Chapter 34 - Enter the Cyn'Taak
It was absolutely miserable. Zelda surged up from the muck spluttering as she spit out the vile sludge from her mouth. Loose footholds and sudden drops in the murky water of the Negev Marshlands caused many of them to stumble and fall face first into the filthy bog. The group had been slogging through the swamps for the better part of two days after descending from the ridge bordering the desert. The stagnant air was sweltering, making clothes stick to their bodies and their skins perspire copiously.
The worst part was the flies, as big as their fingers and swarming them like they were dead carcasses. Malon erratically flung her arms through the air as they continually bit her to pieces. She even yelped a few times as their bites hurt something fierce. Apolloni cuffed her several times ordering her to be quiet. She feared that Malon was attracting far too much attention to the group.
“Will you quit your bawling?! You want to have the entire swamp brought down upon us?” Apolloni hissed.
Malon sniffed as she brushed off a nipping fly, “I can’t help it! They won’t leave me alone.”
Merin licked her lips, “It’s your sweet blood, honey.”
“Shut it.” Link ordered, irritated at the whole situation.
“You don’t talk to her like that!” Aveil stomped up to him, affronted at his cheekiness.
“We’re in this together. Let’s just get through these awful swamps.” Zander offered peaceably.
“Agreed. Now get a move on!” Apolloni growled.
“Says the person who denies her tent to anyone but her own kind!” Link snapped.
Apolloni plodded up to Link, splashing Lorva in the process with each step, “You want to say that again to my face?” Her voice seethed.
“Gladly.” Link puffed up, taking on the challenge. “This entire trip, you have been an incorrigible tyrant. You’ve put Malon down constantly despite the fact she’s held her own in several battles already!” Link gestured to Malon, who was currently too busy swatting the flies to truly appreciate the compliment.
“And you have a liar in your midst.” Apolloni fired back. Leveling her gaze at Zelda, she pointed in her direction, virulence spitting from her mouth. “That man is a female! I saw her the moment her disguise failed! Just what is it you are hiding from?”
Within moments, Zelda dropped the guise. There was simply no reason to maintain it any longer. If the other Gerudo were shocked at the revelation, they did not show it. “How is this relevant to the issue at hand, which is your bad attitude?” Zelda snorted in contempt.
Apolloni backhanded her across the face. Zelda sailed into the water with a splash at the force of the blow. Within moments Link’s sword was out and aimed directly at Apolloni’s neck, a bead of blood caressing its tip. The other Gerudo immediately sprung onto Malon and Zelda, their scimitars at the ready, eager to slice them from ear to ear. Malon deftly dodged the first swing; she swung around while unslinging the spear from her back. Doing her best to ignore the teeming flies, she held her ground against the two Gerudo before her, each one looking for a weakness in her defense.
Apolloni assessed the situation with her eyes. A slow, raucous laugh began to emerge from her throat. She sneered, “It looks like we are at a stalemate, my dear boy. What will you do now? You know if you kill me, they will die as well.”
Link called her bluff, “I don’t care. At least you’ll be dead.” He stated flatly.
The barking of frogs and crickets were the only sounds heard for several moments. His response was clearly not what Apolloni was expecting. She wanted him to back down. He still held the upper hand with regards to her life. Did he not value his friend’s lives? Was he simply conning? What was his game?
“Drop your weapon and I’ll see to it that no harm will come to your…two females.” Apolloni churned, placing deliberate emphasis on the last two words. Her eyes filled with hate as she stared into Link’s, awaiting his ultimate decision.
Link simply twisted the sword lightly into her neck, sending stinging pain down her throat. “I think not Apolloni. Your women release them first. Then we’ll talk.” Link pressed calmly.
She was furious but at a signal, the other women backed down from Malon. Lorva helped Zelda back onto her feet as they looked on to see what Link would do. Malon breathed a sigh of relief but continued to hold her spear at the ready. She did not trust these Gerudo. At length, he withdrew the sword, allowing Apolloni to feel her prick of a wound. Spiteful rage was evident in her eyes, but Link cared less what she thought of him.
It was clear Apolloni was considering another assault when a quick splash from the water near them alerted the group to the rustling in the trees. The Gerudo’s eyes got wider as the crackling of branches grew louder. She hastily ordered the entire group to dive into the nearby shrubbery to hide. Zelda leaped into the closest scrub along with Malon and Merin. Link dove into the larger bush with the other three Gerudo.
