Ice Massacre, page 16
“I didn’t set you up!”
“You’re the one who ran for help when you got scared.”
“I never ran for help!”
“So this scar magically appeared?”
I glanced down.
“A permanent reminder of the traitor I once called a friend,” she said. “Iron never heals.”
I gasped when I saw it. It looked like someone had dragged a molten spike down her waist. From ribcage to hip, the iron bolt had left a gash, scorched red and as clear as if it’d just happened. At the bottom was a black hole: the point of impact, like the bolt had burned a path as it grazed her side, then buried into her skin once it reached her hip bone.
Our eyes met, and suddenly I remembered the day I lost her as clearly as if it were being played out before my eyes. I remembered the terror on her face as my father aimed to kill.
Why was she calling me a traitor? I wasn’t the one who betrayed our friendship.
I struggled to readjust my cramping fingers. They were slipping from the post alarmingly fast so I had to keep scrambling to get a better grip.
“Lysi.” Her name felt strange on my tongue. “I never told my father.”
She broke our gaze. The ship was silent. I watched her pull herself up effortlessly and peer across the deck. When she came back down, a hint of white and blue bloomed in her eyes.
“Get up,” she said, sounding angry. Something solid pressed against my feet, pushing me upwards.
“Stop it,” I said firmly. “I don’t want your help.”
I pushed the balls of my feet against the hull and tried to climb it, knowing I must look pathetic.
Lysi made a noise of disapproval. “Don’t be stupid.”
And before realising what’d happened, I was putting my hands in front of me to stop my face from hitting the deck.
I heard a splash as I crumpled in a heap, and—as quickly as she’d come—Lysi was gone.
A cold hand closed around my arm the moment I collapsed on the deck, but I couldn’t gather the strength to pull away.
I moaned weakly.
“Meela,” said Annith, “it’s me. Get up.”
I glanced sideways, overcome with relief at the sight of her human legs.
“We aren’t sure if they’re really gone,” she said, pulling me awkwardly to my feet. “Dani has an idea, though.”
I walked beside her, taking in the state of the ship around me. Everything was as destroyed as the last time, if not worse, and again my eyes found the huge gash in the mainsail. The boat still rocked, sending overturned barrels rolling, but the wind had eased off.
In the centre of the deck, Dani was yelling herself hoarse.
“Don’t get too comfy, girls! We’re over the nest now. They’ll be back.”
“I bet they’re trying to find a new whale,” I said.
Annith said nothing, but her grip around my arm tightened.
The girls spread out, forming a circle with no more than an arm’s width between themselves. Dani turned to Annith and me.
“Nice of you to join us,” she said. Her eyes blazed, manic and bloodshot.
Before I could spit out the nasty words on my tongue, she added bossily, “Stand in a circle and face the water. We’re going to use a new tactic next time they attack, and it’ll be sure to take out every sea rat that tries to climb aboard.”
“That’s hardly a new tactic!” I said. “It’s the same thing we’re supposed to do in night battles.”
“If it works at night,” said Dani, “it’ll work during the day.”
I looked at Annith in protest, but she just nodded once.
“Some of us need tending to first,” she said, and leaned around Dani to scan the other girls in the circle. I saw a few bloody faces and clothes, and Linoya—I remembered Linoya’s spear wound with a jolt of panic—she was nowhere to be seen.
Dani scanned me up and down, and wrinkled her nose like I smelled particularly bad.
“Fine,” she said. “Take the girls down one at a time to fix them. Start with her. She looks like hell.”
She nodded at me, her pointed face puckered in disgust. Nothing but a scratch on Dani’s cheek threatened to stain her clothes with her own blood. I glanced down at myself and realised how much blood I’d lost. Pain flooded back to me in both arms, and something resembling splattered paint down my front reminded me that my nose had been bleeding. I reached a hand up, confirming it’d stopped.
“Linoya’s in the cabin,” said Annith. “She’s not doing so well. It’s not fatal, but she lost a ton of blood and I think the spear might’ve damaged her spine. She keeps saying her legs are tingling. She can’t move them too well.”
I bit my lip, lost for words. The taste of blood met my tongue.
“Akirra’s gone,” whispered Annith. “And Chadri.”
I concentrated on stepping down one stair at a time.
“Anyone else in rough condition?” I said.
Two more girls were dead. I felt too numb to cry.
In the cabin, we sat on my bed while Annith fixed up the puncture in my arm from the bolt, and the gash from the conch shell. She had blood all over her skin and clothes, and a tear in her jacket that revealed a clean patch of gauze over her ribs. The ring on her finger looked tarnished. I was pretty sure it was just covered in dried blood.
Linoya slept soundlessly a few beds over, and I wondered aloud more than once if we should check to make sure she was alive.
“She’s fine,” whispered Annith. “If you stop panicking for like, one second, you can actually hear her breathing.”
Something scraped across the deck above us, and we both stared at the ceiling. When nothing further happened, I went to wash the blood off my face before changing into a clean jacket and cargo pants. Even my dry clothes felt cold and uncomfortable.
