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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 14 - An Even Greater Threat.
Qaim not only stopped short when he returned to the chamber, but his actions also caused their opponent to react as well. As soon as the creature saw someone else enter the atrium, it instinctively started backing down the passage it was in, since it was unsure if this was a precursor to something else happening. Apparently it decided a partial withdrawal would be the most prudent course of action to follow, rather than taking the chance this might lead to a confrontation. It had obviously calculated the sudden burst of activity might be the prelude to an attack, so it made a hasty retreat.
“Qaim, was that the correct tunnel?” Rhys asked once he regained his composure.
“Qaim can take you this way,” the aignx announced without taking his eyes off of the beast. He was still afraid the creature would come charging back into the chamber to attack them at any moment.
“Good. Let’s get going then,” the Akiktite responded.
Everyone turned to leave, but before they could get very far, the troll’s pet forced its head back through the opening again. However, it didn’t stop there. Gradually, it worked even more of its massive frame into the chamber, which made it extremely difficult for the group to do what they had planned.
Although the creature was obviously still leery of the intruders, it wasn’t because it had discovered what they had done to Bilgy. The noise the companions had heard earlier was merely Srejan’s attempt to help locate its master. Since there were so many tunnels in this underground labyrinth and the creature couldn’t find Bilgy where it expected him to be, it cried out hoping its master would respond. When the troll didn’t acknowledge his pet's summons and let it know where he was, Srejan panicked. It had actually come to this spot expecting it might discover the troll here. It still didn’t realize Bilgy was dead and his body was lying in another chamber, which was located at the other end of the tunnel that stretched behind the warriors.
Finding itself in this unusual situation, Srejan wasn’t sure what to do next. It hardly ever saw anyone besides its master in these tunnels and, therefore, wasn’t sure why any of these beings were here. It had a feeling they weren’t friends, since they had displayed their weapons to it, but it wasn’t about to attack so many without good reason or provocation.
Neither side was ready to initiate a confrontation just yet, so they stood eyeing each other for several more minutes. Finally, Srejan decided it had stayed there long enough and wanted to take off so it could find Bilgy. Cautiously, it began backing up yet again, but this time it continued going in reverse until it completely disappeared from view. At last, the companions had their opportunity to get away.
“Qaim, get us out of here now!” Rhys commanded. “I’ll follow at the rear of the formation; just in case that thing comes back looking for us.”
“I’ll stay behind with you,” Hadwin announced, in order to ensure the Akiktite wouldn’t have to handle that monstrous being alone.
The aignx immediately turned and began moving down the tunnel he’d just returned through. The rest of their little group followed closely behind, but they had only traveled a couple hundred meters down this shaft, when they heard a truly agonizing shriek, much louder than the previous cries from the creature.
“What was that?” Kieren asked, both shocked and curious about the earsplitting noise.
“Methinks that wail meaneth the creature hath just discovered what we did to its friend and master,” replied Turquinine. “We must continue with all haste, before it catcheth up to us. It will surely wisheth to do battle with us now.”
The Mitikuan was correct. Srejan had just discovered Bilgy’s lifeless form and audibly released its anguish over what had happened. Not only that, but Srejan had also concluded that the group it had just run across must be the ones who had done this dastardly deed.
Without saying another word, Qaim bolted down the tunnel again, with the others in hot pursuit. As they sped along the corridor, Kieren pulled his arms within the folds of his robe and completely disappeared from view.
As they raced forward, it didn’t take long before Kieren discovered that his robe was hindering his ability to run. It had been fine when he was walking, but the clasps at the bottom of the garment where now limiting the length of the strides he could take and, therefore, slowing him down as he ran. In order to keep up with the others, he was forced to attempt to unfasten a couple of the clasps nearest to the hem, so he could move more quickly.
As he reached down and fumbled with the fasteners at the bottom of his robe, he realized this was going to be nearly impossible to do while running at the same time. In order to relieve his frustration, because this was taking much too long, Kieren moved off to the side and slowed down even more, until he was able to successfully accomplish this feat.
It seemed as if it took an eternity before the second of these clasps came free, but eventually it did, so now he was able to move more freely. Satisfied, Kieren started off again and had probably gone another fifty meters or so when he decided to peek over his shoulder and assess his current situation. When he did, he was shocked to discover that none of the warriors were behind him any longer. That’s when he realized that because he had been invisible when he slowed down to adjust the clasps on his robe, the warriors must have unwittingly passed him by.
After coming to this conclusion, Kieren turned on a sudden burst of speed, in an effort to get back to his proper place in the formation. Scanning the tunnel in front of him, he was surprised to see how much of a gap there was between him and the warriors now. Kieren didn’t think it was possible the others could have gotten that far ahead of him, but it must have taken him longer to solve his problem than he thought. It was also likely that he had slowed down a bit more when he looked over his shoulder and discovered he was at the rear of the group. However, he now determined that no matter what had caused the problem, he had to correct the situation.
