Alys's honed reflexes were the only thing that saved her; she ducked and rolled beneath a swiping claw and came to her feet, then hurled a slasher towards the two new arrivals.
She'd expected creatures of this sort, but even so the reality was shocking. They were basically humanoid, with two arms and two legs, but their bodies were covered in green scales, their clawed hands and feet were webbed, better suited for swimming than walking, and their bodies sported fins. Their heads, especially, were fishlike, with bulging yellow eyes and mouths that nearly split their skulls in two, filled with needle-like fangs.
Alys knew what the fishmen were: elmelew, carnivorous seagoing monstrosities that largely preyed on fish and other sea creatures but that were occasionally known to come ashore in remote coastal areas or assault seagoing vessels. Despite their appearance, they had no human intelligence, simply being voracious predators.
Alys' slasher whipped across the bodies of the elmelew she'd thrown it at, cutting through scales and drawing an oozing, mint-green ichor that must have served the things for blood. She hurled the second slasher after the first, knowing her best chance was to keep the elmelew away from her where they couldn't use their lethal claws.
The first elmelew, though, had a surprise for her. It struggled back to its feet, then opened its mouth and spewed a high-pressure jet of water at her. The floodbreath took her square in the chest just as she caught the first returning slasher, and just as her Foi had done to the monster, the elmelew's attack lifted her off her feet to slam into the floor. Alys was lucky not to crack her head on the flagstones; as it was the breath was driven out of her and she was completely out of position to catch her second slasher; it went spinning away down the hall behind her.
The two nearer elmelew were charging her almost at once, and Alys knew that if they got to her while she was still on the ground it would be all over with her. Desperately, she used her second technique, one that took a lot more out of her than Foi. Columns of swirling wind burst up around the three elmelew, the Zan technique bruising and buffeting them while sucking the air from their lungs, keeping them from breathing. This secondary effect proved surprisingly effective, leaving the elmelew choking and gasping and after a moment Alys realized why. Although they were amphibious creatures, the fishmen were primarily of the water; their lung structures were not so fully developed as a land-dweller's and each breath therefore provided them with less oxygen.
The realization came to her in the back of her mind, though, because her primary awareness was still coping with basic questions of survival. She sprang to her feet while folding her remaining slasher's blades into closed position. A Foi bought her space by knocking away one of the nearer two elmelew, and she stepped in against the other. Its wounds and the lingering effect of the Zan left it sluggish; while it swiped at her she dodged easily and drove the slasher into its chest, angling up under its ribcage. While the fishman's anatomy only approximated that of a human's, she was sure to hit something vital, and she pulled the blade sideways to widen the wound before tugging it free. Ichor spewed and the thing flopped, twitching, to the floor.
Alys saw the nearer of the remaining two elmelew open its mouth just in time to dive aside and avoid a second floodbreath hit. Summoning power from within herself, she snapped open her slasher and flung it out at the further, now charging, elmelew. The Vortex had only given the leviathan minor injuries, but against this much smaller-sized monster it proved lethal. Alys pivoted into another spinning kick while she caught the returning slasher, her boot crashing into the side of the monster's head to stagger it, and she snapped the slasher closed and drove it home into the side of its neck before it could react.
Breathing heavily, she wrenched the weapon free from the last corpse, then went to retrieve the other slasher. Her chest still ached from the full-on hit she'd taken, and she was afraid she might have cracked a rib. Hopefully Brother Morse knew the Res technique or at least had some monomate on hand; Alys didn't want to have to dip into her own stock of healing medicines. After all, Guild commissions don't work on a "plus expenses" basis.
She kept her eyes and ears open for any further elmelew as she started dragging the bodies towards the stairs, but there was no sign of any more. That wasn't all that surprising, as they'd likely have swarmed her already if there had been any more around, and while they traveled in large colonies for spawning, roving hunting packs tended to consist of only two or three at a time. Know your enemy.
It was funny, really. The truth was, Alys had a better understanding of the elmelew's life and motivations than she did about her clients'.
