Chapter One

 

Eighteen-year-old Flynn Arcturus was the best damn pilot on the ocean floor, but even he should have known better than to follow a mermaid into a deep-sea cave.

A moment earlier, he’d been skimming along the ocean floor in his one-man submersible and thinking about his missing parents. Merfolk were believed responsible for their disappearance, and he scoured the depths every day hoping to learn what happened to them. He clung to the hope they might still be alive, but after months of searching, the only clues were a pair of merfolk tridents in his parents’ broken ship.

Then a mermaid planted a kiss on one of his vessel’s crystal windows. Purple hair flowed like water down her back and her tresses hung low, barely covering her nipples. She had curves women would hate her for and her glowing blue skin lit up the surrounding water brighter than a school of lanternfish. Her eyes glittered like sapphires as she offered him a flirtatious wink, then widened in surprise when he scowled in return.

“Not a chance,” Flynn said through clenched teeth. He wasn’t going to fall for the creature’s charms. Not after his parents’ disappearance.

The mermaid stuck out her bottom lip, pouting at him, and planted her webbed hands on shapely hips. The pout disappeared when Flynn’s nostrils flared and his lips curled with hate. With a sweep of her silver-blue tail, she ducked into a nearby cave.

The cave was a mystery to Flynn. After years of cruising the area, he hadn’t noticed it before. The opening was twice the height of a man, and the contrast between its dark interior and the glowing vegetation surrounding it made it hard to miss. It was as if the cave popped into existence at that moment for the mermaid’s convenience. But the mystery would have to wait—he had a mermaid to catch. She might know what happened to his parents. 

Flynn dove his ship, a sleek one-seater construction of steel and crystal, into the cave. Glowing moss and phosphorescent fish provided some illumination, but the passage was much darker than the iridescent landscape along the sea floor. Fortunately, the mermaid’s magical glow helped him to see. Avoiding obstacles in the cave was difficult, but not impossible.

The mermaid darted between stalagmites that thrust from the walls like the fangs of a viperfish. Literally speaking, he was right on her tail. He performed barrel rolls close enough to stalactites to dislodge algae and send crabs flying.

“Sorry,” Flynn said to the falling crabs that opened and closed their pincers angrily behind him.

The ship’s handling was aided by a steering globe, an invention crafted by his genius older brother. The globe was a one-foot-wide sphere of water suspended above his knees and connected to the front of the ship by a thin liquid column. He laid his palm on the globe and cool water oozed between his fingers like sticky jelly. The globe was soft, like the bell of a jellyfish, and it provided better handling than the wheels and levers used in other submersibles.

But skills and gadgets were no match for the mermaid’s agility. She pumped her tail with vigor, gaining a considerable lead. In time, she paused by a stalactite, allowing him to close the distance. She blew him a kiss—releasing a mouthful of bubbles that became a puddle of air on the ceiling—and offered him another wink. He snarled in return.

“That’s it, taunt me,” Flynn said, glaring at her with cold green eyes. His left hand turned white from clenching the acceleration levers. “Just let me catch up to you and see what happens.”

With a swish of her tail, she headed deeper into the tunnel. Before long, she gained another sizeable lead and was out of sight. Unwilling to accept defeat, he continued until he reached the end of the cave. Plain rock walls surrounded him and there were no side tunnels along the way. Somehow, she disappeared.

Flynn clenched his fists in frustration. “Where’d she go?” 

An eye, half the size of a man, blinked open in the rock wall. It belonged to a fifty-foot-long creature that released its camouflage, revealing an enormous purple body. Bright light flared from its leathery, luminescent skin, reflecting its anger.

The tunnel didn’t end; a colossal squid was blocking it. The fierce predator could smash his ship to pieces and when its massive body lurched forward and hooked tentacles reached for him, Flynn froze. 

“WHAT THE–” Flynn said, his heart pounding.

Flynn ducked his ship under the tentacles and spun around, facing the way he came. His clammy hand nearly slipped off the acceleration levers as he shoved them forward. Thick lines of frothy white water trailed behind the propellers and the sudden increase in speed pulled him back in his seat.

Flynn dipped under a bar of stone and a pair of tentacles shattered it, raining debris onto his ship. The creature’s limbs reached for him, their hooked ends cutting through rock as easily as they would through seaweed.

“Go, go, go, go, go,” Flynn said, urging his ship faster up the tunnel. The squid smashed apart the rocky outcroppings, obscuring his vision with debris. He clipped a wing on a stone overhang and the ship flipped around. His world spun and when it stopped, he was facing the beast.

The squid swam with frightening speed. Sweat dripped into Flynn’s eyes and he mopped his forehead. Tentacles as long as buildings lunged for him and he yanked the acceleration levers backward, reversing his direction. The tentacles fell short and his ship hit another pillar, spinning him back around. Once again facing the way he came, Flynn squinted in the gloom. The squid, born with huge eyes designed for darkness, ripped apart stone in pursuit.