After a minute or so of this frantic chase, Kieren began to grow concerned that he was not closing the gap quickly enough. The others were also scurrying along at a very brisk pace, which made it even more difficult for him to overtake them. He was focusing on this situation when he was distracted by noises emanating from somewhere behind him.
Kieren quickly decided it wouldn’t be wise to stop and investigate this disturbance, because he didn’t want to slow down again and let the gap grow even larger. Instead, he listened intently, to see if he could figure out what the noise was. At first he thought it sounded as if a strong wind was intermittently forcing its way through a narrow opening, but it turned out that it wasn’t the only sound he heard. Kieren also noticed a series of tapping sounds, which reminded him of a prolonged and energetic drum roll, and it seemed to be accompanying the windy sounds. This baffled him, because he couldn’t think of any rational explanation for either of these sounds, let alone be able to come up with a reason for them to appear in combination.
Eventually, he couldn’t stand the suspense and uncertainty any longer, so he glanced over his shoulder to satisfy his curiosity. He felt he needed to discern the source of these disturbances and then judge what to do next. He had only just turned his head slightly when he discovered his worst nightmare had come true. Those sounds were coming from the monstrous creature and it was rapidly bearing down on his position.
The windy sound was apparently the result of the behemoth’s labored breathing and the tapping noises originated as its many legs hit the rocky floor. Instantly, Kieren was cognizant of the danger he was now in, so he tried to run even faster. No matter what he did, the creature still seemed to be gaining ground on him. After concluding the beast would soon overtake him, Kieren’s preservation instinct took over. In order to avoid being trampled by this raging beast, Kieren flattened his torso against the wall and took the chance it would merely rush past him and not unintentionally squish him against the rocky surface as it passed by. After all, he was still invisible.
It took the huge, worm-like creature only a few more seconds to reach his location and it forced Kieren to press his body as tightly as he could against the tunnel wall. If he didn’t do this, he would have been mowed over by the behemoth, since there was no way it would have been able to stop on such short notice, even if it had been able to see Kieren.
As the creature was going past, the teen was greatly concerned that its massive frame might still crush him against the sides of the tunnel. To make certain this didn’t happen; Kieren held his breath and did his best to melt into the stony surface. However, no matter how worried he was about being accidentally injured, Kieren still had enough composure to observe as much detail as he could about this new threat as it raced by. As he studied this anomaly, Kieren noticed that its many legs were churning rapidly and moving faster than Kieren expected they should be able to go.
Part of this incongruity might have been due to the fact that there now appeared to be more than just one pair of legs on each of its segments. Even though the legs looked too small and fragile to move such a massive body, Kieren concluded the large number of these appendages must have been making them seem to be moving faster than they actually were. He also decided that this large quantity of legs must also be necessary to offset their apparent lack of strength. However, he had no way of knowing this for certain.
Once the hulking beast had finally moved completely past him, Kieren stepped away from the wall. Almost immediately, he slipped and began to fall, which caused his left arm to drop downward. His hand quickly came into contact with the floor and kept him from ending up completely prone.
Before he could stand up again, the teen discovered that his hand was now resting in a pool of slime. Disgusted, he yanked his fist out of the substance as quickly as he could, while placing his right hand against the wall for balance. His right hand was still gripping the hilt of his weapon, so he couldn’t get a good hold on anything else, but the move did help support his weight and kept him upright. The problem was, this was only a temporary reprieve.
The arm holding the sword began to slip and slowly slid down the tunnel wall. Knowing he was falling again, Kieren jerked his body backward and slammed it against the stony surface, in order to keep upright, while he also shoved his right hand toward the floor. When his sword hit the rocky surface, it made a dull thud, but it kept him from falling over and gave him a chance to regain his balance.
As Kieren straightened up again, he tried to wipe off the goop that still covered his left hand. That was when he began to realize this might be the same substance they had examined earlier, when Qaim complained about his feet. As Kieren thought more about the slime, it dawned on him that the creature must be producing and spreading this substance as it traveled, which might explain how it moved its giant girth around. It must use this secretion as a lubricant, which helped it reduce the friction as its body slid along the tunnel floor. This allowed it to move its bulk about more easily and by using this process, its legs didn’t actually have to support the weight of its massive frame. They were only required to propel it forward.
