Star Dreamer

Chapter X: A Many-Legged Problem

Dear lord, what is that thing?

[Narration]

The wind kicked up as the group grew impatient, lighting the bonfires up to massive pillars of flame. In this light, the man’s face became visible.

Grumhog. Or at least some bloodied version of him. His shoulders heaved repeatedly with a gentle laughter that rose from his belly and carried ominously across the distance. The murmur of movement signalled the arrival of the rest of his men, surrounding the group in disconcerting solemnity.

He held up one hand to forestall any attacks, and smiled.

“Your time has come,” he said, and with that, the bandits charged forth, slowly covering the twenty or so yards which separated them from their captives.

Grumhog stood back, and was quickly obscured from view by the spitting, fuming mass of blood-washed men who charged forth with murder on their minds.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn brought the crossbow up and fired; the center of balance of the crossbow was slightly off for her, but the bolt stayed fairly true to its course – towards the nearest madman.

[Fiend]

The pup looked up at Jacques briefly, and made a snuffling noise that sounded dangerously like laughter.

[Jacques]

“OK, so I was wrong. I’m a fool, what did you expect?”

Before he’d finished the sentence, he had scooped the pup up and slipped it into a pocket in his uniform. Whereupon Fiend let out a startled yelp and vanished.

A long, red handled knife appeared in his left hand, to match the yellow already in his right.

“Let’s rock.”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho was not about to make the same mistake twice. Maybe if he dies those other guys will snap out of his spell. Without hesitation, he lunged at Grumhog with claws and teeth bared. He intended to show him what his insides looked like before his eyes closed forever. Unfortunately the men had closed in and blocked off his avenue of attack to Grumhog. He sprung towards two of the men and landed on their shoulders. Using them as springboards, he leaped from their shoulders, towards Grumhog, raking them with his hind claws.

[Pierre]

Pierre frowned, body unconsciously prepared to fight. He was not a warrior, not by a long stretch, yet he was angry.

[Thomis]

The Oath-bound’s sword slid from its sheath with a slight hiss, swinging upwards smoothly as Thomis allowed the calm to wash over him. Afterwards, perhaps, he would feel faint echoes of fear, once the fighting was finished. Assuming he lived to experience those echoes. But now, fear would only cripple him, would slow his sword, make it waver from its targets, make him more vulnerable. As the men closed, he swept the sword down and across, barely registering where he drew blood. Not enough of it, though.

[Daron]

Daron’s green eyes widened in shock. She had been ready to express her thanks to Brendan for his timely help. Her eyes narrowed in anger. That -words sufficiently nasty enough to describe that motherless maggot spawn briefly failed her; she was no poet or writer – that Grumhog lulled them into a false sense of security!

Well, Grumhog and his minions would pay for that mistake, Daron grimly declared to herself. She regretted bringing Falcon into the fray. Sorry, old friend! The artist rubbed her mare’s neck in a gesture of comfort.

Then Daron retrieved the other two daggers sheathed in her saddlebags. Seven always was her lucky number. She prayed her luck would hold out, and she could keep her traveling companions from harm, while sending the bandits to their destiny.

:::Save yourself, old friend!::: the artist “sent” to her horse. Falcon whinneyed her dislike of this command, wanting to protect her mistress, but complied anyway, moving out of the battle zone.

The ebony-handled daggers swiftly buried themselves in two enemy throats. Daron reached for the daggers in her boots, ready to strike again.

[Keir]

Keir moved behind Laurelyn where he could protect her back as he had vowed. Jacques’ green-handled knife felt foreign in his hand; he wished for the comfortable security of his staff but was prepared to use the ungainly weapon as best he could.

[Jacques]

Flipping the red handled knife end over end into a wolf-man’s stomach, Jacques cursed loudly and volubly, moving forward. He was getting far too old for all this mayhem – particularly without his hat but at least he might be able to keep these weirdos away from the children. For a while.

He ducked as another bandit swung a cudgel, and spun sideways as a short sword whipped by his arm. Being an acrobatic jester had some advantages, though his bones were beginning to ache.

The yellow handled knife scored a long, deep, strike against a bandit’s leg. Jacques was beginning to lose track of who was where.

Another cudgel caught him in the chest just as he was pulling back. He rolled backwards in a partially controlled sprawl and struck one of the stones in the circle with an outrush of breath.

