Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Night of the Bright Blue Bems

by Walter G. Esselman





"It wasn't our fault," whined Gideon as they stepped through the woods. The fifteen year old dragged his fighting staff forlornly, which left a furrow in the dirt behind him.

"Sure," scoffed the tall nymph in the middle. He strode between them in his uniform for the Nymphari Expeditionary Forces. The nymph, Regent, shot the boy a hard look.

"You almost ran over the lords of Bon Su Pear," said Regent.

"Not all of them," insisted the boy, who was mostly human.

"Darn near," said Regent crisply. "And they are not young, and sprightly, men. Someone could have broken a hip."

"They appeared outta nowhere," countered Gideon.

"They are allowed to walk through the castle unharmed."

"But..."

"This is just a few days in the sun," explained Commander Regent for the nineteenth time. "I have an expeditionary force that needs boots on the ground."

"I don't wear boots," said Pavataro on Regent's right. Since the dragon was the same age as Gideon, his head only bobbed six feet off the ground.

Regent, for this part, just ignored the dragon's comment.

"And what about our studies?" tried Pavataro.

Regent just fixed the young dragon with a glare that made Pavataro look down.

"Besides, it was Lunchmeat's fault," muttered Pavataro while using his old schoolyard nickname for the boy.

"My fault!?!" snapped Gideon. "You knocked over that vase."

Regent just smiled while the boys bickered.


* * *

"Ho, Commander!" cried out the Nymphari sentry, Viss. The sentry then turned back to the camp. "Hey, Regent spotted, and he brought more."

"Soldiers?" asked Sergeant Angus curiously.

"Naw, a boy and a dragon," replied Viss.

"A dragon?" snapped the Cook irritably. "What the Netherhells? I didn't requisition enough food for a dragon."

"It looks like a young dragon," said Viss helpfully.

"Don't care how small he is--even if he's just up to my knee--those things can eat," grumbled the Cook.

There was a snap of wings and suddenly Pavataro was in the air. The young dragon arced, like a cannonball, over the sentry and dropped hard in front of the Cook. If the Cook had not been battle-hardened, he would have run away gibbering.

At the Cook's big boots, Pavataro dropped a razor deer that he had caught.

"Who are you calling small?" asked the dragon in a dangerous voice.

"PAV!" cried out Regent as he and Gideon ran into the camp. "Pavataro! Do...Not...Eat...Our...Cook!"

The young dragon swiveled his head to glare back at Regent who then dropped into a fast walk.

"But he called me small," explained Pavataro with menace.

"He was grumbling because I had not told him that I was bringing you and Gideon along," said Regent who walked up and turned to the Cook. "Sorry. Last minute change, Northy."

"I understand, sir," said the Cook, Northy, but he did not take his eyes off the dragon.

Commander Regent rolled his eyes.

"Pavataro!" bellowed Regent right next to the dragon's triangular ears. The splitting noise made Pavataro wince and back up. With that, the old soldier moved between the dragon and the Cook. "Pav. This nice fellow is going to make you food."

The dragon blinked in surprise at that. "I do like food."

"Right," agreed Regent. "Now apologize for stepping in the Cook's shadow, and then I need you and Gideon to go get more firewood."

"But..." started Gideon who motioned at the big pile of wood next to the newly dug fire pit, but Regent just glared at the boy until he looked down.

"Sorry," mumbled Pavataro to the Cook.

"You're probably hungry," shrugged the Cook as he loosened his shoulders. "We'll have some razor deer steaks tonight. I do have an amazing glaze that will make them delectable."

Pavataro's eyes grew wide in wonder and joy. "Yum."

Regent pointed at Pavataro, and then Gideon. "Now get."

"We still have to?" asked Gideon who had pulled a book from his coat.

"Get!" ordered Regent.

Gideon jammed his fighting staff in the dirt near the firewood that had already been collected. The boy made the book disappear into his many-pocketed coat. As he and the dragon walked off, Gideon grumbled at Pavataro.

"Good job, dummy," said the boy.

"He called me 'small'," retorted the dragon.

"And don't go too far!" called out Regent as the two wandered off bickering.

"New charges?" asked Sergeant Angus as he stepped up.

"Kind of," said Regent. "Friends of my niece Brianna, and last time I left them back at the castle, a room mysteriously broke."

"And your niece is back at the castle?" asked the Cook.

"Without any other family there," said Regent.

"And the boy is sweet on her?" asked the Cook.

"Like honey and a bear," grumbled Regent.

