September 2012

234567 8
astrild: (Water)
[personal profile] astrild

If Adam had thought their designated quarters within the fire and air temples were impressive, one step into their quarters at the water temple renders all previous accommodations shoddy and lackluster by comparison. It's not a mere guest apartment: it's a massive luxury apartment, no doubt complete with all the amenities one could possibly think to wish for (and probably a few more besides). It's so far beyond impressive that Adam's not sure a vocabulary exists to describe it.

"Welcome to my humble home," Michael says with a flourish. He has the good grace to blush when Adam turns to him with eyebrows raised high. "Yes, I'm afraid the apartment is officially mine; or, rather, it's reserved for the Archmage of Water. When I am not teaching classes at the academy or required at court, I tend to spend most of my time here at the temple. I consider it my primary residence."

"Uh, it's..." Adam trails off, grasping for something diplomatic to say.

"Overwhelming? Ostentatious? Exactly the sort of ridiculousness one might expect of those of my set?" Michael suggests wryly, tugging Adam further into the apartment. "It is quite alright; I'll not be offended if you say so. Most of what you see here is my predecessor's handiwork; she was very fond of her extravagances."

"And your tastes are more moderate."

"Just so."

"Then why don't you make some renovations of your own?"

"There are appearances to maintain—and I am reliably told that my taste of décor is unsuitable for a man of my standing," Michael mutters, sounding so chagrined that Adam has to laugh. "Find that amusing, do you? Perhaps I'll leave the task of renovating the apartment to you. See if you laugh then."

Adam huffs. "Do you think that a threat? Perhaps you should leave it to me. I may not be up on the latest trends here in the capital, but I know a thing or two about keeping house and maintaining appearances. I am a servant, as you well know."

"Were," Michael corrects. "You were a servant."

Adam's good humor falters. "Oh. Right. Well then." An awkward pause stretches out, during which Adam is all too aware of Michael's worrying eyes on him. He's alright. He is. "It will take me a while to adjust. I forgot for a moment. Forgive me."

"Nothing to forgive," Michael says, then adds abruptly, "Perhaps a tour is in order?"

"Yes, please."

Because Michael's voice is still showing signs of hoarseness from so much speaking earlier that day, Adam makes a point of requesting to see the kitchen first, where he insists they pause for a glass of cool lemonade. From there Michael leads Adam around the dining room, parlor, library, study, two workrooms, two water closets, and three bedrooms, all the while sharing amusing anecdotes about the apartment's former inhabitants. There is certainly no shortage of things to boggle over.

The last room Michael shows him is by far the most mind-boggling of all.

"Good lord!" Adam exclaims, eyes bugging out in astonishment.

It's a bathing room.

It's a bathing room with a tub very nearly large enough to swim in.

The tub takes up a good three-quarters of the room, dug deep into the tiled floor and already filled nearly to the brim with clear, clean water. It's even larger than the tub in Michael's academy residence. A good deal more than two or three people could fit into that thing. More than ten could probably fit in it!

Adam can't help but stare with mixture of longing and horror.

It must be so lovely to stretch out along the ledge when the water is freshly drawn and piping hot, drifting in a blissful pool of weightless comfort. But just how long must it take to drain, clean, and refill the bath? Even with the advances in modern plumbing or with the aid of magic, surely it's more effort than it's worth? Why would anyone want to go through all that trouble?

Capital dwellers are clearly insane.

Adam is in the process of binding himself to a madman.

"You don't like it," Michael observes.

Adam shakes his head. "It's not that I don't like it. It's more that..."

"It's unnecessarily self-indulgent."

"Well, yes," Adam reluctantly agrees. "I mean, isn't it an awful lot of work to maintain?"

"Not as much as you might think," Michael says—and then the skin at Adam's wrist, where Michael's hand has grasped him, tingles tellingly. His eyes fix on that place, unable to look away, though he's not sure why. He can't actually see anything. Michael is working his magic, weaving a spell, and Adam can feel the threads of it pulling together even through Michael's shields. Can almost make out the pattern.

The spell falls away.

When Adam looks up, curious to learn the purpose of the spell, he lets out a startled gasp. The tub is now overflowing with bubbles, steam rising from the surface in lazy wisps. Adam is suddenly, acutely, aware of how sweaty and dirty he must be from strolling around a garden all day.

"Believe it or not, I see to most of the bath's maintenance myself. I am a master of water; refreshing the water is a simple matter. As the bath is ready to be used, would you, perhaps, be interested in taking advantage of it?"

