Chapter 39 – The Ferryman’s Due
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The Hochon-Yi loomed less than twenty yards away from where I stood on the pebble shore. Issrakr in his boat was still some few yards behind me. I remained perfectly still, believing for some idiotic reason it could not see me if did not move, but I was wrong. In a few bounds, the Hochon-Yi closed the twenty yards between us and was almost close enough to scoop me up with its massive jaw. I tried to leap away from it, towards the inn, finding little purchase on the loose pebble ground. I fell and scampered back up. Then I realized the monster was between me and the boat. I saw Issrakr wave hurriedly, urging me to make for the water so he could pick me up and escape over the lake, but I shouted back to him to leave and bring himself to safety. After a second thought, he pushed his boat off the shore and retreated far onto the lake. 

I managed to get up on my feet and ran for the nearest thing promising safety: the inn. I had just turned around when the Hochon-Yi pursued, scattering pebbled left and right. I turned and fell in my stride. Had I been given training as a warmage, I would have been able to fend it off, even without my staff, but as I was, I was resorted to a most primitive of spells. 

With my hands in the gravel, I took a handful of pebbles and threw it the monster’s way while remembering the simple formula describing the ideal curve of an object thrown. Amplified by my will and need, the stones struck the creature in the face, far stronger than it would anticipate. Most bounced off its thick hide or teeth, but a few seemed to have made it into its throat. Coughing and hoarse roaring as if from a volcano erupted from the best’s maw, desperate to gasp for air.  

I turned back to the inn and reached the door, but surely as the windows had been blockaded, so was the door, for it did not budge even when I pulled with all my might, pounded on the door and cried for help to let me in. 

A final, loud blow from the monster’s mouth announced that it had succeeded in spewing out the stones and set its eyes back to me. I turned around and grabbed another handful of pebbles. I had already planned a way to accelerate them individually far stronger, to use them as singular projectiles not unlike slingers. If I were to hit an eye or deep within the throat again, maybe I could deter the monster like a shepherd’s boy would a wolf from the herd. It did not attempt another leap, seeing as I was backed against the inn, and so it came closer slowly, making sure to anticipate the direction in which I would flee.  

I stretched my fist with the pebbles out in front of me and prepared, when suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream sounded through the cave and a brown-red humanoid shape flew from the roof of the inn, hitting the monster’s reared-up neck, sinking a gladius into it and cutting it down lengthwise, then the huge figure dropped down. The monster roared, tried to attack the foe, but he had already landed and thrust a short spear in its side, this time beneath the shoulder blade. 

It was our Urshog companion. His Blue shirt was gone and I saw the heavily muscled body covered in a thick hide of gnarled and knotted calluses. I could not help but yell out a triumphant “HAH!” as I recognized the situation. I raised my fist again and shot out a single pebble from between index and thumb, amplifying its speed greatly with my mind. It hit the monster close enough to the eye for it flinch together and hiss. Our Urshog companion quickly moved between me and the monster, holding his open palm backwards to me, as if to halt me in my endeavour to give him an opening for his next strike. It took me a short moment, but I realized what was transpiring. This was the honour our companion had been hoping for and thus, it was his to face alone. 

I lowered my hand but did not yet drop the pebbles from it. Meanwhile, our Urshog Companion slowly shuffled left to right and back, his short spear held in both hands, the monster not daring to leap at him for fear of slamming into the inn’s sturdy walls. The gladius still protruded from the side of its neck, undoubtedly plugging the grievous wound it had struck. If the Urshog could reach it and pull it out, it would bleed the monster out within a minute. An angry hiss escaped the monster and it opened its mouth just a little bit, showing its fangs. The Urshog answered the gesture with a roar that had something inhuman to it and reminded me of the angry snarl of a wolverine, if that wolverine was the size of a cow. 

Like this, they shuffled left to right across each other for a short moment more, until the Hochon-Yi decided to bear the full span if its jaw and let it snap shut with that gut-wrenching sound it made. In the way the Urshog placed his feet, I knew he was about to act, then the monster opened its maw once more in the same display. It was this moment that our companion used. He leapt forward and rammed his spear into the soft part below the monster’s tongue. As the spear sunk in with a gushing sound, the monster roared in violence, rattling sand and dust from the stone walls. I covered my ears with my hands and flinched together, jamming a pebble into my ear, fool that I was. 

