Hatter the Giant Killer?
It was a quite content group of seven who returned to Mad Hatter Haberdashery the next day. After getting some new shirts, pants, and dresses at the tailor, they’d spent the rest of the day exploring the town and the surrounding countryside. Alice had done a little more training with Victor, who’d managed to both get her in a choke hold and battle her for a little while with his new mallet. Victoria and Emily had chatted at length about true loves and potential weddings – Jennifer joined in the latter subject with gusto, talking about the sort of wedding she wanted after they deposed the Queen and she could marry Marty in peace. Marty had taken such talk in stride, as he always did – Alice had jokingly commented that, “Well, that’s it. If hearing his girlfriend go on like that about weddings doesn’t frighten him, nothing will.” After that, they had another filling meal at their inn, and everyone had gotten a good night’s sleep in their beds (even notorious worrier, and thus insomniac, Victor). The entire party felt refreshed and revived, ready to take on the world. “Richard?” Emily called with a smile as she entered the shop. “Are you--”
She stopped. Richard wasn’t in the shop itself, but she could hear him muttering in the back room. And it didn’t sound like happy muttering. She made her way to the back door, followed closely by her friends. “Richard?” she asked, knocking.
“I’m not in! I’m out to tea! I – wait, Emily?”
“Yes, it’s me,” Emily said, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
The door was flung open, and Richard appeared, his gears clicking anxious and his pale yellow eyes wide with worry. “Giants! Giants are what’s wrong!”
“Giants?” Marty repeated, blinking.
“What about giants?” Doc asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“Killing them! I’ve been told to kill the lot! I tried to explain, but they were gone before I could! And now I don’t know what to do!”
“Calm down, Richard, you’re not making any sense,” Victor said, holding up his hands. “Who on earth has asked you to kill giants?”
“The King’s Guard! The Mighty Rooks! Second only to the White Knights!” Richard wrung his hands. “I was bragging a bit about my feat the other day – seven in one blow, you were there, you know. And somehow the story got changed about and this morning the Rooks came and said they heard I was a fantastic monster killer and so I was being charged with killing these giants that were plaguing the countryside!”
“Wait, what? How the hell did that happen? Wasn’t it pretty clear you were talking about flies?” Marty had to ask.
“I thought so, but apparently not! I tried telling that to the Rooks, but they must have thought I was being modest!” Richard waved his arms wildly, looking like an out of control windmill. “And now – if I go try my luck against those monsters, I’ll probably be found in at least five pieces scattered across the countryside! But if I don’t, I might be thrown into the dungeon and have to live on water and oyster shells the rest of my days!”
“Would they really throw you in the dungeon for something that wasn’t your fault?” Alice said, tilting her head and putting her hands on her hips.
“Our royal family may be better than yours, but they’ve got some awfully odd ideas about punishment. The Queen favors a system where you get punished before you commit any crimes. She’s said it’s better that you be punished for the faults you don’t have so you don’t develop them.”
“. . .That’s bloody insane, and I would know.”
“So would I!” Richard grabbed his hand, pulling it low over his large ears. “So you see, I don’t dare go to them and say they’ve made a mistake! I don’t even like oysters!”
“Well, obviously you’re a dab hand at inventing things,” Doc said, trying to give the poor man a bit of hope. “Do you think you could invent something to kill giants? How much time do you have?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t dare delay! Perhaps I could figure out a way to make a better tranquilizer on the way to their lairs, but that doesn’t solve much of anything. They don’t want the giants to fall asleep, they want them dead!” Richard suddenly grabbed Marty. “You said you’ve killed all sorts of monsters, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, though never giants,” Marty admitted. Then he grinned. “First time for everything, though.”
“If you’re asking for help, we’d be glad to give it,” Alice said, nodding. “Between the seven of us, we should be able to kill giants and keep ourselves alive. How many are we dealing with, anyway?”
“Six or seven – the Rooks couldn’t be sure because the last one apparently only appeared recently,” Richard said, looking a bit calmer. “There’s a family of three – a ugly woman dressed like a duchess and her two gruesome sons; an enormous lion; a gigantic unicorn--”
“A unicorn is causing problems?” Emily had to interrupt. “I thought unicorns were good creatures.”
“Maybe most of them are, but this one’s apparently as wild as the lion,” Richard said with a shrug. “They fight all the time. How they haven’t killed each other is anyone’s guess. Anyway, there’s also an enormous centipede, and quite possibly some sort of dragon. That’s what they think, anyway.”
“Dragon? Remind me to wish up some fireproof armor for us,” Doc said, rubbing his thumb along the curves of his watch.
“Sounds like the lion and the unicorn are the most dangerous,” Alice said thoughtfully. “Sharp claws, sharp horn. . .unless you’re not telling us something about the others.”
“Well, I should inform you that the three human giants are said to be cannibals,” Richard said, fidgeting with his shirt sleeves. “I couldn’t say about the centipede, though he’s said to have poisonous spit.”
“Also something to protect us from poison, then. . .I’m sure I can think of something appropriate to both situations,” Doc said. “You have as much help as we can give.”
Richard clapped his hands together, finally smiling. “Thank you! I suppose we’d better get going so we can get this over with – oh, your veil!” he added, noticing the object in Emily’s hand.
“That can wait,” Emily said. “We’ve got more important matters to attend to, clearly.”
“I don’t know, I could probably sew up the holes in between packing. . . .” Richard took the veil and lifted it, pinching and stretching it delicately. “Though perhaps I’d need some fabric. . .maybe I could take it with me, for a project while we’re on the road.”
“Possibly,” Doc agreed. “How long will it take us to reach the lairs of these giants?”
“The Rooks said they’re about a day out of town. They’ve been inching closer to try and take us by surprise, apparently.”
“Then we’ll do the same to them,” Alice said, arms folded. “Give us a bit of time to pack provisions and make sure we have all our weapons, and we’ll be ready to ride.”
“Fine by me – I need to pack too. I’ll meet you all back here in a hour?”
“Right,” Marty nodded. “Come on, people! Time to get back to adventuring! And time to see if you can put those new combat skills to good use, Victor!”
“I was hoping to test them on something a bit smaller. . . .”
“Don’t always get what you want. Just remember your magic medicine, and we’ll all be fine.”
An hour later, the group reconvened at Richard’s shop. The hatter was closing up as they arrived, back loaded down with a pack bulging with odds and ends. “You never know what may be useful,” he commented as he noticed them. “I’ve got tea and scones and cake, and extra tranquilizers, and Emily’s veil, fabric, and thread, and jam for the scones, and the Ice Wand--”
“The what now?” Jennifer asked.
“Ice Wand!” Richard pulled out what looked like a large blue crystal attached to a handle shaped a little like a ram’s head. Cold puffs of white fog floated down from the tip. “It’s a recent invention of mine. Shoots a stream of ice that can freeze just about anything – so long as the charge lasts. I don’t know if it has enough energy to take down a giant in one go, but it has to be at least marginally useful.”
“Maybe we can make them slip and fall by freezing the ground below them?” Marty suggested.
“Ooh, that’s an idea! We’ll have to try it out when we reach the Duchess and her spawn.” Richard slipped the Wand back into his pack. “Are we ready to go?”
“Almost – where’s your horse?” Jennifer asked.
“Oh, I don’t need one. I can run fast enough to keep up,” Richard said.
Alice frowned at him dubiously. “Really?”
“Really! Don’t you worry about me. Worry about those giants. I know I am.”
Alice shrugged. “If you’re sure. . . .” She threw a leg over her horse and pulled herself into the saddle. “I guess we’re ready to go, then.”
“Hi-ho, Silver,” Marty agreed, mounting up. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“I’ve never heard of theater on horseback before,” Richard said, in a tone that made it impossible to tell if he were joking or not. “But perhaps this isn’t the best time.”
“Let’s just ride,” Doc said, shaking his head a little.
