The entire wagon shook, and then the canvas was ripped free and that little bubble of warm air was instantly obliterated. I thought, for a moment, that it was just an accident - that a gust of wind had torn the top off the wagon and we'd be able to chase it down and reattach it. Then I saw the impossible monsters that were flying overhead.
Picture a cross between a bat and a grizzly bear and you'll have it basically right. There were six of them, large enough to carry two people on each although one had only a single rider. Fun fact, that thing about bumblebees not being able to fly according to the laws of physics is bullshit, it was just that it's a little too complicated to scribble out on the back of a napkin. But these guys? There was no way it should be possible for anything that size and with that much muscle to flap around through the sky.
"Segozertze," Hugh muttered, "and almost a dozen soldiers. Hmm. I will fight to the death Calliope Smith, but you should not feel required to do the same, yes? If they allow your surrender feel free to accept. For now, under the wagon."
Feeling pretty proud of myself for not freezing in place I dove off into the snow, planning on rolling skillfully under the wagon in one graceful motion but instead slipping on an icy patch and needing to scramble on all fours. As I did, I heard screaming and looked up just in time to see two of the riders plummet past. They'd attacked us on a curving path around a cliff, presumably to leave us nowhere to run, but that meant that it was at least sixty feet down for those poor bastards. Two more went screaming into the void, though it wasn't clear how Hugh was doing it.
The others landed, two blocking the path in each direction. I could see crossbow bolts flying towards the cart, but I couldn't see if they were hitting. Then one of the beasts charged, using its wings like front legs, and flipped the cart right off of me - sending it over the edge. I didn't see Hugh anywhere. The harness to the big wooly thing that had snapped, and the poor thing couldn't decide what to do. Rock wall on one side, cliff on another, and nasty-looking predators the other two ways. One of those hideous bat bear things stalked closer, sniffing at me - its riders had dismounted and were looking over the cliffside, but two of the others were watching me from a distance with crossbows pointing directly at me. Not taking any chances. They were wearing leather armor, all the same and with some sort of stylized lizard skull emblem. They also looked kinda nervous, not like I would expect from armed soldiers.
"Sir, the old man... we don't see his body."
The one that was riding by himself waved a hand dismissively. "I'll check for him once I'm done. You, bring me that girl."
The monster - a segozertze if I'd heard Hugh right, though that's a bit of a mouthful - backed away as someone hauled on its harness. They stalked past it and pulled me to my feet, at which point I did something a bit impulsive. I pulled the trigger on his crossbow. If he hadn't wanted to shoot himself in the foot, he wouldn't have left the damn thing loaded.
The soldier howled and let me go, and I charged for one of the two looking over the ledge for Hugh. He was mid-turn when I reached him, which is a really bad position for keeping your balance. Over the edge he went. The other one grabbed me by both arms, which people have tried to do in the past. It never ends well for them. I broke his nose with my forehead - another fun fact, if you do it just right it barely hurts your head at all - and then pulled one arm out of my coat leaving him holding an empty sleeve on that side. His other hand tightened, but I grabbed his knife right out of its sheath and started stabbing.
This might seem a bit sudden. Isn't this the girl that was crying and having a panic attack over being kicked out of her apartment? Well, yes. Because that's not a situation you can stab your way out of. But when you're squatting in an old K-Mart and some creepy guy tries to grab you? That is a stabbing situation and yes, I have stabbed people before. Three times. Never fatally. Even once I was trying to be an upstanding citizen I kept a knife on me, though it was in my backpack because despite working at a hardware store my boss wouldn't let me carry a knife around on my belt. I even offered to swap it out for a brand we sold, but no.
At any rate, after a few good stabs I was able to pull my other arm free leaving me totally unprotected from the elements. And while I was now armed and had eliminated two threats, the one with the crossbow bolt in his foot was already lunging for me and the two with crossbows next to the leader could pretty easily murder me at any time. I decided to fix that part first, by stepping back into the shadow of the guy I'd just used as a pincushion. He was in no shape to properly grab me, but he made for a great human shield. The one with the injured foot was hesitating, he'd dropped his crossbow and didn't seem eager to get into a knife fight with me.
There was also one standing behind the nearest bat-thing, as well as the bat-things themselves: two on either side, and two in the air although having lost their riders those ones seemed content to just circle the area. The guy behind me weakly grabbed my shoulders and I let him, not wanting to lose my cover.
