The trip passed as tensely for Connall as it did serenely for the traders. They joked and laughed around the campfire at night, little noting their guide's sulkiness. After all, woodland guides were detached, quiet types. Inside, fear knotted his guts into a ball of twine. He was sure to find a monster in every tree's shadow, a demon lurking behind every boulder. Connall knew the trails well, however, so though his eyes reddened with lack of sleep and his attention strayed from his task, he led the small host unerringly along the proper route.
When they reached the Monongahela, he'd dispelled most of his misgivings. They'd passed Queen Aliquippa's village, now more like a town, teeming with life and trade. The sun shone bright off the river water, the weather sunny and crisp. Surely he and Albrecht had defeated and driven evil from the land last year. Such were the lies he clung to.
Then Connall loosed a huge sigh to himself the afternoon they arrived at the confluence of the three rivers, the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio. Edward Trunch ran a successful trading post in the triangle of land embraced by those rivers. The pack of traders shrugged off their weariness and, with smiles all around, unloaded their treasures. Trunch, a skinny man with wiry black hair and a brooding brow, conducted shrewd business. The traders swapped metal implements, mainly sharpened knives, for beaver, ermine and sea otter pelts, which England held in high demand. Several days passed in rest and revelry, shared drink and jovial chats around the hearth. The visitors relayed news of the wide world. Many tall tales were told, and Sullivan laughed along with the rest. Soon, the exhaustion of the trail wiped away, Connall readied the traders to depart.
Late in the afternoon the day before their departure, a Shawnee trading party arrived. An old clan chief, Nixkamich, as wrinkled and tanned as a worn leather pouch, had brought skins to trade for manufactured goods they could not make themselves. His fortuitous timing meant Trunch would enjoy a bountiful week of trade. Accompanied by fifteen warriors and his daughter Alsoomse, Nixkamich felt no rush to commence business so late in the day. His warriors made camp in the clearing outside, and Nixkamich and Alsoomse accepted Trunch's hospitality and stayed in the cabin.
"How far have you traveled, Nixkamich?" Trunch asked. Everyone had gathered close to the hearth to stave off the evening chill and share in the rich stew simmering on the fire.
"Not far, Mister Trunch," the chief said in a slow, gravelly voice. His English, though elongated and deliberate, was excellent. "My village is but half a day's walk along the banks of the Alligewinenk. We arrived so late because my legs have thinned to small and brittle sticks, and I cannot walk so fast as in my youth."
"A land into which they came from distant parts," Connall said quietly, but Alsoomse caught his words.
"You know our language well, Mister Sullivan, to know the translation," she said. Dark, penetrating eyes matched her long raven hair, restrained with a leather band. A slim young woman, hardly more than a girl, Connall sensed steel in her spine.
"I'm versed in the languages and cultures of this land, Alsoomse," he said.
"You are known to me," Nixkamich said, "though we haven't met. You're famed in the Ohio Country for your honor and courage, and skill with our words. It pleases me to meet you."
"It pleases me, too."
Alsoomse regarded him with a wary eye, but the ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "My father--" she started to say, but her voice drowned in a cacophony of screams and the clater of battle flooding inside from the night.
The traders, unschooled to combat, huddled away from the door. Connall found his feet first, sprinting across the cabin and scooping up his dragon blunderbuss. Alsoomse followed fast on his heels, and he saw Trunch and Nixkamich in his periphery. What Connall beheld when he emerged onto the covered porch recalled the terrors of his last trip west, and his knees buckled while he hesitated and took in the scene. The others recoiled at the chaotic sight as they stepped onto the porch.
A massive snakelike body, at least fifty paces long, slithered along the farthest reaches of a large bonfire, strewing bloody death amongst Nixkamich's warriors. The beast had a mismatched, unnatural form. Crystalline scales shimmered along its entire body, reflecting shooting sparks of fire, broken only by a series of dark stripes spaced a hand's breadth apart. From the top of its head jutted an enormous branching of thorny antlers, which dwarfed those found on the largest buck. Set in the middle of its forehead, separating the large, slitted reptilian eyes, was a giant gemstone. Somehow overshadowing the other hideous features, this stone, bigger than four fists, raped Connall's perceptions with its obscenity. It reflected more than double the light generated by all its scales. Even in the night gloom, bridged only by a bonfire, he felt its slimy touch upon his mind, penetrating his skull through his vulnerable eyes, the gem's dazzle beckoning him forward. Connall thanked God he hadn't seen the gem in broad daylight, else he'd have been lost to its mesmerizing spell.
