Rosin pulls Gorbert out of the rancid cloud of midget stench and into the swamp, looking ahead as her duffel bag swings with her stride. "Are you sure you're ready, Gorbert?"
"Of course. Are you?"
She nods, carefully navigating the uneven ground. A few minutes of slogging, in which her shins become caked with muck, and they come within sight of the lake's shore.
Gorbert steps out ahead of Rosin. "What now?" he asks.
Gorbert's brow furrows but he doesn't inquire further. He steps out to the edge of the clean water and strips off his coat, shirt, shoes and socks, waiting for Rosin to tell him to dive.
After a few minutes of vigilance, she turns her eyes away from the mostly still water of the lake, scanning up and down the shore. "Maybe we're in the wrong place." The hair on the back of her neck prickles as she hears a faint splash behind her.
Gorbert hears the splash too and whips around, harpoon hefted like a spear.
With her breath held, she turns slowly to face back into the swamp. The splash sounds again, and again closer.
Gorbert is tense and still. "What's coming to meet us?" he asks quietly.
She forces an uneasy smile, unconsciously reaching for something at her hip. "One of Horatio's friends." The splash comes again, much closer this time.
He grunts exasperatedly. That doesn't tell him anything. He remains watchful and ready to attack if he has to.
The bow of a small boat pushes itself past a hanging wall of vines, and the splash sounds again. A cloaked figure stands at the back of the boat, silent as he pushes the ferry through the marsh.
Gorbert doesn't relax. "Not him," he mutters.
As the ferry man gets closer, Rosin puts up her hand and waves cheerfully. "Hello there! Did Horatio send you?" She's not quite sure, Horatio simply said it would be someone she knew from the Jungle.
Gorbert slowly lowers the harpoon and waits.
The boat pulls up in front of them, and the ferryman nods once. "Well isn't that nice of him, Gorbert?" Rosin asks nervously. Best to show courtesy.
He shrugs and steps into the boat, dropping 25 requisition tokens into the jar. He looks back at Rosin. "Come on. Might as well get going."
With the traditional payment, she follows him into the small boat. The Ferryman nods once again, then pushes off from the shore, driving the pole deep to find purchase.
Gorbert stands near the bow of the small boat, waiting to reach their destination.
While he's sitting at the front of the boat, Rosin sits in the middle and checks her gear. She casts the occasional glance up at the green eyes shining out from under the Ferryman's hood. "Erm, pardon me, but... Do you speak?" The Joker nods, stowing his pole on a rack on the side of the boat in exchange for a paddle.
Gorbert turns to speak to the ferryman. "Do you want any help?" he asks.
Rosin peers out across the lake's waters, then up at the sun. The Ferryman shakes his head at Gorbert's offer.
He nods and turns back to watch their progress.
The Ferryman seems almost bored as he paddles out toward the center of the lake. Biting her lip, Rosin begins to unbutton first her vest, then the shirt beneath.
Gorbert looks back. They're pretty far from the shore now, and the other shore is coming into sight. It shouldn't be much longer.
The vest falls away, as does the shirt, revealing Rosin's wetsuit. She folds the clothing neatly and stashes it in the bottom of the boat, then gets to work on removing her trousers.
Gorbert looks back at Rosin and raises an eyebrow. "Need any help?"
A blush settles into her cheeks, and she shakes her head with a nervous smile. "Oh no, I'm just fine." She takes a worried glance over the side of the boat.
Gorbert steps around the ferryman and lays a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry. Nothing will happen to you; that's why I'm here."
She works on opening and sorting her duffel bag, trying to keep busy to keep from thinking. The rhythmic splashing of the paddle against the water stops.
He gives her another pat on the shoulder and steps to the side of the boat, waiting patiently with his harpoon. "Ready when you are," he says.
With a shaky breath, she clips on the belt from the pile, hooking the hand-held sonar and lantern (which she borrowed from Tor,) into their slots. As a second thought, she fills a few of the pockets with small glowing vials of different colours.
Gorbert remembers something. "I need a radio," he says, holding out a hand.
She picks up what looks to have once been an SPS-helmet, now rigged to the air tanks, and takes a small earpiece from underneath. "Here, this should work fine enough." She starts to strap on the tanks as she holds the device out to Gorbert.
