There are whispers being carried on the winds, and they bode ill to all who chance upon them. They are like ripples in the water, growing steadily as they speed towards the shore. Although the sound of them is displeasing to me, I am the first to admit I know not of what they speak. What has caused this change? For it was gradual enough that I was able to turn a deaf ear on it for some time. Though it is obvious, in looking back, that this has been culminating for quite a while. The words are foreign to me, but I admit that their sound is displeasing and brings a sense of unease each time I hear it. “War.” “Uprising.” What is it we are rising up against? There are so many questions unanswered.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Secrets of Serised

The man had striking features, pale blond hair, and a strong build. His arms and face were tanned nearly black from the strength of the sun, probably from working hard each day in the fields. But his eyes, Xander saw as he had passed, were deeply troubled, and as he hurried towards the other house, it seemed a sense of urgency guided his steps.

He knocked on the door, barely pausing before knocking again, louder. Xander almost didn’t believe what he was seeing. Could it be possible?

It was possible. Xander’s heart nearly leapt from his chest to his mouth as another man, roughly the same age, with curly brown hair and brown eyes, opened the door and beckoned the first man into his home. Xander knew this man well, though as he remembered him, the face had been slightly more wrinkled, the hair tinged with gray, and the body a little more frail. The man who had answered the door was his father.

Hewhay had appeared behind the children, and he placed a hand on Xander’s shoulder, leaning close to his ear and whispering, “Follow them.” It took a few minutes for the shock of what he was seeing to wear off enough for Xander to comply, but he moved forwards cautiously towards his old home, and the others followed. A strange emotion threatened to burst from his chest. Since Sraet had been destroyed, there had been little time to mourn the loss of his parents. Seeing them again made his eyes begin to mist, and fresh pain gurgled up into his throat. He knew that they were safe and sound in Ne De, but seeing them here was different. This had been before the fateful night that had stolen their lives. They had been young, safe, happy. Still, he knew it was only a vision, and that they were all right. This place, these things, were not real.

He reached the house. The door had been left open, and all five of them entered. It was exactly how Xander remembered it. But there was no time to reminisce. The two men were already deep in conversation as Xander and the others entered the sitting room.

“She’s weaker every day, Casmir, and I fear that neither her nor the baby have any other chance.” The first man was speaking, pacing the room nervously. Casmir, Xander’s father, appeared to be trying to persuade him of something.

“Come now, Simon, come now. This is the only home you’ve ever known. We all would gladly do anything in our power to help you and Bria—you know that. Do you really want to leave all that behind?”

Simon stopped pacing and turned to face the other man, and Xander could see the desperation in his eyes. “Casmir, my wife is dying. My baby will die with her. I have heard so many rumors of the advanced medicines and magic of Serised. I believe it’s the only way to save her. I must save her, Casmir. Bria is all I have.”
Casmir’s face was a mask of pain and worry. He nervously fingered the ring on his finger, the ring Xander now knew stated his membership in the society of the Drow.
“Your plan is foolish, Simon. You know what I think of Serised and its wicked ruler. How can you forget so easily? Hewhay is the true king; Sefil is an imposter. To turn towards him now would be resigning yourself to the side of evil. Can you really live with that? Can you really give up everything because it is convenient?”

Simon looked angry, and his next words were more growled than spoken. “She’s dying, Casmir. I don’t have a choice!”

Xander’s father raised his voice to match Simon’s. “There’s always a choice!”

“Tell me, oh faithful one,” snarled Simon with sarcasm, “tell me what Hewhay has done for you lately—for any of us. Look around you! Isn’t there more to life than this? Is this your reward for faith in a dead land and a dead king?”

“He lives!”

“So you say! But I’ve had enough of being ruled by apparitions. I will go to a kingdom where I can see, touch, smell the power. Where I can save my wife and my unborn child. I will go to what is real. You may stay in your dream world.”

Both men looked up at the approach of footsteps. Xander’s mother appeared in the kitchen doorway. In her arms, she was rocking a small child, and Xander realized with a start that it was in fact himself. Her eyes were sad, but she nodded to her husband.

