Vast and Brutal Sea, page 21
“That’s not why I went.” He looks away, ashamed. “Lucine told me to go to my father because he was dying. She told me to help Gwenivere rescue her sister oracle.” A bitter laugh leaves his lips and he looks to the hole in the ceiling. “Because you wanted her, that’s why. I’m such a fool.”
“Layla says it’s part of being a guy,” I say. “The fool thing. I don’t think she means that.”
Kurt nods. “I’m sure she does.”
“Thank you,” I tell him.
His brow creases. “What for?”
“For protecting her. From the sharks.”
The earth rumbles harder.
I shake my head. “You warned me that the people I love would get hurt.”
“It’s the best kind of way to hurt your enemy,” he says. “By taking away the things they love.”
“What does Nieve love?” I wonder aloud. “Besides her power.”
We say it together. “Her children.”
Steps echo outside our chamber prison. Kurt and I remain silent as Gwen comes back in. She ignores Kurt and touches the bloody gashes where the sea dragon grabbed me, and I scream bloody murder.
She flinches and looks me dead in the eyes. “You’re awake.”
“Gwen.” I take on a lighter tone. “Enjoying the weather?”
“You don’t have to put on a brave face,” she says.
“Is that what you’re doing?” I will her to look at me. “Because you don’t have to heal me. You can let me bleed out. I’ve been wondering lately what will happen to me when I die. You know, since I’m half human. Humans leave behind their bones, no matter how old they are. It’s the one thing that we have in common at the very end. But then there’s the fishy part of me. What if the bottom half of me washes away in little bubbles and from my waist up I’m all human bone? What if it’s the other way around?” I cough and laugh, making a terrible choking sound.
“Say something,” I whisper.
The white stone walls bounce my words back at me. Say something.
She squeezes the towel soaked with a green liquid. Then she throws it on the floor. The green ooze trickles from the broken shell bowl and spreads out like the Finger Lakes on a map.
“What would you have me say?” Gwen lowers her face to mine. “That I love you. That I love you so much I’d betray my family for you?”
She laughs a bitter laugh and turns away so I can’t see her. “We have worked too hard and too long to stop now. Don’t you see? Mother will bring our people together when we take over the land that once belonged to us.”
“That world doesn’t belong to you,” I say. I pull at my bindings, my joints screaming in pain. “Is that what you really want, or your mother?”
She traces her fingers on my face, down my neck and along where the cuts on my shoulder have started to scab. Her magic leaves a dirty trail on me, and I think I’d rather feel the pain.
“I don’t know what I want anymore,” she says softly. Then she turns around and leaves me, walking out into the dark corridors of the Toliss chambers.
“Gwen, don’t go,” I say. “Don’t go.”
“Leave her,” Kurt tells me.
She stops at the door, but she isn’t talking to me. She’s talking to someone out there, waiting in the hallway. “He’s ready.”
Leomaris walks in. It wasn’t Adaro I thought I saw; it was his father. His long hair is pulled back, and the thick golden band frames his forehead. He’s joined by a slender merman with a face that looks like a jigsaw puzzle of skins.
Leomaris raises his hand and the binding ropes loosen. My muscles are cramped and I fall hard on my face. They’re on me at once.
“Gwen!” I shout her name but she’s gone.
Leomaris and the merman pick me up and drag me out into the hallway.
“You’re making a mistake,” I tell the herald. “You can’t trust her.”
“I don’t have to trust her,” he tells me. “I can’t defeat her. No one can. Someone has to pay for my son’s death. That someone is you.”
They throw me in front of the great white throne where I first met my grandfather. Kurt falls beside me on his knees, his head bent forward. Wet strands of hair cover his face.
Then there’s Nieve flanked by Archer and Gwen. She smiles wide as a shark, her teeth a waiting trap. Her legs are covered with bright silver scales that look thick as armor, right down to the ankles where her slender feet touch the ground. Her crown is gilded gold with woven pearls as if they’re floating on her white hair.
The pool was once bright and laughing with mermaids singing and swimming. The paradise welcomed me to my life as a merman. Now there is only the smell of death. Merrows in clusters adding to the destruction. It’s gone, broken in half. The gash down the lake has created a connecting rush of water from the shore. It’s like a wrecking crew ripped out the lake and went straight for the sea, crushing the valley wall that used to block the surrounding trees. Now, that’s all demolished. From here, there’s a direct path where trees were crushed to mulch. The sea is dark and I squint my eyes for some sign that my army got my signal, that I wasn’t too late—
No, it wasn’t a wrecking crew that did this. Not even Nieve. Not the merrows. It was the Sleeping Giants. Well, wide awake now.
With a shove, I’m on my knees beside Kurt, facing the Silver Queen. The pieces of the trident are suspended in the air for her to take. Hands push our heads to the ground. My cheek presses against the top of her foot. She lifts my chin with her toes. Kicks me in the face.
First, she holds the Staff of Eternity. She twirls it between her hands like a baton. Her merrows holler and shout in a discordant chorus. Then she takes the Scepter of the Earth. My scepter. I tug on my ropes, summoning the energy that ran inside me moments ago, but it’s gone. She slides the handle into one of the openings of the staff. The core of the quartz lights up like a headlight shining in my face. I have to look away.
