v) Night falls as the boat drifts

Night falls as the boat drifts. Fassn’s gentle snooze has turned into a virulent snore, but now, his boot twitches against the boat. Abia, who had been deep in meditation, returns to the world, lays a hand on Fassn’s shoulder.

He blinks, coughs, sits up.

“Old Ajralan, may you have your fill,” Abia says to him.

Fassn coughs again. “May he have yours, too,” he says, a grin breaking over his face before peering over the edge of the boat. “Was I down there?”

“Shyan saved you,” Abia says.

“You did,” Shyan protests.

“We all did,” adds Cang.

“Well that’s real nice of you,” Fassn says. “Was kinda pretty down there though. Dark, warm. Like I was with Old Ajralan, tasting the most delicious marinara sauce.”

“In that case,” Shyan says, “I’m sorry to have interrupted you.”

“No, no,” Fassn says, running a hand through his messy hair, still drying. “I’m glad to be here.” He takes in the swiftly falling darkness and the featureless water around them. “Wherever here is.”

iv) The song to Old Ajralan is warped and confusing

The song to Old Ajralan is warped and confusing — neither Shyan nor Cang know it well, and without Abia’s firm guidance they’re basically lost. All the same, though, they keep their determination up. A cool breeze comes over the boat, the soft cawing of birds overpowered by the meandering dirge. Abia continues to pump water from Fassn’s lungs.

His leg twitches. He stirs. Suddenly he lurches up at the waist, his eyes bulging, their sclera yellow. Snot runs down into his wiry beard. “Old Ajralan,” he burbles. His arms are wide and searching, as though he’s trying to keep his balance on a wire. “Old Ajralan,” he says again, oblivious of his comrades’ presence.

Abia takes up the singing, lending it structure and potency. Shyan and Cang are relieved to once more follow their example, though Cang inches away from Fassn. With Abia’s voice back in the mix, Fassn’s eyelids grow heavy. She helps lay his head back as he drifts off to doze.

iii) Abia leads the song, pacing its tempo

Abia leads the song, pacing its tempo to match the rough breathing of Old Ajralan’s champion, Fassn, still sprawled at the bottom of the boat. His chest rises and falls in time with the music.

She makes a gesture for Cang and Shyan to continue but she breaks off. Immediately, the song loses much of its power and grace, but they keep it going, awkwardly, in a murmuring sort of voice, suddenly nervous without Abia’s guidance. Instead, she puts an ear to Fassn’s chest, hears the rickety breathing within. Then she locks her hands together, lacing the fingers, and begins pumping his torso.

A small mouthful of water leaks from Fassn’s lips. The grasping tendrils of seaweed have gone all but dead, twitching limply in the sunlight. Abia pumps a few more times, and more water drips. She gestures for Shyan and Cang to pick up the pace.

ii) The words have an almost physical effect

The words have an almost physical effect upon the air and the water around them. It’s as though the very wood of the boat itself trembles and hums. As Abia continues her song, Cang and Shyan add their voices to it. They don’t know her language, but continue in their own instead.

“Old Ajralan, may you have your fill,” they sing.

Fassn, flat on the floor of the boat, his beard glistening with river water, stirs.

“We’re doing it,” Shyan whispers.

“I believe I nudged him with my foot,” Cang whispers back.

“You’ve got to believe in magic for it to work.”

Cang rolls his eyes but keeps singing.

i) Fassn’s eyes are still closed

Fassn’s eyes are still closed. He looks almost peaceful, laying there in the boat, soaking wet. Some of the grasping tendrils of seaweed still jerk and twitch reflexively, as though some spark of life remained in their fibrous beings, slowly fading.

Privately, Abia fears the same is true of Fassn. Smiling melancholically down at him, she takes Shyan’s hand, who gives it willingly, her own focus on Fassn’s inert form. Abia takes Cang’s hand, too, who at first yanks it away, his eyes wide, almost feral. At last, though, he consents, and takes Shyan’s hand in his own, too. Together, they form a circle around Fassn, hands held.

Without an oar, or anyone paddling, the little boat drifts and bobs of its own accord.

Abia begins to hum, then sing. Though the words are in her first language, the ring of recognition stirs in Cang and Shyan. They’re confused, until they hear one phrase ring out above the others, a phrase they’re well familiar with: “Old Ajralan.”

v) The thumpers offer no respite

The thumpers offer no respite to the the young woman with the old man on her shoulder. They swarm and bump, smack and whip. The rushing bubbles they leave in their wake makes it difficult for Shyan to orient herself. Her lungs burn, her arms and legs are numb with the effort of reaching the air.

She sees the boat’s bobbing shadow, knows she’s close. Another thumper smacks her, and she loses its position. Then, suddenly, a plunging sound, a whirlpool of bubbles, and another creature’s in the water around them. It takes Shyan a moment to realize that it’s Cang, who’s jumped from the boat.

Despite the thrashing beating he sustains, Cang takes some of Fassn’s weight from Shyan and together, they swim for the surface.

Abia helps them into the rocking boat one by one. Cang and Shyan are breathing heavily, but Fassn lays on his back, totally still.

iv) The tendrils of seaweed wriggle

The tendrils of seaweed wriggle and stretch toward Shyan. There’s more of them than ever — they don’t let go of Fassn even though they’re going after her as well.

Above, the boat rocks under pressure from the thumpers, casting rollicking shadows upon the struggle deep beneath.

The paddle shard does decent work, its rough edge breaking apart the seaweed’s fibres. Shyan works at what she believes is Fassn’s face and soon a brown eye becomes visible. It’s filmy, staring, doesn’t seem to notice her. Shyan fears he’s drowned but keeps cutting. Seaweed wraps around her ankles and wrists but she pulls away, focused on her task.

Rending and tearing, she severs length after length of the peculiar plant. Soon Fassn’s frizzled greying hair floats freely, and his lined mouth gapes open. Shyan puts the improvised knife in her mouth and picks Fassn up. Her lungs strain with the effort, she’s desperate to get to the surface, Fassn is impossibly heavy. Seaweed tendrils reach for her legs as she pushes slowly away from the riverbed towards the sun.