"I am familiar with such happenings from my youth," mused Angus sagely.

"That's what worries me," said Regent, but he gave a chuckle.

Angus pulled at his majestic red beard as he turned to Regent. "Been awhile since you've shown your face."

"Been incognito," replied Regent. "Your kids good?"

"Growing like weeds," grinned Angus.

"Excellent," said Regent, and then his face grew formal. "Report, sergeant."

Angus immediately snapped to attention. "Camp is set, latrine dug, and dinner is being prepared."

"Hopefully not in the same place," said Regent.

"What? And ruin the flavor?" asked Angus with a serious face, but there was a twinkle of humor in his eye.

"Not that you'd notice," shot back the Cook.

Regent pointed at the cave at the north end of camp. "And the cave?"

"Since this is Goblin country," said Angus. "I stomped on the floor myself, but it's solid rock."

"Don't want to end up like Thrainson's party of thirteen," agreed Regent. "Good job, sergeant." And he looked over toward the cook. "You good?"

"Can't complain," shrugged the Cook as he looked at the ex-razor deer at his feet.


* * *

But that was before hot breath nearly singed the hair off his large knuckles. The Cook looked up from making razor deer steak and turned his big knife menacingly toward the dragon.

"You keep back!" warned the Cook.

Pavataro pulled back a sliver, and looked offended. "I never!"

At the campfire, Gideon did not even look up from his book. "Yes, you would."

The dragon just shrugged and sat back on his haunches to give the Cook more room.

"I love watching people prepare my food," sighed Pavataro happily.

The Cook glanced at Regent who had been keeping an ear open.

"Our food," reminded Regent with a warning tone.

"Of course," said the young dragon, while pretending to agree with Regent.

The Cook looked meaningfully. "Sir?"

Regent sighed. "Pav, you and Gideon get us more firewood."

"What?" demanded both of them.

"Now!" said Regent as he easily stared down both of them.

The boys walked by the growing pile of firewood and out of camp.

"Idiot," huffed Gideon to the dragon.

"Shut it, Lunchmeat," snapped Pavataro.

And the cook breathed a little easier.


* * *

Gideon mumbled something around his food.

"Chew your food, then talk," said Regent in a paternal tone.

Quickly swallowing, the boy spoke excitedly. "Wait, this is goblin country isn't it? I read about goblins in this one book, Hackenstein's 'Lousy Vacation Spots For Disconnected Kittens'', but I don't think he knew what he were talking about. Do you think we'll see any goblins?"

"Hopefully not," said Regent honestly as darkness settled around the campfire.

"Nasty bits," agreed Sergeant Angus with a growl. "Fight vicious they do, but not as bad as Bems, and this is Bem country too."

"Bems?" asked the Cook as he feigned terror. "Here? We might need two guards on watch!"

Gideon's brow furrowed. "Bems? What are those?"

"Oh, you never heard of them?" asked Angus in a scary, campfire voice. "That's probably because they leave no survivors. Whole villages have been known to disappear overnight."

"Pfft," said Pavataro dismissively. "How's a whole village going to disappear?

"There's a sound," whispered Angus. "A noise that sounds like a saw scraping on metal armor. Then swift movements in the shadows."

"If there haven't been any survivors, then how do you know what sound they make?" asked Gideon thoughtfully. Angus' eyes widened for half a second as he thought quickly.

Regent began to smile.

"That's 'cause some..." started Angus. "Who were outside the village, heard the noise before the village was attacked."

"So, it could be an unrelated noise," muttered Gideon to himself.

Regent's smile continued to grow wider.

"No!" barked Angus quickly as he tried to return to his spooky story. "These beasts are vicious brutes, and they travel in packs. You'll know them by the sight of their blue fur and big ears."

"They sound... kinda cute," suggested Pavataro.

"They're not cute when they're eating you feet first, just so you can watch," insisted Angus.

"But since there are no survivors, we can't know their eating patterns," mused Gideon. "Not really. That would require watching them in their native habitat."

"You'd be dead in a second in their native habitat," said Angus raising his voice in frustration.

"If they are eating you feet first," suggested Pavataro conversationally. "You'd only be conscious until blood loss, or shock, gets you.

"Good point," nodded Gideon to the dragon.

"The real point is..." growled Angus. "You hear the sound of them coming, an' you're done for. Right?" He glared at the boy and dragon in turn. "Okay? Kiss your butts goodbye, and there've been sightings in this very wood. They could be watching us right now."

