Sunday, May 29, 2011
Chapter 13 (concluded)
There was a sort of trail, and it was mostly solid, although there were patches of muckier bits along it. The trees were closer together here, and they crowded out the constant light. In amongst the trees, there still seemed to be watery areas, although the wading birds were nowhere to be seen. The atmosphere was darker and more oppressive here, and they walked close together. Even Roger was more quiet than Johnny had come to expect from her.
The hill and the dock were far behind them now, screened from sight by the swampy forest. The leaves of the trees would rustle alarmingly from time to time, but there was still no sign of the creatures that caused it. Roger kept a sharp eye on the upper branches.
Suddenly, there was a low burbling sound that Johnny knew by now was a hunting burrikit. Roger stopped and flung out a hand. She needn’t have bothered; both Johnny and Larissa had frozen immediately. Even Bones, normally hyperkinetic no matter what the circumstances, had become a quivering feathered statue. There was a flash of orange twenty feet over their heads, in the trees to the left of the path, and then a bundle of fur and teeth shot out of the leaves and sailed over them, landing on a low branch that stuck out over the trail.
This was Johnny’s first close-up view of a burrikit. It had the tufted ears and bushy “sideburns” that he associated with a lynx, but its fur was a bright orange, the color of a creamsicle. The whiter fur (really an extremely pale shade of orange) under its chin reinforced that color scheme. The same whitish color was found in rings on its long, arched tail, which looked like it belonged on a completely different animal: a ringtail cat, or a coatimundi. Its claws were extended: vermilion daggers digging into the branch to maintain its balance. Sabretooth fangs with an apricot tint stuck over its lower jaw to just below its chin. Its eyes were the only thing that weren’t some shade of orange: they were a dangerously glowing greenish-yellow. The low growling purr that filled the air was chilling; Johnny wondered how had it had ever reminded him of a Disney character.
Roger reacted immediately. She raised her arms above her head and actually took a step forward. “G’wan! Git!” she shouted.
To Johnny’s surprise, Larissa grabbed the sides of her jacket and also threw her arms out, flapping the insides of her coat at the beast. “Makes you seem bigger than you are,” she said softly. Johnny shrugged and started waving his arms around as well. The burrikit leaned back, but didn’t retreat. Roger kept waving with one hand, but put her other on the hilt of her sword.
Just as it seemed violence was imminent, the cat’s tail flashed once and it disappeared, leaping up into the treetops and shaking the branches wildly with its passage. Johnny let out a long breath. “That was lucky ...” he started, but Roger was looking around with concern.
“No,” she said, “something’s not ...”
The air was split by a hideous noise. It was somewhere between a foghorn and a moose call, with a dash of shrieking baby thrown in for good measure. The bass vibrated in Johnny’s breastbone, but it cranked rapidly into a register that was so high it was almost painful, then dropped immediately back down. It made Johnny shiver, and that was just the noise. When the creature appeared, the unearthly sound paled in comparison.
It was at least seven feet tall, possibly eight. Its skin was a shiny black, wet with swampwater and draped with bits of greenery, as if it had just sprung up out of the water where it had been lying in wait. The hide was leathery and pebbled, and Johnny knew Roger’s thin rapier had no chance at all of peircing it. It was generally humanoid, although it seemed to have no neck—its head was just a mound on top of its shoulders. Its eyes were balls of green flame, with no whites or pupils, and its open mouth sported metallic fangs that were six inches long. Its claws were the same, except much longer: probably two feet of flashing bladelike talons.
It strode through the tree trunks onto the path, still emitting that bizarre howl, and chaos erupted. Bones gave a terrified shriek and shot into the trees. Roger’s sword was in her hand, and she expertly parried the first swipe of a claw, but still the force of it threw her backwards into the trees on the other side. Larissa disappeared behind him and off the path to the same side that had spawned the creature. Suddenly Johnny was alone with it. He noted clinically that it had no snout; no nose at all, really. No facial features whatsoever except those eerie green balls of fire for eyes, and a great open maw full of deadly teeth. Then he turned and ran.
The three of them had now taken off in three different directions, three of the four lines that would form a giant X, with the fourth being the path along which the creature had made its entrance. It was theoretically random chance that would determine which of them it would chase after. Johnny knew from the crashing and snapping of tree trunks behind him who had “won.”
