Authors: Leigh Michael
The tingled feeling started in my fingertips and spread like a wave toward my palms. The heat puddled there on fire. I quickly shook them at my sides to alleviate the pain, unable to tolerate the heat. Steam radiated from my hands and mixed with the cooler water. My eyes caught the mist before it disappeared, clarity seeping into my brain.
I knew what I had to do, as if someone had whispered it in my ear. I quickly covered the bracelet with both hands, not allowing any silver to show. I felt the heat that escaped from my skin and into the metal, loosening it. As it softened, I molded the shape, enlarging the size of the band.
I didn’t dare look at the approaching Trackers. I knew it’d only serve to break my concentration. Slowly, the band stretched and thinned. Yanking my hands away, I fell back in the water, exhausted from my feat. There, Adrian caught me and yelled for his sister to slide her hands free.
Safe in Adrian’s arms, I risked a turn of my head. The Trackers were only twenty yards away. In unison, we both screamed for Aurelia to go.
Though powerful strokes, the three of us fled toward Shamus and Natasha. Although, whatever I’d done with my affinity drained my energy and I struggled to keep up. My arms dangled at my sides; exhausted from freeing Aurelia. Instead, I kicked my legs with such ferocity I knew I wouldn’t be able to sustain much longer.
In an instant, the Trackers closed the distance between us. Two mermen—one distinguishably out in the lead. A permanent scowl stretched across their faces. In their hands they held weapons that resembled rifles. Hatred drove their actions, a feeling that radiated from the water and threatened to stop the kick of my legs.
As I looked back, my arms ached with my efforts to use my water affinity, but they felt like dead weight. Even when my thoughts roared, I felt only a slight tingle in my hands.
That was when I heard her. Aurelia. “Help!”
Frantically, I followed the direction of the plea with a twist of my hips.
She drifted in the water, unable to move, trapped in a net. The rifle the Tracker had used slowly sunk to the bottom of the sea.
Without a second delay, Adrian performed a one-eighty and dashed back toward his sister. From the other direction, the Tracker’s arms and legs kicked at an unbelievable pace to reach her first. Right as Adrian’s hands closed around the netting, the Tracker’s did the same.
It was déjà vu.
All over again a tug-of-war between Adrian and a Tracker was underway, but this time Aurelia’s fate dangled in the balance.
The sight of the shear fear and panic on Aurelia’s face befuddled my mind, questioning the expression mine held only a few days before. At the time, I’d just learned of my ability to breathe underwater. Only a few tentative breaths of seawater later, I faced a battle of Tracker versus Guardian.
Aurelia’s features revealed a look of desperation. Every ounce of her being wanted Adrian to win. My features may have told a different story⎯a twisted expression of confusion, disbelief, and shock.
Then, just like before, a dolphin pummeled into the side of the Tracker.
Within the net, the impact launched Aurelia a few feet, both the Tracker and Adrian losing their grips on the net.
Panic defined Adrian as his hands swept away the air bubbles that formed, clearing a path back to his sister.
The dolphin that’d caused the raucous made a quick turn to scour the scene. Realizing it wasn’t really a dolphin, I shouted to Adrian.
Of course he didn’t hear me. One hundred percent of his efforts focused on hauling his sister to safety, with the Trackers only a few strokes behind.
Turning to my left, I watched as another merfolk lined up his gun to shoot another net. This time, in my direction. In what can only be called a Matrix-worthy move, I dodged to my left, letting the net fly past. My head followed it, exhaling at the sight of it empty.
An instant later, Clemente was at my side, nudging me.
He'd found us. Just like Natasha and Shamus, I thought I’d never see Clemente again.
I misinterpreted his nudge as a sign to swim and took a giant stroke with my arm, jumpstarting my momentum.
Seconds later, Adrian was at my side, Aurelia in tow. “Grab onto his dorsal fin!"
I quickly followed Adrian’s instructions, while he latched on from the other side. While doing so, Clemente secured Aurelia inside the net in his mouth.
