Kowan slammed into the raging water. There was a blinding flash of light, then blackness darker than night engulfed him.

***

When he came to, it took Kowan several moments to figure out where he was. The light of Red World’s dual moons refracted brightly through a myriad swirl of bubbles, making them glow like tiny stars. Water rushed inside his ears, muting the river’s roar to a lazy growl.

Kowan realized he hadn’t breathed in some time. His lungs began to burn. The feeling grew, stressing urgency. Before he could kick to the surface, the current spun Kowan, causing him to lose his sense of direction.

A massive object slammed into his side, and he fought to remain conscious. A rock, he thought, wondering how many more strikes his combat suited body could handle before he was bludgeoned to death.

Then, he felt the current slow. Gently drifting, Kowan caught sight of one of Red World’s moons. So far way… As he watched, it faded. I’m sinking. He tried to kick for the surface, lungs now burning with a pain he didn’t know existed. Still, no matter how hard he tried, the moon grew fainter and farther away. He attempted to trigger pulses from his suit, but it was non-responsive. Use your magic, you blighthearted fool! Blackness began to creep in at the edges of his vision. Focusing through fear and agony proved too much for Kowan and he let go of the little energy he’d gathered.

You have to take it off, his mind demanded, knowing it was the only option. It’s dragging you to your death. Kowan had worked hard for the suit, had earned it through eight years of trials and tests. The Technumage Academy had a massive rate of attrition, both from those breaking under pressure and those deemed unworthy by the instructors. Without the armor, you aren’t a Technumage. Without the armor, you’re just human.

Kowan quickly unbuckled the suit’s intricate latches, his hands deft from years of practice. He pushed the pieces away, feeling them sink into darker depths. His heart broke. It was gone forever.

Feeling he had just a few moments before he blacked out and drowned, Kowan used the last of his waning strength to kick once again. This time, the moon shone brighter and soon he could also faintly make out the second satellite.

Just a few more kicks, he thought, blackness now engulfing everything but a narrow field. Fight! He breathed out, the bubbles rushing up before him.

Then, he broke the river’s surface. Kowan choked in a huge breath, relief flooding him. His vision slowly restored itself, each aspiration calming his desperate mind.

It took several moments for Kowan to hear the crashing noise over the pounding of his own heart. The sound was all too familiar. Waterfall.

Before he could do anything to save himself, the river carried him into another set of rapids. Without the weight of his suit bearing him down, Kowan was able to ride mostly on the surface. He tried to swim to one of the canyon’s walls, to claw his way out of the river. The rock was far too smooth, the water much too fast.

Another moment of desperate fight passed and Kowan felt himself accelerate. He became weightless. Water fell above, below, all around. Air and water mixed, frothy and unbreathable.

A few seconds passed, long enough for Kowan to brace for impact. If there are rocks at the bottom—

Slamming into the waterfall’s pool felt like a hundred Weard Captains pummeling him simultaneously. Darkness. Kowan wondered if he had once again lost consciousness. No, he thought, feeling the tumbling water around him. Both moons had fully disappeared, and he knew he was unlikely to survive.

When he was just a child, Kowan and a boy from his village had been playing together in the nearby river. It was small, and they enjoyed the coolness it offered on a hot summer day. Both knew of the fall just a few hundred meters downstream, having been warned incessantly by their parents. They often threw sticks in just above and watched them disappear into the foaming water below.

The memory of that day swam through Kowan’s mind, even as he tumbled and whirled in the plunge pool.

***

“I bet I can swim all the way across and back,” Hered boasted.

“No you can’t,” Kowan replied, laughing. Hered was the bigger of them, a year older. Kowan looked up to him, both for his daring and his kindness. The two were fast friends, closer than Kowan was to his brother, at least at that age.

“Watch me then!” With that, Hered set off. Neither of them had ever left the safety of the bank side pool. Kowan’s mother made him promise to stay there every time she gave permission for him to go down to the river.

Hered’s strokes were powerful. He was a good swimmer and easily made it to the midpoint. As he crossed to the other side, the current carried him ever closer to the falls. Kowan held his breath, but it quickly became obvious Hered wasn’t in danger.

When he surfaced on the other side, the boy pulled himself up on the bank, laughing. Kowan cheered. “Alright,” Hered replied, resting for only a few seconds, “now for the return trip.”

He jumped in and began swimming. Only this time, he wasn’t moving as fast and had started further down stream. He’ll make it, Kowan thought, fighting desperation.

But he didn’t. Hered came up for a breath, realized his danger, and began swimming even harder. It wasn’t enough. Before Kowan could do anything, Hered slipped over the edge of the waterfall, disappearing.

Kowan ran along the bank, shouting for help. When he got to the overlook, he saw nothing. No Hered, no body, no sign. A few villagers ran down, and he explained what happened. A rescue party formed, but there was little they could do, not until the waterfall decided to let Hered go. Some old women who gathered said the waterfall was possessed with Darkness, that it had consumed Hered. Kowan didn’t know if the Darkness had anything to do with it, but the current finally released Hered’s body, and the village men immediately pulled it from the river. He was battered and broken, his corpse a mockery of its former strength and vitality.

Agony in Kowan’s lungs forced him out of his reverie. This is how Hered felt. All around, the water swirled erratically. A darker blackness returned to his vision. It became harder to fight the urge to breathe. This is how Hered died. This is how you die. Kowan opened his mouth, unable to fight the impulse. He dimly felt the foam’s fishy taste on his tongue, then breathed in violently.

***

“A villager, mayhap?” a voice asked, sounding far away in darkness.

“No, I don’t think he was such,” a lighter, bright voice replied. “Look at his clothes. They are far too finely wrought to be a peasant’s.” After a pause, the woman’s voice grew closer. “In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such raiment. It looks like an arming doublet, but whatever armor it goes under must be fine indeed. You don’t suppose—”

Kowan coughed, expelling water out his nose and mouth. He tried to open his eyes, but was only able to draw them open half way. Two silhouettes stood above him, the taller outlined in black, the shorter in gold.

“Ah, he survived Terros Falls,” the golden lined woman said with a laugh. “Good. Tie him up. If he is what I think, he’ll fetch a pretty ransom.”

____

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