Trails of Silt

The light glimmered in a thousand fingers; each shaft rippling through the water with selfish glee, cutting from current to current without respect or deference. His eyes could see well enough without the sun's mocking assistance, and its rude penetration served only to further darken his mood.

He was curled on a formation of shell-encrusted rock that reached high above the ocean floor, flicking his long tail irritably against it. Shoals of brilliant yellow and orange fish swam back and forth in cheery ignorance, darting amid patches of reeds and kelp. Yet, they knew better than to swim near him and brave the long, back-curved spikes that extended from his chitinous armour.

Washes of sound bathed around him, pulsing from the other Divers under his command as they pinged back and forth, keeping constant focus on each other's position and the state of the sea around them. It was a wordless scream, a second set of eyes for use when the first were blinded by depth or threat, and a compliment at all other times. Right now the screams kept his unit coordinated as they searched the area, months of hard training finally showing through.

Launu tensed that inner organ, the pressured place where the scream was born. He squeezed and felt it burst out from his body, invisibly permeating the water, hitting solids and bouncing back to his skin. He became the centrepiece, point of stasis that snapped an overlay of the sea as it was. His body felt the sound, his ears created a landscape of shapes from the noise's form and elegantly slid it in behind his eyes, into the very heartwater of his perceptions.

First the rocks back and below, exactly what he expected. Then, what his eyes could see. The fish below and the reeds that housed them, the chunks of debris floating with the tide's whim, the corpses in pieces from the sharks' attentions or trapped at the ocean floor. Dirtborn were always noticeable in places they didn't belong.

Finally, new information. Crabs hidden on the seabed, suggestion of life among the reeds that experience picked out as snakes or snails, invisible flatmantas and eels stalking prey. Sharks at the very periphery of his scream. The team couldn't stay forever. He wouldn't trust some of these straight lines to fight an angry eel, let alone something sharp on most sides.

With a soft scraping, he crossed his arms across his chest. He didn't like what was before him.

He was looking at the remains of a vessel, one of the dirtborn's paltry efforts at mimicking Czeran freedoms. The devastation was comprehensive. The majority of the craft had sunk to the bottom, was visible far below, half sunk into the ocean's soft silt. Chances were high that the stuff was slowing down the search. Ocean silt was like the dust of memory; it covered quickly so that its treasure would be forgotten.

"Greedy silt," he said, voice born deep in his throat and echoing out through the ocean currents, a far more focused sound than the seeing scream, which carried the unique words of his people's language. No dirtborn could speak the Czeran water tongue. They'd had to make a child's version of their speech so the limited creatures could communicate on a civilised level.

There hadn't been much communication here. There was no doubt about it. This was a wreck caused by Czeran action, not natural disaster nor divine judgement. The sunk ship was in too clean a piece for its demise to have come from tsunami, hurricane or tidal wave. Oh, they'd tried to hide the truth, but Launu knew what would inevitably be found. Already he had been told that some of the wreckage showed neat, but wide, punctures. When they dug to the bottom of the sunk ship they would find more of those. They had relied, as many did, on apathy from the Empire to hide crimes against the dirtborn.

Mistake.

He noticed one of his Divers approaching. It was Mauroo, a female whose torso was covered by a tight dress of woven seaweed and whose tail bore the dead scales of old battles. "Launu. We've found them. Just like you said, they're all dead."

"Show me."

The female threw her head downwards, tail coiling back and disturbing the tiny motes of life in the water, then whipped towards the shipwreck. She let out a sight scream, updating the others on her position, bathing Launu in the clean precision of the sound.

He shrugged out of his perch, feeling the water rushing against the bony cap that topped his head, the hard line down his nose splitting the water and cutting him forward through it. He flexed the muscles of his tail and beat himself downward, issuing out a scream of his own. The Master Diver was in the drift, and his team all answered his scream immediately so he knew where they were.

