NILUSAW, I


The ocean is a dark place. Cold, salty, and ethereal. In these depths, Pom felt timeless. She swam past schools of fish and through misshapen rock formations, her eyes accustomed to surveying the dark murkiness of what could be lurking miles ahead of her.

Her days off were lonely ones. She had no real friends to call upon and no interests she could pursue leisurely. Something always came up, always pulling her back to the Ocean Guard. When called to take up the sword, she answered, no complaints.

On her days off, she would attempt to get closer to the Ridge. It was ever mysterious, dangerous, and no mermaid would attempt to explore it alone. In the sand and wrapped around malformed land pieces were tiny strings of lights that created a path for sentry mermaids. When the path veered straight off into darkness, Pom knew she'd be near.

She paused and slowed her propel through the lit path. Underwater, sounds were often warped and slushy. There was no mistaking the clanging approaching from behind.

"Rocca!" Pom shouted as she flipped around, bubbles erupting from her mouth. The small young mermaid inching towards her halted. Her radiant cyan stone necklace yanked around her neck at the stop in flow. Pom's hands flicked fast through the water, illuminated by similar cyan stone bracelets. (Why are you following!?)

Rocca was 14, newly admitted into the Sire academies and donning on their trainee Ocean Guard uniform, which consisted of loud, spiked shoulder pads. A spear was hooked to the back of her breastplate.

(Where are you going..?) Rocca signed helplessly. (Mom said to return to work..)

Pom groaned and tossed her head back. She knew this would happen if she tried venturing out this far. This time, she had to put her fin down.

(No!) She clapped her fingers to her thumb in protest.

Rocca looked ready to cry as she made a pleading motion with her hands.

Pom shook her head. (I will sign this SLOW.) She put her hand to her chest, made a cutting motion towards her inner right elbow, then yanked her left fingers from the top of her right hand. (MY! DAY! OFF!)

Rocca repeated her pleading motion. When Pom merrily crossed her arms and waited for her to either speak or leave, Rocca signed (Take CORALINE work shift.)

Pom's chin lifted as she finally understood. So she had to cover the incompetency of her flighty other stepsister.

Rocca pulled the spear out from behind her and held it out for Pom to take.

(First,) Pom signed before she took the staff, (I go to the RIDGE.)

The comfort in Rocca's eyes drained. (RIDGE?) She mirrored the chopping motion Pom made with her hand. Pom nodded.

Rocca glanced aside and slowly nodded in understanding. She lingered for a moment, her fingers poised as if she would try to dissuade her. Instead, she waved goodbye and with one tail flick, gracefully flipped over. She fluttered away like a silk dress.

Pom huffed at how unfortunate it was that a beautiful swimmer would be grinded into the sand after years of Sire academy training.

It was unfortunate, but that was how it was. Every mermaid born in Berdeng Da Gat must face the conscription. Only those with enough money could buy their way out.

Pom had the money. It was reparations from a long time ago, enough to free her from the life of a soldier. But she refused to bow down; both her birth parents were part of the Ocean Guard, and she wanted to honor their memory by rising in its ranks. To do what time wouldn't let them.

So she bared the staff, and she bared all the work brought down on her by her stepsisters and stepmother. All this, she knew, would pay off one day.

Even if it meant a life alone.


The time piece chained to Pom's sleeveless turtleneck wetsuit read that it'd been half an hour since she left the lit path where she ran into Rocca. The only lights illuminating her path now were the stones she wore. Her destination wasn't that far from the edge of the Ocean Guard sentry paths, but without a boat it took her much longer.

She drifted slower through the water. She was nearing the edge of the shelf. From here it was pitch black.

Beyond this point was the Ridge.

She unsheathed the spear attached to her back and plunged it into the ground. From there she used the staff to steady herself. She rested for a while, watching smaller fish and sea creatures tread in the everlasting darkness.

This was as far as she's ever gotten. Two years on the Ocean Guard, two years of straying out to the Ridge. She'd always pass over it but never sunk inside. She was hesitant to try. The rumors were abundant.

Monsters lived in the Ridge.

It wasn't a myth or a story fabricated by the senior soldiers, it was history. She knew it to be true because her mother had been caught in the middle.

When she was still a child, young and hopeful and cheering her parents on from the sidelines, five godly monsters had risen from the Ridge. No one is entirely sure what spurred the attack, but they were filled with a bloodlust that the bodies of hundreds of mermaids could not quench. They were elemental beasts capable of creating mountains, splitting seas, commanding thunder, whipping hurricanes, and drawing lava.

Mermaids and their little forks didn't stand a chance.

Pom pulled a craggily, sharp, black and blue crystallized stone from her pocket. This was all that was left of those monsters—well, one of those monsters. It was the soul of the ice monster, who'd later been named Yelo. It was one of the two monsters that'd been killed—the other three, she wasn't sure where they were today. The imperial knights and the senate didn't share anything about their disappearances to common folk like her.

She only had Yelo's soul because her mother had washed up on shore with it, clutching it with her last breath and covered in ice and discolored markings. The soul of Yelo granted the holder its devastating ice powers.

Pom only used it when things were getting desperate. Captain Vila, her commanding officer and stepmother, was the only one who knew she wielded it. If anyone else found out about it, it would be taken away. It was a historical treasure after all.

But Pom refused to give it away. It was hers and hers alone. Screw history.

Her back straightened. She heard something coming from the direction of the Ridge.

A fish? No, that's too small.

A whale? It wasn't big enough, not loud enough.

A monster? They sound like whales. It was nowhere near the scale of the elemental monsters.

A shark. Most likely a shark. It was approaching with a familiar rhythm. Pom pocketed the monster soul and poised her tail as she positioned her hands on the spear, ready to pull it from the ground as fast as possible.

A cloud.

A murky, sandy cloud was climbing for the surface. Pom wasn't sure what she saw—two tentacles, a claw? She couldn't risk it. With a heavy push, she and her spear jetted for the cloud. Five seconds till impact. Three seconds. One second.

Clang!


Clang?

Why was she hearing steel?

Her spear hit something thin, almost like a blade. It must've been her imagination—it was clearly some sort of shell arm. She swung again blindly until she was enveloped by the murky cloud. A shadow came at her left—she flipped and caught it with the staff of her spear.

Right side, intercept.

Swipe up, the creature swiped down.

Their strength was pushing her back. She sunk down and struck upwards—clang!, again, she was stopped. She was parried for several swipes, unrelenting and hungry. She couldn't believe this—no openings! No shape! where was this creature? How long was its arms?

It couldn't be a shark—it had to be a monster from the Ridge!

She couldn't possibly beat it on her own—not without her sentry armor and personal arsenal. A plain bronze spear and a weightless expanse wouldn't be enough.

She pulled backwards, sliding out of the sand cloud, and withdrew the monster soul from her pocket. As she tightened her grip on the sharp edges, its cold center began to heat with magic.

The shadowy figure launched at her—she saw a hand, a dagger!

She aimed the flowing cold energy towards that dagger—and in a split second, the energy was gone, and the monster soul tumbled down into the briny deep. The dagger had flown up so fast and over her hand that she would've lost it had it not been the flat end that struck her.

When the figure came bustling straight at her, dagger going for the luminous stones around her neck, Pom dropped her spear. She clapped her hands together, pushing her just low enough to catch the figure's body. With a heavy push, she flipped backwards—

They crashed into the sand of the shelf, jewelry jingling. Pom's grip slipped in the tumble. When she was able to flip back over, the figure did the same. She reached out a hand, lighting the figure briefly with her bracelet.

She couldn't believe it. Matched, in the water, even with her monster soul.

By a merman.