“Hand me the bow,” Maeven said quietly, just loud enough for those beneath the canopy to hear.
Mason reached down and picked up the weapon that had been leaning against the post of the structure and brought it over to Maeven.
“We’re exposed up here on this hill. What’er you gonna do?”
Miray came over following Mason and scrunched her eyes looking out into the rising smoke of the woods.
“There’s another one of those little men out there,” she pointed, “I can see him hiding.”
A gruff grunt came from the brush and Grum-Blud emerged from his erstwhile hiding place.
“And I see you too, little red-headed piglet,” he sneered wickedly.
“Spied me out, did you?!” he lunged forward in a kind of frog-hop at her, making her squeal and run back behind the legs of the others.
He grunted again, chortling in a nasty sort of way, rubbing his chubby hands furiously as if warming them.
“What do we have here?” he strutted mockingly before them, still keeping his distance, “Birds in a nest or rats in a briar?”
Maeven had an arrow drawn, the point tracking its impudent progress.
“Mustn’t bristle now…Storm Hawk, is it? And let’s see what other casts of fools are there with you, huh? An Innkeeper who forgot his place now. Keeping company in new digs are we? Too bad. Too bad. I doubt if you’ll get many offers for this new place you’ve got here. Such a nice little Inn the other was. Pity, it was burned to the ground.” And here his voice took on a lower guttural growl, “Burned like was done to my brother! You were warned, you old dotard! And who is that with you, hmm? You and your old sow and your very own piglet. Old enough now for the war that is soon coming isn’t he?”
Begglar bristled and gripped his staff, starting to move forward towards the vile creature.
“You will eat those words, frog-pod!”
“Oh, I think not,” Grum-Blud glared at him, his eyes blackening with hatred and rage, “It is you who will be eating a great many things, but nothing you have baked or cooked, dear dough-boy, baker. No, the things you will be eating is the quivering, bleeding pieces of your own flesh and blood. Bite by delicious bite.”
Grum-Blud had used the taunt to distract them from his hand easing back to clasp the throwing knives he had in his waistband. The words had infuriated Begglar, but Maeven’s gaze remained fixed and unwavering.
“Lay a hand on that knife, troll, and you will find an arrow piercing it,” Maeven said calmly in a low tone.
Grum-Blud’s darkening eyes shifted towards her.
“Wanna see and hear your own demons more clearly, dearie. I can make that happen for you. Just draw that shaft back slightly once more.”
They stood poised, each ready and waiting for the slightest movement.
Dellitch swooped over the treetops, gliding through a haze of rising smoke from the burning below. Once she and her captive cargo had cleared the taller trees and approached the clearing, they glided down into the glade in an area of dried grasses and thinning brush where The Pan held temporary court, upon a collection of granite stones half-buried in the ground forming an odd semi-circular formation.
The dryads had resolved into their feminine forms, passable as humans, however, their fair skin bore a greenish cast to it.
The golem, brought by the dryads, stood before The Pan, attempting to explain herself.
“But my Lord, it was not I who was to do this for you.”
It was clear The Pan was becoming agitated, his massive fists clenching and unclenching.
“It is not wise to play me for the fool, Sand-Sifter.”
If ever there were a more opportune time, it was now, Dellitch thought as she interjected, releasing the golem in her charge just fifty feet from the audience circle.
“My Lord Pan,” Dellitch called in a croaking voice, still raw from the smoke, “I believe this is the creature you were promised. It says it has a message for the Queen. Once again, these foolish dryads have failed to bring you what you asked for. Please honor your faithful servant and allow this one to commune with your In-Dwelling, if it so pleases your majesty.”
The dryads hissed their displeasure at the interruption and the slighting implication.
The Pan looked up and blindly scanned the area for the voice addressing him.
“Dellitch?” he growled, “You are late. How is it that you come to also have a golem under your charge?”
“A fortuitous happening, my liege. You asked for our assistance and we, of the feathered-kind, have delivered upon our word. It seems we, in just a few days, have come to know more of the goings-on within the forests of Kilrane than these Leaf-Twisters residing here for months who also purport to serve you. I would suspect they are either withholding their own subversive secrets or too oblivious, self-absorbed and naïve to be given the management of such forested lands.”
