Even buoyed by the warm water, Syuveil was an awkward weight in her arms, slowing her to a nightmarish crawl--it wasn't as though she had any sort of proper tail to add speed. Damia strained to keep her hand at just the right angle, sealing his nose and mouth, as the scent of blood drifted nauseatingly through her gills.
She could stay hidden for hours if need be, but Syuveil hung limp and unconscious, and Humans didn't breathe water. The hum of wings shivered through the water, clear warning that breaking the surface would mean death by Wingly fire.
But Syuveil needed air. His heart pounded steadily against her hand, and once he could breathe he'd be okay, he'd tell her what to do--except she couldn't get him to the air he needed.
Faster, Damia begged the seawater silently, reaching for her elemental affinity and every scrap of magic her merfolk heritage allowed her. I've got to go faster than this!
After a moment of the agonizing hesitation that had always marked Damia as part-Human and not a true sea-child, the water around her began to respond, launching her forward. Damia clung to Syuveil and her magic with the same desperate ferocity.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Syuveil was supposed to be protecting her. She was the newest Dragoon and the youngest, and even Zieg had said as much when he'd given them this mission. "Syuveil, make sure to look out for Damia," he'd said, "she's new at this."
The Wingly soldiers they'd run into--a scout group? just random bad luck?--whoever they were, there was no way Damia could face them alone. Too many at once--they'd taken down Syuveil so fast he'd lost his Dragoon wings and crashed only a few seconds into the fight, and Damia was only unhurt because they hadn't seen her in the water. She'd ordered her vassal dragon to draw the Winglies away from them, but whether it had worked, she didn't know.
Syuveil needed air, and she couldn't hear the Winglies now. No time to think--Damia kicked toward the light.
She gasped in a lungful of air, thin and harsh after the comforting water but mostly free of the taste of blood, and shifted her grip to feel for Syuveil's breath.
"Come on, there's air now," she hissed, her own lungs aching. "Come on--" Syuveil just needed to know he could breathe, that was all, he'd be fine, he had to be. Damia brought her knees up and thumped him sharply in the back, the way her mother used to do to her when she was very small and hadn't quite got the hang of switching from water-breathing to air.
Syuveil began to cough, deep, racking coughs that nearly made her lose her hold on him, but she didn't think she'd ever been so grateful to hear a cough in her entire life.
The ocean currents knew the shape of the nearby island, though Damia had never seen it before, and they tugged her toward shelter. The waves stayed obligingly calm for her, but their long rivalry with the soft cliff face had left ledges and crevices beneath an overhang deep enough that no searching Winglies would see them from above. It would do until Syuveil recovered.
The older Dragoon was still limp and half-conscious at best, his breathing steadier but raspy. Damia boosted him out of the water to the nearest ledge, and pulled herself up alongside, anxiously looking for the source of the blood that lingered in her gills.
She'd seen the attack, and although much of the fire magic had struck Syuveil square in the chest it looked like the Dragoon armor had lasted long enough to prevent any actual burns. The glancing blow from a Wingly spear looked worse, a deep gash on his head, staining his hair with blood. No wonder the smell had seemed so overpowering.
He needed a healing potion, but like a complete idiot Damia had left the entire pack where it was on her dragon, and by now Relmin was almost too far away to feel her mental touch. There was only an echo of pain from the Wingly attacks, and increasing pressure as he fled to the depths of the sea.
There wasn't anyone else; just her, and Syuveil, and the smell of his blood, and he still wasn't moving.
If she'd gotten him killed, everyone would hate her forever and ever. They already thought she was too young for this, and not Human, and weird, and nobody really wanted her around, even the Dragoons only tolerated her because she was the only choice they had for a Water Dragoon, and if Syuveil died because of her--she couldn't let Syuveil die.
I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do! Damia fretted, scooping up a handful of water and gently splashing the Wind Dragoon. He was already soaked through, of course, but water was supposed to wake people up, right?
"Please wake up," she entreated, shaking his shoulder. "You've got to tell me what to do. Please."
There! Finally, finally, his eyelids had flickered, and Syuveil groaned. "Ow," he slurred, blinking up at her. "What--?"
If he was awake, he couldn't be hurt too badly, right? "The Winglies knocked you out," Damia reported, "and the healing potions are all in the bag, only I sent Relmin to draw off the Winglies while I got you out of the water--you're okay, though--"
But his eyes were glazed and unfocused, Damia saw, heart sinking, and only blank confusion flickered across his face. It happened sometimes with a blow to the head, and although most people recovered with a sip of healing water, Shirley had once said that a head injury without treatment could make a person sink into sleep no one could wake them from, and then death.
Fresh fear leaped to choke her. "Okay," Damia stammered, "okay, okay, I can do this. I just need--just one healing potion. That's all. Okay." And she didn't have one. But Relmin did--if the bag hadn't been damaged and if her dragon would listen to her so soon after a fight (because Relmin was very young and tended to run scared if Damia wasn't nearby), and if the Winglies happened to miss the sudden appearance of a water dragon in shallow waters.
