Complete Story – 8000 Words
This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
The door to Crot’s Hole Tavern crashed open. “Milton! Get yourself over here!” The shout sounded a long way off as though called across many miles. Ambroys blinked and tried to clear fog from his head. Yet his eyelids held only visions of the dead and his ears rang with bloodied screams. He forced his eyes open and held them that way.
His midnight blue tabard was torn, drenched, and soiled. His mouth was gluey with thirst and his knees wobbled making each step a ponderous, rickety affair. How long had he wandered Umbra Morass before finding Reaper’s Fen? How long had he laid in the dirt at the edge of the village before he had been found?
“Well don’t just stand there gawking! Make yourself useful, boy! Come give me a hand with him!” The voice belonged to an elderly halfling man from the village–Anton, wasn’t it? In response, the barkeep came hustling over still dressed in his morning clothes. He threw Ambroys’s left arm over his shoulder and together the pair led the beleaguered man to a tall-backed armchair by the hearth. Despite the heat, Ambroys shivered so violently that the chainmail beneath his tabard rustled. He gripped the chair’s arms until his knuckles went white trying to force order back into his limbs.
While Milton scurried off to find something fortifying, Anton pulled a blanket off the back of another chair and wrapped it around Ambroys’s sopping wet shoulders. Anton’s face was gouged with the furrows of age all twisted in a mask of grave concern beneath a halo of bushy gray hair that ringed his bald head. He rubbed Ambroys’s arms with the blanket trying to get some warmth back into the hulking soldier’s extremities.
Milton returned with a pitcher of water and a glass of whiskey. He laid both on a small table that sat near the chair and took an uncertain step back, openly gaping at the disheveled, mountain of a man. His guileless features flapped between shock and confusion. Ambroys offered a thin smile and nod in thanks before lifting the pitcher and guzzling the cool water within.
“Thank you kindly, Milton. Maybe you’d be good enough to fetch Candle Ozzen. Go on. I’ll keep an eye on this one,” said Anton. He gave Milton a reassuring wink and pulled a halfling-sized stool next to Ambroys. The barkeep bobbed his head and retreated for the door.
Once he had disappeared into the dishwater gray light of the morning, Anton turned back to Ambroys and gesturing to the whiskey said, “Down the hatch, boy. Ain’t nothing in this world that’ll chase off a night in the Morass like a good stiff slug of the Fen’s finest.”
Ambroys lifted the glass to his lips stopping just short. His hand was still shaking. He took a long slow breath and then quaffed the amber liquor. It seared all the way down, but Anton was right. He felt a little better for the burn.
“There’s a good, lad,” said Anton with a smile that spread all the way to his wrinkled eyes. He patted Ambroys on the knee and then pushed himself up off the stool. His joints creaked as he did, but no glimmer of pain showed on the elder’s face. He strode behind the bar and helped himself to the whiskey jug and another glass. Upon returning, Anton filled both their glasses and then settled himself back down on the stool placing the jug on the floor next to him. The pair sipped their drinks in silence.
When at last Ambroys had stopped shaking and the color had begun to creep back into his face, Anton took a long pull from his glass. He ran his tongue over his lips and said, “I turned one hundred and sixty-seven years old last month. I’ve lived in Reaper’s Fen my whole life and, let me tell you, I’ve spent more nights in the Morass than I’ve had hot suppers.”
Ambroys shot him an incredulous look from the corner of his eye. Anton smirked and continued, “It’s true. I’m a trapper by trade you see. Point is I’ve seen things in that swamp that would scare the stripes off a skunk. They used to keep me up at night, them things I’ve seen. That is until I learned that the secret to mastering fear is to name it. Why naming a thing will wring the terror right out of it!”
The halfling leaned close to Ambroys. Ghosts drifted through the hollowness behind Anton’s eyes and Ambroys lost any doubt that what the halfling had said was true.
Anton reached out and laid his knobby knuckled hand on Ambroys’s knee. “You want to try naming the things you saw? You want to try wringing the fear out of ‘em?” The halfling’s hazel eyes were wide and warm.