He nods and takes the earpiece, securing it in his lobe. Gorbert stretches a bit and squints into the depths of the lake--not that he can see anything.
Rosin puts the helmet over her head, and there's a slight hiss as the seals activate. Behind the face shield, her lips begin to move, but nothing can be heard outside the helmet.
Gorbert puts a hand up to his earpiece. "Come again?" he says.
With a frown, she runs a hand over the jaw of the helmet in search of a switch. Click. "Tanks have helium in them." Which explains the higher pitch to her voice. "That's going to get a bit annoying." Click.
He nods and steps over the side of the boat, landing in the water with a splash. He treads water as he asks, "Anything else, or are you ready?"
She takes a deep breath and pulls on the swimming fins, staring at the dark water beneath. Inhale, exhale, dive, splash.
Gorbert ducks underwater and blinks a few times. Some adjustments to his eyes, and suddenly he can easily see into the depths of the water, far beyond the reach of the light from the surface. Only about halfway to the bottom of the lake, but that's good enough for now. He gives Rosin a thumbs-up and starts kicking deeper.
Click. "Gorbert, can you see anything? Fish?" Click. She reaches for her belt and takes off the sonar.
"Sure, if you want to call them that," he replies as a pair of fish with iguana heads dart past him. "When he hit the bed, should we split up and search or what?"
She shakes her head. Click. "I know where they are, the problem is just getting there." Click. She glances around, spotting a school of what appear to be sponges. Click. "Keep an eye on the fish. If they disappear, get that harpoon ready." Click.
Gorbert blinks. Makes sense. He waves to her and surges towards the lake bed. A school of chickens swims past him.
She points the sonar in the direction of what looks to be the lake bed. Click. "Gorby? That's not the bottom. We're at least fifteen meters from it." Click. Murky water. Not good.
Gorbert blinks. He knows they aren't at the bottom, and doesn't know why she thought to mention it. He shrugs and kicks a few times to level out. "Lead on," he says.
She switches on the lantern on the brightest setting, setting it into a narrow beam. She swims straight into the cloud, lantern held in front of her to afford some visibility.
Gorbert swims after her, the light harpoon clutched in his hand. He closes his eyes and concentrates, attempting to sift a path through the floating dirt.
A shadow passes in front of Rosin, and she shrieks into her helmet, the sound barely carrying through the cold water. Click. "Gorbert, did you see that?"Click. Her voice was a little higher, tinged with fear.
His eyes snap open and in an instant he is next to Rosin, one hand cautiously placed on her shoulder. "No. What was it?" The murkiness slowly clears, leaving crystal clear, albeit dark, water all around them.
She spooks when his hand lands on her shoulder, whirling and shining the lantern directly into his eyes. She blinks, realizing that she's not, in fact, about to be eaten, and dims the lantern appreciably. Click. "There was something big swimming past us. Really big." Click.
He nods and hefts the harpoon. "If it bothers us, I'll take care of it. You concentrate on finding them."
The helmet bobs in agreement, and she kicks the short distance to the bottom. Her head turns left and right, one hand reaching up to her jaw as the other sweeps the lantern. Click. "Gorbert, can you see a log anywhere? A large one?" Click.
Gorbert sharpens his eyes and he looks around. Nothing...then he spots something jutting out of the soil. He points. "North-northeast, about ten meters away."
She swims toward the object, shining the lantern around it. Click. "Tortise shell." Click. She frowns slightly and shines the lantern inside the shell. A slight red haze drifting from a few holes. Click. "Empty. Recently emptied." Click.
He drifts over to her and examines the shell. "We better find this quickly. Come one. We'll sweep the area in concentric circles until we find it. Stay close to me."
She nods and follows just behind Gorbert as he swims in lazy arcs, scanning with eyes and sonar to try and find any of the landmarks she tried to memorize.
Gorbert keeps his eyes peeled for any sign of a log, or any sign of danger. He doesn't see either.
She stops suddenly, pulling on Gorbert's ankle as he keeps swimming. Click. "We've gone too far south." Click. She points down at the sediment beneath them. A whirled rock barely juts up out of the muck.
