IREACTEDquicker to the flames than Harkat - I'd been badly burnt many years earlier, and had no wish to suffer the same fate again. I hurled myself into the Little Person, knocked him clear of the blast and rolled after him. As the flames zipped past us, out over the water of the Lake - momentarily illuminating the faces of the dead trapped within - I reached for a globe and hurled it at the ground beneath the dragon. There was a large explosion and the dragon peeled away, roaring - this was his first exposure to our explosives.
"Hurry!" I shouted at Harkat. "Give me your globes, grab the net and fish your soul out!"
"I don't know how - to fish!" Harkat howled.
"There's no better time to learn!" I bellowed, then threw another globe as one of the females swooped upon us.
Harkat swiftly unloaded his globes and laid them on the ground by my feet. Then, grabbing Spits's abandoned net, he pulled it out of the Lake, paused a moment to clear his thoughts, and slowly fed the net in. As he did, he muttered softly, "I seek my soul, spirits - of the dead. I seek my soul, spirits - of the dead. I seek my?"
"Don't talk!" I yelled. "Fish!"
"Quiet!" Harkat hissed. "This is the way. I sense it. I must call upon my soul to - lure it into the net."
I wanted to ask how he'd figured that out, but there was no time - the male and both females were attacking, the females from the left and right, the male floating out over the Lake, in front of us. Scaring off the females with two hastily thrown globes, I studied the dragon angling down towards the surface of the Lake. If I threw a globe at the Lake, it wouldn't burst. That meant I'd have to aim for the dragon itself, and possibly kill him. It seemed a shame, but there were no other options.
I was getting a fix on the dragon when an idea struck me. Hurling the globe out on to the water in front of the approaching beast, I grabbed a nearby pebble, took careful aim, and sent it flying at the globe. It struck just as the dragon was nearing the globe, showering the creature's face with a seething funnel of water.
The dragon pulled out of its attack and arced away into the air, screeching its frustration. The females almost sneaked in while I was dealing with the male, but I spotted them just in time and scattered them with another blast. While the dragons regrouped overhead, I did a quick globe count - eight remained, plus the vial.
I wanted to tell Harkat to hurry, but his face was knitted together fiercely as he bent over the net, whispering softly to the souls in the Lake, searching for the soul of the person he used to be. To disturb him would be to delay him.
The dragons attacked again, in the same formation as before, and once again I successfully repelled them, leaving myself with five lonely-looking globes. As I picked up three more, I considered aiming to kill - after these three, I'd be down to my final pair - but as I studied the dragons circling in the air, I was again struck by their awesome majesty. This was their world, not ours. We had no right to kill them. What if these were the only living dragons, and we wiped out an entire species just to save our own necks?
As the dragons attacked once more, I still wasn't sure what I intended to do with the explosive globes. Clearing my mind, I allowed my self-defence mechanism to kick in and make the choice for me. When I found my hands pitching the globes short of the dragons, scaring them off but not killing them, I nodded grimly. "So be it," I sighed, then called to Harkat, "I can't kill them. After the next attack, we're done for. Do you want to take the globes and?"
"I have it!" Harkat shouted, hauling ferociously on the net, the strings of which tightened and creaked alarmingly. "A few more seconds! Buy me just a - few more seconds!"
"I'll do what I can," I grimaced, then faced the dragons, which were homing in on us as before, patiently repeating their previous manoeuvre. For the final time I sent the females packing, then pulled out the vial, tossed it on to the surface of the Lake, and smashed it with a pebble. Some glass must have struck the male dragon when the vial exploded, because he roared with pain as he peeled away.
Now that there was nothing else to do, I hurried to Harkat and grabbed hold of the net. "It's heavy!" I grunted, feeling the resistance as we tugged.
"A whopper!" Harkat agreed, grinning crazily.
"Are you OK?" I roared.
"I don't know!" he shouted. "I'm excited but terrified! I've waited so long - for this moment, and I still - don't know what to expect!"
We couldn't see the face of the figure caught in the strands of the net - it was turned away from us - but it was a man, light of build, with what looked to be dirty blond hair. As we pulled the spirit out of the Lake, its form glittered, then became solid, a bit at a time, first a hand, then an arm, followed by its other hand, its head, chest ?
We had the rescued soul almost all the way out when I caught sight of the male dragon zooming towards us, his snout bleeding, pain and fury in his large yellow eyes. "Harkat!" I screamed. "We're out of time!"
Glancing up, Harkat spotted the dragon and grunted harshly. He gave the net one last desperate tug. The body in the net shot forward, its left foot solidifying and clearing the water with a pop similar to a gun's retort. As the dragon swooped down on us, its mouth closed, nostrils flaring, working on a fireball, Harkat spun the body over on to its back, revealing a pale, confused, horrified face.
"What the??" I gasped.
"It can't be!" Harkat croaked, as the man in the net - impossibly familiar - stared at us with terror-filled eyes.
"Harkat!" I roared. "That can't be who you were!" My gaze flicked to the Little Person. "Can it?"
"I don't know," Harkat said, bewildered. He stared at the dragon - now almost upon us - then down at the man lying shivering on the shore. "Yes!" he shouted suddenly. "That's me! I'm him! I know who I was! I?"
As the dragon opened its mouth and blew fire at us with all the force it could muster, Harkat threw his head back and bellowed at the top of his voice, "I was the vampire traitor ?Kurda Smahlt !"
Then the dragon's fire washed over us and the world turned red.