My eyes open slowly, Tamir over me. His green eyes are filled with worry and his body shakes with adrenaline.
‘Oh, geeze, Cress—you’re alive,’ he says, wrapping his arms around my shoulders.
‘Where… where are we?’ I ask, rubbing my head. My back feels as if it had third-degree burns on it as I move, and I cringe.
‘Careful,’ he whispers.
‘What happened?’ I look around us. We’re in an alleyway, the sun long gone from up above the water. The moon casts eerie shadows over us as he helps me sit up.
‘The Flatfins found us. One of them was gifted, unsurprisingly, and attacked. Man, you roasted him.’
‘What?’ I ask, not recalling anything after being shot. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You fought back and gave us enough time to get away.’ He smiles smugly. ‘I taught you well.’
‘I don’t remember.’ I shake my head.
‘Of course you don’t. You were angry. It was the first time the magic took you completely over and you lost control to it. Don’t worry, it’ll get easier.’
‘How do you know?’ I ask, gingerly touching my back where the burns are. I feel scales poking out between the peeling flesh.
‘I deal with the magic every full moon,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ve gotten to the point where I can remember what happens.’
‘Oh,’ is all I can say.
He nods, filling the silence with that motion instead of spoken words.
Tamir helps me up. ‘We need to find some food.’
‘Find?’ I ask. ‘Can’t you just buy some? Or at least trade for it?’
He shakes his head and laughs. ‘I’m broke. Or—hey, we can go see Rave. Her parents are always wanting to help.’
‘But—my legs,’ I stammer, looking down at them. The scales sparkle in the refracted moonlight.
He waves my thought away. ‘They won’t see you. You can wait outside. I won’t be there but for a moment.’
‘Isn’t that using them?’ I ask. ‘I don’t mind going to look for food with you.’
‘Rave prefers it. Especially on nights like this, when the Flatfins are everywhere. The Sivoli Clan is pretty tight with all of those things. No one gets in, and no one goes out without permission from the King and Queen, or else.’
‘Or else what?’
He shrugs. ‘Death.’
He says it so casually.
We swim down the alleyway, Tamir poking his head out to see if any Flatfins are roaming the paths. I wonder how safe he would be right now if I wasn’t following him around. Or even if I wasn’t human. But I’m not all human, am I?
Then what am I?
The One-Hundred, I remind myself, the meaning of the words vague. Gifted and spared.
‘Okay, come on,’ he whispers to me, pulling me by my hand.
We weave in and out of alleyways and houses, dodging the Flatfins making their rounds.
Tamir pulls be behind a building and tells me to wait. He disappears around the other side, and I hear a knock. I sit, watching the opposite corner he had disappeared around, straining my ears to listen. It’s amazing how sound travels in water.
‘Hey, Rave,’ I hear Tamir say, his voice sounding happy.
‘Hey,’ she says uncertainly. ‘I haven’t seen you in like a week. Where were you?’
Tamir pauses. ‘It’s a secret.’ He’s joking around with her.
Something about that hurts my heart. But why? I can’t be jealous, can I? I haven’t known Tamir for very long… but then again some feelings creep up on you.
I shake it away, suppress the glowing, and refocus on what’s going on at the moment. I can’t be preoccupied by feelings I might have for someone when I have so much to learn, and fast.
‘Uh-huh.’ Rave doesn’t buy it. ‘Have you eaten at all? This is the first time I’ve seen you since… since you disappeared.’ She pauses. ‘Does it have something to do with… that girl?’
I make a face. The way she points those words accusingly stirs something up inside of me.
‘Rave, I need you to be understanding right now.’
The door closes, and she says something else, but my mind snaps its attention to something else that makes my skin tremble.
A high-pitched squeal reaches my ears. I freeze. My heart quickens its pace. How did she find me?
I turn to see it swimming directly at me. We’re at the edge of the city. There aren’t any other buildings behind Rave’s to protect me.
I hold in a scream, but I can’t help but glow. Rounding the corner to the front of the house, I slam into Tamir. Rave says something sarcastic. I pay no attention to it.
‘Tamir!’ I say, panic lacing my voice. ‘Tamir—they found me. Dametria and Damian, they found me!’
Rave’s eyes open wide. So she knows who they are too.
Tamir becomes alert. Looks at Rave.
‘I’ll help,’ she says, opening the door and calling to her parents, saying she’s going out. She shuts the door. ‘Follow me.’
