Chapter 25: Fight or Flight

Information is the lifeblood of battle. Without it, a fight is nothing but a brawl. — Ryontsu Sugéto

A door slammed against the wall and Kanéko woke up with a start. She snapped her eyes opened and listened, holding her breath to hear details.

A rustling at the door and the clink of metal told her that someone fumbled with the latch. One of the pictures near the door scraped against the wall and Virsian let out a muttered curse.

Kanéko sat up and wiped the sleep from her eyes. “Vir?”

Virsian spun around and hurried to the bed. “Get up.” There was a rushed, panicked tone in the dalpre’s voice.

Fear raced through Kanéko’s veins. She fumbled with her blankets. “What happened?”

“Maris saw some boy—Pahim was his name, he works for Cobin. He was in the great hall. She attacked him, and now both she and Ruben are in trouble. I must get you out before they search the cabins. Disguise yourself,” she pointed to the wardrobe, “with clothes from there.”

Heart beating rapidly, Kanéko fell out of bed and snatched a plain cream top from Virsian’s wardrobe. She also grabbed a black belt with a bird buckle and a warm brown jacket made of doeskin. The dalpre’s pants didn’t fit so she wore her own. Her feet were too big for the shoes she found. Kanéko quickly wrapped her feet and hands in the fresh strips of fabric; it worked well enough, and she didn’t have an alternative or time to find something better.

As she pulled on her clothes, she spoke quickly. “Vir? Where are we going?”

“I don’t know, but hurry.” Virsian tugged on her tail and glanced out the window.

Kanéko buttoned down her shirt and leaned on the bed. “What about Maris and Ruben? We can’t leave them.”

Virsian gave her a helpless look. “I’m sorry.”

Ice ran through Kanéko’s veins. She gripped the side of the bed as the world spun around her. She could feel the soft blankets crumpling in her grip as she stared at Virsian. “W-What is going to happen to them?”

“I don’t know, but if you don’t hurry, you’ll find out.” Virsian grabbed Kanéko and pulled her toward the back door of the cabin. “And they’ll probably kill me for helping—”

Kanéko felt sick at the idea of leaving the other two. She knew that Virsian was right, but hated it. She had to flee, even if it meant abandoning Maris and Ruben. “It’s dark. We’ll get lost.”

Virsian sighed and wrung her hands together. “I can see in the dark, but…”

Kanéko took a deep breath. “You don’t know where you are going, do you?”

A helpless look. Virsian hissed, and her body shook as she furtively peered at the window. “I’ve never been that far in the woods, not since I was a little girl. I-I grew up here. But, Kan, we really don’t have time.”

“I don’t have much choice, do I?”

“I’m sorry, I really am.”

Kanéko wasn’t sure if Virsian was sorry more for leaving Maris and Ruben, or that the cat woman obviously wasn’t prepared to travel for miles in the night, with nothing but vague directions. “Let’s go, we’ll figure it out on the way.”

“Oh, thank the Divine.” Virsian jumped and hurried across the cabin. She threw open the back door and stuck her head out to look.

Kanéko peered over the cat woman’s shoulder into the inky darkness of the woods. On the far side of the inn, not even a single spear of light lit up the dense underbrush or the animal trail they followed to the inn. She cleared her throat, “Vir?”

“What!” Virsian whispered loudly, her voice cracking.

“I can’t see out there. It’s too dark.”

“Oh… oh!” Virsian held out her hand. “Just step outside. Then get the door.”

Kanéko set her palm in the warm, furry hand of the older woman. She let herself be dragged out into the darkness. With her free hand, Kanéko shut the door behind her, blinding herself with the night. She whispered, “Vir?”

“Hush,” came the returned whisper, “just get a rod away. Trust me, please?”

She stumbled on the rough ground beneath her feet. Her wrapped feet were padded, and she didn’t feel any scratches, but she could feel every bump and ridge. Her breath came hard and fast, the excitement and fear rising.

Virsian stopped. “Put your hands over mine.”

“Why—?” Kanéko clamped her mouth shut as she felt Virsian’s warm palm press over her eyes. Kanéko shivered at the touch; in the darkness, Virsian was more intimate than anything Pahim did. She reached up to spread her fingers over Virsian’s furry hands and held her breath.

Holding her face, Virsian began to whisper. The words that meant nothing to Kanéko, but there was a structure, a rhythm, like a song that Kanéko didn’t know. It was a spell.

