Vast and brutal sea, p.12

Vast and Brutal Sea, page 12

 

Vast and Brutal Sea
 


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  “The rest of you—”

  Brendan doesn’t wait for me to finish. He charges down to the castle and cleaves the heads off three merrows. The black, inky blood spreads all over, creating the perfect cover for the rest of us. Amada and Dylan flank him. Dylan commands the attention of a group of warriors who wear his family’s crest on their breastplates. They fight around him, protecting him.

  Amada swims fast. She opens her mandibles wide and chomps down on the merrows. The guards, never having seen her before, don’t know what to make of such a creature. But they stay out of her way as she fiercely joins the skirmishes inside the castle.

  Kai makes sure the coast is clear and leads me through a side entrance. Balls of conjured light float along the halls and up on the ceilings, casting long shadows. It’s everything I could have dreamed about seeing and, at the same time, like nothing I’ve ever seen. The glass itself has the patterns of shells. Now I know why my mom chose that living-room wallpaper.

  Then they come through the corridor. A mouth of nail-like teeth chomping at the open sea in front of Kai’s face. I grab her and push her to the side. A merrow collides with my chest, and just as it opens its mouth, I sink my dagger into its belly.

  “Hurry, Tristan!” Kai says. “If all these merrows are here, I think they’re after the same thing you are.”

  I follow her twists and turns down hallways decorated with carvings of old mermen and women, their likenesses reduced to shattered glass, until we’re at what seems like the center of the Glass Castle where the chambers are made of steel. An engraving of the trident decorates the door. It’s quiet. The merrows haven’t gotten this far in, and I hope we can hold them off.

  “The king’s chamber,” Kai whispers.

  She’s about to go in, but I grab her wrist and press my finger to my lips. There are people inside there. We lean into the slightly open door and listen.

  His voice, demanding and bossy, is instantly familiar.

  “You can’t go out there,” Kurt yells. “You’re not strong enough to fight.”

  I hold my dagger out in the crack of the door and see their reflection. Kurt and the Sea King, his father. My grandfather. He looks old and withered, skinny and weak. He sits on a throne of gold and can barely push himself up to yell.

  There is glass all over the floor and Kurt’s knuckles are bloody. Kurt turns around and runs one hand through his hair, clenching the Trident of the Skies with the other.

  “I came to protect you,” Kurt says.

  “Because Lucine told you that Nieve’s forces would be attacking the castle,” my grandfather says suspiciously. “What else has that sorceress filled your head with?”

  Kurt growls. “She told me the truth. The truth you failed to tell me for all of my life.”

  There is a silence full of shattering glass and clanking swords in the distance. The sharp screams of mermaids swimming out of the castle and others fighting back.

  “It was your mother’s choice. She wanted to raise you as his.”

  “And you said nothing,” Kurt demands.

  “Would you have had me force her?” the king bellows. “She wanted him…in the end. No matter how much I offered. No matter how much I loved her.”

  Kurt puts his hand through something that breaks like cement.

  I wince and Kai puts a hand over her mouth.

  “Is that why you sent my father to the dragon wars?” Kurt says. “To get rid of him?”

  My grandfather doesn’t answer, and the shame of it fills the silence.

  “Kurtomathetis, you are a great warrior. A great merman. Don’t let this—oracle—destroy that. She’s lived as long as me, and she knows how to control minds and hearts.”

  “If you think so highly of me,” Kurt says, “why did you pick Tristan instead of your own son? To protect your shame?”

  That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

  “I never meant to hurt you boys.”

  “We aren’t boys!”

  “No,” the king laments. “No, you aren’t.”

  “Lucine warned you, didn’t she?” Kurt says. “She warned you to kill Nieve and you didn’t. She told you to pass on the trident to your son. And you didn’t. Now everything is broken. The silver mermaid has taken our island, and now our home here. She’s more powerful than all of us. We’ll have no choice but to follow her.”