“Casmir, they must go. Simon is right. I cannot live with myself if Bria dies when there might have been a chance to save her.” She turned to the other man, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Simon, you and Bria have been good neighbors and kind friends.” She stopped, choking on her words as sobs threatened to overtake her. “You must go! We will miss you, but you must. We will look after your fields and pray for your safe return, however long it may be.” She rushed forwards to hug him. “But know this. Take no oath of loyalty to Sefil. He is dangerous. You must go, find help for Bria, and come back to us.”

Simon’s face softened at her sincerity, and he sighed. “Thank you,” he said simply. He then turned to Casmir and shook his hand firmly.

There was a flash, and though Hewhay did not tell them so, the children could tell that some time had elapsed. Simon and Casmir had just finished loading supplies into the back of a small wagon, and on the front seat, wearing a hood and bundled in blankets, sat an extremely pregnant woman whom Xander assumed to be Bria. The whole town had come out to wish them well, and he recognized Lily’s parents among the villagers, their eldest son, Riley, in tow—and judging by the girth of his mother, Lily well on the way. The men were speaking to Simon as he mounted the seat next to his wife, nodding down at them.

“Whoever is in need of the house is welcome to it,” Simon said, “for I fear that this may be the last you see of us. Perhaps one of your sons, Damien; they are nearly old enough to live on their own.” He spoke to another of the villagers, an older man Xander did not recognize, but he knew the two sons. However, by the time he was old enough to know them, they had become adults with families of their own. The eldest, Felden, had indeed moved into Simon and Bria’s home, and Xander had never known that someone had lived there before him.
But the greatest shock had yet to come. Lily’s mother approached the carriage, and as carefully as she could, she reached up to grasp Bria’s hand in both of hers. Bria, with her free hand, pulled her hood away from her head and spoke, but Xander, nor the others, never heard what she said.
She was beautiful despite the sickness that threatened her life, but that was not what came as such a surprise. It was that every one of the children recognized her. There was no mistaking it.
Her jet-black hair and liquid gold eyes spoke volumes. This woman was Julian’s mother.

The Secrets of Serised

“So everyone is waiting on me. It’s all on my shoulders.”

“All you have to do is pick up the staff, Xander. It’s that simple. Pick it up; take what I’ve offered you. For once trust something that doesn’t quite make sense to you.”
Xander was pacing back and forth now, not once letting the staff out of his sight. He knew what he had to do, but he didn’t understand why it was so hard. He just had to believe, right? Why couldn’t he believe?

“It’s just a staff. I should be able to lift it.”

“It is a staff that brings a heavy burden on the shoulders of its bearer. To pick it up takes courage . . . faith. A willingness to walk a path that seems very difficult.”
“But once I pick it up, I can give it to you. Then it’s not on me anymore.”

“You will be set free of your burden, Xander. But you must accept the staff first. You cannot give me something you don’t have.”

Xander yanked at his hair with both hands now, pacing quicker, grinding his teeth, and looking skyward. Why was it so hard? He stopped. He turned back to where the staff lay.
I just have to pick it up. It’s that simple. I can save Lily, save us all. I just have to pick it up.

“Forgive yourself, Xander, for your inequities, as I have forgiven you. Let them go.”

“But I have!”

“Forgive others for the wrongs they have done you.”

That was it! He couldn’t pick up the staff with anger and resentment in his heart. Julian’s face loomed in the forefront of his mind. He thought of his betrayal, his hurt, his hatred.

Let that go? How?
The only way to save Lily was to forgive Julian. He knew it with absolute certainty. But how could he forgive the traitor who had been leading them straight into the clutches of the man to whom all evil paid homage?

He thought of the Nomed, how bravely he and Julian had fought it, together. He thought of the Snagap. Julian had saved Xander, yes, but it hadn’t stopped there. He could have made it to El Bib. He could have. But he went back for Lily and Thaladria. Xander thought of Elt Sopa, speaking about El Bib. “I know that you are no danger, for if you were, than you could not have entered here.” Elt Sopa was a servant of Hewhay. He had allowed Julian into the forest. Why?
He remembered fighting with Julian. At the time, he had felt unspeakable power in his anger. But he’d seen Julian fight before, and he was no match for that boy. Julian had bested him . . . and let him live. Why?

Why, on several occasions, had Julian risked his life for Xander, if all he was after was Lily?

