A/N I am so sorry this took so long to get out – I've been super busy and then I went on a holiday and recently my muse hates me (I have two other WIPs and four upcoming drabble thingies that I've also been doing and if you listen really closely you can hear my muse cackling).
But I think the fact that this is the longest chapter yet makes up for that (I hope). I was meant to be in a totally different place by the end of this but it kind of ran away from me so now the thing that was going to happen in this chapter has been postponed to next chapter. Enjoy and thanks for sticking with me so long – I literally love you guys!
Chapter Thirteen: The Anomaly
As they touched down on the ship, Emma's parents surged forward, questions already spilling from their lips. Neal stood slightly back, arms folded across his chest as he watched the situation and the evident tension between the pirate and the blonde. It didn't go amiss to anyone that they stood as far apart as possible on the deck.
"Did you find out anything? What happened?" Mary Margaret asked as Emma unlatched the burgundy robe and draped it over her arm. They all turned to the pirate as he too removed his black cloak.
After affirming he could procure the pixie dust, Blackbeard had asked what he needed it for.
"So I'll be able to get the dust and it will probably take a while longer than last time, but what do you need it for this time?" Blackbeard inquired, and Killian looked away from the back corner booth to his former captain.
"Do you know a woman named Gwen?" he asked, cringing slightly when he realised just how vague it was a question when spoken aloud. As expected, the older man raised his eyebrows dubiously and chuckled nervously, sipping from the mug in his hand.
"You'll have to be a tad more specific, mate," Blackbeard commented.
Killian looked down at his hand and hook and closed his eyes, his face taking on a look of deep consternation.
"She would only have been here for thirty years or so, arrived via a portal… she had a husband in the Enchanted Forest, her name's Gwen – ring any bells?" he tried and was relieved when he looked up to see a pleasantly surprised look on Blackbeard's face. He watched as the man stroked his beard thoughtfully once and met Killian's questioning gaze.
"I might actually know who you're talking about," he answered.
"Really?" Killian asked, slightly shocked by the revelation. The older man nodded and harrumphed in marginal amusement.
"There's a woman who lives just past Cannibal Cove, in one of the alcoves – I met her a couple of years back, when I needed the cure to Dreamshade," At Killian's abrupt look of shock, he shook his head, "Long story. But I remember her saying something about a husband… why do you need her?"
The younger of the two men opened his mouth to reply when a strange feeling began to seep into his bones and, out of pure instinct; he looked over his shoulder… to where there was now an empty booth. He stood up immediately, the stool clattering to the ground as he made a beeline towards the back corner. Blackbeard didn't follow him and he gathered the old man either couldn't be bothered trying to identify the source of his former first mate's concern or couldn't be bothered to get off his chair. Either way, he knew he would not receive back up from the man he used to call Captain.
And honestly, he wouldn't have expected him to.
Killian turned on his heel when he reached the unoccupied table and his eyes immediately zoned in on a burgundy hood being forcibly led through the crowds by three stocky men. A wrathful fire roared to life in his chest, burning up so that he felt as though the floor might be singed by his step as he stalked forward and drew his sword.
Killian chewed hard on the inside of his cheek, the moments afterwards coming to mind in a quick succession of moonlit images – dispatching the brutes, running through the streets, finding the empty blacksmith's workshop, the tension boiling and frothing until it spilled over, acrimonious words springing back and forth between them in the dank room. Neutralizing his expression, he walked lazily towards the Quarterdeck, playing idly with his namesake as he answered Mary Margaret's question.
"Yes, my contact is aware of an individual named Gwen."
"And where is she?" David asked, folding his arms across his chest.
Hook's face darkened and he looked down momentarily before meeting the prince's eyes, "Cannibal Cove." Neal's expression dropped like a dumbbell in the ocean and he sighed, the two men already aware just how much risk was involved in even tracing the vicinity of such a landmark. David and his wife shared an uneasy look while Emma just drew her eyebrows together, exasperation trickling into her bones.
"That doesn't exactly sound inviting," Mary Margaret commented dryly and Hook nodded.
"It's not," he responded, his tenor low and grave.
Emma looked between Neal and the pirate and eventually asked, "What are we facing?"
"The locals – they aren't exactly… accommodating," Hook answered.
Neal spoke up as well, "We'll explain more when we actually get there – which will be another couple of hours. We should be there by midday."
"Are we sure it's the right one? This Gwen, I mean?" David abruptly asked, drawing the attention back to Hook. The pirate was in an unusual position of leadership of late, considering his past experiences with all of the people aboard the vessel.
"Only one way to find out," he replied with a diffident shrug, walking up the stairs and taking up position behind the mast without another word. Emma watched him there for a short second, a myriad of emotions circulating her head before she turned to her parents with a softer expression.
