An excerpt from “The Attic” by Bekah Ferguson & Rachel Xu.
A mist swirled around the trio and a swamp stretched out ahead of them. Dead trees reached upward from the murk at odd angles, casting spindly shadows over the oily surface. Floating weeds shifted positions as gaseous bubbles rose to the surface and burst around them.
Ian turned toward Varkis, who stood with hairy gray arms crossed over his chest and feet spread wide. “What do you think?” The last thing he wanted to do was enter the swamp, but Kurik had given him no other choice.
“I think it wasn’t a smart idea to come with you after all,” the dog-man replied.
“Come on. Seriously.”
“Who said I wasn’t being serious?”
Lily stood nearby, one hand on her hip as she squinted up at the dusky sky.
Ian ran a hand down his face and took a deep breath, nearly choking on the stench of the water. “Well, . . . let’s get this over with then.” He stepped into the cold goop, weed-muck sucking at his foot. Another step forward and he sunk down, slimy vegetation and dank water swirling about his knees. “Come on guys,” he glanced over his shoulder. “We have to get to the Jubaka Tree and out of this swamp before nightfall or we won’t live to see morning.”
Varkis harrumphed. “This swamp gets deep fast, you do realize. We’re going to have to swim a lot of the way and it’s going to be freezing.”
“I know.” He met eyes with Lily in an apologetic glance. She looked frightened now. “We’ll take breaks as needed and warm up afterwards.”
“Does anything, uh, dangerous, live in this swamp?” she asked.
“Not that I know of.”
It was a lie.
There was something lurking in the swamp; something that had started out quite small but had been growing for many years since.
When Ian left the land of Alvernia as a young boy, he’d taken along some kind of tadpole from his father’s collection of species, thinking it a frog. He’d then released it into the swamp. Later, when he realized his mistake (that it was no tadpole), a year had already passed. Of course it was possible the creature had died right away, for he’d seen no sign of it in the few times he’d been at the swamp—but he wasn’t going to just assume this. Better to err on the side of caution.
The three of them trudged forward in a row, every step threatening to suck off their boots.
He glanced over at Lily. Though her face was ashen and taut, she at least was keeping up.
Varkis, on the other hand, would not stop voicing his complaints. “I’m never gonna get this guck out of my fur. Couldn’t we fashion a boat so we don’t have to swim through this slime?”
“We don’t have time.”
“I’m going to itch for weeks. Look at this—” He raised his arms from the goop, revealing half a dozen leeches.
“You’re also going to smell like rotten eggs,” Lily cut in. She grinned as she said it but her eyes remained clouded.
The sludgy waters had nearly reached their shoulders.
“It’s not the swamp that smells like rotten eggs,” the dog-man responded. “The mushrooms I had for lunch made me gaseous.”
Ian took another step forward and the water bed gave way beneath him, forcing him to tread water. “Here we go,” he said, swimming with wide frontward strokes, arms getting tangled in the weeds.
Their progress was slow-going as they swam around protruding tree branches, logs, and patches of reeds. He tried not to think about what might lurk beneath but his heart drummed in his chest. What if something sucked Lily down before he could do anything to stop it? The water was opaque: even if he dived after her it would impossible to see anything.
Brown bubbles broke the surface around him and he choked on the smell. Slime splattered his face as a large one burst in front of him. He wiped away the goo, gagging, and spat out a chunk of weed.
“Ian,” Varkis barked, laughing, “hold it in, man.”
“What are you talking about?” He shot a glare over his shoulder.
“The bubbles, what else? You ate more mushrooms than I did.”
“Ha.” He paused, treading water, and peeled a leech off his neck. Lily wrapped an arm around a log, propping herself up. Varkis followed suit.
“Is that a child—!” she gasped, pointing toward the fog ahead.
“Where?” He grabbed onto the log and peered over it, straining to see through the mist.
Some forty feet ahead, something or someone lay slumped over a tree branch—the lower three-quarters of its body submerged in the swamp.
“Hey, kid,” Varkis shouted, “you okay?”
The child didn’t move.
“He must be unconscious—” Lily cried, eyes wide.
“We’ve got to save him. If he slides off the branch, he’ll drown!”
“Lily—” He grabbed her arm, restraining her. “Why would a child even be out here? We’re miles from civilization.” He looked about in all directions. Varkis was sniffing the air.
“I don’t know how he got here,” she said, blinking rapidly, “but we can’t just leave him!”
Ian frowned, straining to get a better look at the unmoving, powder-white back of the child.
Black weeds clung to its skin like tangled overalls.
“Ian, I can smell you and Lily,” Varkis said in a low voice, eyes narrowed, “but I can’t smell that kid.”
“What are you saying?”
“—Ian, look,” Lily interrupted, her voice high-pitched with fright.
As if in slow motion, the child’s body raised itself to an upright position, rivulets of water trailing down his back. His head was completely bald and weeds swirled around his waist as his body twitched, increasing in momentum.
