The grootslang coiled in the ruins of its egg and hissed. Its body was thick and muscular, like a snake's, armored with red and dull golden scales and supported at one end by two legs. Each leg was as wide as Jiri, and ended in thick claws. From the heavy chest between those legs a long neck stretched, ending in a blunt, triangular head. It looked like a viper's head, with slitted yellow eyes and a wide mouth lined with fangs, but from either side of that mouth grew three sharp tusks, six in all. A forked tongue flickered out of the grootslang's mouth, tasting the air before sliding back over one of the tusks, stripping the blood and tissue from it.
The grootslang blinked at them, then reached out with one claw, pinning Taba's broken corpse. Its head dipped and it bit into the remains and pulled back, tearing the body apart. Jiri shuddered at the terrible ripping sound, but she forced herself to watch, to not take her eyes off the beast, to not turn and run.
"Dahren. Do something!" Khair had drawn his sword, a thin thing that looked like a pretty toy compared to the grootslang's tusks.
"What?" Dahren asked, his eyes wide, darting from Khair, to Jiri, then back to the beast.
"You're a mage, cast something!"
"Something that will get us out of your stupid idea alive!"
The grootslang gathered up the rest of Taba and bolted him down as Jiri watched, her stomach clenching. A man turned to nothing but meat in a moment, and now that meat was gone too.
Fire blossomed in Jiri's hand, bright and hot, and the monster looked at her, tilting its head. Then it moved.
It shot like a dart from a blowgun, moving too fast for something that was the size of a crocodile, and it was in the water, its scaled body splitting the river, and when Jiri threw her fire it only hissed against the splashing surface, doing nothing to the beast.
"Is it gone?" Khair said, his sword still up.
"Gone. Gone, and all that coin, all that time spent wading through this miserable jungle, that's gone too." Dahren spat at the river. "Curse this place and everything that lives in it. The gods should burn it all."
Jiri ignored him, her clenched hands still hot. For once, the fire that she had so much trouble containing felt insufficient. "It's not gone," she said, watching the river, listening. The jungle had gone too quiet around them, birds and monkeys silent, the only sounds the hum of insects and the rush of the water.
"Where is it?" Dahren said, stepping back from the river, toward her. His hands moved, and he spoke, the words slurred and sibilant, and Jiri felt the air near Dahren grow prickly as he gathered his magic.
"I don't—" Jiri started, then she heard it, the sound of mud shifting behind her, and spun.
The grootslang was there, rearing up out of a shallow pool that stretched across the mud behind her. Far too shallow to hide the beast, but Jiri remembered what Oza had taught her: water was a door to the grootslang, one it could pass through, vanishing and reappearing where it willed. The beast reared up over Jiri, balancing on its coils, its tusks shining white as bone, white as the fangs of its gaping mouth. Without thinking, Jiri threw her fire at it, striking the monster in its broad chest.
The flames hissed across the grootslang's scales, barely marking them.
"Ah, heat. Pain." The words hissed free from the grootslang's mouth, though its jaws didn't move and its tongue flickered, tasting the air. "I had expected... more."
"It talks?" Khair was moving back, his sword up, his eyes wide.
"Grootslangs are cunning," Jiri said. Fire filled her hand again, but its heat felt useless.
"It just hatched," Dahren said from close behind her.
"My mother shared her thoughts. My father his voice." The grootslang tilted its head, staring down at them. "I've been listening to you speak for weeks as I chipped my way out of my shell. Stupid, greedy words, but they comforted me. Because I knew you were out there, and I was so hungry."
Jiri stepped back, putting worthless space between her and the beast, but Dahren was there. The man grabbed her and she felt his hand, crackling with the threat of magic, pressed against her back.
"No! Dahren shouted. "Not us. Not me or my companion."
"Why not?" Dark amusement filled the grootslang's words. "Because of you, human flesh was my first food. I found it very satisfying."
"And we can give you more." Dahren shook Jiri. "Take her. A morsel, I know, but her village is close. We'll lead you there to eat your fill."