“How could I have been so blind?” Xander cried. The speaker did not ask to what Xander was referring. He already seemed to know. “Whatever his intentions had been, whatever evil he has committed, surely he was trying to start anew. Probably trying to tell us. Xander shook his head, a disgusted scowl marring his features. And I-I turned him away. I drove him out. I was blind then, as I am blind now. But no more!”

He walked slowly, purposefully, to the staff. He bent down. “I can see now! I forgive him. I can see!” He grasped it with both hands and tugged on it hard, but his efforts proved unnecessary. The staff came away from the ground as if it weighed no more than a feather. A powerful glow that reminded him of the Messengers began to emanate from its crystal, and as he turned towards where the voice had been, joy and triumph written on his face, his gaze did not meet an empty field.

The Secrets of Serised

Several times they were jerked forwards uncomfortably as the current rounded a curve that the boat couldn’t negotiate fast enough. They lost track of time as minutes seemed to stretch into hours, until a single thought seemed to consume them: staying beneath the boat. The only light was the faint glow of Alden’s crystal-tipped staff, which had burst into light at his whispered words. They didn’t talk, unsure how much farther they would have to travel or even how long the air would last.

Xander, given the choice, thought that he would rather die quickly, dashed against a large rock, then slowly drown or suffocate. He forced himself to push the morbid thoughts from his mind; he had to be a leader. But they kept creeping back to the forefront. With no breath to talk and nothing to do but let himself be helplessly carried away by the Ssorc, he found there was nothing else to think about. What would death be like? he wondered. Frightening? Lonely? Peaceful?

No. Think about Lily. Focus on her.

Maybe it won’t be so bad . . .

Focus . . .

Xander realized that his thoughts were spiraling slowly out of control. He felt fuzzy, dazed, and tired. Though it took a great deal of effort to speak and hold himself afloat at the same time, he forced himself to do so. “What’s happening?” he said, his words sounding a little fuzzy, just like the rest of him.

“We’re running out of air. Do not speak. Calm your heart rate. We have to conserve it as long as possible, or we’ll lose consciousness and drown ourselves.”

Thaladria’s voice was matter-of-fact, and although Xander’s state made him want to ask more questions, something in her tone kept him silent. He was vaguely aware that this was a life-or-death situation, but as the minutes stretched on, he began to stop caring.

“Xander . . .” Estelle’s voice came from far away. It was so difficult to hear over the creak and groan of the boat raking at the rock above them. Xander wasn’t sure how long it had taken him to realize something was wrong.

That’s when he understood what it was. The lethargy brought on by the lack of oxygen wouldn’t let him act with the speed he knew he needed.

“Thaladria,” he croaked. “Thaladria, the roof is collapsing!”

But it was too late. He turned to look and saw that the girl was already unconscious, Alden holding her around the waist, fighting to keep her head above the water even as his eyes fought to close.

“No. No!” Xander exclaimed. “Got to stay awake. Got to do something.” But there was nothing they could do. The boat was roaring in protest as the cavern finally forced it to give way. Wood splinters shattered and rushed towards Xander’s face, carried by a wave of water that crashed down on their heads. The boat was torn apart and the four of them, tied and tangled in their rope, were thrown under the surface. Xander’s last thought as the darkness overtook him was of his failure.

Lily, I’m so sorry.

The Secrets of Serised

They threw him unceremoniously into a cell, slammed the door, and left.
Julian scrambled to the bars, peering across the hall. Nothing. He looked to his right. It was very dark, but he could make out the dim silhouette of Lily, curled up in the corner of the cell beside him. “Lily,” he whispered, then a little louder. He didn’t care what she thought of him. He had to make sure she was okay. “Lily!”

A faint reply came after a long hesitation. Her voice was weak. “Julian?”

Julian breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes, Lily. It’s me. Are you okay?”

There was no answer for a long time. Julian wanted to ask again, but he was afraid he’d miss her response, so tired and small was her voice. Then it came from the corner, so quiet he almost could have been imagining it.

“Julian, I’m scared.”

