Ice Massacre, page 15
I cried out, straining to pull my arm away while my other hand searched frantically for my crossbow. Her grip was impossible, like no natural strength would be able to pull me away from her.
The mermaid’s breath was raspy as she struggled to work past the bolt still protruding from her shoulder. She raised her other arm that held the conch shell. The sharp edge of the conch faced downwards, lined up with my wrist.
I shrieked, straining wildly against her steel grip.
She was going to amputate my hand.
My free hand made contact with something sliding loose on the deck. I clamped down on it and swung it without hesitation. At the same moment, the mermaid brought her arm down on my wrist. My crossbow smashed into her head with a sickening crack, and the impact jolted her enough that the conch only caught the side of my arm.
Blood poured from the gash, my head whirling as the skin gaped open. I jumped up, fighting to keep my balance. I had no time to load my crossbow—the mermaid had regained her composure. She glared up at me, her rotten-looking face contorted.
The ship crested another wave and I stumbled forwards, but kept my eye on my target. We hurled into each other, and I slammed my crossbow again into the mermaid’s skull.
Her cold, slippery arms locked around me and we fell sideways. She made a screeching, hissing noise like an angry wildcat and tried to roll me onto my back so she could pin me. But she seemed loose, dizzied, and I pushed her arms off me and thrust my knee hard into her stomach. She didn’t flinch, already reaching down, grasping my throat.
For the third time, I brought my crossbow as hard as I could across the mermaid’s skull. I heard the crack as it smashed into her, and she toppled sideways. Her arms splayed open, her body limp. The conch shell rolled out of sight.
I gripped my wounded arm, holding the skin together to stifle the flow of blood. My muscles trembled from pain and shock. I barely noticed Holly smack into me as she sprinted across the deck—maybe to the aid of whoever was screaming for help.
Already a scraping sound came from behind me. I gasped and turned, feeling a surge of vulnerability. My iron bolts were low; many of them had scattered when I fell.
A mermaid fixed her red eyes on me from the other side of the railing. She clamped her elbows over it to hold her in place as she aimed a blow dart at my head.
I ducked before she could fire, notching a bolt while trying to align my crossbow with her chest.
Abruptly, I stopped.
The mermaid’s eyes widened. She froze, like she’d been petrified into a statue.
She lowered the blow dart almost imperceptibly, but then took aim again, her brow furrowed. For a moment, the red drained from her eyes, leaving behind two sapphire blue irises.
I stood panting, unable to move. Her skin was rotten seaweed, ears long and bulbous, hands slimy and webbed . . . but I was staring at her hair, which was blonde and coppery, and her deep blue eyes that bore into me beneath the fading gleam of crimson.
Everything inside me erupted. Hatred poured through me like venom. But I couldn’t move. My hands gripped the trigger, steady as ever, but I couldn’t pull it.
Despite every feeling pulsing through me, despite every cell in my body screaming for vengeance, my arms acted of their own accord. They lowered the crossbow.
The mermaid’s hand twitched, but she kept the blow dart at her lips.
Someone behind me yelled my name.
Crimson bled through the mermaid’s eyes again. She lowered the blow dart and her lips curled into a sneer. The wind carried her whisper in my direction.
She lifted her elbows, and let herself drop.
My legs responded before my brain did; I ran to the railing, where a head of coppery blonde hair sank into the black water.
Only a ripple in the waves took her place.
Someone stumbled up beside me. Dani. She aimed frantically at the water, though the gesture was useless. The mermaid was gone.
Dani turned to me, eyes wide and manic. I gaped back, recognising accusation in her glare. She’d seen me hesitate.
I had no time to make an excuse. She spotted something behind me and bolted towards it.
I turned back to the water, breathing fast, but nothing stirred among the choppy waves.
The word was unmistakable. Untranslatable into other languages, it was one only the people of Eriana Kwai could understand completely. Equally an accusation of weakness, and equally meaning, “I dare you.” A sea demon couldn’t possibly know that word.
