Damn it, damn it, damn it. We had to find Roxa! We had to find her before… before anything happened.
With my staff in one hand, I jogged through the giant forest. Instead of taking the time to go around the tree ahead of me (itself about three hundred feet high and a solid forty feet wide) I just ran straight into it. At the last second, I used the wood-walking power that I’d absorbed on the Meregan world. Rather than face-planting straight into the tree on that next step, I melded with it. It was, as usual, a strange sensation of being able to see through a fishbowl-like image of the area around where I had merged.
The nearest branch of the tree was a good hundred and fifty feet up, but it only took me a few seconds to somehow traverse that distance after directing myself that way. I popped out of the tree, landing in a crouch on the edge of the enormous branch itself. From that height, I surveyed the area around us.
There was no sign of Roxa, though the compass insisted that we were going the right way when I glanced at it. Ahead, I could see a couple of the Miranda duplicates picking through some of the bushes to make sure we weren’t jumped by anything unexpectedly. Meanwhile, the others were working their way around the tree. Koren had passed the message-tube to Tristan, and he was taking his turn shouting into it. Not that I could hear what he was saying, but if Roxa was anywhere nearby, she would.
If she was in any condition to hear anything at all, my annoying brain insisted on reminding me.
Ignoring that, I kept looking, eyes straining for anything useful. It was hard, not just because of the thick foliage we were moving through, but also because my eyes kept being drawn to every incredible sight. Every tree that towered high above us, every flower that was an impossible color, every hint of movement that drew my eyes before whatever had made it escaped back into the safety of the leaves.
I saw a bird that was as big as a small horse, its feathers bright purple and yellow as it flew through the air above me. I saw a dark green snake with two separate heads work its (their?) way along the branch of another tree. I saw what looked like an elk, only it was twice as large as it should have been, and appeared to be made entirely of unmelting ice. I saw all of that and more, my Stranger-sense constantly warning me about what these things were. Yet I didn’t move to attack them. I just watched for a second.
Still, the thought of Roxa erased pretty much any enjoyment I could have gotten out of this little tour. Sobering, I was about to move on when a sudden chattering noise startled me. Jerking in place, I spun with the staff up, only to see a monkey perched a few feet away. This wasn’t just any monkey, though. The thing was essentially shaped pretty much like a white-headed capuchin. Except, in this case the ‘white’ part that made up his head, upper arms, and neck was actually a beautiful gleaming gold color. Meanwhile, where the rest of a normal capuchin’s body would be black, his was a metallic ruby red.
For a second, the monkey and I stared at each other. My Stranger-sense was going off, though it wasn’t freaking out nearly as much as it had at more obvious threats. This one was more of a mild warning.
“Hey, buddy,” I started. “Don’t worry, I’m just looking for my friend. I don’t suppose you’ve seen–”
The gold and ruby-colored capuchin screeched at me before flinging itself off the tree branch. A few feet into its fall, the thing extended its hands and somehow reversed course. For a second, I thought the damn thing was actually flying as it zoomed up through the air, straight to one of the other branches.
Then it held one hand out, and a stick that had been discarded further down the branch flew straight to it. The thing shoved the stick into its shoulder, clearly scratching itself while staring at me curiously.
It hadn’t been flying, I realized. The monkey had some kind of power that let it either pull itself toward wood, or pull wood to it. It was obviously a useful ability to have in a giant forest like this.
Oh well. Speaking of useful abilities, I saluted my little monkey observer before taking a running start off of the branch. Flinging my body into the air similar to the way he had done, I let myself fall for a few seconds before triggering the charge on my staff. The explosive blast rocketed me up and forward, propelling me just far enough to reach the branch of the next tree. Technically, I reached far enough to have impaled myself on it. But rather than let that happen, I used the wood-walking power again, disappearing into the branch. Another thought sent me all the way along it, through the trunk of the tree and out along a branch on the opposite side before I popped back out again. The others were just passing below me, and I straightened before giving another look around this incredible forest.
Still nothing. Nothing that indicated Roxa was anywhere nearby, anyway. With every minute that passed, I was getting even more worried. The longer we took to find the girl, the more certain it was that something much less savory than us would find her. And I really didn’t want to think about that.
Tristan’s voice came to me then as the boy shouted into the tube so that only I would hear. “Anything?”
Looking down that way to them, I raised my left hand and shook it back and forth. The left arm was our signal for a negative, since it would’ve been a bit hard to see head movements from that far away.
Tristan didn’t respond to that, but he did pick up the pace even more than before. We continued that way, with Miranda’s clones scouting ahead while I watched from above by flitting between the trees, using my power and staff in conjunction to move faster than the others could down on the ground.
Every once in awhile, I’d catch a glimpse of that pretty monkey following after me, clearly curious about what I was doing. Whenever I looked that way, the thing would scamper off with a chitter.