"But no survivors," said Gideon pointing out that flaw again.

Before Angus could start yelling, Regent cut in.

"So we better set guard rotation for the night..." started Regent.

"Oooh," said Gideon, who actually raised his hand. "I could do it."

"Maybe next time," said Regent smoothly and he looked back at Angus. "I think, since you know all about these nasty beasties, you should go first, sergeant."

Sergeant Angus opened his mouth to protest, but found himself trapped in his own web.

"Yes, sir," he said reluctantly.

"I'll probably stay up reading," said Gideon without guile. "So I can keep you company."

"Wonderful," said Angus in a dour voice while the Cook smirked at the sergeant.


* * *

The boy snored gently. Teetering in his hand was an open book, but it was thankfully leaning away from the campfire.

Across the fire, Pavataro slept. The young dragon lay on his back with his blue belly toward the stars, and his long blue tongue lolling out.

Sergeant Angus paced slowly around the camp with his back to the fire--so as not to destroy his night vision--as he watched the woods beyond.

Gideon heard a little happy popping noise, and blinked his crusty eyes open. He started to rub his eyes, but suddenly froze. By the fire, with a piece of discarded food in its mouth, was a creature the size of a large cannonball with bright blue fur. Its wide set eyes focused on Gideon. The Bem watched the boy for a moment, and then went back to chewing a hunk of spud that someone had dropped.

Another Bem crept over and pulled some greens, that Pavataro had refused to eat, from a small refuse pile. It chewed quickly and nervously with big, stubby teeth. Soon, more Bems arrived in a cautious approach. One stopped and sniffed tentatively at the sleeping dragon, but it made a disgusted face before moving on.

As the Bems settled in to scrounge what they could, they shifted their own bodies inward and puffed out their bright blue fur.

Gideon saw Angus, at the edge of the camp, suddenly spot the Bems. The sergeant was going to draw his sword, but Gideon held up a hand telling the sergeant to hold. Angus almost ignored the boy, but Gideon's eyes pleaded with the sergeant to wait. The sergeant stilled, but he kept his hand on his sword.

A menacing voice hissed just behind Gideon's left ear.

"What am seeing here?" growled Regent softly. Gideon stiffened, but managed not to jump. He was about to reply when a small burble of popping noises came from the growing group of Bems.

"Are they talking?" wondered Gideon.

"Gideon?" said Regent urgently.

"They're foraging for food," suggested Gideon. "They're just hungry."

"I can tell that," said Regent icily. "That's what I'm worried about."

"But their eyes..." started Gideon, and then his voice trailed off.

After a moment, Regent gave in to curiosity. "What about their eyes?"

"Aren't their eyes kind of far apart for a predator?" asked Gideon.

"So you're saying..." started Regent.

Beyond the edge of the firelight, a harsh noise suddenly pierced through the dark wood. It sounded like a saw scraping across metal armor. Everyone, including the Bems, turned west toward the sound. The Bems froze, and their fur vibrated in terror.

"Was that me?" blinked Pavataro as he woke.

"If these are the Bems...?" started Gideon.

"Everyone in the cave!" called out Regent. The commander straightened and backed towards the cave. His movement made the Bems jump, but they were too scared to run.

Sergeant Angus ran around the campfire, but he stopped next to Regent near the cave entrance. Both drew their swords.

By the campfire, Pavataro yawned. "What's happenin'?"

Gideon got up and made his book disappear inside his many-pocketed coat. He moved over to the dragon and nudged Pavataro's tail with his foot. "We got bad guys. Falling back to cave."

Grabbing his staff, which was still by the firewood, Gideon watched the tree line around the clearing. Pavataro gave a long-suffering groan as he got up. He sauntered past Gideon.

"I was dreaming of that last castle feast. Roast beast. Roast razor deer." grumbled Pavataro, and he fixed a glare at Gideon. "Should've had roast boy as well."

"You lazy Lima bean," smirked Gideon, and he leaned toward the scorching campfire. Angus was about to shout out when the boy plunged his free hand into the blaze. Gideon picked up a long piece of wood that was completely on fire. Angus looked in shock because the boy's hand seemed unharmed.

"What?" asked Angus weakly.

"Oh," said Regent offhandedly. "The boy had dragon's milk as a child. It made some... changes."

Regent watched as Gideon backed carefully to the cave. The boy looked over the campsite and saw it free of everyone, except for the Bems.

"Dragon's milk? And he didn't die horribly?" asked Angus aghast.

