Three Beast Kings

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Escaping the Hive

Junya awoke to the whole world shaking. The moment he regained consciousness he began to choke, the air thick with smoke and soot, startlingly hot, burning his throat. His whole body felt weird, stinging like pins and needles all over. What had happened? Where was he? His skull was pounding where he had been cracked on the head, adding to his disorientation. He had been knocked out – Why? What had happened then?

Reality hit him hard. The corpse in the chair, the insect king.... oh dear lord... The world shook again, snapping him away from his horror. Where was he? In a building? It was almost pitch black, except for a familiar orange glow that it took his sore head a moment for place. Something was on fire! No, everything was on fire! He knew immediately that he was still in the hive, and that the gorillas had arrived to burn the place down. But not with him in it!

He leapt to his feet, ignoring how weird he felt and what he sincerely hoped wasn't a skinned body in the corner, and ran for the exit, not even noticing that what he had been in was a house, its beams and wattle starting to steam and smoke as the heat caused it to combust from within. The dirt of the tunnel was blisteringly hot, scorching his feet as he ran desperately, trying not to choke on the acrid, smoke filled air.

Which way he ran through the dark and smoke, he couldn't say. For how far, how long, was impossible to know in the featureless mine. He just ran, lungs heaving and burning from the ash. He couldn't see through the smog, stumbling against the blistering dirt that was baking the tunnels to fine pottery. Where was the way out?! One of those holes he saw from the outside – he only needed one!

The whole mountain shuddered, tunnels collapsing, rocks falling to the ground. Junya wasn't sure if he screamed – he couldn't hear anything over the groaning of the dirt all around him, the encroaching roar of the flames, the far off yelling of the soldiers. He stumbled, fell, regained his balance and just kept running.

The wall behind him exploded. He was thrown back by the force of it, landing painfully on his side and knocking the wind right out of him. As he struggled to get his breath back, with the sound of a shrill, bestial screech it was clear what made the wall explode.

The insect that scratched out was enormous, bringing half the mountain down around it as it moved – it made that great cicada look like a cuddly grub in comparison, all round and friendly. This one looked like a giant stag beetle, all horns and angles and jagged edges and those two giant spiky mandibles sticking out of the front of its head. Where the fuck had this thing been hiding?! It couldn't even move in these tunnels without knocking them down!

And dear God, the noise is made! Its joints cracked and clicked with every movement, its breath rushing out with a great hush akin to a raging waterfall. Its entire body groaned like it was trying to pop out of its shell. How did a thing like this even exist?! It sounded like it was breaking apart where it stood!

Junya froze, relying on the smoke to hide him. The beetle ignored him entirely, perhaps not even able to see him so far below, rounding back to the hole it had created in the wall, and creaked its great jaw apart. Through the haze he heard the deep bellow of a gorilla, roaring right from its gut. He didn't even want to think who it was, the thought to care not even crossing his mind.

The stag dashed back through the hole, sending more dirt careening down. Junya didn't hang around to watch, leaving the screams and roars to the smoke and running as fast as his legs could carry him in the opposite direction, the adrenaline pulsing through his veins stopping him from feeling the agony of his bad leg or the blistering soles of his feet, black and red and bleeding, overcome with panic. Blinded by the smoke, he stumbled through, reaching out his hands desperately for some kind of anchor, something he could focus on.

The ground disappeared. Junya's stomach was seconds behind the rest of his body, leaping up into his throat as he recalled the tunnels that went straight down into the earth... It fell back into place as he hit the dry dirt, immediately falling, losing all balance and rolling forward, rolling down, down the hill.

Down the hill! The air was cold, frigid next to the baked earth. It was fresh! The smoke disappeared, up into the sky above. He was outside! Junya couldn't dwell on how clean the sky was, how good the cold air felt on his lungs and against his skin, but was trying desperately to stop his free-fall on the loose rocks. He found no anchor, no deep rooted plants or steady boulders to catch him as he plummeted, the sharp stones tearing his flesh and embedding into his tortured feet.

He scratched desperately at the rocks and dirt as he felt his hands meet them, tried to straighten his legs to brace himself, slow himself down, steady himself. Something snapped. Pain spread through his whole being.

He stopped falling. The ground levelled. Junya was overcome with pain, whole body still tingling, bloody and bruised from the fall. He wanted to just lie here, catch his haggard breath as his ribs ached desperately, but the charred earth was still blisteringly hot. He'd burn to death if he laid here, cook like meat on a griddle.

He nearly screamed from the pain as he dragged himself up, reforming his broken limbs into some kind of shape resembling a body. He knew he was injured, but it felt like it was everywhere. He managed to struggle up, gasping at the pain in his feet, and stand, leaning on his good leg. The moment he put weight on his bad leg he buckled, falling back to the ground and screaming from the agony.

He looked back: his leg was broken, tearing through the skin. He whimpered, not able to breathe as pain and shock coursed through him.

