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Stian gazes up at the twinkling stars that glow against the dark sky, picking out constellations she recognizes; Cerberus the Three Headed Dog, Pricilla the Ancient Queen, Cynosure the Guide.

    Lydan gently combs his fingers through Stian's wet, straw colored hair, attempting to untangle the knots. His fingers catch on a knot and she hisses softly. He murmurs an apology.

     "Why do you keep it so long? You’re a thief; I'd think it'd be easier to keep it short." She snorts.

     "Probably. I've thought about it."

      Lydan finishes combing through her hair and starts to weave it into a tight braid. He hums softly, more to himself then to her, but the sound is soothing on her nerves anyway. Stian picks at the grass, rubbing a blade between her fingers that leaves a green stain on her gloves. Lydan fumbles around a moment, searching for the scrap of fabric she's been using to tie the braid. She picks it off her knee and hands it over her shoulder to him.

     "You need something new to tie your hair," Lydan comments. Stian shrugs.

     "It works and it doesn’t cost." He shakes his head, amused. "We should get going." She stands and stretches her arms above her head, her joints popping as she does so, then offers him a hand up. Lydan takes it and stands, but doesn’t let go. Instead, he raises it to his lips and presses a kiss to her palm over the burn scars. Stian rolls her eyes.

     "Come on," she mutters tugging her half mask back up over her nose.

     They follow the river up the hills, the grass slowly fading to stone pathways with water dripping over the side into the river. Stian’s hand darts out to grip Lydan’s shirt, attempting to steady him as he stumbles.

     "We should find a place large enough to wait out the night," he pants.

     She nods, letting his shirt go. "I forget you can’t see as well as I do."

     He huffs indignantly.

     The moon is full and bright, but they will only have a few hours of enough light for Lydan to see. 

     Stian’s foot slips. She grabs the slick wall, digging her fingers into the rock. This was a mistake. She doesn’t move for a moment.

     "Stian?"

     "I'm fine," she snaps, not noticing him flinch. She doesn’t hate water. Not exactly. In the desert it’s a precious thing, the rare lakes barely reach her knees at the deepest part, so she’s never been surrounded by so much of it. She shivers.

      Lydan quietly starts again. They move carefully along, going slower the darker it gets. They pass under a waterfall. Stian grabs Lydans sleeve to get his attention. He pauses turns to her. His wet, dirty blond hair sticks on his skin, framing his ice blue eyes. Stian freezes, suddenly at a loss of words.

     "Stian?" She reads his lip more than hears him. She points ahead. He looks then turns back to her confused. Right, he probably can’t see it. She pulls him close.

     "Cave!" She points again. Lydan looks, but shakes his head. Stian sighs. She'll push him in when they're close enough if she has to. And she does.

     They stumble into the cave, Stian nearly tripping onto Lydan, only just managing to gain her footing. Lydan isn’t so lucky. He lays sprawled out on the cave floor.

     Stian slowly slides down the wall, shivering. The cave is small and damp. She stares at the distorted image of stars in the water.

     "Stian?" She looks up. Lydans sitting up and looking at her worried.

     "Hmm?"

     "I asked if you're okay?" Stian nods.

     There aren’t any branches or anything to start a fire with, so they bundle up together under a blanket to keep warm. Stian tucks her head under his chin and closes her eyes before snapping them back open, remembering someone needs to keep watch. As if reading her thoughts, Lydan murmurs, "I'll take first watch."

     Every muscle in her body begs her to accept his offer, but she sits up shaking her head instead.

     "You won't be able to see out of the cave." Lydan looks down, knowing she’s right.

     "Wake me in a couple hours."

     She nods and lets him lean against her.

     It’s odd how things change. Not long ago she wouldn’t have let anyone lean against her like this, yet here she is letting this idiot who saved her slip past her guard.

      It’s only a few hours to dawn, and she really should let him take watch so she can sleep. But the nightmares, the memories, have been getting worse. She hasn’t told Lydan, how can she? He'll just worry and it’s not like there’s anything he can do.

     The shadows shifts, blocking the starlight from entering the cave as soft splashes from rocks falling into the river reach her ears. Stian sits up and elbows Lydan. He stirs and rubs his eyes. She grips a knife in one hand, with the other she pulls several throwing needles from her boot. Seeing her knife, he reaches for his sword. 

     The shadow grows to a tall man, a torch casting light on his surprised face. Several others gather behind him.

     "Well, I wasn’t expecting others here."

     Stian doesn’t move. He bows. "I'm Lithel, Prince of the Water Domain. Might I ask what brings you to our Waters?"

     Lydan’s face practically lights up.

     "Lithel! I haven’t seen you in forever!" Lydan gushes. Lithel frowns in confusion before a grin spreads across his face, showing off his mouthful of fangs.

     "Lydan!" He pulls him into a hug, then lets go and looks over at Stian. "And who is your masked friend?"

     "This is Stian, my partner. Lithel saved me from drowning when I was a kid." Lithel dips bows to her.

     "Stian, one of the Shadow Folk?" She nods. He smiles.

