“Oh?” Iri didn’t like hearing Auri at a loss for words, even as the both of them were caught in the spectacle of the Yellow Bellows breathing its last.
The tar-like creature moved like an amorphous mire of knotted ribbons and slick rivulets across the interior of the inn, or what remained of it. The fire was quickly spreading along the wooden catwalks, and there were distressed voices buried beneath its crackle and roar. Not everyone had made it out.
“What?” Auri was the first to snap out of it.
“Run!” She spoke at him through gritted teeth before he really had time to finish posing the question.
A solid hand wrapped around the barrel strapped to his back, and then he was yanked upright. The abrupt jerk made his whole head flare up in pain, filling his vision with colored spots. In the chaos his feet were impossible to find, so he stumbled out through the opening in the wall as best he could with given only a general idea of which direction was which. His head felt like it was about to explode and for a moment he couldn’t tell if he was running or if he had just started falling and time had slowed down to let him appreciate the moment. Auri’s voice tore through his haze in a sharp yell behind him – so he wasn’t falling, then.
“I said move, now!”
Shortly after, two sets of hands grabbed him underarm and began to pull him along. The aid gave him the respite he needed to get his bearings. They had to be a small crowd from the sound of footsteps, and he could make out the heavy thumps of Auri running ahead.
His eyes opened to a view of her bounding in great leaps, clearly visible in the fading light of dusk as she was taller than usual by well over a foot and easily twice as wide. Her new armor bore the same strange articulation as her gauntlet, although its lines were both thicker and cruder. It was an exaggerated approximation of a body with proportions that were at once both excessive and androgynous; as if she had stripped the skin and fat off a huge statue, and the muscle and sinew underneath regressed its form into primal, animalistic simplicity.
The spectacle of it was enough to keep him from looking at the rest of the courtyard for the few moments it took his helpers to carry him through the middle of it. When he finally did, he was startled by the level of destruction that had been wrought out here. Once sturdy stone walls were full of collapsed sections, deformed in some places and broken entirely through in others. Deep wounds had been scored into the earth leading up to them, as if some kind of giant had been hurtling to and fro the ends of the yard, leaving behind trails of broken stones and shingle. There were many clothes and pieces of armor scattered about the grounds as well, but only a half a dozen bodies to fill them, although the half-light made getting an exact count difficult. The whole place had an acrid stench not unlike the fumes back in his room.
By the time they caught up with Auri at the stables, he was almost walking on his own again, although it was mostly to try to relieve the pressure on his broken arm. In lieu of finding a way to unlock the gate, she had simply torn it out of the wall and was now shooing people inside. Iri wasn’t having it, though. His head hurt, his arm hurt, his body felt like one big bruise and he wanted to know what was going on. As the two who had been holding him up got close, he shrugged them off and stopped to look at his sister.
“Oh what, Auri?”
She met his eyes, looking down her nose from the vantage of her suit. He thought she was going to say something haughty, but the armor began to ripple around her and she slid partway down until she was the same height as him.
“I’m sorry. I underestimated them. That thing is a Golem, it eats people to grow bigger, and heat to grow stronger. By the time it finishes in there, it will be full. We don’t have much time.”
“Oh.” Iri felt the same slouch come over him at the implication. He had not hurt it at all, instead he had given it exactly what it wanted and only incidentally distracted it from eating him and the people with him. Perhaps it had eaten some of them, he really had no idea how many of them there had been before they started running.
“So we’re just going to run!?” He stared at her in disbelief, but was quickly cowed when she almost hatefully narrowed her eyes at him.
“You’re going to run. I will stay and try to slow it down.” As she spoke, her armor began to ripple again, and then she rose until her head rested just between the shoulders of her suit. It looked as though she were floating, suspended in a pillar of mercury. Iri shook his head at her and turned to look at the people who were saddling up the horses.
“I’m not leaving you here alone!” The sudden anger surprised even him, piercing for a second the wall of sensory overload that spared him from letting the impressions of the evening sink in. “I’m taking one of the horses! You said it feeds on heat and people, right?”
Auri opened her mouth to protest and then closed it again, giving him a suspicious look.
“Yes. Do you have something in mind?”
Iri’s reply was halted by his moment of stunned silence at her lack of insistent objections.
“I-I think I so. We’re on the coast, and this part of it is all cliffs. A horse, a torch and I can be bait. If we can knock it into the sea somehow, maybe the water will finish it off.”
The people inside the stables were beginning to come out, and Iri stopped the first of them and put his hand on the straps to the horse’s bridle. It was the man who had accused him of sending people to their deaths back inside the main building. There was no accusation in his eyes now. Letting the straps go without protest, he stepped out of the way so Iri could lead the horse off to Auri’s side.
The horse looked strong, with a dark brown coat and sleek body. Perhaps a military horse then — that was good, a rouncey or courser might actually have what he needed to pull this off. Some of the people who filtered through were talking in hushed voices, but Iri was too tired to eavesdrop.