‘We’re just going to run?’ I ask, Tamir taking my hand once again. ‘Can’t you do whatever you did last time?’
Tamir shakes his head. ‘It was a full moon. Their clan focuses on magic and controlling it. Those are the One-Hundreds gone bad. They have more power than I could ever have.’
‘But you have me. You trained me and everything. I could help.’
He shakes his head, Rave looking back in question. ‘Damian and Dametria are stronger together than we could ever be. They’re the rulers of that clan.’
‘But I only saw the dolphin,’ I protest as we exit the city.
With that, Rave snaps her head around. ‘Why would she be alone? They’re inseparable.’
Tamir looks back at me for a long time before speaking. He turns back around. ‘I can take a guess,’ he growls.
We stop just before a cave, the dolphin letting out another squeal. Rave takes a breath and looks at us. ‘You’ll be safe in here. They can’t come in.’
‘How do you know that?’ I ask.
‘Is this…?’ Tamir asks Rave in awe, and she nods. ‘Why didn’t you ever tell me about this?’
‘It was going to be a surprise,’ Rave says sadly. ‘Now get in there. She’ll be closing in in just a minute.’
Tamir gives her a funny face. ‘Aren’t you coming?’
She shakes her head. ‘It won’t hold all of us.’
‘Why not?’ I ask.
‘Stop arguing, just get inside the stupid enchanted cave,’ Rave says. She begins to swim away, but Tamir catches her by the wrist.
‘You’re coming whether you like it or not.’
And then we’re inside the cave. Something makes my hair stand on end as we sit down, crowded and cold. I watch as the dolphin comes closer, and then stops just before the entrance. She squeals once more, her eyes locking on mine.
‘I will get you, Cressa-la,’ her voice plays in my head, and I wonder if anyone else can hear her. ‘One day they won’t be around to protect you, and you’ll be all alone. Your Tribe Leader’s vision still stands. My threat is still in play. Watch your back, Cressa-la.’
She smiles. Leaves. And I’m left shaking in Tamir’s arms and against Rave’s body.
‘What did she say to you?’ Tamir whispers in my ear.
I gulp and loosen my grip around his arms. I’m afraid. I’m glowing. And I want to go home.
‘Cress?’ He presses.
I turn toward him. Decide to paraphrase. ‘She said to watch my back.’
He’s silent for a moment, and then he changes the subject. ‘Speaking of, let’s fix your back. Your skin is peeling off of your scales like crazy, and it’s kind of disgusting.’
I nod, in a stupor, letting him work his magic on my back.
‘What is this place?’ I ask, my voice steady and my glowing gone. ‘How are we safe?’
‘This grotto is enchanted. It has a story behind it—Tamir’s favorite.’
‘She’s right,’ he smiles, finishing up on my back and shifting in the crowded space to where he could see my face. ‘It was the first one I was told after I became a merman.’
‘You told her that story?’ Rave asks, her eyes widening. Tamir nods. ’All of it?’
‘Well,’ Tamir says, his face turning red and a soft glow begins to radiate from him. I look at him expectantly. He sighs. ‘Which story do you want to hear first?’
‘Um…’ I press my lips together. ‘Depends. How long are we going to be in here?’
‘Let me check,’ Tamir says, getting up to swim out of the cave.
Rave rolls her eyes. ‘He looked like you when I found him. He was so confused and disoriented, and I couldn’t just leave him behind. So I untangled him from the seaweed and we went into the city. We were lucky there weren’t as many Flatfins around as now, but Mariana did find us. She practically jumped out of her skin when she saw him glow.’
‘So you decided to go with that story?’ Tamir teases, squeezing back into his spot between us.
‘You wouldn’t have told it right,’ Rave snaps sort-of playfully. ‘Any who, she brought him to her home outside of the city. I kept warning them about the penalty for leaving the city, but neither of them listened. Tamir was too shaken up already, and the woman was dead-set on getting to her house. There, she did some sort of spell and turned him into a merman. From then on, he was my best friend.’
‘Or was I?’ Tamir chuckles nervously, stealing a glance in my direction.
‘So that’s how you knew,’ I say to him. ‘Why didn’t you just tell me that story?’
‘You’re just like me,’ I whisper in awe.
He nods. ‘Yeah. Except I was alone.’
‘Hey!’ Rave smacks his arm. ‘What am I—a dead fish?’
