The Heartless Dead: Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten
The Three Jaws

It was less than an hour before Bree saw further signs of gnoll activity, and no more than two before she began to worry. The howls and yips of the gnoll tongue travelled far – especially over the barren rocks of the Brazen Peaks – so why couldn’t she hear their cries in the distance? And if the Three Jaws were as active hunters as the rumours said, then why hadn’t she run into any scouts or patrols? Had they set an ambush for her? Should she wait them out?

Bree frowned. She couldn’t keep second guessing herself. She would press on.

She made it only a few more paces before it hit her. The scent of death on the wind. Blood. A hint of rot. She sniffed again, deeper this time. It was fresh. No more than a day old.

Bree spared a glance back at the river. Her water skin was full. She would be fine.

She turned west towards the smell of carrion. She crawled over crevasses and down fissures, following her nose all the way. As the sun continued its path across the sky the scent grew stronger. She was getting close.

She topped the next rise and spotted a kettle of vultures circling lazily in the sky. There were at least twenty of the ugly birds and they seemed to be centered on the top of a nearby cliff. The cliff was at least fifty feet high and no doubt afforded a wonderful view of the surrounding area. She’d be spotted the instant she began her ascent. That wasn’t even counting the three smaller crests she’s have to cross over just to get to the cliff’s base. Bree sighed. Would this ever be easy?

A breeze blew by and the stench of decay became overwhelming. She covered her mouth and suppressed the urge to gag. Bitter brew! What had the gnolls slaughtered up there?

She eyed the cliff top and lowered her hand, allowing the rot to invade her nostrils. She smothered her urge to heave. She’d have to grow accustomed to the smell before she began her climb. She took a few deep, tentative breaths. Cayden’s curse, it stunk! She forced her disgust down, and made her way over to the first crest. She picked her way across it with ease, followed by the others. In no time at all she stood at the foot of the cliff. She eyed its face, looking for the best hand and foot holds. Planning the safest route.

It wasn’t the climb itself that worried her, so much as the potential for being seen. Bree much preferred to skirt around any large promontory’s, since the time it took to scale them left her visible for far too long. Unfortunately, though this cliff wasn’t too high, it was very long. She didn’t see an easy path around.

She had no choice. She would have to climb the cliff.

Bree took a deep swig from her wineskin, rubbed some nearby dust on her hands, and then set to scaling the rock face. It proved more difficult than she had thought – many of the hand holds she had planned on using proved unable to support her weight – but she made it near the top in good time. She had plenty of experience climbing the rocks of the Brazen Peaks, and wasn’t about to let a little cliff get in her way.

When she neared the top she stopped. She clung to the rock face and strained her ears. The wind carried her the sounds of tearing flesh, flapping wings and angry squawks. No barks. No yips. No howls.

The gnolls had already moved on. Perhaps she could see them from the top.

Bree heaved herself up, over the ledge, climbed to her feet and froze.

The corpses of at least fifty gnolls and hyenas lay strewn across the rocks, between rows of blood-splattered tents. A wake of vultures numbering in the dozens hopped amidst them, tearing flesh and fur with razor sharp beaks. The death eaters revelled amidst the carnage.

Bree stepped forward in stunned silence. Someone had gotten to the Three Jaws before her? She laughed mirthlessly at the thought. Nonsense! Who else was crazy enough to take on the Three Jaws? More to the point, who else could have succeeded in killing the Three Jaws?

A trio of vultures further ahead shrieked and hobbled off in their awkward, loping gait. They flapped their wings at a tent menacingly.

Bree froze.

Vultures aren’t easily distracted from their meals. Something had disturbed them and with this much death around, she doubted it was just another vulture who didn’t want to share his dinner…

Bree crept across the massacre and circled around the tents. She peeked around the corner. A massive, hairy, brute well over seven-and-a-half paces tall stood over the corpse of a gnoll. He was covered in thick, golden fur, and wore sparkling chain mail. A buckler was strapped onto one of his thickly muscled arms, and a morningstar hung upon his hip. He held something open in front of him – a book of some sort.

