"It's not really Dahren's boat." Khair was slimmer than his companion, and a little taller, but with their beards and clothes they looked similar. Related, or just foreign, Jiri wasn't sure and didn't really care. She sat with Fumo and Hadzi in the cracked prow of the ship, under the watchful eye of half a dozen hunters. The hunters were Jall tribe, Jiri knew, from their short, dyed braids and the pattern of their mud cloth, but they hadn't introduced themselves. They were far from their lands in the east, working for foreigners and being rude.
"He was renting the boat from some village we found upriver. It was taking us to Kibwe, before that storm washed it away." Khair smiled at them, and he almost seemed sincere. "Thank you for finding it for us."
"What's he saying?" Hadzi whispered to Jiri. The men from Nex used only Taldane, the common trade tongue, except when they whispered together in Kelish. Jiri understood Taldane fine, but while Oza had taught her a little Kelish she could barely make out a word of the men's whispers.
"He thanks us for finding their treasure," Jiri said.
"Are they going to reward us for that?" Fumo muttered. The man had seemed to age twenty years the moment the foreigners had showed up.
"I think that thanks was their reward," Jiri said, then turned her attention back to Khair.
The man was waiting patiently, his fingers combing through his tightly curled beard. "We could use a new boat, now. Does your village have one?"
"No," Jiri said.
"Ah," Khair sighed. "I suppose we'll just have to patch this one up then. More days lost in this stinking, leech-infested jungle." He shook his head and turned away, still stroking his beard, and Jiri had a sudden, fervent hope that at least a few leeches would someday find their way into that carefully tended garden of hair.
"Nexians." Fumo's fists drummed against the ships ribs. "A Nexian trader cheated my brother-in-law's youngest sister once, in Kibwe. You can't trust them."
Because they won't let you take their lost property?
Jiri didn't bother to say the words. The Nexians and their Jall hirelings were rude, but they hadn't treated them badly otherwise, and the fact that they were going to be hauling that great gem away from Thirty Trees didn't bother Jiri a bit.
Whatever that thing is, treasure or not, it's trouble. She watched Khair and Dahren come together in the center of the boat and leaned forward as they spoke, straining her ears. They spoke too fast, but she picked out the words for boat and trade, daylight and... baby? Child? That didn't seem right. Jiri sighed and wished she had studied harder when Oza had taught her languages.
It's not my fault that there are so many. She wondered when the Nexians would finally let them go. When they think their gem is safe, I suppose. Dahren had opened up the broken crate to carefully examine the stone, revealing it to be a huge oval, like a seed made of glass that gleamed in the steady glow of his spell-light. She watched them stare at it as they talked, Dahren's face calculating, Khair's frowning, anxious but trying to hide it, and wondered again what it was.
They're certainly acting like it's a treasure. But Khair seems almost afraid of it. A gem. A hippo-sized gem. What is it? The question buzzed in Jiri's head, almost making a connection but not quite, almost... What did Dahren say about a child? No, it wasn't that, or baby, the word was—
"Hatchling." Jiri whispered the word, and she was on her feet, staring at the great gem in horror. Oza had told her about something like this. He had told her about all the things that lived in the jungle around them, small and great. The size of it, though—that had tricked her. Not even the mokele-mbembe laid eggs this great.
"Khair." Jiri walked toward the trader, ignoring the Jall. They looked down at her, at the muddy medicine pouch that hung on her hip and proclaimed her a shaman, and let her by. "Do you know what that is?"
"I know what Dahren thinks it is. And what it's worth to the fleshforges back home, if he's right."
"You'll never get it there," Jiri said. "Touch it. You can feel something moving inside. It's close to hatching."
"Jiri, what are you—" Fumo started, but Dahren cut him off.
"If it hatches, we'll cage it."
Jiri stared at the foreigner, stunned by his idiocy. "You think you can cage a grootslang?"
"Grootslang?" Hadzi said behind her. "What are you saying about a groot—"
"One fresh-hatched? Yes." Dahren stared down at Jiri as if she were something he had found crawling across his skin. "We've put together a cage, a wagon, a whole caravan for this beast. It's taken me almost seven years to find something of value in this green hell, and I will make my fortune from it, mosquitoes, snakes, sickness, storms, sinking boats, and short, bothersome natives be damned. Now shut up and leave me alone, so I can take this beast that scares you so much far from your fetid home."
"A caravan," Jiri said. "You're taking this thing to Kibwe."
"Only for a little while," Khair said, trying to sound soothing. "We'll be moving on as soon as we can."
"You can't take a monster like that to a city," Jiri snapped. "How many will die when that thing hatches out, hungry?"
"It won't get free!" Dahren shouted, his face twisting into anger. "Gods, I've had this argument enough with him." He jabbed his finger at Khair. "I don't need to have it with you, girl. Now shut up before I gag you."
Jiri watched him stomp away, then looked over at the Jall hunter who stood closest to her. "Did you know what you were helping them do?"
The woman pushed her yellow braids back and shrugged. "Our shaman told us what they had found. We decided that if they wanted to take it far from our lands, we wouldn't argue. And they pay well."
