This week is a section that was cut from the current version of ‘The Trails of Exasia,’ the sequel to ‘The Statues of Azminan.’ Please enjoy…
Angry shouts were audible just ahead through the woods, followed by a volley of explosions that could be nothing other than gunfire. Anna froze in indecision. The trees ahead of her swayed. The quiet outcast boy called Two burst through the trees, his arms loaded with burlap sacks filled with lumpy goods. He wore a patch over his eye and a maniacal grin on his dirt smudged face.
“Run!” he whispered at Anna as he shot past, still grinning.
A branch splintered as a gun blast boomed from nearby, and Anna obeyed. Anna and Two were far better at skulking through the woods undetected than the men pursuing them, and it wasn’t long before the men abandoned their search and returned to their ship uttering a string of words Anna had never considered combining. With as much sound as a stealthy mouse, One joined them in their hiding nook under a fallen tree.
“Hey Four [Anna],” she whispered amiably, “nice to see you again.”
“What’s going on here?” asked Anna.
One shrugged. “We’ve been stealing their food,” she explained. “Harold’s boys did it first, and we figured, why not? We need to eat, too.”
“Did nobody consider asking them if they’d share?” asked Anna in disbelief. She got her answer from One and Two’s faces.
“Too late now,” shrugged One. “Two’s their number one most wanted. Ha!” she brayed. “Two, you’re number one!”
“What happened to your eye?” Anna asked Two.
“Oh, he thinks he looks more devil-may-care that way,” explained One, and Two assumed a position that probably seemed more fierce in his mind. “He found it at the bottom of a box he stole. We should get going,” added One, grabbing a sack from Two. “We’ve been leading the men toward where Harold and his boys are hiding out, but that means we’ve got a long walk ahead of us, and Twenty-five said she saw that chlotka snooping around the middle woods this morning.”
“How far are the middle woods from here?” asked Anna, lifting one of the sacks over her shoulder and following One through the trees.
“We’re in them right now,” replied One.
“Oh boy,” sighed Anna, wondering where Arelil, the chlotka she had free, had ended up, and how many times her indebted chlotka might be willing to save her life. Two held a finger to his lips, and Anna happily complied.
The camp had grown significantly since her last visit, graduating to a cluster of tree houses adjoined by rope bridges. Anna recognized that many more skills had been added to the children’s repertoire, and was impressed by the little village bustling under One’s command.
One and Two tossed their sacks to several boys tending a fire with a bubbling stew suspended over it in a large metal pot. Anna handed her sack over as well, and gratefully accepted a bowl of stew in return.
“We all earn our food equally,” explained One, accepting a bowl and savoring the aroma. “Thanks, Thirty. It’s simple rules here,” she said for Anna’s benefit. “Do something for the camp, get fed. That goes for everybody; me, too.”
They watched a girl approach holding up a seashell wind chime. She left with a steaming bowl of stew.
“Even decorations?” asked Anna dubiously. “It seems like what you and Two just did was a lot harder than making a wind chime.”
“Maybe,” shrugged One, “but the second we start making rules around our rules, someone is going to have to be treated differently. Might as well live in Harold’s camp if that’s what you want.”
Anna gazed around at the bustling outcast camp and couldn’t help but be impressed. She guessed about half of the children must be here, and all in all it seemed pretty peaceful. She watched a few more children approach the stew boys with handmade wares or reports of deeds done in the name of the camp.
“What about the chores nobody wants to do?” she asked at last.
“Oh, there are a few of those,” smiled One, handing her bowl back to the boy called Thirty, who Anna recognized as Douglas, one of the lookouts from the catacombs. “Dishes, for example. If you do one of those chores, you get to pick a prize. Here, I’ll show you.”
Thirty added their spent bowls to a basket filled with others of their kind. One picked up the basket and followed a path through the trees that led to a rock face with fresh water trickling from it. One wadded a clump of long grass and began scrubbing the bowls under an area where the water fell freely. Anna did the same.
“The trick is not to let them sit for too long,” explained One, “then put them out for a full day in the sun before using them again. Our carvers made lots of bowls, so it works pretty well.”
Once they were finished, they carried the dripping bowls up to the top of the stone face, where bowls covered every inch along a narrow path. One replaced the wet bowls in her basket with dry ones from the other end, and they returned to the fire.
“Now,” said One, dropping the basket at Thirty’s feet, “we get to pick out our prize. Come on.”
