The Heartless Dead: Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-one
Ahrikvask

Gnolls and hyenas had fallen to Bree and her blade by the dozens, but still the Al’Chorhaiv poured out of the Brazen Peaks. Just how many of them were there? Bree had no idea they would have such numbers at their command. They must have been picking up survivors from the tribes Bree had killed this past year.

Bree dashed forward with Tempest’s glowing blade barred, cutting a path of carnage across the field. A gnoll fell back with a howl of pain, but another six gnolls skirted around her. She moved to follow but a small pack of hyenas closed the gap first. They snapped at her frantically.

“Tipped tankard!” Bree cursed. She took a step back to prevent the hyenas from surrounding her and cast a worried glance over her shoulder. Thrice Hills still stood, but gnolls, hyenas, and scorpions of all sizes swarmed over her slopes. The archers on al’Harad hill had turned their attention to the attackers, and seemed to be holding out alright. For now. They would soon be overrun if Bree couldn’t stop the flow of reinforcements.

A hyena lunged for her throat but Bree raised the Dawn of Freedom and batted the beast out of the way. It crashed into a pile of scorpions who quickly swarmed overtop of him. The scorpions began to sting and the hyena howled in pain. The other hyenas backed off a pace so Bree took the opportunity to lunge forward with Tempest. She cut one hyena across the throat, the swung wide at the other two. They backed off further, giving Bree a chance to scan the rest of the field.

Kallien stood with her back to the river and her bow drawn. On the other side of the river, mirroring her position exactly, was Jamus. They fired continually into the battle in opposite directions, dropping gnolls and hyenas with every arrow loosed. Neither of them made a sound.

Kelestair, Zym and Husk still stood exactly where Bree had placed them at the start of the battle. They hadn’t given up a pace of ground. Few gnolls seemed to have gotten past them, though there was little they could do to stop those who went around. They currently were engaged with a group of large scorpions and two flinds who wielded massive axes.

Tiller was nowhere to be seen, though that wasn’t surprising. The little fellow seemed to vanish and reappear with every passing breeze. Wherever he was, Bree was sure he was being useful.

Far off in the distance, she spotted Omig and Kaywen. She scowled. What were they doing so far from town? They were needed here.

A growl alerted Bree to another attack. She swung Tempest, cutting the hyena in the face, and then quickly turned her attention back to the Claisant’s.

They stood face to face with a massive opalescent scorpion. Crude, red paintings covered its outer carapace, likely drawn in blood. Atop it rode a gnoll armored with the bodies of scorpions fitted together into plates.

Ahrikvask had taken the field! Bree frowned. Though it was a relief to finally see the Al’Chorhaiv’s chieftain, the Claisant’s were under strict orders to stay close to Thrice Hills. By leaving their half of the field open the gnolls were easily slipping past Bree’s defenses. There was no choice. Bree had to pull what remained of her troops back, closer to the canals surrounding al’Harad hill. Perhaps then they could stop any more reinforcements from getting into the town.

“Fall back to the canals!” Bree shouted. She began backpedaling, but watched the field to make sure everyone had heard her. Kallien started edging her way along the river’s edge and Jamus, though he was on the other side of the river and under Santon’s command, followed suit. Apparently the two of them had finally found someone capable enough to watch their backs.

Kelestair led Zym and Husk in a brisk retreat before standing firm at the canal’s edge. Kelestair took one glance at the field and spread the three of them out along its length. Bree smiled. He knew exactly what she had been thinking. Bree and Kallien reached the edge of the canal just as Tiller appeared. He smiled at her in a lopsided fashion. Blood was speckled over his messy black hair.

“Hold the line!” Bree yelled. The Al’Chorhaiv’s forces quickly passed through the gap left by Bree’s ordered retreat. Combat broke out all along the canal. Three flinds charged at Bree with morningstars and maces hefted high. She sliced Tempest across the first flind’s stomache twice, bashed his comrade in the chest with her shield and the rammed the hilt of her scimitar into the third’s face. The first flind howled in pain and backed off, but the second swung his morningstar in a wide arc. Bree raised the Dawn of Freedom into the way and readied herself for the impact. The flind had muscles the size of her head and with all the momentum he was putting into the blow she would likely come away from this with a broken bone. The morningstar crashed into her shield. Wood splintered. Bree flinched and grit her teeth.

