(continued from Part 1)
“Have I said how much I hate this place?” Arexa Night Render snarled ferociously, baring fangs the length of a human finger. The jungle reared overhead, sweltering, bug-infested, and reeking of rotting foliage. The largest trees in Tyria fought each other for patches of sunlight (there was little discernable harmony, even among them). Roots and branches latticed out all but the smallest glimpse of sky. Arexa’s snout flared as she sniffed the air. Her great orange paw clenched the haft of a longbow that was easily as tall as Sunslayn himself. “Everything in this jungle wants to eat me, even the plants,” she grumbled.
“Not used to being on the bottom of the food chain, Rex?” Sunslayn had to maintain a quick pace to keep up with the charr’s long, sloping stride.
Arexa chuckled. “Now I can imagine how asura in the Black Citadel feel.”
Cliffs hemmed in the travelers, dictating a disorienting, winding path. They had been trying to head east for two days, but the cliffs and great tree roots kept channeling them south. Twice since making their way into Auric Basin, they had been forced to flee the wildlife. Once from a herd of belligerent half-sentient mushrooms, then from a scaly beast that appeared to be made of purple pinecones and flung its own scales like rockets.
So far they had managed to avoid most of Mordremoth’s minions. The possibility that Lirrah was one of them was too horrifying to imagine.
The gliders were invaluable. Sunslayn and Arexa covered miles of jungle effortlessly, searching the ground far below for any sign of Lirrah or anyone who might have seen her. The Pact soldiers in the outposts had been little help. Too many people had gone missing in the jungle for them to offer troops, and Lirrah’s description hadn’t rung any bells. “How many blue sylvari are there in the world, eh?” asked a particularly jaded sergeant. “How many rangers wield bows and travel with dangerous animals? Here, let me loan you one.”
Sunslayn’s hope had begun to flag. The heart of Maguuma was just too vast.
“We need to start looking for a branch,” Arexa said. “It’ll be dark soon.” They refused to camp on the ground. Too many beasties had come sniffing around that first night. Afterward, they had taken a hint from the Itzel and bedded down in the trees.
The charr suddenly whipped an arrow from her quiver and aimed the great bow.
Sunslayn ducked, heart hammering, and looked for trouble.
A lizard, no taller than an asura’s pot-bellied waistline had emerged from a shrub. It cocked its head and chirruped at them.
“Raptor,” Sunslayn whispered. “Back away. Slow.”
“There’s only one.”
“The hell there is. Didn’t you read Ravenyth’s report?”
“I don’t have time to read.” Arexa let the arrow fly.
The reptile squawked as it tumbled with the arrow through its gullet.
Arexa grinned a fangy grin. “Dinner.”
Sunslayn was in the middle of a snarky refusal when the shrub rustled and two more raptors broke into the open. Another followed, then four more, then half a dozen. They chirped a chorus and charged.
“Shoulda read the report,” Arexa said. She dropped to a knee, pressed her paw to the ground, and set a circular sigil to glowing. “Run!”
Sunslayn was already backpedaling, staff clenched in his fist.
The flock of raptors charged over the sigil, triggering a circle of ethereal blades. For an instant they were trapped. Arexa and Sunslayn took advantage of the head-start and raced along the forest floor.
The chirruping grew louder as the celestial trap dissipated and the reptiles resumed the hunt.
Sunslayn looked for a low-hanging branch, a vine, something to get him off the ground. Needle-sharp teeth punctured leather and sank into the meat of his calf. Another raptor lunged and latched onto Arexa’s fluffy tail. The charr roared and batted the lizard with her bow.
With a sweep of Sunslayn’s hand, a fount of fire erupted amid the flock. The raptors leapt over the flames with single-minded hunger.
All at once, the pursuit stopped. One raptor shrieked a different note. The others took up the shrill call, and as one they raced back the direction they had come.
Arexa watched them go, an arrow poised. “I’m not that scary. Am I?”
The ground rumbled. Arexa’s ears perked as she sought the source of the growl. Sunslayn turned and watched the jungle floor heave up. A vast creature uncurled. A moment ago, it had been a tangle of dead timber; now it glared with small yellow eyes glowing like lanterns. A thorny mass of horns reared up from a narrow face. Teeth serrated a boney jaw, and a spike like a spear flicked at the end of a long sinuous tail.
Slowly Arexa backed away. “That in the report?”
Sunslayn started to shape the word, “Vinetooth,” when the creature roared. All he could think of was Eir Stegalkin. It had been a vinetooth that skewered the life out of the Norn hero.
The ground trembled as the creature set down its clawed feet, stalking slow. The brutal tail arched over its horned head, gaging, aiming.
An arrow as bright as lightning whistled past Sunslayn’s ear and thunked into a woody shoulder. The beast barely flinched.
The tail plummeted. The tip quivered in the earth where Sunslayn had been standing.
He rolled, leaving behind a whip-thin trail of flame, then swept the staff. Fire sprouted along the vinetooth’s arms and shoulders. With a shriek, the creature shook off the pain and charged.
A net dropped from the branches and crashed over the vinetooth’s head. Thick hempen cables tangled in horns, in knobby flesh, in claws. The creature shivered and bucked and roared, but the net didn’t come loose.
“Human!” cried a voice overhead. A large blue hand with padded amphibian fingers beckoned from the crook of a tree. “Climb! Hurry.” A column of flat mushrooms climbed the tree trunk like a ladder.
Sunslayn scrambled up the mushrooms, hoping they didn’t break under his weight. Arexa growled for him to scramble faster.
The vinetooth gnawed free of the hemp and circled below, enraged that its quarry was out of reach.
At the top of the mushroom stair, broad branches converged like a meeting of bridges. One of the frog-people was nodding approval at their hasty escape. A dark hood covered much of the Itzel’s blunt blue snout and bulbous eyes.
“You are with the Pact?” she asked, voice reminiscent of the notes of a water-frog’s song.
Winded, Sunslayn could only nod.
“Good, good. If you were not, I would feed you to the vinetooth. I am Tlalli, a hunter of Fahautl Grounds.”
“We’re seeking one of our comrades,” Arexa said.
“Hmm, yes. Outsiders are easily lost in the Basin. Follow me. Perhaps we can help.”
(concluded, Part 3)