In retrospect, their latest destination made Karensford look like a thriving city. It was late in the evening when Hulbard paused at the branching pathway and grimaced into the bitter wind. The roadway they’d been following all day continued north alongside the swollen river, while a dirt track led east and dipped down into a shallow valley. Sheltered from the raking wind by a stand of trees, Calkirk turned out to be several tiny, lopsided buildings huddled around a larger lodge, presumably a gathering place of some description.
As typically Volyumenthine in appearance as Karensford had been, the village looked devoid of life from where he stood. The weather had improved with their journey, even if the roads had not, though that only amounted to a break in the torrential downpour and a glance towards the cloud strewn horizon only convinced him that it wouldn’t last long.
“Not much to look at” Shankhill said, stepping up alongside him, “But fortunes have been made in such places before”.
“If you say so” Hulbard scoffed.
“I do!” the smaller man declared with his usual, unflappable optimism, “Come, brave companions. We have some form of hag to slay”.
“One that’s likely knitting a scarf as we speak” Quintus commented, “Folk get very superstitious way out here. Probably grasping at straws to keep their miniscule minds active”.
“This place looks like it could do with a good hanging just to brighten it up” Knox chuckled, “Maybe we’ll do them a favour by stabbing someone’s grandmother”.
The buildings they passed between were all dark and devoid of life. In fact, the only sign that Calkirk was occupied at all came in the form of a guttering, rusty lantern hanging outside the lodge. The rickety eve creaked and groaned as Shankhill jogged up its steps, but that was nothing compared to the screeching hinges of the door as he nudged it open with the toe of his boot. He stepped through the doorway and into a large, shadow shrouded room, already beaming that vicious bright smile of his.
Hulbard was quick behind, ducking under the low lintel to scan the room with his impassive gaze. A fire pit sat in the middle of the space, flanked by several rough hewn tables. Candles sat on a few, throwing flickering shadows across the shapes huddled around them. Hard faces turned at their entrance, weather worn and wind bitten. The fire was freshly lit, but did little to hold back the shadows clinging to the rafters high overhead. A long, scarred counter spanned the wall opposite the entrance with a heavyset, greasy looking man behind it. Behind him, in turn, a few flimsy looking shelves had been optimistically nailed to the wall. The entire place smelled; wood smoke, sweat, leather and ash.
Hands planted on his hips, Shankhill surveyed the room.
“Do we have a man by the name of Fjordson present?” he asked loudly.
“That’d be me” the man behind the counter said, eyeing them warily.
“Then you are who we’re here to see” Shankhill smirked, “A little bird told me that you had a monster that needs slaying and, as it so happens, we specialise in such things”.
Fjordson looked them over for a long second as the others filed through the doorway, squinting and frowning furiously at the sight of them all. Semekt, in particular, seemed to attract a whispered comment or two from their onlookers.
“Alright” he said at length, gesturing them over, “C’mere then an’ I’ll let ye know what’s been goin’ on”.
They gathered in a loose band around the bar as Fjordson plucked a bottle off the shelf behind him and produced a grimy glass from beneath the counter. He poured a generous measure of dark liquid into it and slid the glass towards Shankhill. His smile faltered minutely as he looked down at the gift and gently nudged it to one side.
“Thanks” he said, “But I prefer to enjoy my life with a clear mind”.
“Better you than me” Knox snorted, plucking up the glass and knocking it back in one gulp.
He swallowed noisily, grimaced like he’d just been stabbed and set the glass back down on the scarred countertop. Hulbard peered over his shoulder as the hunter waved away the offer of a refill; they were being watched by everyone in the hall, all deathly silent and unmoving, eyes glinting in the flickering candlelight.
“Alright” Fjordson set his elbows on the counter and leaned forward, his already raspy voice dropping to a whisper, as if he was worried about anyone overhearing, “Near as any o’ us can make out, it started about three months ago. Started noticin’ some stuff goin’ odd for us. Look, we don’t ‘ave much goin’ for us around ‘ere, but what we do ‘ave is a herd o’ sheep we pasture down south. A few of ‘em started goin’ missin’ and at first, yeah, we thought it might o’ been a pack of wolves moved in. But we found nothin’. No tracks, no remains. Nothin’, ye hear me?”
He paused, poured himself a drink and knocked it back without any of the ill effects Knox had felt, instead licking his lips afterwards like he was half savouring the taste. Fjordson cleared his throat before continuing, eyes darting between them cautiously.
“Two lads went fishin’ in the nearest fens about a month later and we started findin’ traces of our sheep over that way. They found a few odd trinkets hangin’ from the trees, ill omens and the like. Now, they were more curious than the rest o’ us and they went lookin’ for whatever left ‘em behind and thought they knew where to look. There’s an old hut buried in those fens that used to belong to an apothecary a few generations back. Well, ‘e died and the place was empty ever since’.
