THE STUDENTS WERE not all alive. Life was not good. Huddled on the shoreline, her friends on either side of her, Rhiddyl hugged her knees and felt increasingly numb as the wounded and dead were hauled from the water and laid out on the grass.
Some were only sleeping, as Zett now was. Others no longer breathed.
Rhiddyl stopped counting after the fifth body and buried her head against her knees, hating the sight of the bloated, shiny faces, hating that her power had done this. She was the monster in the water, not whatever had stolen the students in the first place.
Family, she couldn’t stay at Aquila now. She would have to leave. She would have to return home, a failure and a murderer. How was she going to explain this? How could she ever make it right?
“What happened? Sacred fires, Zett! What’s wrong with him?”
“Caelo?” Vhen frowned, while Rhiddyl was still trying to wrap her head around the unexpected voice. Caelo was the last person Rhiddyl expected to see on this side of the lake, considering how much fuss she’d made about being in the water and how many miles she would have had to walk to reach this spot. The girl students had crossed the lake by miryhl back early that morning for their swimming lesson, but there were no eagles in the sky when Rhiddyl raised her head.
“Did you – did you swim across?” Vhen sounded doubtful and Rhiddyl didn’t blame him; Caelo looked completely dry.
The girl wrinkled her nose. “How do you think I got here?” she asked exasperatedly, and crouched over Zett, holding her hands close to his puffy face but not quite touching. “What does it even matter? What happened to him? And you, Vhen? You look like you’ve been boiled.”
Rhiddyl hugged her knees even tighter and must have looked almost as miserable as she felt, because Vhen threw an arm across her shoulders.
“You did what was necessary,” he said softly. “You saved us.”
Caelo stared at Rhiddyl. “You did this?” She sounded more incredulous than accusatory, but Rhiddyl still flinched.
“I didn’t mean to! I was trying to help.”
“You did help,” Vhen insisted firmly. “That thing was dragging us all down for no good purpose. None of us would have got away if not for you. You didn’t do anything wrong, Rhiddyl. Your power saved lives.”
Caelo looked around the shore, pulling on her bottom lip. She seemed to register the dead bodies for the first time and looked at Zett with concern. Taking the sleeping boy’s hand, she squeezed herself in between Zett and Rhiddyl and took her hand as well.
“I don’t know what went on here,” she said softly, “but I know burn marks when I see them. I thought you were a Skystorm.”
Rhiddyl gave a miserable nod. “I am,” she croaked. “I hit that weed monster with everything I had, shocking everyone in the process.”
Caelo wrinkled her nose. “They don’t look shocked to me.” She leant forward to look at Vhen, sitting on Rhiddyl’s far side. “How do you feel, Vhen? Shocked or boiled?”
The Sutheralli boy touched his shiny cheek with a hesitant hand and smiled wryly. “Now that you mention it, I definitely feel boiled, although I think we’ve all had a shock. Just not the kind a Skystorm makes.”
“Yes, this is definitely more Sunlord than Skystorm, although…” Caelo trailed off, staring at the water. Rhiddyl had never seen the girl looking so serious.
“Although?” Vhen prompted when it became clear she wasn’t going to continue.
Caelo wrinkled her nose and shook her head, giving Rhiddyl’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “I wouldn’t blame yourself too harshly just yet, sweetheart. I think there are other factors in play. No lightning bolt ever caused these sorts of injuries.”
“And no Sunlord either,” Rhiddyl pointed out.
Caelo surprised her with a chuckle. “There are more powers on this world than those of Clan dragons, dear Rhiddyl. Don’t grow snobby on me now.”
The lake surface parted directly in front of them, eliciting a brief flurry of panic, until Lieutenant Dhori came striding along the shore, shouting for everyone to calm down. Rhiddyl thought the man optimistic as a monstrous shape emerged from the depths. Long, scaly and armed with ferocious jaws, he was a terrifying sight at even the best of times.
Fortunately, there was nothing the least bit weedy about this monster and he was very familiar to Rhiddyl.
Nightriver, the magically-bonded partner of Healer Morri, bared his teeth at Rhiddyl and her friends in his travesty of a smile. “More powers indeed,” the water dragon rumbled, revealing that he must have been lurking in the shallows for some time. “There is something very strange at work in this lake.”
“Good of you to notice,” Dhori snapped. “Dare I hope your usefulness extends past such observations and into action, such as bringing Morri up here with you?”
“My Morri is busy on the other side of the lake,” the dragon said calmly, not offended by the lieutenant’s tone as he referred to the human to whom he was bound for life, in a Dragongift tie similar to the Wingborn bonds between humans and miryhls, and equally as rare. “They have even more need of him than you at present.”
Running a hand through his hair, Dhori blew out a strained breath as he looked at the bodies laid out before them. “I can’t imagine how.”
“Be grateful that is so,” the Dragongift rumbled and looked at Rhiddyl. “Care to be useful?”
Nightriver’s appearance had drawn a lot of attention, much of which had spilled over onto Rhiddyl, none of which was friendly. Regardless of what Caelo thought, it seemed the other students blamed Rhiddyl as much as she blamed herself for their injuries and losses.
“Does it involve leaving this place?” she asked, wanting nothing more than to fade into the background and be forgotten, even if she could never forget the sight that lay before her.
The Dragongift smiled again, revealing rows of wickedly sharp teeth. “Certainly.”
“Family, yes, please.” She crawled away from her friends and followed the other dragon into the water without a backward glance. Only once she was below the surface did she change into her full shape. Nightriver flashed his teeth and together they dove into the depths.
~ Next ~
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