Here, she turned spreading her wing skyward toward the towering columns of black smoke darkening the sky, “Is that not considerable mismanagement I smell, burning upon the breeze?”
“Blasted hag! You know very well…!” an incensed dryad broke in, starting to lunge forward towards Dellitch, her body bristling with curling sweeps of thorns, but another held her back, gesturing towards The Pan, cautioning her not to overreact in his presence.
The Pan was silent and seemed to be quietly considering the import of Dellitch’s words, making the attendant dryads very nervous.
At last, The Pan spoke again.
“I was told that the golem meeting me would be one I would recognize. I have wondered upon what basis that would be since these eyes have not yet been restored.” And with that, he raised his head and gestured.
“Golem of Harpy Dellitch, what do you have to say to me that might cause such recognition? Speak.”
The golem that Dellitch released quietly stepped forward, entering the ring of stones, approaching The Pan seated upon one of the large monoliths.
It stood off to the left of the golem inhabited by Torlah who had been given the two death images and the half-image of O’Brian. As it stood, its own form and visage began to change as well. And when it finally spoke to The Pan, it did so with a voice The Pan recognized immediately, with a face The Pan would soon recognize once his eyesight had been restored.
For now, though, the familiar timbre and pitch of the golem’s alternate voice were enough to cause The Pan to rise up slowly and then to command the gathering to lead him to the sacred site where the restoration was prophesied to take place.
In the small community of Sorrow’s Gate, beyond the river and in the descending lands below the highland escarpment there was an old Inn and Tavern that had once, very long ago, served as a community meeting place in more convivial times before the coming of the Xarmnian oppression. The Inn was also a home and workplace to a generation of families, all of which were now long dead. The management of the Inn, known as Geruth Chimham, fell to the business partners of the late owner who had mysteriously disappeared approximately twenty-one years prior.
The new managers where local merchants of the town and prominent with the town of Sorrow’s Gate and in the towns of the surrounding communities. The amicable ambiance of the Inn was greatly lacking since few of the town’s residents ever ventured into the place after its prior owner had quitted it. Noadiah was sorely missed. She had brought all of the warmth and charm to the place, far more than the large central stone hearth or the bustling kitchen serving the local diners and travelers alike with warm comfort food, bright brimming pitchers of sweet-brown ale and large loaves of oven-fresh bread.
Since the coming of the Xarmnians who took up residence within its rooms, however, the locals gave the place a wide berth and shunned it for fear of its rougher and seedier clientele. Fights were common in the banqueting hall. Plate-ware was smashed, stools were broken, sconces were torn from the wall and only the sturdy benches and tables were preserved since they proved to be more unwieldy as weapons employed within a brawl.
The ale no longer bore its bright brown quality but was frequently watered down by rinse water from the kitchen to make it last longer. The food was often scorched and tough, the vegetables stale, the soups briny and thin. The lighting in the place was much darker, as many of the hung wall-lanterns been smashed over one or another patron’s head or back.
In the darker corner of the place, the present proprietor of the Inn sat brooding over his evening meal. The place had not been as profitable as it once was under Noadiah’s care, but the income from the Inn was just a sideline. He had other means of enrichment already in the works. Dealings with the new powers ruling this land.
The man’s name was Sanballat and he was presently occupied writing a letter. In fact, he had been writing several letters of late to some very powerful people in strategic places.
The letters had been quietly sent planting seeds of suspicion throughout the occupied lands and drawing the attention of military interests as well.
Few knew that he had dealings with the loyalists and with key leaders within the heart of the secret resistance. He’d served both sides at certain times, as the profitability of each venture presented itself. Fewer still knew where he’d originally come from, but some had often wondered since the name Sanballat was unusual and not at all common in the western part of the Mid-World.
If any within the resistance had known the meaning of his name, they might have much less reason to entrust him with anything, and they might even suspect where he had originally come from. A place that was at home within the darkness of the world among small ponds called “the 30 pieces of silver”. Each one a reflective pool within a dark deadened forest of blighted and twisted trees once called “The Holy Wood”. A place where the night ruled in perpetuity under the baleful light of a silvery moon.