“That might actually work,” Auri broke in, and then looked toward the others. “The rest of you, ride for Sinan. Don’t stop for anything. Pray if you want, but don’t stop riding!”
“I need you to take this,” Iri said as he indicated the gunpowder keg with his thumb. “How fast is that thing?”
Auri stopped talking to look at him, and picked the barrel off his shoulder so she could flip the lid off. As she began to pour the contents into a newly formed pocket on her chest, she shook her head at him. His attention was on her, but he could hear the sound of hooves as the rest of their party began to move out. It seemed no one else had offered to stay. So much for tying bonds during times of need. Iri did not even know any of their names, and wondered for a moment whether they had said them at all; maybe he had just been too occupied to notice. Then he shook his head to clear his distractions and get back to the matter at hand.
“-way of knowing that, Iri.” It occurred to him that he had let his mind wander again, but this time he really didn’t want to miss anything his sister was saying. He was going to have to make sure he stayed in the moment for what was to come. Auri did not seem to have noticed, however, and kept talking. “I don’t know how big it will be either. It was big before, it will be bigger now. How do you want to do this?”
“You a good shot?” Since he didn’t know how much time they had, he resolved to get on top of the horse as he spoke. With his arm the way it was, however, he wasn’t entirely sure how to go about doing it, and so he found himself awkwardly hopping alongside it as the animal stepped around in confusion at the cues he wasn’t giving. It only lasted for a few attempts until he felt himself lifted by the scruff of his robe and placed on top of the saddle.
As she opened her mouth to reply, a rumble emanated from the tavern. She caught his eye and gave him a quick nod before she turned to go, an assertive gesture that forced him to swallow the urge to embrace her. There was no more time for words or planning; nothing left to do but hope they were on the same page this time.
Grabbing the reins, he trotted to the stable gates, stopping to pick up the torch ensconced there. Whoever had been given the job of lighting the lamps of the courtyard had clearly been interrupted by the scuffle, but that didn’t matter now. In fact, having the only source of light was good. He twisted its handle into the cloth of his sling so he could hold it with his broken arm, since he would need his good hand for holding onto the horse. While not a complete stranger to the saddle, Iri was far from a horsemaster, and he would need more than his knees to get guide his mount through what was about to happen.
The main building rumbled again, but this time it did not stop, instead sinking into an agonized groan that shook the ground enough to let him feel it even on horseback. It kept growing louder and louder, until it became a crack like thunder and the tall fortress tavern collapse in on itself in a boom that struck him like a gust of wind. As it imploded, it belched dust into the courtyard through the windows and doorway, as if it were deflating rather than falling apart. Then suddenly it stopped, toppling walls and crumbling roof suspended just short of positions that could have made sense if gravity had been allowed to finish its work.
It began to swell up again and then in a final, deafening crash, something rose up out of it; or perhaps it would have been more correct to say that parts of it rose up out of itself. The golem had limbs, but was neither humanoid nor like any animal Iri had ever seen. It was all limbs, five pendulous appendages of stone rubble and wood tied together by that stringy black substance, shaking free of the remnants of the building it had used to construct itself. Iri was not sure what he had been expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it. There was no need to tell his horse to run, it was all he could do to hold on as it reared and made for the gate.
As far as he could tell, he had all the bases covered. He was the only source of sound, the only source of light, of heat, he even smelled like fumes and gunpowder. Whatever the thing hunted by, he was it. As soon as it had gotten clear of the debris of its cocoon, it began to lumber behind him in ungainly ambulations of its strange arms, like a wounded insect. The feeling of success was somewhat muted by the immensity of what he had gotten himself into. Though it was not a graceful creature, the fact that each arm had to be at least ten yards long meant it was building up a frightening amount of momentum, and it was doing so very fast.
Iri hoped he was really riding the horse and not just hanging on for dear life as he noted that it was going to catch up with him before he could make it all the way to the coast. With that amount of weight, there was no way it would be making any sudden turns. Perhaps he could outmaneuver it, if he could somehow hold on with only the one good arm.
It did not take long for him to find out. The thing moved quickly, and as it built up speed the amble that had seemed so awkward showed its true colours. It was spinning along the ground, kicking off with its backmost appendage and rolling them overhead so that as it fell forward there was always an arm in place to keep it steady. The faster it went, the less time it spent on ensuring stability, letting it keep accelerating long after it had matched his speed. He was only a few hundred yards past the highway by the time the ground started shaking with the impacts, and he didn’t dare look behind him.