"Oh, yes!" Adam exclaims, and then ducks his head, abashed by his own enthusiasm.

Michael merely chuckles, releases his hold on Adam's wrist, and procures a fluffy towel and white robe from the cupboard, setting them both on the edge of the tub. "I shall leave you to it then. A nice, long soak will do you some good, I think." He walks past Adam then, heading for the door.

And Adam thinks, no.


Michael stops, turning back with a curious expression. "Is there something you need?"

"Yes, no, I—" Adam bites his lip. He tries again. "Won't you join me?"

Curiosity morphs into something more pensive as Michael stands motionless, considering him with thinly veiled apprehension. Adam's meaning is unmistakable. The question is whether Michael will give him what he wants (what he thinks he's ready for).

He expects a refusal, or at least some resistance, so he's taken off guard when Michael instead nods, saying, "Yes, I think I would like that."

"I, uh. Good. That's good."

Michael nods again and fetches a robe and towel for himself. Adam watches him, nervously toying with the hem of one billowy sleeve.

He's being stupidly reckless again, but what choice does he have? Soon their four days will be up. What will happen if they haven't consummated the bond by the time the trial period ends? Will the gods be angry? There will be consequences, of that Adam is sure. Those consequences could be a lot worse than needing frequent skin-to-skin contact. Would the gods refuse to endorse such a half-hearted bond? Would they curse Michael and Adam both for refusing to do their duty and breaking their vows? He doesn't care to find out.

The bond must be consummated. As Michael is too much a gentleman to make the first move, it falls to Adam to do so.

He enjoyed what they'd done last night. Enjoyed the way Michael accepted Adam's kisses. Enjoyed the half-moans, the heat of him, the feel of his hands and mouth and just. Everything.

If sex with Michael is anything like kissing him, Adam is sure he wants it. Maybe it will be scary at first, probably it will be a little painful, but he trusts Michael to do right by him. He also trusts that, despite Michael's warning that first times are rarely good, his will be.

Shy, Adam haltingly pulls off the outer robe and lets it pool on the floor. With shaking hands, he reaches for the gold cord looped around his waist. The knot shouldn't be difficult to pull lose, but his fingers refuse to cooperate. Cursing, he fumbles at the knot until two larger hands gently push aside his own to make quick work of it.

The cord falls to floor.

Adam looks at Michael, breath caught in his throat.

Michael has already stripped down to those silly poofy trousers.

They're doing this. They're really doing this.

Michael rests his hands lightly at Adam's hips, loosely gripping the fabric of the shirt. "May I?"

Adam nods mutely, raising his arms so Michael can pull the shirt over his head. His heart pounds in his ears. There is intimacy in this, in letting Michael tend to him this way. He closes his eyes tightly, but he can't block out the rustling sound of the shirt hitting the floor or the prickling intensity of Michael's eyes drinking him in. The room is warm—humid, even—but he shivers anyway, skin pebbling with gooseflesh.

Michal's hands trail fire down Adam's arms, over his belly, until at last he reaches the tie of Adam's pants. They come loose easily. Puddle at his ankles. His undergarments follow. Obligingly, Adam steps free of them, forcing his eyes open.

Adam doesn't know what to make of the way Michael is looking at him.

Here he is, standing naked before a man he barely knows. A man he already belongs to in ways he doesn't fully understand. No one else will ever know him like this.

"You are beautiful," Michael says and kisses Adam, close-mouthed, yet lingering.

Adam shivers again and reaches out to untie Michael's trousers. His courage fails him before he can slide off Michael's underclothes too. Michael doesn't seem to mind, merely huffing a laugh against Adam's mouth before taking care of it himself.

And then they're both naked. Gods.

Ending the kiss, Michael takes Adam by the hand and unselfconsciously leads him down into the tub. Adam can't restrain himself from sneaking a peek at the curve of the man's ass and—Well, he also catches a glimpse of his... of his cock. Adam's not sure what constitutes as normal, but Michael is definitely bigger than he is; taking him in... Will Adam be able to do it?

The pleasant heat of the water provides a welcome distraction. Standing up, the water level rests about a handbreadth above Adam's navel; sitting on the ledge, the water nearly reaches his shoulders. Adam leans back, allowing some of his anxiety and stress to drain away.

For a long while there is only the sound of bubbles popping in his ears and their steady, nearly-matched breathing.

Eventually Adam works up the courage to make his move.