Ambroys nodded with slow solemnity and swallowed hard. He took a sip of his whiskey and swished it around his mouth before letting it burn its way down his throat. He’d never had a taste for the stuff before but this morning it might as well have been liquid gold.
When he finally spoke, his voice rasped like wind in the desert. “My patrol was already dead when it came,” he said. His eyes glistened in the orange firelight, dancing with ghost all their own. “It swept in from the dark like the wrath of midnight.”
Ambroys’s head was pounding even before his eyes opened. He groaned and tried to raise a hand to the source of the throbbing to find that his wrists were bound together. His eyes peeled open only to screw down tight again as sparks exploded inside his skull. He gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists until the pain dulled.
More carefully, Ambroys inched his eyes apart letting them adapt to the change in light. A bonfire roared next to him and, with the throbbing starting to settle to a dull ache, he could now feel the intense heat of it biting at his cheek. His other senses began to clear. He could hear voices, harsh barking voices mingled with yipping and the occasional raucous howl. They came from all around him attached to lanky shadows that danced in the flickering glow.
There was a smell like roasting beef and sizzling pork fat. No. That was wrong somehow. It smelled more pungent, more rancid, turned but not rotting. It was carried on the smoke and coated his nostrils like fetid grease. Ambroys rolled his shoulder and turned his head to look at the fire trying to make as small a movement as possible lest his captors realize he was again conscious.
His squad mate Berard’s lifeless eyes stared back at Ambroys from atop a roasting spit. Ambroys’s eyes widened and bile raced up his throat. He winced trying to keep the contents of his guts inside. It was too much. Ambroys bolted to his hands and knees and vomited the entirety of his stomach onto the damp soil. A mocking howl erupted from the revelers.
A hand, hairy and strong, gripped Ambroys by his blond locks. It yanked him back onto his heels until his neck arched agonizingly. A lupine face hung above him with a wicked grin.
“What’s wrong, manling?” sneered the creature. His voice was hoarse. His long tongue ran hungrily from one side of his mouth to the other as his one good eye gleamed yellow with amused malice. “You don’t fancy our roast?”
Ambroys glowered back into the creature’s eyes, one golden and the other milky white. Lupekin. Wolfmen. He had been warned about them shortly after reporting to Reaper’s Fen. They roamed in packs hunting any thinking creature they came upon. It was said they were merciless monsters to be eradicated. With the gut-churning reek of Berard’s roasting flesh still clinging in his nostrils, Ambroys tended to agree.
The Lupekin held Ambroys’s cold stare a while longer as his toothsome grin grew cartoonishly wide. A sort of manic glee percolated behind his golden eye. When it reached a boil, he threw his head back and howled to the night. The others joined the hunter’s chorus. Then he threw Ambroys back to the ground and spread his arms as wide as they could stretch. Spinning slowly, he barked at the rest of the pack. The gathered crowd erupted into a cacophony of harsh, yipping laughs. He’s either real pretty or their leader. No one laughs at a one-liner like that unless they are trying to get screwed now or hoping they won’t get screwed later. Something told Ambroys it was not the Lupekin’s looks.
The creature pulled a long knife with a worn bone handle from its sheath at his hip and strode over to the spit. Standing next to Berard’s crackling skin, the wolfman tossed a side-eyed glance at Ambroys who had struggled back to his hands and knees. “Perhaps, you only think that you do not like our roast,” he said as he carved a strip from the dead man’s thigh.
He took a step toward Ambroys. “But how can you know if you’ve never tried,” he said teeth glinting dangerously. He snatched Ambroys’s chin into a vice-like grip and squeezed until the man’s lips were forced open. Ambroys’s eyes went wide as the strip of roasted muscle was dangled before him. He gripped the Lupekin’s wrist with both hands and tried to rip it away. His nails dug into the beast’s reddish gray fur and pulled at the skin beneath, but the Lupekin’s clawed fingers only crushed tighter against his cheeks.
