The Neen are an underwater people created as part of an ongoing, collaborative worldbuilding project. Their stories pepper the blog and until I organize them properly, you can use the Neen tag to find more. The following continues a mystery surrounding some lost treasure; part one is here; part two is here.
Content Warning: This section depicts torture.
** ** **
DELVERS’ HEADQUARTERS, 28CE
It was impossible to know the original purpose of the chamber: it was vast, squarish, and filled with rows of stony benches that looked down into the small central square, like some sort of ancient boxing ring. Perhaps it had been used for exactly that; perhaps it had been for trials, for performances, or for some other inscrutable Myrmidonian ceremony. Now, however, it had new visitors and an entirely different purpose.
Despite the knot growing in the pit of her belly, Kutule leaned forward, transfixed. The centre square was lined by tall braziers, which bathed the square in weak yellow light and the rest of the chamber with smoke. Most days, the whole of the long-abandoned complex was lit by dim bulbs – but Löolë’s electrical irai had quickly seen to their destruction. The scene’s only onlooker was therefore hidden in shadows.
::Stop – it’s no use – he’s out again,:: muttered one of the black-clad persecutors as the chieftain’s body went limp again. Tethered to the floor by his neck, wrist, elbow and ankles, it was sometimes hard to tell when he passed out – other than for the fact that he was suddenly and utterly silent.
Although he hadn’t said much while conscious, either.
For all its careful, patient planning, the abduction had been a thing of haste and violence. Kutule had worked for nearly a year to seduce the chieftain – to lure him away from his usual territory – only to have her fellow Delvers obliterate her lies in a moment. During the altercation, Löolë’s irai had incapacitated three of their members, and two more at the headquarters; the clawed fingers of his mechanical arm had nearly blinded another. Now, his bonds included cables to ground his body to the floor, and his prosthetic was lying twisted and broken in the corner of the square. He’d been stripped of his clothes, of his every fragment of jewelry, and his hair had been crudely cut away. They’d made him a monster.
::You forget that he lies, Tëni,:: said Lanadna, the second warder, and she carefully lifted some brazier coals with long forceps. Kutule’s stomach tightened again, and a hand landed on her shoulder.
::Sands! You frightened me!!:: she hissed, gesturing with one hand and smacking Didäsi with the other. He was draped in necklaces and gems, part of their order’s public costume which was otherwise forbidden. He was going out. ::You’re leaving?::
::Going with Po to N3,:: Didäsi said, failing to fight off a proud smirk. Kutule’s mouth fell open.
::No way – Didäsi – what if you’re caught?::
The persecutor dropped her coals, and Löolë let out a sharp scream that filled the chamber and caused both young Neen to cringe.
::It’s worth it if it ensures our success,” Didäsi said, staring as Löolë writhed and choked. Aside from the rough rope around his neck, his watchers kept him just wet enough to manifest his gills, and the bruised slits frothed with pink bubbles as he gasped. As the smell of cooked flesh reached them, Didäsi said, “Besides, I think I’d prefer to face Baädaka’s jury than be forced to watch this.::
::No one’s forcing me,:: Kutule said quietly, and her words were punctuated by a series of strikes and moans from the square. When Didäsi caught her eye, she looked away. ::I just… …I thought I should.::
::It is fascinating,:: Didäsi conceded, ::That his avarice is such that he would bear this brutality rather than give up his petty possessions. Pathetic. It’s no wonder they say he cannot love, for in his heart is only a lust for gold.::
::Yes,:: Kutule said. Didäsi touched her shoulder again.
::Well, just remember they’re meant to be torturing him, not you,:: he said, and got up. He left without another word, and the persecutor picked up a long, willowy switch.
** ** **
::–but back to what I was saying: if I were a betting man – which I’m not, since Bini forbids it – I’d say the Nassela have their work cut out for them. All those heads of warring state in a room together? Ha! I’d rather swim with piranha! I’d rather swim in lakewater – no offense to our lake listeners – but – ah – Bini? What’s–?::
::–on the air!::
::Get up. Move!::
::What in sands? Don’t you lay a fucking hand on her you — ehk!::
::Leave him – sit – I said keep us on the air.::
::Put him somewhere more comfortable, and see that he stays puts. Ah, there…::
“Good morning, listeners of Baädaka and beyond. We interrupt this doubtlessly inane episode of Neen News Now! to bring you a once-in-a-lifetime listening opportunity – let’s call it ‘Treasure Hunters: SOS’. The mysterious voice you’re hearing is that of Po, defacto leader of the Delvers, a name you might recognise as that of the heinous group of thieves with an on-again, off-again habit of burglarizing homes and caches around Baädaka.
But, dearest listeners, we are not mere thieves, and I am here tonight to set the record straight: we Delvers vie not for treasure, but only to save unenlightened Neen from themselves. Our methods are, perhaps, unorthodox, but the fact that we are labeled as criminals only speaks to the truth that our people’s Possession Obsession has become so entrenched in our social consciousness that it has also become our identity, and unconventional thoughts on the subject are seen as attacks on our person.
