Turns out my flatmate and very awesome friend Chippy is also doing NaNo. She needs some cheering on :D
With a thump that shook the Belle and dented the deck, the tree-demon landed between Victor and Trip. It roared, crouching, leaves bristling on its back like fur on a trapped animal.
When he looked back on it later that day, Trip wondered how the thing was able to move. Clearly seen in the daylight were the squat legs, like logs, obviously built for powerful leaps; its arms hung all the way down to the ground, ending in claws as long as Trip’s own forearms; by comparison, its boy was tiny, stick-thin. Its head was the strangest, looking like nothing more than a huge round walnut seed that had split; instead of a delicious nut, the mouth contained only teeth and a ridiculously long tongue.
That tongue now was lashing all over the deck, tasting the air; it whirled around, green and dripping with some sort of golden sap, then slithered disgustingly back into the thing’s mouth with a sound like the last water gurgling down the plughole.
Lauren began to move around to the left, keeping her back pressed against the railing. “What is it?”
“It’s sim’lar to somethin’ we tackled in Deep Roun’,” Victor called from the wheelhouse. “It’s like a plant tha’s come alive. Din’t die easy.”
“It’s… sniffing the air?”
She carried on moving around, almost halfway to the wheelhouse where Victor was leaning out, one hand on the wheel.
“How do I stop this damn’ thing?” he yelled.
“Pull on the green lever, then reduce the pressure on the red gauge,” she called back, eyes fixed on the creature which was still seeming to sniff. “I’ll be right there…”
“It’s blind,” Trip said softly. The nut-brown head was almost completely featureless other than the huge slitted mouth; two small holes could have been rudimentary nostrils, but other than that there was nothing.
As if it had heard him speak, or scented the air of his breath, suddenly the creature turned and crouched, ready to spring. Trip felt the railing press into the small of his back, nowhere to run.
It leaped, claws outstretched, ready to -
- “There is never any point in jumping to attack,” the master is saying. Trip idles over the pile of papers he is supposed to deliver to Wei Uu but the day is hot. -
- “Once a jump has been begun, your trajectory is fixed, can not be altered until you land. A skilled opponent can use this to his advantage to -
The memory fragmented, too slow; the creature pounded into him, knocking him into the railing. It brought one hand up, the other holding him in place. Almost before he could think of a defence, the claws came down into his shoulder.
The pain was intense; almost warm, through the red haze of agony he could feel the claws tearing around inside him, almost as if they had sprouted tiny digging claws of their own.
As the demon pulled its claws out, Trip tore his eyes open to see them being raised high again. Its mouth opened, the tongue coming out to wetly stroke across his cheek; something green and foul-smelling dripped from between its teeth.
There was a crunch as Victor’s sword swept through the creature’s outstretched arm, taking it off at the overly-flexible elbow. It looked up, just in time to see the sword descending as the fighter swung it around and down.
It hit almost exactly in the middle of the nut-head, splitting it into two crumbly pieces which fell to the deck with a hollow sound. The tongue lashed around, sticking out of the stalk-like neck, for a few seconds until Victor kicked the whole construct to one side. He knelt down by Trip, who was trying to lever himself up using the railing.
“Stay still, lad,” he said, worry etched in his features. “That looks bad,”
“It’s fine, I-“ gasped Trip, a searing pain cutting off any further words. He felt himself sinking slowly into the pain, circling around it inside his mind, letting the swirling agony wash around him. He was barely aware of being picked gently up, carried smoothly to a crate stacked against the wall of the wheelhouse. He laughed, not caring that he was causing further pain; this was the first thing in his life he couldn’t remember properly.
“Is he ok?’
“Wound’s deep. Got anythin’ for wounds?”
“Dad kept a first-aid kit under the seat, hang on - “
The world became dreamlike, warm. The only sensation was a prickling cold in the vague area of his shoulder, but it was distant.
“…Slipping in and out of consciousness…“
“…Press this ‘ere and…”
“…What’s this, I don’t know, purple stuff coming out? It looks…”
Then the coldness spread up from his shoulder, spread to his neck and flooded over his brain.
