Fassleti was on course for Nailecta when he noticed that he was being shadowed. It’s not the first time he’s ever been shadowed in his long life. A career as an agent of the sovereign of Teroceanican has that effect on your life. It isn’t even the first time he’s been shadowed by something that is not one of the merfolk or any of the other higher-function species that the merfolk shares the ocean with. Sadly, this experience is not singular to the agents of the sovereign of Teroceanican. Everyone who lives in the ocean has been hunted at one time or the other. Unlike humans, merfolk and their peers have never made the mistake of thinking they are alpha predators. However, this is the first time he’s ever been shadowed by creatures that are supposed to be extinct.
These aren’t what the merfolk would describe as regular extinct creatures however. Fassleti would rather have a megalodon or a plesiosaur after him than these. No these are creatures that belong to the same sphere of the ocean as the merfolk. These are creatures that can use artae. And they’re gunning straight for him.
He zigzags his path and uses whatever cover is presented to him, to try and throw them of his trail. But the bad thing about the larcha, is that they’re very smart. And these particular larcha seem to be excessively driven. Fassleti has no doubt that he must get rid of them before he gets to Nailecta He can’t lead them straight to the rest of the circuit, not without warning.
It is, however, rather difficult, even for a seasoned warrior, to anticipate the moves of creatures who have been extinct since the early days of Teroceanican. The information about them is little and Fassleti had never anticipated meeting one of them, never mind two of them.
It is the number that cements the fact that this is no ordinary encounter barring the fact about the extinct nature of his hunters. Larcha do not hunt in packs. They do not hunt in pairs. They are fiercely territorial and do not share their prey. Which means that something else, someone else is driving this pair of larcha towards him.
Fassleti wonders what was it that he’d found out from Serenti’s father that had made him such a threat now even as he knows he has to live to get that scrap of information to the others. This is a mystery that must fail to remain a mystery for much longer. From the way their hunter in the shadows is upping the ante, Fassleti knows that very soon, he, or she, will make a move that can’t be stopped without a mass amount of blood and tears.
He puts on speed, varying his path now, taking a long curving route to Nailecta. From the sharp clicks behind him, the larcha do not approve of his actions. The stinging lash of artae that send him tumbling through the depths emphasizes their displeasure. Fassleti manages to kick his tail and send himself backwards and out of the way of the second slice of artae. The force rips through the ocean like a knife and even the near miss makes Fassleti lose his center for a second. But only a second. This isn’t the first artae-enhanced fight he’d been in. In fact, he’s pretty sure that out of all the circuit he’s had the most experience. He bares his teeth in a smile and flexes his claws. It looks like the time for running has come to an abrupt end.
The larcha sense the difference in his stance and split up as the barrel towards him. They curve back together intending to catch him in a pincer motion. Fassleti takes the time to send a lash of artae against one and then whips around and dives at the other. He changes trajectory just a bit in the last second and slides under the larcha instead of launching himself directly into its mouth. He twists as he passes under it, trying to rake his claws on the underside of the larcha but the creature is canny and had already begun to arch upwards. His claws only barely graze the skin before the larcha, a nightmare combination of crocodile and fish, with the flexibility of a snake and entirely too many spike-tipped tentacles, jackknifes downwards and towards Fassleti.
He rolls to the side and escapes the gaping jaws but one of the retractable tentacles lashes out and catches him on his back. Blood billows and then he has to roll the other way to avoid the first one, which has recovered from the blow he’d dealt it earlier. He screams and sends a blast of sound at the second one. The blast sends it pitching away and he turns in time to catch one of the tentacles from number one on his claws. He grabs the tentacle before it can pull back, wraps it around his hand and spins, other hand clawing at the stomach of the larcha. The larcha, trapped and disoriented by its captured tentacle doesn’t manage to wiggle away in time.
Blood, thick and so dark it’s almost black, spills into the water. The larcha screams and with a forceful kick of its powerful tail wrenches itself free from Fassleti’s grasp. It then turns in the water and slaps said tail at the merman. But mermen are fast too and Fassleti dodges the blow, spinning so that his own tail hits the larcha on the broadside. The larcha pitches away for a second and Fassleti gets a chance to suck in a second breath and hit larcha number two with another sonic blast.
This time though the larcha is ready and lash of artae counteracts the sonic blow. Fassleti has enough time to curse before he is rammed in the stomach by the larcha. He pitches back, feeling ribs groan under the impact while his gills freeze from the unexpected trauma, and flicks tiny slivers of artae, aiming for the eyes of the larcha that is bearing down on him with the intent to devour him thoroughly. His aim is true and the larcha screeches and veers away.
