Tillie stayed up most of the night, shivering in the cool air and listening for any other mysterious sounds, but the most mysterious sound she heard was the rhythmic growling of Grayden’s snores. Just before dawn, she nodded off for a few fitful hours.
Grayden, having lived most of his life in the dimness of Lake Loch, sprang from his bed of weeds as soon as the first ray of the morning sun broke over the horizon.
“Wake up, sleepyhead,” he said, nudging Tillie’s arm. “We’ve got ‘eggs to scratch and dirt to lay,’ remember?”
“I’m awake,” she said, picking the crust from her eyes. Her voice sounded at least an octave lower than usual.
“Let’s get moving then,” Grayden said, his tone much too cheery for the amount of sleep that Tillie did not get. “We can eat our breakfast snails as we walk.”
The idea of eating a snail for breakfast did not appeal to Tillie. “I think I’ll skip breakfast and have a double-sized lunch instead,” she said, straightening her chaps.
“Suit yourself,” Grayden said, popping a snail in his mouth.
The two set off into the waist-high grass of the Plains of Wompusmeeste and soon spotted a pathway ahead of them, slender and white like a snake stretching into the distance. The pathway was composed of packed dirt and curved only occassionally to avoid an ancient, rotted stump or a small pool of water.
For the next few hours, the landscape was repetitive, yet beautiful. The Plains of Wompusmeeste spread out around them in every direction for miles, flat and featureless except for the bright green, undulating sea of grass. A cloudless blue sky unfolded above them, nearly matching the green fields for uniformity. Tillie felt like a slice of peppered salami sandwiched between one giant green slice of bread and one giant blue slice of bread.
“I’m getting hungry, Grayden,” she said, licking her lips. “I think it’s about time for my double-sized lunch.”
“Sounds good to me.” Grayden plopped the supply pack and himself on the ground in the middle of the pathway. “I could use a break anyway. My feet really hurt.”
“I hate to tell you this,” Tillie replied, “but it looks like your shoulders and face will be hurting you very soon as well. They’re as bright red as Ophelia’s shell.”
Grayden looked down at himself, his previously pale white flesh glowing red. “What do you think it is?” he asked, beginning to panic. “Perhaps the curse has expanded and is now changing things red?”
Tillie tried to stifle a laugh, but it slipped out.
“Why are you laughing?” Grayden asked. Gently, he touched one of his shoulders. “It’s really hot! Maybe the curse is becoming deadly!”
“It’s not the curse,” Tillie said, feeling guilty for having laughed. “You’ve just got sunburn because you’re not used to being in the sun for so long, that’s all.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m positive,” Tillie said in her most adult-like, authoritative voice. “I didn’t get burnt because I’m outside in the sun nearly every day – unless it’s raining, in which case I’m outside in the rain.”
Grayden looked a little calmer.
“Trust me,” Tillie added, placing one hand lightly on his shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” he agreed.
“I bet a good meal will make you feel better,” Tillie said. “And I know a good meal will make me feel better.” She grabbed the supply satchel and pulled out two snails, weighing them in her hands. Although she was tempted to keep the slightly larger snail for herself, she decided to give that one to Grayden.
Tillie settled down onto the Trail of Dragon to eat her smaller one, but before she could even take one bite, she noticed something odd – the trail seemed to be pulsing beneath her.
“Do you feel something?” Tillie asked.
Grayden just stared at her, his mouth full of snail.
“The ground,” Tillie said. “It’s going ‘thump, thump, thump.’”
Grayden leaned forward and put his ear to the earth. He was quiet for a moment, not even chewing. “You’re right,” he said at last. “I can feel the ground pounding against my face.”
“I can hear it now, too,” Tillie said. “And it’s getting louder.” She looked at Grayden, afraid. “Whatever’s making that sound is very big.”
Grayden set aside his snail and drew his dagger. He stood up slowly and almost immediately fell backwards onto the packed earth. A large brown shape lept from the grass in front of him and landed on the opposite side of the Trail of Dragon.
As the mysterious creature soared over their heads, Tillie studied it, mentally prepared for the sharp fangs, blood-stained claws, and powerful body of the Wompus Wulf. What she saw, however, was the pale underbelly of a gazelle.
Tillie stood, pointing at the animal’s backside as it ran away from them. “That’s not the Wompus Wulf!” she said, laughing.
“Definitely not,” Grayden agreed.
Still running at top speed, the gazelle changed directions, giving Tillie and Grayden a look at its side. A single green stripe decorated its brown-and-white flank and a pair of long, green horns sprouted from its head, curving back over its body.
“I don’t think gazelle’s horns and stripes are usually green....” Tillie said.
“Tillie!” Grayden yelled. “Look this way!”
Tillie turned towards him just in time to see thirty-some more gazelles running directly for them. Grabbing Grayden’s hand, Tillie threw herself face down onto the trail as the entire herd of gazelles jumped over the two of them. The sound of the hooves on the hard ground deafened her while loose bits of dirt blinded her. She closed her eyes as clumps of torn grass rained down upon them.
A few seconds later the stampede ended as quickly as it had begun.
“I don’t think we should stand up yet,” Tillie said. “Every time we do, we get another surprise.” She remained seated, crossing her arms.
