“He’s blatantly reckless!” Milo complained.
“I know…” Ash said. “He means well. It’s just who he is”.
“Yeah, well” Milo told her, “The plan was to lure that thing out and pelt it with fire, not feed ourselves to it”.
“I know, I know” Ash tried to quell him. “He held the ground today though”.
“And I suppose I did nothing?” Milo chastised.
The two were seated on the bank by the bridge- the dragonet Newt snuffling around in brush nearby, after they’d hauled the topic of their discussion, Pup, to the tray of the monstrous utility Demonic. Ru was still up there with the dogman, along with her emu Drom and the baby reptilian Egg. Tam was up there too, manning the big gun again and watching over them.
Kendrik, was still up on the bridge, making sure that the troll-bunyip-beast was still burning, while Ando was under it, searching through the filth-strewn shelter that the monster had made there. Ash and Milo had been helping the young marauder, at first, after Ru had tended to Milo’s wounds. They’d found little of value though, mostly only bones- those of animals, and a few humans, along with some smashed and bleached carapaces of what seemed to be a few large arthropods that the beast must have also hunted. But searching through it and the reek of the beast’s squat had set Milo’s injured, and now roughly shorn head, to reeling- Ash had gone to check on him not long after he’d wandered off.
“You did what was humanly possible” Ash told him. “You’ve got to admit though- Pup kept that thing’s attention off of you, and took a beating for the effort”.
Milo knew she was right, but that didn’t mean the whole thing wouldn’t have gone smoother, if the dogman hadn’t recklessly rushed right in. Milo was saved from continuing the discussion however, by Ando calling out, trying to yell at them in a whisper.
“Hey… Hey…” he was crying hoarsely, and pointing toward the middle of the river. “Look there!”
Following his gesture, Ash and Milo were quick to spot what Ando saw. It was about three paces long, black as night and shiny-hard looking, with two bulbous solid-black eyes the size of apples, twitching about just above the waterline. For the moment, the big crustacean just hung there, out in the middle deep of the slow flowing river, apparently watching them. But then, raising its two large claws high out of the water, it snapped them- open and closed in a rapid ‘CLACK CLACK CLACK’. A large splash after and the creature shot backwards and down- under, and apparently gone.
“Holy shit!” Ando cried. “Did you see that? The size of that thing! A giant marron!” he marveled, referring to the tasty freshwater crayfish that could be found in waterways all over the place. Ash and Milo were flabbergasted too- biggest they ever saw, indeed.
“Err-um..” Ash began, still stunned. “Never seen one paying so much attention to what’s going on around it, other than trying to get away… Never seen one draw that much attention to itself, either”. She turned to face Milo, who was staring open-mouthed at the water.
“I-uh… don’t think I’d want to catch one that big” he finally said. “The little ones pinch hard enough...”
“So… uh… Maybe we should head back up then?” Ash suggested, throwing an absent thumb over her shoulder, pointing up to the top of the bank.
“Wow! Huge!” Ando called to them, still beaming his amazed big grin.
* * * * *
They began setting up camp off the road by Demonic and the van, not caring too much about making a big fire, for there was plenty of brush all around to conceal it. They figured, too, that the troll-bunyip thing likely kept most predators away, from this end of the town at least, so they probably wouldn’t draw much attention for the night- so a big cozy fire it was. After discussing the big crustacean in the river as well, they hoped that the thing wasn’t likely to climb up the bank and toward them, but they’d set a watch on the bridge for it, just in case.
The carapaces they found in the troll-bunyip’s lair, were likely the same creature as the one in the water, they agreed. It seemed that the thing might have been communicating with them, too, clacking it’s claws the way that it did. It was either a warning, they speculated, or, as Ru suggested, maybe it was some kind of thanks, for dealing with the beast that had been eating them. It mattered little for the night though, they’d settle in, watch for it, and if the thing showed up, they’d deal with that too, as best they could, be it friend or foe.
Before dusk fell, Tam and Ando headed off to hunt around a little, at the bridge end of town- hopefully catch a rabbit or three, or a big fat possum for dinner. Warning them not to stray too far though, Milo double checked that his sister had two decently functioning handguns with full clips, and a rifle as back-up as well, just to be sure, before reluctantly letting Tam wander off. Watching them walk away, disappearing around the bend in the road, Milo let out a worried sigh and shook his sore head, then he set himself to finding the ‘beanie’ that he thought might be in the van somewhere- his near naked scalp was now feeling the chill, and he wanted to make sure it would be warm through the night.
