Chapter ten: Pessolanian Blue
The savage, guttural snarl ripped through the forest louder and more startling than any crack of thunder. A moment passed when Xarthanias thought another wild bucking match was in order, but this was a danger that Shimmer was acquainted with, and she stood her ground, tensed for action, nostrils flaring as she eagerly took in the scent of the predator. The stench was like being stabbed in the eyes with a stick while being choked by a rope. The other steeds, Covah and Fang, took up the same stance. Rearing high and thrashing, the packhorse tried to rid himself of Chimley who held fast to the lead. The gelding made a sound like a human screaming in terror.
They were in a very small, soggy clearing with a dense wall of trees surrounding them. Slowly, the storm was crying itself out, and a glimmer dusted the very tops of the trees. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and into a newborn patch of sunshine on the forest floor stepped the hulking, salivating, monster of a Pessolanian blue bear, shoving the rockwood chest behind it with a massive paw. Faint teeth marks could be seen in the finish. The blue was bigger than Shimmer—who, as the tallest horse in the Escort stood at more than twenty hands—on all fours; in the sun, the dark blue hue of its fur was iridescent. With a mouthful of fangs longer than fingers, razor-like claws as long as a forearm and a head big enough to curl up and take a nap in, it was by far the biggest bear any of them had ever seen.
The stinking wet creature heaved its heavy, rotten breath as it stared at them with eyes like smoldering, blue-black coals.
We must be closer to the Volcanic Belt than we thought. Xarthanias’s eyes were wide as he took in the beast.
Quizzically, Fredric shook his head. No, we are very, very far away. I do not know what it is doing here.
Chimley, beside them, was fighting a battle of wills with the panicked-seized packhorse. We need this guy, right? he asked, face tight with annoyance. He didn’t seem to be struggling at all to keep control of the wildly thrashing horse. Xarthanias, Osarius and Fredric’s clothing had shed the rain water, but Chimley’s cloak was heavy and dripping. I can’t just let him go?
No! said Fredric. Just…take him somewhere. Far away, and tie him up. Yes, do that. And then come back. We need that chest, and I don’t think Blue is going to let us have it without a few questions.
Almost faster than they could see, Chimley fashioned the lead rope into a makeshift halter with reins, and a split second later had vaulted onto the animal’s back. Steering it away, he galloped off into the forest, flashing occasionally in beams of sunlight. Fredric, Xarthanias and Osarius watched his retreat out of the corners of their eyes, never taking their attention from the Pessolanian blue.
Native to the surrounding woods of the Volcanic Belt separating Despartus from Rena, Pessolanian blue bears were the result of fine orbalite crystals, resinite and other substances from the volcanoes making their way up the food chain. The fish in the streams had a faint blue tint in the scales, along with the plants and other animals the bears liked to eat. Through bio-magnification and several hundred years, the bears developed their dark-orbalite blue colouring. Blues were territorial, possessive packrats and savage killers when provoked, and would not rest until they had their persecutors between their deadly claws.
The adventurers saw no way to retrieve their chest (the bear’s new treasure) without provoking the pacing blue in some way. Xarthanias despaired for a moment that the box was soaked in resinite, but the perplexity of the situation soon brought a dark smile to his face. The resinite in the bears’ blood made them nearly impossible to touch with telekinesis except by the most skilled mindmasters. Some of the bears were even known to be able to use telekinesis themselves. This wasn’t a problem for the riders, but Xarthanias had a hunch that if they were misfortunate enough to have found themselves a telekinetic blue, they would have to let their horses go as well. Fighting the blue on foot was not an ideal prospect.
Chimley returned five minutes later, and by then the bear had taken up an aggressive position in front of the chest, letting loose its terrifying snarl every so often. The riders hadn’t moved an inch.
When the bear saw Chimley creeping noiselessly through the woods, it bugled loudly and charged.
In a flash Chimley scaled the nearest tree, so quickly the bear almost missed him. When it realized where its prey had gone, it snapped its massive head upwards and zeroed in on Chimley fifty feet up. It made the strange bugle sound again and rose to put its front paws against the tree. Finding purchase, it began to climb with amazing speed for its unbelievable size.