Flynn spun, rolled, and weaved his way between the stony obstacles. Behind him, the squid smashed its way toward him. Finally, the mouth of the cave was in sight. He roared out of the opening and the radiant seascape was blinding after becoming accustomed to the gloomy tunnel.  

Flynn blinked away the glare and risked a backward glance. The colossal squid was still coming, propelling itself by squirting water and using fins on its head. To his relief, he was faster in open water.

“I’m still alive!” Flynn said, exhaling loudly. “Take that you stupid, tentacled piece of–”

The insult was cut short when Flynn passed over a dozen soldiers on patrol in the sandy terrain below. Their armor was crafted from chitin, the same sturdy material that protected crabs and lobsters, and small explosions of sand followed their footsteps. Equipped with crystal helms that enabled them to breathe, the soldiers marched unaware of the deadly creature above them.

“Keep coming for me, you ugly bastard,” Flynn said, reducing his speed to entice the squid to keep following him. “Come after me, not them.”

The squid veered off and Flynn’s heart sank. The men were well-armed and well-trained, but ill-prepared to battle a colossal squid in open water. Such a creature was rarely seen in the Safe Zone and its beak could cut through their chitin armor as easily as it could a blade of seagrass. Flynn couldn’t bear it if brave men lost their lives because of his actions.

The colossal squid went after the patrol. Traveling backwards, its glow shifted from purple to white and back again as it swam. The men fired triple-crossbows, scoring many wounds in the squid’s mantle, but the barrage had little effect. Flynn was horrified when the creature came at the men with eight deadly limbs.

Flynn spun the ship around and headed for the colossal squid at top speed. Another volley of crossbow bolts zipped through the water but did little damage to the creature. Flynn flipped a switch, releasing a pair of spring-loaded projectiles. One of the javelin-like missiles buried itself in the creature’s mantle and the other missed the creature, stabbing into the dirt.

“Damn it!”

A pupil the size of Flynn’s head narrowed as he charged. The squid squirted a cloud of ink, but he gritted his teeth and stayed his course. He disappeared into the cloud and thudded into the squid, coming to a sudden stop as its soft body folded over the ship’s hull. Stunned by the collision, the squid ceased its attack on the patrol for just a moment.

But that was long enough for the humans to deliver lethal damage to the beast. Flynn shook off the effects of the collision and found the water dark with ink and blood. He pulled back, reversing the propellers and dispersing murky water. Smears of blood and ink covered his ship and he strained to see through the filth on his crystal windows. Before him, the colossal squid sank, giving rise to a dust cloud as it landed in the grainy basalt. Small, scavenging creatures started feeding on it even before the dust settled.

“They killed it,” Flynn said, relieved. “We killed it.”

None of the men appeared to be seriously injured and Flynn breathed a sigh of relief.

The patrol leader, a burly man with a bushy beard that floated horizontally from his chin, nodded in appreciation. Flynn returned the nod and launched his ship forward, speeding away from the patrol and clearing the grime from his windows. He burst through a cloud of glittering plankton and a school of lanternfish parted above and below his craft. Their bright glow gleamed off his crystalline windows.

The depths were well-lit by magical creatures and vegetation, but a ceiling of black water floated ominously above. No one knew what existed within those depths and Flynn was happy to stay away from it. He was told that magic didn’t function there and without magic, ships and breathing helms would fail. He was uncertain if the tale was true, but he had little desire to risk his life to find out.

Something in the distance stole Flynn’s breath away. A huge wooden ship and an equally massive dragon fell from the dark depths above. Burning with curiosity, he sped toward them at full speed. He zoomed over hills and valleys, dodging comb jellies and jellyfish along the way.   

The closer he came to the ship and the corpse, the more peculiar they appeared. The vessel had two masts and sails that seemed poorly suited for underwater travel. The dragon had horns and enormous fins on its back. The fins appeared too large for swimming and it was unusual to see horns on marine creatures. The ship and beast appeared as though they came from another world.

Distracted by the unusual sight, Flynn came dangerously close to the edge of the Safe Zone, a miles-wide area of protected waters surrounding Seahaven. A dome-shaped region of water golems prevented predators from entering and ships from leaving. Each golem was armored in glowing ice and wielded icy spears. Row upon row of the constructs were spaced a few meters apart from each other, forming a protective shell over Seahaven.

A dozen water golems turned their weapons toward Flynn as he approached. He guided his ship along the inner boundary, wary to keep out of reach of spears that bristled at him like the spines of a sea urchin.

Flynn watched helplessly as the ship and dragon fell behind a hill outside the Safe Zone.