Within moments, the shaking of the branches stopped just above their heads. Two pairs of scaly feet slammed to the ground within inches of their faces. Looking out through the brush, they saw two hulking beasts unlike any they had ever seen. The most notable feature beyond their slick sheen of greenish-blue scales was their scorpion-like tail. It’s piercing barb casually shifting back and forth across the moss covered ground. Along the length of their spines was a matted mane of red fur that hung over their sides haphazardly, trailing up over their hunchbacked shoulders down onto their heads. They had rows of razor sharp teeth jutting out at awkward angles from their crocodile-like snouts.
“Wat ‘ave we ‘ere? Som’ tas’y mors’l?” Its deep voice boomed out, jolting the group at its surprising vibrato. The creature would have sounded so ridiculous if it wasn’t so deadly looking. None dared laugh at its ludicrous voice. The hulking creature grasped the limp body in its massive, clawed fists. Link could see that the corpse was a Zora. He hadn’t even noticed the body lying by the edge of the water during their heated argument.
“Ey ya! ‘Ou ‘et me ‘ave som’ too!” The second creature snarled at its partner. A raging war erupted between the two behemoths as they began to yank on the cadaver, each wanting their fair share of the meat. With a roaring cry, the Zora was ripped in two with a sickening splatter. Brownish blood spurted across the ground as unidentifiable flesh and viscera flew in multiple directions.
“Wat ‘ou do ‘at f’r?” The left one snapped, viscid saliva dribbling over its gaping maw, its tail rigid and poised to strike the offender of its meal.
“I solv’ ‘ur prob’m! ‘Ow we ‘ave two ‘ieces!” The right beast laughed; an odd, guttural, belching sound that resonated deep within its throat. It was almost disgusting to listen to.
Apparently satisfied with that answer, both creatures ripped into their halves of the carcass; rending flesh from bone and sinew as they gulped down portions of the Zora in whole pieces. Strips of dangling flesh hung loose about their jowls, looking at the blood slathered over their faces as they relished their fresh meal, Zelda began to feel nauseous but couldn’t bring herself to look away. Everyone was deathly still, making every possible effort to remain quiet. Every muscle in their bodies began to feel sore at the tension coursing through them; so rigid they were, lying flush on the damp ground, the moisture soaking their clothes.
The crunching of bone was what set Malon off finally. A low whimper escaped her lips before Merin immediately slapped an arm over her mouth. Link’s gaze flicked over to her as Merin tried to force the girl to remain calm. It was too late, the beast nearest to their shrub had ceased twitching its deadly tail. Cradling the rest of its meat in one hand, it raised its snout into the air sniffing heavily. The other creature stopped munching on the remainder of the spine as it noticed its partner’s reaction.
“Wha’ ‘appen’g ‘ow?” The creature quaked in annoyance at the disruption of its meal.
A deep, rumbling growl filtered up through the second creature as it started looking around, “I ‘ought I ‘eard ‘ome’hing.” It continued sniffing the air again.
Beads of sweat were trailing down Merin’s face as she forcefully smothered Malon’s body with her own, hell bent on keeping her both quiet and still. The behemoth began turning to inspect the nearby shrubbery. It scraped its claws through the branches as twigs and leaves drifted down onto the group’s prone bodies. Its beady eyes were sifting through the tangled mass of verdures, unable to see through to the ground.
With the speed of an arrow sailing through the air, the creature jerked its upper body towards the ground as its whip-like tail slashed through the brush. The poisonous barb punctured the dirt a foot away from Zelda’s elbow. She was terrified beyond belief, she didn’t feel like she could have moved even if she wanted to. Within seconds, the tail retracted out of the shrub as a lone bullfrog bounded out of the undergrowth. Merin grunted softly as Malon bit hard into her palm; her mind in a state of utter panic.
“Wat we ‘ave ‘ere? My fav’rit’ ‘ish!” The beast looked upon the frog with delight. Both creatures sprung for the hapless amphibian. Each intent on claiming the snack for themselves. They crashed into the brush nearly trampling Zelda. Merin quickly released Malon briefly as she yanked Zelda by the collar over to her as the two scaly bodies crunched into the brush. Without missing a beat, she clapped her hand back over Malon’s mouth as she opened it to scream.
