Chapter 8 Hograths
Mr. Anderson cast a backward glance as they cleared the treetops and saw that the fairies were already making their way into the dark forest headed for the black mountains. He felt a little stronger, a little better now that they were in the air. He didn’t think about it too much, as he had much more on his mind, like hanging on to the Lefty and keeping his knees clamped onto the giant bird he and the fire master were riding.
“Keep your eyes open,” he shouted.
“What’s that?” Lefty shouted back.
He couldn’t really understand the fire master’s words, and he was sure that Lefty could not hear him either, so he kept his tongue until the bird landed outside of the entrance to a great cavern. A few hograths flew in and out, and they could see a group of them down a ways into the cavern before the pitch blackness took over and they could see nothing. In the center of the group one of the hograths was wiggling and jiggling a little dance that they others could sense by touch.
They slid off the back of the great bird and it again took to the air. Mr. Anderson hoped that it would shuttle more fairies there, so it would not be just the two of them against a whole hive.
“What’s the plan, Sir Dave?” Lefty asked, looking around at all of the wax and deadfall of the decidedly untended forest.
“We need smoke, and lots of it,” Mr. Anderson replied.
“I do fire, not smoke,” Lefty responded dubiously.
“But you can light things on fire that do make smoke. The idea is that we have to get smoke into that cave, and force the hograths to leave.”
“I don’t know that smoke will draw into the cave, even if I lit this great ruddy brush pile right in front of it.”
“Maybe if I move the brush pile,” Mr. Anderson grabbed some of the brush and started dragging it into the cave entrance. A hograth flew over his head, buzzing loudly, and he ducked. He watched it disappear into the wilderness. He then hauled some more brush.
Over the next two or three hours they managed to build a bonfire of brush and damp leaves, half-rotten pine needles and moss just inside the cave entrance and more or less seal up the mouth of the cave with loose rocks and sticks, enough so the smoke would be forced into the cave. “Go ahead and light it,” Mr. Anderson instructed Lefty.
“Should we not wait for reinforcements? The rest should be arriving soon.”
“There’s no time, man! Just light the fire!” Mr. Anderson snapped.
“Many folks can light fires, but I am a fire master,” Lefty said, raising his wand. “Watch this.”
A thin beam of light played onto the bottom of the brush pile and a tiny smoldering fire started to crackle. Then he fired a stronger beam into the back of the cave, against a rock wall that was unseen until he lit it up, and soon it started to glow. “The heat of the rock will draw the smoke much more effectively,” he explained.
Pretty soon the cave was filled with smoke, and the hograths started to come out, some of the buzzing angrily, but they seemed to be completely disoriented. Lefty took cover behind an old stump, but Mr. Anderson maintained his position in the mouth of the cave, watching as the exodus of the giant bees started, then they came flooding out, fighting with each other to get to the entrance. He was struck by a number of the giant insects, and he was continuously ducking, but Mr. Anderson never left his position. Soon Lefty plucked up the courage to join him. “What is going on?” he asked.
“Not only can they not breathe,” Mr. Anderson said, “They can’t communicate. They use chemical scents called pheromones for a lot of their communications, and with their receptors blocked with smoke, they can’t talk to each other.” The rush of hograths slowed to a trickle, and Mr. Anderson decided that they had been smoked enough. They cleared enough of the blockage to get into the cave, then started walking carefully. Lefty held his wand high, shining little beams of fairy light. Mr. Anderson reached into his memory and tried to glow again, which finally happened after several tries.
They were able to see enough that they found the giant sheets of honeycomb back down one long tunnel. “Jen? Jen! It’s Daddy! I’m here, honey! Hang on!” he shouted, and his voice reverberated around the cavern.
They both paused and listened. Aside from the buzzing of a couple of tenacious hograths, they could hear nothing. The columns of comb were massive, constructed entirely of a heavy wax and shaped in the familiar honeycomb pattern. They continued walking between the columns, with space in between combs so close that it almost rubbed both shoulders. Mr. Anderson was amazed that creatures so large could fit into a place so small.
