AS I MOVE IN the water, the sound playing in my head gets closer. My body flinches, and the chill from the liquid seeps into my flesh. Even though it’s cold, I continue kicking my legs; whoever is calling to me, I must find them.
You are almost here, keep coming towards us, the voices say in unison.
From the corner of my eye, I see seaweed float around me. Schools of fish swim past me, going the opposite direction from me. My vision is clear – the depths of the ocean are open to me, and I see without obstruction.
In the distance, the outline of a form takes shape in the water; there is nothing surrounding it but open sea and a layer of rocks at the bottom. The nearer I get, the more I see. Before me, a mermaid is swaying her flaxen tail in the water, and her golden locks are sprawled out, flowing in all directions. Covering her chest is two white seashells laced together. As the edges of her lips twist into a grin, she holds out her hand to me and says, Elena, I’ve been waiting for you; come to me.
I propel myself faster, kicking my legs. As I get closer to the mermaid, I see her one eye is like a shiny piece of gold, and the other is bluish-green like Assan’s. Her shifting tail reminds me of the setting sun – a mixture of a yellow-red blaze. Her hand is still held out to me, and I’m so close, so near to grasping her flesh.
That is right, Elena, come to me, and I will set you free. A voice echoes – a feminine voice – in my mind, calm and sincere; it’s like the gentle sound of a mother telling her child everything will be alright. It’s the way I wish my mother spoke to me, loving and caring; it is a voice I have wanted to hear all my life, and finally, I embrace it.
Joe and I will have our freedom, I think and then stop. Joe, where is Joe? I spin around; only the water greets me. I blink, pondering where I am.
Elena! Come back here! It’s the same voice as before, but this time, there is anger in her words. I swirl my body around, and the once smiling mermaid now has a frown etched on her face. She stretches her arm out to me, thrusting it forward.
“Come to me!” She jerks my direction, but I swim back.
Where am I? What happened? Assan…where did he go?”
My eyes stay glued to the mermaid as I comprehend what has and what is happening. Assan isn’t here; it’s just me and her. How did I get here?
Her mismatched irises narrow to slits. “You could not have broken my spell.” She snarls, baring teeth. From her expression, it is clear she isn’t here to help me, and for a moment, I remember what Terza said about the mermaids: they want to kill me.
I spin around, darting my body away from the mermaid. As I attempt to get away, I feel fingers wrap around my ankle, pulling me back. She increases her grip, and I flail my legs, hoping to loosen her hold on my skin.
I look back and see a part of her body has changed; from her hand to her arm appears as yellow scales. It reminds me of the time Assan fought the berserker. Like before, her fingernails have also turned into claws. If I don’t escape soon, I know she will overpower me. I lock my sight onto her form, musing over what I can do. She continues to snarl at me, but I cannot be afraid. I have survived too much to lose now.
I squirm in the water, shaking. Her free hand tries to grab my other leg, but I position my foot by her head. In swift movements, I muster up my strength, smacking my foot against her skull.
I did it! The mermaid’s body goes limp, idly floating. I slip from her grasp and flicker my eyes around. My memory is still hazy, but if I can breathe here, then Assan must have touched me. In the distance, I see the rocks layered across the ocean floor. I can hide there.
I maneuver, swaying my legs as fast as I can. I must hurry. If she wakes up, then she will catch me. I shift my gaze from right to left, hoping not to see another mermaid. As I approach the rocks, I see their various formations and sizes. Some of them look like arches, some are round, and some are jutting out the mountainous wall.
I can shield myself while I think of a plan. I keep moving until I duck behind the rocks. However, I need to peep out, to watch if and when the mermaid wakes up. Moving slowly, I peep around the rock and wait.
If she moves, I need to see her, and anything else that approaches. The Memories of the berserker sends fear through me, but I cannot falter. It’s best to wait, to watch. When the mermaid recovers, she may search for me. Once she leaves, I can return to the surface and perhaps, find Assan.
