Buckets, bowls, rotted wood, and rusting metal, Thanatos found very little of use amidst all the debris. He peered through the cracks every few minutes watching the waiting creatures. Their blanks grey-stone eyes stared back and Thanatos didn't know if they could see the whites of his own.
Thanatos dared not go into the bowels of the ship. Rattling and echoes of skittering something's with the swish-swash of water resounded in the din above, even when Thanatos stood still. By King Hector, the place set his heart on edge.
Of useful things, Thanatos found a box of candles and an even lesser number of matches. He tore the rotting mattress from the bed and took away the blankets. He did not like sleeping a spot so vulnerable and laid out the cleanest bits into a lengthy cupboard along the back wall. It was long enough to lay down in, but nothing more. Should any creature manage to get inside the captain's quarters, he was out of sight. Call me unintelligent, unprepared, or whatever, Thanatos thought, he didn't care. It helped abate the fear, if for just a little bit.
Dull rusted blades hung in a locked cabinet Thanatos broke into, but he was not confident in their use. No animals besides the rats, mice, and salamanders lingered about and it was damned impossible cutting through stone, especially if they were attempting to kill you at the exact same time.
This, however, did not solve his main concerns: food and lean water. He ignored the grumblings of his stomach, settling down in his bed.
The sound of splintering wood and creaking metal woke Thanatos. He shot bolt upright, hitting his head on the cupboard ceiling. He snatched up the knife he set aside. The ship swayed and water sloshed up and in and around the makeshift bed. Cursing the cold, Thanatos scrambled out, realizing that he'd been asleep for quite awhile. The moon beamed highest in the sky and snow covered the ground, the white fluffs still pouring down, but Thanatos' attention gazed fixatedly through the holes in the door. Outside, a fallen tree bridged served the stone people contriving their way up to him.
He glanced about the cabin.
"A way out…a way out…." Thanatos murmured. His eyes landed on the back wall, like traditional ships with a curved line of windows stood. Without another thought, he climbed through and over the side. He was able to duck out of sight, sticking himself to the hull just as one of the Aina meandered into the captain's quarters, cautious steps creaking. Not wasting any time, Thanatos maneuvered to the top deck, as quick and silent as bare feet allowed. Boxes, the ship's helm, and other debris littered the top. Thanatos scrambled behind them and peered round the edge. There were more, two Aina, patrolling the main deck. If Thanatos guessed correctly, there were more below. He turned back around to see his shows tossed out the window, the Aina in the quarters obviously angered. He imagined the snarling face of the Aina.
Then it hit him. The reason the Aina didn't come after him right away, why they didn't have a bridge before. They knew Thanatos thought himself safe. They could take their time getting to him. Before, they never needed to get to the ship. It wasn't going anywhere. And their prey was already captured.
"Like a rat in a trap," Thanatos groaned. He cursed himself and peered over the boxes and debris once more. The main mast still stood, along with the net leading up to the crow's nest. It didn't look safe, but Thanatos was not willing to tussle with living rocks. That was just asking for Mr. Death to come take him to the grave early. Thanatos couldn't have that, his thoughts lingering on Odette. Do what Mr. Death says and she stays alive.
He pulled the knife from his pocket and leapt up on the crates. Snatching a hanging rope, Thanatos gave it a quick tug. It held. He launched himself towards the main mast, but over calculated, swinging between the two Aina.
"Change of plans then," Thanatos said. He slipped and fell into the frigid waters.
Loud hisses pervaded through Thanatos' splashes. He struggle to the shore, not daring to look back. He didn't see any Aina ahead, so Thanatos fled.
He stripped his coat, the wool having become drenched with leafy water. He cringed as the cold struck him and his bare feet pounded on nettles and twigs. The dead underbrush dug through the tingling snow. The snow drifted on. The moon hung on. Thanatos ran on.
He gasped for breathe and his frozen fingers cracked and shook, grasping his arms. He could not hear anything besides his own lungs begging for air. The Aina's feet, their hisses and hungry undulations echoed in his mind. Heart beating hard, his body shivered as the knife of fear twisted its blade. He must get out. But where was there to go? The barrier locked him in. Mr. Death was gone. Who could he depend on? Only himself. He, himself, was going to get himself killed. He stumbled onward until he stopped at the edge of the forest. He could see the coast line and the town of Grover's Hill. Their quaint little town, silent, happy even, as small candles burned in windowsills.
