*Visceral Certainty (Part 4)

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

. . . Read Part 3 . . .

The clomping and thundering of horses grew louder. It sounded like a dozen steeds or more. Kavel hoped that meant friends rather than foes. It wasn’t like there was any place to run either way.

The Herald glanced down at his crimson-soaked shirt beneath his armor and then at Kavel. “You ruined my favorite tunic.”

 “And you vandalized my handsome profile.” Kavel pointed to the cut on his cheek. “So I’d say we’re quite even.”

“You are an utter buffoon.” The Herald shook his head and retrieved his rapier, sheathing it in his belt. “I can’t even imagine how you’ve survived this long against the Skarn.”

The roaring of hooves grew closer by the second and Kavel could hear the shouts and cries of men in the Union tongue. Finally, a spot of luck.

Kavel backed up to a safe distance and folded his arms. “Fortunately for me, you don’t have time to imagine. You might be just a tad better than me with a blade, if I’m being generous, but I doubt you can overpower a whole squad of Hylantean soldiers.”

The Herald’s face seethed with anger. “Voshlu,” he shouted, “I must take my leave.”

Voshlu was still grappling with Nanok as Achathon emptied arrows in his scarred hide. “You would run now?” He growled. “Like a coward?”

“Consider this a test. If you fail… the Bloody Chain only grows stronger through the absence of its weakest link.”

Voshlu grunted and headbutted Nanok, knocking him off balance. He tossed the black-shell through a notice board. Leyuti leaped at him but he kicked her out of the air and sent her rolling through the dirt. “You dare insult me? These worms aren’t even worthy of death at my hands.”

“Then make them worthy. Do the only thing you barbarians are good at.”

Voshlu roared and ran toward the Herald, but the mob of the dead was still under his command and moved to intercept the great Skarn. The villagers were no match for Voshlu by any stretch, but the dead clung to his every limb to delay his advance just enough.

The Herald raised his hand slightly and a brown horse galloped out from behind a burning building. It held no fear of the flames or carnage. But its eyes were marked by the same green hue. As the Herald climbed onto its back, Achathon struck the steed in the shoulder with an arrow. It didn’t buck or run. It didn’t whinny or neigh. It did nothing. Kavel was beginning to see a pattern here. This disease or sorcery or whatever it was… the afflicted felt no pain.

The Herald scowled at Kavel one last time. “You and I will see each other again. That, I promise.” He spun his mount and sped off into the night.

The cadre of Hylantean troops emerged from the woods just in time to see Voshlu shrug off the pile of corpses. They reverted to their lifeless states once the Herald was far enough away.

The lead knight brought his horse to a sliding halt next to Kavel. His eyes widened at the sight of the carnage and the massive Skarn. “What’s happened here?”

“The Skarn happened. And that man is in league with them.” Kavel pointed to the Herald, who would soon vanish in the darkness.

The knight gestured for a half-dozen men to pursue the Herald and turned his focus back to Kavel. “And the villagers?”

“That man bent them to his will with some form of sorcery. It appears to be the work of –“

 “The Eclysos.” The knight interrupted. “We’ve suspected as much for some time. He mustn’t get away. What he knows could be the key to turning the tides in this war.”

“But what about that one?” Kavel pointed to Voshlu. The Skarn general was surrounded by a handful of mounted soldiers, spears aimed at his bulky frame. Voshlu’s expression held no concern. In fact, he eyed the men like a predator considering its next meal.

“I’ve never seen one of such stature. One of the Bloody Chain I presume.” The knight nodded and drew his broadsword. “We must dispatch this abomination. My men and I will take it from here.”

“We don’t need your help.” Leyuti approached the knight’s horse, chest puffed out. “This kill is ours.”

“Hush now, my girl.” Kavel patted Leyuti’s shoulder. “Would you really rob them of the opportunity to fulfill their duties? To carry out their responsibilities? It seems quite a disservice.”

Leyuti squinted and bared her large canines at him.

“Have no doubt, we will carry out this task.” The knight trotted his horse toward Voshlu, who was still biding his time within the circle of armed troops.

Kavel grinned. “That is heartening to hear, and very admirable. Even still, I recommend you exercise caution. He’s not like any Skarn we’ve encountered.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” The knight raised his blade high in the air. “Men, fell the beast!”

The odds had shifted once again. Ten to one, in their favor. Kavel was feeling optimistic. The Skarn general wouldn’t pose much of a threat without the Herald on his side. Surely.

The Hylantean spearmen jabbed their weapons into Voshlu’s body from all angles. The Skarn howled and fell to one knee as the spears appeared to hold him in place. The knight brought his steed right up to Voshlu. Even kneeling, the Skarn was as tall as the horse.

“As an enemy of the Union, I sentence you to death.” The knight raised his sword and bluish-white light began to envelop it.

Voshlu lunged forward and raked his hook across the horse’s side, tearing it wide open. The horse screamed as it tumbled onto its side, pinning its rider’s leg beneath it. The Skarn’s display of weakness was nothing more than a ruse, and the Hylanteans fell for it.

Nine to one were still good odds though. Right?

Voshlu whirled his wicked cleaver through the air and cut two soldiers from their saddles with a single swing. The third soldier drew his blade from its scabbard but Voshlu caught the man with his hook and dragged him off his horse like a child’s doll. The Skarn general stomped his prey’s skull in and it burst like a ripe bloodberry. Six to one.

