Standing at the ship’s bow, Carina flung her arms out into the open embrace of the sea breeze. She breathed in the scent of salt and sweat and dust that clung to her―the taste of war staining her tongue. War drums sounded behind her, drowning out the waves that crashed against the Pratyush’s hull. Named for sunshine and the promise of better days, the battleship was made out of a Telkhines alloy, the colour so dark that it swallowed up the afternoon sunlight. Soon, she told herself, soon she would be home again.
It had been almost a year since she’d been home. Since she had been exiled from the sea. Since her brother had murdered their family in cold blood. She hadn’t been strong enough then, hadn’t had the steal to fight him when he plunged that blade into her uncle’s heart; now, after she had spent months in a human body with legs and weeks mastering her new merfolk body, she was ready. Curling her hands around the railing, she didn't hear the snap of the metal or feel the warm wet blood against her skin, only saw the shadows from her fingertips leak into the air around her. Spilling to the floor, they pooled around her feet hissing and writhing, their silent voices demanding a sacrifice that could only be paid in blood―and Carina was happy to pay in kind.
Heavy footsteps thudded against the ship’s deck, and Carina didn’t have to look to know who it was. The man cleared his voice, the motion meant to be some sort of greeting or social signal for something or the other, for humans, but the gesture only made her want to roll her eyes. After the sea witch had freed her from Jaali’s curse, Carina had raced to Atlantis to beg for their mercy and alliance to help her save Mu, but it wasn’t until Prince Luc had come to beg on her behalf. A cousin to the Atlantean royal family, Prince Luc, had convinced his uncle, the King of Atlantis, to help her get her throne back. She couldn't appear ungrateful. This is why she still hadn’t roared at him for following her around.
“Carina,” Prince Luc said. A few paces behind her, she could salt and citrus scent of him.
“Your Royal Highness," she greeted rather dryly, but the facsimile of a smile still remained.
“I thought I told you to call me Luc.”
“Yes, but manners maketh man.”
The two stared at each other then. He in his royal armour, and she is a loose dress that she would rip to shreds in a few moments. With his pale ivory skin and ink-black hair, he reminded her of the man she had once saved from drowning. Thunder cracked over the horizon, and a vicious breeze tore at their hair.
“Are you ready?” He asked, hands in his pockets.
“And Jiona? Is she… is she going to be okay?”
“She’s not your finance, and that means she is none of your concern,” she spat, crossing her arms, “but yes, she’ll be fine. Once Jaali is killed, the enchantment her placed on her mind will be broken.”
The Prince nodded tersely as if he tried to convince himself. Honestly, the Kings of Lemuria, Atlantis, and Formosa all swallowed her lie too easily, but then again, Carina had always been good at spinning tall tales. It's what made her unusual charm speak ability so strong. She could still remember the dumbstruck look on their faces when she had convinced them that Jiona―the successor to the kingdom of Mu, Guardian the deep, and heir of shadow, Kamāliʻi Wahine Jiona―was rendered temporarily insane due to torture. The King of Lemuria had even shed a tear when Carina had begged them to form an alliance to back her claim for the throne. If only so, she could protect her people, rule in her cousin's stead until she could take her rightful place as Mōʻī wahine. Laughable. The former was the truth, but the latter, Jiona, would be lucky if Carina let her swim without guards tailing her every move.
The war drums halted then, and the wind died down. A bolt of lightning struck across the sky; the arc of light made the air smell of smoke and ozone. It’s was time. Extending a shadow wreathed arm to the sky, she waited. Lightning struck her palms first, then lanced down her wrist and into her bones; the charge was enough to make sparks dance on her skin.
"See you on the other side?" The Prince said, his fist over his heart.
Walking past him to the edge, she returned the gesture, "See you on the other side.”
Plunging into the black waters, she was felt whole. Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt the sharp sting of seawater and then the sudden snapping of bone. Forcing her eyes open, she looked down to see that her skin had returned to its opalescent colouring, and her hands were tipped with black. Flexing her glittering black tail, she smiled at the legions of naga and selkies that dove into the water after her. Raising her fist, she released a battle cry so vicious and loud that she would have been terrified if it hadn’t come from her own lips.
“For Mu!” She cried
Hiding in the kelp forest surrounding the sea swallowed city, she observed the unnatural hush and stillness. The city walls were ashen and covered with decay. Broken bones half-covered in rot were piled just outside. Their skulls lining the barricade posts, a faint hazy light spilling out of their hollow eyes. Had Jaali brutalized the people so badly that they dare not make a sound, or had he butchered all of them, and there were simply none to make a sound, she couldn't be sure. So they stormed the abandoned ancient gates, not a soldier to be found. Ordering each legion to search for survivors and evacuate them to the kelp forest for safety, she took a legion with her to the palace.