I’ve got it distracted, get the box! implored Chimley, waving a long, wispy branch from a spider willow in front of the bear’s nose. It snarled and tried to snap at the branch, but Chimley tugged it just out of reach.
Before Xarthanias could move to comply, Osarius leapt from Covah’s back and ran the short distance to the edge of the clearing, where the chest was nearly hidden in the dark, ominous trees. Glancing up to make sure Chimley still had the bear occupied, he saw that the blue was halfway up the massive shousu tree, and Chimley was goading it by throwing sticks at its head, looking as though he were entertaining himself at a family picnic.
Not wasting another moment, Osarius reached his hand for the chest.
Xarthanias yelled something, and before Osarius could ask him to repeat it he found that he was flying through the air.
Scalding needles feathered with stinging quills seared through his leg; his yell was choked off when he hit the ground, the air knocked out of his lungs with hammer-like force. His head slammed against something, and he saw stars; Osarius became aware that he was suffocating to death as his consciousness winked out.
Before the Pessolanian blue that had attacked Osarius could advance on him again, Xarthanias sent a shousu branch the size of a horse hurtling at it; with tremendous force the branch slammed the blue, knocking it down and even cracking a few of its ribs. With a noise like a saw rasping into a tree the blue gasped horribly, struggling incessantly to rise to its feet. Instantly tired from the herculean mind-strength it had taken to strike the bear, Xarthanias lifted the branch and let it fall repeatedly, pulverizing the blue’s ribs and driving them into its lungs. When it was suitably incapacitated, he jumped from Shimmer’s back and went to the weakly struggling bear. He drew his knife and raised it high over the blue’s head, looking once into its cerulean eye before driving the knife in hilt deep.
Fredric had dismounted to kneel by Osarius. The three rider-less horses stayed put as their masters tended to other matters. Osarius’s black clothing was torn at the leg, strips of material and flesh hanging in ribbons, streaming blood. For a moment Fredric was unsure of whether Osarius was even alive, as his face was pasty-pale and his green eyes were rolled back in his head. He looked closely and saw the slightest rise and fall of his chest. Relieved, Fredric heaved Osarius’s body into one arm and staggered toward the chest that had been knocked even further into the trees.
“Leave it!” Xarthanias rushed up to them from the dead blue, slinging one of Osarius’s arms over his shoulders to share the weight. “It will only follow you if you have it.”Together they made haste toward the waiting horses; Fredric mounted and together he and Xarthanias hauled up Osarius. Draping the unconscious man forward over Fang’s neck, Fredric kicked her into a smooth gallop. As usual he knew exactly where he was, and Fang charged full speed for Nolle and Belladia.
Xarthanias was already at Chimley’s side.
Chimley had led the other bear further and furtehr up the shousu; when they had been nearly a hundred feet up Chimley had jumped, not breaking his legs as was expected of a leap from such a height; lithely he had regained his footing and he and Xarthanias stared up at the blue who was rapidly descending the tree again. Inexplicably, it was missing its right ear, and inky black blood ran like tears from its right eye. The outside toe on its right front paw looked like it was hanging by a thread. Chimley had gambled and lost with the possibility that the blue might be stupid enough in its mad pursuit to jump as well, killing itself.
What now? Chimley asked, face tight.
The branch! Showing Chimley what to do,Xarthanias motioned at the hefty shousu branch resting on the mutilated blue. His mind was still too tired to do more than nudge it. Chimley levitated the branch and then launched it at the bear about three-quarters of the way down the tree. It was a shock when Chimley missed. The branch went wide and shot past the tree, continuing on until it landed somewhere beyond. Enraged by the raised-eyebrow look from Xarthanias, Chimley ripped branch after branch from nearby trees and peppered the bear, yet not one hit their mark. Only after one last dogged attempt did Chimley feel it; a slight bounce, as though the branch had glanced off an invisible glass bubble. The circumstances had suddenly become a little more perplexing.
