The morning dawn came as it always did, warm and bright, despite the fact that we four soldiers had spent the night sleeping fitfully, terrified monsters were going to attack at any moment. Our native guides, on the other hand, had not changed their patterns from the trip from London. I suppose nothing had changed; the rest of us were now just aware of the danger we were constantly in.
Jack still slept as far from the rest of us as possible, which made significantly more sense now. And, as before, she was always the first one up. In fact, I was stirred awake by the sound of her kicking dirt on the campfire to make sure it was dead.
I rubbed my forehead, wincing against the light. “Anything happen last night?”
“No attacks,” Jack confirmed. “Or, we are not missing anyone, at least. We chose this spot because only a few types of monsters will get close to it.”
That made me frown in confusion. She was not making any sense, and even though I was still half asleep, I did not think that was the entirety of the problem. “What are you talking about? Why would monsters avoid one spot in the grasslands more than any other?”
“This is a dire wolf’s territory,” she explained as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “So pretty much anything smaller than a dire wolf—such as almost everything in the grasslands—will stay away.”
“Except for the wolf,” I pointed out, a little disturbed by the fact that I had not been informed of any of the details of this plan.
The young swordswoman nodded. “They are diurnal, so there was no chance of it finding us last night. It will be starting its morning patrol soon, though, so we should get moving as soon as possible.”
Something was still confusing me. “Wait, that book said dire wolves are herbivores. They only eat plants. Why would it attack us?”
“Because it is territorial and extremely aggressive,” Harold said from behind me. I turned to see him folding up his bedroll, and begrudgingly got up and started doing the same. “All monsters are. They have been trying to domesticate a couple, but it is real tough going. Not to mention we have not had even a single animal generation since we started.”
“The dire fox,” I remembered from Mallern’s journal. “Something about milk?”
He nodded. “Exactly. Little bastards have poison teeth, though, so you have to be careful.”
“And there was a line about dire cattle…”
Jack chuckled. “No one is trying to domesticate dire cattle any time soon, trust me.
“At least they are infertile,” Harold muttered.
“Father Mallern thought that is just because most of the bulls who went dire were actually steer. There were still a couple genuine bulls among the lot, and they are going to start breeding sooner or later.”
“Yes, thank you, that is very comforting.”
“Are we all up?” Vale asked with a yawn as he stretched while still in his bedroll. “I was hoping for a bit of a leisurely morning, considering that we got an extra half-day yesterday.”
“Not an option,” I grunted as I finished rolling up my own bed. “Dire wolves coming.”
“Wolf, singular,” Jack reminded me. “They are solitary.”
I shrugged. “Small favors, I suppose.”
“But still dangerous,” Harold warned. “If it does find us, stay back and let Jack handle it. Observe the fight, so you will know what to do next time. But do not interfere.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Norn called from the other side of the camp. He already had his pack ready, and was trying to get the odd-shaped holsters for his axe and scythe to work. “What about other monsters?”
The village archer thought for a moment before responding. “Well, we will not really have to worry about anything else—unless we run into sinhearts—for the next couple of hours, until we are out of the wolf’s territory. Then we will be seeing more tunneler pitfalls, and maybe the dire mole swarms.”
“You have mentioned tunnelers repeatedly,” Roark spoke up finally. “But only in relation to their tunnels. Nothing about the monster itself. What about them? Are they dangerous?”
Jack opened her mouth to say something, but then turned to Harold for some reason. The young hunter nodded and turned his own attention to the ranger. “Tunnelers are extremely dangerous. But only the very youngest ever dig close to the surface, and they run when they feel anything nearby.”
“How are they dangerous?” I asked. When both of them gave me a disbelieving look, I held up my hand to placate them. “I meant, in what specific way are they dangerous? I am not doubting that they are, I just want more information.”
Jack nodded, acknowledging my point. “Do you know what a lamprey is?”
That seemed off-topic, but she usually knew what she was talking about. I decided to humor her. “Of course, it is a type of eel. Usually attaches itself to bigger fish, like a blood-sucking parasite.”
“Right. But do you know about their mouths?”
“…teeth. Just rings of teeth.”