The others mounted up, and they were off, heading for the outskirts of town. Richard proved to be as good as his word, leaping and bounding next to the horses with nary a care. In fact, he outpaced them once with his long strides. He directed a triumphant smirk at Alice as they caught up. “Yes, yes, I shall never doubt you again,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
Riding (and running) hard, they soon left the town behind, heading for a thick forest not far away. “What do they call this place?” Marty asked as they approached.
“The Wood Where Things Have No Name,” Richard said. “It’s said that, if you get lost in it, you’ll forget what names things are supposed to have, starting with yourself. There’s many very clearly marked footpaths to keep that from happening.”
“I doubt giants are going to live on footpaths,” Alice said.
“I’d be very surprised if they did – people would notice houses on footpaths.”
“I actually wouldn’t be surprised if they lived not too far from the footpaths,” Victor said. “Particularly this family of three. . .” He shivered. “E-easy pickings for food.”
“Oh, God, that’s true,” Victoria said, shivering. “And it reminds me – how many people have died in that wood?”
“Er – I don’t think many. Anyone who gets lost just sort of disappears. . . Oh, yes, you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, aren’t you?” Richard gave Victor an embarrassed look. “I don’t think you’ll have a problem.”
“We won’t know until we go in,” Victor agreed with a sigh. “Hopefully it won’t be one of those situations where I have to stay outside for the sake of my own sanity. I hate feeling so – useless.”
“I hope not either, but please don’t try to force things if it is,” Alice said, reaching over to touch his shoulder. “I’ve seen you when death takes you over. I don’t want you to have to suffer like that again.”
“Neither do I,” Victor whispered. “I promise – if it’s too much, I’ll stay behind. No matter how much it annoys me.”
They reached the borders of the forest, and the start of one of the footpaths. They paused for a moment, looking at the shaded, dappled light, and the thicker darkness around the worn track. A feeling of foreboding fell upon the majority of the group. It seemed the path was a trap, a false light to lead them into eternal night.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Marty asked, spurring his horse forward. “We’ve got stuff to kill.” He rode a few feet along the path, then stopped again and looked back at the others. “Come on, guys!”
Victor shook his head. “Some days, I think it would be so much easier and happier to be him,” he mumbled, then urged his horse on. He closed his eyes as they passed the borders of the forest, waiting for the telltale rush of coldness and the suffocating press of millions of memories to drive him back.
To his immense relief, they never came. He could feel his godfather’s presence, yes, but wasn’t nearly as strong as he’d feared. Though. . . . “I’ll be all right – and I think know where at least some of these monsters are,” he said, looking at the others. “I’ve got a feeling something like I had when I entered Barkis’s house. Not as strong yet, but – there’s a lot of death in that direction a few miles on.” He pointed to the left.
“Great!” Marty grinned. “All we gotta do is figure out the best way for you to get past it while we take care of whoever or whatever’s living there!”
“That’s easier said that done,” Victoria said, frowning. “How far away do you think you have to be to get around the area without falling into the madness place?”
“I could stand it outside the threshold of your house. . .how far away was the study from the front door?”
“I’m not sure, it was a very large house. . .thirty or forty feet?”
“That’s not too bad,” Emily said, trying to be positive.
“No, but the real danger comes in wandering off the footpath,” Victor said, looking into the unwelcoming trees beyond the trail’s borders. “I don’t want to get lost and forget how to get back. And that’s something you’ll have to consider as well.”
“I’ve got a wish on my watch – shall I wish for us always know the way back to the path?” Doc said, pulling out the watch.
“Sounds good to me,” Jennifer said. “Any objections?”
“None at all,” Victoria said, the others nodding their agreement with that. “Please, Doc, go ahead.”
“Good. I wish that, no matter where we go in the forest, we will always find the quickest way back to this path.”
There was the customary flash of light, and a faint tingling in the bodies of the travelers. “Peculiar,” Richard said with a little shiver. “Does that always happen?”
“The light, yes, but the tingling depends on the wish,” Doc said. “All right – Victor, you should be good to venture as far off the path as you need to.” He ruffled in his packs and produced a small lantern, which he lit and handed over. “Take this with you, and keep your hammer at the ready. The giants may be the most dangerous things in these woods, but they’re probably not the only dangerous things.”
“I’m sure they are not,” Victor nodded, taking the lantern gratefully. “I wish the rest of you the best of luck. I’ll meet up with you on the other side.” With a small wave, he rode off into the woods, holding the lantern up high to light his way through the trees.
The others watched him go. “I hope he’ll be all right,” Emily murmured.
“He generally is,” Marty said. “And he’s still got his magic medicine on him, so even if he does get hurt, he can heal himself up fast. Come on, let’s make sure he doesn’t have to be by his lonesome for too long.” He rode onward, the others following.
After a few miles, a strange smell began to permeate the air. Alice sniffed curiously. “Is that – pork?”
“I think so,” Richard said, taking a long sniff through his oversized nose. “It could be bacon. It’s something related to pig, to be sure.”
“Do you think that might be coming from the giants?” Emily asked. “Would they eat pork and bacon?”
“Gotta have something to snack on between people, right?” Marty said. “Victor said it was about here and to the left. . . .” He got down and tied his horse to a tree. “Don’t want him scaring,” he explained as the others looked at him curiously. “Or getting eaten. I don’t think they’re fussy about what they eat.”
“Good idea,” Doc nodded, doing the same. “The last thing we need are skittish animals – or dead ones.”
The others tied up their horses, then followed Marty into the trees, taking lanterns with them to light the way. After a short walk, they came to a depression with a clearing in it. And in that clearing was – well, calling it a house would have been far too generous. It was really just three-quarters of a kitchen – three walls and a floor. Granted, it was three very large walls and a massive floor, but still. The open side was facing the travelers, giving them a good view of what lay inside.
It wasn’t pleasant. The walls and floors were stained with blood, and bones littered the area outside the house. Bloodstained knives and forks hung on rusty hooks on one wall, while another contained shelves of spices, and hanging chunks of meat left out to dry. Nobody cared to try and identify what kind of meat it was. There was also a large iron stove, and on it an equally large iron pot from which the smell of pig issued. And standing by the pot, stirring it with a long spoon, was the first of the giants. It was a female, very plump, and dressed in the headdress and gown of a Duchess, as Richard had said earlier. But she was also the ugliest creature anyone had ever seen. Her face was a wrinkled and sagging mess. Both her chin and nose were nearly nonexistent – her nose in particular looked like one you’d see on a corpse who’d lost its cartilage. Her eyes were small and beady, and filled with bloodlust. And her mouth was far too wide, and the teeth inside a nasty yellowish color. All in all, she was no doubt the type of woman most would run screaming from in fear.
A door in the back of the room slammed open, and two more giants stumped in. These two were men, though they seemed younger than the ugly duchess. The first was huge and hunchbacked, his head looking almost like it had been stuck into the middle of his chest. His general shape was that of a gigantic egg. The second was smaller, and rather more normally proportioned, though he was still large and heavy. He had the appearance of having been squeezed at the top, forcing all the fat in him downward. The two shared similar faces, with large, downturned mouths and flat white eyes. They were also dressed identically, with white pants, striped shirts of red and white, and red beanies, with wooden swords belted around their waists.
At the moment, they were also both carrying a large load of pig snouts. “Here you are, Mum,” the smaller of the two said. “All freshly peppered.”
“Thank you, Tweedle-Dum, Tweedle-Dee,” the duchess said, not looking up from her cooking. “So good to your poor mother.”
“When will we get to eat the good stuff again, Mother?” the larger of the men asked in a dull, stupid voice.
“Soon,” the duchess replied, and gave a terrible laugh. “But you’ll have to be satisfied with the pig for now. Besides, I want to prepare it for when we do have – ‘guests.’ Everything’s better with bacon, don’t you agree? Of course you do.”
“Disgusting ogre,” Alice whispered, glaring at the woman. “They all are.”
“Why pig snouts?” Victoria had to ask. “Surely there are nicer parts to eat. I’ve never heard of anyone eating the snout before.”
