Roger and Hannah crept through a small aspen grove. Ahead of them the forest was glowing from a yet unseen source. A few moments after entering the trees they began to hear voices muttering indistinct words, occasionally bursting out in laughter or annoyance. The silhouette of a person appeared on the path in front of them, and, startled, they dove off the trail to hide in the gloom.
After waiting breathlessly for a couple minutes, the silhouette wasn’t moving any closer. The sentinel seemed to be content to stay where it was, guarding the path.
“I don’t think they saw us,” Roger said.
“Ok,” Hannah said, “Ok. So now we… What do we do?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“I dunno, I figured that if I just came down here everything would work out, but now there’s a camp of people and somebody watching so we can’t get close, and I don’t know what to do,” she said without taking a breath.
“We could try sneaking through the woods and come toward the camp from a different angle.”
“Good, that works for me.”
The two tiptoed away from the path, working their way around the camp. Occasionally one of them would step on a twig, causing the other to jump from alarm, or they would hear what sounded like something else moving in the woods. Each time, they waited a couple moments without hearing anything and then carried on.
Everything was going according to plan until the boulder a few feet in front of them moved. To be more precise, it stood up by first rolling to one side and then pushing itself up with inhumanly huge arms. A bolt of terror rippled through Roger’s body, and he pushed Hannah back as quickly as he could to hide behind a clump of aspen trees.
“Oi,” the standing boulder said, “Ndemd, ya ‘ears that?” It stood still for a moment straining against the silence.
The silence stretched into minutes before another voice said, “Nah, it weren’t nuthin’, Nrond. How much longer we gunna waits before we goes and eats all the little squealers sittin’ around that there fire?”
“Mazun don’t wants us doin’ nuthin’ until he gets ‘ere,” the first voice said. The second creature grunted in reply, and then the boulder sat back down where it had been.
Roger’s legs quivered as he slowly, so slowly, edged away, back the way he had come, waving at Hannah to follow. He needn’t have bothered, she was already about twenty yards away. Roger snuck over to her as quickly as he could.
“We need to find out if Ari is in that camp right now,” he said.
Hannah nodded numbly. “What are those things?”
“I have no idea, but they’re huge, terrifying, and evidently eat people,” Roger said, casting a glance back to make sure he wasn’t being followed, “Let’s go.”
The trees shook near them, and they heard something crashing through the woods. A shadow passed through the area that they had just vacated, shaking the ground as it went.
“Ei, Ndemd, Nrond! Oi, you there!” the newcomer called out.
“Shuddit up, Mazun,” one of the others called back, “Ya gunna be spookin’ the squealers.”
A deluge of animal terror burst free from where Roger had been stuffing it ever since first seeing the first creature move. First Roger bolted then Hannah, both unable to restrain their desire to run any longer.
“Eh? What’s there?” one of the voices behind them asked.
“Don’t matter none,” one of the others said, its voice receding into the woods as they ran, “We wants squealers to eat, not some deer…” The creature’s voice faded to indiscernible as they moved further away.
They stopped once they got back to the path. Hannah pranced about shaking her hands and looking every direction as quickly as she could.
“I don’t like it,” she said, “I don’t like it!”
Roger’s body was twitching and he couldn’t feel his fingers, “Ari?”
“Yes. Obviously. Let’s go look for Ari.”
The two of them walked stiff legged back toward where they had seen the lookout earlier. The guard was gone now, and the light of the campfire was less bright. The two of them drew closer and saw that the thugs were camped out, wrapped in blankets against the cool summer night while the fire dwindled, glowing red with a few last flames.
“There,” Hannah said, grabbing Roger’s arm. Off to one side, Ari lay with one side of her face in the dirt, gagged with her hands bound behind her. All around her the thugs lay curled up or chatting softly among themselves. There was no way the two of them would be able to sneak up and free her.