"Still kicking!" said Gideon with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, but he kept his eyes forward.

"Sadly," grumbled the young dragon as he went into the cave and headed towards the Cook, who eyed him wearily.

As Gideon reached the cave entrance, Regent took a moment to look back into the cave and take a quick headcount of people. All of Regent's squad, and Pavataro, were now inside.

But Gideon noticed the Bems still cowering by the campfire. The noise in the wood was getting closer, but then it just stopped. The boy's chest clenched tightly as he glanced from the woods to the blue creatures.

One of the Bems looked up and caught the boy's eyes.

"Well, don't just stand there," bellowed Gideon as he nodded toward the cave entrance. "Everyone in!"

The Bems hesitated for a moment, and then ran toward the cave entrance. Both Regent and Angus stood aside in surprise as the small blue creatures barreled into the cave.

As cries of surprise came from the cave, Gideon called after the Bems. "They're with us!"

"They are?" asked Regent icily, and Gideon looked up in confusion at the hard look on the commander's face.

"Um, you said 'everyone'," replied Gideon tentatively.

Regent opened his mouth to retort, but then he stopped. "I did, didn't I."

"And..." started Gideon defensively when he faltered. His eyes were caught by something on the edge of the firelight, and Regent followed that gaze.

What was at the edge of the firelight was long, wiry, and coiled for violence. Moving on four legs, its powerful jaw hung slightly open showing a full set of sharp teeth. Its close-set eyes glowed a sharp purple in the beast's skull.

"Now that..." said Gideon in a fearful whisper. "That has a predator's eyes."

"I'm willing to go with that," nodded Regent solemnly. "And those are the Snikt."

"The what?" asked the boy.

Regent repeated the name. "I wouldn't leave anyone outside this cave to them." And then he gave a little smirk. "Even you or Pav."

Glancing back into the cave, Regent saw the Bems huddled at the back wall. Pavataro was poking his nose in the food stores, much to the Cook's annoyance, and rest of the Nymphari soldiers had their hands on their swords.

"Angus?" called out Regent. "You sure there is no way out of this cave?"

Angus stamped on the floor again, and spoke a little regretfully. "Solid."

Gideon saw one of the Snikt slink low around the edge of the campsite. It moved as if it were made of liquid, just flowing in and out of the darkness. All the time it was watching Gideon as it moved closer.

"Regent?" said Gideon nervously.

"Steady," said Regent patiently, as if he were talking to a new recruit.

Slowly, the Snikt closed on Gideon while sizing up the boy. Gideon lunged when it got too close and waved the burning wood in its face. It backed up two steps contemplating the fire, and Gideon could see it thinking.

Waving the burning wood again, Gideon barked at the beast. "Back!"

The Snikt backed up again, and the knot of worry in Gideon's stomach started to unravel. It's afraid of fire, he thought with relief.

Suddenly, the Snikt shot forward and slammed its jaws on the end of the burning wood. The boy felt the snap of the teeth all the way through to his chest. Instinctively, Gideon let go and moved back into the cave opening in front of Angus. The Snikt shredded the burning wood before returning its attention to the boy.

"Um...Regent, fire is out" said Gideon in a soft voice.

"I can see that," replied the commander thoughtfully at the boy's side. Gideon felt someone take the back of his coat and try to tug him further into the cave.

"Stop it," hissed Gideon as the campsite began to fill with Snikt.

"Get back boy," said Angus urgently behind him. "I have cold iron."

Gideon reached up to the top of his fighting staff and twisted something. A blue and silver blade sprung out of the end making it into a spear.

"And mine can cut through iron," replied the boy without taking his eyes off the Snikt.

"Well, I'll be," whispered Angus from behind.

"The boy's full of surprises, isn't he," beamed Regent with pride.

Gideon poked the blade at the nearby Snikt who backed up only a little to eye him. Regent, similarly, had his sword ready. However, he did not wave his about, but waited to draw blood.

"Angus," ordered Regent. "Take my place."

With practiced ease, Regent moved back and Angus was immediately in his place ready to fight. Regent turned to look over the cave. Pavataro and the Nymphari soldiers were bunched toward the front of the cave. Further in, the Bems were huddled against the very back of the cave. Stomping on the rock floor, Regent shook his head in annoyance.

"Sir, they're getting bolder," said Angus in a cool voice from the entrance.

"Steady on," said Regent. "Be ready to fall back after the first wave so that..."