Many warriors were not as lucky. Some raised weapons, but their feet froze and they swayed from side to side, gaping, benumbed hands dropping weapons. The creature's fangs, more deadly than a wolf's, snapped chunks from this easy meat. A barbed tail lashed several warriors, leaving them pulpy mounds of ruined flesh. Others either resisted or avoided the gem's lure, but the behemoth huffed a stream of breaths, knocking them flat to the ground, rigid and unmoving.
Connall rushed off the porch but couldn't risk firing his blunderbuss, unable to get a clear shot. He dropped the gun and leapt to the attack, pulling the basket-hilted hanger from his belt, its blade glowing crimson in the firelight. Trunch lumbered along beside him, and Nixkamich shoved Alsoomse back and sprung forward, nimble despite his age.
"Keep your eyes off the gem," Trunch shouted, panting and circling to the right around the fire.
"It's breath is doom," Connall bellowed, going around the other way. "Dash in and out like skirmishers. Try to inflict many wounds to drive it off."
The last handful of warriors began a series of darting runs with their eyes low, chopping at the creature in passing, then darting away. The beast took its toll still, snapping necks with its jaws and goring with its antlers. Then Connall's entire attention became absorbed in his own dance with death, cutting at the hardened scales, ducking to avoid fangs and horns, tumbling over and around the tail. Once it tried to crush him under its coiled body, but Connall threw himself to the side, singeing his shirt in the fire. He was happy to make the trade.
Bloody gashes opened up along its flanks, thin lines of dripping ichor. The thing roared, thundering like the rush of a waterfall on rocks. Whether they had hurt the monster enough, or it had decided to seek easier prey, they drove it off. It thrashed its tail to clear the area, and with lightning quickness spun on its coils and bellied into the brush.
Connall shifted his hanger to his left hand and made a sign of the cross, thankful to have escaped the fight unhurt. He glanced around, every muscle in his body screaming protests. Not a single warrior remained standing. Trunch, bent over with his hands on his knees, puffed deep breaths. Alsoomse, the headstrong Shawnee girl, clutched a hand to her forearm, blood leaking through her fingers. He took a step toward her, but noticed Nixkamich stricken on the ground between them, still gripping an ichor-bathed knife. Shock gripped Alsoomse, holding her in place.
"Trunch, stand watch against the creature's return," he said. "I'll see to Nixkamich. Alsoomse." Connall glanced up at the maiden. "Run inside and tell the traders we've survived an assault by a warring clan. Tell them to stay safe inside. Have them set water to boiling, then cut a sheet into strips."
Alsoomse glared at him for a moment, unwilling to accept orders from the man, but unable to argue the sense of those orders. A split second later she loped back toward the cabin. Connall dropped his sword, fell to his knees and applied pressure to the worst of Nixkamich's wounds, desperate, knowing he couldn't deal with them all at once. The old chief wouldn't survive until his daughter's return.
A groan sounded on the other side of the fire, and Connall's hand twitched toward his fallen hanger. The sound was human, though, and moments later one of Nixkamich's warriors staggered to his feet, the lone survivor of the chief's retinue. The man clutched a hand to his scalp, which had flowed blood down to bathe half his face. When he realized the wound wouldn't kill him, the warrior set his mouth in a grim line and approached his fallen chief.
"I Hassun," the warrior said in broken English.
"Kneel beside him and use your hands to put pressure there and there, like me." Connall nodded his head at the worst remaining wounds.
Hassun understood and fell to his knees, helping staunch the flow of his chief's lifeblood. Alsoomse ran out of the cabin, bearing improvised bandages and a flask. Connall and Hassun grabbed the bandages and set to work. They balled up strips of cloth and pressed them into the hideous wounds, rolling him gently from side to side to wrap them in place. Alsoomse stooped down to give her father a drink, but Connall held up his hand. He sniffed over Nixkamich's torn abdomen to determine if the stomach or intestines had been punctured, knowing never to let a man with a stomach wound eat or drink anything. Sensing no foul smell, he nodded to Alsoomse.
