mikkeneko (mikkeneko) wrote,

[TRC] (Midseries) The Missing Worlds (2/12)

I mentioned when I started posting that I had planned this fic in part in response to the dearth I perceived of fics where the travelers meet alters of their own selves. Another very common theme I noticed when reading a lot of fics in this fandom is fairy tale themes, and so each of the worlds they visit here is (vaguely) modeled after a fairy tale as well. The first one, of course, is The Little Mermaid.

The Missing Worlds - Water World II
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: This story is set in the uncertain period after Piffle World, but before Recourt; in other words, in the same never-neverland that the second season of the anime mostly took place in. This means that Fai has not yet learned to whistle, Syaoran is still the original Syaoran, and nobody knows anything about Kurogane's childhood.

Summary: The travelers visit the Emerald City, and go off to see a wizard. Wait, wrong story.

Mokona was worried, although she didn't want to admit it. There was definitely a feather in this world, she could feel its staticky vibrations pulsing from far beneath the waves. And that was good. But they were in the middle of the water with no place to go, which wasn't good. Normally it wasn't so hard to find a safe place to land in a new world, although finding a good balance between a safe spot and proximity to the feather was a tricky business, not that mean old Kuro-growly ever appreciated it. Hmph.

Syaoran had been gone a long time now, and the sun was starting to sink down in the sky. Kurogane's arms and legs moved in tired circles in the water, sinking incrementally down and then kicking harder in spontaneous bursts of energy to push himself up.

Mokona would have liked to help. Normally, Mokona would have just whipped out Secret Technique #54: Super Flotation Power! and that would have taken care of things. Even if that hadn't been possible, she would have at least liked to offer to take Kurogane's sword and armor and carry them, like she usually did for Souhi and Hien in worlds where they couldn't carry them around.

But ever since they had first splashed into the water of this world, Mokona hadn't been able to do any magic at all, apart from being able to sense where the feathers were. Mokona hadn't asked, but she was pretty sure that Fai had noticed it, too. There was something funny about the water; Yuuko sometimes talked about the effects of freshwater and saltwater on different kinds of magic, but it shouldn't be doing this. It was especially worrisome because Mokona wasn't even sure she could get the magic circle to come out so that they could go home. Mokona wasn't even sure how to tell the others, or if they'd even want to know?

"Ne, Kuro-puu," Fai said softly. Even though he was human, he floated on the surface of the water almost as well as Mokona did, almost like the water-bugs in Yuuko's pond. Fai was stretched out full-length over the surface of the water, his coat floating on either side of him, his hands extended. He was holding onto Kurogane's hands, helping the bigger man stay afloat. "Come on, you're getting tired. You should just get rid of that extra weight already. It'll help. We can worry about getting it back later, you know."

"It would only be delaying the inevitable, and you know it," Kurogane responded grumpily, kicking a little harder. "When the kid gets back, he'll probably have exhausted himself too, and then what? If we don't get out of this water soon we'll all be in trouble soon, unless you do something to help. Or do you like the thought of being the last one left standing up here? Floating," he added after a moment.

Fai drew in a soft, audible breath, and let it out on a puffed half-laugh. "I don't know what you're expecting of me, Kuro-puu," he said. "What makes you think I can do anything to help at all?"

"I'm not a fool," Kurogane growled. "I grew up around priestesses, I know what powerful magic feels like. I can feel how much you've got, for all you try to hide it with your silly attitude. I know enough to know what you could do, but you won't."

"You shouldn't put any kind of faith in my magic," Fai said softly. "Nothing good has ever come of it."

Mokona had stayed quiet throughout the entire conversation, when suddenly a shift in the feel of the vibrations caused her ears to perk up. "Mekyo!" she cried, eyes popping open as she bounced up on Fai's back. "Something's coming!"

"What's coming?" Kurogane demanded, his movements becoming more vigorous as he tried to look around.

"The vibrations are coming closer," Mokona exclaimed. She pointed. "It's the same ones that Syaoran went after!"

"Does that mean he got the feather and is coming back?" Fai asked in surprise. "Goodness, that's much faster than usual. We didn't even have to do anything!"

"Not like you ever do anything," Kurogane grumbled. "But seriously, we can't get out of here fast enough."