“Ours not to question why,” Richard said. “Ours to do or die. Preferably the former.” He looked around the group. “Anyone have a good idea on how we kill those monsters?”
“Wouldn’t mind one of them choking on their own stew,” Marty mumbled, making a face at the pot.
“Deliciously karmic, but sadly, not something we can count on. Any other suggestions?”
The fatter of the boys suddenly looked up. “Mum! I think I hear something!”
“Do you?” The duchess looked up as the group quickly ducked behind the rise in the earth. “Oh, we may have guests sooner than we think.” She raised her voice. “Hello, little chickadees! The Duchess welcomes you to her home! You may approach!”
“We’d love to get to know you better!” the smaller of the two boys added, in what he probably thought were wheedling tones. With a voice as nasal as his, however, it was impossible to pull off “wheedling” – it simply became unpleasant.
“Yeah, we’d love to get to know you better too, but I think we can do that from up here!” Marty called back. “Hey, which one of you is Dum, and which Dee?”
“I’m Dum, and he’s Dee,” the smaller boy said, pointing at himself and his brother in turn. “What’s your name?”
“Marty. So you guys are pork lovers, huh?”
“Most of the time,” Dee said, and snickered cruelly. “How about you come down and we’ll show you what our real favorite meat is.”
“First tell me why the hell you like pig snouts. What’s wrong the rest of the pig?”
“Oh, nothing – but the snout is the absolute best part,” the Duchess said, picking one up. “Especially when peppered. Come here and try one!”
“I’m not eating any raw pig, lady.”
“Yeah, haven’t you heard? You can get really, really sick by eating uncooked or improperly cooked pig,” Jennifer added, figuring it was worth a shot at unsettling them.
It seemed to work – the three giants looked at each other, a ghost of nervousness passing over their faces. “We have not been informed of this fact,” the Duchess admitted. “What illness do you speak of, young lady?”
“Keep her talking, and we’ll figure out something to do,” Doc whispered. “Richard, do you think it’s worth breaking out the ice wand?”
“Probably not – but I do have some packets of my special Kaboom Tea in here,” Richard said, riffling around in his bag. “And my hat’s got a launcher built right in!”
“Excellent! Please tell me you’ve got something to boil water.”
“Self-heating teapot and a bottle from my sink right here! We’ll need about three minutes to properly steep it, though.”
“It’s called something weird and long that starts with a ‘T,’” Jennifer was telling the giants. “But it puts worms in your body. And they gnaw and gnaw and gnaw until you’re nothing left but a skeleton!”
“I like skeletons!” Dee said, apparently unbothered by the idea of becoming one. “You crack open the bones to get at the marrow inside. Yummy.”
“Idiot!” Dum snapped, slapping his brother upside the – chest, being too small to reach his head. “You think you could eat yourself?”
“I might be delicious.”
“You might be a dumbarse!”
“Boys, boys, please,” the Duchess said. “How do we avoid such a terrible fate?”
“Well, you’ve got to cook your meat for just the right amount of time, and at just the right temperature. . .I think four hundred degrees at a hour should do it.”
“Celsius or Fahrenheit?”
Jennifer blinked. “Uh, the latter’s all I’ve heard about. . . .”
Doc couldn’t resist poking his head above the lip of the cliff. “How on earth do you know about Celsius?” he demanded. “Most regular human beings have no idea what it is, much less giants!”
“What is Celsius?” Marty asked, genuinely curious.
“It’s a scientific way of measuring temperature. It runs on a zero to one hundred scale, where zero is freezing and one hundred is boiling. It’s much easier to deal with than the vagaries of the Fahrenheit system,” Doc explained.
“Please – just because we are giants doesn’t mean we are uneducated,” the Duchess said, putting what passed for a nose for her in the air.
“Yeah, we’ve eaten lots of smart people,” Dee said.
Dum sighed deeply, taking off his hat and rubbing his hairless head. “You loudmouth,” he grumbled. “We were trying to get them to come down on their own, so we didn’t have to run up there and get them!”
“To be fair, guys, we already know about you liking to eat people,” Marty said, with a somewhat sarcastic smile. “We just figured it was worth the time to try and get to know the people who might be sucking the marrow out of our bones.”
“See? He gets it!” Dee said with a dim, happy smile, pointing a fat finger at the teenager.
“. . .He’s making fun of us, Dee,” Dum said, looking up at the heavens as if to ask the creator why he had been cursed with a brother of such subhuman intelligence.
“We were trying to make this easier for you,” the Duchess snapped, giving up on her stirring. “It’s easier for everyone if you just come along of your own accord and let us pop you into the pot. And you get a decent conversation out of it as well! But if you insist on being rude and difficult. . .go fetch them, boys, and Mummy shall make you a delicious liver cake!”
“Richard, how’s the tea coming?” Doc asked urgently as the two Tweedles began to make their laborious way up to the cliff.
“It’s almost done, but I need a little more time! I can’t exactly rush this process, otherwise the tea might blow up on us!” Richard said, waving a hand as he crouched over his teapot.
“I’ll keep them from getting any closer,” Alice declared and stood up, pulling her blade. “Stop right there or I’ll make you wish you’d never been born!”
The boys did indeed stop, but just to look up at the woman who was threatening them. “Well, look at that, Dee! You think she’s got anything worth eating on her?” Dum asked.
“Doubt it,” Dee said, scratching his head in a manner reminiscent of a gorilla. “If she had any meat on her, she’d make a delectable dish.”
“In both senses of the word,” Dum agreed, leering.
Alice’s eyes blazed bright green with her fury. “Despicable, grotesque, and smelly louts! I’ll fill your bellies all right!” She ran forward and launched herself off the side of the little cliff, her skirts puffing out with air as she seemed almost to float to Dee’s head. The giant, not expecting such a brash attack at all, screamed and flailed as she drove her blade straight into his blank white eye. “Dee!” Dum cried, and drew his wooden sword. “Off my brother, you lunatic!”
This was naturally about the worst thing he could have said. With a shriek that seemed to send the very trees flying back, Alice turned on him, slashing with her Vorpal Blade so fast it seemed to cut the very air. Dum roared with pain as his face became a mess of cuts and blood. Dee tried to drag her off, only for her to pull her hatchet and bury it in his chest. “My babies!” the Duchess shrieked, and snatched up a pepper grinder lying on a nearby counter. “Come closer, my little chick!” she growled, approaching the scene of the battle. “Properly seasoned, you’d make a handsome dish!”
“I’m not edible,” Alice retorted, leaping off Dum so she could face the giant noblewoman properly.
“Not a full meal, certainly, but perhaps a light snack? Your bones will make a excellent stock for my soups!” She cranked the handle of the grinder, sending out grains of pepper like bullets. Alice rolled away from the attack. “Yours and those of your cowardly friends! Cowering up there like the rabbits they are!”
“I’m no rabbit!” Marty yelled, and leaped to his feet. “Or a coward! You want to face the both of us, fine by me!” He jumped over the edge of the cliff, landing on his feet and jabbing at the toes of Dum, who had stumbled over to meet him. He easily batted away the giant’s clumsy wooden sword and punctured his great gut. “Half expecting you to deflate like a balloon,” he confessed with a smirk.
Alice was still dodging pepper grains. “Why don’t you come out from behind that grinder and face me like a real woman?” she demanded.
“How dare you insinuate I’m not a real woman?! As if you’re anything more than a mere slip of a girl!”
“Prove it, then!”
“Fine! It’s been a while since I’ve had fresh brains!” Throwing aside her grinder, she stormed up to Alice and grabbed her by the middle. As Alice stabbed at the giantess’s fat fingers, the Duchess opened her mouth wide.
A teacup came sailing over the scene, trailing steam in a thin cloud behind it. The Duchess raised her head to watch it curiously. This proved almost immediately to be a mistake – the teacup smashed into her face and exploded, sending hot green tea and shards of china everywhere. The giantess screamed and dropped Alice, clawing at her burnt face. “My skin! My beautiful alabaster skin!”
