Vast and brutal sea, p.3

Vast and Brutal Sea, page 3

 

Vast and Brutal Sea
 


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  I see a familiar black mound and swim to it, each flick of my tail sending an agonizing shock through my body. Five, six, seven, I reach it. My backpack. I sling my arms through the straps. It’s a tiny bit of hope, and I let it fill my head. I watch the wreckage, trying to spot Brendan or Kai or Arion. I wait and wait, but soon the flames eat at the wood like a match igniting a cigarette.

  I want to shout their names, but I know better. My ears perk up at a distant echo. I haven’t spent much time communicating underwater, but I know it isn’t friendly. Poseidon, Vishnu, sweet Baby Jesus, I say. Please, please let my friends be safe.

  The sharp cry gets louder. Nieve’s merrows have found me. I can finally understand what they’re saying. They can smell combat fire and my blood. They’ve found the champion’s ship.

  I swim up to the surface where it feels like I’m in the middle of a cloud. With the best breaststroke that won All-City Champ three years in a row, I head right into the mist.

  •••

  When Brendan said the mist was terrifying, I didn’t think he meant this.

  The change is unnoticeable at first. Fog, thick and wet, envelops me. The cries of my hunters are replaced by whispers along my skin. Fish the size of marbles rise up from the depths and jump all around me. This is not a good time to be attracting fish like I’m the Snow White of the seven seas. Except these fish bite. The first one doesn’t hurt, but then their white shimmering bodies become a swarm. I pull out my scepter and concentrate on its energy connected to mine. I thrust it outward and wait for the blinding white light to come from the crystal but it doesn’t. The cold gold feels like lead in my hand, and the swarm comes down on me one more time, pulling me under.

  I flash back to this one time at the aquarium in Coney Island. One of the demonstrators threw a hunk of bloody meat in the piranha tank, and within seconds, it was clean. If I don’t get these things off me, I’m going to bleed out. I swipe at them with my tail, breaking their formation, but they come back together, pulling me down. I’m going to lose the mist. I scream in frustration as more of them appear out of thin water.

  I give my scepter one more try, and this time I let everything I’ve been trying not to feel wash over me. I think about Layla, her eyes full of rage as Gwen held a knife to her throat. I think about Nieve, her moon-white face waiting expectantly because I was going to surrender to her. I think about the very first time my grandfather showed me the history of the kings in the pool of his chambers, my very first time at Toliss Island, and I know that I’m stronger than this. With a shudder, light bursts from the crystal of the scepter and the mass of marble piranhas dissolves into foam.

  I look down at my arms and the red bites are gone.

  It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.

  But I’m farther down than I thought. I race back to the surface. I kick my tail as hard as I can, pushing against the pain in my bones, my arm stretched out for the finish line. The moment my hand breaks the surface and I touch the mist, I get sucked into its current.

  I can’t remember the last time I went through a portal, but this one feels like I’m getting squeezed into a compact little box. When I come out in one piece, my whole body sighs.

  I let the water push me onto the sandy shore.

  I roll over and throw my backpack off.

  The sand is white and soft and dotted with smooth oblong stones. I pick some up and sift them between my fingers. I shut my eyes and brace against the rip of my tail. Fiery numbness coats my skin and then stops at my upper thighs where I leave the scales because, even though I’m alone, I don’t feel like running around an unknown island buck naked. I rub the scales on my knees and they dissolve into blue sand. It takes me two tries to stand up, and even then my legs shake.

  I take it in. A white sun and purple moon hang at opposite ends of the sky, creating a gradient of night and day, as if the heavens are stuck. I suppose in a land hidden from the human plane, it’s about right. A sea breeze guides me inland where patches of grass rise to calf length and a forest fans as wide as the shoreline and beyond.

  I empty my backpack and take inventory of my weapons. A tiny knife that can fit in my palm. I won it from a redheaded demigoddess with an attitude. Some wet shirts and underwear—thanks, Mom, but I prefer my tail. Rope. Empty water bottle with my school’s logo—the Thorne Hill Knight. A flattened bag of chips. And a red stone from Shelly, the sea oracle of Central Park.

