*Visceral Certainty (Part 3)

Written by Alex Gyftogiannis --- Art by J. D. Wiley

. . . Read Part 2 . . .

Kavel backpedaled, fighting for air as the reanimated corpse of a beautiful woman squeezed her bloody hands around his neck. Two more ravishing maidens clung to his legs, preventing his escape. It reminded him of his favorite dream, walking cadavers aside. 

As she crushed his throat, Kavel stared into the maid’s stunning eyes. Her expression was blank but her irises swam with a putrid green. It would’ve been captivating had it not been so disconcerting. A stream of bloody spittle flowed down her chin as she continued to throttle him. He struggled to pry her slender fingers away to no avail. It wasn’t her physical strength at work here, surely. No, it was foul magic that overpowered him. There was no shame in that. He’d probably just leave this part out when he shared the story though, just to be safe. 

Kavel pulled Chalai from his belt and jammed it into the dead woman’s stomach. It did little to halt her attack, as expected. He tried stabbing her again, this time in the bosom. It was like carving up a masterpiece, and as an appreciator of such fine art it saddened him deeply.

The act didn’t even register on her face. There were worse ways to die than in the arms of a pretty lady though, and that gave him some small comfort. Slash and stab as he may, the dead damsel’s grip never waned.

Not until Leyuti’s hatchet split her head down the middle. Blood sprayed in positively every direction. What a waste. Kavel fell backwards, coughing and gasping.

The remaining two women still held fast to his legs and began to crawl up his body. Yes, this was definitely something he had dreamed about before. Minus the blood and hostility. Somewhat. Damn it all if he wasn’t conflicted right then. 

Conflict wasn’t an issue for Leyuti. She ripped one of the women off him and brutalized her. She hacked and chopped until only bloody chunks remained.

Kavel frowned. The time for imagination was over. He jammed his kukri into the dead girl’s skull and twisted it. Her body convulsed as he pushed her from the blade.

“You need to keep your head in the fight.” Leyuti extended a clawed hand to help him up.

Kavel rose to his feet. “I assure you my head, and throat, were thoroughly engaged this whole time.”

Leyuti ignored him and lunged at another walking corpse, screaming and driving her knife into its forehead. Over and over. A tad excessive, but understandable. 

Achathon was still slinging arrows from an adjacent rooftop, to varying degrees of success. It was only a matter of time before he ran out of shots though, and the dead didn’t seem overly threatened by the pointy projectiles adorning their bodies.

As more of the shambling horde approached, Kavel spotted Nanok swiping his fierce, reptilian claws at Voshlu. He had to give the black-shell credit, not many individuals could match a Skarn in brute strength. Never mind going toe to toe with one Voshlu’s size and lasting this long.

But the Ulunuk were something else. Savages or not, they were naturally hardy and thrived in harsh, unforgiving tundra. Their shells, claws, and beaks were even harder than steel. Kavel witnessed this firsthand as Voshlu’s hook met Nanok’s razor digits and produced a shower of sparks.

Nanok slashed into the Skarn leader’s stomach, cutting the flesh like a knife through warm cheese. Voshlu merely smiled as meat fused to flesh, muscle to sinew.

Kavel couldn’t afford to ignore the reanimated villagers for long though. They were slow but far from harmless, and there was a good dozen or more still able to strangle to their non-beating hearts’ content. That included the blonde-haired, legless boy crawling toward him. Kavel wasn’t fond of children, alive or not, but the sight of this boy risen at the whim of some blackguard made him sick to his stomach. The boy’s eyes were as soulless as those of the beautiful woman whose breasts he’d ruined, and swirling with the same shade of green. But he swore he could see the pain and anguish behind them.

This would not do at all. He couldn’t bring himself to end the child, dead or not, but he could make short work of the others. Kavel readied his blades and took a deep breath. Time to live up to his reputation.

He ran toward the mob of villagers and cut the legs out from underneath a farmer at the knee. Before the body hit the ground, he followed up with a backstroke that severed the man’s head. It was still spinning when it landed beside him.

Another villager swiped at him clumsily, an old woman. He ducked and spun, slashing upward through both of her arms, then buried his blade right up to the hilt in her eye socket. Kavel kicked the corpse from his sword and it crumpled in a bloody heap.

Two more dead men clawed at him but he tumbled away and unleashed a flurry of blows. He hacked off joints, split skulls, and made mincemeat of an old man. He might not have had the stomach for slaying reanimated children, but the elderly were fair game. Soon, arms, legs, and the occasional stray head littered the village square.