"Where's Henry?" she asked lightly.
Mary Margaret smiled, her small face lifting delicately, "He's asleep – so is Regina."
"Thanks," the blonde acknowledged gratefully and stepped around her parents to head below deck, the exhaustion she felt making it gradually more difficult to open her eyes. It was as though, after every blink, additional weight was being added to her eyelashes.
She walked quickly to the hatch, inadvertently catching sight of Neal and the way he stared at her with a mixture of anxiety and relief. Strange that anyone could even convey the two emotions at the same time but she'd always been able to read into him more than anyone else.
Or rather, he was one of two people she could read easily.
And that was largely because she'd spent a significant chunk of time consistently alone with him. It would have been weird if she didn't know him like the back of her hand – well, she knew his mannerisms like the back of her hand. His past was a whole different can of worms that she was not keen on touching. Ever.
Emma let his gaze drop and padded below deck, determined to find a cot and let the fatigue drag her down. It was with surprise that she realised she hadn't actually slept since she'd been resurrected. She wondered if being in the Wraith's Void meant she'd have side-effects in her sleep similar to the fire room that was concomitant with the sleeping curse.
A part of her, that she hated even acknowledging, silently hoped to be in the glass case with Hook again.
Because she wanted to scream the unspoken at him but she loathed the idea of him hearing anything that might depict her as weak.
They decided to leave Regina on the ship with Henry, not that the woman was protesting all too much as the group consisting of Emma, Hook, Neal, David and Mary Margaret departed on one of the row boats. The former had given the brunette woman a stern warning look, silently threatening gruesome fates should the mayor decide to cut her losses and run with their son. Regina had simply lifted an eyebrow, hand settled firmly on Henry's shoulder as she replied with a hint of disdain, "You're forgetting I just helped to save your life, Miss Swan."
And she was right – Emma had no real cause for concern at this point. Because, really, what would be the point of aiding someone's resurrection only to turn around and prompt their demise? Internally, she attributed her edginess to a combination of things: her near-death experience in the Wraith's void, the battle with the Eboli, the fight with Hook, the lack of sleep the previous night.
As it had turned out, she didn't dream of the dark room again. In fact, it was strange what her subconscious had decided was suitable entertainment while she slept; painful memories interspersing the blackness her sleep usually offered.
Thankfully, every reminiscence had been fleeting – like a screenshot that appeared and disappeared again in the blink of an eye. The momentary nature of them only served to make each one more disconcerting though, because the pain was precise with each familiar image, pinpricks of pain stabbing her in the heart.
She'd woken up in a sweat a number of times, always falling back to sleep in the seconds following, until finally the sun was up and she'd decided to get out of the cot, her left leg nearly collapsing beneath her the first time she'd stood before fading slowly back into use. Dismissing the feeling as simple pins and needles, the blonde had moved above deck where they'd loosely constructed a plan for the day.
"I know… But still," Emma had replied lamely to Regina, turning to Henry and ruffling his hair before spinning around. She could swear she heard Hook mutter something as she passed him that sounded an awful lot like, 'Don't take it personally, undying distrust is a habit of hers.'
She had met his eyes briefly as she moved past him and towards the side of the ship where her parents and Neal were already aboard the small row boat. The brief exchange was taut and she felt a small part of her shrivel up in shame, the guilt from their argument the night prior making itself known.
He'd waited until she was seated in the boat to jump in after her, lowering them into the choppy waves. Sea spray dampened Emma's face as they made their way through the water, approaching the sandy stretch of beach ahead of them.
"So, tell me again, where are we going exactly?" Emma eventually asked when the silence became too deafening. David and Neal were rowing the boat, Hook's missing hand putting him at a disadvantage. So instead, the pirate sat at the front of the ship and turned his head when she spoke. He glanced at her briefly over his shoulder and turned back to face the ocean, "To find your friend, Gwen."
Emma rolled her eyes, "Thank you for that newsflash - but where exactly do we have to go? What direction?"
She could hear the bitter smirk in his voice, "Don't trust me enough to be led blind, Swan?"
Emma could feel her mother's eyes hot on her back at that and tried to ignore the way she felt as though their entire party was listening to the tense conversation.
"I'd just like to know where we're going," she countered indifferently.
"Yeah, what route are we taking?'" Neal interceded nonchalantly as he pulled back his ore with a grunt.
Killian sighed and responded, Neal's involvement prompting him to let the subject drop - because it really wasn't fair to get anyone else involved in this fiasco between himself and Emma, hurt as he was or no - "She lives in an alcove near Cannibal Cove - we'll have to pass through there which means we'll take the road less frequented by Lost Boys and locals."
