Merry X-mas folks, here’s today’s installment. Hope everyone is having a happy holiday.
Alchemy checked his pocket to make sure the manticore antidote and pheromone bottles were still there. The small vials were safely tucked away in cotton batting. He hoped they wouldn’t need them, but as he and Staghorn moved deeper into the manticore territory the chances of encountering one of the monsters increased. They’d already had to stop several times when the Ursa heard or saw the beasts too close for comfort but so far they managed to avoid direct conflict. The biggest concern was if they engaged one, then others might be drawn to the sounds of the fight. They didn’t want to have to fight off more than one manticore at a time. Both of them knew they’d gotten lucky with the young dragons, and they didn’t have Gavin with them now.
In the shadowy darkness, Alchemy missed the hand signal from Staghorn to stop and bumped into the Ursa’s broad back. He took a step back and tried to figure out why the bear-like humanoid had stopped. Something moved in the underbrush near them. Staghorn knelt down and the Elf did the same. The sounds of movement got closer. The wizard used all of his magical training to be still. He knew that a still person was less likely to be seen than a moving one, but other than the pheromones they didn’t have anything to cover their scent.
Something emerged from the bushes a couple of trees down from where the waited. A heavy sniffing preceded the emergence of the strangely-human fur-covered face. The huge cat paws padded softly onto the trail. Through the soft moon light, the huge leathery wings were barely visible where they tucked tight against the beast’s back just under the deadly scorpion-like tail. The beady eyes looked down the trail toward the tree they sheltered next to. Then the nose dropped to the trail with hound-like accuracy.
Alchemy felt Staghorn tense as the monster started toward them sniffing along their trail. Then it shook its head and back trailed a bit before bounding into the underbrush on the other side of the narrow path.
Both of the men paused and it was several minutes before they let out the breath they’d been holding, once the sounds of the manticore moved far enough away that they felt safe to move.
“Many creatures mistake the smell of Ursas for bears,” Staghorn whispered as he stepped away from the shelter of the tree. “Let’s hope that more of the manticores feel the same way as this one did and don’t like messing with bears.”
Alchemy nodded. “That’d be a good thing.”
They started off again and Alchemy yawned. “We’re going to need to find a spot to camp fairly soon so we can get some rest to make the most of tomorrow.”
“I’d like to be a bit closer, then maybe find an unused cave or at least get the hill and some rocks around us. We’d be safer that way.”
They worked their way up the narrow game trail, having to stop several more times for the manticores moving about in the night. There were so many of the beasts that Alchemy began to wonder how they were managing to survive, they must be stripping the hill and the surrounding jungle of prey animals, unless Dr. Gnome was doing something to keep them well fed.
“Do we know how long the manticore colony has been here?” the Elf asked Staghorn as they walked.
“From what Griz and the other locals say, only a couple of years,” the Ursa replied.
“So do you think it’s possible that the good doctor has been encouraging them to set up housekeeping around here?”
Staghorn was silent for a few minutes as they walked. “It’s possible. A colony this large is unheard of in other parts of the world. But then this is the largest tropical jungle and they prefer the tropics.” The Ursa replied, ducking under a low hanging dragon-fruit tree branch.
“Don’t you find it a bit odd that there’s the extreme number of manticores here, but none of the normal prey animals like deer or monkeys seem to be affected?” Alchemy asked.
“Now that you mention it,” Staghorn replied thoughtfully, “they should have to spread out a bit to keep their hunting range plentiful, but these guys have had a set range since they arrived and they’re not stripping all the wildlife from it.”
“So, I wonder if Doctor Gnome is supplementing their diet?” Alchemy asked stepping carefully to avoid a large anthill. He’d heard about the dangers of some of the tropic species of ants and had no inclination to experience their painful bites.
“But what’s he using, or is he having something brought in? That would explain why they are all living quietly together.”
“Especially if he’s adding some kind of herb or chemical to the food to trim their aggression toward each other.” Alchemy finished Staghorn’s thought for him.
“But I didn’t think gnomes liked to use herbs.”
“They don’t, but if he’s come up with some kind of chemical substitute,” Alchemy replied. “This is very bad. I don’t like the idea of gnomes finding ways to control monsters.”
“Hey, up there.” Staghorn pointed up the side of the hill.
The jungle was so dense Alchemy hadn’t realized they were so close to the hill. He looked up and in the dying moonlight, saw several manticores resting on ledges in the mouths of caves. He looked around trying to spot a good place for them to camp.
“Let’s go around to the other side,” the Ursa suggested.
“That’s where the dragon came from.” Alchemy objected. “I’m not sure I want to get to close to that place.”
Staghorn nodded. “Let’s see what we can find halfway around. That would probably be a good safe area. I can bet that the manticores didn’t want to get to close to the dragons, and vice versa.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
There were plenty of large rocks near the base of the hill; that rolled as far as the edge of the jungle. Staghorn found a spot where several of them had come together, but left a big enough spot that even the Ursa could squeeze in and be protected from larger predators.
As they settled into the crevice, Staghorn looked at Alchemy from the shadows. “So do you snore as loudly as Gavin does?”
Alchemy chuckled. “No one’s ever complained about me snoring.”
The Ursa nodded. “Good, we don’t need you attracting unwanted attention while we sleep. I’ll wake you in a few hours so you can keep watch.”
“Deal.” Alchemy chuckled again, recalling how loud his warrior friend could snore at times. Then, with his arm under his head, he got comfortable on the hard ground between the boulders and in seconds drifted off to sleep.