And the man’s name, which was more of a title really, bore witness to that place, for in translation the literal meaning was “the moon-god gives life.” His former service as high priest to the ghost pools under the Trathorn Falls had ended when the backend passages had been sealed, and he was forced to find other work and a new “respectable” identity.
The black pool rituals were only intended to keep the mystical transformative waters flowing. The barrels of the waters sold to the Xarmnians was a mere sideline business. He had had no idea that mystical ritual revealed to him would summon such…otherworldly monsters.
“That kid!” Jeremiah struggled, trying not to say something worse and let his anger rule him again, “We should not have untied him.”
“He is full of fear and rage, that one,” said Captain Lorgray, “Too much trouble to deal with.”
“If I don’t survive this, Jeremiah, I need to tell you what I saw in that tree before you helped me down. That kid is going to run head-long into trouble whichever way he goes, but it is going to stir up more than just these Half-men.”
Jeremiah winced as we bore him up between us, moving as quickly up the trail as we could, following Jeremiah’s guidance.
“If you don’t survive, I doubt either one of us will either. Those satyrs will not relent until they have run us all to ground.”
“There is a Xarmnian encampment, not more than half a mile from here. I could see it off to the northeast, probably accessible along the road. Looks like they were positioned before the fire began. I think the men are in league with the Harpies, but it is hard to think that The Pan would sanction that. It distrusts the Xarmnians and the truce between them is at best tenuous.”
“The Eagle is aware of them,” Lorgray interjected, “Someone from within the resistance movement has a stake in stirring up conflict between them. We hear rumors that letters are reaching the area regents.”
“Something or someone very devious and well-connected is coordinating all this, causing these conflicts to converge. Mattox and I spoke of this. They want war and division. Somehow they mean to profit from it.”
That brought a moment of silence.
“There are factions within the underground who are threatened by the resurrection and restoration of Azragoth.” Lorgray added, “Nem and Erza are mocked and ridiculed by some as being subversives. It is getting harder these days to distinguish between friend and foe.”
“I suspect there is an agent of this chaos within Mattox’s company of guards. I was called to meet him, upon the field, but I think I was lured away from my post within the outer forest. Did I mention what I found when I saw Azragoth burning and rode to the hidden cache?” Jeremiah asked his voice lowering due to the graveness of the news.
“What did you find?” I asked.
“The cache and all of the hidden supplies were stolen. Moved out quickly, while I was conferring with General Mattox. When I went back in after our meeting, I was set upon by a band of roving satyrs. They have not been this bold in years. The presence of The Pan in these woods explains some of it, but they were not equipped to have stolen and carried out what all weaponry and supplies were kept there. They were meant to ambush me and kill me, I am certain. I was never meant to have survived the attack, much less returned to the cache and find it empty and the wagons kept there all gone.”
Lorgray rejoined, “The men of the lower country have lost their will to fight, and they used to be the ones we could rely on. Maeven has been a galvanizing symbol of courage among us, shaming some of the cowardice out of the reluctant men. Much like the biblical Deborah, she was as Storm Hawk leading The Lehi with the raids, but now…”
Jeremiah took up the thread, “Now that she travels with you on a Surface World stone quest, she leaves a vacuum of leadership in serving as that courageous symbol.”
“How much further?” I asked as we moved through the brush like a band of drunken revelers, trying to help a friend.
“Not much further now,” he assured us.
Lorgray looked over his shoulder and back down upon the firebreak we had hastily set ablaze.
“They’re through. They’re coming.”
Just ahead of us, emerging from the left side of the trail, tall twisted trees moved and separated from the brush.
Dryads. And a large, thick eleven-foot creature lumbered between them attended by a smaller group of satyrs and a black-feathered Harpy who Jeremiah and I also recognized too well. The Pan and his retinue had found The Faerie Fade and stood between us and those I had promised to give my life for.
But that was not the worst of it.
Two forms stood in their midst. One I recognized as Torlah and the other…
No. I shook my head. It was impossible. It could not be.
But Jeremiah said what I could not.
The Xarmnian encampment was alive with activity. Shields were being tested and readied. Blades honed and sharpened, issued to the men. They were in preparation for something much larger than guarding a band of wayward Surface Worlders.