He was definitely getting too old.

The yellow handled knife flipped out to strike handle deep into the chest of the man who had moved forward to finish the blow, and Jacques paused to recover his breath and curse his aching body.

There was a yip and somehow Fiend scrambled out of the infintely deep pocket he’d been deposited in.

Jacques stared at him, and had a desperate thought.

“Hat, boy! Go find my hat!”

Fiend yipped again, and galloped off, dodging between legs, feet, flailing cudgels, and swinging swords.

Jacques pulled a long, purple handled knife from a pocket, and almost prayed. Almost.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho was caught by surprise as a wall of stone tendrils rose from seemingly nowhere. He could not avoid the impact as he slammed into them with the full force of his leap. He barely was able to twist around such that he slammed into the tendrils shoulder first. His landing was far from graceful as he disproved the myth that cats always landed on their feet. He groggily got to his feet and rumbled a growl.

[Grumhog]

Grumhog smiled as the stone tendrils sank back into the ground at his feet. Thorgovash served him now.

He drew his knife, and then choked on air as the ground shook beneath him.

Three men were consumed in an explosion of earth to one side, their screams brief and ill-formed. Two more men disappeared as the ground beneath them sank with shocking speed.

Grumhog screamed, “Voel!!! Damn it!”

[narration]

Beneath the earth, the Voel burrowed its way back to hunt more wolf-men. The going was tough for there were strange growths here, long like tree roots but hard as rock. They tasted strange.

Best to stick to a diet of wolf-men. He could feel them dissolving beneath his skin as he rolled through the rough dirt, seeking more of their friends.

[above ground]

From the trees came six horses, saddled and ready. On one of them sat Brendan, a woman clutching precariously to his waist. He smiled as he rode and waved madly with one free hand.

“Get away from the stone circle!” he shouted as he neared, then dismounted and drew his short sword. None of the wolfmen came near him, so he began leading the horses through the fighting.

[Thomis]

Whatever it was that Grumhog cursed – “Voel?” – it seemed to focus its efforts on their attackers, thankfully. He ached in several places from blows that had met their mark without his realizing it; no time to think much about minor injuries – as long as it wasn’t crippling, Thomis continued to move his sword smoothly through the air, through flesh. Only a small part of his mind registered the arrival of Brendan, but enough to understand the command. Slowly, he maneuvered himself away from the circle of stones that had held the others in place.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn had managed to get off a second bolt before she found the crossbow as a more useful, though awkward, cudgel. The wood cracked as the crossbow impacted against one of the wolfmen – giving her just enough time to dodge and follow Thomis away from the stone circle.

[Keir]

What he lacked in power Keir made up for in speed and agility and he had wounded several wolfmen while guarding Laurelyn’s back. Following her now, he darted past the stunned wolfman and scored his side with the borrowed blade for good measure. “Right behind you mistress!” he cried out, suddenly looking forward to being aboard a horse.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho could feel a sharp stinging pain in his shoulder that was getting worse by the minute. He knew he would not be able to keep up a decent pace for any length of time. He noticed the others getting to some horses. He bounded over with considerable pain and leaped up towards the horse. He changed to human form in mid air and landed with an unceremonious thump in the saddle grimacing in pain.

[Daron]

Daron retrieved her daggers from the corpses and tucked her blades into their respective sheaths. As she climbed aboard Falcon, the artist’s green eyes scanned the confusion, noting that her party was in the process of either mounting or readying their steeds for flight from this cursed place.

Her breath caught in her throat when she saw Rudolpho’s pained expression as he leapt onto his horse. By the Maker! I hope it’s not too bad! she thought, worried for the boy who she’d come to adopt as a younger sibling. Falcon responded to her mistress’ unease by snorting and whickering.

:::Steady, girl::: Daron “sent” to her mare. :::We’ll be out of here soon enough!::: The mare whinneyed in response as if to say, “Not soon enough for me!”.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn had no doubt which horse to head for – Beast was soundly kicking a wolf man in the gut, while snapping at another one who had stumbled too close. Fortunately they were too busy trying to get away from the horror – a rather helpful horror right now – that bucked beneath the soil to turn against the horse. Before she swung up into the saddle the storyteller dropped the crossbow and offered Keir her hand.