Well, fuck. The nearest monster lunged forward, leading with its mouth. I ducked under the arm of the man holding me, who kind of pitched forward into the bat's jaws by mistake. The thing pulled back, seeming to know it had screwed up, but the guy's arm was wrecked. I was also now totally exposed to the crossbows, and both of them fired.
The crossbow bolts seemed to lose all momentum instantly, and dropped pathetically at my feet.
Before I could ponder this the beast was lunging for me again, and the only thing I could think to do was to fall on my ass. It was a reflex, and not a terrible one since it kept me from being mauled - but it left me with essentially zero options as the thing prepared to rip my throat out. I figured I had one shot; if I swung the knife at just the right moment it was possible I could hurt it a little while it murdered me. Not a big consolation.
A hand reached up from the edge of the cliff, grabbed the thing's front claw, and yanked it over the side. Hugh pulled himself up and brushed himself off.
"Not bad at all," he said as he looked around. He looked like he was going to follow that up with some other comment, but the bear-bats charged. I stumbled to my feet but they weren't headed for me, they were clearly dead set on murdering Hugh. Rather than running like a reasonable person would I found myself staring - shouldn't they be kicking up big divots of snow as they gallop? It seemed like they were barely denting the snow somehow. The first one arrived at its destination only to meet Hugh's fist coming the other way, and against all logic this grizzly-sized ball of muscle went flying backwards fifteen feet. The pack animal that had been pulling our wagon saw its opening and charged back the way we had come, weaving past everyone towards freedom.
The other batbear turned to look at the thing, and since it was exposed I jumped onto it and scrambled into the saddle on its back. It stopped and began to flail around in an attempt to claw at me, but its arms weren't built right for that and the saddle blocked the head from turning all the way around - probably by design, in case they got mad at their rider. Not having any better ideas I began stabbing it in the neck, at which point it launched into the air and landed on its back, crushing me.
When it first hit it didn't really hurt at all. The enormous thing weighed practically nothing. And then... it got heavier. And heavier. And heavier. The shape of the saddle and the gear strapped on behind it protected me at first, and I just kept stabbing whatever I could reach, but then I felt the saddle bending and heard some leather straps snapping and something gave. The now outrageous weight of the monster pressed down on me, and I lost feeling in my arms and legs. The remains of the saddle was pressed against my chest and for the moment it was just excruciatingly painful but I knew it would only be a matter of seconds before it slipped the rest of the way and shattered my ribcage.
And then it got lighter. Not a lot, but enough - and it stopped struggling as well. I was just barely able to slide out from under it, and I realized some of that carving must have done enough damage that it passed out. Why would it get lighter when it passed out? The knife was gone, but all three of the remaining soldiers were attacking Hugh as well as two of the segozertze. The leader was still sitting on his, and one that had lost its riders was still just circling aimlessly. There was still no sign of the one Hugh had yanked off the side of the cliff, for whatever reason it didn't seem to be rejoining the fight.
And speaking of rejoining the fight... For the moment the path was clear, and I didn't have a weapon anyway. I'd already contributed far more than I could reasonably be expected to, and I felt like I'd been hit by a bus. Part of me was yelling that if this was a high empathy day I'd never abandon Hugh but the rest of me didn't really give a shit; if it had been a high empathy day I probably also wouldn't have shoved a guy off a cliff and stabbed the fuck out of another one so easily, and I'd be dead. So it didn't really seem like I owed anything to my hypothetical more empathetic self.
So I ran.
I wasn't sure how far I would make it, since I'd lost my coat and was already winded. Realistically either I'd be caught right away, or escape and freeze to death. But frankly freezing to death seemed like a better deal than being torn limb from limb by a monster. I turned a corner quickly and was out of sight of everything, but it was another four or five hundred feet before I would get to where the path hit level ground and allowed me to actually get off the road. Before I got to that point, one of those fucking things landed right in front of me. It alighted on the snow without sinking in, and then all at once dropped down a foot like it had just remembered gravity existed.
I got ready to dodge, but when it snapped forward I wasn't nearly fast enough. It caught the collar of my work shirt, and flipped me down to the ground. One of its front claws pressed against my stomach with an implied threat of disembowelment, and I sat very still. Boots came closer, and the leader came into view.
"You have made this very difficult, girl."
"Good. Fuck you."
"Let me look at you... hmm. Was it you, at Ulren's laboratory? Were you the one who caused so much destruction?"