‘So these two lads went lookin’ and found this place an’ they saw it weren’t empty no more. Lights inside. They came runnin’ back ‘ere, packed up their bags and took off. Since then, a few more sheep ‘ave gone missin’. The rest o’ us are too stubborn or too stupid to follow in their footsteps so we’re still hangin’ on ‘ere. We sent a messenger to Halmstead but...”
Fjordson paused and shook his head with a heavy sigh of disappointment before he continued.
“Well, we aint expectin’ much help from there. Warden Eirik aint much like his father was. Gone too far from tradition, he’s nothin’ but a thrall to some Sorcerer that arrived a year or so ago”.
At this, another pause blossomed and this time, he used it to give Quintus a withering stare. The Sorcerer just arched an eyebrow and stared back coldly.
“We’re not overly fond of them either, trust me” Shankhill smiled brightly, already delving into his backpack. “But it sounds like we just might need one to deal with whatever is waiting for us in those fens”.
Pulling out his map, he spread it on the counter and held up a stick of charcoal. Fjordson marked the hut’s location on the map, alongside several landmarks, before Shankhill rolled it back up and stuffed it away again.
“We still have that fishin’ boat” the barkeep told them, “Beneath the stone bridge upriver. You’ll need it to cross over and navigate the fens. Nothin’ fancy but it’ll get ye where ye need to go”.
“Perfect” Shankhill grinned, “We’ll be sure to put it to good use. Now, there’s just the matter of our payment. Our...mutual friend...said that you would be willing to part with ten Cloves”.
“I said six” Fjordson told him, eyes shifting in the dull light, “It aint much but we don’t got no more”.
Shankhill visibly winced at the price and sighed heavily before shooting Hulbard a glance, as if searching for his input. All part of the game they’d been playing for years now and he did his part by looking as stoically unimpressed as possible. Cloves were one of the silver based currencies widely used by most nations under human control and each one would fetch a meal on its own in any self respecting tavern. Six, to him at least, sounded like a decent price for checking up on a hut in the wilderness. It wouldn’t leave much left over for anything else, but they’d lived on such meagre earnings for weeks at a time in the past. Ten Cloves seemed closer to highway robbery, but that was what their companion did best, only with words instead of steel.
“Six seems like a mighty small sum to send us traipsing off into the fens in search of trouble” Shankhill said, his tone soft and persuasive as he leaned close.
“I could prob’ly find nine” Fjordson told him slowly.
“Nine it is then” Shankhill shook the man’s greasy hand, “And a pleasure it’s been doing business with you. Now, lastly but certainly not least, is there anywhere around here that we could bed down for the night? Unless I’m mistaken, it’s going to be a wet one and we’ve all had enough of those on the road so far”.
“The house the lads left behind” Fjordson shrugged, “Furthest west from here. Ye can sleep there if ye’s want. Never had much in the way of travellers round ‘ere so never had much need for no inn. If a nightcap is needed though, ye’re more than welcome to it here”.
“So this is what gratitude looks like around here, eh?” Hulbard mused, looking over the building a moment later.
“Better than sleeping out here” Shankhill said, slipping past him and up the rotten steps to the front door of the building they were about to claim as their own.
Their shelter turned out to be as tiny as it looked; a two room building set alongside the path leading down into Calkirk. The door opened to reveal a main room scarcely a third the size of the alehouse. A ratty couch sat in front of an empty fireplace, while a bare doorway led through into a room doubling as both a bedroom and a latrine. Everything about the place spoke of a very simple and very dull life.
Skye claimed the bedroom for herself and, despite Shankhill’s gentle suggestions, it remained hers alone. Instead, he flopped down onto the couch with a forlorn sigh, flung his legs up onto the cushions and pillowed his head in his hands. Knox used some of their kindling to light the fire, while Quintus slumped into a chair set opposite around a shabby table. Hulbard used flint and steel to light two lanterns and set one on the scarred wood by the Sorcerer, the other in the window, throwing flickering shadows across the barren walls.
He lumbered over to the couch, caught a hold of Shankhill’s legs, flung them aside and slumped down into the cushions beside him. He grumbled, but offered no real protest as the giant sank back into the couch with a heavy sigh, letting the tension drain from his weary limbs after so long on the road. He stretched his legs out to the crackling flames, despite the fact that he couldn’t feel the warmth through his armour and let his head loll back comfortably.
Knox leaned against the wall to one side of the open doorway, idly cleaning under his fingernails with a dirk. Semekt lay coiled nearby, his sides rising and falling slowly, while Trastgor stood in the doorway, long arms loose by his side as he stared out into the night, seemingly perfectly at ease. As soon as they were all comfortable, Hulbard broke the silence of the room.
“Alright” he sighed, “It’s safe to say it’s not some wolves or a lost mountain lion. They don’t tend to hang up omens in the fens. Anyone have any thoughts?”
“Pfft” Shankhill scoffed, “Probably some kind of hermit that found himself a nice little shelter away from everyone and hung up a few bone charms to help keep his neighbours from annoying him. Probably harmless”.
“Could be deserters” Knox suggested, glancing up from his fingernails, “Doing the same trick, perhaps. You never know”.
