by Serena W. Sorrell

 

The night sky cracked, its reflection shattered. Chaya plunged into ink and silt. Needles of cold pierced her and the churning waters created a deluge of bubbles. They raced skyward, frantic. Chaya forced herself to swim deeper, away from the bubbles waltzing through starlight–away from air. The deafening beat in her breast thrummed through her ears. The urge to surrender had to be repressed as she propelled into deeper darkness. She pleaded, ‘Just this once, don’t be afraid’. Hysteria choked at the impossible request and tangled around her heart. The frigid lake stung her open eyes. She didn’t dare blink, lest she lose sight of her quarry. It plummeted with finesse, while she wallowed through water and fear.

Anemic spindles of moonbeam illuminated new terrors in the inkwell world. Movement flickered at the fringes of her vision; shadows recoiled, distant shapes lurched, slithery creatures shot past. Their forms never fully seen, but their sharp gaze lingered. The lake kelp hid a hundred self-summoned horrors which moonlight did little to combat. Chaya kept her concentration on the sinking quarry to avoid adding to her fears. The faint striations were unreliable. Their support easily snuffed out by a stray cumulus. Chaya wouldn’t gamble her life and those she loved on the whims of a breeze.

Get the Star. Survive. Go home.’

Ache raked her lungs. Worry traced up her back, and congealed into alarm at the base of her skull. From every angle the underwater tomb pressed on her, inescapable. Personal nightmares lurked, waiting to envelop her. She thrashed through the water harder. A feeble attempt to silence her mind. Stagnant air scratched at her ribs, begging to be let out. She’d die here: by fear or drowning. In lieu of the truth, her family would doubtlessly create an end more gruesome and heartbreaking.

The canvas satchel stopped, dappled with shadows cast by the cliff she’d jumped from. The strings waved on the current, inviting her down. Every story about ocean monstrosities Glinn had ever told was conjured in vivid detail. Jagged scales around a gaping maw, and rows upon rows of fangs leered inside Chaya’s mind. Panic betrayed her. A gasp escaped before she could quash her imagination. Light shuddered through the kelp– not a fin or fang in sight, only the pocked crag which cradled her satchel. The deep holes stared like eye sockets, mocking her. The drawstrings beckoned, challenging her. While pain and cold had numbed her tattered left arm, fear paralyzed the right.

Grab the drossing Star.’ Her arm ignored the command. ‘Do it for them.’

Cold-gnarled fingers knotted in the strings, and the heavy satchel was shoved inside her belted tunic. Worn soles found easy purchase on the igneous stone. Inside her lungs embers stoked to life. Time was up. Her heart winched. The lake had burrowed its icy hooks into her muscles; legs protested as she coiled them against the crag. The rippling moon winked a promise of air. Chaya jettisoned for the ethereal moonbeam arms, spread wide to embrace her return. She had the Star. She had a chance.

A little longer. A little farther. Get to the tower. Get out.’

The crescent beacon vanished. A storm of eddies battered Chaya. Water filled her nose and mouth. Undertows jostled her without care. Fire bellowed in her chest. Imminent betrayal sputtered at the blaze. A silhouette leached darkness from the night and swallowed the moon before it could reform. The horned leviathan descended, long tail whipping behind. Its blow to her gut like the hammer of a blacksmith. Breath burst from Chaya. She smashed against a stone edifice. Water did nothing to weaken the leviathan’s power. Its tail sliced an arc as it sped forward. Panic seized her. Viselike strength crushed her torso. The crack of breaking bones jostled her from fear’s hold.

Chaya fumbled for the dagger on her belt. She stabbed, relentless and frenzied. The blade stuck in the scaled hide. Chaya was shoved from its grip. It could keep the knife. She twisted and kicked off the beast’s body. The leviathan faltered; she launched away. Motes of silver vibrated across her sight. The edges of her world frayed and constricted as the last dregs of her consciousness faded.

Half-drowned, she burst from the depths. She sputtered, gulping air eased and worsened her pain. Chaya was thankful for air; cracked ribs she could’ve lived without. Predawn bleached the night, but brought only washed-out light. Her vision blurred, ears rang, and brain thundered. She floundered for the wobbling far-west shore. Exhaustion be damned, that thing was still alive. Fear was unavoidable, but swimming– half-assed paddling with at least one broken rib, and a few cracked– paled in comparison to the terror being under water stirred inside her. The Star’s spires jabbed her battered body with each pathetic stroke. Chaya blinked hard to refocus the distant shore and forest beyond. Her final reservoir of energy was draining faster than she could swim. If she lived it’d make a great story back home.

A bone-crunching claw ripped Chaya under the lake by her leg. Her scream released her hard-earned air, a wall of bubbles between them. Beyond the din and froth blood-red eyes fumed. It wasn’t a leviathan. It was much worse.

It’s come for me. It’s come for the Star.’

 

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