Running like Hell was inglorious, but we don’t care about glory in my House. There are times when the line needs to hold, and there are times when standing your ground is just a pointless sacrifice. Generally, it wasn’t my call as to what time it was. After the Tempest, though, it was pretty clear the hour had grown far too late for good work to be done. Time to head home, on your feet or in a box.
Achlys and I weren’t just tearing through the forest randomly. There’s method, even in failure. We were hiking for Heartfoam. It was the rally point for this theater. It had a strong Aegis, supplies, and either re-enforcements or commands to rally elsewhere. It wasn’t an orderly withdrawal, but for the two of us, it wasn’t a rout either. We came close: we’d avoided the enemy for six hours when our luck ran out.
I think she saw it first: a huge serpent head, emerging from the trees ahead of us. If it had waited another five minutes, we would have been dead. I remember thinking that there was no way it should have caught up to us. The Diedne forces had splintered in the chase. The fastest elements, mostly fliers, were the soonest to catch fleeing magi, and so they were the first to stop chasing. The thing ahead of us wasn’t meant ot be be quick.
“Do we go around?” I yelled.
“No. It must be faster than us. The only way out..” and she smiled in a tired sort of way.
“…is through.” I finished. I readied my first spell, and Achlys, who was faster on the uptake than me, flung poison mist at its face. The mist didn’t kill it, but it did defoliate the tree it was standing underneath. I’d already guessed, but she shouted “Testudohydra!” to make sure I’d noticed that it had five heads, and could crush us with its elephantine legs.
Illusions don’t really cut it in these situations, but I could tilt things in our favour. Achlys wouldn’t want to dip her Parma at a time like this, so I couldn’t make her invisible. If I made myself invisible the chances were good she’s and I would trip each other up. Time for a simple trick.
“Eyes down!” I called, and cast The Alpine Blindness. It floods an area with species, overwhelming the eyes of all nearby. I loved it in combat because species are natural: the magic resistance of monsters like the hydra doesn’t protect them from it at all. Some creatures don’t care much, but I was hoping that since it had ten eyes, this would really wreck its nerves.
The creature screamed and charged at us, but it clearly couldn’t see where it was going. It was shaking its heads, little sideways convulsions. As it came towards us, I broke left and Achlys broke right. I expected her to lay down a pit trap, and so I drove a coach nail through one of its eyes. The thing about two heads growing back if you cut one off is perfectly true, and yes, fire is the Herculean way through the riddle. It turns out that piercing weapons work too, in a fashion.
Achlys did try a pit trap, but not on the creature. She’d spotted a human figure further back in the woodland, and had dropped the pit under him. That’s how the creature had caught us: it had a handler, and the druid was able to move it rapidly using magic. The druid had missed his chance at an ambush because he was snowblind, and would be for a few minutes. His Parma seemed to be holding, and he was trying to get some area spells to take out Achlys, but Sight ranged spells don’t work when you can’t see. She was probably the weaker magus, but she had momentum.
Their little duel basically left me alone with the hydra, so when I had the chance, I drove another nail into another head. At this point I should have cast an illusion and fallen back, to draw the hydra away. I didn’t want to lose contact with Achlys, though, and things seemed to be going well, so I held my ground and slammed home another coach nail. Three heads hung limply and I prepared to finish the beast off.
The remaining two heads whipped around and chewed through the necks of two I’d destroyed. As this was happening I drove another coach nail home, but it was too late. The creature sprinted toward me, presumably following my scent. It was only slightly slower than a running man. You can’t flee at that pace and keep casting spells, so I stood still and kept launching nails. As it came, blisters that had formed on the severed stumps of its necks bloated out into fully formed heads. Their eyes were fresh.
I tried to puncture its heart. I drove three nails into its chest, making it a pulpy mass, but it wasn’t enough. The creature caught me. I didn’t see the strike. I only knew it had happened when I lost my balance.
I looked down at the huge fanged, scaly head, wrapped around my leg and thought “So, that’s what death looks like.” As I come from a family of necromancers. I’d tried not to think about my own death, but I’d failed. This was less painful than I’d expected. I felt the bone break and, as the creature worried it, my lower leg came away in its mouth. It had dragged me up a little, and so when my leg was torn away, I felt myself fall backward.
The spell I improvised doesn’t make much sense. I’ve talked to some Criamon magi since and they say I was casting through the Arcane connection that links severed parts of the body. Some Tytalus magi have told me that I tapped into a deep mystery of our ancestral necromantic cult, and called forth a death curse. In my delirium, as shock claimed me, I forced all of my despair at my imminent demise into my very flesh, demanding it become sour and poisonous. In my final act, I called the powers of magic to make my corpse a weapon to choke my enemies.
The hydra spat out my leg and waddled up the slope toward Achlys. Presumably its master had called it. I crawled over its tracks, perhaps two dozen feet, and hugged my leg to my chest. It was covered in stomach acid, and it burned me, but I clung to it as the grey clouds on the edge of my field of vision filled my eyes.
I knew nothing until I woke in Heartfoam.