And if it wasn't too late, by the time Relmin responded, for Syuveil to ever wake up.
Damia tried to remember what else Shirley had said in that quick lesson on battlefield medicine. It had seemed, in the shelter of Vellweb, like such a waste of time when there were always potions you could gather off dead Winglies.
There was a thought, if she left Syuveil and caught some Wingly alone--except they wouldn't be alone and they'd probably kill her and that was no help at all.
Okay. Shirley had said that it was important not to let the wounded person fall asleep, or...something like that. Which made sense.
Syuveil blinked, slowly, frowning at some distant point, and Damia wondered if he was seeing her at all. He looked dangerously sleepy, though. "Talk to me," she encouraged, tone possibly a bit too sharp, but really who could blame her. "Stay awake."
"Mayfil's the key to it," Syuveil said, obliging if completely irrelevant. "All the books say so. If it's true. Winglies do lie. I hoped it was a lie."
Syuveil always wanted to talk about those creepy Wingly books he had everyone bring back. Damia had never, ever, wanted to hear anything about it. She'd never liked Syuveil much, because although he wasn't outright frightening like Kanzas, he studied death with a fascination that nauseated her.
She couldn't help remembering--the hospital tent had been thick with the smell of blood and worse things, when she'd ducked in to fetch more bandages for the healers. Syuveil had been leaning over a young man's still form, the wounded soldier so pale in the lamplight Damia knew at once he was too far gone to save. She'd dared to ask what the Dragoon was doing--Syuveil was no healer.
"Watching him die," he'd said, and something about the flat tone had sent her dashing away with bile on her tongue.
Under most circumstances, Damia would rather move to the middle of a desert than volunteer for a long talk about the things that interested Syuveil, but she didn't seem to have a choice.
She stretched again to summon her vassal dragon, but Relmin was even farther away now, and her desperation was met with a sulky silence. None of the other Dragoons seemed to have this kind of trouble!
"What did you hope they lied about?" she prompted, because the silence had gone on too long.
"What happens to you after you die?" Syuveil said.
Damia really couldn't tell if it was meant to be a question or an answer, but the response came automatically. "My soul belongs to the sea." Her mother had told her that, and Damia wanted to see her mother again more than anything. The sea might not accept a part-Human soul, any more than the rest of the merfolk had, any more than the Humans would, but her mother had said it. She didn't know what happened to Human souls and had never much cared, because she'd never be welcome there.
Syuveil squinted upward, and Damia realized for the first time that somehow between the fight and the sea he'd lost his glasses. He was going to be mad at her for losing them...maybe she could find them later; the water wasn't too deep so near shore. "Your soul belongs to the sea," he repeated, and his smile was not at all happy. "I'm glad for you, Damia. Human souls belong to the Winglies."
He couldn't possibly mean that the way it sounded. Damia stilled, focused on this new and incomprehensible horror. "To the--you mean, after you die, they can still--?"
Syuveil's voice was hoarse but surprisingly melodic, for a Human, startling Damia, and the song was completely unfamiliar. "Darkness waits with endless pain/for all who question Wingly reign." Syuveil coughed again, turned his head, and spat weakly. "Wingly propaganda. They have to be in control of us, so of course they would claim that our souls are in their hands even after we die."
No wonder she'd never heard anyone in Emperor Diaz's army sing the ominous tune. "But they can't actually do that, can they?"
Syuveil raised his eyebrows. "That's what I've spent half my life trying to figure out."
The Winglies could do a lot of things with their magic that Damia would've guessed was impossible, and it had always been obvious that Melbu Frahma had misplaced his conscience somewhere in his rise to unimaginable power. Damia was fond of ice; the chill that crept into her bones was something far colder and darker.
The older Dragoon went on, voice strained, "I still don't know how they're doing it, but Mayfil's the key--tell Emperor Diaz I said--" Another, more liquid bout of coughing interrupted him, and he raised himself on one elbow, face twisted in pain, to spit to the side again.
Damia stared at the splash of bright red on the damp stone. Blood. Blood in his lungs.
Things had just gotten much, much worse.
"Not your fault, Damia," Syuveil rasped, and managed a weak smile for her even though he had to be utterly terrified. "You did good. I should've been watching better. Get my Dragoon Spirit back to Vellweb."
Syuveil was a scholar and he'd made a study of death. He knew he was dying, he wouldn't be wrong about that. Syuveil was dying, he was going to die right in front of her, and here Damia was, completely useless.
She'd been useless for most of her life. Not mermaid enough to keep up, not Human enough to be helpful.
But she was a Dragoon now. The Blue Sea Spirit had chosen her and no one else, and Damia was not going to be useless this time. Whatever it took, she was not going to let Syuveil die.
"No," she said, and felt vaguely startled at how calm her voice had gone. "You're not going to die here."
