Crocodilian ~ Chapter 8
Tales of Havek: Volume One | Duration: 11 Minutes 3 Seconds
VIII: A Most (Un)Desired Outcome
With Richta leading the way, the three men exited the mansion and walked out to the boardwalk, searching for the commotion. About thirty meters away, at the town’s entrance, a man sat on his knees, his shoulders convulsing, a lightbow strapped to his turned back.
“It’s Unkel Bo,” Ian said in a whisper.
“How many uncles do you have, map-maker?” the mayor asked.
“No, I mean, it’s the hunter that I told you about before.”
Richta chimed in. “What’s his deal, kid?”
“I’m not sure. He said he’d stopped hunting and started protecting. But when I asked him to clarify what he meant, he didn’t want to. Maybe he’s been caring for those crocodiles,” Ian said. Richta didn’t respond, tightening his grip on the rifle.
Unkel stood up with his head lowered, arms falling loosely by his sides. His head jerked to the side unnaturally. His body convulsed, and his muscles twitched. Then he faced the three men on the boardwalk. The whites of his eyes were showing and his mouth foamed a yellow froth. The exposed skin, not covered by his ragged overalls, glistened with a sheen of sweat and Ian could’ve sworn he saw steam rising from the man. The ex-hunter threw his head back in a wicked roar and the three men each took a step back.
The top layer of Unkel’s skin bubbled and popped, bloody puss exploding to cover his body like foam. The foam morphed on its own accord as if controlled by an invisible painter’s brush strokes, teasing the amorphous pinkish tissue into solid, fibrous muscles. His size quickly doubled as the final layer of green skin emerged to wrap atop the man like a grotesque flower bud closing its petals in scaled armor. Unkel’s head was the last to mutate—his eyes having already become emerald green slits—the fibers spreading from his face into an elongated snout, before gaining the same rough coating of thick, green hide that covered the entirety of his new form.
“Almighty have mercy,” the mayor said. “We’re all going to die.”
Mayor Penh scurried back inside the mansion but Ian failed to notice. He was too taken aback by what he’d just witnessed. He wanted to teleport far, far away and never come back, but his Energy cup was lukewarm and inaccessible without his hat. There were people coming out of their cabins to see what all the fuss was about, only to quickly flee back to the illusory safety of their wooden structures.
“Hey, kid,” Richta said, squaring up and shouldering the butt of the rifle, “remember when I said I used traps? Well, that was only half true. I had traps, but I was the bait. I kind of play fast ‘n loose with fate like that. But, obviously, I don’t intend to put you in harm's way, so you might want to run.”
Ian barely heard what the guard said as he saw someone coming down the other side of the boardwalk. “Richta, look!”
“Daddy!” Merai screamed.
The crocodilian looked at the little girl, its mouth hanging open. Merai froze as the beast stepped in her direction. It walked upright like a human and the arms, long and muscular, hung at its sides, each limb ending with inch-long razors for fingers and toes. The spiked tail slid across the wooden boardwalk like a thick, leafless tree trunk being dragged behind it. Her mother scooped her up and held her tightly, but didn’t run, likely in fear of triggering a chase she couldn’t outrun.
“Unkel Bo,” Richta yelled. “I know you’re in there, bud. Don’t you think about touching her. It’s me you want.”
When the crocodilian didn’t react, Richta shot it in the back. It hissed and swiveled its large head back in his direction. To Ian’s surprise, the crocodilian lowered itself into a deep crouch and sprung off its muscular hind legs to travel half the distance between them in one leap. It landed with a crunch on the boardwalk. Richta and Ian shared a worried glance. Then, the crocodilian fell on all fours and barreled toward them.
Ian stumbled backward and ran for the mansion’s doors. He slammed up against them but they were locked. Curse him, Ian thought, gritting his teeth. He hammered on the door and yelled for the mayor to open up, but there was no reply.
With his back leaned up against the doors, Ian watched as Richta stood firm despite the charging monster. The guard ripped his eye patch off to reveal a grotesque eyeball that looked as if all the blood vessels had popped long ago, red and irritated. In an extraordinary moment of surrealism, the crocodilian slowed to a crawl, but not of its own volition. It wasn’t until Richta moved to force his eye patch back on that Ian realized the rest of the world was still moving at normal speed, and it was only the beast that had been slowed–a clear sign of Energy at play.
“You’re Blessed, too?” Ian asked.
“Are any of us?” Richta said, before raising his rifle. He fired it repeatedly into the slowed crocodilian. Each bullet struck true, but did very little to penetrate its thick hide, the flattened metal clanging on the wood beneath the target. “Uh oh, this isn’t going to end well. Run, Ian!”
The slowed crocodilian regained speed, the effects of whatever Richta had done wearing off. It burst forward, covering the rest of the distance to Richta. He attempted to dodge, but the gangly arms trapped him as he dove, one of the clawed hands raking down his back. He screamed. Ian cringed at the sight, feeling helpless. The beast grabbed him by the ankle and swung him over the edge of the boardwalk and into one of the tide columns. There was a resounding smack and Richta disappeared into the dark bay below.
