Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Deepest Blue, Page 3

Sarah Beth Durst

  It felt like a spirit. But she’d never sensed one like this. . . . It sounded like . . . It sounds like many spirits, all jumbled up. She again looked at the clouds. They were moving fast now, across the ocean, and the waves were breaking in front of them.

  It’s nothing, she told herself. I’m imagining it. Just bad weather.

  It had to be, because she’d never been able to hear any of the wild ocean spirits while she was on shore, and the heirs kept the so-called tame spirits away from the villages.

  It’s an ordinary storm. And it’s too far away to worry about. Kelo’s mother had said it wouldn’t arrive until later, and she was never wrong in her predictions. The fishermen often charted their routes based on her readings of the sky.

  Mayara dragged her mind back into the moment, and she again gazed into Kelo’s eyes. This was all she had to worry about. Not messing up the final words of the ceremony in front of everyone she knew. “Together, forever, we will sail the seas of life.”

  “Together, forever, I pledge myself to you,” Kelo said.

  “And I to you.”

  As their families and everyone in their village cheered, Mayara and Kelo kissed. Then they turned, hand in hand, their backs to the sea and the storm. Grinning broadly, Kelo waved at the crowd. “Hey, we did it! It’s time to eat and dance!”

  The cheering was even louder.

  Kelo jumped off the platform and held out his arms. Smiling back at him, Mayara jumped, and he caught her and twirled her in a circle before setting her down. The drummers began to play again. Soon Mayara and Kelo spun apart—each of them greeting their guests and accepting their congratulations.

  Papa kissed Mayara’s forehead. “You know I wish you—”

  Mother laid her hand on Papa’s elbow, stopping him. Her face was pale, and she had dark circles under her eyes. Mayara was certain she was going to say she had to leave the celebration early—that all of this made her think too much about Elorna, how Elorna had never had a chance to fall in love and marry, how this only reminded her of what they’d all lost—but Mother didn’t say that. Instead she managed a small smile. It looked foreign on her face, as if her lips had forgotten they could curve, but it was undoubtedly a smile. “We both wish you every happiness, Mayara.”

  Mayara felt a lump in her throat and blinked back tears that suddenly sprang into her eyes. She loved them both so very much. I am the luckiest woman in the world. “Thank you, Mother.” She hugged her. “And you, Papa.” She hugged him too.

  When she released them, she felt it again—this time louder, the voices of wild spirits pounding in her head. She couldn’t ignore it or pretend she’d imagined it. Keeping a smile on her face, Mayara pushed past her parents, only half paying attention to other well-wishers, as she maneuvered through the crowd to the cliff wall.

  She looked out at the horizon.

  The horizon was gone, swallowed completely by the storm clouds.

  It’s not an ordinary storm.

  And it wasn’t coming slowly. It was flying over the sea, unnaturally fast. The voices in her head . . . They were from within the storm. “It’s coming for us,” Mayara breathed. She stumbled backward, away from the cliff wall, and turned to face her family, her friends, and her neighbors—everyone she knew and loved.

  “Spirit storm!” she screamed.

  Chapter Three

  Long ago, Renthia was only four countries: the forests of Aratay, the mountains of Semo, the farmlands of Chell, and the glaciers of Elhim. Their queens tamed the spirits of the land—the spirits of earth, tree, air, water, fire, and ice—by bonding with them, and humankind flourished within their borders.

  But there are no borders in the ever-moving sea. And so the wild, unclaimed spirits that lived in the Iorian Sea attacked the land, killing with their teeth and their waves, until the queens united and drove them back, slaying many and forcing the worst and largest of the monsters into an uneasy slumber many fathoms below, in a region of sea known in stories and songs as “the Deepest Blue.”

  The islands of Belene were formed from the bones of the giant spirits the queens killed, as a barrier to protect the mainland from the krakens and sea dragons and other leviathans.

  For generations, each queen of Belene has been ever-vigilant, using all her power to keep the largest of the leviathans asleep and relying on the heirs to protect the islanders from the rest. Whenever wild spirits seek to attack the islands, the queen senses their approach and dispatches her heirs to repel them.