~X X X~
They looked pathetic, somehow, in the morning sun, did the sprawled corpses of the elmelew. The brethren had hauled them up from the cellars for disposal, but before the dead monsters were consigned to the sea the surviving thirteen members of the Order wanted to see for themselves what it was that had destroyed the safety and security of their retreat. In the shadows of the cellar the monsters had seemed like demons even to Alys's practical mind in the instant of their first attack. Yet now the dead fishmen were just...dead.
"These are what was responsible?" Elder Foulke said. For his part, he seemed to find the dead elmelew quite terrifying enough, as did most of the brethren.
"Probably not these specifically—though I do suspect that one or more of them did kill Brother Vincent last night—but ones like them. Elmelew colonies are supposed to have twenty or thirty members."
The Elder had to repress a shudder.
"Twenty or thirty?"
"Supposedly. I've never been on a job to take on a colony myself. Obviously there's no way to take the fight underwater to them, so it'd be pretty rare."
"Then there could be over two dozen more. What are we to do?"
"Brick up the sea cave."
"That's how they got onto the island," she explained. "They don't climb very well; their legs are more adapted for swimming than for walking. The cliff path would be far too tough for them to handle, so the steps from the sea cave are the only way they could get on and off the island. They're humanoid in shape, but they're not intelligent. They don't use tools or anything like that, so a solid wall would stop them cold. Frankly, it'd be useful against human bandits, too, who'd have a really easy time of it if they raided here."
Elder Foulke flinched distinctly at her last line.
"It's like I said," Alys added. "I know you've come here to live a peaceful life apart from the world, but you need to take at least some basic precautions to keep the world from forcing itself in on you."
Brother Huard approached them out of the group of robed men. His face was not exactly smiling, but at least showing a relaxed mien, with the tension they'd all labored under gone for now.
"Alys," he said, "I was hoping to talk to you before you left, once the Elder has completed his business with you."
He smiled sheepishly at her.
"I...was curious," he admitted. "I wanted to learn how you knew what was happening to us and how to catch these things." He gestured towards the dead elmelew.
"In truth, I would like to hear that as well," Elder Foulke said.
Alys suppressed a sigh. It felt too much like boasting, to go over the whole thing step-by-step, and she'd never liked to brag about her work. The two men, though, clearly weren't going to let her off easily in that respect.
"I suppose," she said.
"Very well," the elder said. "First, however, let us deal with these foul things." He raised his voice and gave swift, concise orders fro the disposal of the dead monsters. The brothers he'd named came forward with a mix of hesitancy and speed; they wanted the things gone and yet were still a little afraid to touch them. Elder Foulke turned and began walking off in another direction, and Alys and Brother Huard fell into step with him.
"Now, if you please, Alys?"
"There were a lot of questions right from the start," she said. "The biggest one was, why were there two separate kinds of crimes, the murders and the disappearances? What set them apart? From your story of the first two killings, Brother Huard, and what we encountered when we arrived with regard to Brother Vincent's death, gave me a common thread."
"In the case of the three murders, the crime was discovered almost at once. In other words, the killer had nearly been caught in the act by people coming along. I'm convinced if that hadn't happened—if there hadn't been witnesses—Brothers Armand, Cassin, and Vincent would have been among the vanished. That is, the killer was taking the bodies away. Brother Vincent's body gave me a pretty good idea as to why."
"I don't see what you mean."
Elder Foulke didn't want to see what she meant, Alys thought.
"I could tell by looking at the wounds that he'd been killed by a monster, not a person with a weapon. It's like I told you earlier, Elder, most of the monsters we hunters are sent after aren't evil, and don't kill people for hate or for gain. They do it to defend their territory, if humans are encroaching on it, or they kill for food. The missing bodies...well, you can understand what the obvious train of thought was."
Both men shuddered.