He could see the blurry ridge that would resolve into a cliff-face in less than half a mile, however, although there was no trace of Auri anywhere. He wasn’t sure whether it was him or the horse who reacted first, only that he had to cling on as hard as he could when they abruptly changed direction together. Behind him, a crack exploded from the ground so loudly that he was afraid the sound alone might blow him off the saddle, as the Golem expended some of its momentum in an attempt to club him into the dirt with one of its mallet-like arms. There were no glancing blows here, no near misses, if any part of that touched him he would be dead without so much as a chance to scream.
Fortunately, it turned out the massive creature was nowhere near as maneuverable as it was fast. It careened forward, and as had no real way of turning, it was forced to slow to a near-stop in order to change direction. He tried to tell the his mount to circle around, find a path back toward the ocean, but the horse was having none of it. As he heard the telltale rumbling of the Golem’s locomotion behind him again, he actually began to plead with the animal.
“Come on girl, you have to turn, there’s no way we’ll outrun it! Understand me you stupid animal!” he was whispering into his ear in a voice that was somewhere between a begging whine and a strained prayer. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean that, you’re very clever but you have to turn! Come on, turn to the right! We both want to live! Please! Turn!”
Iri couldn’t believe his last words were going to be a conversation with a damn horse, and he was about to give up and start laughing when, for whatever reason, the animal decided to play along. It carved a shallow circle around the Golem, which was forced to stop accelerating to change its direction once more, and less than a minute later the landscape gave sudden way to the calm expanse of the Geosian gulf. Now all he had to do was find his sister, but the hilly landscape of the coastal cliffs meant it was more than likely he would have little warning, if he could spot her at all in the dark. If he was even riding in the right direction.
He wondered how long he had been riding. The coast would have been about a mile out from the road, which meant it should have been no more than a few minutes, but his head was so wired that that didn’t seem to make sense. The fighting had gone on forever, as if it had imposed itself over years of study and arduous research and none of it mattered except the struggle for survival. His heart beat so hard he could feel his veins against his clothes, and the landscape sailed by in an slow juxtaposition of great speed and heightened awareness. Iri felt alive, in a way that he hadn’t since he was a child, and he began to shout it out, joining the cracking booms of the Golem and whistling wind going by in an insane song.
“Auri! I’m coming! This time I won’t-” That was as far as he got before a loud blast send him flying off his horse. It didn’t make any sense, the Golem had been at least a hundred yards behind, nowhere near close enough to attack. As he floated through the air, he could see the horse scrambling to regain its footing below, and he mused how unreal the situation seemed. The slowness of time, the loudness of his heart, the gentle halo of twilight that somehow showed just enough that he knew what was happening — not so much the chaos he had experienced in the tavern, so much as a dream.
His reeling trajectory soon brought the creature into his field of view, wobbling slightly as it tucked a leg underneath itself in its rolling gait. It made no sense, the thing was too far off. Had the bastard actually launched a rock at him? Before he could think of an answer, gravity changed the subject.
While his unsaddling had been smoothed by the adrenaline coursing through him, the same could not be said for the landing. His boon was the grass growing on the thin layer of earth atop the cliffs, which snagged his backpack and caused him to roll along the ground rather than slide. It was not thick enough to save him from being beaten by the motion, however, and it was not doing his broken arm any favors .The torch he had wound into his sling got a chance to burn him across the neck before it was thrown loose, twisting his arm up in the process. He could feel the jagged bone scrape against his skin, straining on the tendons that were holding it in place. A sling was no brace, and the feeling made him sick, but even when he finally stopped moving there he barely gave himself a breath to appreciate the sensation. That moment of hesitation immediately vindicated itself as he heard the hooves of the horse thundering around him, however. At least it had been nice enough to jump.
Along the rocky ridge, the Golem was wheeling along toward him, and there were no resources left to him. As if to add insult to injury, an attempt to get his feet beneath him told him that his ankle had been twisted in the fall. Behind him, he could hear the hooves of the horse as it kept going. It did not seem like the animal was intent on coming back for him.
So, he thought, there wouldn’t even be any running. Just as well, he had never been much of a runner anyway. He checked the cliff edge to see the long dive down to the violent interface between sea and rock. It was the least inviting thing he had ever seen, so he backed off for a moment to think about what he was about to do. It didn’t take him long, because the encroaching rumble on his flank reminded him that the rocky shore was, in fact, only the second least inviting thing he had seen that evening.
Resolving to wait until the last minute before he jumped, he crawled the rest of the way to the ledge and began to sit up. Every muscle and bone in his body was dedicating its entire existence to telling him not to move. Doing his best to ignore it, he managed to get himself situated, bracing himself to leap just in time to see the Golem lurch along the cliff-face below him and crash into the gurgling waves in an almost comical failure of its strange anatomy.
There was nothing about it that suggested it could climb, or even hang on to something, and the sheer precipice below offered no purchase anyway. The thing had eaten a half dozen people before his very eyes, had made itself a body out of most of an actual fortress and then chased him for over than a mile. Now it plopped into the ocean like any other rock.