More than Words in the Water
There it was. The river flowed from here. Its blue waters rushed over the smooth pebbles and past the jagged stalagmites as they slowly turned dark inside the cave’s mouth. Above it, the tall mountain loomed overhead, the clouds covering its peak like hair. Neiza stopped and looked at the map, comparing the drawing on it with the entrance in front of her. This was it. This was the place in all the stories, all the maps, all the tales of mountain explorers. Most importantly, it was a place she had searched for half her life; the source of the Story river.
The spotted Ogrin looked back at her guide, a blue mountain Lupe who had stopped a few feet short of the cave entrance.
“Are you coming in?” she shouted to him. The Lupe shook his head.
“Whatever business you have inside the cave, Miss, it is not any of mine! I shall wait outside for you,” he replied.
“What about the way in? Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Not at all, Miss. There is a wide path along the bank of the river towards the heart of the cave. You will have no use for me. My presence would merely be disrespectful to both you and the cave.”
Neiza merely smiled and nodded. She was quite glad that the Lupe would not be going into the cave with her. This was a private affair. She had started it alone and corny as it sounded, she was going to finish it alone.
“This is for you, Mother,” she whispered. Picking up a lantern from her pack and lighting it, the Ogrin went into the cave. Her guide watched her until the darkness and the stone teeth of the cave cut her off from him.
The air beneath the mountain was strangely cold and crisp. Wind sang in the cracks as if trying to tell a story that nobody could ever understand. The cave walls were moist but otherwise clean. No rock jutted too far out of it, as though they were children kept in line by an unseen strict teacher. The main focus however, was the river. The river glided alongside the cave path, its waters so clear that you could see the tiny grooves in every individual stone on its bottom. It was deep and swift but it never seemed threatening. If you strained your ears, you could almost hear it whispering, trying to speak with the wind.
The Ogrin dipped a paw into the river. Her eyes widened. Visions of foreign lands, brave pets and heartbreaking events flowed into her mind. She jumped and leaned against the far cave wall, letting the visions fade from her mind. In between breaths, she grinned. It was true. The deceptively clear waters were filled to the brim with many thousands of years of stories. Yet as they rushed away from the cave down the mountain and towards the mighty river that crossed the Lost Desert, these stories were diluted out of the water. Only here, at the source, could you feel their raw power and bask in this living archive.
Soon, it would help her do justice for her story.
The tunnel suddenly opened up into an enormous cave. Neiza lifted her lantern and gasped. She would never have thought that she could ever feel dwarfed by an enclosed space. It was as though she had stepped out into the open air. The domed ceiling soared above her. Stalactites punctured and marred its otherwise relatively unmarked surface as though they were fingers trying to reach the lake below. The Ogrin’s eyes ran down them and fell onto the water. It was deep and smooth with a glow inside it that was like the first sign of dawn.
Trying to contain her agitation, she stepped onto a beach made out of grey sand and leaned down to take a closer look at the water. Words briefly swam in and out of view before disappearing like mirages in a mirror, too quickly for anybody to read. The Ogrin’s heart leapt into her throat. There could be no doubt that she was in the right place.
Something pale splashed in the water and glided over to Neiza. The Ogrin stared at the vaguely fish-like shape, determined to stand her ground. However, as it approached closer, she saw the arms and long, flowing hair of a water faerie. Neiza’s apprehension was replaced by curiosity. What was a water faerie doing here? How did she survive?
The faerie’s head and shoulders surfaced, allowing the Ogrin to get a closer look at her. Her skin, hair and scales were much whiter than normal, almost to the point of being see-through. She was skinny but there was a definite outline of wiry muscle on her body. Her eyes were pale and unfocused, leading Neiza to believe that she was blind. All throughout her body, just like in the surrounding water, flashed random bits of story. With every flicker of the lantern’s light, words appeared and disappeared like the colours on an exotic bird. The overall effect was mesmerising.
“Who are you?” Neiza called out as she tried to shake off the dizziness brought on by looking at the faerie. She immediately turned her head towards the Ogrin.
“My name is Enitan. I am the caretaker of the Cave of Stories,” the faerie spoke in a quiet but melodic voice. Neiza bowed out of respect.
“Hello, milady. I am here for the gift of words,” she said, giving each word the air of careful thought. Enitan smiled.
“You do not have to be so formal with me, young Ogrin,” the faerie replied. She dove below the water and swam right up to the shore where Neiza was standing. The Ogrin could make out every single hair on her head. As she looked, she saw hints of a word. As she followed it with her eyes, Neiza was filled with awe. Whole sentences were woven into Enitan’s hair, the loops of the letters swirling and twisting themselves around individual strands and each word flawlessly flowing into the next. It should have been a jumbled mess but nevertheless, the result was hypnotically beautiful.
“How did you get this way?” Neiza blurted out. She covered her mouth with her paw but nevertheless the faerie heard her. She smiled kindly.