     "I welcome you both. My people and I are clearing the path to the city, would you care to join us? It is much safer than going alone."

     "Safer?" Stian asks, finally speaking up. Lithel sits. With the added fire light she can see his pale skin and dark hair is tinted blue.

     "Monsters. They have taken a liking to ambushing my people on the path then dragging them into the waters." Lydan shutters sitting next to her.

     "That may be a good idea. We're having enough trouble trying to keep from falling."

     Lithel claps his hands delighted. 

     "Then it’s settled! We'll set out at first light." Lydan grins at Stian. She readjusts her mask. It’s a good idea and she has no need to be afraid of the Water People, but this is their realm, they have the advantage. Lydan frowns. She swallows and forces a slight smile. He sighs softly and wraps an arm around her. Lithel is too busy organizing his party to notice them.

     "Do you trust me?" She nods. "Do you trust me enough to trust that he won't hurt us?"

     Stian swallows and murmurs, "It’s not that." His brow furrows.

"Then what?" She hesitates. She doesn’t really want to tell him but he'll pester her till she does.

     "I can’t swim." Not that it would help if she fell in the fast currents. He blinks, surprised. Stian ducks her head, heat coming to her face.

     "Why didn’t you tell me? I would have taught you."

     She shrugs.

     "It never came up." And it’s embarrassing. Lydan pulls her close and presses a kiss to her crown.

     "Rest," he murmurs, "there’s a couple hours before the sun rises."

***

     "Should we wake the, Sire?" a young woman asks quietly.

     "No, let them sleep awhile longer," Lithel says. Stian opens her eyes.

     "Too late," Lydan mumbles loud enough for them to hear.

     She sits up and looks around. The colors have all dulled back to normal with the sunlight. Lydan sits up and rubs the sleep from his eyes.

     Lithel tosses each of them a fruit. It’s like a peach but instead it’s bright purple. Some sort of water fruit. Lydan bites into his. When he doesn’t fall over dead, Stian tugs her mask off and takes a bite as well. Its sour juice drips over her fingers. She coughs surprised. Lydan looks over and grins sheepishly.

     "I probably should have warned you…" She glares at him with watery eyes.

     "This is pay back for when I gave you that spice bread, isn’t it?" His grin widens. She nibbles the fruit, slower this time.

     "How long will it take to get to the city?" Lithel shrugs.

     "Depends on the monsters and weather but we should make it before nightfall." Lydan nods and stands.

     "We're both trained fighters, so just tell us what to do." 

     "Good. Stian you'll scout ahead with Vela. Lydan, you'll stay with the rest of us." Stian bristles.

     "That’s fine, right?" He looks at her. Of course it is, she just doesn’t like Lithel telling her what to do. She pulls her mask back up.

     "Good, let’s go."

     Stian follows Vela, a younger girl with short violet hair, out of the cave. Vela bounds off ahead, while Stian pauses to rinse the sticky juice off her hands.

     The path widens the farther they go, but it’s just as slick. Stian grabs the wall as her foot slips from under her. As she looks up, something catches her attention. She slips a dagger from its sheath. Vela turns back to her.

     "Stian?" she says tilting her head to the side. Stian puts a finger to her lips.

Something's there, she can feel it in the way the shadows continue to shift, but where, what, is it? Stian whips around, jerking her knife up. Black slime drips down her hand. The monster collapses at her feet. Its lizard-like with thick scales and long nose. Its mouth is full of jagged pointed teeth, like the water people. She pokes it with her boot. Vela stares at her in wonder.

     "How did you know it was there?" she asks. Stian shrugs.

     "Instinct." Vela lets out a short piercing whistle. Stian grimaces.

"Sorry..." She apologizes. "It’s so the others know." Stian scans the area, already knowing there aren’t any more. She doesn’t wait for the other scout before starting off again.

     The path winds into a crevice in the canyon wall. Vela pauses before entering to light a torch. Stian doesn’t wait. The walls are slick with sludge that reeks of rot. She grimaces as it drips into her hair. Vela hurries to catch up.

     "Why didn’t you wait for the light?"

     "Didn’t need it," Stian replies curtly. Vela seems to get the hint not to push.

     They slip out of the tunnel and back into the day light. Right into a heard of monsters. Stian lets out an undignified squawk and shoves Vela back.

     "Right, so now I go get the others. Want to stay here and keep an eye on them?" Stian nods, unslinging her bow. Vela gives her a toothy grin before disappearing back the way they came.

     Stian creeps out and behind a boulder. It’s a large area where around twenty monsters are gathered. She watches them but doesn’t shoot. She won't be able to get any through their armor, she’s lucky that knife hit a soft spot. It’s not long before Lithel bursts through the opening and tackles a monster, Lydan and the three others not far behind. Vela stays hidden in the crevice. So, scouts aren’t suppose to fight. She resents that. Stian waits out the battle behind the bolder.

     Lithel whoops loudly.

     "You sure can fight my friend," he grins at Lydan. He flushes.