Still, I try to recall how I got here. I think back, remembering Assan fighting on land. He brought me back to the forest; we kissed by the waterfall; I told Assan the truth about me and my life. My muscles tense at the thought. I wonder what Assan thinks of me now. In the end, it no longer matters; he will want nothing to do with me. I shrug off the thoughts. I am sure my time breathing underwater is limited, so I have to be quick.
I stare back at the mermaid. To my surprise, the water gets violent, knocking me into the rock. Something is coming. I grip my fingers on the moist, hard surface. Staying still when the water rushes and runs around me is not easy, but I can’t risk being swept away. Slowly I move my head, peering at the mermaid’s body shifting in the liquid. I widen my eyes, gawking, at the sight of another mermaid approaching the limp form.
Where are they coming from? If the mermen have their own undersea palace, then the mermaids must have one too.
There are so many questions and no answers. This new mermaid reminds me of the others. Her chest is covered with seashells, and her ebony hair flows down her back. She quickly twists around, facing the sleeping mercreature. She shakes her, but I cannot see the expressions on their faces. The flaxen tail jolts back to life, fluttering in the water.
She woke up. Fear runs through me. If they find me, I am dead. Their lips move, but I hear nothing. One of them whips around, looking off into the distant. I follow her sight with my eyes. Mermen, with silver chains around their chest and bodies half covered in scales, dart towards the mermaids. They move like sharks hungering to catch their prey. I blink, and the two female mercreatures are already gone, swimming away with inhuman speed. The mermen trail behind them, matching their pace. A battle is about to happen. Instead of watching, I avert my eyes, until I hear a familiar voice.
“Catch them! Get what information you can.” Hass’s voice echoes in my ears, sounding authoritative.
Hass! I know he will help me!
Waiting is risky, and time is limited. At any moment, my abilities underwater can leave me. I settle my view on Hass, watching him command the other mermen. He reminds me of the guards I see around Hylnn, proud and fierce. For my survival, and for Joe, I need Hass’s assistance.
Quickly I place my hand on the rock, using it to hold my body in place. Hass is in my line of sight. I launch myself into the water, stroking my arms in steady movements. However, the liquid then vibrates around me, almost knocking me off course; I do not stop.
In the distance, one merman stops to speak with Hass, while the others appear to be keeping watch. As I get closer, I know I will not be able to avoid the watcher’s gaze. And I see them spot me. One of the mercreatures snarls at me and rushes my direction. I swim back, lift my arms and shield myself from the gust of water.
“A human.” His voice is surprised, and he widens his eyes. “What are you doing here, human?” he seers, “How can you breathe in these depths?” he growls as he curls his hand into a fist. “Did the mermaids conscript you?” He asks, moving closer to me.
My words catch in my throat. The water between us swirls in a circle; it lengthens with every second. He furrows his brows and opens his palm, with a threatening glint in his mismatched pupils.
He is going to kill me! “I need to speak with Hass!” I blurt out.
The merman arches one of his brows, staring at me with confusion. His eyes narrow to slits.
“How do you know about Advisor Hass?” He looks at me intently.
“Please,” I beg, “you must let me speak with him.”
“I do not…”
“Elena! What…why are you here?” Hass says, cutting the merman off as he makes his way over to us.
Relief overwhelms me at the sight of Hass’s familiar face: his short brunette hair, his one sky-blue eye and silver eye, and his green tail mixed with white scales.
“Wynchell, stand down! Let her through!”
The spiraling water goes to a complete calm. The merman lowers his hand and flaps away from me, letting Hass pass. Hass stops right in front of me, looking at me with disbelief.
“Hass, I don’t know how I got here.” The words come out in a rush. I know there is a chance Hass will not help me. After all, he is a merman, but I hope he will listen to me and explain what is happening.