As Kieren moved closer to the wall to keep from slipping in the slime again, he discovered a great deal of this substance was already coating the soles of his boots. It must have happened when he slipped and then tried to regain his balance. Although he could still keep going, he wasn’t able to move as quickly as he needed to, in order to catch up with his comrades. The gap between them had continued to widen considerably, and this disparity kept increasing as the seconds passed. It was becoming nearly impossible for him to overcome the distance separating him from the others, but even worse than that was the fact that the beast was now between them.
As he rounded yet another bend in the winding tunnel, Kieren caught sight of his former pursuer slipping down a side-shaft. Kieren wasn’t sure where the creature was going, but he decided he would continue traveling along the main tunnel and not follow the enormous beast. This was primarily due to the fact that Kieren didn’t want to deviate from his original course, since he suspected the others had remained on this same route as well, but it wasn’t his only consideration. Even though there was a chance he might have calculated incorrectly and his friends had indeed used that other corridor, he couldn’t see any advantage in remaining behind that hideous monster.
Over time, the slime worked its way off the soles of his boots, but in the process it had left a visible sign of his passing. The good thing was, once it was no longer adhering to his footwear, Kieren was able to pick up his pace once again. With renewed confidence, he sped forward for many minutes, as he continued to search for his companions.
While making his way forward, the teen began to notice an ever-increasing brightness ahead of him. At first, Kieren merely hoped this indicated his friends were nearby, but eventually he concluded he was seeing much more light than the torches the dwarfs had provided them could possibly generate. This meant the glow was coming from something else, although he wasn’t certain what that might be.
Kieren quickly calculated it might just be the glow from the torches in another of the lighted chambers where several tunnels converged together, like those in which they had first encountered both Bilgy and his pet. However, this might also indicate he was approaching the source of another potential threat. As he neared the lighted area, Kieren slowed down considerably, while making sure his robe was securely fastened around him. Once he was satisfied he couldn’t be seen, he cautiously moved forward to investigate.
As he drew closer to the area, Kieren was able to observe it was a chamber similar to the ones he had passed through earlier, but he could also hear the muffled sounds of voices coming from within. Since he wasn’t close enough to make out what was being said, he also couldn’t identify if it was a male or female speaker. Cautiously, he continued to keep inching his way forward, while straining to hear as much as he could. Finally, he was close enough to discern what the current speaker was saying.
“When was the last time you saw him?” the person asked. Kieren immediately assumed the speaker was asking about Bilgy.
“I think it was when he started down the tunnel,” another answered.
“Does anyone remember seeing him after that?” a new voice added.
There was no immediate reply, but Kieren had heard enough to determine his next move. Boldly, he passed through the opening and spoke.
“Just exactly what is it you wish to know?” he asked, without reservation.
The startled group looked frantically about and their heads snapped from side-to-side, as they tried to locate the source of this comment. Just when their frustration level was about to reach the breaking point, Kieren reached up and pulled back his hood, making himself visible again. His companions looked relieved by his sudden reappearance, but they were also more than a little annoyed that he had been playing such a childish joke on them.
“We do not have time for such games,” Hadwin chided him. “Although it was a wise move to use your robe to protect yourself, you shouldn’t have let us worry so long before letting us know you were still here.”
When he noticed how upset his friends were, Kieren felt he had to explain. As quickly as he could, he let them know they had inadvertently passed him by when he was trying to release the clasps on his robe and he had only just arrived in the chamber. He explained to them how they had gotten separated and how the creature had raced past him in the interim, before assuring them that he had not been intentionally trying to make them worry. Once they heard what had actually taken place, they began to barrage him with a series of questions.
“If the creature passed you, then how did you get by it again?” Alairic asked.
“What else happened to you while you were on your own?” Quintain demanded.
“Are you all right? Did that thing hurt you?” Garreth wanted to know.
“Doth thou knoweth where the creature be now?” Turquinine wondered.
These questions were coming at Kieren so quickly that he didn’t have time to answer any of them. He was trying to decide which question to respond to first and how much more he was going to tell them, when Hadwin made the decision for him.
“None of that matters right now. We must keep moving,” the Nardinian advised them. “It's more important that we continue to distance ourselves from that beast. We can discuss the details about what happened to Kieren while we were separated after we are far away from here. Qaim, we need you to take the lead again and show us which way we need to go to complete this mission.”
“Qaim take you. You follow Qaim,” their enigmatic little guide quickly informed them.
Before he could react though, their adversary’s head and first few body segments burst into the chamber, through one of the other tunnels.
“That damn thing must have been using this time to circle around us,” Rhys shouted.
“I think it’s time to eliminate this monstrosity, once and for all,” Sedain suggested.
The dwarf’s comment caused everyone to immediately extend his weapon in the creature’s direction. After seeing them do this, the behemoth began to back up slightly, but they could tell by how slowly it moved that it wasn’t about to leave as easily this time. In addition to that, most of them could tell from the way it had positioned itself and then swayed back and forth that it was intent on extracting a measure of revenge for what they had done to its friend and benefactor.
