*Visceral Certainty (Part 1)

Written by Alex Gyftogiannis and J. D. Wiley --- Art by J. D. Wiley

Kavel spat on the dead Skarn that lay at his feet. The hulking, ape-like savage’s tongue hung from the side of its mouth as its empty red eyes stared into his. An arrow protruded from its gaping maw, clearly the cause of death. Kavel quickly wrenched the shaft out, threw it into a nearby bush, and stabbed the creature’s body numerous times in the chest with his blade. Putting a boot on the beast’s head, he gripped the Skarn’s left horn with his hand and hacked it free with his kukri. The horn of the war band’s leader, identifiable due to specific paint and markings only they were allowed to display. Now it was a souvenir of his victory.

“Aha. Looks like I win yet again.” He always won. Kavel held up the horn for his comrades to see.

The others let out a collective groan.

“No fair.” Nanoktok hissed through that ugly beak of his. The shell-back grunted and stomped and scraped his dagger-sized claws against a nearby tree, ripping its bark away like parchment. “Kavel cheats.”

Obviously, but Kavel shook his head in refutal. “Hardly, my friend. I’ve just been doing this for much longer than all of you. Experience trumps youth.”

“Save your words.” Leyuti came from behind him, all fur and antlers and silent rage. Her stunted snout peeled back, revealing her canines in what passed for a smile. “We know you’re old.”

“Well, wisdom does indeed come with age. That’s true. But talent and skill like mine cannot be acquired for any price or over any period of time. I’ve been blessed since birth. And while we’re on the subject of naturally instilled gifts let us not even speak of my handsomeness.” Kavel removed his helmet to wipe away the perspiration on his shaved head and display his chiseled, yet humble, profile. “No, I mean it. I’m not sure I possess enough breath after that harrowing encounter.”

Achathon scoffed, shouldering his bow over an olive cloak. “The only thing more questionable than your modesty is your ability to claim the leader’s horn every time. I was sure I landed the killing blow…” His silvery tendril-hair writhed silently.

“Your marksmanship is unparalleled, my boy, but not every arrow flies true. That’s just a fact. It’s the trade you make when you attack at range, especially with a projectile that travels faster than the eye can see. You lose that visceral certainty one can only gain from running their foe through and knowing, without a doubt, that they’ve taken a life.”

Achathon rolled his serpentine eyes. “Right.”

“So where to next?” Leyuti asked, her voice tinged with eagerness. “Far too many Skarn still need killing.” Leyuti grinned as she tied a Skarn’s ear to her antlers. It joined a number of its dangling brothers, as well as assorted fangs and eyes, in what resembled a horrific wind chime of gory mementos. Whatever she couldn’t secure on her head, she pinned to the cloth scraps and bone fragments she called armor. The poor girl’s village had been ravaged by those mongrels some years back and it made sense she’d want revenge, but Kavel had never anticipated her bloodlust and satisfaction at dispatching the creatures. It was uncharacteristic of her people… but helpful to his own business. Er, cause.

Kavel dropped to one knee and produced a poorly scrawled map from his pack. “A moment, my lady. Let me get my bearings.” He examined the stained paper, formerly a pub menu, for a few minutes and stroked his beard as the others remained silent.

“What’s the holdup?” Nanoktok grumbled, clacking his claws together in rhythmic fashion. No patience among the brutish black-shells.

“Just a little while longer, my reptilian cohort. We face a foe vast in number, nearly as infinite as the isles of Primora, and we are but four. It wouldn’t do us much good to run into an entire army of them. No, we need to avoid the direct conflicts and stay behind them. Catch the stragglers. Those Hylantean bounties are no good if we’re too dead, or maimed, to enjoy our rewards.”

Achathon nodded. “A proper maiming would certainly put a damper on the things I have in mind.”

“I’m not here for money.” Leyuti’s expression soured and her wolfish gaze landed square on Kavel. “I’m here to make things right by my people and ancestors.”

“Well I’m here for money,” Achathon shrugged, “So take your time, Kavel. I have no plans to die in these forsaken woods. I intend to thoroughly enjoy the ample supply of wine, and women, which will come with all this coin. I’ve heard tales of an island in Psarthos full of virgins…”  His hair tendrils wriggled, standing violently erect for half a second and then settled down.

Kavel raised a brow. “Virgins you say? The whole island?”

Achathon smirked. “Not once I get started.”

Kavel winked and nodded. “Good man.”

Nanok snorted slime from his serrated beak. “What about me?”

“You? Well obviously with your strength and stature you’ll be respected either way, but with this reward money you can do anything you want. Maybe even hire your own outfit so you can sit back while others fight for you.”

Nanok shook his head. “Pay others to fight? Ha.”

Kavel smiled. “Then buy yourself a mountain of fresh fish and eat until you’re sated. Then eat some more. You’ll be well fed for a lifetime, I promise you.”