“Wouldn’t put the idea past some of the smarter ones” Hulbard said, scratching at his neck. “Don’t fancy the idea of fighting any more of those bastards though”.
“Won’t be so bad if we get the drop on them” Knox hummed, licking noisily at his teeth. “Bogs can make for some good cover if you use them right”.
“Let me guess” Shankhill heaved an exasperated sigh, “You spent a year in one or something?”
“Spent some time over in Vrest” the hunter shrugged, “Ended up doing some work while I was there. Led about five dozen soldiers through a mire so they could ambush an advance party of Altiel”.
“Of course you did” Shankhill chuckled, “Is there anywhere you haven’t been?”
“A few places, here and there” Knox said, sliding the knife back into its sheath at his side. “But not many”.
“We’ll see what we’re dealing with soon enough” Shankhill said dismissively, curling up on his side of the couch.
Trastgor half turned to look back at them and then stepped out into the night as silence descended, adding nothing to their speculation. Hulbard watched him go and then got as comfortable as he could on his own side of the couch. He needed a bath and his stomach ached with hunger, but even so, he took a moment to be grateful for the dingy house, even before he heard the first drops of rain beginning to fall. It pattered softly against the roof and beyond the doorway, he heard the wind begin to keen. Knox slid to the floor, back propped against the wall and pulled up his hood to shroud his feral features in shadow.
Hulbard let his mind go blank until he felt his senses starting to swim and drift apart. On the very edge of hearing, he picked out the sound of Trastgor’s deep, rhythmic humming from outside, rising and falling melodically. They were safe with him prowling the night outside and that alone was enough to ease him into a deep slumber.
The fishing boat sliced through the sluggish, iron grey water. It was typical of its kind; lightweight, long and narrow, with a seat at its heart, two paddles and just deep enough to carry a decent sized haul. It was built for spear fishing, to slink between the shallows of reed strewn waters. Shankhill sat at the prow, perched under a lantern swaying from the post set there, peering down at his map with the look of a man who had very little idea of what he was seeing.
Not surprising, considering the fact that the river was blanketed by a thick fog. It swirled around them, rendered everything indistinct and hazy, swallowed all sound. It turned landmarks into blotchy outlines, made finding anything Fjordson had jotted down an utter trial. It wasn’t raining, but that hardly seemed to matter when the mist drenched them all to the bone anyway.
Hulbard knelt behind their guide, his paddle dipping smoothly in and out of the water, scarcely making a sound. Quintus and Skye had somehow managed to squeeze onto the hard wooden seat, both looking decidedly uncomfortable in the cramped space. The old man yawned while his apprentice munched loudly on an apple, despite the fact that she still looked half asleep.
Knox had managed to squeeze his long limbed frame into the boat, looking equally as uncomfortable. Trastgor came last, his own oar plunging into the water in time with Hulbard’s, motions slow and smooth.
“I think this is it” Shankhill said suddenly from the prow of their vessel, voice echoing strangely.
“Make sure you’re right so we don’t end up running this thing aground” Hulbard’s voice was a metallic growl through his helmet.
“I’m pretty sure” he winced down at the map one last time before pointing off to their right, “The canal should be just over there”.
The fishing boat came around and fought against the slow but powerful current for a long moment as they paddled their way across the river. The bank loomed suddenly through the grey veil, making Shankhill swear and duck before the low hanging branch of a tree could take his head off. They lined the edge of the river, tall and barren limbs hanging low over the water, piercing the gloom without much warning. The lantern’s gentle, orange glow barely seemed to reach them, offering little in the way of light for anything beyond a foot of the prow. The boat turned back into the current, followed the bank further downriver for a long moment before Shankhill snapped for them to stop.
A tremor ran through the length of the otherwise silent boat as Hulbard and Trastgor did their best to halt their momentum, giving their guide enough time to double check his map, narrowing his eyes at the bank. Dragging a hand through his soaking wet hair, he guided them slowly into a narrow channel between the skeletal boughs of grey trees. Here, the water flowed faster, which would have been fine if it wasn’t against them. Hulbard bent his back to the task, their paddling quickening in a clumsy rhythm as he and Trastgor worked against the sudden current.
Shankhill hissed as branches rattled against the post overhead, spraying them with water from their whipping limbs as they passed between two mounds of moss, fought their way through the canal inch by painful inch. They broke through into a calmer patch of water, the banks falling away to be replaced by towering mounds of reeds on all sides and Hulbard heaved a sigh of relief. More trees pockmarked the sea of reeds surrounding them, grey outlines in the choking fog, taking a second to rotate his cramped shoulders.
“Alright” he grunted, “How far?”
“Still a ways” Shankhill told him, smoothing the map out against his lap as best he could, “We keep going straight ahead as far as I can tell”.
