Chapter Thirty: National Antiquities

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As soon as I was fully through the gate, everything changed. Earth became water, and the warmth of the soil turned into the freezing chill of the North Sea. The kettle was not above me, anchoring me to the earth, but underneath me, dragging me deeper.

I had no idea how far down or how far out I was. Dark icy water stretched in all directions, and I only had the breath in my lungs before it claimed me.

I let the kettle slip from my fingers and I pushed myself in the other direction. My chest tightened, my head pounded, and I couldn't tell if I was looking at a light up above or if I just had spots in my eyes. All I knew was that I had to be close, or I would drown.

Something touched me. A hand grabbed hold of my ankle. Tanner? No. Sharp fingers cut through the wetsuit and into my skin. I kicked with my other foot and twisted free.

A pale, white-haired woman hung in the water below me in a dappled grey dress. She had wide black eyes, long claws, and terrible pointed teeth. She looked very different to the first time we had met, and the second, but I still recognised Selkie.

I swam, but she was much faster. She got ahead of me and blocked my way. She hung in the water as ribbons of blood trailed from her claws. My blood. She waited for me to make my move.

A dart shot through the water. It left a stream of red behind it, and this time the blood was hers. The dart had cut her left thigh. Selkie let out a scream of bubbles and turned on her attacker. Operator Tanner swam right into her, shoulder first, and the two of them disappeared into the darkness below.

I climbed. I had nothing left in me now, and I had to fight to stop myself from sucking in a mouthful of water. I kicked and swam as fast as my muscles would allow. A hand slipped around my waist and I tried to fight it off, but the arm gripped tight and I saw that it was Tanner. A second later we broke the surface and I gasped for air.

Floodlights swung around over our heads and fell on our faces. I heard shouts from a nearby boat.

"Are you OK?" asked Tanner. "Can you still swim?" He looked almost green in the floodlight. His nose was pinched shut and gills flashed open and closed on his neck.

I nodded. That was as much as I could muster. Tanner disappeared back under the waves while I trod water. A moment later the boat was beside me; a bright orange rigid inflatable with an outboard motor. Two men grabbed me and hauled me in.

"Good work, soldier," said one of the men. "The rain stopped."

I gasped for air.

"I'm not," I said. "I'm not a soldier."

I fell on my back and closed my eyes.

* * *

I got a few good hours of sleep at a Whitby hotel in a big comfortable bed with soft cotton sheets. I felt I'd earned it. A knock at the door woke me, and someone pushed a note under the door. The note said, "Join us for breakfast at the greasy spoon on the corner."

I took a quick shower and got dressed.

Horseshoe had provided a change of clothes in case I didn't want to wear the same outfit as yesterday, but it was all military surplus. An olive drab t-shirt; camouflage trousers; thick wool socks. They had also provided a plastic badge with my photograph on it. It identified me as a junior clerk at the National Antiquities Security Service. Clearance level thirteen.

I put on the clothes and looked at myself in the mirror. My red hair was still damp, my skin was pink from the hot shower, and my rust-coloured birthmark was as ugly as ever on my neck. All of that was me.

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