  I don’t know what the stone does, but it was enough to raise the stakes of our poker game, which means it has to do something. I hold it in my palm and envision the source of its magic. Before I can stop myself, I imagine Gwen saying that magic is gradual and not instant. I roll my eyes at no one, and because the red stone does absolutely nothing, I throw it back into my bag. I readjust my harness, the wet leather cold on my skin.

  I take a precarious step on the grass, hoping it doesn’t give beneath me. The ground is solid, the grass dewy, like it rained not too long ago though there isn’t a single cloud in the sky.

  I wait for the call of birds, the whisper of insects, the rustle of hooves behind bushes. Something, anything that would let me know I am not alone in this place.

  But I am alone, with only the trail ahead of me, a clear dirt path leading inland.

  With every step I take, I wish for the familiar sound of Brooklyn sirens—the ambulance kind, not the magical kind—blaring down Surf Avenue.

  I use my dagger to hack off a branch. In two strikes, the wood breaks and falls at my feet. Shimmering liquid seeps from the wound like honey. I let it fall on my open palm and it spills until the bark starts to heal itself, and slowly, the limb shows the tiniest sign of growth.

  The branch at my feet has lost the color of the tree it was a part of. The leaves wither instantly and I slice off the bark so it feels like I’m holding a super long bone. A smile pulls at my mouth when I think of what my friends back home would say of my oversized staff. Then I keep walking, periodically hitting my staff between bushes to check for wildlife or anything else that might be looming in the shadows.

  I walk.

  And walk.

  And wait.

  And think. Maybe I should go back and search for my friends. Maybe I’m on the wrong island shrouded by magical mist. What if Kai and Brendan are still out there? No, they’d want me to keep going. What if Arion is dead and washed away to surf and tiny bits of flesh? Why don’t we leave our whole selves behind? Why do we become nothing?

  My head snaps up when I hear the rush of water. There’s a waterfall nearby and waterfalls mean rivers. So then where the hell is the River Clan?

  The waterfall is a spill of sunset colors. I scoop some water in my hands. It smells of the most intangible things, like dreams and promises. My tongue is as dry as bricks, and my throat raw and scratched. I drink the water in my palms. I fill up my bottle for later. I stick my head right into the waterfall, the weight of it pushing down and beating over my head. I let myself sink down on the slick boulders, and when I move my hands to push my hair back, I’m surprised at the stubble and remember that it’s gone.

  When my skin begins to feel numb, I make my way back to my backpack and freeze. I can feel something or someone watching me. I hold out my dagger and wade toward the bank. A panic floods me when I start wondering what kind of creatures live on this plane. I’ve seen shapeshifters and dragons and manic, crazy-ass split-tailed mermaids, so why not a ten-headed bear with a unicorn horn?

  “I know you’re there,” I say.

  Then I notice the strange ripples on the bank. Tiny frog-like creatures tinkle like glass when they hop. One of them breaks from the pack and lands in the water in front of me. I scoop it up. Its strange rubbery skin tickles. It stares at me, like it wonders who I am and what I’m doing here. I can see its insides, the tiny heart and lungs, and whatever fly it just ate. It ribbits then jumps back into the water. So
much for my multiheaded unicorn bear.

  But there’s still a lot of land that I haven’t seen and I don’t know what’s waiting for me there. For all I know, I’m not headed in the right direction. For all I know, everyone I know is dead and I’m never going to find the River Clan or get out of this place. My watch is dead at 11:53 a.m. and the white sun and purple moon haven’t moved an inch, but it’s still getting dark. Maybe there’s a dimmer switch somewhere.

  When I realize I’m talking to myself, a wet splash catches my attention. A fish, long and large like salmon but with rainbow-colored scales, floats on the stream. Bubbles trail out of its gaping mouth. The eye is the size of a quarter. It’s dead. It had to come from up there in the waterfall because it surely didn’t fall from the nearby trees.

  “Great,” I say, holding it across my palms. “I’m making the fish suicidal.”

  This is so fucked up but I’m hungry. I should have eaten when Blue offered, and the guilt is a knot in my stomach.

