Author's Note: This story was requested by a Tumblr user who'd prefer to stay anonymous.
The Ocean Goddess
There was a ritual in the village of Illianaro. Every year someone was chosen – sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, almost always around the age of twelve – to travel with the goddess for a few months. Priestess Saona set a series of challenges that children must pass if they were to be selected.
When he asked to take part in the challenges, Ketris never thought he would be selected. He thought that perhaps the mayor's daughter would be chosen. Everyone said she was clever and kind. Or perhaps the baker's son, who always helped anyone in difficulty.
But no. Priestess Saona asked to see him one day, after the challenge was over, and told him that he had been chosen. He, unimportant little Ketris who helped his father in the fields, had been chosen to travel with the goddess.
And now he found himself standing by the side of a well, staring nervously down into the darkness below.
"Are you sure this is safe, ma'am?" he asked Priestess Saona.
"Perfectly safe," she assured him. "Eat this berry. It'll allow you to breathe underwater. Just in case you fall in."
She held out a small, bright blue berry. Ketris took it. It tasted like an apple, but with a strange hint of something like seaweed. He pulled a face, but forced himself to eat it.
"Now you climb down the ladder." The priestess pointed to a metal ladder running down the side of the well. "About half-way down you'll come to a cave. Climb into it, and wait there until you hear this bell ring." She pointed to a bell standing a foot away from the well. "If you fall off the ladder, stay calm and call up to me. Don't worry, you won't drown. When the bell rings, stand at the edge of the cave. I will chant a spell, and the water in the well will form a geyser and carry you up to the top of the ladder."
Ketris took a deep breath, tried to gather his courage, and began to climb down the ladder.
For centuries the village had worshipped the goddess Udione. She had appeared to the first settlers ever to build their houses here, and brought them peace and good fortune. In return the villagers revered her. They never dreamt of going on a fishing trip without first praying for her blessing. Their houses and shops were dedicated to her.
Somewhere along the line, someone had an idea. Perhaps it was the goddess's idea, or perhaps it was some former priest or priestess who thought of it. But it was a simple idea.
They would chose a child from the village, who would travel the world with the goddess for some months and see all the sights they would otherwise never see.
Saona had been one of the children selected, when she had been a young girl of Ketris's age. She had travelled to the deepest parts of the ocean and been inside a volcano. She had seen wonderful cities on the other side of the world. The goddess had told her stories of long-ago battles and adventures, and wondrous things she had seen over the ages.
When Saona returned to the village, she had immediately trained to be a priestess, to show her gratitude to the goddess. For almost fifteen years she had chosen the children to travel with the goddess, and seen them return with stories of the amazing things they'd seen and learnt.
This year she had chosen Ketris. She was glad he had passed the challenge successfully. He reminded her of herself at that age; curious, slightly nervous, not quite able to believe he had been chosen.
Ketris had expected the cave to be dark and slimy. Instead it was filled with an extraordinary pale blue light. The light shone from a curious sort of plant that coated the walls. He brushed his hand against it, expecting to find it was damp and wet, and was startled to discover it was dry and springy like heather. He leaned back against it and found that it made a soft cushion.
The cave's floor was covered with sand. Not the dry, crumbly sand that clung to his feet when he walked on the beach, or the wet, squelchy sand at the water's edge. This sand was remarkably smooth and soft, and many different colours. The colours shifted and changed when he looked at them from different angles.
The walls were lined with shelves. Scattered on the shelves were strange objects. A ship in a bottle, a picture of a city, a carving of a curious animal from far away.
He had expected to become bored quickly with sitting in this cave. Instead Ketris found endless things to attract his attention. He stared at the ship in the bottle, wondering how anyone had ever put it in there. He tried to guess which city the picture showed, and what country the animal came from. There were so many other things on the shelves – souvenirs from other people's trips with the goddess – that he completely forgot about being bored.
At last the bell rang.
Ketris walked to the cave's entrance and stood as close to it as he dared. In the distance he could hear the priestess chanting. A rumbling, splashing noise began below him. The water rose higher and higher, and faster and faster. He found himself being swept out of the cave and carried up, up, up, until he shot out of the well. He landed with a thud on the dry ground.
Udione could take any form she pleased. Her preferred form, however, was that of a gigantic mermaid. She could travel anywhere she wished to go in mere minutes. She could swim around underwater shipwrecks and caves. She could meet the enormous monsters that dwelt in the depths of the ocean.
And every year she took a mortal child from her favourite village with her. Not everywhere she went, but to places she thought they would especially like to see. With one flick of her tail she could cross an entire ocean.
As she swam towards the village, she wondered what this year's child would be like. Would they be brave and hoping for adventure, like the child last year? Or would they be more interested in history, like the child of two years ago?
"The first thing you must know," Priestess Saona told Ketris, "is that while in the ocean, the goddess carries the children in her stomach."
Ketris's eyes almost fell out of his head. "You mean she eats us?"
"Goodness, no!" The priestess looked shocked. "She's a goddess. She doesn't need to eat or digest food, so her stomach is more a sort of… holding bag. And her skin is completely transparent, so you can see the ocean around you. And when you reach land – or the underwater cave where she lives – she spits you out."
