Hive of the River Queen

Once outside the city, the clouds opened up to let starlight fill the sky. The scouts spread out trying to track the creatures only to find little in the way of evidence. The drums could be heard throughout the night, sending their messages in code to the others. Pontus followed U'nuwi east to the banks of the Great River.

It was a truly dangerous place to be at night. Biting bugs nipped at their skin as the sound of crocodiles slipping into the river came to their ears. The tall river grass swayed in the night breeze coming of the deep flowing waters. U'nuwi stopped, carefully parting the cat-tails and pointing to the distance.

Just above the grass-line a pair of gossamer feelers rose. They were almost like feathers with a thick bob at their ends. They ran parallel to the grass tops and swayed back and forth as if scanning the horizon.

Suddenly they stopped, then swung quickly until they pointed in the direction of the men. Pontus instinctively motioned for his companions to get down. The men did so without hesitation. A moment later, the beast rose.

The wurm seemed to stand on its back legs, raising its flat head and shoulders above the grass. Its smooth, moist skin glistened in the starlight, a deep blue with iridescent strips running down its back. Fans of short tentacles splayed out on the beast’s shoulders, each of a darker, richer color than its surrounding skin. They flared for a moment then settled back against its arms. Its head was armored, a thick light gray plate, with sunken spots for its eyes giving the visual warped impression of a skull. The four small tentacles that surrounded its mouth like mandibles twitched, seemingly tasting the air. It turned fully to face the men, and stood there for a long time. Finally, the creature lowered itself and walked away though the tall grass, its long, whip-like tail extending sky-wards.

Pontus waited until it was barely visible before motioning to Lucius to send out ‘found’ and ‘come here’ beats. The soldiers followed and their ranks slowly swelled. And, after two days and nights of marching, without fail, the creature lead them right back to the hive.

It was huge; the hive mound stretched for three acres and rose to nearly 10 stories in places. All the trees and brush that would normally be surrounding that place had long since been cleared, leaving only short, dry grasses as far as the eye could see. Worker beasts crawled in and out, all over, piling dirt and removing filth to a huge open pit. Around the whole complex a thick line was burnt into the earth, a pale.

The workers seemed different than the beast they had tracked. Smaller, yet longer, their legs splayed out and lower to the ground. Their coloring ranging from greens to blues. Their heads were longer, tails thicker. And those strange tentacle fans on the shoulders and extending down the tail were absent.

“They look like a cross between a crocodile and a sea cucumber,” Pontus muttered.

The moment the soldier’s feet touched the ground within the pale all the workers stopped. A chittering cry bellowed forth and they all scurried underground, closing up the entrances behind them.

Yet above near the base of a tall earthen tower, sat the first wurm. The sheen of his deep blue skin glowing in the afternoon light. It sat watching them, the beast’s long tail curled around its long, lanky legs. Waiting.

“I don’t like this, sir.” U'nuwi said under his breath. “That monster knows we’re here. Why did it lead us back to its nest?”

“Maybe you should ask that after we get the children back,” Pontus replied.

“How do we proceed, sir?” Lucius’ voice was firm.

Pontus scratched his chin.

“What did your village do with a hive, U'nuwi?”
U'nuwi frowned.

“We set a fire, killed any who emerged.”

“We can’t well smoke them out, that’ll kill the children,” Lucius said.

“Maybe it would be better that way,” U'nuwi replied.

Lucius grabbed U'nuwi’s shoulder and spun him round.

“Say that again,” he snapped.

“Calm yourselves!” Pontus’ vine-staff came down suddenly between the two men. “You both have your reasons. Let’s move on.” Lucius backed off.

“Everyone,” Pontus barked “Surround the hive, make sure none escape. Lucius, U'nuwi, we’re going in.”
As they climbed the mound, the wurm that had patiently waited for them disappeared into a tunnel. Their odd guide always seemed one step ahead of them, just out of striking distance. Yet, when they turned a corner, or fell behind, the creature was there, sitting, waiting.

