18. The Lake
I didn’t have to wonder how long the fall was after that. I listened to Soy scream at the top of his lungs for about two minutes before he was deposited on the ground in front of me, with Deli on his stomach. She looked like she had actually enjoyed it.
“See, now that’s the kind of fun we need more of!” she said.
Soy pointed his fingers at both of us and said, “You, Cal, are a liar. And royalty or not, you, are a weird little frog.”
Deli hopped up towards the dock and inspected the lake.
“Uh oh!" she gasped.
“What is it?” I asked worriedly.
Deli replied, "This lake is filled with rooze. It’s the waste that’s left over when rile and lore are used in large quantities. It occurs naturally, but there’s a reason why it is buried so deep in the mountain. As legend goes, it turns anything it touches into food for magical creatures.”
“What are you saying? It could transform us into dragon food?” asked Soy.
“Or warlug food or troll food or ogre food. The legend doesn’t really specify,” she answered.
I looked across the huge lake and saw another spot of land. It was the only other one in sight. It led to a bright purple door.
“There,” I said pointing, “that’s where we need to go.”
“Great. And did you happen to hear about the lake of death? It’ll turn you into a Cal smoothie!” Soy answered with frustration.
“I can assist with that," someone said.
The voice we heard came from the dock. A small metal boat had appeared without us noticing. It was towing an even smaller dinghy (the size of a milk crate). A thin rope connected the two.
The voice belonged to a short creature who could barely see over the sides of his boat. His round ears rose a few inches from his head, and his pointy snout had silver whiskers. He held a large oar that was at least three times his size. When he stepped up and stood on the bow of the boat the grey fuzz on his body seemed to ruffle in a breeze from the lake. There was no way around it. This was an abnormally large, talking mouse.
“Who are you?” asked Deli forcefully.
“I am Sebastien. I row the boat from this side to that, waiting for passengers,” he answered calmly.
Soy mouthed the word “mouse” at me and pointed towards Sebastien.
“And how many passengers have you had down here?” I asked.
Sebastien looked at me with his beady eyes and gave a smirk. “You will be my first.”
There was no other way across without his boat. That much was clear. Without a word, I stepped inside. It only wobbled a little, but it was enough to make me uneasy. Sebastien held us steady by keeping his paw on the dock.
“Careful now, we wouldn’t want you falling in,” he said with a hint of amusement.
“We don’t have a choice,” I said to Deli and Soy, “and there’s no turning back now.”
“He’s right,“ said Deli, and she hopped aboard.
Soy followed slowly, looking around the boat, and then stared at Sebastien through squinted eyes. Now that we were closer, I could smell the rooze. It smelled like raspberries that had gone bad. Real bad. If “undead zombie raspberries” were a thing, they would smell like rooze.
“What do you eat out here, rowing back and forth all day long?” Soy asked him, still suspicious.
Sebastien pushed us off with his oar and began turning the boat towards the other side of the lake. The smaller boat followed behind as we moved forward.
“I do not require much food,” he answered.
Sebastien rowed us steadily out into the open water, alternating sides with his oar.
“And what do we owe you for the trip?” asked Deli.
I hadn’t thought of that. If Sebastien set a price too steep, I wouldn’t know what to do.
“There is no cost, Princess,” he answered, “I ask only for your company.”
I sense of fright came over me. He had called Deli “Princess”, and we had all heard it. I didn’t know what that meant, but it definitely meant something. Soy was glaring at Sebastien through even smaller eyes. A few minutes later we had reached what I thought was the center of the lake. I could tell because the light glowed brightest there, like the center of a chandelier.
“Hey, Sebastien,” Soy said, “I’ve got some crackers for you in my pocket if you get us there faster.”
Sebastien plunged his oar beneath the surface, and the boat stopped dead.
“I’m afraid I cannot get you there faster. In fact, I cannot get you there at all,” Sebastien said, turning around to face us.
“Hey,” Soy said with concern, “I didn’t mean anything by it. You can row whatever speed you’d like. Just … definitely keep rowing.”
“I’m sorry” he replied, “but, there is a leak in the boat, and we cannot continue.”
Sebastien pointed to the middle of the boat. All of a sudden, the purple liquid started to seep into the boat from a hole too small to see. Soy and Deli jumped toward the front with Sebastien, and I scrambled to the back. The putrid smell added to my panic.
The rooze was filling the boat more and more by the second. Deli jumped onto Soy’s shoulders, and we both lifted our feet onto the wooden planks for sitting. Sebastien didn’t move.
“What’s happening?” I shouted, “There must be something you can do, Sebastien!”
“There is,” he said, “but only for one of you. The dinghy behind us can fit a single soul. Anything more, no matter the size, and it will sink into the lake forever.”
I stared at Deli and Soy across from across the boat. They were scared. I was scared, too.
“It’s got to be you,” said Deli. "You’re the only one who can stop Ream.”
Soy looked at me with a sad smile, and nodded.
“I know you can do it,” he said.
My eyes started to water. I looked at the liquid pouring in and shook my head. Then I turned to look at the dinghy behind me. Finally, I looked back at my friends.
“I won’t,” I said, staring right at Sebastien. “I won’t do it. I won’t leave them.”
“You have to,” said Deli solemnly.
“No,” I answered, keeping my eyes on Sebastien. I felt it deep down inside of me. “This is not how the story ends.”
Sebastien stared back at me with fierce eyes. Then his face gave way to a smile.
“Very well,” he said laying down his oar. Sebastien jumped down from his perch and landed directly in the purple pool before us. It disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“A fine choice,” he continued. "It is true that my dinghy may only take one soul, but that soul is me, and only me.”
He strode past me on top of the wooden planks inside the boat, and then jumped inside his dinghy.
“Had you chosen to leave them, you would have perished in the lake,” Sebastien said as he undid the rope connecting us. “Remember Cal, you were chosen for a reason. Good luck.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
I didn’t know what else to say. It was all so confusing. By the time I grabbed the oar at the front of the boat, Sebastien was out of sight. I felt Soy pat me on the back as I started rowing.
“You didn’t leave us,” he said.
“Of course I didn’t,” I replied, wiping my eyes. “I’d be a pretty useless hero without you two,” I added, trying to laugh it off.
I quickly realized why Sebastien had been rowing so slowly. Any faster and I would risk sending drops from the lake back at my friends. I wasn’t sure what Sebastien’s role was in all of this, but I wondered if I had misjudged him.
It took about ten minutes to reach the dock on the far side of the lake. The two landings were identical, except that in place of a tunnel, this one had an archway with a large purple double door. Flaming torches burned on either side. Something told me they never went out. Just like the doors before, there was a carving in the center. This one was a dwarf. Ok, so maybe I had never seen a dwarf, but it couldn’t really be anything else. The figure had a long braided beard and a wide, brawny face. He held a hammer and a small shovel in his crossed arms. Two of my favorite tools.
“This is it,” I said aloud.
“I don’t know what will be on the other side,” Deli warned.
“I don’t think I’d want to know anyway,” said Soy.
With a push from all three of us, the doors swung open.