His face softens. He places a gentle hand on my shoulder and meets my gaze. “Elena,” he says softly, “tell me, how did you get back to the sea?” His voice is serious, and he watches me intensely, waiting for my response.
I settle myself, controlling my nerves. “Assan brought me back.”
For a moment, Hass’s month opens agape and he remains speechless. “There should have been another,” he mummers and averts his gaze from mine. As he stares in the bowels of the water, I can tell he is thinking; he blinks and shakes his head.
“Another,” I mummer. The woman I saw Assan with. He said he almost found another, someone else to take my place. Instead, he brought me back; he still wanted me.
I lower my sight to the rocky sea floor, thinking, but then Hass grabs my arm, bringing me back to the moment.
“Elena, where is Assan!” His multiple color irises are locked on me, and his lips are pressed into a thin line.
“I do not know.” I shake my head. “All I remember is we were by the waterfall, and then I was here, with the mermaid.”
“A mermaid?” he questions and narrows his eyes. “They must have entranced you,” he says, running a hand through his wet tresses.
“Entranced. What do you mean?” What other powers do the merpeople possess? Assan’s powers are frightening enough.
Hass lets out an exasperated sigh. “Mermaids have the power to bewitch humans with their singing. I believe humans refer to them as Sirens. However, a mermaid can only entrance a human that is sad.”
Humans that are sad, I repeat in my mind; I am always sad. Sad for my family, sad for the woman I will become, and sad for the life I have inherited.
For a moment, his lips tug into a half smile, and he takes my hand in his, holding it softly. His gaze locks on mine, giving me a stern expression. “Elena, I know you are sad about this difficulty, but please, tell me, what happened between Assan and you on the surface?”
As I stare into Hass’s eyes, I see the sadness in them, reminding me of my own. Hass cares for Assan. After all, that is his prince. For Hass to be acting this way, I can only wonder what has happened since I left the undersea world. What has been only days feels like a lifetime compared to on land.
I try to remember what happened, but only a fragment of memories comes to me. “Assan found me; I got injured, and we came to the forest…I remember we were at the waterfall but then…”
“Advisor Hass! We found the prince!”
Hass quickly releases my hand and spins around. Both of us look at the mermen heading our way. Between the two of them is Assan, being held up by the mermen’s’ arms snaked around his neck. I gasp, shocked by Assan’s form. His head is lowered; his hair is sprawled out, floating wildly, and cuts line his chest and arms, tint with red.
It’s obvious what had happened – he fought with something, I wonder if it was the mermaids or a berserker.
“Assan!” Hass briskly propels himself to the group of mermen.
I dally along, following behind him. Assan, please be alright, I think to myself, surprised by my own thoughts. Even if I wanted to, I cannot deny I worry for Assan. Once I catch up to the mermen, I keep my distance, unsure of what they are going to do. I want to get closer, to see Assan, but I know I will only get pushed aside. Assan is royalty, and I’m just a human, a whore he needs to fulfill his own plan.
“Elena,” Assan says, softly, as he lifts his head. He glances around, and I can tell by his eyes and actions he is still dazed.
I want to reach him, but Hass glances at me, signaling me to stay calm.
“Elena is fine; she is with me,” Hass says, and his lips change to a grimace. “What happened?” He asks, with a dark edge to his voice.
Assan’s black locks float around his face, but it doesn’t hide the serious gleam in his eyes. He releases himself from the mermen’s’ grasp and wraps his arm around his middle, raising himself up.
He flickers his gaze from one guard to another. “Leave us,” he orders. His deadly tone sends a chill through me.
The mermen lower their heads and make haste, swimming away.
Assan glances at me for a second, and for a moment, I see a small half-smile etched on his lips. I avoid his sight, with a grin of my own. I’m glad you are safe, Elena, I hear the words in my mind; his relief and happiness knowing I’m alright.
When I return my gaze to him, I see him looking at Hass, intensely. The crimson scars on his flesh have already faded away as if they never existed.