They reached the shore quickly, all jumping out to help drag the boat onto the beach, sand crunching underfoot. When they'd finished hiding it in the tree line, covering it with strategically placed branches and shrubbery, they all turned to Hook.
"Okay, where to from here?" David asked, withdrawing his sword already.
Emma would never get used to this new alliance between her father and the pirate.
Hook followed suit with his own blade, pointing to his left, "We move West for about an hour -"
"Wait, does that mean we'll cross Mermaid Lagoon?" Neal questioned, brown eyes widening with realisation. Emma found the use of the familiar term with a distasteful tone unsettling. Who the hell in her world had decided to falsely advertise these apparently hellish stories as childhood wonderlands?
The pirate nodded grimly, "Aye. We'll be crossing their path. After that, it's a ten minute walk down the cliff to Cannibal Cove. From there, we just have to find Gwen's alcove," he paused so everyone could process the journey, nodding faintly in understanding before he began walking in the direction his sword had pointed, "Follow me."
Emma moved first, walking briskly after him, followed by Neal and Mary Margaret as David brought up the rear. She pulled out the saber she'd been given as they walked, swiping harshly at the low hanging branches that Hook missed.
She let her thoughts wander as they walked.
Specifically, she mulled over the previous night for the umpteenth time.
A mixture of guilt and anger was still swirling around in her chest, fighting for dominance as she tried to decide what she felt more fervently. She couldn't get his face out of her head, the expression that had made her heart drop the second she'd put her foot in her mouth back in his cabin.
Why did he have to ask her about her motives?
Why couldn't she just deflect like a normal person?
Her upbringing was really the thing to blame for that - years of learning to protect herself and guard her feelings conditioning her until any and all emotional vulnerability was virtually non-existent.
Why did he have to (albeit inadvertently) prod the defences that had steadily been coming down?
She was still surprised he hadn't seen the lie for what it was, because of course she trusted him. She trusted him more than she'd like to admit it this point - even more so every time she was reminded that her current existence was thanks to him.
So she felt guilty; because things had been progressing, developing and blooming into something.
One step forward.
Two steps back.
If last night had proved anything, it proved the depth of his hurt because the gods above knew he hated emotional outbursts as much as her. And the bitter taste in her mouth wouldn't go away, whether that was because of him or because of the Neverland climate she wasn't sure. But she knew she'd hurt him.
So he'd lashed out and hurt her.
And so the anger swelled within her.
'You wouldn't even let yourself admit you loved Neal!'
His voice, furious and loud, echoed in her head, bouncing around her skull like a jackhammer. It was true, of course it was true - he knew things about her before she did. But it hurt, and he had no right to point out her deepest scars and play on them like keys of a piano. Each one different but poignant.
Her eyes were locked on his back as they trudged through the trees and undergrowth, every swing of his sharp sword forging more of their path. She didn't realize she'd sidled up to him until his shoulder accidentally brushed hers and she could swear she felt him freeze momentarily before he seemed to realize it was her.
"Checking I'm not leading you to danger, Swan?" he asked bitterly, side-glancing her.
Emma bit down the harsh retort she wanted to spit back.
"No," she replied simply instead.
He raised an eyebrow and looked down at her, "Then what is it you want? I wouldn't flatter myself by assuming you simply wanted to take a stroll with me."
Emma rolled her eyes and quickly formulated an excuse, "I was just going to ask how much longer until we get there."
He levelled her with an incredulous look that screamed his disbelief but nonetheless replied, "Should be about another hour if we maintain our current pace."
Emma nodded appreciatively and chewed her lip.
There was a long moment of silence between them before she spoke again, feeling oddly caught out.
"I'll just go and... Uh, tell David and Mary Margaret," she muttered, falling back and cursing herself under her breath for acting like such a teenager. Why had she walked beside him anyway?
She passed Neal and moved to walk alongside her mother. She hadn't even opened her mouth before the woman was questioning her in a soft but insistent voice.
"What's going on between you and Hook?"
"Can we not talk about this?"
Mary Margaret gave her a look; the sort of one mothers gave their daughters when they were being silly. The blonde almost laughed at the irony because that expression was all she'd ever wanted to be dealt as a child and now she was on the verge of trying to find another wraith so she wouldn't have to look at it.
"Would you stop looking at me like that?" Emma muttered, her head down as she stepped over a particularly large log and stumbled as her body weight fell on her left leg. She winced, sharp pain momentarily shooting up through her leg before disappearing completely.
It was a fleeting expression and one that her mother missed as she too looked down to avoid tripping over the fallen tree.
"You guys just seem tense since last night - did something happen?" Mary Margaret asked gently, catching Emma's gaze as they walked, glancing meaningfully to the front of their little troupe.
"Nothing happened," she replied, her response teetering on the edge of too quick.
Evidently, the brunette noticed this and her lips thinned into a line.
