Adal went down hard. The impact drove the air from his lungs, and then he was tumbling into the water, unable to regain his breath. Crashing down below the surface of the pool, he twisted and thrashed and kicked, trying to discern which way was up. The creature had splashed in with him, but as he swept his limbs all around, he didn’t feel it. Or anything solid.
Righting himself, head still underwater, he opened his eyes long enough to watch bubbles. He coughed out a small amount of air, watched them travel upward, then oriented himself that way and kicked. When he broke the surface, it wasn’t much drier, rain pouring down as it was. He managed to gulp in a breath, choked on rainwater, then swam the short distance toward the shore.
The dark was near-impenetrable. He had no idea where his rifle had fallen.
Before he could climb up out of the pool, something heavy sloshed within it, sending a gentle, tell-tale current pulling at his legs.
He had a half-second to suck in air before the creature pulled him under. The water slowed the velocity of its weighty arms, so the blow didn’t hurt, but it swept him down and then pinned him below the surface, grinding against his back and pressing his chest against the sharp rocks that littered the ground. They dug into his armor, which held, fortunately, but he would be out of air soon.
Bullets whizzed through the water, leaving odd little trails above him. The foot upon his back wavered. Adal kicked, trying to wrench himself free, but couldn’t quite get enough leverage.
He’d been swimming for all his life. He’d grown up along the river, the source of all prosperity in the Dominion from their crops to their shipping lanes. The river gave and the river took–which is why his family placed such importance on paying their tolls to Loth.
Adal never expected he would drown.
Above the pool, he heard and felt the shudder of a great impact. Light flared across the rippled surface, illuminating the outline of the hulking monster that pinned him. Again, Adal kicked as hard as he could. This time he managed to free himself from the press of weight atop him, and he kicked like mad for the surface, his chest burning for want of breath.
He broke through. He breathed. He gulped and yelled, but the voice that came out was a shallow imitation of his own. Or perhaps his ears were still damaged. Bloody Torcha, firing that rifle in a cave–
Gunfire cracked over his head. He hiked in air and dove down, swimming to the side of the pool. Something swiped at his leg. He kicked at it blindly; it hooked him fast. Then that same sharp something bit into his thigh, sudden and tender, the shock of it enough to make him yelp in pain. Bad move. Water flooded his mouth. He coughed and choked and struggled up just enough to heave a breath that was half air, half water.
The rank, gungy water tasted of algae. It snapped Adal back to a far-off place in time, a whiplash back to his childhood.
Age fourteen, knees on the riverbank, a hand planted in the mud. His face was hot with embarrassment; his eyes burned with tears.
They’d scattered Berin’s ashes that morning, over the river he skippered so long.
Adal had known he was gone. He’d rushed down to the pier as soon as he’d heard the Sondrio had gone down. They’d brought survivors in on ferries and rafts and every dinghy the town could muster, yet he’d known somehow that Berin wouldn’t be among them. That his brother would be coming home under a tarp.
The ashes, though. This made it final. This made it real. Berin had been returned to the waters.
He’d made the mistake of approaching his parents’ chambers after. He wished to relay his sympathies to his mother. He knew he couldn’t go to her with his own sorrows, at least not expecting anything in return. But he felt compelled to reach out to her, to acknowledge her own suffering. He had lost a brother, but she had lost a boy.
And he’d hesitated outside the door when he’d heard her weeping.
Out of all of them, why him? Why not Adal? Why not Rode?
Adal had swallowed his grief and walked to the riverside, sitting beneath the willows, unsure where to even begin to unravel his despair. Berin had always been the favorite, that he’d known, but to hear his mother speak it aloud, to hear her blatantly confess that she’d have traded them…
He plunged his face beneath the water and screamed. He screamed his throat raw, crushing mud between his fingers, venting out all the anger and poison in him in a place only Loth could hear.
And when the water rushed back in, he held his head under just a few seconds longer, marveling at the sensation. He didn’t want to die, no. But he wanted to know how it felt. He coughed and sputtered and wiped at his face, wondering if it had tasted the same when it flooded Berin’s mouth–
One last heavy impact threw shockwaves across the pool. Adal kicked against whatever held him, managed to twist his leg free. He crawled up into the shallows, heaving himself up, unwilling to look behind him. Riss and Calay appeared at his side, each of them grabbing one of his shoulders. They all ran together, the pair half-dragging him. The ground trembled as the rock creature lurched up out of the water, crashing to ground and clawing at their heels.
