The next morning, Iliana managed to escape the village before Rhode or Dalphie came calling. Part of her knew that the best plan would have been to wait for whomever would come, but the rest of her was left reeling from restless dreams.
She couldn't face them while her mind offered nothing but the memories of how she lost her crew.
Unwilling to face the tough climb she'd endured the day before, Iliana wandered down to the beach. Her eyes skimmed the large, sandy area before catching sight of rock cutting out ground further down. A closer inspection revealed that it wasn't just one stone, that another leaned against it, and that the sand in this area was really just a thin layer over rocky ground.
If I sit here, they won't see me if they come looking.
Satisfied with her plan, she wedged herself between the rocks. With nothing to distract her, her thoughts continued to spiral. A heavy feeling settled in her heart as she tried to force the memories away. Focus. She urged herself. Think of what you need to do, not what you should've done.
Iliana rested her head against the side of the stony alcove. Her eyes searched what little she could see of the open ocean. Part of her desperately yearned for something, anything really to appear in the distance. There had to be a way out. The sirens wouldn't house her forever, not as she was. And Iliana would not settle for being stuck on this island, forced to live out the rest of her life alone in a forest full of Nightmares.
You don't have to be alone, a traitorous part of her pointed out. You could say yes. Then you'd have a family. Would it really be so bad?
She shook her head, dismissing the thought. Iliana didn't want this kind of family. If she was going to join one...
Unbidden, her mind produced Kain's nervous smile and his offer. A lump formed in her throat as tears began to form. She raised a clenched fist up, rubbing the tip of her knuckle beneath her eyes.
I give up.
Too much was happening for her to simply shove the memories away once again. Maybe it was better to let them have their way just this once. Alone, she could mourn. Perhaps once her chest no longer felt like it would burst, she would be able to find an answer to... everything.
So, she cried. She let out strong, body-shaking sobs without ever shifting her head from the rock.
She cried for Kain.
She cried for Artemios, Saul, Ancus and Kreon.
She cried for the future she'd lost, and the sister she'd most never see again. She cried for the ship that had become her home, a ship now drifting without a crew. She cried out the stress that had consumed her over a problem she might have no answer for.
And some time later, when she felt she could cry no longer, Iliana raised her stinging eyes to the ocean once again. Through the tears that remained, as she couldn't bring herself to wipe them away, she spotted a faint shape peaking beyond the edge of the cliffs. As Iliana stared, the shape blurred, then disappeared.
Was... was that a ship? She wondered, then shook her head. It was impossible. If there was a ship out there, the fog would have rose. Right?
She rubbed at her eyes, then narrowed them as she attempted to spot the shape in the distance once again. No matter how hard she stared, however, it refused to reappear. She was just about to lurch to her feet, wondering if it'd be easier to spot when closer, when splashing off to her left drew her attention. She poked her head around the rocks, attempting to locate the source of the sound.
Melitta stood on the beach, her figure framed by light from the rising sun. The rays glimmered across her wet skin, giving Iliana the impression that the mermaid had just emerged from the water. Melitta was bare, her long, platinum hair forming a curtain that hid her chest from view.
As Iliana watched, the mermaid glanced around, then stepped over to the forest. Something about the way Melitta carried herself kept Iliana from calling out to her. There was a strange, apprehensive edge to the way she approached the trees, then paused again to look around.
Melitta didn't want to be seen. Why?
Iliana waited as the mermaid pulled a bag from the trees and changed into a simple brown dress. The moment Melitta started into the forest, Iliana slipped from her little hideaway and carefully trailed after her. She watched her step, making sure to miss each branch and twig that might give her away. Somehow, she managed silence this time.
They walked the opposite direction of the siren village, instead heading deeper into the thick inland forest. After several minutes, the ground began to raise. It wasn't as steep as the cliffside, but she still had to pause once to draw in labored breaths. Being beat by the rocky entrance to the cove had done nothing for her stamina. Still, she managed to track Melitta's path, and soon, Iliana was able to make out the sound of running water. By the time they reached a clearing, the volume seemed to be a roar. As Iliana tucked herself into the thick undergrowth, she peered out past the trees.
A narrow river curled through the forest ahead, then disappeared only a dozen feet past the treeline to Iliana's far right. It couldn't have been more than six, but the white water crashing through it spoke of the dangers that might come with an unknown plunge off the bank. Where the ground fell away, the resulting waterfall was small, but loud. The familiar tang of saltwater was missing from the air, leading Iliana to wonder if this river might be where the sirens retrieved their drinking water. She hadn't seen a well in the village, but also hadn't thought to question it. It seemed laborious, but not impossible that they simply drew from a clean source instead.
As Iliana stared, Melitta stepped into the river, which almost seemed to... slow around her feet. Which was impossible. Merfolk couldn't manipulate water. Only Umae. Perhaps it was her position in the trees that cast the illusion. Whatever the reason, though, Melitta seemed to have no trouble crossing the rapids, and stepping onto a stone ledge at the edge of the opposing bank.
There, she paused to study her surroundings one, final time. Iliana drew further into the brush she'd tucked herself in, and apparently it worked, as Melitta returned her gaze to the edge.
Iliana bit into her cheek, cutting off the cry of surprise that'd sprung to her throat. Without real thought to the matter, she tore from the undergrowth and plunged into the river. The chill, a stark contrast to the tropical waters of the cove, caused her to stumble, and she nearly gave into the water rushing around her calves. Somehow, she managed to tear through the current, collapsing onto the other bank.
It took a moment, but soon she had her breath. The cold had done wonders for her panic, allowing her mind to remember that Melitta had come here with an obvious purpose--and she doubted it was to jump to her death. This in mind, she drew herself to her feet and approached the ledge.
The falls, while narrow, were a good twenty feet in height. Water crashed into what looked to be a shallow pool beneath the cliffside, then disappeared in a thin, winding river that cut into the dark forest. Melitta was nowhere to be seen.
Iliana's eyes widened. That was Melitta's voice, wasn't it? It sounded as if she were right beneath her...
Chewing on her lip, Iliana leaned further over the cliff, peering at the waterfall. From where she was, she could just barely make out a shadowed figure standing on a ledge behind the gallons of water.
"You're late," Callias replied.
As she watched, the figure--whom Iliana assumed to be Melitta--moved left, pressing their back to the rocky cliff-side.
"Sorry, it is hard to get a hold of human medicine. I had to settle for alcohol," Melitta muttered, her voice sounding a bit strained.
Then, she disappeared from view entirely. Was there a cave behind the falls? More importantly... why would the merfolk need human medication? Iliana's heart began to race at the question. Unreasonably, the idea drug up her buried hope and with only a bit of hesitation, she began edging over to where Melitta had jumped down. As she drew closer, she could hear bits and pieces of continued conversation.
"--it's not fair to--"
"--should have left him in the ocean--!"
"--touched by Umae, could not just..."
Melitta's voice became indistinguishable. She'd probably moved too deeply into the cave. Iliana hesitated, eyeing the ledge beneath her. If she dropped down, would they hear her? Or would the waterfall muffle it?
If she missed the ledge, she risked breaking something. The pool below wasn't near deep enough to soften her landing.
Was it worth the chance?