"One thing that confused me for a bit was the fact that the wounds showed the monster had hands like a person's, which is unusual. Most monsters don't. A sand newt's splayed paws are hand-like, but don't have claws, while a crawler doesn't have hands at all. It made me wonder if somehow a person was turning into a monster, or if someone had rigged up clawed gloves to use as a weapon to fake the evidence. But the missing bodies went against that. If it was a member of your brethren, they weren't consuming the bodies here, and your searches would have found the corpses if they were still on the island. And if someone was playing monster, they'd want to leave bodies behind to convince you a monster was responsible—why fake evidence, then conceal it? Besides, why play monster at all? Honestly, if I was leading a pirate gang, say, who wanted something from your Order and was willing to kill for it, I wouldn't play games. I'd attack in force and defeat you easily. You have no weapons, no combat training, and few defenses.
"No, I was sure of it: a genuine monster was attacking the Hermitage and stalking prey here."
The two men looked sick at the explanation. Alys didn't blame them; the gruesome details added to the creeping terror they'd lived with for two weeks would unnerve anyone.
"I was still working on the questions of what and how at that point, but our talk out here and a look at the cliffside made it all come together," she said to Brother Huard. "The known attacks happened within the Hermitage, and none of the disappearances had happened outside, at least to anyone's knowledge. Likewise—and this was important—the animals, easy prey, had not been attacked. It was plain that whatever the monster was, it was coming onto the island from the sea cave, not up the cliff or through the air."
She paused, then hooked her thumbs into her belt.
"It wasn't a big feat of deduction. You'd been here three years, so it wasn't something already on the island. It was a sea creature, one that could climb stairs but not the cliff path, and which had claws but also hands. The fishmen breeds, mermen, elmelew, and the like, fit all the requirements. After that, I just made myself the most attractive bait on the island. Since they don't really understand what weapons are, my being armed didn't warn them off. Luckily they were there last night; I couldn't be sure, but I'd hoped they'd be back because they'd failed to carry off their first kill of the evening."
"Thank Heaven that you were successful," Brother Huard said. "Now we can be free of this terror."
"But what would bring them to our island?" the elder wanted to know. "A single attack by sea monsters I could understand, but to come back over and over again?"
"To them, it was just a good source of food. Given the timeframe of the attacks, I'd bet it was the leviathan's fault. Your troubles started right about the same time that it had moved into the area. The sea worm would have driven the elmelew colony out of its regular fishing grounds, so they moved to new territory. Their hunting packs happened across you, probably swimming into the cave at high tide and blundering onto the steps. Since you use the cave regularly, a trail of scent would lead up the stairs. From that point on, ambushing lone prey—picking off stragglers—was just hunting instinct."
Twenty deaths, she thought, adding the victims at the Hermitage to the Uzo fishermen. Twenty deaths owing to that leviathan's decision to stay in one place. All that carnage, the waste of human lives, and all because of an animal that didn't even have any concept of what it was doing. It was no wonder that people spent so much time and effort trying to master their environment. Nature—whether it was animal behavior, the weather, or the movement of land and sea—was a vast, impersonal force that did not care if people lived or died, for people's desires or sufferings or dreams.
Maybe it made sense after all, what these brothers of the Order were doing. They tried to shrink the world down, reduce it to manageable constraints. On one level they'd failed, of course, when outside events had forced their way in. But...it made a little more sense to Alys now, when she thought of it that way.
Wasn't it part of her job as a hunter, too? Mastering the environment by removing threats, monsters and criminals alike?
"We will set to work this very day on blocking off the cave stairs," Elder Foulke said. "A crude barricade can be established quickly, and then a proper wall several feet thick built. We shall all certainly sleep more soundly when it is done. Brother Huard, meanwhile, will return to Uzo and send a letter transmission to the Hunter's Guild reporting your success and authorizing them to release your commission fee."
"I certainly appreciate that," Alys said. "It's kind of funny, though. It looks like Nils Lawson is going to get the last laugh on me."
"The village chief? How so?"
"Well, after I killed the leviathan, he kept pressing me to accept a bonus over and above the job commission, and I kept refusing. But since your job all traces back to the leviathan's presence, then I guess I'm going to get an extra fee for dealing with its problems after all."