“It was Nerina. She was waiting at the waterfall,” Assan says.
Hass narrows his eyes. “What did she say?”
Assan clicks his tongue and flickers his gaze to the side. “She said my mother wants me to come home,” he snarls. I can hear the disgust in his voice, the dislike in has for his mother, the queen. “When I refused, we fought, but this time she had a berserker waiting for me.”
Hass crosses his arms across his chest. “We found other mermaids nearby, as well. One of them bewitched Elena,” Hass says.
Assan darts his gaze to me, and his eyes flash solid cobalt. “Did one of them hurt you?” He grits his teeth and curls his hand into a fist. As I watch him, I can feel the rage oozing off his form. The water surrounding his tail begins to swirl, forming a circle.
Seeing Assan act this way towards me is confusing. In the past, he would relish in my pain, but now he is concerned about me, attending to my needs.
I shake my head to his question and answer, “Only one mermaid tried to take me, but I snapped out of her trance, unsure of where I was. When she tried to grab me, I fought her off.”
A sigh of relief escapes Assan’s lips and he smirks at me. “How many surprises do you have for me, Elena?”
I part my lips, about to speak until I hear a cough from Hass. For a moment, he looks at me and then Assan, arching an eyebrow at us.
Neither Assan nor I say anything. I shift my head to the side, attempting to my hide the blush forming on my face.
“Whatever the case may be, it is a matter of concern about the berserker,” Hass speaks up, turning the light-hearted conversation serious again. He gasps. “She cannot be controlling them!”
Who’s she? I muse. I wait for a response from Assan, but he stays silent.
Assan and Hass exchange glances; it’s clear unspoken words have passed between the two of them.
“If she…” Assan winces; he tightens his jaw and scrunches his face.
He is still in pain, but why? “Assan.” I reach out a hand to him, but then retract it when Hass darts his gaze to me.
“You are running out of time,” he says calmly, “We will return to the castle and take Elena with us…”
Assan cuts Hass off, “No!” He groans. “Take Elena…back…I will not bring her,” he says through panting breaths. My eyes go wide and I gasp, uncertain of what I just heard. Assan is freeing me; he is letting me go; he is letting me live.
I stare at him, with pools of liquid forming at the base of my eyes mixing in with the salt water. A part of me wonders why Assan has decided to let me go, but I don’t want to question him – this is what I wanted, for him to grant me freedom from this world.
The edges of my lips tug into a grin; however, an irritated rumble comes from Hass’s throat. My smile drops.
Hass moves towards Assan; they are now face-to-face, both staring each other down. The tension between them is clear like glass – both their eyes flash, but Hass’s flashes a solid grey, and his nostrils flare.
Fear courses through me at the sight I see. This isn’t the Hass I remember – the caring merman who was kind to me and calmed my uncertainties. Watching Hass act this way makes me wonder what happened while I was away. Or maybe, this was always who Hass was.
They continue to lock eyes, not moving.
“And what of your father’s plan?! Will this have been for nothing?” Hass’s raises his voice, his eyes blaze with rage.
Assan stares at his fellow merman, unwavering. “We will find another way?” He growls out. To those words, Hass doesn’t move – he stays steady in the water, not tearing his gaze away from the prince.
After a moment, Hass lets out another exasperated sigh and spins towards me. He gives me a wry smile.
“Forgive me, Elena,” he says, placing his hand on my shoulder. “If Assan orders your return to land, I must adhere to his request.”
Unsure of what to say, I avert my gaze from Hass. He doesn’t want Assan to spare me, but if Assan is giving me this chance, I will accept it.
“Thank you, Hass.” My voice is barely above a whisper.
Assan groans again. He tightens his jaw and holds his chest, panting heavily. Hass glances at Assan and then me. “Elena, I promise I will return you home, but for now, we must return to the castle. Assan is in no state to fight, and we must secure the waters before venturing to the surface,” Hass says, his voice firm.