Ambroys howled, hot with fury. He released the Lupekin’s arm and swung hard with his fists catching his foe in the ribs. The creature coughed and dropped Ambroys who scuttled backward as quickly as he was able with bound wrists and ankles.
Before he could get a body length between them the Lupekin was on him. The creature’s hairy fist smashed into Ambroys’s already blackened eye setting off an explosion of fireworks in his skull. Ambroys reeled and tried to swing again despite the disorientation. The Lupekin just knocked his arms away and gripped him again by the jaw. This time the wolf leaned in, climbing on top of Ambroys. The creature panted rank, hot breaths into his face.
“Shh, shh, shhhh. Hush now, pup,” cooed the Lupekin. His grin smeared across his snout and curved up into his yellow eye. “I’ll not have you say Volk kept all the kill to himself.” Ambroys’s howl turned to a muffled scream as his friend’s roasted flesh pushed past his lips.
Ambroys bolted behind the bar and collapsed over a basin. His guts splashed out against the weathered wood in great rolling heaves. There was little but bile and whiskey in him which left an acid burn from the back of his throat all the way down his chest once he was finally able to take a few gasping breaths.
His sides ached right down between the ribs. Jelly-legged, Ambroys pushed himself to his feet. He pulled a napkin from underneath the bar and wiped the vomit from his lips. It left a foul greenish yellow smear on the white rag. He lifted his eyes back to the room to find a crestfallen Milton standing next to Walter Ozzen, Candle of the Vigil. “Sorry,” muttered Ambroys to Milton with a cringe. Both napkin and basin had been recently cleaned.
“What in the hells are you doing?” shouted Ozzen. The dwarf was a full foot and half shorter than Ambroys but stared the taller man down with a pugilistic squint that made Ambroys feel like a guilty little kid. Ozzen chewed on the end of the hand-rolled cigarillo that lived perpetually wedged between his molars. “You’re an Eye of the Vigil, son! Pull yourself together! Now gods damnit!”
Ambroys snapped to attention, eyes fixed into a thousand-yard stare. “Eye Wester reporting from Bywater Patrol Viper, Sentinel Felgrim patrol leader,” he called out at a clip that barely left distinction between each word.
Ozzen eyed him hard for a long breath before giving the younger soldier a curt nod. “That’s better. Now, son, you look rougher than the only whore in a harbor. Take that seat by the fire and you can catch me up on what I missed.”
Ambroys would have sprinted back to the chair if he had not been afraid that Candle would ream him for his lack of poise. Instead, he marched, straight backed as stone like he had been taught in training not so long ago. Sitting on the first third of the chair, still rigidly upright and staring blankly into the fire, he waited as Ozzen pulled over a chair for himself. Ambroys’s pulse drummed as he fought to keep his breathing even. How does he do it? How does that stump of a dwarf make me want to piss myself with just a stare?
Ozzen settled into his chair just at the edge of Ambroys’s peripheral vision. He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, and fingers laced. The firelight poured over his left side leaving the other half of him in deep shadow so that only that eye gleamed out from the dark. He shifted his cigarillo from one side of this mouth to the other. “Alright, son, let’s have it.”
Ambroys reported everything he had told to Anton eyes locked dead on the fire, unfocused and unseeing. His whole body clenched as he tried not to tremble in front of Candle Ozzen. Showing weakness had never succeeded in endearing anyone to the weathered veteran.
“Woah there.” Ozzen lifted a broad hand and brought Ambroy’s report to a pause. He leaned back still watching the younger soldier through his permanent squint and rubbed the clean-shaven edge of his jaw. “That’s one hell of a yarn, son.”
Ambroys felt the Candle’s eyes prodding at him like a child might poke a dead bird to see if it would flinch. He clenched his teeth. I’m not dead yet, you son-of-a-bitch.