“Will you ride with me, Master Keir?” she asked.

[Keir]

“Yes?” he answered, hesitating a moment before extending his hand and allowing Laurelyn to pull him up behind her. The first thing he noticed was how hard and lumpy a horse was. As he squirmed around to get more comfortable he also noticed how far off the ground he was. Closing his eyes he decided to concentrate on hanging on to Laurelyn.

[Thomis]

Bleeding from half a dozen places, Thomis hauled himself into his saddle, but kept his sword drawn. “Just hold on to her tight,” he said with a quick grin to Keir, “and if you fall, try to stay away from the hooves.”

[Laurelyn]

Once aboard Beast Laurelyn took a quick head count to make sure all of her party was aboard horses and pulling back from the circle. She called over her shoulder, “Thank you Mr. Brendan for your timely arrival. I’m glad to see you’re not dead.”

[Brendan]

Brendan led the charge, the lithe young woman clutching tightly to his midriff. His horse, a good sized creature, knocked over wolfmen as if they were rag dolls as it made a straight line from the stone circle. When they had cleared the howling bandits, Brendan glanced back. The two bonfires were strewn everywhere and the fire seemed to be dying, unable to thrive in the clammy dampness that had descended on the area.

The earth rumbled loudly as the Voel burrowed its way through the dirt, sucking down wolfmen as it did.

In the firelight, Grumhog appeared in the center of the circle, his arms spread wide. His voice carried across the clearing as he began chanting- chanting some ancient tongue to invoke the spirits that lived here.

Brendan wheeled his horse around sharply, noting the gasp that it drew from his passenger. He pointed.

“Damn!” he swore, looking for a moment as if undecided. “We’re going to have to kill him. He’s calling his Rabbit-rash god to kill us…”

Silently he measured the distance they had already covered, and frowned. Absent mindedly he patted his passenger’s hand, not knowing who it was that was being soothed by the action.

He looked around for a bow. He knew he’d forgotten to pack something.

[Jacques]

Jacques groaned, and rubbed at his sore arm. And leg. And back. And head.

He stood a little gingerly, and looked around at the horses Brendan had brought – seeking his shaggy pony. Then what Brendan had said began to sink in.

“I’ve had about all I can take of this Hogwash!” he cursed, and fumbled at his pockets.

From the distance came a yipping and growling, and Jacques focused momentarily on Fiend who was dragging something after him from the other side of Grumhog. It was a hat. But it wasn’t a brightly coloured, tri-pointed jester hat replete with bells. It was a dark, wide brimmed hat that scraped across the dirt dejectedly.

“Dammit! Wrong hat you stupid animal!”

Fiend yipped, and dropped the hat, then scurried towards Grumhog, still growling. Even despite his wound, Fiend moved rapidly over the short distance between him and the bandit leader. And then bit. Hard. On an ankle, to be sure, but it was a firm bite, and he began worrying the flesh back and forth between his small jaws.

[Thomis]

The Oath-bound watched in something akin to astonishment as the puppy, growling and yipping, dove at their chief nemesis and sank his teeth firmly into the man’s flesh. And under his breath, both cheered on the small animal, and prayed for its safety.

[narration]

Grumhog’s chanting stopped as he became aware of pain in his left ankle, and he looked down expecting an arrow.

A puppy?

His moment of confusion lasted seconds. Then he screamed.

“Aaaaaaagagaakkkkkkkkaaaahhhh!”

This was not the scream of a man with a puppy on his ankle. This was the scream of a man whose arms had just turned into tentacles and upper body had become a huge green bulbous mass.

Brendan’s jaw dropped.

“Dear God.” he breathed, unable to believe his eyes, “That looks just like Grumhog’s pictures of Thorgovash…”

He watched, fixated, as Grumhog changed further, his lower body turning green and oily, and expanding outward. There wasn’t enough time to sort out the complex array of emotions and gut churnings that assaulted him, so his brashness took an executive role.

Taking time to lower his passenger to the ground, he spurred his horse back towards the wolfmen and their half-human leader.

After all, he consoled himself, someone had to rescue Jepardi.

[Daron]

“Damn, damn, and double damn!” Daron shouted, turning her horse towards the commotion. Bile rose in her throat at the sight before her disbelieving eyes. Two daggers were in her hands without conscious thought. Maker, give my blades true aim against this demon! Daron prayed silently.