Bree squinted. She had seen many bugbears back home, but never had she even heard of one who could read. The book must have lots of pictures. She widened her eyes, opening them to the auras around her. Nothing foul lingered upon the bugbear. Strange.

Bree cocked an eyebrow and let her vision return to normal. Bugbears were massive humanoids, more bear than man. They were stocky, but fast, with flat, wrinkled facial features small, beady eyes and large triangular ears. They were a ferocious race who fed on fear as often as meat. It was said that they delighted in tormenting their victims for weeks, scaring them out of their wits before stalking and killing them one by one.

Bree eyed the bugbear before her again. He was large for his kind, and clearly powerful. His body was thick and muscular. His fur was neatly groomed and well cared for. The claws on his hands were shaved down into neat fingernails. His armour seemed to be made out of mithral, and his morningstar glowed slightly. It was made of a metal she didn’t recognize and had faint runes written upon it in a flowing script. He certainly looked to be a warrior, but he was far too clean to have taken on the Three Jaws. Not a drop of blood was upon his fur or –

“What kind of being can bear witness to this carnage and not feel fear?”

Bree froze as the bugbear spoke. His voice was deep, but smooth. Cultured, almost. It certainly didn’t fit his frame. He turned to her and rose to his full height. His eyes were a deep amber and his teeth were long and sharp. He wore an incredibly small pair of glasses perched precariously atop his pug-faced nose. It would appear comical if not for his rather… dominating presence.

The bugbear’s eyes widened for a moment, as if he had just remembered something. He tore the glasses from his face, shoved the book under his armour, and smiled in a rather terrifying manner. “I didn’t do it,” he growled.

Bree smiled. “I know. What’s your name, bugbear?”

The bugbear’s eyes widened, but he quickly replaced it with a menacing scowl. “I am Boden, the Terror!” he roared. “Scourge of the Pits of Katapesh!” He stalked forward until he stood no more than a pace away. His bulky frame towered over her. He leaned down and took a deep breath.

Bree held her ground.

“Your fear tastes delicious.”

Bree smiled. “What fear?”

The bugbear grinned and stepped back. “Exactly,” he mused aloud, his voice no longer gutteral, but smooth and lyrical. “Like I asked before. What manner of being can bear witness to this carnage and not feel fear?”

Bree shrugged. “I’ve gotten used to it.”

“To wholesale slaughter? Your life must be dreadful, indeed.”

Bree scowled. “And yours is all laughter and roses, is it?” She scoffed. “I know the reputation your kind holds. Death cannot be a new sight to your eyes, Boden the Terror.”

“I am not like the others of my kind.”

“You’d be dead by now, if you were.”

Boden laughed. “I smelled the sweat upon your skin when you were still scaling the cliff. You would not have snuck up on me.” He tapped his nose affectionately. “My sense of smell is too keen.”

Bree looked up into the face of the massive beast before her. “I’m sure most people find you impressive, pal, but you don’t scare me. And I don’t need the element of surprise to kill you.”

Boden laughed again. “You are audacious, human! But, whether through delusion or confidence I cannot say. What may I call you?”

Bree held out her hand. Boden looked on with surprise, but covered his apprehension quickly. He took her hand gently in his own and shook it twice.

“I’m Bree.”

Boden’s eyes widened. “Bree? Of Kelmarane?”

Bree sighed, but nodded. Why is it even a stranger knew who she was?

The bugbear looked aghast. “You’re Bree? The Bree?”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. I’m Bree.”

“Knight Protector Bree? Queen of the Kulldis?”

“I already said yes.”

“The Gnoll-Slayer? The Liberator? The Slave-Breaker?”

Bree smiled. “Slave-Breaker? I like that one.”

The bugbear still gaped. “Bree of the Mouldy-Arm?”

Bree scowled. “I could do without that last title, but yes.”

Boden looked rather dazed.

“Can I have my hand back, now?”

