Ice massacre, p.28

Ice Massacre, page 28

 

Ice Massacre
 


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  The thought of the two human bodies on the deck constricted my lungs until I was left gasping.

  “I’ll go in,” I said to the small mermaid. “Please stop. Don’t kill my crew.”

  From across the deck, Holly shouted before I’d finished the sentence. “Meela, no!”

  I turned my gaze to see the mermaid closest to the stairwell collapse in her own blood. Before anyone knew what’d happened, Holly made a desperate lunge towards my surrounding guard. I watched in mute horror as she aimed her crossbow at the demon holding my legs.

  I wanted to scream for Holly to stop, but already a bolt met the mermaid’s chest with a sickening squelch.

  She retched and fell forwards, letting go of my ankles. The horde around me erupted in a frenzy. The mermaid by my head lifted an arm, a harpoon gripped in her webbed fist.

  “Don’t!” I screamed.

  The mermaid’s blood-red eyes burned into Holly. Her arm moved in a blur.

  Holly lurched as the harpoon drove through her stomach.

  She collapsed on her knees, and my senses numbed. I was paralyzed. A demon closed in on her. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of the demon’s webbed fingers wrapping around Holly’s neck, and then the mermaids spun me roughly around so I faced the water.

  I vaguely realised I was standing on my own, trembling, and they’d let go of my limbs.

  “More die next,” said the small one in her high, purring voice. The sound seemed to come at me through a tunnel.

  Before I could think about it, I put my hands on the railing and pulled myself up.

  I thought I heard someone yell for me to stop, but I couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter, anyway, because nothing was going to stop me. Nobody else was going to die on this Massacre.

  I didn’t look back at my crew, cornered in the stairwell with nowhere to flee. Without hesitating, I pushed myself over the railing and fell headfirst into the black water.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

  Adaro’s Request

  I had no time to suck in a breath of air before the ocean swallowed me in its freezing mouth. The water burned and my lungs deflated, like someone had stabbed a dagger through my ribs. I kept my eyes closed, knowing I would only see blackness if I opened them.

  I paddled blindly until a hand closed around my arm and dragged me forwards. Which direction was it? My lungs begged for the surface, already exhausted. I wouldn’t last long.

  I forced my eyes open. The faintly bright sky beckoned me from overhead, and the mermaid pulled me towards it. I was too desperate to care that we also angled away from the Bloodhound.

  We broke the surface and my arms thrashed, trying to keep me afloat as I gasped life back into my lungs. More mermaids splashed into the water behind us and surfaced on all sides. I glanced at the one pulling me and saw a charred blister across her cheek. I felt no remorse for leaving it there. Her seaweed face was puckered with hatred, and she didn’t look at me as we glided smoothly through the waves.

  My eyes burned, and brine scraped my throat as I wheezed each breath. We stopped far from the Bloodhound. Even if my crew wasn’t cornered, they’d never be able to shoot the mermaids surrounding me.

  I fixed my gaze ahead, because seeing the Bloodhound floating so far away only made my chest tighten until I thought I might suffocate. Fifty mermaids must have surrounded me—but my eyes locked on a group of them a few arms’ lengths away.

  Only her face and coppery hair were above the surface. The water around her thrashed like the waves in a storm. She panted, struggling in vain against four mermaids holding her in place by her arms and hair. Her eyes burned scarlet.

  But the struggle was the only sound between here and the ship. Every demon was silent, as though waiting for something.

  “Lysi—”

  The mermaid at my arm screeched and dunked my head before I had time to draw breath.

  I emerged with a mouthful of saltwater, coughing and spitting. Humiliation somehow registered, and I didn’t look at her as I wiped a trembling arm across my lips. I didn’t try to speak again.

  The silence became absolute, like even the waves were afraid to interrupt. Lysi stopped struggling.

  In the middle of the circle, something rose from the water.

  A crown emerged first—all black, opaque, with half a dozen sharp prongs tapering towards the sky. It blended with the matted charcoal hair that surfaced with it, as if one grew out of the other.