She threw the blades at the green slimy horror, hoping to hit a vital area on the abomination without harming either Jepardi or his horse-riding rescuer…

[narration]

The two spinning blades flashed past Brendan’s ear as he charged into the fray, making his gasp indignantly. Someone was taking chances with his life. One of the daggers landed in the throat of a wolfman who had moved into Brendan’s path – he quickly became just another hurdle. The other dagger struck true, hitting Grumhog with a satisfying sucking noise.

Unfortunately, the huge green tentacled thing failed to register the blow, and continued it’s growth. If Krakens could have lived above ground, this surely was one. It now stood at approximately six feet tall, and its tentacles seemed to stretch the whole diameter of the cursed circle.

[Fiend]

Letting out a startled yelp, Fiend backed off warily, then turned and bolted for the nearest bush. There he set up a resolute growling, interspersed with the occassional half-hearted bark.

[Jacques]

“You know,” said Jacques as he finished fumbling in his pockets. “There has got to be an easier way to make a living.”

In his hands was an odd collection of folded metal pipes and wood, which he began twisting and turning in arcane and not entirely correct ways.

“It’d also be good if I had my hat!” he called over to the noisy pup.

“Last time I ask you for anything!”

Then the bizarre contraption was complete. It was a crossbow, of a kind. If something a ridiculous four feet long and about eight narrow inches in width at the bow could be termed a crossbow. Jacques placed it quickly on the ground and lifted the front end onto a small tripod that had somehow folded out of the base. Then, pulling an obscenely long bolt from another pocket and slipping it into place, he grinned.

“Incoming!”

The bolt left the bow with a deafening crack, and hurtled through the air with a piercing screech, spinning around its axis, to vanish into the green mass that had been Grumhog.

[narration]

Some sort of giant belching noise issued forth from the creature, perhaps a roar of pain, perhaps just a belch. Brendan thought it must be a belch… the stench that the thing exuded was threatening to overpower him as he fought his way towards the bush where Jepardi lay in hiding.

He did not see the tentacle that lashed out and grabbed onto his leg. All he knew was that he suddenly saw nothing but dirt as it began dragging him backwards.

”!” he swore.

[Thomis]

Thomis felt an impulse to urge the rest of their party to turn tail and ride from the scene as quickly as possible. But from the look of things, no one was inclined to do so. Nor was his horse particularly willing to ride back towards the many-armed creature that pulled Brendan closer and closer to its mouth. Tossing the reins down, he slid from his saddle again and quickly crossed the ground towards the young man. And starting hacking away.

[Jacques]

Jacques sighed. Well it had worked for another joker, albeit under slightly different circumstances. He glared at Fiend who was still growling from a bush, and sighed. There wasn’t much he could do now without his hat.

Certainly, trying to attack the thing with a knife seemed like a particularly unpleasant way to die. Even if Thomis did seem to think otherwise.

Jacques shrugged and pushed his knife back into a pocket. Grateful as he was to both Thomis and Brendan, there was never a cause good enough to throw away your life. He began dismantling the crossbow, and whistled a morbid little ditty he’d picked up somewhere. It seemed appropriate. Fiend stopped growling and slunk back into the bush, whining sadly.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn watched in horror as Thomis moved in to attack the flailing monster, and as Brendan was grapped by a tendril. She slipped from Beast and handed Keir the reins. “Just hang onto the saddle pommel,” she told him, “Beast has the sense to get you out of here.” She had to give the horse that – she didn’t bolt with a rider on her back.

She grabbed up a crude sword from one of the downed wolfmen and ran near one of the bonfires. From a stack of wood she grabbed a piece – setting it a alight. Then Laurelyn ran to Brendan and thrust the burning wood towards the tendril. The sword she had jammed into her belt so that she could have a free hand, which she held out to Brendan.

As she worked she tried to stay aware of Grumhog’s other tendrils.

[Brendan]

Brendan had kicked and struggled to no avail, and could only watch helplessly as Laurelyn tried to free him. As soon as the flame touched the tentacle, it jerked, then began loosening it’s grip on his leg. He gasped, realising he must be saved – but as he looked up to thank Laurelyn, he felt the tentacle rip free.

