To Snare a Rabbit

by Nagolinc

Griff struggled against the crushing strength of the giant's grip. In the distance he could hear Oonsus—who had been transferred to the giant's other hand—screaming violently Griff fought for a moment to break free from the imprisoning walls of the giant's fist, but soon gave up, realizing it was almost certainly futile.

Griff now lay placidly in the giant's enormous fist and attempted to resign himself to fate. In doing so, he reflected back on his life. It had been a prosperous one at the beginning. Becoming the head of Baron Fredrick the Pacific's royal guard at a young age, he and his family held high hopes for the future. Even before the Battle of Three Gates, however, it had been obvious that things were headed downhill. Baron Fredrick proved not to have the genius and initiative that his father had possessed, Wyrd forest was gradually becoming an unimportant backwater, and short of applying for transfer to Metamor Keep, Griff had few ways out. The Battle of Three Gates and subsequent confusion had only hastened the decline, soon reducing Wyrd Forest to the pathetic state in which it now languished. Griff's family, too, had been destroyed. His father had died in the battle—one in which he was too old to fight— and his mother and sister had both gone insane and were never heard of after the curse took its hold over them. After all that, Griff thought to himself, death couldn't be much of a disappointment. After all, it wasn't as if he had much further to fall from where he now stood.

As the giant momentarily tightened his grip, nearly crushing Griff's ribcage, Griff decided to reconsider the idea that he had nothing left to lose. He vaguely remembered someone once mentioning a proverb about a live dog and a dead lion that now came to mind. Suddenly, Oonsus's muffled voice emerged from the giant's other fist.

"Prepare yourself, foul monster," Oonsus shouted just loud enough that Griff could hear him. "For I shall destroy you out of my unbreakable commitment to justice!"

Although now was hardly the time, Griff suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to roll his eyes sarcastically. And then, to Griff's complete amazement, the giant responded to Oonsus's barely-audible threat.

"But.. but...." the giant stammered, clearly unable to control its emotions. "But Gath don't want to be destroyed! Not Gath's fault he got lost in the mountain passages! All Gath want is to go home! Gath no want unbreakable juices! Gath want help!"

And then the giant—whose name was apparently Gath—dropped both Griff and Oonsus and pressed his hands to his face to hold back a river of tears. Griff was so surprised that he barely had time to spread his wings in order to slow his fall before hitting the ground. Landing with a thud, Griff slowly backed away from the giant, who was now crying so loudly that Griff found it difficult to hear himself think.

Griff now spotted Oonsus, who had landed near Gath's left foot and appeared substantially unharmed. Rather than running away as Griff had, however, the boy appeared to be pounding on the giant's toe and shouting something up at it. Griff raced over to Oonsus and attempted to drag him away from the giant.

"Let it go," Griff said. "Even if you scared it, there's no way we could take on something this size... well, maybe if I flew you and we went for its eyes... but... it's not worth our time. Come on! Let's get out of here!"

Griff was unsure how much of his speech Oonsus was able to hear over the giant's unbearably loud crying.

"Didn't... hear!?" Oonsus screamed just loud enough that Griff could make out every other word. "We... have... hurt... we... to!"

"We what!?" Griff shouted back, unable to understand Oonsus.

"Hell... it!" Oonsus explained.

"WHAT!?" Griff demanded, not understanding the words that were coming out of Oonsus's lips.

"HELP IT!" Oonsus shouted at the top of his lungs so that Griff could just barely understand.

"You're crazy!" Griff shouted back and then turned to go.

Griff walked a few paces before turning around and realizing that Oonsus was still pounding on the giant Gath's toe. Ignoring the recklessly foolish boy, Griff determined to continue on his way. Suddenly the giant reached down, and scooping up the young boy lifted Oonsus towards his mouth. Pushing aside his reservations about fighting a giant—and a large one at that—Griff took wing. It wasn't as though Griff's conscience would allow him to let Gath eat Oonsus (who had saved his life less than an hour ago) without a fight.

Guess I'll go for the eyes, Griff thought as he streaked through the air towards the giant, who was now holding Oonsus within a hand's breadth of his mouth. A giant's hand-breadth albeit. As he dove towards Gath's left eye, claws extended, however, he noticed that Oonsus was not screaming in terror as Griff would have expected. Instead, the boy was talking with the giant.

