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They gladly left the dark contorting mass of the mutant trees behind them.
‘I did not like that, one fucking bit,’ Davey said. His heart was on the verge of bursting right out of his chest.
‘We didn’t come past that last time,’ Tia said. ‘I’m sorry, I had no idea it was there.’
‘Fucking thing nearly crushed me to death,’ Loco muttered. He rubbed his belly like he’d just eaten a huge meal. ‘Sore as hell.’
The dozer hit muddy ground and slowed slightly but they were still making good progress.
The scent of rotting fish assailed their nostrils.
Loco gagged and spat over the side of the dozer.
‘Fuck me, that stinks,’ Luna said, putting a finger across her nostrils.
The sound of rushing water became louder the further they drove onto the mud.
‘Stop about here,’ Rob said. ‘The ground gets a bit dangerous after this part.’
Davey pulled up to a stop and put the handbrake on.
‘Right, we’re gonna need the big bag and some of the gear out of the fridge,’ Tia said.
‘Who’s carrying what?’ Luna said.
‘I’ll take the rats,’ Loco said.
‘That’s not all you’re fuckin carrying, mind,’ Luna said.
‘That tree thing hurt my back,’ Loco grimaced.
‘Tough shit, you’re carrying some of those chains,’ Tia said.
Davey offered to take the pack, but wished he hadn’t when he felt its weight.
He couldn’t even lift it, so was forced to drag it through the mud.
Tia took one strap and walked beside him.
She wound a few lengths of rope from the fridge round her arms then hung a few chains over her shoulders.
‘Outdone by a girl,’ she mocked Loco. ‘You should be fucking ashamed of yourself.’
‘It hurt my back,’ he moaned.
They shared the rest of the gear out between the four of them.
‘It’s a little way from here,’ Rob said. ‘Don’t stand still for too long down here.’
‘Why not?’ Davey said.
‘Cos you’ll fuckin sink, like,’ Luna laughed.
‘Great, just great,’ Loco said.
They trudged on through the mud, an exhausting process due to the sucking properties.
They had to lift their feet up past their hips just to take a step.
Their legs were blazing, their lungs starving, especially Loco with his crushed ribs.
Dragging the bag was a special type of torture.
Davey would have happily spent the full forty days in Cross’s cage if it meant abandoning the bag.
‘Nearly there,’ Rob said every few minutes, between herculean gulps of the foul-smelling air.
Luna’s ever-present cigarette bobbed up and down in her mouth as she walked.
The smoke she exhaled stung Davey’s eyes, but he did his best to blink it away.
‘Here we are,’ said Rob.
The ground was firmer underfoot now, the colour of bleached bone.
The roaring of water made it hard to hear what they were saying.
Davey let go of the bag and walked a bit closer to the edge.
‘Whoa,’ Luna said, putting her arm across his chest and heaving him backwards. ‘You got a death wish?’
He furrowed his brow.
She pointed out into the water a few feet from where they stood.
Dark shapes swirled in the water like miniature tornadoes.
‘Keep your distance, you get me?’ she said, looking him in the eye and nodding slowly.
As if to prove her point, one of the creatures hurled itself from the water at a seizure-inducing speed.
It landed on the shore, looking for all the world like a huge mouth had been crudely grafted onto a body ten times too small for it.
The head was like three human skulls crushed together at the temples to make a huge, misshapen mess.
In its mouth were dirty teeth that looked like ivory knitting needles.
The body seemed to be made of the same scales that formed the flesh of the fish that Davey had seen before.
Its jaws snapped around empty air and it made a low satisfied moan like a man savouring a meal.
Then it wriggled back into the water.
Davey was startled by how fast it had moved.
‘You do not want that fuckin thing on your leg, like,’ Luna said with a knowing wink.
‘Th-thank you,’ Davey said.
He shook his head for a second, imagining the mess it would have made of anything that happened to land in its jaws.
‘So here’s the plan,’ Rob said. ‘We throw one of the rats in and hold on for dear life while we reel one of those things in. We drag it out and all dive on it. It goes without saying that we need to avoid the mouth. When we’ve got it, I will slit its throat. Yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ they all chorused.
Davey began to get a nervous feeling in his belly.
