Her breath came heavy and cold into her lungs, her mind was sharp with the euphoria of the moment, her body pumping its limbs in a well-practiced and urgent manner. The fire in her veins was electric and raced through her as her body arched and stretched. The thrill was like nothing else she knew, part wonderful, part terrifying. The daystar burned overhead and the dry heat caused the yellow green light filtering through stunted trees to dance until all around them was seen through a haze of jumping color and excitement. The trees were not truly stunted, but were merely untouched by the love and knowing of the Great Tree in the Conclave, their removal from the Great Tree was not their fault. They seemed to suffer little, being small they still made a comfortable canopy under which to sweat and move. Though they were barely trees compared to her homeland they were thankfully still thick and strong enough to support her suspended weight. Behind and beneath her the sound of other bodies in labor spurred her to haste, they would not be gentle with her should they get their hands on her. But they never would, not if this was the best they had to offer her.
She had slipped into their midst, sliding amongst them like a hawk into the clouds, and had seen those things they had wished to keep secret. The tight cords of muscles threading her body coiled and launched easily from one branch to the next with the ease of absolute confidence, special gloves providing the perfect grip. The trees were swaying almost dangerously as they bore her highly mobile weight as she ran across their limbs as easily as though it were any well smoothed road in Morb. Never mind that she was several stories from the ground, no Conclavian feared such a fall. This forest was nothing, like standing on a footstool compared to the trees of her homeland. Though because the trees were smaller her movement through them was more noticeable and soon this easy graceful part of the chase would come to an abrupt stop, preferably ending in the swift deaths of those who followed.
But not even those beasts of men who gave chase could really hope to catch her, they had only the awful smell of the pongo to track and had yet to even set eyes on her. To the beastmen who tracked her she was a herd animal, having smeared some of a pongo’s dung on the right places to mask her scent. Hindsight suggested that whereas her scent could fool any proper beast, next time she must keep in mind that some who could scent her knew that the three-thousand stone shufflers do not sneak, nor do they leave yurts in pristine condition after passing through one. The chase that followed this minor miscalculation had started many days ago now, what started out as dots on the dunes behind her had now escalated with their hideous cries all there was to notify they were drawing closer over every stretch of plain and desert. The resolve to never again fall victim to this basic underestimation of her enemies, and a the last remains of jube beans, fueled the travel worn flesh as the last two days had been nothing but running. A particularly large gap in the trees began to open up and anyone could see that her tree hopping was coming to an end, just beyond this next tree there were too few others before the bare ground at the foot of the cliff-face of the mountain range looming ahead. That rocky ground would eat up her substantial lead, but she had a plan for overcoming that as well.
A piercing shriek from overhead caused her to jerk to her left, leaping to a nearby branch a few paces away. She turned in time to see her previous foothold crash to the ground. Perched just behind her was a beastman, his large golden eagle eyes focused on her own, his massive maw, more of a beak than a muzzle or human mouth, was agape at the sight of her. No doubt he was a dangerous foe to normal prey, even she could tell the branch had fallen because he had ripped a load bearing portion of it away. Though his plan of sending her down with the rest of the tree had failed, the rising crest of feathers along the ridge of his neck and shoulders was all the indication needed to know the fight was on. Now came the more serious problem for though her face was covered and body wrapped only in leather they might yet this beast couldn’t be allowed to return with any evidence of her humanity. Even empty handed, what it had seen could condemn a people. This was unacceptable.
With all the grace an aching body could offer she dropped down from standing to hanging and swung around the branch with the gathering momentum, transfixing those eagle eyes on her as the other slathering beasts who dared to call themselves people tried to close the distance. But as her opponent reached out a barely human hand to snatch her from the air, wicked raptor talons promising to keep what they caught, she released the branch and flew feet first at his face. The talons wrapped around her thighs as it fell backwards and locked tight.
