I am about to die.
The current batters me mercilessly from every direction, and fragments of rock pound against my body. Water forces its way into my mouth and nose and down my throat, carrying sand with it down into my lungs. I no longer know which way is north, south, east or west. I am having a hard enough time working out if my limbs are still attached.
A sudden change of direction. The tunnel violently twists in a different direction – up, down, sideways, I no longer know or care. My body is thrown against the hard rock of the tunnel wall and forced to comply with the new direction. I want to scream, but there's no air left to scream with.
The agony goes on for what feels like an eternity. There is no possible escape, no leniency, and no end in sight.
Suddenly... I am weightless.
The water separates into droplets, then spray.
Air rushes back into my lungs. I gasp, and immediately scream in pain as the sensation of my battered and sandblasted trachea realizes itself.
Then I hit the ground, and know no more.
I come to, perhaps only minutes later, perhaps several hours later, with Kendra shaking my shoulders. Her voice seems to come from a great distance away.
"Tarnien? Tarnien! Wake up, Tarnien... Please... I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! Just wake up! Tarnien, wake up, please!"
I cough once, then immediately more water voids itself from my lungs. I roll over to lie on my front, retching and spluttering incoherently for several minutes.
Eventually I roll back over, propping myself up on my elbows, and take in the scene directly in front of me.
About fifty feet away, a hole fifteen feet wide is blasted into the landscape. From this distance I cannot tell how deep, but at a guess it would be hundreds of feet down to the bottom, and half of that distance at least would now be underwater.
Slowly I piece together what must have happened. The water that flooded the tunnel did so with such force that whatever outlets letting air circulate into the tunnels exploded outwards, sending a massive pillar of water into the air and us along with it.
A slight sniffle comes from my right, and I look over to see Kendra, sitting up and hugging her knees. Even though she is just as wet as I am, she doesn't appear to have fared particularly badly at all – she looks more like she fell over in a rock-pool than survived an underwater tunnel collapse.
"Tarnien... you - you're alive." she says quietly.
I try to reply, but my throat is dry from salt and sand. Eventually I croak out "Where... is the Cythras?"
Kendra flinches, as if the mere naming of the object pained her. "I... it's over there." She points, and I follow her motion. About twenty feet away, lay the deep blue-green orb.
"I... I threw it away. It... it..."
I croak again, to signal I wished to interrupt. Kendra goes silent as I gather strength to speak again.
"You need... to get Blue... and come back. We need... to leave... now."
She nods, and hurries away towards the Sea Elven's city.
Too weak to do anything yet, I lie back down in the sodden earth.
Lying still hurts. Moving hurts. Breathing hurts. Speaking hurts. The only thing I can do without hurting is think.
I start thinking back to this morning, my conversation with Petras. Had he been able to guess what I was intending? Had he told Medhek, or anyone else? Had we managed to bluff our way through safely?
Suddenly a thought struck me there, lying in the mud. Petras had shown Sea Elven-like powers of persuasion. How was that even possible?
It was not unheard of for humans to start showing elven prowess of certain skills. Human rangers staying among my kin often showed elvenesque features in some of their abilities, which were praised as prodigal by other humans. But for such magic to imprint itself onto anyone except other elves would take months, if not years of constant practice and teaching. Not the couple days of casual co-habitation that Petras claimed.
Grimly, I force myself to one conclusion.
Father Tuorieus had lied about his length of stay in the Sea Elven. He hadn't come there as a result of a vision from his Danwe, but at least six months earlier, and had been tutored by a Sea Elf in the art of persuasion. And there is only one likely suspect for his mentor – Medhek Kur.
Perhaps they were only curious about me, or he was genuinely asking about Washucktah. Maybe they didn't suspect we were after the Cythras. At this moment, however, it is impossible to trust anyone...
I suddenly sit up, straining and wincing from the effort as I think I hear footsteps coming towards me. All I see is an inquisitive sea bird – a gull, perhaps – startled into flying away from where it had been approaching slowly.
I move to lie back down, but before I can I catch another glimpse of the Cythras Dowra – the Water Treasure, humans would call it. Intrigued by the artefact, I slowly drag myself towards it.
I feel the magic radiating from the orb increasing exponentially as I slowly come closer. The sensation does nothing to kill the pain, but my unease increases as I draw closer, as does my new found curiosity.
By the time I'm five feet away the pain is accompanied by a strange tingling in my muscles and nerves. Looking down into the swirls of power, rippling like waves on a shoreline, a part of my mind suddenly whispers "Pick it up. Use it's power, find out what it has to offer you..."
I stare at it, unmoving.
"Go on, pick it up... Satisfy your curiosity..."
I find myself reaching my hands slowly towards it.
With lightning speed, I wrap the Cythras in a fold of my clothing, never coming into contact with it. Turning, I see Kendra running back towards me, dragging along a very groggy Blue by the sleeve of his trenchcoat.
