As Tala hung out of the depression in the big tree, her peripheral vision caught signs of movement around her, but her eyes were still fixed on the juggernaut moving her way.
Every little bit will help. Tala started dumping power into increasing its effective gravity.
However, even with such an obvious threat approaching, she couldn’t ignore movement nearby, so she turned to look back at the tree she was in the side of.
She was hanging out of a relatively shallow, shattered hole, nearly four hundred feet up the trunk of a massive tree. Relatively shallow. She almost laughed. It’s practically six feet deep.
As her gaze swept what amounted to a wooden wall that she was stuck in the side of, she saw Leshkin, so many Leshkin.
There were at least a hundred lesser Leshkin in easy sight, hanging on the bark of the tree, like bees clinging to their hive, and each and every one seemed to be looking her way. The closest was only a few feet from her.
In fact, the splatter pattern of still burning acid on the tree’s bark implied that she might have gone through one or more, in order to impact as she had.
Mistress Odera said they’d stop at the draw-down line… Either the Mage had been mistaken, or there was something else influencing the Leshkin’s actions. Just great…
The shield around the lead wagon dropped, and Mistress Odera’s voice snapped out. “Get back to the wagons!”
The command hadn’t just been directed at her, if it had been aimed at her at all. Did she even see where I went?
There were guardsmen ranging around the caravan, ostensibly to prevent things exactly like this, but now was hardly the time to throw stones. Unless it was a really big one… Maybe I should get something like that for Kit? So I can drop the stone on enemies, if I’m up high?
Focus, Tala. Her head was still ringing a bit. I should talk to Holly about that… My head really should be better protected… Focus!
Ok. Get to the wagon. Mistress Odera can raise a shield around everyone, and we can proceed entirely inside it. It wouldn’t work if a snarl of roots blocked their way, but such shouldn’t exist in this zone.
Neither should the Leshkin… It would also be a tremendous strain on Mistress Odera’s power and inscriptions.
Worth it if it keeps us alive.
So, Tala had a choice:
On one hand, she could fight in the relative safety of her little indent, until the juggernaut arrived. She could use that time to increase the giant’s effective gravity to the point that it would die, if she was lucky.
Her other option was to make a break for the caravan and safety.
If I don’t go now, Mistress Odera might not be able to keep the shield down for me, and I’d be stuck outside until we reach true safety…
Put that way, there really wasn’t much of a choice. Break for the caravan.
But she needed to do it intelligently.
Tala ducked back into her impact crater; it was almost as deep as she was tall. All her contemplations had taken less than a couple of seconds. Bless my mental enhancements.
Drawing Flow, she thrust the weapon into the shattered side of her resting place within the tree, angling outward so that Flow’s tip would exit the tree, away from the opening. Tala moved the sword a full circle around the gap, attempting to cut out a conical chunk, as large as Flow’s length would allow.
She still had a lock on the juggernaut, and with her left middle finger pressed to her thumb, she was increasing its gravity steadily. That wasn’t her priority right now, though.
I can’t waste this time. Reluctantly, she switched her lock to herself, left middle finger still firmly pressed against her thumb. Decrease.
The wood before her groaned as the large section of the tree began to slide free. It wasn’t as large as she would have liked, but she would work with what she had.
The entrance would now be clear, and there was a good distraction for the Leshkin attention, at least momentarily.
She dove out after the falling bit of tree.
Humorously, several Leshkin looked up at her through the hole in that chunk, which had been the entrance to her divot. They would be crushed by the fall and the heavy chunk of wood momentarily.
With a tremendous sideways leap, Tala cleared the tree and looked back.
Waves of Leshkin were leaping off the main trunk after her, their own jumps far less impressive than hers, given her strength and ever-reducing effective gravity. There were also quite a few more than she’d been able to see before her leap.
Why are they so fixated on me? Is that why they’re here when they shouldn’t be? Is something about me drawing them or angering them?
She glanced down and saw the juggernaut, its gaze also fixed on her. Her gravity sight told her that it was now subject to nearly thrice normal gravity. It took between sixteen- and sixty-four-times gravity to kill the last one. Her meager increase would barely inconvenience the beast.
Her own gravity was now low enough that she was arching down much further out than she should have been able to. Unfortunately, she hadn’t decreased it enough before her jump, so she would still fall short of the caravan, if not nearly as much as she would have with a normal fall.
I’ll have to have a good proportion of gravity once I land, so that I will be able to run the last bit. But when should she re-increase? In either case, I’m light enough, now.
She switched the lock back to the juggernaut and continued to increase its weight.
