Columns of ice stretched toward the dark depths. Kaycee swam closer to the inlet where Xander and the penguins resided. The Turbid Straits had been easy compared to navigating the newly-formed maze of ice caverns. Too much change for this to be natural in the month she’d been gone.
Unease gnawed on her insides. What kind of storm could freeze an entire island and the surrounding sea?
A flash of blue distracted her and she collided with a wall of see-through ice. Her forward progress stopped and the driving need to find Xander gripped her again. For days an unending demand to ensure his safety seized her.
She’d wanted to return, but something was pushing her. Driving her to seek him out.
Groups of penguins surrounded her. They circled around and then swam through a hole in the ice. She followed them through the icy canyons to an inner section. The penguins streaked upward. One-by-one, they hopped through a hole in the ceiling and disappeared.
Suddenly, a current swept her aside. Dazzling light blinded her. Sparkles of color reflected in the mirror-like ice. Around her, in chambers, birds retreated, beat against the ice. Some found holes in the roof but others bounced off the glazed water in a desperate attempt to escape.
She didn’t know what threatened them. Couldn’t sense any creatures, just an intense light. More frantic now, the penguins smashed against the ice, injuring themselves. She pulled her trident from her pack and stuck it in one of the ice walls.
Focusing a tiny bit of power, she shattered the frozen wall. The birds ignored her and continued to ram against the ceiling. She grabbed two birds intent on escaping and shoved them through the hole. Calling upon the dark water, she gathered the semiconscious and lifted the ones too injured to climb out themselves.
She could break apart the ceiling, but she was afraid of what might happen to the frozen structure if she did. Many of the birds followed her and escaped. She lifted herself out of the water and flopped on the ice.
Leaning on her elbows, she searched for Xander. He shouldn’t be hard to find. Unable to locate him, fear clawed her heart. He had to be fighting whatever threatened the birds. Allowed them to escape.
She dropped back into the icy depths. Winding around the ice, she dove deeper, sought the source of the dazzling lights. A carved passageway led to a cavern in the heart of the ice beneath the island. In the middle of the pool, Xander fought against an Iridescent Squid. One of the deadliest predators, and he taunted it. Kept its attention on him while the penguins fled.
Except he appeared to be flagging. Not as quick to turn. Aside from its hooked beak, the squid’s squishy flesh was poisonous. If even one of its tendrils touched a being, they’d become paralyzed and instant squid food.
Kaycee called the dark water to her. Wrapped herself in it. It only marginally protected against poison. But in large quantities, she could use it to snuff the life from anything. Death stalked the ocean floor and she too was a dangerous predator.
Afraid of hitting Xander, she had to swim closer before attacking. She aimed for the beast’s head and energy shot through her trident. The pulse reflected off the cephalopod and into the ice above.
Around them, the water shook, and huge packs of ice dropped into the water. Some of the chunks were twice the size of her mermaid’s tail.
The beast turned and gazed at her with malicious, red glowing eyes.
Another creature infused with malicious power. This one obtained a resistance to magic. At least electric pulses. Nothing could fight off dark water when it was wrapped around them. But to do that she’d need to be close, within striking distance.
Collecting the dark water within the palms of her hand, she swam around until she was under Xander. His sleek form had given him the speed to escape the squid. Except the beast had trapped him into a corner of the ice.
There wasn’t much room for him to maneuver. Making a decision, she dropped down further into the depths of water. Pulling more dark water, she rushed to the top. She wouldn’t be able to stop. That wouldn’t be a problem because she counted on the squid grabbing her.
Whipping her tail, she shot in between Xander and the squid. She used her tail to swat him out of danger. Gelatinous tendrils wrapped around her. Her scales became cold as the poison penetrated the dark waters.
She still had time before she couldn’t move. She shoved the collection of power into the beast’s open beak. Poured dark waters down its gullet. Her limbs became heavy and her tail quit moving.
Floating in the water, she lost the ability to call more magic.
But she’d done enough. Unable to tolerate the magic in the dark waters, the beast exploded. Limp globs of goo sunk to the bottom of the sea. Bottom feeders would digest what they could. The rest would decay until it became a part of the ocean floor.
Numbness spread throughout her body and her thoughts drifted. Would anyone besides her family miss her? Two purple dolphins raced in circles around her. Their eyes bored into her. They seemed to say, “We choose you. Only you can save the merclans from darkness.”
They disappeared and sea creatures danced before her. Alternating between normal animals and creatures possessed and riddled with evil. “We’re lost without you.”
It was surreal and saddened her. She’d never taken the responsibility of being the future queen seriously. It was distant and not something she knew how to handle.
Warmth surrounded her and slowly she surfaced from the dreams. Her eyelids fluttered open and she stared into deep brown eyes streaked with amber in concern.
“You came back.” Disbelief or maybe wonder infused Xander’s words.
They floated not far from shore, the water unusually calm, and the sky above shimmered with stars. Silver halos glowed around the moons of Arilase and cast shadows across his face.
“I needed to.” Her words were heartfelt and full of longing.