A niros crocodile! Welikro's cry slammed into Eriksson and Borkal's heads like a bolt of lightning. Eriksson's legs softened, and he almost slipped off the boat.
"Im... impossible... We're still kilometres away from Kemda Swamp... How... how can a crocodile be here?!"
Borkal stared at the approaching 'plank' and stuttered.
"That... that's a c-c-crocodile... I-It's pushing across the water w-w-w-with its tail..."
A niros crocodile? Claude still hadn't snapped out of his stupor, but he soon searched through his memories for an impression of Kemda Swamp. Neither the transmigrator nor the old Claude had gone to the swamp before. He had heard a couple of rivers fed into the lake through the swamp.
Rumour had it Kemda went on for hundreds of kilometres, all the way to even the westernmost prefecture, Tordesass. It was also connected to the largest river in the three prefectures, Normandis. The geography books described the swamp as 'rich in flora and fauna'. Unfortunately, that also mean it had many poisonous animals. At least one adventurer or forager lost their life in the swamp every year and few people dared to go inside.
That was right, he had heard something about these 'niros crocodiles'. They were the kings of the swamp. They had no natural predators and ruled the food chain.
Claude glanced at the bark-like crocodile swimming their way. He could see the waves caused by its swaying tail. It clearly didn't appreciate being target practice while pretending to be a piece of wood.
Claude grabbed his musket from Eriksson.
"Deploy the sails, quick!" he shouted as he loaded.
Welikro was already raising the sails. He grabbed the punt pole and tried to push the boat away from the oncoming croc. They were half-stuck in short reeds, however, and it was hard to get them moving.
Claude finished loading and took aim. His shot echoed over the flat swamp a moment later. The crocodile shook slightly, paused, then came at them again.
"Shoot its head! Go for the eyes!" Welikro shouted with a half-broken voice.
The shot startled Borkal back to reality, and he fidgeted with his own musket.
The crocodile just kept coming, and was doing so faster with every passing moment. The boys didn't know exactly how big it was, but its general volume became apparent as it got closer. It was huge, but not the seven metres the town's gossip ring said. It was still a full five metres; that was longer than the boat!
Eriksson fumbled with the boat's wheel, but could not get the boat to do anything. The wind had died down, and the rudder did nothing if the boat wasn't moving. Their only hope, though whether it was hope or delusion no one wanted to say, was that Welikro somehow pushed them into open water.
Eriksson ran to the sails. If nothing else he could at least try to bleed every scrap of energy from what little movement there was in the air. Even if he did, however, it would at best be half worth it since the wind was blowing into the swamp, not out to the lake.
Claude calmed himself forcefully. He took several slow, deep breaths, then aimed at the charging driftwood. He couldn't see its eyes, they looked just like the rest of it, so he was forced to take a guess and fire.
Smoke puffed out over the side of the deck again and the crocodile shuddered this time. It came to a halt and a small trail of blood slowly diffused in its wake. Its head dipped beneath the water a moment later.
"A hit!" Welikro cried.
His words had barely left his mouth, however, when the log reappeared and charged at them again.
A third puff, this time from Borkal's musket, but this time the round merely splashed next to the head.
"How did you aim?! You didn't even hit at this distance!" Welikro cried, losing his last bit of composure.
They had just a couple dozen metres left between them and the crocodile. They all shuddered and felt cold sweat run down their backs as the crocodile's grimly determined aura flashed over them.
Borkal's hand went limp and his musket clattered to the deck.
"It's over... We're not going to make it..."
"Pick it up! Load! Are you really just going to sit and wait for it to eat you?!"
Claude didn't even hear the squabbles going on behind him. He stared at the charging death. His shot had hit, but it had apparently only angered the crocodile. His mind lit up, and he remembered they still had pellet powder. Claude reached into his pockets for a cartridge. He tore the top off with his teeth and poured the pellet powder down the barrel. The round followed a moment later, and he rammed it home with his shaking rod.
He lifted the musket to his shoulder the same moment the crocodile leapt out of the water at them.
"AAHHHH!" Borkal cried with a broken voice.
His legs gave in and he collapsed to his knees, a pungent wet stain forming between his legs.
Welikro was right in the crocodile's way, but he had more experience dealing with charging animals, and got out of the way quickly.
Eriksson's eyes nearly popped out of his face as he watched the massive death machine crash into his beautiful boat.
It shook, dropped half a metre into the water, then popped back up. It was immediately listing, however.
The starboard side railing was gone, only a few stumps stuck out of the deck's edge. The crocodile's head was buried through the hull into the cabin. If they'd not used the wavepiercer's planks instead of the old fishing boat's, the frame might have shattered entirely.
At least it bought them a few moments while the crocodile struggled to get its head back out. It didn't resign itself to being stuck in the boat, however, and its furious struggles shoved the ship from side to side.
Claude lost his balance and was sent rolling across the deck. He rammed into the port rail and grabbed hold, his right hand white around his musket.
Eriksson hugged his wheel like a boy afraid his mother was going to leave him behind, blood streaming down his face form a massive gash on his forehead.
Borkal just sat limply where he'd come to a halt, whimpering, the stain between his legs growing ever larger. It didn't help that he was staring down the cabin trapdoor in the deck at the crocodile's white teeth as it thrashed back and forth.
Eriksson finally couldn't hold on to the wheel any longer and collapsed backward onto the rear railing.
Welikro hung onto the mast for all he was worth. The crocodile's struggles pushed it deeper into the boat, and its mouth eventually came out of the trapdoor. Borkal squealed and literally rolled away from the monster. Welikro tried ramming his pole at the thing's eyes, but a quick bite snapped it in half. The crocodile's attention was fully on Welikro now, however, and it struggled towards him.
A sudden jolt to the boat shoved Claude against the railing and he collapsed to the deck. He kept hold of his musket, however, and shoved the barrel towards the crocodile's head, just beneath its bleeding eye, and pulled the trigger as hard as he could. Despite everything he'd been taught, he closed his eyes. If this shot missed, his friend would be torn to pieces, and he didn't want to see whether that ended up happening.
Smoke puffed and the crocodile's eye vanished. Its other eye exploded and flesh, brain, and bone stained the deck all the way to the vanished starboard railing.
The crocodile was still for half a moment, then convulsed. Its convulsion flung it backward, and it flopped over the starboard side back into the water. Its splash flung water back over the boat and drenched everything in sight.
The boat bobbed furiously for several seconds, then settled to something like the horizontal.
"Aaaaaah!" Borkal shook and rolled back to starboard.
There was no railing there to stop him, however, and he flew into the water right after the crocodile.
Welikro slowly got back up, his legs shook so much his knees nearly clattered together. He lost his footing and he, too, tumbled into the lake. He was quick to clamber back onto the boat however, and his eyes stared at the water like a frightened cat. His eyes noticed Borkal, and he stuck the stump of the pole he still had out to him.
Claude didn't get off with just getting wet, however. The bobbing boat flung him across the deck into the bit of starboard railing still intact and he felt a leg muscle tear as he hit it.
Eriksson wasn't must better off. His head was swollen on one side, and his eyes were confused and glassy through the pouring blood, but he was still awake.
Borkal gasped a breath and immediately started screaming again.
"I'm going to die... I'm going to be eaten!"
Welikro slammed him across his head with the pole.
"Shut up! You're fine! Now get back on the boat!" he roared.
Borkal's eyes were saucers, and his pupils pinpricks, but he shut up and got on the boat.
"Dead." Welikro said, pointing at the carcass as it popped back up to the surface.