Tala was still accelerating downward, but not nearly as fast as normal. It took her more than ten seconds to reach the ground, and the last half of her fall was punctuated by the rotten-log sound of the lesser Leshkin splattering themselves on the ground around the base of the tree.
As each lesser Leshkin struck the ground, among the roots, it was turned into a pile of mulch by the impact, the acidic blood fountaining in all directions.
Tala’s drifting fall had managed to get her more than a hundred yards from the base…and almost on top of the juggernaut.
As the last couple seconds of the fall came and went, Tala switched back to herself and moved her weight back towards normal.
The impact was… more than she’d expected. Her increased weight, due to her large physical stores, factored in. In addition, she was imbalanced as her right arm was significantly lighter than her left. That didn’t even factor in that the forest floor was far from perfectly flat.
All that came together for an awkward landing, and her leg broke on impact.
She went down, hard, but before she could scream in pain, her scripts had realigned and healed the damage. Her eyes had involuntarily squeezed shut against the momentary agony, and when they shot open once more, the juggernaut was bringing its shield down at her head.
Not good! This was becoming a pattern for her.
She jerked to the side as the massive wooden monument drove deeply into the frozen soil. How much strength and weight are behind that? Her gravity sight told her that she’d gotten the Leshkin up to almost four times effective gravity. Right. That would make downward blows stronger…and I’m shorter…great.
She might not have thought through all the implications thoroughly enough.
Now was hardly the time, though. Come on, head, get back in the fight!
Tala moved her lock to the big creature once again and took off from the ground, hitting a full sprint almost instantly.
Behind her, gravity’s influence continued to increase on the Leshkin juggernaut. In for a copper-
That Leshkin shrieked, and it was answered by another, equal in power.
No…Oh, rust no.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw portions of the mulch and acid pile pulling together against the great tree. The form of a giant began to be visible among the remains of what had once been more than two hundred lesser Leshkin. Another!? That isn’t fair. They shouldn’t be able to merge after falling to their destruction. She cursed her luck.
In all likelihood, eight had survived the impact and had taken advantage of their incoherent state and the proximity of the tree to combine as much as possible.
Tala cursed again and threw her focus forward once more.
She promptly tripped, falling into a tangle of limbs. Eyes on the prize, Tala. Focus forward!
“GET TO THE WAGONS!” Mistress Odera’s voice was being amplified, somehow.
The ground shook, while Tala tried to get her hands under her to push back to her feet.
Just as she lifted up, the closest juggernaut’s foot lanced out, connecting with her torso and sending her flying over the caravan to land in a tumbling heap on the other side.
She coughed, spitting blood onto the ground before sucking in a gasping breath. Her ribs realigned, and her punctured lungs reinflated. This pain is wildly distracting.
Oh, and her ending-berry power was gone. When did that happen?
She thought back in a panicked haze and realized that it had been when she impacted the tree. Oh…that would have been good to rectify.
Even after the blunt force damage was healed, her body still seemed to be screaming at her about her injuries. Though, the cries reached her more as distant echoes than as someone yelling into her ear.
She came to her feet, sweeping Flow in a circle to clear the area, as she’d practiced countless times against the guardsmen back in Bandfast. Bless the stars that she did.
A small swarm of lessers had been almost upon her, and Flow neatly decapitated many…drenching Tala in a flood of acidic blood.
She screamed: first at the pain, then again as some of the acid got into her mouth.
She spat furiously and stumbled in the direction of the caravan. She fumbled towards Kit and felt her hot water incorporator fall into her hand.
As she continued to move, she blasted herself: first her face, then as much of the rest of her as she could do quickly, to clear away the caustic substance. She even moved the void-channels away from Flow, allowing it to return to the form of a knife, so that she could use more water, more quickly.
With eyes once again able to properly see, she looked towards her destination. If her perception was right, the last of the guards were now clustered close, between the still moving wagons. Most had crossbows, and they were firing in all directions as quickly as they could rearm the weapons, their companions feeding them ammunition just as quickly.
Mistress Odera was looking back and forth between Tala and the other side of the wagon train. If Tala had to bet, she would have said that Mistress Odera was trying to decide if Tala or the two juggernauts on the far side would reach the caravan first.
The Mage couldn’t change the size of her barriers, once created, and the larger they were, the harder they would be to maintain.
She can’t include me, here. It would ruin everyone’s chances. Tala stumbled into a run, getting her feet under her and pouring on the steam.
Come on, come on. RUN, TALA. RUN!!!
Her vision tunneled, her entire focus on the wagons before her.