They ran for the rocks that sheltered the cavern, aiming for the narrow crevice between.
Light exploded across the campsite. In the flash, he saw Torcha silhouetted atop one house-sized boulder. She sparked a fuse and hurtled another bomb behind them. When it exploded, Adal felt heat lick at his back.
But it wasn’t enough. Perhaps, made of stone as it was, heat and fire didn’t deter the creature like they would have any normal, mortal being. Shrieking, it blitzed them, swiping Adal ass-over-end in the mud. He rolled, smashed into a fallen tree, choked on mud.
He lifted his head just in time to see the thing bear down on Riss, who’d fallen on her front. Calay, who’d fallen beside her, spun and lifted his pistol. He squeezed the trigger again and again, but it didn’t fire.
Somewhere, the dog was barking furiously.
Adal watched, helplessly far away, as the creature heaved its massive forelimbs up and brought them down on Riss’ back with a nauseating crunch. She never even tried to get up.
He had no time for his horror. He shoved up and back into the fight, losing battle though it may have been. Finally, he spied his rifle in the mud, though it was so choked with dirt and moisture it was rendered useless when he lifted it. He growled and ran for where Riss had fallen, reaching her at the same time as Gaz.
“This fucking rain,” he heard Calay shouting. “My gun’s fucked.”
He grabbed Riss’ machete from the muck without thinking, charging toward the creature’s towering outline.
“Get her to shelter!” he bellowed at anyone who would listen. He had no time to see whether Gaz and Calay obeyed.
Fresh gunfire from the mouth of the cavern. Adal glanced aside long enough to see Vosk, hands now freed, manning one of the extra rifles. He had yet to hit the thing.
And then the monster was upon him. Stumbling, his sore leg far more sore than he anticipated, Adal barely managed to weave aside from its first swipe. He danced around behind it, sliding in the mud, tried to find the same openings Riss had hacked at. But it was a damn sight harder in the nighttime. He couldn’t see shit.
He slashed, cursed when the machete pinged off stone. He tried again. Still nothing.
Wind whipped past his face as a heavy blow missed him by a hair. His mind had switched off; he was all instinct and intuition now, body moving faster than his tactical brain ever could.
It gave his mind a brief, quiet interval for thought. We’re going to die out here. Riss already has.
Fierce, white-hot light erupted from nearby. Adal squinted. That could only mean Calay was magicking again. Nausea flooded through him when he wondered if the bastard was using Riss’ blood.
But then the source of the light moved closer: a short figure swaddled in a brilliantly-dyed scarf, red hair plastered to her face with rainwater.
Torcha dashed between the creature and Adal, whistling hard.
“Hey!” She hollered above the crash of thunder. “Hey, over here! That’s right, motherfucker, this way!”
She carried her lantern overhead, and Adal could see that she’d stuffed one of her explosives inside it. A flare of some kind. She waved it over her head a couple times, trying to catch the creature’s attention. It didn’t seem to have eyes or a face of any kind, but it spun toward her, drawn to the distraction.
Torcha’s eyes fell on his. He could see then how much she’d grown. Not that she’d ever been a child, even back when they’d first met. She never got a chance to be.
“Get her out of here,” she called. “Get them all out of here. Adal, go!”
She started to back away, slowly at first, then she turned when it became apparent the monster followed. Turning and hauling tail toward the trail they’d come down, Torcha reached the cover of the trees before the creature did. It rushed after her, hot on her tails, its stride listing and limping but barely slowed.
Splashing through after both of them, the dog barked crazily, giving chase.
Adal, struck wordless, watched Torcha’s lantern bob and flicker in the darkness. Then she moved beyond where his eyesight could reach. Or something had doused the flame. He had no way of knowing.
Riss and Torcha, both gone. Just like that.
Adal lowered his hand. The tip of the machete rested in the mud. His clothes were soaked through. They felt so heavy. Everything felt so heavy. He tried to force himself to turn around, to heed Torcha’s wish and take command, but he was terrified of what awaited him.