When the wurm walked, its legs were straight, and carried under its belly. Yet its hind legs seemed longer than its front, giving the beast a swayed back as its rear was hiked higher than its shoulders. It had a smooth gait, accented by the tail that swung freely just above the ground. Instead of pads or fingers and toes, both its hands and feet ended in more fans of five tentacles each. They seemed stubbier, thicker than the fans on its shoulders or tail, and stretched and contracted as it walked along the tunnel.

The air got thicker, more humid the deeper they went. Every now and again, a worker poked its head out onto their pathway, only to have it lopped off and left behind. Suddenly, their guide raised its tail and touched the tunnel’s ceiling. It continued walking with that same loping gait as a swarm of soldier-beasts pushed past and over, charging Pontus and his men.

These new beast’s heads were huge, with great solid mandibles snapping. All along their backs were two rows of those short, stubby tentacles. Only this time they were contracted fully back revealing spines, dripping with slime.

“Don’t touch those spines!” U'nuwi shouted. “They’re poisoned!”

“Would have liked to have known that sooner,” Pontus spat and he set his hasta butt into the ground, leveling its tip at the oncoming charge. The wurms broke upon the hasta barricade until the sound of wooden shafts cracking rang in the men’s ears. The creatures screamed as they died, a low echoing, unearthly sound that they felt more than heard. Their warm blood hissed as it hit the earth around the men.

Lucius bellowed as one of the beasts latched its massive mandible onto his left arm, then body-slammed him into the tunnel wall, one of the creature’s spines scoring him along his side. A moment later, U'nuwi’s spatha decapitated the beast, freeing his comrade’s arm. Lucius convulsed, his eyes rolled, blood and foam spewed from the corners of his mouth.

U'nuwi pulled Lucius back.

“Centurion, we need to retreat,” he yelled.

“No.” Pontus snapped, his spatha taking another beast’s head.

“Sir…” U'nuwi stopped, as he realized the horde they faced was acting sluggish. They crawled slower the closer to the men they got, their bodies twitching, until they fell over, foam streaming from their mouthes. Deep scratches marred their soft sides and belly, blood and puss oozing from the wounds.

Just ahead, and from where the fighting beasts had come from, stood their guide. Its tail still touched the ceiling, making it easier for the men to spot it, and every tentacle fan along its back contracted, exposing the poisoned barb within. When no more of the beasts appeared, it covered its spines then sat.



“Not immune to your comrade’s poison?” Pontus sneered at a twitching creature that had collapsed near his feet. He set about beheading every single one of beasts.

Once that gruesome task was complete, Pontus crawled over the bodies to U'nuwi and Lucius.

“How is he?”

Lucius groaned as his body calmed down. He blinked, then tried to sit up while wiping the spittle from his mouth.

“He doesn’t look so good, sir.” U'nuwi replied.

“Feels like I was struck by lightning.” Lucius hissed and rolled over slightly. “Give me a moment to find my bearings again.”

Pontus laughed.

“Pride of the Empire you are! Joking aside, you look like shit.”

“I feel like shit, sir,” Lucius replied. His eyes were shot, and tears streamed down his face, his tanned, olive skin pale even in the dim light of the tunnel. He rolled over and threw up.

“Can you stand?” Pontus asked extending a hand. Lucius took it. With help, he rose unsteadily to his feet.

The three turned and looked down the ichor-stained tunnel.

“Only way out is through, sir” Lucius said, leaning against U'nuwi.

As they crawled over the bodies, their guide was off again. Soon, their path opened up into a giant chamber. The cavern was at least three stories tall and could fit an entire insula inside. Branching off in several different directions were other tunnels that workers were streaming into and out of. And in the center, surround by all types was the hive’s queen.

She was huge, taking up most of the space of the room. Elongated and bloated, she bore no legs at all. Instead she was more like an overfed serpent, not quite able to coil itself up. Yet, in her own way, she was elegant and beautiful, with frills like gossamer wings and unearthly iridescent threads streaming from her back and dancing in the circulating air currents. Her skin glowed a pale blue as if she had been carved from a giant pearl.