Then she takes the Trident of the Skies. She holds it alone first, raising it to the sky, pulling on the power of the heavens until it circles her in a shower of sparks. Kurt can’t look, but I force myself. I force myself to get angry. I force myself to hate.
Finally, she connects the missing piece. The lake of the Sea Court is full of stomping feet and shouts of victory.
Then she walks forward to face her merrows. She raises the trident into the sky and blocks out the sun.
Without my scepter, I don’t know what to do but watch the silver mermaid wield the Trident of the Seas.
Her exterior changes. She looks taller, her hair as white as the lightning that courses through her body. She stares straight into the eclipse, and in turn, we all stare at her. I don’t want to. But she’s a force of nature, wild and fierce. Her arms look like they’re holding up the sky.
The waves around Toliss are so tall that I can see the white surf rising high.
“Today we take back our oceans,” she says.
Kurt lifts his head to look at me, his eyes glowing. He doesn’t have to say it. No matter what, Nieve can’t win. Even if it means our lives.
Merrows flood out of the court and into the sea. Terrible moans and roars mingle with the whipping winds. The giants crest with the waves. The sea horse stretches its forelegs, its slick mane shimmering in the starlight. Then it dives back in, its tail a prism of colors. Sea dragons screech above us, ready to sink their talons back in our flesh. They fly a careful distance from the giant tentacles that curl and stretch toward the sky. The only creature I can’t see is the turtle with the spiked shell, but when a long angry noise rips through the sky, I know that it’s close by.
“Hey, Leomaris!” I call out to him. “How does it feel to kiss the feet of the mermaid who murdered your kid?”
Nieve snaps her head at me. She’s drunk on power and she smiles with her shark teeth. “Don’t listen to
I get on one knee and face them. Then I stand, my hands still tied behind my back.
“Do you know how I found him?” I ask.
He doesn’t want to hear it. It’s cruel of me to do this to someone’s dad. But he has to know. “Adaro was on his ship, writhing in pain.”
Nieve hisses at me. She sends a threatening bolt at my head, but I throw myself to the side.
“Archer’s knife was stuck through his chest so he’d die slowly, and for as long as he held on, he told me not to cower to her. But here you are. Because you’re weak. You disgrace the memory of your own son.”
Leomaris lunges at me. He unties my bindings and pulls me up because he wants me to fight back. I jab and cross. His jaw doesn’t even snap to the side. I kick forward but he doesn’t budge.
“You’re pretty solid for an old guy,” I say, readying my fists.
Rowdy cheers egg us on. Beneath the noise, I can hear Gwen.
“Mother,” Gwen says, “do something.”
“I promised you I wouldn’t kill him,” Nieve answers coldly. “And I’m not the one doing the killing. Not yet, at least.”
I find the nearest rock and throw it at him. I miss and double over when his knee hits me in the gut. I’ve lost Kurt from my sight. I hope he’s gotten free.
Then I see it—the ripples in the great lake. They’re distorted, like something is wading out of there. Tiger eyes appear in thin air. In her translucent phase, Yara carefully makes her way onto the bank.
Yara nocks her arrow.
Leomaris raises his sword over his head, thinking I’m too weak to get up. “It should have been you.”
I roll out of the way, listening for the snap of the bow. The onyx arrowhead breaks through his shoulder and he cries out. Leomaris’s sword cleaves two inches into the ground, and I’d hate to think that if I’d been slower, that could have been me.
He tries to yank it out but it won’t give. I uppercut him in the jaw and, as he staggers back, kick him square in the chest. He moves back so quickly that he falls into the pool and doesn’t resurface.
Adrenaline thumps in my ears, and I can’t make out the commotion. Yara lands beside me. I can see through her like glass. The river tribe emerges from the water undetected. The merrows are confused, attacking enemies they cannot see.
Nieve fires away with her trident, but she risks hitting her children. Yara is as fast as lightning, a whirlwind of her own. Beside her is Karel with his axes, cleaving heads and rib cages until he’s covered in black blood down to his elbows.
“You’re late to the party,” I tell him when he runs past me. I’ve never been so happy to see him.
He grumbles, but I catch a smile as he throws a dagger my way.
“Kurt!” A hulking merrow is ambling toward him.
I don’t think it. I just do. The dagger in my hand spins in the air and hits its target between the eyes. As he decomposes, I see Gwen’s face standing behind him. She’s seen me do this before and had to hide her displeasure at killing merrows. Now, she takes up a sword and holds it at my face. The tip follows me as I stand, retrieving the dagger from the stinking pile of black flesh.
“You can’t trust him, Gwenivere,” Nieve says, her voice slithering between the fighting bodies.
And then Gwen, who patched up my wounds and begged for my life, lunges at me with the sword. Sparks fly when our metals meet, the sharp sound of blades slicing against each other.
“Your heart isn’t in this,” I tell her.
“You don’t know what’s in my heart.”
I tap her solar plexus with the ball of my palm and she staggers back.
“I’ll show you,” I say, getting on my knees and holding my arms out. My whole self is exposed to her. “Do it.”
