Crocodilian ~ Chapter 12
Tales of Havek: Volume One | Duration: 12 Minutes 56 Seconds
XII: (Un)Settling Connections
Ian Merstellar waded through knee-high water holding a lamp aloft in one hand. Thunder roiled the skies over the coast where he’d been only hours before. He’d taken a shortcut straight through the swamp, but the water level continued to rise even this far inland. He stumbled and fell against a thin mangrove, remaining there with one shoulder leaning up against it, gritting his teeth in pain. The injured arm was still wrapped tightly in a cast of thick bandages, and rain soaked it through causing it to grow heavier as time went on. He peered through the sheet of rainfall and was surprised to see one of two things he’d ventured back into the swamp to find.
The cabin was a black smudge of ink upon an already caliginous canvas that was the clearing, but Ian recognized it. The nigh eternal torture and agony he’d endured within his fever dreams made the return trek seem like an afternoon stroll by comparison. Although, the lingering threat of man-eating crocodiles had nevertheless hastened his pace.
A figure stood midway in the clearing. Ian ignored it. He knew who it was, he’d seen it out of the corner of his eye ever since waking up in that bedroom back in Yonledo. The figure had blocked the doorway, and so Ian instead grabbed the bedside lamp and leaped from the window. Thankfully, the deep water had buffeted his fall. Still, the figure appeared to him and Ian refused to acknowledge its existence as best he could. He so desperately needed to ignore it, for the man it represented was dead and there was no possible way it could be real. The figure now stood in the exact same location as when Ian had first clambered out of the river—a river he had the sole right to name come to think of it.
The clearing was slightly raised compared to the surrounding marshland, a fine place to build a cabin. Ian made his way up to the structure, which he could now see was more dilapidated than he’d previously thought. Two of the three steps leading up to the porch were broken but he hooked the lamp to his belt and managed to pull himself up using a support column for the roof. It was nice to step out of the rain. He stood there for a moment, dripping wet, scanning the front of the property. The cabin was old and run down, but he knew it hadn’t always looked this way. Ian considered what the cabin would’ve looked like before the elements had taken their toll and was quite impressed at the craftsmanship of the late hunter, especially given that Ian had never built anything in his life.
The door wasn’t latched. It swung open with a soft nudge. Inside, it smelled of mold and mildew. There were small holes in the ceiling where water spilled through in miniature waterfalls and the sound filled the interior like a cave. He determined his steps carefully, aware that the wooden floor was likely rotted and would send him careening below if he wasn’t careful. Other than a few handmade chairs and what he supposed had once been a feline fur rug, the cabin was sparsely decorated. There was a bathroom chamber that emanated a foul odor, so he avoided it. He stopped at a closed door near the back where he noticed the structure had been severely damaged by something other than time and the elements, something big. It had forced its way through, creating large punctures in the wood paneling and scrapes along the floor that were larger than Ian’s arm. He didn’t want to know what had caused them, but he figured he had a pretty good idea.
Opening the door, he discovered a mostly empty bedroom with a small cot against the wall on one side. The dark figure stood in the corner of the room, watching him. Ian approached the cot cautiously, the floorboards soft underfoot. Bending down, he reached under the cot to pull free a travel bag that had remained intact for the most part. Using his functional hand, he rifled through the old city clothes and at first was disappointed, but then his hand brushed something solid. Ian grabbed it and sat on the bed.
Unhooking the lamp, he placed the light on the window sill next to the cot. He sat there listening to the heavy rainfall as he stared at the journal in his hand. Ian was suddenly afraid of what he might find inside it. He didn’t want it to be real, even though it was why he’d come to the cabin in the first place. He needed to understand who the hunter had really been, to learn about the man he’d killed and why he’d dreamed of him so vividly, why he still lurked at the edges of his consciousness.
The figure stepped out of the corner and came closer, its bare feet making no sound on the decaying floorboards.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Ian said.
