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~ Previous Chapter ~
Well, hello there, Nightriver. It’s good to finally meet you.
In the Deeps
“I KNOW THIS place.” From his position at the front of the group, Mouse stepped out of the tunnel and stared at the low ceiling of the cavern. Though it stretched off into the distance, far beyond the reach of the pale lights, only a small part of it could be walked upon.
They were back at the lake.
A firm hand gripped his shoulder. “Maegla preserve us,” Imaino whispered.
As Mouse turned to look at the still, frozen water, filled with memories of his own time inside it, he saw what was making his friends whisper fervent prayers around him.
Two bright, round eyes loomed above the surface, the same shade of green as the lights that had guided them this far.
Good afternoon, little Mouse. It was about time you joined me.
The monstrous eyes blinked and the water below them surged upwards as the creature they belonged to emerged from the lake.
The Riders at Mouse’s back panicked. This was like nothing they had ever faced before, with its long, narrow nose and enormous sharp teeth. Kaz-naghkt might be vicious and deadly, but they were at least human sized and mostly human shaped. Just the face of this thing was as long as a man. As the head rose clear of the water, the monster might even have been smiling. Or simply showing off its fine array of deadly weapons.
“Back to the tunnels!” Imaino ordered.
The others didn’t need telling twice.
“Wait!” boomed the creature in the water, but the Riders were long past listening, too busy scrabbling back up the crumbling slope.
“You will remain.”
Those bright eyes locked on Mouse, but he wasn’t moving. He couldn’t. This was what had been speaking to him inside his head for months? This was what he had faced in the water? This was what had lit up the tunnels and led them here, promising to heal Haelle? He could understand the hunger now – and the delight in its taste of blood.
It truly was a monster.
“I am not so very different from you, Riders,” the beast rumbled, slithering to the shore and placing an enormous clawed foot upon the stones beyond. “I am merely larger.”
It laughed. A deep, booming chuckle that shook the walls of the cave and brought more rocks showering down from the fragile ceiling.
In the distance Mouse heard panicked cries, even a scream, then others calling his name. Mouse couldn’t move, locked in the predator’s stare.
It slid free of the water in sinuous strides, coming ever closer, long and low, though when it reached him its head was high enough to look him in the eye. “Well met, my little Mouse. I have waited long for this moment.”
Mouse blinked, braced for a wave of fetid breath to wash over him, but all he smelled was the clean scent of spring water and a fresh mountain breeze.
The creature lowered its head and chuckled again, walking past him, its scaly body shimmering in the eerie glow.
“I am no creature, little Mouse, nor a monster. Not to you. I am Nightriver, Guardian of Aquila, your dragongift. Not an it, but a male. And right now your friends have need of me. Come along, little healer. Let us see what the waters of Aquila can do.”
Feeling like a puppet, with Nightriver holding the strings, Mouse turned obediently and looked at the mouth of the tunnel. It was blocked, sealing him inside the cavern once again.
And, like the last time, he was not alone. Haelle’s stretcher had been left behind in the rush, though some had obviously tried to move it. The dust-stained forms of Silveo and Greig lay slumped over her. All three were unconscious.
Tutting like a disapproving old man, Nightriver paced slowly around them. It was a tight fit with his bulk, and Mouse could only stare as with each step water poured out from beneath his scaly paws. As strange as that seemed, it was nothing compared to the sight of the monstrous beast shrinking before Mouse’s disbelieving eyes.
Only when he was the length of a person did Nightriver stop, arching his back and lifting himself onto his back legs, using his thick tail for balance. Stroking his long jaw thoughtfully, he could almost have been a professor or healer. If not for his scales and unusual form. Or the fact that he was dark grey-green and more akin to a lizard than a human.
“Gods,” Mouse whispered, feeling the sudden need to sit down.
Nightriver looked up from his perusal, the slit pupil of his round eyes focusing upon him. “There are no monsters here, Mouse, nor creatures, nor professors, nor lizards, nor gods. But we are healers and your friends are in need. Will you help me help them? I would hate for them to wake and faint again. It seems my manners need improvement.” He smiled, revealing wicked jaws full of sharp, sharp teeth. Even at their reduced size, they remained formidable.
“Well?” Nightriver questioned, his voice the subtle undertow of a deep flowing river.
Mouse felt it tugging at him, making him want to agree. And he did want to help his friends, so he nodded. This was going to be interesting.
“Let’s get them in the water,” Nightriver said. “Once they are there I can heal them. Bring your male friends, I will take the girl.” Going to all fours again he nudged Greig and Silveo gently aside and caressed Haelle’s sweating face with a surprisingly tender touch. “There is much work to do for her. Help me.”
Mouse stared for a moment as Nightriver pushed his long muzzle under Haelle’s unresponsive body. When he lifted his head and shrugged her down his neck onto his shoulders, Mouse realised what he was trying to do and went to help. Between the pair of them they managed to drape her along Nightriver’s length, and the creature ambled into the water.
“Not a creature, little Mouse,” he muttered, before sinking into the depths. “I am a dragon.” The words popped inside Mouse’s brain like bubbles of amusement. “Bring your friends. They have bones to heal.”
Mouse rubbed his aching forehead and stared down at his friends. “How?” he murmured, wondering how he could possibly get either of them into the water. He’d never been strong and his limp made it hard enough for him to walk on his own, let alone drag others. Besides, if they had broken bones, he didn’t want to make things so much worse.
“The water will heal them,” Nightriver’s voice bubbled inside his head. “Bring them. However you can. Just get them here.”
Sighing, Mouse knew he had only one choice. With his herbs all but gone and the rest of the resistance survivors beyond reach, there was only him and his two friends, both of which would be in agony when they woke. He could do nothing for them, but Nightriver might. The lake had healed him, after all.
“All right then. Sorry in advance.” He bent and grabbed Silveo beneath his arms, then lurching and dragging, he carried him down to the water.
~ Next Chapter ~
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