Midas, and Daniel stood frozen for a few moments, the weight of Leopold’s words still handing in the air. All three scanned the trees surrounding them. The shadows seemed a little darker than before, and everything was a potential threat.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Daniel asked.
“I don’t exactly know,” Leopold responded in a low voice. “I have no idea what we’re even following or how big it is.”
“Just look for anything out of the ordinary,” Midas hissed.
“Out of the ordinary?” Daniel asked. “In a swamp? How familiar do you think I am with stinking wet-land environments?”
“Shut up,” Leopold hissed. He lifted his nose slightly and sniffed experimentally. “Do you smell that?”
Before anyone could answer, a deafening roar shook the swamp. The sound accosted them from behind, accompanied by a roiling gust of warm, moist air. Midas tried to spin on his heels, but his feet stuck in the mud and he fell to the ground. Leopold twisted at the waist to see what was happening but only saw what looked like a tree trunk rushing toward him. At contact he knew it was no tree; the texture was too scaly for that. The force of the blow knocked him fifteen feet through the air and out of his boots which were still stuck in the mud. He landed on his back but immediately righted himself, thankful that none of the foul smelling mud had gotten into his eyes. He looked to where he had been standing only moments ago and gaped slack-jawed at what he saw.
The beast was like nothing Leopold had ever seen, heard about, or even read about. The body of the monster looked similar to pictures that he had seen of gorillas except that it was covered in scales and was much larger, standing at least fifteen feet tall. The most significant difference, though, was the creature's tail. It was massive, making up half of the monster's length and as thick as a tree. The creature stood on its hind legs, swinging its tail back and forth menacingly, and Leopold knew that this was what had knocked him off his feet. The beast folded its legs against its powerful tail and slithered toward Daniel. So that was how it was able to move about the swamp so quickly and without leaving footprints. The thing moved faster than a galloping horse and would catch the fleeing wizard in no time. Midas was still down trying to wrench himself out of the mud and would be no help for a while. It was up to Leopold to distract this monster until his friends could gather themselves and regroup.
Leopold knew that the trees were still his best ally so he struggled to the nearest one and clawed his way up it. He dug his bare feet into the rough bark, using his legs and arms to quickly scale the trunk. He pulled himself onto a branch and evaluated the situation. The monster had to pass almost directly under him on its path to Daniel. With no time to think, Leopold leaped from the branch, drawing his knife as he fell through the air. He hit the right shoulder of the creature and bounced on the tough scales. He rolled to his stomach and scrambled for purchase on the smooth plates as he slid toward the monster's back. His knife blade found a joint between two scales and sank in half way. A moment later, he was hanging from the monster's shoulder, feet dangling over open air, both hands clenched on the knife handle. The beast gave a roar of pain and swatted him, sending him sliding across its back. He searched frantically for anything to hold onto and found a particularly knobby scale on its left shoulder. He crashed back into the beast's side and was climbing before he had time to stop swinging. In moments he was up on its shoulder.
The beast had Daniel now. Reaching out with its long arms, it grabbed the screaming wizard and hoisted him into the air. Now was the time to act if there ever was one. Leopold rose to his full height and grabbed a scale on the monster's head, but the monster had different plans. In an instant, it unfolded its legs from its tail and dropped them to the ground. The jolt knocked Leopold sideways and he slipped off the monster's shoulder. He landed flat on his back in the mud, but was up in a moment. The beast's foot was only feet away and provided an excellent platform for his next assault. Faster than he had ever climbed in his life, he worked his way up the massive leg and across the beast's broad back to the right shoulder where his knife was still embedded. The beast had lifted Daniel to his mouth and was beginning to cover him with the same sticky saliva that Leopold had noticed before. What the purpose of the saliva was, he didn't know, but this was not the time to find out. With a powerful motion, he jerked his knife free and slammed it between two more scales, these ones located on the monster's neck.
The beast gave a roar of pain and dropped Daniel into the mud below. Though the wound was nowhere near fatal, it still pained him and he would not allow the nuisance who had done it to survive. He swung at Leopold again, but this time the boy was ready. He ducked below the massive arm, jerked the knife blade out and stabbed it in again. The other arm swung around and he dodged it as well, stabbing the beast twice more in the process. He didn't see the next blow until it was almost too late. Leaving his knife in the monster, he jumped backwards to avoid the blow and flipped to land feet first on the monster's tail. He smiled to himself, he was just that good, but the smirk was wiped away by a rumble beneath his feet. The monster was on its feet again which left its tail free to move. Under the scales, Leopold could see the ripple of muscles rushing towards him. He didn't have time to react before he was flung upward and into a tree trunk. He fell stomach first onto a branch and clawed his way on top of it.
