Ink and Water
It was a spider. That was the problem. If it were anything else—a dragon, a leviathan, anything—Gray would have sighed his exasperation and started planning his attack.
But no. It had to be the largest spider in the world.
Next to him, the healer girl shifted, transforming into a human-shaped haze that quickly scuttled into the blue coral and vanished from Gray’s sight. The coral was a good idea; it formed a sure and heavy wall the spider would not be able to break. But the spider didn’t need to break it in order to cause significant damage to the area.
The syphant spider, commonly called the sea spider, emitted a cloud of ink that sealed the lungs and could kill a man in just a few minutes. As the girl was a healer, the poison wouldn’t be as severe for her, but it would kill everything else in the vicinity: trees, grass, flowers, fish, eventually the coral itself. It would take weeks for local e’nethaine growers to restore the area and make it inhabitable again. Gray had seen all of this before. These things were dangerous, especially this close to land.
Right now, he stood about half a mile from the island where Nari had grown up—specifically, the island where her father still lived. The syphant, this perversion in the water, was not the way Gray wished to impress the chief. The local current would sweep anything this creature produced up onto the beaches.
Unwise, he thought. This is unwise.
A presence stepped up next to him in the water, filling the same spot where the healer had stood just a moment ago. He glanced at the woman, recognized her profile, and grimaced. Of course.
“It’s called a syphant,” Amie Avi said.
The archer in Gannon Dre’s employ stood with her arms relaxed at her sides, her gaze fixed on the stain of the sea loping steadily toward them through the current. The spider obviously had not seen them yet; there were…signs when it spotted its prey.
“This should not be here,” Amie Avi stated. “These vile creatures make their home along the shores of the Forsaken Land, not here. A curious thing, that this one has wandered so far from home.”
The Moors. That was the “home” she meant.
No one who dwelt in the sea called the empty wasteland east of King’s Barrow by the name generally accepted for it on land. Instead, they chose a more literal description: the Forsaken Land. The land where dark gods lived and attracted men like the thiever who had murdered Tell’s father and brothers.
Shel’s words drifted like sea grass through Gray’s mind: “There is no wisdom in darkness,” Shel had told the assassin that day. “Because darkness has no light to see by. That is how darkness functions. And those who worship the Fallen Ones become like them.”
Creatures like the syphant found comfort in the Fallen Ones who dwelled on the Moors. That was the most accurate description anyone could give creatures like this—the syphant was drawn to the darkness just as certain men were.
“It cannot be killed by one person working alone,” Amie Avi said, speaking more quickly than usual. Clearly, she knew they didn’t have much time. “Neither can it be easily dissuaded from its target.”
She was older than he, and here she showed her age as she made the assumption that this was his first time with a syphant. He had to acknowledge, however, that she spoke with a good deal of calm for someone who was watching the approach of a creature that looked horribly like a spider and enjoyed killing. Gray found he could admire the calm and be vastly annoyed at her presence at the same time.
She kept speaking. “Its flesh is armor that cannot be easily penetrated, save for the chest plate that opens only when the creature is exerting itself. That is, when it is running. So to kill these things, one requires a game of fish-and-bait.” She looked around her. “And this is not the location for it. The syphant releases an ink that—”
“Yes, thank you,” Gray interrupted.
She gave him her full attention. “You have already been to the Forsaken Lands?”
He saw the interest in her eyes, the way her head tilted as she asked the question. Already? An unfortunate word, given her employer and the likelihood that she knew something Gray did not.
“No,” he replied tersely and realized his hands were clenched. Loosening one, but only one, he wrapped that hand around the knife hilt in his belt and said, “I have no desire to step foot upon the Forsaken Land. But once, several years ago—”
Such a description of time meant something different for an e’nethaine of Amie Avi’s age.
“—my father and I came across one in the North Sea, just off the King’s Barrow coast.”
“That far north?”
“Yes. The syphant attacked the ship a moment after the lookout gave warning.” The muscles in his neck felt like iron bands as Gray nodded toward the approaching syphant that swam almost casually through the water. “They’re faster than they look.”
“I hate spiders,” Amie Avi muttered.
Gray glanced at her.
But then she added in the very next breath: “You be the bait.”
Her brows arched up her forehead. “You would prefer that I—the archer, who will not miss—be the bait instead? Very well, if that is your desire.”
Gray hissed a few words concerning what he thought of this idea. “I hope you’re swift, cousin.”
Amie Avi grunted. “I am not the one who needs to be swift.”
“That is so very reassuring.”
She gestured toward the east, to the wide expanse of empty sea that lay beyond the islands and—hundreds of miles from this point—eventually reached the Moors, where the sea changed. It was colder there, bitter. It even smelled different.
“Two hundred miles,” she said.
He had to agree. It was an adequate distance, enough space to protect the islands as well as the southern point of Ra-Faal, which was Lukas Fao’s territory.
“Go,” she commanded.
But Gray saw no reason he had to like this plan.
He put half a mile between them. Half a mile of warmth and comfort and open sea.
This is not what I intended to do today, he thought, but he supposed he had, at last, found something that would be difficult. Collecting rendeik pearls was an easy task for an e’nethaine; he could scoop the pearls like rocks dropped in the sand. But this? This was a challenge.