Boden dropped her hand as if it had burnt him then blushed furiously. Or at least she thought he was blushing. His nose turned from brown to red. “I… I’m sorry I just…”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it.”

“No, I just though you’d be… Bigger.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “Bigger?”

“Much bigger.” Boden pressed his hands together and rubbed them gently, then spread them before him, palms up. He looked like he was trying to figure out how to give her some bad news. “You don’t exactly look… intimidating. Or… Capable.”

Bree scowled. The nerve!

Boden smiled helpfully, but with his fangs and smushed-up bugbear face it came off as rather fierce.

“What are you doing here?” Bree sighed. “You certainly didn’t kill the Three Jaws for me.”

“You came here to kill them?” Boden exclaimed. He looked doubtful of her claim.

Bree rolled her eyes. “Yeah. That’s what I do.”

“All of them?”

“Yeah.”

“Alone?”

“Do I look like I have company?”

“You must be drunk. I hear you drink a lot.”

Bree scowled. “Look here, fuzzball! I’m a slave hunter, okay? And in case you haven’t noticed, all gnolls in this region are slavers. And the funny thing about gnolls? They travel in packs. Get used to it.”

“Of course, but… Alone? Certainly you could – “

“The odds weren’t exactly in my favour here, okay? It’s not like people are lining up around the block to go on certain death missions with me into the wilds.”

Boden raised his hands in a placating gesture. “I thought you had friends to – “

“I do have friends!” Bree snapped. “I just… I don’t want them to come with me.”

“I think if I had friends, I would – ” Boden blushed, but forged on “want to spend time with them.”

“I’m not going for a leisurely stroll, here, Boden. They could die.”

“You could die.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“I think everyone knows that. What I don’t understand is why – “

“It’s none of your business! I don’t even know you.”

“I told you who I am.” Boden’s dropped his voice to a gutteral growl. “I am Boden, the Terror! Scourge of the – “

“Tipped Tankard! I heard you the first time. Mind your own business.”

Boden nodded. He looked a little sad, but hid it with practiced ease. “Very well. I have a question for you then, before I leave you to your own devices, if I may?”

Bree sighed. “What is it?”

“Is it true? What they say about Kelmarane?”

“Is what true?”

Boden smiled in a wistful sort of way. “I heard Kelmarane is a land of freedom, where any soul may find safety and welcome, no matter their race or heritage, so long as they are pure of heart.”

Bree smiled. “That is true.”

“Even one such as… Well.” Boden spread his hands out before him. His expression turned serious. “Even me?”

Bree nodded. “Of course.”

Boden’s features softened. “It sounded to good to be true… I had thought it a – Oh… Right. Never mind. I’ll leave you to your work, Knight Protector Bree.” Boden bowed deeply to Bree then turned and walked away.

Bree sighed. She had hurt his feelings. Perhaps she should invite him to help or… No. He would only drag her down. She worked alone. Always. She would… Bree frowned. Froth and foam, she must be getting soft!

Bree knelt down over the corpse of a gnoll and sighed. “Hey, fuzzball! You got any brains in that big head of yours?”

From across the camp she heard Boden chuckle. “I have been known to have a good idea or two.”

“Make yourself useful and check out this corpse for me.”

Boden returned to her side with a smile. He drew out his small pair of spectacles from his pocket. He looked at her nervously. Could you… Ah… What I mean is would you…”

“Spit it out.”

“Turn around.”

“Turn around?”

Boden sighed. “Yes I…” He eyed his glasses warily.

“I’ve seen you in them already, remember? And yes, you look ridiculous, but no, I won’t laugh.”

Boden’s nose turned red, but he nodded and placed his glasses onto his nose. Bree maintained her poise, despite how ridiculously small they were for his face, and nodded at him. Boden smiled bashfully, then turned serious. He rolled over the corpse and began to list off features.