Aware of Michael's lazy attention, Adam slowly soaps up his hair and body before timidly suggesting that Michael come wash his back. The invitation is obvious—brazen, really—and he's blushing so hard that he once again finds himself unable to look Michael in the face. He's pretty sure he's blushed more in the past few days than he has in all the years prior combined.

Things sort of blur after that.

Blur until Michael is kissing him on the mouth, until his hands are on Adam's ass like they belong there, until Michael's erection is pressed up against his own, until one finger presses against the sensitive rim of Adam's hole, until Michael is whispering against Adam's mouth, "I want to take your cock into my mouth and fuck you open on my fingers. Will you let me?" and Adam is choking out something that may not be a "yes," but absolutely isn't a "no."

The scene shifts into sharp focus then.

Adam clings to Michael, feeling small in his arms—which is ridiculous! Michael's not much bigger than him; a little broader, yeah, a little more filled out, but Adam is nearly his match in height and he's not exactly some starving, skinny waif. Michael manhandles him like he weighs nothing at all, effortlessly sweeping him to the side of the tub and out of the water, so that he's sitting on the cold granite floor, hardened cock on full display.

A shock of magic washes over him and—gods!—suddenly there is a whole heap of towels at his back and he's being maneuvered onto them.

"The floor can't be comfortable," Michael explains gruffly. He grabs a bottle from the assortment of soaps and oils, slicking his fingers with its contents.

"What is that?"

"A water-resistant lubricant. Water itself isn't a particularly good for this sort of play." Michael caps the bottle, setting it down beside Adam, within easy reach. "You should never do this without lubricant—and by lubricant, I mean something created especially as a sex aid. Shampoo, soap, lotions and common household products may sometimes be more readily available and slick enough to do the job, but they may contain irritants that could—"

"Is now really the right time to lecture me on safe sex practices?" Adam interrupts, gesturing toward his waning erection.

Michael laughs. "Sorry. You are absolutely right."

The first touch of Michael's slick fingers against Adam's hole is tentative, rather more ticklish than seductive, but then there's pressure and the tip of one finger slips past the tight ring of muscle, slips inside.

"That feels so weird."

"How weird? Do you want me to stop?"

"No. Keep going."

Michael obeys. With almost agonizing slowness, Michael eases his finger carefully in, sliding deeper, past the first knuckle, the second, and then he's gone as far as he can go. Adam's body keeps clenching instinctively, protesting the intrusion, but it's not bad. Just uncomfortable. And still very weird. He can't imagine why anyone would want to do this.

"Look at you," Michael breathes. "So lovely." He flexes his finger, thrusting shallowly as he does so, and it's like there's purpose to the motion. Like he's searching for something.

Without warning, Michael's questing finger brushes over something inside of Adam, sending a jolt of pleasure sparking up his spine and Adam's breath gasping out of him. Before Adam can open his mouth to demand to know just what manner of sorcery Michael is working on him, Michael's head is bowing forward and his mouth, gods, his mouth. Michael swallows Adam's cock—all of it!—down like he was born for it, making wet, obscene sounds as he sucks and starts to bob his head. If not for the hand pressed firmly over his belly, Adam would have surely lost control and started thrusting up into that perfect mouth without a thought to spare for Michael's comfort.

The finger inside Adam thrusts in time with Michael's bobbing head, repeatedly brushing over that magic spot until he's practically sobbing out "oh god" and "yes, there" and "please" and "more" in mindless desperation, wanton as any two-bit whore.

There's a growing tingle under his skin, a shivering need to be closer to Michael, a desire born of more than just physicality—it's the bond, winding its way around them both, thrumming its approval in ways that makes Adam's toes curl and his hips jerk. He can't even bring himself to feel ashamed of his loud, protesting whine when Michael removes his finger completely or at the way his back arches when he's rewarded with two fingers instead of just the one.

He doesn't last long after that, his orgasm blossoming so suddenly that he can't even choke out a warning before he starts coming. Michael doesn't complain—just makes a pleased noise and swallows him down to the root, humming encouragement until Adam is boneless and spent. Only when the last bit of pleasure has been wrung out of him does Michael remove his fingers from Adam's aching hole and let Adam's limp cock slip from his mouth, licking his lips with smug satisfaction, every bit the cat that'd got the cream.

There's a bit of something white collected at the corner of Michael's mouth. If it were humanly possible for a man to recover so quickly, Adam's cock would have sprung up again in an instant. Gods. That was. There aren't even words for what that was.

