Howl of the Carrion King – Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty
The Ruined Fort

It was mid-afternoon the next day when they reached the fort. Bree hadn’t slept well. Her dreams were troubled. She awoke tired and mired in guilt. She had offended Kelestair so much the previous day. He probably hated her.

Kelestair had spent much of the night patting his mangy old vulture who, turns out, was rather cantankerous. It squawked at her angrily each time she tried to approach. Its name was Husk. “We are kindred spirits.” Kelestair had said when Bree had asked about the bird. “Our appearance colours others’ perceptions.”

He was a rather morose fellow. Broody. Haunted. Bree couldn’t blame him.

Santon was the only one of them who got any sleep.

Bree stifled a yawn as she ducked behind a large boulder with her comrades. “Did you see anything?”

Santon shook his head.

“I’ll go scout ahead,” Bree said.

Kelestair put his hand upon her arm. Though his nails could have easily pressed into her flesh they did not. He was gentle.

“No, Bree,” he said. “Let us see as the bird’s do.” He raised his arm and Husk swooped down, landing upon his antlers. Kelestair reached up and touched him, muttering something under his breath. “Fly, Husk,” he said louder.

And he did. Husk took off from Kelestair’s horns and soared up into the sky, circling around the fort. A few minutes later he returned. Kelestair patted him on the head affectionately. A small smile formed at the corner of his lips. It was plain he cared for the vulture greatly.

“There are a few gnolls in the vicinity. Half a dozen, at least. The fort itself is a crumbled ruin. Little more than a mound of rocks. There will be no surprises awaiting us, nor further reinforcements.”

Santon smiled and drew his broadsword. “Well, what are we waiting for?”

Kelestair nodded. “May the light of the Dawnflower shine upon us.”

“May Cayden’s favour find us,” Bree added with a smile. She raised her wineskin and took a deep swig. “A little liquid courage?”

Kelestair shook his head, though Santon smiled, grabbed the skin from her and took a deep drink. He passed it back and smacked his lips.

“Bitter brew,” he said awkwardly.

Bree smiled and drew Tempest. “Oh, quiet.”

“Cayden’s codpiece!” Santon replied in a high-pitched voice, mocking her.

She scowled. “Oh, Cayden’s curse upon you! Now hush, or I’ll use my blade on you before the gnolls.”

Santon smiled a large, boyish grin. “Yes, please. But, only if you promise I can use my blade on you afterwards.” He winked. “Mine’s rather large.”

“Shall we?” Kelestair cut in sternly.

“Yeah, Santon,” Bree muttered. “Leave the lady alone.”

“Lady?” Santon sputtered. “I think not.”

Bree frowned.

“Are you riled up, yet?” Santon asked her.

“You mean ‘do I want to stab you?’ “

“I mean ‘do you want to stab something?’ “

Bree nodded. “Yes. I want to stab you.”

Santon smiled. “Excellent. Let’s go.”

They tore around the boulder with a scream, charging into the remains of the fort. Four gnolls reacted immediately, grabbing up their weapons in a flash. She didn’t see the others.

Bree drew Tempest’s icy blade across the first gnoll’s throat. Behind her it gurgled, but she didn’t slow. It was dead, it just hadn’t realized it yet.

Santon impaled a second upon his blade, driving it straight through the gnoll’s armour and stomache. It howled in pain. Kelestair lingered behind with the other two. Bree did not fear for him. He had handled himself admirably yesterday.

She ran on, further into the fort’s crumbled walls. Two more gnolls charged at her. She didn’t slow. The first swung at her sideways with a longsword, while the other raised it’s axe for a downward cleave. Bree ducked under the sword, sliced its wielder across the stomache and then rolled to the side, dodging the axe blow. She sliced the gnoll before her again, and then bashed him in the face with her buckler.

The gnoll yelped in pain and dropped his sword. His partner turned on her, swinging wildly with his axe. Bree danced backwards, slipping out of the path of the gnoll’s clumsy swings. The unarmed gnoll bent to retrieve his sword but Bree spun away from her attacker and behind him then sliced the unarmed gnoll’s hand clean off.

