Griff Sen stared anxiously up at his lord, Baron Fredrick the Pacific. An age regress, the ruler of the Wyrd forest often took on the form of a bald baby to amuse himself while sitting on the throne. At the moment, he was bouncing up and down cheerfully, shaking his royal scepter as if it were a giant baby rattle.
"Your majesty, we need to talk," Griff repeated a second time, in an effort to get the baby baron's attention.
"What is it this time?" the baron demanded, suddenly shifting form into a seven year old boy, who looked down on Griff with a scowl.
"I think I preferred you as a baby," Griff said, recoiling a step backwards away from the angry baron. "You were more... cheerful..."
"Ever seen an angry baby?" the now thirteen-year-old baron asked, his voice growing deeper.
"I beg you, for the love of Velena, not that again," Griff replied, covering his face with his wings and letting out an exasperated sigh. "I don’t want to deal with another one of your outbursts..."
Ever since the battle of Three Gates Griff had been forced to put up with Baron Fred's intermittent temper tantrums. Even with all the other things that frequently went wrong in Wyrd Forest, dealing with the baron's fits was still Griff's least favorite part of being the chief of the place guard—the second most powerful person in Wyrd forest after the Baron himself.
"Oh, trust me, you don't!" Baron Fredrick said, suddenly bursting into a fit of manic laughter. "Do you remember last week? You were practically begging me to end your life then and there."
As he laughed, he began to shift shape. Gradually he morphed from a teenager laughing manically into a laughing, bouncing baby. He stared at Griff while bouncing up and down chuckling as if he had just heard the funniest joke in the world. Griff attempted to wait patiently for the baron's fit to subside. When the baron had been laughing for several minutes, however, and showed no signs of stopping, Griff was again forced to intervene.
"Your majesty, I said: 'We need to talk'" Griff insisted in a tone just servile enough not to be taken for insurrection.
"And I said, 'don't make me angry,'" Fredrick replied, morphing into a teenager and raising his scepter angrily—as if threatening to bash Griff with it.
"Your emotions are not within my control," Griff said, not backing down this time.
"Nor, apparently, is whatever you're about to announce you've done wrong," Baron Fredrick shot back.
"I'm not here to get in an argument," Griff insisted.
"Well then, why must you keep screwing UP!?" the baron demanded, his voice cracking with the first signs of puberty.
"Because the Wyrd Forest is not a magical kingdom where things can always be counted on to go the way you want them to and never ever go wrong," Griff said, apparently trying to give his liege lord a lesson on the concept of reality.
"Make it so!" Baron Fred replied, not missing a beat.
"I'm not some sort of god who can just will things into existence," Griff pleaded, beginning to lose his calm. "Who do you think I am?"
"Who do you think I AM?" Baron Fredrick asked instead of giving an answer.
"You are my lord, and I have sworn to serve you to the best of my ability for as long as I live," Griff answered, taking the words from his sworn oath of loyalty to the baron.
Instantly Griff's grip on his emotions was restored. Being reminded of his duties was all it took to erase any momentary feelings of frustration he might have felt towards the baron. Griff was, after all, his lord's servant and to execute his duties faithfully was the highest honor he could hope for.
"Now then, where were we?" Fredrick asked, seeming to have gotten over his own temper-tantrum as well.
"Something is not as you would wish," Griff replied soberly.
"You can fix it?" Fredrick suggested.
"I will do my best," Griff answered unhesitatingly.
"Your best is all I can ask of you," Baron Fredrick observed. "Do what you can, though it should cost you your life." These words were taken from the traditional reply to the oath in which Griff had sworn to serve and obey the baron.
"As I shall, your majesty," Griff said, bowing deeply. "As I shall."
As he surveyed the palace guard, Griff Sen was disappointed to be reminded that "What he could" amounted to nine-hells of a lot less than it once had. The palace guard consisted of a couple of fat old women, three rat-morphs, a raccoon, an age regress that never behaved as though he was more than six, and a three-legged cow—the forth leg having been chopped off when it was still a limb in some ancient battle. Himself a eagle-morph, Griff guessed that he was the equal of any three of the other “guards” on the worst day of his life. On a good day in his taur-form, he could whup the whole lot in time for the Baron's—generally late—breakfast.
