“Un’, du, tri, ek!”
The soft female voice counting in the local language stopped abruptly as a wave crashed into the shore with thundering noise. In a flash, three pairs of bare feet started running through the deserted park. They rushed with all their might into the foamy sea, quickly crossing the narrow sandy beach and disappearing under the tepid waters of Zefiria.
Soon, three pairs of shoulders were popping above the surface every couple of seconds. In a storm of splashes, lean legs and arms pushed hard to move away from the shore. Their aim: the dark outline of the Iron Rock. And the girl was winning, being already several meters ahead.
Kolin gave up first. He turned face-up and began floating on his back, trying to calm his heartbeats and propelling himself with his feet. Solis persisted almost to the finish, trying stubbornly to catch up. But in the end, Lila won.
The girl pumped her left fist high in the air, grabbed the thin metal rails mounted at the edge of the rock, and got out of the water. Her slender body radiated joy and beauty like an opening rose. Solis arrived a few moments later, coughing and breathing hard. Then the two teenagers patiently waited 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. To the south 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 did,” Solis replied with a resigned expression. “Perhaps we shouldn’t let you do the counting next time.”
“Haha! You think it would make any difference?” the girl laughed.
“I suppose not,” Solis agreed, his shoulders slumping in defeat.
“Time to show me the spot,” the girl demanded, raising her eyebrows and sticking out her tongue.
With a deep 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. They would have told Lila about it in a few days, after they made sure there was no danger, but Solis had forgotten to keep his mouth shut in a conversation at school. Lila had immediately challenged them to a swimming race, knowing they could not refuse her. She was cunning enough to come here alone and explore the rock for as long as needed until she found the spot herself. And that meant she might eventually not come home until late at night. It was best to avoid this kind of situation.
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 treated it as a legend. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful legend.
The island had the shape of a slightly convex circular platform about fifty meters in diameter. Its outer edge was vertical, rising almost two meters above the sea level at high tide. The side facing the coast had a spot where a few dozen steps carved in stone and flanked by metal rails reached into the sea, allowing a potential visitor to climb on it. The island’s surface — rough and not entirely level — was made of a dark-blue stone almost as hard as iron. That supposedly had given the rock the name. It also 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 side facing away from the coast. He examined the rock, then bent down over the edge, looking for something deep underwater. A few moments later, he straightened his back, walked several more meters to the left, and bent down again.
“Here it is,” he said. “I’ve marked the spot with chalk near the edge, but yesterday’s rain almost erased it. 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. “We might still see something.”
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Solis countered. “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 ‘cause you told me fish were swimming nearby all the time, and no one died. We have our goggles. They should be enough to take a peek. The sea is less than ten meters deep here.”
“I’d rather wait to see the light first,” Kolin said, looking uneasy.
“Suit yourself,” Lila snorted. “I’ll check it right now.”
With decided steps, the girl moved to the platform’s edge, jumped high in the air, and dived head-down into the dark-blue water.
The boys winced in unison. They hurriedly bent their necks over the side, staring with worried gazes at 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. And they could not spot her anywhere deep down.
“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.
Before he could to jump from the platform, a firm hand grabbed his shoulder from behind. The boy felt paralyzed. His body froze. His muscles seemed to turn 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.
“Un’, du, tri, ek!”