A pressure was building in Roger’s gut. Any minute now those monsters were going to show up and start devouring people, and Ari would be easy pickings if that were to happen. He stepped into the light of the campfire. If he couldn’t get Ari free without being seen, he would just have to warn the whole group about the monsters and hope that somehow they could get away later.
One of the thugs noticed Roger and had just enough time to give him a confused look before being picked up by a huge, dark hand, squeezed unconscious, and swallowed. Roger’s terror kicked up another notch.
“Get Ari!” he yelled at Hannah at the same time that several voices in the camp cried out, “Ogres!”
The three creatures burst out of the trees into the campsite. One of them was holding a tree trunk the same way Roger had held his walking stick. Another had a longsword that had obviously been made for a human, because in the ogre’s hand it looked like a letter opener. The last one was holding a boulder larger than Roger’s entire body casually in one hand. They were completely naked, and in the red firelight their skin looked like the color of burning charcoal. Their wide mouths were gaping open, revealing crooked teeth.
“Eat ‘em all!” one of the ogres called out, and the three of them split up. They dashed about the campsite, murdering recklessly as they went.
Roger hadn’t realized it, but he was screaming as loudly as he could. Somehow, despite his horror, his legs had carried him to where Ari lay. Her one eye that wasn’t pushed down into the dirt fixated on him with a mix of astonishment and disgust. Someone nearby screamed with pure bestial horror. Roger ripped his dagger from its sheath and used it to saw through the ropes that were binding Ari’s hands. She pushed herself upright, looking dazed, as Hannah arrived to help support her.
“How shameful,” Ari said, removing the gag, “To have to be rescued. Where’s my staff?” Several voices chattered tensely next to them.
“Does that really matter right now?” Roger asked. Ari held out her hand and he pulled her to her feet. She wobbled for a split second before steadying. A group of the thugs had banded together and were facing down one of the ogres, weapons raised.
“I guess not,” she admitted, “But I won’t look very priestly without it.” One of the ogres came up behind Ari, hand outstretched.
“Move!” Roger shouted, shoving Ari to the side while thrusting his dagger toward the ogre’s hand. The blade pierced the skin in the fleshy part between the thumb and the palm. The ogre recoiled and put its hand in its mouth to suck on the sting.
“Ow,” it said, removing its hand from its mouth to inspect it.
“Run. Now. Run now. Run,” Hannah said, tugging at Roger’s arm. He wheeled around sprinting toward the trees. Ari was already several long steps ahead of him, her slender athletic frame moving at a pace that he couldn’t even start to compete with. His legs howled with pain after the long day of climbing, but the roaring of his fear was louder.
Something hit him from behind. His body rotated out over his feet, and he fell face first toward the dirt, managing only just to bring his arm up to let him roll through the fall. Shuffling onto his back, he looked up at the ogre standing over him, its enormous finger outstretched. It poked him in the belly and he felt as though he would burst. His bones creaked and groaned under the strain. Tears of pain and fear filled his eyes.
Suddenly Hannah was there, holding a sword over her head with both hands. The blade gleamed red in the low firelight and she brought it down on the ogre’s finger. The blade sliced through the flesh until it struck the bone and stopped, quivering. Hannah released the grip as the ogre grabbed its hand back, howling.
“Now! RUN!” she shouted, grabbing him and dragging him back to his feet.
The two of them sprinted to the treeline, and kept going until they were a several hundred yards away. Somewhere along the way Ari joined in and ran along with them.
“Ok,” Ari said once they had stopped, “Is everyone alright? We’re all healthy, right?”
Roger couldn’t respond, he was completely out of breath. Instead he rested a hand on a knee and with the other gave a halfhearted thumbs up.
Hannah seemed unreasonably cheerful. “I’m fine,” she said, “Honestly, I’m more concerned that half your head is covered in dirt.”
“Oh bother,” Ari said. She made a futile attempt to brush the dust away, but only succeeded in smearing it across her face.