White sparks danced across Kanéko’s vision. The light moved in waves, like the surface of the river in the moonlight. She tried to focus on them but couldn’t.

“Okay,” Virsian pulled back her hands, “open your eyes.”

Kanéko trembled as she cracked open her eyes. The world was bright but cast in shades of gray. There was a muted, spectral quality to her vision. Kanéko’s lips parted as she looked up at a sky shot with pastel blues and greens.

“It’s a dark vision spell.” Virsian sounded tired as she stepped away. “I never used it on someone else before. Did it work?”

Kanéko turned and looked back at the inn. Mercenaries marched along the outside of the building, holding lanterns and sticks in their hands. The light was blinding, like looking into the sun.

A muffled boom shook the ground and dust poured out of the kitchen door and up through the chimney of the great hall. A scream of rage rose up followed by a loud thump. It was Maris.

Gulping, Kanéko cringed at the noise. “I can see.”

Virsian smiled broadly. In the spell-fueled vision, her eyes glowed with an intense brightness. She held out her hand for Kanéko. “Come on.”

Kanéko glanced back with misgivings of abandoning the others stabbing her in the gut. She shook her head and wiped the sudden tear.

Another boom shook the ground beneath their feet. Kanéko glanced back at the inn, a couple chains away at least, and was surprised that she could feel the impact through the ground.

Maris’s voice cut through the night. “I’ll kill you all!”

Virsian gasped. “If she doesn’t stop resisting, they’ll kill—” She clapped her hand over her mouth. She whispered through her fingers, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I’m sure they won’t…”

Kanéko turned back, the guilt tearing at her. She heard Maris howl shrilly and every window burst out from the back of the inn. A cloud of smoke and glittering dust flew out of every opening, puffing out and obscuring the inn.

A deafening hiss filled the air and something shot up on the far side of the inn. Kanéko followed it with her eyes.

It ignited into bright light and Kanéko’s eyes blurred with the brightness before the spell compensated. A second flare of light ignited next to the first, leaving two lines stretching high into the air. A pounding heartbeat later, a third, and then a fourth line of lights stretched up into the air, higher than she could imagine. It almost looked like it scraped the clouds before the rocket exploded in an ear-piercing crack of noise.

Kanéko shuddered as the rocket’s explosion rolled off in the distance. She lowered her gaze to the dust surrounding the inn. She didn’t have a choice anymore, she had to go back. She took a step toward it.

Virsian grabbed her hand with both of hers. “Kan, no!”

Kanéko looked back at Virsian, and then returned her fretful gaze to the building. “They need me.”

“You’ll be caught!”

Knowing the dalpre was right, her mind spun furiously. She couldn’t wait for Garèo or anyone else. She thought back to her idea before she slept. Home. If they could, they would go home. She pulled her hand free from Virsian. “I can’t. I have to.”

“Please, don’t go.” begged Virsian, “I have to take care of you. I’m responsible for your safety.”

Kanéko turned to Virsian but took a step back. “I know, but this is the right thing. Look, if you find Garèo and I can’t stay here, tell him I’m going—” She wondered if she could trust Virsian, and then she realized that Cobin might force her to reveal Kanéko’s destination. Then she thought about her lessons. She smiled, no one else should know the desert tongue. “Do you…do you know Miwāfu?”

“No, I—”

“Tell him I’m going dòtsu.”

“I—,” Virsian shook her head, “I don’t know that word. I can’t speak that language. Dot…sun?”

“He will know what it means. Just repeat it to him, and he’ll understand. If you don’t know it, then you can’t tell others.”

Virsian stood there, a frown on her face, as she mouthed the Miwāfu word.

Kanéko turned on her heels and started toward the inn.

“Kanéko,” said Virsian suddenly.

She slowed down. “Vir, I have—”

“No, one second.”

Kanéko stopped and turned around. She looked at Virsian and saw something else, fear and determination in her eyes. Her father’s stories about combat healers, how dangerous they were, drifted through her mind and she backed away slowly. Virsian could prevent her from helping the others.

Virsian caught up with her. “Please, trust me?”

Kanéko didn’t know how much Virsian would force her. The look in the dalpre’s eyes scared her, and she wanted to run.

The dalpre whispered softer. “You can save them, just let me help, please?”

Kanéko’s back bumped against a rough tree. She inhaled sharply but didn’t move as Virsian pressed a warm hand on her chest, right between Kanéko’s breasts. Her heart pounded loudly as she tensed for whatever Virsian had in mind.