Together, we raced to catch up with Natasha and Shamus. As soon as Clemente was within reach, Natasha dove and wrapped her arms as best she could around him as well.
We were all together again.
I willed us to go faster. The weight of three merfolk and a…
… half sprite weighed him down. Shamus barked at Clemente, and moments later he released Aurelia from his teeth. Seamlessly, Shamus caught the net in his own mouth.
Teamwork at its best.
With Aurelia’s weight transferred to Shamus, Clemente picked up speed, widening the distance from the two Trackers. I didn’t know why the numbers that pursued us were so low, but I took a moment to close my eyes and be thankful there weren't more.
There was also something else to be thankful for that didn’t go unnoticed. Only merfolk sought to track us down. If a selkie or encantado led the chase, the outcome would've been quite different. Disastrous even.
In no time, Clemente had guided us to the trapdoor and back into the open sea. The malevolent merfolk were no longer visible within our bubble of light. Still, we put another ten minutes of distance between us before we decided to stop to regroup.
In unison, we all exhaled. All relieved. Unharmed, too. Well, except for previous injuries, like my aching head and our battle wounds from the caves.
We had escaped.
Although, I wasn’t quite sure what we had escaped from. Rather, where we just escaped.
Adrian immediately found a shell to free his sister from the net. Mid cut, he turned to look at me. There was gratitude in his eyes. “Belles, what did you do back there?”
“I’m not really sure, my hands just got so hot.”
“Your affinity for fire…” Natasha said. “It developed.”
Adrian shook his head from side to side as he cut, never looking up. “You saved Aurelia.”
The quietness, sincerity, and simplicity of that phrase left me feeling something I’d never felt before:
I had these affinities⎯well two affinities⎯that could make a difference. That could help the sprites.
I just saved a life.
A life was saved by me.
Someone is alive because of me.
No matter how my brain mixed and matched the sentiment, the outcome was the same. The thought was powerful and terrifying at the same time.
Two small arms pressing into my neck brought my attention back to reality. “Annabelle, I don’t know how I can ever repay you,” Aurelia said. “First helping me find my brother and then giving me my life back.”
My tongue felt too big for my mouth and I wasn’t able to form the right words, so I did the only thing I could think of, I wrapped my arms around Aurelia and stroked her blonde hair.
We didn’t stay like that long. To be honest, I wish I could've held onto this girl I’d just met longer. Something comforting resonated from Aurelia. Even though she was a few years younger than me, she exuded a strength that I hoped to possess one day. In her fourteen short years, she'd already overcome so much.
Then, Aurelia and I were both pulling back our arms. Clemente’s clicking sounds demanded our attention.
Natasha quickly translated. “He says we need to keep moving. We’re not safe here.”
“Where are we supposed to go?” I questioned, scanning the faces of everyone in our entourage.
Rubbing his eyes, Adrian shook his head again. This time it wasn’t appreciation; it was frustration. “I don’t know. We never got a look at the coins. I don’t know where we’re supposed to go next.”
“You mean this coin?” Aurelia said, pulling a flash of silver from beneath her shirt.
My eyes went wide. “What! You can’t be serious. How did you get that?”
Adrian threw an arm around her shoulder. “You little sneak.”
Her stance was casual, trying to play it off like it was no big deal. She couldn’t do anything to hide the excitement in her words though. “Please, I’m just their humble servant. They never take notice of little ol’ me. I simply grabbed a coin along with the plates.”
“Well, let me see,” Adrian said, reaching with his free hand. His other still draped over his sister’s shoulder. “It’s Arethusa,” he said after examining the front and back.
Aurelia nodded back. “Yeah, that’s what the Trackers said too. Dolphins encircle her.”
I leaned over Adrian’s shoulder and scrunched my eyebrows in confusion. “But I don’t see a flower on it?”
The side profile of Arethusa was etched on one side of the coin. Surrounding her face a circle of four dolphins created a layer of protection. I looked more closely, the obvious omission baffling me. Her medusa-like hair was flowerless, the dolphins didn't reveal any flowers, and neither did the rest of the coin.