"You—" Jiri started, but Dahren cut her curse off with a wrench of her arm.
"A whole village," the grootslang hissed. "That's what you offer, for your lives?" The beast lowered its head, staring at Jiri, at Dahren. "A sweet gift. Would you lead them to me? Would you portion out their flesh with your own hands and offer it to me, like a sacrifice?"
"Yes," Dahren said. "Just let me live."
The grootslang blinked once, slow, and laughter spilled from its jaws, low and terrible. "I think you would, you miserable creature. I think you would."
"Me too," Jiri growled, and she spun. She ignored the pain as he pulled at her arm, and the mud splattered across her made her slick. Ripping herself out of Dahren's grip, Jiri pulled away from the man. She could see the blue glow that limned his fingers, bright even in the sunlight, and she threw herself back, raising her own hand as she did, and threw her fire.
The flames caught the man in his beard and the oiled hair flared up. Dahren's lunge after her faltered, his hands flailing as he beat at the fire racing across his chest and up toward his face. Jiri lurched through the mud as fast as she could, dimly aware of Dahren shrieking curses, of Khair turning and running, splashing through mud and water as he raced downstream, his sword flashing as his arms pumped. What she was watching, though, was the grootslang.
The beast laughed again, reared up and then drove itself down. Its tusks slammed into Dahren's back, pinning him to the ground. Jiri's hair rose as magic and electricity flared out of the man, tiny bolts of lighting forking through the mud. The grootslang barely seemed to notice, and lifted its head.
Dahren came up with it, screaming. His clothes were soaked in blood, and the spear-sharp tusks of the beast jutted from his belly and chest. He writhed on them, trying to get away, and then jerked when the grootslang's jaws clenched shut on his back with an awful tearing sound. The grootslang bit again, and Dahren fell, legs to one side, chest and head to the other.
The grootslang looked at Jiri, blood dripping from its tusks. "If you're to scream and run, you best start now. It won't take me long to finish this." It dropped its jaws down, plucking flesh bone from the mud, but Jiri had already turned away.
Thoughts flared through her, desperate, useless. The grootslang was faster than her, and with its ability to pass through water there was almost no chance she could get away. There was only one thing she could do.
Jiri ran for the river, dove in and started swimming. For once, she didn't look for crocodiles. There was something worse behind her now, and she expected that at any moment it would appear under her, rising out of the water, snapping her down. When she reached the far bank, she stumbled out, shocked to still be alive. The other side of the river was empty now, the place where the beast had been marked only with its tracks in the mud and Dahren's blood.
Maybe—but she cut off that thought.
She couldn't escape.
"Useless, ugly, snake-thing! Stupid, scaly, animal! Eater of idiots! You'll never catch me!" Jiri started forward, running as fast as she could, gasping for the spirits to help her. In answer, the brush and vines parted around her, opening a space in the green wall of the jungle, letting her run. And maybe it was an answer to her prayers, too, that she heard a low laugh coming from the water behind her.
∗ ∗ ∗
Jiri didn't make it far.
She stopped, breathing hard, staring at the lake in front of her. It was thin and curved, probably an old loop of the river that had been cut off. Now it stood before her, water still as a mirror. She started moving down its bank, trying to get around it, but she hadn't gone five steps before the beast found her.
"Eater of idiots." The grootslang reared up from the lake, its blunt claws digging into the soft red dirt of the bank. Its eyes stared down at her over the thicket of its tusks. "I like that name. I like that idea."
Jiri raised her hands, fire gathering in them. Maybe if she caught the thing in an eye, it would blind it, slow it. Let her get away, so she could lead it farther. She threw the fire, and it struck the beast square in its face.
The grootslang shook its head, its low laugh a hiss. "And you called me useless," it said, rearing up, its tusks flashing in the sunlight. Jiri whispered to the ancestors she was about to meet, gathering her fire one last time.