She led Anna into her lean-to, which now looked more like a gift shop. The wares ranged from practical to decorative, and some of the items were obviously not made by the children. Metal pots, piles of coins, and even a pair of men’s boots were intermixed with wind chimes, baskets, wooden utensils and grass clothing.
“You’re doing great,” commented Anna.
“You mean beyond sharing our island with Harold and his bullies, men with guns and a chlotka,” laughed One.
“Right,” blushed Anna. “I just meant,” she said, gesturing around, “you’re good at being in charge.”
One brayed after an awkward pause and turned back to the wall of goodies. “I’m not in charge,” she said, her cheeks infused with rosy embarrassment. Anna didn’t press. She knew exactly how One felt.
“Are you certain it’s a chlotka?” Anna asked, picking up a small grass weaving of a horse.
“Three got a good look,” answered One. “He’s still telling his survival story, even though it happened days ago. From his description, it has to be.”
“Black spikes and all of that?” shivered Anna.
One regarded her thoughtfully. “According to legends, not many survive to tell of chlotka who look like that. No, chlotka can change into any form they want, which is what makes them such dangerous predators. Usually the best way to tell is to find tracks that shift from one animal’s footprint to another, but in this case, Three saw a bear. Not the kind of animal you find on a hot island. He was following it, with some delusional thought of hunting it and feeding us for months, and at the edge of the water it turned into a giant shark and swam away. Nobody’s gone into the water since.”
“No, I guess,” murmured Anna in agreement.
One picked out a large clamshell that had been hinged together by grasses. “This’ll make a nice jewelry box,” she smiled. “Have you found your prize?” Anna held up the horse. “I made that,” beamed One.
“I like it,” said Anna, tucking it into a dress pocket. One blushed again, and hurried to lead Anna up a rope bridge to the small tree house city.
“This is my new home,” welcomed One, as they entered the most adorned house. It looked exactly right for One. Wind chimes tinkled merrily at every window opening, and shelves lined the walls packed with miniature grass creatures. One’s eyebrows wrinkled in worry suddenly. “I should have picked the hammock,” she said. “I only have the one.”
At that moment, a horn resounded in the air and One’s eyes doubled in size.
“Did the men find us?” asked Anna, reaching for the glove and metal boomerang she still hadn’t learned how to use, but One shook her head. The blood had drained from her face.
“Chlotka,” she said breathlessly.
Anna ran toward the beach, hoping to intervene should it be Arelil. She skidded into reverse as she recognized that the black sparking plates on the enormous creature approaching down the beach did not belong to Arelil. The size of the chlotka was all wrong, as was the gait. When the chlotka spotted her it began to trot. Anna scampered after the other children.
“Anna!” the creature roared, and she froze. Her fear was confirmed. That had not been Arelil’s voice. “Where is Anna?”
She turned, trembling, and sank her hand into the metal glove in her pocket. The chlotka was close enough to pounce now, so there wasn’t much point in trying to run anymore.
“Hi,” she said, and she shifted her weight so her knees wouldn’t knock against each other so violently. The black-barbed beast looked her up and down and leaned in for a thoroughly intimidating sniff.
“Is it true that you freed Arelil?” asked the chlotka.
Anna nodded, her voice far too chicken to help her at the moment.
“I came to see for myself.” The chlotka sniffed her. “Interesting.”
Anna swallowed a dry gulp. “Arelil s-said chlotka only look like this when th-they’re hungry, or mad,” she stammered at last.
“That’s true,” nodded the chlotka. “Oh,” it said after a moment, “I see,” and it transformed into an enormous crab. It wasn’t quite the guise to put Anna at any sort of ease.
Anna eyed the gigantic claws and nodded. It wasn’t quite a lie. The crab towering over her, though completely terrifying, was better than the chlotka hunting form.
“Arelil has been searching for you,” said the crab, and that was all the warning she had before it emitted a roar so ferocious and ear shredding, she heard the echo of forty-some children’s screams reply from the nearby forest before they quickly shushed back to silence. A faint roar replied from somewhere very long distant.
“I am Yinka,” introduced the crab, and Anna realized that the shift in weight and slight tilt of the crab’s body was meant to be a bow.
“Oh,” said Anna, gathering her manners, and her wits. “Anna Hisaven,” she said amidst a curtsey, “pleased to meet you.”
“Exasia…” hesitated Yinka, “is she nearby?”
Anna wasn’t sure how to respond. “I don’t think so,” she answered at last. The crab visibly relaxed at her reply, and Anna became curious. “Why?”