Ozzen pushed himself standing and waved Ambroys to stay seated with a perfunctory “as you were”. He sauntered over to Anton chewing his cigarillo like a cow might chew its cud. Then he lifted the whiskey jug and refilled Anton’s cup before walking to the bar. He laid two clean glasses on the varnished wood and poured a few fingers in each. He fished a shining coin from inside his clean, pressed tabard and laid it on the bar with a nod to Milton.
Ambroys was trying not to look down at his hands which had been balled into white knuckled fists when Ozzen held out one of the whiskeys. Ambroys risked a glance up at this commanding officer. Was this a test?
Ozzen took a sip from his own. “Like I said that’s one hell of a yarn, son. And before you get to telling me just how you managed to get yourself out of that particular hell, I would say it is only fitting and proper that we toast the fallen. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Ambroys furrowed his brow. This felt like a test.
The whiskey glass jiggled. “Now, son, are you going to make me toast alone? Seems a might unhospitable seeing as you’ve already had one. That is why I smell alcohol on your breath, isn’t it? You and Anton were honoring the departed.” Ozzen raised an eyebrow and miraculously managed to keep squinting.
Ambroys’s saliva went to glue again. Swallowing the sealant, he took the proffered glass and stood up as did Anton. The three held their cups aloft and Ozzen said, “To the fallen. Rest well. Though your vigil is done, our watch goes on.”
Ozzen licked the whiskey off his lips and gave a look of almost begrudging approval towards his glass. Then he seated himself back down in his chair and leaned forward again, fingers wrapped around his cup. He gestured for Ambroys to take his seat. “Alright, son. So how did you make it out?”
The evening’s revelry had tapered off. The dancing was done, and the fire had burned low with what was left of Berard’s bones charred among the embers. The Lupekin lounged in slung hammocks clustered around the few trees that grew from the small isle in the black water of Umbra Morass. Only a pair of the wolfmen remained at the fire. One of them only had his left ear and the other has a scar that had cleft his lips revealing one snaggletooth. They sat across from Ambroys talking together in their low gruff voices and sharing what smelled like moonshine from a skin. The wetness of it gave a rapacious shine to their thin lips. Here and there, their eyes would rove lecherously over Ambroys making his skin crawl.
He blinked away the discomfort. The throbbing in his head had finally begun to subside allowing his mind to clear for the first time. He was not about to waste this window before his growing dehydration muddled his thoughts again. Focus. Those are the guards. The others will be asleep soon, leaving only these two to content with.
Ambroys stole a side glance at the pair trying to size them up. He knew their type. Overconfident and lax. They would lose interest and doze not too long after the others were snoring with the frogs. One of the Lupekin passed the skin to the other as he stifled a yawn. Ambroys fought his own wolfish grin. Soldiers were soldiers no matter the army and he had seen this type of soldier before. Hells he had nearly been like them, would have been like them if Ozzen, the old bear, hadn’t beaten discipline into him. This would be too easy.
The night waxed on. The moon was full, but the sky was clouded over allowing only the intermittent beam of moonlight to pierce the swamp’s viscous gloom. Ambroys swatted a mosquito on the sweat soaked nape of his neck and grumbled to himself. The crooks of his elbows were burning with bites and he had lost ten pounds in sweat to the sauna heat that still blanketed the Morass. What sweat he lost, his clothing found and chaffed his sodden flesh. Worse, his headache was back. What a hell hole.
How did they stand it? He glanced warily around the camp. At the edge of the firelight, a dozen or so Lupekin snored free of all consternation in their hammocks. One yipped quietly in his sleep, like a dog dreaming of the chase. Ambroys’s lip curled into a snarl, his mind a nebulous mass of murderous wishes.
At least the other two are coming along. The Lupekin guards had nearly finished their skin and were looking bleary-eyed. Their speech grew slurred and was punctuated by yawns of increasing frequency. Soon. It’s almost time.