Once they had stabilized Nixkamich, Connall and Hassun carried him gently into the cabin and nestled the old man in blankets near the hearth. The chief remained unconscious in an unsettled, fevered sleep. The traders had accepted the contrived explanation of an enemy attack, but panicked at the thought of staying put and going to sleep. It took time to convince them how foolish it would be to flee in the middle of the night, but they finally saw reason and bedded down around Nixkamich near the fire. Hassun sat cross-legged beside his chief, watching over the stricken man. Connall and Trunch set stools between those slumbering around the fire and the cabin door, and Alsoomse joined them.
"What in God's name attacked us?" Connall asked. He brought a cup of reheated stew to his lips.
"A Demon," Trunch said. He crossed himself. "God allowed something to escape Hell this night, although I don't know why." He shot Alsoomse an accusatory glare, as if the Shawnee had brought it upon them.
"Your God had nothing to do with this," Alsoomse said. "The Kinepikwa is nothing more than a beast of the wild. A hideous, powerful being, of course, but a natural."
Trunch's cheeks reddened. Connall sensed Trunch would falling back on his lapsed religious beliefs, which would close the man off from reason and worsen the situation.
"You're both right and wrong, Alsoomse." The statement annoyed the other two, and directed their ire at him. "God had no involvement in this attack. On the other hand, whether or not it found life in the deepest pits of Hell, or it came from another dimension, I know it's not natural."
Alsoomse glared at him. "How can you know this, Connall?"
"Because I've fought monstrosities before."
The fur trader withdrew within himself, hunching over and hugging his arms tight, but Alsoomse's eyes widened. "You," she breathed. "You're one of the foreign warriors who aided Queen Aliquippa overthrow the Dark Moon."
Connall nodded, his face's features hardening to stone. "The evils I faced there, the nightmares that emerged from the mists…no man could ever call them natural. The Kinepikwa is akin to those monsters. Whatever it is, it must be destroyed, ripped from this world, never to haunt us again."
Alsoomse pondered. "The legends say Kinepikwa dwells in our rivers and lakes, a benevolent creature who attacks only to punish the wicked." Connall noted the smoothness of her voice, how effortless she spoke English, far better even than her father. "But it makes no sense, Connall Sullivan. Mister Trunch has a good reputation, and is well respected by the surrounding clans. My father and I came to trade in good faith. Why then have we been visited by the Kinepikwa?"
"Evil acts for purely selfish reasons," Connall said. "Perhaps the large number of warriors awoke the thing, or it grew hungry and sought a source of meat. Who can say?"
"Who can say." Alsoomse echoed the words, and gnawed at her lower lip.
They lapsed into an uneasy silence, lost in troubled musings. The fire crackled behind them, their backs absorbing its precious heat, but Connall shivered. The horrors he had tried to forget, and the dark secrets of the Ohio Country, had caught up to him. He feared, and hated himself for it.
"You...must kill the Kinepikwa." Nixkamich's thin voice barely tickled their ears. His face had lost all color, taking on a ghostly pallor which signaled his death. Hassun tried to hold his chief still, but the warrior couldn't do so without hurting him worse. Nixkamich rolled onto his side, gritting his teeth against a flood of pain. "Kill it. Before it finds a mate."
Alsoomse rushed to him. "Rest, father, you'll need your strength."
A racking cough tore past his lips, blood bubbling on his lips, and Nixkamich's chest heaved with the effort. One of the traders stirred in his sleep. "My spirit will provide all the strength I'll need. Listen, and take heed." Connall leaned in close beside Alsoomse, and Trunch held back, listening over their shoulders. "The Kinepikwa is not just one beast, as our legends say. They are a blight, a curse upon the land, but they breed fast. Their broods are large. Kill it, or we are doomed."
"I've already decided to try," Connall said, realizing he had come to the decision only as he spoke. "The Kinepikwa will likely feast upon my corpse before the end, but by God, I'll prove a stubborn meal."
"We should wait until morning to track it," Trunch said from behind them. "To do so at night would be folly."
"Agreed," Connall said. He turned to go find his own blankets and nab a few hours' sleep against the coming challenge, but Alsoomse's low cry interrupted him.