  Except when she doesn’t.

  MAYARA FELT THE STORM IN HER BONES. IT HURT, THE SAME WAY IT hurt when she dived deep without a proper breath, as if her body wanted to tear itself apart from the inside, as if her skin didn’t fit, as if her blood were boiling.

  First, it was wind.

  Screaming as it came, it flew across the sea and onto the shore. It bent the trees until they bowed, their tips touching the sand. It tore at the houses, ripping the shutters from their windows and the clay tiles from their roofs.

  Second, it was waves.

  Rising up in massive swells, the waves slammed into the island, flooding the homes that were closest to shore, destroying gardens and drowning livestock.

  Third, it was monsters.

  The wild spirits rode in on the wind and the waves. Most were water spirits, though a few were air. Some looked like winged eels, others were humanlike but with claws and shark teeth, and one was a dragonlike sea serpent.

  All were deadly.

  “Get back! Into the caves!” Papa was yelling. He, along with others possessed of booming voices, were herding the villagers back from the cliff wall. A few of the more foolhardy tried to run toward the path down to the village to protect their homes, but they were intercepted by their neighbors.

  They cursed their neighbors now but would—hopefully—thank them later.

  Little kids were scooped up by anyone who could carry them. The elderly were carried too—one woman on Uncle Imer’s back, another by a fisherwoman who regularly hauled nets into boats, another by two of Mayara’s cousins.

  Grabbing Kelo’s hand, Mayara ran for the storm-shelter caves. Rain was already pelting the plaza. Hard rain that hit as if it were pebbles. She shielded her eyes with her hand so she could see where she was running.

  At the mouth of the cave, Papa stopped her. “Did you see your mother?” He had to shout to be heard over the wind.

  Mayara shook her head. “I thought she was with you!”

  But no. She wasn’t.

  By the spirits . . .

  She let go of Kelo’s hand.

  “Mayara, it’s not safe!” Kelo cried. “You have to get in the cave!”

  But Mayara was already plunging back through the rain, which was falling in diagonal sheets so thick it felt like buckets of water being dumped on her head.

  She could barely see more than a few feet in front of her. The wind and waves were so loud that she couldn’t tell who was screaming: the weather, the spirits, or her people. “Mother! Where are you?”

  She heard a giggle in her head, razor sharp.

  She veered left, away from where she sensed the spirit to be, and pressed forward a step at a time. She knew where Mother had been, near the ceremony platform, and she knew loosely which direction it was in, even if she couldn’t see it.

  Something swept past her, grazing her arm, and she bit back a cry. If I can’t see them, they can’t see me. She didn’t know if that was true, though. The wild spirits had created this storm. Surely they could navigate through it.

  Keeping silent, Mayara pushed on, until at last she saw a shape, a human figure.

  She forded through the rain toward it. The wind was so strong now that she had to walk at a slant to keep from being knocked backward. “Mother!”

  Her mother was standing, facing the storm, screaming.

  Grabbing her arm, Mayara tried to pull her away. “Mother, we have to go!”

  But Mother wasn’t just screaming, Mayara realized—she wa
s screaming words. Specific words: “You took my daughter! Now take me!”

  “Mother! They didn’t take both of us! I’m still here!”

  Mother didn’t seem to hear her or feel her, however. And as much as that hurt her heart, getting Mother to safety was what mattered. Mayara yanked harder, but Mother resisted, continuing her painful prayer. “Take me, damn you! Take my pain! I don’t want to be alone anymore!”

  Mayara planted herself in front of Mother and put her hands on her shoulders. “Stop it! Please stop! You’re not alone! You still have me! And Papa! And everyone! We all love you! Now please come, before we both die!”

  At last, Mother seemed to see her. “Mayara . . .”

  Her mother wilted, allowing Mayara to guide her away from the cliff’s edge. Mayara wondered if she might have taken too long, though. The wind was stronger now and filled with spirits. She had to try anyway. Head down, her arm flung around her mother, she took step after step across the plaza.