His stomach twisted into a knot as a wave of protectiveness washed over him. He knew he’d done nothing in his life to deserve her friendship. He knew she was only talking to him because she was too weak to remember what he was. He scooted as close to the bars as he could, pushing one hand through, but she was out of reach and looked in no condition to move closer. He didn’t care if she hated him until the end of time. He would find a way to save her. “Lily, it’s okay. I’m here, okay? I’m going to be here all the time, watching out for you. Your friends are coming to rescue you. Then you can go wherever you want. Make a new home. Forget this place, forget me, forget this life. It’s going to be okay.” He knew he was feeding her a lot of false hope. But he knew it might be just enough to make her keep fighting. “How’s that sound, Lily? Sound good?”

“Duncan?” For a second Julian thought she’d forgotten who he was. Then he realized she was too weak to form a full sentence. She wanted to know about Duncan.

“I’m sorry, Lily.”

With an extreme amount of effort, she lifted herself onto all fours and crawled weakly across the cell, only to collapse again on the floor beside him as the strength left her. The action had been small, pathetic. But to Julian it was the most valiant deed he had ever seen accomplished.

Then she spoke again, so softly that he had to position himself closer to the ground in order to hear. “Duncan’s okay?”

“Lily . . .” He didn’t know what to say to her. Bile rose in his throat, and he fought to find the words. Did she truly not know? Did he really have to say it?

“Duncan okay?” she said again.

“No, Lily. Duncan’s gone.”

There was silence, then the sound of sobbing. Julian steeled his heart and leaned against the cool stone wall of his cell. Slowly, gently, he reached out, putting his hand on the soft, tangled mass of hair. He had expected her to recoil at his touch, but she was too weak to do anything but cry and nod. She knew it was true. She’d seen Duncan, seen his body, seen his actions. She knew that the young man that now threatened her very life was not her brother. Her brother was dead. This was just an imposter.

Shivers ran up Julian’s arm as she trembled, and he stroked her as soothingly as he could.
Slowly the sobbing subsided, and then there was silence again. But try as he might, Julian could coax nothing more out of Lily. He realized that it was not the pain alone draining her life. It was also the despair. She’d lost Duncan, failed to rescue him, and she knew it. She blamed herself even more than she blamed Julian, or else she wouldn’t even be talking to him. She was dying of a broken heart.

Please, Xander, you’ve got to hurry. She’s not going to make it much longer.

The Secrets of Serised

Elt Sopa studied Xander, long and hard. “You know Lily much better than I, Xander. Tell me. Do you honestly believe that she would save her own life at the price of thousands of others?”

Xander hesitated and then shook his head slowly. The old man was right. She would give all of herself for the cause. “No, she wouldn’t. She’s not that kind of a person.”

“I didn’t think so. But as we speak, she is being forced to choose: the mark or death.”

“Lily would never take a mark that meant she was a slave to evil.”

“They will torture her until she does, and if she doesn’t, they’ll kill her. You must not waste time. You must find the Lost Kingdom before it is too late.”

“Yeah, well, sea serpents and whirlpools in the river don’t exactly help!”

“Nah Taivel is a servant of Sefil. That creature was sent to stop you but fortunately did not succeed. Teamwork and self-sacrifice saved you all.” At that, Xander’s heart skipped a beat. At the same time that he was infinitely proud of his companions and their bravery, he was disappointed in himself. He had stood by and done nothing in a time of dire need.

“But, Xander,” Elt Sopa said, “the whirlpool was not the river’s. It was yours. It grew out of the true feelings within your heart, your doubts and fears. They were strong indeed. Stronger than your will to go on.”

“But that doesn’t make sense. It disappeared!”

“That is because you chose to do the right thing, despite your fears. Just as you made it appear, you also forced it away when you decided to jump. Quite literally, you took a leap of faith, and your friends followed. Do you know why they listened to you, Xander?”

“Because they were faced with jumping or getting sucked into a swirling vortex of death?”
Sopa shook his head, a small smile appearing at the corners of his lips. “They feared death either way, so that is not it. They followed because they trust you. They will listen to your orders. Hewhay has given you the gift of leadership, yet you throw it away.”

“I’m no leader,” Xander mumbled, ashamed of himself.

“Only because you do not wish to be. Hewhay does not force things on people! Just as Lily wished not to be able to read the symbols that she herself carved, so you wish not to take on this burden of responsibility.”

Xander didn’t want to talk about it. He looked instead at the Messenger. “It was you who saved us! There was no way we would have made that jump. You helped us, didn’t you?”