If only it had been this easy with Odette, to find the edge. He extended a single finger. Maybe Mr. Death lied about the barrier just like the note. They were different, but Mr. Death was not a man to be trusted. His finger zapped some invisible force, purple gasses billowing out like smoke. Tingles surged up his arm. Not a lie, then.
Thanatos looked left and right. Whatever hope remained, dwindled to nothing as his eyes rested on the approaching Aina. Slow they were, striding tall and confident with their rough helms etched with old runes and animal's figures. Underneath spilled grizzled and tangled hair and eyes blank as any traditional statues: nary a blink to them.
The leader of this pack hissed unintelligible words. Thanatos backed away. He arched and grimaced, the magic of the barrier electrifying his body. The pain sent him to his knees, but receded in seconds. Through the initial haze, Thanatos saw two Aina approach and stand on either side of him. One raised a blunt sword and waited. The leader held up a hand and Thanatos knew this was the end. Had to be. But he would not have it. He glared at up the lofty ancient creature. There was an understanding reflected in those eyes and Thanatos could hear Odette in his head, "They're no dim-witted monsters, Than'tos."
From behind Thanatos scurried a tiny black salamander. It stopped in front of him, peering up and gave Thanatos a wink with its tiny blue eye. It scurried on. The Aina leader watched it, glancing between Thanatos and the reptile. With barely a twitch on his hand, the Aina hissed a word or two. The one holding the sword aloft stuck Thanatos on the back of the neck and all went black.
His limbs woke Thanatos first, not for their movement, but the lack there of. Bleary eyes opened to find himself kneeling in the snow underneath the shade of a giant tree with his arms tied high above his head. A thin layer of snow swathed his entire body. He twitched his fingers, the blood long gone from them. He felt numb all over. Please don't let me get frostbite, Thanatos thought. He stretched his fingers and shuffled his knees. Nothing helped. Instead it ached his sore body more.
Not too far away, in the middle of a clearing, the Aina sat around a large wooden table, chairs made of earthen mounds. In the old days, when the Aina were kings and queens of the mountain, Thanatos imagined the mounds to be covered in grass and flowers, the wood would blaze with light, streaming through the tree's branches. Fire, every purifying, burned at the center. Rock and stone can survive anything, their bodies smoothed by the heat, so unlike the cold desolation and rough edges exuded by these Aina and the swamp.
Thanatos licked his lips, hunger and thirst catching up to his senses. He realized that the moon hung no more and grey clouds converged upon the sky. Daytime it was.
He refocused his attention on the Aina. They were arguing. One stood, stomped a foot on the ground so hard Thanatos could feel it. The leader stood as well, tossed a pile of snow at the offender's face. What was this, a decent conversation about serious matters or fooling around the breakfast table?
Thanatos recognized him by his helm, embossed with an ancient fire bird, a phoenix, if he recalled correctly.
Another stood, a female, or just a short and slender man, and pointed at Thanatos. The hiss from this particular Aina grated on Thanatos' ears. What he mistook for hisses were mere echoes of nature, rock slides, shifting sand, the crunch of dirt under one's feet. While the others sounded like two rocks chafing one another, with soft clicks here and there, like pebbles of small stones knocking together…but this Aina. The sound of crunching and gnashing teeth with the constant pounding like heavy drums reverberated through the trees. His or her finger jutted towards Thanatos, the voice growing to dangerous airs.
Thanatos glanced at the other Aina, their faces stubborn, impassive, as was their nature, their eyes also on him. Thanatos sighed and let himself hang, not bothering to hold his tired body up and mindfully wandered into the self-depreciating hatred of his failures.
Day one: captured.
Day two: dead.
Day three: Oh, hey Mr. Death. I know that I have to be alive for this sort of job… proposition… thing… that I signed up for and completely failed by not passing the first test of "surviving," as there was this issue with the killer stone people you happened to leave me with and no way out, so I was thinking, if you didn't mind, if you could, perhaps, I don't know, just a thought, if you would raise me from the dead…? You know, as you did for Odette and give this thing another go? Maybe something a bit easier too?
Thanatos laughed out loud to himself. Mr. Death's face intensified into this mind with an not amused, "No."
"What are you doing here, human?"
Thanatos jolted back at the sudden appearance of the leader crouched before him mere inches from his face. Thanatos, so startled, did not know how to answer.
"What are you doing here, human? Or are your fleshy ears too soft?" The voice was deep, echoing like an old cavern, holding underlying tones of chaffing stones, but it was rough, as if many laborers pick-axed away at it, not the smoother contours the Aina of the mount should have.