Protection wards slammed into the moment she touched the heavy palace doors, but with the new powers, part from a sea witch, part from The Guardian of the Deep himself, she couldn’t be sure what to do. As the protection words shuddered and then flickered at one by one, she made a mental note to seek them both out and ask them what gifts they had given here. Not to give them back, but to thank them because these new powers were dangerous―deadly even. For the first time in her life, she was powerful beyond measure. The doors to the palace fell down with a thud and nothing more. No soldiers greeted them, no slot of gunfire or taps laying in weight.
“Hold.” Carina held up a fist ordering the legion to stop. Sniffing once, she recoiled at the tang of magic that hit her. Holding out a hand in front of her, she swam into the open foyer of the hall. It was bloodstained and ruinous, staring at a string of pearls that lay strewn on the floor.
Variegated and bright, they glowed all on their own. Swimming over to them, she picked up the pearls and turned them over in her hands, rubbing flecks of blood off of them. Her mother's pearls, these were all that was left now. Not even the bones at her fins―the bones that were surely belonged to her parents―were left unbloodied, as if whatever had killed them had cursed their very bones. Closing her eyes, she flung her magic out and searched for the source of the oily black power. A cold tendril lashed against her mind, turning her skin to goose flesh, but she didn't baulk.
Swimming back to the legion of naga, she gave her last order. “Search the ballrooms, the throne room, and the coffers. Go from the ground floor up.” Carina pocketed the pearls, unsheathed a bone knife from her belt.
Protest lingered in one of the legionary’s slitted eyes. “But―”
“Slit the throats of Jaali’s soldiers and leave no defector behind. Take the survivors to the kitchens and wait for me there. I’ll find you when I am done.”
“But we’re supposed to go with you. Protect you. Where are you going?”
"To the temple. I have a meeting with The Heir of Shadow.”
Shadows spilt out around Carina, roiling around her. Their hissing died down in waiting. Sitting on top of the alter, she waited for Jaali. Dimly lit and decorated with a stone carving of the old gods, old weapons hung from the walls as a tribute to their owns who gave their lives for this city. She hadn't been to the temple in decades, if not centuries, and at two hundred and five years old, she didn't think she ever enters it again. A door slammed in the distance. Shifting to face him, she kept her face bored as Jaali raced down the aisle, spear in hand.
“Sister!” Jaali roared, throwing a spear towards her. Carina couldn’t help but smile as it sailed through the water with ease.
With a flick of her wrist, Carina caught the spear with a tendril of shadow. "Hello to you too Jaali. I see you’ve redecorated, but I must say it’s a bit gaudy.”
“I am king now. You will address me as Mōʻī Jaali.”
Flinging the spear back at him, she smiled when it found its mark; Jaali’s tail. Agony ripped down Jaali’s features as he ripped the spear free from his fin. Black blood leaked into the water, mixing into the shadows that curled around them, blotting out the dim lights.
Drenched in darkness, nothing but the slashing of bone on metal could be heard. Jaali had likely learned to fight in the Southern Sea, and from her studies, she knew that they favoured a live fighting style, moving like kelp in the current impossible to pin, but Jaali was an arrogant thing and relied on his sight more than he should. Snatching away the light, Jaali was defenceless, ruffled. Good. He had murdered their parents, their family in cold blood. He didn't deserve to see her face. Not when she dove her bone knife into his chest or when she used a second knife to slit his throat.
Even though they were thousands of miles underwater, Jaali’s screams turned wet and raw. Blood bubbled up his throat, muffling his please for mercy. Twisting the knife in his chest, even more, she leaned into him, shadows still blanketed around them, but she smiled as she whispered into his ear.
“A toast to Mōʻī Jaali,” she spat, “Long may you reign." Twisting the knife again, she felt the life sputter out of him, his chest going still, under her. Blinking a single tear out of her wide-set milky eyes, she dropped the wall of darkness around them.
The crown of shadows around Jaali’s hair flickered in the watery light. Holding out a hand over his still unmoving chest, Carina felt for the bead of magic that used to be her own. As small and fine as a grain of sand, it was as bright as the sun. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she strained. Her magic hadn't been the same since the sea witch had freed her magic from Jaali's curse or when that hooded stranger in Atlantis had blessed her with sacred darkness; the ability to talk to the shadows. Summoning a bubble that morphed into a shimmering orb that then took the shape of a pearl, she opened her palm to it and watched in awe when it sunk into her skin.
She won. Thank the mother and the Guardian himself.
Breathless, Carina bent to pick up her blades when a stifled cry caught her attention.