Despite her own urgings, she pulled up short just as a massive blade came down, breaking the ground and embedding deep within. An instant later, the ground shook, the new juggernaut having leapt over the wagon-train to get to Tala.
Mistress Odera’s shield snapped into place; the Mage was unable to wait any longer. She waited longer than she probably should have, if the juggernaut was close enough to jump over.
The juggernaut had reached her, and she was trapped outside the defenses. Well…rust me.
Tala turned to take her first good look at the incredibly heavily armored giant. Made almost entirely of vines, this one held a greatsword.
Yeah…nothing else will fit that moniker ever again…
The massive wooden blade was nearly fifteen feet long, two feet wide, and embedded nearly halfway into the ground, between Tala and the magical shield that protected the retreating caravan.
The Leshkin was staring at her with a look of unrestrained fury and…sadness?
Betrayal? That doesn’t make… Her eyes widened. Without my aura control, I would look like they do, at least to mage-sight. Can they see through that control, somehow?
That didn’t make sense. Why would they think she was one of them? Do I have a better explanation?
She didn’t. Maybe they were seeing what seemed to be ending-berry power, but if she was being honest, it really didn’t matter.
The greatsword wielder stepped forward and punched down into her head and left shoulder, while its off-hand remained on the sword’s handle.
Tala was thrown to the ground, something that Rane had made her incredibly familiar with. Her bones popped back into shape, and Tala found herself unable to care about the pain.
Focus, Tala. You’re alone, again. On your own, again.
The strange squeal of frozen earth, forced to move, accompanied the greatsword’s extraction. A whistling filled the air, as the massive blade moved in a deadly arc.
She vaulted to her feet, moving Flow into a guarding position, even as she reconnected the void-channels, returning Flow to the form of a sword.
Her movements were just in time, and Flow perfectly intercepted the falling strike, edge-to-edge.
To her joy, Flow sheared straight through the oncoming weapon, clearly more magically powerful, and able to overcome whatever magics or material properties reinforced the blade.
To her consternation, that resulted in the attack continuing. The now severed end of the sword struck her at nearly full speed, though without the follow-through of a properly delivered attack.
She was thrown backwards, to the side, and to the ground.
Rust you! She stood and threw Flow at the giant’s head, maintaining the void-channel connection to the weapon.
It sunk into the beast’s eye.
It did nothing.
Right… I have to behead it…
She called Flow back. As the weapon flew towards her, Tala was struck by the now much shorter greatsword. The flat of the blade threw her sideways, into the caravan’s shield.
She stopped instantly, robbed of all kinetic energy.
Her bones realigned, again, and she groaned, feeling famished.
I need to get away. I can’t fight this thing.
The ground shook as the tower-shield juggernaut vaulted over the caravan and landed twenty feet from Tala to the west, closer to the front of the defensive field.
Tala whimpered in frustrated anger.
No. This is like fighting Terry. Don’t let your emotions rule you!
Tala briefly bemoaned the loss of her repeating hammer. She could have thrown that and obliterated one of these creatures with relative ease.
She would give her left arm to have it back.
That struck a chord in her mind, and she twitched. Well, no. I wouldn’t give my arm… She shivered. She did not want to repeat that experience.
Her gaze flicked back and forth between the two juggernauts that she could see. Is there a third, or is this all the rusting bad luck I’ve earned?
She didn’t know but she decided to assume the worst. For some reason, the sword wielder was waiting for the shield bearer to flank her fully. Precious seconds.
A voice, incredibly muffled, came to her from behind the shield.
“Mistress Tala! To the back of the caravan!”
Tala turned and saw Rane waving at her frantically, but with huge and exaggerated motions. She looked towards the back and saw an incredibly small opening left in the magical shield. If she belly-crawled, she might be able to squeeze through. Mistress Odera left me a way in!
She smiled widely, hope filling her.
Rane’s eyes widened in horror, and Tala felt something impact her back.
I stayed in one place for too long. The world went white for a brief instant as even her enhanced nervous system couldn’t handle the sheer quantity of pain signals.
She somehow maintained consciousness. No more sass, today!
Tala was thrown forward, slamming against the shield once more, feeling what seemed like all her bones and connective tissue simultaneously pull back together. How hard was I hit?
Near half of her power reserves were gone, and she didn’t have time to analyze the state of her physical stores.
Purely on instinct, Tala dropped to the ground just in time for the shortened-greatsword to bisect where she’d been standing. Yeah… that would have been bad. It nearly killed me with a blunt hit. Given the caravan’s shield as a cutting board, that sword would have been… She turned away from the images that her mind began to conjure.