"There's just one thing I don't understand," Fai said to Mokona. "If he found the feather and is coming back, then what was causing the vibrations you feel in the other direction?"

"Does it matter?" Kurogane shrugged. "If we have it, then we can leave, right?"

"Well…" Mokona hedged, not sure if this was a good time to bring up the problem with the magic. "Mokona isn't sure…"

The cool breeze brought the sound of shouting to their ears, and they all perked up as they turned in that direction. They saw a spiky-haired head bobbing up over the waves, and one arm waving frantically. The head went back under the water, and bobbed up again a minute later, close enough that they could recognize Syaoran's features and hear his voice. "Kurogane-san! Fai-san!" he shouted. "It's all right! It's really okay!"

"You found it?" Kurogane bellowed, and with great effort he began to push himself through the water in Syaoran's direction.

"No wait - stay there!" Syaoran yelled and disappeared beneath the waves again. He didn't come up for air again, and the two men were left to look at each other in confusion and shrug their shoulders.

"This is strange," Mokona said, hopping back onto Fai's head and cocking her ears. "The vibrations are very close, but Mokona doesn't sense a feather…"

Syaoran splashed out of the water beside them a moment later, shaking his head and sending droplets flying everywhere. "Listen, it's wonderful!" he was saying excitedly. "We don't have to worry anymore!"

"You got it?" Kurogane demanded. "We can go now?"

"Yes! Wait, got what?" Syaoran shook his head. "I mean, yes, we can go, she says we can stay at her house while we rest -"

"She?" Fai's interest perked up. "You found people?"

"You found dry land?" Kurogane was more interested in practicalities.

"Yes, I mean, no, I didn't," Syaoran was getting flustered. "Yes, I found people - or at least I found a person - but there's no land - it's all underwater! This whole world is underwater! And the people -"

"But what good does that do us!" Kurogane shouted. "We can't damn well breathe underwater!"

"But that's what I'm trying to tell you! We can," Syaoran insisted. "She showed me! Look, I'll show you!"

He vanished under the waves. Fai, looking surprised, released his hold on Kurogane's hand, and in a moment he too had disappeared underwater. Mokona yelped in surprise and leapt away from Fai as he went under, landing on Kurogane's head and clinging to his spiky hair. Kurogane made a grab for Fai's trailing bright hair as it sank rapidly out of sight, but his fingers barely brushed the fleeting tendrils before they disappeared into dimness.

"Ooh, Mokona doesn't like this," she moaned, hopping back and forth and staring at the water. Being able to breathe or not wasn't a problem for Mokona, of course, but she wasn't sure what this strange water would do to a creature that was all made of magic. But then again, if Fai had been willing to try it…

"Hey! Mage! Kid, come back!" Kurogane yelled, panic beginning to edge his voice. Mokona could hear the voices of the others, strange and muffled under the weight of the water; Syaoran's eager tones and Fai's even ones, and a high female voice that sounded like... Sakura?

Suddenly, Kurogane jolted, and with a surprised yelp he vanished as some powerful force pulled him under the waves. Inevitably, Mokona was pulled along with him, sucked under the water's surface with a despondent wail.

Nothing bad seemed to happen, though, and after a moment Mokona loosed her hold on Kurogane's hair and looked cautiously around. They were sinking, gently but inexorably, through a world of silver-blue light. Streams of bubbles streamed upwards from all of her human companions, but nobody seemed to have any problems breathing.

Or, in Kurogane's case, yelling. "What the hell!" he shouted, his deep rumbling bass oddly distorted in the water. "Were you trying to kill me?"

"Sorry about that, Kurogane-san!" Syaoran was floating nearby, smiling in an apologetic way. "You didn't seem to want to listen, and, well, I thought this would be the fastest way to show you what I meant -"

"You didn't even TRY to explain!" Kurogane thundered. "What the fu -"

He was interrupted by a high-pitched giggling from behind him; Mokona went BOINK as the source of the familiar vibration registered. "Ah!" she cried out, launching herself through the water towards the finned stranger who had swum up from below. "Look, it's the princess! Except she's all different!" Mokona proclaimed. "This is where the waves were coming from!"

