“I’m running away!”
"I really mean it this time!" Prince Castian Aramastus Delafontaine VII, or as most people knew him, simply Cas, let out a huff, shoving the last of his items into a bag. His supplies consisted of precisely forty desserts, his best jewelry, a blanket, a funky seashell, and, of course—a single fabulous hat. Yep, that seemed like everything he’d need for his escape to be an overwhelming success.
Cas flung the bag over one shoulder, propelling himself through the water towards his bedroom door in a swirl of bubbles.
“You’ll be back for brunch tomorrow, right?” his brother, Nerrocen, called, his tail sweeping absently back and forth as he rolled over on the clamshell bed he rested on.
“Oh, he will be,” his sister, Kaia, said from the bed across from him, her hair floating around her head in rippling cerulean waves. “He always is.”
Cas's parents had an overwhelming number of offspring, all of whom resided in one chamber, its walls formed from countless glistening pearls. The interior spiraled upward, reaching towering heights, and resembling the inside of a majestic conch. Exactly four hundred clamshell beds stuck out from the walls, twisting upward along the curvature of the building. Said beds were currently occupied by Cas’s siblings, the shells closing one by one around him as the princes and princesses settled in for the night.
Cas's face scrunched up, his brow furrowing in frustration. “I won’t be back,” he retorted sharply. “That’s, like…the whole point of running away.”
“And maybe we’d actually believe you if this wasn’t your…What is it now?” Nerrocen glanced down at his fingers, silently counting them one by one. “Thirtieth…thirty sixth…”
“Thirty seventh!” Kaia chimed in. “It’s his thirty seventh attempt.”
Cas crossed his arms, his chin jutting out defiantly. "Well, you know what they say, if at first you don't succeed, try again.”
“Yeah, try,” Kaia said, her hair swirling around her as she rolled onto her back. “Not try, and try, and try, and try, and try…”
“Okay, I get it!” Cas snapped. “You know, the lack of support in this family is perpetuating an extremely toxic home environment.”
Kaia just laughed, her eyes crinkling as she propped her chin up on her hands. “I’ll make sure they leave an extra parfait out for you at brunch tomorrow. Y’know, just in case you somehow make it an hour longer than you usually do.”
"No need! I won't be—Wait." Cas leaned forward, his eyes lighting up. "We're having parfaits tomorrow? I love par–" He caught himself, dragging out the word in an attempt to cover it. “Paaaaartaking in adventure. Which obviously takes precedence over a food item, no matter how incredibly delicious it is.” With a flourish, he threw back his head and puffed out his chest, posing dramatically with his hands on his hips. “Now I’m swimming out that door, and I’m never coming back! So, without further ado…goodbye, family!”
He was met by silence.
Kaia and Nerrocen exchanged a glance. Then, as if on cue, they burst into a fit of laughter. Their gills flared, their shoulders shuddering and their tails whipping back and forth. They cackled and cackled until their chests heaved, leaving them wheezing.
Kaia let out one loud, final snort. “See you tomorrow, Cas.”
And with that, she and Nerrecon’s clamshells snapped shut, right in his face.
Cas remained floating there, momentarily stunned, suspended in the watery silence of the chamber. Then his expression twisted, his cheeks heating with barely retained fury as he shot a venomous glare at the closed clamshells. From within, the muffled hum of his siblings' snores had already begun, a mocking lullaby.
“I won’t be back,” Cas muttered, digging into his bag as he removed a large, flat shell, its surface glinting in the pearlescent light of the chamber. “This time is finally going to be different.”
Cas’s fingers tightened against the shell, determination blazing in his gaze as he stared down at the words scrawled across it in thick, black letters.
‘Sea Witch seeking recruit for human world.’
Cas had never traveled this deep into the sea before.
Bioluminescent algae lined walls of the rocky chasm, illuminating the darkness in an eerie blue glow. Cas’s hands tightened around the strap of his bag, fighting the urge to shudder at their waning light the deeper he went. The cold, whirling waters seemed to swallow him whole as he dove into the darkness.
Finally, Cas reached the bottom of the trench, finding himself submerged in impenetrable black. His eyes strained to make out any detail as he swam, nearly crashing into a rocky wall. He used it as his guide, his fingers trailing across its rough edge to make his way around it, emerging on the other side. It was at that moment, in the heart of the abyss, he came face to face with the massive, glowing skull.
Cas’s heart leapt into his throat, and he jerked backwards with a startled gasp.
As the rapid thrum of his pulse calmed from the initial shock, he realized he was staring at the skeletal remains of a great white whale. Covered in glowing algae, it loomed over him in the inky waters like a malevolent specter. Its massive jaws formed a doorway, wide and waiting, as if ready to consume him.
“C’mon, Cas,” Cas whispered to himself as he tried to ignore his five course dinner churning in his stomach. “It’s just some avant garde architecture. Nothing to be afraid of. Except for the owner's gauche taste, of course.” He laughed at his own joke, the sound swallowed up by the silence around him.
Stealing his resolve, Cas grit his teeth and swam through the glowing jaws.
The whale’s bones arched over his head, the curve of its rib cage surrounding him on every side, all coated in bioluminescent algae that illuminated the waters in a blue-green glow. Shelves and divotes had been carved into the bones, packed with vials filled with mysterious herbs, embalmed animals, and a variety of substances Cas didn’t think he even wanted to identify.
