Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2022 treats you well.
Meanwhile, there’s something in the water…
THERE WAS SOMETHING in the water. Something alive and powerful. Vhen had known it the moment he was yanked beneath the surface, cracking his chin on a rock and biting his tongue hard enough to draw blood. The weeds wrapped around his ankle, then his waist, then his arms, as sinuous and tenacious as a snake. It yanked him under the water and started pulling him deeper almost before he knew what had happened.
Lungs burning, black spots swimming in his vision, he fought against the restraints. A wide piece of weed covered his face and he screamed, expecting to inhale a lungful of air and choke, drowning in the darkness.
He received a gust of air instead. Foul and stinking, yet enough to keep him breathing.
His struggles redoubled, but he was helpless to free himself from the monstrous strength that was dragging him away from shore and sunlight. As he rushed over the rocky edge that marked the end of the shallows, he spotted more shapes being towed along and wished he had enough belief to pray to something, anything that might save him in this moment.
But he didn’t believe in gods and nebulous fancies that could not be seen or touched. He believed in real things, like friends and dragons. Especially friends who were dragons.
Rhiddyl shot through the water, shimmering silver-blue in the darkness, sparks flickering along her scales as she clawed towards whatever had hold of him. He opened his mouth to call her and was hit by the weeds again.
Except this time it didn’t just give him oxygen, it wrapped tight around his face and rolled him into darkness.
* * *
EVERYONE WAS SCREAMING. Taryn had barely pulled herself ashore when she spun back towards the water. Jylana and the lieutenants were gone and now everyone was swimming out to find them.
“Get back!” Taryn shouted. “It isn’t safe!”
Because no matter what Jylana said Taryn had not kicked her in the face. They’d both been pulled under by something, the same something that had clearly struck again. It continued to do so as students vanished beneath the surface with stricken yelps.
Where was Orla?
Taryn sprinted along the shore, scanning the water for the familiar thick brown hair of her friend. She couldn’t see her.
“Orla!” she shouted, lungs burning, feeling a cold seep into her bones that no amount of sunlight could warm. “Orla!”
Taryn skidded to a halt, relieved to see Orla waving at her from the rock Lieutenant Thera had found for her.
“Thank Maegla,” she whispered, wading back into the water and swimming out to join her.
“You’re safe.” Hauling herself up, she wrapped Orla in her arms, surprising both of them. But not half as much as Orla surprised Taryn by hugging her back.
“I thought you were drowned,” Orla whispered, shivering. “I saw you go under and I thought -”
She didn’t finish and Taryn didn’t push her to. She understood all too well, after her sprint along the shore when she’d thought Orla had been taken too. Their arms tightened on each other for a brief, desperate moment, then they both let go and shuffled awkwardly apart. Taryn didn’t know what Orla was feeling, but she was a little embarrassed by her own show of affection. Except for Pinwheel and her niece, such displays just weren’t part of who Taryn was.
“Where’s Caelo?” Taryn asked after a long moment.
Orla frowned. “She escaped to shore as soon as the races began. Lieutenant Thera didn’t notice.”
Not that Caelo would have cared if the woman had. Taryn studied the shoreline, but all she could see were trees. Wherever Caelo was Taryn hoped she was safe.
“What are we going to do?” Orla asked.
Taryn looked over the surface of the lake at where half of their fellow students were splashing around, panicked and calling out to the ones who were gone.
“We need Rhiddyl.”
Orla turned towards the far shore and shook her head. “She’s busy.”
Taryn huffed and slid into the water. “Then I guess it’s up to us. Come on, let’s get you to shore and then we can work out a plan.”
* * *
MORE WEEDS SHOT out of the depths, lashing Rhiddyl and trying to take her.
Snarling, she fought back, slashing, biting, zapping with her power. She would not be trussed up like some spider’s prey and dragged helplessly into the darkness to feed Family knew what.
The screams grew louder and more frequent, the attacks turning vicious. The weeds weren’t trying to catch Rhiddyl now, they just whipped her, scoring lines along her scales.
Fearing for herself and her friends, Rhiddyl knew she had to act fast. Avoidance wasn’t working. Time to stop resisting. Seizing a frond with her claws, she hauled forwards, dragging herself deeper into the depths. Swiftly overtaking the weedy bundles of human students, she rushed into the darkness. Weeds slithered around her, pulling her in, thinking her caught.
Rhiddyl let them, grateful when their strength increased her speed. It was all part of her plan.
Then, just as her lungs began to scream for air, she saw a light throb through the darkness. A deep brown light, like an enormous dragon glow globe buried beneath mud and rotting debris. The screams turned to singing, luring her in, lulling her senses.
Rhiddyl ignored it and shut her eyes, grabbing every piece of weed she could reach. Biting the pulpy mass, she tore into it with her teeth and summoned every drop of power within.
Lightning sparked, crackled and struck.
With a ear-shattering shriek, the monster in the depths exploded.
* * *
TARYN AND ORLA stumbled ashore, shivering so hard it was difficult to stand.
“Come on,” Taryn urged, when Orla would otherwise have sunk onto the nearest sunny patch of grass, wanting nothing more than to lie down and dry out.
But there was no time for that. Their fellow Riders were still in danger.
Groaning as her frozen muscles threatened to cramp, Orla forced herself to move, limping after Taryn as the girl ran back to Lieutenant Honra’s promontory.
“Get out of the water!” Taryn shouted as she ran. “It isn’t safe!”
Startled out of their panic, some of their fellow students stopped swimming in circles and headed for the bank. A few had already pulled themselves ashore, but others ignored her, determinedly paddling back and forth, calling and diving as they searched for the missing.
Unable to stop them, Orla and Taryn jogged back and forth, pulling half-frozen girls up the steep banks, helping them over the rocky shoreline to safety.
Soon there were only five stubborn girls left in the water. Orla stood panting beside Taryn, trying to decide what to do about them and the missing Riders, when a bright light flashed in the centre of the lake.
Gasping, Orla was almost knocked off her feet as Taryn yanked her arm, sprinting for the trees. The lake began to bubble behind them.
“But what about -?”
“No time. Move!” Taryn shouted, and they scrambled over the rocks, shouting at the other girls to run.
“Go! Go! Go!”
A dull boom shuddered through the ground and Orla glanced over her shoulder to see a wall of water racing towards them. “Hold on!” Taryn yelled, grabbing Orla’s hand as the water slammed into them, throwing them forward, tumbling them around and tossing them into the chaos of the forest.
~ Next ~
Thanks for reading!