“Mmmmmmmmine!” I growled, struggling so hard against my bonds I could actually feel my muscles tearing.
The chimera pounced on the jewel, standing over it like an angry puppy over its favorite chew toy.
Then the strange, chitinous wolf head stared down at it, drooling more of the noxious fluid.
I shouted again and the creature looked up at me. It sighed in something like pleasure then made a sound that had the shape of words – but they weren’t meant for humans to understand.
It was barely more than a bark, but I understood it.
“Half blood!” it growled.
“Changeling,” it hissed.
It wheezed what could have been a laugh.
The old woman seemed to recognize its prize, too. “Kill it!” she shrieked. “Kill it, fast! Don’t let it take the jewel!”
And then, as if to show its own rebellious streak, it scooped the jewel up in its maw and bolted.
My little non-conversation with the creature had given the people enough time to surround the chimera. It ran, but everywhere it went there were men or women with spears standing in its way. I shook my head – the monster would just barrel right through them. But the closest man struck the thing in the face with his spear and it screeched in pain, the smell of burnt fur following after it.
Cold iron weapons? Most people only had steel these days – far too refined to actually hurt creatures of Fae.
I was impressed. They were armed. They worked well together, and they managed to keep the thing bottled up.
But they would never be able to take it down, not completely, and it bound from one to the other, slashing and biting them back.
I pulled at the tree some more, but the more I pulled the more it held on. I looked down again at the spear in my chest and grimaced. Nothing was making any sense.
Then I saw the girl move.
She survived that?
Somehow she managed to pull her head up off the ground. She was bleeding and bruised. She could barely move. But she watched the monster. She actually glared at the beast.
The pain was overwhelming her, I could see that much, but she was watching past me to the other townspeople who were slowly losing this battle.
She pulled herself up even further, focusing a little more on me.
“You,” she said.
How could she even speak? I thought that thing broke her ribs.
“What?” I said, watching closely.
“You talk big,” she said, gasping and sliding closer still. “Can you… fight?”
I could finally see it. This really wasn’t Rachel. The voice was a little off. The eyes were different. Everything else was practically spot on, but there were enough of the little things that I knew she was a fake.
Still, the feeling of her was the same… or practically the same.
She was on hands and knees now, struggling to crawl my direction.
“Can you fight?” she said again, sobbing. “Can you kill that thing?”
I stared. “It’s a useless question. You may have noticed the spear in my chest and the tree that’s…” I looked up and tilted my head in an approximation of a shrug, “…eating me.”
“What are you?” she rasped.
“Really? That’s you’re question now?” I replied.
And to punctuate my point, another one of the townsfolk screamed in pain. She seemed to understand and pulled herself up onto her feet to stare me in the eye.
I wanted to turn the questions on her. Who was she? Why was the jewel buried in her chest? But I took my own advice instead. Now was not the time for questions.
The chimera darted past the tree, knocking the girl back to the ground. She flopped like a rag doll and moaned in pain, but didn’t actually scream.
The mob was in front of it again, though, not letting it out of the clearing. They stabbed at it with their spears and took random shots with their rifles. It was enough to keep it boxed in, but they were a long way from killing it. I was impressed with their coordinated fight, but this was a real monster.
And if it got away with the jewel…
The girl was pulling herself up again.
She didn’t look that tough. But watching her, I knew she was.
I opened his mouth to say something to her, but the monster started to act different. It kept its distance from the gathered masses, spinning in circles. It would have looked like a dog chasing its tail, but the spidery legs didn’t work like that. It spun, and it tilted, and it moved back and forth until it lifted its head as if to howl like a wolf.
That wasn’t what it was doing at all, though.
The old woman seemed to know it, too.
“KILL IT!” she kept shouting. “KILL IT NOW!”
It was too late. They couldn’t kill it in time.
The thing shook its head a little as it swallowed the small jewel.
“Noooo!” at least five people, including me, shouted at once.
The monster’s legs splayed out to each side and then curled up under it.
