For Collins, the humidity was the worst part. He’d dealt with hot before—you’d be surprised just how sweltering it could get at sea—but at sea there’s a breeze and salty spray. Sure, this truly wretched swampland was crawling with shade, but that didn’t matter when the air was practically dripping with body-temperature water.
Keeping his brews cool was another challenge. Some of the more practical tonics flat out wouldn’t work if they climbed above a particular temperature; others brewed only for taste would simply turn, weeks or months of careful work and attention gone as surely as if they’d been poured into the sea. On the other hand, Collins had read about some interesting Zanvyan warm fermentation methods and recipes that he’d already been able to get going. No Villesavian tincture had produced effects like lasting low-light vision or real invisibility, but these recipes looked promising. It was good he’d had the opportunity to find the ingredients before he’d been shipped away from Villesav’s beautiful portside markets.
The sun had set, but that only meant the mosquitoes were out. It was still quite muggy, and if the last week had been any indication, it would stay that way for some hours yet. Too few nighttime hours feel truly nocturnal, he mused, sipping on a lightly fruity ale he’d worked up before he’d made the journey southward. It was one of the last of its batch, but it had stayed nice and cold: a strong contrast to the humid night.
The door to the little dorm shack he’d been assigned squeaked open, and Rhea joined him on the porch, sitting in the other mangrove-wood chair and gazing out into the murky evening. She had brought another of the still-cold beers with her, which she seemed to be enjoying.
After several moments of companionable silence but for the nightbugs, Rhea abruptly smacked her arm and shook her head, wiping her hand on the thigh of her pants. “At least we are not so deep that the really big bugs can find us.”
“Or worse,” said Collins.
“Oh? What have you heard?”
“Apparently folks have been having trouble getting to and from plots eleven and twelve. Seems there’s a monster in the water out that way.” He took a pensive swig.
Rhea cocked an eyebrow in amusement. “A monster, huh? You Villesavians are a bunch of doughy city folk.”
Collins laughed. “I agree; it’s no monster. Just some big mean animal that hopefully hasn’t developed a taste for human flesh yet. Oh, and doughy? Cute.”
Rhea laughed too. “It is not my fault y’all are known for bread and cheese. In fairness, though, this beer is delicious. I have never had anything like it. It was made by you?”
“It was. Not many raspberries out in Zanvya, are there?”
“No, but I can smell the chomba fruit you have fermenting as plain as the nose on your face when I go out back. Which, incidentally, will be just as prominent once your brew is finished as it is now.” She shook her head as she took another drink from her bottle. “Did nobody tell you you are chasing fairy tales?”
“Who said anything about fairy tales?”
“That nincompoop Zedi Nkuronabe was selling what we would call rooster eggs, in your language. Surely you have heard of someone trying his invisible potion recipe.” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, it was gentle, almost motherly, which annoyed Collins because she was hardly older than him.
“Of course the recipe doesn’t work as it’s written. Old Zedi didn’t have access to ingredients from our side of the sea, so I’ve tweaked it with some promising catalysts I’ve found a lot of success with. And besides, I think it smells delicious; I’m really interested to see how it turns out.”
Rhea wrinkled her nose. “Ugh. I have never liked chomba. It makes my tongue itch.” She took a swig of beer, as if to wash the offending flavor away.
“Think of what it could mean for my career if I do discover something, though. I could get a promotion out of here—maybe even to the Maktaba of my choice.”
“Here is not so bad, but I do see your point. Without experimentation, progress is not made, and new things are not learned. I applaud your motives; I only worry you will be misled like many before you. And what of your other still? Another ‘miraculous’ recipe by Nkuronabe?”
“No, I believe this one is more proven. You don’t know it by smell?”
Rhea smiled. “Apples have many uses on both sides of our sea.”
“So they do,” Collins said, smiling himself. “You have a tree whose root can enhance sight in the dark, I believe. The apples are simply for flavor.”
“Ah, the baobab branch. A classic. Apples are a good choice; it has a tendency to be quite sour.”
“Branch? I read that it was the root that had the active ingredient.”
Rhea laughed. “Yes, yes, the root. We have a legend, that the baobabs were turned upside down just after creation, for their limbs grow high and thick, spreading with the appearance of roots when they lose their leaves in the dry season. So, in our language, the herb you speak of is referred to as ‘branch,’ because the roots are up above.”
“Charmingly paradoxical,” was all Collins said as he tilted his head back, finishing his drink.
The next day, Collins found himself in just the right place at the right time.
He was in the small workspace he’d been granted, checking on several samples he’d dried for various medicinal recipes and experiments, when he heard commotion at the dock. Glancing out his little window, he saw one of the farmers standing up in his flat-bottomed boat, bare-chested and covered in blood. At his feet was what looked like a pile of bloody rags, and he was screaming for help. Before he knew what he was doing, Collins was already rushing across the mushy, cleared ground to the dock. A pair of burly craftswomen were gingerly lifting the injured man when Collins reached the scene.
“…just came out of nowhere! I don’t know how I managed to get him back in the boat, let alone get us both back here!” The shirtless farmer was saying.
When neither woman responded, Collins said, “Adrenaline is an incredible thing. Were you hurt?”
“Not by the monster. Can you help him?”
The injured man had been laid on the gnarled wood of the dock by now. One of the women had jogged off toward the main building of the Maktaba, the other was kneeling beside the unconscious man.
Collins knelt on his other side and asked her, “How bad is it?”
“His left arm is missing at the elbow, and it looks like most of his right foot is missing as well. He also seems to have bite marks across his chest and back, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some ribs are broken as well, but he’s breathing too well for there to be any damage to a lung. It’s the swampwater in the wounds I’m worried about right now.”
“Got it,” said Collins, springing up and running back to his workroom. He grabbed a handful of freshly dried willow bark and his bag of poultices and raced to where the unconscious man still lay.
He thrust his bag into the woman’s hands and said, “Find a clear bottle with a thick, greenish goo in it. Blue cork stopper, little black chunks in the goo.” Hurriedly, delicately, he began to unwrap the makeshift bandages the other farmer had applied, impressed by the man’s presence under pressure.
He heard the sound of a cork leaving a bottle’s mouth. “This?”
Collins nodded, taking the poultice and beginning to apply it to the smaller wounds on the chest, then the man’s foot and leg. He didn’t dare unwrap the man’s arm until real bandages (and someone with actual medical training) arrived. He did put some on the outside of the bloody stump’s wraps, but Collins knew it wouldn’t do much. Looking at the willow bark, he realized this man was beyond the help of a simple pain reliever, so he stowed it away in his bag.
By this time, the other craftswoman was returning with the only true medic currently stationed in the swamp. The medic wore a backpack and carried a small pitcher; the craftswoman carried a large jug of drinking water.
“I’ll take it from here,” the medic said. “What is it you’ve rubbed all over my patient?”
“Antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, sir.”
“And did you wash the wounds first?” The pale man knelt with a flourish of his red and white patterned cloak, delicately unwrapping the more grisly wounds as the craftswoman readied the water jug.
“Well, no, sir. We had only swampwater to hand, and that felt…counterproductive.”
“Hm. This concoction you’ve cooked up is certainly pungent. Its value, though remains to be seen. You may go, Collins. I’ve no need of your further help.”