There was a surprised popping noise from the back of the cave. The back wall started swung open, but hit the mob of Bems. The blue creatures bunched up and popped in annoyance because they did not want to move from their safe place.

"Angus! Did you check the back wall?" asked Regent in a perturbed voice.

"Um..." asked Angus.

"'Um' is not a word," said Gideon automatically, and then he realized whom he had said it to. "Sorry, something my teacher always says."

There was a stronger push on the back wall. The Bems scattered around the cave as a dozen goblin ambushers came out of a hidden tunnel. The goblins started to give a war cry when one of the Bems shot under their feet, and the others immediately followed their leader into a downward sloping tunnel. The confused goblins tried to keep their footing during the Bem stampede.

As the Bems were going down the hidden tunnel, Regent had already turned to the dragon.

"PAV! Distraction!" cried Regent, and Pavataro blinked for a moment in surprise at the order. Regent gestured hurriedly at the goblin ambushers who were reforming their lines with the intention of attacking.

Pavataro lifted his head over the Nymphari soldiers. The young dragon let out a tremendous burp that came out as a fireball. The fiery sphere floated just under the cave roof towards the goblins. It hit a stalactite above the goblin's heads and popped, which produced a brief fire that was more razzle-dazzle than heat.

As the goblins became thoroughly rattled, Regent shot towards them and pushed the ambushers toward one side the of the cave. Some toppled over, while others just managed to keep their footing.

Regent was already shouting and pointing toward the hidden tunnel.

"Everybody IN IN IN!" he ordered.

The Nymphari soldiers quickly shot into the tunnel and Pavataro obediently followed the Cook. Regent grabbed Angus and Gideon.

"Retreat!" ordered Regent.

"Going, said Angus immediately.

"But..." started Gideon.

"MOVE!" bellowed Regent.

"Moving!" squeaked Gideon, and he high-tailed it toward the tunnel at the back of the cave.

With Gideon and Angus ducking out, Regent fended off a confused attack from one of the goblins and hopped into the tunnel himself. Behind him, the goblin warriors cried out in frustration at their running away. One of the them, most likely the leader of the ambush, was bellowing at the rest. Movement at the cave entrance caught Regent's attention. The first of the Snikt were boiling into the cave like a dark tide.

As the goblin leader started shouting louder and faster, Regent jogged down the sloping tunnel. He ducked out of sight around a bend in the tunnel. Soon, he heard screams of panic. Gideon was waiting just past the bend looking anxious, but the boy suddenly deflated.

"I was worried," he said upon seeing Regent, but the soldier just grabbed the boy's shoulder and tugged him further down the sloping tunnel. Gideon looked back as a goblin screams turned to ones of desperation and pain.

"Um, should we leave them..." started Gideon as he was, somewhat reluctantly, towed along.

"They were going to ambush us," replied Regent in a flinty voice as he let the boy go. "It couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of fellows."

"Oh," said Gideon simply, and as he paced the commander. "Still...."

Up ahead, they heard fighting. The tunnel opened up into a stone ledge inside an enormous cave system. Gideon stumbled a moment in awe. Across the great chasm below, wooden bridges criss-crossed the giant cave, but they were not ordinary bridges. In the middle of these great bridges, two story houses had been built. Bright clear jars hung from the cave ceiling lighting up the community.

But Regent was focused on the scuffle ahead. It was barely a fight because the goblins had only left a tiny group to guard the mouth of tunnel, and those guards had not expected professional Nymphari soldiers. As the last goblin guard fell under Angus' sword, Regent made sure his soldiers were safe, but everyone seemed unharmed, at least so far.

Regent started to look around and he glanced over the Bems who were huddled in one corner. The ledge that they were on had several stone bridges spaced out like an outspread hand. These bridges led away in different directions over the dark chasm.

Behind them, the terrible screams of Snikt echoed out of the tunnel like a piercing mass of sound.

"We gotta go," ordered Regent.

"Up or down?" asked Gideon as he pointed to stone bridges that went up and down towards wooden homes.

"High ground," said Regent pointing his sword at an ascending bridge. "Always fight from the high ground."

"Right," said Angus as he ran up the bridge indicated. "Feet up laddies!"

As the troops, the cook and Pavataro followed, Gideon looked around. He waved at the Bems.

"Hurry!" he said and urged them up the bridge too. Regent just shook his head as he and the boy brought up the rear.

There was a small two-story house at the end of the stone bridge, but no way to go around. Angus glanced at a small door and then he looked back at Regent who nodded.

