It was actually going pretty well until the thing grabbed me.
I’d been pulling myself through the water with long, easy strokes, and then, suddenly, something was wrapped around my left ankle. My immediate thought was that I’d caught my leg on a bit of seaweed or something, but as I tried to kick it off, I felt it tighten and pull.
Then, of course, I did the most useless thing anyone can do in such a situation – I panicked. The thing pulled me under, and I kicked at it with my other leg, which the brushing, weedy tendrils also caught. It wasn’t very strong, but I had nothing to grab for leverage and no real way to fight it off. All it would have to do to kill me was hold me under the water until I stopped moving.
My face was already under the water, my lungs were already beginning to ache. Heat gathered in my chest, and I focused on the curse – save me, you dick! You didn’t hesitate at school; this time I really need you! Save me!
It did nothing. The burning in my chest intensified, and I focused on the one skill I’d been encouraged to develop since I could talk.
Stay calm. Stay in control. You can never panic. The thing inside you could really hurt someone of you let it; you need to stay in control. No tantrums. No hate, no anger. No panic.
My feelings sank inside me until they didn’t distract me any more. Until I could think. The thing that had me would hold me under the water… why? To kill and eat me, presumably. Struggling, entangling myself and using up air, was killing me faster. And after I died, what would be its next step?
I kicked once more, feebly, then let myself go limp. I relaxed every muscle and the tendrils around my legs loosened. I waited a few seconds until I couldn’t feel anything tickling my legs any more, and before it could get a new grip I started pulling myself through the water, upward and towards the bright light of the tablet on the shore. My face broke the surface and I gulped air, trying not to choke on the splashes of water that came with it, and you know what? I think I almost made it. The water was almost shallow enough to stand in when the thing grabbed me again.
It dragged me under and I scrabbled at the sand on the bottom of the lake, but there was nothing in there to grip. It was holding tighter this time, tight enough that the strange thin tendrils cut into my leg and drew blood; I debated the likelihood that playing dead would work a second time. Maybe it would, or maybe it would lose me valuable seconds of air, valuable distance while it dragged me away. I reached toward the shore, grasping for anything I could use to pull myself away.
And found a hand.
I grabbed at the fingers. A second hand joined the first, locked around my wrist, and their owner pulled. The tendrils holding my leg might be gripping tightly, but they still weren’t dragging with very much force; my rescuer was able to pull me easily to shore. The instant my legs broke the water’s surface, the thing unwrapped itself and vanished, the only visual evidence that anything had happened being the cuts and scrapes on my legs.
I coughed water into the sand for a little while, then looked up at Kylie, her face a mask of mixed concern and amusement.
“You’ve been here for less than one day,” she pointed out, “and you’re already nearly dying in a strange cave.”
“Yeah, well, I’m adventurous.” I got shakily to my feet. “What’s your excuse?”
“I’m rescuing you.”
“Excellent. Thank you. Can’t tell you how glad I am to be breathing air.” I glanced around. “Side note – not to be ungrateful, but do you have a plan for the next part of the rescue?”
I glanced at the small shoulder bag she’d brought. “You don’t have a climbing rope or emergency whistle or something in there?”
She laughed. “Who carries rope around? If you don’t have a plan, we might have to wait for another rescuer.”
“If I had a plan, I wouldn’t have tried to cross the lake.” I sat down in the sand, squeezing as much water out of my clothes as I could. Kylie sat next to me and hugged her knees.
“Why are you even down here?” she asked.
“I was following someone and I tripped. Why are you down here? How did you find me?”
She shrugged. Which wasn’t an answer, but I didn’t press the matter.
After a few minutes of silence, I glanced over at the water, then leapt to my feet.
“Is it just me,” I began, “or is the water rising?”
Kylie looked over and frowned. “It looks the same to me. I think it’s just you.”
“No, no, look.” I snatched up my tablet and headed for the shore, careful not to actually touch the water. “I paced out this place when I first got here. I paced along this shore; see the footprints? But only one foot is out of the water, and that just barely. I definitely walked on the sand when I paced this.”
Kylie rushed up beside me and looked. “Hmm. And it’s not waves.”
“What if it floods the whole cavern?”
“Oh, it won’t. There are no tides here.” She indicated the sandy slope behind us. “That sand is way too dry.”
“Well, yeah, it’s not in the water right now. Of course it’s dry.”
“So how did it dry out? There’s no sun down here. That would take ages to dry out. If there were tides, the water would be up there too often for it to dry out properly. It should be all damp and packed.”
