Churning up underbrush and chewing through saplings, a four-limbed monstrosity burst forth from the swamp in hot pursuit of the moa. It looked like a chunk of hillside come to life. Like the earth itself had surged up, animated by some otherworldly force.
“Split!” Riss hollered, hoping that maybe if they cleared a path, it might just barrel past.
The creature towered over even the tallest moa Riss had ever seen, easily fifteen feet in height, with a sloped and hunched body construction and no discernible head in sight. Its limbs, which appeared to be crafted from boulders suspended in twisted roots and vines, were thick and blocky and asymmetrical, curved somewhat like the clawed forelimbs of a sloth. Jagged rocks were caught up in its body seemingly at random, grown into part of the mass of its torso and studding its joints. She was reminded of the tumor-riddled rats in Medao, the bane of every cheap inn on Entitlement weeks. The creature looked lumpy and diseased.
A wash of stink, the bottom of a freshly-dredged riverbed, rushed over them as it hurtled closer.
Riss threw a glance over her shoulder. Gaz and Vosk had actually managed to settle the moa down, which meant even if the creature ignored them, its prey was right there…
She didn’t have to tell the unit to ready up. Adal, Calay, and Gaz dove to the left side of the path, Adal already lifting his rifle. Torcha lurched in front of Riss, guns up, and there was no way in even her wildest dreams that the thing was going to let them carry on unimpeded. She gave the call to fire.
Adal and Torcha fired simultaneously. Torcha’s shot plowed straight into its center mass, sending needle-sharp shards of grey stone flying in all directions. Adal, despite being closer, merely winged it on one stony shoulder. The creature, surprised by the shots, stumbled back, and as it fell Riss whipped Vosk’s pistol from her belt. She stepped forward, providing covering fire while Torcha reloaded. For all the good covering fire from a pistol would do against a living heap of stone.
Gaz came charging up from the rear. He parked himself in front of Calay and Adal, axe up. A deep, terrible grinding sound–like being trapped in the heart of a building collapse–rumbled from the creature as it righted itself.
It rolled and leapt, meeting Gaz just as the big man settled in. It swiped a tree trunk-sized limb laterally, claws angled for Gaz’s middle, and Gaz swung to meet the blow, parrying it as best he could. The strength behind the swipe knocked him sideways into the mud. He rolled to his feet, took a hack at one of its woodiest-looking parts, but if the creature felt the axehead thwucking into it, it didn’t show.
That grinding rumble came again and this time the creature brought a forelimb down hard from above. Gaz sidestepped. A forearm-wide fist pummeled the ground beside Gaz’s boots. The impact shivered through Riss’ feet. One blow from that thing would likely crush a man, armor or not.
“Gunners,” she called, warning. “How we looking?”
Adal answered by firing. His shot went wide. His eyes were still fucked, weren’t they?
Growling through her teeth, Riss finished reloading Vosk’s sidearm and followed up after Torcha’s shot. Their shots blew chunks of its torso clean away, but that seemed to have no effect on its locomotion. Was it even alive? Could it even be killed? Riss considered these thoughts in mere split-second glimpses. None of that mattered while they were trying not to get splattered.
The creature bowled Gaz over with a sweep to the feet and pounced on Calay.
Snarling, unarmed, Calay hunkered down and tried to dodge its swiping arms. He slid low into the mud, then threw his duster aside. The creature slammed a claw toward him and this time the crazy bastard leaned into the blow. What was he doing? Trying to get eviscerated? Riss’ palms itched warily.
Calay had produced some sort of bone-bladed sword from nowhere and he caught the blow on the blade. Magick? The impact shook him, but he remained standing.
Torcha took the opportunity to blow a large chunk out of one of the creature’s back limbs. Rock shattered everywhere. She hooted victoriously.
Riss spied an opening. Tucking the pistol away, she readied her machete and rushed forward, eyeballing the creature’s vulnerable, viney structures. She went for the same leg Torcha did, ducking around the creature’s flank while it tangled with Calay and Gaz.
The machete bit in to a satisfying depth. Riss slashed at it a few times, and a length of vine snapped free. The creature’s leg shivered and shook. It rounded on her. Even if it couldn’t be killed, otherworldly construct or not, it could be dismembered.
“Adal!” Riss called. “Now would be an excellent time to stop fucking missing!”
Rather than a verbal reply, he responded by burying a shot in the creature’s chest. It spun sideways. Good enough.
Rushing around the beast to continue attacking the same limb, Riss caught a glimpse of something worrying: Gaz, down in the mud, on a knee, getting up too slow.
Calay, seeming to glimpse the cards in play at the same moment Riss did, parked himself between the creature and Gaz.
“Adalgis,” he called. “Pistol. Please. Please.”
They were crowding it now, moving in, tightening the noose. Riss could sense the momentum of the fight shifting–they were acting, not reacting. Enough firepower piled on quick enough could put it down for good, she hoped.
