Princess of the Dust

After a short rest, the boy king got up and wandered again.

He had decided he would spend the night in the forest, and work his way back to the village during the day, so that even if he could not find Pirt, at the very least none could say hadn’t looked long enough.

The immediate problem was finding someplace safe to sleep. He would keep his eyes and ears out for the lost boy of course, but there was no trail to follow and calling out would just attract the attention of beasts and monsters.

The ground underfoot was dirt and crunchy leaves and twigs. He tried to be careful and to go from dirt patch to dirt patch, but it was not always possible and every crunch he made worried him. After some time, but not a long time, he found a very large tree with very wide branches that looked like a good place to sleep in some measure of safety.

He started to climb up, but soon realized that the antlers were so big that he wouldn’t be able to go very high without getting stuck. The most comfortable place he could get to was only about his height off the ground, and he squeezed in as close to the trunk as he could.

He tossed and turned and wiggled, and eventually his tired body sank into the arms of the tree and he fell asleep. He did not dream and to him it seemed as if he had just barely dozed off when the sound of crunching footsteps woke him.

The body of the thing was hard to make out, but the eyes shone as if they had light behind them. They were large white circles with a dark slit down the middle, and the boy king felt pleasantly relaxed while looking at them. Then he felt something on his cheek, and a girl appeared in front of him, and it was she who was touching him.

“How did you?” he began, but was interrupted with the sound of things crashing against the branches.

“Down here,” she said, and she pulled him by the arm into a little crevice in the wood.

Above them, several large black cats hissed and pawed at the branches, no doubt looking for him, but for some reason they could not see them, and the cats left as suddenly as they had come.

“They’re gone, let’s go inside,” said the girl as she looked him over very carefully.

“Go inside where?”

“The tree. Follow me.”

She then jumped into the air and flew up and up and the boy king, who knew that he could not fly, did not even try, but only sat and watched in awe and confusion. The girl flew back down.

“Do you know how to swim?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s just like that. You pull against the air and you move through it.”

“My people can’t fly.”

“Why? What kind of people are you? You don’t like anyone I’ve ever met.”

“I’m the deer king.”

“King? You’re too young to be a king. Unless you have magic that makes you look young.”

“My magic makes me strong. My antlers are like knives and if you touch them you will die.”

The girl looked up at the antlers briefly, then jumped into the air again.

“I made you small, so you can fly now too. Follow me inside and I’ll give you food and a nice warm place to sleep.”

“You what?” he said and looked around.

The tree did look different. He looked down. Yes, he had lots of room to lay down now.

“Why did you do that? I want to be big.”

“So the falanxes wouldn’t eat you. Did you think you could kill seven of them with your horns?”

“Yes, I could.”

She smiled at him and shook her head.

“Silly deer boy, you would get all tangled up before you could do anything. You don’t know anything about the forest do you?”

She then flew up and away from him, then stopped and looked back at him.

“Try to catch me deer boy.”

“No,” he said.

“Do you want to die?” she asked.

He then jumped into the air and waved his arms around, and to his surprise he did fly, but because his arm movements were wild he spun around and went the wrong way. The girl laughed and flew up, and he was angry and embarrassed and he flew after her furiously and almost caught up to her, but not quite, and they went all the way to the top of the tree and down into it through a little door.

Once inside the door they were in a long hallway. It was mostly empty, but there were some people bouncing and floating toward them.

“Fourth door on the right,” said the girl, and at the fourth door on the right, and before the people came, they stopped and went inside and the girl shut the door.

“Welcome to your home for the night, do you like it?”

The girl floated around and smiled at him.

“Yes, it’s nice.”

It was a very cozy room, full of soft and colorful things. They were not the normal things, however, like chairs and table and sofas. No, instead they were the things that normal sized people might find in their pockets.

There was a cream colored button with four holes situated at the center of the room, a gold coin leaning against a wall, a clear marble with orange stripes, a slab of brown leather laid out like a rug, and several pieces of thread that were not organized at all and were lying on top of everything. The thread was red and blue and white and yellow and pink and purple and green, and to the little people was as thick as a rope.

“What’s your favorite color?” asked the girl.

“Red.”

“Me too,” she said with a wide grin.

Wip wasn’t sure what to do next, so he just stood there and kept looking.

“Come look at my bedroom.”

The girl floated through a door-less entry and he followed. On the floor was a big soft red thing. On top of the red thing were clothes. The girl flew up and threw the clothes on the floor.

“Do you know what this is?” she asked.

“No.”