The mountain exploded. Dirt and boulders showered down, slamming into the ground with massive force, smoking from the heat or even on fire. They sky went black as the great stag emerged, legs scrambling desperately at the dirt to free itself from the hive. Junya let out a pathetic noise, having no words to describe his utter helplessness. The stag looked even bigger outside the confines of the mountain.

It tore free its front end, throwing up its shell and breaking out its wings, the act of spreading them slow and grand like creeping doom. One was immediately lopped off, the stag screaming in agony as it fell away. Junya could just make out a black speck on its hide, a streak of sickly orange blood fly from the wound, the flash of a weapon in the light. The stag started to fall.

Fall down. Fall towards him! Panic overruled the pain, and Junya leapt to his feet, slipping on the loose rocks as he sprinted away from the mountain. He didn't stop, he didn't look around, the roar of the wind as the thing fell deafening everything for miles round.

Junya just made it to the tree line when the gargantuan beetle hit the ground, the shock-wave sending him flying into the solid trunk of a centuries-old hardwood. He felt his ribs break from the impact, blood springing from his unprepared mouth. He coughed desperately, falling to his knees. The sturdy trunk held fast, supporting him as he wretched, coughing up more blood.

The body of the insect moved, its creaking reverberating through the ruined mountain. The fall hadn't killed it! It writhed, its joints clacking, one leg breaking clear off and falling to the ground with a terrible thud. It gnashed its mandibles, spinning its head around as it tried to roll itself back onto its remaining legs.

It stopped. It noticed him. Those soulless black eyes fixed on him, peering around its ludicrous jaws. They stared at each other, both too paralysed by pain to move. It clicked its jaws, making a pitiful noise. Junya had no sympathy. Panic and pain had killed it all. Adrenalin pounded through him still, the beating of his heart drowning out all the sound. For a moment, the only movement was the breeze.

The moment ended. The beetle sprung up suddenly, using its shell to flip itself over. Junya bolted into the trees, not stopping to notice the troupe of gorillas, bloody and scorched, pounce on the beast, hacking at its limbs and driving harpoons deep into its shell. He heard it scream, its mandibles slicing through the tree tops as it struggled.

Junya didn't wait, didn't look around. The forest quickly grew thick, the canopy blocking out the light. Ancient trees stood immovable, trunks entwined with vines and bracken that tore at his flesh. He didn't feel the pain any more. He didn't notice the dangerous lack of air in his suffering lungs, didn't hear his name being called in panic and desperation over the clacks and wretched hissing of that heinous creature.

The briers got thicker, creating an almost impassable wall of age-old vines and jagged edges. He struggled through them, not feeling them pull, not noticing them break off and tangle in his hair, tear at his tortured skin. They ended abruptly, the sudden lack of resistance causing him to fall to the ground. He coughed from the shock, blood falling to the ground, not able to stop himself convulsing.

Whole body shaking, he forced himself up to look around: he was in a clearing of some kind, forest of thorns kept in place by a battered wooden fence. The gap in the canopy allowed the light to grace the the centre of the clearing, revealing a building almost entirely intact. Junya could have cried: it was a temple, small and simple and made of wood.

All thought left Junya's mind, childish instinct taking over. He couldn't walk any more. He practically crawled across the clearing, the dirt stinging the wounds on his hands, broken leg dragging heavily. He still didn't hear his name being called, even as it got louder, the hacking and slashing of the thorns being cut away growing closer.

He crawled up the wooden stairs, broken fingers leaving bloody smears on the neglected sliding doors as he pulled them apart, crawling inside and just collapsing down on the floor. The dust was rife in the stale air, but it smelled like old parchment, incense and home. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. He hurt.

Outside, sabres and machetes met the rotting wood of the fence, hacking larger the gap Junya had fallen through. Zuberi threw the vines aside in disgust, grimacing from the blood dripping into his eye from the deep cut on his head. He held himself carefully, knowing his bones were broken, that he was probably bleeding internally.

He was still panting from the fight, the effort of breaking through the forest taking the last of his strength. He couldn't call out – he couldn't find his voice, the taste and feel of blood dripping from his nose and down his mouth taking it away. Looking around the clearing, he saw the disturbed ground, where something injured had clearly drug itself along. He saw the open door of the temple, the fresh blood, the shadow of a body inside.

Behind him, another body stumbled through the bracken, limping on its borken foot.

“Zuberi,” Mpendwa called, still breathless herself, holding her aching side “Any sign of her?”

The Gorilla King took another look around, taking everything in. He took a moment to think, then sighed deeply, shaking his head.

“I only smell wolf.” he said “Something was here, but not her.”

Mpendwa looked distraught, exhausted, but nodded.

“Okay.” was all she said, turning around to join the rest of the troop in the search.

Zuberi looked around again, lingering on the barely visible body. With a wearied grunt, he turned his back on the temple, limping back into the forest.

Junya couldn't stop crying. The adrenaline was ebbing, and he could finally feel the pain. He was broken, and bleeding, and heavy. So very heavy. Everything was so very dark. So dark. He was tired. He would just rest his eyes. Just rest for a while.

He fell away, everything going black.

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