Legend of the Lake
“Oh, come on, Big Balls! We have to get across before spring comes and the ice melts, you fool! Follow your brothers and sisters! Hurry it up!”
Chaga Tai watched in exasperation as Big Balls moseyed over the round, frozen lake at the back of the herd of yaks, his hooves clopping with a maddening lack of speed. Big Balls was getting old now, Chaga supposed, much like he was himself. At about sixty years of age, the herder was a stooped, wrinkly man with long, grey, matted dreadlocks and several layers of wool and fur surmounted by a red woolly hat and a huge, faded, pink-and-orange poncho with stylized yaks cavorting on it. He watched the yak’s namesakes swinging to and fro between his shaggy black legs for a moment and smiled wryly. Even Big Balls’ big balls were shrinking in his old age; he had been with a lot of lady yaks in his life, Chaga supposed. Big had been a favourite mater for years now; a welcome sight to any herder. Now, though, Chaga wondered how much time the old bull had left before he lay down and did not rise again.
Urging the yak to prove him wrong, the herdsman called out, “Come on, Big! You can do it! That’s it!”
The big black yak snorted and shook his great head, and Chaga chortled. “Yes, you! Come on! Keep coming!”
Chaga Tai always ushered his herd to the islands in the middle of the great mountain lakes in winter when the water froze over several feet thick; the grazing there was second to none, and sometimes other herders would congregate there for an impromptu meet and greet. Yak herding was a lonely life. So, particularly since his wife had died a few years hence, Chaga had relished such random run-ins. He could see no sign of anyone already on the island toward which he was headed that day, however, much to his disappointment.
“Keep it up, Big Balls! Won’t be long till the snow comes!” The herder glanced up at the iron sky suspiciously, watching it clot with clouds. “I want to be under shelter by then, you old grump!”
Big Balls gave a dismissive grunt as he plodded along at the same pace; the pace of the growth of a glacier. Chaga rolled his eyes and fixed his mind firmly on the cave in which he would soon be sleeping. It was the cave he used every time he visited the island, and thanks to its crooked entrance the ubiquitous wind up in the snow-capped mountains could not howl inside so easily, so the herder would be able to light a fire to keep warm; a true treat in the high plateaus in the south of Ogbun Nagali, where heat was almost a forgotten concept, lost long ago like toes that did not have frostbite or hair that had never seen a hat.
“Hurry up, Big Balls, or the Azotha will get you! Hahaha!”
He shook his head at his own foolishness, remembering telling the tale to his wife the first time he had brought her to this very lake. Inspired by the memory, and with little else to do to keep warm, Chaga stamped his booted feet and rubbed his gloved hands and retold the story to his black yak at the back of the pack.
“Have you heard of the tales of Azothakhong, Big Balls? No? Well, allow me to fill you in.” He fumbled a pipe and a small leather pouch from the furs beneath his poncho. “The name of this lake, Azothakhong, means Home of the Azotha in the ancient tongue. Legends say a race of unearthly beings once dwelt herein; the Azotha.” He took some crumbled green herb from the pouch with his clumsy, gloved fingers and jammed it in the pipe bowl, before replacing the pouch. “Some say they are Demon-fish, others that they are octopi risen up from the depths of Maradoum, and others still that they are evil men with gills that dwell at the bottom of this very lake. None know the truth. Whatever the truth, legend says that once upon a time this lake boiled and brimmed with a malevolent people.”
It took him some time to light the pipe with a small taper, for the wind tried to snatch it out of his hand every other second with a strong gust. He spun around and around, trying to find the perfect angle to block the wind, curling in on himself around the pipe to protect it from the elements. After a few fretful minutes, though, he continued his narrative, puffing bluish-white smoke.
“After being defeated in a great battle on the plains in the time before records, the Hakakmiti clan fled from their foes high into these mountains and discovered this lake. It being summer, they sought succor from the unfrozen lake, but the waters shot up in a white spray and from them burst forth one of the Azotha! Whatever its form, the Azoth used its giant teeth to tear out the man’s throat and then set upon his clansmen with formidable spells, bringing them down one by one with its dark magics. It is said only one woman escaped to tell the tale; that she ran back into the arms of the enemy clan rather than face the Azotha and that she was there slain, after she had related what she had seen. Out of curiosity, the enemy clan ventured up to the lake after the Hakakmiti … and were never seen again.
“Since then, only daft yak herders have been foolish enough to risk the regions around the cursed lake … Most folk won’t come within a league of the place for fear of ancient superstitions. Lucky we know better, eh, Big Balls? Been coming here for some thirty odd years and never once seen any Azoth.” He stomped on the ice and blew a large plume. “Stupid legend. Nothing could live under here. Be cold as death down there.”
Chaga was beginning to get frustrated with Big Balls when a cracking noise lanced through him like a blade in the stomach. His heart fought its constraints, seeming desperate to escape his ribcage as he heard bovine moaning. Blowing smoke, the herder turned around slowly, afraid of what he would see. What he saw was a second blade in the belly.
