It was when the first dark grey tentacle coiled up along the hull and gripped the rail that Airn regretted not pushing the issue with his captain while they were still on the other side of the Veil. Opening a gateway large enough for a ship to pass through was pure madness. But what had been acceptable risk for a crew of hardy fae was now shaping up to be a serious threat.
There were beasts in the deep, even on the human side of things. And they often investigated disturbances so large. An explosion of magic and a ship full of new scents had been enough to wake the slumbering creature and now it was hungry. Or perhaps territorial. The building storm did not help matters. Nor did the captain’s order to cut the serpentine arm away from his ship. This time, Airn spoke up, having to shout over a sudden crack of thunder.
“My lord, hadn’t we better wait until we have a larger target?”
But a burly trollock had already slashed cutlass through the wiry appendage and the waters hummed with a shriek from beneath them. The tentacle jerked back under the water and all was still.
The captain smirked. “Get us out the way of this storm. All hands—”
It was six wet-slick feelers now that shot from the choppy waves and gripped the Killingbird’s hull. The whole vessel shook from one squeeze and the crew started a ruckus of confusion and nerves. They looked to their captain, who growled and gave the order again. Cut it loose.
Again they slashed and again the arms retreated. The ship began to bank and turn, building speed to escape the area and go to her purpose. But she halted quick as though striking a sandbar and nearly every experienced sailor lost their footing.
This time it was not wiry whipping appendages but massive muscular arms that crested the Killingbird’s bow. They were folded and bent like a crustacean’s but huge. As thick around as the ship’s mainmast and thrice as armored. The two forefront pincers rose high above, before slamming down into her deck for a grip.
“It’s got us, cap’n, and it’s climbing aboard!”
The lookout’s cry was a bit unnecessary and the captain growled low, eyes flashing purple and slitted before he roared: “Abandon ship! Make for land, all hands!”
Airn’s eyes widened even as his entire expression flinched
into incredulity. He spoke without thinking, words flashing up from a place of
pure confusion. “Are you mad? It’s in the water—you’ll lose half your crew!
We have to f—”
His adamant claims quickly became nothing more than a wordless
breath, as if he’d suddenly been sucker-punched. When, in fact, he’d only
realized the line he’d crossed with his captain’s dragon pearl rapier pressing
under his chin.
“One. More. Word. And I’ll cut your throat, you
Airn tilted his head back on instinct, though he managed to
keep fear out of his eyes when he swallowed hard, hands lifted out away from
his body and the weaponry there—completely docile and unthreatening.
And then a whipping tentacle smacked the captain right off
the deck and out into the ocean. Airn gasped, both because he’d been holding
his breath and because the attack had been so abrupt. He ducked the next winding
appendage, sliding along the rain-slicked deck and coming up under the
stairwell where at least there was minimal cover.
To his dismay, much of the crew had followed their late
captain’s order. There was no telling how many were already dead. A handful
tried to attack what little of the beast had clambered over the prow, but
seemed to be having little success.
The beast planted one tree trunk sized appendage on the bow of the ship, forcing it under almost too quick to believe. Crew slid and most bolted straight overboard to try their luck with the waves. Airn staggered forward several feet before he caught his balance against the aft-most mast.
The monster stepped it’s other forefoot aboard and the ship groaned. If her belly’d been full, she might’ve snapped in half, but once the full weight of the creature was squared on the deck, the poor girl simply sagged low, creaking with every movement. The ship was empty now but for a few sprites lingering high in the rigging, silent and terrified, and Airn standing before the behemoth.
“The captain seems to be unavailable, but perhaps we could negotiate?”
The beast roared, louder than thunder, and Airn backpedaled a few steps with a fencer’s grace, hand going to the sturdy cutlass at his hip. When his fingers closed on air, he finally took his eyes off the sea beast for the first time since it emerged from the waves, looking down on the empty scabbard.
A groaning curse cut off in a quick inhale as the thing took a thundering threatening step toward him, shaking the ship like she’d just come off a rogue wave, creaking and complaining. Airn stumbled to the side, but still stayed on both feet without too much trouble. The rain was torrential. The ship, fae-built or not, couldn’t take much more punishment, and the creature was fixated on him now. It was far too late to swim for it.
The sea beast took another slamming step, alpha posturing likely, and roared. A last warning. And it was then Airn’s frantic gaze caught on a shining pearl-silver hilt wedged behind crates that’d come loose. Without bothering to think about the possibility that it could be just the hilt, the thin blade snapped off in the chaos, Airn glanced back at the beastie, took a breath, and ran for it.
A rather spectacular flying dive took him under the first swing of the behemoth’s arm and he tucked into a roll, coming up in a half-crouch with his fingers around his captain’s rapier. The relief that washed over him when he yanked the full gleaming blade free was a palpable sensation dripping down over his shoulders with the rain.
The monster lowed and swung its great amorphous head around. Catching sight of the little faeling with his new shiny stick must’ve been why it suddenly released a noise that sounded alarmingly like laughter. It turned quickly enough into a shriek when Airn sank the blade a third of the way into the ligaments at what passed for an elbow.
It lashed out immediately and he nearly wasn’t fast enough to dodge the pillar of meat and bone and hard shell. One boot slipped on the sopping deck and he rolled the next blow, narrowly missing having his ribs smashed open. What followed was a rather tense several minutes of aiming stabbing blows when he could at what equated to a tree. But while the thing’s hide was too tough to be cut, the hard thrusts plunged between plating and soon it was bleeding enough that the seawater sloshing across the deck ran red.