The thought no sooner entered Ambroys’s mind than one of the guards, Snaggletooth, stood. He patted his companion on the shoulder and barked something in their tongue as he made a motion toward the Morass with his snout. Then he shuffled off, already laboring to unlace his trouser fly as he stepped beyond the edge of the light and into the inky shadows. He did not return.
Ambroys noticed the unusual length of the Snaggletooth’s absence before Left Ear. Ha! Bastard probably passed out in the slough and drowned! A smirk spread across his face as a painfully slow look of concern blossomed on Left Ear’s drunken features. The wolfman staggered to his feet, paused to steady himself and then stumbled off in the direction of Snaggletooth without so much as a glance back at Ambroys laying quietly on the other side of the fire.
Now! Ambroys pulled his knees to his chest and began tugging at the knots that bound the thick hemp cordage around his legs. Shit! It’s no use. Sodden with sweat and swamp water, the rope had swelled so that there was no longer any space between strand and bight. His bindings were stuck fast and would have to be cut off. He pushed himself to his knees and spun his gaze around the camp, hunting for something, anything with a cutting edge. The Lupekin slept in their clothes with their knives on their belts. He could not risk waking up the camp by struggling for one of those.
Damn! He was running out of time. Any second now, Left Ear would either come back or call out and wake the whole damn pack. Ambroys’s pulse roared in his ears and sweat ran in rivers down his face stinging his eyes all while his pounding headache crushed inside his skull. He wanted to scream.
There! At the edge of the camp, under one of the hammocks, jutted a thin rock worn sharp by time and chance. Oh, Ruvest, you beautiful, armored bastard! I swear I’ll light a candle at your shrine for this! Ambroys wriggled his way toward the rock with all the speed his could risk. Furiously, he rasped the rope across the sawing, stone edge. The sodden strands began to split. Ambroys rubbed faster trying desperately not to pant for fear that it would rouse the snoring Lupekin that slumbered inches from his head.
The final strand snapped, freeing his ankles. Ambroys could have shouted for joy but, before he could even climb to his feet, a scream arose from the blackness of the Morass and was suddenly silenced. Ambroys dropped to the fetal position and pretended to have been asleep as the rest of camp jerked into instant alertness. As the pack scrambled from their hammocks, the Lupekin above Ambroys dropped down on top of him, stumbled to regain her balance, and then kicked him as she swore.
Volk took charge of the rabble. With a few short barks, he sent two of the wolfmen to investigate the scream and the others he set in circle around the camp. Blades were drawn, ears twitched, and more than one among them sniffed the air. The swamp hung thick with coiled tension as they waited long dragging seconds for some report or sign from the hunters.
Ambroys wormed his way toward the edge of the firelight, trying to keep his ankles together and praying that no one noticed they were no longer bound. He made creeping progress heading for the swamp in the opposite direction of scream. As he reached the limit of where he could slink without the aid of a distraction, he paused, forced his breathing to slow, and waited. The returning hunters would draw the pack’s attention long enough for him to slink off into the night. He just had to be patient a moment longer.
A severed Lupekin head arced up out of the gloom and over Ambroys. It hit the ground and rolled to a stop near the fire, its dead eyes staring back at him. His own eyes widened. It had been one of the hunters. As one, the pack had turned to watch the head fly in from the dark and come to rest in their midst. A rumble of panic rolled through the mob. Eyes that showed too much white to feign aplomb swiveled from the severed head to Volk.
Volk licked his snout and cast an appraising look around the pack. His grip tightened on the worn bone handle of his own notched blade. As he lifted it to point at the gathered pack and speak, a bloodcurdling scream split the stagnant night air. Ambroys snapped his head toward the source just in time to see the Lupekin who had stepped on him pulled off her feet and sucked into the impenetrable darkness beyond the firelight. Her cry was cut short by a gurgle and flecks of blood spattered the soil just inside the ring of light.
With a collective enraged howl, the Lupekin pack charged towards their fallen comrade and into the hungry darkness. As they surged in one direction, Ambroys leapt to his feet and sprinted in the other.