"That sounds gross!" Ketris pulled a face.
"Yes, it does," the priestess conceded, "but you get used to it quickly."
"What if I want to have a closer look at something underwater?" Ketris asked. "Like a shipwreck or something?"
"Then you have only to eat one of the berries, and she'll spit you out so you can swim around whatever you want to see. The effects of each berry lasts for a full day, so you needn't worry about it running out while you're still underwater. Try not to use too many berries; they can leave you with difficulty breathing air for a few hours. But the goddess will warn you if you think of taking more than you should.
"When I travelled with her, she showed me a volcano as it was about to erupt, and took me down to the deepest parts of the sea to meet a kraken. No matter where she takes you, you will be perfectly safe as long as you do exactly as she says."
A rumbling noise like an approaching storm filled the air. The wind picked up and whirled old leaves around them. The waves crashed against the beach.
Priestess Saona looked up. "The goddess is approaching. Now is the best time for the next test."
Ketris looked down at the ocean, so far below him. He'd never been afraid of heights, but standing at the top of a cliff on a piece of wood was unnerving. Alright, so this plank was more like a see-saw than just a piece of wood, but he still felt as if he would fall at any minute.
"The purpose of this test," the priestess said, "is to show you how vast the ocean is. When I hit the plank with the mace, you will be thrown into the air and will be able to see the ocean for miles around. Then the parachute will open and you will drift gently down to stand beside me. Ready?"
Ketris nodded. "What do I do to make the parachute open?"
"Nothing," Priestess Saona assured him. "It'll open automatically."
She raised the mace and swung it down onto the plank. Ketris shot up, up, up into the air. Beneath him the ocean stretched on and on for miles. He'd never realised how impossibly huge it was until now, and he felt incredibly small and insignificant. Then the parachute opened, and he slowly drifted down to the cliff.
"There is another test and then a final ceremony you must pass before you can begin your journey," the priestess said. "They both test your courage and your faith in the goddess. You've seen the final ceremony before, when other children was chosen. But I don't think you've seen the test."
Ketris nodded. A mixture of curiosity and worry crossed his face. "What is it, ma'am?"
"You see that firework?" Priestess Saona pointed to the huge, brightly coloured firework placed in the centre of the temple's yard.
He nodded again. He had never seen the firework being fired himself, but he had heard many strange rumours about what it was for. He didn't believe half of them. There was no way anyone was actually going to tie him to it and then shoot him up into the sky… was there?
"You must lie on top of the firework and let me tie you to it."
His eyes widened. "What? But–"
"Don't worry," the priestess said. "It's perfectly safe. But remember this is a test. Do you trust the goddess enough to believe you'll be safe?"
Ketris took a deep breath. Obviously it was perfectly safe, or no one would ever live to travel with the goddess. That thought did not make it any easier to walk up to the firework and let Priestess Saona tie him onto it.
The priestess held her pipe to the firework's fuse. A smell of smoke and a rumbling noise warned Ketris that it was about to fire. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed as he had never prayed before. Then there was a boom!, and he shot straight up into the night sky.
He flew much higher than he had before. Higher and higher he went, until the stars were so close he imagined he could reach out and touch them. Then the firework exploded, and Ketris fell down, down, down…
Priestess Saona caught him before he hit the ground.
The final ceremony was held the next day. The entire town crowded into the temple yard to watch. The goddess watched from the sea below. Ketris hadn't seen her yet, but the priestess assured him she was there. A huge cannon was ready, waiting for Ketris to get into it.
Nothing can hurt me when the goddess is there, Ketris told himself as Priestess Saona led him to the cannon. I've seen this happen to other children. None of them have ever been hurt.
He climbed into the cannon. The spectators began to cheer and shout encouragement. A smell of smoke and a rumbling noise warned him that the cannon was about to fire. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed as he had never prayed before. Then the cannon fired.
He zoomed over the temple walls, over the beach, over the sea. He couldn't hear a thing over the noise of the wind in his ears. On and on and on he flew. And then suddenly he stopped. He landed gently on solid ground.
Ketris opened his eyes. He was standing on a small rocky island. The shore was just barely visible in the distance. But all thought of how he was supposed to get back vanished when he saw Her.
The goddess rose out of the sea beside him, an enormous mermaid draped in seaweed. In her mouth was a smoking pipe. The smoke drifted down from it to drift over the water's surface like fog.
"Be sure to tell us everything you see!" Ketris's mother said as he prepared to leave. "And do exactly what the goddess tells you! I don't want to hear you've disobeyed her at all!"
"Bring us back some souvenirs of your travels," his father said.
The townspeople gathered in the square to wish him well. Ketris waved goodbye to them.
Where will I have been, he wondered, before I see them again?
Priestess Saona gave him a packet of berries. "Remember not to eat too many of these," she warned him again. "And be careful. There are dangerous things out in the world. You can't expect the goddess to protect you from everything."
"Today," the goddess said when they'd travelled for several weeks, "I'm going to show you a volcano. I know of one that's about to erupt. We'll be there when it does erupt."