It hadn’t been a one-sided fight, however, and Airn was not quite as steady on his feet as before. His midsection ached from a glancing blow that had smashed him into the mast hard enough to splinter the thick timber. He didn’t want to think about what it had done to his innards.
The sailor tossed his head, blinking hard, glad for the storm now as it washed the blood from the cut at his brow, keeping the majority of it out of his eyes. The beast hissed and tried to stand up on a wounded leg, stumbling down to a knee and cracking the deck open like a broken bone. The ship sank a little lower. Eventually she would give completely and Airn would be helpless as a fly in honey. Seeing his moment and desperate to end the fight there, he dove for the kill, sprinting up under the thing’s defenses and realizing far too late that he’d drastically underestimated the creature’s wounds.
His thrust never landed, stomped to the deck, blade pinned between wood and monster. He dropped to one knee along with it, unwilling to release his late captain’s rapier being as it was his only weapon. For his loyalty, he earned a backhand of sorts from a sinuous limb that threw him bodily across the deck to slam into the sealed door of the captain’s cabin.
He focused in time to see the beast growl and lift the beautiful rapier in its massive tentacles, coiling around and around and—snap.
Airn groaned where he lay half-propped against the ship and let his head fall back. His breaths hurt as they came through his lungs and he stared into the clouds, flinching against the rain, wondering how bad it would really be to die at sea in a storm. If he’d had to choose a way, this would’ve certainly made the list. It was just too bad there wasn’t anyone to see and tell the tale of his brave…
One of the sprites leaned out from behind the mast it clung to, peering down at him with wide, opaline eyes. Airn’s gaze tracked the loose lines and flapping sails around his remaining fellow crewman and his mind raced, a plan developing like a series of lightning strikes. Shouting above the storm was ludicrous, so he mimed it out easily enough with a few gestures. The sprites all looked reluctant, exchanging glances, but when the leviathan took another step and shook their perches, they began to move, stringing lines between them like they were leaving harbor. But these were not the simple knots made in keeping the sails taut and full or pinned and tight.
The beastie didn’t notice. Or if it did, it thought nothing of the small green things that buzzed too quickly to be caught by snapping tentacles. Its focus was still on Airn: the quick sharp thing that had made it hurt so much.
“That’s it,” Airn murmured, taking a step back, hands up to keep its focus. Much as he had with his captain mere moments ago. Oh, the hilarity. “Unarmed now. Free meal.”
The deck surged and swayed with the thing’s every lumbering step, but Airn stayed upright and shuffled backward with a duelist’s two-step, keeping the sprites in his peripheral. It wasn’t very Fomorian, relying on others for one’s own life, but he saw few options. Perhaps if the captain had made use of his crew instead of ordering flight, they wouldn’t have been in this mess in the first place.
The thing lashed out a tentacle and Airn jumped backward. The hooked barb at the tip sliced through his thin shirt and he felt the burn of pain that said it had landed a blow. His hand brushed the spot and found warmth seeping into his clothes against the cold rain, but nothing solid spilled out of the gash, so he continued moving backward. Patience lost, he caught the next snapping attack against his forearm with a growl of his own, immediately regretting it when the dexterous appendage coiled around his entire arm in a blink. At first he thought it might simply crumble his bones to chunks and powder, but it pulled instead. His shoulder joint strained and then his feet left the deck, lifted bodily and maneuvered toward the thing’s central mass. He kicked and fought on instinct, suddenly not quite as at peace with dying at sea during a storm as he’d thought he’d been.
Then the complex noose dropped from the rigging, landing square around the thing’s head.
Airn gave a shout of triumph and then roared above the cacophony like a proper Fomorian captain: “Heaaave!”
The sprites had already wrapped the lines through pulleys and around the masts and crossbeams and heave they did. The artfully knotted web tightened around the beast’s skull, cinching the main tension of it around its throat.
The leviathan howled, thrashed, struggled to free itself. But its body was made for smashing and python-crushing, not cutting. Definitely not cutting wet rope, enchanted to withstand magical speeds and strong fingers.
Something cracked in Airn’s arm, but he hardly noticed because an instant later, he was free. On his back on the deck and at a loss for breath, but free. Rolling, cradling the limb that refused to move when he told it to, he watched with glee and pride as the sprites strained into their lines, throttling the weakened monster, calling out encouragement and insult in their own whistling dialect. They were slender things, though, and might tire before the job was done.
A single casting glance and he’d caught sight of the shattered rapier. It lay in three pieces, generally the same area, and the hilt had enough of a blade left to be called a dagger. With one last look to make sure the beast was occupied, Airn darted forward, scooped the blade, hopped onto a branch-like limb, and sprinted straight up it to the thing’s rope-laced head. It only took a moment to steady his balance and find the thing’s eye and then he stabbed. Hard.
Once, twice—and a third time with a harsh twist.
The behemoth’s fighting became more disjointed and sluggish with each stab until finally the tentacles and heavy limbs all dropped to the deck and it hung heavy in its modified noose. The sprites released the tension on their lines with identical gasps of exhaustion, clinging to sail and crossbeam to keep from tumbling down after the ends of the ropes.
And Airn stood atop the monster with his broken sword and broken arm and let the rain wash over him and he’d never felt more alive.