*Visceral Certainty (Part 2)

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

. . . Read Part 1 . . .

Night fell as Kavel and his band of hunters approached Harryn Falls. All was quiet aside from the distant crackle of the flames that consumed the village. The Skarn were either still here or couldn’t have gone very far. He had to be sure. Kavel gestured to Leyuti and she nodded. She raised her arm in the air. Tangible, ink-like shadows encircled it until they came together into a tenebrous owl. She whispered something to the creature and it flew off to scout the ruined village and its surroundings.

“I don’t think I’ll ever become accustomed to that sorcery,” Kavel whispered.

“None of us will,” Achathon replied.

“It’s not sorcery, as I’ve told you many times. It is the sacred rite of my people. And you have nothing to fear.” Leyuti’s lupine eyes remained fixed on the owl. “Wungwa’s will is that of my own. He is bound to me. The only ones he will harm are our enemies.”

Sacred rite or sorcery, it didn’t matter. Kavel didn’t trust the bird. He trusted Leyuti though, and figured it unwise to harp about it any further and anger a woman who could summon beasts from the blackness. As far as she’d told him, the bird was the spirit of a loyal pet she had since childhood. When it died, she burned it and ate its ashes, which is apparently the custom of the Jagatawei tribes, tethering its soul to her. It sounded like a bunch of rubbish. He didn’t take much stock in the notion of phantoms, bird or not, but he couldn’t deny the owl’s existence so he kept his opinion to himself. Mostly. After a few moments, the owl returned and perched upon her arm, all without a single sound.

“The village is full of corpses.” Leyuti stroked the back of the owl’s neck and its head bent forward. “We see but one Skarn, in the village square. A big one, and a solitary man. They seem to be conversing.”

“A prisoner?” Skarn loved their prisoners.

Leyuti replied with nothing but a troubled glance and a shake of her head.

Something wasn’t right. Kavel signaled Achathon, and he sprinted off in search of high ground, where he could make use of his bow. The Ophician’s speed and agility impressed Kavel every time, not that he’d ever tell the boy that. Next, Kavel motioned for Nanok to circle around. The great behemoth did so, and much quieter than one would reasonably expect. Kavel dug into his pack once again and procured a spherical “dandelion” bomb he had picked up back in Mithradia from an Arquellon merchant for a pretty sum. It wasn’t exactly safe–or legal–on account of the raw thaumirrium inside it, but he was damn sure it could put a dent in a Skarn, or ten. Kavel secured the bomb in his overcoat and nodded to Leyuti, whose owl dissipated into vapor. The two strode toward the village entrance, Kavel drawing his sword and kukri, Leyuti readying her dagger and jawbone axe. They’d done this a hundred times, but there was always the possibility it would be their last. At least the odds were on their side and the stench of death that hung in the air would mask their approach.

The pair stuck to cover as they slid into the pyre-lit ruins and edged closer to the square. Soon, Kavel and Leyuti could see the Skarn with their own eyes. “Big one” was an understatement. Kavel had never seen a Skarn this huge before. Large patches of its body hair were missing, exposing bulging, veiny muscles that looked as if they were trying to rip through its dark skin. Black scrap metal was grafted to its scarred flesh in various places, most notably its left hand which had been entirely replaced by a jagged hook. Vicious spines ran down its back and along a tail that ended in a spiked mace the size of Kavel’s head. Its crimson eyes were tinged a sickly green. Its wicked horns were painted and fitted with full-sized skulls, human and otherwise. If this abomination was a warband leader, Kavel didn’t want to see what the rest of his merry companions looked like.

The man, on the other hand, was far less noteworthy. Average height and build, with a hooded cloak that obscured most of his face and dull grey armor. A visible sword with no scabbard hung at his side, meaning it probably wasn’t just for show.  But his boots… You could tell a lot from a man’s boots. They were quality footwear. Worn and used, but of fine make. He was no bandit or brigand. He was a man of station or rank. From where though? It didn’t matter. This was bad news all around. Kavel and Leyuti edged closer until they could hear the exchange of words between the man and beast.

“…but none of that is important. Tell me about the siege.” The cloaked figure possessed a familiar accent.

“It’s begun.” The colossal Skarn replied in the Union tongue, to Kavel’s disbelief, its voice deep and guttural. He’d heard them hoot, shriek, and growl, but never did he witness one speak a human language of any kind. The beast plodded over to the village well and grabbed the bucket, guzzling its contents in two seconds flat, and tossed it aside. “Fort Priston is still holding. For now. But reinforcements are on the way. Legions of Skarn. Deathwheels. Frenzytusks. Gore Cannons. We will break the Hylanteans. The gift your people provided made certain of that.”

“You give us too much credit, Voshlu.”

“Perhaps.” Voshlu grunted, gazing at the carnage around them with indifference. He nudged one of the bodies with his gigantic foot. “My warband is done with this place. Why did you insist we meet here, surrounded by the dead?”

“I have my reasons. Are you uncomfortable? I would’ve thought if anyone would appreciate the ambiance here it would be an individual such as yourself.”

“Reaving. Burning. Feasting. Conquering. The Skarn appreciate all of these things. But I have places to be, so get to the point.”

“Very well. I regret to inform you that certain plans have changed.”

Voshlu appeared agitated. “Changed how?”

“Once Fort Priston is eradicated, your forces are to pull out and leave this island. We have a more critical target that needs your attention. I’d go into further detail but…”

Voshlu sniffed at the air. “Ah, yes. I hadn’t caught their scents with all the dead strewn about, but I smell them now. Fresh meat.”

Kavel sighed. What good are the dead if they can’t even stink properly?