Hulbard’s relief at escaping the canal didn’t last long as they began to move deeper into the flooded bog. The narrow boat slid between buoyant mounds of moss that drifted on unseen currents of their own, the water laden with vegetation. It clung to his paddle with every stroke, made them pause every few frustrating feet to shake and drag it loose and slowing their pace to a painstaking crawl. Trastgor was forced to do the same, though he didn’t look nearly as annoyed by the unpleasant task as Hulbard felt.
Somewhere in the distance, a crow cawed, the sound distorted and echoing eerily in the fog. The water lapping against the sides of their craft was the only noise he could hear with any clarity in all that murky gloom, while the stillness they could see was absolute before their passage, lending a surreal sense of isolation to the entire experience.
Just as he was considering breaking that silence to pester Shankhill again, Hulbard caught a glimpse of movement ahead; Semekt. The Dramaskian slithered sinuously through the grey water to clear their path, rolling logs aside and nudging debris out of the way, creating space for them to work their way through the undergrowth.
“Hold up” Shankhill suddenly whispered and Hulbard stabbed his oar into the nearest bank to anchor them in place.
The entire boat jolted with the sudden impact, nearly throwing them into the cold water.
“I can’t tell if that’s a good sign or a bad one” Shankhill said in a hushed voice, pointing ahead.
Hulbard leaned to one side. A shape loomed through the haze and at first, he thought it was a vast spider web strung between the sprawling branches of two trees overhead but that impression didn’t last long. The strands were too thick, too deliberately placed. Almost ten feet across, it hung above the narrow canal they’d been paddling along. Something rested at its heart and as he stared, Hulbard slowly realised what he was looking at. A collection of bones had been wound into the design. The skull of a sheep loomed over a splayed ribcage, its bones grasping at the air like fingers. They all stared at it for a very long, silent moment.
“Quintus” Shankhill’s voice was muted in the blanket of vapour. “What do you make of that?”
“Plenty” the Sorcerer stroked his lengthy beard, “None of it good, if I’m being honest”.
“Invaluable insight” Trastgor snorted, his sarcasm strangely welcome in that dead water, “Truly, we would be lost without you”.
“You hardly need me to tell you that this isn’t normal” Quintus snapped irritably, “As Shankhill said, it could simply be the work of an overly cautious hermit. Someone with too much time on their hands and clever enough to know how to keep their superstitious neighbours at bay”.
“This” Trastgor’s response was a low growl, “Is not the work of human hands”.
No one seemed to have much of an answer for that comment so they continued on without another word, passing slowly beneath the intricately woven vines. After that, they began to pick out other signs in that still and silent place. None of them were as impressive as the first, but they didn’t need to be to get their point across. Animal bones dangled from the clawed limbs of trees, mingled with stones, twigs and what looked suspiciously like animal fur upon closer inspection. They passed them all in subdued silence, manhandling the unwieldy boat through the thick foliage.
Even with Semekt’s guidance, they began to run into mounds of muck lurking beneath the grey surface that gripped at the boat, sapped Hulbard’s strength as he had to dig them free with the paddle time and time again. With every passing minute, he grew more and more irritated. Wet, cold, his muscles aching from wrestling with the elements of that cursed place, nine Cloves was beginning to seem like too little for the hardship.
Their boat jolted as it came free of the latest bank of mud with the help his frenzied paddling and slid smoothly, but suddenly, into a larger body of water. Breathing heavily, Hulbard cast around and quickly spotted the shape of solid ground ahead, wreathed in reeds but definitely rising from the muddy swamp.
“I think we’re here” Shankhill muttered uncertainly before checking his map one final time.
He stuffed it back into his bag, unhooked the lantern and held it high, shining it all around them to little avail as Hulbard and Trastgor guided them through the water. The boat cut through the reeds and bumped gently against solid ground a moment later. Shankhill leapt nimbly from the boat, splashing down into the mossy lichen beyond. The noise made him wince; every sound dropped into the silence like a boulder into a still pond. Keeping low, Hulbard clambered forward, somehow got out of the boat without tipping it over and reached back to grab a hold of its prow. Bracing his feet, shoulders hunching against the weight, he dragged the boat further uphill, anchoring it firmly in place so the others could follow.
Crackling vegetation made Hulbard turn, senses straining, only to see Semekt slithering from the water nearby, debris sluicing from his jet black scales. Knox tossed him the bandolier they’d kept safe and dry in the boat and the Dramaskian caught it, quickly slipping it into place across his slender shoulders, tugging and plucking deftly at the straps until it sat comfortably in place once more.
Hulbard peered around but could see little of the island they’d landed on, beyond the nearby outline of a grey tree, its limbs shrouded in hanging charms. The ground was coated in moss and fungi, slippery and treacherously uneven underfoot.
“Hold on” Quintus said, staring ahead into the fog, brows furrowed as if in confusion, “Something is very wrong here”.
Hulbard glanced towards Skye and frowned as he saw how uneasy she looked. Eyes wide, she was shifting uneasily from foot to foot, rubbing at her arms self consciously. Quintus was attuned to such things, but if even his unskilled apprentice felt something, that didn’t bode well for any of them. The bone charms rattled in the nearby tree as Knox leapt up into its branches. He scrambled up the thickest bough, lifted his head as high as he could and peered around. When he clambered back down to join them a moment later, Knox pointed towards the heart of the island.