"Emma, I know I'm your mother but... Before that I was your friend," she said tentatively, looking at the ground again but not because of logs impeding their path, "You can talk to me, you know."
The blonde stumbled in her movements, floored by the cautious way which her mother said the words, as though she was self-conscious, afraid of rejection.
Emma chewed her lip, desperate to bridge the gap between what had been and what was. It was true that she and her mother had been closer back when she was just her friend - her first real friend. But now, knowing she was her mother, it added a layer that Emma wasn't yet sure she was comfortable with.
The minutes passed on and she didn't respond; not sure how to. They were moving in an arc now, a stream bubbling on their right as Hook walked somewhere out of sight at the front, his form hidden by trees.
Distantly, she heard Neal's voice, "Hook needs to slow down, he keeps moving too far ahead."
Say something! she yelled internally to herself, opening her mouth and then closing it when nothing came out. Beside her, Mary Margaret sighed lightly and the disappointed sound made Emma's heart clench.
Swallowing her fear, Emma lifted her head and opened her mouth to talk but was brought to a sudden stop. Her eyes locked on two figures to the left of their walking troupe. Neal was still moving forward and to the right, completely ignorant of what was happening to his left, his neck straining as he apparently tried to place the pirate leading their group.
But he wasn't leading their group.
He was on the edge of the river bubbling to their left.
And there was a woman behind him, deep purple and green scales covering her torso and shoulders. The woman's arms and hands were a more pale purple but appeared to be a shimmering version of human skin.
She was waist deep in the water, her reptilian eyes locked cruelly on Emma as one clawed hand stretched out to latch around Hook's ankles.
Her voice rang out loudly against the backdrop of the Neverwoods just as, with a harsh yank, the pirate was pulled into the bubbling waters along with the vicious looking hybrid.
Mary Margaret's startled voice registered dimly in her ears as she shot forward towards the edge of the river. More voices followed, that of her father and Neal, interspersed with the sounds of their loud crunching footsteps.
But she couldn't stop running.
Adrenaline flooded her veins and she felt like she was flying through the trees towards the edge of the water.
"Hook!" she called again, deaf to any and all other noise, immune to any cognitive thinking as she rushed to where she was sure she'd seen the creature pull him in.
He's in danger.
Hook's in danger.
What the hell was he even doing on the edge of the freaking water?
Emma reached the stream's edge and strained her eyes to see past the bubbling surface of the water. But she couldn't see him and a fresh wave of panic swept over her, hard and fast at the thought he was gone.
The others were fast approaching - she could hear them getting closer, their footsteps louder, their voices more precise.
She didn't remember making a conscious decision to do so but very suddenly she was pulling off her boots, shrugging her jacket off in frantic haste as she readied herself to jump into the waters and drag him out if it killed her.
"Emma, what are you doing?" Mary Margaret yelled desperately somewhere behind her.
"Get away from the river!" Neal's panicked voice bellowed in quick succession. She was about to pull off her jeans when she saw a flash of something beneath the water, purple and green followed by black. They were close to the surface!
Mentally readying herself to jump in, regardless of the fact she was still wearing her jeans, Emma took a deep breath.
And then another voice broke through her violently spinning thoughts.
She turned at his voice, her parents and Neal meters from where she was standing on the river bank's edge. Behind them though, sprinting in her direction with his sword left somewhere behind him, was Hook. She frowned, confusion stilling her mind.
An ominous feeling began to settle in her bones, dread trickling down her nerves as she wondered with wide eyes what she had seen. If Hook was coming towards her, who had been on the river bank?
"Get away from there!" the pirate roared, his eyes rich with fear even from where she stood.
Neal and Mary Margaret had just about reached her when she moved to run. Her feet never left the ground though, a wet scaly hand wrapping around her ankles and yanking her back so she fell flat on her face as she was dragged into the water. Emma tried to clutch at the roots and plants, her nails dragging along the grass ineffectively.
The last thing she saw was her mother's hand before she disappeared beneath the churning water.
He watched from his peripheral vision as she slowed her pace to move into line with her mother. Idiot, a scolding voice chided and he shook his head, ignoring the part of him that wanted to pull her back so they could work out what the hell was going on between them.
Anger still boiled in his veins, her refusal to let him in like an unhealed scar on his chest and every time he looked at her, it opened a little more, bled bile a little more. He wanted to hate her, to let go of these stupid, unreciprocated emotions. But he couldn't.
Unrequited love is the infinite curse of a lonely heart.
Killian swung roughly at the branches, his pace quickening inadvertently as Emma intruded his every thought. He walked quicker through the underbrush, as though the physical exertion might lessen his mental burden - like he could just walk her off.
Stupid thought really.