“It’s a common question. The truth is, there is nothing here but the water. I have to live in it and all I eat are the words found in it. They keep me going but they have some,” Enitan hesitated, “unusual side effects. Stories change you. They thought I should look like this so now I do.”
“They can do that?” the Ogrin exclaimed with awe. Enitan nodded. Neiza looked down at the water with even more respect. At the same time, visions filled her head of greatness and of a world shaped by stories. Her stories. Her mother’s stories.
“So, young one, what do you want?” the faerie asked, snapping Neiza out of her dreams. She looked up into Enitan’s blind eyes. The faerie could not appreciate it, but it was always good to be respectful of somebody who you were about to ask a favour of.
“I heard that this is the place where you get the ability to become a great writer. Even the lowliest, most uneducated Meridellian peasant can dive into these waters and emerge as a Neopian Times master. I’ve wanted that gift for all my life,” she said, her eyes gaining a steely, determined look. “I want to be the greatest writer in Neopian history.”
Enitan bowed her head and sighed. For a moment Neiza wondered if she had done something wrong. However, her fears were soon calmed when the faerie gave her a small but kind smile.
“I see. Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place. But there is a price. You must surrender to the water your greatest story so far. If you take something from the water, you must give it something as well. This has been what all those who came here paid,” Enitan said gravely and swam away from the shore as if giving the Ogrin space.
Neiza smiled and put her hand in the water, thinking of her best story. However, she felt the river push against her, painfully whipping at her hand until she was forced to withdraw it. She tried again, this time with a different story, but the same thing happened. Over and over she tried and failed. The Ogrin looked at Enitan in fear.
“I... I’m sorry. The river doesn’t think they are good enough,” the water faerie whispered sadly.
Neiza’s heart leapt into her throat as panic began to set in. She knew there would be a high price, but she assumed that she would have been able to pay it. The river, however, thought otherwise and it had the final say. It was frustrating. She had spent so much of her life searching for this place, but when it came down to it, she had nothing. There had to be another way. Neiza’s mother, even when New Maraqua seemed like an impossible dream, never gave up.
“Don’t you have anything at all?” the water faerie asked. While her tone was not impatient or unkind, Neiza still flinched awkwardly when she heard Enitan’s voice.
Her mind drifted to memories of her mother. Neiza smiled, thinking of the gentle face of a blue Lutari. She had helped so many when they needed help, all without taking an ounce of credit. Such a wonderful person and a skilled architect like her and she would not even be remembered.
Remember. Memory. The Ogrin’s thoughts stirred. She remembered when she was taken to the beginnings of new Maraqua with her mother, how happy her mother looked that her work was advancing so quickly, how she had seen her first shoal of fish there, all the emotions that she felt even to this day. Or the time when she was a child stuck at home alone and panicked so much that she locked herself up in a wardrobe and her mother had to talk her out of it.
Her life was just one finely crafted story. Neiza suddenly knew how she would pay.
“Take my memories,” she stated. Enitan blinked in confusion.
“What?” she murmured.
“Take my memories! They all form a story, don’t they? I might have not led the most exciting life but even so, my memories should be enough! Even the dullest life is no match for fiction!”
The surface of the water rippled like the fur of an angry cat, but the Ogrin paid it no attention. Enitan, however, visibly shivered.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” the water faerie asked tentatively.
“I’m not leaving here empty-handed and I’m happy to make any sacrifice so I could tell my mother’s story!” Neiza shouted, her stubbornness and determination growing with each second. Enitan closed her eyes and let out a tiny, fragile sigh.
“Very well. Let yourself float on the water,” she said hesitantly, “but remember, this is what you wanted.”
Neiza put down her lantern on the shore, took off her shoes and stepped into the river. She gasped at how cold it was, but she was not going to back down because of a minor thing like that. Water lapped carefully at her legs, causing her fur to sway like grass in the wind. As she stepped in deeper, the water around her grew more eager with waves reaching up and trying to reach her head. The Ogrin gently lifted herself up and lay down, letting the river do the rest of the work. Ripples gathered around her and seemed to be whispering to each other. Neiza closed her eyes.
A candle flame of memory flickered through her brain. She was small and running into the waves that lapped at Mystery Island. Instantly, the warm water had washed away all the sand from her and for a moment even submerged her. She knew she had done it many times before but it was that small moment that had stuck. It was wonderful. A good memory.
Suddenly, it was gone. Neiza did not even realise it had existed, save for a feeling of emptiness where that memory had been. The River of Stories had already taken everything else before it but she was not aware of it, having forgotten everything. The consequences of her decision dawned on the Ogrin. It was like a sweet dream had turned into a nightmare which she could not wake up from. She was going to lose everything and there was nothing she could do about it. She could not even scream.
Another memory, this time a less pleasant one, flashed by and was gone. It was as though Neiza was being eaten by an invisible creature with a gaping maw, but she only felt a small sting here and there which made her aware of the true pain she must be feeling.
She remembered her mother taking her beneath the waves to see the enormous refugee camps that housed the displaced residents of Maraqua. The Ogrin did not understand at the time what had happened, but as she watched her mother tending to all the refugees, she knew that this was important.
