The tree’s rustling soon gives way to chittering voices, speaking hurriedly in a language Shyan doesn’t understand. “You ever seen these things, Abia?” she asks.
She shakes her head once, firmly, but speaks an unfamiliar phrase aloud, directed at the trees. The chittering that follows is more animated than before. Leaves drift down from the canopy as whatever is up there moves about.
Meanwhile, Fassn is shaking off the deep burn in his palm.
“We’re just passing through,” Shyan says. Abia translates as best she can, though she’s unsure what the language is. More rustling and chirruping is all that follows.
“Perhaps these insensate creatures are not worth our precious time,” Cang says. He ducks under one of the strung vines.
“Maybe you’re right,” Shyan says. She does the same, but her shoulder brushes a vine and she goes rigid with shock.
The instant his skin makes contact with the vines, a jolting shock goes through him. Fassn’s eyes roll back in his head. His grip is frozen.
“Oh no,” Shyan says. “Not again.” She strides next to Fassn and with the side of her hand delivers a rapid chop to the vine. Its green flesh snaps under the sudden pressure like a ligament, comes to a dangling rest.
“We might have been better served letting him suffer,” Cang says. He gestures subtly, no more than a nod, at the trees surrounding the stakes — dark shapes linger and shift above.
It isn’t long before “here” is a rocky riverbank giving way to stony beach. The boat butts up upon it, and oarless, the gang judders to an uneasy halt.
As the last slivers of sun disappear the night’s cold moves quickly in. Shyan and Cang disembark, pull the boat ashore enough for Abia to step out. Fassn stomps and splashes a bit, soaking his boots, before following the rest.
Sharp stakes rise from the ground, head high. They’re doubly tall over Cang, who’s first to see them. He throws a hand up to signal his companions and points out a taut length of vine strung between the stakes. “A quite clever implement,” he says.
Shyan squints at the poles. “They’re here, too.”
Abia leans in to study their make as Fassn grabs a vine.
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.