by Jesse Zimmerman
Chapter Three: Into the Stinkhole
There is talk at the hearth in the tavern, but I’ve gone to my room to plunge into sleep. Who sleeps after a night like this? Me.

Later on, when I’m awake, I still hear the conversations beneath the floorboards. I am off the bed and into my mail, and then out the door and down the stairs, chasing the scent of food. Meela, the co-innkeeper, greets me as she passes by with two plates of fried puffin eggs. Pruza follows behind her, carrying a barrel in his arms. When he puts it down behind the bar counter, he offers me a hearty breakfast while his wife grabs me fresh brew in a ceramic mug.

I quickly spot K’Nat and Ura near the hearth. Achalay stands near a small table upon which he has placed his ape token, the item now tied taut in metal rings. With my steaming drink, I saunter to the middle of the room through niches in the crowd.

‘If I had any leftover coinage, I’d wager that the herd folk are responsible,’ a man says as I pass, a vague tinge of fear in their voice.

Some folks nearby mutter in agreement when Ura calls loudly over the crowd, waving a hand. She says: ‘So, we agree it is never a good idea to buy tokens and false coins from strange folk!’

‘If only there had been a sign!’ says a familiar voice, the Challenger’s.

Glancing about me, I don’t see him among the faces. K’Nat, at my side, raises his spear, saying to the crowd: ‘Do we want the tokens back?’ which is answered with muddled laughter.

‘An otter took my pearls!’ someone shouts.

‘Aye! ‘Twas a spotted dog-like beast swiped at me gold and mocked with laughter!’ a thickly-whiskered man shouts, weeping a little.

‘I have read many tomes, and I might know something of this, as I had a feeling from the beginning that this would occur!’ declares Achalay, rubbing his own head with both his hands.

‘You did? And yet you bought one yourself?’ the Challenger asks him.

Achalay looks to the ceiling, seemingly stunned. I follow his gaze, spotting the ranger above us, his mud-caked boots dangling over the thick beam he’s seated upon.

‘Whatever treasure we find we bring back and share!’ cries K’Nat, jutting his spear over his head while most people cheer and some clap.

The Challenger leaps down, landing gingerly beside the hearth, sending a flurry of ash into the embers. ‘We don’t know there are treasures in there,’ he says candidly, one side of his face lit in the glow.

‘They have our coins!’ shouts one of the fishers.

‘And somehow in all of that enormous floating rock we’re going to be able to find them?’ the ranger asks with a not-so-subtle scoff.

Suddenly Meela is beside me, bearing in her hands two large sacks, bidding we put whatever we find in them. She says quickly: ‘Whatever’s in there is wicked. A party that ventures needs be hearty warriors!’

Ura reveals her long knife, placing the flat hilt against her forehead. K’Nat keeps his spear raised. With no weapon to show, I move over to stand with them and Achalay arrives at my left, saying he wants to join us as the tavern becomes silent.

‘I’m not much of a team player,’ the Challenger says slowly when K’Nat and Ura look to him. Then he adds: ‘But exploring new places is my speciality.’

He raises his blade from the sheath at his belts, crossing it with K’Nat’s spear and Ura’s blade. I take my quill out, holding it near the weaponry. Achalay uses a small table leg.

‘Wonderful!’ says Pruza from over at the counter. ‘To our new fellowship, think of a name for later, but all half pints are half off for the next half of an hour!’

My writing satchel is strapped against my shoulder, full of quills, papers, and ink. The rest of my luggage remains at the inn for safekeeping. A full day we just used for preparation. Now it is the following morning and we meet at the inn’s ground floor where Ura hands me a hefty bag with straps, one I helped her fill up.