He heard Neal's footsteps become fainter behind him as he led them in an arc, walking parallel to the stream on his left. They would be reaching Mermaid's lagoon in another half an hour and then they'd have to be cautious.
"Hook, slow down," Neal said, slightly frustrated as the pirate stalked forward.
His words had been harsh though, and she had every right to be furious with him for the verbal blows. As much as he felt indignation at her blatant disregard for his contribution to her bloody life, he wasn't above feeling guilt. It had been bad form to play on whatever had happened between her and Neal.
Emma had every right to slap him.
His free hand came up to touch his jaw where her touch still burned, the feel of her palm swiping angrily at his cheek fresh in his memory along with her icy glare.
They were both justified in their anger.
And so neither knew how to step past their shared hurt.
"Bloody hell," Killian muttered under his breath, sword lodging itself in a tree to his left as he made a sloppy swing.
He snapped to attention instantly and turned around, eyes widening as he registered the sheer panic and despair in her voice. The path behind him was empty and, with a muttered curse, he started running back because Gods, he'd walked further ahead than he'd intended to.
"Emma, what's wrong?" Snow's worried voice called out before he heard Neal bellowing, slightly out of breath as though he was running.
But she was unfazed as she cried out breathlessly, "Hook!"
What in the seven hells?
He continued running, pace quickening as a feel of dread settled low in his chest. Through the trees he could see her parents and Neal moving quickly towards the stream and, more frighteningly, sprinting out ahead of them, unflinchingly towards the stream's edge, was Emma, her blonde head unmistakable amongst the dark colour of the Neverwoods.
What is she doing?
She stopped at the edge, a good measure of distance separating her from the others and even more so from himself. There was a split second where she seemed at a loss, and then she began stripping off her jacket.
"Emma, what are you doing?" Mary Margaret asked frantically, her words thrown out between deep breaths as she tried to reach her daughter.
Emma moved to pull off her jeans before something clearly caught her eye in the water and she disregarded her previous effort. Turning towards the water, he could just make out the determined set of her brow as she ignored the others behind her.
It was then that Killian saw the deep blue flash of a head as it bobbed down under the water.
He dropped his sword so he could run faster, a million questions running through his mind at a staggering pace.
What were Sterling Mermaids doing this far East of the lagoon?
What had they done to make Emma come running without hesitation?
Why were they attacking now, in the middle of the day down by the freaking riverbank of all places, where it was far riskier than usual?
It didn't matter though, because she was about to jump into a body of water that was probably swarmed with the vicious creatures. They were cruel and manipulative and ridiculously observant. He recalled his first dealing with one as a shudder ran through him - mockingly sweet voices and heart wrenching visions dancing in his mind's eye.
He wasn't the only one to notice the additional presence in the water, Neal's voice calling out to her in vain, "Get away from the river!"
It did nothing to stop her as she lined up her dive and he realized he was within range for her to hear him. Taking a deep breath, his voice boomed and crashed throughout the trees, drowning out any and all other animals and insects.
Finally, finally she froze.
He never stopped running though, pushing himself faster and faster, until his muscles felt like they were going to melt off his bones.
She turned around and met his gaze, shock and relief washing over her momentarily.
His voice, however, appeared to pull her from the brief sanctuary of her emotions though, as he remembered the mermaids and her scary proximity to the remorseless creatures, "Get away from there!"
He could feel the fear shining his eyes, and could see as she registered the unkempt emotion there. Like a slow motion picture playing out before him, he watched as realization finally dawned on her and something closer to fear took a hold of her face. Even worse, he saw as the intent black eyes of a green and purple Sterling Mermaid reared out of the waters, one clawed hand reaching out to grasp Emma's ankle.
Snow screamed in shock and surprise, nearly tripping over as she launched herself towards Emma with an outstretched hand.
But, just like that, the river bank was vacant as the blonde was pulled below.
It was seconds before he reached the edge where Snow, David and Neal were all searching for her amongst the mixed blues.
Killian never stopped moving.
He dropped his jacket as he ran; swinging his shirt over his head and disregarding the sound he was sure indicated he'd ripped the thin cotton material. His arms and chest were still bandaged, and the water from the stream would probably sting, but he didn't care.
He reached the edge, already half-undressed, and shrugged off his boots at the same time he was undoing his sheath's belt. David saw this and moved swiftly into Killian's path as the pirate prepared to dive in.
"She'll drown!" Killian yelled back, straining against David's grip as Mary Margaret and Neal stared.
"You will too," the blonde man replied with startling fervency, staring into Killian's eyes meaningfully. He turned to his wife and motioned to the vines that crept around some of the trees, "Get some of the vines, make a rope!"
