Though her aching body begged to differ, the fall had actually benefited Sam in a way – for once, she’d managed to sleep on time. It had been blissful; a deep, dreamless sleep and even now, with her eyes open and her mind slowly phasing back into consciousness, she stayed in that trance… until the ground started shaking.
Sam sat up with a jolt, watching the earth oscillate. And then a sound that reminded her of… hooves? Horses? Were they under attack again?
She ran out of the tent, only to find the others standing together unfazed and almost… welcoming and she didn’t get a chance to voice her confusion before the answer itself pounced down right before her.
Her heart nearly froze at the sight of ferocious eyes and large, pointed fangs, the face definitely that of a jaguar’s, albeit unnaturally striped, like the rest of its body. It exhaled and the dark mane covering its neck danced, similar to the tail wagging at its rear end. Most remarkable, however, was the creature’s height – its limbs were inexplicably tall and thin for its kind and ended not in paws… but hooves – the sound Sam had heard earlier!
“It is a shimaro, young princess,” said the creature’s rider and Sam relaxed at the sight of him.
“Master Daskosen,” she exhaled.
“He will not hurt you, he has been trained well,” Master Daskosen explained, just in time for more of them to appear, each carrying a soldier, their uniforms clearly indicating allegiance to Cloud Palace.
“You’ve finally come,” Xene said, walking up to them.
“Sorry for the delay, Your Majesty,” Master Daskosen replied as he jumped down from the heterochromic creature. “I wanted to make sure Aora was stable before I left.”
“So, how is she now?” Eddy interjected quickly. “Is she coming back soon?”
“Well,” Master Daskosen began, casting a hesitant look at Xene, “she has received adequate treatment, but the poison had spread through most of her wing by the time she arrived. It will be a few days till she can fly again.”
“I see,” Xene replied. “We’ll be starting on foot today after all.” He gave them each a quick glance. “Pack up. We should leave as soon as possible.”
He then started towards the tree holding their captives, Master Daskosen and the pack of soldiers following him. Sam caught something along the lines of “This is why your father always wanted you to tame a fire-breather,” but her grumbling stomach didn’t allow her to think much of it.
Clutching her abdomen, she looked hopefully at the others. “What about breakfast?”
“It’s almost noon,” said Dylan.
“We tried waking you up,” said Rebecca, smiling as she fidgeted with her fingers.
Where… where exactly were they going with this? Sam had a feeling she knew but… it couldn’t be, right? Unless they had a death wish…
“I ate yours.”
Her jaw dropped, her eyebrows flying past her hairline before dropping dangerously close to her eyelids. For Zac’s sake, she hoped she’d misheard him… or that he was joking, though that’d probably make her even angrier, but…
“Uh… we still have a lot of fruit and rice bars on us,” Eddy suggested with lop-sided grin.
“Those taste horrible,” Sam shot back, before stomping towards Zac as threateningly as she could. “You ate my food?” she said. He wanted her mad… yup, that was exactly what he wanted all the time and she didn’t want to let him have that satisfaction, but…
He raised his brows amusedly. “Only because it was going bad,” he said, just in time for her stomach to growl again.
No. She was not going to do this, she was not going to fight him…
She turned around, forcing herself back towards the tent… but before she knew it, his collar was clenched in one of her fists, the other flying straight for his face and of course, he blocked it. Of course, he caught it. Of course.
She let it trickle through her skin – her anger – and it ignited. She huffed as he winced and released her reflexively.
“Don’t ever eat my food again!”
It had been a while since the last time they were strolling through a forest. It was on the day they’d arrived, or rather, were brought to Krymenos. It had barely been a month yet, to Rebecca, it felt like they’d been here for ages.
The world felt like their own now; she could pick up the trees’ subtle change from lime to seafoam as they progressed further into the forest. It was probably because they were getting closer to Hudor, she thought. The increasing feeling of serenity through her form told her they were getting closer to the water too.
“Where’s the border?” she questioned aloud. “The border that separates Keravnos from Hudor, I mean.”