Despite the bag’s great weight, the straps are hardy so I walk upright. Inside it are two long rolls of rope, three leather flasks full of water, a set of flint and iron, extra torches, a canteen of oil, a few rolled up furs and pelts, and a whetstone. We also put in some foodstuffs tied in cloth; assorted nuts, roots, and dried wheat chips. The Challenger had placed many quivers in this bag too, arrows of various make. Meela gave us the scope to see afar, explaining that Lady Flora from Silver Coast is sending another scope, with which the innkeepers will use to watch for us on the crest of the floating island.

Ura and K’Nat each have smaller bags slung against their backs, as well as various straps for their weaponry and tools. The big fishing man has his ancestral iron-tipped spear and an ornate hardwood shield attached at his backside. He wears a furred mantle, bearing only straps and a thick breechcloth that reaches his knees, telling us this lets him move fast. Ura, this day in a tunic and pair of breeches made of fur, a lofty brown cloak with trim strewn over her shoulders.

The Challenger has many deep pockets in his woolly pants. Beneath his dark green cloak I can see light ringed armour. At his waist are two belts, one of leather, the other of birch. He bears a quiver full of arrows and his bow, his sword in a sheath dangling at his hip.

We four quickly huddle in front of the dormant hearth, the Challenger speaking whisperingly: ‘Mates, are we sure we want this Achalay fellow?’

‘Why not another explorer?’ asks Ura softly.

‘Ranger, you think he’s with them?’ asks K’Nat beside me. When the Challenger asks what he means, the fisher motions his face towards the inn’s door, clear that he means the strangers.

‘No,’ says the Challenger. ‘I only question if he has the skill. His followers, where are they?’

‘Well, they both left him, don’t know why,’ I say, remembering the two of them from before.

‘Each deserve a chance!’ says Ura. ‘Or so my father used to say so!’

‘Ah, we fishers say that too! An extra back to help carry our stuff,’ decides K’Nat, pulling back from our huddle.

Pruza and Meela arrive from the kitchen, placing on the nearest table the food to break our fast upon, a mountain-shaped platter. We four are hit by overwhelming scents. Looking on, it is uncertain where the runny eggs end and the multitude of crispy smoking meats begin. Nearest to K’Nat sits a series of filets and twelve kinds of shrimp all tossed in together. Pruza hands each of us a big wooden fork, imploring we begin, turning to help his wife retrieve more food from the scullery.

K’Nat is first to dive into the meal, bringing onto his fork a bit of everything, stuffing his catch into his mouth with obvious glee. We are all sloppily feasting when Meela and her husband start placing wrapped meals on the next table over. Bits of cheese are in my mouth when I look upon the new meals for our journey.

‘Three pheasants, four shore pigeons, five cods, two juicy squids, a helping of clams that you ought to eat early on, and two fried eels,’ details Pruza while his wife places more things down on the second table.

‘Five loaves of hard baked bread, six earth apples, a jar of dried apricots, two pear pies, a bushel of citrus bits, and a dozen marsh muffins!’ Meela announces with her always warm smile.

‘Trade’s been good, at least before that floating thing appeared,’ Pruza tells us while they pack most of the provisions into the big bag. There is another bag, not so large as this one on me, in which they put all the rest of the provisions and a few other items.

‘We hope this suffices, friends!’ says Meela as she ties the strings at the top of the bag, closing the uppermost part shut.

‘It will!’ says Ura as she smacks her lips, uttering thanks between chewing.

‘We hope you find the source of the evil in there,’ Pruza tells us. ‘I can tell you, it’s not just the attack the other night – those cursed creatures! – but the town as a whole, ever since that hovering piece of rock appeared.’

‘Dorf Trot?’ I ask the innkeeper, mentioning the name of Tenth Town’s master of whom I have heard nothing good yet in my little time here.

‘Oh, yes, him,’ answers Pruza, clasping his hands together. ‘He’s been sitting watching. He commissioned big wooden walls built outside the town, some of them pointing inward to separate hovels from one another!’

‘Walls?’ asks Ura, looking up from her meal. ‘We can’t get into town to barter our goods if he does that!’