“Fly up here and look down.”

She flew up to the ceiling and he followed.

“It’s a mitten,” he said.

“Yep, a baby’s mitten, but it’s a bed now. Look, you just climb right in and you’re snug and sleepy in no time.”

She flew down to demonstrate and he wanted to get in too but did not say so and she flew back out.

“Let’s sit on top and get to know each other,” she said eagerly, and she jumped down and landed with a soft poof.

Wip wasn’t sure about her, and he hesitated a moment before gliding down and easing in next to her.

“You don’t have to be so gentle. Have some fun,” she said.

Wip pointed to his antlers.

“Oh, you think you’ll rip me up like you were going to rip up those falanxes,” she teased.

“What is a Falanx?” he asked.

“Didn’t you see it? It’s a big black cat, only there’s never just one. They have magic that tricks your eyes. Nobody knows exactly how they do it, but we know a spell that lets us see what they really look like.”

“What do they really look like?”

“Like a pack of black cats all squeezed in next to each other and moving exactly the same way at the same time.”

“How did you make us small?”

“How did you grow big horns on your head?”

“I have magic in my blood.”

“So do I. All of us do. We can change our size just by thinking about it. We can’t get bigger than normal, only smaller, but that’s better because big people need more room and they can’t fly.”

“What’s your name?” asked Wip.

“Lya. Princess of the dust.”

“Dust?”

“That’s what we are, the dust people. Haven’t you heard of us?”

“No, are there a lot of you?”

“Thousands.”

“Do you all live here in the forest?”

“Yes, no, well mostly. Sometimes we go on adventures to find things, but we always come back.”

“Do you ever make yourself normal sized?”

“Yes, but only when we need to.”

“How did you make me small?”

“I touched you. Don’t you remember?”

“Can you make other things small, like a mountain?”

“No, just people.”

Wip yawned.

“Do you want something to eat before you go to sleep?”

“Maybe, what do you eat?”

“Bugs.”

Wip made a face and Lya laughed.

“I was just teasing. We eat normal things like fruit and berries and bread and cheese.”

“I like all of those,” said Wip.

“Then you’ll love it here. One strawberry can feed a hundred of us. Come, I’ll take you to the kitchen.”

Lya flew up and out and Wip climbed off the mitten and walked back into the other room.

“You should really fly when you have the chance. You never know when I’ll make you big again.”

“If you do that I’ll destroy your tree.”

“No, you’ll die.”

“You’ll die.”

“Fine I’ll keep you small forever. I’ll make you so small that you’ll be my little pet and I’ll keep you in a cage.”

“You have to touch me to do that, and if you try to touch me, I’ll thrash you.”

“I’ll do it when you sleep,” she said with a smug smile.

“The deer king sleeps with one eye open.”

Lya laughed.

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Rescued

For several hours Wyrd lay calmly at the bottom of the well. He had accepted his fate almost immediately, knowing he was too heavy and clumsy to climb the walls, and of course knowing he could not call out for help, even in the unlikely chance that another person would ever wander near enough to hear him. In that event, he would only be able to throw things and scratch at things, and that would probably scare off anyone brave enough to enter the dark cave.

So he dozed and dreamed and imagined things, and wondered how he would die and what it would feel like, and what starvation would be like, and he wondered how long it would take and what would happen after it happened, and so on and so forth.

It was during his imaginings that something so incredible happened, that he jumped up in fright and confusion.

The wall opened like a door. It was silent, and revealed blackness. This combination gave Wyrd a feeling of fear and dread and he pressed himself against the opposite wall and waited.

“I heard all that you know,” said someone from the dark doorway. It was an old woman’s voice, but Wyrd could not see her.

“You don’t talk, do you?”

Wyrd grunted.

“You don’t need to be afraid of me, I’m not going to hurt you. Here, I’ll give us some light.”

Suddenly the darkness turned to white brightness, the light emanating from a lantern the old woman held up in front of her. Wyrd squinted and looked away, but he was feeling much better about the situation.

“Follow me inside and close the door behind you,” said the woman, and she turned and Wyrd followed.

The light revealed a tunnel, and when he was inside he looked back for the door he was supposed to close, and to his surprise there was an actual door like those he was used to. He closed it, and turned back around to see the woman smiling at him.

“Pretty clever, isn’t it? My old Rotus fashioned it when we were younger. Don’t worry about locking it, you can only open it from the inside, though I suppose you could bash your way through it if you knew it was there, but nobody knows except you and I.”

