Had the blade not sunk so deep, or had the angle been different, or had Rune been even the tiniest bit stronger, the razor-sharp edge of the enchanted sword would have torn the beast open from head to tail.
Instead, the sword sank to the hilt, embedded in the soft flesh behind the monster’s head, and Rune was swept off his feet. The force nearly tore his arms out of socket. He slammed into the worm’s side, expecting to lose his grip and fall. Instead, he hit the monster’s skin with a wet slap and stuck fast.
Rune lifted his head with a snarl of disgust. Long strings of clear, sticky slime stretched from his cheek and chin, plastering his dark hair to both his face and the beast’s hide. He spat, unable to free a hand to clear his eyes, both hands still anchored to the hilt of his sword.
The ground sped by at a dizzying pace. Falling meant death. So did the possibility of the monster rolling. The only choices he had left were killing the thing or stopping it.
Rune gritted his teeth. Losing grip of his sword would spell disaster, but losing hold of the worm was worse. He adjusted his hold with his right hand, squeezing until the claws on his fingers bit into the flesh at the heel of his palm. Then he released the blade with his left hand and swung his arm wide, bringing it down hard on the monster’s slime-slick side. His claws dug into the rubbery skin, granting a better hold.
He hauled back on the sword. It resisted, then slid, cutting a wide gash that spurted green sludge and made the worm scream.
The creature veered right, inches from Sera. Rune caught a glimpse of her dark face, ashen with fear.
Even if they made it through this, she was going to kill him in the end.
Lifting his legs one at a time, Rune dug the claws at the tips of his toes into the worm’s side, strengthening his hold.
Somewhere nearby, the ground rumbled again, and the beast’s head swung toward it, changing its path again.
The sword was unwieldy at this range. He should have considered that before pulling it loose. Now he couldn’t free a hand to retrieve his knives.
Not that a knife would do much. The beast was massive, easily eight feet thick at the point where its head split into four petal-like lips. It would take his sword to do any real damage.
Behind him, the body and tail twisted into coils. The worm reared up with a metal-grinding shriek, a deep gurgling starting somewhere deep inside its gut. Slowly, its head turned toward Sera.
Gritting his teeth, Rune dug in his claws and leveraged himself upward, inches at a time. He barely had a chance to dig in his claws before the beast’s head bucked back, a stream of putrid black bile spewing from its mouth.
Sera’s high shriek cut through the noise, making the hair stand on the back of Rune’s neck.
He flipped his sword point-down, ramming it into the rubbery skin and driving it in with both hands.
The worm squalled and twisted back, turning until Rune could just see Sera on the ground. A sphere of empty air surrounded her, the black sludge rolling down the sides of her mage-barrier like hot tar. And, like tar, it bubbled and hissed, sending plumes of acrid smoke into the air as it burned into the ground.
Of course it was acid.
That put a whole new layer of difficulty into fighting the thing. There was no way of knowing what he was stabbing. Any stroke could open up a new channel for the black acid to spew through, and while his sword would be fine, Rune doubted the same could be said for him. He eyed the sword, half-buried in the worm’s side. Only more of the monster’s green blood seeped around it. Hopefully, it would stay that way. Leveraging himself closer to the beast’s head, he climbed as far as he could—pausing to hold tight whenever it made any sudden movements—and only reached back to tear the sword free again when he almost couldn’t reach it.
He didn’t know how long he could rely on Sera to distract it. At this range, most things she could do would turn the beast on her before she could form any kind of defense, and clinging to the beast like he was, there was no hope of using his magic to save her.
If only his power were unfettered, as it had been when they met. Too often, he regretted the path that had led him to this point. This was, however, the first time he had felt the sentiment while scaling the neck of a giant, acid-breathing death worm.
In the future, maybe he’d leave the wells to the well-diggers after all.
Energy whistled past him like an arrow, striking the worm at a point just behind its head—and just above Rune’s. He ducked as a shower of sparks exploded only inches away, raining down and stinging when they scorched through his shirt. His claws dug into the monster’s skin as the beast rocked and writhed, tiny burns dotting its side.
