Lyre Copine had befriended a Kappa.
It had happened almost a month ago. She had gone swimming in Furrow River with her brother, trying to take advantage of Al Kutz’s brief, temperamental summer when the water became warm enough for a dip. Her brother, Morovus, however, had abandoned her when he had spotted friends his own age splashing around close by; a few years her senior, he often did not want to be tied down by his sixteen-year-old baby sister. He far preferred to fool around with his friends in the hopes of attracting the notice of the resident Warlord, the head of the Drowned Lizard mercenary gang, Noyé Lézard. Most every boy in Lombonn wanted to be a Drowned Lizard.
So, having no friends of her own to whom to turn, Lyre had been left to her own devices. She had swum inland against the current until she had left her home town, Lombonn, behind and firs and willows stood watch on either loamy shore. She had known she was not supposed to stray so far from town – her parents often told her how dangerous it was out in the wild – but she had been bored and lonely and so that day she had not listened.
The turquoise waters had been as warm as she ever remembered them, and the birds in the trees had sung for her as she had begun to drift aimlessly back downriver with her olive-skinned face basking in the sunlight and her auburn hair floating around her. A bug – or perhaps providence – had landed on her nose, startling her. She had tried to shake it off, but it had not moved, rather buzzing and scaring her. So, she had swivelled in the water and dunked her face in the river to dislodge it.
And dislodge it she had. Not only that, but she had seen something beneath her in the water. It had been an eerie creature twice as large as she, and it had been watching her with twin elliptical black orbs set in a slimy-looking visage reminiscent of that of a flat-faced frog, albeit without the swelling throat. The creature’s slit-nostrils had flared in alarm as the two locked eyes, then fins had shot out of the beast’s body at various angles, it had flapped its warty green arms and legs and disappeared down into the river’s murk with a faint, high-pitched burbling sound. Shocked and wondering if she had imagined the apparition so briefly had she seen it and so fast had it vanished, Lyre had surfaced for a breath and then plunged her head underwater again. She had strained her eyes, glancing this way and that, but she had seen no sign of any life in the river beyond fish, salamanders, and weeds lining the banks. She hadn’t dared dive down into the gloom to search further.
She had heard legends of mythical creatures such as Sea Serpents and River Kappas all her life, but had never expected to meet one in person. She had not known if they had truly existed before that day; afterwards, however, she knew what she had seen. She had gone swimming inland again and again that week, day after day; fortunately, the weather had been amenable. On the second day, she had seen nothing; but on the third, she had spotted her green-skinned friend again.
This time, it had not fled from her. Once again, they had locked eyes, and this time she had waved. It had waved back with a weird, webbed green hand, and she had smiled. It had bared long needle-teeth at her in a savage-looking grin, but for some reason she had not been afraid. She had felt surreal, floating along in the river, never realising that she had been inhaling hallucinogenic spores from the nearby summer-sprouting fungi that had been inducing her tranquil state of mind.
As it had proved, however, she had had nothing to fear. Though fearsome in appearance, the Kappa – for that was what she had known it to be at first sight from descriptions in fable – had made no aggressive movements towards her. It had merely mirrored her, swimming along beneath her and watching her, the gills in its long neck flexing. Vaguely humanoid in shape, with the same number of limbs as the young girl, the creature yet had something of the fish and frog in its mien, and its back looked tough as a turtle shell. Its pale green, warty skin had struck her as beautiful, however, when dappled by refracted sunlight, particularly the odd, slightly phosphorescent turquoise moss that had seemed to coat its belly. That it had been male had been apparent from its uncloaked genitals.
She had swum with the Kappa the next day, and the next, and then it had deigned to venture nearer. Lyre, high on spores, had let it. It had made odd high-pitched warbling noises as it splayed its palm towards her, and she had mimicked the noises as best she could while underwater, reaching out to press her palm against that of the Kappa. The touch had been warmer than she had expected, pleasantly so, and she had smiled widely. The Kappa had peeled back its green lips once more in return.
After that, the two had become fast friends, and after a couple of weeks of swimming together and comparing hand and foot sizes, the Kappa had finally crawled up out of the water one day to meet her on a rocky shore far from prying eyes in the town. She had gawked in open delight at the sight of it in the noontime sun, clapping her hands, giggling and squealing in delight. The Kappa had grinned its savage grin at her obvious joy and clapped its own alien hands in return. Soon, the two of them had been clapping and dancing and giggling – or burbling – together through the woods. The Kappa had as little clue about the spores as the girl.