The ice had cracked, and his entire herd – apart from Big Balls – was floundering in the water, snorting steam and grunting in panic, trying in vain to pull themselves back up onto the fracturing ice. He stared at them in horror for a long moment, knowing he had not the strength to pull out one, much less all of them. His entire livelihood was drowning before his eyes.
“Get back, Big Balls!” Chaga screamed then. “Back to the shore with you!”
Big Balls was still not far from the rocky outer shore, thanks to his lethargy, and Chaga had been between the herd and him. Now, Chaga spun from his herd with a wrench of the heart, knowing there was nothing he could do for them, and began to shuffle quickly back towards the big black yak. As soon as he turned his back on the herd, however, another sharp cracking noise shot through him like a lightning bolt, making him tingle with fear from toe to head.
A split second later, he was splashing around in the freezing water, his pipe gone and forgotten, trying to hold his head above the surface while being dragged down by his poncho. The last thing he saw before he submerged in the biting iciness was Big Balls staring at him lackadaisically. He took half a breath, and then he was underwater, spitting. Though he tried to swim back up, he found that he had already lost the hole through which he had fallen and all he could feel above him was solid ice.
Forcing himself to open his eyes, Chaga looked around in a panic, knowing he did not have long until he drowned. He could see nothing but blue and bubbles at first, but then a bizarre sight caught his eye. There were multicoloured beams of light streaming first one way and then the other in the depths of the lake far below him, radiant swords slashing at the dimness, an aquatic light show the like of which he had never seen. He thought he could observe an eerie purple fog swirling through the waters too, like ink in water but fainter. He squinted into the striated darkness and let out the rest of his carefully hoarded breath in an exclamation of shock at what he saw. Bubbles rushed out of his mouth before he snapped it shut.
There were beings of some sort at the bottom of the lake, using the rocks there for cover and peeking out now and again to expose a tentacle and shoot from it one of the beams of light he had seen; either that or a little radiant blob, green, yellow, or purple, that sped through the water towards other similarly tentacled beings. Chaga saw one shadowy figure struck by a jade blob and withdraw in pain for a moment, only to return to the attack. He retaliated with a golden beam of energy that smote down and appeared to vaporise his attacker; indeed, Chaga saw no sign of it after that.
As if what he was seeing was not bad enough, the unthinkable happened then – the monsters began to rise up from the shadows toward the surface, toward Chaga, and one of them spotted him. He felt fear claw his lungs alongside the lack of air as they locked eyes. As they rose up out of the deep, he was able to make out their forms and he would have gasped if he could have.
Demon-fish no longer seemed like such a ridiculous, comedic oxymoron. Now, it seemed an apt description. The beings propelled themselves effortlessly through the water with their many tentacles and their powerful tail fins and directed their route with the rudder-like fin on their backs. They had long, slick elongated faces like pike with huge needle-teeth on display, globular eyes and gills visibly flitting open and shut on either side. Beyond those similarities, however, the battling beings below seemed segregated into two separate species. The majority had bloated bodies like sea lions, were covered in pale blue fur and favoured blasting gold, white and green blobs and beams at their enemies. The rest were skinnier, covered in overlapping crimson scales and preferred blood-red, orange and violet magics to sunder their foes.
Chaga had never believed in it before, but he was sure that was what he was seeing; magic. He had never believed in the Azotha before either, and yet there they were, rising up out of the depths of myth to eat him alive. It boggled his air-deprived brain, and his heart cramped.
He watched helplessly as one of the scaly, red monsters rapidly closed in on him, undulating through the water, its tentacles swishing in unison to propel it, its teeth bared in what seemed like a wide, vicious grin. Staring into its crimson eyes was like looking death in the face, and Chaga’s heart almost stopped from sheer fear. He tried to swim backwards, to swim away, but he was trapped against the ice ceiling with nowhere to go.
The red Azoth was mere yards away now, and the herder resigned himself to death at its hands. His world began to blacken pre-emptively. Just before the legendary creature could reach and kill him, however, one of the bloated blues barrelled into it at speed, bearing it bodily away from Chaga. Grappling with tentacles and snapping with jaws, the blue soon savaged the red, tearing through its scales with sharp teeth and leaving the water bloody. When the red stopped moving, the blue turned on Chaga, who felt his bladder slacken with the last of his waking seconds, lights dancing before his eyes.
He was not sure how, but a moment later his head broke the surface and he felt the chill wind whip his face, waking him abruptly. Blind, choking and coughing up water, he felt one hand wrap around something hard and smooth. An instant later, whatever he had grabbed began to pull him up and out of the water onto the ice, where he lay gasping raggedly, his lungs afire.
“Oh, thank you, Sky Father!” he panted when he had enough breath. “Thank you!” He felt something slimy wrap around his ankle. “Ah, Sky Father! What are you doing to me?”
A moment later, he was drenched when the water beneath the riven ice fountained up into the air. He rolled as one of the furry, blue, bloated beings flopped up onto the ice where he had lain, like it had been spat out of the lake. In its wake, magical blobs and beams of light, red and purple, speared up through the hole in the ice, streaking off into the gloaming like shooting stars.