  She sensed the wild spirits swirling around them, though she couldn’t see more than a foot in front of her. She felt their unbridled hatred and rage pour into her until she thought she’d choke on it. She tried to keep her own thoughts small and quiet, so they wouldn’t notice her. Just take another step. One more step . . .

  Rain had soaked her, and her wedding dress clung to her like a second skin, the mother-of-pearl shards feeling like fish scales. Water streamed down her face, and she had no way of knowing if she was crying—and she didn’t care.

  Keep moving.

  Her foot hit something soft.

  She looked down and saw one of her cousins, Osian, lying on the flagstones. For an instant, she didn’t understand why he was lying there. He had to get up! Run! But his eyes were open, and red pooled at his throat.

  Biting back a cry, Mayara guided her mother around her cousin’s body.

  Only to find more dead.

  Cousins. Aunts. Neighbors. Her uncle Dolano, who used to swing her into the air in a circle until she was laughing so hard she cried. Porel, the village baker, who made wonderful pastries filled with tart berries. And Helia with her unborn baby.

  Please, please, don’t let me find Papa. Or Kelo. Or . . . anyone else. No more!

  With each body, she felt as if a tear split her insides. Her mother became harder to pull. She was bent nearly in half, shaking with sobs. But the spirits were too close—they’ll find us. Any second, it would be Mayara or Mother on the ground, her throat torn, her body ripped apart, her eyes sightless.


  And then Mayara saw a black blur ahead: the cave!

  She pushed Mother ahead of her into the cave, and she heard a familiar voice cry her name: “Mayara!” Kelo rushed out and grabbed her arm.

  As sudden as a scream, she felt a spirit attack—its shriek echoed inside her, scraping her throat as if it were her own cry. It swiped at Kelo with its razor claws. Beside her, he crumpled. “Kelo!” Dragging him into the cave, she turned back toward the plaza.

  She saw only wind, rain, and spirits.

  “Mayara, get back!” Papa yelled at her.

  The spirits were coming for the cave. She could sense their . . . They weren’t thoughts, precisely. It was a whirlwind of need and want. They wanted blood, death, and pain.

  They wanted in.

  The opening of the cave was large enough only for one person.

  I could block it.

  I could stop them. Stop this.

  She didn’t know if that was true. She’d never used her power against so many or faced spirits who were so lost to their bloodlust. It might make it worse if she used her power, by drawing even more spirits toward the villagers.

  And in that moment, she had the sudden, terrible thought that she had caused this by using her power during her dive.

  But no, the spirits she’d encountered were island spirits, bonded to the queen of Belene. These were wild spirits from the untamed waters far beyond the islands. Spirit storms like this one were freak accidents unconnected to anything anyone did. Yet, if no one did something . . .

  She called back to Papa. “Is he alive? Kelo, does he live?”

  Papa yelled, “Yes! But you need to get inside! Come where it’s safe!”

  But it wasn’t safe. The spirits knew where the cave was now—they’d seen Mother and Mayara run into it. They were calling to one another.

  No, that wasn’t right. They’re calling to one other.

  A sea dragon.

  She could feel the shape of the water spirit in her mind—larger than any of the houses in her village, large enough to crush a fishing boat, with a serpent’s body and a bat’s wings. And then it wasn’t just in her mind—it burst through the rain, appearing midair in front of the cave.

  Its scales were black as the night sky but flashed like the sea in sunlight. Its eyes were fire red and seemed to flicker. Its wings drove the wind toward Mayara, and she threw her arm in front of her face as water, carried by the wind, slammed into her, within the cave.

  She felt the spirit’s rage.

  It will kill us all.

  She felt hands pulling on her arms. Papa and Kelo and others were shouting, “Mayara! Get back!” But she shook the hands off and stepped forward, out of the cave. Squinting in the driving rain, Mayara stared up at the dragon.

  She thought of the dive within the ancient leviathan’s skull. And of her sister, Elorna, who had braved even more frightening dives. And of Kelo, who waited for Mayara, always trusting she’d return to him.

  Trust me one more time, my love. I can do this. I will do this.

