After a decade of abyss-diving, it wasn’t the jagged stalagmite teeth, puckered slate skin, or uneven, fin-like growths that chilled Lifang; it was the creature’s expression—lidless eyes and too-wide jaws shaped like a perpetual scream.
I understand. Regretfully, she trapped the creature in a tank provided by the Collectors. They had a name for themselves, but in her mind, she renamed them for their greatest desire: to gather exotic curiosities—and people—from every land they conquered.
New specimen tucked under her arm, Lifang swam upward, passing through layers of marine snow—the ever-present shower of dead cells and detritus falling from the upper layers down to the depths.
Upon surfacing, she climbed into the boat. Collector Addison leaned against the cabin door, watching, cold eyes lit with an unusual intensity, rugged features recast in strange ways by the sunset. Lifang regurgitated the black pearl that lent her an aquatic creature’s abilities—one of many sacred objects the Collectors had claimed for themselves.
With a gloved hand, Collector Addison confiscated the bile-covered pearl and the trapped fish, locking both away. Lifang’s cheeks bloomed scarlet in anticipation of his thorough check for contraband. The humiliation never lessened, especially when done with his rough, overly familiar hands. When he was done, she turned away, beginning her mental calculation of the time it would take to reach shore.
A hand grabbed her by the shoulder. Lifang swiveled around to see the triumphant smile creeping across Collector Addison’s face. He did not let go.
“I found your little sister.”
Lifang’s breath caught. That night, two years ago. Ping’s eyes wide with terror, hands cold and sweaty as Lifang pressed the little roll of coins into her palm and told her to run.
“She’s cute. Looks like you but softer, sweeter.”
“I don’t have a sister.”
Collector Addison laughed as he leaned forward, shadow-cut features uglier than that of an abyss specimen. His hot, salty breath thickened the air between them. “No? In that case, I’ll send the little girl who is not your sister to the whorehouses. Unless you give me what I want.”
Lifang choked out the words. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked. We all have.”
The Collector’s eyes narrowed. “You might have fooled the others; they’re content with believing the pearls work better for you because of some inborn fluke that allows barbarians to dive deeper, to stay underwater far longer than civilized folk ever could. They buy your claim that the Harvest is an unrelated, primitive ritual—something religious, maybe. But I know there’s more to it. It’s something to do with those thrice-damned creatures. I’ve tried mapping their movements to weather patterns. Drinking soup boiled from their bones. Soothsaying with their entrails. Still, the truth eludes me. What is it you harvest from the animals of the abyss? How is it that you—and not I—can harness their powers? Tell me.”
If not for the thought of Ping trapped in a dirty room with leering men like Collector Addison, Lifang would’ve laughed. He’d observed some of their ceremonies. He’d tried his own shoddy imitations. He thought he understood.
“You want the truth behind the Harvest of the Deep.”
He bared his teeth in response.
Lifang held back her rage, keeping her tone even. “Your kind sees only what you can take; what you can keep. But it’s not creatures we harvest—those are mere sustenance. It’s experience. Time in the depths. The pearl only helps facilitate.”
Collector Addison’s greedy eyes widened, soaking up her people’s long-held secrets.
“Visit the abyss long enough and you don’t need the pearl.” She smiled. “Let me show you.”
Lifang’s arms circled his waist. She held tight as she dropped backwards, pulling him into the water with her.
The ocean smothered his screams.
Spread the word!