Wetlands: Chapter Three

The journey back to the bunkhouse had been far shorter than that of to the temple for Es’Con, but of course, on his return, he had no concern for stealth. Vilni and his boys could likely have seen him coming down the street for the better part of five minutes before he reached them at his slogging pace. The seasoned hunter gave him a look of concern but was waved off as Es’Con entered the bunkhouse, muttering about finally being tired. And, for what it was worth to a man who felt far above lies, Es’Con was truly bone-weary after all that had settled in on his mind. The devastation, the terrible truth of it all, sapped every ounce of strength from him as though he had gone down into the Wetlands alone, without a dragonfly, and returned with the woman on his back. As he rolled into his bed, Es’Con found himself staring into the dark, wondering more and more about that woman, now little more than an unfortunate experiment for the elders, with her baby in tow.

They were people. They were not insignificant creatures that could be poked and prodded and made to do what was necessary to confirm or deny any hypothesis the elders could have. Not only were they being toyed with beyond their control, but Es’Con couldn’t be confident the woman had even woken up once since her removal from the pond. She and her baby could be getting tested on and played with in a way she may never remember, and who knows what the effects would be. Yet, then Es’Con came to an even more damning if not heart-wrenching reality. His hands were not unstained from this scheme, and he too, held some responsibility for what was happening. Had he not gone with Thau to retrieve this woman, they may have found another, but just as possible, they could have decided against the experiment, and that was what burnt Es’Con up the worst. There had to be something he could do if only he would realize just what that action might be. Even telling the rest of the hunters would be one act of defiance, but that would need to wait for the morning to come. Rallying up Vilni and his men was an idea and likely the only proper way to get the woman free of the elders and expose their treachery.

Seeing his path to redemption and the salvation of the innocent woman and child, Es’Con was quick to pull himself from bed. He hurried for the door but ran headlong into a physical barrier erected in the hall just before the entrance. There had been no such thing in his way just half an hour prior upon his return and nor should there have been, but then Es’Con made out a vaguely humanoid outline in the pitch. It was possible another hunter was up and going to relieve himself, or one of Vilni’s crew had slipped in, unnoticed by Es’Con so lost in thought. Muttering an apology, Es’Con tried to stand but quickly found the floor rushing up to meet the back of his head again.

This time, as his skull impacted the ground, Es’Con was made a bit dazed and delirious from the sudden power exerted. Again he tried, far more lamely now, to pull himself up but found the task unnecessary as he was hauled to his feet by two pairs of calloused hands. One let him loose, allowing the other to catch him, but that second shadow had not done so simply to relieve his own burden. With quick fingers, the free pair of hands tied a gag around Es’Con’s mouth before striking the hunter’s skull with a powerful blow. The punch didn’t quite put him out, but Es’Con struggled to open his eyes against the pain and certainly couldn’t keep his vision straight when he did. He felt a pressure on his neck, and then the two assailants were leading him off, to where Es’Con could only guess.

After what felt like an hour of being dragged around in the night air, Es’Con felt stone underfoot before being cast onto it. Coming only a few minutes later was an icy splash of water that washed down his face and sloshed away the grogginess that had taken over the hunter’s mind. Looking up, through a headache that made his eyes feel like they would burst, Es’Con found the bearded visage of Hamah, the balded cranium of Nemek, and the gaunt features of Quway staring down at him. Eyeing his surroundings just a bit more, Es’Con confirmed he was in the temple before digging his face into the stonework floor. He felt foolish to have trusted Quway to let him off with a warning but more so for not having told Vilni and his boys when he had a chance. Now that he had slipped up and knew more than he should, death was sure to come.

“Hunter Es’Con, a pleasure to see you at this wee hour of the night. Perhaps you could tell us what brings you to our fair temple,” Nemek asked, feigning ignorance quite well.
Hamah shuffled over and slid a chair from the wall for Es’Con, “Yes, I think we would all like to know why a hunter would come to the temple beyond service hours, utterly unannounced.”
“Can we get on with this? He’s not stupid, and there’s no point in wasting time with talk,” Quway rebuffed, a touch of irritation to his tone.
Glaring up at the elder, Es’Con interjected, “Yes, I know why I am here. I know what you know, and that means I can’t be trusted to live until sunrise. Who knows who I will tell and better to wonder if I haven’t already.”
“Chalm if you would restrain our friend,” Hamah asked one burly servant, undoubtedly the same that had helped to bring Es’Con to the temple. As the man hauled the hunter up and tossed him into the chair, it was revealed to Es’Con that among the three elders and their servants, the captured woman was in attendance.

She sat up, slightly favoring her right side, but her eyes did not meet Es’Con’s. In fact, she hardly seemed concerned with the dealings carrying on just paces away. Despite the woman having not a single thought for him, Es’Con couldn’t help but fix all of his attention on her. Her flesh was no longer the paler, algae green it had been when pulled from the pool, but neither was she a full, earthy green as Es’Con or any of the others. Her bedraggled appearance was complete with not only snarled and matted hair, but a roughly let-out dress that looked to be the same material potatoes would be bagged in. There was a conspicuous absence to the woman. What it was, Es’Con could see of her face gave the impression of a hollow, ceramic doll. Everything about the girl mimicked life but did not factual represent someone alive. Finally, after staring at the captive for so long, Es’Con was brought back around as the elders ceased muttering among themselves.

A dagger the length of an index finger was slid from the altar, its edge set to a row of burning candles. Thin rivulets of creamy wax fell from the blade as Hamah crossed from the pulpit to the chair Es’Con sat in. Chalm’s calloused and filthy hands gripped his shoulders, forcing the hunter not only down but rendering him unable to move. Another servant’s hand came in beneath Chalm’s and clutched Es’Con’s cheeks, pinching them as the other hand pulled down on his jaw. Casually, as though trimming a flower, Hamah reached his fingers into Es’Con’s mouth, plucked his tongue between index and middle fingers, drew it past the teeth, and sliced the piece of flesh free with one quick motion.

Everyone fell away in the aftermath of the ritual, Chalm and his associate stood only paces away to protect their masters, but Hamah retreated entirely to stand beside Nemek. Es’Con spasmed on the floor, blood pouring like rainwater off a roof from his lips as he fought to make some intelligible curse. He was becoming light-headed in a hurry and felt the blackness of unconsciousness coming in with unexpected fervor. In his last moments of wakefulness, Es’Con watched Hamah carelessly toss the tongue onto the altar, near enough to flame for it to slowly singe. Half swallowing and half projecting the blood in his throat, Es’Con howled out one great bellowing shriek before collapsing just before the pulpit. Having finished with the potential traitor, the elders dismissed their servants and adjured to their quarters for the remainder of the evening.

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