She felt no pain.

The Dawn of Freedom was whole and her arm was unharmed, but the flind’s morningstar had broken along the shaft. The flind and Bree gaped at each other for a moment before Bree bashed him in the face with her shield. The flind dropped to the ground in a heap. Bree slashed Tempest across his throat then turned to the third flind who had staggered back and was clutching at his eyes. Bree strode forward, but Tiller appeared from behind the flind and stabbed him in the back. The flind fell to the ground and Tiller smiled.

“You see Omig and Kaywen?” he asked.

Bree nodded and bashed a hyena out of the way with her shield. “They’re too far out.”

Tiller laughed. “You wish you were with them! Sweet barleybrew, I wish I was with them!” He vanished behind a massive scorpion then reappeared to Bree’s left. His dagger was impaled in it’s face. “What I wouldn’t do to be the one to give Ahrikvask what’s coming to her.”

Bree chuckled. “They don’t need our help. They’ve been killing gnolls since before we were born.” She sliced Tempest across the hyena’s neck and then across it’s gnoll handler’s.

“Since before you were born. I’m not as young as I – ” Tiller paused mid-sentence and stopped moving.

“Tiller?” Bree asked over her shoulder. She booted a scorpion in the face and the sliced off it’s stinger.

“No,” he breathed.

Bree’s blood ran cold. She turned to find Tiller staring across the field in horror. Bree followed his gaze to where Ahrikvask and the Claisant’s fought. She saw Ahrikvask atop her scorpion mount, and Kaywen fighting alongside it. Kaywen’s face was twisted into a mask of pure hatred. She was screaming. Bree did not see Omig.

“No!” Tiller screamed.

Bree reached for him, but Tiller ducked under a flind’s wild mace swing, tumbled over a hyena and vanished amidst the approaching gnolls.

“Tipped tankard!” Bree cursed. She swung Tempest with abandon, slicing tendons and severing arteries with each swing. All around her the gnolls fell in a shower of crystalline blood. Bree glanced across the field. Kaywen thrust at the scorpion with her rapier, driving it up to its hilt into the beast’s side. She pulled back, tearing her rapier from the scorpion. Ahrikvask threw a javelin at Kaywen. It sailed through the air, straight for Kaywen’s chest. Tiller appeared from the crowd and pushed Kaywen out of the way. They fell to the ground in a tangled heap. The javelin struck a nearby gnoll. The scorpion struggled forward with its claws snapping. Tiller rolled out of the way and Kaywen stumbled to her feet. The scorpion swept her up in its claw and squeezed. There was an explosion of blood, and then Kaywen was sliced in two. Her torso and legs fell to the ground in pieces.

“NO!” Bree screamed.

“Hold the line!” Kelestair yelled. “Think of Thrice Hills!”

Bree ran across the field swinging Tempest and screaming at the top of her lungs.

“Bree!” Kelestair called. “BREE!”

But Bree wasn’t listening. She was gone.

Kaywen was gone.

Kaywen, who had taught her everything she knew about the Brazen Peaks, and the gnolls. Kaywen, who had helped her. Mentored her. Fought alongside her. They had prayed together, partied together, saved lives together.

Distantly, Bree heard Kelestair shouting, but she paid him no mind. She saw only blood and gore and the broken tattered remains of one of her dearest friends.

Kaywen was dead and Omig was likely dead.

Ahrikvask would pay. If it was the last thing Bree did she would make sure that filthy, gnoll bitch died screaming in agony. Her pets would die, her tribe would die, her peryton weapon would die and her entire life’s work would be shattered beneath Bree’s heel. She would spit on the cur’s broken corpse and feed it to the vultures in pieces. She would… She would…

She would kill her.

Horribly.

By the time Bree arrived at the far end of the field she had left a trail of corpses in her wake. The blood of her enemies soaked her clothes and matted her hair. Tempest was covered in a thick red slush of frozen blood.

