The ground reared upwards with a great gronking moan of protest. It was some sort of gargantuan grazing beast. Bujilli and Leeja both grabbed hold and tried to hang on for dear life as the shuddersome bulk rose up into the gloom. For a moment the beast stayed arched in place like a frozen tidal wave of moist gray flesh. Then it crashed down in a torrent of muscles and jiggling flab, cutting short the screams of whatever it was that the gronking-thing had found in the murk.
The huge mass settled back down to ingest its prey. The red icon went to amber.
A series of small vibrations rippled through the beast. It let loose a deeply satisfied sigh from some unseen orifice then slowly resumed its stately prowl.
"Well, we're here...wherever 'here' is; I just hope this thing doesn't mind us hitching a ride."
"I think we'd find out pretty quickly if it had a problem with a couple of passengers. This thing is so huge it probably doesn't even realize we're on its back." Leeja knelt to examine the patch of flesh closest to her. It was extremely wrinkled yet bulging with trapped gasses and overlapping layers of fatty-stuff. She could feel the liquids sloshing and the gasses bubbling beneath the skin as the thing's muscles contracted and relaxed.
"Ever see anything like this before?" Bujilli asked as he slowly turned in place, looking out into the murk to see whatever could be seen. There was a lot of movement, but nothing distinct, save for the quarreling war penguins they'd left behind.
"Some of the Greater Werms, maybe...but this thing is no werm. I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but it isn't a werm. These muscles aren't really muscles..."
"Then what are they?" He walked over and knelt beside his partner. He pulled off a glove and touched the thing's hide. It was pleasantly warm, slightly oily and very wrinkly, much like elephant's belly or something like that. He requested Counsel to identify the beast, if possible.
"Colony-Organism?" Bujilli stood up, pulling his glove back in place. The last colony organism he had crossed paths with was the Muck Raker beneath Zormur's Palace.* That had been a considerable while ago. This creature was, if anything much more placid, easy going...at least for now.
"Oh that makes sense. Like one of the Grondeloi or Pazgurchin. Hmmm....it seems to content to simply flow along looking for its next meal. Maybe we can ride it for a while? It does give us a bit of elevation to better observe our surroundings, such as thy are."
"It doesn't seem to mind us tagging along. It also isn't moving all that fast, but it might discourage some of the predators out there...unless there's something that preys on these things..."
"A sobering thought."
"Yeah, well, spending time in Wermspittle has that effect I suppose."
He looked around them one more time. They were far enough beyond the spot where they entered this place that the mirror was a dim rectangle he could barely discern. The two surviving war penguins were gone, he guessed that they moved on after their grisly meal. Thankfully they chose a different direction.
Bujilli rummaged through his belt-pouches and other gear looking for something to collect a small sample of the murksome soup that passed for ground in this place. It might be worth some study later, under different circumstances.
No bags. No boxes. No sacks or jars or bottles. The wine-sack was still full of tepid water, the other one was filled with wine that was verging on becoming vinegar. He fished through the cartridge case on his bandolier but the only things he could spare from that were some papers used to roll-up fresh cartridges for his manticore pistol. That wouldn't do. For a moment he considered using one of his gloves, but thought better of it. He certainly wasn't going to use one of his boots.
It was at this point that Bujilli noticed that the apparent speed of the dim behemoth was misleading. The great gronking beast was steadily accelerating...
"I wonder who lives up there..." Leeja shifted from her kneeling position to sit on the warm, slightly yielding hide of the creature. It was strangely relaxing. She considered taking a nap.
"Those islands? I am curious about them, but I don't know of a good way to get up there without drawing a lot of attention to ourselves and I think that might be a bad idea, at least until we know more about this place and what all lurks hereabouts."
"Hmmm...that can get you killed just as quickly as taking a few risks, you know."
"We're moving faster--"
"LET GO!" Squawked someone off the left side of the gronking-beast.
"YOU LET GO!" Yelled another voice.
"LOOK OUT HE'S GOT A KNIFE!" Screeched a third voice.
Bujilli moved over to the left in order to catch a glimpse of the quarrelers.
"Jub-Jub Birds. And I thought those penguins were dirty things." Leeja chuckled softly next to him.
One of the birds slashed at the one closest to it; "IT'S MINE!"
"IS NOT!" Protested the bird as it lunged out of the way of the glass knife.
"WE SHARE!" Demanded the third one.
"NEVER!" Screamed the knife-wielder as they jabbed at the other bird.
Bujilli hunkered down and weighed his options. Those birds were built like deranged flamingos or herons. Their legs had tremendous reach and were far more dexterous than he would have imagined. Their beaks were wickedly curved and looked plenty sharp. He was glad they didn't have a quarrel with him.
The glass knife skipped off of the ornate gorget hung about the neck of one of the squabbling birds with a scritch and some sparks.
What had been an almost playful it of posturing suddenly exploded into an all-out tussle. The bird with the gorget drew out a nasty blue poniard and stabbed madly at their attacker. The third bird whipped out a rusty old hatchet and hacked at the other two birds. It was a free for all. Feathers flew in every direction. The three birds raised an incredible ruckus.
The gronking-beast sidled slightly to the right, adjusting its course to avoid the squabbling Jub-Jub Birds.
Bujilli glanced over at Leeja. She was propped up on her elbows, watching the bird-fight down below.
A spatter of blood. Two of the Jub-Jub Birds fluttered and fussed vehemently as they ran away from the crazy one with the glass knife. They ran towards the gronking beast. then they spotted Bujilli and ran even faster as they called out to him to help them...
* See Episode 14.