The rocky outcrops made descending into the cavern easier but by no means safe. Aradia picked her footing carefully, testing each foothold before easing her weight down. Pebbles dislodged and fell to the darkness below her with echoing clinks, and the dim flashlight affixed to her helmet only illuminated a fraction of their fall. Her messenger bag swung lightly against her thigh.
She knew it was a bad idea to go adventuring into such dangerous terrain alone, but her closest friends were either busy or unwilling to accompany her. She had been itching to explore the deep network of caves in the forest for ages. She couldn’t stand to wait anymore. Besides, she was being careful, and she had a first aid kit stashed away in her bag. As long as she took her time and thought things through, everything would be fine.
She picked a path to a small landing below her. The cavern was quiet save for the steady sound of running water, perhaps from a small underground stream of sorts. Aradia removed her journal and a brighter flashlight from her bag and wrote down the observation. With both flashlights, she leaned over the side of landing to see what she could make out below her.
The passage seemed to grow more uneven as it snaked into the belly of the earth, which was good news. It would make her descent easier. Aradia stashed her tools away and turned to lower herself from the landing, hugging the rock until she could find the best foothold. Her fingers gripped the moist rock as she felt her way down. Just as she was preparing to transfer her weight, the stone beneath her fingers cracked and splintered, and she began to fall backwards. She scrambled for another hold, her remaining grip straining with the effort of holding her steady, but the slick surface of the rock betrayed her. She dropped several feet and slammed into a sloping outcrop, which rolled her downwards into the darkness. Another small drop left her unconscious.
Aradia slowly came to consciousness laying on her back on a flat, smooth surface. A soft light surrounded her, providing just enough light to see by. Above the sound of rippling water was a rustling of fabric and the distinct noise of something rummaging through objects of various textures. Aradia turned towards the noise, groaning when a sudden throb of pain shot through her head.
“Careful!” someone said, the word marked by a distinct but unidentifiable accent. Aradia opened her eyes a little wider and looked around. She froze when she saw who was sharing the space with her.
A woman was leaning out of the water, all sleek skin and flowing hair. Gliding in uniform lines down her form were glowing freckles, illuminating her body from her face down into the pool. She bore magnificent gills along the sides of her neck and torso. Aradia gaped at her, and she smiled.
“You shore did fall a ways!” she said with her strange accent. “I wouldn’t move if I were you. Unless you want to tell me what to do with this? I can patch you up!” She gestured to the first aid kit, which rested open by Aradia’s bag, mostly soaked. Aradia glanced from her to the first aid kit back to her. “I’m Feferi, by the way,” she added.
“Yeah, okay,” she said slowly. “Am I bleeding?”
Feferi leaned out of the pool and inspected Aradia’s head, touching her chin gently when she needed to turn it. Her fingers were smooth and cool. Aradia kept her eyes on her, inspecting her more closely. “Nope!” Feferi finally said, splashing back into the water.
“I think we’re good, then,” Aradia said. “Maybe my helmet helped…where is it?”
“Oh, this?” Feferi asked, fetching the battered helmet. The lightbulb had been shattered. “This is for your head, right?” She put it on her head, and it balanced on two prong-like horns emerging from her hair. Aradia smiled.
“Yeah, that’s right,” she said. “But I don’t think it was made for you.”
“Human things usually aren’t,” Feferi replied, removing the helmet.
“So you aren’t human?”
“We’ve got a smart one here! What gave it away?”
Aradia laughed. “Maybe the gills.”
Feferi returned the laugh with a strange, wet giggle of her own. “So what’s a human doing so far down here?” she asked.
Feferi laughed again. “I like you! Usually, people freak out and try to krill me.”
“Maybe it’s the concussion,” Aradia said. Feferi dissolved into a fit of laughter, and without warning, she dived into the pool and exploded through the surface soaking wet.
“Sorry,” she said, “it gets too dry out here. How are you going to get out?”
Aradia looked up into the dark, twisting hole above her. The slightest glint of light was visible, but it was a far way away. “Climb, probably,” she said.
“Good luck with that!” Feferi said with a hint of sarcasm. “I wish I could lend a fin, but climbing isn’t my fishschtick.”
Aradia laughed and slowly sat up, despite the pounding in her head. She groaned. “I think I’ll have to stay down here for a while, though,” she said.
“I can keep you company, if you want,” Feferi offered.
“That would be nice. Actually…” She reached inside her bag and pulled out her journal. “Do you mind if I sketch you?”
Feferi’s smile broadened into a wide grin. “Of course you can! No one’s offered before.” She shimmied out of the pool and leaned into a pose.
“You seem like you’ve been waiting for someone to ask,” Aradia said as she got her pencil.
“Maybe,” Feferi replied coyly. “We don’t have much paper down here.”
“Are you trapped in this cave?” Aradia asked, sketching an outline.
“No, there are ways out,” Feferi said. “I can travel to all sorts of places! It’s just bright out there in the daytime.”
“That makes sense.”
“Oh, but hey! I’ve never had a human frond before. Do you think we could meet somewhere on the surface?”
The excitement in her voice took Aradia aback, and she found herself attracted to the idea. “Sure,” she said. “Where do you usually hang out?”
“At the lake by the village! Calliope Lake!” She was so excited that she broke her pose, but Aradia was secretly grateful for the more natural posture. “But only at night.”
“I know where that is,” Aradia said. “And I’d be happy to meet you there!”