It was a few days journey to the Delirium. The Tarot realm seemed to move at a different speed as well. During the time they were in the Tarot things had changed and were getting even worse. The creatures were becoming crazed and desperate. The caterwaul were no longer in the Tulgey Wood, but were now roaming the land ravaging the creatures of Here. Many people had never encountered the caterwaul. Megette certainly hadn’t, but on the second day she was able to prove how truly adept she had become with her sword.

“Are there any survivors?” The Jack called down into the hole.

The burrow had been for a family of gnomes and was tight even for Khamet to get into. “No one about. There is a little food, but most of the hole has been ransacked. It looks like they left in a hurry.”

Khamet grabbed some food which the Jack and Megette could eat and heard a faint cry from the far corner. He dropped and crept to the back of the hole. There was an overturned pot on the ground.

“We can do this, we can do this, we can do this,” the pot whispered. There was a muffled cry then a metallic thump on the bottom of the pot followed by a whimper of pain.

“Hello?” Khamet said.

“Hello?” the pot whispered. “It is talking again, forget it, we can do this, we can do this.” The pot ‘tinked’ again and Khamet turned it over to reveal a large beetle crawling on the ground holding the top of its head.

“Oh. Oh! Back to eat us then? The serpent has returned? No! I will have you know that no! You will not eat us! You will not eat Frob!”

“What?” Khamet said.

“You! The evil beast comes to eat the defenseless us. AGAIN!”

“How many of you are there?”

Frob looked around and stared speaking to the air in one direction, then another, then another, all on muffled whispers and grunts. “We are not certain. Seven that we are aware of, but the others tell me there are many more. And you come to eat us!” He turned back to panicking.

“I have not come to eat you.”

This seemed to settle Frob and leave it pondering. “They accept what you say, but we will be watching you.”

“Come on out, can you tell me what happened here?”

“They came. They had young.” Frob seemed to lower his spirit and remember.

“The caterwaul?”

At the mention of the caterwaul, Frob jumped in fright.

“I am here with others. We won’t harm you.”

“Go ahead then. We will follow.” Frob said.

Khamet moved away grasping the small sack of bread and fruit he had scavenged and made his way to the entrance. “Are you coming?” he asked when Frob hadn’t moved.

“I am bringing up the rear. I let everyone else go first.”

Khamet climbed out of the gnome hole to Jack and Megette who seemed to be growing much more familiar in the last few days. “It was the caterwaul. Their young went into the home and ravaged the place. I found something…” he turned back to the entrance and waited frustrated. “Hey!” he called. “Everyone else is out.”

“I know, I told you I’m bringing up the rear.” Frob poked his head from the hole and flew into the air, circling the group. “A Heart? My lady it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he bowed in the air to Megette.

Megette looked wary, but smiled. “Master beetle.”

“Vespa Beetle my lady.” The bug flew up and bowed in a grandiose gesture, “Frob and we are the Mandarinis.”

“Yes you are.” she said warming to him.

“We?” the jack asked.

“Yes,” Frob said indignantly.

Khamet pushed against the Jacks leg and shook his head. “Here I found fruit and bread.”

“We can’t eat here it is too open.”

They moved to the woods and made camp by the edge of a large tree.

“It is far too quiet,” the Jack said.

“All the creatures have gone into hiding,” Frob said. “The land is not safe. The caterwaul are all about and they are eating everything. Something drove them out of the Tulgey Wood, but what could be worse than the caterwaul?”

“You say they had young.” The Jack said. “But the caterwaul don’t have young.”

“Quite right, quite right. We too thought it a strange thing to see, but yes many small bits of beasties like…” Frob turned to Khamet. “You. But a devilish looking you to be sure.”

There was a rumbling in the forest of branches being broken and something moving the trees. They all stopped.

Khamet looked at the group. Frob seemed to freeze, hovering in the air and for a moment Khamet saw that the Beetle was surrounded by a large number of Vesper Beetles, then he turned and shot back across the field, into the gnome hole and was gone. Megette had her sword up and was already preparing, while the Jack readied his baton. The rumbling stopped and the trees ahead of them parted slowly in the forest. Khamet sensed something different. There was a large movement as an enormous head pushed out of the foliage. Megette lowered her sword as the thing suddenly came barreling through the rest of the trees at them. It stopped a few feet away and Megette dropped her sword.

“It’s the…” Khamet said.

“Noipmahc,” Megette grabbed the beast and hugged it. It seemed happy to see her and released a loud ‘honk’ in greeting. He’s been fighting she rubbed wounds that were on the Sphinx’s body. It shivered and nudged Megette to the ground and gave her an enormous lick.

“How is it all the way out here?” The Jack said.

“If no one took to tending to it, it would run off and fend for itself. It might even have gone looking for the Princess. Then again with the war, the creatures from the Datamancer could have ravaged the field as well and drove it out. We are only about three day’s journey from the castle.

“How was it fighting? Aren’t the Sphinx vegetarians?” the Jack asked.

“It was probably attacked. They have thick hides and they can crush just about anything.” Megette said.

A huge gray tongue licked Megette again. Her paper body was soaked.

Behind them a rustling in the forest started moving towards them, but no one took any notice.

Megette began to dry herself and playfully patted the great Sphinx.

“I will go fetch Frob,” Khamet said and bound towards the gnome hovel. An intense growl stopped him. Megette screamed and Khamet heard the Jack call out. He turned to see the Noipmahc lurch. Six caterwaul were on him.