He coiled sinuously around the wreck's drifting anchor chain, and flicked himself towards a pair of corpses, instincts feeling unseen evidence. He turned to look up, passing through a shaft of light, and cast his eyes over the long bloody rent up the female's spine. Murdered in the water, no doubt. From the shape of the rent, he knew it was a knife, and one of poor make. Ruuj dan was the name they gave to the hard coral they grew for weapons and equipment, and Launu knew its signs very well.

He smelled the woman's blood in the water, and animal instincts triggered, inflaming his mind. The taste made him want to circle and drink it in, but he was far too experienced to give in to that petty desire. The ability to resist blood frenzy was what separated the bleeding edges from the straight lines. So far his team had been mostly lines, and he felt some would lose their minds in a serious battle.

He flicked away, then narrowed his eyes. The back of his neck felt hot, a familiar drag of intuition on his skin. He threw his shoulders back and tail forward, used webbed fingers to guide him back the way he'd come and further down, following the anchor chain into the highest point of a bank of reeds. The blades of his armour severed many, keeping his vision clear but for the flicking orange bodies all around him. He irritably swept the fish aside, and smiled grimly as they moved away from their meal.

"Diver's sense never fails."

The man had been chained down. He stared into Launu's eyes with terror, one hand clawed as it raked at the willing waters, the other wrapped in metal as he tried to free himself.

Launu studied the man's face and body, appreciating the last pose he had the volition to take. While he could certainly appreciate the irony of murdering a landwalker with part of their own sunken vessel, the act itself was unconscionable. The Empress had made her wishes clear; the landwalkers of Inkara were allies. Events such as this, Launu had been told, did not contribute to good faith.

"Your killers will regret breaking the Empress' decree, dirtborn. I assure you of that."

He turned away in response to a sight scream from Mauroo.

He kicked away from the dirtborn and caught Mauroo in his gaze. She was resting on the slanted edge of the ship's prow, now tilted to one side after hitting the ocean floor. He had to admit, the dirtborn did have a certain way with big. But if it was supposed to be impressive, he could not see how. In the tangled mess of ropes and sails, the timber bones and spine of the vessel, he saw merely a target with a wide back and few defences.

Of course, the dirtborn weren't completely stupid. They recognised the distinct advantages their Czeran allies had. So while there was little they could do in way of defences, they did have solutions when it came to defenders. Hull-runners, they called them. Czerans who were paid handsomely to swim the keel and keep the ship safe.

Hull-runners who gave silent evidence to the identity of the perpetrators.

They were dead, as Launu expected. Had some of them escaped, it would have pointed to some natural disaster. They had been strapped to the ship's deck in a neat, orderly row, then flayed. From the looks on their faces, not all of them had been dead when the process began. Launu gritted his teeth, and snarled.

He knew the point. Czerans and Humans should not mix. It was one made by zealots, often in the blood of those who dared to contradict. But to see such disrespect delivered from one Czeran to another cooled his blood to ice. He flailed his tail against the deck, shattering the weakened planks and cracking the rim bannister.

"Shusinooainu," he hissed, voice at a pitch that changed the normally mild curse into a savage blast of hate. "Cut them loose, and find out what was in this coffin's hold! If this was the work of pirates, the contents should offer some answers."

"Already done, Divemaster," Mauroo replied.

"Tell me."

"Gold and gems mostly, some silver. Precious metals from mines, I know nothing of their industry, however, and couldn't guess where from."

"The land they call Yatar, most likely. Zealots, then. All of those materials are good for the growers. They make for good weapons," he said, patting the curving forearm blades strapped to his waist. Crafted of ruuj dan, unique coral grown for the very purpose of being crafted into weapons, his blades had been grown with crystals before being shaped. It made them sharper, harder, and more deadly by far.

"Are you certain, Divemaster?"

"No, but it's looking likely. I," he paused, and turned his head upward. A sight scream had washed over him from above. A second followed, and a third, blinking up the caller as he swam a tight circle. He had spotted something significant, and didn't want to move from his position.

