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Returning to the Deep

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Mercedes' dreams are redolent of loam and damp earth, ripe with drops of water splashing on old stone like the clicking of insect's feet, wet like Ofelia's blood on her hands, sinking into her skirt. They wail like an infant's shrill cry, and they sigh like the shift of wind through autumn's leaves. She walks through their cavernous halls, running her hands along golden walls smoothed with sand and time. In the atrium, three thrones spiral to touch a violet sky, its strange blue stars scattered like pinpricks of light in dark velvet. The constellations shift with the dream, taking on the patterns of her waking life (a paring knife, old shoes, a lover's kiss), but the shadowy figures high above remain the same. Mercedes circles the bases of their thrones and cries out to them, but they never respond. She walks and walks until she wakes, and walks some more.

. . .

From her land of shadows and spires come her dreams, following her into the day. The chatter of frog croaks and insects' wings speak clearly to her, come, come, but Mercedes doesn't go. She is transfixed by the echoes of a world beyond her own, shadows that dance away from their casters, trees that creak and turn to stare as she walks past. In the curls of her hair she feels ghostly horns rising and twisting; her fingers lengthen and sharpen, her rings slipping loose and clattering to the floor.

She sees Ofelia in the mirror, standing behind her and watching Mercedes wash her face. Her expression is troubled, her gaze ancient, the set of her mouth and shoulders youthful and sweet. Strange, her Ofelia, a mess of contradictions clad in a white gossamer gown. She has muddy feet, Mercedes sees, and her hair is wilder than a proper young girl would wear it. That, at least, is familiar. Mercedes touches the glass, right over Ofelia's heart. Ofelia's reflection smiles, and says Soon, soon.

. . .

She sleeps so much, but she is always tired. The city drains her, the war suffocates her. Since her brother's death, she has drifted from place to place, floating aimlessly like petals on the wind. Soon she must put down roots and grow.

She goes to the place to which she had sworn she would never return, and sleeps.

. . .

Once, before he died and after she did, Mercedes had a dream, clearer and brighter than her usual ones. She stood in someone else's skin, had small, childlike hands. She ran through a sandstone labyrinth on little girl feet, and left dusty footprints, imprints of chalk, in her wake; in her mouth she tasted the blush of sweet grapes, on her forehead she felt a sheen of sweat, in her chest her breath struggled and bit on its way through her throat. Fear prickled behind her eyes and she forced her short legs faster and faster until she fell, knees and palms scraping bloody trails on the ground. The thing behind her stumbled closer, closer, hands staring, jaw gaping, and she rolled over and kicked its twig legs into jutting, fractured pieces. It fell and its eyes burst open like rotten grapes. Mercedes laughed in her little girl voice and stamped her feet; the floor dropped away and she went tumbling down into a vast nothingness, sinking and sinking until she fell past a trio of spires and landed in her own body, waking with a gasp in a small stockroom with a revolver tucked in her skirt. The sentry at the door turned to look at her. The moon glinted off his eyes and teeth, and for a moment she was lost - wrong place, wrong sky.

. . .

The Captain's household has withered in his absence, barely supported by the skeleton staff tending to its stores. Few of them were there when she left, and those that did remain either don't recognize her or choose not to. She falls back into her old patterns, dicing, hauling, sneaking. During her rare moments of peace, she circles the entrance of the labyrinth repeatedly, wanting to go in but not daring to do so. She has not yet crossed the last, most important threshold, but she knows she shall soon, for she has read the truth in Ofelia's eyes.

In the woods she walks endlessly through the night, and watches the world sleeping under this one come alive. Lilting song whispers in the leaves and soil, hummed in counterpoint by the cold light of the moon. She sings along, a melancholy tune. The branches bend and bow as she passes, and stroke her skin with gentle thorns. Often, on these journeys, her nostrils catch the scent of moss and wet, fresh wood, and she can sense in the forest a shape moving beside her. When she spins around suddenly or stops abruptly to catch it in the act, the trees turn their backs and crouch to hide her companion. Eventually, she stops trying; she knows the feel of evil, its slimy presence against her skin, and this being does not have ill intentions towards her. Ofelia, she is certain, would warn her of any malevolent creature stepping out of the underworld.

Ofelia, she thinks as she hums their lullaby-requiem, Ofelia, I'm almost ready. Wait for me, little one, save me a place at your side.

. . .

It begins as a cough.

"It will pass," the doctor assures her, and she smiles and thanks him. Well-meaning, this one, like the new captain, but like him too is his naivete, his unshakable belief that his dear leader is right. Perhaps once she would have fought back, tried to coax him to her side by whatever means necessary, but she leaves that to other soldiers with their unshakable belief in their own leaders. Mercedes is tired of believing in men.

The cough doesn't pass; it digs its claws into her chest and stays there. She faints in the kitchen and is dragged to the empty room where Ofelia and Carmen once lived.

"It will pass," the doctor assures her, but his mouth is worried as he presses his hand to her forehead. Mercedes tosses and turns in sweat-soaked sheets, shaking. Fever dreams flit in and out of the corners of her eyes; her nighttime companion lurks in the shadows and assesses her with alien eyes.

The stars shine through her window, begging her to leave. Come, come.

"Yes," Mercedes rasps, and ignores the scratch of her throat and the weakness of her limbs. She rises, wraps the sheet around her shoulders like a child in winter, and leaves the house on ghost's feet. She goes to the labyrinth.

Here, her steps become sure, her chin held high. She has endured much; she has defeated monsters, dream and flesh both, and she has watched her own blood die. There is no need to sacrifice innocence anew; she gave hers up years ago to protect it in others, and the labyrinth accepts that toll. The stairs spiral down before her, the lichen coating the rock helpfully shifting to give her traction on the slippery stone. Step by step, she descends.

At the bottom there is a statue and a pool of water. Mercedes dips her toes in it, and its coolness soothes the fever simmering under her skin. Cloaked in shadows, the Faun waits; she smiles at him, her silent watcher in the night.

The shadows around him stir and steal moonbeams from the mouth of the pit, and coalesce into a shape: Ofelia, clad in white, eyes teary and lips smiling, smiling. She runs full tilt at Mercedes and flings her arms around her waist; Mercedes clings to her and strokes her hair, laughing and crying. The Faun gives her a curled little smile, and her eyes trace the familiar curves of his horns; he has been with her for longer than she knew.

"I'm ready," she says. "I'm ready, I'm ready - "

"It's time to come home," Ofelia says, and takes her hand.