The Heartless Dead: Chapter Five

Chapter Five
A Civil Conversation

Bree strode into the Sheriff’s office, threw herself into an empty chair and tossed her booted feet up onto the table. “What have we got?”

Santon was there, of course, in his perfectly pressed red and gold law-enforcement livery. He wore a customary boyish grin upon his face and looked carelessly handsome. Bree knew it was anything but careless. The man spent more time grooming than Princess Roveshki.

Dashki was perched in the corner dressed in his filthy, weather beaten leathers. Did he even own other clothes? He shuffled back and forth in agitation, clearly anxious at being in such an enclosed space.

Kelestair sat perfectly erect in a plush looking chair. His robes were immaculate, as always. They were coloured like a sunrise and perfectly tailored. Even Bree had to admit he cut a fine figure. Husk, lurked atop his horns and Zym stood beside him imperiously. Her robes were a mirror of Kelestair’s own and she wore a ridiculously large hair piece that seemed reminiscent of horns.

Bree frowned. As if that child had any right to be at a hunt meeting! What was Kelestair thinking?

Santon shook his head. “I’m doing wonderful this morning, Bree. Thank you for asking.”

Bree rolled her eyes.

Dashki groaned. “Enough pleasantries. Your voices are grating.”

Husk squawked angrily at him.

Bree smirked. “That feral enough for you?”

Dashki sneered. His eyes turned cold.

Bree fixed her gaze to Dashki’s and repeated her previous question slowly. “What have we got?”

“You listen to the howls as well as I, woman. You know what’s left.”

“I know there’s two tribes who still have guts enough to answer the Carrion King’s call.”

Santon smiled. “Answering hasn’t proven well for the gnoll population, lately, has it? It’s the stubborn ones who are left.”

Kelestair cocked an eyebrow slightly and nodded at Zym.

Her eyes widened, but she opened her mouth without hesitation. “It is more likely the strongest tribes who remain loyal. Even the most stubborn would have fled after seeing the Circle fall. Gnolls care for their own survival more than allegiances and pride.”

Bree narrowed her eyes. Who did this child think she was? “What are you even doing here, kid?”

Zym’s eyes darkened. She opened her mouth but closed it again immediately. She looked up at Kelestair, waiting for his permission to speak.

He spoke instead. “She is my ward, my apprentice and my successor. She has as much right to be here as I do.”

“She’s a kid, Kelestair. This is a hunt meeting, not a game nor a school house.”

Kelestair’s lips turned down at the corners slightly. Zym balled her little hands into fists.

“You think I would treat something this important as a game?” he asked.

Bree frowned. Of course she didn’t. Kelestair didn’t even treat games as a game. She sighed and shook her head. “No. She just… shouldn’t be here.”

Zym’s gaze darkened with anger. Her eyes became little more than black orbs. A vein bulged on her temple, but her expression remained impassive. Her lips were pressed together in a calm line.

“She is intelligent and insightful,” Kelestair pointed out. “Still, she will remain a silent observer, if it pleases you.”

“That’s not the – “

“I will not send her away.”

Bree scowled, but nodded. At least he was a protective mentor. He would make a good father one day, if a woman ever gave him a chance. Better than her own, at least. She returned her gaze to Dashki’s. “What do we have?”

“Two tribes remain. The Three Jaws and the Al’Chorhaiv. And the child is right. They’re the strongest gnoll tribes in the region.”

Bree snorted. “Not much competition for that title.”

A rumble began in Dashki’s throat. She glared at him and he stifled it.

“They are the strongest you have faced. Too strong, for you.”

Bree smirked. When she spoke her voice was thick with condescension. “I think I can handle it.”

“Alright, alright,” Santon cut in. “Settle down. Just tell her about the tribes, Dashki.”

“The Al’Chorhaiv are over fifty gnolls strong and have countless scorpions living among their number. Their symbol is a length of intestines dangling from a hyena skull. They are ruled by a gnoll bitch called Ahrikvask. She wrested control of the tribe from her mate through poison, and murdered his other wives. She then drank of the poison herself to prove her worth. It is her who the scorpions serve. Her bodyguard is a giant vhagshea.”

“A what?” Bree asked.

“A div blood scorpion.”

“Div?”
Dashki could contain his irritation no longer. “Desert demons, woman! Are you insolent?”

“Manners, Dashki,” Kelestair warned. “Let us have a civil conversation.” Husk squawked in agreement.

Dashki swallowed his words. He growled, then began again. “Divs were spawned in Abaddon by the spirits of the first evil genies.”

“They are kin to Daemons, then?” Bree asked, remembering Xulthos with a shudder.

Dashki nodded. “They corrupt for the sake of corrupting and devour for no other reason than to kill. They are evil, through and through, but care for neither order nor chaos. They have no goals or motivations. They simply destroy in whatever insidious way they desire, turning each victims sins against them. The vhagshea was born of their blood. They are the most venomous creatures in existence.”