  “Don’t ever say that. I will not explain my decisions to you. Know that everything I’ve done has been because I—”

  “Do not tell me you love me.” Kurt’s voice is deadly calm. “Not when you chose a headstrong human boy who acts more like a seal in heat than a champion of the seas.”

  Kai snorts then shoots me an apologetic glance.

  I can’t take it anymore. If they’re going to talk about me, I might as well be present. Kai grabs my hand and shakes her head desperately.

  “Go,” I whisper. “Help the others.”

  “The latch door is on the ground beneath the throne,” she says, taking her sword to do some good.

  I pull the doors open. Kurt does a double take when he sees me. My grandfather looks relieved? I can’t tell because his brow has always been furrowed and worried-looking.

  “What are you doing here?” Kurt puffs his chest like a wet rooster.

  “You know me, Uncle,” I say. “I just show up and see what happens.”

  Kurt and I circle each other, like when you put tigers in a cage and neither one backs down.

  “What’s up, Kurt?” I say, holding my dagger as tightly as I can. “Finished giving your old lady her sponge bath?”

  His eyes widen with shock. I watch him rack his brain as to how I could possibly know that. Then he’s back to being angry, because I called his girlfriend old, even if she looks pretty good for being a thousand.

  “Why are you here?”

  “Why are you here?” I say. “I mean, I was supposed to be the champion, right? I was chosen by the king.”

  I turn to my grandfather, King Karanos. Up closer, I can see withered lines on his face that weren’t there a couple of weeks ago. I remember when we found Kai’s father in the Hall of Records, dying from a fatal wound to the chest. His eyes faded to the palest blue right in front of us. My grandfather’s eyes are fading.

  “My dear boy—” he says.

  “Don’t.” I shake my head. “I’ve been washed away at sea, beaten up, sliced up, poisoned. I have mortal enemies that want my head on a platter. I almost killed an innocent—and I still have to—” I still have to kill the oracle, but I don’t tell them that because no one can know. Instead I look at the mermen in my family. “I’ve done all of this because you chose me. You made me think I was someone important, someone who could change things, and all this time it was really because you couldn’t have him.”

  “Oh you think you were wronged, do you?” Kurt gets up close to my face. “Where would you be if it weren’t for me?”

  “Not standing here with you in my way.” I shove him.

  He holds the prongs of the trident under my chin. They dig into my skin, and I can feel his rage, his wanting to shove the trident through my head.

  “Tristan,” the king’s voice carries a deep grumble. Without the trident, his body is weakening, withering to bone. Coral. I can’t look at him. My whole life I wanted this—a grandfather. A sense of knowing where I come from. And here I am, yelling at him for things that can’t be undone. “Kurtomathetis.”

  But I laugh.

  “Why are you always laughing?”

  “I’m sorry,” I say. “What do you suppose you’re going to do with that?” I swim up and back, pulling my scepter from my sternum harness and holding it up to his face. “They’re not working, Captain Dumbass.”

  Then the sparks flicker from the trident prongs and the core of my scepter. The blast is small, but i
t knocks the three of us against the walls of the chamber. Perhaps it’s the trident and scepter’s proximity to each other. Perhaps it’s a fluke. Whatever the cause, we’re not going to waste it. Kurt’s just as competitive as I am, and he’s not going to back down.

  “You were saying?” Kurt says, a smug smile curving at the corners of his mouth.

  “It’s been a while,” I say, “but I’m itching to finish what we started at the pier.”

  Kurt’s brows furrow when I say it’s been a while. Sure, it’s been days for me, but for him it’s been hours.

  “You know my grandfather’s right,” I say. “Lucine is just filling your head with seaweed. Even her sisters talk smack about her.”

  “She’s the only person who’s ever believed in me.” He holds the prongs forward and I brace with my scepter.

  “What about Thalia?” I swim back. “Do you remember her? Do you remember your sister?”

  “You were going to take her away from me.” He grunts. “Make her human.”

  Okay. Perhaps not the best memory to bring up. “It’s not the same. She’d still be alive. She’d still be your sister.”

