pelt back on and go back to them and never have to see another horror like I just encountered ever again.
My sopping parka drops to the ground first, and then I pull off my boots. They squelch as I tug them off my feet and then I throw them aside on the rocky beach and tug off my soaking jumper and trousers and socks. The wind whips at my bare skin, but it almost feels warmer than the wet clothes I just took off. They hit the rocks with wet, sopping thuds.
Picking my way across the wet rocks is easier with bare feet. I can find purchase more quickly, and though the jagged edges cut at my soles, I don’t stop, walking further and further into the water until the ocean rises up above my ankles, my knees, my thighs, my stomach. I keep walking until I hit the dip in the ocean floor and then I dive into deep, clean water.
I just want to be home. I want to be somewhere I understand, somewhere where things are easy. Somewhere where I’m not so cold and hungry and don’t have to be constantly brave.
But the water around me is freezing, and the weight is suffocating instead of supportive, and my lungs are burning from holding my breath. The water isn’t home to me. Not in this body.
I can’t stay here. Even if I wanted to, I can’t stay. I have to go back to land. Kit is still gone; still missing and maybe injured. Still somewhere out of sight. As much as I want to be home, I can’t just let him go.
I can’t let someone else disappear from my life.
He’s all I have left.