"Who of you wants to help me hunt down the vile thief Barhat?" Griff asked, looking for volunteers from among the palace guard.
"I hear he's a dragon," one of the rats said—apparently not volunteering for the mission.
"Scary! Scary!" the age regress—Tommy—reacted automatically.
"He is not a dragon!" Griff countered. "I'm ninety-nine percent sure that he's a rabbit-morph..,."
"A rabbit?" one of the old women—transgender victims—observed sarcastically. "You need our help to hunt down a rabbit? Don't eagles eat rabbits in the wild? Why don't you just fly out and catch the little hopper?"
"Not a rabbit, a rabbit MORPH!" Griff shouted, releasing some of the pent-up anger from his meeting with the baron. "He's several hells of a lot bigger and quite a bit sneakier than any real rabbit I've ever seen..."
"You need our help to catch a rabbit," the raccoon-morph noted. "It's time to face the facts, Griff, you're losing your edge…"
"Aren't raccoon's supposed to be sneaky?" one of the rat-morphs pointed out. "Why don't you help him run down this 'dangerous thief'?"
"Not as sneaky as RATS!" the raccoon-morph shouted back.
The raccoon and the rat morph started to argue and looked as though they would soon come to blows. Griff wanted out now. The entire barony was falling apart—so it seemed. He certainly had better things to do than spend his time keeping the palace guards from killing one-another.
"Okay, listen up!" Griff announced. "I'm going to go and catch the vile thief Barhat by myself. Try and make sure the palace doesn't burn down and that nobody enslaves the baron while I'm gone. Do you think you could manage that?"
"Will do, boss," the three-legged cow-morph agreed, bowing his head in subservience. "Everything'll be just fine while you go fight this dragon-rabbit-whatever-it-is..."
The three-legged cow had changed into its humanoid form in order to be able to speak, and his missing leg had now morphed back into a missing arm.
"Good!" Griff said and then stormed out of the barracks where the palace guard lived.
As soon as he was outside, Griff took flight. Fredrick's barony—Wyrd Forest, as it was known—was small enough that Griff could see the boundary while flying above the palace. At the time of the last census, its population had been a little over a hundred. That had been before the Battle of Three Gates, when the curse had afflicted all of Metamor Valley, reducing the palace guard to their present condition. Griff suspected that the population of Wyrd forest now consisted of less than a hundred transgenders, animal-morphs and age-regresses.
Griff couldn't help but observe that for such a small place, Wyrd Forest had a surprisingly large number of problems. Last fall, a horde of almost fifty lutins managed to make their way all the way across Metamor Valley and attack Wyrd forest, which was located in the southeast corner of the valley. Now, peasants were complaining about attacks by a "Vile Thief Barhat and his band of villainry." If he even has a band of villainry, Griff thought to himself; one villain was more than enough to cause trouble for a barony this size.
After flying for only a few minutes, Griff started to descend towards the place where Barhat had supposedly last struck. Observing the dismal condition of the peasants' garden he was approaching, he could understand why they were worried about losing their only cow. He carefully inspecting the cow-shed for clues—of which there were none, of course—and then approached the peasant family's ramshackle hut.
Griff knocked on the door and after a few moments later it was opened by a middle-aged beaver-morph. Behind him stood two still-human children. Griff guessed that the older of the two was still only seven or eight, not yet old-enough to be affected by the curse.
"Sir Sen!" the beaver-morph said excitedly, bowing with difficulty.
"No need for all that formality," Griff said, shaking his head. "Call me Griff. Rumor has it your cow is missing?"
"Sir Sen... err... Griff, you can see plainly for yourself that it's not there," the bever-morph said, pointing at the empty cow-shed.
"And you claim that the Vile Thief Barhat took it?" Griff continued.
"Aye," the beaver-morph agreed, nodding his head; as he did so, the rolls of loose fur below his chin shook in a most peculiar manner.
"What evidence do you have that this thief, Barhat, took it?" Griff asked.
"Well, who else would take it?" the peasant reasoned. "I mean... we get along well-enough with all our neighbors..."