Finally, one of the Mirandas emerged from the bushes holding something. I couldn’t see what it was, but Koren looked up toward me and waved her right arm, the signal that they found some kind of clue.
Melding myself with the tree I was perched on, I zipped all the way down to the ground before popping out in mid-jog. I ran that way, practically tripping over myself. “What? What is it, what’d you find?”
Miranda held the thing out for me to see. An arrow. “There’s others,” she informed me. “They’re all through those bushes over there, along with human footprints and hoofprints. Centaur hoofprints.”
“Centaurs firing arrows at a human?” I managed before blanching. “That’s not good. Really not good.”
“But aren’t centaurs supposed to be like… wise forest elders or whatever?” Koren demanded. “Why would they just start shooting at some—oh right, Heretics hunt, kill, and enslave them. Never mind.”
“Clearly you’ve been reading the wrong stories,” Miranda informed her. “Because they’re also a lot more violent to intruders than you might think, even without the Heretic thing. Centaurs are incredibly territorial, not to mention proud and hot-tempered. Add in the Heretic bit and… well, it’s not good.”
“Was there any blood?” I asked, already afraid of the answer. “And did they… take her anywhere?”
“No blood,” another Miranda spoke up while coming out of the same bushes where she’d obviously been looking around some more. “And judging from the tracks, the centaurs were obviously chasing her. I can’t tell if they caught up yet, they keep going that way.” She gestured off into the distance.
Even as she finished speaking, Tristan was starting to move. He’d just taken a step when the hair on the back of my neck stood up. That was followed immediately by a loud screech from high above as the monkey that had been following me for the last little while screamed an obvious warning.
Instantly, I spun around with my staff already up and swinging. There was a flash of something long and sharp flying toward me just before my staff smacked into the thing to knock it out of the air. As it fell to the ground, I finally saw what it was: a spear. I had smacked a spear out of the air about a second before it would have gone right through my chest. The sight made my eyes widen as a slight yelp escaped me.
“Flick!” Miranda was beside me even as two more spears came flying at us. She had produced a round metal shield on one arm. It was about two feet across, and black with emeralds adorning the front.
The spears were coming in at slightly different angles. Miranda held her shield up toward one and there was a flash of light before she turned it toward the second. Where the shield had originally been, there was a glowing green circle of energy: a forcefield. She repeated the same maneuver again, creating a second circular forcefield the same size as her shield in the path of the other spear. Both of the incoming projectiles smacked off of the glowing green energy like they’d hit an actual wall.
As soon as the spears were down and no longer a threat, Miranda turned her arm and made a hard throwing gesture. Rather than physically tossing her actual shield, however, it was the forcefields that she had created that went flying off into the trees toward where the spears had come from. There was a crash and a bellow of pain just before a figure came storming into view with a spear held in each hand.
At first, I thought that it had its head tucked down against its chest or something. Belatedly, however, I realized that the thing had no head. It was shaped roughly like a human with two legs, two arms, and torso, but where the neck and head should have been, there was just a relatively flat surface.
Not that the thing didn’t have eyes. It had them, they were just high up on opposite sides of its chest and about twice as large as a normal human’s. There was a burn mark from one of the forcefields just under the left eye where Miranda had nailed the thing, and it looked about as pissed off as possible.
The damn thing was also naked and, well let’s just say ‘heavily endowed.’ The amount of euuuuch was impossible to over-state. I was going to need an entire bathtub full of bleach when this was over.
Then its chest and stomach split open vertically, from just a little below the eyes all the way down to the thing’s waist. It was like a doctor opening up a body for open heart surgery. Only instead of seeing internal organs, I saw several rows of teeth. Some were arranged vertically, while others were the standard horizontal like in human mouths. All of them were dripping with saliva, and two separate tongues came flicking out of the recesses of the chest-mouth as the thing let out a scream of rage.
“Blemmye,” Miranda spat the word, and I belatedly realized that she was speaking the thing’s name, not just saying ‘blame eye’. “It won’t be alone. They travel in tribes. But if we can get away before-”
Before she could continue,the Blemmye threw those spears it was holding. Tristan, however, was already sprinting that way. The boy leapt into the air, spinning into a sort of sideways flip in order to catch hold of one of the spears, snatching it out of midair while simultaneously kicking the other one aside. He landed on one foot before using his momentum to hurl the captured spear right back at the ugly monster, impaling it straight through its right eye. Its scream was silenced as it collapsed, and Tristan stumbled just a little, letting out an audible gasp as a bronze glowing aura rose up around him.
God, I really hoped he didn’t get a vertical mouth in his torso. Please, please don’t let that happen. I was pretty sure that the absorbed powers didn’t work that way, but still. The threat of it was bad enough.