  My grandfather is still trying to get us to reason with each other. Down boys, sit. Good boys.

  But we’re not good boys, are we?

  “She’s got your panties in a twist, bro,” I say, quoting Angelo. Something he said to me the first time I realized how I felt about Layla.

  “You’re one to talk,” Kurt says. “It’s your fault Nieve has the Staff of Eternity!”

  We are a two-headed dog chasing after one tail. I’m tired of hearing him talk. I raise my scepter over my head. The quartz fills with a bright light, ready to meet the light of the trident.

  Then two hands push us hard against the walls. My grandfather floats above us. For a flash, he looks giant, as if his power never left him.

  Kurt has the look that he had when we first met, that strong soldier stare.

  “I will not justify the decisions I’ve made in my lifetime,” my grandfather says. “Nor will I allow our bloodline to be extinguished like fire in water. I have been king. I have been a father. I have loved. I have done what was necessary to keep our people alive. I stand by what I said to you the first time you set foot on Toliss, Tristan. I meant every word. You both have very different paths. The seas are vast and ever changing. You will need each other.”

  “I don’t need anyone,” Kurt says.

  The king looks down sadly. “That is where you’re wrong, my son.”

  In the distance, there is a great crash. I need to get down that tunnel, and I need to do it without Kurt or my grandfather.

  “We can beat the crap out of each other later, Kurt. I’ve got my team helping push back the merrows outside.”

  “Team?”

  “Yeah, the Fintastick Mer Friends, yourself not included.”

  He faces the large steel doors, because I know what he wants more than to beat the crap out of me is to fight some merrows. Then he looks back at the king.

  “You two must go,” King Karanos says, sinking down to grab the armrest of his throne.

  “What’s happening to him?” I ask Kurt.

  “He’s losing strength too quickly. He can barely swim, let alone lift a sword.”

  “Then we have to get him out of here.”

  “I’ve tried that,” Kurt hisses. “He won’t listen.”

  I mutter, “Now we know why our family is so stubborn.”

  Screams ring out in the halls of the Glass Castle. Kurt and I look at each other, almost like we’re a team again.

  Then the chamber doors fly open and a current pushes the three of us against the opposite end of the room. My head bangs against the glass wall so hard I’m surprised it doesn’t crack open.

  My vision is foggy at first but then I see we’re surrounded. Gwen swims over us in wild splendor. White blond hair a massive electric cloud around her pale moon face. Those gray eyes focused right on me. Her lips are flushed pink like her cheeks. From swimming. Fighting. Magic.

  “Isn’t this nice,” she says. “The generations together at last.”

  She doesn’t let us get a word in.

  A dozen merrows swoop in on us in seconds. They’re fast and strong with deformed fishy faces. The gaping mouths of sharks and eels. With webbed hands and feet, they’re a cross between wild sea creatures and humans. They are the unwanted of the seas, thrown out. They are Nieve’s children and they’ve come to storm the castle.

  Their screams are feral, all grunting teeth swarming around the king.

  I swim in front of my grandfather. I dig my scepter into the belly of an eel-headed merrow. He chokes on the black blood that oozes out of him and clouds the water. Kurt is as fast as lightning, ramming through the merrows’ tender heads with the prongs of his trident.

  It happens again—our weapons sparking. I try to hold on to that spark, but the energy slips away as quickly as it arrived.

  A scaly leg knocks the wind out of my chest and pins me to the wall. I choke on air. Water. But all I can think of is Gwen pushing the golden throne with all her weight. Kurt buried under four merrows who taste his blood from a deep bite. Then a merrow going straight for my grandfather.

  I shout as teeth rip into my shoulder.

  My grandfather screams as he grabs hold of his attacker’s face. He snaps the neck of the creature and lets it go, now limp in the dark water made darker by their blood.

  I elbow the creature off me and push the pointed quartz of the scepter into its chest. My skin burns where I pull teeth out of my shoulder and throw them to the side.

  The king clutches his chest over his heart and sinks backward. His body shakes and his blue eyes keep getting paler. I grab him from the front to keep him from sinking.