Virsian closed her eyes and began to whisper a different spell. It was long, a discordant sound as the dalpre struggled with the words. Tiny sparks of yellow rose up from her hands, plucking at the fur of her arm. The light burned Kanéko’s eyes and she followed it up in the canopy, trying not to think of the hand on her chest or how her breath quickened with the tingle of magic coming from the furry paw.

The spell filled her from the inside. It left an acidic taste in her mouth and a tightness in her chest. Her heart pounded in her ears, and she felt her senses growing sharper. The darkness pulled back even further, and she could see as clear as day. Her pulse slowed, a steady beat that shook her bones with every thud. She looked down from the trees to Virsian, her body moving sluggishly.

Virsian’s head was only a few inches away. The soft whispers of the spell pummeled Kanéko’s cheek; she could feel the woman’s breath for each word and syllable.

Kanéko inhaled slowly. Over Virsian’s shoulder, an insect swam through the air, too slow to be flying. It buzzed lazily as it slowed down until Kanéko could pick out the wings beating the air, punching down with a rhythm that she could never have seen before.

Memories rose, of her father talking about the battles he fought in. There was one where he defended a temple of healers. He told her about a spell used to boost the perceptions and strength of a warrior to inhuman levels. It was illegal outside times of war, and a capital crime to even practice without being a knight like her father. But, Kanéko stood there, watching a fly crawl across the air as the forbidden magic flowed through her. A joy filled her, and she felt her heart skip a beat with excitement. She only dreamed of magic like this, a dream denied her when she failed the tests.

Virsian pulled back her hand, a sluggish movement. Her mouth moved, and the slow words came out. “You… have… ten minutes… be safe.”

Kanéko reached over and kissed her on the lips. It was brief and short, but Kanéko could never thank Virsian enough. She pulled back and felt the blush oozing up to her face. With a grin, she ducked her head under the slow arm of Virsian and headed to the inn.

She stumbled when the magic boosted her stride. She moved too fast, too strong, and she almost slammed into a tree. Her father never mentioned how hard it was to move under the influence of such magic. Kanéko stopped for a heartbeat and tried again, moving forward with tiny jumps until she determined her new limits. By the time she reached the back door, she was comfortable enough to race accelerate into a sprint for the main hall.

In the great room, Maris and Ruben were in the middle of two dozen men on a floor covered with sparkling dust. She had heard of warriors using crystal to disrupt telepathy and mental powers.

Maris held her arm where blood flowed from between her fingers. Steady vibrations shook the entire girl’s body. Her lips were pulled back in a snarl; her teeth shockingly white as she glared at the men surrounding her.

Ruben stood with his back to her and a knife in his hand, blood dripping from its blade. His eyes were an intense blue—glowing—and his face twisted in concentration.

To her right, Kanéko spotted a man on the ground as he crawled behind the bar clutching his side. In front of the bar, Pahim stood with a sword out, brandishing it between himself and Maris. The bastard still had bandages on his face from where Kanéko had attacked him.

She started to glare at him but then noticed Cobin on the far side of the hall as he pointed into the room and slowly bellowed commands. He wore a pair of goggles with almost black lenses that hid his eyes. He had his sword out, a slightly curved blade that looked like a desert weapon without a name carved along the dull edge like every other Kyōti blade she had ever seen.

Kanéko couldn’t find a clear route to her friends. She felt the seconds passing dangerously fast. The world sped up minutely as if to remind her.

Then she found an improbable route her enhanced speed and strength could make. A place on the bar, perfectly dry between a bottle of red wine and a rag. Another spot on the back of the bar led to a place she could use for balance on the top shelf. She didn’t know if she could make it, but with the spell fueling her movement, Kanéko took the risk.

Sprinting forward, she dropped down and slid between the legs of a mercenary. She kicked him in the back of the knee. Before he fell, her slide brought her underneath a table. Her feet smacked on the leg of the table and the entire thing shifted a foot to the side. Grabbing a bench, she shoved out with all her might. The bench knocked over two men and the movement brought her right up to Pahim.

He slashed down with surprise, his body moving sluggishly.

She lashed out and caught him between the legs. It had worked the first time, but now her foot hit a solid cup protecting his manhood. Kanéko flipped back and yanked a stick from a slow-moving mercenary. Grabbing it with both hands, she swung it in a high arc before she brought it down on his wrists. The impact shocked her hands. She felt a crunch that vibrated through the wood.