Her hands closed on the cool sphere at her belt, and she threw all the windows in her mind wide open as her armor came to enclose her. The water knew her, she could feel it waiting patiently--all the restless energy of the waves, all the excitement of the vapor in the warm air built around her, and still Damia called for more.
Water magic didn't heal. Water magic had never, in recorded history, been capable of healing. Water was a base element for most potions, but all it did was catch and preserve light magic for some future release. Water elementals could not heal.
Damia chose to ignore that as unimportant.
Heal Syuveil, she ordered, relentless as the tides, and the ferocity of a dragon's stubborn spirit braced her. Heal him. Heal him.
She could feel the magic shudder and twist in her grasp, struggling to escape. Damia clenched her hands and bore down, forcing the necessary twists. Now! she cried, and the blue gem of the Blue Sea Dragon flared in response.
Stirred into vapor, more than the air could hold, the water trembled and gave in--catching the light, echoes of all the light that had ever shone through it, and shattering it through the pattern Damia had demanded.
Damia pried her mind loose of the magic, and collapsed to the stone floor in her armor, gasping. Brilliant shards of color seared through the cave, her eyes snapping shut too late. Light burned behind her inner eyelid, and she blinked furiously to clear her vision.
Even after the dazzle had faded, it took a long moment before she dared open her eyes to look at Syuveil. If it hadn't worked, after all that--!
Syuveil sat up gingerly, feeling at his rib cage, and took a deep experimental breath. "I didn't know you could do that," he broke the silence, voice hushed with the shock.
Shaking her head wearily, Damia admitted, "I didn't know it, either." Her hands trembled with strain, and she'd dropped her warhammer somewhere along the way, but she could feel that pattern burned into her Dragoon Spirit. It wouldn't be so hard next time.
He frowned in concern. "Are you all right?"
A half-hysterical laugh escaped before Damia could catch it back. "Fine. I'm fine." Now that Syuveil wasn't dying anymore, everything would be fine.
"Damia." He scooted closer, rested a warm hand on her shoulder. "Thank you." The echo of his earlier despair lent an intense sincerity to the simple words. Syuveil offered a comradely grin, and teased, "Here I always thought you didn't like me." He reached habitually to adjust the glasses that weren't there, then peered unhappily at his empty hand.
"I'll find your glasses," Damia volunteered hastily, and dove for the sea before he could notice the heat rising in her face. She certainly wasn't going to admit to Syuveil that she had, in fact, disliked him rather strongly, until realizing just minutes ago that all her reasons were inaccurate at best.
What she'd thought of as a fascination with death had always been in the nature of a rescue mission, one perhaps even more important than Belzac's raids on child-slavers. And she'd misunderstood it for months.
It took a few minutes to coax the waves into giving up the location of the foreign object they'd swallowed, but the glasses were thankfully undamaged. Damia knew they'd been specially made to help the nearsighted scholar's vision in battle, after the Dragoon Spirit had unexpectedly chosen him. When Syuveil was conscious, he never lost them, which she'd always suspected was related to his control of winds.
She kicked toward the sparkle of sunlight on the surface, warm water passing easily through her gills. It had always felt more natural to breathe water than air, but the Dragoons needed her away from the water, and Damia was just beginning to feel that she could actually contribute to the fight.
The first gulp of air didn't seem such a harsh change now.
Syuveil was standing at the edge, waiting for her, and he grinned with relief as she handed over the glasses. "Thanks again," he said, settling the frame on his face where it belonged. "I'm half blind without these--sometimes I wonder what the Jade Dragon was thinking, to pick me."
"You?" Damia blurted, and bit her tongue. She'd never imagined that any of the other Dragoons might have the same worries as she did.
His smile turned wry. "I suppose we both seem rather unlikely to most of Emperor Diaz's soldiers."
Damia tentatively returned the smile. "If there's anything I can do to help with your research," she offered, "I'd be--I mean--we can't let them keep doing that!" The shudder of horror had not grown any weaker because death had been delayed for the moment. Thousands of Humans had died already, and all of them who chose to fight against Emperor Frahma were a good deal braver than she had even known.
"We won't let them," Syuveil agreed, and as grim as his face and voice both were, Damia felt a thrill of something like joy at his steady gaze.
For the first time, she felt in her bones that she could stand and fight proudly as part of that we. Not just a half-Human kid, but the Blue Sea Dragoon, warrior and symbol of freedom, until the Winglies couldn't hurt anyone else--in life or in death.
"Let me do a scouting run before we head back to Vellweb," she said abruptly, the words spilling unexpected from her newfound warm confidence. "The Winglies won't see me underwater, I'll find out more alone." Besides, Syuveil would need some rest after a hit like that, whether he admitted it or not. Dragoons had to look out for each other.
Author's Note: Thanks to Raindog Bride, for some wonderful and much-needed input on the first draft. This story was written for Lassarina Aoibhell for the 2008 Yuletide secret exchange.