Crocodilian ~ Chapter 5
Tales of Havek: Volume One | Duration: 10 Minutes, 27 Seconds
V: (Un)Known Threats
Ian Merstellar had a tingling sensation at the back of his neck like he was being watched. There was also a bug crawling there, and he swiped it away, shivering. His boots splashed with each step, his shins and the bottom of his coat were soaked, although he was glad to be mostly dry now. The coastline was to his right and he’d been forced to go further into the swamp to avoid the deeper waters.
The sun had all but vanished, its faint afterglow leaking through patches in the canopy and its fiery remnants radiating on the distant horizon—what little Ian could see through the densely populated trees. The trees had become more tree-like than the squat, spindly root systems of the mangroves he’d been navigating in recent hours. Bulbous at their base, the trunks were like vases, wide at the bottom, then tapering upward into a thinner circumference.
Maybe this meant he was getting closer to Yonledo. He’d followed the hunter’s advice, turning left once he reached the ocean and its vast, endless dominance. It wasn’t often that he experienced the serenity of ocean waves. Any other time he would have figured out a way to camp there and revel in its glory for as long as the feeling lasted, but, alas, the fear of being eaten alive kept him moving. Nothing like the motivation brought on by the threat of death to get one where they needed to go.
It was nearing dark and he’d barely taken time to rest. The cup in his stomach was starting to fill once more. Ian could teleport ahead out of sheer convenience but he rationalized the conservation of as much Energy as possible. He’d need to get back to Asyrema City at some point, and sooner would be better than later.
A twig snapped behind him. Ian twisted in an attempt to catch the source of the disturbance. Crickets ceased their incessant chirping and the drone of white noise vanished, causing a wave of ominous silence to wash over him. A chill ran up his arms and legs. Something grunted just beyond his line of sight, followed by quick, successive scraping noises. Ian gulped.
Backing up, Ian’s boot snagged on a root protruding from the mud underneath the water’s surface. He fell backward with a splash, drenching himself all over again. A shrill howl erupted above him somewhere in the canopy. The howl devolved into something more akin to harsh cackling. It wasn’t human, Ian knew that for certain, but it was out there watching him, entertained by his clumsiness.
He pulled himself out of the water and fixed his hat, his shoulder aching from having tried to brace against the fall. The shadows were creeping in to settle for good. Night was upon him. The man named Unkel Bo had warned of the dangers of the swamp at night. Ian tried to recall what little wildlife he’d seen since arriving; a flock of gulls, a furry flat-billed animal with paddles for feet, and a robust frog that hopped away at first sight. Nothing overtly sinister came to mind. Except, when the howling returned, it sent a clear message that whatever was out there watching, it wasn’t yet finished with Ian.
Ian Merstellar picked up the pace despite the darkness obscuring a lot of what laid ahead. He used the thick tree trunks to guide him, pushing off of them as he skirted past. Glowing insects flickered in and out of existence, almost like they were teleporting from one part of his vision to another. Bioluminescent crawlers emerged from the sunken hideaways and crevices of the root systems to reach out antennae that sensed Ian’s presence. The swamp came alive in a way he’d never imagined it could; a hidden, secondary world that had waited patiently to emerge.
A crack rang out, followed by the cacophony of leaves brushing against one another as a branch fell from the canopy to splash in the water. A hooting call echoed in the night, coming from several different directions. Ian looked up and saw a pale figure careen between the branches above in a blur. His heart raced, thudding in his ears. Another grunt startled him. He turned to find a ghastly primate hanging above him from a low branch by two gangly arms, with two more arms wrapped around its waist in a perpetual hug. The eyes were completely black, and its mouth hung open with rows of jagged teeth. The most jarring feature was the hairless body: white bordering on pink, the excess skin sagging in places as if too large for the creature’s skeletal frame. These weren’t primates that he’d seen or heard of before. A new species to be catalogued and named.
From the side, another primate he hadn’t been aware of propelled itself at Ian. He ducked at just the right time, the bony hand missing his head. Unfortunately, the primate swiped his hat and screamed wildly as if it had won a great prize.
“No! You fiend,” Ian yelled. “Get back here!”
The connection to his Energy reserves was severed like scissors cutting through yarn. The hat was his conduit. It had been imprinted upon him at a young age, once belonging to a guardian figure but now his and his alone. He was suddenly powerless, the warmth from the cup fading to almost nothing. That was his source of happiness, his path to fame and riches, his means of escape when things got tough. All taken from him in an instant. His fear turned to anger. Anger turned into rage. He gained tunnel vision, only one objective in mind. What his tunnel vision caused Ian not to see was the bright glow of a solar lamp above him in the canopy.
The primate splashed through the water, waddling on its short lower legs, raising the hat above it like some sort of trophy. It rotated in what could only be described as a silly dance, its mouth twisted up in a mocking manner, letting out cooing noises. Its face contorted once it realized that Ian was stalking toward it with murder in his eyes, fists clenched. With oddly deceptive strength, it launched from the water and bounced off of a tree with relative ease to swing further ahead along the branches. Ian ran after it, his disdain for the creature overwhelming any previous fears he had of the swamp. There was no way he was going to catch the vertically mobile animal, it would escape him in no time. But Ian wasn’t what the primate needed to worry about.