Before anyone can answer, we all hear footfalls at the top of the stairs. Achalay is coming to join us. He holds a medium-sized satchel in his arm, an open scroll in one hand.

K’Nat waves, motioning to the meal when Achalay reaches the main floor. ‘Gorge yourself, for we leave soon!’

At first there are not many folks out on the slushy roads, but as we make our way towards the bay more join us, fishers and herders, tanners, hunters, as well as local traders and middlefolk. When we reach the moored boats much of the town is present on the shore. Voices call out, giving us best wishes and hopes.

I smile at the crowd, not overweighed by the bag on my back. Achalay carries the other smaller backpack, insisting it is temporary. There are two fishing boats, the vessels for our departure. Three fisher friends are on the nearer of them, while the second is filled with fishers bearing lit torches. We five file onto the first of the boats. After K’Nat pushes off our boat, he and his mates paddle smoothly, bringing us away from the shore toward the shadow of the colossal hovering landmass.

There are seabirds native to this realm flying about, some squawking, between the shore and the floating island, many of them perching on the ledges higher up along the intrusive shape. Once we get underneath the base I hear only the waves against the hulls of our ships. If not for the torches of the other boat we would see little. This expansive roof over us, from what I can see, seems to be made purely of rock with grey and brown hues, with clusters of stony projections pointing downward along some of its hardy surface.

‘There it is,’ says the Challenger, crouched at the stern of the boat.

‘The stinkhole,’ utters K’Nat with a bold nod.

Looking up, I see it in the torchlight, a roundish hole in the rocky roof about the size of a person, or so I think from this distance. We get right under it and I hear steady dripping when the paddles cease their rowing. K’Nat volunteers to go first, but the Challenger suggests he go in his stead, being nimble and used to the dark. The other fishers protest this, especially the young mate, Flexi, insisting that K’Nat can fish without moonlight.

‘Enough!’ bellows K’Nat at the two of them, then he adds: ‘Brothers, I need you to return here twice a day In case we need to return out this way. Now, the ranger onto your shoulders!’

Ura places a rope ladder onto the Challenger’s torso, and then K’Nat and the other fisher make a three-man column to hoist the ranger to the hole, which he easily enters. Soon the ladder is hanging from above and the ranger calls for us to begin climbing. We go, me last, mostly letting them pull me.

Inside is dark like expected. The ranger and Ura raise their torches, having received them from the fishers. The floor is smooth like a plateau of rock. K’Nat bends over the hole we just passed through, yelling down: ‘Safe! Big room here!’
‘I see ten paces,’ says Ura, placing her knife at her belt, seemingly content that there is no immediate danger.

‘I see twenty,’ says the Challenger. ‘No walls anywhere from here.’
‘We stay together or split?’ asks K’Nat, standing from the edge. Opposite one another, the Challenger and Ura step in two different directions. I follow Ura.
‘Stay together!’ says Achalay, tightening the straps of his backpack as he stands over the hole to the water below.
‘I go with Ura!’ says K’Nat, following us, holding his long spear towards the shadows before us. The Challenger requests Achalay join him venturing the other way.
After about ten paces, I take notice of a trickle on the floor. It streaks, narrow as a woodland snake, straight all the way to the hole behind us. Across the way is another trickling line, back the other way where the ranger and Achalay are moving.
‘Two trickles,’ mutters K’Nat, observing this. ‘They both spill out the stinkhole, so that’s what pours out?’
Ura lowers her torch. The air between her torch’s blaze and the dark line at our feet starts to flicker.

‘It catches flame?’ bellows K’Nat, side-stepping from the wet trail as Ura pulls back her arm, the flicker immediately fading.

‘Be careful with your torch!’ Ura shouts after the others. ‘The streak lights up!’

‘Lights up?’ Achalay calls back, his voice echoing, revealing the ceiling of this place to be high. Behind him the Challenger is lowering his torch, not heeding Ura’s pleas.