The small yelp went unnoticed as the two behemoths snarled and snapped at each other, rolling through the underbrush with impunity, oblivious to the fact that the bullfrog had managed to leap into the water and escape. Apolloni aggressively signaled Merin to transfer bushes. Merin grabbed Malon tight and rolled with her quickly through the open. Zelda frantically scrambled after them as they dove into the larger scrub. Their original hiding place was immediately crushed under the colossal weight of the warring monsters; rolling and growling at each other, their tails viciously striking both air and ground.
One beast eventually got the upper hand and overturned the opponent onto its back. It slammed its gaping jaws tightly over the windpipe, teeth sinking deep into the scaly epidermis drawing greenish plasma. The floundering creature thrashed under the crushing weight of its partner as it twisted its head to look directly at Link through the underbrush. This movement proved to be fatal for the repulsive beast, its large eyes bulged as it endeavored to alert its attacker of their presence.
With one, swift, ripping yank, the conquering behemoth shredded the entire throat, rending off a gargantuan chunk of bloodied meat before gulping it whole. The losing beast twitched spastically as it gurgled on its own frothing blood. The victor quickly dunked its snout directly into the gaping hole in the neck and began drinking the steaming blood with a revolting slurping sound. Zelda could handle no more. She shut her eyes tightly as she crushed her ears with her hands to block out the awful sound of its feasting.
Link continued to gawk in horror as it drained its partner dry of the greenish fluid before moving onto its belly. It raked its claws deep into the flesh and tore off a sizeable portion of the ribbed underbelly of the unfortunate beast. Filling its tooth-filled maw with slick intestines, it began sucking them down into its gullet at an alarming rate. Link finally had to look away or his gag reflex was going to get the better of him. It was over in mere minutes although it had seemed like hours since these monstrosities arrived.
Evidently satisfied with its meal, the disgusting creature sighed throatily as it licked its snout of entrails, its forked tongue covering the length of its face in a repulsive display of gluttony. As if to insult the mutilated corpse, it swiftly perforated the dead creature multiple times with its tail, the tip of the barb dripping with a green, venomous liquid. It picked up the remainder of the Zora with its mouth before giving one final snort at the carcass it had just marred. Flexing its rippling thigh muscles, it bounded high into the air and gripped a thick branch in its clawed hands. With the effortless grace of a monkey, it swung through the canopy swinging from branch to branch.
The rustling of the trees grew fainter as it moved further away from the group. After a few more minutes of tensely waiting in the undergrowth, they finally deemed it safe to depart from their cover. The sounds of the swamp were slowly returning now that the danger had passed. Merin finally let Malon go as she shuddered uncontrollably at the massacre that occurred before their very eyes. Link decided it best to ignore her and let Malon recover at her own pace, he was still quite unnerved himself. He walked up to the torrid carcass, the stench hitting his nostrils like a hurricane. He looked at the massive bulk and estimated its height to be taller than he was by several feet.
Wrinkling up his nose at the ghastly sight of its innards being displayed for all the flies to consume, Link asked, “What in Din’s name were those things?”
Lorva walked up beside him, “Those are the Cyn’Taak.”
“The what?” Zelda asked, preferring to stay where she was; she would rather not get any closer to that loathsome body.
Aveil filled in for Lorva, “They are the sentient beings that live in these marshlands.”
Malon burst out in a yell, “You call that sentient?! One of them killed the other and ate it up!” Merin rushed over to Malon’s side to calm her down as her breathing elevated in frequency at the memory of it.
Apolloni scoffed, “I will have to admit you are right there Malon. The Cyn’Taak are a rather cantankerous species, prone to cannibalism and general violent tendencies. Calling them sentient might be too generous of a description.”
Aveil bowed her head in agreement, “If it weren’t for their venom found in their tails, we’d have little use for them.”
Link twirled to Aveil in shock, “You mean the poison we’ve been putting on our weapons to explode soldiers in the Nevachrean army, they came from these things?!”
She nodded before continuing, “Our variant is a bit more potent. Thanks to the scientist we picked up from Lake Hylia, we managed to expand on its properties so that its victims could explode.”
Zelda hesitantly ventured to ask, “If that is your variant of their venom, what does it do normally?”
Merin looked up from Malon, assured that she was sufficiently calm, “It causes its prey to swell up in swollen blood boils. The victim ultimately loses its ability to move and typically slumps to the ground helpless.”
