It didn’t take me long to get changed. I had fallen asleep in my clothes and only needed to put my shoes on. I emerged from the tent bleary-eyed but ready for action. More or less.
Keezy was waiting for me with a small creature at his side. It came up to about my waist and had the head of a dog but with human-ish ears and eyes. It also had a tail that slapped from side to side. If it were an actual dog, I would assume it was happy, but it wasn’t an actual dog so who knows?
“This is May-May. He will act as our tracker.”
If here were an actual dog, I would also assume he’d sniff the ground and then catch Kungen’s scent. It’s hard not to let your preconceptions inform your poor guesses, but I decided not to presume when faced with things that shouldn’t really exist. Especially when the thing in question might get annoyed and eat me.
“So you’re working with humans now,” said May-May in a yappy voice that only reinforced my presumptions. “You trolls sure are hard to figure out. Still, not my concern. I’m being paid to do a job, so let’s get on with it. Wait here.” He scampered off. That’s not me projecting, he actually scampered.
Jenny stumbled out of the tent and straightened her clothes. “Should I wake the others?”
“No,” I said, “we don’t want to make too much of a commotion out there.”
Having more people in a search party would usually be a good thing, but in this case I’d rather keep the group as small as possible. We just needed to catch up with Kungen and convince him to come back. If Keezy had really had a change of heart, then there was a good chance of a reconciliation, and then we could get out of here.
“What are you paying May-May with?” I asked Keezy. With most of the population of Monsterland having an aversion to one metal or another, coins didn’t seem like they’d be a very popular form of legal tender.
“We barter goods and services,” said Keezy. “Money is a sickness your people have. It makes you lazy and greedy.”
Comrade Lenin had a point, but our sickness still made it easier to buy a cup of coffee.
“I did a quick tour of the village,” said May-May returning barely a couple of minutes after leaving. “Kungen was seen heading north of the lake. Probably, he’ll be heading for either the road to Carlyme or into the mountains.”
“What’s Carlyme?” I asked.
“It’s the main city in this region,” said Keezy.
“Where the Arch… Where Cheng lives?” I knew he resided in a castle but nobody had said where the castle was.
“No,” said Keezy. He didn’t offer any further information.
“He’ll probably be headed for the city,” said May-May. “What reason is there to go into the mountains this time of year?”
“He’ll definitely be headed for the mountains,” I said.
“Why do you say that?” asked Keezy.
“Because being around others is the last thing he wants right now. He’d prefer to be alone—somewhere he can feel sorry for himself in peace.”
Keezy nodded. “Very well, we’ll go northeast and see if there are any signs of him. I only hope we get to him before he encounters any jabberwocky. Let’s hurry.”
Although the mission was a bit of shot in the dark, I felt confident we’d be able to catch up to Kungen. Trolls weren’t very quick on their feet and although anger makes you move fast, self-pity makes you go slow, with numerous breaks to stare at the sky for answers. Why? Why me?
“You should stay here, too,” I said to Jenny. She ignored me and set off after Keezy and May-May.
We jogged through the village which displayed few signs of activity, but still managed to give off the impression it was burgeoning with life. Unattended fires burned low and the occasional shadow moved in the distance, but snuffles and snorts came from all directions.
Keezy paused when we reached the village perimeter. Ahead of us, the trees quickly receded into darkness. I created a ball of light which drew an impressed look from May-May, and one of concern from Jenny.
We left the relative safety of the village and headed into the night, May-May leading although he wasn’t sniffing around like a more prejudiced person might expect.
“Will this be bright enough?” I asked Keezy.
He shrugged. “As I told you, no one had ever run into a jabberwock and lived.”
“Then how do you know they don’t like light?”
“That’s what the stories say.”
“That’s what I heard to,” said May-May. “They don’t come out during the day, so sounds like it must be true!” His tail wagged even harder.
“There could be a bunch of reasons why they don’t come out during the day.” I was starting to think everyone on this side of the border was just as stupid as those on the other side. “Has anyone actually gone out in the dark with loads of light and survived?”
“They have,” said Keezy.
Okay, at least that was a good sign. “And has anyone gone out without a light and made it back.”
“Of course,” said May-May. “You don’t always run into a jabberwock.”
“How often? I mean, if ten people went out without a light, how many would you expect to return?”
Keezy and May-May both gave it some thought.
“Nine?” said May-May.
“Sound about right,” said Keezy.
That made me feel better. A ninety percent chance of survival was pretty good. Although, as we all know, the truth about odds is that they’re always fifty-fifty. Either something happens, or it doesn’t.
“Of course the more of you there are,” said May-May, “the more likely the jabberwocky will come for you.”
It sounded to me like neither of them really knew what attracted jabberwocky.
“So bright lights could have nothing to do with it?” I said.
“Then why are there stories that say otherwise?” said Keezy as though this was the final word on the matter.
I didn’t respond. They could be right and my light magic might be enough to keep us safe. Personally, I felt our only real hope of avoiding a fight was if the jabberwocky were taking the night off to do their hair and nails.