Midair the two struggled briefly to the sounds of snapping twigs and lesser limbs as they crashed through and earned a strange growling rumble of near victory from the far slower pursuers. They could almost taste the blood about to be spilled and would be breaking through the underbrush any moment. With a twist and a pull on the right handful of feathers the creature was under her for the majority of the damage, its talons digging deeper into her with each branch and bounce they took. The limp body of her would-be assailant was now a considerable dead weight and cushioned the landing that sent her rolling away, talons still embedded but the broken fingers having ripped away from the force of the recovery roll. Even with blood and burn oozing down each leg the hardest part of landing was listening to the crunching sound made by its bones as they snapped on the ground. Killing it on the way down had been unnecessary it seemed, but better safe than sorry.
She gripped a small bottle from her belt and threw it at the bird-man, the other hand plucked a massive talon from her thigh, carefully hiding it in a pocket along her back. The brush was shaking in the distance, the creature’s voices calling out in what became more and more distinctly human and inhuman tones as they pressed their advantage. The bottle broke over the corpse on contact and a black smoke filled the air. It was acrid and burned the nose, but it would kill any hope of scent for miles as the black smoke billowed in all directions like a storm moving in. Although already a safe distance she launched into a run quickly and started pulling and tucking talons into her pockets, her blood was on them and the leather outfit would seal over her wound in their absence. Behind her the corpse was dissolving, the trees in the area wilting and the ground turning grey.
Cursing and several bone crunching noises that were far too close helped her shock into action, racing away through the black fog. When she started to run again she felt the familiar warm sensation fill her tired and aching limbs and willed the chase to continue, propelling her forward through the barrier of exhaustion her body feebly wished to embrace. Her training once more paid off in full as the ache died away into a haze replaced by the rush of survival. Yet the thrill of the chase and her trained bodily discipline would not hold out forever. As she ducked out of the smoke only the tall wavy grasses that filled the space between the mountains here and the countryside she called home stood in her way. The wall of mountains was foreboding, sheer in most places though shale in a few others. No beast or man could hope to scale them unnoticed by those who patrolled the reaches and it was they whom would be enlisted to aid her. She ducked down under the shrinking grass and aimed at full speed for the base of the mountain before her.
All around a howling sort of laughter began to sound, here and there, growing into a cacophony that would have caused her to pause but for the urging of one laughing voice among the many. Pursuing still, the voice said to her, as it had for the many nights before. Many still followed on her heels, though some had turned back or fallen in their many twists and turns the thunder of their coming was pronounced on this solid ground. Maedra couldn’t afford to look back, her eyes were on the sky, her goggles the only thing that would save her from the real danger they were all in. Behind and unseen could be heard a loud thump as a man sized creature was tripped, its grunt was short and its noises stomped out by a massive beast who was no man.
Thumps and shocks through the ground shook and threw her as easily as leaves on the wind all the while accompanied by the terrifying sound of cracking trees that grew ever closer all too quickly. Heart pounding and breath straining through the face mask she gauged the distance without looking, gathering a handful of vials from the same bag as before. They were tiny in her hand but as she released them at a massive face far too close and found herself swept up and tangled in the facial horns of the beast only one vial broke on its face with the rest tumbling out of sight. While it had been hunting her there had been nothing so blatantly obvious as the sounds this beast had started making, the thumping and grunting and the massive heartbeat she could feel she touched it. It had passed through the wilds behind her, otherwise unseen until they had been forced to leave the tall grass of the Drift behind and the ground was able to support the charging weight.
Snaps of twigs and fallen limbs underfoot accompanied them as they crashed through the underbrush earned a strange growling rumble of near victory from the far slower pursuers behind the two of them. They could almost taste her true scent by now, masked though it was by the scent of the foul pongo. The leather on the insides of her thighs, which had been specially made to grip for climbing, also helped her from being tossed as the mendhorn’s acid burned neck shuddered and thrashed. Mercy was not available to her.