They turned a corner and continued walking down the other side of the same column, and from above they heard a voice. “Why have you done this?” the strange voice said. It was not a human voice, or anything that they should have recognized as a voice, a buzzing, clicking sort of sound, that was more imagination than speech. They both looked up, startled. Lefty’s wand went up immediately, but Mr. Anderson put his hand out and grabbed Lefty’s hand, making him lower the wand, as they stared at the queen hograth, a massive creature distinguished from the rest by her massive abdomen that extended the length of a limousine.
“Where are our children?” Mr. Anderson addressed the massive queen.
“Nourishing my children, as is their place in the order of things.”
“I am not from your country, and I know nothing of the order of things. Where I come from that is not the way of nature. Let them go.”
“My attendants have dealt with them. Now they are nothing more than brood food.”
“Now?” Lefty asked, wand at the ready.
“Now,” Mr. Anderson said.
A blowtorch blast of flame hit the queen hograth with such force that she was thrown to the ceiling of the cavern, then fell to the ground with a crash that shook the columns. Her screams of agony could be felt against their skin.
They watched as her body crackled and burned, and a few of the nearby cells of the honeycomb started melting their caps away.
“Thank you!” Gina’s voice shouted, a little muffled from somewhere near the flaming carcass. “But I’m getting very warm. I could use a little help here,” she called.
“Hang on!” Mr. Anderson called back, completely unsure how to move a giant flaming queen hograth out of the way. “Any ideas?” he asked the fire master.
“No,” Lefty responded, staring at the wreck of the queen.
As they were looking at her, she moved, but not under her own power. It was as if she were being picked up by some unseen force. They turned around and saw Princess Nallah right behind them, focusing her wand tightly between them to push the queen out of the way. When the queen was cleared out of the way, without a word they rushed to the cells with the melted caps.
Gina poked her head out of one of the hexagonal cells, covered in slime, and Mr. Anderson grabbed her and helped her out. “Thank you!” she cried, giving him a bear hug.
Nallah poked her head into the cell and saw the giant maggot in the back, obviously dead, with its tooth ringed head ripped clean off, and there was a nasty green fluid pooling around the wormy corpse.
“How did you accomplish this?” Princess Nallah asked, pointing at the dead brood.
Gina shrugged. “He wanted to have a go at me, and I didn’t want to play.”
“Where are the other girls?” Mr. Anderson asked.
“I don’t know. We weren’t exactly together.”
“Queens generally lay their brood next to each other,” Nallah said. Then she started calling. “Miss Julie? Dame Jennifer?”
“Lefty, could you slice these caps off?”
“You insult me, Sir Dave,” Lefty said, wielding his wand like a scalpel. He sliced several off and they found Julie right next to Gina, wrestling her brood like a professional, as the giant worm writhed, she did not let go.
“Come on out,” Mr. Anderson told her. “Quit playing around.”
“I’m afraid to let go,” she panted. “This thing’s got teeth.”
Mr. Anderson reached in and grabbed the vicious worm, yanking it away from Julie, who was still holding it tight, so she came out of the cell with a resounding thud. Still holding it in one hand he wished it was dead, and his core warmed up, and he could feel the energy flow down his arm into his hand. The big maggot stiffened as if electrocuted, and when Mr. Anderson finally let go, it was dead.
“I told you with a little exercise you’d get stronger,” Mowbry commented.
“Not now,” Mr. Anderson said, impatiently. “We have to find Jen!”
By this time the cave was flooded with fairies, each of them glowing gently and throwing off little fairy lights to see by. They were able to see into all of the open cells, and it was Budrick who spotted a glint of something shiny. He backed up to get a better look and aside from a whopping great worm, he also saw something else. “Here’s her butterfly!” he called out.
Mr. Anderson pushed through the crowd of people that immediately conglomerated on that cell, and screamed “Jen! Jen!”
Mowbry and Princess Nallah made their way through the crowd as well, and found Mr. Anderson climbing into the cell. He shoved the massive writhing maggot out, and thought he heard it say “oof” as it hit the ground.
“It’s too late, Sir Dave,” Princess Nallah advised.
“Steady man,” Mowbry said, helping him back out of the cell.