“Hold up now, son,” said Ozzen massaging the bridge of his nose. “Let me see if I can get this straight. You are telling me that something killed five Lupekin warriors, the very same Lupekin warriors that slaughtered your patrol, and did that without showing itself and without making hardly a sound?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys, his face a mask.
Ozzen nodded thoughtfully and leaned toward the fire to finally light his cigarillo from a taper. Though the dwarf was rarely caught without a one clenched between his molars, Ambroys had never seen him actually smoke. It was a change in the seasoned veteran, a foreign wind. The young soldier tensed all the muscles in his body to keep from squirming in his seat.
Candle Ozzen eased himself back into the chair and took a few contemplative puffs, his arms crossed. “And you say, you never caught a glimpse of it? Never heard a splash or a rustle or gust of wind?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys. He fought to bite back his irritation. Of course, he hadn’t seen or heard anything! He had already said as much. Why make him repeat himself?
“Boy, I’ve seen a lot of things in that there Morass. I saw me a flock of harpies once. I even saw a stink ape wrestle a bear but I ain’t never seen no swamp demon like that,” said Anton eyeing Ambroys over his whiskey.
They don’t believe me. The realization struck him hard in the ribs. He did not know what to say.
Ambroys’s surprise must have leaked onto his face because Ozzen leaned forward looking Ambroys over with his perpetual squint. “Way back–must have been seventy-five years ago now–I had just had my first Eye stitched on.” He pointed to the single golden eye insignia embroidered on the shoulder of Ambroys’s ravaged tabard. “I was stationed with the Marsh Hawks just outside of Window, green as new grass. One day my squad and I are on a routine sweep for smuggler’s caches along the coast. We should have been paying more attention, but the littoral patrol boats had already reported clear and it was a hot, sticky day of slogging through the mud when we knew we wouldn’t find a damn thing. What we didn’t count on was a gang of smugglers out of Risen Crest had paid off the patrol boat skipper for the day. Me and my whole squad stumbled right into them.”
Ozzen took a long pull on his cigarillo and swirled his whiskey. “We were completely surprised. I got hit hard on the head and went down early in the skirmish. When I came to my whole squad was wiped out and the smugglers were gone. Now I struggled with the guilt of that for a long time. Hells, it still churns my gut to think that they’re all dead while I’m not.” He took a swallow of his drink before continuing.
“Son, the point is you’ve been through hell. Someone only has to look at you to see that. It’s natural to feel guilty for surviving when your friends didn’t but no one would blame you for living.”
“Sir, I’m not lying-”
“No one is accusing you of that, son,” cut in Ozzen. The dwarf wore a sad smile that he probably thought looked comforting. In the shifting slick of firelight shadows, it just looked grim. “All I’m saying is that grief does funny things to us all. It can… blur the details, warp them out of proportion.”
Ambroys’s mouth hung open. They think I’m losing it, cracking at the edges. They think I’ve been through too much and my mind is warping reality to deal with the guilt. “I–I–,” stammered Ambroys grasping for some response.
“Maybe it ain’t one devil,” said Anton looking as helpful as a man selling prayer books door to door. “Maybe it was a whole mess of them. You know, the Grimwood tribe might’ve done this! Now there’s a group of goblins with a flair for the dramatic. Why I once saw them use flash powders and burning oil to drive a terror bird into a trap. If they were trying to drive out a pack of Lupekin they might do something like that to make sure fear keeps the mutts gone. Why I wager that’s exactly what happened,” he said slapping his knee and beaming at the others with a creamy smile.
Ozzen shook his head. “I don’t see it. I have nothing but respect for the Grimwood people. Savages though they may be, they do indeed have a way with theatrics. However, I find it hard to believe that a band of goblin primitives would be able to accomplish such a mission against a Lupekin pack that slaughtered eighteen trained Vigil soldiers.
