Thing: Part Five
Xana couldn't tell whether the screaming she had heard had been her own, or someone else's. It had all come and gone so blindingly quickly. She had been trying to jump from one stone to the next, and all of a sudden the current had tightened its iron grip around her ankles that she had been able to resist for only so long, and she had fallen into the freezing, black depths of the river.
Now the current was pulling her down, down, down, and there was nothing she could do. She didn't know whether she was crying; she didn't even know if her eyes were open. Open or closed, it was exactly the same. Endless, confusing, terrifying blackness.
She couldn't move a muscle; the cold had paralysed her. Her head felt light and the water roared in her ears, but she barely heard it. If she concentrated, really, really listened, she could hear her owner screaming. Screaming out her name over and over, crying her heart out with pain and terror as she knew the situation was beyond her control. She couldn't swim, couldn't save her. This was hurting Sango more than it was even hurting her.
She couldn't hurt her like this. She could never live with that burden weighing her down.
Forcing her paralysed arms to move again, she began to swim what she hoped was towards the surface. Suddenly, the roaring in her ears disappeared and warmth rushed through her. She opened her eyes to find she had broken the surface. She took in a gasp of precious, welcoming air, already regaining the willpower to fight against the current as it wrapped its frigid hands around her ankles and tried to pull her back under. She wrapped her trembling hands around a branch, the sharp splinters of wood scoring deep scratches in the palms of her paws, and cried out.
The chaos around her was unbelievable. The Thing was running up and down the river bank, his cries a mixture of whimpering, howling and frantic barking. And there was Sango running to her, a haunted, terrified look in her eyes, her face streaked with tears and dirt. She fell to her knees at the river's edge and stretched out, trying to reach her and pull her to safety. But her efforts were in vain, and all she managed to do was scratch the palms of her hands as she lost her own grip and nearly slipped in, snatching at the jagged rocks jutting out of the river bank to pull herself back onto the land.
"Xana!!" she screamed, "XANA!!"
Xana was crying now, and her shouts were unintelligible as she fought against the furious current, hanging to the frail branch for dear life.
"Just hang on!" Sango yelled. "Don't let go! I'll be right back!"
Xana couldn't reply; her throat had closed up, filled with frigid water that raked at the back of her throat like razor-sharp, pointed claws. Her senses were slowly dimming as her head grew lighter and her grip on the branch loosened.
Give up... It's not worth it... Just give up, let go...
Colour bled back into her ivory knuckles as she relaxed her grip on the branch. She let her head hang down, and the water lapped at her fringe and plastered it to her forehead, and filled her mouth as she desperately gasped for what she knew would be her last, precious breath of fresh, sweet air.
She let go, and the current eagerly snatched at her and pulled her down the river, as if carrying a precious trophy it had won at a competition it had cunningly cheated on.
She was letting Sango down, but she knew that, either way, she would never win. It was as if the winner of the deadly one-on-one contest had been fixed from the very beginning.
Every now and again, she would find herself submerged in the sea of abysmal black all over again, only to be thrown back up to the surface moments later. Branches from overhanging trees clawed at her as she was pulled away from them, too late to reach out and hold on, and rocks jutting out from the water would slam into her sides and back. As a natural reflex, she would snatch at them, but all she would receive for her efforts was painful fingertips as the hard rock grazed her skin.
Slowly, all the familiar sights, the golden cobblestone path, the beds of colour lilies, began to disappear, and were replaced by darkness, towering trees that blocked out the light and stained the forest scene with black like a broken fountain pen dripping ink onto a canvas, spreading and soaking into the material in huge, ugly blotches. When the current pulled her back into the darkness, she didn't resist. She was beyond trying to change her fate.
And then something happened. She wouldn't call it a miracle - it was just... something.
First, there was a sort of numbed-pain in her arm, and she was yanked back up to the surface. She opened her eyes and greedily drank in the cold, refreshing air. She wasn't moving quite as fast, though perhaps that part was her imagination. It was almost like there was some force she couldn't see pulling her against the current with all the strength it could muster. Like... like it wanted to save her. But nothing -- no one -- wanted to save her.
And then the sound of growling reached her ears, and she looked down to find the Zomutt pup fighting against the brutal waves alongside her, her arm in his jaws as he tried to tow her back to land. Feeling she should help him at least a little, she forced her free hand to hold onto his collar, and slowly eased her other hand away from his grip to hold onto it as well. Blood roared in her ears as the frantic little creature fought against the current, risking his own life to save her.
Even after she had rejected him so many times. Even after she had been so horrible to him for something that was in no way his fault.
She didn't deserve this. She deserved to be swept down the river to Fyora-knows-where for what she had done. New tears streamed down her face. Not the typical tears of terror and pain - tears of guilt.
The pup clambered onto the bank and waited until she was safe on dry land before shaking the water from his grey fur and lying down, panting heavily. Exhaustion was painted on the young Zomutt's face and his legs were shaking. Xana collapsed on the grass, trembling all over as silent tears gushed down her dirt-streaked face. She wanted to speak, to at least thank the pup (even though he wouldn't understand her), but every time she tried to all she could do was cough and choke as those razor-sharp claws returned with a vengeance to tear at her throat. She was freezing cold, but her throat and eyes burned as if fires raged inside them, and she could still hear the blood as it roared in her ears, blocking out all the other sounds of the now tranquil forest. Her hair hung down freely, dripping wet and plastered across her face and neck.
She wasn't sure how long she lay there, but when she felt her strength returning she tried to sit up. She almost fell down as her legs gave way beneath her like sheets of paper, but she tried again, determined. She stumbled across to a tree and collapsed against the trunk as vertigo clouded her brain and made her head swim.
Where was Sango? "Be right back"? Yeah, right.
When her head finally began to clear, she looked across at the pup. It was amazing, truly amazing; he had already regained every ounce of his strength and puppyish playfulness, and was pawing at a Larnikin as it scuttled across the grass in front of him. He knocked it over a couple of times, but his own strength shocked him and he would hop back, watching in awe as it rolled back over and continued on its journey. When he saw her looking at him, his tail began to wag furiously and he trotted across to her, his head tilted to one side and a friendly grin on his face.
He sat next to her, and placed his two front paws on her lap. She stroked his head sheepishly.
Before she knew it, he had hauled himself up onto her lap and had rested his head on his paws, and she was leaning over and breathing in his soft, musty scent, stroking him and scratching him behind his ears, which would send his tail thumping against her leg. He tilted up his head and licked her nose, and she laughed. It was just a little laugh, and the pain in her throat was bearable.
"Xana! Oh, Xana, you're okay!!"
And then Sango was running towards her. There was a length of rope bundled into her arms and she had to crane her neck to look over it. When she saw Xana, she threw it onto the ground and stumbled across the stepping stones, racing to her pet, all the while shouting her name over and over as she sobbed with happiness. She threw herself down onto the ground next to her and pulled her into her chest, stroking her wet hair and rocking her. Xana clung to her, crying tears of relief.
"It's over, honey," she repeated over and over again, "It's all over."
To be continued...