The streets had been clotted with those twice-damned tree things, tough to kill. Worse they did something which gave you a splitting headache. Probably some spiritual dimension.
Arjuna’s fur rippled in revulsion. Fighting spirits was just about impossible. He wanted to get his teeth into something. Something mean. The day wasn’t over though, because the group was blithely going deeper into this haunted place. Arjuna wanted to look in every direction at once, and on a few occasions he struck a few suspicious-looking tangles of brush with a staff he had cut from a stand of gyoti wood. Poking bushes was better than just walking by them.
Ahead was the object of the Turtle’s travels, a large, tall temple? It was overgrown with vines, exotic blooms sprouted here and there. It looked old. The stone around the arched doors were covered in profane carvings to their devahs. It was exciting, they said, it was old, they said, it needed further explorations, they said. Then the fools went through a doorway that had a scrap or two of door left.
Blood and fire. What were they thinking?
Arjuna quickly crossed the threshold of the temple, making the sign of Dar to himself. The apparent majesty and size of the interior carvings had caused some of them to pause in sheer wonder. Bah. Arjuna strode though the enthralled group, his nostrils flaring. He took a deep breath and looked around the room. It should hold more.
Big. An entire tree wound its way up through the central area, where the roof had collapsed long ago. Sunlight filled the chamber, which explained the shrubs and brush that grew in profusion along the southern side. The floor, where you could see it, was stone. He heard some crackling and saw that the Turtle, accompanied by the new cat-slave, was going to do something literary and ritual-looking to the wall with parchment and charcoals. Probably write something.
Hurm. Arjuna thought some of the brush looked promising, if you were a predator. He trod carefully across the floor, wary of pits and looking for webs. A few pale bits of chitin caught the light under a small shrub. Something had been eaten here. Also, he could smell some… thing. He didn’t know what it was though, it was spicy and had this kind of burned taste to it. The hair on his scarred arms stood up. Remember the Spiral.
Arjuna poked that bush, and the bush rustled back. Then it rustled again as something made of spines and legs trundled out from under it. His ears flattened and Arjuna peered at it. Claws, two stingers, a ring of beady little eyes and more legs than a bordello. Also, it was about the size of a small washtub. He stabbed at it, just over the circle of eyes and it shrieked. Arjuna shrieked back.
This was more like what he thought would be in here. He stepped closer.
Then most of the brush heaved and something much, much bigger bulled through it. More of the small, single-serving-sized nightmares dripped off of its back and chittered off into different directions, while the large one-size-fits-all version took a quick claw grab at him. Holy Blood and Fires this thing looked mean. It was all purpled hues and green lightning zig-zags. Eyes like blood pips in a circle, but not a spider. Would this be a great fight?
The Bird fired its musket. The sound of the rifle boomed around the temple. Arjuna’s ears rang and he could swear that the musket ball had passed within a few talons of his head. The Bird was good though. Mother Nightmare reeled back with a chunk of her, umm, head parts missing. Something struck Arjuna below the knee and he saw that the scuttlers had been busy. One was worrying at his leg armor. Worse, the sting carried some kind of venom because it burned pretty good when it managed to get a sting in between the plates down there.
Arjuna chuckled and killed it. Take that one, Dar.
There was a sudden burst of cursing behind him and the Bird rocketed up to the roof edge. He sounded mad and hurt. Good vantage point for the gunner, though. Arjuna killed or maimed a second nightmare and shot a quick glance around. The Hyena had climbed the tree, swarmed by the little ones.
Mother-of-Nightmares heaved forward and she looked like she was recovering from her head wound. It was time.
His first thrust took the left stinger of Mother mostly off. She struck at him again and Arjuna quickly sidestepped the blow. A paving stone cracked where her sting struck it. Dar she was quick!
Another scuttler stabbed at him but this time its sting didn’t get through Arjuna’s armor. Arjuna took a quick breath, made a small adjustment to get better footing and leapt onto Mother. He hoped he was inside her stinger reach. He struck where Dar would put her brains. The sword skittered a bit and then found a chink in her armor. Quickly he twisted the blade. She shuddered. Her legs went into spasms. Wonderful.
Her death spasms were still dangerous. He hopped back to avoid her flailing stingers. Mother of Nightmares screamed again, dying. Arjuna screamed back, his fur was standing on end. Right at the end, close to her death, he leaned close, whispering a name. The light in her eyes dimmed. She was gone.
A quick look around revealed that there were still small nightmare scuttlers clicking around the floor. Time to get his ass against something. He moved to the doorway which he had come in by, and soon it was over as the Hyena and others moved back in and waded into the last few little ones. They were fearless.
The fighting was over. The southerners were all remarking on how sudden it all was, and so unexpected, and calling it a Makri and so on. Always talking.
Arjuna frowned down at his knee, it had a rounded swelling on the side of it. Hurt like he had been struck by a sling bullet. Little bugs weren’t too weak after all. Mom was kind of slow though, after all. Good scream.
So that was a Makri?
Turtle came over and asked him if he was all right. Arjuna looked at the Turtle, his gold-flecked eyes calm, measuring. Would she understand? Arjuna wanted to explain to her about ambushes, and unknown enemies, and taking care in Strange Places, and how this had been a good fight, maybe a worthy fight but not a great fight and how Dar would be pleased to read the Makri name from his arm in the afterlife. He wanted her to know that the Spiral was always and all ways. Her wide, placid turtle face looked back at him.
He sighed. She was not Hardazi.
Arjuna opened his mouth to say something, and the words “I am fine” came out. She put something cooling on the sting. He watched in silence.
The Spiral goes forever. There was no weakness in him.
The Makri had surprised them. He shrugged. He wanted the Makri to be there. Damn this heat. Damn this, this jungle and damn their casual strolling about like it was somewhere safe.