It took them longer to make their way on deck after the bell started to ring. Someone on deck hollered something incomprehensible as he tugged at the rope and beat the metal against itself to chime out alarm. Most of the crew were already on deck, but some were asleep below. Those few whose nightly duty it was to keep the vessel from running aground spilled from their hammocks and grabbed for clubs and harpoons. They shoved past Yuki and Gray with little concern for the bruises they gave.
“An attack?” she asked the little historian.
“It would seem so.” he pushed his glasses back on his nose. An impact with from a chunky fellow had set them hanging off his face.
“It may be best you stay behind,” she told him as she put a hand on the door that led outside. Noise of battle was already coming to her past it.
“And miss something?” He laughed, then slipped under her arm and shouldered the door. His hands full with his oversized book.
The crew were beset by creatures that spilled on deck even as Yuki and Gray stepped from the door. The attacker’s came up over the railing, and when one did so close enough to her, Yuki was afforded a good look at its anatomy.
Their upper bodies were hard from bicep to the ends of the arms, like the chitin shell of a crab, and infact the two largest arms of each did end in pincers of a size to crack a man’s skull or spine if one got ahold. They had a set of smaller arms attached to the torso under these, and those had only three digits to them and held a three pronged spear. The creature’s lower bodies were more like an eel than anything else, serpentine lengths in place of legs that were frilled on front and back. Though they fought with the crew, in an instant Yuki saw that the human’s were not the target. Tridents were hurled at the sails, and a team of the brutes were assaulting the steering wheel, already breaking a handhold off with one swipe of a giant claw.
“Ah,” Gray said. His voice came from above and behind her. When she looked she saw he had positioned himself atop the raised deck near the mast, his book open and quil at work on the page. The brown feather of it looked about to tickle his face as he looked between his writing and the events in front of him. “The taknaka. Not a surprise.”
“They are trapping the ship,” she said.
“A prelude to sinking it.” He saw her expression and shrugged, returning to his writing. “They have no interest in the ship. Their colony lies beneath. They are ambush hunters. Whatever they want, they can take from wreckage more easily than from a floating ship.”
A taknaka that had come aboard near the masthead slithered up behind where Gray stood documenting the attack. Yuki raised a hand, but her mouth got jumbled between calling a warning and chanting an incantation. Before she could sort her words, the little man pivoted on his left foot and dodged a trident to the back. The taknaka struck again, this time with claws, but caught only air. The historian avoided every attack, but it looked to her that his body getting away injury free was a byproduct of thrusting his book clear of attack and the weight carrying his little frame behind it.
She cast. Two fingers extended and a short, cold breath that carried a word of power. A beam of blue light flew from her fingertips. It struck true on the taknaka’s shoulder.
It did nothing. Well, it made the creature notice her. It jumped down from the raised deck, which brought it between her and the door below deck as she backed away. Behind her were more sounds of men crying out in pain, wet snarls and the clack of claws. In front of her it was quiet, the sound of the eel bottom of her attacker moving over the floorboards.
“They live in the depths, my dear,” Gray said. “They’re somewhat resistant to the cold.”
“But most of what I do is cold!” She yelped as the taknaka tried to pin her foot the deck, instead stabbing his trident in and getting it’s barbed ends stuck. It swung at her head with a claw and clipped her brow. “Damn you!” She yelled as she touched her head.
The outside of its pincher was wet with her blood. The rest of the creature was wet from the sea it had crawled up out of. She threw up both hands and then rolled them in the air until the hands came together with one fist clasped over an open palm. Three words this time, and the water on the creature’s chitin flash froze. The plates cracked at the sudden contraction and temperature change, and the creature gurgled in pain. Yellow puss that must have passed for blood in its body seeped from the cracks.
She looked around and saw that she had garnered more attention. Three who had put tridents into the sails were on their way to her, and two of those dismantling the steering wheel broke off to engage her as well.
“In a battle,” Pak had told her, “the moment you cast a spell, you will become a target for most of the aggression of the enemy. In a fight, everyone hates the spellcaster.”
It seemed that much was true. She looked around and smiled. The deck was awash in water, some brought up by the taknaka, some from the slosh of waves. She threw her arms out and spoke as quickly as she could and still keep the words separate sounds. The body motions for the spell were grandiose, but she had to risk being open to get it off before they were all on her.