"No way!" A gnarly rasp of a voice echoed through the darkness. "Someone actually showed up."
Cas spun around, unable to muffle a yelp at the sight of the woman before him.
Pitch-black eyes bore into him, the woman’s features so sunken and gaunt that her face matched the skull forming the door. Wispy strands of hair floated about her head, her lips thin and chewed raw. The spindly legs of a crab made up the lower half of her body, her torso rising up from a faded shell lined in the glowing algae.
“Are you the sea witch?” Cas whispered, suppressing another shudder.
“Look at me, kid.” The woman glowered at him. “Literally who else would I be?
“Right, duh. Sorry!” Cas’s tail swished anxiously back and forth beneath him as he averted his gaze, rubbing the back of his neck. “So, I, uh, saw your flier about going to the human world. And I know my resume is a bit thin in some… well… most places. It’s not like being the youngest of four hundred royal siblings gives you a lot of opportunity for career growth. But I promise, if you just give me a chance, I’ll–”
“For the love of… stop blabbing,” the sea witch snapped. “You’ve got the job.”
Cas’s jaw dropped. “Wait! Really?”
“Kid, I put this out on a flier.” The witch sighed, crossing her wiry arms. “I'm clearly desperate. At this point, I'm ready to take just about anyone. Even if my only candidate is seriously…” her gaze flickered over Cas as her lip curled, “bottom of the barrel.”
“Wow, okay. Definitely never thought I was going to get this far.” Cas said with a shrill, nervous laugh. “So, uh, what do I have to do… exactly?”
The witch’s spindly legs clicked as she scurried to a shelf. With a grunt, she grabbed the rusted handle of a barnacle-encrusted treasure chest and wrenched it open. “I need you to watch someone.” Sticking her entire head inside, she rummaged through the chest, the items within clinking and clattering. “His name is Valentine, the Captain of the Scarlet Mamba.”
At last, the witch pulled a necklace free. A sapphire gleamed at its center with an otherworldly beauty, its brilliance intensified by the contrast with the dark, murky waters surrounding them. A ring of intricately twisted silver encircled the jewel, delicate words etched across its surface in a language Cas couldn’t even begin to decipher.
The sea witch scurried back to Cas, her legs clattering against the rocky floor. Cas did his best not to shiver as her bony hands brushed against his neck, setting the necklace in place.
“I'll be able to track his motions through the amulet,” the sea witch’s voice sounded from beside his ear, so close that Cas could smell the stench of rotting fish on her breath. “Agree to follow him, and I’ll make you human. You can finally leave the sea.”
“So what’s so important about the guy?” Cas asked. “Why send someone all the way up to the human world just to spy on him?”
The witch’s black eyes seemed to glint in the darkness. “A person of great importance has requested an eye be kept on his progress.”
Cas arched a brow. “Progress on what?”
“I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough.” The witch’s lips curved into a thin smile. “So do you accept the offer?”
Cas’s eyes narrowed. Could it really be that easy? Just follow some pirate around? There had to be a catch. His teeth sank into his lower lip. “I don’t know… this seems a little sketchy.”
“You answered a flier from a freaking sea witch, kid,” the witch said dryly. “What else were you expecting?”
Cas remains frozen in place, his pulse speeding up.
This was probably a terrible idea, right? So maybe he should bail, just like he always did. Give up now and return to the safety of home—to cozy seashell beds, and parties, and parfaits, and living the same day over, and over and over again. His stomach twisted at the thought.
Because if he stopped now, it meant his siblings really had been right about him. He was doomed to rot away in this ocean as a spoiled, useless mer-prince that whined about wanting something more for the rest of his days. And now, finally, that something more dangled in front of him. All he had to do was reach out, take it, and he'd show them. He'd show everyone
Swallowing down the lump in his throat, Cas summoned every ounce of courage he’d always claimed he’d had. “Alright, I’m in!”
The Sea Witch's grinned, her lips parting to reveal a set of jagged, rotting teeth that glistened in the eerie light. “Then it’s a deal.”
And with that, the clasp of the necklace snapped shut around Cas's throat, sealing his fate.
A blood-curdling scream rippled through the water, and it took Cas a moment to register that it had come from him.
Cas felt like he was being electrocuted, energy crackling and sparking through him. His body convulsed, his arms and tail jerking wildly, thrashing in the water. He could have sworn he was being ripped in two, his tendons and bones splitting apart, his scales peeling away.
Through the pain, the sea witch’s voice echoed deep within his head. “Don’t forget, Prince Castian, you’ll be watching Valentine in exchange for your human legs. That counts as an agreement. If you violate it, the consequences will be deadly.”
Then, without warning, Cas went hurtling skyward, propelled by an unseen force.
“Wait!” Cas managed to cry out through the pain. “How am I even supposed to find this Valentine guy?”
Only the rush of water whipping past his ears answered him.
Cas catapulted upward, shooting faster and faster as he ascended towards the surface at a frightening speed. The world around him blurred into a whirl of bubbles and motion. And amidst the blinding agony and utter terror, Cas only had room for one thought...
Gods, he hoped humans made good parfaits.