Bree wasn’t paying attention. She had seen enough gnoll corpses to last a lifetime. It didn’t matter to her what had happened to them. Gnolls fought for supremacy amongst each other all the time. With the dwindling numbers it was likely the Al’Chorhaiv hoping to earn the respect of the Carrion King. Even allied gnolls still fought each other for power and –

“…heartless.”

Bree started. “What did you say?”

“I said, that the gnoll has had his chest cavity torn open, and his heart ripped out. Like all the other corpses here, he’s heartless.”

Bree paled. “Heartless?”

Boden nodded.

“Cayden’s curse! They were right.”

Boden’s eyes widened. He inhaled deeply. “Bree you’re… You’re afraid.”

“I should have listened! I should have… Oh, foul brew!”

“What is it?”

“They were right! Kelestair and Santon were right. They said that whatever had done this was dangerous.”

“This? You’ve had heartless gnoll tribes before?”

“No. We’ve had some heartless dead but nothing like… Nothing like this. A few deaths, here and there but…” Bree sighed. She looked around the cliff top with new eyes. This was… This was… This was bad.

“But what?”

“Santon and Kelestair thought that whatever had done the killing was some kind of beast that was more dangerous than the gnolls. I didn’t believe them. I left to hunt the Three Jaws Tribe instead of trying to track it, but if… If this thing, this monster slaughtered the entire tribe then… Well…”

“Then what?”

“We’re in trouble.”

Boden frowned. He turned his gaze to the tents and area around him. “And you have no idea what manner of creature did this?”

“I know it rips hearts out with it’s teeth.”

Boden nodded and began to pace around the camp, walking around corpses and peeking into tents. He adjusted his glasses. Stroked his chin. Sniffed the air. Bree followed him, hoping he might find something she could work with. Something she had overlooked.

Boden led them to the far end of the camp, where the cliff sloped downwards gradually, onto a wide plateau. “There were some survivors.”

“Really? Where?”

“I don’t know, but they were afraid.” He sniffed the air again. “There were three of them. Gnolls, by their musk. They were wounded.” He began to walk down the slope, sniffing deeply every other step. “They fled… this way.”

Bree gestured for Boden to continue. He nodded and set off. She followed him at what seemed like a snail’s pace. The sun continued its decent across the sky.

“Oh, my.”

“What is it?”

Boden adjusted his spectacles. “They made it here and then their fear faded.”

Bree looked around. They were at the bottom of a canyon. It didn’t look particularly safe, or well guarded. There was no shelter that she could see. No sign of any gnolls, either. “So where are they?”

“I can’t track them by the scent of their fear any further but…”

“But what? Did we lose them?”

“The ground is rather soft here. See? There are some tracks over there.” Boden pointed further along the canyon, but Bree couldn’t see anything. Still, Boden seemed to see them. He followed the trail for a while. Leaning down over it with his glasses and nose mere handspans from the ground.

“They travelled this way, at a rather quick pace and joined up with… Oh, dear.”

Bree frowned. “What?”

“They joined with a rather large group of gnolls and… I don’t know. Insects of some kind.”

Bree cursed. “The Al’Chorhaiv. Which way did they go?”

Boden followed the tracks for a while and then nodded. He pointed south. “That way, but it seems our gnoll survivors didn’t make it.”

“What do you mean?”

Boden pointed behind a boulder. “They’re dead. Heartless.”

Bree dashed behind the boulder. The gnolls bore no tribe symbol but were pierced with all manner of bones and blades through every imaginable appendage. They were definitely Three Jaws.

“Foul brew!” What had happened here? Had the gnolls been beset upon by the beast and – No! What were the odds of the only surviving members of the Three Jaws Tribe being the only gnolls killed during the monsters attack on the Al-Chorhaiv? It couldn’t be a coincidence. “This cursed beast is trained! It has to be! The Al’Chorhaiv are using it as a weapon!” Bree felt a sudden lurching in her stomache. She was nervous. Frightened even. She hadn’t been this worried in months. She took a deep breath. She needed to keep a clear head. Cayden protect me. Lend me your courage. She took a deep breath again and pushed her fear down as far as she could. Smothering it. Another breath and she forced her nervousness down even deeper. She was fine. She could do this.