"Where are you from?" Oonsus asked in a perfectly calm tone of voice.

"North... me think," Gath answered in a booming voice, the force of which pushed Griff several feet backwards as he attempted to hover in place. "I not really sure," the giant continued. "Me got lost..."

"You must be from the Giantdowns," Oonsus reasoned. "I'm from the Outer Midlands.... My name's Oonsus Koguja, by the way.... what's yours?"

Griff was surprised that even Oonsus could have forgotten the giant's name already.

"Me Gath Djilla," the giant boomed in reply.

This time Griff had braced himself and was not blown back quite as far.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, mister Gath Djilla, sir," Oonsus said excitedly.

Griff continued to hover a few yards away from Gath's head, not at all sure what to make of the ongoing conversation. Only a moment ago, he had felt quite sure that Gath was planning to eat Oonsus and now the two of them were conversing politely.

"Me glad meet you, too," Gath replied. "You help me get home?"

Griff was again caught off guard by the sudden excitement in Gath's voice and was blown back several yards. Hovering at a distance, he listened for a moment longer as the boy and giant continued to talk and then turned to go.

"Of course I'll help you," Oonsus replied without hesitation.

Oonsus—or so it appeared to Griff—had already picked up a new adventure. I have to take care of Wyrd Forest, Griff thought to himself. Leave the boy and the giant to their adventures... Neither Gath nor Oonsus seemed to notice as Griff gradually drifted farther and farther away from the two of them. Griff shouted a distant, unheard goodbye, and then turned towards the walls of the canyon they were in.

As he gained a better feeling for their surroundings, Griff realized that he and Oonsus had emerged into a box-canyon. Walled on either side by towering cliffs, a narrow valley—one just big enough for Gath to have wandered through—lead out of the valley in the direction of the Great Barrier Range. Gath must have wandered through some unknown pass to arrive at this place from the Giantdowns, Griff reasoned to himself.

Rising up over the canyon walls, it took Griff only a few minutes to orient himself. The canyon, he realized, lay just beyond the foothills of the great barrier range that marked the eastern boundary of Wyrd Forest. It would only be a short flight for Griff to return to the palace and warn the baron of the menace hiding in the cave that Oonsus had revealed to him. It would be a simple matter to seal off the cave. Or, if that didn't work, to have a contingent of soldiers from Metamor Keep flush it clean of whatever terrors lay within. Griff had already battled what he now realized must be a centipede-morph, and Oonsus had testified to seeing a dragon in the cave as well. Although it was likely that the dragon existed only in Oonsus's hyperactive imagination, Griff didn't think it was beyond the ability of Metamor Keep to deal with one if it did exist. It was hardly the sort of thing that could be handled by the Wyrd Forest palace guard, however.

On his way back to Baron Fredrick's palace, Griff suddenly realized that he should probably stop back at the peasant's hut and relate to them the fate of their dear Ol' Sally. Griff spiraled downward towards the dismal shack in which the beaver-morph and his family lived. Practically landing on the peasants' doorstep, Griff morphed into his humanoid form and rapped on the door. Normally he would have worried about no one being home, but it was late enough that he reasoned the peasants should have returned home for their supper already.

After a few moments, a particularly humble-looking beaver opened the door.

"Why, mister... Sen," the beaver said, stumbling over his words. "What... what'a.... surprise to see....see you... again..."

"I'm afraid I have some bad news," Griff said darkly.

"W—won't you come... in... and have a bit... a bit to... eat?" the beaver offered, now trembling from head-to-toe.

Griff was confused by the beaver's terror. Earlier he had been overly respectful, but hadn't seemed afraid of Griff.

"Oh, no, I'm on my way back to the palace," Griff said. "I just wanted to stop and tell you what I found out... about... Ol'... your cow..."

"You must come in," the beaver pleaded. "I... in—insis—t..."

"Very well then," Griff conceded, not exactly sure how he wanted to break the news about the cow's death. "But only for a minute... I have some important news I must relay to Baron Fredrick."

"Im—important news?" the beaver said, taking Griff by the hand and pulling him inside. "But... how important.... could it... be? It's.. only...a.. cow."