“Oh. Okay.” Collins quickly gathered his things and went back to his experiments.
It wasn’t long before there was a knock on the doorframe (it was too humid to keep the door shut). Turning from the window, where he’d been watching the medic continue to tend to the injured man, he saw the craftswoman who’d helped him. She held out the vial he’d had her extract from his bag.
“You forgot this.”
“Oh, thanks. How’s he doing?” Collins moved to take the little bottle.
“Doc says he’ll live. I don’t think you deserved to be sent away like that, for what it’s worth.”
“Thanks. The higher-ups don’t always appreciate it when those of us looking to move up stick out our necks. Acting outside our mandate, y’know?”
She shrugged. “To my eye, you’re the one who saved that guy’s life. Everyone knows you couldn’t nurse him back to health, but it was your reaction, your quick thinking that strung him along ‘til the medic could get there. Speaking of, that stuff you had me open smells terrible. It’ll help with infection?”
Collins chuckled, despite his gloom. “It will. Peppermint and black garlic aren’t a great combination when you’re cooking, it’s true. But I haven’t found a better mix for cleaning wounds. You’re pretty comfortable around blood and broken bones for a carpenter, aren’t you?”
“You’d be surprised. When you’re at sea, the difference between a doctor and a carpenter gets smaller as the injuries get more serious.”
Collins was quiet as he looked back out the window. The medic was finishing with the fresh bandages, and the other craftswoman had apparently been sent for a stretcher, which she was already back with.
Seeing this, the woman he’d been talking to bade him farewell and went to help carry the injured man to the infirmary.
That evening found Collins back on his dorm shack’s porch, sipping a new brew. He’d spent his free time as the sun was setting decanting a small batch of an ale that had fermented as he traveled from Villesav. It was a proven recipe, one which traveled well, but a bitter one, patterned after the brews Villesavian brewers would export to places all across the sea. It had traveled well enough, but the style was not one of his favorites.
Rhea, however, seemed to be enjoying hers. When asked, she said, “It reminds me of my home. When I was a teenager, my father started to drink something much like this instead of Zanvyan wines. The smell brings me right back to him…”
She’d heard about the afternoon’s excitement, and had agreed with the craftswoman, that Collins had saved that man’s life. It did little to improve Collins’s mood, though, and he stewed over the medic’s casual dismissal into the night.
Collins had hardly set up his day’s work when a runner knocked on his workroom doorframe.
“The Mabwana have sent for you, sir!” the young man breathlessly announced. “You’re their first order of business for today!”
“Oh!” was all Collins could manage as his mind began to race. He had acted above his station—he had no medical training! Everything he knew had come from supplemental reading; his training was mostly culinary in nature, if he was being honest. Potions were a natural extension of brewing, and he seemed to be a quick study with it, but yesterday’s poor farmer was far beyond anything his potions or poultices could’ve done.
Then again, if the man still lived, he’d definitely played a part in keeping him alive. Perhaps he’d be lucky, and rather than getting a real punishment, the Mabwana would simply require him to take some medical courses so as to prevent him from obstructing medical personnel in the future. Regardless, he steeled himself for the inevitable lecture he’d receive as he stood before the council which ran this Maktaba.
The runner led him to a pair of closed double doors in the Maktaba’s main building and gestured for Collins to knock. He obliged, and the young man nodded once briskly and disappeared around a corner.
“Enter, please,” came a voice from inside, so Collins turned the knob and went in.
A large, round table with a stone top dominated the center of the room, and bookshelves lined three of the walls. The fourth consisted mostly of windows, which offered a full view of the parade field at the center of the main complex. Collins could clearly see the dock where the injured man had arrived the previous day. If the Mabwana had had a clear view of the incident, his chances seemed even worse.
Around the table sat the Mabwana, a council of six whose complexions were evenly split for equal representation of both sides of the sea. Everything the Mabwana did was voted on, tie broken by a second vote by those from across the sea (the same system was used for Maktaba in Zanvya). How would they decide Collins’s fate today?
Charle, a Villesavian man at least twice Collins’s age gestured to an empty seventh chair at the table, its back to the windows. “Won’t you sit down, Collins?”
“Sit? I’m…not in trouble?”
A portly, sweaty Zanvyan man named Ibeamaka burst out laughing. “Trouble? No sir! We happened to catch yesterday’s bout of excitement from our box seats here, and if nothing else, you are to be commended! Your quick thinking saved that poor man. I daresay without your little concoction, the poor fellow would not have made it to the operating table.”
Collins sat, working to process Ibeamaka’s words.
“So,” said Clarissa, an ancient-looking Zanvyan woman, “we now want to ask how you would take care of the ‘monster’ out there. It is obviously not merely a story, for stories do not bite a man’s arm off.”
“You want…my opinion? But it’s your work that’s gotten me this far in my career, madam, such as it is.”
“Your humility is admirable, young Collins, but it is your iteration on my work which has gotten you here. Any fool can follow a recipe; it takes someone special to cook.”
Ibeamaka chuckled. “You’ve been on this side of the sea too long, dear Clarissa. You’re sounding rather Villesavian today.”
She snorted. “You say I am the one who sounds Villesavian—in a Villesavian accent! Do you even remember how to speak our mother tongue, young one?”
“Unanita shaka,” Ibeamaka said sadly.
“I do doubt you,” Clarissa said, good humor still in her voice. “But in any event, we must discuss the task at hand. What do we know of this creature, Liana?”
A Villesavian woman who looked to be ten years younger than Ibeamaka adjusted her spectacles and shuffled through a pile of loose papers on the table in front of her. “Well, we know it’s big, and it’s probably territorial. Strong bite force, looking at the wounds. Mouth shape suggests something reptilian, but none of the caymans or monitors we know of get anywhere near this big. It’s completely believable that a large, semiaquatic animal we’ve never seen before could lurk in the muddy, confusing waters out there. Reptiles have a tendency to blend into their environments incredibly well. Ibeamaka, do the locals have any stories of giant monsters in the swamp?”
“What’s giant, and what’s a monster? Every isolated group has tales of monsters in the wilderness which surrounds them. Tall tales, in Villesavian—the word’s right there. However, I can ask the elders about a man-eating lizard in the waters out there. Plots eleven and twelve was it?”
Garrett, a mousy Villesavian man who’d been furiously taking the minutes, took the moment for a deep breath and to adjust his glasses before nodding. “Eleven and twelve, yes. Furthest plots south-west of headquarters currently.”
Ibeamaka nodded deeply, his brow furrowed in thought. “That’d be immediately due south of the village. Their roads through the swamp are very established and very specific, and it can be hard to tell in the gloom, but I’d say that area fits the bill, from what I know. As I say, I’ll ask them.”
Clarissa fixed Collins in her gaze. “If this is a great lizard, and if we do know where it is, we are interested in how you would deal with it. Your antiseptic poultice was ingenious, and Rhea has told me of your experiments percolating back at your bunk. Your use of chomba has my interests quite piqued.”
This caused a quiet rustling among the other two dark-complected people at the table.
Clarissa still hadn’t blinked. “You will give me a taste, I hope,” she said pleasantly.