“What happened?” the girl whispered.
She was on her feet again and staggering up to me. Her hands were clenched to her chest, but the blood seeped freely into her strange white shirt.
“Something bad,” I said.
If she was going to ask for an obvious answer, I had no problem delivering it.
The men charged the monster, hacking at it with their weapons, but it was utterly useless. Even the cold iron wasn’t drawing the same smoking wounds that they did before it swallowed the jewel.
Suddenly it sprang up, knocking everyone back a few feet. That was probably for the best, though, because yellow puss shot out from the joints of the carapace. Everywhere it landed started to steam and stink.
Its head rose into the air one more time and it let out a wail – something between a dog’s whine and elephant honk.
That was disturbing enough, and the girl visibly flinched, but what was worse was the sound of many other calls echoing this one.
This was not good.
The carapace was changing color. The legs were getting thicker. The strange liquid coated its entire body now, and the squealing pig sounds it had made before were replaced by the deep, bass roaring of something else entirely.
Horns protruded from its back and forehead, and it even looked like its teeth were growing.
“What is happening?” the girl who was not Rachel said, almost to herself.
“Hey. Girl,” I said quietly. “Can you take this spear out of me?”
I didn’t know if that was possible, but this girl, the one who looked and felt so much like Rachel – the woman who put me here – just might be able to do something about it.
“What?” she said, still staring at the changing creature.
“Can you pull this thing out of me?”
She stared at me in incomprehension. It was like she had to realize all over again that most of my body was indistinguishable from the tree bark that held me.
“Maybe,” she said, voice shaking. She took another step toward me and placed her hand on the spear.
Immediately, I felt a jolt of power run through my body, and movement returned to my arms and legs. I forced myself to stay still, to not make any sudden movements that might frighten the girl. I just stared past her at the screaming chimera. Let her think what she would think. If she was worried about the townsfolk, then for now I would look as strong and stoically helpful as possible.
I was right. She may not be Rachel, but there was some kind of connection. Her energy pulsed through the entire tree. She could remove whatever curse had sealed me to the tree. I just had to encourage her enough to do it.
She tried to stare at me, tried to weigh her options. She really doesn’t know what I am. I could just as easily have been a magic tree with a face poking out of it. A face with small antlers on its forehead, but still. What mattered was that she apparently felt like there was something I could do about this.
She was right. I could.
And I would. I would do whatever he had to in order to get that jewel back. But it had to happen soon, before that monster could assimilate the power of the jewel more than it already had.
I spared a glance down at the girl. She was covered in blood, and I could see open wounds on her face, chest, and extremities. Her long dark hair was matted against her face, and her strange clothes were shredded pretty good. Her eyes, though, her pale blue eyes were clear and determined. Yes, they would probably be swollen shut soon, but for now they stared right through to my very center.
I had to be impressed. She was tough. The only way that body was still standing was by willpower alone.
“Do it,” I said in a commanding whisper.
“No!” the voice of the old lady cut through the other screams. Somehow we both knew that this was aimed at us and not the creature.
“Do not remove the seal!” she shouted. “Do not release him!”
The girl looked back and forth between me and the old lady. There was a moment of indecision, but she wanted to do something. I could see that in her eyes. She knew she had to do something to kill this monster, but she couldn’t do it herself. Whatever else was going on in her mind didn’t matter. Her decision was made. She didn’t know why – neither did I, for that matter – but she was willing to ignore the shouted advice from the old lady to do what she thought needed to be done.
“If you people want to live, you don’t have a choice!” I shouted back at the woman.
The girl closed her eyes and tightened her grip on the spear.
The chimera seemed to realize what she was doing. It hissed and screeched and began a jumping run toward them. It moved strangely, though. It was still mid-metamorphosis.
We only had seconds.
“Do it!” I ordered.
“NO!” the old woman shouted.
“I. Don’t. Want. To. DIE!” the girl shouted, and on the final syllable she put whatever energy she had left into pulling the cursed spear from my chest.