Something about the beaver's trembling and his sudden lack of care for his once beloved Ol' Sally just didn't add up. For a moment Griff resisted the beaver's urgings to come inside, but then the beaver—who was surprisingly strong—literally pulled him though the door. Once Griff was inside, the door was slammed shut by an unseen hand, leaving him surrounded by darkness. There was no fire in the fireplace, and the only light in the shack came from the dim evening light that filtered through holes in the home's poorly-built walls.

"Who's there?" Griff demanded and sensing danger morphed into his taur form.

"I think I should ask that question," an ominous voice whispered in the darkness. "But, I think that I already know.... After all, the investigator always returns to the scene of the crime; don't you, Griff Sen?"

"I think you mean the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime," Griff replied and then suddenly realized who he must be talking to. "Barhat!" he shouted. "You cannot escape the clutches of justice forever!"

"I believe it is my clutches you will find difficult to escape," the whispering voice replied. "You did so once, but don't think I'll let you do it again... not when you know where my secret hiding-place is... speaking of which, were is the boy?"

Griff knew better than to answer the question. Instead, he bared his claws and lunged towards the source of the whispering voice.

Somehow the voice dodged and then retaliated. The Last thing Griff felt was the heavy wooden club crashing into the back of his head.

Griff Sen regained consciousness to a sharp throbbing pain in the back of his head. His ankles and wrists also burned as if they had been rubbed raw by constant abrasion. He also felt slightly disoriented. As he grew more alert, Griff realized that this was because he was hanging by his hands and feet.

Griff flailed against the ropes binding his hands and feet in an effort to break free.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," an unseen voice commanded; it was the same one as from the peasant beaver's shack. "Look where you're hanging before you take the plunge..."

Twisting his neck around, Griff could just see out of the corner of his eye a flicker of flame coming from under what smelled like a cauldron of boiling soup. A second ago, Griff had been wondering if he could cut the ropes with his claws if he morphed. Now he realized that wasn't such a good idea.

"Yes, you see it now, don't you?" the unseen voice said with obvious delight in his voice. "We're making ourselves a bit of a soup... and you're.. the main... INGREDIENT!"

Panic raced through Griff's head. He suddenly remembered the image of Ol' Sally, torn to pieces by the giant centipede he and Oonsus had battled earlier. Was he to share the fate of the cow he had failed to rescue earlier?

"You're a monster!" Griff accused the unseen voice.

"Me?" the voice replied defensively. "I'm just the chef... a mere master of the culinary arts... an artist, if I may say so myself. It's my friend here who has a taste for rare treats, such as... eagle soup..."

"The centipede morph," Griff inferred.

"GIANT centipede morph," the unseen voice corrected Griff. "Surely you noticed he was more than six inches long when you fought him, didn't you?"

"More like six feet," Griff agreed.

"Six feet of very hungry centipede that needs to be fed fairly frequently," the voice said with a bit of an amused chuckle. "And you... will have.. to do."

"I won't do it!" Griff exclaimed.

Griff struggled against his bonds more violently than before. He guessed that the pot below him probably wouldn't burn him instantly. If he could get free, at least he had a fighting chance. Not much of a chance, Griff thought grimly, as both the unseen voice and the centipede had already bested him in a fight once already.

"Oh, and good luck with those ropes," the unseen voice said. "I'm afraid you'll find them unlikely to break, even if you had a knife handy, which I was careful to make sure you don't... wouldn't want my friend's meal to get away, now would I?"

Griff suddenly realized that the pack he normally kept strapped to his chest was now missing.

"So long as I'm not going to be living much longer, I don't suppose I could have the privilege of seeing the face of the Vile Thief Barhat once before I die, could I?" Griff asked.

"I suppose... I couldn't deny the dying wish of a condemned man, now could I?" the voice conceded after a moment's hesitation.

A second later, a creature stepped into Griff's field of vision. Although it was difficult to see any details by firelight, the outline of Barhat's rounded body and floppy ears were undoubtedly those of a rabbit.

"A rabbit, so I was right," Griff said upon seeing Barhat. "Didn't think your kind had much taste for meat, though..."

"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times," Barhat replied, placing his hands on his hips impudently. "The soup... err... you... are for my centipede friend, Munus."

