Chapter Sixteen: Danger Lurks

Aveny wriggled happily into a small, rocky enclave like an overzealous puppy. She was in hot pursuit of a particularly lovely little octopus. Unlike the others, this one hadn’t fled at first. It had hovered before her nose, its tentacles churning the water like a magician casting a spell.

One large protuberant eye locked Aveny’s gaze and then, with a flourish, it had furled up tight, squirted black ink at Aveny’s face and jetted away, slowing momentarily to gaze curiously back at her. Aveny thought she could sense mischief in that gaze. The game was afoot.

As she dipped through the opening in hot pursuit, she felt a sharp, searing pain. She recoiled and slowed, her flippers pushing back against her own momentum. It hurt.

Strange neon-hued tendrils seeped from a large gash in her stone-colored flipper. Only then did she notice the rusty metal cage peeking out from the silt.

The octopus was immediately forgotten. There was a moment of shock and then the pain tripled, roiling her flesh, bearing down on her in electric waves. She instinctively attempted to grab the wound, but it was impossible. Her appendages wouldn’t reach. She couldn’t even touch it. She attempted to swim but each trailing movement caused the gash to open wider – filling with scalding salt water.

Panicked, Aveny faltered. The pain was a brick wall. She clasped the fin to her chest, tumbling head over tail in response, writhing with ineffectual spasms of movement. The agony was a scorching wildfire.

She had to stop. She had to think. She had to find a solution before she ran out of oxygen and drowned. She paused, her focus centering on the blood trailing from her flipper like a strange ribbon dance. Suddenly, the pain was overtaken by a jolt of fear. Blood. In the ocean. Sharks.

A wild, primal urge took hold and Aveny fled, swimming clumsily toward land, her car, safety. There was no time – nor ability – to wonder if she’d make it, or what would happen if she washed up bloody and naked on some unknown shore. There was only survival … or not.

She struggled forward, her lungs screaming for air. Slowly, excruciatingly, she neared the surface, the light growing brighter with each passing second.

Aveny broke the water with a grateful gasp. No sooner had she inhaled than she sank back into the sea. But it was enough.

She pushed forward, momentarily colliding with a bobbing laundry detergent jug branded with a bright yellow smiley face. Its neon grin confused her, but she pushed on.  

As she neared land, she struggled against the current. What once seemed so gentle, even liberating, now felt brutally violent. She surfaced far more often to gasp for air. When her strength failed her, she paused, floated and caught her breath – which seemed to be leaking out of her faster and faster with each exertion. She didn’t dare stop for long, lest her strength fail her entirely.

Her flipper seared in agonizing pain, each motion reopening the jagged wound. No more blood escaped. The lack was more frightening than the loss. 

When her depleted body finally scraped against the rocky shoreline, Aveny struggled to extract herself – to withdraw her arms and torso and slip back into the human world once again.

Everything felt wrong. Her body was stiff and tight; the movement disjointed. Every attempt to transform sent excruciating shocks of pain up her arm, echoing throughout her entire body.

After what felt like hours of gentle maneuvering, followed by a herculean thrust that made her scream aloud, Aveny finally slipped free. She crawled ashore at her secret spot, safely obscured by overgrown tree branches and boulders, where she found her clothes waiting.

Normally she didn’t feel the cold but today her body quivered with arctic sensation. It clattered through her brittle bones and reverberated up her spine. She swaddled herself in the towel she always kept on hand and collapsed on the rocky shore, trying to regain her wits. Her shoulders shook violently.

She didn’t even glance at her arm. Her only concern was for the skin. She held it tenderly in her one good hand and ran her thumb along the gash. The sight of it hurt Aveny worse than the initial cut.

How could she ever fix it? What if all the magic – or whatever it was – had already drained away? It already felt different to her touch – weak and hollow.

Aveny clasped the skin tenderly to her chest and began to sob. As her chest heaved, the pain welled and recaptured her attention with its acute intensity. And then the world began to spin.

Only then did she notice her arm. The sight of it caused her to gasp aloud. It wasn’t bleeding anymore. Perhaps there wasn’t any blood left to escape.

The tissue of her forearm was hewn open like a split hotdog exposing the severed muscle below. It looked strange and white to her blurry eyes. She thought she might black out.

The eight-inch gash ran at an odd, broken angle from her right elbow to the side of her wrist. As she stared, the branches around her seemed to jolt, then spin. Her stomach churned and she vomited out a stream of salt water she didn’t even know she’d ingested.

All she wanted to do was lay down and rest. But even as she felt her body nearing the rocky shore, she rallied – some previously undiscovered drive welling up within. She had to get to a hospital; now, before she passed out and perished where no one would ever find her.

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