Nothing good ever happens around this lake.
BODIES FLOATED IN the lake. Aching all over, weak and dizzy, Rhiddyl drifted on the surface like flotsam and could barely take in the horrifying scene around her.
So many bodies, all limp and lifeless.
“He’s breathing! Get him out!”
The familiar, comforting sound of Lieutenant Dhori’s voice drew Rhiddyl’s attention. She tried to watch the figures running along the distant shore, but her eyes wouldn’t focus. Just dark blobs on a strangely shattered scene. Her head hurt.
She looked around the bodies, searching for familiar features and faces. She couldn’t focus. Her nose wasn’t working. Breathing hurt. Everything hurt. She paddled towards the nearest student, but her limbs felt like lead.
She reached towards the body, wondering why its skin was all shiny, wondering why her scales were missing and why her arm was so pale.
“I must have shifted,” she mumbled, and patted the body again. It turned in the water, dark braids fanning out around the head like weeds.
The thought made her shudder and she rolled the body over in the water. The face was puffy and shiny and so unlike how it should look – but she still recognised it.
“Zett.” Her voice was a croak, pathetic and broken, but strength was coming back. Along with memories.
Oh, Family, Zett! She grabbed her friend close, then let go, worried she’d hurt him.
Of course she’d hurt him! Her power had done this. That was why his skin was all shiny; she’d fried him in the water!
“Vhen?” Memories flooded back and she spun around, almost going back under as her aching head protested the movement.
Someone groaned nearby, a corpse that wasn’t a corpse. More of them were moving. More of them were alive.
Family be praised.
Someone was coughing, others were choking. Alive, alive, alive. Even Zett was making noises. Unhappy though they were, Rhiddyl thought them the most beautiful sounds she’d ever heard. He was alive. She was alive. They were all alive.
Vhen was alive, swimming towards her, his face blistered, his eyes swollen almost shut. She swam towards him and hugged him tight.
It hurt. It must have hurt him too, but neither of them let go. Pulling Zett in to join them, the three of them clung together, treading water, until Dhori’s boat came to pick them up.
Stumbling ashore, Rhiddyl fell to her trembling knees and waited for the world to stop spinning. Vhen and Zett collapsed alongside her, groaning but alive.
They were all alive.
Smiling with relief, Rhiddyl looked up at the beautiful sun in the bright blue sky and whispered her thanks, grateful that life was good.
* * *
BLOOD. IN HER mouth, on her face. Taryn could taste it, smell it. Blood surrounded her. Oh gods. She rolled over to retch and lost track of the world.
When the blackness cleared she felt pain. So much pain. In her arm, her leg, her side, her face. It burned almost as much as the bile in her throat. The scent of blood overwhelmed her and she vomited, choking and crying, wishing everything would stop.
Spitting the foul taste from her mouth, she pushed her hands into the earth, desperate to get away from her own mess, and found that only her left side worked. She looked at her right before she thought better of it and quickly wished she hadn’t.
“Oh gods,” she whimpered, closing her eyes, but unable to get the sight out of her mind.
No wonder everything hurt so much. She must have hit a tree. Perhaps several. Either way, she’d hit something with too much force, because the right side of her body was bent into angles it shouldn’t be able to manage.
She became aware of other sounds around her – sobs, groans, whispered curses and prayers – and remembered running. She remembered water. She remembered Orla.
Taryn opened her eyes and found Orla looking back. The Ihran was crouched over her, left arm tucked against her chest, face pale beneath a splash of blood. Or was it a bruise?
“You’re all right,” Taryn murmured, at least she tried, but breathing was hard and her mouth wasn’t working right.
Orla swallowed, eyes unusually wide as she took the hand Taryn was holding out. She squeezed it reassuringly tight. “You will be,” the Ihran promised fervently. “Oh, Taryn, you will be too.”
Taryn tried to nod, but a sharp pain shot up her neck and into her head. She winced. “I… I’m going to shut my eyes now,” she said, wondering why her voice sounded like it was coming from so far away.
“No,” Orla’s voice was far away too, sounding panicked. “Taryn, don’t. Stay awake, stay with me.”
Taryn wanted to, but she was just too tired and everything hurt too much. It was far easier to shut her eyes and let the darkness carry her away.
* * *
ORLA FELT THE life go out of Taryn and panicked. Her breathing sped up, her head felt light and dark spots danced in front of her eyes. “Don’t die, don’t die, please don’t die,” she whispered, using her trembling hand to check Taryn’s bloodied neck.
A pulse. Strong and steady, despite everything.
Orla hung her head, gasping with relief, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
A scream rent the air and she lifted her head. The world turned black.
No, it wasn’t the world, merely the sky as something enormous loomed over her.
Eyes wide, Orla leant back and looked up, past thick muscle and a chunky neck, to a long head with sharp, extended jaws. Bright green eyes glowed in the gloom, looking down at her, and Orla swallowed hard.
All around her fellow survivors scrambled desperately away, but there was nowhere for Orla to run. She couldn’t leave Taryn and the creature had already caught her. It was over.
