Something was wrong.
“--one is fine. She is not potentially dangerous.”
In all the stories Iliana had ever heard about the Lake of Souls, the path didn’t include opening your eyes to a strange looking man. Nor did it include being held in his arms like a bride as he complained to some unseen companion. Then there was the fact her body felt like someone had beat her with a club. Iliana’s best guess was that--given the situation--she’d somehow managed to not die. Despite how impossible it seemed, she’d been rescued. That left one important question.
Who did the rescuing?
She studied him through half-lidded eyes. His bare, scarred top was slender, and paler than most everyone she knew. There was the faintest hint of angry color, as if the stranger spent time under the sun, but his body was naturally inclined for shadows. Despite the obvious age of the scars, they appeared harsh, and painful. They curled over his shoulders, etched into the skin and disappeared beneath his ash blond locks. The hair fell far enough that some of the loose strands were tucked between her and the stranger.
Her current position gave her a clear view of behind it, however, to his neck where she could see a blue-green scale pattern brush his skin around very clear and distinct slits.
Iliana was being carried by someone who had gills.
“I do not see why you are angry at all,” his companion replied. The voice was distinctly feminine, and held an accent Iliana couldn’t place. The soft lisp on the harder vowels, and the harsh ‘r’ was strange, but not nearly as important as the conversation itself. She forced her scattered mind to focus, ignoring her curiosity.
“You don’t… do I need to explain myself again?” he asked wearily.
She couldn’t take her eyes off of his gills despite how important she knew listening to the conversation might be. The sight had sent a shiver of uneasiness down her spine. Perhaps she wasn’t alive after all. Like every other sailor on the ocean, she’d heard what sometimes happened to those who drowned in open waters. Rumor said they were touched by Umae and made into a child of the sea--one of the merfolk.
Was that happening to her? Had she drowned? There was a chance she could be mistaken about their surroundings. Maybe they weren’t on land like she thought, but far below the ocean? Umae was a god, no doubt he could trap air in his home. Her heart began to race, panic making it harder to fill her lungs.
Iliana wasn’t ready to die.
“She’s awake,” the man announced.
She couldn’t breathe. Even as her eyes flicked away from him, taking in the open beach and the clear blue sky, her thoughts spun.
If she’d died, she couldn’t help her crew. Kain would drown. Artemios, Saul, Ancus, all of them would die. She couldn’t be dead.
They were her family.
Iliana’s head spun as the man sat her down. Her fingers curled into the warm sand and she attempted to use the familiar sensation to strangle her panicked thoughts. They didn’t have beaches under the ocean. Not like this. She wouldn’t be struggling to breathe in the salty air if she’d been taken to Umae’s kingdom. She wasn’t dead.
“Are you alright?”
It had been midnight when the song called them to the ocean. Daylight now flooded the sky. She’d been out for hours. What did that mean for the rest of the crew?
Callused palms grasped her cheeks. Her gaze focused on where his face was suddenly in front of her, his sea-colored, blue-green eyes forcing her attention. His cold, even expression was a stark contrast to the gentleness in his touch.
Perhaps it was the shock of the sudden contact, or the strangeness of the stranger’s gaze, but the panic calmed. Her shallow, gasping breaths faded into something deeper, allowing air to fill her lungs. A throbbing pain in her head made itself known, something she should’ve noticed before.
“There, that’s better.”
His voice jerked some part of her mind to the present, making their position finally register. Her hands jerked up, pushing him away. The stranger backed off as Iliana pressed her thumbs to her temple. The instant they were no longer touching, that damn singing seemed to start again. The voices were soft, wordless, and distant. They sent a shuddering fear down her spine despite the beauty that rang in each hushed note. Gods, she hated the sound.
The stranger seemed unnervingly focused on Iliana, so he must not have felt the call. Did the singing not bother merfolk?
“Don’t touch me,” she muttered, answering the wordless question in his unnatural eyes.
