Silver lanced through dark water, and Sariana curled her tail, twisting to scan the seabed. Ever since the humans trampled their machines through the ocean, little pieces of metal and rubbish floated everywhere. The glint escaped her gaze, and she shook back her hair, her lips pressing together.
No time for searching for trash now; she had more important things to look for. Or one. Baruthial.
She swam on over the dappled seabed, the warmth of the shallows failing to calm her. Seven tides since she’d seen her brother. He’d been fidgety and anxious, his tail flicking and spiny fins on his arms twitching up and down. Of course, he’d said he wasn’t. Said everything was going as planned. But she knew Baru better than she knew herself. The little brother who clung to her tail and copied everything she did had turned into a merman determined to prove himself. Worry coursed through her, and she let it fester into rage. Anger was easier to bear. So like Baru to keep them all waiting. Perhaps he had picked up bad habits from the humans with whom he worked. Working or spying, she’d never been sure which.
Sariana darted down toward a waving forest on the sea floor. Blood streamed through dying kelp like ribbons, tainting the sunbeams dancing through the deep water. She reared back, her hair twisting into a floating halo. Her tail twitched, and a dark pattern shivered down her scales, rippling with the ice in her veins. No. Surely she’d know if Baruthial had died. The blood must belong to something—someone—else.
She pressed her lips together and arrowed forward through the water, fins lying flat against her hips. Crimson streaks curled around her, and she shuddered as she parted the swaying fronds.
A mangled body floated, limbs caught in the brown kelp. Sharp gashes cut along the ridged torso. Muscular legs twisted unnaturally. Sariana’s gills fluttered open and closed in a racing rhythm, and she forced her gaze toward the face. Relief flooded her chest. Not Baru.
Edging closer, her tail brushing against the kelp, she peered at the body. Shadows played over the skin, and she frowned. Dark scales edged out from bloated skin in a haphazard pattern, lumpy and misshapen. Nothing like the delicate lacing of colors up her own torso. The markings weren’t of any local mer; she would swear to it.
If this was a mer in a half-human form, where was his amulet? Gritting her teeth, she reached past the weeds knotted around the corpse and lifted matted hair from the side of his head. Clotted blood fell into the water.
No gills. No fins. Human.
She snatched her hand back to her side. Impossible. Baru’s earnest face flashed into her mind, his passionate plea to the council that the humans meant no harm, that what they did at the base would change things for merfolk and humankind forever.
The man’s lips pulled back in a silent scream. His life had certainly changed.
Fear coiled in her gut, the chill of the deeps cutting through her shock. If they would do this to their own people, what might they have done to Baru? She whirled around, tail whipping through the weed, leaving the dead man to the scavengers of the sea. She swam toward the human base, toward her brother.
A second shadow ducked and dived on the seabed below her, mimicking her movements. She tightened her tail and rolled, rising to meet the incomer. Her sister’s lilac hair waved behind her like one of the human’s flags, and her pearlescent tail caught the light as she angled toward Sariana.
“These are banned waters.”
Amatheia’s voice hummed in her mind, full of older sister scolding and fear. She skittered back, her tail swishing in annoyance.
“Did your mate send you after me?”
Amatheia jerked back and shook her head. “After the council vote, I looked for you. I feared you’d do something foolish, and I was right.”
Anger flared in her veins. “Searching for Baruthial is not foolish.”
Her sister reached out to her, and she twisted away. Amatheia’s hand dropped.
“What do you believe you can do that the Council cannot?”
“Baruthial told me—” Sariana shut her sister from her mind. If he’d wanted Amatheia to know about the secret entrances into the Dome, he would have told her. “You can follow me, but you can’t stop me. What would you do? Turn me over to the Council?”
Amatheia’s fins shook, and a shadow fell over her face. “No. Of course not.”
A little pang struck at her heart, but she pushed it aside, sweeping the water with her tail and swimming onward. “Then follow or leave.”