  I looked beneath it and found myself staring into the lurid, seaweed-coloured face of a merman.

  Adaro.

  His overlarge eyes, the deepest shade of burgundy, blazed more menacingly than those of the mermaids around him. He had a hard chin and a straight, square jaw; his un-groomed hair, tangled in seaweed, ended somewhere below the water. From beneath the locks sprouted a pair of long, bulbous ears.

  Even in their predatory state, the mermaids resembled humans—but I couldn’t say the same for Adaro. He was a reptile in the way his nose blended with his cheekbones, in how his skin rippled like scales, in his lipless mouth. A crocodile—and possibly more terrifying. His yellowed teeth were bared, his face so inhuman I couldn’t discern his expression.

  His webbed fingers emerged from the water and commanded us forwards. The hand on my arm tightened, and we drifted to him as though carried by the swells. Between the bone-chilling temperature of the water and the sight of the creature in front of me, my entire body trembled, each breath a gasp.

  The mermaids at least gave the impression—however misleading—that a human could overcome them in a battle of strength. Nowhere in Adaro’s build did he leave room for such deceit. He held himself high in the water, exposing his torso as though to emphasise that it tripled the size of mine. His arms alone were twice as thick as my legs.

  We stopped close enough that he could have reached out and drowned me.

  He must have said something to Lysi, because she turned and purred something in response. She breathed hard, her eyes seeming to flicker between crimson and blue, like she was caught between states. The other mermaids still held her tightly, one on each arm, one squeezing her shoulder, one with a fist in her hair.

  “Meela,” said Adaro. “We have much to discuss. Make yourself comfortable.”

  A moment passed before I realised he’d spoken to me in my own language, and another passed before I was able to process his words. He spoke with the same fluency as Lysi, though his voice was more of a growl than a purr.

  I glanced at Lysi. She froze, gaping at Adaro, the shock on her face mirroring my own. When she felt my gaze, her eyes met mine—blue, now—and I saw all the regret, and apology, and tenderness in the world.

  “She can’t help you,” said Adaro, not turning his reptilian face away from mine. “Though she may prove useful.”

  I battled with the waves to stay afloat, my muscles tiring. The mermaid holding me did nothing to help me stay above water.

  “Our unique situation has been brought to my attention,” said Adaro, “and I think we both stand to benefit from an arrangement.”

  “I agree,” I said, forcing the sound from my gaping mouth. “But first tell your army to stop attacking my ship.”

  “Now, Meela, don’t get ahead of yourself,” said Adaro, tilting his head so his black crown pointed at the horizon. “I want an agreement before I do anything rash. Like you, I go to great lengths to protect those who are dear to me.”

  A wave splashed into my face and I gasped. The salt burned my nostrils.

  “So let’s make an agreement,” I said. “You stop attacking my people; we stop sending our warriors out to your Utopia.”

  I spoke quickly, desperate to get the swarm of demons away from the crew I’d left behind.

  Adaro’s yellowed fangs became more visible, like he might have been smiling. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

  “Then we’ll keep massacring your army. Based on this pathetic last-ditch effort, it’s only a matter of time before we win.”

&n
bsp; I had little reason to sound so confident—but he had to know my people would never surrender.

  His rotten face grew tight and stony. “If I am not mistaken, this last-ditch effort is about to sink your ship.”

  I turned to watch the Bloodhound dissolve into a veil of fog. In the distance, I could still see demons clinging to the hull like leeches.

  “Look at me!” said Adaro.

  To spite him, I kept my eyes on the Bloodhound a second longer before turning slowly.

  His expression darkened. “Your island has something I need, Meela. And you will give it to me.”

  I clenched my chattering teeth, processing his words.

  Adaro needed something. As helpless as I felt—surrounded by demons and with one of my legs shooting pain into my abdomen at every kick—I wondered if I’d be able to bargain for my people’s freedom.

  I kept my voice low and challenging. “What do you need?”

  “Give me Eriana.”