Griff sighed. The hardest part about hunting down someone like Barhat was determining whether or not he even existed. For all Griff knew, Barhat was just a rumor made up by the peasants to explain their missing things.
"Well, I don't know, maybe it just wandered off," Griff suggested.
"Oh, no!" the peasant said, his fur jiggling violently as he shook his head back and forth. "Ol' Sally would never run away on us. Besides, I always double-check myself that the shed is locked before I go to bed."
"By locked you mean...?" Griff asked, wondering how Barhat could get through a locked door without destroying it.
When he had inspected the shed, Griff had seen no obvious signs of forced entry.
"I wedge I stick up against the door real tight so that it won't open," the peasant explained.
All of Griff's confusion immediately disappeared.
"Maybe the stick... blew away?" Griff suggested.
"Real tight!" the peasant insisted. "Like this!"
The peasant made a motion as if he was leaning up against something in order to force it into place.
"I see," Griff said, not feeling any less sure about his stick-blowing-away theory.
"Oh Sir Sen... err, Griff, please bring Sally back safe! We've been worried about her all day. Just imagining her in the hands of that vile thief! The things he might do to her! Torture her! Even... eat her!"
"I assure you, the full force of Baron Fredrick's power has been put behind this investigation," Griff replied. "I will stop at nothing until this vile thief has been apprehended and your dear... Sally... returned to you."
"Oh! Thank-you!" the peasant beaver said, suddenly getting down on his hands and knees and kissing one of Griff's feet.
"I told you, there's no need for that," Griff said, leaping backwards as if he had stepped on a hot coal. "After all, I'm only doing my job to keep Wyrd Forest safe..."
When the beaver-morph showed no sign of getting up, Griff walked away to inspect the cow-shed one more time. True to the peasant's word, there was a stick lying in the mud in front of the open door to the cow shed. The stick, however, was broken in two. This solved one of Griff's problems, at least; he now knew—or felt reasonably confident—that whoever or whatever had stolen Ol' Sally was real.
Inspecting the mud closely once more, Griff searched for any footprints or other evidence the thief may have left behind. A short rainstorm last night, however, had washed away any prints the thief may have made. The only footprints were his own and those left by the peasant tromping about the cow-shed this morning. Despite this, Griff came away from the investigation with two definite pieces of information. First of all, Barhat—or someone the peasants were calling Barhat—was real. Second of all, he had a cow. The second piece of information was crucial because it meant that Barhat couldn't have traveled far between last night and this morning. All Griff had to do was check all of the good hiding places within a night's walk at a cow's pace from here and the thief would inevitably show up. Griff only hoped that Barhat would wait a little while before slaughtering Sally, or Griff would be forced to apologize to the peasant beaver-morph nonetheless.
After taking flight, Griff began to fly in an ever increasing circle around the peasant's hut. As he flew, he scanned the ground with his super-human vision, looking for anything that seemed out of place or anywhere he thought a thief might be able to hide. To survey everything within a night's walk of the peasant's farm would be both time-consuming and difficult. What was more, there was no guarantee that Griff would be able to spot what he was looking for from the air. Even still, it was his only serious lead on the Vile Thief Barhat in weeks, and Griff had no better alternative then to look around nearby for more clues. Fortunately, today Griff got lucky.
He hadn't been in the air for more than a few minutes when Griff spotted something out-of-the-ordinary. There, cavorting about in the field below him, Griff spotted a ten-year-old boy. While spotting a small child in and of itself was not too unusual, Griff immediately noticed a few other details that definitely were. For one thing, the child was carrying a sword nearly as big as he was. For another, the way he was swinging it suggested that the boy was doing battle against a host of invisible antagonists.
Griff slowly descended towards the boy—so as to remained unnoticed—until he was close enough to hear the boy's shouts as he swung the sword.
"Ha! Take that you fiendish brutes!" the boy shouted exuberantly as he brought down the sword for an over-the-head blow. "I smite you in the name of the almighty patriarch! Justice will not go long unavenged! To judgment and then to hell with your heathen ways!"
