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~ Previous Chapter ~
*gives Mouse a hug*
“I DON’T REMEMBER it being this steep before?” Haelle said, as both she and Silveo skidded down the slope on their backsides.
“Are you all right?” Vehro called anxiously from where they’d left the miryhls waiting at the top of the steepest section. “Have you reached the bottom?”
“Almost,” Silveo shouted back, able to see the floor of the tunnel, even if the roof still hid the cavern beyond from view. “We’re almost down.”
“Shall we follow?” Vehro asked.
“Not yet!” Haelle warned, just as Silveo dropped straight down the last bit, landing on his feet. He turned to help her down and got distracted by the bright glow that filled the cavern behind them.
“You can come down now!” Catching herself on Silveo’s shoulder, Haelle called back up the tunnel, her words echoing hollowly away through the mountain. “We should move.” She nudged Silveo on the shoulder.
Still staring at the cavern, Silveo stumbled away from the tunnel mouth. It wasn’t just the walls that shone down here – the whole lake was alight with bright green.
“Oh,” Haelle whispered, while behind them the tunnel rang with scrabbles and curses and a short squawk.
Something heavy thumped onto the stone, but Silveo didn’t turn. He was too busy staring at the lake – and the big black silhouette pacing back and forth, back and forth along the shoreline.
“Ack, no, wait!” Thunder shouted, before more cursing and scrabbling and squawking as Vehro followed a little too swiftly and landed on the bigger miryhl’s back.
Feeling Haelle’s fingers curl around his, Silveo left the eagles to sort themselves out while the two humans walked cautiously across the glowing cavern.
“Nightriver?” Silveo couldn’t hide the worry in his voice as it trembled over the dragon’s name.
The dragon turned his head towards them and growled but didn’t stop pacing.
Haelle gripped Silveo’s hand hard enough to hurt. “Where are they?” she asked, her own voice shaking. “What’s happened? Where’s Greig? Is he… is he…?” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
The dragon looked at them again as he turned to pace back along the shore. Huffing, he swished his tail, pointing to a small shape lying mostly-submerged in the water.
Crying out, Haelle rushed forward and dropped to hands and knees, crawling until she reached Greig. Only his head and shoulders were visible, the rest of him lying beneath the water.
Silveo rushed to join her, pressing a hand to his friend’s face. “He’s so cold. Why is he so cold?”
Nightriver merely growled, swishing his tail at the miryhls as they half-ran, half-glided over to join their Riders.
Haelle was crying, pressing kisses across Greig’s face, but he didn’t respond. He barely breathed. His face looked sickly and ashen in the green lake light and it was impossible to assess his injuries with so much of him beneath the water. Not that Silveo dared to move him. He’d seen Greig before Nightriver carried him off. He’d seen the damage. It was a miracle Greig was still alive.
“Is he healing? Can you heal him?” Haelle asked, running her hands over Greig’s face and neck and shoulders, stopping short of touching the water. “Nightriver, please!”
Nightriver growled again and continued to pace, like some great cat stalking the edge of its territory.
That was when Silveo realised what was missing – and why Nightriver was so upset. “Where’s Mouse?”
The dragon stopped.
Silveo stood up, looking around the empty shore and the shining lake. He looked over the fluffed up miryhls, Greig’s too-still body and Haelle’s pale, worried face. Then he looked at the dragon again.
“Nightriver, where is Mouse?”
The dragon growled. “My Mouse is gone.”
“Gone?” Silveo wasn’t the only one to whisper in astonishment. “Gone where?”
Nightriver swished his tail, sending ripples across the whole lake and making the light shiver and dance. “I put him in the waters to heal and the waters took him.”
Gripping Silveo’s leg, Haelle hauled herself upright. “Took him where?”
The dragon stared at them, his eyes the same green as the glowing water. “I don’t know.”
“Is that why you haven’t healed Greig?” she demanded. “Can you heal him? Do you need Mouse? Can you do anything without Mouse?”