Pahim lurched forward. He tried to catch himself, but his hands failed him, and he hit the ground with a slow-motion collapse.

As he fell back with a sluggish scream, she jumped up on the bar. Her left foot hit the exact spot she planned on. With a surge of strength, she leaped up. She overshot her next landing point and shot up into the rafters. Coming down, she grabbed a thick beam above the bar, swung under it, and then launched herself up into the air. As she came down, she planted her feet on the thick, coarse wood and kicked out.

She flew over the fight and landed heavily on the floor between Maris and Ruben. Stretching, she planted her left hand on Ruben’s shoulder.

The world stopped.

New information about the great hall flooded her mind. The dimensions and weights of every item in the room burned across her vision. She could identify everything from the sizes of the individual crystals in the air to the exact amount of force needed to move the heavy table next to her. Inferred histories of weapons, both their manufacture and their use in war, floated over each blade and club. Even scratches and cuts on the flagons were expanded into probable motions that caused every ding and dent. The memories were Ruben’s, forced into her mind, but she saw them as the designs she obsessed over.

After a stunned second, she grasped onto the new memories and thought about her options. As she did, probabilities and chances flew through her mind. She knew instantly her odds of pulling a weapon from someone’s grip and the difficulty of tugging both of them out of the room.

Elation burning bright, she used Ruben’s analytic skills to find some way of getting her, him, and Maris out of the fight. She ran through options, picturing how the fight would take place. As soon as she started to imagine it, Ruben would fill in the gaps and probabilities of responses. The information was overwhelming, but she managed to keep it in check as she worked through a series of rapid-fire scenarios.

It felt like an hour before she realized she couldn’t come up with a plan only using Ruben’s memories. There wasn’t enough to save all three of them. She only wished Maris’s magic manifested earlier, or that the dalpre was trained.

Her train of thought brought new memories to the fore, of her father and grandfather drinking and laughing over their own combat training. They were trying to scare her but she listened with breathless excitement as they ranted about how their masters pushed and pushed them, driving them to irrational rage and forcing them to respond with magic instead of fists.

Kanéko grinned. She had a new plan: Maris. She would teach the volatile dalpre how to use combat magic in the middle of a fight. Her own memories welled up, solidified by Ruben’s knowledge, and she imagined exactly what they needed to do to awake the volatile dog girl. She sent the plan over to Ruben who flashed an acknowledgment.

She released Ruben and the world accelerated.

A mercenary rushed her, trying to club her with the flat side of his sword.

Kanéko swung her stick to block him. As the impact of the sword hit her weapon, she turned and kicked out with all her might.

He flew back, and she stumbled.

Her back slammed against Maris. Kanéko turned to see Maris punching another man, her fist driving into the man’s shoulder. Kanéko prayed for forgiveness and grabbed Maris.

The dalpre spun around, a confused look on her face.

Kanéko slapped her as hard as she could.

Maris took the hit without moving. A hurt look crossed her face. With Kanéko’s accelerated senses, her response came out slowly. “K-a-n, why—?”

Kanéko needed Maris to lose her temper. She only had a few stories from her family that gave her the idea, but she didn’t have any choice. She slapped Maris again before stepping sideways to crack her stick against a man’s head.

Maris gaped, and then jumped. Spinning around, she grabbed her ass and screamed down at Ruben who had pinched her. “Rub!”

Kanéko leaned back and smacked Maris in the back of the head. She ducked under a wild swing from the dalpre and jammed the stick into another man’s stomach. He bent over in time to catch Maris’s back-swing.

The spell fueling her movements slowed down. Kanéko only had a few moments before she was once again a mundane girl with no powers. The realization saddened her but she pushed it aside to focus on her plans. She dove back to Maris to yank the dalpre’s ear.

On the far side, Ruben parried a sword attack and jabbed Maris in the thigh.

Together, they defended Maris and attacked her at the same time. Kanéko felt dizzy as she bounced back and forth, trying to keep them away from the dalpre even as she tried to provoke Maris. Every movement, she watched for the signs her father and grandfather warned her about: the instinctive response with violence and magic, the smell of acid in the air, and a beating against her skin.

“Stop it!” Maris tried to dodge Kanéko’s smack and ran right into another of Ruben’s pinches. She spun around and the air swirled around her. “Stop!” she yelled in a higher pitch scream.

