Lalug had never seen anything like it. If forced to describe, he would have compared the thing in the distance to a giant fish, but it was unlike any fish in the Sable Depths. And Lalug, like any merfolk, would know how normal fish looked.
It was huge, bereft of spines, and even in the dark he could tell there were no stripes or spots. Its tailfin was all wrong, too, flat on the side, and near what he assumed was its head there protruded just two short, plain flippers.
Whatever it was, it was dead, too. Thankfully.
"You know what to do," said Master Gleeb. He took his angler stalk and planted the stem in the sand at the top of the dune. "Move swiftly, and try your best not to die out there."
Lalug nodded, his wide eyes taking in what scarce light existed. He slowly drifted down the side of the dune, towards the immense carcass in the distance. As he went, Lalug glanced over his shoulder to see the glint of master Gleeb's light shrink. For some time, he crossed featureless sand, nothing but darkness in all directions. Out here on the plains, there was no cover, no feasible means of defending himself from whatever threats lay out beyond his vision.
The apprentice [tideseer] swished forth, trying his hardest to focus only on pressing forward instead of the crushing darkness around him. His brain kept bringing up images conjured by the dozens of stories he'd been told about the open waters. There were monsters out here, the kind with mouths as wide as his armspan, tentacles lined with hooked suckers, stinging barbs that could kill a merman quickly and painfully.
He shook his head, freeing his mind of the past to see the present. He could sense the slightest motions in the water beyond the light of his angler stalk, though he knew that by the time he did, if he did, it would be too late.
Ahead lay the body. Three strong strokes of his tail, and Lalug was upon it. The thing was larger than he thought, and now within arm's reach, he realized his task may be more time consuming than he expected. He swallowed hard, and steeled himself. It was bad enough to have taken so long to get here, worse yet to dawdle.
He circled around the still body, around towards the thing's head. In the gloom he wondered whether it feigned death, but as he rounded the mound of black flesh, he could see that it was rotting. A spot that might have once been a great eye was empty, and within the socket Lalug could see things writhing. He suppressed a shiver as he found a large section of the creature's mouth rotted away, exposing rows of thick, yellowing teeth.
Lalug glanced around him. There was nothing else to see, or hear - not even anything to smell. A corpse like this would attract scavengers from days' journey away. He planted his angler stalk and set down his sack, letting it float gently to the ground.
Bits of broken flesh and dusty, filthy water billowed out as the apprentice tideseer reached for the half-missing lips. He jostled the flesh around, using a short, coral-grown knife to shear away dangling pieces. The smell only got worse as he disturbed it, and it was all he could do to keep his eyes open in the inceasing murk.
There was a disturbance in the stillness behind him. Lalug whipped his head around, globe-like eyes scanning the darkness. Nothing, though he knew he wasn't alone. This caused him to work feverishly, using his coral knife like a chisel. After a few moments of frantic picking, Lalug worked one of the teeth free and put it into his satchel.
Two more teeth and he could go home. Two more teeth and this would all just be a memory. A dark, scary, lonely memory...
Lalug glanced in the direction from which he had come. There was the tiniest dot of light far off. Master Gleeb's beacon served as little more than a simple reminder of how cold and vaccuous it seemed out here on the plains.
Another tooth was worked free. Lalug could feel his heart beating faster, and feared that the sound would echo out into the darkness. Still he sensed nothing around him, and tried his hardest to work without disturbing too much.
Several black, squirming tendrils reached out through the orifice between teeth he had created. Bottom-dwelling sea worms writhed and wriggled, grasping for his comparatively warm flesh. Lalug barely managed to pull his webbed hand free of the coils of one worm before it sunk its hooks in his wrist.
He swished over to an untouched part of the corpse's mouth and cut away another section of giant lips. The apprentice tideseer once more looked around before setting to work. He chose a tooth that was in good shape, not as yellow as the others, and forced himself to think of the approval he would garner from it.
He imagined the looks on the faces of the elders when he returned to them. No doubt they would be impressed with his find, no doubt he would be alotted the respect deserved as the apprentice of Master Gleeb.
The tooth came loose and Lalug wasted no time whisking it into his satchel. He hefted it, reached for his angler stalk, and turned around to head back to the master as quickly as possible.
