Three pairs of bare feet started running at once. They rushed with all their might towards the foamy waves, quickly crossing the narrow sandy beach and disappearing under the tepid waters of Zefiria.
Soon, three pairs of shoulders were popping above the water surface every couple of seconds. In a storm of splashes, lean legs and arms pushed hard to get away from the shore.
The dark outline of the Iron Rock was growing larger and larger. It was the target of their race. And the girl was winning, being already several meters ahead.
Kolin gave up first. He turned face-up and began floating on his back, breathing hard and propelling himself towards the island with his feet. Solis persisted almost to the finish, trying stubbornly to catch up. However, in the end, Lila won. She almost always did.
The girl smiled, grabbed the thin metal rail mounted at the edge of the rock, and got out of the water. Solis arrived a few moments later. Then the two teenagers waited patiently for another two minutes until Kolin caught up with them.
It was a bright and pleasant afternoon, right before the monsoon season. The white buildings from Akonit flickered in the east, close to the coast. Westwards, the fringes of Lavand bathed in the orange halo of the Sun. Southwards and farther away, the white peak of Erol glittered at the edge of the sky, marking the highest local point of the Centrian mountain chain.
“Well?” Lila said. “I’ve won the bet.”
“Yes, you have,” Kolin replied with a resigned expression.
“Now you’ll have to show me the spot,” the girl requested, raising her eyebrows and producing a wide smile.
With a sigh, Solis stood up and motioned the other two teenagers to follow him. Kolin already knew the location but preferred to let his friend lead.
The Iron Rock was a rather peculiar place. Its regular shape did not look like nature’s work. Some people believed it used to be the foundation of an enormous building from an older civilization, a launchpad capable of sending people all the way up into space. Yet, it had been so long since those times that most locals took it for a legend. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful legend.
The island was shaped like a slightly convex circular platform about fifty meters in diameter. Its outer edge was vertical, measuring almost two meters above the sea level at high tide. The side facing the coast had a spot where several stone steps flanked by metal rails reached into the sea and allowed a potential visitor to climb on it with relative ease. The island’s surface — rough and not entirely level — was made of a dark-blue stone almost as hard as iron. That pretty much explained how it had survived the sea’s abrasion for so many centuries.
Solis motioned Lila and Kolin to follow him to the other side of the platform. He peered at the ground, then bent down over the edge, looking for something deep underwater. A few moments later, he stood up straight, went several more meters to the left, and bent down again.
“Here it is,” he said. “I’ve marked the spot with a piece of chalk near the edge. However, it’s still too early to see it now. We have to wait for the sunset.”
“That’s at least thirty more minutes,” Kolin remarked. “What are we going to do until then?”
“What about diving into the water right now?” Lila suggested. “If this is the right place, we might still see something.”
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Solis replied. “We know nothing about it. Could be dangerous.”
“You said it hasn’t moved from its location for almost a week,” the girl insisted. “Can’t be radioactive because you told me fish were swimming about all the time and no one died. We have our goggles. They should be enough to take a peak. The water is less than ten meters deep here.”
“I’d rather wait to see the light first,” Kolin mumbled.
“Suit yourself,” Lila snorted. “I’ll check it right now.”
With decided steps, the girl moved to the edge of the platform. Immediately, she jumped high in the air and dived head-down into the dark-blue waves.
The boys winced and bent their necks over the side, following with a worried gaze the trail of bubbles left by Lila’s sinking body. No doubt, she was now close to it. Ten seconds passed, then ten more. The girl didn’t return to the surface.
“Something’s wrong,” Kolin said, stating the obvious. “I’ll dive after her. Assist me from here in case I need help.” Although he was the slowest swimmer, he could hold his breath underwater longer than his friends.
Right at that moment, a firm hand grabbed his shoulder from behind. The boy felt paralyzed. His body froze, his muscles seemed to transform into stone. He wanted to scream but couldn’t utter the slightest sound. The hand didn’t belong to Solis. Someone else had just sneaked in noiselessly, like a water snake.
(to be continued…)
Text & Artwork by Marian C. Ghilea