The crust of Vitus's face did not hurt, still paralysed as it was from Mergen's poultice. This was little comfort as beneath the slack skin lay many rich layers of pain. Tingling bruises bonded the numbness on the surface to the deep ache of his muscles, already swelling. They in turn were just padding around the nail of lancing agony that had been driven into his nose. It was broken. Again. Vitus had a lot of experience with broken bones but his nose was particularly susceptible. Not because his septum was especially brittle but because he lead a life where he got hit in the face a lot. At some point he had rolled on to his back and now he squinted up at the dappled lace of a tree canopy, a bright sun shining beyond it.
"Oh great." He mumbled though his aching jaw. "You've bloody shrunk us."
In the time honoured tradition of injured men, he lifted a hand and prodded the bit that hurt most. This, of course, caused more spikes of pain. He winced and looked at the giant tree to his side. Its trunk was vast, with solid buttresses anchoring it to the ground. It stretched so far above him that the only possible explanation was that Mergen's magic had once again misfired. He was a babe in arms laid at the foot of the towering plant. He must have shrunk. A groan at his other side caused him to turn that way, a move protested by his neck. At his side Laima was forcing herself on to all fours. At least she had shrunk too, Vitus thought, there was a dozen lifetimes of jokes about her height that he would have had coming back to him otherwise.
Beyond the unsteady Dwarf the other members of their band were scattered about a clearing, a carpet of brown mulch clinging to them as they tried to get to their feet. In their centre, heaving quick breaths, stood a single Davara. Vitus did not like the set of its body, it spoke of an animal readiness and hunger. Its hands were bent like eagle talons, the tiny clawed fingers in predatory rictus. The sight gave Vitus the motivation he needed to get to his feet. His head was reeling, not just from the impact but from the scale of the jungle around them. The tree, whose roots cupped the clearing, was not alone. Everything about them had grown on the same colossal scale. They had not shrunk after all. He lurched back, placing a hand on the smooth bark to steady himself. He pointed at the Davara.
"I think we'd better give that thing some space, you lot."
The rest of his companions, battered but not as smashed as himself, followed his finger groggily. Mergen squealed.
"He's on the cards. Don't let him have the cards."
The five friends closed on the creature like a drunken circle of dancers, lowering themselves to pick Nexi cards from the earth around it. A couple had been retrieved before they realised their mistake. The Davara hissed and span, raking his claws at their eye level. Elnin jerked clear. Hasper pulled Mergen to one side. Without Elven reflexes Laima and Vitus both caught a bloody scrape across the face, triple lines of scarlet suddenly livid on their cheeks.
"Ow... Feck!" Laima shouted, producing a knife from nowhere. "That bloody does it!"
She jumped forward, murderously jabbing at the creature. It dodged easily then darted back at her, it's ichor thick jaws wide. It would have sunk them into her neck had Hasper's boot not kicked it neatly in the head, throwing it across the clearing towards some giant ferns.
"Creepy bloody things." He spat. "Where are the others?"
His sister had retrieved her bow and already had an arrow notched, sighting on the Davara which crouched warily.
"Don't think they came through." She told him.
Mergen was ignoring everyone,scrabbling to gather the rest of the cards. Vitus checked around them, still overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the foliage.
"Looks that way from here. Maybe that's why this one's all pissed off."
Elnin shot the arrow. There was no missing or dodging from that range so she was totally unprepared when the Davara did just that, jumping back among the group. Vitus, somewhat belatedly, began grappling his gladius out of its sheath. Before he could free it the demon had clawed at Hasper's leg, cutting deep through his breeches. The Elf screamed and stumbled back, his sister notching another arrow and trying to get between him and the Davara. Laima swiped at the creature's blind side, but it caught her wrist without even turning round.
"What the..?" She said before the creature twisted it painfully, throwing her to the ground. It released her to move out of the way of Elnin's second shot. Then it tried to get past her, clearly still intent on Hasper. Vitus was there, but no match for its speed, slashing at empty air. Hasper was quicker though, and managed to sidestep its charge. He booted the creature in its bare arse, sending it rolling forward into the big tree.
"Take that you little shit." He called at its back.
"I don't think you want to wind it up any more than it is already." Vitus advised, circling right, with the tip of his sword tracking the hissing beast.
"Bollocks." Hasper retorted, his blood clearly up. "I've got the measure of this thing. Two of those rubies you keep stashed in your jockstrap says I can take it down before it can get another blow in."
"There's only one set of jewels in my britches, and you'll not be getting your hands on those thank you." Vitus said thickly, his split lips trying to smile.
"In that pouch round your neck then. Don't pretend you don't know the ones I mean."