“There’s a light over there” he reported and that was enough.
The chain mace came loose with a soft rattle as Hulbard gripped the broad iron shield in his other hand and shook out his shoulders in an effort to loosen up his aching, cramped muscles. Tilting his head back, he peered into the mist overhead and drank in a deep, long breath. Around him, he heard the others preparing as well. Trastgor’s falcata rasped free of its sheath, Quintus patted the trinkets and pouches hanging from his belt, Knox set an arrow to the string of his bow. Semekt remained still, while Shankhill idly toyed with the handle of his own sword, looking decidedly uneasy.
Hulbard fixed his sights ahead and marched forward, armoured feet sinking deep into the soft earth. He picked out a dull, orange glow ahead, growing with every step to illuminate the haze. After another dozen paces, the outline of their destination loomed from the oppressive fog; thick blocks of ancient stone stacked one atop the other to make an unusually tall building for such a place, the cracked tiles on its sharply sloped roof covered in a thick carpet of lichen. The light he’d been following shone through two small windows to either side of a narrow doorway, lancing through the heavy fog shrouding the island.
Semekt reared on his right and all four scimitars slid free of their sheaths, brought to bear in a heartbeat. Despite his usual sluggishness when it came to understanding humans, it seemed even the Dramaskian had picked up on the tension pervading the group. Hulbard stepped over a deep puddle and came to a halt before glancing back towards Knox.
The hunter pulled up his hood and slunk past them. Prowling through the mist, he edged his way up to the side of the building and cautiously peered through the nearest window. Knox took a long second to look at whatever he saw within, before moving to the next and doing the same. Slow and deliberate, he picked his way around the entire building before returning to them.
“It’s one big room in there” he reported in a hoarse whisper, “There’s a loft opposite the door. Fire lit, but I couldn’t see anyone in there. No movement”.
With his heartbeat quickening in his ears, Hulbard marched forward, breathing low and deep. The others followed in his wake, trying their best to remain out of sight of the windows. Walking right up to the mouldy wooden door, he set the chain mace down and very gingerly wrapped his fingers around its handle. Pressing down on it with painstaking slowness, he found it locked.
Glancing at Semekt, he waved to make sure he had the serpent’s attention, jerked a thumb towards the doorway and then to the left. The Dramaskian gave a deep nod of understanding and Hulbard plucked back up his weapon. Taking a step back, he lifted an iron shod boot and kicked the door in with the crash of splintering wood.
Hulbard lumbered through the opening and Semekt was quick behind, slithering left with his blades at the ready. The warrior took the room in at a glance; spacious and open, with a worn staircase leading up to a loft opposite the doorway, ringed by a fungus ridden rail. Flames crackled softly in a fireplace on his right, a large brass pot filled to the brim with a frothy broth suspended above the flickering flames. The centre of the door was dominated by two long tables set in a right angle pattern. The thick wood was scarred, blood stained and scattered with slabs of fatty meat.
Carving blocks. Ominous given the circumstances but not unlike many others he’d seen in far less threatening environments. The other side of the room was cast in shadow from the loft overhead, but he could just make out the shapes of wooden crates and canvas sacks stacked in the gloom. Just as he was scanning the dark rafters overhead, Shankhill strode into the room, flanked by Trastgor at one shoulder and Knox at the other.
“Take a look up there” the small man commanded, lifting his lantern to peer beneath the loft.
Senses straining, breath echoing within his helm, Hulbard began to climb the narrow staircase, the steps creaking and cracking ominously under his weight.
“Have a care” he heard Quintus warn from below, “This is no ordinary residence. Skye, watch the door”.
Hulbard plodded up to the loft and spotted a mouldy mattress pressed against the opposite wall beneath a circular window, though any light that pierced the portal was weak at best. Unusually for such a broad space, there were no other pieces of furniture and no sign of personal effects of any description. This drew his eye to the floorboards, where the wood had been scratched and torn, his unease growing by the second. Turning his head to one side, he was just beginning to examine the work when he suddenly heard Skye yelp Trastgor’s name.
He lunged to the rail in time to see the Kurgal race for the door. There was the crash of shifting vegetation outside as Trastgor grabbed it and tried to swing it shut. Something slipped through the opening at the last second and the door slammed into it with a wet crunch. Bracing his feet, every muscle across his back standing rigid, Trastgor heaved his considerable bulk against the wood.
Hulbard’s eyes fixed on the object barring the door open; it looked like a length of moss covered timber. As he stared, though, he made out five long, skeletal fingers clamped tight around the doorframe. It looked like the Kurgal had slammed the door on a giant hand. Trastgor growled low in his throat, the sound guttural and strained as something thudded against the other side of the wooden barrier. Despite his gritted teeth and near inhuman strength, the door inched open, his feet skidding on the floorboards.