  I pick a spot inside the first line of trees where the spray from the waterfall doesn’t hit and a row of boulders make a natural fortress. Inside this forest, I stand and look up at the canopy. The trees go up for what feels like miles, hiding the bipolar sky.

  Okay, you got this. For a fire, you need some wood. I didn’t come all this way to freeze and starve to death on an island outside of time. The leaves are still damp, which will prove the most difficult. I lay my fish on a flat stone the size of a dinner plate. A real merman would sink his teeth into the fish, but I’ve never been a fan of sushi. I gather large rocks and make a ring around my pile of sticks.

  I stare at my fish.

  I stare at my rocks.

  I have this sinking feeling of inadequacy.

  And then I grab my scepter and hold it by the hilt, pointing it at my unlit fire pit. I search for the spark, the power, the thing that has made me special for the last couple of days, and it isn’t there. When Kai said unstable, I didn’t think that would apply to my big, ancient weapon. It was working just fine when I fought with Kurt—

  “Why are you doing this to me now?” I ask it.

  Then I throw it on the ground.

  I grab my backpack and fling it away from me, the contents spilling over fallen leaves and wet moss.

  I take a swing at the tree.

  What the fuck has this tree ever done to me?

  Nothing.

  But I hit it again. It hurts like hell. But this is the kind of pain that I can take. I hit it again and picture Kurt’s face. Nieve. Archer.

  Warm blood trickles down my hand and wraps around my wrist. I picture my grandfather, the king—his face that looks just like mine. My eyes. My mother’s eyes. Everything he told me was a lie. He didn’t choose me because he wanted to. He chose me because he couldn’t choose Kurt. Instead, he made Kurt my guardian. Some guardian he turned out to be.

  I’m spent. And I can’t feel my hand. The tree is untouched, unhurt. The bark is red with my blood.

  I can’t uncurl my fingers. Shaking, I go back to the water and wash my wound.

  I go back to my camp and retrieve my things. I hold the red stone, wondering why Shelly would want me to have this. She must have known I would need it. I rub it, feeling stupid at the thought that it’ll produce a genie. Instead of a cloud of smoke that grants me wishes, I feel its heat. I strike it against a stone on my fire pit and there it is—the spark. I strike it again, and the spark turns into a flame.

  My non-cut-up, non-bruised good hand is on fire.

  I drop the flaming stone into the fire pit and make a second trip to the waterfall. The breeze carries a strange sound with it—soft laughter. I concentrate on singling it out, but there’s still no one. I settle on the fact that the breeze is alive and laughing at me.

  I can feel the dregs of the healing water from the springs of Eternity healing my burn. The water here doesn’t heal instantly the way the water from the Springs did. And the last bits that I drank before the battle seem to be exhausted. That’s the end of Eternity.

  Back at my camp, I take Triton’s dagger and scale the fish, as best as I remember from the time I worked at Poseidon’s, a seafood market in Coney Island to pay for the dent I put on my dad’s Mustang. Poseidon’s is closed and boarded up, but I still remember the gist. It makes my stomach turn, and the scales around my wrists and ankles run for cover.

  By the time I chop off the head, I don’t have much meat left. I find three thin, sturdy branches for skewers. I flash cook the fillet and sink my teeth into it. I’d kill for some Chulita hot sauce. My buddy Jerry’s mom always keeps a large bottle on her table. I could drink it like water.

  I don’t know if it’s the comfort of the food or the warmth of the fire, but my eyelids are heavy. An alarming jolt shoots through my skin. What if the fish is poisonous? The drowsiness a side effect? Leave it to me to eat a poisonous fish. My throat feels itchy, my chest tight. I lean back into the soft grass. I can’t keep my eyes—

  A thousand ants are biting at my skin. I try to brush them away, but when I touch my arm, I find I’m weightless, see-through, and back in the sea. The edges of my vision are hazy, like looking through foggy glass.

  Though there’s nothing foggy about Kurt—swimming right in front of me.

  Kurt looks behind himself, then forward, and says, “I can’t.”

  Can’t? Can’t what? Can’t betray your nephew, your friend?

  Ex-friend.