Griff watched for a full five minutes as the boy continued to curse at his unseen foes. Griff noticed two things almost immediately. First of all, the boy was actually a rather talented swordsman. Second, he was quite plainly insane.
"You there!" Griff called out to the boy, landing about twenty feet behind him and shifting into his half-human, half-eagle form. "What is your name?"
"I am Oonsus, defender of the weak, protector of the downtrodden, champion of those in need," the boy replied, raising his sword above his head as if saluting some unseen crowd.
Doing so nearly doubled the boys height; the sight of the small, rather frail-looking boy hoisting such a sword aloft brought a chuckle to Griff's lips.
"And pray, Oonsus, what are you doing cavorting about in this field so freely?" Griff continued his inquisition.
"I was just... doing battle against a host of... demons..." they boy said, suddenly looking around. "Perhaps... you didn't… see them?"
"Can't say that I did," Griff agreed, looking around the empty field with a look of amusement.
"But, of course you can't see them!" Oonsus quickly covered for himself. "I had forgotten that the demons are invisible to all but a knight pure in heart and noble in character..."
"Are you making insinuations against my character?" Griff demanded gruffly, cutting Oonsus off as soon as it became obvious he was about to go into a long and probably fictional explanation of his actions.
"No, of course not," Oonsus immediately corrected himself. "I would never... I mean.... obviously you're a man... er half-man, half-bird.... err... whatever... of exceptional character.... It's just... perhaps you have not the heart of a true warrior..."
At this Griff's moderate amusement with the boy immediately dissolved. It was one thing for a ten-year-old boy to suggest that someone like him might not be perfect... but to insult his warrior's spirit….
"That is enough!" Griff announced, suddenly morphing into his eagle-taur form. "Now you're just asking for trouble, kid; I'll show you who has the heart of a warrior!"
Griff and the boy—Oonsus—rushed towards one another at the same moment, instantly engaging in a deadly clash. Sword clashed against claw and beak in a clatter of sudden blows. For a moment, judging by the boy's small size, Griff was tempted to go easy on him. He had no intention of actually killing the boy—which would undoubtedly sadden whichever local peasant was his father. Instead, Griff attempted to strip Oonsus of his weapon. By the third blow, however, Griff was forced to abandon his thoughts of going easy on the kid; for a ten-year-old, the boy was both remarkably tough and surprisingly talented with a blade.
"You're an age-regress, aren't you?" Griff demanded, pulling away from the boy, panting.
Although his beak was nearly indestructible, there were cuts on his claws where his scales had given way to the sword's slightly dull but still dangerous blade. There was also a cut across his chest where he had once failed to deflect a blow. They boy, too, was worse for the wear, with several claw marks across his arms and chest, and one long, bloody line running from his right ear to his chin.
"You fight well for a monster," the boy shouted in reply from where he stood—about a dozen paces from Griff. "But know this, a knight pure-in-heart can never be defeated by a mere beast..."
At this insult, Griff realized that the boy was almost certainly not from Metamor. No one from the valley would have the impropriety to confuse an animal-morph with a beast. The fact that Oonsus was not from Metamor—much less Wyrd forest—meant two things to Griff: first, Griff felt slightly less guilt about attacking the boy, and second, Oonsus might very well be the Vile Thief Barhat.
"Out with it Vile Thief Barhat," Griff said, hoping to evince a confession from the by using surprise. "Where have you hidden the cow that you stole from the peasants last night. Answer me, and I may let you live..."
"Tell me where this vile thief is, that I may slay him!" Oonsus replied, apparently either not understanding or ignoring the fact that he had been accused of being Barhat. "For I am a defender of justice, and the enemy of all who rob from the innocent."
"He attacked a peasant hut last night," Griff answered, wondering if he could take advantage of the boy's proclaimed affinity for justice. "I have reason to believe he may be hiding near here."
Oonsus scratched his cheek for a moment as if deep in thought, apparently not noticing the fact that it was bleeding profusely.
"If he's hiding, there's a cave not too far from here that would make a great hiding-place," Oonsus observed. "Perhaps we should investigate it together...that is... if you too are a champion of justice..."