Kavel grinned and rested his longsword on his shoulder, admiring his handiwork. He’d always been told he was a formidable warrior, especially by the men in his employ and his darling mother. It looked like they were all right. At that moment, Kavel reckoned he could’ve dealt with those villagers unarmed and blindfolded. But in this case, he had to give Pip and Chalai some credit. They weren’t totally useless, after all. 

The grey-hooded man watched his every move, never joining the fight. But as Kavel cut a swath through the army of disposable dead, he came close enough to finally see the man’s face, and his green-frayed eyes. Just like that of the risen. But not glazed over or bereft of emotion. No, this man’s eyes were rife with malice and intent. He was concentrating. The way his eyes moved over the shambling horde, it seemed as if he was directly controlling them.

Kavel resolved to put an end to that. He shoulder-charged through the pack of corpses, knocking a few to the ground. This gave him a clear shot at the scoundrel and he hurled Chalai with masterful precision. The cloaked figure swatted the kukri away with a gauntleted fist and narrowed his eyes at Kavel. His calm, emerald stare was unnerving. At least the “distraction” worked and the villagers stood frozen in place, for now.

The man shook his head. “What did you expect to accomplish?”

Kavel shrugged. “Honestly, killing you would’ve been ideal…”

“I suppose it would’ve, but you haven’t the means to achieve that. Death is trivial to a servant of the Undying.”

The Undying. That meant… “You serve the Eclysos.”

The man nodded and gestured at his reanimated pawns. “I thought that would’ve been obvious by now.”        

It really should’ve been, but Kavel had spent too much time in the wild hunting Skarn. He’d pushed aside the thought of all the countless other threats among the Infinite Isles. “You’re allied with the Skarn. But why? They’re animals.”

“That’s the secret, isn’t it?” The man smirked.

This was beyond a revolting development. No, this news was catastrophic. Two of the greatest enemies of the Halcyon Union engaged in some diabolical alliance. It almost made bounty hunting and the hedonistic pursuit of women and riches seem petty and base. Almost.

Kavel scanned his surroundings. A village aflame. Its inhabitants extremely dead and simultaneously far less dead than he’d prefer. His friends tackling an impervious foe. And the man responsible for it all standing face to face with him. Kavel was far from a shining example of heroism, but even a good-for-nothing vagabond like him knew when to throw his sword in for the cause. Especially if it was his only hope of ever seeing the bottom of another wine bottle.

Kavel swiped Pip through the air and leveled the longsword’s tip at the hooded man. “Let’s find out just how ‘undying’ you are, shall we?” Not his most clever quip, but these were unforeseen circumstances. It’d have to do.

The hooded man scoffed. “I am the Herald of the Union’s fall. You are but an opportunistic mercenary. You are so far beneath me it pains me to have to do this.” He drew a fancy rapier from his waist. The blade’s ornate guard protected his fist. He held the long sliver of steel vertically across his face, then assumed a balanced fencing stance. “But it’s going to pain you more.” Damn him, that quip was far better.

The army of the dead surrounded Kavel and the Herald, forming a make-shift combat ring. Kavel immediately regretted his bravado. He knew better than ignore his intuition. He should’ve run at the first sight of that humongous Skarn and saved his own hide. Damn his comrades for depending on him so much. And damn him for being so loyal and sentimental. Age had made him soft, but right then he’d relish the opportunity to grow even softer if it meant surviving.

The Herald lunged at him with a series of piercing strikes, making full use of the furious jabbing style best suited to a rapier. Kavel’s sword jarred his hand as he parried each one, barely. As he suspected, the man knew how to fight. Professional military training from the looks of it. The Herald’s rapid assault never let up, his sword darting in and out with speed and accuracy. He even had time for fancy flourishes in between strikes. It was overwhelming. Kavel continued to bat the slender blade away as he was driven back toward the edge of the circle. It was all he could do to remain unperforated by the Herald’s relentless stabs.

Kavel’s back hit what felt like an oak tree, and a burly villager wrapped his arms around Kavel. He had a grip like a vice. Probably a blacksmith or woodcutter before all this.

Kavel was helpless. The Herald laughed and spun his sword, preparing to deliver the final blow. That seemed to be it. And then Kavel heard a whistle and then a splotch. The unliving oak’s hold gave way and Kavel dove to the dirt as the Herald’s sword impaled the dead man instead.

