Part 7 of 8 – 1200 Words
This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Ambroys’s eyes snapped open. A sudden awareness flooded him as the iron pressure of Volk’s muscle slackened. With a final desperate surge, he heaved against the soggy fur. Volk offered no resistance. Indeed, what had once been an immovable weigh was now brushed aside like so much flotsam.
He struggled to the surface coughing and hacking and gulping the rank swamp air. Moonlight still filtered through the tangled boughs enough to see the inert outline of the Lupekin floating away on the wetland’s infinitesimal current. The light held long enough to see Volk’s head loll at a funny angle. His neck had been broken. Then the atmosphere shifted, and the light failed, casting Umbra Morass into inky shadow.
Despite the cloying heat of the summer’s night, a shiver raced down Ambroys’s spine. His heart hammered in his chest and he struggled to control his panicked breathing. A prickling ran along the base of his neck and every muscle in his body constricted tighter than a bowstring. There was something moving behind him. He could feel it like ants crawling up his spine.
Ambroys’s eyes darted to the corners and tugged his head into a turn. As his body began to twist around his hands balled into fists. He might not have a chance in the hells, but he’d be damned if he was going to die without taking a swing. Momentum building, Ambroys whirled around, fist raised, and found empty darkness.
The whole of the swamp seemed to hold its breath as Ambroys spun back and forth, swinging into the void for a demon that could not be seen. When no fiend could be found, he dropped his arms, panting. Perhaps the creature had moved on. Maybe it couldn’t see him under the blackened water. He stood for a moment, letting his breath settle and his muscles uncoil. He was letting fear get the better of him. He just needed to relax and think. Two deep breathes rolled in and out of his lungs, draining the tension from his shoulders. He was jumping over nothing. If the creature wanted him, it would have had him by now. It must have moved on. There was nothing left hunting him from the shadows. Nothing left to fear.
Two red eyes blazed to life like tiny fires in the gloom.
Ambroys ran. He ran for all his life, splashing through the water like a torrent, but he did not dare look back. The eyes were following him. He could feel their heat on the back of his neck like the breath of death itself. His heart flogged his chest and his legs pumped acid. His lungs heaved like bellows until they flew so quickly that he felt like he was choking on his own breath.
A hand, hard as cured wood, gripped him by the collar of his chainmail armor. It hoisted him nearly free of the water and then hurled him into a stand of trees. Ambroys hit with a sickening thud and fell to the spongy earth. His head reeled and he struggled to clear the murkiness of his rattled senses. Through the gloom, the raging eyes advanced. Whatever they were attached to made hardly more than a ripples worth of noise as it glided through the swamp.
They were nearly upon him. Ambroys felt around the syrupy dark for anything that might aid him. Just as the eyes stepped into reach, his hands clasped around a stout fallen branch. He hoisted it and swung hard at the creature. He struck true with a solid wallop and the fiery red eyes bounced from the blow. Ambroys lifted the branch to strike again, but the creature caught it mid-swing and wrenched it from his grasp.
The vice-like fingers of a single solid hand wrapped around Ambroys’s throat and lifted him off his feet, pinning him to the tree trunk. The red eyes flared against the unblemished dark like midnight’s own wrath. Not a sound escaped the creature as the skies shifted and a pillar of silver light spilled upon the pair.
A jack-o-lantern face twisted in hideous rage glared at Ambroys. The arm that held him aloft not only felt as solid as wood but was wood, a scrap bit of beam notched with ill treatment. It connected to a tattered suit of sodden ring mail armor. The creature’s other hand held a raised shortsword, nearly as notched as his wooden arms. From its pommel, dangled a charm that looked like a small rag doll. It was much repaired and marred by poor stitching. Loose straw and leaves poked out through gaps in the seams.
As the Scrap Knight stared into Ambroys’s horror-stricken face, his features softened. His red eyes diminished to a pale-yellow glow and it eased Ambroys to the moistened soil. He took a step back from the choked soldier and sheathed his sword. The two stared at one another. Ambroys massaged his bruised throat and searched that inhuman face for some reason for this reversal, some explanation why this monstrosity had not slain him. The Scrap Knight said nothing, his features a mask of vague melancholy. Without a sound he turned to leave.
“Thank you,” Ambroys croaked after him. He immediately felt stupid but could think of nothing else to do. This Scrap Knight may have been a murderous monster, but the creature had saved his live. He should not be tempting fate by drawing its attention again and yet, he owed the thing a debt.
The Scrap Knight stopped and waited.
Ambroys took a few hesitant steps forward. “You saved my life,” he said, his voice still husky. “I owe you thanks.”
Haltingly, the Scrap Knight turned. He squinted at Ambroys with his glowing jack-o-lantern eyes, his head tilted to one side.
“Please, I owe you a debt and I must repay it. Ask anything of me and you shall have it,” said Ambroys stepping closer.
For a fleeting moment, the Scrap Knight looked hollowed out as though keenly aware of a void that he could not fill. Then he slowly shook his head and began to trudge back into the bog.
Ambroys reached out and grasped the knight’s arm. The Scrap Knight whirled around, his shortsword ready to strike. Ambroys eased back, bound wrists held up in a pacifying gesture.
“Please, there must be something I can do to repay you,” he said. His eyes washed over the knight now fully illuminated by the pale light of the moon and settled on the charm swaying gently from the sword’s pommel. “Your doll. Maybe I can get it properly repaired for you?” he asked making a stitching motion with his hands.
The Scrap Knight’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. He pulled both sword and doll to his chest. A twiggy thumb brushed over the doll’s soiled forehead.
“I promise no harm will come to her and I’ll return her as soon as she is mended,” Ambroys said taking a knee and bowing his head. “You have my word as an Eye of the Vigil.”
A wooden hand rested on Ambroys’s shoulder. He lifted his eyes to see the Scrap Knight’s sword tip pointed at his chest. Before he could flinch, the Scrap Knight had sliced through the rope that bound his wrists. The knight delicately unfastened the doll and placed it in Ambroys’s hands. Then without so much as a glance back, The Scrap Knight disappeared into the gloom.
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