Zac exhaled, clenching his ribs as he straightened back up. They had probably run half a mile in less than three minutes; he could even see a bit of the beginning of the bridge again.
A dragon, here of all places…
“A mist-breather,” Xene said, also panting.
“Wha… what?” Dylan questioned.
“A kind of dragon,” Xene explained, clearing his throat. “Aora’s an airborne – the kind that can fly up to incredible heights, but there are also fire-breathers and mist-breathers, like the one we just saw. They exhale mist to make it easier for themselves to breathe on the surface… it’s rare to find them on land at all.”
“They live underwater?” said Rebecca.
“So, what do you think it’s doing up here?” said Sam, looking back towards where they’d left it. “Something to do with the inona?”
“It wouldn’t make sense,” said Xene. “Dragons are far too powerful to fall prey to creatures of their size. But it was clearly unhappy… dragons don’t usually attack without reason.”
“It looked scared,” Zac said. He couldn’t fully explain why, but he was almost sure of it. “It didn’t even follow us,” he continued, “it was more like it wanted to stop us than to actually harm us.”
“You speak dragon now?” said Dylan, scoffing.
Zac returned his playful sneer. “Yes, I do communicate well with most animals, including your kind,” he said. “Sit.”
“Guys, stop,” said Sam sternly. “This is serious. The dragon’s completely blocking the bridge, there’s no way we can cross this lake unless we find a way past it. Or do you want to stay here and eventually drown with those inona? Because they prefer men anyway, so I’d have no issues with that.” She then crossed her arms and turned away from them and Zac could practically hear her gritting her teeth.
He smiled. She was scared too.
“Xene,” Zac said, effectively snapping the older male out of his thoughts. “We should try approaching it again. Let’s try proving we don’t mean any harm.”
Xene bowed his head in agreement. “What do you suggest we do?”
“Just talk to it,” Zac said, “like you talk to Aora. If all else fails, you can just immobilize it, can’t you?”
“I could try, but the heavier the target, the weaker the effect,” said Xene. “We don’t really have a choice though.”
Xene started forward but stopped once he realized they were all following him. He raised his brows questioningly.
“What?” said Eddy. “Are we supposed to stay back?”
“Yes,” said Xene plainly. “It’ll feel more threatened if all of us go.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Zac. “If things get bad, I can propel us back to safety.”
“Alright, the rest of you stay on guard,” Xene instructed. “And away from the lake.”
“No, I want to go too – if you’re taking him, you have to take me too,” Sam insisted. Of course, she did. Who else loved diving head first into danger every chance they got?
“No,” said Zac. “There’s no way you can contribute in this situation. In fact, we’re dealing with a water dragon and you’re fire all over. It’d hate you if anything.”
“What?” she said furiously. “You’re just making that up.”
“We should take Rebecca,” he continued nevertheless. He turned to Xene. “There’s water all around us, her powers could come in handy.”
“I agree,” said Xene, earning another outburst from Sam.
“Sam, stop it,” said Dylan as he held her back. “You guys go ahead. And… good luck.”
“Thanks,” said Xene, on course again already. Zac was quick to follow but he noticed the hesitation in Rebecca’s steps.
“Are you scared?” he asked her a little ways further.
“I… just don’t want to get in your way,” she said, offering half a smile and he tried to return it.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “you’ll know what to do when the time comes.”
The mist was in view now, but if Zac wasn’t mistaken, its intensity had decreased.
They could actually see the dragon’s complete form. It looked larger than Aora and its general build seemed heavier as well, probably because it didn’t fly too much – a theory further supported by its rather shabby wings. A series of spikes ran from the top of its head down to its tail and a metallic sheen glazed its multihued scales.
Its amethyst eyes studied them for a few seconds before it stood up once again and roared at them – a warning.
Zac stopped, signaling Rebecca to do so as well but Xene continued forward unwaveringly.
“No,” he called authoritatively. “We’re not here to fight. We don’t mean you any harm.”
The dragon snarled again, taking a large step forward, prompting Rebecca to call for Xene’s return immediately.
But Xene didn’t move. “We just want to cross the bridge,” he stressed, his gaze fixed on the dragon’s eyes. “Let us pass.”