“Look out!” he cried, clutching vainly for her leg.

The tentacle whipped through the air, striking for the source of the fire. Behind Laurelyn, he saw two more fat, green tentacles spasmically inching their way towards her.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho sat clutching his shoulder in pain. It seemed to be getting more intense the more he sat there. He saw the trouble that first the young pup got himself into and then Brendan followed suit. As he decided what to do, he saw Laurelyn attack the beast with a burning branch and the effect it had on the monster. Pain or no pain I have to help. They need me. He withdrew a feather from his pouch and shifted into his hawk form. Rudolpho took to the air, circled, and found what he was looking for. He noticed a lantern lying unused in the camp. Swooping down he carried it aloft to a point above the monster’s head. He hurled it down so that it broke and spilled all its oil all over the creature’s head. Hopefully they would take the hint. He screamed to draw their attention to the oil.

[Pierre]

From the bushes where he had hidden himself as soon as the entire mess began, Pierre watched the scene with an almost sickening fascination. He knew he should do something; something more than just crouching here hiding from view.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn’s attention was torn between the incoming tentacle and Rudolpho’s screech, followed by the cracking of a lantern on Grumhog’s “head.”

She threw her torch towards the oil, and grabbed hold of one of Brendan’s flailing arms. All she could hope to do is try to pull him; she clasped his arm with one hand and held onto her sword with her other one.

[narration]

The tentacle whipped upwards urgently, skimming past Laurelyn’s head by inches. Above her, the bulbous mass of the beast glowed slowly orange in the night, the oil barely managing to burn on the creature’s gelatinous surface. Still, it appeared to be feeling some sort of pain, for its tentacles twitched and thrust upwards vainly to extinguish the flames. Its silence made the scene almost comical, but Brendan did not see the humor.

Grabbing onto Laurelyn’s arm, he hauled himself up and almost dragged her after him as he began sprinting for the bushes where Jepardi lay. He scooped the pup up with one hand, wincing slightly as it bit and scratched at him. Perhaps it didn’t recognise him.

He looked around, and then he felt the earth rumble.

“Voel!” he cried, and looked around nervously. “Stay back!” he yelled to the others.

[Vels and Pondra]

Pondra grabbed Vels out of the way of a fuming wolfman and struck at the beast with his hammer. It slumped to the ground in a silent heap.

“Get to the horses!” he ordered the healer.

Vels looked around for a second, uncertain in the midst of this mayhem, but eventually found his footing on the broken earth and ran for the horses.

Pondra looked around, ready, but there were no more wolf men. He could not believe it. When he looked around once more, he saw something strange bulging in the side of Grumhog’s bulbous green body. A hairy arm. Bile rose in his stomach as he realised what had happened… Grumhog was feeding off of his own men.

[Thomis]

Once Brendan was free, and both he and Laurelyn had sprinted away from Grumhog the Many-Armed, Thomis skidded back away from the seeking tentacles towards the horses. “Certainly,” he agreed, pulling himself back into his saddle and moving closer to Beast in the hopes of reassuring Keir, who obviously did not relish being atop the bay hunter alone.

[Pierre]

Pierre nervously stood up, hoping that he wouldn’t attract the attention of Grumhog. He didn’t appear to have noticed him before, and Pierre liked keeping it that way.

I’m just scared, he thought with a sickening feeling in his gut. Before, he had never realized it. In fact, he had rather thought himself somewhat cocky. After all, he was able to walk in the streets at night without fear. Scared. I couldn’t do anything! Silently cursing his own fear, he walked carefully over to the horses, which included his own.

Or rather, was supposed to include his own. However, she had always been a fiesty little devil, and had apparently ran away in the mess. Not that he blamed her. If he hadn’t felt such fear, he would have run away. Well, the fear and the determination to see Ana also aided in his decision to stay.

Pierre stood, confused. He couldn’t just ask for a ride; that would be rude, and besides, what had he done to deserve one? Perhaps, he thought, he could walk. It would be a stretch, but not entirely impossible, if the horses went slow enough.

