Chapter 4: O, Worm
"Hey, Gregor!" she shouted, easily able to spot him from the top of the hill.
His head whipped around, and he shouted back.
"What's wrong?" he asked, clearly sensing the alarm in her voice, even though she was trying to be careful more than alarming.
"We should hurry!" she shouted back. "I've got a bad feeling about this patch!"
The problem was, sand worms tunneled underground for miles. If they'd surfaced out here at any point there wasn't any way to tell how close they were to the surface or if they were even close. They could've come up to the surface days or weeks ago, and if nothing else came through here except wildlife, the tunnel they left behind would be left largely undisturbed.
That, and if they were close she didn't want to waste time looking down holes. Sandworms were a Class A monster for a reason. They were huge, and they moved fast underground.
Fortunately, from what she could see, the holes she was looking at looked like they were on the smaller end of the spectrum. They were probably just juvenile little wormlets.
Gregor had pulled out his whip, and so had the other men as they began to whistle and shout at the cows to move faster. It looked like the cows were spilling down the hill as they began to moo and push closer together.
She hung back, riding Billy slowly down the hill from the top. Billy's ears were flicking around, alert and ready. Clandestine's eyes drifted across the hills before they found Matt at the back of the herd. Giving Billy a push forward, she hurried to catch up with him.
"Is everything alright?" Matt asked as she rode up beside him.
Clandestine sat tall on her horse, scanning the area around them as if her head was on a constant rotation.
"I'm not sure," she said, trying to be honest and realistic. "I'm just trying to be careful."
Matt was quiet for a beat.
"Did you see anything?" he asked.
"Sandworm tunnels," Clandestine. "Or that's what it looks like."
The sound of panicked hoof-beats and disgruntled cows filled the brief silence.
"Sandworms," Matt said slowly. "All the way out here?"
"They're called sandworms," Clandestine said. "But they don't just live in sand."
That was the thing about monsters. You drove them out of one place, they just went to another. That was why the world needed monster hunters. Ideally, they'd take the monsters out so they would never return, so long as it was possible.
Matt only hummed in reply, and then he went quiet. One quick glance his way revealed that he too was on high alert and seemed to be trying to push the cows to go even faster.
Maybe a minute passed.
The hill was long, and it felt even longer while she watched the cows clamber down it at a painfully slow pace. Even with the ranchers pushing them on all sides with every sense of hurry they could muster, the cows didn't seem to understand the severity of the situation.
Then again, how were you supposed to explain something like that to a cow?
Clandestine looked behind them again for the dozenth time, and she stared when she saw a small flock of flying boar flutter into the air with the same nervous, skittish energy of a flock of birds that had been spooked.
Thing was, flying boars weren't that skittish. If something scared them, it was something big.
That was not good news.
The boars started heading northwest, up and away from the area Gregor had led them around. Faintly, she could hear their high-pitched squeals as they fled.
"Can't we get these cows moving any faster?" Clandestine asked, shooting a tense look to Matt.
He glanced back, pressing his lips into a line.
"We can try," he said. "But cows aren't that fast."
Clandestine knew that, but she was hoping for a different answer. Cows couldn't keep up with horses at full speed, and in passing, she wondered if that was where the word cowpoke came from. Because cows were slowpokes.
She sighed to herself, noting that the herd was getting antsier. Some of the cows were starting to speed up this time, but seemingly on their own, and without prompt. But their increase in speed was accompanied by others slowing down, hesitating.
It reminded her of how they looked that morning, actually.
"We really should--" she began to urge.
There were tremors in the ground beneath them. At first, they felt distant and deep. But they were getting closer.
"Go!" Clandestine shouted. "Gregor! Blaze on ahead!"
Unquestioning, Gregor let out a loud yell and cracked his whip.
Now very alarmed, the cows really started to make a run for it. If it weren't for the cowboys on each side of the herd, it would easily have turned into a stampede.
Clandestine rode behind them, trying to find the source of the tremors. When the wormlets came closer to the surface, she'd see the earth begin to crack and warp, either sinking in or jutting out. But it seemed they were still too deep for it to show up above.
The cows were spilling into the valley between the hills. In the crook where the two hills met, there was a small, spindly little tree, likely having grown there because the water flowed down to it. Before the cows could reach it to trample it over, she watched as it started to shift.
First, it shook. Then, it fell over, completely uprooted. Dust came up as the earth moved around it like a low wave, rippling out and coming forward to meet the herd. The rumbling, once low, and deep in the earth, was now loud and unnerving.
The horses began to neigh in alarm, and Percy's horse looked like it was about rear up and kick him off.
Elliot, however, seemed to keep his calm. Aside from the anxious flicking of his ears, he didn't flinch.
Odd. She'd only ever seen Billy be that calm when there were literal giant worms about to attack.
With no time to waste wondering what kind of horrors Elliot might've seen, she reached into her oversized jacket with one hand and pulled out the shotgun she had hidden on her back. She held Billy's reins steadily in her other hand as she hurried ahead, riding past the herd as Gregor pulled it once again to the side in a too-late attempt to avoid confrontation with the sandworms.
Holding onto the saddle firmly with her thighs, she freed her hands and cocked the gun, tracing the dusty trail with the tip of its barrel.
"Leave this to me!" she shouted. "And let the cows panic! We can use the noise!"
"Alright!" Was Gregor's panicked reply.
Billy's hooves pounded in rhythm with her heart. With all of the hoof-beats pounding on the surface, she was hoping that it would muddle the giant worms' senses. Sandworms were blind and deaf, and made their way underground by feeling vibrations in the earth.
Well, they'd sure be feeling a lot now.
It seemed that the worm was following the herd, but its path wasn't direct. She had a feeling if it tried to go under the herd, it wouldn't be able to make out anything specific with all the noise.
Clandestine came around the front of the herd, riding just ahead of the worm's plume of dust. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Matt had broken away from herding and had begun to follow her in pursuit of the sandworm.
Not sure if Matt was just stupid, reckless, or more competent at monster hunting than he appeared, Clandestine didn't feel like wasting time having to explain to him why that was a bad idea.
"Focus on the cows!" she shouted. "Cowboy!"
She might've congratulated herself on the little quip when Matt listened and veered to the side, but the plume of dust also changed course. Towards him.
Of course. He was the furthest thing from the herd now. The easiest thing to see.
Cursing under her breath, she wheeled Billy around, heart pounding.
Just as she aimed her gun, the earth behind Matt began to cave in and then push out. Finally, the worm showed itself.