The creature blinked and for a moment, Zac thought they’d won the battle… but he was wrong.
It didn’t take long for it to swipe its claws at Xene, who dodged just as quickly, a familiar spell leaving his mouth with the next breath.
It was then that Zac realized why Xene hadn’t been too confident about it – the dragon was not immobilized, rather reduced to a slow, tremulous state. But if this was as good as it was going to get, Zac had to act now.
He crouched down, letting his hands hover over the concrete.
There had to be a reason behind the dragon’s absolute refusal to let them through. Something it didn’t want them to reach, something it didn’t want them to see…
He let the air pressure build, under his palms, under his soles.
And it was now clear that they weren’t going to get anywhere without figuring out what that something was…
He jumped, the jet of air propelling him just high enough to land on the dragon’s wing –
“Zac!” Rebecca yelled.
– it twitched and he quickly jumped again, diving to land… behind it.
His eyes widened at the sight.
He’d found the answer. Four, large… eggs. And they were glowing. She was a mother, she was simply trying to keep her young ones safe, but… from what?
He didn’t get any time to ponder. From the corner of his eye, he saw it coming. He jumped up to dodge, but the mother’s wrath ended up hitting him anyway.
Her tail had knocked him off the bridge and his back hit the prickling water before he could even register that he was falling.
He heard the splash and he sunk into this dark abyss, lit only by the moon’s beams and in the distance, by the flames of the torches, and somewhere near the bottom, he thought he saw something glow – a light golden glow, just like… just like the eggs he’d seen above.
And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t the only radiance. There were more. A swirl of emerald and a streak of crimson, silver and sapphire, there were all sorts of luminosities all around him and his blood froze as his mind finally registered what they were.
Tails. And then… eyes… and hair – they glimmered from head to toe – and he made a mad dash towards the surface, only to be pulled back by a firm grip on his leg and then on his shirt, he turned around – a woman with long, rosy hair and round, jade eyes stared back at him.
He saw her scarlet lips move and he lifted his hands to his ears because he thought he just heard a melody, but then it was gone and he felt another grip on his arm, bringing it back down, except this touch was different… it was familiar and he blinked and his heart skipped a beat because suddenly, her hair wasn’t silky pink anymore, it was brown… and suddenly, her eyes weren’t green anymore, they were… chestnut, in their usual stark contrast with her lightly flushed skin and he took a breath, which he didn’t think was possible because they were underwater. But he didn’t find it strange that he was relaxing now, he didn’t find it strange that he felt happy because… this was Sam.
He could see things about her that he’d never noticed before, like how long her lashes were, how perfectly bowed her lips were, how her jaw made a really nice angle with her neck – and this time, he exhaled desperately. His face was hot, his throat parched and his chest ached. He didn’t know what was happening. His mind was getting hazier and he panicked. But then, she touched him again.
She caressed his face and ran her fingers through his hair and it calmed him but he couldn’t help but feel like… this was strange. She was never this gentle with him… but it felt good. They were so close and it felt good. He couldn’t take his eyes off her and… he felt sick, because this was desire and it didn’t feel… right, but he couldn’t pull away. There was want and there was need… and she spoke to him. And it sounded like her voice, but not… it was too soft, too musical, too… inviting. Slick, like ice. And she wasn’t ice, she was fire. Loud and vibrant and honest. And warm. But despite being completely enveloped by her, he felt cold.
He was trapped, confused – continuously stabbed by reason that told him this was not, not her, but tied down by longing that convinced him that it was. He started forgetting – forgetting where he was, how he got there, what he was doing, who he was…
He was drowning and he hated himself for not hating it.
That… was his name. A splash.
A strong gush of water pushed Sam away from him and soft, small palms covered his ears and he saw her change again – into that… creature that was not, definitely not Sam. He turned frantically – Rebecca, it was Rebecca who’d saved him and he felt the biggest wave of relief pass through him, except… they were still amidst at least a dozen inona. He hurriedly covered her ears with his own hands and then watched in awe as with a simple turn of her leg, she summoned a circumferential jet, pushing the inona back, providing him enough time to give her a quick signal.
She nodded, bending her knees and mimicking his air propulsion with water instead. Perfect.