The dark figure of Unkel Bo didn’t respond. Ian looked directly at the man and saw him clearly but wasn’t sure how much of the details were his own mind filling in the gaps. The figure was dry despite having been out in the falling rain and rising tide the entire way back to the cabin with him. Ian wondered if this figure was a ghost haunting him for what he’d done, or simply a figment of his own guilty conscience.
Ian opened the leather-bound journal to the first crinkled page and began reading:
Embertide ~ 10337
I don’t know where to begin or why I’m even writing this. I have no one to talk to I suppose. Which many believe is my fault in the first place and Burg they’d be right. I take responsibility for what I did. I know I messed up. But I can’t face the noose, I can’t let it end that way. Go ahead and call me a coward but my family would want me to find a way to keep their memories living on. I just know it.
Ian felt an ominous feeling about what he was reading, especially with the date so close to the date he’d lost his parents. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions or make any false determinations about what Unkel had done, so he kept reading:
I fled Asyrema after that night. I ran away from my old life and joined an underground branch of the Hunter’s Guild. One of the guys there might’ve known who I was but didn’t rat me out. He told me about the lady of the swamp, the one that heals your mind of all the terrible things. I needed something crazy like that. Something to get rid of the images of the fire that torment me every night.
“The fire?” Ian asked Unkel, but didn’t get a response. The coincidences were starting to pile up. He quickly scanned the page and found what he was looking for:
I pray to the Almighty that my little ones are in a better place. I pray that the people I killed in that building aren’t suffering. I pray that the little boy that survived is okay and somehow knows that what I did wasn’t on purpose and I’d take it back in a heartbeat if I could. I’d exchange my own life to take it all back.
Ian snapped the journal closed and stood from the cot. Tears streamed down his cheeks, glistening in the lamp light. He found himself staring at his boots. He couldn’t look directly at the man that had killed his parents, even if it was an accident.
“I forgave you a long time ago for what you did. I always wondered what happened to the man that caused the fire. But I would’ve ran away, too. I would’ve gone to the edge of the world like you did. Who could blame you? You lost everyone you loved, too.”
Unkel Bo was silent.
“We’re a lot alike, you know. Our lives were forever altered that night, our families ripped from us. We were both left to wander aimlessly and pretend like everything was normal, forced to make fake connections with people who’d never understand our pain. Yet, here we are, the two of us. It’s almost like we were fated to cross paths, destined to change each other's lives until the very end. Sort of like… family.”
Unkel Bo lowered his gaze and raised an arm, pointing at Ian’s side. Ian looked down at the cast which had grown very heavy. The wet rags were swelled to nearly double their size. The pain in his arm had faded but he couldn’t recall when that had happened. He put the journal away in his jacket and began to unwrap the bandages. It wasn’t until halfway through the unwrapping that he noticed it wasn’t the rags that had swollen, but the arm itself. Ian hesitated. The first thing that popped into his mind was infection and amputation, but he continued on.
The skin was lumpy and poked up against the final layer, its color odd against the clingy, damp cloth. He peeled off the last layer and wondered if he were still within one of those waking nightmares where the men with axes had dismembered him and the fawning crowds had suffocated him. With wide eyes, he lifted his arm to examine the dark green scales that had formed around the scabbing tooth marks. He flexed a fist and a faint burning sensation pulsed up to his shoulder, but the bone was no longer broken from what he could tell.
“Family,” the voice of Unkel Bo said in a hiss.
Ian jerked his arm back down and the figure was no longer in the room. He unconsciously took a step back and his leg buckled against the cot right behind him. He collapsed onto the cot and the floor groaned under the sudden weight. The rotting floorboards decided enough was enough and gave way. Ian clung to the cot as it was sucked into a darkness beneath the decrepit cabin. It landed with a splat in the mud and slurped as the corner legs sank further into the porous ground.