     "Yeah umm..." Stian saves him by coming over to them.

     "You took your time."

     "Only for you," Lydan takes her hand and kisses her palm. Stian rolls her eyes.

     "Let’s move on," Lithel calls. The Water People gather behind him. "We'll stay together, we shouldn’t have to deal with any more large groups." 

     Stian pauses next to the river.

     "Stian?" She looks up. The others have gone on but Lydan paused to wait for her.

     "Something wrong?"

     "No." She whips around, head high and follows the group. So, why is she so uneasy about the river?

     Lydan frowns and hurries after her and slips his hand into hers. 

     Something large splashes in the river. 

     She really should take Lydan’s offer to teach her to swim.

     A monster launches from the water. Stian shoves Lydan’s side, throwing him off balance just as the monster's jaws would have snapped his neck. It roars, whiping around and plunging back into the river. She only has a moment to register the sharp pain in her side before the icy water wraps around her. Her scream is swallowed by the water. She struggles, kicking and clawing at anything, but she's only pulled farther down. Her back cracks against a rock. She gasps, her lungs filling with cold water. Then everything goes black.

***

     "She-! Please!-Shiek- can- loose you!"

     "Hold-er - have to- it out."

***

   The first thing Stian’s aware of is the cold. Then the gentle stroking of someone petting her hair and burning pain in her side. She moans softly, prying her eyes open and starts coughing. Lydan gently helps her onto her side as she coughs up a mix of water and blood. She slumps back against him.

     "Easy, you're going to be okay, just hang in there." She shivers trying to press closer. 

     "See if you can get her to drink this," Lithel says softly. She looks up at him, eyes half closed. Lydan presses the bottle to her lips and pours a sweet water into her mouth.

      "All of it. It will help clean the poison from her blood." She starts coughing again, the water coming back up with more blood, blood that’s far darker than it should be.

***

     Warm.

     No, she’s freezing, but the arms holding her are warm. Slowly, Stian blinks her eyes open to find she’s looking up at Lithel.

     "Lithel?" she manages to croak.

     He looks down, a smile lighting up his eyes.

      "You're awake!"

      "Lydan?"

     "He went ahead to clear a path for us." Stian shivers and nods. Rain pitter-patters around and on them. The water rolls off Lithel’s skin but starts to soak through the fabric she’s bundled in. She squeezes her eyes shut as a jolt of pain twists over her stomach. Lithel stops, noticing her tense. 

     "Hang in there. We're almost to the city." Stian shivers and grits her teeth. Why does everything hurt?

     "Try to stay awake." That, is not going to happen. The cold and pain goes away while she’s asleep. Her eyes slip shut.

     The shadows are moving.

     She snaps them back open and tries to look around. Unable to see, she starts to struggle. Lithel, caught by surprise, tries to keep her still. He freezes, cursing as he sees what upset her.

     "A shadow beast. How did it get here?" Stian knows these monsters all too well. As the lizard monsters are of the Water People, the Shadow Beasts are of the Shadow Folk. She shivers. The beast slinks out onto the path, inky liquid dripping off it. Lithel sets her down behind the bend in the path, then silently draws his sword. There's no way he can stop it with that and from the look on his face he knows it.

     "Stay here," he commands before running onto the path.

     Stian, who didn't for a moment plan on obeying, stands shakily and leans against the wall. The beast has its jaws clamped around the blade. Lithel struggles to pull it away.

     Stian stumbles forward, reaching out her hand as she draws on ever once of strength she has left. Shadows pool around the beast and start to wrap around it. It roars in panic, dropping the sword. Lithel snatches it up and backs away. The shadows pull the beast into the ground, adding it’s shadows to it’s own before leaking away as if it was never there.

    Lithel turns around wide-eyed.

     "Shiek, was that?..." She nods putting her hand on the wall. She takes a deep breath only for it to end in coughing. Her legs give out, but before she can fall Lithel is there holding her up. She looks at his blurry face. The rain must be making it hard to see. 

     "Stay awake," his voice is soothing but fierce. Stian's not sure she can if she wants to.

***

     "How did you meet? If I may ask? You’re an awful odd pair." Lydan’s chuckle vibrates in his chest.

      "It’s a long story."

      "I think we have time."

     The pain in her side has dulled to a constant throbbing and the cold has been chased off by the warmth of a fire and dry blankets. Lydan shifts her some. Stian whines in complaint

     "Stian!" She opens her eyes to look up into a pair of ice blue ones. They’re in a small cave, rain pours down outside from the dark sky. Across the fire are Lithel and a young girl who looks to be his sister. Several pouches are tied to her belt and herb are scattered all around the cave.

     "How do you feel?" Lydan asks anxiously.

     "Like sleeping." He smiles, relief written all over his face. 

     "Then you should," the girl says softly. Stian snuggles back into the blanket.

     Before she drifts off, she peeks out at the stars, looking for any familiar constellations. She can’t see many behind the clouds, but the bright light from Cynosure shines down, waiting to guide her path when she’s ready.

 

April 30, 2020 18:18

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