A vortex of black water erupted beneath the primate—now in mid-swing—and in the blink of an eye the white blur disappeared between two snapping jaws. The scaled monster collapsed back down with a crash, waves rippling in every direction. It shook its fresh catch back and forth until there was no more struggle, while Ian’s hat floated atop the water nearby. The primates above and behind Ian scattered, screaming in terror to alert others of the new danger.
Ian stood frozen. He couldn’t move a muscle, the molten anger that had boiled within him now doused with cold water, steaming into solid, immovable stone. He couldn’t teleport without the hat and although it was merely meters from him, so was the crocodile. A crocodile that—he was absolutely certain—had absorbed the bodies of every other crocodile in the swamp to reach its ridiculous size.
The croc swallowed its meal whole with only a few crunches, then leveled its gaze upon Ian. Apparently it had yet to reach its fill as it stepped in his direction. A soft, yellow light—that Ian was still mostly unaware of—illuminated it from above, shadows dancing wildly as it moved. It’s long snout fell open to reveal bloodied teeth, a soft hiss emanating from its gaping maw. Ian took a deep breath. He’d need to run if he was to survive, but could he outrun this beast in its own territory? There was no alternative, it was his only—
A small object streaked down from the canopy and made a thunk sound as it stuck into the tree next to the crocodile. The croc jerked, hissing at the sudden noise. The object exploded with white light, blinding Ian momentarily. He looked away as the object faded to black, then pulsed again, repeating faster and faster. A rope fell next to Ian and it took him a moment to blink away the images seared into his vision by the mysterious object. He looked up to where the rope had fallen and made out a flat, wooden structure wrapping around the tree trunk and extending further in the direction he’d been heading. A solar lamp illuminated a man holding it aloft and peering down at him.
“Hurry, grab hold of the rope if you want to live,” the man said.
Ian tried to look at the crocodile again but it was backing away in a strange, flickering effect that made it appear as if it was only moving during the object's flashes. He grabbed the rope and held on tight. The man above set down the lamp and pulled him up hand over hand like he’d trained all his life for this very moment. In no time, Ian was at the edge of the balcony that overlooked the swamp below and he grabbed on. The man secured Ian by the armpits and helped slide him onto the wooden planks.
“Wow, thanks for the rescue,” Ian said, voice wavering. “Didn’t think I was going to make it there for a minute.”
The man looked at Ian, breathing heavily. He had an eye patch over his right eye. Sweat glistened on his forehead and where his hairline had receded. He looked hardened, like a man who’d seen everything a man shouldn’t see and then had to live a normal life anyway.
“I don’t know who you are or how you managed to show up in the swamp in the middle of the night, but you’re lucky I know when night howlers are up to no good.”
“The night howlers? Oh, you mean the Merstellar monkeys,” Ian said.
“What? Who calls them that?” the man asked.
“I do. I just named them,” Ian said, smiling.
“No. They’re night howlers. I know because I named them. By the Almighty's Light, what brings you out here all by yourself, kid?”
Ian sat up and took a deep breath. “I want to be famous, I guess,” Ian said honestly, surprising himself. “I mean, I work for the Cartographers’ Guild. I’m here about the alleged disturbances that Mayor Penh wrote about in his letter.”
The man stood. He looked down at Ian with his one eye squinting. He grabbed the lamp and hitched it to his belt, then picked up a rifle that Ian hadn’t noticed leaning up against the tree trunk. The man reached down with an open hand. Ian took it. His legs were wobbly, but he managed to stand.
“Famous, huh?” the man said. “Not the answer I was expecting. Gotta be alive to be famous, you know that right?”
Ian nodded and the man started laughing a hearty, genuine laugh. Ian couldn’t help but smile at the man’s jovial attitude. Then, the man cut his laugh off as if he’d never started, resting the barrel of the rifle against his shoulder.
“The name’s Richta. And I have a lot more questions, kid. But it’s not my place to ask them. So all I know is, if I find out you’re lying, I’ll kill you like that,” Richta said, with a snap of his fingers. Ian’s smile faded. Richta’s eye darted back and forth between Ian’s repeatedly before Ian realized he wanted a response.
“Oh, um, my name’s Ian…” he said, almost as a question. “I’m not lying, I swear.”
Richta nodded. “Welcome to Yonledo, Ian.”
Without another word, Richta walked down the wooden platform toward a village suspended over the bay. Before following Richta, Ian peered over the edge once more. The crocodile was nowhere to be seen, and the object had stopped flashing. His hat was lost for now. But at least he was alive. He figured he’d return first thing in the morning to retrieve it. One night. That was all. He’d surely be able to manage for that long without access to his ability. Then again, the night had only just begun.
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