Ice Massacre, page 19
The table was silent when I sat down. I stared at my plate, willing my gag reflex to calm down so I could have a bite of something. Moments ago I’d been ravenous.
“Let’s have a roast with our next kill,” said Shaena after a minute, sweeping a finger across her already-empty plate to pick up any remaining grease.
A few girls chuckled.
“Like a pig roast?” said Nora.
“Wonder what mermaid tastes like,” said Texas, peeling apart a chunk of fish with calloused fingers.
“Bet it’s gross,” said Nora. “Like fish mixed with chicken.”
“Or human,” said Fern grimly. “Fish mixed with human.”
“Wonder what human tastes like,” said Texas, and there was a brief moment of silence before she, Shaena, and Nora burst into laughter.
I stood, leaving my plate untouched.
“I’m going for some air,” I said. Feeling their gazes, I added, “Seasick.”
I climbed the stairs two at a time and went straight for the railing. My breathing was fast; I needed to calm down. I leaned over the side and looked down at the water, feeling like I might be ill.
What was wrong with these girls?
Or was it me? Was something wrong with me? I should have been better at numbing my emotions. I should have cared less about killing.
A coppery blonde head poked out of the water below me and I straightened up. Lysi’s eyes met mine, wide and pleading. She nodded towards the helm.
I glanced behind me at the girls on duty, a couple them watching me with concern.
“Feeling okay, Meela?” said Sage.
“All right,” I said. “Just need to walk a bit. Seasick.”
She nodded sympathetically, and I strolled along the railing as though idle.
When I got to the helm I sat down casually, masking myself from the girls in the circle.
Lysi poked her head up, still looking desperate.
“What?” I whispered.
“I need to . . .”
“What’s wrong? You look pale as a jellyfish.”
“It’s just . . . the girls,” I said, knowing how vague I must sound.
“What’d they do?” said Lysi. “Need me to kick someone’s ass?”
I smiled a little in spite of myself, but shook my head. “You remember me telling you about Dani?”
Lysi groaned. “Oh, no . . . she’s here?”
Without pausing for breath, I launched into everything about Dani and her crew, and how Annith had joined them, and how Dani’s behaviour was getting weirder and yet everyone still trusted her, and how they were killing without thinking and making brutal comments about what a mermaid would taste like.
“They’re just so sick,” I whispered, my voice breaking into high-pitched hysteria. “They’re disgusting. They’re losing what it is to be . . . to be . . .”
“Hey,” said Lysi, reaching out a hand to calm my flailing arms. “Stop. Calm down.”
Something in her expression made me relax. I rubbed my hands across my face and mumbled, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Cool fingers closed around my wrists, and Lysi gently pulled my hands from my face. She’d lifted herself up so she sat on the deck in front of me, her face so close to mine I could feel her breath.
“I know,” she whispered. “I wish this whole war would end.”
Her breath was sweet, like herbs or fruit, or how I would imagine the colour green would smell. I recalled what my father had said so many years ago, about how even a mermaid’s scent is appealing.
I blinked, realising I’d gone quiet. “What did you come here to say?”
Lysi hesitated. She dropped my hands.
Her words flooded out, like she wanted to say them before she changed her mind. “I wanted to warn you they’ve been directing a pod of whales this way. They’re going to push one into your ship before morning.”
My eyes widened, and I peered around her as though expecting to see the whales coming towards us.
I opened my mouth, and it was a moment before I could get any words out. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I thought I made it clear I want you to stay alive. I owe it to you.”
“You don’t owe me anything.”
My eyes dropped to the scar on her waist. I felt guilty for staring, but I couldn’t look away.
I could hardly believe my father had left this mark on her forever—a tattooed reminder that she and I were enemies, and a reminder of what my people did to mermaids.
I felt Lysi’s eyes on me, but I kept studying where the iron had burned her skin. It was like the black nucleus of a comet, heading a red tail from her ribcage to the top of her hipbone. Jagged lines stretched out from the point of impact, like cracked porcelain.
I lifted my hand automatically to feel the laceration, but caught myself. I met Lysi’s gaze.
“Do you mind?”
She shook her head.
I placed my fingers over the shattered skin. When she didn’t flinch, I moved them inwards to the black hole above her hipbone. Her icy skin became warmer, but not in a pleasant sense.
I could only manage a whisper. “Does it hurt?”
She gave a small shrug. “Sometimes it still burns.”
I got to the edge of the black hole and stopped. The skin felt hot, like something freshly cooked. My throat tightened as I tried to imagine what it must have felt like, to have this burning gash every day of my life. I opened my hand and placed my palm over it.
Lysi’s eyes were still fixed on me, and I looked up. Her expression had changed; she stared at me curiously now. Seconds ticked by where we only held each other’s gaze, and something passed between us that I couldn’t quite understand.
I took my hand away from her skin and dropped my eyes. “I should go take my place in the circle. It’ll be my turn soon.”
“Meela.” She caught my wrist, gently, before I stood. “Come back here tomorrow night.”
I nodded once. The following night was far away, and first I had to get through whatever was ahead of me.