Collins was suddenly aware of the ever-present humidity. He nodded. “Believe me, madam. If I’d brewed something with the chomba and was proud of the results, I’d bring it right to you.”
A genuine smile broke Clarissa’s stern expression. “I imagine you would. So? How do you deal with the problem without harming the surroundings? Scavengers will return anything you put into the creature to the water, meaning it will permeate everything else. We obviously cannot fight it. Can you mix something up?”
Collins nodded slowly. “Yes, a large enough dose of traditional poisons will poison everything around it too, and without knowing anything about its exact biology, we can’t know what’ll be most effective or work quickest, which raises the dose further. I imagine there’s an alchemical answer—some interaction between materials will surely be highly toxic in small doses. How quickly do I have to work?”
Charle sat forward in his chair, nodding and stroking his white goatee. “That is the question, isn’t it? Pools eleven and twelve could run self-sustaining for roughly a month, provided no predators get in.”
“Three weeks round trip to Villesav… Resources?”
“Our people are our most important resource; this takes top priority. Within reason, you have our full backing. Can you solve this problem, Collins?” Charle stood and extended his hand toward Collins.
Collins stood and shook Charle’s hand. “I’ll certainly do my best.”
Everyone else stood as well, so Collins thanked the room and made to leave. Before he reached the door, though, Clarissa caught his sleeve. “I thought I would invite myself along to your workspace, and then perhaps show you my own.” Her eyes glinted as she said it.
Collins’s own eyes lit up at the prospect. “You… of course!”
“I thought so,” she said as they made their way outside.
“Well, rising star, what is the plan?” Clarissa’s sharp eyes fixed on Collins, punctuating the good-natured challenge in her voice. They were in his sweltering little work room, surrounded by notes and vials of different powders and liquids.
“Well, I’m assuming we won’t be able to hit it with a dart, judging by the farmer’s report, so my mind goes back to poison. Not getting to observe the beast seriously limits me, though. What compounds we should use really depends on what type of creature we’re working with. Is observing it an option?”
Clarissa shook her head. “The other Mabwana forbid it. Reports say it knows to attack boats on sight, and exploring without one would be suicide—even before we consider the monster.”
“Erm, respectfully, we’re not sure there isn’t a natural explanation for this yet. The swamp isn’t exactly… fully explored.”
She chuckled. “A very fair point. No matter how long I speak your language over here, certain little pieces elude me. But I digress. Assuming it is not a…supernatural beast, how shall we proceed?”
After a minute’s thought, Collins asked, “What was our time frame again?”
“They have given us a month.”
“Hmm, okay. We’ll really only get one run to Villesav for supplies in that time.”
“Oh, yes, its system will be used to materials in its natural habitat. To shock it, we must think outside the swamp. Very clever.”
“Madam, I’d have thought you’d think of these things yourself. Again, with all due respect.” Collins riffled the papers on his makeshift desk uncomfortably.
“I have purposely done no thinking about this, in order to keep it your assignment. I do, of course, have my own gut feelings as to how to handle this, but until they differ greatly from what you propose, I will not steer you in any particular direction. And you may speak plainly with me as we collaborate on this issue. I do not seek to chastise like some of the other Mabwana. We are partners in this.”
Collins took a deep, relieved breath. “Well, since we only have one run, we should bring in a variety of materials we think would be worth trying. Is there a better delivery method than poisoned bait?”
“I really do not think so. But how to keep it from contaminating the water?”
Collins lit up. “You said it yourself! It attacks boats on sight! We rig up a small machine to paddle the boat into the dangerous area with only the bait on board. The only issue I can think of right now is checking our work, but I have a feeling it’ll make a good amount of noise when it happens. How far did the attack happen from a platform?”
Clarissa shuffled through papers until she found an annotated map of the farm pools. “Not very. See?” She held it up for him to see.
Collins nodded. “The lookouts should certainly notice if we station them out there. They’re used to the sounds of the swamp.”
“Nzuri sana! I shall go over your list of required materials tomorrow morning before we send the riders to the coast. I am assuming we will be on the same page. Sawa?”
Collins nodded. “Sawa sawa.”
Clarissa smiled, her weathered face forming a maze of kind wrinkles. “Well, then would you like a tour of my office?”
That evening, it was time to decant the baobab cider, as he’d come to think of it. Culinarily, it had certainly turned out more like an apple cider than a root beer, though aromatically, the apples seemed to compliment the unctuous baobab branch.
Good thing, thought Collins. He’d actually hoped the apples would hide the roots’ distinctive flavor, but this was almost better. It’s a potion, though. Not a beverage. Flavor is secondary to—
“Now I see why my people do not brew with baobab branch!”
“Hello, Rhea,” Collins said without looking up from his work. “You don’t like the smell?”
“I certainly was not expecting it! But I will try this…what is it exactly?”
“I’m calling it baobab cider,” he said, setting down the now-empty pot and taking off his gloves. “And we can try it tomorrow. I’m going to change, so wait out here for a moment.”
“I suppose I can do that.”
Collins chuckled and wiped sweat from his forehead, preparing himself for the stuffiness inside the shack.
Later, he and Rhea were sitting on their porch, as had become their custom.
“I heard the great Clarissa invited you into her workspace. And how was that?”
Collins didn’t have anything to sip on, and it made him restless. “It was wonderful, actually. She’s so organized, but has had so long to build her collection… It’s a wonder she sets it all up everywhere she goes.”
“But none of it would help you in your new task.”
“Boy, does word spread around here. Did you have dinner with Ibeamaka or something?”
Rhea grinned. “In fact I did. I love to talk with him because I have to say very few actual words.”
“Of course,” Collins replied dryly. “No, her collection is what we call ‘experimental.’ She really would only have enough of any one rare ingredient to make maybe three doses of a potion. They’re used to test interactions with new materials. If she found something interesting, she’d send away for ingredients just as surely as we will tomorrow. But what blows my mind is that she’s gotten to test all of those jars against all of the other ones. Her mind contains an even more complete encyclopedia of alchemical interactions than the encyclopedia she published. I wonder what she’s working with here…” He trailed off.
After a moment, Rhea began to nod and said, “Ibeamaka is like that. He has met so many different little cultures that he acts like an old friend to barely contacted peoples he has only just met. I still do not understand how he learns languages so quickly—and he has complimented my linguistic ability. Perhaps I know how you feel being given this tall task. For what it is worth, I believe you can do this.”
“Wow, thank you, Rhea. That really means a lot, especially since I’ve been wondering if I can myself. But since I can only do my best, that’s what I plan to do.”
“Good,” she said. A brief, companionable silence stretched between them.
“Hey, I’ve been wondering. Why were the baobabs turned upside-down in the first place?”
“The old god became angry that the baobabs stood so tall and proud. They lacked respect for him, and so he hid their beautiful boughs below the ground.”
“Ah, the proverbial pride before a fall. A classic, among cautionary tales. Tell me, does the branch always have this sour a flavor, or is it the way that I’ve brewed this? It smells…like it might not be the best-tasting brew I’ve ever whipped up.”
Rhea nodded. “Sour, yes. It is not exactly a desirable ingredient. The apples may have the right flavors to compliment the baobab. Only a taste will tell.”