This of course, does not deter larcha number one. It hisses and curves back to face him but instead of coming up to attack him it hovers just off his port side and concentrates. Lights bloom around it and Fassleti dives upwards kicking towards the surface for all he’s worth.
With one finally kick and twist of his tail he is soaring out of the water and into the air. Watery fingers follow him upwards seeking to grasp him and tear him apart but they cannot make the height so they fall back. Fassleti reaches the top of his momentum and arcs back down towards the water. The instant he slices back down into the water, stars bloom around him and then he sears the gills of larcha number one. He is gasping and lightheaded with the amount of effort required to use artae that complexly and barely has the strength to raise an arm to block the tentacle strike from larcha number two. The blow hits his arm guard and skitters off but a second tentacle punches toward his stomach. He is a millisecond too slow to stop it completely. He manages to wing it which sends it at an angle. It’s the only thing that stops the tentacle from punching straight through his armor and skewering him. As it is, a deep gash is scored on his armor and he knows that if he takes another hit in the same place it’ll get through. The other tentacle lashes back out and he slips to the side and swipes at it with his claws. His claws tear into it, almost severing it and it jerks back. He sends another sonic blast at it and it reels back. That’s when he’s hit in the back of his head.
The blow sends him tumbling forward toward larcha number two. Blood spills again coloring the water a dismal red and causing them to lose visibility. Fassleti rights himself, shaking his head slightly to clear it. The pain is sharp and burning and the ocean’s salt does nothing to help. He kicks his tail trying to get some distance from larcha number two and the death throes of larcha number one which was the cause of his head wound.
He manages to put at least a hundred feet between then and then turned and waited for the remaining larcha to make its move. The larcha arcs over in the water and comes to face him. They face off for a second and then the larcha darts forward. Only it isn’t coming at him. It dives for the dead body of its companion and starts to viciously devour it.
Fassleti jerks back and then starts moving backwards while the larcha is busy with its impromptu meal. He doesn’t turn his back on it however. He has no doubt that this battle is not done. Whoever wants him dead will not give up so easily and he doesn’t want to be caught off guard. He makes it another further hundred feet before the larcha stops eating. It’s tongue darts out of its mouth and tastes the blood still billowing in the air and then it gives Fassleti a toothy smile, yellow eyes glinting with primordial intelligence and a violent mischievousness.
Then it spasms. It writhes in the water. Echoing cries fill the air as the larcha wiggles around. Even as he watches though, it grows. The larcha’s body swells but not with bloat. It is getting bigger, elongating, filling out with new muscle while the skin hardens and toughens. Its jaws stretch too and new teeth come in. Whatever wounds that Fassleti has managed to deal, have closed up. When the whole transformation is done, its twice the size it was before. Fassleti pauses on that thought and then looks from the larcha to its last meal and back again. Understanding is swift and he feels it entirely appropriate to use a human phrase to express his feelings about the situation.
“Oh shit,” he says.
The larcha is now almost three times his length and clearly knows it has the advantage. The ocean hums again as the larcha accesses artae. Fassleti realizes that his situation is even more dire than before when the larcha requires significantly less effort to use artae.
He understands very vividly now why the first sovereign of Teroceanican must have hunted the larcha to extinction and knows that even if it may result in his death that he must end the creature. The merfolk may be scary but their monsters were few and far between. He suspected that the same could not be said for the larcha.
He turns this time and moves. He slices through the ocean at top speed, varying his path just enough to make him difficult to hit but not so varied that the larcha would be able to catch up with him. It is a balancing act where the rope is made of razor wire.
The first evidence of artae that the larcha is using is the tightness in his chest. His gills stall for a moment and he kicks violently and manages to escape the larcha’s sphere of influence.
The larcha lashes out quickly after that trying to catch him again. He evades, ducking at the last second and uses a convenient rock to escape a third time.
Ducking behind the rock however caused the distance between him and the larcha to close. He’s going to run out of time soon which means he has to end this.
He glances around, takes stock of the area he’s in and then puts his plan into motion.
It begins by stopping. He stops hard enough to give himself whiplash and hard enough that the larcha chasing him does not expect it. It over extends to try and trap him and the attempt does nothing to him. He takes the time instead to use artae himself.
The ocean is humming with the sheer amount of artae being used when the larcha tries to trap him again. This time it works but that is because Fassleti is doing nothing to stop it. Instead he concentrated on the artae he is using. He only has one chance really to get this right and the timing must be spectacular. The larcha is fast as hell and more than that it’s stronger than the average mer. He’s going to have to use a significant amount of artae to do what he needs to. He narrows his eyes and the ocean begins to alternate between screaming in terror and roaring out war cries.