“Ah! Sky Father, save me!” Chaga begged.
He crawled hurriedly away from the island, the crack in the ice, the bloated blue being and its compatriots. As he did so, he saw Big Balls standing on the ice alongside him and surmised that it must have been one of his long curved horns that Chaga had grabbed; he must have pulled the herder up out of the water. The yak had saved his life.
“Come on, Big!” Chaga urged him with chattering teeth.
Risking looking back, the herder’s eyes widened in terror when he saw the bit of bloated blue blubber dragging itself after him along the ice using its tentacles.
“Ah! Get away, you ugly whoreson! Get away!”
He did not feel up to rising, but he tried to crawl faster.
Chaga halted, his heart throbbing in his throat. It was not he who had spoken; it was the creature from the lake, and it had spoken in Traveller’s Tongue. Slowly, scared stiff, he swung his head around to glance back again. Behind the bloated, blue being, kaleidoscopic streams of bright energy still cascaded up into the dimming firmament, howling like wolves.
The herder locked eyes with the creature, gazing into wholly blue orbs, and jumped in shock when it spoke again, carefully forming sounds with its long, thick, purple tongue against its needle-teeth. “Please,” it said, its voice wet and bubbling like it had liquid stuck in its throat, “show mercy. I saved your life; now I beseech you for a return of the favour. I am in need of succour this day – or it may be my last.”
“You’re not going to hurt me?” Chaga asked mistrustfully.
“No, I swear by the almighty Sky Father that I will not, that I will never … Just please, do not let me die!”
“What do you want from me?”
“Pressgang me from this place, I beg you! Do not let the Azotha befoul me as they have my brethren!”
“You’re not Azotha then?” Chaga blurted unthinkingly. “What are you?”
“No, I am not Azotha. I am not beholden to their ways. I am of the Krakyll, Please, I will explain it all to you if you wish, but first you must extricate me from my predicament! I am wounded and ill-suited to land-travel. I will surely die if left to tend myself!”
“How am I supposed to get you away from here then?”
“Using yonder beast of burden, of course.”
“Big Balls. Of course … And you swear you won’t hurt me?”
“I swear it by the Sky Father.”
“Good enough for me. Why, I’m starting to think the Sky Father sent me to you in your time of need. I trust in his will, and anyone who swears by his name can be no villain. Come along then, Krakyll. Crawl with me and we’ll try to get you mounted once back on shore.”
“Thank you, my friend, thank you! Sky Father’s blessings be upon you. You may call me Tsao Ping.”
“Sky Father’s blessings, Tsao Ping. I am Chaga Tai, and this is Big Balls.”
Chaga kept shuffling along the ice on his belly, and when the Krakyll did not leap on his back and kill him immediately, he felt his fear begin to subside slightly, though he could still hear the hiss and splash of the magical attacks behind them and occasionally feel the ice tremor as if one had struck the underside. While his fear drained away, his strength seemed to return in direct proportion and he quickened until he was outpacing the big, lazy yak on his hands and knees.
“Come on, Big! Get a move on!”
When he made it to shore, he slumped down there for a moment, shivering uncontrollably. “Oh, thank you for delivering me from that nightmare, Sky Father! Thank you!”
Big Balls’ hooves scuffed the dirt alongside him, and the yak snorted. Chaga wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry; he hugged the languorous yak’s leg for a moment and then used it to help pull himself to his feet.
“Good boy, Big.”
Spinning slowly to behold the odd creature on the ice behind him, Chaga thought then that Tsao Ping looked so weak it likely could not kill the herder even if it wanted to. The Krakyll dragged itself along pitifully, its tentacles slapping ineffectually at the ice, its breathing harsh and ragged, its tongue lolling in exhaustion. It reminded Chaga of the descriptions of a beached whale he had heard in his youth, before he had abandoned civilisation for the mountains.
Stepping tentatively back onto the ice, he stretched out a hand. “Take my hand, Tsao Ping. You can trust me.”
The Krakyll extended a tentacle, and Chaga flinched slightly at the cold, slimy feel of it as it wrapped around his hand and wrist, each revolution bringing the creature a little closer. Soon, Tsao Ping was leaning on the herder while Chaga tried to shove him on top of Big Balls. Chaga had anticipated reluctance or downright mutiny from the yak at this idea, but strangely Big just stood there placidly, seemingly entirely unconcerned by proceedings, as if he had alien beings riding him every day. The herder did not want to risk asking Big Balls to lie down to make the task easier – it might take hours to get him up again – and so he struggled on, feeling the wind cut through him and his saturated clothes like a chill knife.
It felt like trying to shove a huge sack of wet, mushed potatoes onto the yak. Every time he forced some on top, more flopped down. Eventually, though, he balanced out the blubber so that it hung evenly on either side, draping the yak like a sack of water, thinned at the top and bulging at the sides. Tsao Ping did not look comfortable, but it burbled, “Thank you, Chaga Tai, thank you! Now, please, escort me away with all haste!”
“Any particular direction?”
“West. We must follow the river, Gamba-Chu, to the west.”
“What lies west?”
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