"- er," Kurogane finished, lamely trying to edit his speech for gentle company. "Nice to meet you, I guess," he said weakly. "Where are we?"

"Home, of course!" the mermaid said happily.

They drifted steadily downwards among the shifting bars of sunlight, letting gravity and the current do most of the work for them. The mermaid couldn't possibly pull all of them, and Kurogane had spent nearly all of his strength trying to keep afloat. His exhaustion was evident; he didn't say much as they traveled, leaving most of the conversation to Fai and Syaoran.

"Princess, this is Fai Fluorite, Kurogane, and Mokona," Syaoran quickly introduced his friends.

She regarded them, humming slightly as she swayed back and forth in the current. "You were wrong, Syaoran," she said abruptly. "They don't look like you. This one is blond, and the other one is all dark. Why did you say that everyone from your world looked like you?"

"I just meant that we all had legs, Princess," Syaoran explained awkwardly.

"But Mokona doesn't!" The mermaid darted quickly to take her from Fai's hands, holding her carefully. "You look more like a little hermit crab!"

"Mokona is Mokona!" the little creature proclaimed. "Mokona isn't like anything else!"

"We're so happy to meet you, and to share your hospitality," Fai said politely. "Syaoran-kun, aren't you going to introduce us to your lovely new companion?" He winked at Syaoran, who couldn't help but blush.

"This is - er -" Syaoran tripped over his tongue. He almost called her "Princess Sakura," but remembered at the last moment that she wasn't the same person. "I'm sorry, Princess," he stammered. "I, ah, I didn't get your name."

Her blue-green eyes widened, and she tilted her head in puzzlement. "You don't know?" she asked, then gave out a laugh like silvery chimes. "You knew I was a princess, but you don't know my name?"

Syaoran shot a guilty look at Fai, who only smiled. "Well, um, you just looked like a princess," he temporized. "You had such an, um, regal bearing -"

Kurogane snorted quietly. Syaoran frowned at him. " -but we're strangers to this country, remember?" he said. "We don't know who everyone is here."

"Oh, of course," she said, accepting this cheerfully. "I'm Princess Tideflower, of course!"

Syaoran blinked. "Tide… flower?" he hazarded.

"Yes! For the tideflower plants," she said enthusiastically. "Haven't you ever seen them before? Let me show you!"

Without warning, she grabbed his hands and pumped her tail powerfully, and they shot away ahead of their other companions. Syaoran was about to protest about leaving them behind, but the speed of their passage knocked a fierce breath of water into his face and his lungs, and he was left speechless.

"Oi! Where are you guys going?" Kurogane yelled after them.

"Let the children play, Kuro-tan," Fai's lazy voice countered. "We'll catch up."

They'd already reached the level of the tall, waving kelp forests; now Tideflower took Syaoran into a forest of gently swaying trunks and rigid, intricate formations of coral. The plants parted to reveal a wide, straight avenue leading across the seafloor, obviously artificially planned and maintained. Schools of dazzlingly colored fish darted like birds among their branches, and the ground below sparkled with a tightly-packed mosaic of bright gravel and shells.

"See, these plants," the mermaid told him in a breathless voice as she surged forward between the rows. "I was named for them. Tideflower plants have these small blossoms; they grow and then drop off with the tide, then grow again. They're said to be beautiful because they give their flowers away, instead of holding on to them until they wither and die."

At first Syaoran didn't see the flowers she meant; but then he realized that what he had taken for a steady flow of silver bubbles was instead a flurry of bright pale beads like flower petals. They did not fly away upwards, as the true bubbles did, but instead fell in a slow and steady stream, or were caught by tiny whirlpools and swirled in tornadoes of silvery white.

The princess laughed in delight, then pulled Syaoran so close to the tideflower plants as to touch them, kicking up another cloud of the shimmering spheres. An expert twist of her tail sent the two of them corkscrewing, and the currents generated by her movements sucked in the hail of tiny flowers until they seemed caught in a soft, gentle blizzard.

"They're beautiful," Syaoran said, unexpectedly stunned.

"I love them," the mermaid said simply, and Syaoran's heart thumped painfully in his chest. "Look, you can see my home up ahead. Come on! Your friends are so slow, can't they hurry up? I want you all to meet my family!"