"Munus?" Griff said, somewhat surprised. "He has a name? I wasn't even aware that he could talk.... he's hardly as talkative as you, to say the least..."

"I'm afraid the curse has taken away his tongue," Barhat admitted. "He does still screech furiously from time-to-time when he feels particularly riled.... He hissed at me for almost an hour after you and that... boy... disturbed his meal. Guess it affected his digestion. Speaking of which, were is the boy? I rather hoped he might come for you sooner or later... only real reason I've been keeping you alive... although... I suppose he has no way of knowing... may as well cook you now...."

With that unceremonious speculation, Barhat suddenly reached for a rope tied down to a large rock and loosened it, letting out a few inches of rope. Griff felt himself plunge a towards the bubbling vat beneath him. He could feel the steam wafting up towards his body and felt as if he was already being cooked alive. At the same time, Barhat reached into a jar on the floor and, retrieving a potato from the jar, tossed it into the pot of boiling water. Griff winced as super-hot water splashed onto his back and neck.

"Wait!" Griff said, suddenly feeling a desire to save his own life. "Isn't there something you'd accept in exchange for freeing me? I'm sure that Baron Fredrick would pay you handsomely for returning the head of his palace guard...."

"Bah!" Barhat scoffed. "If I set you free, you'd just come back after me... probably with reinforcements from Metamor Keep. Besides, you and I both know that our dear Baron Fred is completely broke.... At this point, I've stolen pretty much everything of value that remains in Wyrd Forest.... Been thinking of moving on to more fertile pasture for weeks now."

"But... you'll never get away with this!" Griff shrieked, realizing at the same time how utterly pathetic he sounded.

"But I already have,” Barhat pointed out. “At this point, it would be more trouble for me to free you than to cook you…. For one thing, I’d have to figure out how to get you down without dropping you in the pot beneath you.”

Then, as if to reinforce his point, he let out another few inches of rope. Griff plunged precariously towards the pot of boiling soup and then came to a sudden stop, the rope tearing at his wrists and ankles as he did.

There was nothing else left, then, Griff was going to have to fight his way out of this. If only he could figure out a way how. Again Griff struggled against the ropes holding him and grasped at them with his claws.

"I've told you already," Barhat said, chuckling as he watched Griff struggle. "There's no way short of magic you're going to break free of those ropes..."

I still have one last chance, Griff thought to himself. He must have morphed back into his humanoid form while unconscious. If he tried morphing into his taur-form, he would have a free pair of claws to untie the rope. If that failed, or if Barhat dropped him into the soup before he could break free, there was no chance for his salvation.

Deciding that there was no time like the present, Griff at once morphed into his taur form and began slashing at the ropes with the pair of claws that appeared between his arms and legs. Unsurprisingly, the ropes did not give way and four of his six limbs remained as tightly bound as ever. Barhat's promise, then, remained valid. To Griff's surprise, Barhat made no motion to lower the rope and drop him into the soup. Instead, the rabbit remained as he was, staring at the struggling eagle-taur and laughing out loud.

"You think I'm going to shorten your suffering just because you kick and scream a little?" Barhat asked; the firelight revealed a look of obvious delight on his face. “I’ll have you know that you—and this damned valley—have given me quite a bit of trouble. I wasn’t always like this you know. Had a home and a family. But once I wandered into this damn valley and morphed into… this… well, I could never go back.”

Griff said nothing but continued to tear at the rope with his claws.

"You and this valley have taken my entire life,” Barhat continued. “So, no, I’m not going to let you go easy. I'm going to cook you one inch at a time until you beg for mercy.”
"From a thief and a coward who hides in caves and steals from peasants?" Griff said, having just enough mental capacity to form this insult. "I'd sooner die than give you the satisfaction..."

"What about that bit earlier when you said the Baron would ransom you?" Barhat pointed out.

"That wasn't begging; it was negotiating," Griff shot back.

"I like to call negotiations where one party is hanging helplessly over a fire...begging," Barhat replied without missing a beat. "How about I lower the rope another inch and see if you scream?"

Barhat let out another section of rope and Griff again plunged downward. This time, the back of his head—now the lowest part of his body—came into contact with the scalding hot water. He snatched it away instantly, suppressing a desire to scream. Barhat seemed unimpressed by Griff's resolve, instead reaching for another potato to throw into the pot.