The wood panel between them groaned under the pressure as Skye darted into the nearest corner and Quintus scrabbled for something at his belt. Knox stood in the centre of the room, bow raised and drawn. That was all Hulbard had a chance to see before the door slid wide enough for the beast to force its way inside. A grotesque shape stooped through the doorway, an amalgamation of rotting vegetation layered across an oversized, skeletal frame stripped of all flesh. Two skulls sat atop its thick, sloping shoulders; one a ram’s and the other a humans, their empty sockets gaping as it shoved the door aside and straightened up, lurching to twelve feet in height.
Its arms were long and spindly, the fingers of one hand clasped tight around a lengthy cudgel that looked like a log that had been snapped in half. The sight of the thing sent a tremor of dread through Hulbard’s entire body, even before the smell of the creature followed it into the building. The scent of choking rot and decay rolled from it in an almost physical wave, filling the room in a heartbeat. Trastgor hefted his blade, took a step forward and was shouldered aside, sent skidding as Knox loosed, his arrow thudding wetly into the beast’s shoulder.
Hulbard felt something land on the floorboards behind him and turned. A second creature loomed over him, nothing like the first. Everything about it was spindly and angular, pallid grey skin stretched tight across jutting bones. Desiccated and shrivelled, the beast was still distinctly female in two notably disgusting areas. Hulbard looked up the length of its malnourished frame, into a terrifying visage.
Two bulging white orbs stared down at him, framed by a carpet of brittle hair trailing from a scabbed dome in stiff waves. They were set into deep sockets above a thin lipped mouth too broad for its narrow face. They split apart, impossibly wide, to reveal jaws lined with glinting needles in place of teeth.
“What th-” he breathed before one of its broad palms slapped against the front of his helmet.
Long fingers closed around it as Hulbard was yanked forward a step and then flung backwards. The wooden rail shattered under his weight and he was suddenly falling with a strangled gasp. Hulbard crashed down onto one of the carving tables with a resounding clatter, the wind hammered from his lungs as meat sprayed in every direction. His shield was gone, landed somewhere to one side. He managed to keep a grip on his chain mace, felt its weight almost wrench his shoulder from its socket. Raking in as deep a breath as he could manage, Hulbard croaked, “Above!”
From his back, he saw the creature launch itself into the dark rafters high overhead before something loomed on the edge of his vision. Craning his aching neck, Hulbard saw the swamp creature rearing. He rolled to one side, slammed onto his knees as the monsters club smashed into the table with a gut wrenching crunch. Trastgor appeared, barrelled into its arm, trying to drag weigh the limb down and render the weapon useless.
Its huge, free hand came around, grabbed the Kurgal’s bandolier and hauled him off his feet. Hulbard watched numbly as Trastgor was flung across the room, crashed to the floorboards with an agonised yelp. The armoured man ducked as a backswing from the club almost tore his head off his shoulders. The glint of colour brought his head around with a snap. Amidst all the chaos, Quintus stood.
His hands were moulding an orb of iridescent, azure fire between them, every muscle in his body standing rigid, lips drawn into a furious frown. Brows furrowed with effort, he drew back the flaming ball and thrust it forward, unleashing a gout of deep blue fire. Tinged with purple along its flaring edges, it roared overhead, filled the room with a ferocious bellow and the fury of a sudden heat wave. Hulbard never saw it strike home, his attention dragged back towards Trastgor as the hag thundered back down onto the floorboards from high overhead, landing over him in a spidery crouch.
The swamp creature bellowed, low and deep, though in pain or fury, Hulbard couldn’t tell and he didn’t spare a second to check as he clawed his way back upright. Instead, he rushed to the Kurgal’s aid. The chain mace whipped down into one of the witches knees with a sound like branches crackling underfoot, snapping it with stunning ease. The limb buckled and she rolled sinuously to one side, all limbs and grey flesh undulating, avoiding his second swing with ease. Somehow, as she moved, the hag caught one of Trastgor’s ankles and whipped him around, smashed him head first into a crate beneath the loft, shattered it into a thousand pieces.
The witch whirled back towards Hulbard, spat a string of words and lurched back upright as her knee cracked smoothly back into place. Her white eyes shifted upwards and Hulbard turned in time to see the club coming. His left arm came up reflexively but his shield was lying several feet away. The log careened into his breastplate, caught him a glancing blow in a rain of splintering wood and sent him skidding across the floorboards as he was propelled into a wall. The amalgamation turned back to the others, wreathed in azure flame, club sweeping in a vicious arc to narrowly miss Knox. The hunter sidestepped the stroke as he loosed another arrow, a needle sent thudding into a haystack.
Head swimming, pain blooming through his chest, shoulders and hips, Hulbard looked up, found the hag lurking near the shadows beneath the loft. That’s when he spotted what he’d been waiting for; Semekt. The serpent swept from the shadows beneath the loft like liquid darkness and his scimitars carved bloody ruin through the witch’s hamstrings, brought her to her knees with a snarl of glinting teeth.
