“Ember!” his stupid voice blares through the night. I wanted to get away unnoticed, but apparently Steval woke just as I left our campsite. I pause in the trees, hoping he can’t tell which way I went. Even the insects that chirp through the night still as they listen to the insolent voice break through the air again.
My skin crawls. Is that panic in his voice? Does he actually care I am gone? No. I shook my head. He only worries about himself. He fears for his own life and not mine. I roll my eyes and decide to continue cutting through the trees. Steval couldn’t track a sandwich that had been made for him and set out at the other end of the table. He won’t track me. Before I can take a single step, a massive crack sounds through the night. What could break a tree that size?
The smell that hits me nearly makes me wretch. Mold, stagnant earth, and rotten carrion stuff my nose so full I lose all ability to concentrate on getting away. What is making that smell? Another cracking tree trunk sends a shiver down my spine and freezes my legs in place. I can’t move, not even with a branch in my face tickling my cheek.
I swear under my breath, hoping the monstrous beast doesn’t hear me, but I know now who it tracks. The loudmouth chosen one himself. Too bad he hasn’t received his powers from the gods yet.
A growl sounds from the direction of the broken trees. The thing must be massive; the trees don’t even grow that close together here. It smells horrible, which swamp has it crawled out of?
Oh. The Palus Monster. It is a swamp dragon. My hand trails to the dagger stuffed in my belt. Pulling it from the place it had hung since this morning leaves a vacant chill in the middle of my back, but it feels warm in my hand. I don’t know what a small dagger can do to a massive lizard, but it seems the only protection I can afford at the moment. Without a sound I creep back to the campsite. Steval has stoked the fire even higher, the fool. He stands in the light—in plain sight of anything looking for a midnight snack.
“Steval,” I hiss. On the opposite side of him I can finally see the massive scaley head that stalks the chosen one.
“There you are!” he bellows. “You’re not supposed to leave like—”
“GRRRAWWWGHR!” The beast’s roar echoes off the trees.
Steval screams. I nearly fade back into the forest’s cover, not wanting to be a part of the fiasco he’s brought on himself. Why should I save him from his own stupidity?
“Ember!” Too late, he runs for me, blundering across the mud with no account for the amount of sound he creates. I grab his hand and pull him along with me. I don’t see any way out of it now. We run downhill. I know the trees grow thicker down here and it should slow down a swamp dragon.
“Where are we going?” Steval calls.
“Shut up! It’s tracking us through the noise you’re making!”
He slows his step as he glances behind to look at the great lumbering beast. It sounds like he mumbles okay, but I can't hear him over the adrenaline pumping through my ears. I pull harder, urging him to pick up the pace again. A stitch starts to form in my side and I try taking deeper breaths, but the sharp pain and the running downhill while pulling the idiot to safety makes it difficult to inhale adequately. Ahead moonlight glints off gentle rolling waves.
Great. Now what do we do. The silhouette of a boat shows itself against the sloshing waters. There’s nowhere else to go. I slow my step as we near the water and hope Steval notices how quietly I wade in beside the boat. For once he takes notice of something outside himself and matches my step. I yank him down behind the craft and hold a finger to my lips. He nods to me before staring straight ahead of us across the water. Behind the boat the footsteps of the dragon seem to slow. I peer around the bow at our pursuer. It keeps swinging its head side-to-side, but its eyes don’t seem to track anything. I know it can hear, that’s how it found Steval, but can it see? Its large front arm strikes a boulder in its way, causing it to bellow in frustration and confirming my suspicions.
“Just stay quiet. I think it’s blind, but get ready to swim,” I whisper.
“I’m not a good swimmer. Can’t we go back to the horses?”
“They took off when that monster appeared. They’re sensible creatures.”
A heavy snort seems too close for comfort and my skin pops in goosebumps.
“I think the concrete rectangle is out there.”
“That’s where the map tells us to go,” Steval answered.
“What map? You’ve had a map this entire time and you didn’t tell me?” My frustration nearly boils over and gives us away.
He shrugs. I can almost see the dumb look on his face in the dark. “You were going the right way anyway.”
A splash in the water. A warning that those massive talons still seek us. I look out at the rippling water and see the shape that Steval believes is our destination. I want to question him. I want time to look at this damn map that apparently exists, but right now we just need to survive.
“Kick lightly under the water, so we don’t create any splashes,” I instruct as I push off the sand underneath us. I hope he can see enough of my movement to mimic me again. The pace and the small movement should make this a relaxing swim, but with the massive dragon behind us this is anything but relaxing. I strain to listen for anything. For a splashing chosen one, for a swamp dragon who’s figured out where dinner has gone. Yet the dragon bellows a roar that seems to place it on the beach still.
“Ember?” His voice trembles and is louder than a whisper. Will that bring the beast after us? It roars again, almost as if answering his stupid question.
“Sh!” I hiss, though sometimes shushing someone is louder than the sounds they make. The swamp dragon roars again, and in the midst of its splashing I hear the boat crack under its weight as it launches into the water.
I kick hard, splashing the water with my feet. It no longer matters, not with the beast on our tails. I want to ask Steval what is in the concrete rectangle, but I doubt he knows and we don’t have the time. If he wants to survive this then he’ll have to swim fast, too.
The stitch in my side resurges with force. It hadn’t gone away when we hid behind the boat, but the cold water tugging at my clothes and clutching at my chest force sharp shallow breaths that make it worse. Still, the sound of the dragon behind drives me.
Finally, the feel of rough concrete scrapes my fingertips and I haul myself out of the water. I glance back to see Steval close behind and the dragon closing in on both of us.
“What now?” I call. He’s still a body length away.
“We go in!”
“It’s filled with water!”
The prodigal chosen one who didn’t want this swim now wants me to dive? I glance beyond him to our pursuer and take the deepest breath I can, trying to expand the stitch in my side. I point my fingers toward the water and tip forward off the concrete, not knowing if I’ll find air again.
Sourdough Creek, Montana 2016