‘Not here!’ calls the ranger, shaking his head.

‘Strange,’ I say to the companions near me. ‘Two trails, one that lights in fire, the other what…only water?’

K’Nat shrugs: ‘This burning wetness, what is it? The only thing that lights up like that is strong beer or even stronger spirits!’

‘You so hope!’ laughs Ura, to which the fisher grins while we three continue walking upon a floor that is gradually tilted upward.
‘Forty steps in!’ shouts the Challenger to us. ‘There’s a wall, the ceiling high! Before us is a tunnel! What see you there?’
Ura calls back her intention to move ten more paces. K’Nat walks beside her, myself a bit behind. The trickling stream at our feet widens slightly. At another three steps the torch illuminates a wall that rises sharply. I make out the circular rim of something, a round entrance.

‘Ooh, a passageway of rock!’ says the fisher, stepping forth, sticking his head into the circumference. ‘Oh, here, more of the stinky wetness! If you bring your torch in there the whole tunnel burns up!’ says K’Nat.
‘Our choices narrow,’ I say as Ura turns about to face the wary we came, asking us if we ought to enter the tunnel near the others. K’Nat shrugs, but he follows her back, holding his spear at his side while we make our way back towards the hole in the floor, passing it, and then we reach the ranger and Achalay. The wall here looks just the same as the far one, as does the round portal in the stony surface.
‘This way does not lit up,’ says the Challenger.

‘This way,’ agrees Ura, bringing her torch to the streak of liquid at our feet. K’Nat reaches into my bag to take out some eel meat, handing some bits around to the rest of us.

The Challenger, chewing some nuts, looks into the tunnel and then runs his fingers through the slow-running liquid that flows slowly out of it. ‘Water,’ he confirms, sniffing his fingers. ‘Water on one end, some kind of oil on the other, why?’

Ura shrugs, reaching into the top of the sack on my back next, retrieving one of the lengthy ropes. She hands K’Nat her torch.

‘We move,’ says K’Nat when he’s finished eating a piece of eel tail.

The Challenger stands back as Ura steps before him. He grabs the part of the rope behind her. K’Nat grabs it next, and then Achalay, with me taking hold of it at the very rear. All of us begin walking in a row, our two torches lighting the interior of the tunnel. The ceiling over us, only a head higher than I, is made of rock, a smooth hard surface. The narrow water trail runs at our feet, getting a bit wider the higher we step, remaining a slow trickle. The floor is tilted, leading upward. At the tail of our party, I fasten the end of the rope around my left wrist in case I lose my footing.

‘One hundred steps,’ says the Challenger. ‘The length from my treehome to the Old Ridge!’
I see it up ahead, the archway. Our party steps out into a large dark space. Here, the torchlights illuminate a radius of fifteen paces. The wall we just passed through rises up behind us.

‘Strange. The wall weeps,’ says K’Nat, taking one step back, raising his torch near the circular entryway of the tunnel. I see it, a thin flow of liquid over the wall’s flat surface. The Challenger steps over to the fisher’s side, inspecting quickly before he turns about and begins walking away from us. Once he is further out we see the flicker of his torch get smaller. He calls back to tell us that there is another wall where he is standing.

‘Does it weep, the wall over there?’ calls K’Nat through the shadows between us and the errant ranger.

‘No, and no tunnels either,’ the Challenger explains. His torchlight begins bouncing as he steps sideways. ‘Ah, not too wide of a room, more long.’

‘Hmm, so a rectangular room?’ asks Achalay. ‘We came up here for nothing?’

‘We made no promises,’ I sigh, wondering if the quest is over already at this seeming dead-end.

‘Unless….’ says the Challenger, gazing upward at the wet wall. He lights an arrow on Ura’s torch. Once it catches aflame the ranger shoots the arrow straight up along the weeping wall, sending the fiery projectile clattering against the ceiling of the chamber, landing out of sight.