Launu tensed his back, tightening the line of his fin, then pushed off the deck with hands and tail, blurring upward. He felt the water rush past his face and through the bony mass on his back. He burst out a scream and jinked aside from a wide floating plank, then spiralled past another of his team swimming at a cross-angle. The caller was near the surface, circling in mimickry of a shark. Launu rolled his eyes when he realised why.

There was a Human on the surface, half-submerged. By the looks of things he was clinging to a fragment of the ship.

Like Mauroo, the male who turned to face Launu was dressed only in a tight shirt of seaweed, they had not come out expecting trouble after all. Launu wore his armour as an indelible sign of rank, and an incessant sign of paranoia. The last time he had gone on a dive without it his arm had nearly been bitten off.

"What is this, Filiaj? A live one?"

"Yes, Divemaster!" He proclaimed, blasting Launu's ears with his words. Launu gestured at them with his hand, and quirked his eye. Filiaj, one the newest and bearing a youngspawn's face, smiled thinly in reply.

"Quieter please. We scream to see the world, not to deafen our fellows. So, we have a live dirtborn, eh? Probably useless, they usually have nothing to offer but tedious accounts of their maladies, but it's possible one of the hull-runners told him what was happening."

"Should I call the others?" Filiaj asked.

Mauroo opened her mouth to speak, then shut it abruptly. The Divemaster was present. If the team spoke, they did so to him alone. She was a bleeding edge, but she had come from a backwards part of the Empire, and needed a little refining on etiquette. Launu didn't mind. Skills in his Divers were what he really wanted. He'd take ten edges with no morals or etiquette over a hundred lines filled with the right words.

He looked up at the man, seemingly limp in the waves, legs lost to the whims of the current, and wondered if he was even alive. There was blood in the water around him. "He's just one Human. How much trouble can he be? Are you certain he's alive?"

Filiaj seemed to panic at this. "Yes, Divemaster!"

"By Empac's grace will you ibe quiet/i?" Launu hissed at him as the youth shouted at him again. "Check him." He said, then sighed as he saw the unmistakable sign of complete helplessness in the Diver's eyes. This one was a straight line all the way.

"You don't actually know what a live Human looks like, do you?"

He didn't wait for the answer. He slipped by Filiaj's side and gracefully arched upward, allowing his fin to break the surface as he circled the Human's position. The bobbing waves became a thin, ephemeral veil between two worlds, now pierced by his protruding spurs. The bony cap of his head broke the surface, and the muted colour of the depths was replaced by the precision of the open air.

Launu felt a horrible, wrenching moment of breathlessness, then felt his gills slither closed and his lungs shift subtly, amid a little burst of tickling but not unpleasant sensation. He breathed as the Human did, took in gulps of air rather than cycling water through his gills. He curled his lip in distaste. No wonder the creatures died so easily at sea.

He beat his tail and used his hands to swim closer, while recalling his lessons in the common tongue. He hadn't used it. Ever. He hoped he would be able to communicate with the landwalker.

He was face down on the floating plank, long, water-logged hair draped over his forearms. His hands were clinging to an iron ring. Launu noticed the distinctive movement of his own chest, and looked for a similar movement. After careful glances, he determined that the male was indeed breathing. The movement of his chest was fascinating, in a way. So very alien and strange.

He slid beneath the waves, lungs shifting back and gills sliding open on his chest, the familiar sense of water moving through him replacing the uncomfortably ephemeral

"He is, in fact, alive."

Filiaj looked very pleased to here this.

"Where is the nearest shore?" Launu asked, turned to Mauroo.

"I don't know. Past the sharks to the North, I think."

"No good. His leg is torn, they'll halve him. How about East? My sound sight picks up nothing on the periphery there."

"No reports yet."

"Tell the others to abandon their search pattern. They must find land, as close as possible, not to the North. I want this male on land, awake, and talking within an hour. That vessel sank recently and I intend to catch the ones responsible. This male might be able to tell us who we're looking for. Swish," he said at Mauroo.

