Shannon, Tammerson and Ign followed the swamper from a safe distance. It shuffled through the tunnels and every time it reached a junction it paused and appeared to be making a conscious decision about which way to go. Shannon had never seen a grub or swamper act that way. They all acted on instinct, on a primal need to make a kill and feed.
Tammerson was whimpering as they went. She glanced nervously at Ign whenever the little creatures made a noise as if they might change their mind and attack the two humans at any point. Shannon had some pity for her. The arrival looked exhausted from her ordeal with the suicidal prospector and the harassment by Ign. In an ideal world, Shannon would cut her loose, but she wasn’t sure where she would cut her loose to.
Ign was over their initial reluctance to follow the swamper. Their bodies ran back and forth, testing the limits of the swamper’s senses and Shannon’s patience at the same time. The playfulness was a good sign, though. It meant that they were at ease with Shannon and Michelle. And if they were at ease, they were less likely to try and eat them.
After they’d followed the swamper some distance, Tammerson tapped her on the shoulder.
“Where is it going?” she asked, her voice low. 1Ign and 2Ign shot her disapproving looks but said nothing. 3Ign had run ahead to test the swamper’s awareness.
“I don’t know,” Shannon said.
“Might it be going to Geppetto?”
“No,” Shannon said, but she wasn’t sure. They were heading in that general direction, but Shannon didn’t know why the swamper would do that. It represented a food source, of course, but the most dangerous one this side of the 3Marax chamber. A swamper would overcome most lone humans with no challenge, but an entire town would make short work of it.
Ign stopped moving and held out a hand to halt the humans.
Shannon crouched next to them.
3Ign came running back down the tunnel toward them. It huddled in with their other bodies then turned to face the way it had come. The three little creatures looked like a defensive line in a football game, ready to face the coming attack.
1Ign looked up at her. “Something wrong,” they said.
“Chamber ahead,” 3Ign said, “swamper down.”
“Swamper down?” Tammerson said, “what does that mean?”
Shannon shrugged. There was only one way of figuring out what the little alien meant. She started to creep down the tunnel, the swamper skin draped around her dragging on the ground and picking up debris. It was getting heavy now, but the protection it offered from accidental knocks and bumps with the spiky Ign made the struggle worthwhile.
Around the corner was a chamber about as big as the one in that she’d fought the previous owner of her hide. The available light was dim in there, the vein running through it buried deep within The Whale’s flesh. It gave everything a red glow. Moisture dripped down from the centre of the chamber and had created a small puddle in the centre, which the swamper was squatting over and drinking from.
As Shannon watched, the swamper stopped drinking and sniffed the air. It turned to face her.
Their eyes met.
The swamper’s face was pained, its expression almost human in its discomfort. Its eyes were dark green and glowing. It clambered to its feet and stood at full height, a good eight feet tall. It was different from the one she’d fought earlier, its legs were shorter and more powerful, and its arms longer.
Shannon reached for her axe and held it in front of her, ready to strike.
The swamper inspected the ivory blade from a distance. It tilted its head and considered its next move before starting to stride toward her. Shannon strafed to her left, keeping her back to the edge of the chamber. She’d never had to wait for a swamper attack before, never had this much time to think.
As she moved around the chamber, Ign scampered in, taking up positions an equal distance from each other. They’d worked out the range of the swamper’s arms and were spacing themselves out to stop it being able to get them. Tammerson poked her head into the chamber but kept her body in the tunnel.
The creature was surrounded.
Shannon scratched a line in the ground between her and the swamper. It sniffed again, then turned to look at Ign.
It reached out to her.
And Ign attacked.
The full ferocity of the assault hit the swamper from the rear and both sides. 1Ign went for the back of the neck and 2 and 3Ign for the lower legs of the swamper, scratching and clawing. Blue blood started to leak from the wounds, but the swamper didn’t react, other than to shift its weight as the 3Marax clambered over it. All the time it stared at Shannon, the one hand reaching out for her.
Shannon took a step forward and lined the axe up with the swamper’s head.
With a roar, it grabbed 1Ign and threw them across the room. It kicked out at the other two bodies and sent them scattering across the chamber. Each jumped back up and crouched, ready to resume the assault. Shannon, worried that she’d missed her opportunity, swung the axe, but the swamper brought its arm up and used it to absorb the blow. With the axe wedged in its arm, Shannon had no choice but to let go as it stood to its full height.
A wound like that should have caused pain or at least slowed it down. But the swamper showed no evidence of either. It pulled the axe out of the wound and wedged it into the roof of the chamber, the blue blood dripping down into the pool it had been drinking at.
With a burst of speed, it grabbed Shannon by the throat. She felt the pressure from its claws on her neck, but it didn’t squeeze when it could. It just held her there, staring at her. Then the green light appeared from its eyes again. This time, the light moved like a mist, drifting toward her. She tried to move away from it, but she was stuck. She brought her legs up and against its chest, but no matter how hard she pushed the swamper didn’t react. All the time the green mist moved closer.
There was a crunching noise and she felt the pressure on her neck release. She fell to the floor and saw Tammerson was behind the swamper jamming a long piece of ivory from the trailer into the back of its leg. Ign cheered her on.
Shannon scrambled away, putting as much space as she could between her and the stricken beast.
It rolled onto its front and held the wounded leg, looking more confused than hurt, or upset. Then it started to roar.
Shannon looked at her axe, but it was too high for her to reach. She would have to bring the trailer and use that to stand on if she was going to reach it.
The swamper roared behind her. It trashed around on the floor, waving its arms around. It would be a while before it died. Until then it would be a danger to them all, its claws and teeth only ever a moment away from causing a nasty injury. But with Shannon’s axe out of reach, they had nothing to administer mercy.
Tammerson and Ign drew closer to Shannon as if she were a shield that they could use if the swamper got closer.
“What do we do now?” Tammerson said.
“We need to finish it off,” Shannon said.
“Weapon gone.” 1Ign muttered. The other two bodies clambered on top of each other to try and get to it, but their reach was short, almost comical.
“Is there anything in the trailer?” Tammerson asked.
“My arrows, maybe.”
“Better than nothing.”
“Arrows not work.” 1Ign said, “Ign do it.”
Shannon tried to explain why that would be a bad idea, but Ign was already on the move. Their three bodies split up and approached the injured swamper from different directions. Each took a turn, darting in and attacking. It was barbaric, execution by a thousand paper cuts.
After what seemed like an age, it lay still in a pool of blue blood.
The chamber looked like a slaughterhouse. There was a heat, a humidity that wasn’t there before. Shannon was uneasy. It didn’t feel right.
Ign moved away, all three of the bodies with a wide grin across their faces.
“We share,” 1Ign said.
“Agreed,” said Shannon.
With a last burst of life, the swamper reared up and threw itself at Ign. The chamber shook as it landed on the little aliens, covering them with its body.