After some time spent running, Mike, Callie, Jon, Edward, Tullam, and Bell stopped for a rest. They were all sweaty and heavily breathing. They collapsed to the ground in a semi-circle.
“That was amazing what you did back there!” Tullam said to Mike, “How long have you had these powers?”
“Oh, about fifteen minutes or so.” Mike replied.
“What did you do to that Frellam?” Callie asked, “And since when do you speak Ugora?”
“Did I mention I can read minds now?” Mike said, “Part of the Ma’jai Powers Expansion Pack, I suppose.”
“It was more than that,” Callie said, “You…influenced his mind, right?”
“Can you read ALL our minds?”
“Can you also---“
“Well!” Mike said, clapping his hands together, “I think it’s time for more running.”
“Wait a minute, why are we running anyway?” Jon asked, “It isn’t like they’re going to follow us, not after the royal firebombing you just gave them, Mike; or the mental de-pantsing of poor Sinsak.”
Edward reacted to that image with a bark of laughter.
“Jon has a point, Mike.” Callie said, “The Frellam will be too busy licking their wounds to come after us again.”
“But how much will their fear hold them back once their hunger returns?” Mike asked, “We have a reprieve, yes; but will it last?”
“Well, the wagon’s totaled.” Edward said, “Unless your powers include instant automotive repair, it’s gonna be a helluva long walk to Cathim.”
“How long would that take?” Callie asked.
“I don’t know.” Mike shrugged, “Days.”
“If the Frellam do decide to come after us again,” Callie said, “We could be in for a running battle all the way.”
“Even if they don’t, the woods hold many dangers come nightfall.” Tullam said, “My people could help you make safe passage out of these woods, in gratitude for saving Bell and me from the Frellam pit.”
“Where is your group right now?” Jon asked.
“About ten miles north-east of here.” Tullam replied.
“That’ll take forever.” Edward said.
“Not for us.” Bell said, “Me and Tullam can get there faster, tree to tree.”
“Good idea,” said Mike, “You two go find your group; we’ll meet you halfway, or as far as we can make it.”
“Too bad you couldn’t just carry us.” Edward said, half-jokingly.
“I could carry you, child.” Tullam said to Edward, “You’re short and light of weight; but your friends are too big for us to carry.”
“Could I?” Edward piped up. The thought of traveling the treetops with the Bufaaru sounded wondrous.
“If Tullam says it’s okay, sure.” Jon said, “But it’s your decision, Edward; you don’t need our permission.”
Edward looked back at Tullam.
“Maybe I shouldn’t…” he said, suddenly indecisive, “The last time we got split up was disastrous. I’d feel guilty if something happened to you guys while I was gone.”
“Likewise.” Mike said.
“It’s your call, Ed.” Callie added.
Edward considered it.
If there was no further Frellam attack, he would simply be saving himself a ten-mile hike through the woods, by going with Tullam and Bell. If he didn’t go, and there WAS another attack? Well, Mike could defend himself, Callie could defend herself, and Jon (even without benefit of magic powers) could defend himself. But he? He would have to be protected.
Better to go with the Bufaaru, than stay and be in the way.
“I’ve decided,” Edward said, “I’ll go with Tullam and Bell.”
It was a decision they would all come to regret.
“You probably won’t see us for awhile.” Jon said to Edward.
“Cause you know, we aren’t gonna be running the whole way.” Callie said, “Maybe fast walking, but not running.”
“We should get going.” Bell said, “The sooner we’re off, the sooner we get there.”
“Right.” Tullam said, “Come on, Edward. It’s time.”
Edward first went and gave a hug each to his three friends.
“Until we meet again, take care of yourselves.” he said.
“You too, Ed.” said Callie.
“Have fun!” Mike said.
“Catch you later.” said Jon.
Edward waved goodbye, then got on Tullam’s back, and wrapped his arms around his neck. “Are you sure I’m not too heavy?” he asked.
“You’re more bulky than heavy.” Tullam said, “You’ll slow me down a little, but not too much. Take it easy on my neck, though.”
Edward was carried aloft as Tullam and Bell clambored up the nearest tree with amazing speed and agility.
Once at limb level, they threw themselves at far limbs with a remarkable abandon. Hand to hand from limb to limb they swung; upward and upward, followed by a downward release into gravity’s arms, just in time to catch another limb and start the upward climb again. Edward held on tight, as Mike, Callie, and Jon got left further and further behind.
“Alright guys, let’s go.” Mike said.
“I hope they’ll be okay.” Callie said.
“They’ll be okay,” Jon said, putting an arm around Callie as they walked, “Tullam and Bell are in their element. It’s us I’m worried about."
For Edward, it was an exhilarating ride; especially whenever they hit a pocket of trees that were very tall. They would travel up into dizzying heights. Deadly heights, if one was not on the back of a Bufaaru. During these points, Edward would tighten his grip until Tullam made choking noises, as a none too subtle hint to loosen up.