With her own life to save first she flipped through the air at the apex of a thrash and rolled across its back. From here the last quivering masses of brush in the distance was swiftly approaching, the creatures’ voices calling out in what became more and more distinctly ulumen tones as they heard the mendhorn begin to bellow in pain and rage. Now dismounted Maedra could see the vials had broken over the shoulder on contact and a noxious vapor filled the air around it. It was acrid and burned her nose, but it would kill any hope of scent for miles as the vapor became black smoke and billowed like a stream behind it. Inspired, she gave a shrill and piercing whistle and the mendhorn turned back to look her way and caught its overly adorned and heavy head on the stunted saplings and brush of the fading grass, rolling it with an audible snap like stone succumbing to too much weight as horns and bones snapped.
Maedra launched herself from the dissolving shoulder of the mendhorn into the achingly familiar sprint. When she started to run again she felt the familiar warm sensation fill her tired and aching limbs, propelling her forward through the barrier of exhaustion her body feebly wished to embrace. Her training once more paying off in full as she pushed through the barrier of suffering to engage in the thrill of having survived. Yet the thrill of the chase and her trained bodily discipline was not all that propelled her, it was an immense duty to return whole and unseen to complete her reconnaissance mission, and the threat of dishonor should she be caught here beyond the Wall. She could be instantly retired and exiled if discovered. The wall of the cliff was rushing toward her at a breakneck pace and she made one last leap, a dive into the grass at the base would certainly end in broken bones if she were wrong. She slid safely into soft dirt and shade and rolled onto her side with her back up against the furthest wall. It was barely a crawl space and the beast that chased her was too big to reach in and grab her, though it seemed undeterred by obvious failure.
An enormous almost-hoof toed foot reached barely a finger’s width under the cliff and pressed in toward her, pinched in place by the low wall. It scratched at the dirt and grass an arm’s length away from her body, less than a hands length from her tiny bag, which she had partially loosened from her back to fit where she was now, the talons contorting its shape with strain. Where it clawed rock and dirt were moved easily, with little enough effort it could dig itself to her. As she pulled her bag closer to her the foot was removed and the pink and blue three -nostril snout pressed to the hole, its musky breath was thick with carrion and a bitter eldritch scent that came with its transformation.
These creatures were called mendhorns and were bred to haul heavy machines of war but could be employed by anyone with the tokens to rub together. They were usually docile but the wrong handler could make them mean, grown huge by magical processes and selective breeding, they were quite the common sight in the Outlands frequently used by rich farmers and ranchers in the Outlands to protect their livelihoods, though this one was by a considerable measure larger than any she had seen before. Blue veins and streams and strands streaked its flesh with a persistent and pulsing glow, an indication that it had been enhanced with magic recently and likely that it would die from the amount used even without her efforts. That her enemies had brought one to bear down upon her was a compliment to her skill as this creature could easily be used to slay a field of soldiers, that they were willing to sacrifice it was a measure of their wealth.
Only a moment of admiration held on until the primal need to survive its frantic fury took control and she started to shimmy away, attaining a respectable pace that slowly dragged her away from the muted claws of the beast. The cleft she was in ran along the base of this mountain for a good space and she would come out near Cassium where her cousin Pai’len had a den he would restock from time to time. The beast stopped pawing at the ground and bellowed, rolling and thrashing about as the laughing turned into a screeching like a lightning strike that broke the monotonous rage-filled grunts. It tore away the edge of the cleft and each thump was felt through the earth that pressed in on so many sides. She paused to watch the beast roll on the ground, kicked and striking at a wave of white and blue color from the sky fluttered around it like a hurricane.
The mendhorn was barely visible but the red and blue stained blood coated the ground and she was not so far as to avoid the little wave that filled her space long enough to choke her before it drained away. The mendhorn soon fought its way onto its feet to limp away, its thundering feet making it only a scant few paces before dropping for a final time. At least now she wouldn’t bathe in its blood as its heart beat those final notes.