“Die!” Tiller screamed. He appeared behind the scorpion and drove his daggers into its side. Ichor poured from the wound, but the scorpion still moved. It spun around and drove its stinger towards Tiller, but he rolled underneath the creature and was lost among the corpses and rocks.

“Ahrikvask!” Bree shouted. The gnoll turned to look at her, but Bree didn’t wait for acknowledgement. She sprang forward, slicing and hacking wildly with Tempest and bashing with the Dawn of Freedom. The scorpion turned towards her. It moved clumsily, but was still a far cry from incapacitated. It snapped at her with its claws and then lunged with its stinger, but Bree managed to duck and dodge out of the way. Ahrikvask drew a javelin and let it fly. Bree spun to the side, but the scorpion snapped at her with its claw. Bree tried to twist out of the way, but she was too slow. She managed to get the Dawn of Freedom up enough to turn the blow to the side, but even just a graze from the claw sliced deep into her skin. Blood poured from Bree’s arm. She pressed her hand against the wound to pray for it to close, but the scorpions other claw snapped at her. Bree threw herself to the ground. The claw sliced through empty air. Bree’s arm continued to bleed.

“Foul brew!” she cursed. She scurried beneath the scorpion just as its massive stinger struck the ground she had been standing on. The scorpion above her spun around and Bree wound up to the beast’s right. She raised Tempest to slice at the scorpions legs before she noticed Ahrikvask was ready for her. Their eyes met. Ahrikvask smiled. She held a javelin in her furry hand and had it aimed right at Bree’s heart. Bree’s momentum drove Tempest to cut clean through on of the scorpion’s legs, but she had no time to move. Ahrikvask tensed and threw her javelin.

Tiller appeared from behind the gnoll bitch and drove himself into her, sending them both flying from the scorpion and onto the rocky ground.

The javelin tore through Bree’s armour and flesh. She stumbled back a step in stunned silence. A warm liquid spread its way across her midsection. She didn’t have to look to know it was blood. Her mind clouded and then the pain hit. Bree clutched at her stomache and bit her lip to keep from crying out.

The scorpion stumbled back from her, dripping fluids from the ragged stump that remained of its leg. Bree would have to be quick.

She took the shaft of the javelin in her hands, grit her teeth and pulled. She screamed and a thick gout of blood surged from the wound along with the javelin. Bree pressed her hands against the gaping hole in her abdomen and prayed. She heard voices and the clinking of mugs. A rich barley-beer filled her mouth and she swallowed. It was strong but she felt weak. Dizzy. She tried to move, but she only managed to stumble around like a drunk. She swooned.

Bree opened her eyes and found herself on the blood soaked earth outside Thrice Hills. A massive, bloody scorpion loomed over her. It’s stinger sped towards her face.

Bree rolled backwards and pushed herself up to her feet. The stinger struck the ground where she had been laying. Bree righted herself and the scorpion snapped at her with its claws. She stepped back once, and then again, only managing to just stay out of the reach of the scorpion. She backpedaled faster, but the scorpion pressed on, snapping and thrusting viciously. Bree cursed.

She could hear Tiller and Ahrikvask fighting somewhere nearby. Tiller’s breathing was laboured. Ahrikvask yipped something over the din and Tiller roared in response. She heard the clanging sound of metal upon metal and then a grunt of pain. A canine laughter followed.

Bree scowled. Tiller was in trouble. He needed her help, but the scorpion had yet to pause in its attacks. It would tire eventually, but that wouldn’t help Tiller. Bree needed an opening and she needed it now. Even a single moment would allow her to fight back and regain the offensive.

Something hit the back of Bree’s legs and she stumbled. She fell backwards, landing hard on her back in a pile of hyena and gnoll corpses. The scorpions stinger drew back, then surged forwards, straight for Bree. Her eyes widened.

This was it.

The end.

What a boring way to die.

An arrow with red fletching struck the scorpion in the face, followed by two more in quick succession. The scorpion let out a shrill screech and stumbled back.

Bree rolled forward and leaped at the scorpion blade first, plunging Tempest through its head and into its torso. She screamed and wriggled the blade around, slicing the scorpion’s head open horizontally and tearing Tempest loose. A burst of foul smelling black ichor soaked Bree’s clothes. She stumbled back and cast a look across the field to Kallien.

