Of Devils: One

The haggard driftwood canoe sloshed through poisoned waters and the plant life that fed on such fare. For days and nights, Kovarlin could recount his life upon the sea until, unlike such days, his floating tomb ran aground. Overhead, fixed in his views, the stars shimmered and cried their last smarting radiance of the night. Dawn was pressing but proceeding the western inferno was that malignant star of providence called upon by the great lurker who called upon him.

The star of hope, of love, of bravery, and truth was, in fact, to this creature and its followers, the star of blood. It was with the arrival of the slow-in-coming but hastily retreating celestial trail that the bargain was struck. In that glare, so far flung from Verillia, so microscopic now but soon to be all-encompassing, there hung the opportunity for reunion. When he thought on the matter for even a second, Kovarlin couldn’t help but find the duality humorous; for himself, reunion with his love lost, for his master, rebirth into flesh undone long ago.

With a stretch, Kovarlin rocked and nearly toppled the boat over on top himself, but balance maintained. Had he dumped himself into the swampy marshlands that punctuated what his master had called the Strait of Shai’Tun, he couldn’t figure what effect it would have. It was made clear to him the water that lazily danced through the channel was not potable, but not why. Looking at the rushes that bloomed and blossomed by the shore, he could imagine it would do him no good.

Not unlike the dismal tide that washed him from the south shore to here, the plants did not look well or of Verillia. All too many of them were veined and twisted in horrid patterns like the shadows cast in dream. In a glance, Kovarlin could see a variety of life, not a single piece of which might have given way to any means of edibility. A gory bushel of flowers cropped up near the bow of the boat. Though only one bud was open, all that was produced from this plant looked like shuttered eyes, the foremost winking open and shut as a perfect example of their strange nature.

Lugging himself out of the boat took effort, not only fighting his cloak, which had somehow twisted in transit despite laying utterly still but because of the stiffness that overcame his every muscle. As he fought to untether the rough cloth that had lined the boat from where it must have hardened in with spilt blood, Kovarlin deposited himself on the shore tail first. Again he lay, staring at a twilight sky, only now less taken by the stars and more concerned if the shredding sounds echoed from within the boat was the cloth or some aspect of his flesh. Worse still, it could have just as easily been another icon of his master.

Carefully, he padded himself up the shore like a drunk crab missing a pair of his scuttling legs. Had it been Pai’gen, he would have made himself known, and if it were injury, it too would be now apparent. He lay for a time on the damp earth, a reek of copper and rot wafting up from the silt and weed-infested waste of the Lifeless Grounds. Too much had passed in his time for the filth to penetrate his shield and force illness, but that restraint did not prevent the pang of wretchedness that racked his stomach again.

Pulling himself to the edge of the strait, Kovarlin allowed the last of his rations, spoiled and molding, to pour out and into the clouded mire below. The trail of vibrant orange stomach acid broke the dark monotony of the current for all of a moment. As he lingered at the lip, Kovarlin looked upon himself for the first time since his dalliances on the Cuthearn Islands. Not much had changed. A few more scars marred his fur, and his eyes, though radiant and amber, were a touch more tired and weary. In places, his fur was beginning to look just as worn as his eyes, the sooty black of it dulling and becoming less lustrous. The distorted image of himself forced him away from the water more so than the waiting critters that scuttled and swam just at the edge of the murk.

Every bit of him refused to continue on toward the sunk temple; still, Kovarlin forced vigor into his flesh and bones. He had come too far, across several nations, through kingdoms and warring tribes, and had seen and been the cause of too many deaths. To surrender now after such sacrifice, to fold his cards and forget how fate had robbed him, and to let it all go without concern, was not an option. Against his body’s will, he plotted on, following the bloody star’s path as it drew ever near towards Verillia.

He thought it should not have been visible any longer, at least not in the sky as it became day. From any other land, it would have faded into the morning’s misting ethers only for those too to fade into the long golden days. Yet above him, the star seemed only to light more, growing fervent and fevered as one who might give way to its master came ever closer to his goal.

