Watching the Ji'vie move along the shore of the underground sea, its own waters reflecting the artificial sky of the Quarter's ceiling, Mae could still recall the way Jasper's eyes captured the stars as he gazed up at the heavens with a slack jaw, the night of their first family feast. She wore a content smile, using the memories sparked by the waters to ease her mind from the task of the day and what it entailed.
Mae had been overjoyed that she and Baas had made it back to the Quarter as she had promised, due to some miracle that the Tag'thyrian market had the last of what they needed, allowing them to arrive three days sooner than expected. Now she stood in the distance as had been asked of her given the danger and the flurry of preparations along the beach below. Knowing the water was hot enough to scald her, had made it that much easier of a request to follow, along with the benefit of her current vantage.
Preparations had begun, even before Mae had arrived that morning. Most being completed the night before, given that this hunt was more important than any to come before; this Shepard more precious. Not just for its meat, fat or bones, but for its beating heart and the blood in its veins; the final components necessary to complete the gateway.
Nimaro had taken care of every detail. Twenty ceramic vessels, lined with an herbal paste, necessary to keep the blood fresh and at a stable temperature, were waiting along the roadside in carts cushioned with strips of mushroom stalks, the likes of which, when dry, were similar to a stiff insulation foam. And next to these carts, sat another, filled with two sealed crates, one open with a cloth bag of water crystals, a large bottle and stone bowl, and the large golden crystal with the amber core they had collected from the Norreal Votaan Crystal Cavern a couple of weeks before. Only now the crystal was cut, cleaned, and polished smooth to a shine.
Inside of each crate, was a set of three tiles. Every ingredient they had diligently gathered, had been carefully prepared, weighed, measured, and then combined to create them; one set for each side of the gate. Near an inch thick and a half foot square, each tile weighed twice as much as it appeared, and was decorated with strange symbols of harshly stroked lines, dots and ticks. Cut into the surface of the clay, the symbols were filled with a mixture of saps, powders, and oils that had been combined and boiled down into a thin, vermillion-hued paste. Leveled, pressed flat, and then baked for a full day. The tiles were then left in the oven to cool, before being gathered, and packaged for transport. Thanks to their early arrival, Mae had been a part of each step, and witnessed the precision and care that Nej'ajin and Nimaro had put into their creation. And when there was no work to be done, Mae had spent her time studying the manuscript they were following for this gate's creation; memorizing, and learning the steps to come.
There was plenty to see with the action below as a legion of Ji'vie, near two hundred strong, separated into groups and teams to make ready the shore and finish what preparations had left to be done. To the right side of the cavern, beyond giant stone doors that now sat open, was a storage cave she'd never entered. From this cave, teams of ji'vie guided out several structures. Four, large horizontal wheels on a large central mast, erected in the center of massive platforms, where the first to appear, hovering several feet above the sand; wooden versions of a capstan winch, she'd seen in the pictures of the navy ship, Vreeland, that Jack's father had served on, if her memories were correct. Rare levitation stones, the size of small cars, attached to each corner of the platforms, controlled by the touch of a hand holding a heat stone, made them child's play to move. Once in place, and lowered into the sand, the stones became immovable anchors for the platforms.
With the capstans in place, the four teams of Ji'vie returned to the cave, when the first of three ships would appear, hovering above the ground, equipped with a levitation stone on either side of the shallow hull, each half the size of the ones used on the platforms, appeared as if a single bolder had been split into two; rounded bottom, flat top. From the keel, which was twice as deep as the hull was high, hung four heavy ropes connected to large disk-shaped weights that had been placed on the decks, the purpose of which, Mae didn't know.
"They are stunning, are they not?" Baas questioned as he came to stand beside her on the rocks overlooking the beach.
"I've never seen anything like them before," she replied, marveling at their size and the way they glided over the sand, being pushed by the teams towards the water's edge. "I had no idea levitation stones came in such a size. I've only ever seen tiny ones, barely the size of my hand."
"Trust me, I'm as surprised as you," he replied, handing her a mug. "Comnan Tea. You're going to need your energy."
"And resolve. Nimaro's told me about the hunts, but the one opportunity I had to see one and I opted to stay in the den with the mothers instead. Now I get to participate in one, with a level of brutality and suffering not seen inflicted on these creatures since farther back than memory will allow," Mae remarked, wiping her tears with the edge of her cloak, as she watched the first ship reach the edge of the water.
Hopping onto the deck, the team was joined by a third, who took up position at the bow, while the other two stood in the back corners and lowered ores, far wider and longer than she'd ever seen, down into the sand. With a firm push, the boat glided out over the water, the keel skimming just below the surface, as the Ji'vie with the ores, sat down, and steam began to erupt from the water, where the ores were now submerged, propelling the ship forward.
