Vertgate
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Once upon a time, in a magical world, there lived a young girl named Deena Mull.

Deena Mull had spent all of her short life living in the uninteresting town of Vertgate, close to the border between Haldil and the Red Hills. She might only be twelve years old, but Deena had been around long enough to make her mark as a trouble-making kind of girl, constantly getting her two brothers and sister into all kinds of problematic scenarios in her constant quest to turn their quiet life in Vertgate into something adventurous.

Deena had craved adventure since she was big enough to walk. Her first steps had been running towards the front door, as if she was already trying to get out into the world and make her mark on it. And since then, everyone in her family had to keep holding her back so she wouldn’t run out that door and never come back.

Johan was born a year later, and finally, Deena wasn’t the baby anymore. She had a new friend, and as they grew, she taught Johan everything she knew. Hans and Sari were too old to be dragged into all of Deena’s silly games – though they couldn’t always resist – but Johan was easily persuaded to join in all of his big sister’s imaginative little adventures.

And they did indeed have to be imaginative to find adventure in Vertgate. The town was barely large enough to house the school, the bakery, the butcher and the post office, as well as the little house where the town witch ran the apothecary, which was also the jewelry store and flower shop.

The rest of the town was simply homes of its inhabitants. If visitors ever came through Vertgate, there was no inn for them to stay; they simply asked around and a kindly neighbor would offer them a bed for the night. Such was life in quiet little Vertgate.

The only thing that brought any interest and income to the town of Vertgate was the water filtration plant. The water canals in Underland that ran between the Red Hills and Haldil passed right beneath Vertgate on its way to Deeplake. The underground water in the Red Hills was very different from that water in Haldil, and there were all sorts of little creatures and particles in the water that shouldn’t be transported between the territories.

All the water and water-creatures that passed between Haldil and the Red Hills went through the water filtration plant in Vertgate. It was the main purpose of the town. And though it was famous and massive, and most people in town worked there and everyone knew what went on inside, only the workers were allowed through the gates.

Perhaps this is what made the water plant such an obsession to young Deena. It was the one place she was not allowed to go for any of her adventures.

And oh, did she want to go there. Deena was desperate to look inside the plant. She wanted to see if all the wonderful things she heard the grown-ups talk about were real, and she wanted to see it all with her own eyes!

So, of course, the morning she discovered a hole in the wired fence around the plant on her way to school, she didn’t report it to the town watchmen as she should. Instead she waited for the school day to end, and then she took her little brother’s hand and led him off their regular path home.

“Where are we going?” Johan asked. He could sense that mood in his sister – that air about her that usually landed them both in trouble. He didn’t fight, because it was almost always worth it.

“It’s a secret,” Deena said with glee as she led him towards the water plant, and she was bouncing with excitement when they got to the hole in the fence.

Johan stared at her with wide eyes, his mouth hanging open in wonder and shock, his big brown eyes moving back and fourth between his sister and the hole.

“You’re not serious,” he finally said. “We can’t go in there!”

“Why not?” Deena asked.

“If we get caught, we’ll be in more trouble than ever! Mother will murder us both and bury us in the yard!”

Deena grinned at her brother. “Then we better not let Mother find out.” She put her hands on her hips and gave Johan a look she had perfected years ago. “You aren’t scared, are you?” she asked innocently. It took a mere second before determination replaced the fear in her little brother’s eyes.

Boys were so easy, Deena thought. All one had to do was imply they were frightened, and magically they had to prove their bravery. It was how she always got her older brother Hans to steal them cookies from the jar when he was the only one tall enough to reach it.

Sari had never fallen for that trick. Girls seemed to have no need to constantly prove they weren’t cowards, as long as they knew the truth of it in their hearts.

“Fine,” Johan said finally, just like Deena knew he would. “But you’re going in first.”

As if she would have had it any other way.

She squeezed her little body through the open wires, her dress getting ripped on the metal, her honey-colored hair getting caught in the wires, but she made her way through, smoothing her hair out as she looked at the giant grey factory building, and for the first time there was no fence blocking her view. She felt triumphant as she stared at the plant.

Vertgate was a town filled with earth elementals of all kinds, and it was as drab and colorless a town as one could imagine. Deena was longing to see the water behind those walls – to see anything that wasn’t dirt; brown and dry.

Johan followed, making a much bigger fuzz at getting scraped up by the wires, and Deena had to shush him when he yelped as his shirt sleeve got a rip in it.

“How will I explain this to Mother?” he asked frantically.

“Tell her we got into a fight with the Hubble kids on our way home. She’ll believe that in a heartbeat.” It had happened many times before. “Come on, we can’t be seen!”