This point of reunion was still in the distance, though Kovarlin could not see it even with his enhanced vision. Midway across the strait, he had felt a haze growing not only over the land but over his senses. As the miasma of decay struck him, coating his nostrils and stinging like rotted flesh in his mouth, his mind waned with a cloudiness. Proceeding further inland net only a worsening of this shrouded state until the drifting mists, growing from a pale to wine, blotted out nearly all but an arm’s length around him. One wrong footfall could have landed him in a chasm or trap, the point driven home to Kovarlin as his half-shod foot stomped onto a moist protrusion of flesh.

Not yet pained but certainly concerned, the puma lifted his foot cautiously only to find the remains of a minuscule creature. The shape was compromised by the impact, but the curling antennae and slightly intact face declared it a slug. Though the critter was itself something of these marshy lands, granite and cobalt in color with bulging black eyes, it proved to be of little consequence. That was until a murmur bubbled and popped from the faint puddle of inky blood left behind.

“Huntsmen. Huntsmen, I know it’s you there.”

Though decorum would have demanded he bow, Kovarlin didn’t want to sodden his already ruined attire, “Yes, master Goredrinker.”

“Give us an offering, a little taste to commemorate how far we’ve come.”

He clutched his paws tight, glaring at the puddle that vibrated with an uncanny quality. At times it was as liquid shaking in bottles amid the tumult of a tropical storm. Other times, it seemed as though the fluid was taking shape, forming a face, unlike anything that crawled or climbed through Verillia in this age. Beating back his urgings towards defiance, Kovarlin stepped to the dull pool and held out a paw. The glassy shard of obsidian crossed his palm pad and allowed brilliant crimson to dribble into the inky clots the slug had left behind.

“Yes, there we are. You’ve done well, Huntsmen, not much further now from Chreyn’ Lune.”

“How will I know it?”

The shape, like an eye reflected in amber, poised its gaze on the puma, “None could miss the great shaft. The ceremonial mound will serve as entrance to one with your skill, with the touch inside.”

Kovarlin returned to his route, accepting the information he could glean from the voice running through the putrescent blood. Yet, before he could make it more than a few paces from the site of the dead slug, agony, an internal fissure, dropped him to his knees. Within, the blood was surging, spiking, attacking its host. There was no way of knowing if it were merely a means of reigning him in or something more malicious.

From the Darkstalker, the elk in the north who once called himself Yerra Imfay, Kovarlin had learned much of these tricks. He had not been shy in telling that their shared master could shred a man inside out while keeping him alive to experience every painful moment. Kovarlin wouldn’t assume the Goredrinker had decided to terminate their contract; neither side had fulfilled their end nor broken terms. What did irk him was the secondary notion. Could it be that tainted blood that ran through his veins had turned to the tide of change?

“I haven’t time for your insubordination, Huntsmen. You are free to depart when dismissed, not on your own accord.”

Gritting his teeth against the unbearable brutalization of his organs, Kovarlin couldn’t utter a word in response. He wouldn’t have fought. Time enough had passed for him to act against his master’s wishes were he inclined. However, were this an attempt at possession, turning the flesh of a mortal into that of a devil, the puma would stop at nothing to resist. Instead, the sensation ebbed, and he could feel his insides knitting together once more. The blood itself would have been siphoned back into the ruptured arteries, and the only memory of the event would be in Kovarlin’s suffering.

Turning, still on his knees, Kovarlin groveled in the direction of the puddle. He would not waste breath on apologies or cries for mercy; the Goredrinker needed only the show of submission. After a long pause, Kovarlin rose to view his master through the portal only to find that life-giving fluid from the slug to be as desolate as the body. The puppet had been discarded by the master, and he was left to wander deeper into the mysterious, uninhabited lands of a cursed deity.

War raged in the world beyond the Lifeless Grounds, its threat null to Kovarlin, yet in this boggy forgotten place, all felt hostile to the stranger. Kovarlin forced himself to stand again, his eyes catching a glimpse of the tarnished ring that had been scorched into the final length of his tail. The meaning of such a marker was long lost, not unlike the age of his master, yet, with the revival of one came the other. There was little time left to think. Kovarlin had only to do what was bidden of him and, upon completion, forget this nightmare of walking sleep.

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