Like someone waving a rag doll on a stick.
“He’s alive—” Lily yanked her arm free and hiked a leg over the log. She dropped into the water on the other side and took off toward it.
“Wait,” he shouted, climbing over the log and plunging after her as she swam with wide strokes toward the child, pushing vegetation out of her way as she went.
“Lily, stop,” he cried out, “it’s a trap—”
“—I’m almost there.” She reached the child and spun him around.
A pallid face without a nose stared back at them with unblinking eyes and a fish-like mouth.
Ian’s boots struck something soft and squishy as he tried to pull her away. He steadied his balance only to be raised two feet above the water: his feet squarely planted on the head of a giant eel.
The doll face and torso rose higher, revealing a tentacle rather than legs. Useless arms hung at its side like rubber.
It was an appendage, not a child; a “finger puppet” lure.
Varkis reached them and yanked Lily into his arms. They took off as Ian struggled to keep his balance.
He looked down.
The lower jaw of the inky eel jutted out beneath him in a grotesque underbite with dozens of needle-thin teeth.
Attempting to toss Ian aside, the slick body thrashed to and fro, sending waves of swamp water in every direction.
Ian dropped down and wrapped his legs around the throat. He pulled a knife from his belt and thrust it into the gills. The eel let out a screech as yellow blood oozed from the wound.
Hissing, it dove under the water and took him with it. With no chance to grab a breath of air, he got a mouthful of rancid water instead and lost his grip. He tried in vain to grab hold again as he slid down the eel’s back and slipped off the end of the doll-face tail.
Ian thrashed his arms and legs, opening his eyes to look about. The water was opaque. The eel could be anywhere by now—behind him, about to attack, or gaining ground on Lily and Varkis.
He kicked hard and propelled himself upward, breaking the surface with a gasp of air, and grabbing onto the first branch he could find.
The eel’s giant head rose above the surface of the water in his peripheral vision, some fifteen feet away, and charged toward him—sending up great arcs of water on either side.
Out of nowhere, a bullet whizzed past Ian, piercing the eel in the jaw.
Shaking its head left and right, it dove underwater and with a great whip of its tail, shot out of the swamp and hurtled through the air toward Ian—its mouth agape.
Another shot rang out, then another and another. Bullets zipped overhead embedding themselves in a row up the backside of the airborne creature until one hit it right between the eyes. It let out a roar and belly-flopped to the water as Ian dove out of the way.
Within seconds, the lifeless body had sunk out of sight in the murk, bubbles breaking the surface in its wake.
For a moment all was still.
Then the sleek black body bobbed up again and floated on the surface.
Ian half expected to see Hannah to the rescue again as he scanned the swamp for the source of the shots. Instead he found Mike clinging to the trunk of a nearby tree, a gun in hand and weeds tangled about his waist.
“Don’t kill me, Ian,” he said gruffly, wiping swamp water and mud from his brow with the side of the hand that held the pistol. “I can explain everything—”
“First, give me the gun.”
“It’s empty,” he said, tossing it over anyway.
Ian caught it and checked the cartridge. “All right,” he said, catching sight of Lily and Varkis returning through the distant fog, likely drawn by the sound of gunfire. “You’d better have one good explanation for all this. Have you been following us this whole time?”
Ian narrowed his eyes.
For some reason Mike had saved his life in direct rebellion of Kurik’s orders. It didn’t add up. “Let’s get out of the swamp,” he said, “then we’ll talk.” He let go of the branch and swam. “Don’t try anything either,” he said over his shoulder, “or you’ll never set foot on dry land again.”
After about ten minutes, they reached an isle covered in bronzed willow trees. Varkis and Lily caught up with them as Ian and Mike stood on the shore, peeling weeds and leeches off, and shaking out some of the water clogging their clothes.
Varkis climbed onto shore on all fours and barred his teeth, growling, but Ian raised a hand. “Leave him be. He saved my life.”
Lily gave Mike a wary look. “Can we trust him?”
“Claims he was possessed by one of Morack’s creatures. Used him like a puppet. But it seems to be gone now, or so he says.” Ian let out a long exhale, relieved beyond measure to have Lily by his side again. “We haven’t time to discuss it now. It’ll be dark soon and I don’t want to spend the night in this swamp.” He was beginning to doubt Kurik was ahead of them. There’d been no sign of him.
“Are there any more of those eels out there?” Mike asked.
“Don’t think so. He’s the only one I brought here years back and they can’t reproduce without a mate.” Ian ran both hands through his wet hair. “Let’s get to the Jubaka tree, and then get the heck out of here.”
In the center of the tiny island, cloaked by the willows, was a grouping of six trees which formed a perimeter around a clearing. The trunks were transparent and fireworks of all colors exploded continuously within them. The coniferous boughs blotted out the colors from any plane that might fly overhead.
It was like a mini carnival in the middle of a shrouded swamp.