The princess' "home" turned out to be a breathtaking underwater palace, not built from wood or carved from stone but instead grown from the living coral that clustered along the ocean floor. How they shaped the material to form the graceful colonnades and wide seaweed-carpeted balconies Syaoran had no idea, but he itched to find out.

It was a relief to get their feet back on hard ground, although the floors had never been built for feet to walk on them. The floors tended to be broken and jagged, and there was no such thing as stairs, but buoyed by the water it was easy enough to scramble around the obstacles and swim from one level to another. Fai was the fastest to adapt to this new mode of getting around, diving and swooping until he almost seemed part merman himself; Kurogane was the slowest, still weighed down by the armor he refused to take off, and grumbled much about it.

Princess Tideflower's people were a congenial, hospitable bunch; most built along the same slim, flowing lines as her, only larger. They regarded Syaoran and his companions as mildly alarming curiosities, but once the initial shock of the meeting wore off, they were willing enough to extend a warm greeting. And like her, none of them wore clothes, which caused Syaoran much blushing and consternation.

The scholar in him couldn't help but notice, however, that although clothing as such was absent, the adults of the mermaid society were very big on decoration. Delicate nets of pearls strung on fine cords, or mother-of-pearl jewelry polished from discarded seashell; he even saw glints of true metal and gems among them, mined from some underwater source. The merfolk's hair seemed to come in all colors, but always matched the color of their scales, and sometimes even bore faint mottling or other brindled patterns. This looked normal enough for the merfolk with tan or gold or red scales, but somewhat unnerving on those with flashing patterns of green and purple, or pale silver and blue.

"We don't get very many visitors these days," a green-haired merman who introduced himself as Tideflower's father explained to them apologetically. "The sea routes are too dangerous right now. Most people prefer not to travel unless they absolutely have to, and even well-guarded trade fleets are being attacked on their route. We offer sincere apologies if our hospitality is lacking because of that."

There was no danger of that; they were given coral-walled chambers to stay in, and dinner. Syaoran had been a little worried at first that they would not be able to eat the same food as the submarine folk, but the food they were given - long, thick rolls of either mild or spicy vegetable and fish paste, wrapped in starchy seaweed - was delicious and filling. Fai, unable to refuse the hospitality of their hosts, had taken a few polite bites, turned green, and eaten nothing for the remainder of the evening.

Syaoran slept better than he had expected; all the unaccustomed strain of swimming had tired him out. The sleeping chambers were warmer than the others, heat radiating up through the innermost wall from some deep vent; and although there were no blankets or mattresses, the buoyancy of the water made cushions unnecessary.

With the morning light, however, Syaoran was anxious to be on their mission. When they ventured out of the palace in Tideflower's happy company, Syaoran began asking questions about their missing treasure.

The biggest problem was describing the concept of a "feather" in the first place; Mokona's spell seemed to automatically translate it as "fin" to these people, which didn't quite get the right connotation across. Abandoning land metaphors, Syaoran fell to simply describing the shape and appearance of the feather.

"It's sort of a triangular shape," Syaoran said, trying to draw an approximation of the lost feather on clear bed of sand. "Bright white in appearance, but it has a black design on it, a little bit like- like the structure of that coral," he said, pointing to a nearby specimen. "It's about this large."

The king looked dubious; Tideflower swam up and darted over his shoulder to get a look at Syaoran's drawing. "We have a lot of things that look alittle like that," she said, "but not exactly. And they've all been here for years and years."

"The item might have been here for just a short time, or for a very long time - maybe even centuries," Syaoran tried to explain, hoping they wouldn't ask how this was possible. Fortunately, the merfolk seemed to be as willing as Tideflower had been to simply accept what they were told at face value, and not ask pointed questions. "It's a very powerful magical item, and it can have a strong effect on the people or things who hold it. We can't risk the wrong people getting hold of it."

The king exchanged a glance with one of his companions, who nodded to Syaoran. "We do not have many magical items in this kingdom," he said. "To tell you the truth, we know virtually nothing about it. Magic fell into disuse here a long time ago."

Syaoran's shoulders drooped. Another of the watching merfolk must have seen his expression, because they hastened to add; "If you need to ask about a magical item, then there is someone who can help you," he suggested. "But only if it's very, very important. She doesn't like to be disturbed for trivial matters."