The two were moving further apart, flanking the Davara as it rolled its weighty head from side to side. Elnin notched another arrow and knelt. Laima began to drag Mergen out of her line of fire as he scraped up the last, leaf spattered, cards.
"Fine. Two rubies it is."
Elnin let fly the shaft and Vitus slashed forward at the same time. Neither attack found its mark. The Davara simply ran up the tree as if it were a flat yard then sprang away, tumbling through the air to land in front of a surprised Hasper. Its fangs crunched into his left leg and the creature began to worry at the meat like a prize pitbull. Hasper pounded fruitlessly at its back, howling with pain the whole time. His sister came forward, getting sprayed in an arc of blood as the demon shook it's head loose, swallowed a chunk of leg, and went back in on the bone. She jabbed an arrow in to the Davara's back but it snapped with no effect. In a louder echo of the shaft, Hasper's shin broke in two. His attacker spat splinters to one side and continued devouring at the wound. Vitus landed a solid blow against its bald head, leaving little more than a red welt on the pale skin. He drew back, trying to find a good angle while Hasper shifted and fought. Then Mergen was there, throwing a handful of petals at the pair. Steam hissed up where the tiny blue blossoms touched the Davara and the creature flinched. It looked up from its meal. Mergen muttered a few words of magic and flung another fistful. The Davara backed away, dragging Hasper by his flimsily attached leg. It could not get far enough to avoid the new flurry and shielded its crystal eyes as the petals landed with acidic bursts. Unwilling to withstand another assault, the demon yanked hard at Hasper's leg, pulling it clean off below the left knee. Tossing the limb away it raced for the tree, sprinting so far up its trunk that the band could not see which branch it had darted behind.
Elnin tried to hush her brother's sobbing, his eyes wide with pain and shock. Mergen was already digging through his bag for another potion. Vitus and Laima, through unspoken agreement born of so many years together, took up station at the base of the tree, watchful and grim.
"He's out. Let's get the hell out of here."
"To where?" Laima said, not taking her eyes off the tree.
"Anywhere that thing isn't." Elnin answered. Vitus was inclined to agree with her.
"Okay, take Hasper and go first. Laima next. Mergen with me in case our friend tries to follow. We'll bring up the rear. Let's just get a bit of distance between us and then we can take turns punching you, Mergen."
"What? I just saved Hasper's life. What did I do?"
"Does this look like a city of flipping gold to you?" Vitus gestured at the tree.
Mergen muttered a confirmation that indeed it did not.
"Right. Then there’s my smashed up face and Hasper's come off even worse. I think I'm going to punch you on principal alone. If you know what's good for you you'll take it too."
Not wanting to antagonise the centurion Mergen said nothing. Elnin began to shuffle away, her twig light brother over one shoulder.
"Bring his leg with you." She called.
"Really?” Vitus protested.
"Really." She said as they began to force their way through the undergrowth.
"Out with it then." Vitus said to Mergen as they shuffled away from the Elf. "What happened? What went wrong this time?"
"Nothing." Mergen's voice was shrill with protest. "It all went right. I have no doubt the city we seek is very close. Very close." He nodded to himself and looked about as if, any moment, they would spy a golden door between the fronds that boxed them in.
"It could be fifty feet away and we wouldn't know. Isn't there something you can do with your flaming cards?"
"The Alu has taken us to the other side of our world in a heartbeat. We will have to manage the last few miles on our own. Surely you do not begrudge that?"
"I begrudge having my nose broken." Vitus shoved his face closer to Mergen's, pointing at the swollen mess. "I'm pretty sure Hasper is chock full of begrudement at the moment too."
Mergen tensed. Clearly expecting the punch Vitus had promised. The Roman sighed and Mergen's shoulders dropped. His guard down, Vitus struck him in the nose. The mage started to hop around, clutching his face.
"You bastard!" He said from behind his hands. "Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard."
"What?" Vitus looked offended. "It's not like I didn't warn you. Besides, it was barely more than a slap. Don't be a baby."
Mergen dropped his hands, a trickle of blood ran down from one nostril, but it was clear the blow had been far less than Vitus was capable of.
"Feel better now?" He asked the smiling centurion.
"Believe it or not. Yes. You'd think I'd be over the petty impulses these days, but you know what? Sometimes it seems like the longer I live, the more important it is to salve my vengefulness. It's done now." He patted Mergen on his broad shoulders. "Now we can move on, nothing festering. See? No bad blood."
Mergen wiped away what must therefore be good blood on his sleeve.
"Is it my turn?" Laima called from where her and Elnin were digging. Mergen's eyebrows tried to leap off his bald head in indignation but Vitus chuckled.
"Don't worry, Mergen. That one was for all of us."
"Speak for yourself. " Laima said quietly as she turned back to her task.