“You have no idea what that word means, do you?” Alice said, getting back to her feet and driving her blade deep into the Duchess’s leg. “Horrible wretch.”
More teacups came flying over the edge, slamming into Dee and Dum. The already severely injured men flopped over on the ground as the explosions stole the last of their life from their bodies. A final cup ended the Duchess’s wails of agony for good. Just to be sure of the matter, though, Marty and Alice took a moment to cut the throats of all three of the ugly family, as deep as they could. “Thanks, Richard!” Marty called up to his friend. “That wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it might be.”
“I think I have to agree,” Alice confessed, looking at the crumpled bodies. “I really expected them to put up more of a fight.”
“I would wager that was a result of sloth,” Doc said, looking over at them. “Judging by what that Duchess said, they haven’t had to fight for their dinner in a long while. They probably weren’t used to having to go into battle anymore.”
“All the better for us,” Alice said, giving Dee’s corpse a kick. She looked contemplatively into the room that had served as the giant’s home. “Shall I see if there’s anything worth taking in the kitchen?”
“What on earth could we want from a house owned by cannibalistic giants?” Victoria asked, staring at Alice as if she’d gone mad.
“Well, that fork wouldn’t make a bad weapon. . .perhaps as a trident for Victor? He does well enough with his old toasting fork.”
“That would only work if he could touch it,” Emily pointed out.
“Ah, good point. It probably is a little too soaked with death, isn’t it. . . .” Alice sighed, then went over and lifted the Duchess’s pepper grinder with a grunt. “I want this, though. It seems to be a most useful gun.”
“Alice, it’s half the size of you,” Jennifer pointed out. “I know you love your big guns, and that’s probably a better one for general use than the blunderbuss, but how are you going to hold and fire it?”
“I’ve got a shrinking solution.”
Everyone turned to look at Richard. “You what?” Doc repeated.
“A shrinking solution,” Richard repeated. “Or, I should say, I have the recipe for one – I haven’t been able to brew any in a while. It’s been a terrible year for poppies. But if we can find some poppy blooms – or better yet, lollipoppy blooms – I can make some once we get back. That’ll shrink it down to a much more convenient size.”
“You see?” Alice said with a grin.
“Yes, yes, take the gun,” Jennifer said, rolling her eyes a little. “It’s too bad you couldn’t make any of that stuff for this trip,” she added to Richard as Doc, Victoria, and Emily got out rope to help Marty and Alice back over the edge. “Being able to shrink the giants to ant size would have been really helpful.”
“Don’t I know it,” Richard said, looking a bit grumpy. “I wouldn’t have worried nearly as much if the damn poppies had been blooming. Miserable weather. But I hold out hope that we might find some wild ones. All sorts of things grow in this forest, after all. Maybe we’ll come across some of those flowers that light up when you pass.”
“Oh, I hope so,” Jennifer said, right before going to help haul her boyfriend up the rope. “They sound beautiful.”
They got Marty and Alice back on top of the cliff. After taking a moment to catch their breaths and make sure they had everything, they headed back to their horses, Emily helping Alice carry her pepper grinder. Fortunately their animals were standing unharmed just where they’d been left, grazing quietly on the grass. Alice made sure her horse could bear the weight of her new weapon before tying it in place. “Good horse,” she murmured, patting its nose. “I’ll give you some extra carrots for all of this, don’t worry.” Looking ahead, she added, “I hope Victor hasn’t gotten into trouble.”
“Let’s go make sure,” Marty said, swinging himself into the saddle. The others followed suit, and they all rode off, eyes peeled for their missing compatriot.
As they continued up the path, the ground suddenly shook as if with an earthquake. Everyone pulled up short as a loud crash boomed out through the air. “What the hell was that?” Jennifer asked, looking around.
There was the sound of trees being smashed and splintered nearby, and another enormous “THUD.” “I don’t know, but it sounds to me like, whatever it is, it’s huge,” Alice said. “And it seems to be right where we sent Victor.” Without another word, she put her heels to her horse, racing forward. The others followed, giving each other anxious glances (or, in the case of Marty, merely curious ones).
They found Victor’s horse standing on the path about a mile ahead. Victor himself was, thankfully, standing unharmed about twenty feet away, watching something in the forest. “What do you think you’re doing?” Alice asked, dismounting and joining him.
In response, Victor pointed forward. The woman looked to see a massive unicorn – at least twice as tall as Victor – lifting itself from the ground. It was the traditional white one saw in all the paintings and tapestries, but its coat was stained with splashes of read and smears of brown and green. Its mane and tail were a shimmering silver, tangled and wild – and in the tail’s case, filled with branches and brambles. Its hooves were golden, and looked unnaturally sharp. The real terror of the beast, however, was in its face. Both its horn and its eyes glowed with the same golden light – but there was nothing good about this light. It was the kind that blinded the eye and brought pain to all who looked upon it. And the mouth below the eyes was downturned in an expression of fury, froth flying from the gleaming teeth. All in all, this unicorn suggested rage and dominance, rather than sweet virginity.
It got its feet, let out a whinny that sounded more like a roar, and charged into the deeper darkness of the trees. There was a yowl that sounded like one you might hear from a house cat, only deeper and more bellowing. Moments later, a great lion, the same size as the unicorn, was thrown out into the impromptu clearing, knocking over a tree as it fell. Much like its opponent, it resembled a crueller, larger version of the animal the watchers were familiar with. Its coat was tawny, though cut and slashed and splattered with red. Its mane was huge and red, with dark brown patches where blood had soaked in and dried the hair into spikes. Its tail was long and constantly twitching. Its eyes were brown, but there was a fire in them that could not be denied. And its teeth and claws were as long and as sharp as Marty’s sword, and red with blood. It roared its fury and ran back to revenge itself upon the unicorn.
The others had gathered behind Victor and Alice as this went on. “Whoa,” Marty said.
“We’re supposed to kill those?” Emily squeaked.
“I’m not entirely sure we have to kill them both,” Victor said, as the unicorn was thrown out again. “I think, if we wait, one of them will do the work for us. They certainly seem to be poised to kill each other.”
“I wonder what their problem is?” Marty asked, tilting his head. “Did the lion try to eat the unicorn?”
“Are there any crowns around this part they might be fighting over?” Richard suggested. When everyone gave him a weird look, he added, “You know, like in the rhyme?”
“If there’s a king of the forest, I would wager he’s fled to get away from the violence plaguing his domain,” Alice said, as the unicorn ran back to the lion. “Still, it’s good to know where they are. And Victor’s right – if one of them kills the other, we’re ahead of the game. Even if they don’t, I think they’ll end up too exhausted to put up much of a fight against us.”
“Makes you wonder how much of a danger they really are to others,” Victoria asked. “I mean – can’t we just leave them to fight and kill each other? They don’t even seem to notice us.”
The lion was flung out into the clearing again, knocking over more trees. One crashed down dangerously close to the group, causing a few “eeps!” and hurried jumps backward. “I think there’s your answer,” Alice said, frowning at the tree. “Even if their only interest is in fighting each other, they’re too much of a hazard to anyone else in the forest.”
“And they are moving as they fight – they started over there,” Victor said, pointing. “If they ran into a village, the damage could be catastrophic even without them actively trying to eat or gore anyone.”
“Yes, I see your point,” Victoria admitted, poking the tree with a finger.
“Not to mention I was charged with killing at least six giants,” Richard added. “I don’t think the royal court would be happy if I left two alive for almost no reason at all. We’ll try to make it as painless as possible for them.”
Since the fight didn’t seem likely to end anytime soon, the group left the pair to it for the moment and set up a little camp on the opposite side of the footpath. After making sure the horses hadn’t been too bothered by the sounds of the battle, they went ahead and refreshed themselves with lunch. “Richard, do you still have any Kaboom Tea?” Doc asked.
