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Just before Davey hit the water, he saw the rest of the raft sink as more of the rotting, amphibious hands pulled it down.
He saw the Grim go under, his slit throat staining the water crimson.
Then he saw more splashes and splatters of red as the underwater horde converged on him.
He cursed himself; he was wasting his head-start.
Luna was already a few feet ahead of him.
He shook his head and began to pump his arms and legs.
Slick, slimy things scraped his limbs but he wasn’t sure if they were questing fingers or just underwater plants.
The shore had seemed a lot closer from up on the raft.
And it seemed to move further away the longer they swam, like hell’s own optical illusion.
The taste of the filthy water was strong in his nose and airways.
It tasted like death.
It burnt his eyes.
Not in the way normal water did – this was like a horrendous chemical burn.
His efforts were rewarded when he drew level with Luna.
As he went past her shortly after, he thought of an old joke his dad had told him about two men outrunning a lion.
I don’t need to outrun the lion, I just need to outrun you, the punchline had said.
Aside from making him miss his dad – who had always been quick with a joke or a sage piece of advice – this made him realise how callous this world had already made him.
For a few seconds he had genuinely considered leaving Luna and going it alone.
And he hated himself for it.
‘Please, don’t leave me,’ she spluttered as the dirty water flooded into her mouth.
‘I won’t,’ he said, fixing her in the eye.
Good job she didn’t ask two seconds ago, he thought.
‘We’re nearly there,’ he lied.
The shore still seemed the length of a football pitch away.
He quickly glanced behind them to see that the splashing had stopped.
With a shudder, he realised what this meant.
And it wasn’t long before he saw dark shapes following them towards the shore.
‘Hurry up,’ he told Luna. ‘They’re coming.’
The terror in her eyes terrified him; she was the one with the heart of stone who never seemed fazed.
If she was scared then they must really be up the creek.
She seemed to stop swimming.
Then Davey saw pale hands around her legs and everything made sense.
Her eyes were full of panic as the hands grabbed her arms and body and pulled her under.
Davey didn’t waste any time; he ducked under the water, keeping his eyes open, in spite of the near-blinding pain that this produced.
He lashed out as best he could with the knife, carving into the limbs doing their utmost to drown his friend.
They relented a little.
He popped up for air, panicked by how weak the water made his attempts to escape the hands that were now seeking his legs.
He took a deep breath.
Let it out.
Let it out.
Blood raced through his head.
He wanted to stay up here forever, just breathing in air and not water, but he knew he had to get back under.
Luna had already been down there too long.
He took one more breath then ducked beneath the surface.
Opened his eyes again.
The filthy tides made it hard to see.
He waved his arms around, trying to clear the murk.
Finally, he saw her.
She was thrashing around, trying to free herself from the grip of the nightmarish creatures that sought to drive the last of the breath from her lungs.
He saw clouds of blood from the wounds their teeth had made in her sides.
As he drew near he saw a couple of the creatures turn.
They were horrendous.
Skin decomposed, exposing moss-covered bone in places.
Their eyes were tiny, like those of a mole.
He grabbed the nearest one – again scared by how inefficient the water was making his blows – and sunk his knife through the side of its throat.
It fell away, gushing dark blood.
He moved in, slashing as best he could in the water.
Luna seemed to sense that she was almost on her last chance at escape and managed to thrash enough to throw some of the hands off her limbs.
She pulled hard, began heading towards the surface.
Davey heard a distorted version of her relieved cry when her lungs tasted air again.
He rose up himself, feeling his chest ache, feeling his brain scold him for leaving it so long without air.
Just as quick, they were dragged back under by the hands.
Davey turned with the pull and buried his knife up to the hilt in one of their eyes.
The creature fell away, its flipper-like hands cupped to the gushing wound.
Its brethren fell upon it, tearing the skin from its bones with little scraping sounds that were magnified to epic proportions by the deep.
Davey turned on to his back and grabbed Luna and began kicking backwards with all of his might.
His lungs blazed.
His legs were limp like cooked noodles.
He didn’t think they were going to make it.
Luna didn’t seem to either.
But with him kicking and her slashing and stabbing her knife into the flailing hands they managed to get away.
The shore came eventually.
Davey shoved Luna out, fending off a weak attack from a lone creature as they reached the shore.
