The man’s heavy black leather boots crunched the pebbles and stones beneath him as he walked across the shingle beach. The night air was cool and smelled strongly of salt and seaweed. The water that gently lapped at the rocks sounded so calm and relaxing, you would never know the secrets and fears it hid that night.
He walked towards the water’s edge then splashed through the gentle tide until he passed an outcrop of rocks and found her.
The mermaid lay still, frozen in the surf, her eyes glassy as she gazed up at the night sky. The water that had once been her home now teasing her as it tried to call her back, lapping tantalisingly over her shimmering turquoise tail.
The man grunted as he scooped his hands under her armpits and began to drag her away over the rocky ground, her cold skin glowing translucent in the moonlight, her green hair plastered to her face and chest like seaweed.
From the water, three pairs of eyes watched.
“We couldn’t have done anything,” said Ashalia grimly.
“I don’t believe you,” said Hexanna, the rage in her voice barely disguised.
“We need help,” whispered Brinly. “We’ve tried, we’ve failed. How many more do we need to lose before we just admit it?”
“And who do you think can help us?” asked Ashalia, turning on her friend with anger, the water sloshing around her. “Who could possibly do anything to stop it?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Brinly. “But there has to be someone. There just has to be.”
Lilly Prospero gazed out of the window of her dad’s car, the traffic on the motorway trundling past and her father’s news debate show failing to inspire her mind to anything other than drudgery. Snoring next to her, her head on Lilly’s shoulder, was her best friend Saffron Jones.
“Half an hour,” said Lilly’s mum from the front seat. “We’ll be there in time for lunch.”
“Cool,” Lilly mumbled unenthusiastically.
“Cheer up, love,” said Lilly’s dad. “It’s a holiday!”
“Whatever,” muttered Lilly. She was aware that her parents were exchanging looks of desperation, but turned away and gazed out of the window again. She didn’t want to go to Whitstable. She didn’t want to go anywhere. Just two weeks ago her pet rabbit, and Guardian, Jeffrey had been murdered, a woman intent on murdering thousands of people in the name of power had tried to kill Lilly, and Lilly and Saffron had killed her to save their own lives. And she couldn’t tell anybody about it. All she wanted to do was curl up in a ball, eat chocolate, read books and try to process everything she had seen and done. Instead she was on the way to Whitstable for two weeks on a pebbly beach trying to pretend she wasn’t an Ultimate Power with the ability to control and manipulate the essence of life itself with a blink of the eye.
The car pulled off the motorway and Saffron snorted a little, a blob of drool dripping onto Lilly’s pink hoody. Lilly smiled, she was glad her friend was sleeping. For two weeks now Saffron had been waking in the night screaming and had been absolutely exhausted because of it.
“Here we go,” said Lilly’s mum, as the car pulled up to a hotel which looked like a long row of attractive terraced houses with a long white balcony connecting them. “The Marine Hotel.”
“Are we here?” asked Saffron, rubbing her eyes as the car engine noise died. Her long red hair was messy and sticking up at funny angles and her green eyes looked dull compared to their usual sparkle, but she was smiling.
“Can we go down to the beach?” Lilly asked her mum as they grabbed their suitcases.
“Sure,” her mum agreed. “We’ll check in and take the bags up, then we’ll come and get you ready to go and find lunch. Stay in sight of the hotel, okay?”
The girls thanked her and headed over the road and down onto the sand and pebble beach.
“This is lame,” grumbled Saffron as she stepped awkwardly on the pebbles, her sandals not offering much protection. “We can’t even sunbathe. These stupid little rocks will get in the way!”
“The sea’s beautiful though,” said Lilly, gazing out at the water as the light danced on the surface in glowing spots of yellow and white.
“I don’t like the water,” said Saffron, her face darkening.
“I know,” said Lilly, slipping an arm through her friend’s. Last time Saffron had been in the water she had drowned, only surviving it because of Lilly’s power, and at a cost. Her life was now entirely dependent on Lilly’s own, tying the two girls together on a level so fundamental that being apart for too long caused Saffron physical pain.