"It wasn't me, I was at your mom's house. I did cause a lot of destruction though, if you know what I mean. Broke the fucking bed."
A boot slammed into my ribs. Shit, that had been a steel toe hadn't it?
"How did you obscure your soul's signature? What has made you so hard to track? Are you even the right one?"
He leaned down and touched my forehead and I felt something pushing into my mind. "Where were you... before that... before... wait. What am I seeing?"
So much for not letting anyone know about Earth. He yanked the monster aside and hauled me to my feet, then everything went fuzzy. He was in my brain again, going deeper. "You're not the one I'm looking for, but who are you? What are you?"
I could feel him trying to pull images from my mind, but I couldn't stop it. I wanted to imagine him doing something embarrassing but I could tell I would only be able to show him images of things I'd really seen.
So I thought of the most bizarre shit I could. I wasn't sure if it would work, but I gave him images of the Teletubbies, of various movie aliens, of Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, of Transformers movies, of some extremely fucked up Rule 34 shit, a whole highlights reel of slasher movies. I could feel him still reaching, and his confusion was flowing over. He couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. I sent him traffic jams larger than he could comprehend, Godzilla fighting King Kong, goatse, roller coasters, a crowded water park, and the video from The Ring.
Finally he couldn't handle it anymore and he let me go, both mentally and physically. I'd love to say that I took that opportunity to kick him in the balls and make a run for it, but we'd been standing there for a while without my fur coat and I was already so fucking tired. I just stumbled back a few steps and glared at him. He looked baffled, and a little scared. If nothing else, I figured I'd probably convinced him to keep me alive for further questioning. Maybe I could escape later.
Instead, an absurdly evil-looking dude in black platemail armor walked up and smacked him on the back of the head hard enough to knock him face first into the snow.
"Your mission was to locate the girl and report back. Why did you engage?" He sounded super pissed.
"General Telen, I... there were only two of them and we had the element of surprise..."
"What you had, soul tracker, was an escort of new recruits. Those men have had barely any training, they weren't ready for combat. They were there to help you intimidate the locals and deal with any wild animals that attacked you! None of them even have a Dumine, why in the hells would you take them into a fight with people who - at a minimum - reduced a secure laboratory to a glowing crater that ages anyone to death if they so much as look at it?"
The 'soul tracker' stood up, and tried to look like he still had some dignity. "If your men are not properly trained, then -"
"They are trained to FOLLOW ORDERS! That's more than you can do, clearly. Well I hope you're happy, most of them are dead and worse we've lost three segozertze - four if that one at the bottom of the cliff with the injured wing can't be healed in time." He turned to look at me, though I couldn't see his face through the helmet. "Is this her?"
"This is... she is a decoy of some sort."
"So we don't even have the one we were after. Kill her, and then track the man she was with."
"He got away?"
"One of the survivors thinks he's dead at the bottom of the cliff somewhere, but we're not seeing him and to hear them tell the story he vanished off the cliff once before and returned. His Dumine has at least combat and force attunement, possibly even a third. Finish the girl and get to it, I don't want to risk him escaping."
"General, she is... her soul shows as human but I believe it's been tampered with, presumably related to this interference. The images in her mind..."
"So she's not human? What is she, a Sahrger? A Klunlesh?"
"Sahrger have been known to copy others, it could even explain the interference if she were younger and the original were still alive, but that wouldn't explain the images in her mind."
"They're known for trickery and illusion. She got the best of you, showed you something to confuse you. Kill her and follow me." and with that General Telen clearly considered the issue resolved. He stormed away back down the road.
"I'm not a... a Sahrger. Whatever that is. If you kill me, you'll never know. There's so much I could show you."
He looked like he was considering it, then he pulled out a knife and stabbed me. It happened too quickly, or maybe it just felt that way because I was going numb from the cold. I fell down, and sat there like an idiot watching myself bleed.
"Once I'm done tracking down your companion, if you're still alive, I'll come and find you and pull the secrets from that little head of yours. But sadly, I don't think you'll make it. Consider this slow death your payment for some of the more disturbing images you sent me."
"... at least... I didn't show you... your mom's... orgasm face."
He looked like he was considering stabbing me again, but he just turned to walk away.
"Goodbye, little girl."
"Goodbye... asshole. Do me... a favor... and fucking choke to death, okay?"
I felt a wave of cold ripple through me as he walked away. With the last of my strength I pulled myself over to the meager shelter of a tree on the side of the path and then waited to die.