Watches in the area leading to plots eleven and twelve had been made volunteer-only, dangerous as the area had become, so Collins found himself staking the area out himself, joined by Elena, the carpenter woman from the incident at the dock.
The wan twilight had given way to a particularly dark evening as Collins and Elena huddled on the lookout platform, waiting. The insect-repelling concoction Clarissa had whipped up seemed to be working, but there was no escape from the humidity or smell this deep in the swamp. The two of them were taking turns moving a boat with the bait back and forth using ropes and pulleys, watching for any movement in the water, but so far the only movement had been the tide coming in. The pair had run out of things to talk about, and so the sullen silence stretched, punctuated by buzzing insects and the occasional bird cry.
“Remind me to thank Clarissa personally for this repellent. This would be so much more miserable without it,” Elena remarked into the darkness.
“You’re not kidding,” Collins said. “Oh! That reminds me: I brought us something.”
Elena made an intrigued noise as Collins pulled out a flask.
He laughed quietly. “Don’t get too excited; this is more for function than to ease our boredom. I’ll admit, though, that I’m excited to try it.”
“Another of your concotions, eh? So what is it?”
“An apple cider spiced with roots from a Zanvyan tree called a Baobab.”
“Is it tasty?”
“Probably not,” Collins admitted. “But as I said: it’s not about the taste.” He uncapped it and took a swig.
It was sour—more sour even than Collins had expected it to be. It hadn’t been a very large swig, but it was still enough to cause his face to involuntarily screw up, his eyes brimming with tears. He shook his head, blinked them hard away and brushed at the remaining moisture with his free hand. When it came away, his breath caught in his throat as his jaw fell slack.
Elena sat before him, where she’d been for the last hour, but he could see her now as if a full moon sat in the sky. Her hair and eyes didn’t have the color the sun would have shown, but here under the trees, he could make out individual freckles on her cheeks. In exquisite monochrome detail, he saw her eyebrows come together as she sat a little straighter.
“What?” The concern was in her voice, too.
Collins, for once, was speechless. “It’s… you just have to try it.” He held out the flask, grinning.
She took it hesitantly.
“Careful. It’s…very sour.” He said as she took it.
“One question before I drink this. Are… you hallucinating at all?” She sniffed the flask’s open mouth.
Collins burst out in giddy laughter, but hurriedly stifled the noise with a hand. “No! I can’t believe it worked! And this has already lasted longer than the Baobab and dandelion alone. Damn, I should have brought a watch.”
Elena tipped the bottle up, then quickly down again. Collins could see her throat push the shot down, but it wasn’t enough to save her from the flavor. She grimaced as her eyes puckered shut, and she reached for her waterskin. A quick swig of water later, she opened her eyes, and her jaw dropped just as Collins’s had.
“I didn’t know this was possible,” Elena said, amazed by the detail she saw in the world around her.
“It isn’t,” Collins said. And as Elena looked at him, he knew she saw his eyes sparkling.
Which gave him a thought. Peering over the edge, he looked into what had previously been a void which occasionally made sloshing noises. Again, it was as if the swamp were lit by the light of a moon that simply wasn’t there. The water was black as black could be, with no glare or reflections of any kind, but a thin, wavering line was visible where mangrove roots or muddy banks rose to break its surface.
“This is incredible,” Collins said as he sat back up.
“How long will it last?”
“That’s the pivotal question, isn’t it? Using only ingredients East of the Ocean, where the Baobab is found, it would already have worn off. But this…this was only a sip for me. I’d wager your good swallow will last longer than my dainty sip.”
“Oh? A bit like working through alcohol, then?”
Collins nodded, smiling as he remembered she could see him. “It’ll have its own rate, which I’ll be able to time in the right environment. Oh! Speaking of studying things exactly…” and he tilted his head back, hoping to glimpse stars through the canopy. Stars, he’d noticed as they’d set up, that he couldn’t see even where the skies sat visible through the leaves.
Perhaps it’s cloudy now, he’d distinctly thought as their stakeout began.
Now, though, through the leaves, he could see it wasn’t cloudy at all. Two, three stars total shimmered faintly in the gaps between boughs: stars Collins knew in his heart he’d never, ever seen before. As he enjoyed the spare astronomical display, he found the stars, one by one, winking out.
“Wait! How long?”
“What? How long was what?”
“How long ago did I take my sip?”
“Maybe five minutes?”
“Okay,” Collins unscrewed the lid on his flask. “I’m gonna try to drink twice as much as I did last time. Should be about ten, then.”
Even knowing what to expect, drinking the potion wasn’t pleasant. Collins managed it, though, and had closed his eyes before the wave of sour hit him. After wiping his eyes, the first place he looked was up. Four stars glimmered mysteriously among the foliage above him.
“Right. This makes tonight’s mission a bit more interesting, doesn’t it? Let me know when you need more.”
“I will, but I think I’m going to save it. I’d rather have it when I need it.” Elena was lying prone with her head over the edge.
“That’s actually a very good point. There is still more than half left, but I think I’ll go easy on it as well. We’ve still got plenty of waiting ahead of us, don’t we?”
And wait they did. Collins had expected false alarms from water noise, but strangely nothing of the sort had happened. A profound calm had fallen over their little corner of the swamp. For what felt like two hours, there had been no fish breaking the water’s surface, no birds diving for food, no amphibians of any variety hopping off a root and into the water. As the silence dragged on, Collins’s eyelids began to weigh heavily on his vision.
“Hey, I’m gonna try to get some—“ Collins was interrupted by a heavy splash.
The rope was jerked out of Elena’s hands as they heard more violent activity below. They could only see motion in the murk as the thrashing continued, then the great scaly beast disappeared into the swamp, trailing the rope Elena had been holding behind it.
She grabbed the flask, urgently downing two heavy slugs before thrusting it at Collins and starting down the ladder. He threw back a similar amount and screwed the top on tight, throwing it into his bag.
The entire setup had been designed to come apart once the beast grabbed on. The trap being sprung, after all, wouldn’t count for anything if they couldn’t confirm that the danger had been dealt with. As the rope continued to uncoil, Collins and Elena only hoped it would be long enough to lead them to whatever den the creature called its home.
The sounds of something large and strong faded into the dark distance as Collins and Elena hurried at ground level after the rope. Elena followed as closely as she could; Collins stopped briefly at regular intervals to mark trees they passed with Clarissa’s glow-in-the-dark paint, ensuring their ability to get back out after the creature had lost them.
Elena managed to track the thing for about forty-five minutes, though to keep up with her, Collins had to take more of the Sight Cider, as he’d come to think of it, after what he thought was a half hour. He caught up to her as she leaned against a tree, catching her breath.
“This is where you lost it?”
She nodded and held out her hand.
Collins painted an eerie, green blaze on the tree, then handed her the flask.
She took it and laughed. “I was looking for water. But…” She took a hearty swig.
“Oh,” said Collins, fishing his waterskin out of his bag and handing it to her.
She washed down the cider with the water, then drank another swig of the cider. Swirling the flask around, she said, “Is there gonna be enough to get us back?”
Collins couldn’t help but grin. “They sent us out here not knowing we’d have that. The plan was to do this before we knew it’d help, remember? We’ll get back just fine, but this stuff’ll get us back way quicker.”