“And she keeps one as a pet?”

“It obeys her commands. She is said to be immune to all forms of venom and poison. Even if you can kill all her gnolls – “

“I can.”

“It matters not! One sting is your death, woman.”

Bree rolled her eyes. “Where do they lair?”

“The Al’Chorhaiv are nomadic, but they are currently in the northern passes of the Brazen Peaks.”

“And the Three Jaws?”

Dashki growled. “You will leave my brothers alone.”

Bree frowned. The Three Jaws were among the most ruthless gnolls in the entire region. Even the other gnolls feared them. What they did to their slaves was… Unimaginable. “I have allowed them to live long enough! I gave them an ultimatum and they ignored it.”

“They cannot change their ways on your whims, bitch! They are proud! They are Three Jaws!” Dashki thumped his arm against his chest, clearly indicating he counted himself among their number.

“Then they will die like the rest!” Bree spat.

“Cut it out, you guys,” Santon interrupted. “At least pretend to be civilized.”

Dashki puffed his chest out, but Bree didn’t rise to his challenge. She remained still as a stone. Eventually he backed down. A cruel smile cut across his face.

“The Three Jaws are descended from the most powerful gnolls to ever live. They once ruled all the races in this entire region. You have never faced their like before.”

Bree rolled her eyes, but Dashki’s grin only widened.

“They adorn themselves with living banners of their enemies, piercing themselves with flesh, bone and teeth. Their chieftain is Hakkur, Slayer of Death Worms. He wears his father’s crown through his shoulder and wears magical rings through his cheeks. They number over thirty gnolls, twenty flinds and twenty guard hyenas.”

Bree smiled. “That’s it?”

Dashki didn’t rise to her taunt. “They spend their days hunting new trophies and roving the wilds. You will never sneak up on them. The Three Jaws will be your death.”

Bree refused to let her smile fall. “And where do they lair?”

“Their camp lies on the banks of a feeder stream that stems from the upper reaches of the Pale Mountain. They live in a series of huts made from the skins of intruders. I relish the thought of your pallid flesh joining the others.”

Bree scoffed. “You’d need a genie to make that wish come true, cur. Anything else?”

“They will tear you apart, digit by digit, dev – “

“Yeah, yeah. Devouring me as they go. I’ve heard it before, Dashki.”

“You’re about to experience it.”

Santon cleared his throat. “Alright! Thanks for the report, Dashki. You can go.”

Dashki nodded once at Santon. His eyes shifted back and forth with nervously. “Thank you,” he muttered under his breath.

Bree raised an eyebrow. She had never heard Dashki thank anyone before. What had Santon done for him? “For what?” she asked.

“That is not your concern, bitch!” Dashki growled.

“Mind your tongue,” Kelestair ordered.

Dashki fell silent then burst from the office in a flurry of pent up rage. Husk watched his every move, ruffling his feathers and following the hunters form with his strange yellow eyes. Bree suppressed a shudder. That bird was eerie.

Once Dashki was gone Bree sighed. She slumped back in her chair and rolled her shoulders. She always had to be on guard around Dashki and the effort often caused her muscles to stiffen. It was exhausting. “What did you do for him, anyway?” she asked Santon.

“Nothing special.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “Treat me like a fool again, and see what happens.”

He smirked. “Everybody owes me something, Bree.”

“I don’t.”

Santon laughed. “Of course you do. You’ll just never pay me back.”

Bree scowled. She drew her gaze over to Kelestair. He looked as unperturbed as ever. Untouchable. He rarely let petty concerns trouble him. “What did you find out about the corpse?”

“The body was used for neither an arcane nor a profane purpose.”

“So they weren’t sacrifices, then?” Bree asked.

“They were not. The only other markings we found upon the body were some deep gouges likely caused by talons. The markings around the chest cavity were clearly those of an animals teeth, although I know of no beast, living or dead, whose jaws could make such an imprint.”

“So it was just an animal? Not a weapon at all?”

Kelestair pursed his lips together. “I am not sure. It is some kind of animal, but that does not mean it is not also a weapon. A trained beast could be highly effective in this region. Whatever the case, I believe creature is incredibly dangerous.”

“He’s right, Bree,” Santon cut it. “I’ve had my ears to the ground all week for more heartless dead, and we’ve found some.”

“More cattle?”

“A lot more cattle. Plus, six people. Two were caravan guards found a few days west of here, one was a merchant found a day to the north and the last three of were builders on Kelestair’s night crew. Whatever this thing is it’s killing a lot of people, in a short amount of time and no one’s even noticed.” Santon looked at her sadly, pleading with her through his gaze.