Either I’m more tired than I thought, Chimley told Xarthanias, as they backed away from the bear making the final leap to the ground, or that blue has gotten into some graphite.
The minute the bear’s feet touched the ground, it charged at them.
Xarthanias was neither as fast nor as skilled at scaling trees as Chimley was, but with the other boy’s help he was able to follow him a hundred feet up yet another tree. Perching on branches high above they watched as the blue tirelessly began to climb that tree as well, despite how crippled it was. Having recovered his mental capacities slightly, Xarthanias dropped massive branches upon the bear along with Chimley, to no affect. They all glanced off like before.
So the bear had not only been eating graphite, it was also able to deflect their assaults with basic telekinesis.
Wonderful, thought Xarthanias, just wonderful.
The resinite-coated rockwood box lay below them, not too far away yet painfully out of reach. Though Xarthanias guessed that Chimley could make a dive for the box and then get away, there was the ever-growing possibility that the bear would ceaselessly hunt them down. There was no other choice but to kill it, and as it swung its knife-like claws at them, the possible means of doing so seemed to vanish one by one. They only hoped that there were no more blues.
Another swing, this time barely a foot away from them, and it was time to move up again. As Xarthanias stood on his thick branch, its sturdy façade gave way with a crack!
Chimley had already moved up and barely reacted in time to grab onto Xarthanias’s hand as the branch fell away and knocked the surprised bear off the tree, but they were both unbalanced and tumbled down after it. Xarthanias watched as the image of the bear struggling to its feet grew rapidly nearer. Without warning, the sight shifted and he was looking at it from a completely different angle; when he landed on the forest floor he was twenty feet away. Standing shakily on legs that were not broken but certainly painful, he rolled his left shoulder which was sore. Chimley, poised beside him, shrugged apologetically.
Why don’t you distract the bear and I will see if I can get at it, Chimley suggested. Having already drawn a knife, coated with blue-black blood, from his cloak, he backed into the shadows of the trees. He was gone when the bear finally managed to stand and, albeit unsteadily, made its move toward Xarthanias, who limped away. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the blue was almost upon him when from out of nowhere Chimley appeared on its shoulder, knife raised high. Before he could stab it the blue reared and struck, raking over Xarthanias’s back with claws of fire. Xarthanias rolled out of the way just as the bear tripped, iron roots digging into his back.
Chimley pitched over the bear’s head. With a deep growl the bear slammed a paw at him, and though he managed to roll away, a deadly claw grazed his side. Chimley was slow to get up again but when he did, there was little hesitation as he sprung upward, knife outstretched, and sunk the knife between the blue’s shoulders. Like a house of twigs in the wind the bear collapsed and convulsed on the ground before it lay still. Chimley slipped to the ground, gasping.
Xarthanias heaved himself to his feet and limped over, fighting the blanket of darkness that pressed over his mind. Is it dead? he wondered, squinting blurrily at the blue. Chimley nodded slightly, pressing a hand to his side just above his hip. A dark stain flowered over the material of his slightly torn cloak. The black of Xarthanias’s cape concealed the blood staining his back.
They smiled wanly at the blue a long time before Xarthanias hobbled to the rockwood chest and tucked it under his arm, making his laborious way back to Shimmer. His hair was damp with sweat and rain. Moving away from the reek of the soggy-furred Pessolanian blue, Chimley carefully peeled off his sopping cloak and balled it against the tear in his side as he made his way to Xarthanias. The bleeding was tapering from a flow to a steady drip.
So that’s the box we almost got ourselves killed over. It doesn’t look like much, he said leeringly. Xarthanias managed to drag himself into the saddle, barely able to hold on to the chest.
We didn’t risk our lives for the box, you stupid churl, it’s what’s inside the box—
A grumble like faint thunder interrupted him. They exchanged a wide-eyed look. Disbelievingly, they turned around. The blue was picking itself up again.
It swayed a moment before finding its feet, small drops of dark blood staining its fur and the decaying underbrush. It glanced at its lifeless companion and after a long, chilling gaze in Chimley and Xarthanias’s direction, it doddered away faster than either of them was willing to follow.