She laughed, suddenly and loudly. “I really was prepared to run into the dark after that thing, wasn’t I?”
Collins nodded. “Something I’ve noticed about us humans: we’re unbelievably fast to start relying on new technology. But we can talk and move—stealth is no longer important, and we’re on the clock.” He swished his remaining cider around loudly when he said the last, then marveled again at how he could see Elena nod purposefully, her eyebrows knitting as she surveyed her surroundings. Satisfied she wasn’t leaving anything behind, she waded back into the thigh-high water toward Collins’s last blaze.
Collins had the next day off, and that evening, he and Rhea found themselves on their porch together again.
Collins sat in his usual chair and gazed out at the murk around them. He shook his head. “It’s a shame that…WAIT!”
Rhea jumped as he popped out of his chair and hurried to open his insulated chest, which he kept under the feet of their shack. A sharp click of the chest unlatching, the clinks of glass against glass, then the clack of the chest closing again, and footsteps punctuated by a pair of fsht noises as Collins used his unique ring to open the bottles.
Returning with two opened brown bottles, Collins said, “You thirsty?”
Rhea looked suspicious. “We are out of that wonderful raspberry beer and the one my father would have liked, so what do you have there?”
Collins grinned widely. “Not chomba, I promise. This is the cider I was working up.”
Rhea accepted a bottle, if only to sniff it and decide then.
Collins doused the porch light.
“Try it, Rhea. You’ll see.” Collins couldn’t help but smirk at the pun as he took a sour, sour swig of the Sight Cider.
He’d cleared the tears from his eyes in time to see Rhea’s dark face pucker as the cider hit her tongue. Remarkably, he could see her features in the near-dark just as well as he’d been able to see Elena’s. Contrast, then, had nothing to do with the amount of detail the potion revealed.
“Oh, what have you given me? This is terrible!” she exclaimed, holding the bottle in front of herself to look at it. There was no label, of course, and Collins couldn’t help but laugh out loud as her whole body started. She turned the bottle around, changed which hand was holding it, then hopped down the stairs (which she normally only did during the day) to explore around behind their shack.
“Awful, isn’t it?” Collins called around the little building, smiling and descending the stairs himself.
“Tastes horrible,” Rhea said as Collins came around the corner. She was taking another swig. Another grimace, then she shook her head sharply and said, “This is an incredible thing. It lasts?”
Collins nodded in the dark, “My measurements seem to say that one of these bottles will give a total of an hour and a half of good night vision. There are other factors, of course, but that’ll be the average.”
“I have never heard of anything like this before.” There was awe in Rhea’s voice. “Have you shown Clarissa?”
“Not yet. I want to present it to her with as much information documented as possible.”
“Well, then I will not…spill the beans as you say on your side of the sea. But tell her soon, yes? This, I think, could change the world.”
Early the next morning, Collins fidgeted uncomfortably on the three-legged stool outside the door to the infirmary. Elena had gone back to where they’d lost track of the swamp beast to try to confirm their kill. Luckily, she hadn’t gone alone, as she instead confirmed quite the opposite.
She’d barely been conscious when her companions had toted her back over the bridgework; one had a thin score across her bare abdomen from where she’d cut her belt to make a bandage for Elena’s now-mangled hand. Collins had seen their frantic group coming from his workstation.
Has it got a taste for humans now? Or are we seeing more injuries because we went looking for it? Collins sat ruminating so deeply, he didn’t notice when Ibeamaka wandered around the corner.
“Any word?” The question made Collins jump, pulled from his thoughts.
He shook his head. “Only what I was told when they took her in. Low risk of infection, ultimately, as she wasn’t pulled into the water, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to save her whole hand. Apparently when the beast attacks, it clamps down with huge jaws and rolls…”
Ibeamaka shuddered. “I imagine that was grisly, then. How are you holding up? You can’t blame yourself, you know. I understand the biology of the beast matters greatly for what materials will affect it, and we hardly know anything.”
“Thank you. I’m trying not to blame myself, but… Wouldn’t it have been better to poison the swamp than cause this?”
“There are, I think, two things I wish to say to that. First, Elena chose on her own to go back out. Perhaps you agree with her going, but you did not force her. Second, and I may have a bit of a bias here, but I believe you were right to undercut the dose. The work we’re doing here is exactly why Elena will not get an infection from her wounds, despite the no-doubt disgusting state of this creature’s mouth. Our amphibious little friends have contributed immeasurably to the safety and stability of our societies, so to jeopardize them would be very foolish, I think. And, I also think Elena would agree, as they are at the center of all the work we do here. I say you’re going about this the right way, for whatever that’s worth.”
“I suppose. Oh, I thought it might be prudent to warn the locals that this thing has absolutely established what humans taste like, and if it likes us, they’re going to be in more danger. I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts getting a bit more bold going forward either.”
“I had that thought as well. I will absolutely pass that along. I’ll be in my office; come update me if the medics tell you anything. Or…go get some fresh air. Waiting here will not help Elena.”
Collins stood. “You’re right, Ibeamaka. A little walk might be just the thing.”
For once, the wave of humid air felt just a bit refreshing as he left the infirmary. At least the air could move out here; the medical areas were kept so tightly controlled they became stuffy when one sat in the same place for too long.
Moving water tended to soothe Collins, so he headed for the nearest dock. It was a different one than he could see from his workspace, and the water here tended to move more. The tide was coming in, so he could hear the calls and splashes of the swamp’s birds making a feast from the ocean’s fresh bounty. As he neared the water, he noticed a small, bright red kingfisher hovering over the dock, no doubt marking his meal. Collins stopped walking to avoid interrupting the natural spectacle. The little bird hovered for another moment, then dove, his sharp beak ready to spear his unsuspecting prey.
Except the fish was far from unaware, or so it seemed to Collins. For rather than a small splash on the surface of the water, the bird landed with a hard thump on the dock. The fish must have juked under the safety of the dock as the kingfisher committed to his strike, causing him to reflexively correct his trajectory. Collins hurried to yet another injured being at the water’s edge.
For the first time, he was too late. Tears welled in his eyes as he knelt by the feathered corpse no bigger than his palm, which had so recently been full of predatory life. How fragile we all are, Collins thought to himself, running his fingers over the tiny notch the bird’s beak had carved in the damp wood.
He removed his sandals to sit on the edge of the dock, next to the kingfisher, with his legs just brushing the water’s surface. After a moment of maudlin silence, he noticed the little fish were returning to his immediate area. Glancing at the motionless pile of feathers beside him, he said aloud, “You know you guys are the lucky ones this time? That’s all it was for you: a stroke of luck. This whole swamp is one big mechanism; sometimes you’re the fuel, sometimes you’re the one turning the crank. But I guess you’re only so lucky—something else will probably come along and eat you anyway…”
Collins continued to sit there, the waves gently lapping at his feet and the supports for the dock, when something occurred to him. He and Clarissa had operated under the assumption that materials from the monster’s own habitat wouldn’t be effective against it, but what about an ingredient derived from a bird which hunted aquatic life? Collins knew that kingfishers were considered pests around the farm pools, which meant it wasn’t just fish that they ate.