Nanok squinted and scratched at his scaly head, appearing content with the response. His kind were not lacking in intelligence, only in finer sensibilities and ambition. None of that mattered much with their considerable muscle.

“Luckily, I have good news.” Kavel folded the map up and shoved it back into his pack. “Based on the tracks left behind and the information we received from the last settlement, it looks like the Skarn are headed north to Fort Priston. They’re likely to have left some scavenger camps behind in the husks of whatever unfortunate villages lie on the way. We’re bound to find easy marks.”

There was a humble celebration from the others upon hearing this news, but Kavel knew they were anxious. Heading into any battle was enough to give anyone butterflies in the stomach, but going up against the Skarn was different. Taller and stronger than any man, unrestrained by concepts like mercy or empathy, and innumerable by any counts; the Skarn were a fearsome foe. Not only were they hardy, but the savages multiplied faster than wild hares and spread out at alarming rates, consuming all natural resources before moving on and repeating. There were scant few nations the Skarn hadn’t paid a visit to and wreaked havoc on. It just so happened the Hylanteans were currently enduring the brunt of their assault across various territories. With their military stretched thin, they needed all the help they could get, and they were paying well for it.

Could one say that people in Kavel’s line of work were merely unscrupulous bounty hunters profiting off the war and suffering of others? Absolutely. But Kavel preferred to consider himself a remedy to the virus known as the Skarn, a solution, rather than simply part of the problem. He liked to think that even if becoming rich was his goal, he was still saving lives, if only indirectly.

The group rounded up their supplies and trophies and set off north toward Fort Priston. It was half a day’s walk to the nearest village, Harryn Falls. As they trudged through the trees and brush, Kavel led the way, chopping a path through the verdant green with his favorite kukri blade. He’d named it Chalai, after a ravishing Shir Uttai woman he had briefly courted and bedded. He felt it only fair, considering he had stolen the blade from her incensed husband after the fellow tried to kill him. She’d been totally worth it though. The blade, not the girl.

Kavel’s reminiscing was interrupted by a blood-curdling howl.

“Skarn!” Leyuti yelled.  

Sure enough, one of the hairy fiends tackled him from out of nowhere. The air was sucked from his stomach as his back hit the ground and the muscled beast crashed down on top of him. It let out an ear-splitting roar a foot from his face, flinging slobber from its gaping mouth, and exuding a stench that could make a vulture weep. Kavel’s hands scrambled for Chalai but it was just out of reach. The Skarn ripped off his helmet with ease and he knew it was about to make his considerably attractive face its next meal. He struggled to breathe under the creature’s formidable weight as his hands fumbled in desperation for any sort of weapon or tool he could use to save himself. The best he could do was a palm-sized stone. As the Skarn’s maw approached, dripping fetid saliva all over his breastplate, he swung the rock into the side of its head with all of his fast-dwindling might. The beast looked mildly inconvenienced, at best.

The Skarn retaliated with a headbutt that sent Kavel’s vision spinning and his poor ears ringing. This was it. Years of hunting Skarn, hundreds of notches on his belt, and he was going to leave this world unloved, unacknowledged, and completely sober. Maybe if he survived this he’d change his ways. Find some honest trade work. Start praying and tithing. Turn his life around. No, that was the loss of oxygen talking, and it was completely absurd. Wielding a sword paid better than operating a plow, and he knew better than to entrust his mercy to the hands of ineffectual deities…or apparently unreliable allies who couldn’t lift a finger to save him from certain doom. Oh yes. He would make sure to haunt them, if given the unlikely option, were he to meet his end here. They’d regret abandoning him to this fate.

Just then, a stark contradiction in the form of an arrow whizzed by his head and sunk into the Skarn’s eye with a wet thunk, causing the monster to collapse onto Kavel with the entirety of its dead weight.

“What do you think, Kavel?” Achathon called out. “Have I taken his life? You’re much closer and I can’t be viscerally certain from this far away.” Cheeky bastard.

Nanok kicked the Skarn’s corpse off of him and Kavel gasped for air. He sat up and scanned the area as he continued to pant and heave. Four dead Skarn, including the one beside him.

“Looks like…” Kavel coughed and wheezed, “We all… got one.”

Achathon turned to the others, awestruck, his tendrils extending in every direction. “He can’t be serious.”

Nanok let out a hearty screech as he helped Kavel to his feet. Leyuti, in the midst of yanking the teeth from a Skarn’s mouth, began to cackle as well.

Kavel snatched up Chalai and put her in her rightful place on his belt, then took a minute to catch his breath while the others carried on and claimed their prizes.

“That was some dirty, but fine, work.” he clapped his hand on Achathon’s shoulder. “You all did splendid. Truly, I never doubted you three for a moment.” Or at least next time he wouldn’t. Probably. He couldn’t promise anything really.

. . . to be continued . . .

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