The sharpest of things keep their edge even in the dullest of settings.
And so, my coral knife shines through the shadows I call home. Rendered ghost white with magic, the serrated blade sharp is enough to cleave a single hair in two.
Beautiful. Deadly. Perfect.
I only hope it’s enough for when they arrive.
Because in the hours since the little mermaid left the sea for land, chasing her true love, I felt it. A tug. A thread pulled clear and released. I felt it in my bones, rotting through the marrow, septic in my lungs, gut, and heart, and yet, this jolt of pain was bound to come. It needed to come. The sea’s monopoly is not sustainable.
In the time that I’ve lived below the surface, the magical balance has shifted, the power slowly tipping from land to sea, until the majority of the land’s magic had sunken to depths of the sea king’s domain, destined to obey an unnatural master. Now the imbalance is so glaring it’s all I can see beyond the lair that is my cage, beyond my forest of polypi, the fissures in the earth bubbling with turfmoor, and the violent whirlpools spinning sirens in the deep. Past the eerie blue radiance of the sea king’s castle and its grounds, magic teems, heavy, overflowing.
After the little mermaid left, I began to think how impossible it is that the magic on land has all but died away, though it’s simple, really. There were so few of us witches. Hunted, killed, banished. We were eliminated one by one for centuries, until the land was nearly drained of its magic and those who knew how to control it. From Maren Spliid and her death at the hands of the witch-hunter king, all the way through the years to me, each of us cast into the sea. But I did not die, not in every way, and so my magic is still my own, a mix of land and sea.
I remember my time above, and the thaw inside me crystallizes, clear and blue. I was a witch turned underground by fear—I didn’t even know how to use my strength. It was how Tante Hansa tried to keep me safe. Hiding away my power, repressing it. As if it were something that could be shuttered away in a cupboard from prying eyes. Out of sight, out of mind.
But now, my eyes are open.
The balance of magic has always been precarious. Built on exchange, all of it. Not just the spells, the whole system. And the ebb and flow of power is skewed toward those who seek to own it. Yet as the little mermaid set foot on land, taking her powers with her, the scale tipped back toward the land just a sliver. The land’s shockwave of relief sent that ripple pouring through my bones, but my brief pain is of no concern. I do not need this magic to live.
There is another who has much to fear.
I tuck the knife away, safe in my cave, and pull out my spell books, presents from Tante Hansa, one in each tentacle, plus two in each hand. I settle into the pewter sands and thumb through them. Tante Hansa always told me that magic will forever seek equilibrium. Now that the door has been finally opened, perhaps I can hasten the land’s gain.
That’s when the polypus closest to my cave clears its throat, and the voice I took from the little mermaid cuts into my insulated world. “Weren’t your efforts to curb the Tørhed enough of a disaster? You want to try again?”
I startle a little—so used to fifty years of silence. Anna. She can surely feel the imbalance too. Though I gave her the little mermaid’s voice, we’ve yet to talk much about what she did, why she did it, and why I did what I had to, to save Nik. But now is not the time to start.
“This is different,” I say. My spell of abundance to end the sea’s Tørhed and bring life to our fisherman’s nets created an imbalance that angered Urda. My desire here is just the opposite. “I have to try.”
“Fine,” Anna goes on. “But you won’t find what you want in those books.”
I turn the page of my spell book in defiance.
Almost as an exclamation, there’s the distant sound of an explosion, big enough to push the whirlpools off axis, turfmoor burping, sea floor quaking into the water and then drifting into a new arrangement. My polypi forest— like Anna, bodies discarded and moored by magic—twists and hisses, waving in the disturbance.
Yet another sea mine—a bomb hidden in the water, eager to blow a hole in the right ship and make bones of targeted men.
There’s a war raging on the surface. Over land and sea, and even in the air, humans under many flags have banded together to kill one another. There is no magic involved, of course. If there were more than a meager amount of magic left on land, perhaps this war might not be waged. Still, the search for power—magical or not—will always be. Once the mines and the bullets stop, lines will be redrawn, and a different type of power will shift. Another imbalance.
Anna starts a tart reply. “Evie, you—”
“Létta.” Stop, I command. Because something’s not right.
Then, as if in answer to the sudden silence, a great voice booms into my lair, echoing hard enough to rattle my teeth and bend the branches of my bone-thick polypi forest.