The deck frosted over, the slick lower bodies of the taknaka losing their already tenuous friction. They slowed and one stumbled, having to support himself with his upper arms. The frost was a start. She pointed the fingers of each hand up and shouted two more words, jabbing the fingers up an inch higher at the last one.
Spikes of crystalline ice grew out of the frosted deck so fast that they thrust through soft eel tails and chitin chest plates. Two of the ones attacking her died then and there, while the others were each at least fairly wounded.
She smiled, then winced and cried out as her leg was suddenly in a vice with teeth. The one she had wounded when she froze his sheen of water had recovered enough to clasp her calf. He squeezed, but his exoskeleton couldn’t muster the force to crush bone and pulp muscle. He broke the skin and the shock of red that ran out over her light blue flesh sickened and enraged her. She turned as best she could, brought her face in close to the writhing mess of crab legs that made up the thing’s face, and exhaled. She didn’t need a spell for this. It came from inside her, as long as she had power to draw upon. That was good, as the pain kept her from being clear headed enough to cast.
The gale of frigid air from her parted lips blasted across the taknaka’s face, then sank deeper in through its broken armor. It overwhelmed the anti-freeze qualities of its gelid blood, and the thing stiffened and died as before she was done breathing on it.
Then of course the trouble was that she had herself a frozen taknaka with a claw fixed on her leg.
The others were forced off by the crew. When they lost a few of their number, they fled.
“Cowards!” a man called at the water. The crew itself had lost three in the skirmish.
“This is not their main attack,” Gray said from where he stood. “Even now, there will be ones at work under the hull, intent on sinking us.”
“Damnation,” said the captain, who was bloody from shoulder to elbow on his right side, a gash in his arm. “You have any suggestions then, seeing as there’s not enough sail left to catch a breeze and get out of their waters?”
Yuki had summoned a dagger of ice and was trying to pry the taknaka’s claw from her leg. She rarely dealt with blood, her own or anothers, and the smell made her queasy. “Help get my leg out, and I’ll fix the sail and the wheel. I can fix the hull too, once we’re away.”
The men saw her surrounded by a tiny forest of ice shafts, a few impaling dead taknaka, and took her at her word.
They had to use a pry bar to get the claw off her leg, but the hardest part was climbing the rigging after they had bandaged her leg. Men watched the water, armed with harpoons. She slipped twice, but kept her hold by cheating: she splashed water onto the ropes, then froze the water enough to fix her grip, then let it return to liquid when she needed to move on.
Mending the sails took time. Each casting of her cantrip would only seal a small portion of the canvas, but it was faster than trying to take the whole thing down and get men to patch it.
The steering wheel was a group effort. While she could fix the pieces when they were put together, the smashed bits were a puzzle she had no idea how to reassemble. The crew, captain especially, helped set them all into the right orientation on the deck, and piece by piece she fused them together again, then finally reattached the whole thing to its mounting.
“Any healers on board?” she asked. Dalag had been her personally physician back on the island. The man was a marvel with spells, and also a great masseuse.
“None,” the captain said, and looked apologetic. She kept herself from smiling at the change in him.
“No worries. But I’ll have to go for a swim to repair whatever they’re doing to the hull.” She limped to the railing.
“Eh,” the captain started, the cleared his throat. “Blood in the water, miss. It isn’t the sort of thing I’d suggest.”
“Because of sharks?”
“The taknaka would have killed all the sharks in these waters,” Gray said, watching her from behind his black lenses.
She frowned. “Not all of them.”
She threw herself overboard. She could swim better than she could walk. That was true even when she wasn’t sporting a wound on either side of her leg. Through the bandage, smokey streaks of red trailed her.
There were a dozen or so under the ship, pulling and scraping at the wood. She did not like these creatures. It was bad enough that they had attacked the ship she was on, that they hurt people and sought to destroy. But sharks? She loved sharks.
Two of the group trying to sink the ship noticed her. She was perhaps thirty feet off from them. Those two drew the attention of the others, which was well and good. She began to cast. Air bubbles came from her mouth as she spoke, though there was no sound.