Thanatos swallowed. "To survive."
"Aha. Ahahaha!" The Aina rocked back on his heels and uttered sounds to his brethren, where they too laughed.
Rage spread across Thanatos' body, the cold having numbed his body long ago. He glared at the leader. To laugh at someone in their meager attempts to survive was cruel.
The leader spun around, gripping Thanatos in his icy claws, too jagged to be hands. He grinned. "Nothing survives here, human."
"You're here," Thanatos whispered.
The grip tightened. "We're stone, halfviti. We endure. We need neither air nor animal to live. Whereas, you humans need both, and that of water."
Thanatos attempted to nod, but found he could not with the Aina's strength.
"Quite so," he said. "But I like to believe that humans are also resourceful. Given a chance, that is."
"…why?" Thanatos gazed at the circle of Aina. Begging and pleading for his life never helped in these sorts of situations. Not a threat, not doing anything wrong, harmless as a fly, albeit annoying. None of that would do. If only Odette were there. "The question moreover is why you seek to destroy everyone who comes into this swamp. It's as if nothing of value is here…at least to outsiders. People come, look around a bit, they go. Just be the creepy statues that you are and they'll leave sooner than later. My question is what the harm in that is?"
It wasn't the wisest thing to say while being strangled by a giant man made of rock, but his tongue went ahead of his brain, as usual. The hand squeezed and Thanatos forced himself to think quickly.
"It is our land."
Thanatos was silent. Land. People of the Mount. Ghosties. It all had something to do with the story Damian told. He guessed his best bet was to appeal to the old ways. Respect the land, or so it would seem, and every new visitor, every disturbance to whatever this land witness was to.
"Ahhh, yes. You haven't left this land in over a thousand years. No interaction with the any of your cousins or humans. My guess is you don't want it." Thanatos stiffened as the Aina shifted in front of him. "I have a proposition, before you decide to kill me, for I'm sure that may very well come, a few words. Can't go with you at my neck and tied to a tree, now can I?"
The leader loosened his grip and pulled away. "Speak then, human. Let this end quickly."
Thanatos licked his lips, trying to decide where to start, remembering back to when they first knocked him out. "First of all, you didn't kill me right off. You just tied me up and had sad excuse for a snowball fight. My guess is because of the salamanders. You hate them, fear them, or maybe you don't, but it doesn't matter. It's what they represent, or moreover, who they represent."
"I'm losing patience," the leader growled.
"Mr. Death." Thanatos said. He straightened and glanced about the other Aina. There was no reaction on their faces.
"That name is not known to us."
Thanatos thought back. What were the names on contract? A very old name. All of them were old, from before the beginning of this age. What did Maor call him? He took his chance, knowing if he was wrong, the Aina's patience would be all but spent.
"That man who came with me just yesterday. He goes by many names, but I assume you know him as Malach HaMavet."
This time, Thanatos caught blinks and fleeting looks between the Aina. They may not understand his words, but they knew the name at the very least. A name to fear because death came to the Aina just as death came to humans. He continued on, "He is the one you fear, am I correct?"
The leader Aina snarled out a strange hiss and Thanatos took that as a yes.
"I am seeking his employ and considering my position as well as yours, I have a proposition."
He waited to see the leader's action, but none came.
Thanatos breathed, hoping it not to be his last. "If anyone comes into the swamp, I will lead them to you or facilitate wild goose chases, if you are fond of them, help you in any way I can to purge the land's trespassers. I expect no assistance from you and will find my own means of survival out of your way."
The leader stared at Thanatos, sizing up his skinny shivering frame. I'm not a threat, Thanatos thought. You've already caught me once. Twice is easy. The leader turned and rumbled out Thanatos' proposition to the others. For all their stony faces, Thanatos hated them, never being able to tell the thoughts they hid inside, save for the one, the one that hated him too. No more than a few minutes passed before the leader crouched next to Thanatos once more.
"The ship lends itself to you," he said. "You must abide by our rules and you may live. Do not consider Malach HaMavet's employ as a safeguard here. If he sent you here to die, die you shall. As Torc Valgerour, I am your judge."
Thanatos had no time to thank the Aina – Torc Valgerour, his name, Thanatos assumed – as Valgerour stood, snapped the rope, and retreated into the snow-misted confines of the swamp. Thanatos fell, limbs trembling on the frozen ground.