"Oh, it is!" Syaoran said earnestly, then hesitated, feeling a bite of trepidation. "Who is 'she'? Where does she live?"

Several of the merfolk shuddered and looked away, as though the water had suddenly become cold. Only the king was bold enough to answer straightforwardly. "We speak of the Sea-Witch," he said. "She lives in a cave that's not too far, for those foolhardy to seek her out. She is both powerful and wise, and she will sometimes answer the requests of those brave or foolish enough to place them - but she always demands a heavy price for her assistance, and if you cannot meet her price, you will face the wrath of the tides."

Princess Tideflower had wished to accompany them, and threw a small tantrum when her father sternly told her to remain behind. Her father seemed to feel the need to apologize profusely to the travelers for her behavior, although none of them had felt more than mildly guilty for disappointing her. "My daughter is young and reckless," he explained, "full of too much curiosity and never ceasing to ask questions. For some reason she is never content to stay at home, she always wants to see more. But it's simply too dangerous, I'm sure you understand."

"It's quite all right," Fai assured him. "Your lovely daughter's welcoming friendliness has been a great gift to us."

"Her questions don't bother us at all," Syaoran added. "After all, we are strangers here, it's only natural that she should be curious. I'm just as happy that she'll stay here where it's safe."

Several of the mermen had escorted them to their destination; their pace was much more sedate and stately than Tideflower's bursts of wild enthusiasm, but still much faster than the travelers could have swum on their own. They crested a sandy ridge to reveal a wide cleft in the sea floor below, not part of the coral reef but clustered with kelp and sea-plants nevertheless. A wide, irregular mouth of blackness gaped in the face of the cliff, and their escorts pulled up short.

"Ahead is the lair of Tethys, the Sea-Witch," one of the mermen told them. "Pardon us, but this as far as we will go. It's dangerous to leave the reefs these days, and the Sea-Witch does not like visitors."

"That sounds promising," Kurogane muttered, but he seemed slightly cheered at the thought of entering dangerous territory. The three of them and Mokona set out to swim the distance to the underground cavern; the dark shade of the cliff face soon enveloped them, making the bright colorful waters of the reef seemed like another world.

The cavern was pitch black; although some daylight did still filter down from the sky above, none of it penetrated the walls of the cave. Syaoran put a hand out to the wall to guide him, then drew it back in surprise; the stone was perfectly smooth, almost slick, and much warmer to touch than he'd expected.

"Er... hello?" Syaoran ventured, his voice echoing weirdly in the underwater blackness of the cavern ahead. "Madame Tethys?"

"Ahh..." Movement stirred in the darkness, and a voice spoke in what was almost a whisper. "We have guests. Maru, Moro, make light. No doubt you will wish to see."

It was a soft, sibillant voice that seemed to carry with it the rushing, inexorable force of the tides. Syaoran felt his older companions start as they, too, recognized the voice. "Oh no," he heard Kurogane mutter. "Not her..."

Two bright squiggles of light appeared on each side of the cave; they streaked away to the sides, and a series of glowing yellow patches began to appear in niches in the walls and ceiling. The ethereal beings flittered by the travelers on their way to light the walls; they glowed from within with their own eerie light, and they had small human faces; they almost looked like mermaids, if not for their size and semi-transparency. The new light illuminated, but did not reveal, the inside of the cave. Unlike the coral dwellings of the merfolk, this appeared to be a real, natural stone cave, hollowed out of the rock promontory to the size of a large house. The floor and walls were worn smooth, and had an odd laminate feel under the traveler's feet as they stepped cautiously forward.

Ahead of them, a patch of darkness moved, fragments of darkness uncurling from the mottled stone wall and coming down to rest upon the floor. The light spilled on the figure as it turned, throwing a start contrast of black and white upon the sharp, elegant features of the Time-Space witch.

Long locks of black hair floated about her head like the strands of a spider's web; the skin of her face, neck and shoulders were pure white, almost opalescent. From below her shoulders to her hands, the white skin turned to a seamless pure black, like a lady's evening gloves; the same black color poured down her torso and legs to flare out like the wide skirt of a gown where her feet would be. From there the silky blackness split into wide tendrils of darkness that flowed across the floor, moving and undulating gently as she moved. Her eyes, like her skin, were pale and completely colorless, and they did not shift their focus when she blinked her heavy lids over them.