Luna spat out water then turned and began bellowing, ‘Fuck you,’ as she stabbed blindly into the swollen tides.
Davey put his arm across her chest to stop her diving back in and giving it to the mermen.
‘It’s ok,’ he said, hugging her in close. ‘We made it.’
Luna sunk into his embrace.
It was warm, in spite of the filthy water that befouled their clothes, but he didn’t get the same euphoric rush that he did when his skin brushed against Tia’s.
‘She’s a badass, y’know,’ Luna said, as if she’d read his thoughts.
‘Tia. She looks all sweet and innocent but she’s a fuckin badass. She’s gonna be fine.’
‘I thought you said she’d be dead already?’
‘That was just t’ test you, man. T’ see how easy you gave up, like. Whether you were willing t’ fight t’ get yer girl.’
Davey shook his head.
‘She’ll be fine. She went through hell t’ get here so this will be a walk in the park for her.’
Davey nodded but he wasn’t really listening.
He was looking at one of the hideous creatures which was crawling its way up the beach towards them, letting out a sickly low moan.
Out of the water its movements were clumsy and slow as hell.
They noticed its legs were corroded together into a tail.
It let out an anguished roar as it realised they were far too fast for it.
The crabs were still moving around on the shore, but they were picking at the bodies of the Grims that had fallen during the confrontation.
They were happy for now, blood dripping from their pincers and their clacking mandible jaws.
The clacking and slurping sounds were horrendous and seemed to linger long after they’d got out of earshot.
There were still a few of them round the dozer, but they seemed docile, bellies full, drunk on food.
Luna saw one of the Grims’ flipper sticks and picked it up, slinging it over her shoulder like one of the seven dwarfs.
‘Let’s give this a try,’ she said, creeping up to the crab and inserting it between its belly and the floor.
She exploded up over, flipping the crab up and onto its back.
It let out a high-pitched hiss, its legs and claws already seeking to flip it the right way up.
She upended the stick and slammed the pointed part down into its gut.
The crab’s hiss died out like a switch had been thrown.
‘Piss easy when you got the technique down, like,’ she said, winking at Davey.
The other crab waddled towards her, but it already seemed to have decided it wasn’t worth the fight.
The sticker made quick work of it; upending it with another hiss.
The blade penetrated its belly with ease, sending dark blood coursing out onto the dry dirt.
As the abdomen tore open, they saw something inside.
‘What the hell?’ Luna said.
It looked like an ivory spider.
Too late, they realised it was a human hand, completely devoid of flesh.
They both shuddered.
After a quick check to make sure no more crabs were on their way over, they approached the dozer.
Even from here it was obvious it was empty.
More alarming were the slicks of blood smeared across the side door of the vehicle.
‘Shit, she didn’t make it,’ Davey cried, forlorn.
Luna didn’t seem to hear him, or if she did, she certainly didn’t indulge his pessimism.
He looked at her to see why she wasn’t drowning in despair too, then noticed she was staring intently at the ground, one hand clasped to her chin.
‘Mmmm… interesting,’ she said.
‘What is it?’
She pointed her finger down to the ground then slowly raised it, squinting off into the distance.
‘Oh sorry, just there are some tyre tracks here. Very faint like, but you can just about see them.’
Davey squinted too and he saw them.
They seemed miraculous.
‘So someone saved her?’
‘I wouldn’t jump t’ that conclusion. The world’s a shitty fuckin place these days.’
Davey knew exactly what she meant and he scolded himself for being so hopeful.
Tia wasn’t safe until he had her wrapped in his arms.
Davey turned to the dozer.
‘The blood runs over here,’ Luna said, following the trail then turning herself perpendicular to the tracks. ‘Then stops. So they must have got in this way.’
She nodded at her assessment of things.
‘I wouldn’t bother with that, Davey lad. The dozer is well stuck like. We’re on foot for now, I’m afraid.’
Already his legs were weary from their adventures.
‘I say we go back and get help,’ he said.
‘Na. We spent hours driving out here. We’d be walking a day at least. By that time there ain’t much point in rescuing her like. Besides, the King would fuckin string us up for losing her like that.’
Davey thought about it for a second and nodded.
For better or for worse, they’d have to go it alone.
Next chapter is here