“Two cupfuls in the hat,” Richard said, touching the brim of his tall top hat. “Shall I use them on these two, or save them for the remaining battles?”
“We might be able to spare one – but I’d save the final cup as an emergency measure against the possible dragon we may need to fight,” Doc replied, sipping his water. “It’s powerful stuff.”
“It is,” Richard said proudly. “I’m glad I thought to pack some.”
“I think Marty’s sword and my axe and blade should be sufficient for these monsters,” Alice said. “Their hides don’t look any tougher than those of their normal brethren.”
“Yes, but currently they’re fighting each other,” Doc pointed out. “Their natural weaponry is probably tougher as well. We’ll only find out once we go on the attack.”
“All right, good point. But I’m quite certain that we’ll be able to puncture their flesh nonetheless.”
“I still can’t help feeling a little bad for them,” Victoria admitted, looking sadly down at her food. “They don’t seem really all that evil. Not like that horrible family.”
“Perhaps not, but they’re still incredibly dangerous,” Alice said. “We’ll try to make it quick for them. That’s all we really can do.”
“I know, I know. And I don’t want anyone getting hurt because of their fighting. Maybe it’ll be a mercy just in the sense of making them stop.”
“Maybe,” Emily agreed, running her fingers along her skeletal arm. “We’ll see.”
After lunch, they returned to the clearing where the two giant animals were fighting. The pair were still going at it, but it was easy to see that they were both weakening – it took them longer to get up once they were knocked down, and their bodies were even more battered, bruised, and bloodstained than before. “I don’t think we’ll have long to wait now,” Doc commented. “Do we use the Kaboom Tea or keep it in reserve?”
“I think it’s best to keep it for the next fight,” Richard said, observing the combatants for a long moment. “These two seem on their last legs already. It might be a waste to use something so powerful on creatures that look near collapse already.”
“All right. Guess there’s nothing for it but to see who ends up the victor.”
They watched and waited as the lion and the unicorn threw themselves at each other again and again. For a little while, it seemed that Doc had been wrong, and the two would go on forever out of sheer spite. Eventually, though, both collapsed to the ground and didn’t get up again. Richard peered curiously at the bodies. “Goodness, did they really kill each other? Does that count as a win for us or not?”
“Maybe not as a win for us, but definitely a win,” Jennifer said.
Victor shook his head. “They’re not dead – my godfather’s here, but he hasn’t claimed them yet. Look, you can see they’re still breathing.”
“Barely,” Marty said, pulling his sword. “And neither of them look very happy.” He nodded at his fellow fighter. “Come on, Alice – let’s put them out of their misery.”
The two approached the beasts – Marty striding confidently up to the lion, Alice approaching the unicorn a bit more cautiously. Her caution was warranted as the animal noticed and attempted to kick her, hooves thrashing the air as it whinnied and snorted rage. “Oh, do stop that,” Alice said, ducking around the flailing legs. “You may as well face death with dignity.”
The unicorn huffed and snapped at her like it thought it was in truth an alligator. Alice pulled her blade and considered the creature’s throat, looking for its veins and arteries. “Time to see how tough your hide really is,” she finally said, and lunged forward.
As it turned out, it wasn’t tough enough to resist her blade. Blood spurted as the keen steel punctured the jugular vein. Alice drew her axe as well and set to work slicing the creature’s throat as quickly as she could, not wanting it to suffer. Even so, the creature still neighed and thrashed in pain before she could properly complete the job.
Finally, though, it was still. Alice stood a moment over it, head bowed, eyes closed, as the light in its eyes (and horn) went out. “Fare thee well, good unicorn. If only you’d chosen somewhere else to have your bout.”
Marty, meanwhile, bothered with no such niceties. Dodging the weak swipes of the lion’s long claws, he stabbed the creature straight in the heart, twisting the sword to finish it off all the faster. The lion let out a last roar, then lay still. Marty patted it on the side. “Sorry, buddy, but I think it was either you or us.”
“Poor things,” Victoria repeated as the two fighters rejoined the group. “I wonder if the Centipede’s much the same?”
“If it is, maybe we can figure out a nonlethal way of getting rid of it,” Richard promised. “But we’ll have to go and find it first.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a centipede before,” Emily said contemplatively as they remounted their horses and began following the path again. “What do they look like?”
“Long with lots and lots of legs,” Marty said.
“And pincers – well, the proper name is forcipules, otherwise known as venom claws.” Victor added. “Their name means ‘hundred foot,’ but they can actually have anywhere from under twenty to over three hundred feet. Oh, did you know they always have an odd number of leg pairs? As in, they can have fifteen, seventeen, nineteen leg pairs, but never sixteen or eighteen. The largest of the normal sort can be a foot long – though I expect this one to be bigger, naturally, if it’s described as a giant. . . . They’re often drably colored, and they need to live in a moist environment because they lose water easily through their exoskeleton. They can be found almost anywhere in the world despite that, though. And--”
He paused as he realized everyone was staring at him. Embarrassed, he ducked his head. “I – m-may have had a childhood interest in entomology and arthropodology,” he admitted with a weak grin.
“More like a childhood obsession,” Alice said, looking like she was fighting the urge to laugh. “You’re a walking encyclopedia, aren’t you?”
“I don’t try to be. . . .”
“Try now,” Doc said, face serious. “Any information you can give us on centipedes could come in very useful against the one we’re about to fight.”
“I think I told you most of what I know. Well, besides them being carnivorous. I’m afraid my studies have always focused the most on lepidopterology – the study of butterflies,” he clarified upon receiving a number of politely blank looks.
“Butterflies?” Marty repeated, arching an eyebrow.
Victor blushed harder. “I – I know isn’t really m-manly of me, but – I like them. They’re beautiful creatures, and – I’ve always wanted to k-know what it felt like to fly. . . .”
“It’s all right, I like them too,” Alice said, smiling. “They really are beautiful. And flying. . .well, who hasn’t wanted to try it?”
“There were some blue ones in my old town that I just used to love,” Emily said wistfully. “They seemed to float on the breeze so gracefully and delicately. . .and the way they looked in the moonlight!”
“If they were out at night, doesn’t that make them moths?” Marty asked.
“Not necessarily – there’s a few nocturnal butterflies,” Victor said. “Moths are generally thicker with fuzzier bodies and general brown coloration. They’re pretty easy to tell from butterflies.”
“Even if they were moths, they were incredibly pretty ones,” Emily nodded. “I wish we were fighting a butterfly. That we would know couldn’t harm us. What could a butterfly do to anyone?”
“A giant one? Probably knock you down with its wings,” Alice suggested.
“And they do sometimes drink blood, or gather on dung or carrion as it decomposes,” Victor added. “It’s how they absorb salt and other important nutrients.”
“. . .You may have just ruined butterflies for me for life, Victor,” Emily said, making a face.
Victor winced. “S-sorry. Sometimes I get caught up in the facts without thinking about how they might sound to other people.”
“No harm done, I think,” Alice reassured him. “You may have just convinced Marty that butterflies are more manly than he ever imagined.” That got a round of chuckles from the others, and a tentative smile from the young insect studier.
They continued on through the forest, watching as the trees got closer and thicker than ever before. “I do hope this footpath goes all the way through,” Victoria said, peering forward with worry written all over her face. “It would be rather – inconvenient to find it ended in the deepest, thickest part of the forest.”
“They should all go clear from one side to the other,” Richard commented, jogging alongside her and Emily. “If this one doesn’t, it means someone’s been tampering with it.”
“Hopefully none of our giants are smart enough to try that,” Doc commented.
A sudden angry hiss in the trees to their right made them all jerk their heads around. Barely visible in the gloom of the branches was a figure – though clearly not a human one. Victor leaned forward and squinted. “It looks like – an ant?” he said, sounding confused.
The ant creature hissed again and turned, scrambling away into the dark. “Looks like we’ve got a whole bunch of crazy huge insects to deal with,” Marty commented. “Do we go after him?”
“He hasn’t done us any harm yet,” Victoria pointed out.