"Your eyes -" Syaoran choked out, too startled to hold his tongue. Suddenly the darkness of the cave made perfect sense. "You're blind?"'

The figure smiled faintly as she glided across the room towards them; the movement of her long dark tendrils over the floor was unsettling, to say the least. "Say rather, that I do not see with my eyes," she said, her voice smooth and lazy. "There are so many other things in the world to see. But now, let me look at you, and see who has come to beg the favor of the Sea Witch."

The black tendrils uncurled towards them with a languorous motion, and Syaoran shuddered and braced himself for the slimy touch on his skin. To his surprise, the touch of those arms over his clothes was as delicate as a light brush of fingers. The skin itself, as the tip of the tendril trailed lightly over his face, was warm and clean, and as velvety soft as a fine glove. The woman's smile widened slightly, as though she had been able to hear his thoughts.

"Landwalkers?" she observed as she pulled back her arms. "I have not seen landwalkers in my domain in many, many years. What brings you here?"

"We are travelers, not natives to this land," Fai said; of the three of them he seemed least perturbed by the witch's strange form, or perhaps he just hid it the best. "We're seeking a certain object. When we find it, we'll be on our way again."

"Of course." The witch turned away, her arms making overlapping waves over the floor as she glided to a corner. "And not being native to this world, or knowing where to look for this certain object, you turn to me."

"The people of this world did say you were very wise, great lady," Fai said cheerfully.

"And did they warn you that the gift of wisdom comes with a price?" she asked, as she lifted a small, glowing orange lump of some unidentifiable material into a metal enclosure like a lamp. "As all gifts do."

"Of course it does," Kurogane muttered resentfully.

"As long as you understand that, then we can come to a satisfactory arrangement." She turned back away from the strange lamp, her hair and her multiple black arms swaying in graceful counterpoint to her movement. "What is it that you seek?"

"A feather," Syaoran blurted out, then berated himself. "It's, um, a small item with delicate ribbing, sort of like a fin. It has a triangle shape and it's white with a black design -"

"I know what a feather is," the sea witch interrupted, her voice gently amused. "Why should you seek such an object here? This is a world without much use for feathers."

"It comes from outside this world, and we seek it to return it to its rightful owner," Fai explained. "It is an item of great power, and we'd hate to see it fall into the wrong hands. It could do terrible things, in possession of an evil mind."

"Mm." The witch fell briefly silent, her white eyes hooded as she swayed slightly. After a moment she lifted her face back towards them, although her eyes did not focus on any of their faces. "I know where to find what you seek," she said. "And what price will you give in return for this information?" she asked.

"We'll try to pay what you ask," Syaoran said bravely. "Although we don't have much to pay with."

"For every boon, there is a bane. For every gift, there is a price. The balance must be kept. This is no whim of mine; it is the will of the tides." Her voice had a rhythmic, almost hypnotic quality. Syaoran was beginning to feel a little funny, almost light-headed. There was an odd tickle at the back of his throat, partly a taste and partly a smell, like burning wood or hair or spices. He fidgeted uncomfortably, and had to fight the urge to cough.

"The price given for magic can be many things," the witch went on. She was moving across the floor towards them, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible save for the drifting motion of her hair and splayed arms. "If you have nothing to give, then the price can come from your own body, which is always yours to pay. An eye - an arm - a treasured memory…"

"It's not worth that much," Kurogane grumbled. "I think we'd do better just leaving and searching on our own."

She turned towards him, black mantle flaring around her, and suddenly without seeming to move she was in arms' reach of the warrior. "Of course, the sacrifice need not be so dire as all that," she purred. Several slender tendrils slid up the warrior's arms, curling delicately about his wrist and winding up his elbows, and she raised her black-clad hand to cup his cheek. "Traditionally, a night of pleasure is considered a worthy payment to a lady of great wisdom. Assuming, of course, that the performance is satisfactory…"

Kurogane choked, turning a deep red color as he tried to yank his hands back, but the witch's arms were surprisingly strong. Syaoran just goggled, unable to think of any suitable response to this even if the smoke hadn't been muddling his thoughts. He was willing to do a lot for the sake of Sakura's feathers, but…

"I, uh," Fai said, when it was obvious that his two companions were speechless. "I do beg your pardon, lady, but somehow I don't think any of us would be able to satisfy you in that regard. No offense intended. I just don't think we'd have, um, compatible equipment."