She didn't need to be asked twice, running to the tree and unwinding it with a strangely practiced efficiency. In a matter of moments, she had a long stretch of the foliage. Neal and David took one end as she looped the other around Killian's torso, securing it tightly before levelling him with a meaningful look and a succinct nod.
He didn't wait for their signal before immersing himself in the bubbling waters of the stream. The water was ice cold considering it had the unforgiving sun beating down on it and he felt his muscles protest as he started to stroke deeper through the current. His left arm burned even more painfully as he stretched the scarred skin, the scar on his chest boiling with pain at the overuse of his muscles.
A layer of murky blue and green coated the surface of the water before clearing out towards the mud covered bottom - just how the mermaids liked it. As he righted himself in the water, Killian snapped his head from side to side and was rewarded with a flash of blonde and green thrashing in the water.
He didn't hesitate in swimming directly for it, still ignoring the searing pain in his arm and chest as he waded through the calmer waters below the surface.
And then he saw them, the green and purple mermaid as it swirled around Emma, who tried frantically to claw at the beast, her movements wild and uncharacteristically stunted. Another mermaid watched from the left, mild amusement only just discernible on her blue hybrid face that made Killian's blood boil.
His lungs were just starting to protest and he could only imagine the pain Emma must have felt. With that thought in mind, a fresh wave of anger washed over him and he channelled the raw emotion into his movements, keeping them concise and strong as he pulled through the water.
He streamlined for the creature attacking Emma and felt panic rush through his veins when he saw her movements become sluggish, heavy bubbles of air escaping her mouth and nose at an alarming pace.
Come on Emma, hold on.
He had almost reached the tornado of bubbles when he felt himself shoved to the side in the water, his body careening into a rock near the mud floor. The force of the impact as he hit the jagged face drew a substantial globule of air from his lungs, ballooning out of his mouth and up to the surface mockingly. It was more difficult to right himself but, when he did, he saw that it had been the second mermaid, the blue one who had simply been watching the attack with feint joviality, who had shoved him away.
Her reptilian eyes were fixed on him and Killian felt the acid of her sickly sweet smile burn his nerves. Using the rock as a springboard, he propelled himself forward, instantly going for the tender flesh of the mermaid's throat with his hook. But, before the blow could land, she glided to the side so his appendage cut through the water and, unfortunately, through the rope attached to the rest of their party on the surface.
Childish laughter sounded to his left and he glanced in the direction of the noise, and felt his last reserves of self-control leaving him. The other mermaid had Emma pinned on the mud floor of the river and was giggling at her vain attempts to pull away.
She was drowning.
In a matter of moments, she would be gone to him.
Killian couldn't contain the roar of anger that escaped his mouth as he managed to pivot in the water, his mind scolding the blatant waste of oxygen while his body screamed in protest. But, satisfaction quickly soothed his qualms as he felt his hook connect with something soft and tear.
A loud screech boomed through the water, and he noticed that he'd managed to snag the mermaid's waist with his hook. A dark green cloud had formed in the area, her miscoloured blood seeping into the river water.
The mermaid looked up, death in her eyes as she bared her teeth, and he felt his heart shrivel up to the size of a date as her pinpoint sharpened fangs appeared to elongate as she snarled, growing so they pricked her bottom lip. He barely had a moment to react before he was being shoved back against the rock again, the mermaid pinning him down in much the same way Emma was. She snarled and snapped, her forearm like a crowbar as it pressed down on his throat.
The water crowded her on all sides, pressing on her head to the point she felt like two metal drills were being used on both of her temples. Her blood thrummed in her ears, the only other sound that of the water whirring around her as the mermaid had her fun. Emma tried to throw her fists forward, an almost animalistic edge to her movements as she tried to seek out the mermaid taunting her.
Finally, amidst the burn and sting of her lungs and dry muscles, she landed a blow to the creature swirling around her. The mermaid narrowed her eyes, her tail swishing from side to side like an angry cat preparing to lunge. And she did, knocking Emma back into the slimy river bottom so her forearm was pressed harshly against the blonde's throat.
Blackness bit at the edge of her vision as the mermaid cackled gleefully. How she could hear perfectly clear the noises it made, Emma would never know. But it only served to make her panic and anger burn brighter, her fingernails dragging futilely at the opalescent arm locked against her windpipe. Bubbles of air rose up into the water at an alarming rate, the space it left in her chest quickly being occupied by the bitter taste of water.
Suddenly there was a dull roar interspersed by the sound of bubbles, followed immediately by a piercing screech.
Emma whipped her head to the side as fast as she could (which was actually quite slow with her body gradually shutting down against the pull of drowning) and felt her eyes nearly bug out of her head. A male figure with black hair and a sharp metal appendage for a hand was a few metres away from her, and had managed to cut into the second mermaid.