Ketris's eyes widened. "But ma'am, don't volcanoes burn everything around them?"
"If you were alone, you would die," the goddess agreed. "But you are with me. No volcano can harm you."
They swam on. Shoals of fish hurried around them. An approaching shark took one look at the goddess and fled in the opposite direction. Ahead of them loomed an impossibly tall mountain. It climbed up, and up, and up, until it broke the surface of the ocean.
The water around the volcano bubbled and was full of smoke. The goddess swam through it, towards a crack in the mountain's side. Ketris saw something bright red inside the crack. Then they went through it, and magma surrounded them.
Common sense said that Ketris should be boiled alive. Common sense did not apply when the ocean goddess was involved. Ketris didn't even feel any increase in the temperature around him.
The rocks began to rumble and shake. He barely had time to register what that meant before the volcano erupted. Ketris and Udione were rocketed up into the air. Higher and higher they flew, right up into outer space, and then down they plummeted.
He shut his eyes as he saw them falling towards the ocean again. But then there was a barely-audible splash, and when he opened his eyes he found they were already underwater.
"Look, ma'am! What's that?" Ketris pointed at a dark shadow on the ocean floor.
"That's a shipwreck," the goddess said. "Years ago that ship sank in the middle of a terrible storm."
This roused Ketris's curiosity. "Could we take a closer look?"
"Eat one of the berries, and you can explore it for yourself."
A storm raged above the ocean, but down near the seabed Ketris saw nothing of it except occasional flashes of lightning. The goddess had said there was something she wanted to show him, and they were swimming along a rocky stretch of the ocean floor. Fish and octopus – and other stranger creatures that he didn't recognise at all – hurried out of their way.
In the distance Ketris saw a jagged shape rise from the seabed.
"Look," the goddess said. "That is all that remains of a once mighty city."
Ketris looked. The jagged shape he had thought was a rock formation proved to be a ruined city. Crumbling towers and buildings, slowly mouldering away from being submerged, still stood even though the people who had once lived in them were long dead. Cobblestones, cracked and covered with sand, still lined the streets.
"What happened to the city?" he asked.
"It was built on an island," the goddess said. "But an earthquake changed the ocean's landscape, and the island sank beneath the waves. Its people fled to safety when they realised their home was doomed. Some of them settled in what is now Illianaro, and became your ancestors."
This was an eerie thought. He was looking at the remains of his ancestors' homes?
Their travels weren't solely underwater. Sometimes the goddess let Ketris go on land, to see cities far away from his home and to look on landscapes he would never have seen otherwise. One day he visited small villages very like his own, the next he saw wide open plains inhabited by herds of strange animals.
Finally the day came for him to go home.
The entire village waited to welcome him back. Ketris hugged his parents, bowed and thanked the goddess, and said hello to all the friends he hadn't seen for months.
"Wait till I tell you all the places I've been!" he told his parents.
And so, with his pockets full of souvenirs from his trips around the world, he walked back to his home, chattering to his family about everywhere he'd visited.
Almost a year had passed since Ketris travelled with the goddess. Now another child had been chosen for this year's trip.
"But I'm scared!" protested Folwin, the girl Priestess Saona had chosen. "I don't want to be fired out of a cannon!"
"It's perfectly safe," Ketris assured her. "I survived it, didn't I? And so have dozens of other children!"
Folwin remained unconvinced. Ketris wished Priestess Saona was around to help. But the priestess had gone to take a bath before evening worship, and he was left to deal with a worried twelve-year-old.
"Listen," he said after several minutes of failing to reassure Folwin, "I'll get in the cannon right now, and you can fire me out of it. Then you'll see for yourself that it's safe."
It occurred to him later, as he climbed into the cannon and waited for Folwin to fire it, that perhaps he should have talked this plan over with someone older. What if something went wrong?
Boom! Ketris shot out of the cannon. He realised at once that something was wrong. He was much too low. Instead of being launched into the air, he was zooming along only a few feet above the ground. And the wall of the temple's main building stood just ahead of him.
People ran from all over the temple to see what was making so much noise. They were just in time to see Ketris crash straight through the wall.
He flew down a hallway, through a closed door, and into the bathroom. He landed with a splash in the pool the priestesses used for ceremonial bathing. His head collided with something soft. Gasping and spluttering, he sat up and tried to catch his breath.
That was when he realised three things. One, Priestess Saona was in the pool. Two, she was naked. Three, her chest was the soft thing his head had struck.
Ketris turned bright red and stumbled to his feet, dripping wet and stammering apologies. He kept his eyes tightly closed as he clambered out of the pool.
"I'm so sorry, ma'am," he said. "Folwin wanted to be sure the cannon was safe, so I got in it, and I didn't think that it needed to be aimed, and–"
"It's quite alright," the priestess said, utterly unfazed. "But to prevent this happening again, why don't you leave firing the cannon to be?"
Ketris nodded, still blushing, and ran out of the bathroom as fast as his legs would carry him.
At least Folwin no longer feared the cannon. She was too busy laughing at him to remember her worries.