“I don’t know,” the dragon said again, the light in the cavern beginning to tremble. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
Then, to Silveo’s astonishment, the great dragon ran past them into the lake. The resulting wave soaked all of them, leaving Silveo wet from the waist down and the miryhls complaining loudly.
It took a long time for the water to settle again, a long time for the glow to return to a low-level normal. Silence descended over the shoreline as they all held their breath.
Then Haelle gasped and fell to her knees: Greig was gone.
* * *
MOUSE WAS SITTING beside Nehtl, watching his mentor drawing leaves in the ashes of their dying fire, teaching him which were the best sort to heal a variety of ailments, when something splashed in the lake.
Nehtl paused and Mouse sat back, staring out over the dark waters.
He twitched, shaking his head as a voice tickled against his ear. “Did you hear something?”
Nehtl bent back over his drawings. “Just a rock fall. Happens a lot around here.”
Distracted by the scratch of stick over stone, Mouse shook off his thoughts and bent down again. “I don’t like how similar hemlock is to cow parsley. Maybe I shouldn’t use it.”
Another splash, closer this time. Mouse looked up.
“You could avoid it, but…” Nehtl began, the rest of his words washing unnoticed over and through Mouse’s mind because there was something in the water.
“Look!” He stood up and hurried down to the shore. “Nehtl, quick, come help.”
The healer stayed beside the fire, not moving, not offering to help, even as Mouse realised the thing in the water was a body.
No, not a body – a friend.
“Greig!” He rolled his friend over and grabbed him beneath the arms. The heavy water tugged at Mouse’s legs and hands, but allowed Greig’s weight to pass smoothly. His friend didn’t move, lifeless and still, as Mouse staggered out onto the shore, falling over as he broke the grip of the lake. Greig didn’t even stir as he was jostled and dropped.
Huffing and cursing, Mouse dragged him up to the fire, which Nehtl had rebuilt into a blaze. Warmth and light washed over them as Mouse hauled Greig up to their little camp and began looking his friend over.
He couldn’t see any obvious injuries and his skin looked healthy enough. But no matter how much he prodded, poked and pinched, Greig didn’t wake.
He stared at the lake, skin prickling as if he was being watched. But the water was dark and still, as calm as it always was, though the softly lapping edges seemed a little further up the shore than they used to.
Nehtl sighed, drawing Mouse’s attention away. “Such a shame,” the healer murmured. “Such a terrible shame.”
Frowning, Mouse turned his back on the lake and studied his friend again. “What is? There’s nothing wrong with him. Least, not that I can see.”
“No,” Nehtl agreed sadly. “You can’t. I’m sure he’ll wake and join us soon.”
Why this should be a sad thing, Mouse wasn’t sure, but it made his chest ache as though he wanted to cry. “If he wakes, we can help him.”
Nehtl looked at him, eyes as deep and dark as the spaces between the stars. “No, Mouse, if he wakes here then there’s no one on the Overworld who will be able to help him.”
“But we’re awake,” Mouse pointed out, wondering why being reasonable was making him feel panicky inside. “We can help him. You’re a healer. You can definitely help him.”
“No.” Nehtl smiled, but it was small and without humour. “The only one who can help him now is you, Mouse, but I’m afraid the price might be too high.”
The panicked feeling intensified as Mouse looked down at his friend laid out before him. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do,” Healer Nehtl told him gently. “You only wish that you didn’t.”
Mouse, the lake called again, and this time when he felt the push against his mind, he shut his eyes and let the presence in.
Nightriver, who had woken when something inside Mouse broke and screamed and died in the darkness beneath Aquila. Nightriver, who had slept for years untold, bound to the fate of Aquila, a guardian meant to save those in need. Nightriver, who was bound to both the mountain and to Mouse. The mountain where so many had died, including Nehtl.
Nehtl who stared solemnly at Mouse when he opened his eyes, remembering everything, remembering that his mentor and friend was dead. Yet here he stood before Mouse.
Mouse looked down at Greig’s still and silent body. As still and silent as death. A resident of Aquila who was desperately in need.
Then, at last, he did understand.
And wished that he didn’t.
~ Next Chapter ~
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