She upended and powered downward, before shouting the new orders. The sound burst out from her, not as penetrating by far as the sight scream, but good enough for two of the others to pick it up and repeat it for the last pair. No questions. The team simply dispersed after a round of screams to map each other's positions. Launu smiled. Straight lines perhaps, but they were learning quickly. Perhaps more of them would be edges by the time he was done.

They were lucky. There was a shore off to the South East, and with annoying difficulty he arranged two of his divers to push the Human's float and one to guide his legs in case his grip came loose. The Human was woken by Filiaj's awkward grip, and started thrashing about as if he thought himself attacked. After a brief struggle that not only caused the Divers to abandon him but draw their blades underwater, Launu surfaced.

The man looked at him with an open mouth and wide eyes, while Launu muttered a few of the Common words to jog his memory. "Ah, yes. Is this right?"

"Wha'?"

"Words. These words. You understand me?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I do."

"Goo," he paused, aware that something was wrong with the word, then nodded and continued. "Good. Would you stop struggling, then? That is, unless you want my Divers to cut your legs off."

He looked at the water around him in sudden panic. "But I didn't do anything!"

"You resisted. We're trying to steer you to land. Do you like this idea or not?"

"Sounds good."

"We'll take care of it."

Launu flicked his grey-scaled tail high above him and dived down, gesturing for his team to get back on with their work.

The Human was swiftly brought to the island, pushed far enough forward that he could get his feet down and brutishly splash onto the beach. Launu drifted in with the rolling waves, allowing himself to attune with its flow and be washed partly up into the wet sand.

He concentrated, reaching in to a potential all his people had, and shuddered with change. His bones and skin melded and shifted, clicking into new shapes. His fin cracked itself down into the damaged mass of his back, which became in turn less prominent. His bony cap melted into hair, a shoulder length mane of brilliant redness marred by a patch of bare skin that matched an old injury. His tail split amid a wave of powerful and surprising sensation, then squeezed and slid into a pair of legs. The feeling of them against the wet sand, the feeling of his skin, no longer razor sharp in one direction to help cut the water, being blown on by the wind, was all uniquely undesirable.

"Never felt so vulnerable in my life. What any of us see in this shape I do not know," he muttered to himself. "Human!" He called.

"Aye. Thanks for saving me."

"Never mind. I want answers."

"Probably don't have many of those. I don' have the sharpest keel on the waves."

"I do not understand, nor do I care. I want to know how your ship came to be sunk. By any chance did you think to find out before it went down?"

"Oh, that's why you were in the area. I thought I was shark food. Thanks very much, sir. Can't wait to get back to port."

"Yes, yes," Launu said, waving his hands, no longer webbed, then planting them on the soft sand to stop them from distracting him. "Your tale, landwalker."

"Well, it starts several days..."

"Shorter, please."

The man seemed to lose his wind a little, then flustered and nodded. "Aye, suits you fine. The ship came under attack about a day ago. Might have been last night."

"It was."

"Aye. I feel about that wet. Well, there was a terrible knocking on the hull, like something was trying to get through. Was, and did, too. Biggest damn spar of rock I've ever seen, just driven through the hull into the hold. After that, we started takin' on water. We talked to the hull-runners, but they weren't doing so well. Said it were pirates. Last we heard from 'em. Guessin' they were all killed."

"They were," Launu said grimly.

"An' I'm the only survivor o' the crew. What a story. Shouldn't have ended up this way. Good captain, too. Strong fella..."

"Human. These pirates. Did they attempt to board your vessel at any point?"

"Of course not! Ye're a fish, would iyou/i try and board one of our ships?" He asked, and Launu felt a little ball of disdain uncurl a finger or two inside his mind.

"I would if I wanted to make more money. How many did your crew number?"

"About sixty, all hands."

"What were they armed with?"