“It can’t be—the great sea witch talks to herself?”
I freeze as he comes into view, power and magic dripping off him in a terrible wake.
The sea king.
His hair is the color of snow in the thick of winter, eyes crystal blue, skin glowing with almost too much life, flush and vibrant. Atop his head is a crown of pearls fitted to a cluster of eel skulls, jaws pried open in wide V shapes, their teeth on edge. I have never seen his crown in person before, but it is the very semblance of life and death, and power. A reminder of what can be taken—the fruits of one’s labor, sucked out, even when one bares fangs.
The sea king smiles, and it is as brilliant and deadly as one would expect. “It must get so lonely, stuck in the shadows by yourself.”
He would know. It’s not my magic or memories that keep me here, it’s the king’s. So afraid of what I can do, though he floats before me, amplified in a way that isn’t natural, even for magical creatures.
He has a penchant for the nectar of the rare ríkifjor flower—a drug that both harnesses magic and intensifies it. But surveying him now, it’s almost as if the ríkifjor has fused to his blood, bone, and skin. That imbalance I feel, it leans hard into this man, who has absorbed as much magic as his body can hold and then doubled it through the constant, steady ingestion of ríkifjor.
Looking at him can only be compared to staring directly into the sun.
He is power.
But if he’s here for the first time in fifty years, there is something his power cannot hand him.
“At times, Your Highness, this cove has felt like a prison,” I say, and his smile curls up. “But just because I cannot leave doesn’t mean I don’t receive visitors.”
The sea king’s posture stiffens. Yes, this is why he’s here. This powerful man has lost something important to him. His daughter is gone, and perhaps more importantly, so is her magic, which shares a direct tie to his. As I suspected, the thread pulled from me must have been so much worse for him. “Reverse the spell and bring her back. Now,” he commands.
I smile, reclining on my tentacles like a queen. I cock a brow. “Do you even know which one is gone?” He notoriously treats his daughters like pawns in a game, using their beauty and their talents when convenient.
“Insulting me will bring no good to you,” he says, but my smile doesn’t waver except to grow with satisfaction when he says her name. “Alia belongs in the sea. Return her.”
“Your Highness, you should know better than anyone that even you can’t control a strong-headed woman,” I say, and I know he’s thinking of his first queen, Mette, the human he saved but then couldn’t keep, her heart cracking as she longed both for him and for the life she was meant to lead. “Alia must be free to make her own choices and live her own life—experience love and freedom. But instead, you trap her, and all your people, under your thumb with false promises of protection from humans. Not since Annemette—”
“Never speak that name to me again,” he growls, his fury sputtering between us. She’s the one who left him, betraying him, his family, and the secrets of the mermaids. I hope Anna is really listening to him now.
As his nostrils flare, I look him dead in the eyes. “Like Annemette, Alia has four days to make the boy love her and live, or fail and die. Either way, you’ll never see her again.”
“I can destroy you!”
I bare my teeth. “Ah, but you haven’t. Even with all the power you steal, you still need me.” My voice gains strength with each word. He’s desperate. He can’t retrieve Alia on his own. There is an element of my magic he will never master. “I can bring Alia back, but I will need something from you in return. I have my price.”
The sea king’s lips drop open. I have him backed into a corner, and he knows it. My ask is simple, and only he can do it. He can’t give me my life back, my lost time, or Nik— may he rest in the tide—but he can unchain me from my lair. The words are on my tongue, ready, when something nasty ticks across his handsome features.
“You have your price, witch, but you forget your place.”
His teeth click together, and the blue of his eyes goes cold. It’s then that the wet, hard certainty of my mistake reveals itself to me. This man won’t kill me, but for the abundance of magic that he is, heavy and unwieldy, he can hurt me so badly, I will wish I were dead.
The power within him—amplified, multiplied, looted from land and sea—expands, bursts outward, like a living bomb. A sea mine of magic, aimed straight at me.
“Morna, herfiligr kvennali∂!” Waste away, wretched woman!
The words hit my ears with a force of magic I’ve never felt, slamming into me with the power of the sun falling out of the sky and barreling toward the earth, bringing enough light to dissolve all of us the instant before impact.
And then my world, already so dark, fades to complete, flat black.