Deena ran towards the factory. There were no people in sight yet, since the daytime shift wasn’t over and the evening shift hadn’t started, but she still didn’t want to risk being caught before she got to look inside that factory.

She hurried towards a little shed halfway towards the main building, and she was running so fast that Johan shouted after her that she had to slow down. When he caught up with her behind the shed, Deena couldn’t resist pinching his arm.

“What were you thinking, yelling after me?” she whispered. “Do you want to announce to all of Hurst that we’re here?”

“Sorry,” Johan muttered, rubbing at the sore spot on his arm. He was a brave boy, Deena thought; she just wished he had a bit more sense. He was her best friend, after all, and her little brother. It was her job to keep him safe – even if it meant pinching his arm to teach him not to shout in restricted areas.

“See the main entrance over there?” Deena pointed around the corner of the shed. No one stood guard outside, and thankfully Hurst was not a place for technologies such as cameras. “There will probably be a receptionist inside,” Deena explained to her brother. “We must get past without them noticing us, or we’ll be sent straight home!”

“How will we manage that?” asked Johan.

A gleeful smile spread across his sister’s face. “Leave that to me, and do what I do.” Deena sprinted around the corner and straight for the door, with Johan awkwardly fumbling his way behind her in an effort to keep up.

Standing by the heavy wooden door of the giant building had excitement crawling through Deena’s body like ants, and she had a hard time biting down a giggle. She bravely reached out and pushed the doors so they slowly parted just enough for two little bodies to make their way through.

It was brighter inside than the children had expected. Walls of white and floors of silver sparkled from the light of a chandelier burning high above. There was another door straight ahead, and a grey man with giant antlers on his bare head sat behind a desk to the side of the room, scribbling away on a piece of paper. There was nothing and no one else in the room besides him. His head was bowed over his work – he had not heard Deena push open the door.

She pushed Johan in ahead of her and held a finger to her lips so he would be quiet. Deena followed and rushed him over to the desk, where they crouched so the man behind it could not see.

The door had been left open, and soon a gust of wind blew through and ruffled the papers on the desk. “What on earth—“ the man said, and they heard him stand.

“Hurry,” Deena whispered to her brother as the man walked around the desk to close the door. They ran towards the second door and did not hesitate to open it and slip through. When no voice called after them to stop, they knew the man had not seen them.

They were not so lucky on the other side of the door. A metal hallway stretched ahead of them with stairs spreading out to the sides here and there, some up and some down. Many people were walking, all wearing the blue uniforms of the plant workers. Many glanced at them, but only one tall, round woman stared and walked over to the siblings before they could hide.

“Where’d you kids come from?” she asked. “Too young to work here. Looking for your parents or some such? You’re not allowed in here.”

Jonah and Deena looked at each other, and Deena squared her small shoulders and dared take a step forward. “We’re lost, ma’am. There wasn’t anyone at the front desk and we don’t know where to meet our father. He works in here.”

Johan bit his tongue at his sister’s lie. Their father was the Vertgate baker and never set foot in the factory. But the lady didn’t need to know that.

She looked Deena up and down, taking in her torn dress and messy hair. “I’ll take you to the Chief’s office,” she said grumpily. “He’ll find your daddy for ya. Follow me.”

The round woman turned and walked down the hall. Deena took Johan’s hand and dragged him with her after the lady, her eyes flickering across the twisting and twining metal halls and stairs in the large, tall room. They followed the woman until Deena heard the sound she was searching for – the splashing and bubbling of water down the end of a hall.

She looked around but no one paid any attention to the two children trailing after the stern woman, and without wasting a moment Deena turned down the hall with her brother in tow. He looked nervously around, afraid another adult would stop them.

“Where are we going, Deena?” he asked anxiously.

“To see what we’ve always dreamed about, of course! The cleansing chamber!” She practically sang the words, so happy was she to be on her way there. Deena had dreamed of seeing the famous cleansing chamber since she was a much younger girl. It was where the water passed between the two territories and was cleansed and purified before it was let back into the underground tunnels of Underland.

The sounds of water grew louder the further down the hall they went, and none of them missed the “no access allowed” or “authorized personnel only” signs hanging at every turn, but neither of them cared. Even Johan was more excited now than scared. When they rounded the final corner, neither of the children was disappointed.

Deena had once heard that in the human world, there were things called aquariums, where people could see tanks of glass giant as houses with hundreds of fish swimming around inside. She imagined it had to look something like this.

They stood on a metal walkway above a pool that Deena thought must be as large their school. The pool was filled with brilliant blue water that was swirled around by some force they could not see far down at the bottom. In the water swam what Deena had truly wanted to see; the fish.

