Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I’m pretty sure we’re back on track with having stories here each Tuesday, at least for the foreseeable future. We’ve got guest authors offering a wonderful hand as we close out our first “season” of Tales of Tellest, but with these new stories in this final stretch, I figured I would take the lead with a kind of “slice of life” story. This is one that I had been working on for some time, and it just never really found its final few lines. I wrapped it up on a whim several weeks ago, and we’re left with a story that ends as quickly as it began. That said, I still thing it has a shot at entertaining you. I hope you enjoy it!
24The bubbles floated to the surface, popping into tiny ripples too small to be seen by a casual glance. But in those dark waters, prying eyes studied even the most subtle movement.
An armada approached the bubbles, sturdy men rowing upon every vessel, dripping with sweat, searching out their prize. The paddles of the ships chewed into the once calm waters of the lake, and the men aboard cried out their coarse commands, rending the silence. More than one of the smaller vessels was tossed aside. There could be no compassion for the weak.
Deep beneath them, schools of pearlfish navigated the murky lake bed. Those that had reached maturity had earned their name. The bubbles that escaped the younger fish were processed by their elders, turning the pockets of air into beautiful minerals that resembled the round gem they were named after.
With a crash, a heavy net pounded into the lake, followed by several more, displacing water as every sinking rock struck the surface. The pearlfish swam into each other, recklessly endangering themselves as the men above did the same.
The nets, too, clung to each other as they sank beneath the violent outbursts above, too slow to catch the school of fleeting fish below. It was a drawn out race to the bottom for the fishing nets, which the impatient fishermen were not satisfied with.
Scattering about above, the fishermen resorted to violent tactics. Leaping to neighboring ships or merely pushing others aside, the sailors disrupted their competitive neighbors. The stronger, larger crews prevented the lighter crafts from rushing their work, ripping up all the webbing that had been submerged.
One of the bound nets had torn away from its draw rope, continuing to flow unhindered to the bottom of the lake, where a series of bubbles continued to flow toward the surface. The knotted mesh fell silently until its weighted corners slapped against the rocks beneath, the net slow to follow, and lay atop a quiet creature too concerned with slumber to notice.
Subdued but not pacified, the smaller crews watched as the experts prepared their own methods, cursing them all the while. Large winches pivoted off the sides of the boats, waiting to rip into the lake below. Massive nets with even larger weights were affixed to those. With a word from multiple captains crying out over each other, the winches dropped. Water splashed nearby boats so loudly that nobody’s eager cries could be heard.
The creature below groggily opened one eye, absentmindedly scanning the dark water with a passing concern. But as the barrel-weighted nets hit the lakebed, the noise could no longer be ignored. Both eyes opened, and the creature saw the barrels racing to the bottom. As its eyes focused, it saw, too, the net upon itself.
The cries above gave way to the knowledge that the bubbles had disappeared completely. As abruptly as the excessive noise and fighting had begun, it dissipated, leaving only a swell of uncomfortable silence in its wake. Not even a breeze could be heard as the squabbling sailors separated from their competitors.
The silence did not last. On orders from their captains, the crewmen rowed away from their spots on the lake. The fishermen from the smaller boats worked quickly to secure their own escape as soon as they were freed of their bonds. The sound of oars chopping into the water resonated through the air. The footfalls upon the wooden vessels echoed in a hasty beat.
Then, the creature emerged from the depths and drowned out the sounds of everything else.
The myth was truth. It was no legend.
Screams of sheer terror cut through the air, frightened crewmen begged for fate to spare them, and the captains of the larger ships barked orders, to no avail. The creature sat upon its body like a snake, hovering just above the lake’s surface, and stared at the sailors and fishermen, boring holes in their souls. Its haunting violet eyes scanned every man within reach, and the men caught in that entrancing glare quieted, not in any semblance of calm, but as if threatened by the beast. All at once, the frenzy on the lake had stopped.
It was not meant to stay that way. Simultaneously, several of the captains of the larger boats called for the ballistae on their decks to fire. The humming twang of several of the oversized crossbows rang out, placing a beat to the showdown between men and monster. The creature was the first to move into the dance. It uncoiled its wings, which had been wrapped around its scaly body, and spread them wide. The leathery arms were large enough to block the sunlight from the nearest of the smaller skiffs. Each one of the missiles soared by the monster, its wings moving to and fro as if the projectiles themselves were moving them. The creature flapped its wings several times, returning to its original position.
As terror embraced the sailors, sound lost all meaning. Screams and shouts were devoid of substance, though not of passion. Every movement became labored and artificial, for none dared remove their gaze from the monster of the lake.
A dozen shrieks escaped from the creature’s one mouth. Men held their hands to their ears, but the monster’s hoarse cry penetrated without mercy. Just as quickly as the shrieks had entered the air, they were dismissed, replaced by a single splash of water.
Once more, the men slipped into silence, their very breaths consciously muted as the bravest of them looked into the cool waters beneath them. Even the captains of the vessels, those coarse men who had ordered ballista fire were hushed like babes in their cribs.
And then the first of the ships shuddered. With a crunch, one of the masts buckled and tore from the deck. It splintered as it fell, crushing the ship beneath it as the sail attached to it ripped into the rigging of another boat. All the ships on the lake trembled, until finally they began to sink, the sailors upon them screaming as they fell into the waters where they once hunted. They thrashed until they tired, fearing the worst was yet to come.
Weakened by fear, the men stopped treading water. Some succumbed to their fatigue and slipped quietly into the depths of the lake. Those who were lucky grabbed nearby flotsam, recovering their strength. With one unified purpose, every man that could began kicking their legs, driving themselves toward the distant shores. One by one, those fierce kicks through murky water were silenced as they were tugged from their buoyant sanctuary into the depths.
The chill of the lake was not lost to those that remained. Of the dozens of ships that had sailed out to the center of the water, not one survived the appearance of the dragon. Every vessel was in tatters, with only a score of sailors and fishermen still left breathing the haunted air.
A captain, the only one among the living, balanced upon his floating haven and unsheathed a cutlass from his hip, an echoing scrape upon its release. Before he could profess any heroic words, the creature emerged from the water, tearing at him from behind. He didn’t have a moment to contemplate his fate before he was dragged into the lake, only his hat floating where he had submerged.
The rest of the crews shivered in silence. So far from the shore, there was no one who could come to their aid. In that hush, the men were left alone with their grief or each other, the same fellows they had feuded with upon the surface of lake.
Realizations struck the sailors and fishermen. They would no longer see their friends, their family, who had been taken to the bottom of the lake. Any who dared to lament too loudly was thrashed from their makeshift vessels, never to be seen again. Only a quiet, gentle ripple remained where they had taken their final plunge.
As the sun set to the west, leaving its subtle glow upon the edges of the lake, three men still clung desperately to their flotsam, only the chill wind reminding them how far they were from home.
The night took them into silence.