UnderSilver shuddered upon impact, knocking Jace off his feet. The sea dragons had struck the ship’s gyros beneath the hull, disrupting the even keel. The deck heaved upward as the swell from the creatures’ approach lifted the ship. Suddenly, the vessel lurched, and everything plunged down into the trough.
He grabbed for the closest thing nearby. The back of his right hand whacked the railing, but he managed to snag it with his other hand. Waves washed over him, drenching him. Water rushed up his nose, and for a brief moment he couldn’t breathe. Jace snorted and coughed to clear his airway as his body dangled over the open ocean. His grip slipped. Throwing his arm over the pole, he held onto his wrist until his weight was suspended on the crook of his elbow.
People’s screams filled his ears as the ship rolled a full forty-five degrees starboard, and bodies went sailing into the water. He scanned the hapless victims that flew across the deck from the open doors. They arched through the air as the ship tried to right itself and landed with flat smacks upon the waves.
He no longer worried for his own safety. Where was Rhone? Had she already gone overboard? Or was she trapped inside the ship?
Silver lurched again as another strike vibrated through the ship. Something thumped onto the deck and slid into him. At the last second, he grabbed a handful of shirt, and realized with horror it was Rhone’s unconscious figure. Blood trickled down the side of her head where she’d either struck it on something, or something had hit her.
The boat lolled on the next set of swells. Rhone’s body slid across the wet boards. Her legs slipped underneath the lowest rail, and she began to fall overboard. Jace held on until his fingers went numb.
The ship angled upward again. He took the chance to get a better grip, snagging the waistband of her pants as he was afraid her wet shirt would shred.
Two more people went flying through the doorway. One of them came directly toward him, and Jace braced for impact. The ship lurched the moment the semi-conscious man rammed into them. Jace saw the stark panic on the guy’s face as he struggled to keep himself from going overboard. The man managed to grab Jace by the ankle just as he slipped under the railing.
The hard jerk on his arm sent excrutiating pain through his shoulder and back. Jace cried out and tried to keep his hold on Rhone, but the added weight was too much. He felt an agonizing crack as his humerus separated from his shoulder. He was no longer able to keep himself, Rhone, and the man digging his fingers into Jace’s boot from leaving the ship. If he tried, he knew he’d bleed to death when his arm separated from his body.
Jace let go of the railing, but kept his fingers on Rhone as they sailed over the side and into the waves. The man holding onto him screamed and released Jace’s foot just as they all hit the water.
Jace gasped as they sunk through the cold depths. Somehow he managed to transfer Rhone to his wounded arm in order to use his good arm to swim for the surface. He started kicking as hard as he could, aiming for the surface.
A nearly transparent, crystalline shape undulated below his feet. It turned and slithered closer, turning its head so that large black eyes stared directly at him. Judging by its nearly thirty-foot length, it had to be a baby.
Jace continued to fight the slow, inevitable drag. His lungs protested, and he could feel his chest beginning to cave in. His head pounded from oxygen deprivation.
The sea dragon swam closer, still eyeing its prey. Jace pulled Rhone tightly to his chest and kept kicking, although he knew it was useless. The creature circled them once more, opening its mouth before coming in for the kill.
A figure sank next to him. Then another. A trail of bubbles followed both people as they writhed in their death throes. Their struggles distracted the sea dragon from Jace’s struggle, and the creature dove toward them.
Jace averted his face while the creature pursued its next meal. He heaved upward, trying to make every stroke, every kick, count. Against his chest, Rhone remained unconscious. Her head rolled along his shoulder. Her black hair swirled around his face, obscuring his vision, but he knew it no longer mattered. His strength was gone, his air was gone, and the surface was too far away.
Releasing the last of his breath, he embraced her with both arms and pressed his cheek to her forehead. Forgive me, Rhone. I tried to save us. I tried, but I failed. I’m sorry.
There was a glint. A light. A distant flash that could have been a reflection.
The beam struck him in the face, partially blinding him. Jace tried to focus on the strange object, but he could feel himself losing consciousness.
He was suddenly pushed into something solid. Rough. Stable. Instinctively, he clutched it and raised his face.
He broke the surface with a loud gasp. As he frantically gulped air back into his starved lungs, he tried to keep Rhone’s head above water. Somehow they’d been caught on one of the hydraulic lifts as it rose and ended up underneath the ship’s hull.
Forcing his wobbly legs to support them, Jace laid her across the strut and pounded on Rhone’s back as he prayed. “Come on, Rhone. Breathe for me! Take a breath, Rhone! Breathe, damn it!” He beat between her shoulder blades, then turned her around so that her back was against his chest, and slammed his fist in her solar plexis.
There was a retching sound. Water splashed over his legs and feet. He felt her body shudder violently, and she made a mewling noise. Her hands reached out, found his good arm, and she clutched it.
“Wha… What… How…”
Closing his eyes, Jace gave a silent prayer of thanks. He pressed his mouth to her hair, kissing it. “We fell overboard.”
Rhone tried to lift her head to look around. “Where are we?” she croaked. Before he could answer her, she managed to wriggle around until she faced him. “We’re under the ship?”
She glanced down at the small platform where they stood.
“It’s one of the hydraulic legs,” he explained.
She nodded, sighing, and let her face rest against his chest. If circumstances were different, he would allow himself to savor the feel of her body along his. But the frigid waters had stolen their body heat, leaving them too weak to do anything but pray for rescue. It was a miracle they were able to cling to the strut and remain upright.
He barely heard her murmur. “Feasting,” he whispered.
“On what?” Again, she realized the truth before he could respond. “Oh, those poor people.”
Another loud blat sounded overhead, partially muffled because of the ship’s hull. Jace felt her nod. “The all clear,” she told him, then gave a little laugh. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard it.”
She leaned heavily on his wrenched arm, but he tolerated it in silence. If he felt pain, it meant he was alive.
Giving her a little squeeze with his good arm, he lowered his mouth to her ear. “Rhone?”
There was no answer, no response. For a second his heart went cold at the thought she was slipping away from him, when her body trembled, and she sighed. She was unconscious.
Pressing himself against the hydraulic strut, Jace closed his eyes and prayed for divine intervention.