Kicking in the door, Angus stepped in and then stood aside to usher everyone else inside. Once the last person was in, Angus turned to close the door, but he saw the Snikt boiling out of the tunnel.

Slamming the door shut, Angus threw his back into it.

"We got trouble," rumbled Angus, but then he noticed the Bems.

The Bems had kept running right through the two-story house and then knocked open the back door. Everyone watched as they disappeared over a wooden bridge.

"Maybe we should follow," suggested Pavataro thoughtfully.

"We don't know where we are, and we'd be run down one by..." started Regent, and then he stopped. He focused on a little kitchen at the back of the house, which was right before the stairs to the second level. Regent nodded his chin in that direction and everyone followed his gaze.

A goblin woman was standing in the kitchen. She was indeterminate age, but her wide blue eyes held fear and defiance. In one bony hand, she held a squirming two-year-old goblin child, and in the other, she held up a large bronze kitchen knife. The knife was old, but well cared for.

"Do you speak Commerce?" asked Regent, referring to the continent's primary language.

But the goblin woman did not understand, so she waved the bronze knife more vigorously.

Angus reached for his sword and Gideon saw it. The boy thought of the fear in the goblin woman's eyes and stepped forward. He touched his fighting staff and the blade disappeared inside, which got everyone's attention.

"I got this," said Gideon quickly. He reached toward his coat with his free hand, but the goblin woman turned the knife towards him.

"Lunchmeat?" asked Pavataro of Gideon.

"It's okay," said Gideon calmly. The boy reached more slowly into his coat of many pockets and carefully pulled out a book.

"Interesting choice of weapon," muttered Angus.

Leaning his staff against his shoulder, Gideon flipped quickly through the book and muttered. "Where is it?"

Regent looked over Gideon's shoulder, which was easy because the boy was so short.

"Dictionary of other languages?" asked Regent aloud.

"Didn't know the Gob's had their own language," growled Angus.

"Keep that talk to yourself," snapped Regent to his sergeant. "The Nymphari aren't exactly well-loved either."

"Shhh," hissed Gideon. "I'll try Lesser Gobley because it's widely used, and they have lots and lots of dialects." The boy found the right page. "Finally!"

Luckily, the book including phonetic pronunciations, but they did not make much sense to Regent.

"Danger," said Gideon in Lesser Gobley, and the goblin woman looked in surprise at him. He pointed to the door past Angus. "Danger. Out. Hide."

The goblin woman spoke quickly back at him, but he was just baffled.

Suddenly, the Snikt hit the door and Angus tried to keep the door closed as it bucked. With another hit, the door opened a little. A Snikt stuck its front leg, with those wicked claws, inside.

"Help!" cried Angus as he tried to get the door closed.

Other Nymphari soldier tried to push on the door to close it, while the sentry Viss stabbed at the Snikt's front leg. The creature finally pulled its leg out and they got the door shut once again.

Gideon, who had been distracted, looked back at the goblin woman.

"Danger! Hide!" he called out again in Lesser Gobley. The goblin woman picked up the male child, who was almost too big to carry, and went upstairs, but she kept the knife.

The Snikt hit the door again, and it began to buckle.

"Not going to hold," called out Angus. Regent moved to look through a crack in the door. Several of the creatures were backing up to charge the door. Their claws dug into the stone bridge.

"When I say," whispered Regent. "Everyone back."

"Sir?" asked Angus.

The Snikt charged the door.

"Now!" cried Regent as he jumped back. The squad, including Angus, followed his lead. The Snikt, who were expecting more resistance, crashed through the door in surprise and stumbled.

"Attack!" cried Regent as the commander plunged his sword into the first Snikt, but the other Snikt had had time to recover and boiled into the house. The creatures ran in between the soldiers, the dragon, and the boy forcing the group apart. Gideon stumbled back in confusion. The sentry, Viss, tripped over a chair and a Snikt leapt at him. Viss barely rolled away in time.

Another Snikt scampered in between the violence and angled its teeth at Angus' back. Gideon blinked and then lunged forward. He smacked the creature's leg with his staff. Twisting, the Snikt turned, but the boy touched his staff and the blade sprung out. Swiping quickly with the blade, Gideon got the creature to back away from Angus, but it was proving too fast to hit.

A small figure appeared out of the corner of his eye and Gideon saw the goblin child. The two-year-old child was at the foot of the stairs, by the kitchen, with a look of unbridled awe. He was watching as Regent easily fought off two creatures at once, but another Snikt shot past that fight and headed straight for the child.