Panting softly, Adam flops against the towels and stares mindlessly at the ceiling.

"Alright?" Michael asks.

"Yes," Adam breathes, then frowns, propping himself up on his elbows to luck at Michael. "Are you going to, uh, penetrate me now?"

"Not tonight."

"Oh." Adam tries not to think about the disappointment that crashes over him at that. "Well, at least I could help you ... with my hand, maybe? I don't think I'm ready to use my mouth. Is that okay?"

Michael makes a strangled noise. "Adam, I appreciate your offer—but it's unnecessary."

And then Michael blushes. A deep, full-body blush.

Adam's eyes widen. "You mean you—"

"You are very attractive," Michael says with a self-deprecating laugh. "I didn't even need to touch myself."

Even before Adam opens his eyes on the morning of the third trial, he senses Michael's excitement; the man is practically quivering with it, unable to keep still. Adam attributes this to the pending trial being much more personal to Michael than the others. As someone sworn to serve Enmu, Lord of Water, he'll want to make a good showing before his god, yes?

As it turns out, Adam is only partially correct.

"This will be your first introduction to life at the temple. Once your training as a vessel is complete, we will both be spending a lot of time here," Michael explains when Adam asks. He doesn't add, "I want you to like it here," but he doesn't need to.

Luckily, the trial laid out by High Priestess Ellen lends itself very well to Michael's desire to show Adam around.

"We're sending you boys on a scavenger hunt," the priestess says, voice lilting with a country twang. "But don't go thinking that this will be a cakewalk. You'll be following a trail of riddles, the first of which will lead you to the second and so forth. Keep sharp, work together, and maybe you'll even learn something."

She leaves them with a piece of parchment upon which is penned:

I give you a group of three. One is sitting down, and will never get up. The second eats as much as is given to him, yet is always hungry. The third goes away and never returns.

It takes Adam a minute to puzzle it out, but once he has it, he can't contain his laugh. "Oh, but that's so easy!"

"You have it? I'm at a loss, I confess."

"But it's so obvious! There is a group of three things—things that go together. Really, it's the second object that's the big clue. What is often described as endlessly 'hungry' in riddles?" At Michael's blank express, Adam exclaims, "Fire, of course! From there, it's easy to guess the other two."

"The third must be smoke," Michael muses, frowning down at the paper. "But what of the first?"

"A stove, of course!"

"I am not sure I follow."

"Why, a stove sits on the floor, doesn't it? And it's not exactly mobile; it isn't going to get up and walk away, is it?"

Lips quirking, Michael says, "I see. I'm not sure I would have been able to come up with that on my own. You've seen how well I get along with stoves. The world is better off if I don't even think about them."

Adam recalls their misadventures in baking and shakes his head fondly. "Point taken."

Michael leads the way to the main kitchen, where a plump, rosy-cheeked cook wordlessly passes them a slip of paper with the next riddle:

Half-way up the hill, I see thee at last, lying beneath me with thy sounds and sights – A city in the twilight, dim and vast, with smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights.

This time Michael is the one to solve the riddle. He doesn't even bother sharing the solution before he tugs Adam out of the kitchen and down a few winding corridors to stops outside a heavy oak door.

"You'll like this," Michael says and pushes open the door to reveal an extensive portrait gallery. "Here hang the portraits of every Archmage of Water since the first. Can you guess the riddle?"

Adam re-reads the riddle, trying to see past the deceptive poetry, and considers the room.

"History?" he tries.

"The past, yes," Michael affirms.

They find the next riddle hanging obviously beside the portrait of the very first Archmage, who incidentally bore the name Mikhael and vaguely resembled Michael—if Michael were 30 years older, a fair few stones heavier, and wore an awful wig of long, white curls.

"So that's what you'll look like as an old grandfather," Adam teases. "Very attractive."

"Just so," Michael agrees, mock-preening.

They spend some time wandering around the portrait gallery before moving on, Michael expounding on the sins and virtues of his most notable predecessors. Adam is coming to the slow realization that not only is Michael a walking, talking book of history—he's also a bit of a gossip.

Their next stop turns out to be the wine cellar, followed by the communal library, the primary chamber of worship, and a few locations so random that Michael and Adam are both raising their brows in bafflement. (A broom cupboard? Really?) They make a few wrong guesses here and there, but overall they are a pretty good team.