The air grew violent around them. Crystal dust rose up in a circle around them, curling around like a slow tornado. Kanéko smacked Maris harder. "Come on, idiot! Bitch!"

Maris’s eyes widened with shock. Kanéko pulled back to block an attack, and then saw the shock turn into instant rage. Maris screamed out shrilly. “I’ll kill you!”

Around Maris’s fist, the wind gathered. Crystal and sawdust spun around her hand as the air grew hot. Kanéko felt the wind being pulled from her lungs and the whirls gathering around the dalpre’s hand.

Maris drew back to punch Kanéko, a mask of rage on her face. The dalpre no longer saw anything but her fury. As Maris lashed out at her, Kanéko grabbed her shoulders and spun her toward the front of the hall.

Standing in the front door, Cobin blanched and stumbled back. A ball of air burst out from Maris’s hand and slammed into him. The front wall shattered and blew out, shards of woods and glass flinging beyond the end of the horse yard and into the darkness of the night.

Kanéko took a second to plan her next move. Grabbing Maris’s arm, she tugged the dalpre through the gaping opening.

Maris resisted until Ruben grabbed her tail and pulled just as insistently. She stumble forward. Her face was pale and Kanéko could feel her trembling from the effort.

As she raced out the opening of the inn, Kanéko spotted a travel bag lodged against one of the shattered timbers holding up the porch. She snatched it and threw it over her shoulder. She only hoped there were supplies inside.

Out in the yard, there was more room to move. Kanéko spun around, looking for a horse to flee on. She spotted only one, but it was racing into the darkness. She turned around again, still yanking Maris behind her. She tried to find some faster form of travel. Part of her hoped that there was one of the steam cars in the yard but she found nothing. Despair clutched her heart as she tried to figure out some way of outrunning the mercenaries.

Maris whimpered. “Kan!”

“Not now,” snapped Kanéko. She hefted the bag on her shoulder. “I’m working on getting us out of here.”

“Then why were you hitting me?” Maris whimpered and pouted.

Kanéko saw the men recovering inside the inn. She spun on Maris and stomped the dalpre’s foot with all her might.

Air rushed up as Maris screamed out. “Ow!” A blast of air caught Kanéko in the chest.

Half-expecting the fury, Kanéko planted her feet on the ground and forced herself back, fighting a wind that howled around Maris.

Maris slapped Kanéko. Sparks flew across Kanéko’s vision but she managed to hold her ground. “Stop that!”

Kanéko, her face grim with concentration, ignored the pain radiating from her cheek. “No.” Sje spotted a bow on the ground a rod away; a few feet beyond it there was a quiver with arrows spilling out of it. She looked at the men through the cloud of dust swirling around them. They were staggering out of the great hall, weapons in hand. “Rub, ideas?”

“Negative,” came the strained whisper.

Kanéko looked around again as Cobin stepped forward from the darkness. Blood dripped from his face and his sword glinted in the light from spilled lanterns. “Pretty impressive, little girl. He taught you well.”

Kanéko gaped, startled by Cobin speaking Miwāfu. She just told Virsian she was going home in hopes that no one would know the language. A sick feeling twisted in her stomach, but she couldn’t change her plans.

Cobin continued, speaking loudly over the wind that surrounded the three. “And I’m very interested in finding Great Waryoni Garèo.”

A brief plan from earlier gave her an idea. Kanéko stepped around Maris to Ruben and rested her hand on his shoulder. As soon as she felt their mental rapport, she forced herself to speak as calmly as she could. “What do you want him for?”

As she spoke, she pictured the Primer on Crystal Sphere Techniques on her workbench. Thanks to Ruben, the memory came up as clear as every day she pored over it.

Cobin chuckled and continued to walk closer. “I’m going to kill him.”

His comment almost broke Kanéko’s attention. She stared into the goggled man’s face, seeing hatred and anger in the tight-set jaw. She wondered what Garèo had done to provoke Cobin.

Behind him, she could see the mercenaries picking themselves out of the destruction. They leaned against each other and looked around in confusion. Only a few looked in her direction, but they didn’t seem inclined to follow their leader.

Ruben touched her hip and Kanéko started. Remembering her plan, she snapped at Cobin, “Drown in sands, bastard.”

As she waited for his response, she found the page she remembered. It was one of her favorites since it talked about how air witches could fly.

“Some day I may, but not today. Give up, Kanéko, and accept that you are surrounded. If you do, I promise you won’t be harmed.”