“That’s twice now,” Achathon shouted from his vantage point. “I’m starting to wonder if I don’t deserve your share of the bounties.” Cheeky bastard.

The Herald pulled his rapier from the blacksmith’s corpse and turned to face Kavel. He looked as if he was about to gloat, but Kavel wasn’t going to give his opponent the chance to run his smug mouth. Going on the offensive was his only chance, even if it was just him and Pip now.

Kavel employed every maneuver he had ever learned during his short career as a soldier and his far longer career as a brigand, sell-sword, and occasional thespian. He slashed high, low, and mid. He thrusted and stabbed. He spun, he weaved, he swung two-handed and even reverse-grip. He even dusted off the Flying Swallow technique he learned back in the east. But this man, this Herald, whatever he was, didn’t falter in his defense. Kavel grew short of breath while the Herald remained unfatigued. There was no way he could keep this up.

Kavel’s strikes became slower and more predictable as he grew more winded. It was all too easy for the Herald to deflect his clumsy attacks, knock the sword from his hands, and kick him to the ground. Kavel was now unarmed, prone, and out of breath. That seemed to be it. Again.

Or maybe not.

Kavel had been hiding an extra dagger in his boot for just such an occasion. All he had to do was feel around for it…  Wait, no. He’d lost that particular dagger in a wager just over a week ago. Damn his gambling.

The Herald loomed over Kavel, his silver blade an omen of certain death. His eyes couldn’t help but gravitate to the glinting sword in that dire moment. The craftsmanship was superb, the quality of the steel was magnificent, the design of the weapon… It was Hylantean. The sword of a templar. Or at least a former templar. He should have noticed before. And considering the Herald’s garb and combat training… Kavel’s mind raced at the implications: duplicity, treason, conspiracy. But in a few seconds such notions would hardly bother him anymore.

The Herald’s gleaming rapier pressed against Kavel’s face, drawing blood as he slid it down his cheek. Kavel held his tongue. Wit would do him no good at this point. Especially dim wit.

The Herald scowled. “I told you, you haven’t the means to achieve my death. Though you can take solace in the fact that you’ve quite capably achieved your own.”

The Herald raised his blade to finish Kavel but a black streak tore the sword from his hand. Wungwa. The shadow owl’s screech rang out as its talons savaged the man’s face, ripping and tearing wherever it could. Sorcery against sorcery.

Mithrael bless her, Kavel could kiss Leyuti right about now, fur or not. He resolved to never speak ill of the bird again. Probably.

In the distance, his comrades continued to wage their grueling battle with the gigantic Skarn. Kavel aimed to join them as soon as possible, despite his survival instincts advising him to do just the opposite, but he still had more pressing personal matters. Out of the corner of his eye, Kavel spotted Chalai resting by the foot of a risen villager. His prized beauty.

He scrambled over to his kukri on all fours. But just as he laid hands on it, something latched onto him from behind. Kavel shrieked. It was a masculine shriek of anger, meant to intimidate. He jumped to his feet, spinning in circles, and stabbed his kukri over his shoulder at whatever unnatural thing had affixed itself to him. His calculated strikes must’ve succeeded because his attacker lost their grip and fell away.

Kavel looked down and saw the legless boy, now lifeless as well. The boy he had resolved not to harm, despite his deathly and dangerous state. This. Would. Not. Do.

Wungwa was still accosting the Herald, flapping and biting at his eyes. Kavel sprinted toward his occupied foe and jammed Chalai into his throat, hammering it deeper with the palm of his free hand.

The owl dissipated and the Herald took a staggered step back and grabbed the blade, spurts of blood flowing down his chest and shoulder. Kavel had won… right?

Right.

He might’ve had help, but a dishonorable victory was always preferable to an honorable defeat. Kavel bested a traitorous agent of the Union’s greatest enemy and halted a potentially cataclysmic plot. His heroism truly knew no bounds.

Or did it?

The Herald removed Chalai from his throat and dropped it to the dirt. His features contorted to pure rage as his face and throat repaired themselves in seconds.

Kavel hadn’t killed the Herald. He hadn’t won. And Voshlu was still holding his own, even outnumbered. Steel, skill, and sorcery had all failed against the Undying. Kavel and his allies were running out of options.

He looked around the smoking village and wondered who would see him if he ran.

And then he heard the familiar sound of hooves…

. . . to be continued . . .

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