The fourth man was still struggling to remove his spear from the Skarn’s side. Voshlu brought his cleaver down on the horse’s neck and decapitated it, clean and quick. This sent the soldier crashing to the ground, where he tried to crawl away. Voshlu skewered the man, then lifted him off the ground and waved his corpse around like a toy. Five to one.

The last soldier had seen enough. He snapped the reigns of his horse and it took off sprinting. Voshlu slid the body off the blade with his hook.  The Bloody Chain reared back and hurled his weapon with such force and velocity that it rent the man in two. The huge cleaver finally came to rest in the ground, dripping with gore and vital fluids. 

Four to one. Again. The situation hadn’t turned out as Kavel had hoped. However, he had to maintain his image as the brave and infallible leader his cohorts looked up to. That was where his background in performing arts always came in handy. Acting was just a form of deception, after all. Leadership wasn’t much different.

“Time to meet your end, monster.” Kavel twirled Pip around and pointed it at Voshlu menacingly. “Those horns will make me a rich man.”

“You mean us. They’ll make us rich.” Achathon chimed in.

“Merely a slip of the tongue. That was the implication.”

“I’m really not sure it was.” Of course it wasn’t, but Kavel couldn’t go snuffing out the last remaining spark of morale by telling everyone he didn’t expect them to survive.

Leyuti appeared at Kavel’s side, weapons primed and itching. “Killing this vile scum is its own reward.”

“Maybe.” Nanok joined them and clanked his claws against his chest. “But being rich sounds good too.”

Voshlu clenched his fist and snorted. “The only spoils you will earn are the endless lashes of the Broken God. Your reward will be an eternity of pain.”

Kavel raised an eyebrow. Broken God? That sounded quite… ominous. “Eternity of pain, you say?”

“Yes. He will rip you apart until the end of time. Your suffering will never cease. I am jealous of him, as I can kill you just once. But I promise I will make your deaths worth it.”

Kavel gulped. Too often he made the mistake of underestimating his opponents. Before today Kavel didn’t know the Skarn could speak a civilized language. It goes without saying he’d never imagined they had a proper god, broken or not. Were they violent, savage, cruel? Absolutely. But they weren’t as dumb as they seemed all these years. The notion of a greater culture and intelligence among their barbaric race unsettled Kavel more than any acts of depravity they committed.

Achathon sunk three arrows into Voshlu’s chest from his perch atop a smoldering hut. “Your threats are as false as your god.” He sneered at the beast. “But if you revere him so greatly, perhaps we can arrange a meeting for you.”

Voshlu grinned and snapped the shafts protruding from his flesh with a quick swipe of his hook. He lowered his head and charged, dead-on into the corner of the house. Achathon leapt off just in time, hitting the ground rolling, and sprung back to his feet. The entire hut collapsed around the Skarn general. He rose from the wreckage unfazed and unscathed.

“You missed,” Achathon shouted.

“Hardly. I just want you where I can reach you.” Voshlu lumbered toward Kavel and his allies, who now stood between him and his cleaver. He swept his hook in their general direction. “You came together. You will die together.”

Nanok ran in first, taking wide horizontal swipes with his claws. Voshlu dodged backward with a swiftness belying his brawn and stature. He countered with a kick to Nanok’s knee that knocked him off balance, then a haymaker to the black-shell’s face that sent him reeling.

Leyuti was already upon the Skarn, slicing at his calves and ankles, rolling under every blow he tried to land on her. But each gash closed almost as soon as it opened. Leyuti may have been fast, but so was Voshlu. His mace-like tail blind-sided her and swept her off her feet. Before she could rise, he delivered a punch that rattled her skull and cracked one of her antlers. Voshlu lifted her by both arms and sniffed her close as she bled and wriggled to get free. “Mmm. It’s been far too long since I’ve dined on Jagatawei.” He looked her up and down. “What a tasty morsel you are, little moon child.”

Kavel sprinted in and jabbed Pip into Voshlu’s spined back. The great Skarn swung his tail into Kavel’s chest, denting his breastplate and flinging him into the village well’s opening. Kavel scrambled to save himself and just barely caught the inner edge. He hadn’t even seen where Pip landed. The situation was dire, but his mind was more focused on the bruise that would inevitably form on his impeccable pectorals. He looked down below him to the dark, shallow water and could see a dim glow.

Hold on.

The bomb. The dandelion bomb was still in the well. Maybe Kavel could retrieve it and get it working. But how? If he dropped down he couldn’t get out, and he’d long ago stopped lugging that grappling hook around after the latrine incident. Perhaps it was a lost cause after all. And it’s not like it even worked right the first time anyway. Kavel sighed and pulled himself out of the well, legs straddling the stone edge as he caught his breath.

Leyuti struggled to escape Voshlu’s grasp and kicked him square in the face. He snapped one of her wrists like a twig. The wolf-girl screamed and he flung her away without effort. She landed next to Kavel’s kukri with a sharp thud. Voshlu grunted and turned, setting his sights back on his cleaver.

Achathon barred Voshlu’s path.

The Skarn general towered over the Ophician. “You can’t win. I am indestructible.”

Achathon narrowed his gaze at the hulking beast “Everyone has a weakness.” That’s it. Stay confident, keep morale up.

Voshlu bared his fangs and extended his arms to his sides. “Spoken like every enemy I’ve left rotting in my wake. You’ll find out what that’s like soon enough.”

Never mind. Kavel’s reunion with crushing self-doubt was sobering. He suspected he’d never set foot on that island full of virgins at this rate.

. . . to be continued . . .

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