[Keir]

Ever since Laurelyn had left Keir had been faced with problems. How he was supposed to hold the reins and hang on at the same time was a quandry he finally solved, somewhat, by holding the leather straps in one hand and grabbing the saddle as best he could. What this “pommel” was he didn’t know and the only thing on the saddle that looked like it was made for holding was too far forward for him to reach. There wasn’t much for a secure grip on the back of the slippery leather saddle either and since his legs were too short to wrap around Beast’s broad haunches he found himself sliding dangerously with each step the horse made. He was very relieved to see Thomis and took the opportunity to half-slide, half-swing down to the ground using the reins. “Master Thomis, would you hold Mistress Laurelyn’s pommel for me while I go help?”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn kept a grip on the sword and began to inch her way back towards the horses – much as she’d like to go quickly she prefered to push brush away from her. She had no desire to get scratched by the deadly thorns. “What – by the Hells – is happening?” she asked Brendan.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolph flew back to where the others were gathered with effort. In this form he could use the limb, but that didn’t prevent it from hurting. It seemed to be fine anytime he needed to do something. It must be adrenaline. If I don’t do something soon I might go into shock. He flew in for a landing and perched atop the pommel of the horse he was to ride. They would probably be riding soon and he wanted to be in position for a quick change.

[Pondra]

Pondra made it back to the horses slowly, his mouth still agape. The earth shuddered, and all the horses stumbled, their riders struggling to keep balanced.

“He ate his … own men…” he breathed, remembering the sight of a half digested arm…

[Brendan]

“Snap out of it, man!” Brendan shouted to Pondra as he and Laurelyn reached the horses. He mounted his and helped his terrified companion onto the horse behind him. The young woman clutched tightly to his waist. “Look!” he pointed.

Grumhog had moved, his giant green body dragging itself quickly and powerfully across the damp earth. Bodies disappeared beneath it with a disgusting sucking sound. It made a clear path towards the horses.

Behind it, the earth erupted. The huge fetid mass of the Voel lifted itself into the air, parts of the stone circle breaking in its maw. Stone tendrils shuddered as they were snapped or digested instantly, then the earth shook as the massive worm collapsed to the ground.

Brendan looked at the others. “Are we going to watch?”

[Jacques]

“Sure,” said Jacques lightly. “There’s no point in havin’ a show without an audience now is there?” He dug into his pockets, and pulled out a small bag containing a curious, puffy, yellow-white confectionary. Taking a fistful, he chewed meditatively.

“Never could get the recipe right,” he sighed and tipped the bag onto the ground. His eyes flicked back to the ensuing battle that promised to be quite a spectacle.

[Pierre]

Pierre gulped. “Truth be told,” he whispered. “I’d really rather not.” He closed his eyes, and let a feeling of sickness wash over him. “I’d like to leave, please. But if you’d rather stay and watch, I can understand that.” He gave them a weak smile.

[Fiend]

Fiend scambled out of Brendan’s hands and jumped indignantly to the ground. There he turned towards Grumhog and the Voel, and barked a couple of times for good measure.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn swung back aboard a restive Beast. “I would heartily suggest we find a better place to observe,” she recommended. “Master Keir,” she said, shifting to offer the healer a hand up, “Want back aboard?”

[narration]

As Laurelyn spoke, the ground shuddered and heaved with the straining sounds of two leviathans hauling themselves across the raw earth. There was an incredible grinding noise, and a sucking sound, then only the rough dragging of one huge body.

Brendan and his companion, now mounted, glanced back.

The Voel was gone. Grumhog’s massive green body had grown, and still gained ground on the party, a vague smell of rotting flesh engulfing them from the twenty foot gap that separated them.

“Quick!” yelled Brendan, “we must flee!”. He spurred his horse and headed for the encampment.

[Keir]

Keir’s indecision was brief and with Brendan’s shout he took her hand and vaulted himself up behind Laurelyn. “Ready mistress.” he cried, grabbing her sides and wishing his arms were long enough to wrap around her.

[Laurelyn]

“Hold onto my tunic,” Laurelyn urged, before spurring Beast forward.

[Daron]

No kidding! Daron thought sourly, What was your first clue? She clenched her jaw to prevent losing what little remained in her stomach.

There was no need to prod Falcon into moving towards safety. Right behind you, Brendan… she thought as the mare swiftly galloped through the opening in the trees. Both rider and horse narrowly avoided the treacherous thorn bushes. Maker help us all! she prayed silently.