Crouching on the branch, fingers just touching it for balance, he looked down and found himself staring directly into the eyes of the monster. It growled, dowsing Leopold with a blast of rancid air and showing all of its teeth. As impressive as it looked at this moment, Leopold was not frightened. The thing wasn't tall enough to reach him, so he had a few moments to breathe easy. The monster's tail flashed, and Leopold cursed as he leaped off the branch just before it was splintered. As he flew through the air, everything seemed to slow down around him, and thinking became easier. He saw his brother working his way toward the monster, his axe gripped in his hands; the pieces of the splintered branch rained down to the mud below; the monster's cavernous maw was open, guarded by rows of sharp teeth dripping with saliva; his knife was where he had left it in the beast's neck. Suddenly everything fit together; he knew how he could kill this beast even if the plan seemed ludicrous.
Leopold landed with knees bent on the monster's shoulder. His feet were moving instantly and he yanked his knife from where it was stuck as he climbed up the beast's neck. He climbed to the monster's head, dodging a blow as he moved. It seemed distracted, and when he reached the top, he saw why. Midas had reached it and was swinging his axe as hard as he could into the scales that covered its feet.
"Midas, tree branch!" Leopold yelled from his precarious perch. His brother looked up at him and Leopold pointed to a large branch lying near him. There was no way Midas could have known what he was pointing at, but in that telepathic sibling way, the message made it through. Midas grabbed the piece of wood and flung it to his brother. The throw was short, and Leopold knew it. Sliding his knife into its sheath, he slid down and off the monster's nose, grabbing one of its top teeth. With his other hand, he grabbed the tree branch out of the air and swung into the beast's mouth, wedging the branch upright before its jaws could close. He had expected the tongue to be slimy, but it was much more slippery than he had anticipated. His boots slid on the saliva and he fell to his butt. Using his hands, he directed his slide to the side of the mouth where he grabbed onto the monster's teeth, climbing down them like a ladder to the back of its throat.
The next part of the plan was tricky, absolutely ridiculous even compared to what he had already done. Hooking his feet around the teeth, he dangled head first down the creature's throat. If it had an anatomy similar to every other thing that he had ever killed, the jugular artery would be in the neck. All that he had to do was cut through the esophagus, and the thing would bleed into its own throat. It was possible that it would bleed out and die, though it was much more likely that it would drown in its own blood first. It was pitch black now, and he had to use his hand to feel around the throat. Just where he thought it would be, he felt the strong pulse of a jugular artery. Carefully he reached up and extracted his knife from its sheath, noticing for the first time the remarkable lack of jolting. Apparently despite the action that must be going on outside, the monster was able to keep its head remarkably motionless. Using the knife, Leopold carved a large gash in the throat wall. The action was immediately followed by a gush of warm liquid which splattered on Leopold and a sudden jerking. The monster was in the throes of death, and it knew it.
The blood cascaded across Leopold making it hard for him to grip anything. His knife slipped out of his fist and fell into the blackness and he was barely able to get any sort of grip with his fingers on the throat wall. Putting his fingernails to good use, he managed to claw his way back into the mouth cavity and up the teeth to the front. The branch that he had lodged there was still holding, though it was bowing greatly. The beast was thrashing about now, and it was all Leopold could do to maintain his balance. The scenery through the teeth kept changing, now the ground, now the sky. Leopold knew he was taking a chance, but there was no other choice. Steeling himself, he jumped between the teeth; the fall was a lot shorter than he had expected.
"Get out of the way!" was the first thing that he heard. The voice was Midas', and Leopold knew better than to question it. Without looking up, he scrambled as quickly as possible in the direction of his brother. The seconds that he clawed his way through the mud felt like an eternity and finally he felt the shock of a massive body hitting the ground behind him. It was finally finished. He rolled onto his back and looked at the trees above him. Vaguely, as if in a dream, he could heard his brother asking if he was alright, but his attention had been captured by what was above him.
"Look," he told his brother, pointing up. "I think I found Raven."