He screamed and clutched at his frost-covered wrist.

She lashed out with Tempest and cut a series of strokes into the other gnolls legs. He fell to the ground, howling in pain.

Bree ran past them, leaving them to their bleeding wounds. In the distance she heard Santon roaring with anger. He was either boasting while he fought, or had actually found a challenge within these broken walls. Bree followed the sound of his voice and found him facing off against a rather strong looking gnoll. He was taller than the others, and more muscular. An innumerable number of scars marred his patchy fur. Santon swung at him in a wide arc with his broadsword, but the gnoll howled and met Santon’s blade with his own. Santon followed up with another wide sweep, and then a downward cleave, but the gnoll managed to block both attacks. He retaliated with a few slashes of his own, causing Santon to back up.

The two were an even match.

Bree stepped forward to help Santon but heard a grunting sound behind her. A sharp pain tore through her thigh. She fell to the ground with a shriek of surprise.

“Bree!” Santon cried.

A dagger stuck out from her leg. Blood blossomed around it. She gritted her teeth. She tried to stand, but stumbled, falling back onto the ground.

A gnoll strode up to her, with another dagger in his hand. His second hand was missing. Cut off at the wrist. Bree frowned. She had cut it off at the wrist. Broken tankard.

She tore the dagger from her leg. Blood gushed from the wound. The gnoll smiled at her hungrily. Bree threw the bloody dagger at it, but it struck his armour and fell to the ground. Bree tried to stand, but couldn’t.

“Froth and foam,” she cursed. “Please, my Lord. In Cayden’s name…”

The gnoll raised the dagger and stepped closer to her, passing by a large boulder.

“Cayden’s will be done.” She raised her buckler before her. Maybe she could deflect the dagger.

The gnoll’s muscles tensed.

A mace came crashing down upon his head. Kelestair stepped out from behind the boulder and bludgeoned it again. The gnoll stopped moving, but he struck it twice more.

His red eyes met hers. “Never leave an enemy alive behind you.”

Bree nodded.

She turned to Santon, and found him losing ground. A series of cuts ran along his body. His armour was slick with blood. He needed her help.

Bree raised a hand to her leg, tried to relax, and prayed. The power of her god flowed through her. Distantly, through the songs and cheers filling her head; through the smells and the sights; she heard Kelestair mutter the words to a spell.

“Enfebastious vesral.”

Power surged through Bree and she let it go, forcing it out of her body, and then back into it. Her leg tingled. The wound frothed beneath her hands. She was dizzy, then woozy. It felt suspiciously like she was drunk. She shook her head, and the world spun. The music faded. The cheers subsided. The smell of mead was replaced with the acrid tang of blood. She opened her eyes.

Kelestair stood beside her with Husk perched atop his head. He watched the battle before him impassively.

Santon still fought the gnoll, though his opponent seemed… smaller than before. Santon easily overtook him and ended his howling with a broadsword through the face. It was over in moments. Santon smiled and then nodded at Kelestair.

Kelestair’s lip tilted up slightly and then returned to its solemn expression.

Bree smiled and stood up. “That’s some spell you have there, Kelestair.”

Kelestair eyed her for a moment, his gaze lingering on her newly healed leg. Or perhaps on her torn pants. “Your thoughts echo my own. Your god favours you.”

Bree smiled. He did.

Kelestair nodded at the gnoll behind her. “Rejoice in his attentions, but do not let it make you reckless. I doubt you will be called back from the dead.”

Bree’s smile faded. Wasn’t he a sober preacher! Well, perhaps she could be a little more cautious in the future.

“I will not always be there to save you,” he finished.

Santon laughed and clapped Kelestair on the back. “Sure you will,” he said with a chuckle. “Bree here’s like a tumour. She grows on you.”

Kelestair raised an eyebrow slightly. “Oh?”

Bree frowned. “Hey!”

Santon simply nodded and whispered to Kelestair in a conspiratory tone. “You’ll see.”

“I’m sure.” Kelestair responded. He didn’t sound convinced.

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