“We wish to express to Exasia, should you speak with her on our behalf, that we understand the lesson she set forth, and the chlotka do not intend to challenge her resolve ever again, or… upset her further. Please convey our message.”
“Okay,” agreed Anna, wrestling between the side of her mind taking counsel from her overwhelming and very real fear of the creature before her, and the curiosity that was natural to her. As usual, her curiosity won.
“What did…” she began, but her courage drained out.
“No, never mind,” she said quietly.
“Chlotka do not have long patience,” cautioned the crab. “What is your question?”
“I was going to ask,” she explained, “why Exasia scares y…” she decided to amend her sentence when Yinka’s large claws raised suddenly, snapping together loudly. “You know,” she stammered, “why Exasia is so… scary.”
“You saw for yourself,” said Yinka. “Arelil was tethered to that bump of land for decades, for enjoying a meal that Exasia disapproved, the only relief from boredom the occasional visit from me and a few other friends. Exasia made it clear that Arelil’s punishment was an example,” added Yinka. “What I wish to know from you is whether you were sent by Exasia to lift Arelil’s bindings, or did you free my friend without her knowing?”
Oh boy. Anna blew the air out from her cheeks and summoned every drop of courage that she had ever had. She couldn’t see clearly which answer held more danger, and suspected somewhat that any answer she gave was going to displease Yinka. With a sigh, she decided finally that if she was about to die horribly, she might as well do it telling the truth.
“I’ve never met Exasia,” admitted Anna. “I freed Arelil by myself.”
A sneaking prickle of dread sprawled up Anna’s spine. Yinka’s expression had changed somehow, and she realized with a shudder that she had just confirmed that Exasia, apparently the only person the chlotka feared, was nowhere nearby.
Yinka’s claw snapped her up around the middle before she could so much as flinch away, and she dangled painfully for a few full minutes in Yinka’s studious gaze before the crab hoisted her onto its hard shell back. Ridges rose around where she landed, and two dark horns sprouted at sharp curves before her, conceivably as handles for holding on. That was all the warning she had before the crab scuttled into the lapping waves.
They traced the bottom in silence. She was grateful that while her friends functioned as the council she could breathe under water because she was too petrified to bother finding the wooden breathing device Danashatz had given her. Yinka lunged upon a stingray embedded in the sand, whose deadly barb proved ineffective against the chlotka’s thick shell. Yinka hunkered down to savor the meal, and Anna dared not so much as flinch as scraps of the grisly feast floated past. She could see flitting shadows of large predators circling closer to snoop, but none proved brave enough to investigate too boldly given the goliath crab at the heart of the mess.
Yinka belched loudly at the completion of the meal, and to Anna’s horror, reached a claw up for her. Finding use of her muscles in a rush, Anna scrambled down the crab’s back and kicked away. Her progress halted as her dress tugged her backward. Yinka had a bit of the fabric pinched and proceeded to reel her in.
“What will you do my little dessert? Call Exasia?” hissed the crab.
Anna scrambled for Exasia’s flute and blew into it, but nothing happened. She was breathing water. She scrambled for the wooden breathing device. The approaching claw opened to snap at her waist. In a rush, she reversed the tune that had freed Arelil.
A ripple passed through the water, like a wave bursting outward, and Yinka lost grip of her. Anna kicked away from the crab forcefully in a second attempt to flee. Yinka reached after her, but howled in pain, snapping the giant claw back as if it had been stung. Anna slowed her retreat, painfully aware that the hungry predatory shadows still lingered in the direction of her flight. She watched Yinka strain again against the invisible barrier that now kept the giant crab locked in place. She stopped swimming and considered the chlotka with a furious glare.
“Please, Miss Anna, you have my full remorse,” pled the chlotka as it shifted through forms, challenging its bindings with each. “It was a test,” Yinka continued, settling on the form of a docile looking, and very pretty, seahorse. “I wished to know if your claim was true. It isn’t just anyone who can build or break prisons such as these, and this is fine work.”
Yinka blinked large long-lashed eyes that she was pretty sure didn’t belong on a seahorse, but played havoc with her resolve. The enormous seahorse looked so sad and helpless, and winced in a wounded way as it drifted into the invisible cage. Anna shook her head and resumed her glare.
“You tried to eat me!” she shouted.
“I needed you to believe so, yes,” admitted Yinka, fanning the decorative eyelashes again.