"Your cheek is bleeding," Griff said, pointing out Oonsus's blood-covered fingers.
"Oh... um..." Oonsus pressed his sleeve to his cheek in an effort to stanch the bleeding.
"Here," Griff offered, picking a few leaves from a plant near his feet. "If you put yarrow on the wound, it'll sting a little, but it should stop the bleeding and keep it from getting infected.
Oonsus accepted the yarrow leafs and pressed them against his cheek.
"Now, where was that cave you mentioned?" Griff asked after a moment.
"Follow me," the ten-year-old Oonsus said eagerly.
After a several minute walk, Oonsus and Griff arrived at the entrance of the promised cave. Although the downward-sloping tunnel was several-feet across, it was well-concealed in a thicket of brush, and Griff doubted that he would have seen it from the sky even with his super-human vision. Discovering Oonsus had proved to be quite a stroke of luck for Griff. Not only would Griff not have spotted the cave without the boy's aid, but having Oonsus's sword by his side could prove quite useful should Barhat prove unwilling to surrender without a fight.
All of Griff's warm-feelings towards Oonsus were of course predicated on the assumption that Oonsus was not in fact the Vile Thief Barhat. Although the peasants' reports had led Griff to imagine that Barhat was a rabbit-morph, he hadn't entirely ruled out the possibility that he was something else entirely. "Something else," was a category that naturally included an age-regress pretending to be a child pretending to be a hero. Griff made a mental note to keep one eye on Oonsus just in case he was Barhat and had something planned for once they got inside the cave. Griff would be keeping his other eye open on the lookout for the real Vile Thief Barhat. This left Griff with a distressing lack of eyes to watch for anything else that might go wrong, since like most people he possessed only two. He had met a spider-morph once who actually had eight eyes, but the thought of spending the rest of his life as a giant spider more than negated Griff’s misgivings about having only two eyes.
"It's kind of dark in there," Oonsus said, a hint of surprise in his voice, as if he hadn't contemplated the fact that it would be dark inside a cave before.
"Here, take this," Barhat commanded, producing his last flameless torch from a pouch he kept strapped under his chest.
Flameless torches were one of the things that were perpetually in short supply around Baron Fredrick's palace. The last court wizard had literally vanished after the Battle of Three Gates. Griff's own theory was that the magician was too embarrassed of turning into a woman or child or whatever and had simply left. The Baron—in his more lucid moments—preferred to imagine that the wizard had died fighting Nasoj or some such nonsense. Whatever the reason, lacking a court wizard meant that anything magical—like flameless torches, for example—had to be bought at great expense from Metamor Keep. With money in short supply, flameless torches —and everything else needed to keep a palace running properly— tended to be as well.
"Woah! This is amazing!" Oonsus said, wielding the flameless torch as if it were a sword made out of light. "Take that!" Oonsus said, swinging the light-sword at some invisible enemy. "I smite you in the name of Eli with the light of the truth!"
"Careful!" Griff hissed. "Those things are fragile!"
The last thing Griff wanted was to explain to Baron Fred that he had been unable to capture the Vile Thief Barhat because his last flameless torch had been broken by a ten-year-old boy. His words, however, went unheeded by Oonsus who had already rushed off into the tunnel. Cursing his own foolishness in giving the boy the torch, Griff had no choice but to follow.
The cave—whose entrance would have been barely wide-enough to accommodate Ol' Sally— soon widened. Stretching forward like a tunnel, the cave was now more than twelve feet in diameter—more than large enough to let in any number of cows. Griff searched the ground for footprints, but the rocky cave-floor left no sign of anyone who might had recently passed by .
"Oonsus, slow down," Griff commanded, worrying that they might be running headlong into a trap.
Oonsus slowed for a moment, but was soon hurrying along deeper into the cave as fast as ever. For such a large cave, Griff wondered why he had never heard of it before. Surely some peasant must have peeked their head into the thicket of brush in which it was hidden at some point in time. There was, of course, the possibility that the cave was in fact a tunnel, one which had been recently hewn. Noticing strange marks on the cave-walls, this was a theory Griff began to indulge more and more. But who would build such a tunnel, and why? Whoever they were, their intentions towards Wyrd forest probably weren't friendly. Griff made a mental note to alert Baron Fred concerning the tunnel as soon as they were done exploring it.
