The End of the Circle
Bree drew Tempest across another furred neck and smiled. A gnoll fell to his knees beside her. He clutched his throat in an effort to stem the tide of blood, but it was no use. He would be dead in another few beats of his heart.
A bark sounded from behind her and Bree turned in time to duck underneath a lunging attack dog. She sliced the dog open as it sailed over her. Blood and guts fell around her in a shower. She dove to the side, twisted out of the way of another attack dog and then swung out at its handler.
The gnoll howled as its arms were severed from its body. Bree raised Tempest to finish the cur off but changed her mind and moved on. Its cries would send the other gnolls into a frenzy.
Bree walked through the gnoll encampment with a sure stride. She was not afraid. It was them who should fear. The gnolls of the Circle.
There couldn’t be many left now. Fifteen. Maybe twenty. She could take them.
A group of six gnolls strode out from amongst the pack milling about her. They were larger than the others. Stronger. Flind, they were called. New name, same dogs.
They charged and Bree smiled.
The first to meet her fell to a slit throat. The second to disembowelment. It wasn’t until the third was beheaded by Bree’s icy blue scimitar that the others even tried to use their heads.
They let out a bark and three more gnolls – regular ones this time – moved in behind her. She wasn’t worried about them. They were a distraction. A sacrifice to her blade. But the others. Oh, the others. They had a plan. They thought they were clever.
Bree smiled. She had seen this – lived through this – dozens of times. They would come at her all at once. Try to overwhelm her.
They would fail. These curs were nothing she hadn’t seen before. To her they were already dead.
The gnolls around her growled and then lunged.
Bree ran towards the largest of them and then slid forward, underneath him with Tempest raised above her. His insides splattered against his comrades as he fell in the center of the gnolls, cut from throat to groin.
Bree skewered one of the other flind and then kicked the legs out from underneath the third. He fell to his knees with a yelp of surprise. Bree lopped his head off swiftly and then turned to the other three gnolls and spread her arms out wide.
“Come on, then.”
“Enough!” someone called. It was a woman’s voice. Rough, but definitely human. She spoke in the common tongue.
Silence fell among those left alive in the camp.
Bree smiled and turned. She faced a heavily scarred woman in simple, gray robes. “I wondered when you’d show your face.”
“I know you, human.”
“And I know you. The Witch of the Circle. I thought you were supposed to be fearsome. Terrifying. Alive with arcane power. You’re nothing but another gnoll bitch grasping at power.”
A cruel smile cut across the woman’s face. “And you are a fool. Just as I had heard.”
Bree laughed. “Your tribe is dead around you.”
“Some of them.”
“Most of them.”
“Tell me, Bree, Gnoll Killer of Kelmarane. Do you want to hear what I know about you, before the end?”
“If you know who I am then you know your time is up. This is the end of the Circle.”
“There is no end to the circle. It cannot end.”
“It is eternal.”
“Enough stalling, Witch. Meet your end bravely.”
The Witch nodded. “Enough stalling, indeed. Badilur! Bring out a slave!”
No! Bree eyed the camp around her warily. A slave? Why would they bring one to the battle? Usually they kept them out of the fight. No sense damaging their merchandise or, depending on the tribe, their food source…
A hulking flind stepped out from among the makeshift tents dragging a young child behind him. It was a boy. Seven, maybe eight. He was bruised heavily and sported three large cuts across his face. One of his arms was part missing. What remained was rough, as if it had been torn off or… eaten. The child did not scream or cry. A hollow, haunted look was in his eyes. He had given up long ago. How long had he been here?
“You should have asked what I knew about you,” the Witch taunted.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“You didn’t kill all of the Wormhollow Tribe, you know. One escaped. Do you know what the Wormhollow do, Bree? Hmmm?”
“They were spies, before you killed them. And do you know what this poor Wormhollow gnoll had to report about you before he died?”
Badilur placed the boy on the ground before the Witch.
Bree shook her head. “Don’t.”
“He said you had a particularly soft spot for slaves.”
Badilur raised his blade to the boy’s neck. The child made no move to escape.
The Witch smiled. “Don’t what?”
“Don’t hurt him.”
“Place your blade upon the ground and walk forward slowly.”