“Show yourselves,” Voshlu shouted, “And I’ll only flay one of you.”

Kavel and Leyuti glanced at each other. It was clear what they had to do. Leyuti stood to face the monstrosity and Kavel scurried in the opposite direction. She caught him by the coat before he could get far though, damn her reflexes.

“Were you retreating?” Leyuti’s eyes bulged as she yanked him close.

“Hardly. I was planning to initiate what they call a ‘flanking maneuver’ and strike our enemy from the side. You clearly know nothing of strategy or tactics.”

“Tactics?” She glared at him. “You clearly started running the opposite direction.”

“Nonsense. But now that you mention it, the battle hasn’t even started yet. So perhaps it would be prudent to…”

“I can hear you.” Voshlu’s voice boomed.

There was no use delaying the inevitable. Kavel and Leyuti revealed themselves to the Skarn and his unnamed acquaintance. Voshlu’s eyes lit up when he saw them, especially Leyuti, with her antler adornment of Skarn body parts.

“I’ve not seen one of your kind in years.” He leveled his hook at her and flashed a filthy, fanged smile. “But I could never forget the taste.”

Leyuti screamed and charged at the Skarn, closing the distance faster than Kavel thought possible. She lunged at Voshlu with her primitive weapons but he swatted her away with his tree trunk of an arm, sending her crashing into a vacant market stall. This only fueled her rage. Kavel drew a spare dagger and hurled it at Voshlu as retaliation for the harsh treatment of his ally, but the monster deflected it with his hook.

Voshlu laughed. “What were the two of you thinking? I am Voshlu of the Bloody Chain. Do you even know what that means?”

Kavel knew. The Bloody Chain were the generals of the Skarn army. The loose leadership of their entire race. They commanded through violence and intimidation, by being the biggest and the strongest. What little order or direction the Skarn knew was imposed by them. What delightful luck.

Leyuti narrowed her eyes at Voshlu. “It means you’re going to die today. Just like the rest.” She ran her dagger between her antlers, clinking it against all of the freshly-cut trophies that hung from them.

Voshlu beat his chest and smiled. “Let us test your thesis.” In a deft and powerful motion he slung a massive black blade from his back, a cross between a machete and a cleaver, but the length of a grown man. Its serrated edge was still sticky with the remnants of his most recent kills. Probably the people of this village.

Leyuti darted forward once more and Voshlu raised his blade and strode toward her. His advance was interrupted by two arrows to the chest. Kavel looked to Achathon, stationed on a burning, but still intact, rooftop. The archer drew two more arrows and fired them in rapid succession, but this time Voshlu raised his arm. One of the projectiles dug into it, the other struck a segment of grafted metal and clattered away. Leyuti’s assault never ceased. She tore into the Skarn warlord, driving her dagger in and out of his thighs, hacking at his waist with her jawbone axe, sending up gouts of blood. Voshlu roared and brought his blade down to split her in two, but she dodged with lightning speed, and his great cleaver plowed a trench through the earth instead.

Just then, Nanok appeared from behind the Skarn and bowled into him, knocking him off balance. Kavel brandished his longsword, Pip, and his kukri, Chalai, and bolted forward in an attempt to flank the creature. This time for real. The three of them swarmed Voshlu and struck with all the ferocity they could muster, slashing and stabbing with reckless abandon, while Achathon fired a conservative number of arrows into his hide. To cautiously avoid harming his valued colleagues, no doubt. Their enormous foe was surrounded and would soon be bested. In the words of a most assuring brothel madam: size isn’t everything.

All this time, the man in grey had been content to simply watch. He appeared to have no inclination to join the fray or turn tail, and his demeanor betrayed no trace of worry or concern. Just a faint look of boredom. Until now. The man revealed a chalky hand with dark veins and swept it through the air in front of him, releasing what looked to be a putrid cloud of sorts. Some kind of… spores? The villagers’ corpses began to twitch and writhe, before rising in a most unnatural fashion. Their movements were staggered and clumsy, like puppets, only adding to the sheer horror of the situation.

“I told you I had my reasons, Voshlu,” he shook out his cloak with confidence.

The Skarn warband may have abandoned the village, but they’d left behind a different army of sorts. Now, this was sorcery. Kavel gulped. Surprise was no longer on their side, and now they were the ones surrounded. There was only one option.

Kavel sheathed his blades and pulled the unstable explosive device from his jacket. “Don’t come any closer or I’ll use this!”

“And what is that?” The cloaked figure asked.

“It’s a… dandelion bomb.”

Voshlu and the man both laughed. It was hard to fault them.

“This is no farce. It can destroy the whole village.” Kavel held it in as threatening a manner as he could manage.

“Show me,” the man challenged.

With the odds as they were, Kavel was willing to oblige. He twisted the device as the merchant had instructed him, leaving him with mere seconds to toss it and get clear. He hurled the contraption at the feet of the abominable Skarn as Leyuti and Nanok scrambled away to safety. But the bomb didn’t detonate.

Wait for it…

No, the damn thing was a dud. Lousy cleft-footed, fast-talking, no-good Arquellon swindler. That perfumed goat would pay for this, pending Kavel’s survival.

Voshlu stood up and examined the bomb before tossing it into the well behind him. “Nice try.” It landed with a shallow splash. The gaping wounds scattered across the Skarn general’s body began to mend right before their eyes.

The risen villagers closed in on Kavel and his allies and he began to feel that sinking feeling of impending, inescapable doom. A sureness deep in his gut, so to speak. If only he could put a better name to it. But Kavel was at a loss for words, and soon, possibly much more.

. . . to be continued . . .

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