"Even faster than I thought it would be." Baas sounded impressed as even though the second boat was about to launch, the other had already glided away, by at least six boat lengths. "Today is upsetting for everyone Mae. You aren't alone in your distain for what's to come, but we all know why it's important. Push everything else aside, at least for today, and focus only on what needs to be done in the moment."
"Easy for you to say. All you have to do is watch."
"And hold up a giant crystal." He chuckled as he bumped her shoulder and took a swig of his tea.
They watched in silence as the rest of the boats launched, and once in a line, the disks were thrown from the decks, pulling the ships down closer to the water, making them appear far more stable, faster and maneuverable. The teams of Ji'vie aboard the ships seemed fearless to Mae, as one wrong move, one mistake, would spell pain, suffering and possibly death, if not the wish for it, to anyone unlucky enough to find themselves overboard.
With the ships now gliding further away from the shore, four more were brought from the cavern, only these were a third more the size. Where the first three were built for speed and mobility, these were meant for something else entirely. Wider decks, with the stones set further out on wings, with shallow keels, they reminded her of a hydrofoil, minus the sails. Controlled through the use of ores and steam as the others, these ships had crews of six, with each member serving a particular function.
From the decks, the crews toss lead ropes to others waiting on shore. The first leads were attached to a thick vine rope, and was tied off to one of the stones at the back of the capstan platform before being coiled around the capstan in a specific manner. And then from the two ships in the center, came another set of leads. These were attached to heavy vines that had been twisted into even heavier ropes, the coils of which were hung along outrigging at the rear of the ships, the numerous hooks like bared fangs visible along the length, known as tangle lines. Heaved onto shore, they were secured to boulders that marked the edge of the beach.
As the ships, glided further from shore, the lines were uncoiled, and cast out across the waters, the crews keeping track of distance, space, and course. This was a task, practiced and mastered, passed down from Fathers to sons, generation upon generation as far back as the beginning. Gazing out across the waters, the faster ships were now moving towards the larger ones, maneuvering side to side in such a fashion and with such precision that only the ji'vie, capable of speaking with thought, could master. They were corralling. Herding. Directing a beast from the depths into the shallows; a deafening, horrifying, mournful wail, announcing that the Shepard Hunt had begun.
The dreadful noise echoed through the Quarter, rippling the very surface of the water as the tangle lines pulled taut. The legion of ji'vie on the shore, turned and dug in, gripping the lines with tail, akress, tooth, and claw. Heaving, they pulled, straining against the weight of the Shepard, forcing it to the surface and closer to the shore.
"SWELL!" A ji'vie cried out from his position on the rocks above where Mae and Baas stood and they watched the legion abandon the lines to run from the water, the closest narrowly escaping the incoming wave as it struck against the shore.
Mae had begged Nimaro to let her use her magic against the sea to help in moments like these, wanting to spare their people unnecessary injury and accidental burns. But she had failed to make her case, rebuked by his words, "Our people do not fear the Shepards retribution. Each injury sustained in a price paid; a tribute given up to the sea for the bounty it gives in return. Do not think our people so weak or incapable. We have hunted this way for thousands of years, and we shall hunt this way for thousands more. And we have never needed a water mage to save us once before." She hated his argument but couldn't deny the way his people viewed the nature of their relationship to the underground sea and the creatures that lived within in. Mostly though, he reminded her that she was needed for what was to follow, and regardless of her better nature, she clenched her fists, anxiously watched and worried for their safety while she remained well beyond the reach of the scalding waves.
As the waters receded back into the sea, the legion returned to take up the lines once more, giving little time for them or the sand beneath their feet to cool. Nimaro, Pyde, Athilaan, Ustor, Yue, Messa, Marof'ke, Xi'gin, Fezier, Koo'narl, Auk, and so many others she knew by name were somewhere along that shore; on the lines, by the carts, or with the crews out on the boats waiting for the Shepard to surface.
She worried for them, her heart in her throat, pounding relentlessly. Her eyes drifting from face to face; seeing the grit of their teeth, the bulge of their muscles, and their endless determination with every heave as the dragged in the lines. Foot by foot, step by step, coil after coil, the tangle lines were brought in. Swell and scatter, to take up the lines once again. This went on for well over an hour; a sickening game of tug of war, where even the winner would suffer. Then finally, from the depths, another wail rang out, and the Shepard, breeched the surface, its massive pectoral fin, rising as it rolled, in an attempt to dive.