A rider emerged from the woods and rode swiftly to the central enclosure.
“Captain Shihor, General Jahaza has taken the field. They are ready when you are.”
Shihor stood up, his battle gear fastened and pulled taut, his breastplate hammered and hardened, pressing his confidence into him even as it held his pride in check.
His armorers had done their job well.
“Take those prisoners on to Dornsdale. We will collect them from there on our victory ride back to Xarm City.”
“The fires have shifted to the east. The winds along the escarpment are dangerous. We cannot go too far into Kilrane without risking being cut-off.”
“Where ever Mattox has been hiding in there, he will, at last, be brought to account for his betrayal. If he is found among the living, when this is over, do not kill him. The Son of Xarm reserves that pleasure for himself.”
“It is fortuitous that all our enemies have been driven to this one place. What possibly could have lured The Pan away from his lands, I wonder?”
“Whatever it was, is fortuitous for us. I am sure the one who has been sending those letters will be handsomely rewarded for it. If we rule the day, which we most certainly will, that man will never have needs or wants for the rest of his days.”
“The Pan and his kind will be driven out soon. Jahaza and the army will greet them as they emerge. Something has baited him into it.”
“The travelers will come as well. Rats from the burning bushes.”
“Something is pulling our stones out of our treasuries. Exposing them to being taken by the other kingdoms. If it is not The Pan and some devilry, it must be those travelers who came from the oculus. Whatever power they are using to conjure those stones, it must be from those agents of chaos.”
“The Pan has a lot to answer for. He and his kind are in breach of the treaty. Have the trolls been sighted? Any word from them?”
“They have not been seen in weeks.”
“Could The Pan have killed them?”
“It is possible. They are infuriating but useful. If not for the latter, I would have killed them myself.”
“How much longer must we wait? The fires are gaining strength. Jahaza does not intend that we run into the inferno, merely to flush these creatures out. What news from the Harpies? Has Dellitch returned?”
“Still no word, but she should be returning soon.
“When she does, we can let Jahaza know it has begun.”
The shock of seeing Caleb standing there with The Pan was almost too much for me.
In my mind, I knew Caleb was dead but the illusion of seeing him alive again, wanting to see him among the living and wanting to be rid of the crushing guilt of his death almost made me surrender everything. It had to be a golem. Had to be. When we had confronted The Pan in the forest on the night of Caleb’s death and I fled, there had been no dragon present.
Jeremiah was stricken as well.
“It can’t be.”
The Pan stood behind Caleb and placed its large hand upon his shoulder.
“I sense others,” he rumbled, “Speak to them.”
“Hello, brother,” Caleb said, “It’s been a long time.”
The resemblance was uncanny. He was just as I had remembered him that fateful night. We were so stunned neither Jeremiah nor I could speak. After so many years, to hear his voice and see his face…
“And who is that with you?” the doppelganger of Caleb came towards us.
Captain Lorgray had taken up the crossbow from Jeremiah and he held the stock pressed into his shoulder aiming the arrow bolt, tracking his approach.
It was distressing to see the diamond-tipped bolt pointed toward the image of my lost friend, and I raised my arm to stay his pending lethal shot.
“Is this…?” the face of Caleb seemed bemused, as he studied me. Looking from my shocked stare to my upraised hand warding off Lorgray’s aim.
“I would never have believed you would be back. But here you are. Standing as if you had seen a ghost. What happened to you that night? They said you ran off, but I could not believe it. My friend Brian would stand and fight beside me. He would never run from a fight.”
“You cannot be…Caleb. Caleb is dead. Why do you mock us?”
“Mock you? Mock you. YOU LEFT ME TO BE SLAUGHTERED, MY FRIEND!”
The accusation stung.
“But you know what?” He paused, “You and I,…and my brother there… We were all wrong.”
Jeremiah spoke up, “You claim to be my brother, yet, as you see, it has been many years and time has aged us. Why should I believe you are who you say you are? You are unchanged.”