“Doth thou thinketh battling this creature be wise?” Turquinine wondered. “I doubt we hath the means to dispose of it.”
“He’s right,” Alairic concurred. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to defeat it no matter what we do. At best, we may be able to wound it and slow it down a bit.”
“Then that’s what we must do,” Hadwin countered, “since it continues to leave us no other choice. I think we should spread out across the chamber, with Kieren, Garreth and Qaim falling in behind the rest of us. Kieren, once we’ve engaged this thing, use your robe to conceal your presence again. It should be too busy with us to notice when you disappear. Are the rest of you ready?”
The others reluctantly agreed with the Nardinian’s suggestion and gave him their affirmative responses. Once he’d received these assurances from the others, they spread out across the floor of the chamber. Once each of them was in the proper position, Hadwin made the first move.
The Nardinian selected his opportunity when he saw the beast turn its head slightly, so it could see how the warriors were arranging themselves across the chamber. When it turned away from him, Hadwin made a bold assault at its head and struck it just behind the eye. The blow caused the creature to shriek out in pain and it now knew for certain that it was going to have to fight or retreat.
Wounded and angered, the creature swiveled about more quickly than the Nardinian anticipated. Srejan was now face-to-face with the warrior, just as Hadwin made a move to strike it a second time. The blow, which had been aimed at the side of the creature’s head, was now going toward the middle of its face instead. This meant the beast was able to see the attack coming this time, so it used one of the horny appendages located on either side of its mouth to clamp down on Hadwin’s right arm.
The rest of the warriors were momentarily stunned by this turn of events, but quickly regained their wits and joined in on the attack. Someone struck a blow that must have hurt the beast badly, but rather than let go of its captive, the pain it felt only caused it to tighten its vise-like grip on the Nardinian’s limb. That’s when everyone heard a very distinctive ‘snap’, just before Hadwin bellowed out in agony. His arm had definitely just been broken.
Turquinine made the next move, since he was intent on rescuing their companion. The knight was spurred on by the memories of what had happened to Selvaggio in the Murky Marshes, Doenilio in the Valley of the Dead and Romaric in the mountains. He didn’t want to stand idly by and lose another comrade-in-arms.
In an effort to prevent this from happening, Turquinine unleashed a powerful swipe at the monster’s side with his broad sword. This action cut off a large chunk of the animal’s flesh, while also severing one of its front limbs. Even though he was tempted to take a second to appreciate his recent success, the Mitikuan fought off the impulse and prepared to deliver another blow. He wanted to make certain he was able to strike it again, before the creature had time to react to this turn of events.
At the same time, Rhys thrust at the other side of the monster’s body and left a deep and lengthy gash along the side of its head, close to where it was attached to the next segment. These two wounds caused their adversary to release its grip on Hadwin, but the Nardinian’s relief was only momentary. Before Hadwin had a chance to get away, the behemoth lunged forward again, but this time it used both appendages beside its mouth to grasp the northern warrior around the waist.
“We’ve got to do something and quickly,” Rhys shouted, as he watched Hadwin’s desperate struggle to free himself.
Rhys and Turquinine now attacked their opponent with a renewed vengeance and stabbed, slashed and thrust repeatedly at its exposed body. Alairic, Quintain and Sedain were busy firing arrows and quarrels at the creature, but they had to do this very carefully, so they wouldn’t accidentally hit Hadwin in the process. No matter what they tried, however, this combined effort wasn’t nearly enough to cause the beast to release its grip on their friend.
“We’re going to need more than just metal blades and arrows to overcome this thing,” Alairic announced, even though neither he nor the others had any idea about what else they might do.
Watching the battle from behind their protectors, Kieren, Garreth and Qaim were shocked by this turn of events, especially when they saw Hadwin’s body go limp. It was fairly obvious Hadwin was now mortally injured, if not dead, but they also realized more of them might be lost if something wasn’t done quickly.
At that moment, Kieren had an idea and groped at his robe, as he tried to withdraw his medallion. After a brief struggle, his clasps gave way and he reached inside and extracted the large metallic disk. He positioned it carefully between his index fingers and thumbs, forming a fleshy triangle around it, as he had been taught to do.
Once he had done this, he stepped around the others and positioned himself so he had a clear view of the creature. Now that he was ready, he aimed it in the direction of the monstrous being and uttered a single-word command.
Instantly, a blinding burst of light erupted from the face of the golden insignia and slammed into the creature’s body. The shockwaves caused by the force of the impact hurled the others backward and sent them sprawling upon the floor, while the brilliance of the beam filled the room and left them all temporarily blinded.
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