Wyrd thought to himself that this Rotus she mentioned knew of it too.

“Rotus has been dead now for several years in case you’re wondering, he was my husband.”

She then stopped speaking, and for several silent minutes she led him through a series of tunnels until they stopped at a wooden door. She opened it, and he was surprised that it was light inside.

“This is where I live. Sit down where you like and I’ll fetch some bread.”

The light was coming from a window, but Wyrd didn’t see how that was possible, being that they were underground, so instead of sitting he went straight to it and looked out.

It was the forest, but it still did not make sense. How could he see the trees and the grass from below the ground? Had the tunnels been uphill? If they were he hadn’t noticed. The walls to either side of the window were stone, so perhaps they were in the cave?

When the old woman came back with the bread he pointed outside then down at the floor, and at first she didn’t understand but when she did she smiled.

“Oh, you’re confused that we can see outside from beneath the ground. Well it’s really just a bit of light magic. You see the light comes in through the ceiling, and when it touches the diamond it shows what it can see outside. Look, I’ll show you.”

He looked up at the ceiling, and saw a spot the size of an eye that was very bright but not beaming. The old woman then picked up a broom and covered the bright spot. The room instantly went dark and he looked over to the window but it was gone.

“See?” said the old woman, and she lowered the broom.

“Now let me get the lantern. Here hold this,” she said, and she handed him the broom.

She then picked up the lantern.

“Now put the end of the broom over the hole.”

He did as he was told, but this time the woman lit the lantern.

“Now look,” she said, and nodded toward the window.

It was their reflection.

“You see?”

Wyrd nodded.

“Good, now let the sun back in and have some bread.”

Wyrd lowered the broom.

6. Exxus

Exxus the mage, sensing something askew, took a break from picking raven’s legs and climbed the spiral stairs to the top of his tower.

He looked out and over and down and around and saw nothing unusual. The forest was quiet, but for the birds. Thinking of the birds reminded him of the ravens, and as he turned around to go back down, a hatchet flew at his head. He heard it then felt it then saw it, and he calmly tilted his head away. Then he snapped the fingers of his right hand and the trees and everything else in the little forest was sucked under the ground, leaving a mile of bare dirt and revealing the attacker, who scrambled helplessly for cover then stopped and looked up at him.

It was a girl of some sort. She was tall and wore rags of green and brown. Her hair was long, blonde and braided. As he looked her over she put her hands on her hips and started walking toward him.

He watched her for a moment then looked around for the hatchet. It was against the far wall and he was caught between picking it up and losing sight of the girl. Since she was coming closer, he decided he had the time to fetch it, and he did. When he returned she was still coming and she didn’t stop until her outstretched fingertips pressed against his tower and her eyes stared up into his.

Keeping her gaze, he dangled the hatchet above her for a moment then dropped it. She moved and the blade stuck in the ground. She picked it up but didn’t immediately leave, instead staring up at him again. Then, from her vantage point, he disappeared, but from his he simply walked to the door lever and opened the tower for her. He went down to meet her, to see if she would dare enter, and found her lingering with one foot in and the other out.

“There’s no use in running. If you want safety you’re a mile away from it. Sate our mutual curiosity and enter fully,” he said.

The girl looked back at the empty dirt and Exxus snapped his fingers and the forest came back with a deep groan.

“How did you do that?” she said, taking a bold step forward.

“I snapped my fingers.”

She glared.

“Yes, but how did your fingers move the forest?”

“Men of magic don’t reveal their secrets.”

“Tell me or I’ll chop you down,” said the girl, who raised the hatchet to chest height.

He considered for a moment and turned to two levers that stuck out from the wall.

“Do you see these two sticks in the wall?”

“I’m not blind.”

He pulled on the levers simultaneously, and simultaneously, the outer door closed and the trap door beneath her opened, and she fell, screaming, into his indoor fish pond.

Exxus went to the edge, to see if his trap had worked as well as he had imagined it would. He had made the stone walls smooth, so that invaders could not pull themselves up and out. Other than the fish he kept for emergency rations and experiments, the girl was the first to test his watery cage.

“How are the walls?” he asked curiously.

She screamed obscenities and cursed him while fruitlessly trying to grip the slick stone.

“Good, though I wonder what would happen if I were to accidentally fall into my own trap,” he said, which was partly a lie, as he had already thought of it, and partly a suggestion, to see if she would try a different way out.