“My brother,” he shook his head, clicking his tongue in chastisement as if indulging an aging adult whom he had once admired but lost respect for. “Always the thinker. Always keeping your feelings in check. Removed from hot-blooded passion. So many years I lived in your shadow. Trying so hard to measure up. But there was no living up to you. I could never do it. I wanted your approval, and all I got for my efforts was your condescension. I could never be as dispassionate as you were. In control. And then I discovered your secret. You who carried that blasted stone that burned with an inner fire. Symbol of passion. You were, in fact, cold as stone. An opposite.”
Attempting to intercept this pointless shaming, I interjected, “What were we all wrong about?”
“The stones. The quest. Everything. We were the interlopers here. We are the ones putting everyone in danger with our misguided efforts to open some mystical gate at the other end of this country. Excavatia is indeed a rumor only. A foolish hope conjured up by people to help them cope with their pathetic lives. A fairy tale. We have been manipulated to cause a distraction only, but now our presence is drawing these lands into a conflict that will involve and consume everything. No wonder our presence is met with resistance and we are hated.”
“If you are indeed Caleb, what happened to you? You would never have talked this way, before.”
“That is because I did not know what I was doing, and neither do you. The Pan took pity on me. You left me there alone to die, so to me, you were dead too. And you, my big brother…,” he turned and shoved an accusing finger towards Jeremiah, “You who were supposed to lead us all. To protect us on the quest of the Cordis Stone. The Heart stone. Or, if you prefer, to state it another way, The Love stone.”
He ground his teeth and sneered, “You knew I believed that stone had power, but you let me go off with that worthless glowing rock, knowing it offered no protection. You planted that decoy because you knew I would take it the first chance I got to go and impress you. To show you that I was valuable to the team and more than just your annoying kid brother who you let tag along with the group you treated better than your own family. You let me go to my death, all the while believing I was helping you, Big Brother.”
Each accusation came as a verbal punch, dealing both Jeremiah and I brutal blows that torn into our hearts with the guilt we both had been carrying ever since that terrible night. If this was not Caleb, I could not figure what else it was. It read and knew both of us like we were open books. It knew way too many intimate details to be a newly created golem.
“The Pan is, in fact, a victim and a prisoner of this world. He came from our world and was once a whole man the same as we are but was made into what he is today. He is a victim. He is misunderstood and was cruelly ostracized from all human society living here. They all were. They are exiles, refugees living on the fringes of human society. All they want is to be left alone. To not be hunted or slaughtered because humans suspect them of nefarious deeds simply because they do not look like them. We are the arrogant and cruel ones. It is no wonder they suspect us and fight us. We are a violent race. We kill what we don’t take time to understand. Perhaps we deserve to die. Look what you both did to me.”
And upon that statement, he turned and looked up the trailhead, spotting the small woodland covering and the gallery of witnesses, fearfully watching this spectacle.
“And what is left, hmm?” he said opening his arms indicating my friends huddled there.
“Ah yes, the Fidelis stone. The Faith stone, carried by one of the most unfaithful from among you. An unworthy opposite as well. A traitor to our friendship. Leading more lambs to the slaughter, are we?” he bitterly laughed at the irony.
“The foolish Praesporous stone, the Hope stone, has supposedly been placed in the mountains under the fire guardian. If you have found the stone of your crusade, have you tested it for the responsive gleaming? Held the stone up to the horizon and set it before you on a promontory or high hill, looking for the respondent flash to assure you it is there? Light tricks. Nothing more. Most likely a bit of quartz or mica in the mountains. There is a reason you are to do it at sunrise or sunset. Isn’t that true, brother? How many more must die believing in the myth of Excavatia, for you to see outside your own delusions?”
Both Jeremiah and I were wavering, unsure of ourselves and uncertain, so it came a terrible shock to both of us when Captain Lorgray swiftly lifted the crossbow, firing the cocked bolt into Caleb at point-blank range.
In the stunning seconds following that shot, the satyrs slammed into the back of us, pinning us all to the ground.
The arrow bolt had lodged into the figure Jeremiah and I had begun to believe was Caleb, but with the onslaught of the satyrs suddenly attacking us from behind, I could not see what was transpiring in the moments that followed.