Even though Tillie refused to stand, another surprise arrived anyway. One last gazelle, thinner and less athletic that the others, sprang from the grass and into the air, trying to keep up with the rest of the herd.
“See,” Tillie said, laughing. “At least we don’t have to throw ourselves to the ground this time!”
Her laugh ended abruptly as another, larger and mangier creature launched itself from the weeds, catching the gazelle in its claws in mid-air. The beast vaguely resembled the wolves that Tillie had seen in the Strange Forest, but was easily three times their size. Its fur was a shade of dark gray or brown, although the filth and gore matted into its pelt made it hard to tell. The hair along the creature’s spine curled in on itself, forming a row of coils all along its back like a line of razor wire. Massive claws decorated the tip of the monster’s paws, glinting red and wet in the noonday sun. Although the beast’s large, grimy body was frightening, its face was even more horrifying, all snarling lips and serrated teeth; and yet, Tillie could tell there was intelligence and cunning in its eyes.
“The Wompus Wulf,” Tillie whispered.
“Come on!” Grayden said, grabbing Tillie with one hand and breaking into a run. “We need to get out of here now.”
Tillie allowed herself to be pulled along for a moment, but then realized that they had forgotten the supply satchel. Wriggling free of Grayden’s grasp, she rushed back to the bag and scooped it up in her arms.
The Wompus Wulf growled and snapped at the gazelle with its massive jaws.
The gazelle bleated in fear.
“Stop!” a defiant voice yelled.
Both the Wompus Wulf and the gazelle looked in Tillie’s direction.
Tillie looked beside her, assuming that Grayden had issued the command. The young warrior was not there.
A second later Tillie realized that the defiant voice had belonged to her.
She shrugged and decided to go for broke. “That’s right,” she continued, “I’m talking to you, ugly!”
In one great gulp, the Wompus Wulf swallowed the gazelle whole.
“No!” Tillie yelled, tears of frustration and anger forming in the corners of her eyes.
The Wompus Wulf leaned back on its haunches and leapt, clearing the distance between itself and Tillie in a single bound. She felt her bravery leave as the beast approached, its mouth open so wide that she could count its teeth. Saliva dribbled from the corners of its jaws, wetting the grass as the creature loped toward her.
Tillie grabbed the lasso that hung at her waist and snapped it forward. All the afternoons of roping her toucan Lucius paid off in that moment; the lasso settled around the Wompus Wulf’s muzzle. Tillie yanked back on the rope, tightening the loop around the beast’s mouth and sealing it off. The Wompus Wulf’s lips protruded in a circle like the ends of a tied-off sack.
Undaunted, the Wompus Wulf jerked its head to the side, pulling the rope backwards with all the force in its body. Tillie held tightly to the other end and flew forward several feet off of the ground. A split-second later, her head met the ground, the supply satchel landing a few feet from her. She lay motionless for a second, dazed.
The Wompus Wulf sliced the rope in two and freed its mouth. The beast sprang directly in front of Tillie and raised one mighty set of claws to strike.
But instead, the Wompus Wulf roared in pain and lurched to the side, a familiar pike-tooth dagger jutting from its haunch.
Grayden had attacked.
The Wompus Wulf knocked the young warrior to the ground, but he held tight to his dagger, pulling it free from the monster’s hide as he fell. In a flash, he was on his feet again, holding his weapon in front of him and yelling taunts at the Wompus Wulf.
Her head spinning, Tillie watched Grayden and the Wompus Wulf circle one another. In the distance, beyond the two combatants, she suddenly noticed a blot in the otherwise clear, blue sky. At first she thought the cloud was a swarm of insects, but as the shapes drew closer she realized that they were not insects – they were owls.
“Grayden!” Tillie yelled, pointing. “Duck!”
Grayden glanced behind him. “Those aren’t ducks,” he yelled back.Tillie could even make out the puckered “X” scar of the lead daylight owl.
“Drop to the ground!” Tillie screamed.
Grayden did as she said, falling into the weeds at the side of the trail just as the parliament of owls swung low in the air to attack.
Much to Tillie’s surprise, their attack was not aimed at Grayden – it was aimed at the Wompus Wulf.
Screeching in unison, the regiment of owls slammed into the Wompus Wulf full force. Wave after wave of the birds pounded the monster with their bodies, beaks, and talons, many of the owls flying away with clumps of fur.
Caught off balance, the Wompus Wulf lashed back at the owls, catching one of the birds with its claw and batting it to the ground.
The remaining owls regrouped in midair, lining up for another attack.
Tillie looked across the field to where Grayden lay in the grass. With one hand he indicated the parliament of owls and mouthed, “What’s going on?”
“Wait there,” he mouthed back. Taking advantage of the ongoing battle, he made his way to Tillie, crouching to keep his head below the top of the grass. He knelt beside her. “Can you stand?”
“I think so,” Tillie said. “My head feels a bit fazy.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“It’s a combination of ‘hazy’ and ‘fuzzy,’” Tillie explained. “So, it’s bad.”
Grayden grabbed her hand and hauled her to her feet. “Now, run!” he said.
And she did, leaving the supply satchel behind this time.