She nodded. “Exactly. Now, imagine a mouth like that, but ten feet tall and wide. Just hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny, razor-sharp teeth. It puts its mouth to something and just rotates,” She used her fingers to demonstrate the motion. “Like a corkscrew. Turns earth and stone into a slurry of mud in seconds. They cannot even chew, they just…rotate.”
“They are not aggressive unless they sense a threat, though,” Harold admitted.
Roark was not impressed. “How would something like that be dangerous?”
“They press you against a wall, or the ground, with their mouth, and then…” Jack spread her hands wide. “The slurry is a little bit red for a few minutes.”
“Oh, and they consider anything in their tunnels to be a threat,” Harold added with grim cheer.
Vale clapped jovially. “Right! So do not go down into the creepy tunnels filled with giant eels. I think we can all agree on that, yes? Other than that…” He glanced around the camp. “Are we all ready to go?”
As it turned out, we were, and we set out for the Hellpit within five minutes.
Pushing through the tall grasses of Whisper’s Grasslands was not fun, but it was not so thick that we needed to resort to cutting a path with our swords. Honestly, what slowed us down more was not the grass, but the tunneler pitfalls that we continuously had to avoid. After Jack’s description of them, we were all a bit more leery around them than we had been just a few nights ago.
It was about an hour after we broke camp that the dire wolf attacked.
The first clue the rest of us had that something was wrong was when both villagers froze instantly at the exact same moment. We followed suit just moments later, smart enough to just obey without asking questions.
Then we heard it too. The growling.
Just a low, dangerous bass rumble, like the herald of an avalanche. It reminded me of a rock slide so much, in fact, that I actually found myself glancing around to seek a cave for cover. Of course, we were not anywhere near a mountain.
It was just the dire wolf, warning us that we were trespassing.
I took a step forward—and the monster paused long enough to bark, a massive bellowing shout that hurt my ears and stopped me dead in my tracks. Harold glanced back and glared at me, while Jack slowly removed her swords from their sheathes.
“do not interfere,” she said at a normal volume. “None of you could beat it at this range. Let me handle it.” I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off without even turning around. “And do not talk. Right now, it is trying to decide who the leader is. Since I am loudest, it will lunge for me. Just keep your mouths shut and let it.”
We all signaled our assent by following her orders.
The monster, still growling in the grass out of sight, slowly stalked a circle around our party, its progress marked only by a slight rustle of the grass and that eternal low, steady, dangerous rumble.
“We do not have all day,” Jack muttered. “Let us speed this up.”
She slammed her sinblades together, making a clang like a bell.
The dire wolf roared, leaping out of the grass to attack.
Aiming straight for Vale.
My subordinate was too shocked to even move in the split second he had to react, and was quickly knocked down by the massive beast.
Even as the monster was trying to kill my friend, I could not help but be awed by it. It was still mostly the same shape as a wolf, with four legs, a tail, and an elongated mouth. It had no fur covering its naked pink skin, which made it look strange and disturbing, but that was not the impressive part.
The impressive part was simply that it was huge.
I had seen wolves before. Never a live one, but the king enjoyed his hunts, and had bagged a few of the largest specimens in living memory. The crown jewel of his trophy hall was a six-foot beast, from nose to tail, that he had stuffed and placed in an aggressive pose.
This monster could eat His Majesty’s trophy for breakfast.
It was over eight feet—possibly as much as nine—from nose to butt, with the lean, compact frame that came from muscles as strong and fast as a whip. The creature was still maybe three feet wide, however, with a maw large enough that I suspected it could fit an entire human head inside without much difficulty.
Every move it made was quick, efficient, and dangerous. It is sharp black eyes were quick and intelligent, darting around the group to identify the next threat. Even though its teeth were the square, blunted things of an herbivore, I had no doubt that they were more than capable of killing me with no effort.
Then Vale screamed, nearly drowning out the crunch of his arm breaking as the wolf bit down with all the might in its jaws. It was much easier to admire the monster when it was not savaging one of my closest friends and subordinates.
Before I could react, however, Jack was there.
She struck like lightning, driving both her swords into the beast’s side with all her strength, grimacing at the effort. They cut through its flesh, but not with the ease with which they cut through everything else. Dire wolf hide was stronger than anything else natural I had ever seen.
The monster bellowed, releasing Vale to do so, and I saw my opening. I lunged forward, not at the enemy, but at my friend, grabbing him under the armpits and dragging him to safety. The dire wolf glared after us, but was more concerned with the girl who still had her swords embedded in its side.