Hundreds and hundreds of fish swam through the water, cleansing and cleaning it with their presence. The fish were beautiful, the color of emerald and the size of their arms! Deena thought they were the most incredible things she had ever seen. The colors dazzled her as the light from the ceiling reflected off their shiny scales, and she leaned as far over the railing as she dared.

“They’re real, Deena; they’re real!” Johan exclaimed next to her, skipping back and forth between the railings on both sides of the walkway.

“I told you,” she said with glee. Her brother had thought the stories of the magical fish that cleaned the water before it was released back into the underground tunnels too fantastical to be real, had thought they were tales told to curious children. Deena thought he was happy to be wrong.

The two siblings stood and stared into the deep pool, admiring the mysterious creatures as they did their job. They stood there so long they lost track of time, and never got bored. Not until they heard steps on the metal did they both look away from the sight below.

“Hey! How did you get in here?” yelled a man who had just rounded the corner they came from. “You’re not allowed in here!”

“Sorry, sir; we got lost!” Johan yelled back over the sound of the water. The man in the uniform looked puzzled for a moment, and hesitated on the steps of the walkway. Deena glanced behind her and saw another door on the other side of the pool, and the other end of the metal way.

“Come on,” she whispered to her brother and grabbed his hand. They bolted towards the other door as the man begun to shout something and run after them, but their young feet reached the door before he caught up to them.

They yanked it open and slipped through. Deena acted without thought, and slammed shut the bolt on the other side of the door. They heard the man hammering against the metal, but the children sank down on the floor and breathed hard after the sprint.

“What do we do now?” Johan asked his sister. She looked around the room they had locked themselves in. It appeared to be a very large closet, filled with large, twined cubes that looked like food, but not really food. Perhaps it was for the fishes?

But there was light in the room. Deena looked up, up, up the wall until she saw a window just beneath the ceiling, with bright blue light streaming through. The window was much too small for a grownup to go through. But just large enough for two children, if they could only get to it.

“Help me, Johan,” Deena said and got up from the floor. The man was still hammering on the wall, but soon it sounded like he walked away – to fetch someone with a key, probably. Deena began to move the packed cubes of fish food and stacking them against the wall beneath the window, and Johan helped when he saw what she was doing.

Soon they formed steps that reached up all the way to the window, and they climbed it easily enough. Only once did Deena loose her grip and her foot slipped off the edge, but she pulled herself back.

Once they reached the top and peered through the glass, both children gasped, and Johan pinched his own arm this time to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

Below the window was another pool beneath a tall, sun-bright ceiling. The water was full of the same fish as the cleansing pool, and surrounded by stones and plants and flowers. A small waterfall cascaded down one wall.

It was like a little piece of paradise, a lagoon that seemed too pretty to exist. In one corner, water ran down into a wide, dark hole, or maybe water ran in from it? It was hard to tell, but one thing was certain. The hole had to lead down into the water filled tunnels of Underland, because the lagoon was filled with exquisite, wonderful people.

“Water creatures!” Deena exclaimed. Oh, how she had thought, wished, dreamed of seeing them, for as long as she could remember, and there they were; so unique, so beautiful, swimming around in the pool or lying on the rocks, talking to each other or sleeping peacefully. She had always known water creatures had a space to clean off and relax within the water plant, but to see it? It was beyond even her imaginings.

“Look!” Johan pointed to a group of women on the rocks by the waterfall. “Mermaids!” Their hair was all in different shades of green or blue, but their tales were as colorful as a rainbow, varying from pink to brown to red to indigo. One of the mermaids swam around the edge of the water, playing with the fishes.

The banging on the door started up again, followed by multiple voices, and tore the children out of their open-mouthed admiration.

“Quickly!” Deena opened the little window and peered down. Below them was water, the deepest end of the pool. Johan saw that, too.

“Deena, we can’t swim!” he exclaimed, the fear evident in his brown eyes.

“I suppose we will have to learn quickly, then,” Deena said, and without pause she crawled out the window and jumped down into the water. She knew Johan would follow her, as he always did, even if he was frightened.

The water was warm, but it was still a shock because there was so much of it! She had never been surrounded by more water than what could fit in their little wooden bath tub. She went beneath the surface, and struggled to make it up where she gasped at the air. Johan came up beside her and she held on to him, holding him up by his arms as his legs kicked at the water beneath him.

“Hold on to me, Johan!” Deena managed over the water that kept entering her mouth. She spotted a sandy slope towards the edge of the room, close to a set of doors, and started to move towards it. Kicking at the water in an effort to keep both herself and her brother afloat was hard, and it felt as if the sand moved further and further away, and her limbs were starting to ache, as was her throat from all the water.

When a force from beneath touched their backs and began to push them at a great speed towards the sand, they were both too exhausted and frightened to wonder what it was. In a moment they found themselves lying on the sand in the shallowest water of the pool, both children gasped for breath and coughed up the water they had swallowed.

