Grumalla freezes. So do our heroes. It’s cold, you see.
A frigid tension fills the air. Only the distant cracking of ice is heard.
“Well,” Grumalla says. “You gonna?”
Abia, Cang, and Fassn turn to Shyan.
“No way,” Fassn says. “Too big, too big.”
“Of course, we have been promised a reward,” Cang says.
“Maybe.” Abia says. A look of concern settles on her face.
Shyan turns back to Grumalla. “No,” she says. “But you can’t kill any more Jiko children. They have a right to life, just as you do.”
Grumalla exhales, and a great, steaming cloud comes along with it. “Then you condemn me to starve,” it says. “I’ll waste away, and this land along with it.” Its great head drops, to study the snowy ground.
Shyan lets a hand drop casually to the hilt of her blade. “Think carefully,” she says.
Grumalla fixes a stare at her. “All shall freeze,” it says.
It stands, stoic, as the group departs. Without moving a stringy, atrophied muscle, Grumalla watches them go.
Grumalla shows them withered stalks. “All this used to be fine eatin’ for lil Grumalla. Then them Jiko come and ravage the place, jus’ tear it all up. Now look at me.”
Grumalla held its arms aloft. Sure enough, slack skin draped off a large but fragile frame. Grumalla’s hair was thin and matted.
“What’s more’s they make this place so damn cold.”
“Jiko do this?” Abia asks, then breathes heavily to create a vaporous cloud. “They make cold?”
Grumalla sadly nods. “Gives me the shivers, it does.”
The group takes a beat, suddenly feeling very small in this vast, icy place.
“Oh but where’re my manners. You all must be hungry. Stew’s a bit thin but y’all are welcome to a bowl.”
“Eh, no, thank you,” Shyan says.
Fassn stops his prayers a moment, to interject. “Aw, come on, Shyan.”
“In fact,” Shyan continues, “we’ve been sent by the Jiko to kill you.”
Abianarin rests a hand on Fassn’s shoulder to silence his prayers. It doesn’t work, though — the reassuring touch seems only to encourage him, and he speaks louder, more feverishly.
“Old Ajralan, eh?” Grumalla says. “Never heard of ‘im. Who’s that callin’ ‘is name?” It shuffles its grand bulk in Fassn’s direction.
Shyan steps forward, back straight. “Halt, demon. We’ve come to put an end to your devilry, and protect the Jiko.”
Grumalla snorts. “Protect ’em? They’re an invasive species. Y’all oughta to be protectin’ my crops and plants and ’em, ‘stead of those little tadpole folk.”
Cang blinks. “Invasive species?”
“Sure. Don’t no tadpole folk live under the ice all natural.”
Shayn raises her voice. “What do you mean?”
“I mean some dumb adventurers brought a few ‘long with ’em, few years back. Pets or somethin’. Course the ‘venturers died and left the Jiko who just went on proliferatin’.” Grumalla gestured at the torn-up ice and rock around them. “Used to be this was a fine yield o’ crop and now, nothin.”
Fassn, having heard nothing of this, continues his prayers.
Fassn sits down to pray to Old Ajralan. He won’t admit that he’d like to lick one of Grumalla’s scratching posts, just to see how it is. He asks his deity how he might get his fill.
Meanwhile, Shyan proposes that they dig a pit, and lure the creature into it. Then perhaps they can drop something heavy on its head, killing it, and saving the Jiko. Perhaps even its meat would be good to eat.
Abianarin senses deep pathos from Grumalla. She presses forward with her connection and encounters a spongy mass of resistance. She frowns — ordinarily that type of thing only happens with intelligent creatures, never with monstrous beasts.
Cang privately doubts the efficacy of Shyan’s pit plan. He creeps a little closer to Grumalla, but blows it, stepping on some loose ice that sends up a violent crack.
Grumalla’s head whips in their direction, its keen eyes narrowed, searching.
The group holds its collective breath.
“Hello?” says Grumalla.
Shyan accepts on behalf of the group. Cang and Fassn moan audibly. She shushes them. “It’s the right thing to do. Be quiet.”
They spend three days tracking Grumalla. They learn the tunnels and secret caves, they taste whitemoss, sour djeck, oxspo. They sleep by the ever-burning fire in the Jiko village.
On the morning of the fourth day, each exhausted and frost-bitten, Cang hears a noise, like talons scraped against ice. He creeps towards it, throwing hand signals back to the group as he goes.
There stands Grumalla, enormous, shaggy, with the glint of bestial intelligence behind its warped and compound eyes. It cuts its claws on an icy stalagmite, sharpening them to a keen and painful point.
“Perhaps a reward with more materiality would whet the appetite of my compatriots,” Cang says. “As pleasant as your domain no doubt is–” he adds, through clenched, clattering teeth, “–we have no wish to rule it.”
“What my friend means is we’ll help you,” Shyan says. “And afterwards I trust that you’ll help us.”
Cheers, woops, and general merriment spring up from the taciturn creatures. They slap their fleshy podlike fingers with one another in celebration. Some Jiko sing.
“Thank you, most marvelous surface dwellers,” the leader says. “I will show you to our grim house of horrors, where the evidence of Grumalla’s deviance is kept. Come.”
The Jiko shows them bloodied, broken cribs, shredded clothing, masticated toys.
“Grumalla big,” Abia says.
Spreading his arms to get the length of a plaster cast bearing the giant print of a taloned creature, Fassn says, “I don’t want to live as a god.”