“On the other hand, he could be raising an alarm,” Doc said. “Some quiet tailing wouldn’t go amiss, I think. Marty, Alice, Victor, and Richard, you’re with me. Jennifer, Victoria, and Emily, you stay here and keep an eye on the horses.”
“Right,” Jennifer said, looking quite content to be left behind. She leaned over and kissed Marty. “If you do get into a fight, come back in one piece, all right?”
“I always do,” Marty told her with a smile, slipping off his horse. “We’ll be sooner or later – hopefully sooner.”
“We’ll be here,” Emily promised, then caught Richard’s hand. “And you come back in one piece too, understand?”
“I’ll do my best,” Richard promised, laying his free hand over hers. “It would be rather inconvenient to lose a limb and not be able to hold your hand half of the time.” Emily giggled.
“Come on, time’s a wasting,” Marty said, waving a hand. Richard gave Emily’s one last squeeze before joining the others. “You guys stay safe here!”
“You too!” Jennifer said.
“We’ll do our best,” Alice promised, then plunged into the woods. The men followed behind, weapons at the ready.
It was rather hard to track the trail of the ant in the gloom of the forest, but the single lantern Doc had brought was adequate enough to light their way. After some time maneuvering though brambles and branches, and avoiding fallen tree limbs and hidden dips, they came across a most peculiar sight – a large wooden “cave,” with the front fashioned to look like the open jaw of a nutcracker. “Someone has a weird idea of how to decorate,” Marty commented.
“I rather like nutcrackers, but I wouldn’t want to live in one,” Alice agreed. “I’d always be afraid the jaws would snap shut at just the wrong moment.”
“You wretched and pathetic excuses for warriors! Form a line!”
The rough voice took them all by surprise. Moving forward, they peered into the jaws of the cave to see a most disturbing sight. Red ants by the dozens swarmed the area, the majority of them dressed in the blue shirts and gold epaulets of olden soldiers. Here and there was an ant in the green jacket of a general. Almost all of blue shirts carried a rifle with a long bayonet blade, while the green jackets carried swords and what looked like a supply of metal eggs. “What are those?” Marty asked.
“Grenades,” Doc said, awed. “They’re very rare because of their instability. They’re basically containers filled with gunpowder that you arm and throw.”
“Like Richard’s Kaboom Tea?”
“. . .Yes, actually, only there’s no liquid component that I know of.”
The ants were scurrying to and fro, apparently trying to form some sort of orderly line but not knowing where it should start. It could have been that they were distracted from this task by the colossus before them. Towering over the man-sized ants was easily the ugliest creature any of them had ever seen – and that included the Terror Dog. It was a disgusting shade of brown, with many long legs and a pair of sharp claw-like appendages near its mouth. The mouth itself seem stuck in a permanent sneer, and one could see sharp teeth behind whatever passed for lips. Two large black eyes glistening with malice completed a head that would show no mercy to anyone. The creature wore a blue jacket, like some of the ants, and a large helmet with a vicious spike atop it. It waved its rather stubby arms at the forming armies. “Bring the intruders to my den! I will punish their insolence and dispose of them!”
Marty glanced at Victor. “Well?”
“It’s a centipede,” Victor confirmed, shuddering. “Though rather different from the ones I occasionally caught in the forest near our house. But there’s really no mistaking the number of legs, or the forcipules.”
“Apparently a very militaristic centipede,” Richard commented. “Are those army ants? I’m not even making a pun – though you could make a good pun about all of this – I genuinely wish to know.”
“I believe they are – the red coloration suggests it,” Victor nods. “I have no idea why they exist, though.”
“We have no idea why there’s a giant centipede around either,” Alice said. “We may as well just accept that he has an Army Ant army – redundant as that sounds. Of course, this brings up another question for our consideration: do we have to slaughter all of the ants as well, or will they be open to peace once we slay their leader?”
“Hopefully the latter – I think all this killing is wearing on Victoria,” Richard said, eying the centipede. “Good thing she’s not here to see all this. Kaboom Tea, do you think?”
“Might as well try a cup,” Doc nodded. “At any rate, it should help clear out some of the ants.”
Richard nodded and armed his hat. Moments later, a mechanical arm emerged and tossed a hot cup of tea into the forming ranks. There was an explosion, a burst of green smoke, and then angry and frightened screeching from the ants. “Fools! They’re here already!” the centipede roared. “I will deal with them myself!”
There was a slight rumbling as the Centipede emerged from his hole, black eyes glaring around as he searched for his tormentors. He quickly spotted the five by the side of the cave. “You attack me inside my own cave? Such a reckless and foolish act will be your last!” He began advancing, slowly but surely.
Alice grabbed her knife. “I do believe threatening us is even more reckless and foolish,” she said, running up to him with obvious intent to stab. “Which means it’s likely to be your – ow!”
She stumbled backward as she came within range of the legs that protruded from what might be called a midsection. “Bloody--” She tried again to get within range of the creature’s “chest,” only to be forced back again. “Damn it! His legs are as sharp as my knife!”
“Let me try,” Marty said, coming to her side with his sword drawn. “I’ll hack ‘em off, and then we can try to--”
Before he could finish, the Centipede lunged down with his sharp maw, picking them up and shaking them before tossing them aside. Alice fell at the base of a tree – Marty, not quite so lucky, smacked into it. “Ow!” he snapped, rubbing his shoulder where one of the creature’s teeth had penetrated his shirt. “Asshole! You okay, Alice?”
“I’ve been better,” Alice said, rubbing a cut on her arm and frowning at the blood on her fingers. “But neither am I in any danger of dying yet, so don’t worry yourself about me.”
“I didn’t think I had to yet – you’re tough as nails,” Marty complimented her. “And I think that old bug did us a favor. . .” Grabbing his sword from where it had fallen, he ran up to the Centipede’s backside and thrust it into the “tail” section.
Or, well, he tried to. The sword’s blade bounced off the arthropod’s thick exoskeleton. Marty made a couple more attempts, trying to wedge the tip of the blade into a crack. Unfortunately, he had no luck. “God damn, why are you so hard to kill. . . .”
The Centipede turned its head toward him, then spat. Marty was about to comment on him being rude as well when he noticed two little scorpion-like bugs skittering toward him, glowing a faint red. Puzzled, he speared one on the tip of his sword. “Did you just – spit these things out? What the hell do they do?”
He quickly found out when the other leapt on him and drove sharp fangs into his back, just above his neck. “OW! What the – get off me!” Marty yelled angrily, trying to yank the creature off his torso. “Oh, you are such a dick, you – you--”
The Centipede merely laughed, then lowered his head and charged at the remaining three men, who scattered to avoid being impaled on the sharp spike of its helmet. “Well – already he’s much tougher than the lion and the unicorn,” Richard said, darting behind a tree for extra safety. “Which seems completely backwards, but there you are.”
“That’s what comes of fighting giants who can think,” Doc said, crouching behind a fallen log.
“And who apparently have some sort of military background,” Alice added. “At least he’s not armed, like his little minions.”
“He doesn’t need to be – he can just vomit up shit to hurt you,” Marty said, finally detaching the bug from his back. He stabbed it, flung the corpse away, then rubbed at the puncture marks just beneath his neck. “Ouch. . . . You are paying for this, you jerk!” He swung his sword at one of the Centipede’s legs –
Only for the blade to bounce off again. “Oh come on!” Is this natural, Victor?”
“Not to my knowledge!” Victor said, scrambling up a tree. “Centipedes shouldn’t be armored in the same way as, say, a ladybug! Goodness, part of the reason they need to live in moist areas is because they lose water so easily through their skin!”
“I am a warrior!” the Centipede proclaimed. “I have hardened myself against all attack! You puny wretches have no chance of defeating me!” With that, he rammed the tree Victor was in, shaking the poor unfortunate boy loose. Victor fell back to the ground, only avoiding injury by landing in a pile of old sticks and leaves.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what the Duchess and her ugly kids though too,” Marty said, glaring at the Centipede’s back. “We proved them very, very wrong. Can’t say about the lion and the unicorn, they kind of were too busy beating each other up to chat. . . .”