Listeners, our idolization of property has become so all-encompassing that we believe it will solve any problem – for example, some even believed that an offering of wealth might tear the true and tightly-woven fabric of community that makes up the Delvers. Some reasoned that, like all Neen, we too must so strongly desire wealth that we would turn on our brothers and sisters, and that the burglaries would end – that our cause would end.
Well. Not so.
Tonight, friends, we Delvers were pushed to progress beyond mere larceny.
For ages, the Neen thrived underwater, separated from the land-walkers who would corrupt us. Yes, we collected the bi-products of their avarice – sunken treasure, lost technology, artifacts – but all along and unknown to the cogs of society, we Delvers have always given. Yes: while the whole of Baädaka was developing a thirst for all that shines, the Delvers were sacrificing such treasures to maintain a careful balance – to maintain the safety and prosperity of all Neen.
But in recent decades, our sacrifices have not been enough. The collective hoarding of all Neen has drawn the attention of Ill Fates – the ire of monsters. We are our own bad luck charm, and now we are enslaved by the land-walkers, plagued by storms and targeted by darker forces altogether.
Despite the Delvers’ best efforts, recent generations have popularized interactions with land-walkers, and their lust for richer lives has been insatiable. That same thirst has spurred the development of technology that only enables our greed, and, meanwhile, our government – some of the wealthiest among us, in power at our behest – take actions which they believe will increase our gold and grandeur.
But at what cost?
We have welcomed visitors – traders – and so we dwell in the shade of foreign ships. We bow and cater to the whims of land-walkers in the hopes of earning baubles. Our waters fill with filth; we are mocked by our fellows and we are too distracted by our own reflections to notice how they deride us. Greed drives them mad. Greed drives their war. Greed drives us to elect men like Löolë the Liar, who epitomizes the worst of our cupidity – who represents us as well as he represents our addiction – and whose actions even as a child earned punishment from the Inky Elver.
This situation must be rectified before a worse fate befalls Baädaka.
The Delvers are calling for the immediate divulgence of Löolë’s every cache location. Our operatives will be mobilized to each location as it is revealed, and we fully expect no police or public intervention. It shouldn’t need repeating, but we are acting in Baädaka’s best interest – as we have always done, and will continue to do. We are only interested in the sacrifice of splendor – not of lives.
We have asked Löolë to reveal his cache locations himself, but, true to his vile nature, he has refused. We have therefore had to resort to radicalism, and we will hold him in an undisclosed location until we receive the information we want. It is my recommendation that any known details should be provided with minimal delay. The lines are open, and, as the war has – for the moment – ended, anyone with information may also use the emergency broadcast frequency.
Should we fail for any reason to obtain the whole of Löolë’s wealth, we will be forced to offer his life as an equivalent offering to the denizens of the Dark Place. Should any harm come to myself or to my operatives at the station… we cannot be held responsible for the fates of your regular TelEmoter hosts.”
::Sands, gag him, would you? Monitor the lines.::
** ** **
234 BCE, ABOARD THE PALM LEAF, NEAR SÜDETË
“Look at this fucking haul!! Look at it!! LOOK ARE YOU SEEING THIS!”
The hold was filled to bursting – bursting! – with treasure, and though it was covered in underwater slime and reeked of fish, Gaia rolled around on top as happily as a dog in stink, scattering coins, crowns and crystals alike. It was not respectable behaviour for a captain, but as they had failed to actually procure a crew, it probably wouldn’t do any harm. Leocadie looked down at her from the main deck, fishing rod and tackle hanging limply in her hands, her eyes like plates.
“Remember those Neen we met last night?”
“Uh… hard to forget a trio of naked eel-people…”
“Right – well – they thought our stories were true,” Gaia said. “Figured treasure actually brought bad luck – and asked if I’d take some to their ‘Dark Place’ – which I can only assume means my bank account.”
Leocadie seemed to need help remembering how to breathe. She set down her gear, then slowly lowered herself into the hold, slipping on the slimy treasure. Their spoils were piled so high that the usual ladder wouldn’t even be necessary, and Gaia was lying on top like a spent lover. Leocadie inhaled.
“Holy shit,” she said.
“And I did one better,” Gaia boasted, sitting up and grinning so much it must have hurt. “I told them we’d be back to collect another sacrifice for them next year. Free of charge. To help maintain the safety of all ocean-goers.”
“We’re gonna live like queens, Leo! We can keep coming back ’til we’re dead! We could be admirals! Lords, even!”
Leocadie sat down atop the treasure. It was real. She wasn’t dreaming.
“They… were willing to throw all this away..?” she said, breathless. “…they must have mountains down there!”
“Now now, Leo, don’t get greedy,” Gaia teased, fitting a sea-stained tiara upon her head as she quoted the Nautican adage: “Remember: affluence draws the attention of Ill Fate.”