Nixkamich lay limp within his blankets, face slack, eyes open and unseeing. His daughter choked in grief over him, Hassun seated impassively at her side. Connall marveled at her ability to hold back from wailing, so she didn't disturb the slumbering traders. Her strength in the face of great personal anguish drove all fear from his spirit. He flexed his hands open and closed, longing to bear his weapons against the behemoth. Leaving Alsoomse alone with Nixkamich's body, unwilling to intrude upon her grief, he took up his weapons. Connall wiped the gore from his sword, tested its edge, then worked the burrs from the blade. The blunderbuss hadn't been fired, but he made sure the powder hadn't been gone damp. Only after he was satisfied his weapons were in perfect order did Connall seek his blankets. Alsoomse enlisted Hassun's aid, and they were cleaning Nixkamich's body. Trunch agreed to wake him before dawn, and Connall slipped into a surprisingly restful sleep.
Trunch shook him awake while darkness still ruled the skies. Hassun's eyes snapped open, and the warrior glanced over at the two men. He rose along with Connall. Alsoomse slumbered alongside her father's corpse, face serene in her unconscious sanctuary, where she found escape from last night's terrible loss. The trio made ready. Trunch dawdled, nervous and hesitant, but nodded toward the door. They eased into a brisk dawn.
Connall had no trouble tracking the Kinepikwa. The weeds surrounding the clearing had been pushed flat to the ground by the beast's passing, leading them to the forest's edge. Early morning light illuminated their way amongst the trees, where they followed a large game trail for a stretch, branching off onto smaller and smaller paths. Connall lamented not being able to appreciate the raw beauty of the verdant scene, awash with sparkling sunlight, but he had greater concerns. The trails narrowed until twigs alongside them stuck out broken and ruined, the brush disturbed by the behemoth's movements.
"This isn't right," Trunch said. "This thing lives in the water. Why aren't we getting closer to the Allegheny or Monongahela?"
Hassun shrugged. Connall, though troubled by Trunch's observation, pointed ahead. "The trail works around to the other side of this smooth sumac bush."
Most of the sumac had been ripped apart, leaving only one clump standing. When they rounded the bush, they found the thing's lair. A great gaping hole circled by mounds of loose dirt stood open upon the forest floor, severed roots ringing it. The breach yawned wider than two arm spans, angling down into the earth as far as he could see. He strained, listening to make sure the giant beast wasn't about to attack. A soft rushing noise rose to his ears, only just audible over the forest's ambient sounds. The discovery confused Connall. What kind of burrowing creature could make such a noise? Even more puzzling, what kind of creature could coexist with the Kinepikwa? Trunch's reaction to their discovery answered him.
The fur trader swore loudly, giving vent to his mingled fear and anger. "Blast it all, it's the Fourth River."
"Fourth River?" Connall asked, perplexed. "Speak sense, man. Besides the three rivers, there isn't another one within several days' journey."
Hassun gave a slight shiver, which took Connall aback even more than Trunch's words. "It's an old legend told by the folk of the Ohio Country. Supposedly there's an underground river between the Allegheny and Monongahela." Trunch wrung his hands, and his eyes grew haunted. "The Fourth River, the natives call it. It holds great evil, so they all say, and should it ever be revealed unto the world, a great evil will ascend to hunt the people. I thought it all superstitious hogwash, but…" He made a weak gesture at the hole.
"I know why it surfaced here," Alsoomse said, stepping forward from the brush. Trunch jumped in fright at her appearance, and she startled Connall too. Hassun took her appearance with stoic acceptance, although Connall detected the faint traces of a frown touch his features.
"You shouldn't be here, Alsoomse," he said.
"Faugh," she said, sniffing disdainfully. "You might be bigger and stronger, but I'm faster than you are. I could hamstring you before you drew your sword."
"Why did this thing dig up from the Fourth River here, Alsoomse?" Trunch, whose voice had pitched higher since she surprised him, clung to the previous topic.
"The Kinepikwa can eat the flesh and bones of twenty warriors for one meal," she said, "but its favored food is smooth sumac. It helps its digestion," she added. Trunch flinched from the idea.
Connall looked around at the destruction the beast had wrought upon the bushes. "Makes sense. Well then." He hefted his blunderbuss and motioned to the hole. "Best get this over with."
Trunch backed away, shaking his head and holding his hands before him. "No, never," he said. "I'll not go down that pit. I thought it all a lie, but now I know the awful stories are true. I'm not going to walk willingly into Hell. Folly! I say we fill in the hole, pack provisions and flee east."