They sat down on some rocks and Lilly closed her eyes as the sun warmed her face, the sound of the ocean offering a soothing background noise. She tried to embrace the calming sensation and let everything she was stressing about wash away. If she was here she might as well try and enjoy it.
“What was that?” asked Saffron suddenly. Lilly opened her eyes and followed Saffron’s eyeline.
“What?” asked Lilly, staring.
“Someone’s out there.”
“Probably a diver or something,” said Lilly gently, knowing her friend was afraid. “Don’t worry.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Saffron, looking anxious, and peering through squinted eyes across the water.
Behind them they heard Lilly’s mum call out, “Girls!”
As they stood to go to her, Saffron stopped and stared out to sea one last time, a concerned look on her face.
“Honestly, nobody’s in danger, don’t worry,” Lilly reassured her, putting an arm through Saffron’s and giving it a quick squeeze.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Saffron agreed, sounding unconvinced, and together they walked back towards the hotel.
“Are you sure she’s the one?” asked Brinly, squinting in the sunlight towards the shore.
“Yes,” said Oberus, his grey eyes foggy and his green hair thin and patchy.
“But she’s just a child!” protested Ashalia. “What could she possibly do?”
The elderly merman turned his wizened face towards Ashalia, a look on his face that made Brinly’s spine shudder. “Are you questioning the knowledge of The Ancients?”
“No,” said Ashalia frowning. “But how do you expect some human child to do anything to help us?”
“I do not know how, I just know why,” he said, turning back to shore and staring blindly at the two girls that walked down the beach towards them.
“Okay then, why?” asked Hexanna, irritation creeping into her voice. Brinly shot her a look, nervous about an Ancient being involved at all, especially if he was upset by the process of helping, but Hexanna pointedly ignored her.
“Because it is her duty,” said Oberus, looking at Hexanna with obvious disdain.
“It’s a human’s duty to help us?” Ashalia asked in disbelief.
“Humans are the whole problem!” cried Hexanna in despair, running her long porcelain white fingers through her short green hair.
“I have given you the tools to help yourselves,” said Oberus, huffily. “If you do not take my advice, it is not I who shall suffer. It is not my people being hunted.”
Ashalia watched as the Ancient disappeared below the surface and swam out of sight. “What happened to that ‘we’re all one race’ claptrap?” she asked Hexanna.
“You know they only want us to buy into that so we don’t cause trouble,” Hexanna grumbled. “You know they don’t give a damn about us! Wait. Where’s Brin?”
The two mermaids looked around in confusion, when suddenly Brinly’s head bobbed up above the surface just metres away from where the human children sat on the shore.
“What’s she doing?” hissed Ashalia. “They’ll see her!”
They dived down, swam through the water and grabbed Brinly by the fin, pulling her roughly below the surface and out of sight.
After an afternoon of wandering around Whitstable, checking out the views from the harbour and listening to a folk band play outside The Old Neptune, it was agreed that dinner and bed was in order.
“You girls can choose a pay per view film, but only one, okay?” said Lilly’s mum sternly as they got up to their rooms. “And don’t go raiding the mini bar!”
“Yes mum,” said Lilly as she and Saffron headed into the twin room they were sharing next to her parent’s. “Goodnight!”
“I wish we were old enough to go out drinking and stuff,” grumbled Saffron, as she gazed glumly out of the window, her chin on her hand. “Look at all those people out there having fun and we’re stuck in here.”
“I don’t want to go out,” said Lilly, picking up the remote and flicking on the TV. “What do you want to watch? They’re showing The Hunger Games.”
Saffron ignored her and kept staring out of the window. It was nearly ten thirty but outside was still fairly light in the orange summer sunset, and the sound of the people moving along the sea front was clear. Lilly kept flicking through channels. She had no desire to be out there with people. She was tired in so many ways and just wanted to rest. Besides, things always seemed to go wrong when she went off on adventures. She had no desire for yet more disasters in her life.