With a shrug, Aurelia continued, “That threw the Trackers for a loop as well. Actually, they talked about it for hours.”
“Well, I’m not entirely sure what they figured out. I was sent to fetch more food. But as I was leaving, I heard them say something about the New World Tropics.”
A fury of clicking sounds from Clemente provided an answer.
I quickly looked at Adrian to translate.
“He says it’s the area around the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. So, Central America, South America, Africa, parts of Asia and Australia.”
“Seriously? That barely narrows it down.”
Aurelia tapped her lips. “There’s gotta be somebody who can help us."
“Aurelia, you do realize that you aren’t coming with us,” Adrian stated.
“What? That’s ridiculous,” she protested, sounding much like Adrian the other day.
“No, it’s not ridiculous,” he countered. “For all these years, I thought I had lost you. There’s no way I’m risking your safety any further. Besides, YaYa is going to be thrilled to see you. She thought she was never going to see you again.”
Aurelia’s face visibly softened as Adrian spoke the name of their grandmother. It was such a happy yet confusing time for her. Less than half an hour ago, she didn’t think she had any family left.
Adrian recognized the change in her face as well. He must’ve known Aurelia would now agree to return to Tritonis. In response, he turned to Natasha. “I know you aren’t going to like this either, but I need you to take my sister home. I know YaYa would trust you to make sure she gets there safely. I trust you.”
As suspected, the disappointment resonated across Natasha’s face. It started in her eyes then spread until her bottom lip slightly dipped.
While we trained the other day she briefly shared with me what the mission meant to her. It was her silence now that astounded me. It was a great honor to escort someone within the royal family, but I knew that since she was no longer trapped in the dungeons, she wanted to continue on the mission. Natasha was determined to restore her family's name.
I wondered if she was also hesitant to follow in her father’s footsteps… as an escort. And not just the escort of a princess, but also of the princess who'd been thought to be dead for the past decade.
The first time her father failed was a not so distant memory for her. Of course, Natasha didn’t experience it first hand, but she told me how the accounts from the day plagued her. Whenever she closed her eyes, the blackness reminded her of the tales.
Stories spread like wildfire of how the Trackers’ shear quantity darkened the water. Details were retold again and again about the attack that ensued:
Aurelia and her mother being ripped from the backs of the hippocampus. The chaos of sword hitting sword while striving to protect the remaining royals. The joys of watching the Trackers retreat to only realize they had torn the royal family apart.
The day would go down in Tritonis history as the Royal Massacre.
Although the encounter may have been embellished from mouth to ear to mouth, Natasha knew deep in her heart that the stories of Aurelia’s screams for her father were the absolute truth. She said they haunted her, yet also acted as motivation.
Her father’s second failure resulted in the death of the King, Adrian’s father, and also his own. This was the day she left childhood behind. She was only eight.
As I watched Natasha, emotions from her memories played across her face. In the end, a steadfast look prevailed.
“Go, now. We’ve already wasted enough time,” Adrian continued, pulling Aurelia into a hug.
He whispered something into her ear, but I couldn’t make it out. Releasing her, he stoically watched as Natasha escorted his little sister away, her face displaying a look of understanding.
The next three minutes could only be described as chaotic. Adrian, Shamus, Clemente, and I suggested ideas for what to do next, and all at the same time. Of course, I had no clue what either nixie said.
Based on half-assed translations from Adrian, it appeared that the only thing we agreed on was the need to move, and fast. I could only assume the Trackers still searched for us. They had just lost everything and everyone.
No one expected my loud outburst. The other three immediately stopped arguing.
“Before she left, I think Aurelia had the best idea,” I continued. “None of us know where to go from here, so we need to find someone who can guide us in the right direction. And besides, I don’t even know where we are.”
Adrian, Shamus, and I all looked at each other. Since they were also abducted, they clearly didn’t know where we were either. Only Clemente had come here on his own accord. He quickly explained that we were off the coast of Brazil, near the town of Natal.
I knew Brazil was in South America, but that was as far as my knowledge of geography took me.