"Aww, did the poor little birdie get burned?" Barhat said patronizingly as the potato splashed boiling hot water onto Griff.

Griff refused to give Barhat the pleasure of hearing his reply.

Griff gave one last frantic tug against the ropes binding his arms and two of his legs. At the same time, Barhat reached out for the rope again, undoubtedly to let out more rope and begin the slow process of cooking Griff alive. Before he could let loose another section of rope, however, he was stopped by a voice in the background.

"Hold it right there, you vile fiend!" came the all-to-familiar voice.

"Oonsus!" Griff called out in surprise, unsure of whether to thank the boy for coming or scold him for putting himself in such danger.

"Hold what?" Barhat asked, looking at Oonsus with an appearance of supreme innocence on his face.

"That's my friend!" Oonsus shouted. "Let him go!"

Griff visibly winced. Oonsus's choice of words had been unfortunate, and Griff had no doubts as to what Barhat would do next.

"Okay," Barhat said generously.

Pulling a previously unnoticed knife from is waist, he slashed through the rope supporting Griff in a single fluid moment. Griff experienced a single moment of panic and then searing pain as he was doused in a pot of boiling hot soup.

"AAAAAGGGGHHHH!" Griff let out a scream of pain as he clamored to grasp the edge of the pot with his two free claws.

"Griff!" Oonsus said, charging towards Barhat and the pot containing Griff with sword drawn. "Don't worry, I'll save you."

Barhat took one look at the angry, sword-wielding boy and sprinted out of the room as fast as his rabbit-feet would take him. Ignoring Barhat's flight, Oonsus reached for the pot containing Griff and with his bare hands tipped it over with a single shove.

Griff, along with the other contents of Barhat's quite possibly delicious soup, spilled out onto the cave floor. Still bound, Griff writhed on the cave floor until Oonsus cut through the rope binding his hands and lower feet with his sword. Morphing back into his humanoid form, Griff attempted to thank Oonsus.

"thank... I mean... I appreciate... well... you shouldn't have... err... I'm glad you..." Griff struggled for words.

Oonsus seemed too enfixed by staring at his badly-burned hands to notice anything the eagle-morph was saying. The pot being much hotter than the soup inside, Oonsus's hands had suffered far worse than Griff, who had been in the water for only seconds.

"I have something that should help that," Griff said, noticing Oonsus's hands.

Looking around, Griff was relieved to see his pouch lying on the cave-floor. Picking it up, he strapped it back onto his chest. Rummaging through it, he pulled out a bottle of salve that had been blessed by the Lightbringers of Metamor Keep. It was incredibly powerful, and therefore incredibly expensive as well; Griff guessed that it would cost about two months of his present salary to replace the bottle.

"Here, try putting some of this on your hands," Griff offered, handing the bottle to Oonsus.

"Thanks!" Oonsus replied.

Holding the bottle by the cap he unscrewed it. Predictably, as soon as the cap came off, the bottle fell to the ground, shattering on the rocky cave floor.

"Oops," Oonsus said, looking at the puddle of greenish-gray goo on the ground.

Griff repressed an overwhelming desire to curse.

"Here... I can fix it," Oonsus said, kneeling down and trying to collect most of the liquid in his hands before it seeped into the cave floor.

"Just... never mind," Griff said, pulling Oonsus away from the puddle. "Rub your hands together to soak it in a little."

Oonsus rubbed his hands together and smiled in apparent delight as the healing potion took affect. Griff had forgotten that the potion also had mild euphoric qualities. In less than a minute the burns on Oonsus's hands were completely healed. Griff's own claws still shivered with the pain of having recently been scalded.

"Why did you come back in here?" Griff asked suddenly, deciding to put forth the question that had been on his mind for the last several minutes. "How did you know I was in danger?"

"The Dragon told me," Oonsus replied matter-of-factly.

"Dragon?" Griff asked, either not understanding or refusing to believe.

"The same one that was chasing us before," Oonsus attempted to explain.

"The dragon... that was chasing us... told you I was in danger...?" Griff asked skeptically.

"Yeah," Oonsus agreed. "And it even gave me directions. You see, before I thought that it was an enemy, but it turns out that it was actually really friendly and it even said that it knew me from somewhere..."