‘Let’s do this,’ he said, dreading what was to come.
Tentatively, their feet moved across the dried mud.
As they reached the edge of the embankment, as a single, five bodied unit, the scent of fish and rotting flesh and a strange chemical smell hit their nostrils like a fist.
The smell was so foul that they wanted to go no further, and maybe this would have been for the best.
‘Everybody ready?’ Rob said, taking one of the dead rats and carefully shoving the spear tip through its side. He pulled the weapon back, lodging the tips of the blades into the rodent’s ribs.
‘That should hold,’ he said. ‘On three. One.’
He reeled his arm back.
Already dark shapes were beginning to circle beneath the filthy tide.
It was as though they could smell the meat even under the water.
Bubbles broke the surface as the creatures moved closer.
Rob hurled the dead rat into the water.
It landed with a splash and instantly they got a tug on the chain, so hard that it yanked Rob a full metre down the river bank.
‘Holy shit,’ Luna said, diving on Rob’s legs and tackling him to the floor.
‘This thing is strong,’ Rob said, his face pale, his eyes wide.
Davey got to his feet and took a firm grip on the chain and began to pull back.
The chain jolted, hard enough to almost pull his arms out of their sockets.
‘Fuck me,’ Davey said, feeling the strain throughout his core.
‘Fuckin help him then,’ Luna said, shoving Loco out of the way so she could help too.
They all took a firm grip of the chain and began to reel it in.
It took all of them doing it and still it was almost not enough.
Finally, the handle of the spear began to emerge from the water, and there was one last desperate lurch which pulled them all towards the water.
But they managed to pull harder, drawing the fish onto the river bank.
The creature was depressingly small in comparison to their efforts to land it.
It was maybe eighteen inches long, its mouth filled with vicious teeth which had already sunk all the way into the rat’s carcass.
They were within seconds of losing the rat altogether, judging by how much of its flesh had already been removed.
The fish let out an ear-piercing screech as it realised it was within minutes of suffocating.
The creature was foul, like a human child had been spliced with a fish; tiny eyes, pale scales in place of skin, gills like bloodless slits in its flanks.
Its hands were crushed together into flippers.
Its legs were seemingly fused into a short, muscular tail.
‘Get on it now,’ Rob bellowed.
He darted in, aiming a vicious knee strike at the base of its neck.
But he missed as the fish flopped onto its side and began to squirm away.
When it saw his leg, it darted in, mouth open.
He screamed as the nail-like teeth sunk into his leg. Dark blood stained his jeans.
Loco landed on the back of its head with a hard forearm smash.
The fish turned and snapped at him, but he was ready and thrust his weight further onto it, pinning it to the floor so it couldn’t get him.
Its tail lashed out, slapping him hard across the face.
He cried out in alarm and threw his hands up to protect himself from the relentless assault.
The fish turned and lunged at his face.
He saw row upon row of teeth flying towards him.
Luna met it in mid-air with a hard soccer kick, knocking it off its intended trajectory towards Loco’s startled face.
Davey and Tia pounced on it as one, pinning its writhing body to the floor.
Davey recoiled as its jaws snapped shut just shy of where his finger had been a few seconds before.
The others dived on its back.
Rob pulled his knife and sunk it into the creature’s throat.
Blood that looked like crude oil oozed from the wound.
The vehemence slowly faded from its eyes as it bled out into the grey mud.
‘Holy shit, that was intense,’ Luna said, wiping sweat off her brow.
‘You’re telling me,’ Rob said. ‘Worst thing is, this is one of the smaller fish round here.’
They honed their game with repeated practice.
The small fish, though strong, were easy to trap.
Throw a rat, pull the chain, all pile on; it was a dangerous but productive technique.
‘This food isn’t going to last us long,’ Rob said.
He eyed up what they’d caught so far.
They had maybe a dozen of the smaller fish.
Not much really when you considered how many people needed feeding back home in the Freelands.
‘We can feed people with these, but we need one big catch to take home, to prove it is a successful way of doing things,’ Tia said.
They all agreed.
‘What do you have in mind?’ Davey said.
‘I don’t think you want to know,’ Rob said.
Next chapter is here