White elongated eggs the size of a man’s fist littered the room around her. Workers were desperately trying to pick them up and leave with them as fast as they could, some carrying two or three at a time. Others, that looked more like their guide, surrounded the queen, pushing her, trying to get her to move, but to no avail. She was just too massive.

Her head rose as the men entered the room, her antenna swiveling towards them. A moment later she turned to their guide, her eyes glaring. The guide made a sound something akin to a chuckle. It was hoarse, and deep, and ill formed.

The Queen screamed then convulsed, her tail end whipped out and slammed the guide into the far wall. He slid down and crumpled into a heap. But the sound of his ‘laughter’ continued.

U'nuwi placed Lucius against the wall then turned back to the room. Together with Pontus, they charged.

The grand room became a bloodbath. Even Lucius did his part while leaning against the far wall, spearing those who would try to flee past him. When at last the queen expired, her ichor filled the room up to the men’s ankles.

The last three beasts that died fell under Pontus’ blade while trying to guard a small side room. Inside the children were huddled, dirty and bloodied but whole. Leaning against his hasta, Lucius hobbled over to the room. His pale, worn face lit up as his daughter came running out, arms wide to give him a hug. He slid down the wooden shaft until he knelt in the blood, his own good arm wrapped around the girl. She burst into tears.

“Papa!” she cried. “I wanna go home.”

“Are you alright?” he asked, letting her go just enough so that he could stoke her face.

She looked at him, her little brow furrowed.

“My tummy hurts,” she replied. “Lots.” She clutched at her stomach through her tattered dress.

“Did they feed you?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“It’s been three days, you’re all probably really hungry.” Lucius rose as best he could. “Come along, we have food and water outside.”

On the other side of the carnage, U'nuwi stood with his hasta pointing at the beast who had guided them. It still lay on the ground, but its head was held high, its throat exposed. U'nuwi adjusted the grip on his shaft, yet backed off slightly from the monster.

The beast picked itself up off the ground then stood on its hind legs until it towered even over U'nuwi. It glared at him.

“U’nubi?” he asked tentatively, yet never letting his grip on his hasta loosen.

The Beast suddenly hissed as it contracted all of its tentacles until every poisoned spine was visible. It hissed and lunged forward, forelegs spread wide. U'nuwi braced his hasta. Before the beast could connect, Pontus’ vine-staff came down hard on the crook of the beast’s neck.

It crumpled again to the ground.

“Huh, that worked,” Pontus snorted. “This beast obviously lead us here for a reason. Letting it live seems fare payment enough for betraying its own kind.”

“So you’re going to let it go?” U'nuwi asked.

“Not even.” Pontus tapped the vine-staff against his shoulder. “It’s our prisoner now. If it behaves, our watch gets a new mascot. If it doesn’t, I’ll sell it to the Colosseum. They’d love a beast like this for the games.”

“You’re going to need to ‘declaw’ it, sir. That poison is nasty.”

Pontus nodded.

“For now, tie it up. We need to head out.”

Hunt's End

Once they had regrouped with the rest of the watch, they set the hive ablaze. Hundreds of creature’s corpses killed by the rest of the watch were thrown onto the fire. Lucius, with his left arm splinted, stood beside Pontus and U'nuwi as they watched the bonfire from afar. Lucius’ daughter clung to his leg. Idly, he ran his thick fingers though her long curly dark hair.

“Do you think we got to the children in time?” he asked, never taking his gaze off the fires spewing from inside and all around the mound.

“I think so,” U'nuwi replied. “I do not see how we could have gotten to them any faster.”

“We’ll check with the oracles just in case.” Pontus took a swig from his wine skin. “They will know for certain. Once that’s taken care of, we’ll return them to their homes.”

U'nuwi nodded.

“Hear that, Lumeria?” Lucius said, looking down sweetly at his daughter. “We’re going home. No more monsters.”

She nodded and smiled at him as one hand still clung to his leg, the other clutched the cloth in front of her belly.