Short Story: AVA
As you may (or may not) know, the sixth novella in the Network Saga, PRANA, actually began as AVA.
The story unfolded easily at first, then stalled. The moment Prana entered the words, she took over. I changed direction and wrote PRANA instead, but many readers reached out, interested in AVA still.
To those of you that wanted Ava's side of things, here you go. A warning—the story ends where PRANA picks up. If you haven't read PRANA yet, there are no spoilers here. If you have read PRANA, then nothing in the novella will be repeated here.
Happy reading, Alkarrans!
Water slapped over the sides of the dinghy.
Sun baked into Ava’s skin, hot as molten gold. The occasional flicker of cool water on the surface of her skin woke her from dark dreams. Dreams that stirred low and quiet.
Ava groaned. A hand covered her face, the fingers splayed to provide protection from the too-hot rays of sun. Her eyes fluttered open. She stared at the side of a dingy. Wet wood, darkened in spots, shifted restlessly on top of moving waves. She blinked.
With consciousness, memory served.
She sucked in a sharp breath, remembering everything. Bram, the Tester, came to their island to wrest Ava’s allegiance. A step in a ploy for . . . something. Her head ached too much to remember why. She pressed the heel of her hand to her temple and groaned.
Bram had fought with Christa, who managed to render him unconscious for the few moments of life she had left. Long enough to assign Ava a mission. One of death and water and struggle.
A heavy weight tugged on her now. The amulet. Her mission. They were one and the same. Both would pull her down to the depths of the sea, where mermaids teemed. Where things and mortals and animals went to die. She fingered the amulet chain with a shaky breath.
Memory surfaced again.
Christa’s dying voice. The feeling of god magic invading Ava’s body as Christa assigned her a mission.
Find your tagata. Show him the amulet. Return Bram to the court of the gods to speak for my death. The blood of gods runs in your veins.
Ava ran the tips of her fingers along the chain until they collided with the top of the amulet. To her touch, it felt warm. Just warm. Not cold. Not too hot. Fire appeared to live deep inside, like a beating heart.
Yet, the mild touch seemed unconcerned, as if it didn’t want to hurt her. As if mortals hadn’t been slaughtered for lesser amulets. As if demigods didn’t fight and scrape and deceive for the power hidden in such a beautiful cage.
Ava fought a wave of revulsion. She wanted to heave over the side of the boat when she recalled, too soon, what happened after Christa assigned her a mission. Tama had shoved her into a boat, then the waves. The screech of his voice played back through her mind.
To Prana! he commanded the mermaids. Take her to Prana!
Then Tama and all her manulele birds died.
The blasted mermaid had obeyed.
Mermaids were almost as selfish as demigods. Almost. Mermaids wanted a return on their labor, but at least they were willing to work. A command to take something to their goddess wouldn’t motivate a mermaid, not without some sort of reward. There hadn’t been time for Tama to provide a sufficient one.
Unless . . .
Ava shook off the thoughts that followed. They were thoughts of bigger problems, like Christa dying because of something else. Those thoughts were too big right now.
She braced one hand on the bottom of the boat and pushed herself into a sitting position. A wooden board hit her shoulder, stopping her. At some point, she’d tucked herself under the board that acted as a seat. To hide from the sun, probably. She scooted a little to the side, then up.
Ocean, endless ocean, rolled in front of her. So much water. So much nothing. A flood of fear followed, so tight it braced her chest. Her precarious position descended fully into her understanding for the first time.
A mission lay on her shoulders in the form of a god magic amulet she didn’t want.
The land of the witches.
A sob peeped free. Ava let it roll, too frightened to stop it. Minutes passed before the worst of her fears vented through her cries. When they quieted, passing like clouds in the night, she registered something strange.
In all the empty, vastness of blue, her boat raced forward.
A little too quickly.
Ava wiped her nose with the back of her arm and whipped around. No sign of land anywhere. The position of the sun likely meant they traveled . . . west? Yes. That’s where Tama said the witches lived. Witches they hated. Witches that took everything from them.
But that was long ago, he would snap. All legends. The witches? Probably dead. Stupid from magic. Magic kills. Monilay mal.
Ava swallowed. The sun bore down on her. She reached for her ankle, tore a strip of fabric from her already ragged skirt, and created a hood over her face. The burn of light into her cheeks eased. She tucked her legs beneath the board, then shifted to the front of the boat.