“This forest marks the end of Keravnos,” Xene replied. “Once we’re out, we’ll technically be in Hudor, though Crystal Palace would still be quite far off.”
“Then why don’t we use something like those creatures from before?” Dylan said. “Shimaros? I’d been wondering how people travel on land around here and those things seemed pretty fast. Wouldn’t they be useful in a situation like this where we don’t have Aora?”
Xene shook his head. “It takes years to tame and be able to ride a shimaro,” he said. “You’d be lucky if you could even pet one at this point.”
“But then, there must be another way too, right?” said Sam, still snacking on the rice bars she had claimed to hate so much earlier. “What do regular people use? Don’t they ever travel between the continents?”
Xene tapped his chin. “Well, between Keravnos, Hudor and Gaia, most people use other working animals, though those are too slow for our requirements since we’re on a deadline here. People traveling to and from Aeras have other ways and since it’s very impractical to go to Ignis bypassing Aeras, people usually use the same methods there as well.”
“Other ways?” Sam repeated.
“Flisks, but you’ll have to see one to understand one,” Xene said.
“So, dragons… are they a special privilege for royalty or something?” Rebecca said. “Because I haven’t seen any except Aora so far.”
“Not exactly a privilege,” Xene began, “rather… dragons are difficult to acquire. They’re proud creatures and it’s only after you form a personal connection with them that they accept you as their partners, and that is something not everybody is capable of. Hence, it is most often royalty that ends up with them.”
“Speaking of royalty,” Eddy chuckled, “Master Daskosen called Sam ‘princess’ earlier. A lot of people back at the night mart did too. Is there a reason for that?”
“I noticed that too,” said Sam, laughing sheepishly, receiving a, “You obviously have a princess fantasy,” from Zac in return.
“It’s probably in memory of her predecessor,” Xene interrupted before the bickering could escalate. “He was titled ‘the Prince of Fire’ after all. In fact, all of the gifted ones had formal titles granted to them by the civilians – the Lord of Lightning, the Empress of Water, the King of Earth, the Master of Air and the Prince of Fire. It was considered disrespectful to use their actual names. So, don’t be taken aback if you hear someone refer to you like that again.”
This was the first time Rebecca had heard something individual about their supposed predecessors and the more she thought about it, the more she wanted to know. Despite it being considered disrespectful, she wanted to know their names. She wanted to know what they did before being elected rulers, she wanted to know what their personalities were like, but most of all, she wanted to know…
“How were their relationships?” she said. “With each other?”
“Well, I was too young to remember much from personal experience, but there are, of course, stories that have been shared all around Krymenos over the years,” Xene replied. “They were all introduced to each other at a very young age, you see, so they grew up together. That’s partly why Krymenos was so peaceful despite having five different rulers.”
“So, they were friends,” Sam concluded. She stuck a thumb out towards Zac. “But please tell me my guy kicked his guy’s butt at least a few times.”
Xene couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “The rivalry was quite well-known actually. That’s one thing I do remember witnessing first-hand. There were times when I insisted on following my father to their meetings, so they often asked me who I liked better among the two and even at that age, they were always ready to duel for just about anything.”
“Well, who did you like better?” Sam asked, flashing him her best smile.
“To be honest, the Lord of Lightning always gave me a lot of candy, so…”
“Hah,” said Eddy, breaking into a laugh, “my guy wins.”
“Ah and how could I forget the love story that inspired hundreds of inter-continental migrations?”
There was a moment’s silence after the words left Xene’s mouth before a chorus of laughter of erupted, each of them finding the declaration hilarious, each of them except… Rebecca. She was smart enough to realize that her predecessor being the only woman in the group meant that she was almost certainly involved and though it had nothing, nothing to do with her… she couldn’t help the second-hand embarrassment that was coloring her cheeks crimson.
“They were childhood sweethearts,” Xene continued easily, undeterred by their childish antics. “The King of Earth and the Empress of Water, that is.”