He hit a small clearing and stumbled in a shallow pond. He went down hard, although the ground he hit was soft enough that he didn’t break anything. There was a tree root under his face and he tasted a bit of blood in his mouth, but he knew it wasn’t serious. Not nearly as serious as it was about to be, anyway. He rolled over frantically. There were tree branches and vines and Spanish moss above him, and the same fading-twilight sky as always, but only for a moment, because suddenly everything turned black as the beast filled his vision.
There was a clang of steel that Johnny thought must be a rapier hitting the thing’s hide; it swatted vaguely behind it, and Johnny heard an “oof” and more crashing into bushes. A flurry of branches and nuts came flying down at the creature’s head, and there was a parroty squawk of “leave off there!” but it paid no mind to that either. It lifted one arm up high, and the glossy silvery-black claws flashed in the light.
And then Larissa screamed.
Thinking back on it, Johnny would decide that this was the single strangest sound he had ever heard in his life. First there was the fact that it was Larissa. He had never heard Larissa scream, not even that one time when he was sure they were going to get sliced up by a jittering addict too far gone to realize they couldn’t possibly have any money to give him. Johnny himself had given a little scream when the knife had come lunging at them, before a timely police siren had sent the junkie running, but Larissa had never made a sound. And secondly, it was a bizarre sort of scream, almost unnatural. Generally when you heard someone scream, you knew they were scared. But this, this was ... different. He couldn’t tell if she was frightened, or angry, or frustrated, or if she was perhaps a superhero employing some sort of sonic power; he had a sudden vision of a young Donald Sutherland raising his arm and emitting an eerie shriek, but he couldn’t place it, because he had never known that in his late night cable surfing he had stumbled across the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The piercing screech echoed across the swamp; the fluttering of panicked birds filled the air. The beast standing over him roared its strange roar again, as if answering a challenge, then the talons flashed toward Johnny’s face and he instinctively closed his eyes.
The howl of the monster rose in pitch, as if in frustration, and Johnny decided to open his eyes to see why he wasn’t dead yet. The thing’s arm had become entangled in the vines above them, and Johnny instinctively rolled to his right just as they finally snapped. The metallic-colored talons embedded themselves into the marshy ground where his head had been.
He was half covered in water and mud now, and the thing was turning towards him again, but suddenly he was very calm. If he could walk through a solid steel grate, why should he let this beast skewer him where he lay? He reached for the alien sense inside him and let his body go completely slack. The claws came down again, and passed directly through his body, but it offered no resistance. The thing’s arm was now completely through his chest, but he knew it had not pierced him. He reached up with one arm and put his hand inside the creature’s arm; the monster shuddered and howled, and actually retreated a few steps, taking its arm with it and holding it close to its body as if Johnny had hurt it somehow. The eyes flashed around the clearing, looking for something, and they lit on a robed figure which had stepped into the open area while Johnny had been distracted. The monster hesitated, and the figure raised a wooden staff and began to chant.
The words were slippery in Johnny’s ears, no language that he had ever heard before, yet he knew it was ancient; older than Latin, older than Greek. It was a language that was old when Phoenician and Sanskrit and Sumerian were being spoken. The words were soft and lyrical, falling over themselves in a waterfall of susurration that Johnny found comforting, but the creature backed away from them, its howl subdued now, its fiery green eyes tracking back and forth in confusion. Suddenly it turned and crashed away through the trees; Johnny could hear its progress in snapping tree trunks for a few moments, and then there was a loud splash and silence.
Roger appeared in the clearing, nursing a bruised arm and limping slightly. Larissa was on the opposite side, also stepping forward cautiously. Bones floated down from the branches to land lightly nearby. The chanting faded away, and the figure in its pale blue robes strode forward and offered Johnny a hand. “Thanks,” Johnny said, his voice shaking a bit as the man drew him to his feet. “I think you may have saved my life there.”
The man smiled. He was clean-shaven, with sandy brown hair and deep, blue eyes. “My pleasure. I could hardly allow you to be eaten by a muck monster on your way to see me, now, could I?” He must have read confusion in Johnny’s face, for he added: “I am Aidan de Tourneville. I’ll be your Water Guide.”