The trees thinned out and the ground became a lot easier to traverse. May-May was in the lead, running from side to side, inspecting everything for signs of Kungen. There were no sounds and everything felt very still. Unnaturally so.
“Are you sure you should have the light that bright?” Jenny asked in a worried voice.
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s healing magic that drains me. And only when I really put everything into it. I felt it when I healed Mandy and you, and I really felt it when I healed Kungen. This is nothing. Even if it is aging me, it’s probably seconds or minutes.”
She turned her head away. “I’m sorry about that. I probably made you heal me longer than you needed to.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I… I just mean we shouldn’t rely on you so much. The others could do more to help, they’re getting better all the time.”
I didn’t know about that. They were all still pretty terrible other than Maurice and his fish-whispering.
“And… you could teach me. I’d do my best to help.”
“You want me to teach you how to do magic so you can run off with the next group and tell them all our secrets?”
Jenny turned back to glare at me. “You really still think of me like that?”
“I think of everyone like that. The only reason I trust the others is because no one else would have them.”
“I don’t know what I have to do to prove myself to you, Colin.” She sounded annoyed, which was understandable.
“I realise you feel I’m being unfair and in your heart you know you wouldn’t turn your back on us, but everyone believes that until they do it. Sometimes even after they do it. People’s ability to convince themselves the shitty things they do aren’t as bad as the shitty things other people do is amazing. And anyway, you make it sound like magic stealing my youth and leaving me a decrepit husk is a bad thing.”
I smiled at her but she wasn’t having any of it. She didn’t say anything, probably because she was busy choosing between all the different ways to tell me to go fuck myself.
A howl filled the night sky. We had made it through the trees to an open area. It looked like there was a meadow ahead of us. And whatever was howling.
“Is that a jabberwock?” I asked Keezy.
“No,” he replied. “That’s a grimwolf.”
“Isn’t it worried it might attract a jabberwock?” I would have thought wild animals would have been wary of making too much noise and that’s why it had been so quiet out here.
“Noise does not attract them,” said Keezy. I was pretty sure he was basing this off some old wives’ tale too.
“Over here,” said May-May. He was standing in clump of tall grass wagging his tail like mad. “It’s a footprint. By the size and shape I’d say it was definitely your brother’s. Looks like we got lucky. Strange how they stop here though… and the ground here looks freshly tilled for some rea—”
The ground opened up beneath him and he dropped out of view before he had a chance to make another sound.
We all stopped where we were, staring at the hole. The ground rumbled beneath us and the hole exploded as giant worm burst through it and soared into the air high above us. More and more of it came out of the ground until its tip was higher than even Gargantua would be able to reach.
Wild guess, but this was probably a jabberwock.
I increased the intensity of my light as much as I could without popping it, but it didn’t seem to have much effect on the worm. It hung there, bobbing and weaving like a fighter lining up to land a punch.
Its segmented body was slick with some kind of liquid. It smelled like a compost heap.
I released the ball of light and let it gently float upwards. An underground creature could quite easily be sensitive to bright lights, but this one didn’t seem to react at all. As the light got near the top I couldn’t see eyes of any kind. I think it was blind.
It didn’t have many other features either. There was a ring of spikes around what you might call its neck and then a smooth, conical head with no mouth or any other opening.
“What should we do?” whispered Jenny.
“Don’t move,” I said. “I think it responds to vibrations.” This was a guess, but based on what May-May had said about larger groups attracting it more, and every movie I had ever seen about giant worms (more than you might imagine), it seemed a strong possibility.
“What about sound?” said Jenny, her voice even lower now. “That causes vibrations too, doesn’t it?”
She was right but I didn’t have an explanation for her.
“Do you think it got Kungen?” she asked
While sounds didn’t seem to affect the jabberwock, they did affect Keezy. Jenny’s words enraged him.
“Monster!” he roared. “You are a monster!” He started running towards the towering worm.
I’m not sure what he thought he was going to do once he reached it, but it turned out to be a moot point. The movement attracted the jabberwock’s attention and its head swooped down.
Keezy didn’t change course or even slow down. The jabberwock fell like an arrow from the sky, and as it did, its head split into three and peeled back to reveal a dark gullet.
Keezy tried to dive out of the way but he seemed to be sucked out of the air, flying into the gaping maw.
He disappeared into the darkness and the three sections snapped shut. The serpentine body slithered back into its hole and the spikes around its neck extended into claws. They snatched at the surrounding earth and pulled it into the hole after it.
The next moment it was gone, leaving behind a flat, unbroken surface.
Jenny and I stood there, neither daring to move.
“Do you think we’ll have to stay like this until morning?”
“Probably,” I said. “If we don’t make any movements, though, we should be okay.”
I turned my head at the sound. Like someone was calling.
I saw them, carrying torches and running to catch up. My teammates, rushing to help, running towards us so we could all die together.
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