Interestingly enough, this is actually the oldest short story of the batch I selected or wrote for use on this blog. My next novel, tentatively titled “Patchwork Magic,” has multiple things I had never tried to write before. Namely, a female protagonist and a magical realism setting. “The Sacred Grotto,” was the result of my need to make sure I could write those things, mixed with a call for submission to an anthology. Sadly, while I was pleased the experimental short made it fairly far in the selection process, it wasn’t ultimately selected. I’ve since then spent a bit of time kneading out some rough edges that were in that version, resulting in a short I’m fairly happy with. Obviously, the story is a fantasy piece.
The Sacred Grotto
By Jacen Aster
Leah heaved a weary sigh as she left the sacred grotto and headed for the cove. Illness had taken three of the island’s nereids out of commission for the last week, which was an unmitigated disaster during the height of tourist season. Predictably, everyone was suffering from exhaustion as they tried to keep up with the island’s vastly increased demands. The remaining nereids were suffering the most, but Leah’s rapidly building stress and exhaustion wasn’t far behind. Their problems were her problems, after all.
The tourists who visited the Isle Seolna and its famous resorts didn’t have a clue, of course. But then, most of them were westerners with no idea what sort of things still fill the world beyond the ridged lines, the glass and steel, of their cities and science. But that was fine. More than fine, actually. They didn’t need to know the secrets the isle kept from them. It wouldn’t do anyone any good if they did know. Not the tourists, not the businesses, and least of all the nereids themselves. No, the secret deal with the small school of water sprites hidden on the island was far better left a secret.
It was a fair deal. Even if, at times like this week, it was hard to keep the peace between the sprites and the businessmen. The nereids gained the protection of precious anonymity in a world with few places left for them, and the resorts gained the benefits of the fae magic that literally enchanted the isle. So long as the fae magics were fueled and renewed, all who visited Seolna would find themselves soothed, even healed to a small extent, and the edge that fact gave Seolna’s resorts lined the pockets of the greedy nicely in their turn.
But that, Leah thought to herself, was only if no one rocked the proverbial boat. The greedy always wanted more and the nereids were largely hedonists by nature. Lazy hedonists. Which is where she came in. Her family had been the neutral party overseeing the pact for nearly eighty years, with three separate generations of the women in her line playing the part of healer, diplomat, and administrator. The nereids provided the magic, the resorts the need, and the Lacosa family women kept the whole situation in balance.
Sadly, Leah was the only female born to the family in her generation and what had been relatively easy for her mother and aunts had become a constant struggle for her to handle alone. There had been a failed attempt to let her brothers help, but the original problem with that idea had quickly reared its head again. The nereids simply couldn’t be trusted not to seduce any male that wandered into the grotto or cove.
Leah paused at the entrance to said cove, working up the will to deal with the more troublesome group. The nereids in the grotto were the ones “on shift” and thus only trouble in so much as they whined and complained about how hard it was, particularly with one of their number missing. The group here in the cove, on the other hand, were nereids at play. Normally it wouldn’t be so bad, the more brazen might flirt with her and a few of them seemed allergic to proper clothing, but she was well used to both issues and wouldn’t blink an eye at either. In fact, this was normally the easier and more pleasant task.
Unfortunately, nothing about this week hadn’t been normal. Not only did tourist season drastically increase the population of the isle, and thus the power needed for the fae enchantments, but every shift was down a member and many of the remaining nereids had been shuffled onto shifts not their own to cover the gaps. As a result, until things returned to their usual status quo, the behavior of the off shift group would be much worse as they tried to blow off steam.
Leah steeled her nerve and pushed through the final curtain of tropical foliage. At her first glance she heaved a sigh of relief that she hadn’t stumbled into another orgy. It had been a couple years since she blundered into one of those, and she was almost certain her luck wouldn’t hold the rest of the week. All three of the previous orgies she’d stumbled upon had been incredibly embarrassing, for Leah not the nereids, and she’d been lucky to escape the last such encounter with only half her clothes missing.
Her head swiveled and her eyes found Mareena’s form halfway down the sheltered beach. The leader of the second watch was sunbathing and actually had a bikini on, albeit one made with slightly less cloth than a pixie’s handkerchief. It was a good sign, and Leah let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Not wanting to be caught up by the others yet, she began carefully making her way to the half-clothed nereid, taking in the rest of Mareena’s shift as they lazed or played on the beach. They all looked tired, but not as bad as yesterday, so hopefully things were turning around. She stopped by the sunbathing shift leader’s side and dropped her day bag before plopping down to join her friend on the white sands.
The pale blue woman stirred and shifted a sleepy gaze to Leah. “Oh, mistress Leah. Surely it isn’t time for shift change yet?”
The nereid looked weary and distressed at the thought and Leah hastened to reassure her. “No, not yet. You’ve still got another three hours until switch over. I just came by to check on you and your people. Has anyone else felt sick? Is there anything I can do to help ease the strain on your shift?” A wicked glint formed in Mareena’s eyes at the offer and Leah blushed, almost stumbling over her words as she hastily added, “Other than get you some men from the resorts or join you myself.”
It was too late, and Mareena’s voice was full of flirtatious mischief. “Aww, mistress, you took all the fun options away.”
