Borrowed Breath and Starlit Scales by Erin L. Swann

“One of these days, you’re going to kill me.”

“I know,” she murmured, breath brined with salt and green weed. Her eyes held mine, inhuman and unfeeling, slitted and narrow, yet they drew me in. I never welcomed the chill of midnight on the water until I met her. She froze my bones with her predatory gaze, thrilled goosebumps up my arm with a touch. Otherworldly. Dangerous. The exhilaration of floating at death’s door addicting.

“Come.” Her webbed hand was slick with moonlight and she reached out of the lapping waves, beckoning me to ride them.

I was already halfway into her embrace and I fell over the side of my sailboat, plunging into her domain. Despite having done this enough times to lose count, I still inhaled as the sea shocked my body. But my limbs were rigid only for a moment before she was there beside me, oil upon the water, separating me from the dangers of the depths.

I faced the danger of her instead.

Her grip iron tight on my arm, she dragged me along as no undertow could and I relished every flash of jeweled scales and sway of her weeded tresses. We raced selkies that danced like liquid lightning, riding in their wake long after they left us behind. We leered at fleshy pink of nereids and she swiped one of their coral combs for my hair.

When my lungs burned hot enough to melt the ice in my veins, she would turn and press her lips to mine, exhaling and filling me with frigid breath. Nothing tasted as clear and crisp as her.

Hours after my body grew blue and I forgot I once had legs, we laid among glassy rocks that cut above the surface of the waves. I told her tales of flaxen forests and sweet cornfields laden with gold, and her silken laughter licked me head to toe.


“I can’t.”

“You can.” Her hand slithered to the back of my neck, pulling me to stare into her eyes again. “You can.”

As I readied my usual arguments, I paused, reading a plea in her gaze I hadn’t before. A plea that mirrored my own.

I thought of my weeks pacing the shore, dreaming of the next time the moon was full. When we would meet to steal starlight off the backs of whales and kiss silver foam each time we crested the tide.

The bright days at home with family, filled with freckled apple-cheeks swelled with smiles, were empty now. Names and places I used to know and love paled in comparison to her steel-tipped smirk, the way her voice oozed through me, misting my thoughts.

What was the point of my life if I lived only for these brief moments? A phantom hovering at the edge of the water, already dead to that world of lambent warmth.

I breathed out, relinquishing the hold of the shore, of sandy grit dry between my toes, of laughter and scorching sun.

“I can.”

Her smile slaked through my blood, glacial and bitter. I felt the spark of life sputter within my chest.

It was the end of me.

But it was the beginning of something else.

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