Ruben radiated confusion. She recalled the game when she woke up in the wagon, when Maris was talking about a ball. As soon as she thought about it, she could picture it. A bright red ball hidden behind the corner of a bed. Kanéko imagined herself flinging it up in the air. When Ruben didn’t respond, she superimposed Maris with the ball, showing the dalpre flying in the air.

Realization dawned on Ruben’s face. He ducked around Kanéko and grabbed Maris to pull her down and whisper in her ear.

Around them, the circle of wind died down. Kanéko remembered the bow and raced for it. Cobin chased after her, but Kanéko beat him and snatched up the bow and arrows. She dodged his outstretched hand and used her other elbow to jab him in the stomach.

It was like hitting a solid wall.

He grabbed at her. His fingernails scratched her back, but his other hand caught her hair.

Kanéko spun around and kicked him in the side of his knee. The strike sent shooting pain up her leg but it was enough to break his grip. She yanked her hair free, losing some strands, and sprinted back. She cried out as soon as she was within arm’s reach. “Rub, now!”

Ruben grabbed Maris’s face with both hands. His eyes flared a brilliant blue as he dragged the dog girl’s gaze into his own. A wall of wind blasted between Kanéko and Cobin and threw him back.

The dalpre spoke in a soft, distant voice. Her tail was down between her legs as she concentrated. “And I see the ball, Rub. Now what?”

The air grew tense and tight, a pressure building around them. Kanéko grabbed her stolen pack and her bow. She clutched to Maris tightly from behind and closed her eyes. She screamed, “Throw it up!”

Nothing.

Kanéko let out a sob, wondering if she had failed. She had tried so hard to save them.

The world exploded in sound and pain as something grabbed her entire body and yanked up. Kanéko choked at the air whipping across her face and clung on with all her strength. She couldn’t hear anything but howling wind and her own screaming. Her feet kicked out but there was no ground underneath her.

The grip pulling her down slowed and then reversed. Wind blew up from below, buoying her against Maris’s body. Shaking, Kanéko opened one eye and saw nothing but darkness. Gasping, she peered over Maris’s shoulder and looked down at the tiny pool of light that was the Boar Hunt Inn. They were chains above the ground and Kanéko knew that she would never survive a fall from that height.

Kanéko grabbed Maris tighter.

The air sputtered around them and Maris groaned with effort. They fell a short distance before fresh wind surged around them.

“I’m tired,” whimpered Maris.

Kanéko clutched tighter. “Just a little more power, just keep it moving. We—” she looked down and gulped at their height, “we need to get down before you run out of energy.”

Kanéko tried to reach out for Ruben, but she couldn’t move without losing her grip on Maris. “R-Rub? Mar? We have to get down. South, east, and down.”

The wind intensified and the pool of light beneath them began to slide away. Seconds later, they were over darkness. Kanéko’s enhanced vision could see far enough down, but she couldn’t spot anything except for the tops of trees sailing by.

As soon as it had started, the wind stopped. As they began to fall, Kanéko snapped, “Rub! Keep her up!”

Magic crackled the air, and the wind came back, hard and brutal. It threw them up before it died. Before they fell a rod, the air slammed into the tree and bounced them higher into the sky. They skipped across the sky like a rock, each time falling lower as Maris’s power faded.

Kanéko cried out. “Stay awake! You’re going into spell shock. Come on, Mar, stay with us!”

The ground came up, and Kanéko could see it in terrifying detail. She yelled directions, trying to bring them down on the ground.

They were only ten feet above the ground, skimming above the plains when Maris passed out. The energy dissipated and the wind stopped in a heartbeat.

The silence suffocated Kanéko.

They fell in a short arc.

Kanéko, terrified, pulled Maris and Ruben into a tight hug, cradling both of them as they plummeted. She hit the surface of a pond with the flat of her back. Agony crashed into her, blinding her with the pain. Water engulfed them, and she choked as it flowed into her mouth and nostrils.

She panicked and flailed around. Her feet hit the soft, spongy bottom and she reoriented herself. Kicking up, she slashed and clawed at the water until she surfaced. Gasping, she spun around until she saw Maris and Ruben floating next to her. She grabbed both of them and dragged them to the shore. With her fading might, she pushed them out of the water. She tried to crawl out herself, but her body refused to move. As a choking darkness yanked her into oblivion, her last thought was to keep her head out of water. She managed to grab on to Maris’s tail tightly as she slipped into unconsciousness.