They flew up, breaking past the surface and a few inches into the air, meaning it was his turf now. He grabbed her, letting his foot just briefly touch the water before jumping as forcefully as he could towards the bridge.
He dropped to his knees as they landed, his willpower only enough to have carried him so far, and gently let Rebecca down on the deck. He coughed, punching his chest to force the water out of his lungs.
“Are you okay?” said Rebecca, uncertainly patting his back.
He nodded, turning to her with the same query.
“Yes,” she said, smiling reassuringly.
“See,” he said, smiling back, albeit weakly. “You knew exactly what to do.”
“It’s because you trusted me,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh.
If only she knew the kind of state he was in before she’d helped him break the trance… he’d probably have gone insane if it went on any longer.
“How long was I under? Before you came…”
“A minute, two at most,” she said, to his surprise. “It would’ve been less if I hadn’t had to convince Xene that it should be me and not him going after you. I mean, I’m the one who can control water here and if he went after you and something happened to him, the immobility spell would’ve ended and the dragon would’ve killed the others after we-” She stopped her explanation abruptly and he wondered if she’d seen something within him. “Why? Did it… feel longer?”
“It felt like forever,” he admitted.
He turned his head, suddenly remembering the reason he’d fallen in the first place. The dragon lay still partly arrested at a slight distance… but there was no sign of Xene.
“So, where did he go?” he said. “Xene.”
“Maybe he went back to the others,” Rebecca suggested.
And she was right. He could hear their voices and the sound of rushed footsteps and Xene was the first one to appear. And then… Dylan. “Rebecca!” he called out. “Zac!”
Rebecca rose a hand, signaling that they were all right.
When Xene had told them Zac fell in the lake and that Rebecca went after him, Dylan could not believe Xene had agreed to let her do something like that.
“I didn’t want to, but it was the more logical move,” he had said in his defense and that furthered Dylan’s anger. “She told me to trust her… you should too.”
It wasn’t until Dylan saw her confident, completely unharmed form that he realized how much he… hadn’t. In his concern, he had underestimated her…
He dropped down, hurriedly fishing through his bag for a towel.
“Are you guys okay?” he heard Sam say as she bent down to their level too.
“What about the inona?” Eddy said, his brows furrowed. “Did you see them?”
“We did,” Rebecca replied but stopped short of finishing her sentence as she saw Dylan holding the towel out for her. “Th-Thanks.”
“No problem,” he said, swallowing. Was it just him or did she look… embarrassed?
But he figured the water was to blame, especially since Zac seemed a little out of it as well. He removed Sam’s hand as if it’d literally burned him when she tried to examine his visibly inflamed wrist.
“Don’t,” he said, meeting her eyes almost reluctantly. “Don’t touch me… for the next twenty-four hours.”
Had it not been for him adding that last bit, Dylan would’ve actually considered worrying for him and/or punching him in the face, but Sam… was Sam and she took offense anyway.
“Like I’d want to,” she snapped, standing back up with a huff. She shot him a death glare that could even put his to shame.
“Don’t look at me either,” he said, turning away and Dylan gaped.
“There’s nothing to look at!” Sam yelled.
Dylan wondered what could have happened in the past fifteen minutes for him to go from making shirtless jokes to… this. But what still topped their list of problems was that they were back to square one with the dragon. It seemed to have no intentions of moving or letting them through, its piercing gaze at them even from a distance. The strain of the spell was beginning to show on Xene’s face too. He didn’t complain but he’d definitely broken a sweat.
“There are eggs,” said Zac as if he’d read his mind. “It’s a she and she’s protecting her eggs.”
“What?” Xene wondered aloud. “That’s strange since they usually only reproduce underwater. What made her bring them all up?”
“Not all,” Zac corrected. “And I think that’s what made her come up. The inona have one. I saw it down there.”
Eddy gasped. “They… they eat dragon eggs too?”
“No,” said Xene, but it was nothing to celebrate. “They enjoy newborns though.”
“No way,” said Sam and the way her voice cracked could only mean that the tears were imminent. “That’s so cruel.”
“It’s clear now,” said Xene, “the reason why she’s so mistrusting. Her egg was stolen and she won’t risk it again.”
“Maybe… we can get it back for her,” said Rebecca, all eyes on her now.
