Tarduk, Crotesius, and Kirbold had left the woods well behind them, if not the memories of what had happened there. They had traveled in silence for the better part of a day. Tarduk had not even bothered to ask Kirbold why he had come back. He was just grateful the Ice Agori had changed his mind.
For much of the past several hours the group had been riding along the banks of a river. Tarduk had no doubt this was the River Dormus that Surel had spoken about. It certainly did not seem dangerous in any way. It was a placid and calm body of water without even any rapids visible. That alone made Tarduk a little nervous. His experience on Bara Magna was that anything that looked safe and welcoming usually wasn’t either. At the same time, having spent much of his life in a desert, the sight of running water was an appealing one.
Eventually they reached a point where the river had to be forded if they were going to keep on moving north. Tarduk scouted until he found a spot that looked shallow enough.
“We’ll cross here,” he said. “According to the map, we’re not too far from where we’re going.”
“That’s a pretty old map,” said Crotesius. “How do we know that ‘Red Star’ thing is even still there? Or anything else? The Skrall probably stormed all through this area before they came to Bara Magna. I doubt they left much standing.”
“You just don’t want to cross the river!” joked Kirbold. “You Fire types don’t like to get wet, right?”
Crotesius frowned. He walked right up to the edge of the water and turned around to face his two companions.
“Right, I made it past the mechanical wolves and the hungry trees and everything else on this trip, and I’m scared of a stream? I’ll cross it right now, and then –”
There wasn’t time to shout a warning. Behind Crotesius, a giant hand made of water sprang forth from the river. In the blink of an eye it had seized the Fire Agori and pulled him below the surface. Tarduk and Kirbold rushed to the spot, heedless of their own potential danger.
“Do you swim?” asked Tarduk.
“I’ll manage,” said Kirbold. “What’s the plan?”
“We go in after him,” Tarduk answered. “Let’s go!”
The two Agori had taken three steps into the water when the hand appeared again. This time, it grabbed both of them. The next moment, they were being pulled down into the river. To Tarduk’s amazement, he wasn’t drowning. Some air had been pulled down with them, and suddenly he had a bad feeling he knew why.
The Element Lord of Jungle wanted information from us, he remembered. If this is the Element Lord of Water at work, maybe he wants the same thing – and we can’t tell him anything if we’re dead. But what happens when he finds out we have nothing to tell?
The water was dark and cold. Tarduk focused on a pinpoint of light up ahead. As they rapidly grew closer, he could make out Crotesius suspended in the water inside an air bubble. Soon, he and Kirbold were floating beside him.
Before them, the underwater current began to twist and writhe. The waters reshaped themselves into the semblance of a face easily as tall as one of the Agori. Its hollow voice came at them from every side.
“Do you know the way?” it said.
“One of your brothers already asked us,” said Tarduk. “You are the Element Lord of Water, right?”
“I have that honor,” the Element Lord answered. “And what did you tell my brother?”
Tarduk glanced at Crotesius. The Fire Agori gave the slightest of nods, signaling that he would back whatever play Tarduk wanted to make. As it turned out, Tarduk didn’t have to decide what to do next – Kirbold spoke up.
“The same thing we’ll tell you,” said the Ice Agori. “Sure we know the way. Would we have come this far out if we didn’t? But why should we tell you?”
The Element Lord of Water paused, as if he was actually considering his answer.
“Self-preservation,” he said finally.
This time, it was Crotesius who answered. “Highly overrated. Better a dead hero than a live coward, I always say.”
This seemed to set the Element Lord back a bit. He and his kind weren’t used to backtalk. Around the three Agori, the waters began to churn.
“Do you know how it feels to drown, villager?” asked the Element Lord. “To feel your lungs fill up with water and your vision go black? I could make you feel that a thousand times, and worse, never knowing when you will be allowed to finally die.”
“Sure you could,” said Tarduk. “But if you try, we’ll make sure it goes that one step too far. Dead, we’re of no use to you. Dead, we tell you nothing, and you’ll never know the way. But maybe if you tell us why you’re so desperate for the information, we could make a deal.”
The Jungle Agori couldn’t quite believe what he was saying. All this being had to do was increase the water pressure and he could crush the three of them into paste. But after such a long journey and so many dangers, Tarduk had had enough of riddles and threats. Whatever their reasons, the Element Lords were desperate for knowledge, and it was time to use that against them.
“Why?” asked the Element Lord. “Because at the end of the way, there is power to be had. Power enough to end the war the only way it can end. With a victory for one of us.”
Tarduk started to point out that the Core War had ended a hundred thousand years ago. Then he remembered something Surel had said: how the war had ended for the Agori and the soldiers, but not for the Element Lords. Their hate still burned, even in the depths of the water.
“We can’t tell you,” said the Jungle Agori. “It’s too complicated. You know, if you make a wrong turn, well, that would be that. We would have to show you.” Tarduk held his breath. The Jungle Element Lord had almost seemed able to read their thoughts – if this one could as well, they were doomed.
But the Element Lord of Water did not attack, or rage at them. Perhaps none of the Element Lords were able to read minds after all – perhaps Jungle just assumed no Agori would be carrying this kind of knowledge.
“Very well,” said the Water Element Lord. “You will go forth, and the waters will go with you. You will show me the way, and in return…”
The three Agori never got to hear what their captor was willing to trade. The temperature of the waters around them suddenly plummeted. Crotesius looked downriver, and his eyes widened. The water was freezing rapidly and the effect was racing right toward them.
The Element Lord of Water let out a yell of rage and frustration. Ice had found him again. Now his essence would have to flee the river, or risk being frozen to death. Before the eyes of the Agori, the face in the water dissipated. Their captor had vanished, leaving them behind.
“It’s moving too fast,” cried Kirbold. “We’ll never make it to the surface in time.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tarduk. “I’m sorry.”
A few feet away, the river water turned to solid ice, from the surface to the bottom. Any living thing unlucky enough to be in the waterway was frozen instantly. That was about to include three very brave Agori.