Rune shook his head and glowered down at Sera, curses ready on the tip of his tongue.
She met his eye for half a second, then glanced above him and charged another blast.
His gaze darted upward.
A notice flare.
Had he been farther away from the target, he would have recognized it the first time. That close, he’d been almost blinded instead. But had he been farther from the target, he might have seen it sooner: a small, round membrane in the beast’s thick hide. A pale circle no larger than his hand, now sprinkled with dozens of minuscule scorch marks.
Sera fired the second flare, this time into the creature’s mouth. The flares were backed by fire, her weakest element, but they contained enough power to make their point. The worm’s pointed lips flared wide, the burbling of acid beginning again in its guts.
“Shield!” Rune shouted over the noise, digging in his toes and thrusting himself upward, bringing his sword up in an arc.
The blade pierced the membrane and drove deep, green blood gushing from the wound.
The worm pitched forward with a low bellow, slamming into the ground so hard that it knocked Rune loose. Spitting curses, he slid off the beast’s slimy side and hit the hard-packed dirt, the wind rushing from his lungs. The monster’s tail sailed over the top of him, missing by inches.
The harder it thrashed, the deeper the blade sank. The sharp, forward-pointing quillons on the black hilt bit into the beast’s side, tearing the wound larger.
Sera caught Rune’s arm, helping him to his feet as he sucked in a breath. “Was that its eye?”
“Ear, I think,” he managed, gasping for air.
“Maybe now it won’t hear us. Get down!” She dove for the ground, dragging her down with him as the monster’s tail swung over them again.
Rune grimaced, pushing himself to his hands and knees. Every inch of him hurt now, inside and out.
Beside him, Sera scrambled up. “Any more bright ideas?”
“Shield,” he panted.
“Are you kidding? I can’t hold that thing off!”
The gurgling behind them resumed. Some distance ahead, the last shot of acid still steamed.
“Not us, it!” Rune turned and pointed at its head.
Sera shot him a sidewise look, then focused on the worm, gathering the last of her strength.
Getting to his feet, Rune took a half step back. Bruised and exhausted as he was, all he could do now was watch.
The barrier wrapped around the monster’s head just as the black bile spewed forth. It splashed back into the worm’s face and pooled at the bottom, creating a floating bubble of tarry acid around its open maw. The acid muffled its screams, the sound changing quickly from defiant anger to pure agony.
Sera tied off the energy, locking the barrier onto the beast. Then she grabbed Rune’s arm and they ran. Or rather, she ran—he limped beside her, finally surrendering to the limits of his damaged body.
Behind them, the monster rolled and thrashed, its head and tail alternately sweeping over their heads or crashing into the earth beside them. Rune thought it a lucky break—finally—until its tail struck the air above them, glancing off the barrier he’d been too tired to notice.
Catching his eye, Sera offered a fleeting grin.
Despite himself, he smiled back.
At the edge of the city, they dropped to the dusty earth, watching the worm’s movements grow weaker. When the barrier failed and the acid flowed across the earth around it, the beast was still.
Sera leaned back against her hands, exhaling hard. “That’s the last time I let you talk me into anything.”
Rune had already given up watching the thing, laying flat on his back on the hard-packed earth. “Are you sure? Because I was just thinking about trying to talk you into some healing.” Now that the fight was over, his injuries felt worse. If the muscles in his shoulders weren’t torn, they were severely pulled, and he suspected several ribs might have been cracked in that last fall. Despite the pain, he grinned at the dirty look she gave him.
“Why is it you always seem in a better mood after you’ve nearly gotten us killed?” Any other time, she might have given him a playful punch in the arm. For now, she settled for flicking the top of his ear.
He rested one clawed hand over his injured ribs. “Because ‘nearly’ means we’re still alive.”
Sera rolled her eyes. “Shut your mouth, lizard,” she grumbled. “or I might sock you after all.”