But after a while, having to hold on to Tullam’s neck got to be a chore. Edward’s arms were getting stiff and achey.
So, it was to Edward’s relief when they finally arrived at the road where they had been attacked by the Frellam. This, they would have to cross on foot, as the gap between the trees on one side of the road and the other, were more than could be jumped; even by Bufaaru.
Tullam and Bell climbed down the tree near the side of the road, and walked toward the back end of the demolished station wagon.
“Is that what you and your friends came in?” Bell asked.
“Yes.” Edward said. He wiggled his arms at his sides as he walked, to get blood circulating in them again.
Suddenly, Tullam and Bell both jerked their heads toward the road behind the wagon. Their Bufaaru ears twitched.
“What is it?” Edward asked.
“A vehicle approaches.” said Tullam.
“Someone is coming.” Bell added.
Edward looked at the road from whence he and his friends had come. He heard the sound of an automobile engine; faint at first, but getting louder as it got closer. Then he saw it.
It was a car…coming in fast.
There was no doubt in Edward’s mind about who it was.
“Oh no!” he said, as his stomach went queasy with dread.
“What is it, Edward?” Bell asked.
“It’s Mike and Callie’s dad.” Edward replied, “Crap, we gotta go! WE GOTTA GO! NOW!!”
They ran into the woods to the left of the wagon; his agitation alone told Tullam and Bell not to waste time with questions. Edward got on Tullam’s back again. They zipped up the nearest tree and were on their way.
Even as they sped through the trees, Tullam could feel the anxiety in the deathgrip Edward had on his neck.
“Could you loosen the noose a little?” he asked.
“Sorry.” Edward replied, and softened his grasp a bit.
“Why do you still fear?” Tullam asked, “Surely that man cannot follow us up here.”
“Perhaps not,” Edward said, “But the farther and faster we are away from him, the better. BELIEVE me.”
Influenced by Edward’s palpable fear, Bell chanced a look back, and saw something that made her gasp.
When Charles Longstreet saw the three figures running towards the woods, he knew right then who the short one was; he had been with Mike and Callie when Charles had cornered them in Metromax City.
“Bring that child back to me alive! NOW!” he shouted.
Upon the command, Babbidaz sprung out of the open car window in a single fluid leap. Once out, he reverted to his true form; and bounded with great leopard-like strides to where the figures had fled.
He took to the trees with the skill of a Bufaaru, and sliced through them with a speed that rivaled their own.
“Tullam!” Bell cried, “Look!”
Tullam stopped, looked back, and saw a monstrous beast in the distance, moving toward them with alarming rapidity.
“What the hell is THAT?!”
“Oh shike!” said Edward, “It’s a Morrtog! Go faster!”
Tullam turned and started moving. Having no burden, Bell moved faster, and was now ahead of them. They entered an area of really tall trees, and started their ascent.
No longer able to see where the Morrtog was behind them, Edward feared feeling it’s talons at his back.
(Bubba Death can smell you!)
Could almost feel them.
(He's coming for you! You and your friends!)
He saw Bell, ahead of them, take a quick look back; and the look of horror that passed through her face said it all. Tullam, who was starting to heave with tiredness, saw Bell’s face too, and had to stop to see; as well as to take a quick breather.
He stopped on a large tree limb, and looked back.
The Morrtog (as Edward referred to it) was still back there, working it’s way to them; it had lost little ground.
Bell joined them on the limb.
“Edward, let go.” Tullam said.
Edward did as told. He looked over at the approaching Morrtog; it would reach them in a minute, if they didn’t start moving again.
“What are we doing?” Edward asked.
“I can’t outrace that thing with Edward on my back.” Tullam said to Bell, “He’s slowing me down and tiring me out.”
“What are you proposing?” Edward asked, nervous at where this conversation seemed to be heading.
“You take him, Bell. I’ll wait for the thing here, and try to distract it as long as I can.”
“WHAT?!” asked Edward, “Are you crazy?! That thing’ll rip you to shreds!“
“Tullam,” Bell pleaded, “The boy’s right! You can’t---“
“THIS ISN’T A DEBATE!” Tullam shouted, “TAKE HIM, WIFE!”
Bell gave Edward her back; Edward took hold.
She and Tullam exchanged a quick and passionate kiss, then Bell departed with Edward.
“This is nuts!” Edward said.
Once Bell and Edward were gone, Tullam grabbed a long thin branch from above him, and broke it off it's limb. He held it before him, like a staff.
The Morrtog came in fast. It had no intention of stopping; and it had no intention of letting Tullam live, either.
It had to die. It and it’s female.
On general principles, but mostly to satisfy his itch to ram his talons into something alive, and make it dead.