While Milo was rummaging under the seat, Ash set to taking her copper still out of the back of the van and setting it up. There was fuel in the drums on Demonic, she knew- for a hundred clicks or so yet, but Ash was now a veteran of the road, and it was better to have more fuel at the ready, rather than be stuck, sitting in some lesser cleared place while waiting for more to distill. With the still and its sundries out of the way, Ash then pulled out a bundle of still wet and pungent hemp so to make more mash, noticing then the small scrunched bundle of wool hidden beneath that fell out too, dropping to the road by her feet. Setting the hemp down, she retrieved the item and looked it over, smiling.
“Hey! Baldy!” she yelled through the van.
Milo’s head popped up in response, a scowl on his face at the name she called him. “Looking for this?” Ash asked, holding up the old knit-cap for Milo to see. Milo’s scowl lifted to a grin when he saw it, so she tossed it at him, hitting him in the face with it. With a light laugh, Ash retrieved the hemp and took it toward her still, while behind her, Milo gratefully and gingerly slid the beanie over his wounded head.
Getting out of the van, Milo walked toward Ru. The young shaman was leaning casually against Demonic’s tray-side, staring absently in to the old cup she swirled in her hand. She seemed not at all concerned, either, that her emu Drom had apparently wandered off somewhere, and was now nowhere to be seen.
“So how is he?” Milo asked, gesturing to Demonic’s tray where Pup was laid out.
“Hmm? Out for the night I would think…” Ru told him. She sniffed at the cup then, wrinkling her nose at it, and let out a “Phew! Strong!” right after. “Want some?” she asked, proffering the cup to Milo.
“Er-umm…” Milo began. For true enough, he thought- the liquid in the cup that the shaman brewed when the fire had been set, had thankfully knocked the fidgety dogman out cold quite quick. Pup was now snoring loudly in the utility’s tray- occasionally giggling and growling, but he often did that in his sleep, and down for the night he appeared to be. “No thanks” Milo said, “I-er, I think I’m fine”
“Okay then” Ru told him, and took a sip for herself. Shaking her head right after- a shiver running down her spine, she went a little cross-eyed. “Woo! Yeah…” she admitted, grinning. “Definitely too strong- Have to watch that in future. Wow…”
Shrugging, the shaman tossed the remaining liquid from the cup, letting it splash on the roadside. Two shots rang out right then, off in the distance somewhere, startling Milo and leaving a worried frown wrinkling his face.
“She’s okay, you know” Ru told him, with a gentle and knowing smile.
“Hm” Milo grunted, feeling a little sheepish. She was probably right, of course- Tam and Ando were supposed to be out there shooting at stuff, hunting for dinner.
“If there was trouble, there’d be more shots, right?” Ru asked.
“Yeah. I know” Milo admitted.
“So let’s go sit by the fire- Wait and see what they bring us to eat” Ru told him.
Milo smiled in spite of his concern. Ru was a good woman, if a little creepy, at times. She’d been raised by demonic creatures… the bird-like ‘Kor’, so she’d said and had called them. They’d then abandoned her, leaving her alone with only the emu for company for a couple of years, before she’d found this group to join up with. Milo supposed all that could actually leave someone somewhat creepy at times. Milo liked Ru though, and was glad she was around- She was a talented healer, and she seemed to make sense most of the time, compared to someone like Pup.
“I’ll be there in a bit” Milo told her.
Ru nodded, smiling, and wandered to the fire where Kendrik was sitting. Watching her go, Milo saw she was swaying a little- likely from the stuff that she drank from her cup, and he found himself smiling yet again.