My quiver was light. I needed bolts.
Down in the hull, anger bubbled in my chest as I slammed bolts into my tool belt by the fistful. I shouldn’t have hesitated. What a cowardly thing to do.
That mermaid was my enemy. Just because she looked familiar didn’t mean she was familiar. She’d become a monster, with instinct to sink her teeth into my flesh.
The gash on my arm burned, gushing blood, and I pulled off my sock to use as a bandage. I cinched it tight with my teeth, grunting at the pain.
That demon was the reason my people were suffering. Once already, years ago, she’d nearly succeeded in having me killed.
My throat clenched.
Why had I hesitated? My blood boiled at the sight of her. She’d nearly taken my life—and she could have easily been one of the demons to snatch those children off the beach. She needed to pay for her crimes against my people.
No, my reaction was normal. I hadn’t expected to see a face I recognised. Of course I stalled. It didn’t mean I thought twice about killing her. I’d just been surprised—surprised she was alive.
Her time had come. She’d swum away freely once before, but now I had to kill her. I had to kill Lysithea.
Something smashed at the top of the stairs and I whirled around, hitching my crossbow to my shoulder.
A spear whizzed by me and stuck into the floor at the back of the hull. Another thump on the stairs.
I stepped behind the barrels and crates stacked against the wall, ducking down.
A thump. A noise like a cackling dolphin.
A strong-jawed mermaid with dark skin, dark hair, and deep crimson eyes descended into the hull, a stair at a time, scanning the room with each thump. She opened her mouth and another high-pitched noise came out. A second demon responded, right behind her.
The first one held a blow dart to her lips so she could blast a needle-sharp spear faster than I could aim. A conch shell hung from a slimy rope around her waist.
I held my breath, crouching as still as I could so they wouldn’t see me. I tried to straighten my crossbow and take aim, but the distance between the wall and the barrels was too narrow. The butt of my crossbow scraped against the wall, and the first mermaid snapped her head around, blow dart ready. I ducked, not sure if she saw me.
She voiced another sound and thumped to the bottom of the stairs.
I leaned around the barrel and watched them pull themselves across the floor. What were they doing down here? They crossed the room, and my heart sank: I’d left the door of the iron enclosure wide open.
The first mermaid stood guard while the second slid into the enclosure. Slender, with a seaweed bandana holding the hair away from her eyes, she was able to manoeuvre through the iron-hooped barrels with precision. I couldn’t see well, but I caught a glimpse of her carefully positioning her webbed hands to push the barrel across the floor.
Bile jumped up my throat when I saw her face. Blood dripped over her chin, deep red and running in streams down her neck and chest. She’d killed one of my crew. She’d feasted on human flesh. Who was it?
The dark mermaid dragged herself to the wall, where a small window would provide access to the sea.
They were going to dump the iron bolts out the window.
Suppressing a bubble of panic, I glanced to the wall beside the door, where several extra crossbows hung fresh and unused. They could get those next. I had to stop them.
In one motion, I stood and fired. The bolt crashed through the conch and stuck into the wood behind it, just missing the window. The shell shattered, and both mermaids screeched and turned to face me. Where the whites of their eyes had been draining in the absence of threat, they burst crimson again, throbbing like pulsing hearts and echoing the frantic pounding in my ribcage.
The dark mermaid reached for her blow dart, but she didn’t get there in time. Leaning over the barrels, I immediately shot another bolt. It sank into the mermaid’s throat and she fell back with a hollow gagging sound.
I was too slow for the second mermaid. She’d removed her bandana and used it to grab an iron bolt from the barrel in front of her. Before I could flinch, the bolt whizzed across the room and drove into my arm.
Gasping, I staggered back. I plucked it from my skin, numbly shocked at how deep it penetrated.