“What? You want to go back in there?” said Eddy with disbelief.
“Eddy’s right,” said Xene. “It’s too dangerous.”
“But we can handle it,” said Rebecca, “and it might be the only way to gain her trust.”
“More importantly, a baby’s life is at stake,” Sam interjected. “We can’t just leave it to die.”
“I hate to be the one to say this to you, Sam, but in life… there are things you can’t save,” said Xene.
“Well, this isn’t one of them!” was her heated reply. “I’m going.”
No, she wasn’t. Dylan took a firm hold of her wrist.
“Let go,” she muttered through clenched teeth.
“You and I both know you’re not the best swimmer. And you and I both know what happens when you hold your breath for too long.” She looked just about ready to fight him when he said, “I’ll go. I’ll put in just as much as effort as you would’ve – I promise. And I’ll give them a piece of your mind too.”
She dropped her gaze, the creases of distress finally fading from her face. “All right.”
He smiled at her, ruffling her hair, before turning to the others determinedly. But there was someone who looked even more resolute than him.
“Dylan,” said Rebecca, “what you told Sam is right, but I can say the same to you. I’m sure I’m the best swimmer here. It probably won’t come off as a surprise, given my element, but I can tolerate not breathing in water for really long too. And it’s just water, after all. I control it.”
“Even so,” he replied. “I won’t let you go alone.”
She blinked and – there it was again. That look. What was he doing wrong?
“It’s… better to go together,” spoke up Zac surprisingly. “It’s not really a place you want to be left alone in.”
It was so strange – hearing Zac, of all people, talk about not wanting to be alone. It almost made Dylan rethink his decision to go in. Almost.
Zac gave out as many details about the egg’s location as he could, and they turned to Xene – their final obstacle.
He exhaled. “So, it’s here.”
“What is?” said Dylan.
“The inevitable adolescent rebellion.” Xene snorted. “Started with these two jumping off a dragon and now you two want to jump into the lake of death.” He dropped his bag and turned to rummage through it.
“Does… does that mean you won’t let us go?” said Rebecca.
“It means… you’re going to need ear plugs.”
He pulled out a gauze and started tearing it into pieces.
Dylan grinned as he handed a pair to each of them and showed them how to roll them into their ears.
They tested them with the loudest curses Sam could muster. She needed to get the frustration out anyway. Truth be told, he could still hear her. But he took comfort in the fact that he couldn’t make out what she was saying. They were going to be all right.
That was what he told Rebecca too as they lined by the ledge.
“Give us a signal if something goes wrong,” said Sam, “we’ll be right there.”
“Dylan,” said Zac and the long pause following his name made his head turn questioningly. “Once you’re there,” he continued slowly, “there’s a chance you might… see some things. Just know, they’re not real. Don’t let it get to you.”
Dylan gasped as the most uncharacteristic blush spread across Zac’s nose. “Just… things.”
Okay, now this was worrisome. What exactly had happened to Zac down there? And why was he being so cryptic about it? And whatever it was, was Dylan really ready for it?
“Come on,” said Rebecca, diving without further warning.
Dylan inhaled, a new sense of panic shaking his bones.
‘Oh Lord, have mercy.’
And he dove.
The water split under her form as if it’d been waiting just for her and despite the obscurity of her surroundings, Rebecca felt at home. A shift in the flow besides her alerted her to Dylan’s presence, his smile reassuring.
She saw the number of flames shining down at them increase, one after the other. The others were trying to help them as much they could from above, weren’t they…
That strengthened her resolve further and she descended, squinting for the gleam Zac had told them they’d see. It was probably further up north though, she figured, since Zac had fallen pretty close to the dragon.
She tilted her head in that direction, prompting Dylan to follow her there.
It made sense that the inona would choose to hide the egg in that area, she thought, since the coral reef was noticeably thicker. What didn’t make sense though was how they still hadn’t run into any of them – she’d found Zac amidst many as soon as she’d dived in earlier.
Maybe they preferred musicians too, she thought humorously.
A golden twinkle caught her eye and she sped up, but stopped as she felt the gauze slip out of her left ear. For a second, she felt like she could hear a hum, but the fear had probably made her imagine it, she supposed, and she quickly reached out for the slice of white floating away.
