The grass felt like soft downy carpet under my feet as I walked toward the lake. I expected the sand to be scorching hot, the way beaches always seemed to be under the glaring sun, but instead it felt perfect—silky and warm against my frozen toes.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I asked Ridley.
“No.” When he spoke again he sounded closer to me, so he must’ve been walking up behind me, but I didn’t look back. “I sorta feel like I’m in a dream.”
I nodded slowly. “I know exactly what you mean.”
While my mom literally felt the water calling to her when she’d been away from it too long, thanks to her Skojare blood, I’d never felt such a strong pull. I enjoyed the water a little more than the average Kanin, but it wasn’t exactly a need.
But now I felt it. Tugging at something inside me, like I was connected to the lake by an invisible thread wrapped around the very core of my being, and now the thread had pulled taut. I stepped close enough that the water lapped against my toes. A delicious wave of relief rolled over me, and I hadn’t even noticed how apprehensive I’d been feeling.
I crouched down and cupped the water in my hand. At first, I just watched it drip through my fingers, running clearer than any river or lake I’d seen. Then I held my cupped hands to my mouth, taking a long sip, and it tasted crisp and pure and luscious. Almost instantly, I felt refreshed in a way I never had before, even after the deepest night’s sleep.
“Bryn?” Ridley said in a way that made me realize he’d been calling my name, and I looked back over my shoulder at him. He stood at the edge of the beach behind me, and his expression had a lax, dreamy quality to it, but anxiety had edged into his eyes.
“We still have a mission,” he reminded me. “We need to find Linnea, and I’m not even sure if she’s here.”
I turned away from him for a moment to stare out at the lake before me. I wanted nothing more than to submerge myself in Lake Isolera, letting it wash over me, warm and cool all at once. But Ridley was right. We had a job to do.
I stood up and stepped back, so the water wasn’t lapping at my toes any longer.
“Where should we look?” I asked, but my eyes were already scanning the clearing.
Other than the thick evergreens that walled out the cold reality beyond the magic of Lake Isolera, there were no trees. There wasn’t even much land in the clearing. It was mostly the lake. If I didn’t see Linnea now, I had no idea where she could be hiding.
“If she’s here, she’s in the lake,” Ridley decided. “We should swim.”
And I didn’t need any more convincing than that. I knew I couldn’t let the water enchant me the way it had a few moments before, but I would still be more than happy to swim in it. I just had to keep my wits about me.
Ridley stripped down to his boxers, and while part of me wanted to appreciate the taut muscles of his chest and abdomen, I deliberately did my best not to look at him. Not only because we had a job to complete, but because we’d just agreed to be friends, and I didn’t want to muck that up by fantasizing about what it would feel like to run my fingers down the hard contours of his chest and stomach until …
I shook my head and waded out into the water, hoping that it would wash away my thoughts. As soon as I was out far enough, I dove under, letting the lake completely cover me, and I honestly can’t remember a time when I ever felt better. It was like enveloping myself in unadulterated bliss.
For a few moments, I did let myself just swim and relish the feeling. But then my lungs began to demand oxygen, and I surfaced. I breathed in deeply, staring up at the blue sky above me, until Ridley came up a minute later, gasping for breath.
“Are you okay?” I asked, swimming closer to where he’d emerged a couple yards from me.
“I’m fine,” he insisted and wiped the water from his eyes. “How long can you hold your breath?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe five minutes.”
During grade school, I had frequently shown off my ability to hold my breath for extended periods of time. I thought it would make the kids think I was cool, but it turned out I was nothing more than a circus sideshow. The average Kanin could hold their breath for roughly thirty seconds, so my feat seemed quite impressive and a little freaky. But by comparison, my mom could hold her breath under water for nearly a half hour.
“Yeah, I can’t do anywhere close to that.” Ridley shook his head. “I tried to go down to the bottom of the lake, but it’s way too far for me. If Linnea has gills, she could be hanging out in the depths of it.”
“That makes sense,” I agreed. “I’ll see how far down I can go and look for her. You wanna stick to the shallower areas?”
“Works for me.”
I took a deep breath, then plunged under the water. I went straight down, thinking that I would find the bottom and search along there. If this was a hidden paradise built for gilled trolls, it wasn’t a stretch to guess that there might be something at the bottom.
Ridley wasn’t kidding about how deep it went. Even with the water being totally clear, it soon became too dark for me to see well. When a small silver fish swam by, I caught just a glimmer of light on its scales.
Even as a dull ache in my head and chest began to build, the delirium of the water overtook me. It seemed to flow through me, filling me with pure elation, and I swam deeper. I’d like to say I was more determined than ever to find Linnea, but really, that came in second to the way the lake made me feel.
But slowly that was beginning to give away to pain and panic as my body struggled with a buildup of carbon dioxide. My lungs started to burn. I looked up toward the rays of light barely breaking the water, and it occurred to me too late that I had gone down too far.
I had swum down for almost five minutes, which meant that it would take me almost five minutes to surface. That was twice as long as I could hold my breath. I was in trouble.
With my eyes fixed on the sun above me, I kicked my legs as fast as I could, racing against the clock. My lungs felt like they were going to explode, and the muscles in my abdomen began to painfully spasm.
But the light above was growing brighter, and if I pushed myself, I could just make it. The pressure aggravated my head injury, making the vision in my right eye blur and my head throb. A fog was descending on my brain. Then everything faded to blackness, and my legs went limp underneath me, despite my demands that they swim on.