But materials made from wild animals were forbidden, overtly by the Maktaba and subtly by the code of ethics that Trium’s adherents observed. Hunting for alchemical substances would endanger ecosystems, and killing for personal gain would violate humanity’s mandate to curate the glorious world they’d been given. Not to mention the danger of consuming infested or spoiled animal products. But…this little bird was practically a gift from Trium themself…
Jumping up suddenly, Collins scooped up the little bird and hurried to his workstation. Shutting the door behind himself (but opening both small windows), he carefully set the dead bird on his desk and arranged several clean ceramic bowls around it. Another bowl he filled with clean water from a basin he’d had brought in after the incident the other day. He set the stone bowl over a burner, which he started, silently thanking Trium he’d had to learn to process chickens in his early days with the Maktaba, even though he’d hated it at the time.
As the water warmed, he took stock of the tools he had to hand. His was not a butcher’s workstation, but an herbalist’s. He had a line for drying plants and shears for trimming them, pestle and mortar, plenty of cheesecloth, and innumerable glass jars, vials, and droppers. The bird had hit the dock hard, and while the surface of the wood was indeed soft from moisture, the interior was obviously much harder. Even still, there wasn’t any visible damage to the bird’s beak—one of the materials Collins suspected would be particularly potent.
Thin wisps of steam had begun to rise from the water bowl, so Collins tied one end of the line around both the kingfisher’s clawed feet and immersed it in the hot water. It didn’t need to be soaked for long, and soon Collins had set about gently removing the feathers and collecting them in one of the ceramic bowls he’d set aside. Next came the part he was dreading: breaking the surface of the poor creature’s skin. A quick test with his shears on the outside of his own forearm told him that the shears were sharp enough to proceed, so he hung the bird over another ceramic bowl and made an incision on its neck. The blood immediately began to flow down the side of its head and beak to bead on the sharp tip, then drop the short distance into the bowl. He shuddered, remembering the chickens again, then stopped to consider his next step. How could he remove the beak and talons?
Then there was a knock on the door. “Are you not very warm in there?” came Clarissa’s kind voice.
Collins froze as she let herself in.
As the door swung inward, the only sound was the steady dripping of fresh blood as it collected in the bowl. The air pushed by the swinging door lofted a few feathers to float off the table and down to the floor.
“What, Collins, are you doing?” All the humor had left Clarissa’s voice. “Did you kill this poor little bird only to preserve your reputation?” drip
“No! It misjudged a dive and hit the dock! I saw it happen while I was waiting for news on Elena and trying to calm down.” drip, drip
“Do you feel calm? I do not think you look calm.” She lifted one of the bright red feathers off the floor. “It does not matter. Since we are here, you might as well tell me what you are thinking.” She shut the door behind her. drip, drip
Trepidatiously, Collins began to explain. “Well, the kingfishers eat swamp creatures, right? They exhibit a level of efficacy that we humans still haven’t achieved. So, it stands to reason that they would enhance the efficacy of a poison intended to harm waterborne creatures, which our monster certainly is. I didn’t think the ingredients would be off limits if I didn’t incite any harm myself. And, well, I know how fresh the specimen is, so we don’t have to worry about rot or spoiling.”
Clarissa nodded but didn’t give Collins any indication of how she was feeling. “Why drain the blood?” drip, drip
He shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I actually think it will be the beak and talons which will be the most effective, ultimately. But I…didn’t want to get caught doing this. So, I need to be as tidy as possible, and draining it before attempting to remove the feet or head seemed like the way to accomplish that.” drip
“Yes, I think you are right about that piece. Are you thinking you will simply add the shavings to your existing potion, or will you use a particular solvent?”
“I…hadn’t gotten that far yet. I had planned to do at least a bit of experimentation before committing to anything. I’ve never worked with these materials before.”
Clarissa’s eyes shimmered. “Of course you haven’t.”
Having Clarissa tentatively on board with their new experimental direction wasn’t the relief that Collins had hoped it would be. He’d hoped he would feel sure about their plans after showing her he wasn’t breaking their mandate, but even with her on board, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was disappointing his creator, who’d set up these rules not to rule but to protect. Maktaba alchemists were held to these rules of conduct not by the tyrannical Mabwana, lording their power over those in their charge, but by the love of Trium seeking to protect humans from their ambitious selves.
“You have been awfully quiet tonight,” Rhea said, jarring Collins from his reverie.
He just nodded.
“A difficult day, then.”
“I’m worried about Elena. The medics said she’s doing well, but…”
“I understand. It is difficult to see a friend and colleague injured.”
It was quiet on their little porch for a bit, then Collins asked a very quiet question. “Rhea, the trees getting turned upside down…is that the end of the story? Their beauty was taken from them because of their ambition, where they only sought to improve the world…”
“Well, no, I suppose not. They are grassland trees, you see, and despite being full of vegetation, drinking water can be very hard to find. Baobabs are a signal to travelers that water is nearby. They were allowed to stay tall, spreading their branches to the heavens and beautify the world that way. They stand also as an allegory for purpose among our peoples in this way. We must do our best with the gifts we have been given, and not push ourselves to act beyond our mandates. Each has a role, and filling that role is the best thing we can do.”
The little red bird popped into Collins’s head when she said “gifts we have been given,” enveloped in completely different emotions than the memory had carried even moments before.
“Thank you, Rhea. You’ve helped me more than you know.”
The next day, Clarissa surprised Collins by joining him at breakfast in the mess hall. Conspiratorially, she said, “I have procured some implements which will help us…process your ingredients. I hope you will know how to use them.”
Collins found her new deviousness somewhat amusing, old and famous as she was. “Don’t worry; I worked with Maktaba butchers when I was very new, so I actually have some experience with things like this. Culinarily,” he added hastily, “not alchemically. But speaking of alchemy, I have something I’d very much like to show you. The chomba is not ready yet, but I put something else together using materials from both sides of the sea, and it works like a charm.”
Clarissa’s face turned skeptical. “And what, dear Collins, did you put in this one?”
“Apples, mostly,” he said, smiling a bit. “I want to surprise you with its effects, if you’ll allow me. Let’s head to the storage cellar.”
“So long as you drink it with me, I suppose I am game. But why the cellar?”
It amazed Collins that any land in the swamp was firm enough for a building with any underground space, but few places in the world had successfully kept Villesavians from delving below the surface completely. A landing and left turn lay halfway down the stairs, and it was here that Collins popped open a bottle of Sight Cider and took a hearty swig, grimacing and handing the bottle to Clarissa. She sniffed it apppraisingly, and her grey eyebrows rose as she sifted through the scents.
“Where did you get baobab branch?”
“Villesav, before we left. It’s…very sour. But it’s worth it.”
“Does this mean you have found a way to make it last? Oh, but I suppose I will just try it.” She tipped the bottle up, and her wrinkled face immediately collapsed into a puckered maze, her eyes briefly disappearing behind the wave of sourness. As her face relaxed, Collins gently took her hand and led her the rest of the way down the stairs, leaving their lantern behind.
It was a small, dusty cellar, with walls bricked using watertight Villesavian Brownstone. Mostly, it had surplus foodstuffs, with other departments also making use of certain nooks and crannies. Nothing about it, really, was all that special, particularly when compared to the vast underground networks in the city of Villesav itself, but for Collins and Clarissa, it was the most magical place in the world for the brief time they spent down there.