The Centipede turned briefly and spat out more of the scorpion bloodsuckers – four this time. Two ran for Marty, and two for Alice. “Oh no, not this time!” Marty said, stabbing both of his in quick session. Alice handled hers similarly, nailing one to the forest floor with her knife and slicing the other in two with her axe. “You’ll have to try harder if you want to bring any of us down!”
Doc tried firing on the creature’s head with his rifle, only for the shot to bounce off the hard shell of its skull. He barely avoided being snatched up by the creature’s jaw as it lunged for him. “Damn it – we’re getting nowhere like this,” he complained, running for safety behind another tree. “The exoskeleton is just too hard to penetrate, at least on top. And we can’t get too close for our own safety!”
The Centipede laughed. “You see? I shall crush you all, like the brethren you no doubt squished unthinkingly and unfeelingly beneath your feet!” he cried. And then, as if to demonstrate, he reared up high above Victor, the young man still slightly dazed from his fall.
“VICTOR!” Alice screamed in warning, scrambling to her feet.
Victor managed to crabwalk away just as the giant arthropod brought its bulk crashing down. As the young man struggled to regain his feet properly, the Centipede reared up again with an angry hiss. Victor stared at it in terror –
Then, suddenly, his eyes widened, and a thoughtful look came over his face. Narrowly avoiding the creature’s second attempt to smash him, he managed to get up and darted over to Richard. “I need the Ice Wand!”
“What? Why? I don’t think you’d be able to freeze it, not all in one go.”
“I don’t intend to freeze all of it. How long will it last if I do short bursts?”
“Oh, quite a while – it recharges between uses,” Richard said, handing over the mysterious crystal weapon. “It’s using it continuously that drains it the worst. What are you up to?”
“You’ll see in a moment,” Victor said, noticing the Centipede advancing on them. “How do you use it?”
“There’s this little switch on the handle – yes, that’s the one!” Richard said as a blast of cold air shot out the tip of the crystal.
“Good, thank you!” Victor darted out in front of the Centipede, gripping the Ice Wand tightly. “You’re not much of a centipede, you know! I rather think a proper one would have eaten all those ants!”
The Centipede snarled at him and reared up again. Victor promptly directed a spray of cold at its belly. To everyone’s astonishment, the creature let out what was clearly a roar of pain and backed off. “So its stomach is its weak point?” Marty yelled.
“Sort of – it has a wound on its belly!” Victor said, maneuvering around the arthropod. It glared at him and lowered his head to try and ram him. Victor flung himself out of the way, not letting go of the Ice Wand. “It must be an old injury that never quite healed! And I suspect its our best chance of killing it!”
“It is not!” The Centipede reared up once more. Now everyone could see the nasty red hole on its belly, inflamed and generally looking like it was about to split. Victor directed another spray of chilly air at it, forcing another cry of pain from the Centipede. “Foolish humans! I will destroy you all!”
“Yeah, don’t think so buddy,” Marty said, his good temper returning with the knowledge of how to kill the beast that was so vexing him. “We know all your bag of tricks now!”
The Centipede’s response was to spit again – but instead of bugs this time, green droplets came flying out of its mouth. They sizzled where they hit the ground – Alice bit back a whimper as her arm was grazed by a drop. “. . .Okay, hopefully now we know all your tricks,” Marty said, frowning. “Damn it, I hate when a thing has multiple ways of killing you. . .I made a promise to go back to my girlfriend in one piece, you know!”
The Centipede lunged at him, sharp teeth snapping. Marty rolled out of the way of its jaws. “Don’t think so. Come on, lift your belly again so I can stab it! . . .No, I did not ask you to spit out more of those stupid bloodsuckers.”
As Marty killed another pair of the little insects, Victor hurried to Alice’s side. “Are you all right?”
“Flesh wounds only, I assure you,” Alice said, looking him over. “And you’ve gotten out of this with little more than bruises, I see.”
“Sheer luck, I assure you. But Marty’s got a point – if we can get either his blade or yours into that wound. . . . The trick, of course, will be to force that monster to rear again. By this point he’s got to know it’s a bad idea.”
“If he has any brain at all, yes,” Alice agreed. “However, perhaps we can appeal to its avowed love of crushing things. It seems to want revenge for every insect ever stepped on.”
“If I can lure it into rising up and exposing the wound, can you do the rest?” Victor eyed her injured arms worriedly. “Here, let me give you a drink from my vial. . . .” He fumbled for it in his pocket.
Alice smiled at him – a dark, dangerous smile that nevertheless sent oddly pleasant shivers up his spine. “Of course,” she said. “I’ve suffered worse than this, I assure you. Though please don’t think that means I’m saying no to your magic medicine.”
“Of course not,” Victor said, finding the vial and passing it over. Alice took a quick swig, sighing in relief as the potion did its work. “All right, let’s see if we can end this sooner rather than later.”
“Be careful out there,” Alice urged, grabbing his arm as he prepared to turn away.
Victor gave her a surprisingly rakish smile. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “I had the best fighting teacher the world could offer.”
He pulled away, completely missing the way Alice’s face lit up in a pleased blush. “You!” he called to the Centipede. “We’re not letting you – kill people!”
“Yeah, what exactly is the plan here?” Marty said. “I mean, you’ve got all those Army Ants – and how come you haven’t called them over to help with us?”
“Marty, what have we told you about giving the villains ideas?” Doc groaned.
“I want the satisfaction of destroying you myself!” the Centipede growled. “Then there will be none left to oppose me as I take over this kingdom for the insects!”
“Yeaaah. . .You know, buster, when big bads like you decide to handle the heroes themselves, that generally means they know their little minions couldn’t kill a fly, or hit the broad side of a barn,” Marty smirked. “And Victor here knows all about insects, and he didn’t seem to think you were one.”
“No, he’s simply a close relation on the same family tree,” Victor nodded, then glared up at Centipede. “I’ve been studying insects all my life – since I was a child! You’re looking at a true entomologist!”
“Entomologist?” The Centipede roared. “Then you are one of the ones responsible for the deaths of so many of my brethren – and they are my brethren, no matter where they are on the family tree! You shall die last, for your impudence toward insects and all their kin!”
“Been there, done that,” Marty called, making the Centipede look his way for a moment. “The last guy who was determined to kill us said that too. And he had evil shadow magic at his command. Still ended up dead.”
“He could not have been as powerful as me!” the Centipede insisted, rearing up.
Victor reacted instantly, spraying the wound with bitterly cold air – and this time, not letting up. The Centipede roared and tried to bring its bulk down on the thin young man –
Only for a knife to fly over said thin young man’s shoulder and into the creature’s guts. Rather than crushing Victor, the Centipede instead drove Alice’s blade deeper into his belly. He screamed and thrashed, raising up and scrabbling at the wound, trying to get his arms and legs to work properly so he could find the blade and remove it.
The others didn’t give him the chance. Once the oozing red hole was exposed again, everyone struck as quickly as they could. Victor blasted it again with the Ice Wand, Marty flew forward with his sword and stabbed as deep as he could, Doc shot it a few times with his rifle, and Richard tossed what looked like playing cards, which nevertheless stuck in the exposed flesh. With so much hitting him at once, the Centipede couldn’t stay upright and fell over on his side with a might crash. He thrashed some more, a monstrous spiked tongue flying out of his mouth and flailing from side to side as he tried to spit poison or more of his little bugs. But Alice’s axe in his belly ended his struggles once and for all. Almost before they knew it, the great Centipede was dead.
Alice retrieved her knife with a small grimace. “Eugh. . . .” she muttered, looking at the yellowish blood and guts on it. “Is that normal?”
“I don’t think so, but since when has anything involving this creature been normal?” Victor looked up as Richard came close. “Thank you for the Ice Wand – and were those really cards that you were flinging at the creature?”