“You called me dessert!” she accused.
Yinka’s large eyes darted back and forth. “I had to be convincing. You’re such a sweet little creature; I wasn’t sure what it would take to anger you. Please don’t hold a grudge,” purred the seahorse.
Anna noticed several of the predators darting close enough to cause worry. Two large sharks were teasing the water just behind her to see if she was paying attention.
“You were kind enough to free my good friend Arelil,” continued Yinka. “Please don’t leave me trapped down here.”
“Arelil said that chlotka are solitary,” Anna said suspiciously. “He never mentioned any good friends.”
“Ah well, yes, for chlotka, friends and enemies are often determined by the day and the length between meals,” admitted Yinka, and for some reason, the chlotka’s honesty put Anna at ease a little.
“Arelil said that since I freed him, he owes me a debt…” she led.
“Of course,” agreed Yinka. “Arelil will continue to serve you until the debt is paid. Very likely for the same amount of time the poor dear was imprisoned. Chlotka do not promise their support arbitrarily.”
Anna wasn’t sure what that last word meant, but she gathered the meaning from Yinka’s voice. If she got Yinka to promise not to hurt her, the chlotka would have to keep the promise.
“So, if I free you after a day, you would have to help me for a day?” reasoned Anna.
“Not so,” said Yinka. “How does my freedom after a day or even a year make me grateful to you when it was you who imprisoned me?”
“Oh,” said Anna. She hadn’t thought of that. She eyed the darting shapes of the approaching sharks warily. She should get to shore before the sharks grew too bold. It tugged at her heartstrings just a bit to leave Yinka trapped down here, shaped like a harmless seahorse, but the other shapes weren’t far from her memory, and the chlotka had tried to eat her. She began to pull toward the shallow water.
“However,” Yinka said quickly, “should you free me right away, I would consider it an act of mercy.”
“How long would it be before you tried to eat me again?” asked Anna, pausing with uncertainty.
Yinka made the seahorse shoulders shrug, then tilted its head, considering Anna with a new thought. “You wish something from me, do you not? I am amenable to negotiation.”
Anna hadn’t thoroughly thought through the teeny glimmer of an idea that snaked through her mind when Yinka first discussed chlotka promises, but it was there, and had taken root more than she knew now that she considered it. She wasn’t sure about the word amenable, but negotiation she understood. If chlotka kept their promises, as it seemed they did, this creature might just be the answer to her problems.
“You just seem strong,” she said, “and I’m wondering if you are strong enough to pull a ship… if there were ropes attached to it.”
Yinka laughed. “Is this about those ships off Cai? That was a great long while ago. I’m surprised you even know of it. Am I in trouble for that? By my recollection, I only ate a few of the men who fell in. They should have held on better, being seamen and all. Or… you weren’t talking about that,” added the seahorse when it realized that Anna was gaping. “Please go on. You have a project in mind?”
Anna blinked. She had forgotten everything she’d been about to propose. With effort, she recollected her thoughts and ran her fingers through her floating hair.
“Um, yes. I have a project in mind. My friends are…” she reconsidered the idea of disclosing the location of her trapped friends to this predator and changed her tack. “There are two ships I’d like you to move,” she said at last. “The first one is docked at this island, and I want you to pull it out to sea. If that works, I’ll lead you to the second one. I want you to pull the second ship to Azminan.”
She saw Yinka’s eyes bulge a little bit when she mentioned Azminan, and she held her breath nervously. If the chlotka declined she could just leave it here, but she was all too aware that this was as yet the closest she had come to a viable rescue plan.
“That is a reasonable demand,” Yinka finally conceded. “I agree to your terms.”
“You won’t try to eat me?” asked Anna.
“I will not try to eat you.”
“Or any of my friends?” she added.
Yinka sighed, and turned squarely toward her. “If you free me from this prison immediately, I give you my vow to conclude these two requests, and until both requests are completed, you have my guarantee that I will neither attempt to eat you, nor any of your friends.”
Anna thought through all of Yinka’s words and decided that it was the best bargain she’d be able to ask for. Yinka was enormous, and apparently had dragged ships around before. It might be the council’s best hope. She put the wooden breathing device back in her mouth, reversed the tune, and held the flute pressed against the wood just in case Yinka decided to attack again. The moment Yinka moved freely, the darting shadows in the distance sped away entirely.
Yinka stretched the long seahorse neck down into a bow.
“Please direct me to the first ship.”
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!