The lamp hadn’t come with him. It was pitch black. Hissing erupted all around, in every direction. He immediately stood, trying to pull himself up into the bedroom, but the floorboards broke off into his hands like clumps of dried clay. Something brushed against his leg which caused him to literally jump. His chest hit the edge of the crater that had formed in the cabin floor. He clawed at the crevices between the planks and successfully pulled his upper half into the room, but his feet still dangled. Ian took in a deep breath and heaved, pulling the remaining portion of his body out of the den of whatever lived beneath the cabin. He laid there panting with his cheek resting on the floor.
No sooner than when Ian felt the welcoming embrace of safety had the integrity of the structure’s foundation groaned. A loud crack reverberated in the small room.
“Uh oh. Please don’t,” Ian pleaded to the harsh, unforgiving soul of the cabin.
The entire floor gave way and he plummeted once more into the darkness below. A cacophony of broken, splintering wooden beams filled his ears. He landed with a smack, the wetness of slick mud soaking into his pant legs. The aggravated hissing returned, even more violent this time. White teeth clamped down into a plank next to his head and snapped it in two as something else crawled across the lower half of his body. Ian wanted to scream but he couldn’t find a bit of breath in his lungs. On the verge of hyperventilating, he rolled onto his stomach and searched for the way out.
Ian could hear the rain falling not too far from him, only a few feet, and the faint light of the stars reflected off the watery sheen atop the soil. With his head down, Ian dragged himself forward, his elbows sinking into the sludge. A crash erupted behind him but he didn’t dare look back. Hand over hand, he gained momentum, inching closer and closer to freedom. Something grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled hard, sliding him across the mud. He jerked and found knuckled fingers attached to human hands clutching his jacket tightly, pulling him free from the abyssal lair. More hissing spilled out from the space under the cabin and two green crocs emerged, their jaws agape. More could be heard jostling under the broken wood.
“Back,” the rescuer said. “Get back.”
Ian thought his rescuer was talking to him, but the slender fellow stalked straight toward the small crocodiles and he yelled at them some more. They slowly retreated into the shadows, their spiked tails curling outward before disappearing completely. The man regarded Ian, squinting through the rain. He pressed a forefinger to the space between his eyes, just where the bridge began, then shook his hand angrily as if upset that he’d done it. Ian raised up on his elbows, too shaken to get to his feet, and the wiry man moved to hover over him.
“Well I’ll be,” he said. “You too, eh?”
Ian glanced down at what the man was looking at and saw the green scales that had formed along his arm. He’d forgotten. His hopes that this was another dream began to fade and reality set in like a cold, wet blanket.
“Oh, now I get it. You must be the one that killed the old man. He passed on his gift to you before you did him in though. Clever. You know it’s not all that bad. I’ve never felt better really.” The man fiddled with a large-brimmed hat that looked vaguely familiar. “What were you doing flopping around in a croc nest? Not the safest thing to do at night, or any time really. Everyone knows that. Even if they’re basically family.”
The word family hit Ian like a stone to the chest. The dark figure of Unkel Bo had spoken the word aloud. Or had he imagined it? Ian didn’t know what was real anymore.
“I was… looking for something,” Ian said. He felt at his jacket again and found the shape of the journal still there. He felt relieved he hadn’t lost it.
“In a croc nest?”
“No, no. That was an accident. I was looking for something from a vision that I had.”
The man stooped closer, the hat basically shielding Ian from the heavy rainfall. “Now that’s interesting indeed. Pray tell, new brother.”
Ian wasn’t sure if he could trust this man, but he had saved his life much like Richta had. What better first impression was there? Although, the brother thing was a little strange. But, he figured there was no need to hide the truth.
“I’m not really sure what it is, to be honest. It appeared to me as a large clump of mangroves, beating like a heart, or something.”
The man smiled. “Ah, I saw the same thing when I, uh, turned. I know exactly what you’re looking for.”
“Yup! I can take you there, new brother.” The man held out an open hand and Ian took it, standing.
“Please, call me Ian.”
“Alright, brother Ian. I’m Tyvno. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Now, follow me.”
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