“Lilly, there’s someone out there,” Saffron said, pushing the window open and craning out to see.
“Of course there is,” said Lilly, rolling her eyes and setting up the film ready to view. “It’s Saturday night in a tourist town.”
“No!” cried Saffron, turning to her with a wild look in her eyes. “In the water!”
“Okay, so someone’s taking a swim!” Lilly felt exasperated.
“No, they’re too far out. They could be in trouble!” Saffron insisted, staring out of the window then turning to Lilly, a look of excitement on her face. “Come on!”
“What?” demanded Lilly, sitting up as Saffron raced past her. “Where are you going?”
“To see who it is!”
“What?” Lilly asked again, getting off the bed and staring at her friend in bewilderment. “Why?”
“Because we have to!”
“We do not have to do anything!” Lilly insisted angrily.
Saffron turned to her and stared at her intently. “What did we say?”
“When?” Lilly asked guiltily, knowing full well to what her friend referred.
“Dunno,” Lilly muttered, looking down and tucking her short brown hair behind her ear then picking nervously at her thumb nail.
“Yes you do!” Saffron said, annoyed. “The way we do good with what we have is to help people. Now I’ve spotted someone who might need help and you’re just going to ignore it?”
“They don’t need help!” Lilly protested, fully aware she was going to lose this battle of wills but needing to at least try. “They’re taking a swim!”
“At night? Alone?” Saffron asked. “Seriously?”
They stood in silence, staring at one another for a moment then Lilly flung her hands in the air. “Fine. We’ll go. But when we see everything is fine we need to get straight back here before my mum finds out we’ve gone. She’ll do her nut if she realises we’ve disappeared!”
“Deal,” said Saffron, grinning.
Grabbing their bags and the door key, the two girls slipped out and hurried through the corridors keeping their steps quiet and their ears pricked. Lilly’s heart pounded in her chest. This was such a terrible idea. She rubbed her sweaty hands on her jeans.
“Shh,” Saffron whispered theatrically to Lilly, peering round a corner towards the main staircase down to reception. Saffron did not seem to share Lilly’s fear and instead seemed to be drunk on excitement.
“Clear?” Lilly whispered, looking around nervously, certain her parents would come walking up the stairs as they headed down, or hotel staff would spot them sneaking out and sound the alert. This was such a bad idea. She really didn’t need more trouble in her life!
“Let’s go,” said Saffron in a hushed voice, looking back at Lilly and nodding confidently.
Together they stepped round the corner and walked straight into a young man with a porter’s uniform on, pulling a gold suitcase rack behind him. “Ouch!” he cried, startled and wincing.
Lilly quickly pulled her foot from his boot and felt her cheeks flush. “Oh, sorry, I erm, sorry,” she stuttered awkwardly.
“That’s okay,” he said with a broad, professional smile, then looked them up and down curiously, a smile playing on his lips. “Where are you two going?”
“Listen up… Hogarth,” said Saffron, smiling broadly as she peered at the badge on the boy’s uniform, and using an odd fake voice that made Lilly pull a face. “We’re just popping out for a moment. We won’t be long. So just carry on with your suitcase work and we’ll be back safe before you know it.”
“Right…” he said, cocking his head to the side. “Does yeh mum know you’re sneaking out?”
“Yes,” Lilly lied then felt her cheeks redden further. “I mean… we’re not sneaking. We’re just walking. Like normal people. People walk all the time you know!”
Saffron shot her a look and Lilly shrugged guiltily.
He laughed loudly and grinned at them. “Sure you are,” he said, winking at Lilly. “Well, keep safe, yeah? And I won’t say anything.”
“Thanks Hogarth,” said Saffron.
“Dougal,” he said. “The name’s Dougal.”
“Bye Hogarth,” said Lilly.
Aware that the young man was watching them as they walked away, Lilly and Saffron hurried down the stairs, across the reception hall and out of the front doors into the warm breeze of the evening, without looking back.