“Go get Sage next,” said Annith, handing me a hair elastic so I could pull the soaking wet locks off my face. “She looked beaten up.”
Light-headed, I climbed back to the deck and called Sage over. Blood covered her face and hair, and she limped heavily as she walked.
In the middle of the circle of girls, a barrel of ammo sat open next to the main mast. So that had been what they were dragging. Beside it rested three extra crossbows. The wooden mast had chunks missing from the base, as though someone with brute strength had taken an axe to it.
I made a mental note to keep the demons away from the masts.
“What’s the plan with the circle?” I said as I took up one of the crossbows and stood next to Blacktail.
She looked at me with a fat lip and dried blood on her chin. “Don’t let your guard down, and shoot like hell.”
“Are we standing here until they come back?”
“’Til we know they’ve retreated for sure.”
It seemed like a decent plan, though I hated admitting it to myself. Blacktail looked sour about following Dani’s orders, too.
Most of us had come to recognise Linoya as the rightful captain—but what would happen now that she was injured? Would she step down? I was the next girl in line. It would be me fighting against Dani’s attempted coup.
Blacktail and I were among those elected to stand guard while others cleaned the blood and bodies off the deck. Zarra stood in the centre on the boom, tied to the mast and working feverishly to sew the torn sail back together.
Facing away from the crew, I took a private moment to let my thoughts shift back to Lysi. Why did she help me get back onto the ship? Was she trying to delude me into trusting her again?
I gripped my crossbow tighter.
I’d just started to accept that the mermaids weren’t coming back when Nora screamed, and the unmistakable sound of an iron bolt whizzed through the air behind me. I whirled around to see a dark-haired mermaid collapse onto the deck, then realised I’d
A mermaid was climbing over the railing, but Blacktail shot her down instantly. As she fell back into the water, three more mermaids threw themselves aboard. Before I could even aim, Blacktail shot again at the one in front of me, Holly took down the one beside that, and Dani jumped forwards to thrust her iron dagger into the last mermaid’s stomach. She gave a firm twist, and the mermaid collapsed with a strangled grunt. From behind us came one last sound of a crossbow firing, and then the air was silent.
I looked down at my hands, white-knuckled around my crossbow. Why were my reactions so slow?
For a moment we all stood there, gaping. Dani wiped the bloody dagger on her pants, but held onto it. The bloodbath was over in seconds, and no more mermaids tried to climb aboard. Perhaps these ones had been meant to give a signal . . . or perhaps the others saw what’d happened.
“Was that it?” said Holly, lowering her crossbow a fraction.
The only sound came from the waves slapping against the hull.
I scanned the dead mermaids, and when I realised I was searching for a head of coppery blonde hair, I became furious at myself.
“Come on,” I said to no one in particular. “Let’s get these bodies off the deck.”
Together, a few of us pushed the mermaids into the water. I averted my eyes from their lifeless faces, the skin of which had faded back to a human complexion in death.
“We knew they’d come back,” boasted Texas. She looked at Dani with sick admiration that made me roll my eyes.
“What do we do, then?” said Zarra. “Stay in this circle twenty-four hours a day?”
Dani straightened, narrowing her eyes at the horizon. The weather was clearing in the distance. She rested the tip of her index finger on the point of her dagger. “We’ll be all right for now.”
Nobody said anything.
After a minute, Dani faced us. She nodded firmly. “We slaughtered them today. While they’re picking themselves up, let’s regroup and make a plan.”
“We shouldn’t let our guard down,” I said. “You don’t know for sure they’ve backed off.”
“How do you know?”
She turned to me, her eyes as wide and manic as ever. “Intuition, studying patterns . . . I’m starting to learn how these demons think.”
“You don’t know any better than the rest of us,” I said, exasperated. The way her crew ogled her made my blood curdle—like she was some chosen, troubled hero who knew all the secrets of the volcanoes looming beside us.
“I share what I know with my crew,” she said. “Not that I’d ever want someone as pathetic as you on it. But just know that anyone who joins me has a better chance of surviving.”
In the corner of my eye, Texas stood up taller.
“I’d rather have my guts eaten than be one of your puppets,” I said.
Annith put a hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged it off.
“A few of us should stay here for a bit,” I said. “Just in case.”
Dani laughed coldly and flipped her dagger over before sliding it back in her belt. She started towards the galley.
“Fare you well, my dove!” she sang in a high, falsely sweet voice.
Before disappearing into the hull, she glanced back and smiled at my expression.
“Shaena,” she said, and out of nowhere Shaena appeared at her heels. “Help me make dinner. I love the way you do the salmon.”
They vanished, leaving the rest of us staring at the empty doorway.
“Crazy bitch,” I said under my breath. Annith frowned, but behind her Blacktail’s eyes gleamed in amusement.
We didn’t encounter any other mermaids that day, and it irked me that Dani’s crew would trust her that much more for being right. She’d been lucky. But luck wouldn’t always be on her side.
At dinner, nobody had the energy for conversation. Everyone bowed their heads, focused on their plates and nothing else. I kept my own head down and ate in silence.