Deena turned onto her back and saw what creature was standing a little further down into the water, submerged to her knees. It was the strangest woman Deena had ever seen. She looked just like any other woman, with her body, arms, legs and head, but every surface of her skin was covered in green and black scales, tiny little scales that shone in the light. It was as if someone had made an entire woman out of fish.

The fish woman’s face was strange, as well. She had hair like tentacles the same shade as her scales, and eyes that were yellow and bright; her nose seemed to be hidden beneath the scales. Her mouth had no lips, but still she was smiling.

Deena scrambled to her feet, and pulled Johan up with her. They walked just a little further down in the water and stopped before the woman.

“You saved us,” Deena said as water ran down her back from her soaking wet hair. “Thank you.” She curtsied to the fish woman, whose smile widened.

“My, my, what a sweet girl you are. And brave, too, aren’t you? Coming all the way in here with no help from grownups.”

The woman stared down at Deena with fascinated eyes, but she wasn’t afraid. She felt pulled towards this strange creature and as always, her curiosity conquered all other feelings.

“How did you know that?” Deena asked, and the fish woman laughed. It sounded like heavy rain falling on a still pond. She reached a scaly finger up and tapped her forehead.

“I know things, darling. And I recognize potential when I see it. And it’s all around you like a heavy mist, sweet girl.”

“Potential for what?” Deena asked, spellbound by her enchanting words.

“For adventure, darling. Isn’t that what you always dreamed about? Isn’t that why you came here today?”

Deena looked down at her brother. The fish woman hadn’t so much as glanced at Johan, but he was also hanging on her every word, eyes wide and shining as his soaking clothes clung to his little body. Deena squeezed her brother’s hand and nodded at the fish woman, whose grin grew wider.

“I thought so.” She reached out her hand and placed it on Deena’s cheek. The wet and slimy hand still did not frighten her. The scales scratched at her skin, but she didn’t mind.

“Would you like me to take you on an adventure, sweet girl? Right now? If you come with me, I can promise you an adventure beyond your wildest imagination.”

“You could do that? How?” Though she asked, hope was already blooming in the young girl’s chest, nearly impossible to resist. The fish woman pointed towards the hole beneath the pool that lead to the underwater tunnels.

“I can allow you to breathe beneath the water. I’m powerful, I can do that. And I can take you down in the tunnel where you will swim with me to places you never dared to dream you would see.”

Deena hesitated, though her heart wanted nothing more than to follow the strange fish woman. “Could I bring my brother?” she finally asked.

“I’m afraid this is only for you,” the fish lady answered. “You must leave behind your brother and all others dear to your heart. For any true adventure, there must be sacrifices.”

“How do I know you aren’t lying to me?” Deena asked. Sari always said to never trust the words of a stranger. The fish woman laughed again.

“You were brought here today for a reason, sweet girl. I have not passed through these parts for many years, and the one day I am here, so are you. That is called fate, darling. You long for adventure, and I can provide it. Come with me, sweet girl. You know I am offering all you have ever dreamed of.”

Confused and torn, Deena looked between her brother and the woman. Johan was staring strangely at the fish woman. When he finally met his sister’s gaze, his eyes were filled with questions.

After a few moments where no one seemed to breathe, Deena pulled Johan away to the sandy edge of the shallow pool. She looked back at the fish woman with nearly each step they took, as if the pull towards her was just too powerful.

When they stopped, she put her hands on Johan’s shoulders, and he looked up at his sister. “You are leaving, aren’t you?” her brother asked with wide, sad eyes.

“I’m sorry. It’s simply too tempting. I must go on this adventure, Johan. I cannot resist.” Deena looked over her shoulder again to where the fish woman stood waiting, one arm outstretched towards them. “The urge to see what wonders the world has to offer, what mysteries this woman can show me, is too strong.”

“Don’t worry, sister,” Johan replied lowly, biting his lip to keep it from quivering. He would miss her when she was gone. “I understand.”

Deena placed a hand on her little brother’s cheek and smiled at him fondly. “Take care of mother and father, will you? Tell them I will be home one day, when my adventure is done. And give my love to Sari and Hans.”

With a final smile, Deena turned and skipped across the shallow pool to the fish woman, and took her scaly hand.

“Are you ready, my sweet girl?” she asked.

“I feel as though I have never been more ready for anything,” Deena replied. The fish woman stroke a hand across Deena’s mouth and nose, and a slimy seal formed to cover them.

Now able to breathe beneath the water, Deena followed the fish woman down into the tunnel, where her true adventure would finally begin.

Did she live happily ever after? Would Johan ever see his sister again?

Only time can tell.
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