* * * * * *
The well-diggers reached the City of Arches a handful of days later. Rune heard the rumors about how long it would take them to repair the wells the worm had destroyed, but only from the serving girls who brought food and drink to his room. After a thorough examination of his injuries, Sera had reluctantly ceded the bed. He intended to enjoy it for as long as he could. As a result, when the door creaked open and Sera slipped inside with the tray for their afternoon meal, he barely turned his head.
She thunked the tray down on the small table beside the door, planting a hand on her hip as if daring him to come get it. “The village elders expect there will be water in the first well within the next two days.”
He stayed where he was, half dressed and lounging in bed, the sheets cast off to the side in favor of allowing air circulation. He’d begun to enjoy the weather and how much it reminded him of home. “No more death worms, then?”
“Not as far as they can tell.” She paused, chewing her lip as if unwilling to let any more words escape.
Rune raised a brow.
Sera rolled her eyes in response. “Stal, the chief well-digger, congratulates you on your kill.”
His other brow rose to join it. “Shouldn’t he be complimenting you? It was your barrier that drowned it in acid.”
“And your sword that opened the beast, creating a weak point for the acid to work. The magic was mine, but that doesn’t mean much when it’s your blade protruding from the monster’s remains.”
That was enough to make him sit up. “They found it?” The sword had vanished into the worm’s flesh during its thrashing and rolling. Rune had refused to leave without the blade, which was half the reason they hadn’t moved on.
Sera nodded. “The creature’s body has shriveled in the sun. The hilt is just visible, poking out of its side.”
Rune slid out of bed and snatched a clean shirt from the top of his pack. “Let’s go get it.”
Her face darkened as he put it on. “I thought you were still injured?”
Deeming that unworthy of a response, he swept out the door without checking to see if she followed.
The worm was so large that the carcass was impossible to move. It was visible even from their inn, one of the buildings along the monster’s path of destruction out of the city. For the first several days, people gathered in the streets to gawk at the thing, though no one dared venture too close until the black acid dried out. Now, punished by a full week in the dry heat and brutal sun, the dead creature had shriveled to half its original size. Blessedly, there was little odor.
Rune had to circle the monster twice before he saw the sword’s hilt. It stuck out no more than three inches; only the way the ruby in the pommel caught the light made it visible. He released a sigh of relief he’d been holding for what seemed like days.
Beneath Sera’s careful, magic-aided ministrations, Rune had recovered by the third day. He’d considered telling her as much once, quickly dismissing the idea when he realized that caring for his injuries gave her something to do. Between that and the right to the bed in their shared room, he’d decided there was no reason to tell her until his sword could be recovered. And though recovery proved difficult—the monster’s flesh had hardened considerably as it dried, meaning working the blade free took some time—it was a relief, too. He’d have hacked the monster to bits to find it, but he hadn’t looked forward to the idea.
Turning the freed blade in hand, Rune inspected every inch. The sword was strange; so far as he knew, there were no others that looked like it, even among kingswords. But part of him always feared damage, no matter that he knew that was impossible.
“How long have you been well?” Sera demanded as she caught up with him. Her eyes flashed blue fire, demanding an answer.
“Long enough to appreciate the extra rest.” Satisfied, he hefted the sword up to rest the blade flat against his shoulder.
She growled in frustration. “We could have been traveling days ago!”
“Maybe. Maybe we would have found something else to keep us here.”
Rune glanced over his shoulder, studying the massive dead worm with a grin. “What do you think? Ready for round two?”
Burying her face in her hands, Sera groaned.
Thanks for reading my random little story. I haven’t written any books so far this year and figured just starting something and seeing where it went might help shake off the rust. So it’s a little bit raw–each chapter I’ve shared is a first draft. I haven’t proofread or edited any of it, just wrote and shared as I finished each piece. It seemed like a good exercise to get going. Finish something and move on. No second-guessing, even though it might not be good. It’s certainly not some of my best writing. But it was something new, something different, and it was good to revisit some characters whose stories I haven’t touched in a while.
But that’s all for now. One random story segment. I learned a few things in doing it, too, but I’ll talk about that another day.
And just in case you came in late, here are the other chapters–in order:
Thanks for sticking with me!