"Hey, Tarr! Oh man, you look like you got eaten by a vhale! What the skorne happened to ya?"
"We can talk about that later, Blue." I say. I feel better now, although I still feel the sharp aches and pains of the last hour. "Listen, we need you to get us out of here. Anywhere away from the Sea Elven."
Blue yawns loudly. "Okies, Tarr. Vhere do you want to go?"
I think, much slower than usual. "Take us north. There should be a small forest about two hundred miles upstream."
Blue shrugs. "Two hundred miles north-ish. That it?"
I nod, unwilling to speak more than is essential.
Blue yawns again. "Yeah, sure... Awh mon I'm sleepy."
Kendra shakes Blue awake again. "Blue, we can sleep later. Now is NOT the time!"
Blue nods, stifling yet another yawn. "Ohkay, here we go..." Checking that Kendra had a hold of his clothes, he grabs my hand and after a brief moment of complete confusion and lack of natural law, we appear on a clear pebbly river bank, in a light forest.
All three of us collapse; Blue from herb-induced sleep, Kendra from emotional exhaustion, me from a combination of hyperspace sickness and pain, and all of us with relief.
After a long while, I gather enough wits to crawl away to the edge of the bank, where the forest ended, and gathered some sticks for a small fire. Reaching into my still sodden pack, I withdraw my miraculously intact flint and steel, and after a pause tip the Cythras into the deepest pocket, and tie it shut.
Gathering the wood into a pile, with Blue and Kendra's help, I strike the flint. Sparks fly into the bone-dry wood and almost instantly a merry camp fire is burning.
Almost senseless, the three of us fall asleep around it.
"Tarnien?" Kendra whispers.
I stir drowsily and open first one eye, then both. I immediately notice that my clothes are dry. The sky is lightening – dawn can't be far off – and the fire has burned down to embers. Blue is still fast asleep, but Kendra is lying on her side, propped up on one elbow.
"Mmm?" I groan, and roll over to face her. Various bruises ache sharply, but I ignore them.
"I... I wanted to say I'm sorry. For what happened in the tunnel."
"Why should you be sorry? You were angry with me and acted accordingly." I respond.
Kendra sighs. "Yes, I know, but... I shouldn't have been angry with you at all." She smirks slightly. "You were worried and acted accordingly."
I smile slightly. "Indeed. But you have nothing to apologise for. Ny dal mann lest-an kawgans."
I answer Kendra's confused face. "It means, You cannot prevent what is certain or necessary."
"What do you mean by that exactly?" She didn't sound angry as she may once have done, just puzzled.
"What I mean is, I think the Cythras may amplify the emotions of whoever is using it. If you're feeling fear, or adrenaline, or anger or even just curious, it gets magnified. Even being near it causes emotions to flare more strongly."
"So... when I picked it up..."
"Yes, your anger at me was directed through the Cythras and multiplied. That's why you brought the tunnel down and tried to kill me."
"Without success." Kendra smirks, in an attempt to bring humour into the conversation.
I chuckle lightly. "Evidently without success." I become serious again. "So you see, the way things happened it was inevitable something of that nature would happen eventually. You are not at fault, and neither am I."
"Yeah, I see that now..." Kendra sighs again, frowning. "It doesn't make it any easier to accept, though."
I also sigh, debating whether what I am considering saying would actually help in the slightest.
There's a silence before I break it quietly.
"My mother was murdered when I was still an adolescent."
Kendra looks up at me, startled. "Oh... I – I didn't know. I'm sorry." She searches for something to say. "Do you know who killed her?"
"Yes..." I begin to say, then stop. "But now is not the time for my own story. What I was trying to say was even though I'm not the same race, I'm not completely alien." I give a short, curt smile.
Kendra smiles weakly. "I'll make you a deal, Tarnien. You respect me a bit more, and I'll be less angry with you. After this whole sorry affair is over we'll likely never see each other again."
I nod in agreement, but say "Likely, but not certain."
Kendra shrugs, and lies back down. "In any case... maybe we can actually not throttle each other by the end of it."
I smile faintly. "That would indeed be preferable."
Kendra looks up at the sky, gradually brightening as the sun slowly rises over the river. "You know, you're the first elf I've met - like, actually MET, and gotten to know - and you're not all as bad as I thought."
"Oh, really?" I ask, amused.
"Yeah, I always thought elves were all snooty and arrogant and condescending..." Kendra glances over at me. "And you're not."
She adds after a seconds pause "...much."
I choose to laugh rather than be insulted. "Very well! I always thought humans were inconstant, untrustworthy and weak. And you are not."
There's a silence.
"I'm waiting for the '...much'" Kendra smirks.
I shake my head. "There isn't one."
Rolling back over, I stand up, my muscles aching but compliant. "I had better go and see what food we have. The river is safe to drink from and there is a bit of food in my pack if you can't wait."
Leaving Kendra to compute my words, I walk into the forest.