She didn’t, and kept on screaming and thrashing wildly. Exxus sighed, picked up a wooden ladder that was lying on the floor, and put it into the pond. When the girl pulled herself out, she immediately charged at him, without the hatchet, and he wrestled her to the floor. He then reached into one of the eleven pockets on the shirt inside his cloak, grabbed a dab of sleeping powder, and stuffed it into her nose.

While she slept he threw the ball end of a ball and chain into the pond and put the manacle on her left ankle. He then dove down into the pond, took the hatchet from the floor, and swam out through the underground stream. When he went back inside he took the hatchet to the top of the tower and left it on the floor above where the girl slept.

He then went back to picking his raven’s legs, and after a while he took a nap, and while he was asleep the girl woke.

She tried to be stealthy, but the chains were loud against the stone floor and woke Exxus.

“The ball weighs the same as a man.”

“What ball?” asked the girl, looking around.

“The one at the other end of your chain.”

She looked down into the pond.

“What is this place and who are you?” she asked.

“My name is Exxus and this is my castle.”

She scoffed.

“This isn’t even one hundredth the size of a real castle.”

“Why would I build more than I need?”

She looked around.

“You built this?”

“You don’t seem concerned with the chain.”

“Maybe I know magic too,” she said.

“I don’t think you do.”

“You don’t look like a mage.”

“Have you met many?”

“No, but they’re all supposed to be old gray hairs who smell of moss and dirt. You look more like a runaway farm hand.”

“Is that what you are?” asked Exxus.

“No, I’m a runaway princess.”

“Your crude weapon and rags make me think otherwise.”

“It’s a disguise.”

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Zilly.”

“I suppose that’s a disguise as well.”

“Perhaps it is,” said Zilly with a smile.

Exxus got up and brought the bags of dead ravens and their

legs to her.

“You’re my slave now. Remove the legs.”

She took one look at the dead birds and lurched backward with a look of terror. Exxus smiled.

“Perhaps you are a princess. Very well. I also need some flowers sorted.”

He took the ravens away and brought her back a sack of pink roses.

“Petals in one pile, stems in another.”

“No.”

“Do it or I’ll chop you down,” he said, and turned to leave the tower.

“If I ever get out of here I’m going to cut your tongue out and stuff your mouth full of sand,” she yelled.

He ignored her and went out hunting. He gathered some wild fennel, and some thyme and sage, and he saw a wild turkey, which he killed with a simple spell.

“Are you finished?” he asked as he reentered, even though he could see that she wasn’t.

She glared at him but said nothing.

“When you’re done we’ll have some fired bird. Do your people know about the leafy spices?”

“We know everything.”

“I don’t think you do. Every time I go to one of your towns you eat the most bland meats and breads imaginable. You do have cheese and butter, so you’re not totally inept, but today you will learn of the leafy spices that grow in the wild.”

“You’re a leafy spice that grows in the wild,” she said.

5. Wyrd

In the queen’s castle kitchen, and in the garden just outside, there lived a boy named Wyrd. He was the second assistant gardener, and responsible for the dirty things. He was the digger, the scraper, the bug killer, the weeder, the sniffer, and the garbage can. He slept outside under a lemon tree, unless it was too cold, in which case he slept on the kitchen floor.

Wyrd, I need some black mushrooms,” yelled the head cook as Wyrd was plucking bugs from the freshly picked lettuce.

Wyrd could not speak, but he could understand. When he was a child his tongue had swollen up and the village doctor had cut it out, to keep it from choking him to death.

He did not make any facial expressions or nod, he just went out the door and into the wild fields, where the mushrooms grew. He could smell them. The black mushrooms had a very special smell, that didn’t relate to anything else, even other mushrooms. They also didn’t grow on trees or on the ground like the others, but under the soil, like roots. In fact, it was this special skill of smelling black mushrooms that had brought him to the castle.

It was a late spring day when the queen had seen him with a pile of his strange black roots. She had been friendly at first, but when she got closer and saw the soft black lumps she became suspicious and asked him where he got them. He opened his mouth to show the space where his tongue should have been, and she’d taken it as an insult and had slapped him.

He had realized she didn’t notice the missing tongue of course, and instead of becoming angry at the slap, he smiled at the humor of the situation, and she snorted angrily and told her guards to get the truth out of him.

As the two men approached, he had frantically pointed to his open mouth, and one of them finally understood and stopped the other. They told the queen and the queen felt bad and apologized, but she insisted that Wyrd take her to the source of the mushrooms. The trouble was that the mushrooms weren’t anywhere, they were everywhere, so he made a show of sniffing the air and taking the queen and her men this and that way until they all had handfuls and pocketfuls. The queen appreciated him and his talent so much, that she made him a slave.