Jiona loomed just over the threshold of the temple. How she had broken free from the dozen or so armed guards she had left protecting her, Carina didn't know, but her vision snapped into something horrific when she noticed the crown of pure shadow that hovered over her head. Well, that answered what Carina supposed; the power must have reverted back to her cousin once Jaali had died―not her. Whatever power he had stolen from Jiona probably found its way back to her. The Guardian of the Deep must have had some twisted sense of humour or love for drama to crown Jiona, the successor to the kingdom of Mu and heir of shadow. Carina’s gut twisted, her blood boiling. Jiona hadn’t even fought for their people, hadn’t wanted to save them, and for all Carina’s training and sacrifice, it was she who was crowned Queen, not Carina.
“You did it,” Jiona squeaked, “you―you broke the curse.”
"I did," she said, looking down at her bloodstained hands, "here." Reaching for the spear that Jaali had thrown at her, Carina stumbled backwards. The spear growing hot beneath her hand, and light exploded into the room, white and blinding.
Knocked onto their backs Carina and her cousin both blinked up at the ornately carved ceiling. Slowing sitting up, Carina blinked stars out of her eyes. Was this another one of Jaali’s tricks? Rising to her regular stance, she eyes a slack-jawed Jiona who had yet to rise from her seat on the floor.
“What? What happened?” Carina asked, her eyes searching for any threat, but found none.
“Your―your glowing,” Join spluttered, skittering backwards.
What? Swimming to the alter, she leaned over the shiny surface and gaped at her own reflection. Ribbons of white light and shadows had exploded around her, the light dancing with the shadows roiled over her head. Carina’s opalescent skin glowed against the darkness that still slithered around her. Touching the cut flesh above her brow, she flinched at the glowing mark that now etched her skin; it belonged to The Guardian of The Deep―to her.
The carved statue behind her glowed with fiery light. Beholding the old god, The Guardian of The Deep, she wept, not out of fear but from surprise, because Carina had been chosen―chosen to be A Guardian of The Deep. A title that was given to the first King of Mu, the one who had plunged Mu into the ocean after Atlantis had fallen to the Fae all those millennia ago and had only been bestowed on a handful of warriors since then. The Guardian's story was so ancient that his name had been lost to time, and as the centuries wore on, he had become one of the few old gods they still worshipped. She hadn’t realized that Jaali would be waiting for her in his temple.
From her perch on the alter, Carina looked back at her coward of a cousin and smiled.
"Welcome home, cousin."
In the ancient sea swallowed city of Mu, there lived a girl named Carina. A Guardian of The Deep, she was beloved by her people and all who met her, for she was gentle and true, traits the merfolk were not known for. Singing to herself on her balcony, she waited for her dinner guest to arrive, wondering idly what her cousin Mōʻī wahine Jiona was doing. She had been crowned Queen of Mu a few days ago, while Carina, on the other hand, had been ordained as A Guardian of the Deep the day after the Mu had been liberated, about a month ago―cherished, feared, divine, that was how the people saw her.
“Carina,” a deep male voice said, more to announce his presence than in greeting.
“Your Royal Highness.”
“I thought I told you to call me Luc.” The Prince was dressed in his finery, hair damp, a vase of sunflowers in his hands. He stepped into the room, unsure of where to stand. Carina had spelled this wing of the palace to hold air instead of water so that humans could more easily visit; it also didn’t hurt that Carina could now transform herself into a human form with ease. Taking up residence in this side of the palace when she wanted to get away from her cousin.
"Yes, but that isn't your birth name." Carina sat down at the table for two, waiting for him to do the same.
“You know my birth name?” He asked, shock tinting his features.
“No, but when I was in Atlantis, they called you by a different name, I couldn't pick it up, but I am curious. What is it?"
Setting the vase of flowers on the table, the pair sat down to eat, Carina withholding the breadbasket until he answered. The Prince rolled his eyes, raising his hands in mock retreat.
“Fine. Fine, you win. My birth name is Njorthrbiartr Luc Baldhere. I ask people to call me like Luc partly because it's my middle name, partly because it's what my wet nurse called me, and I know that she loved me more than my mother. So I use that name as a homage to her. Now, will you pass me that bread? I am starving!”
Smirking, Carina handed him the basket, and she started to load her plate with food. She knew what the next hour would entail but decided to accept the meeting invitation anyway because, against her better judgement, she liked hearing him talk.
Half drunk, the Prince had not so subtly hinted that he would be interested in courtship with her. In return, she giggled unabashedly and told him that she could be open to such a thing if the company was good and the words exchanged honestly; and so the two continued laughing and flirting into the night. The white ribbons of light danced atop her head, stark against its shadow twin. Luc touched the mark above her brow, Carina's face bloomed at the normalcy of it. She didn't love the Price or even need him, but he wasn't bad company, and for that, she was grateful.