The witch gave a throaty laugh, and with a sudden rush of water she was abruptly on the other side of the room again, despite never seeming to move. "Oh, don't sell yourselves short," she purred. "I have, as I said, had encounters with landwalkers in ages past, before the oceans rose to cover all the lands of this world. But if you decline the offer, then I think sadly such an affair is not to be." She smirked.

"We're leaving," Kurogane sputtered as he regained control of his voice and limbs. "Right now. We'll just find the damn thing ourselves."

"But, Kurogane-san," Syaoran objected, fighting through the muzzy panic. "That could take weeks, or maybe months! The feather -"

"Isn't worth whatever stupid price she's going to demand!" Kurogane said sharply. "Let's go."

"Your pants," the witch called out as he began to turn and storm angrily out of the cave.

He halted, and looked for her in bafflement. "What?" he said.

"Your pants. Take them off," the sea witch ordered him, her smirk growing.

"I already told you I'm not going to -" Kurogane began to sputter.

"Exotic clothing from faraway places has great value, does it not?" she said, sending a sly and knowing look in Syaoran's direction. "You can rest assured that the trappings of land-walking beings are quite rare in this dimension. One pair of pants will suffice, as well as your boots, of course."

"But - " Kurogane started.

"That seems like a good bargain to me," Fai nodded wisely. "Especially compared to an eye or a hand. Why not, Kuro-rin?"

"Please, Kurogane-san," Syaoran appealed, looking up at him hopefully. "We have to find the feather as soon as possible. I don't want to leave Princess Sakura alone for so long!"

Kurogane gave Syaoran a long look, opening his mouth as though to argue, but instead he just closed it with a snap and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Why me?" Kurogane demanded, but the witch only laughed.

Grumbling, Kurogane shucked off his boots, then began to work his trousers down his long legs. "Oh, you can keep the socks on, though," the witch called thoughtfully.

Kurogane unrolled the fabric of the pants legs from underneath his armor, leaving the overlapping metal plates to trail down over the front of his thighs like a loincloth. "There, are you happy now?" he snarled, flinging the offending articles of clothing at her. "This is gonna chafe like a bitch."

"Oh, good show, Kuro-pyon!" Fai hooted softly, clapping in mock appreciation. "Don't worry, I'm sure such a manly man can take a little discomfort!"

Kurogane rounded on him with a furious swing, but the laughing Fai had no trouble dodging him. "Will that do?" Syaoran asked anxiously, ignoring the byplay.

"Yes, quite satisfactory," Tethys laughed as she collected the discarded pieces of clothing. Then her expression turned serious. "Now. Your answer," she said.

"The vibrations that you hear do indeed sound from the Abyssal Chasm to the north. There are creatures who were sealed down there many, many years ago; serpents that are magical in nature and vicious in temperament. The deep waters should have kept them bound and asleep, and indeed for untold centuries they remained so.

"A few months ago, however, I felt their power awaken once more. They have gained possession of an artifact of great power, one that is able to negate the cold of the deep water and stir them to wakefulness. I believe that is what befell the treasure you seek. Ever since then they have been striking out, killing animals, and fouling clean waters until most of the folk here do not dare to leave their home reefs.

"You must go to the abyssal cavern, following the cold current that spirals along the rim of the ancient caldera," the witch told them, not the slightest hint of humor now in her tone. "If you recover the artifact, then the serpents will be bound in sleep once more. I hope that you are able to do this, travelers, and swiftly; for if they are not stopped, then the serpents will swarm over the lighter, warmer reaches of this world and destroy them all."

~to be continued...

Author's Notes:
In addition to the breathable air of the world of Chelestra - which also has the magic-blocking properties Mokona describes here - I also modeled this world partly on the underwater zone of Vashj'ir.

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