"Aside from the traditional pointy sticks, there were brooms, water buckets, and some good sturdy fishing spears. We had ten mercenaries on board, they had all sorts. Crossbows, swords, you name it. Didn't help in the end, of course."

Launu considered this. Pirates, in his experience, didn't tend to sink ships as their first thought. There were two broad possibilities. Pirates pretending to be zealots, or zealots pretending to be pirates. He needed to know which before his next move. For one thing, the answer determined the likely direction of his quarry.

"Did they make any effort at all to board your vessel?"

"None."

"Did the hull-runners tell you of their numbers?"

"No."

Launu paused. That was unusual. "Why?"

"I guess they were two busy fighting, and didn't have time to count."

Launu shook his head. That was all wrong. Their sight screams should have given some forewarning, even if the attackers had come in at their fastest pace, and a single one in the battle would have given an indication of numbers. "How imany/i hull-runners did you have with you?"

"Ten or so."

"Precise numbers, please."

"I don't know! By the Gods, I nearly died! You think I icare/i how many we had?"

"iMore/i, or iless/i, than ten?"

"More. Definitely more."

Launu's lip curled in a snarl. So that was the answer. He had his information.

He pushed up from the sand, and shakily stood up, tensing muscles he had never had before. He took a somewhat awkward step towards the water.

"Hey, where you going?" The Human called.

Launu glanced back. "After the ones who sunk your vessel."

"Ya can't just leave me here! What about the dockmasters? I have ta get back."

"We'll tell them in good time."

"But what about me?"

Launu raised an eyebrow. "What about you?"

"I need help here. How am I going to get off this island? Look at this place!" He protested, gesturing at the rocky cliffs that took up the island's center and the trees surrounding it.

Launu shrugged. "It can probably sustain you for a time while your people look for you."

"They're not going to come lookin' for someone they don't know is here!"

"We will tell them."

"When?"

"iWhen we feel like it/i!" Launu snapped, his patience gone. "If your people don't care enough to look for you then I see no reason why you should expect better from us. We've already saved your life. Be thankful for what you have."

"Now you wait just a minute," the Human cried, and floundered through the surf towards Launu. He gritted his teeth, as much from the awkward noise of the Human's gait as in expression of anger. He needed to get to the hunt immediately.

The Human neared, and Launu unclipped the small knife from his weapon harness, then flashed it to the Human's throat.

"Back off, dirtborn. You have done the Empire a service. I would rather not shed your blood." The sailor froze, and slowly backed off.

Launu stepped into the deep sand of the shore, then dived forward, shuddering as his body cracked and swelled into its natural state. He crawled back into the enveloping waves, and felt the pleasant warmth of the water engulf him once again, cleansing his body of the air's taint.

The sailor's angry curses did not move his heart, even the rock that struck his tail did not inspire him to turn back. It was the dirtborn's business to take care of their own, and if they could not or did not want to it was hardly his place to step in. But under no circumstances would the Empire receive the same accusation.

iNine/i hull-runners had died in the attack.

Not ten.

Not more than ten.

That meant two had conveniently gone missing in an attack which killed every other living thing in the area barring one lucky Human. He had not inquired about how the creature had survived, but it didn't matter. The answer was guaranteed either way. Two of the hull-runners had been traitors. That was why there was no report of numbers. The one who had gone up to report had deliberately left it out, while the others concentrated on the fight. The Human had been left specifically to be found by the Empire's investigation, and to wrongly assume it was a pirate attack.

Launu was smarter than that, and smarter than them.

Nine hull runners had died in that attack, and in death been humiliated. Perhaps they were traitors to the Empire, numbered among those who had chosen to cut themselves off and live among the dirtborn, perhaps loyal servants performing chosen tasks. To Launu, it did not matter. Only the servants of the Empress had right to end Czeran lives, and it was time to remind the zealots of that simple truth.

He screamed to pick out his team in the depths, then whipped towards them amid a burst of bubbles and disturbed silt. Greedy silt, from which he had pried his evidence. Mournfully, it settled in his wake.