“What are we going to do about the whales?” I said after I’d finished, and a few girls looked up at me as though surprised there were other people in the galley.
When no one spoke, I said, “The plan we had with . . . with Linoya’s group . . . was to target the mermaids who were cornering the whale, and—”
“My crew,” said Dani, “is working on a plan for this.”
I stared at her. Annith shifted beside me. I felt her give me a sidelong glance.
“Want to share with the rest of us?”
“If you want in on the plan,” said Texas coldly, “then join our crew.”
“We are in the same crew!”
“Don’t you think your almighty plan has a better chance of working if everyone’s in on it?” said Fern, scowling at Dani.
“No, I don’t!” Dani jumped to her feet. “I’m asking for a little cooperation here, and if all of you are still hell-bent on being rebels then you deserve to be eaten!”
“Don’t get your undies twisted,” said Zarra.
Dani’s jaw tightened. She glowered at the side of Zarra’s scarred face.
“If anyone wants to join us, we’ll be meeting at the helm. If not, maybe you can find a way to make yourselves useful.”
She jerked her head, and Texas, Shaena, Kade, and Holly ascended the stairs with her to the main deck. When Blondie stood, too, the rest of us gawked at her. She said nothing, but averted her eyes and hurried after them.
Fern stared after her for a long time, looking crestfallen. I realised Blondie had been the last of Fern’s closest friends who was still alive and not in league with Dani.
After a few moments, the rest of us rose and crossed over to the cabin to put on our nightgowns.
No matter what Dani or her crew said, I would never put myself under Dani’s command. Never in my life had I trusted her, and I wasn’t about to start.
Not even when an explosion of laughter came from above deck, and a few of the girls around me looked up at the ceiling, and Annith whispered, “I wonder what they do every time they meet,” did I have the faintest urge to find out.
“They’re doing that because they want us to wonder,” I said. “They’re trying to make you want to join their cult.”
Annith said nothing, but she kept her eyes open as she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.
Long before the sun was ready to rise, Shaena shook me awake so I could take my turn at the helm. I hadn’t been sleeping well and my muscles ached, but I rolled out of bed wide-awake. I pulled my parka on over my nightgown, slung my crossbow across my chest, and left the cabin barefoot.
The sky was so void of clouds, I could see every star and planet with startling clarity. The dark side of the moon overtop its glowing crescent was like a half-closed eyelid, peeking open at me as though wondering why I was up at this hour.
I leaned against the helm and faced the water. The sea was calm enough that I could leave the ropes in place over the wheel, letting the ship float with the breeze.
The wispy white trail of the Spirit Path crossed above me, flowing between the more vivid stars that flecked the sky. I wondered if my brother was up there, watching me slay my way to the same fate.
Somewhere not too far away, a whale surfaced to breathe. And then another. I listened to the air blowing from their lungs, a noise that rang through the still night.
In some other life, it might have been a peaceful sound. I waited, still as a fawn, until the blows faded into the distance.
One at a time, I focused on the stars, forcing my thoughts to be simple and meditative. I listened to the steady beat of the waves passing under us while the ship rocked smoothly. I wondered if animals appreciated the beauty of the stars on a night like this, or if my feeling of awe was a human emotion.
I became aware of a presence suddenly, but it didn’t startle me. I squinted at the side of the ship, where a dark shape had appeared and remained, motionless.
The presence should’ve alarmed me. I should’ve reached for my crossbow. Any other girl would have. Instead, I dropped my shoulders.
We stared at each other, neither of us moving.
“Lysi,” I said, finally.
The shape sunk down a bit, but didn’t vanish.
“Why are you here?” I said, and my voice was less accusatory than I intended.
Still, she said nothing.
After another minute of silence, I started to get angry. “Are you working up the guts to finish me off yourself, rather than send someone else to do it?”
The shape became taller, and she said quietly, “I never sent her to kill you.”
“You just set up the rock tower and told her when I’d be there?”
“No,” said Lysi.
I ground my teeth together. Part of me always wondered how much of our friendship—if any—had been real.
“Were you sent to befriend me?”
“No,” she said firmly.
“Were you sent—”
“Nobody knew about us until Panopea.”
“The one who . . . the one on the beach?”
She made a small noise.
“Who was she?”
I bit my lip, then sat on the deck. A few seconds passed before Lysi apparently realised I was giving her a chance to speak. She crossed her arms on the deck to better hold herself up.
“Panopea noticed I went out, heading in the same direction nearly every day, towards Eriana Kwai,” she said. “I guess I wasn’t as secretive as I thought I was. She followed me one day when I went to meet you, and she saw me leave the water to go into the tide pool.”
“What did she care?”
“We hated each other. She always used to get me in trouble. On my way back from seeing you that day, she shoved me inside this broken barrel lying on the ocean floor, not far out from where we met. She wouldn’t let me out until I told her what I was doing.”
“So you told her about us, just like that?”
“No!” said Lysi, sounding desperate. “But she kept me in there for so long . . . I had to surface to breathe. Besides, I had to say something, or she’d tell my parents. She never would’ve understood, so . . . so I said I was trying to trick you into the water.”