He sighs with a smile. ‘I mean I didn’t have anyone else that went through the same thing as I did. Besides Mariana. And even then she was vague and secretive.’
‘But the story of this cave,’ he says, switching subjects. ‘It all started—’
‘Wait, I want to tell the story,’ Rave says, getting somewhat excited.
‘But you just told one.’
‘So?’ She sticks her tongue out playfully. ‘It all started—’
‘Seriously?’ Tamir laughs.
She laughs with him, and then begins to talk again. ’It all started with the Sea-Man. The one that was cast out of the Initi Tribe long ago for touching the water and killing that fish. That fish actually was the King of the Unwea Clan, who didn’t die. He transformed into a human and returned to the sea. The Sea-Man, whose name was Rewn-am, was found covered in scales. The King took him in and told him all he knew, and when he died, Rewn-am became the new King. Rewn began to grow stronger, and his numbers grew and grew. All of his people were One-Hundreds, and not just humans he would lure into the water, but the merpeople he would manipulate too.
’He had a son and named him Carn. His wife tried to raise their son, tried to make him do good, but everyone could tell he was born for something different. He wasn’t supposed to be on the good side.
‘Carn figured out how to draw power from other people to stay young and to stay stronger than anyone else. He killed his father and mother for going against his plans for taking over. Carn wanted to be the King of Kings. He married and had seventeen sons over the course of two hundred years. Every one of them fell in his footsteps, except for the last one. Newt. He had tried to fight against his father, tell him what he’s doing is wrong. He was only twenty years old. He had never taken any power from anyone else. Eventually, he stopped his father. Trapped him in this cave and used his magic against him. This cave won’t let anyone that uses magic for evil in or out.’
‘I’ve always wanted to see it,’ Tamir says. ‘I would have loved this for a birthday present, Rave.’ His voice is sincere, and something stirs inside me once more.
I look out the cave, focusing on the blue and trying not to glow. So that’s what happened to the Sea-Man.
‘What happened to him?’ I ask, forcing myself to look at Rave again. ‘He turned into sea-foam. No more Carn.’
I nod. ‘Is that the whole story?’
‘That’s the whole story,’ Tamir smiles.
Rave smiles a bit and shakes her head. ’No, that’s the end of his favorite story. There’s definitely more to it, I just never told Tamir.’
‘What?’ Tamir asks, genuinely uncertain.
‘Hey, don’t be upset at me,’ she chuckles. ‘You were so excited that good won over evil that I didn’t have the heart to tell you more.’
‘But you obviously do now.’
‘Only if you two can stomach it.’
I look at Tamir, who begins to glow again slightly. He nods.
’Newt’s mom, Cern’s wife, had an eighteenth child. He was human. Newt saw the baby and immediately wrapped it in an air bubble so it had air to breathe. It was the first human spared in their clan. They would kill the ones that wouldn’t glow, or change the ones that did.
’This one glowed bright green like his father. The light was almost blinding. Newt’s mother fought for the baby, still distraught for the loss of her husband, but she was too weak against Newt and lost, shriveling up in the corner, grieving.
’Newt took him to the surface. It was a full moon, and luckily that’s when the mermaids and mermen take their human children up to the humans on the islands. He followed behind about five of them, who stopped halfway to the shore. A man stopped them and asked them a question. They had to choose which tribe to give their child to. Initi, Revli, or Wurn. Peace, love, or war. A couple, looking very important, chose Initi. The next chose Wurn. The next chose Initi, then Wurn, then Revli. And then it was Newt’s turn.
’He looked down at the baby and went up to the merman giving directions. He asked him the same question he had asked the other merpeople. They were already headed to the holes in the ground, moonlight shining through them. Newt looked down at the baby and decided to go against his nature. Against hate and war. He wanted the baby to have love and to know love. He chose Revli.
‘When Newt had held the baby in the moonlight, he cooed and smiled at him, taking his thumb. He handed the baby to the Tribe Leader with open arms, who looked at him expectantly. He gave the Tribe Leader his name, the baby’s glow long gone, and then disappeared beneath the waves to live a normal life ruling the Unwea Clan, until the boy came back to murder him and take the throne, believing it was his right as the son of the previous King.’
‘Wow,’ Tamir says, his face fallen. My stomach twists inside me. ‘That was tragic.’
‘And it isn’t finished,’ Rave says. ‘The baby was Damian.’