‘Ah! There may be somewhere to stand up there!’ says Ura.
‘Water falls over the lip,’ says the ranger, still holding his bow, running his free hand through the thin veil of wetness.
‘And drips from the wall itself,’ says K’Nat, pressing his own thick hands against the wall, rinsing his fingers. I see what he means, streaks of water that seep through tiny holes and crevices in this wall.
‘We get up there,’ says the Challenger.

Ura ties together the end of the rope into a loop, tossing it over her head. It takes her a few tries until, by luck, the looped end of the rope gets lodged on something up there. She pulls to secure it. The Challenger takes the other end of the rope, tying a similar loop about his own waist. The rope dangles over to the side of the archway we came through.

‘If I may go first? I nominate you to be second,’ he says to Ura and she nods, letting go of the rope.

‘Let me be last,’ K’Nat says. ‘I can climb wet rock, but I want the most hands to pull me!’

The Challenger, after handing his torch to me, begins scaling the slippery stone wall, managing to fit his fingers and feet into enough crevices, pulling himself up along the rope. Beside me, Achalay runs to the wall, seemingly impatient. He rushingly begins climbing the wall, his body writhing like a flopping fish, unaided by rope, making it up a few paces before plunging to land on his back. Once at the top, the Challenger shouts down to us. Achalay whimpers, getting back to his feet.

‘What do you see?’ I call after the ranger.

‘As I thought, a thick canal filled to the brim with water,’ answers the ranger, tossing down the rope, which Ura squeezes over her shoulders. She climbs, placing her torch in a strap on her back, the blazing end away from the rope. The ranger helps speed her ascension by pulling on the rope from the above.

‘How far does the water go?’ I ask once she reaches the top and the rope dangles before me. I tie it around my big bag, taking it off my shoulders, asking them to pull it up first.

‘The water goes far!’ the Challenger shouts down to me. They now have a torch up there with them, so they see more. Ura, after pulling with the ranger, takes hold of the bag, bringing it over the lip of the ledge.

‘Could be another dead-end,’ mutters Achalay, taking off the bag he was carrying, attaching it to the dangling rope next.

The ranger and the herdswoman receive the second bag, and then return the rope down. Beside us K’Nat cups his mouth and cries: ‘Take Achalay and Chainmail in one go!’ and then he laughs, patting us on the backs when I am fastening the rope around my waist. I climb barely, a torch out in one hand, letting them take me most of the way.

At the top there is a small place to stand, this floor that is only a few paces wide, though twice as long. At our boots there is a steady flow of water, though not strong, and a few projecting rocks overhanging the lip. Our rope is lodged around one of the largest of them. The sight on the other side is just as the ranger described, endless still waters ahead of us. I unfasten the rope and throw it down to Achalay, helping with the others to lift him to our level.

‘What is this, a sewer?’ he asks once up, looking out at the dark waters.

‘What is a se-wer?’ asks Ura, lowering her torch as she kneels. In her light we still cannot see the bottom of the water.

‘At least it doesn’t smell like one,’ says the Challenger.

‘I hope never to see one of these things, these se-wers!’ says Ura.

Holding his bow, he asks her to bring the torch in front of him. He then lights an arrow and shoots, the flaming shaft flying down what looks to be over a hundred paces before falling into the water, fizzling out. There is only more tunnel, more water.

‘I am the first to ever come up with the idea of lighting arrows to see further,’ says the Challenger, laughing. ‘If only there were things to build rafts with.’

Ura turns to lower the rope down to K’Nat, the fisher promptly widening the tied circle. Once it is secure about him, the fisher stretches his limbs, readying himself for the short vertical journey.

‘By Delpiha’s mercy, what’s this foul thing?!’ K’Nat suddenly shouts. Underneath us, the big fisher is kicking the wall, sending himself spinning for a moment as we raise him the rest of the way up.