My face was driven into the dirt and detritus of the forest floor. The wind had literally and physically been punched out of me. Hard cloven-hooves stomped on us, kicked us, balled fists pommeled us and beat all hope out of us. The three of us lay there, prostrated and battered, overwhelmed by what had happened within a matter of minutes and seconds.
At last, there was nothing we could do. No brilliant strategy to change what was now inevitable.
Had we all been fooled? Was Excavatia a mere construct of hope for a people driven to the edge of desperation? Something we all clung to give us something to live one more day for?
I wept into the earth. The fecund scent of decaying leaves filling my lungs with the odor of surrender, their dying struggle of being cruelly separated from what they once clung to—having fallen from the tall trees and branches connected to the root system from which they once drew into themselves the tender green of their life’s celebration.
As I lay there, bruised and in pain, so very weak and weary, humiliated before my friends, debased before my enemies, struggling with the shock of seeing my friend struck down again before my eyes, I wondered if what I have believed was at all true. Was this all for nothing?
I wept for the group of Surface Worlders who had willingly placed their trust in me to lead them. I wept for those who had reluctantly done so. I wept because I had broken my promise and I had not been there to save them when they needed me. I wept for little Miray, the precious girl who had believed in me from the beginning. The one who had trusted me when no one else would. My heart was broken even as my body felt broken and my spirit crushed. There was nothing more that I could do. This was my end.
As my hands curled into fists, and I felt something beneath my bending fingers. A strip of frayed material. A sash as tenuously connected to something as I was to my last few moments of life in the Mid-World. My disoriented mind puzzled over it for a beat and then I knew what it was that I was winding into the spaces between my splayed fingers—The bloodline.
From beyond the back of the rise to the hill where my horrified friends watched, a growing light surfeited the edge of the horizon. The glow of the raging forest fire had encircled the area, cutting off all hope of retreat. There was no going back or forward, for the fires meant to spare the hidden city of Azragoth from its enemies were now poised to take out its friends and allies as well. Like a false sunrise, the corona of the flashing light swelled and brightened among flaming embers and smoke providing the illusion of a new dawn under the dark, smoky twilight of our final moments.
The golem that bore the image of Caleb, fell forward on its hands and knees, its shoulders heaving up and down, the crossbow arrow bolt sticking out of its back. The cacophonous noise of the assault on the three men by the satyrs covered the sounds it was making, and only as the subdued three quit struggling and the chortles and grunts of the satyrs ceased, were the noises it was making identifiable as a kind of wheezing laughter.
Smoke and dust sizzled out of the wound swirling into a spinning dust cloud as if the golem was the ground sources of a small vortex.
“Ah, ah, ah, ha, ha, Ha, Ha, HA, HA!” its gritty voice poured out as it delighted in our misery and despair.
“Took you long enough,” it growled between the strange sounds of its breathy laughter.
“I commend you, Mid-Worlder!” it snarled, rising back up again to its feet as the swirling cone of dust formed a nimbus around its head, whipping its hair into a frenzied mass, as its eyes receded into its face, forming dark occipital caves.
“You have done well. Now see sight given back to the blind and witness your doom!”
The golem’s form began to disintegrate into powder, just as its sister golem had done when encountered and confronted at the granary, just by merely being touched by the honor sword.
A rumbling felt in the ground and roots below, swelled up as The Pan, standing just beyond the dissolving golem laughed at what it knew would happen, anticipating the imminent fulfillment of the promise it had been given.
Smoke poured out of the golem’s eyes, mouth and nostrils and drifted towards The Pan. As the eleven-foot monster opened its black, soot-streaked maw to receive the mystical wind emerging from the pile of dust to join the inhabitant, it carried within the very air around the site felt charged and polarizing.
The smoke from the golem twisted in an eddy pouring down The Pan’s open throat, swirling and twisting down its gullet like a vortex. As the transfer began, The Pan’s eyes begin to darken from cataract blue to black. When the final puffs of smoke drained from the shell of the hollowed body the golem remains crumbled into a small pile of powder and dust.
The Pan blinked away its blindness, as the wind spirit it had ingested joined the hive of its queen.
Its blindness was gone, but it needed a moment to reorient itself to reliance on its restored vision. When at last it was able to take in the full measure of its surroundings and the placement of its attendants, its dark black eyes came to rest on the three men lying beaten and prostrate before it…and it smiled for the first time in many moons.