It was almost soothing.
He wandered through a ghostly landscape, the stones under his feet dressed in hues of green and brown. It was like walking over the gnarled surface of a tree’s trunk. With a start, he realised that was what he was doing; walking up a tree trunk as naturally as if he were standing on solid ground.
Carrying on, he came to a fork in the… road? Branch? He stood, indecisive, until the ground began to tremble under his feet.
A deep voice spoke to him, seeming to come from all around.
“Why do you trouble me?”
Trip opened his mouth to speak and, instead of words coming out, a pounding beam of energy gushed forward, red and pink. Where it touched the tree, the branches withered and the bark burned. Shocked, he snapped his mouth shut.
“Why do you trouble me so, little human?”
Unable to open his mouth, he tried to back away from the fork in the road. The landscape twisted under him and around him; the two branches seemed suddenly to loom over him.
“Why do you trouble me so, little human, when I can be rid of you so simply…”
The world lurched and he turned to see that the ground, an impossible wall behind him, was hundreds of meters away. As if waiting for that moment of realisation, the floor under him became a wall. His weight shifted and he began to fall towards the ground. He screamed soundlessly, pink force exploding out of him, scoring a black mark into the ground, which rushed up impossibly fast -
He woke up on the floor of the wheelhouse, Lauren bending over him with one hand on the wheel. It was dark, the moon in the sky, and the only noises were the rumblings of the engine.
"Where am I," he gasped, "what happened?" He pushed the blanket off that was covering him.
"Shh, you're ok," she said. He struggled to sit up, wincing as lancing pain went through his shoulder. He looked down.
A large white bandage covered his entire shoulder; small flecks of something that he desperately hoped wasn't blood were liberally scattered over it, a lighter grey spot taking up most of the middle.
He suddenly realised he wasn't wearing anything; he blushed and yanked the sheet up to his chin. Lauren giggled and turned back to the wheel.
"Your habit's behind you, Trip. Dress quietly, though. Victor's asleep."
Trip looked behind him; wedged between the door and the crates, the old man was dozing, sword across his knees. Keeping the blanket wrapped around his body, Trip got up and grabbed the bundle of fabric from on top of the crate and quickly dressed. It was a painful procedure; every time he moved his arm the pain in his shoulder threatened to rear up and squash him.
Lauren was staring out into the clear night as he joined her by the wheel.
"How long was I asleep for?"
"Asleep? Heh, we think you nearly died at one point." She continued looking, the river scene lit in tones of blacks and silver. "When Victor killed the tree-demon it left a claw inside you. We had a hell of a trouble getting it off you; there were little tendrils buried deep in the wound, each one trying to dig its way in."
Trip began to feel slightly sick. A sudden image flashed into his mind of the squirming sensation and his mouth went dry. "Is there water?" he asked.
"Sure, there's a bottle in that cupboard."
Taking slow sips, he drained the glass bottle and put it back in the cupboard. As he drank, Lauren continued to talk.
"When we got the claw out, your wound wouldn't stop bleeding. We'd pulled the Belle over to the bank by this time so that we could get a good look. There was this sort of purple stuff in there; Victor said it looked like it could be poison, so we washed as much of it out as we could and dressed the wound, but it wouldn't stop bleeding. Compresses didn't help; eventually we were reduced to just watching and waiting, keeping pressure on it and changing the bandages until your body fought back." She sighed. "Victor insisted on keeping watch over you, told me 'yew git us tew Fennica, gurl,' in that adorable accent of his." She waved her hand in his direction. "Eventually I think the exhaustion got the better of him. He desperately needs the sleep."
Trip stared over at Victor in wonder, then turned back to the front. A soft glow was forming on the horizon.
"So, we were attacked in the afternoon; it's night. Is that sunrise?"
With a soft smile, Lauren shook her head. "Trip, you fell unconscious two days ago. Victor's barely moved from your side since then."
She pointed towards the glow. "That is Fennica."