The Messenger hummed on, neither answering nor even acknowledging the question.
“When the Messenger last appeared to us, in T’Sol, it said that it would not help anymore.”

“The first thing you should know,” explained Sopa, “is that it said it would not speed your course anymore, not that it would no longer aid you. The second thing is that it helped only because your intentions were pure, and because you did the right thing.”

Xander felt himself being drawn backwards, away from Elt Sopa. “Wait . . . I have more questions!” He was speeding quickly, faster and faster, leaving Elt Sopa behind just as they had when they’d set off in the boat.

“And they shall be answered!” Elt Sopa cried. “If you will only listen!”

“Elt Sopa!” Xander cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted loudly. “What is the true name of the Lost Kingdom?”

Elt Sopa did not answer, but a strange crackling in the air behind Xander made him twist around. The Messenger was there, and it had opened one of its mysterious holes in space. Xander was speeding toward it at a dizzying pace. As he felt himself being sucked through, a voice in his head answered him. It was the Messenger’s voice, speaking clearly in a language that Xander could understand without Lily’s help.

“You seek the Kingdom of Ne De, child.”

Then he had passed through the hole, and he felt someone shaking him by the shoulders. As he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sky. To his surprise, he realized that the sun was in the same position it had been in when he’d drifted to sleep. It could not have been more than a few minutes ago. But why was he being they awakened so soon, when he had hardly slept the night before? He was about to complain angrily that his very important dream had been interrupted when Thaladria cut him off at the pass.

“Xander!” Thaladria whispered harshly, still shaking him. When she saw that he was now paying attention, she pointed west, behind him, and he turned to follow her gaze.

The sight before him drove all weariness from his body.

The Secrets of Serised

Xander was torn away from his thoughts as he noticed a slight change in their motion. A few hours in a boat on a river, and you begin to feel accustomed to the flow of the water, but something had happened. He looked at Thaladria, who met his gaze with a look of understanding
“What was that?” he asked, knowing she had felt it too.

“We’re slowing down.” She looked over the side of the boat, and he did the same, trying to find the cause. Estelle shook Alden awake.

“What is it? What . . . what? I’m ready! We’ll take them!” he said, groggy and not quite awake. But it didn’t take him long to notice it as well. “Why are we going so slow?”
Thaladria shook her head. “There’s nothing under us; we’re not dragging. I don’t understand.”

“Nothing on this side either. And look!” cried Xander, using a rock on the river’s edge as a landmark, to test what he feared. “We haven’t just slowed. We’re going backwards!”

The four children turned as one, fear filling their hearts. Behind them, as if from nowhere, a great whirlpool had formed in the middle of the river. It was sucking them in.

“We’ve got to do something!” cried Thaladria. She and Xander took up the oars, which up until now had sat useless. Now they paddled with all their might, but it only seemed that they could still their movement, not push forwards. And they were quickly tiring.
“Quick, Alden! My staff!” Estelle shouted, and Alden turned to rummage by his feet for it. He found it, and they pushed and shoved themselves, trying to face the back of the boat. Xander glanced over his shoulder to see what they were trying to do, but he couldn’t help but look at the whirlpool swirling menacingly behind them. Where had it come from? Surely the river wasn’t deep enough to create something so powerful.

Estelle put the crystal tip of her staff into the water and spoke some of her ancient words. “Tnionau oyseim eneymf oecnes . . . ,” she began, crying loudly, eyes closed, body tensed. “Neserpeh tniem erofeb elbata eraperpu oy!” A sudden jet of water burst from her staff, so powerful that it nearly shot out of her hands, and it took both her and Alden to wrestle the tip back under the surface. Thaladria and Xander stopped rowing hesitantly, but it seemed that for the moment they were safe. They were not moving forwards, but at least they were no longer headed backwards.

“This is not getting us anywhere,” Estelle warned them. “We have to think of something!”
“We’ve got to row to shore!” Alden cried over the din of Estelle’s magic, doing his best to keep her staff under the water.

“We’ll never make it. The river’s too wide. We’ll be pulled in.” Thaladria’s logic was obvious. The whirlpool was not far. If they turned the boat, there was no way they’d make it all the way to the river’s edge before being sucked in and capsized.
“What if we jump out?” Alden said. “If we can make it most of the way, we can jump to shore. It’s a risk, but it could work.”