His heart stopped. The light of his angler stalk shown upon another creature sharing the water with him. It was still, but facing him, assessing him.
A giant grouper fish. By no means did it compare to the corpse nearby, but it was a fearsome animal, much larger than Lalug and more than capable of swallowing him. The grouper drifted in place, staring at the merman with its small, beady eyes. Lalug knew that if he made any sudden movements, the thing would lash at him instantly. It drifted closer, slowly.
Lalug's mind raced. He might be able to outswim the thing, but this close there was no way he could get out of reach. If he reached for his knife, he would have to drop either his angler stalk or his satchel. He had some simple magic at his disposal, but as an apprentice, he had hardly honed it to good use.
In what felt like hours, he stared back at the grouper, feeling increasingly on edge. The fish's great lips seemed etched in a permanent frown, and the mouth was easily one third of the creature's body length. Lalug knew behind those great lips were multiple rows of small, pointed teeth. If this thing got a hold of him, there was little hope of getting free. One idea came to him, however...
His finger twitched, and the grouper lunged at him. Lalug could barely react, and everything went dark.
I second later he realized he was unharmed, and that the grouper had bitten down on the end of his angler stalk, missing his hand by inches. The fish seemed confused and did not thrash at first, and Lalug acted before he could wonder whether or not the idea would work. These angler stalks used a tiny amount of electricity to produce the light that they did. Concentrating, Lalug used his will to amplify the electrical charge...
There was a brief and powerful light, followed by a muffled pulse. The grouper was killed instantly in shock - or at least stunned, Lalug couldn't tell. But the apprentice tideseer had no time to revel in his victory, for the flash revealed other shapes everywhere. Hundreds of giant groupers surrounded him. The glow faded, and in seconds Lalug found himself blind.
Lalug had seen the groupers and tightened his grip on the satchel. Without another thought he sped forth into the dark.
He could hear the collisions of heavy bodies as dozens of groupers swam into each other, presumably where Lalug had just been. Lalug swam as powerfully as he could, tearing across the plains, unable to see, unable to hear anything except for the tearing of rotten flesh behind him. Anywhere was better than here, anywhere was better than here --
Master Gleeb's light! Lalug had no way of telling whether any of the groupers were pursuing him. He swished his tail as powerfully as he could, keeping his arms to his sides for maximum speed. But he did not let go of the satchel.
Master Gleeb himself was nowhere to be seen. Lalug did not slow, instead whipping past the light and diving down along the other side of the dune. He pressed his belly to the sand, forming a cloud of floating sand, and waited to see if the light, too, would be swallowed.
Bits of sand were caught in his gills, and the still-planted angler stalk swayed from his passage, but no grouper had swallowed it. Perhaps he wasn't followed after all.
"What took you so long?" said the familiar voice of his master. Lalug tilted his head upward to see Master Gleeb staring down upon him.
"Groupers!" was all Lalug could say, turning around frantically.
"Oh, is that all?" Master Gleeb casually swished towards the light, keeping his body low to the ground. He reached and plucked the angler stalk from the sand with one hand, and came back down to the panting Lalug.
"Why weren't you near the light? I thought you'd been eaten!"
"You could see my light from out on the plains, yes?" said the master. Lalug nodded, growing calmer. "That's why I wasn't near it. Did you get the tooth?"
Lalug nodded again, holding up the satchel.
"Good. We needn't delay. Let's get back to the shoal."
"But, the groupers-"
"-are why we're moving," said Master Gleeb, and with a swish of his tail started away. Lalug hurried to catch near him, the light seeming comforting yet as dangerous as ever.
As the kelp forest came in sight, Lalug realized that they had traveled into slightly lighter waters again. He glanced around - no sign of others. They were alone, for the time being.
Lalug was not eager to pass through the kelp forest, but knew it was the quickest way back to the shoal. Swimming up and over was even more risky. He watched Master Gleeb pause in front of the roots of the forest, observing it for a moment. There seemed to be no sign of hte sea spider, either.
With a beckoning gesture, he dove among the roots. Lalug watched the light disappear behind swaying leaves, and suppressed a whimper as he too swam into their midst.