Dark green blood spilled from the wound into the water as the mermaid growled at the man. And then he was being forced back, into an even more compromising position than Emma as the other mermaid choked the life from him like he was naught but a rag doll.
A burning sensation started to prickle in her fingertips, her body registering the feeling despite how heavy she felt. The burning intensified and Emma noticed a soft golden glow in her peripheral vision.
Through the murky water, she could see Killian losing out.
Her muscles burned, her lungs were on fire, her head throbbed and there was a sharp pain like daggers in her left leg. But all she could think about was him, and the prickling in her fingers spread to her hands, escalating to an all-out inferno in her nerves. She clenched her fists and turned back to the mermaid, vaguely startled when she registered a trickle of fear in the reptilian eyes as they regarded her.
All at once, Emma's mind became overrun with images and memories. Her son flicking through the fairy-tale book Mary Margaret had given him; his undying belief in good and heroes so pure it had drawn her in against her will. Her parents embracing, their hopeful smiles and proud eyes; they had such fervent belief in her, and in life. If there was one thing she'd gleaned from them, it was to never give up. They were proud of her for fighting through the hardships she'd been dealt consistently in her life – and she wasn't about to let them down.
She'd already died once.
And it wasn't a road she was fond of travelling ever again.
Emotions toppled over each other in a heap as they struggled for her attention, the golden glow in her hands ebbing brighter and brighter as she focused on the burning, a dormant part of her rising up out of the shadows, tapping into the reservoir of power she abruptly felt able to use. Distantly, Emma realised she had no idea what she was doing or how she was doing it – she was simply being dragged along for the ride and her body was doing the rest for her.
Unclenching her fists and flicking her fingers outwards, Emma felt something in her combust.
And then everything went white.
An explosion rippled through the water, the pressure on his throat disappearing so suddenly he choked on the sudden ability to breathe again. As he took advantage of the renewed facility, he was rewarded with a helping of river water that chafed down his throat. He opened his eyes, not entirely sure when he shut them, and looked around.
The first thought that crossed Killian's mind as he regained his senses was of her, fear seizing him as he realised the blast had come from her direction. Whipping his head to the left, he had already started swimming before he saw her.
She was floating motionless in the water, hair billowing gracefully out around her slack face. And it was that detail that made his blood turn to ice in his veins, panic rushing through him faster than before because drowning was not something you could come back from. So focused on her, he only distantly noted that the mermaids were gone – not even a trace of them left behind in the now crystalline river.
As he reached her, Killian slipped an arm around her waist and pushed up, desperately scrabbling for the surface as he felt the last of his consciousness beginning to fade with the lack of oxygen.
The light of day sparkled above him, calling and beckoning him.
Breaking the surface of the water, he immediately took a deep breath, the reprieve almost painful as he sucked in oxygen and maintained his grip on Emma.
The thought brought him violently back to their situation and, turning his head to the side, he saw the rest of their group down the stream, still looking into the water where they had first disappeared. His voice was ragged and he wasn't entirely sure they would hear him as he called out between cavernous gulps of air.
David was the first to register the pirate's ground out words and started sprinting down the river bank to where Killian was paddling. He waded through the water as fast as he could, which wasn't very fast since Emma was a dead weight and his muscles were already so strained he was sure he'd created fissures in the tissue. Neal and Mary Margaret weren't far behind the blonde man and all three knelt precariously on the edge, hands outstretched to receive the pirate and the limp princess.
The second he was close enough, Killian pushed Emma towards them, unwinding his arm and ensuring David had a firm hold on her before he let go. Her father pulled her out of the water and onto the mossy grass as Neal and Mary Margaret each grabbed Killian's arms and helped drag him out.
Lying on his back, Killian winced at the absolute destruction he felt through his muscles and coughed; every hack and choke sounding as though someone had poured sand down his throat. Some river water came up too and he turned to the side to cough the bile onto the soft grass. He pulled himself back around and into a semi-reclining position, groaning with the effort it took.
The other three were now crowded around Emma as David checked for breathing, holding his hand under her nose before lowering his ear to her chest. Ignoring the absolute torture he felt in his muscles, Killian forced his limbs to move so he could sit beside David, watching as the man hovered over the soaked blonde.
When David pulled back he sighed slightly but was still rather stiff, "Her heart's still beating but she's not breathing and I don't –"
Before he could finish his sentence though, there was a loud gasp and everyone turned to look down at Emma. Her eyes opened wide and she blinked against the bright glare of the day, adjusting to the light as she took several ragged breaths.
"Emma?" Mary Margaret cooed, hands twitching – the woman was clearly desperate to coddle her daughter, and Killian couldn't blame her. In that moment, all he wanted to do was crush the woman to his chest and never let her go.
