The crunch of warm sand between her toes was a sensation Jen knew she would never get tired of. Sure, it was inconvenient when she needed to use her feet for delicate work, but having each step offer a soft but firm massage that sent a pleasant amount of heat radiating through the tired muscles she abused so often? There wasn’t much in the world that could compare to that.
“So,” Connie said, looking around the beach and unpacking their gear from the boat they’d been riding in for the last seven hours, “The island is real.”
“You were starting to wonder weren’t you?” Sarah asked, rising out of the surf in a shimmer of green and blue as she regained a fully human form.
“Maybe not wonder whether it was real so much as wondering if we were going to be able to find the place,” Connie said. She didn’t pause once the gear was safely on the beach, turning to secure the anchor on the small boat so that it wouldn’t drift away in the surf.
“Sorry there,” Jen said. “I must have plotted the route here wrong. We probably could have saved a few hours if we’d made a direct approach.”
Six hours into the sea voyage, Jen had begun to question the wisdom of trying to map the team’s course. Just because she’d been on a boat didn’t make her any kind of a sailor. Her talents lay in other areas, and she was ok with that. It was still hard to accept making a mistake that had cost them so much time, especially after Jimmy B had managed to score them a flight that got them from North America to the South Pacific in less than sixteen hours. If he could pull off an impossible feat like that, Jen felt she should have at least been able to get them through the rest of the trip in something close to the estimated time.
“I’m pretty sure your route was the most direct one,” Sarah said. She shook herself like a cat and through some spark of magic managed to wind up completely dry when she was done.
“We had to turn around three times,” Jen appreciated Sarah’s attempt to console her, but it was a little annoying too. She had to own her mistakes just like anyone else.
“Exactly,” Sarah said. “This place isn’t where it appears to be on the satellite scan. In fact, I’m pretty certain that without the turns we made, we would have sailed through open ocean no matter which path we tried to take.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Connie said, walking up to join them and passing Sarah a backpack. Jen had offered to carry one as well, but Connie had talked her out of it.
Jen was the team’s combat specialist (though that had yet to be put to the test). As such, she needed to be able to move freely and hide in good ambush positions when the opportunities presented themselves. Better, in Connie’s view, that one of them stay as unencumbered as possible, and if that person happened to be the one who would have issues getting gear out of a tightly packed backpack, the allowing Connie to carry the load she typically bore on an expedition seemed like the wisest course all around. Jen wasn’t sure she agreed with that, but she did like the idea of staying free to move and fight as needed, so she went along with it. This was only their first mission, feeling out team tactics and roles like that was something they’d have to experiment with to get right and letting Connie carry what she claimed was a typical load was as good an experiment as any other.
“It could be worse,” Sarah said. “That there’s a boatload of magic on this island at least explains why it vanished from the satellite photos last year. Or, if not why, then at least how.”
“If it took specific turns to get here though, doesn’t that diminish the chance that Marcus made it here?” Jen asked. The series of events that she’d constructed in her mind included a number of possible variations on what the teenager might have encountered. A magical vanishing island triggered a whole lot of warning flags but Jen had to agree with the others that it was too significant an item for them not to investigate.
From the beach, the island looked bigger than the satellite photo had suggested it would be. It was a good hundred or so meters before the tree line began and the two peaks that dominated the center of the island looked like they rose at a kilometer or more above the ocean. Seeing it’s size, left Jen recalculating the effort which searching it was going to require, but also more willing to consider the possibility that Marcus had landed somewhere and managed to remain hidden and/or lost for several days. There was enough space on what should have been a tiny blip of an island to get lost for a month or more by her estimation.
“Normally, I’d say accidentally stumbling into a place like this would be impossible,” Sarah said. “In this case though, I think the magic might make it more likely he’d wind up here, than not. Once we made the turns, I think the island started calling to us.”
She started walking inland as she spoke, her attention pulled by somehow unseen beyond the thick vegetation of the tree line.
“Is that why you went into water?” Connie asked, as she and Jen followed along in Sarah’s wake.
“Partly,” Sarah said. “I’ve felt minor compulsions like that before and since it seemed related to the waters around the island I thought it would be easier to pick out why we were being called if I got closer to it. Also, being able to turn into a mermaid is not a chance you get in many places and I was not about to pass that up!”
“I thought this place was supposed to be mundane this time of year?” Jen asked. “Are we going to find another rift to hell lurking in the trees like we did at the military base?”