She half turned before he slithered up the length of her sinuous body, wrapped himself around the witch before rearing high over her shoulders. All four blades, held reversed now, rose fell as one in a single, smooth motion. They slid through her shoulders, plunged into her torso with a wet squelch. Her thin lips curled back in a bestial snarl and despite her impalement, the wretch still tried her best to rise, to break free of his grip.
Her struggles only lasted a moment though, before she collapsed face first to the floorboards with a rumble. Hulbard dragged himself upright as a death rattle wheezed from her ruptured lungs, wide and twitching eyes staring blindly into space.
Pushing away from the wall, Hulbard ran towards the flailing swamp creature, slammed into its squishy body with all the force of a battering ram to drive it back a faltering step. The force of his impact snapped and shattered bones within its vegetation shrouded form and, with a bellow of rage, Hulbard swung his chain mace into its body with another sharp crunch. The monster was sent reeling but instead of striking back, it seemed to hesitate, perhaps sensing its masters demise. Rather than meeting Hulbard with a charge of its own, it shambled backwards, ducking to squeeze its bulk back through the huts doorway.
Hulbard marched after it, adrenaline raging through his veins like fire, banishing the aches and pains he’d felt only a moment before. The two skulls glared down at him as the beast lifted an arm, backed away defensively. But it was only bone and his chain mace had been made to break such things. Winding up, he lashed. Again and again, each swing punctuated by the muted snap and crack of bones breaking with the mess of the monster’s moss ridden form.
The flanged head smashed into the creation’s hip and, just like the deserter days before, Hulbard reversed the stroke as it was wrenched to one knee. The underhanded uppercut decimated the human skull, showered shards of bone through the air. The massive behemoth collapsed onto its back, making it easy for him to destroy the second skull with a single, downward sweep of his weapon. Hulbard loomed over the mound of moss and shattered bone, shoulders heaving, senses alight with the thrill of combat, no matter how short lived.
“What did we just kill?” Shankhill’s shrill voice reached him from the hut.
“Everyone still alive?” Hulbard asked, ignoring the question as he turned back towards the building.
Semekt was just uncoiling from his latest victim as he stepped through the doorway. Trastgor had made it back to his feet with Knox’ help and was groggily shaking his head. Quintus was leaning against the one intact chopping block with Skye by his shoulder, while Shankhill stood near the fire, wide eyed and staring.
“Hey” Hulbard snapped, clicking his fingers to catch the Kurgal’s attention, “You good?”
The Kurgal nodded slowly, lifted a hand to tap at the bone mask covering his face. He rolled one of his shoulders with a wince but besides a few scratches, he looked little worse for being flung around the room. The benefits of having a particularly tough skull, Hulbard supposed.
“Quintus” Shankhill practically barked, “Explain. Now”.
“How am I supposed to know?” the older man shrugged, “I’m classically trained. This kind of shit is outside my area of expertise”.
“You have one of those?” Skye quipped with a shaky grin.
“My best guess is some kind of druidic witch” he continued, ignoring her as he looked the witch over again, “Some of their old breed tend to end up looking like this after a few decades of prolonging their lives with all sorts of nasty little rituals. Usually involving fresh blood”.
“Explains where the animals went” Shankhill surmised as Hulbard dragged off his helmet, gasped in a breath of fresh air to soothe his burning lungs.
“Wait” Knox said, brows furrowed, “So this thing was drinking animal blood?”
“Not exactly” the Sorcerer hummed, “It’s more complicated than that and we don’t exactly have time for a course in the forbidden crafts. We started hunting their kind down years ago, but the canniest found ways to hide from us and survive. With most of the world hunting her, I’d say she’s been travelling the fringe empires for a while now. That thing Hulbard reduced to mulch outside was likely some form of protector and only one of many she could have made, given enough time”.
“She’s one ugly hag, whatever the case” Hulbard sighed.
“Again, reminds me of one or two of my previous wives” Shankhill smirked.
“Someone bring me her head” Quintus said, his words dropping between them like a block of iron.
“Proof for our primitive benefactors that the deed is done” the Sorcerer told Shankhill, tone dripping with condescension, as if explaining something simple to an idiot, “And, if Eirik has a Sorcerer in his household, they will be happy to get their hands on it. So...someone just needs to lop her head off”.
There was a long pause as everyone exchanged glances.
“You have a blade on that staff of yours” Shankhill gestured towards it, “She’s all yours”.
That’s when Semekt reared upright between them, staring unblinking down at the corpse.
“You want the head?” he rasped, lifting a hand to tap his own for visual clarification.
When Quintus nodded, the serpent slid one of the scimitars free of its sheath and brought it down on the hag’s neck with a meaty thud. Wrenching it free, he chopped down into her grey flesh again and again. Once he’d hacked through her flesh, he levered the witches head free with a wet crack. Reaching down, he picked it up by its hair and held it out to Quintus, who cringed back from the grisly trophy.
“Skye” he licked his lips, “Bag that up for me, would you?”
Her response was a derisive laugh.