I turned away so I wouldn’t have to watch her leave. The splash she made dropping into the water blended with the waves.
Whales were coming. How was I supposed to tell the girls I knew we were going to be attacked? They accepted Dani’s speculations about when the attacks would happen, but I didn’t want them wondering about my sanity, too.
“I just saw a whale spout on the horizon,” I said loudly as we positioned ourselves in the circle. “Let’s be prepared, just in case.”
The sky had darkened, leaving us in the dim glow of a not-quite-full moon. The whites of Fern’s eyes glinted as she scanned the water. Beside her, Holly glanced nervously to Shaena and Annith, who stood taller and looked around with haughty expressions.
“Blacktail, Sage, do you mind staying up for a bit so we have all hands?” I said.
“No,” said Dani, suddenly right next to me. “We need to stick with the shifts we had planned. They need to sleep for these first six hours.”
“There’s a whale nearby,” I said, turning so we were face-to-face. “We can’t have half of us asleep and risk an ambush.”
Dani’s skin was pale, her cheeks gaunt. The darkest part of her was the thick layer of kohl around her eyes, which she never removed so it was hard to tell where the old makeup ended and the dark circles under her eyes began.
“We’re always at risk of an ambush,” she said. “And half of us need to sleep so we’re strong enough to fight when the time comes.”
I wondered how Dani was strong enough to do anything, given the amount of weight she’d lost.
The girls around us were as silent as shadows. I bit my tongue, remembering my promise to myself that I wouldn’t tear the crew apart even further.
Then Sage spoke, her voice quiet. “I’m part of Meela’s crew. I’m going to
I looked from her to Blacktail. Blacktail nodded.
Dani’s fists clenched. She trembled, glaring at me.
“My crew, stick with the plan,” she yelled, and a fleck of spit hit my cheek. She stormed into the cabin, leaving Texas, Kade, and Nora to follow in her wake.
“When the whale comes, hit the deck before you try to kill any demons,” I said to the girls around me. “You won’t be much use if you fall overboard. An attack will likely happen before dawn, so this circle will be more valuable than ever. Remember our night battle tactics. Keep your backs to the rest of us, and fire at every approaching shadow. We’ll be safe from our own bolts as long as none of us breaks from the circle.”
Without another word, everyone took position. Sage placed a few lanterns in the centre and lit them. They flickered in a ghostly way that made me think it would’ve been less eerie not to have any light.
Time crept. I kept my ears tuned for whale spouts as we bobbed over the high swells. Each time we hit a rough wave, my heart jumped into my throat.
I hoped the girls below deck weren’t falling into too deep a slumber. Under the pretence of warming my feet, I stomped noisily every so often, hoping the sound would keep them awake.
The moon started to make its way back towards the horizon, but I still hadn’t done so much as relax my grip on my crossbow when Blondie suddenly cursed. I whirled around, hearing an intake of breath as we all raised our weapons.
In the moonlight’s path over the shallow waves, the water flattened. Something black and glossy flipped up, pushing white swells in all directions.
The whale was on a straightaway to our ship, moving so quickly there was no need to wonder whether something was chasing it.
“Get down!” I yelled. We flung ourselves onto the deck, the ship trembling as if we’d smashed into a reef. Everything groaned, and for a fleeting, terrifying moment, I thought the Bloodhound might crumble beneath us.
At once, a thunder of mermaids landed around me. I staggered to my feet and hitched my crossbow to my shoulder, seeing only shadows and glints of flesh. Every lantern clattered to the deck, their flames snuffed so only the moonlight was left to guide us. But I didn’t need my sight. We’d prepared for this. My ears and intuition would guide me as they’d done many times in training.
The figures swarmed us, obscuring the stars, their shadows blacker than the sky behind them. I spread my feet wide and crouched to brace myself against the rocking ship. Keeping my footing would be more important than ever.
A shadow pulled itself forwards, and I sensed it with every part of me: seeing her outline, feeling her presence, hearing her claws and a blunt weapon slamming violently into the wood.
I fired. I couldn’t see the bolt but I knew its path. It missed the shadow’s head completely.
I stared at the black sky where the bolt had gone, dropping my crossbow a fraction. I must have been rusty. We hadn’t had a night attack yet.
Another shuddering crack against the hull. I steadied myself, jammed a bolt against the shaft, aimed again—and hesitated.
The mermaid was close enough for me to see her glistening skin in the moonlight. Still, my fingers wouldn’t move.
A stride away from me, a bolt met her chest and she collapsed.
“What the hell, Meela?” shouted Holly from beside me. I heard her notch another bolt.
I pretended not to hear her and hitched my crossbow again, aiming at the next mermaid. I could see a wild nest of hair on top of her head, tied in place with a slimy rope. But behind the veil of darkness, she had Lysi’s face. My hands shook too much to fire.
It’s not Lysi! I told myself. Shoot it!
The cabin door burst open. The rest of the girls’ footsteps stampeded out.
I blinked away the vision of Lysi and, before I could think about it, fired.
Dani was screaming something. Holly disappeared from beside me.
The mermaid got away. My bolt would have hit her; it would have pierced straight through that thick, wild head of hair, but she’d thrown herself into the water during the time I wasted with my finger frozen over the trigger.