“Yup! I brought a pack in case we wanted to play a round,” Richard said with a smile. “I’d heard they could be weapons if used right, and that flesh on his stomach – or whatever passes for a stomach with arthropods – looked awfully tender. . . .”
“Well, I certainly think they helped do the trick, but I don’t think anybody’s gonna want to play ‘Authors’ or ‘Crazy Eights’ with them anymore,” Marty commented, looking at the thin pieces of pasteboard sticking out of the red wound. “What the hell do you think he was talking about with you killing so many of his ‘brethren,’ anyway?” he added to Victor.
“My guess is that he meant bug boxes,” Victor said, helping Alice dislodge her axe. “Those boxes entomologists make up sometimes to display their specimens.” He smiled weakly. “It’s very ironic that he’d accuse me of making one of those, though.”
“Because I haven’t. Never in all my life. I could never find it in myself to kill the insects and stick them on pins. In fact, when I was a child, I thought they were simply boxes you kept your insects in, like pets. When I found out what they were really for, after catching a butterfly I thought was particularly pretty, I cried.”
“I would accuse you of being perhaps too tender-hearted, except – well.” Alice motioned to the Centipede. “That was a very brave thing you did just now, rushing out there like that.”
“I only did what was necessary to help take him down,” Victor said, blushing a little. “It was probably more reckless than anything, in fact.”
“Yeah, but who was the first one to figure out what we needed to do to kill him?” Marty asked, grinning at his friend. “And who was the one who kept trying to make him rear up to give us all a shot? Me, I was a little too busy getting bit by his little – children? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”
“I can assure you that’s also not typical of centipedes,” Victor said, handing over his vial of medicine. “I really have no idea how he managed to spit up young. If they were indeed his young. Parasites he managed to harness to his cause?”
“Ugh,” Marty said, making a face before drinking the potion down.
“It doesn’t really matter – they and their progenitor are all dead,” Doc said, poking the corpse with his rifle. “But now we have to deal with the Army Ants.”
“Well, there’s a few of them watching us from the cave,” Alice said, pointing out a couple of blue shirts and a green shirt standing there. Although their ant faces were naturally very unexpressive, they gave off an aura of unease. “Shall we open peaceful negotiations first and see where things go?”
“I don’t see why not. They haven’t been immediately hostile.” Doc approached them, keeping a firm grip on his gun just in case. The others trailed along behind him. “Hello.”
The three ants looked at them for a long moment, their black eyes hard to read. Finally, the green shirt general nodded at them. “Well, as you can see, your leader is dead,” Doc said, waving a hand at the body. “We’re willing to let the rest of you go, so long as we can have your word you don’t intend to bother any of the villages near here. We don’t want to just kill you unnecessarily.”
The ants turned inside, and there was a strange chittering, hissing conversation. After a moment one of the blue shirts turned back, gun and bayonet in hand. The others tensed, but rather than using it on them, the ant used it to scratch a word in the dirt:
Doc frowned. “That depends – if you’re asking if you can buy or trade for it, I think that would be acceptable. Taking it by force, though. . . .”
“I would think the forest itself would have all you need,” Alice said, looking around. “You’ve survived in it this long, haven’t you?”
“The only arthropod the White King has charged us with killing is the Centipede,” Richard added. “I’m not entirely sure he even knows about you lot. Nobody mentioned an army of Army Ants.”
“You seem absolutely amazing creatures,” Victor said with a smile. “It would be a shame to kill you, I think.”
More hissing and chattering. The blue shirt that seemed to have been named official representative held up a claw and rejoined his fellows. The group waited anxiously outside the nest.
After a few long minutes, the ant returned, this time carrying a white scrap of cloth with writing on it. It offered it to Doc, who took it curiously yet cautiously. The ant scratched more words in the ground:
GIVE TO KING
The group looked at the cloth. Written on it was a message in clumsy writing:
we wish to liv in piece and have forest for or own, want sugar, will look after pths, send message back
Marty grinned up at the ant. “Yeah, we can do that. Glad to hear you guys have more sense than Mister Spiky Hat there.”
The ant shrugged and nodded, then skittered back into the cave. The others gave it a wave before turning to go. “Well, good to know we don’t have to eliminate an entire race of beings from this forest,” Doc said, looking down at the message. “And if all goes well with the King, your country could have some valuable new allies.”
“Perhaps we could draft them into the army proper – if they know how to use those guns,” Richard said. “Not that I’m looking for a demonstration!” he yelled back in the direction of the cave.
“We’ll see,” Alice said. “But yes, I’m happy enough with the blood of the Centipede on my hands. Literally,” she added, wrinkling her nose at the mess. “Is there a stream around here where we can wash up a bit?”
“Yeah, I’ve got bug guts all over my sword,” Marty nodded. “Should probably look its best if we’re gonna be facing down a dragon.”
“Well, we don’t know that we have to fight one, but the less mess, the better,” Richard nodded. “I don’t know the forest very well, unfortunately, but I think that if we go north for a bit. . . .”
They tried it, and ran across a little stream. They gratefully bathed their weapons and hands, letting the yellowish goo wash away down into wherever the stream led. “Okay,” Marty said, drying his sword on his shirt. “Let’s get back to the girls and--”
A piercing scream suddenly rent the air, followed almost immediately by another. Alice’s head snapped up. “Is it just me, or did that sound like Victoria and Jennifer?”
“Guess they found the dragon for us,” Marty said, frowning. He started running. “We’d better go kill it before it drags them back to its lair!”
“He’s awfully blase about this,” Richard said as they followed.
“It’s a side effect of having no fear,” Doc said, shaking his head. “He doesn’t fear for himself or for others. He’s just always certain a solution will be found. It gives him a distinct advantage in a lot of the fighting, but I’m worried that it’ll cause a strain on their relationship eventually.”
“Jennifer seems to love him no matter what,” Alice commented. “Though I’m sure being the True Love that saved you from eternal sleep helps a lot there. And there’s no doubting that he’s a good person.” She shrugged. “Maybe one day we’ll help him find his fear.”
“I’m really starting to doubt that’s possible – no offense to him or anyone else,” Victor said as they neared where they’d left the women and the horses. “It’s just – nothing we’ve done has had an effect so far, and I really don’t--”
Without warning, the world was plunged into darkness. Victor stopped so suddenly he nearly fell over. He looked left and right, up and down, but he could see nothing but black all around him. There was absolutely no sign of his friends at all. A cold chill began working its way up his spine. He’d had nightmares about this – about being left all alone in the dark, a dark that choked and suffocated him, a dark that made him feel like there would never be light in the world again. . . .
No. No, he could not afford to panic, not if his friends were in danger. He began searching his pockets, hoping to find something he could use to make a light (oh God how he needed light). “Hello?” he called out as he searched. “Everyone? Where are you?”
We’re always here.
Victor almost jumped out of his skin. He spun around, searching for the source of the whisper, but saw nothing. Nothing but the endless dark, promising that he would never feel the press of warm human hands against his own again, never know a breath or a heartbeat –
You’re ours. Always were. Always will be.
You belong to the black, to the cold. To the grave.
The sun, the warmth, the life is not for you.
You belong with us.
“No,” he whispered, trying to get away from the hands that he couldn’t see but could certainly feel, ice cold digits wrapping around his wrists, running along his shoulders, touching his face, his hair. . .ghosts, dead and deader than dead, calling him, telling him that his own breathing lungs and beating heart meant nothing, he was the godson of death and thus not alive himself, cursed forever to see only the ends, cursed forever to be alone and caught between the worlds. . . . “No, no, no. . . .”
He wanted to run, wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go, nowhere but endless unyielding dark and the cold hands wouldn’t release him and the whispers wouldn’t let him be and he was going to be here forever and he’d never see his friends again until they became like these mindless shades because his life was nothing but death and endings and he shouldn’t have thought different even for a moment –
He collapsed to whatever passed for ground in this horrible place, crying – because there was nothing else he could do.