It seemed like a remote possibility at best, but then so did having a companion who’d been able to leap into the water as a human and come leaping back out a moment later clad in blue and green scales with functional gils on her neck.
“I don’t think we’ve got to worry about hell beasts or portals to other worlds here,” Sarah said. “From what the ocean was whispering about this island, it’s a natural part of the currents here. It’s its own source of magic, and it comes and goes on a fairly regular cycle.”
They reached the treeline and Jen noticed that what she’d mistaken for palm trees were nothing of the sort. In fact they didn’t look like anything she’d encountered before, or possibly even anything that existed anywhere else on Earth.
The long trunks were wrapped in a smooth blue-black bark which smelled faintly of cinnamon and vanilla. As the wind coasted through their high broad leafed branches the individual leaves twisted and flowed as though they had life and independent movement of their own. The rustling and whistling they produced might have made a gentle song but there was an eerie undertone to it that set Jen’s nerves on edge. It didn’t sound as though the trees were threatening them, more that they sensed violence in the wind and were afraid of what was to come.
“How long do the cycles last?” Connie asked. “Are we in any danger of being trapped here?”
Sarah was still ahead of them but from how she was turning her head, Jen got the sense that she was listening intently for the call she’d spoken of rather than paying attention to where they were going.
“I’m not sure,” Sarah said slowly. “The ocean was surprised, as much as water can be surprised, I’m translating a bit here, that the island was back so soon. I get the sense that the cycle is usually longer than it was this time, so we might be on unstable ground.”
“All the more reason to find Marcus and get him out of here,” Jen said. No one was saying where the island went when it wasn’t hanging around on Earth and even if it was a land of rainbows and back massages, Jen didn’t want their first mission to wind up with them trapped in some far off realm. Especially if that would mean that the other three would have to come rescue them. Joining the Second Chance Club had been exciting enough on its own, but at least part of the point was supposed to be to make things easier for Anna and Tam to repay them for saving her.
Apart from the moaning wind playing through the treetops, the island was strangely silent. No call of birds, no buzzing of insects, just the sound of the trees and, in the distance, running water.
“I think we should head towards the waterfall,” Sarah said, pushing through the underbrush to forge a new trail.
“What waterfall?” Connie asked. She’d fallen behind Jen, the heavy pack she was carrying slowing her more from bulk than weight.
“I can hear one too,” Jen said. “Should this island have a waterfall?”
“I’m not sure it should have anything,” Sarah said. “The more I listen to the islands voices the more wrong this whole situation sounds.”
That sounded like an excellent argument to Jen for why they should leave. A voice was buzzing in the back of head, scrambling around and forming questions that she couldn’t quite put words to yet. Even without the fully formed questions though, her gut was telling her that there was something wrong.
In her mind, she felt like a chess piece, except one which had stumbled onto Monopoly board. Moving one square forward might still be a thing she could do but its impact would be radically different than what she expected because she wasn’t playing the game she thought she was.
“Is Marcus what’s wrong?” Connie asked. “If this place isn’t supposed to be here now, could he have, I don’t know, called it back into being because he needed a place to hide?”
Jen puzzled over that for a moment. A few pieces didn’t line up – like why the island would be moaning if it was providing shelter to a lost traveler – but that might be due to her missing information on it still. Whether it was true or not though, she liked how Connie was thinking. It was good to know that the team had someone who thought along different lines than she herself did. That made Connie a valuable resource when it came to putting plans together and checking for holes in existing ones.
They arrived at the waterfall after some more trailblazing through the underbrush. Sarah had grown quiet and distant as they drew closer and as the moaning of the trees grew deeper and more ominous.
Jen wanted to check the area out but Sarah walked straight forward, exiting the trees and heading towards whatever was behind the waterfall without saying a word.
Through the water, Jen saw the mouth of a cave. It was dark and uninviting, but that didn’t slow Sarah.
“What’s in there?” Connie asked, breaking the silence.
Sarah didn’t answer. Or stop. Or even slow.
Jen stepped in front of her and stood solid like a wall.
Sarah opens her eyelids and gray smoke roiled where her eyes should have been. She tried to move around Jen, but Jen stepped to the side to block her. She tried to push past Jen, but that didn’t work either. Jen flexed back with Sarah’s shove and then stepped into it, pushing Sarah off her feet onto her butt.
“What happened?” Connie asked, rushing up to join them.
“This isn’t what we thought it was,” Jen said. “It’s a trap.”