“I knew it,” Sam sang, “I knew it,” Dylan shoving her in an attempt to make her stop.
“So, naturally, there came a point when they decided to get married.”
“M-Married?” Dylan said, nearly choking on his own saliva. He started coughing violently.
“Gaia and Hudor almost got merged, but then… there were a lot of people against it and realization about the decision’s factual selfishness ultimately made them give up on the idea.”
“So, they didn’t get married?” Eddy questioned with dejection.
“Well, no,” Xene exhaled, “but the King of Earth did end up making visiting her the norm, thus promoting a lot of general travelling and cooperation between the two continents.”
That… that sounded like something Dylan would do, except… the person under discussion wasn’t Dylan and it was completely irrational to draw any sort of inferences from their predecessors’ experiences – they weren’t even actually related to them – and Rebecca didn’t know why she felt so weird…
And she didn’t know why, when Xene said, “Now, call it fate or a coincidence that-” she freaked out and spewed some random judgment about a bunch of birds that had just flown by overhead.
Sam chuckled as she linked arms with her a little later. “What’s gotten into you?” she said. “You aren’t the type to get riled up over this stuff, we have Dylan for that.”
Rebecca returned the smile, brushing it off as nothing, but the truth was… she didn’t know. Within all the ease the proximity to the water had brought, something in her had stirred.
The distance wasn’t short but amidst all their chatter and laughter, Eddy felt like the hours had just danced by. They didn’t stop for lunch, simply joining Sam in munching down on some rice bars for energy, so by sunset, they were out – the thick minty forest behind them and before them, an endless, endless blue. The vast, calming sky above and a dazzling, sapphire lake below.
“Well,” Xene declared. “Welcome to Hudor.”
“That’s a long way down,” Eddy inhaled, taking a quick step back as the cliff’s edge crumbled right before his feet.
“The bridge is stable though,” Xene assured, pointing to a wide, concrete beam that seemed to be the only way across.
“Where does it lead?” Rebecca questioned. “I can’t even see the end of it.”
“It does go a long way,” Xene admitted. “Many people say it’s easily a half-day trip but my personal best is three hours and forty-five minutes.”
Dylan let out a loud, mocking laugh. “O-kay, we are definitely camping half-way then.”
“Come on, Dylan, don’t be such a weakling,” said Sam, already on the bridge now. “I’m sure we can cross it before your bedtime.”
Xene flashed her a thumbs up. “I like that attitude.”
Zac chuckled, giving Dylan a shove. “Come on, weakling,” he said, before starting along the bridge as well.
Eddy smiled. Seemed like these four hours were just going to fly by again. “Come on, Rebecca,” he said, Rebecca being the only one still lingering off the bridge at that point. He stuck his hand out to help her climb the elevation and she took it with a smile. “You’re… okay, right?”
“I am,” she assured.
But Eddy knew that wasn’t completely true, that there was something slightly off about her, though his mind couldn’t quite classify it as a bad thing. She just seemed like she was lost in her thoughts and Eddy’s gut said… they weren’t really unpleasant ones.
“It’s getting dark,” Dylan noted once they were all walking in sync, his eyes travelling along the stars that had just started appearing.
“Sam,” Xene said, tipping his head towards one of the evenly spaced torches lining the bridge’s deck. “Would you do the honors?”
“I’d love to,” she said, lighting each of her index fingers like matchsticks before skipping from one torch-post to the other. Eddy was sure no one had ever looked happier setting things on fire. “You know,” she said, leaning over the edge to get a better look at what lay below. “This lake is actually really beautiful.”
“Sam, please don’t,” Dylan said with a sigh, “you’re going to fall.”
If it wasn’t for that comment, Eddy might have never remembered that Dylan was scared of heights; he had done a really good job at holding it in this time. Eddy supposed yesterday’s incident actually had affected him for the better.
Sam laughed in return. “I won’t, though I wouldn’t mind,” she drawled. “The clarity almost makes you want to go for a swim, don’t you guys think?”