“Collins, this is truly remarkable. Cherries and coconut fiber, you say? I would have expected it to be a bit…chunkier if that was the case.”
“I filtered it like I would an ale, or indeed a hard cider. Coconut fiber is not pleasant on the palate, let me tell you.”
A hearty laugh escaped Clarissa’s chest. “Oh, you do not have to tell me, young one. Clever, using it to convince such dissimilar materials to coalesce. This alone would have been enough to win over the other Mabwana; if you are able to solve our vicious, man-eating problem, you will certainly have your choice of assignments going forward.” She found a ledger among the detritus piled on one shelf and began flipping through it, quietly tut-tutting at how clearly she could read the writing in the book.
Being squarely back in Clarissa’s good graces—qualified though they may be—had lifted Collins’s spirits back nearer to their normal altitude. The keratinous nature of beak and talon meant that their solution needed to be oil-based, which actually suited their purposes perfectly. A waterborne poison would deeply infect the swamp, but a small dose of a strong, fat soluble poison would be the realization of their original plan.
The work began to move quickly, abetted by the arrival of their order for supplies from Villesav. Elena’s recovery was blessedly swift. Over dinner one day, she said to Collins, “The medic said I’m lucky to have been hurt where the Church’s ‘miracle medicine’ is made.” She looked at her hand, now sporting only three fingers. It wasn’t bandaged anymore, and fresh-looking pink skin covered the areas that only a week ago had been mangled and bloody.
“I guess that goes to show why it’s so important we get operations back to normal. And why we don’t just poison the whole swamp when we do. Apparently the little creatures need to be moist to breathe the air, so anything dangerous in the water will go right through their skin.”
Elena just nodded morosely.
Then it was time to perform a field test. Clarissa had arranged for an aquarium to be set up which mimicked the swamp’s ecosystem. Charle even allowed two mangrove flits to be a part of the experiement: a fishlike juvenile and an adult, with sticky feet and forelimbs adapted to membranous wings. It wasn’t, however, slimy like Collins expected it to be, but was more leathery, with tree-bark patterning and coloration and striking, yellow, almost reptilian eyes.
The tank was filled with water from just outside, with a number of small fish, three geckos, a turtle someone had managed to catch, and of course the mangrove flit tadpole.
“Thank you for this, Charle,” Clarissa said as she settled into a chair, notebook ready.
“Well, it’s difficult to overstate the necessity of caution. Better to poison our little display here than the entirety of our operation.” Representatives of the other Mabwana were also attending Collins’ presentation, and they nodded among themselves.
“We agree, sir,” Collins said, unscrewing the dropper cap of a small vial. “Our first test will simply replicate something we ascertained in our workspace.” He then used the dropper to place a single, minute drop on the surface of the swampwater.
To the surprise of the onlookers, but not Collins and Clarissa, the bead of bright blue liquid sat upon the surface of the water, like a marble on a bedsheet.
“Impressive,” Charle said as one of the little fish snatched the bead of poison in a single gulp.
Clarissa sat forward.
As it swam back toward the safety of the mud at the bottom of the aquarium, the fish’s tail jerked awkwardly. Then, its whole body spasmed for several moments before it went still, lazily beginning to float back toward the surface. Clarissa’s pencil was scratching away in her notebook.
“Well, that’s two requirements met. Well done so far, Collins. What have you got next?” Charle sounded genuinely intrigued.
“Well, the lizards are next on our list; we believe our target is a giant lizard, after all. I have two crickets here: one we killed with the poison—surprisingly effective across species as it happens. The other we allowed to starve, poor fellow. The starved cricket has been injected with the same dose I dropped onto the surface of the water. Our gecko friends will tell us whether an animal’s metabolic processes neutralize the poison or not.” Using tweezers, he first fed the poisoned cricket to a gecko, then the dosed insect to a different gecko. “This particular test we haven’t run yet, but I’m feeling very confident. Everything in the concoction is organic and hydrophobic, but is soluble in fats or oils.”
As they watched, the turtle made her way over to the fish bobbing forlornly on its side and took a bite, leaving half the fish behind. Now too dense to float, the tail half of the fish began to sink, three tiny, bright blue bubbles rising to the surface to sit there.
“Clarissa, can you see those?” Collins said as the brightly colored beads were snatched up by more fish. “I’m guessing the fish didn’t metabolize it all before its processes stopped. We’ll have to keep an eye on that turtle, and those fish as well, for that matter.”
“What about the cricket you poisoned?” Charle was sounding less certain than he had only minutes before.
“Amusingly, we actually found the minimum dose for the cricket, just in case. It was always possible for the poison to be faster than the animal’s metabolism, but seeing that in action is good data regardless. Ah, here we are.” The lizard fed with the starved cricket had begun to convulse, similarly to the fish. Clarissa’s pencil was scratching again.
As the gecko’s twitching subsided, the flit dove with surprising grace and accuracy to the bottom of the tank and snatched up the other half of the first fish to be dosed. Nervous shuffling began among the gathered watchers, anxiety which Collins himself shared. The adult flit climbed its way back onto the branch it had previously occupied and settled in to digest.
“Well, as I’m sure you’ve all noted, the gecko fed the poisoned cricket is absolutely fine. Additionally, both the juvenile and the fully developed flit are not affected by the poison having been in the water alone.” At this point, the fish which had eaten the smaller dose of poison began to die, one by one. “Of course, we will need to allow for a couple of days to pass in order to collect all the data this experiment has to offer. Even with that in mind, though, we will be on schedule to attempt to dose the creature again before the week is out, a full five days before the deadline set before us several weeks ago.”
Clarissa stood up. “It is my belief that this mixture is our best option for eliminating this threat to our staff and our animals. If we are able to recover the corpse before it is allowed to be scavenged, practically no poison will be left in the ecosystem. Even here, we have shown that metabolized poison does not reenter the food chain, though I do concede that the unmetabolized leftovers represent a minor threat. I hope you will convey to your superiors that the work Collins has done holds my personal seal of approval, and I will be voting to go forward with this plan.”
The Mabwana unanimously voted in favor of using Collins’s fabrication, so he found himself again sitting on a damp platform in the pitch dark, this time joined by Elena’s partner, Jo.
“I’m surprised Elena was okay with you coming out here,” Collins said as their stakeout dragged into its third hour.
“Actually, it was the only plan short of coming herself that she was okay with,” the woman said. She wasn’t muscular like Elena, though she seemed every bit as strong. Still taller than Collins, Jo cut a slim, feminine figure in the darkness.
“You labor union folks are a different breed,” Collins said, shaking his head. “Some of the things you sign up for blow my mind.”
Jo laughed. “Well I’d never have the patience for measuring tiny amounts of powders and waiting weeks for fermentation to finish, so I guess we’re even. Oh, speaking of which, you want to crack open one of those ciders Elena kept raving about? ‘It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, Jo you have to see if he’ll let you try it!’ I thought the sun would come up before she settled down after that night you were out here.”
“Admittedly, I was pretty excited when I got back too.” Collins popped the cap off a bottle of Sight Cider and handed it to Jo. “Careful, it’s really sour.”