  Then he starts going back to Coney Island. I know it is Coney Island like I know the sky is blue. He’s going back to Lucine. After all of that, he’s going back to his thousand-year-old oracle girlfriend.

  I guess I can understand. If it were Layla, I’d go back to her. Only Layla isn’t crazy or on a power trip. She’s just a girl.

  She’s just my girl.

  I try to swim toward Kurt, but I’m immobilized. I have no voice. And yet the urge to knock his teeth out is overwhelming.

  Kurt swims over a large rock formation and freezes. Something is stirring nearby. He can smell them. I can tell by the way he lifts his nose toward the surface and the cloud of bubbles trailing from his quickly shutting gills.

  The surface is a thin beacon of light that barely makes it down here. Kurt’s shoulder-length hair is tied back, the ends billowing in the soft current. For a second I think he’s looking right at me with those bright violet eyes. But my vision pans farther out and I can see what has his attention—a group of merrows with clawed hands and feet that are climbing over boulders. Their slick bodies are deceptive. I’ve been on the other end of their punches, and their skin is like sandpaper. Nieve’s children, fully grown with hammerheads and strong bodies. Some even have the tails of sharks, others the hands of humans or the heads of eels. They smell the blood trickling from the nicks and cuts on Kurt’s forearms.

  They circle him, snapping at the space between them and their prey with those sharp, yellow teeth. Kurt doesn’t move.

  Kurt is a warrior. If that were me, I’d swim up and have them chase me until I found a diversion and could take them out one by one. Not him though. I recognize the smirk on his severe face from our own fights. The kind of smile that tells his opponent he’s going to win and they’re going to lose. He raises the Trident of the Skies. The merrows swim back a foot, but they hold their ground.

  And then nothing.

  Kurt is holding one of the most powerful weapons in the seas. It’s the head of the trident that gives the Sea King his power. The same weapon he used to get rid of our enemy hours ago, the same weapon he used to stop me from saving Layla. It sparks and sizzles like the last burst of a firework. Then it dies. The three prongs are an oversized fork in his dumb hands.

  It’s the same thing I discovered when fighting Leomaris. The trident has lost its power. Hey, at least it’s not just me, and I feel a little better watching him struggle. But why can I
see him? Am I making this up?

  I reach for a weapon at my side that isn’t there. He can’t possibly take on all those merrows at once. And then I panic, water filling my lungs as my gills shut. I’m sinking, the sea floor opening beneath me. I shout his name—“Kurt!”—and he snaps his eyes in my direction. I feel his eyes on my face as the merrows attack him. And Kurt, with the Trident of the Skies in one hand and a broadsword in the other, swims headfirst into their jaws.

  The water in my lungs is real.

  It’s raining.

  I roll over on my side and cough.

  What was that? The last I saw was Kurt’s sword impaling a merrow. I could feel myself there, lurking like a shadow. Now I’m here in my camp, holding the scepter in my hand. The fire has died. I sift through the wet ashes for the stone and it’s still there, good as new. I check my watch, but it’s still 11:53 a.m.

  A swift movement catches my eye. A bright green leaf full of nuts and berries and a fuzzy orange worm, not the gummy kind, are carefully placed on a slab of rock beside my fire pit.

  “You can show yourself,” I shout to the woods and the river. The only sign of life is in the brush of wind on leaves, the constant rush of stream into the waterfall, and my heart beating at an irregular pace. Still, I felt something—someone—nearby. Or maybe it was the effects of dreaming of Kurt. Maybe this place will make me crazy before I find the River Clan. Before I can find the key to the Sleeping Giants. Before I can save the day, save the girl. I stare at the woods and the sky like they’re an optical illusion and I’m the one who can’t see the hidden image. Then I whisper to no one, “Please.”

  I grab a berry and hold it between my fingers. I squeeze too hard, and a clear, syrupy liquid oozes down my hand. The thought that the berries are poisoned crosses my mind. Then again, if someone took the time to gather me some breakfast, they could have killed me in my sleep. I pop it in my mouth, mostly to get rid of the terrible taste of morning breath, but also because the scraps of fish I ate before I crashed were not enough. When I reach out to grab another berry, a strange bird swoops down and snatches it.

 
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