  He leans into my ear and whispers, “My son.”

  Only he’s not talking to me. He’s talking about Kurt, fighting blindly in the dark water. I lean my grandfather against a corner and leave Triton’s dagger in his hand.

  “Stay with us,” I tell him.

  But I notice the strain on his face. The hand clutching his heart as if trying to stop it from bursting out.

  I click the quartz on the floor. The crystal lights. I can feel its power and I latch on to it, willing it to stay. Stay. I remember Thalia’s words to my buddy Ryan as he lay dying. Stay.

  I swim and ram the ancient weapon through a blowfish merrow, its face ready to shoot poisoned thorns. The light glows from within him and he screams as it blazes through his body, lighting up his bones through flesh. Kurt’s eyes widen. Is he really so far gone that he doesn’t think I’d come to his aid?

  The closer we are, and the closer we use our weapons near each other, the more they come to life. He uses the current of the trident, and soon we’re back to back taking down every creature that comes at us.

  “The king?” he asks, impaling his trident in the meaty head of his enemy.

  “We have to get him out of here,” I say. “There are still too many.”

  The wound on my shoulder makes me more of a target than Kurt because the blood is fresh. “I’ll get them to follow me.”

  “I don’t think—”

  “Get him out of here! Now!” I swim upward, and just as I thought, the horde follows me up and through the skylight in the ceiling. I’m up and above the castle surrounded by echoing screams of mermaids getting ripped to shreds. I see Kai evacuating the people inside. Brendan, a wild man trying to hold back the merrows breaching the front walls. And Dylan, surrounded by an entire guard that wears his emblem. More and more merrows are swarming out of the tunnels with sharp teeth. Their own bodies are weapons, and with so much spilled blood, they’re in a frenzy.

  As I hoped, the merrows in the king’s chambers surround me. I hold my scepter at the ready, but with over a dozen of them, I’m a
Happy Meal. One of them, with a human face and sword hands, bites at the air. He hisses and it sounds like, “Alone.”

  But I’m not alone.

  A great set of dragon teeth bite off his head. Amada, in her Naga form, swims like a whip, chomping off arms and limbs. When she’s done, she swims to me and licks the wound on my shoulder.

  “I’ll be fine,” I tell her. “The others need you.”

  She nods and swims back to my friends as they retreat.

  Then a jolt goes through my body. “Gwen.”

  I dive back down through the skylight and into the king’s chamber. I open the latch to the trapdoor. A blast of energy knocks the wind out of me and presses like a foot to the chest.

  Gwen swims out and keeps her hands up, holding an invisible force on me. It’s hard to breathe.

  “Don’t,” I say. “Gwen, don’t.”

  She swims closer to me. Behind her, Archer and another merrow carry a woman. Her eyes are closed and the pink tendrils of her hair hang slack, while her crippled legs float limp. Chrysilla, ripped out of her shell.

  “Go on, and don’t stop ’til you reach Toliss.” Gwen looks to the nautilus maid then back to me. “My mother would like to thank you for this gift.”

  “Tell your mother to go f—”

  “You don’t have to be so valiant.” She pulses another crushing blast at my chest. My heart skips a beat and my lungs clench. I have the vague notion of being stomped on by an elephant.

  “You don’t have to be so bitchy,” I gasp.

  She swims closer to me but keeps the invisible stronghold up. “You spoke of change. Of bringing the sea people together. But you could never do that, Tristan. No matter how much you try, our people don’t change until they’re forced. Kurt is nothing but a puppet. The others, they’re not strong enough. You, with your human ways, would be dead before the next moon. Don’t you see? The old ways are gone.”

  Her force field is fading. She’s pulling it back, readying herself to go. I know I can’t let her go. She’s too valuable to Nieve.

  “Then stay with me,” I say. “Help me make a change. If Nieve loves her children so much, why does she send them out as fodder? Explain that to me. Because they’re all replaceable. Because she doesn’t actually care about anything other than stealing the king’s power.”

 
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