"And if that thing hatches here? Or in Kibwe?"
"Then that's their problem." The voice came from Jiri's other side, from a man who stood taller and broader than any of the other Jall. The skin of his chest was marked with the rough, twisting scars of leopard claws. "Or yours, I suppose, if they can't hold it."
"You're a blessing to your ancestors," Jiri growled and sat down beside Hadzi again, staring at the huge egg. The light caught in its rough facets shimmered, as if the whole huge thing had trembled.
"A grootslang?" Hadzi said. "Like in the stories?"
Jiri nodded. Oza had told them all the legend of the grootslang. How the gods had made them too powerful, and how they had taken them apart, separating their forms into serpents and elephants. But some had escaped the gods, and stayed what they were.
From her other side, she heard Fumo. "I— Why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you know?"
Blocking Fumo out, Jiri stared at the egg, and watched as it shook again.
∗ ∗ ∗
When morning came, the river had dropped enough to reveal that the boat was thoroughly stranded, wedged into the trees that had caught it in a mud bank yards away from the river's normal edge.
Dahren had cursed, then told the Jall to start pulling apart the boat to make a raft, which they had done after he had offered up enough coin. Fumo and Hadzi, with nothing else to do, had taken some of that coin and gone to work, too.
Jiri just stood near the boat, exhausted from a sleepless night, and watched the gemlike egg.
"How long do you think we have?" Khair stood next to her, his boots almost swallowed by the mud.
"How long has it been shaking like that?" Jiri asked.
"Since we found it. About three weeks. Dahren says it will take it a long time for it to crack that shell."
"Three weeks is a long time," Jiri said.
Khair swore softly. "I've put too much money into this. If that thing gets away..."
"My village is nearby, along with everyone I know and love," Jiri said. "Your coin—"
There was a sound, a brittle pop that brought Jiri up short. "Gods and crocodiles," she hissed, and ran forward. The crack didn't take long to find, a thing as long as her arm and wide as her smallest finger, running across the top of the egg. She tore her eyes away from it, saw the Nexians and the Jall, Fumo and Hadzi, all standing still and staring at the stone.
"Gods damn me." Dahren came forward, staring at the crack. "I'll not lose this thing now."
"You have no cage here," Jiri said.
Dahren spared a glare for her, then shouted. "Taba!" The tall, scarred Jall came through the mud to him. "You're always bragging about your hunting. Well, here's a chance to demonstrate your skill. When that thing breaks free, kill it and I'll fill your palm with gold."
"Dahren!" Khair shouted. "It's worth so much more alive!"
"It's worth nothing if it gets away!" Dahren backed off as Taba took up a spear and found a position beside the stone.
"This is a bad idea, Taba," Jiri told him, but the man shrugged.
"I killed a leopard with just a knife once. I can kill a newborn monster with a spear."
Jiri backed away, until she reached Fumo and Hadzi. "Go," she told them.
Fumo looked at her, his eyes wide with fear, and started to back away. None of the Jall cared. But Hadzi hesitated. "What are you doing?"
"I have to see what happens. You have to go." From the wreckage of the boat came another sharp pop, and even from here Jiri could see the cracks running across the surface of the egg. "Go. Get to Kibwe. Get Oza. Go!"
Fumo reached out, caught Hadzi's arm and pulled him after. "May all the spirits be with you, shaman," he said, his farewell sounding formal, final. Then they were gone into the jungle.
Clenching her fists, Jiri turned back toward the boat and started walking forward. In her hands, she could feel heat building, could feel the fire that came so easily to her when she was angry or scared, and she welcomed it. The egg trembled again, and this time a plate of clear gemstone the size of Jiri's head cracked free, sliding down from the top of the stone. Something flickered behind it, and Taba raised his spear, the heavy muscles of his back tightening. Everyone else was silent, still, watching.
The attack came fast as a lightning stroke.
Something whipped out of the hole that had been broken in the egg, something thin and flexible, like a rope of scale and muscle. It wrapped around Taba's waist, catching him and then slamming him forward into the egg. Jiri could hear the wet snap of bone breaking beneath flesh, and then there came another sound, a sharp, liquid noise, like branches cracking in mud, and Taba's body jerked. The smooth skin of his back broke, and there were six points jutting out of it, white things covered in red gore, needle sharp and long as speartips. Then they vanished, and Taba fell, crashing down at the base of the egg, flopping limply back like a broken doll.
The scars the leopard claws had left on him were gone, lost in the red ruin of what had been his chest.
The Jall ran then. Jiri barely noticed their flight, silent and panicked through the mud and into the jungle, gone. She was too focused on the egg, its shining surface now coated crimson.
Not here. Not here, no, not here.
But the gleaming eggshell crumbled, falling apart as the beast pulled its way out into the sun.
Coming Next Week: An angry hatchling in Chapter Four of Gary Kloster's "The Gem."
Gary Kloster is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Firesoul, featuring the further adventures of Jiri. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Apex, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future 25. Find him online at garykloster.com.
Illustration by Jasper Sandner.