Another hand beat her to it.
To her relief, it was just Dylan. He smirked as he swam closer to her and held it up for her to see. She blinked… were his eyes always this clear? Her gaze trailed down – wait, hadn’t he… hadn’t he dived in with his shirt on? But he was bare now…
She swallowed, suddenly feeling an agitation of sorts. She thought she saw something move strangely by her feet but he held her chin up before she could spare it a glance, his eyes locking hers in place. He reached out for her ear and she thought… surely, he’d place the plug in again, but he didn’t. He tucked her hair back and whispered something incomprehensible and she felt herself tremble.
What was going on? Her heart was beating unbearably fast and as impossible as it seemed underwater, she felt like she was sweating.
Dylan was someone who did initiate things when it came to her, but he was never so calm… never so risqué. But why couldn’t she bring herself to dislike this? Why was the brush of his knuckles against her cheek comforting her? Why was his uncharacteristically melodious voice lulling her to sleep? Why did this proximity feel so nice?
She sighed, too dizzy to wonder why her breath didn’t stir any bubbles in the water. She took one last look at the hazel eyes his bangs danced around, at the thin line separating his lips and the strong arms holding her in place, before allowing herself to rest against his toned chest.
But the moment was cut short when the ground spiked up inexplicably, separating them but also hurting Dylan in the process.
There was blood and there was debris and Dylan was now being attacked by… Dylan? There were… two of them and for the first time, she realized… one of them had a… a tail.
Against the unexplainable force demanding otherwise, she pushed her hands to her ears, finally… seeing the creature for what it was – half-woman, half-fish. The termination of the trance also brought with it the realization that there wasn’t just one of them around – they were encircled by several.
Dylan was doing his best to ward them off by directing shards and boulders at them and Rebecca knew she could do one of two things then. She could either help him overtake them or… she could take advantage of their distraction and retrieve the egg before his body reached its apneic limit.
She darted towards the corals, using the propulsion she’d picked up from Zac earlier to give herself a greater boost. Behind her, she saw more platforms spike up – all the way out to the surface. Dylan had guessed her plan, she figured, and was trying to wall her off from the inona.
The egg was just a little more than an arm’s length from her now and she was fully expecting a last minute hindrance to arise then – a hidden enemy, a decoy, a trap, anything… but she managed to grab it without complication and that scared her. She turned and past the several earthy pillars, she saw a glimpse of Dylan still engaging all the inona.
‘Huh’, she mused. So, they liked athletes after all.
Dylan saw her as well. The way his brows lifted in recognition was obvious. But he didn’t start towards her, instead he clenched his fist – another pillar emerged, except this one carried him with it. She knew what to do then, finally realizing what the platforms were for.
She bolted towards the surface, one arm securing the egg to her chest and the other still blocking her left ear as the inona swam after her ferociously.
Her head was out and she gasped as her body struggled, bony hands creeping up her limbs. Fortunately, she saw Dylan jump down on the nearest of the steps he’d created and he held his arm out for her. She did the only right thing… she threw the egg to him and dove back down, punching the inona straight in the face. She heard the crack separating the enemy’s bones and she thought Xene’s crazy training schedules at Cloud Palace truly had been worth it.
She pushed herself back out, taking her first actual breath in what… four minutes? She had just beaten her old record.
“Rebecca,” Dylan said, his expression paradoxically worried and relieved at the same time as he hunched down on one knee to pull her up.
She chuckled as she examined the make-shift staircase he’d constructed up to the bridge. “You turned out to be quiet the architect.”
“I thought it’d reduce the time we’d have to stay in the water,” he said sheepishly.
“It did,” she assured, in time for the others to voice their relief from the bridge as well.
“Do you want us to come get you?” Sam called out at the top of her lungs.
“She means Zac!” Eddy described more accurately.
“No, we’ve got this!” Dylan called back. He then turned to her with a grin, the egg safely tucked under his left arm while he extended his right towards her. “Right?”
“Right,” she replied, taking his hand and nodding decidedly.
The pillar they were on ascended further, making their first jump easier than she’d anticipated and as they continued leaping towards the bridge, she finally saw him for who he was.
