There was a certain satisfaction that came with the last breath of a dying man. Feeling it ghost across my lips, knowing I was the last thing that man would ever feel, was empowering. It was also time consuming. Men were slow to drown, slow to do anything except show anger.
The man I had in my grasp was desperately trying to free himself. His cheeks bulged as he pulled at my grip in a pathetic attempt to get back to the surface that was taunting him just out of reach. He managed to rip an arm away from me, but he only succeeded in tearing his own flesh open on my talons, tinging the water around us pink.
While he was able to get some space from me, it didn’t last long. Using the strength of my tail, I surged forward and wrapped my talons back around his arm, pulling him close to me.
Bubbles escaped from his nose and mouth, and his body thrashed, still trying to escape. His obvious panic and suffering did nothing to me, and I only watched in utter indifference as he continued to try to break free of my grip. But I was a syren. And he was just a man.
His movements slowed, and he cast one last longing glance at the light fracturing down through the surface of the water. He tried to pull away again, but his strength was gone, and the attempt was pitiful. Watching him, I bared my pointed teeth at him, intent on making his last emotion be that of fear. Not of drowning, but of me.
The thrashing of the man in my arms finally ceased, lulling the water back into brief calmness once more, and I pulled back, supporting his body floating in the water. Blank, unseeing eyes stared back at me as I released his body into the cold depths. I watched him sink into the water, seeing his limbs float away from his body, reaching up toward the surface as if he could still escape his fate. His death stirred nothing in my chest. He was simply another face I would soon forget, another insignificant man who would never harm a woman again.
Beyond the faint ripples left by the man’s sinking body, I observed Maira releasing her own corpses into the sea. My fellow syren was blonde, with an anger that rivaled the men we targeted. The wreckage of the ship our victims had inhabited now surrounded us, the splintered wood bobbing in the waves and shredded canvas blocking the sunlight from reaching the depths as it sank.
“Is that all of them?” Maira asked, her sharp voice bored as she dodged the debris to move toward me in the water. A flutter of a sail fell in her path, and her talons ripped through it with ease. She moved through the gap in the fabric, sidling up beside me.
Searching through the waters before us, I saw only sinking bodies. There was no one left alive in these waters but us. “Yes.”
“Let’s get back.” She dismissively turned away from the ship, swishing her lavender tail to power through the water, leaving a rippling of bubbles behind her.
Casting a last glance over my shoulder at the destruction we had caused, I turned and followed my companion back toward our home, Neamh na Mara. The heavens of the sea.
The sea caves I now resided in were beautiful, jutting up from the ocean floor and creating a sanctuary that protected us from anyone or anything that might stumble across our home. The caves’ passageways, forged from years of the sea’s relentless power, twined and burrowed through the cragged rock. Swimming through the arched main entry, Maira and I moved from the tunnels to a large open cavern.
The others had already gathered there, resting on the age-smoothed stalagmites rising from the sea floor. Kyla, with her dark ebony skin and darker hair, watched us closely as we entered, her bright gold tail swishing lazily. Next to her sat Iona and Nerina, who were not related, yet looked as if they could be twins with their light brown skin and caramel hair. Even turned into syrens, their tails were similarly colored with splashes of purple and blue.
“Brigid, Maira, report.” Our queen’s melodic voice was confident and proud, demanding respect in the same way the bold jut of her chin and set of her bare shoulders did. Her white hair lifted off her shoulders with a stray current flowing through the caves.
“One ship. No survivors,” Maira said from beside me, her scales catching the low light as her tail moved restlessly. “There was no harm to us.”
“Good, they deserved to be punished.” Cliodhna glided toward us through the water, her silver tail lazily swaying back and forth, the light reflecting off her scales and bouncing onto her pale skin. My heart swelled at the pride in her voice. “My creations, you did well, as always.”
Both Maira and I respectfully bowed our heads to the one who had saved us, rescued us from the cruelty of men, and breathed new life into our veins. Our queen raised her webbed fingers and laid them gently upon my head, trailing her sharp nails through my fiery red-orange locks, which undulated behind me in the ever-moving water.
“The wrath of men will never be as great as the wrath of the sea,” I said, repeating the words she had said to us often. Taking in the flowing white hair that trailed behind her, her sharp cheekbones and piercing icy blue eyes, Cliodhna reminded me of a queen in every sense of the word. And she had chosen me. She had saved me when I had been thrown overboard many years ago. Unbidden, thoughts of my past returned. My stomach twisted at the memories, my heart racing. Remembering the icy chill of the water as I was thrown into the sea, my body shivered, my skin tightening. The cold of the water didn’t affect me now, not in this form, but the ghost of icy needles lingered.
“That’s right,” Cliodhna said solemnly, moving her hand to my face. Her nails caught on my skin, the webbing scraping across the roundness of my cheeks as she stroked it. Even in the cold water that filled our caves, her fingers were frigid, and I shivered again. “You all are my greatest creations, my greatest pride.”