Alsoomse gave him a disparaging glance, and Connall frowned. "Do as you will, Trunch, but I'm killing it before it finds a mate. I'll not have the Ohio Country overrun by this evil. It dies, or today I meet my end."
"If you kill it, Sullivan, I'll reward you with a fortune in pelts," Trunch said. "You'll never have to work a again. Kill it for me, Sullivan."
The interpreter shook his head and ignored the man's ravings. He looked at Hassun and gestured his head toward the hole. Hassun nodded and stepped forward.
"The folly of men," Alsoomse muttered, "will be the death of me."
"Oh?" Connall asked.
"What will you do, Connall, if you need to flee the tunnel? Stumble your way out?"
He hadn't thought so far ahead, and wilted under her haughty stare.
She sighed. "Mister Trunch, would you loan us three spades and some torches?"
"Most gladly, Alsoomse, if it'll help rid me of this Kinepikwa." The fur trader bustled off through the trees.
"So we cut ourselves stairs as we go," Connall said. "Ha, I like it." Alsoomse made to give a reply, but he held up a hand. "For now, we should clear away the underbrush. If the creature comes back, we'll need room to fight. Alsoomse, guard the hole while Hassun and I get to work. Cut and retreat if it attacks, and we'll take it in turns to rush it, like before."
Alsoomse, without a word or hint of fear, took up her warrior's role and stood guard. Now they had a plan, and the two men set to work. By the time Trunch returned, Connall and Hassun had cleared a nice killing ground in a rough circle around the hole. The fur trader handed off the spades and fled back to his cabin without pretense.
"Before we start down, I'd like your help with that, Hassun." Connall pointed at a large rock protruding from the dirt amidst a stand of hemlock. Hassun nodded, but Alsoomse glanced a question at him. "If it chases us from the tunnel, we'll need a way to seal it."
The next few hours passed with laborious monotony. At first they worried about the roof collapsing, but the tunnel had been smoothed with use; the Kinepikwa's antlers were stronger than normal for it to burrow through the ground with them. They worked side by side in the enormous tunnel, cutting steps. They didn't need to carry the displaced dirt to the surface; pushing it down along the tunnel's edges. They set torches at their feet, fetching them lower whenever they made progress. The threat of a cave-in hovered over them the whole way, but it paled in comparison to what awaited them below. Meanwhile, the rushing noise of the Fourth River echoed up to them, beckoning, gaining volume with every step they carved.
The winding tunnel eventually led them so deep beneath the earth, and so close to the subterranean river, Connall's mind seemed to melt away into the rapid flow. It pounded at his ears, thumping through his consciousness to fill his attention. He worked by rote, hacking at the dirt with his spade, digging with humdrum efficiency. Soon a low, seeping light crept up from below, eventually providing enough illumination for them to proceed without torchlight. At Connall's orders they took the torches back to the surface. He propped one across the rock and left it burning, then they returned to their drudgery. Step by weary step they went, until the next step must lead into the cavern, though the tunnel stretched on and on.
Another span of time passed, at least an hour, although it was impossible to tell. Then Alsoomse cried out, Connall only just hearing her over the river. He and Hassun turned at once, spades raised high to ward off an attack. What met their eyes froze them in place, to marvel with awe at the raw beauty of the Kinepikwa's domain. The hole ended at the base of the cavern wall, spilling out on a wide ledge covered in uneven gravel, uneven piles of dirt at their feet. The dark waters of the Fourth River streamed past the ledge, hiding the creature just beneath the surface, for all they knew. The cavern's ceiling, however, stopped their breaths. The packed dirt would have been commonplace had it not been pockmarked by small crystalline gems, reminiscent of their prey's forehead adornment. They wouldn't have been able to see the ceiling at all, if not for the illumination from these jewels. Connall stepped forward to gain a better view, and Alsoomse and Hassun stood at his shoulders. They stared at the wondrous stones, fascinated at how they reflected each other to provide so much soft light.
A strange rippling in the water upstream from them caught Connall's eye, and he ripped his gaze from the impressive gems to regard it. "Alsoomse, Hassun, ready yourselves." He smiled and raised the dragon blunderbuss alongside his hip.
