Of Mortals: Chapter Twenty-four

“That’s another three more, Moqura, but the lances and lives lost… How much longer do you think they’re going to persist?” Allaren asked, not sure if even the highest commanding field officer had the answer.
Defaulting to Jaium on that, Derius doubled down on the question, “Yes, Jaium, you said how many of those things attacked you and the others in that camp?”
“I didn’t have time to take a headcount. All I know is that we can’t let any of them escape. These things seem to be of the Goredrinker’s lineage. They curse travelers with their blood and bite. If we allow them to take too many of our own, then we will be fighting a war by which our numbers deplete while theirs are unchanged. The lynx and those other northerners say as much at least,” Jaium remarked in a quiet voice that could have been simply to himself. As Derius Moqura and the others carried on with their talk after engaging the ferals once more, Jaium fell away. He hadn’t wanted to express his concerns, and perhaps he shouldn’t have, but they stuck with him ever since that first encounter with the beasts once returned to Roya.

There had been so many of them; they were like a river of flesh and fur that ran directly up the slope to the main gates of Roya, only to crash against that age-worn iron. For hours they howled and growled and hissed and cried at the gates before being driven off by the dumping of cauldrons filled with boil oils and some of blessed mountain waters. Jaium needed only to be on the wall for a few moments before his eyes set on one in the throng. And as his eyes passed over that wolf, one who had lost an ear and nearly the eye when being mauled by those things he now lurked about, the man’s stomach twisted in ways he never thought possible. Sure, Jaium had been certain Sothoh had succumbed to the creatures, and perhaps he even thought he may have been devoured by one particularly keen and starved beast, but he’d never have guessed his near-brother could have become one of them. But of course, that hard-drinking lynx LaRoue had told him about as much was possible.

Along with a good deal of the other refugees, LaRoue and the cub he was made to look after wound up on the doorstep of Roya. Had it not been for Jaium, the chief would not have permitted them entry even had they gem enough to fill the topless towers of Roya. On the warrior’s word, Chief Atlai allowed the group, far less than Jaium had last seen them, to enter as temporary guests to the kingdom. Had Jaium known what he did now, that the group had split and half had gone to Seras while the other half to Roya, he likely would not have given his word to Atlai on the matter. However, he assumed the lynx were smart enough to keep their muzzles shut about it unless they wanted to see Jaium booted out into the wild with their caravan leading the way. In truth, had Atlai known that the night following the nomads’ arrival there would be the altercations at the gate, he would have turned them away. All the same, the refugees were set up in Roya, near the entrance between the valley and forward barracks, as temporary a home as possible.

After they had established themselves, the outsiders began mingling albeit slowly with the Royans, trying to make the best of this awful situation. It was from these often guarded but sometimes friendly communications that Jaium, with Derius Moqura and Chief Atlai, were bombarded with more information on the beasts than they had thought any living person could have collected. Of course, every word of it came from LaRoue, but not all of the experiences were his individually. The ex-sailor had seen a lot of things in his life and heard far more tales than he told, though that wasn’t wholly obvious in how quick he was to regal them with useless anecdotes about this and that yet what he had learned of the ferals was something else entirely. He had seen them attack villages, watched a man be picked dry to nothing but gnawed bones by one bestial cougar, and even witnessed the curse surge through his own sister and her husband. Those who had seen worse were quick to swap stories with him, but the most intriguing tales came from those who hardly could talk of them. There had been one man, his leg severed at the knee, who went on endlessly about the ways of the beasts and how calculated their strikes were. Another, his arm a mass of bite marks and loose chunks, spoke of the terror and illness that had seized him since his encounter with one of the monsters. The latter would later be found in the bunkhouse, fully turned with only one man surviving the late-night attack that came after the transformation.

LaRoue recounted that man’s story in vivid detail, on how the change happened and every horrid detail. According to this man, Skymur, was his name according to LaRoue, the process was not fast and seemingly something that came in phases. It had started with convulsing and a grinding of teeth; that noise was what woke Skymur. Next, the man had thrown himself from the upper bunk and began to seizure on the cold floorboards, his body contorting out of control. The third phase almost made Skymur scream but had he done so, the beast would have noticed him all the sooner. His limbs began to extend with the sound of snapping tree limbs in a fire. A cloud of red mist filled the air, and before Skymur knew it, the man in the bunk below him was hauled from the bed and shredded with new claws the beast bolstered. Then the back snapped, the limbs turned about, and the muzzle lengthened, the transformation nearly complete with the consumption of that sleeping man. Again crimson leaked from the creature, this time to pool in a dense oozy ocean. He leapt again on the other low man, that one had just woken, and as he did, the shriek he let out called others in. With the second man, the beast’s body widened, its musculature sharpened, and its once conscious eyes went blank like that of an animal.