Gorbert doesn't understand; she knows what they're looking for, he's just moving.
She kicks in place for a moment, trying to find which direction is which. She looks upwards and frowns. Can't even see the sun through the cloud. Click. "Do you know which way is north, Gorbert?" Click.
He nods, orienting himself and pushing his mind beyond the boundaries of his body. He feels the directions of Squat Hole, Improbable Central and the northward-heading rive. Gorbert opens his eyes and points. "North."
Behind the faceplate, Rosin smiles and mentions something about being better than a compass. She starts off swimming in the direction Gorbert pointed, and slowly turns just a bit to the west.
Gorbert follows along behind her, keeping an eye out for whatever brushed past them earlier.
They pass the tortise shell again.. Or at least what's left of it. Half seems to have been removed by some semi-circular cutting device. She averts her eyes from it as they pass, repeating something inside her helmet.
She swims onward, glancing around worriedly every few seconds. Inside her helmet she mutters, "Alright, if the shell was northwest, then we have to..." She turns the lantern up to full brightness, shining it in an arc above her. Scales glint in the light.
Gorbert hears Rosin's cry of alarm and looks up as something massive shoots past them, sending them spinning in its wake. He makes the water immediately around his body solid but yielding, stopping his tumble, and does the same for Rosin.
She turns her head and looks at him, eyes wide with fright. She points in the direction the beast swam and keys her microphone. Click. "Gor, that's where we're supposed to be going." Click. Her voice is shaky, obviously higher than normal.
He puts his hand on her shoulder again and tries to instill a sense of calm in her. "Ask yourself one question: are they worth the possibility of death?"
Glances off in the direction the creature disappeared, then back at Gorbert. Back and forth for a full minute, then her hand rests on a small glowing vial. Click. "No possibility, Gor. We're going after that.. Whatever it was." Click. Her jaw is set, and her gaze is determined.
Gorbert wouldn't have accepted any less from his friend. He smiles and nods before turning towards the path of the creature and cautiously swimming after it.
Setting off after Gorbert, she pulls the small glass container from her belt, closing her hand around it to mute the blue glow. Despite the courage she showed, she's shaking. It's not that cold.
Gorbert is ready to deal with anything the lake could throw at him; he's been fighting for survival since his earliest memory (literally), and he isn't planning on letting a several-ton fish succeed where everything else has failed.
They pass through a hollow sunken log, almost fifteen feet wide, and Rosin points to the east. Click. "There's a chasm over that way. They're somewhere at the bottom of it." Click. Hopefully that creature isn't down there as well.
Gorbert propels himself to the edge of the chasm and peers into its depths. "I can't tell if it's there or not. Stay here, but close by. I'll check first." And with that, he flips over the edge of the crevice and pushes himself down.
She floats above the darkness, peering over the edge. She loosens her hold on the vial in her hand, the light blue glow filling the water around her.
Gorbert's voice suddenly issues from the helmet speakers. "It's all clear, Ros. Come on."
Her hand tightens once again around the vial, and she swims into darkness, shining the lantern ahead of her. Click. "Where are you, Gor?" Click.
He momentarily changes his body's chemistry to make himself bioluminescent, then reverts to normal. A slightly painful bit of genetic manipulation, so he doesn't keep it up.
Swings her lantern toward the glow, then swims up behind him and glances around at the chasm walls on either side. She mutters to herself, "We should keep going forward, but if he's wrong..." Click. "Gorbert, there should be a tunnel up ahead. Or behind. We have to get through it." Click. So much simpler on paper, without the giant fish.
"Acknowledged." He flits along the canyon walls, altered eyes barely incapable of seeing anything at this depth. He could produce light, but would rather keep his position dark; no telling what kind of predators there are down here. He runs his hands along the smooth walls.
As a precaution, Rosin loosens the stopper on the vial slightly and lets a single droplet out before closing it again. She follows Gorbert, the glowing liquid trailing in her wake. Not too long afterward, they run into a flat wall with an overhang ahead. Complete darkness aside from the lantern's beam and the blue drop.
He gestures at it. "What now?"
She frowns, swimming up and examining every inch of the wall. "We must be at the wrong side..."She turns to Gorbert, then takes off across the sandy bottom. Click. "Follow me, I know where we are." Click.