Tala rolled from her position on the ground, and as soon as her feet were under her, she sprinted towards the back of the caravan, to the hole in the defenses. As she did so, her hip popped back into place. Why didn’t that realign before?
Some lesser Leshkin seemed to have noticed the weakness in their enemies’ defenses and were attempting to crawl inside.
Rane had already run ahead of her, and he thrust Force out, through the opening, throwing the invaders back to clear her a path.
Tala dropped into a slide coming to a stop just close enough to stick her hand through the opening.
Rane had flattened himself to the ground, and he thrust his hand out, snatching her outstretched fingers.
Once he had a firm grip, he pulled.
Tala shot through the opening, tucking her shoulders in close and pointing her feet to be as streamlined as possible.
The world shook as she slammed into Rane, falling in a tangled heap with him, inside Mistress Odera’s shield.
Tala looked back through the opening and saw the sword blade embedded in the ground just outside the shield.
“Well… That was close.” She barely managed a whisper as she clung to Rane, breathing heavily.
“Rust me. Yeah, it was.”
A few of the guards swarmed over them, checking them for injuries and helping them stand.
Five stayed at the small opening to defend the vulnerability, each armed with a crossbow. The remaining led Tala and Rane back to the front wagon where Mistress Odera was visibly straining.
As soon as they were up on the roof with her, Rane spoke, “What can we do, Mistress?”
“Don’t distract me. Keep the wagons moving, and keep them from breaching the opening I had to leave.”
Rane nodded, beginning to climb back down.
Tala stayed, regarding the woman for a long moment.
“What is it? I’m a bit busy.”
Tala didn’t know how to say what she was thinking, so she decided to just go for it. “Thank you.”
Mistress Odera opened her eyes to give Tala a look. “Now is hardly the time.”
“Even so, thank you. You could have left me out there, and no one would have blamed you.”
The older Mage grunted. “You are my responsibility. I don’t care if anyone else would have blamed me. I would have blamed myself.” She grimaced, closing her eyes once more. “Now go. We can’t afford distractions.”
Tala silently nodded acknowledgement and followed after Rane.
We can survive this. I know we can.
* * *
Somehow defying the two Leshkin juggernauts’ efforts, Mistress Odera’s defensive shield held, and the oxen continued their unchanging pace. Blessedly, there had only been two of the giants.
The lesser Leshkin spent their lives trying to crawl through the small opening, and they died one by one.
The light had long since faded from the sky, and the caravan was only lit by their massive, empowered lights, the illumination barely piercing the shield to show their pursuers.
After hours of failing to claim their prize, and long after the last lesser had died, the Leshkin juggernauts ceased their useless assault and slowed, allowing the caravan to pull slightly ahead.
“Did we do it? Did we win?” One of the guards asked in a quiet, strained voice.
They never retreat. Tala frowned. She was walking backwards near the opening. She was there to support the guards and Rane, if the need arose.
As they watched, the juggernauts broke apart, falling into eight lessers each. Somehow, the juggernauts’ equipment dissolved as well, the energy and material of the tools going towards recorporating the weaker Leshkin. Those lessers screeched their rage and charged the opening.
At that point, the defense of that vulnerability was well practiced, and the sixteen lesser Leshkin died quickly.
As the final died, the shield that had been protecting them for so long seemed to waver. Then, it vanished.
Mistress Odera’s voice floated back to them. “We aren’t stopping tonight. We need to get to Makinaven as soon as possible.” There was a hesitation to the magically enhanced voice. “And I need to rest.”
Several guards had rushed up to the top of the cargo-wagon, following some instruction that Tala hadn’t heard. They carefully helped Mistress Odera down, and into the cargo-slot that she would sleep in.
“Well, Master Rane, it seems like we’re on overwatch for the night.”
Rane nodded. “You take the wagon top, and I’ll do sweeps of the surroundings. Terry, you able to circle counter to me?”
The avian flickered to stand beside Tala, once again roughly the size of a horse. He let out an affirmative whistling squawk.
The two of them turned outward in opposite directions and began their sweep. Tala, for her part, headed to the cargo-wagon and climbed up.
As she sat down and thought over the insane afternoon, she had a realization. Tala slapped her own forehead. “I could have increased the juggernauts’ effective gravity, after I was within the shield.”
She groaned. That likely would have shortened the whole encounter greatly. Well, I’ll do better next time.
She began sweeping their surroundings with her mage-sight and enhanced vision; it was going to be a long night.