I nod my head. “I understand.” As much as I want to see Joe, I cannot risk Assan’s life. He is sparing me, so I will wait until it is safe. I have seen the horrors of a berserker, and it’s a sight I don’t want to see again.
Hass begins to swim away until Assan calls me.
I look at Assan, pondering what he needs. He stares at me with firm eyes. “I will only ask one thing of you, Elena. If you tell me the answer, I give you my word I will not bring you to the sea again.”
I can see the serious glint in his multi-colored pupils. I hesitate to answer him, wondering what he will ask of me. Can it be to still bear his child? Or…my mind goes blank; again I only have questions and no answers. However, this is what I wanted, and I cannot change now.
“Ask what you will.” I don’t want to falter.
Hass looks towards Assan and then at me. Again, it’s like unspoken words have passed between them.
“How did you escape the cave, Elena?” Assan asks. My mouth drops open. I recall Terza’s words. I promised to leave the sea behind me, forever, and here I am, questioned about how she helped me. What will my answer do? Will Assan kill her? And Hass, that’s his sister. I glance at Hass. His gaze lingers on me, waiting for me to tell the truth.
My body trembles. I have seen Assan’s wrath towards humans, but against his own kind, what would he do?
Hass breaks the silence and says, “Elena, how did you leave the cave? Surely, no human could have escaped these waters without assistance.” He smiles softly. I can tell he is trying to comfort me, to make me feel like my betrayal won’t hurt.
In the end, my focus and loyalty are to Joe, not the mercreatures. He is the one I need to return to and protect.
My muscles tense; I brace myself and part my lips. “Someone did help me” – I lower my gaze to the watery depths, unable to face Hass when I tell him about his sister – “It was… Terza,” I say, barely audibly.
Before I can lift my gaze, I feel a strong grip grab the collar of my dress, yanking me forward.
“What did you say?!” Hass screams at me, and his eyes change to a solid grey. Despite his anger, I see pain evident in his eyes. Pressure builds on the back of my neck. Pain shoots through me.
Assan grabs Hass’s arm, digging his now sharp nails into his flesh. Red blood oozes from the wound, and I see part of Assan’s hand has turned into scales. “Let her go, Hass.” His tone is deadly and cold, like a murder with no remorse. “If you hurt her, I will hurt you.” The water rushes around Assan, forming spikes. Taken back, Hass widens his eyes and gently releases me. His mouth is open. He stays still for a moment, lost in complete shock.
I cough, trying to regain my ability to breath.
Assan darts his gaze to me. Once he can tell I’m fine, he looks back at Hass. I cannot help by watch the broken merman before me. Even after a few moments, Hass’s eyes are still wide. He must love his sister dearly, that much is clear. His pain reminds me of my own: the day my mother told me my father had left us and was never coming home. Ever since that day, life has been a burden.
Unsure of what to do, I swim over to Hass and place my hand on his bare flesh. Hass twitches and looks at me. His eyes are like pools of sorrow. Depths of despair dwell in them, like a sadness you can’t be free from. He takes my hand and says, “How shameful of me, please forgive me, unique one. In times of war, we never know who our enemies are.” He gives me a weak smile.
“I…I’m sorry,” I choke out. I did not want to hurt Hass or give Terza away. Both siblings helped me in my time of need, and I betrayed them.
“Do not be, sorry, Elena. Terza will pay for this deception, right Hass?” Assan glances at Hass. His own features are expressionless, stoic.
“Yes, she will,” Hass says, his voice cold like ice. “Let’s go back to the castle. We must tell the king what has happened.” Hass swims away, not looking back.
Terza has betrayed them, and I can only wonder to what extent. The undersea world is in shambles, and after today, I will no longer be a part of it. Assan holds out his hand to me, and I place my palm in his. This is our last few hours together before it all ends, but I still want to know: why does Assan need a child? What is Seidon’s and Mika’s connection to this world? And why is Assan letting me go?