It snapped at her, and she ground her teeth as she dodged its attacks, trying to work the blades deeper into the monsters body in the hopes of hitting a vital organ. I glanced over at Harold, but while the archer had an arrow ready, he could not fire for fear of hitting the girl.
Then there was one last slice, and a whimper. I turned back to the first in surprise, to see that Jack had already finished it when I was not looking. Breathing heavily, she stood, placed her boot on the beast’s side, and pulled out both her blades, one at a time.
“Got lucky and found an organ?” Roark grunted as he kicked the dire wolf to make sure it really was dead.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” she replied. “I know where all the major organs are. I was aiming for the lungs.” She shrugged. “I got the spine instead. Probably worked faster than the lungs anyway.”
“You two can argue later,” I hissed. I nodded at the man who was shivering in my lap. “Vale’s arm is…” I closed my eyes, not wanting to look at the twisted mess of blood, broken bone, and ripped flesh. “…problematic. And I think he is going into shock.”
Norn frowned at the wound. “It only had him for five seconds…” He sighed. “We will probably have to, you know.” He made a chopping motion with his hand. “Even if there are surgeons among the villagers, we cannot get him there fast enough.”
“There are,” Jack assured us. “But they still would not be able to do anything about this. Only thing worse than a dire wolf bite is getting an arm caught in a millstone.” She pulled a vial out of one of her many pouches. “Luckily, we do not have to rely on surgeons.”
She forced the injured blond to drink the potion, holding it to his lips and refusing to pull it away even as he sputtered and tried to spit it up. Thankfully, he was not too far gone to realize what was happening, and after a moment he stopped struggling.
Still, I wanted to know what he had just been given. “What was—”
“Shush,” Jack interrupted, nodding at his mangled arm. “It is working.”
I frowned, not sure what she was talking about.
Then I noticed that his arm was repairing itself.
It was like watching the attack in reverse, minus the wolf. Bones slid back into place and straightened, the breaks smoothing over as if they never were. Torn flesh re-knit, muscles swelled once more…even the blood scattered around, leaving a trail from him to the wolf’s maw, flew through the air and back into his veins.
No one spoke for a good minute after the healing was completed. What do you possibly say to something that?
“That was one of our best potions,” Jack warned when it became clear the rest of us were not going to speak up any time soon. “Has a whole bunch of rare ingredients.” She stood up and brushed off her pants. “But we need him alive and whole. He will wake soon. Then, we leave.”
“Why did it attack Vale?” Harold muttered. “There was no reason to. He is obviously not the leader, not in the way a dire wolf understands things.”
I shrugged. “He looked weakest?”
He shook his head, frowning. “I have never seen a dire wolf use tactics like that. They always go for the leader, and they always think the leader is the loudest. I mean, I could understand it attacking Norn, since he is the biggest, but Vale?” He turned to Jack. “You ever seen something like—what are you doing?”
The swordswoman had her arm elbow-deep in the wound she had made with her blades, working away within the wolf’s gut. “I am looking for the heart. You know how useful it is in potions like that.”
I winced at the squelch of internal organs as she searched away blindly. She did not seem to mind, but I was having trouble keeping my dinner from last night down. “I thought you said there was not time for collecting reagents like that?”
“For the sinhearts, sure. But—” She winced. “Oof. Liver. Dire wolf hearts are a little harder to come by, since they are usually damaged in the fight and so on. One heart will not slow us down. Besides, we have to wait a few minutes for Vale to wake up anyway. If I have not got it by then, I will leave it behind.”
“Just cut a new hole,” Norn suggested, watching her antics with some amusement.
“No, it is faster to—ah-HA!” She withdrew her arm from the monster’s innards, grinning gleefully at the large, muscly object in her hand. The heart, along with her entire arm, was covered in a black substance which I belatedly realized was the dire wolf’s blood. “Got it!”
Vale groaned and stirred on my lap. “Uhnn…what happened?”
“And not a moment too soon,” Norn said with a laugh. “Enough napping, old friend! All your limbs are intact, the shield maiden has an extra heart, and the morning is growing later as we speak. It is time to be off!”
The blond man stared at his companion through bleary, half-lidded eyes. “Huh?”