** ** **
Trembling from terror, exhaustion and cold, Löolë looked smaller than ever, and his every hard-won breath filled the chamber. When he exhaled, he bled. Kutule had spent half the time since Didäsi’s departure with her eyes closed, but she could still hear everything. The warders had been interrupted only twice: once for a report that Löolë’s therapist had called in with one of his cache locations – and another had been given up by an old schoolmate.
::You might as well talk,:: said Lanadna, having grown weary from her work and taken a seat at the edge of the square. ::Your secrets will eventually be given up by others, and who knows what will happen once we have no more use for you.::
Kutule bit her lip. Po had assured her they’d set the chieftain free if he complied, but she hadn’t asked what would happen to him otherwise. Feeling suddenly cold, she wrapped her arms around herself and shifted in her seat. Löolë didn’t say anything, and instead used the pause for a few full breaths.
::His gills have shut again – get the hose,:: Tëni said.
::Ugh. Can’t we take a break? I’m starved.::
::Po said to keep at him until he… …aaah…::
::I have an idea. Get the hose,:: Tëni said. He rummaged from their toolbox a long, heavy chain while Lanadna struggled to her feet. She trudged to the corner and uncoiled the hose; Tëni visited Löolë with the chain, and Kutule dug her nails into her own arms. She braced herself for his strikes, but they never came. ::Tell us where to find the remainder of your caches.::
Löolë looked like he was trying not to throw up, and it was hard to tell if he was even listening. He only used his mouth to breathe, and he kept his eyes shut. Until the persecutor began to drop lengths of chain back and forth across his legs, as gently and thoroughly as one might have drizzled chocolate on a caketop. Löolë suddenly and violently writhed; Kutule leaned forward.
::Please no–:: Löolë said in a panic, and his voice – finally – came out tattered and frail. ::Please–::
The persecutor dropped the end of the chain between Löolë’s ankles.
::That’s up to you. The caches. Now.::
There was a pause. Löolë’s breath now came in high-pitched half-gasps, and he pulled at his ropes with almost as much strength as when he’d first awakened there. He kicked his legs, but couldn’t escape the weight of the chain.
::Please don’t do this.::
He was crying. Kutule tasted bile; felt her heart pounding in her heard. The warders looked at one another, and turned on the hose.
::No – stop – I’ll tell you everything – I’ll tell you–!:: Löolë shouted immediately, but neither persecutor moved.
::Go on then.::
Kutule had heard stories Neen who had mistakenly returned to the water wearing pants – even shoes. As their flesh absorbed water, dormant musculature was revitalized, cartilage hardened and whole fins filled out to form their tails – and any fabrics became part of that shift. It was painful, certainly, but the damage was rarely lasting and only sometimes scarring, for cloth was porous and could coexist, if imperfectly, with flesh. The same could not be said for chains.
Löolë screamed as his tail – already hideously scarred from his encounter with the Elver – began to manifest. He tore at his bonds but only succeeded in hurting himself, and the persecutors were deaf to his agony. Kutule cowered and covered her ears.
::In my home – aaugh – many can tell you where – another – directly below, through a door in the – facilities – there’s a yellow portal,:: Löolë half-wept, half-screamed, entirely unable to form complete sentences. ::Aeras Dome – haaah – under Tradestar Wreck – another off Crab’s Cradle – two in the Yellow Reef – the first – there’s a cavern–::
No fewer than twenty-four locations were listed, excluding the two that had already been revealed, as far away as the banks of Baratais and in some order that could only have made sense to Löolë. His words were mush by the end, his gills wheezing, his tail a bloody tangle of meat and metal. A moment passed in silence between the persecutors, until Kutule got to her feet.
::Turn the fucking water off!:: she shouted, and the warders were startled into action: the water was stopped and the hose was tossed away, and Tëni bent to Löolë’s wrists.
::Wait,:: Lanadna said. ::He could still be lying.::
Löolë howled. The persecutors stepped away, shouting to make themselves heard over their captive.
::Go to dispatch with the locations! I’ll contact Po, then join you,:: Lanadna said, then looked into the darkness, straight at Kutule. ::You – girl – stay here, and don’t let anyone else touch him!::
They left – with Löolë still screaming and bound in a puddle of blood and water, his half-formed tail a misshapen atrocity woven through by chain and rope. Only after some time did his screaming stop – replaced by piteous moans – and Kutule crept down to the square. Her nostrils filled with the scent of Löolë’s blood and body, and she threw up.
She looked up.
thack … thack
Löolë was knocking his head as hard as he could against the stone floor, teeth clacking together each time, water flicking from his chopped hair. Kutule seized a knife from the abandoned toolbox and rushed to his side.
::Löolë – stop.::
She knelt under his head, held him still with her free hand. He was shaking violently, both eyes blacked, nose and mouth bloody from being hit and from biting himself. His wrist and elbow were raw and swollen in the ropes; his body criss-crossed with bruises, burns and long lacerations. And his tail… His bleary eyes were fixed on her knife.
::Mercy, Kutule… Please, please mercy…:: he wept.
She lifted the knife.
** ** **
[Author’s note: Myrmidonia and Nautica belong to reddit users Whiskerbro and winglings, respectively]