Neiza suddenly realised she was going to forget her reason for doing this.
She thrashed and screamed, but the memories kept disappearing, still being consumed by the river. Images of her mother talking with King Kelpbeard about a site for New Maraqua, of her drawing plans for houses and shops, all without taking a single Neopoint, flashed through her mind and into the darkness. Neiza tried to fight, tried to grasp even a thread of memory that could one day lead back to the story she wanted to tell, but it was useless. The river did not want a single detail to escape it.
It finally arrived at the final, clearest memory the Ogrin had of her mother; her death. The doctors did not know what was wrong, let alone how to cure it. Neiza stayed with the Lutari all the time. She asked her mother about Maraqua and was told the story of her mother’s times there, how she was part of the volunteer team that had taken care of the refugees, how she took the Noil’s share of the work, how she had organised them all and given them hope. She then moved on to how she had used her skills as an architect to design the buildings and plan out the new city to be even stronger, to resist all attacks. The story of New Maraqua and her mother’s invisible hand that had guided everything had filed Neiza with the fire of outrage.
The Ogrin shook as she recalled their final words.
“But Mother, the world must know! They all must know what you did, how you helped. How New Maraqua could not exist without you!”
“Why? I don’t mind. I was sent in, did my job and I expected nothing in return. Don’t you worry about it,” the Lutari had said with the kind smile she always bore.
Blackness enveloped that memory and swallowed it, leaving Neiza empty. The memory of swearing that she would become the greatest writer ever to tell her mother’s story faded before she could even notice. Looking at it now, she wondered. What story did she mean then? It must have been important, though.
All the other memories seemed insignificant, although the Ogrin struggled to think of why. Trying and failing to write, finding out about the Cave of Stories, searching for it, obsessing over a story she had to tell. All her life seemed to hinge on an event that no longer existed.
Trekking up to the cave, her guide, finding it, going in. All those things flashed by without Neiza even paying attention. There was no need. It was as though she had given up.
“Take my memories.” She remembered herself saying that. The Ogrin wanted to curse herself, but she did not even know why. That water faerie’s sadness as her decision. Then, darkness.
The cycle was complete. Neiza lost consciousness. The water around her bubbled with a thick soup of words before her story was absorbed into the river.
An Ogrin awoke on the shore of an underground lake. She looked around in panic, trying to recall how she got here. What was her name? Nei... Neita? No, Neiza. That had to be it. It was the only name that seemed to fit.
Neiza got up and swayed unsteadily. There was a lantern nearby. She picked it up, thanking whoever it was that placed it there. There was a tunnel ahead of her, the only tunnel in the cave. If she followed it, it might lead her somewhere. Slowly, she took what felt like her first steps.
Unseen, Enitan watched her go before sinking back into the darkening water. The river had fed well.
The Ogrin slowly walked along the passage, stopping occasionally to correct her balance with the help of the cave wall. She felt hollow inside, as if something important had been taken away. But there was something else, something bright and vivid that called attention to itself and urged her to forget the emptiness and focus instead on it.
Neiza wanted to write. The desire to write exploded in her out of nothing and overshadowed her loss like a glitzy neon sign, filling her mind with ideas and telling her to pick one, to get started. Neiza found herself unable to argue with the intense craving. Beside her, the river gurgled contently. The Ogrin began to build on the story idea centred on the life of a poor pirate. It was basic, but she implicitly knew she could execute it perfectly.
The cave opened up into the open air, hitting her eyes and forcing her to squint. The shape of a Lupe approached her.
“Thank goodness, miss! I was worried about you,” he shouted to her. Neiza looked at him.
“Why? Who are you?” she asked in confusion. The Lupe looked at her, trying to determine if she was joking.
“I’m your guide, miss. Don’t you remember?” he asked. His hand reached to his pack and dug around in it until he found a first aid kit.
“I... I don’t. I have no idea what happened to me before I awoke in the cave. But listen, do you have any paper? I must write down this story in my head; otherwise it will drive me insane!” Neiza stated, her speech growing quicker as she finished her sentence. The Lupe, despite his worries, smiled.
“So you got what you came for. You’ll be able to write the story you told me about,” he replied. The Ogrin sat down.
“What story? I have never seen you before, how could I tell you about a story?”
“But miss, you were talking all about it as we ascended the mountain. The story about your mother? You kept telling me over and over how you would do your mother proud by telling the world her story in the most beautiful way possible,” the Lupe said carefully, watching Neiza in case he triggered her memory. She however remained slumped on the rock.
“I don’t remember anything!” the Ogrin cried. Her guide backed away a little. She sighed.
“I guess... I should focus on the story I have in my head now. Perhaps the story you are talking about will come back to me one day,” Neiza muttered and stood up. All she now wanted was to go back down and satisfy her overpowering urge to write.
Beside her, the Story River raced by, carrying the precious memories that the Ogrin had treasured for so long towards the vast mouth of the ocean. The words that made them up were already dissolving beyond recognition.