The fact that they're doing so much wandering around in public areas comes with a special brand of weirdness. Being a "ghost" when nobody is around to ignore you is one thing; being invisible in a crowded room is quite another. It's a little creepy at first, but he gets over it. After a while, he even starts to enjoy it, going so far as to make a game of trying to incite reactions in the people around them. Mostly he fails, but he does succeed in making Michael laugh hard enough to snort once (which is amazing—he sounds like a wild boar!), so it's well worth the effort.

Things take a more serious turn when their path leads them into the menagerie, which is split into two divisions: the mundane and the magical.

Their latest riddle has them searching out a mermaid. An honest to goodness, real, live mermaid. His mother will be so jealous! What else will he see in the menagerie? Nereids? Rusalki? Sirens? Serpents? Undines? Although the mundane inhabitants of any temple menagerie are kept primarily for exhibit and educational purposes, the magical inhabitants will have been taken in primarily for rehabilitation purposes following injury or the onset of illness. It's impossible to say just what Adam will see today!

Somehow he'd failed to realize that his (albeit reluctant) bonding with an Archmage would place him in a prime position to visit such a guarded place.

His giddiness fades the moment they pass through the entryway into the outdoor courtyard.

A young priestess is waiting for them, looking frazzled and pale. Her eyes are red-rimmed from crying. She pounces on Michael without any pride or sense of protocol. "Oh, Enmu be praised! You must come quickly, my lord! The Nixie has gone into labor, but it is not her time and the babe is facing the wrong way round and we can't turn it because she won't let us near her and we're going to lose them both! Please, she trusts you. She'll let you help her. You must save her, you must!"

"I—But I can't," Michael says, stricken. "You know that. I'm in my trial period—"

"Go," Adam interrupts.


"You heard me. Go help that poor Nixie, if you can. I'll entertain myself until you rejoin me or until the bond compels me to find you. If we don't finish the trial, then we don't finish the trial. This is more important. I'm sure Enmu would agree. You do what you need to do."

Michael's relief is palpable. Adam knows he's done the right thing. If Michael's sense of obligation won't let him throw out the rulebook when circumstances call for it, Adam will just have to do so for him. No problem. Selective rule-breaking is something he's good at.


"Why are you still here?"

"Thank you," Michael says and swoops in to steal a hasty kiss before racing off with the half-hysterical girl at his heels.

Lips tingling, Adam watches him go.

The menagerie of magical creatures turns out to be a lot more expansive than Adam originally anticipated. Different creatures require different climates. For obvious reason, the Water Temple has taken advantage of its seaside location by structuring its saltwater habitats along the shoreline behind the temple, whereas the freshwater habitats cluster along various man-made waterways in a sprawling arc to the right of the temple.

Adam starts his explorations along the seashore, where he quickly finds the mermaid mentioned in the riddle. She's a friendly, light-hearted creature, who passes him the next riddle tucked in a glass bottle before playfully flicking water at him with her tail and diving away.

He sees many other marvels as he winds his way through the habitats. Unfortunately, most creatures are not as friendly as the mermaid. They shy away from him, watching from a distance with weary eyes if they show themselves at all. Many seem to have similar reservations about the priestesses and acolytes, so Adam tries not to feel slighted. It's nothing personal. These creatures are here because they're hurt—vulnerable—in some manner. It makes sense that they would be cautious. Humans and the magic folk don't exactly have a stellar history of living in mutual harmony.

As Adam nears the end of the seaside path, he rounds a corner to find his route blocked by a creature that has escaped its pen—a gorgeous, black mare with a long, dripping mane.

Adam freezes in his tracks.

The mare stares back at him, nostrils flaring as she scents the air.

What is he supposed to do? Even if the mare isn't naturally dangerous (and Adam has no way of knowing if that's the case), she could crush him in an instant if she startles.

Adam starts inching slowly backward.

The mare bows her head low and whinnies pitifully, pacing a few steps after Adam before whinnying again.

Adam pauses. "You ... don't want me to go?"

She bobs her head in a gesture so human that the absurdity of it surprises a laugh out of Adam. Okay. He's having a conversation with a magic horse. How is this his life?

She is beautiful though. And she seems harmless enough. Adam's fingers itch to stroke her coat, to see if she feels anything like a normal horse would. Her coat appears slicker, shinier—maybe it's slippery? A little slimy?

"May I touch you?" Adam asks.

The mare tosses her mane and dances within reach, whinnying excitedly. Adam snorts at her antics and relaxes his guard. "You are a lively girl, aren't you," he croons softly and tentatively rests one hand high on the mare's back. She's cold to the touch and there is definitely an odd filmy texture to the hairs, but it's not slippery or slimy at all. Quite the contrary.