Link asked fearing the answer, “What purpose would that serve?”
Merin grimaced at the thought of her response, “You noticed how entranced it was when drinking the blood of its partner?” Link nodded. “They are chronic blood drinkers. It is like an aphrodisiac to them. The boils force most of the victim’s blood supply to the surface where it can easily be popped and drunk quickly.” Merin finished.
Without warning, Malon pitched over and wretched the contents of her stomach. Merin placed a hand on her back, gently rubbing it down as she allowed Malon to empty her belly. She had to admit it had made her queasy too, the first time she encountered these creatures. She quickly pulled out a piece of cloth to assist Malon in wiping down her mouth.
Apolloni examined their surroundings as she resituated her backpack. She didn’t like the location they were in, it was too exposed. She should have realized that before they entered into that petty argument. With firm conviction she stated, “We need to keep moving. This body will attract a lot of unwanted attention and we do not want to be here when that happens.”
Link had to approve of the idea, “Zelda, Merin, can you please help Malon up and assist her until she is able to walk on her own.”
Apolloni glared at him for his sudden role reversal as leader; she went to rebuke him when Lorva intervened, “I’ll help too! I can understand the shock of seeing those things for the first time.”
Aveil glanced in his direction and merely shrugged before walking over to Apolloni. Link scrutinized them as they heatedly whispered to each other. He was quickly sizing up in his head whom he could trust of the group. Apolloni was obviously out of the question, she was volatile and unpredictable. Aveil seemed to be her greatest confidant and most likely couldn’t be trusted either. He looked over to Lorva and Merin as they picked up Malon, who seemed quite shaky on her feet. Lorva was a mystery. She was kind and generous to them one moment and violently opposed the next. He wasn’t sure what to make of her. Merin seemed to be the most trustworthy and genuinely seemed to care for Malon, especially after their…encounter together that first night in the desert.
Apolloni took the lead followed by Aveil and Lorva. Merin walked with Malon while Link and Zelda brought up the rear. They made good progress through the swamp the remainder of that day, however there was still no acceptable location to set up camp that night. It was all deemed vulnerable by Apolloni.
They finally came to a thicket of greenery where the ground became much firmer under foot. They brushed aside the twigs and branches before coming to a clearing. In the center of the copse was an abandoned stone structure, its fluted columns splayed out across the grove with only a few still upholding the overall structure. Excessive vegetation and growth had overtaken the majority of the temple. It was evident that no one had set foot here in many cycles.
“This is where we will stay for the night.” Apolloni stated matter-of-factly.
Without much contesting, the rest dazedly unslung their packs and began setting up their sleeping arrangements in the interior of the temple. It seemed to be split up into three different chambers. There was one primary chamber which housed various busts of unknown gods or goddesses. Two side chambers seemed to compliment the first but appeared to be either living quarters or an eating area, they were not sure which. Apolloni and the three Gerudo took one side chamber while Link and the others took the opposite.
They slipped out of their clammy clothes, modesty between them all lost by this point. After having placed some breathable, dry fabrics against their skin, the three moved out to the main chamber to find that the Gerudo had already set up a small fire at the far end opposite the temple entrance. They all piled in close to the flames as the warmth seeped into their chilled bones; the damp of the swamps had sunk in and was freezing them in the cool, night air.
Malon, having fully recovered from the ordeal, looking around curiously, “What do you think the purpose of this place was?”
Aveil spoke with indifference, “No idea. This was here before we first discovered the Negev Marshlands. Does it ultimately matter? We have a roof over our head and a place of relative safety to sleep in.”
Malon continued to stare at some of the busts adorning the alcoves that lined the sides of the grand hall they resided in, “This had to be a holy place of some kind. It feels almost,” she paused trying to find the right word, “reverent in here.”
Apolloni scoffed, “Now it’s just a way station for our scouts as they pass through these swamps.”
Link leaned back against one of the stone hewn pews, “So you all were aware of the danger of going out each month and bringing back more venom from these Cyn’Taak? How did you all actually do it? I doubt those creatures would have willingly given you vials of the stuff.” He probed earnestly.
Merin shuddered, “You don’t want to know.”
Zelda had to agree with her before Apolloni butted in with the awful truth, “There is a reason we always come back one less woman from each expedition.”
Silence descended onto the group as they let that thought sink in.