Judi and Sissy both sprinted down across the slope on an angle, aiming for the gate. They’d leave that open for Diamond Paws and me; the big Umthnn didn’t need the hassle of traversing a barbed wire fence or tunneling or whatever in his condition. Neither girl reached for her cell phone, the entire ranch being pretty much one big dead zone. They’d need to reach the shop to take care of that. I was impressed, seeing the five foot three blonde right on the six footer’s heels all the way. Then again, there was close to a foot of snow on the slope; Sissy did have to break trail a bit.
Diamond Paws moved less gracefully, a shambling run favoring his gouged leg, but he wasn’t letting any grass grow under his feet, either. Not that there was any grass growing at this time of year, but you know what I mean. I had to move out at a pretty fair lope to keep him from running over me.
At least he could still move. With five Umthnn assassins on his trail, holding still wasn’t an option.
When I ducked into the machinery museum building, I nearly slammed face first into an antique threshing machine. Thought I’d gone blind, but it was only the combination of momentary snow blindness and the bulk of the huge being behind me, melting himself here and there as he scrape-oozed through the door before reassuming his default shape.
“Damn,” I muttered, “that’s going to take some getting used to.”
Where next? I’d have thought he would already know that, being able to pick up on my mental images and all. But maybe my thoughts were moving too fast, or his abilities were impaired by his injuries, or–“This way.” Through the long rows of machines attesting to man’s industrial ingenuity, into Horace’s cabin without knocking–he was over at the main house with Jennifer anyway; I was pretty sure of that. Watching my furry partner melt-slip through the hidden rear doorway, his big round eyes bulging in what I took as environment shock, then…we were in the cave.
“Wolf Cave,” I breathed, flicking on the lights that illuminated the first great room. “Behold and beware.”
“Here is where we fight.” Diamond’s eyes began resuming their normal shapes. “Here is where you chose.”
“Here is where I chose.” As we talked, I was grabbing gear from the racks. We’d been equipping Wolf Cave with survival equipment for a long time; there was a fair assortment to choose from. A set of shooter’s muffs for my ears; it was going to get loud in here. A Marlin Model 60, tube feed semiauto, one of three identical shooters with 4X infrared scopes. Fifteen in the tube at the moment so as not to overload the spring; I twisted the tube and added three more .22 long rifle rounds, CCI Stingers.
There were heavier rifles on the racks, but bouncing a .25-06 bullet off the granite walls of the cave might well do more damage to us than it would to the enemy. With the Marlin, I could plink crab apples at 100 yards, all day long. We didn’t have that much room in here.
“Hate to have to ask this, big guy,” I said, looking him in the nearest eye, “but it is kind of a life and death matter. What’s the easiest way to kill an Umthnn?”
Diamond didn’t seem offended. A bit short of breath, maybe, but not offended. I could smell the blood on him. Regular blood smell, rich in iron. “I will tell you,” he sighed, the sound of wind in the trees, “if you will tell me why you have made my fight your own. I…I did not expect that when I called out to you. A place to hide, maybe. I did hope for that, desperately so. A quick explanation to tell you why you would not be seeing me again.”
“What?! Why would you not–”
“I was preparing to sing my death song. To have you…take charge, that was…I did not expect that.”
“Your death song.” That could only mean one thing. “You did not believe you could survive the hunters.”
“I knew I could not survive the hunters. The three I defeated…I well know all of those who have taken the Vow. The three…they were the weakest. The slowest of reflex. I…I culled them from the herd, if you will. And yet even they did me damage.”
“Hold on a sec.” I held up a hand, cautioning him to silence. The girls were coming through the portal.
Sissy came first. “Horace agreed, Tree,” she panted, eyes grim. “He and Wayne are locked and loaded; nothing will get to Jennifer. They’ll feed the crew without telling them a thing, but if any furball crashes the party, it’ll get a belly full of lead. Sorry, Diamond.”
“No offense taken,” the Umthnn waved a clawed paw, “but–”
“But Jack said bullshit, he’s on his way!” Judi stepped around her taller counterpart, grabbing a Marlin and a set of muffs without a second’s hesitation. “He’s stuffing Carolyn in the safe room and heading out.”