Going to the door of Demonic, Milo stood on the runner and raised himself up to look through the mesh-covered glassless window. All of Demonic’s glass was long gone- likely left shattered by the roadside far to the east. Ash and Pup, or whoever they’d got the vehicle from, had filled the holes with metal grill, which they could then try to cover with any plastic found if it rained. Even covered so, it didn’t really stop that much wind or water coming through, but Milo had seen the front grill stop a large crazy bird from slamming into the cab not that long ago. Pup had then roughly plucked and gutted the poor thing and eaten it raw…
In Demonic’s cab, over on the passenger side of its bench-seat, Newt and Egg were curled up together, asleep, but the dragonet cracked an eye open when Milo appeared at the drivers-side window. “Good boy” Milo told him, prompting a wag of the dragonet’s tail in response, while Egg slept on.
All of the group tended to Egg as was needed, for he was only a baby, after all. He was taken in by Ash, Pup and Ando weeks ago while still in his egg- hence his name, after they’d had to fight and sadly kill his elders in defense of themselves. Egg had hatched not long after, and now they would raise him, for lack of any other choice but abandonment. But, it was the dragonet, Newt, who was with Egg most of all- a surrogate older sibling for the little lizardoid, Milo supposed, and the two had being reptilian in common, at least.
Milo knew that the two were quite different though, for Egg would grow up to be a reptilian equivalent of Pup- a humanoid creature, capable of anything that such being might achieve, given the full length of life with which to achieve it. Newt though, according to Ash, would probably remain much how he is- small and pet-like. The dragonet, however, did possess an amazing cunning for an animal. He also seemed to have some kind of weird connection to the half-elf- like they could read each other’s thoughts or feelings or something. Likely, Milo thought- amusing himself, that Ash knew- right in that instant, that there he was, up at the window, looking in on Newt keeping watch over Egg…
“Well you seem to be in a good mood” Ash said, making Milo jump.
“Hells Ash!” Milo complained, hopping down from the running-board. “Is it the elf part of you that makes you so light on your feet?”
Ash made a show of sneering at him. “You’ve just got that smelly old thing pulled too far over your ears, is all” she suggested.
“Hmph. It’ll keep my head warm” Milo told her.
Ash chuckled. “You do know that Egg hatched out in that thing, right?”.
Milo wrinkled his nose at the thought. “Doesn’t matter” he said, with a shrug. “My head is cold…” he told her, and gesturing at his gore covered clothes he added, “And it’s not like I’m not already covered in filth and crap from today or anything”.
“Yep. You’re disgusting!” she agreed through a laugh.
“Hah! Yeah… Thanks heaps” he said to her, chuckling in response.
“We can scav the town tomorrow” she said. “Hopefully get us all some new gear- I need new boots at least”. Holding up one foot, she emphasized her point by wriggling her big toe through the split at the front of her well-worn shoe.
A shot rang out then, and Milo cast a worried glance in the direction he thought that it was.
“I hope they find us something good” Ash told him, trying to take his mind away from thoughts of his sister’s safety. “I’m hungry enough to go take a bite of that troll-thing”.
“Hmph. Bunyip…” Milo told her. “And now who’s being disgusting?” he asked.
“A girl’s gotta eat” she said with a shrug, helping lighten Milo’s mood once again.
* * * * *
“This arrow you found…” Kendrik began, holding up the tail end of the broken shaft.
“Ando found it” Milo told him, and threw a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing toward the road. His sister and the young marauder had returned only moments ago, and were now out on the road by Demonic and cleaning two rabbits and three chickens that they’d caught. “Said you might want to see it…”
Kendrik raised a thoughtful eyebrow. “Ando is what you call… a marauder?’ he asked.
“Yeah” Milo told him. “Bands of people on the great plain east- on the Nullarbor. Supposedly they’re the scattering of folk who ran from the demon-held cities on the east coast during Reckoning. Ando could tell you more about them - I’ve never met any except for him. He’s said it was a savage life out there though- constant warring between different groups over resources”.
Kendrik nodded understanding, and was twirling the haft between his fingers, studying the fletching.
“The ones who raised me…” Ru interjected. She was sitting across the fire from Milo and Kendrik, studying her hand intently. It was the concoction she sipped, Milo suspected, grinning, judging by her glazed eyes and their half-closed lids- Pup wouldn’t be the only one sleeping well tonight, he thought. Kendrik just seemed confused by her behavior.