He lashes out and the larcha stopped as suddenly as if it had rammed into a wall. He works quickly pushing down on its gills and pressing its snout closed. The whole creature is being held captive so tightly it is essentially paralyzed. The same of course goes for Fassleti himself. Neither of them can breathe. Neither of them can move. It’s down to a literal battle of wills to see whose strength will run out first.
Mers can hold their breath for some time and Fassleti knowing what was coming had filled his lungs as much as he could. Still the larcha had evened out the playing field because it had had a head start on him. He could feel it trying to crush him. And he responded in kind. After a moment the larcha gave up, the effort being too much to sustain. Fassleti gives up too and they are back to their original standoff. Fassleti feels the slow creep of lightheadedness after five minutes. From the subdued way in which the larcha is struggling, it’s feeling it too and beginning to panic. Fassleti in contrast stays still, knowing that the more he moves, the more oxygen he’ll burn. Besides he really can’t do much more than a suppressed wiggle anyway. Ten minutes in though black spots have begun to dance across his vision. He is trembling with the sheer effort of using artae for so long. He would have heaved if he could have actually moved properly. A trace of red appears among the dancing black spots and it takes him too long to realize that he is bleeding from a nostril. He looks at the larcha and manages to conclude that it doesn’t look much better than he does. One eye is hemorrhaging and its struggles have become far weaker. Fassleti doesn’t let up, cannot let up, even though blood is running freely from his nose and he feels like the blood vessels in his eyes are close to bursting too. The pressure in his head increases, the world becomes wavy but he doesn’t release that iron grip. If he dies, the larcha dies with him. There’s panic in the creature’s eyes now and he can feel it, when the world is this charged with artae, feel the larcha’s need to escape, to breathe, to go back to the depths it had been hidden in before it had been grasped and set on this path.
He feels no mercy for it, merely detached disgust. He is not afraid of death, not afraid of dying for his cause. Monsters may be few among the merfolk but he is one of them, though he plays on the side of light.
The larcha’s struggles increase in a final desperate act to escape but Fassleti holds fast and in a few more moments the larcha’s hold on him releases. He lets go in the next second. It’s just in time, he thinks because the smallest drop of blood is leaking out of his left eye.
They both just hover there for a moment, catching their breath, taking stock of injuries that seem to be increasing by the second. Sustained use of artae while one is being strangled is not a course of action that is usually recommended.
Fassleti moves first. He isn’t recovered, not by a long shot, but he knows all too well that striking first, even while you’re still gasping for breath, can end a fight before it becomes far, far too long. The larcha isn’t expecting it and he gets closer than he usually would. He slices straight past it as it veers away at the last second. It isn’t fast enough to avoid his next blow as he doubles back twice as fast as before. The larcha screams as he tears through its tail fins. He ducks the thrashing tail and scores another hit on the creature’s underbelly. The larcha rolls in a desperate attempt to protect its more vulnerable underside. Fassleti catches its opposite fin as it rolls though and all the larch manages to do is roll him upwards while still leaving its underside vulnerable. He slashes at it again and again before the larcha rolls with more intent this time and attempts to flatten him with one of its fins.
Fassleti is forced to roll himself in order to escape and loses his proximity advantage. By this time though the larcha has begun to recover its wits even though, like Fassleti, its strength is still somewhat impaired. It lashes out at the merman with its tentacles.
Quick flicks of his tail dances him away from each blow and then, timing the next strike, he darts forward and embeds his claws in one of the tentacles, tugs and with a throat grating sonic scream, shears the tentacle from the larcha’s body.
The larcha screams in pain and rage and pitches away from him. It tries to turn but he has already severely damaged its tail fin. A quick kick of his tail and he is soaring through the water next to the larcha. He gets both hands involved this time, embedding his claws in the base of the remaining tentacle and savagely tearing it off.
The larcha bellows and the ocean screams around Fassleti as light blinds him. He can feel the desperation of the dying larcha, feel its rage thundering through him, the keen focus of the sharks hovering far away waiting for one of them to fall, for the artae to fade so that they could feast on the dead and victor alike.
Then the soft light doubles and Fassleti buries a narrow blade of force straight through the larcha’s eye and embeds it into its brain. He throws up a wall of force around himself but it’s almost too late. Sharp spikes of artae lance through the water closing in on him like a shrinking sphere. The larcha’s last play. His wall breaks some of them and it’s the only reason he survives because it gives him space to move out of the way of the others just enough to keep himself from being stabbed fatally. The merman grunts as the spikes impale his tail in three places, another gouges a furrow in his back, one makes itself very at home on his upper left arm and the final one that hits him gives him a new red smile over his stomach. There are numerous nicks from several others as well.
“Well, this is problematic,” he says studying himself.