I nodded. Frankly, I’d forgotten about Jack Hill’s safe room. He’d only shown it to me once. Even bar-cutting claws would have a hard time getting in there. “Okay. Leave the portal open, then. Diamond, you asked why we’re fighting for you. The answer is, in one sense, I don’t know why, but most likely it’s–we just have a thing about bullies, okay? We don’t know you and you don’t know us, except for the mind pictures you pull out of our heads, but you got balls, man. You came alone, popped right up to face not one but four of the baddest assholes on the planet when push comes to shove, and you did it without backup and without backing down. We respect that, you know? And then, to have a gang of pussified mother humpers jump you eight to one? Yeah. I guess I do know why we’re backing your play. They may be your people, but they damn well. Pissed. Me. Off!”
“Oh.” All of a sudden, the huge eight limbed four eyed multiclawed alien from underfoot looked a bit…I wouldn’t have said cowed, exactly, but…abashed, maybe? “Well. I asked for it. How to kill an Umthnn. A strike through an eye is best. It will not kill us directly, but one of our brains is located in the center of the head, equidistant via major nerve ways to the eyes. In individual combat, we protect the eyes first, last, and always. Any foreign object forcing its way to that brain center will scramble our circuits.”
I had an idea there was a whole lot more he could tell us, but a sound reached my ears. Sissy had heard it, too, I could tell. Using hand signals, I directed Sissy toward a recess in the cave wall where she could hide long enough to provide flanking fire, should that become necessary. She almost forgot her earmuffs, but in a matter of seconds, she was on her way, slipping through the shadows like the warrior she was. Judi was directed the other way, to the left, her cover a boulder wide enough and high enough to provide a bit of protection and a shooting rest. I had to trust them to know when to shoot, there being no time for detailed instructions.
The hit squad had made better time than expected.
“Can you read each other’s mind pictures?” I asked conversationally, dropping to one knee and checking to make sure the Marlin’s safety was off.
“Some,” he replied, his voice soft. Both of us were watching the far end of the great room. They were in the passageway, having come in through our emergency back door exit in the juniper thicket. “But we are better at shielding our thoughts than humans are.”
“What I figured. The images of the juniper thicket exit? I projected those as strongly as I could, you know. Likely blasted you pretty hard when we were running through the snow.”
“Yes. They did. I wondered why.”
It was simple enough, though I realized we were out of time. Jack had not yet arrived. The Umthnn killers would not have been thrilled one bit about the idea of following us into Wolf Cave by the usual route; that would have involved exposing themselves in the open where human thoughts–and the humans themselves–were all over the place. They feared contact with us; the idea of risking YouTube notoriety would be horrifying to the max.
Nor would they have cared to drill straight through Wolf Cave’s rock walls, ceiling, or floor to get at us. I presumed we were considered necessary kills, now that we’d been tainted by their heretic, but even if their claws were literally diamond tipped, it would take them far too long to tunnel through dozens of yards of bedrock.
Which left the back door. My mental projections had simply been a way of letting them know that back door was open, urging them to come to us in the way of our choosing.
My spiritual exercises were certainly useful for traveling into the higher worlds, but they had plenty of practical Earth plane applications, too. Time to rock and roll. I picked a nearly hexagonal boulder, a small one lying close to the center of the great room, and made that my brick wall. Anybody looking into my head, picking images out of the ethers, whatever…they would see only a rock. I did not think about the enemy, did not think about the rifle in my hands, did not think about anything other than that rock.
At the mind level, that is. But Soul is not bound to these lower planes. I was off, far off, running the show from a remote location. The first invader stepped out from behind the rock wall that hid the exit passageway, a huge presence hulking forward into our kill zone. I was aware of it all, yet equally aware of holding the image of the boulder strongly, fiercely, full of angles and muted colors. Another step, a tiny scrape of claw across rock, and two of them were in the room, then three. Four. Five. It occurred to my distant self that the final Umthnn towered head and shoulders above the others, but no matter; the decision had been made, the target preselected before the giant’s appearance.
The middle being of the five.
It was necessary, of course, to drop out of that detached state of consciousness for just an instant, a tenth of a second to confirm the crosshairs were centered perfectly on the middle of the middle Umthnn’s eye, another twentieth to confirm that my breathing had stopped midbreath, another tenth to finish the gentle squeeze on the trigger.
The Umthnn had time to react, but not enough time. The Marlin barked, spitting the hollow point across eighty yards of space in 15/100 of a second, entering the eye in mid-blink, disrupting totally as the bullet was designed to do, penetrating through the upper brain (as we would come to call it) and exiting through the far eye.