“Ever the dutiful apprentice” the Sorcerer muttered, before he produced a canvas sack from his belt and held it out with a disgusted twist to his lips.
“You’d see what kind of apprentice I could be if you bothered teaching me anything worth knowing” she retorted with a snort, “I’d love to be able to throw around blue fire, for example”.
“You can’t master learning the names and uses of plants” he muttered as Semekt dropped the head into the sack, “What makes you think I’d ever give myself a migraine trying to teach you anything more complicated than that?”
“Enough” Shankhill said, rubbing at the bridge of his nose, “I’m in no mood to hear you two bicker again. Let’s just get out of here. This place isn’t even worth looting”.
“Alright” Shankhill said with a beaming smile once they were all gathered on the steps of the alehouse again, “Someone give me a glove”.
Knox handed one over and the rogue flashed his most brilliant smile as he slid it on and gestured towards the canvas bag. When Quintus held it out, he delved inside and hauled the severed head out by its wiry hair, grimacing as he hefted it.
“Watch this” he winked, “It’s going to be hilarious”.
Shankhill kicked open the door with a resounding crash loud and sudden enough to make Hulbard cringe. Even so, he was quick behind the smaller man as he sauntered into the alehouse like he owned the entire village.
“Behold!” he called, holding the head high, “The deed is done!”
Those inside the building had all looked up at his abrupt entrance but they bolted to their feet now, wide eyed and swearing as they backed away.
“What are you doing?” Fjordson yelled from the far end of the room, aghast.
“I assumed you would need proof of our heroic deeds” Shankhill supplied in that honeyed tone of his, “And here, in all its grisly glory, is the source of all your misfortune”.
“Out with that blasted thing!” Fjordsom snapped, his hand dipping under the counter to heft a nasty looking club.
Shankhill dropped the head back into its canvas bag as the alehouse keeper came storming around the countertop. At his approach, the patrons began to edge back into the firelight, eyes shifting to each other uncertainly in the gloom. They had the look of uneasy, frightened men, but riled up all the same and Hulbard could feel a tension building in the air he knew only too well. He scanned them, counted how many wore hunting knives at their belts, who had cloaks they could be hiding something bigger under and which looked like they might be reaching for something. He tried to determine where everyone was, where they were going, who to start with and who to finish with if it came to a brawl.
Knox stepped smoothly into place at Shankhill’s shoulder and Hulbard followed his lead, bringing Fjordson up short, dim eyes roaming between the three of them.
“Take that thing” he snapped, gesturing towards the canvas bag, “And get out”.
“I’ll be happy to” Shankhill said reasonably, “Once we’ve been paid for our trouble. If I remember right, it was eleven Cloves, yeah?”
The pudgy man before them narrowed his eyes, grit his teeth as he realised the change in price, but with Hulbard staring him down on one side and Knox on the other, he didn’t look like he was about to start arguing the point. Instead, his shoulders slumped.
“Take it outside, for the sake of my sanity” Fjordson scoffed, “I’ll be out with your money in a moment”.
“Better be” Shankhill smiled, “Or you’ll be seeing this head again, real soon, when I throw it through one of the windows around here”.
“Funny joke” Hulbard muttered sarcastically as they filed back out onto the porch a moment later, “Almost got your skull cracked open for the effort”.
“Yeah” Shankhill sighed mournfully, “I thought it would be funnier, personally. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised though. I have a very acquired sense of humour”.
“Most people don’t see the funny side of things when you go waving a head around in their faces” Trastgor growled, “Valki”.
Hulbard recognised the Kurgal word for ‘idiot’, but felt it best not to answer Shankhill’s enquiring glance.
“It may” he allowed carefully, “Have been in poor taste. But did you see the look on their faces? None of you can tell me it wasn’t priceless”.
“Worth about eleven Cloves, I’d say” Knox grinned wolfishly.
They spent the next ten minutes lounging on the porch of the alehouse as rain began to fall once more, returning with newfound fury to lash Volyumenth once more, as if making up for lost time. They huddled together beneath what paltry shelter the eve offered, staring out at that weather in sullen silence and lamenting the fact that, all too soon, they would be back to trudging through it.
When Fjordson did emerge from the alehouse, he sourly counted eleven Cloves into Shankhill’s waiting hand. He flashed that greedy little grin he always got whenever he was being paid, swept into a neat bow and left the bartender on the steps of his meagre dominion. With a heavy sigh, Hulbard dragged his hood up against the ceaseless wind and followed Shankhill out into the rain.
After their work in Calkirk, he was glad to leave it behind, no matter the weather.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, mostly fantasy though I dabble in science fiction from time to time. I wrote commissioned pieces of work for several years but found that it was taking up so much of my time that I wasn't ever getting a chance to work on my own ideas so, deciding that life is simply too short, I left that chapter of my life behind and began dedicating all my free time to developing my own stories, whether they are short in stature or full scale novels.
At this point in time, I have several projects on the go and I'm mostly just looking for ways to branch out and reach a broader audience.