[Pierre]

“Oh, damn!” Pierre spoke in a sort of language he had never used before. He began panicking, running away from Grumhog as fast he could.

We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho was torn between flying off and leaving the horse or riding it to safety so it wouldn’t spook, when he saw Pierre panicking. I have to help him. I have never used that feather before but I have to try it. He concentrated on the feather that his father had passed down to him. Affecting the change, to his surprise, he began to grow.. It was a Roc feather! He sprang to the air before he grew too heavy and gained altitude. When he had reached full size he tucked his wings and dove. Swooping down, he grabbed Pierre gently by the shoulders and took to the air. He could feel a twinge every time he flapped his wings but pressed on. Getting to where the horse he had perched on just a moment ago was, he deposited Pierre on it and squawked at him. He hoped Pierre wouldn’t freeze up and slip off the horse.

[Pierre]

Pierre’s knees closed tightly on the horse’s flank, mainly because he was still panicking. He forced himself to gain control of the horse…at least, as best he could. No use having both of them panic.

Pierre whispered a note of thanks to his mother for forcing him to take riding lessons when he was younger, even though he had hated them.

[Thomis]

At this point, there didn’t seem to be much else to do besides ride, and as quickly as possible, away from the pursuing … Grumhog. Rudolpho having tended to Pierre, and Laurelyn to Keir, Thomis swept his eyes over the area once more … and saw the puppy still scampering back and forth yapping and flashing his little puppy teeth at the monstrosity. “Tremble in fear,” Thomis murmured, “when you gaze upon my mighty fangs.” Then realized that he might want to do something more useful for the pup than supplying dialogue.

[Jacques]

Walking over to his shaggy white pony, Jacques muttered to himself. Some performance that had been. You’d have expected something as big and repulsive as this “voel” would actually put up a better fight than that.

He pulled himself up onto the animal that was snorting worriedly.

“And what’s your problem?” he asked it. “Anybody’d think you ain’t seen anything worse.”

Fiend stopped growling at Grumhog and turned to whine disappointedly at Jacques.

“You got any better ideas?” Jacques asked. “I’m too old to die now, boy. ‘Specially buried in something like that. Now if you’d found my damn hat…”

Grumhog was oozing its way closer, and Jacques realised that the time for arguing with animals was long over. He nudged the pony over to the pup, hopped off to grab Fiend tightly, and then climbed back on as quickly as he could.

The pony snorted, and turned to run without any prompting.

[narration]

Brendan looked back, dismayed. It appeared that no matter how fast the horses ran, Grumhog matched it. The giant beast seemed more than capable of hauling itself over the earth with its massive tentacles. Ahead, the forest posed a formidable ally, assuming there were no more deadly bushes to worry about. It was difficult to imagine Grumhog travelling through the dense trees with any amount of success.

As Brendan craned his neck to look back, the ground beneath the party’s horses trembled and shook. The horses whinnied in fear as they nearly lost their footing – the ground splitting and heaving around them. Then with startling ferocity, a pillar of dirt and stone shot up into the air behind the last of the horses, obscuring Grumhog from sight.

As the haze settled in the dim firelight, and silence filled the clearing, a shape became visible.

Large and steaming – bleeding brown ooze in a dozen places – the Voel lay heaving in the dirt. Through it’s translucent flesh, green tentacles twitched slowly like a bug dying in a jar. The sounds of slow digestion gurgled through the night air.

Brendan smiled. His companion’s young faced stared wide eyed in silence over his shoulder.

“Come.” he said at last, gesturing to the others, “I will lead you back to a safe road.” With that, he wheeled his horse around and rode into the trees.

[Pierre]

“What,” Pierre whispered,trying to catch his breath, “just happened there?”

[Vels]

Tearing his eyes away from the gruesome sight of the Voel, Vels turned.

“That…. was Brendan’s friend.” He shuddered, and grimaced as he thought of green tentacles dissolving slowly within the Voel’s body.

“They both were…” Pondra added silently.

[Jacques]

“Man’s got some damn strange friends,” muttered Jacques in return. But then, at least the man had friends. He sighed and muttered something incomprehensibly vulgar under his breath.

“Damn it, can’t we stay and watch the show?”

His head felt distinctly cold as the pony turned with a snort of derision and followed the others. The next priority was going to have to be getting his hat back.

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bevinflannery

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