  Mayara had heard the stories: the heirs kept the islands safe. They sent the wild spirits back into the sea. But Mayara didn’t have the training or the strength of the heirs. She had only herself, and she didn’t think she could command more than one spirit at a time.

  So she chose the dragon, and she crafted a single order:

  Protect us!

  The sea dragon resisted. She felt it screech within her head, and it was almost enough to shatter her mind. Gritting her teeth against the onslaught, she held the command steady, focusing all her intent and will: Protect us! Now!

  The dragon, struggling against itself now, spun in the air. And as the other spirits tried to attack the cave, her dragon fought them.

  Sinewy, it slid through the rain-choked air, and it snatched the flying eel-like spirits midflight and flung them back over the cliff. It smashed its tail into a humanlike air spirit who was running across the plaza, teeth bared and claws extended.

  Above you! Mayara called to it, and she showed it in her mind what she saw: a trio of spirits shaped like massive white birds, with blood spattered on their white feathers, diving at the dragon from above.

  The dragon twisted in the air as if it were swimming in water, knocking into them, and bit the neck of the first one, shaking it like a dog shakes its prey, then tossing it aside.

  Soon the rain began to slacken. She felt the wind lessen.

  Her dragon continued to defend the cave, and Mayara kept her focus on it, but now she could see across half the plaza, where several bodies lay. She forced herself not to look. Keeping her eyes on the dragon spirit, she guided it as it fought its brethren.

  She felt the spirits begin to recede, some moving across the island and others returning to the sea, until at last it was only her and the dragon.

  The rain faded to a drizzle. The wind fell until it was no more than a breeze. Mayara began to shiver, hard, her dress soaked and heavy, her hair wet and sticking to her skin.

  Pivoting in the air, the dragon fixed its fire-red eyes on her.

  She felt as if she’d dived too far beneath the water. Black dots danced in her vision. But she held on. And as if she had been given a second breath, she was able to push back.

  Go! she ordered. Return to the sea!

  It screamed once more, both out loud and in her head, and Mayara fell to her knees, hard on the stone, and clapped her hands over her ears. But the cry went
on and on, receding only as the dragon flew away over the waves.

  She looked up and saw the clouds had dissipated, and that during the storm, the sun had finished setting. Stars began to appear overhead, and the moon glowed, heavy and full, through the remaining black wisps of the unnatural typhoon.

  Mayara got to her feet, her knees aching. Her mind felt dull and empty. She silently counted the dead: nine, twelve, fifteen. She knew them all. Loved them all. Slowly, she turned to face the cave.

  Kelo limped out, supported by Papa. They crossed to her, and Kelo fell into her arms. She held him, and then sank down onto the ground.

  “They’ll know what you did,” Kelo said, his voice a broken whisper.

  She knew who he meant: the Silent Ones, the ones who had come for Elorna, the ones who’d taken her beloved sister’s future, her hopes, and all her dreams when she revealed her power.

  Whenever a woman proved to possess an affinity for spirits, the queen sent the Silent Ones to retrieve her and offer her a choice of two futures: Become a Silent One, one of the queen’s enforcers, forsaking your family, your identity, and your voice, and swearing obedience to the queen. Or submit to the Island of Testing, Akena, in hopes of becoming an heir. Only a rare few survived that test, joining the queen’s other heirs. Most who tried, like Elorna, died there and were never seen again.

  It was a terrible choice.

  It was no choice at all.

  “They’ll come for you,” Kelo said, anguish in his voice. “They’ll take you.”

  She couldn’t think of what to say. Looking up, she saw her parents were crying, their arms around each other. Others had formed a semicircle, all of them staring at Mayara and Kelo.

  There were no words for anyone to say.

  She’d saved them. But in doing so, she’d doomed herself.

  Chapter Four

  Mayara wrapped her arm around her mother’s shoulders. Her father sat on her opposite side, cradling his wife’s hands in his. But Mayara didn’t think Mother even knew they were there. Mumbling softly, she rocked back and forth.

  Beyond them, the sea was dark but quiet. The waves slapped the shore far below with an even regularity that was almost soothing. The only other sounds were the soft whisper of voices as families consoled one another and the weeping of those who still had the strength to cry.