She looks horrified and takes a few steps back.
“Your mother might love you,” I say, “but as long as that trident is in her hands, she’ll love it even more.”
Gwen shakes her head.
“Do you remember how beautiful this place was?” I say, motioning to the screams and bloodshed. “You say you don’t have a home but you’ve always found yourself here in this place. Now look at it. Look what she’s done.”
“Gwenivere, if you don’t do it, I swear I will. Do it!”
And then Gwen steps aside like I knew she would.
“I don’t know what kind of future I can give you,” I say, “but I wouldn’t use you.”
“Mother, I won’t.”
Nieve pushes her daughter aside with a wave of her hand. I lunge for my sword, but a force grips me and squeezes the wind out of my body.
“You don’t deserve your scales. You don’t deserve the blood of kings that runs through your veins.”
Even as I choke, I say, “Tough luck, Grandma.”
She blasts me with the trident. I catch the current with my dagger until it’s so hot that I have to drop it and my fingertips are black.
There is so much fury in Nieve’s eyes that they’re stark white. She throws the trident at me. I try to move out of the way, but a dark force holds me in place. My feet become a tail. She’s pulling it out of me in the most painful way. It’s like I’m cooking from the inside out, stretched out in midair.
You know, when you’re about to die, things really do go in slow motion. My heart races like the pulse of thunder in my throat. My name is shouted from so many different voices I can’t tell who is who. All I know is that they say it, over and over.
There’s the blow of a conch shell followed by the warrior cry of an army of strays.
I want to close my eyes but I can’t. They’re trained on the three prongs of the trident coming at me like a harpoon.
Gwen jumps in front of me. Her magic crackles around her like a shield. Her lips are open, and a thin line of black blood drips from the corner of her mouth. The trident is stronger than her shield and rips through her body. She looks down at the golden prongs covered in her own blood, then at me. Her eyes wide as full moons, black tendrils spreading from the wound in her chest.
A cry starts at the bottom of my heart and can’t get out.
No, no, no, no.
She holds out her hand to me, the dark veins spreading beneath her porcelain skin. Black blood pools out of her mouth. Tristan. She closes her eyes and then is gone.
A jolt runs through me like a cord wound so tight it snaps.
When Nieve screams, the heavens rip open.
Nieve screams so loudly that a white light descends over the island. I hold my arm up to block it. The rumbling starts again, and this time, something in the water moves. The lake is one big ripple as a horn breaks the surface, followed by the massive head of the turtle. It swallows two bodies whole from the water, making its way down to the shore.
The creature bursts out with a gallop and rattles the whole island, knocking everyone to the ground.
All except for Nieve, who raises herself into the air, the wind forming a cone around her. She holds her hand out and the trident flies to her open palm.
Her eyes are a white film, the air thick with her magic. It’s not enough that she’s blocked out the sun. She wants to bury the world under the sea. Great waves crash over us, pushing some out into the sea where awaiting tentacles reach hungrily.
“Tristan!” Marty is running under the heaving turtle. “This thing is huge!”
A merrow attacks me. I kick him in the chest, but I’m not up to my full strength and he falls on me. I hold his sword hands and push them away from my face. A blade rips through its head and the merrow breaks away on top of me, chunks of its flesh going in my mouth.
“Thanks for showing up,” I say.
“We were waiting,” Marty says, throwing me a weapon. “Brendan’s ship can’t anchor. The water’s too rough.”
“Stay close,” I tell him.
He nods and runs to the aid of one of his allies. I’m trying to find familiar faces in the mix of merrows. In her beast form, Amada runs alongside her sister, forming a tag team that’s fluid one moment and solid the next.
Something deep in my bones tells me that Nieve is heading straight for Coney Island. It’s my home. It’s the best way to hurt me. I can sense her urging the giants toward land. The turtle crosses the Toliss forest, flattening it to the ground as it nears the shore.
I throw things at her, but she’s turning into a storm at full force.
I try to remember what happened after the sea dragons grabbed us. Where is Triton’s dagger? Nieve thinks the Triton line is hers. I’m not worthy. She’d keep it at the throne. I run for it, but so does a merman from Nieve’s ranks, his forehead inked with the symbols of the court. I stop running and let him reach for it. He smirks then is confused as to why I’m laughing. When his hand starts burning, the skin black as coal, he drops the dagger and it slides right at my feet.
“Mercy,” he says.
I hesitate. This is war after all. The merrows aren’t showing mercy to any of mine. Would he do the same? I don’t have time to answer as the wall behind him crumbles, what’s left of the throne crushing him into surf.
As Nieve floats higher into the air, she hisses a command to her army. A mass of them dive into the lake. “Land,” she says, her voice a hateful slithering thing, “land.”
The turtle has reached the Toliss shoreline, and it steps into the water. I jump over boulders and fallen trees.
“Duck!” someone shouts.
It sounds like one of my men so I drop to the ground and a cannon blasts from the massive wooden ship bopping in the water. The turtle walks past it, creating a small wave that pushes the ship precariously to the side. I can see Layla on the deck, grabbing hold of the mast. She’s joined by Shelly and some of the landlocked.
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