Gorbert nods and kicks after her.
She speeds up now that Gorbert is moving, the trailing blue dot showing him where to follow. A slight drop, and they're in a massive tunnel, then through and up again into a smaller cavern. "I know you're in here somewhere..." She sweeps the lantern's beam across the floor, settling it on a folded black object covered in sand. And teeth right behind it.
Gorbert is just behind Rosin when she panics. He concentrates and shoots past her, straight towards whatever is in the cave with them.
She shouts something through the helmet, barely audible in the still waters of the cave. "Gorbert, wait!" But she's too late, and the teeth are moving toward him just as fast.
Gorbert kicks the side of the cave and darts up past the mouth, but....
He grits his teeth as a mass of dagger-like teeth clamp on his left leg and the limb tears off in a spray of blood. Half a moment of concentration and the wound seals. Damn thing is more agile than he expected. That's bad for him.
"GO!" he screams into the communications set. He kicks against the wall again to avoid its mouth and swings the harpoon around to fight back.
She freezes in place, watching the violence unfold. Her gaze flits between the wings and the creature fighting Gorbert, and she makes a decision. She flings the vialin her hand at the wall of the cave close to the monster's tail, then swims as fast as she can for the center of the cavern. Crack. The liquid spills from the shattered glass, spreading out with a bright flash. The beast flails, its massive hollow-looking eyes blinded.
Gorbert kicks towards the creature, no slower for the loss of his leg, and spears the harpoon through the side of its mouth. It thrashes more violently, but he clings tenaciously to his perch. "Got you now, ugly," he snarls.
She dives for the wings and wraps her arms tight around them. The instant her hands brush their feathers, they begin to struggle, trying to get away and fly. She shouts through the faceplate of her helmet, "Gorbert! Let it go!" She pulls another vial from her belt, this one giving off a dark light. She throws it at the ceiling of the cavern, then kicks for the exit as she struggles to contain the wings.
Gorbert had pulled a hook from his belt and jammed it in just below the eels eyeball, wrenching his harpoon free afterward. He was just about to deliver the killing blow to the creature when Rosin shouted to him. Gorbert hesitates for a split-second, the harpoon hovering over its eyeball, ready to claim its life. The urgency in her voice dispels any sense of doubt in him. He lets go of the hook and uses a concentration of water pressure to shoot himself out of the cavern.
Just after Gorbert exits the cavern, it fills with a black mist and a horrible screech. The walls shake as the eel writhes against them. Rosin keeps her speed up, checking over her shoulder to see that Gorbert made it clear. Both her arms are trying to keep the wings pinned, and the lantern bounces against her hip, projecting its beam wildly.
Gorbert shouts "ROSIN! TAKE MY HAND!" He stretches out his right hand, urgently reaching for hers.
She reaches and snatches his wrist, pinning the wildly flapping wings to her side. She casts a worried look behind at the trailing particles.
Gorbert concentrates a massive amount of force beneath them and they rocket upwards, faster than a torpedo. He barely remembers that Rosin is a human; he forces a cocoon of protective power around her to prevent the swelling of bubbles of nitrogen in her blood. After less than a minute they slow considerably and break the surface of the lake.
The Ferryman sits up and hides his cigarette, immediately halting his whistle mid-note. He picks up his paddle and rows over to the pair. Rosin hugs the wings to her chest, but the wet feathers are slick and they manage to wriggle free and get one good wingbeat. Gone.
Gorbert is distracted by his mangled leg, but feels them go. "No!" he snarls, lunging at where they had been a moment before.
She reaches one hand up toward the wings as they gain altitude, a look of dismay on her face. "But..." Her hand drops into the water with a small splash as the Ferryman pulls up alongside. He's staring after the wings as well.
The look on Gorbert's face has only rarely appeared there before: fierce, feral. Inhuman. His teeth gritted, he concentrates a massive amount of force beneath him and launches into the air. So close...and then the wings flit to the side and his hand closes on air.