Every sound was amplified in the quiet belly of the ship. Beneath my own rapid breathing, I heard a menacing rumbling coming from the mermaid’s throat—and I swore I heard a gurgling noise coming from the casualty behind her.
The mermaid glanced at her fallen comrade with her mouth stretched open. Blood stained her fangs. She roared. I raised my crossbow and pulled the trigger as she flung herself at me, a second bolt held strong beneath the seaweed in her hand. But I’d beaten her to the attack. Like the other demon, she made a suffocating sound as my bolt made contact. She faltered. I reloaded and shot her again. This time she fell back and landed in the same pool of blood still gushing from the other mermaid’s throat.
They both shuddered. I could still hear an odd gurgling sound as they took their last breaths.
The air roared through my lungs. The place where the bolt had penetrated my arm seared, like it’d been white-hot before it hit me.
I became aware of the thundering deck above, still teeming with mermaids. I leaned my good arm on the barrel in front of me and jumped over it, landing in the shallow pool of blood. Without another glance at my victims, I leapt up the stairs two at a time.
Adrenaline coursed through me, numbing the pain and replacing fear with vengeance. I wanted only to kill, to massacre, to find Lysithea and finally end her, because ending her would end the desire for revenge that’d boiled in me for so many years.
A mermaid waited for me at the top of the stairs, but she hesitated when she saw me emerging instead of her accomplices. I barely looked at her as I shot an iron bolt through her chest. I was already scanning the deck behind her, hunting for Lysithea.
I wanted to be the one to kill her. She had to look me in the eye as she died, and rue the moment she’d decided to treat me like a game.
The deck around me was a state of turmoil. Blood trickled across the planks. The mainsail flapped loose and bore a gash the length of an arm. And though the downpour had eased, the wind still howled.
Someone screeched beside me. “Akirra!”
I turned to see Shaena on her knees. Blood and something black—maybe tar—coated her face and chestnut hair, so all I could see were the terrified whites of her eyes. Her chest heaved, and it, too, was covered in a splatter of blood that dripped down her body. Whatever she’d done, it must have just happened. She scrambled over a dead mermaid on her hands and knees, reaching desperately for another body—a human body.
“No,” I breathed, and started towards Akirra’s limp figure. Her eyes were wide open, staring unseeingly at the sky.
A sudden blast of air came from the water beside us, drenching me in a salty spray. My stomach sank.
“Whale!” I screamed. Several of my crewmates turned to me in horror.
The ship groaned, and the starboard side rose. I lunged for the railing to try and wrap my arms around it, but it rose higher, higher, until I lost my footing and landed on my hip, sliding down towards the icy water.
A mermaid shot past me, gliding down the angled deck. I heard a childlike laugh as I hit the lower railing, and it angered me—I tried to get my crossbow around so I could shoot her in the spine. But then the ship lurched.
My stomach flopped as the whale ducked under us and the ship careened the other way, dropping into the trough of a wave and sending an arctic waterfall over the deck.
I held my breath as the wave washed over us. Before I could surface, the boat rocked again. Did they find an entire pod of whales, or were they forcing one back and forth along the keel? I braced myself, crouched on my hands and knees, but still slid helplessly across the deck, scrambling to get a hold of something.
The fishing nets, I thought. I need to find my crew. We need to launch the fishing nets.
But even as I thought it, I knew it was no use. We’d never get to the nets with this five-ton animal tossing us around like fish in a frying pan.
The salty spray filled my lungs, choking me. I wiped my eyes and rolled onto my front, wrapping my arms around my crossbow, determined not to lose it. A frantic impulse to stand up overcame me. For all I knew, a mermaid rested beside me, waiting until she had the satisfaction of my seeing her before she struck a fatal blow.
The thought brought me to my feet whether I was ready or not, and I fell into the main mast, trying to balance myself against the rocking ship.
Crack. The boat lifted and I wrapped my arms around the mast, still gripping my crossbow. I wanted to be sick, but my stomach had clenched into a boulder.