My head bowed again, as did the heads of the others, as we honored our goddess. Our queen demanded respect, but we would all freely give it. I raised my head back up to look at Cliodhna. “You saved us all. We owe you our lives.”
“That you do,” she said, looking back at us with a smile that displayed her mouth full of pointed teeth. It wasn’t a friendly smile. It didn’t reach her eyes, but instead settled on her lips only, not disturbing her cheeks or wrinkling her forehead. “How many men today?”
Maira swam forward; she was always so eager to answer. Maira was bloodthirsty, and out of all of us here, she enjoyed inflicting pain upon men with her song and her touch more than the rest of us. “It was a small crew, ten or so. We drowned them all after they jumped into the water. The ship drifted and ran aground.”
Cordelia, another redhead like me, watched us with interest, her blue eyes more focused on Maira than me. She smiled widely at the news.
Cliodhna raised her chin, baring her teeth in a semblance of a smile. “Good. There must be no one left to bear witness to our existence.”
“As you command,” Maira responded with another low bow of her head.
I was indifferent to the suffering of men, numb after all these years of killing the men who fell prey to our song. Their lives—and their deaths—held no interest to me, not anymore. I killed because I was told to, because that’s what we did as syrens and servants of Cliodhna. It made me feel no sadness. It made me feel no happiness. It just…was.
“We have survived this long because no one knows we truly exist. Those who do witness us are called crazy and written off by their people. But as more and more people travel through my waters, the likelihood of someone believing them grows.” Cliodhna’s voice was firm and brokered no arguments, though none of us would ever argue with her.
“Are we in danger?” I asked. My stomach clenched, old feelings of anxiety threatening to bubble up again. Clenching my fists, I dug my talons into the palms of my hands, giving myself something else to focus on. I was not that girl any longer. I was the one to be feared now. I was the threat.
Cliodhna looked at me, her icy blue eyes softening almost imperceptibly. “Not at all, my child. We are safe down here. And men will never be a threat to us. I promised you that when I took you all in, and I will keep my word. I am growing in my powers and will continue to do so to keep you all safe. But we must be cautious, even still.”
“We will be,” Maira vowed.
We all nodded along with Maira, Kyla moving from her seat at the rocks to cross her arm over her chest and bow her head. “We will take care of each other.”
“Men will never be a threat to us. Know that,” Cliodhna repeated, jutting her chin out proudly and looking around at all of us. “I will protect you, of course, but more importantly, you have the power and the strength to protect yourselves now.”
The room fell silent then, and I pondered the news Cliodhna had given. The depths of the seas were our home, and if we were discovered, they would attempt to control us as they attempted to control the sea’s surface. Men roamed the seas, fishing and trading, and pretended that they alone held dominion over the sea. A delusional belief, but one that had permeated mankind as time drew on.
Being syrens made us powerful, but we all had troubling histories with men, and I knew it unnerved each of us to think about the possibility. Anger flared in Maira’s eyes, and her fists clenched at her sides.
In the corner of the cavern, Kyla’s face turned resolved, but I could see the fear shining in the amber of her eyes. Of us all, she had the most reason to be afraid of men, rather than just vengeful. Before she had been a syren, Kyla had been a wife and a mother. One day, she had angered her husband, and he threw her from a cliff in a fit of rage.
The oldest of us, Kyla, had been a guide to each of us as we entered the fold, and seeing her discomfort made my own body tense. I fought back the anxiety that had taken me years to overcome after my transformation. Men would not harm me again. I would rather die—no, I would rather kill than be afraid of being harmed by men.
“Go rest for the evening,” Cliodhna said, raising her chin. Her fingers flicked dismissively, motioning for us to disperse. Without a second glance, she turned and left the cavern, heading toward her own chambers.
The others began to follow, moving toward their rooms within the caves. Kyla caught my gaze and nodded to the side, asking me to linger.
“You’re clenching your shoulders again,” she said, her soft voice full of concern. She reached out and grabbed my hand, her dark skin contrasting with my own pale flesh. “What happened?”
I shrugged, pulling my fingers away from hers gently. Her pity and concern was not what I needed right now. It would only make me give more attention to the emotions I sought to quell. “I’m fine, Kyla.”
She raised an eyebrow, quirking up the corner of her lip in a sardonic smile. “No, you’re not. But if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”
Kyla had always been able to see through me—see through all of us. And I knew she was concerned, but my anxiety was something I had to deal with on my own. Or rather, something I had to push down on my own. Regardless of what I did with my anxiety, I didn’t need Kyla’s help with it. “I’m fine.”
She looked at me for a long moment, her dark amber eyes drilling holes in me, as if she could see into my very soul. “Okay. Goodnight, Brigid. May your dreams give you guidance.”
“And yours,” I replied, forcing a smile onto my face.