The Kinepikwa roared forth from the river, flopping onto the ledge in front of them with great momentum. The wounds scored across its scales gaped open like mouths of toothless, festering flesh, ready to lap up their blood. Its bared fangs flashed, then it lowered its head to bring the antlers to bear, and to angle its gem forward. Connall forgot about his companions, narrowing his eyes and focusing on the monster rushing to kill him. He squeezed the trigger the moment it faced him, waited several seconds for the fuse to work, and rode the force of the powerful firearm as it kicked back beside him, grinning savagely at the blast.
The stone in its forehead shattered into a thousand pieces, a whole antler careened off into the water, and chunks of flesh flew away as hundreds of little lead balls ripped into the beast. Its horns weren't invulnerable after all. The cavern shook, the sound nearly deafening Connall with its reverberations, and a cloud of dust fell from the ceiling, bathing everything in a brown haze. He dropped the now useless blunderbuss and whipped out his sword. Hassun leapt forward, cut across the creature's lower jaw with his hand axe, and danced nimbly away from its breath. Alsoomse then ran in front of Connall before he could charge, mirroring Hassun's feat in a more graceful fashion, lithe and smooth, stabbing under a horn with a long knife. He finally had the chance to attack, but before he could move, the Kinepikwa roared in pain and wallowed to the side, into the river. Either it was too big, or the river too shallow, because it left a churning wake as it fled.
"Let's finish it before it escapes." Connall had no way of knowing how far the cavern extended, or if the ledge paralleled the Fourth River's entire length. They had multiplied the monster's wounds. He reckoned they'd have little trouble killing it now.
Hassun bellowed, releasing his rage as he bounded along the ledge, outpacing the others. The behemoth had slain his chief, and the burly warrior looked to wreak his revenge. Connall and Alsoomse raced after, one to each side, to protect his flanks. One of the gems from the ceiling, trailing a length of tree roots, plopped into the river, then another, and yet a third. Soon more fell, countless, disturbing the Fourth Rivers's entire surface. Hassun faltered in his charge, and Connall squinted up at the ceiling, afraid it would fall in on them.
"Those are young Kinepikwa," Alsoomse shrieked.
Connall couldn't believe her at first, but a second look confirmed it. "By God, you're right," he said, backing towards the tunnel. "Hundreds of them. Up, Hassun, Alsoomse. Go!"
Hassun needed no urging, his desire for revenge temporarily checked. Alsoomse followed fast on his heels. As soon as they cleared the cavern, Connall fled behind them. From far below came the sounds of scales scraping across dirt, the Kinepikwa's children slithering after their prey. He silently blessed Alsoomse for insisting on the stairs, for they would never have reached the surface without them.
Connall threw himself from the tunnel and into the clean afternoon air. Alsoomse stood several long paces back from the hole, brandishing her knife. Hassun tried to shoulder the rock in place, but hadn't the strength to manage it alone. Connall put his shoulder behind it, and they wrestled the rock over to plug the tunnel mouth. He drove the remaining torches handle-down into the ground, then struck sparks from his flint and steel to light them.
Connall rose to his feet. "Alsoomse, run back to the cabin and fetch the small cask from my pack."
"You'll not shuffle me away to safety with your tricks," she said.
"No tricks," he growled, glaring through her. This time she opened her mouth to argue. "Do it, or we're all dead. Trust me."
His last words had the desired effect. Alsoomse nodded and hurried away.
The stone shuddered, dislodging dirt from around its edges, staying in place but shaking loose. Connall glanced at Hassun, and they nodded to each other. Their plan had failed, thwarted by the strength of many small creatures. No way would the stone be able to keep the monsters below. They would force their way free any moment now, and the two men must do their best to guard the hole against Alsoomse's return.
Moments later the stone toppled aside, revealing a knot of writhing scales, pulsating upward. Three young beasts pushed free from the others, slithering up from the hole. Connall struck first, severing one's head and scoring a second across its brow. Hassun came in as he retreated, inflicting similar damage. Yet whenever they killed one, another took its place. Those wretched siblings didn't want to work together, each struggling to reach the surface first, or they'd have overwhelmed Connall and Hassun in seconds. Their gems hadn't grown large enough to mesmerize the warriors, nor did their effect combine, but the breath still posed a threat. Sticking to their original plan of skirmish, the warriors somehow managed to keep the young Kinepikwa brood at bay.
