Fassn is way below, struggly softly. His movements seem dreamlike in the river’s depths. The creatures, the water jumpers, swirl and swarm him, their inscrutable features all the more incomprehensible in the water’s darkness.
Above, the small boat has settled; the jumpers have stopped assaulting it in favour of its newly-submerged quarry. Cang strains against the rope, while Abia murmurs words of comfort from her homeland.
Shyan swims after Fassn, screams his name, which comes out as a bassy jet of bubbles that rush for the surface. The water churns as the jumpers toss and tumble themselves into her, their long, lumpy bodies bashing into her own. She squints through the pain and continues down, down, ’til she finds another swarm of water thumpers surrounding her compatriot. He’s another few meters away when Shyan’s rope goes taut.
The water thrashes around the spot where Fassn fell in. His hands periodically break the crashing surface, but white water overtake them each time. Once, his face comes up with an expression of panic and fear.
Shyan passes the last paddle out to him so he can grab it, but the boat’s too rocky, the paddle just thwacks him on the head. No more do his hands come up over the crashing waves. Shyan swears in her native tongue and prepares herself to dive in after him.
Cang meanwhile loops the boat’s rope and cinches it to Shyan’s belt. Giving it a yank to test, he flashes her a thumbs-up signal.
Abia has both hands gripping the boat, trying to keep herself level amidst the madness. “Jumpers hungry,” she says. Shyan nods and dives into the water.
Water splashes into the boat, quickly coating the shallow floor, soaking the gang’s clothes. Thumps cascade against the hull, shifting the craft this way and that. Fassn stirs and awakens, confused.
“Water jumpers, okay,” Shyan says. “What do we do about them?”
Abia simply says, “Row.”
Just then, an object crests through the thrashing waves. It’s oblong, about the length of a forearm, with a long, stringly tail on one end. It’s a fleshy beige colour, and has no discernable face, though it has a couple of soft, ridged fins along its length.
“Hey, lookit,” Fassn says, pointing.
“Water jumper,” says Abia.
Just then it proves its name accurate, breaking contact with the water and arcing through the air over the boat. It smacks Fassn in the face, knocking him off balance and into the water.
Fassn’s stomach rumbles but it isn’t that which rocks the boat. The water around the shallow-bottomed craft ripples a moment before a heavy thud impacts the paddle boat, throwing off the balance of the gang within.
Fassn continues snoozing as though he’s unaware, but Shyan, Cang and Abia take notice. They each sit upright and scan the waters. “What was that?” Shyan murmurs.
Another thud, this time more violently. The gang is a ways from the coastline and exhausted from over a day’s paddling already, and the meagre meals that have sustained them. The paddle boat slaps the water in protest as it tries to right itself. Ripples on the surface presage another blow to the craft.
“Water jumpers,” Abia says. She says something to the water in her native tongue, but only a moment later another thump, this the biggest yet. Even Fassn is awake now, muttering about his wings, how they would help in a situation like this.
With another thump, Shyan loses hold of her paddle, watches as it drifts away. The thumping continues, faster now, and harder.
Rising up over the water, the sun beats down hard. It reflects off the river, burning the skin of the four rough folks in the paddle boat. Cang and Shyan paddle, each to a side, but their energy has depleted since their mad dash early in the day. The town is far behind, now, and what lies ahead isn’t certain.
“I’m hungry,” Fassn rumbles, his hands linked across his belly, his eyes closed. “Can we catch some fish?”
“Certainly, old friend,” Cang says, his breathing heavy between strokes. “Simply dive in there and scoop up a mouthful with those stubby fingers of yours.”
Fassn makes a face but it’s enough to know he might actually be considering it.
Trees and reeds go by on the banks. Birds flit above them, and aquatic creatures of all descriptions tussle and move below the surface. The sun moves across the sky as the gang follows the river north.
“Where are we going, by the way,” Fassn asks.
Shyan and Cang share a glance. She shrugs. “We’ll know when we get there,” she says.