The two that had first noticed her broke from the demolish party and made for her, pronged spears aimed as they advanced. They were twice as fast under the waves as they had been on the ship, and far more graceful. The same could be said of her. She completed her spell, and grinned as she pushed back and tumbled under the belly of the first of her summoned friends.
The dire shark’s belly brushed her own as she slipped under it, going the opposite way. The other two that swam alongside it, in a V formation, broke and flanked the group under the ship.
The taknaka that had been on their way to kill her turned, their wriggling eel parts flapping like spastic worms as they tried to correct course. One of the flapping serpentine segments was bit clean off by her shark. The upper half of the taknaka wasn’t enough to control its movements in the water. He sank, and the shark gave him no mind, instead savaging the other one as it tried to swim away.
The taknaka attached to the hull fell to confusion and tried to divide the attention of her other two summons. The sharks would kill the ones they could get at, but their purpose wasn’t to eat all the taknaka. They were to get them off the ship, which was already beginning to move.
She brought her arms flat against her sides and kicked with both legs together. Her left one twitched and reminded her with pain that she was not battle ready. Her summons would not last long, but if need be they could follow the blood trail back to her. Now she just had to fix what damage was done to the ship while it moved through the water, and then get herself back on deck before blood loss and exhaustion made her pass out in dangerous water, where her magically created friends would disappear from shortly.
The last part of her day was a bit of a blur, but she did have a vague memory the following day of a net being involved.
What an undignified ending to her first big adventure. But still, it got the crew calling her the ship’s mermaid, and its luck. They changed the dressing on her wound while she slept, and she had the best of the salted beef and rum that they could offer.
Best was relative, but the thought was nice.
“They’re happy to have you now,” Gray said from his tiny desk when as she lay in bed that night.
She had slept most of the day, and was no longer tired. Her leg looked better than she had expected, but she longed for magical healing to make the ache and unsightly puncture marks and bruising go away.
“Well, at least I don’t have to worry about them tossing me overboard.” She grinned. She did feel somewhat better than she had at the start. Maybe the scary world was more tenable than she had thought after they first discovered her.
“I doubt that would have been as much a trouble for you as it would be for most.” He didn’t even look up as he spoke.
“You wrote about what I did?” she asked.
“I wrote about what everyone did. You know, Garbin Datters, one of the swabs, clubbed a taknaka senseless and kicked it into the sea? He’s fifteen. His father was a pirate. His mother a fishmonger’s wife.”
She pushed herself up. “How do you know all that?”
“I pay attention,” he said, and closed his book, putting the quill back into its ink well, “and I write things down.”
She looked at his back, then leaned on her elbow to stare at the tome. “Can I read that?”
“No. This is my personal journal. All notes and shorthand. You couldn’t make sense of it even if you did look through. But you’re welcome to a copy of the next history I put out, Princess.”
“Will I be in your next history?”
“Perhaps not the next one, but soon enough I think we’ll have enough to publish a book about you and the recent events. Of course, time gives objectivity that helps a historian greatly. It may be a long time before the book itself is released.”
“So you document the things in the present for future historians?”
“I document them for myself.”
“But…” she frowned. “You write about events that happened centuries ago. The primary sources have to come down to you from that time.”
“So you’re using the materials of others. Just as someone else will use your own.”
He smiled at her. “You think about the future as much as you do about the past?”
“I have lived on a little island made of ice with the same eight people for the last five decades. Imagining what might come next has been my greatest pastime, aside from learning about what happened long before I was born.”
“Well,” he rose and unrolled a pad of down packed cloth that would be his bed on the floor. “I think it’s good you’ve got an interest in events. If today’s any indicator, you’ll be taking part in them.”
After he had gone to sleep, glasses folded beside him on his great book, she still could not sleep. She replayed the day, thinking about the three crew who had died, about the taknaka she had killed herself. She had never taken a life, and she felt like it should have hurt more to have done so. Was it that they did not look like her, or like the crew? She felt worse that the three crew had died than the multitude of taknaka that her sharks might have butchered or devoured, or the ones she herself had frozen or skewered. Was it because she saw them to be the enemy?
What she knew for certain was that she felt more alive, laying flat on her back with her heart pounding, than she had in the last fifty years.
Fundamental Forces, Episode 11 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.