I then saw that our companion had dropped on the ground and rolled around the monster, which was still angry, snapping at the air, which had broken off the shaft of the spear, but the tip remained lodged in the wound. The Urshog kept rolling around the floor to keep close to the jaw but outside of its reach until he saw himself directly below the gladius. As he was just about to spring up and pull it from the wound, the monster spotted him and snapped its jaw at him. Through clumsiness on the monster’s part or luck on the Urshog’s, all it did was push him aside as he was too close for the monster’s jaw to reach him. He pushed himself off the monster’s head and got the boost he needed to reach the gladius. 

In a movement as fluid as fine whisky at a celebration, he drew the blade from the wound, then jammed it into the monster’s eye. Roaring and hissing again erupted, flooding through the cavern and back. The Hochon-Yi was beyond fury. Jumping, leaping, throwing itself against the rock and ground, it tried to hit the attacker with anything it could, but he was shuffling and sidestepping, keeping close to its neck, where it would have the least of force to directly push. Until at one point, the Hochon-Yi decided to spin around and hit the Urshog with its tail like a ball hitting a bat and swatted him aside.  

Oof!, then immediately a Crack! The Urshog was slammed into the wall of the Inn, leaving a dented fracture in which he remained lying dazed for a short moment. Then, the Hochon-Yi came closer, blood torrenting from its neck, but still determined to finish its last meal. The Urshog already reached with his arms to for the spaces between the mighty teeth and when the monster scooped him up, he stuck defiantly between the teeth, stemming all his might against lower and upper jaw with arms and legs, preventing the monster from closing its mouth. The forces acting upon his bones and muscles was almost as audible as the forces on an ill-constructed house moments before collapse. With a swift motion the likes I had never seen before, the Urshog drew a knife from his belt and rammed it in between the gap between gum and teeth. 

In a final spasm, the monster tried to roar and bite down at the same time, the Urshog buckled under the force, but caught it just before being crushed by the teeth. An instant later, the struggle was over. Bleeding out, the monster had used up its last strength. Barely able to keep its eyes open, it toppled to the side, releasing the Urshog from its jaws. He slumped onto the floor where he laid, sprawled out. His neck was visibly beating in his heart’s rhythm, his chest heaved, once, twice, then he let out a victory scream. 

It reverberated from the ceiling, the far walls, the surface of the lake and from all the pillars. Then I heard another noise from behind me. Furniture seemed to be moved around frantically inside the inn, then the door flew open. A cheering Sarita dashed out and almost tripped over me. When she saw me, she was conflicted who to embrace first, but she decided on the Urshog. She let herself fall onto him as he was still recouping on the ground, whereupon he let out a loud OOF! and joined in her laughter, as she yelled words of cheer. I saw Issrakr in the distance, still on the lake and watching from his boat and waved to him. I wanted to give him a few of my last coins as a thanks, but he turned around and vanished into the dark of the cavern, the squeaking and barking of his companion animals sounding far between the pillars. 

The reunion was joyous. I told of my short adventure with the zapad Issrakr, which Sarita said was great luck, for their kind was known to be hostile to strangers. As my companions told me, they managed to get past the Hochon-Yi, but had to flee once it had found them again. They ran to the inn by the lakeside and barricaded inside, but the innkeeper was furious, demanded that they get rid of the beast that had then besieged his business. The Urshog demanded to be tasked with the endeavour alone, only to find the beast had wandered off. He hid on the roof to wait for its return, he said these monsters were stubborn in their pursuits. I had managed to grab its attention just long enough for him to get the opening he needed. 

Finally, it was also revealed to me that the cadre of the throughway the inn sat next to had issued a handsome bounty for the monster, which the Urshog was paid out. He also insisted on getting a letter of proof of his deed, from both the cadre and me. He said such a letter would be necessary to return to his banner in absence of his brothers. He took a trophy from the dead beast too: one of its huge fangs, as long as his forearm from root to tip, and an eyeball. Anne and the Professor found this most out of taste, but the Urshog was so proud of his accomplishment that nothing could dent his mood. Despite his lack of lips over his outside teeth, a smile could somehow be seen on his face. 

Even after the damages to the inn had been paid for, the bounty was quite the lot and ensured we could take a long, good rest at the inn, travel to Bev-Shturam on the throughway and for our Urshog to return back to his banner safe and fast from there. He wanted to use the opportunity to see the city before departing from our companionship and we were happy to have him for a few more days. 

The next day saw us rise with the mist. We set out on the road and our Urshog companion got some acknowledging waves and nods from the tollguards on the throughway. It would be less than two days of travelling until we would arrive in Bev-Shturam. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of the city at the pillar. It would shake all of our preconceived notions about the world below and their inhabitants and fasten the feeling that we were in a truly alien world with very few parallels to what we knew from the world above.