It just wasn’t a challenge he’d be able to take credit for. Nari’s father would likely never know what had swum into his waters. If Gray and Amie Avi managed to do this well, no one in this area would know of the threat momentarily off their shores.
So though he had found a “display of his affection,” this actually won Gray very little. It was a loud, life-threatening display of affection as silent as a relaxing afternoon spent on the beach—that was what Gray was about to do. He had somehow found himself back at the beginning, needing to show his affection and lacking a plan.
The water parted all around him, making room for his suddenly visible form.
“You’d better be fast,” he grumbled again, even though Amie Avi wouldn’t be able to hear him from this distance.
If the spider didn’t notice him, he was just going to thrust his arms in the air and wave them like a child until the malformed eyes clustered at the top of the syphant’s shiny black head focused on him. But that ended up not being necessary.
The syphant threw itself forward. Half a mile’s distance became a quarter mile in the span of three seconds, and Gray cursed. He had seen this before. It should not have surprised him this time, but it did. The worst kind of surprise.
He turned around and sprinted.
The sea floor blurred beneath him. Colors creamed into an unfocused, liquid-like substance. When he risked a glance over his shoulder, he saw the syphant the same distance behind him. Not quite gaining, but definitely not falling behind. The rush of water filled his ears and lungs and slowly became thunderous as he increased his speed.
Two hundred miles. That was the goal, until the archer could kill the syphant in water that would not be shocked by the creature’s death. Gray began counting the miles at first as a distraction, to help him keep his focus.
The water began to change as he passed the one-hundred-mile mark. He noticed it first in temperature. The currents began to feel slightly cooler, the way a night’s breeze was different than that of the morning, but the change quickly became less subtle. Years had passed since he’d encountered water like this—this dull kind of bitterness he could sense in both texture and taste. The swirl of color that was the seafloor grew darker and more sterile looking as signs of life slowly began to thin out. A single tree. One scrawny little plant. Long lengths of empty sand and stone.
He was approaching the Moors, home of the syphant and dark gods that lived to bring death to the earth. The water itself gave warning. It was like a quiet voice all around him, whispering, Turn back, turn back.
One hundred sixty.
One hundred sixty-five.
Something glinted out the corner of his eye. A flash of waterlogged light on metal.
He turned his head and squinted at a distant point, perhaps half a mile from his current position and passing quickly. What was that? It looked like a tower of stone—a thick shaft of black rock rising up from the seafloor. Light from the surface gleamed on wide metal bars crossing a window; that was what he had seen spark at him in his haste.
This didn’t make sense. No one lived this close to the Moors, least of all the full-blooded e’nethaine; they would never be able to stomach these waters. But that looked like a watchtower. A watchtower where there shouldn’t be one.
What was a watchtower doing here?
He didn’t see the shadow in front of him until he’d run right into it.
His next breath filled his lungs with the dissolving cloud of ink left by a syphant. Not from the creature at his heels, but from another he never saw. He stumbled in the water as he tasted salt and poison and felt the first squeeze of panic from his lungs. No, no, no—
His pace slowed. Dramatically slowed. It was like the sea became a mud pit. Weight clawed at his legs. He couldn’t breathe this water any more than he could suck sand into his lungs.
Feeling for the knife in his belt, he yanked the hilt free and staggered around to meet his pursuer. He barely managed to finish the turn before the syphant slammed into him, toppling both of them through the water.
His chest said a boulder the size of a house had fallen on top of him. Frantically trying to shove one of the legs away from his face, he heaved his arm upward, putting all his strength into a blind thrust at the creature’s unguarded chest. He hit something but in the next instant lost the knife. The hilt wrenched from his hand. The arm that had struck the blow crushed against his side as the syphant tightened its grip.
Truly, this was ridiculous.
Part of him mocked the situation, disbelieving. Really? Here? With Amie Avi watching? Of all things, it seemed that her seer should have been able to predict this. If he hadn’t seen this, then Gannon Dre was not as strong in his gift as he suggested to the world.
Gray fought against chains that lived and moved on their own. The syphant’s head with its multiple blinking eyes loomed close to his own and jerked down. Fangs drove into his chest. Raging fire screamed the last of the air from his lungs.
All of Gray thought of Nari.
Then he thought of Tell, the boy he respected and loved, who was just starting to trust for the first time in his life. What would this do to Tell?
The syphant had spewed its ink on contact, turning the water all around Gray into an oil-like substance. He could no longer choke down even a partial breath and realized the act of breathing was now in the past. If he had only—
The syphant’s teeth ripped from his chest.
The crushing weight of the legs disappeared from his body.
Hands grabbed him. An arm under his shoulders, another around his waist. The water stirred; he felt the currents.
“Cousin,” said a familiar voice in his ear. “All of this because of a woman. I hope she’s worth it to you, in the end. Sometimes we aren’t.” Amie Avi laughed once, perhaps a little bitterly. “Stay with me, Gray H’adorin. That’s all you need to do. Just hold on…for a little while longer.”
– H –
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Copyright notice: © 2019 by Lauren Stinton. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.