“The Kor” Ru continued, looking up from her hand, and blinking as if to clear her mind. “The ones who raised me… They once told me that a demon lord in the east is trying to corrupt the bands of marauders- breed his own demon blood in them and control them. He wants them as an army against an angel stronghold over there or something- Said they’d probably push west after that”. She yawned then, wide and long, and smacked her lips as she went back to tending the large pot of herbs and roots she’d put on the fire, ready for some rabbit and chicken. “Ando don’t look like he got demon blood though…” she thought to add.
Now it was Milo who raised a thoughtful eyebrow, surprised as he was by what Ru was telling them. Ash had told them of a group of angels at the town of Eucla, from where she’d come- cherubs, she’d said, who were now serving the supposed Venus goddess, who’d appeared there recently. Glad he was then that he and his companions were moving west, well away from the Nullarbor, and whatever turmoil might be brewing there.
“These marauder groups must often make and use arrows then?” Kendrik speculated. “Ando perhaps knows that sometimes a group can identified by the way they fletch their arrows. They often have a favoured style of doing so. See here, how this is tied? And they choose feathers they prefer to use…” Kendrik held out the haft for Milo to see, but Milo wasn’t sure he saw anything identifiable, just feathers tied to wood. “Yes” Kendrik told him, “I think this arrow must belong to the clan Tes and I scouted for. The bones you found under the bridge… they are likely their missing clan members”.
Milo nodded thoughtfully. He could understand easily how a few people, only armed with bows and arrows and not forewarned about the troll-bunyip’s vulnerability to fire, could have been taken by it. Even Kendrik’s dragon had fallen to it, and that had been of a similar size to the beast. Glad too then, that he travelled with such a capable group, and gave silent thanks they’d managed to cut the beast down and burn it. The troll, or bunyip, whichever it was, would be no trouble for anyone again.
“I would like to find the rest of their clan again” Kendrik said, tossing the broken haft in to the fire. “Make sure they know the fate of their people, and that of the beast that took them, before I go west again to mine and Tes’ own”.
“You said they’ll be heading this way?” Ash asked, returning from her still. Tam and Ando were right behind her, their catch in hand and ready to be cooked.
“Yes, that was the plan” Kendrik told her, “though this town was never mentioned”.
“That’s fine” Ash said. She went to Demonic then and opened the driver’s side door. “I’d like to spend tomorrow scavving supplies in the town, so we’ll be here another day at least”. Stepping up on to the monstrous utility’s running board, she added “if that’s okay with everyone?” before crawling in to the cab.
Milo and Kendrik were nodding agreement as Tam and Ando sat by the fire, either side of Ru, placing their catch in the tub just behind her as they went by it.
“I think we saw your bird” Tam told the shaman. “He’s with a group of others”.
“Yeah, he’s so big amongst them…” Ando put in. “Stands out like a tree in the desert”.
“I suspected so” Ru said, frowning a little. Reaching around behind her, she took a large chicken out of the tub. “These are nice” she told the two hunters. “Been a while since I’ve eaten chook”.
“Yeah. Not as big as emu though…” Tam said, a cheeky grin already giving her joke away- “But we thought we’d better not try for one of those, just in case, you know… we shot the wrong one or something”
“He’d be hard to miss!” Ando added.
“You’d do your best” Milo told him, bringing light laughter from the others.
“Hey! I’m getting better!” Ando protested. “I got one of the rabbits!”
“Well, I thank you” Ru said, after more laughter, “for not upsetting Drom and his new friends”. She set to sectioning the chicken that she took then, using a flat rock beside her as a cutting board
“He’ll be okay?” Ash asked, climbing down from Demonic. She held Egg, squirming in her arms, and Newt fluttered out from the cab right behind her, quickly settling to the ground by the fire. Ash took her place beside the little dragonet.
“Yes. I think so…” Ru replied, but Ash didn’t feel overly convinced by the shaman’s response. She decided, however, not to pursue the matter.
“Nice hat, bro” Tam called to Milo then, tossing a small pebble over the fire to hit him with it.
“Hah!” Ando chuffed. “You know that Egg hatched out in that thing, right?”
“Yes, I am aware” Milo grumbled, amid more laughter.
“Is anyone going to wake your dog man for dinner?” Kendrik asked the group as they began to quieten.
“No no. Let’s just let him sleep” Milo told him, perhaps a little too vehemently.