As the cave stretched on and on, Griff grew more and more nervous. If it was man-made, it would have taken an army of workers years to do so. An army was not something Wyrd Forest was prepared to resist with it's meager complement of nine palace guards—counting Griff himself. To his relief, Griff noted that the cave began to look more natural as they ventured further in. Only the first part had appeared manmade. Deep as they were now, the cave appeared truly wild. stalactites and stalagmites covered the floor and ceiling and different tunnels ran off in various directions. With so many possible paths, Griff wondered how Oonsus knew which way to go. Then Griff realized that he probably didn't.
"Oonsus, slow down!" Griff commanded for a second time. "We need to figure out which way we're going..."
"This is the right way, I'm sure," Oonsus replied casually.
"How can you possibly know that?" Griff demanded.
"Um..." Oonsus looked around in confusion, as if hoping for proof of his claim to magically appear before his eyes. "Look! A hoof print!"
Griff rushed forward to investigate. True to Oonsus's word, there was indeed a silt-filled puddle on the cave floor where Oonsus stood with a remarkably well-preserved hoof print in the middle of it.
"You said this thief stole a cow, right?" Oonsus reminded Griff. "Well, that is the cow's footprint."
Griff felt slightly annoyed at Oonsus's incredible luck. What were the chances that he would spot a hoof-print just in time to prove himself to Griff. Had there been other foot-prints that Oonsus had been following the whole time? Griff realized for the umpteenth time that he had no idea who Oonsus really was or what sorts of talents he might possess.
"Which way now?" Griff asked, staring ahead at where the cave divided into two equally-sized tunnels.
"I... don't... know," Oonsus confessed, appearing just as confused now as he had seemed sure of himself only moments ago.
Griff and Oonsus stared down the two tunnels, as if hoping for a sign to suddenly appear and show them which one they should go down. Peering by the light of the flameless torch, they could only see a little ways. Both tunnels appeared roughly equivalent. They were about the same size and lined with the same reddish-brown rock that made up the entire tunnel system. Griff glanced down at the floor hoping more footprints would lead the way, but up ahead the cave-floor again became rocky and there were almost certainly no prints.
"Split up?" Oonsus suggested. "You go left, I go right?"
"No," Griff disagreed. "We shouldn't let ourselves get separated and we don't have two torches. Besides, what would we do when we came to the next split in the tunnel.. divide ourselves in two?"
"You can do that?" Oonsus asked in amazement, staring at Griff with wide-eyes.
"Of course..." Griff cut himself before the word 'not' for no particular reason. "Oh... well, never mind about that..." Griff said, wondering whether it was actually possible for Oonsus to believe such a thing. The young boy's imaginations seemed to face no bounds.
"Let's go this way," Oonsus suggested after staring at Griff in amazement for a few more minutes; he pointed down the tunnel to the right.
"Why that way?" Griff asked, still seeing no reason to prefer one tunnel over the other.
"Just feels right," Oonsus said shrugging his shoulders.
Griff saw no reason to disagree; Oonsus's intuitions had been right so far and they really didn't have anything better to go on. Besides, it wasn't like Griff had much of a choice. Oonsus had already run off down the tunnel, taking the torch—the only source of light—with him.
Griff hurried after Oonsus, meekly resigning himself to the fate of being led around an unknown cave by a ten-year-old boy in search of a dangerous thief. As they pressed deeper and deeper into the cave, the number of tunnels seemed to multiply. Several times they were forced to pick a tunnel to follow based purely on Oonsus's intuition. Oonsus was hurrying through the cave so fast that Griff barely even had a chance to look for evidence that someone had recently been there. Only once did he imagine that he spotted something vaguely resembling a footprint. The more he thought about it, the more Griff began to wonder if they might not be running into a deathtrap.
"Slow down!" Griff called as Oonsus veered around a corner. "We need to be more..."
