Tracking a towering behemoth felt as though it should’ve been easier in spite of the centuries old forest. As we crossed into the tree line, the canopy blotted out the midday sun turning our venture on its side. Our best tracker lay face down in the dirt a few hundred paces back, crushed by the Druni’s massive feet. Yet it wasn’t the sudden onset of darkness or the loss of a skilled companion that changed the very direction of our efforts. It was the chilling notion that the Druni moved with a predetermined purpose. Unlike a bear or a deer, which moved with purpose but a purpose driven by instinct, the Druni was almost human like it’s in mannerisms. The way it moved about the trees keeping a step ahead, careful not to make a noise. It was horrible and remarkable at the same time.
“Need to find this bastard and get ahead of it. If Yasena is anchored when the Druni gets there….Let’s just hope we get there first.” Captain Jessup said.
I could hear the Druni in the distance only because of its immense proportions. Otherwise, the murky canopy masked it perfectly. Suddenly, it occurred to me that perhaps we’d be better served with an elevated view of the forest and it seemed the captain had the same idea.
“Orphan, you any good at climbing?” the captain asked.
“Look at those tiny arms, not a chance that boy can climb.” Errol chimed in. “Let me do it.”
I stepped aside and watched the big man struggle to inch his way up the trunk before sliding down on his ass. Errol groaned his embarrassment and bowed gesturing conciliation. I eyed up the trunk and immediately began my ascent to the tree top. Living off the land for over a decade you found yourself doing anything for a meal. Some of the best fruits and nuts were at the tops of trees.
“What do you see up there Orphan?” The captain called up to me.
I watched the treetops swing sway as the hidden Druni trudged silently towards Yasena. The eerie, haunting dance of the trees strangely entranced me as I gazed in horror as I saw Yasena in the distance, unaware of the monstrosity that moved towards it with ghastly speed. I was silent of course until I was shaken from my mental entanglement.
“Orphan, do you see anything? We need to get moving and we need to get our bearings. Any idea where the thing is at?” Captain Jessup cried up.
I took a final look at the canopy before sliding down to the ground below landing with a jarring thud.
“It’s no more than maybe a quarter mile ahead of our position. We’ve gained much ground since entering the woods. Still moves in silence though.” I said.
“Can you see Yasena? Has the fog lifted from earlier?” Drea asked. I again had to shake myself out of her gaze. I was caught between a moment of primal desire for the opposite sex and the informative pressure to perform my duties. As usual, the latter won out my heart and mind.
“Yes…Yes, I can see it. It is anchored just below the cloud line no more than a few miles from the clearing. Remember, we came through a swamp so maybe that could slow the Druni’s pace.” I said it thinking that the words that came out of my mouth were that of an expert. In reality, each Druni was different. Hell, for all we knew that thing could fly.
We maintained a torrid pace pushing aside feelings of exhaustion and aggravation over the pursuit. I hadn’t pushed this hard for months, not even during boot camp and yet here I was lugging a fifty pound pack and musket over my shoulders trying to catch a creature that was likely to kill me within moments of catching up to it. I recalled the night I killed my first Druni and the luck that it involved. There wasn’t a science to it, not yet anyways, just luck.
Captain Jessup held up her hand gesturing the group to stop.
“Bastard is up ahead. Keep quiet but stay ready. We’re going to need to act fast if we have any chance at surprise. Orphan, you take point.”
I nudged past Errol and Drea and lowered my musket as I crouched down beneath a fallen branch. The Druni stood at the edge of the forest staring out into the swamp. It surveyed its surrounds most likely calculating the best avenue through the swamplands. Its mammoth proportions would either swallow it up or be nothing more than a puddle squashed between its toes.
Without warning it started to move. It’s steps no longer silent. The first booming step took me by surprise and froze my mind. I turned back to look at the captain who already had the group moving, but the steps between them and myself were numerous and we would certainly lose the beast if it got to the swamp. I did the only thing I could do. I grabbed hold of it’s hind leg and held on for dear life. At that moment, a man doesn’t really know what he just did. Only that he just did what came natural to him. I had no plan of action or intent, but what I did do was gain the unwanted attention of being larger and crueler than myself.
The Druni stopped to clutch at its calf the sharpened claws missing me only because I had moved an instant before. I tried desperately to reach a place harder for the creature to gain access to and just as I did I heard the echo of gunfire from the ground below. Captain Jessup and the group took up a skirmish line at the edge of the woods. The sounds of errant gunfire caused me to freeze and the Druni to wail in agony turning its anguish to the group.
“Keep firing!” She ordered, but as she did the beast managed to find me and tossed me from it’s leg. I can only recall the world spinning about as I was hurtled towards the earth below. Yet, amazingly I survived as I had been tossed in the direction of the swamp. The soft cushion of the marshlands staved off disaster and allowed me to regain my position with little delay. I stood up covered in muck and was met with the frantic cries of Captain Jessup.
“You alright? Orphan? Can you hear me?” The words poured from her mouth with a backdrop of ringing that I presumed to be due to my unabated fall from the Druni’s leg. I shook my head and winced as I took an achy step. I pictured what the field surgeon might say once, if I suppose, we returned to the barracks. If I made it out of this alive I’d get a week or two of bunk rest no doubt.
Drea took control of point as we pursued the Druni. The swampland slowed it and ourselves, but yet we pushed as did the Druni. Yasena hung listlessly in the distance. The city’s lights gleamed as the sun began to set its people unaware of the approaching danger.
