The invisible tendrils of the Vine of Urluthe lurched, startling Shup out of the reverie he’d withdrawn into after hearing Elder Cale Barnside prattle on about Shup’s studies, disturbing his peace on the way to Panville.
“Stop,” Cale said. “Did you feel that?”
“There was something,” said Shup. “What is it?”
A whiff of fetid corruption reached Shup’s senses, but it was elusive.
Cale held his staff up, which was supposed to help with his inner sight. Shup felt the elder pull him into the Vine. “A sorcerer is near. Probably a lockheer. Be on you guard and allow yourself to sink into the Vine for protection.”
“You’ve already done that, haven’t you? I feel it.”
“Yes, but the deeper you go, the more shielded you are.” Shup figured it probably made him less of a burden to Cale, too, but the elder was kind enough not so say it.
Surveying the land, they walked along a narrow road through rolling, grassy hills, copses of trees covering some of the higher ones. They neared the crest of a slope, and on the other side an ox with gigantic horns savagely dug them into the ground, throwing up dirt and grass. Cale stopped Shup with an arm across his chest.
“It’s not a sorcerer.” Cale’s whisper was barely audible. “That ox’s bond is deeply corrupted. I encountered a horse like that once, and it nearly killed me. It sends them into a rage.”
Cale slowly backed them away, but it was too late. The ox thrusted it’s nose in the air and sniffed, then charged.
“Run!” said Cale. “To the trees.” He sprinted into the high grass toward a dense copse. Shup followed, the stems slicing at his arms. The ox bellowed.
“We’ll never make it,” yelled Shup.
“Hold on,” said Cale. He held his arms wide and the grass erupted around them, every living thing zipping, hopping, and flying around them. Clouds of dust arose, shrouding them in darkness and blinding them.
Through the Vine Shup observed the ox thrashing, fighting against the onslaught of life.
Cale grabbed Shup’s arm. “Keep straight so we make it to the trees.”
“Is this you?” asked Shup.
Shup spat at the dust. “Any way you can control it enough to leave us clear?”
“I guess it’s better than being gored.”
“Shut up and keep running. I can’t do this forever, and it’s a long way to the trees.”
Moments later the dust started to clear. Shup risked a look back, and although they’d put more distance between them and the ox, the beast was bearing down on them.
“We’re not going to make it,” said Cale.
“What?” Panic wracked Shup’s voice. “I can say that—but you can’t.”
“We’re not going to make it to the trees.” He coughed. “Get low, head below the grass.”
Cale changed direction, then zig-zagged. He pulled Shup down to crouch in the grass next to him. Cale whispered. “Catch your breath. We don’t want it to find us by sound.”
“You think we lost it?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’ll find us by the strength of our presence in the Vine. It’s the reason he’s raging.” Cale frowned. “Let go of the Vine.”
“Go unprotected?” asked Shup.
“Yes. Completely let go.” Shup sensed him releasing his hold upon him. “He won’t be able to find you. Your bond is too small.” The notion humiliated Shup, but he didn’t have the luxury to wallow in it.
“Don’t thank me, yet,” Cale said. He tied a rope to each end of his staff. “He’s going to sniff me out. While he’s doing that, I want you to sneak up from the side and throw this loop over his horns to hold the staff onto his neck.”
“Rot my eyes. Honestly?”
“You know that lockheer can’t stand the touch of an elder’s staff, right?”
“I’m hoping it’s the same for a tainted animal. Put it over his horns and run for the trees.”
“But what can you do then?” asked Shup.
“Purify the poor thing, of course.”
Reluctantly, Shup complied, circling around through the grass, tracking the ox. It snorted and approached Cale’s position, where the grass shifted away. Shup took a deep breath and crept up. From a few feet away he lunged forward, hooked one horn with the rope, and flipped the staff so the rope would hook the other one.
The ox bellowed and bucked at the staff, and went down thrashing. Cale burst forward and put his hand on the beast’s forehead. The ox flailed with its neck, and the loop on the far side fell loose, the staff tumbling to the ground.
The ox immediately bucked into a stand and swung a horn at Cale who lunged away into the grass. The ox followed him, thrashing its head and horns at the ground.
“No!” yelled Shup. He picked up the staff, looped the rope around the back of his neck so the branch hung across his middle, and leapt on top of the ox, encircling his arms around its neck, and pinning the staff onto its back.
The ox fell again, this time with a cry of desperation, and it squirmed more than thrashed. Cale jumped from the grass and lay both hands upon the ox’s head. It whined as Shup felt the corruption slowly fade.
The ox quieted, its breath slowing into a calm rhythm.
“It’s done,” said Cale. “You can get off him.”
“No. But you can’t stay there forever.”
Shup scoffed and rolled off, taking two wary hops away.
The ox lifted its head and stared at Cale. Worry showed in Cale’s eyes as the ox pushed itself to its feet, then gently nuzzled him on the chest.
“That’s amazing,” said Shup.
“Imagine what a corrupt bond does to a person.”
“I’m starting to believe you.”
The ox followed them all the way to Panville.