"You've meet this dragon before?" Griff said, perplexed. Oonsus’s explanation was growing less and less probable with every word.

"No," Oonsus said. "But he'd met me... well... it's hard to explain, and I don't really understand all of it..."

"I see..." Griff said, deciding to let the issue drop. He suspected that the ‘dragon’ was no more real than the demons Oonsus had been fighting that morning. "So, this... dragon... told you that I was in danger and how to find me?"

"Uh-huh," Oonsus agreed. "It was a good thing, too, because I got really lost looking for you... that's how I found his lair in the first place."

"You were looking for me?" Griff asked. "Why?"

"I wanted to say goodbye," Oonsus said innocently. "You disappeared while I was talking to Gath, so I figured you must have gone back into the caves, didn't you?"

"Well, not exactly," Griff confessed.

"But then you got caught by that tricky guy, Barhat, right?" Oonsus continued, apparently ignoring Griff's statement.

"Err... something like that," Griff conceded.

"And then he tried to turn you into soup, but I came and rescued you just in time?" Oonsus asked.

"Yup," Griff said.

"Wow! Isn't it cool!?" Oonsus said.

"Cool isn't exactly the word I would have used," Griff said.

At the same time, Griff could feel the burns all over his body. He was moderately worried that most of his feathers might fall out.

"Oh, and did I tell you about Gath?" Oonsus said, again ignoring Griff's reply.

"No, you didn't," Griff said.

"It turns out he's not a mean scary giant after all," Oonsus said. "He's a friendly giant. He's from the Giantdowns and he got lost and he needs somebody to guide him back home..."

"I gathered that much myself," Griff agreed.

"So I told him that I would help him," Oonsus continued. "But first I had to come back and say goodbye to you. And then the dragon told me you were in danger. And then I rescued you. And then... well, that's now, isn't it?"

"Yes," Griff smiled—as much as it was possible to smile with a beak for a mouth. "Yes it is."

"So?" Oonsus said.

"So... what?" Griff asked, suddenly confused.

Everything Oonsus had been saying had made at least moderate sense and yet he had somehow managed to confuse Griff again.

"So do you want to help me take Gath back to the Giantdowns?" Oonsus asked.

"You want... me?" Griff responded, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Uh-huh," Oonsus said. "I think we make a really great team!"

For a split second Griff seriously considered the possibility of going with Oonsus to help Gath. It would be nice, he thought to himself, to go on an adventure; to get away from it all. And then he remembered his duties as the head of Baron Fredrick the Pacific's palace guard. There were things that had to be done. For one, this cave had to be thoroughly cleansed of Barhat and his friend Munus (the giant centipede morph), as well as whatever other vermin lived in here. At the very least, the entrance should be sealed off. The more he thought about it, the more Griff realized that the barony would probably completely fall apart in his absence.

"I'm sorry," Griff concluded. "But I have to stay here and protect Wyrd Forest."

"That's okay," Oonsus said, not missing a beat. "But I'll be sure to come back and visit you if I'm ever headed this way again..."

"Well, I'll look forward to it," Griff replied.

And then, without saying another word, Griff and Oonsus started walking towards the exit to the cave chamber they were in. Both took a torch of burning wood from the fire that Barhat had been prepared to cook Griff with. After walking down the cave tunnel for some time, they came to a split. Griff—who had regained his bearings now that he was less panicked—recognized the split. One way led east to the valley with Gath in it. The other led south to Wyrd Forest. Surprisingly Oonsus too appeared to recognize the intersection.

"Um... I guess this is where we part ways," Oonsus said softly.

"I guess so..." Griff agreed, looking off to one side.

"It was nice meeting you, Mr. Griff," Oonsus said, smiling warmly. His face looked strangely supernatural in the flickering torchlight.

"It was nice meeting you too, Oonsus," Griff agreed.

And then Oonsus reached over and gave Griff a tremendous hug, sending waves of pain across Griff's badly scalded skin. He winced and then weakly returned the embrace. A moment later, Oonsus set off down his branch of the tunnel and disappeared into the darkness. Griff stared out into that darkness for a long time, wondering if he had made the wrong choice. Eventually, he started off down the tunnel that led back to Wyrd Forest

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