Sam stared bug-eyed at the water pouring down the cracks above like three small waterfalls filling up the space around him with fresh water — at least he hoped it was freshwater. He’d had enough of sewage to last him a lifetime.
He could hear his heart pounding loudly in his chest, and he wondered if this was what it felt like to be more than deathly afraid. Even with all the things he’d been through this past month, drowning had to be at the top of his list of most terrifying deaths.
At least swimming through that damn shadow wasn’t actually being in the water, he reasoned.
Few people knew this about Sam, but he was deathly afraid of large bodies of water. It was an irrational sort of fear, one born from his memories of watching way too many killer shark movies with his parents when he was younger. In fact, a sixteen-year-old Sam had once gone diving in the Philippine Sea, and despite a moment’s delight of watching the tiny, colorful fish swimming around him, Sam got so frightened by the vast emptiness of what he’d seen over the horizon that he’d swam right up without equalizing and caused his ears to bleed from the pressure.
Help! His brain screamed.
At that moment, his hero did come to Sam’s rescue. Thunder grasped at his arm, forcing Sam’s irrational fear to the back of his mind.
“We have to go,” She pulled him toward the dome’s entrance. “Now, Sam!”
They ran toward the portal by the north side of the dome while their feet sloshed through the knee-deep water. However, the closer they got to the entrance the more they realized it was no longer there. That empty elevator-sized darkness was gone, replaced by another side of glass that led to nowhere. Farsight and Jackboot were standing shoulder to shoulder by that glass wall, and Sam could see it in their faces, the anxiety of knowing they were trapped.
“Don’t tell me—”
“Portal’s gone...” Jackboot said.
“I asked you not to tell me that,” Sam sighed.
The water was past their knees now. The dome was filling up much too quickly.
“Now what?” Thunder asked.
There was a brief moment of panicked silence before Farsight suggested the unthinkable.
“We could always go up,” she reasoned.
“Up...?” Sam’s eyes drifted back to the cracks above which were now just big gaping holes. They were untapped faucets pouring out cold water down onto Sam and his friends. “You don’t mean...”
“You can actually see light filtering down to us, which probably means the surface isn’t terribly high up,” Farsight explained. “We can make it... I think... unless anyone here can’t swim?”
Sam’s eyes were suddenly glued to the floor as he was afraid her scrutinizing gaze would catch the worry reflected in them. He knew how to swim, of course, but swimming in a pool and swimming underneath this huge body of water they were in were two entirely different things.
“Master,” Sam called in an undertone. “I don’t suppose the system can help me breathe underwater...?”
No such luck, kid, Chiron answered. Unless you suddenly grow gills or unlock a power related to it, then you’re going to have to just swim as fast as you can...
Chiron might have sensed the growing unease within Sam because he did add something that helped to lift the hero’s spirits.
You’ve got the power for it so it shouldn’t be difficult to blast through the water like a rocket, Chiron reminded Sam. Just don’t forget to equalize on your way up, kid... and remember lesson number eight, courage isn’t the absence of fear—
“It’s the will to step forward despite the quaking in your boots,” Sam finished.
He’d spoken the whole thing as soon as Chiron mentioned lesson number eight, and Jackboot, who’d heard him, said, “That’s deep, mate... Did you write that stuff down first or was it all from the top of your head?”
“Um, it’s something my master used to tell me,” Sam answered.
“You have a master?” Jackboot asked.
“He does. We all do,” Thunder jumped into Sam’s rescue. “Is that not a thing in the U.K.?”
“Not that I recall,” Jackboot answered. “We’re usually done with teachers and training after we get our license. The whole process is ridiculously challenging enough, as is.”
“I’m sure the intricacies of the British superhero experience are riveting,” Farsight’s tone sounded like that hearing about it was the farthest thing from riveting in her mind, “But you’re all aware that the water’s up to our bellybuttons now, right? We need to get out of here!”
Actually, the icy-cold water was way too close to their chest now for Sam’s liking.
“Jack, can you take Ash up there with you?” Sam asked.
Yep, Sam had learned to put the fear in the back burner of his mind whenever the call for action came. He’d become that kind of man of action, a hero through and through.
“Yeah, mate,” Jackboot offered Farsight his hand. “I’ve got her... what about you and Thunder?”
Sam had already hooked his arms around her waist.
“You know I can do this on my own, right?” Thunder gave him a wry smile.
“Hold on,” Sam insisted, returning her smile with a wide grin of his own.
The water was around his chest now.
Sam gave the Achelous automaton one last look, and only then did he notice that the giant bronze statue was nowhere in sight.
“Sam!” Thunder hissed into his ear.
The water was past their chests now.
“Alright, alright...” Sam took in a deep breath, and then he said, “Herculean.”
It was little more than a whisper, and yet the water around him began to recede momentarily as an aura of power burst out from his body.
|[Herculean (Δ)] is now active. Based on probability and threat assessment calculations, your current Strength is temporarily doubled. .|
“Seriously... that’s all I get?” Sam sighed.
“Sam!” Thunder snapped.
“Okay, okay... Now, go limp,” Sam ordered.