“Do it,” she ordered Adal. “He knows how quickly Torcha can put one in his friend if he steps out of line.”
And the time for talk was over. Riss and Torcha staggered their blows. The creature moved slower now. It swung wildly, aimlessly, no clear target discernible. Riss recognized that–it was thrashing like prey caught in a trap. One of its blows whiffed against the blade of her machete. She stumbled at the force of it, kept going. Small shots punctuated between Adal’s–Calay’s sidearm.
Gaz, back on his feet, adopted a similar strategy to hers. He slammed the full weight of his axe into one of its knee joints. Vines twisted and frayed and snapped. The creature rumbled–in anger, fear, pain, who knew–and teetered, as if on the verge of falling. Riss slashed at it one last time, caught the meat of a vine, and pulled with all her strength. The vine split and sprung, tension in it unwinding, and several boulders that composed the creature’s leg scattered to the ground like loose debris.
Its rumble turned to more of a howl as it slipped and slid in the mud, righting itself, scuttling like a crab. Its gait was an awkward lurch as it trundled down the path it had ripped through the underbrush, gradually gaining speed until it was full-on galloping away in retreat.
Breathing hard, Riss stared at the rocks it had dropped. Heavy, craggy grey things with sharp edges and a coating of fuzzy deep green moss. Now that they were disconnected from the bulk of the body, they were unremarkable.
Once she’d recovered her breath, Riss sheathed her machete and looked over the others.
She looked to Gaz first. Whatever damage he’d taken in the engagement, she hadn’t seen it happen. He stood fine enough at the moment, though he was doubled over and absolutely gasping with exertion, his face red and strained.
“I’m fine,” he wheezed when he caught her looking.
“Uh-huh.” She wasn’t buying it.
Calay stepped into the conversation.
“The… thing we did. It weakens the body. He’s not injured.”
Riss’ nose wrinkled in distaste. Whatever arcane ritual they’d engaged in, it appeared to have the side effect of some sort of vampirism. Calay looked much healthier than when they’d dragged him to the tent–to the point where he was even walking around at all. Gaz looked like he’d been caught flat-footed on the wrong end of a ten-mile march.
“And where the fuck did you get a sword?” Riss snapped. Calay had helped them drive the creature away. He hadn’t acted directly against them. But she still rankled at both the fact that he’d managed to slip a weapon past Adal and that he’d been so continually dishonest in the first place. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but someone was going to have to impose some order.
Beside her, her Second cleared his throat.
Adal had a certain way of looking at people, sometimes. His lips pursed just a tiny amount, then he sort of puffed his cheeks out. He thinned his mouth. His shoulders dropped a little. He looked that way at people when they said things he found stupid, and that was the look he was giving Riss now.
“What?” She smeared sweat off her brow, staring at him.
Calay drew his duster open. Slowly, she turned her stare off Adal and onto him.
From a distance, it had looked like he was holding a scimitar or cutlass with a bone-white blade. But she could see now that the bone appeared to growing out of his own body. Right at the elbow, where Calay’s arm had been severed, flesh seemed to be in the process of rearranging itself into the proper anatomy. However, tendrils of grey-brown bark twisted down the length of the bone, gnarled like arthritic fingers. The growth had no hand to speak of, just the sharp bone blade and the bark protrusions.
Riss gawked for a beat, unsure what to say, if it was worth saying anything at all.
“I don’t think it will stay like that,” Calay said as though that somehow helped.
“Does it hurt?” Morbid curiosity, despite her reservations.
“It’s strange,” Calay said. He rotated his arm, staring down the length of the growth. “It looks like it should hurt, doesn’t it. But I can’t feel a thing.”
On to other concerns, then. Riss couldn’t ponder that one too hard at the present moment.
“Everyone else all right?”
She took a quick visual inventory. Everybody was upright and uninjured. She’d half wondered whether Vosk would try to sprint away with the remaining moa, but he had stayed put, dutifully holding the bird’s tether. He must have known–quite truthfully–that Riss could hunt him down if he pulled a runner.
“Vosk, bring the bird up here.”
He did as ordered, awkwardly leading the moa up to the others with his hands still bound behind his back.
When Vosk snatched the bird’s lead, it let out an ungainly, peevish squawk. He wrestled with it for a moment, clearly struggling with his impaired grip, and finally Adal walked over and snatched the tether away from him.
Riss jolted in surprise when something answered the bird’s cry: the high, mournful whine of a dog from somewhere among the trees.
“Eight?” she asked, dumbfounded.
Corraling everyone, Gaz still somewhat labored in his steps, Riss surveyed the ground. She spotted traces of a faint trail through the skinny trees. Investigating the sound of a dog of all things seemed pointless, but at the moment, they didn’t have any better option. She’d been curious when Eight had run off, but now that it was evident things with Vosk were not as they appeared, that made a little more sense.
Fuck it, she couldn’t think of any better idea. The dog didn’t sound far off. Might as well have a look before they looped back toward camp with their remaining bird.