Whatever happened down there had been an illusion, she knew, but she was also mature enough to accept that it had only been an overwhelmingly exaggerated projection of her own desires. The inona had simply tricked her into seeing what she wanted… and she’d wanted him. She now knew what the uneasiness from the past few days had been… her feelings. He was no longer just the charming boy whose constant pursuit of her made her smile, but also someone she actively liked. She liked him.
“What if… you have something to do with those things he mentioned?” Eddy had said.
“Wha… what do you mean? Why would I?”
“Who knows? But maybe that’s why he doesn’t want you near him anymore.”
Sam groaned, mentally cursing Eddy for putting that idea in her head. He now stood innocently at Xene’s side, cuddling Knight and here she was, losing her mind over something ridiculous. As if she hadn’t already been worried enough about the fact that Dylan and Rebecca were currently swimming in a lake full of cannibalistic, psycho mermaids!
She stopped pacing to kick the air, hoping the act would somehow extrude the thought from her body, but it didn’t… and the next thing she knew, she was standing behind the very jerk who told her not to look at him, looking at him.
She crossed her arms as he continued to look out to the lake.
“I know you’re looking at me.”
She freaked. “I’m not! I just… what did… tell me what you saw down there!”
“Why?” he drawled.
“Uh – ‘cause… because Eddy said… it had something to do with… me.”
“Tch. I liked Eddy.”
“What? So, it’s true? You saw some-”
“I saw exactly what you wanted.” He turned, looking at her for the first time since he’d pulled his arm away from her. “You trying to drown me.” She blinked and he smirked. “You’re looking at me.”
“I…” She hadn’t meant it like that, she hadn’t been serious. She didn’t think it’d stick to him and haunt him once he was actually under – had she… had she really scared him? Did the inona possess an ability to project fears and anxieties – was that how they trapped their prey? “I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean it. I’m… sorry.”
It was his turn to gawk now. “You’re joking… right?”
She would’ve told him that she wasn’t, that she was genuinely sorry but a loud splash diverted all their attention back to the lake.
A large rock pillar had erupted from the water and then another, and another.
‘Dylan,’ she thought.
But this was good, right? This meant he was in control. Her heart jumped with glee once Dylan himself appeared on one of the pillars and soon enough, even Rebecca surfaced nearby.
Sam exhaled, a grin lighting up her face.
They were jumping from pillar to pillar, towards them, and was that… the egg? It was! They’d succeeded.
Towels… they needed towels. Sam ran for the bags as soon as Dylan and Rebecca landed back on the bridge.
She was grateful, so grateful. They were back, safe and sound, and the baby was also going to be all right. They’d saved it – they’d save a life.
Once they were all dry and well-oriented again, Xene gently placed the egg before the dragon. Still under the influence of the spell, she couldn’t voice her reaction, but the joy was evident enough in her eyes.
She roared, but this time, it was different. This time, it was in gratitude.
Sam felt her eyes well up again as the mother slowly lowered her head to rub it against the golden shell. She was happy and she didn’t keep them waiting much longer. She flapped her small wings and levitated some feet into the air, providing adequate room for them to pass through.
“Thank you,” said Xene, reaching up to stroke her foot. “Mizora.”
The dragon bent her neck, almost… bowing of sorts. She’d accepted the name.
The rest of them followed, offering kind looks and good wishes as they made their way through.
“Stay safe,” said Sam. “You too, little ones,” she added, casting the eggs one last glance.
They were finally, finally on their way again – the bridge so much more significant now than she could’ve ever imagined it’d be when they boarded it.
Up ahead of her, she heard Zac ask Dylan if he’d ended up seeing ‘it’.
“No, man,” Dylan replied with near frustration. “I still don’t get what you were talking about, I didn’t see anything apart from the inona.”
“I did,” said Rebecca and Sam knew she wasn’t the only one surprised to hear that. “I won’t talk about it if you don’t,” she told Zac with a chuckle.
“Deal,” he replied, visibly glad and the two sealed it with a handshake.
Sam shook her head, now sure that it truly was something dreadful, whatever the inona did.
“I guess I got lucky,” she said, “avoiding an experience like that.”
“You sure did,” the two chorused and she didn’t understand why they laughed after that.