Day Fourteen

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RAINA JOLTED AWAKE. "WHAT was that?"

Arleigh sat up. Her face had gone white. "You heard it too?"

Raina nodded. The thought had crossed her mind--whether the exhaustion had at last begun to fray at her sanity. But the terror in that scream was not something she could ever imagine.

They waited. The smoke obscured the shoreline, and they were left staring at a wall of grey in the dry, early morning. Raina did not dare breathe. Minutes dragged by, weighed down by the pounding of her heart. She leaned forward, gripping the edge of the raft with white knuckles, her movements rippling out on the still surface of the lake. The silence unravelled across it, masking Raina's nightmares that hid beneath.

The scream shattered the sky.

"It's closer," Arleigh said. "It sounds like--"

"Zenia," Raina said. "They're in trouble."

"We need to help them," Arleigh said. "But we don't know what's in the water--"

Their voice came again, in a broken cry.

"We don't have time for that," Raina said. Zenia's voice echoed over the lake. It blew through every warning in Raina's head until all she felt was panic.

She leapt into the water. Arleigh followed, right at her heels, grunting at the effort to stay afloat. She felt things grasping at her feet, slimy and long, and she fought back the hysteria that rose in her. She had to get to Zenia. She had to.

By the time they reached the shore, Zenia had gone silent. "Zenia!" Raina yelled. Her voice cracked. "Zenia!"

They waded into the smoke. The plants around them feet still smouldered, the ground hot against their feet. Raina coughed and cut off a strip of her undershirt, tying the wet fabric around her nose and mouth.

"Over here!" Arleigh shouted.

Raina followed her voice through the trees, charred husks that loomed in the smoke like skeletons, silent and unyielding. She spied Arleigh's silhouette, and with her, Zenia.

"Raina," they croaked.

Raina knelt down beside them and placed a hand on their chest as it shuddered, blood trickling from a long gash across their front. "What did this?"

"Something bad," they said. They coughed, and spit blood onto their chin. "I tried to save him. I tried--"

"Zenia," Arleigh said, pulling their head onto her lap. "Deep breaths."

Their lungs rattled.

"It had Atticus," they said, closing their eyes. "I followed the noise, and there he was. I tried to protect him." Another cough, then a chuckle as they looked down at the blood on their hands. "Could have avoided it all if I hadn't jumped in there."

"But he needed help," Arleigh said, taking their hand. "You did the right thing."

"He didn't make it anyway. But I couldn't have forgiven myself if I hadn't tried."

Their words struck Raina in the chest. Atticus was gone too. She wanted to speak, but watching her friend bleed out in front of her, she could not find the words. Arleigh continued, but all she heard was a muffled buzzing as emotions rushed at her, torrents of grief and desperation and panic that not only Atticus, but Zenia--kind, considerate Zenia, whom Raina trusted with her life--would not make it home. She felt her heart crack. She took their other hand.

"I think I found the silver lining," they said.

"What?" Arleigh asked, choking back tears.

Zenia looked between them and cracked a faint, pained smile. "I really thought I was going to die alone. And the only thing scarier than dying... is doing it by yourself."

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