Griff's words were suddenly cut off as he too rounded the corner and nearly ran into the back of Oonsus. What silenced him, however, was not so much nearly running into Oonsus as the reason Oonsus had come to a stop. In the middle of the chamber ahead of them lay Sally the cow. Or rather, what remained of her. Also in the middle of the room was a large centipede-like creature tearing fist-sized chunks out of the cow's remains with its massive jaws and swallowing them whole with a particularly disgusting slurping noise.
"Poor Sally..." Griff said, staring at the scene with a feeling of disbelief.
"To hell with you, foul demon! From whence you came!" Oonsus cried out suddenly.
Oonsus appeared to have overcome his initial hesitation and was now charging towards the creature with sword-raised. Upon seeing Oonsus, the creature rose up on its back feet, easily parrying Oonsus's first sword-blow using its jaws alone. Raised up on its back legs, the creature was at least twice as tall as Oonsus in a fight that Griff couldn't help but feel the boy was bound to lose.
"Oonsus! Fall back!" Griff shouted, his voice blending with the echoing sounds of battle as boy and beast clashed.
For a moment or two, Griff merely watched as sword and jaw clashed. It reminded him of his own fight with Oonsus only an hour or two ago. Again Oonsus's deftness with a sword surprised Griff. With the centipede-like creature towering at least twice Oonsus's height, however, it was clear who had the advantage. If Griff didn't step it, it would be only moments before the centipede managed to land a decisive blow with its massive jaws.
Morphing into his taur-form, Griff rushed forward to join the fight on Oonsus's side. When Oonsus stepped back for a second, Griff launched himself towards the centipede-like monster, grappling its jaws with his two front claws. The two struggled for a moment, locked in a battle of strength and will. For a second, Griff dared imagine that he might gain the upper hand, but then noticed his footing slipping on the loose-rock covered in cow's blood that was the cave-floor. The centipede shook its upper body violently, breaking Griff's grip and throwing him backward. Immediately it lunged forward for the killing-blow, only to find Oonsus's blade between it and Griff's exposed chest.
Griff scrambled to his feet and rushed towards the creature's side. Finding a vulnerable spot between the plates of its exoskeleton, Griff dug in his claws and tore. The centipede let out a terrifying, animalistic roar and turned its head to snap at Griff. Griff pulled out and caught the creature's jaw with one claw just in time to avoid having his neck cut in two. The centipede-like creature suddenly scurried backwards, giving Oonsus and Griff a second to breath.
In that second, Griff noticed that the flickering light coming from another tunnel was growing stronger.
"There's more of them coming!" Griff shouted to Oonsus. "We have to retreat!"
"We can't flee from battle," Oonsus contradicted. "It's not honorable!"
"We have no choice!" Griff practically screeched in reply.
Grabbing Oonsus with one claw and throwing into his back, Griff hurried out of the chamber as fast as his feet would carry him, snatching up the flameless-torch on his way out.
"Why are we running?" Oonsus demanded from atop Griff's back as they ran.
"I told you!" Griff replied. "There's more than one of those things... We need reinforcements!"
"Where are we going to get reinforcements?" Oonsus asked. "What if they get away in the meantime?"
"Right now I'm more worried about us getting away," Griff attempted to explain.
It was then that Griff realized that he hadn't the least idea which was the right way out of the cave. He tried to follow what seemed like the way they had come, but with all the twists and turns, it was hard to tell. In addition, Oonsus's question had been a valid one and was already pressing on his mind. He felt certain there weren't enough fighting men in Wyrd Forest to take out an entire colony of centipede-monsters. Perhaps he could appeal to Duke Thomas for aid from among Metamor Keep's fighting men. Then again, Wyrd forest hadn't exactly been good about paying tribute recently, so aid from the Duke was not guaranteed.
Griff stared ahead at two tunnels, not sure whether he should go left or right. Behind, he imagined he could hear the sound of someone following them.
"Which way?" Griff asked Oonsus.
"Right!" Oonsus said and then pointed at the left-hand tunnel.
Rather than wait and ask Oonsus to make up his mind, Griff decided to simply trust Oonsus's hand and not his head. Judging from Griff's past experience with the boy, this was the right decision. After all, Oonsus's head had done nothing but spout nonsense from the moment Griff had met him. His hand, however, had proved more than adept at sword-fighting, something Griff hoped might spill over into other useful talents as well.
