Zaffen paused his rowing, the light swell rocked the boat gently as it drifted to a halt. He sat still for a moment, watching the form on the rocks ahead of the boat, assessing. Satisfied that the beast wasn’t moving, he began the assembly process.
He leaned forward from his seat and knelt on the deck to open the chest that sat mounted against the back of the boat. He peeled off the waterproof layer wrapped around the top of the chest and lay it on the deck. Reaching into the chest, he gently removed his prized crossbow, the mounting strut and support plate that lay beneath it.
Forward of his rowing seat, mounted in the center of deck was a plate with a circular hole fixed into the structure of the boat. He affixed the mounting strut and adjusted the support plate. The mechanics of that support plate baffled him. Carly, the smith and all round tinkerer of his village, was a wonder with every material. The top of the strut featured a swiveled device with some sort of damping action and a pad of lusciously soft material filled with….something. He didn’t want to ask and it had cost him so much he’d never risk puncturing it to find out. The end result, once he secured the strut and heaved the bow up on top, was a platform that took the bow’s considerable weight and reduced its movement as the boat swayed and rocked. A marvel.
As far as he knew it was also the only way anyone had ever found to hunt the Gratins that occasionally came to the top of the spires to bask. Their shell was a layering of hide and chitin, impossible to get a sword blade through even if you could get close enough to try. The beasts were nervous and would simply drop off the side of the spire the instant they felt threatened. Gratin were thought to be very common in the depths but extremely rare on the surface, at least around the areas he was familiar with. This archipelago was full of little stone spurs like the ones he was drifting between, among the larger islands of the chain. His village was on the largest island of the area.
From his village, Zaffen had travelled the furthest of any out into the expanding strings of islands as they spread away from the main coast. Most simply explored the other way, onto the mainland and inwards, towards the larger cities. He couldn’t stand the press of people and hated the enclosed feeling of buildings around him, reveling in open seas and exploration. Fortunately, Gratin hunting paid for that lifestyle and paid handsomely. Their shell made decent armour and their flesh was sold as a delicacy in the cities. That puzzled him since he’d eaten a lot of it and wouldn’t be overly concerned if he never ate it again.
Although, he thought with a sigh, sighting along the bow, it was likely to be all he ate for the next week.
In the back of his mind, as he lined up his shot, Zaffen felt the tingling of a summons, the other reason he spent so much time deep in the island chain. None of his village knew of his sojourns In-Between. He’d kept it from them for reasons he couldn’t explain, even to himself. The first few times he’d made landfall on one of the smaller islands in order to enter the trance. The ants had put a stop to that, he’d once come back to his body covered in the bloody things, almost as if the summons had pulled them to him as surely as it had pulled his soul In-Between.
After that, he had experimented with trancing on his boat, with mixed results. Twice his anchor had slipped and left him miles from anywhere, with open sea on all sides. Fortunately the Old Gods were at least a literal godsend for navigation.
Then he’d been over eager and answered a summons despite weather that suggested a coming storm. That time he’d woken to a swamped boat as wave after wave crashed against it, overturning it and dumping him into the sea. He’d floated with it through the storm snagging hold of an outcropping spire and sheltering in its lee. At that point he began to truly notice the differences his trips In-Between were making to his body.
He’d always been a strong swimmer and he had always had a certain pride in his survival skills and ability to endure or even thrive among the elements. That day though, he had held the side of his upturned boat in one hand, a rock jutting from the spire in the other and hung there suspended in the heaving ocean for hours. He knew that was nigh on impossible, a feat he could never have replicated a year previous, before the first summoning. He was stronger now than anyone in the village though he did his best to conceal it. He could swim for hours, dive for long minutes to depths he had never previously considered. He wondered whether he would eventually reach a new limit, but as far as he could tell each summons brought with it more vitality, more life and he admitted to himself that he was addicted.
That didn’t mean he’d enjoyed being a mooring line in a storm, so he’d spent the following weeks seeking out safe, sheltered refuges where he could anchor, then set up permanent mooring points. He was near one now, he’d ensured they were near good locations for fishing and plenty of spires for Gratin hunting.
A gentle increase in pressure on the trigger sent his bolt arcing across the water and he knew it was a true shot before it struck, the heavy bolt slamming through the shell of the head and into the soft flesh, the barbs springing open inside and shredding the beasts brain before it’s body had even a second to react. Its form slumped to the rocks.
A year ago he’d still been using the line that trailed the bolt to pull the beasts in once he’d skewered them. He had shot them in the body, unable to make the head shots that would kill them cleanly. Now he had done away with the line. He hadn’t missed a headshot in months and the line wasn’t needed anymore.
He quickly disassembled the bow, put out the oars and pulled up to the spire, dragging the Gratin’s bulk into the boat before pushing off towards his nearest safe haven. He had a summons to answer.