“You hate swimming,” Dylan deadpanned.
“Exactly,” she replied excitedly, “and it’s making me want to swim. So, shouldn’t all of us-”
“Just admit it.” Zac smirked, swiftly pulling her away from the rim. “You just want to see me shirtless again.”
Eddy covered his ears, expecting a full-blown scream, but she actually simply settled for throwing his hand off with an assertive, “No, I don’t. But I wouldn’t mind it if I got to drown you in the process.”
Her smile was frightening and Eddy gave Dylan props for actually stepping between that and dragging them both back towards the center.
“Can you guys not?” He huffed. “Honestly, it was literally yesterday – have you forgotten what happened?”
Eddy chuckled. “He’s like a mom,” he muttered.
“It’s really cute,” Rebecca replied and that took him by surprise, but maybe… not so much after all.
“Is it?” he said, wiggling his brows teasingly and she blushed and Eddy gasped, because Rebecca did occasionally get shy and Rebecca did sometimes get nervous but Eddy had never seen her actual, proper flustered before.
“No one, I repeat, no one should be thinking about going for a swim in this lake,” Xene said sternly, catching their unanimous attention. “Ever. This is Lake Inona, so named after its chief inhabitants – inona. It’s an unchanging noun. One alone is an inona, a bunch together… just the same, except… even more dangerous.”
“W-What are they?” said Eddy.
“Part women, part fish,” said Xene and a lack of reaction from them clearly threw him off.
“So, like, mermaids?” Sam chuckled.
“You… have something similar in your world?” Xene questioned dubiously.
“Well, they aren’t really thought to exist, but yeah, we have an idea,” she replied. “Though what’s so scary about them?”
“They feed on flesh,” was Xene’s plain reply. Eddy gulped. “Both animals… and people. There have been many instances of young men going into the lake, never to be seen again.”
“Young men specifically?” said Dylan.
“They prefer those,” said Xene.
“But… you said it like it was common knowledge, the lake’s name,” spoke up Rebecca. “Why then would anyone in their right mind…”
“Well, I’ve never actually seen one but they are said to be beyond beautiful,” said Xene. “There have been accounts of them sticking their heads out of the water and luring men in simply with their eyes and once they have them underwater… they can unleash their strongest weapon – their voices. Their song can trap you in a trance like state and once you’re in, it’s near impossible to get out.”
Eddy took a deep breath. He knew what he was about to say could have a great impact on the rest of them as well. It could most definitely start… a chain reaction.
Complete and utter silence.
Xene laughed. A slow, forced laugh. “Don’t worry,” he said with a wave of his hand. “They can’t survive without their tails in the water, so we are more than safe on this bridge. There’s a reason it was built so high up, you know. And… just in case you happen to see one as we’re walking, look away, cover your ears and keep going.”
That was easy for him to say.
As they started moving again, Eddy quickened his pace, his eyes fixed on the only safe option in his head – the sky. Oh, how he wished they still had Aora…
A loud, abrupt bark made Eddy’s gaze drop to his feet – Knight was trying to force him to a halt.
“Knight,” Eddy called affectionately, “what’s wrong with you, boy?”
As he stopped, Knight started nudging the others back too. It was like he didn’t want them to go any further.
“Seems like there’s something up ahead,” said Zac. “The air’s getting thicker too.”
“Is that… mist?” said Rebecca. She pointed, directing them towards a thin cloud of sorts.
“I wonder…” Xene mused before carefully starting forward again. “Stay behind me,” he told them.
Eddy picked Knight up and followed the others. “Don’t worry,” he said, trying to soothe the visibly distraught fur-ball. “We’ll keep you safe.”
Xene disappeared into the fog but a sudden, great roar made the rest of them freeze. A large silhouette materialized, the shape of the head and the wings making second guesses unnecessary.
It was a dragon. A large, sea green dragon swinging its vicious spiked head in an attempt to crush them.
Xene’s voice sounded before his body emerged from the mist, but they didn’t have to be told twice. They ran for their lives.