Chapter 43: A Circle of Beastmen
In the quiet woods.
Birds and beasts -- all fall silent.
And then the blood flows.
~ Miyara Miwa
In the dark of the early morning, spring chill still in the air, we left Karusa Hoven for the long trip to a mythical city in an unknown location. As someone said, we managed to leave Karusa Hoven without leaving any bodies behind for once.
For two months, we walked through the hills and forests, through the blooming spring and into the warmth of early summer. Except that we walked with purpose in a constant direction, it was like a pleasant walk through a park. Day after day. Ashe, Kyosuke, and Baku caught rabbits and such animals. They and Ravena gathered wild plants and herbs, and we ate the grains we brought with us. We met no other travelers. For two months it was as if we were the only people alive in a world created just for us.
Of course, they were not all idyllic. Some flux went through us and gave Ravena something to do. I am pretty sure it was some odd-tasting mushrooms we all ate that night. And once in a while I had one of those dreadful headaches that make me nauseous and dazzle my eye with bright lights. We kept ourselves in practice, and I continued to ensure those I taught the Nipponese language continue to use it.
One late afternoon, two months into our travels, we were keeping an eye out for a good spot for the night's camp. Hosei nonchalantly joined me and said quietly we might want to look for a defensible camp. He and Ashe had caught sight and scent of a couple of beastmen hiding and watching us. I nodded and searched more carefully for a better location to camp. The beastmen did not follow us, and Ashe disappeared into the trees. So Ashe was going scouting. I casually met with the White Faerie and Kyosuke and warned them of the beastmen. The sun was setting and I never found a decent place. We were in a fairly flat and lightly forested area, with no real cover, no hills or rivers to set our backs against. If there were enough of them, they would easily surround us. There were not enough of us to both hunt them down and protect the weak. And it was night anyway.
I tried to arrange the camp to be as defensible as possible, but I was sure we would be fighting at a disadvantage sometime during the night. I quietly told everyone of the beastmen in the forest. Each of my small troupe merely nodded, continued the usual nightly duties, and quietly readied themselves for the evening. Against any thought I had throughout the last summer of traveling with these barbarians, we have formed into an effective and reasonably cohesive group.
Ashe returned and said there were two beastmen south, towards the mountains, and they did not follow him back to us. I doubted they would stay away. I set the watches carefully, balancing abilities as best I could:
- Kyosuke, Hosei
- The White Faerie, Baku, Shan
- Res Li, Sun, Me
- Ashe, Caramela, Ravena
The first two watches and the first half of the third were quiet. But mid-way through my watch, we heard quiet rustling in the trees. We continued to listen carefully, and it became clear that they were not simply night-time animals foraging, especially when we began to hear occasional metallic sounds. The beastmen had found us.
About the time we were sure it was the beastmen, we also realized they were spreading out around us. It was time to stop pretending we did not know they were there, and we woke everyone up, telling them what the situation was.
The sounds were spread about 15 degrees. Hosei began creating several of his glow stones that last about an hour, his back to the beastmen and placing them into bags so the beastmen did not know about them. Another ten minutes, and they had spread out more, but keeping about the same distance from us.
Hosei asked if I wanted to send Ashe out to scout. I said no, and I sent Kyosuke out instead to see what, where, and how many. Ten minutes later, Kyosuke came back and they had spread out another 5 degrees. They were beastmen, and there were about 40 of them. Easily enough to completely surround us. And we were far to few to take the fight to them and protect the non-fighters.
I looked around. The night was dry and windless. Hosei said that was good, since we might be setting fires. I nodded. I was sure there would be fires. Our small clear spot was surrounded by the forest. I said quietly, "We may as well begin." Baku tried to convince us not to fight, saying we could run from the fight. Run? From beastmen? From any fight? Far better to die in honorable battle to live in cowardice with no honor. Besides, they were beastmen, armed with axes and swords. Kyosuke said they had few or no missile weapons, so at least we were not standing around about to become pincushions.
It was time to see more, and we all took the ten glowing stones Hosei had enchanted and threw them out in a circle around us, about ten yards out. We would be able to see them coming at us. They could already see us.
The beastmen moved closer in to us as they encircled us, so they were not spread too far apart. The cunning things.
Within another half-hour, we were completely surrounded. And prepared. Caramela had her red crystal out. Ravena did not have her crystal ready, but I knew she would use it if necessary. She had proven herself. I had Shan and Sun huddle together on the ground beside a largish log. And we waited.
What were they waiting for? Dawn would only help us. Although I ached to simply start the battle, I knew waiting for their attack was the better option. Rushing into them would make it easy for them to overwhelm us and attack the non-fighters. Together in middle, we could defend them and help ourselves more effectively. And keep the Crystals out of their hands more easily.
After another half hour, they had not seemed to move significantly, but they were fidgeting. We could hear small rustles and clanks. Hosei cast his tongues spell and I told him to tell them to go away because we did not want to have to kill them.
Instead, he shouted out, "Visitors to our camp! What have you come here for?" I complained to him that was not what I told him to say. There was no response from the beastmen, and Hosei spoke again, closer to what I had requested he say. "Your death is an effort we do not want to make. Go away!" Again, no response. "We do not want to see your naked hairless faces anywhere around here!" No response, and he finally degenerated to simply insulting the beasts. "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled like elderberries!" There was a little rustling from them, and a few faint giggles from just behind me, but still they did not attack.
Baku, tired of waiting, found a dark place between the glowing stones and set up a few traps to slow some of them down, when they began their rush finally. The stones began to fade, and Hosei enchanted a second set of stones, which we cast out around us again. We heard a continuous rustling, as if they were intentionally making noises rather than just fidgeting. Trying to make us nervous?
Hosei started, and quietly said to me that he had sensed magic out there, and that was the second time. I asked him if he could do anything about it, and he offered a fireball whenever I was ready. I said, "Go ahead, I am ready." He could not see his target in the dark, and I offered to shoot a glowing arrow in that general direction. Kyosuke looked carefully with his special eyes, but could not see him either. The magician was behind a tree, or maybe even magically invisible. One thing we could tell, though -- he was part of the circle, not behind it or in front of it.
Caramela was closely studying her crystal, and her eyes were glowing fiercely red. I heard Ravena hiss something to her sister, but she was ignored.
We waited patiently another half hour, and their rustling grew steadily louder. They began a low growling moan that became louder and louder. A shiver went down my spine, as I remembered a similar loudening moan. The noise became quite loud, and all at once they rushed forward to attack us. Kyosuke, the White Faerie, Ashe, and I had formed a square around the others. Hosei had plunged Jeisan's enchanted sword into the ground next to him, ready if he needed to use it. We set ourselves and watched them run to us for the few seconds it took them to reach us. They were a varied lot.
A stick flew from behind me and struck a beastman. I saw Kyosuke on my right begin his odd jumpings and contortions, then they were on us. I set my blades whirling, slicing the beastman in front of me and dancing between the axes of the three who attacked me. On my left, Ashe's axes whirled in his own small circles, and blood flew. As I moved around, I caught sight of Hosei, standing in the square and holding a fireball at the ready in his hand. Baku fought off one beastman who had broken into the square.
Outside of the circle, three fire spirits appeared. I figured either they were Caramela's or the magician, and then they tore into the beastmen -- Caramela's, then. Finally, the beastman I had been attacking fell, the skin nearly flayed from his bones. These beastmen were certainly tough. The fireball flew towards a tree and incinerated a few beastmen. The magician moved sideways and stepped behind another tree.