“And how do you propose we make contact?” asked Hexanna grumpily.
“I don’t know,” said Brinly with a sigh, pushing the dark green hairs away from her face, irritated by the way the tendrils clung to her cheeks. “I hate being up here. Hair is not designed to be out of the water!”
“Look, all these humans trotting by and not one of them noticing us,” Ashalia said, rolling her eyes. “I hate humans. They’re so convinced they’re the centre of the universe. They’re either assuming we don’t exist or they know we do and they want to kill us. They’re a horrible species.”
“Look,” whispered Brinly, peering towards the shore then ducking out of sight, swimming as fast as she could.
“Not again!” exclaimed Hexanna as they dived down after her, chasing her tail as fast as they could.
Coming up to the surface next to Brinly, Ashalia spotted the two human children racing down the beach towards them, engrossed in animated conversation.
“Hide!” Hexanna cried, tugging at Brinly’s arm, but Brinly refused to be pulled away, pulling her arm back.
“You want to make contact?” asked Brinly, turning to her friends. “Then now is our chance.”
“But how?” whispered Ashalia, nerves betraying her usually confident attitude. “Wait, Brin… we should talk about this more…”
Brinly grinned at them and then turned towards the shore. “HEY!”
“There’s nobody out there!” Lilly insisted, nervously looking back at the hotel, convinced she was going to see her mother storming out after them flapping her arms in panic because Hogarth had raised the alarm.
“There is,” said Saffron defiantly, staring ahead. “Look! Right there!”
Lilly sighed and turned back to look out to sea but still couldn’t see anything. “Come on Saff! You’re imagining it!”
“No I’m not!” Saffron insisted. “I know I saw someone! Why don’t you believe me?”
“Saff,” Lilly put a hand on her friend’s elbow and tried to pull her back from the water. “Come on. I know you have nightmares about the water. It’s okay to be a bit paranoid.”
Saffron spun towards her angrily. “I am not paranoid!”
“HEY!” came a voice.
Both girls turned suddenly towards the water, where they could see three faces staring at them, and one long, thin, glistening black arm waving.
They stared in silent confusion then Saffron grinned at her, “See? I told you!” She turned to the women in the water and started approaching the surf calling out, “Are you okay?”
The women started swimming towards them, staying too far out to walk to, but close enough to see. Lilly stared at them, her skin starting to crawl. The women looked wrong somehow. Their faces were too thin, their fingers too long. The one with pale skin looked ghostly white, and the two with dark skin looked like oil. They didn’t look normal, they didn’t look right.
“Saff,” she whispered nervously, pulling at Saffron’s arm again. “They’re fine. Let’s go.”
“Is everything all right?” Saffron called to the women, ignoring Lilly and shaking her arm free.
The women stayed in the water, their large eyes staring, unblinking. They seemed to be as nervous of Saffron and Lilly as Lilly felt of them, but that did nothing to ease her anxiety. If anything, it made it worse.
“Saff,” Lilly hissed again. Despite the relative warmth of the evening, her whole body felt cold. Her arms prickled and ice cold water seemed to be dripping down her spine. Saffron started walking towards the sea, her face blank as she stepped into the surf. The women stared at her in silence. “Saffron! Stop!”
“Who are you?” Saffron asked.
The women swam closer, well into the shallows, but stayed below the surface. “We are told you can help us,” said the one who had called out. Her voice seemed far away and yet close at the same time. Like the sound of the ocean in a shell against your ear.
“We can,” Saffron said, stepping further into the water.
Lilly felt paralysed by fear. The women terrified her, the ocean looked threatening and dangerous, and she wanted to run. She tried to call out again to Saffron but her voice wouldn’t work. She tried to reach out and grab her but she couldn’t move.
“We are being hunted,” she said. “By your kind.”
“My kind?” asked Saffron.
“The Harvesters,” said the pale skinned woman, watching them intently with huge pale blue eyes full of mistrust.
The tide suddenly pulled back, revealing the women’s bodies. Lilly screamed.