"Release the lines!" Nimaro bellowed, and legion obeyed, lest they be crushed beneath them by the force of their prey.
There were none amongst them that reveled in this fight. For this hunt found no mercy at the end of a harpoon. This breech, long awaited, did not mark the end of its suffering, but rather the beginning of a far worse fate.
With the slack of the lines, the Shepard continued its roll, further entangling itself in the lines, the hooks embedding deeper until its fins were pinned to its sides. Unable to dive, unable to swim, it rolled once again, pulling itself further into the shallows. The battle was over, the victory bitter sweet as the Shepard resigned to its fate, ceased its struggle.
The cries of the Shepard were more subdue near the surface, but where no less traumatizing to hear. The mood had turned somber, the energy reserved, as the legion split into six groups. One group remained on each of the tangle lines, as the other four made their way to the capstans. Each spoke of the giant wheels, manned by two Ji'vie, began to turn tightening the smaller of the ropes, dragging the ships closer to the Shepard. A loud clank rang out from the sea, and the large hooks were released from the ships, and dug deep into the flesh of the massive beast.
The sound was nigh unbearable. A steady unnerving tick of the wheels drum gears as the safety brake slipped over each tooth, the constant rhythmic tapping of claws against the wooden floor of the platforms, the crashing of waves, and the fading cries of the Shepard as it was pulled further onto shore.
Even when it felt the sand for the first time beneath its mass, it hadn't the strength left to do more than a pitiful, futile thrash; its weight above the water exhausting to move.
It was larger than Mae had expected it to be, but she had no time to marvel, as she, along with all those who were present, were desperate to be done with the suffering they were inflicting. Karanosi had been correct, when he warned this to be messy business, and even after Nimaro explained to her what they would have to do, the act itself, now seemed far more brutal than she had imagined.
Now beached, well beyond the reach of the water, the Shepard seemed to wait patiently for its end. It's body rising and falling with every flare of its gills, gasping for water or air. It was a fish without scales. A shark without teeth. A whale without a tail fin and no eyes from which to see. Its pectoral fins were as long as its body was wide. Its underside glowing with a faint bioluminescent blue light in the pattern of a Rorschach against what was otherwise completely white.
Baas' hand felt heavy on the back of her head as he pulled her close and hugged her.
"Work your magic, Mae. Nothing else matters."
His words cut through the noise, and pushed aside her reservations. The final, supportive squeeze on the back of her neck, was just what she needed. As Baas walked away, she shook off her nerves and emotions and as he went towards the wagon, she made her way down onto the shore.
Teams of ji'vie, quickly brought the carts forward, as others released the lines from the Shepard, while Nimaro and Baas, retrieved the open crate and pristine golden crystal.
"Just like we practiced," Nimaro reassured her as he placed the crystal on the ground before her.
"It's so much larger than I thought it would be," she replied, flexing out her fingers.
Placing the crate a few feet away, Baas set out the bowl, and filled it with the liquid from the bottle.
"It's ready," he said, as Messa moved up beside him.
Picking up the bag, Messa, distributed the crystals to the teams with the carts that had formed a line to their left.
Mae took a deep breath, as Baas held the bowl, out to her. Dunking her hands into the liquid, its consistency like a black walnut tincture, somehow both oily and dry. With her hands coated up past her wrists, he set the bowl down next to Nimaro, dunking his own hands, before Nimaro took his turn.
"Forgive us for what we must do," Nimaro stated, as Pyde moved up between them and the Shepard, with a long, hooked sword in his hand.
Athilaan and Marof'ke had taken up positions on top of the Shepard, gaffing hooks in hand.
Planting her feet in the sand, Nimaro glanced back with a loving expression and faint nod. It was time. All the preparation, planning and gathering, and this was their one opportunity to get everything right.
Shaking out her hands, Mae took a final breath, and nodded back. "I'm ready," was all she could think to say, as she began to release her magic, drawing it up from her core to spill out from her hands.
"Do it," Nimaro ordered, and Pyde rushed forward, severing the Shepard's fin from its body.
The first team to the left, tossed their water crystals into the air and used their magic to capture, pull, and direct the blood pouring from the wound into the awaiting vessels.
Lifting the golden crystal up off the sand, Nimaro and Baas, held it steady before Mae as she drew out more and more of her magic, lengthening the threads with every breath and wave of her arms.
"Now!" she cried out, and from above, into the Shepard's side, Athilaan and Marof'ke sunk their hooks, pulling up as Pyde sliced deep, cutting through its flesh, blubber, and muscle, opening the way to its still beating heart.