“No way!” cried Xander. “I am not losing this boat again! If we lose this boat, we’re never going to find Lily. We can’t build another; there’s nothing to build it with. We’ll never find the Lost Kingdom in time!”

“Please, Xander,” Estelle pleaded, sweat beading on her tan forehead. “This whirlpool isn’t natural. It’s too powerful for my magic.” The staff was clearly pushing hard to remove itself from where they needed it to be.

“No!” Alden exclaimed. “We’ll never even have a chance if we’re all dead!”
Xander only had a moment to make a decision. He thought of Lily, of what she would do in his shoes. He knew they wouldn’t survive being sucked into that swirling pool of death. Branches that had fallen into the river were being swallowed by it before his eyes, sucked into the middle and ripped to shreds by the sheer force of the water. He bit his tongue. He knew what he had to do. The lives of the other three were in his hands. He couldn’t let them down.

“I’m sorry, Lily,” he whispered, praying in his heart that she would somehow hear and understand. Then he yelled, trying to make himself heard over the growing roar of the swirling vortex. “All right, we don’t have a second to waste! Thaladria, grab that oar! Alden, Estelle, when I tell you to, use the staff to push us so we’re angled towards the edge. We’ll use the oars and the staff to push us close enough to the side to jump out. If we don’t do this quick, we’re going to be pushing ourselves right in. You understand?”

Thaladria’s eyes were wide with fright, but she had the oar in hand, ready to follow his orders without questioning. They all knew what they had to do, and they were not complaining.

Xander took up his oar and started rowing as fast as he could, building a steady, hard rhythm with Thaladria’s. “Ready?” he called back to the twins. “Now!

With difficulty, the two managed to drag the staff around to the side of the boat. In the split second that it took the boat to turn slightly, they shot towards the whirlpool like an arrow. “Get it back behind us! Now!” cried Xander, and the twins did so. They were now dangerously close, and the swirling current threatened to overtake them. Row, row, row! Xander’s mind cried. We have to make it. Come on! Row! “Okay, let it drift in a bit. Good, keep it up!” Now they were skirting the outer arm of the vortex, using it to speed towards the river’s edge. But if they weren’t careful, they’d simply fly past and lose any hope that they had of reaching safety.

They were approaching fast. “Quick! Straighten it out!” They were just in time to stop themselves from whirling around too far. But Xander’s arms felt as they were going to fall off, and no matter how strong she was, Thaladria couldn’t row them alone.

His heart was pounding. The staff and their oars made little headway against the dangerous current, but at least they were moving, inching, towards the shore. A little farther. Almost there! But Xander’s heart sank. Try as they might, they seemed just out of reach of the shore. The boat groaned, threatening to burst into pieces as two powerful forces tried to pull it in opposite directions. Even if they jumped, they’d never make it. They’d fall into the water and be crushed to death.

They had no choice.

“We have to jump now!”
“Are you crazy? We’ll never make it!”

“We don’t have a choice! We’re not getting any closer!”

The staff quickly sputtered and died. There was no time to think.

“Now!” cried Xander, fear wrenching at him like a dagger being twisted in his gut. He’d done the right thing by his friends, he knew that. But there was no way they would survive. All four of them jumped at once, pushing off from the floor of the tiny boat with all their might, and it sped out from under their feet. In his mind’s eye, he could see them, four fragile bodies falling into the water, being sucked into the whirlpool like so many tiny sticks, torn apart and swallowed up, never to be seen again.

He shut his eyes. So did everyone else

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Secrets of Serised

He trailed his hand in the cool water racing alongside the boat, lost in his thoughts. The next few minutes happened so fast that when he looked back afterwards, he would hardly be able to describe what had happened.

Something firm and smooth brushed against his hand, and he jumped. Thaladria and the twins eyed him as if waiting for an explanation, but he could give none. He looked down into the water, trying to peer through the frothy white surface, but it was no use. “I felt something,” he said cautiously.

“A fish?” suggested Estelle.

Xander shook his head. “No. It was big. Hard. It must have been a rock or something . . .” His voice trailed off at the doubtful look on Thaladria’s face. He followed her gaze from one distant bank to the other.