“Sounds like it’s worth it,” she said, tipping the bottle up.
Collins opened another bottle and took a hearty swig. As he’d come to expect, the flavor overpowered his senses briefly, but once the tears were clear, the trees around him—surprisingly far into the distance—stood out in the gloom.
Jo’s reaction to the low-light vision was as magical as he’d come to expect when showing new people the potion. He smiled widely as she said, “Oh, and I bet it makes the stars just amazing.”
“It really does,” Collins said, a private moment of pride flashing through his heart. “I can’t wait to show the astronomers back in Villesav. I swear I could see stars I’ve never seen documented before. There is alcohol in that, just to let you know, and the vision effects will probably last around an hour and a half for you.”
“I’m sure they’ll love it. And that’s good to know. Trium send that this beast makes its move in that time; how much did you bring?”
“Two and a half bottles apiece. And I hope it’s here soon too. I’m getting stiff just waiting up here. Did Elena tell you you’d have to be quick to keep up with it?”
“Oh she didn’t have to; I’m quicker than her even on a bad day.” Jo was smirking as she tilted her bottle up. Collins’s eyebrows involuntarily shot skyward as she downed the rest of the cider. “Bleah! There, now I don’t have to worry about finishing it on the go.”
It was then that the wet crash they’d been waiting for sounded from the water below them. “Good choice, apparently. Let’s hope you’re as fast as you say,” Collins said before downing the rest of his.
“Don’t you worry,” he heard as he rode out the cider’s overwhelming flavor.
This chase was just like the last, with Collins slowly falling behind, painting the glowing blazes so they could find their way back. They’d included a fairly large dose of the poison, not wanting to allow any margin for error.
After twenty minutes of splashing through waist-deep water and scrambling up banks and over roots, Collins caught up to Jo, who simply stood watching. “Another cider?”
He opened it wordlessly, taking a hefty swig before handing it to her.
It was a huge lizard, for sure, thrashing about and entangling itself in the rope Jo had been following, which glowed with Clarissa’s special paint. This pool was deep enough for the giant to submerge itself completely, but its spasms prevented it from getting further from the humans no doubt trying to steal its meal.
As the beast grew weaker and weaker, Jo said, “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to extract this thing ourselves. How long would you say it is?”
“Judging distances further than my hands reach in this dark is tough, but I’d say it’s easily fifteen feet, probably more. And it sure looks like it’ll be heavy.”
“Think the dose was high enough?”
“I sure hope so. I felt like the dose we used was going to be overkill, even after the first attempt, but looking at this thing, I’m nervous we still undercut it.”
They sipped their cider in silence for several more minutes, until the tormented animal began to painfully drag itself up the far bank, still twitching irregularly. Claw over agonized claw it pulled itself through the mud, no longer able to hold its belly above the ground. Then it couldn’t pull itself anymore, though its stout legs kept working. A low, gutteral sound echoed into the swamp as it attempted one final heave escaped its throat, another spasm rocked its body, and then it lay still. Collins and Jo waited several minutes in the quiet of the night, watching, waiting for more movement, until the time confirmed that it had finally succumbed to the poison.
“Give me the hatchet,” Jo said suddenly, holding out her hand.
Collins reached into the backpack he’d placed on the ground next to him and pulled it out, handing it to her. She skirted the deep, murky pool, until she came to the beast. Before she got close, she threw a rock at its head, and when it thudded dully off without any reaction, she went and knelt next to it. A moment passed, then she began to bring the hatchet down on the ankle of its left front foot. Again and again she hacked at it, as the rage of one who couldn’t protect their lover fully came to the surface. When the foot finally came free, she stood up and walked around to stand directly in front of its snout. She raised the hatchet above her head, then brought it down with all her strength, embedding it in the top of the creature’s skull.
Collins, unsure of whether he should have been watching the whole display, reshouldered his pack uncomfortably.
Jo stood back up and made her careful way back around the pool, leaving the hatchet where it was, clawed foot in her hand. “Ready?”
Collins just nodded.
The next day, Jo led a group of twenty-five to recover the body. The beast was where they’d left it, and when the boats pulled up to the dock, the hatchet still stuck from its skull.
Jo used the foot she’d taken to fashion a glove, keeping two of the toes on. The creature had taken two of Elena’s fingers, but now Elena had taken two of its. Elena thought it a fitting trophy, and she wore the glove with pride.
The Mabwana were extremely pleased with the success Collins found with his recipe; Clarissa maintained that the trade secret was necessary to keep with substances that could kill.
“It is my understanding that this Maktaba would not be the one that you choose, were you given your pick of our sites,” Charle said at the debrief meeting.
Collins, surprised, looked at Ibeamaka when Charle said this. “Apparently Rhea passed that little tidbit along.”
Ibeamaka laughed briefly. “Yes, I admit to gossiping, Collins. At times, it is necessary to my line of work, but other times it is simply a bad habit.”
“So where is it that you would choose? Do you wish to stay in Villesav, with access to its ports?”
“Actually, sir, there is a city in the northwest with a bazaar that connects the western lands to Villesavian trade. I would relish the opportunity to conduct my research in a colder climate, particularly somewhere as well-connected as Vacen.”
“Well, in that case, we will put together a letter of recommendation to be sent with the next ship out, so that at the end of your assignment here, you can be sent up there, should you still wish it. You have, what, two months left?”
“A month and a half, sir.”
“Yes, that will be plenty of time for the Villesav Maktaba to make the arrangements. Thank you, Collins, for what you’ve done for us here. I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in the swamp with us.”
With that, the meeting was adjourned. The various Mabwana began to leave to attend to their various tasks, as Collins made for the door. As he sneaked through, Clarissa caught his sleeve. “I will be joining you in your workstation.”
The table was clean, the floor had been scrubbed. Collins’s humble collection of ingredients was neatly arranged on what little shelf space the room could offer. Clarissa shut the door behind them, sending a chill down Collins’s spine.
“You are very fortunate that this turned out as it did. I accept that our solution was provided by Trium directly, but do not mistake these events for an indication that the code we follow as alchemists is archaic. The recipe for our poison must remain a secret not for safety reasons as I said in the meeting, but to preserve the sanctity of our profession. We have not and will continue to not condone the killing of creatures for our craft. At its least dangerous, rot and spoil can cause illness. At its most, unexpected consequences can create avenues for the Enemy to work in unforseen ways. You must use this experience and the authority it has earned you to protect others from making choices that will cause harm. Proceed correctly, and I will remain a vocal advocate for you; proceed incorrectly, and I will become vocal in much the opposite way. Can I rely on you for this?”
“I understand, Clarissa. I’m very sorry to put you in this situation. Thank you for helping me through this; I wouldn’t have known whether to be sure of what I was doing.”
“You have a long career ahead of you, dear Collins. Always trust your instincts, and you will find yourself on the right path. May I ask you something else?”
“Is there more to your decision to go into the northwest? It is not that your reasons do not make sense, but they could apply to many places.”
“Honestly, Clarissa, it’s just a feeling. There’s something up there that my instincts tell me only I can do.”
“Then it sounds as though you have found yourself the right path.” She opened the door. “Follow it, Collins. Follow it, and do not falter. Trium has big, big plans for you and your potions.”
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