Springing toward the kitchen, Gideon left the Snikt he had been fighting with and dove over a small table. Stabbing the floor with his staff, he let go of it. Hitting the ground in a roll, the boy stopped between the child and the Snikt.

As Gideon enveloped the child in his dragon skin coat, the Snikt's teeth and claws hit the boy's back, but the Snikt could not cut through the coat. However, the physical blow almost knocked the wind out of the boy.

"Ow," moaned Gideon while the child tried to see past him.

The Snikt leapt onto Gideon's shoulders to get at his head when a Nymphari sword appeared in its chest. As the creature was pushed off him, Gideon saw Angus pulling his sword free from the dead Snikt.

"Now we're even," grinned Angus, and he turned to cover the stairs.

Gideon lifted the child and ran up the stairs. The goblin child shrieked in delight as they ascended. At the top of the stairs, the goblin mother looked nervously at Gideon. The child reached out to her and she grabbed him with one arm. The other hand still held the knife and she waved it in fear at Gideon.

"I'm going! I'm going!" sputtered Gideon as he nearly fell back down the stairs. Barely keeping his footing, Gideon made it to ground floor. The goblin woman carried the child deeper into the upper floor while still holding out the bronze knife.

"What was that?" he asked indignantly as she disappeared. "You're welcome!"

There was a low sound of a saw scraping on metal armor by his leg. Pivoting, Gideon vented his frustration by kicking a Snikt in the nose. As it backed up, Gideon dove for this staff. Bringing up the blade, the boy swept swiftly at the Snikt who scrambled further back.

And that was when the young dragon, Pavataro, accidentally ran the creature over. The dragon had been backing up from three other Snikt who had been trying to eat him. The Snikt underneath looking more surprised than hurt.

"We got trouble," commented Pavataro. He turned his butt into the kitchen and backed up next to Gideon. The dragon eyed the kid. "We could run."

As Gideon swiped at the four Snikt now, he glanced at Regent and his squad. They were all fighting desperately. Viss was on his feet again, but one arm was bloodied. There were going to be bodies on the floor soon, and it would not be just the Snikt.

"No," said Gideon softly.

"We're going to die," suggest Pavataro conversationally as he snapped at a Snikt.

"Who wants to live forever," suggested Gideon as he fought.

Pavataro nodded sagely at this. "Good point."

Just as they were going to push a losing offensive, a song came through the open back door and into the house. It was a nervous, warbling song.

And the Snikt leapt away. For a moment, Gideon feared the creatures would go upstairs after the woman and child, but disengaging quickly from various fights, the creatures congregated near the back door. The Nymphari soldiers took a moment to breathe, and tried to figured out what was going on.

Gideon looked at Pavataro.

"The blue fuzzies!" said the boy.

"You mean the..." started Pavataro. The Snikt let out a terrible howl and ran out the back door.

Gideon bolted after while Pavataro scrambled after his friend. Behind them, Regent called out something that was probably 'Don't go off alone!' Outside, the boy and the dragon found themselves on a porch before a shaking wooden bridge.

"What the..." started Pavataro as he watched flock of the Snikt crossing the bridge. Gideon saw the Bems stop singing and huddle together on the opposite side of the bridge. Several closed their eyes.

"They're sacrificing themselves," whispered Gideon.

"What?" asked Pavataro.

"They're going to die," cried out Gideon as he sprinted onto the wooden bridge, but he was too far away. The boy tried screaming at the top of his lungs to get the Snikt's attention, but the creatures did not even look back.

There was a snap of wings behind Gideon, but he could not move his eyes from the impending disaster. Everything seemed to slow down as the boy felt the dread knowledge that the Snikt were going to reach the Bems first. The monsters were almost to the end of the bridge, and the Bems just waited. One of them just stared at the upcoming horde with resigned dignity.

"Can you fly?" asked a voice above of the Snikt. The young dragon was suddenly dove over the Snikt with a wicked grin. Pulling in his wings, Pavataro dropped like a stone onto the wooden bridge between the Bems and the Snikt. The bridge, built only of rope and wood, snapped immediately and everything fell.

Gideon suddenly realized he was on the bridge too. He grabbed a guide rope on the side of the bridge with his free hand and held on for dear life. The bridge swung down, but there was nothing to hit. Several Snikt had managed to hold on as well, but when the bridge stopped swinging, it gave a snap that knocked off more.