Their defense came with a heavy toll, however, as they took terrible wounds. Hassun's forearms both sustained long gashes, and he soon limped from a fang wound to his calf. Connall suffered a grazed forehead early on, which didn't do much damage, but the blood dripping into his eyes made it hard to see. This caused him to almost let one slither free. He killed it with a backward swipe of his sword, but not before it gored him in the hip. A great roar below the earth, followed by a second pitched higher than the first, warned them of the other behemoth's approach.
"Connall, I have the gunpowder," Alsoomse said, running into the clearing, bearing a cask under both arms. "Trunch gave me a keg too."
"We have a problem," Connall said, grunting as he took a tail lash to the shoulder. Hassun launched an attack to cover his retreat. "After we break the casks in the mouth of the hole, how are we to hold them back long enough to light the powder?"
He charged in to allow Hassun to limp away, but the Shawnee warrior only paused, swiping the head off another Kinepikwa. Hassun raised his hand axe in a brief salute, then dove forward into the hole, hacking and swinging with a berserker fury. The warrior would avenge Nixkamich's death through this ultimate sacrifice, and buy them time to explode the hole.
Alsoomse bolted forward. Connall grabbed one of the casks from her as she passed. She lifted the other and dashed it down into the hole. It didn't break, falling into the back of Hassun's legs, bringing him to his knees. Hassun had received several mortal wounds, but still fought on.
"No," Alsoomse cried, but Connall stepped in front of her. He heaved his cask down so it crashed into the other one, splitting them both. Gunpowder spilled around Hassun's knees, saturating the sloping tunnel, sliding under the creatures. Connall turned to find a torch, but Alsoomse held one above her head. "Run," she said, and tossed it down the hole.
Five beasts sunk their fangs into Hassun's mangled body. The warrior's head lolled back to face him in the final moment, a smile spread across his blood-spattered face. Hassun's had been a good death, and he took comfort in the warrior's final gesture of acceptance. Connall grabbed Alsoomse's shoulders, hurling her to the ground behind a tree's thick bole. Thunder erupted behind them, sucking sound from the air, clogging their ears with muted pressure.
An eternity later, Connall staggered to his feet, palms pressed over his ringing ears. Alsoomse rose, weaving around, trying to get her bearings. The earsplitting blast had to have destroyed the Kinepikwa and buried their progenitors. He shook his head and managed to get his bearings. What met his eyes, however, wreathed his heart in dismay. The hole had collapsed, true, and the churned earth around it lay still. He observed no other signs of aftereffects, though, to show the cavern had collapsed. For all they knew, most of the monsters yet lived.
Then the earth buckled, the trees heaved in every direction before their eyes, and the world collapsed beside them. Alsoomse and Connall fell to their knees, unable to stand in the face of the awful onslaught. Coupled with the disorientation following the explosion, it took them several minutes to recover and haul themselves to their feet. What met their eyes both horrified and thrilled them. The landscape had been ravaged, a giant depression cutting through the forest. Trees poked out from it at odd angles, and raw earth mingled with uprooted brush to mar the sight. The wide trench must have been thirty or more feet deep. He might have been wrong, but Connall surmised it stretched all the way from the Monongahela River to the Allegheny. They had buried the Fourth River forever.
They couldn't know if they'd killed all the Kinepikwa, but they could do no more. Connall wished he hadn't gone temporarily deaf, for he longed to speak with Alsoomse. She looked with sadness down at the basin, Hassun's final resting place, which Connall knew had saved the Ohio Country. Songs would be sung about Hassun's sacrifice for years. Alsoomse looked up and met his eyes. He lost himself in her gaze, and she in his. They came together in a tight hug and joined in a long, tender kiss. Their embrace, born from grief and exhilaration, promised nothing more than momentary joy at surviving, a celebration of life to banish death from their minds. Connall drew back from Alsoomse, and they sought comfort in each other's eyes. Though he had again endured the Ohio Country's dreadful secrets, and doubted not he'd face them in the future, Connall Sullivan would never let fear conquer him again.
© January, 2015 Brandon Ketchum
Brandon Ketchum lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. He attended the 2013 Cascade Writers Workshop and has been published in Nocturnal Press Publication's Torched anthology, Pavor Nocturnus, Mad Scientist Journal, and Schlock! Webzine.