“Don’t give up!” he snarled, avoiding the snapping ring of teeth he grabbed the giant worm in both hands and pulled it apart, ripping it like a plastic bag. Jen’s lifeless body spilled out, covered in digestive slime.
Julie and Gina both burst into tears, wailing in high pitched and piercing notes that echoed around the cave. Princess Nallah gasped in horror and dismay. At the mouth of the cave, a valiant mass of fairies continued to fight off the returning hograths, but paused for a perilous moment when they heard the screams of anguish. A moment is all it took for several hograths to grab distracted fairies and try to proceed into the cave, but the mob recovered their senses before that happened. A small bit of faircraft was all it took to take care of the hograths and recover their friends unharmed.
Mr. Anderson rolled Jen onto her back flat on the floor of the cave, pressed on her chest and forced air into her lungs with his mouth. He performed cardio respiratory resuscitation on her for several minutes, until she coughed, vile digestive juices spilling out of her mouth. She then quit breathing again.
Mr. Anderson put his head against her chest and listened, trying to filter out the sound of his own heartbeat, the blood rushing through his veins, and the excited murmurs of the crowd to see if Jen had a heartbeat at all. “Quiet!” he snapped. “I’m trying to listen.”
There was a slight shuffling of feet, all very quiet, but it seemed that for a few moments everyone quit breathing, awaiting the outcome of his investigation. “There’s a heartbeat, but it’s very weak,” he said at long last.
“This is Ayla,” Princess Nallah stepped forward with a willowy woman in white. Her hair was also white, and her eyes a light shade of blue. It was impossible for Mr. Anderson to tell how old she was. “She is our chief healer. Let her and her staff take care of Jen.”
“She saved my life,” Mowbry said. “Back on the Scoundrel.”
It is not in the nature of a parent to helplessly stand by and let someone else take responsibility for the health of the child, but Mr. Anderson stood and stepped aside for the healers to do their work. Ayla and four of her staff kneeled and put hands on Jen’s inert body. Ayla held her face with a hand on each side of her head, while other hands grabbed her arms and her legs, and there was a humming sound as their glow turned from white to yellow, and from yellow to red.
“We should think about vacating this cave,” Mowbry suggested, as the intensity of the fighting at the cave mouth increased.
“Wait a moment or two longer,” Princess Nallah advised. “The healers need to stabilize her before we can move her.”
The colors of the aura around the healers and Jen shifted through the entire spectrum a time or two more, and finally Jen coughed again. She did not open her eyes, but she started breathing on her own. Princess Nallah raised her wand and Jen’s body arose off the floor, while five pairs of hands continued to pour healing energy into her. They proceeded slowly through the columns of comb, to the mouth of the cave where the battle continued.
In the rear of the cavern, past the brood comb were columns of honeycomb, that is to say, comb filled with honey. An industrious band of fairies were busy transforming wax into glass, then removing the honey filled vessels for travel.
“Make way, make way,” Lefty pushed his way toward the battle line, “Fire master coming through.”
Some people stepped aside, while he gently guided others with a very warm hand. “Let me show you how its done.”
He raised his wand and prepared to fire. “Are you going to give me a hand, Sir Dave?”
Mr. Anderson was hovering behind the procession with Jen in tow, still unconscious.
“Be right there, Lefty,” Mr. Anderson replied, taking another look at Jen and burning the image into his mind. He turned and put a hand on Lefty’s shoulder, then felt again the warmth in his stomach and the tingling sensation down his arm as Lefty blasted a jet of fire like a dragon’s breath all over the swarming bees. They started dropping like flies, but with great crashes. A few hograths made it into the trees, their toxic tails ablaze, and they managed to kindle several small fires, which threatened to turn into a total conflagration. Other fairies went to work with their charms, some of them transforming pine needles into raindrops, no easy feat from a distance, and others calling on the wind to keep the forest fire from spreading.
As a group they managed to make it away from the mouth of the cave without any further injury, and they slow marched for an hour before they found a suitable clearing, with a spring nearby that formed the headwaters of a stream. “What do you think?” Princess Nallah asked General Mowbry.
“This looks like a suitable place,” Mowbry replied. “Make camp!” he called.