Tythel felt Eupheme’s weight vanish from her back as the ground grew closer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her friend reappear in the shadow of a shrub and roll out of it. Tythel heard a sickening snap, like a twig being broken in half, followed by a sharp scream by Eupheme. The only thing that assured Tythel that her friend was alright was that the scream was followed by a series of curses. Please don’t be her leg, Tythel asked the Light, and then the time for worrying about Eupheme was past.
It was time to worry about her own safety.
The instant she was close enough to the ground, Tythel dropped her feet and and started to run along the ground. As fast as the Skimmer was moving, she accomplished little more than tapping her feet against the ground at first, but with each footstep she robbed the creature of a bit of its momentum. Finally it was enough for her to dig her heels into the ground, dragging the Skimmer to a stop. It’s flame sacs were still running, and Tythel had to grit her teeth to wrestle it to the ground.
She got it on its back, and removed one claw to slam the creature between its stalk eyes. As she hoped, that seemed to be where it kept its brain, and it fell still, either unconscious or dead. Tythel hoped for the former, but didn’t have time to check. The second Skimmer was coming up fast. Tellias was somewhere behind it, and Eupheme was still recovering from her roll. And I still can’t breathe or speak.
The remaining Skimmer drew closer. Tythel heaved up the one she had taken down, putting it between herself and the approaching attacker, and sunk her claws into the unconscious creatures skin just below its throat. A trickle of blood rose up from around her talons, letting her know it was still alive.
The Skimmer still in the air curved away. It had gotten the unspoken message – come any closer and this one dies. It started to circle the air around Tythel, keep it’s whiplike tail pointed towards her. Standoff, Tythel thought. If it shot her, she’d kill the one she had captured. If she killed the captured one, it’d shoot her.
Tythel had one hope she could hold onto. She just had to stand on the ground. The Skimmer was airborne. As tired as she was, as much as her legs shook from the sheer effort of supporting her weight and the creatures, she had hope she’d tire out long before her adversary did.
The Skimmer was clearly intelligent by the way it had backed off when she’d grabbed its companion. It was doing the same analysis Tythel was – or at least, she hoped it was. You can’t win, she thought. So back off.
Instead, its flight began to slow down. It brought itself near a tree and wrapped its tail around a branch, swinging its body so the eye stalks were facing Tythel. Tythel fought back an urge to swear. Now it just had to wait for her to get tired, for her attention to slip. Then it could drop off the tree, swing that tail around, and…
Tythel fought back an image that rose to mind, of what unlight beams that could sear stone would do to her face.
She could hear Tellias in the distance, but he’d fallen far behind the chase. How fast were we moving? Tythel wondered, not taking her eyes off the Skimmer. Imperiplate could cover a league in seven minutes when at a dead run. For Tellias to be so far behind, they had to have been moving at least twice as fast, if not more. Crawlers could outpace Imperiplate, but not by that much.
Tythel shook some of her hair out of her good eye. It was clingy and wet with sweat. Focus, she chided herself. She had no help coming any time soon, and didn’t doubt the other Skimmer would try something when Tellias arrived. With Eupheme injured, possibly out of the fight…
“Release him,” the Skimmer said in a wet, burbling voice. Tythel nearly jumped out of her skin. It can speak? She thought, her mind racing furiously.
Tythel shook her head, then shifted the unconscious Skimmer to free up one of her hands and gesture towards her throat. “Can’t,” she said, letting the Skimmer hear how raspy her voice was, hear the wet coughs she made as she tried to speak. It was a risk, letting it see how weak she was, but she still had a claw to its companion’s throat.
“You cannot release him, or you cannot speak?” it asked, fixing those stalk eyes more firmly on her.
Tythel held up two fingers to indicate the second option.
“Release him or die.”
Tythel just rolled her eyes at this one. The Skimmer was intelligent enough to speak. Surely it was intelligent enough to understand why that was a stupid option for her.
“You are weak,” it burbled. “Your posterior limbs shake. Your skin excretes saline. You vocal apparatus is damaged. You have no projectile weapons. You cannot win.”
Tythel gave a slight shrug, and tightening her grip on the unconscious Skimmer. The one in the tree let out a sound like a dribbling snot that Tythel took for anger.
“Do not!” it croaked.
Tythel took a deep breath. She pointed to the Skimmer in the tree, then to the sky, then to the unconscious Skimmer, and then to the sky again.
“I fly away. You release him. Is that claim?”
“Lies. You will not release.”
Tythel pointed to the stump where the injured Skimmer’s tail had been. “No,” Tythel said, then had to pause to cough again. She took a deep breath and swallowed. The taste of blood was a bit less strong this time. Am I healing? Or am I just getting used to it? “Threat,” Tythel managed to choke out, finishing the thought from earlier.
“You claim you will do this thing because he is no threat?”
Tythel nodded. The Skimmer studied her with those eye stalks. “If you do not release, I will come back. I will slay.”
Tythel nodded again to indicate her understanding.
“Bring him to water. Put him in. He will endure there. I will find him down stream. Or I will slay.”
She gave the creature one last nod, and after a long moment, the Skimmer unfurled its wings and begin to spray flame from those sacs on its wings. It held onto the tree until the force of the flame pulled it horizontal. Just before the tree branch snapped, the Skimmer released itself, and took off into the sky. It kept its eye stalks on her as it flew away.
Tythel let go of the unconscious Skimmer and stepped towards the stream. She cupped some of the water in her hands and held it to her lips, wanting to weep with relief as the cool water flowed down her throat. She gathered up the Skimmer and drug it back to the river, pushing it in.
As soon as it touched the water, it began to move, its eye stalks coming alive and alert. It began to swim away from her as quickly as it could, waving its fins to propel itself. It was strangely beautiful to watch, now that it wasn’t trying to kill her.
Tythel watched it go, then took another drink of water. It’s over, she thought numbly. It had felt like weeks since the battle had started, and it was finally over.
Now it was time to gather Eupheme and Tellias and figure out what they were going to do next.