Crocodilian ~ Chapter 9
Tales of Havek: Volume One | Duration: 6 Minutes
Ian Merstellar woke up on hard, familiar ground. He recognized the grimy, wet walls of the alley next to the market square he frequented for free lunches. His head pounded as he raised up from the lumpy stone. The midday sunlight shone down at an angle between the high rises and illuminated the bustling crowds moving past the alley. Shouts filled the square with an echo effect, the venders taking advantage to amplify their sales pitches. Not that they ever really had a sway on Ian’s ever-empty pockets.
Ian felt for his hat but it was still missing. Strange. How had he teleported back to Asyrema City without his hat? Then he remembered the crocodilian and the vicious bite on his arm. He jerked it up and inspected the area where he’d witnessed the massive teeth tear through his coat’s sleeve. Nothing. He flexed the arm outward, finding no evidence of a broken bone either. He had a slight fever though, and his brow had a thin layer of sweat. His confusion didn’t help the situation.
Standing, Ian staggered out into the square and noticed something was off immediately. He was being watched. That had never been the case. He had always embraced the vagrant lifestyle, the effect of which gave him reason to be ignored. At first it was one vendor, her eyes squinting in suspicion. Then it was all of the vendors, standing stoically behind their carts, staring past their mountains of green and red produce. Their hands rose in unison to point at him in stiff rehearsal. Dozens of passersby suddenly halted their hectic travels to their next destination in order to look at him. Everyone glared as if he’d committed a heinous crime and they’d all witnessed it together.
“What’s happening? What are you all looking at?” Ian asked.
More people crowded around, packing into the square. They seemed to come out of nowhere and in droves as if someone was spreading the news of Ian’s presence. A vendor, one that Ian recognized during a prior lunch-seeking escapade, left from behind his cart and approached him with arm and pointer finger still raised.
“You! I remember you!” the vendor said. “You’re that… famous cartographer. The one that saved Yonledo from that reptilian beast.”
Ian had thought the man was going to say thief, but was surprised nonetheless. Shouts from the crowd reinforced the vendor's assertion. People cheered and pushed in closer, their open-mouthed smiles and unblinking eyes bearing down on him. He backed away, trying to return to the relative safety of the alleyway but even that was blocked, a rabid mob of children closing in for a chance to meet the famed hero.
“Ian! Ian! Ian!” the crowd chanted in unison.
The people grew somewhat menacing, their smiles turning into sinister grins and their shouts into threatening jeers seeking his attention. He spun in a circle, the faces of each man, woman and child blurring into blank slates bobbing back and forth, their hands groping for him in a wall of moving parts. He had no escape. He panicked. Ian bolted into the crowd, trying to get past them to run as far away from Asyrema as possible, but hands gripped his jacket, his arms and his legs. He was lifted and carried above the faceless heads of the crowd like a celebrity.
A man in overalls stood out to Ian, his bearded face fully realized and distinct amongst the faceless. Unkel Bo. The hunter watched Ian being bounced to and fro by the people and he frowned, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. The hunter turned and disappeared into the masses.
“Unkel,” Ian yelled repeatedly. He fought with the people carrying him. Twisting, he was able to fall to the ground between several jostling figures. Getting up, he tried to remain in a low stance and barrel through them using his shoulders and elbows but the faceless grabbed hold of him in tight hugs. He wasn’t going to escape this time. They piled onto him and forced him down to the cobblestones. He screamed for them to stop.
“Ian! Ian! Ian!” the people chanted, their voices muffled.
As more and more of the faceless piled on to reach their hands down to touch him, the weight became unbearable. Didn’t they know they were crushing him? Didn’t they know they were killing him? Didn’t they know that he didn’t want any of this?
He could no longer breathe. The weight of the crowd was too much. He took a shallow breath and then felt his bones begin to crack. Ian’s eyes went wide as he realized this was the end. He closed them for what he thought would be the last time. But when he opened them again he was no longer under the crowd of faceless people. He was no longer in the city. He was no longer in the square at all. He was back in the swamp.
You are a child of the Light, a genderless, toneless voice said in Ian’s mind.
Ian tried to move but he remained immobilized, much like how he’d been under the mob of people. He looked down and found that his body was embedded in the twisted trunk of a mangrove tree, his legs fully immersed underneath the bark and his arms out to either side fused into the branches around his elbows and forearms. He tried to yell for help but he had no voice.
Truly a gift that you have come to me in this time of need.
The silhouettes of two men appeared against the hazy backdrop of fog and distant green lights. They laughed and bantered back and forth. They carried axes, large ones meant for chopping down trees. Their boots sloshed through the thin layer of water and slurped each time they lifted them out of the mud. They would rescue him from this terrible fate, free him from whatever torturous evil had taken him hostage. He mouthed his pleas but his voice was reduced to a hushed rasp of escaping air. The two men approached, smiling.
“This is the one,” the man on the left said. “It’ll be perfect.”
“Alright. Let’s get this over with. The mayor said he’d pay double if we finished in half the time.”
Ian was confused. They didn’t heed his presence in the slightest. It was as if he was invisible to them. They weren’t here for him, but for–
The man on the left hefted his axe and swung down in a brutal arc that severed Ian’s left arm off along with the branch. The man on the right pulled back and buried his axe into the trunk where Ian’s midsection resided. The pain flooded through him like liquid fire pulsing through his veins. They continued their mission of hacking at the mangrove tree and Ian could do nothing to stop them.
Don’t you see? This is why I need you. Come to me when you awaken.
The pain faded and Ian's mind was assaulted with a montage of flashing, vivid imagery that he didn’t quite understand. A river. A demolished cabin. Crocodile tails slipping into the water. A mound of mud. A cluster of tangled roots that beat like a heart atop the mound. The heart of the swamp.
Find me, child of the Light. Find me and you will understand everything.