Her sister’s discomfort shrouded her mind, and she shivered, gliding faster through the currents. The water became heavier nearer the human base, sliding over her scales, oily and slick. She dove lower, scanning the ridges and scars the construction left on the shells and rocks of the ocean floor.
The Dome rose from the seabed. A parasite, a blight on the natural world. Feeding on her world. Heavy and squat, stiff glass pushed back the soft touch of the water. Humans threw down their mark on the world with such little care. Oil, plastic, dead and dying fish. Content to wallow in refuse.
Coral crumbled at the foot of the monstrous foundations. Her fingers tightened, her nails scraping against her tail. Perhaps if they’d taken longer to build it, they might have noticed what they were destroying. She curled her lip and darted closer, the mangled body in the weeds flashing into her mind. No. Humans didn’t care what devastation they left in their wake.
Amatheia gripped her shoulder, yanking her backward through silt-filled water.”No. I don’t know what you’re planning, but I cannot allow you to go further .”
She pulled away from her sister’s hands, sharp spiny fins flicking up on the side of her arm as anger coiled through her. “Leave me be. You might be content to let Baru rot in that tomb, but I am not.”
Amatheia pushed forward, her tail thrashing and her teeth bared. “How dare you! It was I who told the Council to begin the search, I who warned them—” She pulled back, the rapid flutter of her gills slowing as she calmed herself. “Sariana, I know you fear for Baruthial. We all do. But this was his choice. His idea.”
Sariana looked away from her sister’s stony expression, hiding the anger burning behind her eyes. Her gaze narrowed at the looming glass in front of them. It may have been Baru’s idea to connect with the humans, to work with them, but the Council had given permission for him to engage in the humans’ research. The air stilled in her lungs. The body in the weeds... What kind of experiments were they doing? Her gaze slid back to Amatheia.
“The research was not to find a solution to the warming of the waters, was it, sister?”
Amatheia’s lids twitched, and her tail jittered.
“The experiments are a compromise, a promise to help both sides find a better way. A stronger way.”
Dread flickered through her, changing the color of her scales to a dull gray. “I don’t understand.”
“They want our strengths; we want theirs. The experiments were to find a way to merge them.”
Scales on a human body, twisted and damaged. Fear curled tendrils of ice through her stomach. She lunged toward her sister.
“What did you have him do? Why did you not tell me?”
Amatheia drew back, grasping the amulets at her neck. “You forget yourself, sister. I am a key keeper; some secrets are not for everyone to hear.”
The great doors of the Dome slid up, and a wave rippled through the water. One of the human vessels shot out, bubbles streaming from the motors. Sariana darted toward the vessel, but her sister tugged her back.
“This is not the place to fight them. Wait for the others to come. The Council has sent Myrndir and his warriors.”
She shrugged off the tight grip but stayed in place, gaze fixed on the yellow machine with its flashing lights and noise pushing against the currents.
A hatch opened, and a body tumbled out of the turning vessel to drift down to the seabed. This time she slid out of Amatheia’s snatching hand and raced toward it, her tail pounding at the water and her arms cutting through the shadows as if she could get there in time, as if she could change what her heart knew to be true.
The body rolled over, and her brother’s face, contorted in a frozen rictus of pain, stared up at her with lifeless eyes. It was as if the water around her turned to sand. She struggled to draw oxygen through her gills, fought to move her tail, to swim closer to his body. A scream tore through her mind, and she realized it was her own.
He lay discarded on the bottom of the sea. Broken. Dead. Another victim in the humans’ endless wars. Sariana turned to face the Dome, the webbing between her fingers rippling with light as she curled her hands into fists.
They threw him out like the rest of their trash, as if he were nothing.
Fury raced through her, cold and deadly. They believed the mer were animals. But humans destroyed what they didn’t understand. Didn’t care for their own. Killed without thought. They were the real animals.
She allowed her sister to draw her away. Amatheia’s hand shook on her arm as she urged her with frantic sounds to come to safety, to leave his body for the Council to retrieve. But Sariana’s gaze raked the Dome until she saw the entrance Baru had shown her.
She would return and bring hell with her.