“Well now, Candle, you just might be an expert in war and tactics and such. And you ain’t no stranger to the Morass. But I think you are giving them goblins short shrift,” said Anton. “I have been wandering the Morass since I was a sprout tagging along after my Papi. Them gobbies have more tricks than a squirrel in a nut house. Why once when I was trapping along the Bywater–”
“It wasn’t goblins, Grimwood tribe or any other,” interrupted Ambroys, frustration giving his words more bite than intended. Then turning to Ozzen, he continued, “Sir, it was one creature. I know that is hard to believe but it’s true.”
“Son, I know–,” started Ozzen.
“Sir, I’m not confused. I know what it was because I saw it,” said Ambroys. His face was flush, and the fire danced in his eyes.
“But you said that you didn’t see the creature,” said Ozzen leaning in. His natural squint narrowed until his eyes looked nearly shut.
Ambroys stared back eyes locked unflinchingly with his superior. “I said I didn’t see it then. It was later while I was running through the swamp.”
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.
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.
Ozzen let out a long, low whistle and Anton erupted into a fit of laughter so convulsive that he spilled his drink all over himself. Ambroys grit his teeth and glared at the elderly halfling.
“Scrap Knight! Ha! That’s a good one!” said Anton still seizing with peals of laughter. “Next you’ll be telling me that Crot guided you from the Morass himself! Does Ruvest tuck you in at night too, boy?” The halfling tried to struggle out a few more words but they were eclipsed by his side-splitting guffaws.
“I’m glad you find this all so amusing,” growled Ambroys.
“Well, Son, you do have to admit that it’s one hell of a yarn,” said Ozzen. The Candle’s brow was furrowed. He took a long draw off his cigarillo and blew slow deliberate smoke rings. “Sometimes I forget just how young you new recruits can be,” he said more to himself than to the others.
“Excuse me, sir?” said Ambroys taken aback.
“Boy, the Scrap Knight ain’t nothing but a legend,” said Anton wiping his eyes. “He’s the boogeyman of the bog, the story we tell sprouts to keep them from wandering into the Morass. ‘Don’t go in the swamp or the Scrap Knight will get you,’ that sort of thing. But he ain’t real.”
Ambroys stayed focused on Candle Ozzen. “Sir, I’m not from Reaper’s Fen. I don’t know what the hell a Scrap Knight is, but I know what I saw.”
Ozzen held his young soldier’s stare so long that Ambroys thought he could almost count the cogs as the gears turned behind the officer’s eyes. He didn’t give a rat’s ass if Anton believed him but Ozzen was his commanding officer. If Candle didn’t believe him, then his credibility in the Vigil was shot. His career would be over before it really began. Worse, folks would start to wonder why he had lied. They’d whisper. At best they would say he was nuts or maybe a coward. At worst, they’d say he was a traitor. Just the thought made the vein in his temple throb. No, Ozzen was a good man. He’d see the truth.
Candle Ozzen ran a thick hand over his broad jawline. With a sigh, he plucked the stub of the cigarillo from his lips and chucked it into the fire. Then he patted his knees and stood. “I think this has been a long morning for you, son. Let’s get you back to the barracks, let the medic take a look at your scrapes, and get you some rest. We can go over all this again tomorrow.”
Ambroys did not move. He stared coolly back at the Candle and said, “Sir, I’m telling the truth.”
“No one’s calling you a liar,” he said with a kind of put-upon patience. “Let’s go.”
Ambroys remained seated.
Ozzen planted his feet and pulled another cigarillo from an interior pocket. He jabbed it between his molars and said, “Son, I am trying to help you right now, but you are testing my patience.”
“Candle, I am not asking for your help. I am asking for you to listen to me,” said Ambroys jumping to his feet. “I saw what I said I saw, and I’ve got the proof!” He reached into his tattered tunic and withdrew a rag doll, soiled with straw poking from the seams. He brandished it at the two of them like a talisman.
The cigarillo fell to the barroom floor as Ozzen’s mouth fell open. Anton choked off his chuckles. “Well fuck me running,” he said. The color drained from his wrinkled face. “The Scrap Knight is real!”
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