It’d been nearly a decade since she’d allowed others to touch her in such a way. Once, she tried to tell herself she was getting better, since contact with Kain and the others had brought comfort. Eventually, she had to admit that the crew of the Airlea had been the exception to the rule, not the cure. Now that she was no longer panicking, her skin seemed to crawl where the stranger’s palms had clasped.
She wanted a bath, and it wasn’t just because her body felt caked with salt.
“Calli,” the woman scolded. “You know better.”
“Forgive me,” he grumbled, before sighing. His tone held a certain sarcastic edge. “I thought it was more important she breathe. Next time, I’ll be sure to ask first.”
While the strangers bickered, Iliana focused on pushing the pain down. It was a better task than lingering on useless fears. She needed to know more about what was going on--and that meant looking around and getting answers. Both things were impossible while curled into a weak ball. Several deep breaths later, she managed to refocus long enough to take in her surroundings.
Iliana rested on sand no more than a dozen feet from the edge of a dark forest. Sunlight had begun to flood across the sky--dawn, perhaps?--but none of it seemed able to penetrate through the thick trees. The beach she sat on bled out into a large body of water. Surrounding the cove were two, large cliff sides that nearly met each other at their tips. The only visible entry to the area laid between them.There stood a thin passageway with rocks jutting out of the white water that rushed between it.
Was that where she’d blacked out?
“Hey… hey, are you okay?” the feminine voice asked.
The man--Calli, the woman had called him--snapped his fingers in front of Iliana’s face. The look he wore had Iliana wondering how many questions had been addressed to her without her notice. His companion offered a bright smile, dragging her attention from the man.
She was similar to Calli in such a way that made Iliana decide they were related. Like him, she was slender, with skin more fair than Iliana had ever seen. Her hair, however, laid closer to a washed out, golden blonde than ash, and nearly reached the top of her hips. Where the man’s eyes were reminiscent of the ocean, the woman’s were as bright blue as polished sapphires. Did all merfolk have unnatural irises?
“Are you?” the woman pressed. “We were worried for awhile. It appeared you might not wake up.”
Should she trust these strangers? They’d rescued her, but rescued her from what exactly? That singing she’d heard reminded her of another legend. It’d touched her mind when everything had begun, but the events had come so quickly she didn’t have time to think about it back then.
In every story she’d heard of the merfolk, and Umae, people would mention his partner, Inna. Like every god, the goddess of art, instinct, and knowledge had a way to save those she thought worthy. Stories said that her children and Umae’s were as close as the gods themselves.
Inna gave life to sirens.
If these two were merfolk, then perhaps they were a part of what had gone wrong the night before. There was only one way to find out for sure, she knew. Speculation could only take one so far.
“What are you?”
The two strangers stared at her for a moment, then the woman started laughing. Calli sighed.
“We asked first,” he pointed out. “Answer our questions and we’ll answer yours.”
“My head hurts,” she answered honestly. “But, I’m fine otherwise.”
Well, besides Iliana’s beaten body feeling so weak she could barely keep herself upright. She knew, however, that it was best to keep a few details to herself. No need to let these two know how helpless she was at the moment.
“Good,” the woman replied cheerfully. “See? I told you we did good.”
“Right. Because that was my biggest concern,” he grumbled.
The woman hit him upside the back of his head, her bright smile still focused on Iliana.
“Ignore my baby brother. He is naturally bitter.”
“You asked what we were, right?” she continued. Iliana nodded. “Well, that is easy enough. Do you feel well enough to talk while moving? Bitter here was worried you would get sick if he kept going when you woke up.”
Iliana was honestly impressed by Calli’s control on his temper. Where she would have been ready to snap an insult right back, he took a deep breath.
“That’s normal. You aren’t supposed to move injured people around so much. I shouldn’t have been carrying her in the first place, but--”
His sister waved her hand. “Yes, yes, you told me all that earlier. So, Miss, do you feel able to move?”
Iliana almost laughed despite herself. Calli looked more weary than irritated by the interruption. As if dealing with his sister was entirely too draining.
“That depends,” Iliana said.