‘K’Nat? What is it?’ Ura asks him once he’s nearly before us. The big man reaches, grabbing onto the rocky ledge, pulling himself the rest of the way up as we make space for him, finding ourselves even more cramped.

‘Something’s down there!’ K’Nat says as the Challenger and Ura help him stand. The fisher retrieves the spear from his back, pointing its end down over the edge. Leaning at his side, the Challenger loads a fresh arrow. I wish I had brought a weapon.

A few silent seconds pass, all of our breaths sucked in, waiting for something to emerge from the tunnel underneath us. We hear the crackle of our torches and the soft fall of water in front of us. I raise my helm a bit, straining to hear anything else.

‘From the tunnel we just came!’ says K’Nat in a whisper. ‘I saw it in the dark, eyes – many orbs in the darkness, must have been six, no, eight of them, all open, fixed on me! As you pulled me up I heard snarls!’

‘I heard nothing,’ says Achalay, exhaling loudly. ‘Maybe you saw nothing?’

‘I did not see nothing!’ insists the fisher, his face in a disgruntled grimace.

‘Rats, critters, snakes,’ suggests Ura, peering over the ledge, holding her torch straight out from her.

‘Or maybe kobolds, like four of them?’ says the Challenger with a shrug. ‘Easy villains, them. I’ve fought them before, after a night of drinking too!’

‘No, no!’ says K’Nat, seeming to get annoyed. ‘Nothing small!’

‘Maybe,’ says Ura, looking back to the water. ‘Who knows?’

I nod to her in agreement, quickly retrieving the scope, using it to look out across the stretch of water. I suggest another fire arrow. The Challenger does so, but even through the scope the passing light reveals only waterier corridor, no sign of any land or rock or anything above the water. A moment passes before I see something approaching from far down the watery way, something reddish-brown, bulky, moving towards where we stand.
‘Look,’ the Challenger says as we watch the floating thing, the five of us side by side on the ledge. I put the scope back into my bag, placing the whole bag on my back again.

‘A fish?’ asks K’Nat, his forearm pointing down the waterway. It seems shaped that way, longer than wide, yet I see no tail nor any fins.

‘A raft?’ Ura asks when it is closer. The wet surface of it shines like varnished wood, no creases or grains in its veneer. Taking in the measurements, I can tell it ought to be able to hold us all with little space else. The Challenger is the first to step aboard when it reaches us. It only bobs a tiny bit under his weight. Praising Maeth graciously, Ura steps next onto the flat vessel.

‘It must be from goddess Delipha,’ says K’Nat, taking a last wary glance at the chamber beneath and behind us.
I step aboard as gingerly as I can. There are no seats, only enough to barely move around while standing, but our weight seems distributed evenly, bunched up as we are.

‘I swear to both Delipha and the Sea Ghost, I saw those glowing eyes down there,’ says the fisher when he gets onto the raft’s rear, turning from the rest of us while using his spear to moor the raft back closer to the ledge where Achalay stands.

‘No one doubts you,’ says Ura, but I see her give the Challenger an odd glance.

‘I may need a light,’ the Challenger tells us once Achalay steps aboard, squeezing past K’Nat. The fisher pushes us off from the ledge with his spearpoint. The vessel begins moving back the way it came down the watery tunnel.

‘This thing must serve a purpose!’ declares Achalay.. ‘Just like the water here, and the wet wall!’

‘A larger system could be,’ says the Challenger, nodding slowly.

‘The raft here though?’ says Achalay. ‘It must serve a function, am I wrong?’

‘To transport,’ says K’Nat, rowing slowly when the Challenger turns to me, his arrow fitted on his bowstring. In the little space between us I raise the torch, letting him bring his arrow to it before he shoots it down the way before us. The flash reveals more water through a long and narrow tunnel with brown walls on the sides, the arrow falling about sixty paces away, showing no sign of an end.

‘I think we move downward?’ says Ura over the ranger’s shoulder.

‘We are,’ says the Challenger. Now I too notice we are moving faster than before.