Lowering its head, the monster opened its vicious jaws before Orla’s face and a waft of hot breath swept over her, smelling oddly of mint and lilies.
“Move aside, student. Let me see the patient.”
Orla blinked and shook her head, struggling to understand. Not only was the monster talking, but it wanted to help?
The creature bared its vicious teeth and Orla whimpered.
“No smiling.” Suddenly and entirely unexpectedly, Head Healer Morri appeared, patting the monster on the shoulder. “You know the effect it has and the poor girl’s frightened enough. Can’t you shrink a bit? You’re blocking out the light. Hullo there, Orla, isn’t it? Look at me, yes, that’s good.”
It was hard to drag her eyes away from the monster, but the healer thrust his face right in the way, leaving Orla no choice. The man was ghostly pale in the gloom, his eyes seeming to glow with the same green light as the creature.
Glowing eyes? She must have hit her head harder than she’d thought. She shut her eyes tight and shook her head again.
Cool hands caught her face. “Don’t do that,” Morri ordered, holding up a bright green glow globe that made her flinch. At least that explained the glowing. Perhaps she hadn’t knocked her brain loose after all.
“That wrist looks broken. Keep holding it exactly like that, please. Nightriver, are you finished?”
It took Orla a moment to realise the last bit wasn’t aimed at her. Released by the healer, she scooted hurriedly backwards as the monster reappeared, considerably smaller this time. Where once it had loomed large enough to block out the sky, now it was barely as long as Healer Morri was tall, holding itself off the ground on muscled arms and legs. Jogging out of the shadows, it passed Orla, its head as high as her own where she sat huddled against a tree. The monster winked at her and joined Morri in crouching over Taryn.
Orla wanted to protest, to move forward and protect her friend, but Morri was the head healer of Aquila. If anyone could help Taryn, it was him. He was safe, he knew what he was doing – and he was talking to the monster as if it was another healer.
Pressing her good hand to her head, Orla shut her eyes and prayed for the world to make sense again.
When she opened them, Lieutenant Honra was kneeling next to Taryn. “Can you help her?”
“If I have some peace and quiet, yes,” Morri said. “There’s a lot to work on here and I need to concentrate.”
The monster made a rumbling sound, reminiscent of laughter. “You should not let the screams bother you, my Morri. They do not bother me.”
“Unfortunately we are not all so unflappable as you, Nightriver,” Honra said, his tone wry. He looked up and caught Orla staring at him, incredulous that so sensible a man was conversing with a monster.
Honra looked well for a man who’d been half-drowned in the lake. His clothes were torn and sodden, but compared to how Orla and the others on shore had fared, he seemed well.
He nodded at her and turned back to the healer and the monster. “Dare I hope more help is coming?”
“Haelle raised the alarm,” the monster rumbled, since Morri was checking Taryn’s wounds and muttering to himself. “The eyries are emptying.”
“Good.” Slapping his hands on his thighs, Honra stood up. “I’ll ready the whole and lesser injured and get them out of your way then.”
“Do that,” Morri agreed absently. “And give me numbers. There are more badly injured here, although Taryn is the worst. Find them for me.”
Honra nodded again and patted the healer on the shoulder before heading back to the shore.
“I will check the lake,” the monster rumbled. “Threats like this should not vanish so quickly.”
“Do that,” Morri agreed again, not seeming to notice when the monster jogged away. Fresh screams arose beyond the tree line, followed by the familiar raised voices of Lieutenants Thera and Honra as they tried to restore calm.
Healer Morri scowled, shook his head and bent back over Taryn. Running his hands along her battered body, he left a cloud of deep green light in his wake, unmistakable in the woodland gloom.
No matter how many times Orla blinked, the vision didn’t change. The healer’s hands were glowing – and Taryn’s broken limbs were straightening.
Finishing the first pass over his patient’s body, Healer Morri sat back on his heels and ran the back of his hand across his forehead with a weary sigh. His bright green eyes met Orla’s.
“What are you?” she whispered, half-awed, half-afraid.
The healer tipped his head and smiled, but it was rueful and not particularly warm. “I am the Defender of Aquila. Which makes me little different from you, student, so come here and let me see that arm. There’s a lot of work for me to do and my strength isn’t infinite. Nor is yours, so let me help you while I can and then perhaps you can help me?”
Orla had been raised to be helpful and she’d never allowed herself to be fanciful. Swallowing her fears, she crawled away from her tree and held out her broken wrist to the man with the glowing eyes. His hands were gentle when they cradled her cracked arm, the light soothing as it sank into her skin. A sharp pain snapped through her, then warmth swept in to ease the ache away.
“Lovely. Only a small fracture, nice and neatly mended. I love when these things are simple.”
Orla blinked. There was no fear now, only awe. Morri’s smile was rueful again as he studied her expression, patted her mended wrist and let go. “Well, come along then, student. Time to repay my help with yours. We’ve got work to do.”
~ Next ~
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