Noipmahc recognized that Megette was in danger and used its head to scoop her up and throw her to the side, far away from her sword. Then it ran full speed at the largest tree it could see. The impact was an explosion and threw all the caterwaul off in one shot. The Sphinx was tough and fast, it could get away, but it moved between Megette and the caterwaul.

The Jack parried as a small caterwaul came at him. He stabbed his baton at the caterwaul’s nose, which seemed to be one of the only vulnerable spots on the creature.

The caterwaul hissed in pain and retreated.

Megette tried to get around to her sword, but Noipmahc was still blocking her way.

Khamet saw that Noipmahc was squared off against the leader of the group. A large caterwaul with eight eyes and though it was big, It was obviously no match for the Sphinx on its own. Khamet shot forward, leaping to the Sphinx’s body and vaulting over it at full speed. The caterwaul was surprised to see this and stepped back as Khamet flew into it claws out and attaching to its face. The caterwaul wailed in pain and Khamet opened his wide grin that was sinister now and sunk his teeth into the caterwaul’s nose. This time it didn’t wail, it released a shriek and ran as Khamet let go and dropped to the ground.

The other four caterwaul pounced on Noipmahc and were scratching and biting into its hide as the Sphinx still tried to protect Megette. It rolled and she was able to move. Khamet jumped on the closest one to him trying to avoid the needle hairs, while the Jack wedged his baton beneath another and threw it off. The caterwaul landed and began to square off with the Jack when suddenly a metallic chop sounded with a high pitched devils cry of anger and frustration.

The caterwaul facing the Jack froze as its head seemed to detach from needle hairs with a scraping and fell forward as all six legs collapsed at once and the body dropped to the ground.

The Jack stood shocked and visibly impressed.

Megette didn’t wait for any sort of glory. “Noipmahc,” she screamed and ran at the sphinx.

The second largest of the caterwaul had attached itself to Noipmahc’s neck and was chewing fiercely, its razor claw like teeth ripped right through the thick flesh of the Sphinx. Noipmahc wailed and ran towards another tree again. Two of the caterwaul were thrown off with Khamet attached to one. The other got its bearings as the sword slashed right through its hide like it was nothing. The caterwaul screamed and ran into the forest limping and trailing a great pile of its own gore behind it.

The other fell beside Khamet and turned on the cat. It hissed, then it began looking in all directions and hissing in confusion as if it was not certain what it was looking at.

Khamet heard a wail of attack from behind him and saw a bright orange and black striped thing zoom past and attach itself to the caterwaul’s face. The caterwaul didn’t have time to react as Frob looking very unlike his timid self ejected a large spear from the base of his butt that sank deep into the caterwaul’s nose.

The caterwaul reacted unlike any of the others. It jumped twenty feet into the air grabbing branches of trees trying to get away. Ten seconds later it fell to the ground and began to twitch with an angry growl. Then it lay still.

Frob flew back with a menacing look that was not like a beetle. His color was brilliant with anger, he had great pincers on his face and as he settled his elongated body returned to that of a beetle. The pincers pulled in and the needle at his butt went back inside. He twitched a bit and sat on the ground breathing heavily. “What happened?” he asked.

Noipmahc was on the ground and trying to get the last caterwaul off crying out in painful honks.

Megette was on the thing, but blocked by the body while the Jack was trying to flank it. Khamet shot forward. The baton wedged into the caterwaul’s jaw as Khamet leapt and attached to its face, digging his claws in. The caterwaul cried out in pain, but wouldn’t release. Megette finally slipped around and sliced the caterwaul at the spine and it went limp with a fading growl.

Noipmahc honked in pain as they pried the caterwaul’s teeth out of him.

“Frob,” Khamet said as the other two tended to the great beast. “What was that?”

Frob’s color flashed again in embarrassment. “I don’t know,” he said. “When they came I ran. And when I was in the hole I got, um… angry I guess. I was angry at myself for running when you have been so kind and we have been so cowardly. I told them all we needed to do something. After all there are enough of us. And we all agreed,” he said nodding to the empty air around him.

Faintly Khamet thought he could see what the beetle saw. A number of beetles just like him floating in the air around him. He nodded.

“How is he?” Khamet said moving towards the Sphinx.

“I don’t know,” the Jack said. “He’s hurt bad, but we can’t move him. The scent of the blood is going to draw more of them as well as other creatures sooner or later. I don’t like to think there are things as bad as the caterwaul, but right now things in Heere are different.”

Khamet came over and looked at the wounded Sphinx on the ground as Megette tended to it. She was weeping over the creature that tried to honk and lick her, but only managed a weak gurgle. The tongue was coated with a blue substance that must have been its blood. They all remained until it grew dusk. The sounds from the nearby forest were steadily growing louder.

“Megette,” the Jack said. “There’s nothing more we can do. It gave its life to save you.”

“I didn’t need saving,” she wrapped her card body around the Sphinx’s face. It didn’t make any sounds now and its eyes were black and glossed over.

“It didn’t know that, but we have to let it go.”

“We can’t leave it to be torn apart by whatever happens to come along.”

“Okay.” The Jack stood and walked back over to Khamet who sat with Frob.

Megette listened to the forest and glanced at her sword. The Sphinx stared at her and the thick glossy eyes blinked once, then slowly closed.

The Jack squatted and looked at Khamet, “I am not sure how long we can…”

A loud thudding ‘shlop’ interrupted him followed by the sound of Megette screaming and beginning to sob loudly. The three ran over to see Megette holding her sword in one hand and laying on the body of the Sphinx. The neck had been cut clean through.

The Jack placed his hand on her shoulder and Megette turned to him and sobbed as the orange glow of dusk slowly turned to black, and the party moved into the forest.

 

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