Numb with the realisation of it, I loaded another bolt and stared at the empty, black place where she’d disappeared. Dani was still shouting.
“Let down the drag on the port side!”
The drag? What was the drag?
The shadows of Holly, Shaena, and Annith gathered at the stern. They strained to push a fishing net full of barrels over the railing and off the side of the ship.
“What are they doing?” I yelled. “One of us could shoot them! They need to stay in the circle!”
Sage spared a glance at them. “For the whale! To turn us out of its path.”
Behind her, the glistening whites of Kade’s eyes caught mine. I saw desperation.
“Hold onto something,” she shouted, and then the ship lurched.
Thrown off my feet, I yanked a dagger from my tool belt and slammed it into the wooden planks, stopping myself from sliding. Sage rolled into me.
The barrels were acting like an anchor. The weighted fishing nets turned the ship away from the whale so sharply, it’d given the whale a clear escape from the keel.
“They should’ve told the rest of us,” I said. “We would’ve gone flying if Kade hadn’t . . .”
Sage scrambled to disentangle herself from me as the ship careened in a circle.
Kade was nowhere near.
A bloodcurdling scream came from somewhere beyond our broken circle. I turned to see shadows approaching Sage and me. The blackness blinded me to what was happening, but beneath all the other sounds was a long, slow scraping noise. Kade was being dragged off the ship.
“No!” My eyes fell on a pair of shadows, silver-lined in the moonlight, struggling at the end of the ship. What held Kade by the ankle had a wild mess of hair tied up with rope. She was the demon who’d gotten away from me.
Sage and I advanced, abandoning what was left of our defensive circle. I fired at the shape closest to me and heard the bolt make contact. I reloaded and fired again, keeping my focus on the struggling pair at the end of the ship. Kade’s abductor masked herself behind the other demons. I couldn’t get a clear shot.
A series of hollow thuds punctuated the sound of Kade screeching as each dead mermaid collapsed onto the deck. More advanced, and Kade was being hauled through the railing now. There were too many. We weren’t fast enough.
“Get those last ones!” I yelled. I hoped Sage had a good enough shot.
I sprinted through a gap in the shadows and lunged for Kade, landing hard on my stomach. Her outstretched hands were there. My fingers locked around her wrists. The mermaid didn’t seem to notice the extra weight, because she continued to drag us both over the edge.
“Don’t let her take me,” said Kade, clawing at the slippery deck. Splinters peeled up, flaking under her nails.
I kept a bone-crushing grip on her hands, refusing to let go. I kicked my feet wildly, trying to lock them around something to stop us from sliding.
But the mermaid still pulled, until Kade hung off the side with me clinging desperately to her. The glistening waves sprayed my face, like the frothy swells were trying to wrap their fingers around Kade’s legs.
I screamed for someone to help us, but the effort took away from what I needed to keep holding on. I couldn’t loosen my grip. Not to scream, not to reach for my crossbow. She’d be pulled under before I could blink.
“Meela,” said Kade, pleading.
Her eyes were clear in the moonlight. We held each other’s gaze, and I saw in the way she looked at me that she knew this was it. She was going to be dragged in. She was going to die.
The mermaid beneath her blended with the water, though I could see her black hair flowing among the debris. Her dark, glossy eyes were all but indistinguishable.
My entire upper body hung over the side. I bent my knee to hold myself between two railings, but
A wave swelled into Kade, drenching her whole body and sending an icy shower across my face.
Kade’s breathless words blended with the wind. But I knew what she said.
“Tell them I love them.”
The waves clasped their frigid hands around us as the ship rocked downwards, and my legs slipped dangerously. Kade seemed to take this as the final threshold. She released her fingers from around my wrists.
I screamed, tightening my grip so my knuckles popped, but her slippery fingers pulled through my own.
I watched her shadow fall, seeing it before I felt it in my empty fists.
The last part of her I saw was a pair of emerald green eyes: the only glimmer of brightness in the black water. Then they faded. And she was gone forever at the hands of a mermaid.
Dance of the Flickering Light
Standing over my bed, I folded a dry shirt for the sixth time and laid it flat in my trunk. I’d flattened and re-folded everything several times, unable to go back upstairs.
Outside my window, the sun had already begun to set, returning the water to pitch-blackness. A dizziness fogged my head, which blended with the rocking of the ship, leaving me unsure how rough the waves were beneath us. Their hollow sloshing had become nothing but white noise, drowning me in silence.
Kade was dead, taken by the very mermaid I had failed to kill. She was dead and it was my fault.
The reason gnawed me from the inside out. If I hadn’t been talking to Lysi, thinking of Lysi, I wouldn’t have hesitated.
I needed to stay a warrior. I couldn’t be loyal to both Lysi and my people.
Someone’s footsteps clicked on the stairs, but I didn’t turn. Instead, I pulled out all my socks and began re-balling them, lining them up perfectly before turning them over on themselves.
“You need to join our crew, Meela,” said Annith.
My entire body tightened and I stayed facing away from her. “Absolutely not.”
“She got us away from the whale with her plan.”