Artemis stepped into the water, welcoming the chill of it as it wrapped around her legs, granting her something else miserable to concentrate on. It was no worse than the creeping loneliness wrapping around her heart.
The waves pushed back gently as she trudged through the shallows towards the glowing, underwater orb. The shredded tresses of her once beautiful dress pulled in the dark water behind her – soaked through and heavy. A foreboding feeling whispered for her to turn back to shore before she was even further in over her head, but even shore didn't seem that appealing or safe anymore.
Above her, nearly invisible against the black sky, Ashent circled quietly. The occasional flap of his ebony wings was lost behind the soft whispering of the waves, but she knew he was watching...and waiting.
The water deepened, and seemed intent on making her swim for the sentia. She shivered again as it tickled her ribs.
"Hurry, human," Ashent said from above.
She pulled to a slow, purposeful stop. "Artemis..." she said without thought, annoyance catching in her voice for the first time. She caught him circling in front of her, coming in from the right. "You know my name."
The black dragon did another eerie pass in front of the moon, gliding effortlessly on his giant wings and no breeze to help him. As he passed and adjusted and turned, his sharp green eye stayed glued to her. From the slight crinkle on the bridge of his horned nose and the flare of his nostrils, she could tell that he didn't take her tone lightly.
The next pass he did was so low that it conjured a wave that slapped up against her shoulder and licked her cheek uncomfortably. She knew he was doing it on purpose, but stayed where she was.
"Are you threatening me?" he asked when Artemis didn't move.
It honestly hadn't been her intention, but the question revealed something unexpectedly crucial – he needed her. She was necessary for this task. He couldn't get his father's sentia without her.
How frustrating must that have been for him? Mere feet from his father's last gift but unable to grasp it simply because of a skimpy layer of water. And she knew if any water was absorbed into that special platelet at the back of his throat that stored his spark – even before it had been lit – he would never be able to breathe fire.
So she stood her ground. "No," she answered quietly. "I just want you to use my name."
The black dragon swung around to face her with a quick flip, angling his wings to keep him in place while he hovered above the water. "Why should I do that?" he inquired, turning his head away like the idea was putrid.
It was now or never for Artemis. "Because I'm going to get the sentia for you. It’s what you want, right?"
It was a scary thought, but the only bargaining chip she had. What sort of gift had the Greatfather left for his only son? What sort of destructive force was she promising him?
Illuminated by the moonlight, the edge of his maw lifted into what could have been a snarl, but no sound escaped him. She tried not to shrink away too noticeably. "Just my name," she dared to affirm, her confidence quickly fading. "Nothing more."
Was it really too much to ask?
Many uncomfortable moments passed between them while she stood – meek and shivering – in the water with the swirling mist from his wings plastering to her face and arms. The dark dragon seemed to be having more issues with the request than she meant for him to have, but she took the silence as a hopeful sign. The only alternative for the extended quiet was that he was thinking up ways to torture her once she departed from the water.
Even if the latter was the case, he was going to call her by her name before she exited the ocean.
Finally, his jaws opened and Artemis held her breath.
"Fine, Artemis," he said, the end of her name rolling off his tongue with a gentle hiss that sent a shiver up her spine.
She started, and felt for a moment that she might be hearing things. He was actually agreeing to her shaky attempt at compromise? Since when had any human accomplished that with a black dragon? Her chest swelled strangely with satisfaction, but she took a deep breath in to combat it.
Ashent turned sharply and pushed away from her. "Just don't go demanding respect next."
A slight, bothersome smile was trying to etch itself onto her lips, so she moved with her head down the last few feet to the sentia. "So selfish of me, right?" she mumbled under her breath, coming to the edge of the light.
The thought of the small orb was momentarily forgotten when Ashent let out an unexpectedly loud laugh, knocking him down several notches in the air. Artemis froze, unable to comprehend what she'd just witnessed.
It was only in the silence after his laughter that she realized he had overheard her and had found it funny. Slowly, hoping not to chase this revelation away, she turned her gaze back to the white glow under the water.
Was there some aspect of him that she had overlooked? Was it possible – however small the chance – that Ashent had some positive traits worth measuring?
Artemis pushed the thoughts aside when Ashent glided closer, realizing that she had not yet held up her end of the bargain and was probably irritating him. His previous amusement was all but gone already, so before he could comment she dipped under the chilly water and descended toward blazing white orb.
The light of the sentia and the light of the moon above were the only two sources to guide her in the blackness, but luckily the tiny ball wasn't too deep. When her hand landed on its smooth surface, the warmth of it was startling. The power within must have been astonishing to withstand the cold of the ocean for so long.
Grasping it tightly with one hand and tugging, it came free from its seat in the slimy rocks with a gentle click, leaving only its shallow bowl. It was a simple task – for her.
Artemis pushed up gently and broke the surface. Ashent's closeness startled her, but apparently something about her was just as startling too, because he let out a roar and pushed mightily away. She wiped her face hastily, confused. He continued to weave nervously around her like he was patrolling an unconfirmed perimeter, coming no closer.
Clearing her throat, she called. "What's wrong?"
"You burned me, human!" he snapped from afar. Apparently their deal still had some fine print to establish. "How are you holding that!?"
Artemis withdrew the shining orb close her body, bewildered. "What do you mean?"
"It burns like the hottest fire! Do you have senses!?"
She tried to hide her offended tone. "It doesn't burn."
Artemis sighed and let her unoccupied hand fall into the water with a splash.
"I'm telling you the truth. It's not hot," she said, trying to offer it again to prove her point, but the dark prince tilted even further away and let out a startled shriek.
Jumping in surprise and even a little bit in guilt, she quickly retracted it in close again. Now she was starting to believe him.
Artemis gazed down into the pale blue light. It looked like a captured bundle of stars held within its tiny shell. There was nothing that looked or felt remotely dangerous about it. The orb was pleasantly comfortable to the touch, like a handshake.
Ashent was clearly dead-set on keeping away from his father's sentia though, so she headed back to the beach. She was eager to get out of the cold water and hold the warm object close, especially if it could keep the black dragon at bay.