Emma pushed herself into a seated position, aided by her father, and continued to expel the water from her lungs, simultaneously taking in as much air as she could. David thumped her on the back periodically, smoothing over her spine with his palm in a soothing motion whenever she was simply breathing. Neal was the first to tear his eyes away from Emma, locking gazes with Killian.
"What the hell happened?"
It wasn't accusatory; in fact the man's tone belied a sense of utter confusion that had the pirate frowning. His mind played over the explosion in the water, the shockwave that made his vision go white for a split second. It had somehow eradicated the Sterling Mermaids and that, in and of itself, was disconcerting.
Killian's eyes flitted down to Emma as he answered, "I don't know. We were both restrained by the creatures and then… there was some kind of eruption. The water was crystal clear, the mermaids disappeared and we were left unscathed. Why? What did you see?"
Mary Margaret's hand was now flat on Emma's shoulder, "We didn't see much of anything. After your rope went loose and we pulled it up empty, the water was really calm and then a ripple moved all the way through it, starting from just over there. It basically left the river clean in its path, like a filter had run through it. A couple of moments later, you two came up."
"It was me."
Everyone stopped and turned to the source of the voice, to Emma. Her blonde hair clung to her unnaturally pallid face, warmth only just starting to creep into her cheeks as she sat and looked around at them all, gaze lingering on Killian a second longer than the rest.
"What?" Neal stuttered.
"It was me," she repeated, more firmly, "Or at least I think it was… I was nearly dead and I – I don't know. My hands started glowing and then, I don't even know why I did it or how, but I sort of just…" She flexed her fingers, fists outstretching so her digits splayed out. Her eyes were fixed on the offending hands, a mixture of emotions swelling deep in the abysses of emerald green.
There was silence as they let the two soaking wet members of their group come back to themselves. Killian actually grimaced when he eventually forced himself into a standing position, a part of him crowing out in protest when David had to assist him. He leaned heavily against a tree and watched Emma, still seated on the ground, as she spoke in hushed whispers with her mother.
Neal approached David and Killian, a consternated expression marring his face.
"What were Sterling Mermaids doing this far East?"
Killian shook his head grimly, "I don't know."
"Wait," David interrupted with a hand held aloft, "Didn't you say we were going to be crossing Mermaid Lagoon anyway?"
"Aye, but we shouldn't have come across them for another half an hour when we actually get close to Mermaid Lagoon," the pirate explained, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. The men were quiet as they contemplated the anomaly before, with a cough, David nodded down the river to where they'd initially been.
"Uh, mate, do you maybe want to get your clothes?"
Killian raised an eyebrow and smirked, gesturing grandly to his bare chest, "This doesn't make you uncomfortable, does it Dave?"
The man rolled his eyes and shook his head in faux exasperation, neither of them noticing when Neal dropped back to sit with Mary Margaret and Emma. With a muted chuckle that rubbed painfully on his already aggravated throat, Killian walked down the river bank with David to collect his clothes. As it turned out, he had indeed ripped his black shirt so when he pulled it over his head, the sleeve was torn up the arm. But it didn't bother him too much, especially after he shrugged on his jacket and re-attached his sheath and located his sword. Slipping into his boots, the pirate looked up at David who was considering him strangely.
"Something on your mind, mate?"
David blinked, coming back to himself, "Hm?"
"I inquired as to whether something was on your mind but your reaction answers my question. What's going on in that delightfully royal head of yours?" Killian asked, standing up as he finished with his boots.
The prince's dusty blue eyes pinned him where he stood and there was something about the way he stared that had Killian feeling exposed and raw under his gaze.
"Sterling Mermaids aren't related to Sirens in any way are they?"
David frowned in thought, "What do they do that's different?"
Killian was silent for a moment, the gravity of the moment starting to settle in as he was slowly pushed towards a revelation. The man before him waited patiently for a response, his gaze steady and unyielding. Looking into the foliage around them, the pirate replied in a nonchalant tone.
"As you know, sirens use your greatest desire to draw you in and drown you."
"I have a scary amount of experience with that, yes," David affirmed with a morbid smirk that peaked Killian's curiosity. He would have to ask the prince about that someday. Now was not the time or place though, so he surged on.
"Well, Sterling Mermaids like to use the one thing a person wants most and, unlike Sirens, they… they use it to torture you. They'll draw you in, but they'll use the one thing you want most against you so you run into danger without hesitation. I'm surprised they didn't try to torment Emma more, actually," he mused, brow furrowing, "they apparently only wanted to kill her…"
A glimmer of realisation dawned in David's eyes but disappeared before Killian could question it. Instead, his face smoothed into a mask of curiosity and mild concern as he questioned the pirate's reflection on the mermaids' actions.
"Why would they just want to kill her?"
Killian shook his head, a feeling of foreboding already beginning to settle deep in his gut, "I don't know."