“We’re out much too deep for there to be rocks,” she said. “It would have to have been enormous.”

Xander shrugged and scrunched himself back down into his crowded seat. “You’re right. I guess it must have been my imagination.” He paused, looking over the side once more before assuring himself there was nothing there. “A lot on my mind.” He didn’t need to go on. The others nodded sympathetically.

Suddenly something rocked the boat so violently that everyone had to grab hold to keep from falling in the water. “What was that?” cried Alden, but no one had time to answer. A great blue-white snout broke the water’s surface and sped upwards with a deafening roar. Giant teeth flashed like gleaming swords in the sunlight, and as the head raced heavenwards, more and more of its long, serpentine body was revealed.

“It’s a sea serpent! It’s huge!” screamed Thaladria over the roar of the creature, trying with difficulty to get her footing in the tiny boat as the waves threatened to capsize them. The creature’s upper body crashed back down into the water in an enormous arch.
“It’s Nah Taivel!” cried Estelle.

“Introductions later, Estelle!” Alden quipped. “Xander, what are we going to do?”
“What?” Xander shouted back. “How should I know? Think I’ve battled many giant snakes in my life?” But their arguing ceased as the true mass of the creature was revealed. All around them, the arching curves of its body broke the surface in such a multitude that it looked almost as if the river were boiling. The simple fact that it could move around was astonishing, given its size. They were surrounded in a churning forest of blue-white scales, and not one of them could tell from which direction the head might reappear, or how soon. Xander had managed to unsheathe his swords, but his balance was so precarious that he feared he was more apt to skewer himself than have any hope of wounding Nah Taivel.

“Elt Sopa might have warned us of giant sea snakes!” cried Alden in despair.

“There’s no time to argue about that! Suggestions of any kind, on the other hand, are welcome!”
Xander hollered to his companions just as the creature’s tail appeared from the water.
“Watch out!” cried Thaladria as the tail whipped towards them. But it didn’t knock them out of the boat as Xander had feared, instead smacking the side with such force that the wood splintered, leaving a gaping hole where the side of their boat had been. Nearly falling out, Xander dropped one of his blades into the bottom of the boat. He scrambled for it, but Thaladria grabbed his arm.

“It’s no use, Xander. You’ll kill yourself before you hurt him. There’s got to be another way.”
“Any ideas?”

She looked at the mass of slithering scaly hide that surrounded them and her face hardened. “Just one.” She bent low, preparing for something. Estelle looked at her, wide-eyed and fearful.
“Thaladria, what are you doing?”

Realization came too late for Xander. It was immediately right before them, a giant head like that of a dragon. For a split second, it hung suspended far above them. Then it opened its cavernous mouth and flashed towards them with an incredible speed.

“Thaladria, no!” cried Alden, reaching out to grab her, but he was too slow. With one agile motion, she leapt into the air, dagger in hand. She landed right above the serpent’s muzzle and, without hesitation, drove her knife straight through its left eye.

If the creature was angry before, now it was furious. It screamed with rage, a sticky silver substance that must have been blood spurting from its blinded eye. It shook its head with great heaves, trying to wrest Thaladria from her perch, but the Tehporp girl knew no fear. She scrambled for support, hanging onto Nah Taivel’s giant nose for dear life. Xander watched with bated breath, completely helpless. He knew she was waiting for a chance to jump, but that chance was not forthcoming. The monster thrashed without pause, screaming and roaring as it tried to dislodge her. All three of them in the boat ducked as the head swooped low, threatening to knock them all overboard. As Xander stood again, he caught Thaladria’s eyes. In a single moment, her eyes said more to him than she could have spoken in an hour. His heart cried out for him to do something . . . to stop her.

“I’m sorry,” said her eyes.

“No,” he whispered. “Please . . .”

But they sparkled with determination, brilliant green emeralds among a sea of blue and white.
In an impossible maneuver, Thaladria let go of the creature’s muzzle and spun herself around in a final desperate attempt to save her friends. She lashed out, and the sun caught the edge of her blade just before it was buried deep in Nah Taivel’s other eye. The creature roared louder than ever, and with a final wicked thrashing of its head, the beast threw Thaladria. She hung
suspended in the air for a moment, helpless, and then it was over. She plunged into the coils of serpent surrounding her friends . . . and disappeared.