Unfortunately, the threat wasn’t over yet. Just a few seconds after that thing’s scream had been silenced, the sound returned. This time it was coming from all around us. I had time to turn slightly toward the nearest source just as another of the headless creatures came running out of the bushes. Instead of a spear, it held a rough-looking, jagged sword. Continuing its rage-filled shriek, the thing swung at me.
Grimacing, I parried with my staff, smacking the incoming blade out of the way. Behind me, it sounded like two of the Mirandas were dealing with another of the things. And from the corner of my eye, I saw a third rushing toward Koren with a heavy axe held high. The other girl threw one of her hunga munga, using it to teleport behind the thing just as it swung before she pivoted to stab into its side with a scream of her own. She hit it again and the thing stumbled. Koren still didn’t let up. She went after it with a vengeance, hacking into it as if that thing was responsible for what had happened to her parents.
I had my own problems by that point. The Blemmye that I was facing drew back its sword and spun into a swing toward my waist. I snapped the staff up to block, but that seemed to be exactly what the thing was waiting for. As soon as my arm was in position to block the blade, the damn monster opened that vertical mouth. One of its tongues lashed out, wrapping tightly around my bicep like a whip. Before I realized what was going on, it yanked me in toward its open mouth and those horrible teeth.
There was only one thing I could do before my arm would have been yanked into that mouth and likely bitten off. I triggered the kinetic burst from the staff, sending it flying into the thing’s open mouth instead. The staff hit the back of the thing’s mouth, stopping me short just as the teeth clamped shut.
Unfortunately for the Blemmye, it hadn’t fully retracted its tongue since it was still wrapped around my arm. A muffled bellow of pain erupted from the thing as it bit into its own slimy muscular organ before the thing released me. It also left behind a present in the form of a bucket-load of nasty saliva.
Rather than dwell on the gross, however, I reared back and kicked the thing as hard as I could in its dangling manhood. At the same time, I yanked my staff out of its mouth, already charging it again.
The kick didn’t drop the Blemmye, but it did make the thing stumble a little with a screech that was as much pain as it was anger (and there was an awful lot of the latter to begin with). It flailed with that ugly sword, lashing out almost blindly at me with a rapid flurry of strikes that would easily have taken me out not that long ago, even through its obvious agony.
Now, however, I smacked the first blow out of the way with my staff, then the second, and guided the third up and just over my ducking head. And after that third swing, the flailing Blemmye had over-extended itself. I spun, smacking the wrist holding the weapon as hard as I could. The sword went flying, and I used the chance to flip my own weapon around to point at the ground before triggering just a bit of the charge that I had been building up. I used just enough to send myself up and over my opponent, flipping in the air before I came down behind it.
Then I pivoted, planted the staff against its back, and triggered the rest of the kinetic charge. The blast lifted the Blemmye off the ground and sent it hurtling toward the tree that we had been fighting near. Its mouth opened in a scream as it flew straight at the low-hanging branch that I had been aiming for. It was just like earlier when I had been launching myself through the tree-tops and had almost impaled myself. But unlike me, this thing didn’t have the ability to merge with the wood. There was a sick squelching noise as the heavy branch tore right through the creature and out the other end. It was skewered, and immediately stopped screaming.
The familiar rush of pleasure rose in me then, even as the golden aura flared up. My eyes fluttered a little before I caught myself.
There were more. The whole small clearing that we were in was flooded with Blemmyes. Two of them were coming straight for me. Needing to catch my breath, I took two quick steps backward to the very same tree that I’d used to kill my last opponent. Merging with it, I sent myself up to one of the other branches, where I popped out to look down and take in what was going on.
The others were all holding their own. The Blemmyes had numbers, but lacked both power and discipline. They were enraged, attacking seemingly randomly and without much coordination. Meanwhile, Miranda’s duplicates helped make up for our lack of numbers, while Tristan was already putting his robot-snake cannon to use blasting away at them. Koren was zipping here and there, hitting the things wherever she could to drive them back.
Then there was another scream. This one, however, wasn’t one of the Blemmyes. It wasn’t a scream of anger. It was a shriek, a wail of absolute agony, a cry filled with so much pain the sound of it almost brought actual tears to my eyes.
It wasn’t a monster’s scream. It was the cry of a girl in pain. Roxa. It was Roxa.
Pivoting that way, I looked into the distance. I couldn’t see her, but the scream came again, echoing through the trees.
“Go!” Tristan shouted up at me, even as a powerful beam of red light shot out of his snake-cannon. “You can move faster than we can! We’ll hold these things off, get to Roxa! Go, go!” he repeated.
I hesitated only a second longer, looking toward Koren and the nearest Miranda.
Then I turned, leapt off the branch, and followed the sound of Roxa’s screams.