"I sometimes wonder why I travel with you children." The wizard dismayed.
"Because you can't find your arse with both hands a lot of the time. Plus, just like the rest of us children, you'd get bored on your own."
Mergen, following tradition, pinched his sore nose to confirm it really did hurt.
"Look. If we can get some readings from the stars we can at least work out where we are. The city should have been East of where we arrived."
Vitus looked sceptically at the patch of dusk. "Think you'll be able to get enough from just that?"
The wizard waved his hand. "I have gotten more from less. Do you not remember the Persian galley we shared? A porthole no bigger than my fist and I..."
"Ready. " Laima interrupted.
Vitus nodded to her and went to drag Hasper to his feet. Well, his foot at least. Mergen followed them on to the tiny mound which Elnin was patting down.
"Thanks." Vitus whispered to Laima. "He was about to go full flow there."
She gave a tight lipped smile to show she had known so, then peered up at Hasper. The Elf was staring, forlorn, at the mound.
"You want to say something, sweetie?"
Hasper's jaw was thrust forward, his cheeks sucked in as he struggled to control burgeoning tears. He nodded and straightened as best he could.
"It was a good leg. My left leg."
The tight semi-circle of friends regarded the mound. Each adopting their most sombre expression. Hasper took a deep breath, letting it out with a soft moan.
"I've never been much of one for funerals." He shook his head and blew out again. "It was a good leg. My left leg."
Laima smirked. Hasper shot her a deathly glance.
"Sorry. Sorry." She held up a hand. "Of course. Was it... er... your favourite leg then?" She asked innocently.
His eyes narrow, Hasper looked back at the mound.
"One cannot have favourites of course, but I have often been complemented on my calves. Now without this fine leg, sacrificed so that I might save my friends." He looked pointedly at Laima who nodded, jaw muscles twitching. “Without this fine leg I may never hear such compliments again."
"It was a fine leg." Mergen assured the Elf. "As fine as a man, or Elf, could want." He clenched his fist. "Strong. Loyal. A fighting leg when it was called for, a dancing leg whenever chance came to it."
Hasper was nodding, his pouting lips trembling. Vitus waggled his head a few times, signalling to Mergen that he should continue. Mergen looked lost as he did so.
"It was a leg unique among... er... limbs. Not a right leg." Laima smirked again. Mergen continued louder. "Not a right leg but a left leg. Left. Gauche. Izquierda. Sinister."
"Yep." Laima managed, her throat tight. "That was a bloody sinister leg. Right there."
Vitus crumbled, his laugh shaking through to Hasper who leant on him. The Elf shook his lank hair in disgust.
His sister threw her hands in the air.
"Oh come on Hasper. It's not the end of the world. You'll grow another bloody leg." She seemed relieved but Hasper just looked more put out.
"Easy for you to say, you don't have to hobble about for a decade or two on one frigging foot."
Elnin shook her head at him. "It won't be that bad. You'll probably get loads of sympathy for it, and it’s a pretty good story. I mean, most people have never even seen a Davara let alone survived an attack by one."
"I suppose," he sulked. She patted his arm.
"It doesn't make you any less of a man."
"Well." Laima started, picking up her friend's feed line. "Maybe just a teensy bit."
Vitus, only just having got his chuckle under control started to snort again. Even Mergen looked away to hide his smile.
"You bloody lot." Hasper said angrily. "I've just lost my sodding leg. Can we not show a bit of respect and maturity for five pissing minutes?"
"No need to get hopping mad." Mergen delivered dryly. That was it for Vitus, he had to wave Elnin over to take her brother’s weight as the he doubled over.
"It’d be entertaining to watch him try." Mergen smiled.
Elnin was biting her lip in amused pity for her brother, who was getting red in the face.
"You're just a bald git and a drunken little cave digger." Hasper blurted.
"Well that being what I am then you've nothing to worry about. You can come and get legless with me."
Hasper fumed at her, then sagged, a weak smile spreading on his pale face "I'm never going to bring you to heel am I ?"
Laima patted him on the side. "That's the spirit. Think of the money you'll save on shoes!"
"Gods. I needed that." He too slapped Hasper, almost unbalancing him. "Sorry about your leg though Hasper."
"Yeah, yeah. Go and get some firewood you insincere oaf. I don't want the little git sneaking up in the dark for seconds."
"Good point. Let's try and clear some of the nearest scrub as well. It'll make for a comfy bed for whoever's not on watch. Mergen, you get your stuff ready. Fix a course we can use come morning. We're here now, so we'd best get on with making the most of it."
The others nodded and set about their tasks. Elnin lowered her brother gently so she could help fight a few feet more from the all-consuming jungle.