Or air, to be more precise. Gorbert is no longer aware of his surroundings or of the pain from his severed leg (he's dealt with far worse, anyway). He is animalistic in the pursuit of this one objective. He swings on the tether of air and lunges for the wings. His hands clamp down on them hard enough to bend steel. They hang in the air for a moment, the wings feebly trying to escape, before plummeting to the water far, far below. Gorbert is too far gone to recognize his imminent danger and he hits the water with a thunderous splash.
Rosin gasps in astonishment as he leaps after the wings. Even the Ferryman whistles in surprise. She watches him begin to fall and swims as fast as she can over to where she guesses he will land. She arrives a bit late, but dives under the surface and unclips her belt as she approaches.
His eyes are open, but unfocused and, more disturbingly, jet black. He does nothing to stop his descent into the depths of the lake, but holds the struggling wings with a death-grip.
Swims faster, feeling that something is amiss, and barely gets within reach of Gorbert before he hits the layer of debris and sediment. She clasps her hand tight around his ankle and shouts at him through the earpiece. "GORBERT!"
He blinks a few times, and his eyes are suddenly green again. His head whips around and he spots Rosin at his feet, the wings in his hand. Shock is quickly replaced by blank confusion before he pushes himself off of the lakebed and heads back for the surface, fifty meters above them.
She kicks after him, slipping the belt around the faintly struggling wings as she catches up to him. She fastens it tight, ensuring that they won't escape again.
He finally breaks the surface again and swims slowly over to the boat, lifting himself carefully into it as the ferryman watches curiously. He hisses as his left leg, severed just above the knee, bumps the side of the boat. No blood comes from the wounds, though. Not even a drop. He helps Rosin into the boat.
She grasps the belt constricting her wings in one hand, and tears off her helmet with the other. The tears on her cheeks glisten in the light as she kisses him full on the mouth, laughing afterward. "That was amazing, Gorbert!"
He looks thoroughly shocked. "What was?" he asks, his voice weak and raspy.
She kisses his cheek and wraps her arms around his neck. "You snatched them right out of the air!" The Ferryman nods and mumbles something which sounds like, "It was.. impressive." After looking about a bit, he takes up his paddle and begins rowing them to shore while Rosin digs through her bag. She withdraws two full vials, both glowing a very familiar green, and hands them to him. "Here, these should help you get some energy." She's positively giddy with happiness.
Gorbert grasps the vials and downs them immediately, remembering another time someone did this for him...back then. He feels renewed and invigorated, and a moment's concentration starts the regeneration of his leg. It retains a jagged white ring at the point of removal, though, as a reminder...a trophy, really. Afterwards, he slumps against the side of the boat, mentally exhausted more than physically.
She smiles at him, holding the wings to her chest. They've stopped putting up a struggle, but she's not taking off the belt yet. "Thank you so much, Gorbert. I can never repay you for this." The Ferryman looks away as he paddles and murmers, "Cleaned your suit, miss."Rosin barely registers this and gives him a nod as she begins sorting and packing her gear back into their respective bags.
Gorbert looks distant and a little unwell. "Anything for a friend," he murmurs. He watches the shore of the lake slowly approaching. "Can we go straight to Improbable Central?" he asks. "I'd rather not have to make the journey from Squat Hole."
The Joker blinks as he switches his paddle for the usual pole, staring at Gorbert from under his hood. "How did you know where I was taking you?" Surely enough, the stretch of swamp they're entering is not the one they left, the lake stretching out behind them to the north. Rosin grins and places an extra hundred requisition tokens in the Ferryman's cup. "Thank you for the assistance."
Gorbert rests and waits for them to reach shore.
While the Ferryman guides his boat through the mire, Rosin puts her suit back on, insofar as her trousers and shirt. The vest is tucked away in her bag for later. After a few minutes of waiting as they navigate through the swamp, she looks over at Gorbert. "We're here."
He watches Rosin put her suit back on and suddenly realizes that he's only wearing trousers. The rest of his suit is on Squat Hole's shore. He shrugs to himself...the coat was given to him by Lelila, and he'll fetch it soon, but the shirt and shoes don't matter. He stands and stretches again before stepping out of the boat and onto the soft grass north of the capital.
She smiles at him and picks up the bags with one arm and the wings with the other. "Thank you so much, Gorbert." She tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek, then practically skips across the field to the outpost.
He follows much more slowly.