He bent his knees and then using the extra energy coursing through him —lightning racing around his veins like a shock — Sam launched them into the air.
“Apollo, help!” Sam prayed while the wind buffeted his face.
He could feel Thunder’s arms tighten around him, and despite his anxiety bubbling up to the surface of his mind, Sam didn’t dislike the feeling at all.
Get it together, idiot, his brain scolded him. Now’s not the time for these thoughts...
Mere seconds had passed from ground to air, and now they were mere inches from the dome’s glass surface. In his rush to launch them forward, Sam had forgotten to aim for one of the three watery holes in the glass. Now he wasn’t sure his strength would be enough to punch a hole through the dome because there was a big possibility that the glass was made of sterner stuff than the easily breakable kind. After all, it made sense that a stronger material was necessary to withstand the pressures of the deep.
“I’ve got this,” Thunder insisted.
Sam didn’t think electricity and water would mix well, but Thunder hadn’t actually summoned the lightning this time. Instead, with strength Sam didn’t know she possessed, Thunder punched through the glass and opened the way for them.
Sam had a second to look shocked while Thunder gave him the ‘I used to have Triple-A too’ look before they plunged into the water like they’d dived into it from upside down. Then all silly thoughts were drained from Sam’s mind as all his focus was overwhelmed by a single notion; survive!
They sped up like a bullet streaking through the water that did its utmost to drag them back down. Still, Sam managed to propel them up, up, and away, until, finally, he could see the light above like Farsight said he would. That’s when their momentum slowed, however, and he was suddenly flailing in that deep blue underwater ride without a paddle.
Come on, kid! Chiron encouraged him. Just a little more!
With one hand still holding onto Thunder, Sam swam upward. Of course, she was helping too, and it might have been Thunder’s efforts that kept them in the right direction. Sam might have just drifted them sideways. He was that terrible at swimming underwater.
Then Sam saw something move at the corner of his eye, causing his gaze to drift sideward. It was way too dark down in the deep, but he could almost see something move across the horizon. It looked large and scaly and way too long to have been Jackboot and Farsight.
The thought of sharks and drowning flooded into Sam’s brain, causing his flailing to get more erratic. This prompted Thunder to whack him hard on the shoulder.
He saw the judgment in her eyes and quieted down, although his chest was still beating like a drum solo at a rock concert. Obviously, this did nothing to for his lungs which at that moment were nearing their limit for holding Sam’s breath.
Even worse, Sam’s mind recalled another one of the priestesses’ old teachings, the one about the ‘guardians’ who protect the last vestiges of the wilds across the world. These chosen ones of Pan, god of the wilds, who Sam had heard were creatures of myth and legend. Creatures like... A water dragon...
Through the water, Sam heard a sound akin to a sonic boom coming from his right, causing his whole body to drift toward it automatically.
Nope, it was just Jackboot and Farsight. They zoomed past Sam and Thunder like a pair of rabbits in a turtle race. Jackboot snapped his feet against the water like it was actually solid and then they were double jumping higher and higher up the depths as if they were jumping from one watery platform to another.
Just before they lost sight of her, Sam and Thunder saw Farsight pointing down in a very urgent manner, forcing their attention to glance that way.
There it was, a great, big yellow eye shining in the darkness. It blinked and then was gone from their sights.
If Sam could utter words he would have probably screamed. It was the one advantage of them being stuck in the water. Thunder wouldn’t have heard him shrieking like a child then and there.
Still, the sight of that big yellow eye sent Sam’s panic into overdrive. And in a fit of this same panic, Sam did something he’d never done before. He formed a fist with his free hand, and after channeling all his strength into it, he snapped his fingers open. The pressure that exploded out of his palm was like a rocket’s propulsion engines suddenly bursting to life, and then he and Thunder were zooming upward so fast that Sam’s ears began to hurt.
With a splash, their heads cleared the water, and they found themselves staring up at a starry night sky that was so clear of obstruction that they instinctively knew that they were nowhere near the city.
They were near the middle of a large body of water stretching for miles around them. In the far distance, there was a bank of dirt and trees and wild grass.
“I think...” Thunder was still catching her breath. “...I think... we’re in... Lake Michigan...”
“The wilds...” Sam thought out loud.
“Sam!” Jackboot called.
He and Farsight were waving at them from the small island in the very center of the lake.
“Swim to us!” he yelled. “Hurry, mate!”
A shadow blocked out the light.
Sam heard the splash of water bursting outward, and then a great wave crashed down on him and Thunder, forcing them back into the water where they held on to each other while they rolled underneath the waves.
They’d managed to rise up a second time, both of them gasping for air.
“Swim, you idiots!” Farsight screamed.
That’s when they saw it. A fin had risen up from the depths near to where they swam. It was a pale blue hue, over ten feet high, and had a width that was twice as wide.
“We have to go,” Thunder gasped.
“Hold on to me!” Sam ordered.
He would later claim that it was instinct that drove him on when he’d snapped his feet against the water, and suddenly, they were soaring up into the air, and for the first time in his life, Sam imagined he was actually flying.