In open air above the chasm, Pavataro had just opened his wings and flew back up to the house. Gideon stabbed the blade of his staff into the collapsed wooden bridge and used it, along with the rope, to return to the top. There, the young dragon was just sitting on the goblin's back porch looking very smug.

"Thanks for warning me," growled Gideon.

"You're fine," insisted Pavataro.

"I could have fallen," barked Gideon.

"Quit whining," sniffed the dragon.

"We wouldn't even be here if..." started Gideon when the Bems, across the gap, cried out in alarm.

Out of the corner of his eye, Gideon saw a remaining Snikt scrambling up the collapsed bridge with murder in its eye.

With a spin of his staff, the boy's blade cut through the ropes tying the bridge to the porch.

Turning as the disconnected bridge dropped away into the dark chasm, Gideon glared at Pavataro.

"The blue fuzzies communicate better than you!" snapped Gideon.

But Pavataro just smiled beneficently.

Gideon was about to say more when they heard a new song. The Bems raised their voices to Pavataro and sang to the young dragon.

"Now I get my due," purred the dragon with satisfaction.

Regent stalked out of the almost empty house.

"Are you two done fooling around," demanded Regent. "We gotta get outta here!"

"We weren't..." started Gideon.

"Less talk, more walk," ordered Regent in a tone that brooked no argument.

Across the way, the Bems disappeared through the doorway of another house. Gideon did see that there were multiple bridges connecting back to the tunnel out.

At the other end of the home, the soldiers were already out of the Goblin's house and heading toward the cave exit. Gideon stopped and pulled out his dictionary.

"What," asked Regent.

Gideon flipped through the pages quickly. "Where is it?"

"We gotta go," hissed Regent as Pavataro shot out the front door and toward the tunnel out. At the top of the stairs, the goblin woman looked out while trying to keep the squirming child behind her.

"Ah! Here it is," said Gideon.

"Here what is?" growled Regent.

Gideon spoke briefly, brokenly, in Lesser Gobley, and then snapped the book shut.

"Hurry," said Gideon, and he zipped out the front door.

Regent shot after the kid.

"What do you mean 'Hurry',?" demanded Regent in a menacing voice. "You're the one hanging about. What did you say to her?"

They ran down the stone bridge and into the rising tunnel where everyone else had disappeared.

"Oh," said Gideon, a little embarrassed. "Um, I apologized for breaking into her home. At least, I tried to."

"Huh," said Regent, but he did not say more. They came out into the small cave where they had been planning to sleep, but now it was an abattoir. The goblin ambushers had tried to fight the Snikt, but it had not gone well.

Gently, Regent urged the boy along.

"Come on," said Regent softly. "There's nothing more to be done for them now."

Gideon nodded, but he seemed a little overwhelmed as they left the cave. Out into the night, Regent saw his soldiers, and Pavataro, taking a breath.

Regent called out loudly. "I figure we got less than five minutes before serious minded people with swords show up asking questions like 'Who are you' and 'Why am I not making you dead to save on paperwork'. We need to leave in three minutes. Anything not in your hands at that point, we leave behind. Now MOVE!"

The order helped spur the soldiers to move as they picked up everything they could. Pavataro picked up a few bags of food in his teeth and Gideon grabbed several more.

"Better not be Brussels sprouts," muttered Gideon as he sniffed a bag tentatively.

"Time's up!" barked Regent. He led the way out of camp while Gideon and Pavataro walked toward the rear of the column.

Behind them, there was a little popping noise.

Gideon and Pavataro looked back to see the Bems running out of the cave. One of the Bems saw them and leapt happily into the air. Then they disappeared into the night.

"Now lad, any encounter with nasty beasts that you walk away from," smiled Angus, who was bringing up the rear. "Was a good encounter."

Pavataro looked at the boy's glum expression.

"We saved the blue fuzzies," suggested Pavataro kindly, and then he amended with a more haughty tone. "Well, really I saved them all myself. Next time, you should help more, Lunchmeat."

"What? You wouldn't have known what was happening on that bridge if I hadn't told you!" cried Gideon.

And while the boys bickered, Regent gave a little smile as they plodded on through the night.


THE END


2017 Walter G. Esselman

Bio: Mr. Esselman has been published in Schlock, Dark Dossier, Residential Aliens, Conceit Magazine, Static Movement, and numerous times in Aphelion. His last Aphelion appearance was In Hot Water in our March, 2017 issue.

E-mail: Walter G. Esselman

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