Bree nodded and placed Tempest by her feet. She took a step forward and then another. The gnolls left alive circled around her. Badilur pressed his blade into the child’s neck. A drop of blood ran down its length.
“That’s far enough,” the Witch said after Bree had travelled twenty paces from her blade. “Fetch the altar!”
“Let the child go.”
“Oh, I think not. I’m going to sacrifice you to Rovagug, the Rough Beast. My patron. It’s going to be a long death, I’m afraid, and I don’t want you causing any trouble.”
“I’ll cooperate if you let him go.”
“No. You won’t.”
A trio of gnolls placed a large stone table upon the ground in between Bree and the Witch. It was carved with a series of open mouths devouring all manner of creatures. It seeped black ichor from its legs and smelt of blood.
A shudder ran through Bree. This was an unholy altar. If she died upon it her soul would belong to Cayden Cailean no longer, but to Rovagug. It was a fate worse than death. She backed up, but in response Badilur placed his blade deeper into the boys neck. She stopped.
“Lay upon the altar.”
The Witch began to chant in a foul tongue. Her voice rumbled deeply in her chest. Screams issued forth from the table. The Witch raised a jagged, bone dagger high above her head and then smiled.
“You think you’ve saved him? You think your death will save any of them?”
“If I don’t try to save them, I’m no better than you.”
“I want you to know, before I destroy you, that you’ve killed them all.”
“Their deaths are not on my hands.”
Bree frowned. She wanted to tear this woman’s throat out with her teeth.
“I knew you were coming for me, Gnoll Killer. I wanted to give you a parting gift, just in case you bested us.”
“Looks like you can save it.”
“Oh, you don’t understand. It’s already done. All I have to do is present it to you. Direct your attention to the tent behind me. Watch carefully now, they’re going to open the flap. Are you ready?”
Bree turned her head away.
“Badilur, cut deeper.”
“Don’t! I’ll look.”
Bree turned back to the tent. It was large but in poor shape. It could hold about a dozen gnolls and –
The entire front panel on the tent was pulled away.
They were dead. Dozens of them. All of them. Slaves.
“Do you see what your anger brought? I knew you were coming for them. I knew you would kill us for them and so I killed them for you. Gruesomely. Each and every one of them. My gift to you. And now that your heart is broken. Now that your faith is shattered. I’m going to bring you before Rovagug so that he may devour your soul.”
Bree grit her teeth and willed a copy of Tempest into her grasp. A chill enveloped her hand. She drove the mould copy of her blade deep into the Witch’s chest.
The boy. She had to get the boy!
Bree rolled off the table and ran for Badilur. He whistled and two attack dogs lunged at her. The first grabbed her buckler and pulled her to the ground. The second bit her in the leg. She ignored them and crawled forward.
Badilur cut the boys throat.
Bree screamed. She bashed one of the dogs in the face with the shield it gripped and kicked at the other. She waved her mould-copy of Tempest at the surrounding gnolls, placed her shield hand upon her wounded leg and pushed a burst of divine energy through it. Her leg wound frothed itself closed in an instant of revelry and then Bree was back on her feet. She stabbed the dogs one at a time and then stepped towards Badilur.
He yipped once, ordering his remaining followers forward. Badilur, eight gnolls and a flind against Bree. They didn’t stand a chance.
She ducked underneath a wide axe swing and repaid her attacker with a slice across his abdomen. She dodged a flail and cut an arm. She blocked a bite and bashed teeth out with her buckler. She tore muscle. Ripped flesh. Slashed. Stabbed.
Three gnolls fell. Then the flind. Bree was coated in blood, but she didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. They killed them. She had failed.
Bree screamed in anger and rage. She threw herself at Badilur shield first. He grabbed her by the buckler and threw her to the side. As she flew, Bree drew her mould blade across his throat, from ear to ear. She landed in a roll and was on her feet as Badilur fell bleeding to the ground. The other gnolls turned and ran.
There could be no survivors. Not again. Not ever again.
Bree walked to Badilur’s corpse and let her mould copy of Tempest dissipate. She picked up a bow and six arrows. She fired at the gnolls, one by one, until her arrows were spent and they lay in the dirt with their brethren, dead or dying.
She threw the bow to the ground, kicked Badilur’s corpse in the face and screamed.
This had not gone according to plan.