Bree frowned. She knew that look. It meant he was about to tell her something she wouldn’t like, then follow it up with a request she would like even less. She gritted her teeth and prepared herself to stay firm. No matter how big and glassy his big ol’ brown eyes got she would stand her ground! She would not be fooled again!

“I think,” Santon continued. His voice sounded so heavy. Sad. “That this beast poses a much greater threat than we can imagine, Bree. Greater, even, than the gnolls.”

Bree scowled.

“I hate to ask this of you,” he rasped desperately. His eyes looked pained. “I know what your quest means to you. What it means to all of us, but… We need your help, Bree. Here. In Kelmarane. Just until we catch this beast.”

Bree felt an overwhelming urge to comfort Santon. To pat him on the back and assure him that there was no reason to fear. No reason to worry. She would always he here for him. She would stay and –

Bree scowled. Tipped tankard! She had almost fallen for it! Stay in Kelmarane? Ha! She would do no such thing!

“I can’t do this without you,” Santon admitted.

He was right. They needed her. Who else could kill this beast? Who else would… No. She had gnolls to kill and slaves to free.

“No, Santon.”

“I – “

“No.”

“But – “

“I think the infamous Sheriff of Kelmarane can handle a few animal attacks on his own.”

Santon smirked. “Well played.”

Bree’s scowl deepened. Froth and foam, Santon drove her crazy!

“There haven’t been any attacks near Thrice Hills, but I sent a few member of the Militia out there just in case.”

Bree nodded in relief. Thrice Hills was a tiny village to the northeast built upon three hilltops nestled between two rivers. It was built generations ago, and had remained standing when Kelmarane fell. It had suffered greatly at the hands of the gnolls of the region but the villagers were stubborn. No matter how many of their number were killed, eaten or taken as slaves, they endured. Bree had visited them on many occasions over the past year and spent as much of her time and effort helping them build defenses and fortify their homes as she had hunting gnolls.

“Thank you.”

Santon smiled boyishly. “See? I told you you owe me.”

Bree rolled her eyes. “You’re so kind.”

“Which tribe will you hunt next?” Kelestair asked.

“The Three Jaws.”

Kelestair nodded.

Santon sputtered as if he hadn’t seen it coming, but Bree knew him better than that. He was a smart man and the Three Jaws were her next logical target. He had known her decision before she had answered.

“Are you mad, Bree? The Three Jaws will rip you to shreds.”

“Cayden’s will be done.”

“I’m serious!”

“So am I.”

Santon sighed in exasperation. “At least take someone with you.”

“No.”

“I know a guy named Alkar. He’s almost eight feet tall and – “

“He’ll slow me down.”

“Jamus, then. He’s the best tracker I’ve ever seen. Not bad with a bow, either.”

Bree shook her head. “I said no.”

“But – “

“Leave her be, Santon,” Kelestair said flatly. “Bree’s quest is a communion between herself and her god. If she feels she must do his will alone, then who are we to judge?”

“You’re on her side now?” Santon exclaimed. He chuckled to himself. “I see how it is. Just be careful.”

“I’m always careful.”

Santon and Kelestair both cocked an eyebrow.

Bree sighed. “Fine. I’ll be extra careful. Is the Dawn of Freedom ready?”

Kelestair nodded. “It is indeed. You may pick it up from me this evening.”

“I can go there now.”

“No. I have a few other items to gather which will be of interest to you. You may come at dusk.”

Bree sighed. That would mean she’d have to linger another day! “You’re devious.”

The corners of his lips turned up slightly. “I don’t know what you mean.”

He knew exactly what she meant. Bree could tell. Still, she knew better than to push him. Kelestair was steadfast. Resolute. He would not budge. Bree sighed and walked out of the room.

“I’ll see you at dusk?” He enquired.

“I’ll be there,” She called over her shoulder.

When she was gone, Santon frowned. “I can’t believe you let her go alone.”

Kelestair’s lips formed a grim line. “You know as well as I that she will not bring company. I saw no need to push her.”

“It’s a communion between Bree and her god,” Santon mocked. “You can’t be serious!”

Kelestair pursed his lips.

“I know you worry about her as much as I do when she’s gone, Kel.”

Kelestair’s eyes narrowed. “I have devised a method to monitor her. We will know her whereabouts, mental state and health at all times.”

Santon smiled. “She won’t let you keep an eye on her. She won’t let anyone.”

“She won’t know.”

Santon laughed. “I’m liking the sounds of this more and more. Still, if she’s in trouble we won’t be able to help her.”

The corners of Kelestair’s lips turned up slightly, twitched, and then kept going until they formed a real, honest to gods, smile. “Rest assured, Santon, I have thought of everything. Bree will return to us unharmed.” He rose from his chair and swept out of the room with Zym close on his heels.

“That’s awful nice of you,” Santon chuckled.

Kelestair’s gravelly voice echoed from the hallways. “It is what friends do.”

Santon smiled.

Bree was not going to be happy.

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