It was not an instant kill, but it was instant incapacitation. The great body dropped immediately to the cave floor, limbs thrashing out of control, a horrible mewling sound screaming out that, despite the earmuffs, filled my ears with the image of an oversized cat being skinned alive.
The others were in total shock. I took advantage, dropping the Goliath at the back of the pack in the same way. His limbs also thrashed mindlessly, but thank God, he did not scream, remaining silent in his agony.
It took a second for Diamond’s voice to register. One eye was pointed down at me where I kneeled a few yards to his right. Another was glued to the carnage across the great room. All four eyes, I was certain, bulged with horror.
I stopped, not yet shaken; my awareness was still in combat mode. I would grieve later.
The three remaining hunters were melted down upon themselves, resembling little more than three foot high piles of fur with arms and legs attached. Their basketball shaped heads were nowhere to be seen; they’d tucked them…down their own necks, was the only way I could think of it at the moment.
There was nothing more for me to do; Diamond Paws had to take it from here. Once he saw my rifle’s muzzle tip toward the ceiling, an image in my mind making it clear there would be no more shooting, he recovered swiftly. Striding forward, he crossed the great room in long strides, his wounded leg seemingly forgotten for the moment. Ignoring the three huddled forms, the Umthnn stooped over the screamer; the claws on one paw flashed in the artificial light, and the screams stilled. Then the thrashing giant, another slash, another stilling.
Straightening, holding all four paw hands to the sky hidden above, he sang. Or chanted. Or prayed. There was no way to say which it was; the Umthnn’s native language sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. It was close, perhaps, to the tumble of rocks in a rockslide, crashes and clacks and shiftings and such, but that does not do it justice. I could almost–almost!–sense the meaning of it, almost see what he was seeing. It was possible, I thought, that I could somewhat read his mental images as he could read ours, though not as clearly.
How long he sang, I do not know. I do know that Sissy quietly drifted from her position to join me, that Judi did the same, that I became aware of being on my feet. I know that Jack Hill arrived, whether before or during or after the shooting I could not say, standing beside me, one hand resting on my shoulder.
And still Diamond sang.
All things must pass. He finished, turned to the three living hunters whose heads had reemerged from their bodies. They looked up at him, beseeching, submissive I thought, though at this range that might have been my imagination. He spoke to them at length, still in that falling-rocks voice. They rose, but slowly, inch by inch. It was clear they were his to command, now.
Then he turned and, saying nothing more, returned to us. We stood watching, four deadly humans and one seriously wounded Umthnn, as the three living took their two dead and departed. It was not easy for them to lug the giant corpse around that first corner to the hidden passageway, but Jack and I had blasted the tightest part; they would make it. Living Umthnn were strong; carrying their own weight, or even twice that, would not hamper them unduly.
Still we waited. My friends were waiting on me, and I was waiting on Diamond Paws.
Finally, though, I could wait no longer. “Will you survive this? Emotionally?”
The sigh I had heard before, the sound of wind through trees, gusted through the Umthnn. “I will survive. It will take a while. I must grieve, and there are phases.”
“Yes,” I replied, “I know.”
“I do understand better now, Treemin Jackson.”
“I understand the ruling. You humans really are dangerous. I have cast my lot. You are my friends. You saved my life. But you are really dangerous!”
“Oh. I guess we are. When we have to be.”
“Some humans,” Jack added quietly, “are really dangerous when they don’t have to be.”
“True that. But not us, Diamond. Not us. Uh, do you mind us calling you Diamond? Or Diamond Paws? I never thought to ask.”
“It’s as good a name as any. I doubt you could pronounce my real name.”
“No, I’m sure I couldn’t.” My vocal chords weren’t exactly designed to make sounds like falling rocks. “Jack, our friend could use a bit of help with his wounds. Any ideas?”
“You object to staying in a house for a while?” Jack had his twinkle going; he was up to something.
“I…wouldn’t mind. I can sleep anywhere, as long as I don’t feel too exposed.”
“Hold on.” We hadn’t asked the obvious question. “Will those hunters be back?” Frankly, based on what I’d seen, I didn’t think it likely, but what did I know?”