“That’s impressive, you know.”

“What?”

“Your control.”

Bree scoffed.

Boden nodded and took a deep sniff at the air. “Your fear was delicious. Rich and…” Boden blushed. “Uh… I mean you were scared and then… nothing. It was gone just like that. Your handle of – “

“It’s not me. It’s my god. Cayden Cailean makes me more than I am.”

“It takes a special soul to use such a divine gift.”

Bree shrugged. She knew her god had blessed her, but she didn’t understand why. She was nothing special. Nobody important. She had no special gifts until he gave her some. Surely he could have found a better vessel to enact his will? Bree sighed. His reasoning didn’t matter. She was His and He was hers. His favoured soul. She would pull through. She had to. He was counting on her. “Which way are they going, exactly?”

Boden eyed the tracks again and pointed south.

“You’re sure?”

He nodded and removed his glasses. “I’m positive.”

South? What would they run into going south from here? Bree eyed the sky and her surroundings. More importantly, where was she? “I have to get higher.”

Boden nodded. “We passed a slope a mile or so back over – “

“No time.” Bree examined the canyon walls for the easiest route and then started to climb. She heard Boden give a grunt of surprise, but when she was part way up he started to follow her. Bree smiled. The brute continued to impress her.

The view was spectacular from the top of the canyon. She could see for miles in each direction. She turned her gaze to the south just as Boden heaved himself over the ledge and rose to his feet.

“There they are,” she said. “See that dust trail? The whole tribe must be on the move.”

“A war march?”

“Could be. They’re moving fast.” Bree followed their path across the horizon and searched her memory. What would they come across that way? The oasis? No, she was further west than that. They were going too far east to be on their way to Kelmarane and…

“By the light of the Starstone…” Bree cursed. “They’re heading for Thrice Hills!”

“Thrice Hills?”

“It’s a small village I visit a lot and – Oh, gods! They’ll be slaughtered! I have to get there! I have to…”

“A village? You can’t stop an army by yourself.”

“I have to go! I have to – “

“I’m coming with you.”

Bree looked at Boden as if he were mad. “You could die.”

“Innocent lives are at stake. I’m coming with you.”

Bree shook her head. “No, I – “

“I’m not asking your permission.”

“No.” Bree frowned. There was a reason she had met this strange bugbear. A reason Cayden Cailean had led her to him and it was not so they could die together in Thrice Hills. It was so they could save Thrice Hills. But they would need help. “I need you to get to Kelmarane.”

“Kelmarane? But – “

“Listen!” Bree shouted. “Go to Kelmarane. It won’t take you more than a day if you hustle. When you get there, go straight to the Sheriff’s office and ask for Sheriff Santon Synger. Tell him that the Al’Chorhaiv have the heart-eating beast and they’re on their way to Thrice Hills. Tell him I said that he needs to haul ass to Thrice Hills as fast as he can. Make sure he brings the Militia, and Kelestair. But leave the Deputies. If we fail they’ll be needed in Kelmarane. Understand?”

“Yes, but what will you do?”

“I’m going to take a short cut and try to beat the gnolls to Thrice Hills. If I make it I can get the village prepared. We won’t last long, but we’ll be able to stall until help arrives.”

“Are you sure you can – “

“Go!” Bree shouted.

Boden nodded. “I’ll get help. But you had better stay alive. I look forward to splitting some gnoll skulls with you.”

Bree smiled grimly and offered Boden her hand. He took it and shook it gently.

“Thank you, Boden.”

Boden smiled in a lopsided, terrifying kind of way. “Glad to be of service, Knight Protector Bree.”

Bree nodded and took off at a sprint across the plateau. She had a lot of ground to make up, but the gnolls were traveling in a large group. They would take the easiest route, not the most direct, and they needed to rest much more than she did.

She could beat them to Thrice Hills.

She would to beat them to Thrice Hills.

She had to.

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