  A wave crashed over my head and submerged me. I kicked my good leg until I broke through, seething.

  “You want me to give you our island?”

  “Not the island. I’m speaking of your ancestor.”

  “Eriana is a goddess,” I said, and I was surprised at the amount of venom I felt at this merman—this ugly, self-righteous sea rat—for trying to tell me about my own home.

  He drew himself even taller in the water, dark hair clinging to his neck and chest. “Goddess, mortal, the details are irrelevant. Eriana discovered your island. She had a pet—though legend says it was more than a pet. It was like a spirit, a connection, fully under her control. With its unmatched power and inability to be slain, she used it to keep unwelcome visitors away from her island.”

  I shook my head, more to myself than at Adaro. I was a native of Eriana Kwai and I’d never heard this legend before. Wherever he’d gotten this story, it was untrue.

  “Though the pet was invincible,” he said, “Eriana was doomed to meet her end. Before she died, she locked it away so it would never be found. It still lies beneath the island, bound to its master and host to her soul.”

  I looked again towards the Bloodhound, which had become nothing but a foggy outline in the distance. I couldn’t see the leeches climbing up the side anymore. Were they still fighting? How much longer would my crew last?

  “There’s nothing beneath the island but rock and soil,” I said. “Your legend is just a story among sea rats.”

  Before I turned back to Adaro, I could suddenly no longer breathe. I was underwater, an icy hand holding me down like an anchor.

  My lungs were about to give up when the mermaid finally released me and I emerged, gasping. Adaro’s voice came from somewhere beyond my rasping breaths, a slow and menacing hiss.

  “Look – at – me.”

  I wiped my eyes and glared up at his reptilian face. My anger overpowered any fear, and all I felt was hatred. This merman had no objections about making others suffer.

  “The Host of Eriana is real,” he said. “I assure you, merpeople legend is much more informed than human legend.”

  I stared into his dark, burgundy eyes, knowing he wouldn’t be fighting so hard for this Host of Eriana if he didn’t wholly believe it existed.

  “You need to free the Host and give it to me,” he said.

  “Provided it exists, why would you want it?”

  “That is not your concern.”

  My teeth clattered violently; I swore my blood must have been turning to ice. I glanced to Lysi, my only comfort in what felt like an arctic tomb. Her eyes softened when our gazes locked.

  I turned back to Adaro before he could attempt to have me drowned again.

  “I’m not giving you anything without the promise that you’ll leave my people alone,” I said.

  He laughed, a high, barking sound. “Look around. You think you have the power to negotiate with me?”

  “Yes. I do.”

  “Then I’ll kill you here and now.”

  “So do it,” I said, and the realisation hit me as the words left my mouth. “It’s what I came here for. To die fighting for my people’s freedom.”

  As I fought against the high swells, the brine leaving me parched, the temperature forcing my muscles into convulsions, I wondered how noble a death it would be to succumb to drowning after spending weeks in battle.

  Adaro revealed his fangs. “What about the life of our dear Lysithea?”

  One of the mermaids reached up and ran her fingers through Lysi’s hair, sneering at me. She made a fist in the coppery locks and pulled enough for me to see a flicker of pain on Lysi’s face.

  My heart sank, and I bit my tongue to stop myself from reacting.

  “You can kill me, too,” said Lysi. “Give her your promise, or you can kill both of us.”

  Adaro hissed at her, but said nothing. Lysi’s surrounding guard drifted closer, like attack dogs waiting for a command. A lump rose in my throat. Her eyes flamed red again as she boldly faced the merman floating close enough to strangle her. I caught her eye and wished she could read my thoughts. She didn’t have to do that for me. My people didn’t need to matter to her.

  “No one else needs to die,” I said, struggling to keep my voice steady behind my chattering teeth. “Give me your word that you’ll leave my people alone, and I’ll do it.”

  Adaro thought for a minute, bobbing in the frigid waves like a piece of stiff, gnarled driftwood.

  He turned and said something to Lysi. She purred back, her voice rolling and song-like next to his low growl.