Taking the left-hand tunnel, Griff told Oonsus to turn around and keep watch behind them as he ran. Oonsus struggled for a few moments to reposition himself on the eagle-taur's back without falling off. It was only after a minute or two that he stopped struggling and grabbing onto Griff's neck so hard that Griff was nearly choked. After watching for a short time, he reported that there appeared to be nothing following behind them. Feeling ever so grateful, Griff slowed his run to a walk.
"You can get off and walk anytime now," Griff suggested to Oonsus, who was still riding on his back.
Obediently, Oonsus slipped off of Griff's back and started walking alongside him. As they walked, Griff couldn't help but feel as if a certain degree of camaraderie had developed between the two of them. They had, after all, explored a dangerous cave and fought side-by-side, and both had saved the other's life.
"You fought well back there," Griff said to Oonsus warmly.
"You too," Oonsus agreed, giving Griff (who had morphed back into his humanoid-form) a pat on the arm.
The two walked wordlessly down a tunnel that was growing less and less familiar. Griff would have felt better if the tunnel was the one they had come from, but it was heading uphill, so he hoped it would lead to daylight sooner-or-later. Of course it was impossible to see further than about forty-feet by the light of the flameless torch disregarding the many twists-and-turns that the tunnel they were in took so he had no real way of knowing if they were headed in the right direction.
Coming to a fork in the tunnel, Oonsus bent down and picked it up.
"What is this doing here?" Oonsus asked, holding the fork close to the torch for inspection.
"Here, let me see," Griff said, taking the fork from Oonsus.
One of the peasants living in Wyrd Forest had reported having a set of silver cutlery stolen only a few nights ago. Curiously, the thief had taken only the peasants' forks and knives, leaving them with all of their spoons. Griff just so happened to have asked the peasants for one of the spoons so he could compare it to any forks he might find. He now retrieved this same spoon from the pouch attached to his chest. Holding fork and spoon side-by-side, there was no doubting that they had once belonged to the same set of silverware.
"Barhat!" Griff cursed loudly. "So he's been using this cave as a hiding-place all-along..."
"Is Barhat that monster we fought in the chamber?" Oonsus asked.
"I don't think so," Griff shook his head. "According to one of my eyewitnesses, Barhat was a rabbit.... Although there are also rumors going around that he's a dragon, I find that highly unlikely...."
"Why?" Oonsus asked.
"Dragons are extremely rare and extremely long-lived," Griff explained. "The chance of one of them going unnoticed in these caves for a substantial period of time... why... it's preposterous!"
"Then what do you think's making that glow?" Oonsus asked, pointing down the tunnel they had just come from where a faint glow was becoming visible.
"Whoever or whatever we fought in that chamber back there," Griff suggested. "Hurry! Run for it!"
Griff transformed back into his eagle-taur form, and Oonsus leapt onto his back. He was holding the flameless torch in one hand and the fork and spoon in the other. Oonsus wrapped his arms around Griff's neck tightly and Griff took off at a sprint. As they fled, Oonsus repeatedly looked backwards over his shoulders. Occasionally he would report that the light following them had grown dimmer, then that it had grown brighter. Suddenly Oonsus made an announcement that induced to Griff to run even faster than he had thought possible.
"It's a dragon!" Oonsus announced excitedly. "We're being chased by a dragon!"
Only a minute ago, Griff had denounced the possibility of a dragon living in these tunnels as an impossibility. Given the number of strange events that had occurred today, however, Griff was no longer willing to dismiss Oonsus's proclamation as pure fantasy. That morning, Griff had gone out rabbit-hunting. Subsequently, he had fought with a boy, a giant centipede, and he was now being chased by a dragon. As Griff dodged down a tunnel at the end of which he felt sure he could smell fresh air coming from he was beginning to believe that the day could not possibly become any worse.
When he spotted daylight, Griff hurried his pace even more, if that was at all possible. As soon as he was outside of the tunnel, he took wing and shot up into the air—straight into the hands of a waiting giant. Griff had been wrong; things could get worse.