Part 6 of 8 – 1100 Words
This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Ambroys’s chest heaved and he gulped for air as he pushed through the thigh-deep, black water. He had only been running for a few minutes but the combination of the drag from the water, the mud sucking at his feet, and his own dehydration already had his muscles ablaze. He would not be able to hold this up for long. I only need to push on for a mile or so. Then I can rest.
Mercifully, the cloud cover had begun to break up allowing shifting pools of mottled moonlight to spill through the canopy. The only other light sources were fireflies drifting among the infinite shade of the trees. Well, he hoped they were fireflies, but they could have just as easily been will-o-the-wisps, Crot’s Guides, hunting for souls. Either way, they were of no use to him.
He stumbled through the tangled trees and vines that choked the swamp waters. Their grasping roots and runners might have been a bane now, but they would be a boon when he finally stopped to rest, helping to confound anyone that might be following him. Ambroys cast a hurried look behind. There was no sign of anyone giving chase, not that he would have had much luck spotting them in the dark. Gods, I can hardly see two feet ahead.
Something floating in the water bumped against his thighs. Ambroys froze. There were stories of snapping turtles in the Morass that were as big as a shield and could bite clean through a man’s calf. He prayed to Ruvest that the stories were not true. The thing did not move away but bobbed on the rippled waters against his trousers. He swallowed hard to try to loosen the knot that had tightened around his heart and reached down to nudge the dark mass aside. It felt fibrous like moss or the bearded lichens that hung from the boughs above. Definitely not a snapping turtle.
As the tension eased from his chest, the clouds shifted again, and moonlight illuminated the object. Ambroys gasped and snatched his hand back. The body of a Lupekin floated in front of him. Its throat had been slashed so deep that the white of its spine glinted among the dark ooze of blood. The creature had been this way!
Ambroys screwed his eyes closed and dredged with his ears through the mélange of croaking frogs and chirping insects that clotted the night air. Was the creature still here? Or had it left already? Maybe it approached the camp this way and was still occupied with the Lupekin? Nothing. No hint reached him. He opened his eyes, cast a useless look around the impenetrable dark, and crept passed the floating corpse leaving it bobbing in his wake.
This slow slink through the water was somehow more exhausting than sprinting. Every muscle in his body was ratchetted so tightly that Ambroys feared he might snap in half. Blood pounded in his ears with each manic heartbeat and he fought to smoothen the raggedness from his breathing. It had been an eternity of this sulking through the dark with only the night songs following. I think I’m alright now.
What was that? He had heard a splash. Or at least, he thought he did. Ambroys went stone stiff and listened. Nothing. It was nothing—no there it was again! Definitely a splash from behind him like something stumbling through the mire. Shit. I’ve got to hide.
Ambroys edged toward a shadow that was shaped like the trunk of a large tree. Each step was a journey as he felt his way gingerly among the roots and mud, trying to move as little water as possible with each gliding stride. When finally he reached out and felt the wet bark on his fingers, he pulled himself in tight to the trunk and prayed to be a hole in the swamp.
A third splash made a dissonant cord in the night’s chirping song. Ambroys hardly dared to breath as he strained his ears trying to find some indication of the creature’s position, but the frog calls carried on unblemished. The clouds had once again masked the moon blanketing the bog in the gluey ink of night.
Come on! Where are you, you murderous bastard? There! Ambroys heard another splash and furrowed his brow. That one was different, diminished somehow. Was it farther away? No, it had been just as loud but smaller. He craned his head around the tree trunk, hoping beyond hope to catch a glimpse of the thing in the fickle light. He strained his eyes to pierce the night’s veil.
A weight struck Ambroys from behind with the force of a bull. He toppled over and plunged into the murky water. The weight pressed upon him, forcing his face down into roots and river grasses. The cloying mud filled his nose, choking him. Ambroys drove his bound wrist against the sodden earth and scrambled his knees beneath him. Through gritted teeth, he propelled his bulk towards the surface. The force dislodged his assailant who splashed into the thigh-deep water.
As Ambroys gasped for air, the clouds shifted, and pied moonlight filtered through the canopy. A lupine face emerged from the bog with one enraged yellow eye gleaming and the other deathly white. Volk. Rancid water streamed from the matted fur and dripped off his clawed fingers. Volk lifted his chin to the full moon and a chilling howl tore from his chest. Then he pounced.
Ambroys tumbled onto his back and, again, was forced underwater. Volk’s hands wrapped around the young soldier’s throat, pinning him under and constricting with a brutal inevitability. Ambroys tore at the clawed hands but their grip was like iron. He kicked and thrashed, trying to get a leg under the beast. The grip only tightened as sinuous muscle masked under rough fur drew taught. Volk’s lank frame may as well have been made of steel for all that it waivered under the panicked assault.
Ambroys’s lungs burned and his chest began to spasm as his body screeched for air. Still, he struggled but he was growing weaker with each thrust and kick. His thrashing was becoming sluggish and weak. His thoughts grew cloudy. The water was murky and, even with eyes wide and bulging, it made him sightless. Yet, he could sense the darkness creeping in at the edge of his vision, consuming him by degrees until the gloom would swallow him whole. Ambroys made a final feeble push before going completely limp. The world felt so far from him now as did all the concern it contained. So. Very. Far. Somewhere, many lifetimes away, a wolf howled to the moon.
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