It's sticky. Adhesive.

His hand—it won't budge.

"What?" He grabs his wrist with his free hand and leans back, throwing all of his weight into the effort of pulling himself free. It doesn't work.

And Adam thinks he knows why.

He remembers being a small child sitting by the kitchen fire in the evenings, listening attentively as Old Granny whispered hushed tales of wonder and of warning. Remembers her talk of water horses.

"Yes," she had said, "most are friendly and harmless—protectors of travelers and children—but not all. Hush, child. Listen and take heed. Trust the noble unicorns, the majestic hippocampi, the wise ichthyocentaurs, and the white horses. But do not trust the wicked ones, the dark ones, the flesh-eaters. Do not trust the—"

"Kelpie," Adam breathes in horror. "You're a kelpie."

The kelpie's flesh shivers under Adam's hands as the creature lets out a low, inhumane laugh and swings its head to look at Adam with eyes now blazing red as embers, lips curled to show razor sharp teeth. It will devour him with those teeth. It will drag Adam out to sea, where it will drown him and deliver his limp carcass to its nest and tear him apart, sharing him amongst its young. Here an arm, there a leg. Who would like a tasty liver?

Michael, he thinks desperately, help me, and then the creature lunges forward and Adam has no choice but to hurriedly slap his free hand down on the opposite side of the creature and use what leverage he can muster to pull himself awkwardly onto the creature's back. This leaves him handless and in more trouble than ever, but it's better than being bashed to death as he's dragged along.

At least he has presence of mind enough to brace against smashing his face against the kelpie's hyde as he's jostled about; the last thing he needs is for his face to be stuck to the beast too! The adhesive is activated by some chemical in human skin. If he can prevent himself from becoming further enmeshed, perhaps he stands a chance of coming out of this. Somehow. He's just got to think.

Adam's not an idiot. He screams—praying that someone will hear him, someone with the wits to stage some sort of rescue.

Habitats pass in a blur. The inhabitants of those habitats screech and howl out a blood-curdling counterpoint to Adam's own distress. Branches seem to leap out at him, whipping and snagging at him as he hurdles past. His thin robes offer little by way of defense, but he can't worry about that. Not now.

He's running out of time.

The harbor. It's just up ahead—

And are those people? Yes! Yes, there are men and women gathering at the head of the path down to the harbor, scurrying to block the way.

The kelpie is undeterred. It doesn't falter, doesn't slow, doesn't doubt its course of action. It speeds up. What does it have to fear? It is large and strong; humans are puny. Weak. Their skulls will crush beneath its deadly hooves.

It doesn't take into account the fact that many of the priestesses and acolytes possess some small magical gift; neither does it account for the possibility of visiting mages.

Spells start flying.

Spells that tug at Adam's senses.

Spells that fly at the kelpie's feet, its torso, and its muzzle.

Spells that cause the great beast to hiss, to grunt, to rear up on its hind legs and jerk Adam with such violence that Adam can hear the sickening pop of his shoulder dislocating. He finds his voice for an agonized scream. Tears cloud his vision. The pain, gods, the pain—he's never felt anything like it!

A stray spell goes whizzing past Adam's ear, too close, so hot that the air sizzles and the stench of burnt hair fills his nose.

"Careful of the boy!"

"Hang in there, kid!"

The kelpie continues to buck and dodge and charge, inching ever closer to its destination. Caution may have forced it to slow, but the assembled rescue party is ill-equipped to take on a full-grown kelpie—not without putting Adam's life at risk.

All they can do is harry the creature and hope for an opening.

All Adam can do is bite his lip against the pain and pray.

Spells continue to fly around him.


A voice rings out through the chaos. A voice Adam knows.

"Michael," he sobs in relief, craning his neck around to find Michael paused at the head of the harbor path astride a white horse with—Is that? Seriously? Yes. It is.

The kelpie hisses furiously, drawing Adam's attention back to the present danger. He has just enough time to suck in a fortifying breath before it snaps forward, sinking its fangs into the shoulder of a man who'd drawn too close—and then the man is on the ground, bleeding, moaning, and it's too late; they've failed. Because suddenly the kelpie is dashing the last few lengths down the pier.

Cold. The water is cold.

"Momma," Adam whispers just before he's dragged under.

He can't die. He can't. Who will take care of her?


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