As the days had passed, they had continued their private little ritual of dancing and singing, soon holding hands and carousing around together, drawing nearer and nearer until one day their faces were almost touching. When they had touched, the Kappa’s lips had been surprisingly soft, warm and inviting on those of the young girl. A high-pitched burbling had sounded from the river then, however, and the Kappa had drawn back, letting go of her hands, running off and flinging itself back into the depths of Furrow River. Lyre had leapt in after it, but it had been gone.
Letting the current drift her slowly back to Lombonn, she had returned home, strangely elated. Her mother had given up berating her by this point and had simply stripped off her daughter’s sodden clothes and spread them out on the stone floor near the hearth to dry. The flames in the hearth had flickered so hungrily Lyre had thought her clothes might be engulfed by morning. She had sat down to eat with her mother, father and brother at an old, scarred pinewood table.
Poking her mutton and potatoes around her wooden plate with a finger, she had asked her parents, “D’you think Kappas are real? And if they are real, d’you think they’re nice?”
“River Kappas?” her mother had squawked, startled. A broad, old matronly woman with greying hair and a saggy, olive-skinned face, she was given to saying, “Goodness, child!” which she did then with a distinct lack of aplomb.
“Settle down, Maria,” Lyre’s father had grunted. A slim, silver fox with a face like a hatchet, he did little more than grunt these days. “Kappas may have existed once, but they have long been wiped out. And it’s for the best too. Creatures like them are evil. No other word for it. Why the interest, Lyre?”
“I was just … thinking of writing a story,” she had supplied the lie she had concocted for just such an occasion. “About Kappas. And Serpents and Dragons. You know. Fantastical tales like the legends of old.”
“Hrmm,” her father, Thatchin, had hummed before bestowing on her one of his rare smiles. “An admirable goal, my little dewdrop.”
That night, scores of creatures born of myth dredged themselves up out Furrow River and began wandering the town of Lombonn.
The first Lyre knew of it was her father shaking her awake in the middle of the night and hissing, “Wake up, Lyre! I need you to stay quiet, okay? I think the town is under attack. Get dressed and come with me, quickly now, and we’ll see if we can flee Lombonn in the boat. Come on. That’s it.”
Shrieks rent the air. Lyre did as she was bid, hastily donning trews, tunic, shoes and a wolfskin coat. She and her father found her brother and her mother already preparing their boat for departure. As it was a fir wood riverboat, there was no need to ask which direction they would be travelling; it could only be upriver. Only a cold death at death at sea awaited them in the other direction, for the port town of Lombonn straddled the river’s mouth, the two halves of the city joined by a series of stone bridges far more architecturally sound than any of the surrounding tenements. As their house was located near the sea and the wharf, Lyre knew they would have to cross almost the entire city to escape into the wilderness to the east and she did not have high hopes for their chances of success.
Nevertheless, the four of them staunchly crammed into the riverboat and Thatchin grabbed the pole shaped like a beaver’s tail that propelled the little vessel. Grunting and waggling the pole around in quick, circular motions, he slowly got the boat moving. Bobbing, the vessel pulled away from the tiny pier behind their whitewashed house and began to make slow progress upriver, going against the current. Fortunately, Furrow River was wide and slow near its terminus, so contradicting the current was not impossible, only strenuous. Keeping to the side of the arrow-straight river where the flow was slowest, the boat began to pick up speed.
The horrors they saw as they slowly traversed the river would haunt them until they died. They saw warty green creatures lunging up out of the river and prowling the town, their elliptical black eyes gleaming in the starlight. Lyre had ogled them avidly, but none had the turquoise belly-moss for which she searched. Some had orange, others blue or green or yellow, but none the shade of turquoise with which she was familiar. At first, the Kappas seemed unthreatening, merely wandering around and offering no harm even when they came across Lombonn’s inhabitants. Then, the Drowned Lizards arrived, spotted the heinous-looking lifeforms strolling the streets of their town, and the slaughter began.
The mercenaries fell upon the bizarre beasts with wrathful roars and sharp iron, spilling green ichor across the cobbles, spitting them on swords and spears and hacking them apart with axes and halberds. The river beasts seemed taken aback at first. Then, they began to screech. Screech was the closest word Lyre could come up with for the sound anyway; the eerie, ear-splitting, piercing keening defied description. Every man, woman and child clapped their hands over their ears in an effort to drown out the horrible grating noise, and those closest to the legendary wart-riddled creatures began to bleed from the nose and eye sockets, their skulls thoroughly rattled.
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