“No!” Ian yelled, but in doing so simply managed to get the attention of the creature. Unkel Bo–or what had been Unkel Bo–focused upon Ian and hissed. It charged at him with its jaws open wide. Ian jumped to the side and was lucky that the staircase caught his fall, otherwise he would’ve gone over as well. The crocodilian careened through the locked wooden doors of the mansion and its roar suggested that it continued to rampage through the structure, crashes and thuds echoing out of the hole in the front. Ian got up and continued up the staircase. He didn’t know what else to do. He’d been roughed up by gangs and thieves his whole life, but this… this was something completely wrong. Something he didn’t understand, or didn’t even want to understand for that matter.
Reaching the second story, Ian stumbled into what looked like an office of some kind. It was sparsely decorated, a large desk and chair nearest the staircase, and windows that spanned the length of each wall. There was a bookshelf on the far end, stacked full of leather bound tomes. The most fascinating part was the ceiling’s rafters, their open concept allowing the solar stones to fill the office with their emerald glow. Ian looked out at the bay and the dozens of flickering rooftops below. It reminded him so much of downtown Asyrema. If there hadn’t been a wild reptilian man trying to kill him, the view from up there would have been peaceful, even inspiring. But as life would have it, Ian Merstellar generally found himself in the worst of circumstances at all times, only this time it wasn’t by his own doing. Or was it? Had his arrival triggered the events unfolding before him now? He didn’t want to think about that.
Several long, quiet moments went by in the office. Ian walked to the furthest end and looked out of the window and down toward the bay. He didn’t see Richta anywhere, granted it was difficult to see much of anything down in the murky depths below the boardwalk. He hoped the man had survived his brutal injury and the subsequent fall. A faint ruckus emanated through the wooden floorboards. Mayor Penh was as boisterous as ever, even in the face of terror. There was a series of yells and a pop, followed by a roar.
The crocodilian’s head burst through the floorboards, clawing blindly in every direction in an attempt to gain leverage. It hooked its long claws into the wood to yank itself up from the hole it had created, leaving deep rivets behind them as they dragged. Unfortunately, Ian was cornered. He glanced out of the window to make sure there was no easier escape route. There wasn’t. Ian faced the beast as it staggered upright, its back turned to him. He noticed the lightbow strapped around its torso, a reminder of the man it used to be. A spike jutted through the leather strap, the weapon holding on by what seemed to be a thread. Ian remembered how threatening that heated bolt seemed when it was pointed at his head, and knew what he needed to do.
While the beast’s back was still turned, Ian mustered up his courage and sprinted up behind it. He hurtled over the spiked tail, which slid across the floor with a sound resembling sandpaper on rough wood, and grabbed hold of the lightbow with both hands. He tugged at it but it didn’t budge. It remained fastened to the creature. The crocodilian stopped moving, its head swiveling around to reveal a snout speckled with bloody holes where the mayor had likely shot it with buckshot at close range. An eye landed on Ian and blinked, the fold of the right side of its snout slowly rising despite the interlocking fangs already being clearly visible. Ian gulped.
The crocodilian spun in an attempt to bite him but since Ian held onto the lightbow for dear life, the beast lifted him and inadvertently kept him out of reach. The jaws snapped once, then twice. They kept spinning until the strap broke. Ian and the lightbow were thrown into one of only two pieces of furniture in the room: the bookshelf. The shelf wobbled, then tipped forward, the books avalanching down onto Ian before the heavy, ornate shelf slammed atop him to pin him down. Luckily, the books that had hammered into him beforehand sort of buffeted the weight of the bookshelf. Perspective.
Heavy footfalls shook the floorboards beneath him and Ian knew it was coming for him. He felt sort of safe beneath the layer of thick, thousand page encyclopedias, however temporary it may be. With no visibility, he first felt the weight of the bookshelf lift off of him and crash against a wall. He also felt a vibration in one of his hands, and heard a familiar hum resonating from the books. A claw raked through the top layer of books and Ian knew he’d been revealed when the hot breath of the creature wafted over the back of his neck. He twisted beneath its black shadow to see the open maw leaking saliva over top of him.
“Unkel Bo, remember me? It’s the famous cartographer, Ian Merstellar. Remember–”
The crocodilian plunged down at Ian and the fangs clamped down on meaty flesh. Ian screamed. He had managed to raise his free arm in time to block it from taking off his head, but the pain surging through his forearm made him wish he’d just let the beast kill him. It raised its head and lifted him from the pile of books, leaving him to dangle from its mouth by his arm. It opened its mouth quickly to readjust its hold on him and snapped down again, this time breaking a bone with an audible crack. Ian screamed again. He wanted to disappear. He wanted to be anywhere else. Back in the orphanage. Back on the streets. Back in the custody of that evil man. Or more simply, back in Asyrema pestering William for a job anywhere other than in a swamp where everyone knew crocodiles attacked people. Everyone knew that, literally everyone.
The two clawed hands grabbed hold of him at the base of his arm and he knew what it was about to do. It would leverage against him and rip the limb off. He had no more time to waste.
“If you don’t remember me, then maybe you remember this,” Ian said, raising the lightbow in his other hand.
The bolt was bright as burning coal. He’d been able to buy enough time to let the solar battery heat up the steel bolt. The crocodilian angled its enormous head to see the lightbow aimed directly at its chest. It let go just as he fired and Ian fell back to land hard against the wall, hitting his head. In the blur of overhead green, he saw the beast staggering backward, a gaping hole in its midsection and its overall size slowly diminishing. Just before Ian passed out from the pain, from the blood loss, from the blow to his head, Ian swore he saw Unkel Bo crying on his knees in front of him. Those weren’t crocodile tears, but tears of a broken man that could never have been fixed.