Because of that, she missed the water moving behind the beast. Pulling in, rising into a column thicker than the grootslang. She saw it rear up behind the monster, a huge liquid shape, something like a snake but with a vaguely human face and a thousand shifting tendrils that constantly rose and fell from its surface. Those tendrils lashed out at the grootslang, wrapped around its scaly body and pulled it up, away from Jiri.
The beast hissed and writhed, its tail smashing through the column of water, splashing, but the elemental held it close, kept its tusks and jaws and claws away. The grootslang fought, trying to twist like a snake in the elemental's grip, and it didn't notice the massive tiger racing out of the trees toward it until the cat's claws were digging furrows through the scales of the grootslang's belly.
The grootslang shrieked, its writhing struggle scattering the dark-red blood that flowed from its wounds. It whipped its head around, glaring with hate at the great cat that stood on the bank in front of it, and its tail slapped out. The tiger snarled, its gray-shot muzzle pulling back from huge teeth as it ducked the blow, then reared up and slapped at the grootslang's belly again. The cat fell back, and as it moved it changed, drew in on itself, fur and fang swallowed by skin and mud cloth.
"Eater of idiots," Oza growled. "Start with your own tail then, grootslang."
The grootslang stopped moving, hung limp in the water elemental's constantly shifting embrace. "Who are you?" it hissed.
"I'm the one who claims this territory, and all in it. I'm the one that will tear you open and leave your guts for the gars if I ever find you near here again." Oza glared up at the beast, his brown eyes shifting yellow, his hands twisting toward claws. "Do you understand that?"
The grootslang hissed, but its head dipped.
"Go. Find a hunting ground far from here. And if you ever see a human again, think carefully before you strike. We are not all easy meals."
The grootslang's tongue flickered, but it said nothing as the elemental shifted around it, placing its liquid body in front of Oza and Jiri as it let the beast go. The grootslang slipped into the water and vanished, gone, leaving only the reek of its blood behind.
Jiri stood shaking in the mud, staring at her teacher.
"Hadzi couldn't have reached you that fast."
"I never saw Hadzi. The wara sent for me, after hearing that you and the boy and his father were swept away. I came back as fast as I could. Just fast enough, it seems." Oza raised his hand, touched it to the necklace of carved fetishes that he wore, and bowed his head to the elemental. The shifting column of water bobbed in acknowledgment of his thanks and slowly collapsed back into the lake, leaving barely a ripple behind.
Oza held out his hand, and Jiri took it, felt his skin cool against her palm, still hot with the fire she had been ready to throw before she died.
"I—" Jiri shuddered, and made herself breathe. She wanted to collapse, or to throw herself into Oza's arms, but she made herself stand still, straight. "I didn't catch Thirty Trees on fire. But I'm not sure this went well."
"You're not?" Oza said. "Boro is well, along with all of those that had gathered around the wreck. Fumo and Hadzi are safe. And you." Oza looked around at the jungle that surrounded them. "I almost didn't make it, almost didn't find you. Because you didn't run toward the village, or toward the city where I was. You ran to nowhere. You were leading that thing away, weren't you? From the village, from the city."
"I wasn't strong enough to stop it," Jiri said. "I couldn't do anything else."
"You did all that you could."
"All that I could," Jiri said. "And it wasn't enough."
"Jiri," Oza said. "The beast is gone. Thirty Trees is safe. And you're still alive. All that you could was just exactly enough."
"Oh," she said, and the vast, sudden relief she felt at his words made her legs weak. She gripped his hand tighter. "Can we go home, then?"
"Yes." Oza began to walk back, the jungle bending around him, the spirits of the plants honoring him with a clear path.
Jiri followed, suddenly very, very tired. But a thought snagged at her. "Are you angry at Fumo?"
"We will have words," Oza said, his voice suddenly ominous, traced, it seemed, with a tiger's growl.
"Good," Jiri said. "Can I watch?"
Coming Next Week: A sample chapter from Josh Vogt's brand-new Pathfinder Tales novel, Forge of Ashes.
Gary Kloster is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Firesoul, featuring the further adventures of Jiri. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Apex, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future 25. Find him online at garykloster.com.
Illustration by Jasper Sandner.