Wyrd found some black mushrooms without much trouble and brought them back to the cook.

Good boy. The Snake wants me to make something special for the queen.”

Wyrd didn’t care, and only stayed a pause long enough to be sure his talents weren’t required further. He then went back outside and tripped. Luckily, nobody else was there to see, and after his panic subsided he laughed quietly at himself.

Now that his main job was over for the day, Wyrd could hide without worry.

From the very start of his job at the castle, he’d experimented with leaving and hiding, with the hopes of being forgotten and left alone. It only took a couple of beatings for him to figure out that they really only cared about the black mushrooms, and the kitchen crew didn’t even want the “special sniffer” around.

Which was fine with him, because they were stupid, vulgar, and they smelled terrible.

He’d also experimented with a wide variety of hiding spots. There was a pantry in the third kitchen, but despite the fact that it was hardly used for its purpose, it was still used, by some courtier and his lovers. Then there was the library, which was nice and quiet and cozy, but an old man had found him sleeping on the floor and kicked him in the head to wake him. The third hiding spot was under a bed in an unused bedroom, but again, the courtier and one of his girls had taken to the same spot, and after a haughty tongue lashing, Wyrd decided to hide outside.

Way out, out past the wild mushroom fields, and into the Fairy forest, which as far as he could tell didn’t actually have any fairies, he’d found a cave.

He threw rocks into it at first, to get a head start on any animals or murderers that might already be hiding there, and when nothing came rushing out, he went in.

It was larger than it looked, with the floor gradually descending while the ceiling stayed the same. On the ceiling were glowing bugs, which he didn’t mind at all. He had always had an affinity for the squishies and squirmies, feeling they were like him in a way he couldn’t really articulate.

The bugs lit the cave and also gave him something of a trail to follow. The bugs and cave ended at a wall and a well.

The wall beyond the well was painted with many different symbols, which he didn’t understand, and some pictures of animals, which he did. The well was dry, but as he looked down into it, he noticed more drawings at the bottom. He was curious, but the well was twenty feet deep.

As he further examined the well and the wall that first time, he saw a little iron loop protruding from the cave wall. On his second visit, he put a stolen rope through that iron ring, and he climbed down to his final hiding spot, the bottom of the well.

Wyrd’s rope was there, and nothing seemed unusual, so he climbed down. He curled up on his side and went to sleep. He awoke when something fell all over him. Lemon, he smelled, peels, he saw.

He looked up to see who had assaulted him and saw The Snake’s evil grin.

You should have taken my offer when you had the chance.”

Mambo had offered Wyrd buckets of gold if he would poison the queen. Wyrd shook his head no, because it was obviously either a trick and The Snake didn’t want to poison the queen at all, or it would be successful and Wyrd would be blamed and punished anyway, probably by The Snake himself. So he declined and avoided Mambo successfully for three weeks.

I should have poisoned you instead, thought Wyrd as he stared up at the smirking snake.

Cozy little bed down there? I brought lemon peels to remind you of home.”

Mambo started laughing and disappeared from Wyrd’s view.

Wyrd slept under the lemon tree precisely because he liked the smell, so he was slightly confused as to what The Snake was laughing at.

Maybe they’ll keep you alive for a few days,” said Mambo, returning to view with a cruel smile.

Wyrd closed his eyes to ignore Mambo.

I’m not getting much of a reaction out of you, am I?”

No, so just go away, thought Wyrd.

Quite the spot here. I wish I knew what it all was, but nobody ever goes into this forest, and nobody ever even talks about it. And of course, you can’t talk about it.”

Wyrd opened his eyes and sat up, trying to send a message that The Snake should just get to the point.

What, do you want to hear a story? Do you miss bedtime stories from your mother about all the magical fairies? I’ll tell you a story.”

Well first of all, there was an idiot. Not his fault of course, that’s just how it is. He was a useless idiot, with no hope of being anything other than a servant, and a great man of importance came to him. The great man said, here, I’ll trade you gold and freedom for a very simple task. But the idiot didn’t understand and he just babbled something and gurgled and slimed his own chin. The great man tried and tried to reason with him, to just about hand him a houseful of gold for a minute of easy work, but the idiot just kept on secreting his bubbling mouth water and breathing disgustingly and offensively hard. So the great man left the idiot to die, and then, he came back, and told the idiot he was leaving him to die.”

Mambo left Wyrd’s view, and soon after the rope came tumbling down.