“Where we’re going,” she answered. “And what you are.”
The woman shrugged. “Very well. Calli and I are children of the sea, and we are taking you to the sirens.”
Fear flashed through her mind; the sudden urge to run flooded her system.
Despite the fact that she could barely sit, let alone stand, she felt the distinct need to get as far away from the sirens as possible. Away from that song.
Unfortunately, she knew how impossible--and perhaps ridiculous--that was. One thing that living on a merchant ship hadn’t taught her was how to survive, severely injured, on a deserted island without any assistance. Which meant she would need to rely on someone.
But the sirens would not be that someone. Any thought of them brought the memory of Kain and the others leaping over the side of the ship. They may not have done anything to her personally, but they’d most likely… she shook her head, not wanting to finish that thought. Dizziness thumbed through her mind with the action, as well as pain, but she forced it away once more.
“I won’t go,” Iliana informed them.
The siblings exchanged long looks. While some silent debate seemed to go on between them, she crossed her arms and locked her jaw. They could try and argue with her, but she wasn’t changing her mind. Not without proof that their actions hadn’t… hadn’t killed her crew.
“Now, now,” the woman said, snatching Iliana from her thoughts. “There is no need for you to look like that. The sirens are not bad people.”
Iliana’s eyes narrowed. “Really?”
“Melitta,” Calli warned.
The way the name rolled off his lips sounded strange to Iliana. Until then, she hadn’t picked up on the soft lit to his words. The faint accent stirred her curiosity. It was a much fainter version of the accent Melitta spoke with. Once again, she forced herself to drop the matter without questioning it.
Calli pursed his lips, his expression showing irritation that was no doubt meant to encourage Melitta to drop whatever point she was trying to make. His sister rolled her eyes, seemingly disinterested in the silent rebuke, and focused her gaze on Iliana alone.
“I am not wrong. The sirens are good people. It is not their fault a ship came too close.”
Iliana’s hands curled into fists. She’d never been praised as a nonviolent person, and this situation threatened to test her willpower. How could Melitta stand in front of her and say that? The faces of her crew-mates flashed through Iliana’s mind, only encouraging her anger.
“Good people don’t try to drown strangers,” she snapped.
“They were not trying to drown anyone. The sirens sing. That is what they do. It is as natural to them as swimming is to my kind.”
Melitta paused, her expression softening.
“I can see how you might think that, however. The situation is… challenging at best. However, they are not to be blamed for a situation they cannot control. Their voices are locked in by the cliffs most of the time. That is why Inna shaped their island like this. But if a ship sails too close, the fog raises and magnifies their songs. It is meant to protect the sirens from danger. No one can harm them if no one can reach them.”
Iliana was reminded of how the singing had grown stronger the further they’d sailed. She shivered at the memory, thinking of how she’d just known that nothing good laid in those waters.
Her intuition, she knew, was uncanny. There’d been three separate times in her life that she’d known something was off. Each time, she’d proven to herself that she should’ve listened. The first had been the day she’d gained the red anklet still clasped around her ankle. The second, when her sister introduced her to Iliana’s bastard of a brother-in-law.
The third, with the fog.
Still, what did these instincts matter if the feelings came at turning points that she couldn’t alter? Why couldn’t she have known sooner about the fog? If she hadn’t been so tired, so distracted by Kain’s conversation, would she have noticed it and felt something?
It was unreasonable to blame herself for this situation, she knew… but it was frustrating.
And now it was too late. Misplaced anger welled up in her chest. Tears threatened her eyes, only pissing her off further. She wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t. Not while someone was watching. She’d learned long ago not to show such weakness.
Anger bubbled to her lips instead of sobs.
“We meant no harm. We were lost,” Iliana practically hissed. “We would have sailed right by. There was no need for them to…to kill everyone!”
Her voice cracked towards the end, something she hated herself for. Crying would get her nowhere. Her fists tightened, her nails digging into her tender palms. The pain helped. She forced her thoughts away from them--away from their probable deaths.
“They never knew you were there,” Melitta said.