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.

iii) Shyan swims past the thumpers

Shyan swims past the thumpers which batter and beat her. The water churns and tumbles with their frenzy. Her brown skin takes on ruddy blemishes where they contact her, their tails a long, narrow stripe of welted flesh. Shyan grips the oar shard in her teeth and wills herself beyond the pain, fights to swim deeper.

Fassn is still at the bottom and the weeds, gently swaying despite the chaos above, have largely enveloped him. Only one foot can be seen, Fassn’s big toe poking through his boot. The rest is a seething mass of seaweed, wrapped around him like a grieving widow at her husband’s coffin, but there is no sound of weeping, just the cacophonous, percussive swirling of the thumpers tumbling through the water above.

Shyan reaches the vegetal mass and takes the shard of paddle from her mouth. Wielding it like a dagger, she begins to cut.

ii) When she breaks the surface, Shyan shouts

When she breaks the surface, Shyan shouts, “He’s down there. Weeds got him.” She’s panting, desperately treading water, as the thumpers circle the craft and begin again to butt the gang with their bodies, their long tails drifting. Shyan idly smacks them away.

“Well then?” Cang says.

Shyan crawls into the boat, grabs up an oar, and swiftly sends a kick through it that shatters a shard that she holds aloft: about half a metre of wood with a jagged end and vicious point.

“That might have been valuable if we intend to leave this place some time,” Cang says. It’s in vain, though, as Shyan first cuts the rope around her waist, turns and dives deep into the river.

Cang and Abia share a glance as the boat is swarmed by water thumpers and Shyan disappears below.

i) The water thumpers swarm

The water thumpers swarm Fassn who helplessly moves his arms about in the water’s current. His eyes, wide and bulging, find Shyan’s, and there’s panic in them. He tries to speak but a jet of bubbles and distorted noise is all that emerges.

The thumpers dart in, lay a blow against his body — and a sloppy red mark where they meet flesh — and dart out. When Fassn hits the bottom, a small spray of mud coming up from the floor, the thumpers seem to keep their distance. They move about, creating eddies in the current and making vision difficult, but move toward Shyan, who’s still a few meters out at the end of the rope. The thumpers speed toward her, begin assaulting her with their dense, spongy bodies. Shyan, amidst the chaos, sees why they’ve chosen a new target: the gently flowing seaweed reaches for Fassn, grabs his hair, his beard, the dangling trinkets he’s acquired on his travels. He screams until a strad of seaweed fills his mouth.

Shyan reaches in vain as Cang and Abia begin hauling her to the surface.