It extended it’s arm, to catch Tullam on the fly, and dispatch him without having to stop; but Tullam leapt at the last moment, and hit Babbidaz on the back of the head with the branch, on his way over him. Caught by surprise, the Morrtog missed the limb he had intended to catch. Instead he hit another one at his midsection, doubled over, and fell.
Alas, Babbidaz did not fall to his death.
He managed to take hold of the tree itself, with his taloned claws, and began to crawl up it with roach-like skill.
Tullam fell too, but caught a limb with his tail, and flipped himself around and up; landing on his feet upon the limb. He did this with such speed, that he turned in time to see the beast double over the tree limb, and fall; but did not see it catch on. He strained to see where it had fallen, but saw no body. He wanted to leave, and rejoin Bell and Edward, but he had to make sure the beast was dead.
He jumped around, from limb to limb, looking for him; but Babbidaz skipped and jumped with demonic skill, out of Tullam’s field of vision. Until the time was right.
“Where are you?!” Tullam hissed under his breath.
“Right here.” a voice said, from behind him.
Tullam had no chance to turn around. Babbidaz shoved his talons deep into his back. There came then the horrible sounds of tearing flesh as Babbidaz picked Tullam up, held him aloft, then tossed him overhead.
Tullam died all the way down.
At the exact moment of her husband’s death, Bell was granted full knowledge of its happening. A lifetime spent by his side in happiness and great pain accorded her this smidgen of mystic connection; it hit her like a psychic hammer to her heart, shattering it.
“TULLAM!” she cried out.
She stopped on a limb, and turned around. Tears streamed from her eyes, and she hung her head in grief. The beast was coming, she knew; but no longer cared. There was no outrunning the beast.
“Ummm…Bell?” Edward said.
“I know.” she replied, but moved not one inch.
Edward let go of her, and sat down on the tree limb.
“Go, Bell.” he said.
“I’ll let it take me.” Edward said, “It’ll have to let you go.”
“Yes you can!” Edward said, “Together we won’t make it. You know that. It's after ME anyway! Now hurry! There’s no time!”
She turned to go.
“I’m sorry, Edward.” she said, her back to him.
“I’m sorry too, Bell.” Edward said, “I’m sorry for everything. It’s all my fault.”
She took off.
Edward turned, and saw the Morrtog arrive. It had blood on it’s hand; Tullam’s blood. It stopped at Edward’s limb.
“Here I am.” said Edward.
“Such a brave child.” Babbidaz said, “And where, perhaps, is the charming female creature? My talon longs to rip her flesh!”
“Gone.” Edward replied.
“Oh, but I can still smell her! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm! She’s not far! I can still catch up to her! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm!”
To Edward’s horror, the Morrtog started to go off after Bell.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!” Edward screamed, “YOU CAME TO GET ME! ME!!”
Babbidaz stopped and turned around. “Yes! And I will come back for you, once I’m finished with her! After all…you’re not going anywhere!”
Edward was dumbstruck.
The Morrtog was right. If he tried to move from this spot, he would fall and die. At this height, he had nowhere to go. The Morrtog could go after Bell, kill her; then return at his leisure and retrieve him. Take him back to Papa Longstreet, where he would be made to betray Mike and Callie’s whereabouts. Then, of course, they would kill him. Worse, Longstreet might do to him what he did to Rak.
Edward had but one card left in his hand.
Was he strong enough to play it?
For the love of his friends…he found that he was indeed.
“HEY MORRTOG!!” he shouted as loud as he could.
Babbidaz turned around.
“CATCH ME!” Edward said, and pushed himself off the tree limb.
“NOOO!!” shouted Babbidaz, as Edward plummeted.
With astonishing speed, the Morrtog bounded back to the tree Edward had been on, and launched itself down after Edward, to catch him.
Edward fell a long time, or so it seemed to him. He turned as he fell, and at one point faced up to see the Morrtog, in free fall right above him; willing itself to reach him. Straining to do so. Then Edward’s body turned again, in time to see the ground rush up to meet him. His last thoughts were: I hope that stupid monster forgets himself and hits the ground after me!
No such luck. Babbidaz admitted defeat, and caught a stray vine, as gravity slammed Edward mercilessly into the ground.
Babbidaz slid down the vine, and walked over to where Edward had landed. He turned the body over; the boy’s eyes were open.
All thought of catching and killing the female Bufaaru left the Morrtog’s mind. The boy’s startling act of self-sacrifice had clearly been intended to buy her escape time.
Babbidaz was impressed. He wondered if Longstreet’s children had half the iron spine this child had just shown.
If so, their pursuit would be interesting.
With great respect, Babbidaz closed Edward’s eyes.
He picked up the body, and set off back to the road. He did not know if Longstreet would defile the boy’s memory by bringing him back with his polluted blood; but that was beyond his purview. He was a Morrtog, after all. His master’s wishes were law.