“Maybe not tides,” I said slowly. “This water isn’t really salty enough to be part of the ocean. But maybe… maybe this cave just floods every so often? At intervals long enough apart to let the sand dry?”
“And we just happened to show up on the bad day? That’s be a bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Fair point.”
We glanced down at the footprints again. Already, the second foot was half-submerged. We both stepped back.
“You know what I just thought of?” Kylie asked with the breathless rush of someone trying not to panic.
“Well, let’s suppose there’s some kind of predator in that water who can’t get out of the water.”
“A logical assumption,” I commented, rubbing at the bloody cuts on my legs.
“So I’m thinking maybe this water sits here, but if prey managed to get away from such a thing…”
“I can visualise such a thing happening, yes…”
“… What if it could get that prey by flooding the cave?”
We stepped back further.
“Maybe the water won’t come up very far?” I ventured.
“Maybe. We shouldn’t bet on it.” Kylie shouldered her bag. I tucked my tablet under my arm. We linked hands, and ran full tilt for the sand slope.
As I’d expected, it hadn’t magically become climbable in the last couple of minutes.
“You know,” Kylie said, “I think maybe the water is going to be a problem. Something piled all that sand up. Isn’t that what water does?”
“And yet there are no doors blocking this off from the lit part of the school,”I said, thinking.
“There aren’t any watertight doors or anything that we had to go through to get here. The path down here might have been a little bit downhill, but not enough to really notice; so unless the school gets flooded when this happens, the water must reach up to the path – it piles sand over it – but not very much further.” I looked around once more. “I have a really, really stupid idea.”
“Will it make us more or less likely to be eaten by a lake monster?”
“A little bit less likely.”
“Sounds like a fantastic idea. What is it?”
I pointed at the wall. “The sand slope doesn’t go that far. We can touch the wall there.”
“So, what if we just climb the wall? If we climb higher than the top of the sand, the water won’t reach us. We’ll be safe.”
“You want to climb that?!”
“It looks doable.”
“It’s a cliff! In the dark!”
“It doesn’t have any monsters on it that I can see.”
Kylie conceded this point with a small nod. “Then what?”
“Well, if we think the flood might not last very long, we can just wait for the water to go down again. But if it’s going to be a while, that might not be possible. Our other option would be to get to the path.”
“How would we – ” Her eyes tracked from the spot on the wall I was pointing, along out predicted high waterline, to the path. They widened. “You want to swim?!”
“It’s not that far. We could probably make it before the monster noticed us.”
“Would you rather stay here?”
Kylie clutched at her bag, eyes still skimming the cliff. “It looks pretty high. What if we fall and break bones or something?”
“We won’t. We don’t have to climb very fast, just faster than the water. By the time we’re high enough for that to be a danger, there’ll be water below us, and if we fall into that… well, we won’t end up any more eaten than we will just standing here.”
“Okay. Okay.” She nodded and took a shaky breath. “Give me your tablet. It’ll be better in my bag than you trying to hold onto it.”
I did so. She positioned it in her bag so that the light would illuminate the rock face in front of us. We started looking for handholds.
“Do you know much about rock climbing?” she asked.
“Well, I’ve climbed a lot of trees,” I shrugged.
“Oh, very helpful. I’m sure they’re very similar things.”
“I climb buildings sometimes, too.”
“Oh, right, buildings. Those things designed specifically to be accessible.” She ran her hands over the cragged stone until she found a handhold. “I did this at a fitness centre once. You know, on a wall with those rubber rocks?” she said conversationally. “It’s not the same at all.”
“You mean the lack of safety ropes or guaranteed, brightly coloured handholds might be a problem?”
I was searching for hand- and foot-holds of my own. Truth be told, I’d never done anything like climb a cliff. The trees I tended to climb were the same ones I’d started climbing as a little kid, and the most building-climbing I’d ever done was occasionally ending up on a second story roof – technically illegal, but deliberately made possible. But the water rose slowly, so we, too, could afford to rise slowly.
Getting high enough turned out to be faster than I’d expected, or maybe it just took so much focus that I lost track of time. Either way, before I knew it, Kylie and I were sitting on a small ledge that was just barely wide enough to seat us. If either of us fell, there was nothing the other person could do without falling as well.
“When I get to the school shop, I’m buying a rope and pitons,” I declared. “Then I’ll never have this problem again.”
“You’re just going to carry around a rope and pitons?” Kylie raised an eyebrow. “All the time?”
“I imagine they’ll get pretty heavy.”
“I’ll get one of the mages to make me a magic bag or something,” I shrugged.
Kylie chuckled. Below us, the water glinted in the glow of my tablet.