4. Fafner

The ruler of the southern hemisphere was a wizard named Fafner. He had blue skin, unlike anyone else, and his origins were unknown.

Some said he came from the north, some said he came from the jungle, some said he came from the forest, but most thought, based on his skin color, that he had crawled out of the sea.

The truth was unknown, as Fafner never tolerated questions or explained himself. He took what he wanted by the force of his magic, and punished every enemy with immediate death.

He never officially became king, as he had simply killed all the kings and anyone else who attempted to rise to power. He took the southernmost castle for himself, and hoarded all the magic artifacts and books of magic there.

If he wasn’t in his castle, he was out looking for magic and its practitioners. Some he killed, some he did not.

For this reason the people tried to get as far from him as they could. The population shifted from a loose sprawl over all the tillable land to a concentration in a huge and never-ending city below the jungle.

At the city center was a palace, inhabited by a queen. She was young and beautiful and the rightful heir by birth and blood. Fafner had killed her father the king, and the rest of her family had fled, but she had stayed in defiance and had somehow kept her life and station. It was said she did so through seduction, but none knew for sure.

Fafner never sent out a royal decree, or married her, or impregnated her. He simply left her on her own, and every few weeks or months he would return from the south and stay with her at the palace.

You’re back,” said the queen.

You’re still here,” said Fafner.

Did you expect me to leave?”

I expect you to go back to your cowardly family.”

I don’t know where they are.”

Fafner did not reply and instead took a long curved dagger from his cloak.

So you’re going to kill me at long last?”

Fafner grabbed her by the wrist but she did not struggle. He cut into her arm, gently, and she winced and he smiled. He then took the bloody knife and wiped it against her lips.

If you want to know where they are I can easily find them for you. All you have to do is ask,” said Fafner.

The queen then wiped the blood off her lips.

I don’t want anything from you,” she said, and she went off to her bedroom.

3. Intruxx

The most trusted tracker in all the north was a man named Intruxx. His newest task, from the mouth of the border king himself, was to watch the great jungle for invaders.

The great jungle took up a third of the entire planet, and separated the north from the south. Travel between the hemispheres was possible, but it was dangerous and rarely attempted. Intruxx was one of the few who had been to both sides, and he’d only done it once.

His constant companion was his wife, Ankla, who was a witch of sorts. She knew of special jungle plants with many uses, and she made many brews with different effects. She was loyal and loved him, especially out in the jungle where he was in his element. In the city, among other people of any type or age, Intruxx would often get tongue-tied or blurt out jokes that no one thought funny, and at those times it was hard for Ankla to love him. In the jungle, however, he was a measured expert, a killer even. He had killed many beasts that quicker witted men would have run from, and these times were when she loved him the most.

The pair were lazing comfortably and silently while watching the flames of their fire when a low roar from somewhere deeper in the jungle caused the whole jungle to fall silent. Not even the bugs chirped, and then after it was over, there was a mass exodus as the bugs and the bees left the trees for the sky.

What is happening?” asked Ankla.

The jungle is afraid,” answered Intruxx.

I’m afraid,” said Ankla.

We can sleep in the tree,” said Intruxx, and he looked up at the tall firecone tree they had camped under.

The tree was a normal green tree, very tall and very dense, but its cones were very dry, even in the deep of the jungle, and so could be counted on to make fire. Ankla stood up and started packing. Intruxx watched her for a moment, then took his sleeping platform up into the tree.

The platform was a thin sheet of metal that could be rolled up and used as a walking stick. It had been made by the king’s mage as a gift, and when unrolled it formed a bowl with a foot tall rim. Intruxx climbed about halfway up the tree, which was about fifty feet tall, and laid out the platform. Ankla, who was very fit, followed him up with her pack on her back. Intruxx then went back down, doused the fire and scattered the wood, and took his own pack up to the platform.

They sat and watched the direction the roar had come from, but without the fire to light the night, and with the leaves in their way, it was hard to see much. They did not talk at all, even when the thing emerged from the bushes.

The body of the beast was as large as a cow, and it had four thick necks and four hissing snake heads that darted from side to side and tested the air with long tongues.

It went to where the fire had been, then sniffed around and found the scattered pieces.

Then there was another roar from somewhere off in the darkness, and the monster’s four necks went still, and despite its size, and the pounding its hooves inflicted upon the ground, it seemed to scurry back toward whatever had roared.

A baby,” said Intruxx, once he was sure the thing was out of earshot.

A hydra,” said Ankla.