“No, no, no!” Miray screamed, “Get up! Get up, Mister O’Brian! I am beginning to remember the pictures. They are coming back to me. I can see them now!”
The golem inhabited by Torlah who bore the image of a little girl approached the gathering huddled under The Faerie Fade canopy.
“Do you, now?! Little brat!” she laughed derisively, “I should have killed you on the beach!”
Miray’s mouth trembled as recognition dawned on her staring into the strange reptilian eyes of the girl approaching them.
“You are not Becca! You killed her and took her face! What did you do with Becca?! Where is the old lady that took Becca?”
“You want to see the old lady?” the golem creature smirked, her face shifting, her stature lengthening, her arms growing long and spindly, her back arching and hunching like that of an arthritic crone.
“Surprise!” she cackled with ancient eyes and graying hair, her harsh voice changing even as her appearance did.
Another gasped from within the canopy enclosure.
“No-Noadiah!” Nell stammered, “You are not…”
“I am what I needed to be,” her face shifted, the beginning of a beard growing on her chin and cheeks, the wrinkled face smoothing out, the jawline raised, and my face shifted over that of the being that had stalked us from our very first steps out of the surf.
“What is this?!” Begglar roared, angry at the mockery of the shape-shifting creature.
Seeing the monster wearing my visage was too much for Miray to take. Her face flushed and mouth quivered with indignation. Her small fists balled into the frustration her small form could no longer contain.
“You are fake! Liar!” she ran towards her two principal antagonists, “I wrote your name so I would not forget your meanness but the water washed it. You are a pooh-face!”
If the moment was not so terrifying, her word choice might have been comical, for this was a word she had gotten in trouble for saying in her life on the Surface World.
Nell sprang forward, trying to catch her, but the girl was too quick.
Christopher, however, moved swiftly out from under the canopy, interposing himself between Miray and the two verbal assailants who had bated her. In a quick move, he gathered Miray into his right arm, just as Grum-Blud sprang forward with his knife bared, cutting a gash into Chris’ left shoulder, slicing through muscle, striking bone.
Torlah moved into the attack as well, her golem fists hardening into clubs of compressed sedimentary stone with a jagged and sharp edge like chipped flint.
Chris cried out rolling away from the stabbing blow, careful to cradle the thrashing Miray protectively against his body, even as the knife twisted in his flesh under the troll’s cruel hands.
The turn wrenched the blade out of his shoulder and threw Grum-Blud off balance and into Torlah.
“I’ll kill you all,” she raged, her cutting, jagged arms extending outward, twisting and brandishing their saw-toothed edges.
In a flash, Christie was by their side, her blade up and ready, the irate blaze of a momma-bear back in her eyes.
She parried the blows with her saber, but the golem creature was moving fast, spinning viciously with powerful torquing motions giving strength to her slashes. The blade clanged and shuddered with each contact, causing Christie’s arms to ache under the viscous kinetic power delivered through each strike.
The ferocity of the attacks stirred the leaves of the forest floor, gathering dust and grit in a swirling torrent around them.
Nell managed to drag Miray backward from the conflict, finding Begglar and Dominic at her sides, brandishing their weapons to stave off any renewal of the troll and golem’s assault.
Tiernan grabbed Christopher and shoved him behind his body, offering himself in challenge to the scrambling troll moving about on its knuckles and short legs in a surprisingly fast bear crawl gait.
A large branch slammed downward, its timbres wood-like surface morphing into a smooth, well-turned bare leg, as a dryad intervened.
“Back under the canopy!” Begglar shouted, brandishing his scythe weapon in an arc motion, cutting through the extending grasps of wooden arms, bristling with thorns, “Quickly!”
Dellitch had taken flight in the melee, using the confusion of the conflict to slip away. She was overdue to meet with the Xarmnians and they would grow more distrusting by the hour if she did not arrive soon. Now that The Pan had regained its eyesight, it was more dangerous and would not be as easily fooled by the ruse she and her sisters had tried to make it believe about their part in the burning of the wood. It would find their new metal-shanked footwear very interesting.