Kallien had her back to Bree and was fighting off a pack of six hyenas. The arrows in her quiver were brown and white. Bree’s eyes widened in confusion. Kallien couldn’t have shot the scorpion. Who did she owe her life to?

Bree scanned the field. She spotted a person standing atop a building on al’Harad hill. They held a bow in their hands. Their arrows were fletched with red feathers. They nodded at her once and then turned back to Thrice Hills.

It was Brotis.

Bree frowned. She would never live this down.

Ahrikvask yelped in pain.

Bree ran around the scorpion’s corpse. Ahrikvask sat slumped on the ground with her back pressed up against the scorpion’s side. A series of bleeding stab wounds ran across the length of her lower chest. Blood dribbled from her mouth and she clutched a javelin loosely in her hands. She would be unable to throw it from her position. She was defenseless.

Bree stepped towards her with Tempest, but Tiller stumbled forwards. “No,” he grunted, “She’s mine.” Blood coursed down his shoulder from a deep puncture wound. He was pale and looked woozy. He had obviously lost a lot of blood.

“Tiller, let me heal your – “

“No!” he yelled. He narrowed his red-rimmed eyes in hate. “She dies now!” Tiller dashed forwards so fast Bree lost sight of him. She heard flesh tearing. Blood welled up and someone choked on their own blood.

Tiller had driven his dagger deep into Ahrikvask’s eye socket. She was clearly dead, but had managed to prop up her javelin. Tiller was impaled upon it. He coughed and blood poured from his mouth.

Bree screamed.

She dashed to Tillers side and gently pulled him off of the javelin. His eyes rolled about in his head. Blood gushed from him in large spurts with each beat of his heart. Bree pressed her hands against his chest and prayed.

Nothing happened. She was too drained to connect with her god.

Bree cursed.

“Tiller,” she choked. “I won’t let you die. You can’t! Not you too!”

She clutched his small body to her chest and hugged him tightly. She patted his hair.

She couldn’t lose Tiller.

Not here.

Not like this.

“Please,” she begged, “Please, My Lord! Not him! Please.”

A weak drop of power coursed through her. She forced it down into Tiller. The power flowed for a moment, then trickled to a stop like an empty keg. It wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Bree’s eyes welled up with tears. She blinked them away and sniffed.

“Hang on, Tiller,” she said firmly, “I’ll get help and – “

A final burst of breath left his mouth. He went limp and heavy in her arms.

“No,” Bree wailed. She placed his hand over his heart and waited with baited breath. It did not beat. Tears traced their way across her filthy, blood-stained face in thick, hot streaks. She clutched Tiller’s body tightly to her chest and rocked back and forth. Her shoulders and back shook, wracked with sobs.

How could she go on without him? How would Kelmarane? How could she tell the people at the Free House that she had failed the man who had taken care of them? How could she go back to Kelmarane at all knowing that she had let the most noble and selfless of its citizens die at the hands of her? That filth! Ahrikvask!

Bree placed Tiller on the ground reverently and stalked over to Ahrikvask’s corpse. The corners of her canine snout were tilted up in a cruel smirk. Bree roared in fury and kicked the gnoll’s corpse in the face. It tumbled over onto the jagged rocks. Bree pulled back and kicked it again, with all her might. Ahrikvask’s corpse rolled onto it’s back, and Bree shrieked down at her smug-looking face.

How dare she smile!

How dare she take him!

Bree lifted her foot and stomped down on Ahrikvask’s face again and again, letting out all her anger. All her rage. All her fear and sadness and pity until Ahrikvask’s head was little more than a smear of red paste studded with shards of bone spread across the rocky earth.

Bree felt empty. Hollow.

Dead.

A voice reached her over the din of the battlefield.

Bree blinked. The screams of the dead and dying assaulted her ears. The blood and fur around her came back into focus. She was surrounded by corpses.

Why was she standing still? Why wasn’t she fighting?

“Regroup!” a voice was yelling. “Regroup!”

Kelestair.

Bree wiped a hand across her tear stained face, looked once more at Tiller’s corpse and took a deep breath.

“I’ll come back for you,” she whispered. “Our work isn’t done yet.”

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