“Keep up the fire!” Captain Jessup commanded her voice still strong, but I could sense panic setting in. If we couldn’t get this Druni turned around the results could be catastrophic.
“It t’aint budging captain.” Errol said as he reloaded his musket. “It’s gotta thirst for Yasena.”
For once Errol didn’t come off sounding like a blathering coward. The Druni was ignoring the barrage of rounds that peppered its hide. At first it acknowledged the pain, but now, now it just wanted the blood of Yasena citizens and we were helpless to stop it.
The ringing left my ears and in its stead was the silence of knowing that Yasena was about to be attacked by a Druni while anchored to the ground. Not just tethered, but anchored. Each anchor weighed several tons and the efforts required to lift them resulted in a tedious and time-consuming process that on a good day took hours to accomplish. The threat to Yasena came in the form of a gangway for the Druni to enter and wreak havoc. There was the outside chance that the sudden weight differential could topple Yasena far enough to the side that it fell from the sky. Neither of course was an ideal situation.
The Druni reached Yasena just after sundown. The booms of the cannon defenses and the muzzle flashed lit up the beckoning night sky. The jaws of the Druni formed a grin as it dodged the wailing volleys of cannonballs and closed in on the vulnerable city.
There isn’t enough time. I thought.
“We need to get ahead of it somehow. If the gunners can hit their mark it might stall its progress just enough for us to catch up and deal a death blow.” I said but as my words spilled forth the Druni recovered and pressed on hungrier than before. There was a moment of truth defining itself before me as I picked up my torrid pace towards the lumbering giant. I found a second level of energy, so to speak. Something that on any given day, aside from this precise moment, would never occur. I not only kept pace, I gained on the monster. I looked to my right and saw a rolling hill that lead up to a plateau where the city of Yasena’s first anchor hitched itself into the soil.
“Follow my lead!” I cried back not knowing if in my haste any sounds escaped my lips. I hoped, know I accepted, that whether or not they heard my pleas became irrelevant as I was right now the only person, possible on the planet, capable of stilling the relentless ravaging of the Druni. I tore up the hillside until I was plane with the beast. It brushed off my presence with a glance before charging towards Yasena. I held my breath as I leaped, throwing caution literally into the wind, and collided with the beast’s shoulder.
Now I had its full attention.
The monstrosity roared and lurched back trying to grab me. As with my last encounter I scrambled towards the ear. This Druni was much larger than the last and much more limber as more than once its hands nearly grabbed me. I dodged and ducked my way to the ear canal and dove in.
I had never been in the ear of a creature before. Even during my last encounter it was too small for a man of my stature to delve far into its recesses, but this Druni was different. Almost human really. The ear was cavernous and echoed with each breathe I took. Managing to avoid the probing digit I fell into what I could only describe as wax, but significantly more pungent. I could hear the rumble of cannon fire then suddenly there was a moment of vertigo the likes of which I’ve never experienced. It was as if the creature was….
Time became critical as I could feel the world turn sideways. I struggled to gain my balance as I reached the inner most part of the ear just south of the drum. Like a tick I dug my boots in and pulled down my musket. The barrel was jammed with wax and as I hurriedly removed the blockage I got the sense that we were descending, as if he was pulling Yasena to the ground. What ungodly strength did this thing possess? I wasn’t going to find out. I lowered my musket and pressed it against the ear drum. Pulled the trigger and….
I was greeted by the sounds of shovels and the murmurs of voices. I could recognize the barking of Captain Jessup and the priest from the cathedral.
“There he is!” Captain Jessup called out and within moments the hands of Errol pulled me from whatever it was that had buried me alive.
“Thought you were dead orphan!” Errol exclaimed. “One minute we see you on the shoulder then next you’re gone. Thought you were eaten all up we did!”
“What the hell happened?” I asked. “Is it dead?”
Captain Jessup helped me out of what I now knew to be a crater.
“Yasena took off with it clung to its anchors. We thought for sure it was destroy the city, but out of nowhere we heard a bang and it grabbed for its head. Bastard fell from the sky and crashed into the earth were you stand.”
I looked back at the crippled body of the Druni. I could see its chest wave up and down, but it did not move. Likely paralyzed from the impact. I was nestled in a batch of the thickest ear wax I’ve ever seen and it saved my very life.
“I thought the wax was gross, but I guess it saved my life? What happened to the city?” I questioned realizing that I was still on the ground.
The priest stepped forward.
“Thank the holy Sepulcher it is ok, but we’ve had to land for repairs. When the beast fell it made a final grab for the chains and yanked the city hard causing many structures to shift precariously to the walls. The cathedral itself is in disarray. Normally, I would condemn such rash behavior, but you’ve saved us all Orphan. Even I can see that.”
Drea was staring down at the beast. I still wanted to talk to her, let her know how I felt. But that would have to wait. I was soaked to the bone in ear wax and if I wanted to get a night at the tavern I'd have to at least be better dressed and showered.
I looked over my shoulder and saw the city sitting on the earth as it once did for centuries. A wall of cannons guarding it from another attack. I did not know when it would come, but it would. Hopefully, we’d be ready for it when it arrived. No one knows where the Druni came from, but I’d be damned if I was going to take us down. I may be an Orphan, but Yasena is my home.