A team of men with axes and torched poured into the bunkhouse as the final phase past in one last sickening twist of flesh and grinding of bone. The first few into the room quickly fell back, realizing what they were looking at. As the creature readied to pounce, Skymur dropped off his bunk, knees and elbows, impacting with the neck and skull of the monster. The attack was barely a pinprick to the creature, and he would have been a third meal for it had the act not caused a sizeable distraction. The rescue party buried an ax in the feral’s skull, taking out an eye before dragging Skymur from the room. The monster barely reacted but backed away from the flames as others stabbed at it with their torches. As it reached the far side of the bunkhouse, one man hurled a torch at the beds, setting them ablaze and the rest of the house in tow as another tossed an accelerant onto the fire. The entire place went up in smoke, the creature with it as the rescue team surrounded the house watching for its escape. What troubled Skymur most was that wretched sound that the beast let loose as the flames consumed it and the building fell in on itself. It was like the wailing of an infant, the screech of an animal on the attack, the death rattle of an ancient soul, and in the end, it was what drove Skymur to take his own life. LaRoue argued it was more likely his guilt, but he wasn’t one to judge another for their choice, but it was not as though any of them present were about to take stock of the man’s drinking; he had his reasons as well.

Jaium wanted to punch the lynx when he saw him after returning from outside. It wasn’t his fault; he didn’t even feel slighted that this man, a guest, wasn’t doing his best to help his hosts defend their land. It was for all the light he shed on the situation. Knowing what Skymur saw had happened to others, that Sothoh had gone through that process, sickened Jaium. Worse still, he couldn’t stand the fact that among all those congregated before the gates of Roya, amid the first incursion and this most recent one, he had seen him. And again, just as then, Jaium had his shot and missed in the taking of his now corrupted friend. It was not that he could not do it, very much the opposite, he couldn’t live knowing his friend suffered so, but something in him bucked whenever it came to that moment. Three spears had whizzed past the wolf, and once the fourth was in paw, he was gone. Worse still, Jaium couldn’t bring himself to share with the others the fate of their friend.

Though he couldn’t tell Derius or Atlai that Sothoh, a trusted warrior well past due for promotion to a far less active role, had fallen and become one of the horde, he had at least informed them of his demise. Seeing how things stood, Jaium thought it best to insist that the wound that brought Sothoh down was one that he could not have come back from and would not permit him to be changed into one of the bestial things. He had gone so far as to assure them the priestess of the northern people confirmed that much with him before he departed the group. Yet, he made sure to visit the wise women of Roya and pay proper tribute so that they may say prayers to protect Sothoh’s soul. From what he could tell, either their chants had not worked, or the monsters operated without souls. That notion sat far better with Jaium than the possibility his friend was still within that cage of flesh. To know Sothoh’s body may remain on the earth to be puppeteered by Goredrinker was one thing, but to think he might be within, suffering all the while, was a thing apart. Before he could pass the lynx, Jaium broke from his thoughts, hoping to see the man shed a bit more light on the nature of the beasts.

“LaRoue, I need to know more about the creature,” Jaium spoke, unprovoked and much to the surprise of the lynx.
He wasn’t much used to any wolf calling on him unprovoked, but saw Jaium as something of an acquiescence, “Gladly, Jaium, yet, it’s gonna hav’a wait,” he indicated his young niece who was hiding, very poorly, behind the wheel of a wagon. With a smile that would almost convince the wolf nothing was wrong, he continued, “Ya see, I gots to find lil’ miss Greshalin. Seems she gon’ off’nd I swear my eyes ain’t not’n what they used to be. You ain’t seen her ’round here none, have ya? Lil, one, white-gray fur, loves to cause her uncle headaches and smellin’ like a riva’ trout left out on the bank too long in the middl’a Summa’.”
“Uncle Roue!” the girl said with a pout to her voice, stomping her foot with all the indignity a grown woman might show.
He chuckled deep and heartily, “Now child ya’ know ya’ uncle is just makin’ his jokes. Ya’ll smell fresh as the first lilac of Spring. Now, go on, play with the other lil’ ones, ya’ uncle got business to tend to. Won’t be long, so don’t go off gettin’ lost no wheres.”
Once the young lynx had gotten out of earshot, LaRoue’s demeanor changed entirely, “Now, what ya’ gotta ask me ’bout them devils for again?”

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