Leah sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“So you say. Your aunt never seemed to mind.”
Leah huffed and glared at her blue tormentor.
Eventually the nereid gave in, her grin fading. “I’m afraid there isn’t much you can do, Leah. Shantta has picked up a sniffle and I’m not sure she’ll make it through until one of the others recover.” She looked distressed again, and this time there was no simple reassurance to give. “For the first time since the pact was made we might not be able to maintain the enchantment. The refurbishing of the Tylle resort brought in more people than ever, and we’re barely holding on short-shifted.”
Uneasy silence settled between them for long minutes before Leah cursed inwardly and made her offer. She hadn’t wanted to. It was always awkward, and this time would be much worse. “What if I provide a power boost?”
Mareena’s head whipped around from where she’d been watching her sisters play. “Leah?”
“I’ve done it before.”
Mareena finally sat up fully, leveling her gaze with Leah’s. “Yes, but that was when you were unattached. You know what the cost is.”
Leah did know. It was the whole reason she was stuck as the only member of the family that could service the agreement, despite her mother and both her mother’s sisters still being among the living. Every single member of the Lacosa family, male or female and regardless of age, was a powerful mage. It was why they’d been accepted as the neutral party between the aquatic fae and the resort owners. Leah alone had more power than any three of the nereids, but matching magic with any fae always had a price.
The cost with the nereids was more annoying than most. They were capricious creatures of love and lust and thus the cost was fitting. Attempt to match magic with them and magic itself would take its payment by ruining any romantic relationship you were in, no matter how stable it was. Which meant that none of her family could help, lest they wreck happy marriages. Leah, however, was merely engaged. She swallowed hard. “It’s been a bit touch and go with Erik anyway, and I can’t let the pact fail on my watch.”
Mareena’s eyes met hers and the sad gaze showed every year of Mareena’s eight centuries. The nereid reached up with a soft hand and caressed Leah’s cheek. “Oh my child, I wish you would not say such a thing. The pact is not so important as that.”
Leah’s eyes closed and she leaned into the caress for a brief moment before steeling her resolve. Her eyes fluttered open and she pulled away from Mareena’s comforting hand. “Yes it is, and you know it. The last I heard, you and your sisters were one of only three clans remaining and there’s barely a handful of independents aside from that. There’s so few nereids left, Mar, and if the pact fails you might be lost to time, just like all the others.”
Mareena’s eyes watered and she looked away. “I’ll talk to the others. I’m sure we can make it through if we try hard enough. Bring us some soda?”
Leah gave a half-hearted grin. Soda was terrible for nereids, but they loved the stuff to the point of addiction. They were allowed small amounts during the off seasons, but never a drop during the busier times of year. Still… “Sure, Mar. That’s the least I can do, but only a couple of bottles.”
Her friend grinned at her and they sat for some time in silence.
It hadn’t been enough. Of course it hadn’t. Leah had known it wouldn’t be from the moment she agreed to bring them soda. The nereids had tried, nearly killed themselves trying, and tried doubly hard to hide that fact from her. But she’d known. Of course she had. She was deeply touched at their efforts. Even knowing that nereids were all complete suckers for romance, it still meant a lot to Leah that they’d tried so hard. In the end, it hadn’t mattered. Four more of her fae charges had fallen sick and only one of those sick before had recovered the strength to help. They needed her.
She took a deep breath and stripped off the last of her clothing. Standing, she forced down her sadness and entered the sacred grotto. The first step was hesitant, agonizing, but each of the next became a tiny bit easier. By the time she joined hands with Mareena and Letina, completing the enchanting circle, she had made her peace and her hands were steady. The twenty fae in the circle looked at her, not with pity, but with thankful respect.
Then the chanting started.
It began with Mareena and swept around the circle, an eldritch purple light touching each fae in turn until it reached Leah. Leah didn’t chant, merely letting go her conscious control of her magic, and she felt the queer but not unpleasant sensation of her massive reserves changing alignment. She felt something snap, then the light pushed through her and back to Mareena, a shade lighter toward blue and much brighter. She was an amplifier, rather than part of the spell.
The chanting filled her mind with bliss, all other senses fading out as she felt her reserves being slowly siphoned into the large stability spell they were crafting. It was normally impossible, but with her energies amplifying theirs this new spell would hold the whole island for nearly ten days. More than enough time for the clan to recover. Time lost all meaning, until, nearly spent, her vision returned as she fell to the grotto floor, bare chest heaving in exertion. She felt the clan gather in around her, felt the worry flowing off them, but she was too drained to reassure them. Hands touched her back and she groaned as they massaged aching muscles. She murmured a thank you before her eyes drifted closed.
Leah woke to the sound of a chirp from her phone. As she struggled groggily toward consciousness she became aware she was dressed again. That surprised her, but then, the nereid’s knew she was still a bit shy and had probably felt guilty for what happened. Her phone chirped again and an unspeakable dread filled her. Surely it couldn’t have happened already? But she knew it had. Knew it even before she picked up the phone. She read the pair of text messages and wept. Erik had run off with some rich tourist, after bedding the girl last night.
Pale blue arms wrapped around her in comfort and Leah’s last thought before she fled back to the safety of oblivion dreams was that, at least, her sisters were safe. It was enough.