Something smashed across my lower legs, bringing me down so my limbs sprawled across the slippery deck. My crossbow was ripped away from my hands.
“No!” I screamed, my voice rough.
Before I could roll over to try and take it back, my assailant had an icy grip on both my wrists. She sat on my stomach, the weight of her body leaving me unable to move. Her eyes blazed.
Her teeth were long and needle-sharp, her skin a rotten mixture of green and grey, and her ears had sprouted long like pieces of bulbous seaweed. Despite it all, it was unmistakably her. She lifted a hand off one of mine and gripped my throat. For a moment I was too horrified by the feel of her webbed fingers to fight back.
“Pathetic,” she said, baring her teeth. “They broke you down, after all.”
Her voice rolled like a purring cat, deeper than when we were kids—but underneath, it was still the same, still that odd accent that turned everything into a song.
“I should’ve known you’d give into that human instinct to destroy everything,” she said. “How does it feel? Do you feel powerful now that you’re slaughtering every last member of my family?”
I tried to speak. She was choking me. My face felt pressured, like the blood was building and leaving my skull ready to pop. Buried nightmares pushed forwards, and I tried frantically to pry her wrist off with my free hand, unable to stop myself from panicking. I hoped she didn’t see fear. I hoped she saw only anger in my bulging eyes.
“What’ll it be, now that you’ve got me here? Are you ready to impale me properly this time?” she said, tightening her slimy grip.
In a last attempt at getting oxygen to my brain, I reached down and found an open pouch on my tool belt. I pulled out the first weapon I laid hands on.
Lysi screeched and drew her hand away when she saw the dagger. I rolled over, knocking her off my stomach, casting about for my crossbow. It was lying steps away from us against the main mast. My eyes locked onto it like magnets. I got to my hands and knees and scurried forwards, but already she was upon me.
I whirled around with the dagger outstretched. It made contact with her cheek—but it wasn’t the iron dagger. The serrated blade slid across her skin like dull plastic, not even leaving a mark. She caught my wrist and threw me onto my back. I roared in frustration as she pinned me down, her fingers clamped on my wrists so tightly I couldn’t even ball my hands into fists. The dagger fell fro
“I’ve spent my whole life poor and starving because of you!” I shouted. “You’re a traitor and a murderer!”
Her scarlet eyes widened, giving me the impression they were going to pop from her head. “My family is in the middle of being massacred! You see all the blood around you? That’s your doing! You’re killing my family!”
“I’m only taking back the lives you demons stole.”
Her lips curled back from her pointed teeth as she glared at me, and I couldn’t understand how I’d ever been foolish enough to believe she was part human.
The ship rose again, higher until we began to slide. The top of my head crashed against the mast, and still she didn’t give me room to budge.
“Listen to you,” she said. “You never used the word demon before.”
“That was before I knew what you really are.”
“And what am I? A monster because I have a tail? Because I live underwater? The Meela I knew would never pin someone as an enemy because—”
“Because you have teeth made for ripping into my flesh! You’re a demon. Even your eyes thirst for blood.”
I remembered the feeling of terror when she’d first shown me her crimson eyes.
She scoffed. “I knew I shouldn’t have shown you. You’re too fragile.”
“Fragile? You think I’m fragile?”
The ship released, and my stomach flopped as we plummeted. Another icy waterfall engulfed us, and when I opened my eyes, we were hanging off the side of the ship, both of us holding onto a railing to keep from falling into the water. I fumbled for a better grip, not knowing where my crossbow was anymore. I shot a horrified glance at Lysi, knowing how easily she could kill me. But her expression was passive, save for her scarlet eyes.
“Yes. You trust too quickly and are easy to manipulate. I bet within the first week of that training program they had you reciting verses about how all demons deserve to die.”
“You made it easy for me to hate you,” I said, thrashing to try and get a foothold. “You set me up to become another victim.”