“No.” The Umthnn suddenly slumped a bit–blood loss, dizzy?–and staggered sideways a couple of steps, fetching up against the rock wall. Wait a sec. He didn’t stagger sideways; for an Umthnn, there is no sideways. You’d have to see one of these guys in motion to understand…. “Those three will not return. I am dominant to them. If the Quencil decides to send another team, it will be…a while.”
“What’s a while?” Judi asked.
“I don’t know.” The shaggy form rippled in what passed for a shrug. “A hunter team has never been defeated before, at least not in our public records. It won’t be soon, though. A century, perhaps, if the Quencil acts in panic. They’re not terribly…brave about such things.”
“Well, friend,” I decided, “it’s time to get you some medical treatment. Disinfect those wounds and stich ’em up. If I’m understanding Jack right, we’re heading to his place. You’ll have plenty to eat, at least; he’s got lots of firewood on hand.”
Diamond Paws rode in the back of the Ford dually; he certainly wouldn’t fit in the Pontiac or the Subaru. Heck, I barely did. I drove the Ford. Sissy and Judi headed to the main house to bring Horace, Wayne, and Jennifer up to speed; they’d bring the Pontiac home.
When Jack went in to get Carolyn West out of the safe room, I didn’t know what to expect. Carolyn was a looker, a lover, but no fighter–and sure enough, pretty soon Diamond and I could hear her voice shrieking in dismay, “It’s staying where?!”
That was before she was hauled out the front door by Jack, who was forcibly dragging her by the wrist. She stopped on the front step. Jack let go of her wrist. She stared at the big, furry, blood-bedraggled, basketball headed Umthnn. Then she breathed, “Oh my God. It’s Harry and the Hendersons.”
I didn’t understand the reference, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was Carolyn’s transformation from freaked out female to universal mother and nurse.
In the end, she was even the one to stitch Diamond’s wounds shut, trusting no one else to do it right.
It was long after dark by the time Diamond Paws got settled in one of Jack’s spare rooms. We’d had to move the bed out, of course. The floor was carpeted, which bemused the big fellow no end. “I’m used to sleeping in dirt, you know,” he pointed out. Carolyn assured him he’d do just fine on beige shag. Sissy hauled in several armloads of split fir, pine, and even a bit of cottonwood in case he needed a midnight snack.
Nobody thought to ask what would happen if he had to go potty.
Wayne Bruce was staying over another night with Jennifer and Horace, but we had enough of our crew present to enjoy a few minutes at the table with coffee and vanilla ice cream before the girls and I headed over to our mobile home and bed. “We got a chance to talk a bit,” I said, holding my cup out for Carolyn to refill, “while the girls were ferrying the Ford over to the museum. Turns out Diamond didn’t just know the hit squad. They were family.”
“Oh?” I had Jack Hill curious now. He’d missed that bit of conversation, too, staying behind in Wolf Cave for a few minutes to make sure everything was back on its proper rack before locking up.
“Yep.” I sipped the coffee. Not Kona, but not bad. “Turns out the Quencil, the ruling council for the Umthnn people, doesn’t assign just anybody to go after a rule breaker. They pick the folks who were closest to him. If they refuse, they’re executed on the spot, and the next closest individuals get the honor. Not many refuse.”
“I should think not,” Sissy agreed. “But that means….”
“Yep. If you’re an Umthnn, you have to really want to rebel or you won’t do it. It means your loved ones will either kill you, or you’ll kill them, or they’ll be killed anyway and somebody else will come after you. Not a pleasant prospect if you’ve got any feelings at all, and the Umthnn obviously do. It’s a very rigidly controlled society.”
“So…” Judi put her ice cream spoon down, staring, “what about the three who weren’t killed? Will they be executed if they go back? Or do they have to live as exiles? Or what?”
“Exiles, if I understood Diamond correctly. He says he ordered them to go establish a home–which I presume is a series of tunnels–up in the Bob, a place he knows where he doubts any future hunters will find them. It’ll be some time before the Quencil will believe they’re not coming back to…wherever they came from. When he, Diamond, can join them, he will.”
Jack grunted. “Hunh! So our friend in the spare bedroom just set himself up a new Umthnn nation, Declaration of Independence and all?”
“Something like that. But the grieving part…that’s going to take a while. Remember he told us his species can switch between male and female, depending on who’s strongest in the relationship? Well, Diamond is a boy, all right, but he hasn’t always been. That giant I plugged in the eyeball tonight…that was his husband.”