The dinghy groaned as she peered over the front, where the sides of the boat narrowed to a point. Water slipped by, faster than it should. Two oars were strapped to the inside of the dinghy—she hadn’t touched them yet.
A piece of braided seaweed rope, a specialty product of the mermaids, hooked onto the front and disappeared into the water. Ava’s gaze sprinted ahead, to the water flashing by in front of the boat.
A bright flash of orange sped back and forth through the water, flapping. A tail. Ahead of that, bright hair. Fuchsia? Magenta? A mixture of both, perhaps. Whatever mermaid had her now, it wasn’t the same that whisked her away.
Her stomach growled as she settled back into the dinghy. An old fishing net, and one of Tama’s lamplighting sticks, cluttered the bottom. He always kept a short knife strapped to the side of the dinghy, underneath the second board that acted as a seat. Ava felt for it, relieved when her fingertips touched cool metal. What she’d do with it, she didn’t know, but felt better having it.
Time slipped by as she stared at the water in a torpid stupor. Her mind moved in a blur of thoughts and questions, all jumbled into quiet, morose desperation.
What did she do now?
Where were they taking her?
How would she survive?
Ava slumped forward. A second before her face would have crashed into the other board, her hand reached out. Drunk from too much sun, exhausted from so much pain, she curled into a ball at the bottom of the dinghy.
The mermaids took her away.
Mermaids were vicious creatures.
Legends that they could swim for days without stopping ran through the collections, spoken in whispers, because no one wanted a mermaid to catch them talking about them. No one wanted to call the terrifying creatures to them, as if the mermaids could sense their name being spoken.
Ava didn’t doubt the rumors anymore.
The dinghy cut incessantly through the sea. The sheer drive of the plow over the top of the ocean began to make her almost mad. But why would she want to stop? Death lay behind her.
Death lay in front of her as well.
Thirst overtook her thoughts. She hummed, weaving a tune that synced with the splash, splash, splash of the dinghy sliding over waves. The thrum of power she could feel from the mermaid. She kept her meager clothes over her skin as best she could and her face under the board, out of the sun. One of Tama’s thicker nets provided a little shade—holey, but something—to ease the burn.
Day eased into night.
She’d die of thirst before witches could kill her.
Ava woke to the sound of silence.
She blinked, ducked under the board, and straightened.
The dinghy had stopped moving.
The unnerving view of endless ocean rippled around her still. Sunlight hinted on the horizon, banishing the stars, one by one. She rubbed her eyes, stretching. Where had they stopped? How could she tell? Sapphire water surrounded her on each side.
Her tongue felt swollen in her mouth, so dry it would crack. It stuck to her cheeks, making it almost impossible to swallow. Her obsession with thirst had taken over all. Even if she wanted to, which she didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to cry.
Had the mermaid finally abandoned her?
Ava sat on her knees, peering into the water. A gaunt reflection of her own face peered back. Wild, black hair, streaked with red. Tired, sunken eyes. It wasn’t often she saw herself—only in the water—because only demigods had mirrors. She leaned back. She didn’t want to see herself now.
A sound caught her ear. She whipped to the right, heart in her throat. Would she see a fin approaching? One of the massive sharks that mermaids feared, ready to gobble her? Her death would be swift, at least.
Instead, she saw a whirlpool.
No, a hole.
Ava leaned forward to see better. The mermaid had abandoned her right at the edge of . . . something. A circle set in the middle of the water, filled with nothing but air. For all she could tell, it plunged all the way down.
The whirring sound intensified, turning into a sucking, gasping noise. The boat slid forward, nudged forward.
Her stomach bottomed.
The sensation of falling followed. Ava screamed, clutching onto the side of the dinghy, as all water disappeared beneath her. She plummeted down, through empty air. Walls of water formed on either side, as if someone had shoved an invisible cylinder into the ocean, cleaving it into a perfect circle.
Wind whipped past her as she plummeted, making her eyes water. Darkness crept closer as she dropped into the ocean.
The dinghy slowed to a stop. She jerked, fell to the bottom of the boat with the unexpected slowing. Her head slammed into the seat with a thunk.
Everything went dark.
* * *
If you're interested in reading what happens when Ava wakes up, I got your back!