‘Water only knows one way,’ K’Nat says at the small stern of the raft, his spear in the water at his side like an oar.

Behind us, back from where we had boarded, there’s a loud splash.

‘Duck,’ whispers the Challenger. Ura and I drop, squatting as the ranger loads a fresh arrow and points it over us, towards the source of the sudden noise.

‘That wasn’t a duck,’ says Achalay, still standing near the fisher.

‘Not even a swan, bigger!’ grunts K’Nat, bringing his spear out of the water.

‘Duck!’ the Challenger whispers louder.

They get it this time, or at least K’Nat does as he crouches, bringing down Achalay with one of his hands. Ura and I hold our torches over our heads, letting the ranger light his arrow. He pulls his bowstring, readying to fire it back the way we came. Our gazes follow where he shoots, the blazing shaft revealing a dark shape in the water for a split moment before the arrow hits the far wall and falls.

The Challenger loads, lights, and shoots another arrow, this time revealing only some ripples on the surface of the water, a few stray bubbles bursting. Loading and lighting another, he spins about, again facing where we’re headed. Under my feet where I’m crouched I feel a slight sensation, a slight shake.

Torches crackle.

There is a big splash at the little craft’s front, then the floor underneath me rises and falls. Still squatting, I reach out, grabbing the edge of the craft, crouching further, letting the big sack on my back cover me like a shell as my companions all shout when a form emerges from the water in front of us. In the fast movement I make out what appear to be two thick arms covered in coarse hair surrounding the sides of the raft.

The Challenger, closest to the shape, shoots off his latest flaming arrow into the dark bulk. K’Nat shouts as he steps over me, his spear thrusts before him like a lance, moving in beside the ranger. Ura swiftly lunges forward with her torch, waving its flaming end into the mass.

Many lights appear, many tiny lights all clustered near the crest of the attacking creature!

Cold water splashes against my hands and face as I lose my torch, needing both my hands to grip the side of the raft. I see next the great fisher, no longer charging, just behind Ura and the ranger. The big man’s arms move, thrusting the spear against the looming face, into the bunch of orbs, pulling back sharply after each stab.

Beneath my body I can feel the raft suddenly turn. Gripping tight with my fingers, I glance up to see the creature move from sight, its immense form continuing to flow down another way, down another tunnel

‘Hands on, grab hard!’ calls Ura as our flat vessel speeds further.

‘Turned down another canal!’ yells the Challenger. ‘Who steered us?’

‘Not me!’ insists K’Nat, pulling his spear closer, nearly losing his footing. Ura manages to grab him with her free hand and we all brace, all hunkering down as far as we can, our vessel moving faster and faster until the tilt declines and we move straight for a while, gradually slowing.

I still crouch once we’ve finally stopped, letting myself fall backwards onto the raft’s surface, my legs landing on soft sandy ground, the huge bag on my back cushioning me. I lay like an upturned turtle, trying to understand what just happened.

Dizzily, I manage to roll over and stand, heaving the bag over my back, thankful to be unhurt. The Challenger laughs awkwardly once we’re all checking ourselves.

‘I don’t know what that thing was,’ he says. ‘Got an arrow off at it.’

‘What I saw back there in the tunnel, see?’ says K’Nat with a half grin on his wide face, wiping sweat from his curled bangs. He holds up his spear, revealing at the point of it a gooey greenish thing that looks like an egg with a runny yolk.

‘Is that an eye?’ asks Ura. ‘It has eight of them?’

‘It once had eight eyes!’ declares K’Nat.

At my side Achalay, having just gotten back to his feet, turns over, looking like he’s about to wretch. There is a sharp sound then, coming from the way we just came, the echo of an enraged hiss.

We’re soon charging along an open area, the ground steeply rising like a hill. By now we have moved far inside this enormous floating island.

The Challenger’s later exploits are already available in Our Adventures with the Challenger.


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