  Lysi looked to me uncertainly, then back to Adaro. She ducked beneath the water.

  “Where are you going?” I said, but Lysi had already vanished. The mermaids surrounding her didn’t follow.

  “Where’s she going?” I said loudly.

  Adaro stared at me with emptiness in his gleaming eyes. “To tell my army to stop destroying your means of getting home. You won’t be able to fulfill your end of our arrangement if you’re dead.”

  “So—” I choked on a frothy swell. “So you’ll leave my people alone?”

  “Give me Eriana’s Host, and my army will stop attacking your beaches.”

  “What about the rest of the ocean? Leave our ships alone too.”

  “No. The water is mine, not yours.”

  “Stop sinking our ships or I’m not doing it,” I said.

  Adaro’s face hardened. “This is my final offer. Take it, or I will kill both you and Lysithea, here and now.”

  I glared at him, knowing I’d reached the end of my power to negotiate.

  My legs were tiring. My muscles must have been hard, like meat kept in the freezer. My mouth felt scratched from the seawater I kept spitting out.

  “What is the Host? How do I free it?”

  “Now you think too much of me,” said Adaro. “I’m a humble merman with nothing more than an incomplete story.”

  “What if I can’t do it?”

  “You are a descendant of Eriana, are you not?”

  “By legend, I guess.”

  “Then you will be able to do it.”

  What did that mean? The Host needed to be freed by a native of Eriana Kwai? How was I supposed to find it if I’d never heard of it?

  “But what if I can’t figure out how to—”

  “The sooner you do this, the better it will be for your people,” he said, snapping. “I will not be so merciful should I find another of your iron-laced battleships floating over my city.”

  “You can—”

  “Further,” he said, “I will be keeping Lysithea under close watch until you succeed. Perhaps the thought of never seeing her again will motivate you.”

  “No!” I shouted. “I’ll do it! You don’t need to keep her hostage!”

  Wasn’t the threat of causing my people suffering enough?

  I watched Adaro’s hard face break into a grin. I had no doubt I was the best opportunity he’d come across in years.

  “You’ll
give me Eriana’s Host,” he said, running a webbed finger along his crown.

  My mind whirled. Whatever the Host was, Adaro needed it desperately. So desperately, he was willing to do whatever it took to make me get it for him.

  “It’s yours,” I said.

  Of course I’d do it. I could lose Lysi forever and let those I loved suffer—or I could find and hand over Eriana’s Host. Finding the Host was my answer. This was how to gain my people’s freedom back.

  Lysi resurfaced next to Adaro. She looked so small next to him, like he could crush her with his hands. I had the absurd urge to try and protect her from him.

  Adaro squinted in the direction of the Bloodhound, where it had disappeared into the blanket of fog. He seemed not to care that it’d sailed out of sight.

  “Good. Take her back,” he said, waving a webbed hand at the mermaids surrounding us. “Lysithea goes first so the humans hold their fire.”

  Lysi shot forwards and threw herself against me in a tight hug, keeping my head safely above water. I tried to hug her back, but my limbs felt like solid ice. I rested my head against her tangled hair, trying to clamp my jaw shut so my teeth would stop chattering in her ear. I didn’t want to let her feel how hard I was shivering.

  She must have sensed how much pain I was in, because she pulled back with a hint of urgency. “Let’s go.”

  “Meela,” said Adaro, his voice low and menacing, “If you try anything—if you so much as think about going back on your word—my troops will invade your beaches until every one of your people has perished.”

  I nodded once. If there was one absolute certainty in all this, it was that Adaro would never stop attacking my people until he won.

  Lysi spun her back to me and wrapped my arms around her neck. I tried my best to hold tightly but my muscles were failing, so she held me in place by my forearms.

  We were moving then, so fast I could feel the current pulling my legs back. The other mermaids trailed behind us.

  Saltwater kept splashing into my mouth by the cupful, and I no longer had the strength to spit it out. The cold had become unbearable.

 
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